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Roaming Memphis in the bright of day is sobering. At least, that’s how we felt on Monday as we readied to head back to New York. Our last stop on our list was the National Civil Rights Museum, and I don’t think there could have been a more appropriate way to spend our last few hours.

In the blur of Blues, ribs and beer it is almost easy to forget that Memphis was the city in which Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot and killed on April 4, 1968. He was killed on the balcony of The Lorraine Motel, which has been turned into the museum. It is eye-opening and, in my opinion, a must for anyone.

Before you enter the exhibit you watch a screening of the Oscar-nominated ‘The Witness,’ narrated by Rev. Billy Kyles, who was with Dr. King the night he died. If at the end you aren’t holding back tears then you missed the whole point of the film.

Wind your way through the history of American civil rights. What makes this exhibit that much more meaningful is that it is located in the South. I don’t think it would have hit me as hard were it located in New York.

The museum takes you up to room #306, Dr. King’s room. Here you can look out a glass window onto the balcony where he was murdered. There really aren’t any words to capture this experience – at least none that wouldn’t sound forced and corny. Just go for yourself. Adult admission is $13 and I would carve out three hours to do it properly. You do not want to rush.

We meandered down to Beale Street and although a good handful of people roamed in and out of the blues clubs and restaurants, it looked more like a ghost town compared to the past two nights. We even made an attempt to get back to Ground Zero to find out the name of Johnny’s band (I feel stupid that I can’t remember), but seeing it empty and silent was eerie and another reminder that the journey really was over.

I’ll be raving about this trip for a very long time. I cannot wait to get back and I will recommend Memphis to anyone.

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The whole drive here whenever we mentioned we were going to Memphis we got one of two responses: skeptical looks (which, after last night’s insanity we are still confused about) and “You into Elvis, or something?”

Ok…yes, we went to Graceland. I know I like to pride myself on not being a tourist but, come on. I think if an entire Paul Simon album bears its name it really is worth a visit. And also…it’s Elvis.

I’ll admit I didn’t know much about the King or his palace before my visit, but I was told by my friend Becca (an avid Graceland visitor) to opt for the Platinum Tour Tickets, which cost $34 and include an audio-guided tour of the Mansion; access to his airplanes; access to the Automobile Museum; his Hollywood Exhibit; a pop culture exhibit; access to a wardrobe exhibit; and a self-guided tour of the ’68 Special exhibit.

Elvis bought Graceland in 1957 for around 100 grand. He was 22. I’m 22 and I think I’m making it through the rest of this weekend on $61. It’s good to be the King.

“There’s a pretty little thing waiting for the King…down in the Jungle Room.” – ‘Walking in Memphis’ by Marc Cohen.

The tour of the mansion takes you through the lower floors. The upstairs, Elvis’ private quarters, remain off limits out of respect. You get to see the living room, dining room, kitchen, basement and of course, the Jungle Room. Holy 1970s decor. Shag carpet on the ceiling? What were people thinking? The tour also includes the grounds of Graceland, including displays on his movie career and his many, many awards.

Getting there: If you don’t have a car there is a free shuttle service that leaves from the Memphis Rock’n’Soul Museum every hour on the half hour. I’d carve out a good three hours to do Graceland right.

Not into Elvis? There is still plenty to do. We also checked out the Beltz Museum of Asian and Judaic Art and tomorrow we plan on hitting the Civil Rights Museum. Memphis is also a prime location for people watching. Grab a stool at one of the many bars with front windows and watch the local color pass by. Check out the giant decked out carriages that leave from The Peabody Hotel. While you’re there, see the March of the Ducks, which happens at 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. Get there an hour early to get a good seat. It’s a little kitschy but the ducks are so damn cute.

Smoky barbecue goodness wafting out of a small alley off Union Ave. between Second and Third streets can only mean one thing. It’s time for a Rendezvous, arguably the most famous (and best) barbecue joint in Memphis. Our night started with a full order of pork ribs, cole slaw, chicken nachos and Heinekens and it only got better from there. By the way, the wait at Rendezvous is very, very long. We waited about an hour, but it was very much worth it.

