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South Dakota: Presidents, Tumbleweeds, and Brontoburgers

By Erik Torkells
March 8, 2006
Mount_Rushmore_South_Dakota
Erik Torkells
Mount Rushmore is the main attraction in southwestern South Dakota, but don't miss the area's weirder, wilder parts.

Day 1: Rapid City to Badlands

Pre-trip research showed that the region has something for everyone, from wholesome families to thrillseeking bikers. Shawnda and I fall somewhere in between. Friends since high school, we now live on separate coasts and meet up once a year for a generally silly road trip.

After arriving at the Rapid City airport, we drive 50 miles east to Wall Drug. It became well-known for the barrage of signs you pass on the approach, and now the glorified gift shop is famous because it's famous. I prefer my kitsch organic, not preprocessed; we make the best of it, posing atop a giant jackalope, laughing at the coin-operated diorama of dancing rabbits (one's arm has fallen off, another's arm is dangling by a mere thread), and watching kids get all atwitter as the animatronic T. Rex growls.

Continuing east through Buffalo Gap National Grassland, we stop to admire a never-ending meadow of yellow flowers. What keeps us loitering there, though, is the deep silence.

Badlands is Shawnda's kind of national park. You can hike, but you can also just pull over at a viewpoint, walk 50 yards, and snap a photo. The Badlands is my kind of national park, too, if for different reasons. It's gorgeous, but not in a standard way, with weird, desolate spires rising out of the prairie floor. The rock in the spires is composed of multicolored layers, and the colors change with the light.

We check in at Cedar Pass Lodge, a collection of 22 cute, basic cabins on the park border. While Shawnda takes a nap, a thunderstorm blows in. The atmosphere turns primal. A curtain of black clouds draws across the sky, and lightning streaks on the horizon. I walk behind our cabin, dodging the tumbleweeds whizzing by. Even more tumbleweeds, driven by the wind, are forced up and over the back side of one of the spires. It looks like lava erupting from a volcano.

The other research I did was to get restaurant recommendations from M.J. Adams, owner/chef of The Corn Exchange in Rapid City (which I'd read about in Gourmet). Near Badlands, she suggested Circle 10, off I-90, not far from a 15-foot prairie dog statue. We have salads with dried cherries, blue cheese, and walnuts, then BLTs on homemade English muffin bread. The people who own Circle 10 are very sweet, but Shawnda still wants to steal their pet mutt.

At 10 p.m., we go on the Night Prowl. A Badlands ranger leads a group of about 30 on a 400-yard walk into the park, past some of the rocks. The goal is to look at the stars. We lie on the ground, while the ranger sermonizes about light pollution. We don't learn a whole lot, but just being outside at night, away from civilization, is a highlight of our road trip.

Lodging

  • Cedar Pass Lodge20681 Hwy. 240, Interior, 605/433-5460, cedarpasslodge.com, cabins from $65

Food

  • Circle 10I-90, exit 131, Philip, 605/433-5451, BLT $6.50

Activities

  • Badlands National Park605/433-5361, nps.gov/badl, $15 per car per week

Day 2: Badlands to Custer

The drive out of Badlands, along Route 44, is one of the most sublime Shawnda and I have taken. We generally rent convertibles, and we worried that it'd be too hot to go topless in July. But the weather stays bearable, and the sky is breathtaking: white at the horizon, turning bluer and bluer as you look up, until it peaks somewhere between cornflower and royal.

We hightail it, as we're booked for the 1 p.m. Candlelight Tour at Wind Cave National Park. I've sworn off caves, having found them indistinguishable. But the Candlelight Tour goes to parts of Wind Cave not accessible on other tours, and you carry "candle buckets"--metal pails rigged so you hold them on their sides, with candles inside--just like 19th-century settlers did. Besides, the cave interior is 53 degrees year-round, and the day is really heating up.

The 10 of us--11 if you count our guide, Michael--ride an elevator down 190 feet, then trudge single file through a lighted area. After about 15 minutes, Michael lights our candles and we head off into the dark. Candle buckets let you direct the light laterally, but not up or down, so you don't know how low the ceiling is or how bumpy the ground. I spend the two-hour tour in a perpetual stoop.

