Friday, December 23, 2011

Tips for flying next to a crying baby

Flight VX 882 - mood lighting doesn't help when a baby's crying
Happy Holidays. It's that time of year when adults without children find out how loud a crying baby can be.  And passengers with grown children suffer wailing baby flashbacks.

Last summer on a Virgin America flight to Dallas, I learned that mood lighting doesn't help if five babies are onboard, and three are crying.

Last night on Flight 882 from LAX to DFW, I spent the first hour of the flight annoyed about the restless toddler who keep touching me and my belongings.  His Mom kept failing to keep him out of "my space."  Initially, I tried to block out his noise by cranking up the sound in my headphones, while praying the flight attendants would give him food, drink or a sedative to quiet him down.

But the minute I engaged his Mom in conversation, my anger dissipated.   Her two-year old son was named Landon.  That morning her husband and young Landon's Daddy had shipped out to Afghanistan.  She fought back tears as she told me that this was his first deployment since they had started their family.  Although she blamed Landon for misbehaving, I think he was picking up on his Mom's distress about his Daddy.

At that point I looked at little Landon and realized he was essentially spending the flight as a human carryon with no seat to call his own.  He preferred the floor to his Mommy's lap.   She paid $8 for him to watch "Cars" and ordered a meal hoping to get him to settle down.

Our flight initially encountered turbulence, so in-flight service seemed to get a late start.  When his Mom rang a flight attendant to ask about the meal she had ordered for her son, the flight attendant said they would get to him soon.   Although she was pleasant, she didn't grasp the fact that the kid might calm down and stop making so much noise if he received food and drink.

I finally got up, walked up the aisle and asked for some apple juice for the kid next to me.  The flight attendant quickly poured it for me, and it seemed to settle Landon down a bit.  It was another 10 to 15 minutes before his meal arrived.

I wish Virgin America's RED entertainment system let parents note urgency for food.  Since she ordered a kid's meal, you would think that the flight crew might realize the kid's meal might be for a noisy child.

If you're flying over the holidays and sit next to a young child, I'd recommend engaging the kid or the parent so that you may feel compassion rather than annoyance if wails break out in flight.

I hope all the airlines will consider serving kids food and drink first, so that all the passengers can have a more peaceful, quieter flight.

My only baby pictures tend to be snapped at zoos, since I live with two quiet cats.
Pictured: Jamie, a giraffe born at the Dallas Zoo last summer. (Photographs: Terry Gardner)

Disclosure: My flight to Dallas last night was complimentary.  I'll be flying back on Southwest to write a comparison piece about flying both to/from Dallas. 

Thursday, December 22, 2011

San Francisco: 49 Hours is not enough - Part II

Beyond seeing glorious drag queens, gingerbread houses and enjoying the San Francisco Symphony, I met a few animals in San Francisco: the furry kind at Macy's SF SPCA adoption, chocovores (and chocoholics) on a Gourmet Food Walk and merry makers on a caroling cable car.  These are just a few of San Francisco Travel's 49 holiday things to do

Macy's helps the SF SPCA find dogs and cats homes for the holiday

Macy's SF SPCA Adoption window at its Market Street location
As of Dec. 15, 195 cats and dogs had been adopted since Thanksgiving.

Paisley is a puppy that is up for adoption.

As of Monday, Dec. 19, 224 dogs and cats have been adopted.  This is the 25th year the SF SPCA has offered holiday pet adoptions from Thanksgiving through New Year's Day.  Krista Maloney, a spokesperson for the SF SPCA, told me that it's the seventh or eighth year that Macy's has generously offered window and floor space to help pets find homes.

If you're visiting San Francisco and don't have a home to offer, Maloney says that they are still looking for volunteers to help out -- especially between Dec. 26 and New Year's Day.  "Volunteering involves collecting donations and greeting the public, and shifts are only about two hours each," says Maloney.  For more info, visit:

This kitty needs a home in the Bay Area.  (I encouraged my friend, Dick Jordan,
to adopt a canine or feline, but his cat rules a one cat household.

