Video: animatronic recreation of the Gunfight at the OK Corral

I’ve been in a Wild West mood lately. I used to live in Tucson, Arizona, and loved the tales of gunfights, gold strikes, and crooked gamblers. I’ve been rediscovering some of that lately and my thoughts turned to Tombstone, the West’s quintessential tough town. It was here that the Earp brothers and Doc Holliday faced off against the notorious Cowboys and shot them to pieces just outside the OK Corral.

“Cowboy” was a derogative term in that time and place, reserved for rustlers, brawlers, and other ne’er-do-wells. Honest people who handled cattle were called cattlemen, range men, or by the Spanish term vaqueros. Most were Mexican or black, a fact Hollywood has seen fit to forget. The Cowboy gang that operated near Tombstone loved to steal cattle, shoot up saloons, and do all that other stuff from which legends are made. Americans love their bad guys.

They love cheesy tourist attractions too. I mean, how couldn’t you love an animatronic recreation of the Gunfight at the OK Corral? It takes place all day, every day in Tombstone. I challenge you to watch this video without smiling. Yes, it’s hokey, yes, it a bit embarrassing, but damn is it entertaining! A much less hokey live show is performed in Tombstone every day of the week at 2pm.

Want more Arizona cheesiness? Have you seen… The Thing?

Amsterdam’s Torture Museum

torture, Amsterdam, torture museumLike many travelers, I have a soft spot in my heart for tourist traps. Whether it’s the politically incorrect cheesiness of South of the Border or the shabby weirdness of The Thing, nothing brings a smile to my face better than some cheap, gaudy attempt to capture my attention.

Amsterdam’s Torture Museum fits the bill perfectly. Behind a pseudo-spooky facade are reproductions of torture instruments from the Bad Old Days. You’ve got famous nasties such as the rack and the stocks, as well as lesser-known evils like the Flute of Shame. Pictured here is the Inquisition Chair. The victim was strapped in and the weight of his own body caused him to sink onto the spikes. Check out the gallery for more photos and descriptions.

The whole place is lit by weird red, orange, and blue lights and is a maze of stairs and hallways that makes you feel like you’re in a medieval dungeon. Signs in several languages (including English) give basic descriptions of what you’re seeing, and images pulled from old books show the torture instruments in action.

It’s all very garish and exploitative. No attempt is made to be socially redeeming by discussing modern torture. For example, there’s no display about waterboarding, used by the Spanish Inquisition, the Khmer Rouge, and the U.S. government. Of course there shouldn’t be because the U.S. government says waterboarding isn’t torture and they only use it on the guilty anyway. I know they’re speaking the truth because the U.S. government never lies and never makes mistakes.

The Torture Museum’s garish displays and Wikipedia-style descriptions are mere low-brow titillation. It’s when you think of what these objects really mean, and how similar instruments of cruelty are still in common use today, that this horror show becomes truly frightening.

Don’t miss the rest of my series: Lowdown on the Low Countries.

Coming up next: Amsterdam day trip: Van Brederode castle!

This trip was partially funded by Amsterdam’s Tourism and Congress Bureau and Cool Capitals. All opinions, however, are my own.

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The Country’s Biggest Tourist Trap: South of the Border

There is a tourist trap in South Carolina called South of the Border. A combination truck stop, motel, roadside attraction, carnival and snack stand, it’s high kitsch of the first order, bordering on exploitative with its stereotypically Mexican “mascot” Pedro. A couple days before the Fourth of July, when I drove through, it’s also a bonanza for fireworks, all manner of which are legal in South Carolina, even if they’re sold at exit one, just south of the border with North Carolina.

Traveling the American Road – Exploring South of the Border


It started as a half-way point on the haul down to Florida, a convenient place for New York- and Boston-area families to spend the night while driving to Walt Disney World and Miami. But faster speed limits, not to mention cheaper flights, a growing number of chain hotel outposts and the economic downturn, have left South of the Border as more of a curiosity than a much-needed overnight waypoint. It’s hokiness is no longer a draw but rather something to be snickered at after you get back in your car and continue down I-95.

One saving grace is Fort Pedro, an explosives depot masquerading as a fireworks stand. A $699 collection of bombs, mortars and various other sparklers was the most expensive package I saw; simple firecrackers seemed unavailable in any quantity shy of 1,000. Packages as bright as the magnesium blooms they promised went on, row after row, as giddy shoppers stacked their carts. One group had assembled an arsenal so formidable it seemed destined for either resale in a control state or the ultimate end to the chunk of South Carolina in which they’d be ignited.

My friend Rob, who was along for this part of the ride, suggested we buy dozens of sparklers to hand out during the Fourth, the better to make friends with. Our best find were yard-long behemoths, in a pack of eight, for about a buck a pop. We declined to purchase super-light hot air balloon-inspired lamps, like you see in Southeast Asia, for fear that we’d spark yet another Lowcountry brush fire. I did buy a South of the Border bumper sticker for a dime.

