Jan 4, 2021

Here's some ideas on how to plan a short, safe getaway in the new year


Home sweet home

Last year was the first in the past 40 that my husband and I didn't leave the United States. We haven't been on a plane since January, 2019. Our passports haven't been stamped in 14 months.

What we have come to look forward to are short two or three-night excursions within our own state of Washington or neighboring Oregon. We settle into an Airbnb, map out walks and hikes, research restaurants with outdoor seating, scout out bakeries for breakfast fixings, and make plans to connect with friends.   

These mini-breaks have bridged the gap between choosing to stay home for a year and dissing precautions and jumping on a plane to Mexico

It's important to be a responsible traveler, whether crossing the ocean or a county line. By choosing destinations and accommodations that minimize risks, we've been able to get out and explore without feeling as if we've compromised our safety or the safety of others.

Even with vaccines coming, much of what we will be able to do will depend on the situation elsewhere. Until Covid cases decline and travel restrictions ease, we may have to be content with baby steps for a while longer. 

So...if you're ready to get out, here's my advice for planning a short and safe getaway:

*Stay close to home, meaning within your state if possible. Avoid long-distance travel, and abide by state government (ie: California) restrictions for non-essential travel.

A ferry trip across the Puget Sound

Check what the Covid situation is in the area you plan to visit.  For example, we normally would like to spend a weekend snowshoeing in or around Leavenworth, a popular German-themed town in Eastern Washington. But Leavenworth is in Chelan County where the total Covid cases per 10,000 residents (627) is among the highest in the state. Leavenworth also tends to attract crowds. This winter, we'll choose instead to go to a county close to the Mount Baker ski area where the cases (160) are much lower, and fewer people go.

*We choose Airbnbs over hotels, mainly because by booking self-contained units such as mother-in-law apartments or backyard cottages, we cut the risks associated with indoor lobbies, elevators, hallways etc. used by many people at the same time.

We used to book Airbnbs that were rooms, often suites with private baths, inside people's homes. We avoid those now in favor of detached units with kitchens.

Hotels may have the advantage when it comes to professional cleaning protocols, but this is less of an issue now that Covid is believed to be spread mostly through aerosols rather than by touching surfaces.

Nevertheless, most Airbnb hosts adhere to Airbnb’s enhanced cleaning protocol—a set of standards developed by Airbnb with health and hospitality experts for COVID-19 times and beyond. Some leave the unit empty a day or two between guests. Check on their policy if this is a concern. We bring our own pillows.

* Research restaurants ahead of time to identify those with outdoor patios, heaters etc. Make sure the Yelp or TripAdvisor reviews you consult are up-to-date (Many are not due to Covid closings), and recheck hours and menu changes. Limited seating may mean reservations are required, and there might be a time limit on occupying the table. 

We usually bring our own fixings for one dinner, and scout out a restaurant with outdoor seating for the other. Booking a table earlier rather than later guarantees you'll encounter fewer people. We recently enjoyed a lovely 4:30 p.m. (It's dark by then in the Pacific Northwest) on the patio of the charming Nell Thorn restaurant in the waterside village of La Conner. Few of the tables were occupied. 

*We're all feeling like we'd like to connect more with our out-of-town friends. Booking an Airbnb close to where they live rather than staying with them is an option that works well during Covid. 

It's not wise to gather indoors at the moment, but we can make plans to connect for walks, coffee or backyard picnics or patio dinners when the weather cooperates. 

This worked out well for us over New Year's when we booked an Airbnb a mile from the home of friends on Washington's Olympic Peninsula.

Happy New Year!

Bundled up with jackets, hats and wearing fingerless gloves, we enjoyed homemade dinners and wine on their outdoor deck, warmed by flames from a potbelly gas heater. 

Dec 16, 2020

Planning to travel in 2021? Prepare for vaccine requirements, more testing


Gjirokastra, Albania where Americans can still visit 

It's time to spin the crystal ball, and make a few predictions for travel in 2021. Not surprisingly, almost everything depends on the successful rollout of the Covid-19 vaccine in the U.S. and abroad.

Vaccination and testing

When it comes to international travel, look for many countries to require proof of a vaccination and a negative Covid test for entry.

U.S. airlines, unless ordered by the Federal Aviation Administration (which at this time imposes NO Covid regulations on airlines or airports), likely won't require vaccinations, but foreign airlines will. Australia-based Qantas was the first to say it will require proof once vaccinations become available. Asian airlines will almost certainly follow. And many nations are sure to add Covid vaccination to their list of entry requirements. 

