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December 16, 2011

The Check-In/Check-Out Diaries: Atlantic City 11-11-11

We are on the New Jersey turnpike, or is it parkway? I never get it right and it always looks the same to me. There are five of us in a rented mini-van and we are headed to Atlantic City to celebrate the date of 11-11-11.

Just a couple hours later we are sitting at B-bar, inside the Borgata Hotel and Casino. We are surrounded by a bottle of Prosecco and drinks. Everyone is laughing and we’re having a good time. Wait, a good time in Atlantic City? I thought I swore off this city! How did we get here? Let’s back up.

My first trip ever to Atlantic City was in November of 2003. We took a bus from Port Authority, leaving at 9pm at night. No hotel room, we just planned to stay up all night and take a bus in the morning. Initial impressions: A cold Vegas. This was a positive for a person who is very PRO Vegas. Energy filled the air that night. The casinos, the odds, and of course, the Kahlua and Coffee drinks. There were stops at the IRISH pub and an interesting roulette session that ended with the girl I was with going ALL IN. Later I would find out that this was one month’s rent, and later we would be married, twice and in Vegas. This adventure opened up a whole new world that was only a short bus trip away from the city. This was followed up by trips in 2004 and 2005. Bright lights, the bars, and always, The Irish Pub; A.C. was the place to be for a quick getaway! This would all change in 2007.

Four of us boarded a bus and headed for Atlantic City to celebrate the date of 7-7-7. For those unaware, the Port Authority Atlantic City buses offer round trip tickets for $20 and you get $20 once you are dropped off at your casino. Seems too good to be true? After a great night and good day we boarded the bus to return to New York. For anyone who has seen the opening sequence in Nightmare on Elm Street Part II, the school bus scene. It was like that, multiplied by TEN! The driver was drunk and passing cars on the turnpike (or parkway) that were going over 80 MPH. I don’t believe we won any money that weekend, but I believe we beat the odds making it home safely. Of course, it was one experience, one drunken bus driver.

The year was 2008. In New York, we again boarded the Atlantic City bus at The Port Authority. We were on the bus for approximately five minutes when it started. AUTHOR NOTE: The below is 100% the actual narrative, no fiction, no embellishment. In fact, my words do not do it justice, just read the below, and multiply by TEN!

“I am the man”. Says the black man; he is wearing a white Kangol hat. “I’m the one with the money, I am the man.” He repeats himself again to his woman. “I am the man.” It’s important to note his voice is five times the normal volume. “I am the man.”

“You’re going to see ghetto once we hit the darkness of Lincoln Tunnel if the black man doesn’t shut his mount.” A black woman with an incredible weave says, and then repeats. “You’re going to see ghetto once we hit the Lincoln Tunnel if the black people don’t quiet down.”

“I am the man.” (The bus has yet to pull out of The Port Authority)

“I am the man.” Repeated. The bus finally begins moving. “I am the man.” The only voice heard. Five minutes later we hit the darkness and on cue the black woman with a weave stands up and begins yelling, “The loud black people better shut the fuck up, or you’re going to see queen fucking bitch. I’ll get ghetto on your asses.”

Silence. Five minutes later, “I am the man.” Followed by, “I’m like leather, I’m all put together.” Ladies and gentleman, we have moved on. “I’m like leather, I’m all put together.”

The weave turns and yells something about being on drugs. The man replies, “I like drugs.” Pause. “I like drugs.” Pause. “I like drugs.” His woman interjects, “Say prescription, say prescription!”

“I like drugs, if you don’t like drugs, give me your drugs.” The man repeats to no one in particular. “I like drugs.”

The weave begins videotaping the man and his woman.

The man continues, “I’m like leather, all put together.” Pause. “I am the man.” Pause. “I’m like leather, all put together.” Another woman begins singing “Hallelujah”. At the first stop two elderly couples and a young girl get on the bus, forced to move to the only open spaces in the back, next to the man.

“I like drugs.”

“Say prescription! I’m going to pay my own rent.”

“Hallelujah.”

“If you don’t like drugs, give me your drugs.”

“Hallelujah.”

Forty-five minutes and traffic is barely moving. Not even a quarter through the trip from hell and people are being to duck, awaiting the inevitable gun play.
As predicted, the situation escalates. The woman begins screaming “Choke me! Choke me!”

“I am the man.” (We all duck a little more into our seats)

A call is made to the police. The weave continues video taping, calling out “It’s Bobby and Whitney.” Saying this causes the bus to explode like Pryor at The Apollo Theatre. The cops pull over the bus. An unlucky officer comes aboard and leaves with the man. They talk outside for an hour, until another bus approaches. After five hours we arrive in Atlantic City.

I vowed to never again go to Atlantic City.

Back to the present, in Atlantic City, and there is a buzz. A new hotel is being built, called Revel. It is expected to open in 2012 and is expected to bring the Vegas experience to Atlantic City. For those who want to “hold on” to the A.C. experience and don’t believe people are looking for Vegas, well, they are wrong. Vegas works, and the creators of this new hotel is making quite a stir.

Dinner is at The Melting Pot where we alter our personalities to include a thief, a big fan, a woman searching for the father of her child, and later an escort. A group of dysfunctional Breakfast Club stereo types; this should play well in A.C.

After dinner we head over to the Wild West casino of Bally’s. Given this is the night before 11-11-11 the casino is dead. We go to Caesars, dead, but the bar is packed. We go have drinks at the bar and then head over to Trumps Plaza where there are special drink specials that we take advantage of after losing in roulette. Do you play ‘11’ on 11-10-11? I think so, but the gambling gods said NO! Back to Borgata and everything is closed except for B-bar so we head back there for another drink and then back to room. A night of lost money and dead casinos; it was just best to order room service chicken tenders and go to sleep.

Waking up the next morning and looking out at the strip from our Water Club window, there was something in the air, and it felt good. It felt, lucky!

Breakfast would be at Sunroom at Borgata. The bartender was discussing the expected crowds and of course the new hotel, Revel, and how the expectation would be that it would blow away every other hotel.

After breakfast we head to the outlets and then the Caesar Palace shops where we find an island bar named Continental. We have many drinks while discussing the philosophical question, “Does tip count?” In the end I don’t believe there was a definitive answer. After a picture with Lucy The Elephant we cross over to Rain Forest Café for tall drinks and then walk into Tropicana casino because this seems like a good time to play roulette. Sit down. Bet 11. The ball hits on 11. Color up and out. More gambling, more winning follows and then we head to Red Square which is too dark and too Russian so we stumble into Cuba Libre for drinks and snacks and then taxis back to Borgata.

