LEWISBURG, W.Va. – Lewisburg is leading in the contest to earn a magazine’s label as the Coolest Small Town in America.
As of Saturday, Lewisburg was in the lead among all 20 towns, ahead of Astoria, Ore., in the annual contest sponsored by Budget Travel magazine.
The website praises Lewisburg for special events such as the Chocolate Festival and the Taste of Our Towns, which features restaurant fare.
It’s not the first time a West Virginia town has made the nominees: In 2008, the magazine named Fayetteville one of America’s five coolest small towns.
Voting ends Feb. 11. The winners will be featured in the September issue.
Budget Travel: http://bit.ly/fssf53
NEW YORK – When members of Congress met recently to discuss revitalizing passenger trains in the United States, they chose Grand Central Terminal, a majestic hub of New York’s vaunted mass transit system. From a balcony above the main concourse, Mayor Michael Bloomberg told lawmakers he rides the subway every day and called high-speed passenger rail “the track to the future.”
But to actual New York commuters, such talk rings hollow these days.
Mechanical breakdowns, stranded trains, rising fares and the governor’s plans to cut another $100 million from the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s budget have left travelers fuming. An onslaught of snowstorms has exposed the rail system’s weaknesses, shorting out electric motors and snapping electric lines. On Monday the Metro-North commuter line will cut service on its popular New Haven line because half of its trains are in the shop.
“I don’t see New York’s mass transit system as a model for anybody,” said Jim Griffin, 36, who rides every day from South Norwalk, Conn. to an office in Times Square. “You name the excuse, we’ve heard it this winter.”
Besides the largest-in-the-nation subway system, New York has the nation’s largest concentration of passenger railroads. Speedy Acela trains bring travelers from Washington, D.C. and Boston on Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor line. The Long Island Rail Road, the nation’s largest commuter rail road, and Metro-North Railroad serve more than 500,000 daily riders east and north of the city. NJ Transit and the Port Authority’s PATH trains go west.
The Obama administration has called the Northeast Corridor a “gem” and says it wants to replicate its success nationwide with a $13 billion plan for new high-speed rail lines. In his State of the Union address last month, President Barack Obama said he wants to bring high-speed train travel to 80 percent of Americans. The federal government poured $188 million of Recovery Act funds into commuter rail projects last year, from new regional trains in Oregon to upgraded switches on Baltimore’s light rail system.
But for rail riders in New York, it’s been a season of disappointments.
In October, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie killed plans to build a second commuter rail tunnel under the Hudson River. The project would have been the United States’ biggest public works project, with a cost of $9 billion to $14 billion.
The tunnel project was aimed at easing congestion at rush hour, when dozens of NJ Transit and Amtrak trains must travel over the same bridge over the Hackensack River in New Jersey, then through a single tunnel into Manhattan.
In December, the MTA hiked fares between 9 percent and 17 percent, depending on a rider’s train or bus route. A monthly subway pass shot up from $89 to $104. The MTA had already eliminated the one-day and two-week passes, which were popular with tourists.
“We’re paying more for a lot less,” said Amy Yakuboff, 25, who rides the subway from Brooklyn to 23rd Street in Manhattan. “I don’t think people on the national level know what a botched system it is.”
Then a string of snow and ice storms blasted the region, severing electrical lines, clogging up switches and shorting out signals.
In New York, hundreds of passengers spent the night of Dec. 26 shivering in a train that was trapped by snow on an above-ground section of the New York subway, and spent hours stranded in similar trouble in Brooklyn a couple of weeks later.
Amtrak suspended busy routes from New York to Philadelphia, Boston and other points multiple times during the storms; dozens of trains on other commuter lines were canceled. On Wednesday, rush-hour NJ Transit travelers from the New Jersey suburb of Millburn were forced to make a detour through Hoboken, N.J. and lower Manhattan, turning a 15-mile trip that normally takes 40 minutes into a two-hour slog.
On Metro-North’s New Haven line, which runs along the Connecticut coast, snowstorms have blown snow into the cooling vents atop trains that were built in the 1970s. The melting snow has since shorted out the electric motors that move the cars, said Marjorie Anders, a spokeswoman for Metro-North, part of the MTA.
Snow also shorted out door motors and safety sensors, she said. In a YouTube video posted by one commuter on Jan. 24, passengers stand a few feet from an open door as a New Haven train hurtles along an elevated track in Harlem and into a tunnel.
By Wednesday, 150 of the New Haven line’s 320 cars were in the shop because of snow-related breakdowns. Metro North said it was cutting the number of peak-hour trains by 10 percent. About 67,000 customers use the line.
