The Why Am I Not There? Holiday Gift Guide for Travelers 2017

Time to get out those credit cards because were spending some cheddar this holiday. I believe it was the great philosopher Madonna of Michigan that proclaimed, “Holiday … it can be so nice.”

These gifts will be practical to the intrepid traveler or will inspire their wanderlust. Even better, they are below $100. So no $295 travel size of room spray or $150 lip palm made from alpaca saliva.

Passport Wallet — These things are essential  for business and leisure travelers.  Now that some airports will need more than a driver’s licence to prove that you’re not a terrorist, you’ll need something to hold your most valuable documents. There are slots where I keep my frequent flyer cards, GlobalEntry and foreign currency. Pro Tip — never put your extra money if your carry-on, always have it on you.

The counter argument is that they are bulky. I say that’s a good thing because you always know that it’s on your person.

I always gift these passport wallets from Fossil because they have a bit of retro flare while having handsome colors of leather for both sexes.

$42 – 90: Fossil.com

Travel Cord Roll — This is a neat little way to keep your tech cords in one place so that everything is in order. It can cause panic with the amount of cords that ones needs to keep you charged up and on the go. Just for myself, I have to brings cords for the laptop, phone charger, Ipod charger (yes, I still have one), camera chargers and charging brick.

This fun roll-up from Uncommon Goods is made from leather and felt. It has plenty of room for your cords, a pouch for wall charger or international converters and a string to tie is all together.

$20: UncommonGoods.com

Mini-Travel Charger — There are so many different sizes and capacity of travel chargers to choose from. There are high-end one that can power your laptop for a few days to one that are the size of a lipstick that can charger your phone on the go.

On my last trip, I brought a mid-sized Anker charger that I could get three charges from my phone. I then paired with a triple-speed wall charger so it was no sweat to get it at full capacity overnight.

This one from Anker (PowerCore+ Mini 3350)  is the about the size of a roll of Lifesavers and fits in your jacket pocket. You can even put it in your front pocket so that people can use the line “Is that a roll of quarters in your pocket or are you happy to see me?” In any event, this can recharge your phone fully for a whole day if that’s all you need.

$15 — Amazon.com

Japanese Notebooks — Many travelers like myself still carry a small notebook or notepad and pen in my carry-on. Either just to write down reminders or just to have a sketchbook to pass time.

I have a few goofy ones, but I love these vintage-style ones made by the Japanese stationary company, Apica. They come with different colors, have a fun calligraphy font, different page counts and choices of hard or soft covers.

You can find cheap ones from ebay that come from U.S. sellers. The funkier ones come from Japan and might take a while to arrive.

$5-$15 — Ebay

Izola Tote Bags — I refuse to use a backpack while traveling. I don’t care how stylish they come, I still prefer a cross body, messenger-style bag or a shoulder bag.

These somewhat unisex travel bags from Izola have fun saying on them (Keep It Together, Off the Grid) and are perfect for a weekender, a carry-on or the beach.

$75 — Izola.com

“I Sleep With Strangers” Eye Mask — If you need a stocking stuffer from a travel companion, these are good for a good chuckle.

Flight 001 also makes one that says “Wake Me for Champagne” for those who roll in Upper Class.

$8 — Flight001.com

Monogram Luggage Tags — You can never have too many luggage tags. It’s a sure fire way that some idiot doesn’t accidental take your bag on the luggage carousel. Please don’t wrap your luggage in color masking tape or put an X on it in duct tape, which is a TSA red flag.

Myself, I have a recycled denim tag, a puffy one in the shape of a hamburger, a few disposal paper ones with vintage travel ads as on them and a few leather ones. I put a few one of my luggage so I an quickly pick them on among the other black or red suitcases.

Pottern Barn makes ones that you can splurge a bit and have some initials monogrammed on them.

$20: PotteryBarn.com

The Wayfarer’s Handbook: A Field Guide for the Independent Traveler — I thought this was a neat read and a good spin on the “How To Travel” guide. Author Evan Rice included info-graphics and charts. It’s not condescending or faux-inspiration, so it relies on a witty ideas and advice. Even if you’re a know-it-all, some of his opinions and stories had me chuckling.

$15: Amazon.com

 

Asheville’s Smaller Breweries — Lexington Avenue Brewery, One World, Ginger’s Revenge and Twin Leaf

The final post about Asheville … until the next trip.

