I Lost My Airbnb Virginity In Charlottesville, Virginia (And Paid Just $49 For The Privilege)

105 Caty Lane CharlottesvilleWhat kind of accommodation do you expect for $49 a night? Are you visualizing a place with 800-thread-count sheets, a memory foam mattress and free Perrier and gourmet coffee? Or for $49 bucks, would you expect a place where they rent by the hour, where you might be mingling with junkies and prostitutes and want to wear latex gloves before you touch anything?

If you’re a skeptic like me, you might have a hard time believing that it’s possible to rent a luxury apartment for $49 in Charlottesville, home of the University of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello and a host of upper-crust types who have dogs worth more than my car, and horses worth more than my home. But I found out this week that it is indeed possible to stay in style in CVille for less than fifty bucks a night.I’ve never used Airbnb before, but when I noticed they had a listing for a “luxury” apartment in Charlottesville for just $49 per night, I was intrigued. The owner of the place described the apartment as “the intersection where chic luxury & modern cool meet Eco-responsibility.” Geoffrey, the apartment’s owner, advertises the following amenities in the apartment: stylish décor made from eco-friendly materials, vegan toiletries, a charging station for electric cars, 800-thread-count sheets, a memory foam mattress, a full kitchen, Direct TV with Netflix and Amazon Instant, Egyptian cotton towels, bathrobes, stocked kitchen, washer, dryer, laundry detergent and on and on.

My first thought was: bullshit. The apartment had no reviews and I figured that it was too good to be true. Perhaps it was a scam whereby someone would jump out of the bushes and carve us up like Thanksgiving turkeys. Or maybe it was trick photography or simply hyperbole. I had no idea but I booked the place for a total of $165 for three nights, including Airbnb’s service charge, and hoped for the best.

As a newbie, I found Airbnb’s booking process to be a little cumbersome and confusing. I didn’t mind verifying my identify and even enjoyed the step where I held up my driver’s license and watched in amazement as my cam scanned the thing. But after I paid for the apartment, I got an email telling me that my card wouldn’t be charged if my request was denied. But why would it be denied? The email went on to say that most hosts respond within four hours, but they have up to 24 hours to reply.

“In the meantime, please continue to contact other hosts,” the message said. “This will considerably improve your odds of a successful booking.”

But I was due to arrive in Cville in about 36 hours and Geoffrey’s apartment was the only one I saw that looked appealing in the budget category. After spending quite a bit of time making the booking, the last thing I wanted to do was continued to look. No, I wanted Geoffrey’s luxury apartment for 49 bucks. Luckily, Geoffrey responded promptly to confirm the booking, but if my request had been denied 24 hours later, I would have been stuck scrambling to find something at the last moment.

I also recently booked a vacation rental apartment via Trip Advisor’s Flipkey site in London and I think their booking process is more straightforward. In any event, when we pulled up to a newish looking apartment above a garage a few miles outside central Charlottesville on Tuesday night, my expectations were modest. So long as there was a bed for my wife and I, a sofa bed for my boys, and no one there to mug us, I’d be happy.

Geoffrey sent us a code to enter, so we were able to access the apartment at 105 Caty Lane without having to track him down or schedule an arrival time, which was very convenient. He even asked if we needed any toys for my kids. I was amazed to discover that the place was even better than I imagined. It’s a brand new apartment, and the word “luxurious” isn’t hyperbole. Geoffrey left us a dozen fresh bagels from Bodo’s, the best bagel place in Cville, along with cream cheese, a personalized note and a free tote bag.

Along with the bagels, the fridge was also completely stocked with complimentary bottled water, Perrier, two kinds of juice and organic milk! The kitchen was also fully equipped and there was a Keurig coffee maker and free gourmet coffee. The bed is just as comfortable as my Tempurpedic at home and Geoffrey’s shower has twice the water pressure I have in my apartment in Chicago. The place is so high-tech that even the garbage cans have “open” and “close” buttons.

I’ve stayed in plenty of rental apartments in a variety of countries, and usually these places are always lacking something – toiletries, adequate cooking utensils, cutlery or who knows what. But this place seemed to have everything – umbrellas, q-tips, cocktail mixing accouterments, a set of sharp knives, detergent and even to-go coffee cups! The moral of the story, for me, is don’t be afraid to try a place that has no reviews. The place might be brand new and the price could be lower.

