Wednesday, December 31, 2014

January is the odds-on favorite month for visiting many vacation hot spots

What's the most affordable month for visiting a hot destination?

Travel booker recently pulled together some data on the subject. Here's when, according to their findings, are the best times to visit 15 top markets -- and the percent savings vs. peak season:

Las Vegas (44 percent savings vs. peak season)
London (55 percent)
Rome (99 percent)
San Francisco (88 percent)
Los Angeles (37 percent)
Chicago (67 percent)
Washington, D.C. (58 percent)
San Diego (109 percent)

Paris (64 percent)
New York City (77 percent)

Honolulu (46 percent)

Madrid, Spain (77 percent)
New Orleans (69 percent)

Miami (91 percent)
Orlando, Fla. (40 percent)

Take the percentages with a grain of salt: Savings depends on how savvy you are about where you stay and what you do.

But on the whole, the findings do point out what months great deals are more abundant.

The Associated Press photo at the top of this post, by the way, shows the hands of a player in the poker room at Caesar's Palace, in Vegas.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

5 great backup destinations when your 2015 vacation goes kaput

OK, maybe your dream vacation of 2015 hit a scheduling snag, or came up short when you mentioned it to your travel companion. just came up with a list of  five "Go here, not there" alternatives you may want to consider.

Biloxi, Miss., instead of Las Vegas. The Vegas-like city on the Gulf Coast "boasts eight casino resorts serving up round-the-clock gaming and everything from upscale restaurants to headliner-laced entertainment."

Toronto instead of New York City. Ontario's capital has more than just a stunning skyline:  It "puts up plenty of off-screen allure that allows it to go head to head with New York: a host of cool neighborhoods to explore, a multicultural population, lots of arts and culture."

Buena Park, Calif., instead of Orlando, Fla. The town just southeast of Los Angeles  is home to Knott's Berry Farm, an "entertainment-laden locale serves up more than 165 rides, performances and other attractions, a seasonal 13-acre water park and family-friendly dinner shows. You can even get a touch of Disney magic with a visit to Knott’s Berry Farm’s Camp Snoopy."

St. Lucia instead of Hawaii. "St. Lucia’s rugged coastline, lush, enchanting scenery and romantic vibe mimic many a Hawaiian hot spot."
(St. Lucia's white sand beaches are shown in the MCT photo at the top of this post.)

Ibiza, Spain, instead of Cancun, Mexico. Ibiza "will not disappoint during party season, which lasts from about June to October. Summertime on the Spanish island is sure to be raucous with well-known DJs and music groups filling up the venues."

Bottom line: Always have a backup plan.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Travel 'bug' stats: Idaho is the healthiest state to visit

One thing you don't want for a souvenir is poor health -- and a Baltimore-based firm called Sickweather has compiled a list of the healthiest states... and the sickest.

Sickweather provides clients with information on more than 23 different symptoms and illnesses. Its just-released list of states data-mined analyzed social media reports of allergies, flu, cough, colds and fever from January through October.

The numbers next to each state is "sick reports per thousand people," and that's what determined their ranking.

The 10 healthiest states:

Idaho (1.16) ‑- that's Boise, in winter, in the Idaho Statesman photo above.
New York (1.16)

Mississippi (1.22)
Montana (1.24)
Vermont (1.38)
Washington (1.39)
Maine (1.39)
New Jersey (1.41)
New Hampshire (1.48)
Utah (1.48)

The 10 least-healthy states:

Kansas (3.96)
Nevada (3.26)
Kentucky (3.25)
Texas (3.10)
West Virginia (2.99)
Oregon (2.95)
Indiana (2.91)
Oklahoma (2.72)
Massachusetts (2.63)
Nebraska (2.48)

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Charlotte is No. 4 on list of 2015 cheap-o travel hot spots

The discount ticket-booker announced  on Wednesday its "Top Travel Hot Spots for 2015."

Unlike many of the myriad "top 2015" lists, Priceline's is based on affordability -- specifically, the average per-market, per-day room rate in 2014.

The rankings:

1. Dallas ($86.31; a shot of Dallas is at the top of this post)

2. Salt Lake City ($88.24)
3. Orlando, Fla. (89.57)
4. Charlotte ($92.37)
5. Phoenix ($93.44)
6. Tampa, Fla. ($94.03)
7. Las Vegas ($96.27)
8. Atlanta ($96.99)
9. Louisville, Ky. ($101.69)
10. San Antonio ($102.69)
11. Houston ($103.72)
12. Orange County, Calif.  ($107.91)
13. Minneapolis ($106.69)
14. Denver ($109.20)
15. Portland, Ore. ( $109.30)

These are  major metropolitan areas that are de facto hubs for major conventions or -- like Charlotte, Salt Lake City and Louisville --  aspiring ones; they include Sunbelt and Snowbelt cities where tourism ebbs and flows at various times of the year.

