Sep 29, 2022

Porto, Bilbao and other stops along the way to post-pandemic overseas travel

 


Despite nagging uncertainties about Covid, tales of crowded airports, lost bags and high prices, strategic planning may be all the travel insurance you need for successful overseas travel this fall. 

That's what I'm finding as Tom and I put finishing touches on our second European post-pandemic trip this year, this time to Porto in Portugal; Bilbao in Spain; a few days with friends at their rental house in southeastern France; and some time in Paris.

This is what I call  "tame" travel, nothing complicated and no third-world destinations. That saddens me a little since our last trips before Covid were to Egypt, Uzbekistan and Myanmar. There will come a time for more adventuresome travel again, but Covid is still with us no matter how hard we'd like to wish it away. So for now, we're sticking to areas that carry fewer risks, making no non-refundable upfront payments, and honing in on new cities and experiences while avoiding crowds and crowded airports.

The plan starts with what's called "second tier" cities - large cities that don't include the busy capitals.

Port in Porto

We've been to Portugal only once, and to Spain a few times, but never to Porto, the transportation hub of the wine trade for which port wine got its name. Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling lived here between 1991 and 1993, inspired by visits to the Lello bookstore and Majestic CafeAlso new to us is Bilbao, the urban, riverside hub of Basque country, a culturally unique area between southern France and Spain. 

When it comes to avoiding the hassles of major airports and tourist crowds, flying directly into  a smaller city is always a good move. Many are surprised to find that this is fairly easy to do from the U.S., given the availability of non-stops to European hubs such as Amsterdam, with onward connections to cities such as Florence in Italy instead of Rome or Milan, or in our cases, Porto instead of Lisbon.

No need for travel insurance to cover the airfare because it can be cancelled or changed without penalty, a policy most airlines instituted during Covid, and so far have not walked back. 

Finding accommodations with liberal cancellation policies has also been easy.

Since Covid, Airbnb has convinced most of its owners to offer fully refundable bookings within a few days of arrival. 

The pedestrian Rua das Flores

For our first three nights in Porto, we booked a lovely studio with a balcony overlooking Rua das Flores, a pedestrian street lined with 17-19th century buildings that once housed wealthy merchants. The price was a reasonable $125 per night, refundable up to five days ahead. 

The same policy applies to an $85-a-night Airbnb apartment we rented in Pinhao, the center of the port wine trade in the rural Douro River Valley, and  a six-room B&B ($110) back in Porto's Riberia historic district booked for our last three nights.

Pinhao in the Douro River Valley

Also changeable and refundable (for a credit) were our flights to Bilbao and Paris purchased online on Vueling Airlines, a low-cost Spanish airline.

With all the talk about inflation in Europe, American travelers may not find prices as high as expected, due to the strong dollar, now one-to-one with the euro.

The one place we did encounter sticker shock was in first-tier Paris where the price of the hotel room I booked in 2019 went up from $90 to $150. We could have looked harder, or just paid the price. But since we'd been thinking about taking a bike tour around Versailles, a wealthy suburb that King Louis X1V made the French capital from 1682 to 1789, we pivoted to a homey B&B there instead for $110 with breakfast. 

Putting together your own trip vs. taking an organized tour is more work, of course, but the rewards are independence and flexibility. Still, it's often easier to rely on someone else for short excursions that involve complicated transportation logistics or having a car. 

For these types of day trips I turn to "GetYourGuide," a Berlin-based online travel agency and marketplace for excursions offered by tour companies worldwide. There's no advance payment, and cancellations are generally allowed 24-48 hours before departure.


The Pavia Walkways near Porto

It's here I found a day trip from Porto by mini-van ($90 each) to the Paiva Walkways, a four-mile boardwalk zig-zagging through a geopark on the the left bank of Paiva river. It also includes a side trip to the   516 Arouca Bridge, a 1,692-foot metal suspension bridge suspended 576 feet above the water; lunch; and a boat ride along the canals of the nearby town of Averio. The tour company observes Covid precautions such as requiring passengers to wear masks, and takes half the usual number of people in its vans.


Gaztelugatxe Island

A similar excursion in Bilbao ($60 each) will take us to the island of Gaztelugatxe where a 10th-century hermitage is connected to the mainland by a bridge and 240 stairs. Some will recognize it as the island fortress of “Dragonstone” from season 7 of Game of Thrones.

Many Airbnb hosts offer activities such as bike trips and food tours. Filter for "experiences" to see what's offered in various cities. Eatwith.com offers opportunities to dine in the homes of locals. Sadly, we'll miss the chance for a traditional salt cod dinner in Porto because the Portuguese/Serbian hosts will be on vacation. 

