Don't Even Go There—Travel Writing for the Rest of Us

Even if the world is your oyster, you can still chip a tooth on its shell. While travel magazines feature exotic locales of breathtaking beauty, we expose sites so depressing that no traveler this side of Edgar Allan Poe would venture there without a tub-load of tranquilizers. Take Las Vegas (please) and the $5.99 all-you-can-eat buffet line at Sam’s Town. That's the world we explore at Don’t Even Go There.

On this site, we tell of places we’ve visited but wish we hadn’t. We reveal vacation plans gone awry and relate horror stories from the road best abandoned. These true stories reflect where we’ve chosen to go. We only have ourselves to blame. We rarely needed to exaggerate—the truth really is stranger than a Dan Brown novel.

Don’t Even Go There: travel tips for those of us who aren’t escorted by security guards, pampered by wealthy benefactors, or provided a generous per diem. This blog is for seasoned travelers and armchair tourists who want the real world first-hand and head-on, with all its drama, horror, and humor. You’ll laugh at us, cry with us, and decide to stay home more often.

13 December 2008

Quote of the Month

As we’ve shown in the past, not all these quotes have to be our own. If we hear something that strikes us as Don’t Even Go There worthy, we’re not too proud to steal (er, we mean borrow) it. The following quote came to us without an attribute, although we wish we knew who said it so we could thank him. If you know who said, contact us before his lawyer does.

“Why is it that the closer you get to the ocean, the more seafood costs?”

–anonymous (2008)

07 December 2008

Closed for the Season

We return once again to the region surrounding our current hometown: Asheville, North Carolina. While there’s a lot to love about this place, you have to watch out for the rednecks and tourist traps. Then there’s the hazard involved in this story. We discovered it first-hand, but you have us to thank for warning you in advance. Thank us by leaving a comment. —MB & JS
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The Blue Ridge Mountains extend from western Virginia through parts of Tennessee, North Carolina, and South Carolina. Mention the area, and a Midwesterner might tell you about Appalachia, where furniture is still made by hand, indoor plumbing is still a luxury, and Deliverance-style families still interbreed. Actually, only one of those is still true.

These days, the area has become a scenic destination, a hot spot for young and old alike. What attraction could draw such a diverse group? It’s not a theme park or a music festival (although you can find those too), but a road that winds through the mountains: the Blue Ridge Parkway. Built in the 1930s as a make-work project, it begins near Waynesboro, Virginia, just south of the Shenandoah National Park. From there, it runs southwesterly into western North Carolina, all the way to the Cherokee Indian Reservation that borders the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Along the way, it skirts only two major towns: Roanoke, Virginia, and Asheville, North Carolina. Otherwise, it winds its way through the mountains unimpeded by commercial vehicles, billboards, stop lights, and straight lines. A bare-bones operation, even the safety precautions are optional. For example, despite the precarious turns and dangerous drop-offs, the road has few guardrails. One wrong turn, and you become part of the scenery, permanently.

What the Parkway has plenty of is grandeur. You can find waterfalls, picnic areas, mountain peaks, and hiking trails. The Parkway draws motorists like a late-night drive-through window, except instead of counting your change for a quick snack, you get all you can eat for free. This national park, the narrowest in the country, has no entrance fee or stamped tickets. It also has no gas stations and few motels. A woman we know (whose name we cannot divulge unless we want trouble) said that a drive on the Parkway is her idea of “roughing it.”

The winding, two-lane byway—with its scenic vistas and mountainous topography—affords beautiful views all year round. Foliage season alone accounts for thousands of visitors every day. Most people drive the Parkway conservatively: if you’ve ever been stuck behind an overloaded land yacht doing half the speed limit, you know what we’re talking about. On a motorcycle, however, this is one of the all-time great rides, 469 miles of pure joy.

To the north or south? Both are equally gorgeous and hazardous.

Despite the growing attraction, significant sections of the Parkway close intermittently. Just the threat of aberrant weather can be enough to shut it down. Too rainy? Too windy? Too snowy? Too sunny? It’s impossible to predict when or where it’ll close. January or June, it doesn’t seem to matter.

Do they close the road for maintenance issues? It’s not the government’s fault, it’s the asphalt. Repairing potholes is something the government actually does well, and the Parkway is, for the most part, immaculate. Do they close the road for safety concerns? More people have died hiking the nearby trails than driving the Parkway, even though it’s an unlit road, flanked by trees and cliffs. Death might lurk on every turn, but He seldom claims a soul. Maybe, like the rest of us, He’s distracted by the views.

We can’t identify a single valid reason why a major tourist attraction like the Parkway should ever close. Motorists go out of their way to get there—the road is rarely accessible from major highways—yet America’s Favorite Drive isn’t always open. This is no way to run a tourist attraction, let alone a country. The National Park Service, responsible for maintaining the road, claims they get funding each and every year the military doesn’t need the money.

All we’re saying is that there have been deaths at Disneyland, but that tourist truck stop doesn’t close its doors every time it rains. Why don’t they just post warning signs like the ones they put in fog areas: “Warning: If your windshield is icy, imagine how slick the road must be.” We vote for keeping the Parkway open. Year-round, like Disneyland.

Lessons Learned: If you’re unfortunate enough to find a section of the Blue Ridge Parkway closed, take our advice: park the car and walk around. You’ll feel like an outlaw; you’ll get views closed to all those car-bound yahoos; and the exercise will do you good. Then come back another day. Maybe tomorrow. Who knows? The road might well be open again.

How We Saw It
Blight-Seeing: 1
Communication Breakdown: 1
Customer Dis-service: 4
Discomfort Level: 2
Grunge Factor: 1
Inactivity Guide: 3
Rent-Attainment: 2
Spontaneous Consumption: 2
Fun Fraction: 5/5
Vibe-Rating: 4

If You Won’t Listen to UsNearest Airport: Roanoke Regional Airport or Asheville Regional Airport
Native Population: No one lives on the Parkway, although Park Rangers prowl its length
Normal Attractions: Mountain peaks, waterfalls, flora and fauna, the slow pace of life in the hills.
Final Point of Interest: Even though construction on the Parkway began in 1935, it wasn’t finished until 1987 with the Linn Cove Viaduct (a worthwhile sight by itself).

02 December 2008

Haighted It

As long as we’re skewering once popular destinations, let’s continue with the following story. At one time, we dreamed of going to this place—to pay our respects, to relive a past we never knew, and to just see it with our own eyes. To say we were disappointed is an understatement, as you’ll read for yourself. —MB & JS
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For veterans and fans of the 1960s’ counterculture or for those who merely want to relive recent history, a visit to San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury neighborhood would seem like the perfect destination. Not far from the panhandle of Golden Gate Park—which witnessed many of the concerts, protests, and “be-ins” of the decade—the intersection between Haight Street and Ashbury Street survives as the birthplace of the international Hippy Movement, a memorial to the cultural chaos of the 1960s.

The arts flourished here, not only giving the Hippies their collective voice, but also driving the era’s Cultural Revolution to new extremes. Robert Crumb sold his first comics here. The Grateful Dead refined their music here. Janis Joplin drank here (and there and over there). Artists, musicians, writers, and poets all called it home. This was the neighborhood that fostered not only cultural upheaval but cultural folk heroes as well. No one, no matter how Republican, can ignore the impact this little neighborhood has had on the world today.

Visiting Haight-Ashbury to smoke a joint seemed like a rite of passage. We wanted it to be a pilgrimage to the psychedelic Mecca, a middle-finger extension to the straight, corporate mode of conduct. But the neighborhood’s not what it used to be, and our symbolic act of protest almost got us busted.

When we went, not so very long ago, we found that gentrification preceded us. The cheap, dirty houses where the Dead lived in communal bliss have been cleaned up and sold off. The fixer-uppers have been fixed up. All those flop-houses have been not flopped, but flipped for a profit. Lucy in the sky, even with all her diamonds, couldn’t afford the raised rent and had to move out. The entire neighborhood has been transformed.

Sure, we found a couple head shops and a comic book store still in business. They were counting on us, the nostalgic tourist roaming aimlessly in a heady fog, to support them. The rest of the area is now home to upscale boutiques and beauty salons. The neighborhood today is a decent place to live. Even your mother would approve.

The hippy tourists and the homeless hangers-on have become a minority in their own historical neighborhood. Tie-dyed T’s have been replaced by rainbow flags. Dancing bears have been usurped by Teddy bears. Leather bars aren’t just for bikers anymore.

Yes, Haight-Ashbury has turned gay. Not that there’s anything wrong with it. It just didn’t seem to belong there, in the Home of the Hippie. The Jimi Hendrix Electric Church Foundation, which we were lucky enough to see on an earlier visit, survived for a time, but it’s gone now, and the other purple houses in the neighborhood have a much different meaning than they did back in the day.

Yet when we contemplated the change—like all good Haight-Ashbury tourists, over a smoke—we began to realize something important (at least it seemed really important at the time, if you know what we mean). The more the neighborhood has changed, the more it’s stayed the same. Haight-Ashbury in the 1960s helped birth the sexual revolution. Today, a different sexual revolution’s being waged. Back in the ’60s, women burned their bras while men burned their draft cards. Today, a portion of the population is doing a slow burn as they try to gain equal rights. Sound familiar? Maybe the change is more fitting than we initially gave it credit for. Maybe it’s fate. Maybe it’s karma. Maybe gays just make better tenants than hippies.

If you want to make the pilgrimage to Sixties Central, aka Head Headquarters, don’t expect the old neighborhood to be there to greet you. The real estate market waits for no man, and no monument, museum, or movie will ever capture what it was like to be at the Haight in its height of Ashbury prime. History moves on. Maybe it’s time for you to do the same.

