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Global Thoughts — 6 June 2010 Includes also travel notes Niagara Falls, Barcelona, Jerusalem

The Upper West Side is an interesting place. We went to a puppet show in Central Park this month which was a parody of several fairy tales. The Big Bad Wolf couldn’t figure out how to help the troll eat the Billy Goat Gruff so at the end he plants him a vegetable garden and the troll decides to be a vegetarian…..I don’t have to tell you how much they indoctrinate about recycling at school…

It was deja vu time all over again. 15 years ago I was headed back from a family trip to Israel stopping over in Barcelona. It was cold and rainy the whole time in mid-March. I liked the city though and vowed to return hopefully at a sunnier time. My friend there and I could not exchange e-mail addresses; there was no e-mail or Internet yet really. So now here I was on the way back from a family trip to Israel stopping in Barcelona in early May. Rainy and cold the whole time, having lunch with the same friend, now sharing notes about our wives and children and yes, our e-mail addresses.

Did you ever wonder why the stock market goes up when unemployment goes down, but that the stock of individual companies also goes up when they announce massive layoffs? I think that the latest downturn in the stock market is the result of traders giving impetus to a sell-off to create volatility and to bargain hunt. The US economy is on an uptick and the results will show in soon.

So I was in Israel watching Dora the Explorer — in Israel and in Hebrew, she says “Oy.” Here are some comments from Oded, the political analyst who has the best track record of any over the past 20 years that I know him….Bibi’s settlement building in East Jerusalem is a “good provocation to the Arabs.” It will push them to negotiate, otherwise they think they have no time pressure. After the Iran war (involving the US & Israel which will happen because the US Generals will push Obama into it just like they pushed him into Afghanistan, he says), the Arabs will be lining up to make peace with Israel. Right now, there isn’t a single Israeli navy ship in port in Haifa; they are all sitting 50 miles off the coast of Iran and the Iranians are scared shitless of them. They are sitting there waiting for the Iranians to make a mistake. (This helps me understand why an Israeli member of the Dubai hit squad left in a boat toward Iran — now I get it; he was heading to the Israeli navy offshore.) Hundreds of planes are rehearsing and people are volunteering to be in these units. Oded figures this war to come will be the biggest fireworks display since 1948. Bush built a bunch of radars. Israel is well defended; after all, why keep building skyscrapers in Tel Aviv if you really think somebody is going to bomb them? (By the way, Tel Aviv just passed a municipal law outlawing the construction of new skyscrapers in the center of the city for the next 10 years due, they say, to having reached capacity and wanting to design a new municipal master plan. A coincidence?) Doesn’t think much of the Taliban or Al Qaida. American pilots in his classes think they are nothings, kept alive by the military industrial complex that needs wars to fight. Iran command is not used to fighting wars; haven’t had a real war in 500 years. The Iraq-Iran war was a BS war with little kids being sent to the front. They are not equipped and do not have the know-how to fight a real war with Israel, especially one so far away. Israeli companies he likes are Israel Chemicals and Teva. Interestingly enough, I just saw a statement by a vice prime minister that Israel has the technological capability of hitting Iran by air.

I met with Yitzchak Pindrus, vice mayor of Jerusalem. He’s a guy to watch. Intelligent, speaks perfect English (family is from Cleveland), and might even be honest. Right now there is a huge scandal inside Jerusalem with the Holyland real estate project which is a gated community with imposing buildings on the edge of the city. We saw it; it didn’t look all that ugly to us, but to many Israelis it is ugly and could only have been built with lots of bribes, which it seems is exactly what happened.

