About Me

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Welcome to the online blog for traveler/writer/photographer Steven Barber. Come in. Relax. Take off your shoes and socks -- or any other article of clothing, this is the internet. Have a look around. I hope to intrigue, amuse, entertain, and maybe provoke you just a little. I love to find adventure. All I need is a change of clothes, my Nikon, an open mind and a strong cup of coffee.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Pic of the Day: Squall Line!

If you fly enough you will encounter just about any kind of weather, sometimes in the most unexpected places.

A winter squall blew into Salt Lake City during a layover, creating the below tempest over the airport.

In the half hour boarding process the storm changed from a cold rain to a snowstorm, requiring additional delays while the place was de-iced.

As we taxied the runway I recalled how this sort of weather system would often shut down an airport in years past, but with modern technologies and aircraft it's just part of the plan.

Friday, February 27, 2015


"If people come three times a week to your restaurant they are the ones who find something they really love."
                                           - Wolfgang Puck

I love being surprised.

A meal. A view. A destination. An experience. When something is better or radically different than expected.

I am not often motivated to do what is commonly referred to as a "restaurant review". That's just a small part of Travel, capital T.

Then you find the exceptions.

I'm in Idaho Falls, Idaho, for a couple of meetings related to my day job. It's a smallish kind of city, in a flat part of the country. It's an outdoorsy kind of town, with summer and other seasons making up for a fairly drab winter. It's the doorway for many to Yellowstone National Park, or Grand Tetons if you're aimed a bit southerly of that.

I'm staying in a nondescript chain hotel, not really different from its brethren properties throughout the world. Nice, certainly, but not particularly 'Idaho".

As I do whenever I travel, I look for the local things to do, see and experience. As I've said -- probably ad nauseum -- it's the difference between traveling with a small "t" and Traveling. Capital T. For me it's vitally important to get out and find out what makes a place unique.

Among the real keys is to eat at a local place.

I found a place online called Jaker's. It's actually part of a small 5 location upper Midwest chain with properties in Missoula, Great Falls and Idaho Falls among them.

It looked "okay" from the outside, and online. Nothing extraordinary, but I kept seeing the name at the top of places to go in town. The website, however, didn't fill me with much in the way of expectations. It looked, frankly, like just another sports bar with a restaurant attached. Pictures of guys clanking beers, and other images on the site were not too promising, though the menu appeared to be good if a little pricey -- with the caveat that if you eat in the bar there are discounts to be considered.

I went back and forth, and really wasn't certain I was going to Jaker's until I climbed into the massive Chevy Suburban I'd been blessed with by the rental agency. Mind made up, I pulled into the already-full parking lot, pulling in on the south side of the building.

When I walked in I was immediately struck by how NOT "Sports Bar" Jaker's is. Warm and inviting, with a low lighting decor in both the restaurant and bar. I was immediately greeted and when I indicated I was headed for the bar the hostess smiled, pointed me in the right direction, and told me to take any seat I liked.

As I walked in, the hostess at my side, I was surprised by the nicely appointed bar with seats to my left, and a row of booths which bisected the room to my right. Along the far side were hightops with a good view of the festivities. Naturally I selected one of the hightops, in the corner on my right. Great view of the entire room, and comfortable,

Despite three bigscreen TVs, which weren't annoying the way they can be in other establishments, the bar at Jaker's was a warm and inviting place. The sound on the televisions was down, and the ambient music was a nice selection of popular jazz -- an instrumental version of Waters of March at that particular moment, one of my favorites -- a very pleasant surprise in a place where my Suburban's radio had an unnatural selection of country music on the pre-programmed list.*

The sound level was also surprising. Not the loud, usually boisterous crowd, the room was filled with hushed conversations, with a clientele mix of elderly couples, business people and younger people gathered at the bar itself. Again, a warm white noise versus an overarching chaos of conflicting conversations.