Little Known Quote: Former Beatle George Harrison visited the neighborhood in 1967 and was appalled by what he saw. “I went to Haight-Ashbury, expecting it to be this brilliant place, and it was just full of horrible, spotty, dropout kids on drugs. It certainly showed me what was really happening in the drug culture. It wasn’t . . . all these groovy people having spiritual awakenings and being artistic. It was like the Bowery, it was like alcoholism, it was like any addiction.”

Lessons Learned: You can’t go back in time. Ignoring reality is like slaying windmills: it only works if you’re half-crazed or half-cocked. Either way, there’s a cell waiting for you if you continue. Accept what is. Enjoy the new ambiance of the neighborhood and its businesses. Break out the credit card and go shopping. Maybe you’ll even find a great new restaurant.
How We Saw It
Blight-Seeing: 1
Communication Breakdown: 1
Customer Dis-service: 2
Discomfort Level: 2
Grunge Factor: 2
Inactivity Guide: 4
Rent-Attainment: 3
Spontaneous Consumption: 4
Fun Fraction: 2/5
Vibe-Rating: 1

If You Won’t Listen to Us
Nearest Airport: San Francisco International Airport
Native Population: 750,000 (city only)
Normal Attractions: Piercing salons, homeless, Victorian architecture, Castro Stret (nearby), and the Golden Gate Park (also nearby).
Final Point of Interest: Haight-Ashbury holds a street fair every year in June.

16 November 2008

Quote of the Month

If you travel internationally, you know how difficult it can be sometimes to communicate. Throw in the complexities of local customs, and you’ve got a recipe for disaster. We know. We’ve been there and tried that. Borne from that incredibly embarrassing situation comes this month’s quote. Live and learn.

“When in Rome, don’t try imitating the cryptic hand gestures of the Italians. You won’t get it right. Instead, you’ll end up insulting someone when all you really wanted to do is pick your nose.”

–Mark Bloom & Jason Scholder (2007)

10 November 2008

America's Hidden Treasure

After you read a few of our stories, you might conclude that we don’t like to go anywhere. You’d be wrong. We love to travel and believe it or not, we’re both optimists. We are always on the lookout for worthy destinations. Unfortunately—or fortunately, given this blog—we rarely succeed. This week’s story is the exception rather than the rule, but we really had to go out of our way to find it. —MB & JS
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San Simeon rests in an idyllic location along the central coast of California. The landscape rolls over hills that grab your imagination and drag you to from crest to crest. The surf hits the rocky shore with breathtaking gusto. When the sun sets, it dawdles over the ocean, allowing lovers and amateur photographers time to linger by the water’s edge.

Yes, San Simeon is surrounded by beauty, but little else. It’s the spot you would choose to build a home if you had all the money in the world and no place to be Monday morning. In other words, it’s the place you’d build a home if you were William Randolph Hearst.

San Simeon is nothing to write home about . . . until you spot the castle. (Click on the photo to see it.)

Hearst had it all, plus the deed to the land when it was all scrub brush. In creating the oasis known as Hearst Castle, the land now is only mostly scrub brush, and it’s well worth a visit. This hidden treasure is everything you would want in a house . . . and more. It’s the quintessential monument to American overindulgence. Even the Wizard of Oz would be jealous.

A trip to the castle should headline your list of Things to Do Today. One warning, though: you can’t easily get there. San Simeon is a long drive up the coast from Los Angeles or down the coast from San Francisco. The nearest railway station in San Luis Obispo is still about an hour’s drive away. Of course you have to drive there; this is California, after all. Rent a car—a big car preferably, one with air conditioning and satellite radio.

Plan to spend at least a couple days in the area. Book accommodations in quaint Cambria, down the road apiece. Tour the vineyards of nearby Paso Robles. Big Sur is a few hours to the north. Carmel and Monterrey lay a little further north and Santa Barbara a little further south, but trust us: you won’t be able to tear yourself away from San Simeon.

When we went, we stared in wide-eyed awe at the ornately carved, 54,000-square-foot main house, named Casa Grande by someone who learned high school Spanish. We wandered the gardens, tossed coins into the fountains, and gazed at the rare sculptures like we belonged there. We were dreaming, of course; even the Pope would feel out of place in this lavish opulence.

Instead, we laughed out loud at the velvet-lined 50-seat movie theater, the bowling alley that never was, and the indoor Roman Pool, with its Italian glass tiles and alabaster details. Yes, we laughed. It was our only defense, the only way to survive the over-the-top conspicuous consumption surrounding us. How could we take our own miserable lives as aspiring writers seriously after roaming through the 85-foot-long assembly room with its six ancient tapestries or the refectory with its royal dining table and Renaissance ceiling?

Hearst surrounded himself with art, guests, and wild animals (during its heyday, his “home” featured a working zoo). He knew enough people—most of Hollywood, plus his society connections and political cronies—to fill the 114 bedrooms on the estate. He had things we can only dream of: rich friends, a mistress, and good taste.

If you decide to visit, make sure you see it all. Take all four of the guided tours, including one at night. You have to pay separately for each, of course, but now that the State of California owns the property, they need to make up for other fiscal shortcomings. Think of the poor California caribou going to bed hungry.

As you roam the grounds, do what we did: imagine you’re an invited guest like Charlie Chaplin, Winston Churchill, Calvin Coolidge, Douglas Fairbanks, Clark Gable, Greta Garbo, Cary Grant, Howard Hughes, Buster Keaton, Charles Lindberg, Mary Pickford, or George Bernard Shaw. They all spent time here. Play a game of billiards. Swim in the pool. Use the ashtrays. Expect service from the employees.

Go on: take a dip.

They may eventually kick you off the grounds with stern words and flailing gestures, but you’ll spend a nice afternoon before they catch you. Besides, you’ve gone out of your way to get there and paid an exorbitant fee to get in. Just don’t tell them it was our idea.

Lessons Learned: Hearst Castle is a place out of time. No one, not even Bill Gates, Michael Jordan, or Madonna—even if they had all of Hearst’s money and even some of his taste in art—could build such a house today. That’s what makes San Simeon worth the visit. Hearst’s achievements will never be duplicated. At least not in this country.
How We Saw It
Blight-Seeing: 1
Communication Breakdown: 1
Customer Dis-service: 1
Discomfort Level: 1
Grunge Factor: 1
Inactivity Guide: 2
Rent-Attainment: 2
Spontaneous Consumption: 2
Fun Fraction: 4/5
Vibe-Rating: 4

If You Won’t Listen to Us
Nearest Airport: San Luis Obispo County Regional Airport
Native Population: 470
Normal Attractions: Hearst Castle, shoreline, lighthouses, shopping, bed & breakfasts.
Final Point of Interest: Each tour costs between $24 and $30 during peak season. Don’t do more than two in a day, even if you can afford it.

02 November 2008

Stripped from the Waist Down

We’ve taken all kinds of transportation, from a bicycle to a luxury cruise ship. We much prefer the cruise ship. This story illuminates just one of the many “advantages” to traveling in style. Enjoy it, and learn a lesson that will stick with you for years. —MB & JS
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Cruises have become popular vacations, so we couldn’t write a travel blog without including a story or two about them. In an environment where midnight buffets and heavy seas share the trade winds, anything and everything can happen. Here’s one real-life example to whet your appetite.

When you book passage on a cruise boat, all your meals are included in the price. Breakfast, lunch, dinner, and often, a midnight snack. All free. You can have dessert after every meal. You can literally eat as much as you want . . . and more, if you’re not careful. Not everyone can handle that kind of freedom.

We were lucky. Toward the end of one trip, bloated from too many éclairs and tortes, we took an opportunity to swim in the bay at a beautiful port of call. There we were, floating along like something out of Moby Dick, when an inert sea anemone viciously attacked us. Caught by surprise, we managed to break off a number of its stingers with the soles of our feet before retreating to the shore to form a posse.

A trained medical team (the lifeguard and his harem) removed the stingers one by one, and we survived, although we spent the final days of our cruise sequestered in the cabin with a high fever, surviving on a stash of crumpled saltines we found under the pillow. By the time we disembarked, our body weight had returned to normal. Sometimes it takes the Hand of God to help us restrain ourselves at the Buffet Line of Life.

Before all that happened, though, we gorged ourselves along with the rest of the passengers.

He may look normal, but here Mark is stuffed, bloated, and hung over: what you’d expect of a cruise ship passenger.

In the dining hall of a pleasure ship, you’re seated with six to eight strangers. The cruise director hopes you all get along, and most of the time you do. One night, during one of the formal meals, where everyone has to dress up to be served, the menu called for some exotic, foreign specialties. We joked and laughed and mispronounced everything on purpose. Escaped cargo. Faux grass. Fishy swap. Even our waiter, a stoic Pole, cracked a smile.

After the main course, we requested menus again, to make sure we hadn’t missed anything. As it turned out, we had. There, at the bottom of the appetizer list, were the words “Frog’s legs.” None of us had ever tried them before. They’re said to taste a lot like chicken.

We decided to split an order. After all, it was free. When would we get such a golden opportunity again?

When the dish arrived, we all sat stunned. Perhaps it was our fault for ordering an appetizer after the main course, when the kitchen wanted to focus on dessert and clean-up. Perhaps it was the waiter’s fault for serving something he wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot … well, never mind. Perhaps it was nobody’s fault; maybe the chef always prepared the appetizer this way. We had no way of knowing. We did know, however, that the dish did not match our expectations.

After all the anticipation, our former friend, the Polish waiter, delivered a small white plate, on which lay the bottom half of a frog, its legs stretched out like it was on an operating table. No garnish. No dressing. Just the frog, stripped from the waist down, minus the feet.

