Wednesday, January 28, 2015

A festive February in Wilmington with a 3-day jazz weekend

You can hear winter's swan song in Wilmington in February: It's been like that since 1980, when the Port City launched its inaugural N.C. Jazz Festival.

The popular event will be the weekend of Feb. 5-7 at the Hilton Wilmington Riverside, downtown on North Water Street.

What's featured this time around?

Fifteen traditional and swing jazz musicians, playing on the stage of the hotel's ballroom; enjoy the cabaret-style seating.

The weekend kicks off  Feb. 5 (a Thursday) with a three-hour "Styles of Jazz” concert featuring The Benny Hill Quartet (jazz standards), Molly Ryan with the Dan Levinson Quartet (swing), Rossano Sportiello (tribute to George Shearing) and Ed Polcer’s All-Star Jam.

Friday and Saturday evening features an all-star musician lineup in a traditional presentation of seven sets, each with different leaders. The leaders this year include Adrian Cunningham and Dan Levinson (reeds), Ed Polcer (cornet), Nate Najar (guitar), Nicki Parrott (bass, vocals), Vincent Gardner (trombone), Rossano Sportiello and Mark Shane (piano), Kevin Dorn and Chuck Redd (drums), Herman Burney (bass), Bria Skonberg (trumpet/vocals -- that's a photo of her at the top of this post), Molly Ryan (vocals), Benny Hill (sax) and Jonathan Russell (violin).

Also at the festival: workshops, master classes.

For tickets and details: 910-793-1111 or

Monday, January 26, 2015

Keep an eye open for these 2015 travel predictions

Virgin Travel -- a subsidiary of the international Virgin airline, entertainment and technology corporation -- has put out an intriguing list of what travel trends may be popping up this year.

Among them:

 Flashpacking. A subset of adventure travel for people who want to go  to new places -- with a thrill experience front and center. The flashpacker is "more likely to be found tracking  wild animals in the Galapagos than hunting down fishbowls on Khao San Road" in Bangkok, Thailand.

Sailing solo. According to Virgin, cruise lines are focusing more on attracting single travelers.

Automatic airport assistance. "Low-frequency Bluetooth sensors can alert you to when you’re walking past the service you need. This is currently being rolled out across airports from San Francisco to Amsterdam Schiphol."

Thermal springs. They're atop many destination wish lists.

In-air networking. Virgin says KLM is testing a Meet & Seat program, where you can "choose your seats depending on your neighbor’s social media profiles."

Food cruises. Noting the popularity of cable TV's cooking channels/shows, celeb chefs and cooking classes are taking to the waves.

Longer flights, fewer connections. Newer planes are more fuel-efficient, and can go farther and for longer. New direct-flights are predicted.

(TMS photo at the top of this post: The coach section of an LAN Airlines Boeing 787 Dreamliner, which flies direct between Miami and Santiago, Chile.)

Thursday, January 22, 2015

On the trail of the rare North Carolina sonker. Really. See for yourself.

Screaming Yellow Zonkers: about 174,000  hits on Google.

Sonkers? Slightly more. And that includes the Sonker Festival, held the first Saturday in October in the Mount Airy area.

Mount Airy? Of course. A sonker is a North Carolina take on a deep-dish cobbler. Popular in the old days, it has experienced a renaissance of sorts, being highlighted in the New York Times in 2013 along with grunts, slumps and other regional takes on fruit-filled desserts.

Surry County, deep in the Sonker Belt,  is capitalizing on this with a new "trail" ‑- a guide to places in those parts where you can order them, buy them, or purchase cookbooks on how to make sonkers.

Among the stops?

The Rockford General Store
Roxxi & Lulu's Bakery, in Elkin
Heaven's Scent, Elkin
Living Cross Coffeehouse, Mount Pilot
Putters Patio & Grill, Dobson
Trio Restaurant, Mount Airy
Miss Angel's Heavenly Pies, Mount Airy

You can order the free-of-charge  "Sonker Trail" guide/map by calling 800-948-0949, or request it online at

The Surry County Tourism  photo at the top of this post? A close-up of the rare and elusive sonker.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Charleston this weekend? Late winter, shucked and steaming

Every year, without fail, one event comes along that signals that winter doesn't last forever: The Lowcountry Oyster Festival.

It's always a wrap-up event for January -‑ it's this Sunday (Jan. 25) this time around - Charleston is always warmer than Charlotte.

Plus. the oyster-related events -- competitions in both shucking and eating -- are complemented by live music and beer. Plus, the charity fundraiser is staged outdoors at beautiful and historic Boone Hall Plantation, east of downtown Charleston in Mount Pleasant.

Tickets -- $17.50/advance, $25 at the door ‑ include festival entry, a viewing of Boone Hall Plantation, entertainment and access to the children's area.

Oysters, sold separately, are $14 per bucket; beer is $4 (draft) and $6 (craft). There's also a food court that showcases fare from various Charleston area restaurants.

Posted hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Live music starts at 11 a.m. (the Muddy Kings) and 1:30 p.m. (Eddie Bush).