I’m just going to plow through some of the smaller breweries in the area that might not be well-know beyond the town or state. During my final night, I was trying to get as many flights in that time and my tolerance would allow.

The Lexington Avenue Brewery is on, ummm, Lexington Avenue. Also known as LAB, the spacious  brewpub has a more modern, industrial space that overlooks one of Asheville’s popular streets downtown. They were about to close an hour early then I showed up, and the bartender was about to give me the stink eye until I asked fun questions about the beer to gain trust. Next thing I knew, she was giving me samples of everything and saying, “You need to try this … and this … ohhh this is new, let’s try this together.”

What I had:

Thumper Belgian Triple
1st Gear Cream Ale
The Knuckle Oatmeal Stout
Eleanor’s Rye
White Pony White IPA
Far Out Session IPA

One World Brewing was cool in a dorky way. Its a subterranean brewery, located in the basement of the Farm Burger eatery. Just follow the signs to the alley, follow the hippie music and head downstairs. Since it’s below street level, it’s actually a bit cooler and comfortable.

I had to roll my eyes at the gray-haired, pony-tailed tie dye cover band playing “Spirit in the Sky” and “Give Peace a Chance,” but ultimately, you just have to roll with it.

As part of their peace and love theme, they had a hemp beer, called Hempin’ Ain’t Easy. I couldn’t tell that it had hemp in it.

Chocolate Truffle Stout
Czech Yourself Before You Brett Yourself Saison
Hempin’ Ain’t Easy
Patcha Mama Coconut Porter
Citra Bomb IPA
Ashevegas Pale Ale

Ginger’s Revenge exclusively brews alcoholic ginger beer, but not a single redhead in the place. What gives? They had just had their grand opening when I was in town.

Basically, they have their base ginger beer, then there are added flavors. I found it delightful and enough ginger spice kick. This one to keep an eye on when they start canning.

Lime Agave
Orange Mint
Honey Chamomile
Original

Finally, Twin Leaf is in the middle of all the action south of the city center. Within eye shot is the Funkatorium, Green Man, Burial and Catawba. By the end of the night, I was using the bathroom every 30 minutes and all the beer was tasting the same. In any event, the milk stout was damn good.

Dark Matter Oatmeal Stout
Udderly Amazing Milk Stout
Luminosity Belgian Tripel
Hibiscus Wit
All You Feel Is Sound Saison
Elevensies English Bitter
Brett’s Last Batch Saison

Despite Being Sold to Big Beer, A Visit to Wicked Weed’s Funkatorium is a Must

A month before I arrived in Asheville, local legends Wicked Weed announced that they sold to Anheuser-Busch InBev. The move was so controversial that other brewers backed out of the company’s annual sour beer festival in protest, while local bars refused to stock them anymore.

That’s just silly. It’s their company, they can do what they want. I remember when indie bands like R.E.M. and Death Can for Cutie signed to major labels, fans were offended.

My response is that there are 4,800 other breweries that Anheuser-Busch InBev hasn’t bought yet, so go to them. In the meantime, let’s drink some Wicked Weed.

Since W.W. isn’t distributed up north, this was first trying the local favorite. The main location is a vast restaurant, tap room and bottle shop. Their line-up is just way too extensive to sample everything, so I made myself a mix-n-match pack to try later.

The real draw is the nearby Funkatorium, which specializes is barrel-aged sour beers. You’re in for a rare treat because a good portion of the beers never make it outside of the bar. Grab yourself a small flight and savor some funky beers.

The taproom, as you’d expect, is filled with dark woods and barrels that lead to the warehouse. The bottle shop is dangerous because of all the funky and rare beers, but it ain’t cheap. Some out-of-production bottles can run you up to $30. I opted for Arcanic, a Belgian Strong Ale that clocks in at 12.1% ABV.

With my little flight, it helpful to drink some barrel-aged water to cleanse your pallet. Also be aware of the fruit flies buzzing all around. As for what to get, pick your favorite fruit or style and they’ll something that fits that your flavor profile.

