Toot toot: Boise, Idaho’s train depot and bell tower are not to be missed

Like a sentry, the stately, Spanish-style tower watches over the city of Boise, Idaho, from its perch atop a hill south of downtown.

Still, I may not have noticed the modest spire if I hadn’t been staying in that part of the city. And that would have been a shame.

The stunning view of the Boise skyline and its foothills from its 90-foot bell tower is not to be missed.

View from the Boise Depot tower
The view from the Boise Depot tower. (Photo by Sheryl Jean)

It’s one of the many grand old train stations that have been renovated across the country.

Railroads helped the nation’s westward expansion, creating much of the network of roads and towns we have today. Many depots closed as autos and planes replaced trains for transportation. Some depots — including those in Denver; Kansas City, Mo.; New York City; and St. Paul, Minn. — still are used for Amtrak and/or a local commuter rail system. Others have been renovated for other uses, such as apartments, retail and event space. And some have been demolished or sit vacant and crumbling per a recent New York Times article.

I have visited a dozen renovated train stations across the country, including seven in the Midwest. I’m no train nut by any stretch, but I appreciate architecture and history.

In Boise, New York architects designed the city’s depot for Union Pacific Railroad. Guide John Devries told me construction began in 1920, with the first train rolling through five years later.

Boise Depot's Great Hall
The Boise Depot’s Great Hall, or lobby, was a cavernous room with a 44-foot high ceiling. (Photo by Sheryl Jean)

At the time, the depot was called “the most beautiful structure of its kind in the West.”

“At the depot’s height, there were six trains coming through daily,” Devries said. “There was Amtrak passenger service until 1997, but now the only passenger rail access is in Sandpoint,” Idaho (420 miles or nearly eight hours to the North).

Ceiling in the Boise Depot
Spanish trusses and rafters in the 44-foot-high “Great Hall” lobby are painted in original colors. (Photo by Sheryl Jean)

Construction company Morrison Knudsen Co. (known in these parts as MK) bought the building in 1990 and restored it. The $3.4 million renovation was unveiled in 1993.

The renovation opened the bell tower to the public for the first time as MK installed an elevator and stairway. The tower’s four bells used to play music; today, only one rings on the hour.

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Inside, a large 1945 train schedule graces part of a wall. The old retail counter houses Boise Depot and Union Pacific memorabilia, such as matches, pins, sugar packets and train time tables. (See photos taken by me below.)

In 1996, the city of Boise bought the depot, which is operated by the Boise Parks and Recreation Department.

The Boise Depot is open to the public for free from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays and Sundays. Otherwise, you can rent it for an event.

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Talking turkey: Thanksgiving air travel could soar

The Thanksgiving travel season promises to be one of the busiest ever for fliers, and I’m not talking about turkeys.

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) expects more than 25 million people to travel through airports across the country this Thanksgiving season (Nov. 16 through Nov. 26). That’s nearly a 7 percent increase from 2017, making the holiday season one of TSA’s busiest on record.

Last year, the TSA noticed a shift in Thanksgiving air travel patterns it expects to continue this year: The big travel crush starts the Friday before Thanksgiving, instead of one day before the holiday.

Still, the busiest travel days are expected be the Tuesday and Wednesday before Thanksgiving and the Sunday afterward when people are returning home.

If this Thanksgiving might log record travel numbers, should we expect Christmas travel to do the same?

Most outlooks for the December holidays aren’t out yet, but it’s a good bet. In its 2018 Holiday Outlook report, PricewaterhouseCoopers expects more than a third (35 percent) of consumers to travel for the winter holidays. That figure is even higher for younger people: 52 percent for older millennials (age 32-36), 46 percent for young millennials (age 23-26) and 40 percent for Generation Z (people age 17-22).

Overall, travel volume to and within the United States has been growing each year for nearly 10 straight years, according to the U.S. Travel Association.

And the winter holidays always have been busy times of year for travel as children come home on college break and other family members gather from afar.