As prices are market-driven, off-season discounts probably reduce the average costs of popular places like Orlando, San Antonio and Orange County -- all warm places stocked with major American theme parks.

Priceline's second "top 2015" list, also released Wednesday, is based on that site's advance hotel reservations at domestic and foreign destinations -- a better indicator of a city or area's tourist pull:


1. Orlando
2. Las Vegas
3. New Orleans
4. Miami
5. Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
6. New York City
7. Orange County
8. Boston
9. Atlanta
10. Oahu, Hawaii


1. Puerto Rico
2. Cancun/Cozumel, Mexico
3. London
4. Rome
5. Costa Rica
6. Paris
7. Toronto
8. Los Cabos, Mexico
9. Sydney

10. Barcelona, Spain

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

If your kids are screaming for a "Frozen" vacation...

OK, OK. So your family saw the Disney "Frozen" movie far too many times and you've heard its "Let It Go" song enough to fry your CD player.

And you want more.

The travel site has come up with a list of destinations where you can plan your own "Frozen" dream vacation.

Among them:

Walt Disney World, Orlando, Fla. At Magic Kingdom, "Frozen" characters Anna and Queen Elsa are subbing for the Fairy Godmother when it comes to lighting up Cinderella's Castle every evening; Mickey's "Once Upon a Christmastime Parade" features Anna, Else, Kristoff and Olaf; a " 'Frozen' Sing-Along Celebration" takes place almost hourly at the Premiere Theatre. Ice skating is also available at the park.

WDW will be adding a "Frozen" ride to Epcot in 2016 to the Norway Pavllion..

Fayetteville. Through Dec. 21, the Disney on Ice "Frozen" show is playing at Fayetteville's Cumberland County Crown Coliseum. It moves to Cleveland's Quicken Loans Arena (Jan. 9-19) and Chicago's United Center (Jan. 28-Feb. 8) and other venues around the country before returning to our area in late spring: the Florence (S.C.) Civic Center May 28-31 and the Greenville, S.C. Bon Secours Wellness Arena, June 10-15.

Norway. One of the countries famous for the "northern lights" is the destination for a "Frozen"-theme Adventures by Disney tour. It begins in Bergen -- the city that inspired the movie's Arendelle.

Quebec. Elsa's ice palace was inspired by the Hotel de Glace, the ice hotel 10 minutes from Quebec City. Yep -- it's up and running for the season;  check the photo of  it at the top of this post.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Survey: Fall in gas prices doesn't translate into spike in holiday travel

Gas prices have plummeted... but is savings at the pump translating into increased holiday travel?

Not that much, according to a survey by, which monitors fuel prices.

The record-low gas prices are not affecting the travel plans for 77 percent of those surveyed --  but for the 23 percent whose plans have changed, 29 percent say they will be traveling greater distances.

The impact on lower gas costs translates into spending more on holiday gifts to 35 percent of those surveyed, spending on  "other" to 17 percent, and  spending more on accommodations to 8 percent.

In different question however, those surveyed were asked how they plan to spend extra money saved with lower gas prices. The most popular options: paying off some bills (45 percent) and saving the cash (38 percent).

According to the survey, slightly more than half of respondents (52 percent) play to travel anytime between Dec. 20 and Jan. 1;  of them, 30 percent plan to go 500 miles or more, roundtrip. Of all traveling for the holidays, autos are the preferred transportation mode (90 percent).

Other interesting findings:
The most popular day for hitting the road for year-end travel: Dec. 29 (29 percent).
Least popular day: Dec. 21 (7 percent)
Christmas Day -- Dec. 25 -- was second most-popular (23 percent) followed by Christmas Eve (19 percent).
Most popular day for starting your return home: Jan. 2 (24 percent), followed by Christmas Day (21 percent).
Least popular: Jan. 1 (6 percent)

The vast majority of those traveling cite "to visit family  and/or friends" (78 percent).

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

White Christmas? Try these 5 major U.S. cities

AccuWeather is predicting the five major U.S. cities most likely to see a white Christmas, based on 30 years of NOAA weather data.

1. Minneapolis (77 percent chance)
2. Denver (50 percent chance)
3. (tie) Milwaukee (47 percent chance)
3. (tie) Detroit (47 percent chance)
3. (tie) Buffalo (47 percent chance)

The northernmost states in the Lower 48 are most likely to get a Christmas snowfall, from eastern Montana to the Great Lakes to upstate New York and the northern half of New England.

One factor is the proximity to water -- the "lake effect" that provides the moist air necessary for substantial snowfall when the air temperature drops to freezing or below freezing.

Another factor ground temperature: If the ground is frozen -- 32 degrees or colder -- fallen snow won't melt as readily.

