a perfect rainy (or snowy) day in Washington, D.C.

Don’t be discouraged when you note that the Jefferson Memorial is a little out of your way – it’s worth the trip (and, they have the NICEST restrooms….just FYI)

Rainy days can be cozy and contemplative. A little drizzle outside can provide a terrific backdrop for a hot cup of tea, a good book and curling up in a warm spot. Nevertheless, it’s not always optimal when your plan was to tour a new city. Are you just a little disappointed when that happens? I am. Obviously, rain means wet clothes, bad hair, umbrellas….and let’s face it: The same is true of snow. Sure, it’s pretty for a second and it would be great if snow stayed in solid state. Unfortunately, though, it’ll turn to wet momentarily, which means everything I just said about rain. Inclement weather days can be to your advantage (i.e. fewer crowds) if you know how to structure them. Here are my ideas for salvaging a wet vacation day in Washington, D. C.

I’ll walk you through a day that I think could suit the most disheartened traveler and one that she’ll come to remember fondly. Reminder: Always know the local weather and look it up before you pack. Just like we’ve talked about before, keep a travel umbrella stashed in your suitcase …always. And, wrap it in a reusable plastic bag. This way, when you transfer it to your carryall for a rainy day, you’ll have a way to store your wet umbrella without leaving it at a storefront, or loose (and dripping) in your bag. Before you even leave home, you’ll want to know the rain and snow chances so that you can pack shoes and jackets accordingly. With this safely accomplished, I feel certain you’re dressed appropriately and ready to stroll out your hotel door.

Where to start:

My favorite place to stay in DC lately is The Mayflower Hotel. It’s part of Marriott’s Autograph collection, which means it’s a boutique hotel with special little touches throughout. We once spent Christmas in one of their one-bedroom suites. The separate living area was a spacious room with a sectional sofa that pulled out into a bed. And, it surrounded a working fireplace. The rates are surprisingly affordable. So, say you switch off your fireplace and pull on your galoshes, head down to the lobby and get a cup of complimentary joe to go. Assuming you want to start your day with a hot breakfast, I’m going to direct you to Kramerbooks and Afterwords Cafe. It’s walkable from the hotel and open for breakfast until well past dinner. Aside from having really good food all day, the café is nestled within a book store.

Outside Union Station is the US Postal Museum – if you’re waiting for a train to depart and find yourself with time to spare, treat yourself to a visit with Owney.

DC is easy to navigate by train, and I’ve started you out between 2 convenient stations. Pick your favorite topic and I assure you the Smithsonian has a FREE museum to interest you. Ask my son his favorite stop, it’s always the Air & Space Museum, followed closely by the Botanical Gardens. I can’t pass up a chance to see Marie Antoinette’s jewelry in the Natural History Museum. And, you can explore American pop culture through the ages at the Museum of American History. Avoiding crowds probably isn’t much of a possibility, but I always find the Portrait Gallery to be calming – at least it’s usually quiet. This is also true of the National Archives.

If you’ve planned ahead, you should also consider the Holocaust Museum. It’s not part of the Smithsonian system, so you’ll need to obtain an entrance time. This museum is not to be missed.

Mid-day Diversions:

If you’re undeterred by the weather, and conditions are not worsening, I’d say head over to the Jefferson Memorial. You can’t walk there from the mall, but you can take a train ride or an Uber. I delayed seeing this monument for a long time because it’s not as walkable or readily accessible as the others. I’m assuming that you spied the vast majority already while moving amongst the Smithsonian museums. So, take the time to drop in on Jefferson – he’s got some pretty good digs. We were surprised by how large the monument is both inside and out. As compared to the Lincoln Memorial, which you can pretty much walk up to and say you saw it, Jefferson encourages you to stay and explore a bit with interior exhibits, giftshop, etc.

No time or energy for more sightseeing? I highly recommend settling into the E Street Cinema. It’s one of my favorite art house cinemas. They have a full bar and snacks that are not your typical movie theater fare. Their film selections are exceptional. I’ve been known to see one….or two…films on a bad-weather day. And, I’m not at all complaining.

1600 Pennsylvania Ave, Washington, D. C.

Winding Down for the Evening:

No matter how you feel about the President, and chances are you’ve felt one way or the other about each one, the White House is an impressive sight at night. I always walk past it in proximity to the Willard Hotel. You’ve seen a lot of history today – even if you only made it to the cinema – you can’t throw a stone in D.C. without hitting a historic landmark. But, I’m awed every time I enter the Willard. Leadership from both sides of the Civil War sat down together in their lobby to discuss terms for ending the conflict. Let that sink in. The north and the south. Sat there. Talking. During some of our nation’s darkest hours. To me, this epitomizes the history that surrounds me in D.C. That’s a lot of thought and introspection…so, head up to the Round Robin Bar for a pre-dinner cocktail.

I don’t often recommend chain restaurants. I think most of you know my position – I love for each city to be unique. But, occasionally, a small chain catches my eye. In this case, it’s Mari Vanna. We went the first time simply because it’s next door to the Mayflower. It’s since become a favorite D. C. spot – the opulence when you walk in is present throughout. The staff has always been authentic, too, as are their dishes and their VODKA. How about more than 100 flavor-infused vodkas to sip? You might be there awhile. But, it will be worth it. And, if you’re thinking right now that you don’t like Russian food, I’d challenge that maybe you just haven’t really had it. We’ve dragged our kids there under extreme duress only to have them change their tunes as they dug into caviar, or tender meat-filled dumplings. Trust me.