None of us could bring ourselves to take a bite. We couldn’t even cut off a slice. We poked it with a fork, pushed the plate from place to place, and bent over to smell it. But eat it? No way. This was supposed to be a meal, not an autopsy.

To this day, we only eat the chicken breasts and wings. Even then we hesitate, aware that the meat is said to taste a lot like frog’s legs.

Lessons Learned: When you’re on a cruise, you will do many, many things you’ll regret later, often while intoxicated. That’s why you go on a cruise: to let down your guard while someone else pampers you. There are some things, though, that you just shouldn’t do. Don’t insult the captain. Don’t enter the dining hall wearing a life preserver. And don’t order everything on the menu.
How We Saw It
Blight-Seeing: 1
Communication Breakdown: 3
Customer Dis-service: 1
Discomfort Level: 1
Grunge Factor: 1
Inactivity Guide: 2
Rent-Attainment: 3
Spontaneous Consumption: 3
Fun Fraction: 4/5
Vibe-Rating: 3

If You Won’t Listen to Us
Nearest Airport: The nearest port of call
Native Population: About 2,500 passengers
Normal Attractions: When not at port: casino, bars, night shows, movies, swimming pool, exercise facility, and more food than you can eat.
Final Point of Interest: Cruises have become kid-friendly over the years to draw families, but don’t kid yourself: being on a cruise ship is all about overindulging in adult activities.

25 October 2008

Gone But Not Forgotten

Here’s a piece from our long-lost past. It was a time when we were younger, more innocent, and—dare we say it—more optimistic. There are two words that sum up our feelings of those long-ago days: good riddance. Still, maybe there’s a lesson or two to learn . . . or to relearn. —MB & JS
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The Boston Garden is gone now, demolished. Part of history. You can’t go back for a visit even if you wanted to. Trust us, it’s just as well. The Garden embodied the old bait and switch—you know, when you’re promised one thing but receive something much more, ah, minimal—better than any single structure could, and it could only have survived all those years in Boston, Massachusetts, a city as crazy for its sports teams as the Kennedys are for scotch.

The city loved it and hated it . . . for good reasons. Ours: it stank.

Don’t get us wrong. People came from all over New England to catch a game, a concert, or even the circus at the Garden. Every major act played there. It became famous as the home of the basketball Celtics and hockey Bruins. Beneath all those championship banners, Celtics players learned how to avoid the dead spots on the parquet floor, where the ball would simply thud like dropped bowling ball. Bruins skaters, who always seemed a step slower than junior varsity all stars, benefited from the smaller-than-regulation ice surface.

But the Garden itself often outshone the events it staged. Its electrical system was as fragile as a light bulb filament. Its roof sometimes leaked. Rats scurried about as if the arena were a casting call for the movie Ben. When fans stomped on the cement floor to root for the home team, the whole building—floors to rafters—shook as if Mama Cass had returned from the grave for an encore. The place smelled, too, and we’re pretty sure it had nothing to do with Boston’s famous baked beans. Then there were the restrooms. Women waited days to use the facilities. Men peed into long metal troughs where you got to know your neighbor more intimately than you cared to.

Yet the Garden promised history in the making with every concert, game, or event it held. We’ve personally seen Keith Moon collapse over his drum kit in a drunken stupor to stop a Who concert before it ever started. We’ve seen Bobby Orr score an empty-net goal from the length of the ice (while the crowd complained that his shot was six inches off-center).

That’s the bait. Everyone who attended an event at the Garden hoped to see history, like when Larry Bird sank a buzzer-beater or when Orr flew through the air to win a championship. Usually, though, the only history anyone ever saw was the historically high price of the ticket.

The Garden experience always superseded whatever happened there. We remember waiting in line for a half hour to overpay for a warm beer and a cold hot dog. If we wanted popcorn, we knew to buy it early in the season, while it was still fresh. To get to our seats in the nosebleed section, we had to negotiate a near-vertical ascent up concrete steps. Sometimes we could see only with a telescope; sometimes we couldn’t see at all because we had an obstructed-view seat. As we squirmed in the hard-backed chairs, some jerk inevitably spilt beer on us. Century-old candy—or something worse—stuck to the bottom of our shoes and stayed there for weeks.

Leaving the Garden after a game, our ears rang and our stomach gurgled. With luck, the memory of the night would last longer than the dull ache in our backs. More likely, we’d tell ourselves that once again, we paid way too much to see something in person we’d have enjoyed more watching on TV at a neighborhood bar (of which there are many).

As we joined the throng of drunks and pickpockets on Causeway Street, we realized that despite attending an event at the wildly popular venue, we’d been taken. They traded on the allure of the name—The Boston Garden—and sold us a bill of goods. And maybe a month-old hot dog.

Lessons Learned: Thank God some things don’t last forever. Unfortunately, there are “Boston Gardens” in cities all over the country. Caveat emptor. Buyer beware.
How We Saw It
Blight-Seeing: 4
Communication Breakdown: 2
Customer Dis-service: 4
Discomfort Level: 5
Grunge Factor: 4
Inactivity Guide: 2
Rent-Attainment: 4
Spontaneous Consumption: 4
Fun Fraction: 3/5
Vibe-Rating: 2

If You Won’t Listen to Us
Nearest Airport: Logan International Airport
Native Population: 599,000 (city only)
Normal Attractions: Fenway Park, other (older) historical sites, museums, colleges and the college nightlife, and Cambridge across the river.
Final Point of Interest: Boston has many squares connected by narrow winding streets, which reminds us: How can you tell a tourist on the roads? He uses his blinkers. Don’t drive; take the T (the MTBA: the mass transit system).

19 October 2008

Quote of the Month

This quote is from a friend of ours, but we couldn’t have said it better ourselves. It reminds us the days when travel was safe and a sense of humor didn’t get you locked up. Enjoy.

Heard on a party flight to New Orleans for Mardi Gras: “The captain has turned on the Fasten Seat Belt sign indicating our initial approach into New Orleans. Please return the stewardess to her original upright position.”

–Jack Molisani (2006)

06 October 2008

Where the French Are Actually Friendly

It’s time for another out-of-the-way, find-it-if-you-can, we-do-want-to-go-there gem. You read that correctly: we love this hidden jewel. When you travel as frequently and as far as we do, you’re bound to happen upon a place you like—even if just by accident. Here’s a destination that will surprise you as much as it did us. —MB & JS
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When most people travel to France, they naturally go to Paris. Who wouldn’t? The food, the shopping, the museums, the history . . . it’s all there. Of course, all that culture comes with a price: having to subject yourself to the haughty waiter who knows that if you leave, some other slovenly American tourist will take your place, only too eager to be insulted in a language he doesn’t understand.

Instead of Paris, some vacationers choose the Bordeaux countryside. The French are noted for their wines, and this region has the grapes. Other travelers go straight for the French Riviera: Marseille, Cannes, Antibes. If you can afford it, you won’t regret it. Then there’s Chambéry, the gateway to the French Alps. Skiers and mountain climbers alike flock there to push their endurance to the limit or just do a little shopping.

But for those who want to experience France without getting caught up in all the hype and circumstance, we recommend a little out-of-the-way stop in scenic Besançon. Sitting along the Doubs River in the Jura Mountains north of Lyon and east of Dijon, Besançon defines the term “provincial.”

Known as the Greenest City in France, Besançon seems to have evolved out of the mountains organically. It’s as if the buildings somehow rose out of the earth on their own—like mushrooms, only less nutritious. Green parks, tree-lined streets, and public gardens create the rich atmosphere of country life inside a city. It’s the result of a culture that clearly had different values from those of Paris.

Besançon has a university, and the students imbue the city with a vibrant nightlife that rivals any settlement its size. The students also keep the town from wallowing in the past like a Presidential candidate who refers to Ronald Reagan in every campaign speech. As a result, the town maintains a pleasant mix of old and new. Best of all, the local French behave like real people. As incredible as it might be to believe, it’s true: Besançon residents actually respect strangers and tolerate diversity.

We arrived as exchange students and fell in love with the languid pace of life there. What better place to experience a foreign culture than an oasis of liberté? What better place to (God forbid) study than beneath a broad-leafed deciduous on a sunny day? We took advantage of the opportunity and learned our lessons well—both scholarly and worldly. The French we learned unfortunately didn’t stick, but what we learned about the French there has never left us.

Walking around the old city, we remember feeling like we’d been transported to a different dimension, where elements of the 1990s mingled improbably with those of the 1920s. Frisbees whizzed by the old men feeding pigeons in the park. Hippies with guitars sang old French ballads. A pretty girl, after asking for a Gitanes and a light, wove a delightful verbal tapestry that included Jean Cocteau, the hunchback of Notre Dame, and George W. Bush. We understood about half of it, but decided it was a fantasy a la Alice in Wonderland.

In the nearby mountains, outside the city proper but within hiking distance, lies the ruins of an ancient fort called simply The Citadel. The Spanish built it originally, but the Germans used it most recently. Obviously, neither was very successful.

We found the trip into the hills a valuable learning experience. The location afforded us expansive views of the valley, which we gobbled up, while the ruins provided a terrific spot for a picnic of French bread, cheese, and lots of wine, which we lingered over. After our leisurely repast, we took a trek around the grounds to help us work off the calories. The hike, in such an historic and very public place, taught us one of the most valuable lessons we learned all year. It wasn’t a history lesson, but a life lesson: never pass up an opportunity to pee.

