Random Cool Travel Tidbits – April 2015

Greta Garbo graces the tail of this Norwegian Air Shuttle 737-800.
Norwegian Air Shuttle has a lot of personality – and its latest effort to show it gets them a space in the April Random Cool Travel Tidbits post.

It’s time for another Random Cool Travel Tidbits post. That’s where I share some not-so-deep (but still interesting) thoughts about the sort of things this site is all about -- travel, adventure, gear, advice.

First up, let talk about a piece of luggage that’s designed for travel in our times. How’s that, you ask? Can it make your airplane seat widen by four inches, or get you automatic business-class upgrades? Sorry, not quite. But the Barracuda CAN give you a handy tray for eating or pounding away at your laptop while waiting in a crowded boarding lounge. It CAN collapse small enough to slide under a bed when you’re not traveling. It CAN power up your cell phone’s dying battery with an onboard charger. The ergonomic handle is pretty nifty; an optional GPS/proximity tracker are also pretty cool, and may well be worth an extra 50 clams.

The Barracuda has already exceeded its Kickstarter goal. You can still grab a good deal – these will start at about $480, but Kickstarter contributors can score one for less than half that.

Next up, I have some airline fun. I think way too many travelers dehumanize and denigrate airline employees. I sometimes get annoyed with them myself, but I always try to remember that they’re real people.

Norwegian Air Shuttle seems to be trying to remind people that human beings are behind every flight. I’ve noticed quite a few recent posts on its Facebook page that give the names of its pictured crew members. So far, it’s been captains and first officers – it would also be great to see flight attendants, gate agents, mechanics -- the whole gamut. It seems to fit very well with my impressions of Norwegian Air Shuttle. All my flights on them have been very personable.

grey ghost lightweight assault pack mod 1
This is the perfect day pack that you can push beyond just being a day pack.

Let’s swing back toward gear for the next few tidbits. I’ll start with day packs. I’ve had some decent daypacks like the REI Flash 22. The Flash 22 is pretty good, but I keep wondering -- what if it was a bit more flexible? What if it had some sort of modularity like military gear, which features these handy things called MOLLE loops. They allow you to add external pouches to existing packs. You can mix and match the pouches to the activity. This version has straps and goes for about $90. There’s also a version without straps that military dudes will attach to a ranger vest, chest rig or some similar setup.

Problem is, the military stuff is stiff, heavy and -- military looking. I don’t like the whole OD/camouflage look. Well, I ran into the Grey Ghost Lightweight Assault Pack Mod 1 when I wandered into Edgeworks while I was visiting Frederick recently. It was light, flexible, sturdy and equipped with MOLLE loops. You can also find them for a reasonable price. Add a few MOLLE pouches, and you could probably be out for a few days if you travel light. Absolutely super. (By the way, the Edgeworks crew is very friendly, and they have a great selection. It annoys me more than a little that a tiny town in Maryland has a knife shop better than any in my metro area of like 5 million people.)

REI Kingdom 4
The new tent for the new member of my family.

Speaking of light packers -- I hate, hate, hate giving space to anything that doesn’t earn its keep. That’s why I don’t use travel pillows. I haven’t ever found them comfortable, and they can only do one thing. But I like to be able to rest my head in uncomfortable confines. My solution? A stuff sack filled with whatever makes sense – t-shirts, socks, a jacket. All will work fine. There! Now you have yourself a pillow that earns its keep in other ways!

Alright, one more gear update combined with a little announcement: There’s a new little person in my family. She’s not quite 4 months old yet, but her mom and I already talking about her first camping trip. Obviously, our much-loved The North Face Rock 22 can’t accommodate us and Little Traveler. So we used our REI dividend and a 20 percent of coupon to snag an REI Kingdom 4 tent. The footprint isn’t huge, but the thing is tall enough for me to stand inside. And it has a room divider so neither of the big people will roll over onto Little Traveler; she’ll have her own room and a nice little nest in the Kingdom 4. Also, on our first try, we assembled the Kingdom 4 in less than five minutes.

Watch for a future full review of the REI Kingdom 4.