Here are some quick holiday air travel tips:

  • Plan to arrive at the airport early. That means two hours before the departure of a flight within the United States and three hours before an international flight. Allow extra time for traffic congestion, parking, returning a rental car or checking luggage.
  • Check this list from the TSA of items you can and cannot carry through an airport or onto an airplane.
  • Be prepared to move quickly through airport security. Have your identification and boarding pass ready. Remember to remove from your carry-on bag any electronic devices larger than a cell phone and the quart-size plastic bag containing liquids and gels in 3.4-ounce containers or smaller (unless you have TSA PreCheck).
  • Travel light. The less luggage you have, the easier it will be to move around. It could cost you less since many airlines have raised their checked baggage fee.
  • Dress light. You must remove shoes, coats or sweaters and empty your pockets at airport security checkpoints. You also may need to remove watches and jewelry, if you’re wearing any.

Idaho offers extraordinary road trips

Idaho is a pretty state, and driving on U.S. Highway 95 in that state has to be one of the prettiest road trips.

I’ll add it to my list of favorite road trips, which I wrote about in July.

US 95 goes from the United States’ border with Canada south to Mexico. Within Idaho, it stretches vertically for more than 538 miles along the state’s western edge. The most stunning sections — traversing rivers, lakes, farm land and meadows — lie within the 304 miles between Sandpoint in the Panhandle south to New Meadows near Boise.

Map Sandpoint to New Meadows, Idaho

You’ll pass through two time zones without ever leaving Idaho. This description of US 95 is driving north to south:

  • As you leave the laid-back city of Sandpoint, you must drive over the Long Bridge, which stretches for nearly 2 miles across large Lake Pend Oreille. The bridge offers stunning views of the sapphire-blue lake and surrounding peaks, which can be dusted with snow from October through May.
Lake Pend Oreille, Idaho
U.S. Highway 95 cuts straight across Lake Pend Oreille for nearly 2 miles in Idaho. (Photo by Sheryl Jean)
  • South of Sandpoint, you’ll pass through farmland and meadows and the city of Coeur D’Alene. You’ll note a large lake here, one of several waterways along US 95.
  • Around Moscow and south to Lewiston, you’ll drive through the beautiful Palouse region of rolling hills (blond in fall/winter and green in spring). The area is a major producer of wheat and lentils as well as other crops. One theory is that the name Palouse comes from French-Canadian fur traders changed the name of the local Palus American Indian tribe to the French word pelouse, meaning “land with short and thick grass.” (See my featured photo at top.)
  • The city of Moscow, home to the University of Idaho is worth a stop for good cafes, art, vintage stores and a campus walk.
Lewiston Hill, Idaho
This is one of the 64 curves on Lewiston Hill, or the Old Spiral Highway, as it drops 2,000 feet in 10 miles. (Photo by Sheryl Jean)
  • Heading into the city of Lewiston, stop at the overlook for panoramic views of the intersection of the Clearwater and Snake rivers and surrounding hills. Opt to drive Lewiston Hill, or the Old Spiral Highway, if you can stomach a drop of 2,000 feet in 10 miles and 64 curves.
Road sign on Lewiston Hill, Idaho
It’s recommended to take some ess curves on Lewiston Hill, or the Old Spiral Highway, at 15 miles per hour. (Photo by Sheryl Jean)
  • After Lewiston, US 95 follows the stunning Salmon River from south of White Bird to Riggins, with many places to stop to camp, fish or just take in the view along the way. Just before Riggins, you’ll leave the Pacific Time Zone and enter Mountain Time Zone as the road crosses the Salmon River.

Two alternative roads off  US 95 in Idaho also are worth a drive for their spectacular scenery.

State Highway 97 near Coeur D’Alene: Starting near Wolf Lodge on U.S. Highway 90, the road meanders along Harrison Slough and some small lakes. Continue to Plummer or loop back on State Highway 3.

State Highway 55 at New Meadows: This road shadows the Payette River, with especially pretty sections at Cascade, Smiths Ferry and Banks.

Payette River, Idaho
Idaho State Highway 55 offers views like this of the Payette River and surrounding mountains. (Photo by Sheryl Jean)

American and Zoës Kitchen team up to spice up airline food

Airline food –at least ay American Airlines — just got a little better thanks to a collaboration with Zoës Kitchen on a new inflight menu.

