Author Archives: Peter Jones

Making My Way Around Naples

Let me start out by saying that I visited Naples on my own a few years’ back.  It was just a quick
stroll from the station and around the city for about two hours before heading back to Rome.  It was interesting but I really didn’t get a sense of the city.  Now we have a client that I know that would like to go to Naples but the rap on the city is that it has a lot of petty crime.  So off I went with my man bag in hand for a virgin overnight in Naples.

First of all, it’s only a 63-minute journey on the high-speed Frecciarossa from Rome to Naples.  The train is super fast. The Italians love their high-speed train links.  They’re really good at this stuff!  After a particularly dreadful on-train coffee served by a particularly disinterested on-train steward (the Italians are really good at this stuff too), we had arrived in Naples.  My mate had organized a taxi (booked) from the station and so far, so good.  We safely got to our hotel on a nice stretch of the promenade that sits opposite the island of Capri.  In between, there were the usual underground excavations for a project that would never be finished, but no matter, we were here.  The trip had been entirely uneventful, no muggings, no hassles and now with the light of the early evening, we decided to go for a walking tour.

Here’s the thing about Naples – it’s handy to know your way around, there are lots of hills, it’s a chaotic, and there are lots of different areas with very different characteristics.  The first stop was the Palazzo Mannajuolo which holds an incredible staircase; probably the most breathtaking internal staircase in all the world, la scala ellittica.   We strolled around the hilly Chiaia and stopped at an old-world candy store in San Ferdinando.  We came across a beautiful piazza with the pantheon-like structure of the church of San Ferdinando.  The piazza here is open and full of light with Vesuvius in the background.  The opera house, Teatro di San Carlo, was showing La Traviata.  There is a spectacular galleria, the Galleria Umberto I, close by as well.  It houses thousands of panes of glass sitting in a cross formation with a whole series of panels of Jewish stars that form part of the glass decoration.  The history of Naples is more or less the entire history of the our ancient civilization.  One thing’s for sure, it makes Rome look like a young lad.

The light was dropping so we wandered back to the harbor to prepare for dinner near the Castle Nuovo (not very nuovo actually).  That is where I had the most incredible spaghetti alle vongole I had ever eaten.  So, this was Naples and we had only been there a few hours.  More to come.  Wow.

Travel Briefs 2 – Rome to Naples

The most chaotic thing about Naples, Italy was trying to get there from the Stazione Termini railway station in Rome.  The traffic setup was crazy.  They are renovating the station and there is no great place to drop-off or pick-up passengers.  Then suddenly, we walked through the utterly dysfunctional part of the Stazione Termini and were presented with a sign reading “Lavori in Corso”.  Essentially meaning “Men at work.”

I had this feeling that the sign indicated that behind this fenced area (it wasn’t a fence, but a plastic sheet) there were men at work, diligently improving the station for human kind.  Not just for me but for my children and my children’s children.  Building a better future so that others I could not even imagine would be able to sail through the station in a way that seemed entirely impossible now.  Of course, I had to peek behind the plastic.  Couldn’t resist.  But sure enough, the utter stillness of the other side provided every evidence that indeed there were no men at work, nor women, nor anybody.  Maybe tomorrow or the next day.  The station would wait, not just f or me but for my children and my children’s children.  Roma, non basta una vita….Rome, a lifetime is not enough.

Apple and Tech21 – My Love (and Hate) Affair with Apple Accessories

I had recently switched my iPhone case from the beloved Tech21 to Apple.  Boy, I loved those Tech21 cases.  You could throw your iPhone in the air and watch it slam down on a piece of concrete and nothing would shatter.  In fact, when I first went to the Apple Store to invest in one, the guy gave me the sales pitch on the Tech21 and told me it was shatter-proof.  So, I took the case, put it on my iPhone, threw it up in the air, and watched his face in horror as the phone landed on the Apple ground.  Guess what?  He was right.