Some independent travelers hire private guides, but for my money,  free group walking tours offered through websites such as Freetour.com and GuruWalk, are just as informative, and often more fun. The upbeat guides are often knowledgeable students or professors who work for tips. In Porto, we signed up for two free city walks offered by Porto Walkers which also offers paid port wine and food tours. 

in Bilbao, Freetour's 2.5-hour walk includes recommendations on where to sample the best traditional and modern “pintxos,” the Basque version of Spanish tapas.  Susana, a guide from GuruWalk who describes herself as someone with a "Greek passport and Basque heart," leads small groups through Bilbao la Vieja, a former industrial area which she calls the Soho of Bilbao.

We couldn't decide which of the walks to do, but the price was right, so we signed up for both. 


Sep 21, 2022

What to expect on a day trip to Des Moines aboard the Chilkat Express

 

The Chilkat Express pulls into the Des Moines marina

Passengers boarding the new walk-on ferry to Des Moines at Seattle's Bell Harbor Marina could practically touch the massive Norwegian Spirit cruise liner ready to leave port.

But while its 2,000 passengers were bound for Alaska, a dozen of us were day-tripping to Des Moines, a suburb known more for jets flying overhead on their approach to Sea-Tac Airport than its tourism attractions.

The Chilkat Express, a 62-seat catamaran, equipped with a hydrofoil, joins other fast walk-on ferries zipping across the Puget Sound between Seattle and communities such as West Seattle; and Kingston, Bremerton and Southworth in Kitsap County. 

Those runs are aimed at commuters, but for now at least, the focus of the two-month, city-sponsored Des Moines pilot project, is on providing suburban residents a quick and pleasant trip into the city that doesn't involve fighting traffic.

The bonus for Seattleites is a cheap, 40-minute cruise ($10 each way for adults; $5 for seniors) across the Sound in a comfortable boat with upholstered seats and picture windows run by local tour operator Puget Sound Express.

The Wednesday-Sunday trips are scheduled to run through October 9, but city officials seem  optimistic about the possibility of the service continuing.

“Everything is about revitalizing the downtown and marina," City Manager Michael Matthias told The Seattle Times recently. "The ferry fits in perfectly with that.”


Boarding with bikes at the Bell Harbor Marina in Seattle 


Exploring with bikes

Catching the the first boat leaving Seattle at 11 a.m. and the last one back at 4 p.m. gave my husband and I about four hours to explore.

With electric power-assisted bikes loaded onboard, we joined the few others going south despite almost a full load of passengers disembarking in Seattle.

We've traveled to and from Sea-Tac Airport hundreds of times, but always on surface roads, never before on a route water route skirting familiar landmarks such as the lighthouse at Alki Point and Three Tree Point, a triangle-shaped spit jutting into the east Sound in Burien.


The Chilkat Express is enclosed but passenger can stand on the back deck for pictures

Zipping along at a brisk 32 knots (40 mph), the Chilkat Express reached Des Moines around 11:40. Maneuvering around construction at the marina (A $15 million renovation of the north sea wall calls for a set of steps, modeled after Seattle’s Harbor Steps, to link downtown and the harbor), we pedaled past picnickers and beachcombers enjoying low tide at Des Moines Beach Park. Picking up the paved Des Moines Creek biking and walking trail, we wended 

Low tide at Des Moines Beach Park


through shaded lowland forest. Jets flying overheard were the only clue we were just a few miles from the airport and the Angle Lake light rail station.

The trail is just four miles out and back, so with time to spare, we next detoured a few miles out of town to the city of Normandy Park and the wooded Marine View Park Valley Loop Trail, a mile-long trail popular with birders and hikers. Parking the bikes, we walked the trail, taking in views of the Sound and beaches below.

Doubling back to Des Moines, we relaxed at Anchor Espresso & Lounge with cozy seating and a large selection of fruit smoothies. A recent Seattle Times story on places to eat in Des Moines recommended Sweet D’Licias, a Mexican ice cream shop serving a drink called a mangoneada that combines pureed mango with the  spicy, sour tang of chamoy and Tajin.

Chilling at the Quarterdeck pub

Looking for a spot at the marina for a late lunch before the 4 p.m. ferry, we snagged seats on the patio of the Quarterdeck pub, and settled in with glasses of Jellyfish Porter and grilled tuna sandwiches. The menu is simple, but the beer and wine- by- the glass selection is large due to a loyal boating clientele.

With just ten of us onboard, the trip back felt like a private cruise. Greeting us at the dock in Seattle was a long line of passengers headed home to Des Moines. 


If you go:

The Des Moines to Seattle foot ferry makes four round-trips per day, Wednesday-Sunday, departing Des Moines at 10 a.m., noon, 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. and leaving Seattle at 11 a.m., 1 p.m., 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. Reservations are recommended.

