A Year of Insider Meetings

Posted by bejacob Nov 21, 2015

Even before jerrycoin put up his great post about some of the Insider gatherings he’s had over the years, I had been looking back over the last year, reflecting on meeting many Marriott Rewards Insiders face to face. As we near the end of another year, I wanted to recall all the online friends I got to see in person, and look ahead to next year with the hopes of meeting more. As a side note, I met jerrycoin in May 2014, so while it didn't occur during the past 12 months, it wasn't terribly long ago (Re: bejacob & jerrycoin relax in STL!). In many ways I can thank him for starting me down this path.

Forgive me if I jump back to the end of 2014 because while it was not first time I met another Insider, it did begin the journey of the past 12 months. On November 7, 2014, erc, pluto77, and I gathered at the Edgar Bar inside the Mayflower Hotel in Washington D.C. as VIP guests courtesy of our very own community manager (Re: Insiders Get Together - Mayflower Hotel). From that simple meeting, my travels in 2015 focused almost as much on meeting other Insiders as it did on my county collecting hobby.


Left to right: Mr pluto77, communitymanager, pluto77, bejacob, erc, and Mrs. erc.

In March, while visiting 35 counties in central California, I had the pleasure of joining pluto77 and her husband for dinner again, this time in her home base in Fresno. Amazingly, neither of us thought to take photographs to document the meeting, so you’ll just have to take our word that it happened. As you might imagine, we discussed several Marriott related topics (MR, credit cards, favorite properties) as well as frequent flier programs and upcoming travels plans. Funny thing about this trip is that I originally considered flying to Houston to visit IAHFLYR. It turned out to be his week on the Oregon coast, so I put off my visit to east Texas for another time.

In April, my travels took me into the mountains of Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina, and northeastern Georgia for 61 more counties. Though I had already visited foxglove’s hometown of Athens, I decided a slight detour would be worth another Insider get together. (If ever in doubt, take the time to visit Insiders ). After checking into the SHS Athens, foxglove stopped by and we headed off for dinner and a guided tour of town. I highly encourage all Insiders to make a trek to this part of the country to visit one of the nicest Insiders you’ll ever meet (Another Insider meet up (bejacob and foxglove) ).

bejacob and foxglove.jpg

July 31st found me in Niagara Falls, Ontario for the sole purpose of meeting brightlybob. He had been posting about his month-long trip to North America, so after exchanging a few messages, we settled on a meeting at the Fallsview Marriott (what a view from the CL Re: Insiders meet at Niagara Falls (brightlybob and bejacob) ). I had already visited all the counties in the area, so the 5-hour drive to Buffalo and beyond was merely a social call. Anyone visiting the UK should have a pint with this fine fellow and former Featured Insider. If you're lucky, he'll wear one of his outrageous shirts (Insiders with Outrageous Shirts ).


For much of the year, I had been planning the big trip of the year—Hawaii. By the time September arrived, I was ready. The nearly two-week trip required multiple blog posts (see below) and included a visit with our island expert, kharada46 and his wife (Insiders meet in Honolulu).  As with all Insider visits, this one proved too short. The only advantage we have that through this forum, many of us already know each other, so we can jump right to topics of interest. In this case, plans for the islands, aviation geek speak, and of course, Marriott. The trip also included 3 of the 4 county seats in Hawaii, so a future trip is already being planned (Feb/Mar 2017?).


For the curious who missed the Hawaii blog posts here are the links (forgive the shameless plug )

County Collecting Hawaiian Style - Part 1, Oahu

County Collecting Hawaiian Style - Part 2, The Big Island

County Collecting Hawaiian Style - Part 3, Maui

County Collecting Hawaiian Style - Final Thoughts

Looking back, 2015 has been a great year of meeting wonderful people. It’s hard to imagine how next year could be better. (IAHFLYR if I make to Houston, these Insiders have set a high standard to achieve ) There are a lot more Insiders to meet for the first time and others to see again. I’m not sure yet where my travels will take me in 2016. One thing this past year has taught me. If a stop includes a get together with another Insider, it’s sure to be memorable.

With weekend trips to DC and central Florida still ahead in December, maybe there will be one more Insider meeting this year. If so, look for an addendum to this post.

Until then…

Happy Travels,


A weekend conference in Saratoga Springs, NY provided a perfect opportunity to visit some additional counties in the northeast. Looking at my map before the trip, I realized I might be able to complete the remaining dozen counties in Pennsylvania and most of what is left is New York, with the notable exception of NYC and Long Island. By adding a side trip after the conference, collecting all 8 counties in Connecticut might also be possible.


Marriott stays along the way included the CY in Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, three nights at the CY in Saratoga Springs during the conference, the Mystic Marriott, the new Allentown Renaissance, and SHS Wheeling (7 nights closer to reaching the 20 needed for the fall MegaBonus ). I know several Insiders really enjoyed the Allentown Renaissance, and while it’s a quirky, new property, I found it wasn't to my taste. It’s a very nice hotel and the downtown location is great. I guess I’m just not enough of hipster to appreciate it. The rooms are great and so is the lounge. The décor and the layout didn't work for me. It would, however, be an ideal place to stay if attending a concert or sporting event in the attached arena.

I enjoyed the Mystic Marriott much more. Sadly the CL was closed, as I stayed on a Sunday night. Instead, I received a coupon for two breakfasts (full buffet) and an appetizer or dessert in the bar. Not a bad trade. Along with my appetizer flatbread pizza, I sampled a local brew, Mystic River IPA. While I’m not normally a fan of IPAs, it went well with the food. The hotel is wonderful, and very close to the Mystic area. Being there off season on a Sunday night, most stores were closed, but I did drive through the area noting all the great seafood restaurants. A summertime visit might be in order someday. Mystic looks like an area I’d love to visit and explore.

Other than the conference, I didn't do much beyond visiting counties. The weather was good for driving, clear and mild, but a bit cool to spend too much time outside. As for county seat visits, Connecticut poses a slight problem. I knew from my earlier research that the state abolished the county governments in 1960 and so counties have little function other than lines on a map. With no county government, there are no county seats. That creates a bit of a wrinkle for my travel plans. While the towns/cities that were county seats no longer function as the location of county government, the municipalities still exist, as do the old courthouses, most of which have been repurposed, though several still have “County Courthouse” signage. With all that in mind, I decided to visit the nine county seats as they existed back in 1960. While Connecticut has only 8 counties, Windham County had 2 county seats at the time (Willimantic and Putnam). I visited both.

Here are a couple photographs of the former county courthouses in Connecticut. Note that both are still identified as county courthouses. Both are still in use, Tolland as part of the state courts and Windham as the Town Hall (despite the fact that it looks rather run down). Even considering its condition, the building is rather imposing.



I also snapped a picture of the impressive State Capitol in Hartford.


After the trip my map of the area looks like this.


I was able to complete both Connecticut and Pennsylvania (the 11th and 12th states finished). Most of New York is also done, but more than a week after the trip, the postcard from Catskill in Greene County still hasn’t arrived, so that county remains green (how ironic). I have hopes that it will still arrive. If not, a return trip will be in order. It’s not the first time the U.S. Postal Service has let me down, though in fairness out of over 1500 postcards mailed, only 7 have failed to reach me (a 99.5% success rate). Over the week, I mailed 33 postcards from three states. Not bad considering that attending the conference was the main purpose of the trip.

The next county collecting is scheduled for Florida in mid-December in conjunction with a trip to Universal Studios.

Until then…

Happy Travels,



Back on those Texas Plains

Posted by bejacob Oct 19, 2015

Ah Texas, the state with the most counties of any state in the US 254. The second weekend in October found me back in Texas for my third county collecting visit to the Lone Star State. Unlike previous trips in 2013 which included New Mexico and Arizona, and 2014 with stops in Oklahoma, New Mexico, Kansas, and Colorado, (see High Plains Drifter) this visit focused entirely on counties in Texas.

Arrival at DFW was just before sunset and by time I checked into the Gaylord Texan just north of the airport it was dark. The upgrade from a standard room to a spacious suite (900 sq. ft.) proved a perfect way to start a trip. Too bad, I only had one night booked.

Gaylord suite.jpg

Gaylord bedroom.jpg

After gawking at the size of the room and stepping out onto each of the two balconies overlooking the atrium, it was time to choose one of the resort’s restaurants. I had my choice of a steakhouse, Italian, Mexican, or a sport bar. With the first round of the MLB playoffs on, I opted for the sports bar, Texas Station. Stop in for a burger, chicken fried ribeye, or some bison meatloaf and wash it down with a local beer from the nearby Grapevine Brewery.

The Gaylord Texan is quite an amazing resort and does charge an $18 resort fee which includes admission to the nearby water park (between Memorial Day and Labor Day) and to the Glass Cactus Nightclub. It also provides free high-speed internet access and 2 bottles of water per day. As a Platinum Elite, I already get high-speed internet, and since I didn’t (or couldn’t) use the access to the nightclub or water park, I ended up with two $9 bottles of water.