But now Tech21 has broken their promise in providing the case that is perfect in every way.  The new case, for some ungodly reason, has the silent button opening designed for a five-year-old or people with micro fingers.  Seriously, guys, I use that switch all the time!  It’s a shame.  I’m not saying that you should take the designer who designed the new case and march him/her out the door, but maybe you should check the fingers out on this person.  They sure cannot be ordinary fingers.  Or else this person just prefers the “Do Not Disturb” crescent moon symbol.  Living dangerously if you ask me when you are at the theater.

So, Tech21, I abandoned you.  I went looking for an Apple case and invested in their silicon line.  I like it because when you leave your phone on the arm of an airplane seat during landing, it does not slip off.  It stays put easily.  I also like it because I can access the silent switch with ease.  But when I started to use it, I noticed that the silicon began to wear on the corners.  What a drag.  I have an Apple Store near me and I walked in expecting some kind of interrogation on receipt verification, the usual sales obstruction stuff, etc.  But instead, the guy told me to go pick out a new case and we would just do a straight switch.  Or if I wanted the money back, he would just transfer it back to my card.  The whole transaction time was five minutes.  Brilliant service.  Hey Tech21, change your design.  I will still leave the door open for you.  Hey Apple, you’re the best.

 

Travel Briefs 2 – Baseball

I have a question.  Why are there more empty seats in more baseball stadiums than any

MIAMI GARDENS, FL – JUNE 12: Fans watch the Florida Marlins take on the Arizona Diamondbacks at Sun Life Stadium on June 12, 2011 in Miami Gardens, Florida. (Photo by Jason Arnold/Getty Images)

other sport?  Well, I think I know.  Baseball is a slow sport and there are 162 games in a season.  That’s right.  So who cares to go in the spring when you can go in the warmer summer months?  Then who cares in late summer as my team sucks then?

But look at cricket.  They figured it out.  They invented the home run derby and called it 20-20.  It is a slug fest.  The stadiums are full, revenues are huge, and the Indian Premier League is one of the richest leagues in the world.  Cricket is an international game.  Please, I have season tickets to our beloved Red Sox (one of the few stadiums that sell out) but the season is too long, the games are too long, most stadiums are empty, and the sport needs juicing up.  I do not mean drugs – although that may be better than the 3 and half hours of dreadful stuff we have sometimes have to endure.

So for the purest, I get the intricacies of the game, but it is slow, damn slow.  In football, there are 16 games, and basketball is action-packed.  Hockey is exhausting to watch since it’s so fast and soccer is over in an hour and a half.  Please baseball, invent an alternative parallel world that is fun and exciting.  We promise we will go watch your games live even in stadiums that have never seen the light of a playoff game in their history.

How Can You Not Love New York City?

I like New York City a lot, and although it’s not my favorite city, I do appreciate its amazing museums and grand theaters.  I love the neighborhoods that stretch all the way from the Battery to the Bronx and the new Brooklyn, unrecognizable to my wife now who went to Bayridge High School and grew up a stone’s throw from the Verrazano Straights.  New York has a busyness to it with its big, broad avenues, and trying to catch the pedestrian lights as you walk so you don’t need to stop and can just zig zag your way from 30th to the park. I love Soho and the Village and always wondered where I would live (probably Soho although the park is stunning).  So my question on New York is why is it so ratty in places?  London can be patchy and the outskirts of Paris are dreadful, but we are talking downtown New York City.  It’s very uneven to me.  Fun, but dirty, and even the late-night scene is sketchy.

My favorite restaurant in the city is Esca.  I love this place – great seafood, nice wine list, but honestly, it’s stuck in the seediest part of town on 43rd Street and 9th Ave, next to porn shops and dodgy quick bites.  It’s weird, New York.  The transportation hubs just seem to be seedier than they need to be.  Grand Central is a beautiful station but it’s confusing.  The shops and kiosks around it are grim.  Penn Station is even worse and is surrounded by dodgy hotels.  Yet here in the thick of it is Madison Square Garden.  Let’s not forget to mention LaGuardia Airport, antiquated and inefficient, with no great transportation link into town.  Welcome to New York.  

