On Traveling With My Father

Let me start by being perfectly clear about something. I absolutely adore traveling with my dad. He and I had a really rocky relationship for a number of years, and I treasure the opportunity to spend this time with him…even when he drives me crazy as he did for much of today. That’s just part of the price of extended togetherness with anyone, and it’s taught us both a lot about ourselves and each other. But I digress. That’s not the point of this post at all. I want to talk about common misconceptions, and encourage all of you to check your own perceptions in your daily lives.

I realize that the most common traveling partnership is husband and wife, closely followed by engaged/dating. But that is far from the only possible combination. I’m getting extremely tired of being mistaken for my father’s wife. Invariably, when we step on board a cruise ship, the first thing we have to do is call for the cabin steward to have the beds separated. We always get a funny look, and have to explain that we are father and daughter. They mean well, but again, they’re making an erroneous assumption.

It can be hard for me to meet guys, and Dad to meet women, because everyone always assumes that we are together. But the worst happened today. A waitress approached our table to let us know that today was “senior day,” and anyone over 50 would get 10% off of their meal. She didn’t mention it when we ordered, so I think at first she assumed we were both under 50, but then she came by to ask. Dad told her that he qualifies (he’s 58), and then she asked if I did as well! Considering I am still carded for alcohol on a semi-regular basis, my jaw hit the floor. Dad took care of the situation while I sat slack-jawed and stunned. I was uncomfortable, so we ate as fast as we could and then got out of there.

After we left, I went back and forth between angry and sad, and felt extremely depressed. Maybe I really do look old, I thought. But then Dad put it into perspective for me, though I wasn’t really ready to accept it yet. Since Dad was over 50, the waitress simply assumed that I must be, regardless of how I look.

We met a mother and son at the Palace Picnic on the 4th of July. He’s in college, so a few years younger than me but not significantly. They go through the exact same problems that we do. He even shared a story about a cruise director who simply refused to believe that they were not dating/married. He made jokes through the entire cruise, constantly asking the son about his “mother,” (air quotes included).

I have to admit that I was guilty of making a similar assumption in Alaska last year. We met a traveling duo consisting of a 40-something tomboyish female and a highly feminine girl in her 20s. I will admit that I assumed they were a lesbian couple. As it turned out, though, it was actually a mother traveling with her daughter’s best friend. Unusual, perhaps, but not that much more so than we are. I felt so bad when I found out, since I know all too well how it feels for one’s traveling relationship to be mis-perceived.

So please, I beg all of you: don’t make assumptions about the people you meet. Some straight guys are naturally effeminate and some gay guys quite butch. Not all lesbians are tomboys and not all tomboys are lesbians. Men and women of all ages travel together in pairs or in groups, and are not necessarily in a “relationship” with the person they’ve chosen to spend time with.

Can’t we just treat people as individuals and let them share or not share the nature of their relationships if and when they choose to do so? I’d like to think that in the 21st century, we could move past snap judgments, but instead it just seems that our tell-all society demands to know the details rather than quietly speculating. I’m not sure that’s an improvement, somehow.

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Revolutionary Musings

At King's Arms

I apologize for the delay in updating this blog. We’ve been in Colonial Williamsburg, VA for the past month, and I’ve been wrapped up in everything there is to see and do here. The really interesting part? I hate history, or I always thought I did. It turns out that what I didn’t like was dry and dusty memorization. Give me people to bring it to life, and I can’t get enough.

I’ve been to Colonial Williamsburg a few times before, but not since 2006. It was always a pleasant diversion for a few days. This time, however, Dad and I were both blown away. The quality of the actors, the breadth and depth of programming and the immersive feeling have skyrocketed. We discussed this with one of the actors (at the cast party we crashed, but that’s a topic for another blog).

Apparently, in 2008 the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation decided to bring in a troupe of trained actors. They rebuilt the interpretation and performance division from the ground up. Their hard work has really paid off. We expected to stay two weeks and ended up here for a month. We’re going to Hampton, VA this week for the Blackbeard Pirate Fest, and then coming back to CW for two or three more weeks.

