Vacation Time: The Western Swing (Part VI)

We left Fargo and drove across Minnesota to our next destination.  When we planned the trip, we asked Richard and Russell what they wanted to see out west.  Mount Rushmore?  Check.  The Crazy Horse Memorial?  Check.  Devil’s Tower?  Ditto.  To my surprise, however, they also expressed an interest in seeing the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota . . . and that was our next destination.

After a few hours driving we approached the Mall of America, took advantage of the ample parking spaces provided, and entered the mall.  I’m not sure what I expected, but when we got inside we found a really big mall,  and that was about it.  Sure, it had an amusement park in the middle, and lots of stores on multiple levels, but it looked and felt like any mall found anywhere in America, just bigger.  There really wasn’t anything to do but shop, which none of us felt like doing.  After looking around for a while we hit the road for Minneapolis.

We had stayed in a few sketchy places on our trip, so we decided to splurge and stay in a nice downtown hotel in Minneapolis.  It was well worth it.  Minneapolis has a vibrant downtown, and we enjoyed walking around for a bit of exploration of another thriving Midwestern city.  We had a good dinner and went to see a movie in a downtown theatre.  The only unusual thing I noticed was that everyone out on the streets seemed to be smoking, which gave the place a significantly different feel than Columbus, where a public smoker is as rare as as an honest Chicago politician.

The next day we drove to Evanston, Illinois, to explore the Northwestern campus where Richard would soon be attending college.  By that time, we were within range of Columbus, and the pull of home had become irresistible.  The next day we got up earlier than normal, drove the final eight hours of our Western Swing, and happily dropped our bags at the old homestead with another family vacation under our belts and some good memories to treasure.

Vacation Time:  The Western Swing (Part V)

Vacation Time:  The Western Swing (Part IV)

Vacation Time:  The Western Swing (Part III)

Vacation Time:  The Western Swing (Part II)

Vacation Time:  The Western Swing (Part I)

Vacation Time: The Western Swing (Part V)

We left Cody, Wyoming in the morning for a short and leisurely drive to Red Lodge, Montana — one of our shortest drives of the entire trip.  It was a beautiful summer day, with a bright blue sky and high white clouds.  As we drove we encountered, yet again, the spectacular western vistas that had become an expected part of our drives.

Red Lodge is a former mining town that I had never heard of before I started doing the planning for the trip.  I was interested in going there because Red Lodge is home to the Pollard Hotel, an historic hotel built in 1893 that was recently refurbished.  When we got to Red Lodge, it was as if the whole town had been encased in amber in, say, 1920.  The Pollard exuded history and turn-of-the-century class.

After we checked in we drove out of town to find a place to explore the countryside, which has a dramatically different look and feel than the dusty landscapes of Wyoming and South Dakota.  Red Lodge is nestled in the piney high country, and we found a perfect spot with a rushing stream, a walking path that wound through cool pine forested countryside, and interesting rock formations.  It felt good to get out of the car and do some hiking, and even though it was a beautiful spot with national park-quality scenery there was no one else there.  The moment made me feel, for a short time anyway, like a settler moving through virgin countryside in the 1880s.

After our hike we returned to Red Lodge, had a fine dinner at the Pollard Hotel, and explored the town.  Kish and the boys found a fine candy store and loaded up on all kinds of unusual “penny candy,” which helped fortify them for the next day’s drive.  And it was a long drive — our longest of the trip, I think — that took us from Red Lodge, through Montana and the whole of North Dakota, ending in Fargo.  Kish and the boys, gorged on penny candy, dozed as we drove through the beautiful, open North Dakota countryside.  When we got to Fargo we didn’t seen any pregnant police officers or legs sticking out of wood chippers, but we did find a bar that served very welcome cold beer.

Vacation Time:  The Western Swing (Part IV)

Vacation Time:  The Western Swing (Part III)

Vacation Time:  The Western Swing (Part II)

Vacation Time:  The Western Swing (Part I)

Vacation Time: The Western Swing (Part IV)

The next morning we left Deadwood, drove west, and crossed the state line into Wyoming.  Our initial goal was Devil’s Tower.  It is another iconic location in the American West, made even more so by being featured so prominently in Close Encounters of the Third Kind.  It is also out in the middle of nowhere, and it takes some time to get there, even driving at “western speeds.”

