Why We'll Pass on Verified Identity
There's been a lot in the news lately about Verified Identity Pass, the company that looks to be first in getting prescreening for air passengers approved. The idea is that people will pay around $100--annually!--to avoid waiting in security lines. A recent report in The New York Times said that the Transportation Security Administration claimed that "lines will not get longer for those who do not sign up for the service." Well, we should hope not!
We won't sign up for the service for a number of reasons:
1. We stand by our initial assertion, made months ago, that the government must find a way to make the lines shorter for everyone, not just people who pay more. Subcontracting a private company to fix the problem for only a few people is just wrong. If lines at the DMV were really slow, wouldn't you hope that your state government would do something to fix them--and not get a private company to sell passes" to folks who can afford them?
2. What if the company (or the others like it) finds something it thinks is suspicious? Are you suddenly in trouble with the TSA? Heaven forbid.
3. Will it work abroad? Right now, one of the big problems is that the rules are much less consistent when you're outside the country--you never know what you'll be faced with. (We recently bought water and wine on the "secure" side of the airport in Buenos Aires. The security folks made us dump the water, but not the wine.)
4. Finally, as much as we all like to complain about security lines, and as annoying as it is to take off your shoes, in the big scheme of things the problem just isn't that bad. It makes you wonder how many homeless people that $100 a year could feed.
Westin Gets a Face-lift
The folks from the new Westin Aruba Resort came by the other day to talk about what's up. Basically, the beachside property used to be a Wyndham, but it's being reflagged as a Westin. The hotel is undergoing a three-phase renovation, and the first phase--costing $24 million--is complete. The property underwent a Westinizing: The 481 rooms were redone, with Westin's trademark Heavenly Beds and Heavenly Baths; the public spaces (lobbies, hallways, etc.) were revamped, too. There are eight restaurants, a Cabaret Royale (with "Vegas-style" entertainment), and a Comix Cafe (with comedians). It all sounds pretty nice, but what we find particularly appealing is the option to go all-inclusive or a la carte--there'll be a chip embedded in your room key, so the staff of the bars, restaurants, and services can tell if you have to pay or not. The hotel also has a tempting splurge of a package. It's called the Discover Aruba Package. If you book online before December 22, 2006, you'll get a double upgrade--meaning your room will be better by two levels, so you can stay in an ocean-view room for an island-view rate--and a $100 "renewal credit" (essentially, you get $100 toward any on-property meal or service). Rates start at $299 if your stay is between January 1 and 6, and then go up to $399, so the Discover Aruba Package will be most appealing to those celebrating a special occasion. The deal is available until April 28, 2007.
The Host with the Most: Advice From Danny Meyer
The best restaurants, big or small, work hard at providing hospitality. But there are things you can do to get the best dining experience. For an inside look, we asked Danny Meyer, who presides over well-known restaurants such as Union Square Cafe, Eleven Madison Park, Tabla, and Blue Smoke--all in New York City. His new book "Setting the Table" recounts the role hospitality plays in his business. And in it, he writes about "collecting the dots" of information in order to offer a great dining experience for guests. But how can guests be a great partner in that dialogue? He tells us. Budget Travel: How should you go about trying to get special service for a special occasion such as a birthday or anniversary without appearing demanding? Danny Meyer: It's not at all demanding to let a restaurant know what your agenda is for a meal beyond nourishing yourself. It helps us to know that you are celebrating, or negotiating, or romancing, or meditating, or whatever. After you've made a reservation, just say what you're hoping to accomplish besides eating a good meal. "I'll be entertaining my future in-laws" or "I'm treating my college roommate to dinner after he won a big bet." A good restaurant will perform even better when they know why you're really there. BT: If you arrive on time for your reservation, but the table isn't ready, how long before you're allowed to be annoyed? Meyer: The restaurant owes you an apology for not being ready at the appointed hour, and, as important, the host should always let you know about the actual status of your table--with no BS--so that you don't have to wonder what's really going on. Do understand that many times, the delay is beyond the restaurant's control, especially when the earlier party on your table arrived late, or is "camping out." It's hard for a restaurant to hurry someone along in a gracious way, even when your party is waiting. (Imagine how you'd feel if you had just spent a fortune on dinner, decided to relax for an additonal half-hour over digestifs, and then the host asked you to leave!) If a delay goes beyond, say, 20 minutes, it's customary for a restaurant to offer a complimentary round of drinks. You're allowed to get annoyed whenever you want, but legitmately, I wouldn't be too annoyed if the restaurant is playing it straight with you, handling the situation with graciousness, and is genuinely trying everything they possibly can to get you seated. BT: There's sometimes a lot of confusion around wine! What's the etiquette? If you order an expensive bottle of wine, do you really have to tip 15-20 percent on it? And how expensive a bottle of wine do you have to order before you get the good glasses? Meyer: These days, few people distinguish between food and wine when it comes to leaving a tip. If you can afford an expensive dinner entree, or a pricey bottle of wine, you can afford to tip your standard percentage on that which you've consumed as well. If tipping didn't reward (and encourage) even better service, Americans would have disposed of the tradition years ago. Good restaurants will provide you with their best, most expensive glasses (assuming they have them) upon request, regardless of which wine you've ordered. They usually provide them for their more expensive wines without being asked. BT: Have you ever sent back a bottle of wine? What's the best way to go about doing it? Meyer: Many times! Sadly, about one out of avery 30 or 40 corks contain a bacteria that, while harmless to your body, creates a musty, "off-taste" in the wine called "corkiness." It's nobody's fault, and you should not assume the restaurant did anything wrong. But nor should you pay good money for a bottle that won't deliver its maximum pleasure. I am sensitive to that smell and flavor and will bring it to the attention of the waiter as soon as I notice it. "I'm sorry, the wine is corky" is direct, and you need not fear that you are doing anything rude by politely saying so. A good restaurant will replace the bottle and appreciate that you've given them the opportunity to satisfy you. It's a good idea to keep a bit of the corky wine in a glass to compare to the wine from the replacement bottle. Comparing them side by side can be revealing and educational for both you and the waiter. BT: What's the appropriate way to express displeasure with something you ordered? Is it enough that you don't like the taste? What's reasonable? Meyer: Express yourself directly, politely, and when you're displeased--when a restaurant can actually do something about it--not afterwards when all a restaurant can do is to feel bad that you were unhappy. You should speak up whenever you are less than happy with a dish. "I'm sorry, I hadn't know there was blue cheese in the sauce. May I please order something else instead?" or "I wanted my steak medium. Could you please have the chef cook it a bit further?" A good restaurant will appreciate the opportunity to fix problems on the spot so that you'll leave satisfied. Above all, patrons should understand that in the restaurant business, as in life, mistakes happen. Don't ever take it personally, and I'd go so far as to say not to hold a mistake against a restaurant. DO, however, judge a restaurant by how swiftly and graciously it addresses and overcomes its mistakes. BT: You write about having comment cards at your restaurants for guests to fill out. What is the most helpful comment you've received? Meyer: Any comment that is shared constructively so that we can improve as a restaurant is helpful. We love hearing from guests. The only ones that are tough to digest are the ones that are vituperative--assuming that a mistake we made was intentional or illustrative of a lack of caring on our part. BT: Care to share the least helpful comment? Meyer: "This restaurant will never work. Go back to the drawing board!"
