Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Junk in the Trunk

So did you hear about the latest scandal? No, not those nude pictures of Prince Harry from his recent "private holiday," although I guess that is pretty juicy. I thought what happened in Vegas stayed in Vegas? I guess that doesn't apply to royals caught playing "strip billiards," whatever that is. No, I am talking about the airlines' plan to shrink the amount of legroom in coach seating. Again! Southwest has already done it, and now JetBlue and Canada's WestJet have announced plans to do the same.

Now to be fair, the "shrinkage" adds up to about 1 inch per row, down to 31 inches from your seat to the back of the seat in front of you. And I am pretty sure they take this measurement when both seats are in the upright position. What are they doing with this newly eliminated legroom, you ask? Why they are giving it to other customers who are wiling to pay more for a seat with... wait for it... 38 inches. Are you kidding me?! Now if you are like me, and I really hope you are not, you're thinking that taller people should pay a little more for legroom. But why does it have to come from my seat? According to airline news releases, however, it would seems that there is a class of regular-sized travelers that cannot afford - or their employer won't pay for - business class, and coach is just a little too cramped for them. In a reverse Robin Hood move, the airlines are going take some of your legroom (while charging you the same old price), and sell it to another customer who has a little more money than you do. Call it a "sub-business-but-still-not-sitting-with-the-shmoes-in-coach-class" seat. Jet Blue alone is projecting $150 million in additional revenue from this little switch-a-roo. Nice.

I know the airlines are a business and they have huge costs in terms of equipment, fuel, safety regulations, and more. And I suppose I should be thankful that I can hop on a plane in New York and be in California or even Hawaii later that day. But they just keep taking, and taking. First the free baggage and now the legroom, which by the way, they call "buttock-to-knee distance". And have you seen the in-flight snacks these days, if you get one at all? I got a mylar pack of peanuts on Southwest recently that literally had four nuts in it. There were probably more calories in the packaging. And would it kill them to let me have the whole can of soda, without having to make a scene about it? I fully expect them to start coming down the aisle with a bucket and a dipper to pour some water into your cupped hands. They could take the savings on plastic cups and buy crystal glasses for the first-class folks.

But what are the alternatives? Depending on where you live, the train is certainly an option. Amtrak seats are huge, often have free Wi-Fi, and even have sleeping car options. Plus it is a heck of a lot cheaper. However, if you are outside of the D.C. to Boston corridor, Amtrak does not own the track, and therefore the right of way. So it is entirely likely to get stuck behind a 2-mile long coal train chugging along at 40 mph. And even at top speeds, you're probably not going too much faster than you can drive. But getting to the airport 2 hours early to stand in a TSA line for a flight that may or may not actually be there is no picnic either. Now if you happen to be traveling the East Coast Corridor, and are looking to stay at a downtown timeshare location, then the train opens up lots of possibilities. Trains typically deposit you right downtown near public transportation, and where more and more timeshares are being developed. Washington, D.C., Alexandria, VA, New York City, and Boston all have timeshare rentals and great public transportation systems. So you could save on your transportation, lose the rental car, and save a bundle on lodging as compared with in-town hotels.

Of course trains can get you only so far, and the only other option is driving. The "staycation" has become a popular alternative. Sure the kids would love Disney, but maybe Hershey Park or Six Flags Over Texas are closer to home. Or how about visiting a national park? Did you know that The Great Smoky National Park is within a day's drive of one third of the U.S. population? But there are limits on how much driving you can really do with your family. I think behind drunk driving, family car trips are the leading cause of vehicular deaths. Okay I just made that part up, but who hasn't wanted to kill a family member on a long road trip?

Anyway, I am off to the fitness center here at Carlsbad Seapointe Resort to work on some squat thrusts before my flight home tomorrow. It would seem that you can reduce your buttock-to-knee distance by working some of the maximus out of your gluteus, if you catch my drift.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

You're Gonna Need a Bigger Boat

So what weighs about a thousand pounds and has 230 teeth? No not the Kardashians, but that's not a bad guess. I am referring to Carcharodon carcharias, a.k.a., the great white shark. I know this because it is the 25th annual Shark Week on the Discovery Channel. I have to be honest and say that I don't watch Discovery all that often, but it seems that it is always Shark Week on Discovery. Sort of like how the History Channel is more or less the World War II Channel. Regardless, I have been pretty much glued to my TV whenever anything about the great white comes on.

I can still remember the summer of '75 - that's 1975 and not 1875, wiseguy - and the release of Jaws. Like the millions of other people who saw the film that summer, I was terrified the next time I went swimming in the ocean. But I also became fascinated with this creature that I previously hadn't ever given a thought to.

In the movie the great white is portrayed and a man-eating menace with an insatiable appetite for human flesh. This is of course not true, but made for a much better film. The fact is that humans kill way more great white sharks than the other way around. However, it is the case that great whites will from time to time attack and kill humans without provocation. This almost never involves a shark consuming a person entirely, of course. Instead, they usually take a "test bite" as it is known, and discover that we are way too boney and muscular (some of us anyway), as compared with the blubbery seals and other fish that make up the bulk of their diet. Combined with the fact that humans spend very little of their time in the ocean and that sharks don't frequent your local Walmart, any real conflict between the two species remains unlikely and totally lopsided in favor of humans.

The movie Jaws was based on the best-selling Peter Benchley novel of the same name. As you may recall, the town of Amity relies on its beaches and the tourism they bring in for its residents' livelihoods. Unfortunately, the arrival of the Fourth of July weekend has found a "rogue" great white shark on the prowl for human flesh in its waters. The mayor and others persuade the police chief to keep the initial shark attack quiet, and the rest is history. And while there is an awful lot of "poetic license" employed, Benchley based much of the premise on a series of real life shark attacks at the Jersey Shore. Unfortunately these attacks occurred in 1916 and did not involve any of the cast members of the television show with that name. Nonetheless, five people were attacked in various locations in coastal New Jersey from July 1st to July 11th, and all but one of them died. Obviously it was the work of more than one shark, but reports at the time made it seem as though a singular "killer shark" was on the loose. Steven Spielberg, who was not yet "Steven Spielberg", stayed true to this theme when he decided to make a movie based on the novel. The production was beset with troubles, most notably that the mechanical shark didn't work properly, and ran more than 100 days and $3 million dollars over budget. But as it turns out, not being able to show the shark as much as was originally intended resulted in a much more suspenseful film, and one which ended up grossing more than any other film up to that time. It was also the first of what we now think of as the summer blockbuster: an action-packed, heavily promoted, one-dimensional thriller. For better or for worse we've been stuck with it, and Steven Spielberg, ever since.

The town of Amity featured in Jaws is fictional, and the film was shot almost entirely in Martha's Vineyard on Cape Cod. Besides being home to lots of timeshares, Cape Cod was considered by the filmmakers to be more "homey" and "blue collar" than New York's Long Island, which has a town called Amityville, and seemed to be the setting of Benchley's novel. Spielberg thought it was important to have the townsfolk and their reactions to the attacks be like those of regular people, and not the champagne and caviar set. A Cape Cod summer vacation is something everyone should experience at some point, and movie buffs can seek out shooting locations from the film and hear from local residents who were cast as extras. And while Long Island was passed over as a filming destination, both Jaws and great white connections run deep in Montauk, at its eastern most tip. Montauk was home to the famous shark hunter, Frank Mundus. The Jaws character Quint was based on Mundus, and aboard his boat the Cricket II, he caught a 3,427-pound great white... with a rod and reel. Are you kidding me?! Not only is this the largest documented shark catch, it is still the largest fish ever brought in via rod and reel. In his later years, Mundus came to regret the senseless killing of sharks, and became a vocal advocate for preserving shark species. A timeshare rental at Gurney's Inn Resort & Spa will put you right in the heart of Mundus's old stomping grounds, as well as great horseback riding, bird-watching, hiking, boating, and of course swimming. Just watch the midnight skinny dipping.

Well I am off to go cage diving with some great white sharks. Seriously. For over 10 years, Shark Diver has been operating great white shark encounters at their Isla Guadalupe White Shark Cage Diving location. They are going to take me out and drop me into a shark-proof cage to get an up close look at the numerous great whites that call these waters their home. Several are such regular visitors that they have nicknames like Shredder and Bruce. I know it sounds totally crazy, but the folks at Shark Diver assure me that I have a much better chance of being killed by the ongoing drug cartel wars in the area than I do during my great white encounter. Which doesn't exactly ease my mind.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Rocky Mountain High

So what's a buck-toothed cow say? Moof! Gosh I love that joke. What exactly does that have to do with timeshare travel, you ask? Nothing really, but my location this week in Banff, CA, always makes me think of it. Banff is located in the Canadian Rockies in the province of Alberta, within Banff National Park. It was first Canadian town to incorporate within a national park and is also home to the second highest peak in Canada at 4,800 feet. It is one of Canada's most popular tourist destinations - attracting over three million visitors a year - and after about five minutes here one can easily see why.