Leaving Dallas the next morning, I followed I-20 west toward Abilene. Zigzagging my way north along US 83, U2 82, and state route 86 past cotton fields through towns named Dickens, Guthrie, Matador, Silverton, Tulia, and Dimmitt before ending the day at the Fairfield Inn in Clovis, NM. My previous stop in Clovis was May 16, 2013 when I mailed a postcard from the Curry County courthouse. The sole purpose for this visit was because the FFI offered a much better rate than any Marriott property within a hundred miles, and as Clovis is only ten miles from my last county seat stop in Farwell, TX, it made sense. I was surprised to learn that this FFI is a category 1 property (guess not too many people visit Clovis, NM). I can recommend it to anyone passing through the area. As a side note, this was my 2nd FFI stay since the Marriott badges began over a year ago, so I earned the badge and 25 bonus points.

After dark, I drove a few miles north of town to a large park (Ned Houk Park) and spent a short time watching the night sky. While the stargazing is not as spectacular as atop Mauna Kea (see County Collecting Hawaiian Style - Part 2, The Big Island), the sky is dark enough to see the Milky Way. While standing alone in the dark, I heard a couple barred owls calling to one another. Speaking of stargazing, the next morning about an hour before dawn, I was fortunate enough to see the planet Mercury just above the rising crescent moon. While I can’t be certain, this may have been the first time I have been able to pick out Mercury in the night sky.

My drive across west Texas continued with stops in Muleshoe, Levelland, Crosbyton, Lubbock, Post, Colorado City, and Sweetwater (among others) finally ending in Abilene shortly before nightfall. One thing about driving in Texas, especially in a rental car with a small gas tank, is that you sometimes gas up at strange places. Here’s the only place I could find in the Gail, the Borden County seat.


Gail was one of the smallest county seats I visited. Check out this Google Maps street view,-101.446646,3a,75y,90h,90t/data=!3m6!1e1!3m4!1sZQNoXp8nCR4k0OrSNZbNOQ!2e0!7i13312!8i6656

Look around a bit. It won’t take long. The gas station is on the NW corner and the county courthouse is on the SE. Other than the post office, there’s not much else worth mentioning.

The CY in Abilene provided adequate accommodation. Hard to see why it is a category 4 property. Location must play a significant role as the property was nothing special.

Day 3 took me as far south as I-10 and the county seats of Ozona and Sonora. Not much to say about this part of Texas, but I did spot a roadrunner while driving from the courthouse to the post office in Mertzon (Irion County).


By day’s end, I reached the CY in Killeen, a 6-story, category 1 property. Quite a bit nicer than the much higher category CY in Abilene and just across the freeway from an In-N-Out Burger. Yum!

The final day for this visit to Texas involved winding my way back to DFW for an evening flight home. This allowed almost a full day of county collecting and included some of the most impressive courthouses of the trip. Here are four I saw this final day. Gatesville, Coryell County; Stephenville, Erath County; Granbury, Hood County; and Hillsboro, Hill County.

Coryell.jpg Erath.jpg

Hood.jpg Hill.jpg

The final tally of county seats visited reached 55 over the 4 days and involved driving just shy of 2,300 miles. Now with three trips to Texas in the bag, I’ve managed to collect 125 of the 254 counties (almost half). Three more visit may be enough to more the state into the “completed” column. Here are the before and after maps showing this latest trip assuming all my postcards arrive (I’m still waiting on a couple). Should any fail to arrive, I’ll change those counties from blue to green. For anyone who doesn’t know (or has forgotten), the colors translate as follows: Teal = visited the county but not the county seat, Green = visited the county seat but have not mailed (or received) postcard documenting my visit, and Blue = visited county seat and have postcard to prove it.



Though the year is winding down, I still have a few more trips planned, none of which are specifically aimed at county collecting. Even so, I will visit as many as 50 counties between now and mid-December in eastern Pennsylvania, southern New York, Connecticut, and Florida as part of these travels. Sandwiched in there is also a weekend jaunt to Washington, but since I’ve completed D.C., Virginia and Maryland, that trip will just be for fun. Look for another blog post on my journey to the northeast in mid-November.

Until then…

Happy Travels,


Over the past couple weeks, I’ve detailed my visits to three of Hawaii's islands. If you missed those posts, I encourage you to read them before continuing. Okay, on with the trip wrap up.

Though collecting counties was far from the main purpose of this Hawaiian vacation, I did visit and mail postcards from three of the four county seats in the state. As the Japanese proverb says, isseki nicho (literally: one stone, two birds). Only Lihue on the island of Kauai remains. Regular readers of this blog will recognize the before and after maps tracking my progress. Those not familiar with my color coding may wish to look back over some previous posts for an explanation.



Sharp eyed readers may notice a fifth county in the images above, Kalawao County on the north coast of Molokai. Rather than go into detail as to why Kalawao County has no county seat, I refer you to the Wikipedia article on the List of counties in Hawaii. With no county seat, Kalawao County has no place on my list of county seats to visit. I would like to go there anyway, and I may mail a postcard from Kalaupapa—the largest community—just to say I visited every county in the state. For anyone interested, the islands of Kahoolawe, Lanai, and most of Molokai (except Kalawao County) are all part of Maui County. Similarly, Niihau is part of Kauai County. County collecting aside, it would be fun to visit as many of the islands as possible.

For anyone considering a trip to Hawaii, I encourage visiting more than just Oahu. Honolulu, Waikiki, and the all the other great places on Oahu are worth visiting. They don’t, however, give a true impression of the different things available across the state. Go to the Big Island to see the stars like you’ve never seen them before. Go see the world’s most active volcano. Go to one of the best snorkeling spots in the world (Kealakekua Bay). Go to Kauai, go to Maui. Go visit kharada46. One trip is not enough to do everything. I will add, that all the Marriott properties at which I stayed were excellent.

Though we did three islands over ten days, a better pace might be two islands in that amount of time. A couple more days on Maui might have meant getting to Hana. An extra day on the Big Island would have allowed for more time at the Volcano or to see the Waipio Valley. More time on Oahu could have meant finally visiting the leeward coast. (In several visits to Honolulu, I have not made it west of the airport towards Ewa Beach and Ko Olina).

My county collecting will require at least one more visit to Hawaii. Hopefully, I will make many more trips than that. With so much to see, there are things I haven’t had the chance to do. There are places I want to see again. Perhaps in a couple years, I’ll be once again sitting on the beach sipping a mai tai (or lava flow) watching the sun set into the ocean.


In the meantime, I’m getting ready for an aggressive county collecting trip to Texas (50+ counties in 4 days). I’ll post details in mid-October.

Until then…

Happy Travels,


After visiting Oahu and the Big Island, all that remained for this visit to the Aloha State were a few days on Maui. The short flight from KOA to OGG was over almost as soon as it began. In no time, we were in the rental car and on our way (have I mentioned how much I love not checking luggage? ). I made a quick call to the Maui Ocean Club to see if we might get checked in early. If not we would be exploring the island. It turned out the room was available, so off to Kaanapali we went . Highway 30 is a lovely drive with the ocean on one side and the west Maui Mountains on the other. Those of you who have made the drive know what I mean. Sadly, for those who haven’t I don’t have any photographs to demonstrate.

The room at the Ocean Club was quite nice, although a bit small compared to the rooms earlier in the trip. Not that it mattered. Time in the room was not a priority. The view, however, was great.


We spent the late morning and early afternoon exploring the area around the hotel and along the beach at least as far as Whalers Village. I was a little disappointed to discover the beach in front of the Marriott Vacation Club property is barely existent. From the beach walk, the sand slopes quickly into the ocean with almost no beach to speak of. To find the best part of Kaanapali Beach, one must walk about half a mile north to the Sheraton, a couple of hotels beyond the nearby Shops at Whalers Village.

The afternoon included a short drive to Lahaina. We wandered along the main tourist street past the Lahaina Banyan Court Park, poking in and out of shops. From a very young age, I’ve been a great admirer of banyan trees. I remember climbing one on Lord Howe Island over 40 years ago, and still sometimes have a desire to scamper up into the branches. Though I’m wise enough now not to act on that desire, I always enjoy walking amongst the trunks of these amazing trees. Naturally, in addition to the tree, I also photographed the Old Lahaina Courthouse on the edge of the park.

banyan.jpg Old Maui Courthouse.jpg

Having been in Hawaii for more than a week, the souvenir shops held little appeal as most carry the same array of junk trinkets, though I did keep my eye out for a postcard to mail from Wailuku, the Maui County seat.

Early evening found us on the grounds of the Sheraton for the Maui Nui Luau at Black Rock. Rather than buy the full luau package, we opted to arrive after dinner to enjoy the show and have a few mai tais (I think it was only a few. Each. Maybe ). Choosing to forego dinner cut the price by about two-thirds, a decision I don’t regret in the least. I have no doubt the food was good, I just couldn’t justify spending so much on relatively uninspiring fare (my previous luau experience may have influenced me ). Now unlimited drinks and a show, that’s a different story.



Oh, did I mention that we arrived at the luau just before sunset?

