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Football and Thanksgiving Dinner in Austin, Texas

November 28, 2013 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Nothing goes together quite as well as Turkey Day and pigskin. Thanksgiving (which this year falls on November 28th) is a day for getting together with friends and family to give thanks for them, but it is also a day for rooting for your favorite team in our country’s favorite organized sport—football. The day gets at the two things that, to my mind, characterize America most—community and competition. Some people might say that Independence Day is the most American holiday of them all, but I say it is Thanksgiving.

Visit Austin, Texas, for Turkey Day

Texas is the most football-rich Thanksgiving destination around. At 4:30 E.T. on Thanksgiving, the Oakland Raiders play the Dallas Cowboys at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. And at 7:30, the Texas Tech Red Raiders play the Texas Longhorns at Darrell K. Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium in Austin. Texas is a state that takes its football seriously. It’s not for nothing that Friday Night Lights, a TV show about a high school football team struggling to be the best, is set in small-town Texas. The Red Raiders are rated tenth in the country this year, and the Longhorns are not rated at all. That does not keep the Longhorns’ fans from believing, though. Longhorns fans really love their team. And to love your team, you have to believe they can be the best.

Austin is a great Thanksgiving destination this year. Even if you don’t have tickets to the game, you will get a vibrant football experience in Austin. Watching the Longhorns and Cowboys games at a sports bar in Austin is totally unlike watching the games elsewhere. The crowds get so worked up, and the camaraderie is so tight, you really feel like you’re sitting on the fifty yard line at a game.

And you’ve got a lot of great Austin restaurants to choose from for your Thanksgiving meal. 24 Diner does a Thanksgiving dinner so good you’ll swear they’ve got nothing but loving grandmas on their kitchen staff. 24 Diner is one of those great high-class food, casual-atmosphere restaurants that are cropping up in America’s hipper cities. The folks at 24 Diner kept all the great stuff about diners (a homey feel, friendly wait staff, and an American-fare-based menu) and ditched all the lousy stuff (mediocre food, less-than-mediocre coffee, and cooks with cigarettes dangling out of their mouths).

At the Bakehouse Restaurant and Bar on Thanksgiving, you get the all-you-can-eat experience that you get at home without having to do any of the chores. For a very reasonable price, you can have all the classic Thanksgiving cuisine you desire  (gravy-covered turkey and ham, mashed potatoes, pumpkin pie, and much more). And you get wait service, so you don’t have to stand in a long line waiting to pile up your plate. After having your fill of food, you can get your fill of football at one of Austin’s many great sports bars.

When your Thanksgiving Day is done and it’s time to relax, I suggest heading to an Extended Stay America hotel. Some travelers think of Extended Stay hotels like a tortoise shell on their backs—their own personal home on the road.      

On the Road with the Country’s Best Tribute Bands

November 26, 2013 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Do you ever wish you could go see some of the all-time great rock bands—some of the ones that just aren’t coming back? Have you watched all the concert videos, listened to the albums hundreds of times, and found all the obscure footage on YouTube? There are definitely some bands I feel that way about. I wish I had seen the Beatles. Even with the din of shouting fans, it would have been great to see them rocking out together. I would have loved to see the Grateful Dead in their heyday—the Dead jamming for hours, sending thousands of Deadheads into a trance. And how about Frank Zappa? You knew you were going to get the whole package with Zappa: great music plus a great show. We can’t go see these rock and roll originals, but there are some great tribute bands out there recreating the experience of seeing them live. And they don’t just recreate seeing these great bands on any old night. They recreate the experience of going to see one of these bands’ best shows every time they play. While you’re out on the road this fall, treat yourself to an experience you won’t forget. Memories are what vacations are about, right?

The Fab Four: A Beatles Tribute Band

The Fab Four are capable of recreating every single Beatles era. They are the real deal in every way. Some Beatles cover bands sound pretty spot on musically, but look like regular run-of-the-mill dudes. The Fab Four both sound and look like the Beatles—down to the sharp era-specific outfits. Gavin Pring, who plays George Harrison, even mimics that insouciant look off to the side that Harrison gave when he was absorbed in playing guitar. The band did a show for PBS station KCPT for their June 2012 pledge drive that will transport you back to the heady days of Beatlemania. You’ll be up on your feet and dancing (and maybe even screaming like the Beatles fans in the mid-sixties did) in no time.