Gourmet Food Walks or walking for chocolate (and other treats)

We sampled three delicacies from Recchiuti Confections in the Ferry Building

Although I went on a Gourmet Chocolate Tour during my holiday visit,  the chocolate tour is available year round from Gourmet Walks.  Over the three hour tour, I learned about the painstaking labor involved in growing and harvesting the fruit of the cocoa tree and was offered more samples of chocolate than I could eat.  You also have opportunities to buy chocolate during the tour, and many of the vendors offer Gourmet Walks guests a 10% discount.  I bought some tasting samples to give my family a chance to have a chocolate experience over Christmas.  

Until I took the tour with Nicole, I never had any idea that tasting chocolate could be as complex as wine tasting. . . without the hangover.  (Since I was sampling chocolate confections that are at least 70% chocolate, I didn't experience any sugar hangover.  In contrast, a Hershey's bar or common chocolate bar usually contains 10% chocolate and 90% sugar.)  

The next time you unwrap a piece of gourmet chocolate, look at it, sniff it, snap it (unless it's a truffle) then taste it.  It helps if you inhale as you are tasting the chocolate.  I hope to edit and post video from my lesson soon.

During the holidays, Gourmet Walks has a Holiday Lights and Chocolate Tour that includes tea with macaroons.  Throughout the year, Gourmet Walks not only offers chocolate tours but foodie tours in Japan Town and downtown Napa.   My chocolate tour began at the Embarcadero and ended at Union Square. 

A foodie tour is a great way to see the city while you educate your palate, delight your tastebuds and tighten your waistband.  

At Leonidas, we sipped Belgium hot chocolate followed by a tasty sample.

Classic Cable Car Holiday Lights Tour

Although I only had a chance to do an abbreviated version of this, it's great fun to hear Christmas carols while seeing the holiday lights of San Francisco from a cable car.

The carolers I met were very friendly.  Happy Holidays!

Monday, December 19, 2011

Hey, San Francisco, 49 Hours isn't nearly enough - Part 1

You can be a good skate at the Holiday Ice Rink Embarcadero Center
(Activity #11 - open thru Jan. 8, 2012) (Photos: Terry Gardner)

San Francisco is happening for the holidays.  In a two and a half days last week, I barely scratched the surface of 49 holiday things to do.  Here are highlights from several Activities I checked out during my brief visit.

Only in San Francisco - a night with drag queens followed by an evening at the Symphony

L to R: Manuel Caneri (Diego), Pollo Del Mar (Rose), Cookie Dough (Sophia),
Heklina (Dorothy), Matthew Martin (Blanche) & Laurie Bushman (Clayton)

Activity #13 - Revisit the "Golden Girls" as they are re-imagined in a high camp, "all drag" extravaganza at the Victoria Theatre, 2961 16th Street. Heklina plays Dorothy (the Bea Arthur role) in this special presentation of two "Golden Girls" episodes.  Most of the audience had seen the "queens" present the Golden Girls last Christmas.  And theatre is usually fun when you get to drink beer or wine during the show.  On December 22, local San Francisco celebrity, Jan Wahl, will have a cameo appearance.  Her hat has yet to be announced.  The last two shows are Dec. 22 and 23 at 8:00 p.m.  Advance tickets are sold out, but you may be able to get a last minute cash ticket at the door.

Exterior of Davis Symphony Hall

Activity #18 - Davis Symphony Hall - After spending the previous night with men who are more comfortable in high heels than I am, Davis Symphony Hall was quite a contrast.  Instead of seeing queens, visions of angels danced in my head.  After trying to see as much of San Francisco as possible that day, it was soothing to listen to the strings of of the San Francisco Symphony accompanying the San Francisco Chorale as they performed Handel's "Messiah."  The Symphony turned 100 this year, and a hearing a concert in Davis Hall was definitely a highlight of my trip.