There's a lot of interesting geology--grid-like formations called boxwork, nubby "popcorn," which looks like it sounds, and delicate crystals known as frostwork. We stop in a nook named Pearly Gates, and sit on ledges. Michael, who is highly earnest and from Malta, which makes for an entertaining combination, slowly scans the room. "Do you want to experience something . . . different?" he says, and Shawnda begins to giggle uncontrollably. He tells us to blow out our candles. In total darkness, your eyes try to adjust, but they can't--so you give in, and it stops mattering if your eyes are open or shut.

The only food at Wind Cave is sold in vending machines, and when we surface we're starving.

I'm excited to go to Flintstones Bedrock City, a campground in Custer with exhibits and photo ops, where you can actually order a Brontoburger. But the place is lame, in a word, and we head to Hill City, where we prepare to get an Old West photograph taken. The young women at Looking Back Photo (now closed) decide that I should be a "rugged cowboy" and Shawnda a "saloon girl." Let's just say that her credentials are more impressive than mine.

When we call that afternoon, Sage Creek Grille, another M.J. favorite, says we don't need to reserve. But we arrive to find there's no room. We sulk our way over to Pizza Works (now closed), where we sit outside and peer up at the glowing Custer sign atop the hill. For dessert, we split a satisfying piece of blueberry pie at Reetz's, also known as the Purple Pie Place because, well, it's hard to miss.

Lodging

  • Comfort Inn & Suites301 W. Mt. Rushmore Rd., Custer, 605/673-3221, choicehotels.com, from $133

Food

  • Sage Creek Grille611 Mt. Rushmore Rd., Custer, 605/673-2424, dinner entrées from $18
  • Purple Pie Place,19 Mt. Rushmore Rd., Custer, 605/673-4070, $3

Activities

  • Wind Cave National Park605/745-4600, nps.gov/wica, Candlelight Tour $9
  • Flintstones Bedrock CityHwy. 16, Custer, 605/673-4079, $8

Day 3: Custer to Spearfish

The Comfort Inn puts out a nice breakfast: Styrofoam cups hold single servings of waffle batter, and there are two waffle irons in the common room. But we can't pass up Chute Roosters, outside Hill City, if only because of the name. The food is forgettable, but the owner's a charmer. Roberta Wilburn, who bought the place in 1998, tells us about the ghost who haunts the building, an old dairy farm. When I try to buy a Chute Rooster mug (it's a rodeo term) she can't find the key to the vitrine, and promises to mail the mug if she ever locates the key. I fear she won't remember, however, as she's quite excited about the Elvis impersonator who'll be stopping by that evening (note: The restaurant is now under new management).

And then, Rushmore. It might just be the world's greatest tourist trap--the idea for it came from state historian Doane Robinson, who in 1923 proposed that a monumental carving would draw more visitors to the Black Hills. It was a rare case of a historian actually making history. We're moved by the ambition and the artistry, but Rushmore is a bit of a yawner. Should it be seen? Absolutely. Does it take long? Not so much. We felt the same way about Crazy Horse Memorial, the Native American rejoinder to Rushmore, when we passed it yesterday. The scope is astounding, but we just didn't get much out of it--of course, we also didn't stop. Why pay $10 when we could see it from the road?

M.J. raved about a burger in Rochford, a blip of a town, so we take Route 17 out of Hill City. It's unpaved part of the way, and the Black Hills are beautiful. At times, the road runs parallel to the Mickelson Trail; popular with hikers and cyclists, the trail traverses the length of the Black Hills from Edgemont to Deadwood.

Moonshine Gulch Saloon, the burger place, is dingy and strange--words that can mean good things to me, but not to Shawnda. The ceiling is covered with business cards (including mine, now), baseball caps, snarky signs, all sorts of things, all coated in dust. We get a kick out of a rock next to our table. Painted on one side: PLEASE TURN ME OVER. Painted on the other: M-M-M THAT FEELS GOOD. The burger isn't bad, but the place freaks Shawnda out--particularly the photos of customers bottle-feeding a fawn next to an 8-by-10 glossy of a hunter holding antlers, the rest of the deer's corpse visible in his truck. She has to work up the nerve to go to the ladies' room. But not only is it fantastically clean, someone has written inspirational graffiti on the walls. It's perhaps the last place one would expect a quotation from Euripides.

