Sunday, November 23, 2008
This list is not all-inclusive. I can't guarantee with 100% accuracy to its correctness, and some of them I might even question, but it's a list I found years ago and stuck away for informational purposes. I thought it would be fun to share.
A PRIDE OF LIONS
A GAGGLE OF GEESE (on the ground)
A SKEIN OF GEESE (in the air)
A MURDER OF CROWS
A SCHOOL OF FISH
A LEAP OF LEOPARDS
A POD OF SEALS
A SLOTH OF BEARS
A GANG OF ELK
A COVEY OF PARTRIDGES (AND QUAIL)
A FALL OF WOODCOCKS
A WEDGE OF SWANS
A PARTY OF JAYS
A COLONY OF PENGUINS
A RAFTER OF TURKEYS
A BUSINESS OF FERRETS
A CRASH OF RHINOCEROSES
A SIEGE OF HERONS
A GAM OF WHALES
A HOVER OF TROUT
A HUSK OF HARES
A LABOR OF MOLES
A BALE OF TURTLES
A DULE OF DOVES
A SHOAL OF BASS
A DRIFT OF HOGS
A TRIP OF GOATS
A CHARM OF FINCHES
A SORT OF MALLARDS
A TIDINGS OF MAGPIES
A CAST OF HAWKS
AN OSTENTATION OF PEACOCKS
A BOUQUET OF PHESANTS
A CONGREGATION OF PLOVERS
A PADDLING OF DUCKS
AN UNKINDNESS OF RAVENS
A BUILDING OF ROOKS
A RICHNESS OF MARTENS
A BEVY OF ROEBUCKS
A HOST OF SPARROWS
A KNOT OF TOADS
A DESCENT OF WOODPECKERS
A MUSTERING OF STORKS
A DRAY OF SQUIRRELS
A SPRING OF TEAL
A ROUTE OF WOLVES
A SHREWDNESS OF APES
A SOUNDER OF SWINE
A MURMURATION OF STARLINGS
A PARLIAMENT OF OWLS
AN EXALTATION OF LARKS
Sunday, October 5, 2008
I looked out the kitchen window one day and saw a coyote lounging in the shadow of the oleanders by the pond. I was lucky enough to be able to get a couple of pictures through the window. You can see them at my Flickr account. A couple of days later I found three coyotes drinking from the pond. Every morning you can hear the pack off in the distance howling and yipping at each other. It’s an eerie sound if you’ve never heard it before, frightening even, and the sound carries a long way.
A few days ago we looked out the kitchen window again and found a roadrunner crouched down behind the rocks encircling the pond. He (she?) was catching dragonflies. He stayed low until one dared to fly over him, then he’d jump up and grab it, run a few feet away to eat it, then was back in his hiding place. He was very well camouflaged next to those rocks. No pictures this time. He was too aware of us watching and I didn’t want to scare him off.
I was walking home from my son’s house one day last week at around dusk. The sun had set but the sky was still somewhat bathed in yellow light and I was able to see well enough to walk home without a flashlight. I was halfway to my house when I saw something very large fly away from the mesquite tree out back. My first thought was that I’d startled an owl, since the wing-span was so big. Then about two dozen more of these birds burst into the air from the tree. Because they were silhouetted against the fading day, I couldn’t tell what they were but did determine based on the migratory patterns and time of year that it most probably was turkey vultures. It was an amazing and breath-taking sight.
Saturday, August 23, 2008
The Art of Tipping
Thursday, August 14, 2008
How hotels help themselves to your money
By Christopher Elliott
Tribune Media Services
(Tribune Media Services) -- If you think your hotel is done with you when you check out, think again. It might just be getting started.
Charges can be quietly added to your hotel bill after you've left. And increasingly, they are.
When John Richards was a weekly guest at a W Hotels & Resorts property, the items he found on his credit card bill after checkout were often bogus -- a candy bar he hadn't eaten or a bottle of water he hadn't drunk. Although he successfully fought to have the charges reversed, "it got to the point that before I checked in, I would ask them to remove the goodie-box from my room," he says.
Just a year ago, about one in 200 bills at full-service hotels were revised after checkout, according to Bjorn Hanson, an associate professor at New York University. Today, as hotels struggle with slipping occupancy levels and flat-lining growth, properties are wasting no opportunity to add late charges. As a result, the number of re-billings has doubled.
The late charges are usually correct, say experts. And if they aren't, most hotels are quick to correct the error. But not always. Some properties either resist crediting their customers or refuse.