Maui sunset.jpg

As it turns out, most of the luau shows along the beach at Kaanapali are easy to watch from afar. We happened to be passing by the Hyatt the next night as the fire knife dancers were performing, so we stopped to watch for a short time (but I’m getting ahead of myself).

Thursday morning meant another snorkeling trip, this time to Molokini. Molokini is a partially submerged volcanic crater which forms a perfect crescent, and is one of the most popular snorkeling spots in the state. We were up early as we needed to make the 30 minute drive to Maalaea Harbor for a 7:30 check in. We breakfasted aboard the boat as it began the 10 mile trip to Molokini. The crater is now a marine sanctuary and is teeming with life—coral, fish, sea urchins, and the occasional reef shark (I didn’t see any). Visibility is superb up to a depth of 150 feet. The above water portion is home to numerous sea birds, most notable on our visit, the Great Frigatebird.


I chose to pay the extra fee to try snuba. Snuba is a cross between snorkeling and scuba using a standard scuba tank which floats on a raft at the surface. A hose connects to a scuba regulator allowing the diver to spend 30 minutes or so at depths up to 12 feet below the surface. Twice before I’ve been scuba diving with a licensed dive master (once at the Great Barrier Reef , and once off the coast of Key Largo ). This was my first experience with snuba. I can heartily recommend it. Anyone who might be interested in scuba diving should give snuba a try. Being tethered to the raft can reassure some. If there is a need to resurface (difficulty with water in your mask, can’t equalize the pressure in your ears, just want to breathe fresh air for a moment) pull yourself along the air hose and grab onto your raft. Once all is good, it’s back underwater. Scuba is a bit more complicated with buoyancy vests and remembering to stop every 10 feet or so as you ascend. Those are not issues with snuba. You cannot dive as deep with snuba, but you do get most of the other experiences associated with scuba diving.

In this picture you can see the dive master and the other snuba divers in the distance (and of course my air tank raft floating at the surface).


More photographs, some from Molokini, can be found in the photo album Underwater Hawaii.

Lunch aboard the boat included grilled chicken, veggie-burgers, or Kalua pork sandwiches. I’ll let IAHFLYR guess which one I chose . Shortly after noon, we were back on land and off to explore more of Maui. I thought it might be worth visiting the Wailea Beach Marriott, if for no other reason than to stop in for some refreshments . I decided to try a beer from the Maui Brewing Company, their Bikini Blonde Ale, which turned out to be my favorite of the trip.

While the Maui Ocean Club is a great property, for a short stay like ours, visiting a Marriott Vacation Club almost doesn’t make sense. We didn’t cook in our room or at any of the many grills located on the grounds. We didn’t swim in the wonderful pool, and the only time we ventured into the ocean from the beach, we headed over to the Sheraton (where they have a much nicer beach). When I return to Maui, I will probably stay at the Wailea Beach Marriott. It’s a beautiful property, and despite some of the mixed reviews I’ve read on Insiders, it looks to be a place I would enjoy.

From Wailea, we headed into Kahului and Wailuku so I could mail my postcard from Maui County. Lest regular readers of my blog think I forgot to take any courthouse photos, I offer this as evidence to the contrary.

Maut Courthouse.jpg

As the day waned, we returned to the Maui Ocean Club. Dinner in Lahaina and a nighttime stroll along the beach walk with a last stop for “prescription meds” rounded out the day . As mentioned earlier, we watched part of the Drums of the Pacific luau show at the neighboring Hyatt Resort.

I left the schedule for the final day in Hawaii wide open. With an overnight flight to the mainland, we had over 10 hours to while away however we wanted. After breakfast by the sea at the MVC, we drove beyond Kapalua as far as highway 30 goes. Following the advice of kharada46, when we stopped at the Nakalele Blowhole, proper footwear was in order. The climb down was moderately arduous as was the return, but nothing most folks can’t manage.

nakalele.jpg blowhole.jpg

Morning shifted to afternoon and we still had time for one more visit to the beach, so we returned to the Sheraton to swim and snorkel around Black Rock. The snorkeling from that part of the beach is almost as good as at the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel on the Big Island. Almost. After an hour or so in the water, we grabbed a couple drinks at the pool bar so we could get our parking validated (that’s my story and I’m sticking to it ). We made one last stop at the Marriott Maui Ocean Club where we used the hospitality room to change clothes before bidding farewell to west Maui.

Before leaving home for this trip, I remembered reading about a tiki bar in Kihei called the South Shore Tiki Lounge, so with a couple hours of daylight remaining, we went searching. Even with Google Maps, it was tricky to find, but persistence paid off. Though still a bit early for dinner, we hadn’t eaten since breakfast and now seemed a good a time as any for a meal to go with our classic tiki cocktails (is it possible to go to a tiki bar without ordering drinks? ).


We whiled away the last couple hours in an around Kahului picking up a couple of last minute souvenirs and gifts before returning the rental car and getting ready for our overnight flight back to the mainland.

While we explored west Maui reasonably well, there are still several areas of the island to visit on a future trip. I had hoped to make the drive to Hana. I also would have liked to get to the top of Haleakala. I did see part of the southern shore near Wailea, but there is more to do there as well. These places give me a reason to come back to Maui (like I need an excuse, right?).

Many folks rank Maui as their favorite island, and while I enjoyed Maui very much, it can’t compete (in my opinion) with the lush beauty of Kauai or the diverse landscapes of the Big Island. (As a side note, my last visit to Kauai was 2004). In all fairness, it is hard to choose a favorite island because each has beautiful and wonderful things to see. If I had to choose, I think I’d still put Kauai at the top (maybe I should visit soon again so I can be sure ). At least for this trip, I enjoyed the Big Island best. Some of that may have been influenced by the amazing Mauna Kea Beach Hotel. Regardless, the overall trip was fantastic and not one I’ll soon forget.

With a couple stray threads to tie up, look for a brief blog entry in the coming days to wrap things up and add a few final thoughts from this incredible island vacation.

Until then…

Happy Travels,


The visit to the island of Hawaii, commonly referred to as the Big Island, began late in the third day of the trip. The first thing most folks notice upon arrival is that there are no jet bridges. Since my last visit in 2004 the mobile aircraft boarding stairs have been replaced by boarding ramps, but deplaning still requires crossing the tarmac to reach the open-air terminal. Within ten or fifteen minutes of landing, we were in our rental car heading for the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel, about 25 miles to the north. More details about the property are in the post Mauna Kea Beach Hotel - Autograph property par excellence. We spent the evening getting settled and exploring the layout of the hotel.

Our first full day on the Big Island began with a snorkeling trip to Kealakekua Bay. Actually it began with a 45 minute drive to Keauhou Bay followed by a 7½ mile boat trip to Kealakekua Bay, which is often cited as the best snorkeling spot in the entire state. I can see why.


There are additional pictures, several of which came from Kealakekua Bay in the photo album Underwater Hawaii.

Two and half hours in the water, followed by a great lunch (cheeseburgers, hot dogs, or garden burgers) passed quickly. Another hour back to the dock and the excursion was over. After returning to land, we lingered a while in the Kailua-Kona area stopping by Don the Beachcomber’s in the Royal Kona Resort for our afternoon “prescription meds.” As I mentioned in the previous blog post, I’m a bit of sucker for tiki bars and Don the Beachcomber was one of the heavyweights in that field (along with Trader Vic). Though I was a little disappointed with the décor, the location overlooking the ocean was superb.

By the time we returned to the hotel, the combination of sunshine, surf, and physical activity had worn us out. Add to that the fact that we still had not fully adjusted to the six hour time difference and an early evening nap became a long night’s sleep.

The next morning, fully refreshed, if not a little sunburned, we readied for a drive to Hilo on the eastern side of the island. As many Insiders know, mailing postcards from each county seat in the US is a necessary part of almost all my travels, so a visit to Hilo (the seat for Hawaii County) was a must. I actually stayed in Hilo on my last trip to the Big Island, but since that was before I began my county seat collecting, I needed to return to “collect” Hawaii County. Of course the 90 minute drive from one side of the island to the other was not just about mailing a postcard from the county seat (okay, yes it was ). Even so, the windward side of the island has sites worth exploring, especially along the Hamakua coast. The most impressive place we visited was Akaka Falls State Park. Akaka Falls is 442 feet high (one source says 422 ft.). However tall, it is impressive. There are actually two waterfalls at the park, Akaka Falls and Kahuna Falls. If pressed for time, skip Kahuna Falls.



By the time we reached Hilo, the thermometer had hit 90 and we needed a way to cool off. I now understand why shave ice is so popular in Hawaii. We found a shop called Hawaiian Brain Freeze (sounded like the perfect place) and ordered a couple small shave ices, mango for her, raspberry with a snow cap (covering of condensed milk) for me. Seriously, these were the small size. I came just short of eating all of mine, glad I had not chosen a larger size.

After mailing my postcard, we drove back the way we came through Waimea where we stopped for a late lunch. We watched another sunset from the beach and then dropped by the Hau Tree, the beach bar for some evening refreshments.


