What Makes The Best Beach?

I ran across this article in Conde Nast Traveller identifying what the writer considered to be the 29 best beaches in the world. It’s an interesting list that might make some Americans mad, because no beaches in California or Florida make the cut, whereas beaches from Scotland (which has two in the top five), Ireland, Iceland, and Canada–not normally associated with beaches–are represented. The only American beaches to be featured are Honopu Beach in Kauai, Hawaii, which looks gorgeous and comes in at number 11, and the only beach on the list that I’ve been to: the vast, sprawling beach in Okracoke, North Carolina, with its signature grass-topped dunes, which comes in at number 27.

What makes the best beach? It’s obviously a subjective determination that is influenced by personal preference. For me, it’s a combination of things, like the qualify of the sand, the color and condition of the water (I’m not a surfer and don’t need huge, crashing waves), and whether it’s so crowded with people you can’t really notice the beach for all of the people on it (which is probably why no beaches from California or Florida make the list). Ideally, I also like a beach you can walk, and a beach with some natural beauty nearby–like hidden beach in Palawan, the Philippines, shown in the photo above, which is number 19 on the list.

Based on my personal interests, I think the best beaches I’ve been to are the snug little beach at the foot of the long flights of wooden stairs at the Ti Kaye resort on St. Lucia, which is surrounded by jungle and rugged hillside, and the sweeping crescent beach at Nueva Vallarta in Mexico, where you can walk for miles. My guess is that everyone who likes a beach vacation now and then will have their own personal list of favorites.

The Conde Nast Traveller article did teach me one, thing, however: if you’re going to Scotland, be sure to take your beach towel and flip-flops.

Thoughts From The Southern Route

Yesterday, when I approached the I-71/I-76 intersection, my inner Clint Eastwood Dirty Harry voice asked if I felt lucky, and I did–so I took the southern route. And sure enough, as I rolled along I-76 in Ohio, I-80 in Pennsylvania, and I-84 in Pennsylvania, New York, and Connecticut, my luck held up. The weather was perfect for driving–dry and sunny–and I made excellent time. It all changed, unfortunately, when I passed Hartford and entered Massachusetts.

Once I-84 emptied into I-90, and I turned onto I-495 to loop around Boston, the traffic got heavy and moved into the frustrating stop-and-go mode, giving rise to the two eternal questions for drivers. The first is: if there are no accidents and there is no road work, why does stop-and-go traffic, where you actually have to come to a dead halt on an interstate highway, happen at all? Why doesn’t traffic continue to move forward at a steady, if slower, pace? Is it that somebody changed lanes and cut someone off, producing a domino effect of braking that ultimately produced standstills farther back in the line of cars?

I guess that is more than just one question.

And the second question is: why does the lane I pick in stop-and-go traffic always seem to be the slowest lane? I tend to favor the passing lane, reasoning that it will have fewer cars moving back and forth, and no one entering from access ramps, but yesterday the left lane was the worst for stoppages by far. The middle lane was better, and the far right lane seemed to have the smoothest traffic flow, notwithstanding the people coming onto the highway. Is that always true, and if so, why? And why would the left lane ever be anything other than the lane that had the smoothest traffic flow?

Finally, there is the E-ZPass issue. Do you get one, or not? Toll roads, and the use of E-ZPass rather than depositing money to a toll booth attendant, is clearly a northeastern phenomenon, as the above map demonstrates. If you’re driving east, E-ZPass definitely makes things easier, as you can roll past interstate toll booths without stopping, knowing that someone somewhere is logging your movements and charging you electronically, and you don’t have to fume about the person in front of you who moves up to the toll booth without having their payment handy, causing even more delay. I’ve not gotten E-ZPass because I just don’t feel like I would use it much, and there’s something about it that just irks me from a privacy standpoint. But on yesterday’s drive it became clear that we’re being tracked, whether we use E-ZPass or not, because on many of the toll roads there are no booths and the signs announce that if you don’t have an E-ZPass you’ll just be billed–which means your car is being photographed and the license plate information is being used to send you a bill. E-ZPass doesn’t seem any more intrusive than that.