Lessons Learned: Besançon might be the perfect place to attend college; it’s said to be among the most popular places in the world to learn French. It’s also a perfect place for a detour during a European vacation. The area still beckons us back across the ocean and across the decades. It might not be the idyllic spot today it was back then, but it would be difficult, if not impossible, to change enough not to warrant a visit.
How We Saw It
Blight-Seeing: 1
Communication Breakdown: 3
Customer Dis-service: 1
Discomfort Level: 1
Grunge Factor: 2
Inactivity Guide: 2
Rent-Attainment: 2
Spontaneous Consumption: 2
Fun Fraction: 4/5
Vibe-Rating: 4

If You Won’t Listen to Us
Nearest Airport: EuroAirport Basel-Mulhouse-Freiburg or Lyon Saint-Exupéry International Airport
Native Population: 135,000 (city only)
Normal Attractions: The university, museums, history, bridges, architecture, arts (it’s known as one of France’s “art cities”), and music festivals.
Final Point of Interest: The city’s history dates back to before Julius Caesar’s time, but don’t make the same mistake he made. It’s not a city to conquer, but one to savor.

29 September 2008

Mexico Lite

It’s been four years since our last visit to this location, and when we returned, we were amazed how much it had changed . . . for the worse. Like Disneyland’s Main Street or the smile of a corporate lawyer, it’s now just a façade that hides an all-pervasive sound: ka-ching! —MB & JS
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International travelers (like us) venture to Cabo San Lucas—on the southern tip of the Mexico’s Baha Peninsula—for sun, suds, and sin. Cabo’s a hotspot for deep-sea fishing. It boasts championship-quality golf courses and luxury resorts. It’s also home to The Cabo Wabo Cantina and El Squid Roe, world-infamous nightclubs.

What’s not to like? Nothing, if you want to cross the border without leaving the United States. A week at a Cabo resort is like a week at Hilton Head or Miami Beach. Latino servers refill your drink by the pool while you dream of that elusive hole-in-one. It’s a nice albeit pedestrian way of convincing yourself you’ve left the Midwest.

Merchants accept US dollars and Spanish is like a second language, making it seem more like Southern California than Baja California. A brand new shopping mall features such recognizable chains as Harley Davidson, Ruth’s Chris Steak House, and Hagen Dazs. Its food court boasts so much American fast food, it made us sick—and we didn’t even eat there. Our favorite store in town, Die Trying, sells T-shirts with clever sayings . . . in English. Our favorite bar has an English name: Slim’s Elbow Room. Authentic Mexican restaurants still exist, but you have to hunt them down like a French-to-Czech phrasebook in Rome.

Cabo has become a popular timeshare destination, attracting thousands to its beaches and bars every week. New resorts are popping up like adobe toaster pastries all along the bay. A new development has squeezed Medano Beach, Cabo’s best public swimming location, to a narrow strip nearly impassible at high tide. They’re even building on the Pacific side of the peninsula, where the tide is so strong, ocean swimming isn’t just discouraged, it’s literally life-threatening.

You can find many diversions in the normally tranquil bay. Besides scuba diving, you can snorkel, jet-ski, and para-sail. You can ride a banana boat to Lover’s Beach, a glass-bottomed boat for the colorful fish, or a refitted pirate ship for a history lesson and the kick-ass “Pirate Punch.” Pushy salesmen, however, still outnumber activities ten to one.

Mark gets taken by a pretty face. It cost five dollars for this photo.

We go to Cabo to escape the real world. No telephones. No Internet (although it’s there if you desperately need a fix of your favorite blog). Even the cable TV has limited options. We usually spend our time sitting by the pool, doing nothing but baking the bejeezus out of our skin cells.

So when we couldn’t sleep because of the sunburn, we got dressed and trekked over to Cabo Wabo. The party there doesn’t start swinging until 11:00 PM. Founded by singer Sammy Hagar, the club lives up to its crazy reputation. Dancing at Cabo Wabo is a contact sport. Shot glasses clink like Vegas slot machines, but these players lose clothes and money—on the downside, it’s downright expensive; on the upside, some of those “College Girls Gone Wild” videos were probably filmed here.

That’s Cabo. There’s something for every tourist and for every season (the September hurricane season notwithstanding), but it’s not really Mexico. It’s more like Mexico Lite. Like the beer that promises everything but the calories, Cabo won’t quench your thirst if you want a true Mexican holiday.

As Americanization steamrolls the Third World, native cultures are disappearing in its wake. Some are lost for good. Others are shoved into museums. Others still become parodies of themselves. If you find yourself at the tip of the Baja Peninsula, don’t expect to find real Mexico. It’s not in the trinkets or the food—although it might be in the water. Cabo San Lucas can be a fun place to visit, but there’s not enough tequila in all of Mexico to convince you you’ve actually left the States.

Lessons Learned: A more authentic Mexican holiday does exist in southern Baja. To find it, travel up the coast to San Jose del Cabo. Since no cruise ships stop there, downtown San Jose del Cabo still maintains a quaint dignity. It’s a less expensive place to shop, the merchants are genuinely friendly, and everything is much, much calmer. (Plus, we found an excellent local microbrewery: Baja Brewing Company.)
How We Saw It
Blight-Seeing: 4
Communication Breakdown: 2
Customer Dis-service: 1
Discomfort Level: 2
Grunge Factor: 3
Inactivity Guide: 1
Rent-Attainment: 2
Spontaneous Consumption: 5
Fun Fraction: 5/5
Vibe-Rating: 3

If You Won’t Listen to Us
Nearest Airport: Los Cabos International Airport
Native Population: 57,000
Normal Attractions: Golfing, deep-sea fishing, shopping, fine dining, sunbathing, and drinking heavily. Just watch out for the tequila girls at El Squid Roe!
Final Point of Interest: The 20-mile stretch of pristine beach between Cabo San Lucas and San Jose del Cabo is called “The Golden Corridor.”

21 September 2008

Quote of the Month

This quote isn’t really about travel, but it belongs with the previous story about Las Vegas. We hope you don’t mind. If you do, well, come back next week for a new installment of Don’t Even Go There. You know you want to.

“We gave poker chips to a mutual friend one year for his birthday. It’s the gift that keeps on taking.”

–Mark Bloom & Jason Scholder (2007)

06 September 2008

Phoenix Rising . . . Temperatures

While we’re on the subject on unbearable heat (see A Cure for Heavy Sweating), we thought we’d throw in an old story about one of our least favorite places to visit in the United States. It’s bad enough that it exists; unfortunately, we have family there and have been known to fly or drive in from time to time. Don’t make the same mistake we did. —MB & JS
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Every place somehow entices people to live there, be it for the beautiful weather, the well-paying jobs, or the superb nachos grande from the restaurant down the street. Every destination—whether for a business trip, a vacation, or just a stopover—needs a reason for people to visit. The reasons can be historical (like Williamsburg, Virginia), geographic (like Fort Lee, New Jersey, right outside New York City), culinary (like Paris, France), or even experimental (like Washington, DC). Sometimes, a place’s reason for being is simply to serve as a warning to others (like Flint, Michigan).

You can find good in any place, though, if you only stay long enough. The colorful blast that is autumn in New England can make its long winter bearable. The famous architecture and nourishing ales can help you overcome London’s less-than-tantalizing native food. The rugged countryside and friendly locals can almost make West Virginia worth the trip. Almost.

People live in the darnedest places. Oklahoma. Central Louisiana. Nebraska. What do they do there? Why do they stay? We don’t know, despite repeated visits, but we do know that each of these states still draws tourists somehow—and not just to buy lottery tickets or alcohol.

Some places, moreover, require time-stamps to determine the “red zone” of popularity. The skiing season defines many vacations to Ischgl, Austria; Portillo, Chile; and Hafjell, Norway. The surfing season brings people to Waikiki, Hawaii; Papara Beach, Tahiti; and Buzios, Brazil. It’s as much about when you go as where.

Which brings us to Phoenix, Arizona.

Tourists, snowbirds, and other retirees flock to Phoenix from October to March for the warmth of the Arizona sun. Winter in Phoenix offers many benefits, not the least of which is sunning instead of shoveling. Who wouldn’t rather wear shorts instead of parkas? Who wouldn’t rather sit by the pool instead of the heater? Who wouldn’t rather play golf than fight colds?

In addition, Major League Baseball teams, mostly from the West Coast and Midwest, hold their spring workouts and exhibition games every March in and around the Phoenix area. This happens for a reason. Chicago can be brutal in March. Phoenix, on the other hand, offers warmth that aids players and draws fans.

But the attractive winter comes with a catch. While Arizona in December encourages tee times and dune buggies, its August encourages escape clauses and getaway cars. The oppressive heat will drive you underground faster than an IRS audit. Unfortunately, we had to learn the hard way.

The city in the summer is a dull shade of gray, thanks to the asphalt, gravel, and cement that dominate the landscape. You’ll find very little of the green grass from the suburban scenery of other states. A lawn becomes prohibitively expensive when all the available water has to be used to keep humans and animals semi-conscious. In the obsessive heat, lawns turn brown. Eventually, whole yards are converted to gravel or tumbleweed. Voluntarily or not.

Just north of the city, another suburban lawn has gone native.

Summer temperatures in Phoenix regularly reach triple digits. Lemonade can’t combat that kind of heat. A cold beer barely makes a dent, although we found that six or seven can make us forget how miserable we felt. Whether it’s dry heat or not, the summer temperatures forced our lives into a holding pattern, a cycle of survival. To escape the heat, we had to dart from one air-conditioned enclosure to another: from the house to the car to a bar to another bar to the car to jail, and so on. It became our daily routine.