One-way fares are $10 for adults; $5 for seniors and military. Children under 13 ride free. Bikes are $2 extra, with a boat capacity of four.  


Aug 17, 2022

Island Time: Canadian artists open their home studios to visitors

Salt Spring Island potter Francine Hampson-Reid at her backyard kiln

Wearing a pair of railroad-style overalls, her hair pulled back in a red bandana, potter Francine Hampson-Reid pops out of her studio to greet visitors.

 "You found us," she shouts. 

So far, my husband and I were having no trouble following a self-guided artists' studio tour on Salt Spring Island, the largest of the Canadian southern Gulf Islands in British Columbia.

But when we approached Reid's Mudpuppy Studios, and saw a sign for the Harbor House Hotel, we were a little confused.

"We are not a hotel," she laughed.

Turns out, her spouse, John Reid, collects vintage signs. There's a Sweet Arts Cafe sign hanging above their sauna in back, and another for Belcher Bob's Chili outside her gallery.  

Salt Spring is home to dozens of artists, artisans and crafts people, most of whom sell their wares at galleries or at the Saturday Market in the main town of Ganges, But for travelers with time for more than one-stop shopping, the studio tour takes visitors behind-the-scenes where there's always a backstory.

Blue and white numbered sheep signs posted along the roadside point the way to the homes of 20 potters, glass artists, cider makers and cheese mongers, none more than a few minutes drive from the other on an island that's just 17 miles long and nine miles wide. 

 "It's a way for tourists to know we're here," says artist Mark Lauckner who blows, casts and presses glass at the Glass Foundry, just past Laughing Daughters Gluten Free Foods off Upper Ganges road. 

Many artists open their home galleries to visitors, but those who participate on the tour must live where they work, make at least 80 percent of what they sell on site and commit to regular opening hours, he says.

Mark Lauckner in his gallery on Salt Spring Island

Lauckner uses recycled scrap window glass and an energy-saving electric-powered furnace to produce coastal giftware such as starfish, seahorses, slugs, bowls and vases. A small table filled with scrap glass invites kids to design their own fused glass plates. 

His backstory involves hundreds of colored glass insulators  lined up on rows of shelves outside his gallery.

Glass insulators on display at the Glass Foundry

Now collectors items, they were used between 1920 and 1950 on telephone and telegraph lines to prevent wires from touching poles. For those curious enough to to know more, Lauckner unlocks a side door leading to a small museum housing Canada's largest collection of  insulators (3,000),  all neatly labeled with explanations of their historical significance. 

Not far from St. Mary Lake, one of two large lakes on the island, Francine Hampson-Reid of Mudpuppy Studios walks visitors through an explanation of how she crafts wheel-thrown stone dinner and cookware in "runs," one day pie plates, the next day mugs or bowls.

After an initial firing in an electric kiln, the pieces are fired again using an ancient German technique of mixing salt and baking soda in a backyard propane gas-fired kiln cranked up to 2,350.The salt vaporizes and interacts with the clay to create unique and unpredictable designs. The firing takes place over a three-day period. The kiln has to be monitored for heat control which the couple can do while sitting in their sauna. 

Reid's tea pot and mugs fired with a process that mixes salt and baking soda

Finished pieces are for sale in their "gallery" consisting of two glass cases in the hallway of their home next to the pottery studio.  Among items for sale are tea pots with wooden handles crafted by John Reid from Madrona trees on their property.  

Cheyenne Gol makes bags from recycled Harris Tweed jackets


Close to Ganges is Cheyenne Goh's Tweed & Bananas workshop where the Singaporean transplant works in a garage decorated with an oriental rug and vintage suitcases to "upcycle" fabric scraps, old kilts, tweed jackets, and most anything people drop at her door.

"From the beginning I have been into recycling and upcycling," she says, a passion that evolved while she worked with non-governmental organizations to teach Indonesian villagers to recycle paper and make paper products that were sold to hotels and galleries. 

Her signature items are bags fashioned from Harris Tweed jackets, incorporating the lapels as a design detail. Sleeves from jacket cuffs become small purses. Old neckties become holders for key fobs. Upholstery samples dropped off by a company closing its business are fashioned into clutch purses.

Her next project might involve what to do with an elegant silk Japanese wedding kimono that's been sitting on a shelf waiting for an idea. 

"I see something," she says, "and I want to figure out what to do with it."


Explore north and south

The studio tour is an opportunity to explore the far north and south ends of the island, just a 45-minute drive in either direction.

Feeding the goats at Sunset Farm

At the northern tip is Sunset Farm where the owners raise sheep fed on native grasses along with pet donkeys, horses, and goats. For sale in a small shop next to the farm is wool for knitting or felting; sheepskins, socks, blankets and pillows.