Dark Star Orchestra: A Grateful Dead Cover Band

Dark Star Orchestra (on the road October through December) is like the farm team for Furthur, the band fronted by the two living members of the Grateful Dead—guitarist Bob Weir and bassist Phil Lesh. Further plucks members of Dark Star Orchestra (such as lead guitarist John Kadlecik) to go out on the road with them. That close connection with Further is proof of the quality of Dark Star Orchestra. Dark Star Orchestra frequently recreates set lists from the best of the best Dead shows. If you want to hear a legendary Dead show in person (maybe one you’ve been listening to as a poor-quality bootleg for years), Dark Star Orchestra is your ticket.

Zappa Plays Zappa: A Frank Zappa Tribute Band

Frank Zappa was a great showman, not just a great songwriter and a great guitarist. You can see his love of entertaining in the names he gave his children. One of his children, Dweezil Zappa, is recreating his father’s music—even using some of the musicians who played in Frank’s legendary bands. Zappa Plays Zappa is on tour through March playing the entire Frank Zappa album Roxy and Elsewhere, as well as other crowd-pleasing Zappa songs.    

After a night checking out the sounds of yesteryear, you’ll be ready to kick back like a rock star. There’s only one hotel where you get the rock-star treatment at a reasonable price—Extended Stay America.     

Take to the Road in Preparation for National Novel Writing Month

November 20, 2013 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

November is National Novel Writing Month—a month when folks who’ve been talking about writing that great American novel get in the ring and write the thing. Having a deadline can be a great motivator. National Novel Writing Month gives the gift of motivation to aspiring novelists. The other ingredient one needs to write a novel is inspiration. Novelists are inspired by having new experiences. And there’s no better way to have new experiences than getting out on the road. Back at home, we can fall into a common and comfortable routine. But on the road, everything is new, exiting, and quite possibly inspiring.

Take Inspiration from the Greats

Jack Kerouac famously spent years out on the road and mere weeks turning that experience into his great novel, aptly titled On the Road. Like most writers whose subject is a road trip, Kerouac seems to have been searching for America—trying to find the meaning of what it meant to be an American. You really get the feeling that this is what it was all about for Kerouac when you read his introduction to Robert Frank’s The Americans, a book of photographs that captures the many sides of America at mid-century. A great Frank/Kerouac-inspired idea for generating fodder for your novel is taking photos while out on the road. The old saying that a picture is worth a thousand words is not off the mark. And a thousand words equals four pages in your novel!

Discover Your Own America

Some people would say that the America of Jack Kerouac and Robert Frank is gone, and they would be right. One of the great things about America is that it is a very dynamic country. Like a jazz song, it is always changing. But that does not mean the things that intrigued Kerouac and Frank about America are not out there. There is still a unique American character to be discovered. There are still cohesive communities of distinct individuals in the country. And there are still eccentric small towns and bustling big cities. Just listen to Garrison Keillor telling stories of his fictional Lake Wobegon, Minnesota, on his weekly radio show A Prairie Home Companion, to hear all these things represented in modern American fiction. Keillor has created a fictional town that is based in reality. Keillor even wrote an article for National Geographic magazine discussing several Minnesota towns that are very much like Lake Wobegon. You’ve got to get out there and find your own slice of the USA that is (in the tradition of the great fictional locales) both very unique and very American.

Find Your Voice

No story has ever been written to death. There is always another interesting way to approach a series of events or a subject. If you write about a small town in Minnesota (as Keillor does) or a road trip from New York to California and back (as Kerouac did in On the Road), you might end up writing the next great American novel. The great thing about American art is that it always contains pieces of what has come before it.

After a day of gathering ideas for your great American novel, you’ll be ready to relax for the evening at a great American hotel. Extended Stay America is your reliable home away from home. Found in many unique locales, these hotels are always amenity rich and very affordable.     