Here’s what I had:

  • Watermelon Saison
  • Medora Blackberry Blonde Sour aged in red wine barrels
  • Plainsdealer — Bourbon barrel-aged sour fermented with lemon zest
  • Khatta Masala — Barrel aged American Sour Ale fermented with mango and spices
  • Silencio — Bourbon Barrel-Aged Black Sour Ale with Coffee and Vanilla

The Six Airports I Passed Through on This Trip — Ranked

As much as going to airports can be a bit of a nightmare for the novice traveler, I still enjoy and look forward to passing through new airports to see the quirks, similarities and differences. Elegant and stylish train stations are few and far between (Denver’s Union Station is a wow!) and bus stations are just atrocious places to be any time of day.

I hadn’t flown in two years, so I got to experience the modern upgrades (faster check-in, bag tracking) and aspects that haven’t changed (weak food selections, repugnant bathrooms). On this trip, I got to walk through four new airports. Here are all them ranked.

1. Vancouver — The whole airport (which is actually in Richmond) reminded me of the best in European airports. It makes you feel like your in a wide-open space and not closed off from the outside world. On top of that, some design flourishes makes it more of an experience. Coming in at around 8pm, you’re greeted with a criss-cross pattern of overhead lights as you walk through some artificial scenes of natures. It was like arriving at a natural history museum.

There’s a train that will take you to all points north into downtown Vancouver for about $7.50CAD that you can purchase at the kiosks. Although to get to the train, you have to go outside and play Frogger with passing traffic. Leaving, there’s an overpass that gets you to arrivals.

When I checked in going out on Delta, they actually secretly took a photo of your checked baggage. When I got through passport control, the agent showed me a photo of my luggage and asked if that was mine. That’s some deep secret ops shit right there. As an added bonus, I finally saved time with my Global Entry.

In the international terminal, there is the ubiquitous Tim Horton’s along with Asian fast food options. Pho to go, anyone? There was a nice wine bar, which every airport has to have, but can we get a decent beer bar going? The bar dedicated to the Vancouver Chanucks is unspectacular.

As I walked around, you can see some North American Indian art and totem polls like this one below. RAWWWWW, enjoy your flight!

2. Denver — The Denver International Airport has the distinction of being the largest airport in America by total land area with the longest public use runway. It’s also one of the most energy efficient with one of the fastest snow removal systems in the world.

Within the past year, they’ve added a highspeed rail that will take you to downtown Union Station for $9 in about 40 minutes with a few stops in-between. This has been a big deal for the city in hopes to give the town some improved infrastructure to relieve traffic. Even though I switched cars because the first one I was in smelled like a toilet, it worked like a charm. As an added bonus, the airport station has this funky mood lighting that’s support to resemble the northern lights I guess. It was as if Brian Eno designed a transit hub.

DEN is one of those airport where you have to take a quick train to get to the terminals from arrivals and departure halls. For a little levity, when the train arrives you hear the first chords of Fulsom City Blues (I hear the train a comin’) and a steam train whistle. Inside the voice of the Mayor of Denver welcomes you and tells you what the city has to offer.

On the Friday morning I left, the East terminal was a hub activity. There are dozen of places to eat but particularly appealed to me. I did three laps to determine what overpriced, calorie laden breakfast sandwich I can inhale that will sustain me through two flights. I went with Quiznos and an iced coffee from Dunks. While the main hub of the terminal has some large abstract art, the rest of the terminal wasn’t just sort of there — nothing offensive, but nothing that stands out.

3. Minneapolis — Natural light is important with airports and Minneapolis-St. Paul is flooded with it. That helps when you step out from a full, cramped flight.

When I was switching flights, I had a 15-minute walk where I passed two portraits of Prince alongside elementary kid’s artwork. I’m trying to figure out the connection.

While I only had an hour in the airport, I didn’t see any eating that stood out besides a Chik-Fil-A with a 20-person deep line. That’s just cruel. They should build a hot vending machine that dispenses chicken sandwiches and waffle fries.

4. Newark — This is my home airport and never ceases to amaze me how it’s been under construction for the 21 years I lived in the area. The motto should be — EWR: We’re Working On It Since 1928.

More than ever, I can’t escape Terminal B. It’s where Delta, American and Virgin Atlantic fly from and it feels like a place you’re trapped in. There’s a small Ruby Tuesday and a forgettable fish place that sells $14 fish tacos.

On the plus side, they finally set-up a TSA Pre-Check in the Delta/Virgin gates. This is my first trip where I finally used the service the whole way.

As a side note, I love how people in the premium check-in are determined to use their special lane when clearly the regular coach check-in line is shorter.

