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On tour with a new generation
Our "Eastern Discovery" tour went south in a big hurry.
The one-week itinerary -- from New York City to Orlando, with stops in Philadelphia, Annapolis, Md., Washington, Savannah, Ga., and St. Augustine, Fla. -- would take us through 10 states and four centuries, from the genesis of a new nation to the frontier of an uncharted millennium.
But compelling museums and monuments were only part of our budget bus tour.
The other component, the tour members, were just as important to the experience, and in this case, they underscored why tours aren't for everyone.
Contiki Tours International specializes in vacations for 18- to 35-year-olds. Though Mark, our tour "manager," stressed we were not on a 7-day, 6-night booze cruise, Contiki is known for pumping up its itineraries with nighttime -- and sometimes daytime -- opportunities for partying. Music blaring from bus speakers, directions to after-hour hot spots and emphasis on where to buy alcohol at the end of the day were standard operating mode, according to the Contiki veterans on our tour.
In his first-day introduction, Mark prepped us for sights that would unnerve us and long drives that would bore us, exceptional regional cuisine and meals we'd probably rather forget. He also touched on cultural contrasts -- tipping, terminology and regional distinctions -- that we'd have to accommodate.
"It's not bad," he'd repeat throughout the trip, "just different."
DAY 1: NEW YORK CITY TO WASHINGTON
Our group of 26 was comprised mostly of singles and international travelers, from as far away as Australia and South Africa, about half exploring the United States for the first time. This leg of the trip, from New York to Orlando, was only part of longer tour options. Some had spent the three previous days sightseeing in New York City and some would continue an additional 14 days from Orlando, across the southern United States to Anaheim, Calif.
At 7 a.m. we met at the Hotel Beacon near Central Park, where many of us had stayed the previous night. Our overly air-conditioned and strangely cherry-scented bus (a standard "motor coach") was equipped with a VCR and video terminals and a toilet we were cautioned against using except for emergencies. After watching a bus safety video, we headed uneventfully through New Jersey, into Philadelphia for our first stop: two hours at the Independence National Historic Park.
At Independence Hall, where the Declaration of Independence was adopted 225 years ago and the U.S. Constitution was drafted, we encountered our first mass of Boy Scouts, who were visiting historic sites on their way to their quadrennial National Scout Jamboree at Ft. A.P. Hill in Virginia. More than 35,000 would be there in a few days -- and most of them seemed to be standing in line in front of us wherever we went.
An hour-long line of scouts precluded some of us from seeing Independence Hall, but the Liberty Bell wait was only 20 minutes. At the U.S. Mint -- despite an exciting brochure laden with exclamation points -- we breezed through the self-guided tour, pausing briefly to gawk at the garbage bin-sized coin tubs.
By 12:10 p.m., we were back on the bus, only to hop off again for a 10-minute photo shoot with the "Rocky" statue at the Spectrum stadium. Ten minutes was more than enough for a movie flashback.
Driving through the rest of Pennsylvania, through Delaware and into Maryland, we spent the next three hours completing tour paperwork and getting to know tour members through "interviews" and mandatory seat switching.
At Annapolis we had just over 1 1/2 hours to explore the grounds of the U.S. Naval Academy and the picturesque Maryland State House. A handful of us ventured into the academy's museum in Preble Hall, where we stumbled on a model ship exhibit. Door hinges the size of pinheads, rigging made from human hair, carved cattle bone hulls and ivory inlay adorned the intricate models that date back to the 17th Century.
Back on the bus at 4:30 p.m., we were supposed to resume introductions, but when Mark was met with little enthusiasm, he let everyone sleep, read or vegetate instead. The lack of interest in socializing was probably brought on by fatigue, but it also marked the new tenor of the tour.
We arrived 1 1/2 hours later at our Arlington, Va., budget "hotel," which was more like a motel with its doors opening directly onto the parking lot. Mark handed out room keys and matched the single travelers with their roommates (nobody on this trip had paid the supplement for a single room). We had a half-hour to get settled before meeting in the hotel's cafe for a buffet dinner. The dinner was welcome after the long day, but my roommate was driven to distraction by the plastic table utensils, which would become a daily encounter.
At 7:30 p.m., we were back on the bus, headed to the Washington Mall for a hop on and off "night illuminations" tour of the memorials. Not only did the night tour free up our time to see other highlights over the next two free days here, but it allowed us to see Washington after hours.
At the Capitol we were in time to hear the U.S. Army Band launch an evening concert with "The Marines' Hymn" and the "Star-Spangled Banner" -- played to the throngs of Boy Scouts on the steps. As rousing as this was, the highlight of the evening for me was the Korean War Veterans Memorial, probably the most affecting memorial in the dark. Representing soldiers on night patrol, the 19 haggard and wary figures were the embodiment of war and chaos. White flashes from tourist cameras bounced off them like artillery fire.