Richard at Devil's Tower

The long drive to Devil’s Tower is worth it, because the sight of the Tower is so striking.  It sits by itself in the rolling countryside, like a colossal tree stump that has been vertically clawed by a gigantic bear or a landing spot for the chariots of the gods.  It is visible for miles as you approach, looming larger and larger in the windshield.  When you finally reach the base of Devil’s Tower the impact is overwhelming.  The massive, grooved rock overhead, guarded by the rubble of huge stones that have slid off the rockface, has an almost physical presence.

Richard and Russell immediately began scrambling up the rocks surrounding Devil’s Tower, heading up to an area on the monument itself.  There are no fences to keep people away, just a sign that advises that climbers will proceed at their own risk.  No kidding!  Kish and I half expected to see bodies cartwheeling down the rocks after a misstep.  Fortunately, that didn’t happen, and the kids were, I think, exhilarated by their climb.  As they scrabbled up the rocky base of Devil’s Tower, Kish and I explored the surrounding area, which was interesting in itself.  The Tower is sacred to native Americans, some of whom had left little message bundles tied to the trees at the bottom of the Tower.  As the breeze moved through the trees dotted with the colorful bundles, my thoughts turned to what tribal life was like in the shadow of the Tower, long ago.

The view from our seats at the Cody Rodeo

After leaving the Tower and getting back onto the interstate we headed to our farthest western destination, Cody, Wyoming.  The idea was to see a true western town and a true western rodeo.  Cody filled the bill admirably on both counts.  After checking into a somewhat lame hotel just outside of town, we drove back to Cody, walked around the well-preserved downtown area, had dinner at an Italian restaurant, and then drove out to the Cody night rodeo.  What a great scene!  You sit in bleachers, drinking beer and watching some of the best rodeo found anywhere, complete with roping exhibitions, trick riding, bronco busting, calf wresting, and rodeo clowns. The smell of leather, dust, and animal sweat is in the air, the athleticism and skill is extraordinary, and testosterone levels are through the roof.

My sense is that many people drive by Cody, on their way to nearby Yellowstone Park, without giving a second thought to stopping.  In my book they are missing something.

Vacation Time:  The Western Swing (Part III)

Vacation Time:  The Western Swing (Part II)

Vacation Time:  The Western Swing (Part I)

Vacation Time: The Western Swing (Part III)

On the road into the Crazy Horse Memorial

We awoke to a brilliant blue sky and warm temperatures and then, stoked by a hearty breakfast, took a short drive to the Crazy Horse Memorial, which is still under construction and has been under construction for years.  We also visited it on the Webner family trip west in the 1960s, and it has made some progress since then, but not as much as you would think in nearly 40 years.  The Crazy Horse Memorial is much larger than Mt. Rushmore, and the kids actually thought it was more memorable than Mt. Rushmore.   Walking around the grounds of the Crazy Horse Memorial, you realize that, in a profound way, it sends its own special message about out country’s treatment of native Americans.  Why should it take decades to complete a monument to native Americans?  (Note to Congress:  if you are going to pass another stimulus package — God forbid! — we could do worse than contribute whatever funds are needed to complete the Crazy Horse Memorial.)

Kish and Richard at Custer National Park

After visiting the Crazy Horse Memorial it seemed like a good idea to get out into the countryside on a beautiful day and get some exercise.  We therefore visited the nearby Custer National Park, which is an enormous, largely ignored tract set squarely in southwestern South Dakota.  The Park has many different trails, and we selected one at random.  Almost immediately, we came upon an enormous, fly-blown pile of droppings.  At that point, Kish decided to stay back with the car, and the boys and I struck out over the prairie.  The trail wound through woodland and a skittish prairie dog community, past streams and rock faces, and during the entire walk we did not see another human being.

At one point, however, we did see, up ahead on the trail, what appeared to be a very large, very dead animal.  We quickly decided that the better part of valor would be to bypass that area, so we scrambled up a hillside and back down again a safe distance past the remains.  Still later in the walk the trail took us past a solitary, munching buffalo, which also caused us to loop around while keeping a wary eye on the shaggy beast.  When we finally got back to the car we felt like we had gotten a good taste of the real, unadorned West.

Our day ended with dinner and a stay at the Bullock Hotel in Deadwood.  Deadwood, of course, is one of the evocative names of the Old West, and Kish and I were big fans of the excellent HBO series of the same name.  I’m sorry to say that Deadwood was a real disappointment for us.  Sure, you can see where Wild Bill Hickok supposedly was shot, and the Bullock Hotel itself is an interesting bit of Americana.  For the most part, however, Deadwood seems like a sad mass of cheesy gambling establishments and tawdry bars.