Feeling sleepy from full bellies we were about to call it a night. Yes, we were sleepy and were considering passing out in our very comfortable beds at The Westin Memphis Beale Street. (Guests should ask for Joan, the concierge, who is a fountain of Memphis knowledge.) But first we wanted to see what all the fuss was on Beale Street. Oh my. The cop-guarded street is closed to cars and revelers are stopped on their way in for a quick ID check. That’s right. We got carded to walk on a street. Why? No open container laws on Beale Street. I knew we were in for an adventure.

We donned the Beale Street badge – a giant cup of Bud Lite (there are beer carts all along the street and most giant beers cost $5). From there we walked up the block as the soulful sound of Blues poured out from every venue. If you’re thinking Beale Street is just for tourists, think again. Packed with locals. And everyone wants to hear who is performing. To play on Beale Street is really to have made it.

We were lured to a small stage in a small pavilion. After watching the guitarists and sax player jam for a while one of the two guitarists motioned to me…to come up on stage. Now, I am not into being in front of people, but I thought ‘what the hell’ and headed up the steps. The guitarist handed me his instrument and I held it flat out in front me as he proceeded to pick and play it while it was in my hands. Probably one of the coolest things I have ever seen. Saskia and I waited around after the show to say hello to him. Turns out his name is Johnny Holiday (not his real name, but I promised I would keep his real identity a secret). Why Holiday? “Because I’m always on vacation,” he told us. He is the unofficial mayor of Beale Street. Everywhere we went with him folks were calling out ‘Hey Johnny! How you doing?’ We felt like Memphis royalty to be in his company.

Slipping past cover charges (I was introduced as his wife) we made our way into Ground Zero, a club on Beale Street owned by Morgan Freeman. This was to be our hangout for most of the night, as Johnny was to play there at midnight. A voluptuous woman belted out the Blues on stage as we knocked back beer after beer (and maybe a shot or two of Jim Beam, after Saskia opted for that over tequila).

As the night got fuzzier and we all got friendlier it was revealed that Johnny actually held a role in the 2005 movie, Walk the Line. He plays Carl Perkins, if anyone is interested.

The night ended in haze of dancing, singing and some killer solos by Johnny. Memphis, you may have climbed your way into my Top 5 Places in the U.S.

 

 

Check out the videos of Johnny at Ground Zero

After almost 900 miles on the road we were ready to blow off some steam. Newbies to Nashville on a short stay can’t go wrong with Broadway between First and Fourth avenues. We had a few must-sees on our list recommended to us by a friend who grew up in Nashville, but first we decided to do a little exploring on our own.

These three blocks are a smörgåsbord for the senses – bright, flashing lights; the succulent smell of grease and fat dripping off of roasting meat; and that familiar twang of country music. We spotted a sign that said “70 Beers on Tap” and there was no question where the night was going to begin.
Broadway Brewhouse Downtown (317 Broadway, there’s another one at 1900 Broadway, as well) is a comfortable sports bar-meets-saloon with wide, open windows and very friendly hosts. Saskia and I tried the local Nashville brew, Yazoo. I had the Pale Ale and Saskia opted for the Amber. In all honesty, while good, they weren’t very memorable so after one each we switched to old favorites – Red Hook and good ol’ fashioned Bud Lite. Hey, at least we tried.

After knocking back a few of those it was time to eat and we heard there was no better place than Jack’s BBQ, also on Broadway (so good, in fact, that when we told the bell hop we were going there he felt inclined to remove his hat and exclaim ‘amaaaaazing!’). And he was right on the money. We had barbecue brisket sandwiches, mac and cheese, potato salad, cinnamon apples and two Yuenglings. That food didn’t stand a chance lasting on our plates.

Next stop? Robert’s Western World, next door to Jack’s. This is the one-stop-shop for country music. Even Saskia, a claimed non-fan of country (cut to her eye rolls as Garth Brooks played in the car) seemed to enjoy herself. We befriended a 78-year-old oil tycoon and his family. Their names escape me but I think that has more to do with Bud Lite than them not being memorable. He offered to teach me how to dance but I respectfully declined. I don’t need to embarrass myself in front of an entire bar of two-steppers.

Lastly head over to The Stage if the sound of country gets to be too much. This bar is great for rock and roll and yes, more dancing. Saskia and I enjoyed some Fat Tire beers before we called it a night.