While my obsession has never been as strong as the one in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, I've always longed to see Devils Tower, across the Wyoming state line. (The apostrophe got lost when the government proclaimed it a national monument, and all the bureaucrats in the world can't squeeze it back in.) Shawnda and I are heartened to hear that after climbers discovered that the tower is especially sacred to Native Americans in June, the number of climbers that month has dropped 80 percent. Scrambling over the boulder field at the base is enough climbing for us. We have a good laugh over the names given to the climbing routes ("Old Guys in Lycra"), the exhibit asking visitors to write what Devils Tower means to them ("It gives me the creeps"), and a tasteless T-shirt in a nearby gift shop ("I like it on top").

The parking lot at the Fairfield Inn in Spearfish, S.D., is full of vintage Chevy Impalas, as our visit coincides with a convention. We take our cue from them and have an evening of retro pleasures: a brownie sundae at the Bay Leaf Café and Air Hockey at an arcade, where we rock out to "Thunder Road" on the jukebox.

Lodging

  • Fairfield Inn2720 1st Ave. East, Spearfish, 605/642-3500, fairfieldinn.com, from $55

Food

  • Chute Roosters101 Chute Rooster Dr., Hill City, 605/574-2122, breakfast $4
  • Moonshine Gulch Saloon22635 N. Rochford Rd., Rochford, 605/584-2743, $2.75
  • Bay Leaf Café126 W. Hudson, Spearfish, 605/642-5462, $5

Activities

  • Mount Rushmore National Memorial Keystone, 605/574-2523, nps.gov/moru, $8 parking fee
  • Crazy Horse MemorialHwy. 16/385, Crazy Horse, 605/673-4681, crazyhorse.org, $10
  • Devils Tower National Monument307/467-5283, nps.gov/deto, $10 per car

Day 4: Spearfish to Rapid City

Having spotted the Geographical Center of the U.S.A. on our map, I decide it'd make a fun photo op. We skip the Center's office in Belle Fourche, figuring all we really care about is the actual spot, and drive for 30 miles on a road that has more roadkill than we've ever seen. But there's no sign where the map has a dot, and the big empty nothingness doesn't have the same appeal as it did on Day 1. (Next time, I'll stop at the office.)

On the return south, I want to check out another dot--the Government Experimental Farm. It sounds like a locale from The X-Files, and therefore worth investigating. Again, nothing there, except a lot of empty corrals. I try to convince Shawnda that federal scientists have found a way to turn animals invisible; it would certainly explain why cars keep running them over.

Being neither bikers nor gamblers, we drive right through Sturgis, home of the big motorcycle rally every August, and Deadwood, an Old West town converted to a gambling destination. We stop for another burger, at Boondocks. It's full of Hollywood memorabilia, and we enjoy watching the bikers roar in.

What we need is a challenge, and we find it at the Black Hills Maze. The maze is 1.2 miles of walkways, divided by wooden fences. There are four towers, and each one has an ink stamp with one of the Rushmore faces on it; the goal is to get all four stamps. We need an hour and four minutes to complete the maze, which is a huge victory if only because an hour and a half gets your name posted on the Hall of Shame. Two 9-year-olds solve it in 45 minutes.

Built in 1928, Rapid City's Hotel Alex Johnson has neat old bones, though the water pressure and air-conditioning are feeble. It's a relief to be downtown, where we can walk rather than drive. There are statues of presidents on many corners, starting from both ends of American history, more or less (Washington, Bush Sr.); 25 are completed. Shawnda, obsessed with politics, can't resist chatting up the woman at The Presidents Information Center and posing with JFK, whereas I'm entranced by a Pomeranian that's been half-shaved to resemble a tiny buffalo.

We've never met M.J., but by this point it feels like she's been in the back seat the whole time. In 1996, she moved from New York to Rapid City, where she opened The Corn Exchange. Her goal was to serve good food, using fresh ingredients. I'm happy to report that her restaurant is delightful. The room feels both sophisticated and homey--with a tin ceiling, hardwood floors, and exposed brick--and M.J. dotes on all her customers, including us. Shawnda and I split everything: a cheese plate, smoked trout on a white corn pancake, entrées of salmon and duck, and a bottle of pinot gris listed on the menu as Mr. Skikkels's favorite. Mr. Skikkels, M.J. informs us, is the cat who lives out back, and I should think he'd like the Belgian chocolate pot de crème even better than the wine. We certainly do.