I’ll be publishing a series of posts this week, detailing our adventures. In a nutshell, though, we:

Met some awesome people like Joe, a terrific actor and really funny guy…

British Invasion

Lived through the British occupation of Williamsburg, which brought hundreds of reenactors from the Eastern Seaboard…

Party CrashingCrashed a cast party behind Chowning’s Tavern and ended up having a wonderful time…

Fireworks and OrbsAnd watched the 4th of July fireworks in front of the Governor’s Palace, apparently accompanied by a bunch of ghostly orbs!

Of course, we’re staying at an Outdoor World campground, known for providing full-service resorts. The Saturday night party featured a Men’s Fashion Show…here’s Dad in his, um, finest:

Hot Mama

Full details coming in a series of posts this week. For now, suffice it to say that this month has been a crazy ride!

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Roadside Americana

Much as I’m a city girl at heart, I do love roadside Americana. You know, those totally random bits of cultural weirdness that spring up on the side of the road in tiny American towns for no reason whatsoever. We’re on a very brief stopover in Littleton, NC right now, just a stopover on the way to Williamsburg, VA. There’s not much to do around here, so we spent the day driving around to roadside attractions:

Daniel Boone

He used to belong to some other business, but when the Shriners got hold of him they decided he needed a fez. That’s a giant upside down oil can on his head.

Rock Garden

It’s literally a pile of rocks in somebody’s front yard. They’re tagged with the state they’re from, generally handwritten in permanent marker.

Yogi Statues

Apparently these used to belong to some now-closed fried chicken place. They’re currently in someone’s backyard. Notice Ranger Smith is missing a hand…maybe he shouldn’t have fed the bear? LOL

Only Grand Master Mason in America

That’s the grave of the only Grand Master Mason of America, who died in 1776. This one happened to be located at the Masonic Lodge in:

Halifax, NC

Historic Halifax, NC. The place was hugely important in Revolutionary War days, a major trade route and site of the first reading of the Declaration of Independence.

Slave Cemetery Halifax

The slave cemetery was a long hike through the woods from the main town. Only a few grave markers remain. It wasn’t just the African-American graves that weren’t looked after, though. They built a church on top of the white cemetery in the late 1700s!

We drove a very scary, narrow dirt road to get to the river overlook. Before the railroad, this was a thriving river port lined with cotton warehouses.

Sadly, the railroad bypassed this town and it started to die in the 1800s. Only about 300 people now live there, but they take great care of the place. This is a Sept 11 memorial in town.

On our wanderings we also stumbled across Medoc Mountain. It’s actually more of a ridge, rising only 325 feet. But as a sign proclaims, it’s the highest point between here and the Atlantic Ocean! It’s a beautiful state park, and we may camp here on the way back south.

He was a bit hard to find. Apparently he used to live in Illinois, but was sold to the Log Cabin Homes guy awhile ago.

This was the most bizarre of all. She started life as one of many “Uniroyal Gals,” that company’s answer to Muffler Men. Somehow she ended up in front of a hotel for many years, but when that place closed she moved here. This is the cryptic “MNO” or “Men’s Night Out” complex, of which locals know but will not speak. She’s got a belly button ring now, and she holds court over the, er, festivities. The gate was open, so we got some photos. Not sure I’d want to come back when the place is open…

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The Seductive South

I love to travel. That’s a very good thing, since I do it 365 days a year. I feel that every place I’ve been, from tiny hamlets to massive cities, has its own unique charm. I’d go back to Anchorage or St. Thomas in a second, and I’m heading back to Boston and NYC in a couple of months.

