Table of Contents for Western Skies & Island Currents


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Western Skies and Island Currents

From the Desert to the Mountains to the Sea and all the Pristine Rivers, Lakes and Islands in Between.

Table of Contents

California’s Eastern Sierras



Tom’s – Scandal or Good Advertising?






Stranded in Mono Lake

Lake Tahoe


Time to Circle the Lake and Discover Your Next Adventure 


Is Tahoe’s Real Estate Market About to Repeat Itself? Will You Miss Out?

Colorado’s San Juan Mountains






Santa Barbara

Quick Getaway to Santa Barbara 

Hotel Santa Barbara’s Grand Tradition 

Night TRAPs – Walk. Drink. Eat. Groove. 

Morning for the East Beach Grille in Paradise 

Authentic Lifestyles and Cozy Couches 

In Search of Oprah – at the Bacara, San Yisidro Ranch or in Montecito? 

Island Currents

Want to Pack More Passion and Meaning into Your Life? 

Aloha from the Beaches


Last Ones on Earth to Check Italy off our Bucket List 

Sweet Anticipation. Getting There is Half the Fun, Right?! 

How to Stuff Three Days of Venice Into Just 24 Hours

Celebrate Leonardo da Vinci Life on the 500th Anniversary of his Death

How to Stuff Three Days of Venice Into Just 24 Hours

Hotel Campiello. It took the fading sunlight at dusk to unmask its mysterious location.


Part Two: Sweet Anticipation. Getting There is Half the Fun, Right?!

“Is this it?” A little dazed and confused we all four traded frantic looks.

“No,” Jay exhaled, standing now.

Statue of Victor Emmanuel II in Venice at San Zaccaria Photo by Stephen Howard

Is this it?

None of us knew exactly what we were looking for.

We collectively lost our confidence in our ability to recognize our destination in time.

“No,” Jay said less sure than he let on.

But, then it was.

And as we feared, we almost missed our harbor stop struggling and lugging, well, luggage,  up the steps to the deck and then walking across the gang plank before the public boat pulled away.


Public Boat Alilaguna Line – 30 Euros for Two

Then the fishing began.

We fished through our notes, both printed and in my iPhone, for directions from the harbor to the Hotel Campiello.

We wandered around in crowds of tourists like us and in tour groups unlike us.

You know how it is when you rush around searching for something so urgently  that every other sense shuts down?

We almost missed the unique smells of salty air and ignored the clean ocean breezes on our skin.

Even back home in California there’s something unique about the mix of diesel fuel and vacation smells you notice when crossing the bay between Balboa Island and Balboa Peninsula in Newport Beach.

Venice delivered its own brand, a type of pungent fragrance lingering lightly in the air.

Elle shot an apprehensive glance to Emma and whispered, “I don’t see any street names, do you?

No,” Emma replied looking uneasy now.

We approached an open air cafe.

I wandered down an alley next to it just at dusk with a few dark shadows beginning to linger.

Jay and I shared puzzled looks.  Shouldn’t it be here?

Up and down the harbor we strolled looking for clues, our rolling suitcases trailing us like a shadow.

Rolling suitcases trailing us like a shadow over pedestrian bridges. Photo by Stephen Howard

Something smelled fishy.

Emma looked doubtful. “Aren’t we staying just east of St. Mark’s Square?”

“I think so,” I said feeling confused and mildly annoyed.

It’s supposed to be near the Bridge of Sighs, where is that?” Jay asked scratching his head.

We’re supposed to see a half of dozen boutique hotels recommended by Rick Steves.” Elle said with a look that signaled her energy was draining.

Any more clues?” I wondered.

This is the Riva degli Schiavoni waterfront promenade, right?” Emma confirmed. Looking at her notes as she continued,

Entrance to Hotel Danieli on San Zaccaria harbor. Photo by Stephen Howard

Steves says to look for hotels, like ours, that rub drainpipes with five-star, palatial hotels where the wealthy stay in Venice.

Its 16 rooms lie just 50 yards off the waterfront in a tiny square.

And it used to be a convent in the 1800s.

Did Mark Twain Visit the Convent?

My mind drifted sideways from its purpose at the thought of the 19th century.

I wonder if Mark Twain strolled along this very water front?

I vaguely recalled he too traveled to Venice, Florence and Rome.

In the fall of 1878 Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) stayed in Venice with his family.

Mark Twain

According to his three volume Autobiography, “They arrived on the evening of 25 September after an exhausting day’s travel from Bellagio, on Lake Como.  They stayed at the Grand Hotel d’Italie, whose south side was on the Grand Canal.

Now what about us?

We too felt exhausted and frustrated.

Our own hotel shouldn’t be this difficult to find.

Shouldn’t we ask?” Emma and Elle offered.

C’mon, you’re kidding, right?” the two totally lost, cave-dwelling, hunter-gathering guys sheepishly snapped.

Finally, we returned in defeat to where we started, to the open air cafe.

The ladies politely asked for directions hoping the server would understand English and be willing to aid pathetic tourists yet again.

He pointed to “my alley” which served to shore up my fragile instincts.

We retraced my steps thirty minutes earlier on uneven cobblestones when I concluded we were nowhere close to the hotel supposedly yards away from the water front.

Great instincts, horrible observation skills.

But, there it was down one of the kinds of “alleys” we were destined to appreciate in every other Italian destination we visited.

A lit sign above a doorway.

“Hotel Campiello.”