Obama is not well liked in Israel. But “pressure on Israel” is a red herring. The country is moving on , despite the rest of the world talking about Israel or creating havoc on college campuses with delegitimization campaigns or the UN resolutions. Netanyahu knows he will outlast Obama and is expert along with the rest of the region at stalling US presidents out. The rest of the world all likes Jordan but in the past 15 years there hasn’t been much going on there. Israel is constantly growing with new buildings, cities and all sorts of things going on. Beautiful new roads everywhere you look. I see some kind of golf course with fountains on the edge of Tel Aviv as you land toward the airport. Boutique hotels being built to the highest standard. All kinds of new shopping malls and attractions going up. State of the art museums with fantastic multimedia presentations. The number of settlers in the occupied territories is 3x what it was 20 years ago. GDP just passed $30,000 and soon Israel’s GDP might surpass Italy’s. It would be smarter for everyone in the world to stop thinking that some kind of pressure is going to change Israel’s reality. A visit just confirms last month’s statement and my statement after last year’s visit that it would be better for the Arabs to stop looking for pre-conditions and just sit down and make the best deal they can. The “what’s left to talk about” just keeps getting reduced year after year. Israel was just voted unanimously into the OECD Group of Countries — the world’s top 30 industrialized countries. Anyway, the US and Israel are kissing up because election year is coming, Obama’s pressure wasn’t working and, in fact, the US has quietly agreed to give the Israelis an extra couple hundred million a year in military aid under the table for the Iron Dome missile defense system which as I have already told you is a BS (as in Business) program really being built by the Israelis for Singapore.

This thing with the Israeli navy is interesting. On a simple level, they have to show they mean business. Iran is behind Gaza. If the Israelis show weakness, it just brings everything closer to Iran testing the waters in a nuclear sense. Turkey is playing games by sending out this ship — they are trying to show they can bring benefits to the Palestinians and stick it in Iran and Egypt’s ears. Egypt had to make good by opening the Rafah border to let Gazans let off some steam. It is popular politics but a dangerous game; the Turkish prime minister is now trying to bring forward elections to capitalize on the popularity his party gained through this incident (more about the funding of his party by the flotilla organizer later). The Israelis had opportunities to play the PR game better than they did; it is amazing that under Bibi they still don’t have their act together. Read Yair Lapid’s detailed article about the PR foulup in Yediot Ahronot this past weekend (ynetnews.com). If the people on the ship were indeed mercenaries and terrorists, as the Israelis claim, why didn’t their naval commandos come prepared to face them instead of a kumbaya crowd? There is good evidence that the Israelis and the Turks had met several times quietly in advance of this raid to coordinate; I’m sure it is one reason the Turks are angry. There is history here; the Israelis met with the Turks also quietly just before they invaded Gaza. The Turks felt used. Foreign Minister Lieberman pissed off the Turks with his ambassador in a low chair stunt. The Turks have reasons to get even. Why did the people on the boats have roughly $1 million Euros in their pockets? In any event, the Turks and the Palestinians won this round — the world is seemingly fed up with the Gaza siege (although most of the Arab world supported it just as much as the Israelis) and the Israelis are being forced to deal with the fact that it hasn’t worked and that they have to figure out another way to deal with Gaza. The Egyptians have besieged Gaza and have turned away lots of Turkish missions; you haven’t heard a word about that. Odds are that this ship would have passed into history but for the fact that the Israelis came unprepared and people got killed in the mayhem. 

There is something silly about all this Monday morning quarterbacking. The Israelis should have had some kind of Secret Boat Rescue Technology to get the job done. BP should have had a fix ready for the oil spill. Everyone sits around and criticizes everyone else for not having gotten everything right. The press loves to do it, especially during slow news cycles. There is a funny video on the net called “We Conned the World” putting forth the Israeli case — humor is the best PR. But all PR aside, people have their minds made up about Israel and the PR doesn’t really make a difference. Policy does. So does money — Ever wonder why Mauritania, that little African country that voted with the Israelis in the UN, no longer does? Seems that the Iranians started putting lots of money into their economy and the Israelis stopped. I also found this week a note inside Haaretz referring to a South African minister of mines having visited Israel in the 1970’s when he was nearly bankrupt where he got a lot of money from them through an intermediary. Seems the Israelis were negotiating a nuclear arms deal with South Africa and didn’t want him to get out of power and to jeopardize the deal. During his trip to Israel, he lifted safeguards on the use of South African nuclear materials and the Israelis supplied the South Africans with materials they also wanted. As for the Turkish flotilla, also of interest is the rather large financial support the organization that ran this flotilla makes to the prime minister’s party. Always nice to know how money talks and bullshit walks.

