Five Groovy Tips for a Great Vacation

Mrs. Groovy and I are on a quest to see all fifty states. So far we’ve made it to twenty-seven of them. And although Montana is our favorite state so far, there hasn’t been a state we haven’t loved.

America, for all its faults, is still a kick-ass country. I know it doesn’t always appear that way on the nightly news. Watch the nightly news long enough and you’ll be convinced that our infrastructure is crumbling, our institutions—whether public or private—are uniformly inept, and our citizenry has renounced brotherly love and devolved into fiercely squabbling tribes.

But that’s not the America I’ve seen across twenty-seven states. The roads, bridges, and tunnels are fine. Electricity, potable water, and functioning bathrooms are plentiful. Businesses, stores, restaurants, museums, schools, and government offices open every day, well stocked and staffed, and generally eager to make their customers happy. In a word, America works. And it’s damn nice as well. Nowhere in our travels have we been treated poorly. Nor have we seen others being treated poorly. Whether it’s been San Francisco or Birmingham, my fellow Americans have been nothing but kind, gracious, and helpful—to me and Mrs. Groovy, and each other.

So if you want to see the real America, not the nightly-news America, get out there. Visit a state you’ve never been to before. And if you do decide to heed my advice, here are five suggestions to help make your visit to an alien state memorable.

Drive

A few years ago, Mrs. Groovy and I spent a long weekend in Austin, Texas. In preparation for our visit, we googled “things to do in Austin.” One of the things to do in Austin, oddly enough, was to take a day trip to San Antonio. (San Antonio is just 74 miles south of Austin.) “Cool,” Mrs. Groovy and I said to ourselves. “We’ll rent a car.”

But what’s there to do in San Antonio besides visit the Alamo? A quick google search provided us with a bevy of possibilities. And one that intrigued us the most was a place just outside of San Antonio called Greune Hall.

Gruene Hall (pronounced Green Hall) is the “oldest dance hall in Texas.” It features an excellent restaurant, live music, and ice cold Shiner Bocks. Did somebody say, “heaven”?

The day we were there, a country band from Bandera, Texas, was entertaining the wily two-steppers. Well, I don’t remember the band’s name, but I’ll never forget the chorus from the song that paid tribute to its small-town roots. It definitely elicited the most yeeeee-haws from the crowd. Here it is.

In Bandera, Texas, there’s a lesson to learn. You don’t lose your girlfriend, you just lose your turn.

Would we have discovered Gruene Hall if we didn’t rent a car? Doubtful. The moral of the story, then, is this: if at all possible, drive at some point during your next vacation. It’s a great way to turbo-charge your ability to explore. Just do a google search on “day trips.” You’re bound to find something to pique your interest.

Walk

Walking is great exercise. And it’s a great way to observe the people and businesses of whatever city you happen to be visiting.

To find great walking opportunities, just google “walking” or “walking tours” followed by the name of your vacation spot. This is how Mrs. Groovy and I discovered the Big Four Bridge in Louisville, Kentucky (see picture below).

The Big Four Bridge is a pedestrian-only bridge that spans the Ohio River and connects Louisville to Jeffersonville, Indiana. Walking to Jeffersonville and back was a little over a mile. And each day we were in Louisville, Mrs. Groovy and I took a sprightly stroll beneath its stately struts. Oh, the simple joys of life!


bigfourbridge

Check Out a Dive Bar

Dive bars are not for the faint of heart—dimly lit, battered accoutrements, and home to a sketchy clientele. But if done strategically (i.e., during the daylight hours), it’s a great way to safely fraternize with the locals and learn about the area.

To find a great dive bar, just google “best dive bars in” followed by the name of your vacation spot. From my experience, the website Thrillist provides the best breakdown of dive bar possibilities. Yelp is a close second.

Now, to give you an idea of what a dive bar visit might entail, here are some screen shots from the website of our favorite dive bar in the whole wide world, the Double Down Saloon.

The Double Down Saloon invented the bacon martini, but its signature drink is a shot called ass juice (Everclear and fruit juice). The last time we were there (October 2011), a guy sitting across from us claimed to be a retired Mexican porn star. Maybe he was. Maybe he wasn’t. We weren’t about to question him. The point is that this is the kind of character you’ll meet in a dive bar—colorful, opinionated, and loud. But ultimately harmless. And always great fodder for stories.