Italian Speakeasy

It took the fading sunlight at dusk to unmask its mysterious location.

It felt like a scene out of a roaring twenties flick.

A hidden door.

A secret knock.

A buzz and we were in.

Lobby of Hotel Campiello. Photo by Stephen Howard

Once inside we became charmed by the hotel keeper, who quietly demurred when I asked if she were the owner – “Not yet,” she said, “but someday.

We instantly agreed with how Rick Steves described it as “lacy and bright” decor with the feeling of tranquility that fills you.

Two things were on our collective minds – dinner and bed.

We found our rooms and quickly returned to the lobby for a local restaurant recommendation, not too far away so we could find our way back by following Italian bread crumbs.

Wait Until 7, Never Leave

Di Foffani Francesca,” she said.

We discovered something new to us.

Most Italian restaurants don’t serve until after 7pm.

Di Foffani Francesca

And, while the good old truck stop rule of thumb applies in the US, it doesn’t here.

No crowd at seven means nothing about the quality of food.

Locals don’t seem to show up until 8 or 8:30 pm.

And that’s just the beginning of the trickle until the noise and fun begins later in the evening.

Oh, and Rick Steves was right when he said, in Italy you can order a meal and linger all evening.

No manager or restaurant owner expects to turn the table as many times as she can to boost her profits.

There was this small, intimate restaurant somewhere in LA or maybe Beverly Hills whose gimmick was to take your order, choose not to fill your water glass unless you insisted (during the multiyear drought and all) and then turn an hour glass over when your server returned with your order.

As the sands of time obeyed the physics of gravity and the last particle fell, she returned with your bill and shoed you out so someone else having waited an hour eagerly took your spot.

Patrons loved it.

Go figure.


Di Foffani Francesca, Castello 4687, Venezia : 82 Euros / 41 Couple

  • Coperto (Cover Charge) – 3 Euros each
  • Pizza Margherita Gourmet – 15 Euros
  • Calamarta Frutti Di Mare – 15 Euros
  • Lasagna Melanzane – 16 Euros
  • Cabernet – 21 Euros
  • Acqua Nat 1LT – 4 Euros

But, here in Venice at Di Foffani Francesca we couldn’t even get our server’s attention even when our patience wore out.

Nor for that matter after other meals in Venice, or later in Florence or Sienna or Cinque Terra or any of the Tuscany towns or at the end of our trip in Rome.

Even when we felt patient, relaxed and mellowed out (by American standards) we still couldn’t figure out the protocol for settling our bill.

But, here we were exhausted by the fourteen hour flight, jet lag, and we just wanted to pay.

But, enough about that now.

A Day Ahead

Was it Wednesday night or did I wait until Thursday morning?

We intended to stay a day ahead of our itinerary, so with a train trip coming up, our first in Italy, I went online using the hotel’s WIFI to book a train.

Which was an epic fail.

A no go with my iPhone, even after getting help from the new guy at the front desk who also lost his patience.

Let the Vacay Begin

1st full day in Venice, Italy at breakfast in the Hotel Campiello. Photo by Stephen Howard

At our prearranged time we huddled around a small table in the lobby to eat a version of what each of our other hotels offered free for breakfast.

Twelve months ago we debated where we would go, what we would see, which hotels we’d book, how much time we’d enjoy at each destination and how much we wanted to spend for the whole vacation.

We’d meet and discuss where we should go, why we were interested and how much time we wanted to devote – two to three days at the most – so we didn’t feel rushed.

Six months had gone by.

Our itinerary had been locked down.

Life Happened

We didn’t know much about Venice other than stories about Casanova and gondolas attracting us originally for a romantic celebration of our anniversary.

After the Delta – KLM – Air France – Customs – windshield-less beginnings, could we regain that feeling?

Or would this be more of a task?

Check it off your bucket list because, “they” told us we had to.

That was in our planning stage.

But here we were, day one in Venice.

We pulled out notes and began recalling bits and pieces between bites.

Elle and Emma fumbled through their separate, but well-worn pages of identical guide books to answer the question, “What did Rick Steves tell us we should know to fully appreciate and experience everything we could?

He wrote that Venice is the best preserved, medieval-to-Renaissance, big city in Europe.


I’m a fan of the Renaissance and Leonardo da Vinci.

So, I wedged in a little history into the conversation, “As the Second Italian War broke out in 1499, Leonardo da Vinci fled Milan for Venice, where he was employed as a military architect and engineer, devising methods to defend the city from naval attack.

Really?” Jay shrugged.

Portrait of Leonardo Da Vinci by Francesco Melzi

I missed his body language and continued to lecture everyone.

Leonardo had left Florence when his patron, Lorenzo de’ Medici, sent him on a mission of peace to his rival, the Duke of Milan.

But over the ensuing years Leonardo became a “hired gun” to Italy’s feuding powers, such as the Borgias and the Doges of Venice shoring up defenses and creating maps of their regions.

I concluded my exposition with, “His keen mind was very much in demand.

Who knew,” Jay said while reaching for a banana.

More about Leonardo when we reach our next destination, Florence I promised.

Arriving in Venice by boat tipped us off to some other facts.

Just the FAQs Ma’am

Elle and Emma brought Jay and me up-to-date according to their guide books.

We’re surrounded by hundreds of islands.

And over 400 bridges and 2000 alleys

The “reversed-S” Grand Canal, 2 miles long 150 feet wide in some places and about 15 feet deep. Photo by Stephen Howard

About 25 miles of canals drain Venice proper into the Grand Canal.