Vacation Time:  The Western Swing (Part II)

Vacation Time:  The Western Swing (Part I)

Vacation Time: Waterfront Bars

What is it about waterfront establishments that are so conducive to a pleasant drinking experience?

A view from the deck at Banana Bay

Beers rarely taste so good as they do when you are sitting at a picnic table, gazing out at the surf from under palm trees and a thatched roof, and eating a hot conch fritter.  There are two good waterfront venues within walking distance of the Pisciottas’ home, and we’ve taken advantage of both of them on this trip.

To the left, about a 15-minute walk away, is Banana Bay.  It has a big covered deck with picnic tables that looks out over the broad sweep of Banana Bay and a sand spit that stretches far out into the ocean at low tide.

Chuck at the entrance to the Sand Bar

To the right, past Club Fortuna, is the Sand Bar.  It is a smaller establishment with a narrow entrance off the beach, two outside decks with good views of the beach and ocean, and a dim interior bar with a sand-covered floor and a collection of local characters.

Banana Bay is more of a lunch restaurant with a drink menu, whereas the Sand Bar is more of a bar with a few food choices. They are both good options for a cold beer on a hot day.

Vacation Time: The View From The Deck

The infamous Pisciotta deck

We’re down in the Bahamas, at the Pisciottas’ sumptuous home in the Shoreline development outside Freeport.  It is a fantastic, relaxing place where we always enjoy ourselves. So far, we’ve managed to eat some good Caribbean food, drink beer at several oceanside bars, and crash a party thrown by some of the many Brit residents in the development.

The view from the foot of stairs at the bottom of the deck

We particularly enjoy the sprawling deck, which looks out over the Atlantic and is well-suited for a breakfast talk, a mid-afternoon siesta, or drinks before the evening festivities.  It has a great view of the ocean, and when you sit out there, sipping a beer and listening to the gentle sound of the ocean, you can’t help but relax.

Vacation Time: The Western Swing (Part II)

We left Tea early in the morning, heading west on I-90. In the days before the Fourth of July, I-90 is a road dominated by campers and RVs, all heading west. The sun was bright, the sky was blue, traffic was sparse, and the exits were few and far as we rolled through the flat South Dakota farmland. Soon we reached one of the great outposts of roadside American kitsch: the Corn Palace in Mitchell, South Dakota.

It’s not easy to describe the Corn Palace to people who have never been there. You park in a parking lot, walk though the maze of shops and souvenir stores that seem to guard the building, and then suddenly before you is a building decorated entirely in corn. And what a building it is, too, like a fantasy castle with Kremlinesque onion domes, turrets, pillars, and arches. Who knows why or how such a bizarre contrivance was begun — but it sure feels right when you see it. You admire the intricate designs and the countless hours that must have been spent affixing the corn to the facade of the building. There’s not much to do inside, except visit the gift shop and look at the pictures of the prior designs of the Corn Palace. To the embarrassment of the proprietors, one of the designs — I think it may have been 1919 — prominently featured a swastika, and the management therefore placed a sign underneath helpfully, and somewhat apologetically, pointing out that the swastika was a symbol also used by native Americans.

We then got back on I-90 and rolled west, driving hundreds of miles past towns like Kennebec and Murdo, until we got to the Badlands. At about that point the farmland has ended, and you suddenly realize that you are in the American West, in all its majesty and mystery, flaring colors and curious rock formations and plant life. The Badlands is a striking introduction, with its dead and eroded hillsides reaching out to the traveler like fingers. After being cooped up in the car for hours you have to get out and explore, hike through the hillsides, and stand atop a promontory point and look out to the far horizon, marveling at the endless apparently lifeless terrain. The Badlands provides one of those sweeping western vistas that makes you feel small.

After that humbling experience it was important to reestablish our priorities, so we drove immediately to the legendary Wall Drug in Wall, S.D. After seeing endless acres of desolation it was important to experience endless acres of consumer goods and knick knacks. Richard bought a cowboy hat, we took good looks at other western paraphernalia, and then got back on the road to Rapid City.

Checking out Mt. Rushmore at the end of the day

As the sun began to set, we reached Mt. Rushmore.  I visited there during the ’60s, on a family driving trip  out west, but seeing it again really packed a punch.  It is very cool to realize that we spent the money to carve the likenesses of four of our greatest presidents into the face of a mountain in the Black Hills, and that realization, and the mountain sculpture itself, stirs strong feelings of patriotism.  How many countries would tackle such an outlandish project?  In that sense, Mt. Rushmore not only recognizes Presidents Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Roosevelt, it also commemorates the big-thinking, roll-up-your-sleeves attitudes that have helped to make America great. After taking in the view from the plaza we walked on a path that winds underneath the face of the monument, which gives you some interesting perspectives on the figures and the challenges involved in carving them.