That's what happened to Charles Garnar when he stayed at the Renaissance Fort Lauderdale Hotel recently. "When we checked out, we were told there were no charges so we had a zero balance," he remembers. But when he returned home after a cruise vacation, he found an unwelcome surprise on his credit card statement: a $57 charge. "It took two days to get through to the accounts payable department," he says. "They said we used the minibar."
The hotel only removed the charges after he proved it couldn't have been him. How? Garnar had turned down the minibar key when he checked in.
This shouldn't be happening, of course. The latest hotel accounting systems let you see your room charges in real time, often from your TV screen. There's no reason the bill that's slipped under the door on the morning of your checkout shouldn't include all of your charges, with the possible exception of your breakfast check. "It should be your final bill," says Robert Mandelbaum, a hotel expert with PKF Consulting.
I contacted several hotel chains to find out about their policy on late charges, including Marriott (which owns the Renaissance) and W Hotels. Only one of the major hotels, InterContinental, bothered to respond. My favorite non-answer came from W, where a spokeswoman told me that, "because of transitions in the company, we don't have an appropriate spokesperson to speak on this topic right now."
Oh, too bad.
Here's what InterContinental, which owns the Crowne Plaza, Holiday Inn and Staybridge Suites brands, had to say about late billing. It's rare, and usually only happens when guests choose the express checkout option -- that's where the bill is slipped under your door on the day of checkout. If you bill something to your room after 3 a.m., chances are you'll get a late charge.
Normally, guests aren't notified about the charges, because they've agreed to them as part of the terms of their express checkout. But when there's a significant additional fee, a hotel typically notifies travelers before billing them. What if they disagree with the bill? Contact the hotel and tell a representative you have a problem with the charge, recommends InterContinental spokesman Brad Minor.
"Our hotels value their guests and we want to make sure guests are satisfied with all aspects of their stay," he says.
I'm pretty confident that the other hotels would have said more or less the same thing. But guests don't necessarily agree with that. After I posted Richards' story on my blog, I received a firestorm of comments accusing the hotels of deliberately charging guests after their stay, in the hopes that they wouldn't notice. InterContinental says that's not how it works.
It doesn't really matter. What matters is that you, the guest, don't get socked with a surprise charge on your credit card days or weeks after your vacation. Here are three excuses hotels use for separating you from your money after you're long gone. You might hear some of these reasons articulated by a hotel employee -- other excuses are probably reserved for the privacy of the break room or the hotel's executive offices.
You sure you didn't take something from the minibar?
A vast majority of late checkout charges -- about 75 percent, according to Hanson -- are from those little refrigerators stocked with vastly overpriced snacks. Hotel minibars have become figurative traps that guests get stuck in. Often, they don't even know about it until it's too late. The newest minibars have sensors that charge your room the moment an item is moved. Here's a chilling first-person account of an unsuspecting guest falling into one of these traps at a Los Angeles hotel, courtesy of HotelChatter.
The solution? Don't accept the key to your minibar. If there's no key, ask to have the minibar (or goody-basket) removed. It's the only way to be sure.
But you checked out before we could charge you!
Unless you're talking about breakfast on the day you check out, this is an empty excuse. Remember, most hotel accounting systems are lightning-fast. The moment you sign your check for an activity or meal, your account is charged. Experts I spoke with say it's possible some charges can get stuck in the system. A good example is a hotel gift shop that for some reason still uses a paper system to handle room charges. But if a major charge shows up on your credit card, it's worth calling the hotel. If it took this long to get billed, can they be sure it's correct?
The solution? Review your bill before checking out to make sure nothing is missing. And check out your credit card bill after your stay to make sure nothing is added.
We didn't think you would notice
I have no proof -- no memos or transcripts of scheming hotel employees saying this -- except for scores of guest experiences that suggest this attitude is pervasive behind the front desk. For example, Eugene Santhin, who was a frequent business traveler from Mt. Laurel, New Jersey, before retiring, says he was often billed for water and minibar items that weren't consumed. "Many properties charged for breakfast when it was included in the room rate," he adds. To their credit, the hotels quickly removed the items when he protested. But it was the speed with which they did so that made him suspicious. Were they adding these extras to his bill, hoping he wouldn't notice? It's difficult to say for certain.
The solution? Pay attention! Your hotel may be trying to pull a fast one, despite its denials. Keep all of your receipts.
