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Sunday, April 3, 2011

Tuscaloosa Roadtrip

So we traveled to Tuscaloosa, Ala., over the weekend for the first time to see Band of Horses and The Avett Brothers. Not only was it a fabulous concert but also a very impressive overnight trip to T-Town, otherwise known as the home of the University of Alabama. We decided to buy tickets for this concert, the first in the history of the beautiful, new Tuscaloosa Amphitheater, because my wife and I both are really into Band of Horses and had been growing into fans of The Avett Brothers. We made it to town two hours before the show, just enough time to quickly check into our motel purchased pretty cheaply off Priceline followed by a quick visit to Hooligan's, a little Greek restaurant in Downtown, about six blocks from the venue. I had found it through my usual pre-trip research and when I discovered it had been recommended to my wife by a colleague familiar with Tuscaloosa, I decided it was definitely worth considering. Ideally, we would have arrived to town much earlier with plenty of time for a meal and pre-show drinks. But because we were so pushed for time we opted for Hooligan's because reviews on Yelp mentioned how quick it was. Of course arriving after 6:30 p.m. found us waiting in a decently long line (akin to Central Barbecue in Memphis before a U of M football game). Let me just say if you ever make it to Tuscaloosa and are looking for a quick meal, a cheap meal or a Greek meal, head over to Hooligan's on University Avenue. It is fabulous. We shared the Falafel wrap and Gyro plate. Was it as good as the Greek food I had a couple of years ago at this all-night diner in Brooklyn? No, don't be stupid, but man this was good. Especially considering it came at a college dive of a restaurant. So after a very quick dinner we walked quickly to the amphitheater where, as we stood waiting in line at security to enter, Band of Horses started their set, five minutes early. But hey, at least we could hear them while quickly moving inside. I won't bore you with reviews of the shows other than to say that truly, this was the best concert I can remember. Band of Horses didn't waste any time, getting through a very solid, loud and entertaining set before moving aside for The Avett Brothers, an energetic and fun show. Let me just give a few thoughts on the facility. You would think that sometimes the first event at a facility would provide some hiccups but I didn't see any. One of my favorite parts about this facility is that no matter where you are there is a huge video screen showing the stage. Want to go get in line for a beer or something from the impressive concession stand? There is a screen just behind you while you wait in line. All in all, it was an awesome experience for a live show. Afterwards we walked back to the car, strolling by several lively bars that all seemed to have live bands, cover charges and crowds of college kids. Not really our scene. But I had high hopes for what I had found to be billed as a solid beer bar for the town, Alcove. We pulled up and found a crowd outside, but it was a low-key gathering of non-students sitting on the bar's front patio. We went inside the narrow bar where there was no cover. It was full of beer drinkers and, probably more importantly, no smokers. It was smoke-free on the inside. And, as a visitor to a major SEC college town it was very refreshing to find that at 34, I was definitely not the oldest patron there. Sure, there were college students there. But plenty of people in their 20s, 30s and beyond. You know you've found a beer bar when you look at the chalkboard listing what's currently on tap and it's nothing but regional, obscure and fantastic beers. It's not a wall of taps, but six or seven rotating taps with beers that all sounded intriguing. Better yet, the bartender answered questions about the beers, providing samples of all of them. And, the guy sitting next to us knew his beer as he gave a fabulous recommendation of a Canadian beer with a hint of apple in it for my non-drinking beer wife. She loved it. All in all it was a great 15-hour visit to Tuscaloosa, Ala. Great concert venue, solid affordable meal and fabulous beer bar.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

An ode to Elvis

People trivialize you, worship you, make fun of you, impersonate you, loathe you, listen to you, laugh at you, watch you, roll their eyes at you, squeal in delight at you, censor you, call you the king, call you a has been, march by the thousands in a solemn candlelit procession to your grave, laugh at those doing so, call you a pop culture icon, a Hollywood joke, a comeback specialist, a bloated druggy, an icon worshipped in death whose music, movies, image and reach seem to live on into eternity.

You are the original pop culture icon, a position many have tried to follow but few have succeeded in fulfilling.

Elvis, where would Memphis be without you?

It's easy to trivialize Graceland and the three quarters of a million visitors it attracts annually. But where would the Bluff City as a tourist draw be without Elvis? Would music lovers flock to Sun Studio to see where other music greats once recorded? Maybe so, but it's hard to argue that Sam Phillips' discovery of Elvis there is the main drawing point.