One Last Thing:

Well-satiated, you need only walk a few steps from your excellent meal back to your hotel where the doormen will great you warmly. Treat yourself to a nightcap (…or cup of tea?) at the Edgar just inside the lobby. Legend has it, and their website confirms, it’s so named because J. Edgar Hoover dined here daily. Hm. I don’t know about all that, but I can tell you, we’ve overheard an intriguing conversation every single time we’ve been there. Stopping in is an imperative. Keep your ears and eyes open – I doubt you’ll be disappointed. And, when you’re done, make your way back to your room and that cozy fire you left this morning. You earned it.

movie travel: thanksgiving (in NYC)

You’ll probably read that “Hannah and Her Sisters” is the best Thanksgiving movie ever, so here’s your dose of it. I’m going to focus on pics that are a little less introspective.

As long as there’s a buck to be made, Hollywood will look to capitalize – and, let’s face it: Thanksgiving is a great day for it. You socialize with friends and family over an elaborate bounty and some fine wine. After which, all you have energy to do is waddle down to the local cineplex for a film. Does your family measure up to Hollywood’s ideal? Does the family on the screen make yours look GOOD by comparison? Or, do you just want to escape? I’ll almost always end up at the theater after Thanksgiving dinner (ok, fine – most dinners regardless of date). Yet, in the days leading UP to Thanksgiving, I get into the spirit with a curated list of pics that put me in the mood. I’ll post a sample of the list at the end, but right now I’m going to stick with the theme of last week’s post and look to the home of Thanksgiving: New York City.

“Home of”? Yep, they established the parade, or at least they perfected it, so it’s theirs. Most of you will watch at least a snippet of the parade Thursday morning, so we’ll start there. “Everyone felt the magic on the set and we all knew we were creating something special”, wrote Maureen O’Hara in her autobiography with respect to her experience making the 1947 classic “Miracle on 34th Street“. Think Christian Bale cornered the market on gaining/losing weight to win an Oscar? Edmund Gwenn did it first, winning for his turn as Santa, which he also performed with aplomb in the actual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade – not as a campy Hollywood version, but in full capacity just as Macy’s would expect of any Santa, who anchors their parade to usher in the Christmas season. Just like “It’s a Wonderful Life”, (which we’ll talk about later in the season) it was released at a much warmer time of year, but its magic is in how it warms our hearts….year, after year, after year.

I recently commented that this film is full of partisan politics, commercialism, and questionable, or at least controversial, application of the law. These aren’t concepts that are new to our current world. If becoming a devotée of classic film has taught me anything, it’s that we haven’t invented much sociologically that our ancestors weren’t already very well aware of. In fact, during the Great Depression, the world saw that women were running families while earning a living while trying to nurse their husbands’ battered egos and that ushered in the screwball comedies that gave rise to female actors being the star, the box office draw, and running roughshod over their love-struck male leads. Y’know – escapism. WWII changed all of that – women, being lured back into their homes and out of theaters by fancy kitchen automation, were re-placed into much more what we think of now as “traditional” roles. Maureen O’Hara here is a bit of a bridge in that respect. She’s working and mothering, but she’s not wifing – as noted early on by Natalie Wood‘s character who says her parents divorced early. (Don’t be shocked – watch some movies prior to 1934 and you’ll see that America was getting divorced then, too….) Speaking of bridges, Maureen’s Doris Walker is trying to raise a little intellectual who also wants to be a kid, and who doesn’t this time of year? I asked my son if he felt betrayed because we encouraged him to believe in Santa Claus. He replied with a cry/laugh emoji – I rest my case.

It doesn’t get more Thankgiving-y than this

For approximately 1 and 1/2 hours, go back to a time when magic was possible. Having blind-faith in something doesn’t have to make you naive – it might just make you hopeful. And, that’s not a bad thing. This picture will give you some insight into New Yorkers in their many facets: the hardened, the skeptical and the caring. Give it a watch while you’re stuffing your turkey or making your pies. I think you’ll be very glad you did and you, too, might not have realized that it’s far more than a sentimental, sanitized-for-family-viewing feature.

For a piece you might’ve missed, I recommend “Pieces of April“. Katie Holmes was, at one time, a promising actress and this is an amazingly talented cast (Patricia Clarkson‘s only Oscar nominated role). It’s very low-budget ($100k). To me, that element supports the film’s premise. Remember the first time you hosted? If yours took a village, this one takes an entire apartment building in Manhattan.

Have some men in your bunch who won’t settle down to a movie about tradition and family (in the traditional sense)? Try “Tower Heist“. There’s no sitting down to Thanksgiving dinner and no wishing the family had been closer, but ‘now I realize what I was missing’…….yadda, yadda, yadda. If your bunch is more in-tune with Ben Stiller, Eddie Murphy and Ferraris, this is your film. Maybe it’s a gateway into: Not all Thanksgiving movies are sappy. Because watching Matthew Broderick dangle suspended high above the Thanksgiving Day parade isn’t that.

Now, for some real sightseeing…and an added tear here and there

I’ve read the Zabar’s scene in 1998’s “You’ve Got Mail” described as the MOST New York scene ever. I don’t disagree with that. Just know what you’re doing – that’s all they ask. And, this pic takes place almost entirely in the upper-west side of the city where that might be even more true than anywhere else. It’s a lovely part of town and one where, as long as you’re not looking at price tags, you can see yourself settling in and really living. Just don’t ask yourself how an independent bookseller (inherited or otherwise) is able to pay the rent on her space and that amazing apartment.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that this film is an homage to, if not a remake of, “Shop Around the Corner” from 1940 starring Jimmy Stewart and his real-life best friend’s (Henry Fonda) ex-wife, Margaret Sullivan, and set in Budapest where everyone speaks perfect English with very strong American accents. In the Nora Ephron version, the best-friend and confidant is played by Dave Chappelle and the would-be-star-crossed lovers are Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks, so what’s not to love? It is Hanksgiving all month long after all. If you cannot bring yourself to watch holiday-themed pictures, this isn’t one. So, let me entice you to check it out just to see another side of New York during crisp autumn days and as they move through the holidays. And, they do have the lovely aforementioned Zabar‘s scene at Thanksgiving. So, it COUNTS as a Thanksgiving movie. In doing so, you’ll find that strolling through this neighborhood is as essential to experiencing the city as any other. Here’s an insider tip – the H&H Bagels in the movie is not the same H&H Bagel that you’ll find there today. The original closed in 2012, so see – you have no time to lose. Things are changing all the time.