Back at the hotel, those who still had energy at 11 p.m. walked a few blocks to the corner bar where many stayed till closing time.
Normally, the events of the day would have ended here -- except that this night, around 4 a.m., someone tried to get into our second-floor room. The would-be intruder after pushing on our door continued down the walkway, testing every door latch.
(Security didn't find anyone, but the next day the mystery was solved: A knucklehead from our group had forgotten his room number, so he tried all the doors instead of asking at the front desk.)
New York City to Washington: 8:50 hours on bus, 303 miles.
Additional 3 1/2-hour tour of monuments.
DAYS 2 AND 3: WASHINGTON
I passed on the hotel's continental breakfast in order to beat the heat and the inevitable summer crowds in Washington. Knowing I had free days, I researched in advance what I wanted to see and focused on what I'd missed when I lived here a decade ago in grad school.
At 8 a.m. I took the Metro subway to the Smithsonian's National Zoological Park and lined up to see Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, the zoo's new pair of giant pandas, for a well-timed, 15-minute wrestling match. You can't underestimate the pair's adorable-factor; tumbling one over another down a hill, the pandas tussled, urged on by the audience's cheers.
"Go, Mei Xiang! You go, girl!" shouted one boy, as she got the upper paw and backed Tian Tian onto a felled tree, just inches from the end of a supporting branch.
Despite her perceived advantage, Mei Xiang finally toppled, falling a few feet and rolling downhill. Then she climbed a tree at the back of the enclosure, turned her back on everyone and pouted, justifiably.
For me, the next subway stop was the National Gallery of Art for an audio tour of the old stuff: Renaissance works, Impressionist images and an impressive 13-by-17-foot American sculpture, the "Shaw Memorial." The plaster cast depicts the black Massachusetts 54th Regiment, under command of Col. Robert Gould Shaw, as the fresh troops march into the Civil War. A similar bronze sculpture, finished in 1897, reportedly inspired the author of the movie "Glory."
At 5:30 p.m. our whole group gathered at the bus outside the National Museum of American History (where I would spend part of the following day) for a ride into Georgetown. We had more than two hours to sightsee and eat dinner (not included) and then we would go as a group to a "nightclub" in Arlington.
For the record, a dance floor and a disco ball do not a nightclub make, especially when the dance floor overlooks a stainless steel kitchen and cafeteria-style racks of dishes.
Though the group made the most of the evening and the ambience, some things were said. Mean things. Things that people who were old enough to know better (the average age was about 26) should never say aloud.
That's what made my visit the next day to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and its lessons of tolerance even more meaningful.
Most of the other Washington museums or memorials walk you through history. In the Holocaust Memorial Museum, you relive it.
When you enter, you receive an "identification card" of someone who lived during the Holocaust. The booklet takes you through the stages of the individual's life, timed to provide personal context as you walk through the exhibits and the progression of Nazi fanaticism.
The harsh steel and glass design is meant to confuse. Sculptures, such as Joel Shapiro's "Loss and Regeneration," portray lives interrupted. And darkness and light intensify the dichotomies in the museum. At the beginning, in near darkness, you're assaulted by Adolf Hitler's voice in a speech during his rise to absolute power. At the end, diffused sunlight and hundreds of memorial candles radiate in the Hall of Remembrance.
Films, photos, letters, children's toys. Names of communities wiped off the planet. A boxcar. Survivors telling their stories.
And you still can't wrap your mind around it all.
That evening, when Mark had the group together after dinner at the Hard Rock Cafe (included in our tour), he reminded us that we should make the effort to get along. Every person deserved a good time on the trip and no one should be subjected to malicious remarks. This, even though almost everyone had been to the Holocaust Memorial Museum.
DAY 4: ARLINGTON, VA., TO CARY, N.C.
After a hot breakfast (with plastic utensils) at the hotel, we boarded the bus and left at 9:05 a.m. for Arlington National Cemetery, pausing briefly at the U.S. Marine Corps Memorial, depicting the raising of the flag on Iwo Jima.
Together we saw the memorials to the men and women who died during the sinking of the USS Maine, the explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger and the Iran hostages rescue attempt; the graves for President Kennedy and his brother, Robert; and the solemn changing of the guards at the Tomb of the Unknowns.
The next 1 1/2 hours we could explore on our own in the sweltering heat, though without suggestions from Mark, many were at a loss for meaning in an American cemetery.
At 1:30 p.m. we stopped for an hour for lunch at a mall in Fredricksburg, Va., but bypassed its Civil War battlefield. After one more pit stop, we arrived at our hotel at 7 in Cary, a few miles from Raleigh.
