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Thursday, August 26, 2010

Let's Make A Deal/Exchanging Your Home

For those of you who listened in today on Morning Living on Martha Stewart's Sirius radio channel, this is for you. Hope you enjoyed the segment.

The home exchange concept started in the 1950s. That's when some teachers, faced with free summers and low salaries, figured out this way to travel far and wide without spending a fortune. Two current exchange companies, Homelink and Intervac, date back to that decade.

To describe what home exchange is, it is first necessary to discuss what it is not. It’s not a homestay, where you reside with a family. It’s not a home rental, where you pay to stay at someone’s abode. And it’s not couch surfing, that favorite activity among international budget travelers. Instead, home exchange is a trust-based transaction, where two dwellings are swapped without payment for a mutually-agreed upon period of time.

If you don't have friends living in desirable vacation destinations, your best bet for home exchange is signing up with an international agency. Most are now online. When looking for an online agency, though, do consider its history, references, mentions in newspaper and magazine articles, and its number of members (the more members, the more flexible the exchange). Most of the big guys charge a subscription fee in the neighborhood of $100 a year. For that C-note, you’ll get access to an online directory complete with comprehensive listings of who wants to exchange what, where and when. Beyond the home, the exchange may even include pets and cars (that is, if both parties agree).

(You can also “house swap” via Craigslist, but that can be more of a crapshoot (as it is when responding to any Craigslist listing). Potential exchangers on Craigslist also tend to be very specific about their desired destinations).

When listing your home on most sites, you will be asked to describe its features, your guest requirements (kids/no kids; maximum number of guests, etc.), local attractions in your area, and other matters that may make your house unique and interesting to out-of-towners. Photos are also a requirement.

Once you pick your exchangee, the online agency wanders out of the picture, leaving the two of you to discuss the exchange between yourselves. When you are talking, ask about anything that may be an issue. If you are allergic to smoke, down, or pet hair, ask about it. If you don’t drive and need to be by public transportation, ask about it. If you are a clean freak and need to take six showers a day, ask if that will be okay.

When you are planning an exchange, it’s generally best to start at least six months out, particularly if you are looking to travel to a desirable vacation destination during peak season. Note that Australians and New Zealanders like to set up their exchanges about a year ahead of time, in order to get cheaper overseas airfares. So, if you want to trade Down Under, work it out far ahead, mate. Similarly, if you want to be somewhere for a special event, say, London during the 2012 Olympics, start arranging things this very minute.

That said, there are also opportunities for last-minute rentals. The aforementioned CraigsList is a last-minute option. And many agencies do send members shortlists for 11th hour exchanges.

Speaking of lists, let's consider one. Here are some pros and cons of home exchange versus a standard hotel vacation.


  • It's cheaper.
  • You get more of a feeling of living in the place.
  • There's more room.
  • You can probably pack less, particularly if you are traveling with kids, since the exchange might include games, toys, and other items you would otherwise have to bring along.
  • Someone will be occupying your home when you are away.


  • There's a huge trust factor. If you are paranoid, forget about it.
  • There's no hotel staff (housekeepers, bellmen, concierges) upon which to rely.
  • You have to clean your home before going on vacation.
  • You have to clean your vacation home before going back.
  • Choice of exchange destinations may be limited.

General Tips:

1. Put terms of exchange in writing.
2. Buy trip cancellation insurance.
3. Find exchangers with similar lifestyles.
4. Start looking at least six months in advance if you plan to exchange during peak seasons.
5. Consider local standards. An average house in Sofia, Bulgaria may be quite different from an average home in Manhattan.

Questions to Ask:

1. Are there pets? If so, and even if the pets are not going to be in the home while you are there, consider allergies for cat hair, etc.
2. Are you actually exchanging pets? If so, what is the care regimen?
3. Does the house smell? Ask this question gently. But do remember that scents like smoke get engrained over time, and often are forgotten by the residents. Similarly, if the home cook likes to use onions or pepper on a frequent basis, the aroma in the kitchen may reflect that.
4. Ask about the car exchange. If you do exchange cars, make sure yours works, and that insurance covers guest drivers.
5. If your exchangees are traveling with kids, find out how old (messy) they are.

