Ten years ago I took my family to Belize for a week.  It was our first trip to the country that used to be British Honduras (it became Belize in 1981), and we enjoyed it.  Just south of Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula, Belize lies on the Caribbean Sea and borders on the west and south with Guatemala.  It’s 180 miles long and 68 miles wide—a small country—but its population is less than 350,000, which makes it the least densely populated country in Central America.

We liked the people and the place and wanted to return.  With its coconut palm white sand beaches, famous offshore reef, warm blue tropical waters, and good infrastructure, it’s a great site for a week of Spring Break and relatively easy to get to from Raleigh (less than 3 hours from ATL).  It’s also very safe, always important, especially when traveling with children.

But, being an inveterate airfare opportunist,  it took a decade of looking to find air travel prices low enough to entice me to press the “BUY” button on the Delta.com website for flights to Belize City.  I obsessed among the shrinking number of airline sites to find the lowest fare I could live with.  Even so, I ended up paying a much higher fare than I budgeted for, and that was just the start of cash flying out of my wallet for this trip.

First, the good news.  Belize was wonderful in most ways: genuinely friendly, even innocent, people who haven’t been corrupted by the modern world; gorgeous postcard-perfect coconut palm white sand beaches abutting a bathwater-warm and gentle blue Caribbean Sea; excellent modern, comfortable, even luxurious, air-conditioned accommodation; reasonably decent basic infrastructure (power only went out once, and the resort’s generator soon kicked in; roads are not that great; water and sewer out of sight and mind).

Another big plus in Belize is the lack of density mentioned above.  There are so few people that even the main roads have little traffic, and back roads have virtually none.  Not just the roads, either.  Almost any walk or drive would quickly lead to rural areas devoid of human presence.  It was very stress-free.

Downsides were: the cost of food (very high); cost of activities (sky-high); no swim-to reef for snorkeling (nearest coral was 14 miles offshore, requiring a boat and crew); reef nearest us (the one nearest to Hopkins was 14 miles offshore, a 30-minute boat ride one way) was not spectacular compared to, say, St. John, instead being pedestrian to the point of boring.

Here is why I thought it was expensive:

Airfare was $910 each RDU/BZE (discounted first class on Delta) because I opted to pay $150 per person extra after discovering coach was over $700. Thus X 4 people = $3640.

By the way, service on Delta in First Class (called “Business Class” on the ATL/BZE segments) was friendly, but it was not in any way worth the extra money to get up front.  Seat pitch was cramped, too, no better and perhaps worse than Economy Comfort.  Lesson learned.

Jaguar Reef Lodge resort accommodation in a 2-BR/2 bath suite with kitchen and porch on the Caribbean was $220/night X 7 = $1540 + 8% room service charge and another 9% hotel tax = %1802.  This was by far the best bargain element of the trip, and I highly recommend the Jaguar Reef Lodge.  The staff was well-trained, sincerely interested in helping, and fun to be around.  Can’t say enough good things about the place if you just wanted to lounge on the beach, by the pool, or on your porch reading while overlooking the beautiful Caribbean Sea.

20140330_080544ABOVE:  The view towards the Caribbean from our suite.

20140330_113317ABOVE:  Typical Jaguar Reef Lodge accommodation with 4 suites (ours was the upper right).

20140330_080520ABOVE: The view from our steps at Jaguar Reef Lodge

Transfers, including an interesting van trip to the Belize Zoo and later passing along the beautiful Hummingbird Highway inbound and land/air back to Belize City on departure was $739 including tip (about $185 each).

Meals and activities charged to AmEx while there (for all the expensive activities like the reef snorkeling, Mayan ruins, horseback riding, rainforest zipline, etc.) was $1850 (about $475 each).

Cash expenditures for additional meals and activities was $900 (about $225 each).

Parking at RDU was $96.

Total trip cost was therefore $8217 (about $2050 per person).

Meals were expensive no matter where we ate.  The resort charged about $12-15 each for breakfast.  In the nearby small town of Hopkins at an extremely modest local place (we tried several), breakfast was about $8 each.

Ditto for dinner.  The resort charges always came to about $20-25 each, including beer.  In rickety shack cafes in Hopkins, it was never less than $20 each.  Food and drink were expensive everywhere.

Activities were the highest.  Half day reef snorkeling in an open, mostly unshaded boat shared with 16-18 other people was $80 each (including 12.5% local GST), and for that you spent most of the half day riding out or riding back or sitting on a beach between 40-45 minute snorkeling sessions.  The reef itself was not very interesting, nor its marine life nearly as diverse as St. John.  Nonetheless, we enjoyed it, but couldn’t justify $320 again for less than 90 minutes of snorkeling over a mediocre reef site.

Horseback riding was $90 per person for a two hour trail ride to the Sittee River through a beautiful hilly rainforest where we twice saw jaguar tracks.  I loved being in the rainforest, and our ten year old daughter loved the riding experience.  Once again, though, the cost was pretty high for the experience.

20140402_100505ABOVE: Jaguar tracks in the rainforest as seen from horseback

The 8:00 AM to 2:30 PM trip to the Mayan ruins and ancient archaeological site and modern Mayan cultural center, including a great lunch, was $110 per person  (including 12.5% local GST).  I realized when we got back to the room that it had cost $440 altogether for the outing.

20140403_123153ABOVE: A Mayan woman demonstrates how to grind corn using ancient grinding stones handed down for a thousand years

The cost of the activities added up quickly.

These prices probably don’t seem terribly high to readers accustomed to spending a great deal more on trips than we are.  From my perspective, I have never spent $8278 for one week of Spring Break before.  That’s $1146 per day total, or $287 per person per day.

By contrast, 15 days in the Kruger National Park of South Africa in February—a much more distant destination—cost $2900 (my cost alone), or about $193 per person per day.

Speaking of which, I will get back to my latest paean to the Kruger in my next post.

 

Regular readers have probably surmised correctly that I love to travel.  Always have, from the time of my earliest memories.