Castles in America

November 17, 2013 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

When people think of castles, they generally think of Europe, right? Of ancient dukes and duchesses and kings and queens. And when they think of American castles, they think of Disney’s Magic Kingdom. Well, like a lot of assumptions, this one is mistaken. Right here in the USA, we’ve got enough castles to fill up all of Shakespeare’s history plays and more. As you might guess (since these castles happen to be in a country that was founded after the castle’s heyday had passed into the mists of history), these castles have interesting backstories. So let’s get in the car and explore America’s architectural linkage to the European Middle Ages. 

Grey Towers Castle: Arcadia University, Pennsylvania

Now a functional part of Arcadia University, Grey Towers Castle started its life as the pièce de résistance of the estate of sugar-refining magnate William Welsh Harrison. The castle was designed by prominent architect Horace Trumbauer—architect to the wealthy during a time when there were quite a lot of rich people around (the period known as the Gilded Age). Built in imitation of the UK’s Alnwick Castle, which has been called the best representation of the medieval style of castle building extant, Grey Towers Castle is a massive forty-room building. The interior is more Versailles than medieval castle. Look up, and you’ll see that the ceilings are gilded (like the age!). And don’t miss the mirror room. No tribute to Versailles would be complete without a mirror room. In the true American fashion, this castle is a mixture of styles—an improvisation on a theme. And it’s a true joy.

Hammond Castle: Gloucester, Massachusetts  

Hammond Castle was a home, science lab, and fortress for John Hays Hammond, Jr., who had the castle completed in 1929. Hammond made his fortune with his invention of radio remote-control technology. John Hays Hammond, Jr. is the reason that I was able to play with remote-control cars as a kid. Thank you, John Hays Hammond, Jr.! Hammond loved the art and artifacts of the medieval period. Hammond Castle housed his extensive collection of suits of armor and tapestries. The castle, though, was not built in a medieval style. It is modeled after Renaissance-style castles—which were less fortified and more stylized than medieval castles. The castle blends nicely with the rock-studded shoreline of the Atlantic Ocean. Hammond Castle’s got everything you’d expect from an eccentric inventor—a pipe organ, an entire two-story house that was shipped from France (it’s in the courtyard), and secret passages galore. Since you can take self-guided tours of the place, you can enjoy all of this to your heart’s content.

Fonthill Castle: Doylestown, Pennsylvania

If you’re looking for a castle designed as a truly crazy quilt of architectural styles, look no further than Fonthill Castle. Fonthill combines the Byzantine, the medieval, and the Gothic into an exciting whole. Fonthill Castle is also a child-friendly museum called Mercer Museum. There is currently an exhibit called The Mystery of the Mayan Medallion that will teach you and your kids about archeology and ancient Mayan civilization, and exercise your minds. Come for the castle—stay for the “edutainment”!

After a day of looking at other people’s castles, you’ll be ready to retire to one of your own. At an Extended Stay America hotel, you get all the amenities of a castle, but not the draftiness—or the price.

Good Eats on Interstate 5

November 8, 2013 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Taking a road trip can be a great way to get away from burdens and hassles and to get closer to your loved ones. In that way, a road trip is very good for your health. What is not good for your health, though, is the fact that there often seems to be little else to eat out on the highway than greasy, uniform fast food. There is one stretch of highway in the country, though, that just happens to be lined with unique, independently owned eateries. The stretch of Interstate 5 running from Portland, Oregon, to Mt. Shasta, California, is a veritable road-food gourmet’s paradise.

Nong’s Khao Man Gai: Portland, Oregon

You are advised to do some eating while in Portland. This picturesque city is known for its food trucks—gourmet kitchens on wheels. Nong’s Khao Man Gai is a top-notch Thai restaurant with three locations in Portland that started out as a food truck. As the best food trucks do, Nong’s Khao Man Gai planted roots and settled on a few steady locations to satisfy its many loyal customers. The dish that keeps legions coming back to Nong’s is, of course, the khao man gai—which is organic chicken that is poached and spread over rice with a sauce made of ginger, chili peppers and broth. You almost won’t want to leave Portland, the dish is so good. But, believe me, the ride is well worth it.