Lodging

  • Hotel Alex Johnson523 Sixth St., Rapid City, 605/342-1210, alexjohnson.com, from $110

Food

  • Boondocks21559 Hwy. 385, Deadwood, 605/578-1186, burger $6
  • The Corn Exchange727 Main St., Rapid City, 605/343-5070, entrées from $15

Activities

  • The Presidents Information Center631 Main St., Rapid City, 605/342-7272 Resources
  • Center of the Nation415 5th Ave., Belle Fourche, 605/892-2676

Finding your way

The tourist season is mid-May to mid-October, and many establishments hibernate in winter. Despite the northern latitude, summer is broiling, and August thunderstorms can be vicious. The good news: Rapid City has an efficient airport, with rental cars outside. Ours, from Thrifty, had a 150-mile-per-day restriction. We bet we wouldn't need the unlimited mileage upgrade, and were penalized $37 (148 miles over, at 25¢ a mile). We gained some of that back by using the Mt. Rushmore parking pass ($8 value) in the glove compartment. Thrifty says customers often leave theirs for the next driver.

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Inspiration

Contrarian Tours of Washington, D.C., New Orleans, Houston, and New York City

Gross National Product's Scandal Tours Members of the comedy troupe GNP expose the Capitol's seamier side by regaling tour-goers with cheeky, costumed impersonations and sordid tales of politicians from George Washington to George W. Bush. First on the bus route is the Watergate Hotel, naturally, followed by the Kennedy Center (a easy segue to extramarital affairs and conspiracy theories), the Vista International Hotel where former D.C. mayor Marion Barry was arrested on drug charges, the Willard Hotel where Ulysses S. Grant dubbed those pestering him in the lobby "lobbyists", and more sights that are prime fodder for poking bi-partisan fun. "There's a constant supply of new material," quips GNP member John Simmons. Gross National Product, 202/783-7212, gnpcomedy.com/scandaltours; $30, $20 for students and seniors; reservations required; Saturdays at 1 P.M. Hurricane Katrina: America's Worst Catastrophe; City Disaster Tour In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, tourism-starved New Orleans has spawned two narrated bus tours of its ravaged neighborhoods and the uncomfortable concept of disaster tourism. The operators, Gray Line New Orleans and Tours by Isabelle, were driven largely by the need to revive their businesses and to inform visitors. The three-hour Gray Line tour passes a breached levee, the Superdome, Canal Street, the New Orleans Convention Center and the Lakeview area, where the company's vice president Greg Hoffman and many others lost homes. Isabelle Cossart's "City Disaster Tour" is slightly longer and more expensive. It begins in the French Quarter, and covers many of the same sights along with the badly hit St. Bernard and New Orleans East districts. Both highlight the area's history and development, and offer personal takes on the hurricane's timeline. (Passsengers are not allowed to exit the Gray Line motorcoach during the tour, and photography is discouraged.) Gray Line New Orleans, 800/535-7786, graylineneworleans.com; $35, children 6-12 years of age, $28; $3 donated to one of five local non-profit organizations; 9 A.M. and 1 P.M. daily. Tours by Isabelle, 877/665-8687, toursbyisabelle.com; $49 per person; 8:30 A.M. and 1 P.M. daily, provided there are at least four passengers Lifestyles of Houston's Rich and Infamous: The Enron Tour Yankee Sandra Lord has been leading tours of her adopted Houston since 1988, and the latest riffs on its greatest homegrown scandal: the rise and meteoric fall of Enron. While founder Kenneth Lay and chief executive Jeffrey Skilling pass the time on trial for fraud at a local courthouse, the curious can hop a bus for a five-hour, lighthearted look at offices, churches, restaurants, and jails they and other employees have frequented. Lord weaves together facts, anecdotes, biographical information, and historical precedent—a view of the 1928 Kirby Mansion calls for a quick lesson on Houston's first tycoon, John Henry Kirby, an oil man who went down in a high-profile bankruptcy. Discover Houston Tours, 713/222-9255, discoverhoustontours.com ; $30; public tours in Mar.-Apr. 2006, ongoing private tours available Surveillance Camera Walking Tours Each of the Surveillance Camera Players' walks begins with a general introduction on the workings and evolution of surveillance cameras, and then zeroes in to identify numerous often-discreet cameras in a single Manhattan neighborhood—some have close to 400! Far from spouting a left-wing screed, the Players present their findings and encourage healthy debate over the pros and cons of our increasingly public lives. Take a peek at their hand-scrawled online maps of cameras in Times Square and other neighborhoods. Surveillance Camera Players, 212/561-0106, notbored.org; free; Sundays at 2 P.M.