Like I said, dive bars aren’t for the faint of heart. But if you have an adventurous streak, and don’t mind slumming it for an hour or so, I highly recommend a visit to one on your next vacation.

doubledown2

doubledown3

Dine at a Classic Eatery

If you’re ever in Massapequa, Long Island, you gotta grab a burger at the All American Drive-In on Merrick Road.

If you’re ever in Stoughton, Massachusetts, you gotta grab a pizza at the Town Spa on Washington Street.

I know about All American and the Spa because I grew up on Long Island and my mom’s from Stoughton. Both eateries are institutions. They help give two rather nondescript towns an identity. Is the All American burger the best burger I ever ate? No. Does the Town Spa pizza make me do back flips? Again, no. But that’s not the point. Eating at All American or the Spa makes you an honorary member of the team. Meet anyone from Massapequa or Stoughton in the future and you’ll instantly bond.

America has become franchise nation. You can eat McDonald’s, Subway, or Taco Bell anywhere. And that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Having ample access to food of a known quality helps cut down on decision fatigue. But to really learn about a place, and make life interesting, you gotta eat where the locals eat. So I implore you to seek out a classic eatery wherever you travel. And here are three great resources to do so.

Do at Least One Weird Thing

When Mrs. Groovy and I visited Atlanta, Georgia, we did the usual tourist stuff—CNN, Coca-Cola, Centennial Park, Varsity Hotdogs, and the Georgia Aquarium. But we also did something untouristy. We googled “weird atlanta” and discovered that this guy called the Unknown Hinson was going to be performing in Atlanta while we were there. Tickets for his show were cheap, around $15 per person. So Mrs. Groovy and I looked at each other and said, “what the hell.” Our Atlanta vacation would end with the musical stylings of the Unknown Hinson.

The best way I can describe the Unknown is thus: take Dracula, fuse him with Hank Williams, and then splice in some wicked guitar-playing genes. The guy was a freak (check out the clip below). But between his twisted take on country music, and the Flintstone-clad drag queens that opened the show, it was one of the most entertaining evenings Mrs. Groovy and I ever had. Now, when Mrs. Groovy and I fondly recall our Atlanta trip, the first thing that comes to mind isn’t Robin Meade. Nor is it hugging a polar bear at Coca-Cola or watching fifty-foot sharks meander over our heads at the Georgia Aquarium. No, the first thing we think about is a man and his loving tribute to a plastic blow up doll.

Final Thoughts

Okay, groovy freedomists, that’s all I got. America is great because its people are great. Don’t miss out on this greatness. See what great things your fellow Americans have built. See what great things your fellow Americans are doing. Drive. Walk. Throw back some shots of ass juice. Wolf down some Voodoo doughnuts. Do something weird, dammit!

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15 Comments

  1. My wife is American and I’m Ducth. When we visit the Netherlands my wife loves it. Except for any parties we attend because inevitably we’ll be joined by a Dutch drunk bitching and complaining about all that is wrong with the United States. Annoying? Yes, can we blame him? Hardly.

    The rest of the world ONLY sees the nightly news, along with whatever stupid TV we export around the world.

    All that said, those of the Dutch people I know that actually came out here and saw the States, have nothing but praise. They are treated great by everyone, are amazed about the sites places and not to forget, the abundance of nature.

    Those that have actually seen it, are fans for life and can’t wait to come back.

    • Mr. Groovy

      Hey, Maarten. Yes, TV America and real America are two different worlds. Mrs. Groovy and I cut the cord last year and instituted a news blackout for this year. We’ve never been happier. When I did watch TV, I often found myself yelling at it. When I travel around this country, however, I never fail to experience a renewed sense of hope. Cool Americans far out number dirt-bag Americans. Thanks for stopping by and sharing your very encouraging words. It’s always a pleasure hearing from you.

  2. Great, great suggestions. The wife and I tend to do weekend jaunts vice long vacations. Our basic modus operandi is to have three set activities, visit a restaurant recommended by locals and do something recommended by the hotel staff or another local we’ve run across. Our most recent trip to San Diego serves as a good example.

