Washington - After weeks of waiting, it has come down to this: a single envelope begging to be opened.
The contents of this bright red folder will determine how and where I’ll spend the next four days.
I’ve signed up for a mystery trip.
My husband, who has been roped into this escapade by promising to drive me to my early-morning flight, parks the car in front of Terminal A at Reagan National Airport.
I take a deep breath.
When holiday time rolls around, I’m usually the primary planner. This can be attributed to my – how shall we put it – Type A personality, as well as my job?
Sometimes, though, a girl needs a break. So for a short midwinter getaway, I decide to hand over the reins. Way over. In the ultimate act of letting go, I bypass traditional travel agents and sign up with Magical Mystery Tours, a small Washington-based agency that specialises in trips that are, yes, a mystery.
Your destination is a total secret until you arrive at the airport. It seemed like the kind of thing that, when done poorly, could go very, very wrong; when done well, could be very, very awesome.
The planning process begins with an online questionnaire. About a month before my intended trip, I find myself sweating over how best to fill it out. Some details are pretty straightforward: How long do I want my trip to be? What’s my preferred airport? Where else have I travelled? How much do I want to spend?
But even these questions bring on an existential crisis. If I say my preferred airport is National, will it mean I probably won’t be flying to another country? If my budget is too skimpy, will the results be lame?
Am I gaming the system by answering these questions a certain way? Is trying not to game the system a way of gaming the system? What on Earth do I want?
Then I start overthinking things (ha). I worry my preference for high-end hotels will make me seem like a snob or lodging will eat up too much of my budget. When asked whether I’d be comfortable going some place where English isn’t spoken, I say no, but not without obsessing about seeming closed-minded.
I say I prefer mountains, snow or urban settings to tropical or desert ones. I spurn all-inclusive resorts. Forget rental cars, because I prefer public transport. I want the trip to include museums, fine dining, adventure and historical sites.
When asked to weigh in on the philosophical divide over whether travel is about the journey or destination, I choose the destination.
I click the submit button. I haven’t even gone anywhere and I’m already exhausted.
Within a day or so, I hear from Alicia Barrett, the Magical Mystery Tours travel consultant.
After sending my payment (See sidebox) to Magical Mystery via PayPal, I spend about a week compulsively checking my e-mail, waiting to hear that my trip has been planned.
Then one afternoon, the word comes. I’ll be leaving National on a Sunday morning and returning on a Wednesday night. The estimated price of the trip is $1 125, (R12 000) but there’s an interesting wrinkle – I’ll be paying only $770 (R8 300) up front. I’ll pay the rest upon arrival for “on-the-ground transportation”.
All I need to do is give my approval and pay up. Done and done.
Let the guessing games begin.
Reaction from friends, family and co-workers range from “no way, José” to “no way”. Where some proclaim that they would never, ever do such a thing, at least one person is ready to book his own trip. “That is so cool!” exclaims my mom, a self-professed worrier and the person I was most reluctant to reveal my plans to. Shows me.
I find myself in the middle of the reaction spectrum – as in, love the concept, anxious about the results.
Quickly, though, the conversation shifts from the merits of a mystery trip to what my destination could be. The topic arises at home, at the office and at dinner with friends. Everyone wants to get in on trying to solve the mystery. I feel a bit like a Vegas bookie as people around me weigh the odds and place their bets.
We know enough to make it intriguing but not enough to come to any definitive conclusion. I figure flying out of National means an international destination is unlikely, unless I’ll be connecting – just as unlikely considering that the trip is only four days. Still, I think that at least a jaunt in Mexico City or someplace like Montreal or Toronto might be feasible.
But what about that “on-the-ground transportation”? The enthusiastic prognosticators and I seize on this. Our imaginations run wild. A train ticket? A personal chauffeur? A bus tour? A round-trip dog-sled ride to a picturesque inn?
We might as well have been closing our eyes and pointing to a random spot on a spinning globe. Which, at least at first, is how Barrett gets started planning her clients’ trips.
“I literally pull up a Google Map on my computer,” she tells me. She will even scour a wall-mounted map to begin brainstorming a holiday.
Barrett, the dedicated travel planner among Magical Mystery’s three employees, studies the client questionnaires closely to get a good sense of the person. She takes the climate of possible destinations into account and triangulates that with airfare and traveller preferences. In addition to relying on her own globe-trotting experiences, she looks to sources such as Conde Nast Traveler and Travel + Leisure for inspiration. She also gleans wisdom from travel agent forums.
The amount of time she spends planning a trip can vary from a few hours for a domestic, limited-time and budget holiday to the 15 to 20 hours so far she has invested in a two-week journey through Turkey.
I’m a little embarrassed thinking about how many hours I’ve spent pondering my trip.
It’s amazing how much not knowing what you might get crystallises what you really want. Though far-flung locations are out, it still feels as though the entire world is a possibility. But I begin to realise my underlying travel wish list is, against reason, colouring my guesses.