My server, a charming young woman named Megan, arrived almost immediately and took my drink order. When she noticed I didn't have a menu she immediately got me one from the hostess' station. While she was gone getting my drink I had a chance to go through the menu in a bit more detail. The menu online, like the rest of the website, wasn't exactly right and I discovered a few more selections than had been promised online. 

When Megan got back she took my order, said she was so happy I'd come in, and left to take care of the order. 

While I waited I read a placard left on the table -- the type that usually screams about the daily specials, or a tasty dessert, or beers and wines. In this case the placard was a detailed description of the restaurant's ingredients, noting the vast majority were sourced from Idaho. Obviously a point of pride and rightly so. The whole Locally Sourced movement makes for fresher and tastier dishes.

Another item of note was the inclusion of the story of Jaker's. Their philosophy and origins. This is indicative of an eatery proud of what it brings, ahem, to the table. The menu speaks to that with detailed notes and a nice selection ranging from very high end to the more reasonably priced options.

I ordered a 6 ounce sirloin with baked potato (Idaho!) and asparagus. 

When the food arrived -- not so fast as to make me feel unwelcome, but not so slow it got annoying -- it looked and smelled delicious. 

The steak and potato were excellent. The flavors on the steak were nicely balanced and added to the flavor of the meat without overwhelming it with spices or salt. Beautifully prepared. The baker was, naturally, just a great baked potato. It had better have been, considering my location.

The only issue was with the asparagus, which was stringy and tough. Very few restaurants get it right. I'd originally planned to order the broccoli, which would have been a better selection.

As I ate I watched Megan's interaction with the other tables. She was pleasant and engaged, with a warm personality. She said she was new, and a question I had regarding the available vodkas threw her for a moment, but she quickly consulted the bartender for the straight answer. (I was looking for a local brand to taste. They had two available. I'll just note I picked wrong...)

In all, a truly pleasant evening in a nice environment with excellent -- and I mean excellent -- food. (Next time, I thought, I order the broccoli.) I found myself thinking, several times, how sad it would have been to stay at the hotel for dinner and to have missed such an enjoyable night. Fortunately my own travel advice won out over a complacent attitude.

Their website does them a disservice, capturing none of the relaxed, warm and welcoming atmosphere of the real thing. If this seems like a complaint, it isn't. What concerns I had were picayune compared to the overall appreciation I have for a great night out. If you're in one of the towns Jaker's have properties they certainly warrant your business.

I love being surprised.

Post Script: I returned for a second night and as expected thoroughly enjoyed the evening, proving this is not an accident. The server, this time the confident and friendly Trisha, was wonderful. Attentive and upbeat. I overheard her at other tables explaining the details of the preparation and making it alluring. The food itself was delivered in a timely but not rushed manner. The steak, to be honest, was just a *touch* less tender the second time around -- I'm supposing this is due to the cooking being a bit more on the rare side than the medium rare the night before -- but the broccoli, as predicted, was terrific, as were the garlic fries. In my final assessment Jaker's is perhaps thankfully many miles from my home, lest it become a major habit and distraction. (In the best possible way.) This is where I'd happily hang out if I lived in town.

* The musical choice is a sophisticated one. Having returned for a second night at Jaker's I paid more attention to the musical selection. I'm certain it's an ambient collection, but whoever makes the decision at Jaker's to use this as a mood-setter deserves credit. It's perfectly suited to the atmosphere. At one point an upbeat instrumental version of Offbeat of Avenues was on the playlist. Pop Jazz, straightforward and standard...it's a wonderful accent.


Pic of the Day: Medium Rare

I love the smell of steak being prepared. Even better if it's destined for my own table.

Best yet if it's mine, sporting a nice char and juicy pink interior (with perhaps a light race of blood).

Um. Yeah. Excuse me.

I'm waiting for my steak.

M Resort, Las Vegas.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Pic of the Day: Look Both Ways

One truth about driving in the Mojave Desert is that the traffic is usually quite light.

