Hey Grandpa…What’s For Supper?

Blackened Quail with Watermelon Molasses and Cornbread Stuffing

I get inspiration for my cooking from the most interesting places, but I never thought an airplane would be one of them. While flying down to St. Lucia recently, one of the programs Delta Airlines offered on their in-flight entertainment system was a Master Class featuring Chef Mashama Bailey. Chef Bailey is well known for traditional southern cuisine, which she features in her Atlanta-based restaurant The Grey. The recipe that caught my attention was her blackened quail with watermelon molasses and cornbread stuffing. Watermelon molasses…I had to try that.

As soon as I got home, I set about working on my approach to Chef Bailey’s dish. I must confess that although I was born south of the Mason-Dixon line, southern cooking is not in my palate’s wheelhouse. Oh sure, I had my share of greens and beans as a kid, but they never appealed to me. I ate them, reluctantly, because there were times when that was all my folks could afford to put on the table. It was that or go hungry, and I’ve never been a fan of going hungry. As an adult, my palate has no sense of nostalgia for much of the food of my childhood. I loved my mother’s scratch spaghetti sauce and her lasgane, but not the southern dishes she so creatively prepared for us. I didn’t even care for the fried green tomatoes she cooked up occasionally as a treat for my father. He loved them. Not me. But this dish promised to be different.

As I set about tailoring Chef Bailey’s creation to my palate, I found that quail is a protein not readily available at any of my local grocery stores, but I wouldn’t accept a substitute. If I got nothing right about this dish, I was determined to find some quail. I’ve used the online vendor D’Artagnan Foods in the past for specialty meat and game and turned to them to source the quail I needed for this dish. They offer several varieties of quail and I went with the traditional European quail.  I placed my order for four unfrozen European quail on a Thursday, and they were delivered the next day in a well-insulated container filled with icepacks.

I’m not sure what I was expecting as far as the size of quail. I suppose something along the lines of a Cornish game hen. I ordered four thinking I would cook two and toss the other two into the freezer…I never get a new dish right the first time. Often it takes four or five tries before I’m satisfied. But quail are small birds. To give you an idea how small, the picture in this post is of two quail…on an appetizer plate. That’s small. Where a Cornish hen weighs about a pound and a quarter, the average European quail tips the scale at half that. Each bird yielded about two to three ounces of meat, so I ended up cooking all four and thanked my stars I wasn’t planning to serve this at a dinner party.

Let me just say in spite of the fancy sounding name, this is not a complicated dish to make. Complicated in concept yes, but it doesn’t require any advanced culinary technique, nor does it require any equipment more exotic than a spice grinder and a cast iron skillet.

Chef Bailey starts with a blend of spices to create a blackening rub. Her blend is heavily influenced by Creole with its fusion of African and Caribbean spices. Her ingredient list included one spice that was new to me…powdered sumac. It has an interesting flavor profile, something akin to key lime meets cumin. Sumac berries are high in malic acid, which is smoother on the palate than the citric and ascorbic acid of lemons. It allows you to introduce subtle hints of sweet acidity to a dish, but without the lip-puckering tartness of lemon.

In addition to the sumac, Chef Bailey’s blackening blend was heavy on the cayenne, chili, and salt. REALLY heavy. Too heavy. I cut way back on those, adjusting everything else to fit my palate and tossed it all into two gallon-sized plastic bags. I rinsed and dried the quail, rubbed olive oil over them, and put two birds into each bag of the blackening spices. After shaking and rubbing them around to make sure each bird got a fair amount of the blackening spices sticking to them, I put them in the fridge overnight and let the flavors of the blackening spices infuse the birds.

I liked Chef Bailey’s idea of serving cornbread stuffing with the quail, but I didn’t care for her approach to making it Creole style. I respect the classic New Orleans trinity of onion, celery, and bell pepper in gumbo and Étouffée, but for me there is no place for green bell pepper in stuffing, so I omitted it. She also calls for adding some of her blackening spices to a shrimp stock, which she then thickens using a medium dark roux, using the finished product as both the moistener for her cornbread stuffing and as a gravy to ladle over the finished dish. I wanted a more traditional savory stuffing, so I took my New England style stuffing recipe and modified it to fit the pseudo-southern take on her dish that I was trying to create.

My mother made a decent cornbread from scratch, but for this stuffing I decided there would be no shame in using a box mix. Janet found a sweet and tasty cornbread box mix that she’s enlisted the help of our grandkids to make in the past and it turned out quite tasty. I figured if the grandkids could make a yummy cornbread from a box mix, grandpa couldn’t mess it up too badly. So I used a box mix. It took all of two minutes to mix the ingredients and another 30 minutes to bake. After letting it cool for a few hours, I crumbled it all up and let the crumbles sit out overnight to dry so they would soak up more of my stock mixture.

The next day I allocated three hours to prep and cook. I thought that was generous for such an uncomplicated dish, but I ended up using every minute of it. I knew the quail would cook up in under 30 minutes, so I saved that for last and started on the stuffing. I diced up two yellow onions and a couple of celery stalks, then sauteed them together in olive oil over medium high heat for about ten minutes. I diced up a head of garlic which I added for the last 30 seconds of cook time. Garlic is great when you cook it just enough to bring out the flavor, but it can go from fragrant to acrid in seconds if you cook it too long. About half a minute after adding the garlic I pulled the skillet from the burner and scooped the contents out onto my crumbled cornbread and gave it a good mix.

Rather than using Chef Bailey’s Creole style shrimp stock, I brought a quart of low-sodium chicken stock to a low simmer, melted in a stick of butter…yes, an entire stick of butter, unsalted of course…and then stirred in a couple of tablespoons each of rubbed sage and fresh chopped basil, and a couple of teaspoons of dried marjoram. I let that continue to simmer for another 15 minutes to infuse the herbs into stock then poured it over the cornbread.

I never know how much stock my breadcrumbs will absorb, so I always prepare more than I’ll need and add the stock incrementally. I prefer my stuffing to be a bit on the soggy side but short of soupy. In this case I used about three quarters of the stock mix. Once my stuffing had the consistency I wanted, I covered the dish with foil and popped it into a 350-degree oven for about an hour. I removed the foil cover for the final 15 minutes of cook time to evaporate off some of the moisture which left the stuffing gooey but with a nice crispy surface.

My cornbread stuffing turned out surprisingly good. It was savory and much sweeter than a classic New England stuffing. The cornbread gave it a unique flavor that teased my palate. It won’t replace my go to bread-based stuffing when I make a holiday turkey dinner, but I will make it again when I am going for a poultry dish with a touch of southern charm.

Once the stuffing was in the oven, I turned my attention to the watermelon molasses. As much as the idea of cornbread stuffing as a side dish for quail appealed to me, the aspect of Chef Bailey’s dish that really caught the imagination of my palate was watermelon molasses.

Making molasses from watermelon is easy, but it is time consuming. All you do is scoop out the contents of half a watermelon, minus the seeds, and puree it up in a blender. Once you have a pitcher full of watermelon puree you simmer it over low heat in a saucepan until it reduces down to about half a cup. Which takes forever. You have to stir it constantly or the sugars in the juice will burn and that wouldn’t taste very good. In the end it took me over an hour of steady stirring until the watermelon reached the consistency of molasses.

In my mind, the watermelon would reduce down into a sweet and delicious syrup of concentrated watermelon flavor. Sadly, that’s not how it turned out. Watermelon is a member of the squash family, and as the water cooked off and the sugars concentrated, so did the squash flavor. It wasn’t horrible, but it wasn’t the flavor profile my palate conjured up when I imagined what watermelon molasses would taste like.

