Archive for July, 2009

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Business-Class Bargains for Overseas Travelers

Thursday, July 30th, 2009

FROM the airlines’ point of view, these are tough times for premium overseas travel. In May, according to the International Air Transport Association, global demand for business- and first-class seats was down over 26 percent from May 2008. It was the 12th consecutive month of year-on-year declines in demand for those premium seats, which at one time were a gold mine for airlines.

But a crisis for airlines has also created opportunities for business travelers bound overseas and determined to make the trip in productive comfort (lots of space to work in and those cushy lie-flat beds to rest in, for example) — without buying a ticket that can cost as much as a good used car.

With a degree of flexibility in travel plans, you can now fly overseas in business class for a fraction of what it used to cost. Airlines started introducing spot fare sales for international premium seats last fall when demand fell in a deteriorating economy. Now, as conditions have worsened, airlines seem to be settling into a basic restructuring of international premium-class fares that resembles the way airlines have long priced leisure fares in the back of the plane.

“I don’t know even what counts as a sale anymore,” said Joe Brancatelli, who publishes, a subscription Web site for business travelers. “Airlines are now yield-managing fares up front like they do in the back. It’s looking like a permanent sale environment.”

Airlines adopted yield-management strategies in the 1980s to sell coach seats efficiently. Yield management assumes that airline seats are perishable and can be marked at fluctuating prices based on calculations for demand, starting months in advance and continuing until the time the plane takes off.

Because of reductions in corporate spending, business travelers have begun behaving more and more like leisure travelers, eschewing immediate convenience for lower prices — even in the international premium niche.

I can’t begin to summarize the current discount fare environment. But here are a few current and arbitrarily chosen examples. Contemplating a business trip to Shanghai? With a little flexibility, you can travel in luxury and sleep in a lie-flat bed. Air Canada has a sale in which a first-class ticket between Los Angeles and Shanghai is available for less than $3,500. A year ago, a traveler could have easily paid over $15,000 on various airlines for that ticket.

Business class from New York to London? For the British Airways swanky Club World cabin, that will be about $2,544 round trip for late summer travel, with an advance purchase. The walk-up fare for Club World on that route used to be about $11,000 and is still about $7,500.

New York to Amsterdam? On the mostly business-class planes operated by OpenSkies, a British Airways subsidiary, the summer fare is about $1,300, round trip.

As always, you need to check individual airline Web sites for the fine print on advance purchase restrictions and fees.

Or, given the current free-for-all in high-end fares, you may even want to consult with a real live travel agent. That’s because finding the right premium fares at the right time has become cumbersome even for business travelers who used to book travel themselves in a less frantic environment.

“We all know the airlines are reducing capacity, but that’s going to take time,” said Fran Kramer, who specializes in international bookings for DePrez Travel, a big agency in Rochester with clients all over the country. “While they do that and figure out what works,” she added, “there are certainly a lot of opportunities” for finding major fare discounts on international premium travel.

Ms. Kramer said that airlines, desperate for whatever revenue they can get, sometimes reach out to agents with last-minute offers for premium seats that are unsold, even at promotional fares, just before a flight. “Yesterday, we got a call 24 hours in advance offering my client the option to go to Europe in business class for $500 extra,” she said.

Airlines can’t continue losing money indefinitely, but they’re still flying those fancy cabins overseas. So big discounts on premium travel will continue until supply can be brought into some profitable relationship with demand. Even then, those stunning $11,000 round-trip business-class fares between, say, New York and London may be a thing of the past.

Airline executives have been looking ahead with reduced expectations.

“This industry can always reduce prices,” said Willie Walsh, the chief executive officer of British Airways. “The challenge now is, can you adjust your cost base to reflect that different price point, or ideally can you take the costs out quicker than the prices are going down?”


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Delta enhancing frequent-flier program

Thursday, July 30th, 2009

ATLANTA – Delta Air Lines Inc. is taking a page from the cell phone industry and will be allowing elite frequent fliers to roll over miles earned above their qualification status in a given year so they have an easier time maintaining that status or improving to a higher one the next year.