The town was first settled in the late 1880s during the construction of the Canadian transcontinental railway. Some railroad workers discovered a series of hot sulfur springs nestled among the mountains, and reported it up the chain. Two years later a federal reserve was established around the site, and two years after that, Rocky Mountain Park became Canada's first national park, and the second in the world after Yellowstone. The president of the railroad at the time was a fellow by the name of George Stephen who hailed from Banffshire, Scotland. He decided to rename the area Banff in honor of his birthplace, and the railroad built a series of luxury hotels around the new train station. It was an instant success, as well-to-do European and American travelers streamed in for the fresh mountain air and rejuvenating hot springs. In 1930 the park's name was officially changed to Banff National Park, and in 1984 it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The town itself is small and compact, with most of it easily accessible on foot or via public transit. You'll definitely want to take a a walking tour of Banff and saddle up for one of the many horseback excursions available in the area. A ride on the Banff gondola is also a must. It takes you up over 7,400 feet the peak of Sulfur Mountain, which would be worth the trip for the views and trails alone. But it is also home to the Banff Upper Hot Springs. There are a number of other hot springs in the area, but this one is the sole reason that the town and park exist at all. It is operated by the parks service and offers 100% natural mineral water, modern amenities, a children's area, cafe and snack bar, a spa, and views you just have to see to believe. Now you might wonder how spring water makes its way 7,400 up to the top of a mountain, and it turns out that it had scientists puzzled for a time. Seems that there is a giant crack in the rock called the Sulphur Mountain thrust fault (sounds like a new dance craze in the making). Heated water from the earth's crust travels the whole way up, cooling as it goes, and emerges in the pools at the peak. So unlike springs at lower elevations, Upper Hot Springs temperature fluctuates widely with the seasons, but perhaps not in the way you might think. It's hotter in the winter, and colder in the summer. Sort of like San Francisco. This time of year, it is running about 82-85 degrees.

There's way more to Banff than hot springs and gondola rides. In the winter it is home to all manner of alpine sports, from skiing and snowboarding to sleigh riding and snowshoeing. Warm weather brings with it mountain biking, canoeing, hiking, and some seriously good golfing. Plus there are numerous art galleries, historic sites and museums, and the Banff Summer Arts Festival, which is going on right now. The festival runs for over a month, and features over 1,000 international acts in nearly 200 events. Most events are held at the Banff Centre, but others take place in and around the streets of town. This week alone you could catch a recital by acclaimed opera tenor Adrian Thompson, a chamber music recital by some of Canada's best young emerging musicians, an opera adaptation of The Secret Garden, and an Emmylou Harris concert. I've had a bit of a crush on Emmylou since about 1974, so you know where I will be Thursday night. What, can't a fellow dream?

My timeshare rental at the Banff Rocky Mountain Resort features 2-bedrooms, 2-bathrooms, indoor swimming pool, indoor/outdoor hot-tubs, a full gym, sauna and massage therapy, and tennis and squash courts. It's the only timeshare resort in the park, and is pet-friendly. Unlike a lot of resorts, the laundry facilities are not in-room, and there is no conventional oven; just a microwave and stove-top. So if you normally cook a lot of meals in your unit, you'll have to adjust the menu. Redweek members give it 4-stars and have added some nice reviews.

Well, I am off to visit the Merman of Banff. No it is not an Ethel Merman tribute revue - which would be totally awesome - but rather a petrified example of the male of the mermaid "species". It's located in a back room of the Indian Trading Post - Banff's oldest tourist trap originally opened by Norman "Mr. Banff" Luxton. I know, I know, there's no such thing as mermans. But this little bugger has drawn visits from the likes of Neil Young, William Shatner, Julia Roberts, and even Joltin' Joe DiMaggio. Is it that far-fetched to think Emmylou might drop by to sneak a peak as well?

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Going for the Gold

Well another fours years have passed, and the pageantry and spectacle of the Summer Olympics are upon us. Couldn't make it to Merry Old England for the games? Me neither. Between the airfare, event ticket prices, and the crush of humanity, I am just as happy to catch the games on TV, even if it means enduring hours of filler between the few moments of actual sport. I've taken to visiting the site of previous Olympics instead, and this year I am going for the gold in Olympic Valley, CA. Sure there are no sporting events, but there are no lines or badminton cheaters either.

You may know Olympic Valley by its other name, Squaw Valley. And if you are as old as I am, which may not even be possible, you will recall that it played host to the 1960 Winter Olympics. That was the first Olympics ever televised live, and was also the first time the U.S. mens hockey team ever won gold. Sometimes referred to as the "Forgotten Miracle" in reference to the 1980 "Miracle on Ice," this team won all seven of its matches and took home the hardware for the home team. The Squaw Valley games were also notable for being the smallest locality to ever host the games, the first athletes' village, opening and closing ceremonies produced by Walt Disney (the man himself), not having the bobsled event, and being dominated by the U.S.S.R. Today it is home to one of largest ski resorts in the country - the Squaw Valley Resort - and attracts over 600,000 skiers annually.

So what am I doing here in the summertime? Well that's a very good question. For starters, the aforementioned 600,000 skiers are not here. So unlike the wintertime, there are no crowds or lines anywhere. And with its location in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, just 10 miles from Lake Tahoe, it is an outdoor adventurists dream. From hiking to biking, zip-lining to paint-ball, this area has it all. A nice way to kickoff your trip is a ride on the Squaw Valley Resort's aerial tramway. Originally built for the games, it takes visitors from the base of the mountain (6,000 feet up) to High Camp, at over 8,200 feet. Besides the breath-taking views of the High Sierras up there, you will find a roller rink, disc tennis, geocaching, paintball, hot tub, and a pool with an island and a waterfall. You can also rent a bicycle and set out on numerous paths of varying degrees of difficulty, take in self-guided hiking trails (or go with a group), as well as play on some seriously nice golf courses.

I happened to arrive right at the tail end of the July Wanderlust Festival. Wanderlust is a traveling festival of leading yoga teachers, top musical acts and DJs, renowned speakers, top chefs, and winemakers. If that sounds like a strange combo, it is. I managed to catch both self-help guru Wayne Deyer (the bald guy from the PBS fund drives) and Ziggy Marley, take a standup paddle-board yoga class on Lake Tahoe, and enjoy a "chakra-aligning" farm-to-table dinner at 8,200 feet up in the mountains - all in the same day. Paddle-board yoga not your thing? How about poetry or screenwriting? For 43 years, Olympic Valley has played host to the Squaw Valley Writer's Conference, which brings in top writers from all genres for workshops, conferences, lectures, panels, readings, and more. I've got this screenplay I've been trying to pitch to Hollywood types for years, and I am thinking about perhaps trying to sell it here instead. It's about a guy who travels the world staying in exotic timeshare locations, but secretly longs to be in cabaret. But I digress.

I am renting a timeshare at the Olympic Village Inn, appropriately enough, just a quarter of a mile from the original Olympic site. The resort features two different floor plans (mine's a one-bedroom with one bath), indoor/outdoor pools, a hot tub, and complimentary bicycles for getting around on. RedWeek members give it 4-stars, and I have to agree. As one of our reviews says: "It's not luxurious, but it has everything you might need."

Well I am off to strike it rich at Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park. It's a California state park about two hours away, and the site of the find that kicked off the California Gold Rush in 1848. Their Eureka Experience Interpretive Programs teaches you how to pan for gold, and lets you keep anything that you find. At $1,600 an ounce, I figure I'll be laughing all the way to the bank. Of course I also have a serious side bet on the outcome of the badminton medal round, just in case.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The Sweetest Place on Earth

So have you ever heard of Derry Church, PA? How about the Lancaster Caramel Company? Unless you are very, very, old (which I am not), there is almost no way you could have. The Lancaster Caramel Company was sold in 1898 for the tidy sum of $1 million dollars (more like $24 million today). The seller took his new found fortune and started a brand new candy enterprise in the town of his birth, Derry Church. But he changed the name of that town, along with the candy business, forever. If you haven't guessed it already, his name was Milton S. Hershey, and the town and chocolate empire bearing his name is still going strong today.

Hershey was born into hardscrabble life in rural Pennsylvania and never received more than a fourth grade education. But as he got older, his father took him on business trips around the country, and it seemed that young Milton had a nose for business. Just the same, his first two attempts to start a candy business (Philadelphia, then New York) failed miserably. But the third time was a charm and his caramel business took off in the late 1890s. Now most folks would have been happy to pocket the $1 million and then set about spending it. But Milton got the chocolate bug, and thank goodness for the rest of us that he did.

You see, it was not always the case that you could just grab a giant bar of chocolate at any supermarket, gas station, vending machine, etc. In Hershey's era, chocolate was for the wealthy - which he now was - and the milk chocolate process was a closely guarded secret of the Swiss. But he set out to change all of that. Through much trial and error, he came up with a new milk chocolate process and set up shop in the town of his birth. He bought 1,200 acres in the middle of prime dairy land, and began simultaneously building a company and a town, both bearing his name. In addition to building what would become the world's largest chocolate company, he also built roads, commercial buildings, housing, theaters, a hotel, a sports arena, libraries, parks, schools (lots of them), and an amusement park.

The amusement park started out as a place for the relaxation of his workers. It opened in 1908 and was more or less like any other town park of its day: pastoral open space, picnic grounds, playground, pool, and a band shell for concerts. But like the man and the chocolate company, it was destined for bigger and better. Today Hershey Park is home to over 60 rides and attractions, eleven world-class roller coasters, a zoo, a water park, live performance venues, and much more. The newest attraction for 2102 is the Skyrush roller-coaster. This thing is 200 feet high folks, has five zero-G hills, and features winged seating. For those of you that don't know what that means (I didn't), the car itself is on the tracks, but the seating extends beyond the edges of the car. So the two outermost seats have no floor below them at all, and you are basically just hanging out in mid air. Thus the name, I suppose. Well the first hill on this thing takes you straight up, and I mean 90 degrees up at the sky. Then it drops you more than straight down. That's right, it goes beyond 90 degrees, and hurls you back towards the ground at 85 degrees, at a speed of about 75 mph. And it's just getting started. I really don't remember much else after that, and I get vertigo just thinking about it. I am pretty sure this is not what Mr. Hershey had in mind for his employees' relaxation, but the genie is out of the bottle now.