5. Salt Lake City — They’ve got nice views out the window. The main photo is from out the window. You can enjoy it while eating from Krispy Kreme, because that’s the first thing that’s greeting you when you enter. That’s about the extent of your options. I had an 80-minute layover so I could find a bar to see if they had local beer. I find the random airport bar and asked if they had any local beer. That confused the bartender as he fumbled to form an answer, so I asked what’s on tap instead.

6. Phoenix — When good air conditioning is your highest compliment, you know you should spend as little as possible in the terminal. I had been there in 1999 and it seems nothing has changed. Sad looking shops and a restaurant not designed for people with carry-on suitcases. There’s that dance you have to do when your dragging something around a terminal. I gate check mine so I am free of it. Unfortunately, other people don’t do this. I wanted to sit at the bar and pretty much had to climb over obstacle of pilot suitcases and rolling duffles.

At Burial Beer Co., A Sloth and Magnum P.I. Mural Welcomes You

Heyyy, youuuuu guuuyyyysss. Let’s drink beer! HAAA HAAAA!

Sometimes, you should not ask questions when you see Sloth from Goonies and Magnum P.I.-era Tom Selleck painted on a side of a brewery. You kind of just accept it and order some beer.

Alas, since I visited the Asheville, N.C.- based brewery Burial, I looked up the answer from the owners. As they explain….

Many moons ago, we were loaned a rare and beautiful velvet Selleck to display our taproom. Soon after, a portrait of Sloth made its way into our hands and the hearts of all who gazed upon his likeness.

Meanwhile, on the outside of our brewery, a need to fill the blank canvas of our bare concrete wall began to grow and gave way to a night of long, arduous and soul searching among Jess, Doug, and Tim to decide what things were important enough to them to immortalize forever. Should it be our logo? A portrayal of our belief in the beautiful and aching cyclical nature of life and death? A light side/dark side piece that is reflected in all our labels?!

Sometimes speaking the most important thing about yourself to the world, means speaking about thing that makes you laugh and brings you joy without fail. And sometimes that means your self portrait looks like a world where Sloth and Tom Selleck are best friends on an urban farm brewery nestled in the Blue Ridge mountains, just living their dream of being best buds.

Best buds, which means they were high when they decided to do this.

Besides 80s memories and velvet art, Burial makes beer — GREAT beer. Burial is a name that sporadically makes his way up to the tri-state area.  Their Blade and Sheath saison is the most common title that I’ve had before. Thus, their taproom is where to try their wide array of styles. You can also get some grub at the Salt & Smoke truck outside in the stone beer garden.

Burial was my favorite brewery in Asheville. Wicked Weed is the most popular brand in town, but I have hand it to Burial. The beer tasted fresher, each one had a distinct taste and the vibe in the joint was laid back.

Here’s what I had:

  • Skillet Donut Stout (took home a six-pack of this bad boy, so good)
  • The Rise of the Merciless saison
  • Winnower Porter
  • Machete Extra Farmhouse Saison
  • Surf Wax IPA
  • Both Ways India Pale Lager
  • Billows kolsch

 

 

The Best Way to Visit Graceland is as a Day Trip from Nashville

The King died 40 years ago today. Let’s put it this way, the human vessel made of muscles, bones and organs that carried the soul of Elvis Presley ceased to exist. The legend and spirit is still very much alive.

Visiting Graceland is the best way to experience the life of Elvis and pay your respects to the man and his legacy. While Memphis is best known as a BBQ capital, Graceland draws people from around the world. Beyond these two things, there’s not much else to do.

The best tip I can give for visiting Graceland is to do it after your BBQ lunch. A timed ticket between 2-3:30pm is what you should aim for. Here’s why — the actual house is a 90-minute visit at most. Every body who has visited says the same comment — “it’s smaller than I thought.”

People make the mistake thinking that it’s an all-day event. The Presley family and Elvis Inc. have been revamping the experience to make it more for an all-day thing with a new museum of clothes, cars, airplanes and artifacts. This can run you $60-$159. You can skip that.

The Graceland only tour is $40 for a timed entrance and you can buy in advance the day before. It saves you 15 minutes. The tour is fantastic and how they kept the house exactly as it was when Elvis lived there should be commended. The tablet with John Stamos narrating the tour is a little cumbersome but it gives your tour context. There are no museum placards in the house to tell you what is what.

In all, I spent 2 1/2 hours total there which included a short intro video, van ride to the house from the main headquarters and proverbial stroll through the three gift shops.