Our day ended in the foothills of Mount Rushmore. We stayed at a hotel that also was an RV park. After having a hearty dinner we walked the RV grounds in the gathering dusk, admiring the massiveness of the vehicles, the cookout awnings, and the general partying atmosphere.

Vacation Time: The Western Swing (Part I)

Vacation Time: The Western Swing (Part I)

A few years ago we were talking about where to go for a vacation, and Russell expressed a strong interest in seeing Mount Rushmore and some of the American West. I readily agreed, because I like driving and I like the West. But, where to go?

The old State Capitol in Springfield

I wanted to expose the kids to the America that I remember from my childhood trips — a land of local restaurants, regional fare, and legitimate historical sites and national parks mixed in with bizarre man-made attractions. Many of those restaurants and curiosities have been put out of business by bypassing superhighways or pricing pressure from national chains, but some are still around. So, I visited the excellent RoadsideAmerica and websites, read a few library books, and planned a driving trip that took us as far west as Cody, Wyoming. I tried to plan days that involved enough driving to make progress, but not so much that we would be in the car for endless hours, listlessly watching the landscape roll by.

On our first day we drove six hours to Springfield, Illinois. Like many Americans, I identify strongly with Lincoln, and the idea of visiting Springfield was irresistible. We left early one morning, got to Springfield around noon, and we weren’t disappointed. Many of the historic Lincoln sites are well-preserved, and the city has a new, and fascinating, Lincoln Museum. We visited the Museum, the beautiful old State Capitol, Lincoln’s striking tomb, and his old neighborhood — athough, unfortunately, we did not get to tour his home.

The next morning we awoke early for one of the longest driving days of the trip. After bidding farewell to the very talkative bed and breakfast proprietor, we crossed the mighty Mississippi at Hannibal and rolled on to Tea, South Dakota. My plan was to get as far west as we could while trying a few odd stops along the way. I’d read about Maid-Rite sandwich shops in one of my sources and was intrigued by the idea of “loose meat ground beef” sandwiches. We stopped in a Maid-Rite in a small Iowa town and had a wonderful meal. The sandwiches (and fries) are great. Maid-Rites have been around since the 1920s, and this particular outlet looked like it had been in the same location, unchanged, since at least the ’50s. The town in which it was located had the same timeless feel.

Fortified, we drove on to the Steever House Bed and Breakfast near Tea, South Dakota. It is a magnificent old home with beautiful rooms that is surrounded by fields. If you stand outside the house, looking at the farmland extending to the horizon in every direction, you feel very small indeed. There are few trees nearby, and you can see weather systems rolling in from miles away.

mini_2155I’d read about the Steak House in Tea, South Dakota and felt we just had to try it. It also was well worth the visit. The Steak House is a no-frills place — the sign out front just says “Steak” — and you eat at simple tables, without having to endure the faux atmosphere found in so many lame chain restaurants. It is, simply, a place for people who want to eat a steak, and it filled the bill admirably. The place was packed, with waitresses weaving among the tables with heaving platters of steak and hash browns and plastic basets of onion rings. The steaks are massive, cooked to order, and so fresh you feel like the cattle were just butchered out back — which they probably were.

Having huge, tasty steaks at the southeast corner of South Dakota made us feel like we were away from the Midwest and on the edge of adventure.

Vacation Time: Cozumel And Chichen Itza

The cave pool

We spent Christmas break a few years ago at Cozumel. We stayed in another of those all-expenses-paid resorts that offered a fine, white sand beach, several different restaurant options with good food, and a menu of different activities. We decided to try two of the activities — one of which was disastrous and one of which was wonderful.

I’ll talk about the disastrous one first. Richard and I decided to try scuba diving because Cozumel has some excellent diving sites.

Richard and Russell at the cave pool

We boarded a boat, and on the ride out we received instruction on how to clear our masks, how to equalize pressure in our ears, and other basics. When we got to the first dive point and went down, I obviously failed to equalize pressure because my ears immediately seemed to plug. Never having been scuba diving before, however, I didn’t know anything odd had happened.