“This is an anomaly,” Anders said. “We run a very fine railroad. We’ve just never had a winter like this.”
Griffin says his 55-minute commute from Connecticut has turned into a three-hour ordeal in standing-room-only cars.
“You never know what you’re going to face every morning,” he said. “You have people on the platform every morning waiting for a train that never comes.”
The budget proposal unveiled by Cuomo on Tuesday — slashing another $100 million from the MTA’s $11.3 billion budget — could further strain the system. The agency promised not to raise fares immediately, but said it is unsure how it will comply with the cuts.
“Because the MTA has already taken unprecedented measures to reduce costs, finding an additional $100 million in 2011 will be very painful,” the nation’s largest mass transit agency said in a written statement. “As we continue cost-cutting, further reductions become harder and harder to achieve.”
Obama’s high-speed rail is much different than the passenger railroads that serve New York today, said Allen Haley, a railroad consultant based in Marathon, Texas. The Obama proposal calls for inter-city trains that would travel at speeds up to 220 mph, with fewer stops along the way.
Bloomberg said such trains would reduce the strain on New York’s airports by diverting passengers who travel short distances. Weather-related flight cancellations this winter caused a ripple effect that snarled air travel around the U.S.
Bill Henderson, executive director of an MTA citizens’ advisory committee, said federal money might be better spent fixing the trains that exist.
“Maybe you can get more effective use of the money by improving what you have instead of building a new high-speed system,” Henderson said
BUENOS AIRES, Argentina – Police on Easter Island raided the grounds of a luxury hotel Sunday to evict the last of dozens of indigenous protesters battling for ancestral lands and a larger share of profits from the tourists who come to see the Pacific Island’s mysterious statues of giant heads.
A Rapa Nui clan’s claims to the land under the new, $800-a-night Hangaroa Eco Village Spa has won support from international human rights agencies, and it poses legal and political dilemmas for a Chilean government already criticized for its treatment of indigenous people on the mainland.
The Hito clan’s attorney, Rodrigo Gomez, said the last handful of about 50 squatters were hauled off and jailed by police Sunday after they had tied themselves down in the lobby.
Police Maj. Fernando Lobos said all the Hitos were processed and freed pending a court hearing. He said officers were following an order to empty the property so that federal investigators could survey its condition.
Members and supporters of the Hito clan had been squatting on the grounds of the $50 million development since August, claiming the land was swindled from their illiterate grandmother and then illegally sold into private hands by Gen. Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship.
They initially demanded recognition of property rights from the conglomerate that now owns the land so they could earn rent from the new hotel, insisting that Chile adhere to the international indigenous peoples treaty it signed in 2008, which requires governments to pay compensation for usurped land.
Their protest inspired nearly two dozen other native families to claim ownership of government properties on ancestral land. Police moved in with pellet guns and clubs in December to remove them in violent confrontations that injured more than a dozen islanders and several officers. Pictures of native women and men with bloodied heads were published internationally, shattering the tranquil image that attracts many tourists.
While dueling civil claims wind through Chile’s court system, prosecutors have sought to persuade judges to charge 17 of the Hitos with trespassing at a hearing scheduled for Tuesday on the island.
Standing against the clan is the Schiess family, which runs one of Chile’s most powerful private holding companies, Empresas Transoceanica.
The Hitos have opened a case before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in Washington and won support from the United Nations. A Chilean appellate court, rather than approve the evictions, recognized that the two families have dueling claims that must be resolved by Chile’s Supreme Court.
U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka of Hawaii on Friday urged Chilean President Sebastian Pinera to order the removal of police surrounding the hotel, and to provide food, water and medicine to the Hitos inside. James Anaya, the U.N. special investigator on indigenous rights, warned Chile that forcible evictions won’t help resolve the situation peacefully.
Instead, Chilean police finally moved in Sunday morning.
“They knew we were going to win in court on Tuesday. This is a desperate move by the Schiess,” Gomez said.
Jeanette Schiess, who runs the hotel project and is married to Empresas Transoceanica’s chief executive, Christoph Schiess, said she couldn’t immediately respond to a request for comment Sunday from The Associated Press. She has said in the past that the Chilean government should be responsible for any compensation, and while her family plans to make the resort a cultural center to benefit the entire Rapa Nui community, she won’t negotiate with lawbreakers.
The Hitos’ great-great-grandfather was among the Rapa Nui elders whose names appear on the 1888 annexation treaty, along with Chilean sailors whose ships were built by a company that is now part of the Schiess conglomerate.