Of course there are many other less aggressive rides at Hershey Park and lots of fun to be had by the whole family. If amusement parks just aren't your thing, there is also Hershey Botanical Gardens (with seasonal butterfly house), Zoo America, Hershey Bears minor league ice hockey, a gilded-era theatre, concert venue, outlet shopping, and much more. Plus Lancaster County (aka Amish Country), Gettysburg, and Harrisburg are all short drives away. My timeshare rental at The Suites at Hershey (pun intended I am sure) puts me minutes from the park and downtown Hershey, and a short drive from everything else. It's a 2-bedroom, 2-bathroom spacious unit with a full-sized kitchen and living room, and a washer and dryer in the unit. Plus there are two pools (one indoors and one out) and a clubhouse. RedWeek members give it 4.5 stars, and I have to agree. If you read some of the reviews, you'll see mention of a freight train that comes through at all hours of the day and night. This is a functioning company town, and they really make chocolate here. So box cars of cocoa beans and corn sugar roll through here pretty much non-stop. It didn't bother me in the least, and I doubt it will bother you. But if you are a light sleeper, bring your earplugs.

Well I am off to sample some chocolate at the Wilbur Chocolate Company and Candy Americana Museum in nearby Lititz, PA. Unbelievably, another chocolate maker, Mr. H.O. Wilbur, started up shop in the area back in the 1800s and is still in business today. It's no longer family owned, and there is no Wilbur town, library, amusement park, or any of that. But they are still here making great chocolate, and there is zero chance I will end up vomiting on my own shoes after a visit, which is more than I can say about my Skyrush experience.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Bonaire?

So honestly, have you ever heard of the island of Bonaire, or know where it is located? I travel for a living, and I readily admit that I had never heard of it. Until now, that is. Bonaire, which sounds like some type of air freshener, is "special municipality" of the kingdom of the Netherlands. Along with Aruba and Curaçao, it makes up the "ABC" islands of the Leeward Antilles, which are themselves the southern portion of the Lesser Antilles. Confused yet? No wonder nobody knows about this place. Let's put it this way, it is an island a little bit bigger than Martha's Vineyard, sitting off the northern coast of Venzuela in the Caribbean sea, just above the equator.

If you know any French at all, you might recognize that "Bonaire" means "good air". And while the air is just fine here (albeit muggy), that doesn't seem to have anything to do with why it is called that. The original inhabitants of the island were the Caiquetios (a branch of the Arawak found throughout the Caribbean), and they called the place Bonay, meaning "low land". But waves of European explorers (Spanish, Dutch, and even French) eliminated the aforementioned inhabitants and mangled the name until it became Bonaire. There are only two recognized towns on the island, Kralendijk and Rincon, and nearly all of the available lodging is in the form of timeshares. So it was only a matter of time before you-know-who paid a visit.

Now I should point out that there are very few sandy beaches on Bonaire, and it is therefore not ideal for swimming. It is, however, rated by numerous publications as one of the best diving and snorkeling destinations in the world. In fact, their license plate motto is "Divers Paradise". Unlike a lot of diving/snorkeling destinations, the barrier reef is just off shore, and you can easily swim/float to it. And all of the waters off of the island have been declared a "marine park" and are protected under law, just like an onshore park. As a result, the number of corals, fish, and other aquatic species is simply staggering. I am a snorkeling man myself, and after paying a $10 annual park fee ($25 for divers), I can put in anywhere I like and check out the action. And get this, you can even go night snorkeling. That's right, you rent yourself a special underwater flashlight (or you can bring your own), and get a completely different take on this underwater world. It's advisable to choose an area that you have already explored during the daylight, so that you can orient yourself. Otherwise it's a bit like trying to find the fuse box in a blackout... in your neighbor's house.

Now if you prefer to stay on top of the water, you are also in luck. Bonaire offers some fantastic kayaking, paddle boarding, sailing, and windsurfing locations. The protected Lac Bay, combined with winds that blow nearly 95% of time, are quickly making it a "Windsurfers Paradise". The island is set up to handle professionals and beginners alike at Bonaire Windsurf Place and Jibe City. The latter features shallow water and a trade-wind that always blows onshore. Meaning, you cannot get blown out to sea. I highly recommend the ABK Windsurf Clinic at Jibe City, if you have five days to immerse yourself in windsurfing. Otherwise, take one of the various 2-hour sessions designed for beginners. Either way, you can end your day at The Hang Out Beach Bar, which is exactly what it sounds like.

There's lots to see and do out of the water as well. You can horseback, hike or cycle through the "kunuku" or outback; view the entire island from its highest point in Washington/Slagbaai National Park; enjoy numerous museums and historic sites; and view nearly 200 species of birds. And even if you don't normally go in for bird-watching, you are going to want to check out the flamingos. There are several spots on the island where you are almost guaranteed to see at least a flock or two of these beautiful pink birds taking flight at sunset.

My timeshare rental, appropriately enough, is at the Divi Flamingo Beach Resort. It's right on the ocean and features its own beach, a freshwater pool, their own dive operation, and a restaurant with the coolest name ever: The Chibi Chibi Restaurant and Bar. RedWeek members rate it 4-stars and rave about the dive operation - one of the oldest on the island.

Well I am off to the Donkey Sanctuary Bonaire. Donkeys were first brought to the island by the Spanish to perform manual labor. But when the work dried up, the donkeys were left to roam free, creating a large population of "wild" or feral donkeys. The sanctuary works to protect and nurture injured or sick donkeys, and to educate the public about these curious members of the horse family. And if you go, you can tell your friends you went all the way to Bonaire to get your picture taken with an ass.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Like tuh-mater, but without the "tuh"

So I have two words to describe Disney's new Cars Land: awesome, and unbelievably crowded. Wait a minute... ahh, who's counting anyway? Have you heard about this place? It's the latest and biggest upgrade to Disney's California Adventure in Anaheim, CA, to date. Price tag? Try $1.1 billion dollars. That's right, billion with a "b". But the stakes are high, even in a down economy, and attendance at California Adventure has been sluggish since its opening in 2001, as compared with other Disney properties. So in typical Disney fashion, they paid out big bucks for the big guns.

In the past that might have meant Snow White or The Little Mermaid, but in 2012 it's Pixar and the cast of Cars. That's right, Lightning McQueen, Sally Carrera, Mack, Tow Mater, and the rest of the gang from Radiator Springs are all here. The scenery is just amazing. Ornament Valley looks just like it did on the big screen, and there is a real southwest, Route 66 feel about it. One of my favorite attractions is Luigi's Flying Tires. You may remember Luigi as the proprietor of Casa Della Tires in the movie, but this ride is like nothing you've ever seen before. You sit atop a giant Fettuccini-brand tire (about 9 feet across) while about a million air jets turn on, and lift you ever so slightly off of the ground. Think air hockey, only with you as the puck. Then you and your companions lean in the direction you want to go. That's when the bumper car action starts, and man-oh-man is it fun. Even as you are sitting on it, banging into other riders, it just doesn't seem like it could possibly work. Like something you drew up in your bedroom as a kid, that somehow sprang to life. But I guess that's the point, and is what the folks at Disney and Pixar are all about. I wonder if they can do anything about those jet-packs we were promised?

Of course no Cars-themed park would be complete without a Mater attraction (like tuh-mater, but without the "tuh"), and Cars Land does not disappoint with Mater's Junkyard Jamboree. It's like a kiddy ride meets The Grand Ole Oprey. There are 22 adorable baby tractors with articulated eyes and mouths that pull you around the circuit as Mater leads as a combination square dance caller/stand-up comedian. The tractors dance along, if you can imagine, and you'd really have to be a grouch not to have some fun on this one; especially when little ones are involved.

But the main attraction, in my opinion, are the Radiator Springs Racers. Up to six people board a car familiar from the movie, and take a tour of Radiator Springs and Ornament Valley. So you see the "Pull-up and Fill-up" service station, the Comfy Cavern Motor Court, and run into Mack, Lightning McQueen, and the rest of the gang along the way. And then right at the end, you are pitted against another group of visitors in a race for the checkered flag. You'll zip over hills, high-banked turns, and camelback straightaways against a backdrop of red-rock formations. The cars are on a track - giant slot cars actually - but you really feel like you are racing against the other car. It's great fun, and you will want to ride it again and again.

If you are considering a visit, and you should be, I would offer you two pieces of advice: wait awhile; and rent a timeshare. This park just opened last Friday, and it is estimated that over 45,000 people were there on Saturday. I am pretty sure I made physical contact with each and every one of them. And not in a good way. Plus there were mechanical issues, which should come as a surprise to no one. Give them a month or two to work out the kinks, and put it on your family vacation radar. There are tons of timeshares available in Anaheim, which will not only put you near Cars Land, but Disneyland proper, Knott's Berry Farm, Legoland, and Universal Studios Hollywood, to name a few.