Seize the moment – tap into these offerings and then get out and see the world. I love how movies and real-life can intertwine. To me, indulging that experience makes everything richer. Thanksgiving, if you space it out and partake in the build up by watching while you cook can take days. And, that takes a bit of the edge off of inhaling in 30min what took you 6-8hours to prepare. This has all only been a build up to the climax of dinner – there will be another. Just look for the sequel next year.

Here’s my list of Thanksgiving movie recommendations:

  • Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987) C’mon……this has to be #1 – probably even playing at a theater near you
  • Home for the Holidays (1995) Directed by Jodi Foster and starring Holly Hunter, Robert Downey Jr, Anne Bancroft….
  • For Your Consideration (2006) Christopher Guest mockumentary
  • House of Yes (1997) Parker Posey
  • The Ice Storm (1997) In case you were worried about being too happy
  • Prisoners (2013) In case just sitting down and eating isn’t hardcore enough for you
  • The Big Chill (1983) Are you dubious? Did you know that the scene at the beginning, in which Kevin Costner speaks, which was cut out, was actually all of them together at Thanksgiving? Counts
  • The Last Waltz (1978) Concert footage from The Band’s final show on American Thanksgiving 1976

new york city – holidays

In my opinion, NYC is simply the best at the holidays and for the holidays

“You’ll lose him – you’ll lose him for sure”, is what everyone said when we announced plans to take our 6-year-old, ‘spirited’ child to Times Square for New Year’s Eve. Guess what – we didn’t lose him. In fact, he actually turned 21 today, so I guess I’m not that bad a parent after all….I mean, he’s not HERE, but I know where he is. For the last 13 years, my office has been in New Jersey while I work from Texas. And, before that, I spent treasured times in the city with close cousins – we commuted, by train, ALONE, from Long Island, ….when we were children. Can you imagine? Times were different (we tell ourselves). Nonetheless, New York City has always had a special place in my heart and if pressed, I honestly could not tell you how many times I’ve been there. Whether it was for a luxe vacation, a budget vacation, just a dinner, summer or fall, I’ve seen it all there. But, I can confirm for you that there’s no city I’ve seen that compares to NYC during the holidays.

Take the picture of Radio City above. If you were standing in this spot right now, you could literally pivot around and see Rockefeller Center with its skating rink serving as the most luxurious and well-tread tree skirt any Christmas Tree ever had. Pivot again and spy Saks Fifth Avenue’s windows and light show. If you picture in your mind’s eye the scrolling electric beacons that dress Times Square and the Theatre District, that’s just a sampling of what you’ll see at Christmastime across entire swaths of the city. And, it’s sincerely holiday cheer – ok, fine – the commercial side is probably manufactured to some degree. But, you certainly get the impression the city revels in it, too. It’s not just for show – the city, its inhabitants and its tourists, find a way to get along and actually, dare I say, share some good will. Even if it’s only for a moment. There are lots of cities where you can go outside and just walk. But, few cities where you can bundle up and walk among the tourist traps and the honking horns of midtown, into the pristine rolling hills of Central Park, and then on to shopping that rivals Rue de Faubourg of Paris in a single stroll. It’s a long stroll. Work with me on this.

Think ahead (as always) on what you’ll want to do while you’re there. Is it all casual? Or, will you also need to fit in some dress clothes for The Rainbow Room or Lincoln Center? You can always adapt your activities around what you’ve brought, or buy more (my preference), but you will want to look smart and be comfortable regardless.

How does a Texan dress for snow?

Dressing for your walking trip through NYC is directly proportional to your level of enjoyment. There’s an art to this:

  • Dress in layers – this isn’t just something to say – it’s a fact
    • Underwear
      • I recommend silk underwear – it breathes in a way cotton doesn’t. And, if you’re new to the northeast at winter, you don’t yet know that they like their interiors to be a balmy 92F at all times. Layers.
    • Casual top of any variety – I like flowy, my men wear T-shirts
    • Sweater
    • Scarf (or, 2 – they’re $5 each on the sidewalk)
    • Coat – I had a nearly frozen southerner in NYC once tell me “You know how they say leather coats are the warmest in the world?” No, no one has ever said that who experienced actual cold. Get wool, get quilting, get down….get smart.
    • Gloves
    • A hat – Texans don’t understand the hat part, but it’s key. I have a HUGE head and a ton of hair. So, I’m usually comfortable with ear muffs, but cover your EARS
  • Cute shoes? – leave them at home. You need at least 2 pair of durable boots and comfortable socks. I really can’t overstate how much you’ll be walking. Just assume you’ll never get a cab – then if you do, you’ll be pleasantly surprised.
    • If it’s going to be REALLY cold, grab some foot warmers. I discovered them last year in Montreal – Heaven in a self-activating pouch
    • If you DO have to bring fancy shoes for an event, note that New Yorkers commute around in sensible footwear – you’ll carry your nice shoes in a bag that gets coat-checked, after you swap-out, with your outer coat when you arrive. They think of everything.
  • Packing mix and match pieces that all coordinate has never been so vital – you might find yourself wanting to wear everything at once someday – and, if they all match, you’re in business.
  • Bring cash – most places will encourage/require you to check your outerwear – you’ll want to tip at least a little
    • I recommend a plastic bag you can stick your gloves and hat into that they can sling over the hanger of your coat. Otherwise, shove those pieces into the coat pockets and slide one end of the scarf down the arm of your coat – less likely to fall off and get lost that way.

