Get busy living or get busy dying. So says Red in The Shawshank Redemption. If your preference leans toward the former, then you could do worse than to take a vacation with Contiki, a group tour service for 18-to-35-year-olds. I was 12 days older on May 7 than I was on April 26, but the amount of living I experienced in that short period visiting eight countries, including stops in London, Amsterdam, Munich, Venice and Paris far surpasses a typical two-week for me. And we don't exactly sit on our hands in New York.
What follows are observations from my experience, which are unique to my background and way of life. But perhaps this review will help answer questions for those considering such a whirlwind, group tour. If you have any further questions, you can always shoot an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
You may also want to see my gallery of more than 100 photos posted on the trip.
EUROPEAN MAGIC ITINERARY
Contiki's website has all the European Magic details. The group assembles in London and heads straight to Amsterdam early in the morning, with a stop for lunch at a rest area in Belgium. The only two-night stops are in Venice and Paris, so you're on the go just about every day, waking up around 7 a.m., having breakfast at the hotel at 7:30 a.m. and getting on the bus 30 minutes later. A typical day includes a 3-hour drive, a 45-minute lunch at a rest stop, followed by a two-hour drive and hotel check-in. On most nights, set-menu dinners are at the hotel within one hour after check-in. Dinner lasts one hour, and the tour heads into town.
We had 41 people out of a maximum of 50, consisting of seven couples, with the rest about even guys and girls. They ranged from as young as a 19-year-old skater who'd never been on a plane to as old as a 36-year-old married man with two kids. (Yeah, I know it's only supposed to be for people up to 35.) About 17 were Canadians (mostly from the Toronto area and Newfoundland) with a handful of Americans and Aussies, a few New Zealanders, a few chicks from Japan and one Brit. In a sense, the bus was as diverse as the places we were going to visit.
There was a lot of groaning from the men about the number of couples and supposed lack of single chicks. Those more familiar than I with Contiki had been wowed by the stories from guys who'd experienced trips that were of the more typical 60-40 or even 70-30 girl-guy splits. The only story I'd heard was of an American who'd hooked up with six Aussie broads on one tour. On the day I left, I perused several Contiki message boards and it seemed like hitting spring break with an all-girls college. It was immediately clear that wasn't going to be the case with this group. I can't say I wasn't disappointed, but I know better than to trust photos on travel sites, and that wasn't my No. 1 priority anyway. That was to see a continent I'd only read about and seen photos of, but when you're riding on a gondola in Venice with five dudes, you start to wonder whether you picked the wrong week.
My problem with the group as a whole was not its gender ratio but it's vitality. Seemingly every night, from red-light district of Amsterdam to the beer hall Germany to the vibrant city of Paris, I held out hope that people would bust of their shells. It never happened, not compared to what I'm used to. On the ride into Amsterdam, on our first night together, our tour guide informed us that the bus would be returning at 10 p.m., one hour after our 90-minute candlelight booze cruise was to end. Our option was to take a $20 cab ride home. To me, that wasn't an "option," rather what you're supposed to do. So when she asked for a show of hands of who was planning to return with the bus, I almost fell out of my seat when I saw about 15 hands go up. How did someone like me, who's been known to drink till 2 a.m. on school nights, come to the same conclusion with these people that this particular trip was a good idea?
I shared a table with eight other people at the world-famous Hofbrauhaus in Munich. We sat down at 6:30 p.m. and only three of the eight ordered a second beer. So figure it's around 8 p.m. and more than half the table has said uncle. Two of them went back to the hotel to work out. I must've missed something in the brochure, because I didn't see "Treadmill at the Holiday Inn" as one of the must-sees in Germany. I moved to another table, and about half the group did rock out for much of the evening.
On our first night in Italy, we had dinner and drinks at the hotel in Noale, with only one night-time option, a next-door club that opened at midnight. Again, this wasn't anything short of mandatory for me. There's no way I'm spending an entire evening in a hotel when I have such limited time in a foreign country that I wanted to explore and experience. Ten others agreed with me. All had a good time even those who stayed but wouldn't it have been much better if everyone was getting loose at the club?