I keep clinging to the notion of Iceland. Yes, of course, a trip to Iceland would almost certainly mean a non-stop flight out of Dulles to Reykjavik. But what about winter discounts? And maybe the ground transportation is one of those group tours in the Golden Circle?
Other times I fixate on Montreal. After all, I said I’d already been to Quebec City and loved it. Plus, with public transport and great food, what place could be a better match?
The possibilities that my family puts forward show their biases, too. My husband floats Portland, Oregon, because he’d been there on a work trip and liked it and because we’ve always wanted to go there together. At various points, I’m also convinced this might be the answer.
Apparently, next time we’re planning a holiday, we must consider Montreal, Iceland and Portland.
My dad suggests Santa Fe or Taos, New Mexico, places he has visited. He theorises that the on-the-ground transport portion is for a rental SUV, insurance against snow in those two destinations.
Despite my hope that so much money would not be going towards my ride, I begin to admit the theory holds water. My colleague, the savvy globe-trotter Andrea Sachs, points out that a rental car is something that another person couldn’t readily pay for, because I’d have to show the agency my driving licence or at least share the number on it.
Still, I hope there’s a more exciting explanation.
Three weeks into the countdown, the wait is tormenting me.
Barrett had told me to expect an e-mail from her a week before departure. I’d find out my flight time and get a weather report and a rough packing list.
The Sunday before the Sunday I’m scheduled to leave comes and goes. Where are my clues?
The next morning, I shoot off a note to Barrett. Minutes later, I get a note from her.
The facts are these: I’ll be flying Frontier out of National at 8.45am on Sunday. The weather forecast predicts sunny days with highs in the 10s and lows at about -6°C. I should bring my driving licence, camera, sunglasses, outdoors-appropriate clothing and shoes, casual duds for dining and “warm clothing for the cold evenings”.
My mind races. I’m familiar enough with Frontier to assume I’ll be going west. Probably connect through Denver, but to where? Portland, Albuquerque and Phoenix zoom to the top of the likely-candidates list.
I’ll admit it now. I was weak. At some point, I’m not sure when, I start throwing destinations into Weather.com – I mean, how much could that tell me, right?
Two days before my departure, I come home to a quiet house. The envelope with my itinerary sits at my place on the dining room table. I carefully open it.
Inside there’s another envelope, bright red and sealed. On the front is a sticker emblazoned with a white curly font: “Greetings from ? Magical Mystery Tours – wish you were WHERE?”
I feel myself on the brink. I run upstairs and throw the envelope into a drawer in my home office. Out of sight, out of mind.
The day arrives. We’re at the airport, a bit bleary-eyed. Not so bleary, though, that I have any problem reading my destination: Denver.
I feel the wind go out of my sails a little. Denver? Not the sexiest-sounding destination at first blush. Then again, I wonder whether anything could have lived up to the frenzied anticipation.
I read Barrett’s explanation for her choice: “Denver, an intriguing combination of modern American city and overgrown Old West town, offers a wide variety of attractions, activities, and events. You’ll discover art, history, sports, recreation, shopping, and plenty of night life. Denver seemed like the ideal place for you since your top picks were mountains and urban – Denver gives you access to both.”
Well, she has me there.
I peruse the recommended activities, of which there are about 10.
I stick as close to Barrett’s recommendations as I can, excluding a few that turn out to be closed while I’m in town. I spend a balmy afternoon at the fantastic Denver Zoo. I take a road trip toward Colorado Springs, where I tour the Luray Caverns-esque Cave of the Winds and the Manitou Cliff Dwellings. Then I take her advice and stroll Manitou Springs, home to the best felafel.
Back in the city, I pass several hours at the top-notch Denver Art Museum. I also sample the beer scene during a brewery tour at Great Divide Brewing Co.
The Denver Museum of Nature and Science is another obvious yet enjoyable attraction. It offers stunning views of the Rockies.
When I return to Washington, everyone’s anxious to hear about my trip. I tell them Denver is a great city.
Even though I’d hoped for a more exotic destination, Magical Mystery gets credit for a total surprise and for introducing me to a destination I’d never have chosen on my own.
Is the element of mystery worth the research fee?
Before this adventure, I’d have said no. Now, I think yes.
I return to the questionnaire’s most philosophical question and reconsider. Maybe sometimes the trip is more about the journey. – The Washington Post
About Magical Mystery Tours, www.magical-mystery-tours.com
l Research fee is $300 (R3 230); an extra $100 gets you an itinerary and reservations.
l Suggested trip budgets start at $1 200 (R13 000) for a two-person weekend trip, $900 for one person. Plan to add $150 for each extra night and at least $300 for each extra traveller.
l Payment includes transportation and accommodations, plus taxes. You cover luggage fees, meals and anything you plan on your own.
l The company recommends giving its team six to eight weeks to plan your trip. Less than six weeks’ notice may incur a rush fee.
l A week before your trip, you’ll receive a weather forecast, a suggested packing list and a check-in time and location. A few days later, you’ll get a folder with your trip details – which, yes, you’re not supposed to open till you get to the airport.