Facing Vancouver Island and Vesuvius Bay is the Zak Studio where Margo Zak, a ceramicist since college days in Manitoba, crafts functional hand-built porcelain vessels and Dan Zak, a retired architect, paints watercolors, using abstract touches to interpret natural scenes around Salt Spring, Tofino and other Canadian destinations.

Margo Zak hand- builds porcelain pottery in her home studio on Salt Spring Island

A flight of wooden steps leads to the contemporary house which Dan designed to include a home gallery and studios for each of them. Margo works downstairs building tubular vases, mugs and pots, glazed on the inside so they can be used for holding liquids. Dan works upstairs, painting and making his own borderless frames for his watercolors.

Heading south, closer to Fulford Harbour and Ruckle Provincial Park, with trails and ocean views, are two worthy refreshment stops.

Former restaurant owners Michael and Rie Papp operate Salt Spring Shine, a craft distillery https://saltspringshine.com with spirits made from fermented local honey. Stop by to see their small still, and sample their gin, vodka, honeycomb or apple pie moonshine.

Spirits distilled with fermented local island honey

Furthest south and perhaps the most remote location on the tour is Salt Spring Island Cheese in business on the island since 1996. Travel a woodsy road past farm stands selling coffee, books, firewood and homemade jams, then veer off on a one-lane road, park and walk up the hill to the farm where the owners raise goats and make cheeses delicately decorated with flowers and herbs.

Cheese as art on Salt Spring Island


Visit the goats, watch the cheese-making process, and picnic in the garden with a pizza from the farm cafe or a slice of fresh goat cheesecake. 

If you go:

Salt Spring island lies in the Strait of Georgia between mainland British Columbia and Vancouver Island. It's the largest of the Southern Gulf islands, connected to the mainland and Vancouver Island by ferry. Getting there takes some time, so plan on a two or three- night stay.

Border policies: The Canadian government says existing Covid-related border restrictions will remain in place until at least Sept. 30. That means most U.S.travelers will need to provide proof of being fully vaccinated to enter the country. 

The government requires all travelers to upload their vaccine information and travel documents to the ArriveCAN app within 72 hours of arrival. If you don't have a smart phone, you can sign in to ArriveCAN from a computer to get an ArriveCAN receipt to print and take with you. 

Remember to bring your passport or enhanced state drivers license when crossing the border.

Ferry reservations: There are three towns with ferry terminals on Salt Spring. Ferries call between Tsawwassen CQ in Vancouver, 135 miles north of Seattle, and Long Harbour on Salt Spring (the most direct route); Swartz Bay (Victoria) and Fulford Harbour; and Crofton (on Vancouver Island) and Vesuvius Harbour.   

Visit the artists: Pick up a map on the ferry or in Ganges showing locations of 20 artists and artisans on the Salt Spring Studio Tour, or click here to for an online version and artists' profiles.  Opening hours vary, so check the listings before visiting. 

Exchange rates: A favorable exchange rate makes Canadian travel a good value for U.S. travelers. The current rate is 78 U.S. cents to one Canadian dollar.

This article appeared in the Seattle Times on Aug. 18, 2022.

Jul 2, 2022

A two-ferry day-trip takes visitors to the waterside town of Port Orchard

 

The Admiral Pete ferry pulls into Bremerton from Port Orchard, WA

Some know the Northwest waterside community of Port Orchard as the setting for the fictional Cedar Cove in novels by local author Debbie Macomber. 

Others know it as a bedroom community for commuters from Seattle and workers at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard a mile across the Sinclair Inlet in Bremerton, WA.

Locals such as Samantha Smith, 44, a graduate of South Kitsap High School, see it for its potential for trying out new ideas while hanging onto a small-town vibe.

 "Community Plus Creativity" is the theme for two businesses she runs on Bay Street, the historic main drag a half-block from  where foot-ferries make the 10-minute crossing to and from Bremerton. 

Josephine's Mercantile occupies a former roller rink. The original floor is intact

Four years ago, she opened Josephine's Mercantile, a cross between a high-end vintage shop and an old-fashioned general store in the former location of Rio's Skate Castle roller rink. Then, last April, in the middle of the Covid pandemic, she opened Revival,  a shop selling newly-made Northwest goods and gifts in a building that once housed a Ford Motor Co. assembly plant and car dealership. Twice a month, she hosts Local, a pop-up market for potters, glassblowers and other artists.

"I just love my hometown," she says. "I thought about locating in Gig Harbor or Poulsbo (both well-known tourist towns), but my heart just said no."