What makes a difference to me and should to you is an article in the NY Times Sunday Travel Section today about Ramallah as a cool place to visit and party. A Movenpik hotel is opening there in September. Restaurants are putting out top quality dishes and people say the city is vibrant and open. International chains would not invest there if they didn’t agree and think there was enough stability to look toward a brighter future. Fayyad is setting up the institutions of a state and afterward they can declare the de facto reality that exists. Security cooperation exists. It is from these seeds that a viable Palestinian entity will come sooner or later. The Israelis are playing ball on the ground — they have reduced the number of manned checkpoints from 42 to 12. Despite all the public stuff, there is movement going on here on the ground.

I watched the UK debate the week before the election. I supposed Gordon Brown would lose anyway but he was the best of the bunch because at least he was honest about the problems facing the UK even if nobody wanted to listen. The Conservative didn’t really offer much and the third party candidate seemed dangerously populist with irresponsible contradictory ideas that won’t work. Even though the debate lasted 90 minutes and had more substance than a US debate, it still didn’t really tell me how the politicians who took over the UK would deal with real issues. Of course it’s a month later and now we know. These two guys are the same age as me (44); pretty cool, eh?

This Greece thing is cute — the Greeks lied all these years and now are paying the price. The problem is that so is the rest of Europe and the rest of us around the world. Should they really? Should it matter to Germany that Greece gets bailed out? Is the Euro really a good idea? My gut feeling is that in another 10 years or so the Euro will be the currency of a couple of top European countries and the others will be out of it. It doesn’t make sense that the strong have to keep subsidizing the weak in Europe and eventually people will get less romantic about this pan-European union concept and move on. It also doesn’t make sense that these small countries have to deal with inflation and pressure from the larger countries around them by participating in the Euro. The UK should properly stay out. We all know that Greece is just flavor of the month; Spain, Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Hungary and even France are not in great shape. 

The reason we are all paying for this is simple — while tourists are happy because Europe is cheaper, the weak Euro also means that the Europeans money is worth less to pay for American goods, which makes them not want to buy things and that American companies get fewer dollars in return for the same amount of Euros that the Europeans pay for stuff. That means that profits of American companies will fall. The stock market is falling because investors now have to re-estimate the profitability of these companies. Ultimately though, the weak Euro means that Europe will begin to export more. American companies will make money from the European side.

Personally, I am quite happy to see the Europeans suffer. I have known for several years that the European situation was even worse than the US situation, and it has been written here on Global Thoughts. While the Europeans have been smugly tut-tutting how stupid and short-sighted the Americans are, they have been ignoring their own come-uppance which is now quite upon them.

To me the bigger question is this — where were all the auditors for the past decade not to notice that the Greeks were lying? The answer is that Everybody was lying so nobody was lying. The Eurozone is bound by treaty that member nations must not run up budget deficits beyond a certain amount (3% of GDP); when the Greeks entered the treaty, the numbers were fudged with European connivance to make it work, and afterward the Greeks were never really pressured to conform to the treaty. Now multiply this by lots of other members admitted to the Euro union under the same false pretenses. I read this month that 385 people admitted to having pools in Greece (thus subjecting them to a pool tax); they checked satellite data and found that something beyond 16,000 people had pools. You can just imagine how much is yet to be found. OK, so the reason the rest of Europe has to care about Greece is that they all lent Greece all that money (France, Switzerland and Germany being the biggest lenders), and that the amount of debt Greece has is a ton more than Russia or Ireland, Russia or Argentina had when they had problems the past decade. Another problem for the rest of Europe is that in the old days, a weaker economy could steady itself by printing money, devaluing its currency and essentially making its exports more competitive and also screwing its creditors in the process. Under the Euro, individual countries can’t do that anymore. So they are stuck without a convenient way to make up for their inability to play ball on the same playing field as the stronger economies. Everybody is in the mud together and what you basically get is the strong subsidizing the weak and the weak pulling down the strong at the same time. The incentive for the strong to do so is the knowledge that the weak cannot keep devaluing their currency to compete against the strong. It is all based on institutionalizing market dsyfunction. Which is why this is a system that is not built to last more than a generation once people go through a cycle and realize that this pan-Europeanism (any more than pan-Africanism or pan-Arabism) is a cute idea that doesn’t work because it doesn’t account for each nation’s real interests.