Those 45 small waterways are known as rivers to the locals, “Rio Novo”.

They reminded us that we chose to base our accommodations in San Marco, the heart of the city as a convenient way for our launching romantic adventures.

And, shopping.

A Little History for Context

We wanted to experience the Piazza San Marco, the Rialto Bridge and maybe the Accademia Bridge.

Oh, and the Campanile – the dramatic bell tower in St. Mark’s Square.

About 1500 years ago in 518 A.D. Venice provided refuge from marauding barbarians protected by its lagoon.

During the middle ages Venice managed a profitable East-West trading route and prospered.

About three hundred years later, the bones of San Marco (St. Mark) were smuggled to Venice in 828 A.D.

Marco Polo

If you were a fan of the Netflix’s series about Marco Polo like Jay and I were, aside from the airport’s name, we wanted to know what his connection to Venice was?

Jay said he remembered Netflix focused on the trade routes into Kublai Khan’s Asia, but didn’t remember anything about Venice.

Me either,” I said

I found out later that Marco Polo joined his father and uncle for almost two and half decades before returning to Venice.

Their epic journey ended in 1295.

Marco Polo returned with his fortune converted into gemstones.

By then the Republic of Venice had been embroiled in several wars with the Republic of Genoa for dominance in the Mediterranean Sea, each having established their claims on foreign lands.

Feeling patriotic, Marco funded a galley and went to war.

He was captured in 1296 and spent several months imprisoned.

During his jail time he dictated his adventures to his cellmate, Rustichello da Pisa, which became “The Travels of Marco Polo.”

While some of the tales may have been embellished, exaggerated or supplemented by da Pisa’s own accounts, Christopher Columbus found enough inspiration in the Far East descriptions that he wrote annotations in his copy planning to visit China, India and Japan himself.

Time is of the Essence

Footbridge with Emma posing and Bridge of Sighs over the canal in the background. Photo by Stephen Howard

Facts are facts and history is history, but we didn’t have much time allotted for Venice as it was.

So, we quickly grabbed our maps and tour books off the table and struck out for St Mark’s Square which was almost around the corner from Hotel Campiello.

Back to the wide stone promenade, the Riva degli Schiavoni, along the water’s edge.

Okay, one more fact.

In the ninth century the promenade was constructed from the silt dredged from the lagoon, with enough to cover the distance between the Old Arenal and St. Mark’s Square.

In the 21st century, we marched with purpose up and over bridges with ramps.

We dodged in and out of the flows and globs of bunched up tour groups taking selfies.

A Day and a Half’s Worth of Exploring St. Mark’s Square by Noon

Standing in front of the Basilica, eyeing the heavy door of wrought iron and glass, Emma and I popped in our ear buds to take Rick Steves tour from his app.

In our rush, Jay and Elle forgot their earphones back at the Campiello and tried to share one set with a left in Jay’s and a right in Elle’s ear.

First day with St. Mark’s Basilica under construction in the background

We saw the line forming at the Basilica, but decided to follow Rick’s numbered itinerary full of descriptions of museums, cafes, and sights to take in within the square.

But, our tour didn’t sync with Elle’s and Jay’s.

And it became more difficult to follow the clues to where Rick was taking us.

So, Jay pointed to the opposite corner and we followed his lead. 

We employed the Disneyland strategy.  Board the train at Main Street station.  Circle the park checking out where shortest lines prevailed. Disembark and head to that attraction.

We circled the square without a train, but with lines of people all around us.

Exploring the shops and alley ways by Osteria Enoteca San Marco. Photo by Stephen Howard

We found some shops.

Or I should say Minnie and Daisy did.

We guys, Mickey and Donald, focused on where all four of us needed to be with enough time to tour the Grand Canal by boat, as if there was any other way.

And take a Gondola ride.

Oh, and tour the Basilica.

Which Emma and I did by ourselves, since Elle had met her stamina limit walking all four sides of the square and in alley way offshoots during our morning exploration.

Elle and Jay returned to a cafe near our hotel for rest.

Emma and I quickly moved through the line.

Entrance to St. Mark’s Basilica (Basilica di San Marco) built in 11th century replacing earlier church. Bones of St. Mark have been in the church since around A.D. 830. Photo by Stephen Howard

We couldn’t believe our luck as we caught a break when various groups thinned out.

Inside small clusters of tourists clogged the way, but we found room to maneuver weaving in and out of the throngs.

Rick Steves whispered highlights in our ears and sometimes Emma and I were synched to the “same page.”

He told us about how the basilica had been constructed less like the elongated St. Peter’s cathedral that we were yet to see at the end of our itinerary in Rome. 

We glanced in amazement with each other listening intently.

Not having anything else as a comparison, we moved on with the flow of tourists, and barely noted that the sanctuary epitomized a Greek Cross.

I recall in Dan Brown’s “Inferno” he writes a lengthy passage describing a critical plot point about St. Marks.

Brown’s main character, Robert Langdon, waxes poetically or better yet scholarly about, “St. Mark’s was so eastern in style that guidebooks often suggested it as a viable alternative to visiting Turkish mosques, many of which were Byzantine cathedrals … one’s passion for Byzantine art could be satisfied with a visit to the secret suite of rooms just off the right transept in this church, in which was hidden the so-called Treasure of St. Mark—a glittering collection of 283 precious icons, jewels, and chalices acquired during the looting of Constantinople.