Starting Dec. 1, main cabin passengers on most U.S. flights longer than three hours will be able to but these new healthy food items.

If you’re not familiar with Zoës, the fast casual restaurant chain offers healthy Mediterranean fare inspired by family recipes and made from scratch. Getting into the whole Mediterranean, Blue Zone lifestyle, Zoës even has a “life blog,” with posts about healthy eating and fitness.

A Greek-American friend of mine swears by Zoës’ seasoning, “Spice of Life.”

Founded in 1995 and based in Plano, Texas, Zoës operates over 260 restaurants in 20 states. (Cava Group Inc. is buying Zoës.) So, Fort Worth, Texas-based American basically teamed up with a neighbor.

Janelle Anderson, vice president of global marketing for American Airlines, said customers have asked for “lighter, tasty food.”

American and Zoës head chef Antonio Iocchi designed the new menu with some items American Zoës head chef Antonio Iocchi designed a menu with some items exclusive to the airline and some signature dishes from Zoës restaurants, such as just for the airline and some signature dishes from Zoës restaurants, such as:

* Breakfast sandwich: Turkey bacon, egg slices, tomato and Calabrian pepper aioli topped with baby arugula on a waffle brioche bun

* Continental breakfast box: Belgian waffle with hazelnut spread and fresh berries

* Hummus duo: Two types of hummus — traditional and basil pesto flavor — topped with Kalamata olives, carrot, cucumber and pita bread

* The Grüben sandwich: Sliced turkey, Manchego cheese, Mediterranean slaw and feta spread layered on marble wheat bread and served with a chocolate chip cookie

* Chicken wrap: Grilled chicken with mozzarella, roasted tomatoes, arugula and artichokes and served a chocolate chip cookie

Throughout 2019, American and Zoës plan to introduce more food items in the domestic main and first class cabins. American said it still will continue to offer its breakfast platter and fruit-and-cheese plate.

U.S. travel grew in July, but a slowdown may be coming

U.S. travel increased this summer, but growth is slowing even as a global travel boom continues.

That’s according to the latest data from the U.S. Travel Association (USTA).

Travel to and within the United States grew 3 percent in July from a year earlier, according to the USTA’s Travel Trends Index. And travel for the first seven months of this year has grown faster than the same period in 2017, said David Huether, vice president for research for the USTA.

Growth is credited mainly to increased domestic travel on the heels of higher consumer confidence. Business travel, in particular, is having its best year since 2010, Huether said.

However, domestic and international travel growth decelerated from June to July, a trend the USTA expects to continue over the next six months, though growth will remain positive. The association predicts domestic travel will grow an average of 2.4 percent through January.

Adam Sacks, president of the tourism economics group at research firm Oxford Economics, said “cooling consumer indicators and the potential for slower business investment growth” through the rest of this year could hurt domestic travel. Oxford prepares the Travel Trends Index for the USTA.

For example, new orders for durable goods, which can reflect future consumer and business demand, declined 1.7 percent in July, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. In addition, steep U.S. tariffs on many foreign products have risen fears about the long-term effect of the escalating trade wars on U.S. consumers and businesses.

Census July 2018 durable goods chart

As global economic growth moderates, the USTA predicts international travel will grow at an average rate of 1.6 percent through January. A longer-term concern, said USTA CEO Roger Dow, is that inbound international travel is not accelerating fast enough to boost the U.S. share of the global travel market, which peaked at 13.6 percent in 2015.

Case in point: In 2017, nearly 77 million people from other countries visited the United States, which was basically flat (+0.7 percent) from 2016, according to recent data from the International Trade Administration’s National Travel and Tourism Office. More visitors came from South Korea (+18 percent), Brazil (+11 percent), Argentina (+10 percent) and Ireland (+9 percent).

Say cheese: Small Northern California creamery makes cheese by hand

Say cheese.

Cheese is such a big part of the American diet that it’s used to make people smile.

We love cheese. We eat a lot of cheese (each American consumes nearly 37 pounds of cheese a year) and we’re expected to eat more cheese.

