This post is about travel. It describes a few places in the U.S., China and Italy, but it isn’t really about those places. It’s about the importance of traveling with a sense of readiness: sometimes instinct or a tip from someone else is better than a guidebook.
I don’t have pictures of all these places. Many of the best travel experiences happen on the spur of the moment. There’s not always a camera handy. You won’t always get the moment in a picture, but you can picture the moment forever if you pay attention.
Before It Was Famous 1: Boston, Massachusetts
The year after graduate school, my former classmate B. and I decided to visit D., another buddy and classmate, in Boston. We met in Ann Arbor, hopped in my Triumph and drove east across southern Ontario, saw Niagara Falls and continued east on the New York State Thruway, arriving at D.’s apartment in the middle of the night.
We had a great time. One doesn’t always get to spend time with two other guys who can also crack puns in Old English, but there we were, our grad school vocabularies still pretty much intact.
Late one afternoon, D. said, “I gotta take you to this place.” We piled into his International Travelall, Miles (because he always had Miles to go before he slept) and he drove us to Beacon Hill and Boston Common.
It was a bar, of course, near the northwest corner of the Common: down some stairs, below street level, a combination neighborhood bar and English Pub named the Bull and Finch Pub. Lots of fun, excellent British brews.
Fast forward 8 years. A television comedy set in a pub in Boston, “Cheers,” was a big hit. It was set — and you’re way ahead of me —in a pub down some stairs. The exteriors for the show showed the Bull and Finch, renamed “Cheers.”
Today, it’s called “The Cheers Bar,” and it’s a tourist attraction, but I have the bragging rights to say, “I was there first,” thanks to D. (and Miles).
Here’s the website: The Bull and Finch Pub
Lesson: If your buddy’s a local and says, “I gotta take you to this place,” go!
Legendary Steaks: The Diamond Grille
On my first-ever business trip, a few years after that Boston trip, I was one of a three-man crew with the job of moving the fixtures of a store from Akron back to Cincinnati. Things hadn’t gone well for the company in Akron.
We worked a grueling day, about 12 hours, loading freezers, counters, shelving and refrigeration units onto two big trucks.
K., the local company sales rep, offered to buy us dinner at “A really nice place.” I hadn’t come with clothes for “A halfway-decent place,” but it meant a free meal.
K. took us to the Diamond Grille, on the edge of downtown Akron.
Nondescript, a groovy old neon sign outside, inside, the Diamond was just that: a gem. White tablecloths, fantastic service, dark wood paneling, a quiet, tony vibe. I ate the porterhouse steak of a lifetime, and although I might’ve been nodding off toward the end of dinner, it was a wonderful conclusion to a day of hard work.
Although that was 40 years ago, the Diamond Grille is still there. Here’s a 2016 image from Google Earth:
Doesn’t look like much, but if the steaks are still as good as the one I had, worth a visit. A 2013 review indicates that they are. CLICK HERE.
Here is the Diamond Grille website. 77 W. Market St., Akron, Ohio, not far from downtown and the University of Akron.
Since that first “business trip,” I’ve flown about half a million miles on business to three continents. If I’ve learned anything, it’s this: The local sales rep’s job includes taking people to lunch and dinner. They make more money than you, too. If they say, “I want to take you to a really good place,” go!
The Hidden Temple
On my second trip to Hong Kong, L., my cameraman was a canny British expat living in Hong Kong. We wrapped for our final day and had a couple of spare hours before we had to go to the airport. One doesn’t pass up spare time in one of the world’s most fascinating cities. L. said he’d show my producer and me an interesting neighborhood tucked away in a corner of Hong Kong Island.
We got out of a cab in a crowded, residential area and L. led us down a narrow alley, houses squeezed in tightly on either side: Cat Alley. We came to a nondescript Buddhist temple.
“Let’s take a look in here,” he said.
We did. Astounding.
Those are coils of incense, dozens of them, most of them burning, the slow combustion consuming them from bottom to top. The air was heavy with pungent smoke.
Click on the images below for larger views.
Lesson (obvious, but worth restating): If you’re with someone who knows the territory, take a chance and go with them, even down a lane named Cat Alley.
Before It Was Famous 2: Tuscany
On our first trip to Italy, The Counselor and I drove out of Florence to explore some of Tuscany with no particular plan in mind. South of Florence, east of Siena, we spotted a town on a hill above a wide plain of farmland. I’d seen Rome, Florence and Venice, but I’d never visited a hilltop village. We turned off the main road, drove the mile through the fields and wound up the curving road to explore one for the first time.
It was summer, tourist season, and there were some other visitors, but not many. We had the run of the ancient town, along with the residents. If there could be a better hilltop village to see for one’s first experience, I haven’t discovered it in the subsequent 22 years. I’ll let the photos, faded a bit now, speak. Click on the photos for larger images.
2 years later, Frances Mayes published her memoir of renovating a farmhouse outside Cortona, Italy, Under the Tuscan Sun. It was a huge hit. That was “our” town, discovered by accident before it was well known outside Europe.
Cortona is still a worthwhile place to visit. You’ll have more company, due in large part to the worldwide attention the book brought Cortona, but go anyway.
The lesson’s obvious: If you see something that seems worth investigating, go look. And when you’re there, look closely. Be there. You’re building memories from experience, not simply taking photographs.
Did you ever get a fantastic travel tip you were grateful for? Or one that wasn’t so great? Leave a comment.
© Brad Nixon 2016. 2 Cortona photos © Marcy Vincent 2016, used by kind permission. Diamond Grille image © Google