I good article to read that very clearly explains what is at stake is in Haaretz, Friday May 14 “Before The End of the World as We Know It” by Pinchas Landau. Besides explaining the European problem, he also explains the situation in Japan. Succinctly stated, Japan financed its deficits on the savings of housewives who put cash into the postal banks for no interest. Now they are aging and drawing against those savings, and there is hardly any new savings being put in to fund the scheme. What happens to Japan? All over the world, the idea of the government-funded social net is falling apart.
 http://www.haaretz.com/magazine/week-s-end/before-the-end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it-1.290254

Saks returned to profitability this quarter; airline tickets to Europe are very expensive this summer — NY to London is at least $1,500 in economy. Hoteliers are very cocky about their future reservations and not giving any quarter with future bookings. Rental car prices have shot up; I started renting cars in NY City from independent dealers through carrentals.com instead of the national chains. The high end of the economy is heading up; as a consumer, I could use a bit more recession.

The recession affected our business. Markets work. In the translations area, companies are filing fewer patents in fewer jurisdictions with fewer words in their descriptions. In the credential evaluations area, frustration with the US immigration quota for skilled H1B immigrants has led US companies to develop more R&D centers outside the US and to stop bringing people in. This latter change is probably permanent and the US will never have the same energy it once had as an innovator in the world. Microsoft’s top R&D center outside of Washington is in China; GE has invested half a billion dollars in a campus in India.

Here’s an Outrage story. We bought tickets on US Airways at over $500 a pop. We cancelled due to illness. The ticket was purchased last August for a flight in April. According to the airline’s rules, the ticket is nonrefundable. You have one year from August to use the credit. You can only use the credit once — if you use less than the full amount, you lose it. You also have to use new money to pay for the $150 per ticket reissue fee. The year was about to expire. So, we wanted to use our $500 credit toward a $200 ticket. To do so, we had to pay $150 per ticket and lose the rest of the credit. That meant our $500 ticket was worth about $50.  Multiply that by 4 tickets and that means $2,000 was worth $200. You could mitigate this damage by purchasing travel insurance but that only covers certain contingencies, and adding 6-8% of the gross price of a ticket every time you fly to purchase this insurance really adds up to an incredibly inefficient waste of resources simply because the airlines have all these abusive restrictions placed on tickets because the skies are essentially ruled by oligopolies that can do this. We know they are oligopolies — nobody would ever enter into these contracts at arm’s length and in most markets there is only one or two airlines traveling the route, such as American from Laguardia to Miami.  You can purchase refundable tickets, at about 5-6 times the cost of a non-refundable ticket, which of course makes them non-viable options.

Beyond the outrage, consider what this is doing to the national economy. Travel is a big part of it because one thing people do with their discretionary income is be tourists. Let’s say that this year there is an economic recovery and you feel a bit of extra money and you decide to extend your family vacation to South Florida and want to go to Disney World, so now you want to change your flight home to fly from Orlando instead of Miami. You have a family of 5. It will cost you $750 to change the tickets. And the airline might well not let you change the return city so your tickets might be worth nothing. You decide that the transaction cost almost exceeds the cost of the trip so you don’t go. The Orlando region loses your business, the airline gets nothing more from you, and you are basically pissed off that you couldn’t get the extra vacation. Because even if you just stayed in Miami for an extra couple days, you’d still have to pay the $750. How’s that for killing economic stimulus? You could imagine how these fees are affecting the entire national economy by making people not want to commit to tickets in the first place. I can tell you that we have gone on fewer trips involving airplane travel the past 2 years since these fees became excessive, and we are going more places outside the US with foreign airlines that don’t require the purchase of nonrefundable tickets and have so many restrictions. My company has basically eliminated incentive travel because it became too onerous to send people places when you know that people’s schedules change.

