From the biggest to the smallest: San Diego’s best attractions for discerning travelers

IMG_4476Sometimes a travel experience involves a tried and true tourist attraction; other times you find those off-the-beaten path places that no one else seems to find. Either way, they can have their charms.

Last month we visited San Diego for the first time in over a quarter of a century. When people think of tourist attractions in San Diego, the first thing that usually comes to mind is their zoo, and so we made our way from our hotel on the edge of the Gaslight District to the San Diego Zoo only to find ourselves in a morass of people. Having visited the Taronga Zoo in Sydney Australia within the last couple of years, we found the San Diego experience to be lacking in appeal, so we had to find other attractions. Enter the USS Midway.

For many Americans, visiting this floating museum, an actual post-World War II aircraft carrier, likely evokes feelings of patriotism and awe of the US military machine. For us non-Americans, it was an experience of quite a different kind.

There is no doubt about it: there is something awe-inspiring about the sheer size of a vessel of this kind. The hangar deck, the flight deck, not to mention the miles and miles of corridors. We marveled at how a young sailor or air man could possibly have found his way around the carrier on first deployment.

The carrier itself was commissioned a week after the end of World War II and had the distinction of being the largest ship in the world until 1955. During her 47-year career in the US naval fleet, she participated in many important actions including the Vietnam war and Operation Desert Storm. Walking around the ship and exploring its labyrinth of corridors, you get a real sense of history. The curators of this “museum” have done a spectacular job of evoking the life and times of this massive ship.

We arrived early – about 15 minutes before it opened at 10 am – and found ourselves in an already forming line. Once the gates opened, however, we moved quickly and spent the next two hours exploring. It is not a place for anyone with mobility issues – and for the love of God leave the strollers at home! There are many steep stairways and the corridors move from one water-tight space to the next requiring you to step up and over the barriers where the doors shut. Leave the very little ones at home if you want to really experience this museum.

So, we found that massive tourist attraction – then marveled at the opposite end of the size spectrum at the San Diego Model Railroad Museum. Fascinated by all things miniature (we’ll tell you about the Arizona Art Museum’s offering next week), Patty had discovered that this museum occupied a floor of one of the buildings at Balboa Park.

It is the largest indoor model railroad exhibit in North America and its 27,000 square feet are pure pleasure. Just as we marveled at the sheer massiveness of the Midway, we were equally awestruck by the workmanship of the miniature worlds created by the model railroad artisans.

This is a place that you can take younger children who will be mesmerized by the miniature worlds and the trains making their way through various landscapes.

It was lovely and quiet there that day and we were delighted to have experienced it.

The Midway has to be seen to be believed, so if you have a moment, click through our video and then make plans to get there on your next trip to San Diego.

 

10 Rules of Engagement for Smooth Cruising

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After some 14 cruises on a variety of cruise lines, we’ve made some observations of the behavioural characteristics of cruise ship passengers who everyone likes to have on board – and those who most other passengers would be just as happy to leave behind at a port or toss overboard.

It’s interesting to view cruise ship passengers like any other traveler in general: the best travelers are those who remember that they are not the only people around. We’re getting ready for our next cruise which starts next week so were inspired to pull out the notes we’ve made over the years. If you’ve never cruised before, you might find this informative. If you’ve cruised extensively, you might find it entertaining. In either case, enjoy!

Rule #1: Don’t go around the jogging track the wrong way. Yes, we’re talking to you. There is a reason for the signage indicating the direction of flow.  It’s bit like a skating rink: going the wrong way is just asking for a collision with that serious, lycra-clad runner with the ear phones and the cap over the eyes. And for the rest of us, it’s just annoying.

Rule #2: Never “save” deck chairs. This is considered so rude and annoying that most cruise lines (and resorts) have rules for how long you can leave your chair. Yes, of course, you can leave your chair to go to the bathroom or the bar, but arriving two hours before you plan to use them to “save” chairs for yourself and the half dozen hangers-on who are accompanying you is disrespectful and you just might find your belongings (that single flip flop or book) on a communal sort-of lost-and-found table.

DSC05462.JPGRule #3: Don’t leave your dirty towels on your chair or strewn on the deck when you leave. Yes, the staff will pick them up, but based on the “savers” (see Rule #2 above), many of the rest of us, in an effort to be nice, will not take a chair that has a dirty towel on it unless we have observed its emptiness for at least a half hour. There are bins for the used towels near most doors. Just find one on your way.