If you don't already have a smart phone capable of downloading apps, plan on getting one. United and four other airlines so far have announced plans use the CommonPass app on international flights. The app allows passengers to download virus test results and vaccination certificates to a smart phone. It then checks the data and issues confirmation codes to confirm health status. Competing apps are in the works, so let's hope the industry can coalesce around a universal system.  

Most airlines mandate that passengers wear masks in flight, but look for the FAA, under the Biden Administration, to make it a federal requirement. 

Hopefully more airlines will join Delta and United Airlines in asking domestic and international travelers to voluntarily provide key contact information to aid the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s contact tracing efforts. The hope is that by collecting information directly from passengers, it can reduce the time it takes health officials to track travelers who may have been exposed to others on their flight who have tested positive.


Airports with the foresight and resources to make changes should be cleaner, more efficient places to be. Los Angeles International, for instance, is investing in ultraviolet cleaning technologies, and adding touchless components throughout the terminals. Prepare to give up some privacy. The airport is trying out a thermal camera program in the international terminal to measure passengers' body temperatures, and is implementing biometric boarding for international flights. 

Flexibility to cancel

Look for U.S. airlines to continue to waive cancellation and change fees for domestic and international travel. It's doubtful airlines will leave middle seats open once demand picks up, but it's possible some will create another tier or expand premium economy for those willing to pay a higher fare. 

Where to go

Many travelers consider safety when they decide where to travel. In the near future, this will include how well different countries bring Covid under control. Brazil is a mess right now. Australia is nearly back to normal. Spain has been especially hard-hit; Iceland has not. Some countries, such as Albania, will welcome American travelers without requiring a vaccine, test or quarantine. Others, such as Canada, will keep their borders closed. 

Covid will continue to factor into where to travel in the U.S. as well as internationally.  I live in Seattle, for instance, but would not consider traveling to neighboring Idaho for many reasons, including the high numbers of cases, overwhelmed hospitals and a general disregard for Covid restrictions in some parts of the state. With its bike trails and brew pubs, Boise has earned a reputation as a nice place to visit, but it dropped several notches in my book after the mayor and chief of police said intense protests outside the health department building — as well as outside some health officials’ homes — were threatening public safety. 

As autocratic leaders and right-wing extremist groups become more vocal, the political climate in various countries and states will influence travel decisions.

Travelers always have had to ask themselves how they feel about traveling to places with repressive regimes. Now we need to consider what it might be like to go to places where, not just the leaders, but much of the local population support extreme right-wing movements. 

Budapest is a beautiful city governed by an autocratic prime minister 

Hungary’s parliament just passed a law effectively banning adoptions for same-sex couples, the latest in a succession of restrictions on LGBT rights under autocratic Prime Minister Viktor Orban whom many there support.

More than 100 towns in Poland have passed resolutions declaring themselves free of LGBT “ideology. With Poland ranked the worst place in the European Union to be gay or trans in 2020, some Poles have found themselves facing the dilemma of whether to stay and fight or to escape. 

Raising unusual ethical and safety questions is Qatar Airway's recent announcement that it will partner with Seattle-based Alaska Airlines on non-stop flights between Seattle and Doha. Qatar recently required women aboard 10 flights from Doha to deplane, and undergo medically invasive exams after an abandoned newborn was found in an airport bathroom.  

Nov 9, 2020

Give yourself the green light to start some travel planning for 2021

A "walk" light in Reykjavík Iceland

One of the best parts of travel is anticipation. Who doesn't love having a trip to look forward to taking?

Rather than give into into the uncertainty around COVID-19, go ahead, give yourself the green light to think about your next adventure. Pfizer's announcement that its vaccine was more than 90% effective in preventing infection in volunteers could boost travel next year sooner than expected. The idea is to start the mental journey while at the same time avoiding locking into plans that could set you up for disappointment. 

One way to begin is to think about what types of travel might make sense when, then come up with a rough timetable, starting with what you think might be possible in the next few months, next spring, in the fall and beyond. 

Friends recently signed up for a Rick Steves' Spain tour for next September. That seems realistic, given estimates about when vaccines might be available, and the fact that Steves is not yet taking deposits. What we don't know, and what Steves no doubt grapples with in his own planning, is what familiar destinations will feel like post-COVID.

Will the same hotels be there? If so, what will they be like? TripAdvisor reviews will be outdated, and new ones will be scarce.  What restaurants and museums will be gone for good? Will street crime be worse due to job losses and unemployment?

Tour operators like Steves no doubt will have these things figured out. For independent travelers, it might be wise to think about ways to alter itineraries to take into account a changed landscape. 

Example: I'd love to think we could go to Italy next spring, but no amount of positive thinking will change the fact that it may not be possible or even wise. And when the time is right, we  might be smarter to look into renting a car instead of relying on public transport, and focus on smaller towns rather than crowded cities. My husband and I love using buses and trains, and  exploring big cities, but compromises might be necessary for a while. One question is, how many?

