Find Your Roots in Ireland
We got a whiff of noble lineage on one of our first nights on the road in Ireland—only it was from someone else's bloodline. We were staying at the Ardeevin Guest House in Donegal, the jumping-off point for our branch of the Young family, whom we'd come from the States to research. Over breakfast, we met a couple from Australia, Oliver and Tasma Lofton-Brook, who'd planned a genealogy-based getaway as a retirement gift to themselves. Tasma's ancestor Anne Lutton was a ground-breaking Methodist minister born in 1791, and one of the couple's early stops on their four-week trip was the town of Moira, the Lutton family seat. They'd parked at the Moira Methodist Church one morning when parishioners just happened to be cleaning up from an event. After the Lofton-Brooks introduced themselves, the workers stopped, grabbed Tasma by the arm, and ushered her inside to the plaque that had been hung in Anne Lutton's honor. Tasma didn't expect to be so emotional—"she came expecting nothing, that was the key," Oliver said—but she really broke down when the church ladies showed her the very Bible Anne had studied and signed. "They made me feel like some kind of celebrity," said Tasma, who had been invited back to worship and have tea and cookies with the congregation on the following Sunday. My mom and I may be new to genealogy, but even we know that it doesn't get much better than holding a piece of your history in your hands.
Heritage travel is booming—an estimated 122,000 overseas visitors traced their roots in Ireland in 2009, the most recent year for which data is available—powered by shows such as NBC's Who Do You Think You Are? and the desire for travel experiences that combine history, nostalgia, and self-discovery. The demand is perhaps biggest on the Emerald Isle: One in nine Americans has an Irish heritage to explore, and baby boomers like President Obama—who downed a pint of Guinness in his great-great-great-grandfather's village of Moneygall last May—are leading the charge home. Ireland also recently released some of its only surviving census records from 1901 and 1911, giving amateur genealogists a strong starting point for an adventure that can be complicated by missing documents and misspelled family and city names.
To dig for our family, we've booked a six-night "Discover Your Roots" tour through the Aer Lingus vacation store that includes a night at Dublin's five-star Shelbourne Hotel and an hour-long consultation with Helen Kelly, the world's only official Genealogy Butler. Thankfully, Helen is more Mary Poppins than arch-eyebrowed Jeeves. She got started as a professional genealogist after tracking her own family, and her eyes fill with tears when she tells us about meeting a 105-year-old woman who remembered how Helen's grandmother had once taken some children into a field, reached into her pockets filled with candies, and thrown handfuls in the air so the kids could hunt for the sweets in the grass. This is my idea of a Genealogy Butler: a woman who combines a left-brained expertise in analyzing records with the emotional intelligence to look beyond the facts for something more. "The magic starts when you get out into the landscape, walk the roads, and connect with the community that cradled your ancestors," she says. "You just can't get a sense of place online."
As it happens, our Irish ancestry is fairly brief. The Youngs, my mother's family, blew into Ulster from Scotland in the 1600s and left for Massachusetts with the first Protestant migration in 1718, eventually establishing a dairy farm in the Berkshires that survives to this day. We've come to Helen armed with some information, courtesy of an unusually detailed Massachusetts gravestone carved by a stonecutter ancestor that reads: Here lies the interred remains of David Young, who was born in the parish of Tahbeyn, county of Donegal, and kingdom of Ireland. He departed this life, December 26, aged 94 years. (There's one glorious discovery: We've got awesome longevity genes.) Helen is ecstatic. "You're so lucky that they left you this legacy with dates on a gravestone," she says. "You're among the chosen few to get back to this early period." We've been trying to keep our expectations low, but, OK, I admit it: Secretly, I've been hoping for the kind of "this is it" epiphany that would make a reality television producer proud. Now I can't help wondering: Will we come across a long-lost cousin? Did anybody stay behind?