Now, I’ll bring this to a close with your chance to do something good. If you’re reading this, I’ll bet you have a pile of airline miles. I know these are precious – they’re great for upgrades and other perks. I get it.

Still, I hope you’ll think about using some of your air miles to help seriously ill kids. Make-A-Wish needs air miles to help grant wishes – travel is one of the biggest expenses in helping grant wishes, and nearly 75 percent of wish experiences require travel. All April long, Make-A-Wish is making a special request for air miles as part of its Give Wishes Wings campaign. Visit the Give Wishes Wings site and find out how your air miles can help.


The Latest Scottsdale Craft Beer Hangouts

Scottsdale craft beer
There’s plenty of Scottsdale craft beer destinations to serve you something tasty.

There’s a new craft beer place popping up every few minutes in Scottsdale. Or it at least seems that way. Right now, I can think of five in south Scottsdale alone, and another in central Scottsdale. So, let me tell you a few of my observations about them -- and pitch in with your own thoughts or suggestions for Scottsdale craft beer bars I may have missed. (I’m leaving the super-delicious Fate out of this because they’re not exactly new anymore -- but damn, they had a mint-grapefruit IPA that I loved.)

Craft 64
The minds behind Craft 64 know what they’re doing. They have wood-fired pizza, big salads, charcuterie and legit desserts (I’ve hounded the staff at Papago Brewing for years about dessert, to no avail). So you can have a full meal, a light snack or a dessert to go along with your craft beer. The beer menu is focused mostly Arizona beers, which is great for out-of-town visitors who might not get a chance to sample so many in one sitting; Craft 64 doesn’t brew its own, but that may come in the future. The staff has also been very friendly on all three of our visits.

Oh, and there’s no live music or overly loud noise to get in the way of a nice conversation. This could be the Scottsdale craft beer house that gets most of our business.

Scottsdale craft beer
It makes me so happy that the former Famous Pacific Fish Company has been revitalized as a microbrewery.

Two Brothers
Like so many others who found their way to Arizona, Two Brothers Tap House and Brewery originated in Illinois. It set up shop inside the former Famous Pacific Seafood Company, an open, two-story brick building with a great ambiance. The Outlaw IPA is terrific, and the Night Cat is the most surprising-in-a-good-way wheat beer I’ve ever tasted.

On our first visit, the server was knowledgeable, fast and friendly. The second time around, the entire staff seemed thoroughly disinterested. It took forever to get a beer, and they were out of many of the selections we wanted to try. And the kitchen was already closed, so no dessert to go along with the stout. Blah. I’ll give it another shot, of course, because another viable Scottsdale craft beer house is always welcome.

Union Barrelhouse
I’m really not sure how to feel about Union Barrelhouse. It has a huge craft beer selection, good food and at least one super-tasty dessert (one of the better takes on a half-baked mound of cookie dough). But the service can be really slow and indifferent. I haven’t recognized a single staff member during my multiple visits. That’s not a great sign.

Union Barrelhouse does have some good beers on tap, but avoid the Oil Can Porter. It had a really unfortunate blue cheese flavor that just doesn’t belong in any beer on this planet.

Scottsdale Beer Company
This new addition slid into the same plaza that once had some national chain brewery that went under and got turned into yet another Culver’s. I want to say it was a Rock Bottom. But anyway, onto Scottsdale Beer Company. Nothing I had set my world on fire – we did a sampler flight of all the higher-strength hard-hitters. Even the more allegedly hoppy ones of the bunch had more of a grainy taste. If I had been taste-testing without knowing what they were, I would have rated none of them above a pale ale.

The food was good, though, and that counts for something. They also had some fine guest beers, and the server knew her stuff. Scottsdale Beer Company has potential, but it’s not there yet.

Sip Coffee & Beer House
This new Scottsdale craft beer hangout is close to greatness. It serves coffees and teas in addition to the brews, which is very nice. And the selection generally has some winners – this is where I discovered the wonder of the Ballast Point Grapefruit Sculpin IPA.