An Excerpt from "Fruit of the Lemon"
Reprinted with permission by Picador. Buy the book from amazon.com or visit the author's website. I was taking back the gift of T-shirts. White T-shirts with 'Jamaica' emblazoned on the front in gold, green, and black. 'Irie' in vivid pink. 'No problem' in thick black handwriting, back and front. 'Don't worry--be happy' sparkling in blue surrounded by the smiling faces of happy black people dancing in the sun. Big T-shirts--one size fits all. I had bought them at the beach near Ocho Rios and Dunn's River Falls. I had sat digging my toes into the sand of the white beach that stretched down to the edge of a turquoise sea that was as clear and still as a pond. This was where the sea sloped gently to let tourists swim or skid along raucously riding on the back of giant bananas or flip like fish, snorkeled and flippered on the surface. But further out the sea changed dramatically to a dark blue--a line so abrupt it looked to be drawn across the water. This navy sea was deep. It let the boats, the yachts, the liners cruise along the island's edge and disgorge their foreigners into the hands of traders. The Caribbean Sea is like no other. I swam in its warm clear bath as tiny silver fish darted around my legs. I looked up at a blue sky and then along at the line of coconut palms that bent down, bowing their giant leaves to the beach. Paradise. On the beach scruffy women wandered in bare feet clutching green leaves that oozed aloe vera. They offered massage to the white-skinned tourists who stretched out in the sun like slabs of uncooked chicken. Or they would take fine straight European hair and plait it neat and pretty into acceptable African dreadlocks that were tipped with colourful plastic beads that clacked with every move. Men followed behind, alert, looking around as vigilant as truants, asking anyone who did not belong if there was anything they could get them. "You from England, sister?" they had said to me. "I know England, sister--Notting Hill, you know it? You have a dollar? You wan' me get you somethin' nice, sister?" When the sun set it dropped behind the horizon so quickly it left a trace of green in my vision. The night sky was dense, black, pock-marked with silver with a moon that was strange to me--an upturned crescent, like a smile in the sky. Coral assured me that Mum and Dad would like the heavy, large, cumbersome, square chopping board I was taking back for them. "Me sister can cut up her yams and things on it." She told me it was worth the extra weight to take back such a good all-Jamaican product. It was made from squares of different coloured woods. Dark wood, light wood, white wood packed into a solid mosaic. I had bought it from a shop in the grounds of Devon House--a yellow and white great house built by a rich black Jamaican man at the time that my grandparents were taking their first breaths. This rich black man constructed his house in the classical style--with pillars, sweeping stairways, driveways, and landscaped gardens. Coral and me had wandered the grounds of the house one hot Wednesday afternoon. The beautiful gardens kept pristine for tourists, with flowers of every colour and shade opening to the sun. Climbing trees winding through the woodwork of the veranda creating dappled shade where black businessmen and tourists sat sipping Blue Mountain cappuccino and espresso, eating stuffed roti at tables with starched white linen, served to them by straight-backed waiters in white jackets who walked between the tables with swift efficiency and deferential stoops. We ate ice cream, walking in the shade of overhanging palms. Jamaican ice cream--pawpaw, pineapple with rum, coconut, almond, chocolate, coffee, mocha. I took three licks of mango and banana flavour--creamy and so cold it shivered in my head and I had agreed with my Auntie Coral as she insisted, "Faith--Jamaican ice cream is the best in the world and let no one tell you otherwise."
Our readers are an ingenious bunch, and every issue we print 20 of their best travel tips. Some particularly clever ideas involve everyday items you have sitting around the house. An upturned frisbee on your hotel dresser is a good place to keep loose change, keys, cell phones, and all that other stuff you don't want to misplace. Bring a shoe organizer and hang it on a door. It's perfect for holding brochures, travel documents, toiletries, and, of course, slippers and shoes. Bungee cords come in handy when you're on the move with lots of luggage. Strap a duffel bag to a suitcase with wheels so you can zip through airports and hotel lobbies. A bungee cord also works as a makeshift clothing line for drying bathing suits and towels. You could even string up dental floss as another way to dry your clothes. And in a pinch, it'll hold your glasses together when you inevitably lose a screw.