I’ve chosen to pop over to the city from New Jersey for dinner on more than one occasion – it’s always worth it. But, this is especially true November – December. Maybe you’re bridge-and-tunneling it, so you’ll likely stay close to train stations. There’s the Oyster Bar in Grand Central Station (with Holiday markets popping up left and right). Then, you make your way back down toward the PATH and find yourself near Bryant Park, with alas, more Holiday shops. Sip, stroll, repeat.

Say you have just enough time for dinner, but you gravitate near the Park. Plan ahead and make reservations at Tavern on the Green. Yes, it’s back and better than ever – but, don’t forget your reservations. And, if you’ve never done it before, I recommend a carriage ride through Central Park. It’s in fact controversial these days – are the horses well cared for? There are 2 sides to that story, so I won’t direct you either way – do your own google-search and decide. I will say that doing it once is enough for me – I’m not going to use it as a standard mode of transportation. But, as a slice of Americana – I just couldn’t say no.

Better to see something once than to hear about it a thousand times.”

Asian Proverb
(I can’t confirm it’s referring to New York, but I think it is)

Not a shopping fan? How about pop-up ice skating – right in the middle of things. Bryant Park, Central Park, again – Rockefeller Center beneath Prometheus? That’s all pretty Christmas-y. The latter costs the most and has the longest lines. Among the 3, if this is your cup of tea, I’d aim for Bryant Park.

Museums? Um, they’ve got your museums. Here are just a FEW of my favorite NYC art museums:

  • Metropolitan Museum of Art (ok, fine – yeah, duh….but, even if you’ve been a million times. Go see the Angel tree at Christmas) BTW – if the lines are insane, and they will be, as you face the museum, you’ll see a small entrance down below and to the left….it’s for groups. I play dumb and use this entrance; I haven’t been turned away yet. Good luck.
  • Natural History Museum – I’ve grown weary of the crowds at this museum, but if we’re talking Christmas, their Origami tree is really worth the hassle. OK fine. There. I admitted it….I’m looking at my origami souvenir ornament right now.
  • Museum of Modern Art (and, an amazing hamburger just nearby @ The Burger Joint in the Parker Meridien Hotel….let your nose guide you….bring cash)
    • And, don’t miss the museum’s LARGE gift shop across the street from the museum itself.
  • The Guggenheim – Frank Lloyd Wright – if all you do is stare at the building, it’s worth the trip. But, while on the upper east side – stop by a cozy wine bar. Rest your feet. You earned it.
  • The Morgan Library and Museum – Not far from the New York Public Library and what a pleasant little surprise. For decades, I didn’t even realize it was there just waiting for me to discover it.
  • Cooper-Hewitt – a hands-on Design museum. I wasn’t initially enamored, but it sucks you in, where you stay for hours. And, their gift shop has some of the best and most unique shopping in town.
  • Neue Galerie – New to me (I’m not trying to be funny….I’ve really just discovered this gem). Klimt. Enjoy.

I don’t need to tell you there’s nightlife in Manhattan, right? You’ve heard the song: it doesn’t sleep. Well, that’s not exactly been my experience. But, I will tell you that if you’re looking for dessert or a cocktail at midnight, you’ll have no trouble. So, break out of your routine and live like a New Yorker – sleep a little later, eat a little later, be a grown up a little later and squeeze in a show in between. New Yorkers also see shows. And, whether you’re interested in a top-billed ticket like “Hamilton”, or what’s now a tried and true staple like “Wicked”, they’ve got you covered. If it’s “Hamilton” you want, you might want to call your American Express Platinum Concierge (still….in 2019…but, it’s Christmas). Go checkout your options. My advice is to buy at least 1 set of tickets on-line to your dream show right now – before you leave. And,then while you’re there, see what you can pick up on the fly. There’s always TKTS and there are box offices at every venue. You’ll have options. I’ve even picked up tickets outside of a theatre from groups who pre-purchased a block of tickets and a few guests couldn’t make it. Someone always has to cancel during cold and flu season. For face-value, that’s reasonable and fair – I didn’t get taken. But, use your judgment. And, if you’re not down for a live show, check out the numerous cinemas around town. I really like the IFC in Greenwich Village. In addition to first-run films, they’ve got a curated collection of off-beat Noir-ish Christmas offerings. And, in a city of X-million people – there will be a theater showing “It’s a Wonderful Life”, I have no doubt.

Even just watching the skate rink at Rockefeller Center is heartwarming in the snow -with a cup of cocoa.

If you’re there for Christmas, you’re probably already thinking of visiting St. Patrick’s Cathedral. I guess it’s my upbringing, but celebrating the season in church just brings it home to me – dogma aside. It’s the spirit of togetherness, celebration, and new hope. Even if you’re only there to take in the structure, the art, or the music – it’s always an experience that reminds me for at least a short time each year, that we can be collectively reverent whether it’s for spiritual or just nostalgic reasons, it’s still there inside us.