Well, I'm off to Hollywood for my rendezvous with death. No I am not planning a Belushi-style O.D. at the Chateau Marmont, although you can visit Bungalow #3 if celebrity death sites is your thing. No I am headed to the Museum of Death, featuring the largest collection of serial murderer artwork, Manson Family crime scene photos, the guillotined head of the Blue Beard of Paris, a body bag and coffin collection, full-size execution devices, autopsy instruments, and much much more. On the gruesome scale, this place is an 11, and makes the Belushi death scene look like a suite at the Waldorf Astoria.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Hoisting the Cup

The tension, the action, the blathering of the ESPN announcers; there's nothing like this time of year to get me glued to the television set. No I am not talking about the Stanley Cup Finals, which barring a miracle will go to the the L.A. Kings tomorrow night. I am referring to the Scripps National Spelling Bee, of course. It was won this weekend by 14-year-old Snigdha Nandipati of San Deigo. The word that put her over the top? That would be "guetapens". That's right, guetapens, a French-derived word meaning ambush or trap. Sounds more like writing implements made out of cheese to me. Fortunately young Snigdha didn't need to know what it meant, she just had to spell it correctly. And spell it she did, along with all of the other words thrown at her over the course of a week-long competition which eliminated the other 277 contestants. For her mastery, she took home a trophy, $30,000 in cash, a $2,500 savings bond, a $5,000 scholarship, and $2,600 in reference works from the Encyclopedia Britannica. Not bad for a week's work, and it beats the heck out of taking a hockey puck in the kisser.

Of course it is important to remember that these contestants are just children, and they are being put under extraordinary pressure. I tend to forget this myself as the words get harder and contestants are eliminated. I will admit to catching myself yelling at the television in my timeshare this weekend on more than one occasion. It's all well and good for a grown man to be able to spell "vetiver" (I didn't, by the way) from the comforts of home, but it is quite another for a 10-year-old to do it on live TV. Snigdha's parents said that in the run up to event she was studying 6 hours a day (or more) on weekdays, and as many as 12 hours a day on weekends. Are you kidding me?! That $40k or so in prizes isn't looking like such a bargain after all.

And then there are all of the post-championship obligations: interviews, parades, TV appearances, etc. And in what has become a National Spelling Bee tradition, young Snigdha made an appearance on Live With Kelly, joining Ms. Rippa and her co-host Bryant Gumbel. Talk about no place to hide. An over-caffeinated ditz on one side of you, a pompous gasbag on the other, and an obligatory "mock" spelling bee against the two of them. Besides the fact that Rippa can't seem to recite her own name without a tele-prompter, and Gumble is too self-absorbed to be aware of much else, this kid just correctly spelled guetapens for goodness sakes. If you want to improve the ratings of this abysmal TV show, how about having Rippa and Gumble skate a shift or two against the Kings?

But I digress. Miss Nandipati handled the situation with the grace and aplomb befitting a champion. She says she hopes to be a neurosurgeon when she grows up, and if she works as hard at that as she did on winning the spelling bee, I have no doubt that she'll succeed. I am already looking forward to next year and seeing some of the kids that almost made it this year take it to the next level. The competition is held every year in Washington, D.C., and you can find a timeshare rental in nearby Fort Washington, MD, or Alexandria, VA. I would also highly recommend the 2002 documentary Spellbound. It follows eight kids as they work their way toward the finals of the national prize. You see first-hand the tremendous effort they put into even making it to the finals, and meet a few parents you'll probably want to strangle along the way.

Well, I am off to the International Spy Museum where "nothing is what it seems". That's right, there is a museum dedicated to the craft of spookery right here in our nation's capital. It features the largest collection of international espionage artifacts, hands-on activities like code breaking, and even a school for spies. I'd tell you where it is, but then I'd have to kill you. I know, I know. That joke will self-destruct in five minutes, I promise.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

My Fair Lady


So what's 905 feet long, 181 years old, and weighs over 20 million pounds? No, it's not the New York Yankees team airplane, but that's not a bad guess. What if I told you it was "falling down, falling down"? That's right, the London Bridge. Now to be clear there are currently two London Bridges: one in London (of course), and one in Lake Havasu City, AZ. I am writing to you today about the latter, and how it came to be in the middle of the Arizona desert.

But to back things up a bit, a little history is in order. There has been a bridge over the River Thames called the London Bridge since as far back as Roman times, more than 2000 years ago. The one from the famous nursery rhyme was built around 1136, and was more or less an extension of London. It spanned the river with a series of arches like any other bridge of the time. But it also had numerous tall buildings atop it that housed businesses, shops, a cathedral, apartments, and more. And from the years 1305 to 1660, was home to one of the most gruesome displays in history. Starting with William Wallace (Braveheart), severed heads were placed on metal pikes, dipped in tar (to protect them against the elements), and displayed on the southern end of the bridge. At one point, there were as many as 30 severed heads greeting visitors as they entered via the bridge. I think it's safe to say that tourism wasn't on the minds of the city fathers of that time.

Anyway, the thing was indeed falling down by the beginning of the 19th century, and was replaced in 1831 by a five-arched, granite structure designed by John Rennie. It was considered quite an engineering accomplishment at the time, and if nothing else, had no human heads mounted on it. However it was never designed to hold automobiles, and by the middle of the 20th century it had begun to sink at a rate of about an inch every 8-10 years. They did the math on that, and in 1967 the decision was made to replace the bridge. But rather than demolish it, city council member Ivan Luckin suggested that they first try to sell it. But who in the world would buy a bridge, sinking or otherwise, and what would they do with it?

Enter Robert McCulloch. He - of McCulloch chainsaw fame - had recently embarked on an ambitious planned community on the shores of Lake Havasu. In the middle-of-nowhere Arizona, the land was a defunct airstrip used by the U.S. military in WWII. It was given to him by the the state of Arizona in exchange for the promise that he develop it. But try as he might, he couldn't convince many people to even visit the area, let alone buy a retirement home there. A real estate agent working for McCulloch named Robert Plumer heard of the London Bridge sale, and suggested that this might be just what the floundering project needed: a major tourist attraction. McCulloch at first thought he was crazy, but then came around to the idea. He ended up placing the winning bid of $2.46 million. He said that he came up with the price by doubling the cost of dismantling the bridge ($1.2 million) and adding $60,000 ($1,000 for each of his years at the time). There is a fair amount of evidence to suggest that he had little, if any, real competition for the bridge, and he may have substantially over paid for it. But that's what happens when you buy a bridge, I suppose.

Regardless, the sections of the bridge were meticulously numbered, disassembled, and shipped to California via the Panama Canal, and taken over land by truck to McCulloch's Havasu City development. It was painstakingly reconstructed (with the addition of steel-reinforced concrete), and completed in October of 1971. Now what are the chances that you could buy a bridge and have a span exactly that size somewhere else to place it upon? Probably zero, which was the case here. In fact, McCulloch didn't even have a river to place it over. Instead, he had his team rebuild it over dry land. He then diverted water from Lake Havasu via a new canal he called the Bridgewater Channel, and bingo! You've got yourself a river. And can you guess what happened next? That's right people started coming to see the London Bridge.

Now there are some popular rumors that many people thought they were going to see the more famous (and recognizable) Tower Bridge of London. There is even a urban legend that this is the bridge McCulloch thought he had bought, until it arrived on U.S. shores. But that's all a bunch of baloney. He knew exactly what he was buying, even if he did over pay for it, and knew how to market it. Today the city has over 50,000 residents and draws over 750,000 visitors annually. All because of a bridge and a nursery rhyme. And a ton of cash, of course.

Lake Havasu City is also home to some great timeshares, and I am staying at none other than the London Bridge Resort. It's the only only waterfront, all-suite condominium resort in the city and offers golf, tennis, three swimming pools, a spa, several dining options, convention facilities, wedding pavilion, boat slips and much more. RedWeek members rate it 4.5 stars, and there are both rentals and resales available.

Well I am off to take a walking tour of the famous bridge, which lasts about 45-minutes. But I gotta tell you, I just can't shake the thought of those heads mounted on the old bridge. And I am in no way suggesting we return to that type of barbarism. I am simply saying that *IF* we did, wouldn't it only be fitting - in the absence of the real Braveheart - if we started with the Hollywood version of the Scottish warrior? I know, I know. That was offside, and is going to get me some hate mail. Hopefully they are not accompanied by any late night, profanity-laden voice messages from you-know-who.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

By George

On this date in 1754 the Seven Years' War officially began in North America. Now if you are like me, and let's hope you are not, you've heard of this war, but cannot quite place it. You can be forgiven for that, because in this country we call it the French and Indian War. Which is really confusing, because it makes it sound like the French were fighting the Indians, when they were in fact on the same side. Sort of. The French and Indian theater of the war was primarily fought between the British and the French. The Native Americans fought on both sides, hoping they'd all just go home. But around the world it involved Spain, Prussia (Germany), India, the Philippines, Austria, West African nations, and even Cuba. And it is known by at least as many different names, including the Pomeranian War, the Third Carnatic War, and the Third Silesian War, to name a few. It would have been way more accurate to call it World War I, but I guess the folks who name these sort of things were late in coming to that concept. Regardless, they couldn't call it the Seven Years' War at the time - for obvious reasons - and the French and Indian part of it actually ended up lasting nine years. So call it whatever you want.

Most of the North American fighting was concentrated around the Ohio River Valley, and in the areas of present day New York State and the Quebec and Maritime provinces of Canada. One hotbed of activity, which would come into play again in the American Revolution, was the site of present day Lake George, NY. The name the native tribes had for the lake and region was Andia-ta-roc-te, which doesn't exactly roll off the tongue. Champlain was the first European to view it, but chose not to give it a name. James Fenimore Cooper called it Horican, in the classic "The Last of the Mohicans", and it was also known as Lac du Saint-Sacrement for over a hundred years. But in 1755, with the war in full swing, the British forces occupying the area named it in honor of their king, George II. The town, and the body of water, have been called Lake George ever since.