Once the sun had set, the hotel staff turned on the flood light near the north end of the beach at a place nicknamed “Manta Point.” The light attracts plankton, which attracts fish, which attracts manta rays. We watched these amazing creatures for about an hour before turning in for the night.


The third full day on the Big Island turned out to be Labor Day. On an extended vacation, it can be hard to keep track of the days. What I didn’t forget is that this was the day I had booked our tour to visit Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Knowing that Hawaii Volcanoes NP is on the exact opposite side of the island from our hotel, I knew I didn’t want to make a round trip drive, so hiring someone else to do it made perfect sense. Our mini bus arrived around 11:30am and whisked us and the other 10 guests across the Saddle Road (average elevation 6000 feet) to Hilo and on to Volcano. On the drive we were lucky enough to see the Pueo, or Hawaiian Owl. Unlike most owls, the Pueo is often active during the day and we saw several flying above the grasslands. One even perched on a fencepost along the road almost begging us to take pictures.

pueo.jpg rainbow.jpg

As we descended into Hilo, we stopped at Kaumana Caves (actually a lava tube) and Rainbow Falls (above). We had considered visiting Rainbow Falls a day earlier when in Hilo, but did not, so I was glad the tour made the stop. Though not as tall as Akaka Falls, Rainbow Falls has more visitors since it more easily accessible just on the outskirts of Hilo.

After another hour, we finally reached the area around Kilauea. The entire place has an otherworldly fell with vents spewing steam into the air and ground that appears to be smoking. When I last visited it was still possible to drive all the way around the crater on Crater Rim Drive. Not anymore. Since 2008, Crater Rim Drive is closed between the Jagger Museum and Chain of Craters Road due to dangerous levels of sulfur dioxide. I consider myself lucky to have been here before the road closure. I understand the parking lot and trail I visited last time have since been destroyed by the volcano.


The only disappointment of the entire trip came when we visited the Jagger Museum after dark to see the glow of lava. Clouds obscured most of the view, though I did manage to get one semi decent photograph of the glow reflecting off the clouds.


I had hoped to get a more clear view of the crater, but it was not to be. I suppose that will mean a third visit to Volcanoes National Park could be in my future. Three hours later we arrived back at the hotel glad we left the driving to someone else.

Our final full day on the Big Island began with breakfast at the Aloha Deli, just a couple miles north of the Mauna Kea in the small, unincorporated community of Kawaihae. Despite the amazing buffet spread put out at the Manta Restaurant in the Mauna Kea, sometimes simple is better. We knew we’d never get $70 worth of breakfast the buffet would cost for two, so instead we found a place frequented by locals. Nothing fancy, just your typical breakfast which set us back less than $10 apiece. I’m all for the convenience of hotel dining, but sometimes it’s nice to get out and discover little hole in the wall restaurants. Other options for off-site dining are 10-15 minutes south at the Shops and Mani Lani and Waikoloa Village. Most places there cater to tourists, so expect somewhat higher prices though still cheaper than eating at the hotel.

On our way back from Kawaihae, we stopped briefly at the Pu’ukohola Heiau National Historic Site, just a mile or so north of the Mauna Kea. The site has historical significance related to the conquest of all the Hawaiian Islands by Kamehameha the Great. Those curious can find lots more information on National Park Service website.


Though barely 9:00am, the sun was already beginning to bake us. What better way to remedy this than a dip in the ocean. With such a great beach and amazing snorkeling right along the shore, we returned the hotel and hit the beach. By 11:00am we were sacked out on lounge chairs under a cabana enjoying the good life.

Two o’clock found us back in the car heading for the rendezvous point for another tour, this one to the top of Mauna Kea to watch the sunset and stargaze. Everyone goes to the Big Island to see flowing lava. What everyone should do is take a tour up to the top of the world’s tallest mountain (when measured from its base at the sea floor). Mauna Kea stands 13,796 feet above sea level, but is over 33,000 from base to summit. It also happens to be home to about a dozen of the world’s most powerful telescopes. The high elevation and limited light pollution make the peak one of the best places in the world for astronomical observation.

We made a brief stop at the visitor’s center officially known as the Okizuka Center for International Astronomy Visitor Information Station, roughly 9,200 feet up the mountain. Beyond the visitor’s center, the road is unpaved and very steep. Only guided tours and four wheel drive vehicles can continue on to the top. We reached the summit in time to take in a glorious sunset above the clouds. At roughly 35 degrees F, the parkas and gloves provided by the tour company were most welcome.


MKsunset.jpg  MKsunset2.jpg

Once the sun set we headed back down to around 9,000 feet where our guide set up the telescope. This wasn’t your typical backyard set up. This was an 11” Celestron telescope that would set an amateur astronomer back between $3,000 and $4,500 depending on the choice of filters and accessories. Unlike the free viewing across the way at the visitor’s center, we had only a dozen people using the telescope which allowed us to look at a variety of objects. We saw Saturn (rings clearly visible), the Lagoon Nebula, several star clusters, and the Andromeda galaxy. Our guide also pointed out a number of constellations like Hercules, Scorpius, Draco, and Cygnus.

My camera equipment was completely unsuited to taking photographs of the night sky, but I was fortunate enough to capture this.


Staring at the Milky Way, I barely thought about taking any photographs, so I’m glad I did get a few. Perhaps if I return, I’ll come better equipped.

With a 9:00am flight to Maui the next day, the journey back from Mauna Kea essentially ended the Big Island portion of the trip. Needless to say, the time here was well spent. We were busy, but no so busy as to feel rushed. We stayed at a truly amazing hotel, spent part of almost every day in the water, and sampled a variety of tropical drinks. It was everything a Hawaiian vacation should be.

The next blog entry will wrap up the trip to Hawaii with my first ever visit to Maui.

Until then…

Happy Travels,


While my recent visit to Hawaii was not for the sole purpose collecting counties, I used the opportunity to add a few postcards to my collection. After all, I need to visit the four county seats in Hawaii (Hilo, Honolulu, Lihue, and Wailuku) for my collection to be complete. I’ll save the discussion of Kalawao County and why it has no county seat for later.

This journey began with a stay at the Columbus Airport Marriott the night before an early morning flight to HNL via LAX. The idea of rushing to the airport first thing on a Wednesday morning had absolutely no appeal and with a category 1-5 certificate from my MR Visa set to expire, this property was a perfect fit. Despite two lengthy flights and an hour delay in LAX, I arrived at HNL early in the afternoon. About fifteen minutes after the aircraft door opened, I was on I-H1 on my way to Waikiki. Being first off the plane, not having any checked bags, and using my Hertz status all helped speed up the process.

I already knew a day or so before that trip that my city view room at the Waikiki Beach Marriott had been upgraded to a deluxe ocean view. Here’s the view from the balcony.


Needless to say I was thrilled. Our resident Hawaii expert kharada46 has commented extensively on this property, so I refer you to his discussions for more details that I would ever be able to provide.

Here are some good examples

Waikiki Beach Marriott Resort & Spa - 3 Stays in 1 Review

Waikiki Beach Marriott Renovations

Waikiki Beach Marriott Upgrades

Marriott Waikiki v.s. Courtyard Waikiki

After a long day of travel, the only things on the agenda for the first afternoon/evening were food, drinks (tried both a Waikiki Blonde Ale and the “free” hotel mai tai), and a little swimming. I should mention that two “free” mai tais are included per stay as part of the $30 a day resort fee. One breakfast per room per day (including gratuity) is also covered which at $28 a pop essentially makes the mai tais free. None of the other benefits offered to MR members had any value to me. By 8pm, having been up over 20 hours, it was time for bed. Crashing early the first night made it easier to adjust to the six hour time change during the rest of the trip.

Day 2 began with a heavy downpour which necessitated a change in plans. Instead of climbing Diamondhead, we drove around the southeast coast of the island and on to Kailua. The rain had mostly blown over by the time we reached Kailua Beach Park, so a short walk along the beach seemed in order. The humidity and continued possibility of rain kept the visit brief, but we did get a few photographs including this selfie.


From there we crossed back over the mountains on our way to Haleiwa on the north shore. A quick stop at the tourist trap Dole Plantation included a Dole Whip (essentially a pineapple flavored soft serve). We got crushed pineapple on top of ours. I can’t really recommend a stop there as it is just an excuse to separate tourists from their money, but the Dole Whip was tasty and the bathrooms are clean. On principle I refused to spend any money on the mountain of tacky souvenirs.

Lunch in Haleiwa was at a fantastic vegetarian restaurant called the Beet Box Café. Worth a stop even by omnivores for great sandwiches and smoothies. Maybe next time kharada46 visits the north shore, he can do a full review. I really enjoyed it. After lunch we followed highway 930 along the northwest shore, past the Dillingham airport/glider field to where the road ends and found this rocky, deserted beach.


