So how was your summer?
As I write this it’s climbing towards 90 F in the city, one last gasp of summer weather before fall arrives in force. At least I hope it’s a last gasp. I’m not a fan of hot, humid weather, which naturally explains why I moved to a city that’s notorious for being brutally hot and humid. But having been here five years now I have acclimatized to it like all New Yorkers, by spending as much time away from New York as the bank account can handle.
August in New York is when all the locals of means clear out, and you can pretty much fire a cannon down Broadway without hitting anything. New Yorkers go to the Catskills or the Hamptons, or down to the Shore. Escaping the city heat is essential to retaining one’s sanity, even if only for a few days. Case in point, I just returned from a few days in Cold Spring, NY.
My wife and I had no real plan other than getting away, hiking some trails, eating some good food, and just basking in not being in Manhattan for a few days. And Cold Spring, just shy of 90 mins. away by train, fit the bill. I’ll spare the details of our trip, because people talking about their vacations is always deadly dull. But what I will detail are some things I realized while we were away, and which pretty much apply to every vacation I’ve been on; the essential things you need to do to truly enjoy your vacation.
1. You have to be away at least 24 hrs
Look, day-trips are fine. We do a lot of them, but they’re only a respite of a few hours. You wake up in your bed, you fall asleep in your own bed. If the point is to get away you have to get away, even if just for overnight. You don’t have to go very far, but you have to go.
2. Proximity to nature is a must
A caveat; this is a personal preference. Well, all of these are, but when you live in a city of concrete and steel, getting back in touch with nature is everything they tell you it is. You need that refuge from the modern world. You need to retreat from the sound of cars on the highway, plans overhead, and find that Walden moment where, if only for a brief gasp, the sounds of modern life fade and are replaced by the sound of running water, trees creaking in the wind, and silence.
3. Don’t dine @ the hotel
Their chef graduated from Le Cordon Bleu, they’ve been rated in Zagat, and Time Out recommended them highly. Doesn’t matter; don’t eat at the hotel’s restaurant. While it may be good, great even, it’s still a meal at the hotel and to do this right you want to spend as little time in the hotel as possible. You didn’t come all this way to sit in a room. Get out and explore the surrounding areas. The best meal you have will be the one that’s not eaten out of convenience. On a related note:
4. No. Chain. Anything.
Walking the main drag of whatever 1-stoplight village you’re staying in, you see a Starbucks or a McDonalds, do not go in. Don’t go near it. You can go to those places at home (though why you’d want to is another question). My wife and I walked past the McDonalds on the Champs-Elysees but we didn’t go in, because we were in Paris and we were better than that damn it. Times Square here is full of tourists lining up to go to the Times Square TGI Friday’s, or the Times Square Red Lobster, neither of which is any different from the Applebees in Toledo, other than twice as expensive because everything in New York is twice as expensive. Don’t be those people. Also don’t go near Times Square. You want to know where to eat?
5. Talk to the locals
If you’re in a small rural community, ask the locals where they dine. They’ll be easy to spot; they’re the ones who smile and say “hello” when you pass them on the street. They’ll tell you where the good food is, and the better ways to spend your money. On a visit to Salem MA, after having paid way too much to tour a way too small museum about witches, we hit up a small café to grab coffee. There, I asked the barista what was worth seeing in Salem that wasn’t tourist trap witch stuff. Without hesitation she recommended the Peabody-Essex Museum just down the street. We spent the entire day there and it ended up a highlight of our trip.
In a related note the best meal we had in Paris was with our friend Jimmy and his wife Claire; Montmartre residents who took us to a bistro across from Gare du Nord, where the manager was a friend who proceeded to bring over all the half-empty bottles of wine other diners had left. We were good and liquored up before dinner arrived, and it remained the highlight of a trip full of highlights.
6. Don’t do the same thing twice. But if you do something similar, shake it up.
We made this mistake last summer. A couple years prior we’d ventured up to the Catskills to hike Katerskill Falls. It was one of the best experiences we had ever, so naturally we sought to replicate it. We stayed at the same hotel, drove the same route, and hiked the same trail. My credit card info got stolen, our rental car was almost broken into, and we returned feeling more stressed than when we left. The only thing that stood out about this trip was the dinner we had at the Culinary Institute of America the previous night, not so much because of the food (which was excellent) but because it was something we hadn’t done before. This obviously explains why I never took to ocean cruises, or got suckered into buying a time-share, or did the all-inclusive resort; because to truly enjoy myself I have to do something different, not the same old same old. If you don’t change things up, you get entropy, and entropy is never good when you want to experience something meaningful, yes?
7. Buy something local
A souvenir, candy, soap, tea, whatever. Doesn’t have to be much but you should support the locals. Or, if you’re me, you blow 60 Euros on the Taschen “Kubrick’s Napoleon” at the Galleries Lafayette. Then you lug it around Paris, lug it to CDG, the connecting flight to Frankfurt, then on the plane for your 8 hour flight back to JFK, then the 90 minute subway ride home because it’s New Year’s Day. The book weighs 15 pounds. Then you find out you could have bought the same book on Amazon.com for less and tell your wife. Then your wife throws the 15 pound book at you. But if you hadn’t bought that book in that city, you wouldn’t have a funny story to tell so it was TOTALLY WORTH IT.
8. Find a scenic spot to just chill.
This doesn’t have to be rural, though every rural place we’ve visited has had that one moment, that one spot of calm and peace that’s now burned into my brain. Places where, if I close my eyes, can picture perfectly. There was one on our first Katerskill trip, several on our Honeymoon, many in Paris, even one fresh spot discovered this weekend. It can be urban, it can be indoors or outdoors. There’s even a favorite scenic spot here in my neighborhood that I return to time and again (but that’s my secret). They have to be secret though because they’re yours. And if you find that thoughtful place while away it’ll never leave you.
[NO PHOTO OF SECRET SPECIAL PLACE WILL BE PROVIDED]
9. Limit your tech use
This is going to come as a shock to a lot of you, but when I go away, I leave the phone at home. Any technology that would have you tethered to home or work doesn’t belong on vacation with you. I discovered this last year when we took a trip to Newport RI, and I decided as we were packing that I was leaving the tech here. Partially to see if I could do without it, but more because I wanted to escape the modern world. It ended up being the best vacation we’d had in a long time. Not having email or Facebook or Instagram or Twitter meant we were experiencing things in the moment, with our own eyes, not through the screen of a digital device. Know what you’ll find at the Louvre (besides pickpockets)? People taking grainy pictures of the Mona Lisa through their iPads or smartphones, instead of, you know, LOOKING at the Mona Lisa. Don’t be those people. Don’t share every picture or thought while on vacation with people in cyberspace. We don’t care. And before you say “but what if an emergency comes up while I’m away?” just ask yourself what you did before the internet came along to ruin our lives.
Your hotel room may have a TV. Don’t watch it. If the hotel or inn or B&B doesn’t have TV, stay there. If you’re doing travel right you’ll be so exhausted by the time you return to the room you’re occupying you’ll be too tired to watch anything. You’ll crack open that book you’ve been meaning to read, climb into bed, and fall asleep with it open on your lap. That’s the best way to end a day or a week away; too tired to read.
Things are gearing up for a busy fall season. I’ll be at New York Comic Con this year, this time with an actual table. There’s also the usual movie related stuff coming up, so Fall, my favorite time of the year, is looking to be a busy one. Which is why I’m glad I was able to get away and enjoy some of summer, and just as glad to feel like I’ve finally mastered the art of relaxation.