Curious to know more? Hop aboard a ferry for a day trip on a  sunny Saturday. Here's the plan:

Bremerton to Port Orchard

With views of the Olympic Mountains and Mount Rainier, a ferry ride across Puget Sound to Bremerton is a bargain. With a car,  it's a 20-minute drive to Port Orchard in South Kitsap County, but I recommend either walking on the Washington State ferry (one hour) or catching the Kitsap Transit passenger-only fast ferry (30 minutes) from the Seattle waterfront. Then follow the signs to the Port Orchard foot ferry for a 10-minute, $2 trip across Sinclair Inlet. 


The historic Carlisle II docked beside a new electric-powered ferry

If you're lucky, Kitsap Transit might be running the refurbished Carlisle II, built in 1917 as part of the Puget Sound Mosquito Fleet. Otherwise, you might be onboard a new electric ferry, or the older Admiral Pete built with nostalgic touches such as brass railings and wooden cupholders.

Farmers and fiddlers

Follow the sound of fiddle music to the Saturday farmers market on the waterfront just east of the ferry dock and marina. 

Wander among the stalls covered with white canopies to find   micogreens grown by Wildwood Hollow Farm; bacon and pork chops from Foggy Hog Farm raising "pigs with a purpose"; and  cotton candy spun with organic sugar by Sunshine Acres Family farm.


Kari Lassila at the Farmers Market

Members of the Washington Old Time Fiddlers Association serenade. Among the craftspeople is Kari Lassila of Thrifty Needle who works behind her grandmother's black Singer sewing machine to produce an array of upcycled crafts.

"I'm basically keeping stuff out of the landfill," she jokes, pointing to her display of purses made from old cargo pants, tote bags crafted from pillow cases and colorful doggie "poo" bags knitted from sock yarn.

Lunch at Carter's

Walk a block south from the waterfront and find Carter & Co. at the west end of Bay Street.

Owners Matt Carter and John Strasinger describe their storefront as the "happiest place in town," and it just might be given the crowds that line up for orange-chocolate chip ice cream, chocolate-dipped bacon slices and hand-made truffles.

A plant-filled back patio invites lingering over lunch or dessert.  Carter's passion is chocolate, but in hotter weather, the emphasis is on keeping the cases filled with with mini-cheesecakes, fruit tarts, panini sandwiches and savory Brioche filled with ham and Brie; mushrooms and smoked Provolone; and sometimes even meat loaf.  

Browsing Bay Street

Platted as the town of Sidney in 1886 by Frederick Stevens, CQ  Port Orchard became known for lumber, pottery works and the small businesses that provided services. The center of town was and is Bay Street depicted on a mural on the side wall of the Sidney Art Gallery and Museum. 

Long-known as fertile ground for antique hunters, the retail district has evolved to include a mix of new and old businesses. 

Well-stocked is the Olde Central Antique Mall where 45 dealers fill two floors crammed with colored glassware, clothing, books, vintage jewelry and house wares. 

Veterans Living History Museum

Next door is the free Veterans Living History Museum opened 14 years ago by Coast Guard veteran and former lighthouse keeper Dale Nitz,  77, to house his overflowing collection of military artifacts. 

Displayed on the sidewalk is a changing rotation of memorabilia including a recently-acquired framed set of medals belonging to a soldier who collected 11 Purple Hearts.

More contemporary shops and galleries populate the west end of Bay Street. Across from Josephine's and next to Revival, there's  Wilkerson Port Orchard Galley where owners Glen and Shelly Wilkerson display their own photos and paintings as well the the work of other local artists.

Inside the Port Orchard Public Market, a space for vendors selling handmade and local products, Leanna Krotzer, owner of Leanna's Art and Coffee, sells antique tea pots and cups, and bakes homemade cinnamon rolls in a kitchen behind her cash register.  

Leanna Krotzer sells antique tea cups and homemade baked goods in the Port Orchard Public Market 

Coming soon will be the first Dude's Donuts cafe. The vegan and gluten-free donut company, owned by Bainbridge Island's Pegasus Coffee, wholesales to 30 cafes around the Puget Sound, "but we haven't had our own storefront," says owner Matt Grady. 

"There's been a lot of talk about trying to make Port Orchard more of a destination," he says "We're thrilled to be a part of that."  

Waterfront dining

Close to the ferry dock and farmers market is the Peninsula Beverage Co. with a roomy outdoor deck, a long list of Northwest brews on tap and a dozen types of tacos with fillings that transport diners to Thailand, Vietnam and Hawaii.

Worth the 1.2-mile walk, mostly along new paved waterside bike and walking path (or catch the No 9 Kitsap Transit bus) is the Whiskey Gulch Coffee Pub, https://www.whiskeygulchcoffeepub.com CQ a local favorite.  

