Monday, April 24, 2017




          More than one month after the state Supreme Court ruled unanimously that text messages and emails sent by public officials on their personal devices are matters of public record if they deal with public business, Gov. Jerry Brown has still not moved on his own email issues.

          During that time, in fact, Brown flouted his own boasts of transparency by using a federal anti-terror rule to deny public access for records on various aspects of the Oroville Dam crisis.

Brown’s email issues stem from his communications with the state Public Utilities Commission at the time of the infamous PUC decision on financing the closure of the crippled San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station. The settlement forced customers of Southern California Edison Co. and the San Diego Gas & Electric Co. to foot more than 70 percent of the $4.7 billion cost for the shutdown, largely caused by an Edison blunder.

          The question: Was that so-called settlement mostly decided in a well-documented secret meeting between then-commission President Michael Peevey and Edison executives in a luxury hotel in Warsaw, Poland? Or did Brown have a major hand in it?

          Either way, the division of costs was so unfair that the PUC was forced last fall to reopen its decision-making process, a process that is not yet finished.

          For sure, more than 60 possibly relevant emails exist between Brown and the PUC. San Diego consumer lawyers Michael Aguirre and Mia Severson have pushed almost two years for their release, but Brown steadfastly refuses, calling them confidential. No one knows if any or all involved Brown’s personal email, which would make these communications subject to the recent state Supreme Court ruling.

          It would not be a good idea to bet on these emails being released anytime soon. When current U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris was state attorney general and conducting a loudly announced investigation (still incomplete well over two years after Peevey’s homes were raided by investigators), she delayed indefinitely a ruling on whether Brown must divulge the emails. Meanwhile, Brown was heartily endorsing her Senate candidacy.

          Now, with the impending retirement of Pete Wilson-appointed state high court Justice Kathryn Werdegar, Brown will soon have appointed the majority of members of that court.

          Given that Brown appears to expect even supposedly independent appointees to toe his political line – his PUC commissioners are good examples – there’s no reason to expect the state’s high court ever to go against him.

          For sure, there are indications from material already been made public that Brown at the very least knew and approved what would happen between Edison and the PUC at the time San Onofre was playing out. A June 6, 2013 note sent by Edison CEO Ted Craver to company board members starts with Craver saying he “wanted to give you a quick report on my phone calls with Gov. Brown.”

          At the time, Brown was meeting in Rancho Mirage with then-President Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping. Reported Craver, “He said what we were doing seemed right under the circumstances.” Craver also said Brown “indicated a willingness to” say publicly that Edison was acting responsibly. No one knows what, if anything, else might have been covered in that call.

          No one also knows what Brown said in all his subsequent emails to PUC members. But the eventual PUC decision blatantly favored Edison. There is no record of Brown talking to consumer advocates around that same time.

          Maybe Brown was directly involved in the entire decision-making process. Without the 60-plus emails – and maybe even with them – it’s impossible to know.  He and his press secretary have consistently refused any comment.

          Now comes the state Supreme Court’s ruling on private emails dealing with public policy decisions. If any of the Brown messages were on a private email account, they should be subject to this ruling.

No one yet knows how new Attorney General Xavier Becerra, appointed by Brown, will deal with the issue. So far, he’s said nothing about the entire investigation into the PUC.

All of which means the taint of possible Brown complicity in what may have been corruption remains, and could become a significant part of his eventual legacy unless he relents and lets the public in on public business he so far has kept very private. 

    Email Thomas Elias at His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough, The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit




          If any measure now before state lawmakers should be a no-brainer, it’s the bill aiming to move California’s presidential primary up into the third position during the next primary season in early 2020.

          If this comes off as sponsors plan, Californians would vote in mid-March less than three years from now, and have their votes actually count for something, unlike the pattern of most of the last 50 years.

          That’s where one innovation in the latest iteration of the moved-up primary idea enters: When California previously tried moving its primary up as early as Feb. 5, other states hustled into even earlier dates in a sort of devil-take-the-hindmost approach.

          The key innovation to cope with this “let’s keep California meaningless” movement is a provision allowing the next California governor to move the primary up as far as needed to keep it relevant. That could enable a vote here as early as late January if other states insist on trying to beat out California.