So, yeah, I do like New York for two days, grab an overpriced play and go out to a nice dinner, but in the end, no prejudice, London is just a cooler place.

 

Learning English in the New Age

Learning the English language has become a huge opportunity for the bright and enterprising.  Take Lucy Earl, a Brit who recently graduated and started to think of ways to make English learning fun and frivolous.  She ended up obtaining a following of 350,000 people who wanted to know why Brits drink pimms and take tea at 4:00 pm, why they pronounce fruit as “froot” and not “fru it”, “choobe” and not “toobe”, and “choona” not “toona”.  She compiled a list of the 100 must-to words that you need to know in English, she did a Christmas swear words special, and her website launched her into the English language stratosphere.

Her YouTube teaching course, English with Lucy, provides short videos filmed at her home, on the streets, and while taking a bus to the town center.  It is a slice of England as well as some fun lessons in English.  She has 12 million views on some of her most popular videos plus an international following.  She reportedly earns about $40,000 a year in advertising revenues alone but bottom line is that it’s fun.  She is fun and everyone gets to see a slice of real life through Lucy’s eyes.

Language schools take note.  Online language is growing fast.  Teaching English as a foreign language and heading abroad, while still popular, are being outpaced by this phenomenon.  Lucy got it right and right again.  Note that there are 1.7 billion people learning English. It’s going to be 2 billion by 2020. 375 million people speak English as a second language and 750 million as one of their foreign languages.  300 million people in China have learned English. Incidentally, if you want to teach English in the UAE, they pay you $4,000 a month and in Japan about $3,500 a month.  Lucy is doing alright and with simply a 500 URL camera and little to no overhead.  She is light as a feather on the business front.  Zero overhead.  Exports for English language teaching e-books have doubled in recent years while hardcopy books have dramatically declined.  The lessons are good for all, make the classes fun, and give people a slice of the culture.  Check English with Lucy out on YouTube.  It’s free!

What’s Up with Airline Regulations??

So after the recent debacles with United and American, the government is getting heavy.  Finally, we are seeing the government recognizing that consolidation is creating an arrogance in service and in amenities.  After deregulation in 1978, industry charges like baggage fees and bumping passengers have been pretty much left to the airlines.  And 80% of USA domestic business is now in the frightening hands of four airlines. Power to the few and less power to the consumer.

Airlines claim that overbooking helps keep fares low and provides less risk so more choice for consumers.  Understood, but you have to be nice too!  Honestly, whoever comes off a plane and says that they had a fab and fun experience?  Now United are going to have to put their money where their mouth is.  Dragging a guy down the aisle sounds like a bad wedding arrangement.  It nearly cost them their business.  CEO Munoz stated that he is committed to making things better and now overbooking as a policy is going to be phased out.  Southwest, the darling of consumers, actually has the highest overbooking of any airline. They were just smarter and nicer about it.

We all get that overbooking creates more flexibility for airlines and lots take advantage of the compensation.  It doesn’t take much but being nice and being smart makes the difference.  Having a positive attitude and being customer friendly is key.  That’s all we ask for.  We are not cattle.

AirBnB Magazine…lovely…

Here’s a shocker.  High-tech, super slick Airbnb have teamed up with the Hearst Corporation to produce a travel magazine; essentially Airbnb Magazine.  The rationale is that nobody knows better where people want to go than Airbnb does.  They see it in demand and deals and have it resourced from billions of data points.  As such, they can provide stories for people and places that are hot and can write about places that are trending.  Savannah, for example, is one of Airbnb’s biggest sourced destinations, Porvoo in Finland is another.  Go figure!