After a break to brief to sober up we meet at Long Bar and then pile into taxis and our taxi gets into an accident and then takes us to the wrong place. Was he drinking? Maybe, we were too drunk to know. Dinner was at Girasole with lots of wine and lots of drinks. We came to the conclusion this is where we had dinner four years earlier, we think. After, scramble in a full taxi to the Golden Nugget for a 30 minute Vince Neil show. When you walk away saying, “Man, the drummer was awesome!” you pretty much know you just got raped. After we find a bar in the middle of the Golden Nugget that had live singers and kamikaze shots and many more drinks. 11-11-11 would come and go with MORE shots and MORE drinks. This was followed by a gambling marathon that featured Black Jack and Roulette. A taxi ride I don’t remember brought us back to Borgata for more live music and drinks at Gypsy Bar, then B-bar for more drinks followed by more drinks. My last memory is it playing Dirty Dancing slots. It was sometime around 5:00am.

The next morning was brutal. Too much drinking, laughter, and drinking, but it felt good. It was a great night, a proper celebration of 11-11-11. It was a Vegas type night and a trip that restored my faith in Atlantic City.

See you next year for 12-12-12. I will be staying at Revel!

David S. Grant is the author of BLOOD: The New Red. For excerpt and reviews go to www.silverthought.com/blood/ Follow David on Twitter: @david_s_grant

October 27, 2011

The Check-In/Check-Out Diaries: California Wine Country

You are standing in line inside JFK looking down at your ticket. What zone am I? This is the question you are asking yourself when you get the call from your Dr. Your biopsy results are in. This could go either way. For me I was fortunate to have good biopsy news and I’m here to say, it is a great way to start off a trip to California wine country.

After a relatively uneventful flight on Delta (that’s a compliment). The only complaint I have is how is it possible that the movie, The Hangover 2 was the exactly the same as the first one? I guess I can’t pin this one on Delta. It’s as if someone had a script and did FIND/REPLACE with Child/Monkey, Las Vegas/Bangkok, and car/boat. Was there a writing deadline (or MANY deadlines) missed?

I arrive at SFO, meet Beth, get a car and after a brief detour of Oakland (ended up on Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd) we are headed north. Given it is Thursday evening we head straight for a restaurant where we have a reservation named Compadres Rio Grill. Yes, a Mexican restaurant is our first stop in wine country. No one is in the restaurant leading us to quickly figure out that this area is over by 8pm. We eat fajitas, enchiladas, and dos Margaritas (each) by ourselves.

We are staying at the Napa Best Western Premier. For those unaware “Premier” equals “Fancy” and equals having an extra toothbrush when I realized I had forgot to bring mine (fancy). Unpacked, it is still early so we walk across the parking lot to the Red Hen Cantina. We drink good Margaritas and wonder where all of the people are. Overall the drinks were good, cleanliness, uh, well maybe there’s a little of work to do there. No worries, it’s not like we would be spending much (or any more) time at the Red Hen Cantina. For those keeping track, yes, our first night in wine country consisted of Mexican food and Margaritas.

The next morning we wake up early and begin our drive to the north side of Napa. For seasoned veterans (or for those, like us, that have watched the movie Sideways) you always want to start at the furthest point for your wine tasting, slowly making your way back to your hotel. It really doesn’t take a seasoned veteran to understand this very basic piece of drinking and driving etiquette. Our initial stop is Castello de Amorosa. The first thing you notice is the driveway, with the hills to the right and the vines to the left, it looks like Tuscany. Then you see the castle. A jaw dropping structure that looks as if it has ALWAYS existed in this space (before the vines). Later we learn that this was actually built starting in the nineties, finished in 2007. A drawbridge greets you at the door and once inside there are tunnels throughout taking you through tasting rooms, gift shops, and cellars full of a wine that is only sold at the vineyard. Outside there are courtyards as well as roosters and sheep roaming. There is also a well. We leave after purchasing three bottles and an insulated box we are told can be checked on an airplane. One case minus three equal nine bottles left to buy!

Next stop is Sterling vineyard, a little mainstream, but there is a tram that takes you up the side of the mountain where the winery, tour, and tastings are located. Lunch is in the town of Calistoga at the Calistoga Inn that is also a restaurant and brewery. The outside garden area is incredible and the chicken club sandwiches were awesome! So good we decided to postpone the next vineyard visit for a piece of culture. No, we’re not on route 66, but we could be when we pull up to The Old Faithful Geyser. Every ten minutes the Geyser erupts, that’s pretty much the attraction. In addition to the shooting water there are four-horned sheep, fainting goats, and yes, another well (that’s two for those holding well scorecards). Route 66 has nothing on The Old Faithful Geyser.

After the side show our focus is back. We stop at Charles Krug, the vineyard started by the brother of Robert Mondavi. We learn about the bad Mondavi blood and deep grudges that lasted for decades. Back in the car a quick stop for a picture with the “Welcome to Napa Valley Sign” which has to be second (on the cheese scale) only to the “Welcome to the Fabulous Las Vegas” sign. Beringer winery is next and then followed by Robert Mondavi which is followed by Domaine Chandon. Tastings at all, bottles purchased at all. We meet friends at Domaine Chandon for champagne and then its back to the hotel for more wine tasting (fancy) and stories of Paris and debauchery. Drinking and stories flow into dinner at Don Giovanni’s restaurant and then we are back at the hotel, where we find ourselves standing in the parking lot.

We are all staring back and forth between the time (looking at watches and cell phones) and (across the street) at the Red Hen Cantina. It is not even ten o’clock so we decide to go have one nightcap.

Authors Note: In addition to the narrative below (which is accurate) there were notes (found the next day) jotted down that said the words “Ponches”, “Mooselodge”, and “Bowling”. I am unsure what this was in reference to. Note that “Mooselodge” was crossed out, twice. The phrase “San Fran is where you will find the strip clubs” is circled. Madness!

“You should be taking notes”, The Quarterback tells me. I have just met The Quarterback, but I can sense some wisdom is about to be sent my way.

