Switch to twitter?

I'm experimenting with Twitter to see if it's a better alternative for me. Follow me @marjielambert and I'll tweet about any blog posts.



A bid to restore Ken Kesey's psychedelic bus

It was perhaps the most famous road trip since Jack Kerouac’s: An old bus with a psychedelic paint job, a jug of LSD-laced juice, the author of “Once Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” in charge, and Kerouac’s driver at the wheel.

It’s been 49 years since Ken Kesey and his band of Merry Pranksters made the trip from California to New York. Kesey died in 2001; the bus has been rusting away in Oregon. But now his family wants to restore the bus in time for next summer's 50th anniversary of the trip, which was featured in the Tom Wolfe book "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test."

 “The bus is essentially the best icon of the `60’s,” his son, Zane Kesey, told the Associated Press. Read the full story here

Photo of Ken Kesey and his bus, "Further," in 1997, by Jeff Barnard/Associated Press.



Road trip dining: breakfast in Pittsburgh

Saturday in Pittsburgh and I'm on the shuttle from the Priory Hotel, headed for a late breakfast at DeLuca's in the Strip District. DeLuca's was recommended by a friend (as well by Roadfood.com) for its pancake breakfasts. But when I tell the shuttle driver where I want to go, he laughs. Weekend breakfast in the Strip District is a Pittsburgh tradition, he says, and DeLuca's — or any other eatery in the area — will be jammed, as will the sidewalks.

He's right. It takes more than 20 minutes to go less than three miles, and when he pulls up in front of DeLuca's, the line outside is halfway down the block. It's snowing, and although I've got a warm coat on, I'm wearing sneakers. By the time I get inside, my feet will be blocks of ice. When I hesitate, the driver says, "You should try Pamela's."

Pamela's P&G Diner is just around the corner and has a long line too. But this line is waiting inside. I tip the driver and he gives me one final bit of advice: On Sundays, he says, the lines are four times as long. Better to get my Strip District breakfast today.

I go inside, add my name to the list of people waiting for a table. It's warm in here, relatively speaking, but every time the door opens, a blast of icy air reminds me what it's like outside.

There’s a longstanding rivalry between DeLuca’s and Pamela’s — both are old-fashioned diners, cash only, where breakfast is a specialty. At Pamela’s, which is more than 30 years old, the painted-brick wall is crowded with pictures, most of them old, but by the cash register is a framed page from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette showing President Obama eating pancakes there in 2008. The Post-Gazette reported that the president ordered only a single pancake, plain, but the following spring, he invited the co-owners to Washington to prepare their distinctive pancakes for a White House event.

I'm not as health-minded as the president, but I did ask that the whipped cream be left off my strawberry pancakes. They are served crepe-style, rolled around the filling of strawberries, brown sugar and sour cream (no butter or syrup), but they are definitely pancakes, not crepes, very thin with crispy edges. And very good.

Around the corner is Peace, Love and Little Doughnuts, known for its maple-bacon doughnuts. I'm tempted to get one for later, but having already consumed more than my daily ration of sugar, show rare restraint and pass. Instead, I wander around, doing a little sightseeing, but the day hasn't warmed and snow flakes are landing on my sneakers, and I quickly wrap up my icy excursion to the Strip District. I’ll be back, either in summer or on a weekday, to try DeLuca’s.


Rental car agencies and bogus bills for damages

If ever there was something that would scare you about renting a car, it’s recurring stories about rental car companies billing people for repairs for damages they swear they didn’t do -- months after they turned the car in. How do you prove a negative, that that ding in the door didn’t exist when you turned the car in? And how do you protect yourself when no employee of the rental agency is available to do a walk-around inspection with you? The stories seem to be cropping up more frequently -- along with accusations that rental car companies have found a questionable new source of revenue. Read this story by Christopher Elliott, consumer advocate and author of the syndicated Travel Troubleshooter column, and like me, you’ll be shooting photos of every tiny ding and scratch on a rental car before you even open the door. Just make sure that the time stamp on your camera is correct.