The lake itself was critically important because it drains into Lake Champlain, which leads to the St. Lawrence River/Seaway. So it provided both a land and water connection from Albany, NY all the way up to Montreal, out to Nova Scotia, and the Atlantic Ocean. It is not too surprising that the French began construction of their own fort, at the Lake Champlain side, called Carillon. You probably know it by the name Fort Ticonderoga. Ultimately, the French lost and the guns fell silent for a time. The British Colonies flourished, then rebelled, and the fighting started all over again. In time peace prevailed, and even the strategic importance of the area was diminished. The Erie Canal system and then the Mississippi River became the primary means of moving goods around. Aside from timber concerns, this area was largely forgotten. Until the millionaires came, that is.

Yes, like Newport, Bar Harbor, the Hamptons, and so many enclaves of the rich and famous, Lake George was "rediscovered" in the late 19th century by the richest of the rich. They were preceded by a bunch of renowned America painters, whose work almost certainly helped put the place on the radar of the hoity-toity. Once a rail line was established between New York and Montreal, Lake George boasted summer homes belonging to the Vanderbilts, the Rockefellers, the Whitneys, and the Roosevelts, to name a few. In fact, the stretch of "cottages" as they were called, were dubbed Millionaire's Row, during the early 20th century. Some of these homes were over 20,000 square feet, and had more than 100 acres of lakeside property. One guy, Wall Street's Robert Pitcairn, even had place to land his autogyro, an early predecessor of the helicopter. Are you kidding me?!

But the rich and famous are a fickle bunch, and as auto travel made it easier for us commoners to visit the Adirondack region, they thinned out. All but a few of the mansions have been torn down or converted to inns. What else can you do with a 30-bedroom house? Their loss was everyone else's' gain. Present day Lake George and vicinity offers just about everything you could want in a southern Adirondack getaway. In addition to the aforementioned historical significance, the area boasts unmatched physical beauty in the form of mountains, lakes, and forests; world-class art museums and collections; hundreds of eateries; quaint towns and villages; and more boating, swimming, sailing, hiking, and fishing than you can possibly cram into one trip. Now as my friends in Boston like to say, it's wicked cold here in the winter. And winter in these parts starts somewhere around Halloween, and ends right about now. So unless you ski, plan on visiting in the summer, and expect lots of company. Both The Lodges at Cresthaven and The Quarters at Lake George offer timeshare rentals, and both are rated 5-stars by RedWeek Members.

Well, I am off to the Forbidden Oddities Sideshow for a good old-fashioned freak show. Rain and Stephen Nallie, a.k.a. Lady Riggy and Mortis, thrill crowds by lying on a bed of nails, glass walking, fire breathing, sword swallowing, and "the art" of human blockheading. That latter one is basically sticking nails and other sharp objects into your nose and face. Their latest attraction is a 300-watt electric chair gag, and I am so there. I know it's a trick of some sort, and no one is actually in danger of being electrocuted. But I am pretty sure they are really sticking those nails in their faces, so who knows?

Thursday, May 10, 2012

I'll Have Another

So did you see where I picked the Derby winner in my posting last week? Not bad for an amateur. I must admit, however, that I picked him thinking that the "Another" in I'll Have Another was a libation of some sort. But it was something far more innocent than that: cookies. That's right, the owner named the horse to honor his spouse's homemade treats. Seems whenever she asks him how he likes her latest batch, his reply is invariably, "I'll have another". A man after my own heart. That's his story anyway, and he is sticking to it as his horse heads toward the Preakness, the second jewel in the triple crown. Me? I'm gonna take my $32.60 (on a $2 bet) and run.

Of course now I have $30 burning a hole in pocket. I guess I could hold onto it until the Facebook IPO next week and try to buy shares of that. But something about helping to put $15 billion in Mark Zuckerberg's pocket (that's his projected take) rubs me the wrong way. Maybe I could buy him a necktie instead. That way when he is asking investors for $86 billion, he can look like a professional, and not the Unabomber.

With $30 I could also have the ads turned off on my Kindle 4. Yeah, I went with the "cheaper" model that is subsidized by advertisements that run on the home screen, and cannot be turned off without forking over $30. I didn't mind them so much when I first got the thing, but now that I am married to it (I spend a LOT of time in airports and on planes), they are starting to bug me. I wonder if NBC and the other TV networks would let me work a similar deal with them? Of course without commercials, I think an episode of 30 Rock is only about four minutes long. And besides, how would I carry on without the Aflac duck?

Looks like I could score the World's Largest Gummy Worm and have $2 left over. That's right, a $28 gummy worm. But this is no ordinary gummy worm. It's 26 inches long, has a 5 inch girth, weighs 3 pounds, and has over 4,000 calories in it. And according to its maker, it's "an amazing gift for now or later due to its year-long shelf life". So are we to infer that there are people who eat this thing in one pass? That's disgusting, which is saying something coming from me. At least I'd have $2 left to get some Pepto Bismol.

I bet you didn't know you could buy a timeshare for less than $30. Yep, bargain timeshare resales are available regularly on RedWeek.com. Now you do need to understand what you are actually getting for your money. For example, there is a 1-bedroom/1.5-bathroom unit available at Sea Crest Surf and Racquet Club in Hilton Head Island, SC, for just $10. Add to that a $14.99 RedWeek membership fee (if you are not already a member), and you can contact the owner and possibly work out a deal. Now this seems like a nice resort (members rate it 4 stars) located a block from the ocean, with three pools (one heated), and lots of great restaurants and nightlife options nearby. But the week is #44 on the timeshare week calendar, which is the first week in November. Is that a good time to stay in Hilton Head? Can you still go swimming? I don't know, but you need to ask these questions before even considering any timeshare purchase. Then there are the maintenance fees. Besides owning the deed on this place, whether or not you ever stay there yourself, you will need to pay annual maintenance fees. This is true on all timeshare purchases, and this unit is currently listed as $494/yr (also something you want to confirm with the resort). And then there are one-time closing fees like with any real estate transaction. So there is quite a bit more to the $10 asking price. But if you've ever stayed in a hotel, you know that $99/night is not the whole story either. And unlike a hotel, you own this week and can rent it out the years you don't use it, let family and friends use it, or resell it on RedWeek. RedWeek offers a ton of timeshare resources to help you decide if a resale is right for you.

Well, I guess I am going to hold onto this $30 until I can find something I really want to buy. Or maybe I'll blow the whole wad on this '80s Cell Phone Case from Urban Outfitters. Yeah, it's a cover for your sleek smart phone to make it look like one of those bulky, 1980s cell phones like the kid from Saved By The Bell used to talk on (remember that one?). I love the first customer review of this thing: "The idea is absolutely awesome... but its super bulky that i cant even text comfortably. I cant take pictures either... and whenever i made calls people could NOT hear me." Duh!!!

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Weep No More My Lady

So do you know what has 84 legs, weighs over eleven tons, and moves at about 40 mph? No, not the Kardashians, but that's not a bad guess. I am of course referring to the field for this Sunday's Kentucky Derby. The Run for the Roses, a.k.a. the most exciting two minutes in sports, will take place for the 138th time this Saturday afternoon at Churchill Downs in Louisville, KY. It's the first, and arguably the most famous, jewel in horse racing's triple crown, and enjoys the highest attendance of any horse racing event in the United States.

Now I wouldn't pretend to know the first thing about handicapping or betting on horses. I'm a $2 bet man, and I typically just go by the horse with the catchiest name. But this year's field is making even that approach difficult. You've got Rousing Sermon, Daddy Nose Best, Daddy Long Legs, and Take Charge Indy, to name but a few. But I think I have to go with I'll Have Another, which on this weekend undoubtedly refers to the mint julep. The Early Times Mint Julep is the official drink at Churchill Downs all year long, but on Derby weekend they will sell over 120,000 of them in their trademark silver cups. In case you didn't know, a mint julep is basically a giant cup of whiskey on ice, with some sugar water and a few mint leaves thrown in. Good thing the race is only two minutes long, or things could get ugly in a hurry.

Something else you may not be aware of is that racehorse betting uses a parimutuel system to keep things on the up-and-up. What that means is that everyone who places a bet on a race is betting against one another, and not the track itself. The track simply takes a cut, or a "vig" off the top, and sets the odds to be paid to the winners. So the track ownership has no vested interest in who wins the race, removing any incentive to cheat or fix races. Now the trainers, owners, riders, etc., are a different matter. But I'd like to think that a race of this stature, with its pageantry and traditions, would not be subject to that kind of tomfoolery. Of course with 120,000 cups of whiskey in play, who'd notice?

But even if horse racing is not your thing, Louisville is a great "big little city", and this region of the Bluegrass State is particularly beautiful. Pronounced "lew-a-vull" by the locals, it is also known as Possibility City and Kentuckiana, due to the neighboring counties of Indiana included in its metro area. Within city limits alone, you can cruise on the Belle of Louisville, the oldest operating steamboat in the nation; stroll one of the largest historic preservation districts in the country in Old Louisville; view over 13,000 objects from antiquity to the present at the Speed Art Museum; stumble along the Kentucky Bourbon Trail; watch a Louisville Slugger being made at their factory and museum; or visit the Muhammad Ali Center, which tells the story of this city's most famous son. And with over 2,500 restaurants and eateries, the city has established itself as a foodie destination.