Beale Street was a hotbed for black culture. A young Elvis sometimes could be found roaming the street listening to the magnificent music echoing off the brick buildings. But the street eventually became a shell of its former self. Would there have been a movement in the 1980s to restore it to its former luster and ultimately make it the No. 1 tourist attraction in the state of Tennessee without the impact and attention Elvis had brought the city?

It's hard to argue the influence on the world's music Memphis has had. Elvis wasn't the reason for the success that came out of Stax. Sun produced a number of hits before the King. A number of studios are recording music today.

But without the Graceland visitors who flock to the city every year would there be a place for the Rock 'n' Soul Museum, Sun Studio tours, the much newer Stax Museum of American Soul Music? Who knows, but it's safe to say Elvis' reach on the Memphis tourism industry is huge.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Looking back at summer

Have you traveled much this summer? Us, not really. Funds are low right now so we've had to keep the travels basic right now. Spent a week at the beach and lots of staycations here in Memphis.

In late July we enjoyed one of the little gems found in Manchester, Tennnessee: Beans Creek Winery's music on the lawn. For such a small town (home of the Bonnaroo music festival) Manchester has some interesting culture.

I could mostly drone on about the fabulous evenings out in Memphis, mostly related to the arts. But that I will save for a future post. One thing my wife has brought to my life in our 11 years of marriage (11 years today, actually. Happy anniversary!) is a great appreciation for the arts. I, like many kids, was an artist of sorts as a kid. I've been a writer my whole life.

And one thing I don't brag about but I was an award-winning trombone player growing up. Now, well, I can't even read music. But I love to listen to it, love to stare at art and learning to enjoy theater.

Spent a weekend in St. Louis with some friends. It was a guy trip to watch a baseball game. A funny thing I learned on this trip: I think my wife is easier to please on a trip. Find a few art galleries, plenty of shopping, some good local restaurants and throw in a museum and we have a great trip.

The guys, on the other hand -- well -- I'll just say it's a good thing the World Cup was going on because we were able to watch games while waiting on the Cardinals game to begin. There just wasn't as much to do during the day for five guys.

Of course this same group of guys spent several days in New York and only had one baseball game to attend. There were multiple museum trips and things not related to sports. Of course it is New York.

Our only other travels this summer have been to Panama City Beach, Fla., in late June. The beach was great, and there was no oil. Of course the oil spill, while we never saw oil and definitely didn't smell anything related to it, hovered over the week.

The hotel had oil -washing stations on the deck. Every morning we observed men and women wearing fatigues and work boots slowly walking the beach staring at what the surf had washed up during the night. Thankfully, it seemed, they never found any oil, although oil did wash up the week before we arrived.

And we only experienced two waits at restaurants. We were there the week before July Fourth when waits can be an hour or more. Not complaining but I'm sure the Gulf Coast economy is.

Which is why I was especiall happy to hear on NPR yesterday that a group from St. Louis recently raised $15,000 with the sole purpose being they would spend it along the coast. They began in Mississippi and traveled east drinking coffee at a local coffee shop, eating breakfast at a local restaurant, buying knicknacks at a local knicknack store and on and on and on.

$15,000 isn't going to go far along the coast where the local economy reportedly is being devestated as bad -- and in some cases worse -- as the damage wrought by Hurricane Katrina. But it's a start. It encourages me even more so now to make the trip to New Orleans this fall we've been casually talking about.

What else have I done this summer? Well, As you've unfortunately seen I've taken a major step back from the blog. I hope to reverse that now. I hope those of you who have followed me along the way will be patient. I want to write about things that inspire me to write in addition to things you will find useful and I hope entertaining. I have several ideas. I promise.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Travel Dilemas: When to Open the Guidebook

A friend and reader of this blog raised an interesting point recently when discussing how to carry a guidebook when visiting a city.

Do you definitely draw attention to yourself as a tourist and peruse the book while standing on the street corner? Or do you sit in the hotel room and memorize every detail of the selected pages so you won't need to refresh with a peek at the book? Maybe you just take your chances without the book and if you get lost, well, you get lost.

He also mentioned ripping a few pages out of the book and carrying them along. While I haven't done that, I will admit to at times pulling the book out of my backpack while on the subway or bus or sitting at a park bench. Yes, it screams lost tourist, but sometimes when you're, you know -- lost! -- you sometimes have no choice, at least if you want to get unlost.