With my watermelon molasses cooling and the stuffing now out of the oven, I turned my attention to the quail. I have to say I was a bit intimidated by the idea of cooking quail, but I needn’t have been. It was the easiest part of this dish to cook. I pulled the quail from the fridge and let it sit at room temperature for about half an hour as I preheated the oven to 350 degrees. While the oven was doing its thing, I took the cast iron skillet I used to sautee the celery and onions for my stuffing, poured in a drizzle of canola oil, and let the oil heat up over medium high heat. Once the oil was nice and hot I added the quail, back side down. I gave the quail about two minutes per side to brown and then popped the skillet into the oven with the quail breast side up.

Quail are so small they take almost no time to cook. And unlike chicken, quail don’t spend their short lives so densely packed into growing pens that they wallow around in their own feces. Which is to say you can get by with cooking quail to a lower internal temperature than chicken without fear of foodborne pathogens. I was going for an internal temp of about 140-145 degrees and got that after eight minutes in the oven.

After letting the quail rest for about five minutes, I put two birds on each plate, topped them with a ladle or two of the watermelon molasses and added a scoop of cornbread stuffing on the side. I like cooking a veggie with my meals, and though I don’t usually care for Brussels sprouts, somehow that seemed like the right choice for this dish. And it was. I steamed up my sprouts in the InstantPot for about six minutes, finished them with a few minutes under the broiler, and then dipped them in a bath of olive oil and balsamic vinegar before plating.

I started out intending to recreate Chef Mashama Bailey’s quail and watermelon molasses. My quail dish turned out nothing like Chef Bailey’s Creole-inspired concoction, but it was damned tasty. The meat was moist and far more flavorful than chicken with a slightly gamey edge to it. It was pink close to the bones, almost to the point of being red. If you are used to chicken where the slightest tinge of pink or red turns your stomach you might find the look of it a bit off-putting, but the texture was perfect. It was tender with just enough of a chew factor to make you want to linger over each bite as the flavors melted onto your tastebuds.

Even with my adjustments, Chef Bailey’s blackening spice blend had more heat to it than I care for. After one bite I understood the role of the watermelon molasses…it acts as a cooling agent with the concentrated sugars cutting the edge off the spicy heat.

The dish, as I created it, turned out to be a harmonious blending of north and south. The cornbread in the stuffing lent a sweet southern charm to a side that was otherwise vintage New England, and the Brussel sprouts added a nice touch of bitterness. The next time I make it, and there will be a next time, I’ll go even lighter on the cayenne in the blackening blend. And though I didn’t care for the squash notes I got from the molasses, I am still intrigued by the idea of sweet watermelon flavor in this dish. I think instead of watermelon molasses, I’ll serve it with raw watermelon chunks on the side. I’ll stick with the cornbread stuffing as I made it, and I’ll probably even include Brussels sprouts. Just thinking about it makes my mouth water.

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Flying Still Sucks But Help Is On The Way…Maybe

Air travel has long been something to be endured, but the abysmal performance of airlines since this past spring has turned it into something to be loathed. With all the flight cancellations and delays resulting in missed connections and unacceptably late arrivals, you have no guarantee the plane ticket you carefully selected and purchased will get you to your destination as scheduled. Good luck getting compensated for the added expense of meals and lodging when a one hour delay turns into an overnight ordeal. If your flight is cancelled the only thing you can count on is that you’ll be rebooked. Maybe. It probably won’t be the same day as your scheduled departure, and it might not even be from the same airport, but what can you do?

For now, not much. Travelers are at the mercy of the airlines, but that may soon change. The Department of Transportation is taking steps to hold airlines more accountable for actually delivering the services they promise when they take consumer’s money. It’s a bit late for this summer’s travel season, but it might prevent similar problems next year.

Getting compensated for meals and hotels when you get stuck far from home because of flight delays and cancellations has been a common problem this summer, and it’s a real headache. I’m still waiting to to be reimbursed for meals and the hotel that Lufthansa promised after a flight delay resulted in a missed connection in Frankfurt almost two months ago.

Each airline follows a different set of rules and those rules are so full of exceptions they might as well not exist. To help consumers navigate the tangled web airlines have weaved (woven?), the DoT recently established an airline customer service dashboard. It is designed to help travelers know their rights when flights are delayed, and the DoT is working to make it more difficult for airlines to avoid delivering on the compensation they promise. I am hopeful airlines will soon automate the process, allowing you to request a voucher through their app and then pushing the voucher to you digitally so you never have to wait in line or on hold if you call. They aren’t there yet, but I think that time is coming.

Getting a refund for your flight when it is significantly delayed or when the airline cancels it is another can of worms, but that too may be getting easier. The DoT has released a draft policy that will make it much easier to get a refund for your plane ticket when an airline cancels your flight, even if you booked a non-refundable fare. No longer will you be forced to accept a rescheduled flight that might be several days later than the one you booked, or put up with having your non-stop flight in business class switched to an economy class fare with two connections.

Easier refunds for cancelled flights are a good thing. It means travelers will have the option to make alternate arrangements with another airline without the risk of not getting a refund for the original ticket. Under the proposed policy you can get a refund, or you can opt for future flight credits with the same airline if you prefer. That will be your choice, not the airline’s, and under the new policy, if you opt for flight credits they’ll never expire.

One of the best parts of this new policy is that it removes the excuses airlines have been hiding behind to avoid refunds. There have been plenty of head scratching stories of airlines cancelling flights because of “weather” when the skies are clear and the winds calm. They cite bad weather on the west coast as justification for cancelling flights on the east coast, an excuse that under the current policy takes them off the hook for providing refunds. Lately airlines have taken to blaming the air traffic control system, or local airport operations for cancelled flights…anything to avoid having to give back ticket revenue once they’ve taken your money.

Under the new policy it won’t matter why a flight was cancelled…the airline will be obligated to offer a refund, even if they’ve automatically rebooked you on another flight and even if you purchased a non-refundable ticket. There are rules, but they are reasonable, not loopholes the airlines can hide behind. You won’t be able to demand a refund when you cancel your ticket, but at least when the airline cancels the new policy will ensure you can get your money back.

There are some aspects of the proposal that need more work. In addition to requiring refunds when airlines cancel or significantly delay flights, there are refund provisions for travelers who have to cancel a trip because of illness during a declared public health emergency, or in keeping with public health guidelines. This part of the proposal is intended to deal with highly contagious, serious diseases…like COVID…it won’t cover things like the common cold. In its present form the policy is way too complicated for the average traveler to understand, and I hope the final version gets simplified without sacrificing the protections it seeks to provide.

Another aspect of the proposed policy that I’m not thrilled with has to do with the role travel agencies play in air ticketing. Under the draft policy, travel agents who include air in their bookings would be liable for refunding the cost of that air to clients when their flights are cancelled. That aspect of the policy is intended to target travel agencies that take consumers money, aggregate it, and then use the pooled money to get a better price by purchasing blocks of tickets. Those travel agencies may pass the savings along to their clients, but they may not…the airlines have no way of knowing.

It makes sense for a travel agency to be responsible for returning the money when they’ve taken it for air tickets, and then get reimbursed from the airline when flights are cancelled. It does not make sense to treat all travel agencies like that is their business model, which is what the proposed policy does. At Tidewater Cruise and Travel, we don’t collect consumer money for air bookings…the money goes directly to the supplier or airline we book with. Having to offer refunds when those flights are cancelled would mean having to pay out refunds with money we don’t get and don’t have, and then hope we get reimbursed from the airlines. That’s too much of a risk for our small operation, and it means we would no longer be able to offer courtesy air bookings as we have in the past. The impact on our business would be minimal since most of our clients prefer to book their own air, but it is a change we would rather not have to make just the same.