Jack Kerouac wouldn’t be able to drive anonymously on the tollways of the northeast U.S. in the same way he traveled incognito in On The Road. In the western half of the country, where there aren’t nearly as many toll roads, it might still be possible. I do find myself wondering, though, about a question that I don’t think was addressed in On The Road: when Jack Kerouac encountered stop-and-go traffic, which lane did he choose?

The Northern Route Or The Southern Route

Today I’m getting up early and driving back to Maine. That means I’ll be making a crucial choice: the northern route, or the southern route?

It’s the kind of tough, coin-flip decision of which road trips are made. The “southern” route takes me on I-76, on I-80 though northern Pennsylvania, then up I-84, past Scranton, to slice across southern New York and then head north through Connecticut, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire. The northern route, on the other hand, takes I-71 to I-271 and then up to I-90 and follows it through northern Ohio, the stub of Pennsylvania where Erie is located, then past Buffalo and across the entire width of New York and pretty much the entire width of Massachusetts, too.

Which way to go? Do you take the risk of hitting a lot of traffic as you pass the Cleveland suburbs, Buffalo, Rochester, and Albany on the I-90 route, or is the bigger risk the crummy road conditions and inevitably crappy traffic in the Scranton-Wilkes Barre corridor or as you roll through Hartford, Connecticut? Do you take the I-90 turnpike toll road, dealing with the issues that arise when, like all Midwesterners, you don’t have one of those “EZ Pass” units that allow you to zip through the toll stations, or do you enjoy the pleasures of the freeway? Which route is more likely to have a disabling accident, or active roadwork that will back up the traffic for miles?

I’ve driven both routes, and it’s basically six of one, half a dozen of the other. They are so close in terms of distance and likely travel time that even the most careful analysis could be upset by simple bad luck. I won’t be deciding for sure until I hit the spot on I-71 for the I-76 turnoff and go with a gut check. At that point, I’ll ask myself, in my best Dirty Harry voice: “Well, punk? Do you feel lucky?”

Road Radio

It’s been a while since I’ve listened to the radio for an extended period. This weekend’s air travel mishap, and the resulting need to drive from Bangor, Maine to Columbus, Ohio, changed all that. I got a substantial diet of radio offerings as I rolled through Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, Pennsylvania, and finally into Ohio.

Some things about radio have changed, dramatically, and some have stayed the same. If you’re looking for NPR or classical music, for example, you’re going to want to look around the low end of the FM dial, just as you always have. (Good luck finding classical music, though; I tried, again and again, and regrettably there doesn’t seem to be much of it on the airwaves these days.) Sermons and church music tend to be clustered there, too. If you’re looking for sports or aggressive political talk, on the other hand, you’ll want to switch over to AM. (I stuck to FM until I got to Ohio, when I decided to risk brief exposure to political screeds in search of some coverage of the Buckeyes, Browns, and Guardians.)

Popular radio–that is, everything you’d find above 92 on the FM dial–seems to have gone through a consolidation phase, in two ways. First, in different states you’ll find that five or six formerly independent radio stations based in different cities and towns have jointed together and become one station playing the same content that you can listen to at various channel settings as you drive along. These consolidated stations tend to have generic names like “The River.”

And that phenomenon has produced the second form of consolidation: there’s a lot less content variety on the radio than there used to be. Classical music and jazz aren’t the only victims. A local station in the past might play “Polka Varieties” featuring Frankie Yankovic, or crop reports. You’re not going to get that any longer. Flipping through the radio dial on my journey produced a lot of soulless modern country stations and mushed together “classic rock” options that might play songs from the ’60s to the ’90s. And the “classic rock” stations seem to have the same playlists, too. I heard Queen’s Another One Bites The Dust no less than four times during my drive. and got heavy doses of Bon Jovi, Cheap Trick, and Heart, too. Surprisingly, to me at least, I didn’t hear a single Beatles tune until I got to Ohio and tuned in a Youngstown station that was playing Let It Be.