Hawaii: Will locals welcome travelers? 

Given rules about testing, re-testing, quarantines, face masks and social distancing -even when a vaccine arrives - our most favored travel destinations might have to wait. Others, not necessarily on our radar, might deserve a second look. Ireland or Iceland, for instance, might be more welcoming than Hawaii where locals worry about careless mainland tourists spreading the virus. 

It's important for everyone to assess their own risk tolerance level, keeping in mind some will decide not leave their homes until a vaccine is available, while others will travel outside the country the first chance they get. 

I start by keeping a list of trips that seem doable in the next month or two. These are mostly local two or three day getaways geared towards fall and winter activities in the Northwest in destinations where there are few COVID cases. We already have done a few of these, staying mostly in private Airbnbs where we're apt to encounter fewer people than in hotels.   

Looking ahead to spring, I envision being able to catch up on out-of-town family visits, then in summer, hosting houseguests who planned to come to Seattle last summer. By fall, I think it's realistic to think about getting back to international travel, picking destinations according to what makes sense post-COVID, rather than automatically falling back on cancelled plans. 

If the U.S. doesn't get control of the pandemic, then spring plans could become summer plans. Summer plans could move to fall etc. Nothing is certain these days, but having a mental game plan helps me keep my expectations in check without discarding the notion of travel all together.  

Oct 23, 2020

Armenia or Azerbaijan? Both have much to offer curious travelers


Bread hot from the oven at a roadside rest stop between Georgia and Armenia 

"On your first day in Armenia, you are a guest. The second day, you are a friend. The third day you are a relative." - Old Armenian adage.

Armenia or Azerbaijan? 

Although the former Soviet republics sit side by side in the Caucasus, a mountainous region between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea, visitors to one can't travel to the other without passing through a third country. 

With war upending a fragile, decades-old truce, the reasons why this is so are in the news again. Each country claims the right to control the breakaway territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, an ethnic Armenian enclave bordering Armenia, but officially inside Azerbaijan. It was here and in surrounding territories where Armenian forces prevailed in a war in the 1990s that displaced 8,000 Azerbaijani, many of whom fled to the capital of Baku to live as refugees in their own country.  

For the average traveler unfamiliar with the political history, it can be frustrating to be so near and yet so far from neighboring countries that would appear easy to visit. 

That's what my husband and I discovered while visiting neighboring Georgia six years ago. We settled on taking a mini-bus from Tbilisi to the Armenian capital of Yerevan. Visiting neighboring Azerbaijan would have required backtracking through Georgia, so we saved that until 2018 when we traveled through Uzbekistan in Central Asia, and caught a short flight from there to Baku.

Both cities were fascinating places to visit, for their history, natural surroundings, pre and post-Soviet architecture and a population of energetic, well-educated young people.

Now, sadly, national attention is focused on the two countries, not because they dazzle as travel destinations, but because fighting once again has erupted over territorial disputes.

Turkey, which sealed its border with Armenia in 1993 to show solidarity with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh, backs Azerbaijan in the current conflict. Russia, which considers the territory around Nagorno-Karabakh a land bridge to the Middle East (Nagorno-Karabakh shares a boarder with Iran) backs the Armenian forces.

Cease fires and negotiations brokered by Russia, France and the U.S. will hopefully lead to a renewed truce, but already many lives have been lost. Baku's vibrant downtown main streets have been darkened with giant screens playing video footage of drone strikes by Armenian soldiers.

Until the news of the war hit the front pages, most Americans probably could not find either country on a map. That's a shame, because like most all the former Soviet republics, they offer incredible value and a rich and diverse cultural buffet. You're not likely to meet many Americans, but you will encounter tourists from Iran and other parts of the Middle East. 

I look forward to the time, post COVID-19 and post-war, when adventuresome travelers can again have the chance to explore both countries. In the meantime, here's a recap of some of the highlights of our trip to Yerevan in 2014 and Baku in 2018.

Yerevan's historical center

So much to say about Yerevan, the capital of Armenia in the South Caucasus. The feeling here is young, hip and energetic, with a hint of the Middle East (Iran is about 200 miles away), in a former Soviet republic coming of age. As usual, one of the best parts about being here, apart from the food, is the friendliness of the people. Armenia's shared border with Iran plus its history of being ruled over the years by Persia (present-day Iran), the Ottoman Turks and Soviet Russia, makes for an interesting mix of people and cultures.