Yet I’ve come to realize something. I’m still a Southern girl at heart. Savannah has completely captured my heart in a way that previously belonged only to New Orleans. It’s definitely different, and I’d still give NOLA the edge, but I was down at the river last night, and I realized that Savannah has many of the things that I love most about NOLA: live oak trees draped in Spanish moss, picturesque cemeteries, riverfront access and gorgeous 18th century construction. People of all socioeconomic classes mix together freely, everyone knows everyone in the historic district, and the overall mood is so laid-back and friendly.

The Savannah riverfront is hard to describe. It’s sort of a mix of the upper Quarter/Bourbon Street area and the lower Quarter/lower Decatur area. There’s a touch of pre-gentrification Orlando thrown in, when Church Street Station was still the place to be. Local dives side by side with white-tablecloth restaurants and tourist bars; street performers competing to be heard over the professionals; home bums and street kids mixing easily with overdressed tourons. Just an awesome atmosphere all the way around.

Wednesday night we did a ghost tour. It’s sort of a tradition in every city we visit, but they’re often cheesy or somehow lacking in comparison to New Orleans’ Haunted History. Not this time. The company was Sixth Sense, and our guide was so knowledgeable, so well-spoken and so engaging that I was literally hanging on every word. One of the houses has been abandoned since 1984, and the owner is apparently a friend of his. The mail slot was open, so he actually let us climb the stairs and use his flashlight to peek inside. That was the first house on the tour, and it was so indescribably creepy that we nearly lost about four people! Just terrifying. Then there was the house that seems to be an evil entity on its own, sort of like the Amityville Horror or Rose Red. On and on it went, two hours of absolutely riveting touring. Very well done.

We went to the maritime museum in Savannah yesterday, and I picked up some belated birthday gifts for Dad–three books: Celestial Navigation in the GPS Age, one on knot tying for beginners and one on building your own nautical navigation instruments. We’ve been talking about sailing lessons, and he was so excited to get the books. I love it when he’s happy!

What else have we done this week? Visited the birthplace of the Girl Scouts founder, took a guided tour of the old Savannah railway company, went through the Savannah history museum, rode the Old Town Trolley all over the place, visited the City Market (Savannah’s answer to NOLA’s Jackson Square)…just so many fabulous experiences.

We happened into a restaurant in Savannah called the Crystal Beer Parlor, on the recommendation of a very nice woman at the Visitor Center. The place was originally a grocery store, and the family that owned it lived upstairs. During Prohibition it became a speakeasy. Gambling and drinking took place downstairs, and the upstairs was a brothel. Just like the Red Onion in Skagway, Alaska.

Anyway, we had a wonderful waiter who made awesome menu suggestions and much delicious dinner was consumed. We started talking to the waiter about the history of the building. He didn’t know that the upstairs had been a brothel, but when he called the owner over to talk to us, that rumor was confirmed. The owner said that the upstairs was currently “rented out.” After the meal, we suggested to the waiter that once the current lease was up, they consider taking the upstairs over and turning it into a museum. At the Red Onion, girls in period garb give tours of the reconstructed brothel. They charge $15 for 15 minutes “just like they did in 1898.” We suggested that it might be a profitable side business for the restaurant.

Somehow in the conversation it also came up that I’m a travel writer. The waiter got really excited and summoned us into a corner away from everyone. He then told us that he’s actually the one renting the upstairs. He snuck off the floor for a few minutes to take us up there! It’s all one apartment now, running the entire length of the second floor. He’s in the process of renovating it, and it looks absolutely gorgeous. Photos are forthcoming, I promise! Anyway, what an amazing treat to get to see the place.

That’s how it’s been this entire trip. Just serendipity, being in the right place at the right time. We’re moving on soon, but I have decided that Savannah is definitely every bit as seductive as New Orleans. And for me, that’s saying a lot!

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The Oldest Scam in the Book

I write about travel for a living, and have done so for four years now. One of my biggest personal crusades is teaching others how to avoid travel scams. How, then, did I end up getting soaked by the oldest scam in the book? Get comfy, kids. There’s an important story here.