The rest of the attractions were by turns unappealing or disappointing. The reptile house didn’t seem worth an outlay of $8. The hat shop had precious few hilarious headpieces. The most that can be said of the ice cream stand is that it serves ice cream.

Visitors can ride to the top of the famed South of the Border sign, taking in the view from the “sombrero.” But the open road was waiting. We didn’t feel the need to hang around any longer: we had real stops to make.

Why Plymouth Rock Is New England’s Biggest Tourist Trap


Have you ever been to a tourist trap? A scam of a site, something over-hyped and talked about until it can’t possibly be worth it? The sort of thing you walk up to, snap a photo of and curse as you walk back to your car?

I saw one just the other day. It was Plymouth Rock, the lump of granite that supposedly marks the spot where a ragged band of English religious refugees washed up on Massachusetts’ shores.

It was such an awful disappointment, and here’s why.

There’s just nothing to it. You know why they call it Plymouth Rock? Because that’s all it is. A rock, covered by a little pavilion, guarded by a small rail. The day I visited, a historian was standing nearby, not doing much of anything.

Tourists, including me, would walk up, take a look, take a photo… and then shrug. There it is, I thought, if that’s actually the rock. Questions of authenticity were not assuaged, at least for me, by the fact that 1620 has been stamped into the stone and the sandy footing on which it rests has been manicured like a Japanese rock garden.

It reminded me of other totems to which we travel, only to tick them off our list. Old Faithful is one, the Statue of Liberty is another. You’ve heard so much about them, had them drilled into your head as an essential piece of American lore, heard grandiose promises about the meaning they hold. And yet nobody seems to actually enjoy them. When you visit, you visit to click the camera shutter and to say, “Oh yeah, I went there on vacation and saw it. Great time!” when you’re at a backyard barbecue with those neighbors you don’t really like. That’ll show ’em.

Was it totally the worst thing ever to go see Plymouth Rock? Of course not. I’m sort of humble-bragging about it with this post! But there was so little happening aside from the rock itself-a few ice cream shops, a couple of t-shirt stands-there seemed little reason to visit Plymouth but to see the disappointing rock.

I could be wrong about that last bit. But I didn’t leave time to explore Plymouth. I was just there to see its Rock.

Top ten overrated U.S. travel destinations/attractions

Whether or not you’re an American, there are certain places that are on almost everyone’s must-visit list. Some tourist traps, like the Grand Canyon or Disneyland, are worth joining the masses and ponying up the entrance fee (although I just checked the Magic Kingdom’s website, and Mickey and friends are bilking the parents of children under nine for $68 a pop).

Other much-lauded, highly anticipated hot-spots are simply not worth the time and expense. This is, of course, highly subjective: one man’s Las Vegas dream vacation is another’s Third Circle of Hell. It can also be fun to visit certain craptacular or iconic landmarks.

The below list is a compilation of my picks, as well as those of other Gadling contributors, in no particular order. You may be offended, but don’t say you weren’t warned.

1. Hollywood
Unless you love freaks, junkies, hookers, crappy chain restaurants and stores, and stepping over human feces on the star-inlaid sidewalks, give it a miss.

2. Las Vegas
I understand the appeal of a lost weekend in Sin City, really. And I will not dispute the utter coolness of the Rat Pack, Vegas of yore. But in the name of all that is sacred and holy, why does the current incarnation of glorified excess and wasted natural resources exist, especially as a so-called family destination?

[Photo credit: Flickr user Douglas Carter Cole]3. Times Square
A dash of Hollywood Boulevard with a splash of Vegas and Orlando.

4. South Beach, Miami
At what point does silicone become redundant?

5. Atlantic City, New Jersey
The poor man’s Vegas

6. Orlando
Toll roads, herds of tourists, shrieking children, an abundance of nursing homes, and tacky corporate America, all in one tidy package.

7. Fisherman’s Wharf, San Francisco
It’s hard to hate on San Francisco, but the once-glorious Wharf is a shadow of its former self. Hooter’s, Pier 39, seafood stands hawking overpriced, previously-frozen Dungeness crab cocktail, aggressive panhandling, and vulgar souvenir shops kill the mood.

8. The Washington Monument
The nation’s preeminent phallic symbol is admittedly an impressive piece of architecture. It’s also possible to get a great view from the car en route to other, more interesting historic sites and tourist attractions.

9. Waikiki
There is so much more to Hawaii, including beaches that aren’t man-made.

10. Mt. Rushmore
Faces carved into rock. Moving on…

[Photo credits: Times Square, Flickr user Falling Heavens; Waikiki, Flickr user DiazWerks]