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Sunday, February 28, 2010

London 2012: Here I Come

Just finished watching the Closing Ceremonies of the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympic Games. A little sad, as I have loved the Olympics equally as long as I've loved to travel. The big two-week family trip to Florida when I was 7 that hooked me on the love of travel came just weeks before I would find myself glued to the TV nightly watching the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Games.

Watching Carl Lewis win Gold also established my love of running. So it seems the summer of 1984 clinched two of my biggest lifelong passions (travel and running) and one of my joys that I get to experience every two years (the Olympics).

It's also a bit sad that out of the three Games held in North America since I entered college and thus an age that I could make a decision to travel to the Olympics, that I've only been to one: Atlanta. No Salt Lake City and no Vancouver.

But I'm determined to change that in 2012 when the Summer Games are in London, the only city to ever be host to three Games. I'm sure a ticket to tennis at Wimbledon will be impossible, as will football in one of England's glorious grounds. But the thought of the opportunity to spend even a couple of nights in one of the world's greatest cities in the Olympic atmosphere is priceless.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Reuse those water bottles on your next trip

What’s the most important thing for a trip, especially one that requires lots of walking in warmer temperatures? The obvious – and correct – answer is water. You don’t have to be a marathon runner to know the proper consumption of water is vital to making it through a trip. Eight ounces of water per hour – basically a full water bottle every two hours or so – would be ideal when hiking the streets of New York or the trails of Colorado.

And it's not just when on a trip that requires a lot of walking. Making a nine-hour car ride to the beach? Throw in a case of water bottles.

But if you’re a frugal traveler like myself, you don’t want to buy water bottles every two hours when walking the streets of Rome. My philosophy that has worked quite well is to buy one bottle at the beginning of a trip and fill it when and where I can: water fountains in a museum or even a bathroom sink. In Rome, there are fountains everywhere for this exact purpose. I always start out the day with a fill from the bathroom or kitchen sink wherever I’m staying. Throw it in my backpack and I'm ready to go.

Of course with all the chatter about the reuse of water bottles being dangerous, some will frown upon this.

These rumors – I call them rumors because apparently some of the “water bottles cause cancer” claims were actually based off a student’s thesis – claim reusing water bottles is dangerous because they contain DEHA, which some consider to be a potential carcinogen. But the American Cancer Society debunks that.

The American Cancer Society on its Web site states: “ … DEHA is not inherent in the plastic used to make these bottles, and even if it was the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says DEHA ‘cannot reasonably be anticipated to cause cancer, teratogenic effects, immunotoxicity, neurotoxicity, gene mutations, liver, kidney, reproductive, or developmental toxicity or other serious or irreversible chronic health effects.’ Meanwhile, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), says diethylhexyl adipate ‘is not classifiable as to its carcinogenicity to humans.’”

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has said these packages are safe for reuse. That’s all the reassurance I need.

Of course one interesting fact about reusing plastic water bottles has been mentioned: They can be a health risk in that improper cleaning – or lack thereof – could lead to the ingestion of harmful bacteria. And I guess if you fill from a water fountain that has had a 7-year-old’s mouth all over it that could be a bit gross.

But I’m willing to chance it.

And one more positive to reusing those plastic water bottles instead of buying a new one every couple hours: the U.S. consumes water from some 1,500 plastic bottles every second. That's insane. Why do you want to fill the landfills with those bottles?

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Don't judge a hotel review by its cover

I had a friend e-mail asking about the best source for hotel reviews. My personal favorite is Trip Advisor, but that’s not really the reason to write. I highly recommend using sites such as Trip Advisor and Yelp for great user reviews from travelers and locals alike on the best in hotels, restaurants, shopping and sites.

But please don’t base your final decision off one review. I find that especially true when researching hotels. I used the following example in explaining to my friend that concept.

In researching hotels for San Francisco a couple of years ago, one of the most recent hotel reviews was a complaint about the hotel based on the soap products. Yes, that’s right, soap products.

I am not a luxury traveler so maybe I don’t understand how the proper free soap products at a hotel can make any difference. But this woman went on and on about how pathetic this hotel’s service was simply based off the wrong soap brand.

Needless to say I quickly skipped to the next review that gave me more important information: how clean the room was, the friendliness of the staff, which rooms to avoid because of street noise during the night. That’s the kind of information that really helps me make a decision.

Now, for those of you who don’t frequent travel forums, you might be wondering what to look for. Well, the most important thing to me is consistency. If one person says the check-in counter staff was rude but the next 20 reviewers rave about the exceptional service they received upon arrival, I’m going to chalk that up as either an isolated negative experience or a reviewer who is just a bit too sensitive.

Pay attention to trends. If five out of 10 reviewers say the room had a musty smell to it, I’m going to assume this property is questionable at best, and probably has inconsistent cleaning staff, is possibly under renovation or some of the rooms are better than others. I would then weigh the positives of this place against this uncertain negative. If I decide to stay there, I make sure I inspect the room and ask for another one if I don't like it.

When we traveled to Rome nearly five years ago, I did a very exhaustive search on Trip Advisor for a hotel that offered the following: Good location, clean room and a decent price. I found all those at a property located three Metro stops from the Spanish Steps. The location wasn’t the best; the train shut down for construction each night at 10 and there weren’t an abundance of restaurants in the area. But for a quick three-day trip to Rome that saw us rising early every day, it was perfect.

The hotel, in fact, was perfect to me despite the majority of reviewers saying the staff was rude and even tried to rip them off with false charges from the room’s mini bar. We actually did encounter false charges for using our mini bar. But they were more than happy to wipe the charge from the bill following my explanation of using the refrigerator to store leftovers.

