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.

31 January 2009

The Grapes of Wrath

We’ve written about the “joys” of taking a cruise boat vacation before. A cruise is like the Jehovah’s Witness idea of Heaven: beauty and serenity for all 144,000 of you. Sure it’s nice, but it’s the same 144,000 faces every day for all eternity. Think about it. Anyway, the following story deals with what happens off the boat. Hope you enjoy this true tale; be glad it didn’t happen to you. —MB & JS

A week-long cruise—particularly in the dead of winter—can make the working world seem as far away as Jose Cuervo does that worm at the bottom of the bottle. But if you choose a sea-bound adventure for your vacation, be sure to pick one with intriguing ports of call.

While all cruises offer onboard activities—live entertainment, nightly gambling, and, regrettably, karaoke—whenever the ship pulls into port, most passengers disembark for a variety of onshore excursions. The trips (offered for an extra fee) can be highly rewarding experiences: climbing a Costa Rican volcano, touring Mexican ruins, or splashing beneath Jamaican waterfalls.

We’ve taken many cruises, and each provided moments to remember—some with a grin and others with a wince. We’ve survived stormy seas without needing a barf bag and endured dinner at the captain’s table with similar fortitude. We’ve been treated to a wild night at a Port-au-Prince discothèque during one trip and had to abandon ship during another. But those stories will have to wait.

Taking a cruise isn’t always about what happens on the boat.

This particular misadventure occurred during a short cruise out of Los Angeles. In five days, you can barely get your sea legs, let alone forget your cares and woes. Still, we gave it the old junior college try.

On a brief cruise like this, popular with the swinging senior set, you can’t expect shore excursions as vigorous as climbing a volcano or walking to town. So at the first port of call, we decided to pass up the trolley tour and venture into the wilds of Old Town San Diego on our own.

On our way to Mexico, however, we had a full day at sea, and perhaps that lull contributed to our lapse in judgment. We broke down and signed up for a shore excursion in Ensenada. In all fairness, we didn’t know the city, so it seemed smart to let someone else show us around. Our logic was infallible; our discernment was not.

We chose an adventure grounded in the familiar—a trip to a vineyard. We knew a little about wine and a lot about drinking. What we didn’t know couldn’t hurt us . . . or could it?

You may be surprised to learn flourishing vineyards exist in Mexico. Maybe you know your wines, but have never heard of a Mexican varietal. Maybe you know nothing about wine, but still can’t imagine a Mexican winery. Maybe the only Mexican wine you’ve heard of is Corona. We felt the same way at first, as if tasting a Mexican vintage was like trying Greek BBQ. But we were way too sober to refuse.

It took us an hour to reach the vineyard by bus, rolling through the mountains outside the city. The winery tour featured the usual stops: grapes, harvest, de-stemming, fermentation, and casks. As we approached the tasting room, optimism burst out of us like the cork out of a bottle of 1996 Dom Pérignon Rosé.

Then we tasted the wines. Cabernet. Petit Sirah. Zinfindel. The classics. How would they measure up?

It all starts with the grapes. Turns out, we liked them better raw.

When evaluating a glass of wine, you look for certain characteristics: legs, aroma, and opacity, for example. When evaluating Mexican wine, we learned, you look for something more tangible: the exit.

We left empty-handed, foregoing even the Vintner’s Select bottles that were “so good,” they wouldn’t even let us taste them. We learned later that Europe was the biggest market for the vineyard’s products. Italians, in particular, loved these wines. Surprised? We were too, until we learned that Italy’s connoisseurs use Mexican wines for cooking.

Lessons Learned: There’s more to avoid in Mexico than the water. You want alcohol? Have a cerveza. Want something else? Try a margarita. Just stay the hell away from Mexico’s finest vintage.
How We Saw It
Blight-Seeing: 3
Communication Breakdown: 3
Customer Dis-service: 2
Discomfort Level: 3
Grunge Factor: 2
Inactivity Guide: 1
Rent-Attainment: 1
Spontaneous Consumption: 4
Fun Fraction: 1/5
Vibe-Rating: 1

If You Won’t Listen to Us
Nearest Airport: Ensenada Airport
Native Population: 260,000
Normal Attractions: The Blowhole, one of the largest geysers in the world; the Baja off-road races; the La Primera shopping district; also surfing, windsurfing, and whale-watching.
Final Point of Interest: About 90 percent of Mexico’s wines are produced in the region surrounding Ensenada. Try the tequila instead; it’s excellent.

24 January 2009

Quote of the Month

Here’s some advice you’ll instinctively know is valuable the moment you read it. It’s one of those things that deep down in your gut, you know it’s true. Maybe you lapsed once or twice, and that’s OK. Really. We’re only human. Now, read this and take it to heart this time. You’ll thank us later.

“Avoid any place that has to advertise itself with highway billboards farther away than ten miles. If Wall Drug was that spectacular, for example, you’d think one billboard at the exit would suffice. And don’t even talk about South of the Border off Interstate 95 in South Carolina or The Thing off Interstate 10 in Arizona. Not if you know what’s good for you.”