BACK UP: After finding a seat at the Red Hen Cantina we enjoyed Margaritas, Captain Morgan, Vodka, and Patron, two rounds. Next to us was a VERY local woman who continued to want to interrupt our discussion which up to this point was centered on the group of restaurant workers playing dice at a nearby table. Both she and her guy would join us. It was only a matter of time.

It was after his confession of either playing for or coaching alongside football legend Dick Vermeil (this was never that clear) that he insisted, “You should be taking notes”. There was a moment of shock when The Quarterback watched me pull out my notebook, and start taking notes. This is what I learned:

The Quarterback was at one time a promising athlete who is now leading a promising life of alcoholism and alleged methamphetamine use. His girl, I never got her name, but know she is the sister of Linda Champagne who works at or owns a vineyard. Sister of Linda Champagne hates here sister (Linda Champagne) and seemed to enjoy letting random tourists in on this fact. After the family history The Quarterback began telling me about the 20/30 club. “It is a club where anyone in their twenties or thirties can go and hang out. Most of the time no one is there, but sometimes there is someone else and you can play a game of billiards.” That was said, this happened. (Authors note: I recall asking about bowling at the 20/30 club which may be what this “bowling” note was in reference to.) Both The Quarterback and Sister of Linda Champagne talk about “the industry” and speak about time in Napa as “pre” and “post” grapes. I continue to try and get more information on this fascinating idea (or concept) known as the 20/30 club, but all I get is a smile and “It’s where you need to be” response. The Quarterback also insists he is not talking about a bar. Somewhere between five minutes and two hours pass until finally The Quarterback leans in, pats me on the shoulder, and tells me, “You have graduated from Napa”. That was said, this happened.

The next day was understandably, somewhat of a late start. The morning consisted of muffins, coffee, and flashbacks from the night before. We hit the road around 10:30 and headed to Sonoma for what would be labeled as Champagne Saturday.

First stop was the hangover friendly Charles Schultz Museum where we walked through halls of Peanuts comic strips and Snoopy statues. Next to the museum we found the Warm Puppy Café where we shared a slice and enjoyed the sunshine. Back in the car we road tripped out to the deep woods to find Korbel. Are we allowed to refer to Korbel as the High Life of Champagnes? Probably not, but they had complimentary tastings, a tasty lunch of pork, cheese, and yes, champagne followed by us purchasing a six pack of bottles to be shipped back to NY (this is in addition to the case in our car that was close to being full – only three open slots available). We navigate out of the woods and then stop at Gloria Ferrer for more champagne and a tour that promised caves that really didn’t deliver on that promise (you are brought to a look out of a cave, no bats: bummer). After purchasing another bottle we head back into the town of Sonoma for pizza and then back on the road for one final stop, Domaine Caneros for a champagne flight that promises to have you leaving light headed. Gorgeous views, the sun setting, and constant sipping of champagne. It was the perfect ending before heading back to SFO for the redeye flight to JFK.

For us it was the perfect amount of time, one day for Napa, one for Sonoma. Sure, there are many vineyards we didn’t get a chance to see, but that’s a good reason to come back. Not too mention the unanswered questions, such as: What the fuck is the 20/30 club?

David S. Grant is the author of several books. His latest, BLOOD: The New Red will be available 11-11-11. For more information go to http://www.davidsgrant.com. Follow David on Twitter @david_s_grant

October 14, 2011

The Check-In/Check-Out Diaries: Connecticut Wine Trail

It’s not always how you write out the itinerary; sometimes it’s the adventure itself. After a Zipcar mishap I was informed I would not have my usual Prius, the car I have grown to love for my weekend trips. Instead I would have to trek up to 22nd street to a Dollar rental place to secure a car for our weekend trip. The one thing going for me, I did not have to drive through New Jersey, instead driving straight up through New York State and into Connecticut. A dream comes true!

The other positive was the incredible weather, what is often referred to as an “Indian Summer” which I’m not sure may be an outdated term that is now considered politically incorrect. Does Al Gore use this term when discussing Global Warming? Probably not. I really am not sure on this one. Another way to put this: It was over eighty degrees in October.

No issues at the car rental place, pick up Beth and the Hotdog, and we are off, headed to the Triboro/RFK bridge. One hour in, our first stop, McDonald’s for breakfast. I learn that there is a new McMuffin, the Sausage McMuffin. Has this been around for a long time, not sure? I eat two and decide I would rather stick with the classic Egg McMuffin, although the thought of having one of each becomes intriguing as we cross from New York into Connecticut.

Our first stop is Jones Farm, searching for pumpkins. We go through two stone covered drives and a grass path before we reach the farm. There is a fall festival going on, complete with full parking lot and a guy who looks like Santa Claus (long white beard, big belly, and jolly) directing traffic. He plays into this yelling “Ho, Ho, Ho”, but I also suspect he goes home each night and debates shaving the beard as he drinks a lot of bourbon straight from the bottle. Dogs are not allowed so Beth goes in and grabs a couple “spooky” sized pumpkins and then we leave. On our way out I write down “I would like black canvas Chuck Taylors” on a piece of paper and put it into Santa’s pocket…just in case. Okay that didn’t happen. I forgot to write “canvas”.

A running element of the trip would be the lack of roads leading to farms and vineyards. This would get increasingly worse as we traveled on. The first stop was White Silo Vineyard. Armed with our Travel Zoo voucher (wine tasting, lunch, and tour) we enter and see we are the first there. The first of MANY groups armed with Travel Zoo vouchers visiting the vineyard. The owners are extremely nice and we are allowed to look at the large vats of wine and even allowed to dip our fingers and “taste” the wine. Most of their wine is made from fruit (other than grapes). Their rhubarb wines are especially nice and were a pleasant surprise. Given the beautiful day lunch was outside. Another common element would be the large amount of bees in Connecticut. We were constantly under attack by the little yellow and black bastards! For lunch we were joined by two young boys who loved the Hotdog, video games, and chopping plants. The food was good. The wine delicious. We left with three bottles.

The next stop after several highways and roads was Digrazi Vineyard. The tasting room was very busy and the Hotdog was unhappy (other dogs were around) and the older “comedian” that may have been (probably) the owner continued to entertain the crowds with jokes as he poured tastings of very good tasting wine. The wine was delicious. We left with three bottles.

