Feb 13, 2021

Vaccinations could soon replace testing, quarantines for cruises, international travel

 

The American Queen Steamboat line will require passengers to be vaccinated

"Vaccinations will be key to the reopening of borders and to enhancing travel confidence." Goh Choon Phong, CEO of Singapore Airlines.

Will U.S. airlines require passengers to have COVID-19 vaccinations to board domestic flights? Doubtful. The CEO of United Airlines says he wants to make the vaccine mandatory for employees, yet his airline, along with other U.S. carriers, opposes any suggestion of requiring negative Covid tests, let alone vaccinations, from the flying public.

How is it that people will feel more apt to fly knowing that the crew has been vaccinated, but their fellow passengers board with nothing more than a temperature check?

It makes no sense, which is why when it comes to restarting international travel as well as cruising, it's going to be one or the other, but not neither.  

I expect most cruise lines to eventually follow the lead of  the American Queen Steamboat Company and its sister company Victory Cruise Lines which will require all guests and crew to be vaccinated against COVID-19 for all sailings, starting in July.

Once vaccinations are widely available, most foreign countries will likely adopt rules similar to what Iceland (currently closed to residents of the U.S., Canada and the UK) requires. That is a double COVID-testing procedure (on arrival and five days after) along with a quarantine of 5-6 days UNLESS travelers arrive with a certificate of previous COVID-19 infection or a certificate of vaccination.


Iceland's Covid travel policy

Governments are free to come up with their own entry a requirements, of course, and some will be more lenient or restrictive than others, but proof of vaccination and/or a negative test seem certain to become standard practice once international borders reopen. Some might require both, especially if ongoing research determines that people who have been vaccinated can still carry the virus and transmit it to others. The state of Hawaii, which requires travelers to have proof of a negative test to avoid quarantine, is weighing whether or not to waive test requirements for those who have been vaccinated.  

This brings us to what travel promoters are hyping as "health passports." Rest assured, there will be no "passport" guaranteeing anyone entry across any border, or offering assurance that the rules won't change between the time you arrive and depart.

What various airlines and travel organizations aim to come up with is a digital wallet where you could permanently store your testing and vaccine records.

Etihad Airways and Emirates will start using a digital travel pass, developed by the International Air Transport Association, to help passengers manage their travel plans and provide airlines and governments documentation that they have been vaccinated or tested.

The challenge is creating a document or app that is accepted around the world, that protects privacy and is accessible to people regardless of their access to smartphones.

In the meantime, it would seem wise for U.S. airlines to stop fighting the suggestion that passengers test negative for COVID-19 before boarding domestic flights.

Finding a way to assure passengers that everyone on the plane has been tested would seem  to boost confidence in air travel, but U.S. carriers believe it would discourage travel, or at least that's the excuse for not wanting to bother.

A coalition of airline, travel and aerospace industries and union and airport groups have urged U.S. President Joe Biden not to impose testing requirements, arguing that domestic testing requirements could cause logistical havoc and further reduce demand. 

Sorry guys, but half-way measures like temperature checks,  enhanced cleaning, new filtration systems and empty middle seats just won't cut it. 

Harvard University researchers agree. They endorsed the idea of rapid testing of passengers in a recent report.

"Viral testing is an important public health screening mechanism that can quickly and efficiently identify those with infections and stop them from undergoing activities that could expose others, including potential travel,'' Harvard's T.H. Chan School of Public Health, said in a summary of the 262-page report.

Requiring testing for all travelers would not guarantee a plane full of virus-free passengers but may serve a "critical need'' in identifying asymptomatic passengers and keeping them off planes, reducing the risk of transmission, the report concluded.

Rather than kicking and screaming about how costly and inconvenient test requirements would be, a better idea would be for U.S. carriers to follow the lead of Delta Airlines. Delta is pro-actively looking into in-home testing options for passengers departing to destinations, such as Hawaii, that require negative tests. It's also partnering with hotels outside the country that have on-site testing (required to reenter the United States). 


Delta's Covid map

Still a work in progress is a shaded map showing what countries are open to visitors, are open with restrictions or have restricted entry. Can you guess the names of the four countries that currently carry no restrictions on travel? One is in North America, another in Eastern Europe and two are in Africa. 


Jan 24, 2021

Before booking your next trip, check the dates on those five-star reviews

 

My favorite Mexico City hotel: Temporarily closed 


If you rely on online reviews and guidebook recommendations for travel planning, you'll notice something different when you start researching your next trip.  