The Rapa Nui civilization once numbered up to 20,000, with a written language, a royal family and an ancient culture centered on the awe-inspiring statues, which were carved from volcanic rock and moved around the island despite weighing tons apiece.
But internal strife, European conquests and Peruvian slave ships ravaged the population, and only 111 remained before Chile annexed the island, 2,300 miles (3,700 kilometers) off its coast.
The Rapa Nui population has recovered under Chilean rule, to about 3,500 natives and nearly 2,000 non-native residents. But the islanders were long treated as slaves or servants, herded into the island’s small town of Hanga Roa by the Easter Island Exploitation Co., which claimed the rest of the land as a sheep ranch and kept the natives isolated from the outside world.
The native people were denied citizenship until 1966, and kept on small plots in town as the rest of the island became national property — and now a World Heritage site.
Chile’s government, which also struggles to cope with land protests by the Mapuche Indians in Patagonia, insists it wants to honor indigenous rights and encourage the Rapa Nui to enjoy the fruits of booming tourism, which has grown to some 50,000 visits a year.
“The government of Chile has a debt with the Rapa Nui people. And we are prepared to take responsibility for this debt,” said Raul Celis, who governs the island from Valparaiso, to The Associated Press.
He said that when Chile took over, “They were clearly in the process of extinction, at the point of disappearing. And it’s possible that in the 122 years since the island has formed part of Chile’s territory, that there have been moments when the state hasn’t paid enough attention. That’s why there’s a debt. But we’re trying to resolve it.”
Celis said the Hitos never complained until the Schiess family invested millions developing a small, government-built hotel into a first-class resort. The Schiesses have said their title to the land is clear, but the Hitos say they the developers had to know islanders had tried for years to assert property claims despite unequal access to Chile’s legal system. They argue that a 1979 law says only natives can own property on the island.
Celis also blames a few islanders for refusing to accept negotiations between the government and natives on four key issues: land rights, limits on residency by non-natives, economic development and a proposed law that would give the Rapa Nui more local control over their affairs, if not outright autonomy.
But Lorena Fries, who directs the government’s Human Rights Institute and has an official watchdog role in such conflicts, says Pinera’s administration could have avoided force by broadening the dialogue. Instead, she said, it picked compliant locals to make deals with and found ways of jailing the most outspoken.
“In response to any social conflict, this government shows a tendency of going to the extreme and criminalizing the citizens,” Fries told the AP from the island after investigating the conflict.
Attorney Leonard Crippa of the Indian Law Resource Center in Washington, which is building a case at the Inter American Human Rights Commission of the Organization of American States, also says outspoken islanders are deliberately left out.
“I’m representing more than 30 clans. Most were not participating in that dialogue,” Crippa said. “They don’t know what’s being agreed to. The Chilean government promotes this peaceful dialogue, says it’s working with the Rapa Nui people and will get results. But that’s not true in reality.”
PHOENIX – The place to be this spring is the Caribbean or Mexico as flights to multiple cities are expected to drop witht the best deals to be found during April.
Travel experts say the Bahamas and Dominican Republic have the lowest rates through the spring.
With the royal wedding just a few months away, Europe is also a big travel destination this year and prices aren’t too bad. You can find round trip airfare in March and April for just $600 and spend a week in cities such as London, Paris, Milan and Dublin.
If you want to stay in the U.S., travel experts say flights from Phoenix to Hawaii will be dirt cheap this spring. You can fly round trip for under $500 per person.
If a weekend getaway is more your style, why not Las Vegas? The trip won’t break the bank and hotels are offering record low prices. The city has several new hotels, which means more competition to get your money and that equals deals. Stay at the Venetian for just $150 a night or how about the Luxor for just $50?
With those prices, it’s no surprise Vegas comes in at the top when it comes to Orbitz’s top destinations in the U.S., followed by New York, Chicago, San Francisco and San Diego.
Austin-based BedandBreakfast.com has signed a deal to market its rooms on Priceline.com.
As part of the agreement, the discount travel deals site (Nasdaq: PCLN) will sell rooms from nearly 2,000 BedandBreakfast.com properties in 30 countries. Terms of the deal were not disclosed.
BedandBreakfast, founded in 1995, was acquired by Austin-based HomeAway Inc. last year, but retained its independent branding. The company maintains about 11,000 properties in more than 100 countries.
Priceline allows travelers to search hotel, inn and now bed and breakfast rates, availability, images and customer reviews. The site booked about 61 million room nights in 2009.