Rule #4: Never appear in public in your cruise-line-issued bathrobe (or any other bathrobe for that matter). Good lord. It is not a sun cover-up. Hate us for this if you like, but everyone is entitled to their idiosyncrasies.

Rule #5: Be on time for the entertainment. If the evening show begins at 9 pm, be in your seat, actually sitting down, drink in hand if you like when the lights go down. Why is it that on cruise ships people seem to think that this isn’t real entertainment? Or that the rest of the audience will appreciate you climbing over them after the show has begun? Or that the performers aren’t affected by the commotion in the audience? Most otherwise normal individuals would never come in late to a play or a musical on land. Why do people persist on doing it at sea? The times are sent out in the newsletter each day so there is no excuse for not knowing or planning.

Rule #6: Never miss an opportunity to learn something new. Whether it’s yoga, cooking or the deep background on the history of a port you’re visiting, all cruises offer something. We have honed our culinary skills, learned about the in-depth background of the South Pacific Islands, enjoyed the history of the cruise industry, our son has attended RADA workshops (Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts on Cunard), Patty has taken a dance class (well, that wasn’t so successful). Anyway, there is much to be gained.

Rule #7: Do not choose shore excursions for which you lack the physical capabilities. Every shore excursion has a description of the physical requirements. If it requires a lot of walking or hiking and you can’t do that, then don’t go. The cruise lines will sometimes intervene if they have indicated that they will not take wheelchairs, walkers, canes etc., but if you don’t have an obvious problem, you will find yourself slowing down everyone else, and worse not being able to fully enjoy what is offered. It’s a lose-lose situation.

Rule #8:  Don’t monopolize the bar staff. We all do it from time to time: these people are so accommodating and will engage you in conversation at a bar whenever you sit down. However, some of them find it difficult to break away from a conversation – so help them out. There is nothing more annoying than sitting at a bar (without a drink) being unable to get the bartender’s attention because he or she is engaged in a long conversation with another patron. Let’s help each other out.

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Rule #9: Don’t forget to use your headphones if you are planning to listen to music on deck or even on your verandah. Those verandahs are a bit like having a curtain pulled around a hospital bed. It may feel private, but everything that goes on can be heard. Everything. We might not appreciate your hip-hop music, but you might not appreciate our jazz. So we all need to be considerate. By the way, if you choose the verandah to have a rip-roaring fight with your spouse, we’ll hear every word if we happen to be out on our verandah.

Rule #10: Watch your time and barring an actual accident or other uncontrollable event or natural disaster, return to the ship at least a half an hour before it is scheduled to sail out of a port. There are many stories floating around the travel blog world about cruisers left behind or cruise ships waiting. And yes, if you take a cruise-line shore excursion and the group is late returning, they will probably wait if it’s not too long.

Remember that you are not the only person on board, but if you have a problem, you will get a lot more support and empathy from others if you haven’t been that idiot everyone recognizes as such.

Okay, that’s our list. We have never been on a cruise where all of these rules were ignored – but we have been on enough such trips to have seen all of them at one time or another. We just try on every trip to avoid being that cruiser!

Dressing for travel: A superficial consideration, or meaningful message?

How we dress when we travel is either a pointless consideration of the vain and frivolous among us, or it’s an important visual message that often conveys much more than we had planned. Discerning travelers know the answer: it is a significant factor in how travelers are perceived abroad.  It is also, however – and perhaps even more important in some venues – a powerful influence on how travelers behave.

The web is full of articles on how to dress for a long flight, things you should never wear when traveling abroad (usually these are directed toward Americans), do’s and don’t’s of travel dressing, and what seems to be the most searched for type of travel dress piece: how to dress for a cruise. We would suggest that when people search for articles on how to dress for travel in general and cruises in particular, they want to know how to feel comfortable – both physically and psychologically.  People who search for these answers care – as do we.

Throughout our years of travel via plane, train, car, ship, and on foot, we have observed that dressing is important in the following travel situations:

During airline travel: First, you need to be comfortable, but that doesn’t mean that you need to look like you just crawled out of bed with a hangover. Looking like you care often has the same effect on other people: they might just care about you should you run into difficulty. You can proclaim the superficiality of taking care when you travel, but there is ample evidence to support the contention that looking your best often helps to be treated well – like it or lump it. There is another important dressing guideline for air travel: dressing for the inevitable security check. We were once rushing through security to make a connection between Canada and the US onward and found ourselves in the security line behind a parent and teen-aged son. Said teen-aged son had clearly not received the memo about what a security screen would entail. He had layers upon layers of clothes that all had to be removed one at a time after going through the metal detector and back out of the metal detector. He had several chains around his neck, a chain holding his wallet to his trousers, and on and on. Not a pretty sight in any event, and we were purple with fury.

