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    The other day I was walking (make that "running") through Grand Central Terminal in New York City. As I headed to the track for my departing train I saw something that looked like a little kid' playhouse, with a sign saying "StoryBooth." It was interesting enough to make me stop and grab a brochure. I read the pamphlet on the train, and later logged on to their website. What I found was a very interesting concept, perfect for travelers visiting New York.

    The purpose of StoryBooth is to record broadcast-quality interviews with the help of a trained facilitator. You can interview anyone you want, but most people choose a friend, neighbor or family member -- someone who has had a profound impact on them. Alternatively, if you have a story you want to tell you can pick someone to interview you (If you can't find anyone, their facilitators will interview you.). I would love to have interviewed my grandparents about their experiences coming to America from Italy.

    You probably wonder why you can't just interview someone from your home, using a video camera. You can. But using the StoryBooth ensures professional, broadcast-quality recordings. It also makes the experience much more fun for both the interviewer and interviewee. Everyone feels important, by going through an in-studio radio interview.

    The StoryBooth folks make the experience as simple as possible. They help you decide what questions to ask, and handle all technical aspects of the recording. At the end of the hour-long session you get a CD copy of your interview. With your permission they also add your interview to the StoryCorps Archive, housed at the Library of Congress American Folklife Center. You can even make your interview available for broadcast on WNYC, New York Public Radio. Thanks to the generous contributions of supporters, all this costs only $10.

    Right now the only soundproof StoryBooth is available at Grand Central, but they plan to expand nationwide. You can make a StoryBooth reservation online, or call 212-941-8553. It's open from 10:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Grand Central Terminal is located in midtown Manhattan, at 42nd Street between Park and Lexington Avenues.
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G’day mate! Last week I wrote about how Amber Airplane and I were hanging out in one of our favorite cities of the world: Sydney, Australia. We stayed at the plush Observatory Hotel in the Rocks. When we arrived without reservations we quickly learned that every hotel in Sydney was sold out. However, we were fortunate enough to have a hotel-executive friend squeeze us in at one of her properties. The deal was we had to find another place for Saturday night, because the hotel was just as full as every other place in the city. Luckily that was no problem. We wanted to find a great weekend getaway anyway. So we stored our suitcases with the concierge, packed an overnight bag and headed off to the mountains. The Blue Mountains, that is.

From Sydney, there are a few different ways to reach the Blue Mountains. Driving is the quickest, but who wants to rent a car, worry about directions and worst of all drive on the side of the wrong side of the road? (I am the WORST left-hand driver. My brain just can’t comprehend staying left, especially when there are only a few cars on the road. The only way I can safely drive on the left is if there is traffic, so I can follow other cars.) Driving to the Glenbrook/Lapstone area (the entrance to the Blue Mountains) takes only 50 minutes. But getting to Katoomba and Leura, the most popular tourist towns in the heart of the Blue Mountains, takes another 40 minutes. Of course, only 90 minutes in a car for an incredible weekend getaway is excellent.

Plenty of tour buses offer day trips from Sydney. However, I don’t recommend this unless you are really pressed for time (or just want to be able to say you’ve been there, done that). You should spend at least a night or two up there to get a good feeling for the area.

Amber Airplane and I decided to take the train, which I think is the easiest way to get there. We took a $10 taxi ride from the Rocks to Central Rail Station (make sure to tell the cab driver you’re going to the Country Terminal, which is on the western side of the station – off Pitt Street). The station was very clean, and had a Victorian feel to it. We got there just before the train departed so we hurried up, bought our tickets from the City Rail ticket booth and ran to the track. The train to Katoomba leaves almost every hour (even more frequently during peak commuter times), so if we had missed it it would not have been a big deal. Our one-way tickets cost $12 apiece. You can’t buy a round-trip ticket unless you return the same day.