And that, my friends, is how it is done in Nashville.

Live music at Robert’s Western World

If last night I was happy you need a whole other word for how I feel tonight in Nashville. I’m staying at Union Station Hotel, A Wyndham Historic Hotel in a Station Master’s Suite, #620. Holy hell.

The hotel is built in a restored 19th-century railroad station. Picture a huge arched, stained-glass ceiling in the lobby and two wooden, sweeping staircases. That was definitely a sight for two weary travelers.

The living room is the size of my entire apartment in New York.  The bedroom is just as large. As I write this I’m on my full-sized couch watching one of two (yes, two) flat screen TVs. La Quinta who? Don’t get me wrong. La Quinta is great for crashing. It’s cheap, clean and breakfast is included. But this is how a hotel stay should be. It’s so nice that Saskia and I were very, very close to saying “F*** it” to Nashville and ordering room service and a bottle of wine…but we probably would regret that in the morning….maybe.

We’re heading out now to see what sort of trouble we can get into but the draw of the king-sized bed and over-sized pillows may have us tucked in and cozy before midnight.

It really doesn’t matter to me where I travel, as long as it is someplace I have never been before. Right now? I’m in a La Quinta in Kingsport, Tennessee and man, I have never been happier.

Having said that, I’ve been on the road now for nearly 16 hours so maybe my delight is more having a shower and clean sheets rather than being in a brand new city. (From what I can tell, Kingsport is your run-of-the-mill strip of chain hotels and restaurants. Nowhere you’d send a postcard from.)

In front of Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia estate. Admission $22.

The adventure started as I rolled into Washington, D.C. at around 2 a.m. this morning. Cut to five hours later when I was up and getting an egg and cheese sandwich at Sidamo Coffee and Tea (417 H Street NE…and delicious!).

Saskia (my copilot) and I, bleary-eyed and unshowered (it’s a road trip…), were on the road by 9:30 and we managed to clear the entire state of Virginia in one day. The highlights? Two things jump to mind: scenery and food.

If you’re ever driving in this neck of the woods I highly recommend routes 29 South and I-81 South. Both will take you through the lush Blue Ridge Mountains (and yes, they really do look blue as the sun sets behind them and the mist rises over. Beautiful.)

We stopped for lunch in Shenandoah, Virginia, at Cousin Boogy’s, a roadside barbecue joint. For $13 combined we got barbecue pork, cole slaw, spicy chicken and hand cut fries. The owners, Tony and Michelle, prepare everything by hand and serve it up in the dining room, which can only be described as part rec-room, part diner, part home kitchen. The floor is sticky with spilled soda and the walls plastered with photos of local patrons as the twang of southern radio plays in the background.

Cut to dinner. A Southern staple. Cracker Barrel. What are we missing in the North? This place is pure gluttonous American glory, and I truly mean that in the best way possible. For $10 I was served up a sirloin steak, salad, baked potato and corn bread, while Saskia happily ate grilled catfish, corn and carrots for $7. The rest of the menu contains all the large-portioned favorites from chicken and dumplings to fried okra. And after you dine you must hit up the kitschy country store, which sells old time candies, candles, gardening tools and “I Love America” paraphernalia. I’ll go back to being my portion-controlled, New York-snobby-self tomorrow. But for tonight I bask in all of Cracker Barrel glory.

Today, my friends, is a great day. A much-awaited road trip is on the horizon, and it will become, I hope, a long-standing tradition. I’m off to Memphis with my good friend, Saskia. We started our Memorial Day road trips last year when we took an inaugural journey from San Diego to Seattle. Unfortunately that gem came before this blog, but hopefully the details from this upcoming trip will make up for it.

I went to NYTimes.com today to read the Travel Section, which I like to do when work is slow (or when I’m just too aroused with wanderlust to be bothered with meaningless ‘work’). I came across this and thoroughly enjoyed it.

Matt Gross, the Frugal Traveler

The topic, frugal travel, is definitely something I will strive for on this trip. But I know myself (one more beer? Sure. Steak or salad? Steak) and I can pretty much guarantee to you that despite its very useful tips, I will return to you with empty pockets turned inside out. Enjoy!

http://frugaltraveler.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/05/25/three-things-ive-learned-about-frugal-travel-and-the-things-i-didnt-do/?ref=travel

A typical morning for me usually involves hauling my ass out of bed at the ungodly hour of 8 a.m., rushing through a less-than-satisfying breakfast of scrambled eggs (I throw a little hot sauce on there for excitement) and making my way to the office where I will hunker down in my cube for eight hours.

