Tag Archives: tourists

Kitschy but good

Someone on my Twitter list mentioned yesterday that she would soon be embarking on a trip to Alaska, and I immediately thought of the train ride Susanne and I took over in Skagway. At least four people told us to make sure we rode up and back on the old gold mining trail, so we booked our tickets well in advance of our cruise, and then we climbed on.

It was nothing short of amazing. The White Pass & Yukon Route train was a bit too modern to have jumped out of a steampunk novel, but it belched and groaned like a steam engine all the same, as it dragged us up 3,000 feet into the Canadian Yukon. We sat for much of the trip on the way up, but at the end the conductors moved the engine around, and our front car became the caboose. We didn’t miss the chance to stand on the end, marveling at the mountain ledges, miles and miles of the tallest evergreens I’ve seen in my life, and the detritus those thousands of Klondike miners left behind.

So it occurs to me that there are, in the quadrillions of tourist trap options available in the US, a few very choice gems that should get some fair due. They may be popular, they may be hyped, but they’re worth, say, wearing bright blue plastic ponchos. Here are a few favorites I want to mention:

The Maid of the MistNiagara Falls sounds like a great tourist destination, if it’s 1952. There are a lot of depressing buildings screaming out for fresh paint, and filled with plastic-wrapped souvenirs, but just follow the signs to this boat ride. I think the Maid of the Mist is more fun if you’ve gone to look at the falls from the top first, to help with a sense of perspective. It’s true that the Canadian side of the falls are more majestic; the US side is taller, but our neighbors to the north have the “horseshoe falls,” which I captured from the boat. No matter whether one takes the boat ride from the US or Canadian side, it will still travel into the heart of the falls. I couldn’t believe I was surrounded by hammering, plummeting water. As tall as the falls are around the Maid of the Mist, that’s how much water she’s sitting on—170 feet on both counts. You better wear the silly blue poncho.

Old Faithful at Yellowstone National ParkIt can be argued that my entire generation first learned about this geyser from Yogi Bear and Jellystone National Park. I’m happy that Susanne didn’t rend me limb from limb as I repeated my Yogi Bear impression as we wandered around the wilderness. It might not be the prettiest geyser there, it’s far from the most colorful, like the “paint pots” were, but it was shocking to witness, the smooth vapor all at once belching and hurrying out of the way of boiling white liquid. This is 3rd grade science fair to the 20th power. Once it’s done with its 5-minute show, take a walk on the rest of the geyser platform, and by the time that’s done, Old Faithful will be just about ready to have another conniption.

The Baltimore AquariumLess kitschy and more just plain overcrowded, the Baltimore Aquarium is organized by ecosystems, very accessible, and proportioned well. I don’t feel like I’m in a tiny building with smelly fish, and I don’t feel like there’s a lot of wasted space (I’m looking at you, new MoMA). Plus it has puffins, the globe’s friendliest, funniest bird species, in my humble opinion. There are dolphin shows, it’s true, but at least they’ve gone to some trouble to unpack how the animals are treated, and they have a fairly prestigious breeding program for bottlenose. That said, it is expensive, so try to get your hands on some coupons or group deals, because at more than $30 a ticket, the cost adds up fast. But the sharks and manta rays, inches away from the homo sapiens, are really not to be missed.

Have any kitschy touristy fun? Pipe up and add your own in the comments!

Cavern of luxury

We’d received warning of the Beetlemania 2010 at our hotel, so online Susanne and I scoped out other options and landed on a B&B. We memorized the Google maps screen, tossing aside any notion that pen and ink would serve us better than memory after being on the road for more than 3 weeks. Who needs things like ink? It was just too 17th Century for us. So off we went, traversing Route 66 through Haymarket, Virginia, Front Royal, and down a smaller highway into Luray. We knew we’d arrived too early to check in, so we met up with a friend for lunch at her hotel, a former hospital during the Civil War. Which side it housed we didn’t know, although our waitress explained that Luray was a Union-held town for much of the war. I appreciate getting a history lesson with my meal.