You can expect to see this new policy published in final form by the end of the year. When that happens and all the revisions are locked in, I’ll revisit the subject in a future post and lay out what it means in simple, non-government language. Until then, we’ll continue to put up with the airlines’ shenanigans. What choice do we have?

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Turkey Taste Challenge: Fresh vs. Frozen

I came up with the idea of a turkey taste test challenge last year, the day after Thanksgiving. Black Friday. When other people were lining up before dawn at Best Buy, Macy’s and Kohl’s, or more likely virtually at Amazon.com, I was shopping the bargains at Wegmans. And boy did I find some…like fresh whole turkeys marked down to $0.69 per pound. Granted, they were generic, store brand, nothing fancy turkeys, but they were fresh. I had just paid $75 for a 16-pound fresh turkey from the hobby farmer I usually get my Thanksgiving bird from, and here I am at Wegmans looking at a display case full of 20-pound birds with a price tag of $13.50 each. It couldn’t possibly come out as juicy and tasty as the turkeys I got every year from my favorite hobby farm…could it? I aimed to find out.

The sign on the fresh turkey display case said “Limit One” but judging from the number of turkeys it was filled with, and the proximity of the sell by date, I had a hunch that wouldn’t be enforced at the register. I asked the manager if he would let me take two. He gave me a sort of sad and resigned look and said “Mister you can buy them all if you want. In fact, please do. We over ordered this year and whatever doesn’t sell by the end of the day gets tossed.” I bought three, because four wouldn’t fit into my cart. I tried.

As I was driving home with three fresh turkeys from Wegmans in the back of my vehicle, I wondered what in the hell I was going to do with 60 pounds of turkey. I cook for two people, and one of them (me) has a surgically reduced stomach that holds at most a cup and a half of food. When we go out to dinner I’m a cheap date…I order off the appetizer menu. I don’t even like turkey all that much. I mean, I don’t dislike it, but honestly turkey is pretty tasteless. How was I going to cook up that much turkey and keep it interesting to eat? I probably should have thought of that before I bought three of them.

That’s when the idea of a turkey taste test challenge hit me. How does turkey that was originally sold as fresh taste after sitting in a freezer for a couple of months? I decided to keep one of the turkeys fresh to cook it up straight away and use as a baseline, and then tossed the other two into my freezer. My plan was to cook them months down the road and compare my tasting notes.

I roasted one of those 20-pound monsters the week after Thanksgiving and compared it against the leftovers I had from my $75 hobby farm bird. No comparison…the Wegmans generic store brand, nothing fancy turkey tasted better, and it was juicier. But how would the other two birds turn out? Surely spending months in a freezer would render them dry and tasteless…well, more tasteless than usual for turkey. It didn’t. I cooked the second turkey in February after it spent two months in the freezer, and it was every bit as good as the fresh bird. The third turkey, after eight months in the deep freeze, wasn’t quite as juicy as the first two, but it was still surprisingly moist and every bit as tasty. How could that be?

The Myth of Fresh Never Frozen

As anyone who has read my food posts knows, I am a food nerd. When I tackle a project like this turkey taste test challenge, I immerse myself in research, learning everything I can about what I am about to cook, and what I learned this time was a real shocker. Grocery stores lie. It turns out there is no such thing as a turkey that is fresh, never frozen.

All turkeys are frozen at some point…if they weren’t we’d all die from food poisoning. It takes several weeks to get a turkey from slaughter to the grocery store to your kitchen to be cooked. Considering how much salmonella poultry is infested with in the processing plant that’s too long to be safe. Instead, the USDA allows the food industry to sell turkey as fresh never frozen so long as the internal temperature never dips below 0 degrees Fahrenheit. I don’t know about you, but I call that frozen. A turkey at that temp, and even ten degrees warmer, is rock hard frozen solid.

I’m glad the standard exists so we can safely enjoy several weeks old poultry, but just don’t mark the price up and sell it to me as something it isn’t. A more accurate label would be “thawed for your convenience” because that’s what you get when you buy a “fresh” turkey. I’ve been down this road before with frozen beef. As long as it is vacuum sealed and flash frozen, it is every bit as fresh when thawed as it can possibly be and still be safe to consume. Turkey is the same way…my own test kitchen challenge proved it.

One important caveat: I always brine my turkey before roasting it. Nothing fancy, just a big plastic brining bag with a ziploc seal, a jar of Bell’s Turkey Brine, and enough tap water to cover the bird. Mix it all together, toss in the bird, seal the bag and pop it in the fridge overnight. I get the Bell’s brine mix from Amazon because Thanksgiving is the only time grocery stores stock it. You’ll never get the same amount of juicy flavor in your turkey if you don’t steep it in a wet brine for at least 12 hours before roasting it.

I don’t think I’ll ever bother with a fresh hobby farm turkey again. I might try to find a wild turkey, or one of those heirloom breeds just to see if they have more flavor than the usual broad breasted white, the breed that accounts for 98% of all turkeys sold in this country. Heritage breed turkeys cost even more than my $75 hobby farm turkey…is it worth paying that much for a once-a-year holiday meal where the most tasty dishes are the sides? I don’t know, but I do know if I ever see $0.69 “fresh never frozen” turkeys in the Wegmans display case again I’m buying four. I’ll get two carts if I have to. They’ll be good even after a year in my freezer, but something tells me we won’t see prices that low ever again. If I do…I’m ready! And now, I hear a drumstick calling my name.

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I’m Positive

In spite of my best efforts to protect myself, I contracted COVID during my most recent trip. Janet got it too. Actually, I got it from her, and she got it from one of the people on the river cruise we took. There were at least two people who in hindsight were symptomatic during the cruise, most likely becoming infected when they opted not to mask up on their flights over to Europe. Their airlines did not require masking whereas Lufthansa, whom Janet and I flew with, did. I know that about them because early on in the cruise we compared notes, as travel agents tend to do when it comes to our travel experiences.

In my last post about COVID I wrote that I didn’t think it was inevitable that Janet and I would get COVID, in spite of our travels. I was wrong. I misjudged some things when I posted that. I underestimated the ease with which the current strains of COVID evade protective measures by those who take them. More importantly, I overestimated the willingness of the other people we come into contact with while traveling to take the same reasonable precautions and protections that Janet and I observe. I also overestimated the degree to which the public health system cares about preventing the spread of COVID.

Our COVID cases were mild. I chalk that up to us being vaccinated and double boosted. It didn’t prevent us from getting COVID, but I do believe it prevented us from getting really sick. In fact everybody in our group was vaccinated, but we weren’t required to get tested before the trip. Even though it wasn’t required, Janet did a home test before we departed…it was negative. The people in our group whom I suspect infected us didn’t start showing symptoms until the third day of our cruise. They, like me and Janet, flew to Europe a few days before the cruise so I doubt if pre-departure testing would have done us any good anyway. Neither person asked to get tested once they started with the sniffles and sneezing, nor did anyone from the cruise line ask them to get tested. One attributed her symptoms to asthma, the other to allergies. Those seemed like reasonable explanations at the time, common problems for travel agents who frequently travel to another country across six time zones. In hindsight maybe not so reasonable. Collectively we’ve let our guard down, and I don’t think that’s going to change.

