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 Roadfood.com 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: 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.

Best Sunday Of The Year

For my money, the Sunday before Memorial Day is the best Sunday of the year — better than Super Sunday, better than Father’s Day, and better than the last day of the U.S. Open. Why? Because the next day is a day off!
This afternoon I plan to be out on my brick patio, drinking a frosty adult beverage, listening to music and preparing to grill out.

The Sunday before Labor Day is good, too, but not quite as good as the Sunday before Memorial Day. By Labor Day, kids have returned to school, the end of summer looms large, and winter seems just around the corner. On the Sunday before Memorial Day, on the other hand, summer is just ready to begin, the weather has turned warm, promise is in the air, and dreams of improvement on the golf course have not yet been dashed against the rocks of reality. So, enjoy this afternoon — it is unquestionably the best Sunday afternoon of the year.