Only air conditioning—lots of it, full blast, 24 hours a day—saved us from certain death, but the need for air conditioning meant we couldn’t enjoy our favorite outdoor activities. Bicycling? We needed a liter of water per mile. Hiking? We had to do it inside a mall. Camping? We might as well set up a tent inside an oven.

If you find yourself in Phoenix in the summer, your choices are limited. Watch television. Go bowling. Shop for sunburn ointment. You can do anything you want to do, as long as it’s inside an air-conditioned building. We’re not saying it’s Hell on Earth, but you might.

Lessons Learned: Homeowners in Phoenix know better. You should, too. Visit Phoenix in January with the snowbirds. Visit in March to watch pre-season baseball. Either way, you’ll have a much better time than suffering Phoenix in July.
How We Saw It
Blight-Seeing: 1
Communication Breakdown: 2
Customer Dis-service: 2
Discomfort Level: 5
Grunge Factor: 1
Inactivity Guide: 5
Rent-Attainment: 1
Spontaneous Consumption: 2
Fun Fraction: 1/5
Vibe-Rating: 2

If You Won’t Listen to Us
Nearest Airport: Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport
Native Population: 1,600,000 (in the city only)
Normal Attractions: Bank One Ballpark (home of the Diamondbacks), Phoenix Zoo, Phoenix Art Museum, Desert Botanical Garden, and lots and lots of air-conditioned shopping.
Final Point of Interest: Most of the city streets are lined up on a grid. You’d think this would make finding your way around easier. You’d be wrong.

25 August 2008

A Cure for Heavy Sweating

Don’t believe everything you hear or read about a destination (even if you read it here). Do your research and do it before you travel. Don’t make the same mistakes we did. Here’s more advice you can’t get anywhere else. —MB & JS
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Why do we always accept that advertisements tell us the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth? Corporations spend billions of dollars to persuade us to buy their brands or use their services. And it works: we always believe them.

Disney is one such corporation. No longer a friendly, mouse-eared, family-run business, Disney spends millions advertising its theme parks. They gear their message towards children, of course, but they’ve billed it as a vacation destination for the whole family, which begs the following question: Who was sick the day they decided to put Disney World in one of the hottest, buggiest, most uninhabitable summer sites in the world?

You would think a smart company like Disney would plan for every eventuality. You would think they’d build an amusement park with the summer months in mind, when kids are on vacation and parents take time off from work. It’s a no-brainer.

So why would anyone with a globe and a high school education decide to build an amusement park in Orlando, Florida? Maybe they were thinking about the five months of the year when the summer heat doesn’t make you want to crawl into the nearest body of water, whether it’s a swimming pool or a cesspool.

If you’re in Orlando in the summer, this is the only place to be.

Personally, we think Walt Disney the man—duped into buying Florida swampland—simply wanted a return on his mistaken investment. The alternative is to believe the rumors that Disney executives really do take mind-altering drugs. We’ll never know the real reasons, but there’s no denying the park exists.

While Disney World employs every conceivable technology to thwart Mother Nature for the benefit of its patrons—they spray for mosquitoes, bees, and wasps; they spray for germs and bacteria; they even spray their customers (with water)—there’s no way the folks atop the corporate ladder can win a war against the weather.

Florida in the summertime redefines humidity. The heat turns a mild thirst into a valid reason for panic. Clothes become a second skin and sunblock just another layer of sweat. The climate saps your strength and makes your skin break out in a rash. It endangers the lives of the elderly and children under five. Most Floridians do one of two things when summer arrives: they either flee the state altogether or remain indoors to worship their air-conditioner.

We’re not saying you shouldn’t go to Disney World, but given the extreme summer conditions, consider a visit during the other equinox. Orlando is quite pleasant in the winter. Why spend your entire day under a July sun with its sweltering humidity when you can enjoy the relative comfort of a January gin and tonic? Don’t piss away your children’s college tuition fund on soft drinks and snow cones when you can quench your family’s thirst for adventure with a splash through the Pirates of the Caribbean.

All we’re saying is: plan your vacation wisely. Ask yourself the following simple question to better understand what we mean by all this blather. Answer honestly, and you will discover the truth behind the slick advertising and the reality behind the glossy sales brochures.

Here’s the question: What could be worse than visiting Disney World in the middle of August on yet another blistering day? There’s only one thing: working there.

Little Known Fact: Disney World does a remarkable business all year ‘round, but its concession sales rise exponentially during the summer months . . . which answers the Disney riddle. The folks atop the corporate ladder aren’t taking drugs; they’re actually financial geniuses! Hail to the Mouse!

Lessons Learned: While Disney World remains open all year, don’t even consider a summer visit. You’ll regret it—maybe not now, maybe not tomorrow, but certainly later, when you develop that rash. By the way, we never worked at Disney World, but we’ve heard the horror stories first-hand. Those poor people have been scarred for life. You would be too if you had to spend your days in a Mickey Mouse suit. In the summer. In Orlando.
How We Saw It
Blight-Seeing: 1
Communication Breakdown: 2
Customer Dis-service: 2
Discomfort Level: 5
Grunge Factor: 1
Inactivity Guide: 1
Rent-Attainment: 2
Spontaneous Consumption: 3
Fun Fraction: 3/5
Vibe-Rating: 2

If You Won’t Listen to Us
Nearest Airport: Orlando International Airport
Native Population: 225,000 poor souls
Normal Attractions: Disney World, Epcot Center, Sea World, Universal Studios, Gatorland, Kennedy Space Center (nearby), Millenia Mall, and much much much more.
Final Point of Interest: The Kerouac House, where Jack lived when On the Road was published, is now a haven for aspiring writers (except us).

19 August 2008

Quote of the Month

This next quote reminds us that we’ve spent most of our lives living on one coast or another. Why is it people seem to flock to the coasts for vacation? Certainly not for this:

“Wherever there’s water—whether it’s a lake, an ocean, or a river—you can find kitsch. It’s in the stores, the restaurants, and the homes. Sometimes, it’s even displayed in public: on a front lawn or in a city park. Why is this? We’re not sure, but we think it has something to do with sailors.”

–Mark Bloom & Jason Scholder (2007)

14 August 2008

Rare Good News

Every once in a while, we come upon a place we absolutely love. It doesn’t happen often, but when you travel as much as we do, you’re bound to find someplace with honest charm. Usually, it’s so remote it won’t even show up on a search engine. North Dakota is one such destination. —MB & JS
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Lots of people go to North Dakota for vacation. Literally hundreds.

If you can’t find North Dakota with a sled dog, let us help. It sits along the US-Canadian border, between Minnesota and Montana. It’s just past the Midwest, but not yet to the Rockies. If you still can’t find it, look for Amarillo, Texas, and then head due north. For about 750 miles.

North Dakota is a big state in the northern plains. It’s littered with cowboys, cattle, and little else. The state capital, Bismarck, was named after a famous foreign leader, and the city is still over fifty percent German . . . which somehow makes sense to us. Who else would settle in a remote, cold stretch of prairie? Even the Russians had the sense to make Siberia a penal colony. The Germans would have moved there voluntarily. They just love a challenge. (“World domination? OK, we’ll give it a try.”)

Anyway, Bismarck’s average temperature in January hovers around ten degrees before you factor in the wind chill. That’s far too cold for most Americans, but it’s like going south for the winter to many Canadians. If Winnipeg were San Diego, the town of Minot, North Dakota, would be Tijuana. Our northern neighbors are known for visiting on a whim, drinking too much, and starting bar fights with the locals. It’s fun for the entire family.

Then again, maybe that’s only the stereotype. It’s totally within the realm of possibility that Canadians are actually very polite, upstanding people, with jobs and pets and bar soap. At least the way our lawyers tell it.

Like most places, North Dakota has four distinct seasons, but to the accidental tourist, they can be impossible to differentiate. The state has a short summer, followed by early winter, snow season, and late winter. This is a place where an ice scraper can be a practical gift even if your birthday falls in late August.

Mark in North Dakota . . . in July.

Aside from its attractive climate, what does the state have to offer? There’s beer drinking and cattle-tipping, both official state sports. How about those endless fields of flaxseed or those long, straight highways that lead . . . elsewhere? South Dakotans can boast of Mount Rushmore, but why would anyone want to visit North Dakota?

Our favorite reason—and it should be yours as well—is to experience the vast grandeur of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park, otherwise known as the Badlands. If you like outdoor activities in the quiet solitude of nature, you will this place. The park spans 70,447 acres, almost 30,000 of which is unspoiled landscape with strange rock formations and colorful geological strata. You wouldn’t want to get lost in the midst of it all, but the Badlands have a hypnotic beauty that recalls a simpler time, when there weren’t as many people or as much pollution.

Despite the stark conditions and extreme winds, wildlife thrives among the sparse plant life. While the park is best known for its wild horses, bison, deer, and elk, you might catch a glimpse of the mysterious Black-Footed Ferret, one of the most endangered mammals in all of North America.

You can camp, hike, and horseback throughout the grounds. Guided tours offer multi-day excursions into the heart of the Badlands to tap the pulse of the park. You can travel to areas few have ever seen, where the footprint of mankind is a smaller than a rabbit dropping.

If you’re tired of fighting crowds at the popular national parks in the southwestern states (the Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon, and Zion come to mind), travel to North Dakota’s greatest reason for being: the Theodore Roosevelt National Park, aka the Badlands. Believe it or not, even we curmudgeons at Don’t Even Go There would go there again.