Inspiration

A Heartfelt Good-bye to a Fellow Traveler

One of the most popular pages of Budget Travel is our masthead. People are always saying how much they enjoy our answers to a particular question. Two years ago, when we revamped our masthead, we figured the questions were a way to add a bit of fun to a page that readers don't generally find interesting. That people like it as much as they do still surprises me, as it's not as if you actually know us, and there's never room to explain our answers. If you'd been paying particularly close attention over the past year and a half, you'd have learned the following about Associate Art Director Michael Liddy:   He was a fan of the burgers at New York City's White Horse Tavern.   He would have liked to be on the set of the movie Chocolat.   One day, he hoped to make it to the Milwaukee Art Museum.   His first time on an airplane was during a trip to Fort Lauderdale.   His drink of choice was Dewar's on the rocks.   If he could tour anybody's house, it would be Frank Gehry's.   The scariest place he'd ever been was Space Mountain, when he first went to Walt Disney World. In December, Michael died in his sleep, at the age of 34. What the masthead never told you was that he was not only a terrific designer--he touched every page of the magazine, solved problems that no one else could, and had an impeccable eye for color--but a very talented illustrator. (We've reproduced one of his paintings on the last page of this issue.) Art wasn't just a job: He also spent much of his free time at galleries and museums. MikeL--as he signed his e-mails--was such a sweet, gentle guy. I don't think I've known anyone so extraordinarily patient. Mike's unfathomable passing has been hard on us, and while I'm wary of speaking for everyone here, I think it has probably reminded many of us never to take anyone for granted. We know to value our families and our friends, but perhaps we're all a little guilty of not being as grateful as we should for the folks with whom we spend most of our waking hours. Because whether or not you enjoy your job probably has more to do with your coworkers than the work itself. The goal of this magazine is to celebrate places, but the most memorable part of travel isn't really the places, is it? It's the people--your traveling companions, and the people you meet along the way. The photographs of those people are the photographs that you end up cherishing. Life is no different. At Budget Travel, we're fortunate to spend our days among wonderful people, and we're unfortunate to have lost one. Here's to you, MikeL. We loved you, and we miss you.