I enjoyed the scuba diving when I was underwater. After you overcome the initial panicky feeling of being so far below the surface, it is very peaceful to drift along, watching brilliantly colored sea creatures swim past.The main temple at Chichen Itza

When we came back up to the boat and I took off my mask, the instructor noticed that my nose was bleeding. I shrugged it off as part of the scuba experience, and we went down again. On the ride back to the resort, however, I couldn’t get my ears to unplug, and the sensation — like having my ears stuffed with wet, heavy cotton balls — was very unpleasant. The next morning I visited the resort doctor, who told me that I had blown out all of the blood vessels in both ears (which caused the bloody nose) and blood had pooled behind both eardrums. He prescribed antibiotics and warned that the plane ride back would be uncomfortable — which it was. Although I enjoyed the underwater part of scuba diving, it is something I won’t be trying again.

DSC01007The wonderful part was a day trip that Richard, Russell, and I took to Chichen Itza and a few other places on the mainland. I like antiquities, and Chichen Itza is right up my alley. Although resorts can be very relaxing, it is fun to get out and see a bit of the countryside. We boarded a bus one morning and had a full day of adventure.

Our first stop was an underground pool. The pool was a limestone pit at the bottom of a cave, lit by shafts of brilliant sunshine. DSC01014You could climb to a landing and leap into the pit for a swim, which the boys promptly did. I didn’t want to spend the rest of the day in wet shorts, so I gave it a pass.

DSC01045After a stop at a touristy place with a floor show for lunch we rolled into Chichen Itza. It is an extraordinary place. At one time one of the centers of Mayan civilization, it still impresses through the glimpses of a long-distant civilization that can be discerned on pieces of crumbling stone. The complex is large and includes temples, an observatory, sacrificial platforms, and playing grounds. The stonework is intricately carved and, from the remnants of paint left after centuries of sun and weather, was once colorfully decorated. We roamed the grounds under blue skies, marveling at the structures and wondering what had happened to the culture that built them.

DSC01056When the shadows grew longer we boarded the bus once more for the long drive home. Twilight fell and we made one final stop, at a town whose name I have forgotten, with a green, heavily treed town square framed by brick buildings and a twin-spired church. In the middle of the square was a fine fountain. DSC01057As we disembarked and moved into the square, which was full of townspeople enjoying the evening, we quickly came to notice that we were like Gulliver in the land of Lilliput. The natives all seemed to be five feet tall or shorter, and Richard and Russell towered above the crowds as they walked through the square. It brought home clearly that we were guests in a faraway land.

Vacation Time: Paris

Our firm has a wonderful benefit called the Seymour Plan. Named for the son of one of the founders of the firm, who was a committed traveler, it is intended to help associates broaden their horizons by going to a country that speaks a different language. The Seymour Plan pays for a round-trip airfare and has helped hundreds of Vorys attorneys visit countries in continental Europe.

In 1992 Kish and I took our Seymour trip and our continental European destination was Paris. We received lots of recommendations on where to stay and chose a small hotel called the Hotel de Banville. It was an inspired choice. The Hotel de Banville is close to the Arc de Triomphe in a quiet residential neighborhood and is filled with charm and grace. We stayed in a room on the top floor with sloped ceilings and a checkered bathroom floor, and you could open the windows, let the drapes blow into the room, and look out over the rooftops of Paris toward the Arc de Triomphe nearby. In the morning we would wander down the stairs to the colorful breakfast room below for a freshly baked continental breakfast and some strong coffee before setting out to explore Paris.

It says nothing surprising to say that Paris is a magnificent city. Although we were there in early April, when skies were grey and spring showers were ever present — so much so that my enduring memory of the trip is Kish, in a bright green raincoat, standing on the rain-shined streets of Paris — but even then the city seemed bright and full of life. We walked to the Arc de Triomphe and the Tour Eiffel, visited the Louvre and some of the famous sites from the French Revolution, and strolled past shops, cafes, and bistros.

Sacre Coeur

Sacre Coeur

We had a wonderful time in Paris. We particularly enjoyed walking the boulevards, stopping to eat or drink coffee whenever our whims dictated. Some particular pleasures were the dazzling white Sacre Coeur and its surrounding neighborhood, the unexpected discovery of a statue of George Washington in the middle of a Parisian square, the Seine and its walkways, and the extraordinary flying buttresses, ornate Gothic architecture, and soaring interior of the Cathedral de Notre Dame.

We were not quite as taken with the Louvre, simply because it is so enormous and overwhelming. It seemed as though we walked through dozens of rooms featuring, to our uneducated eyes, nearly identical, iconic Madonna and Child images. It was nice to finally see Mona Lisa, but it was hard to get very close to it with the crowd gathered in front of the painting, filled with people jockeying to inch closer to the masterpiece. Winged Victory made a bigger impact on me and was easier to see.

