Tag Archives: Kayak

A ROAD TRIP ADVENTURE – PART ONE: HOW IT ALL BEGAN

Road Trip RearviewGavin and I met over a game of Nails at our mutual friend Katie and her husband Will’s Oktoberfest party in Bernardsville, New Jersey. Nails is not your typical outdoor party game, but for those with a backyard and a sizeable tree to fell, I’ll quickly explain. Each player starts with a nail, tapped into a tree stump just enough so it stands up straight. Players take turns doing ‘tricks’ with the hammer, getting a certain number of hits as a result. If you throw the hammer in the air and catch it by the handle, you get one hit. If you throw it under a leg and catch it, you get two hits. If you throw it behind your back and catch it, you get three. You use your hits against other players’ nails, the goal to have yours be the last one standing. I was terrible at throwing the hammer, but in a not-so-vague attempt at flirting, I used all the hits I could get against Gavin’s nail. It irritated Gavin more than it intrigued him, but he did notice my long blonde braids. Which were actually part of my German girl costume. So you can imagine his surprise when I gave a sly smile and pulled off my cheap, plastic wig to reveal a mop of dark brown hair underneath.

At the time, I lived in Washington, DC and Gavin lived in San Francisco. We managed a few back and forth trips through the holidays, and as things started to get serious in January, Gavin decided to move to New York. That had been his plan for a number of months before he met me – in order to be closer to his family and potential job opportunities – but now that we’re married, I won’t pretend I didn’t have anything to do with it.

In the fall of 2008, I’d taken six weeks off work to drive cross country and back, visiting friends, national parks, monuments, and roadside attractions. I loved a good road trip. So when Gavin mentioned driving his car from San Francisco to New York, I couldn’t help but want to come along. It was only when I was 30,000 feet over the Rockies that I started to have doubts. I had loved driving cross country by myself, but would I enjoy it with someone else? With Gavin? We had never traveled together, and as I learned on a European backpacking trip in college, it could either go amazingly well or horribly wrong. My palms started to sweat as I thought about how miserable it would be if it didn’t work out, spending 3,000 miles and a week and half stuck together in the front seat of a compact car. The awkward silences would kill me. I took a swig of my too-small airplane cocktail and prayed to the relationship gods for safe passage. For better or worse, at that point, I knew this trip would be a turning point in ours.

I landed at SFO around ten in the evening, and the road trip began directly from there. Gavin had spent the last few days boxing up, shipping, and selling the contents of his apartment. It was no longer fit for us to spend the night there, not that it ever was. I had heard stories over the last few months and wished I could have experienced Gavin in his native habitat. I would learn soon enough about Gavin’s live-in habits, the mysterious bottle caps, quarters, and socks littered about the apartment, but I still wanted to see it. The working TV standing on a plastic cooler, the broken TV hiding in the corner, the Gavin-shaped divot worn into the side of a faux-leather couch, even the dining room set bought on a whim when guests came to visit one weekend.

Instead, we drove south on the 101 to San Jose, spending a night there, before setting off towards Las Vegas in the morning. There was something awkward and exciting about that first night. The anticipation was palpable, the future unknown. We were going on our first adventure together. We ate a late dinner at a local bar grill, and discussed where we wanted to stop on our trip. Vegas, Austin, and New Orleans were definites. The rest we decided to leave to chance.

I am normally a sound sleeper. When I was five, the fire department came to our house to put out a chimney fire, and I slept straight through it, sirens and all. But this night, you would’ve thought Santa was coming in the morning, or I’d just watched the latest remake of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre. I couldn’t wait for our adventure to start.

We woke early and started the almost eight hour drive to Vegas. Before we could get settled in our seats or unscrew the tops of our road sodas, we spotted flashing red and blue lights behind us. Something you should know about Gavin is that he drives fast. It’s not a want, but rather a subconscious need, something that is so innate to who he is, he has to set alarms in his car to beep if the car goes over 100 mph. It can happen just like that. He’ll be focused on the curves of the road and the journey ahead, and before you know it, he’s driving 30 miles faster than the law thinks is appropriate. He’s also way too honest.

The officer walked to the side of the car as Gavin rolled down his window. ‘Do you know how fast you were going?’ he asked.

‘Probably 90,’ Gavin said, furrowing his brow in concentration. ‘Maybe 95 when you clocked me.’

‘I got you at 93,’ the officer responded. ‘Do you have a reason for driving nearly 25 miles over the speed limit?’

‘No,’ Gavin said. ‘I really don’t.’ I could’ve smacked him for his honesty.

That was speeding ticket number one.