Things to Do for Visitors:

1. Leave a complete list of instructions for operating appliances, television sets and other equipment that normally comes from the store with a manual.
2. Leave local contacts/neighbors, etc. and emergency numbers.
3. Make a list of stores and attractions in the area.
4. Provide a welcome goodie, perhaps a bottle of wine (and corkscrew) and a snack plate.
5. Stock the refrigerator with a few general provisions (butter, eggs, soda) to get guests going.
6. Let guests know what they have access to (bikes, certain dishes, computers, etc.) If you want to guarantee non-use, put off-limits items in a separate locked room.
7. Set house rules.
8. Arrange for a family member, neighbor or friend to come by and welcome your exchange partners when they arrive.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Viva Sun Valley

For all who listened to the segment on Around the World Radio starring me and Peter Noone of Herman's Hermits, let me shed further and uninterrupted light on the wonders of Sun Valley.

The Sun Valley area encompasses the Sun Valley Resort, the town of Ketchum (the area's "big" city), and Hailey (home of Bruce Willis). Visitors usually spend most of their time in Sun Valley and Ketchum, which are only a mile or so apart (and connected by a free shuttle).

Historic Sun Valley is America's first destination wintertime resort. Shortly after the 1932 Lake Placid Olympics introduced winter sports to the U.S. on a large scale, demand for snowy playgrounds started developing. Millionaire W. Averill Harriman, chairman of the Union Pacific Railroad, sensed this demand while at the same time looking to increase ridership on his trains.
He built the Sun Valley Lodge in 1936, and what was to become the Sun Valley Inn in 1937. The resort's ski mountain housed the world's first chairlift (circa 1936).

Other special features of the resort include an intimate outdoor ice skating rink which has hosted championship figure skaters since the days of Sonja Henie. Saturday summer nights (through Labor Day) feature an ice capades headlined by a rotating series of stars (read Sasha Cohen, Brian Boitano, etc.) The lodge also houses a 70-year-old indoor bowling alley.

Like many Western resorts, in recent years, Sun Valley has become equally popular in the summer. Outdoor adventurers can take advantage of the temperate summer climate. For those who prefer the summer activities in more rarified air, the season is filled with cultural events and concerts. Be sure to take in a performance of the symphony at the new Sun Valley Pavilion.

But since summer is almost over for this year, let's look toward the fall. This is "between" season in Sun Valley--the summer vacationers are back to school and the skiers have yet to don their boots. Autumn offers weather warm enough for hiking, biking, golf and tennis, and a full slate of festivals.

Formerly the Food & Wine Festival, the Sun Valley Harvest Festival takes place from September 24-26. There are demonstrations by guest chefs; wine seminars; vintner dinners; and food sampling.

All's wool that ends wool at the Trailing of the Sheep Festival spanning Hailey and Ketchum. Celebrating Basque farming traditions, the towns become wild and woolly between October 8 and 10. Area chefs cook lamb (baaaaaaa!); wool artisans knit up a storm; and sheep get sheared and herded. According to the website, sheep poetry reading is also on the agenda. I assume this can't possibly mean that the sheep are actually reading poetry. But then again, magical things have been known to happen in the Sun Valley area. The highlight of the event is Sunday's Trailing of the Sheep parade. The 150-year-old tradition features Boise Highlanders, bagpipers, Basque dancers, and baa, baa black and white sheep.

http://www.visitsunvalley.com/ Information on Sun Valley, Ketchum, and Hailey
http://www.sunvalley.com/ Information on the Sun Valley Resort

Sunday, August 15, 2010

On the Radio: Delaware and Idaho

For proof that a travel journalist can be in two places at one time, please listen to my report on Delaware's Brandywine Valley while I luxuriate at the Sun Valley Resort in Idaho. Yes, my little spuds, it is a rough life. But I do it all in the name of serving my public. Go to the June 24th show to catch a earful of my dulcet tones.

Speaking of spuds, we next go to Idaho for a report on Coeur D'Alene (air date: 7/22). Please enjoy the vicarious hot stone massage.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Owyhee 5-0

Doesn't everyone want to spend a birthday in Owyhee? In case you question my spelling, note that Owyhee is an older English spelling of Hawaii. It was used in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, when groups including native Hawaiians explored the Pacific Northwest.

But no, I didn't spend my birthday in our 50th state. Rather, I spent it in our
43rd. So why am I rambling on about Hawaii? Because I stayed at the Owyhee Plaza Hotel in Boise, Idaho. Said hostelry is named after the Owyhee River, discovered by those wandering Hawaiians.