The Dallas Morning News recently published an article I wrote about five artisanal cheesemakers in western Marin County, Calif., about 35 miles north of San Francisco. They produce some of the nation’s best cheese — from cottage cheese to brie to blue.

During my reporting, one of the cheesemakers, Nicasio Valley Cheese Co., let me observe its small production process unclose and take a tour of its creamery. I thought I’d share what I learned there.

Nicasio Valley Cheese Co.’s creamery
Nicasio Valley Cheese Co.’s creamery is housed in a remodeled dairy barn. (Photo by Sheryl Jean)

The dairy run by the LaFranchi family, owners of Nicasio Valley Cheese Co. in the tiny town of Nicasio, will be 100 years old in 2019. Its cheese operation, however, will only be 10 years old next year.

The LaFranchi family uses 100 percent certified organic milk from cows on their 1,150-acre certified organic ranch to make eight farmstead cheeses at the on-site creamery. All production, aging and packaging is done on site. The creamery also has an attached retail shop and tasting room.

Following in the footsteps of their Swiss-Italian ancestors, the family’s first product was an aged mountain cheese thanks to help from Swiss mentor Maurizio Laurenzeti. He isn’t a family member, but makes cheese in the same Ticino region of Switzerland.

“Maurizio’s cheeses were the inspiration for the line of cheeses we make,” said Rick LaFranchi, part of the third generation that runs the dairy and creamery. “We went [to Switzerland] in 2007 to make cheeses with him.”

Here’s Nicasio Valley Cheese Co.’s cheesemaking process:

1. Workers milk 450 cows daily on the 1,150-acre certified organic ranch. Each morning, a tanker delivers 300 to 1,000 gallons of fresh milk from the dairy to the creamery, which is in a remodeled dairy barn.

2. The milk is quality tested before being pasteurized in a high-temperature, short-time process by high-tech machinery installed in May.

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Nicasio Valley Cheese Co. head cheesemaker, Aaron Langdon, currently follows a single-vat, single-batch production process to make one type of cheese a day. (Photo by Sheryl Jean)3. The pasteurized milk is pumped into a large vat and heated to a certain temperature (that’s confidential). Head cheesemaker Aaron Langdon adds cultures and then rennet (a coagulant) to help the cultured milk solidify it.

4. In a little while, curds start to form in the vat. Langdon stirs this curds and whey mixture and then drains it into molds for the desired cheese shape. It takes six hours from fluid milk to the finished cheese (before aging).

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5. Workers move the cheese molds to a nearby temperature-regulated room for a few hours or overnight, depending on the type of cheese.

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6. The cheese (all types except Foggy Morning, an award-winning fresh cheese that’s soft like formage blanc but a big tangy) is put into a brine solution for a few hours to 24 hours.

7. The cheese goes into a warm room called a “hastening room,” where it starts to form a rind. Here, the cheese is flipped daily so moisture doesn’t set in for inconsistency, Langdon said.

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8. The cheese goes into an aging room, which are recycled shipping containers, set at various temperatures. Aging can take a few days to months. Foggy Morning, for example, is left for just days. Its bold, washed-rind Raclette-style San Geronimo cheese is aged up to 6 months, Langdon said.

9. Some cheeses go into a washed-rind room for four to six weeks, where the rind is washed by hand in brine every day.

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“We focus on quality, and try to be as consistent as we can be from batch to batch,” said Langdon, who’s been making cheese for 13 years.

This summer, Northern California residents Annie and Peter Gommers paid their second visit to the creamery to buy some San Geronimo cheese.

“What we like about this place is that it’s most like European cheese,” said Annie, adding that Peter is Dutch. “It’s organic and it’s not outrageously expensive. Farmstead is very special and needs to be supported.”

If you visit, you may see some of the LaFranchi’s cows on nearby rolling, golden hills dotted with California oak trees.

Note: I didn’t duplicate much from my story in The News, so please read that for more information about Nicasio Valley Cheese Co., including staying on the ranch, and the other four cheesemakers.

American Airlines loosens its carry-on policy for Basic Economy passengers

Starting Wednesday, American Airlines flights might be more packed because it will let Basic Economy passengers carry more bags aboard a plane.