Helen has prepared a dossier for my mom and me, and points us to the National Library, around the corner from the Shelbourne. There, we present our list to Francis Carroll, a dapper, joke-cracking librarian. A far cry from the crotchety bibliophiles I'm accustomed to back home, Francis floats between the genealogy center and the stunning upstairs reading room, where patrons turn pages beneath a 50-foot sky-lit aqua dome ceiling decorated with molding as elaborate as a wedding cake. He gives us a refresher course in the lost art of microfilm viewing and a tip: Printouts from the machines in the genealogy center cost 15 cents instead of the reading room's 75. Like I said, Francis is a peach.
Our next stop, the National Archives, is located a few blocks away and has also been rejiggered in recent years to accommodate an increasing number of amateur genealogists. "Before, people were coming in and floundering in their research," says Paul Gorry, one of the experts on staff. So they created a room where researchers can consult with an expert like Paul for free. (The National Library offers the same service, which functions a bit like a meat counter: If it's crowded, you take a number and wait in line.) We find some Youngs in early tax records and in the Muster Rolls, a handwritten roster of able-bodied men and their weapons dating from 1630.
The next morning, after a lavish complimentary breakfast that includes a small bottle of Jameson meant to give the oatmeal a kick, we set off for Donegal. In addition to a rental car, our package includes nightly vouchers for a network of 1,000 B&Bs, which can be booked in advance or by showing up and winging it, for those unsure of where their investigations will lead.
I ride white-knuckled for the two-hour trip from Dublin to Galway as my mother gets the hang of our eco-friendly stop-start car, but eventually we start to relax and take in the fuzzy brown cows, riotous stands of hot-pink flowers, and signs for romantic real estate opportunities, including "4 acres and a derelict cottage." We redeem our first voucher in Donegal, where we meet Oliver and Tasma, then head out in the morning for some field work.
Along with searching for our own family, I wanted to know what it feels like to push off from a homeland into the unknown, so I reserved spots on a two-hour, $25 cruise out to Slieve League, the highest sea cliffs in Europe. Out on the water, the sun is shining, the boat is bumping along the top of the current, and the whole thing's feeling very sporting, like a Kennedy's Cape Cod afternoon—except for one detail that pegs us to the motherland. The white dots scattered across the sides of the precipitous peaks like cupcake toppers are, in fact, sheep grazing at an 80-degree angle. "We breed our sheep with Velcro," says Paddy Byrne, the boat's skipper, "and to have their right legs shorter than their left."
Just across the border in Omagh, Northern Ireland, the Ulster American Folk Park offers a less carefree perspective: a first-hand experience of rural life in Ireland and what it felt like to cross the Atlantic and arrive in the U.S. without cash, connections-or the faintest idea of how to cook corn, beans, and squash. A living history museum dedicated entirely to the topic of Irish-American immigration, the park is tailor-made for genealogists, with its lively historical interpreters, a life-size passenger ship where whole families would cram into a single wooden bunk for the 10-to-12-week voyage, and the specialized library at the on-site Centre for Migration Studies.
We spend the better part of an afternoon on the park's wooded paths and touring cozy 18th- and 19th-century cottages. It's one thing to study records and gravestones, but it's much more transporting to sit in front of a turf fire in a thatched roof hut from the 1700s. After the instant gratification of the Folk Park, traipsing around graveyards in County Donegal for the next few days is almost a letdown. My mom and I visit the parish listed on the gravestone, but neither of us feels chills. We do make friends along the way with a Presbyterian church clerk—himself a distant relative of our 15th president, James Buchanan—who welcomes us into his home and lets us page through the beautifully bound marriage registers with marbled endpapers that he's been entrusted with. (As pub-hopping tourists, we never would have crossed paths.) Over Irish coffees to raise our spirits (so to speak), my mom suggests we swing by another parish we came across in our research. Less than a quarter-mile from our destination, she stops to ask a farmer for directions and comes back to the car beaming. We've reached an area called Five Roads Ends. My mother grew up near a five-corner intersection in South Williamstown, Mass., that locals called Five Corners. Coincidence or synchronicity—my mother swears the farmer called this place Five Corners as well—we've found our connection across 300 years.