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Thompson Hotels’ Donovan House in Washington, D.C., has a lot going for it this spring — its downtown location at Thomas Circle, for one, and a room sale in February and March that starts at $109 a night.
The deal: I found this deal on Travelzoo‘s Top 20 list so availability may be limited. Donovan House room sale rates start at $109 a night on weekends in February, $119 for weekends in March and $159 Mondays-Thursdays through Feb. 24. The deal comes with free Wi-Fi too. It’s easy to find this rate on the hotel’s website; if you’re calling, you need to request the code “PROM7.”
When: Sale rates are good for weekend stays through the end of March and midweek stays through Feb. 24, but you must book by Friday. Blackout dates are Feb. 27-March 1 and March 5-9.
Tested: You won’t find the special listed on the Donovan House website; I just checked rates by dates. The Travelzoo room rate was listed and available for a weekend stay from March 12-14. I found a King Superior room for $119 plus tax per night; total for two nights with tax, $272.51. In a check of rates on the same night for the same room, I found the sale rate saved 25%.
Contact: Donovan House, (202) 737-1200
SANTIAGO, Chile – Chilean authorities evacuated passengers and crew from an Iberia airline flight to Madrid, Spain, following a bomb threat Sunday. Police said later they arrested a Chilean woman in the case.
Authorities said a team from Chile’s civil aviation agency searched the airliner and found no explosives.
A police official, Alfred Chiang, said Sunday that investigators arrested a woman who had dropped off a passenger at the terminal. He said police were still trying to determine a motive for the call, which was made minutes before the airliner was to take off.
The civil aviation agency said 312 people were removed from the plane after the police communication center received the threat.
Officials said passengers were taken to a nearby hotel and would be put on a new flight to Madrid on Monday.
BETHLEHEM, West Bank – The Palestinian Authority has asked the U.N.’s cultural agency to designate the church built at the traditional birth site of Jesus as the first world heritage site in the Palestinian territories.
The Palestinians say they asked UNESCO in January to place the Church of the Nativity on its list of the world’s most important cultural sites.
No sites under Palestinian control are on the list because Palestinians do not have a state recognized by the U.N.
Palestinian officials say they hope the site’s overwhelming cultural significance will sway member states to approve the request. A decision is expected in mid-2012.
Tourism Minister Khouloud Daibes said Monday that the request is part of the Palestinian campaign to build their state.
PARIS – French Prime Minister Francois Fillon will travel to Annecy on Tuesday to endorse the Alpine city’s bid for the 2018 Winter Games.
Fillon’s office says he will meet with members of the IOC evaluation commission who will be inspecting Annecy’s proposed Olympic venues this week.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy is also reportedly planning a trip to Annecy during the week but his office has not confirmed the visit.
Annecy is considered to be running behind the two other 2018 candidates — Pyeongchang, South Korea, and Munich.
The International Olympic Committee will select the host city on July 6 in Durban, South Africa.
By Lauren Mills
Boats sail during sunset on the Nile river in the southern city of Luxor December 7, 2010
Thomas Cook, the U.K. based tour operator, reckons demand for travel to North African destinations will bounce back quickly once the civil unrest quietens.
Manny Fontenla-Novoa, the CEO of Thomas Cook, expects the company to return to a full program in Tunisia by mid-February for travel from across Europe, though it will take a little longer — to the end of February or mid-March — to convince British tourists.
But holiday bargain hunters can bag great deals in Tunisia with Thomas Cook, if they book now, while there is still a curfew. In other words, at a time when Tunisia could hardly be declared ’safe’.
If you’re in a hurry you can leave this weekend from Stansted for seven nights in Residence Golf, Port Kantaoui, at a cost of £290 per person on a half-board basis.
The cheapest deal requires departing from Belfast this Sunday for Soviva Resort, also in Port Kantaoui. Seven nights half-board are being offered for £215 per person. Indeed, there are quitie a few last-minute deals that look pretty tempting on the company’s web site.
How about a bit of winter sun in Egypt? The U.K. government’s advice is that the Red Sea resorts “remain calm”. But “we continue to advise against all but essential travel to” Cairo and Luxor, two popular holiday destinations.
If, despite the warning, you’re still keen on suning yourself in Luxor, on the banks of the River Nile, Thomas Cook has the answer. There’s a £488 per person deal for seven nights at the Sheraton Luxor, or for £503 per person you can stay at the Nile Palace. Both deals depart London Gatwick on Wednesday 16 February.