Although you'll have to wait until next year to hear Handel's "Messiah," there is a Christmas carol sing-a-long this week ("Twas the Night") and a New Year's Eve Masquerade ball.

We parked across from City Hall for the Symphony.
The Ferry Building glows red at night during the holiday season.

San Francisco Hotels offer houses of Gingerbread, a Castle of Sugar or Snow Thrice daily 
(Activities 16, 29, 31 and 35)

 Fairmont San Francisco

The Fairmont San Francisco boasts a full size
Gingerbread House during the holidays (Activity #16)

The Palace San Francisco

The Palace Gingerbread competition included Gumps, the Four Sisters Houses, the Golden Gate Bridge, Elvis and Hound dogs, the Farmers Market and more (voting is activity #29)

Carolers may sing while you dine in the Garden Court at the Palace
For more details on the Palace, please visit my earlier post about my stay at the Palace along with a Palatial holiday post by my travel writing colleague, Dick Jordan, on his Tales Told from the Road blog.

The Westin St. Francis

The Westin St. Francis boasts San Francisco's largest holiday sugar castle.
It weighs over 1,200 pounds (Activity #31)

The Hyatt Regency San Francisco

Hyatt Regency San Francisco has snow fall three times a day during the holidays (Activity 35). 
I didn't get to see any snow while I was there learning about chocolate on a Gourmet Food Tour. 

Stay tuned for Part II - SF SPCA Pet adoptions, a gourmet chocolate tour and more.

Yosemite: Bracebridge Dinner, a spectacular feast and pageant

Bringing in the Peacock pie (actually a delicious pheasant dish).
All photographs courtesy of LaniSpicer/Andrea Fulton Productions.

Last Tuesday night, I attended opening night of the Bracebridge Dinner at the Ahwahnee.  This year marks the 85th annual presentation of Bracebridge.

Bracebridge cast with Squire Bracebridge (Michael McCarty) center

The beautiful and historic Ahwahnee hotel opened in 1927, and the Bracebridge dinner was created to attract visitors to Yosemite in Winter.

The hotel's restaurant is transformed into a 17th Century manor in which Squire Bracebridge invites guests to celebrate a seven-course holiday feast with his family.  From 1929 to 1973, famed photographer Ansel Adams directed the Bracebridge Dinner (most often appearing as the Major Domo or a mute jester).  Eugene and Anna-Marie Fulton directed the show from 1973 to 1978, after which time their daughter, Andrea Fulton, inherited the mantle of director and producer.  At age 5, she made her theatrical debut in Bracebridge, and it has been a part of her life ever since.  2011 marks her 29th year as Bracebridge's producer and director.  Fulton also plays the leading role of the Housekeeper, the best dressed, most commanding housekeeper that I've ever seen.  She kept the hilarious Jester (or Lord of Misrule) in check, which is challenging to do.

Andrea Fulton as the Housekeeper singing with Chef Pierre (Pedro Rodelas)

The show is cast in May; rehearsals begin in the fall in the San Francisco Bay area and they assemble in December just prior to their first performance.  Fulton said many of the cast members are professional opera singers.

Removing the Jester (Johannes Mager) is not an easy task.

Several guests told me that they had attended Bracebridge more than once.  Now that there are eight performances, there is no longer a ticket lottery.  Prior to 2001, people often waited years for their number to come up.  Everyone dresses up in their finest duds to attend the seven course feast and pageant.

Remaining 2011 performances: December 20, 22, 24 and 25.  Dinner seating begins at 6:00 p.m. and the performance begins at 6:30 p.m.  Dinner only tickets (which include tax and tip) cost $425.  Most people I met opt for a package that includes a one or two-night stay at the Ahwahnee, Yosemite Lodge at the Falls or the Wawona Hotel.  The package also includes a group photo to commemorate the Bracebridge experience.  (Photo sittings take place between 3-6 p.m. on the night you attend the dinner.)