The train was a pleasure, because it was so convenient and comfortable. The trains are double-deckers with air-conditioning, and there is plenty of room between the seats. Everyone in our car (the Australians call it a "carriage") was super-friendly. We all talked the entire trip. In fact, they were so nice that when one of our carriage-mates heard the conductor tell me there was no food or drink for sale on the train, she insisted we share hers.

All the other passengers were Australians, and were more than happy to tell us about their beautiful country (especially the Blue Mountains). We learned that the reason the Blue Mountains are called that is because wherever you look, you see a distinctive blue haze. Why? "The Blue Mountains is densely populated by oil-bearing Eucalyptus trees. The atmosphere is filled with finely dispersed droplets of oil, which, in combination with dust particles and water vapor, scatter short-wave length rays of light which are predominantly blue in color". Source: Bluemts.com

However, when we started going through the Blue Mountains Amber Airplane and I could not see the blue. Our fellow passengers said it was because there was a bit of a breeze, which blew the blue haze away. Hmmm…very interesting. But they were right, because the next day the winds were calm and we definitely saw the blue haze.

Unfortunately I don’t have time to get into the history of the Blue Mountains, because there is way too much to cover. But you should know that "due to the rough terrain and lack of resources, the Blue Mountains were seen as an impossible barrier for future exploration. However, in 1813, Gregory Blaxland, William Charles Wentworth, and Lieutenant Lawson, along with four servants, four pack horses and five dogs, set off on an exploration which was to create history. The trip across the Blue Mountains took eighteen days and was a tremendous struggle. On May 29, 1813 they conquered it. A year later William Cox, an extraordinary engineer, assembled a team of thirty convicts (more on the convicts below) and eight guards to build a remarkable road across the Blue Mountains. A few years later the Blue Mountains saw its first building." Source: Bluemts.com.

So what about those convicts? Many historians believe Australia was founded by convicts, because they were used as labor by the free settlers. In fact, beginning in 1787 and continuing for 81 years, England transported 160,000 manacled convicts in sailing ships on a 16,000-mile voyage to Australia. What many people don’t realize is that America too received convicts. "In the 17th and 18th centuries England transported some 50,000 convicts to the American colonies where they were sold into servitude, usually for seven years.... Convict transportation to the American colonies was effectively ended by the American Declaration of Independence in 1776 which forced England to use the newly ‘discovered’ land of Australia as a dumping ground for convicts". Source: Magner.org

The train trip took exactly two hours, through some incredibly scenic land. We arrived in Katoomba, whose population of 11,200 makes it the largest town in the Blue Mountains. Plenty of taxis were available, but our hotel sent a courtesy van (they don’t always do this -- only when they’re not too busy). The drive to the Lilianfels Hotel took only five minutes, and when we arrived we felt like we were on a movie set. It has an incredible location, perched high on the magnificent Jamison Valley overlooking the Blue Mountains. Wow!

The hotel has five stars and is a member of the Small Luxury Hotels of the World group, so of course it’s nice. There are two facilities at the Lilianfels. The smallest is the original home, built in 1889 and recently restored to its initial architecture. It houses an award-winning restaurant, Darley’s (named after the earliest owner). Next door, in the adjoining country house, is the three-story main hotel. Built in 1992, it has 81 rooms and five suites. There is also a spacious lounge, a reading room, billiard room, spa, health club, tennis court and indoor pool. An outdoor pool is under construction.

We were ecstatic about being at the Lilianfels, because we had heard so much about it. It has been called Australia's finest boutique getaway, and a getaway it was. The moment we walked into the lobby, we felt relaxed. How could we not? Everyone was so laid back, and the gardens and décor had a real homey feel.

We were greeted by our friend Robyn, the general manager. She told us all about the area, and checked us in. A bellman escorted us up to our room, and as soon as he opened the door Amber Airplane fell in love. She said, "Oh my gosh, this is my favorite room ever!" Of course it was – it was pink. In addition to the color, she liked the English antique style. I’m not a big fan of that design, but it did feel very comfortable. My favorites were the view and the shower. You gotta love a place that has an oversized shower head with the firmest water pressure you ever felt. Incredible!