Not all late billings hurt hotel guests. Reader Kate Trabue remembers a recent stay at the InterContinental Sydney where she was hit with unexpected room charges after she checked out. "A call to the billing department got the charges reversed without a problem," she remembers. "The interesting part of this transaction was that because of the exchange rate, I was credited more dollars than the original charge."
(Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine. This column originally appeared on MSNBC.com. You can read more travel tips on his blog, elliott.org or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org).
© 2008 CHRISTOPHER ELLIOTT DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.
Wednesday, June 25, 2008
Top 10 smart vacations
Come home from your next trip relaxed and smarter. Where to learn Spanish, whitewater rafting, astrophysics and more...
Monday, June 16, 2008
First...the "important" stuff. Pictures! I've uploaded and identified a good percentage of the pictures we took during our trip to Mesa Verde National Park. It helped keeping a log as we stopped at each place. Just click this link and you'll be able to browse through them.
I'll touch on some of the incidentals first -- food and lodging. Unless you're camping, the only place to stay within the park is Far View Lodge. Most of the sights you'll want to view take about one or two hours to reach from the entrance of the park. There is only one entrance. We arrived the night before our planned visit and stayed in Cortez, Colorado, which is only a few miles from the entrance. If you don't want to stay at Far View Lodge and don't mind the long drive each day to see everything, Cortez has a lot of hotels. We stayed at the Holiday Inn Express (using up those free room rewards from my husband's business trips) and were able to take advantage of a great complimentary breakfast there. The breakfast room was fully stocked and constantly replenished.
Far View Lodge could be considered "rustic". It's rather like being in a mountain cabin, but much smaller. Each room has a refrigerator and microwave. The promised view from every room is somewhat misleading. Our view was of three trees right outside our back window (which leads to a narrow porch), but if you stood on the porch and leaned out you could see the landscape. Each morning we awoke to deer across the drive. The bathrooms are very small. The shower stall gives you enough room to turn around and that was about it. I didn't mind the lack of amenities -- no TV, no cell -- but for the price of the room I would have appreciated it if housekeeping would have cleaned...and not left the door wide open when they were done. Also, if you're planning to stay here, make your reservations early.
Food was a bit tricky the first night since we didn't know where everything was located. The hotel restaurant (The Metate Room) was very expensive. However, they do have a great breakfast buffet each morning for $9.50. The waitstaff was very plesant and the food wasn't bad, just expensive. We were pleased about the breakfast buffet because when we know we're going to be hiking all day we like to get off to a good start. And, of course, we always carry snacks with us. After the first night we discovered Spruce Tree Terrace at one of the other sights and were able to get great, quick food for a reasonable price. Far View Terrace (next door) also had a coffee bar with pastries and served lunch.
Some of the maps of the park and sights and the information provided (in person and online) were a little outdated, but we were still able to figure things out as we went along. You'll want to do a little prior planning before you go. Read thoroughly on their website. I will say that although the information indicates it is handicap accessible, I would question that. The trails down into the sights are very steep. Here's the link to Mesa Verde National Park.
You'll need tickets to go to three of the sights--Long House, Cliff Palace, and Balcony House. The cost is very, very reasonable--$3.00. Each one of these sights involves steep descents and ascents, climbing ladders, and narrow passages. It is strenous. Several other sights don't require tickets--Step House and Spruce Tree House. These don't have ladders but are still very steep.
Of the five places mentioned, we saw four. After doing these over two days I knew I wouldn't be able to climb a 32-foot ladder and 200 steep steps at Balcony House. I also drew the line at crawling down into a kiva with 10 other people at Spruce Tree House. That was too enclosed for me. My husband went down, but didn't stay there long.
It's difficult to say what impressed us the most. I will say that the Nordenskold Ruins were the most disappointing and I would recommend not doing this little 1.5 mile hike. We planned three days there and those days were filled. We planned in advance to see as much as we wanted to see and I have to say that we met those goals. Once we arrived we made a few adjustments, i.e., not going to Balcony House and also not going on the 2.5 mile hike to the Balcony House overlook or an equally long hike on the Petroglyh Trail.
There were three major areas to view, one of which is only accessible in the summer (Wetherhill Mesa). With the minor exception of our last day, the weather was very nice. We were also spoiled our first day visiting Long House by an extremely knowledgeable park ranger. She was amazingly informative and a pleasure to be around. We also ran into her as we toured the Step House. We were the last persons viewing that particular sight for the day and she was there to make sure all visitors were out safely. It was a pleasure to spend "private" time with this amazing woman. I was also pleased to see that she was huffing and puffing to get up those steep inclines just like me.