Our final stop, McLaughlin vineyard was actually in the middle of nowhere. How we (or others) find this place is an adventure in itself. However, it is worth it. The tasting room is small, but there is a large outside area that is surrounded by cut fields and vines of grapes. You are able to drink wine, run around, and frolic through the grapes should you wish. Unfortunately the wine was not to our liking. We left with zero bottles. We head back to New York. There would be one more stop, this one unplanned.

Somewhere forty-five minutes north of the city you will find a small town named Monroe. This is where we pulled off for a quick coffee and bathroom break. The town is a couple miles off the highway so you have to drive through a town that boasts several quaint restaurants and wine bars along the main strip. Pass a Walgreens, CVS, and Rite Aid and you will eventually see a Dunkin Donuts in the distance.

Beth would go inside as I walk the dog. When she exited she was shocked and told a story that at the time was not very believable. After Beth insisted on staying inside the car with the doors locked, I decided to go check this out first hand. It didn’t take long to understand Beth’s reaction. Various people were seated at tables, all with the same look: 1. Permanent grin (with mouth open) 2. A dazed look, as if looking through any object in front of them 3. No teeth – the one exception would be the one or two silver/gold teeth from the mouth. I have always heard “meth” is a small town problem. I would go a step further and say in this small town it’s a Dunkin Donuts problem. During each moment I felt on the verge of something bad about to happen. I saw a door for office personnel and just assume that’s where they were cooking the methamphetamines. I left, quickly and sped out of Monroe back to New York City, where it is normal.

It’s not always how you write out the itinerary; sometimes it’s the adventure itself.

David S. Grant is the author of several books. His latest, BLOOD: The New Red will be available 11-11-11. For more information go to http://www.davidsgrant.com. Follow David on Twitter @david_s_grant

October 9, 2011

The Check-In/Check-Out Diaries: PISA

PISA

Running late from the Tuscan road trip we run into the train terminal, hit the “fast” something ticket machine and sprint to find the track empty, having to wait another 30 minutes for the next train that is delayed because it is a local train and regardless of the country you live in, if you have a “local” train it is always going to be delayed. Once we board it gets worse. There is no heat, the people are loud and angry and HOT, and it is looking like we are going to miss our reservation to go up into the leaning tower. As soon as the train starts, it stops. Starts again, and then stops again. It is getting darker which also means the “get a picture of the leaning tower like you are holding it up” may no longer be an option. Apparently this is not an option for Beth as she is willing the train to keep moving. Each time the train stops the conductor speaks something in Italian which leads to “Mama Mia!” chants and we can tell by the tone these are not good Mama Mia’s. Going forward I will always associate the phrase “Mama Mia” with shit going down. With seemingly everything working against us the story actually has a happy ending.

The train arrives one hour late, we hop into a taxi who takes us right to the leaning tower of Pisa and accompanying Duomo that runs parallel to a large park like field and a street of restaurants. It’s still light out when we take our “holding up the tower of Pisa” photos and then go to the ticket area to inquire about our now expired tickets. No problem, we are put into the next group where we go up into the tower and look out.

More pictures and then a quick dinner at a restaurant called the New York Café where we eat Pizza in Pisa with tower in view despite the asshole neighboring restaurant’s attempt to block the view with umbrellas. Here’s a Secret: Even in Pisa there are douche bags.

The train back is rather uneventful which is to say there are no Mama Mia’s and we are back in Florence within an hour, clutching onto the camera containing the photos of us holding up the leaning tower of Pisa.

David S. Grant is the author of several books. His latest, BLOOD: The New Red will be available 11-11-11. For more information go to http://www.davidsgrant.com. Follow David on Twitter @david_s_grant

September 24, 2011

The Check-In/Check-Out Diaries: The Hudson Valley

When planning a trip of wine tasting and farms through the Hudson Valley there is really only one rule: Do NOT drink wine the night before! Fail. Needless to say, the initial two hour drive from New York City wasn’t much fun for my wife and dog, but as we hit more vineyards and saw more crazy “farm stuff” you naturally begin to feel better. “THE HUDSON VALLEY – IT’S BETTER THAN GATORADE!”

Our first stop is Dressel Farms, near New Paltz known for their apple picking and homemade donuts. The biggest hit was watching our dog (mini-dachshund known as “hotdog”) go through grass piles. She acted as if this was the first grass pile she had ever seen. Actually this is true. In fact it is only about the third time she has seen grass. She is 100% city dog!

The first official vineyard stop was Robibero Family Vineyard, a sprawling vineyard complete with an elevated tasting room overlooking the many acres. Good white wine. Purchased three bottles. The next stop was Adair Winery, a winery with tastings in a large red barn just off hwy 30. Okay white wine. Purchased two bottles. For most of the trip radio station 101.5 was counting down the 1015 greatest rock songs. A lot of Van Halen and that strange lineup that happens with countdown shows of The Ramones followed by The Steve Miller Band followed by The Beatles. Also, I’m pretty sure “Wild Horses” by The Rolling Stones was played multiple times. After a quick stop at McDonald’s for cheeseburgers and chicken wraps we headed South on hwy 30 and stopped at Palaia Winery. If you ever wanted to taste wine with lesbian hippies straight from the sixties THIS is the place! Average white wine. Purchased two bottles. Next we headed to the Bed and Breakfast, located in Warwick.

Meadowlark Farms is located outside of the town itself and is small. It is also amazing! There are dogs, cats, and even a horse. The owner even took a picture of our dog, moving in close to make sure we were not included. After settling in there was a sense that we were missing something, then it hit us: Need to go to another winery. As luck would have it, the Warwick Winery was located a couple miles away. Good music and tastings made for a great end to the day. We discussed food, but instead decided on trying out an Italian place that was highly recommended. We stuck to the tastings. Great white wine. Purchased three bottles. All was good. Then it happened…

I do feel for the restaurants. Seeing the ZIPCAR sticker on the side of the Prius as it pulls into the parking lot they know there’s a good chance they are being intruded on by city folk. Add a dog and now it’s ON! This is how we arrive at the Italian restaurant, Daitaj.

We are seated in the outside seating area and served water when we are asked if we would be okay with switching tables. The waiter points to the end of the row and we oblige, get up and begin moving. What happens next is this: 1. A dining table is placed in the middle of the lawn (50 feet from any other table) 2. Chairs are added. 3. The waiter points to us and then at the table that is now 40 feet from the road and 50 feet from another table. There isn’t a lot more to say. We ate in silence, mostly because there wasn’t anyone around us. Lots of wine was consumed, lots of laughter, and there was a large bumble bee that almost turned the event into an even larger spectacle.