The only downer is that we are due to check out and now we don’t want to leave. Alas, the place is booked for the next few days. And once word gets out about this place, we’ll probably never get to stay here again. Or, Geoffrey will increase his price. I sure hope not because the world needs more cheap but luxurious accommodation options like this one.

Kentucky’s Bourbon Trail: A Pilgrimage To The Maker’s Mark Distillery

maker's mark bourbonI’m not much of a bourbon connoisseur. In fact, before a recent road trip to Kentucky where 95% of the world’s bourbon is made, I had no idea what distinguished bourbon from regular old whiskey. But when in Rome, do as the Romans do, so I decided to visit the Maker’s Mark Distillery, reputedly one of the best stops on Kentucky’s Bourbon Trail.

The distillery is a 25-minute drive, along a windy country road that dips and turns along a pastoral landscape from Bardstown, a distinctive small town named the “most beautiful small town in America” by USA Today this year. Along the way we passed some pitch-black Maker’s Mark warehouses that resembled a disused prison complex and one of them reassured us that we were just three miles away from some sweet Kentucky bourbon.
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The distillery is set across a large complex that makes for a nice walk on a sunny day. There are a host of buildings, each painted dark brown and adorned with shutters the same shade of red as Maker’s Marks distinctive red wax bottle seals, which are hand dipped on the premises. (You can buy and dip your own bottle in the gift shop.)


maker's mark distilleryThe tour used to be free, but it now costs $7, which is still a bargain considering the fact they offer guests a chance to sample three bourbons and learn about a product that’s a deeply entrenched part of Kentucky’s culture.

The Samuels family, which founded Maker’s Mark, and scores of other Scotch-Irish distillers, fled to Kentucky from Pennsylvania after George Washington imposed a whiskey tax in 1791, sparking the Whiskey Rebellion. The whiskey tax went uncollected in Kentucky, then a frontier state, as no one had the will to enforce the law or prosecute those who ignored it.

Our tour guide, Jacqueline, told us that a nearby lake served as the base for the product.




“Why are there so many successful bourbon distilleries in the state of Kentucky?” she asked. “Here in a six county radius, we happen to sit on top of a very rich limestone shelf, that limestone filters our water making it iron free and calcium rich. Perfect for distilling whiskey with.”

maker's mark distillery fermentation roomAnd what makes bourbon different from regular whiskey?
To call it a bourbon whiskey it must have at least 51% corn, in the recipe – Maker’s Mark uses 70%. It must also consist of only grain, yeast and water, with no artificial flavors or colors; it has to be aged for at least two years in new, charred, oak barrels; and it has to be distilled at no more than 160 proof, barreled at no more than 125 proof and bottled at at least 80 proof.

Many of the technical details went over our heads, but we enjoyed having the opportunity to dip our hands in the vats in the fermentation room and were stoked to have a chance to sample three of their products: the 90 proof Maker’s White, which is only available at the distillery (thank God), regular Marker’s Mark and Maker’s 46, which Jacqueline described as “bourbon on steroids.”


We were instructed to taste the Maker’s White first and for good reason – the stuff is nasty.

“I like to look at all your faces as you’re tasting the Maker’s White,” Jacqueline said. “I can tell if you’ve had moonshine before, you know the Maker’s White isn’t that bad.”


maker's mark liberal conservativeBut the Maker’s Mark and the Maker’s 46 were complex, with long, sweet, smooth finishes that lingered on the front of the tongue for a long time. I felt like I was still tasting them well after my insides were already warmed and my mouth felt a little numb, as though I’d just gotten some Novocain at the dentist. But on the way out, rather than getting a toothbrush and some floss, we were given a nice piece of chocolate – a sweet ending to our introduction to the world of Kentucky bourbon.



[Photos by Dave Seminara]

Two Reasons to Visit Louisville: The Kentucky Derby Museum And The Muhammad Ali Center

kentucky derby museum churchill downs barbaro statueYou don’t have to be a sports fan or a museum buff to appreciate the fact that Louisville has two of America’s best sports-related museums: the Kentucky Derby Museum and the Muhammad Ali Center. I’m not much of a sightseer, and my wife would sooner clean the toilets than watch a boxing match or a horse race. But we could have easily spent all day in these outstanding museums.