Soviet-era monument 

Unlike Tbilisi, Georgia, which had more of a village feel, at least in the old town, Yerevan is more spread out, with wide boulevards, parks and public squares filled with larger-than-life statues. Architect Alexander Tamanyan developed a grid plan for the city in the 1920s when the Soviets we're flush with cash.The main avenues point in the direction of Mt. Ararat, where Noah's Ark is said to have landed after the floods. 

Armenians claim the mountain as their own and treasure the views from here, even though Ararat lies in what now is Turkey. Surrounding elegant rose-colored museums and government buildings constructed in the late 19th and early 20th century, are lighted fountains and sidewalk cafes decorated like outdoor living roooms.

The State Museum of Armenian History and National Art Gallery, dominate the former Lenin Square, along with government buildings and a Marriott Hotel. We were surprised to find most of the museum explanations in English. Like visitors to the Louvre in Paris who head directly to the Mona Lisa, we were most interested in seeing the world's oldest leather shoe, on display in a lighted glass case. The 5,500-year-old shoe was discovered in a cave by a team of archaeologists a few years ago. The shoe, made of a single piece of cowhide leather was shaped to fit the wearer's right foot. No pictures allowed.

Armenian pizza 

Of course we enjoyed the food, more Middle-Eastern than Georgian, with lots of grilled vegetables, and dishes incorporating walnuts, apricots and pomegranate. Armenia's specialty is  Cognac. Travelers can take tours and enjoy tastings at the Yerevan Ararat Brandy-Wine-Vodka Factory on the grounds of a former Persian fortress that once housed a mosque, gardens and underground tunnels used to get in and out of the city safely. 

Privately-owned until it was nationalized by the Russians, the factory was abandoned after the collapes of the Soviet Union in 1991. It reopened again in 2002 under the ownership of a local politician and arm wrestling champion, and now produces fine Cognacs sold all over the world, but mainly in Russia. 

Armenian flute maker 

A day trip into the countryside with Envoy Hostels led us to Kolya Torosyan, above, a musical instrument maker in his 80s. He lives in the village of Byurakan on the slopes of Mt. Aragats, the highest mountain in Armenia. He carved this traditional flute, called a duduk-doodook, from apricot wood in a closet-size workshop in back of his house. The flute has a warm, low-pitched saxophone sound. It now hangs in our living room in Seattle as a remembrance of a very special trip.


Anthony Bourdain traveled the world for his television show “Parts Unknown,” so it’s a shame he never made it to Baku, the oil-rich capital of Azerbaijan, boarded by Iran, Russia and Armenia in the South Caucuses.

Old Town Baku with one of a trio of modern "Flame Towers" in the background

From land-locked Uzbekistan, we flew across the Caspian Sea to experience one of the ex-Soviet Union’s most prosperous cities situated along the old Silk Road trade route linking China to Europe. Baku’s old city, hidden behind iron gates and medieval walls, evokes a colorful past. Outside the walls is the modern city, filled with one-of-a-kind new office towers, museums, fountains and parks. 

The government banned Bourdain from coming here because he filmed a TV show in  Nagorno-Karabakh. The  Azerbaijan government prohibits anyone who visits Nagono-Karabakh from entering the country. It’s the first question the government asks on its visa application. Lie and they find out, you’ll be denied entry, even if your visa was approved.

After prospering as a Silk Road stopover for traders carrying carpets and silk to the west, Baku’s fortunes rose again during an oil boom in the late 1800s. Wealthy merchants from Europe, Russia and the Middle East created a multi-cultural society where Muslims, Christians and Jews mixed an even inter-married. The country enjoyed just two precious years of independence between 1918 and 1920 after the fall of the Russian empire and before the rise of the Soviet Union. During that time, Azerbaijan established a parliament, and became the first majority-Muslim nation to grant women equal political rights with men. 

The Flame Towers are covered with the LED screens that display the movement of fire visible all over the city.

Preserved behind fortress walls is the old city, while just outside the walls are European-styled buildings from the 19th and 20th centuries and futuristic skyscrapers from the 21st. 

Baku is surprisingly affordable for being an oil-rich city that attracts international business. Public transport was a bargain. Our seven-room boutique hotel with all the mod-cons and a heated bathroom floor i was $100 a night. A half-hour ride on the new airport Express Bus to town was $1.60. A subway ride cost 15 cents. Dinner for two - olives, bread fresh from the clay oven, soup, salad, a platter of grilled vegetables, roasted chicken and wine -averaged around $17. 

Some call Baku the Dubai of the Caucasus, but I think it’s a far more interesting city, given its history and combination of Soviet-style, European and modern architecture. We took an excellent two-hour free walking tour with a volunteer from Baku Explorer. The majority of  people are Muslim, but most practice a version our guide called “Islam Lite.” Almost no one wears a head scarf, and cafes and restaurants serve alcohol. 

