Escapes: Beyond Barcelona lies the Spain you should know

Cathedral and colorful houses on the side of the Onyar River in the evening, Girona, Spain
(bbsferrari / Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Confession, they say, is good for the soul. This week, Pulitzer-winning L.A. Times columnist Mary McNamara comes clean about the real reason she ended up in Girona, Spain, and cyclist Brian Clark admits to cheating on a bike trip.

Secrets and intrigue — that’s what we’re all about this week in the Escapes newsletter. Plus, a New Mexico town that never existed, the potential problems of identity technology at airports, the countdown to fame and fortune through your photography, and downright stupid mistakes that could cost you (and me) in this week’s End paper (which is where its name suggests). All this and more. Stop salivating and start reading.

Seeing Spain in a new light

Here’s the thing about Barcelona, Spain’s cultural and culinary confection: It’s like a never-ending buffet. La Sagrada Familia, the spectacular but still unfinished cathedral. A spectacular setting between the mountains and the Mediterranean. A rich stew of art and entertainment. It can all be wonderful and a bit too much at the same time. Mary McNamara wisely broke the region into bite-size pieces, making it manageable but enhancing some of its mysteries, including the black Madonna. And yes, she does spill the beans on her motivations for the trip.


Would you go a few miles for a camel?

Sure you would, especially if life in a Vegas casino resort hotel isn’t your cup of tea but a yurt and a camel ride are. Jay Jones writes about a camel ranch about an hour north of the Strip where your surroundings suggest Mongolia and camel treks and rides are part of the allure.

It’s not just consumers who don’t like resort fees

You may have had this experience: You’re booking a hotel room online and you think your tab will come to about $200 a night but suddenly, toward the end of the process, up pops a “resort fee” that will add $30 or $40 a night to your tab. Besides recent suits against Hilton and Marriott for this practice, one website is striking back by charging a commission on resort fees for European and, soon, U.S. hotels, Hugo Martin writes.

The vacation photo clock is ticking

We’d like you to share your summer with us. Each year, the Los Angeles Times Travel section dedicates an issue to reader photos taken during that year’s summer vacation season and submitted for possible inclusion in our print section (Sept. 22) and for online as well. The deadline is growing nigh — 6 p.m. Sept. 6 — so take a look at the submission rules and picture your photo, name and city of residence among the works of talented amateur photogs.

Can you stand it?

For many fliers, an L.A.-New York flight may test the limits of their endurance. That’s child’s play compared with a 20-hour nonstop flight on Qantas, which is testing to see whether human beings can withstand being in a cabin for the better part of a day, Angus Whitley writes for Bloomberg. (This is important because climbing the walls is really not an option in an aircraft.) About 40 crew members will be the airborne guinea pigs on the New York or London to Sydney runs.


This may be a boon to fliers

San Francisco International Airport has a host of new eating and retail options at its newly redeveloped Terminal 1, Christopher Reynolds reports. The $2.4-billion project will continue until 2022, but for now, Harvey Milk Terminal 1 (named for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors member who was shot and killed in 1978) has a new lineup of eateries and is expecting a 351-room Grand Hyatt hotel to open in the fall.

Now the secret’s out

Los Alamos, N.M., may have had 6,000 residents, but it didn’t exist during World War II, Jay Jones writes — at least, not officially. Such was the secrecy surrounding the place where the atomic bomb was developed. Today, you can take a tour of the town that no one was supposed to know about, where scientists worked to create the weapon that would end World War II. The town’s Bradbury Science Museum explains the role of Los Alamos Laboratory from World War II to today.

Security but at what cost?

Facial recognition is increasingly being used at airports for security purposes, Christopher Reynolds writes, but it raises concerns about privacy. Nearly two dozen airports, including LAX and and San Diego, use the technology, but what happens to those photos? And what happens if you don’t want your image collected? The answers may surprise you.

Cheater, cheater ... but hey, this is great

Hobbled by a muscle pull, avid cyclist and writer Brian E. Clark got a little help from an e-bike on a tour of Oregon’s Cascades. While others were huffing and puffing on some of the grades, Clark and one other cyclist accepted an assist from the e-bike, which, he said, felt “like a magic hand on my back.” He vowed to return and do the ride again with no help, but for this trip, it let him see the stunning scenery of the Pacific Northwest, which he might otherwise have missed.


