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I BET YOU DIDN'T KNOW THAT ...
By Michael Matthews
January 30, 2014 -- I am just now reflecting on last year's life on the road. Maybe it's the inner procrastinator in me. Or maybe I've just been enjoying the weather here in Tucson, where there are no tales of flights cancelled due to snow or ice or icy snow or freezing rain that becomes snow or snow that becomes slush that turns to ice overnight.

So forgive me for being a month late with these pithy observations. But you can read them all while you're waiting out another cancellation.

Early in the year, on a flight to I can't remember where, a gentleman across the aisle removed his artificial wooden leg and asked me to put it in the luggage bin for him. He was a World War II veteran, cheerful and articulate. Before we landed, he asked the cabin attendant to retrieve his leg. It was a first for us both as we watched him strap it back on.

Spring saw the wife and I on another journey with the incomparable Seabourn Cruise Line, this time round the Black Sea and Istanbul. In Yalta, we visited the palace where Roosevelt, Stalin and Churchill decided how to divide up the post-war world. I learned that Roosevelt and Stalin slept in the palace, but Churchill stayed 85 kilometers away.

On the same trip, I learned that it's better to use local taxis with English-speaking drivers for sightseeing rather than pay the exorbitant touring fees charged by your cruise company. Drivers wait outside the cruise terminal for exiting passengers. Just check their English proficiency, fix the price (at least 50 percent below what your cruise company charges) and you are on your way. Of course, it does help to know where you want to go.

In Istanbul, I learned that the world's greatest salesmen are the ones selling carpets and jewelry in the Grand Bazaar. Darling wife and I made a pact not to buy either. We decided to purchase some Turkish Delight and wander around without buying anything. The new carpet in front of our fireplace and the sparkling bracelet now adorning her wrist somehow just adopted us.

I went back to Athens after a 52-year absence. The Acropolis is still there, I was relived to see, but the Elgin Marbles remain in the British Museum. In 1961, I stayed at Hotel Grand Bretagne. This trip we also stayed at The Grand Bretagne, now part of the Starwood Luxury Collection. I learned that it is still magnificent, still boasts an unparalleled location in Athens and still offers excellent service. The food and beverage are fine and the bar on the roof faces the Acropolis. It also confirmed to me that most of the world's traditional old hotels are still great. It will be a long time before you see me in one of those new, modern wonder hotels.

Summer was also a season of learning. My wife deserted me to visit her grandchild in Japan and I was left to fend for myself. Luckily, I love cooking. Unluckily, all my recipes are for two, four or eight people. I learned that dividing the amount proportionately to cook for one doesn't work. I also learned that there's definitely a cookbook in the making called Dinners for One ... and Other Stories.

Chris Barnett, my colleague on this site, writes an occasional column about his favorite bars and barmen. So it is with some trepidation that I talk about two bars that I learned about this year. The Observation Bar on Deck 10 of the Seabourn Odyssey is manned by a most able barman named Mr. Trout. From him I learned that a martini should definitely be stirred, not shaken. "Shaking bruises the gin," says Mr. Trout, who promptly punctured my James Bond fantasy. His Negroni is also perfection. All drinks are served with complimentary caviar. There's also unlimited complimentary Champagne. It's an unbeatable experience.

Back in Tucson, there's a joint called Shooters. It's a real bar where blue and white collars mix happily. There's never a dull conversation, which is greased by an assortment of draft beer and liquors that seems unlimited. Need an engineer, plumber, carpenter, electrician, accountant, taxi driver or lawyer? You'll find one at Shooters. Being a local gets you special rates and attention. Nearest thing to a British pub I know. If you come this way, I'll take you there.

We wrapped up the year with a journey through the Panama Canal. The trip originated in Fort Lauderdale and that meant a night at the old Pier 66 Hotel before departure. It's now a badly run Hyatt, but I learned that it does still have an excellent grill room. I spoiled myself on a plate of stone crabs at vast expense.

The cruise itself was interesting and Seabourn again outdid itself. Darling wife, that brave girl, went zip lining in Costa Rica. I went water rafting down the rapids in a tiny four-seat craft and I learned two valuable lessons. The first is to make sure at least one foot is firmly fixed under the strap at your feet. The second is to pay attention to the safety briefing before you set out.

I could not get my foot firmly attached to the strap since my neighbor (a retired senior naval officer) had a very big foot and it took up most of the room. But I had paid attention to the safety briefing: "If thrown overboard immediately turn onto your back and put your toes in the air. Your life jacket will keep you afloat until you get to quiet waters, where you'll be rescued."

Well, you guessed it. I was thrown overboard at the first set of rapids, damn nearly drowned, floated down through the rapids on my back with my toes up and was eventually pulled back onto the raft. Only damage: my ego and a broken thumb.

I did learn something else last year about water, albeit calmer and more contained. Mike, our local plumber, tipped me to something following still another visit to fix a blocked toilet. He told me that 80 percent of his blocked-toilet emergencies were caused by Charmin brand toilet paper. His recommendation: Costco's Kirkland brand because it apparently dissolves faster than Charmin. I am happy to report we haven't had a blocked toilet since switching to Kirkland.

Oh, I did learn one other thing this year: A pig's orgasm lasts for half an hour. But I never did learn how they measured it.

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ABOUT MICHAEL MATTHEWS Michael Matthews has managed and marketed fine hotels around the world for more than 45 years. He spent 14 years in Hong Kong building the legendary Regent International group. He has also worked with St. Regis, Ritz-Carlton and Rosewood hotels. Matthews is currently based in Arizona. He began writing Do Not Disturb in early 2004.

THE FINE PRINT Joe Brancatelli makes this space available to Michael Matthews in the spirit of free speech and to encourage editorial diversity and the wider discussion of important travel issues. All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property of Matthews. This column may not be reproduced in any form without the express permission of Michael Matthews.

This column is Copyright 2014 by Michael Matthews. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright 2014 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.