Baku metro station

Above is the Icherisheher station in the old city. Underground, the station preserves the original Soviet architectural style, similar to what we saw in Tashkent in Uzbekistan, although customers use reloadable plastic cards instead of plastic tokens to pay for fares. Above ground, the design in more in sync with modern times.

The Carpet Museum in Baku 

Carpets on display

Museums showcase Azerbaijan’s history as a center for literature, art and textiles. There’s a national museum of literature, named for it’s most famous poet, Nizami Ganjavi; a Museum of Miniature Books filled with 3,000 titles displayed in glass cases; and my favorites, the Azerbaijan Carpet Museum, shaped like a rolled-up carpet; and the Heydar Aliyev Cultural Center, an art museum and exhibition center, known for its flowing, white curves, and excellent permanent exhibit on the history of art, music and crafts in Azerbaijan.

Oct 6, 2020

The best virtual experiences connect travelers with locals in real time


Ashraf Chalif at home in Kerala

It's 6:30 a.m. in a tropical village near Kozhikode, a coastal city in the Southern Indian state of Kerala. Fatima and her daughter-in-law are preparing ginger coffee atop a wood stove as my husband and I settle in front of our TV in Seattle for a visit.

Ashraf, a 29-year-old guide who in pre-COVID times arranged sightseeing for tourists from the Middle East in Kerala for medical care, invites us into his family's kitchen via Zoom. His tour, offered by a group called tenLocals, happens in real time which means it's 6 p.m. in Seattle as we watch his mother and wife prepare breakfast.

Tapping sap from a coconut tree 

As Ashraf walks us past coconut, banana and lemon trees, the surroundings look familiar. I'm transported to a similar village where we arranged a homestay in 2006. It was from our host family that we learned if you have coconut trees, you have just about everything you need to survive in rural Southern India. You can drink the milk, make liquor from the sap, use the palms and wood as building materials or brooms; eat the pulp; grind it for cooking; cook with the oil; make rope by soaking the husks in water; and burn the shells for fuel or use them to make dessert cups.

Our Kerala host family in 2006

Ginger coffee, as it turns out, is more like tea, made by crushing tulsi, ginger, black pepper, coriander seeds, long pepper and jaggery, an Asian cane sugar, with a mortar and pestle. We "imagine" we're sipping the morning beverage as Ashraf walks us through the family compound, past fruit trees, chickens, goats and a fish tank filled with Malaysian guppies. 

Ashraf's family is Muslim. He speaks Arabic which explains his connections in the Middle East. Unlike in some other parts of India, Hindus, Christians and Muslims mix with relative ease in Kerala. I remember being wakened by chanting from a nearby mosque, and an hour later, hearing music from a temple and bells from a church. If I could return to India, Kerala is a place I would re-visit. Knowing that I won't be able to get there again soon, I was pleased to wet my appetite virtually, not by watching a pre-recorded video, but by actually "being" there as Ashraf and his family began their day.

The Chalif family's backyard 

From visits to Bali, Kenya and India to walks and wine-tastings in Southern Italian villages, virtual tourism is taking off. Some experiences are better than others, but chosen carefully, they can bring us closer to the people and places we love or still yearn to discover.

tenLocals, based in Boston, charges participants a small fee (I paid $14.95) for a live virtual experience with a faraway guide out of work due to the pandemic.  We enjoyed our India visit so much we signed on for another, this time to Bhutan with Jamtso, 36, who was leading tours before Covid. He now collects the equivalent of around $150 a month from the government.

Jamtso took us on a tour of the home where he lives with his two daughters, his mother and brother's family. His wife, Gyelmo, demonstrated how to cook Ema datshi, the Bhutanese national dish made with hot chili peppers and cheese, and served with a pink rice.  

Jamtso's mother in the Buddhist prayer room upstairs in their home in Bhutan.

Gyelmo in Bhutan with her chili-cheese dish 

Very different from our tours with tenLocals was an online trip I took earlier this year with a couple from New York who invited me to join a food, wine and art program focused on Southern Italy. The couple's relatives own Borgo La Pietraia, a country inn in Capaccio Paestum, nestled between the Amalfi and Cilento Coats in Southern Italy. As it was with Kerala, "being" in this part of Italy brought back memories of off-the-beaten path travel in a corner of the country unfamiliar to most Americans. My relatives come from the nearby province of Avellino, and I've done stories over the years on some of the wine areas and small towns covered on the virtual visits.