The first launch will be this May.  It’s going to provide competition for mags like Afar and Conde Nast Traveler but Airbnb is different by basing stories and articles on where people want to go.  In other words, they’re putting the power into the hands of the consumer instead of the usual fantasy articles that occupy most chapters of a travel mag.  Incidentally, one of the best travel mags for me is British Airways High Life.  Of course, the only problem there is that British Airways has to fly there and it’s only available on the airplane.  I always steal a copy!

Airbnb mag is an experiment but like travel books, people still love travel in print form.  Look at the success of Rick Steves.  Regular monthly mailings will be forthcoming if this finds success.

Travel Briefs 1: Airport Technology. Are You Using It?

Now airports are moving into food and drink technology.  Many airports have iPad ordering systems set up around bars and themed food restaurants.  The deal is that you sit down, swipe your credit card, choose items from the iPad menu, and then food or drinks come flying out at you from places that you had no idea.  Meanwhile, there are bartenders that you cannot order from and wait staff that appear randomly with your food in no apparent order.  The basic problem with that system is that it’s not that good.  Somebody has to keep coming in to manually assist and more often than not, the timing is all screwed up.  Sometimes you get wine when you should’ve received coffee, or pizza when you were looking for dessert.  It helps to pass the time and the idea is to simply centralize the operation center, but the problem is that it doesn’t work that well.

Having Your Uber Account Hacked IS As Bad As You Think.

I have never not had access to my Uber account.  It goes with me everywhere and is sort of like a travel companion.  However, it doesn’t get to go to Italy with me and I hate that.  The cab company lobby there is just too powerful.  So apart from not being able to see the sights of Ancient Rome and renaissance Florence, Uber does pretty well with me.

Then the horror of all unthinkable horrors happened – my Uber account was hacked!

I didn’t spot it at first.  I kept getting messages from an unknown source in Russian but I kept on deleting them.  I figured that it was a Russian wedding inquiry.  Then one day, my Uber driver asked me if my name was “Dinrat.”  No, that’s not me.  And then I realized I had been hacked!  Ok, no issues.  I check my credit cards and reboot Uber but for three days I couldn’t log back on.  I used the help button that Uber indicated I should use, restarted it, resubmitted it, but for three miserable days, I was Uber-less.  Nobody to talk to help you, just dependent on their technology to resurface.  It was not easy, believe me.  Friends would have to pay for my transportation and I started to do the unthinkable…take taxis!  It was a pretty grim experience.

It was tough and I felt lost.  I didn’t know who to turn to.  That’s what I realized that I was an Uber addict.  Take Lyft, friends told me, but I couldn’t give up on Uber.  So after 20 back and forth messages, we were able to make amends and I got back into a relationship again.  Life without Uber.  Honestly, I feel really bad for the Italians!

Oh, The Airport Woes

If you are going to get stuck at an airport and your flight is going to be endlessly delayed and possibly canceled, one word of advice, pray to God that you are not stuck at LaGuardia Airport.  It sucks.  Watching delays unfold and getting bad updates and then inevitable cancellations are frustrating and bring out the worst in all of us.  Airline staff is not helpful and nobody has a clue.  Usually, they point to a gate complaint line that is a mile long and have you wait there.  If you are really lucky, you get a snack voucher.  As for a hotel, dream on!     

What I never understand is why the airlines do not better prepare their staff for dealing with these situations.  At the airport, I saw queues and queues of people trying to get out and I thought how bad airlines deal with this stuff and yet this is where they should shine.  Stranded passengers, helpless passengers, simply giving soothing words and realistic directions and expectations on how to get out of the mess would be helpful.  It is always a drag to watch this debacle.  It could be so much better.  It’s as if they have no training on what happens when stuff goes wrong.  That’s the only time they have to worry and that’s when they can really overperform.  We know the airline food is bad, the seats are cramped, and the service in general on the plane is very average, so how about excelling at this?  Help passengers who are trying to figure out what to do, concentrate on the pre-boarding service, calm people, assure people, and take a genuine interest in getting people into a good frame of mind.  Maybe they should have yoga attendants at the gates helping passengers breath.  It’s a shame. This is an area where you don’t have to do much.  Just be service-oriented and kind.  Is that too much to ask?