My point in all this? Don’t judge a hotel off one review, or even three. There are still rare properties out there that don’t have too many reviews to use to form an opinion, but I usually find those to be in smaller towns I might only be staying a night in while passing through town on a car trip. Let the masses form an opinion for you.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Ernest Withers exhibit at Memphis Pink Palace

Just came across an interesting event listing in my newspaper, The Daily News. I've slacked off a bit on Black History Month Travel Tips lately. And since a lot of my followers are in Memphis, here's a local exhibition you could consider.

The Pink Palace Family of Museums will present “I Am A Man” through Oct. 24 at the Pink Palace, 3050 Central Ave. The exhibit will show the Ernest Withers portfolio, which documents prominent civil rights leaders in the 1950s and 1960s. For more information, call 320-6362 or visit

New credit card law's effect on travel

So new credit card rules have gone into effect today. I don't know much about them, honestly. But I did come across an interesting article on Consumer Traveler that lists five ways the new law will affect travelers. It basically boils down to hidden fees, foreign transactions, elimination of rewards, etc.

Here's the link:

Friday, February 19, 2010

Delta adds Memphis-Toronto service

So Delta Airlines has announced it is adding daily service from its Memphis hub to Amarillo, Texas, Indianapolis and Toronto. I’m a bit indifferent about the flights to Amarillo and Indianapolis. As a Memphis resident, I believe it’s always good news when the airline that dominates Memphis International Airport adds more service here. But because of a recent announcement from Air Canada, I’m more interested in the Toronto service.

It wasn’t that long ago that Delta stopped its nonstop service between Memphis and Toronto. Possibly seeing the void, Air Canada a few weeks ago announced it would add nonstop service between Toronto and Memphis, beginning May 17. I wondered – and hoped – when that announcement was made that it would be good news for Memphis, possibly creating a competing option in Memphis.

And it seems that time has come with Delta’s announcement. A month ago, there were zero options to fly nonstop from Memphis to Toronto. Today, there are four daily flight options. The flights aren’t exactly cheap: Roundtrip on Delta is $498.30 and Air Canada is $498.07. I used May 18 as a departure date with a return on May 21 (The Air Canada service begins May 17 but May 18 is the first day that two flight options are offered).

Hopefully these two carriers will, at least on occasion, have sales on the flight thanks to the minor competition. We’ll see.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Booking cheap airfare

Frugal Traveler: Booking a Flight the Frugal Way
Published: February 16, 2010
The Frugal Traveler sifts through the many booking sites out there, and outlines the steps he takes when booking a flight for himself.

Five Must Have Slices of Pizza

Five Must Have Slices of Pizza

I've only been to one of these places, Grimaldi's in Brooklyn, but thought I'd share this blog. I eventually would like to write about my fave pizza places, but I don't think I've sampled much to be any kind of authority.

I do love Grimaldi's, but of course it's a place you can't get a slice so I'm not sure why it's on a list of "must have slices." My favorite slice place is Joe's in the Village in New York. Anyway, here's some food for thought (pun intended).

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Black History Month Travel Tip of the Day: Finding Soul in Memphis

Editor's Note: I had something else in mind for today's Black History Month Travel Tip of the Day, but thanks to the power of Twitter, I've adjusted. This message from @StaxMemphis sealed the deal: "This week in 1966, Otis Redding releases his reworking of the Stones classic "Satisfaction."

Did you know the great Otis Redding recorded in Memphis?

I often wonder how much music listeners really appreciate the city of Memphis for its place in music history. Sure, the city has Elvis and Beale Street. Hundreds upon hundreds of musical legends have made stops along the way to stardom in Memphis. I could write a number of entries on the Bluff City's role in shaping music, but I think today's focus will center on the soul of Memphis, the Stax Museum of American Soul Music.

Considering the role Stax Records played in combining black and white talents on its recordings, it seems like a perfect entry for today's Black History Month Travel Tip of the Day.

The museum is located at the site of the original Stax Records, the recording home to many American legends during the 1960s and '70s: Isaac Hayes, Otis Redding, The Staple Singers, Booker T & the MG's, Wilson Pickett. The museum honors all of the Stax artists, as well as the influence of many other soul musicians on other labels from Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder to Aretha Franklin (Memphis born) and Al Green (recorded at Memphis' Hi Records and still resides in the city).

The museum has some 2,000 interactive exhibits, films, artifacts, items of memorabilia and galleries. In addition to hearing all the truly great music that was made at Stax, the highlight of the museum to me is Isaac Hayes' gold-plated Cadillac. 

Images courtesy of

To me, the Stax Museum is one of the gems in Memphis. If you live in the area but have never visited, I highly suggest it. If you are out of town and planning a visit to Memphis, by all means put this museum on your to-do list.

Through April 30, the museum's featured exhibit is "STILL LIFE IN SOUL: Contemporary Music Photography by Jacob Blickenstaff." It explores the resurgence in popularity of soul music through photography made since 2005 by Blickenstaff.

For more information about the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, go to Stax is at 926 E. McLemore Ave. just a few minutes southeast of the Downtown core.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Black History Month Travel Tip of the Day No. 7: Memphis Cotton Museum

The Cotton Museum at the Memphis Cotton Exchange tells the story of King Cotton in an appropriate setting: Memphis' historic Cotton Row along Front Street, what was once the center of the worldwide cotton trade. The museum opened in 2005.

The main exhibit hall at the museum is a 3,000-square-foot space where the story of cotton is told through documentary films, oral histories and interpretative exhibits. The museum will expand Feb. 26 when it opens the east wing called Exploration Hall. It will debut with "The Changing World of Cotton," an exhibit that allows visitors to explore the history of cotton farming over the past 70 years.