Lessons Learned: Go in the summertime, while the roads are still open and relatively free of ice and snow. It’s a short season, remember, so plan your trip accordingly. Winter hits hard in North Dakota, and unless you’re Canadian, you’ll want to be far, far away.
How We Saw It
Blight-Seeing: 2
Communication Breakdown: 1
Customer Dis-service: 1
Discomfort Level: 3
Grunge Factor: 2
Inactivity Guide: 3
Rent-Attainment: 1
Spontaneous Consumption: 2
Fun Fraction: 3/5
Vibe-Rating: 5

If You Won’t Listen to Us
Nearest Airport: Bismarck Municipal Airport
Native Population: 435,359 people visited the park in 2006, but ironically, you can hike for days without seeing another human
Normal Attractions: Scenic drives, wildlife, wilderness, camping, hiking, horseback riding, and Roosevelt’s Elkhorn Ranch.
Final Point of Interest: The exorbitant entrance fee is $5.00 per person if you’re on foot, bike, or horseback; $10.00 per vehicle if you drive.

29 July 2008

Keep Austin Weird

Wandering around the United States can definitely inspire stories that spark the imagination, where you fall into—however willingly—a wild adventure that you know you can write about later. But sometimes you happen upon a place with its own stories, where you’re just a keen observer. Austin, Texas, is such a place. —MB & JS
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Most of Texas is flat, arid, and desolate. It’s the kind of place where tumbleweeds rule, explorers disappear, and jackolopes go to die. People live there through the good graces of diverted water and cheap oil. Cities like Amarillo and San Antonio survive because of technology and persistence. Some would say that’s the Texas way.

In the south-central part of the state, however, lies the Hill Country. Rivers meander through the rolling topography of the Balcones Escarpment to empty, eventually, in the Gulf of Mexico. One such river—the Colorado—winds through arguably the most habitable region in the state. Along the way, it passes the state capital of Austin.

While Austin today stands as a symbol of Texan economic, cultural, and political power, the city is also a place full of paradox and humor. It isn’t only the state capital, it’s a college town with a reputation for great music, a place where cowboy boots and Birkenstocks two-step side-by-side.

When we visited the area, we had a knowledgeable guide, an old friend who’d moved there years earlier. Our friend, whom we’ll call Wilton because that’s his name, owned a ranch about 100 miles west of Austin. When we arrived, he led us on a tour of his ten acres, carrying his granddad’s old .22 rifle, “just in case anything needed killin’.” Luckily, nothing did.

On a good day, he didn't kill nothin’.

After a few days of R&R, we drove “into town.” Anything to escape the quiet solitude of Wilton’s rustic hospitality. The long dusty drive ended at a Texas BBQ. Even though the Ironworks Restaurant sat on a street corner within spitting distance of Austin’s downtown district, it felt as if we hadn’t left the hills. A claw-footed bathtub full of iced bottled beverages sat by the door, waiting for us to help ourselves. The long wooden tables and family-style seating were already crowded with our next best friends. Beer bellies and cowboy hats waved us a “howdy”—and that was just the kitchen crew.

Wilton hadn’t let us down. The meat was so tasty we gave up trying to stay clean after the first rib. We washed it all down with a Big Red soda, which tasted just like bubblegum.

Afterwards, Wilton showed us the sights. We paid homage to the Stevie Ray Vaughan memorial at Town Lake. We photographed the state capitol building, which is one foot taller than the Capitol in Washington, DC (everything’s bigger in Texas). After nightfall, we mingled with the 20-somethings outside the downtown clubs on Sixth and Congress, where we met enough characters to populate a Kinky Friedman novel: punks and hippies, cowboys and geeks, all staggering along to their own inner cowbell.

When you move to Texas, you have to become a guitar-playing cowboy. It’s not just a good idea; its the law.

In a head shop around the corner, we found a “Keep Austin Weird” ballcap. Although it seemed like the perfect souvenir for the wacky downtown scene, the slogan actually began as a plea by local small businesses to maintain the city’s cultural identity. It worked better than they could have hoped . . . or perhaps wanted. Now, the slogan lives up to its name, a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Wilton then took us to South Austin. While you could walk everywhere downtown, here you had to drive, but South Congress made Disney’s Main Street seem real by comparison. Ceramic figures and artistic graffiti adorned the shops and clubs. On top of one building, a meditating monkey in a fez prayed, probably to Allah. Did it indicate the broadminded tolerance of the Texan locals or was the monkey on the roof to avoid a lynching? It depends on who you ask.

South Austin’s a playful mix of businesses. Coffee shops and antique stores sit alongside gun shops and a meat processing plant. It’s where Bubbaville meets Hippyville, thus the ceramic monkey dilemma. But the area’s residents have agreed on one thing: a slogan of their own, which they devised for their friendly competition with the downtown scene. The motto—tauntingly offbeat yet surprisingly truthful—reveals their own down-home wit: “We’re all here because we’re not all there.”

Lessons Learned: Watch out for the weirdoes—not to avoid them, but to revel in their unique take on Texas life. Austin can be a great place for an adventure, as long as you keep your sense of humor. Texans, especially in that part of the state, don’t take themselves too seriously, except (presumably) within the state capitol building, which they’re quick to tell you is one foot taller than the Capitol in Washington.

How We Saw It
Blight-Seeing: 2
Communication Breakdown: 2
Customer Dis-service: 1
Discomfort Level: 1
Grunge Factor: 2
Inactivity Guide: 1
Rent-Attainment: 1
Spontaneous Consumption: 3
Fun Fraction: 4/5
Vibe-Rating: 4

If You Won’t Listen to Us
Nearest Airport: Austin-Bergstrom International Airport
Native Population: 710,000
Normal Attractions: The Live Music Capital of the World is home to South by Southwest and the Austin City Limits Music Festival. Oh, it has museums and a zoo, too.
Final Point of Interest: Hippy Hollow is Texas’ only clothing-optional public park. Somehow, we missed it.

24 July 2008

Quote of the Month

This new quote perfectly encapsulates many of the hard lessons we learned from traveling in less-than-ideal circumstances. Unless you’re a jet-setter with mountains of money, take this advice to heart:

“No one likes to get sick while traveling. It wastes time, forces compromises, and just plain sucks. Regardless of where you are, we recommend drinking plenty of quinine water with a laxative chaser. It’ll keep you going.”

–Mark Bloom & Jason Scholder (2007)

04 July 2008

You’ve Got a Friend

Finally, a motorcycle story from the archives. Since today is Independence Day here in the United States, it’s the perfect opportunity to reflect on the greatness of our country and the freedoms we enjoy. Of course, we have to include a Don’t Even Go There twist. Otherwise, why would you be here reading this? Enjoy. —MB & JS
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Years ago, we attempted a round-trip, cross-country motorcycle tour. The route we chose took us from Southern California, across the vast wasteland of Texas, to New Orleans, along the length of the Blue Ridge Parkway, into New England, over the border to Canada, around Lake Erie, through the canyons of Utah, and back down to LA. Seven thousand miles in one month. It’s a trip we’d recommend to anyone with the time, the resources, and of course, the wheels (two are preferable).

The First Law of Motorcycling: keep the rubber side down.

We stayed with friends and relatives whenever possible. It’s become a yardstick for dedicated travelers like us. In how many places can someone you know put you up for the night? If you’ve traveled and made friends and moved often, you should have contacts in nearly every worthwhile burg on the continent. We’re not counting ex-girlfriends who take you in out of pity when you show up saddle sore on the doorstep, only to kick you out early the next morning without so much as a slice of toast. Not that it’s happened to us.

Despite our connections, we occasionally had to venture out past the cocoon of the familiar into the room rental wilderness. In that cash-crazy world, we had to pay the same rate for a stuffy room in Van Horn, Texas, as we did for a suite right outside the French Quarter in pre-flood New Orleans. Go figure.

Most of the time, however, we did better than merely survive; we flourished. A restaurant owner outside Baton Rouge, Louisiana, gave us all we could eat while allowing us to pick the ambient music. A motorcycle mechanic in Warwick, Rhode Island, included a free polish with our oil change. A waitress in Grand Junction, Colorado, gave us an extra helping of pie just to listen to our adventures. A New Yorker actually apologized after bumping into us on the subway.

We met friendly people at every turn. Even the weather cooperated. Warm, dry, sunny days followed us from one state to the next . . . until our ride from Virginia to New York. It rained tabbies and terriers, as if to make up for the sun we’d been enjoying. In case you’ve never ridden a motorcycle, we can tell you that riding in the rain is bearable with the right gear. Bearable, but never fun. You can’t ever relax.

Despite the rain, we made decent time until we hit Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, where everything came to a stop. In case you’ve never ridden a motorcycle, we can tell you that riding in the rain is bearable with the right gear as long as you’re moving. Once you stop, you realize how miserable you really feel.

When traffic began moving again, we positioned ourselves in the far left lane, entertaining the illusion it was still a passing lane. We left plenty of space in front of us, for emergency stopping on the slick surface. That’s when we noticed a pickup truck behind us, right on our taillights. He flashed his lights. We smiled and waved back at him. After all, the state’s motto was: “You’ve got a friend in Pennsylvania.” It said so right on their license plates.

We continued for another twenty feet, but the pickup refused to back off. So we did the natural thing: we slowed to allow even more space in front of us, in case of accident. This apparently wasn’t what the pickup driver wanted. He inched even closer and honked like a lost goose over Greenland.

The situation had turned dangerous. We’d seen nothing but courtesy from drivers in every other state, but here in Pennsylvania, we were all but assaulted. When we finally found an opening in the next lane, we pulled over and the pickup sped by to tailgate the next car in line.

We eventually made it safely to New York City, where we spent a few days drying off, but we learned our lesson: We don’t have any friends in Pennsylvania.

Mark in full rain gear: it's as uncomfortable as it looks.