Inspiration

Exploring Virginia's Chesapeake Bay

What you'll find in this article: trip planning advice, restaurant recommendations, hotels, driving directions, and other activities near Chesapeake Bay, Virginia Day 1: Richmond to Reedville My friend Sam and I land in Richmond just after noon and head northeast. The Northern Neck was named after its shape: It's a long, narrow peninsula that looks somewhat like a chicken's wobbly throat. Bordered by the Potomac River to the north, the Rappahannock River to the south, and Chesapeake Bay to the east, the Northern Neck has been well preserved, thanks to dedicated conservation. We cross over the Rappahannock on a simple two-lane bridge, leaving behind strip malls and tract houses for wide expanses of farmland. It feels as though we've traveled much farther than 50 miles from Richmond. Virginia is proud of its history, and vocal about it, too. Markers along the side of Route 3 declare it historyland highway. The Historic Christ Church, a 1735 Georgian church outside of Irvington, has a particularly interesting story. The man responsible for building it, Robert "King" Carter, was a busy guy, as we learn in a museum next door. Carter was a member of the House of Burgesses (Virginia's colonial assembly); acting Governor of Virginia; and ancestor of "three signers of the Declaration of Independence, two presidents, eight Virginia governors, a Supreme Court chief justice, and Robert E. Lee." The list grows every day; in fact, a guestbook asks if visitors are Carter descendants. An increasing number of people from Richmond and D.C. are buying second homes in the Northern Neck. To furnish them, they go to the antiques stores in the town of Kilmarnock. We arrive just before 5 p.m. and race to the Kilmarnock Antique Gallery before it shuts for the day. Gallery is an understatement. The large warehouse has dozens of stalls selling everything from costume jewelry to antique oyster plates. I pick up a set of 1950s anodized aluminum ice-cream cups for my mom. GrandView, our B&B for the night, is about 20 miles up the road. The large house sits on the Great Wicomico River, and water laps against sand in the backyard. Inside, an earnest but precariously cute aesthetic prevails. My bedside lamp is in the shape of a lighthouse, and a plaque on the wall reads a boat is a wood-lined hole in the water in which you pour money. The owners, Chris and Sandye Mills, bought the property in 1984 and spent weekends sleeping in an old Richmond city bus that came with the land. "Eventually we decided it was too cold in the winters and too hot in the summers," says Chris. So they ditched the bus and built a B&B in its place. After checking in, Sam and I play fetch on the beach with the Mills's enthusiastic mutt, Survivor. We go to dinner in Reedville. The town was founded in 1874, and it did well for itself thanks to a small, oily, bony fish called menhaden. (It's used in the manufacturing of everything from animal feed to lipstick to bread.) The catch made sea captains so wealthy that they built Edwardian-style mansions, many of which still line Main Street. At the Crazy Crab on Reedville's marina, I introduce Sam, a Connecticut Yankee, to the Southern goodness of hush puppies (deep-fried balls of seasoned cornmeal) while we sit on the deck and watch the sun set over the water. Our night ends at another marina, Great Wicomico, where we toast locals with $2 Buds at the Boathouse Lounge. Lodging GrandView B&B114 Riverside Ln., Reedville, 804/453-3890, from $80 Food Crazy CrabReedville Marina, Reedville, 804/453-6789, crab cake dinner $16 Boathouse LoungeGreat Wicomico Marina, Burgess, 804/453-3351 Activities Historic Christ Church420 Christ Church Rd., outside Irvington, 804/438-6855 Kilmarnock Antique Gallery144 School St., Kilmarnock, 800/497-0083 Resources Northern Neck Tourism Council800/393-6180, northernneck.org Day 2: Reedville to Kinsale After the B&B's breakfast of homemade coffee cake and scrambled eggs, we drive back into town to go to the Fishermen's Museum. Before this trip I'd never heard of the menhaden, and now I can't stop hearing about the bony little fish. We learn that they're still very much alive and swimming. "This is a success story!" crows the narrator of a video presentation about the menhaden fishing industry. A house at the museum was restored to reflect the daily life of an average 1900s local fisherman. Our docent, Bob Matthews, says he and his wife, Natalie, are originally from the Boston area. "We're come-heres," he says. It's clear from the looks on our faces that Sam and I don't understand, so Bob explains. "There are born-heres, come-heres, brought-heres (such as kids or spouses), and come-back-heres. Reedville, itself, is named after a come-here, Elijah Reed, a sea captain from Maine." After the tour, we don't have much time to linger--we've got a ferry to Tangier Island to catch. Two things make Tangier Island tick: soft-shell crabs and tourists. Three ferry services bring about 20,000 visitors each year to the self-proclaimed soft-shell capital of the world (quite a title for what's all of three square miles). A display between souvenir shops shows live crabs in tubs with placards explaining the industry. Fishermen set traps, keep an eye out for crabs about to molt--the edges of the paddle fins turn dark red--and place them in holding pens until they shed their shells. Once they're soft-shell crabs, they have to be removed immediately or their hard-shelled neighbors will eat them right up. The island has a days-gone-by charm: Clapboard houses with white-picket-fenced yards line the shore. Golf carts are the main vehicles used to get around, though locals drive them like they're sports cars. We hop on a cart waiting by the dock for a tour by Tangier Island native Sylvia Parks of Parks Tours, a guide for 31 years. "There aren't many secrets here," Sylvia says, lead-footing it around the narrow dirt roads. "Everyone knows everyone and everything." Locals don't even pretend they're not watching your every move. Later, as Sam pets a dog, two men on a golf cart pass by and, without stopping, shout, "The dog's name is Milli--as in Milli Vanilli." We have lunch at the Fisherman's Corner restaurant, run by three fishermen's wives. "They can be sure their catch is fresh," says the hostess. "It comes directly from their husbands, after all." I have my first-ever soft-shell crab sandwich. The two deep-fried crabs, wedged between slices of Wonder bread, look