Said Origami tree @ Museum of Natural History

Where to stay is a question of no small concern – NYC is one of your pricier destinations and you’re going at one of its busiest times of year. You see where I’m going with this – if you didn’t book early, you’re going to be staying out or paying $$$. Still, I’d encourage you to think long and hard about where to stay if you’re looking to economize and consult someone who knows the city. To someone who says, ‘I don’t mind staying out a bit’, I’d say: Trains are a great option in NYC – download the CityMapper app and hope for the best. But, trains breakdown, they get delayed, they’re crowded, they have maintenance at the MOST inopportune times (read: just when you’ve planned your curtain time down to the minute). Cabs can get expensive, but they’re usually abundant….except during shift-change, which is right before your dinner reservations. And, pray that it doesn’t rain – you’ll never get a cab in the rain. Theoretically, someone does, but I don’t know who. And, Uber/Lyft are a great option now, but be aware of “peak time”, which seems to be my waking hours. Point is – you’ll want SOME things to be within walking distance. Don’t plan the whole of your 3-4 night vacation to be very far from where you want to do your sightseeing. There are a TON of New York City hotels – you can find one within your price range-ish. And, be wary of those bearing only a few stars. I’m an intrepid traveler and I’ve had to pack-up and leave a few times when the 3 stars I was “OK” with were discovered to be either ill gotten or just far too generous. You have your health and safety to think of; I’m not just referring to the absence of a Nespresso machine. If you’re staying near Times Square for New Years Eve, or the days leading up to NYE, give consideration to the crowds. We were once greeted at a 5-star hotel with a disclaimer that said the elevators might be quite delayed due to the volume of guests – I kid you not….30min to get an elevator at times. By contrast, I offer the Michelangelo Hotel. I’ve stayed here a few times for NYE and was surprisingly insulated from the crowds and chaos. When I’ve been before, I was always able to walk the sidewalks of Times Square on the big night without being corralled into the barricades you see on TV. I called this year to ask whether brandishing their room key would give me the same advantage – they said it’s dependent on NYPD who will decide day-of. That’s a bit of a gamble at their prices, but it’s an option. A comfy one that allows you to watch the lights and crowds from your window, follow the ball drop on your TV, and pop a bottle of fine champagne in bed. There are worse things.

Manhattan doesn’t roll up its sidewalks on Christmas Day, New Year’s Day, or even Thanksgiving for that matter. Although, pack your patience for the crowds and the parades. You’ll have your pick of restaurants whether you want a casual bite, some tradition, to rub elbows with Broadway elite, or you’ll have what she’s having. Just plan ahead and check for adjusted hours. If you’re still looking for that after dinner cocktail and maybe dessert, I have to put in a plug for a favorite literary haunt and round table.

I’ll follow-up with a post profiling some classic Holiday films set in New York City. I’m not letting this one go – there’s no place like Manhattan at Christmas. You have to see it to believe it. The vibrant spirit, the crispness on your face, maybe some snowflakes in the air, and familiar tunes played by sidewalk buskers. For goodness sake – carts hawking CHESTNUTS on 5th avenue.

I’m not naive – I know there’s a bit of a racket looking to cash in on some of the sights and sounds I’m encouraging you to take in. (I’m picturing Charlie Brown admonishing me for over-commercializing Christmas – thunk-thunk on the metal tree). And, while I’m a bit of an off-beat, boutique shopper, myself, and while I abhor crowds, there is still something magical about just standing still in the Macy’s on 34th Street and knowing that Santa Clause once worked there.

squeezing in family travel: anniversaries

The Lake Austin Spa is less than an hour from the Austin airport, even closer to downtown, and a WORLD away.

When you travel a lot for work, the very last thing you want to do on the weekends and holidays is deal with airports. I honestly wouldn’t mind being teleported places – truly, I like discovering new places. It’s just the getting there (and back) that starts to wear on me. So, when it comes to anniversaries – that one time a year that belongs JUST to the 2 of you, your spouse can start to feel pretty second-rate when you say (again), let’s just have a quiet dinner at home. So, staycations start to look pretty good: first-class accomodations, pampering spa treatments, sitting in a hammock by the lake breathing in natural beauty…..ready to plan a romantic, low-stress getaway? Lemme show you around.

So, I can see some husbands’ eyes roll when they hear: Let’s plan a spa vacation. I mean, that’s where you go to have a girls’ weekend, right? RIGHT – if you can assure me of the following:

  • You don’t enjoy all-inclusive meals and snacks; made to order (with access to wine and champagne accompaniment)
  • You’re averse to water sports (e.g. kayaking, stand-up paddling, canoeing, ….sun-bathing)
  • You don’t like to swim – and, especially not in a variety of indoor and outdoor pools
  • You have no interest in working out, stretching, or long guided hikes in nature
  • Reading a book by the lake doesn’t appeal to you
  • Lying down on a heated-water massage table while skilled technicians massage out the stress of work sounds unappealing
  • Cooking demonstrations by chefs who only need you to lift a fork (taking in more food and wine) don’t interest you
  • Retiring to your private, well-appointed room with a video from the extensive free lending library just doesn’t compare to watching “Law and Order” on your own couch

Are we on the same page now? I mean, what’s not to love, right? We happen to be lucky enough to live within driving distance of Condé Nast’s #1 spa destination in America. Every time we go, though, we meet people from around the US, so it’s most certainly not just locals or people who find it convenient. I’ve been indulging in their luxury – on a day-pass basis – for years. And, taking even a day to strip off your normal daily routine to don a robe, sit in peace and just “be” while you get a facial, a massage and EXCELLENT food, can nourish your soul. Becoming an overnight guest is something that’s been a special treat my husband and I give each other once a year. I think you have to have these special getaways that belong only to you. They don’t have to be the same place over and over – maybe it’s the theme you enjoy and don’t invest in everyday – like maybe you want to take in a cruise once a year from a nearby port where you float around for a few nights only to arrive back at the same spot. Or, maybe you like a cabin in the woods when it’s snowy. When you combine work travel with visiting-the-kids travel, it all adds up to a lot of one of you gets left behind, or a lot of playing Mom & Dad. Regardless, it’s nice to unplug and remind yourself why this is the person you picked to share your life with.