Nearly completing the tour within the flow of other tourists, we paused momentarily to admire the splendor of the Pala d’Oro — the Basilica’s altar — a “fused tapestry of previous works” like Byzantine enamel in a Gothic frame.

And, according to Langdon aka Brown it is, “adorned with some thirteen hundred pearls, four hundred garnets, three hundred sapphires, as well as emeralds, amethysts, and rubies ….

With its interior lined in solid gold tiles, it’s no wonder that St. Mark’s was known locally for centuries as the Church of Gold.

Doge’s Palace

Emerging from the dark interior of St. Mark’s Basilica into the bright sunlight signaled it was time to return to the harbor and meet up with Jay and Elle for the second half of the days activities – returning to the lagoon and adventuring into the Grand Canal.

Doge’s Palace in Venice Photo: Wikimedia Commons

What Emma and I hadn’t realized as we passed the massive, sprawling complex of buildings on our left towards the harbor where tourists queued in wrap-around-the-block lines was the Doge’s Palace.

Where did we go wrong?

Someone once said that St. Mark’s Basilica and the Doge’s Palace were built by the doges for the doges.

Like dukes who controlled the territories in places we hadn’t yet visited on our itinerary, Doges ruled Venice — possibly numbering as many as 100 over the ten centuries which first began in 697 A.D.

While their dynasty came to an abrupt end in the late 1700s when Napoleon conquered Venice, historians (and clued in travelers) find their story of power and glory riveting.

  • We missed visiting the huge museum in the palace for one, and the opportunity to experience its chambers, living quarters, courtyards and prison network.
  • We missed making the connection to the Doge’s Palace while taking one of our first scenic photos, behind Emma in a tight canal bridged by an enclosed tunnel — the Bridge of Sighs.

Apparently those sighs weren’t passionate sighs from couples in love, but from misery, as the walkway connected the palace with the prison.

Prisoners died in their cells and others cried out in anguish and moans which echoed out into the canal.

Casanova and Campanile

Casanova Museum of Experience

One prisoner held for over 15 months, but who escaped with the help of his keeper was the great lover, Casanova.

We had been so intent on finding our way to St. Mark’s Square that we paid little attention to anything else.

And that included the towering redbrick bell tower, Campanile di San Marco, which served as a beacon so lost travelers navigating the maze of canals could instantly find their way back to St. Mark’s Square.

Demonstrating that one cat had exhausted eight lives previously, it became the only victim in 1902 when the entire 300-foot tall tower collapsed including with the golden Archangel Gabriel previously perched at the top.

The Basilica and 325-foot-tall Campanile in the square almost two foot fields long. Photo by Stephen Howard

Hours later the line to tour St. Mark’s Basilica itself had started and stopped differently.

This time tourists lined up on raised platforms.

Yes, I was right.

The others hadn’t believed me when first puddles began appearing in the square.

And eventually deeper water followed.

So the line needed to be elevated to keep their shoes and socks high and dry.

Dan Brown’s Robert Langdon character supposedly had visited St. Mark’s Square on a research trip.

In the novel he had made an off handed comment, “No worse than Venice in flood season.  (The square) had been under a foot of water, and he had walked from the Hotel Danieli to the basilica on wooden planks propped between cinder blocks and inverted buckets.

Part Four: 


Sweet Anticipation. Getting There is Half the Fun, Right?!

Marco? Polo! Marco? Polo! Prego

Part One: Last Ones on Earth to Check Italy off our Bucket List

Our dream vacation!!!!

Casino Di Venezia where German composer Richard Wagner died in 1883. Photo by Stephen Howard

One we’ve been planning for ten months.

Diligently checking off the first 31 tasks on our timeline.

Now we’re down to the last nine!!

Two Days Ahead

32. Make Sure Your Lights Are on a Timer

33. Prepare Family Car Entertainment and Emergency Supplies (N/A)

34. Double Check Shuttle Reservation

35. Pack Appropriate Clothing After Checking Weather Forecast

36. Weigh Check-Ins to Prevent Baggage Charges

37. Pack Carry-On Just-In-Case Checked Baggage is Lost

38. With Contact Info, Pack Itinerary in Your Suitcase

One Day Ahead

39. Print, Charge Electronics, Water, and Turn to Vacation Settings

40. Check Flight Status

In twenty-four hours it would finally be here!!!

Oh, the joy of anticipation!

Oh, the …

We’re sorry for the inconvenience and we’re actively trying to rebook you on the best available flight. We will notify you again once your rebooking is completed. For more immediate action, visit My Trips or use the Fly Delta app for self-rebooking.


It’s 7:33 am!!!!



 My Delta app turned out to be useless.

We couldn’t find out what happened.  

Emma called the airlines.  

We got rerouted via Paris-CDG airport instead on Air France. 

Right off the bat we had to rearrange the Supper Shuttle Business Express pick up for an hour and half earlier since our new flight departed at 3:15 pm instead of 4:50 pm.

I figured out that I needed to download the Air France app from the Apple store in order to confirm our reservations, check in and boarding pass on my phone.  

Jay and Elle didn’t and had to go to the ticket window and wait for a long time at LAX.  

Jay motioned us over.  

Turns out not only was there a size dimension for carry on bags, but a weight requirement too.  (How did we skip: 36. Weigh Check-Ins to Prevent Baggage Charges?)

Our two black bags weighed too much, like theirs, so we checked them through to Venice, Italy.

Hours later.