There was no luau in Boise, nor did I get lei'ed there. But let me tell you, little spuds, while the Owyhee Plaza is no place to shake one's hips about, Boise isn't such a bad little place to birthday. Allow me to yammer on a bit about the Idaho state capital.

What does Boise have that other places don't? For starters, one can bask in Basque culture. Aside from hosting the only Basque museum in the United States, there's quite a sampling of food from Euskara (the region of the Pyrenees which the Basques call home). I dined on paella at the Gernika Basque Pub & Brewery and was as happy as a clam (albeit not the particular clam embedded in the rice dish).

Boise and its surroundings also provide adventure travel opportunities for weenies such as myself. Anyone can easily bike the Boise River Greenbelt, a 25-mile swath of flat pathway. The Greenbelt connects many popular sites, including the M.K. Nature Center, Zoo Boise, and 12 city parks. Soft adventurers can also play Lawrence or Laura of Arabia at Bruneau Dunes State Park, the home of the tallest sand mountain in the United States. For those who prefer aqueous adventures, whitewater rafting, waterskiing, and fly fishing options are nearby.

Speaking of fishing, my understanding is that it is now legal to fish from the back of a giraffe or a camel (just in case you had the hankering). At one time, it was illegal to cast a reel from an animal's back in Idaho. However, despite urban legend, it appears the bicameral state legislature has shelved the law. If you know otherwise, please comment.

But I digress. The Saturday Farmers Market downtown offers visitors a typical slice of Boise life. While the crowd is pretty white, at least the victuals are colorful and diverse. There are opportunities to nibble on locally-made/grown goodies ranging from mulberries to potato chips (naturally).

Speaking of spuds, I would be remiss if I didn't include a hash of potato trivia in this post (despite the state's recent efforts to downplay the exalted tuber). Yes, the potato is Idaho's state vegetable. The was first planted there in 1837. Idaho is responsible for one-third of the country's potato crop. Finally, according to a researcher in Ireland, potatoes are a powerful aphrodisiac. While I can't confirm the science, do note that the Irish know their potatoes and they are known for their large families. Just sayin'.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Time After Time

Apologies, dear readers, for being out of touch. But between television appearances in New York City, an article for The Washington Post, a project for National Geographic (sorry, name-dropping is a DC institution), and trying to avoid exhaustion while playing tennis in the 95 degree heat, my attention has been elsewhere.

However, I have come across some engaging facts that I would like to share with you. Some of you may know that Indiana is split (not evenly) East/West between the Eastern and Central Time Zones. But do you know the only state that is split between times zones on a North/South basis? As you ponder, I have my eye on you, you little spud. Any IDeas? It's Idaho! The southern part of the state is on Mountain Time, while the northern part of the state is on Pacific Time. The dividing line is marked by the Time Zone Bridge in Riggins.

Speaking of time zone trivia, let me share a few other tidbits I learned in Googling the topic. I knew that Hawaii and Arizona do not observe Daylight Savings Time. But the Navajo Nation, located geographically within Arizona's borders, does give the sun its due in the summertime. U.S. territories including Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa, and the U.S. Virgin Islands stay on standard time all year long. But with those island climates, who needs summer time?

Internationally, Argentina decided to skip DST last summer (October, 2009-March, 2010) in order to save energy. China, in a normal world, would span at least five time zones. But after the Communist Party took over the country in 1949, it reverted to one common time zone (UTC +8), helping the trains run on time (oops, that was Mussolini) and leaving the poor farmers in Xinjiang and Qinghai provinces in the dark most of the morning. The PRC doesn't not observe DST. Only three countries on the continent of Africa (Egypt, Morocco and Namibia) follow Daylight Savings Time.

I don't know how Vanilla Ice, Ice Baby feels about Daylight Savings Time, but Iceland and Antarctica are officially frozen on standard time all year long (although some bases and stations on the tundra stay consistent with their home territories). If you are hanging out at the South Pole though, you can walk through 24 standard time zones in a matter of seconds.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Volcanoes and Oil Spills and Boycotts, Oh My

Apologies for the extended absence from posting, especially in light of all the news stories wreaking havoc on the travel industry. Take the volcano and the euro and the oil spill....please.
Add in nasty political machinations in Thailand and Arizona, and the hot mess that is Greece, and it might all seem to add up to a big "Don't Go."