Back at Meadowlark Farms we split a wine on a side deck area where strange bugs and noises surrounded us in the deep covers of darkness. It felt like being on the set for Blair Witch 2.

Waking up the next morning we have breakfast and pack up. Too early for vineyards we find MONEY: The largest garden Gnome in the world is in upstate New York. We drive to Kessler Farms and there it is. I’ve seen the leaning tower of Pisa and The Coliseum in Rome. The Gnome is still third of the three, but I’m willing to discuss as a group. It’s pretty awesome! In addition to the Gnome you can find mini-golf and a “milk a cow” experience. These three items do not go together for me, but hey, different strokes for different folks.

On our way back we stop at Brotherhood Winery, create our own tasting and buy three more bottles of wine. We leave and it’s not long before we spot trouble: NEW JERSEY! The George Washington Bridge is backed up something nasty. Leave it to Jersey to try and screw up the weekend. After an exhausting two hours we make it back.

Finally home we drop off the Zipcar and unload the bottles of wine. Many bottles rest on our counter. I’m exhausted and staring at all of the bottles. After all the driving, tasting, eating in front lawns, and Jersey bridge drama I’m reminded of The Stones and the lyrics: “Wild Horses, couldn’t drag me away”…

David S. Grant is the author of several books including Corporate Porn, The Last Breakfast, and Happy Hour. His new novel, BLOOD: The New Red will be available in the fall. David lives and works in New York City. For more information go to www.davidsgrant.com. Follow David on Twitter: @david_s_grant.

September 17, 2011

The Check-In/Check-Out Diaries: Tuscany

TUSCAN ROAD TRIP – CHIANTI REGION

Out driver is late. We are waiting in front of the Best Western pondering whether our driver, Michele, is male or female and also realizing the large number of Silver Mercedes vans that are in the area. Michele (male) shows up and begins driving fast, leaving the city of Florence. On the way he discusses Chianti wine and then drives even faster (unsure if there is a link between discussing Chianti and Italian driver arousal – hoping we don’t find out). The valleys are vast with rolling hills, olive trees, and grapes. If the car is moving too fast and you miss the view, it’s okay, just look again and you will see another picturesque image. After 40 minutes the Castello di Verrazzano vineyard comes into focus. It looks like a distant castle, surrounded by miles of grapes. To make sure we don’t miss the start of the tour, Michele pushes down on the gas, flying around 90 degree turns with cliff like sides until we eventually navigate the winding roads into the winery area. We run (Michele may have picked a gate lock) and catch up with the tour that has just started.

The first room showcases wine they manufacture for chapels and the Vatican, Pope wine. We walk through the fermenting rooms and more cave-like areas full of barrels of mostly Chianti wine. When asked why the older barrels are more round versus the new ones more oval the answer is simply: “Because they fit through the door!” Life is simple on the vineyard. In addition to wine they make olive oil and lead us into rooms containing vintage olive oil and wine collections that have dust that appears to date back 100 years. The tour is highlighted by the Chianti tasting that includes Chianti Classico, Chianti Classico Reserve, and Super Tuscan wines. It’s before noon when we leave and are nicely buzzed already thanks to the ample tasting.

For the next 45 minutes Michele is driving fast around sharp turns while occasionally taking calls on his cell phone and checking email. The endless hills and greenery and postcard like shots appear to only change slightly each time you grab an eyeful. The second stop is Castello di Fonterutoli for more Chianti and then we are back on the road headed to San Gimigano, a medieval town that is known as medieval Manhattan because of its concrete towers. There is a quick diversion to see the Castle of Monteriggioni another small medieval area where 50 people still live today. Given the small quarters and lack of things to do it seems implausible that anyone would live there, then again, I look out into the Tuscan country and find it implausible that anyone would NOT want to live there. So I’m pretty confused. One thing we didn’t count on was that drinking Chianti and then driving for long periods of time makes a person VERY tired. By the time we hit San Gimigano we are both beat as we navigate the small alley like walk ways and take pictures with the towers and sprawling Chianti region to our backs. By the time we get back to the car we are running late and Michele once again begins driving very fast, only slowing down to grab his cell phone or talk about Siena where he lives. It was no secret that our tour guide was disappointed that Siena was not on our list as well as the fact that we were trying to squeeze so much into one day. When we asked him to take us to the train station so we could catch a train to Pisa, his response? “Why not!”

About the Author:
David S. Grant is the author of several books including Rock Stars (Oak Tree Press), Corporate Porn (Silverthought Press), The Last Breakfast (Brown Paper Publishing), and Happy Hour (SynergEbooks). His new novel, BLOOD: The New Red will be available in the fall. David lives and works in New York City. For more information go to www.fearandloathingtravel.com and www.davidsgrant.com follow David on Twitter: @david_s_grant.

September 5, 2011

The Check-In/Check-Out Diaries: Venice (part II)

VENICE (part II of II)

With all 4 maps out we worked our way back to our hotel from the Rialto area.  Two blocks still on the map and then all of a sudden you are doing circles in the street.  Lost.  Keep walking and eventually you find your way, usually with little help from your accompanying maps. 

The night desk manager, who looked like he was about to kill himself and was aptly nicknamed Mr. Personality, was also the bartender.  So the several requests for more Prosecco brought many deep sighs and grunting as he got out of his chair to go to the bar area so we could enjoy a drink on the terrace overlooking the Canal as the Venice night passed us by.

The next morning we had breakfast outside, on the second floor terrace.  It was probably the best breakfast we had had in Italy, which is to say is what good, not great.  We weren’t raving about the pears so that was a good thing.  Headed to Murano Island, the glass blowing capital of the world, we are accompanied by another couple (also staying at our hotel), from Philadelphia.  As the taxi docks we are immediately greeted and directed to sit down and watch a demonstration of the glass blowers.  The “tour guides” have split the groups.  Beth and I are with the Philly couple and a guide that looks like an Italian Rodney Dangerfield, complete with the cheese ball jokes and the “I get no respect” wobble.  After the demonstration we go through a gallery where the pieces start around five thousand Euro to no limit.  Three floors, not sure if there is an exit we find an escape route, leaving the Philly couple behind.  Last we heard they were still not accounted for.  After the great escape we have a Cappuccino, walk around, buy some glass and then head back to Venice in a water bus where we are dropped off near San Marco, the Piazza that really does pull you back in.  We have another Cappuccino at Florian, the world’s most expensive place to buy coffee and then (wearing pants) we go to Harry’s and have a Bellini.  No pictures are allowed in Harry’s so the fake-out iPhone pics are taken.  The Hard Rock is next to get a pin and then we decide to eat chicken and have a drink and then one more lap around San Marco to ensure everyone has gotten their souvenirs accounted for.

