“Travel isn’t always pretty. It isn’t always comfortable. Sometimes it hurts, it even breaks your heart. But that’s okay. The journey changes you; it should change you. It leaves marks on your memory, on your consciousness, on your heart, and on your body. You take something with you. Hopefully, you leave something good behind.”–Anthony Bourdain
I am here to dispel the myth that work-travel is paid vacation. I often hear from people how great it must be that I get to travel so much (it is, but bear with me). In their mind they have painted a luxurious picture of me lounging in spas getting massages, leisurely visiting museums, and dining at the best locales the city du jour has to offer.
Let me repaint that picture for you based on my most recent work trip to Tampa. My flight was at 6:05am out of Monterey this past Sunday. I woke up at 3:13am despite having set my alarm for 4:24am. I couldn’t go back to sleep so I gave in and got up to cook all the leftover food I had in the refrigerator to take with me. This actually turned out to be a great inclination later on the plane. I left for the airport a little before 5:00am, parked in long term parking, and rolled my bags to the airport check-in counter. I flew to Phoenix where I had a quick cup of coffee before boarding my next flight. If you have ever flown through the Phoenix airport you’ll know that the terminals are quite far apart. While I always welcome a walk, especially when I have planned sitting all day long, what I’m trying to acknowledge is if you have a tight connection, a long walk may increase your stress levels…which may or may not be elevated due to a poor night’s sleep. I made it to Tampa and by the time I had collected my luggage, found a ride, and made it to the hotel, it was 5:00pm. I had intended to go for a walk but it was pouring rain and so settled in and prepared for my next day’s work. Monday we worked all day and, at the insistence of my colleague, we went to a late dinner—not my style—at the place to go in Tampa, Bern’s Steakhouse. We got to the restaurant at 8:00pm.
Bern’s is an institution Tampa, it has been in the same location since 1953, growing with time. It was opened by Bern & Gert Laxer initially as a luncheonette. Today, it has eight dining rooms, is dim-lit—bad for taking photos, sorry—has red velvet walls and gaudy renaissance looking artwork scattered around the place. In addition to the dining rooms, there’s a bar and lounge area, a separate dessert room upstairs (more on that in a moment), a huge kitchen that offers tours, and a huge wine cellar. We didn’t have a reservation so we got in line to put our name down with the hostess. The people in front of us were doing the same thing and after they finished one said to the other, “Where’s Harry?” I couldn’t help myself so I responded, “He’s with Sally.” Harry and his friends got a kick out of it and invited my colleague and I to join them in the lounge while we awaited our table.
Eventually we were seated and I was told to order steak, “this is no time to think about dieting,” chided my colleague. The steak came with French onion soup, a house salad, grilled vegetables from the garden, and a fully-loaded baked potato. The page on the menu for steak was a full sheet—legal-sized—arranged in a table with the rows telling you the cuts of steak and columns explaining the two thicknesses of cuts of each steak, its weight, how many people it serves, and the price. On the following page was another table describing to you how you should order your steak depending on how you like it cooked, according to its thickness, and the cut of meat. I ordered the 7 oz. châteaubriand, rare warm—as opposed to rare cold where the meat on the inside would still be cold. A châteaubriand is a thick cut of tenderloin. I couldn’t finish it or the baked potato. The soup and salad would have made for a lovely meal all alone but not at Bern’s.
After our meal my colleague insisted we take a tour of the kitchen and it was spectacular. We saw cuts of meats with specific instructions on receipt paper tooth-picked to them, sprouted greens for salad garnish, and the “onion ring” station where we were told that Bern’s goes through about 300-500 pounds of onions a night.
The wine cellar was unbelievable: cold, dark, damp, and expansive. We were told that it is the world’s largest privately-owned collection of wine. At any one time there are 100,000 bottles in the cellar…and another 500,000 bottles across the street at their storehouse. The oldest wine by the glass is a Madeira from 1900 and the oldest wine by the bottle is an 1845 vintage Bordeaux.
Next we hiked up the stairs to the dessert room where all the booths are made out of the wood of whiskey casks. In each booth is a land-line telephone where you can direct dial the pianist to request a song. He’s playing somewhere in the dessert room—I never saw him. We ordered a couple desserts to share: a baked Alaska that they flambéed at our table and the King Midas (carrot cake, chocolate ice cream, and fudge sauce). It was an exquisite and excellent experience and totally worth it.
By the time I got back to my hotel room it was after 11:00pm and I needed to pack for our 5:00am departure to the airport for the 6:15am flight to return home the following day, Tuesday. While work-travel is most certainly not a paid vacation it is thrilling if you love what you do, like I do. There is (usually) time to try a great restaurant at the expense of sleep and most of the time it’s worth it, like Bern’s was. As the late Anthony Bourdain said, travel isn’t always pretty or comfortable but in travel you are changed and hopefully leave something good behind. I’d like to think I left something good behind in Tampa or with you all, by sharing my experience and urging you to seek similar, positive experiences in any way you can.