My mother looks around, giddy, and when we arrive at the church she peers into the windows like Nancy Drew. "This is it—they re-created what they had here in the New World," she says. In fact, this area really does look like the Berkshires, with purple mountains, rolling fields, and big, old trees—whereas most of the Irish countryside we've seen has been cleared for pasture. We may not have found any living relatives, but we've found what we were looking for—a bridge to our past. "I'm really glad we came here," she says, hugging me, "because there were moments when I thought this might be a bunch of crap." I laugh. Sure, finding a patch of earth that we feel connected to has strengthened our ties to Ireland—but also to each other.
Theme Park Survival Guide
I am thinking of taking my kids to a theme park for the very first time. What kind of prep work should I do? Your planning—and fun—can start as early as... now. Build your kids' anticipation by visiting the park's website together. Get to know the map, decide what your must-see attractions are, and find out about special events such as shows, character parades, fireworks, and laser displays. Of course, while you're getting your kids pumped up for their park visit, you also have to manage their expectations. Take the time to prepare them emotionally for the big trip, suggests George Scarlett, a professor of developmental psychology at Tufts University. A theme park is awash in eye candy that can test kids' self-control, especially preschoolers'. Let them know there are park rules, just as there are rules at home. They may need to stand patiently in line before they can board a ride. They'll likely have to wear safety belts or protective gear, and they'll need to keep their hands and feet inside all attractions. Because many rides have minimum height restrictions, make sure they understand which ones will be off-limits to them. Robert Niles, founder and editor of ThemeParkInsider.com, suggests that in the weeks leading up to your theme park visit you should let your kids earn a "souvenir allowance" to spend at the end of the day or the trip (remember, you don't want to be stuck carting around a collossal stuffed animal from ride to ride). And prepare yourself to be patient with your little ones. I remember how my then-6-year-old desperately wanted to visit Disney's Haunted Mansion, but after we had waited in line for more than an hour, he freaked out in terror right at the front door. Seeing the look on his face, I sighed and promptly headed for the exit. There are a ton of ticket options. What's the best deal? Some things are obvious: You can save money—and time—buying park passes online; multiday tickets will usually bring the per-day cost down. But some seemingly high-priced offers—such as park combo deals and annual passes—can actually save you a bundle. A season pass to Six Flags, for instance, gets you into all 13 of the company's theme parks for the year. (If you decide to get an annual pass while you're at a park, you can usually upgrade your ticket right on the spot.) Be sure to follow a park on Twitter or Facebook, so you'll be alerted to flash promotions—last-minute offers that can include discounted nighttime attendance, buy-one-get-one-free deals, and savings on meals or souvenirs. Hotel package deals will certainly cost you more, but they also come with perks. A family of four can expect to pay several hundred dollars more for, say, a three-day Walt Disney World package than for a comparable "a la carte" stay at a nearby Marriott. But Disney packages often include discounts on on-site hotels, dining, and special events that may make up the difference. At Universal Studios Florida and Universal's Islands of Adventure, if you stay on-site you get a complimentary Express Plus Pass that lets you skip lines for certain rides and attractions. (For more on express passes, see "Should You Pay Extra for Shorter Lines?" to the left) I never take my kids anywhere without a loaded backpack. Is that a good idea at a theme park? Just because a park features a castle doesn't mean you should have to pay a king's ransom for basics like water, snacks, sunscreen, and bandages. "Never buy anything in a theme park you can buy outside the park," says Niles. If you worry about things like food spills, cuts, inclement weather, and meltdowns, by all means do some schlepping. Bring packaged snacks, wet wipes, Ziploc bags, a change of clothes, disposable rain ponchos, sunscreen, bug repellent, water bottles, a small first-aid kit, small toys, coloring books, and glow-in-the-dark sticks and necklaces (which the parks sell at dusk but they charge a fortune). And while we're obsessing over details, don't forget to pin your name and cell phone number to the inside of your kids' clothes