The world’s biggest airline operator planned to announce Tuesday enhancements to its SkyMiles Medallion program that will go into effect over the next nine months.

The changes come at a time of weak demand in the airline industry amid the recession. Business travel, in particular, has been in a slump, and giving extra advantages to elite frequent fliers could be one way to lure in more business travelers.

Atlanta-based Delta has three elite frequent flier statuses — silver, gold and platinum — and will be adding a fourth, diamond. Customers reach those levels by flying a lot — you reach the lowest level after flying 30 segments in a year — and in return they get extra benefits like priority boarding, waived checked bag fees and free upgrades.

Now, Delta says it will allow customers to retain any Medallion qualification miles earned above a Medallion threshold at the end of the year, supplementing the ability to earn status the following year. For example, should a member accrue 40,000 Medallion qualification miles in one calendar year, the 15,000 Medallion qualification miles that exceed the 25,000 threshold for silver status will be rolled over to the following year.

Delta said there is no limit to the number of miles rolled over, and the benefit takes effect immediately.

The rollover idea is similar to one offered for several years to some AT&T cell phone customers, who can roll over unused minutes in certain plans to the following month.

Among other changes coming from Delta:

_The new diamond level for flyers who earn 125,000 MQMs or fly 140 segments per calendar year will include a complimentary Delta Sky Club membership, among other benefits.

_Diamond, platinum and gold Medallion members will have ticketing fees waived for all bookings, whether completed by phone, online or in person.

By HARRY R. WEBER, AP Airlines Writer Harry R. Weber, Ap Airlines Writer

Article from YahooNews

Scranton welcomes fans of ‘The Office’

Thursday, July 30th, 2009
The Mall at Steamtown, the Penn Paper building and sights along Mifflin Avenue in Scranton, Pa., might not seem like traditional tourist draws. Nor, for that matter, does Scranton itself rank high on the list of must-sees before you die.

But that was before the mockumentary television series, The Office, became an Emmy award winning hit. And so on the hunch that no detail is too minute and no site too mundane for diehard fans of the set-in-Scranton show, a group of locals has launched weekly Office Fan Tour tours. The tours visit spots mentioned in the show and tie in local history and Office trivia.

More than 60 fans showed up last Saturday to pose for photos in front of the Scranton Welcomes You sign featured in the show’s opening montage. They dined on beet salad at Coopers Seafood House and dropped by Poor Richard’s Pub for a cold Yuengling. Both spots are among the hangouts for employees of the fictional office supply company, Dunder Mifflin.

Saturday’s record turnout was, no doubt, due to the presence of Melora Hardin, the actress who plays Jan Levinson on the show. She was in town promoting her new movie, You, and hung out at the mall with the tour group. (Bobby Ray Shafer, who plays Bob Vance, is scheduled to accompany Saturday’s tour, and organizers hint that other cast members may follow.) The four-hour tours are led by students from the University of Scranton.

The city hosted an Office convention in 2007, which drew cast members and writers for the show and 15,000 attendees over three days. But until the tours began in June, Scranton hadn’t attempted to capitalize on its notoriety with any regularity, even though city officials were aware that fans were trickling into town. In fact, so many visitors were jumping out of their cars to pose by the Scranton Welcomes You sign on the busy Central Scranton Expressway, the sign was re-located to the Mall at Steamtown.

Entire Article: USAToday

Haut-Var, France: Plunge into Provence

Wednesday, July 29th, 2009
The Gorges du Verdon offer a remote and spectacular respite from the region’s tawdry tourist fare, says Charles Starmer-Smith.

The peak summer period sees much of Provence become a Peter Mayle-inspired theme park, but the hilltop villages of the Haut-Var still offer the kind of life that people craved long before the writer left his mark on the region.

So forget the tourist-heavy towns of Aix, Avignon and Arles and the fleshpot beaches of Porquerolles. Head instead for the hills to the east, to the lesser known villages of Tourtour, Moustiers, Sillans-la-Cascade, Aups, Bargemon and beyond.