We only had one night there, so the first thing we did was head to the nearby quaint town of Leura (known for its old buildings, gardens, cafes, restaurants and shops. The drive takes less than 10 minutes from the hotel, and is well worth it. To me, Leura felt like a cross between New Canaan, Connecticut and Mill Valley, California. We had lunch at Café Leaura, and it was very good. My chicken pie came with a side salad, for $12 USD. After lunch we strolled the streets, where Amber Airplane was in heaven. Most shops sold their summer clothes for 50 percent off. (Remember, seasons in the Southern Hemisphere are the opposite season of the U.S., so Australia is getting ready for autumn.) My favorite stop was an ice cream/dessert shop called Cupcake (I think). They had the grandest desserts, and my strawberry banana shake was yummy!

We went back to the hotel, hit the spa and got a movie from the front desk. Lilianfels is owned by Orient Express, and every room at all their hotels has either a VCR or DVD player. Almost every Academy Award-nominated movie is available for viewing (for a small fee, of course). We rented Gone With The Wind, because I never seen it and the hotel reminded me of that era. However, the spa and hot shower were way too relaxing, because guess what? We fell asleep again for the night. Can you believe that? What a waste of a night!

We woke up bright and early the next morning. As you can imagine, we were starving. We were the first guests at breakfast, which is served in the hotel’s other restaurant, Tre Sorelle (Three Sisters). They serve fine Italian food at night, but in the morning they offer a very English-style breakfast. A nice buffet was set up, full of muffins, pastries, fruit, cereal and a honeycomb that oozes fresh honey into a bowl. In addition to the continental buffet they offered a delicious hot breakfast. I had pancakes; Amber Airplane had eggs, sausage, bacon, mushrooms and tomatoes.

The reason the restaurant is called the Three Sisters is because that’s the name of the Blue Mountains’ most famous rock formation. "The Aboriginal dream-time legend has it that three sisters, 'Meehni', 'Wimlah' and Gunnedoo' lived in the Jamison Valley as members of the Katoomba tribe. These beautiful young ladies had fallen in love with three brothers from the Nepean tribe, yet tribal law forbade them to marry. The brothers were not happy to accept this law and so decided to use force to capture the three sisters causing a major tribal battle. As the lives of the three sisters were seriously in danger, a witchdoctor from the Katoomba tribe took it upon himself to turn the three sisters into stone to protect them from any harm. While he had intended to reverse the spell when the battle was over, the witchdoctor himself was killed. As only he could reverse the spell to return the ladies to their former beauty, the sisters remain in their magnificent rock formation as a reminder of this battle for generations to come." Source: Bluemts.com

The best place to view these three sisters is at Echo Point. It’s a short 10-minute walk from the hotel, and is right across from the Blue Mountains Tourism office. This is also where the famous Giant Stairway can be found. Although it’s a whopping 800 steps down to the valley floor, we wanted to hike down. Unfortunately it was closed, due to a rock slide, so we hiked around the valley to the Scenic Railway and the Scenicsender (cable car). It’s a beautiful walk, down some stairs and along a twisty, dirt-filled rock path above the mountains.

Although the Giant Stairway was off-limits, Amber Airplane really wanted to go the Valley floor. I did too, but the only way to get there was either by a 52-degree train (the world’s steepest), or a cable car that travels nearly 1,000 feet above the floor. I am slightly afraid of heights, and for some reason felt really scared. Still, I knew I had to do it for Amber Airplane, myself and all you guys. So I worked up my courage and bought a roundtrip ticket for $6 USD. The ticket can be used for either the train or the cable car (you can also mix-and-match your transportation). Most people go down in one mode, and up in the other. The Scenic Railway and Scenicsender depart from the same building. Scenic Railway and Scenicsender 1 Violet St., Katoomba (follow the signs).