Much of the information will be outdated by almost a year. With Covid-19 halting travel around the world, guidebook authors were unable to update their work. Bloggers were unable to travel. Hotels and restaurants, used to generating hundreds of reviews each month on sites such as TripAdvisor.com and Booking.com, garnered only a handful of mentions, mostly from locals commenting on services eliminated or changed during Covid.

The upside is that if you are traveling now, there's useful Covid-related information included in  recent online posts.


Traveling now? Check hotel websites for Covid policies

The downside for longer-term trip planning is that the research will take more time, and require more cross-referencing to unearth bits of timely and accurate information. A hotel or restaurant that rated five-star reviews may no longer exist, or could be under new ownership with a less-than-charming new manager.

Example: When Google reported my favorite small hotel in Mexico City "permanently closed," I was sad, but skeptical, so I did some checking and found a notice on TripAdvisor that the hotel is temporarily closed until July. When it reopens, it will be hard to know if the standards have changed. The last review was written almost a year ago in February.

For those of us who have taken a few local trips during Covid, or for those who plan to do more once vaccinated, it's important we take the time to contribute fresh reviews. In time, we'll be able to start detecting trends again, and distinguish between one person's bad experience and a pattern of similar complaints. 

I almost skipped posting a review of a Georgian restaurant in downtown Seattle that we tried recently for take- out. The food was excellent, and Yelp reviews were plentiful, but when I noticed that only four customers had left a review on TripAdvisor since November 5, I decided to contribute. 

At the Hotel Theodore in downtown Seattle, someone from management responds to every review posted on TripAdvisor. Sadly there have been only 11 since November, but those included timely and helpful comments for anyone traveling during Covid.

"They brought delivery food up to my room to minimize my contact with the outside world," wrote one guest.

"Due to Covid, some room amenities, like the coffee maker had been removed (The Theadore had in-room Nespresso machines), but the coffee stand in the lobby provided good coffee," another commented.

With Canada's borders closed to U.S. travelers, all four reviews posted since November for the Fairmount Hotel in Vancouver, Canada, were written by people from British Columbia.

"Due to Covid, the Gold Lounge was not open; however, room service was fantastic," one guest wrote. "They brought up a small fridge for us, along with extra tea and welcome drinks given we were celebrating my mom’s birthday. "

For updated policies during Covid, hotel and restaurant web sites seem mostly reliable.

The chapel next door to Il Convento hotel in Naples, Italy

Il Convento, my favorite hotel in Naples, Italy, posts a lengthy list of Covid precautions that include sanitizing the mattresses, cushions and curtains after the departure of each customer, and the elimination of bedspreads, decorative cushions and doilies. Breakfast, normally served around a large, communal table, is now served in the room.

Guidebook publishers research and edit their books a year in advance of publication, so losing all of 2020 will mean most of what's available in print will be information researched in 2019.

Rick Steves planned a new 2021 edition of his Paris guidebook this month, but with France's borders closed to international travel for most of the past year, this would seem difficult to pull off. But Steves' writers routinely post changes to printed guidebook information online, so readers would do well to check his website for current hotel and restaurant information, and use the printed books for historical background and itinerary planning. He maintains an active archive of general types of travel information on his website, along with an archive of past TV shows, podcasts and a tentative line-up of tour itineraries in 2021. 

Other publishers have been using their websites to post topical articles on travel trends.

Fodors.com recently carried articles on topics such as "Thinking about traveling just to get vaccinated," and "I just returned from city packed with tourists (Dubai). Here's what it was like." It's also running a series on "Best Road Trips in America." 

In Your Pocket Guides which publishes free downloadable e-guides to countries and cities many other publishers ignore, tags its online postings with the date they were last updated. Most carry a date of February or March of 2020. A posting called "Basque Food: 5 Must-Try Dishes in Bilbao"  likely is as useful today as it was a year ago. Not so with an article posted around the same time on the "Top 10 Annual Events in Bilbao," nearly all cancelled last year due to Covid. 

Culinarybackstreets.com publishes some of my favorite online city guides, with food-focused articles designed to wet the appetite for its walking tours in cities such as Istanbul, Barcelona, Mexico City and Tbilisi. There's a charge for the walking tours but the city guides are free, and local writers keep them current.

Recent posts include a December, 2020 story about a Syrian man helping refugees become food entrepreneurs in Istanbul and a piece written in early January, 2021 on a family tamale operation near Oaxaca, Mexico. I love both of these cities, so will use these articles to take a culinary voyage for now, then bookmark them for future travels. 


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

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.

Baku

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.