–Mark Bloom & Jason Scholder (2007)

18 January 2009

Unfinished Business

Here’s a cautionary tale with old-fashioned message: You can’t judge a book by its cover. We’ve simply applied that message to a vacation destination. You might be surprised to read the following; at least, we hope you’ll be surprised. That’s why you’re here, reading this. That’s why we write it. Enjoy. —MB & JS

Imagine you’re promised the most amazing views in the known world. All you have to do is buy a ticket, climb some stairs, and gaze out the window. You pay the man and ascend the steps, but at the top of the tower, you find no windows. The explanation—“It’s unfinished”—doesn’t satisfy you, so you beat the crap out of the guy.

While you won’t experience this insult at an established tourist destination, you’d be surprised at how many unfinished buildings are pawned off on the public as major attractions. We’re not talking about once-finished structures that have since fallen into ruin like the Parthenon in Athens or the White House in Washington, DC. We’re talking about tourist traps that have never ever been completed.

Sound impossible? Hearst Castle remains unfinished, yet over a million people visit it every year. The Sagrada Família Cathedral in Barcelona, Spain, has been under construction for more than 100 years, and 2.26 million people visited it in 2004 alone.

The place that really caught our ire, though, was Neuschwanstein Castle in southern Germany. You might recognize it as the model for Sleeping Beauty’s castle in the original Walt Disney movie. Its contrasting, disproportionate spires mirror the mountain peaks surrounding it. Nestled in the incomparable Bavarian Alps, it’s noted the world over for its 19th-century romanticism, not to mention its hard-to-pronounce name (“Noy-shwann-stine,” which is best spit out as if you’re about to sneeze).

“Mad King Ludwig” (Ludwig II of Bavaria), who never met a coin he wouldn’t spend, built three castles in a spree that led to psychiatric treatment and a mysterious murder that remains unsolved to this day—both he and his psychiatrist drowned in waist-deep water. This true story taught us a valuable lesson: psychoanalysis can be fatal.

The two other castles Ludwig built—Herrenchiemsee, modeled after Versailles, and Linderhof, a cottage-sized palace by comparison—are worth visits on their own, but only Neuschwanstein has risen to become an international phenomenon.

Yet it remains unfinished.

Sure it’s picturesque in this view, but you should see the inside.
[Note: Photo used without permission; please don't sue us.]

When we arrived at the castle grounds in Hohenschwangau (another mouthful), we found we had to buy our tickets at the bottom of a hill and then make a 30-minute climb on foot. (Disabled tours are available, but if you are disabled, trust us: don’t even go there.) When we reached the castle entrance, out of breath and hoping to find a bench or maybe an oxygen tent, we realized instead that we had inadvertently wandered into the queue for the tour, a half-hour cattle call with no stops. We were rewarded with some amazing views, however, so we didn’t have to beat the crap out of anyone.

The guide shepherded us through the vast castle, all the while regaling us with tales about the rooms Ludwig obviously cared about: the fourteen rooms decorated to within a centimeter of their lives. These included the throne room, Ludwig’s suite, and the amazing Singers’ Hall. The castle had its surprises, too. Its dining table could be cranked down to the kitchen below like a dumb waiter on steroids. What we liked best of all, though, were the paintings in Singers’ Hall. Some of them had characters carelessly dangling an arm or leg out of the frame in three dimensions, as if they might step out of the picture and ask us what the hell we were doing there. In guttural German, of course.

In contrast to the ostentatious beauty of these rooms, most of the castle is quite empty. Between the visions of rococo reality, the guide hurried us through rooms that lacked, well, everything. The plaster walls were white and cracking, and not a stick of furniture intruded on the wooden floors. A barn would have been more inviting.

We realized we’d had to pay a flat fee to get the tour, but it only covered a minuscule amount of the actual square footage. Despite the grandeur of the finished sections, the castle is mostly unfinished, like a blank canvas with a tiny painted corner everyone swoons over. It’s like buying a three-bedroom house, but only furnishing the closets. You’d think the good German people would do something, anything, to finish the job Mad King Ludwig started. We’d have paid extra to see that.

Lessons Learned: Tours are available in English, but book in advance. If you must go for a visit, travel down from Munich when you’re bored of drinking or shopping or museum-hopping. But keep in mind that you, along with the other 5,999 others that particular day, won’t see a finished product. It is incomplete, a work in progress whose progress has stopped for good.
How We Saw It
Blight-Seeing: 1
Communication Breakdown: 4
Customer Dis-service: 4
Discomfort Level: 3
Grunge Factor: 1
Inactivity Guide: 2
Rent-Attainment: 1
Spontaneous Consumption: 3
Fun Fraction: 3/5
Vibe-Rating: 2

If You Won’t Listen to Us
Nearest Airport: Munich International Airport
Native Population: 14,000
Normal Attractions: The German Alps, lakes, everything you need for a romantic getaway. Don’t be surprised, however, if the environs impact your date’s mood enough so that you cannot finish with a happy ending.
Final Point of Interest: Neuschwanstein isn’t the only castle in the neighborhood. Visit Hohenschwangau, too.

