Saturday, January 31, 2009

Three Chimneys Restaurant, Scotland

We’re not ones to usually post restaurant reviews on this blog, but we recently had a dinner that was so far over the top that we thought we’d share our experience.

On the Isle of Skye, Scotland, is a totally out-of-the-way restaurant that embraces local ingredients and offers a multi-course dining experience such as what one might find at famous Michelin-starred restaurants in New York, Napa, London, or Paris.

Dinner at The Three Chimneys restaurant can be either a traditional three-course meal, or the spectacular Seven Courses of Skye. We had the seven-course dinner (which with appetizer, cheese, and dessert turned out to be more like 9 or 10 courses), and would suggest that if you’ve traveled that far for a meal you might as well go with the best.

Not on the list of the seven courses is an amuse bouche (appetizer) of the day. This was followed by ...

Loch Dunvegan Langoustines with Tattie Scones & Glendale Organic Mesclun

Colbost Crab risotto with Shellfish Essence and Truckle Wafer

A Selection of Broadford Cold & Hot-Smoked Fish with Croft Quail Eggs

Sconser King Scallop with Hazelnut Crust, Pickled Winkles, Split Pea & Ham Hough Purry, Claret Jus

Three Loch Harport Oysters with Cucumber & Mint Jelly, Homemade Crème Fraiche, Smoked Herring Roe

Roast Glenhinnisdal Lamb Loin with Kidney, Heart, Liver & Hairst Bree

Highland Cheeses with Our Oatcakes

Three Chimneys Hot Marmalade Pudding Soufflé with Drambuie Syrup & Mealie Ice Cream

When we were there, this menu was £65 per person – an astounding bargain. We started the meal with a half bottle of Domain Seguin Pouilly Fume 2006 (Sauvignon Blanc) ...

... and continued with a premier cru white Burgundy as our main wine – a Marie & Marc Vincent Santenay Beaurepaire 2003 (Chardonnay). Both wines were excellent, and good matches for the primarily seafood menu.

The wait staff are young and reasonably knowledgeable, and asked each diner if there was any part of the seven courses that they couldn’t eat, as a substitution or two was available. Francesca declined the lamb course, and thus had another fish offering.

Pan-Fried Mallaig Hake & Razor Fish with Root Vegetable Dauphinoise, Puy Lentils,
Cumin Cauliflower, Orbost Herb & Garlic Salsa

Overall, we’d say it was one of the best meals of our lives.

You'll definitely need reservations very far in advance at the Three Chimneys Restaurant.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Surviving a Crash

The news about the US Airways flight that landed in the Hudson River has begun to abate. It’s miraculous that all survived, and we began wondering what we’d do in such a situation, and what we’d like to have with us if we had to make an emergency exit.

For many years we were involved in wilderness search-and-rescue, EMT work, and firefighting. In addition, we’ve been around water, ropes, injuries, and emergency situations in our own adventuring.

If we were to survive a crash, the things we’d really like with us afterward would include:
EMT Shears – These can cut through straps, light sheet metal, clothing, and more. And they’re TSA legal.
Flashlight – Just a tiny keychain LED light would suffice.
Glasses – Reading glasses, prescription glasses, whatever we normally needed.
Wallet – Yes, we know not to grab our stuff in an emergency exit. But life would be immensely easier in the days following a survivable crash if our passport and credit card were in our pocket rather than in an underwater carry-on bag.
Cell Phone – As long as the battery lasts and you have a signal, probably the most useful “survival” tool.

There are probably many other items that could be added to this list, but the longer a list becomes the less likely one is to carry what’s needed. Most of the above items can be kept in a case not much bigger than a wallet. Better yet, you could use one of those dorky-looking money-purse things that travelers always have hung around their neck. And as for clothing:

Shoes – We have seen survivors from a winter plane crash walking through snow in their socks. We’re going to keep our shoes on during takeoff and landing.
Jacket – We have never worn our coat or jacket during flights, but may reconsider doing so during takeoff and landing, despite the inconvenience.

I don’t think we’re overly cautious, yet we have chains in our car in winter, we carry a first-aide kit when we’re hiking, and we keep a shortwave radio in our home. A little bit of emergency planning may not just save your life, but could help with saving another’s as well.

Training with New Zealand firefighters

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Feeling Fat In London?

Instead of taking the tube (subway), why not just walk? And if you’re planning on eating 3,000 calories of scones and fish & chips, you’ll want to know how to burn off those calories. Now you can know how many steps it takes to walk between tube stations.

A new map of the London underground has a convoluted scheme to let you figure the number of calories you can burn by walking between tube stations instead of taking the tube itself. It does not tell you how long it will take, nor what the neighborhoods are like (we think most London areas are quite safe). And it certainly does not tell you the actual route between stations, as the London tube map is “representational” and not literally accurate.