The approach into Vegas by car never ceases to amaze me. Desert, desert, desert, then boom, the skyline starts to appear. Then you see a gas station with a casino, a strip mall with a casino, then resort casino, restaurant casino, bar casino. By the time you’re driving down Las Vegas Boulevard, you don’t know whether to laugh out loud or get out of the car and run away. Vegas is a fantasyland for adults, Epcot Centre with just the right about of sex and skank. I have to say I love it. If you don’t, you’re just fooling yourself.

As we drove down the strip, we debated on where we wanted to stay for the night. In my past visits, I’d always stayed on the strip, but after a quick Kayak search, we decided on the Hard Rock, just off the strip and beautifully priced at $70 for the night. We parked in the garage and took our bags inside to check in. Gavin reached in his pocket for his ID and credit card, put could only find the Visa and a crumpled receipt. Somewhere between the San Jose speeding ticket and the reception desk at the Hard Rock, his ID had gone missing. Gavin frowned, wrinkled his brow.

‘It must be in the car,’ he said, and we retraced our steps back to the garage. We searched the car back to front to back, and throughout it all, Gavin kept his cool. I couldn’t help but be impressed. I would’ve been flipping my shit, wondering where it’d all gone wrong. Yet here he was, getting a speeding ticket and losing his ID in the same day, and just rolling with it. No panic attack, no angry silences, no exasperated sighs and ‘why me?’s. At some point, he shrugged, pulled his passport from a box on the backseat where his important papers and tax returns were traveling, and we went back inside to check in.

After freshening up, we hit the casino floor for some blackjack. I’d played a few times before and thought I had a basic understanding of the rules of the game. Ha. In that first hand with Gavin I realized I didn’t know anything at all. Gavin was the expert. The guy had spent a summer in college playing blackjack at Foxwoods three days a week with the AARP crowd. He’d kept a notebook, writing down all of his expenses and wins, walking away each week with more than I dreamt about making at the Express in the Virginia Center Commons mall. Now when I sit down at a blackjack table, I know what I’m doing, but that first night with Gavin and those five dollar chips with rock bands on them, I was just an eager student.

We finished the evening with the tasting menu at Nobu, the fruits of Gavin’s gambling labors. A perfect end to a near perfect day. I wasn’t going to dream about Santa or chainsaws tonight, only tomorrow. And tomorrow we would head towards the Grand Canyon.

Places we loved on this adventure:

Hard Rock Hotel and Casino, 4455 Paradise Road, Las Vegas – Hands down, the best place to stay in Vegas. Lively atmosphere with great bars, restaurants, pool, and decent minimums on blackjack, with plenty of video poker and dancers on the tables late night. Need I say more? Middle of the road.

BOTTOMLESS BRUNCH – AN ADVENTURE IN DC

Mimosa

Last weekend, Gavin and I headed down to the Washington, DC area for his cousin’s wedding. We were married only two months ago, and I was thrilled at the idea of being a ‘married’ guest at a wedding. Instead of the ‘when we’ and ‘if we’ and ‘one day’ feelings I had had as a single or engaged guest, I pictured Gavin and I looking at each other and reminiscing over all of the funny and sweet and sentimental details of our special day. Okay, my cheesiness will stop there, I promise. I will not be held responsible for the vomit stuck between the keys of your keyboard.

Few people realize the only profitable line on Amtrak is the one that runs along the Eastern Seaboard. More precisely, it’s the segment that travels between Boston and DC, and after checking the prices a few weeks before our trip we understood why. Unless you book your ticket two months in advance (which realistically, we could have, but that’s beside the point) or are willing to travel at off-off-peak times (read: 5am), you’ll likely pay $150 for one person one way. We debated renting a car, but the thought of I-95 traffic on a Friday afternoon drove me to check out the flights on Kayak. My jaw dropped as the page filled with options. For only $290, we could buy two non-stop primetime flights to DC and back. Sold. Why were they so cheap, you ask? Maybe because it’s January in New York and there’s snow on the ground and the likelihood of our flights leaving on time is as likely as a wedding without a cake.

So as you’ve probably guessed, our flight to DC was delayed, but we were in good spirits nonetheless. Who doesn’t like an opportunity to have an airport beer? There is something cathartic about knowing you have no where to go for an hour or two, so why not stool up at the airport variety of an Irish Pub or Sports Bar and drink a cold one? Gavin turned me on to this trick shortly after we met, and I have to say it makes waiting a good deal easier. You can forget about where you’re going and what you’re late for and just relax. There is absolutely, positively nothing else you can do. But in case you’re wondering, airport beers do not make things easier when you’ve gone from delayed to canceled to flat-out stranded. I once got stuck in London for three days because they had been blessed with three inches of snow (Why is rain the only weather the Brits can handle?), and no amount of beers could make me feel better. And believe me, I tried.