and make sure your family wears closed-toe shoes to the park. You don't want your little one's flip-flops flying off on the new Wild Eagle ride at Dollywood. What are the best times of day—and times of year—to visit a theme park? Remember one thing: Always go against the flow. The more you can anticipate where the herd will be—and flee to where it's not—the more elbow room and (relative) solitude you'll enjoy. For instance, most visitors don't show up first thing in the morning. Arriving at least 15 minutes before the gate is thrown open (c'mon, your kids are going to be up at dawn anyway) and heading for the most popular rides first can be the difference between no wait and a wait of 60 to 90 minutes for marquee attractions. Niles notes that, amazingly enough, you can walk right on to Tatsu, billed as the world's tallest, fastest, and longest roller coaster, at Six Flags Magic Mountain in Los Angeles when the park opens at 10:30, but by 11 the wait can be as long as two hours. But do your homework so that you choose your morning rides carefully. A water ride that soaks you to the bone may be a less than inspiring way to start your day. The same goes for lunch. If you head to a popular watering hole such as Three Broomsticks in The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal's Islands of Adventure between noon and 2 you'll find that a thousand other Muggles had the same idea. Instead, pack a lunch, or make reservations to eat early or late (check reservation policies; Disney, for instance, will let you make online restaurant reservations up to 180 days in advance). While everyone else is chowing down, enjoy some shorter wait times at attractions that are otherwise jammed. If your park features a midday character parade or a popular live show, you'll likely find rides less crowded at those times as well. Other go-against-the-flow techniques include: heading for the back of the park at opening while everyone else is boarding the rides nearest the front gate; leaving the park at midday for a dip in the hotel pool or a nap, then returning in the early evening when crowds are often lighter; opting for the left-hand line at snack bars and souvenir shops because most folks are programmed to turn right (sounds crazy, I know, but park sharks swear this one is true). As for time of year, most major parks are less crowded in September and October, as school starts up, and April and May, as school winds down. (But if anyone asks, I'm not the one who suggested you take your youngster out of class just so she could shake hands with Mickey!) Some parks have trends all their own: Busch Gardens Tampa Bay sees an increase in student tour groups from Brazil each January and June; Mondays, Thursdays, and Saturdays are more crowded at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom; at its Southern California cousin, Disneyland, locals flock on Saturdays and Sundays. How can my smartphone or tablet improve my visit? If you remember that your phone or tablet works for you (and not the other way around), it can help solve some problems. By now, everybody knows they should snap a shot of where they're parked, but you should also take a picture of your kids in their park-visit clothes each morning in case you have to ask for help in locating them. Smartphones and tablets also give you access to a new generation of apps, such as Disney's Mobile Magic and Cedar Point's GPS Park Map, that allow you to quickly pinpoint restaurants, bathrooms, and other crucial stops. Disney's app goes even further, providing up-to-the-minute estimates on wait times at rides and attractions. But Niles advises you to rely more on your own smarts than on your phone's. "Do you really need an app to tell you there's going to be a long line all day at Thunder Mountain?"
Best Budget Friendly All-Inclusive Resorts
It's a fact that all-inclusive resorts can be expensive, with the average nightly rate at some of the bigger chains running $450—per person. And when you find one in your price range there's usually a caveat—the beach is a 15-minute drive away, or the "all" only includes non-alcoholic beverages (those margaritas by the pool really add up). We here at Budget Travel love a challenge and—though it wasn't easy—we found eight beachfront all-inclusive resorts in the Caribbean, Mexico, and Central America starting at around $100 per person, per night. And they really are all-inclusive: a double room, three meals a day, drinks (from soda to cocktails), and lots of activities. And each one has an added bonus, too, from tennis lessons to scuba instructions. The only thing not included? Caveats. SEE THE ALL-INCLUSIVE RESORTS ClubHotel Riu Negril, JamaicaHead out to the far western tip of Jamaica and you'll find this lively beachfront resort in