French Pecking Birds

While waiting at the gate in France at Charles de Gaulle airport for a four hour layover not quite awake, not quite rested, but in a sleep deprived zone, Elle and I noticed birds sitting on top of a display sign behind us.  

We sat inside a building with glass windows revealing planes parked loading and unloading passengers and baggage.

Another three birds pecked at something on the carpet a few feet away from us.

Or did I dream the scene?

I can’t say we were at the top our game.  

Questions flooded my feeble mind.

“What else could go wrong?”  

“The luggage gets lost?” 

“They don’t honor our reserved seats?”


We booked all four of our seats next to each other on our flight to Amsterdam on the original KLM Delta Partner flight after a Delta flight attendant walked us through how to identify the plane and guided our seat reservations.

That was KLM.

This was Air France.

Air France boarding passes to Marco Polo Venice International Airport from Paris-Charles de Gaulle airport. Photo by Stephen Howard

Not the same seats, but at least each couple sat together.

Finally on the flight I struck up a conversation with the flight attendant who inquired about the reason for choosing them.

Our original flight was canceled due to technical problems we were told, but this is a vacation celebrating our birthdays and our wedding anniversary.

She looked a Emma but said she wasn’t as lucky saying, “I’m a failure.

Emma replied, “No you aren’t.

Later she returned and asked us if we’d like to visit the cockpit after the meal service since this was such a special occasion?

Seemed a little odd to me, but we both agreed.

Still later she returned saying because we’re flying from the U.S. she couldn’t arrange it.

Of course, we figured, it’s got to be against every security protocol put in place since 9/11.

Champagne, Monsieur?

Then she asked,  Do you like champagne?


So just before we started our landing descent, she returned again with a gift wrapped with a little ribbon around the neck and sealed inside a plastic bag.

We thanked her and thanked her and felt maybe the vacation we planned almost a year ago, actually did get off to a better start.

But, that feeling didn’t last.

Venice on the Adriatic Sea in Northern Italy near Austria, Slovenia and Croatia. Photo by Stephen Howard

In Italy, of course we needed to go through customs and security.

Still groggy I juggled a water bottle, the champaign, my carry-on while desperately searching for my passport.

All the while a little voice reminds me not to put my iPhone in my jeans back pocket, right,  like I have always done. 

Since 7am I’d conditioned myself with that internal dialog, “Wait, no you can’t do that. Stop. Put it in your money belt instead, stupid.

And without my wallet I felt odd.  

I fumbled for my money belt holding my passport and phone around my waist.

We placed our bags on the conveyor belt and crossed our fingers that we could pass through the security arch without sounding an alarm.

That was the least of our worries. 

The security agent flagged my half empty water bottle and the champaign.  

He kept asking for the champaign’s receipt.

We told him it was a gift.

He said too bad, but without a receipt we couldn’t keep our gift.

Emma retold our story.

He didn’t budge, like a referee who made his call and it was absolute and it was final.

No amount of instant replay would overturn his ruling.

Bubbly Bottleneck

Besides fellow Air France passengers were backed up because of the “bottleneck” we were causing.

During the confusion I grabbed my water bottle and forced it into my back pocket where my iPhone or wallet would normally be found under the jacket wrapped around my waste.

I’d much rather it had been the champaign.

But c’est la vie.

Venice – an hour and 45 minutes by boat admiring hundreds of islands, bridges and alleys. Photo by Stephen Howard

Exiting the Marco Polo International Airport confused us.

We could have taken a train, but chose instead to take the public boat, Alilaguna Blue Line, for the 1 hour and 10 min trip.

Of the hundreds of decisions facing us, that one had been made and checked off our list ten months earlier.

I think I was the one who spotted the logo for water taxies pointing the way out of the baggage claims area and to our left.

Following the trail sign-by-sign led us back inside then outside, along a conveyor belt and long walk overlooking a parking lot to our right (huh?), but eventually to water off in the distance.

Alilaguna Blue Line ferry connecting Marco Polo Intl. Airport to San Zaccaria. Photo by Stephen Howard

A good sign.

Romantic Setting Sun

The sun began to set, so we felt this could be another good sign as we boated into Venice.

However, comma. 

The water taxi windows were covered with dried sea water splashed on them as every fast boat sped by.

We followed a channel of brown wooden posts sticking out of the water vertically.  

Paranoid about letting our luggage out of our sight we climbed below only to discover an almost full group of passengers with their bags taking up seats.  

So we made do, figuring it couldn’t be any more uncomfortable than the knee banging leg room we endured from LAX to Paris and from Paris to Venice.

Wrong again.

We didn’t know much about Venice

It was romantic, right?

Casanova and gondolas attracted us for our romantic anniversary.

When you go on holiday to Italy you have to check Venice off your bucket list, right? 

Yes, the sun was setting, but we sat so low in the sea of luggage we couldn’t see much.  

Even if they paid someone to hold on for dear life on the outer starboard rail and cleaned the glass.

Or installed windshield wipers.

Conversations or Better Seats?

So we struck up conversations, but I didn’t listen.

Half of my attention filled with anticipated dream snippets of what we’d see — the beauty of the canals, wondering if we’d see the home of the Venice Film Festival, being awed by the cathedral in San Marco ….

Using the other half, I tracked open benches as some people got off and others joined us at each stop.

I wasn’t ever sure whether we’d find or miss San Zaccaria the email instructions from the Hotel Campiello said to find.