When I was young, I yearned to see the world.  As soon as I could, I explored most it, and there are many places that I never tire returning to: Hawai’i: America’s western national parks like Yellowstone, Arches, Monte Verde, Chaco Culture, and the Grand Canyon; Australia (especially Queensland); St. John; Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe and Zambia; Cuzco and Machu Picchu in Peru; Thailand; Western Europe and England; Topsail Island, North Carolina; Singapore and Malaysia’s Johor Province; Guangxi Province in China; the Bay Area, Marin, and Sonoma; the Okavango, Moremi, Savuti, and Chobe regions of Botswana; and New Orleans.  Because of my diverse consulting clientele, I was often able to combine business with leisure, and most often I flew in First Class (later, Business Class, as Business slowly eclipsed First on many airlines).

Much as I love those and many other places, I find myself going back again and again to the Kruger National Park in South Africa. Friends have recently asked me to explain why.  They ask, What’s the attraction? Especially since I know and like so many diverse parts of our planet.

I’ve lost count of the number of visits to the Kruger since my first one in 1991.  Okay, I lived there then (I was consulting for a large Johannesburg-based bank), so it was easy to drive the 250 miles due east from Jo’burg to reach the Park.  On most weekends in 1991 that’s what I did after I discovered the Kruger.  It was an easy four hour drive.

Johannesburg, after all, reminded me then of Pittsburgh.  (Still does, actually.)  Sure, it offered (and still does offer) some fine dining experiences, but otherwise, Jo’burg is just another big, boring city.  My desire to do something more interesting was my initial motivation for repeated weekend trips to the Kruger.  Unless I had made other plans, such as jaunts to Capetown, Durban, or Botswana, I typically spent Friday and Saturday nights in the Kruger and drove back to Johannesburg on Sunday afternoons.  You might say that I gorged on the Kruger.

Seven months later when my South African consulting gig ended, I spent 10 days camping in a veritable Eden of African wildlife in the Botswana wilderness, after which I went home to the USA.  I was pretty sure that I had well and truly sated my thirst for African wildlife adventures.

I was wrong.  Even with the many distractions of a 24/7 work schedule, I found myself longing for the African bush.

The longing didn’t pass, either.  With surprise, I came to realize that I was suffering from what the French have long called “mal d’Afrique” (the sickness of Africa). The phrase describes people who visit Africa and come to feel somehow deprived when they return to their home country.

I also came to understand that once you get the bug, it can last a lifetime.  In my case, anyway, it seems incurable.  I enjoy every trip back to the Kruger just as much as I did the first one.

Trying to put that feeling–that great feeling I get each time I return–into words, however, is challenging. Here’s my stab at it, in no particular order:

  • I’ve always loved the outdoors, “Nature, red in tooth and claw” (Tennyson), and seeing wildlife in its natural state. One of the appeals of Africa and the Kruger in particular is that there is such an abundance of wildlife everywhere.  I never get tired or bored; there is always something to see, and often something surprisingly new that I have never seen before.  In my most recent trip (Feb, 2014 as of this writing) rare encounters included a baby black mamba trying to get under my front door; a baboon with a bloody gash from a leopard attack; a large number of very cute hyena babies curious enough to come close to the car; zebras mating (vigorously!); and a pack of seven wild dogs.
  • The “lowveld” of the Kruger has a distinctive earthy smell that’s unforgettably enticing.  I think about it when I am gone and enjoy the natural perfume of the area whenever I return.  Friends who accompany me on their first-ever trip to Africa pick up on it immediately without prompting.
  • I never get tired of sitting for long periods observing elephant behavior. Frequently, tolerant family herds will surround the car and placidly go about their business. Elephants are marvelous creatures.
  • The peoples of South Africa are warm. friendly, and a joy to be around. It’s always a pleasure to hear their gentle lilting voices again.
  • Kruger is the largest self-drive national park in Africa, and there are only two more national parks anything like it.  One is Etosha in Namibia, which is quite small, and the other is Hwange in Zimbabwe, which is closed.  I’ve visited all three and love them, but the Kruger is the largest and most diverse.  At 220 miles north-to-south and 40+ miles wide it is huge.  In other parts of Africa visitors must hire a guide and often go in groups to wherever their guides take them.  In the Kruger you rent a car from Avis or Hertz and drive yourself on hundreds of miles of paved and well-kept gravel roads.  You are the boss and decide where you want to go on game drives, when you want to go, how long you want to stay out, and how long you want to stop and watch anything that catches your interest.  This is a great freedom to customize the experience however you want.  Sometimes, for instance, it’s fun to just sit for awhile observing a dung beetle navigating his huge ball of elephant poop across the road.
  • Speeds limits in the park at 50 KPH (about 30 MPH) on tarred roads and 40 KPH (about 25 MPH) on unpaved roads.  This is strictly enforced, so speeders are rare. Driving in he Kruger is therefore stress-free and relaxing.  The slow speeds protect the wildlife and the visitors alike, and you soon get into the rhythm of life in the very slow lane. I find it’s hard to adjust to he normal pace of traffic each time I leave.
  • The 12 full-service “restcamps” in the Kruger are self-contained villages surrounded by electrified barb wire fences to keep the animals from eating the guests.  Each one is a beautiful marvel fitted carefully into the natural landscape and often on a river, with its own gas station, curio shop, grocery store, restaurant and snack bar, and a wide variety of individual thatched-roof  circular accommodation called “rondavels”.  Each rondavel is air-conditioned, most with private toilets and showers.  Of course they have electric lights, and they come with linens, soap, and towels.  The experience is hotel-like and very comfortable.  Most rondavels have a spacious roofed outside porch equipped with table and chairs, fridge, hot plate, and utensils.  Rondavels usually are equipped with an outside “braai” (African word for small charcoal grill) if you prefer to cook your own dinner rather than go to the restaurant.  Most camps are large enough to enjoy long walks when not out on a game drive, and many have swimming pools.
  • Kruger has famously varied terrain and eco-systems.  Map books available in all the park shops detail the interesting differences in geology, elevation, rainfall, and vegetation, all of which impact wildlife distribution.  Because of this topographical and environmental diversity, the Kruger landscape changes constantly as you move through it.  Some places are hilly, with large rocky outcrops called kopjes.  Other places are open, reminiscent of the Serengeti plains.  Still others are wooded, or scrubby grasslands, or large river valleys.  The many changes in scenery make for a stimulating experience.
  • South African food in the Kruger is tasty, a mix of the commonplace (chicken salad; cheese and tomato sandwiches; steak) and the unfamiliar (pap, a finely ground corn; biltong, which is like jerky; game pie, such as impala; kudu steaks, which is similar to elk).  While the S.A. wines available in the Park shops are not the top quality selections from the Cape Province, they are nonetheless quite good, as are the upmarket S.A. beers.  Even the local peanuts taste different, somehow better.
  • Late afternoons enjoying a “sundowner” on the wide, open-air veranda of a camp restaurant situated on a river embankment are hard to beat, especially just before tucking into a delicious cut of Cape Buffalo seared to perfection.  After dinner, savoring the twilight with my last glass of deep red wine as the hippos grunt loudly to one another in the river fills me with pleasure. It’s relaxes my soul.
  • Spending time with loved ones driving slowly through the Park on game drives is just as relaxing, and a great deal of fun, too.  Everyone is on high alert scanning the countryside for animals.  Kruger brags that it is home to 147 species of large mammals, more than any other African game park, and I have seen most of them at one time or another.  Then there are the 114 reptile species to look out for in the park.  Some, like the baby black mamba I mentioned finding on my doorstep and rowdy bull elephants in search of a mate, are best viewed from a safe distance.
  • The birds are reason enough to visit Kruger.  517 bird species are found in the park, and many are magnificent.  Look up Lilac-breasted Roller, Carmine Bee-eater, Saddle-billed Stork, African Fish Eagle, Secretarybird, African Hoopoe, and Malachite Kingfisher for some stellar examples.  I never tire of the birds in the Kruger, and they are everywhere, including in all the camps.