Here, with Britons and Americans turning their backs on the Continent because of the expensive euro, tourists remain a sideshow. Boules tournaments, truffle-hunting and Le Tour are still the talk of the town. Rather than the worst tourist tat, the bustling markets are filled with the best local produce – rough-cut cheeses, misshapen sausages, aromatic herbs and lavender soap, as well as freshly baked baguettes, honey and crisp rosé wine.

Old men can still sup pastis in the local cafés in relative peace before retiring to the shade of the tree-lined squares.

The forested hills may not boast the classic Monet scenes of dilapidated farmhouses and fields of poppies that you find around Aix, but by the time you have followed the hairpin roads to the top of the glacier-blue Gorges du Verdon, and peered down into Europe’s answer to the Grand Canyon, you really won’t care.

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Tourists remain a sideshow in the villages of Tourtour, Moustiers (pictured), Sillans-la-Cascade, Aups and Bargemon Photo: GETTY

An odd inn in Old Town Edinburgh

Wednesday, July 29th, 2009

Part of Edinburgh’s appeal is its mix of the whimsical and the macabre. Its attractions include a storybook castle, the tombstone of a dog, and the buried street Mary King’s Close, where a stack of Barbie dolls supposedly brings solace to the spirit of a girl abandoned during an epidemic. It is all good fun, and tourists lap it up.

This boutique property, which opened in December, fits in perfectly. It’s housed partly in Bedlam, a former lunatic asylum. And its main meeting room is named after Burke and Hare, serial murderers who sold the bodies of their victims for medical research. But as in its 14 sister hotels across England and Scotland – all in historic buildings – there is an emphasis on informal luxury, food and wine. Naturally, Scotch is also part of the mix.

LOCATION In the heart of Old Town, a short walk from the historic Royal Mile and steps from the National Museum of Scotland.

AMBIENCE Playful. The lobby is illuminated by a chandelier of inverted wine glasses, and the rooms have no numbers – instead each room is named after a type of wine, with a hand-painted wall illustration of its namesake.

CLIENTELE Business travellers on weekdays and vacationing couples on weekends.

DESIGN The hotel, a historic building with additions, has a rambling feel. Exposed walls exude a sense of history, but modern furnishings and bright artwork give a contemporary feel. There are framed wine labels on the walls along with Scottish tweeds and tartans.

ROOMS Standard rooms are comfortable for one, but could be cramped for a couple. They have limited shelf and closet space, a single chair each and no space to store a suitcase. Suites and superior rooms, however, are big enough to toss a haggis. Each has a large bathtub, prominently placed in the bedroom. All rooms come with hand-sprung mattresses, Egyptian cotton sheets, plasma TVs and DVD players. Bathrooms have heated floors and monsoon showers, and the Arran Aromatics toiletries are made on a Scottish island.

SERVICE Friendly and helpful, but front-desk staff seemed a little befuddled. They often had trouble locating room keys, which are supposed to be surrendered by guests whenever they leave. Wake-up calls – live and automated – were consistently late.

AMENITIES Wi-Fi is free, and there is a cigar shack in the open-air cobblestone courtyard. But there is no spa, pool or fitness centre. Off-site parking costs $23 for 24 hours.

FOOD AND DRINK The bistro is casual, but the French and Scottish dishes are memorable. Dinner might consist of chicken-liver pâté, haggis with neeps and tatties, pollock with spinach, and pear tart with blue-cheese ice cream. As well, guests in suites receive a complimentary whisky tasting.

THINGS TO DO Edinburgh is at the heart of Scottish Homecoming festivities throughout 2009. Nearby, the Scotch Whisky Experience ( offers tutored tastings and an amusement-park-style ride through the whisky-making process.

Special to The Globe and Mail

* * *

Hotel vitals

The location, the cheery bistro and the sense of fun.

Partying in the courtyard makes it hard to sleep in nearby rooms.

Quirky, stylish and unpretentious.

The author was a guest of the hotel.