On our final night in Paris, we were more familiar with where some action was. Specifically in the Bohemian section, where most of the group went to the Moulin Rouge. I instead had dinner and drinks with a few others, all of whom returned with the bus at 11 p.m. I stayed out in a couple of pubs hoping to run into others from the group. I didn't. So I was solo and forced to grab a subway train before it closed, lest get stuck with a $50 cab bill that would have been no problem to split four ways. When I returned to the hotel at 1 a.m., I was the last one back. Half were in bed. Half were drinking at the hotel bar, 20 minutes outside of one of the most spectacular cities on earth ... whose bars were still open. Many reasoned that late nights had been dead no matter where we'd gone. This was true, but every night has its own possibilities, only if you give it a chance.
The last night, on our return to London, around 20 of us pounded beers, shared our thoughts on the trip and dished a little bit, knowing we'd likely never see each other again. We did seem to be enjoying each other's company more as the days went by. That's natural, and I was indeed sad to say goodbye to many of them, just days after thinking that wasn't possible. They were all good people there was only one that turned off a bunch though I wish there was a little more spunk, on the whole, late night. During the day, they were perfectly pleasant, save for a few who were so quiet and meek I wondered where they got the nerve to embark on such an excursion. At times I have been paralyzed by shyness, so I can't really blame people for the way they're wired.
The quality of the hotels were fine enough. I paid about $100/day for transportation, breakfast, dinner (minus three nights) and a single room, so I knew we wouldn't be shacking up in the Ritz-Carlton. Only two or three had an American news channel, public computers and that American hotel staple, pay-per-view porn. A couple were missing shampoo. I would still consider all a good value overall, for the mere fact that they were clean and the price couldn't be beat, all told. Unfortunately, the hotels were all located about 20 minutes out of town. Combine that with a strict dinner time and menu, and you're looking at spending some major bucks if you choose to take a much-needed nap instead of joining the group for a meal shortly after arrival and a ride into town thereafter.
All breakfasts are in the hotel before departure. Lunches, aside from one day each in Amsterdam, Venice and Paris, are in transit at rest stops. And all dinners, aside from one night each in Munich, Venice and Paris, are at the hotel. So not a lot of freedom there. It was all perfectly edible, but there's little opportunity to get knocked dead by foreign cuisine. My recommendation is to arrive in Venice with a couple of places in mind, so as not to be reliant on a selection system akin to throwing a dart at a wall.
Contiki is strict about it 20-kilo limit on luggage, and so you have to be judicious about what to bring, especially considering the varying weather from place to place. Only the Holiday Inn outside Munich had a pool, and it closed at 10 p.m. when most were still at the beer hall so leave the bathing suit at home. You need comfortable clothes for the bus, something decent for the club in Switzerland, and anything rain-repellent for London. This being spring, it did happen to rain just about every place we were at. Most locals in the Italian club wore jeans. You'll be good with jeans, sneakers, one pair of dress pants, decent-looking shoes, a jacket and a host of short- and long-sleeved shirts. There is almost no chance to do laundry. The hotels offering such services wanted around $4 to wash a t-shirt. By the end of the trip, I wasn't sure if I was wearing my clothes or if they were wearing me. You just have to deal, and don't tell the person next to you how many times you've worn the same pair of pants.
In order, here's where we visited:
Ah, I'll just buy an umbrella in London, I thought as I departed my building in New York knowing I'd left mine upstairs. That decision saved me a couple of minutes at home, but it cost me 40 minutes of sitting under the awning of a hotel I wasn't even staying at, lost and waiting out a powerful rainstorm that curtailed my exploration of the Russell Square area. We'd just had a Contiki orientation, a half-attended meeting in which we were told that the tour started at 6:45 a.m., which is closer to when I usually go to bed and not wake up. I met a bunch of people in the local pubs, though no one from our group, and drank enough $5 pints to pass out in my clothes. Yep, I'm 31 years old, and I'm still an idiot.
History: Wikipedia's London Entry
I can't be pegged as a pervert on the first night, I thought as I strolled the red-light district and its unique style of window-shopping: whores in lingerie offering "suck and fuck" for 50 Euro, which figures to about $60. Let me assure you you'll spend more than $60 to have sex with any New York chick half as good-looking as some of these broads. Of course, you wouldn't have to roll around in sheets just sweated in by another stranger. So I passed, though I did spend some time as a chemical mixologist, partaking in Amsterdam's other pastime, along with about a dozen others in The Grasshopper. Around 2 a.m., I couldn't feel my legs and my head felt like it was in an Ivan Putski headlock. I should have stuck with the beers and extended my night.