and taste as though they crawled straight from the bay into the fryer. Sam and I walk past crab traps on the piers and stop at a bulletin board. A handwritten sign reads $1 for 10 tangier island recipes, and there's a bucket for money tacked to the frame. (Aunt Nellie's Crabmeat Casserole and Mom's Coleslaw both require generous amounts of mayo.) The Reedville ferry, which usually makes only one trip a day to Tangier, departs soon. It's a 90-minute ride to the mainland, and we get back around 7 p.m. Since things close early on the Neck, we have to make good time to get to Kinsale, 45 minutes away, in time for dinner. Transportation Tangier Island FerryBuzzard's Point Marina, Reedville, 804/453-2628, tangiercruise.com, round trip $25 Food Fisherman's Corner4419 Long Bridge Rd., Tangier Island, 757/891-2900, soft-shell crab sandwich $9 Activities Parks ToursTangier Island, 757/891-2261, $5 Reedville Fishermen's Museum504 Main St., Reedville, 804/453-6529, $5 Day 3: Kinsale to Westmoreland Park Sam and I have signed up in advance for the 10 a.m. departure of a kayaking tour on the Potomac, at Westmoreland State Park. Our destination is Horsehead Cliffs, a section of the coast that used to be under a prehistoric sea. The area was popular with sharks, and the predators' fossilized teeth can be found in the sand. When we arrive at Fossil Beach, visitors are sifting the sand through screens and pocketing their discoveries. Park policy, surprisingly, is that you can keep whatever teeth you find--which would've been cool, if we'd found anything. Westmoreland Berry Farm, about 15 minutes away, has a similar keep-what-you-find policy. In addition to u-pick strawberry and blueberry patches, there's a petting zoo and barn with fruit preserves and berries for sale. Instead of picking, Sam and I opt for a tour around the property on the kiddie train, which is pulled by a tractor. Sam tries to bail mid-route, claiming his spine is going to snap from all the bumps, but by the time he's about to jump off the train, the eight-minute ride is already over. A slice of fresh-baked berry pie à la mode helps speed his recovery. On the other side of Westmoreland Park, Stratford Hall Plantation was home to several generations of Lees, the most famous being Robert E. At the visitors center, photographs and excerpts of the family's personal correspondence highlight the accomplishments of a litany of Lees, but the plantation history itself also grabs me. Stratford Hall was built after another house burned down, killing a servant. (The fire is believed to have been set by indentured servants.) We're staying the night on the property: Our simple guesthouse has Northern Neck ginger ale in the vending machine and a back patio overlooking the woods. Before the trip, I'd heard good things about the Driftwood, a restaurant in Coles Point, 25 miles away. I order the fried oysters and a chardonnay from a local vineyard, Ingleside. I'm rewarded on both counts. The wine is sharp and satisfying, and the lightly breaded oysters from the Chesapeake are salty and slick. After coffee, Sam and I retire to the back patio of the Stratford Hall guesthouse to stargaze. Good Eats Café is a gourmet restaurant in a former gas station outside Kinsale, and it's more great than good. Star lanterns hang in the windows, and bright ceramic suns are mounted on the yellow walls. Most of the decorations are souvenirs from regulars' travels. I understand why the place inspires such affection when I taste my dinner: pan-seared scallops and potatoes baked with rosemary and Parmesan. Sam has pork loin in Thai basil sauce with broccoli, pecans, and cranberries. We're so full that dessert is doomed. Lodging Stratford Hall Plantation483 Great House Rd., Stratford, 804/493-8038, stratfordhall.org, from $115, house tour $10 Food Driftwood StateRte. 612, Coles Point, 804/472-3892, oysters $19 Good Eats Cafe , 12720 Cople Hwy, 804/472-4385, goodeatscafe.net Activities Westmoreland State Park1650 State Park Rd., near Montross, 804/493-8821, car fee $4, two-hour tandem kayak tour $22 Westmoreland Berry Farm1235 Berry Farm Lane, Oak Grove, 804/224-9171, pie à la mode $2.50, train $1 Day 4: Westmoreland Park to Richmond We're the only ones at breakfast in the plantation's dining hall. It looks like a mess hall from summer camp, but the buttery biscuits, moist corn bread, and strawberry preserves, all made on the premises, are anything but camp quality. Maybe 11 a.m. is a little early for a wine tasting, but when we pass a turnoff for Ingleside Vineyards, in Oak Grove, I remember last night's chardonnay and decide to go for it. During a tasting of eight varietals, our guide explains that Virginia's conditions are ideal for grape cultivation. The Petit Verdot grapes thrive more on the Northern Neck than in either California or France. Even the vineyards in Virginia can claim historical significance. During the Civil War, Union soldiers used Ingleside's property as a fort. At the winery museum, displays show how the local roadways follow routes of old Native American trails. My wine buzz wears off around the same time I read about how Pocahontas was supposedly kidnapped from this very area. On our way to Richmond, we stop at Goolrick's Pharmacy in Fredericksburg. The decor hasn't changed much since the '40s. Aluminum stools are lined up along a Formica counter, and vintage Coca-Cola signs hang on the walls. The menu hasn't changed either: The soda fountain has always served rich milk shakes in only one size (large). Sam orders a large coffee shake. I ask for a small nonfat vanilla. Sam sighs, and the waitress looks at me blankly. I quickly amend my order to a large chocolate. In these parts, tradition is to be respected. Food Goolrick's Pharmacy901 Caroline St., Fredericksburg, 540/373-9878, milk shake $3.50 Activities Ingleside Vineyards5872 Leedstown Rd., Oak Grove, 804/224-8687, wine tasting $2.50 Finding your way The Northern Neck is a seasonal destination: Many restaurants and services have reduced hours or close completely October through April, so call ahead before visiting. The ferry from Reedville to Tangier Island begins its summer service May 15. As for the driving, the main roads around the Northern Neck are Routes 3, 200, and 360. The best scenery, however, is on the side roads, such as Routes 649, 644, and 657--all in the tip of the Neck around Reedville. You can pick up free detailed maps of the area at the Crazy Crab in Reedville and many other local businesses.