I spoke to a friend last night in Singapore who said that of all things he has to pay, he resents these charges the most. I certainly do, and I wrote a note this week to the majority and minority leader of the US House of Representative’s committee on aviation. Also to the US Secretary and Assistant Secretary of the Department of Transportation as well as their unfair practices division. According to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, fees from changing tickets and baggage now equal or exceed revenue from tickets themselves. It’s also interesting that no tax is paid on these fees, which gives the airlines extra incentive to charge fees. It creates a market dysfunction that hurts Uncle Sam and the market, and benefits only the airlines. But they don’t realize all the business they are losing in the process by making people not want to take trips. I have written notes to the columnists of the Middle Seat column in the Wall Street Journal and the Consumer Travel column in the New York Times but they have never responded to me or written about the matter. Seems they don’t pay for their own tickets so they naturally appear much more concerned about the seat comfort and the TSA checks and hardly about matters of money.

I did make some suggestions to the Department of Transportation: 

1. Put a ceiling on change fees for families all ticketed together. Create a ceiling for these charges altogether. A fee of $150 per ticket reissued with a keystroke is not reasonable. Make change fees sliding based on how far in advance the cancellation is made. It should not cost the same to cancel 8 months in advance as 6 hours in advance.
2. Require airlines to allow the unused value of tickets to go into a travel bank linked to the traveler for use on replacement tickets for one year from date of travel (not date of original ticket purchase) and allow ticket change fees to be deducted from the travel bank instead of requiring new money to pay those fees.
3. Put a ceiling on the amount of nonrefundable tickets — a domestic ticket above $500 should not be nonrefundable, nor should an international ticket about $1,000. You can currently be essentially forced to buy $5,000 nonrefundable tickets for international journeys and this kind of exposure is too high. Travel insurance is available, but has too many exclusions.  Refundable tickets must be sold at a commercially practicable value to make them an option.
4. Allow pooling of travel credit or reissue of tickets within a household or family. Or simply allow assignability of tickets except at the last minute before a flight. The law generally prefers assignability of property; it is only here that it is not allowed and there is no valid safety issue at play here since some airlines allow assignability.

The DOT responded to my letter stating that since air fares were de-regulated, this is all out of their hands. When US Air found out I was writing letters all over the place, they suddenly called me to reverse themselves and give me vouchers for the amounts of these tickets good for another year.

Here’s a travel tip: At a hotel, instead of room service, go downstairs to the restaurant and get take-out. You get the food faster and without all the service charges.

Some travel notes from this past month: Ben Gurion airport this time was easy on arrival and departure. Arkia (an Israeli airline that also runs flights to Europe) closes the check-in an hour before international flights. I took Arkia from Tel Aviv to Barcelona, flying time just over 4 hours. Sit on right side for nice views upon landing. The minute the flight lands, even while it is on the runway, 30 people stand up and start taking stuff out of the overhead bins. Like an army bus. In Barcelona on the way to the airport I saw billboards with the CBS logo on them. Makes you notice how American companies are making lots of money abroad that nobody in the US ever considers. American Airlines was 8 ½ hours from Barcelona to NY; it was 9:45 from NY to Tel Aviv. AA makes a big deal about their chef’s conclave for their business class menu; can somebody tell me what kind of chef’s council they needed to convene to come up with vanilla ice cream with hot fudge for their dessert? I just can’t understand why American Airlines is so boring in this regard. The flight attendants keep telling me that it is so popular that they don’t dare change it. Funny thing is they tell me that the Americans AND Italians are the biggest fans of the selection. An important alert about Barcelona airport — once you go past passport control for these flights outside Europe, there is no real shopping. So you gotta buy your newspapers and magazines beforehand. AA doesn’t carry magazines on board either. I got randomly profiled upon departure. So did a 70 year old lady across from me. I wonder if anyone has found any terrorist yet from these random searches. 15 minutes of rummaging through my suitcase. It is all so incredibly stupid. And meanwhile the guy who tried to blow up Times Square actually got on a plane the same day on a flight to Dubai even though he was on a no-fly list and was taken off after the plane left the gate. Until they start looking at people instead of random sets of lists, we are lost.