The home base for the wedding festivities was Old Town, Alexandria, and after we arrived and dropped our bags at the Hilton on King Street, we found the bridal party at a nearby bar, Virtue Feed and Grain. I had forgotten how much I loved Old Town. A mixture of Georgetown and Cary Street in Richmond, it was a beautiful place to visit and, I imagine, live. Rowhouses dating back to the 18th century, cobblestone streets, twinkle-lit trees, all enhanced with a dusting of snow. Virtue fit into the scene perfectly, a turn-of-the-century granary converted into a restaurant-slash-bar that managed to feel industrial and cozy at the same time. We found our way to a room in the back where old farm tables, benches, couches, and excited wedding guests filled the room. We spent the evening socializing and toasting the happy couple.

On Saturday morning, Gavin and I took the yellow-line Metro from King Street to Chinatown to meet a few of my friends for brunch. I had lived in Washington for eight years before moving to New York, and some of my closest friends still lived in the city. And what better way to catch up than brunch? Brunch is truly one of my favorite meals. When you’re dealing with eggs and bacon, it’s difficult to mess up, but somehow also difficult to get right. Zengo is another story altogether. A Latin-Asian fusion restaurant right next to the Chinatown gate on 7th Street NW, they throw brunch straight into a dream state. Bottomless small plates and bottomless brunch drinks and plenty of seats. For the decently low price of $35 per person. All of the hipster-brunch hype has turned a late afternoon meal on Saturday or Sunday into a situation where people will wait 45 minutes for a $25 Eggs Benedict and $15 Mimosa, yet here was an inventive menu that you could literally eat and drink your way through entirely. For $35. And as we read off half the menu to our waitress, she didn’t even bat an eye. She seemed to be egging us on.

‘One time, these two very petite girls ordered one of everything,’ she said, making a tiny circle with her forefingers and thumbs to demonstrate the size of their midriffs. ‘And they ate it all.’

We nodded happily and ordered more. For cocktails, I started with a Bloody Mary before moving on to a Passionfruit Mimosa and sticking there for the remainder of our three-hour gorge fest. Achiote-Hoisin Pork Arepas, Lobster-Chipotle Grits, Short Rib Hash. At some point we started to double up on our favorites. How does this place make any money? As I looked around, I realized our table had been there the longest by far, but still. In what world does a deal like this make money? I ate another arepa and swallowed the thought.

While we wiled away the time, we made grand plans: weekend trips, job opportunities, business ventures, college reunions, even an unexpected trip to Jordan in two weeks (can’t wait!), and before I knew it we were rushing to get back to the hotel to change for the wedding.

The wedding was a mixture of a Midsummer Night’s Dream and the Chronicles of Narnia. Set in a tree-filled greenhouse at the Meadowlark Botanical Gardens in Vienna, Virginia, there was a stream running through the middle and snow covering the lawn outside. The petals on the flowers, the ruffles on the dresses, even the wrinkles on happy relatives, all mixed and matched to perfectly accent the light hearts and free spirit of the couple. Gavin and I made eyes when we noticed similarities between their programs and ours, their ceremony and ours. We weren’t just reminiscing, we were reliving. We couldn’t help but smile. We spent the reception socializing with the family, dancing until we got sweaty, and enjoying hot chocolate instead of cake. What was it I’d said about cake earlier? I forget.

Places we loved on this adventure

Virtue Feed and Grain, 106 S. Union Street, Alexandria – With couches and private tables, this is the perfect place to go for a date, a gossip with a friend, or a private event. Have heard great things about the food, but I’m afraid my intake was limited to Pinot Noir. Middle of the Road.

Zengo, 781 Seventh Street NW, Washington – This bottomless brunch is not to be missed, and hurry, because I don’t know this can be sustainable for their business long term. Did I mention there’s also one in New York? Middle of the Road.

BAD PASSPORT – A CANADIAN ADVENTURE

Freezing!

Since we have to start somewhere, we’ll start with a recent trip to Montréal and Mont Tremblant. I’ll paint the picture. It was Saturday morning in Montréal, and we’d just filled our bellies with another cheese-covered meal. Seriously, why doesn’t everyone in Quebec weigh at least four hundred pounds? Between the foie gras, cheese curds, and duck fat, my arteries barely made it out alive. Anyway, we were rested and full, ready to explore on our final day in the city. That morning, as we’d packed our bags for our evening flight home to New York, I relocated my passport from the bottom of my suitcase to my purse. I rubbed my belly, which began to grumble slightly from the influx of grease, and reminded Gavin to make sure he kept his passport on him.