But yesterday was no typical morning. Instead I found myself sitting at Daniel Boulud‘s DB Bistro Moderne, dining on congee soup with egg emulsion, french toast with bacon and coconut sauce and a yam cake with mushrooms and gorgonzola and listening to his Frenchness talk about his upcoming projects in Singapore.

Now yes, I am a morning person. I get more done before noon than most and I am officially useless after 3 p.m. But this was an experience to wake up any morning narcoleptic. The breakfast was hosted by the Singapore Tourism Board, who was informing the media about Singapore’s brand new culinary campaign called A Taste of Singapore.

This breakfast was the final New York event in a series of tastings that kicked off April 29 at New York‘s Double Crown. Over the next two years, Singapore will be rolling out a series of initiatives globally that will help position it as a culinary capital in Asia.

Where does Boulud fit in? For the past few years Singapore has been in the process of building a monstrous integrated resort, Marina Bay Sands (officially opening in June), which will forever change the skyline of Singapore. Boulud will be opening a Singapore location of DB Bistro Moderne in the resort complex. He will be joined by five other celebrity chefs who are also opening restaurants at the complex, including Mario Batali, Wolfgang Puck, Santi Santamaria, Guy Savoy and Tetsuya Wakuda.

For all you New Yorkers out there who can’t take the trek to Singapore, I suggest you check out the LUCKYRICE Festival, which is an 11-day celebration of Asian food and culture that kicks off this spring. You will definitely be seeing me there.

There comes a time in every tristate area-er’s life when a certain rite of passage ought to be made – the journey to Atlantic City. I had such an opportunity this weekend.

A couple of months ago my good friend, Michelle, suggested we take the trip to Atlantic City (or “AC” as the pros call it) to see Third Eye Blind for her 23rd birthday. Having never been to AC and loving Third Eye Blind from the days of listening to z100 on my way to middle school, immediately my answer was ‘yes’. So we boarded the Atlantic City Express Service train at Penn Station, popped some champagne and waited.

Before I go any further let me just make it clear that I am the most unlikely candidate to travel to Atlantic City. Sure, I like my bars – but I can fit in at a bar anywhere. But I don’t gamble, clubbing isn’t my first or second choice for a fun night, my feet hurt when I wear heels for too long and I’ve never been to a strip club. (I’ll admit I’ve been curious about that last part and almost went into one a couple years ago, but that was mostly to try and impress a guy I was with.) I was in good company though. Michelle and our other companion, Stephanie, are of a similar nature.

Okay, so let’s go down the AC checklist, shall we? Did us three AC virgins manage to do it right?

1. Drink – yes. We most certainly got that part right. Cut to the next morning when an empty pizza box, mascara-caked eyes and a string of missed phone calls helped us piece together the end of the night.

2. Live large – sure. We spent more money than we had, ate a very fancy meal at the Taj Mahal (I wanted to live like a Don. I was getting steak and that was that.) and I’m pretty sure I’ll be eating cereal for breakfast, lunch and dinner until payday.

3. Gamble – not really. But in our defense we definitely tried. In a drunken stupor we wandered into a casino (the name escapes me) and tried our luck at the safest form of gambling for newbies – the penny slots. But the machines kept spitting back our dollars. Each one we tried was not having it. It wasn’t until our second attempt in the clarity of day that we realized that the machines won’t accept bills lower than $5. Sneaky, sneaky Atlantic City.

So would I go back? Maybe. I won’t rule it out. But I think I’ve had my fill. One too many mammoth-sized ladies on motor-scooters shoveling funnel cake into their already full mouths, and four-out-of-10 women with their ass cheeks hanging out of their shorts will kill that glitz-and-glam dream of Atlantic City.

Oh and in case you were curious about Third Eye Blind, the show was phenomenal. The middle school girl inside of me who didn’t understand the meaning of the lyrics to Semi-Charmed Life was happy. Check out the videos below!