If my reasons aren’t enough to convince you that the Kruger excites all the senses magnificently, consider this:  I despise being cooped up in coach on ultra-long overseas flights (16 hours nonstop), yet I willingly fly in economy class again and again to return to South Africa. I plan to keep on doing it as long I can.

In 1991 I visited the Kruger National Park in South Africa for the first time while working for a consulting client based in Johannesburg.  I had settled in for several months at a rented house in Sandton, the lovely northern suburb of Jo’burg, but I quickly became bored with staid city life. So I began a series of weekend forays to explore the country.

On one of my first trips I ventured in my rental car on a Saturday to the far north of South Africa to visit the town of Messina which sits on the Limpopo River across from the border with Zimbabwe.  It was mid-afternoon by the time I turned back, and on a whim I decided to detour due east to reach the Punda Maria Gate of the Kruger National Park.  I had heard about the Kruger and always wanted to see African wildlife in the their native habitats.  I thought maybe I could drive in and out of the northern reaches of the Park quickly before heading back to Johannesburg. Just get a taste of what it was like, I thought.  On the map, it looked close.

By the time I passed slowly through several small villages and finally arrived at the Punda Maria gate, however, it was getting to be late afternoon. The friendly Kruger Park staff at the gate explained that it was too late to drive in and drive out because the gate was closing for the day soon.  But they offered to call Punda Maria Restcamp, just 8 kilometers inside the gate, to see if perhaps they had vacant accommodation for the night.

What the heck, I thought. Why not? I didn’t have anything pressing that Saturday night.

It was a lucky day for me:  They did have a room available, and I set off at the Park’s paved road speed limit of 50 KPH (31 MPH) in the direction of the Punda Maria Restcamp (Kruger speed limit on unpaved roads is 40 KPH, or 25 MPH), arriving just at dusk.

The warm staff at Punda Maria made me feel at home as they checked me in, took my Rand in payment (about $30 at the time), and showed me to my bungalow accommodation for the night.  I had no idea what to expect, so I was very surprised to find the comfortable room had two beds, electricity and lights, linens, a private shower and toilet, and air-conditioning.

Camp staff explained that the Kruger’s 12 so-called “restcamps” are really a collection of small villages scattered up and down the 300 mile length of the Park.  Each Kruger restcamp, they said, is surrounded by electrified barbed wire to keep dangerous animals from getting inside to eat the guests, and the camp gates are closed and locked (and guarded) every night from sundown until sunup.  They told me that each restcamp has its own filling station, grocery and curio store, restaurant, swimming pool, several types of comfortable overnight accommodation choices like the one I was in (all with the full complement of hotel-like amenities), as well as a campground with shared ablution block for folks who preferred to bring their own tents.  All restcamps, they assured me, have electricity and clean fresh water.

Here’s a recent photo I shot of some of the bungalows at Punda Maria:

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I was very impressed with the camp’s infrastructure. Somehow I had pictured it as crude and rustic, yet it had all the creatures comforts of any good hotel.  I headed off to the curio shop to see what was on offer.  I bought a Kruger Park driving map, a beautiful wooden hand-carved bowl, and an elephant-hide wallet.  Shop personnel assured me that the elephant product was part of a wholly internal and government-approved South Africa National Park (SANP) program to make use of skins from wildlife that had died in the Park in order to help pay for the Park’s expenses.

By then it was dinner time. The restaurant menu offered a good selection of South African wines and beers, and it included a varied selection of meals.  I ordered a kudu steak with vegetables, and a bottle of beer.  The kudu was delicious, similar to elk in flavor, and I departed sated and relaxed.

I slept well in my bungalow and arose before sunup.  I had been told that the camp gates would open at 5:30 AM, and I wanted to be the first one out.  Looking over the Park map book the night before, I’d decided that since I was already inside the Park through a fluke of good fortune, I might as well see of the Kruger what I could.  My plan was to start driving the main road inside the Park leading south from Punda Maria and to take it as far as I could before running out of time, after which I would exit to a main road back to Johannesburg. I was an accidental tourist in the Kruger anyway, so why not?