Go early to get a seat overlooking the water. Order up a coffee cocktail or one of more than whiskeys, then choose from a menu with a surprisingly variety of vegetarian items including smoked sweet potato tacos and "not-so-pork sliders" made with jackfruit tossed in a peach BBQ sauce.  


If you go:

Saturdays are the best time to visit when the farmers market is open from 9 a.m.- 2p.m. through October. 

Check Washington state ferry schedules and Kitsap Transit schedules, including the foot ferry from Bremerton to Port Orchard (ferries run every half hour) and the fast ferry between Bremerton and Seattle (Monday-Saturday service).

Jun 10, 2022

Testing requirement lifted for international flights, but at what cost to travelers' health and safety?

 

Pre-departure testing no longer required

Airline passengers traveling to the U.S. from abroad no longer have to produce a negative Covid test taken the day before travel. The move eliminates one of the hassles of flying internationally, but at what cost to the safety of customers and crew?

From the feedback I received on a recent blog post arguing in favor of keeping the requirement, many believe pre-departure testing is not worth the trouble or expense, even as highly-transmissible Omicron variants spread, and passengers no longer have to wear masks.

For those readers, the Biden Administration had good news over the weekend. As of Sunday, June 12, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention dropped its testing requirement which applied to all travelers entering the U.S. by air - vaccinated and unvaccinated. Airlines and others in the travel industry pushed the administration to drop the requirement, arguing it was hurting demand for international trips. 

Over the weekend, they praised the government's decision, citing mainly economic benefits, but not addressing how the move might affect the health and safety of passengers and crew. 

The administration put in place the testing requirement last year, as it moved away from restrictions that banned nonessential travel from several dozen countries. The initial mandate allowed those who were fully vaccinated to show proof of a negative test within three days of travel, while unvaccinated people had to present a test taken within one day of travel.

In November, as the Omicron variant swept the world, the administration toughened the requirement and required all travelers, regardless of vaccination status, to test within a day of travel to the US.

The CDC, which says it still recommends testing before any flight, said it will reassess the decision in 90 days.  “If there is a need to reinstate a pre-departure testing requirement — including due to a new, concerning variant — CDC will not hesitate to act,”  and official said.

Let's hope so, because in the meantime, anyone with Covid or with symptoms of Covid can now board an international flight to the U.S., no questions asked. There is no requirement that anyone wear a mask. Airlines argue that their filtration systems offer good protection, but that's not reassuring when someone sitting next to you for hours is coughing, or the plane sits on the tarmac for an hour waiting for a gate to open up (which happened to a friend recently in Newark and Seattle).  

Here's the situation one traveler found himself in when he recently boarded a flight from Los Angeles to Wyoming to see friends. 

"I sat rigid in my seat, and was aware of everything happening around me," he reported. "Simply put, I call it the C & S flight — Coughing and Sneezing. Everywhere. Every 4.3 minutes. Yes, I timed it."

Some argue that because the CDC never required pre-departure testing for domestic flights, it didn't make sense to require testing before boarding international flights. I'd counter that one bad decision doesn't justify another at a time the government is bracing for the pandemic’s "next wave" by asking for billions of dollars in Covid relief.

One prediction: Watch for airlines to equate the elimination of testing and masking requirements as a sign of downgraded risk. That could give them an opening to reinstate fees and penalties for cancelling or changing flights. The ability to change a flight, or cancel  and receive a credit has no doubt kept many sick people off planes. With Covid risks downplayed, how long will those policies stay in place? 


Jun 2, 2022

Airlines ignore passenger safety by lobbying to end pre-departure Covid testing for international travel

 

Testing "negativo" before a flight from Italy to the U.S.

At a time when highly-transmissible Covid variants are spreading even among the vaccinated and boosted, would you feel better about returning to the U.S. from overseas knowing that everyone aboard the aircraft had tested negative the day before, or having no idea who might or might not be infected with Covid. 

If airlines get their way, the U.S. could soon drop its requirement that all airline passengers - vaccinated or unvaccinated - produce a pre-departure negative antigen (rapid) Covid test the day before returning from an international destination. 

The U.S. Travel Association and Airlines for America, trade groups that represent the travel industry and U.S. airlines, are pressing the Biden Administration to end the protection, arguing that the "travel industry remains disproportionately harmed" by the requirement. Lifting the protective measure would "lead to more foreigners visiting the U.S." they argue, and besides, as one spokesman reasoned, Covid "is here already."

None of these arguments address the health and safety of passengers, the ones buying over-priced tickets, spending extra hours arriving early at airports due to "staffing" shortages, or even the costs involved in flight crews calling in sick after being exposed to untested passengers. 

Granted antigen tests are not full-proof. It's possible to test negative on a rapid test, and then test positive a few days later. But what a negative result does show in most cases is that you aren't yet immediately contagious, and therefore not endangering fellow passengers sitting near you in an enclosed space for long periods of time.