A trail continues on the shoreline to Ka’ena Point and then around to the leeward shore where it meets highway 93 before heading to the resorts at Ko Olina. I loved wandering the beach and climbing on the rocks watching crabs scuttle for shelter as I approached. Having the place to ourselves and getting a respite from the continual showers made the stop a joy. As busy and crowded as Honolulu is, it’s nice to know that a relatively short drive can take you to a place that feels far away from everything with just the sound of the wind and waves for company.

The return trip to Waikiki took almost an hour with rain and traffic interfering in nearly equal proportions. After a brief rest and a couple happy hour mai tais (sensing a theme yet?) at the nearby Cheeseburger in Paradise (not affiliated with Jimmy Buffett), it was soon time for an Insider dinner (Insiders meet in Honolulu). I tried another local beer, this time the local Primo Island Lager from Keoki Brewing Company. Dinner was only surpassed by the company that evening.

By Friday it was time to say aloha to Oahu and head over to the Big Island of Hawaii. Before leaving, I mailed my postcard from the Honolulu County (county seat Honolulu) and made one last important stop. I’m a huge fan tiki culture, so when I discovered the La Mariana Sailing Club has been operating a restaurant and tiki bar that is virtually unchanged since 1957, I had to drop in for a drink.

LM.jpg  LM2.jpg

LM3.jpg  LM4.jpg

I had just enough time for a mai tai before heading to the airport to drop off the rental car and catch the flight to Kona. While the time on Oahu was short, we had a great time. With three islands planned over ten days, we had to make a few tradeoffs. The limited stay in Honolulu was one such example. Over the years, I’ve spent perhaps a combined 10 days on Oahu and have no doubt I’ll visit again, perhaps when I come back to Hawaii to mail a postcard from Lihue.

I wholeheartedly recommend the Waikiki Beach Marriott. Just make sure to ask for an upgrade. The view alone is worth it. The staff is top notch and will do what they can to make any stay enjoyable (Re: Outstanding service - Waikiki Beach Marriott).

Up next will be the Big Island including a most amazing stay at the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel.

Until then…

Happy Travels,


It’s been over a year since I last set foot in Michigan and to quote Irving Berlin, "That's why I wish again, to be back in Michigan."

My last visit was to the area affectionately known by Michiganders as “the thumb.” (Green Thumb) This time, I decided to visit the remaining counties in the Lower Peninsula. Though there were only 22 from which I needed to mail postcards, it involved covering a lot of territory.

Here is the “before” map which gives an idea of the place I needed to see (any counties not colored dark blue).


The drive from Ohio was wet. Collecting counties in the rain isn't much fun, but at least most of the first day involved passing through previously visited places, so stops were minimal. By the time I reached Hastings in Barry County, the rain had ended. In fact, the entire weekend was dry except for a brief shower on the drive home.

The three and a half day trip proved successful as all 22 postcards I mailed arrived within a few days of returning home. Here is my “after” map showing just two counties in the Upper Peninsula left to collect.


My stays were at the FFI Lansing West (nothing noteworthy to report), the JW Marriott Grand Rapids, and The Henry—an Autograph Collection hotel in Dearborn. The JW and Autograph properties were my first experience with those brands and I must admit, I felt a little out of place. Perhaps it’s that I’m more accustomed to Renaissance and Marriott, but whatever the reason, I enjoyed the luxury nevertheless (the lounging chair at JW was a bit more comfortable).

   JW.jpg      Henry2.jpg

While in Grand Rapids, I decided to check out one of the local brewpubs (Beer-cations!). I selected Hop Cat. It’s a few blocks from the JW and worth a visit for a beer and a burger. Make sure to get their signature “Crack Fries.” Truly addictive. Check out this article from the Food Network (America's 10 Best French Fries).

Hop Cat.jpg

As I usually do, I photographed many of the county courthouses when I stop in a county seat to mail home a postcard. Here are a couple of note (Traverse City in Grand Traverse County and Mio in Oscoda County).

Traverse City.jpg   Mio.jpg

During my last visit to Michigan, I stayed at the Dearborn Inn on the recommendation of jerrycoin and jakeal. This visit, I decided to try The Henry, located just a couple miles away. The Henry (named for Henry Dearborn, not Henry Ford as I had thought) used to be a Ritz Carlton until 2010 when the fallout of the economic downturn prompted RC to sell the property. A multimillion dollar upgrade by the new owners included a new Concierge Lounge and renovated rooms. Artwork lines the walls in most of the lobby and hallways. Almost hard to believe it’s a category 5 property.


Even so, were I to go back to Dearborn, I’d choose the Dearborn Inn over the Henry, though both are excellent options.

My trip to Michigan is the only true county collecting trip of the summer. I do have a couple overnight visits to places I have already collected (Cincinnati and Buffalo) but nothing further planned until fall. I will collect three counties on my late summer trip to Hawaii, but that is almost ancillary to the visit itself. Even so, I will post a blog entry about my visits to the counties of Honolulu, Hawaii, and Maui.

Until then…

Happy Travels,



Appalachian Spring

Posted by bejacob May 3, 2015

Late April found me driving through the Appalachian Mountains of West Virginia, Kentucky, Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia, and Tennessee. As mentioned at the end of my last blog entry, I planned to visit the remaining uncollected counties in VA, as well as the last mountain counties in NC and TN. With that in mind, the trip south began.

The first stop (not counting breakfast) was Clintwood, VA, roughly 6 hours from home. Another 6 hours, and 7 county seats, brought me to Boone, NC and the CY. This location has been open for about three years and still has that new feeling. jakeal and other beer fans will appreciate the beer and wine shop right next door stocked with all manner of libations and staffed by a knowledgeable staff. Looking for something from the local area, this is the place to go.


Following a recommendation from IAHFLYR, after getting settled, I drove another 7 or so miles to the town of Blowing Rock to eat at Woodlands Bar-B-Que.

Dinner was good, but not as amazing as I had hoped. My pulled pork sandwich was a little on the dry side, but a generous squirt of BBQ sauce and a dollop of coleslaw on top (Carolina style) solved that problem. I enjoyed dinner while listening to a local musician playing guitar and singing. Not a bad way to start a trip.

Driving the hills of western NC and eastern TN through towns like Burnsville, Bakersville, Jonesborough, brought me to Asheville, NC by the end of day 2. I had originally planned on staying at the Autograph Grand Bohemian, but when the rate jumped to almost three times the price of a room at the Renaissance, I opted for the latter. Being upgraded to a suite proved that I made the right choice. Dinner in Asheville was at the nearby Pack’s Tavern where I sampled a couple of the local craft brews. My favorite was the Hi-Wire Lager, made right in downtown Asheville. The area around Asheville has more microbreweries per capita than anywhere else in the U.S., something I learned from the front desk staff at the Renaissance.

The Renaissance in Asheville is within easy walking distance of more restaurants than I could count. It’s now a category 8 property, and while nice, I’m not sure why it’s rated so. I've stayed at nicer properties which were lower categories, so location must be a major factor. Certainly a place I can recommend, and one I would consider visiting again.

Day 3 took me farther south into NC and eventually to northeast GA. One notable stop along the way was Brevard, NC, the county seat for Transylvania County. Among other things, the area is known for its white squirrels. During my short visit, I saw three different indications of the significance these little creatures (though sadly, no actual white squirrels).

WS Shoppe.jpg  WS license.jpg  WS sign.jpg

For anyone interested the town holds an annual White Squirrel Festival the Friday, Saturday, and Sunday before Memorial Day. Now might be a good time to make plans.

bejacob and foxglove.jpg


By late afternoon, I visited the last county on my list for the day and headed south about another 30 miles to the Springhill Suites in Athens, GA. I had previously driven through Athens and collected the nearby counties, but being so close foxglove territory, I couldn't pass up a chance to visit with a fellow Insider. Details of this meeting can be found at Another Insider meet up (bejacob and foxglove).

Day 4 took me north, this time as far as Knoxville, TN. Though the day began with rain, it cleared up by the time I reached Deal’s Gap and the Tail of the Dragon, the nickname for US route 129 between NC and TN. Route 129 winds along the edge of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and has become a favorite drive for car and motorcycle enthusiasts. For me, it represented the shortest distance from Robbinsville, NC and Maryville, TN. Over the course of about 11 miles, there are 318 curves. Some readers may remember about a year ago I mentioned this route when I drove state route 16 in western VA which has been nicknamed “The Back of the Dragon” (see North Carolina – From the Mountains to the Sea). Back then, I didn't think I'd have an opportunity to experience this route as well. Funny how things work out sometimes. The drive along US 129 is not for the timid, but it as long as traffic isn't too heavy, it can be enjoyable and the scenery is amazing. Here is a map showing the route (note the yellow mileage signs).

Dragon map.jpg

Before starting the drive, I stopped at the Deal’s Gap Motorcycle Resort to take a few photos. One of my favorites was the “Tree of Shame” which collects pieces of wrecked motorcycles from along the route.

dragon.jpg   deals gap.jpg  tree of shame.jpg

Though not particularly dangerous if diving at a reasonable speed, every year it seems at least one reckless biker loses his life on the road. It does put things in perspective. The popularity of the Tail of the Dragon has encouraged numerous enterprising photographers to set up shop along the route. Much like roller coaster cameras, photos are available for purchase on the web after the ride. I'm still deciding if I want to buy one (I found my pictures from all the different companies, but have not yet determined which one to get, if any. It is, after all, just a picture of me in my car, though I suppose it does prove I was there).