During this past trip to Israel, I ate at La Guta in Jerusalem which continues to be excellent. Saturday Lunch at the King David also excellent. A good French bistro “Eldad v’Zehu” in the city center just off Jaffa Road was pretty good. Dan Boutique Hotel is the old Ariel Hotel and located 15 minutes walk from my company’s Jerusalem office or roughly 10 minutes past the Inbal / Laromme Hotel behind the old train station. It is a renovated property; the suites are decent and cost 1/3 the price of the King David Hotel down the street. Has a real nice sun roof with views of Mount Zion from the south and west. The new Mamilla Hotel offers quite decent Executive rooms for the same price of a suite at the Dan Boutique with a much better location. The big problem at the Dan Boutique is that the traffic patterns are not good at this hotel and you have to go in a taxi in a big detour to get several places. Also there is limited food and beverage and breakfast is pretty lousy. Not a bad place but wouldn’t be my first choice. One thing you notice in Israel is the presence of Russian-speaking tourists. They don’t need visas to get in and it is only a 3 hour flight from Moscow to Tel Aviv. And as you know the country has become more Russified. My parents were at the Dead Sea and said the Russian therapists there at the spas are fantastic.

Barcelona has a new airport and it is easy to arrive in it. The metro in the city works well but some of the transfers within stations can be very long walks. Taxis are plentiful and reasonable. 25-30 Euro from airport to the city. Usually no more than 10 euro inside the city. More traffic than I expected. Cortes Igles department store now offers discount coupons worth 10% but you must get them before you start shopping — get them in the second basement level where the VAT refund desk is. The day I was there was the first day of this program. I was unlucky with rain and cold the entire 36 hour visit. Hotel Arts is a Ritz Carlton in what was the olympic village. It is a bit out of the way but has pretty views of the seaside. The new W hotel has the same seaside effect but closer to town and I was told it was very nice. In 3 hours I was able to visit Parc Goell, Sagrada Familia, Ramblas, Plaza Catalonya, the food market, the Barcelona cathedral, ciutadella park, arch triumph, and taxi over to the big Gaudi apartments Perrera and the office tower for the water company that looks like a multi-colored conehead. Food and beverage in the hotel is fine but I can’t tell you I love the food in Spain. 100 Euro got me airport transfers, taxis and metro around town for a day. 2 hours with a private car and driver is 200 Euro so I think that’s out of the ballpark. At the store there were some good buys. Unemployment in Spain is currently 20% but the country for tourism is OK — service is friendly and lots of people here speak English in the service industry. The olympic stadium is up on the mountain away from the city. The city remains pleasant since I last visited in 1995; lots of trees, boulevards, and public art. 15 years ago I was all ga-ga about gelateria, fruit juices — now I have to avoid it so that my tummy doesn’t go bad. Ah, my lost youth… 