And here’s another thing: there don’t seem to be actual, live DJs anymore–at least, not on Friday night and Saturday. I didn’t hear what seemed to be a live voice on any station until I turned to a sports station in Ohio. Most of the stations seemed to be going with totally recorded playlists. If you’re aspiring to be a radio DJ these days, good luck.

I’ll be driving back to Maine next weekend, as part of the continuing fallout from modern air travel hassles. Already I’m bracing myself for more airings of Living On A Prayer and I Want You To Want Me. It’s not the greatest music in the world, but it beats the political craziness. And that’s about the best you can say about the state of road radio these days.

Irrational “Rebooking“

Traveling by air seems to get worse by the day. Yesterday I experienced a new variation in irrationality that made the travel experience worse than ever.

I was flying from Bangor. Maine to Columbus through D.C. After checking the monitor in Bangor and seeing everything was a “go,” I got a text message that the D.C. to Columbus flight had been abruptly cancelled for some unstated reason. When I was digesting that unhappy bit of news, I got the message that the airline had “rebooked” me on a flight leaving this afternoon, meaning I’d have to find a hotel room near Reagan National and spend the night. I’ve had that happen before. What made this “rebooking” even more ridiculous was that it had me flying today from D.C. to Asheville, North Carolina—away from Columbus, if you consult your map—then flying from Asheville to Charlotte, and then finally from Charlotte to Columbus. A three-legged trip, with all of the attendant risk of delays and more cancellations, that would get me in a day later than planned, with a hotel hassle to boot? That’s a “rebooking “ only in the most absurd sense of the word.

There were no rental cars available in D.C. for a one-way ride to Columbus, either. Fortunately, I drove to the Bangor airport, so the obvious answer was to drive back to Columbus. That’s why I’m writing this from a Homewood Suites room in bucolic Southington, Connecticut.

Sure, gas is expensive, and driving takes time. But given the airline shenanigans I’ve experienced lately, my circle of preferred driving range keeps getting wider.

A Taste Of Peru

These days I’m back at 44 North–literally and figuratively. Literally, because Stonington is located on the 44 North latitude, and figuratively, because being back in Stonington means I’m once again drinking the excellent coffee roasted by 44 North Coffee. And drinking 44 North coffee is a feast both for the taste buds and for the imagination.

Consider the Peru roast that we are drinking today. The tasting notes on the bag–which I faithfully read and try to experience with every slug–say this roast has a “big body with notes of roasted pralines and a heavy finish.” Having never tasted a roasted praline, I can’t assess whether the referenced “notes” exist. As for the “big body” and the “heavy finish,” it seems to this unschooled coffee drinker that the body and the heaviness will depend mightily on how how much coffee you put into the filter and how strong the corresponding pot of brewed coffee is. In any event, I definitely like the taste of the Peru blend, even if I can’t fully appreciate its nuances and subtleties.

I also like when the coffee shop identifies the origin of the coffee beans, so you can think about that while you are trying to detect the notes, the body, and the finish. When I think of Peru, I think of crisp air on the slopes of the Andes, rain forests, the Pacific Ocean in the distance, and of course Macchu Picchu, the city in the clouds. It’s not a bad mental image to accompany your morning cup of joe.

Drinking 44 North

Discover Life Beyond The Room

Some of our faithful blog readers have wondered about the group that put together our great trip to Rome and Sicily earlier this year. The group is called Life Beyond The Room (“LBR” for short), and it has prepared a short video about our trip by way of illustrating what it can offer to potentially interested travelers. Since I thought LBR did a fantastic job with our trip, I wanted to share the video with those of you who might be interested in a similar trip. You can click on the video below to see some of the snippets from our trip.