As far as putting U.S. tourism at a disadvantage compared to other countries that have lifted their testing requirements, I'd say gun violence and mass shootings at schools, grocery stores and hospitals will have more to do with whether or not foreigners decide to travel to the U.S.

Much is made about the "inconvenience" and expense of testing. So just how difficult is it to get a test while traveling? You can do it at most airports right before your flight if you want, or to be safe, make an appointment at a local pharmacy in town the day before.

That's what my husband and I did on a recent trip to Italy. The whole process took about 15 minutes, and cost around $20. We waited outside on the sidewalk until the pharmacist declared us "negativo," and handed us our paperwork in English and Italian. He also sent the results in an e-mail so we could download them into our Air France "Ready to Fly" App, and get our boarding passes on our phones instead of having to check in at a crowded airport desk.

It's true that if you test positive, you won't be able to fly until you test negative. Another possibility is to wait five days and get a doctor to sign off that you're no longer contagious. In any case, it means having a back-up plan - a hotel room in which to isolate and an airline ticket that allows changes.

It's the price we should all continue to pay for the privilege of traveling during a pandemic which is not yet over. Without the requirement, people would no doubt get on planes with symptoms, telling themselves that it's just a cold or allergies.

Instead of making up excuses to sell more tickets by eliminating testing, Airlines should be lobbying to keep the requirements in place to protect their passengers and flight crews. They should also be dong more to encourage everyone to wear masks, per CDC recommendations, instead of celebrating the lifting of mandatory masking.

They could start by asking flight attendants to model Covid-safe travel by following CDC recommendations that "everyone properly wear a well-fitting mask over the nose and mouth in indoor areas of public transportation such as airplanes, trains, etc,. and transportation hubs such as airports, stations."

No flight attendants wore masks on a recent Delta flight between Seattle and Cincinnati. "It's nice to see your smiles again," said a sign posted near the gate announcing that masks were now optional. 

I'd much preferred a sign that said "Masks are no longer mandatory. But for your protection and the protection of fellow passengers and flight crews, please consider wearing a mask while not drinking or eating."


May 6, 2022

Torino: An Italian city offering culture and cuisine without the crowds

 

Via Roma traverses three squares with arcades paved in marble

Long lines and high prices will greet visitors to Italy this summer and fall as tourists return in pre-pandemic numbers. Rome, Florence and Venice go to the list of top destinations for good reasons. But for those who can spare the time, second-tier cities offer opportunities to soak up Italian culture and cuisine without the crowds.

Turin or Torino in the Northern Italian Piedmont region, is a good example. A city of about one million In the foothills of the Alps, it was our last stop on a two-week trip just after Easter to test the overseas travel waters post-Covid. 

An elegant arcade houses the Cafe Baratti & Milano

Like Genoa, where we spent the previous four days, Torino gets little attention in guidebooks. Known today as the birthplace of the Fiat car, the Olivetti typewriter, vermouth and chocolate sold in bar form, the city holds a special place in Italian history as first capital after the country united as a nation in 1861. The honor eventually went to Florence and then Rome as Torino flourished as a financial center filled with opulent palazzi, huge squares and arcaded shopping areas built by wealthy nobility.

Old-fashioned trams, a good bus system and pedestrianized walkways made it easy to get around. And while the emphasis during Covid was to avoid contact with people as much as possible, the Torinese seem to making up for lost time by creating all sorts of ways for visitors to connect. 

Sleeping with a local

We made a last-minute switch from an Airbnb to a regular bed and breakfast when I spotted the reviews for B&B D'Orso Poeta (The teddy bear poet), a two-room B&B in an elegant former palazzo a few blocks from the Porta Nuova train station. Nicoletta Stefano reopened in September in the third-floor apartment where she welcomes visitors from around the world. 

B&B D'Orso Poeta

Some might find it easier to stay in a hotel than keep track of five different keys to open four doors, but once inside, almost anyone would appreciate Nicoletta's attention to detail. Antique furnishings, framed artwork, Oriental-style rugs, a Nespresso coffee maker and well-stocked fridge made us feel like honored guests.

The price was $125 per night, about what we'd been paying for similar accommodations throughout the trip. One interesting change Nicoletta made due to Covid was to pivot from serving breakfast to a self-serve system. She filled the fridge with yogurt, milk, juice and fruit for guests to help themselves, and left croissants or bread in a bag on the table the night before. This way guests could either keep to themselves, or if they wanted, chat with her in Italian when she came over from her apartment next door to clean up. One morning we found a note on the counter saying she left a bottle of Prosecco for us to enjoy on our balcony. I like the Airbnb system, but I like B&Bs more because of the opportunity to connect with locals like Nicoletta. 