It seems that most of the world, the travel industry included, has put rigid adherence to pandemic prevention behind them. I didn’t have to test myself when I began experiencing cold symptoms on my flight home, I could have assumed I had a cold and gone about my usual routine, going out in public unmasked, uncaring, and infecting everyone I interacted with. As an aside, Janet and I always test after travel whether we have any symptoms or not. I didn’t have to see my family doctor after my at home test was positive, though I did…via telehealth. I didn’t have to get a PCR test to confirm my at home test…my doctor didn’t require it, but I did it anyway. I didn’t even have to report my positive test result to the state health department, but I did. I didn’t have to inform the host of our cruise that I tested positive for COVID after we got home, but I did. Actually Janet did, on behalf of both of us.

I did all those things because they were the right things to do, and the health care system met my efforts with a collective yawn. My doctor told me to take Tylenol if I had a fever, otherwise treat it like a cold. No order for a PCR test to confirm the diagnosis, no antiviral medications, no monoclonal antibody treatment, no follow-up PCR test after five days or even ten days to confirm I was no longer contagious…nothing. Treat it like a cold. The only thing preventing me from going out into public unmasked was a single text from the health department advising me to self-isolate for five days. I’m pretty sure some people, maybe many, don’t even do that much. I don’t know if that’s good or not so good, it’s just where we are.

For the most part, both the government and the travel industry have gone from treating COVID like a plague to treating it like the common cold almost overnight. It has only been within the past month that many travel related COVID testing requirements have been eliminated.

I know that COVID won’t be the mild annoyance for everyone that it has been for Janet and me. I will continue to get booster shots when they are available and recommended, I will continue to mask up when I fly or find myself in crowded indoor spaces, and I will continue to get tested when I think I’ve been exposed or have even mild symptoms and isolate as appropriate. That’s all I can do at a time when others won’t even do that much.

My biggest take away from my bout with COVID is that I’m ready to move on with my life. I’m in the over 60 crowd now with more of my life behind me than in front of me. Yes, that puts me in a higher risk group, but I am no longer willing to put a single day of whatever time I have left on this Earth on hold in an effort to avoid COVID. Maybe my mild encounter with the virus has emboldened me, but I don’t think so. I felt that way before we took our most recent trip, my bout with COVID just reinforces that feeling.

Whether or not it is right for you to travel still comes down to your personal risk tolerance. The main difference between today and the early days of the pandemic is that you can no longer count on others to keep you protected. For better or worse, most people traveling now aren’t taking even the simple precaution of wearing a mask, and that’s an important consideration if you fall into a higher risk group. COVID is still a greater threat than most people are willing to treat it as being. Hopefully it won’t be too much longer before it truly is no worse than “just a cold,” and maybe for all practical purposes it already is.

This will probably be my last post dealing with COVID. As travel suppliers and governments around the world drop the few COVID restrictions that remain, there is little else I can offer on the subject. I’m living proof that no amount of personal protective measures will keep you from getting COVID.

As travel agents we will still encourage our clients to take the same precautions we continue to take for our own travel…get vaccinated, boosted, and mask up on planes, buses, and in crowded indoor spaces. Whether or not you choose do any of those things is increasingly a matter of personal choice. We will also continue to inform our clients of the few COVID restrictions and requirements that remain, based on your destination and mode of travel. That gets easier to do as time goes on and restrictions and requirements fall by the wayside. There aren’t many left, and those too will be going away soon enough. Is it too soon? I don’t know.

Janet and I have several more trips planned between now and the end of the year, and we still plan to take them. We are taking a month off from travel to make sure the next time we hit the road we aren’t the cause of someone else’s case of COVID, but we will travel. At some point down the road we’ll probably get COVID again. By then treating COVID like the common cold might be the right thing to do. That’s how most people seem to be treating it now anyway. And I’m not sure that’s wrong.

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Flying Sucks And There’s Nothing You Can Do About It

Janet and I just returned from a river cruise on the Moselle River in Germany…our first river cruise after more than 50 ocean cruises. We cruised with Avalon Waterways, a member of the Globus family of brands. It was an interesting, unique, and wonderful adventure as anyone who follows us on social meda could see with all the pictures and videos we posted. But that’s a topic for another time…perhaps our next newsletter. This post is about handling what happened to us on our trip over to Europe…flight delays, cancellations, missed connections, baggage issues, and rebooking after a day of delay we weren’t counting on in Europe.

After dealing with similar problems for clients already this summer, I thought Janet and I were mentally prepared. We were not. What can you as a traveler do when even your travel agent has trouble with travel?

1. Expect travel disruptions because almost nothing will go as planned this summer. Flights will be delayed or cancelled, connections missed, or your luggage will get lost…sometimes all three, and there is little you can do to prevent it. We followed all the advice we give to our clients about how to avoid travel troubles when we planned our flights, and still we got stung.

2. Purchase a travel insurance policy that provides lost luggage, trip delay, and trip interruption coverage, because you’ll probably need it. It is best to purchase tip insurance as soon as you book your trip, but even if you didn’t, as long as you haven’t departed on the first leg of your trip it’s not too late. Airlines are notoriously bad about stepping up to their responsibilities to travelers when there is a disruption in the service they offer and it has only gotten worse with all of the problems this summer. There is no guarantee trip insurance will cover all expenses associated with trip delays or interruptions either…it depends on the specific circumstances and the details of your policy, but I can absolutely guarantee it won’t cover anything if you don’t purchase it.

3. Download your airline’s app. That has become one of the best ways to deal with airlines when problems crop up and you can’t find someone at the airport to help. It isn’t a guarantee that you will get your travel problems fixed quickly, but it is rapidly becoming the airlines’ preferred method for working with travelers.

4. Arrive at the airport at least 3 hours before your scheduled departure, longer when you are flying home from Europe. You may find yourself having to wait for someone to show up at the airline’s check-in desk if you have an early morning flight, but at least you’ll be toward the front of the line when they do, which will cut down on your wait time. If you sail through check-in and security and end up with hours of time to kill, go get a cup of coffee or a glass of wine and consider yourself lucky.

5. Know your destination’s arrival requirements, particularly when it comes to COVID. Entry requirements, whether it be for pre-arrival testing or proof of vaccination, continue to change frequently. Most international destinations require that you fill out a health and contact tracing form online a day or two before your scheduled arrival. Airlines will have an app or website where you can fill out what is needed, but some destinations require that you submit information directly to them, so do your homework. If you submit the necessary form(s) at home, along with any COVID testing and vaccination documentation as required, you’ll be able to skip ahead of the people at the airport who don’t. You’ll likely get an approval notification via text or e-mail with a QR code or bar code on it. Print that out and take it with you in addition to storing it on your phone.

6. Likewise, print a copy of your boarding pass if you check in online, and make sure any QR code or bar code is free of smudges or fold lines. If you rely on your phone for your boarding pass any crack, smudge, or blemish on the screen can keep the airport scanners from being able to read it. If that happens you’ll have to get out of line and go back to the airline check-in counter to sort it out. And there is no skip the line pass to get you back to your place in line. When it comes to your return trip, most hotels and tour operators at your destination can arrange for you to print your boarding pass if you check in online, or you can print one at the airport. And thankfully, you no longer need a COVID testing before coming home.

7. Go with the flow. If a flight is cancelled or you miss a connection and your airline automatically re-books you, take the flight they’ve re-booked you on no matter how inconvenient it may be for you. We learned that lesson the hard way on this trip. It used to be you might find an alternative to what the airline offers that works better for you. Not this summer. Even if the new flight means spending several days before you can get another flight, take it.