Negril. It is right on the beach, but the place to be is by one of the umbrella-shaded loungers around the two gigantic pools (both are well over 3,000 square feet). There is a party atmosphere here—the complimentary mini bars and liquor dispensers in the 420 guest rooms are regularly restocked. If you want to go all out, head to the Pacha nightclub, where reggae is sure to be spinning. If you are looking for quiet, try the solarium terrace. Bonus You'll score extra perks like complimentary entry and drinks at the posh Pacha nightclub and a free introductory scuba diving lesson in the resort pool. Norman Manley Blvd., Negril, Jamaica, 888/748-4990, riu.com. From $98 per person, per night. Iberostar Costa Dorada, Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic Iberostar operates six hotels in the Dominican Republic, but this resort 10 minutes from Puerto Plata gives you the most for your money. The 516 rooms (which all have either a terrace or balcony) are located in thatch-roof buildings painted cheerful shades of yellow and purple. The entire property underwent a full renovation in 2011 resulting in completely remodeled rooms, a new lobby, and a renovated kids' club. There are three a la carte restaurants featuring Brazilian, Mexican, and international cuisine, plus a buffet restaurant. If you aren't content to just sit on the beach or the massive pool, there are activities all around the resort, from archery and tennis to kayaking and diving. Bonus While some all-inclusive resorts only serve house-brand liquor, bartenders at Costa Dorada pour from imported names as well (Tanqueray, Stoli, etc.). Carretera de Luperon Km 4, Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic, 888/923-2722, iberostar.com. From $69 per person, per night thru July 26th with the Hot Getaway Sale; $100 per person, per night (three-night minimum). Royal Decameron Golf Beach Resort & Villas, Farallón, Panama This 1,170-room mega resort 90 minutes from Panama City does things big from its spot on a mile of secluded beach. There are eight pools, 10 restaurants, and 11 bars (including one swim-up), which means you'll rarely do or see the same thing twice. Play in the Pacific with free paddleboards, kayaks, or windsurfers, or check out the local underwater residents with the provided snorkel gear. The nightlife is also big here and the party goes long after the sun sets (which probably has something to do with the open bar). Bonus Though the base-rate is for a garden-view room, each one has a terrace or balcony overlooking the tropical foliage. Avenida Principal Farallón, Km 115, 011-507/993-2255, decameron.com. From $111 per person, per night. Sunscape Dorado Pacifico Ixtapa, MexicoThe Sunscape's budget-friendly price makes it a deal, but most people travel here for the location on a sandy beach on quiet Playa del Palmar. The resort re-opened in November of 2011 after a $10 million upgrade to all the rooms (including new furniture, flat-screen TVs, and fully renovated bathrooms) and restaurants as well as the addition of a new spa (alas, massages aren't covered in the all-inclusive rate and start at $68). There are only 285 rooms, but you'll find the choices typical of a much larger resort. There are four bars and eight restaurants ranging from seafood to Italian to Mexican (and the small size means no reservations are required). Bonus Embrace your inner Serena Williams or Roger Federer and perfect your serve at the free tennis clinics. Paseo de Ixtapa S/N Lote 3-A, Ixtapa, 800/087-4890, sunscaperesorts.com. From $150 per person, per night. Krystal Cancun, Mexico This Riviera Maya resort makes the most of its location: the pool runs lengthwise along the sand, and there's even a beachfront infinity whirlpool. The Krystal, located in the heart of the Hotel Zone on Punta Cancun, has 453 rooms, and each one has a view of either the Caribbean Sea or Cancun Lagoon. The rooms were renovated in December of 2011 and now feature luxury updates like marble floors, flat-screen TVs, and rain showers—perfect for washing off all that sand. Bonus One of the downsides of an all-inclusive resort is that you have to eat every meal on-site. Krystal includes a Discover Cancun pass that covers one dinner at a local restaurant. Paseo Kukulcan Km 9.5, Cancun, 800/437-9605, krystal-hotels.com. From $176 per person, per night. Barceló Langosta Beach, Tamarindo, Costa Rica Staying here affords travelers the best of both worlds: The resort is on a secluded beach surrounded by rainforests and a national park, but is less than a mile from the popular town of Tamarindo. This is a low-key resort, with just one buffet restaurant and one a la carte restaurant serving Mediterranean cuisine (there is an additional $36-$42 fee for the a la carte restaurant) and one bar, plus