Info: Bracebridge dinner, (801) 559-4884.

And if you can't make it to Yosemite before Christmas, the Ahwahnee offers Chef's Holidays sessions in January.

The Ahwahnee in Winter (photo: Terry Gardner)

[Disclosure:  I attended the Bracebridge dinner and stayed at the Ahwahnee as a journalist on a press trip].

San Francisco: Sleeping like a royal at the Palace Hotel

I went to San Francisco to absorb some holiday spirit San Francisco style.  I slept like a queen at the Palace Hotel in a double bed that I hated to leave behind.  My bed's allergy-free comforter and pillows were heavenly.  (I wonder if Tony Bennett ever sang "I left my bed in San Francisco" following a stay here.)

Room 805 at the Palace Hotel
 (All photographs by Terry Gardner)

Opening in 1875, by the time the Palace turned 31, Oscar Wilde and presidents Benjamin Harrison, William McKinley, Teddy Roosevelt and Ulysses S. Grant had slept there. Actress Sarah Bernhardt checked in with her baby tiger.   I had written about the Palace last December for the Los Angeles Times in a story about Grand old California hotels.  (The original Palace burned in the San Francisco fire which followed the 1906 earthquake.  The new Palace opened in 1909.)

Swimming at the Palace was my #1 San Francisco holiday activity.  The Palace has an  indoor heated lap pool on the fourth floor, which was added in 1989 when the hotel was restored and updated.   Except for Saturday morning, I had the pool and jacuzzi to myself between 8 and 9 a.m.  I may not have slept in the Presidential Suite, but I felt like a VIP enjoying an amenity that neither Winston Churchill or Mark Twain were able to enjoy.

The lap pool is heated at just the right temperature
unlike some heated pools where it feels like you're swimming in bath water.

Free historic tours of the Palace are offered on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.  The tour can also be booked with a prix fixe lunch at the Garden Court for $25.  (Reservations are required: (415) 546-5089.)

Here are some photographic highlights from my stay at the Palace.  

The Palace exterior, decked out for the holidays
Visitors judging gingerbread competition

Gumps gingerbread house pictured

L to R: Hound dog Christmas, Farmers Market and
Gingerbread House with Reindeer that bring vino.

 I not only voted for the Best Gingerbread House at the Palace, I fell hard for the Bloody Mary's served at both the Garden Court restaurant and the famed Pied Piper bar (noted for its "Mad Men" style Martinis). 

Hopefully, it was the flash and not the Bloody Mary that turned my eyes red!
The Maxfield Parish "Pied Piper of Hamlin" painting is well worth a toast or two.
My waitress snapped this.

Next up, a look at my  49-plus hours in San Francisco.

[Disclosure: my stay was complimentary at the Palace, but I was responsible for all meals, internet charges, etc.]

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Three Stocking Stuffers for Travelers

Here are three small gifts for travelers to keep screens clean, to make carry-on liquids a breeze and to protect electronics from water.  All three products were developed in America to solve a problem.

Toddy Cloth from ($9.99)

Go-Go Toddy Smart Cloth
Whether your traveler sports an iPhone or an Android, unless their fingers are oil-free, their smart phone is bound to sport fingerprints or smudges most of the time.  The Toddy Cloth is designed to wipe those smudges off and keep touch screens clean.  The cloth offers double-sided cleaning with a plush anti-microbial coating to clean and a silk side to polish.  It's machine washable too.  I tested a 5x7" Go-Go cloth that sells for $9.99.  The larger 9x9" size costs three to five dollars more. has a holiday 3-for-2 special (buy two cloths and get the third one free).  BestBuy, Amazon and Target also sell the Toddy Cloth.