8. If you don’t get re-booked automatically, try to re-book yourself through the airline’s app while you stand in line waiting for help at customer service. At many airports the customer service centers are so short-staffed they just close down. That’s what happened to us in Frankfurt when we missed our connection because of the three hour delayed departure from Philadelphia. We were automatically rebooked on a flight the next day, but we were on our own when it came to finding a hotel. As tempting as it may be to say screw it and pay out of pocket for a new flight, that should be your last resort. You are more likely to win the Powerball lottery than you are of getting reimbursed for that flight, even if you have a good travel insurance policy. You will have a better chance of getting any hotel, meals, and additional ground transportation reimbursed if you end up making those arrangements on your own, but not alternate flights.

9. Keep your travel agent’s contact information handy. Your travel agent can make all the calls necessary to help you get re-booked if your airline doesn’t do it automatically, and they can ensure your follow-on travel plans are adjusted to accommodate your delay.

10. Pack your patience. Our travel glitches on this trip were minor compared with others and still we found ourselves frustrated, angry, and feeling forgotten. Mostly because we were all those things. We got out on a flight the next day, as did our checked bags, but many travelers have been stuck for several days waiting for a rebooked flight.

11. Plan to arrive a day or two before you need to. We’ve never been a fan of same day arrivals and this summer that’s a sure-fire way to end up disappointed. The airline isn’t going to refund you the cost of your cruise or tour if you miss it even when it’s their fault, nor are they going to cover your cost to catch up even if your itinerary allows for that. Booking your air through the cruise line or tour operator might help, but it might not. Don’t take that chance with your vacation. The same goes for your return flight. Don’t plan to fly home late in the day when you have an important event that you can’t miss the following day. The airline doesn’t care if they can’t get you back in time for your personal schedule. Their sole obligation is to get you back…sometime.

12. Pack with the assumption you will not see your checked luggage when you arrive at your destination. A recent report indicates lost luggage, which only occurred about 1% of the time pre-COVID, is now happening about 30% of the time. Pack a carry-on bag with all the meds you’ll need for the entire trip (plus a week more for contingencies), some basic toiletries, and one or two changes of clothing. Do the same thing for your return flight, even if you have a non-stop routing. If your flight is cancelled you will most likely be spending one or more nights somewhere other than home before you can get on another flight, and you won’t be able to get your checked luggage back. The airport and airline baggage departments are too short staffed to pull luggage once it is checked in. We found that out the hard way, fortunately we were prepared. If you have to, buy some necessities to tide you over but be sure to keep all your receipts. You’ll need them when you file your claim with the airline and your insurance company. And be reasonable. The insurance company is not likely to cover the cost of a designer outfit when your Kohl’s purchased shorts and t-shirt go missing.

13. Janet’s favorite tip for packing checked bags is to avoid falling into the habit of packing “his” and “hers” luggage. Pack half of your stuff in one bag and fill the rest of that bag with your partner’s clothing and accessories. Do the same with however many bags you need to carry all your stuff, but try to make sure that you also divide up the essentials, and that what you pack in each bag goes together. It wouldn’t do much good to pack a suit in one bag only to have your dress shoes in another if one of the bags gets lost. Likewise, if the airline loses the bag with all your undergarments it doesn’t much matter that they didn’t lose the bag with the rest of your clothing.

14. Make sure you have removed all bar code tags from previous trips to avoid confusing the automated luggage handling systems. If you don’t, you could end up at your destination while your bags end up at your previous destination.

15.Keep the baggage claim tags given to you when you check in. I am amazed at the number of travelers that still don’t do that. If you don’t have your claim tags, you might as well give up any hope of ever being reunited with your bags. Some airlines send you the claim number in their app if you’ve registered your flight with them, but keeping a paper copy is always a good idea.

16. If your luggage gets lost, don’t count on the airline to find it and deliver it to you. Try to find someone who can escort you to the airport’s lost luggage center, which will probably be harder than you think, and search for your bags yourself. If that isn’t an option, provide a detailed physical description of your luggage as well your travel itinerary when you file your lost luggage claim. Many people are relying on Apple Airtags to help them track your luggage, and they work. You’ll know where your luggage is. Where they don’t work so well is getting anyone from the airline to go get your bags and send them to you.

17. Take a picture of your luggage and place a sheet of paper with your contact information inside. Both steps will help overworked and understaffed baggage claim employees isolate your bags from the thousands of others in search of their owners. Make sure you note all that information on your lost luggage claim form. The more you can do to help differentiate your suitcases from someone else’s, the more likely you are to get them delivered to you before the end of your trip.

Nothing about the delays and hassles associated with travel today is remotely satisfactory. It is the reality of travel, for now. My hope is that as the travel industry recovers from their current staffing shortages things will gradually improve. The good news is you can now travel pretty much anywhere in the world. The bad news is so can everyone else.

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Devil In The Details — The “What’s Next”

The CDC has released the details regarding their new COVID guidance for cruise ships. I noted in my last post they were ending their COVID Program for Cruise Ships, but that we needed to wait for the “what’s next” to understand what that actually means. They’ve now released the details and surprisingly, there don’t seem to be any hidden “gotchas” like there have been in the past. The requirements that were in place before regarding vaccination and pre-cruise testing remain, but they are now recommendations and suggestions rather than requirements.

The CDC is leaving it up to each cruise line to determine how closely they will follow their recommendations. As I noted in my last post, you can expect to see the pre-cruise testing requirements go away first, and probably within the next few weeks. The cruise lines will take a more deliberate approach to doing away with the vaccine requirements now that the CDC no longer requires it, but those too will be going away, if not by this fall/winter’s cruising season then almost certainly by the spring of 2023. If you have been waiting to book your cruise until the vaccine requirement is gone, you can finally start to plan. Janet and I believe it is still a bit too soon to book if you are unvaccinated, but I don’t think you’ll have very much longer to wait.

Perhaps the most important step the CDC is taking is to allow the cruise lines to decide on their own when to suspend operations due to COVID infection rates onboard individual ships. The cruise lines will still be required to report all incidents of COVID positive passengers and crew aboard every cruise ship they operate and for every sailing, but that’s no different than any other infectious disease that the CDC requires cruise lines to track and report. Cruise lines will probably still require COVID positive guests to isolate onboard for the required five days, and have a negative test result before being released from isolation. But that is dependent on passengers with symptoms self reporting to the medical center. I don’t see that happening very often unless someone is really sick.

As always, the CDC can issue an order to cruise lines to suspend operations for any ship, or for a line’s entire fleet, if they feel things are getting out of control. I don’t expect that to be necessary. The cruise lines have been far ahead of the CDC in their COVID mitigation and management programs from the outset of the pandemic, and I don’t see that changing under the CDC’s new, significantly more relaxed guidance.

Not everyone will welcome this news. As I noted in my last blog post, the risk of COVID exposure will increase with any relaxation in the measures cruise lines are currently taking to combat COVID on cruise ships. Doing away with pre-cruise testing, and eventually with vaccination mandates, will increase everyone’s risk of exposure on a cruise ship, so you still need to consider your personal risk tolerance. And though the risk of COVID exposure may be higher on cruises in the near term, it will be no greater for cruising than it is for any leisure activity involving large groups in enclosed spaces. If you are comfortable attending indoor concerts or sporting events, you will likely be comfortable with cruising.

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The Devil Is In The Details

As I posted to our Facebook page earlier today (Europe time), the CDC announced they are terminating their COVID-19 Program for Cruise Ships. Before anybody gets too excited about what that might mean, as always with the CDC the devil is in the details. Back in the spring when the CDC announced the end of their no sail order to much fanfare and with a nice press release, they did so without providing details on the “what’s next”. Not long after that press release the CDC quietly informed the cruise lines, with no fanfare, the “what’s next” and it was far more arduous and restrictive than they expected. So…now that the CDC just announced they are ending that program, it begs the question…what’s next?