By early evening Saturday, I arrived at the Knoxville Marriott. The properties dates from the early 1970s and is reminiscent of the Contemporary Resort at Walt Disney World in its A-frame design and 10-story lobby (though no monorail). Despite a couple places where it shows its age, it is well-maintained, and is a great place to stay when in Knoxville. Oh, and is still a category 5 property. It compared favorably with the category 8 Renaissance in Asheville, making it a bargain for points redemption. I would gladly visit again.

Knoxville.jpg  interior.jpg

It’s an easy walk from the hotel to downtown Knoxville where a plethora of restaurants await. I chose the Downtown Grill & Brewery. Beer is brewed on site (their coasters proudly proclaim “the cure for all your ales”) and with 7 signature beers, there is bound to be one that pleases (I liked the Downtown Blonde Ale best).

By midday Sunday, I mailed the last postcard of this trip and headed home. Of the 62 postcards sent, all but one have arrived. Hopefully the missing one (Ellijay, GA) will show up soon. If not, are return visit will be in order. As has become my habit, I have prepared before and after maps showing my continuing progress.

South.png  South2.png

The goal for the trip was to fill in that strange gap just below WV. Looking at the ‘after’ map, I’d say, “Mission Accomplished.” I still have a few counties in northern Georgia along I-75, but a flight to ATL on DL and a rental car would take care of those in no time.

Each check-in was accomplished with the mobile app which worked like a charm. Keys were ready for pickup when I arrived at each of the four hotels which happened to all be different brands. I did get one upgrade and because the lounge was closed at both the Renaissance (renovation) and the Marriott (weekend), I earned additional points.

During this journey, Virginia became the 10th state in which I have mailed and received postcards from every country. Virginia, in addition to the 95 counties, has 38 independent cities which are technically not part of any county despite the fact that 13 of these cities also serve as county seats. So I collected 120 postcards in the state, 95 county seats, plus the 25 independent cities that are not county seats (confused yet? Don't worry, it took me a while to figure out how I was going to tackle this very issue).

With no travel planned for May, it appears I will break my string of 15 straight months with at least one Marriott stay . Up next will be a short visit to Michigan in early June followed by Hawaii at the beginning of September . Although there may be one or two Marriott nights in between, my stays during the typical summer promo period are limited this year. Hopefully, I can still earn a few bonus points .

Overall my county collecting total has reached 46% of my intended destinations, up from 40% at the start the year. Hitting the halfway point is still possible this year, though it will require adding at least one trip to my already planned itineraries. Whether I cross that mark this year or next, I'll detail the trip here.

Until then…

Happy Travels,


California is the most recent state to be added to my list of Marriott stays. The tally is now 29 states, plus the District of Columbia (Re: In How Many States Have You Stayed at a Marriott Property?). The three-day jaunt to the left coast was too short by far, but having spent many weeks in this part of California over the years, the hurried pace was no problem. The goal for this journey was to collect a few dozen counties in the central part of the state.




The trip began with a short flight on UA from CMH to ORD on an A319. Lake Michigan, still showing signs of large sheets of ice came into view just before arriving in Chicago. I've flown this way many times before, but don't recall ever doing so in winter, so seeing part of the lake frozen was somewhat of a novelty.

Despite continuing on to Sacramento on the same flight number, the ORD-SMF leg was on a different aircraft (A320) and in a separate concourse. Even with the distance between gates, there was enough time to grab a quick dinner. The bulkhead row ended up with considerably more legroom than I anticipated and I expected no under seat area in front of me. Finding the divider between FC and Economy Plus had a cut out at the bottom allowing room for my laptop was an added bonus.


Until this trip, the only California counties I had visited since beginning my unusual hobby of mailing a postcard from every county seat in the country were San Diego and Imperial Counties along the southern border. My map of the state looked like this (green being for counties where I previously visited the county seat, teal for counties I have been in or through).


By the time I flew home, it looked like this. (Hmmm, looks like I need to plan a trip to LA soon to collect those 8 counties in So Cal.).


Certainly the highlight of the trip was getting to see pluto77 again. We had met in D.C. last November, but since I was passing through her home territory it seemed appropriate to visit again. Sadly we didn't think of taking any photographs. Our get together really felt more like friends meeting for dinner rather than an Insider gathering. I enjoyed a lovely dinner with her and Mr. Pluto, and naturally, much of our conversation involved Marriott, MRI, and travel in general.


Over the three days, I covered 1691 miles, but lest you think all I did was drive, here’s a photo from the boardwalk in Santa Cruz.


The trip would not have been complete without at least one stop at In-n-Out burger (I managed to grab lunch there twice ) or without crossing the Golden Gate Bridge.


The drive through Napa County on the final day of the trip was amazing. I crossed the county roughly south to north along State Route 29 in hours just after sunrise and enjoyed the scenery immensely. No pictures, I'm sorry to say, and at the time I visited, none of the wineries were open. I'll have to make a return visit for a tasting tour some day. I did manage to hit all my planned stops, something that doesn't always happen due to traffic or weather. The trip included stays at 2 CYs and one SHS. All quite nice, though nothing remarkable. I'd stay at any of them again.

The journey home yielded one last unexpected bonus—an upgrade to First Class. Having the extra space on the overnight flight from SMF-IAH made a huge difference (I was actually able to doze off a few times which probably would have been impossible even in Economy Plus). Perhaps the pre-flight beverage helped a little.

All 35 postcards arrived within a week of the trip (the first dozen showed up an hour or so after I arrived home) bringing my collection up to 1,389, roughly 44% of the county seats in the country. With only one more aggressive collecting trip planned, reaching 50% might not happen this year, depending on what other travel opportunities come my way. With Hawaii on the agenda for September, I will be trading quantity for quality. I'll collect 3 counties in Hawaii over the course of 10 days (such is the sacrifice one must make when visiting paradise ).


Up next will be a trip into Appalachia at the end of April, which will involve completing the last counties in VA, western NC, and eastern TN, as well as dozen or so in northeast GA. Also included will be a visit with foxglove. I’m sure that will be fun.


Until then...


Happy Travels,


This is how the first county collecting trip of the year ended.


I'm jumping ahead, so let me start with a more cheery tale. As my travel year beings, my county collecting map spanning a few hundred miles east and west of the Mississippi River looks like this.


As a quick reminder, I’m mailing home a postcard from each county seat in the United States, and counties where I have received that postcard get colored blue. Counties colored teal, I have been in, but not visited the county seat, and green counties are where I have been to the county seat but not mailed, or in a few cases received, a postcard (see County Collecting 2014 - the Year in Review for my map of the entire country). I decided 2015 would be the year to create a contiguous stretch of blue counties reaching from Canada and the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico (perhaps next year I'll work to connect the east and west coasts).


I set out from Ohio on a Sunday morning at 2:30am, knowing it would take 10-11 hours to reach the first uncollected county (just south of Birmingham, AL) The trip started out fine, and though it was cold in Ohio, by the time I reached Alabama, temperatures moderated. As the sun set, I pulled into the Prattville Marriott (hotel/conference center), and rather than venture out for dinner, the Oak Tavern in the hotel provided a tasty, if unremarkable, dinner.


I used mobile check-in, but still needed to wait at the front desk to have my keys prepared. Apparently, there had been a number of late departures, so there was some question as to which rooms were ready. This somewhat defeats the purpose of mobile check-in, though I did get a nice view of the golf course which makes me think I did get an upgrade.


The next day, as I continued south toward the Gulf, it reached almost 70º, a far cry from the single digits back home. I detoured about a half mile off US 31 in southern Alabama to take this photo for my photo album of  State Welcome Signs.


Since I had previous visited Escambia County, Florida where this sign is located (interestingly the adjacent counties in both AL and FL are both named Escambia), I continued though southwest AL and southeast MS ending the day at the Courtyard in Gulfport, located across the street from the beach.  By the time I arrived, the rain had started and the temperature had dropped into the low 50s (by morning is was freezing). This hotel is undergoing renovations to upgrade the front desk (and likely to add a Bistro). My ground floor room overlooked the parking lot and the ocean beyond (no way this could have been an upgrade). Dinner at the Half Shell Oyster Bar, a short drive away, consisted of char-grilled oysters (YUM!) , blackened redfish, and key lime pie, all washed down with a Lazy Magnolia Indian Summer beer (local to the area). I recommend this place if visiting Gulfport.



From Gulfport, it was into southeastern Louisiana—bayou country. At Pointe a la Hache in Plaquemines Parish (counties in LA are called parishes), the only option was to do some serious backtracking or cross the Mississippi River by ferry. Naturally, I chose the ferry.