You will not find any timeshare rentals in Louisville, however. You can find them in Taylorsville, about 45 minutes away, or Park City, about 1.5 hours away. The latter is the gateway to Mammoth Cave National Park, the world's longest known cave system. Over 390 miles have of caves have been explored, with still more being discovered. Combine this other worldly, underground experience with the down home hospitality of Louisville, and you've got yourself a seriously great vacation.

Well I am off to get a lip-lock on a Kentucky Hot Brown. Never heard of one? Well, it is a open-faced sandwich of turkey and bacon, that's covered in mornay sauce and broiled until the sauce bubbles and browns. Yum. It was created right here in Louisville at the Brown Hotel in 1926, and was even featured in a 2002 PBS documentary called Sandwiches You Will Like. As a side project to my timesharing travel gig, I am trying to sample each of the 22 sandwiches featured in that film. The Hot Brown marks another off of my "bucket list". Fortunately, there are not as yet any timeshares in St. Louis, and I can continue to avoid the pig ears and snouts sandwich a little longer.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

With a Banjo on my Knee


So where's the only place in the U.S. where you can toss a mullet from one state, and have it land in another? While I guess you could technically do it at any two bordering states where you happen to have a mullet handy, I am referring to the 27th Annual Interstate Mullet Toss. Every year on the last weekend in April, you can pay $10 to stand in a 10' circle on the eastern edge of Alabama and fling that thing are far as you can into Florida. If you don't happen to have a calendar handy that would be this weekend, and I am so getting a timeshare rental in Orange Beach, Alabama.

Now to clarify, when I talk about a mullet I am not referring to that awful hairstyle made famous by Billy Ray Cyrus in the 1980s (a.k.a. hockey hair, the achy breaky mistakey, a Kentucky mudflap, and many more I can't print here). Although you will most definitely see more than your fair share of those at this annual event, I am referring to a species of fish with the same name. Members of the mugilidae order of fishes, mullet are noted for being among the only fish species to have a gizzard. Gizzards are usually found in birds and reptiles, are used like a second stomach to grind up bits of food. Since the mullet is a filter feeder, this comes in very handy. In many areas they are regarded as a bait fish and not eaten by humans. Yet in parts of Florida, Alabama, and other Gulf Coast states, you are likely to see them on restaurant menus and in seafood stores. Try it for yourself and make up your own mind.

But why toss a mullet? That's an excellent question, and one to which I am afraid I have been unable to find an answer. But the fish is abundant and indigenous to this area, and wherever there is a surplus of a particular item, these things happen. I am sure two Alabama fisherman were looking at a pile of unsold mullet, wondering what to do with them, when one of them said "bet I can toss one farther into Florida than you can". It could have been a lot worse and turned into a interstate mullet fight, like they do with tomatoes at the annual Tomatina in Spain. That would be disgusting, and unlikely to have caught on. And to answer the question I am sure you are thinking about, no the fish are not alive. They are placed dead in vats of water. You may not wear gloves or get sand on the mullet to improve your grip. Provided you stay within the 10' circle on the Alabama side, you can toss it overhand, underhand, through your legs, or whatever floats your boat. Money from event goes to help local youth charities, and the fish themselves are fed to flocks of waiting gulls that also seem to have the last weekend in April marked on their calendars. Go figure.

Of course the mullet toss is not for everyone, and fortunately, there is a lot more to see and do in this area. Orange Beach and Gulf Shores feature white sandy beaches, championship golf, deep sea fishing, numerous historic sites, and world class birding on the Alabama Coastal Birding Trail. If the weather is not cooperating, which is unlikely, be sure to head across the bay to Mobile to check out the USS ALABAMA Battleship Memorial, the Gulf Coast Exploreum Science Center, and Mobile Carnival Museum. The latter highlights history and artifacts of Mardi Gras, a celebration whose U.S. tradition traces its origins to Mobile, and not New Orleans. And keep in mind that Florida is just a mullet toss away, where you can visit The National Museum of Naval Aviation in Pensacola. It features more than 150 beautifully restored aircraft from the Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard, including the world famous Blue Angels.

I am staying at Escapes! to the Gulf at Orange Beach, which is more like a sentence than a resort name, but it gets 4.5 stars from RedWeek members and is nearby everything the Gulf Coast has to offer. My rental is a 2 bedroom/2.5 bath unit with an ocean view, and a jacuzzi they say can fit 6 adults. I know that sounds extravagant, but I didn't know where else to stash 100 pounds of dead practice mullet.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Down on Main Street


If you're like me, and let's hope you're not, then you're a sucker for a small town with a great main street. In my case, I think it is because I grew up in a big city. More and more of us are from suburban or exurban outposts, and have never known the sound of church bells and train whistles - what my grandpa called the sounds of a real town. Whatever it is, there is something about a small town with a vibrant main street that feels so familiar, even if we have never lived in one.

Now being in the timeshare game, you might think that I don't get to small towns that often, but nothing could be further from the truth. It is true that most most timeshare resorts are built in or around metro areas, the beach, or major theme-park attractions. But a good number are located very nearby some great main street towns, making for a perfect day trip. Or longer. Take the America's Greatest Main Streets list just put out by Travel + Leisure magazine. Of the first four mentioned, I have been to all of them by way of a timeshare rental - in town or nearby.

Galena, IL, is not only home to the WorldMark Galena resort, it was also the hometown of Ulysses S. Grant just before the American Civil War. That's right, the guy who is not buried in Grant's tomb (they don't bury you in a tomb so much as just toss you in there) lived in this 19th century boomtown along the Galena River. Now when I say boomtown, I am not talking about gold, silver, or even the railroad. No, Galena's claim to fame was the mineral of the same name and its proximity to the Mississippi River. Galena is the natural form of lead sulfide and at one point in the 1800s, this area produce almost 80% of the lead in the U.S., shipping it by way of Old Man River. Its lead mining days are long gone now, which is probably a good thing, since tourism is now the number one source of income for this quaint community of 3,400. Toxic heavy metals and hand-in-hand window shopping don't usually mix.

Paso Robles, CA, is more or less half way between Los Angeles and San Francisco, and timeshare rentals can be found at the WorldMark Pismo Beach Resort, about 45 minutes away. The town's name is Spanish for "The Pass of the Oaks" and has been known for its mineral hot springs for thousands of years: first by the native Salinan Indians, and then by waves of European immigrants. In the late 1890s, construction began on many of the buildings that make up the main street highlighted in the T+L piece. Today it is known for not only hot springs, but nearby wineries, championship golf, and being the home of the California Mid-State Fair. It was severely shaken by a magnitude 6.5 earthquake in 2003 and has recently been growing in population at a rapid pace. You might want catch this one while you still can, if you know what I mean.

Port Townsend is a bit more difficult to get to from a timeshare in either Seattle or the San Juan Islands. You're looking at a ferry ride either way, but that is part of its charm and its history. In the late 1800s, Port Townsend was perfectly situated to be the major port of the U.S. west coast. With easy access to timber and overseas markets, the City of Dreams boomed and many of the buildings that are now part of the U.S. National Historic Landmark District were erected. But the railroad that was to have connected it to inland markets to the east, like Seattle and Tacoma, never materialized. Port Townsend found itself on the "wrong side" of Puget Sound. Population dwindled and many buildings fell into disrepair. But as often is the case, artists and other creative types swooped in looking for cheap housing. Slowly but surely the area became home to a thriving and artistic community, as well as a popular getaway for city slickers. And in a bit of movie trivia: the motel scenes (hubba-hubba) from "An Officer and a Gentleman" were shot at the Tides Motel in Port Townsend. I am sure the cleaning staff wasn't crazy about that decision.

Finally there's Staunton, VA. You pronounce it stan-tun, unless you want to tip yourself off as being from out of town. You can rent a timeshare in nearby McGaheysville, which is unfortunately pronounced mick-GACK-ees-vill, and find yourself right in the heart of the Shenandoah Valley. Staunton is home to the birthplace and presidential library of Woodrow Wilson, country music giants the Statler Brothers, five nationally recognized historic districts, and the American Shakespeare Center. The latter features first-rate productions in an exact replica of the Bard's Blackfriar's Playhouse. Just don't go looking for Main Street in this town. Instead, set your feet down on Beverly Street, and take in the Queen City of the Valley on foot or via the free downtown trolley.

Well, I am off to check out the Oasis Bordello Museum in historic Wallace, ID. That's right, this place was an active brothel from the mining heyday of the Old West. But rather than close down when the boom ended, it stayed open (and eluded police detection) until 1988! On that night the occupants scattered in a hurry, leaving everything behind. This museum presents the cathouse just as it was on that evening, right down to the video store rental list taped to the kitchen wall. I bet you ten bucks "An Officer and a Gentleman" is on that list.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Appalachian Spring

If I told you that right now I can see a Hairy Cat's Ear, a Gray Beardtongue, and an American Bladdernut, could you guess where I am? No not an insane asylum - I haven't completely lost my mind (yet). I am touring Skyline Drive and the Blue Ridge Parkway, and the above are all common names of wildflowers indigenous to this area. Now they say that most of these common names were derived from physical characteristics that reminded folks of something else in nature. Judged in that light, I think everyone knows what a hairy cat's ear looks like (is there any other kind?), and I am pretty sure I've had a beardtongue the morning after a particularly late night or two. But what the heck is a bladdernut? Or how about a Toothwort? Jeez, I'd hate to get either of those.