Those of you who know me will see that I pop up twice in the video. All I can say is that while the frontal view is no treat, it’s a thousand times better than being videotaped from behind while doing “gentle stretching” (also known as yoga). Fortunately, I’ve convinced myself that the rear shot must have involved some kind of wide-angle lens or other form of photographic distortion.

Reconsidering Boarding Music

Recently I boarded a plane flight. As I put my carry-on into the overhead bin and settled into my seat, I focused on the music that was playing during the boarding process and found myself wondering who made the music selection . . . and why.

The music–if you can call it that–was a kind of tinkly, tuneless, ethereal background noise. It was the sort of allegedly “soothing” and “relaxing” (but in reality, kind of annoying) music that you would associate with yoga or a massage, rather than boarding a plane. As music goes, it was worse than the kind of generic offerings you hear on an elevator ride.

Why would you choose this kind of music to facilitate the boarding process? Are airlines worried that passengers these days need to be calmed down as they are grabbing their seats? I would think that the opposite is true, and it would be better for all concerned if we jettisoned the dreamy music and went instead with some sounds calculated to encourage boarders to move with a greater sense of urgency and get their butts in their seats.

I’d like to see some experiments done on this. Which music produces the speediest, most efficient boarding process: the tinkly random crap they were broadcasting on my flight, or, say, some selections from the early Beatles, starting with Twist and Shout? Playing Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos might incentivize passengers to move with the clock-like precision conveyed by baroque music. Or if you really want to get people moving, how about the Bee Gees’ Staying Alive and K.C. and the Sunshine Band’s Get Down Tonight? And, just to make it interesting, why not test Deep Purple’s Smoke On The Water or Led Zeppelin’s Dazed and Confused, just to see how some heavy metal affects passenger movement?

It’s well past time to get a bit more scientific about airplane boarding music, and to make some selections specifically geared toward the ultimate goal: an on-time departure. Dreamy massage music just doesn’t cut it.

120 Degrees

What’s on your “bucket list”? Is taking a walk in a place where the outdoor temperature is 120 degrees one of the items? If so, Marana, Arizona in July is a place where you can check that box.

To my knowledge, I’ve never been anywhere where the outdoor temperature has exceeded 101 or 102 degrees. In the Midwest, if you top 100 by a degree or two it’s remarkable, and cause for extended weather discussions. But I’ve now smashed my personal record, and I doubt whether I’ll ever be anywhere hotter, unless future travel takes me to Death Valley or the Sahara. In fact, it’s hard to even imagine hotter conditions.

To be sure, the heat here is a “dry heat”—thank goodness for that!—but . . . heat is heat. And at 120 degrees, heat becomes an oppressive, ever-present thing. The outdoor thermometer cautions that when you get above 110 degrees you’re in severe heat risk territory, and you can definitely understand why. When you are walking, taking sips from your water bottle, you’re always acutely conscious of the sun, the heat, your water bottle, and your reaction to the heat. It makes it hard to enjoy a stroll.

The only good thing about 120-degree heat is that it makes the early morning temperatures in the 80s seem like a cool breeze.

Tying On The Feedbag At The Feedlot Cafe

We were looking for a breakfast place in Marana, Arizona this morning. When I saw there was a place called the Feedlot Cafe, I figured we had to try it. When we drove up to the entrance and saw that the restaurant was part of the Marana Stock Yards, and you entered the building with the restaurant under a statue of a bull, I knew we made the right choice.

It turns out that most of the Marana Stock Yard building isn’t a restaurant at all. The Feedlot Cafe is in one corner of the building, most of which is devoted to a livestock auction arena. You can see the holding pen and some of the seats for bidders in the photo above, but the hall itself is much larger. And whoever decorated it really, really liked cattle heads.