 

A Tale of London, Paris, Rome, Naples, Boston, and New York

 What do all of these cities have in common apart from being really cool places to visit?  Yes, you’ve got it – they are all connected by high-speed train.

Well, sort of.

Here’s the problem.  The Eurostar, which connects London and Paris, takes precisely two hours and twenty minutes to cover the 306 miles journey.  From Naples to Rome, it takes a quick 67 minutes to travel 116 miles.  But the Acela train from Boston to New York on good old Amtrak takes three hours and 40 minutes to travel 215 miles.  That equates to nearly traveling at only 60 mph!  The Europeans are going to continue to surpass us in train travel as the distance between cities in Italy is about to get considerably smaller in time terms as they get their super fast fleet of new trains.  These trains will travel around 400 km/h (or around 250 mph) which means that it will take about two hours to go from Rome to Milan.  

So the question begs, why does Amtrak have horrible, unreliable, and slow service?  We are held to ransom by the exclusivity of the airlines.  This is a pretty sad reflection, but the Europeans understood the power of train travel, along with the Chinese and the Japanese, and have invested billions of dollars in constructing an artery of high-speed travel that is more energy efficient than jet fuel airplanes, more passenger-centric (city center to city center) than airplane travel, and frankly, more comfortable and fun than airplane travel.  Let’s face it, when was the last time someone said, “Well that was fun!” while flying from one city to another in coach while experiencing massive delays and terrible service.

So why oh why doesn’t the government invest in Amtrak?  Why is the fleet so appalling?  What is a more attractive option there than a high-speed train from DC to New York or Boston or Los Angeles to San Francisco?  Imagine what fun it would be to take a high-speed train from New York to Miami.  1,280 miles away, using a 200 mph train it would take just over six hours.

I only wonder about all of this because it makes no sense.  A guy in front of me as we walked out of the terminal in London off the Eurostar said to his wife, wow, imagine this journey on Amtrak. Indeed!  A horror show. European travelers can commute between Rome and Naples or Rome and Florence or Paris and Marseilles or Paris and Cologne so effortlessly.  If you get the chance and you are traveling out there, get on a fast train and try to dream or imagine that one day Amtrak can be like this.  The Dream on! The President has just cut funding.  Oh well.  See you out there somewhere.  They even wrote a song about it!

Gimme a ticket for an aeroplane 
Ain’t got time to take a fast train 
Lonely days are gone, I’m a-goin’ home 
My baby, just-a wrote me a letter

NYC or London: Which City Do You Prefer??

I like New York City a lot, and although it’s not my favorite city, I do appreciate its amazing museums and grand theaters.  I love the neighborhoods that stretch all the way from the Battery to the Bronx and the new Brooklyn, unrecognizable to my wife now who went to Bayridge High School and grew up a stone’s throw from the Verrazano Straights.  New York has a busyness to it with its big, broad avenues, and trying to catch the pedestrian
lights as you walk so you don’t need to stop and can just zig zag your way from 30th to the park. I love Soho and the Village and always wondered where I would live (probably Soho although the park is stunning).  So my question on New York is why is it so ratty in places?  London can be patchy and the outskirts of Paris are dreadful, but we are talking downtown New York City.  It’s very uneven to me.  Fun, but dirty, and even the late-night scene is sketchy.

My favorite restaurant in the city is Esca.  I love this place – great seafood, nice wine list, but honestly, it’s stuck in the seediest part of town on 43rd Street and 9th Ave, next to porn shops and dodgy quick bites.  It’s weird, New York.  The transportation hubs just seem to be seedier than they need to be.  Grand Central is a beautiful station but it’s confusing.  The shops and kiosks around it are grim.  Penn Station is even worse and is surrounded by dodgy hotels.  Yet here in the thick of it is Madison Square Garden.  Let’s not forget to mention LaGuardia Airport, antiquated and inefficient, with no great transportation link into town.  Welcome to New York

So, yeah, I do like New York for two days, grab an overpriced play and go out to a nice dinner, but in the end, no prejudice, London is just a cooler place.