We discovered that of the 58,000 acres the park encompasses, 32,000 acres have burned in the last ten years. All of the wildfires were started by lightning strikes. The damage is still apparent and will be for all of our lifetimes. But the beauty of the area was still there. We also learned that the historical inhabitants of this area are no longer called Anasazi. They are now called Ancestral Puebloans. Apparently, Anasazi is a Navajo term and the inhabitants weren't Navajo. Also, though it's called Mesa Verde, the area isn't a mesa. A mesa has a slope on all four sides. This only had slopes on the south side and were technically called cuestas. The area was created millions of years ago by an inland sea.
There were a lot of people there, but it didn't feel crowded. The tours were never full. Some people dart in, see what they want and rush off. My husband and I like to take our time and explore, think about it all, and talk about the experience. We came home with little brochures from each place we visited and a ton of pictures.
Can you visit Mesa Verde? Well, there was a couple on one of the trails ahead of us. She had a pacemaker. He'd just had knee replacement surgery and indicated he wouldn't have been able to do it without new knees. Both made it down and up, slow but sure. There were a few places where it was a little too close to the edge for me, but I wasn't the only one who felt that way. All you do is step back. (I was more intimidated at the Grand Canyon.)
Mesa Verde was truly an amazing place. I would definitely recommend seeing it as circumstances allow. Small children probably wouldn't be a good fit here. Neither would people who get tired of exploring. An experience like this should be savored.
Here's the full list of what we visited:
Far View Sites
Mesa Top Loop and all overlooks associated with it
Nordenskold Ruin - disappointing
Spruce Tree House
Badger House Community
Mancos Valley Overlook
Montezuma Valley Overlook
Park Point Overlook
Kodak House Overlook
Sunday, May 25, 2008
The Living Desert is a combination zoo/museum, a nonprofit organization. The animals living there are ones unable to be reintroduced into the wild. Pathways wander from exhibit to exhibit where you'll find aviaries, gardens, a plant nursery, a wildlife hospital and conservation center. A map and various other information at The Living Desert website.
We took a lot of pictures and you can check them out at this link. Photos of The Living Desert
If you're planning a visit, remember this is in the Palm Springs area and it does get very, very hot during the late spring and in the summer. Plan accordingly. We were there the first weekend of May. Temperatures were in the mid-90s. Water fountains and restrooms conveniently located throughout the area. There are also several places to grab a bite to eat.
If you're not up to walking, there's a tram you can ride. Tickets are $12.00 per person. The tram makes frequent stops and one ticket gets you a ride all day. We purchased tickets at the recommendation of our daughter-in-law, but didn't use them. We like to walk and wander. But by the end of the day (and it was all day) we were feeling it. If you have children...take the tram.
It wasn't crowded the day we went, although the parking lot was full. We have no idea where all the people were, but we felt The Living Desert was laid out in such a nice flow that it handled the crowd without it being a crowd.
Animals living there are: zebra, giraffe, bighorn sheep, gazelle, ostrich, cheetah, mountain lion...we never did see the leopard. Because it was a hot day most of the animals were snoozing. I felt the coyotes and wolves were grossly overweight. We'd been warned that the mountain lion was aggressive. However, it was sound asleep the day we were there. Wires and plexiglass provide a barrier between it and humans. In 99% of the exhibits I felt there was enough protection...except when we got to the cheetah. No cage. No wires. No plexiglass. Just a short wall and a moat. I'm not a cheetah expert and I'm sure the people working there know what they're doing, but I still wasn't comfortable.
As you look through the pictures you'll notice rather quickly what held our attention the longest. You'll need to look very carefully at the pictures of the bighorn sheep. They are very well camouflaged. There are two sheep in most of the photos--male and female. The female didn't budge. The male finally stretched to his feet and gave us the beautiful skyline photo. I think he felt sorry for us.
Though we all might know how big these wild animals are, sometimes that information doesn't sink in until we see the animal in person. And so it was with the giraffes. There were three--a couple with a baby. The baby decided to come check out all the people watching. I was thinking, "Wow, they really are big." Then the mother came over the hill. Yep...WOW!
The golden eagle held our attention, too. You'll notice in some of the pictures it's holding something in its talon. It's a squeak toy. This eagle had been raised in captivity and didn't have the ability to hunt for itself. It was a beauty. Several great pictures here, but we could never catch it when its wings were spread.
My number one favorite exhibit was the model train display. This thing is huge with waterfalls, rivers, bridges, mountains...even the Grand Canyon. The trains are constantly running and make their depot stops. Very detail oriented. It made me want to come home and build a display for myself.