This museum is not focused on the black experience in America, per se, but without the backbreaking work performed by slaves, cotton might not have ever become the king it once was in the South. There are thousands of sites, museums and attractions in the United States that tell the story of Black America. But a museum focused on cotton seems like a pretty important place to get another perspective on African-American history.

Black History Month Travel Tip of the Day No. 5, 6

I guess I'm being a bit lazy today, but I just devoted a lot of effort to the Lincoln in Springfield President's Day post, so I'm going to cheat a bit. Because Lincoln played such an important role in the eventual freedom for the slaves in the U.S., I figure a couple of sites in his hometown of Springfield, Ill., will serve as Black History Month Travel Tips of the Day.

I say two because these are the ones out of the several Lincoln-related sites in Springfield that played a role in Black History. 

The Lincoln presidential museum has several exhibits related to the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation. And at the nearby site of the former state capitol building, Lincoln gave his "House Divided" speech, one of several turning points that would play a role in the eventual freedom for America's slaves.

Experience Lincoln in Springfield

For those people who have never visited Downtown Springfield, Ill., you might be surprised to learn of its historic significance and beauty. Everything is pretty much centered on things related to Abraham Lincoln, from the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum, to the site of one of his law offices and a restored neighborhood that features the president’s home.

There are other fun things to see: art galleries and quaint shops, the Illinois state capitol building and even a home designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.

But with today being President’s Day, we’ll take a closer look at Springfield’s Lincoln sites. The presidential library and museum is located at 212 N. Sixth St. All the other sites are within a few blocks of the museum, excluding Lincoln’s tomb, which is a mile and a half north.

The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library & Museum: The museum takes an inside look at Lincoln the man, the Springfield resident, lawyer, legislator, masterful speech giver and U.S. president. There are a number of exhibits highlighted by movies, re-enactments and artifacts that tell the life and struggles of Lincoln.

The Lincoln Home National Historic Site: This four-block neighborhood features a number of homes restored to their 1860 appearance, including the structure the Lincolns called home for 17 years. It was the only home Lincoln ever owned. The neighborhood contains 12 structures. Go to to learn more about the history of these buildings.

Old State Capitol State Historic Site: This is an exact reproduction of the original that was built in the 1960s after what was remaining of the old site was razed. The original building was where Lincoln practiced law before the state’s Supreme Court, served as a state legislator, gave his 1858 speech titled “House Divided” and where his body lay in state before his burial nearby.

Lincoln Herndon Law Office State Historic Site: Abraham Lincoln practiced law in Springfield from a number of offices. This building is the only office space that is still standing. Lincoln practiced law from this office from 1843 until 1852. It's within sight of the Old State Capitol building and is adjacent to a number of quaint shops and eateries.

Lincoln Depot (Great Western Depot): This is the train depot where Lincoln departed Springfield to head to Washington to take the oath of office as president. Lincoln gave an impromptu farewell speech regarding his affection for his hometown when he saw the turnout of people there to see him off.

Lincoln Tomb State Historic Site: Oak Ridge Cemetery is the final burial place for Lincoln, his wife, Mary, and the entire family except son Robert, who is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

For more Springfield Lincoln information, go to, which was designed for last year’s 200th birthday celebration of Lincoln, or

Image courtesy of Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library & Museum

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Black History Month Travel Tip of the Day No. 4

This is certainly a subjective statement, but I would say one of the biggest contributions made by African-Americans is in music. And blues music has certainly made one of the biggest impacts on all other forms of music.

Today’s latest Black History Month Tip of the Day is the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale, Miss., about 90 miles south of Memphis.

The Delta Blues Museum was established in 1979 by the Carnegie Public Library Board of Trustees and reorganized as a standalone museum in 1999. The museum has been housed in the historic Clarksdale freight depot since 1999. The former freight area – about 5,000 square feet of ground-floor space – is devoted to permanent and traveling exhibits.

The museum’s collection includes musical instruments, recordings, sheet music, posters, photographs, costumes, folk art, paintings and other memorabilia. Some of the exhibits focus on Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, B.B. King, Big Joe Williams, big Mama Thornton, Charlie Musselwhite and Jimmy Burns.

The Delta Blues Museum Stage hosts a year-round music education program and also serves as the main venue for local festivals including the Sunflower River Blues and Gospel Festival in August and the Juke Joint Festival in April.

For more information, go to

Black History Month Travel Tip of the Day No. 3

If you find yourself in Louisville, Ky., the first place that comes to mind might be Churchill Downs, home of the Kentucky Derby. And there are plenty of other sites worth seeing in Louisville, but since this is a Black History Month travel tip, today’s focus is on the Muhammad Ali Center.

The Muhammad Ali Center was incorporated as a nonprofit corporation in 1997 and opened in Downtown Louisville, the boxing icon’s hometown, in November 2005.

The Ali Center has two-and-a-half levels of exhibits and galleries that explore the boxer’s life. A series of interactive pavilions tell his story through six core values of his life: respect, confidence, conviction, dedication, spirituality and giving. There is also a chronological timeline of Ali’s boxing career, highlighted by several items of boxing memorabilia.

The current special exhibit at the center is “Muhammad Ali by Simon Bull,” which showcases 16 paintings of Ali in oil on canvas and five color photographs done by the British-born artist. There are a couple of Black History Month programs: An inspirational music program titled “Rejoice” on Feb. 21 and a poetry slam on Feb. 25.

For more information on the center, visit

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Black History Month Travel Tip of the Day No. 2

The International Civil Rights Center & Museum is possibly the newest exhibit that has opened to the public to tell the story of the civil rights movement in the U.S. Located in the former Woolworth’s that was the site of the 1960 lunch counter sit-in, the museum opened Feb. 1 in Greensboro, N.C.