Of course not all of these plants have such mysterious names. Some of them provide vital information in the name alone, like Touch-me-nots, Sneezeweed, Heal-All, and Stagger Grass. Others sound like they could be the names of folks songs, if they are not already, like the Highland Dog Hobble, Hearts-a-bustin', and Little Sweet Betsy. Of course a rose by any other name would smell just as sweet, and so many of these flowers are just so beautiful, that it doesn't matter what you call them. Except for maybe the Naked Broomrape. I am sure that doesn't mean what it sounds like, but they just need to change it.

Regardless, there is nothing like springtime in Appalachia. Most of the trees have not yet fully put on their leaves, allowing hundreds of species of wildflowers to soak up the sunshine of these increasingly warm days. In many places in Virginia and North Carolina the mercury has already topped 80 degrees a few times and, as a result, this annual show is off to an early start. But once the dense canopy of leaves covers over, that will be the end of the display for this year. So if you haven't planned a spring road trip, what are you waiting for?

Skyline Drive is a 105.5 mile roadway that runs more or less along the spine of the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia from Front Royal to Rockfish Gap. The entire roadway is part of Shenandoah National Park and an entrance fee is required. But with 300 square miles of forest, hundreds of species of wildflowers, and tens of thousands of living creatures making their homes here, it is well worth the admission. All this just 75 miles from D.C. Of course, you want to get away from the rat race, so I suggest heading to the western side of the park and the beautiful Shenandoah Valley of Virginia.

If the America Civil War is your thing, you're in luck there too. There are fourteen battlefields in this region alone, where Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson waged the Valley Campaign. It was also known as the "Breadbasket of the Confederacy" as this is where most of the crops were grown to keep the rebel effort alive. A timeshare rental at The Summit at Massanutten in McGaheysville will put you right in the heart of it all. It features indoor and outdoor swimming pools, gymnasium, racquetball and tennis courts, exercise equipment, steam room, sauna, massage services, children's programs, and a PGA-rated 18-hole golf course, all on site. Plus it is minutes from an entrance to the park and who knows how many Black Bugbanes, Widow's Frills, and Dutchman's Breeches. And here's a little local tip for you: the town is pronounced mick-gack-ees-vill, with the emphasis on GACK. Which is unfortunate, but it will tip you off as a tourist if you say it how it looks.

The Blue Ridge Parkway starts where Skyline Drive ends, and runs 469 miles from central Virginia to the entrance of Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina. It's free of charge, and features stunning views, hiking trails, picnic areas, campsites, interpretative exhibits, and the most diverse collection of flora and fauna to be found anywhere on earth. On the Virginia end, be sure to check out the homes of no less than four U.S. presidents. James Madison and James Monroe were more or less neighbors to Thomas Jefferson at Monticello, which is located in Charlottesville, VA. On the other side of the Blue Ridge is the birthplace and presidential library of Woodrow Wilson, in the lovingly restored 19th-century town of Staunton, VA. Another local alert: you say it Stan-tun.

As you ramble south towards North Carolina, keep your eye out for flowering dogwood and redbud trees all along the roadside. The dogwood is the state tree of Virginia, and the state flower of both Virginia and North Carolina. It has unmistakable white, four-petaled flower that many Christians believe looks like a cross. The redbud, on the other hand, is a dark magenta, almost purple flower that comes into bloom before just about any other tree in the area. Why they call it a redbud is beyond me, but you can hardly drive twenty feet along the parkway without spotting one of these beautiful specimens.

Once in North Carolina, I highly recommend a trip to Asheville. It's very near to the Smokys and is a vibrant college town. And if you haven't seen enough big houses or flowers, it is also home to The Biltmore Estate. The Biltmore was the summer residence of the Vanderbilt family, and is the largest single-family home in the U.S. The gardens alone are worth the trip, but at $60 a ticket, you are going to want to tour the house as well. There are no timeshare resorts in Asheville, so I suggest finishing up your excursion to the west in Gatlinburg, TN, or to the south in Cashiers, NC. The former is a quiet hillside community nestled in the Great Smokey Mountains and a short drive to Dollywood in Pidgeon Forge. So if you get a hankerin' for some good old country music, spandex, and rhinestones, head on over. You won't be disappointed. The latter is a quaint and picturesque village tucked away on a plateau in the shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains, known as the "land of waterfalls" (there are 19 of them). And as a final local tip for you: it's pronounced cash-ers.

Well, I am off to see if I can forage myself a meal in the surrounding countryside. I am told that ramps (wild scallions), fiddlehead ferns, and prickly leaf lettuce are all in-season right now. There's even a choice of coffee substitutes in the form of both the Kentucky coffee tree and chicory. Just the same, I am pretty sure I passed a Starbucks on the way in here.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Leaving Las Vegas

So here I am again in Sin City. Unlike Nicholas Cage's character in the film Leaving Las Vegas, I am not here to befriend a kind-hearted prostitute whilst drinking myself to death, although that's always an option in this town. No, I am here for the largest annual event in the timeshare industry: ARDA World 2012, being held at the Venetian on The Strip in Las Vegas, NV.

ARDA stands for American Resort Development Association, and as a foot soldier in the battle to educate the traveling public about the benefits of timeshare travel, it is the one industry event I attend (albeit begrudgingly). I mean, which would you rather do: spend some time at a great timeshare rental in Las Vegas, or attend a seminar called "Is Fractional Development in Critical Condition"? But hey, every industry needs its big events, and timeshare is no different. And any good convention town is going to have great timeshare resorts nearby. Las Vegas delivers on that and so much more.

Why just last night I saw Steve Wynn at The Wynn casino and hotel after a great performance of Le Rêve (the dream), which is a visual and musical extravaganza set in a one million gallon tank of water. The show was created by Franco Dragone of Cirque du Soleil fame, but is not actually a Cirque show. It features acrobatics, diving, state-of-the-art special effects, and about fifty of the most physically fit people you'll ever see in one place, outside of an olympic gymnastics event. It's rumored to have cost $40 million dollars to produce, which is about how much damage Wynn claims to have inadvertently done to one of his treasured Picasso masterpieces. Did you hear about this?

Wynn collects hundreds of millions of dollars worth of artwork, and one of his favorites is a painting called, not coincidentally, Le Rêve, by Pablo Picasso. He was so fond of the painting that the hotel and casino now bearing his surname, was originally slated to be called Le Rêve. Nonetheless, he was persuaded to sell the painting a few years back for the unheard of price of $139 million dollars, to a NYC hedge fund mogul, whose probably worth about half that amount now. But seriously, this would have been the most expensive artwork deal of all time. But before he shipped it off to the fellow and received his money, Wynn had some friends by to see it one last time. Sort of a farewell. Now to be fair, Wynn has an eye disorder called retinitis pigmentosa which destroys peripheral vision, and he occasionally bumps into things on either side of him. So he was showing the painting off to his friends, with it on an easel behind him, while gesticulating with his hands and backing up. Do you see where this is going? That's right, he put his elbow right through the darn thing! Now most of us would have immediately jumped out of a window or in some other way ended our own misery at that point. But he is reported to have said "I can't believe I just did that," and later refered to it as a "$40 million dollar elbow". I guess when you are worth $2.3 billion (with a "b"), you can let stuff like that roll right off of you. The deal fell through, obviously, and he had the painting repaired and returned to his own wall. They say you cannot see the tear at all, but only a fool would buy it now.

While my room is not adorned with millions of dollars in artwork, I have some really nice digs for the week at The Villas at Polo Towers, right on Las Vegas Boulevard. My one-bedroom unit features a king bed, kitchen with granite counter-tops, living room, and a private balcony. Plus there is a state-of-the-art fitness center, roof-top pool and spa, family water park, men's and women's steam rooms, and massage therapists on-site. All this for less than $100/night by renting from an owner. No wonder RedWeek members rate this place a perfect 5-stars.

Well, I am heading back to the convention for a forum on social media and timeshare, which actually looks pretty interesting. Considering that I have my own blog and Facebook page, I need to stay sharp on this stuff. Speaking of Facebook, did you see where their planned IPO is being estimated to make Mark Zuckerberg worth $20 billion dollars? I wonder if likes Picasso?

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The Hunger Games

So I heard the other day that dystopia is the new vampire, at least in terms of what is coming down the pike in Hollywood movie releases. If the reaction to The Hunger Games is any indication, then I guess teens will be trading in their fangs and face powder for spears and arrows. I am not sure that's such a good thing.

And where do they get off calling it The Hunger Games, anyway? I thought it was going to be about competitive eating or a battle of celebrity chefs; not a bunch of teenagers killing each other in gladiatorial contests. If that's the route they are going to go down, why not make it food critics battling it out to the death? Everyone wants to see that, don't they?

Speaking of food critics, did you see where former the New York Times restaurant columnist admitted to having gout last week? I guess that is an occupational hazard when you eat at fancy restaurants for a living. If you are not familiar with it, gout is a build up of uric acid crystals in your blood stream that settles in your joints, usually your big toe. It's really, really, painful, and has been described by the Mayo Clinic as feeling like your "toe is on fire". Clinical descriptions usually refrain from colloquialisms like "on fire," so you know it really hurts. Foods typically associated with causing gout are things like booze, anchovies, brains and other organ meat, broth and bouillon, goose, gravy, mincemeat, mussels, fish roe (caviar), scallops, sardines, sweetbreads and all types of yeasts. In other words, all the stuff you eat at fancy restaurants. Hmm, I might want to watch it myself, considering how much dining out I do.