The photo at the top of this post? A Milwaukeean stands on a picnic table at the Lake Michigan lakefront to get a better view of winter waves crashing toward the beach. The photo was taken in early December 2011, in advance of a snow storm.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

2015 cruise forecast: Caribbean remains top choice by wide margin

Cruise Holidays, a cruise marketing  network, has released its 2015 forecast for cruise destinations, based on information from more than 1,300 cruise-focused travel agents across North America.

Here's their top 10 list. Can you spot the itinerary on the rise?

Caribbean (includes the Bahamas)
2015 ranking: 1
2014 ranking: 1
2013 ranking: 1

Europe ocean cruises (includes Mediterranean, Baltic, Scandinavian and Greek isles)
2015 ranking: 2
2014 ranking: 2
2013 ranking: 2

Alaska (the photo at the top of this post shows Holland America's Zaandam at Glacier Bay National Park)
2015 ranking: 3
2014 ranking: 3
2013 ranking: 3

European river cruises
2015 ranking: 4
2014 ranking: 4
2013 ranking: not available

2015 ranking: 5
2014 ranking: 5
2013 ranking: 4

2015 ranking: 6
2014 ranking: 7
2013 ranking: 6 (tie)

Panama Canal
2015 ranking: 7
2014 ranking: 6
2013 ranking: 6 (tie)

China/Japan/Southeast Asia
2015 ranking: 8
2014 ranking: 15
2013 ranking: 12

Hawaiian Islands
2015 ranking: 9
2014 ranking: 8
2013 ranking: 5

South Pacific (includes Australia and New Zealand)
2015 ranking: 10
2014 ranking: 9
2013 ranking: 8

There's no surprise that the Caribbean tops the list: According to Cruise Holidays, that destination group will capture 50.5 percent of all bookings, with European saltwater cruises a distant second, at 12 percent.

The most intriguing change is the rise in China/Japan/Southeast Asia: As a destination, according to these findings, it tops sluggish interest in the Hawaiian Islands.

Both remain small beans in the greater cruise casserole: less than 3 percent.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Best airport for healthy dining options? Baltimore tops new list

Which airport has the best offerings for healthy dining?

According to a new survey by the nonprofit Physicians Committee, it's Baltimore, when it comes to restaurants offering at least one cholesterol-free, plant-based, fiber-packed meal. The study says 92 percents of eateries there have at least one such meal.

Charlotte Douglas came in 16th, with 73 percent of restaurants having at least one "healthy" choice.

The news release from Physicians Committee said, "Menu items that garner healthful points this year include dark leafy green salads, ancient grain bowls, roasted vegetable wraps, Mediterranean- or Mexican-inspired vegetable plates, and gluten-free macrobiotic sushi. Healthful snacks and meals-to-go include portable fruit cups, steel-cut oatmeal bowls, vegetable crudités and cups of lentil soup or black bean chili."

Here are the top rankings, with their "healthy dining" percentages in parentheses:

1. Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall (92)
2. Seattle-Tacoma International (90)
3. Los Angeles International  (88)
4. Reagan National, Washington area (87)
5. Newark Liberty International  (86)
6. (tie) LaGuardia , New York  (84)
6. (tie)  Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County (84)
8. Denver International  (83)
9. San Francisco International (82)
10. Dulles International Airport, Washington area (80)
11. Boston Logan International (79)
12. (tie) John F. Kennedy International, New York (78)
12. (tie) Chicago O’Hare International (78)
12. (tie) Philadelphia International Airport (78)
15. Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport (74)
16. Charlotte Douglas International  (73)
17. Las Vegas McCarran International (72)
18.  Miami International (69)
18.  Minneapolis–Saint Paul International Airport (69)
20. Dallas/Fort Worth International (67)
21. Orlando International (66)
22. Houston George Bush Intercontinental (65)

23. Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International  (52)

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

No time for the beaches of Asia? Perhaps you can get up to High Point

The Tripadvisor travel website has released its 2014 "Travelers Choice" lists, and one of the rosters is for "Top 10 destinations on the rise":

Da Nang, Vietnam
Sihanoukville, Cambodia
Limassol, Cyprus
Ao Nang, Thailand
Bodrum City, Turkey
Naha, Japan
Hurghada, Egypt
Kazan, Russia
Manaus, Brazil
Eilat, Israel

Well, they may be on the rise, but the price to get there is too steep for many of us in the months ahead.

Their also-out list of "10 places that look awesome from above" is a tad more economical:

Rio de Janeiro
Niagara Falls, Ontario
Great Barrier Reef, Australia
Las Vegas
Masai Mara National Reserve, Kenya
Grand Canyon
New York City
Cappadocia, Turkey
Sydney Harbor, Australia
Kauai, Hawaii

The list includes recommended copter or  balloon tours.

