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.

28 August 2009

Nothing Good Can Come of This

We thought we’d pause a moment and talk about the Number One location of Our Top Ten Places to Avoid (if you’ve never seen it, look in the right-hand column). Why did we list the travel section of a magazine rack as the worst place to visit? It might seem odd, since it’s so unlike all the other destinations we write about. Let us explain. —MB & JS

Anyone who travels looks for advice, tips, and warnings. We like to think it’s the reason you’ve ended up here at our blog page, and we like to think that we satisfy that need. Granted, sometimes we recommend that you trudge through the Gates of Hell before trying a location we found. But we like to think this is a useful service in an industry rife with false advertising.

Which brings us to other sources of travel information. We recognize we haven’t visited every place you might want to go (or avoid, as is the often the case). So we hope you search for other useful sites and sources to supplement the invaluable advice you can find here.

No matter where you find your travel advice, do yourself a favor: avoid the travel section of your favorite bookstore’s magazine rack. We’re not just issuing this warning because these magazines won’t publish our stories. Our stories aren’t fit for mass consumption. We know that. They just don’t fit in those advertisement-driven glossies. We’re content to offer our travel advice for free on the alternative distribution medium that is the Internet.

Travel magazines, on the other hand, exist to sell advertising. They fill the occasional page with pretty prose with the hope that you’ll be suckered into coughing up your hard-earned dough. Don’t fall for it.

Try this exercise at a bookstore: holding your nose, pick a travel magazine off the rack. Holding it at arm’s length, open the front cover to the first page. If you were to do this with a Bill Bryson opus, you’d find a neat page with the title and hopefully an autograph. With the travel magazine, however, your senses are assaulted with a two-page spread trying to entice you to buy something you likely don’t even need. Toss the offending magazine back at the rack and wash your hands thoroughly.

Here’s an example. On the front page of a recent popular travel magazine whose name we will not utter except to say its initials are CNT (where the “T” stands for “Traveler”), we read the following headline at the top of the front cover: “Summer 2009: Greatest Deals Ever.” Who could resist a teaser like that? We picked up the magazine. Holding it at arm’s length, we scanned the rest of the cover and discovered we were tricked.

Further down the cover were these words, in very large type: “Hot List,” followed by “50 Restaurants, 50 Spas, 35 Nightclubs,” and the “World’s Top New 140 Hotels*.” Although we rarely travel to a destination just to frequent a restaurant, spa, or nightclub, we recognize them as perks of traveling. But wait! What was that asterisk? And there, in the fine print, we read incredulously: “including 43 under $250.”

That was the moment we tossed the magazine back at the magazine rack. This, we realized, was not a magazine that could yield any information we could use in the real world—the world most of us inhabit. This magazine wants to entice us with 43 hotels (of the 140 hotels they’ve written about and let advertisers push) that offer rooms for under $250 a night?

We rented a hotel room for $250 a night once, in downtown Seattle. Yes, the location was perfect. Yes, the pillows felt like clouds under our heads. Yes, the bathroom (especially the tub) was absolutely incredible. No, we would never stay there again. Unlike Republican congressmen, we don’t hang out in hotel bathrooms. They exist for one purpose. OK, two. But we don’t spend any more time there than we have to. We hadn’t traveled 2,000 miles to take a bath.

Travel magazines like this one cater to people who either have $500 to throw into a hotel toilet or wish they did. In either case, you’re not getting any information that will help you the next time you hit the road, regardless where you go. What you need are true bargains, like the $35 a night shit hole with clean sheets and freshly laundered towels, or the all-you-can-eat pizza buffet for $6, or the university bulletin board advertising those who need a ride to the coast and are willing to split expenses. You won’t find these tips in a travel glossy.

So keep returning here to seek the travel wisdom of your friends Mark and Jason. We’re only too happy to share true lessons from our hard-scrabble life as amateur travel writers. You benefit. We benefit. Everyone wins. Except the glossies.

Lessons Learned: We’ve saved hundreds of dollars not buying the glossy advertising that passes for travel advice. You can too. A trip to a neighborhood bar in a strange place can often provide better sightseeing tips than a Froemmer’s, and you can wet your whistle at the same time. Our traveling motto is: “Money can’t buy you happiness.” It’ll get you a comfortable bed, a sumptuous meal, and even a gorgeous traveling companion, but it will do nothing to point you in the right direction. On the other hand, we will.

We offer no location ratings this week, since we really didn’t write about a specific destination. Thanks for reading our rant, though, and come back often, even if it’s just to read our backlist. Next month, we’ll be back to our usual selves to skewer a brand new travel destination. Until then, keep your wallet close to your chest, your dirty underwear in a plastic bag, and the travel magazines wherever you find them.