Organized by Feast on History owners Danielle Oteri and Christian Galliani, the tour featured three or four Zoom gatherings a week for a month with a small group of travelers from various parts of the United States. We dropped in on an Italian chef for lessons on how to make stuffed peppers and zucchini fritters. There were pre-recorded visits to wineries, followed by live tastings over Zoom. Fridays were reserved for a weekly "happy hour" when everyone gathered to make and share drinks such an affogato, gelato with a shot of espresso spiked with amaretto.

Our Eatwith meal in Mexico City

One of my favorite things to do when traveling is to book a meal in someone's home through  Eatwith.com. Our dinner last November with a family in Mexico City lasted for several hours, and included multiple courses prepared by a delightful couple for whom cooking is a hobby. 

The dinners are continuing in many cities, but for those of us who can't travel, Eatwith hosts offer live, online cooking classes. A Florentine chef will teach you to make pasta, or you can join a home cook Budapest for a hands-on lesson in preparing Hungarian goulash. Most are group classes, so there's a chance to interact with others as everyone gathers around the kitchen counter or a communal table. Cost is around $22-$35 per person, not including ingredients which you buy and assemble ahead. Hosts live-stream from their home countries, so that a class starting 10 p.m. in Budapest begins at 4 p.m. Eastern Standard Time. 

Author Fred Plotkin with some of Michelangelo's favorite cheeses 

Many virtual tours are inexpensive or even free, so check out these types of experiences before signing onto more commercial offerings such as Amazon's new Amazon Explore.  A cooking lesson listed on Amazon with an Italian chef is around $70 compared to similar Eatwith.com offerings for half that amount. Amazon's classes are two-way audio, but only one-way video, meaning the host can hear  and answer questions but not see participants. To me, that adds up a one-way experience that eliminates the sense of really "being there" with another human being. 

More worthwhile was the hour I spent recently with the charming Fred Plotkin, the American godfather of Italian food, wine and opera. The Getty Museum in Los Angeles originally planned "Nourishing Genius: Wine and Food in the Time of Michelangelo"  in May to coincide with an exhibit of the artist's drawings. When COVID forced cancellation of the program, curators "reimagined" it as a free online event available on its YouTube channel. 

The Getty invited viewers to tune in free (Tickets for the live event had been $75) as Fred told us how the young artist, mostly content to refuel on anchovies, stewed fennel and herring,   developed a palate for fine wines and cheeses by dining at the tables of popes and patrons. We were encouraged to assemble a few of Michelangelo's 15th and 16th century favorites (Frascati wine, Pecorino cheeses, ripe pears), and taste along as Fred displayed wedges of cheese and an overflowing fruit basket. 

A virtual tasting with Fred Plotkin at the Getty

Fred is best known as the author of "Italy for the Gourmet Traveler." It's a book we've used many times in our travels to find overlooked Italian towns studded with culinary gems. Noto in Sicily was one. Most visitors come to see the town's elaborate baroque carvings, but with Fred's help, we also found his favorite pastry shop specializing in Arabic-style sorbets. The owner described his tangerine flavor as a "little bit of Sicilia in your mouth."

The mouth is a good place to cultivate an appreciation for a foreign land. No language skills required. Just a good appetite, a smile and an enthusiastic "Delicioso!' My thanks to Fred and the Getty for bringing a bit of Italy into our living room with a glass of wine and few shavings of Pecorino.

Sep 1, 2020

Airbnb or hotel? Making the right choice when COVID cabin fever strikes


Our Airbnb on the Long Beach Peninsula in Washington State.
 Our Airbnb on Washington's Long Beach peninsula 

Airbnb or hotel? It's a question that pops up when COVID cabin fever sets in, and a string of late-summer sunny days calls for a short getaway.

My husband and I booked two four-day trips recently, both within Washington State or a short distance across the border to Oregon in keeping with health experts' suggestions to stay close to home in Seattle. 

Airbnbs were our first choice, mainly because by booking self-contained units such as mother-in-law apartments or backyard cottages, we could cut the risks associated with indoor lobbies, elevators, hallways etc. used by many people at the same time.

The four units I booked averaged out at around $125 per night, including taxes and fees. All had private entrances, small kitchens and private bathrooms. 

At the Writer's Hearth on Washington's Long Beach Peninsula, our host Christine, left a dozen fresh eggs on our door stop laid by her hens that morning. We relaxed on her deck overlooking the clear Walapa Bay, snacking on the fruit and cheese platter she left in the fridge. The room was small, but had everything we needed, including a private entrance, sparking private bathroom, coffee and a coffee maker.  

Dinner on the deck

In Port Townsend, on Washington's Olympic Peninsula, we rented an entire house with water views and a full kitchen where we were able to invite friends for dinner and eat together on the outdoor patio.