The Business Traveller Magazine website has this to say about how to use the map:
“The map, compiled by volunteers on behalf of the insurance firm Pru Health, records the number of steps needed to walk between neighbouring tube stops. As example, 2,780 steps are needed to walk from London Victoria to Green Park. Research suggests that roughly three calories are burned for every 100 steps taken, meaning the walk will burn just over 80 calories.”

While it’s totally more gimmick than useful, London is a surprisingly walkable city.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

How Many Passengers Can You Get on an A380?

From Alternative Airline News (January 16, 2009) comes this tidbit.

Air Austral (on the island of Reunion, in the Indian Ocean off the coast of Africa) has “signed a memorandum of understanding” to buy two of the new double-decker Airbus A380 aircraft. The airline said it plans to outfit the planes as all economy, with 853 seats, to service the Reunion-to-Paris route.

Which would be an interesting contrast to Virgin Atlantic’s plans for “double beds, private rooms, masseuses and manicurists, bars, showers, and in countries where we’re allowed to, roulette and blackjack,” according to Richard Branson in an interview back in December 2007.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Book Review: Art Safari Sketchbook, Volume II

The Art Safari Sketchbook is the creation of Mary-Anne Bartlett, who leads art safari painting holidays to Malawi, Zambia, Kenya, and Namibia. Its conception came about as a way to sponsor an orphan-care and arts-&-craft project in Malawi. The sketchbook contains drawings and writings by some of the creative adventurers who have traveled with Mary-Anne.

Mary-Anne Bartlett is the great-great-granddaughter of Sir John Kirk, the physician and botanist who accompanied Dr. Livingston on his explorations in Africa during the 1850s and 1860s.

The first volume was published in 2005 and funded the Mtendere Orphan feeding & day care center at Ulongwe near Liwonde National Park in Malawi. The orphanage was created by Danger, a guide at Mvuu Camp within the park, who started the small orphan feeding project in a local church. Within 6 months of publication, the book was instrumental in raising money to build a permanent base for his dream. The new home for the orphanage made possible the arts & craft project, where the teachers and helpers are encouraged to supplement their income by making craft items for sale.

All the proceeds from this publication will go to support food for the school and teacher salaries for the next two years. If additional money is raised, a fund to help introduce a new rhinoceros into Liwonde National Park will be started.

The publishing company, Hakim & Slater Publishing House, donates all profits from book sales to charitable purposes throughout the world. If you would like to purchase this art book, please contact them at

Friday, January 16, 2009

Best Reward Credit Cards (Especially for Travel)

After our recent rant-and-rave against the so-called credit card rating websites, we figured it was time to update our list of our favorite travel/reward credit cards. There are MANY reward credit cards out there, and your personal financial situation will have an effect on the cards you choose. Remember, unless you pay off your cards every month, go for the lowest-rate credit card, and ignore reward cards (which usually have much higher APRs).

In the broadest terms, we strive for at least a 3% reward ratio for all our purchases – whether that’s cash-back, airline miles, hotel stays, or for international purchases. We have also generally refused (with one exception, see below) to pay an annual fee on any card. And although it makes for a fat wallet, we don’t mind using multiple cards for different purposes.

We have three current favorites:

Chase Freedom Visa – This card offers 3% cash back on your “top 3” (from 15 different) categories of spending each month, up to $600 (after that, it’s 1%). Even when only used for the $600 spend/month, we get more than $200 in cash rewards each year.

We also have a Chase Business Visa that gives us 3% cash back at hardware/building supply stores, office supply, gas stations, and restaurants (1% elsewhere). We use it only for those purchases. (Especially as it’s getting harder to find cards that give good rewards at restaurants.)

Schwab Bank Invest First Visa – This new card (it’s only been available since November) offers 2% cash back on everything. Domestically (see also International Travel, below), we use it for purchases that don’t give us our 3% or better with some other card.

[We are somewhat concerned about the future of cash-back cards. For example, we’ve heard that new Chase Freedom card holders are seeing different reward terms than for the card we have. There was a recent Wall St. Journal article on the topic. The Schwab card is new, so we wouldn’t expect any changes soon. Nonetheless, confirm reward schemes before applying, and be ready for possible changes in the future.]

We still believe that the Hilton American Express is one of the best cards available. It offers 6 Hilton “points” if used in certain categories and for Hilton hotel stays, with 3 points for other spending. The way we value Hilton’s points, and based on hotel room rates, the 6-point level represents to us about a 5-6% reward. But it’s really only useful if you plan to stay in (and otherwise pay for) Hilton chain hotel rooms.

[The above has been UPDATED to reflect Hilton’s new 6-point reward level.]

We continue to hear wonderful things about the Starwood American Express card, but simply have too many other cards that we currently use to be intrigued enough yet to acquire the card (which carries an annual fee).