          This could happen if 2020 sees the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses staged in very early January, as sometimes happens. New Hampshire could then vote as early as mid-January, even earlier than last year, while California goes later in the month or on Feb. 3. If that’s how the calendar plays out, there would likely be a very early Super Tuesday, many other states hop-scotching to the same day as California in order to stay relevant.

          This is all really about giving Californians a voice in choosing their President. The last time California voted very early, on Feb. 5, 2008, several other states moved up into January to dilute its impact. This state got a voice, but not a veto as a heavy Democratic vote here for Hillary Clinton over Barack Obama was the main reason their race extended all the way into May. The state’s impact was helped when turnout for that primary was higher than for any in the previous 30 years.

          One thing the early date produced was awareness by all presidential candidates of what was important to voters in the most populous state. By contrast, when Californians voted in June last year, nominations in both major parties had long since been determined.

          Another recent factor may also play a big role: If California moves far up on the calendar, its recent massive use of mail-in ballots could force candidates to give it priority over smaller places with earlier Election Days. Because ballots reach so many voters about a month before Election Day, we could see campaigning here even before the Iowa caucuses. The candidates and their strategists well know that ballots sent in weeks before the official date count as much as those cast on Election Day.

So campaign rallies in December, or even November, could become commonplace here.

          A very early date will be likely if the next governor – to be determined next year – wants California to have a major voice.

          Even though the current legislative proposal tentatively sets the primary for the third Tuesday in March, the 15th, it would be unwise for any governor to leave it there.

          That’s because other states are already front-loading. Aside from Iowa and New Hampshire, guaranteed to vote first by both major parties, Nevada and South Carolina have tentatively set their votes for Feb. 20. Crammed into the first two weeks of March are Alabama, Arkansas, Colorado, Georgia, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, Kansas, Michigan and others.

          If California waits until March 15, it might as well keep the primary in June, for all the influence it would have. So the chances of the next governor moving the state into early February or even January are strong, with other states likely to follow suit to preserve some clout for themselves.

          All this will be inconvenient for legislators, members of Congress and their prospective primary opponents, who will have to make decisions and raise money much earlier than usual because filing deadlines – coming in March when the primary falls in June – would now move to the latter part of 2019.

          Too bad for them. The turnout in 2008 and the frustration of many Californians with the outcome in both parties last year assure that this state must move up or forget about having any input on vital issues for years to come.

    Elias is author of the current book “The Burzynski Breakthrough: The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government's Campaign to Squelch It,” now available in an updated third edition. His email address is

Monday, April 17, 2017




          Any California consumers who still believed this state’s big privately-owned utility companies are either willing or able to protect the interests of their many millions of customers must surely be disabused of that notion today.

          Yes, companies like Pacific Gas & Electric, Southern California Gas, San Diego Gas & Electric and Southern California Edison are talking a good customer service game lately, repeatedly advertising efforts to make pipelines and other features of their vast systems safer, while also selling energy for less than in some earlier times.

          But the outcome of an arbitration case that Edison touted for years as a huge coming benefit for customers demonstrates that talk is cheap.

          Edison long cited the case as a coming bonanza for its ratepayers, noting it had demanded $7.6 billion from Japan’s Mitsubishi Heavy Industries as a penalty for furnishing flawed steam generators that wrecked the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, finally shut down in 2012.

          Customers were ticketed to get half Edison’s winnings under terms of a so-called “settlement” reached between the company, the state Public Utilities Commission and two purported consumer groups in 2014, an agreement that saw consumers assessed 70 percent of San Onofre’s $4.7 billion in closure costs.

          Oops. The decision by an arbitration panel of private judges from the International Chamber of Commerce arrived this spring: Instead of $7.6 billion, Edison will only get $125 million, or about 3.3 percent of what it has hyped for years. Customers will get half that amount, a net benefit of about $3.61 each to the 17.3 million persons in the service areas of Edison and SDG&E (a part-owner of San Onofre).

          This end result was partly the result of the fact that then-Edison vice president Dwight Nunn in a 2004 letter warned Mitsubishi that “…there is the potential that design flaws could be inadvertently introduced into the steam generator design that will lead to unacceptable consequences.” Edison later dispatched some of its own engineers to work with Mitsubishi’s, but no design changes followed and the generators were eventually installed. Nunn’s prediction came true a few years later.

          By awarding Edison only a tiny fraction of the money it demanded, the arbitration panel essentially held the utility at least partially responsible for the outcome.