In announcing the end to their COVID-19 program for cruise ships, the CDC noted the following: “New guidance for cruise ships to mitigate and manage COVID-19 transmission will be available in the coming days.” You’ll forgive me for being a bit cynical here, but that caution to stay tuned for details hasn’t ended well for the cruise lines when it comes to COVID. Still, this time I find myself cautiously optimistic. The CDC is finally saying they believe the cruise industry is in the best position to self-regulate when it comes to COVID risk mitigation and management on cruise ships. We will see in the coming days whether the CDC really means that, or if they have even more mischief up their sleeves.

In the FAQs that accompanied the announcement about the program’s termination, the CDC noted the following, “While cruising poses some risk of COVID-19 transmission, the CDC will continue to publish guidance to help cruise ships continue to provide a safer and healthier environment for crew, passengers, and communities going forward.” That is the softest risk statement regarding COVID and the cruise industry the CDC has issued to date. If they limit their guidance to advisory, the cruise lines will be able to get back to implementing their own restrictions for passengers regarding COVID as they have all along, quite effectively, for other infectious diseases such as Norovirus. But the devil is in the details.

Nothing will change immediately. Cruise ships are sailing at capacity even under the current regime of restrictions the CDC appears to be ending. The first thing I expect to see in the near term is elimination of pre-cruise COVID testing requirements. Most cruise lines have already eliminated the test requirements for sailings that don’t come under the CDC’s regulatory authority, in embarkation ports where COVID testing is no longer required by the host government.

As much as you and I may dislike the hassle of getting a COVID test before embarking on a cruise, it has been a real burden on the on the cruise industry. Now that the CDC doesn’t require testing for international travelers entering the U.S., it is hard to see any scenario where testing will continue to be a requirement for cruising. That change will likely come soon…possibly very soon. If you have a cruise booked through us, we’ll be in touch once we learn of any changes.

Eliminating the test requirement does not mean COVID will magically disappear as a risk to cruisers. If anything, the risk will increase a bit. Imperfect though it has been, pre-embarkation testing has kept at least some COVID positive passengers from boarding. That increased risk will matter to some cruisers, but I don’t think it will matter to most since it merely puts the risk on par with the risk you face when flying to the port to catch your ship. Or going to the grocery store. Or using the drive-thru window at your favorite fast-food establishment.

The one requirement that won’t be so quick to fall will be the CDC mandate that cruise ships sail with only vaccinated passengers. I expect the cruise lines to be more cautious about eliminating the vaccination requirement, at least until the fall and winter cruise season. Even if the CDC eliminates their COVID vaccination requirement for cruise ships, the cruise lines are still bound by the vaccination mandates imposed by the ports they visit, but those too have been dropping fast. Barring any major change in the virus, it is possible the vaccine requirement for passengers will be eliminated if not by the fall/winter cruising season, then almost certainly in time for spring of 2023. I expect the cruise lines will continue to require their crew to be fully vaccinated.

It looks like COVID is with us forever. Testing hasn’t contained it, mask mandates haven’t contained it, and vaccine mandates haven’t contained it. All of those are still good measures to take to protect yourself, particularly if you are in a higher risk group. COVID seems to have entered a phase where the severity of illness is on par with the cold and flu, still deadly for some but a tolerable nuisance for most.

Perhaps the most telling development will be this fall when the latest batch of bivalent COVID boosters become available with more targeted protection against the newer Omicron variants. If that proves to be as effective as hoped, then cruising may be no riskier with COVID than it is with the other seasonal illnesses cruisers have to contend with. Get vaccinated, get boosted with the bivalent vaccine this fall, wear N95 masks when you fly or in crowds, and you will be as protected on a cruise ship as you are anywhere else.

This latest CDC action could be the best news for the cruise industry in a long time. Yes, the devil is still in the details, and yes, the risk will still be there for some. But for the first time since March of 2020, I am optimistic. If you have been waiting to cruise, frustrated either by the testing or vaccination requirements, I think it is safe to start thinking about your next cruise. It may be a tad too early to book something if you are unvaccinated, but that day is coming, and it is coming soon.

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Chef Cat Cora’s Sweet Onion Marmalade (Sort Of)

Over the years of playing around in my kitchen I’ve learned a few advanced techniques, all self-taught so probably not executed that well…but well enough. I can reverse-sear a rib eye steak to a textbook medium rare each and everytime I cook steak. I give it a few hours at a precise temperature of 132 degrees in my sous vide cooker, finishing it off on my grill for that nice tasty Maillard crust. When I’m grilling steak for guests I will sometimes plate that fork tender steak with perfectly formed horseradish pearls using molecular gastronomy and a carefully measured amount of agar-agar. That’s a melt in your mouth bite of beef followed by the sharp pop of heat from an exploding horseradish pearl that will bring tears to the eyes of any beef lover. And not from the horseradish.

My most recent love affair with a dish was a sweet onion marmalade I encountered about this time last year in Santa Barbara. One of the places Janet and I stopped at for a meal was Chef Cat Cora’s laid-back Mesa Burger in Goleta, and I had the most delectable lamb slider with a sinfully good sweet onion marmalade. Right then and there I decided I was going to make that marmalade in my own kitchen. Some day.

My going in thought was how tough could it be? It was a condiment after all, and condiments are an afterthought. Do you prefer ketchup, mustard, or mayo with your burger? Yes, please. Some people like lettuce, tomato, pickles, and even raw onions on their burger…some people don’t. I’m OK with all those. Except the raw onion. It hijacks my tastebuds. My point is when you serve up a burger, as a cook you don’t give much thought to what goes on it, or next to it. Unless you are a kick-ass Iron Chef like Cat Cora. There are no afterthoughts on any of her dishes…everything on the plate contributes to the overall flavor palate the dish is engineered to deliver, and is meant to be consumed. Even the garnishes and condiments, and especially the onion marmalade. I could have made a meal out of it, and that’s why I deemed it copy worthy.

The Challenge

In my onion naivete, I wasn’t overly concerned with cooking the onions. Who can’t cook up a skillet of onions? Well…me, apparently. I ruined an embarrassing number of onions in my attempts to prefect this dish. My chief concern was how to recreate that tasty goo Chef Cora bathed them in. I had no idea what went into it. I figured it would take quite a bit of experimentation to get it right, but little did I know the goo would turn out to be the easy part.

The trick with this dish is that it involves applying two different browning processes to the onions that are complementary while at the same time work in competition with each other: caramelization and the Maillard reaction. I’ll skip the science behind it and just say the only way to get caramelized onions that are sweet while at the same time savory, nicely browned, complex in flavor and not burnt is to go slow over medium-low heat. Which means it takes time…way more time than you think, and you can’t cheat the process with hacks. I know because I tried all the hacks I could find.

The Hacks

Before I delve into what works, I have to say a bit about what doesn’t work. The hacks. Don’t do it. Whether it is adding baking soda or table sugar to the skillet, don’t do it. Enough said.

The Recipe

On the surface this is a simple recipe that doesn’t require any fancy technique, but it does require skill. And patience. Lots of patience. It only takes a couple of ingredients…some onions, butter, oil (optional) and about a cup of water or broth…I chose beef broth. That’s it. It doesn’t even matter what kind of onion you use…I went with candy onions because that’s what the local farm stand had in abundance when I decided it was time to try recreating Chef Cora’s marmalade.