Ensured that we have enough David penis aprons and funny Venice hats to bring back home we take our Gondola ride through the side canals and even onto the Grand Canal for a moment and then back near San Marco where we break the Gelato curse and actually enjoy a cup of chocolate.  Dinner is had on the not-so-touristy side of The Rialto, we get lost heading back to the hotel, find our hotel, and then have Mr. Personality get us a Prosecco where we join a group of Norwegians at the hotel terrace and they begin singing “Take It Easy” and “New York, New York” and talking politics and then it is time to go to sleep.  The next morning brings a numbing feeling as we pack and arrange for a water taxi to take us to the airport.  In the breakfast room the Norwegians are still there.  They are smiling.  They are smiling because they have another day to spend in Venice.

David S. Grant is the author of several books.  His latest, The Italia Diary: A Travel Narrative with Inspired Fiction will be available shortly.  For more information go to http://www.davidsgrant.com.  Follow David on Twitter @david_s_grant

August 5, 2011

The Check-In/Check Out Diaries: Venice (part I)

VENICE (part I of II)

There are people who take the train and then there are just plain annoying “train people”.  On our way to Venice from Florence I go to the bar car where a lot of people are lined up waiting for food.  A fairly large, middle aged woman (presumably from Minnesota) is holding up the line trying to find the Italian word for Mayonnaise because she doesn’t understand that a ham and cheese in Italy doesn’t come with condiments.  Everyone in the car is yelling, finally she leaves.  She gets back to her seat and hands her husband the sandwich.  He asks for the Mayo and she explains that she didn’t get any.  The husband is visibly disappointed, the wife defeated.  Train people.   

One step out of the train station and you are bombarded by first the amount of tourists, and second, the beauty.  Yes, the canals of Venice are really that amazing.  Who would have known?  The first question I was hit with (while staring at a bridge that goes over the Grand Canal) was how are we going to get to our hotel with our 130lb of luggage?  There is no way I was going to spend the next couple hours trying to navigate Venice after failing in both Rome and Florence.  Luckily we found a water taxi and he took us to our front (or is it back door) of our hotel, San Cassiano, located on the Grand Canal.

The San Cassiano did us well, hooking us up with a Grand Canal view suite complete with sitting area, day bed, and chandelier.  After a few moments taking it all in from our windows above the water we headed out, toward the Rialto Bridge.  I don’t believe I have ever traveled 100 feet and been lost.  I felt lost around every corner in Venice it was impressive to say the least.  Armed with 4 maps and an iPhone with GPS was no help.  Eventually we found enough signs pointing to The Rialto to get us to the bridge.  Souvenirs, tourists, gelato, tourists, more gelato, and even more tourists sums up this bridge over the Grand Canal, lined with restaurants, shopping, and gondola guys wanting to take you out for a spin through the canals.  Cross the bridge and in no time you will find yourself headed to San Marco Piazza, the center of Venice with restaurants, drinking, live music, and many pigeons waiting to be fed and fly up into your arms and onto your shoulders.  We drink Prosecco and listen to music than walk around and find Harry’s bar, the creator of the Bellini, but I am not allowed in because I am wearing shorts so we have a Spritz at a bar that contains awful tasting liquor named Aperol and then we are back near the Rialto where we have another sub-par dinner of pasta and pizza.

Venice doesn’t have that one thing.  There is no Coliseum, no David, no leaning tower.  The city itself, the canals and narrow streets is the thing.  Walking and getting lost (every couple steps) and looking down each street it feels like an adventure waits.  The adventure isn’t necessarily spooky, in fact, often it’s just a small gelato stand.  Take the adventure.  We walk and get lost, very lost this time.  Walking through streets that we don’t know if we’ve seen before and circling around is more the norm than the exception here.  If you are lucky enough to have a clear day with only a few white clouds in the air, it looks like the Las Vegas Venetian, that is to say it looks so perfect, it looks fake.

David S. Grant is the author of several books.  His latest, The Italia Diary: A Travel Narrative with Inspired Fiction will be available shortly.  For more information go to http://www.davidsgrant.com.  Follow David on Twitter @david_s_grant

July 24, 2011

The Check-In/Check-Out Diaries: Madrid

The Check-In/Check-Out Diaries: Madrid

What is the walk away percentage at the Chili’s restaurant in JFK airport?  15%?  20%?  Thoughts while waiting for my buffalo chicken salad: wondering whether the people in Spain aspire to be Flamenco dancers and Bullfighters the same way Lawyers and Doctors once were in the states.  I’m put at ease once my salad arrives and I remember that the residents of Madrid still believe in the siesta and call all hats sombreros.

Madrid By Night
Walking onto the plane Beth and I are forced to squeeze into our seats due to a rude couple in front that insists on having their seat backs.  At this point I’m fully expecting a flight attendant to lean over and punch me.  I can’t be more uncomfortable.  Then it happens.  We look around and realize the whole middle section is open.  The rest of the flight is trouble free, the pasta dinner?  Almost enjoyable.

Thursday Morning

It is still dark when we arrive at our hotel in Madrid’s Plaza de Santa Anna.  A square located near Old Madrid, in the center of the city.  Our hotel, the ME Madrid, used to be a Hard Rock Hotel, it now bears little resemblance and there are no cheeseburgers in sight.

Given the time our hotel isn’t ready and our friends Terence and Olya (you may remember them from such adventures as Amsterdam and Dublin) have yet to arrive.  We walk around the block to enjoy an Espresso and Cappuccino.  Once our friends arrive we decide to begin our adventure and head toward Old Madrid.  On our way we are greeted by soldiers and pedestrians dressed as soldiers with horses.  It is a lot to take in this early in the morning so we head to a restaurant near Plaza Mayor and have another round of Espressos and Cappuccinos.