20 August 2009

Quote of the Month

We sometimes succumb to souvenir shopping. It’s shameful, we know. The worst souvenirs are the T-shirts that shout the name of some hell hole we visited for a half hour while waiting for bail money (although you have to admit not many others wear their Kansas State . . . Prison T as proudly as we do). Anyway, we recently found the perfect souvenir. Almost.

“We just bought T-shirts that say Not a Tourist. We can wear them almost anywhere and get away with it. Except at Disney World; everyone there will know we’re lying.”

Mark Bloom & Jason Scholder (2009)

12 August 2009

A Big Wheel

Here’s another one of our stories about foreign food . . . meaning it’s food that’s foreign to us. In past posts, we’ve written about jalapeños, frogs’ legs, and German Kaldaunen, among other tasty treats. This month’s entry isn’t as sour as all that, but we still hope you like it. —MB & JS

Everything we know about wine we learned from a trip to Napa Valley, California. The experience taught us how to check a wine’s color and density while stroking your chin; how to judge its legs as if you were a guest at a beauty pageant; and how to swirl the wine from cheek to cheek like it was mouthwash. Tasting fine wines, we discovered, is like listening to French poetry: too much and you have to spit up.

In Napa, we toured over a dozen vineyards—learning about growing seasons, harvesting techniques, fermentation processes, and French oak casks—but the highlight of the trip was an impromptu visit to the Far Niente estate. They normally open their tours only to people who are “in the industry,” such as restaurateurs, sommelier, and other drunken wine snobs. We happened to catch them on a slow day.

We arrived early and parked by the main house, a painstakingly restored 19th-century stone mansion. With time to spare, we toured the landscaped grounds and the garage full of antique cars. Ah, the life of the idle rich.

We fit right in, dressed in shorts and tank tops like we didn’t care what anyone thought of us. We didn’t; we had hurried there directly from the mud baths in nearby Callistoga. Despite our untidy appearance and unkempt hair, they still treated us like royalty. Maybe they thought we were wine critics instead of travel writers. Ah, the advantages of anonymity.

Would you serve an expensive wine to this man?

Then the tour began. They showed us the vineyards, the fermenting room, and our favorite: the storage caves cut beneath the house. Surrounded by all those casks, you might think we’d have wanted to get locked in, but you shouldn’t drink wine before its time. That’s Lesson Number One. (Lesson Number Two is always know where the bathroom is.)

At the end of the tour came the obligatory wine tasting. Believe it or not, some people participate in vineyard tours just for the free wine waiting at the end. Those barbarians! After a battle of righteous indignation, we set aside our armor and sidled up to the table for Far Niente’s free offerings.

Our hosts brought out a thin-stemmed glass goblet for each of us, then a chilled bottle of chardonnay. Although we rarely drank white wine, we became instant converts. With white wine, we learned, you can’t skimp. Those five-dollar bottles of twist-off happiness we used to buy would no longer satisfy us.

At every wine tasting, you’ll find a “spit bucket.” The idea is that you swirl the wine around in your mouth and then spit it out (as if you’re reciting French poetry, some say). With wine this tasty, however, we couldn’t help but swallow. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Following the chardonnay, two remarkable things occurred. First, they distributed new glassware—apparently each wine deserved its own specially shaped goblet. Then they brought out an 18-inch-diameter wheel of hard Parmesan cheese with the next bottle of wine. We’d heard of nibbling cheese to cleanse the palate between servings, but this was no cheap grocery store giveaway; it was a Wallace and Gromit wet dream.

We watched the others nonchalantly chip off a chunk, as if they had a similar Parmesan spare tire sitting on their table at home, maybe propped up between the silver candlesticks. Not us. When it reached our side of the table, we felt a mischievous urge to stuff it under a shirt and race for the door. We didn’t. We wanted to stop the proceedings to have our picture taken with it. (“This is us in Napa with our new best friend, the Big Wheel of Cheese.”) We didn’t do that either. Instead, we settled for simply hefting it a few times—not an easy feat—and chipping off a half-pound wedge. It barely made a dent.

The rest of Far Niente’s wines were delectable, and we can, with a clear conscience, recommend any of them to those of you who can afford them. Yes, we discovered these wines aren’t cheap, even at the vineyard. Take it from us, though: once you’ve had the best, you’ll realize how well the other half live. But that story will have to wait for another day.

Treat yourself to a bottle of Far Niente wine so the owner won’t be evicted.

Lessons Learned: While we have fond memories of our stay in Napa Valley, it’s the cheese that captured our imagination. We’ve never seen anything like it. While Far Niente makes an excellent product, it was that big wheel of cheese that made it rise to the top, above all the other wannabe wineries. Ask for one on your next vineyard tour.
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: 3
Spontaneous Consumption: 2
Fun Fraction: 4/5
Vibe-Rating: 5

If You Won’t Listen to Us
Nearest Airport: San Francisco International Airport or Oakland International Airport (Napa Valley Airport serves only private flights)
Native Population: 125,000
Normal Attractions: Winery tours and tastings, the Wine Train, Calistoga mud baths, hot air balloon rides, scenic vistas, and fine dining.
Final Point of Interest: Napa Valley’s Hakusan Sake Gardens offers hot and cold sake tasting for those who are tired of the same old red or white.