11 Bristo Place, Edinburgh; 44 (131) 247 4900;

41 rooms from $227; 6 suites from $445.

Douglas McArthur

From Wednesday’s Globe and Mail

Bath time in Budapest

Wednesday, July 29th, 2009

Taking the plunge in the historic thermal baths of Szechenyi and Gellert in Budapest, Hungary.

In Budapest, Hungary’s vibrant capital, you can sample spicy paprika at the Great Market Hall (designed by Gustave Eiffel), sip coffee in a genteel turn-of-the-20th-century cafe, and enjoy an affordable performance at the luxurious Opera House. Budapest has its fair share of museums and monuments, too: You can ogle the opulent interior of the Hungarian Parliament, get a taste of the gloomy Hungarian psyche at the National Gallery, and wander through a field of quirky old communist statues at Memento Park.

But for me, splashing and relaxing in Budapest’s thermal baths is the city’s top attraction. Though it might sound daunting, bathing in Budapest is far more accessible than you’d think. Tourists are welcome. The thermal baths are basically like your hometown swimming pool — except the water is 100 degrees, there are plenty of jets and bubbles to massage away your stress and you’re surrounded by Hungarians having fun.

Locals brag that if you poke a hole in the ground anywhere in Hungary, you’ll find a hot-water spring. Judging from Budapest, they may be right: The city has 123 natural springs and some two-dozen thermal baths. The baths are actually a part of the health-care system. Doctors regularly prescribe treatments that include massage, soaking in baths of various heat and mineral compositions, and swimming laps. For these patients, a visit to the bath is subsidized.

In Hungary, a typical bath complex has multiple pools, used for different purposes. Big pools with cooler water are for serious swimming, while the smaller, hotter thermal baths are for relaxing, enjoying the jets and current pools, and playing chess. You’ll also usually find a dry sauna, a wet steam room, a cold plunge pool (for a pleasurable jolt when you’re feeling overheated), and sunbathing areas. Many baths have fun flourishes: bubbles, whirlpools, massage jets, wave pools, and so on. Expect to pay $15 to $20 for admission and a personal changing cabin (about $2 cheaper if you change in the locker room). Swimsuits are the norm; nudity is optional.

Tribune Media Services

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Top 10 Europe Cruise Ports

Wednesday, July 29th, 2009

From Rome to Stockholm, Venice to Brugge, our sister site Cruise Critic’s European Hot List offers an opinionated take on the best of the best of Europe’s most fabulous ports.

What are your favorites? Scroll down to the comments section and tell us about the European ports you love most (whether they’re Baltic, Eastern Mediterranean, Western Mediterranean, close to home, or even somewhat farther afield—such as the Canaries and Northern Africa), and offer us some detail about what you love most about them!

1. Rome

Best Small Pleasure: Eating and drinking at one of the city’s famous piazzas, like Piazza Navona, Piazza del Popolo, or Campo dei Fiori; particularly delicious are the pastas (particularly the carbonara), pizzas and gelatos, though many cafes only serve pizza for dinner. Wash ‘em down with a glass of the house wine—white or red Italian wines always taste delicious.

Biggest Surprise: Stumbling across some of Rome’s most famous monuments by accident while meandering along winding, narrow streets when, suddenly, there’s the Pantheon, the Colosseum, Trevi Fountain, and the Spanish Steps; or the neighborhood of Trastevere, with its funky boutiques and numerous sidewalk cafes.

Touristy but Fabulous: A pilgrimage to St. Peter’s Basilica and Sistine Chapel in Vatican City.

2. Barcelona

Best Small Pleasure: A plate of tapas. Strolling along the beach in the fishing village of Barceloneta. An afternoon siesta.

Biggest Surprise: That Barcelona’s most famous cathedral—La Sagrada Familia, designed by native son Antoni Gaudi—is still unfinished more than 75 years after his death. Most fascinating was wandering around a cathedral-in-progress (as construction workers ply their trade around you) and also climbing the 365-winding, turret-esque stairs of the bell towers for a marvelous view.