We thought we'd seen all we wanted to see. We didn't. There's Gecko Gulch and a petting corral, hands on fun for kids. There's a wilderness trail system with short, medium, and long hikes. There's the wildlife hospital and conservation center that gives presentations. There's a nursery where you can buy some of the plants that are on display. Lots of stuff to go back and see.
The Living Desert continues to grow. There are plans to expand its East African Savanna exhibit. If you're in the Palm Springs area during the fall, winter, and early spring, I would definitely recommend this as a place to see. Just make sure you plan for a full day.
Saturday, May 24, 2008
The Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve
Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden
Santa Barbara Botanic Garden
Santa Barbara, California
Theodore Payne Foundation Nursery Garden
Arroyo Seco-South Pasedena Woodland and Wildlife Park
South Pasadena, California
Audubon Center at Debs Park
Los Angeles, California
El Alisal, The Charles F. Lummis Home
Highland Park, California
The Water Conservation Garden
El Cajon, California
Enjoy the adventure!
Wednesday, May 21, 2008
Be ready to go on a moment's notice
My 2008 calendar could put me on the road for 90 days.
From the BCS Championship in New Orleans, Louisiana, to the Summer Olympics in Beijing, China; from the Final Four in San Antonio, Texas, to the U.S. Open in San Diego, California, travel is a part of my everyday life. Add in those unexpected trips -- like a day on Capitol Hill for the Roger Clemens hearings -- and you'll understand if I forget whether I'm coming or going!
But I wouldn't trade my job for anything, so I've found ways to make the travel process easier, regardless of where I'm going, how soon I need to leave, or what I have to do to get there.
Click on the above link to read the rest of the article.
Friday, May 16, 2008
Five common ticketing errors -- and how to avoid them
As far as mistakes go, the one Janet Gordon recently made didn't seem like a big deal. She booked an airline ticket from Toronto to London under the name "Jan."
Thursday, May 15, 2008
You'll need to click on the link to read it all.
For 10 years, Barbara's gut told her she needed to get a new doctor for her daughter, and for 10 years, she didn't listen, even as her daughter got sicker and sicker.
Friday, May 2, 2008
I try to book a flight as soon as my travel dates are firmed up. This sometimes gives you more options for arrival and departure times. Booking early also allows more seat selections for you. This is especially important to me since I suffer from motion sickness. I've discovered the ideal spot on the plane for me to lessen the effects. I also make sure I take two 24-hour Dramanine tablets prior to my departure. If I suspect I'm going to be doing other traveling during my stay (taxis, buses, boats -- okay, any moving vehicle), I'll continue to take the same dosage every day just in case.
I check in and print my boarding pass before I leave for the airport. This allows for great ease once you get to the airport. This is easy to do when you have access to your home computer, but you might find it just as easy when you are staying at a hotel since most hotels have business centers where you can do this too.
I always dress comfortably for the plane trip, and I always take a light jacket or sweater in the event I get cold (which is frequent and unpredictable). We are restricted to those small seats for hours and the last thing you want is to have your clothes confining you as well. Elastic waistbands are wise. Shoes and socks are wise. If you are wearing sandals, there is always the risk of something dropping on your foot, someone stepping on you... Let's face it...it's just not safe. You also want shoes that will help you walk the distance in the event you have a long hike from gate to gate or gate to baggage claim.
I also try to choose a layover airport I'm familiar with. This saves stress when you know where everything is. It's much easier when you have a general idea of where the gates, shuttle trams, restrooms, and your favored food places are located.
I no longer worry about wrinkles when I'm packing since every hotel does have or can provide an iron and ironing board (generally speaking). I've discovered the small, zippered travel bags are very handy for organizing your items inside the suitcase. I'm sure it makes it convenient for security as well since the inspectors don't have to wade through your loose clothing. I try to take only what I need. The problem is deciding what I need. :) I've also discontinued use of my hard-sided luggage. Zippered luggage is more lightweight and easier to keep secured. Few things are more scary than to see your hard-sided luggage rolling down the baggage claim conveyor with half the clothing hanging out because the inspectors couldn't latch it.
Wear a fanny pack on the plane and make sure it has items in it you might want access to so you don't have to drag out your carry on -- wallet, identification, breath mints, glasses, etc. Make sure your prescription medication is in your carry on. Find an under-the-seat carry-on that rolls. It'll save your body a lot of wear and tear.