For us, the spa theme works well because when done well, like at Lake Austin Spa Report, it’s the ultimate indulgence: As much aloneness as we want, as much involvement as we want (there are lots of group activities if you’re interested) and as much pampering as we want. If I’m completely honest, massages and facials as a matter of routine are a necessity. But, driving through traffic to get to my appointment, sitting for an hour or so, while “is there anything at home for dinner?” and “did I reply to that e-mail?” plays through my head leaves me feeling a little conflicted at times: Was this just another thing I had to squeeze into my day? It’s certainly not a tooth extraction or a trip to the DMV. Wow – I’m seriously complaining about how to find just the right amount of pampering to count….. But, my POINT is that waking up and thinking “all I have to do today is a hike and a facial” is a very different paradigm.

Obviously, spa destinations haven’t cornered the market on romantic getaways. America’s playground – Las Vegas isn’t a bad spot for a couples’ getaway. And, most people can manage to get there non-stop, which is at least helpful. It’s not all gambling, smoking and bad choices. It can also be fine dining, amazing shopping, extraordinary food and live entertainment – of quality. Here’s what I mean:

  • Pools – lovely pools open all day and right up until it’s time to go to dinner….just sit, read, people-watch. They’ll bring you food and beverages if you ask
  • Shopping – not the cheesy fashion malls (note: If it says ‘fashion’ on the outside, be dubious)
    • Bellagio – always the first place I head for window shopping and, let’s be honest – shopping shopping
    • Caesar’s Forum Shops – Cartier, Tiffany & Co, Ferragamo
  • Craft cocktails – Sweeping Las Vegas as they are the rest of the world right now. Nonetheless, a much quieter Vegas than what normally springs to mind, and a relaxing pre- or post-dinner pastime
  • Excellent meals – Can you find cheesy restaurants in Las Vegas, yes. Can you find buffets, yes. Do you have to, no. There’s a Le Cirque and a French Laundry there. Picasso has actual Picassos hanging on the wall. Sure, every chain has a presence there – you don’t have to eat at them. Look for the gems – they’re there.
  • Live entertainment – Yep – there’re talentless topless shows. I’m not trying to trick you. But, you can find amazing shows, too, because entertainers go where people go and people go to Vegas – Elton John, “Love” featuring Beatles’ music and extraordinary French-Canadian acrobats, most touring bands (e.g. checkout who’s playing at Brooklyn Bowl). If you want cheesy, you won’t have to look far. And, we’ve certainly squeezed in our fair share of stars from our youth: Donny & Marie, Olivia Newton John….but, we manage to strike a balance.
You don’t see pools like this around the REAL Eiffel Tower….

What does all this have to with business travel? Well, I’m glad you asked. Because we’ve had a million little get aways and staycations thanks to business travel – Hyatt, Marriott, Hilton….have you looked at what all they own these days? You’d be surprised – historic hotels are now in their ranks even. So, formerly privately owned places you’ve always wanted to stay…..are now only points away. (Royal Hawaiian on Waikiki, now part of Marriott….I’m heading your way again soon) So, download their apps, monitor your points and see what might be available to you for FREE. Here are some ideas:

  • Book a lazy-river kinda weekend: Hyatt Resorts – very generous with the points and gracious (in my experience) with their loyal members, have honored us on numerous weekends with free amenities for being loyal customers even when, and maybe especially when, paying with points.
  • How about a night on the town: Marriott – Downtown has a new feel when you’re empty nesters. Drive 10min to downtown, check into a lovely, urban resort, sit at a rooftop pool, take in a spa service or 2 and then hit the town. Which is to say, a fine dinner and an early evening. In MOST cases. But, maybe it’s New Year’s Eve or a live event and you won’t want to drive or head home early. Relax, treat yourself.
  • Rent a house and work remotely for a few days: Airbnb has many options for couples with dogs – I wouldn’t want to take the kids on a romantic excursion (no offense kids…you wouldn’t want to come anyway), but the dog is THRILLED to come with us. He’s been on 2 whole vacations, you know…he’s quite well-traveled.

And, while I really wanted to talk about the value of a staycation, which even in its briefest form, can be restorative, I end on a note of: stock up on your points and work your miles. I can’t tell you the number of times we’ve looked at each other on a Thursday night and said: Do you have any points we could use for the weekend? Those are some of the BEST weekends. Your credit cards really can work to your advantage if you use them wisely, too. You’re spending the money anyway – why not put it on a card that will reward you with free nights or free airfare (just don’t incur interest or fees). It takes discipline, but doesn’t everything? I’m not eating a Justin’s almond butter cup right now because of discipline – it can’t all be fun and games; I drank the extra glass of wine – I’m not a masochist.

You have no idea what options are right outside your backdoor until you explore

This is what I’ve learned: it’s important to just BE. Live in the moment – appreciate your surroundings. Enjoy the people you’ve chosen to spend your life with. Even the most staid and stoic partners need some variety – and, so does a relationship enjoy a change of scenery. Use your travel savvy and make a weekend special. It doesn’t have to be a huge endeavor and if you’re smart, you can even off-set the cost. But, the memories are yours to keep – at no additional cost.

escape reality: disney world or land after work

Magic Kingdom, Disney World, Orlando, FL

Think that the Happiest Place on Earth is any less happy when you’re there for work? It doesn’t have to be. There are lots of options if you’re in the area for work and with a little know-how, you can treat yourself to a mini vacation after hours that doesn’t break the bank or leave you feeling deprived of fun.