a small casino and an amphitheater with daily entertainment. But the 134 rooms have views of the Pacific Ocean or the estuary of Las Baulas, part of the national park. Bonus Tipping for the staff is included in the rate, so no need to reach for your wallet every time you order another round. El Robledal, Tamarindo, 800/227-2356, barcelo.com. From $188 per person, per night. Paradise Island Harbour Resort, Bahamas At just 246 rooms, this family-friendly resort is a fraction of the size of the 4,000-room Atlantis next door. But it's also a fraction of the price for the all-inclusive option. Paradise Island is on a private beach and has a large pool and three places to dine—a pool-side grill, a buffet, and a steak and seafood a la carte restaurant. Unwinding is the first order of business here, so you won't find the same 24/7 whirl of activity here as at the mega resorts. But that doesn't mean anyone in your family will be bored. The kids' camp keeps them busy with sand castle building and craft making, and offers fun, active sports like pool volleyball and beach bowling. Bonus If you've ever wanted to learn how to dive, this is the place: the resort offers a complimentary scuba lesson in the pool. Harbor Dr., Paradise Island, Nassau, 888/582-0192, paradiseislandbahama.com. From $210 per person, per night. Check the website for specials thru 2013. Jolly Beach Resort & Spa, AntiguaSet on 40 acres (including a mile of white sand), the Jolly Beach Resort & Spa is great for those who want to get out on the turquoise water. Kayaks, windsurfers, and paddleboats are all at the ready and there are also two pools. Would you rather just take in the view of the waves? The 464 rooms all have at least partial ocean views. The resort also has five restaurants ranging from a casual beach take-out place to the Italian Bocciolo. Bonus A proper afternoon tea with scones and cucumber sandwiches is also offered every day in the courtyard—a nod to the island's British roots. Bolans Village, Antigua, 866/905-6559, jollybeachresort.com. From $221 per person, per night.
8 Ways to Save Big on Summer Travel
Save on: Lodgings How: Look beyond hotels Especially if your family or entourage is too big for a hotel room, you can find better rates by renting a house, condominium, or apartment, or by exploring home swapping. For vacation rentals, visit vrbo.com, homeaway.com, and villasintl.com. For home swaps, check out homeexchange.com, homelink.org, and intervac.com. SEE: 12 Travel Products You'll Need This Summer Save on: Airfare and hotels How: Research package deals Psst: Airlines and hotels are willing to offer incredibly low prices to fill their rooms and seats. But because they're reluctant to publicize these low rates, they sell some rooms and seats to companies that put them together as package deals. Before you purchase a package, deal, take a look at the hotel's website and rates and research what the airfare and hotel would cost if you booked them separately-that way you'll know you're getting a good deal. Save on: Rental cars How: Get a free upgrade Book the cheapest rental car you can live with and arrive early in the day, before most customers have returned their cars. Result? The agency may not have any cheap cars to give you, and they are obligated to give you a bigger model at no extra charge. If they try to sell you an upgrade, say no. If it turns out they haven't run out of cheap cars, politely ask for a free upgrade. Save on: Gas How: Drive smart With the price of gas nearing or topping $4 a gallon, there's never been a better time to get to know your car-or a rental car-a little better. Why? Because smart driving is one of the easiest ways to shave dollars off your fuel costs. For instance, for every 5 mph over 60 you drive, you spend around 25 cents' worth of gasoline. The car's air conditioner is a money leech, too: Keep costs down by using air conditioning as little as possible, parking in the shade, and, if you do resort to A/C, open the windows first to let the hot air out. Avoid jack-rabbit starts, and remember that every 100 pounds of luggage reduces your car's fuel efficiency by 1 to 2 percent. Save on: Airfare How: Know when to buy According to farecompare.com, the best time to buy airline tickets is Tuesdays at 3 p.m. While other sources are less specific, it's generally agreed that purchasing mid-week (Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday) will nab you better rates because airlines release their promotional fares on Sundays and Mondays and often raises prices at the end of the week. And booking about eight weeks in advance can be the sweet spot for keeping costs low. Save on: Hotels How: New online tools A new breed of online hotel-booking site has made it easier than ever to compare prices, and