Cathedral de Notre Dame

One final point about Paris: I’ve been fortunate to visit Paris several times, and I’ve never encountered anything other than friendly and welcoming proprietors and Parisians. Although some of the waiters can be a bit haughty — they take their trade very seriously, after all — the people themselves seem friendly and appreciative when you make the effort to order a meal using your high school French. I think France in general, in Paris in particular, has gotten a bum rap, and anyone who listens to that bum rap and skips a chance to visit The City of Lights is missing a tremendous experience.

Vacation Time: Ti Kaye

The beach and bar at Ti Kaye

Kish is very good at spotting interesting places to visit, and she struck gold with Ti Kaye — but at first, it sure didn’t seem that way!

Ti Kaye is a resort on the Caribbean island of St. Lucia. St. Lucia is located far to the south, almost to the coast of South America. The island itself is rugged, volcanic, mountainous, and breathtakingly poor. We flew in to the airport at Vieux Fort, at one end of the island, rented a car, and set off to find Ti Kaye. The island, however, has extraordinarily poor roads, featuring bone-jarring potholes and blind turns and lacking any meaningful signs. We drove and drove on twisting roads, past decrepit shacks with corrugated iron roofs, trying to follow complicated directions. At one point, we drove through a tiny hamlet of silent, staring people and apparently starving dogs running through the streets.

The beach at Ti Kaye

The beach at Ti Kaye

Twilight began to fall, and our spirits sank along with the sun. Finally, after it seemed we would never find the right turn, we saw a Ti Kaye sign and turned off the “main” road into a rutted, stony, mostly unpaved driveway. After heading downhill through a narrow tunnel of vegetation — as I wondered what I would do if I saw a car coming in the opposite direction — we came to an apparent dead end. At that point, I felt the red surge of rage that only an exhausted, put-upon, bitterly disappointed traveler can experience. We realized, however, that we apparently were supposed to take a hairpin left turn and drive up a hill, and after we did so we found a slice of nirvana in the form of Ti Kaye Village.

The dining area at Ti Kaye

The dining area at Ti Kaye

Ti Kaye consists of a main building with a bar and dining room and a long, rickety staircase leading down to a small beach that has its own restaurant and bar. The grounds are filled to overflowing with gaily colored tropical plants and rich, deep, almost velvety shade. The guests stay in white wooden cabanas sprinkled throughout the Ti Kaye property. Each cabana has high interior ceilings and slow-moving fans, large beds with white mosquito netting, and fantastic outdoor showers. Our cabana had a long wooden porch with rockers and hammocks, and sitting on that porch first thing in the morning, reading a book and drinking a strong cup of coffee, was a glorious experience.

The front porch of a Ti Kaye cabana

The front porch of a Ti Kaye cabana

The food at Ti Kaye was fabulous and the staff were wonderful. We stayed there over Christmas and New Year, and they worked very hard to impart holiday cheer and good humor. Our days were long and languid, as we were content to stay on the grounds reading, sunning, and enjoying the excellent Ti Kaye hospitality. Like any good Caribbean island, St. Lucia has its own local beer, called Piton, and it was very fine indeed to sit on the Ti Kaye beach in the blazing sunshine, nursing a Piton and enjoying a good beach book. We also did some snorkeling in the little harbor and watched as cruise ships and large white-masted vessels sailed majestically past.

Our only bad experiences on the trip, in fact, came when we left the Ti Kaye grounds. We went to Soufriere, where one of the locals named Simon volunteered to be our guide, stuck to us like glue while we went to the ho-hum hot springs and volcano basin, and then angrily expected us to pay him an arm and a leg for the experience. We also went to Castries, the largest city on the island, where there was a pretty standard Caribbean market and lots of people trying to sell us trinkets. So we gladly beat a retreat to the friendly confines of Ti Kaye, cracked open a cold Piton, and had one of the wait staff smile widely, shake her head slightly and say: “Daddy be drinking!” And, magically, all was well once more.

Vacation Time: Puerto Vallerta

In 2005, Kish and the boys and I spent a week or so, over the Christmas/New Year’s break, at one of those “everything included” resorts outside Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. Puerto Vallarta is a town on the Pacific coast, well below the Baja peninsula. Dr. Science had recommended it as an interesting, and less crowded, place to visit in Mexico, and I’m glad we took his advice. We had a great time, and I would definitely go back.