    Arriving on Friday evening, we grabbed dinner at a local pizza place described as the best in town. I don’t know if it was indeed the best, but it was damn good! On Saturday morning we went for a run, took a drive to a winery in Temeculah for some lunch … and wine (planned activity #1), had dinner at our favorite restaurant (planned activity #2 – we visit this particular restaurant in any city we visit that has one), and went for a nice walk on the beach after dinner. Sunday we took in a Padres game (planned activity #3) before driving home later that afternoon.

    • Mr. Groovy

      Hey, James! I love it. That’s just the way Mrs. Groovy and I plan our vacations. Have a handful of planned activities, but give ourselves enough unstructured time to take advantage of whatever insights we might cull from the locals. And a great point about the hotel staff. A hotel clerk in San Francisco knew we were leaving for Napa and told us about a little-known winery in Sonoma that we could hit along the way. The winery, needless to say, was spectacular. He also told us about the macarons at the Bouchon Bakery in Napa. Those suckers were expensive. But they were to die for.

  3. I never heard of Dive bars before. From this article, i think, I am a faint heart to try one. But, next time, we will check out the walking and driving options to the spots we will be visiting.

    • Mr. Groovy

      Hey, DA. Mrs. Groovy felt the same way about the Double Down. She’s not a drinker and she doesn’t do tacky very well. And the Double Down is tacky. The first time we visited, there were hundreds of bras hanging from above the bar. In the corner was a little horse kiddie ride, the kind you used to see outside of supermarkets. When I asked the bartender what it was doing there, he said any girl who rode on it topless was entitled to a free drink. Hence all the bras suspended above the bar. So dive bars are definitely not for everyone. When we go to one it’s only during the day. No way would we venture into one at night. We know our place, so to speak. Thanks for stopping by, DA. I look forward to hearing about your next walking and driving adventure.

  4. Great approach to hitting all the 50 states! We are on a similar quest… I am down to my last two: Idaho & Wyoming. Since Yellowstone is right on the border of both of them, that is on our list of places to get to fast. I love your approach to soaking up the authentic, local reality – not just eating fast food and chain stores.

    • Mr. Groovy

      Hey, Mr. FS. I’m so jealous! You only have two to go. You’ll love Yellowstone. We weren’t there 10 minutes before we had to pull to the side of the road and let a bison pass. And Old Faithful really was amazing. I like the way you put our approach, “soaking up the authentic, local reality.” That’s definitely our aim. We always try to experience something we can’t do at home. It’s a great way to meet people. And my obnoxious New York accent is a tried and true conversation starter. Thanks for stopping by, Mr. FS. Love reading about your retirement adventures. Have you started reading that book you left in your SUV? Keep me posted.

    • Mr. Groovy

      Hey, Maggie. Dive bars are definitely scary. But we only go to them during the day, usually in the early afternoon. At that time, there’s usually a bartender and a handful of older patrons. We’ve never tried one a night. That’s when the noise level shoots up exponentially and the average age of the patron plummets. And Mrs. Groovy and I are no longer big noise and big crowd people. We know our place. We much prefer the din of Dairy Queen to the thunder of some bar band. And, no, we haven’t made it to Alaska yet. That could be a milestone state. Mrs. Groovy has a milestone birthday on the not-too distant horizon and I’m hoping she picks Alaska for the celebration. When we do head your way, though, we want to stay for a least a month. It’s an awesome state and we really want to take our time and enjoy it. Thanks for stopping by, Maggie. As our Alaska adventure nears, I hope you won’t mind if we annoy you with lots of questions.

    • Mr. Groovy

      Hey, Matt. If you’re ever in Massapequa again (or Matzah-pizza, as we fondly refer to it because of its big Jewish and Italian demographics), it’s right by the intersection of Merrick Road and Hicksville Road (107). Again, you won’t be doing back flips over the burgers. But the burgers are good (I love the double-doubles), and the place is a lot of fun. It’s the perfect Guy Fieri joint. I’m surprised he’s never been there.

    • Mr. Groovy

      Hey, Penny. I knew you were the epitome of class. Dive bars, if used judiciously, can truly enrich our lives. They can be the start of something big (as in your case), and they can invigorate an established relationship (as in the case of Mrs. Groovy and I). Who knew that cheap booze and a forlorn jukebox could have so much power! Here’s to traveling like a local. Like you said, it’s a “great way to see the country.”

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