Plaza Mayor

A walk around Old Madrid and The Palace is followed by several beers at a couple of the thousand of tapas bars lining the streets.  After, we head back to Plaza de Santa Anna for more beers, a shoe shine, and pictures with an accordion player.  It is midday Thursday and the plaza is full of locals drinking and having a good time.  It’s at this time we make a plan to have a short siesta, have dinner, and turn in early because tomorrow is museum day.

Thursday Night

Back in Old Madrid we eat pizza and have wine, beer, and Mojitos at a tapas place just outside one of the Plaza Mayor arches.  Feeling a little bit too touristy we head down Cava Baja where the streets are lined with sunken wine and tapas bars.  After much more wine and beer we decide to head back closer to our hotel.  On the way back we decide we need to make another stop so we have another round inside Plaza Mayor.  As we are enjoying our drinks an elderly woman approaches (too closely) and startles me.  Thinking she is there to take away my libation I quickly brush her away only to realize that she wanted to do a caricature of the table. Realizing my mistake I chase her down and she joins our table, sketching our comical faces and presumably cursing us under her breath.

Back near the ME Madrid we find a back alley of bars, settling on one with live Flamenco singing (called La Flamenco).  We order wine and Margaritas, followed by tapas (two hundred fried jalapeño peppers on a plate), followed by wine and beer.  As the locals belted out the songs with the singer we sat in the back enjoying the show and the bull hanging on the wall.  After the show we all agreed we should meet around 10am the next morning to head to the museums.

It was around 1am when we all came back to our room, had another drink and decided we should go see our hotel rooftop club called The Penthouse.  After several Margaritas, wine, and several more Margaritas we decide we should go back out for food and a nightcap.  We found a bar where we all had a glass of wine and came up with some chant that started with the word “ole” and ended with the word “ole”.  It was after 3am Terence and Olya split to find food while Beth and I ducked into a little wine bar near our hotel.  This is where we met the Spanish Richard Branson.  Despite appearing as if they were closing we were waved in two have not one, but two nightcaps.  Branson, who spoke English, talked to us and invited us to come back to his bar during our stay. 

Friday Morning (actually afternoon)

After ordering sixty Euros worth of breakfast food we hardly touched we slowly got ready, trying to recall the previous night.  Eventually we met back up with Terence and Olya in the hotel lobby.  It was approximately 1pm.

On our way to the Museo Del Prado we stop at a tapas bar for food.  Terence orders Gazpacho, Beth and Olya Cappuccinos, and I order an Espresso that quickly leads to an Abbot and Costello type routine of the Spanish waiter yelling “GUZPACHO!” and me saying “No, ESPRESSO!”  This went on for ten minutes.  At one point another glass of gazpacho was brought over in an attempt to convince me this is what I wanted.  Eventually an Espresso was brought over and peace restored.

Inside the Museo Del Prado rooms and rooms of paintings covered the walls.  Easily to get lost and not know what you have seen or not seen it didn’t help that we were all very hung over and sweating out our cocktails from the night before.  In addition to the glorious works on display it was the many paintings of little people (or dwarfs or midgets) and the penitence works of men holding a stone debating on whether to kill themselves – with the stone.   It was a lot to take in after a rough night.

Museo del Prado

After Museo Del Prado a stop not on the itinerary is made.  Welcome to Burger King, home of the Whopper!  Most ate cheeseburgers and then we were on our way to Reina Sofia museum to view many Picasso works and be lied to by employees when asking where specific works were on display.  Outside the museum we find an information booth and receive information on potential bullfights.

Friday Night

We find a pizzeria nearby, drink wine and eat pizza, and then navigate through more alleys to our destination: Corral de la Moreria, a Flamenco dancing show.  We are early so we have another bottle of wine then go in and are poured more glasses of wine.  The show itself is nothing short of magnificent.  The men, women, and stomping take us all by surprise.  Tears are shed.  More wine is drunk.

Back at Plaza de Santa Anna we decide to have one more bottle of wine and then retire because we have a busy day of travel (Toledo) the next day.  We have another bottle then go back to our room and make a run at emptying the mini bar.  A video is shot for the song “My name is Terence”, we decide Saturday night will be “a heart pumper.”

Saturday morning (actually early afternoon)

Inside the train station we get our tickets and head on a full train (kicked out of random seats we attempt to sit in) to Toledo.  On our arrival, still in a haze from the night before, we mistakenly get on the white bus.  After pictures in front of the old city, waiting for more horses (it was police day so there was a parade) we eventually pull up to the city and take the escalator up to the center part of the city.  Once inside we are starving, and still in a haze from the night before, we pick the worst restaurant in Toledo.  Unsatisfied, we continue our walk and tour the cathedral (Beth cursed ninety seconds after entry), then peer into the stores of souvenirs and knives.  We find our bus back to the train station and before we know it are back at the ME Madrid taking a brief siesta, preparing for the “heart pumper”.

Toledo

Saturday Night

A short taxi ride and very long walk found us starting our night in the neighborhood Malasana.  Known for rock music and eighties vibe it was also very young.  Inside a loud death metal bar young white power appeared to be in full swing contradicted only by the song being played titled, “Don’t Call Me White”.  After much walking, bar hopping, and four rounds we headed back to Plaza de Santa Anna.  Two more rounds were had and then another back at La Flamenca, we danced with the Mariachi players, and then ducked into the Spanish Richard Branson bar.

With a Mojito bar on site (a guy only known as Rico Suave) the drinks began to flow freely.  After the second round Terence decided he needed to go back to the hotel to use the facilities.  After he left something happened.  We started to get free drinks from Spanish Richard Branson and friends.

Sunday Morning (actually mid afternoon)

With our hearts still pumping, Beth and I order room service and slowly get ready.  We meet Terence and Olya and slowly make it to the park.  It is a very slow walk.  At the park we walk more and see greenhouses and a statue of the devil (the only one in the world I believe).  Food is ordered at a tapas bar, but never received.  We drink Diet Cokes and then go to McDonald’s and then off to the bullfights.

Given the bullfight lasts two hours I was under the assumption it would be more of a production and “last” two hours.  With a packed house of locals the bull appeared and within ten minutes was down.