Checking out the Cuevas de las Maravillas – Dominican Republic

Richard, our local hero in the Dominican Republic, was hosting me for a day and a half.  He wanted to show me the Cuevas de las Maravillas which is just west of La Romana and is designated a national park.  I have been to a few caves in my time.  I remember well the caves near Nerja in Spain and the Postos in Slovenia.  Limestone plays fantastic tricks with water underground!  This was going to be a bit of an adventure.

Our first and minor obstacle were that the caves were closed on the day we were going to be visiting.  Richard, in his charming
Dominican Spanish, disturbed a guy from a siesta and asked him if there was any way that he could let us into the park and caves.  The “transaction” was done quickly and before you know it the gates had been opened and we were walking along a path with a stone wall on either side.  After about ten minutes, the first surprise came.  On both sides of the wall, hanging around on trees and munching away on plants, were iguanas or baby dinosaurs, I’m not quite sure.  Lots of them though.  That prompted me to inquire if there were any venom issues – apparently not.  Eventually, we got to the opening of the caves, all quite civilized, and then began the descent.  Inside the cave, there are about 500 paintings and engravings on the walls all made by the Taínos, the ancient inhabitants of the island and in general, most of the Caribbean.  There were human faces, animals, and geometric figures.  All pretty basic stuff but all incredible given the time period.  It is a rare photograph of life just before Columbus arrived.  Of course, as is the case with all of the native Indians, they got royally (pardon the pun) screwed by either the Catholic monarchy or the diseases that the discoverer’s brought with them.  So now we get to walk through their caves. For me it was a fabulous travel moment – alone, no tourists, just the guy who opened the door for us, and the only noise was the dripping of water through the stalactites that are endlessly fascinating and at the same time you wonder if today is the day that they will fall to the ground.

 

My First All-Inclusive Resort – Dominican Republic

I was picked up by a driver at the Santo Domingo airport in the Dominican Republic.  The drive to my resort was an hour and a half away.  Driving is a little crazy here and we did a lot of weaving in and out of traffic but eventually, we made it.  I was heading to one of those up-market all-inclusive resorts surrounded by golf courses, a marina, and a white sand beach.  I was taking advantage of an outstanding credit on our books and it was a chance to see a little bit of the Dominican Republic.

The resort was huge and had the feel of a TV show about it.  Golf carts rolled around and everyone had one.  It was a little surreal and a bit like the TV show of the 1960’s, The Prisoner.  After a while, you get into it.  The golf carts were a must anyhow because the beach and the marina were around 7 kilometers away.  There were polo fields and skeet shooting places, and golf courses with guys dressed up to the nines with their own caddies and looking surprisingly and shockingly bad.  It even gave me cause to think I could return here to play golf even though I’m appalling.  Unfortunately, I got lost easily and was fooled by speed bumps.  The golf cart even lost its front piece somewhere on the road and I had to get out to fix it.  It all became part of my routine.  Take advantage of the pool in the morning, a nice breakfast, a drive in the golf cart for about an hour, and then a sunset at the beach.  I didn’t take advantage of any of the main facilities mainly because I wouldn’t know how to skeet shoot, I don’t like guns, and polo was something that was way beyond my class station!

But the place was really nice.  I was traveling on my own, got used to my own company, and the service was impeccable.  The restaurant by the reception was decent although there was this irritating rule that you had to wear a collared shirt to eat there.  Really?  There were a bunch of restaurants by the marina that was great for lunch, but for dinner, at least in my golf cart, it was simply too much of a perilous thought to have a beer or glass of wine and then jump back into my golf cart to drive on dark roads with rarely any signposts.  My driver told me that David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez lived in a complex not far from here.  I could get used to it I suppose.  I was very grateful that this was my introductory immersion to the Dominican Republic.