What elevates this simple condiment to Iron Chef level is what you do with those ingredients, and I discovered I needed to do three things for this recipe to work. I needed to caramelize the onions, which uses heat to break down the sucrose in onions into simple sugars…fructose and glucose. The simple sugars register more readily on the sweetness receptors in your taste buds and caramelizing is what makes that happen. But I also wanted the rich, savory complexity you get with Maillard browning, which occurs when some of the liberated glucose recombines at a molecular level with amino acids in the onion proteins to form hundreds of new and richly flavorful compounds. Anyone who grills understands the Maillard reaction, even if only intuitively. It’s what gives a nicely grilled steak that delectable tasting crust.

Heat is what you need for both caramelization and the Maillard reaction, and both reactions occur naturally when you cook up a batch of onions in a cast iron skillet over medium low heat. The trick is to resist trying to speed things up by using a higher temperature setting. Onions will burn in the blink of an eye if you apply too much heat. Low and slow is the way to go for this dish. Plan on at least an hour of cook time to get it right, stirring regularly to make sure nothing burns. It only takes a few bits of burnt onion to ruin the entire batch. I know. I ruined plenty of batches trying to get this recipe down.

The third thing I needed was something to form a gel for the onions to set in. Otherwise, it would just be a batch of cooked onions…great on any meat dish, but it was the marmalade treatment that elevated Chef Cora’s onion condiment to new heights of culinary excess.

I stumbled on how to make a marmalade gel for this dish even before I perfected my technique for caramelizing the onions. Mostly because I unabashedly tried to cheat. I tried one of the “time saving” hacks I found on the internet for making caramelized onions…using a pressure cooker. In my defense, I found it on my go-to site for food science, Serious Eats. Their Food Lab scientists presented the pressure cooker hack as a cheat to cut down on the time necessary to caramelize onions, but in the end it didn’t work. It rendered the onions down to a soupy consistency where the onions lost all structural integrity. And though that isn’t what you want when making caramelized onions, it works great for making the base of a French onion soup. And, as it turns out, the base for a sweet onion marmalade, or as I call it…the goo.

The prep for this dish was simple. I cut my onion in half, dicing one half to use in my Instant Pot for the goo, and cutting the other half into slices to cook up in the skillet. I set the Instant Pot to sauté mode, tossed in a tablespoon of unsalted butter, and after that melted I added the diced onion. I cooked the onion dices up just to the point of rendering out some of the liquid, added a cup of beef broth, and then put the lid on and switched to pressure cooker mode. I set the timer for 20 minutes and let the Instant Pot do its thing. I skipped the Serious Eats step of adding baking soda. I understand the science behind it, but it also leaves an unpleasant chemical aftertaste. No thanks.

When the Instant Pot timer was down to just a few minutes remaining, I put my cast iron skillet on the cooktop and set the temp to medium high just long enough to get it hot, then turned it down to medium low. You can add a bit of oil to the skillet if you want, but I chose not to. When the pressure cooker timer beeped, I released the pressure and poured the contents into the cast iron skillet, gave it a few stirs, then added the onion slices.

At that point it was a simple matter of babysitting the onion slices as the heat did its thing, stirring them occasionally to make sure nothing burned. I fiddled with the temperature setting throughout the cooking to avoid burning anything. The low and slow cooking also further reduced the liquid from the contents of my Instant Pot into more of a gelatinous goo, which is what I needed for this to be a proper marmalade.

How do you know when it’s done? When the onions are nicely brown, taste sweet and complex, most of the liquid in the goo has rendered out, and your arm gets tired of stirring. For me, I wanted onions that were limp but with enough structure to be identifiable as onions. It took about an hour and 15 minutes of steady stirring over a medium low heat to get the results I was aiming for. And quite a bit of stirring. That’s in addition to the time it took to make the goo in my Instant Pot. Figure on at least 90 minutes from start to finish, and it can take even longer if your onions are particularly juicy.

The Results

My sweet onion marmalade was delicious. I served it with some beef sliders I cooked up on my grill, the beef of course coming from my favorite source, Roseda Farms. The marmalade turned out oh so sweet and savory with a richly complex flavor profile. The combination of the fatty beef flavor of the sliders and the onion marmalade was a pairing that worked better than I hoped. I doesn’t taste quite the same as my memory tells me I got from Mesa Burger…it tastes better. But I am biased. In any event, this condiment has earned a spot in my arsenal of ways to impress my guests the next time I go for a casual dinner of burgers on the grill. It keeps well in the fridge too and reheats nicely with a short stint in the microwave. Now all I have to do is cook up another batch with the same results so I know it wasn’t a fluke.

Thank you, Chef Cora!

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It Must Be True…I Read it on Facebook

Janet and I occasionally get questions about travel that befuddle us…until we learn someone read it on Facebook. I do very little on social media these days beyond posting pictures and videos of our travels, my kids and grandkids, and the critters in my yard. And food. I’m one of “those” people that can’t resist food posts. As if anyone cares what I made for dinner or ordered in a restaurant.

I have resisted signing up for most affinity groups…it is entirely too easy to get caught up in the back and forth about things that don’t matter to me…but I decided to do just that prior to our most recent trip. I found an affinity group on Facebook dedicated to Secrets Cap Cana, sent in my request to join, and was granted access.

There were a few good questions and some very good responses from people genuinely trying to be helpful. And while I did learn a few things, most of what I read left me shaking my head. Many of the questions posted had been asked and answered multiple times even in the few short weeks I belonged to the group, but I guess people who love filling posts with emojis and virtual stickers can’t figure out how that Facebook search function works.

I decided to capture and share the top 10 posts and responses that left me shaking my head the most, along with notes I took of my reactions. As you read these, keep in mind I’m not making any of this up. I couldn’t even if I tried.

#10. The post: “Hi all…traveling from the UK. Can someone please tell me what travel adapters we need to bring?”

The response: “We just used our regular plugs.”

Note: Answered by an American about a resort that uses U.S. standard outlets. Real helpful to the poster from the UK.

#9. The post: “I am from the UK and I brought an adapter to the resort only to find it (the adapter) is a three prong grounded U.S. plug. The plugs in my resort are two prong. Help!”

The response: “Just cut off the grounding prong…it doesn’t do anything anyway.”

The follow up post: “Thanks. I took your advice and it worked.”

Note: They took that person’s advice but ignored everyone else who suggested they contact the concierge desk and ask for an adapter without the grounding plug. Reason 1 you read about people dying at all-inclusive resorts under “mysterious” circumstances.

#8. The post: “Looking for a bit of advice. Has anyone had problems with swollen legs? Any advice on diuretics? Looking into getting some delivered from a local pharmacy.”

The responses: “Electrolyte powder,” “Cut back on alcohol” (at an all-inclusive…really?), “Drink lots of water,” “Cut down on sodium” (not likely with all the salt the Chefs use at this place), “Diuretics.”

Note: I should point out the person posting the suggestion about diuretics, not a medical professional by her own admission, went so far as to recommend a specific diuretic that requires a prescription in the U.S. but was available over the counter in the DR. She even recommended a dosage…all without knowing the medical history of the original poster. Reason 2 you read about people dying at all-inclusive resorts under “mysterious” circumstances.

#7. The post: “What wildlife around the resorts…any lizards or birds around?”

Note: You are in a tropical destination…what do you think?

#6. The post: A picture of a spider on the edge of one of the OUTDOOR sidewalks.

The response: “This is not a joke, I have severe arachnophobia & saw the tarantula post yesterday (it wasn’t a tarantula). I’m freaking out & considering changing our vacation. I just can’t unsee what I saw. I forgot that most Caribbean spots have them. Can anyone tell me what type of spiders they’ve seen here 😬🥺😩”

The follow-up post: “Actually it was a joke. It was a plastic spider.”

#5. The post: “Bring your own Yeti cup…you’ll get a bigger drink.”