Hotels may have the advantage when it comes to professional cleaning protocols, but most Airbnb hosts know how to clean. Most adhere to Airbnb’s enhanced cleaning protocol—a set of standards developed by Airbnb with health and hospitality experts for COVID-19 times and beyond. 

That said, picking the right Airbnb - one that fits your budget, location preferences, cancellation requirements etc. - requires some research. Airbnb listings contain detailed information about the units themselves, the hosts and the locations. The challenge is knowing to follow links labeled "Read More" or "Details."

Here are a few tips to help avoid surprises. 

Starting your search:

Assuming you've registered and set up a profile, start your search with your exact location of your destination, then use the filters to avoid having to comb through listings that don't suit your needs.

For example, under "Type of Place," indicate if you want a whole unit or house to yourself, or if you want a private room with shared spaces (usually someone's home) or a hotel room. This is important because Airbnb listings now include some commercial hotel rooms or condos owned by real estate investors. 

You can also filter for price, number of bedrooms, bathrooms, air conditioning etc.

Look for units with outdoor spaces if you're planning on having guests 

Next, start looking at listings that fit your criteria, taking special note of the location (visible on the map at right and also on map on the listing itself). Owners provide the exact address only after a reservation is made, but I've found most are willing to supply cross streets or other more specific location information via e-mail before booking. 

Beware that your search might turn up places in nearby towns. This could be confusing if you're unfamiliar with the area. A search for places to stay in Ashford, Washington, near Mount Rainier, for instance, turned up units for rent in Eatonville, Packwood and Morton, all too far away. 


Airbnb has recently become more transparent about its pricing, but is still not as up-front as it could be in terms of showing the bottom-line rate in initial searches.

When you look at a listing, you'll first see the nightly rate in bold, followed by a higher, "Total" rate in fine print below. Click on "Total" to see a price break-down that includes the Airbnb fee and the cleaning fee but not taxes.

Example: Airbnb lists a one-bedroom guest house in Portland, Oregon's Mount Tabor neighborhood at $100 a night. The "total" jumps to $171 when a $50 cleaning fee and a $21 service fee are included. Opening the listing to book discloses an additional $29 in local taxes, for a real total of $200 per night.

Not all hosts charge a cleaning fee, and for those that do, $50 is on the high side. Most charge between $25-$40.

I suspect that Airbnb encourages owners to tack on "cleaning fees" as a way to increase revenue without having the higher price show up in bold print. Most owners clean the rooms themselves. Given COVID protocols, a small cleaning fee probably is in order.


To find out everything that's provided or not included in your unit, open the listing and click "Read more" under what starts out as a brief description of the property. 

The Writer's Hearth where we stayed in Long Beach, points out that the host supplies bottled water,  chocolate, coffee, tea, snacks, and seasonal fruit. And...important during these times..."You are welcome to bring your home-cooked or take-out meals and heat them in the room's kitchen niche."

Our Port Townsend house mentions a equipped kitchen with "all the accessories you need to cook and dine at home: gas range, refrigerator, microwave, toaster, french press and coffee pot, all cookware, dishes and utensils including outdoor propane BBQ grill."

A list of 10 standard amenities (parking, kitchen, TV etc.) shows up on each listing page. For a full list of what the unit has or doesn't have, click on "Show all amenities." 

Airbnbs normally don't include breakfast, but some hosts supply the fixings for a light morning meal such as oatmeal or yogurt. Many units have coffee and a coffee maker, and most include a small fridge and microwave. 

Cancellation policies

Cancellation policies vary with the unit, but don't assume COVID-19 worries will be accepted as a reason to cancel. 

Airbnb policies call for hosts to refund the entire cost, including the Airbnb fee, within the first 48 hours of booking. After that, it's up to the hosts to set their own refund policies. Some ask for partial or full pre-payment in advance, while others allow full refunds, minus the Airbnb fee, within 48 hours of arrival. To read the fine print on cancellations, click on "Get details" under the cancellation information, then "Full details" to find out more about Airbnb's general policy and COVID-19 updates.

Payment is transferred through credit card info guests supply when they register with Airbnb. No money exchanges hands. 

Read the reviews

Guests rate their Airbnb stays according to cleanliness, communication, check-in, accuracy, location and value. Check on the timelines of reviews, especially given COVID-19 changes after March or April.

Airbnb asks both owners and guests to review each other right after the stay. Both have 14 days to write a review. Comments are posted only after both parties have completed their reviews, or when the 14-day period has expired. 

I've had only one bad experience in many years of using Airbnb. The owner of our London rental left town, and the person she left in charge didn't show up to let us in. We spent several hours on the phone with Airbnb to resolve the problem. Communication was swift, and eventually we were able to gain access by using a code Airbnb had on file.