Sunday Night

We start off at the two for one happy hour block (we have bottle of wine #1) and then trek through the shady area of Madrid looking for a bar that doesn’t exist.  Back near Plaza de Santa Anna we have bottle of wine #2 and then bottle of wine #3.  Venturing out (a block) we stop at Viva Madrid and have bottle of wine #4 and then decide a nightcap should be had so two blocks over we have bottle of wine #5.  It was 1am when we decided to go back to the rooftop hotel bar and have another two rounds of drinks.  Sometime after 2am we made it to Terence and Olya’s room where a dance party broke out.

Monday Morning (7am)

After a very early wakeup call Beth and I were stuck in traffic due to a car accident.  After one hour we are realize we will not make our flight.  Nursing a four-day hangover we somehow check in, check our luggage, and make it through immigration and security in less than fifteen minutes.

As I was walking on the plane with my severe headache thoughts of the past late nights rushed my brain.  Madrid is a place of partying late and enjoying life.  The next day trying to remember what happened the night before while at the same time making new memories.  Days pass, weeks pass and still memories (or flashbacks) from the four nights returns.

Madrid is the type of hangover that never goes away.

July 9, 2011

The Check-In/Check-Out Diaries: FLORENCE

It’s early when we get on the train in Rome to go to Florence.  We are also hungry and for some reason, regardless of the time of day, I will crave an Amtrak cheeseburger when I board a train.  Here’s a secret: If you ever crave an Amtrak cheeseburger you should probably seek help, immediately.  A quick nap, rolling hills passing by, and rather quickly we arrive in Florence.  Across from the train station we are greeted with a McDonald’s.  Interesting is that there are no Starbucks in Italy.  With no hesitation or discussion we grab a taxi and travel approximately 500 feet to our hotel.  Our hotel is a Best Western that has to be one of the nicest of the chain, located a stones throw from The Duomo, and complete with a rooftop terrace and nightly wine tasting.

It’s early so we leave our luggage and head to The Duomo and we grab a quick breakfast (ham and cheese sandwich for breakfast?  Why Not?) and tour the inside of the chapel and do NOT wait in line to climb stairs to the top.   Initial impression of Florence:  Lots of tourists and lots of children.  Around the corner from the Duomo area is a street with several pizzerias, including one named O’ Vesuvio which is where The Jersey Shore gang is currently filming and “working”.  This particular day it appeared they were filming.  We came to this conclusion from the shaved head security outside and the losers signing release forms in the side alley which could only look more degrading (and regrettable) if the clipboard said Taxi Cab Confessions.

The Piazza della Signoria is where you will find replica statues, including David as well as several museums surrounding the area.  We gawk and then go to La Terrazza at La Rinascente, a rooftop terrace overlooking The Duomo and city of Florence.  We drink wine and eat pasta and drink a little more wine and then go back and take another look at the statues and then walk through the markets where there is a wild boar.  Put a coin in the boar’s mouth, if falls into the grate below you will someday come back to Florence.  If not, a man comes out and cuts you with a knife.  Actually that is not true; actually I don’t think any of it is true.  With more time to kill before our reservation to see David at Museo de Accademia we decide it is time to try this must have Gelato that we see on every corner of this city.  We order a small chocolate to share.  It doesn’t take long to see why everyone (who isn’t smoking) is eating gelato.  Then it happens.  The ice cream is messy so Beth reaches in her bag for a “Wet Ones” wipe to clean off the ice cream from her face and hands.  Instead she grabs an OFF mosquito repellent wipe (I am allergic to mosquitoes) and wipes her hands and face.  Well it doesn’t take long before there is a mild allergic reaction and we are running down the street trying to find a bathroom.  After stops at McDonald’s, a pharmacy, and several F bombs we arrive at the museum.  Here’s a secret: Don’t wipe your mouth with OFF!  Here’s another secret: Get your tickets ahead of time for a reserved time slot, or else you won’t get in.  We go in and take pictures of David.  Here’s another secret: Pictures are not allowed, but they aren’t really watching that closely.  Is David as impressive as heard?  It’s pretty close.  The features are astounding and there is a presence to this statue that is missing in others.  I have yet to rank the art I have seen in my lifetime, but when I do I will definitely put David ahead of the Mona Lisa. Italy 1 France 0.

Lost again, we end up by Ponte Santa Trinita, a bridge built in 1252 that has houses built into the side and shops lining the inside.  We cross, drink wine and watch birds land on tables and knock off glasses, crashing to the ground into many shards.  Our dinner reservation is at a restaurant called Golden View, given because of the view of the Ponte Santa Trinita and no relation to Golden Showers.  It is really a bad name for a great restaurant that pours Prosecco as you wait for you table.  We enjoy excellent pasta, chicken, and vegetables along with lots of wine and a waiter who may be a little bit insane.  At this point we have realized how to get back to our hotel – follow the giant MARTINI sign – which is easy to remember.  After dinner we walk through Piazza della Republlica and drink more Prosecco and then find a small café near our hotel for one more glass of Prosecco.  At this point we have cut back the attempts at the language to Gratzie and Prego (Thanks and Your Welcome) except for when drinking, continuing to rape the language, often to laughter.  It is late and we have to get up early because we have a car picking us up for wine tasting (SEE TUSCAN ROAD TRIP -  CHIANTI REGION), followed by a trip to Pisa (SEE PISA).  So we have one more glass of Prosecco.

After our Tuscan road trip and Pisa train rides we are back the next night in Florence walking through Santa Croce Plaza where there is a live concert of rock/pop/opera, and then lost, and then we fine the only Mexican restaurant in Italy (Tijuana), drink Margaritas (almost thought we were getting shut out for not being locals-but was not the case: Italy 2 France 0), and then are lost again (unable to see MARTINI sign) until we find Piazza della Signoria where we have more wine and look out at the statues lining the square.

The next morning there is a trip to the top of the tower next to The Duomo, a big breakfast, shopping in the market place that specializes in leather and souvenirs.  Everyone says “Negotiate. Negotiate.  Negotiate” with the vendors, but I am not a good salesman and we end up paying full price for our little David statues and other junk we will give to people so they can place it in their junk drawers at home.  Armed with our now over 130lb of luggage due to increasing souvenir purchases we arrange for a taxi and he drives us 500 feet from our hotel to the train station where we are headed to Venice.  Important to note that up to this point I have not seen one ponytail.

David S. Grant is the author of several books.  His latest, The Italia Diary: A Travel Narrative with Inspired Fiction is now available.  For more information go to http://www.davidsgrant.com.  Follow David on Twitter @david_s_grant