I generally stick with one airline and I've signed up for their frequent flyer miles programs. Whenever I fly on any airline, I also sign up for these programs because you can never tell when you might collect enough miles for a free trip. The same goes for hotels in which you stay. If they are a chain, check to see if they have a rewards program. Sometimes you can transfer one program's reward points to another program. For instance, Hilton Honors Rewards to American Airlines.
Here are a few other tips:
Travelers' mantra: Pack light, pack light, pack light
Get the most out of your frequent flier miles
Surviving the red-eye flight
How to pack for a business trip
Monday, April 28, 2008
Using A Guide To Field Identification, Birds of North America, we determined this was a heron. Most probably an immature black-crowned night heron. While some people would think this is really an amazing discovery considering we live in the Southern California desert, our area is on a migratory bird path and we get a large number of birds fly through.
Shortly after the heron visited, a friend showed my husband a large raven's nest built in the garage of an abandoned house. The nest was huge and if you look carefully in the picture below, you'll see one chick. Look in the triangle formed by the three wood studs and you'll see the beak. The size of the nest is something I would equate with an eagle or hawk. The debris on the floor is fallout from the nest, or where the raven missed when building the nest.
If you are interested in identifying birds, the field guide I mentioned at the beginning of my post is a good start. It divides birds by category (i.e., waterfowl, raptors, song birds) and has colorful illustrations to assist with identification. I've used it for years and can generally identify a bird in under one minute. :) Yes, I am truly a nerd.
Friday, April 25, 2008
From the airplane looking down, the landscape was very pretty with rolling hills. Spring was just coming to the area (they'd had a hard winter). Daffodils lined the freeway. Tulips were blooming along some of the walkways as well. By the time I left a week later, more things were also starting to leaf and bud. Unfortunately, I was very poor at getting pictures.
There were many things I wanted to see in Pittsburgh, but I only had a part of one day. So, the Duquesne Incline I lusted after, the Carnegie Science Museum, and the Andy Warhol Museum all went unvisited by me. One day. I have to laugh because I can take one day and then some to go through a museum. :)
I've been to many cities in my life and I have to say that with perhaps one or two minor exceptions, everyone I interacted with in Pittsburgh was very, very nice, polite, and accommodating. This was especially pleasant considering the fact that ninety percent of the downtown area where I was is under renovation, including our hotel, Hilton-Pittsburgh. Though most of the staff was pleasant, I can't say they were very proficient or efficient. The rooms were small but nice, however, they were extremely laden with dust from the construction. Construction was occurring on all the floors and there was no getting away from it. The maids came by everyday, but the room was only semi-cleaned twice during my week-long stay. I looked under the bed once because I misplaced something, then wished I hadn't...looked under the bed, that is.
The hotel restaurant was overwhelmed by the number of guests. After the first night, the waitstaff begged guests to please go through the breakfast buffet because the kitchen couldn't handle the orders. Management was kind enough to give guests a coupon for $10 off food purchased there and also lowered the price on the breakfast from $17.50 to $13.50. They changed the regular lunch and dinner menu to a limited menu and again asked people to order from the buffet. The breakfast buffet was great, the dinner buffet not so much.
The minor exceptions to the very-nice-people comment were a custodian cursing in the bathroom that she'd be glad when we all left. And, honestly, I can't blame her for feeling the stress of 1,000+ guests at once. And the other exception was a staff member who also felt she should be given the conference giveaways the attendees were receiving. Very minor.
I have to say as well that wherever I went to eat in Pittsburgh, the food servings were HUGE! I also felt the prices weren't that bad either considering the portions. Here's a quick breakdown:
Cafe Promenade (Hilton Pittsburgh): Generally speaking, the food was great with large portions. In this case, however, it was a little high priced. They do have a cook who makes the best omelets I've ever had!
Primanti Brothers Restaurant: Their claim to fame is a sandwich piled with coleslaw and french fries, and it became a must-do for my friends. The place was packed and it was impossible for the seven of us to sit together (plus if you are not a smoker, there are no no-smoking areas). There were only two people working that night and they were overwhelmed with orders. Since I don't (and won't) eat french fries, I thought I'd be fairly safe with a salad. Wrong. They put french fries on the salad too. Price is good. Food is plentiful.