Heaven on Earth Restaurant and Bakery: Azalea, Oregon

There’s nothing like pulling up to a country-style café after miles of driving through beautiful, verdant scenery. Nothing builds up the appetite like beautiful sites going by at forty miles an hour. And there’s no place better to eat than sitting by a window overlooking a breathtaking rural landscape. Once you walk through the door of Heaven on Earth, you are struck by the pleasantly sweet smells of cookies and pies baking. It’s kind of like that smell you’re hit with when you wake up Thanksgiving morning and someone has already been baking for hours. You are struck by the great smells and by the love that they express. That’s what Heaven on Earth is like. You can really feel the love in this place. From the copious free samples to the warmth of the wait staff, this restaurant is as inviting as can be. I recommend the cinnamon rolls, which take up a whole plate and are enough food for two.

 The Goat Tavern: Mt. Shasta, California   

The Goat Tavern is super-funky, with character to spare. It looks a bit more like someone’s house than a restaurant. The ceiling is lined with beer taps for decoration and to inform the visitor of their priorities. There are frequently local blues combos playing to heighten the laid-back party ambiance. The burger topped with onion rings is just perfect. The meat is high quality, and the onion rings are just the right amount burnt. Add a side of garlic fries and you’ve got pure bliss. Don’t forget the views of majestic Mt. Shasta, with its peak frequently piercing clouds. You’ve got the recipe for a wonderful afternoon or evening here.

After a day cruising I-5 and doing some good eating, you’ll be ready for some good relaxing. The best and most homelike respite from the highway out there is definitely an Extended Stay America hotel, where you’ll find all the amenities of home, like a kitchen, (free!) Wi-Fi, TV with DVD player, and washer and dryer on the property. 

Explore Native American Heritage in Plymouth, Massachusetts

November 4, 2013 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Since 1990, November has been Native American Heritage Month. There is no better time to get in touch with this continent’s first inhabitants than right now. Native American history is a rich bedrock of culture that is not acknowledged frequently enough. Poet, novelist, and short story writer Sherman Alexie has complained that Native Americans just don’t have the significant national influence that they deserve. One of his cases in point is that there are still major American sports teams that use Native Americans as their mascots (which many people find insulting). Since the president signaled recently that he feels a name change for the Washington Redskins would be appropriate, that debate might finally get somewhere.

Not all discussions of Native Americans are so politicized, though. There are many museums in the country that focus primarily on the richness of Native American life, art, and culture. Plimoth Plantation is one such museum. Plimoth Plantation is an exciting museum that attempts to portray the Plymouth Colony and the Wampanoag Indian village next to it as they actually were in the seventeenth century.     

Plimoth Plantation: Plymouth, Massachusetts

The Wampanoag Homesite is the first exhibition you will encounter in this open-air museum. It is appropriate that this is first, as it represents a settlement of one of America’s first peoples. Actors playing period Wampanoag go about their lives—fishing, hunting, gathering, farming, and basket weaving. You will also encounter the sight and smell of food being cooked over an open flame. Everything is as historically accurate as possible. The food being roasted was all available to the Wampanoag in the seventeenth century. So you’re really seeing all the sights and smelling all the smells that a Wampanoag Indian would have seen and smelled at home. You will also see recreations of the two main Wampanoag structures: a wetu (a basic house) and a nush wetu, a longhouse that is covered with bark.

The most interesting aspects of the Wampanoag Homesite at Plimoth Plantation, though, are the actors. They are different from the actors playing the Pilgrims. While the Pilgrims are all just actors, the people portraying seventeenth century Wampanoag are Native Americans—many of them Wampanoag. They are dressed in period clothing, and they portray work and recreation in historically accurate ways. (Ask to be shown how to play the Wampanoag game of hubbub, a game that was played at the first Thanksgiving. You will be glad you did.) These period actors, though, will gladly discuss Wampanoag history with you from their own point of view as modern Native people. Thus, you will learn a lot about both an ancient Native American culture and modern Native American points of view.

After a day at Plimoth Plantation, you will be ready to come back to modern times and take advantage of modern conveniences. Be on the lookout for all the amenities you are used to having at home—a full kitchen, free Wi-Fi, a flatscreen TV and a washer and dryer.