Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The Perfect Birthday Gift

Yes, it is that magical time of year, when everyone celebrates me! A time when everyone takes time out of their busy day to wish me well, ask me what my plans are, inquire about any gifts I've received, and ask the inevitable question, "so, how old are you?" (None of your business, by the way.) Mostly, it's the day that I get to soak up all the attention, get showed with gifts and compliments and indulge in all the goodies I want.(Modesty is usually my strong suit, but this is my special day, so deal with it.)

But even with all the love and attention I get on my birthday, I still struggle when it comes to telling people what I want. By now I've gotten past the age of birthday parties and wrapping presents and moved into the stage when a friend buying you a drink or lunch is a perfectly acceptable gift. So when my dad asked me what I wanted, I could not give him a straight answer--in all honesty, I had spent so much time planning my birthday party, I had not even though about what I actually wanted. I usually end up saying a gift card or money, but those don't really have much significance. (Though I am more than happy to accept them.) So I certainly appreciated my dad giving me a beautiful sapphire necklace and matching earrings...very thoughtful and something I would never buy for myself.

Yet as my magical day continues to tick by, I keep wondering what my perfect birthday gift would be. And then it hit me as I was collecting travel news for work...

A trip!

My perfect birthday gift would be a vacation...and not a vacation to just ITALY!

I want to spend my birthday in Tuscany, on a vineyard, surrounded by bottles of wine and plates of delicious food. I want to spend the day walking through the cobbled streets of the various Italian cities, window shopping at all the boutique and designer stores I cannot afford. I want to enjoy a loaded cone of Straciatella gelato, topped with another scoop of baccio--yum. I want to wander through fields of sunflowers, maybe grab a few to make my own personal birthday bouquet. I want to pick fresh grapes from the vine, and then learn how to crush them to make sweet wine. I want to sit around a festive table full of friends and family, all enjoying a fresh, home-cooked meal.

Obviously, I would not be able to jet over to Italy for one day only, it would require a much longer vacation, but you all get the idea. I couldn't do it this year, but maybe for my 30th--that's another big birthday that deserves a special celebration.

So for now, if you really want to get me a gift, a bottle of Italian wine or dinner or chocolate. Or perhaps giving me some miles so I can start saving them up for my perfect birthday in Italy!

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The Fall Foliage in Maine

The East Coast, especially the New England states, provide some of the best places to see the colors change, and Maine is no exception. Leisure travel to this far north state increases significantly after Labor Day, and it's easy to see why. The lush environment is ideal to see the fall foliage and the coastal regions boast some of the most picturesque scenery in the country. Maine also has a number of fall activities to complete any trip.

Before you go, check the fall foliage website, the official tracker of conditions in Maine and where the colors are really starting to show. As of right now, most of Maine is still pretty green, but it's only a matter of time before the index ticks up and it will be in peak foliage season.

Acadia National Park. Credit:
Once you decide when you want to go, the next step is figuring out what to do. As I said before, there is no end to the possibilities in Maine. Obviously, seeing the leaves change will be at the top of your list--at least it should be--but, in all honesty, how can you miss it. Maine has over 17 million acres of forest, so catching the reds, golds and oranges will be no trouble at all. Whether you want to see a lot or a little is up to you. If you are eager to take in as much of the fall season as possible, I suggest taking a hike, bike ride or drive through the numerous trails that wind through the state. Acadia National Park has 57 miles of paved and less-traveled trails where bikers can travel along the coastline or venture on an old logging trail.