We finally headed out to Charleston two days ago. Our usual MO is to stop at the Visitor Center and pick up information/brochures. So just outside of Charleston we see a Visitor Center/Welcome Center. We go in, pick up a few brochures, mess around like usual. Then I notice a flyer for free tour tickets with a disclaimer to the effect of “this is not a time share solicitation.” Cool! Sign me up! We’ve done a million presentations in cities around the world. Show up, watch a slide show, keep saying no to the persistent high pressure sales guy, pick up our free gifts and out the door. When you travel constantly, wasting an hour or so is no big deal.

So we started talking to the guy. He was thrilled to hear we’re from New Orleans–big Treme fan, never been to the city, blah blah blah. For those of you who are watching Treme, do you remember when Davis was working at the hotel and he sent the tourists to the bar in Treme? This was just like that. We asked him where the locals hang out, he looked around and furtively scribbled an address on a Post-It Note. We did end up going to his recommended location, and it was awesome! Great Cuban food, nice chill patio bar and live Mississippi Blues music.

Anyway, he actually tried to talk us out of going to the presentation, but we persisted. We signed up for free tickets to a few things and gave a $20 refundable deposit. Pretty standard.

I don’t know what came over both of us…the sales team knew exactly which buttons to push and, most uncharacteristically, we walked out of there having signed a contract for $3500! Ouch! Big ouch! But wait kids, it gets better.

Supposedly the $3500 would get us four free weeks a year in a timeshare anywhere in the world, plus all these travel discounts. Additionally, the company offered us 24/7 concierge service–which we really could have used in Seattle last year, when the hostel neglected to tell us that the front door opens directly to a staircase, making it impossible to take Dad’s scooter into the building. Would have been nice to just call someone and have them get us a room instead of lugging all of our stuff to an internet cafe.

Anyway, this company’s concept is travel wholesaling. Cut out the distributors and retail outlets and cut the price, right? Kind of like shopping at Sam’s. The sales guy showed us the website and pulled up some sample trips, and the prices really were lower than what we’ve been able to pull off, even with military discounts.

We’re members of Thousand Trails, a huge membership campground organization that’s had more than its fair share of complaints, but it really works for us. We’re so happy with it that we recently upgraded our membership. So we figured that since we travel full-time, we really would make our money back, a lot sooner and more easily than most people would.

What we didn’t do is stop and research the company. That’s the problem with these places. Everything is always “OMG, today only!!!” And they wear you down. The one-hour presentation was better than two hours of high pressure. But it’s no excuse. We knew how these things work going in, and we let ourselves be pressured.

Fortunately, we also happened to be broke. It’s a week before payday, kids, and we had to do an obscene amount of work to the rig and the van this month. So we didn’t happen to have an extra $3500 sitting around, or even an extra $650 for the down payment and document fee. I gave the guy permission to run 50 bucks on my credit card and we signed a promissory note for the other $600 for Wednesday.

The company called with our website login within an hour or two. We got home around 11:30 and I logged in. To a completely different site than the one we were shown at the presentation. Can we say bait and switch? The site was almost completely bare, and the few things on it were horrendously overpriced. So we called the company…good thing we have 24/7 concierge service, right? Except that we got a voicemail with instructions to call back during normal business hours.

I dug through the website and eventually found an after-hours number…Dad called and woke up one of the alleged owners (it’s her cell phone!). She told us that number was for emergencies only, but agreed to talk for a few minutes. She informed us that the company’s “contract with travel providers” doesn’t permit them to list the real prices on the website, so we need to call (during regular business hours, of course!) every time we want to book a trip. She also told us that the condo weeks are not, in fact, included. We merely get the privilege of PAYING more than we pay with the memberships we already have for condo weeks.

Ugh, this wasn’t looking too good. So we went digging a little deeper. There are only a handful of reviews of this place online, and of those only one is less than horrible! Uh-oh. So we decide to see what happens during “normal business hours.” The next day, we try to book a weekend in DC, which we were considering anyway. The rep seemed shocked that we already had a website login, but took the details of our request. She said that somebody else, the booking agent, would call us back with a price.