Cruise Ships, Tall Ships, Yachts on the Adriatic Sea. Photo by Stephen Howard

Besides the conversations usually followed the same sequence. 

Oh, how long have you been in Italy? 

First night?

Where were you before this?

Where are you going?

Where are you from?

Nearly everyone burst with tips and “be-sure-you-see this or that.”

One guy in his sixties had been coming to Venice almost every six months for years. 

He’d rent out his other home in Great Britain and take this longer public water taxi trip each time. 

Since he wasn’t a virgin Venice tourist like us, “Why?” we asked him. 

He never had to be anywhere at any particular time, so he didn’t have to take the quicker bus or faster train to his destination.

Johnny Depp Meets Angelina Jolie

I don’t know why maybe talk of the train reminded me of the opening scenes in “The Tourist” when Johnny Depp meets Angelina Jolie zipping towards Venice. 

They end up staying at the Hotel Danieli next to the Bridge of Sighs steps from St Mark’s Square.

The romantic thriller stimulates my sense of anticipation, until I’m drawn back in to the conversations.

A baby boomer couple from the states had been in Naples.

All four of us Emma, Jay, Elle and I exchanged knowing glances.

We hadn’t heard great reasons to visit Naples and had eliminated it from our itinerary during the first week of planning.

We were on the front end of our vacation adventures and they were heading back home now at the end of their trip.

Sitting immediately in front of me a millennial guy with backpack, a floppy hat and iPhone at the ready – the kind who I’m guessing stretches every Euro as far as he can, stays at youth hostels, and fills his Instagram with selfies – chatted up the older, long blonde-haired women to his right.

They got off two stops before us.  

Were they mother and son?

Or just traveling companions who hooked up?


From the water taxi. San Marco. St. Mark’s Square, San Giorgio Maggiore Photo by Stephen Howard

When they and the Naples couple disembarked and the other family with all the bags stepped off, we stood up.

Not out of respect, but more out of aiding their exit.

Awkwardly, we squeezed between our suitcases and backpacks, now pulled up from the boat floor on to our seats, and waited for them to pass before finding room to spread ourselves and our stuff out in the hull. 

Breathing room.

Roaming Brexit Connections

I picked an open bench next to another Millennial couple with British accents, both comparing maps on their iPhones.  

The Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana (National Library of St Mark’s) designed by Jacopo Sansovino. Photo by Stephen Howard

Excuse me, do you both have WIFI connections on the boat?

No, they’ve got what sounded like a perk from being from countries in the European Union – celluar data plans that seamlessly transfer from country-to-country roaming across three plans for no extra charge or inconvenience.


Then they both looked out the glazed over window at the setting sun as they contemplated how Brexit might disrupt their key tool for wandering around the continent.

Part Three: How to Stuff Three Days of Venice Into Just 24 Hours

Vacation Planning Timeline (Source LA Times, 2011)

One Month Ahead

18.  Set Up Internet-Accessible E-Mail Account

19. Verify With Your Bank Cash, ATM, Credit Card Transactions

20. Evaluate Your Bags

21. Arrange for Pet Care

22. Arrange Final Air, Hotel, or Car Maintenance Logistics

23. Assess Appropriate Clothing Needs

24. For International Travel Register With Smart Traveler Program

25. Confirm Healthcare Coverage and Prescription Refills

One Week Ahead

26. Notify Post Office and Newspaper

27. Make Multiple Copies and Give Out Itineraries For Emergencies

28. Include Copies of Prescriptions With Critical Information

29. Arrange for Trash Take Out and Shuttle Service

30. Organize Trip Documentation in Carry-On Bag

31. Pick Up Local Currency, List What You Need to Pack; Contacts in Smartphone

Two Days Ahead

32. Make Sure Your Lights Are on a Timer

33. Prepare Family Car Entertainment and Emergency Supplies

34. Double Check Shuttle Reservation

35. Pack Appropriate Clothing After Checking Weather Forecast

36. Weigh Check-Ins to Prevent Baggage Charges

37. Pack Carry-On Just-In-Case Checked Baggage is Lost

38. With Contact Info, Pack Itinerary in Your Suitcase

One Day Ahead

39. Print, Charge Electronics, Water, and Turn to Vacation Settings

Day of Travel

40. Check Flight Status


Celebrate Leonardo da Vinci Life on the 500th Anniversary of his Death

Timing is everything.

Just in case you haven’t heard Italian towns and European museums have scheduled events in 2019 celebrating Leonardo da Vinci’s art and amazing genius marking the 500th anniversary of his death.

Travel is the best  way to gain worldly experience learning about other cultures, languages and cuisines.

And we all know how wonderful it is to travel to Italy anyway.

But this year is special. If you had a chance to ask Leonardo, he would have told you to never go too long without a sunset.

You are never too old, and it is never too late. But, you’d better book the flight.

Planning and Timing

Is there any bad time to visit Italy?

Italy’s fall, which runs from September through November, is one of the shoulder seasons, though September can still be quite busy in some areas. Nevertheless, the weather cools off in these months, making it far more pleasant than the sweltering summer. However, beaches may be less alluring once the sea temps drop. By late October, a huge chunk of hotels — especially those around the coast or on islands — close for the winter season. 

What can go wrong?

“Over 70% of Venice  in late October 2018 was underwater. People in the lagoon city were trying to deal with the water damage, while wading through over knee-high water. Spread across dozens of islands and known as “the floating city” for its ubiquitous canals and bridges, Venice has grappled with inundation for centuries. But due to natural subsidence and the higher tides caused by global warming.