          And yet, Edison managed in a series of secret meetings highlighted by a session involving some of its officials and the disgraced former PUC President Michael Peevey in a hotel in Warsaw, Poland, to get a deal where it would pay far less than half San Onofre’s closing costs, sticking its customers with 70 percent of the bill.

          This was so blatantly unfair that the PUC in a first-ever move last year reopened its proceedings on that deal, which was agreed to by supposed consumer groups Toward Utility Rate Normalization (TURN) and the state Office of Ratepayer Advocates (ORA). TURN subsists to a large extent on so-called “intervenor fees” awarded by the PUC when it decides rate cases and other matters where TURN participates, while the ORA is actually part of the PUC bureaucracy. So a settlement by the PUC with these outfits amounts to little more than a settlement with itself.

          Similar irony came when the PUC fined Edison more than $16 million last year for not reporting its secret meetings with PUC officials. Of course, because PUC officials were in those meetings, they were no secret to the commission, but only to customers the commission is supposed to protect.

          The arbitration result essentially vindicated independent consumer advocates like San Diego’s Charles Langley, head of an outfit called Public Watchdog. “It’s smoke and mirrors,” Langley said in 2015 about Edison’s claim of a big upcoming arbitration benefit. “They’ll never see that money.”

          Now it’s official. Neither Edison nor customers will see much of that money.

          The logical conclusion: If an international arbitration panel has in effect held Edison largely responsible for San Onofre’s failure, why shouldn’t the PUC do the same? With the entire San Onofre matter still unresolved after the case was reopened, the PUC now has an opportunity to at last demonstrate some independence from the utilities it regulates.

          Sadly, though, no one who knows the commission’s longtime patterns has reason to expect a new decision that’s any more than a token improvement.


    Email Thomas Elias at His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough, The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It" is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit




          There is no doubt that a 2003 car tax increase helped wreck Democrat Gray Davis’ career as governor of California. But a new batch of car taxes just passed by state legislators at the strong urging of Gov. Jerry Brown will not harm him or his legacy.

          One reason for this is the timing: Davis was ousted in a recall election first proposed by this column less than one month after his reelection in 2002. He had almost three years remaining in his term by the time the recall came to a vote in October 2003.

          Brown has less than two years left to serve; even if a recall movement arose, there could be no vote until sometime next year, when Brown would have only months left to serve. That calendar means there’s little point to this kind of exercise, so it won’t happen.

          There are plenty of other differences, too. For one thing, corruption and not the car tax actually spurred the Davis recall, even if a lot of pundits with faulty memories now say otherwise. The column that began the recall drive (cited by national publications like the New York Times and the Christian Science Monitor and by Ted Costa, the activist who filed the first recall papers) decried the fact turnout was lower by 1.5 million in the 2002 election when Davis won a second term than in the election that first made him governor in 1998.

          “This happened,” the column said, “because of massive popular disgust with a political system that encouraged graft and corruption.” It went on to describe how beholden Davis was to his big donors, both labor unions and corporations. That prompted Arnold Schwarzenegger’s first promise on entering the recall election: that he would take no money from special interests.

          This, of course, was the first of many broken Schwarzenegger promises.

          Then there’s the fact that Davis acted alone when he raised car registration taxes in 2003, a move that unquestionably added oomph to the already-active recall. He activated a provision in California law allowing vehicle registration fees that have previously been lowered to be raised again by the governor in times of budget deficits. The state consistently ran large budget deficits at that time.

          Brown, meanwhile, got his car tax increases passed by a two-thirds vote of the Legislature, even winning over one Republican. So Jon Coupal, head of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn., was off the mark the other day when he likened the current scene to 2003.

          In fact, road conditions are far worse now than 14 years ago. That’s partly because electric vehicles and highly efficient hybrids have dramatically cut use of gasoline and also the gas tax revenues used for road repair.

          The new taxes will hit not only gasoline buyers, but also assess EVs that use no gas, which seems fair to most Californians because those cars and trucks use the same roads as all others, but until now have not paid a fair share for that privilege.

          It’s also true that Davis was unpopular even before the recall focused attention on his negatives; his job approval ratings in various polls were in the low-40 percent range, far below Brown’s performance, now running in the high 50-percent range.