The shucking and eating contest is 12:30 to 1:30 p.m.

A popular event? Consider this: the festival, now in its 32nd year, goes through 80,000 pounds of oysters and describes itself as "the world's largest oyster festival."

(The photo at the top of this post is from the event's 2006 incarnation; it's by Mic Smith of the Post and Courier, via AP.) 

Friday, January 16, 2015

Hoist a beer to Asheville breweries on Jan. 24

Western North Carolina’s fast-moving waterways are great for more than paddling: Over the last 20 years, the area has blossomed with enough microbreweries – more than 100, according to one count – to make it a quench-seeking destination. Buncombe County alone is home to 19 breweries making all varieties of beer in addition to ciders and sake, and according to Jennifer McLucas of the Asheville Brewers Alliance, “that number changes by the day.”

The ante has been dramatically raised in the last six months. California-based Sierra Nevada, whose pale ale is second in U.S. sales only to Samuel Adams, opened a brewing facility in Mills River, near the Asheville airport. Later this year, New Belgium – a nationally popular craft operation out of Fort Collins, Colo., will open its own facility in the River Arts District.

Small wonder Men’s Journal magazine last year ran article headlined “Why Asheville is the next craft beer capital.”

The area beer industry – both startups and transplants – raises a stein to itself from 3 to 7 p.m. Jan. 24 -- a Saturday -- with the 8th annual Winter Warmer Beer Festival, staged downtown at the U.S. Cellular Center (the Asheville Civic Center).

More than 45 area and regional breweries will serve their suds. Alphabetically: from Asheville Brewing (makers of nine year-round varieties) to Yazoo Brewing of Nashville, Tenn. Geographically: from Miami Brewing, in Homestead, Fla., to Cleveland-based Great Lakes. In size: from major-player Sierra Nevada to Heinzelmannchen, a micro based in Sylva.

There will be catered food for sale. There’s music, too, from Alarm Clock Conspiracy and Black Robin Hero.

The event is popular and has been a sellout in past years; check for this year’s status. Order your tickets online and pick them up at the door.

If nothing else, you’ll know that the region’s suds lovers will be at the venue – which means more elbow room at the area’s brewery tours, taprooms, gastropubs and ale houses. There’s a Pub & Grub Crawl (

For that matter – this weekend or any other – you can download the Asheville Ale Trail map ( for self-guided exploration.

And down the road is Asheville Beer Week (May 22-30; and the Beer City Festival (May 30;

DIRECTIONS: The U.S. Cellular Center is at 87 Haywood St., in downtown Asheville. From the Charlotte area, take I-85 South to U.S. 74 (Kings Mountain/Shelby exit); follow U.S. 74 Bypass West to I-26 (at Columbus) and I-26 West to Asheville exit 4C. Turn left onto Haywood Street.



Thursday, January 15, 2015

Out of town on a rail: $46

Here's a great tweak to your winter getaway: Amtrak is offering 20 percent discounts on certain passenger train routes around the United States.

The sale offer available now through Jan. 31, for travel Feb. 2 through March 31. The catch? Reservations are required seven days in advance of travel; they're non-refundable, seats and times are limited (some blackout dates apply), they're valid only for coach seats and can't be used for accommodation upgrades...

 and they're one way.

That said, look at the prices that apply for rides between Charlotte and:

Atlanta: $46
Washington, D.C.: $66
Philadelphia: $84
New York: $89

The Atlanta trip is via Amtrak's Crescent; the others are via the Carolinian, a train sponsored by N.C. DOT that is operated by Amtrak.

Sure, it's one-way... but because the discount is valid in either direction, you could buy two one-ways for a round trip -- it's still a great deal.

Also, a one-way fare may be just your  ticket: If, say, you have a friend in Atlanta who is interested in visiting you here, just take the train to Atlanta and return to Charlotte as a passenger in your pal's car. You'll have plenty of time to talk... and the driver sure won't get lost upon reaching metro Charlotte.

Trail travel is a truly American experience that, unfortunately,  many of us don't use. In this day and age, we're too time-pressed to do anything but fly or drive.

Railroads take longer than jets to get where you're going, but you watch the changing landscapes through the windows, get up and walk around the train, and  chat with other travelers.

Take the time. Ride the rails.

Details are at -- a site you can periodically check for other travel opportunities. You can also call 800-872-7245  (800-USA-RAIL).

Monday, January 12, 2015

10 international cities getting trendy as 2015 destinations

Last week, American Express Travel added its list to the many that are predicting the hot spots for international travel in 2015.

Their forecast is for "trending" cities -- destinations booked with the greatest year-over-year growth, according to survey findings.

1. London
2. Santiago, Chile
3. Paris
4. Mumbai, India
5. Buenos Aires
6. Providenciales, Turks and Caicos
7. Puerto Vallarta, Mexico
8. Sydney, Australia
9. New York
10. San Francisco

(That's Santiago shown in the Ellen Creager/MCT photo at the top of this post).

Based on survey findings, American Express is also seeing an increase in demand for New Zealand Vietnam, Myanmar, Croatia, Iceland and Italy.