What we’re reading

Bigfoot is big business in Northern California, but is it funny business? Outdoors writer Robert Earle Howells explores the myth and the man — or is it a woman? — in Westways magazine. (When you click on the link, it may ask you for a ZIP Code; you may use 90245.) Find out more in this well-told tale, including why some think he may be a she lurking in and around Willow Creek, which Howells says is Bigfoot central.

Some of us dream of doing something like this; Bob Long actually did it. Long won the Mongol Derby, which involved riding horses across the plains of Mongolia for 10 days. Long, 70, is now officially the oldest person to have finished the race and also to have won it. The New York Times article by Emily S. Rueb quotes him as saying it was easy. “You just ride 650 miles on a death march,” he said.

Of course you’ve always wanted to visit the National Museum of Funeral History in Houston. Maybe you’ll want to follow that up with a trip to the Museum of Clean in Pocatello, Idaho, or see the lightning bugs in Malaysia’s Kampung Kuantan Firefly Park, where the males light up to attract females — in unison. Then maybe do a little volcano surfing in Nicaragua. These are but some of the oddities and unusual sites you’ll find in Atlas Obscura’s second edition of “Explorer’s Guide to the World’s Hidden Wonders.” I don’t know where they come up with these things, but you sit down to scan and look up an hour later and you’ve just devoured another tidbit, this one on Unit 731 Museum in Manchuria, which masqueraded as a lumber mill but was, in fact, a biological weapons research facility. Who knew? AO did. $37.50; Workman Publishing, available in October.

What you’re reading

This newsletter, for one. And you could be reading others. You’ll find one for nearly every taste and appetite at Newsletters Member Center. They’re free and delivered to your inbox.

And, we hope, the Los Angeles Times, which is your newspaper. Print. Online. Both. It’s made every day (and sometimes several times a day) just for you. It’s the gift you give yourself 365 days a year. To join the family, visit this menu of subscription options.

If you would like to share your thoughts about this newsletter or life in general or whether you could actually stand to be in an airplane for 20 hours (see above), write to us at We thank you.


End paper

Thanks to Chris Erskine, who wrote and produced the Escapes newsletter the last two weeks while I was romping around the Swiss and Italian Alps on an LAT Expeditions trip. (Erskine did the same trip a month before and pronounced it, as I did, magnificent. Travel writer Christopher Reynolds is scheduled to do the same trip in June.)

Part of my duties on this trip, besides getting to know 22 fun and fearless L.A. Times readers, was to share tips and hard-won knowledge gleaned from being on the receiving end of bad. Here’s what I came away knowing: These folks are better traveled than I and a whole lot smarter. Read on.

One of the topics was protecting your vacation investment. Surprises are part of the fun of travel unless they involve spending money you don’t expect to spend. I mentioned that many premium credit cards provide primary insurance coverage for rental cars, which is a big relief if the vehicle gets damaged (because you don’t have to file this with your regular insurance carrier).

I mentioned that we’re hearing stories about people who have returned their vehicles and then were assessed for damage they didn’t cause. That’s why it’s always a good idea to take photos of your rental car when you pick it up, I added.

As the words tumbled out of my mouth, I got that sinking feeling. I had dropped off a rental car just before getting on the plane to Zurich (I’d been in the Bay Area teaching a class with L.A. Times staff writer Christopher Reynolds), but had I remembered to take photos?

No, I hadn’t. I was 6,000 miles away, and worrying wasn’t going to change anything, so I put it out of my mind.



When I returned home, I received a bill for $894 for damages to the car and a phone call asking for payment of that amount. Fortunately, I had saved all the paperwork, including the slip that indicated preexisting damage, and submitted it to the company, from which, by the way, I have rented numerous times.

I have dozens of rental car photos in my phone, just not this time. But Reynolds, bless his socks, had snapped some pix showing the nicks and dings (including the alleged damage) as I was filling out the paperwork.

Takeaway No. 1: You think you’re special and it can’t happen to you? Think again. Takeaway 2: If you’re traveling with someone else, give that person the photo assignment. A piece of paper is good, but photos are pretty much your iron-clad-not-my-fault-sir proof.

Takeaway 3: Stop. Take a breath. It will still be there if you arrive five minutes later, whatever it is.

May your rental cars always be ready for their closeups, may you travel safely and well, and may you always know we will be here to welcome you home.