          Sure, the well-documented corruption and sweetheart deals at state agencies like the Public Utilities and Energy commissions, both run entirely by Brown appointees, could provide reasons for voters to see Brown negatively. But polls suggest most voters have not cared much about any of that, at least not yet, and certainly not enough to seriously tar Brown’s reputation.

          Then there’s the fact that most voters appear to believe major road repairs are vitally needed, while there was no such feeling in 2003.

          So the scene today is vastly different from 14 years ago, and it’s serious overreach to suggest Brown might suffer a major backlash because of the new levies.

          The bottom line: Brown’s reputation and legacy have not yet been tainted by the serious problems in some state agencies under his authority, so there’s no reason to believe new car taxes will harm him, either.


    Email Thomas Elias at His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough, The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It" is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit

Monday, April 10, 2017




          Think of Congressman Darrel Issa, the former car alarm magnate who made a fortune off the Viper system, and you picture the ultimate Republican loyalist, the former chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee who bedeviled ex-President Barack Obama over everything from his birth certificate to conduct of the Food and Drug Administration.

          But these days, it is Issa who is bedeviled, with a target on his back in his San Diego County district, which stretches north into Orange County’s Dana Point.

          The target comes courtesy of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which has named Issa as one of seven California Republicans in Congress it considers vulnerable in next year’s voting. Not only did Issa barely win reelection last year, by about a 1,600-vote margin, but the outcome of that race wasn’t known until weeks after the election. And his 2016 opponent, retired Marine Col. Doug Applegate, is coming after him again next year, while Democrat Hillary Clinton actually carried the district narrowly in 2016 presidential voting.

          One result is that Issa is now focusing much more on his district rather than spending most of his time on investigations that went nowhere and were mostly designed to harass Obama and his aides. Not a single person was indicted or removed from office because of any Issa-inspired probe and Bakersfield’s Kevin McCarthy, the second-ranking House Republican, admitted their prime purpose was to harass Obama and his aides.

          Calvin Moore, his energetic deputy, insists Issa – one of the wealthiest members of Congress and perhaps best known around California for funding the petition drive that led to the recall of former Gov. Gray Davis – has always maintained a strong focus on his district.

          “He’s working on the same stuff he always has,” Moore said. “He wants the nuclear waste issue at San Onofre settled, he wants veterans to be able to get jobs more easily and he wants immigration reform.”

          Those are staple issues in a district which includes the huge Camp Pendleton Marine base and hosts the shut-down nuclear power plant whose spent fuel will be stored just yards from the beach under current plans.

          But although Issa insists he’s visited the spent fuel site frequently since San Onofre shut down in 2012, few in his district recall such visits prior to one staged with much publicity last winter, when he brought fellow Republican Rep. John Shimkus of Illinois there to plump for a bill setting up new nuclear waste disposal sites.

          Issa clearly hopes the retirement of former Democratic Senate leader Harry Reid of Nevada will open the way for a storage site at Yucca Mountain not far from the gambling Mecca of Laughlin, a project Reid resisted for years because of reported danger to aquifers that form much of souternh Nevada’s underground water supply.

          Meanwhile, Issa has still not taken a position on the San Onofre cost settlement that is now under reconsideration by the state Public Utilities Commission because of evidence it was a sweetheart deal between former PUC president Michael Peevey and executives of Southern California Edison Co. That settlement saddled consumers with about 70 percent of the cost of decommissioning the plant, which failed largely because of an Edison blunder. It’s a major issue for consumers in his district. Issa has had five years to consider a stance, but taken none.

          Issa also submitted his own plan to replace Obamacare, the Affordable Care Act, seeking to open all government employee health insurance plans to the general public and contending this could bring rates down so far that current federal premium subsidies would not be needed. Such subsides were not in his plan, which differs greatly from others put forward by fellow GOP House members. His plan has gone nowhere.

          Issa also staked out a position far from other Republicans on possible investigation of Russian intelligence links to President Trump’s 2016 campaign. He’s called for an independent prosecutor, contending Trump’s Attorney General Jeff Sessions cannot do the job objectively enough for most Americans to trust conclusions he might reach.

          The upshot is that constituents in the 49th Congressional District shared by Issa and Applegate are seeing more of their representative than most can ever remember. He’s also seeing more of his constituents, one positive aspect of a close vote in a district that formerly was one-sided.