It’s worth mentioning that I drove through the area south of New Orleans on Mardi Gras. Having already visited New Orleans and not wanting to deal with the crazy crowds, I bypassed the area (for the most part). I did see a few floats with some already drunken revelers heading toward the parades around mid-afternoon as my route headed north across the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway (traffic heading into the city was starting to get ugly). At almost 24 miles long the causeway is the longest bridge over water in the word. I snapped a few pictures from behind the wheel, but none are worth sharing. Nightfall found me at the Renaissance in Baton Rouge. With the weather still cold, dining at the hotel seemed a reasonable option. Another appetizer of char-grilled oysters, this time followed up by a shrimp po boy, and accompanied by a Canebrake beer by the nearby Parish Brewing Company. Not as good as dinner in Gulfport, but still quite good.



The next three days were nothing special. Cold, gray, and a lot of driving. Each day ended at a CY (Jackson, Tuscaloosa, and Tupelo). The location in Jackson/Pearl is less than a year old, and in addition to my regular Platinum arrival gifts, I received this little gift bag. Not exciting, perhaps, but a nice gesture.

The room had numerous power outlets (which some older locations are lacking) as well as USB charging ports both on the desk and the bedside table. This is the first time I've seen that in a CY. I hope it becomes the standard.



That brings me to the journey home. I completed my planned county collecting early on Saturday, and began what should have been an 8-9 hour drive back to central Ohio. Winter storm Pandora (as it was named) decided to play havoc with the roads. My intention was to follow the Natchez Trace Parkway from northern Mississippi to its terminus just south of Nashville. Rain, freezing as it hit the roadway, made this route treacherous. Every bridge was a sheet of glaze ice and the two-lane parkway was slush. Figuring the interstates would be safer, I headed north to pick up I-40. About 50 miles before reaching Nashville, I hit the granddaddy of all potholes. Both passenger tires blew out and I spent the next 6 hours waiting for a tow. I was not the only one. A line of cars and trucks littered the side of the road.

Some had one flat and were able to change the tire and move on. I was not so lucky. By the time my car was put on the back of a flatbed tow truck and I was settled in my non-Marriott “Super” motel, it was about 9pm (the blowouts happened around 12:30).


A short cab ride on Sunday morning took me back to my car (left at the Wal-Mart auto center  in Dickson, TN the night before). By 11:00am, I was back on the road. I still had two slightly bent wheel rims (now on the back) because replacements were not available, and the wrong size tires (my size was out of stock). Still, I made it the last 500 miles home for which I am thankful. Some drivers on the ice and snow-covered roads in Tennessee that same weekend were not so lucky.


I managed to visit all the counties I planned and completed my north to south line of blue. Here is what this part of the country looks like now. I’m still waiting for the last 3 postcards on those green counties near the LA/MS border (hopefully they'll show up at the beginning of the week).


I suppose with all the driving I've done over the last few years, a mishap like I had was bound to happen eventually. I made it home safely a day late, so other than the inconvenience and expense, there is little to complain about, though it would have been nice had there been a FFI or CY along I-40 near Dickson. Missing out on a paid Marriott night during a MegaBonus just added insult to injury. On the plus side, I did earn both the Marriott and Renaissance badges (and 50 bonus rewards points) during this trip, bringing my total to 8 (not sure this is particularly worthy of bragging rights).


Up next is a trip to California. It’s only three days, but there’s lots of ground to cover. Look for a report in mid-March.


Until then...


Happy Travels,


February is approaching and it's nearly time to hit the road again. With that in mind, a brief blog entry on where my county collecting trips will take me this year is in order (To see my map from the end of last year, please read County Collecting 2014 - the Year in Review).


First up for 2015, is an escape from the snow in the Midwest. Last year around this time, I covered most of northern Alabama. This year, south-western portion of the state is on tap. Combined with the eastern parts of both Mississippi and Louisiana, I expect to visit about 88 county/parish seats during the 3rd week of February (note that Louisiana has parishes instead of counties, though they serve the same function ).


After that is a short visit to northern California in early March. Highlights include Sacramento, Monterey, San Francisco, Napa, and Fresno, home of our very own pluto77. Then comes a drive into the Smoky Mountains, planned for late April. Parts of Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina, and Georgia (including a visit with foxglove) are on the agenda.


Beyond April, things get a bit fuzzy. Two scheduled trips are Hawaii, in September (just to say hello to kharada46 ), and Saratoga Springs, in November. With almost all my attention turned to Hawaii, I don’t expect to devote as much time to the mainland during the summer as I normally would, though I’d still like to visit the remaining counties in Michigan (at least the ones in the Lower Peninsula) or visit family in Iowa (with only 16 of the 99 counties complete, there is much to do). Another option is to save some vacation time for late in the year and visit somewhere warm between Thanksgiving and Christmas (Florida sounds good . Or maybe east Texas,IAHFLYR ).


Regardless, 2015 will not top 2014, at least as far as the numbers are concerned. Hawaii pretty much tops all, so despite only collecting 3 postcards from the islands, the trip will be the best of the year. If I can reach 308 counties this year, I’ll cross the halfway point in the overall goal to visit every county seat in the United States. Right now, I’m looking at about 200. Perhaps the trips I haven’t planned yet will put me over the top.


So Insiders. Watch for me coming through your part of the country. If the timing works out, we should get together.


Until then...


Happy Travels,


Although there is still just over a month left in the year, I have no additional travel planned, so it is time to reflect on where I've been in 2014.

With daylight saving time ended, my long days of driving the back roads of America are finished for this year, but what a year is has been. Over the course of the past 10 months, I have set foot in 24 states, plus the District of Columbia in the process of collecting 472 postcards from county seats and independent cities. This has been, by far, the most productive year of county collecting (the next closest was 2012 when I visited 362 counties).

Now that most of the territory within a few hours’ drive from home is complete, I expect the pace will slow down as I take fewer (but longer) trips in the coming years. Of the 3149 destinations I set for myself, I have now visited 1267about 40% of the country. Considering that I ended last year at 25%, I’m quite pleased. Reaching the 50% mark (just over 300 more counties) in 2015 while moderately challenging, looks possible. It’s always good to have a goal.

I won't go back over a detailed telling of my travels having already posted blog entries about each (which I hope you will read if you haven't already), but I will mention a few of the highlights of the year.

Perhaps at the top of the list are the two trips that included meeting other members of this community. In May, on a visit to St. Louis, I had lunch with jerrycoin. He had just returned the night before from a trip to Paris, but was gracious enough to drive downtown to meet me at the Renaissance Grand Hotel. We took a short walk down the street to a quiet Irish pub (it was early on a Sunday afternoon) where we shared travel and Marriott stories. (bejacob & jerrycoin relax in STL!).  My most recent trip, brought me to Washington, D.C. and an amazing get together with pluto77, erc, and our very own communitymanager Nathalie at the Renaissance Mayflower. That now legendary event has a discussion of its own, so I'll let that stand as the mostly accurate description of what happened. (Insiders Get Together - Mayflower Hotel).

pub.jpg  edgar.jpg

Instead of more reflection, I decided to compile some noteworthy statistics that tell part of this year’s story.

Numbers from the road – 2014

County collecting trips: 9

Average trip duration: 5 days

Postcards collected: 472

Postcards that failed to arrive: 1 (Gainesville, TX)

Postcards mailed a second time due to similar failure in previous years: 2 (Sandy Hook, KY and McConnellsburg, PA)

States visited: 24 (OH, KY, TN, AL, MS, GA, WV, VA, NC, SC, MI, IN, IL, MO, PA, NY, TX, OK, KS, NM, CO, VT, MD, DE) + DC

Miles driven: 19,691 (most in my own car)

Marriott brands visited: 7 (8 if you count Marriott Conference Centers as a separate brand, which apparently it is)

Most frequent brand visited: SpringHill Suites and Fairfield Inn (9 each)

Number of properties visited: 31 (does not include 3 stays for reasons other than county collecting)

Promo certificates used: 6

Average reward category of hotels visited: 3.6

Marriott badges earned: 6 (along with 150 rewards points. Woohoo! )


Should I be bragging about these badges? They aren't terribly exciting,though I suppose over time they will show that I have some level of devotion to the various Marriott brands. I guess they take up less space than Marriott pens from each hotel brand.

In addition to those statistics, here are some bests and worsts of the year

Favorite Marriott property: Renaissance Charleston South Park

Least favorite Marriott property: FFI Youngstown/Austintown, OH

Best CL food: Renaissance Grand St. Louis

Best room: 2-bedroom suite at Towson University Marriott Conference Center

Highest category hotel visited: 9 (CY Ocean City)

Lowest category hotel visited: 1 (FFI Oxford, AL and TPS Columbus/Worthington, OH)

Worst traffic: Baltimore beltway (Wednesday evening & Thursday morning)


CY Ocean City. Category 9? Really? Seriously? How does that even come close to County Hall in London?

I always like to share the maps showing my progress.

counties 2013.png

I began the year with 795 blue counties (those from which I had received postcards documenting my visit).

counties 2014.png

The year will end with 1267 blue counties. (As a reminder, green is for counties where I visited the county seat but have not received a postcard, and teal is for counties that I have been in, but not yet visited the county seat). All but a couple of the green and teal counties are places I visited before I began sending postcards to document my travels.