Still, when you come to a stop sign, no matter how old, it's best to look both ways before pulling out.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Pic of the Day: Splitting the Difference

The famous fireplace at the CalNeva Lodge on Lake Tahoe. To the left, California, the Golden State. To the right, Nevada, the Silver State.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Monday, February 23, 2015

Pic of the Day: A Day in the Shops

Shopping is often one of the more things to do while traveling, particularly in older, more quaint type stores that you're not going to find in the local shopping mall.

Here, a display of hand-made kitchen bowls and utensils in a shop in Annapolis, Maryland.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Pic of the Day: French Dip

Philippe's, just north of downtown Los Angeles near Union Station, is where the legendary French Dip sandwich was created. The lines are long, the rooms chaotic and the mustard very, very hot.

Yeah. We love it.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Why NOW Matters

 "Never confuse movement with action."

                                - Ernest Hemingway

I have mentioned and even blogged about television presenter Phil Keoghan's book and philosophy of N.O.W. -- No Opportunity Wasted. It's an approach to life which my wife and I espouse (pun intended) wholeheartedly.

When we first discovered the book -- roughly around 2006, 2007 -- it made a lot of sense. Generally speaking, NOW simply suggests you set specific Life-List goals and outline the way you are going to achieve them. It differentiates between the material and the self-enriching goals, rightly suggesting that those things you can do which enrich your life, make yourself happier, are as -- if not more -- significant than simply making more money. 

(Don't get me wrong: making more money does serve as a means to your Life List end, but it's not in and of itself, the goal.)

In the first chapter of the book, Phil recounts how he came to develop the philosophy. As a young man he found himself in a life-threatening (and terrifying) situation which caused him to re-examine his priorities.

If you are given a short duration to live, what would you do to make yourself as fulfilled as possible? Chances are it doesn't involve spending time at work, putting more cash in your wallet.

So we embarked on our own series of goals, setting up specifics and knocking them down one by one. By creating the Life List, you're only doing half the job. As Phil repeatedly notes, the concept is not to simply write down what you want to do, it's creating a plan to get it done.

Since that time, my wife and I have achieved a goodly number of adventures which might have otherwise remained on the "I Wish" list rather than being on the "Done That" list. She and I both served on the board of The Jazz Angels, a local nonprofit which teaches young people about America's native musical style, Jazz, and the social skills it can represent.

We have had a number of adventures. Seeing Polar Bears in Churchill, Alaska. Scuba diving on The Great Barrier Reef and with Manta Rays up-close and personal just off the Big Island of Hawaii. Ridden a hot air balloon over Albuquerque. Visited Venice and Rome. Gone backstage with comedians Penn and Teller. Tasted wine in several major wine regions around the world.

All well and good. Up until two years ago, when the List gained new importance.

(Let me start by stating that all is okay at the moment. No need to panic, no need to stress.)

Two years ago my wife had a blood test come back a bit...weird. She felt fine and it was a routine test, until the results came in. Two months later her doctor ran another test which came back...weirder. Her white cell count was well above what she should have had, but no infection could be found to explain it. Her doctor referred her to a specialist, and to cut to the point, she was diagnosed with very early stage Hairy Cell Leukemia. A cancer of the blood.

Ten years before this would have been a death sentence, but medical science has advanced to the point where, according to her doctors, this is readily treatable. Very, very rare, but treatable.

But a cancer scare is a cancer scare, no matter early and how treatable the variety is. There's always that off chance, right?

Suddenly the importance of doing things, seeing things, accomplishing things came roaring to the front of our consciousness. Put things in perspective, so to speak.

And so that is why NOW matters. Even though my wife is expected to make a full recovery we have reinforced The Dogma of Adventure. In the years to come we have plenty of others things we need to see, to do, and to experience.

A little later today we're attending the Travel and Adventure Show at the Long Beach Convention Center. Phil is speaking about the Importance of NOW. 

