Been There, Done That...

TIMES TRAVEL WRITER

Here's to 1996, the year I was introduced up close to Southeast Asia and the time-share industry (I liked Southeast Asia better), the year I saw what Georgia O'Keeffe saw, and failed to eat where Joe Montana also failed to eat. It was also the year I found a slice of Northern California nirvana in the underappreciated national park that surrounds Lassen Peak.

All told, the journeys that I described in these pages this year touched on four continents. They landed me in 30-some different lodgings, though I looked at probably 100 more, and positioned me amid various extremes. There was the unstinting service, spick-and-span cabins and perpetually open bar of the Song of Flower, a smallish luxury cruise ship that charged about $460 a day to carry and feed me along the coast of Southeast Asia. And there was the eccentricity of La Gaffe, a London inn whose proprietor has filled the walls with framed texts of his own poems on local and universal concerns.

Thus, each day before venturing forth from La Gaffe, a guest like me could sample--in fact, could scarcely avoid--hotelier Bernardo Stella's rhyming observations on rain, birds, forbidden love, the Queen's Silver Jubilee and so on.

Think of me now as your Mr. Stella and this as my rhymeless, unsolicited and occasionally cranky ode to the peaks and valleys of the travel year just past.

FAVORITE U.S. DESTINATION: Drakesbad Guest Ranch, within Lassen Volcanic National Park, about 75 miles southeast of Redding in Northern California. The main lodge, wood-paneled, warmed by a big stone fireplace, ringed by an old-fashioned porch, takes you back 100 years. Deer lounge at dusk in the surrounding meadow. Lassen Peak (10,457 feet) rises above. Uncrowded hiking paths and horse trails lead to the most spectacular geothermal springs this side of Yellowstone. A hundred yards from the lodge, an outdoor pool, fed in part by hot spring water, allows you the luxury of floating under the moon and gazing through rising steam at those deer.

The place does have drawbacks: Drakesbad only opens for the summer months, its 19 rooms sometimes book up far in advance, and the lodgings are plenty rustic (outdoor showers and lighting by kerosene, not electricity, are predominant.) Also the rates ($100 per adult, per day, meals included, riding excluded, and about $60 per kid ages 2 to 11) may give some pause. But in three days there I saw no unhappy couple and no unhappy families. (For more information, call [916] 529-1512, the lodge management company's off-season number, on a Monday, Thursday or Friday.)

A PUBLIC APOLOGY: To the fellow Drakesbad guest who, one night around the Drakesbad campfire, welcomed me to the fold and half-seriously swore me to secrecy about the place. Sorry. You erred. You trusted me.

FAVORITE FOREIGN DESTINATION: A tie, between a British place full of Arab money and an Arab place full of British colonial footprints.

Half of me inclines toward London, not just because of its architectural and historical wealth, and not just because the taxi drivers speak English, really know their way around and drive responsibly (what other city can claim such a combination?), but because visitors and residents alike agree that the city these days resounds with more energy and optimism than has been seen there in three decades. In a week there over the summer, it was a joy to shoulder my way through the crowds on the streets, to negotiate with my wife, Mary Frances, over a restaurant (far more to choose from than the usual pub grub and Indian food), and to slip into Soho for a show or into St. Martin-in-the-Fields church for a concert.

The other half of me (the contrary half) leans toward Africa, specifically Egypt. Cairo is noisy and dusty and poverty-marred and crowded; in fact, it could be a poster city for those traits. But remote areas such as the Sinai can seem as unearthly as the moon. And Egypt's layered landscape and culture make distant history--and the current ideological struggles within the Islamic world--as palpable as your living-room furniture.

BEST ZOOLOGY LESSON: Posted in the Insects and Small Reptiles Display Room at the Penang Butterfly Farm, Penang, Malaysia:

Q: What happens to the human race if all insects decide to be active . . . all at the same time?

A: Three-fourths of all living things in this world are insects. If all of them were to be active at the same time they would create chaos and complete disruption to all human activities!!!

(Michael Crichton, call your agent.)

BEST AND BOLDEST SERVICE: (Name withheld to avoid international incident.) As 1996 began, my passport was being held hostage in Washington by legislators who curtailed government services after failing to agree on a budget. Services withheld included those within the U.S. Passport Office, and for a while it looked as if political dithering would undermine a trip to Asia that I'd been planning for months. But in the end, one person made a difference. She was the Bangkok operative for a tour company, and she was kind enough to commit forgery.