There are dozens of festivals in Maine during the months of September and October, including pumpkin carving events, haunted tours and craft shows, and there is no end to the wide array of foods one will taste while attending the festivities. Here is just a quick list of events you could hit throughout the state:

  • Harvest Fest & Chowder Cook-off in Bethel
  • ChiliFest in Wells
  • Salmon Festival in Eastport
  • Country Roads Artists & Artisans Tour
  • WoodenBoat Sail-In in Brooklin
  • Ogunquit's Antique Show & Sale
  • Cumberland Fair
  • Common Ground Country Fair in Unity
  • Apple Festival in Rangeley Lakes
  • Acadia's Oktoberfest on Mount Desert Island
  • Caribou Fall Arts & Crafts Festival
  • North American Wife Carrying Championship at Sunday River
  • Candlelight Ghost Tour in Bangor
  • Annual Pumpkin Carving Contest in Hiram
Obviously, that's a lot to choose from, but at least you know you have options.

As far as food, well, you certainly will not go hungry in Maine. The state is known for its seafood, especially its lobster, and visitors will devour its fresh, farm raised clams, oysters, mussels, scallops, salmon and trout, too. There are many great places to enjoy a traditional lobster "shore dinner," so check out this list to find one you like. Maine is also credited with having some of the best artisanal cheeses in the country from popular cheesemakers like Hahn's End, Appleton Creamery, Liberty Fields Farms and Oak Leaf Creamery, among others.
Portland Head Maine.

Another symbol of Maine is the lighthouse. In our age of digital technology, satellites and GPS, lighthouses no longer serve the same important purpose of guiding boats home that they once did, but they are still very distinctive features of Maine's coast, where more than 60 lighthouses can be found. So no matter what coastal city you choose to visit, chances are there will be a lighthouse somewhere along the beach.

If the outdoors are not your thing, Maine provides plenty of indoor attractions and activities, including world-renowned museums and art galleries, critically acclaimed theaters and performing arts centers, traditional antique and craft shops, and relaxing spa and salon getaways. Trust me, you can still enjoy those fall colors from the comfort of a lodge, boutique shop or museum gallery.

So why not schedule a trip to see the seasons change in one of the most magical places in the United States?

Sunday, September 11, 2011

10 Years After September 11

If you are old enough, you may remember a time when checking bags on a flight was free, when security lines were a breeze to get through--just toss your bag on the conveyor belt and walk through the scanner--when you could greet your friends and family at the gate rather than a designated welcome area with hundreds of other people. Yep, those were the days, the days before all the increased security, before the hike in various airline fees, the days before September 11, 2001, when two planes were hijacked by terrorists and deliberately flown into the twin towers in New York City, forever changing American's lives forever.

Not since the day that John F. Kennedy was shot has there been an event with so much significance that everyone can remember exactly what they were doing and where they were when they heard about it. Now, 10 years later, the effects of that day still ripple through our daily routines. Terror levels are broadcast on all news channels, politicians still reference the events in their speeches, American troops are being sent to fight a war brought on by what happened on that fateful Tuesday. It penetrates everything, from the state of our economy to how we get around the world. In fact, it's impact on the travel industry has probably been the most significant.

Right after 9/11, people were terrified to get back in the air. Airlines suffered huge losses as more people stopped flying and opted for ground transportation instead. Recovery was slow, as more and more people trickled back into airports, but the experience of air travel would never be the same. Suddenly, everyone required a boarding pass in order to get past security and into the terminal. No more goodbye hugs at the gate or welcome home kisses the minute you walk off the plane, those are long gone. And speaking of security, we all know how much that has changed in the last 10 years. Prior to the attacks, security was pretty basic. Now, there are more rules and regulations that passengers have to follow, it can be difficult to remember them all. (I cannot tell you how many times I have forgotten to take off a belt, or remove my sandals, or take my bag of toiletries out of my purse.)

Passenger going through security.
Credit: WSJ/Lucas Jackson
As various events occurred, security added more and more layers to the process. When a man tried to explode a bomb hidden in his shoe in 2001, TSA made all passengers remove shoes for X-ray screening; when a 2006 plot to use explosives in liquids, we were all limited to the quantity of liquids in our carry ons. And now with the new body scanners and intrusive patdowns, passengers have even more to deal with as angry TSA workers eye them with suspicion--or oggle them, which can be just as bad, trust me.