[An advantage of the hotel cards is that your points are held in a system that is probably more stable than an airline, and that are less likely to change in value than a bank’s cash-back structure.]

We believe that signing up for airline cards can be a worthwhile deal, if you can get some big initial miles bonus and if the (usually high) annual fee is waived for the first year. The choice of card(s) will depend on the airlines or alliances you fly. Every major U.S. airline offers such a card, as do many international carriers. The value of airline miles varies by how you use your one-mile-per-dollar spent on the card. We generally value most airline miles at about 2 cents per mile, equivalent to 2%. That said, we seldom use an airline card except....

The only airline card that we’ve been willing to pay an annual fee for over the past couple of years has been the Alaska Visa, which offers a generous initial sign-up bonus; a $50 companion ticket every year; and 2,000 bonus miles every year. We’re torn about renewing it each year, though, because of the $75 annual fee. But the companion ticket seems to make the fee worthwhile, especially if you use it for something like a pair of $800-each Hawaii tickets (with the second ticket therefore “costing” only $125).

As with the Starwood card, we’re intrigued by a couple of airline cards that we don’t have – as they’re offered by airlines we fly less frequently. Those include the JetBlue Amex, the Virgin Atlantic Amex, and the Virgin America Visa. If our travel patterns change to where we fly those airlines more often, their credit cards might seem much more appealing. (The JetBlue and Virgin Atlantic cards carry annual fees.)

[There have been innumerable articles about the decline in value of airline miles. We’ve touched on the topic a few times, but it’s too long of an issue to go into here. That said, carefully evaluate the value of your miles, as well as associated redemption fees – either for “free” tickets or upgrades.]

With one exception, we only use a card that does not charge foreign-exchange fees. The best offerings for us right now are:

The Schwab Visa, mentioned above, that charges 0% forex fees, and offers 2% cash back. It’s like getting the equivalent of a 5% reward for foreign purchases (as nearly all other credit cards tack on foreign-exchange fees of 3%).

Capital One has many cards, all of which charge 0% forex fees. There are many different reward schemes (cash, miles, points – all usually translating to about 1% reward). In general, we don’t find their rewards very appealing, but with the lack of forex fees and a 1% reward, it’s still equivalent to 4% value.

The exception is the Hilton Amex (mentioned above) which charges 2.7% in forex fees, but does give us 3-6 Hilton points for purchases. But we use it internationally for one purpose – car rentals. It (and other Amex cards) has available an inexpensive car-rental insurance policy that offers primary CDW insurance. We consider the forex fees/points/insurance paradigm a worthwhile trade-off.

[As with other bank-based cards, discussed above, it seems that some of Capital One’s reward schemes may be changing.]

In addition, we have an Amex FreedomPass Business card that has a reward ratio of only 1.33%, but offers discounts of 3-5% with JetBlue, Delta, Marriott, Hyatt, and Hertz (and quite a few other non-travel discounts, such as 5% with FedEx), simply by purchasing with the card. Those purchase categories, therefore, give us at least a 4% reward. It, too, offers the same optional primary CDW car-rental insurance coverage as does the Hilton Amex.

We still have no problem juggling cards – using one card for something and a different card for another purchase category. But, after considering all of the above, and all the various reward factors and card use for a wide variety of travel patterns (and if companies like Chase do indeed reduce their reward options), and if we were limited to only two cards, our two top choices would currently be....
Schwab Visa – No forex fees for international purchases; 2% rewards on everything.
Hilton Amex – Points go into as much of a “fail-safe” program as possible; bonus points for selected categories of spending; car-rental insurance.

There are many other cards out there. As we mentioned in our rant against the so-called card rating sites, it’s really hard to get unbiased information. So it’s doubly important for you to determine what’s important to you – cash, miles, points, other benefits. What we have presented above are only our opinions.

This photo has nothing to do with this article.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Europe Ski Tips

It’s prime ski season in Europe, and the snow this year is some of the best in several seasons. Here are our Top 15 Europe Ski Tips.

Pick Your Resort Carefully
Ski resorts in Europe can be far bigger than even the largest North American resorts (such as Whistler or Vail). Conversely, they can be small, intimate places ideal for relaxation and romance. Just don’t go to Val d’Isere, France, expecting a quiet, cozy French village; likewise, don’t go to Murren, Switzerland, if you’re looking for vast slopes and great nightlife.

Most Resorts Cater to Week-Long Vacationers
Europe ski weeks are usually Saturday to Saturday. Many, if not most, resorts cater almost exclusively to those time frames – thus, lodging is harder to find day-to-day (or more expensive); trains, taxis, and transfers are more frequent on the Saturday and weekend in/out days; even airfare can vary between midweek and weekend. On the same theme, if you prefer uncrowded slopes, avoid the UK half-term and the French school holidays. There will most assuredly be more crowds in Europe than at North America resorts, but still, the European school breaks are like U.S. spring breaks on steroids.