Looking at the maps leads me to think about where I wish to travel next. A couple things come to mind. So far I have not completed a contiguous stretch of blue either from coast to coast or from north to south. I’d like to rectify that, and as such, I’m planning to drive through southern Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana as early as mid-February. Completing the east-west piece will likely wait beyond 2015. I’m making progress along the Atlantic coast, as well as the counties along the Mexican border. Likewise completing the counties on the shores of the Great Lakes should be within reach before long. I need to begin a serious push to visit places west of the Mississippi, especially in the northern half of the country.

I did add six more states to my completed list in 2014. I have now visited (and documented) every county seat in SC, KY, IN, IL, MD, and WV. They join OH (2007), DE (2012) and AZ (2013). I also mailed a postcard from the District of Columbia which, although not a county, is a separate administrative district outside the jurisdiction of any state (so I collected it just to be safe) meaning 9 states, plus DC are now complete. I expect to add Virginia to the list next year as I have only 5 counties and the independent city of Bristol to visit (in April perhaps).

Where else I go in 2015 is still to be determined. With 60% of the counties in the United States left to explore, I've got lots of options.

I don't anticipate any more blog entries until February, but you never know.

Until then...

Happy Travels,


A recent trip to the nation’s capital (and beyond) wrapped up my planned travel for the year in fine style. Over the course of a week I spent three days in the DC area, explored most of Maryland, stayed 4 different Marriott brands, and had the pleasure of meeting several wonderful Marriott Rewards Insiders.

The drive to Washington was not direct in order to accommodate my need to visit several counties in northern Maryland. Stops in Cumberland, Hagerstown, Frederick, Westminster, and Towson filled the afternoon of the first day. The Towson Marriott Conference Center Hotel upgraded me to a beautiful two-bedroom suite, by far the nicest room I've stayed in all year. Having had a late lunch that included fresh baked apple-pie at Weaver’s Restaurant & Bakery in Hancock, MD (worth the stop if you happen to be near the I-68/I-70 interchange), dinner at the CL was all I needed.

After breakfast (again in the CL) it was off to Bel Air, Baltimore, and Ellicott City before reaching the Arlington Residence Inn around noon. Two of the three nights there were covered by category 1-4 certificates from the spring MegaBonus (had I gotten category 1-5 certs, I would have stayed at the Renaissance next door). The choice of hotel was primarily based on the location of a conference held at another hotel chain just across the street from my preferred hotel chain. The conference was good, but the highlight of the three days in and around DC was the Insider get together with erc, pluto77, and the communitymanager at the Renaissance Mayflower Hotel.


Erc began a great discussion of the fabulous event hosted by our own community manager, Nathalie, so I have no need to elaborate on that. See Re: Insiders Get Together - Mayflower Hotel for details.


Since this trip was built around the conference, the Insiders get together, and visiting a couple dozen counties along the east coast, I didn't devote much time to sightseeing, but I took part of Saturday afternoon to explore a little of the area around the National Mall. I stopped briefly at the Air and Space Museum, walked from the Capitol to the Washington Monument to the White House and then back to the Capitol taking a few photos along the way.

monument.jpg   whouse.jpg


(Insert your own joke about who broke the Capitol here).

By Sunday, it was time to get back on the road again. When I visited Virginia back in July, I purposely omitted Virginia Beach so that I would be able to include it on this trip. From DC, I drove to VB and then crossed the Chesapeake Bay to collect the two Virginia ocean counties. I had considered visiting them by coming south from Maryland and skipping the bridges and tunnels crossing the Chesapeake, but that would have involved some backtracking. Besides, having never driven the route across the Bay, I wanted to experience that as well.

Here is picture of the southern approach to the bridge taken from the Buoy 44 restaurant in Chic's Beach, a good lunch stop. (foxglove, I opted for the steamed oysters appetizer followed by excellent fish tacos, though the crab cakes are good too. )


In addition to the 2 Virginia counties, I visited 3 more in Maryland before stopping at the CY Ocean City. While it’s a very nice hotel, I struggle to understand why it is a category 9 property ( know, location, location). Undoubtedly the place is packed during the summer months, and despite the wonderful restaurant (The Captain's Table), it lacks the amenities of the full service brands. I will admit the location can't be beat and getting an ocean view room for less than a quarter of the price during peak season made it worth visiting.


During the final two days of my trip, I visited the remaining 6 counties in Maryland, Loudoun County, Virginia, the 3 counties in the eastern panhandle of West Virginia, and Fulton County, Pennsylvania. This last stop was to mail a second postcard from McConnellsburg since the one I mailed back in November 2011 never arrived. Happily this time the postal service delivered all 26 postcards I sent.

The final night on the road was in Hagerstown at the Springhill Suites, a brand which I almost always enjoy. This was no exception.

As has become my custom, here are before and after maps detailing the places I visited (the mid-Atlantic states are filling in nicely).

MD1.png    MD2.png

Over the week, I completed two states, Maryland and West Virginia, bringing my total up to 9 (plus the District of Columbia). I can now also add Maryland to list of states in which I have stayed at a Marriott property (that total is now up to 26 + DC). And most important of all, I have now met 5 MR Insiders, erc, pluto77, Nathalie, and jerrycoin. I'm hopeful that next year or two, I can meet a few more (foxglove, kharada46, and IAHFLYR you are all definitely on my radar based on my projected travels for 2015-2016).

With no more trips planned for 2014, it will soon be time for a year in review blog post. Stay tuned.

Until then ...

Happy Travels,



A Washington (D.C.) Weekend

Posted by bejacob Oct 2, 2014

This past weekend, I took my shortest county collecting trip of the year (and the shortest since a day trip into eastern Indiana in April 2012). My journeys over the last couple years have typically been between 3 and 7 nights depending on which part of the country I visit and how much vacation time I can squeeze in to my busy schedule.

I've known for about a year that I would be taking a trip to the D.C. area in early November 2014. As I began planning so I could maximize the number of counties I would visit, I realized that no matter which route I took, I would either need to spend more time on away from work than I had allocated or have to leave some counties in the area for a separate trip. Rather than burn more vacation time, I entertained the idea that I could cover much of the additional territory in question in about two days, perfect for a weekend trip, as long as I was willing to rack up another thousand miles on my car and not get to do any sightseeing. While some might consider this a waste, for me it made perfect sense. By cramming all that driving into a weekend, I would be able to spend more time enjoying my weeklong trip at the beginning of November. And let’s not forget that I've got two overlapping promotions going on, so all paid stays have the potential to really boost my rewards points balance.

With all that in mind, I embarked on a quixotic journey to the nation’s capital to clean up the mess just in time for the upcoming mid-term elections. Oh wait, that’s the wrong story. I embarked on lovely drive through the wilds of West Virginia and across the Shenandoah Valley in the pursuit of counties that might otherwise remain uncollected until well after next spring's thaw. I decided that having never stayed in the District of Columbia before, that this trip would be a good time to remedy that. I opted for the Georgetown Marriott, and because I booked early, managed to secure a AAA rate of $134 (a week before my trip, the AAA rate had doubled to $270).

With the destination fixed, I just needed to plan my route to visit as many counties as possible. Rather than recount the boring details, I'll just share the before and after maps of my trip.

Note, for anyone who doesn't understand these maps, please read a few of my earlier blog entries for an explanation of what I am doing and what the colors on the maps mean.

VA1.png     VA2.png

I've included Maryland as I was able to visit two counties there as well as a couple dozen in WV and VA. Though I didn't get to see much, I did visit all the independent cities in northern Virginia – Alexandria, Manassas Park, Falls Church, Fairfax, Manassas, and Winchester (the last three also happen to be county seats for the surrounding counties of Fairfax, Prince William, and Frederick respectively).


In November, I will visit the final three counties in eastern WV panhandle as well as Loudoun County, VA (the last county in northern VA). I’m also looking forward to a potential MR Insider gathering that is being discussed (see Visiting DC area in November). erc, pluto77, vaboywnder, ssindc, and communitymanager, I'll be looking for you (and anyone else who might like to join us).


In any case, I accomplished the goal I set for the weekend. I visited 21 county seats, plus the 3 other independent cities that are not county seats, as well as the District of Columbia (not technically a county, but I've added it to my list anyway). Most of the remaining counties in Maryland are on my itinerary for November, as is Virginia Beach (another independent city) but that's a future blog entry.


Apologies that this entry is so short and doesn't have much in the way of cool photos, but that pretty well sums up how the trip went. While I didn't stop for any sightseeing, this weekend jaunt will make my planned drive next month considerably easier and undoubtedly much more enjoyable.

At the moment, that upcoming trip is the last one scheduled for this year, so I'm already looking ahead to next year. I’ll save my thoughts on that topic for my year-end wrap up. Look for a mid-November blog post which I hope will have a picture or two of a few of the Insiders gang.

Until then…

Happy Travels,


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