06 January 2009

The Roads to Ruin

Since we’ve just returned from a trip to our original hometown (to visit family and do some shoveling), we decided to post this related story. It’s a tale of caution to everyone, whether you’re a seasoned business traveler or a road-tripping college student. Don’t take this warning lightly; take it to the bank and put where it can draw interest. It’s that valuable. —MB & JS

They seem to be everywhere—on highways, country roads, and especially city streets. They force pedestrians to flee in terror. They chase Porsches down cul-de-sacs. They treat red lights like they treat parking tickets: laughed at and disappearing in the rear-view mirror.

“Boston drivers:” aggressive auto-pilots with hatred in their hearts and blood on their bumpers. You’ve heard the rumors. You know the stories. You might’ve even used it as a curse yourself when someone cut you off. Boston has a reputation for baked beans, banning books, and bad driving habits.

But this myth doesn’t quite reflect reality. We should know. We spent our formative years learning to drive there. “Boston drivers,” we are happy to report, aren’t born without proper control of their motor reflexes or good judgment. No, they are regular people forced into an unnatural and dangerous environment: the streets of Boston.

You’d think driving in Boston, where “Boston drivers” form a demented majority, would thrust you—if not into a fetal position—at least into near-fatal or flashback-inducing circumstances. Sometimes it does. Boston drivers heed the creed that “he who hesitates is lost.” If you don’t know where you’re going, then get the hell out of the way. Boston drivers obey the unwritten rule that the crappiest car always has the right of way, regardless of what other traffic rules may seem to apply. After all, a Lexus driver has more to lose in a collision.

But there’s more to it than simple philosophies. As Boston drivers themselves will tell you: it’s a matter of survival. Not yours, theirs.

Boston is a city that grew up without the automobile. In its infancy, Bostonians relied on the horse and buggy (basically, a narrow box on wheels). As a result, many of Boston’s inner-city streets can barely accommodate a Cooper Mini. Moreover, Boston’s streets wind around hills with nary a straightaway in sight. No one cared back then, and it was easier for the horses. No one had yet heard of “city planning,” which even today sounds vaguely Socialist.

But that’s not why Boston is such a perilous place to drive. Other early American cities have narrow, winding streets, but aren’t noted for the Death Race that characterizes Boston’s daily traffic. What’s the real story?

As you drive around the city, trying to find the right exit or a certain address, you will notice a few things … or the lack thereof. Street signs, for example, or accurate highway markers. Missing, poorly placed, and badly labeled signs are so prevalent in the Boston area that natives have learned to pretty much ignore any sign by the side of the road, including speed limit signs.

If you’re driving in Boston, you best know where you’re going before you start. If you’re lost, you’re going to stay lost. If you think you can just circle the block to return to where you were, you’re mistaken. One-way streets and hidden curves will direct you instead farther away from your destination. A friend once called from a pay phone to get directions to a party in a northern suburb. “I don’t know where I am,” he said, “but the area code is 401.” That’s Rhode Island for you folks from Boise.

Boston drivers, in their own skewed way, are as predictable as the next driver. During one year commuting from Malden to Cambridge, we saw a car go through a red light every single day. It became so nerve-wracking, we began stopping at yellow lights. The strategy backfired. Cars swerved around us, honking madly, to zip through the red light anyway.

The streets of Boston favor a mad, hell-bent attitude—survival of the foolish. At least Boston drivers exhibit very little of the road rage common to the highways of LA. That’s a good thing—you could argue that fewer southern California drivers might help the gene pool, whereas Massachusetts drivers might be Harvard students, MIT graduates, or Berkeley School of Music dropouts: in other words, the cream of humanity. Instead of shoot-outs, Boston drivers take their frustration out in different ways, like aiming for critters in the road, pretending pedestrians are fair game, and challenging the laws of physics. Be warned: it’s a mindset that becomes infectious after a mere month of experience.

Lessons Learned: The next time you see someone driving an old beater like he owns the road, get out of the way. Don’t get mad, take pity. If he’s really from Boston, think of where the poor bastard had to learn to drive. That kind of experience will scar anyone. Boston drivers? There but by the grace of God (and geography) go any one of us.
How We Saw It
Blight-Seeing: 2
Communication Breakdown: 4
Customer Dis-service: 1
Discomfort Level: 4
Grunge Factor: 2
Inactivity Guide: 2
Rent-Attainment: 1
Spontaneous Consumption: 1
Fun Fraction: 1/5
Vibe-Rating: 3, if you enjoy danger

If You Won’t Listen to Us
Nearest Airport: Boston Logan International Airport
Native Population: 591,000 (city only)
Normal Attractions: History, architecture, museums, Fenway Park, colleges, nightlife, Boston Common, fine dining, Quincy Market and Faneuil Hall, live music, and Cambridge.
Final Point of Interest: Boston’s nicknames include: Beantown, The Hub (of the Universe), The Cradle of Liberty, City on the Hill, and Athens of America. We prefer “Bawstin.”