The 50th Anniversary Gala & Banquet “Standing For a World of Change” will really kick things off tonight. The program – originally scheduled for Jan. 30 but postponed to Feb. 13 because of inclement weather in the Greensboro area – is a benefit for the museum recognizing international civil and human rights achievements worldwide.

But considering the event is sold out, you probably won’t be attending. But in honor of the recently opened museum, it’s today’s location to recognize Black History Month.

The purpose of the International Civil Rights Center & Museum is to memorialize the stand of the Greensboro Four as they launched the sit-in movement on Feb. 1, 1960. The focus is on the sit-in activities at the F.W. Woolworth lunch counter in Greensboro.

The sit-in was led by four North Carolina A&T State College students on Feb. 1, 1960. In the days and weeks that followed, hundreds, if not thousands, of youths around the country joined in the sit-in movement that led to the desegregation of the Woolworth lunch counter.

The museum itself features a number of exhibits centered on the F.W. Woolworth lunch counter. Other exhibits, including a re-enactment of the discussion that led to the sit-in and a broad look at the six-month sit-in struggle, take a look at the civil rights movement as a whole.

The museum is open Tuesdays through Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Sundays from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. For more information, go to

Friday, February 12, 2010

Travel movies with a romantic twist

In honor of Valentine's Day, I present a few travel-related movies with a romantic twist (or romantic movies with a travel twist, depending on your perspective). Keep in mind that these are from a guy's point of view.

"When Harry Met Sally"

I don’t know if I’ve seen this movie all the way through, but I’ve seen the “I’ll have what she’s having” scene many times. I’ve also been to Katz’s Deli where that scene takes place. And yes, they have a sign that makes note of the scene.

"Under the Tuscan Sun"

We watched this movie just before traveling to Tuscany. Did it prepare me for what I would see? Yes and no. I mean, it is a great representation of the warmth of the people of the area and the beauty of the region. But it’s impossible to be prepared for what you see in Tuscany.

"Dirty Dancing"

I haven’t been anywhere in New York other than New York City. So I have no clue if this really is a good representation of upstate New York. I can’t imagine families still vacation like this, though.

"Notting Hill"

I’ve visited London’s Notting Hill neighborhood during the Portobello Market. The movie did not prepare me for the insanity of the crowds there. We actually didn’t stay long because it was so crowded.

"Breakfast at Tiffany’s"

I’ve been to Tiffany’s; I’ve been to New York. This movie is just one of many set in New York that gives a pretty good feel of being there.


This movie is a great advertisement for traveling to New York City. On our most recent visit to the city, we visited Serendipity III, the restaurant that lends its name to the movie. A bit overpriced, but I could see where it could be a good mood setter while sharing a huge frozen hot chocolate.

"Groundhog Day"

We all know about Punxatawny Phil, but this movie really brought the groundhog to the forefront in my opinion. A friend of mine who used to live in Philadelphia spent a weekend in the town (not on Groundhog’s Day) and said it’s a lovely town. I’ll take his word for it.

"Roman Holiday"

Watched this movie before going to Rome. I can’t say the black and white flick gave me a true representation of what the city would look like, but Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck hit all the major sites. Definitely recommend this before visiting Rome.


I recently read a blog that said Forks, Wash., and the Olympic Peninsula have seen an uptick in tourism because of the Twilight movies. As far as I know there is nothing spectacular about Forks, but I do understand the books are very accurate when it comes to descriptions of the story’s location. I don’t know if the movies are accurate (I don't even know where they were filmed), but I do know the Pacific Northwest is a beautiful spot and "Twilight" shows some of that.

Others of note (or so I've been told):

"The Holiday"

"French Kiss"

"Sleepless in Seattle"

"A Room With A View"

Black History Month Travel Tip of the Day No. 1

Editor's Note: I realize Black History Month is reaching its midway point but that doesn't mean it's too late to start a Black History Month Travel Tip of the Day. I will even try to double up some days to catch up.

1. Memphis’ Hattiloo Theatre

Hattiloo Theatre started in March 2006 at 656 Marshall Ave. in the Edge neighborhood of Downtown Memphis near the famous Sun Studio. The black repertory on an annual basis presents seven major productions and six special performances that highlight the diversity of black artistic expression, all in a cozy 66-seat theater.

Currently, the theater is showing “The Piano Lesson,” written by August Wilson, through Feb. 28. For more information, call 901-525-0009 or go to

Image courtesy of

Vacations With a Heart: Voluntourism Opportunities Around the World -

This is a topic, especially in light of the devastation in Haiti, that I've wanted to blog about. But I figure if I come across someone else who has done a superb job on the topic, I'll let them tell it in their own words.

Vacations With a Heart: Voluntourism Opportunities Around the World -

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Travel Safety: Wear Your Luggage, Don't Tote It on Behind the Guides

Travel Safety: Wear Your Luggage, Don't Tote It on Behind the Guides

Posted using ShareThis

Postcards, shot glasses and magnets: The knick-knack memories of travel

Are you a traveler who needs a souvenir from every little aspect of your trip, or are you OK with just the memories and a few photographs?

I know both kinds and see nothing wrong with either type. I’m both, depending on the nature of the trip. I’ve noticed a lot of Twitter chatter lately on the topic of knick-knack souvenirs from trips, specifically shot glasses. It got me to thinking about the souvenirs we’ve brought home through the years.

I have pretty much run the gamut, starting with my first travels as a child when I felt it necessary to pick up every brochure I came in contact with. They were stored in a large box in my closet for many years. It would be interesting to look at those today, particularly the 1970s and ’80s attire that would have been worn by those happy visitors at Disney World or Chattanooga’s Rock City.