Dinner with Carlotta

I've been a fan of Eatwith.com for several years. Eatwith operates like the Airbnb of dining. Amateur cooks post their profiles on the website along with a proposed menu. Covid put most of these dinners on hold for more than a year, but now hosts are gradually returning.

Carlotta Muti, a professional tour guide and self-taught cook, offered a dinner in the apartment she shares with her boyfriend in Torino's historical center. We packed a few extra Covid tests in our carry-ons so that the three of us (her boyfriend had other plans) could test ourselves beforehand.

Carlotta with hazelnut cake topped with zabaglione

With the tests showing negative, we relaxed and sipped Prosecco along with an antipasti of local cheeses, meats, honey and a wine-infused jam. Carlotta disappeared into the kitchen, and came out with a dense, spinach flan which she served with a local red wine. Pasta with ground hazelnuts followed. Dessert was a hazelnut cake soaked with zabaglione, an Italian custard made with egg yokes and sugar. Carlotta is a fluent English speaker, so the conversation flowed easily. We especially enjoyed hearing about the annual American Thanksgiving dinner she hosts for friends, complete with pumpkin pie (Is it considered a sweet or savory dish, she wondered) and a Martha Stewart cheesecake.

Walking tours

Walking tours offered by Freetour.com, a worldwide network of enthusiastic local guides, provide an easy way to get the lay of the land in a new city. The tours generally run two-three hours. At the end, you tip the guide whatever you want - usually around 10 euro per person.  

We signed up for an introductory Saturday walk around the city with Free Tour Turin, and then the next day, found a stroll titled "Historic Cafes and Chocolatiers"  offered by a local Airbnb host.

More than 100 people showed up for the Free Tour walk offered in Italian, Spanish and English. There were only eight English speakers in the crowd, so as the others gathered in two huge groups, we had what was essentially a private three-hour tour with our excellent English-speaking guide, Olivier Frasca.

Our group in the Galleria Federico with the Cinema Lux in the center

Leaving the tourist office meeting point at the Porta Nuova train station, we strolled along the Via Roma, a 16th century gateway into the old city that traverses three major squares and hosts two churches near a building that was the former German Gestapo headquarters during the World War II.

From here we got our first glimpse of Torino's more than 11 miles of arcaded streets, many housing high-fashion boutiques and historic cafes. I liked the way Oliver interspersed stops at historical landmarks (the former Parliament building, Royal Palace, Egyptian Museum, the Cathedral housing the Shroud of Turin) with the best places to sample gelato and sip Bicerin, Torino's signature coffee drink made by layering hot chocolate, coffee and cream in a glass.

Pepino has been making gelato since 1884.

Paolo Rapa, an Airbnb host, designed a three-hour chocolate and coffee tour which he offers for $22 per person on Airbnb's Turin site under a category called "Experiences."  I e-mailed Rapa to see if he was available on a Sunday. He answered back, and we arranged to meet the next day at 10 a.m.

Caffe Torino, opened in 1903, with the city's emblem, a bull, above the bar. 

Our first stop was the Caffe Torinio in the Piazza San Carlo. It's considered good luck to rub your foot over a brass plaque of a bull (Torino means little bull in Italian) on the pavement outside. Inside, you can have a coffee at the non-touristic price of around $1.50.

Torino is known for its chocolates combined with local hazelnuts, a tradition started with the first production of chocolate bars in the mid 1800s when artisans, facing a shortage of cocoa, began stretching the supply by mixing it with the local hazelnuts. The taste is familiar in the popular chocolate spread, Nutella, produced nearby in Ferraro.

Before then, chocolate was enjoyed as a liquid after it was first introduced by the Duke of Savoy in 1559. That custom continues with Bicerin, the drink of coffee, hot chocolate and milk, originally served separately, then mixed by the customer. 

 

Cafe Al Bicerin

The Cafe Al Bicerin, the bar that invented the drink, sits across from the Church of the Virgin of the Consolation. Parishioners would come in and order Bicerin for sustenance during fasting periods.

Enjoying Bicerin with Paolo and a Spanish friend

Today, baristas layer the chocolate, coffee and cream together in one glass, with strict instructions not to mix or stir.

For all of those calling for more aperitivo pictures, here are two from one of the best places we found on the trip. Dozens of bars on the Piazza Vittorio Veneto serve a spread of small plates and appetizers along with the price of a drink ($10-$12) starting around 5 p.m. The aperitivo hour is popular all over Italy today, but it actually originated in Milan and Turin in the 1920s when workers would end their day with a pre-dinner drink. The two cities still compete to offer the best. 


Aperitivo hour with an Aperol Spritz

That's a wrap on our first trip back to Italy after Covid. Ciao for now!