History: Wikipedia's Amsterdam Entry
St. Goar, Germany
But what am I supposed to do now? I wondered as the hotel owner closed his bar at midnight. In this sleepy town, there were no options. Bedtime with no American TV. Granted, almost the entire group had been drinking heavily since a wine-tasting event earlier in the evening. We rode into St. Goar along the picturesque Rhine River. I'd spent maybe five hours on the bus that day and I didn't want to get off. That's how nice it was. At night, however, it was St. Bore. It was clear the only reason we stopped was because of limitations on the amount of time the driver was legally able to put in each day.
Buuuuuuuuuurp. Four liters was all I could do at the Hofbrauhaus. That's 128 fluid ounces, or almost 11 American beers. One or two guys had six liters, including one who was unaccounted for late in the night while his wife was believed to be asleep. Now that's love. We were advised to not sit at a table with a reserved sign or a family crest above it. You should have seen how scared we were picking out a table, like a gang of German locals was going to swing 18th century weapons if we sat down in the wrong place. Wake-up the next morning was not till 8:15 a.m., the latest of the trip by an hour, no doubt an acknowledgement of having been dropped off at a beer hall the evening before.
History: Wikipedia's Munich Entry
Pizza, beer AND those snow-capped mountains make quite an outdoor lunch, I thought, during our two-hour pit-stop in Innsbruck, Austria, a place that boasts perhaps the cleanest air I've ever breathed. Certainly unlike The Grasshopper in Amsterdam. Apparently, there aren't enough women to grope there, and that's why Arnold Schwarzenegger left.
History: Wikipedia's Innsbruck Entry
This is a great place if you have gas problems, I surmised as I bounced around thousands of tourists through tight quarters, window-shopping in hundreds of restaurants in the smelliest romantic place on Earth, complete with pigeons that are as ugly there as they are here. Seriously, is there anything more humiliating that having birds crap on the head of a statue of you all day long? The Italians had character and a bit of flair, so I had to buy at least something from the clothing shops. I decided on a black jacket with grey highlights, adorned back and front with the word "DAINESE," which I nor anyone else knew the translation of. So there were a lot of penis jokes. Turns out it's a company that manufactures protective clothing for motorcyclists. So at least I wasn't running around Paris notifying passers-by that I need a man right now.
History: Wikipedia's Venice Entry
Hello! Is there life out there? I wondered as I walked the streets of Lucerne at 1 a.m., alone, after the group had called it quits, except maybe for a couple of chicks in the group who had boyfriends at home and were last seen being groped by Swiss men. In 15 minutes I passed maybe five people and 10 cars. Some chick appeared out of nowhere and asked for money. I said no, because, after all, it's not like I was still in Amsterdam or anything, and she bolted. I mean ran like the wind around the corner and into a hotel. Thinking I had maybe two minutes before some crackhead boyfriend came out and attacked me, I grabbed a cab and called it quits. Earlier in the day, we took a ride to the top of Stanserhorn, the 6,000-foot mountain. Up that high, it's hard to get your mind off the Yankees' payroll.
History: Wikipedia's Lucerne Entry
The most spectacular sights in the world, I thought of our two 45-minute guided bus tours through Paris at night. We'd just gotten into town, and Contiki's own first-rate driver and tour manager introduced us to the city, with a trip to the top of the Eiffel tower in between. I knew immediately I was at one of the world's greatest destinations, a city with as much history as any around the globe, a complete validation of the trip. I still passed on the Moulin Rouge optional excursion. After passing on the company of the Amsterdam hotties for $60, I wasn't about to see topless Frenchies sing the can-can for $150.
History: Wikipedia's Paris Entry
SO WHERE ARE THE CRAZY-ASS STORIES?
Don't look at me. I lamented at dinner on the final night that there wasn't even any juicy gossip among the group. One chick says, "Oh, there's a ton of gossip." Now, I'm pretty observant. I keep my eyes and ears open for everything, and I stayed up among the latest every night. So it was with a bit of shock in my voice that I asked her to share some.
"Well, I saw so-and-so and so-and-so kissing in the hall."
"Yeah, and..." I said, expecting a part about her waking up in the next room to the sound of a broken headboard.
"Well, that's about it."
Quick, someone call Liz Smith! Obviously, I'm not moving out of New York anytime soon.