But I also try to have my own mini-travel guides that are easy to fold up and stuff in my pocket. One of the more common things I do is before leaving for a trip I will pinpoint on Mapquest the city, neighborhood or area that I will be traveling to and print it. Then, on the blank corner or back of that sheet of paper I will write out a guide of restaurants, shops, sites, subway stops and any other points of interest and number them. I will then put the corresponding numbers on their respective spots on the map.

So I have a small sheet of paper that I either fold or roll up and slip into my pocket. Yes, I might be standing on the street corner studying a map, but to you I could be poring over a take-out menu.

I'd love to know what you do.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Southerners Beware: Oil Spill Ads Coming

If you live in the South you should prepare yourself for a deluge of TV ads featuring the Mississippi Gulf Coast. The AP is reporting today that tourism officials along the coast are asking BP PLC to pay $7.5 million a month for a national ad campaign targeted at overcoming the negative coverage of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

The report said the focus will be on casinos, entertainment and family attractions -- not the beaches.

The targeted markets are Atlanta, Birmingham, Tampa-St. Petersburg, Jackson, Miss., Charlotte, Memphis, Nashville and Dallas.

I've never been to the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Spent plenty of time in the coastal communities of Alabama and Florida, though, and from a lot of reports from those communities that I've been reading they are having to battle the negative news.

I've seen Facebook postings from Florida resorts showing pictures taken today showing the beautiful beaches and clear water. The state is in full spin mode trying to get the message out that things are all clear there.

I wonder as the weeks go on and we enter the busy summer season if travelers will trust the messages or if they'll just vacation elsewhere. I also wonder if Florida and Alabama will follow suit on the TV ad campaign.

The next few weeks should be interesting to follow.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

How to Pack Light: The Rolling Method

I came across great advice today in a New York Times article on how to pack efficiently. While it's a good article, what I really enjoyed was the slideshow that shows how a flight attendant packs for a 10-day trip all in a carry-on.

That's right, no checked luggage. And in these days of paying baggage fees with airlines, this is great advice. But women, don't fret. As you see in the pictures, she has a full wardrobe laid out, not just one outfit that has to be washed over and over.

Her tip os to roll everything. Pack shoes and heaviest items on bottom and move up with the lightest items rolled and placed on top.

She also suggests that if you have really nice clothing that needs to be laid out as flat as possible start with those items across the bottom and then leave them hanging out of the suitcase until you get to the top.

So if you have a nice pair of slacks lay them across the bottom and then place all your rolled clothing items on top. Then when you've finished, take the pants that are dangling out of the suitcase and drape them over the top. It appears that this will keep all folds out of the pants.

And thanks to the NYT article, I discovered a cool travel blog I recommend: Heather Poole, the flight attendant whose rolling I recommend above.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Smell the roses instead of the oil

Crews work to collect oil over the weekend near and around the location where the Deepwater Horizon oil platform caught fire and sank. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Casey J. Ranel (photo courtesy of U.S. Coast Guard)

If you have a trip planned to the Gulf Coast this summer have you considered rescheduling or attempting to cancel yet? I don't have a choice since our condo is a timeshare. We'll be there, even if the oil is washing ashore at our condo. Well, I guess unless we're not allowed to visit.

I read an AP story this morning saying there have been a number of cancellations along the Gulf. Business is looking up for East Coast beach communities as beaches like Hilton Head Island, S.C., and Tybee Island near Savannah look to capitalize on the Gulf's misfortune.

I'm not sure how many people will have a choice, though, at least those who have already made reservations. Travel insurance won't even cover these reservations as the oil spill is considered an act of man, not God. That's usually the only hope as I understand it for policy holders to get out of reservations.

Some people save for a year to make these one-week treks to the beach. Sometimes the anticipation of these trips is what gets them through the cold winters and rainy springs at home.

I feel for those people. On a truly selfish level thinking as a traveler instead of a local in these communities along the Gulf of Mexico where their livelihoods could be devastated by the oil spill, it's hard to save up for a trip only to have to cancel it.

But where I really feel for those travelers is when it's people who put all their energy and focus into this one annual vacation. They don't sit back long enough to enjoy life, to experience the joys of life around them. As a Memphis resident, I look forward to barbecue fest this weekend. I look forward to a Saturday morning at the zoo, A Friday night at an art opening, a Sunday brunch -- on my backporch.

I hope these beach vacationers take a moment to sit back and look around at the people and places around them. They might find they have things to look forward to seeing right in front of them.