It's a presentation we don't want to miss because, hey, you never know where life is taking us next.

Pic of the Day: If You Rebuild It, They Will Come

The poster child for urban downtown redevelopment: Baltimore's Inner Harbor.

Travel and Adventure Show


Friday, February 20, 2015


"When you get into a hotel room, you lock the door, and you know there is a secrecy, there is a luxury, there is fantasy. There is comfort. There is reassurance."
                                   Diane von Furstenberg

(An Open Letter to Hotel Operators Everywhere)

I stay at a lot of hotel properties these days. For the most part mid-range business-travel type inns, though there are times I will go high-end, and every once in a while...dragged kicking and screaming...some down-in-the-dumps places. Not cheap; down in the dumps.

I have my favorites: The Sir Walter Raleigh in San Francisco. The Hotel Monaco in Seattle. The Park Central in New York. The Waikiki Parc in Honolulu. The Elara in Las Vegas.

I can't always afford to stay in those but when I can, I do.

For the vast majority of my travels I'm in the business places. The Doubletree. The Hilton Garden Inn. The Marriott. The Holiday Inn. That sort of thing.

And I notice stuff. Things that might not immediately jump out at some people, but have caught my eye and attention span long enough for me to register whether it's a good thing or a bad one. Mostly it relates to service and housekeeping. (Inns are there for me to use as a temporary residence, so housekeeping is of paramount importance.) But there are a few business practices that all could be addressed.

So that noted, Hospitality Folks, I Think These Things When I Stay At Your Hotel:

     - If you put a sign in the bathroom that asks me to be green and reuse towels, please remind housekeeping that the towel on the rack (or basin) shouldn't be replaced with a freshly washed one. If it's on the floor, knock yourself out.

     - Thank you for the in-room coffee maker. But is anyone else concerned with how much sugar, whitener and sweetener is wasted in those coffee service packs supplied in most hotel rooms? Just thrown away? I don't use the creamer or real sugar, yet two of each goes right into the trash every time I break open a packet for the Sweet and Low (which I don't like in the first place). Other people might use the creamer and sugar, but the S&L gets discarded. (I usually travel with a couple of packets of Truvia or Splenda, but should I really need to?) Some hotels reduce their costs by simply putting Splenda and packets in a service tray with the coffee. You ought to consider this.

     - If I am already using the shampoo bottle and Housekeeping puts another one in the bathroom, is that my souvenir? Am I authorized to take any extras they supply? (And for the housekeepers who put a second soap right next to the unopened facial bar, my wife would like you to stop. She has a cabinet full already and can't believe it when I bring more home -- if we ever open a B&B, we won't need guest supplies for the first year.) I appreciate the thought, but do I really need two bottles of lotion and conditioner when I haven't touched the ones that were in the room already?

     - I am fed up with hotel bars who charge an "Up Charge" premium without telling me -- as much as $5 -- for martinis. If I order the house vodka, is it really that much more to shake it in ice and add a couple olives? And simply putting it on my bill as if I won't notice? In all honesty, I'm going to go a bit Jack Nicholson ordering toast next time. "I'd like a vodka, rocks. Put the vodka and rocks in a shaker, shake it for a few seconds and leave out the rocks when you pour it into the glass. Add a couple olives as garnish if you please." Seriously. $5? It's a good reason for me to bypass your hotel next time I'm in town. And if you tell me about it the charge when I order, chances are I'll order a more expensive (and more profitable) brand-name vodka instead.

(At one hotel property, a national brand, even the math was cagey. The bill showed three drinks at $8 for a mathematical total of $24, but with no explanation the next line of the bill was rounded out to $36. No explanation, no reference to an up charge. $36. $4 a drink. No warning, no mention on the menu, and no comment from the server. The bartender blamed the POS system when I caught it, but it's dishonest plain and simple.)