So, I’ll admit – traveling to Florida for work can feel like a real drag at times. I remember once when I was sitting in the hotel dining room for breakfast, wearing a suit, hoisting my briefcase over my shoulder and suddenly having the sensation that I was the only person in the whole room who was NOT on vacation. This feeling is increased exponentially if you’re staying near Disney World in Orlando and the same is true if you’re working in Anaheim, CA near Disneyland. I’m such a die-hard fan of these parks, though, I’ve gotten to where I just embrace it and stay on-site whenever possible – even if I’m not able to go to the parks during the day, which is a given unless you take the day off. But, this way you can absorb some of the vibe after hours at no additional cost. There are in fact many options.

So, let’s say you’re in Orlando and you want to ride some rides. Disney World has just launched afternoon and evening tickets at a reduced price. Fall and Spring are 2 times of the year that you can really enjoy the parks as a grown-up without being inundated by families (I’m usually one of those families, so I’m not discriminating), which means you can get a LOT more done in only a few hours. Arrive by 6pm, ride some rides, maybe take in some fireworks or a show or 2, and then head over to one of restaurants for dinner. Going for dinner AFTER rides buys you a little extra time even if the parks are closing early that day because restaurants stay open later than general park hours. Putting dinner at the end of your visit makes the most of the time you’re there for all of the other attractions.

If you don’t care about rides, try heading to Disney Springs, which offers more stores, restaurants and entertainment venues than you can really imagine and there’s NO admission required. Anyone is welcome. But, make no mistake – they’re affiliated with the parks. If you’re a park guest with a meal plan, your plan is good at these restaurants. Many of the stores sell exclusive park merchandise, too, so you’re not dealing with knock-off souvenirs, or the “I just picked this up at the airport” version, which is legit merch in many cases, but let’s face it – a little like cheating. There’s no line to get into Disney Springs and the same is true of Downtown Disney at Disneyland. However, Downtown Disney in California and Disney’s Boardwalk in Florida have something unique about them – they’re nestled amongst some of the on-property hotels where you can enjoy the sights and sounds of the parks, too. Treat yourself to an excellent dinner at one of the free-standing restaurants and then maybe take in some dueling piano bar action, for example. You’ll quickly forget that you’re traveling on business. Your FOMO will be banished – because you actually ARE having fun. And, still getting the job done.

Fancy some free fireworks while you dine…?

The Disney resorts (aka hotels) are spectacular. And, their restaurants are extraordinary. They’re usually expensive, but in my opinion, they’re also held accountable for a very high-quality experience. Take the time my friend and I popped into California Grill at Disney’s Contemporary Hotel without reservations or park passes. We waited a bit for a table (~an hour?), but we had cocktails while waiting, so it’s a little hard to tell. When they finally grabbed us to say they had a 2-top open up, but that it was only 4 feet away in the lounge area, we thought: Oh, this didn’t pan out too well. But, the picture above was taken during the Magic Kingdom evening fireworks – I don’t think there was a better table in the house. And, the dinner was fabulous. Another time, we wandered over to Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort to duck into Trader Sam’s Grog Grotto – talk about an escapist experience. Work was instantly OVER for the day! They have a similar bar/restaurant at the Disneyland Hotel in California, in fact that was the inspiration. And, it’s similarly free to get into.

“All of our dreams come true if we have the courage to pursue them.”

Walt Disney

Here’s a great option and the one that I’ve come to tap into the most lately – do your work and THEN grab a like-minded colleague and pick up a night or 2 yourself at a park hotel. It’s barely a splurge if you’re able to split the hotel expense. And, your airfare is covered by the business trip, right, so it’s really quite economical? If you’re not traveling M-F, you’re probably saving the company a little bit of money, too, with the Saturday night stayover. There are so many fun reasons to be a kid again for a day – or, be an adult by indulging in excellent food, wine and shopping sans itty-bitties. As I mentioned, not only is the fall a great time for the parks, but you can take in the transition of the parks as they transform themselves for Halloween and then for Christmas. I really think the parks are at their finest during these phases – and, they go on for a long time each year. Plenty of time for a savvy business traveler like you to sneak a peak before the holiday travelers arrive (e.g. Christmas starts happening on Nov 8th….they just need the briefest breather after Halloween).

There are so many events every year, ONE of them is right for you:

  • Food & Wine Festival (Sep – Nov)
  • Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween (Sep – Nov)
  • Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas (Nov – Dec)
  • Disney Marathon Weekend (Jan)
  • International Festival of the Arts (Jan – Feb)
  • International Flower and Garden Festival (Mar – June)
  • …….and, these are just what’s happening in Florida. California does much of the same.

And, this doesn’t take into account all the little touches they do for day-of holidays like St. Patrick’s Day. I was once in Orlando for a meeting that ended on March 16th, so a travel partner and I thought: Why travel on St. Patty’s when we could just move over to Disney World for a day? There’s no month-long build-up to this long feted holiday where EVERYONE is Irish for the day. Yet, there was no shortage of green beer (extra stands set up every few feet) and Irish bands played all day to a less and less intelligible, kilt-clad crowd on March 17th.

It’s also possible that your conference center is a Good Neighbor Hotel and they offer free transportation to and from the parks and discounted park tickets. I’ve attended more than one large meeting at Caribe Royale and, while it’s not an official Disney property, they are in fact a good neighbor – you’ll hardly know the difference and you should certainly take advantage of how easy they make it to indulge. True story – I once took my family along to a conference at this resort when my son was very young and while we were there, he came down with the WORST double ear infection. The park shuttled us to a pediatrician who saw us quickly, then they kindly took us back to the hotel to rest. They even carried my husband to a local pharmacy to fill the scrip. All at no charge – the parks and their Good Neighbors take hospitality to a new level.