I commented to another guy of similar age about how the French strip clubs appeared to offer sex shows, not just dancing. He said he'd never seen two live women, as he described, "go full on." Someone get this guy to a bachelor party, a trip to Hedonism, on a porn set. Something. So did he go to a club? No. (I didn't either. Even walking the streets of Paris alone, with a very slim chance of running into someone I knew back home, I didn't want to walk through a dark door into a business known for blood-sucking its customers. Instead of menacing bouncers, these places had recruiters at the door, overly friendly staffers literally grabbing people on the sidewalk and trying to coax them in. I had to put a Barry Sanders-like spin move on one guy after we wouldn't let go of my arm. But I like to tease these guys, too, saying stuff like, "Oh man, I don't know if I should really be doing stuff like that." I think he offered me a free drink with an admission charge of five Euros, with a promise of sex shows and the opportunity for a private Russian massage. It's easy now to say I should have at least gone in to look, but I didn't speak the language, and I imagined it was pretty easy to run up a bill for something without even knowing it.)
So for best story, I gotta give props to the 19-year-old in the group, picked up by two Italian females who drove by him and on his skateboard in Noale. He was dropped off hours later by four chicks. We were all pinned to the hotel bar, because the club next door hadn't opened yet. We gave him a rousing ovation as he walked through the door. I asked where he went, and he said, "We drove to Choritzo." OK, so he visited a Spanish sausage. And what did you do with the girls? "I had a spritzer." He must've meant blowjob and just mispronounced it as a wuss drink. Later he commented that he felt bad about the rest of us being limited to Noale and Venice, as he'd seen so much more of Italy, and we definitely missed out. God bless that boy. Seriously, the kid had a personality that trumped half the group combined.
Oh, and he's also a real estate shark. Upon seeing the rotting buildings in Venice, he said that he would renovate them because people pay higher prices for nice places than dumps. Get this kid signed up for The Apprentice 2.
THE PISS OF MY LIFE
Facing a $50 cab ride if I didn't get out of Paris soon, I left a bar at 12:15 a.m. (in other words, way fucking early) to grab a subway. Did I happen to visit the men's room first, even though I hadn't gone for 2 1/2 beers? No. Did I catch the subway going in the correct direction? No. Did I have to piss like a racehorse with seemingly no chance to go for another 45 minutes? Yes. Folks, we were about to test the limits of the human bladder.
I'm already at the point of pained facial expressions, confident in the fact that I was now going in the right direction, not so happy about the two transfers yet to go. Of course I'm standing on the train. Sitting down would have been a disaster, especially for my pants. I'm doing the whole mind-game thing, thinking about anything but liquids, wondering how many people on the train are wearing deodorant. By transfer one, I'm starting to sweat like drivers do when the gas tank is a half-inch past empty. At transfer two, just a few stops away from relief, I run into three security guards. The train service has closed for the night. Holy fucking shit.
I get outside and immediately see a sign for "Toilettes." Woah, this is too good to be true. It was. A right here, a left there, and, to my disappointment, a trip back down the stairs to the subway, which, as I have just explained, is closed. Even more painful than my bladder about to explode was the fact that I could have evidently pissed at an earlier subway stop. (NYC subways don't have public restrooms. And for good reason.)
That's it, I'm pissing on the first building I see, I said to myself as I climbed the stairs back to the street. Public urination ticket or not, my health is at stake. So I look behind me and what's the first building I see? The Louvre! The fucking Louvre, built as a fortress in the 13th century and probably not the best place on which to take a leak.
Like any sane person about to decorate himself with a gallon of urine, I wave my arms frantically at the cabs driving by. Whoosh. Whoosh. They don't give a shit. Turns out I had to meet one at a taxi stand, which I circled the block for until a French dude helped me with directions. I get into a cab with an Asian driver and point to the address of my hotel on a sheet. We're off. We're making good time, but I'm shaking and sweating in the back, with my eyes crossed as tightly as my legs. The driver keeps looking back at me, wondering if the crank junkie in the back was gonna pay the fare.
We arrive, I throw him some cash and run to the lobby. The men's room is free, and I get introduced to S&M, having never felt such pain and pleasure simultaneously. My lower abdomen hurt for 10 minutes even after relief. Thank god someone had a beer waiting for me.
VARIOUS ODDS 'N' ENDS
The 'Holy Shit' Moment Much of the scenery was so spectacular that the long bus rides weren't much of a problem. But the only time I looked out the window and said, "holy shit!" was when we drove past Lake Como in Italy. A lot of oohs and aahs for that place.