Still too distant and pricey?  Check the Tripadvisor list of "10 quirky attractions." You may want to fold and file in your memory the 10th one listed.

Lombard Street, San Francisco
Robot Restaurant, Tokyo
Diggerland, Stroud, England
Bata Shoe Museum, Toronto
Carhenge, Alliance, Neb.
Karni Mata Temple, India
Gnome Reserve, West Putford, England
Tiger & Turtle roller coaster, Magic Mountain, Germany
International UFO Museum, Roswell, N.M.
World's Largest Chest of Drawers, High Point

And before you start snickering at the World's Largest Chest of Drawers, note that the photo at the top of this post was taken by Christobol Perez of the Las Vegas Sun. 

Can't help but wonder how awesome High Point's attraction looks from the air. ...

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Mixed signals from America's airport bars?

Aside from shopping malls, there are few places as annoyingly cookie-cutter generic as American airports. Seen one, seen them all.

And, as beverage columnist Wayne Curtis notes in the December issue of Atlantic magazine, that extends to mixed drinks.

The title of his column says it all: "Your Airport's Bartender Problem: Why it's so hard to get a decent drink before your flight...."

But the rest of the headline  -- "...and why that may soon change" -- adds a slight twist.

Among the factors Curtis cites about why quality cocktails are so rare at airport bars:

* TSA and FFA background checks  make it hard for some top-notch bartenders to get employment clearance at these places.

* Airports tend to be located in un-hip parts of town, and where just getting to work means dealing daily with  traffic, parking and security logjams.

* Given the ever-changing assortment of people boarding or exiting aircraft, it's hard to build a regular customer base or acquire a niche.

Never said but obvious through other passages in the article: The bars are chain operations. One person quoted extensively in the story is the "senior director of adult beverages and restaurant development at HMS Host, which oversees nearly 400 full-service bars at airports across North America."

Four hundred airport bars!

The article also mentions OTG, a smaller outfit that manages restaurants and bars in 11 airports.

The time-honored American concept of interchangeable parts -- making identical product components to guarantee easy assembly and reduce the time of assembly, the skills of the assembler and per unit cost -- and its descendant, the assembly line, revolutionized how items are created.

This eventually applied to the mass production of processed food and short-order dining: Everything is designed to be the same.

Throw in corporate America -- which treasures such ploys -- and there's small wonder there's mixed-drink boredom at the chain bars in airports.

The "why that may soon change" at the end of the headline for Curtis' story -- and at the end of his column -- mentions how the overseer of cocktail operations at the "nearly 400" HMS Host lounges is trying to get its bartenders to learn drinks that require three or four ingredients. Also, he's trying to localize some of the operations.

The one mentioned in this article is Barcuterie, in Houston's George Bush Intercontinental Airport, "which now serves a Texas Smoked Manhattan featuring house-brandied cherries and Balcones, a well-regarded local whiskey."

OTG, Curtis adds, operates One Flew South, in Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson's Terminal E. The story notes that the lead bartender often adjusts frequently ordered drinks. In the Cosmo served there, Curtis explains, Clement Creole Shrubb is often used instead of Cointreau.

Of the One Flew South cocktail menu, Curtis writes that it "wouldn't be out of place in a Lower East Side speakeasy."

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Beech Mountain slopes open for season this weekend on 'White Friday'

A weather system dropping snow in Western Carolina on Wednesday afternoon -- and tapering off Thanksgiving Day -- will add more than half a foot to the snow cover on Beech Mountain, north of Banner Elk.

Combined with human-made snow, it's enough to begin the winter season at Beech Mountain Resort on Friday. Operating hours will be 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

The ski resort is off N.C. 184. Improvements there this 47th season include a "magic carpet" conveyer lift added to the beginner slope and an upgrade of snowmaking capacity, with seven new high-tech snow guns. Also, the View Haus cafeteria has been remodeled and there's new rental ski equipment.

The  Burton Learn-to-Ride Center for snowboarders debuts in early December in the ski village at the base of the slopes.

The photo by James Foley at the top of this post shows the top of Beech Mountain.

Resort details:

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Driving in winter weather? Follow these tips

Hitting the road for Thanksgiving, Christmas ‑- or any other time between now and spring? Be careful out there: Weather and road conditions, coupled with being in an unfamiliar area, can combine to make  for a dangerous situation.

Hertz and AAA offer these safe-driving tips for winter drivers.

Watch weather reports for your route and destination in advance.  Delay a trip when especially bad weather is expected.

Plan your route in advance, especially when bad weather is expected.

If you're renting a vehicle, get one with a GPS system. And if you'll be driving in an area where snow can be a problem, think about getting a vehicle with extra weight, like an SUV of minivan. Renting a car with four-wheel drive could also prove advantageous on  snowy and icy roads.