Of course that is another advantage to renting a timeshare: you almost always get a kitchen. Now I know you don't want to spend your whole vacation cooking and cleaning dishes, but preparing at least some of your meals can really save you some coin, and perhaps help you avoid a case of gout. Think about how much you spend on breakfast, lunch, and dinner during a typical seven night vacation stay. If you ate breakfast in your unit each morning, and packed a lunch each day, I bet you could save half of what you usually spend on meals, and still eat dinner out each night. Plus, you can take your doggie bag with you and stick it in your unit's refrigerator as a lunch or snack for the next day. Who knows, you might manage to return home the same weight as when you left, or less.

All timeshare kitchens are not created equal, of course, so you are going to want to do some research. A large villa at Harborside Resort at Atlantis, for example, has a kitchen and dining area large enough to do Thanksgiving dinner. The Manhattan Club, on the other hand, has what is known as a kitchenette. So it is more than what you get with a typical hotel room, but it's not intended for any serious dining-in. In other words, it's like owning an apartment in New York City.

Well, I am off to make my annual pilgrimage to Augusta, GA. There's nothing like the sights and smells of springtime in Georgia, as the world's best descend upon this corner of the Peach State. I am of course referring to the Hooters World Wing-Eating Championship Qualifier. Ten minutes and all the Hooters wings you can eat, with $500 and a trip to the championship round later in the year on the line. Now that's what I call a hunger game. I hear there is a golf tournament going on as well. I'll have to check it out.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Against All Odds

So have you ever heard of a guy named Don Johnson? No, not the overly-tan, frosted-hair, pretty boy from Miami Vice fame. I'm talking about Don Johnson, the blackjack player. I didn't think so. And neither had Atlantic City’s Tropicana casino. Ditto for the Borgata and Caesars. But they all know who he is now. In fact, Mr. Johnson is now reportedly banned from all Caesers's locations worldwide, and only the Tropicana is (tepidly) welcoming his patronage. So what did he do to draw such ire from Atlantic City casinos? Well, he won. A lot.

Over the course of about six months last year, Johnson took The Tropicana for $6 million, the Borgata for $5 million, and Caesars for $4 million. Each jackpot was won exclusively at the blackjack table, and in a single sitting. So if you are keeping score at home, that's $15 million dollars in three nights. Are you kidding me?! Most households don't make that in a year. So how did he do it?

Whenever somebody takes a casino for a large jackpot, which is rare, they are typically cheating, or improbably lucky. Cheating, at least that's what the casinos call it, takes the form of card counting. As impossible as it may seem, there are people who can keep track of every card that has been dealt out of the eight decks usually in play at a blackjack table. Once there are only a few cards left, the counter knows which cards remain. A partner who can really play then uses this knowledge to step in and win the big hand. Just like Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise in Rain Man. But Johnson plays solo, and unlike Tom Cruise who is like two feet tall, he is a big burly guy, usually attired in an Oregon State hoodie. And while you might get lucky once in a while, they don't build those big casinos and hotels by handing people money. No, Johnson came up with a third way.

He's what you call a "high roller". In addition to being an excellent - some say perfect - blackjack player, he loves to gamble and had a lot of money before his big wins. Casinos rely on these high stakes players to come and wager huge amounts of money at their establishments. They buy them drinks, give them complimentary rooms, and even flights on private jets. They still very much lose their shirts, but they feel like royalty while doing so, and come back often. Johnson doesn't do any of that. Instead, he took his perks in the form of the loosening of the rules afforded to only the highest of high rollers. That's right, he convinced the casinos to move the odds a little less in their favor, in exchange for him betting sums of up to $100,000 per hand.

If you were unaware, each casino sets its own subtle rules on each game to determine the advantage the house enjoys. So while they vary from place to place, blackjack hands usually break out with the house winning 48%, the player 44%, and a tie 8% of the time. So you might win here and there, but over enough time, the casino is going to take you for 4% of everything you spend, in exchange for some cheap booze and a ride in a plane they've paid for with your money. But subtle changes in the rules, like using only six decks or letting the player split their hand multiple times, create tiny reductions in this advantage. Over the course of a few weeks, Johnson negotiated an arrangement that greatly improved the chances of a truly great player - with a ton of money to risk - to possibly win a bundle. And word has it that he's since been seen partying with the likes of Bon Jovi, the cast of Entourage, Charlie Sheen (remember him?), and even hosted a birthday party for Pamela Anderson. Well, I guess you can't buy class, but he's got enough money now to buy just about anything else.

Of course you don't have to win $15 million to enjoy yourself in Atlantic City. A timeshare rental at Atlantic Palace puts you right in the heart of the casino district, as well as steps away from the famous boardwalk and the Atlantic Ocean. When the weather is warm, there is so much to see and do outside in the greater Atlantic City area that you may never see the inside of a casino. Plus there are great shows and fabulous restaurants to choose from. RedWeek members rate this resort 4-stars and in-season rentals are available for as little as $125/night.

Speaking of gambling, I've gotta run and check on my bracket. No not the NCCA basketball tourney (that's so played). I'm talking Beard Madness. I've got the abolitionist John Brown in a very tough seating against Abraham Lincoln. Of course Karl Marx looks strong, and Confucius is always a force to be reckoned with.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Saving Daylight

So have you managed to shake the effects of Daylight Savings Time yet? I totally missed an appointment yesterday, because the clock in my timeshare rental hadn't been set forward. Thinking I had an hour to spare, I went to one of these aqua massage booths to blow off some stress. Have you seen these things out at the mall or airport? They look like a cross between a tanning bed and an George Forman grill. It opens like a clam shell so that they can close the thing down around you, and you pay by the minute for an invigorating, pulsating, full-body massage. Now I know what you are thinking, whose going to take off all of their clothes and get a public water massage? Lot of people, unfortunately. But an aqua massage does not require that you take off anything but your shoes, and you don't get at all wet. In fact, the industry term for it is "dry water massage". I know that is bit like "light beer" or "meatless bacon," but the water jets are behind a thin membrane. So you get all of the benefits of a water massage, without the moisture. Perhaps they should have called it something else, but believe me when I tell you that your worries will just melt away. What was I talking about anyway? Oh yeah, DST.

So you've probably heard that DST was started by Ben Franklin, and that it has something to do with farmers. But that's all nonsense. If you think about it, why would a farmer care what time it is? They are about the last task-oriented group of workers left in the world. They are getting up when the sun (and the rooster) gets up, regardless of what it says on the clock. And as far as Franklin goes, he did write a satirical piece while in France, suggesting that they could save money on candles if they'd get up earlier when the daylight hours start to lengthen. In the same piece, he also suggested taxing window shutters, and waking the public at sunrise by ringing bells and firing cannons. He certainly never suggested changing the clocks by an hour.

No, the blame for that seems to fall squarely upon George Vernon Hudson, an entomologist from New Zealand who proposed the idea in the 1890s. That's right, a Kiwi bug collector wanted more time to search for creepy crawlies after his shift ended, and had the bright idea to move the clock to more closely align the increasing amount of sunlight with his availability. An English builder named William Willett made a similar proposal in 1905, because he was tired of seeing his after work golf game cut short by darkness. Are you seeing a pattern here? These are folks whose jobs required that they work against a clock, unlike a farmer. And if you are above or below the equator, the hours of sunlight shift as the seasons progress, but the time-clock doesn't. So where you used to have an hour or two to go look for bugs or that 7-iron shot that you hooked into the tree-line, you now found yourself in the dark. Literally.

But in the end, it would seem to be energy conservation that led to widespread adoption of DST. Perhaps this is why Franklin is often cited. He was, albeit humorously, suggesting that Parisians could simply get up a little earlier and do what they needed to do during daylight, and save a ton of money lighting the city with candles later on in the day. But it was not until the German WWI war machine instituted it as a way to save coal that the idea really caught on. Adjusting the clocks to maximum sunlight hours greatly reduced coal consumption for home heating, so that it could be used for a massive war effort. Russia, the UK, France, and the United States followed within the next year or two. In fact, European countries and their various colonial interests around the world are pretty much the only places that observe this practice.

On the face of it, it certainly makes sense in terms of saving on both lighting and heating costs, and anything that promotes more outdoor activity can't be all bad. But folks who already make their living outdoors (farmers, landscapers, etc.), and those that benefit from indoor activities (movie houses, theaters, etc.) don't really see it this way. And if you live near the equator, or very far from it, changing the clocks by an hour has little or no effect on the amount of daylight you experience.

So why do we still do it? Who can say. Some places don't. Several provinces in Canada do not participate, and neither does the state of Hawaii, most of Arizona, and parts of Indiana. That can create some real travel headaches. If you are going to Hawaii, it probably doesn't matter too much. You'll be spanning several time zones no matter where you are coming from, and will likely have spent all day in airports and on planes. There's almost no chance you are going to know, or care, what time it is when you finally touch down. But imagine if you are like a friend of mine, and you live in Illinois - 50 minutes from your job in Indiana. During DST, he gets to his job 10 minutes before he left home. Are you kidding me?! And I thought I had it bad with all of the traveling I do.

Well, I have to get to the deli and lay in about 20 lbs. of corned beef if I want to be ready for Sunday's big event. No, I'm not having a St. Patrick's Day party. I am competing in the 3rd Annual TooJay's World Class Corned Beef Eating Championship in Palm Beach Gardens, FL, and I've gotta work out if I want to be on the podium this year. I know, I know, I need to get a new hobby. Maybe I'll look into bug collecting after I recuperate.