Touring cities: When we tour cities, we walk. That means footwear is our prime consideration, but it is not the only one. We prefer that our attire not scream “tourist”; this means that our footwear does not under any circumstances consist of white sneakers. Given the plethora of really lovely choices of walking shoes these days, it is puzzling to us how many people continue to wear these monstrosities. If you can afford to travel, you can afford a good-looking pair of walking shoes. As for clothing, it ought to be dictated by the weather and local customs. If you’re visiting Istanbul, for example, regardless of how hot it is, if you want to visit a mosque, you’re going to have to be respectful and dress the part. Check with the local tourist authorities for specifics so that you aren’t surprised by the posted signage. Women visiting conservative cities should always have a scarf in a handbag or around a neck for use as a head and shoulder cover.

On a cruise: When cruising, clothing needs to be dictated by itinerary

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Touring Olympia

(for example, people on South Pacific cruises dress differently than on Mediterranean cruises), weather and your choice of cruise line (Carnival cruises has a decidedly different expectation of how one will dress than does Seabourn, for example) – they all have differing levels of casual and formal requirements. For example, we’ve cruised on a number of lines that still have formal nights as well as a few that have gone upscale casual or what they call country-club. Oceania comes immediately to mind and we’ll be going country-club casual for the upcoming Caribbean venture, but we need to mindful that this means cocktail dresses on most evenings! (We can’t comment on the cruises that let people into the dining room in T-shirts and ball caps – we don’t even want to be near those dining rooms. Not our style.)

Dining out: Oh how we wish that dining out was still considered to be a treat to be cherished and prepared for by dressing a bit better than one might at one’s own kitchen table. Of course, it matters what kind of restaurant you’re going to be choosing – fast-food outlets are not restaurants. Wear what you want there! No one will bat an eye. But even if you don’t really care what you wear, it might be fun to see dining out as an actual occasion when you’re traveling. Stepping it up a bit can be entertaining, and at the risk of repeating ourselves, you’ll be treated better. You can protest this as much as you want, but it’s a fact of life. For many people – including maître d’s – dressing up a bit is a sign of respect for self and others.

At the theatre: We’ve observed that the theatre is not what it used to

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Going to the ballet during the summer season in Monte Carlo

be. Just last week we attended a big musical in downtown Toronto at the Ed Mirvish Theatre and we felt as if we had wandered into the economy section of a cut-rate airline. The truth is that in some parts of the world you’ll actually feel out of place if you don’t dress up a bit – and note that ballets and operas tend to have a more dressed-up audience. We noticed this in London and Sydney at the Opera House in particular. Don’t leave them off your travel lists, though; attending theatre performances in foreign cities is a real pleasure.

Obviously, you can wear whatever you want. We have noticed, however, that some people do care how they dress in general and while traveling in particular. If all of this sounds as if you will have to lug multiple suitcases, you won’t. We travel with one suitcase each regardless of the length of the trip –a weekend, one week, five weeks – it matters not. One suitcase. (It will probably be very small for a weekend!).

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Touring Rome

A preferred guest? Or just a member? Which would you prefer?

The Renaissance St. Pancras Hotel, a Marriott property in London, used to be both an old hotel and the train station.  It has been fabulously restored.
The Renaissance St. Pancras Hotel, a Marriott property in London, used to be both an old hotel and the train station. It has been fabulously restored.

There is an old adage of the seasoned – and discerning traveler – and that is this: never set foot on an airplane or in a hotel room without being a member of their frequent guest/flyer program.   Even if you don’t travel often, or are taking that airline only because there isn’t an alternative just this once – you should still be collecting points of one sort or another.  We gave this piece of advice to our then 20-year-old son when he began jetting around the world as a dancer with Les Ballet de Monte Carlo.  So, even on airlines that they booked only once, he collected miles.  Then, two years ago when he began preparations for relocating to London, he had enough frequent-flyer miles in several different accounts to redeem for many a weekend trip between Nice and London.  But not all programs are created equal.