Lessons Learned: Besides learning that we had no friends in Pennsylvania (ultimately destroying the myth and leading to the state removing the slogan from its license plates), we learned that people around the country are actually a lot nicer than we’d given them credit for. You’ll find jerks everywhere—in New York, in California, even in Pennsylvania—but they’ll get what’s coming to them. Karma and bad driving habits have a tendency to catch up with you.

How We Saw It
Blight-Seeing: 2
Communication Breakdown: 5
Customer Dis-service: 3
Discomfort Level: 3
Grunge Factor: 4
Inactivity Guide: 1
Rent-Attainment: 2
Spontaneous Consumption: 1
Fun Fraction: 2/5
Vibe-Rating: 1

If You Won’t Listen to Us
Nearest Airport: Harrisburg International Airport
Native Population: 49,000
Normal Attractions: The state capitol complex (including performing arts), Strawberry Square shopping mall, and the annual Pennsylvania Farm Show, the largest agricultural show in the US.
Final Point of Interest: Harrisburg is famous for its CowParade, which featured fiberglass cows designed by local artists and scattered around the city. We think this qualifies it as a cow town.

29 June 2008

Indian Finger Food

Here it is: another ugly food experience overseas. You’d think we’d learn. If we ever do, what will we write about then? Where to get the best foie gras? You can get that information in any reputable travel magazine—you know, the kind that won’t publish our stories. —MB & JS
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Let’s get something straight right away: India is not a clean country. The pollution raises serious health issues, and the notorious overcrowding leads to all sorts of—shall we say—unclean habits.

Like bathing in the Ganges River. We realize the act has religious and cultural overtones, and we wouldn’t want to offend any religion or culture. But haven’t the locals any sense of self-preservation? The river carries the flotsam from millions of people upriver. You can see it float by. Yet the people who bathe in (and even ceremoniously drink from) the river don’t seem to care. Maybe they’re just used to it.

We weren’t, and the sight sent us backpedaling as fast as a conservative Supreme Court from Roe v. Wade. But this is a story about food, not hygiene—although the two sometimes collide with enough force to make a devout atheist tremble with the Fear of God (or Shiva, as the case may be).

We turned away from the ghat—steps leading into the holy river—and went in search of inexpensive accommodations. As it turned out, they were as easy to find as a street beggar. We unpacked in our small room but didn’t linger; we had a budget and a schedule to keep.

The ancient city of Varanasi boasts almost as many temples as Seattle has coffee shops, and despite the heavy influence of tourism, every one still oozed with authentic charm. Have you ever noticed how some religious places can withstand the degrading effects of prying tourists to maintain a kind of solemn dignity? It’s not just having the money for maintenance. Consider the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, California, which probably has more money than Paris Hilton and about as much dignity. Where else can you find a Hall of Fame for “Christian Capitalists?”

After a full day of sightseeing, we returned to the hotel, looking for an early dinner and a late wake-up call. From the doorway, the hotel’s restaurant seemed safe enough. Relatively clean. Crowded with locals and tourists alike.

We were seated at a table by the wall, where we began to relax. We ordered beers to wash down the day’s dust. Famished from our afternoon excursion, we needed an appetizer, and the enthusiastic waiter recommended something we could barely pronounce. He impressed us as a sincere fellow, so we took his advice.

When the dish arrived, it resembled a cross between pig knuckles and raccoon ribs. Dipping the finger food in the accompanying spicy sauce, we could hardly taste the meat, just the spices. It was delicious, and we dug in.

Suddenly, an argument erupted in the kitchen. Something large and heavy, not unlike one of the sacred cows, thudded against the other side of our wall. A glass of water spilled. While we dealt with the mess, unused to the constant cacophony that is India, a sudden murderous screech split the air. Two men—one with a bloody towel wrapped around a hand, the other wielding a very large knife—burst out through the kitchen door, zigzagged around the tables, and dashed out into the street, screaming the whole time.

After a moment’s pause, the other restaurant patrons returned to their conversations, as if the scene were just street theater repeated every half hour. We wanted to emulate them, to fit into this foreign culture even if just for a moment, but we couldn’t ignore how closely our food resembled the digits of a man’s hand.

There comes a point at which not knowing what you’re eating makes a foreign delicacy easier to digest. We had crossed the threshold. Now we knew (or imagined) more than we wanted to. Our appetites dashed out of the room after the two men and didn’t return for two full days.

Lessons Learned: Food definitely reflects an area’s culture. If you find yourself in a place where people bathe in polluted waters, you know you might be in trouble when it comes to food. Our advice? When you travel to Mother India, order the soup. Even if it has an unpronounceable name, there’s very little chance that you will ever discover—or recognize—what’s really in it.
How We Saw It
Blight-Seeing: 4
Communication Breakdown: 5
Customer Dis-service: 2
Discomfort Level: 4
Grunge Factor: 5
Inactivity Guide: 1
Rent-Attainment: 1
Spontaneous Consumption: 5
Fun Fraction: 1/5
Vibe-Rating: 3

If You Won’t Listen to Us
Nearest Airport: Varanasi (Babatpur) Airport
Native Population: 1,400,000
Normal Attractions: Besides the temples and ghats, Varanasi is a Mecca for Indian wares like fabrics, jewelry, carpets, and woodcraft.
Final Point of Interest: Varanasi is a major stop for foreign tourists, with posh hotels and fancy restaurants. Most of the food there is actually quite good, but as this story illustrates, there are always exceptions.

23 June 2008

Quote of the Month

Here’s a quote to go with the next story we’ll post—a food story from an exotic locale. However, before we go there, this quote deals with food much closer to home:

“We thought about going vegetarian once, but since we wanted to ease into the diet, we started eating a lot of fast-food hamburgers. They contain a lot less meat than you think.”

–Mark Bloom & Jason Scholder (2007)

17 June 2008

Local Color

Occasionally, we like to write about the more “unusual” people we meet on our travels. Sometimes, we’ll share how a specific individual screwed with us. Other times, we’ll write about an experience with a whole generalization of people (either to reinforce it or smash it to tiny bits). Are stereotypes wrong? Read on to find our answer. —MB & JS
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An acquaintance from our college days—he must have been a math major—used to say that there were three types of people in the world: those who could count, and those who couldn’t. He was a real jerk now that we think about it, but he had a point. Rarely if ever can you separate people into categories that offer any meaningful insight. Even the male-female division has a gray area now.

Numerology insists on nine distinctive personality types; astrology has twelve signs; Myers-Briggs offers sixteen archetypes . . . as if any system can effectively put people into boxes they couldn’t scratch their way out of. Categorization may be tempting on paper, but—like classical economics—it’s coldly predictable, unlike real people.

Then there’s Hawaii.

Categorizing the people of Hawaii isn’t merely justified; it’s essential. In Hawaii, there really are only two types of people: Islanders and Mainlanders. Unless you have a tribal lineage, you will always be a Mainlander, no matter how long you visit (even if you never leave).

You can learn the Hawaiian language beyond “aloha” (hello or goodbye) and “mahalo” (thank you), and you won’t be any closer to Islander-hood. You can climb to Mauna Kea’s peak 13,796 feet above sea level, hike the Haleakala Crater from sunrise to sunset, or sail from the island of Hawaii to the island of Niihau (about 1,500 miles) and still not be considered a native.

Mark, near exhaustion, in the middle of Haleakala. Nowhere to go but back up, and after all that, he’ll still never be a native.

You might as well accept it. Life is too short and there’s so much to do on the islands. Hawaiian activities cover the land, sea, and air. You can hike, drive, and bicycle. You can swim, fish, and snorkel. You can hang glide, parasail, and even helicopter. There’s always sightseeing, shopping, and fine dining, but if you’ve come to Hawaii just for a seafood dinner, you deserve to get scrod.

Each island has its own attractions. On Oahu, you can partake of Honolulu’s big city amenities, surf the world-class waves off the North Shore, or check out the world’s largest maze at the Dole Plantation. On Maui, you can kick back with an umbrella drink in the port town of Lahaina or spend a day on the Road to Hana, driving through a rainforest that hides waterfalls at almost every turn. And that’s only two of the eight islands.

It’s not so bad being a visitor. Islanders can be charming, open, friendly, and giving. They’ll help you find your hotel. They’ll recommend a good restaurant. They may tell you a story from the distant past or even offer to act as your tour guide.

We attended a luau, expecting a tourist trap the size of Williamsburg. Instead, we found that Hawaiians genuinely love to show off. Their smiles entranced us and the fire tricks dazzled us. One lovely native in a coconut-shell halter assured us that both the coconut and its contents were real. Unfortunately, we can only attest to the shells.

We’ll never think of coconut milk in the same way ever again.

We tasted Hawaiian poi, a purplish mush made from the taro plant, but found we didn’t have the stomach for it. We drank Hawaiian rum, a dark liquor designed to make you smile, and found we barely had the liver for it. All in all, it was one of the best nights we can scarcely remember.

That’s the thing about Hawaii. The Islanders know that drunken, happy guests will spend more cash than cynical, sober ones. Everyone smiles. Everyone parties. Everyone leaves contented … as long as you leave. Don’t believe for an instant that if you moved to their little island paradise, you’d feel as welcome. There are miles and miles of beautiful beaches, and many invisible lines in the sand. You’d be well advised not to cross any of them.