And then there are the smaller things that people might not notice, like the Septemeber 11 security fee that passengers are charged on every ticket they purchase, $2.50 on every flight, up to $10 per round trip. Just last year, we paid $2.1 billion from that fee alone. If you really want to hear a scary number, the International Air Transport Association estimates that airlines spent $7.4 billion on security in 2010. To compare, in 2000, airlines spent $448 million on security. It's a significant difference. No wonder airlines are hemorrhaging money and desperately trying to bring in more revenue by hiking ticket prices, charging extra fees for checking bags and taking away free snacks--I'm still mad about the pretzels, Continental.

Security lines in BC, Canada. Credit: Guardian
But the effects are not only felt here in the U.S., they have hit millions of people around the world in ways we could never imagine. Obviously, security measures were upped at international airports, too, and foreign carriers changed their policies and procedures to adapt to the lower demand for air travel. But the heightened security adopted after 9/11 has discouraged many tourists from coming to America, hurting job growth in the hospitality industry. The government has created unweildy entry procedures for visitors, like lengthened wait times for visas to enter the country. Our country is in desperate need of more foreign visitors to help stimulate spending and feed money into our economy, but the backlog of visa applications has deterred a lot of travelers. In Brazil, for example, waiting periods can exceed four months. That kind of delay could cost our country hundreds of thousands of potential visitors who will choose to spend their money in other countries that do not force them to go through such a difficult and expensive process.

I realize that most of the changes have been made to keep us and our country safe, and overall, I feel we are relatively safe. But I admit that I still get irritated by the flying experience sometimes, as I'm sure we all do. I hate paying extra fees for bags, and then worrying about getting overhead space if I choose not to check. I hate when the security lines are so long that even though you give yourself enough time to make your flight, you still might cut it close.

Remembering 9/11 Credit:
What I truly hate the most is the uneasiness that can still come when getting on a plane, the fear of not knowing whether or not you are truly safe. The acts of September 11 left an impression on all Americans, whether we had a direct connection or not. While watching the special coverage at the memorial site in New York, NBC showed a montage of video clips and images from the attacks, and I couldn't help but cry. There remains an overwhelming sadness associated with that day, because it showed how vulnerable our country can be and how far we still have to go. Our country will never get over what happened, never forget the innocent people who lost their lives, and will continue to fight for our freedom and safety, no matter what kind of small inconveniences that might bring about. It's all worth it in the end.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Welcoming Fall, Going Home

It doesn't quite feel like fall outside--ok, let's be honest, it feels like mid-July with the 90-degree temperatures and high levels of humidity--but that wonderful season is just around the corner. Labor Day weekend marks the end of summer, and I am saying farewell with a much-needed trip back to Denver, back home to the wonderful state of Colorado.

I know I sound like a broken record sometimes, but I just love Denver. I love going back to the rising peaks of the Rocky Mountains, their natural beauty leaving me breathless everytime. It doesn't matter that I grew up there, spent the first 18 years of my life in the mile-high city, it still surprises me, still excites me with everything is has to offer. I'm sure everyone feels that way about their home town, at least at one point or another. That's what is so great about going back, it's still the same, comfortable enviornment you remember, but there is always something new and different to experience. I can't wait to walk around the neighborhoods I used to frequent and see what new shops have popped up, new restaurants. It's like rediscovering a place all over again. Of course, I would be sad if some of my favorite places were no longer around, which tends to happen now and again, but it just opens the door for a change, and that's always a positive thing.

And while I am bummed that summer is coming to a close and the warm weather will be leaving us soon--though today, I would love some relief from the heat--I am thrilled to welcome fall. It is, afterall, my favorite season. It might be the slightly cooler weather that allows me to wear my cute sweaters and boots, or it might be the changing colors of the leaves, or the smell of apple cider and pumkin pie. Whatever the reason, fall is a fantastic time of year, and I am happy to be saying hello from the comfort of home.