As a child, I also felt a need to buy postcards on every trip. This is actually something I continue to this day. I have a desk drawer and two shoeboxes full of postcards from trips. Unfortunately, I went through a phase of buying 50 from one trip when one would have sufficed. I mean, what’s the need to have 20 varieties of virtually the same view of the city pier in Panama City Beach? Old, previously used postcards, by the way, can make a really cool souvenir. I’ve come across a number of postcards at flea markets, car boots in England and antique shops. My designer wife tells me they can make for really great decorating ideas.

But back to the shot glass discussion. I’ve gone through that phase, too. For a while in college and briefly afterwards, I purchased shot glasses from unique and not-so-unique places. I’ve since weeded out the collection, but did keep a handful. The tall, skinny one with AC on it from Atlantic City? That one went away. But the wine glass-shaped one from Paris with the Eiffel Tower drawn on, the cowboy boot from Fort Worth, Texas, and the tiny one picturing the red-clothed Buckingham Palace guards bought at a car boot held in a random field in a tiny English hamlet during a May shower? Yes, those are all keepers and on a shelf to this day.

Key chains? Bought a few as a child. As I look in front of me on my desk, I have a magnetic monkey bought at Microsoft corporate headquarters and a $1 Statue of Liberty statue bought in a tourist shop in Times Square. I also have a framed picture of Haystack Rock in Oregon and one of my wife and I in Rome.

Magnets? Yes, we have a few of those on the fridge, but not like so many friends who seem to have a magnet from every trip they’ve been on (I can think of three right now whose fridges are literally covered in trip magnets).

I have a few pint glasses and mugs, T-shirts (but only the cool ones from places like the Elliot Bay book store in Seattle) and even ink pens (but mostly the ones taken from hotel rooms). I also keep museum and attraction tickets stuffed neatly in a box next to some of those postcards. And somehow, the striped candy dish bought at the Fort Worth Zoo 10 years ago still remains above the TV.

I still buy some of these random items. It seems now, though, our focus has shifted more toward the artsy: a watercolor bought from the artist in Venice, a pottery item bought from the potter in Indiana, Murano glass plates bought in Venice, a painting of a coastal scene bought on the Jersey Shore.

Whether it's passport stamp collections or bumper stickers and buttons, souvenirs can be part of the fun of traveling. 

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Don't be afraid to travel

Aren’t You Scared to Go There?

No, actually. As the former expert on the Memphis forum on Trip Advisor, questions related to that topic were posed at least once a day. Memphis, you see, has a violent reputation. And it’s certainly with cause; the city is near the top nationally in a number of crime statistics. It’s a problem that, unfortunately, is not going away anytime soon.

But so many cities in the world have these “dangerous” reputations. Yes, in Memphis, certain crime statistics are high. But the Downtown Zip code where many attractions are located is one of the safest in the city.

Elvis Presley’s Graceland is in an area that some people consider questionable at best. But I worked as a tour guide there in the late 1990s and never felt unsafe there. I mean, it’s one of the most visited houses in the country – and arguably second-most popular behind the White House. Do you really think criminals are standing around waiting to mug you with all those people as witnesses? And things are only going to get better there, as Elvis Presley Enterprises Inc. has been working to transform the area into a tourist zone.

Still, travelers are worried about safety when visiting a new city, some to such a degree that it leads them to only stick to the most touristy of tourist sites a city has to offer. But with proper preparation and research about a city – and use of common sense – many of the world’s cities can be enjoyed worry-free.

When preparing for a trip to Italy, I read about the pickpockets on the Rome Metro. So I kept an eye on my surroundings, always kept my hand on my wallet that was in my FRONT pocket and didn’t stand around reading a guidebook with a fanny pack strapped around my waist screaming, “I’m a tourist. Rob me, please!”

It’s not always that simple, of course. You can’t always be prepared. I mean, how could Clark Griswold know that when he took that wrong turn into East St. Louis in “National Lampoon’s Vacation” that he would find his car’s rims being stolen out from under him? But he probably shouldn’t have fallen for that gag in “National Lampoon’s European Vacation” that saw his video camera get stolen while he stood in the water fountain so the “nice” stranger could take his picture.

There are so many online sources these days that there really isn’t an excuse to not know where the safe places in town are. It’s safe to assume that heavily visited tourist spots are in safe areas, or at least well-policed ones. That doesn’t mean to let your guard down, though.

Downtown Memphis might be one of the safest areas of town, but I’m not going to leave my car doors unlocked. And I’m certainly not going to leave a bag out in sight. That’s just waiting to be stolen. I’m also not going to walk down a dark alley two blocks off the main drag. It just makes no sense.

I’m going to be extra sure of my surroundings when in an unfamiliar city, and especially sure in a different country.

Here are a few safety tips when traveling. Some might seem like common sense. Some, not so much.

  • Don’t walk down dark alleys at night
  • Do stick to busier areas at night, especially when alone
  • Don’t leave belongings in view in a parked automobile
  • Do lock the car doors
  • Don’t walk around looking like a lost tourist
  • Do have a confident air about you
  • Don’t wear a fanny pack
  • Do carry your wallet and/or money in a front pocket
  • Don’t carry more bags than you can easily handle
  • Do strap your purse securely over your shoulder and neck
  • Don’t hand your camera over to a stranger
  • Do be as discreet as possible about the fact you have a camera in your possession (not always possible with large equipment, but at least carry it in a secure manner)
  • Do have a cell phone
  • Don’t go to an ATM in a dark or secluded place
  • Do put money away in a secure place as quickly as possible after taking it out of an ATM
  • Don’t carry too much cash
  • Do use credit cards and traveler’s checks when possible
  • Don’t go out in an unknown city without a map or directions
  • Do have the name and address of your hotel written down; also, in case your credit cards are stolen, do carry phone numbers of credit cards in a separate place so they can be reported lost or stolen

There are others. But the most important thing to remember is use common sense and don’t be afraid to travel and experience a local community for what it is.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Bonnaroo Lineup Announcement

The Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival is announcing its lineup all day today. It started at 11 a.m. central and will continue through 9 p.m. Instead of just posting a list on their Web site, they are announcing bands every five minutes at and (You can also follow them on Twitter @bonnaroo.)