03 August 2009

Lone Star

Sometimes, a journey away from home shocks us with unexpected delights and disrupted stereotypes. These trips have a profound effect on us. It’s at times like this when we seriously question our calling of skewering vacation destinations. After all, isn’t travel by definition a very personal experience? Luckily for us, there’s always places like Everett, Massachusetts—known to locals and drunks alike as “The Gateway to Chelsea.” Skewer away. —MB & JS

We were ready for the worst. We’d seen many of the horror movies set here. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Easy Rider. Tin Cup. There are probably more, but we couldn’t drag ourselves to watch them.

We’d even heard the stories. One tall tale describes, in graphic detail, how redneck Texans will catch you, hold you down, and shave your head . . . with the rusted straight razor that Jim Bowie allegedly used for gutting buffalo.

Whether you’re a biker with long hair and a beard or a hippy chick from California, you too might have heard all the stories and innuendo. It’s enough to make you think twice before venturing anywhere near the Great State of Texas. Self-preservation is a natural instinct. Why risk your neck just to push the envelope?

After all, that’s why we’re here.

We can tell you that while the rumors about Texas yokels are pervasive, they’re largely false. They are what we call stereotypes, and while there may be bigots everywhere, we’d like to think they exist at the fringe of society, a tiny minority living in tents and voting Republican. Most Texans, as it turns out, are as friendly and curious as a Quaker who’s accidentally swallowed an overdose of Viagra.

In an unscientific poll we conducted during several of our trips through the state—which we usually undertook in a cruise-controlled marathon of coffee and piss breaks while trying to get to the next state as fast as possible—we found Texans to be among the friendliest people we’ve ever met. Much friendlier, as it turns out, than the drivers we encountered in Boston (for proof, see The Roads to Ruin, January 2009).

Nowhere was the Texan attitude more apparent than in Amarillo. While traveling west once some years ago, we stopped in the city for lunch. We found this small diner that exuded charm and the down-home smell of BBQ. The service was impeccable for such an inexpensive place, and afterward, we needed to walk off the meal. Along the way, we ducked into a local watering hole.

The woman in charge was just cleaning up the debris from the night before. Apparently, the nights in Amarillo last pretty long. The place was open, though, and she invited us in. The pool tables and neon beer signs looked commonplace, but the sawdust on the floor and the overturned chairs spoke volumes about the bar’s normal clientele.

As we sauntered up to the bar, we figured, “Well, we’re in Texas; we should try the state beer.” So we ordered a Lone Star. That was a mistake.

After the proprietor stopped laughing, she said, in her drawl, “Yer not from around here, are ya? What you want is a Kers Laht. That there’s a good beer.” It took us a moment to figure out she meant Coors Light, not a brand we would normally order (“normally” meaning “any other day of any other week”). Given the circumstances, though, how could we refuse?

She served us ice-cold bottles, and while we drank, she described the night before in colorful detail, mentioning regulars by first names like Bubba, Hank, and “Bobby Joe, who puked in the alley.” She offered to show us the stain, but we demurred. Texan generosity obviously knows no limits, but we had ours.

All too soon, we were on our way again, with a broad smile and a lasting memory. We’ve never yet had a bad experience in Texas, and we’ve been back, oh, several times. If it weren’t for the arid climate—the kind that makes your eyes permanently squint like Clint Eastwood’s—we might still be there. Luckily, virtually all of the state’s highways are straight, and they lead to other, more scenic places. Like Oklahoma. Lucky us.

Lessons Learned: If you ever get the chance, take a trip to Texas and find out for yourself. Visit the Alamo in San Antonio. Pay tribute to the Stevie Ray Vaughn memorial in Austin. Stop in for the Dallas nightlife. Spend a winter holiday in Houston. It’s a big state with lots to offer. They know how to make you feel at home, and they won’t stop until you burp with satisfaction.
How We Saw It
Blight-Seeing: 2
Communication Breakdown: 2
Customer Dis-service: 1
Discomfort Level: 1
Grunge Factor: 2
Inactivity Guide: 2
Rent-Attainment: 1
Spontaneous Consumption: 1
Fun Fraction: 3/5
Vibe-Rating: 4

If You Won’t Listen to Us
Nearest Airport: Amarillo International Airport
Native Population: 175,000
Normal Attractions: Cadillac Ranch and the Palo Duro Canyon State Park (both nearby), and lest we forget: Wonderland Amusement Park (maybe this is why the locals are so friendly: they’re all looking for a ride to somewhere else).
Final Point of Interest: The Big Texan Steak House offers a free 72-ounce steak if you can eat one (and the meal that comes with it) in under an hour. Good luck.