     - Salads in cups. A salad is a salad. Don't try to confuse me with the whole "chic nouveau" thing. Unh-uh. I'm from LA. Been to New York, London, Paris, Rome, San Francisco, Sydney. It's a salad. In a cup. No. Just use a plate. All the big kids do.

(And this applies to virtually every other dish you've decided to "cute up" and charge me twice the price. Don't.)

     - Speaking of which, is it really that difficult for every hotel restaurant to have toothpicks at the host desk when I'm leaving? Yes, I like the mints, but a toothpick is probably what I need right now.

     - I like the omelette person at the breakfast spot in your hotel. I may not always use their services, but I like to have the option. And you can even "up-charge" me for the privilege.

     - I'd like to ask for it to be common practice at all hotels for the housekeeper to check the &%$#ing alarm clock to make sure it's not left on. Not only can it be a real shocker in your own room -- when you discover the previous occupant must have had a 5am flight and was up at 3 -- but in an adjacent room it's even more disturbing when even a reasonably timed 6am alarm goes on and on and on... 

     - Okay. Stay with me for this one: I check in. Give you my credit card number and approval to charge for "incidentals". I go up to my room, relax, and discover "incidentals" include the two $1 bottles of water you've placed on the desk  -- as if it's a courtesy for your guests -- with a placard telling me there's a $5 charge if I open them.

Really? Seriously.

If my $200 per night room charge isn't covering a couple of bottles of water, DON'T LEAVE THEM THERE!!!! By doing this, by planting the seed, you're calling attention -- in a negative way -- to my paying to stay with you.

A snack and drinks pay bar I get. Bottled water left on the desk as if it's a gift, but you're going to charge me if I drink them? Unh-uh. Best "spot me" or be prepared to explain why I'm not worth a couple bucks as a customer. (FYI: Hilton Garden Inn gives me the water, and they're right up the street.)

     - This is for reportedly high-end snooty bars. I don't care how elegant or exclusive you imagine yourself to be, when I come in and am prepared to pay money for a drink, it's NOT up to me to walk up to the bar and order one when I'm perfectly comfortable at my table. I've actually lost my table doing that, which makes it doubly annoying. If I'm sitting at the bar, fine. But if I'm sitting twenty feet away it's not my job to jump up and stand at the bar for ten minutes -- waiting for your bartender to slowly make his/her way down to where I am standing.

You want my money, you come to me.

     - When I pull into the valet, can they take a second to check and see if I have a passenger, and if it's a lady opening her door instead of mine? I'm far more concerned that my wife receive the courtesy than I am about myself. It's much more impressive and will be appreciated when it comes time to tip. The same thing goes for when we're leaving. Get her door, not mine. (Yes, it's sexist and old fashioned, but it's what I'm thinking.)

     - I appreciate the call ten or so minutes after I get to my room, checking to see if everything's okay. It's a nice touch.

     - In the very best hotels, housekeeping pauses for at least a few seconds after knocking before using their keys to come in. Give me a chance to reply before entering (You're not paid nearly enough to have to see me without my shirt on...or worse.)

     - And lastly, thank you for the many times you let me check in a little early. Yes, I know it's 3pm officially but the airlines don't schedule around my hotel check-in time and it's not easy killing an hour just driving around. It's appreciated.

Thank you for your attention.

Steve Barber
The Thumbnail Traveler

We Have Options....

Pic of the Day: Monte Carlo Metro

Even in Monte Carlo, waiting for the train is a boring thing to do.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Pic of the Day: I Scream, You Scream

Not that a lot of our friends are experiencing hot or humid weather at the moment, but when the weather turns brutally hot and humid, a bit of slow-churned and locally made ice cream hits the spot.

This little gem was churned in a little ice cream stand in Far North Queensland, just south of Cape Tribulation. They knew what they were doing....

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Pic of the Day: Found Waldo

I found Waldo.

He was living on a bus bench running Guy Fawkes' re-election campaign in Queensland.

Not quite so nice when he's not wearing the red and white stripes.