Our own hotel loyalty program memberships go back many, many years.  Let’s go back about 20 years when we first found ourselves as frequent visitors to Toronto.  Loyal to the Sheraton brand, we had only recently learned the lesson of joining various hotel loyalty programs when one weekend our travel agent (that was before the days of online bookings) couldn’t get us a room at the Sheraton downtown Toronto.  He told us he’d put us as an equivalent downtown hotel , and we found ourselves checking into the Marriott at the Eaton Centre – there is no finer location when visiting Toronto.   But it was Marriott’s staff that made us sit up and take note – and in fact, made us eschew the Sheraton for many years of travel there and far beyond, finding as we did the high quality of the staff training extended far outside of their Eaton Centre location.  So over the years we found ourselves rising ever higher in the Marriott Rewards program which has frequently been voted one of the best in the world.  And it’s not hard to see why.

With some 3700+ properties around the world under their various brands, it’s not hard to figure out that there would be a lot to choose from when trying to redeem points for nights.  And we’ve had great luck doing so.  What we also noticed is that as we rose through gold to platinum status, we were treated rather well at the properties.  We worry, though, about how we’ll be treated when we have a year in which we don’t have as many nights at Marriott’s.  Like this year when we’re prepping to sell our house and move, and have to stay around the bay here in Nova Scotia for many more months than we usually do.  When we no longer hold platinum status will being a member be enough?  We’re not so sure, and it’s all because of Starwood.

Last summer we planned a trip to the Blue Mountains area of Ontario to see our daughter in summer theatre in Collingwood.  The nicest hotel on offer around those parts was the Westin Trillium, a Starwood property (who also owns Sheraton hotels among many other brands). So we dusted off our Starwood Preferred Guest (SPG) card which had not been used in some time, and made our reservations for a summer road trip.When we arrived to check in to the Westin Trillium we found ourselves really believing that we were, in fact, preferred guests.  We did not have any ‘status’ in the program, and yet found ourselves feeling like we do when we’re greeted at a Marriott property as Platinum members!  (Bear in mind that you have to stay 75 nights in one year to be platinum so well you should be treated like royalty: you are, after all, paying the salaries so to speak!).  We were delighted, but wondered if this was just a pleasant surprise of this particular Westin.  It wasn’t.

The view from our oceanfront room at the Westin Dawn Beach on the island of Sint Maarten.
The view from our oceanfront room at the Westin Dawn Beach on the island of Sint Maarten.

Just this past February we spent six days on the Island of Sint Maarten in the Caribbean and our hotel of choice there was the Westin Dawn Beach.  Although we now had a paltry number points actually showing up on our membership screen at check-in, we were again treated preferentially.  Then again in April, we stayed at the Westin in Dublin and felt the same wonderful treatment.  The Starwood Preferred Guest program (SPG) is aptly named as far as we’re concerned.  So where does that leave us in terms of our evaluation of loyalty programs?

The lesson we take away from this is that belonging to these programs is a good thing in the long run, but staying loyal can actually prove to be an obstacle to experiencing other brands and other types of accommodations.  The same lesson would ring true for airline loyalty programs.

This year we had to take a couple of flights outside of our usual program – Air Canada’s Aeroplan program and its connection to Star Alliance.  Add onto that the fact that we are likely to lose our particular elite status this year because we are putting off much of our travel until next year (and could not take all of our flights on Starr Alliance airlines), and we realize that we will no longer be treated as anything special.  And on an airline that’s even worse!

Despite the fact that we have been high-level elite members for many years, because we won’t have as many miles racked up this year we will lose our perks entirely – no priority check-in, priority boarding, free checked baggage etc.  So, where’s our incentive to continue to be loyal to Air Canada?  Well, and this is a message to loyalty programs, there isn’t one.  This means that for all intents and purposes, Air Canada has lost good customers.  The next time we’re looking for a business-class ticket to London from Toronto, we are just as likely to book on British Airways.  Over the years we would not have even considered it.

So here is the challenge for these programs: how are you going to find a way to keep your frequent flyers when they get to a point in their lives when they have the luxury of choice?  Or when they have one year when they fly less frequently?  Perhaps you need to consider how you might make us feel preferred, and not just members.  Maybe the SPG program could give you a few pointers.

You might like to read: The ups and downs of loyalty programs: When is a perk not a perk?

The view from where we're spending summer this year!
The view from where we’re spending summer this year!