Richard and Russell on the beach

Richard and Russell on the beach

Our resort was actually located in Nuevo Vallarta, which (as the name suggests) is a new suburb located outside Puerto Vallarta. The resort featured multiple restaurants, a seaside bar, lots of lounges and chairs, and shady spots thanks to strategically placed palm frond umbrellas. It was on a wonderful white sand beach that went on for miles, forming a white crescent around a beautiful, blue water bay, with the Pacific stretching to infinity beyond. It was a terrific walking beach, long and unbroken, and we spent lots of time walking. On the bay itself, colorful parachutes, pulled by motorboats, filled the sky, and on the land side there were newly built condos, resorts, and expensive homes. When we got tired of walking we built sand structures, did some snorkeling, and read books.

One view of our sand structure

Our Mayan-influenced sand structure

One day Richard and I spent most of the afternoon building an elaborate sand structure, pictured at right, which borrowed from Mayan architecture. Playing in the sand is a pretty relaxing way to spend the day, particularly if you wash out the grit with a cold beer or two. I, at least, was pleased with the fruits of our labors, which attracted a fair amount of attention from beach walkers. One guy even had his picture taken next to it.

The Mexican nativity scene

The Mexican nativity scene

The food at the resort was good, and the bar was a fine place to drink a Corona with lime, argue about politics, and play some cribbage. The boys and I stayed up late and met lots of folks from other countries — mostly Canada and Germany. When we tired of the resort itself we walking to a nearby mall, where we had a good meal or two and were struck by the Mexican version of the nativity scene on display in the middle of the mall. The scene featured a a bright red Satan, complete with pitchfork and cloven hoof, lurking next to the stable and apparently undetected by the visiting kings and shepherds.

The cathedral in Puerto Vallarta

One bright day we left the friendly environs of our resort and took a cab into Puerto Vallarta, where we walked around the town. Puerto Vallarta has a pretty waterfront area and a long quay, but the most memorable structure in town is the cathedral, which has an open, crown-like top. The cathedral looms over a pretty, shaded park, with street vendors hawking their wares on the outskirts.

Enjoying a mariachi band in Puerto Vallarta

Enjoying a mariachi band in Puerto Vallarta

We decided to take a break from our walking tour at a second-story cafe, and there we had a fine surprise. As we drank our drinks on the balcony there was a commotion on the street below, and to our surprise a parade went by to help announce that the circus had come to town. All manner of animals — elephants, giraffes, monkeys, and tigers — were trucked past, accompanied by clowns, jugglers, and acrobats. At about the same time a mariachi band appeared and began playing traditional Mexican music and doing so wonderfully well. Bright sunshine, live music, cold adult beverages, exotic animals, and family members often create magical travel moments, and this was one of those special, unforgettable times.

Vacation Time: The Amusement Park Grand Tour

In the summer of 1999 or 2000 — I’m not sure which — UJ and I decided it would be fun to drive with Richard and Russell down to Mom’s condo in Stuart, Florida. The boys like amusement parks and so do I, so the plan was to stop at amusement parks on the way down and on the way back. On a hot summer’s day we left Columbus and drove down I-71 and then I-75 to Atlanta, where our first stop was going to be Six Flags over Georgia.

Georgia Cyclone at Six Flags

Georgia Cyclone at Six Flags

Road trips have their own unique feel, and often it doesn’t take long to get goofy. This trip was no exception and was filled with laughs and general silliness about the lame books on tape I had decided to try for the trip (including a particularly annoying rendition of a Stephen King short story about an evil chimp-with-cymbals toy that went “chang, chang, chang”), the coveted bag of Werther’s butterscotch UJ had brought along, and Russell’s grudging admission that he really didn’t like the eggs he ordered at a Waffle House. And, there were weird moments too, like when we arrived at our Atlanta motel, found that all the power was out, and a bunch of random, sketchy looking individuals were roaming around the parking lot by the office as we pulled in. These are the kinds of incidents that make road trips fun.

Montu at Busch Gardens

Montu at Busch Gardens

What about the amusement parks? Well, Six Flags over Georgia was a pretty good amusement park. It had one excellent ride — the Batman ride — and lots of good roller coasters, like the Great American Scream Machine, the Mind Bender, the Georgia Scorcher, as well as a pretty good mine train ride. It also had a lame haunted house ride and the most despised “thrill ride” of all: a “head banger.” A “head banger” is an upright coaster with some kind of head gear where the ride is so violent and shaky that your head bangs back and forth within the head gear. They give me headaches, and Six Flags had two of them — the Georgia Cyclone (pictured at left) and the Ninja. The Georgia Cyclone, in fact, is one of the worst head-bangers I’ve ever ridden. It was a brutally hot day, the food was pretty good and, not coincidentally, completely unhealthy, and the ice-cold lemon shake-ups went down easy.