Note: That explains all the people we saw carrying Yeti cups around the resort. Ummm…it’s an all-inclusive…you can have as much to drink as you want. They’ll even give you a big cup if you ask for it and refill it for you when it’s empty or if your drink isn’t as cold as you like. No kidding…not a trick 😂😉😉😂🥸.

#4. The post: “What happens if you test positive for COVID?”

The response: “You get to extend your vacation. I was hoping I’d catch it, but no such luck.”

Note: Words fail me.

#3. The post: “When traveling with prescriptions meds and vitamins, must they remain in original containers or can they be packed in those Sunday-Saturday daily containers?”

The response: “Currently as of Monday, you had to pack medicine in checked bags on the way out of Punta Cana (airport). Just and (sic) FYI.”

A response to that response: “That has been posted several times here but it is not true.” They included a link to the Punta Cana airport’s security guidelines, which recommended putting prescription medications in carry-in. It was the only helpful response out of a dozen or so comments.

Another post later that day: “I saw a post on here about medications. It said you have to pack them in a checked bag when leaving the Dominican Republic. I hope this is not true. What if your luggage gets lost? Anyone know the answer?”

Note: That person saw the post, read the comment with the inaccurate information, but didn’t bother to read the comment with the accurate information (or chose not to believe it). They did include lots of emojis and stickers in their post.

#2. The post: “Hi! We have a 5 night trip planned in November. Do you think 5 is enough or should we do 6? We will be staying at the resort and not taking day trips.”

The response: “Seriously? You’ve booked your stay and you’ve bought your plane tickets which are insanely expensive and only getting worse. What are you going to do with the answers to this question? What if someone says it is too long (which someone did)…are you going to cut your stay short and pay the penalties? What if the consensus is 5 nights is too few, but 6 nights is in the Goldilocks zone…just right (which someone did). Are you going to double the cost of your trip for that one extra night, which’s (sic) is what it would cost for the difference in air plus the extra day at an already fully booked resort?”

Note: I wish I had written that response!

#1 The post that left me scratching my head the most:

“Do they have good cheese at this place? Not spending $1400+ unless there’s good cheese.”

The responses: Varied from “They have the best cheese in the world” to “Don’t waste your money.” My favorite response was “Cheese sucks.”

Note: It doesn’t matter. If $1400 is all you are planning on spending, you won’t be staying at Secrets Cap Cana.

Well…that’s about all I have to say about that. I know people turn to Facebook for a variety of reasons, and I understand how joining an affinity group in connection with your travel can help you get excited and learn about things you or your travel agent haven’t thought of. But be careful. Just because you read it on Facebook doesn’t mean it’s true.

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The COVID Conundrum

People are traveling now in numbers on par with pre-COVID days as most destinations have eliminated many or all of the restrictions they enacted during the peak of the pandemic. So how is that working out? I’ve gained some insight from our own travels into how COVID continues to impact leisure travel in all its forms…air, land, and sea…and I want to share some of that. It is anecdotal, but I’ve seen enough to offer some conclusions and suggestions.

Prior to this spring Janet and I knew hardly anyone who tested positive for COVID either during or immediately following travel. In the past month it seems like just about everybody we know who is traveling has tested positive. It isn’t really that bad…that’s a perception driven by a cognitive phenomenon known as the availability heuristic…something seems to be more common than it really is when it happens to people you know. The actual number of travelers that we know contracting COVID is very small, but even as small as it is, the number is noticeably higher than it was over the winter. Mostly because so many more people are traveling. Mostly.

With mandatory testing and masking now a thing of the past for most destinations, people aren’t taking the same precautions as they did when traveling earlier in the pandemic. They aren’t wearing masks, even on crowded airplanes or in busy airport terminals. And with most flights full these days all airplanes are crowded. As are the airport departure gate areas, restaurants, and bars. I’m talking shoulder to shoulder wherever you go…travel has become a contact sport as people increasingly get frustrated by flight delays and cancellations. Does that make a difference? I think so.

But here’s the thing…none of the people we know who contracted COVID while traveling got really sick. They’ve been asymptomatic or experienced what they described as a mild to bad cold, similar to what they used to get when the traveled before COVID. The only reason many of them are even aware they have COVID instead of a cold is they get tested after hearing of someone else on their trip testing positive, or in response to their own cold symptoms. Because that’s what you do these days when you have the sniffles…you get tested. Nobody has required hospitalization. One or two have taken Paxlovid, but most haven’t. They’ve had mild symptoms for a few days and then get better on their own. I’m sure that’s because anybody we know who has tested positive for COVID in connection with travel has been vaccinated and most have also had at least one booster shot.

Even as COVID restrictions have been relaxed for most travel destinations, and in many cases eliminated altogether, there are three things you should still do to mitigate your COVID risk. The first of course is to get vaccinated and boosted. Second, you can mitigate the risk of getting COVID by wearing an N95 mask when you fly, on any bus or train, and anytime you are in a confined environment with other people. That means transportation terminals, restaurants when you aren’t eating, and bars when you aren’t drinking. Even though it isn’t required, masking along with vaccination is still your best defense against getting COVID.

The third thing you should do is purchase a good trip insurance policy to mitigate the financial risk you face if you do contract COVID when you travel. It will provide protection against the cost of changing flights and paying for a hotel if you have to stay at your destination for a few extra days because of quarantine requirements. If you are one of the very few who get seriously ill, trip insurance provides you with financial protection against the cost of expensive medical treatment in a foreign country, or evacuation if that becomes necessary.

Increasingly people have adjusted to living with COVID and are no longer willing to go to the same lengths to avoid it as we did during the first two years of the pandemic. Many of our friends are going to major concerts, often several in a short span of time, which would have been unthinkable last year. Large family gatherings that had been put on hold are going forward. I can’t tell you the number of people we encountered on our recent trip to the Dominican Republic who were celebrating the destination weddings they put on hold for the past two years, or the celebration of milestone birthdays, anniversaries, and retirements now up to two years late.

Secrets Cap Cana, the resort we stayed at in the DR, is usually a place for couples, but it was full of groups both large and small who have put their COVID worries aside and come together to celebrate life. I know from following the Secrets Cap Cana Facebook group that some of those people came home with COVID. A negative COVID test prior to returning to the U.S. was still required during that trip, and the resort tested all departing guests. None of the people I noticed on the Facebook group tested positive for COVID at the resort…it was only after they returned home which suggests that they contracted the virus on their return trip, either in an airport or more likely on a plane.

My takeaway from the collective experience of people who travel and test positive for COVID is this: COVID still presents risks, but it is not the same dreaded unknown that it was when the pandemic first hit us back in the spring of 2020. Those risks are no longer stopping people from traveling, and most who end up testing positive feel their trip was worth it, in spite of COVID.

We continue to encourage travelers to consider your personal risk tolerance when it comes to deciding whether and how to travel, just as we have throughout the pandemic. Wear an N95 mask when you fly and anytime you are in crowded and confined spaces and purchase a quality trip insurance policy that will limit your financial risk if you come down with COVID while traveling. Make contingency plans for travel delays like packing extra prescription medications and making sure whatever arrangements you’ve made to have your kids, pets, and house looked after can be extended for a few days if needed. Even without COVID, flight disruptions can make those contingency plans useful.

Janet and I have resumed a busy travel schedule since this past winter, and we do all the things I’ve recommended here. So far, neither of us has tested positive for COVID. I don’t believe it is inevitable that we will, even with our busy travel schedule, because we continue to mask up and get booster shots when recommended. Even so, we are prepared for it if it happens. The one thing we are not doing is changing any of our travel plans. If anything we’ll be adding to them.

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