Packing and Unpacking

One bag or two?

“Where I live, it’s just cobblestone, and that’s very annoying with the rolling suitcase. A lighter bag can make your next trip less stressful and more joyful — sometimes in unexpected ways. Because they don’t check bags, they also don’t need to pay checked-bag fees when flying, which typically run about $25 per bag.”

Legends and Geniuses 

Curated by Steve Howard for the “Western Skies and Island Currents” digital magazine.

Mark Twain visited Italy four times in four decades: the initial foray took place in the summer of 1867, the last stay in 1903-04. In 1867 he visited Genoa, Italy. From there, Twain and two companions went to Milan and Lake Como and visited Bellagio, moving on toward Venice and continuing to Florence and Rome before rejoining the ship in Naples.

Leonardo da Vinci’s 500th Anniversary

“In Florence: Events at the Museo Galileo include a spotlight on Leonardo’s library (June to late September 2019) and the quest for perpetual motion (mid-October 2019 to mid-January 2020). The Palazzo Vecchio explores Leonardo’s relationship with Florence (late March to late June 2019) and probes the mystery of his lost painting The Battle of Anghiari (late February 2019 to mid-January 2020).”

Two-Week Bucket List Itinerary

Trip of a Lifetime.

“If you are planning your first trip to Italy, this itinerary is a great place to start. With two weeks in Italy, you can visit the highlights…Rome, Florence, Venice, the Amalfi Coast, Tuscany, and the Cinque Terre. Visit ancient historical sites, cruise the canals in Venice, dine on Italian food, go wine tasting in Tuscany, relax on the beach, walk through the heart of Rome, and watch the sunset from the Cinque Terre. It’s the trip of a lifetime.”

Vacation Planning Timeline (Source LA Times, 2011)

One Year Ahead

1.    Research Websites, Guidebooks and Travel Agents

2.    Budget Room, Food, Sightseeing and Entertainment Per Day

3.    Refer to Per Diem Allocations for Estimates

4.    Open a Savings Account

5.    Find Calendars of Events for Timing Better Deals

Six Months Ahead

6.    Optional for Traveling Abroad  — Passport

7.    Shop for Appropriate Shoes and Break Them In

8.    Schedule Medical Appointments for Shots

9.    Get Information and Maps from Tourism Offices

10.  Inspect Camera Gear and Use New Equipment Twice

11.   Request Vacation Dates from Work


Want to Pack More Passion and Meaning into Your Life?

“From the Desert to the Mountains to the Sea and all the Pristine Rivers, Lakes and Islands in Between.”

Find more meaning and happiness in your life.  Try before you buy.

The great thing about living where others spend their vacation is the year round quality-of-life. What’s on your Bucket List? Try these …

Lakes and Mountains. No, it wasn’t an April Fools joke by some family member. Unless you count everyone’s mother, Mother Nature. It’s Spring.  But don’t try to cheer up all those folks delayed at Lake Tahoe by an avalanche for most of the day on Highway 50.

Deserts and Flowers. Maybe those families and locals and tourists stuck in Heavenly traffic should have headed to the desert instead. Wait, flowers in the desert? Yup, this years’ super bloom.

Secluded Islands. No not Oahu, Maui, Kauai or the Big Island (well those are fine too), but the quiet, friendly island of Molokai.  The one that gets no respect – or tourist attention. The one that gives you room to roam. Or consider visiting Beguia, the tiny Grenadine Island, off the beaten path.

Seas and Whales. It’s that time of year again when the humpback whales command everyone’s attention off the coast of Maui.  Except for that boat that struck a whale calf near the southern tip of the Island. By everyone it’s nearly 450 volunteers who help track and record 219 humpback whales one last time in 2019.

Islands and Cultures. Timing is everything. Once a year you have a chance to experience authentic Hawaii culture on Maui.

Seas and Currents. At the top of the world scientists calculate a better forecast of when ice will no longer cover all of the Arctic region. While at the same time temperature readings reveal 2018 established ocean heat set a record.


21) Spend the time to find the best place to live and invest. It will be worth your while. The great thing about living where others spend their vacation is the year round quality-of-life. 

24) Determine which maker or breaker community issues you will find across all resort communities vs. those unique only to the quality-of-life towns at the top of your best places list.

32) Plan extended seasonal vacations during summer and winter months. Group destination locations together in regional trips to explore what several bucket list towns have to offer in the general vicinity – with only a week or two vacation time to spend, we recommend organizing your itinerary by travel regions.

33) When you move, will your established neighbors share your same values? Does your new home have potential over the long term to develop into a high appreciation real estate investment while being affordable for mid-life or empty nesters? Do the weather patterns in winter or summer make you want to live there year round, or only on a seasonal basis. Does  your new community offer a variety of outdoor recreational opportunities?

34) On your visits look for any newer developments that may trigger changes in neighborhood patterns. New construction in or around the neighborhood? Major regional economic adjustments? Transition from households with children to ones that are empty nests? Rezoning, and dramatically rising/falling land values?

Last Ones on Earth to Check Italy off our Bucket List

We projected the map of Italy on our big screen and thanks to Google maps focused our attention at the same time to potential towns.


Venice in St. Mark’s Basin showing the Grand Canal, San Zaccaria and our destination “Photo by Stephen Howard”
Venice and Rome – everyone we talked to said you have to see if you never go back.

Keeping up can be just so confusing.