‘Funny,’ he said with a smirk.

I squinted, trying to remember if he’d given me his passport at any point during the trip. He hadn’t.

‘You’re joking,’ he said more hesitantly, ‘right? You have it?’ He stared, searching my expression.

I wasn’t. I really wasn’t. Our pranking had gotten a little out of hand lately, but this unfortunately wasn’t one of those times. We hightailed it back to the hotel and pulled our luggage from storage, spreading it out in the hotel lobby, to the slight dismay of the concierge, who looked at us with a mixture of pity and annoyance. The damn passport had to be in there somewhere. I mean, it isn’t that small, it can’t just disappear? We looked everywhere, in our suitcases, our backpacks, inside our shoes, jackets, even those gross side pockets where dirty underpants accumulate. We pictured it lounging on the beach with a pina colada and an innocent ‘what me?’ smile composed of security stickers. Where had it gone?

After we’d searched all of our bags, panic started to set in, and Gavin let out something between a whimper and a sigh.

‘If this is a prank, now would be the time to tell me,’ he said half-heartedly.

‘I wish,’ I said, unable to meet his eyes. Why hadn’t I taken his passport? Kept his and mine together, let them intertwine their pages in holy paper matrimony.

At some point, we had to admit defeat. Two people, one passport. Married or not, I couldn’t think of a way the US Border Control would let that fly. Literally. I started to weigh my options. I still had my passport. I could go home, spend a few mildly uncomfortable nights alone while Gavin drowned in Molson and duck fat waiting for the US Consulate doors to unlock Monday morning. But I didn’t want to leave him. Hell, I didn’t want to go to work on Monday. We were a team, we would stick together like our passports had failed to do.

As a last resort, Gavin called the emergency US Consulate number. You know, the one you call when someone is kidnapped or arrested while abroad? And yes, technically Canada is still abroad.

Gavin gave the responder his name, social security number, and briefly explained the situation. Want to go home. No passport. The responder said he’d call back shortly and abruptly hung up. While we waited, we aimlessly tried to distract ourselves with a few rounds of ‘I can solve a game of Solitaire faster than you can.’

Thirty minutes later, the phone rang.

‘I’m sorry sir,’ a different voice said, much more kindly than the first. ‘There’s no way we’ll be able get you a new passport before your flight this evening. You’ll have to wait until the Consulate opens on Monday.’ He paused. ‘Or, you could drive,’ he mentioned offhandedly.

‘Drive?’ Gavin coughed. ‘We can drive across the border without a passport?’

The voice on the other line, Gary if I remember correctly, confirmed that was the case. As long as you had a driver’s license (and an angelic face, I surmised, thanking God Gavin had decided to shave a few days before and was more or less beard-free), you could cross the Canada-US border by car. Who knew? Gavin and I gave each other excited glances as the call wrapped up. I looked up car rentals on Kayak, and before we had re-packed and zipped our suitcases, we had a plan. A seven-hour plan, but a plan nonetheless.

After finding an acceptable US-bound car at the airport Avis and canceling our flights, we were roadward bound. It was dreary on the interstate, dirty snow on the shoulder and salt spray on the windshield. When we were five miles from the border, my palms started to get sticky. Gary had said it would work, but would it really work? At least if we were in Montréal, there were restaurants and bars and hotels. Here, all we could see was highway, trees and snow. Lots of snow.

As Gavin flicked the wipers to clear the salt from his line of sight, we heard a loud crack. The driver’s side wiper went flying into the roadside abyss, and I couldn’t help but laugh. Could we get across the border without a passport and a windshield wiper? We didn’t think it was likely. We turned off at the next exit to find a service station, and after a few turns, a few miles, and a helpful gas station cashier, we found a mechanic, who took a few minutes from working on a schoolbus to replace the wiper for a small fee. And with that we were back on our way. We cruised incident-free to the brightly lit border. The line was only a few cars long.

‘Be confident,’ I advised. ‘We’ll be fine.’

Gavin smiled half-heartedly and pulled up to the booth.

‘Hello,’ he said, passing over my passport and his New York state driver’s license to a uniformed guard that looked more park ranger than customs official. Gavin explained the situation and the mysterious disappearance of his passport. ‘I have the number though,’ he added, reciting the digits we’d found in an old gchat conversation.

‘How’d you manage that?’ the guard said in an impressed, midwest laden tone. He scanned my passport and clicked a few buttons on a screen we couldn’t see.