Thus, there’s no need to stay overnight in Memphis unless you really like barbecue. From Nashville, it’s a straight 3 hours and 20 minutes drive. You can spend that time like I did by listening to the Elvis station on Spotify or playing Paul Simon’s Graceland album on repeat. The road trip nature makes it seem much more like a pilgrimage.

I left Nashville at 9am. Rolled into The BBQ Spot for lunch just after 12:30pm. Did a quick stop at Sun Studios (skip the tour, just walk in and out) and then went to Graceland. It’s about a 10-minute drive from the city center in a not so exciting area, unless you think gas stations, seedy hotels and strip malls exciting.

After my visit, I was back in Nashville by 8pm for hot chicken and cheap beer — the way Elvis would have liked it.

Tales from AirBnB — If a Cat Dies, Am I Responsible?

After 2826.5 miles through the Unites States, I returned back to the homestead to the welcoming embrace of my own bed. In tow was about 150 cans of beer, 6 bags of coffee, an expensive pair of jeans and a small cartel of stickers.

My AirBnB experience ranged from the best ever to “Am I going to be the asshole who ruins the guy’s 4.9 rating?’ Since this was a last minute trip and I’m on a tight budget, I bypassed the chain hotels in favorite of staying in a stranger’s spare room. Sorry, Captain Obvious and Trivago Guy & Gal.

Of the five places I rented, two of the hosts were never there. Apparently, this is common practice in the AirBnb world. People let a complete stranger into their home without them being there. I could easily set-up a brothel like in Risky Business or just steal all their crap. “Yeah, but they have your info.” Sure, but AirBnb doesn’t know the real me.

The usual procedure is that your key is in a lockbox, you get the combo and you just follow their guidelines. Not to go into specifics, one place went completely smooth, the other was almost a disaster.

Basically, the guy had a cat. I knew this going in and was fine with it. He then told me a five days before I arrived that he was going to be away. Okay, then. I got the lockbox number and instructions. In the instructions was to not let the cat out.

In the back of my mind, I assumed that the cat would be with him, with a neighbor or in a shelter. I wasn’t informed how long he would be away.

I get the key, open the door and not even within a second, the cat darts out and runs away. FUCK!!!! It runs under the house and I can’t see it. In a slight panic, I get down and try to whisper for it. At this time in the afternoon, it’s about 96 degrees. I’m sweating profusely.

Instead of looking for the cat, I start to unload my crap. I find the cat’s food and water bowl and leave it out. Nothing. After 20-30 minutes, I’m starting to get lightheaded from the heat and panic. I eventually call the guy. He tells me to leave the back porch screen door open a crack, put the food inside the porch and the cat will eventually come back.

So here’s the thing — why the fuck am I taking care of your cat, bro? A coyote or dog could easily mangle your cat while you are away and I’m there. I’m renting your room, not your cat.

AirBnB has no policy on this, and a few AirBnb message boards suggest that you remove the pets if you are not there. One place I rented had two dogs, and they were put into the bedroom when they were not there. There could be one of a thousand bad circumstances that ended badly for me. Even if the cat didn’t get out, my luggage could have tipped over and crushed it.

I leave for a few hours, and come back. Thankfully, the cat made it to the porch and I let it inside.

Fast forward to the night, I get home at midnight and I’ve had a few drinky drinks. Not falling down drunk, but just want to get to bed ASAP. I close the door, get into bed and I hear scratching at the door and meowing. STFU please.

I eventually passed out and woke up a few hours later needing to use the bathroom. I opened the bedroom door and the cat darts in. I did my business, came back to the bedroom and don’t see the cat. “Whatever,” I think and left the door open. I got into bed, turned off the light and then the sheets staredt to move. The cat is in the bed with me. I shoo it out the room and close the door. This fucking cat.

When I went to pack my stuff and get it into my car, I lock the cat into the bedroom. The last thing I did before I left was let it out.

This wasn’t cool. I have nothing against cats, but common sense would tell the AirBnb host that you shouldn’t leave your pet in your house with a stranger when you are not there for a long time. Between the escaping and not leaving me alone while I slept, it was an awkward and unpleasant situation.

I decided not to review my stay, but contacted AirBnb about my story to see if there is any policy about pets and owners not being there. Mainly, if this cat never came back, could the host sue me for damages.

I will let you know if they respond.