It worked this way: I needed a visa to enter Myanmar, the Southeast Asian country formerly known as Burma. For complex reasons, I couldn't get a visa in advance because of the budget standoff. That left me with one open day in Bangkok to get one through Myanmar's embassy there. At my hotel, I filled out a form and handed it over, with my passport, to the tour-company operative. Then I went sightseeing for a few hours. Meanwhile, the Myanmar authorities were telling the operative that I had filled out the wrong form and that they couldn't grant the visa. The operative told them she'd find me and come back. Then she stepped away from the office, practiced my signature a few times (on a piece of paper I still have), signed on the required dotted lines and stepped back into the Myanmar visa office. No problem. At day's end, I had my passport back and the critical visa.

GEOGRAPHICAL HIGH POINT: The Sinai, Egypt. The adventure began when I boarded a bus at 11 p.m. and rode for a few hours, bearing inland from the Red Sea. Then, joining a line of hikers perhaps 200 people long, I climbed a dusty path in bitter cold darkness for one, two, three hours, occasionally pausing to make room for the front or back end of a camel. Around me, hikers murmured in various languages, flashlight beams danced underneath a wide open night sky and Bedouins peddled chocolates and mineral water. Finally the path flattened, the darkness lifted and we stood at sunrise atop Mt. Sinai, on the peak where Moses is said to have received the Ten Commandments. Around me spread an epic jumble of barren rocks, a small chapel, miles of desert, loudly praying hikers of Christian, Jewish and Muslim faiths, and a sky of yellow-orange hues. I had a chocolate. It was good.

THE FOOTLOOSE TOURIST'S PRICE INDEX: For $1, the proprietor of the Museum of Death in downtown San Diego let me look up close at his live two-headed turtle. Also for $1, the owner of a glass-blowing operation outside Yangon (formerly Rangoon), Myanmar, sold baubles that would fetch $40 in Cambria or Laguna Beach. (Keep in mind, however, that tourist spending in Cambria and Laguna Beach is not widely viewed as a tacit endorsement of government tyranny and human rights violations.) For $11, I got an hourlong massage on the beach of the Thai island of Phuket. For $15, the barman at the hyper-commercialized Raffles Hotel in Singapore delivered me a Singapore Sling that tasted like weak fruit punch.

MOST FEUDAL SOCIETY: The Hawaiian Island of Lanai, a manicured Eden and former pineapple plantation that is 98% owned by Southern California mogul David Murdock and his Castle & Cooke Inc. There are three hotels on the island (all controlled by Murdock), a few world-class golf courses (Murdock's), several hundred homes in planning or construction (to be sold by Murdock), about 2,700 residents (most supported by Murdock paychecks) and one rental-car outlet, which will let you have a Jeep Wrangler for the day for, um, $119. Guy behind the business is named Murdock.

And it was at the Lodge at Koele's formal dining room where I was turned away from a sold-out dinner featuring Bay Area celebrity chef Bradley Ogden. No big deal. But I was pleased to hear later that night that one Joe Montana, recently departed from San Francisco's beloved 49ers, had called to place a last-minute reservation for 14 and was just as luckless as I. Be warned, island VIPs: Just where you least expect it, egalitarianism can leap up and disrupt your dinner plans.

ANOTHER SPECIAL EVENT I WISH I HADN'T MISSED: "Invisible Naked Band Night," posted for a July evening at Biddy McGraw's Irish Pub in the quasi-bohemian Hawthorne district of Portland, Ore. Alas, I was there in June and all I got to see was the Rose Festival.

MORE UNFORGETTABLE FACE: At a pagoda in long-isolated Yangon, a wizened 72-year-old man elegantly clenched a cigar between his teeth and practiced on me with English words he'd learned from missionaries 50 years before. He wrote down his address so that I could send him a copy of the photo I took--but later I realized that mail from an American journalist (who had written critically about Myanmar's leaders) was likely to bring more trouble than pleasure.