The Feedlot Cafe itself was great. if you’re looking for a breakfast spot, eschew the chains and look for a joint that only serves breakfast and lunch. If you find one, that means you’ve likely found a local place that draws a local crowd and charges local prices. And that, in turn, means you’re doing to get great value and great food for your dollar. The Feedlot checked all those boxes and didn’t disappoint. My sausage, scrambled eggs, hash browns, and an oversized biscuit slathered with fresh butter and honey was a serious breakfast feast for less than $10. Add in some orange juice and a bottomless cup of very good coffee and you’re looking at a fine meal for a very reasonable price.

This place was terrific in every respect. The food was great, the waitress was polite and friendly, the locals who were eating didn’t give us the evil eye, and the decorations screamed authenticity. My favorite touch was the cowboy boots spelling out “howdy” in front of pictures of cowboys at rodeos.

If you’re in Marana (which is a bit north of Tucson off I-10) and looking for breakfast or lunch, you can’t go wrong at the Feedlot. I’d gladly tie on the feedbag there any day.

Cats On A Plane

My flight this morning featured multiple dogs and cats, including this furry feline on the aisle seat in my row. The cat, which apparently as been dosed with “kitty relaxant” for the flight, did not misbehave or make much noise, either. but that wasn’t the issue.

I’m fine with animals on planes, within reason, but given how increasingly common they are I think airlines should change their procedures to account for the fact that some of us (like me) are allergic to cat fur. Why not add some questions to the ticketing process about (1) whether a traveler will be accompanied by a cat or dog and (2) whether a traveler is allergic to cats or dogs or would otherwise prefer not to sit next to one? And then, based on the answers, separate those people? Should there even be an “animal section,” like there were smoking sections on planes years ago, to accommodate people traveling with pets?

Airlines collect a lot of information about passengers already. It’s ridiculous that they don’t know in advance who is traveling with a pet, and who might be launched into a drippy, sneezy, coughing frenzy if they are seated next to one. It would be a lot more comfortable for everyone and seems like a common sense way to address the matter.

A View Master’s Impact

For as long as I can remember, I’ve had an interest in traveling, and recently I’ve been thinking about why that is so. I’ve concluded that a toy that we had at our house–the View Master–is at least partly responsible for my travel itch.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with it, the View Master was a plastic, goggle-like device that you put up to your eyes. You inserted a round photo circle into a designated slot, then toggled down a lever to advance the photos, one by one. The cool thing about the View Master was that it allowed you to look at the photos in a three-dimensional way, giving some depth to the pictures.

Of course, the View Master didn’t produce photos of your family, your house, or your friends. Instead, its photo circles inevitably were of faraway destinations or the natural wonders of the world, richly colored and exotic and much different from daily life in Akron, Ohio. The View Master world was one of men in lederhosen and Tyrolean hats and women in dirndls dancing in a square in some quaint medieval town, the Arc de Triomphe surrounded by headlights at night, or scenes from Yosemite National Park.

The View Master’s core message was that there was a big, amazingly interesting world out there, just waiting to be seen by you with your own two eyes. I got that message. My favorite View Master circle was one on American national parks, and when our family decided to take a driving trip west in 1967 or 1968, I wanted to see in person some of what the View Master had shown me–and once I saw the Grand Canyon and Old Faithful, I was hooked, and ever since I’ve wanted to see more.

Like many toys of that era, the View Master was simple, but it definitely had an impact.

Paying For Points

I belong to many different airline and hotel rewards programs (which I am sure the rewards program pros would say is not a good approach, by the way). Lately, it seems like I am increasingly being offered a chance to buy points or miles in those programs. That happens whenever I check in for a flight on one of my rewards program carriers. Similarly, one of the hotel programs recently sent an email announcing that I can get “free” miles by buying points and then having the hotel chain match the points I’ve purchased.

The notion of buying points or miles seems incredibly weird to me–like using real money to buy Monopoly money. Sure, points can be used to buy certain things, but there always are conditions, limitations, and strings attached. Why would you want to take money that can be used unconditionally, to purchase whatever you want, and convert it into something that can be used only to buy one thing, with restrictions? My inherent cheapskate tendencies rebel against that notion. At least some people who profess to be proficient in rewards programs agree that, except in very limited circumstances, paying for points or miles doesn’t make sense. And the exceptions kind of prove my point. You need to spend a lot of time with rewards program provisions to figure out whether your circumstances justifying buying the points or miles–and who has the time to study rewards program fine print?