Check your windshield wipers before going anywhere. Make sure they function properly and that the wipers and windshield are clean. And make sure you have an ice scraper.

Allow for time when you're on snow or ice. Drive slowly, to maintain vehicle control when accelerating, stopping or turning. Also when driving under these conditions,
maintain your speed when ascending a hill; don't accelerate -- that can be hazardous.

Do not use cruise control. You can instead instantly and easily decrease speed just by  taking your foot off the accelerator.  This, in turn, transfers weight to the front tires, giving them more traction.

Also, braking on slippery surfaces requires you to look further ahead, so plan as early as possible and always look 20 to 30 seconds ahead of your vehicle to make sure you have time and space to stop safely.

Along those lines: The normal dry pavement following distance of three to four seconds should be increased to eight to 10 seconds.

Have warm jackets, gloves and hats inside your car. Just in case.

If you become snow-bound, stay with your vehicle. The car provides temporary shelter and makes it easier for rescuers to locate you.

Don't try to walk in a severe storm, like the stranded traveler in the photo at the top of this post.. It was taken in Amarillo, Texas, during a February 2013 blizzard. (AP Photo/The Amarillo Globe News)

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Brookgreen Gardens rolls out holiday illumination Dec. 4

Brookgreen Gardens, just south of Myrtle Beach in Pawleys Island, S.C., is about to launch its annual "Night of a Thousand Candles" holiday presentation.

It's Dec. 4-6, 11-13 and 18-20, and is staged from 3 to 10 p.m. so visitors can better enjoy the outdoor illuminations, both candles (more than 5,500)  and displays.

New this year: an 80-foot holiday fir decorated with 60,000 lights; the switch is ceremonially flipped at 5:45 p.m.

More new highlights? The Peppermint Forest in the Children's Garden, the Ice Garden in the Lower Left Wing Garden.

Admission is $18, $10 for children; 3 and younger, free. Tickets are available at, at the gardens, and by phone at 843-235-6016. All entertainment is included in admission; dinner there is available at an additional cost. 

Also new this year: a free mobile app that has performance details and info on food and beverage locations, a map for the event and more. Get it by searching Brookgreen Gardens in the App Store and in Google Play.

The event will draw crowds, and the staff there offers these suggestions:

* Carpool with family and friends. This makes for easier parking.

* Consider checking out the event on a Thursday evening ‑- Brookgreen Gardens will be less crowded.

* Arrive early between 4 and 5 p.m. so you can see the candles being lit. Dusk is also the best time to take photos. Also, a limited number of adult and child strollers are available at no charge on a first-come basis. Reservations for them are not taken, so get there early if you need one.

* Dress warmly and wear comfortable shoes. "Night of a Thousand Candles" is a walk- not a drive-through.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

24 properties nationwide awarded Historic Hotels designation

A total of 24 hotels  were designated this week as Historic Hotels of America. This program of the National Trust for Preservation recognizes and celebrates hotels that are at least 50 years old, have historic significance, and have been designated as a National Historic Landmark or are eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places.
 were designated this week as Historic Hotels of

There are now more than 260 properties on the list.

There are no inductees this year from the Carolinas, but the two-state area already has honorees on the list.

In North Carolina they include:  Haywood Park Hotel, Asheville; The Omni Grove Park Inn, Asheville; Green Park Inn, Blowing Rock; The Carolina Inn, Chapel Hill; The Dunhill Hotel, Charlotte; Old Edwards Inn and Spa, Highlands; The Mast Farm Inn, Valle Crucis; and  Pinehurst Resort, Pinehurst.

In South Carolina, they include: Francis Marion Hotel, Charleston; Kings Courtyard Inn & John Rutledge House Inn, Charleston; Wentworth Mansion, Charleston; and The Westin Poinsett, Greenville.

New to the list: Le Meridian, Tampa, Fla.
Hilton Hawaiian Village Waikiki Beach Resort, Honolulu
The Drake Hotel, Chicago
Hilton Chicago, Chicago
Hilton Orrington/Evanston, Evanston, Ill.
Seelbach Hilton, Louisville, Ky.
Hilton Baton Rouge Capitol Center, Baton Rouge, La.
Hilton New Orleans/St. Charles Avenue, New Orleans
Southern Hotel, Covington, La.
The Westin Portland Harborview, Portland, Maine
Hilton Boston Downtown/Faneuil Hall, Boston
Hilton President Kansas City, Kansas City, Mo.
Hilton St. Louis Downtown at the Arch, St. Louis
Hilton Santa Fe Historic Plaza, Santa Fe, N.M.
Hilton Manhattan East, New York City
Chateau at the Oregon Caves National Monument, Cave Junction, Ore.
Abraham Lincoln Reading Hotel , Reading, Pa.
Caribe Hilton San Juan, San Juan, Puerto Rico
The Condado Plaza Hilton, San Juan, Puerto Rico
Condado Vanderbilt Hotel, San Juan, Puerto Rico
Hilton Fort Worth (1921) Fort Worth, Texas
Airlie, Warrenton, Va.
Capital Hilton, Washington, D.C.
The Edgewater, Madison, Wis.