That’s right, the world’s largest airline is changing its carry-on baggage policy as of Sept. 5 for those no-frills travelers. They’ll be able to take one personal item and one carry-on bag on to a plane.

The previous policy let Basic Economy travelers bring aboard just one personal item that fit under the seat. Those passengers could not also bring a carry-on bag to store in an overhead bin.

Why? The world’s largest airline said the move will make it “more competitive with airlines that include a carry-on bag in their lowest fares.” American announced the change in late July.

The airline launched the Basic Economy fare in February 2017 to offer travelers a less expensive flying option.  American president Robert Isom said in a January 2017 statement that the new fare “gives American the ability to compete more effectively with the growing number of ultra low-cost carriers.”

All of the nation’s three big legacy carriers — American, United and Delta — launched no-frill fares in the last several years to compete better against lower-fare airlines such as JetBlue, Southwest and Spirit.

In addition to carry-on restrictions, American’s Basic Economy fare carries other restrictions, such as no advance seat selection, no cancellations and a $25 gate fee for passengers who must check carry-on luggage at the gate.

American also plans to expand its Basic Economy airfares to certain Europe flights  starting in April 2019. All of those main cabin passengers will be allowed one personal item and one larger carry-on, but American will charge a new fee for the first checked bag to trans-Atlantic Basic Economy passengers.

Study: Travel makes us happier

You know that feeling of not wanting vacation to end? You do anything to extend it — put off packing and make a few stops on the way to the airport.

There’s a reason for that.

Travel and happiness are linked, according to a new report.

While the survey by the U.S. Travel Association (USTA) focused on employees, it reflects a much broader group of people.

Employees who use most of their time off for travel are much happier than those who travel less or not at all, the report found. It also found that travel preferences — from vacation budget to what is packed into luggage — varies greatly from state to state.

Big Sur Hwy 1
AAA expects nearly two-thirds of the 88 million Americans planning a vacation this year to take a road trip. Driving along California Highway 1 (near Big Sur here) is a popular option. (Fred Moore via Creative Commons)

Overall, America’s work culture is starting to change, with more employers encouraging vacation and more employees feeling better about using their earned time off.

While the numbers have improved since 2015, most U.S. workers (52 percent) don’t use all of their annual vacation days. Those workers accumulated 705 million unused days in 2017, up from 662 million days in 2016.

Workers in Colorado, Virginia and Arizona lead the nation in taking vacation.

No. 1 is Colorado, where workers take average of 20 vacation days a year. In Virginia and Arizona, workers use about 19 days a year. The national average is 17 days.

Perhaps the more vacation time you earn, the more you use. Coloradans earn an average of 28 paid time-off days, more than any other state and higher than the national average of 23 days in 2017. Virginia workers earn an average of 25 paid time-off days a year.

Or perhaps it has something to do with office culture. In Virginia, 52 percent of companies encourage vacation, compared with the national 38 percent.

Workers in Montana, Delaware and Rhode Island are the worst at taking vacation. At the bottom is Montana, where workers take an average of 16 days. Montana workers also earn less time, an average of 21.8 days. That’s the third lowest nationally, after Rhode Island and Delaware (21.6 days each).

Translating time

Using more vacation days appears to create a positive economic impact. The increased vacation time from 16.8 days in 2014 to 17.2 days in 2017 generated $30.7 billion in economic impact nationwide. It also produced 217,200 jobs (direct and indirect) and generated $8.9 billion in additional income for Americans.

It also increases worker satisfaction, which may improve productivity. Workers in Arizona and Washington tie for highest rates of happiness with their company — 68 percent vs. 54 percent nationwide.

Who travels?

Even when workers take time off, less than half (48 percent) don’t travel.

Moreover, a recent Gallup poll found that 62 percent of all Americans took a vacation away from home last year, similar to 2005 but lower than 70 percent in 2001. Of that 2017 figure, only about one in five people traveled internationally.

Gallup found that married adults with children plus adults with higher incomes and a college degree took more vacations.