There’s one other thing about the buying points or miles that bugs me: the program sponsors are being paid for doing nothing. It’s no wonder that prospect of purchasing points or miles is raised so frequently. And it also seems to distract from the businesses’ attention to their core activities, too. Rather than figuring out whether they can entice me to spend money on points or miles, I’d rather that the hotel chains focus exclusively on providing clean, decent rooms in good locations, and the airlines focus on offering safe, on-time, uncancelled flights.

The Pilot Shortage

America is facing a lot of shortages right now. One of them is a shortage of airline pilots, which is helping to make air travel a bit of a crap shoot.

This past weekend was a challenging one for the air travel industry, with many flights being delayed or cancelled. One of our flights was abruptly cancelled for no stated reason, requiring us to do some on-the-fly rebooking. According to the linked article, 370 flights were cancelled over the weekend. Some of the flight cancellations, and other flight delays, were attributed to severe weather in different parts of the country, but “staff shortages” also played a role.

The pilot unions at the major airlines say that the airlines haven’t been quick enough to replace pilots who have retired or left the job during the COVID pandemic, when the demand for air travel plummeted and some pilots objected to vaccination requirements. Now the demand for air travel has increased substantially, and there just aren’t enough pilots to meet the demand for flights.

The pilot shortage is affecting airline decisions in other ways, too. American Airlines has decided to stop flying to three airports–in Toledo, Ohio and Ithaca and Islip, New York–due to the pilot shortage. The pilot shortage has hit the small regional carriers, like the American Eagle brand, the hardest, as experienced pilots are lured from those brands to work at the mainline carriers, which can offer better pay, benefits, and work schedules. That’s tough news for cities like Toledo, where American’s departure means the airport will not be serviced by any major airline.

The other thing about a pilot shortage is that it won’t be solved overnight. It takes time and lots of training to become an airline pilot, and we passengers wouldn’t want the airlines to cut corners in finding pilots. That suggests that travelers should brace themselves for more staffing-related cancellations in the months ahead.

My First Visit To Buc-ee’s

Buc-ee’s is a kind of legendary business in these parts. I had my first experience with the legend during our brief visit to Austin, when we stopped at a Buc-ee’s off I-35 between Austin and New Braunfels. It is a gas station, to be sure, but calling Buc-ee’s a gas station would be like calling the Taj Mahal a building. You first get a sense of that reality when you pull in and see two seemingly endless rows of gas pumps. There is no waiting at Buc-ee’s!

It’s not just the dozens of gas pumps, either —everything at Buc-ee’s is outsized. The soft drink station offered pretty much every kind of soda you could imagine, and there was an entire wall of jerky that included seemingly exotic flavors like “Bohemian Garlic.” And even though the place was jammed, everything was spotlessly clean.

Speaking of spotlessly clean, Buc-ee’s also is famous for its sparkling and enormous restrooms. Strict adherence to the rigid standards of propriety that are a hallmark of this blog prevents the publication of any pictures, but I did confirm that the bathroom facilities were both immaculate and immense, with urinals on every wall. As I mentioned, there is no waiting at Buc-ee’s.

It’s pretty clear that the Texas natives love Buc-ees. They take selfies with the bronze Buc-ee’s ballcap-wearing beaver mascot at the entrance to the store and buy Buc-ee’s branded merchandise, like the cooler bags shown above. It’s not hard to see why they love the place. It’s huge, well-maintained, slightly overwhelming, and offers everything a traveler could possibly want. The whole Buc-ee’s experience screams “Texas.”

Which reminds me: did I mention that Buc-ee’s also has its own in-store barbecue station, which serves up a very credible version of the dish the Lone Star State loves?