It proved to be a captivating experience, one I’d never forget.  The Kruger is the largest self-drive national wildlife park in Africa.  Unlike equatorial East Africa (think: the Serengeti Plains of Kenya and Tanzania), where tourists are always accompanied by guides and drivers and most often clustered into small groups, the Kruger National Park allows individual drivers to bring their own vehicles into the Park and use the many hundreds of miles of paved and unpaved roads to look at wildlife.

African wildlife in the Kruger is plentiful and extremely varied, so anyone who drives into the Park won’t be disappointed.  On that first trip in February, 1991, I drove no faster than the posted 50 KPH from north to south all day long and saw an impressive number of African animal species for a first-timer: baboon, vervet monkey, zebra, kudu, Cape buffalo, impala, waterbuck, lion, giraffe, white rhino, crocodile, hippo, monitor lizard, leopard, nyala, reedbuck, warthog, elephant, hyena, jackal, wildebeest, bushbuck, duiker, tree squirrel, rock dassie, mongoose, and genet, as well as a dazzling array of Southern African birdlife.  By the time I arrived at the southern end of the Park to leave at Crocodile Bridge Gate, I was hooked.  I knew I’d be returning to enjoy and discover the secrets of the Kruger soon and often.

And that’s just what happened over the next 24 years, until I lost count of the number of times I’d been.  Unlike return visits to some places, each time I go back to the Kruger I am as excited as I was on that first visit in 1991.  My most recent visit (February, 2014) was just as interesting and enjoyable as that first time way back when.

The recent trip was especially memorable because I added a new Kruger species to my list: black mamba, arguably the deadliest snake in Africa.  This particular sighting was, though, a bit too close for comfort, as the black mamba was discovered trying to worm its way under the front door of my accommodation at Letaba restcamp.  I’ll provide details in a future post.

This is the first in a series of posts that will cover various experiences during my most recent trip to take four friends to see the African wildlife in the Kruger National Park of South Africa.  This one is about successfully, even happily, enduring the flight in economy class over the pond from the Northern Hemisphere to the Southern Hemisphere, and from one continent to another, just to get to South Africa.

Any way you cut it, it’s a long way to South Africa from the United States.  Delta’s nonstop daily flight (DL200) makes the 8451 mile journey from Atlanta to Johannesburg in just under 16 hours, and the return flight (DL201) is a solid 16 hours or more, depending upon headwinds.  South African Airways also flies between the USA and South Africa with service from New York and from Washington, but with an intermediate refueling stop.  Even longer are the connections through Europe which require two overnight flights, one to get to London or Amsterdam or Frankfurt or wherever, and then another from there to Johannesburg or Cape Town.  And that’s after waiting all day in Europe for the connecting flight.

After 24 years (since 1991) of making countless flights to Johannesburg, I can say with some certainty that the nonstop Delta flights are the best options, made even better with Delta’s offering of Economy Comfort seating in the first four rows of coach.  Up until 2011 I had never flown to South Africa in coach.  It was always in Business or First Class.  Now that international Business and First class fares have skyrocketed, however, I have to settle for Economy or stay home.

And, well, I’m not staying home.  Not now, not ever!

So I made my peace with the gods of sardine class flying, and I have flown in the back of the bus on six of Delta’s 16-hour segments in the last couple of years.  Without using any drugs, I might add.  Some people swear by sleep aids like Ambien, and some like alcohol to dull the senses.  Not me, no, thanks.

Delta’s Economy Comfort on DL200 (ATL/JNB) and DL201 (JNB/ATL) is configured as the first four rows of coach in their long-range 777 aircraft.  EC starts in row 31 on these flights and is right behind the double section of Business Elite seats that take up the front third of the airplane.  Delta seems to be selling all those Business Class seats, or perhaps, I thought, they are upgrading high value customers who have paid close to full fare for coach.  That said, I spoke to two women across the aisle from me on two recent flights whose companies paid full-fare economy, and neither one had been upgraded to Business Elite.  One was a Diamond with Delta, and the other a Platinum.  Yet every Business Elite seat on all six segments I’ve flown on DL200/201 have been full.  If Delta isn’t even upgrading full-fare economy Diamonds, you can draw your own conclusions about Delta’s yield on those flights.

Back to Delta Economy Comfort on DL200/201, its primary advantages are four inches more legroom than standard coach rows between seats (called seat pitch), and four inches more recline.  Doesn’t sound like much, I know, especially since the seat width is the same as all other coach seats (9-across on Delta’s intercontinental 777s), but, trust me, it makes a lot of difference when you have to endure 16 hours in those seats.

The movies and alcohol are also complimentary in EC.  Here’s what Economy Comfort looked like on a recent flight (except that every last seat was filled):

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As I mentioned, some folks rely on pharmaceuticals to get them through ultra-long flights cooped up in an aluminum tube six miles above the ocean.  My proven survival technique for 16-hour flights is more ascetic.  Here are my personal guidelines guaranteed for a minimally stress-free long flight if all are followed:

  • Get yourself into Economy Comfort on Delta, or in the section that your airline calls the more comfortable first few rows of coach, even if you must pay for it.  It’s worth it.
  • Try to get an aisle or window seat.  Aisle seats are great for getting up often, as you will need to do, and window seats are great for providing a resting place for your head and body when sleeping.
  • Drink very little alcohol (two drinks, max). Imbibe right after takeoff, and don’t drink alcohol again during the flight.
  • Don’t use sedatives unless advised to do so by your physician.
  • Avoid soft drinks.
  • Drink lots of water throughout the flight, even though that entails repeated trips to the lav. Make yourself drink often.
  • Bring your own small, comfy pillow to sit on to ease the pain of the damnably hard Economy Comfort seat bottoms.
  • Make sure you have the pillow and blanket provided by Delta or your airline, too.  You’ll need both pillows (yours and the airline’s).  Get an extra blanket if you can.  You can use it to enhance the pillow cushioning beneath you, and the extra blanket is good if the plane is cold, as they often are.
  • Bring several good books on a tablet or in print.
  • Invest in good quality noise-reduction headphones that wrap around your ears rather than sit on top of them.  Using them in-flight will reduce the fatigue of engine and air turbulence noise, and it will also enable you to watch and hear movies (it’s virtually impossible to hear anything without the noise-canceling phones). I used several noise-reduction headphones before finally ponying up for the expensive Bose model.  I like the over-the-ear Bose model that uses a standard AAA battery, and I always carry an extra battery.  You may prefer the rechargeable battery model.  Either way, I recommend Bose as a tried and true and comfortable product.
  • In addition to noise-reduction headphones, bring several pairs of cheap ear plugs.  Your ears will get hot and tired of the headphones and need relief occasionally.  Nothing beats cheap, disposable earplugs.
  • Bring an eye shade for sleeping.  In fact, bring two in case you lose one.  When you get ready to nod off, you’ll be glad you blacked out the cabin and eliminated the distraction of ambient lights.
  • Catch up on movies and TV shows available on your seat-back screen.  A good two-hour movie really helps to pass the time.
  • Bring your own favorite snacks to augment what the airline provides.  Keep them handy with a bottle of water in the seat-back pocket.
  • Bring a small but reliable reading light independent of the annoying and sometimes useless overhead light.  I find the overhead lights often don’t work or won’t move to focus light where you need it, and the light bothers those sitting around you.  A small LCD reading light focuses light where you need it and won’t trouble your neighbor.
  • Get up often during the flight and stand in the mid-plane or rear galley.  Stretch by doing isometric exercises, flexing your joints. Flight attendants leave snacks, fruit, and water there for everyone. Drink some water while you are there.  Wait in line for the lav, and then stand and stretch some more. Do this as often as you wake up from a nap or need to hit the lav.  This will give your bottom relief from the cruelly-hard Delta coach seats (even in Economy Comfort), and it will keep your blood flowing.  You’ll feel almost human by the end of the flight if you do this.
  • Don’t eat too much.  Even if it turns out you like the fare provided, consume only modest portions.  If you get hungry later, you will have both your snacks and he mid-plane galley snacks to tide you over.  When you eat, be sure to drink lots of water with the food.
  • Sleep whenever you feel like it, not worrying about the time or how long you sleep.  Ditto for watching movies, reading, and getting up to stretch.  Don’t concern yourself with what your body wants to do.  If you feel like sleeping, take a nap.  Use the noise-reduction headphones (unplugged from the seat) and the eye shades when you rest. Cover yourself with a blanket to mimic being in bed.  Recline the seat to the point that makes you comfortable, or don’t recline it at all.  Sometimes I sleep better with my tiny little seat sitting straight up.
  • Most importantly, get yourself into a calm frame of mind before boarding.  Be realistic, certainly, in your expectations, that this is going to be a long flight.  But maintain a positive attitude that your have the tools, the knowledge, the seat, the amenities, and the mental advantage to make this flight not just endurable, but enjoyable.  I spent 30 years flying in First Class and Business Class on almost every flight.  I didn’t think I could ever like being in coach, but I figured out how to make it work for me.  You can, too.
  • Prepare your mind for the unexpected.  Weather and mechanical delays happen; it’s the reality of flying.  Deal with it mentally, and stay calm.

That last bullet is particularly important.  On my recent flight to South Africa, a Delta mechanical problem cascaded into a five and half hour delay getting into Johannesburg, about which I’ll write in my next post.  Meanwhile, hope the above advice is useful to some.  I have come to live by those guidelines, and they work beautifully for me.

My first trip to Italy was in 1973 to visit cousins who lived then (and now) in Florence.  With enthusiastic help and native insights from my cousins, I fell in love with Tuscany at first sight, and my heart still longs for all things Tuscan.  Well, except for the cold, dreary, rainy days of winter in the region.

While there in 1973 I took the train to Rome and stayed for a couple of days to take in the sights, sounds, and food of the ancient city, and I enjoyed it.  Rome was on my itinerary on many subsequent occasions when visiting Tuscany, but it was always an afterthought.

In late 2013, however, I took the advice of Joe Brancatelli and rented an apartment in Rome for a few days, a decision which opened my eyes to what a truly fabulous city Rome is on so many planes.  It was like seeing the city for the first time.

First of all, the apartment was in the old Jewish Quarter, which meant it was dead central to almost everything one could want to see in Rome.  We walked everywhere, only taking cabs to and from Roma Termini for our trains in and out. Not being dependent upon a car or public transit frees up the spirit and sharpens the senses to one’s surroundings.

Here are my real-time notes at the time on the experience:

  • We’re here! I phoned the landlord from our train when we got close to Rome, and he met us as promised at the flat. I paid him the remaining €400 we owed (€200/nt).  We love it and are about to find the market for basics. The taxi from the station was just€8.50.  I gave him 10. After acquiring groceries, then lunch.
  • Despar supermarket in the Quarter was closed. Hours are 0800-1330 daily. We didn’t arrive at the apartment until 1330. Later we found a slightly bigger Despar on Emmanuelle, apparently the biggest Despar in Rome.  The cheese and cold cuts are perfect,  and even the store-bought loaf of Italian bread is tasty and fresh.
  • I liked the store, but that’s a flagship?  Good grief!  Even with the funky basement with dry goods, it’s not really bigger than the Red & White grocery store in tiny Absarokee, Montana where we shop when visiting my wife’s parents each summer. Rome has a lot of catching up to do yet to fully embrace the grocery chain experience.
  • Had a fabulous lunch at Nonna Betta here in the Jewish Quarter, literally just steps away from our apartment. Their house wine is the best I’ve ever tasted anywhere.  Tried to buy a bottle, but was told it only comes by the cask.
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  • These ruins of four Roman temples built starting the end of the 4th century B.C. in the Largo Argentina area of Rome are two blocks from our apartment. Julius Caesar was assassinated here near the columns in the photo in 44 B.C.
  • Caesar was at the time “dictator for life” and had many enemies in the Roman Senate because he’d effectively destroyed the centuries-old Roman Republic which was a patrician democracy (if you were rich and owned lots of land, you could vote). Some Senators killed him, and him alone, thinking they’d restore the old Republic but it was the end of the Republic and the beginning of the Roman Empire. A series of Roman emperors followed Julius Caesar until the collapse of the Empire in the 30th A.D.
  • The ruins in the photo were excavated in the 1920s by archaeologists after part of one of the ancient Roman temples was discovered when the area was being renovated for luxury apartments. Naturally they never built the flats after that. The ruins are very close to the Tiber River at the heart of Rome and only a long block from the Pantheon (126 A.D.) which of course is still standing. Instead of a hotel we are renting a great 2 BR apartment in the ancient Jewish Quarter 2 blocks from the ruins near the Tiber.
  • We were stuffed from our huge, late lunch and had only 3 pizza slices in the same area for dinner, plus 2 really good glasses of red (€1.50 each).
  • We stopped at the famous technically EU-unlicensed Sora Margherita and lucked out by getting 1230pm reservations for lunch tomorrow.
  • We didn’t give money to the cat sanctuary in the Largo Argentina, but we did walk on to the Pantheon and returned by Piazza Minerva to marvel at the ancient Egyptian obelisk (date unknown but excavated nearby) set atop Bernini’s weird elephant statue (1667).  This place is crawling with layered centuries of history. Winding down and about to call it a night.
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  • They have a great LRT (light rail transit) here that terminates strangely at the Piazza Venezia in the city center where Mussolini used to harangue his fascist supporters in the 1930s.
  • [NEXT MORNING]  Walked to the Roman Coliseum:
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  • Lines to get in were endless. We were happy just to walk around it. It is beautiful and awe-inspiring. Factiods overheard about the Coliseum: There was so much blood that it was too slick to stand up. So they had to coat the surface with sand (“sand” = “arena” in Latin). They killed so many rhinos in the arena that they wiped out all them in north Africa.
  • Afterwards we walked by Palentine hill to the Circus Maximus which could hold 250,000 of Rome’s 1 million population to watch chariot races. I hate to admit that I thought of Charlton Heston as Ben Hur hurtling around the arena in his chariot in DeMille’s spectacular film
  • Sweet and sour experience at Sora Marcherita for lunch: Food was great (everything recommended by friends, plus fettuccine with butter and cheese for the kids–all tasty) + liter of red house wine + liter of water. But we didn’t order meatballs which came suddenly and the total bill was a staggering €81 for lunch. I should have been suspicious when all the Italians got written menus but we didn’t. I felt ripped off. Glad we ate there but I wouldn’t return.  The house wine wasn’t very good, either, though I choked down what I could. Lots of folks waiting outside when we left who probably won’t be as particular as I am. I have the opinion that the place is just a money machine now.
  • Now at St. Peter’s. Never seen such crowds in Rome .  It’s like mid-June.  Only the Pope is allowed to say mass under Bernini’s masterpiece, the bronze Baldachin. I am always awed by its stunning beauty:
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  •  At a spot just beyond the altar in 1976 I took a beautiful slide of my brother gazing up into a ray of sunlight coming through one of Bernini’s windows just beneath the dome. We had the basilica almost entirely to ourselves then.  Not any more, as the photo proves.
  • [FOLLOWING DAY] After a good breakfast in our flat, we found the famed “burnt bakery” open this morning in the Jewish Quarter and bought samples of things for later. It had a queue but was very efficient.
  • We then walked to the Spanish Steps, which a is a fair distance, stopping at the Pantheon once again to see it in daylight and at several Roman temples along the way.
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  • Took this at the Piazza Spagna by the Spanish Steps. Rome is jammed with people everywhere [December 27].
  • Circled back across central Rome to the Piazza Navona, home of another Bernini masterpiece, the famous fountain.  It began to drizzle just as we found nearby Enoteca Cul de Sac, our choice restaurant for lunch.  And what a choice!  Within five minutes I was imbibing the indescribably delicious Nobile Di Montepulciano TREROSE “Tenimenti Angelina” 2010 (Toscana), shown here in the menu:
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  • Bravo, bravo!  Enoteca Cul de sac is the most fabulous meal and best wines I’ve ever had in Italy–and I haven’t yet had a bad
     meal or wine in this country
    . As I said, it’s close to Piazza Navona and only a block north of the Corso Victoria Emanuele II, down which runs one of the light rail transit lines.
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  • The Enoteca has over 1100 wines to choose from and must have one of the most varied selections in Rome.
  • The red wine I chose was from Tuscany: Nobile Di Montepulciano TREROSE “Tenimenti Angelina” 2010 (Toscana).  To say it was heavenly would be an injustice. It was a wine to remember all one’s life.
  • And the food was a perfect match. Here was our banquet: superb Italian bread with the best olive oil and balsamic vinegar any of us had ever tasted. Pheasant pate with truffles – with LOTS of truffles. A to-die-for duck ravioli.  Pasta with just butter and parmigiano which our teenage son raved about while wolfing it down. Homemade lasagna – I had visions of paradise with every bite. Good enough to make me return to Rome by itself. Black rice with mussels – our young daughter didn’t want to share a single bite until she’d had her fill. Tiramisu so good that my wife, who was full already, consumed it with gusto. Chocolate mousse with fresh whipped cream – if only I could make this at home! Homemade ice cream (“crema” flavor) – scrumptious, and the perfect finish to the perfect meal.
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  • Enoteca Cul de sac is narrow but long, with tables on both sides of an aisle.  All serving proportions were appropriately modest, which meant we didn’t get overfull. I had 3 glasses of that unearthly Montepulciano I described above. It wasn’t enough, but I had to stop.
  • Incredibly, the bill for all four of us came to just €72 (about $95) total. Rarely in my life have I been so perfectly sated or enjoyed eating and drinking as much as at Enoteca Cul de Sac. I say again: Bravo, Enoteca Cul de Sac!
  • We enjoyed our repast there a bit past 1:00 PM after first walking this morning all over Rome again to catch some of the things we’d missed the past two days: Campo de Fiori, the embarrasing bourgeois carnival atmosphere of Piazza Navona, the Pantheon (for the 3rd time–it never fails to awe), the Roman Temple Adriano, the over-rated and crowded Trevi fountain, the even more over-rated and equally crowded Spanish steps, and window shopping along the fancy Via Borgognona.
  • Yesterday in St. Peter’s basilica people were so thick that it was shoulder to shoulder. It felt like a Black Friday sale at Target. You almost couldn’t move in St. Peter’s even as large as it is because of the crowds. It was stressful, just the opposite feeling one would hope for when visiting that magnificent space. We had to wait in a very long queue even to get in the basilica (after going through an airport style security screen).  A large Italian family jumped the queue close to the entrance; I loudly berated them for their rudeness, but they were not the least bit penitent, in my opinion just the wrong sort of attitude to be entering one of the holiest places on the planet.
  • However,  experiences like today’s meal and wine relax the mind and revive the spirit, washing away the stress. And even a lax Episcopalian like me was deeply moved, despite being in the midst of a sea of humanity, to enter St. Peter’s basilica yesterday.
  • You literally can’t put a stick in the ground anywhere in the city without hitting something ancient and historical. If they applied our NEPA (environmental) rules here in Rome, you couldn’t change a light bulb.