Our family just completed a nice little visit to Canada this week over the long Memorial Day weekend. We flew to Buffalo and then took a 45 minute taxi ride over the border to Niagara Falls on the Canadian side which is more developed for tourism than the US side. On a Wednesday at noon, it was very quiet crossing the border and there was zero wait. We stayed at the Doubletree Fallsview Hotel, a 20 minute walk to some attractions such as Tablerock and Clifton Hill and a 10 minute walk to Skylon Tower and the Fallsview Casino. A rental car is a good idea here; better to get one in Canada than to bring it over from Buffalo at 3x the price. Clifton Hill is a three block circus that is totally avoidable. The falls is a nice attraction; the local government runs about 5 attractions and sells them as a package; it is a good idea to just buy everything in advance and take the discounts. $120 set our family of 4 up for everything on the list. We went to Maid of the Mist (a half hour boat ride on the falls); a walk to an observatory overlooking the falls (Journey Behind the Falls); a movie where you get wet; a ride in a gondola over a fjord; a butterfly conservatory (really beautiful); and a walk along the rapids. The Doubletree had views of the falls from a distance; the Hilton or the Oakes would be closer but the Hilton had lines for everything in its lobby. To some degree, it doesn’t really matter where you stay because you need to drive to almost everything. Breakfasts at Doubletree and at Hilton are awful; everything comes out of a package. But breakfast from the 33rd floor of the Hilton offers a great view of the falls for $20 per adult.. Dinner at the Skylon Tower revolving restaurant was pricey but very good and the views are great at sunset and afterward when they turn on the colored lights over the falls. We were able to pretty much see everything in a day and a half. Niagara Falls is not exactly an upmarket destination but it was not bad and it is a beautiful piece of nature you gotta see. It was our first visit to Canada with the kids and Elizabeth Regina enjoyed seeing her name on the money — we told her it was all hers. They had been building hotels in anticipation of US tourists — the Coke machines at the main tourist center only take US dollar bills, even though they are not on the border. But we were told that the requirement for Americans to have passports to cross into Canada is putting a damper on family tourism — people don’t want to spend $400 just to get passports for a family of 4. When these hotels were built, they hadn’t changed the requirements but since 9/11 they keep ratcheting up new requirements for Americans to enter Canada. They probably have a glut of hotel rooms now.

We passed through Niagara on the Lake, which has a pretty town to stop in, with a nice park to boot, located about 30 minutes drive from Niagara. 2 hours later we reached Cambridge, Ontario, home of Langdon Hall, a very nice small resort that Karen and I had visited 5 years prior. They changed chefs and we were not too big on the food this time. They got lots of awards for their restaurant and somehow forgot that their mission is to serve tasty food in decent portions to their captive hotel guests. With all the outsiders coming in, guests have a hard time getting tables; they charge $25 (with tax and tip) for a bowl constituting 5-6 spoons of asparagus soup, and some of the desserts were just plain awful as in worse than your worst Passover dessert. The second night we and at least 3 other couples were eating in the bar where the prices were more reasonable and the food was a lot better all around. The spa was completely booked for all 3 days we were there. That said, the people there were generally nice and the property is quite pretty. Our kids had fun running around the gardens and crochet lawn and Jeremy had a great time stuffing rocks down the little waterfall which I guess they will fix with the proceeds from our soup. We had high tea (and they made up stuff for Elizabeth that she would like such as peanut butter and jelly sandwiches). I ate cherries under the tree on the crochet lawn with Jeremy. He loved running around the grounds in his Gap one-piece PJ’s and cried every time we tried to take them off. We took a walk on one of the wooded trails and took the garden tour where the gardener planted flowers with Elizabeth and showed the kids baby strawberries. On Sunday, we went to the African Lion Safari which was 30 minutes away; it is a great attraction and you drive or take a bus through an open-air preserve where all kinds of wild animals roam. Baboons climb up on cars and remove radio antennae. Ostriches peck at the rearview mirrors. We saw elephants play soccer and go for a swim, and they had all sorts of rides. We continued another 90 minutes to Toronto. We stayed at the Harbourfront area in the Radisson Hotel; this was a very pleasant location and convenient to the City airport (you see the runway from the rooms) with flights into Newark via Porter Air, a great little airline. (Clear customs in Newark but it’s much more convenient than flying out of Pearson airport.)  It is a 5 minute taxi or a 15 minute walk from the hotel to the ferry that takes you on a 3 minute ride to the terminal. We visited the CN Tower and generally walked around the Harbourfront area. The Movenpick Marche restaurant in downtown is closed for renovations but is reopening August 2010. We don’t find Toronto a particularly fascinating city but it is clean and a good stopover at the end of a trip and I suppose the museums will become more relevant as the kids get older. The Ashkenaz Festival is at the end of August every second year and that is a great event I once attended. And BBC World is available there on the cable systems as well as at Langdon Hall.

Coming up this month: Visits to Chicago, Vermont, London and some English countryside.

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