The oldest inductee?

Hilton Santa Fe Historic Plaza -- built in 1625. It was originally a colonial hacienda. The photo at the top of this post shows its lobby.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Try Norfolk, Va., for holiday fun

Norfolk, Va., is a gem of a town worth visiting most any time of the year. If you're heading north a state or two between now and Christmas, be aware of what's going on in Norfolk. Highlights include:

MacArthur Winter Extravaganza, through Dec. 24 at Norfolk’s MacArthur Center -- a large shopping mall right downtown. The Ice Palace -- a  30-foot globe encircled with majestic arches, the ethereal palace appears to be carved from ice -- is where you'll find a photo-friendly Santa. You can also enjoy a 7,200-square-foot outdoor ice rink offering  public skating sessions, ice hockey clinics and figure skating exhibitions (Nov. 22 – Jan. 19). The  MaAarthur Winter Carnival features classic amusement rides, like a ferris wheel and spinning tea cups.

Downtown Norfolk this year debuts its first Dickens’ Christmas Towne holiday celebration. The semblance of Victorian London involves carolers and merchants in period costumes, as well as a Victorian Father Christmas and a holiday train display. Dates: Nov. 21 – Dec. 14 and Dec. 17 – 28.

The Grand Illumination Parade the night of  Nov. 22 marks the 30th year of the skyline being officially lit for the holidays. (The photo at the top of this post shows a float from that parade.)

The Norfolk Botanical Garden id dressed for the season for its 19th annual Dominion Garden of Lights. Nov. 27-Dec. 31, 5:30  to  10 p.m., drive the 2-mile through a display of a million twinkling lights.

 The first-ever BlueMoon Harbor Lights Half Marathon and 5K will be Nov. 21-23. The three-day event begins with a Sports & Fitness Expo followed by two runs that go through the scenic, historic downtown area and along the Hampton Roads Harbor. Adult participants can attend a post-race party with complimentary live music, food and beer.

Need another run? The Tacky Sweater 5K, staged the morning of Dec. 13, is a chance to show off over-the-top holiday-themed outerwear. Besides both races, the fundraiser offers s a tacky sweater competition.

 Details on visiting the Norfolk area:

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Renting a vacation car at an airport? Check these rankings and stats

Plan to rent a car on your next vacation? Read this before you make your reservation.

The research firm  J.D. Power just released its annual study of rental-car satisfaction. The study -- now in its 19th year -- is based on more than 12,000 evaluations by business and leisure trvelers who rented vehicles at airport locations between August 2013 and August 2014.

The rankings are based on six factors. Those factors, in descending order of importance: cost and fees, pickup process, return process, the rental car itself, shuttle bus/van, and reservation process.

Here are the overall results of the  2014 North American Rental Car Satisfaction Study


The results were scored on a points basis. Of a possible 1,000 points, Enterprise scored 805;  Dollar scored 725.

The list is identical to the J.D. Power 2013 rankings, except last year National came in first and Enterprise second.

Some findings of note from the 2014 study:

Overall satisfaction is highest among Gen Y vehicle-renters (born between 1977 and 1994)  in both business and leisure categories.

Among all business customers, 15 percent make their choice on price alone ‑- and 10 percent report they don't consider price at all.

Satisfaction is higher among both business and leisure customers who chose their brand based on features and benefits, as opposed to those why are "price buyers."

The study reports that the price of a rental car has increased, on average, $5 per day since the previous year's survey.

Also, wait times are longer for all aspects of the rental process. Average wait time for the vehicle pickup and return process: 43.4 minutes.

Those surveyed reported that getting a smile from the rental agent makes the wait seem shorter... and that, on average,  customers greeted by a smiling agent indeed waited for a shorter car-pickup period (16.8 minutes) than those who dealt with Mr. or Ms. Grumpy (25.7 minutes).

(Note: The Los Angeles Times photo at the top of this blog shows rental counters at the airport in Burbank, Calif. It's hard to tell if the rental agents are smiling... but they are working at Burbank's Bob Hope Airport.)

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Carolina Opry adds new show to MB lineup

The Carolina Opry -- the long-established live entertainment venue in Myrtle Beach -- is adjusting its lineup to add "Thunder & Light," a show that combines choreography from the  All That! clogging group, contemporary music and a multi-colored light show.

It will be worked into the schedule that will continue the traditional " Carolina Opry" show as well as the "Good Vibrations" show. In fact, vocalists from both established shows will be making guest appearances at "T&L" performances.