Costanza's: We were looking for someplace to eat mid-Saturday afternoon. After walking a couple of blocks and finding nothing, we happened upon a place called Costanza's. It looked like a restaurant/sports bar. Very nice staff. Food plentiful. Reasonable prices. I ordered a hot roast beef sandwich, but didn't care for it. In fact, I only managed a small bite before I asked the waiter to please take it away. I was willing to pay for it, but the waiter wouldn't hear of it. He definitely deserved a tip for his kindness and customer service and I gave him one. It's located on Market Square, but I couldn't find a website link for it.
Palomino: This was our last night in Pittsburgh. The hotel restaurant was again bogged down and we'd heard about this place so decided to give it a chance. Very nice staff. Nice restaurant. Good food. Nice portions. Perhaps a little high for a family of four, but great for one person or a couple. I'd definitely recommend this one. I understand this is a chain restaurant.
The airport also wasn't prepared for the mass of incoming and outgoing visitors. In addition to the Romantic Times Convention, Hiliary Clinton and Barrack Obama were there to campaign. Cabs were impossible to find. I ordered one for myself with the bell captain at the Hilton the night before my departure and had no problems.
All in all, my biggest doggone-it is the fact I didn't have time to see the sites I wanted to. If you are planning to visit Pittsburgh, give yourself a couple of days.
Monday, April 7, 2008
Archaeologists unearth 35,000-year-old tools in Australia
Kauai: Nature rules on Hawaii's Garden Isle
Dip in brainpower may follow drop in real power
A celebration of almost-great men
Saturday, April 5, 2008
Go wine tasting
Be a beach bum
So spring skiing
Ground yourself at a day spa
Raft a river
Cross-country ski in pure wilderness
Sleep by the sea
Escape to a very quiet island
Indulge your inner foodie
Get into the wild in style
You can read the details at: 10 Earth-Friendly Spring Flings
In the article you'll also find links to Sunset.com's Top 10 lakeside resorts and Top 10 secret coastal escapes.
Wednesday, April 2, 2008
The Joshua Tree National Park is presently a canvas of nature's artwork. The blooms started in the lower elevations with yellow flowers and then slowly crawled into the higher elevations. Yellow, purple, white, red-orange. Absolutely breath-taking. Of course the cactus are involved as well, bursting with magenta, yellow, and purple flowers. The ocotillo, which normally look like spiny, towering sticks, develops dark green leaves and red-orange flowers that the hummingbirds love.
The wildflowers are presently so abundant, a visitor to the desert might think the flowers had been purposefully planted along the roadways. Not true. This is nature at her finest moment. Seeds collect beneath the sand and lie dormant until the rains come. If the rains are heavy and the road floods, these seeds collect at the roadside.
But the present season is nothing compared to the 2005 season. Heavy rainfall from summer 2004 through winter 2005 created one of the best wildflower seasons in 100 years, with flowers and plants blooming that had not been seen in a century...according to records. We visited Death Valley National Park in the spring of 2004 and decided to go back in spring 2005. The difference was amazing. Hillsides were covered with flowers. It looked more like pastureland than desert.
I've uploaded a good selection of photos here of Death Valley National Park, Joshua Tree National Park, Black Canyon in the Mojave Wildlife Preserve, and some miscellaneous shots: Wildflowers - Southern California Desert
The California Wildflower Hotline (818-768-3533) is updated every Thursday from March through May on more than 90 sites to visit, including the best locations to view wildflowers.
I'd also like to recommend some field guides to take with you when you go. These will help you identify what you are looking at:
Mojave Desert Wildflowers by Jon Mark Stewart
Mojave Desert Wildflowers by Pam MacKay
Mockel's Desert Flower Notebook by Henry R. Mockel and Beverly Mockel
If you are visiting a National Park, it's always a good idea to stop at the visitor center to see what books they might have for their area. And don't forget to take lots of pictures, too.
Tuesday, March 25, 2008
I've climbed up and into few dormant volcanos -- Diamond Head and the Amboy Crater quickly come to mind -- and I'd love to be able to see Haleakala on Maui one day. Many years ago I had the pleasure of seeing the Kilauea volcano on the Big Island of Hawaii. Steam vents and lava tubes gave me a hint of what was to come, but the actual sight of the steaming volcano took my breath away with its prehistoric look and sheer size. This visit was before a large eruption that eventually blocked the road we'd taken.
There seems to be some recent activity at Kilauea, so I thought I'd share these two articles with you:
Hawaii volcano explodes for first time in 84 years
Kilauea Volcano Blows Plume Of Ash
Stubborn homeowners live by oozing volcano
Friday, March 21, 2008
It's a two-story brick townhouse south of Chicago that pays homage to -- yes, the 1950s.