We left Six Flags and drove down to Tampa, and the next morning found us at Busch Gardens bright and early. Busch Gardens was terrific. We went on the Mantu, an inverted roller coaster, about seven times, including three or four times in a row at the beginning of the day. We would finish the ride, see that that line wasn’t long, and then decide to ride it again. We also rode the Gwazi coaster over and over again, tried the Kumba a few times (which was a bit of a head banger, in my view), rode the train and the water rides, and looked at the birds and animals. The park featured some very good food and — because it is Busch Gardens, after all — offered some cold beers that hit the spot.

The Incredible Hulk Coaster

The Incredible Hulk Coaster

After a peaceful sojourn on th ebeach at the Suntide Condo on Hutchinson Island, Jim decided he had had enough of amusement parks and hopped a plane home. The boys and I, however, stuck it out, and on the northern leg of our journey we stopped at Universal Studi0s Islands of Adventure. I think this is one of the finest amusement parks I’ve ever visited. Because the park is laid out in a big circle, the traffic patterns make the park seem less congested, and it is kept spotlessly clean. You have to try the Hulk Coaster, which gives you the spectacular sensation of being shot from a gun, and the Spiderman ride, which is a very cool 3-D experience. We also liked the Dueling Dragons, a double coaster in which Fire Dragon races Ice Dragon, and Dr. Doom’s Fearfall. We got soaked on the water rides (particularly the Popeye and Bluto ride),got scared by the T-Rex, and watched the weird Poseidon’s Fury show. Good food, and really good visuals and buildings that complement the themes of the different areas.

The Hurler Coaster at Carowinds

The Hurler Coaster at Carowinds

Our last — and, frankly, least — stop on the amusement park Grand Tour was the Paramount Carowinds park on the border of North and South Carolina. This park seemed shabby, dirty, and run-down compared to the other three, and it really suffered by the immediate comparison with Islands of Adventure. We rode The Hurler rollercoaster, the Top Gun ride, and some other roller coasters, ate some pretty mediocre food, and quickly gave up the ghost. We may have been burnt out on amusement parks, or unimpressed by the attractions, or just ready to get home, but we ended up leaving much earlier than originally planned.

I enjoyed this trip a great deal, because I think amusement parks can be a lot of fun and because I enjoy driving vacations. I also liked the fact that this vacation has a special theme and concept. The upshot? I’d go back to Busch Gardens or Islands of Adventure any time. Carowinds, not so much.

Vacation Time

President Obama and his family have left Washington, D.C. for a 10-day vacation in Martha’s Vineyard. From the descriptions in the press, it sounds like he will have a pretty good vacation, where he will play a lot of golf and spend time with his family. In fact, it appears that President Obama will comply with most of my five rules of thumb for a good vacation:

1. Leave your immediate area for somewhere new — There is no such thing as a really relaxing “staycation.” You don’t get out of your normal schedule, people at work don’t feel like it is that big of a deal to give you a call, and it is much too easy to slip back into the office for a quick phone call.

A scene from Marthas Vineyard

A scene from Martha's Vineyard

2. Go somewhere near water — Don’t ask me exactly why, but for most of us landlocked Midwesterners being near water immediately puts us into a more relaxed vacation frame of mind. (Of course, the fact that water also tends to go along with sun, beaches, waterfront bars, and cold adult beverages may help.)

3. Plan to do things on your vacation that are out of the norm distractions — President Obama plans to play golf, which is a good idea. It is impossible to play golf — or, at least, play it with any tiny degree of success — when you are thinking about anything other than your next shot. I like going somewhere where there are antiquities to see or interesting museums to visit for the same reason, because I tend to get immersed in the new things I am seeing.

4. Eat things you don’t normally eat — It might be pancakes for breakfast, or fresh seafood, or some kind of regional cuisine, but if you change your eating patterns and try something different, it helps to put you in that relaxed frame of mind.

5. Leave lots of time for family meals and talks — We’ve taken some great vacations as a family, and all of them featured relaxed time where we get a chance to talk more than we do normally. Often it is over a meal, or as we are driving to the next stop on the itinerary. Many of my most treasured vacation memories just involve being with Kish and the boys at some specific location, like eating shaved flavored ice in the town square of Assisi as the sun sets, or having a loose meat cheeseburger at a Maid-Rite restaurant in a small Iowa town.

Have a great vacation, Mr. President! You deserve a break.