The USTA report concluded that baby boomers take more vacation days and travel more than other generations. That could be the result of boomers having longer job tenures to accumulate more time off and money to be able to travel more.

Once again, Colorado workers led the nation in using vacation days to travel: 57 percent vs. 47 percent nationally.

What do airline passengers want the most? Wi-fi service

The demand for wi-fi service on flights is so strong that many passengers are even willing to sacrifice alcoholic drinks and meals, according to a new survey.

More than three quarters of those surveyed (78 percent) think wi-fi is “fundamental” to daily life and more than half (55 percent) say the service is crucial, according to the fourth annual global Inflight Connectivity Survey by London-based global mobile services provider Inmarsat. But high-paying customers, parents and younger passengers are among those most likely to use inflight wi-fi service.

“Whether it’s used for sending that important work email, entertaining the children or even connecting with fellow passengers, staying online is becoming a crucial part of the inflight experience for today’s airline passengers,” Philip Balaam, president of Inmarsat Aviation, said in a statement.

Connectivity has become more of a focus as more people are using smartphones and other smart devices for everything. New data from the U.S. Census Bureau shows that more than two-thirds of all U.S. households (68 percent) access the Internet via their mobile devices,

Global passengers ranked inflight wi-fi as the fourth most important factor — after airline reputation, free checked baggage and extra leg room — in booking a flight. Nearly 90 percent business travelers (87%) say they would use inflight wi-fi to work and 51 percent of nervous flyers would use it to keep in touch with family and friends on land.

Demand for inflight wi-fi outstrips supply. Passengers can send emails, search the Internet and more on some flights, but access is spotty from airline to airline. Less than half of global passengers (45 percent) have traveled on flights offering it, the survey found.

That led Inmarsat to conclude that inflight wi-fi is a key driver in forming airline customer satisfaction and loyalty. More than two-thirds of all passengers (67 percent) are more likely to rebook with an airline if quality inflight wi-fi was available (it’s 83 percent for business travelers and 81 percent of passengers traveling with children).

Most airline passengers are willing to give up other inflight amenities, such as alcohol (53 percent) and meals (54 percent, from Inmarsat’s 2016 survey), for Internet access.

Inmarsat and market research company Populous surveyed more than 9,300 passengers from 32 countries in the Americas, Asia Pacific, Europe and the Middle East.

Point Reyes Lighthouse is closed through Oct. 5

California Journal

If you want to visit the Point Reyes Lighthouse just north of San Francisco, you’ll have to put off your plans for a couple of months.

Starting this week, the 1870 lighthouse on Point Reyes National Seashore will be closed as the National Park Service embarks on a large restoration project of it. At times, the lighthouse area will be closed to all foot traffic. Restoration work is scheduled to end Oct. 5.

The restoration, which includes paint, fixing crumbling walls and replacing cracked glass, will cost about $5 million, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.  Workers also must make the area accessible to disabled visitors, which means adding three steps to the 308-step staircase down to the lighthouse, it said.

Map of Point Reyes Lighthouse (GoogeMaps)
The historic Point Reyes Lighthouse is 62 miles, or more than 90 minutes, north of San Francisco. (GoogelMaps)

The U.S. Coast Guard stopped using the lighthouse in 1975 when an automated light was installed below it. You can read more about the history of the lighthouse on the National Park Service’s website.

Fun fact: The lighthouse starred in 1980 cult-classic movie The Fog as the home of radio station KAB 1340.

During the closure, you can visit the Point Bonita Lighthouse, which is in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area 11 miles (35 minutes) north of San Francisco. The 1885 lighthouse is still used today, so it’s open for only three hours a day on Mondays, Saturdays and Sundays. For more information, read the blog post I wrote about the Point Bonita Lighthouse in April.

At Point Bonita, visitors must walk through a hand-hewn tunnel and cross a suspension bridge to reach the lighthouse, which sits at the tip of the Marin Headlands jutting into the Pacific Ocean. You’ll be rewarded with spectacular coastal views and seeing nature at its wildest and windiest best.

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After walking through a tunnel, and a narrow cliff-top path, visitors walk over this suspension bridge to reach the lighthouse. (Photo by Sheryl Jean)