Inspiration

True Bollywood Story

I'm sitting in a swank New York City nightclub sipping champagne with one of the biggest film stars in India. Except the champagne is actually sparkling apple juice, the club is a Mumbai set, and the superstar has no idea I'm here. I'm one of 50 or so foreigners who've been hired to be extras on a Bollywood movie. Bollywood--a hybrid name combining Hollywood and Bombay, as Mumbai used to be known--is the epicenter of India's film industry, and visitors can play a small role in making movie magic. "When a script calls for a scene to take place in a foreign country, we find Westerners to appear as extras for authenticity," explains Khan Shaban, the extras coordinator for Casting Planet, a three-year-old agency hired by several Bollywood production companies. Shaban suggests that aspiring extras should get in touch with him as early as possible; I e-mailed Casting Planet six weeks in advance with my available dates (011-91/98-20-86-42-96, polo_k83@yahoo.com). He also says that he and his colleagues pick up tourists last-minute near the Gateway of India in Mumbai's main tourist area of Colaba if assignments arise on short notice, which is often. However they manage to land a part, extras are paid $11 a day. I only learn what my movie's about when I get to the Filmistan Studios at 9:30 a.m. My role is to play a disco dancer attending a bachelor party in a romantic comedy called Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna (or Never Say Goodbye), due to be released this summer and costarring the Indian host of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. Once in costume--hot pink shirt, black velvet jacket, jeans--I'm escorted to the set, which has red and yellow neon lights on the floor, chaise lounges, and a long wooden bar. The assistant director spreads us all out evenly, cautions us against stealing the focus away from the real actors, and then offers this instruction: "Pretend you're at the best party ever!" Each time the director yells "action," we all dance like crazy while the sound engineer records dialogue--the music is added later during the editing process. It looks fairly ridiculous pretending to bust a move in complete silence, not to mention the fact that old-school steps like the Robot seriously fall flat when I'm not able to add on my own whirring noise. After three hours of listening to the actors repeat the same lines (in a combination of English and Hindi), we're all a little punchy. In the balcony, a cluster of Canadians has perfected the Electric Slide when the director finally calls for the lunch break at 1:45 p.m. "It's loads more interesting than going to see another museum," says Swedish visitor Petra Borg, 22, while at the lunch buffet. By the time 9 p.m. arrives, we've completed only four scenes, but it's a wrap for the day--and for most of us, an end to our entire Bollywood careers. I ask Ben Emslie, vacationing from London, if he'd sign on to be an extra again next time he visits. "It was a unique experience, and I'm glad I did it," he says. "But if I want to become a movie star, there's got to be a faster way."

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