To Your Health, I Think During our wine tasting in St. Goar, the host had us make a cheer before each drink. It sounded something like "sum wohl," and he said it meant, "to your health." I said that if I ran one of these things in New York and 41 Germans came through, I would have them say, "I like little boys." Not like they'd know the difference. And sure enough, according to Alta Vista's online translator, " to your health" in German is "zu Ihrer Gesundheit," and I know we sure as shit didn't say that.
Don't I Decide When the Night Ends? After a full Sunday in Venice, the bus returned to our hotel in Noale at 9:15 p.m. The club next door would remain closed. The hotel bar was closed. I walked down the street, only to find a few gelato shops still open, but with employees starting to put away chairs. It's 10 p.m., nothing's open and there's no computer, no guitar, no PlayStation 2 and no English spoken on any hotel TV station. Aside from reading my book, the night was done, and there was nothing I could have done about it. A very foreign experience, indeed, for a guy living in the a city with 4 a.m. last calls, 24-hour diners and bodegas, and a non-stop mass-transit system. I always say, "I do whatever I want, whenever I want to do it." Not so in Noale. I left like I'd stopped living, having lost all power of choice.
Teaching the Japanese Girls English The Japanese girls were a lot of fun, bouncing into each other clumsily, giggling endlessly and needing to be explained all sorts of English. And I really don't eat sashimi. Anyway, one of them had an electronic translator, so it should come as no surprise that one of the guys was typing in "cunnilingus" at the hotel bar outside Paris. I suggested "Angry Pirate" and "Rusty Trombone" (definitions here) and those fell on deaf ears, with about 50% of my "material" for the week.
Would You Pose in Front of the Vietnam Memorial? Before leaving France, we stopped by the Vimy Ridge Memorial, dedicated to more than 60,000 Canadians who lost their lives in World War I. Quite a solemn place. Grass is roped off and there are signs to keep a respectful silence. Picture-taking is acceptable, but I saw at least two Canadian couples posing with their arms around each other as other group members borrowed their cameras. Thank god no one asked me, because I may have pointed out that this wasn't the Eiffel Tower for fuck's sake and you don't take "couples" photos in front of a fucking war memorial!
Tipping I tipped for drinks in London and Amsterdam, the $1 or so per drink. After seeing that I was perhaps the only person doing this, the only tip I offered subsequently was hit two to three inches behind the ball when you're in a sand trap. Except for dinner and cab rides.
I really could not have been more pleased with the travel company. Our driver, Adrian, and tour guide, Raquel, were knowledgable, accommodating, mistake-free, personable and more fun than half the group. Throughout the trip, Raquel explained the history and culture of the countries and cities, gave us a brush-up lesson in how to say "please" and "thank you." Aside from one booze cruise host not being at his boat not Contiki's fault I didn't notice any problems with logistics. Hotel check in lasted all of one minute. Check outs as quick as dropping keys on the counter (unless you ordered porn, and in which case you would have really stood out). I would give them an A, with the only qualifier being that the location of the hotels and the amount of hours spent on the bus (around 60 for the trip) aren't stressed in the marketing materials for a reason. But a look at the price and a map of the excursion would lead you to believe that you weren't in for a 30-minute bullet train to the Ritz-Carlton.
At seemingly every stop, the group had to option to participate in a Contiki-organized event for an additional fee. A booze cruise in Amsterdam was around $25.00. Lifts atop Stanserhorn and the Eiffel Tower were around $10. An 8x10 group photo in front of the tower was $12. (I passed on that one, but it really came out great, gray sky notwithstanding.) The Moulin Rouge was $150. I passed on that, too, but you're either into it or not. I would suggest doing everything you can afford, though you could pass on the dinner in Venice if you have a better option in mind.
AND IN CONCLUSION
I feel great having done this trip. My life is fuller and richer than when I left, even if it wasn't as rockin' and filled with crazy stories as I'd hoped. It is what it is. It's cheap and you'll see a lot in a relatively short period. So you have to take the good with the bad, which is not being able to do everything in every city and not living like royalty. I wished a couple of friends were with me, so maybe you want to push the idea on yours. Apart from that, I would recommend this trip to any curious single or couple who doesn't have the resources to put together such a detailed excursion alone. And it does help to have a bunch of people to talk to and hang with on the long rides from town to town. If you're thinking about it, go for it.