Dinner that night was a buffet at the Golden Corral (stainless steel utensils -- but plastic cups), and the entertainment was bowling (not included -- embarrassing but fun).
Washington to Cary: 6:05 hours on bus, 282 miles.
DAY 5: CARY TO SAVANNAH, GA.
After continental breakfast (on minuscule foam plates) at the hotel, we were on the road by 8 a.m. for what would be our most boring day. To bide time we watched "Forces of Nature" with Sandra Bullock and Ben Affleck. In it, the couple stops near Dillon, S.C., at the granddaddy of all tourist traps -- which was our next stop.
South of the Border's hodgepodge of shops encompass all that's tacky about roadside America. Lawn ornaments and fireworks, offensive T-shirts and rude souvenirs -- if it lacks taste, it's at South of the Border.
Back on the bus, we held a tackiest souvenir contest (under $5). The winner: a plastic figurine that squirts when its pants drop.
After an afternoon downpour we reached Savannah, where at 3:35 p.m. the rain broke long enough for a group photo (one member declined) and a half-hour walking tour of some of the town's two-dozen historic squares.
The evening's optional dinner of stuffed flounder or prime rib at The Pirates' House was disappointing for $24, but we were paying for folklore. Some passages from Robert Louis Stevenson's "Treasure Island" are thought to be based on the old inn and one of its regulars, who became the character of Capt. Flint.
A brief walk down the waterfront to a karaoke bar and, later, a dance club ($5 cover charge, $1 drinks) were all that most of the group would see of Savannah, except for the early risers.
Cary to Savannah: 6 hours on bus, 349 miles.
DAY 6: SAVANNAH TO ST. AUGUSTINE, FLA.
Note to early risers: There's no advantage in Savannah to getting up early. Sleep in like the locals. Many businesses don't even open till 10 a.m.
After breakfast (not included) another tour member and I rushed through Savannah's historic center to see its renowned architecture, set among old oaks and swaying tendrils of Spanish moss. Beautiful tiered fountains, weather-worn headstones, and English Regency and Gothic revival mansions upheld Savannah's reputation.
At 12:20 p.m. we were on the bus, headed for the Anheuser-Busch brewery in Jacksonville (self-guided tour, free beer -- plastic cups -- and pretzels). We arrived in St. Augustine before 5, leaving us time to explore its Spanish Quarter, restored colonial district and Castillo De San Marcos National Monument, the oldest remaining European fort in the continental United States.
After dinner at the hotel (paper plates), we had the opportunity ($6) to join Tim Fleming, our costumed guide, for "A Ghostly Experience," an entertaining walking tour of St. Augustine haunts. Most of us wrapped up the evening with drinks at Scarlett O'Hara's pub (not included -- and not haunted).
Savannah to St. Augustine: 2:30 hours on bus, 183 miles.
DAY 7: ST. AUGUSTINE TO ORLANDO
Our hotel's ham and cheese breakfast biscuits (foam plates and cups) were a turnoff for the vegetarians in the group, who struggled some days with the tour's meal plans. Even though tour members provided advance information about restrictions such as vegetarian diets or non-smoking rooms, the tour and tour manager were not always accommodating. Mark did not handle suggestions well, even simple ones, such as turning down the music on the bus or stopping more frequently for restroom breaks.
But most of us were in the home stretch now. The Kennedy Space Center would be our last stop before Orlando.
For 5 1/2 hours we saw history in the making. Two IMAX theaters introduced us to the Space Shuttle program (featuring video shot by astronauts) and a 3-D look at the future of space colonization. Because of the complex's immensity we used shuttle buses to tour the non-restricted facilities -- the Apollo/Saturn V Center, the Observation Gantry for lift-offs, the International Space Station Center -- and got a glimpse of the Space Shuttle Discovery, ready for its successful launch on Aug. 10. It wasn't nearly enough time to see everything or to adjust to the wow-factor of it all.
Orlando, just an hour away, was the end of the trip for a dozen of us.
After dinner -- included for those continuing to California -- at the Golden Corral (tonight's special: plastic), we said our farewells after seven days and 1,300 miles. The tour's end, for some, was a relief.
St. Augustine to Orlando: 3:40 hours on bus, 183 miles.
Contiki can't be condemned for one unpleasant trip. For one-third of our group, this was the second, third or even sixth time on a Contiki vacation. The affinity is understandable. A lot of free time, a younger demographic and the difficulty of attempting long distances on their own keep people coming back.
But this hadn't been the easygoing crowd required for a successful tour. Almost always you can anticipate room for improvement on tours. In this case, it wasn't just the itinerary that needed adjusting.