Because it was so early, we were two of the first people to take the two-minute train 1,361 feet down the side of the steep hill through a dark tunnel. There are no seat belts, but there is a grate wrapped around the ceiling. However, it covers only one side. It must be there so belongings don’t fall out, or to prevent tree branches from hitting you on the head. In the 1880s, the rail line transported coal and shale from the mines below. I have no idea how those miners did it back then. The ride was so steep, I don’t think my heart could take it again. It felt like a really slow roller coaster. I think I lost a few years going down. I guess I’m just a big baby, though, because Amber Airplane said it was no big deal. (I think she’s lying).

At the bottom of the valley is a long boardwalk, that winds for over a mile through the ancient rainforest. (A quarter of it is wheelchair-accessible.) The paths go in many different directions, and there are many signs explaining the different types of plants/trees and tools. There’s even a short video depicting how the miners managed to work and live down there back in the old days.

The worst part for me was wondering how I would get back up. I seriously considered sleeping down there, because I wasn’t taking that darn steep train again and there was no way I would take the cable car. Every time I heard the cable car pass above me I looked up, and my knees shook uncontrollably. I know what you’re thinking: What wimp! I agree, but I can’t control it.

I guess the reason for my fear of the cable car was so strong was because I had just read about a bunch of people plunging to their death in one. Actually, I think I had a nightmare about it. Either way, fact or fiction, I wasn’t getting on it. I felt bad, because Amber Airplane really want to take the Scenicsider back up, but she didn’t want to leave me by myself. Finally I figured I might as well take the train, because the ride is five minutes shorter than the cable car. I also realized it should be easier going back up. However, that was not the case. Even Amber Airplane agreed going up was even scarier.

Back at the hotel we cleaned up, checked out and took the train back to Sydney. Lilianfels Blue Mountains: Lilianfels Avenue, Echo Point, Katoomba, NSW 2780, Australia; tel.: +61 (02) 4780 1200; email: reservations@lilianfels.com.au.

When we arrived back at the Observatory Hotel we decided NOT to take a nap. Smart move! Instead we walked to the Rocks Market, to catch the tail end of the event. The market is held every Saturday and Sunday, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. This a great place for souvenirs. There are 150 stalls, selling everything from didgeridoos to crocodile teeth. My favorites are these unique photo albums, made from Australian license plates. You can get some good snacks at the market too, especially corn on the cob. There is also free entertainment and live music.

For the next few days we hung out in our hotel room and worked on our laptops. Not only did we both have plenty of work to do, but the weather turned ugly: cold and rainy. Don’t get me wrong -- we did go out every day, but mostly just for meals.

We found several good places to eat. Wok On Inn is a great place for an Asian lunch. You pick whatever kind of noodles, meat or vegetables and sauce you want, and the chefs make it up for you there. They have restaurants all around the city, but we ate at the one in Darling Harbour. Wok On Inn Level Two (near Pyrmont Bridge entrance), Harbourside Shopping Centre, Darling Harbour; tel.: 9212-6655.

A similar place to Wok On Inn is Wagamama. The space is hip, and the food and service are good. Wagamama, 38 Bridge Street, Sydney; tel.: +61 (02) 9252 8696.

Everyone who goes to Sydney visits Harry’s Cafe de Wheels. It’s in Woloomooloo (try saying that five times fast!). Harry’s has been around since the 1930’s, and (of course) serves all kinds of pies. My favorite is the chicken pie with mushed peas and mashed potatoes, with gravy on top. Ummm! If you’re less adventurous, you can also get a hot dog there. Harry's Cafe de Wheels, Cowper Wharf Road, Wooloomooloo, Sydney 2011; tel.: (02) 9357 3074.

Another great place for an inexpensive lunch with dozens of choices is in the bottom floor of the Sydney Center Point, a mall in the heart of Sydney’s shopping district (between George Street and Pitt Street). The killer food court has everything from fresh-squeezed juices to spicy Malaysian dishes.