Ski Lodging Options
Lodging varies widely at European ski destinations. You’ll have your choices of “self-catered” vs. catered chalets (condos); large vs. small hotels; slopeside vs. village lodging; hotels with meals (usually in the hotel dining room) and without; and several other permutations. Make sure you understand the options. We’ve stayed in “self-catered” lodging where not even the toilet paper was included.

Bring Your Boots
And your goggles, helmet, gloves, and one pair of ski clothes. Rent skis and poles. Your feet are the engines of your skiing. Rental boots in Europe can fit just as badly as rental boots in the U.S. For skis, you should have excellent options of some of the best and latest models.

Rent the Skis You Want
Don’t be talked into renting a ski too long, too short, too old, not suited to your ability, or badly tuned. European ski shop employees are no different than in the U.S. – underpaid and indifferent.

Consider Skiing with a Small Day Pack
Stuff it (lightly) with snacks, an extra warm layering garment, and maybe shoes. At the big resorts, weather can change on one part of the mountain and you might easily be half an hour or more from getting back to your starting point. Also, many resorts are strung out along a long valley, and you might start at one end but finish your day several miles away. A pair of walking shoes/boots in your day pack can make the bus/taxi/walk back much more comfortable.

Take a Few Little Repair Items
We always travel with zip ties, a Leatherman tool, and duct tape. As with weather and resort layout, you may find yourself a long way from a ski shop (even one on the hill). A small kit can come in handy.

Adopt the Euro Long-Lunch Attitude
Lunch at most European ski areas is seldom a sandwich-in-the-cafeteria situation. Go native. Also remember that most resorts have an actual town at their base – you can easily eat lunch in a real restaurant (yes, in your ski clothes) almost as conveniently as on the hill.

Euros Start to Ski Late In the Day
Since many skiers stayed up late the night before, many resorts don’t start getting crowded until 10 or 11. Join the fun at night, or have an hour to yourself by being on the lifts when they open in the morning. A surprising number of skiers close the hill, too. Maybe it’s those long lunch breaks they take.

Lift Lines
The renowned unruly lift lines (queues) of the past are mostly fading with high-speed lifts, but be ready to be shoved a bit. Start early; ski while everyone else is taking lunch; ski the lower mountain when other skiers are up high; etc.

Out-of-Bounds Skiing
If you ski out of bounds (off piste) be aware that it’s perfectly legal, but if you screw up you’ll be charged for rescue. Buy the optional rescue insurance (which usually only costs a few Euros) with each day’s lift ticket.

You’ll almost certainly have to check a bag with your airline, but make sure your boots are in your carry-on. In your checked bag, bring just one pair of pants, parka, etc. Spare or replacement clothing can be purchased anywhere. (Besides, it’ll be Euro-trendy. And we guarantee you will neither be the dorkiest nor the trendiest-looking skier on the hill.) Considering the transportation hassles and the ridiculous airline baggage fees, we suggest not traveling with checked skis.

Everything Ski-Related is Available, But...
While you can find just about everything at European ski resorts, the shops may not have your favorite sunscreen, energy bars, or personal items. If you really want something specific, bring it from home.

Bring a Few Passport-Size Photos
They’re necessary for multi-day lift tickets. Most ticket booths have photo kiosks, but it’s a lot easier to bring your own photos.

Partake of the Regional Culture
If you’re skiing Les Trois Vallees, spend a few days wining and dining in Paris before or after your holiday. Or if you’re skiing in Austria, spend time with Mozart and opera in Vienna on the same trip.

Val d’Isere, France

Thursday, January 08, 2009

If Airfare Drops, You May Be Entitled to Credit

We’ve never paid too much attention to drops in airfares after we’ve purchased our tickets. We figured that was just the way it was, or that any refund amount would be too minor to be worth the hassle (and change fees). Maybe it’s time for us to change our attitude.

A recent article on USA Today notes that many airlines will issue a travel credit or voucher if the fare drops (usually by more than a certain amount) since you purchased your tickets. Some airlines add their ridiculous change fees to the “new” ticket, others don’t. As the charts on airfare search site Yapta (see image below) and accompanying the USA Today article show, the best airlines (no change fees) are Alaska, JetBlue, Southwest, and – gasp! – United.

So with those 4 airlines, if the fare drops much at all, apply for the credit. On most other airlines, you’ll need to see a bigger fare drop to cover the change fee – up to $150 in the case of American, Continental, and USAir; $100 for Delta, Hawaiian, and Midwest. And according to Yapta’s chart, change fees are even higher for some international tickets.

You’ll have to decide if the change fee outweighs the credit, but the way the airlines treat us, and with their opaque pricing system, we don’t see any reason to give them a dime more of our money. Claim that credit.

Airline ticket change fees, per website, December 2008