But it doesn't. Travelers will go. And as many economies will suffer from the bad news, some will benefit. To wit, that blasted Icelandic volcano is proving a godsend to, well, Iceland. Southern European countries well out of the way of its emanations may end up winning over visitors who might otherwise have headed to Ireland, Germany or other northern'ish countries in the eurozone. Speaking of which, the shrinking euro means bargains for Americans who do venture forth to the 16 nations contained within that economic union. So, despite the volcano, there might be some hope for the Continent this summer after all.

While we are across the pond, we must not neglect the tragedy that is Greece. With the Grecian economy in ruins, the tourism industry there is in a hellish situation. Tourism is the major source of foreign exchange for Greece, but visitors are cancelling right and left. However, between the declining euro and the slashing of bed prices in the cradle of democracy, Greece is offering some Olympian deals this summer for bargain bottom feeders.

Meanwhile, back in the US of A, politics and BP are muddying the waters for several state tourism industries. While Arizona is not exactly a hot spot for summer tourism due to the fact that it is, well, a hot spot, the developing boycott will have both short and long-term repercussions. Tourism is one of the state's top industries, as visitor spending accounts for $18.5 billion in income and hundreds of thousands of jobs. But as tourists trade planned visits to the Grand Canyon for visits to grand national parks in California or Utah, and as meeting planners cancel conventions slated for the Grand Canyon State in 2010 and beyond, an already fragile Arizona economy may soon be heading over the borderline. Meanwhile, cities with convention facilities of a similar size are hoping that Arizona's cancelled meetings business may migrate to them.

As for the tourism industries along the Gulf shores of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida, fear is spreading through the air as the oil slick proliferates. After all, who wants to visit white sand beaches covered in gunk? The Gulf states are already complaining that East Coast communities are trying to take advantage of the disaster by poaching the sea and sand trade. But the fact is, due to the possibility that a loop current could carry the oil around the tip of Florida to the Atlantic coast, even those places south of the Mid-Atlantic are not out of the danger zone. Then what's the situation? Jersey Shore, anyone?

Finally, Thailand. What a mess. You might think that, since the action is centered in Bangkok, other parts of the country might still be okay for tourism. But the problem is, the country's main international airport is in Bangkok, and said airport has already been under siege this year. For those planning a visit to Southeast Asia this summer, Vietnam, ironically, might be a much more peaceful bet.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

A Bee Story/A Sting Operation/To Bee or Not to Bee

Have you heard the buzz about the Marriott Magnificent Mile in Chicago? Well, honey, let me tell you all about it.

You see, recently, Myk Banas, who acts as the hotel’s executive chef and director of food and beverage operations (he’s a busy bee) was pondering ways of expanding his property’s F & B philosophy. Said philosophy is to make food from scratch whenever possible.

His brain swarming with ideas, he decided he needed a little fresh air (or thus the story goes, as warped though my mind). So, he wandered up to the roof of The Richard J. Daley Center (the skyscraper with the abstruse Picasso sculpture in front of it). For reasons unbeknownst to him, the roof was filled with bees and their cribs. Suddenly, his mind was pollinated with the nectar of a new idea. “What if,” he thought (and again, I take the liberty of creative license in paraphrasing his thoughts--sorry, Myk), “I bought some bees and put them to work making honey? Wouldn‘t that be a sweet idea?”

Banas searched far and wide for the licenses that would allow him to place a bunch of bees on his hotel’s roof. Interestingly, however, there was no red tape to be found. So, Banas found an abbondanza of Italian five-striped honeybees and moved them to his rooftop in 2009.

These Italian stallions worked hard, producing more than 200 pounds of the golden stuff last year. (In this city of big shoulders and big unions, I wonder if these industrious worker bees have labor representation). After a winter in hibernation, Banas expects even more honey for his money in 2010. That money--a $2500 total investment in Italian bees, hives, honey extracting equipment and protective bee suits (made by Armani?).

So, you may wonder, what does the hotel do with a tenth of a ton of honey? Banas brews Rooftop Honey Wheat Beer, he bakes up honey-kissed pastries, and he sticks his honey on the breakfast buffet.

For now, dear reader, I won't drone on further, as I simply can no longer wax poetic on this subject. For more on this story, check out my article in the May issue of Hotel F & B (http://www.hotelfandb.com/).