In case you don't know what Bonnaroo is, it is one of the country's biggest music festivals that takes place in sleepy little Manchester, Tenn., an hour south of Nashville. It was voted the best by Rolling Stone in 2008. It takes place this year June 10-13. There isn't a musical theme, per se, as pretty much every genre is there, from indie faves such as Bon Iver and The Avett Brothers to past big dogs like Radiohead, The Police and Snoop Dogg. Country, gospel, all forms of rock, even comedy acts are there.

The festival was first held in 2002 on a large farm next to Interstate 24. The roughly 700-acre farm overflows with thousands of festival-goers and campers there to see a wide range of music on several stages and tents.

The uniqueness at Bonnaroo doesn't end with the name (popularized by Dr. John with his 1974 album "Desitively Bonnaroo," meaning "a really good time.") The stages and tents are named What Stage, Which Stage, This Tent, That Tent and The Other Tent.

I'm not going to bore you with my thoughts on the festival or my wife's constant dismay at Manchester (her hometown) hosting such a mega event. If you're interested, take a peek at the lineups today.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Enjoying local arts scene along beaches of Northwest Florida

I used to think I wanted to focus my travels on sports events and the beach. I’ve been to the Summer Olympics, old and new Yankee Stadium and I’m well on my way to seeing every Major League ballpark. But I’ve definitely had to reassess those sports goals. And while I enjoy relaxing at the beach, I much prefer spending my travel time exploring new cities and other cultures.

My priorities in travel have changed a great deal. My wife is an artist and has helped me gain an appreciation of art. Many of our trips, whether a weeklong stay in New York or a weekend in Louisville, Ky., – even a relaxing week at the beach – are at least somewhat centered on art. We don’t necessarily attend every art museum, but if it’s one that has important pieces or a special exhibit, we’re there. I also in my trip planning make sure I find a destination’s art communities to at least get in an hour or two of checking out local art.

On this cold and snowy February day, it is not hard to look forward to our week this summer along the Florida Gulf Coast. But just because we will find ourselves in a condo-infested ocean playland, it doesn’t mean we have to leave our cultural side at home.

In fact, the stretch between Destin and Panama City Beach in Florida has a number of art communities, random galleries and musical/theater experiences. We will be staying in a condo on the relatively quiet west end of Panama City Beach, a good location to make quick jaunts to the quaint communities of the Beaches of South Walton – Santa Rosa Beach, Grayton Beach, Blue Mountain Beach, Seagrove Beach and the granddaddy of them all, Seaside.

These communities, especially Seaside, are great examples of New Urbanist design. In fact, Seaside is often cited as the first New Urbanist development in the United States. I’m not an urban planning expert, so I will just direct you to watch the 1998 movie “The Truman Show,” starring Jim Carrey and largely set in Seaside, to get a feel for the beauty of that community.

Seaside has quaint shops, several galleries and just beautiful buildings that make for pleasant and relaxing strolls. Like many gallery neighborhoods in cities around the world, Seaside has its version of an art walk. The First Friday ArtWalk is held the first Friday of every month. The galleries and shops of Ruskin Place and select businesses in Central Square are open from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. It’s the usual wine-and-cheese, art opening/demonstration evening. I have read of some “purist” artists deriding these events, but I think anything that opens art up to new people is a good thing. And especially art walk events as they typically feature galleries that show local and regional artists.

In addition to Seaside, though, there are a couple of favorites we have discovered from past trips: Artists at Gulf Place in Santa Rosa Beach and Big Mama’s Hula Girl Gallery in Grayton Beach. Artists at Gulf Place is an artists’ co-op of sorts and Big Mama’s Hula Girl, as you can imagine by the funky name, is filled with eclectic and fun items.

If you find yourself in Northwest Florida for your family vacation, take some time away from baking on the beach, eating seafood at tourist trap beachside restaurants and shopping at the outlet mall, and support the local arts scene.

A couple of sites to check out:,

Photo courtesy of

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Finding a friendly neighborhood bar

What defines a local bar? For some, it’s the neighborhood bar, a watering hole one can walk a block from their house or apartment and be there. For others, it might be a place near the office where a drink can be had before heading home for the evening.

For me, someone who works in the downtown core of Memphis but lives in the epitome of suburbia 40 minutes away, I find my neighborhood bar is a mix of after-work watering holes and pregame pubs. A relatively new bar in Downtown Memphis, South of Beale, has become my go-to spot for after-work drinks, pre-event cocktails, pregame drinks and postgame nightcaps.

As a season ticket holder to University of Memphis basketball games and the Broadway season at The Orpheum Theatre, not to mention a Downtown worker, I have more than enough reasons to have a neighborhood bar there. My neighborhood bar doesn’t need to be near my house. My friends and I frequent South of Beale before Tigers games, sometimes afterwards and I expect my wife and I will stop in before we head to shows at The Orpheum this spring.

South of Beale bills itself as a gastropub, a bar that serves good drinks AND good food, not just drinks and a smattering of pub food. The concept of the gastropub can be the topic of another post, but trust me, the food is great.

I ended up at South of Beale after today’s Tigers game against Gonzaga, but we decided to try another neighborhood bar for pregame activities. Bardog Tavern is also a relatively new establishment. It has the look, feel and character of a hole-in-the-wall neighborhood drinking establishment. It is, in fact, a neighborhood bar of sorts. It seems the bar is always packed when I visit, no matter the time of day. We were lucky enough to have owner, Aldo DeMartino, stop by and have a drink with us before my friend Dave and I walked over to FedExForum for the game.