MOST HUMID LODGING: The Waipio Tree House, where my screened room hung 35 feet above the jungle floor in a monkey-pod tree, the screens and windows rustling in the darkness with the sound of geckos on night maneuvers. This was in the rustic, remote Waipio Valley on the Big Island of Hawaii, in the muddy aftermath of a big April shower. But when guests have to bring in their own food and many of the neighbors are actively hostile to tourism (an ongoing issue in Waipio), $175 per night seems a bit stiff.

LEAST HUMID LODGING: The Abiquiu Inn outside Santa Fe. The hotel sits in the middle of the northern New Mexico Desert that inspired the late artist Georgia O'Keeffe (and just down the hill from O'Keeffe's old home-studio, now open for tours), which makes it dry enough. But because the owners of the inn and its restaurant are Muslim, they also stock no alcohol.

WORST FLIGHT: Carnival Airlines between LAX and Fort Lauderdale in early January. The flight began an hour late. On the way to Florida, the movie switched from English to Spanish halfway through and never switched back. The bathrooms were untidy, with toilet-paper dispensers whose ease of use reminded me of Rubik's Cube. On the way back, the flight left half an hour late, in part, the pilot told us, because the caterers had forgotten to put coffee on the plane. And there was no movie. But by then, Mary Frances didn't mind so much, because we'd already lived through events including the . . .

MOST EXCRUCIATING FIVE HOURS: The sales pitch from the friendly time-share-marketing folks at Vacation Break of Fort Lauderdale. Having lured thousands of prospects with direct-mail certificates offering promotional vacations, they tried everything they could think of to sell us a "vacation ownership unit." The saleslady guessed my age six years too young, then told me I resembled Fabio. They cut prices once, twice, three times. They bullied us. They stared at us for long periods of time without blinking. And when finally it became clear we wouldn't buy, they ushered us quickly away, so as to keep other prospective buyers uninfected by our vibes. We were happy to be free, but we didn't yet know the next day would bring the . . .

WORST CRUISE: Port Everglades, Florida, to Freeport, the Bahamas. The Discovery 1, our ship, held about 1,000 travelers, a good number of them Vacation Break customers. By the end of the wind-raked, six-hour journey, I'm guessing that 600 of them had thrown up. Queasy people, and their bulging little white bags, were strewn everywhere. As many thousands of satisfied travelers will quickly point out, not every Bahamas cruise goes this way; Mary Frances and I happened to be aboard on an unusually cold and windy day. But I'll never forget the master of ceremonies and his cheery suggestion, on microphone before a room full of miserable, nauseated tourists, that we choose the peanut butter sandwiches for lunch "because they taste the same coming up as they do going down."

BIGGEST HOTEL TELEPHONE OUTRAGE: The Shangri-La Bangkok, regularly a contender in listings of the world's top 10 hotels, charged me $5 for each local call made from my room, and 50 cents for each time I dialed up a busy signal.

MOST NOTABLE SQUASH: Arriving in Half Moon Bay in late October, I rolled right into the middle of preparations for the annual pumpkin festival and found myself humbled before the most highly decorated pumpkin--more than 800 pounds.

MOST ALIEN CULTURE TO THAT OF SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA: Half Moon Bay. The pumpkin alone would have been impressive enough. But then I read the full tale of the victorious vegetable--sorry, fruit--in the Half Moon Bay Review.

At the first weigh-off of the growers' competition, a pumpkin from San Jose tipped the scale at 836 pounds, prompting great applause and apparently earning a $2,500 check for its grower, Scott Solomon. But even as Solomon fielded questions from the media and posed for photos kissing his big squash, the needle of the scale began to fluctuate. Downward. To about 790 pounds. Causing murmurs among those assembled.

In the first sign that they do things differently in Half Moon Bay than in Los Angeles, no one called his attorney. Then Solomon agreed to an immediate reweighing of the pumpkin.

This time, Solomon's entry came in at a more modest 783 pounds. And a pumpkin lugged into town by Kirk Mombert of Harrisburg, Ore., sent the needle to 808 pounds. Mombert was declared winner. Solomon, his fame snatched away and his prize money shriveled to $500, was quoted saying this:

"If it didn't weigh right the first time, I want it to be weighed again. . . . I'm happy with second place. It's better than last year. I don't want any conflict between the growers. . . . They're the greatest guys."

Of course, now that millions of Southern Californians have been encouraged to visit Half Moon Bay, this will all have to change.

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