But Sip Coffee & Beer House needs to stay open later, and it must, must, must get some dessert. Dry muffins don’t count. I also like the people here. I’m willing to keep coming back, but I’d love to see its few shortcomings get a little attention.

Goldwater Brewing Company
Just a few steps between Sip and Union Barrel House, a new Scottsdale craft beer brewery is set to open. I’m not sure what to expect from Goldwater Brewing Co., but the place looks great. There’s always room for more, and I for one look forward to meeting these new craft beer overlords.

I left Bad Water Brewing out because I haven’t been there, and I’m not likely to go. Their beers (listed under the “Products” heading of their website, which is incredibly bad word choice) sound too bland … saisons, lagers, a 5.5-percent IPA? What’s up with that? That’s a pale ale, folks.

Coming in a future episode, I’ll break down what’s what with craft beer on the west side of the Valley – it’s really picking up out there!

Cool Airline Callsigns – And One That Just Retired.

Cactus no more: US Airways retires the callsign it inherited from America West Airlines.

One of my favorite blogs, Flying With Fish, just published a post about the final US Airways flight using the "Cactus" callsign. US Airways inherited this cool callsign when it merged with America West Airlines. Now that the merger with American Airlines is progressing, "Cactus" will make way for "American." (Just in case this isn’t something you’ve thought about before, callsigns are identifiers that go before the flight number during communications between aircraft and air traffic controllers. The media kept getting the Malaysian Airlines callsign wrong when Flight 370 went missing by calling it MH370.)

To mark the retirement of one distinct and Southwestern-flavored callsign, here is a list of some other interesting callsigns:

Blackstar – Africa World Airlines
This just sounds cool. The Black Stars is also the nickname of Ghana’s national soccer team. There’s also a brand of guitar amplifiers call Blackstar -- and yes, they sound pretty good!

Dragon – DragonAir
Well, this is just pretty hard to beat. Because – dragons!

Speedbird – British Airways
I was a little surprised by this one. It sounds a bit muscle car-like for a somewhat uptight airline like British Airways.

Here there by … Vikings! (By Andrew Thomas from Shrewsbury, UK [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)

Sasquatch – SeaPort Airlines
This small airlines picked a theme that resonates with its origins. And named their somewhat small planes after a huge, mythical beast. Perfect!

Shamrock – Aer Lingus
Few callsigns could work better for an Irish airlines. And Guinness might not’ve gone over so well with regulators and nervous passengers.

Snowflake – Air Sweden
What could make much more sense for an airline from such a cold place?

Trans-Soviet – Transaero
I’m a Cold War kid. The mere word "Soviet" was steeped in a fascinating brand of menace. And honestly, I thought their aircraft looked extremely cool. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any photos of Transaero Tupolevs, Yaks or Ilyushins.

Velocity – Virgin Australia
This call sign nicely sums up my perception of the various Virgin airlines. They seem more entrepreneurial and less risk-averse. It’s a smart piece of branding that other airlines might not use to their advantage.

Here’s a classic for you! A DC-8 from Air Sweden. Callsign? Snowflake. (Photo by Perry Hoppe)
Viking – Thomas Cook Scandinavia
I’m surprised the other big Scandi-Nordic airlines didn’t grab this callsign. Vikings are even cooler than dragons.

Xanadu – Air Asia
I love this one because it makes me think of the Rush song, which is best heard live on the "Exit Stage Left" album.

Yeti – Yeti Airlines
Well, it’s a perfect name for a Nepalese airline, and a perfect code for the perfect name.

Bushair – Air Queensland
This is yet another example of my good Australia friends using the word "bush" in a way that might make Americans giggle. I’m still recovering from my encounter with a distillery that used the phrase "A True Taste of the Australian Bush" on its label.

Bambi – Allied Air, Nigeria
I’m surprised the Walt Disney Corporation hasn’t gone charging after these guys with all lawyers blazing.

If you want to see a huge list of airline callsigns (including honorable mentions like Tweety, Mermaid, Musketeer, Pirate and, yes, Airgoat!), Wikipedia has a pretty solid list.