in many cases the site will alert you to lower rates even after you've booked a room, allowing you to switch and save. Backbid.com, for instance, lets hotels sell rooms to travelers who've already made reservations at rival establishments. Hipmunk.com lets you input a destination and then delivers hotel rates culled from online booking sites like Orbitz and Getaroom; Hipmunk also offers an "ecstasy" rating, based on such benefits as price, amenities, location, and Yelp reviews. Save on: Frequent-flier programs How: New online tools If you've ever tried to figure out when's the right time to cash in your rewards-program miles or points, PointHub and MileWise do the often-complicated math for you. They will calculate whether taking a free flight is the right choice or whether prices are so low that you're better off buying a ticket and holding on to your miles. Our research suggests these sites are best for people who've accumulated miles or points and need some help in navigating that world-not best for "mileage junkies" who are already on top of this occasionally arcane science. Save on: Cruises How: Book through a travel agent Over the years we've interviewed our share of cruise industry professionals, and they agree on a few easy ways to save big: Book through a travel agent, who often has a close relationship with a cruise line to help you get upgrades and extras. If you like a particular cruise line, joining its loyalty program can nab you invites to members-only events and coupons worth up to $500. On a less-loyal note, however, you'll usually save on airfare if you book flights independently, not from a cruise line.
Confessions of...a California Highway Patrol Officer
Summer driving season is almost here, which means you'll soon be on the lookout for a great roadside stand, a pretty rest stop—and that eagle-eyed cop on the side of the highway. We asked Keith Dittimus, a 30-year veteran of the California Highway Patrol—"CHiP"—what it's like on the other side of the flashing light. LIVING THE CHiPs LIFE I grew up in the era of theCHiPsTV show, and for five and a half years I couldn't believe I got paid to ride a motorcycle—it was so much fun. A lot of the parades and a lot of the motorcade processions are done exclusively with motorcycles, so you get to do things that officers in a car don't. IN SOME CIRCLES, WE'RE CELEBRITIES In Japan and in many Asian countries, the CHiP is very, very popular, so when the tourists see the Highway Patrol officers at, say, Vista Point near the Golden Gate Bridge, they all want to take your picture. They'll point and go, "CHiP!" So you let them take a picture sitting on top of the motorcycle. It builds goodwill for the department, and you start to spend an inordinate amount of time—delightfully so—taking pictures with tourists. I'm probably on a couple thousand mantles. WE GET STARSTUCK, TOO During my 13 years in the Protective Services Division-PSD-I worked details for presidents Reagan, Bush Sr., Clinton, and their vice presidents. I had a funny experience with Nancy Reagan. We were in the Secret Service command room at a hotel. There was a knock. I opened the door, and she was standing there with a tin of cookies for the Secret Service guys. I'm just standing there, staring at her, like, "This is Nancy Reagan!" And she's like, "Well... would you take the cookies?" THE CHASE: NOT SO THRILLING AFTER ALL Hollywood has done a lot to make the public believe that we live for high-speed chases. That couldn't be further from the truth. Anyone who's ever put on a badge and been in a close, hairy chase doesn't like them. Your adrenaline does go through the roof, but then you realize that there's a lot at stake. A close friend was in a pursuit years ago, and an innocent lady—a mother-was killed. He was torn up over it. That's the part the public has to realize—we're people just like everybody else. We have feelings. HOW TO GET OUT OF A TICKET So many people try to make excuses. One time I stopped a doctor in Marin County, and he said he'd been called to the local hospital to perform an emergency surgery. I was skeptical, but I didn't want to chance jeopardizing someone's life. I took his driver's license and told him I'd have CHiP dispatch confirm with the hospital while I followed him to the ER. We got about a mile down the highway before he pulled over and confessed that he was late for a dinner date. I can assure you, that was one expensive date! When a highway patrolman pulls you over, they're pulling you over because they observed you doing something. Just be honest and straightforward. A lot of times, you can walk away with a verbal warning and not get a ticket. We see so many dishonest people, when somebody finally is honest with you, it's gratifying enough to give them a break!