Touristy but Fabulous: Wandering along Las Ramblas, Barcelona’s famed pedestrian boulevard and sipping wine at one of its numerous cafes. Also, make sure to visit Las Ramblas’ Boqueria, Barcelona’s fabulous food market, and Museu Picasso, not just for its collection of the artist’s work but also the 15th-century palace that houses them.

3. Venice

Best Small Pleasure: Tucking into a cheap—but delicious—plate of pasta with a local wine at one of the city’s numerous trattorias (Tip: Generally, the farther away from San Marco Square, the less touristy they are).

Biggest Surprise: Riding the vaporreto—a water version of a city bus—around the city. Exploring the nearby island of Guidecca (where the “real” locals live).

Touristy but Fabulous: San Marco Square is awesome! During the height of summer, try to visit early before it gets too crowded (and wear a hat in case one of the ubiquitous pigeons, well, you know). Riding in a gondola, at sunset, with a tenor belting out Italian arias.

4. Paris

Best Small Pleasure: Watching the world go by from a vantage point at one of Paris’ innumerable sidewalk cafes.

Biggest Surprise: As big as Paris can seem, it’s really just a collection of neighborhoods. With limited time to explore, pick a neighborhood and poke around its nooks, crannies, cathedrals, shops, parks, and museums. Taking a Turkish bath at the Hammam in La Grande Mosquee, then finishing off with a mint tea in the Moorish cafe next door.

Touristy but Fabulous: Riding to the top of Eiffel Tower. The Grand Louvre for a glimpse at the Mona Lisa (and everything else in the world’s biggest art museum). Haute chic shopping on the Avenue Montaigne (Chanel, Dior, Ungaro), Faubourg St-Honore (Gucci, Chloe, Hermes), and the Left Bank (Giorgio Armani, Yves St-Laurent, and Louis Vuitton).

5. Brugge

Best Small Pleasure: Supping at a sidewalk cafe on Belgium’s classic moules’ frites (mussels and fries), washed down with a local beer.

Biggest Surprise: The canals! You can take a boat ride that winds in and out of some fairly off-the-beaten-track (and quite beautiful) parts of Brugge.

Touristy but Fabulous: Hanging out in any of the town’s numerous squares—people-watching, eating and drinking, and shopping for lace and chocolate.

6. St. Petersburg

Best Small Pleasure: Dining on Chicken Kiev at the Grand Hotel’s sidewalk cafe just off vibrant Nevsky Prospekt. Strolling through the park opposite St. Isaac’s Cathedral.

Biggest Surprise: St. Isaac’s Cathedral, a splendid mid-19th century Orthodox church with highlights that include mosaic murals, granite pillars, and marble floors; its immense gold dome can be seen for miles around. St. Petersburg’s canals (you can take a boat ride a la Venice).

Touristy but Fabulous: The summer palaces—especially Pavlovsk and Pushkin.

7. Oslo

Best Small Pleasure: The murals in City Hall that depict scenes from life in Norway along with scenes highlighting resistance activities against the Germans there during World War II.

Biggest Surprise: Oslo’s got the perfect blend of art and culture, history, and lush scenery (green parks, gorgeous bays, and harbors). It’s an outdoor lovers’ city that reminds me of America’s Seattle.

Touristy but Fabulous: A short boat ride amidst the fjords (even locals occasionally deign to get onboard).

8. London

Best Small Pleasure: Lunching at “gastro” pubs like Chelsea’s Cooper’s Arms and Foxtrot Oscar.

Biggest Surprise: Gorgeous Kensington Park—head for the lake (you can rent lounge chairs) and don’t forget to check out the Princess Diana memorials (flowers, letters) tucked into the wrought iron gate of Kensington Palace.

Touristy but Fabulous: Riding around on the double decker buses (on the top deck!). Riding the London Eye, the city’s millennial Ferris wheel. Afternoon cream tea but not necessarily at the famed Ritz; more elegant experiences can be found at olde-British hotels like Brown’s. Shopping at the venerable Harrods.