Every day I’m bombarded with “24 of these travel tips” and “12 of these epic awesome travel apps you absolutely need now!”

Do I really?

And “29 hacks the pros miss.”

Oh, and don’t forget those “11 critical last-minute things you’d better take care of the day before you leave.”

Or else … What?

The list goes on and on.

  • There’s stuff you don’t know about exchanging money. 
  • About your passports. 
  • And cruising through airport customs. 
  • And you’d better not mess up with Global Entry and TSA Precheck.


Take a deep breath.

Let it out slowly.

Focus on something pleasant.

Something other than the constant noise and dust circulating in the air.

Like, our visit to Italy for the first time this past year with our friends.

Italy destinations – Venice, Florence, Cinque Terre, Siena, Tuscany and Rome. Photo by Stephen Howard

It was a blast.

All the anticipation and preparation.

We felt less stressed once we passed the panic phase of not knowing exactly what to do or where to turn for the best advice.

Enduring our months-long kitchen remodel fed our panic as months of planning turned into weeks.

Which turned into days.

“How will they lower the microwave without scratching the cabinets surrounding it or dropping it on the stove in time for us to leave?”

But it was almost as much fun as traveling through Italy with our traveling companions as getting together nine months ahead of our trip, drinking some dark red Tuscany “Brunello di Montalcino” paired with a new pasta recipe,  and discussing where in Italy we should go.

I said almost.

One tip that helped us enormously is for all of you other Apple TV owners.

Venice to Florence

We projected the map of Italy on our big screen and thanks to Google maps focused our attention at the same time on potential towns.

We’d pour a little more wine.

We’d discuss what each of us was eager to see and do.

Then, we could walk up to the big screen and find each town and region on the Italian map.

And right there in front of us  we could assess how long and by which transportation options we should consider.

That turned out to be a real eye opener.

Traveling time to and from all the potential destinations adds up quickly.

The group map projection technique showed us quickly and dramatically how adding too much time in transit subtracts from time allotted for another must-visit destination.

Another power hack (tip) cut through the barrage of travel articles pinging me constantly on my Flipboard and Apple News feeds.

Plan your activities over a time line like you would at work for a project.

  • 1-year ahead,
  • 6-months,
  • 3-months,
  • 1-month,
  • 1-week,
  • 2-days,
  • 1-day and
  • day of travel.
Venice in St. Mark’s Basin showing the Grand Canal, San Zaccaria and our destination “Photo by Stephen Howard”

Read some articles, do more research, and maybe more importantly talk to everyone else who had been there.

We were, it turns out, the last ones on earth who hadn’t already checked off Italy from their bucket list.

We delegated an interview with owners of an Italian restaurant along the Southern California coast in Dana Point to our traveling companions.

They thought for sure the owners maintained a family owned B&B in the heart of Tuscany which fizzled, but only after they enjoyed their dinner and a few glasses of vino.

One Year Ahead:

  • Research Websites, Guidebooks and Travel Agents
  • Budget Room, Food, Sightseeing and Entertainment Per Day
  • Refer to Per Diem Allocations for Estimates
  • Open a Savings Account
  • Find Calendars of Events for Timing Better Deals

Two pieces of advice proved pretty valuable over the first few months of research.

To sort through the hundreds of possibilities, consider this trip to be your once in a lifetime adventure.

Make certain that, if you never returned, you’d visit and do the most important activities to you.

Divide the amount of vacation time you can afford to take by three.

The result dictates how many areas you can visit without wearing yourself out.

Returning tourists in a gondola as more line up for their turn across from the Hotel Cavalletto. Photo by Stephen Howard

The last thing you want to do is feel so rushed that you can’t enjoy your holiday.

Venice and Rome – everyone we talked to said you have to see if you never go back.

Tuscany each of us agreed appealed to all of us as a change of pace, especially if a cooking class can be squeezed in.

The five towns on the western coast in Cinque Terre was an easy sell.

And time in Florence to fully appreciate the Renaissance made the cut.

Even by eliminating Milan and Lake Como we exceeded our allotment of enjoyable time per region.

Oh, I take back any snarky comment I made earlier – “11 critical last-minute things you’d better take care of the day before you leave.”

As we found out, they can be a show stopper and can ruin your vacation at the last-minute.

We’re looking at you Delta!

Part Two:  Sweet Anticipation. Getting There is Half the Fun, Right?!

Vacation Planning Timeline (Source LA Times, 2011)

One Year Ahead

1.    Research Websites, Guidebooks and Travel Agents

2.    Budget Room, Food, Sightseeing and Entertainment Per Day

3.    Refer to Per Diem Allocations for Estimates

4.    Open a Savings Account

5.    Find Calendars of Events for Timing Better Deals

Six Months Ahead

6.    Optional for Traveling Abroad  — Passport

7.    Shop for Appropriate Shoes and Break Them In

8.    Schedule Medical Appointments for Shots

9.    Get Information and Maps from Tourism Offices

10.  Inspect Camera Gear and Use New Equipment Twice

11.   Request Vacation Dates from Work

Three Months Ahead

12.   Book Tickets and Hotel, Including Travel Insurance

13.   Guard Against Pre-Existing Conditions Timeframes

14.   Prepare Tips and References for Your Work Replacement

15.   Apply for a Visa and Rough Out a Daily Itinerary

16.   Begin Filing Critical Trip Information; Use Smartphone and Thumb Drive

17.    Arrange With Cell Provider for International Calls, Data Plans