A release from Gilmore Entertainment, the venue-operator, said the show, directed by Jeff Gilmore, had a successful preview run this fall.

The calendar for TCO lists "T&L" shows at 4 p.m. Nov. 29 (a Saturday) and Dec. 31 (a Wednesday). January shows -‑ all at 7 p.m. -- are scheduled for the 17th and 18th (a Saturday-Sunday) and the 24th (a Saturday); February shows ‑ both at 7 p.m., are set for the 5th and 12th.

 The new show then fills more slots -- 4 p.m. every Thursday -- in March and April.

The  venue is at 8901 North Kings Highway, Myrtle Beach.

Initially at least, "Thunder & Light" has a lower price than "Opry," "Vibrations" or TCO's seasonal "Christmas Special."

Online tickets are $32.51; $20.42 for ages 3-16.

Monday, November 10, 2014

War, death, irony and friendship in Lincolnton

Veterans Day -- Tuesday -- is the national holiday to remember veterans and be thankful for their service.

All veterans -- like all humans -- pass away. Some in their old age, some in their youth; some are buried in a marked place, others not.

One fitting place to honor their service is Salisbury National Cemetery -- which began as 18 mass graves for Union soldiers who died at the POW camp there during the Civil War. It has been an active cemetery ever since;  historical markers and rows upon rows of markers are reminders of the duty and sacrifice of those buried there.

At a rest area  on I-85, near Thomasville, the N.C. CarolinaVietnam Veterans' Memorial recognizes the 1,607 killed or missing during the war in Southeast Asia.

For a different experience, visit the historic graveyard at St. Luke's Episcopal Church, in Lincolnton, and look for the marker honoring Stephen Dodson Ramseur, who died 150 years ago last month, at age 27.

The Lincolnton native, born in 1837, was an 1860 graduate of West Point who enlisted in the Confederate army before North Carolina voted to secede. In three years of hard fighting, he was wounded several times and rose through the ranks. In 1862, at age 25 and despite having an arm mangled and paralyzed during that year's Peninsula Campaign in eastern Virginia, Ramseur  became the youngest general at that time in the Confederate army.

Brig. Gen. Ramseur went on to fight at the battles of Chancellorsville and Gettysburg, and in the May 1864 bloodbath called the Wilderness Campaign. He was promoted to major general and fought at Cold Harbor, Va.

Portraits of  Ramseur increasingly show the conflict taking its toll on his body. (They're at the top of this post.)

He was mortally wounded while on horseback -- shot through the lungs --  rallying his troops, at the Battle of Cedar Creek, Oct. 19, 1864 and died the following day in Union custody.

According to a state biography, Ramseur had learned the day before the battle that his wife, whom he married the year before, had given birth to a daughter.

Another irony: The battle was an impromptu, drawn-weapons reunion of West Point classmates and friends: Confederate Gen. Tom Rosser, U.S. Maj. Wesley Merritt, U.S. Col. Alexander Pennington, U.S. Capt.Henry Du Pont... and U.S. Gen. George Custer.

Custer, who had been the class clown at West Point, went looking for Ramseur's ambulance after the Battle of Cedar Creek, found it, and ordered it  to be sent to the headquarters of victorious U.S. Gen. Phil Sheridan.

Ramseur's West Point pals -- his Union opponents -- were with him when he died; it is said that Custer arranged for Ramseur's body to be shipped home to Lincolnton.

An article at tells of their friendship --  and final parting.

A recent article on tells more of the story of St. Luke's Episcopal, which is at 315 N Cedar St, Lincolnton.

Ramseur's marker is a tall white obelisk.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Charleston's massive display of holiday lights celebrates 25th year

Charleston's holiday season kicks in on Nov. 14 with the opening of the Holiday Festival of Lights, at James Island County Park. It continues through Jan. 1 at the sprawling site, southwest of downtown. And it is sure to draw crowds.

The 3-mile drive-through tour takes you past 2 million lights worked into more than 700 displays -- from the expected Santas and reindeer to dinosaurs, space ships and more.

The event is celebrating its 25th year. Part of the local hoopla is the creation of a new display based on ideas offered by kids. The winner of this year's Light Display Design Contest, submitted by a 9-year-old, is of a seal pup.

The Nov. 14 6:30 p.m. opening is occasioned by live entertainment, various awards and a fireworks display that begins at 9 p.m.

Most stationary events at the festival are staged at Santa's Village. Check the website for special events on other days, like the Nov. 21 outdoor movie (they're screening a holiday-related film).

Hours throughout the run are 5:30 to 10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 5:30 p.m.-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday.

Admission is per vehicle: $15 91-5 guests), $40 (hauling 16-30 guests) and $100 (31 or more guests -- in some kind of super humongous bus, I'd guess).