I’m clearly a fan and I have work colleagues who are similarly fans – or, we’re all enablers….it’s really impossible to discern. But, even if you think you don’t “like” Disney – Do you like great food? Do you like fun drinks? Do you like to be around people having fun? Let loose, get lost in a little bit of theme for the moment and get back to your regular routine the next day (or, Monday if you’re lucky). There’s always time to be an adult – take a MINUTE and be a kid again.

Halloween? No, this is the Disneyland Haunted Mansion during “Nightmare Before Christmas” – they transform the whole RIDE, not just the outside. Spare no expense.

squeezing in family travel: college trips

Pratt Institute – Brooklyn, NY

Let me share some tips with you for making the all-important college trips memorable. I think I can predict some of your questions….and, then maybe you’ll indulge me while I share some pictures.

The day I moved my son into college, I’d been on the ground for only a few hours (arriving on a red eye from Thailand), but just because you travel for a living doesn’t mean you miss out on these important milestones. Fit them in and around your work obligations – and, make time to catch some local flavor. Travel in any capacity doesn’t have to be grueling …unless you let it be. Do you have questions about how to fit in these important trips? Here are my tips for making college visits practical – and, I’ll share a few pics, which I now cherish.

Did we visit a ton?

We only looked at 2 schools: Pratt Institute and University of North Texas. Pratt was very near my company headquarters in New Jersey – so, as a highschool junior trying on various curricula, I felt comfortable leaving him here for a few weeks, where I had a pretty robust network. Meanwhile, I just couldn’t fixate on the solo trips he’d make into the city late at night. Thank goodness for 21st Century tracking devices. So, this was an opportunity for BOTH of us to “try on” college. We checked out the campus during his Spring Break and then we dropped him off over 4th of July holiday for an extended trial period. Fortunately, each visit coincided perfectly with mandatory meetings at HQ so the trips didn’t add up to extra travel at all. I neatly tied up work while he ran around on his own and then we shifted to more convenient-to-school Airbnbs for our personal time.

Get into the community:

The trick to finding a good Airbnb was unlocked for me when I was an Airbnb-newby:

  • Look for spaces with good, recent reviews. And, not just 1.
    • If there are several people corroborating what the host has described for their space, you can be pretty confident.
    • A new space with no reviews could be anything – including a hoax.
  • Watch out for exorbitant cleaning fees.
  • Be practical about what you’re reading
    • I’ve certainly overlooked a few things in lieu of an amazing price and I almost always kick myself for doing so.
  • I look for verified hosts and prefer Super Hosts.
    • This gives me an even higher level of confidence.
  • I always restrict my searches to the entire space
    • I don’t ever want to accidentally end up in someone’s spare room.

“Oh, the places you’ll go!”

Dr. Suess

Now, time for transition

In the end, my son chose an in-state school for his undergraduate studies (my pocket-book was SO pleased). So, we immediately pulled down all the necessary calendars and started planning. Obviously, people who travel for a living live and die by their calendars – it can sometimes feel a bit like a Rube Goldberg Machine. With careful coordination, I haven’t missed any major events (e.g. orientation, move-in / move-out days) knock-wood. However, his latest move-out was tricky because not only was I headed out to Belgium on holiday, but he was headed to Italy for study abroad. As such, we had about 36 hours to accomplish all 3 things. It’s never easy, but it’s worth it.

University of North Texas – Denton, TX

The promised tips:

I have a few tips to share so that you make the most of this time together – they’re important milestones in your child’s life and in your life as a parent. Delegating it to someone else wasn’t an option for me. Here’s how I made it work:

  • Backwards plan from Move-In date
    • Collect packing materials/supplies and budget time in the weeks/months approaching that date.
    • Establish clear goals for each effort.
      • We sorted his belongings by: Keep home, Take with, Donate.
      • We divided our efforts by Closet, Dresser, Shelves, etc. in digestible increments.
        • Killing his enthusiasm the first weekend would’ve derailed our down-stream productivity.
  • Schedule travel plans to allow for delays
    • The thing about college calendars is that they coincide, sadly, with upticks in travel delays like summer storms and winter weather.
      • Don’t assume you’ll be on-time.
        • Make fall-back plans – Know nearby airports and friends/family who could get the ball rolling if needed
  • Book local services
    • Need a U-Haul truck or larger vehicle? Depending on your location, you might even need to rent a car for a few hours.
      • In Brooklyn, we used ZipCar to allow us to run to Target and get the things we didn’t ship – and, then again for move-in day.
    • Get local lodging; I like Airbnb – situated in the community and unique.
      • You get much more feel for where and how your child will be living.
    • Make local dinner and cultural reservations. Have FUN!
      • I searched top sights in the area, restaurants and even found a ghost tour in the town.
      • This tapped some of his interests and helped him be more enthusiastic about having a new “home town” for the next few years.
  • Rent a local storage unit
    • I wish I’d thought of this freshman year – this keeps a dormitory from exploding into your home over summer.
      • Store locally what you can, and bring home only what’s needed for a couple months.

Don’t lose this time together

He’s certainly been patient with me when travel delays meant we needed to rearrange personal plans. And, he’s had to take a seat at DisneyWorld (patiently) while I took an impromptu meeting….on vacation. This all goes with the territory. But, the college transition is one of the last times they really NEED you. Don’t miss out. As with anything, if you invest in up-front planning, once the mechanism starts and you’re on your way – you can sit back and enjoy the journey.

We’ve really come to love his new home away from home.