Elias is author of the current book “The Burzynski Breakthrough: The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government's Campaign to Squelch It,” now available in an updated third edition. His email address is




          In this remarkable water year, which ended more than five years of severe drought in California, there are still plenty of noteworthy water questions to contemplate and act upon.

Here’s the central one: Three years after California passed what’s often called a landmark groundwater regulation law, no one knows how much under-surface water remains accessible to wells and no one has a clue to how much replenishment the state’s supplies actually got from last winter’s massive storms.

          It’s easy to see that once-depleted reservoirs are back at peak levels, again drowning abandoned towns, buildings, corrals and other structures sacrificed decades ago to the need for water storage.

          But groundwater remains a mystery.

          Things may not be quite as mysterious as years ago, but one thing for sure: supposed new information the state now possesses about ground water basins is essentially common sense stuff understood long ago by anyone with even a modicum of knowledge about California rainfall, lakes and rivers.

          Example A is a somewhat breathless mid-winter report from the  California Department of Water Resources called “Water Available for Replenishment,” showed demand for local water and imports from other regions is highest in the Tulare Basin of the southern San Joaquin Valley.

The same report says “runoff, natural recharge and outflow are highest on the North Coast.” And we were told the estimated water available for replenishing ground water basins is highest in the Sacramento River region (about 640,000 acre feet a year, enough to satisfy the needs of 1.4 million families).

          This is all the stuff of common-sense: Virtually no one familiar with California’s water world doesn’t know that farms in the Tulare Basin consume a lot of water, both from the Central Valley Project and from wells. Who doesn’t know it typically rains more on the North Coast than anywhere else in the state? And who doesn’t know the Sacramento River watershed contains some of California’s largest reservoirs, from which water could be shifted to replenish aquifers?

          So this was essentially a useless report, telling interested Californians little they didn’t already know. There is still no way to tell how much water remains in easily reachable aquifers around the state. For example, no one has a clue how much water lies in most California underground lakes. We do, for example, know golf courses in the Coachella Valley portion of Riverside County, including Palm Springs, Rancho Mirage and the aptly-named Indian Wells, always remained green even as the state Capitol lawn and many others went brown in the drought.

          Drought or not, the vast underground lake beneath the Coachella Valley keeps water shortages there at bay year after year. Plus, much of the water sprayed onto the valley’s myriad greens and fairways eventually filters back down to the aquifer.

          Far more important would be to know the extent of aquifers and their winter replenishment in the Central Valley. During the drought, farmers spent heavily to deepen wells and reach new, lower levels of underground supplies, but no one had the foggiest notion how long that could persist. Winter storms at least partially replenished supplies, but it’s still anyone’s guess how much water rests there or how long it might last.

          Water meters, reported Leon Szeptycki, executive director of Stanford University’s Water in the West program, could help a bit with this. He told a university magazine that “If everyone had a meter on their well and you knew how much everyone was using, you could sort of calculate everyone’s contribution to aquifer depletion. But if you don’t know any of those things, they just become things to fight about.”

          That’s pretty much where we are today, more than 12 years before the new state law’s eventual deadline for controlling and measuring use of ground water as thoroughly as surface water is managed now.

          The bottom line: We know that after a winter of heavy rain, there is no more drought in California. Even Gov. Jerry Brown admitted that.

We also know at least some Californians want controls on ground water use, but that’s many years off. All of which means that we know startlingly little more now than before the groundwater law passed three years ago, and that’s a crying shame.

    Email Thomas Elias at His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough: The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government's Campaign to Squelch It," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit

Friday, April 7, 2017



By Thomas D. Elias

SANTORINI, Greece – – If islands were beautiful women, goes a classic line about this hyper-volcanic island 210 miles southeast of Athens, Santorini would be a supermodel.

From its famously bright whitewashed houses and shops to the deep blue Greek Orthodox church cupolas dotting the island, there seems no end to the beauty and bucolic quality of Santorini.

 This has made it a regular stop for myriad cruise ships that regularly ply the Mediterranean Sea and a must-see for almost anyone visiting Greece and its many islands.

We arrived here on one of the newest of the world's luxury liners, the Viking Sky, a spanking new 933-passenger ship run by the Viking cruise line best known for its riverboats.