The Kentucky Derby has been held every year since 1875 and the famous twin spires at Churchill Downs are a national landmark. Meriwether Lewis Clark Jr., the grandson of William Clark, of Lewis-Clark expedition fame, founded Churchill Downs after spending two years in Europe where he developed an interest in horse racing. This year more than 160,000 people turned up for the race; only 54,000 of them had seats, while the rest pile into the infield in the center of the track.
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“Ninety-nine percent of the people in the infield see no horse racing at all,” said Tiara, our guide for a walking tour around Churchill Downs. “But 99% of them don’t care. They’re here for the party.”


The derby is held on the first Saturday in May, but if you don’t want to take part in the Derby day madness, definitely hit the museum, and, if you can, take in a race. Churchill Downs plays host to more than 800 horse races per year, so there are ample opportunities to see top-flight thoroughbred racing.


The tour starts with a walk past the headstones of four derby winners that are buried on the grounds. We learned that horses are cremated and normally only the head, heart and hooves are buried, but in the case of truly legendary horses – like Secretariat, who won the Derby in 1973 and still is the only horse to complete the race in less than two minutes – they are buried whole.

kentucky derby museumTwo horses live at Churchill Downs year round – Perfect Drift, who placed third in the 2002 Derby, and Winston, a 19-year-old miniature horse that could be mistaken for a pony – and we had a chance to visit with both before pushing off to see the rest of the grounds.

We strolled past a statue of Pat Day, a jockey who won 2,500 races at Churchill Downs and more than $23 million in prize money during his career, and Tiara asked if we thought the diminutive little statue reflected his actual height.

“He’s actually two inches shorter in real life,” she said. “He’s 4 foot 11, and the statue’s just over 5 feet.”

We passed the betting windows – Tiara said they open some 3,000 of them on Derby day – and made our way toward the track, which was empty and full of puddles on the day we visited.

“The seats in here sell out a year or two in advance,” Tiara said. “And if you want to sit in the best seats, you’d better be a celebrity or have plenty of money.”

We learned about a few of the Derby’s cherished rituals – drinking mint juleps, eating burgoo and singing “My Old Kentucky Home.”

kentucky derby museumThe museum itself was just as interesting as the tour. My sons were hooked on an interactive jockey video game where you climb onto a horse and try to ride it to victory, while my wife was fixated on exhibits featuring fancy ladies hats worn on Derby day and another exhibiting jockey silks – the colorful jackets jockeys wear on race days that have evolved since the days when chariot drivers in ancient Rome wore variations of the same thing (there are now 25,000 registered designs).

I was hooked on the video booths, where you can sit and watch replays with commentary of every race dating back to the 1920s. You can sort through the choices by choosing close races, wins by long shots, runaways, and Triple Crown winners. We capped off our visit by checking out “The Greatest Race” a short but intense film about the Derby that is shown in a remarkable 360-degree cinema.

Muhammad Ali – World Class Fighter & Traveler

muhammad ali centerMuhammad Ali is probably the greatest sports personality of the 20th Century and Louisville’s Ali Center, opened in 2005 at a cost of $80 million, does the great man and his fascinating life justice. It’s a huge place that’s informative, interactive and entertaining. I thought I knew everything there was to know about Ali, but I came away with a deeper appreciation for what an interesting and influential personality Ali was.

He was born and raised in Louisville while the city was still segregated. Ali, then Cassius Clay, took up boxing at age 12 after his bike was stolen and a police officer suggested he join a recreational boxing league after he insisted he was going to “whup” the thief once he caught him. He rose through the local ranks, became an Olympic and heavyweight champion, converted to Islam, became a member of the Nation of Islam and then was stripped of his title for refusing to serve in Vietnam during the war.

muhammad ali centerAfter the Supreme Court ruled that his claim as a conscientious objector was legitimate, he was reinstated in 1971, and quickly regained his title. One could write a 1,000-page book on his personal life and not cover it all. Ali married four times (once to a 17-year-old) and had nine children, two from extramarital affairs. He was considered a dangerous rabble-rouser by many in the white establishment and was even under FBI surveillance for a time.

The museum chronicles all of this and more. Ali was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Syndrome in 1984, but he’s remained remarkably active. I was struck by what a traveler Ali was and is. He fought in Zaire, The Philippines, England, Canada, Italy, Germany and beyond. He visited Ghana in 1964 and was greeted like a conquering hero. He made the hajj to Mecca in ’72 and visited Iraq in 1990 to seek freedom for hostages held by Saddam Hussein.

muhammad ali centerIn 2002, he visited Afghanistan as a U.N. Messenger for Peace, and in 2009, he was again greeted like a rock star in Ireland, where he went to visit the ancestral home of his great-grandfather in County Clare. He’s done charity work in Indonesia, Morocco, and the Ivory Coast, among other places. And this summer, he took part in the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games in London. These days he spends most of his time in Scottsdale, Arizona, but he celebrated his 70th birthday in January at the museum and he still owns a home in Kentucky.