Thursday, March 20, 2008
I thought this was amazing. It just help prove the wealth of discoveries the Earth contains:
Giant sea creatures found in Antarctic search
The March/April 2008 issue of Westways Magazine has an interesting article about Old Edna, a 100-year-old, two-acre town site in San Luis Obispo County, California. It's owned by a couple, Pattea Torrence and her husband, Jeff Kocan. The town was founded in the 1800s and had all the places one would expect to find in a town of that era -- mercantile, blacksmith, butcher, saloon, and dance hall. The present owners are restoring Old Edna. Now a visitor will find a gourmet deli/cafe and a bed-and-breakfast.
Wednesday, March 19, 2008
Our first stop was the Portland Classical Chinese Gardens. It was beautiful and serene. Winding walkways and foliage-draped portals beckoned you further inside and around the 8,000 square foot lake in the center. Lacy trees dipped toward the water. Everything was blooming. The rock formations and waterfalls, the quiet atmosphere and buildings made you feel like you'd been transported to another realm. An extra treat was a small Dinosaur Exhibit (going on from March 1 to May 21, 2008).
I actually managed to take some pictures while I was there. Author Adrianna Dane also has some great shots. Here are links to our respective photos on flickr:
Caitlyn's Photos From The Chinese Gardens
Adrianna'a Photos From The Chinese Gardens
Lunch was at Old Town Pizza, reported to be haunted by a young "working woman" named Nina who'd been thrown down the elevator shaft 100 years ago. Old Town Pizza sits in the original hotel lobby of the Merchant Hotel. A warren of rooms snakes through the place. The interior was darkened yet rich with color, too. Wooden floors creaked with every step and it was easy to imagine it being haunted when workers walked on the floor above us. And the ladies room...words can't describe the feeling. I'm not sure if I felt claustrophobic or if I time-traveled back to the late 1960s. The walls were completely decoupaged with magazine articles from that era. Our lunch was excellent (salads and paninis for all) and there was plenty of it for a reasonable price. The batteries in my camera had given up the ghost (yes, bad pun under the circumstances), but Adrianna was prepared and took some excellent photos (Adrianna's Old Town Pizza photos).
The last stop of the day was a trip to Powell's City of Books. This huge bookstore fills one city block and I believe it is several stories high. They also have a coffee shop. In the two hours we were there, I spent an hour-and-a-half in the children's section alone. The rest of the time I made quick run-bys to other sections to search for books on certain subjects. The staff there is very knowledgeable. If you request information on a book, they know exactly what you want and where it is. Often you didn't even need to ask. They'd come up to you and ask to help. Sometimes they'll stop what they're doing and get it for you. If you love books and you ever have the chance to go to Portland, put this on your must-see list.
Tuesday, March 18, 2008
For years I've shared tidbits of desert life, my adventures, and general "nerd" information on my monthly author newsletter loop . My plan is for this blog to augment that fun information with more that comes my way and in a more timely fashion.
So...without further ado, here are a few interesting articles I've discovered in the last several days. I've been dying to share them! (Yes, once a nerd, always a nerd.)
Many of us have been fascinated with dinosaurs since before we were in grade school. The discoveries being made have grown by leaps and bounds since I was a child. The dedication involved in bringing these discoveries to their full scientific potential is astounding. Workers have been picking away at this particular find since 2004.
Mummified dinosaur unearthed in North Dakota
Speaking of digs...
Pre-Inca temple uncovered in Peru
I've always been loved reading about the Maya, Aztec, Inca, and Olmec cultures. I've researched these ancient civilizations extensively and have even used my research as the backdrop for some of my books. (Feather on the Wind writing as Catherine Snodgrass and Into The Lair writing as Caitlyn Willows.) Anytime I see an article about any of them, I have to stop what I'm doing and read it right away.
And now, for the diggest natural dig of all...
Beavers, sheep explore sand bars Grand Canyon left by Grand Canyon flood
This was a planned flood to rebuild beaches along the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon. We had the pleasure of going there a couple of years ago. Unfortunately, we didn't take the digital camera with us. (We had every other camera in the world there, but no digital.) So I presently have no photo links of my own to share with you. It was beautiful. It was deep. And we were completely unprepared for the higher altitude. But we explored a lot, even dared walking a quarter mile into the canyon just to say we went in it. We had a great time. However, I'm extremely afraid of heights and had a few problems close to the edge, even with railing. I understand there's a sky bridge over a portion of the canyon now. That's definitely something you won't catch me on.