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Industry Leader Defends Cruise Calls in Haiti

The cruise industry’s largest trade organization let loose on critics of Royal Caribbean International today, saying that the cruise line is bringing relief aid to Haiti despite the ridicule and disdain that has been heaped on the company in the press and online message boards. Richard Sasso, chairman of the marketing committee of Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), told a press conference this morning that RCI should be praised for its efforts, not criticized.

The controversy began soon after last week’s earthquake in Haiti, when the cruise line announced that it would continue visits to the undamaged port of Labadee and its private resort on the north side of Haiti, about 60 miles from the ruins of the nation’s capital, Port-au-Prince. The port calls have been characterized by some in the press and in the blogosphere as an out-of-touch decision to allow sunbathers and umbrella-drink aficionados to lollygag in the tropical sun while the number of dead and dying increased daily on the other side of the country. In fact, according to Sasso, the decision was driven by the need to deliver food, water, and other supplies at a time when the country’s main port has been nearly destroyed and its airport hampered by having only one working runway.

“They didn’t have to go back to Labadee,” said Sasso, his voice rising in outrage as he addressed a crowd of reporters at the annual CLIA media update in New York City. “Not now, not next year, or in three years. They put themselves out there despite all the criticism.”

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Stamp Out T-Shirts! Bring Home Real Souvenirs

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I recently returned from two weeks in Europe and the Middle East, and as always when I travel my thoughts were occupied by important issues and weighty matters—specifically, what to bring back as souvenirs.

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The Best Travel Jacket Ever?

That’s me and Pepper, just back from a stroll about the grounds of Chateau Orwoll. I’m wearing the Quantum Jacket from ScotteVest, or SeV, which I wish I had had with me a month ago during a two-week multi-country trip, because it’s the best travel jacket I’ve ever worn. The main reason it’s so great? Storage.

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Russian Train Blast Leaves Reporter Uneasy

The news of Friday's deadly bombing of a Moscow-to-St. Petersburg train hit me hard. At least 26 people are dead and 95 injured, and the figures continue to climb. As I reported in my recent blog post, I had traveled that same train route exactly three weeks earlier to the day.

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I took this picture with my Blackberry just before boarding train 024A, the Yunost or "Youth Express." The Yunost leaves Leningradsky Station at 12:30 p.m., just in time for the rudimentary lunch that is wrapped in plastic and placed on your seat before boarding. The targeted train, the Nevsky Express, follows the same route as the Yunost, leaving at 6:30 p.m. and arriving at 11 p.m., a far shorter journey than the Yunost's unimpressive travel time of 7 hours and 40 minutes. There's not much to see out the windows on the Nevsky at this time of year because it's pitch black by then, which must have made the terrorist blast all the more harrowing.

The Nevsky Express is somewhat more luxurious than the Yunost, but anyone who has traveled in Russia knows that luxury is a word with a loose definition in that part of the world. Both trains have only simple seating, no sleeping berths. Both serve the same bland sandwiches and chips. People on the Yunost as well as the Nevsky doze against the bundles of heavy coats ballooning from hooks by the windows. Both trains pass the same broad stretches of farmland edged by pine forest. Both edge past the same obscure sleepy villages and towns—Spirovo, Vyshny Volochek, and Uglovko, where the bombing took place.

On the Yunost I sat next to a soldier on leave. My conductor limped, and his hat was too big for his head. The car attendant, who sat in a private cabin near the samovar, looked at me suspiciously whenever I refilled my teacup. Two very pretty young women a few rows ahead of me giggled almost the entire trip. I don't know anything about the people who died on the Nevsky Express on Friday, but they can't have been much different from those on my train. Eager to visit family. Excited about touring the Hermitage Museum. Heading home on leave. Simply living their lives. Until they lost theirs.

Avoiding the Long Line at St. Petersburg's Hermitage Museum

Maybe it's a holdover from Communist days, when Soviet citizens patiently queued up to buy meat, vegetables, and other necessities of life from poorly stocked groceries, but lines seem to be part of Russian culture. The trick is knowing how to avoid them—and I recently learned how to avoid one of the most infamous: the line for tickets to St. Petersburg's Hermitage Museum. I’ve heard horror stories of people waiting in the ticket line for two or three hours during peak summer times, but even when I visited, on an Icy November day, the line was hundreds of people long by the time the museum opened its doors. But I was able to go straight in because I had already purchased my ticket, more than a week in advance, from the museum’s official website.

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Dubai Debuts Its New Metro

200911-b-dubai-metrojpgDUBAI—I've just arrived here for a conference, and everyone is talking about the city's new Metro, a futuristic elevated train that soars high above the desert floor as smoothly as a magic carpet over the Arabian sands.

Opened in September, the state-of-the-art system (the photo, left, was taken with my less-than-state-of-the-art phone camera) links Dubai airport with the Jebel Ali district on the far side of town, a distance of 31 miles. For much of its length, the line runs alongside busy busy busy Shaikh Zayed Road, one of the main thoroughfares. It's satisfying to be on one of the trains, clipping along at 55 mph, while below you Zayed Road is illuminated with thousands of brake lights as traffic crawls to a stop, which tends to happen more and more often these days.

The Dubai Metro is the longest automated driverless metro in the world—a source of pride in the United Arab Emirates but also a potential problem.

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Leave the Milo Milk, Take the Vegemite

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My favorite new online travel tool is called “Can I Bring It Back?,” developed by the UK government to inform British citizens what to leave behind when returning from their foreign travels. A recent survey of English travelers found that more than half of the respondents wanted more information on what was OK to bring home and what might be confiscated at customs.

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Walk on Water: New Pedestrian Bridge Opens Over Hudson River

200910-b-walkway-2jpg For years I wondered about the rusting, abandoned old hulk of a railroad bridge that spans New York’s Hudson River between Poughkeepsie on the east bank and Lloyd on the west, about 70 miles north of Manhattan. Like a stark stretch of fishnet stocking linking the two shores, the underdeck truss bridge, built in 1888, was devastated by fire in 1974. Left to deteriorate for more than 30 years, the bridge symbolized the decline of Poughkeepsie itself.

No longer.

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The World Through Beer Goggles: Oktoberfests Everywhere!

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People just can’t get enough of Oktoberfest—from shouting out “Zigga-zagga zigga-zagga hoy hoy hoy!” and singing, “Ein Prosit, ein Prosit, gemutlichkeit!” endlessly (and endlessly, and…) to doing the Chicken Dance while drinking beer with Homer Simpson. Or is it just me?

The original Oktoberfest, in Munich (above), kicks off this Saturday, September 19, and runs through October 4. But if you can’t be in Germany this year because you’re traveling, chances are pretty good there’s an Oktoberfest celebration wherever you’ll be. Here, some of the more interesting fall beer-fests in some unlikely locations:

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Reno Hosts Largest Food Fight in US

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The streets of Reno, Nevada, resembled the final scenes of a Quentin Tarantino bloodfest this weekend by the time the local fire department arrived to hose down the squishy red residue of 50,000 pounds of squashed tomatoes left clinging to the sidewalks and shopfronts of the Biggest Little City in the World. More than 5,000 people wound up their pitching arms on Saturday to hurl tomatoes at one another and at city officials in what is being called the largest food fight in North America, La Tomatina.

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