In summary, staying in the apartment in that particular location, within walking distance of everything, made me feel like a Roman for the first time in 40 years of visits to the city. I can hardly wait to return!

I plan to post using my smartphone from South Africa February 4-19.  Look for mini-posts with photos in real time as the mood strikes and as opportunities for bandwidth in the African wilderness of the Kruger National Park permit.

While today’s Italian trains are fast, modern, convenient, generally on time, and plenty comfortable, they don’t move at French TGV speeds.

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But then again, they don’t have to be that fast because of short distances between major Italian cities.  Milan to Venice is about 175 miles; Venice to Florence is under 200 miles; Florence to Rome is also less than 200  miles; and Rome to Milan is just 375 miles.  I recently was aboard modern Italian fast trains between each of those city-pairs and was impressed and satisfied with the times.  Top speeds often exceeded 100 MPH by a long shot, but it’s the average speed that really matters.  In most cases, even with stops, the average speed hovered around the century mark.

My family of four traveled together on this trip, and our journey within Italy began and ended in Milan.  I’d found relatively cheap fares to and from Milan Malpensa because American Airlines was competing with Emirates’s fare to MXP, and we grabbed the AA fares because it was a lot less expensive than flying into Rome, Venice, Florence, or even to Pisa.

Malpensa, however, is a long distance from the center of Milan.  In fact it’s 45-60 minutes by road or rail.  We opted for the rail connection to Milano Centrale since we were continuing by train to Venice from there.  After clearing Customs and Immigration we easily found the Malpensa Express train station platforms under the airport and bought a “Family Pass” to get into the city for €25 (about $34) which covered the four of us.  Individual tickets on the Malpensa Express are €10 (about $13.50).

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The “Malpensa Express” is anything but.  We stopped at eight or nine stations over the 55 minutes it took us to reach the Milano Centrale station, hardly an “express” service.  When I mentioned this to a friend who is more familiar with Malpensa than I am, he assured me the train service was far cheaper than a taxi, if perhaps not as fast.

On the return trip from central Milan to the Malpensa airport we once again used the Malpensa Express train, but the ubiquitous automated ticket machines to be found in every Italian rail station called “Fast Tickets” didn’t have the option to buy a Family Pass, so we paid full individual fares, a total of €35, to get back to the airport.  I inquired with a number of Trenitalia (Italian Rail) personnel as to why the Family Pass option was absent from the machines, but no one had a clue.

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At any rate the Malpensa Express was a pleasant, clean, and comfortable option for getting between the airport and the city.

Before going further, here are the prices we paid for our tickets for the intercity fast trains, all of which we purchased through the Trenitalia (Italian Railways) online portal well in advance of our trip:

Milan to Venice: €36 total (€9 euros per ticket, or about $12 each) – this was the cheapest advance purchase ticket available (“Super Economy”), and we traveled in the lowest class available called “Standard Class” or 2nd Class, which is standard coach seating, four across.

Venice to Florence: $145 for full Economy because the Super Economy fares were sold out despite buying as early as possible; we again traveled in “Standard Class” or 2nd Class, which is standard coach seating, four across.

Florence to Lucca and return (purchased same day): ~ €50  (roughly €7 per person each way, or about $10 each way per person); this was not a fast train, merely a day trip to Lucca and back, but it’s interesting to see what a same-day, walk-up fare costs on a local commuter train.

Florence to Rome: $103, again a Super Economy fare bucket (the cheapest possible price) for the next step up from the lowest class of onboard service, one called “Premium Economy,” which is also four across like Standard Class but with glass half-height dividers and slightly better seat quality and some minimal free onboard amenities, such as juice or coffee.

Rome to Milan: $245, once again a Super Economy fare bucket, but this time in cushy “Business Class,” which is extremely comfortable with leather seats set three-across and with substantial glass dividers for privacy; there is a First Class service, too, but Business Class was so incredibly comfortable that I cannot imagine how it could be topped.

Total cost for all the trains was roughly $700, a real bargain, I thought, for a family of four, much cheaper and far less stressful than renting and driving a car.  Thank God for the trains of Italy!

We arrived on December 20, and the Milano Centrale station looked more like Grand Central Terminal at rush hour: wall-to-wall people going hither and yon for the holidays.  We found the platform for our train to Venice, which, as it turned out, was a Swiss trainset that originated in Geneva and terminated in Venice.  It arrived a few minutes late, and we hurried aboard to find our seats and stow our luggage.

