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.

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

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

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.