This ship may be one of the classiest on the seven seas, filled with real luxury and little of the empty glitz seen in the brassy atrium entries of some other cruise liners. Walking onto the Sky about six weeks after its February launch, the senses were filled with sights and smells of the finest leather furniture, teak accessories and a staff unrelenting in its efforts to serve passengers.

Plus, every cabin has a veranda – there are no inside cabins on the Sky. Books are everywhere on this ship, which plays a different Ted talk daily on its closed-circuit televisions and employs many university professors to guide its shore excursion tours – at least one tour at every stop included in the cruise fare, which is as low as $2,649 per person for next year’s sailings of the 10-day Athens to Venice trip we took.

No ship, however, can detract or distract long from the high drama of Santorini, held up by many myths as the Atlantis of longstanding legend.

The current Santorini – the main island and four smaller ones circling the archipelago's volcanic caldera – is all that's left of a very large island destroyed in about 1625 B.C.E. by the most massive volcanic eruption ever witnessed by humans. The impact was felt as far away as Sweden, almost 2,000 miles north, and the plume of smoke, ash, lava and pumice it spewed was far greater than what was produced by the blasts of Krakatoa in the 19th Century or Mount St. Helens in the 20th.

Was there ever a great and advanced civilization here? The answer is maybe. For sure archaeological digs going down about 300 feet through old lava and ash have found very sophisticated artifacts. But no machines, so far. So if this civilization was advanced, it was by ancient – not modern – standards.

For sure, the volcanic blast destroyed the Minoan civilization that dominated Mediterranean shipping and commerce from the island of Crete, 140 miles south of Santorini, for more than 100 years. One of its legendary kings was the mythical Midas, he of the golden touch. The force of the volcano’s explosion was far greater than any earthquake experienced anywhere since.

Santorini, for example, endured a volcano-caused 7.9 earthquake in 1956. That’s as great a magnitude as any quake that ever struck California – about equal to the 1906 San Francisco jolt and another that hit in 1857 along the San Andreas Fault in the Ft. Tejon area near Interstate 5’s Grapevine stretch. The Santorini 7.9 knocked down many buildings, but it left the island itself unchanged. So it was a far cry from the ancient eruption.

The modern island is one of fabulous views and narrow roads given to sudden traffic jams and no visible traffic cops. That's why our veteran guide here, 25-year-island resident Charlotte Jordan, joked that you can still rent a donkey near Santorini's second city of Oia (pronounced ee-ah) and on some days beat a car or bus to the main town of Thira, about five miles away.

You can also rent a donkey, a la the famed Molokai mules, near the dock at the bottom of the 1,300-foot volcano-made cliff on the west side of the main island for the climb up to Thira. Most visitors prefer to go by cable car for a fare of six euros, or about $6.50.

It's in Oia that you'll find the prettiest, purest whitewash-and-blue-colored church on the island, St. Mary of Platsumi Cathedral.

The habit of painting church domes bright blue is said by locals to be a leftover from an era when Greeks had to be discreet about protesting discrimination by the Ottoman Turks who ruled the island for 420 years until Greeks – said to have been inspired by the American and French revolutions – finally won their independence in the early 19th century.

Blue has always been one of two colors on the Greek flag. Since any religious or nationalist protests were harshly squashed by the Turks, the church cupolas are reminders that despite their hardships, Greeks refused to forget who they were.

Greeks on Santorini for centuries also held secret classes passing on their culture in a monastery atop Mt. Elias (no relation to the author), the highest spot on the island at about 4800 feet.

The bottom line: this island is a must-see and must-experience. And a brand-new cruise ship smelling of new leather and fresh varnish is a pretty good way to get here.


Thomas D Elias writes a syndicated column on California public affairs appearing in 93 California newspapers.


(California Focus bonus coverage)

By Thomas D. Elias

KOTOR, Montenegro -- Among  the world's millions of roads and highways, a very select few have themselves become destinations.

There are western Canada's magnificent Icefields Parkway, California's own Highway 1 through Big Sur and Maui's Hana Road, to name three.

None of them has anything over the nameless road that winds its way through 13 miles and 27 hairpin turns up a 3,500-foot cliff from this medieval Venetian-built port town, best known today as the setting of the James Bond movie Casino Royale. The road leads to Cetinje, the former capital of Montenegro, on the small nation’s rocky central plain.