Shuttle Atlantis goes on display June 29

AtlantisLogoNot just for space geeks: An exhibit featuring space shuttle Atlantis, the last member of the retired shuttle fleet to go on display, will open June 29, Kennedy Space Center announced Thursday. The 90,000-square-foot, $100 million home for Atlantis is being built around the space shuttle at Kennedy space Center. Atlantis will be displayed as if it were in space, raised 30 feet off the ground and rotated 43 degrees. Atlantis will be the centerpiece of the permanent exhibit, which will also include more than 60 interactive exhibits and simulators that tell the story of the entire shuttle program. Above: the exhibit’s new logo. 


A short tour of the Costa Mediterranea

In the last few years, I’ve been on 25 or 30 cruise ships, most of them new or newly renovated, sometimes overnight or longer, sometimes just for a few hours. Some features are universally eye-grabbing: dramatic atriums, pool decks, grandly decorated main dining rooms, romantic verandah staterooms. But without spending at least a couple nights on the ship, I can’t judge how well passenger traffic flows through the ship, how good the food and service in the dining room are, or how livable a pretty stateroom is.

So when I got a tour of the Costa Mediterranea this week, my first visit to a Costa ship, I knew I wouldn’t be there long enough to come away with a strong sense of what kind of experience it offered. And part of my interest was because the ship was in the same fleet as the Costa Concordia, the ship that sank off the coast of Italy last year and has yet to be towed away.

The two ships are not in the same class. The Mediterranea’s vital statistics: launched in 2003, tonnage 85,700, 2,112 guests. Concordia is about 30 percent larger, carries about 900 more guests and was launched in 2006.

The main reason I hadn’t been on a Costa ship was that there had not been a lot of opportunities. Costa home ports only one ship in Miami, and does so for only the winter and early spring for Caribbean sailings, before sending the ship back to Europe. After the sinking of the Concordia, Costa stayed pretty low-key in Miami.

Although Costa is owned by Carnival (since 2000), it’s an Italian line that caters to European guests. And that’s what struck me most during my short time on the ship: just how dominant the ship’s Italian heritage is. While many ships have sleek contemporary décor, the Mediterranea is ornate with lavishly detailed murals and wall coverings, colorful Murano glass fixtures, Renaissance-style statuary by the pools, and extra embellishment on just about everything.


Atrium bar on Costa Mediterranea

Dinner service was very traditional, with two seatings; each guest’s seating and table are the same for the entire cruise. In a day when many ships have half a dozen or more extra-fee restaurants, the Mediterranea has only one (upscale Italian fare), plus the lido deck buffet as alternatives to the main dining room.

Two-level main dining room on Costa Mediterranea

Announcements on the loudspeaker were made first in Italian. There’s a toga party at the end of each cruise.

As I expected, I finished my tour without getting a sense of what spending a week on the Costa Mediterranea would be like. But I can tell you this: The ship has a gregarious personality.



'Madagascar' coming to Busch Gardens

A new musical show featuring the characters from the Madagascar movies will premiere at Busch Gardens Tampa Bay in May. The 20-minute show, Madagascar Live! Operation: Vacation will feature pop music performed by a live band. It will be staged in the Stanleyville Theater, which will be refurbished, enclosed and air-conditioned. The characters — Alex the Lion, Gloria the Hippo, King Julien, Mort and the Penguins — will also hold meet-and-greets in the park. The show opens May 18 at Busch Gardens.


Road trip: Grapefruit League's Spring Training

One of Florida’s best road trip itineraries takes place during Spring Training. A few stadiums are still easy day trips from Miami/Fort Lauderdale, but it’s more fun to take in a few games over several days at different stadiums. You’ll have a chance to get closer to professional baseball’s stars, check out the rookies, and see how the veterans look in this month-long warm-up.

The Grapefruit League’s first game is Detroit at Atlanta on Friday, Feb. 22, but the season really kicks off the next day with eight games. Spring Training runs through March 30, but some of the last two days’ games are played closer to teams’ homes, outside Florida. You’ll find a master schedule here.

A Spring Training road trip can get you off the interstates and take you into some of Florida’s most interesting small towns, which you can explore when you’re not at a stadium. For this part, I like Florida Rambler’s Guide to Spring Training, which helps you design your own itinerary with information about campgrounds, beaches, bicycle trails and other things to do near each of the stadiums. See you at the ballpark!


Royal Caribbean names 2 new ships

Royal Caribbean, which has been very secretive about its next two “Project Sunshine” ships, on Tuesday announced their names and said steel-cutting had begun for the first ship.