9. Copenhagen

Best Small Pleasure: Kayaking through Copenhagen’s canals. Lunch at a sidewalk cafe at Nyhavn beside the canal.

Biggest Surprise: Climbing the seemingly endless spiraling staircase of the historic Round Tower; you can see why Russian Czar Peter the Great actually rode his horse to the top in 1716.

Touristy but Fabulous: Tivoli Gardens is a must-see; there are rides and amusements and restaurants ranging from casual snack shacks to Michelin-starred haute cuisine. If your ship overnights in Copenhagen, go after dark when the park is lit with twinkling lights as it’s quite magical. Take a guided tour of Copenhagen, via the canals, by boat.

10. Stockholm

Best Small Pleasure: Strolling along downtown’s waterfront promenade.

Biggest Surprise: The Swedish Archipelago. At sunset, as ships sail from the port of Stockholm to the open ocean, they pass through (takes a couple of hours) a gorgeous, glittering string of small islands, green, lush, and largely undeveloped aside from occasional brightly painted wood homes. This view alone is worth booking a balcony cabin.

Touristy but Fabulous:

A city tour from a boat. Gamla Stan, Stockholm’s walled, medieval-era old town. Head for Vasterlanggatan, the main drag, and explore from there.

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Backpackers take green vacations on European farms

Tuesday, July 28th, 2009

SANTA EULALIA DEL MONTE, Spain – Backpackers pining for European adventure have discovered life on the farm, shoveling manure, feeding pigs and making butter as a recession-beating way to sate their wanderlust.

Their ticket to an earthy taste of the Old Continent is an innovative Web site that connects travelers with a network of organic farms stretching from Portugal to Turkey and around the world.

World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, an organization founded in Britain, has been around since 1971 but has lured many more volunteer farmhands in recent years as hard economic times forced people young and not so young to seek a cheap way to take a European vacation.

This year 15,700 of them are scattered across Europe getting their hands good and dirty, compared to 6,400 in 2004, WWOOF says. The number of hosts is up, too, roughly doubling to 2,240 in that same time span. The organization also offers farm stays in the Americas, Africa, the Middle East and the Asia-Pacific region.

For a few hours of work a day — other chores include milking goats, collecting honey and making compost — volunteers get a place to stay, fresh food to eat and a bargain.

“I didn’t have enough money to stay on any other way,” said Alex Mansfield, 21, a guitar-toting philosophy student from Massachusetts who traded in the city life of his study-abroad experience in Salamanca, Spain, for a few weeks on an isolated farm. “It gets expensive, having to eat and sleep under roofs.”

Along with three other Americans and an Argentinean, Mansfield spent part of this summer on an ever-changing volunteer force at Centro Ammehula, a ghost hamlet transformed into an organic farm, tucked away on a craggy mountainside of Spain’s northwest Galicia region.

The setting was scenic but the accommodations modest: several metal trailers and tents surrounding a bonfire area, all of it 9 miles from the nearest supermarket. But the volunteers, feasting on fresh lettuce and lip-staining strawberries from the farm, don’t seem to mind.

“It feels so good to be right near the food you’re about to cook,” said former New York schoolteacher Talia Kahn-Kravis, 23, as she squirted milk from a goat’s udder into a plastic bucket.

Like Kahn-Kravis, supporters of the slow food movement, which began in Italy as a backlash against fast food, are praising the return to the farms.

“It’s one of the ways of recovering relationships with food,” said Cinzia Scaffidi, director of the Slow Food Study Center in Italy.

Centro Ammehula’s owner, Martin Verfondern, 51, said WWOOF is not just about growing fresh produce. More importantly, he says, it fosters cultural understanding.

“WWOOF is the perfect anti-discrimination device,” said the Dutchman born in Germany, who has lived on the Spanish farm for 11 years. “We have Germans and Israelis sitting at a table together without problems. It’s a really great way of getting to know more of a country than only the national prejudices.”

While Spain is seeing an increase in foreigners eager to take a stab at farming, it is hardly the only European nation attracting attention.