Contacting the hosts

It's always a good idea to get your questions answered before you book. Click on "Contact host" on the listing page, and send an e-mail. Make a note of your host's contact information, including cell phone number for texts, before you leave. Most send check-in instructions and directions in an e-mail a day or two in advance.  

Aug 7, 2020

COVID-19 flight risks: Five months in, is it really too early to tell?

How likely are you to become infected with COVID-19 as a result of flying?

"Several experts have said it's too early to know the transmission virus during air travel," according to a recent New York Times article on weighing the risks of general travel.


We know how many people check-in for flights each day at U.S. airports. The Transportation Security Administration keeps daily statistics published on its website.  

The National Transportation Safety Board requires airlines to track everything from reports of mishandled luggage to flight delays. How hard would it be to compile information on the percentages of passengers who reported becoming ill - say within 14 days - of boarding a flight?

How hard would it be to require airlines to provide this information by asking passengers to submit contact information, and agree, as a prerequisite to boarding, to provide current health information when asked in a post-flight e-mail or phone follow-up?

This comes to mind after reading a study by MIT Sloan School of Management professor Arnold Barnett on the likelihood of contacting the virus from a nearby passenger if the middle seat was left unoccupied.

His conclusion: The mathematical probability of being infected by COVID-19 while flying on a U.S. air carrier in July, 2020 was one in 4,300. With the middle seat empty, that fell to one in 7,700. 

The point of the study was to measure the benefits of leaving the middle seat open.  What jumped out at me was the conclusion that the probability of overall risk seems to be low, or at least lower than I think most of us would perceive it to be. 

The point is we don't know, and we should. If this study's conclusions are true, and the methodology solid, it would seem to behove airlines to start gathering their own statistics, and publicize them, along with comparison data on the statistical risks of doing other things such as traveling by train or going to the grocery store.

TSA's figures show the airlines have been carrying about  500,000-700,000 passengers per day since the beginning of July. That's down considerably from the 2.5 million or so per day during the same period last year. So yes, it might be too early to see what the situation would be if planes were full. But chances are they won't be for a while, so why not start compiling data now based on current numbers?

Airlines are fighting a battle of perception vs. reality. Most would-be flyers don't realize that the risk from touching surfaces is minimal, and air circulation isn't the real concern, with HEPA filters installed to catch 99 percent of airborne microbes. Spending time in an enclosed airport or sitting next to someone for a long period of time is, thus the emphasis on social distancing and leaving middle seats open.

My inbox fills daily with press releases from airlines about their cleaning methods, mask requirements, temperature checks, changes in food and beverage offerings etc. It's all window-dressing unless they can do more to assure passengers that others on the plane aren't infected. 

No amount of cleaning can make up for this type of assurance.

Mask requirements are a start. Next needs to come mandatory testing for everyone 72 hours before flying, and compilation and publication of the numbers who report infections two weeks or less after flying.

It will be up to individual airlines to make any of this happen. The Federal Aviation Administration has failed so far to mandate a national policy for COVID-19 prevention precautions on planes or in airports.

Granted there are variables. A person could become infected while lingering at the airport, or contact the virus some other way post-flight. No statistics are 100 percent foolproof, but having at least some information would go a long way towards making people comfortable about flying again.

Airbnbs vs. hotels

I favor Airbnbs over hotels while traveling during COVID-19, mostly because I'm more concerned about the number of people with whom I might come in contact (in hallways, lobbies, elevators etc.) than I am about what types of cleaning products are used to sanitize a room. 

The safest bets are self-contained Airbnb units, such as a mother-in-law apartment or cottage as opposed to a condo in a large building or room in someone's house. I've rented two stand-alone Airbnbs in the past month, both clean and well-kept. In looking through the listings, I noticed that Airbnb is now including the bottom-line price, including taxes and fees, in the initial listing.

This is a change from before when the total price came up only after you clicked the "reserve" button. True, you saw the total cost before entering your credit card info, but by that time, you were ready to book and likely reluctant to keep looking.  

Now the listings look like the one below. The base price is listed in bold with the total below it in small print. 

Full disclosure aside, how does an "entire cabin" in Ashland, Oregon (see above) go from a listed price of $57 a night to a total of $116, more than double the advertised price? This is because the  "cleaning" fee is $45, almost the cost of the room, and the Airbnb service fee is another $14.

My hunch is that Airbnb has convinced owners to tack on higher cleaning fees as a way to generate more revenue while having the base price appear low.

How to get around this? There are plenty of options out there. Look for places that have low ($10-$20) or no cleaning fees, and pass on the rest.