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?