Brincatti Travel Kit with wide-mouthed refillable bottles

Since I reviewed the Brincatti Travel Kit for the Chicago Tribune in 2010, Los Angeles entrepreneur, Ken Brincatti has improved the plastic bag to make it more flexible and also redesigned the flip top on the refillable bottles.  I typically use two of the bottles supplied then use the extra space to cram foundation, mascara, eyedrops and assorted small liquid containers into the Brincatti Travel Bag.  The improved malleability of the plastic bag let me squeeze in more items without causing the bag to pop open during TSA screening.  And I like having a reusable plastic bag so that I'm not creating plastic waste traveling with disposable baggies all over the world.  If you need to stuff more than a stocking for a traveler, Brincatti has is currently bundling two travel kits and four spray bottles for $29.95 (plus shipping and handling).


SPLASHSAK (comes with two plastic waterproof bags)

This summer my iPhone 3GS bit the dust on a ferry between Saba and St. Maarten, so I learned the hard way to protect my phone in something waterproof when I'm on the water or out in pouring rain. I just had my phone in the pocket of my slicker.  It was raining and I ended up soaked despite the slicker because I got seasick when I was inside the stuffy ferry cabin.  Pelican and Otterbox make excellent protective cases too, but the LOKSAK allows you to still make a call with your phone or utilize its apps.  Most waterproof cases limit you to listening to music.  If you only want a plastic protective LOKSAK, a three pack aLOKSAK IT may be your best bet (price varies based on size).  LOKSAK products are also available from Amazon and REI.

(Photos courtesy of manufacturers.)

Monday, December 5, 2011

San Francisco: Hyatt holiday Symphony deal

San Francisco Symphony turns 100. Photographer: Chris Wahlberg

Hyatt San Francisco is helping the San Francisco Symphony celebrate its 100th birthday with a special holiday package through Dec. 31.

The deal: The San Francisco Hyatt for the Holidays at the Symphony “Amour Package” includes a 25% discount on holiday season Symphony concert tickets; a reduced room rate and package amenities of breakfast for two, Champagne and strawberries and a 2:00 p.m. late checkout (valued at $78).  If booking online, enter offer code: SYM100; by phone request the “Symphony Amour package.”

Although the deal is available at four Hyatts, I tested availability at the Hyatt Regency at Embarcadero Center, due to its proximity to Davies Symphony Hall at the Civic Center.  The deal is also available at Hyatt at Fisherman’s Wharf, Grand Hyatt (on Stockton St.) and the Hyatt Regency at SFO.  Davies Symphony Hall is easily accessible via  BART trains and MUNI buses from all four Hyatts.

Davies Symphony Hall decked out for the holidays. Photographer: Chris Wahl

Tested:    The deal was not available on Dec. 13 and 14, but seemed widely available on other December dates.  Friday through Sunday night stays seemed significantly less expensive, priced closer to $200 per night rather than $300+.  On Dec. 17, the “SYM100” package cost $219 versus $169 for the Hyatt Daily Rate, so you are paying $40 for the package’s amenities.  On December 17, the Symphony is performing Handel’s “Messiah” at 7:30 p.m.  (Tickets cost $30-$135, so your 25% discount could save you about $31 on a $135 ticket.)  

Caveat:  When I called Hyatt Central Reservations twice to test this deal, one reservation specialist couldn’t find it and the other could, so I’m recommending you book directly online or call the specific Hyatt where you want to stay.  The phone number of the Hyatt Regency/Embarcadero is listed below.

Info:  Hyatt Regency (Embarcadero), (415) 788-1234. Use code “SYM100” to book online or by phone. If calling, they also call the deal “Hyatt for the Holidays at the Symphony.”

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Iberia Airlines has great flight simulator facilities at its headquarters in Madrid.  I was able to sit in the co-pilot seat of a simulator but they didn't let me press any buttons.  Here are some photos from that visit.

Look, Ma, I'm flying hands-free.

View of the runway from the cockpit of the flight simulator