‘Can you describe your appearance in your passport photo?’ he asked, looking between the screen and Gavin.

‘I was fatter then,’ Gavin deadpanned, getting a small chuckle from the guard. Make him, laugh, I thought. Charm your way across the border.

‘What color shirt were you wearing?’ the guard prodded.

Does anyone remember what they’re wearing in their passport photo?

‘I really don’t know,’ Gavin said. ‘I could guess, but it would really be just that: a guess.’

‘Did the shirt have a collar?’ the guard continued.

I stifled a laugh. Was this guy serious? I had just looked at my passport photo and couldn’t have told you if I’d been naked.

‘I could guess,’ Gavin repeated. ‘But I could be wrong. I really don’t know. I’m sorry.’

‘What’s in the bag?’ the guard asked, pointing at a large snowboard bag propped against the window in the backseat.

Say something funny, Gavin, I silently begged. Otherwise, here comes the part where they search the car, pat us down, cart us off to a windowless room somewhere.

‘A snowboard,’ Gavin said. ‘We were in Mont Tremblant snowboarding.’

Not funny, but true. At least for Gavin. For my part, you could say I tried to snowboard. I’d taken one half-day lesson that ended in a bruised coxis and a bruised ego. And a not-so-latent jealousy for everyone that had mastered the sport.

The guard shrugged, handed back our documents and wished us luck. That was it? Really? Apparently, with none of the right answers, we’d still passed the test. We were officially back on US soil, headed for home, and I couldn’t have been more thankful.

‘We made it,’ I said, wiping my palms on my jeans. ‘Thank God.’

‘I’m surprised he didn’t check the snowboard bag,’ Gavin said. ‘It’s the perfect size for a body.’

‘Thanks for not mentioning that, Dexter,’ I said, pinching his cheek. ‘You must have an innocent-looking face.’

All of the nervousness that had built up over the course of the day subsided, and after a few hours of driving through the dark, dense forests of upstate New York, we began to get tired. I’d never been to Saratoga Springs, so Gavin suggested we find a cheap hotel and stay for the night. I figured we might as well continue the adventure and let off some steam. We could get back to reality in the morning.

After a nice meal and a few well-deserved beers at the coolest local bar I’d been to in a long time, we couldn’t stop laughing about the course our day had taken. We went to bed happy and carefree, with what I could only surmise would be another adventure in the morning.

Oh right, whatever happened to the missing passport, you say? About a week after we returned from our trip, a kindly housekeeper from our hotel in Mont Tremblant found it in the Lost and Found. Why it took so long to surface, we’ll never know…

Places we loved on this adventure:

Au Pied de Cochon, 536 Duluth Street East, Montréal – It might be a gluttonous meal, but not one you’re likely to forget. Amazing with a capital A. Try the Foie Gras Cromesquis (liquid foie gras deep-fried in duck fat), Foie Gras Poutine, and the Duck in a Can. You’re going to eat fatty while you’re in Quebec anyway, so it might as well be the best. Pricey.

L’Assommoir, 112 Rue Bernard Ouest, Montréal – We had a delicious lunch here, hiding out from the sub-zero temperatures and soul-chilling winds. I had a hearty meal of meatballs in a spicy tomato sauce, perfectly-cooked vegetables, and a hot toddy. We came back later that evening for drinks. The cocktail menu is not for the indecisive (there were 100+ choices), but the bartenders know what they’re doing, that’s for sure. Middle of the Road.

L’Orignal, 479 Rue Saint Alexis, Montréal – When you arrive, you feel like you’ve walked in a cheerful hunting lodge, if there is such a thing. The Bison Tartar and Rabbit Cavatelli fit in perfectly with the theme and my tastebuds. Pricey.

Auberge du Vieux-Port, 97 Rue de la Commune Est, Montréal – The perfect boutique hotel in the Old Port, make sure you reserve a room in the original part of the building. Antique furniture, large bathrooms with rain showers, views of the river, and breakfast included. All for $200 or thereabouts.

Creperie Catherine, 113 Chemin de Kandahar, Mont Tremblant – This is the place to get your fill on crepes. The place is small, so there is often a line, but it’s worth the wait. Savory crepes, sweet crepes, breakfast crepes. They have everything you could hope for in the crepe department. I tried both the Seafood Crepe and Catherine’s Special and was not disappointed, to say the very least. Easy on the Wallet.

Saratoga City Tavern, 9-21 Caroline St, Saratoga Springs – We stumbled into what I think is probably the best bar in town. Live music, 20+ taps, all with clean lines, and two open seats at the bar. The perfect end to another unexpected adventure. Easy on the Wallet.