“It’s a way to spend time in places without spending money,” said WWOOFer Elliott Smith, 21, who has traveled to Italy and Belgium during vacations from an organic Beaujolais vineyard outside of Lyon, France. “Everybody wants to travel a bit and the big thing is to do it without going totally broke.”

Aside from having a travel base camp among a crop of thin-skinned Gamay grapes, the linguistics student from Texas said his “farmer French … increased tenfold.”

Recent graduates and college students like Smith and Mansfield make up a significant portion of WWOOF’s volunteers, although farmhands come from walks of life as varied as the chores they do, said Chemi Pena, spokesman for WWOOF in Spain.

“The profile of farms is really diverse,” he said.

Julie Bateman, a mother of two and slow food advocate, packed up her 10- and 13-year-old children and left her home in Charleston, S.C., for a volunteer farming stint in Italy this summer.

“WWOOFing with the two children is certainly a twist on the normal travel and WWOOFing in general,” said Bateman, 42.

For many volunteers, WWOOF is creating a class of green-thumbed do-gooders, more conscious of their carbon footprints.

“A lot of people maybe come here to do a cheap Eurotrip,” said New York native Kahn-Kravis, as she picked strawberries. “But in reality, you can’t do this without learning a bunch and having a more holistic approach to life.”


If You Go…

WORLDWIDE OPPORTUNITIES ON ORGANIC FARMS: Food and lodging at an organic farm in exchange for volunteering to work at the farm. Annual registration fees vary by country, but are typically around $30-35 (20-25 euros). Opportunities on every continent.

By JEANNIE NUSS, Associated Press Writer

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Biking the Iron Curtain Trail

Tuesday, July 28th, 2009

THE first thing that struck us was the distance between the watchtowers. We had just cycled a strenuous mile uphill above the medieval village of Geisa, along the Iron Curtain Trail that follows the old Warsaw Pact-NATO divide in central Germany. Now, in the tranquillity of the early evening, we emerged at the top of the hill onto a verdant field adorned with European Union and German flags — and two sinister-looking structures that faced off against each other no more than 70 yards apart.

Between them stood a remnant of the original Iron Curtain fence: its concrete support posts had once been fortified with antipersonnel fragmentation mines loaded with an explosive charge of 110 grams of TNT and 80 metal splinters that could be propelled 30 yards in all directions. A German shepherd molded from concrete and painted in shades of brown and black, a classic piece of cold war kitsch, was tethered by a metal chain to a tree.

But it was the towers that demanded attention: the East German relic, erected in the early 1970s, was an ugly white column about 40 feet high, topped by an observation slot and a bristling array of listening equipment. The American installation, dominated by an open-air deck, looked like a combination military post and lifeguard station — “Seven Days in May” meets “Baywatch.”

From 1953 until 1989, these watchtowers straddled the most dangerous border in the world. American troops from the 14th and 11th Armored Cavalry Regiments stared down East German soldiers just across the divide from their base, Point Alpha, waiting for the ground attack that would

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Swedish couple miss Italian isle after GPS blunder

Tuesday, July 28th, 2009
The middle-aged couple, who were not identified, only discovered their error when they asked staff in the local tourist office on Saturday how to drive to the island’s famous “Blue Grotto”

ROME, ITALY: Two Swedes expecting the golden beaches of the Italian island of Capri got a shock when tourist officials told them they were 650 km (400 miles) off course in the northern town of Carpi, after mistyping the name in their GPS.

“It’s hard to understand how they managed it. I mean, Capri is an island,” said Giovanni Medici, a spokesman for Carpi regional government, told Reuters on Tuesday. “It’s the first time something like this has happened.”

The middle-aged couple, who were not identified, only discovered their error when they asked staff in the local tourist office on Saturday how to drive to the island’s famous “Blue Grotto”.

“They were surprised, but not angry,” Medici said. “They got back in the car and started driving south.”

The picturesque island of Capri, famed as a romantic holiday destination, lies in the Gulf of Naples in southern Italy and has been a resort since Roman times.

Carpi is a busy industrial town in the province of Emilia Romagna, at the other end of Italy

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