Lessons Learned: More and more people visit Hawaii—for vacations, conferences, or romantic getaways with four or five of their loved ones. If you go, bring lots of cash and be ready to spend it. Don’t skimp; you’re in Hawaii! Enjoy all that the islands and the Islanders have to offer. Just don’t think for a minute you’ll ever be one of them.
How We Saw It
Blight-Seeing: 1
Communication Breakdown: 2
Customer Dis-service: 1
Discomfort Level: 1
Grunge Factor: 2
Inactivity Guide: 1
Rent-Attainment: 3
Spontaneous Consumption: 4
Fun Fraction: 5/5 (believe it or not!)
Vibe-Rating: 5

If You Won’t Listen to Us
Nearest Airport: Honolulu International Airport (among others)
Native Population: 1,285,000 (counting trespassing Mainlanders)
Normal Attractions: Each island has its own attractions. Boat and helicopter tours, hiking, water sports, fine dining, luaus, and much more.
Final Point of Interest: The Aloha Festivals, an annual celebration held for six weeks every September and October, is the only state-wide festival in the US.

08 June 2008

From Soup to Gnats

Many people—including us, unfortunately—stay in a timeshare while on vacation. Having a timeshare is like owning a second home (or in most cases, a condo) with fifty of your closest friends. If you can’t quickly name fifty people with whom you’d like to share a home, you just got the joke. Read on for the punch line. —MB & JS
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You can find them all over the world—anywhere there’s an island, a mountain, a golf course, a lake, or just a historical plaque. Timeshares pop up wherever lots of people like to vacation. However, if you’re the type to go backpacking through Ireland, trekking in Nepal, or kayaking down the Royal Gorge, you probably won’t find a timeshare where you need one. But if you love the resort life—if you love riding the waves or skiing the slopes—timeshares might be perfect for you.

Timeshare units offer amenities hotels don’t: a kitchenette, a pull-out sofa, even laundry facilities. Once you own a timeshare and an exchange membership (which are not inexpensive), you can get a room for a week for free. For the right person, a timeshare can be a good vacation investment. That’s the rub. If the phrase “vacation investment” appeals to you, we have a timeshare to sell you.

Most timeshares are pristine. If cleanliness is next to godliness, timeshares are the holy Mecca of recycled lodging. But like all blanket assertions, there are exceptions. For us, despite some memorable vacations in exotic (read: warmer than home) locales, we had one horrific experience. Here’s the story.

Everything looked promising when we arrived. The timeshare we had reserved online, built sometime in the 1970s, seemed well groomed from the outside. Several golf courses and other amenities were close by.

Our lovely view: a parking lot and a fairway. We spent time on both.

The first problem arose when the women left us to fend for ourselves. They had serious sunbathing to attend to. We enjoyed our freedom until noon, when a potential life-threatening issue confronted us. Could two cave-dwelling Neanderthals like us manage lunch without a grill?

Our timeshare had a working kitchenette. A quick trip to the grocery store could have provided anything we needed, but like many American men, we usually grilled our meals. Without a grill, our cooking skills devolved into reheating, boiling, and toasting.

We eventually decided on soup, an easy meal that required only heating. But who wants to eat soup on a hot summer day? So we did what any intelligent person would do: we cranked up the air conditioning and pulled on long sleeves. Hey, we had to eat. After lunch, we played a round of golf to warm back up.

This became our daily routine. During the following days, we spent time with our favorite authors, consumed hours watching every available bonus feature on the ultra-expanded, 12-disc Lord of the Rings movie trilogy, and successfully decompressed from our hard-scrapple lives as self-unemployed writers.

The next problem appeared gradually, like syrup leaking onto a refrigerator shelf. You don’t notice it for days, but when you suddenly realize what’s happened, it’s a real mess. We were halfway through watching how makeup artists create orcs from rubber and paint when we discovered hundreds of tiny insect bites on our legs. At first, we thought the little varmints were bedbugs, but the women were completely untouched (and totally unsympathetic, but that’s another story). We eventually tracked the problem to the couch, where we spent most of our mornings.

The couch, it turned out, was a breeding ground for gnats, a self-serve restaurant for “no-see-ums.” They crept onto our skin and had their way with our flesh. Apparently, the air-conditioned cold from our lunchtime meals forced them to seek warmth more vigorously than usual. By mid-week, our swollen, itchy legs looked like they belonged to sunburned orcs after a bad day with an angry wizard. At this rate, we’d need medical attention by the time we returned home.

The timeshare management offered to asphyxiate us with pesticides, but we refused; we’d rather be bitten than poisoned. So we did the only thing that made any sense: we invited friends for the weekend.

Lessons Learned:
Timeshares aren’t meant to be kept to yourself. That’s why the sofa expands into a bed . . . to share the love.

How We Saw It
Blight-Seeing: 1
Communication Breakdown: 2
Customer Dis-service: 4
Discomfort Level: 5
Grunge Factor: 1
Inactivity Guide: 3
Rent-Attainment: 2
Spontaneous Consumption: 2
Fun Fraction: 3/5
Vibe-Rating: 2

If You Won’t Listen to Us
Nearest Airport: Douglas International Airport (Charlotte, NC)
Native Population: 1,050
Normal Attractions: Golfing, Chimney Rock Park, and Lake Lure, with its recreational lake activities like sunbathing and waterskiing.
Final Point of Interest: Chimney Rock, despite its appeal, is shaped like a penis. See for yourself:

18 May 2008

Quote of the Month

Here’s a new quote from your favorite traveling duo . . . at least we hope we’re your favorite traveling duo. By the way, we love dogs. It’s dog owners we sometimes want to punish by rubbing their noses in it:

“People traveling with their dogs have become the cigarette smokers of their generation—they need their own hotel rooms, their own restaurants, and their own rest areas. Cities have already passed laws against ‘second-hand poop.’”

–Mark Bloom & Jason Scholder (2007)

11 May 2008

For Those About to Rock

This place qualifies as the worst waste of time in tourist trap history. It’s ironic, then, that it wants so much to be considered historic. As W.C. Fields allegedly said: “On the whole, I’d rather be in Philadelphia.” —MB & JS
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Elvis devotees have crossed the continent to view a jacket The King once wore on a TV show. Football fans have pawned their wedding rings for a ticket to the Super Bowl. Otherwise normal men have donned leather and fishnets to participate in a midnight showing of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. People will do almost anything for entertainment. But guess how many go out of their way just to see a rock. Would you believe nearly a million a year? It’s true.

The rock in question is no precious gem. It isn’t cursed like the Hope Diamond. It’s a boulder, a slab, a stone immovable except by heavy machinery. It’s an impediment, an eyesore, a big chunk of granite left behind by a retreating glacier millions of years ago.

What sort of rock can wield such inexplicable power over the average tourist? What kind of boulder can boast such superstardom? Think back to your fifth-grade American history class. This stone of contention is none other than Plymouth Rock, where the Pilgrims are said to have landed on the continent on November 21, 1620.

“I knew that,” you say, like a couch-bound Jeopardy junkie with the right answer after the buzzer. Well, what most visitors say upon viewing Plymouth Rock for the first time is more along the lines of: “You dragged me away from Faneuil Hall for this?”

The historic rock is perched on a beach in Plymouth, a coastal town in Massachusetts about forty miles southeast of Boston (home to Faneuil Hall and other historic shopping centers). In Plymouth in the summer, at the height of tourist season, you can expect to endure long lines, wailing children, hot sticky weather, and building anticipation for a glimpse of the large, rounded rock with the number “1620” etched into its torso. Some tourists actually take home videos of the event. Pity their poor relatives who had to remain back in Ohio.

What the fuss is all about. Take a look, then move on. Quickly.

Protected by a concrete canopy donated in 1921 by the National Society of Colonial Dames, the rock sits in a shaded cage looking somewhat like a sleeping walrus. It doesn’t move. It doesn’t talk. It doesn’t, in fact, teach history at all.

As if this weren’t enough to qualify it for the official Don’t Even Go There Hall of Lame, the rock’s very legitimacy has been called into question. The official story cites Plymouth Rock as the very spot where the Mayflower’s passengers, America’s first pilgrims, set foot in the New World after dry-heaving their way across the Atlantic in their quest for religious freedom.

Hogwash, according to some.

The first published references to Plymouth Rock weren’t discovered until over 100 years after the alleged event. Two sources written by the Pilgrims themselves never mention the rock at all. Think about it. Wouldn’t you have aimed for the sandy part of the shore if you were steering that boat? Why would anyone land on a rock?

Time—and a well-organized public relations campaign by city fathers—have put Plymouth on the map. They’ve made the boulder the world’s first and most authentic rock star, a world-renowned symbol for the courage and faith of those who founded New England’s first colony. Funny how history rewrites itself.

Judge for yourself, but by all means, save yourself the trouble of a trip to Plymouth. That’s our job. If you want to rediscover history, look to a different era or for a different location. It’s not like there’ll ever be a shortage of history. Just like there’ll never be a shortage of travel stories gone bad. Lucky us . . .

Little Known Quote: “Here is a stone which the feet of a few outcasts pressed for an instant; and the stone becomes famous.” -Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 1835.

Lessons Learned: Beware of places claiming historical interest. At best, they’ll leave you feeling satisfied but vaguely annoyed, not unlike the cheesy residue of a pizza stuck to the roof of your mouth. At worst, you’ll spend precious vacation time waiting to see something as mundane as an empty field or a well-worn rock.

How We Saw It:
Blight-Seeing: 1
Communication Breakdown: 1
Customer Dis-service: 2
Discomfort Level: 4
Grunge Factor: 1
Inactivity Guide: 5
Rent-Attainment: 1
Spontaneous Consumption: 3
Fun Fraction: 1/5
Vibe-Rating: 1

If You Won’t Listen to Us:
Nearest Airport: Logan International Airport (Boston) & T.F. Green Airport (Providence, RI)
Native Population: 52,000
Normal Attractions: Plimouth Plantation, Pilgrim Hall Museum, the Mayflower II, and whale watching.
Final Point of Interest: The town promotes itself as “America’s Hometown.”