Since we are on the topic of shopping, I should mention that Sydney has several places to shop. I don’t know them, but I do know someone who does. Sign up for Amber Airplane’s newsletter. I’m sure she will write about it – soon.

I think Sydney’s most popular shopping street is Oxford. This is where you’ll find tons of boutiques. There are so many shops there, and the street is so long, it’s almost impossible to walk it all in one day.

Believe it or not, though, I have a small-world story that took place on this street. I was pacing around one of those girlie clothing stores Amber Airplane likes to frequent. I usually hang outside and sit on a bench, but this time I decided to go in and wait. I was standing next to Amber Airplane when a pretty woman came up and asked in an Australian accent, "You wouldn’t happen to be Johnny Jet, would you?" I nodded in amazement.

It turned out that the woman’s name is Jacinta, and we met her last year with my brother. What’s incredible is that Jacinta is a big TV anchorwoman in Asia, and lives in Melbourne where they broadcast from. Melbourne is an hour plane ride away and she was in Sydney for only one day- and we ran into her. What are the odds of that?!

Before I go, let me give you my shopping tip for Australia. I use a digital camera that takes CRV3 batteries. They are hard to find anywhere, but especially in Australia. When you do find them, they cost a whopping $50 for two. I recommend stocking up on them before you leave the U.S. (where they’re $18 for two). I must have visited a dozen stores looking for them, but the only one with a decent price was the Downtown Duty Free shop ($10 for one). Downtown Duty Free, 84 Pitt St, Sydney 2000; tel.: 02 9232 2566.

Next week I promise to tell you about our surprise visitors from the U.S., and a trip to one of the world’s most famous beaches. But that’s it for now – g’day, mate!

Blue Mountain Links

Australia is on sale from $999. This package includes International Airfare from Los Angeles and 5 nights accommodation in Sydney. As an added bonus you will receive a Captain Cook Harbor Highlights Cruise for two on Sydney Harbour, absolutely FREE. You better hurry or you will miss out as this offer is only valid up until April 8th, for travel May 1st until May 31st 2004. CALL 1-800-Johnny-Jet TO BOOK!

Happy Travels,

Johnny Jet

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  • Your column was excellent this week and most pictures werre good and the close up of beans was superb. Dad
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  • What do you DO for a living that you can afford the time and expense of all this traveling? Do you need an assistant? How can I get a job like yours? HELP! We just returned from Ixtapa this past weekend and I won't see any more traveling for 5 months. Jamie S. Wisconsin
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  • Hi there. Met you, Amber and your brother Frank and his mate briefly, last year at Icebergs, Bondi, Sydney. And have been a reader of your newsletter ever since. Welcome back. Enjoyed reading your newsletter. funny to read someone else's version of our 'culture'. Hope you have a great stay and be gentle with the locals....... Erica - Australia
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The High Cost of Getting Miles for Taxes
By now you're received a notice from one or more of your affinity credit-card companies offering you what seems like a great deal: a slew of frequent-flyer miles or frequent-guest points when you charge your taxes to your card. The hitch? The incredibly high cost. Let's say you owe $25,000 on your federal tax return. If you charge it, the company that handles credit-card payments for the IRS will bill you a "convenience charge" of $622.50. And let's say you pay the $25,000 charge over the course of a year. At 13.99 percent, the going rate on most frequent-travel cards, the finance charge will be another $1,934.72. That's a total of $2,557.22 in fees. The 25,000 miles you earn will get you one restricted, domestic roundtrip ticket. The value of that ticket? Less than $400 at current fares. JOE BRANCATELLI

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Add spice, not price, to a Caribbean vacation
Titillated by rum punches and in dire need of a break, I was drawn to the Caribbean for my winter vacation. With a little quirky planning and some high-season luck, I found myself relaxing in Jamaica without a care. And the cost was "no problem." Ya, mon! Click Here To Read Article

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