Aside from all the interactive exhibits, the museum also features a boxing ring, and some punching bags for those who want to get their aggression out. But I was hooked on the cinema area, where you can sit down and watch a number of old Ali fights. If you’re too young to have seen him fight or if you aren’t but want to relive the good old days, you’ll love this museum.


Other Ali landmarks in Louisville:

The Clay Home
3302 W. Grand Avenue

Central High School
1130 W. Chestnut St.

Columbia Gym- site where Clay’s bike was stolen and his early workouts
851 S. 4th Street

Presbyterian Community Center- site of the rec program where Clay learned to box
760 S. Hancock Street

[Photo credits: Dave Seminara]

Richmond: America’s most underrated city?

As the former capitol of the Confederacy, Richmond has long been one of the premier destinations in the country for Civil War geeks. But as I discovered on two recent visits, it’s also a young, vibrant city with architecture treasures, stunning parks, walkable neighborhoods, great food and perhaps the most elegant vintage cinema in the country.

For Yanks looking for a quick taste of old Dixie, it’s also the northernmost Southern city, making it an easy weekend getaway for Northerners in search of some Southern hospitality. I live in Northern Virginia, which is technically part of the South, but in reality, Southern accents and good biscuits are a two hour drive south in Richmond, which is on my short list for most underrated historic cities in America. Below are my suggestions for how to spend a memorable weekend in Virginia’s capital.

Sites
Maymont- The hilly grounds of this 100 acre estate built by Confederate tycoon, Major James Dooley, offer panoramic views of the James River and feature lush gardens, a children’s farm, and a nature center. There is a small admission fee to visit the mansion and nature center but you can explore the beautiful grounds and visit the farm for free.

St. John’s Episcopal Church- Built in 1741, this handsome wooden church, located in Richmond’s historic Church Hill neighborhood, is where Patrick Henry delivered his famous “Give me liberty, or give me death,” speech to George Washington.

The Fan- If you like Victorian architecture, this alluring neighborhood just west of downtown is a must see. Easily one of my favorite walkable neighborhoods in the country.

The Byrd Theatre- Built in 1928, this may be the most beautiful old time cinema in the country. Even if you don’t plan to take in a $1.99 movie, stop in to take a look at this masterpiece theater, which is located in Carytown, a neighborhood with great shops and restaurants.

Virginia Museum of Fine Arts- A free-to-enter, world-class museum with more than 20,000 works of art, including a very impressive collection of South Asian art.

The American Civil War Center at Tredegar- If you’re only going to hit one Civil War related museum in Richmond, this is the place to go for a terrific overview of the conflict. Opened in 2006, the museum offers a visually attractive, interactive user friendly experience that depicts the war from the perspective of the Union, the Confederacy and African Americans.

The Virginia State Capitol- Take the time to explore this Classical Revival gem, which Thomas Jefferson modeled on a Roman era temple in Nimes, France.

James River Bridges- Take the Robert E. Lee footbridge over to Belle Island for a great walk and then check out the unnamed, interpretative footbridge just off the Canal Walk for insights into the fall of Richmond during the waning days of the Civil War.

The Museum of the Confederacy- While the American Civil War Center offers a nicer overview of the conflict, this is a great stop to see Confederate memorabilia, like Robert E. Lee’s hat and tent and Jeb Stuart’s knee high boots. The gift shop sells lots of kitsch, including nylon Confederate flags for $39.

Children’s Museum of Richmond- If you’re traveling with kids, this is their reward for tolerating all the Civil War history.

Food

Alamo BBQ- Cheap and delicious, this is one of my favorite BBQ places anywhere, but I also love the tilapia burritos. Excellent pecan pie for $2.93 a slice. The only downside is that you have to sit in a tent, but it’s not as cold as you might think, even in January.

Edo’s Squid- Italian fine dining in a hidden location at very fair prices. Arrive early to beat the crowds.

Comfort- Southern comfort food at its finest in a relaxed setting.

821 Bakery Café- Tasty food and a terrific beer selection in a cool old building with exposed brick walls and a vintage tin ceiling. Also wins my award for the most colorful bathrooms I’ve ever seen.

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