Well, that was two days ago now. Still no callback. We booked our own hotel in DC, and got a fabulous price by the way. But we’d had enough. It was becoming clear that there was material misrepresentation, distortion of facts and breach of contract. Dad canceled his debit card, which we had agreed to pay the $600 on. I’m canceling my credit card tomorrow and opening a fraud dispute on the $50. We wrote a notice of rescission to the company, detailing the breaches of contract and the fact that it is now null and void. We sent that by certified mail, return receipt requested. We’re contemplating taking steps to prevent identity theft.

It gets even better, kids. When we got home from sending the letter, the website had been updated. There’s now three new phone numbers including one in Europe, and a maze of links to various travel company websites. We decided to check out the phone numbers. Out of everything we were given or found on the website, we have: two cell phones and two phone numbers that do not appear on reverse phone lookups. There is no phone number anywhere on our contract. I Googled the numbers that we have. They’re associated with literally dozens, if not hundreds, of travel websites/companies/vacation clubs around the world!

Let this be a lesson, kiddies. Never, ever, ever even THINK about signing a contract or giving out any personal information to anyone that you have not thoroughly researched. I’m telling you, I write about this stuff all day every day, and I still got duped. It’s hugely embarrassing to admit, but I figure I got lucky. I’m only out 50 bucks. How many people out there are out $8000 or more? If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

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Beaufort, SC: Who Knew?

So we’re technically staying just outside Yemassee, SC. Yemassee’s very pretty and very friendly, but definitely a one horse town. The whole point of coming here was to visit Savannah and Charleston. Yet we’ve been here a week and haven’t gotten that far yet. Why? Beaufort, SC.

Beaufort’s about 20 minutes from here. Turns out it was practically the heart of both the Revolutionary War and the Civil War. There are over 300 buildings on the National Register of Historic Places just in downtown Beaufort. Parts of Forrest Gump and Prince of Tides were also filmed there, for you Hollywood trivia buffs.

The city avoided being burned during Sherman’s march because it was already occupied by Union troops. Among other things, they turned the Episcopal church (founded in 1712, church building completed in 1724) into a hospital. They brought marble tombstones in from the graveyard and laid them out on pews to perform surgery. Not sure I’d want to undergo an operation laying out on a tombstone, but that’s just me.

A bit of trivia: although Forrest Gump is eating from a Russell Stovers box, the candy is actually from the Chocolate Tree in Beaufort. Tom Hanks is apparently a huge friend of the city, and loves the candy made on-site there. We bought some before we heard the story, and man is it good! Cool shop too.

We still have a few places we haven’t made it to in this area yet, like the first school for freed slaves, the lighthouse and the old church ruins, but I think we’re going to wait till the weekend. I want to do the ghost walk, which is only done on Saturdays. So more than likely, we’ll finally get into Charleston tomorrow.

I’m having so much fun. If I had to settle in one place and it couldn’t be NOLA, Alaska or St. Thomas, I’d have to look seriously at Beaufort.

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A Lazy Summer Afternoon in the South

Growing up in the South, I heard that expression a lot. But I never really came to appreciate it until I started traveling. I still have fond memories of the front porch at India House (the hostel in New Orleans where we lived/I worked for almost a year). Some days I sat out there almost all day, drinking beer and shooting the breeze with fellow travelers.

Today’s another lazy summer afternoon in the South. I was on deadline yesterday, so I stayed home and cranked out six articles. I usually try to average three a day, so I was pretty wiped out. We contemplated doing some local sightseeing today, but inertia won out. It’s been an absolutely beautiful day today. We went for a walk around the park, chatted for awhile with the manager and front office lady, and worked on a jigsaw puzzle. Also spent plenty of time sitting outside under the live oaks just relaxing and enjoying the peace.

Survivor tonight. Praying Rupert doesn’t go home. Tomorrow, probably doing the local sightseeing we didn’t do today, but who knows?

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