After lunch, we made our way to Luray Caverns, where we strolled through a large bey of stalactites and stalagmites, and the most amazing, Dream Lake. I couldn’t believe my eyes—the almost-still water reflected the ceiling perfectly, making everything look like we were on the inside of a gigantic clam shell. We curled around the walkways, taking in the formations and enjoying a break from the stifling late-June heat, but it did get a bit crowded in the caverns. This is what I dislike about traipsing through nature: there are too many damn tourists. I don’t have a leg to stand on, given that I’m a tourist, too. It’s not the same as being a resident of DC and feeling some moral justification in condescending to everyone in shorts and Teva sandals.

After the caverns we attempted to find our bed and breakfast. Susanne thought it was on Court Street. This was light years ahead of me, who didn’t know where in the hell it was, having looked for too long at the Google map the night before. We pulled up to the building, finally, after asking a lady in the Luray Visitor’s Center, who thankfully knows the location of each and every standing structure in town. Knocking at the door, nobody answered. Fortunately we knew that this B&B was part of a small conglomerate, so we made our way to one of the other three inns and hoped someone would be around.

Susanne caught the innkeeper just as he was heading out. When she inquired about how we checked in to the other inn, he punted. Just stay here instead, he said, as they didn’t have any guests for that night signed up. Really? I was surprised. He told us the rooms were nice, he wouldn’t charge us any more than we’d already booked for, so heck, we hauled our bags to the second floor and were astonished to receive the keys to “The Boudoir Suite.” Ooh. Boudoir. I hadn’t seriously thought about boudoirs since a senior colleague asked me to meet him at his boudoir, thinking it was a synonym for “office.” I attempted to correct him, but he would have nothing of being told he was wrong.

Inside, we were greeted by a four poster bed and a two-person Jacuzzi in the next room. Not too shabby! We’d lucked out and strangely enough, had beetles to thank for our good fortune. I hoped that this suite wouldn’t be plagued by frogs.

We geared up for the rehearsal dinner by enjoying a 2007 Chateauneuf de Pape wine with Dr. Wine Aficiando, Jody. It was tremendously good, and we compared notes, which Jody took the time to write down, not wanting, heh, to rely on memory alone. What a smart woman. Things go more easily when we write them down, don’t they?

At the rehearsal dinner, which had nothing to do with a rehearsal, we dined on some barbeque and Susanne ate her second pulled pork sandwich of the day. This was not going to end well, I figured, especially since the next day, the wedding day, came complete with barbeque buffet. It may be a while before Susanne heads anywhere near a pig.

Deducing the tourist

We’ve been through four hotels in as many nights, and after our repeated exposure, I’m now prepared to say a few things about the Tourist of the West, at least as far as hoteliers are concerned. Using the set ups of our rooms as indirect indicators, I’ve deduced the following:

  1. Tourists in the West like extremely hot showers. If you are not a Tourist of the West, you need only turn the shower dial three-quarters of a scant inch to get the water in the hot tub range of 100–103.
  2. They are likely to bring along their small-to-medium size dog, even to national parks where the rangers tell them that those dogs only look like tasty snacks to the bears. Because clearly, they aren’t just dogs to the Tourist in the West, they’re part of the family. Would you leave your little sister at home while you go on vacation? (That’s rhetorical.)
  3. They still smoke. Nothing cuts through the crisp air of Wyoming and Idaho like a fresh Marlboro.
  4. They appreciate the free continental breakfast. Even the 2.5 star motels have a free continental breakfast of Costco-purchased food. Nothing says roughing it like making your own burned waffle while CNN plays on a communal television.
  5. The Tourist in the West either doesn’t noticed or has actually caused every bed in the hotel/motel circuit to be as lumpy as spoiled cottage cheese. Perhaps using topographical maps as beds is a form of massage that I simply haven’t yet noticed.
  6. The Tourist in the West likes to fancy herself a horse-riding, white water-rafting expert, although it would appear that she has done neither in a long, long time. The people out there riding horses and braving the Snake River seem to be different tourists altogether.
  7. The Tourist in the West likes to wear a ball cap from a college they attended roughly 40 years ago, or a ball cap from some relative or friend’s college attended roughly 20–40 years ago. This is because they think, it appears, that they are thus wearing a conversation piece on their head. DO NOT engage the Tourist in the West in any conversation, however, unless you have half an hour to kill.

Now then, back to my vacation! We’re going to see Mt. Rushmore today, and thus discover why South Dakota’s tourism revenue far, far exceeds that of North Dakota.

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