Aldo, a New Jersey native who lived in New York for 15 years before coming to Memphis, has built a gem of a place in a residential and business district of Downtown. He confirmed our suspicions that many of the people at the crowded bar today were indeed locals. Last week, in fact, when Memphis was slammed with an ice storm, he said it was one of the bar’s busiest nights on record, and it was nothing but locals. To me, that’s the epitome of a local bar.

When I travel, even if it’s just for a day, I like to find what I consider a local bar. When in New York City last summer, it was Blind Tiger on Bleecker Street in the West Village. This place, while it had some tourists and a bit of the college crowd nestled up to the bar, to me it was local to the core. It was a smaller place, where the bartenders seemed to know the patrons. I stumbled upon the place on a Friday afternoon. After 30 minutes there, the bartender/owner enthusiastically greeted my wife when she soon joined me. The guy next to me was buying us drinks. And by the next day, not only did the bartender remember me, his coworkers who had not met me before were greeting me like an old friend.

There are plenty of other examples of bars from my travels that I feel – if I lived there – could become a neighborhood bar for me: Brooklyn’s Bar Great Harry, Keg & Barrel in Hattiesburg, Miss., Kilkenny’s Irish Pub in Tulsa, Okla., Elevator Brewery in Columbus, Ohio, The Ginger Man in Dallas and The Fat Cat in Norwich, England. There are several I can’t even remember and can’t possibly Google because they were so small: the tiny bar in the first floor of an apartment building near the Philadelphia Art Museum, the bar with 10 taps of beers I had never heard of near Harvard in Cambridge, Mass., and the little place with pool tables, a couple of dart boards and too much University of Alabama stuff in Atlanta.

I might not live near a neighborhood bar “where everyone knows your name,” but if I can stumble upon one on my travels, it’s just the icing on the cake.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Sleeping Arrangements With Kids on Trips Never Easy

As I continued hitting the snooze button on the alarm clock this morning I began hearing my 3-year-old son calling for me to come get him out of bed (amazingly, he won’t get out of bed until I come get him). During those few minutes of reintroducing myself to the world, my mind wandered to our planned family trip to the beach this summer.

We haven’t figured out the details yet, but my mind has already been wandering to the sleeping arrangements for mom, dad and son, especially if he ends up having to stay in the same room as us. I guess I'm still getting used to traveling with a child.

We have traveled a number of times with our son, beginning with a four-hour drive to grandma’s house when he was 6 weeks old. He handled that drive miraculously well, so I guess he has the travel bug in him too. He tends to do well on the drives. It’s the hotel stays that stress me out. This kid can be a beast to get to sleep in an unfamiliar place.

We have stayed in houses, hotels and condos with our son, all leading to different sleeping arrangements. When he was a baby, it was actually a bit easier. We just sat up his Pack n Play, laid him on his back and went about our business.

His first beach trip to Gulf Shores, Ala., came when he was 10 months old, and we shared a three-bedroom condo with two other couples and their boys, both roughly seven to nine months older than ours. We were lucky that trip in that we won the coin toss and got the master bedroom. So we sat up the Pack n Play in the walk-in closet, giving us a bit of privacy. The other two couples were not as fortunate, having normal bedrooms: one bed, one Pack n Play and no privacy.

We haven’t been as fortunate other times. Last year, for example, we stayed in a condo in Destin, Fla., with some friends. The three of us had to stay in the same room. It had two beds, so he slept in his own twin bed. No problems really as he slept well and we could somewhat come and go quietly after we got him to sleep. The comical thing was when I would wake up each morning, the second my eyes opened he would scream out, “Hey Daddy! It’s time to get up.” He was waiting for me. No sleeping in on that trip.

Other trips to hotel rooms have provided various experiences. When he was younger and still sleeping in the Pack n Play I would get a room with two beds so it would usually have space between one of the beds and the wall so we could put him there. Not to create privacy for ourselves, as much as to keep the lights from reaching him. I’ve rearranged bedroom furniture, creating barriers between him and us. It usually works except one night in Mobile, Ala., when I think he woke up during the night freaked out not knowing where he was or where we were.

As our son has graduated to a bigger bed things have gotten trickier. We’ve gotten rooms with a king-size bed so we could just all get in together. I’ve gotten rooms with two beds. But not one for him alone. No, this boy has to have me there.

It can be quite miserable on a trip to put a child to bed only to realize you still have two or three hours before you would like to do the same. The choices are simple: get creative with finding privacy – and a way to minimize the lights reaching him – or get 12 hours of sleep.

I know there are a lot of parents out there who face similar issues when traveling with babies and toddlers. I’m curious how others handle this situation. I guess I could always spring for a suite, although those rooms aren’t the ones I tend to find on

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Walking in Memphis: Beale Street's Brass Note Walk of Fame

Ever find yourself walking Beale Street and wonder about all the names engraved in brass music notes along the sidewalks? Wonder no more, as a free tour will be offered Feb. 13 by Jimmy Ogle, billed as Memphis’ mobile historian.

The Beale Street Brass Note Walk of Fame guided tour will begin at 1 p.m. inside the Historic Daisy Theater (across from the theater where many live acts continue to perform) at 329 Beale St.

There are plenty of obvious names: Elvis Presley, Sam Phillips, Jerry Lee Lewis, Isaac Hayes, Johnny Cash, Al Green, Otis Redding; the list of recognized names that influenced American music goes on and on.

There are – at least to some people – what would be called lesser names that have played important roles in their own right on the Memphis music scene: Jerry Wexler, Justin Timberlake, Little Milton, Memphis Slim, The Blues Brothers, Sam & Dave, Willie Mitchell, Three 6 Mafia, and, well, this list goes on and on as well.