          Sometimes billed simply as the serpentine road because of all those switchbacks, so sharp that authorities painted numbers at the apex of each to let drivers know where they stand, the route features almost constant views down to the Bay of Kotor, or Boka Kotorska in Serbo-Croatian, the southernmost fjord in Europe.

          Look the other way, and from some turns you can see the gorgeous beaches at Ulcinj, about 30 miles south, and part of the port town of Bar, with occasional views of the overcrowded resort town of Budva and the ultra-luxury St. Stephen’s Island, the entire place now one large five-star hotel.

The views are among the world’s finest, one dramatic vista after another. It’s no wonder Lord Byron in the 19th Century described the coast of Montenegro as “The most beautiful encounter anywhere between the land and the sea.”

The road’s surface is smooth asphalt today, with guard rails protecting drivers from abrupt, unbroken drops of hundreds of feet. Even so, bus drivers who ferry cruise ship passengers up Lovcen (pronounced love-chen) Mountain all through the summer take it very slow and easy. They sometimes have conflicts with other drivers who don't understand the worldwide protocol that on a road too narrow for more than one vehicle, the car or truck heading downhill must back up to the nearest wide spot.

Difficult as the driving looked the other day to most of my fellow bus passengers from the brand-new cruise ship Viking Sky, to me it looked pretty simple.

That's because the last time I came here, on a cross-Balkan road trip in 1989, this then-completely nameless track featured gravel and no pavement, plus the same sheer drop offs, but with no guard rails. Great fun to drive, but maybe a little nerve-wracking for passengers.

My wife and I signed up for Viking's 10-day "Empires of the Mediterranean" cruise from Athens to Venice the moment we saw it featured a daylong stop in Kotor and a shore excursion up the well-remembered road, which I recalled clearly as one of the most gorgeous, least-publicized and most adventurous drives we ever made.

We figured there must've been some heavy work done on the road in the 28 years since we last drove it – and there has been. The government of Montenegro appears to be on a road-building binge.

Not only has our favorite lane (it's still only one lane) been paved, but a new highway is almost finished over much more gradual terrain on a far longer, circuitous route between Kotor and Cetinje, also the terminus of the so-called serpentine road.

The new route has two lanes and some decent views over the Adriatic Sea coastline, but no romance or sense of adventure.

The road you might well love and certainly would never forget was built by Swiss engineers working for the army of the Austro-Hungarian empire during World War I.

It was never meant to be a highway, but rather as an invasion route for enemy troops to enter Montenegro from the back way and surprise the locals. That never worked.  For a reminder of the difficulty of the task faced by those Swiss mercenaries, near the top of the narrow road you can look across a deep gully to a steep, dirt footpath that previously was the only route linking Kotor and the rest of Montenegro.

Kotor, as romantic on a springtime evening stroll as it looks from above, appears much as it did in Medieval times, when monarchs from all over the known world sent their most promising young sailors to the town's Marine Academy to learn the latest ins and outs of navigation and boat building. Kings like Peter the Great of Russia and Ferdinand of Spain were among its patrons over the centuries.

With narrow streets and no space for cars in its Old Town, known as the Stari Grad in Serbo-Croatian, you would never imagine being able to find a replacement iPhone charger cord here, but I ran across one in a little shop off a small plaza. Modernity met medieval and my cell phone kept working.

Getting here was a great part of the fun, too. From the moment you board the Viking Sky, which made its maiden voyage in February, you sense this is a unique ship. The odors of high-quality leather and fresh varnish pervade the ship.

Its kitchens put out Scandinavian specialties not available on most other luxury liners. Brand-new books seem to cram every spare shelf aboard, even some cubbyholes around the swimming pool with its retractable roof.
Walk the staircases and see huge tapestries featuring Viking legends. Itineraries are carefully crafted for synergy and stimulation. Add lectures on subjects from fashion to mythology, economics and details about the next port. Free WiFi throughout the ship and no-charge mini-bars in every cabin. Free washers and driers with free laundry soap. Specialty restaurants without the extra charges common on other cruise ships, and free house wines with every dinner. Listed fares on some spring 2018 sailings of this cruise start at $2,649.

Put it together and you have a ship with both pizzazz and substance, just like the road it can take you to, one with beauty, meaning and adventure all rolled together.


          Thomas Elias writes a syndicated column on California public affairs appearing in 93 newspapers.