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Our assignment was four seats facing each other over a small table, and there was lots of room between seats to push in our bags.  There are also overhead storage racks which are quite ample.  This configuration was repeated on all the fast trains we rode, including four seats facing each other over a small table.  It is a great design for travelers, utilitarian and comfortable at the same time.

The Swiss trainset looked much like French TGVs, German ICEs,  Belgian/French/German Thalys trains, and Italian fast trains: sleek, bullet-nosed at both ends, and very cool to look at.

The schedule from Milan to Venice (about 175 miles) was 2 hours, 35 minutes, for an average 70 MPH, which seemed slow for such a short journey.  We soon found out why, as the train stopped in many places en route.  I also suspect the line wasn’t upgraded to super-fast train standards, either.  We didn’t mind, as it whooshed along between stations at very high speeds and was very comfortable.  I bought pizza for the kids and Swiss beers from my wife and me in the mid-train diner, which in addition to white tablecloth table service boasted a stand-up bar for purchasing takeaway snacks and drinks.  The table service looked first rate, but it was empty of customers.

After a tall, cold Swiss brew I dozed off and on and enjoyed watching the Italian countryside fly by.  We reached Venice about 20 minutes late, owing to heavy student traffic boarding at several of the stops, but the trip and the train were enjoyable and comfortable.  We didn’t mind the slight delay, especially given it was close to Christmas.

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The train from Venice to Florence was a flashy red Trenitalia Frecciarossa, one of many such trainsets like it that we would see in Italy.  There are several “levels” of Tenitalia fast train service, of which Frecciarossa is one of the speediest.  Since 2012, there are also privately-operated Italo fast trains running on the same rails competing for riders and Euros with Trenitalia.  We didn’t ride any of the Italo trains, though I hear they are comparable in every way to the Trenitalia lineup of speed demons between major Italian cities.

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Venice to Florence is under 200  miles and scheduled at 2 hours, 5 minutes, for an average of almost 100 MPH.  We stopped once at Bologna, but otherwise it was a true high speed run all the way.  Once again the train was extremely comfortable in every way.  My only complaint was the new, very long tunnels through the Apennines between Bologna and Florence.  Almost the entire distance is now underground, which means there are no opportunities to enjoy the mountain scenery en route.  Too, the trains move in and out of long tunnels for short distances in the open, and each time there is a great deal of inner ear distress caused by the high speeds and tremendous changes in interior air pressure.  After a beer, however, I hardly noticed it, and we arrived Florence dead on time.

While in Florence we made a day trip to Lucca and back via train, using standard local equipment (there are no fast trains to Lucca).  On that rainy December 26 in both Lucca and in Florence the Senagalese and other North Africans were everywhere  (at the railroad stations and all around the towns) selling umbrellas for €3 (about $5) or whatever you could bargain for. Many Italians, I was told, resent them for their ubiquitous presence, persistence, and business acumen. Very ingenious and industrious, if you ask me.

As I noted above, the train trip was made on walk-up, same-day fares that we bought from one of the many “Fast Ticket” automated ticket machines.  Since these were local train both ways, there were no seat reservations required; however, unlike the fast trains, tickets had to be validated at the respective platforms before use.  Unlike my last trip to Italy when I forgot to validate my tickets, I made sure this time to do so.

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The local trains were clean and comfortable inside, and they ran on time (though we didn’t much care that day).  Train exteriors, though, were often marred with ugly graffiti that reminded me of NYC subways in the 1980s.

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A particular annoyance at the stations–all the train stations in Italy–are the pervasive smokers.  Standing around waiting for trains, one can never escape the billowing clouds of cigarette smoke generated from Italians killing time.  There are no smoke-free zones, and even if there were, I doubt that Italians would honor them.

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Florence to Rome is also about 200 miles, a distance we covered in an astonishing one and a half hours (with no stops) for an average of 133 MPH.  Our kids barely had time to finish their pizza before we were rolling to a stop at Roma Termini.  It was very sweet to make that distance so quickly.

Rome to Milan was the longest distance we traveled on a single train at 375 miles.  The nonstop schedule was just under 3 hours at an average 127 MPH.  The only discernable slowdown was traversing the trackage around (but not stopping in) Florence.  Our longest train ride was also the most comfortable, as we were in Business Class, with luxurious leather seating and just three seats across.

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High glass dividers between rows of seats made the experience quiet and private, and at the end of our car (Car 3) were two private compartments with red leather seats reminiscent of private Wagon-Lits travel: deluxe indeed.  But we did not have the foresight to book those seats.  In any case we were perfectly content as it was, and I’d unquestionably book Business Class for business travel anywhere and everywhere in Italy that it was available.

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I noted above that Premium Economy came with complimentary coffee or juice.  Business Class extras were identical.  In both classes, a small snack was offered, such as cookies or nuts.  Once again I chose to make my way several cars up to the diner, which is always in the center of each trainset, to fetch pizza for the kids and beer for my wife and me.  I would happily have purchased Champagne, but, sadly, none was available for purchase.  That’s one small luxury that I’d like to see Trenitalia match the SNCF’s onboard service.

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On every train a cart of drinks and food for sale was rolled through each car, but by the time it reached our car, we had what we wanted already.

While waiting at Roma Termini for our train to Milan, my wife found the gigantic ads for men’s underwear on the big screens adjacent to the train information boards to be particularly amusing:

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On a previous visit to Italy I rented an Avis car at Malpensa and drove all over the country.  It was stressful and very expensive, and I was both exhausted and tremendously relieved when I returned the car at MXP.  By contrast this trip was stress-free, thanks to the excellent rail service.

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It was as near-perfect as one could reasonably hope for, with every train clean, comfortable, on time or nearly so, a far superior experience compared to flying (well, a root canal is preferable to flying some days).  And all that relaxation and ease at a reasonable price to boot.  I highly recommend it.

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