Ken Hall, Beale Street marketing director for Performa Entertainment Real Estate (the firm that manages the Beale Street Entertainment District), provided some history of the brass note walk.

“The brass note walk was begun in 1986 by John Elkington of Performa Entertainment Real Estate as a means of tying the rich musical history of Beale Street together with its future as an entertainment district. Since 1986, over 90 honorees has been selected of which 82 currently have note display in the sidewalks between Second and Fourth. Three more are in various stages of completion and the remaining six still await financial sponsorship for creation.

“The notes combine two arts: the musical legacy of the honoree with the metallurgy of the Lugar Foundry in Eads, Tenn., which casts the brass notes. The notes are then engraved and laid in concrete on the north side and south sidewalks along Beale Street. Rising metal costs over the past couple of years have pushed the costs up to $1,700 per note form casting to concrete.”

If you find yourself in Memphis Feb. 13 take some time out to enjoy this tour. It is expected to last about an hour.

For more information, call 901-526-0115. For a full list of brass note honorees, go to  

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

New Orleans Ex-Pats Get Pull From Home for Super Bowl Sunday

Certain cities and sites have a mysterious lure about them during particular events and times of the year: New York for the holidays, the Vatican City at Easter, Stonehenge for the Summer Solstice, Washington for the Fourth of July, Las Vegas for March Madness, New Orleans for Mardi Gras. There are many others, of course.

The Crescent City this time of year typically is gearing up for the parades and spectacles of its unique Mardi Gras celebration. Mardi Gras, French for Fat Tuesday, falls on Feb. 16 this year. New Orleans will be packed in the days leading up to that date.

But this Sunday, Feb. 7 – Super Bowl Sunday – there will be an excitement in New Orleans never felt before. See, that city’s NFL team, the Saints, is making its first appearance in the Super Bowl, played this year in another American Party city: Miami.

Long-suffering Saints fans won’t be making the usual trip to the city of the Super Bowl this year, though. They are making pilgrimages to New Orleans. The Associated Press today in a feature story on the topic of ex-pat New Orleanians making trips home reports the city is already filling up. Some are taking the week off work to make the trip. I have a co-worker here in Memphis, a New Orleans native, who will be taking off work Friday to head down. She felt the pull from home to be there.

I can relate somewhat. When my Memphis Tigers played in the 2008 Final Four national championship game, I was going to spend the night somewhere – anywhere – in Midtown and Downtown Memphis celebrating with other Tigers fans. It wasn’t meant to be as Kansas pulled off the late comeback, but the pull to be around other Memphians during that time of potential ecstasy was real.

And that will be the scene this weekend in New Orleans. The following from that AP report sums it up best. A New Orleans transplant living in Atlanta had vowed she would travel to Miami if the Saints made the Super Bowl.

"But seeing the fever pitch in New Orleans and knowing how we party, I changed my mind," Belinda Hernandez told the AP. "Who wants to be on Miami Beach when they can be in the French Quarter with the Who Dats for the game?"

The AP reported hotels in New Orleans have been experiencing large jumps in occupancies. Not the case in Indianapolis, home of the Colts and the Saints favored opponents this weekend, where the story quotes a spokeswoman for that city’s convention and visitors association saying there has been no noticeable jump in hotel occupancy for the weekend.

Why is that? Maybe their fans are heading to Miami. Maybe it’s the fact the Colts were in the game just a few seasons ago and their fans have come to expect these big things. Or maybe it’s just that New Orleans is one of those cities that has a peculiar draw to residents, former residents and visitors alike.

I'm not sure if I would be in New Orleans if I were a Saints fan. I know I'd want to be, though.

Photo credit: Michael DeMocker/The Times-Picayune

Monday, February 1, 2010

Restaurant Weeks Show Off a City's Options

Restaurant Week is a beautiful thing. If you’re fortunate enough to live in or visit a city during Restaurant Week, you are in luck. New York’s Winter Restaurant Week is in full swing. It will run through Feb. 7 (some restaurants will extend the offer through Feb. 28.) Participating restaurants – and there’s a lot of them (go to for a listing) – offer prix-fixe, three-course menus for $24.07 and $35.

I love the concept of Restaurant Week, even though it’s something I have only participated in twice (New York’s summer event last year and the debut event in Memphis in the fall). I’m not sure how many cities have restaurant weeks, but the idea of finer restaurants presenting a sampling of their respective menus at more affordable prices is a great idea. It’s a win-win: Diners experience restaurants their budget might not typically allow and restaurants gain new customers.

Washington, Philadelphia and San Diego all wrapped up Restaurant Week last month. Baltimore’s runs Jan. 22 through Feb. 7, offering three-course menus for $35.10 at nearly 100 restaurants ( Los Angeles is offering its Restaurant Week through Feb. 5  ( There are three price plans for lunch and dinner ranging from $16 to $44. Restaurant Week Boston runs March 14-19 and 21-26 (

And the restaurants of Downtown Memphis participated in the city’s first restaurant week in early November. Not sure how much more business the restaurants generated, but I discovered new restaurants because of the promotion. That’s the whole point really; that and an opportunity to get an exceptional meal at a decent price.

In Memphis, the price was $20.09 for three courses. No, the entrees weren’t always the same size of the normal portions served. But I did not leave hungry and the many reviews I read on other blogs and on Twitter all agreed on that fact.

NYC Restaurant Week was the country’s first such celebration, debuting in 1992 to coincide with the Democratic National Convention held there. The cost for three courses was $19.92 then. It’s gone up slightly to $24.07 and been extended to two weeks.

Great food at good prices. Sounds like a good concept to me.