Sweetening the 25th anniversary pot? One guest each evening of the festival will receive a special gift valued at $25 as they enter the park. Charleston County Parks will also give away a five-night cruise in a no-purchase-required sweepstakes. To enter, go to between now and the end of the year.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Most-visited attractions in the world: Which list is more accurate?

Travel + Leisure magazine just issued its list of the 50 "World's Most-Visited Tourist Attractions."

It's a fascinating compilation. And should be taken with a suitcase of salt.

For example, I saw Boston's historic Faneuil Hall Marketplace coming in 7th internationally -- ahead of all the Florida theme parks except for one.

I love Boston and Faneuil Hall. But it's less than 400 square feet in area.

And somehow, the attendance numbers don't need to make sense, though the compilers of the T+L list  say that data is from "attractions themselves or from government agencies, industry reports, and reputable media outlets."

So I found another list ranking the top 50 attractions worldwide  that was posted at It says its information similarly is from "the attractions' own published figures (or internal data they would share), industry reports, government reports and other trustworthy media outlets."

Here -- you compare the lists for yourself. The rankings are in T+L  order; the lovehomeswap rank is in parentheses, to the right.

You'll start to note the differences -- and the gaps.

1. The Grand Bazaar, Istanbul, Turkey  (11 on list)
2. The  Zócalo, Mexico City (21)
3. Times Square, New York (2)
4. (tie) Central Park, New York, (3)
4. (tie) Union Station, Washington, D.C. (4)             
6. Las Vegas Strip, Las Vegas (1)
7.  (tie) Meiji Jingu Shrine, Tokyo   
7. (tie) Sensoji Temple, Tokyo    
9. Niagara Falls (5)
10. Grand Central Terminal, New York (6)
11. Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Mexico City         
12. Disney World’s Magic KingdomOrlando, Fla. (8)            
13. Faneuil Hall Marketplace, Boston (7)
14. Tokyo Disneyland, Tokyo (12)
15. Disneyland Park, Anaheim, Calif.  (9)  
16. Forbidden City, Beijing (10)
17. Golden Gate National Recreation Area, San Francisco
18. Tokyo DisneySea, Tokyo (15)
19. Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris (13)
20. Golden Gate Park, San Francisco (14)     
21. Balboa Park, San Diego
22. South Street Seaport, New York (29)            
23. San Antonio River Walk, San Antonio
24. Epcot, Walt Disney World Resort, Lake Buena Vista, Fla.  (17)         
25. St. Peter's Basilica, Vatican City
26. Great Wall of China (Badaling/Mutianyu areas), China (28)      
27. Sacré Coeur Basilica, Paris (18)
28. Disneyland ParkMarne-la-Vallée, France (16)
29. Disney's Animal Kingdom, Walt Disney World Resort, Lake Buena Vista, Fla. (22)
30. Disney's Hollywood Studios, Walt Disney World Resort, Lake Buena Vista, Fla. (23)
31. Universal Studios Japan, Osaka, Japan (24)
32. Hollywood Walk of Fame, Hollywood, Calif. 
33. Pike Place Market, Seattle (20)     
34. Great Smoky Mountains National Park (25)
35. Musée du Louvre, Paris (27)
36. Navy Pier, Chicago (26)
37. Disney's California Adventure, Anaheim, Calif. (34)
38. Sydney Opera House, Sydney, Australia (31)
39. Universal's Islands of Adventure, Orlando, Fla. (33)     
40. (tie) National Museum of Natural History (Smithsonian), Washington,  D.C.   (32)      
40. (tie) Grand Palace, Bangkok, Thailand
40. (tie) Pier 39, San Francisco  (30)                                
43. Palace of Versailles, Versailles, France (49)           
44. Ocean Park, Hong Kong (35)        
45. Bourbon Street, New Orleans (47)
46. National Museum of China, Beijing
47. (tie) Hong Kong Disneyland, Hong Kong  (41)
47. (tie) Lotte World, Seoul, South Korea (42)             
49. Everland, Gyeonggi-Do, South Korea (39)            
50. Taj Mahal, Agra, India  

Did you notice the discrepancies?

And on the list but not the T+L: Tsima Sha Tsui Waterfront in Hong Kong (19);  Victoria Peak, Hong Kong (36); National Air and Space Museum at the Smithsonian (37); The Eiffel Tower (38), the British Museum in London (40); Nevada's Lake Mead (43); Universal Studios Florida (44); New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art (46); Universal Studios Hollywood (48) and Japan's Nagashima Spa Land (5).

Lesson: Lists will only get you so far. The originating data for either list here, for instance, is obviously quite up for grabs.

Both lists, by the way, said Faneuil Hall had 18 million visitors per year. And I'm still skeptical.