The ships will be Quantum of the Seas, which is scheduled to debut in fall 2014, and Anthem of the Seas, expected to launch in spring 2015.

Royal Caribbean had already said that the ships would be 158,000-ton, 4,100-passenger vessels — smaller than their Oasis-class ships — but has not said what their features will be. Will they have Flowrider surfing pools? Staterooms that overlook a park in the center of the ship? A parade of DreamWorks characters? We don’t know. While Princess and Norwegian Cruise Line have been unveiling the innovative features of their ships under construction, Royal Caribbean has been silent.

In fact, Royal Caribbean says on its Project Sunshine blog that “a handful of spaces on the new Sunshine-class ships will remain ‘white spaces’ until the last moment so that Royal Caribbean can respond to the latest trends.” The ship has been in the planning and design phase for three years.

Royal Caribbean intends for the name Quantum of the Seas to signify cutting-edge design.

 “The new ship will be such a leap forward in terms of vessel design and guest experiences that we thought the name Quantum of the Seas was perfectly appropriate,” said Adam Goldstein, president and CEO.

We’ll just have to take his word for it for now.

The first piece of steel was cut for the ship Tuesday at the Meyer Werft shipyard in Papenburg, Germany.  Royal Caribbean has not announced either ship's home port or itineraries. 


Behind the scenes at United/Fort Lauderdale

I was on my knees, trying not to bang my head on the low ceiling of the airplane’s cargo hold, shoving suitcases out the door and onto the conveyor belt as fast as I could.

The part of me that likes things orderly — a very small part, as people who have seen my desk know — wanted to line up the bags neatly, top up, but there was no time for that. It had to be enough that none of the bags fell off the moving belt. Grab, shove. Grab, shove. The bags kept coming and I kept sliding them into a crooked line on the conveyor belt.

The professional baggage handler grinned as he hit the button that moved forward the floor of the luggage compartment, bringing another row of bags within easy reach. He was a muscular guy who clearly worked out, and he had for an assistant a past-middle-age woman whose idea of a workout is walking downstairs to the cafeteria for coffee.

He was doing all the heavy lifting, pulling bags off the top of the stack and bringing them down to the floor. I had to twist my upper torso to move each piece of luggage, but the end of the conveyor belt was level with the floor, and I slid rather than lifted most of the bags. Usually the baggage handler unloads the cargo bay by himself. Having someone arrange the bags on the conveyor belt probably moved things along faster than usual, but it was apparent that baggage handler was not to be my employment Plan B.

I was just playing anyway. United Airlines was giving select members of its top-tier frequent flier group a behind-the-scenes tour of its operation at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport operation, and I had been invited to tag along.

This was not an ordinary tour; this was hands-on, and most of us were like kids who get to climb on a fire engine during a firehouse tour.

There were about 30 of us, and most of us got to do as many of the following as we wanted: Make boarding announcements, scan tickets at the gate, drive the jetway (the passenger bridge), drive the luggage trolleys, scan baggage, track down lost luggage, drive the luggage ramp up to planes and raise and lower it, wing-walk a plane in (those are the guys who walk next to the tip of the wings, orange stick held high), set the chocks in front of a jet’s wheels so it doesn’t roll forward, push back a jet from the gate. 

In addition, we got tutorials on how the baggage system and maintenance crews work. We got to heft a black box, see the three-level tangle of luggage conveyor belts, track down the owner of a piece of luggage left on the carousel, hear about the necessity of balancing the weight of luggage in the cargo bins.

Once, our little sub-group of five got to sit in the cockpit of a jet not quite ready to board and talk to the co-pilot.

The employees were all friendly. That’s no surprise: This group was the airline’s best customers, who have voted with their wallets that this airline’s staff is the best.

What was particularly interesting was that even though in the public’s eyes, the merger of United and Continental was completed on March 3, behind the scenes, much of the operation is still run like two airlines. As a plane is prepared for takeoff, the merged airline has two incompatible systems to track as baggage is loaded and balanced, food and drink are brought on board, a place is refueled. It will be at least a year before all the flights are on one system, employees told us. In the maintenance storeroom where bins of parts are labeled and ready for use, it’s United parts on United planes, Continental parts on Continental planes. At least the same crews work on both. Someday, it truly will be one airline.

And in the meantime, about 30 people understand a little better all the work that goes into making a flight ready for travel.