A mystery vacation with a surprise ending


The Denver Art Museum’s architecture is just as eye-catching as what’s inside. (Becky Krystal/The Washington Post)

After weeks of waiting and agonized anticipation, it has come down to this: a single envelope begging to be opened.

It feels like college admissions season all over again. Except that there will be no lifelong repercussions. No, the contents of this bright red folder will merely determine how and where I’ll be spending 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 finger the package and take a deep breath.


(Dongyun Lee/For The Washington Post)

When vacation 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 the reins over to someone else. 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 specializes in trips that are, yes, a mystery.

In a concept that’s part “Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?,” part Match.com and part “The Amazing Race,” 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 or, when done well, could be very, very awesome. I’m a glass-is-half-full kind of person, so even though it went against most of my instincts, I took the plunge.

The planning process begins with a lengthy 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 traveled? How much do I want to spend?

But even these questions bring on an existential crisis. If I say that my preferred airport is National, will it mean that 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 really start overthinking things (ha). I worry that my preference for higher-end hotels will make me seem like a snob or that lodging will eat up too much of my budget. When asked whether I’d be comfortable going someplace where English isn’t commonly spoken, I say no, but not without obsessing over the fear that it will make me look closed-minded.

I say that I prefer mountains, snow or urban settings to tropical or desert ones. I spurn the concept of all-inclusive resorts. Forget rental cars, because I much prefer public transportation. I want the trip to include museums, fine dining, ad­ven­ture and historical sites, among other things.

And when asked to weigh in on the philosophical divide over whether travel is about the journey or the 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. Once I fork over the $300 research fee, she’ll start planning my trip.

The overactive gears in my head start turning again. I’d originally suggested a $1,300 budget, unsure whether that would include the research fee. Now that I know it does, I tell Alicia that we can bump up the total cost to $1,500, leaving a solid $1,200 for transportation and accommodations. I’d be on the hook for meals, activities and any other extras. I hope that the extra $200 to play with will really let the company unleash its creativity — or, at the very least, get me a little farther away from the chilly monotony that is January in Washington.

After sending my payment 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 $1,125.75, but there’s an interesting wrinkle — I’ll be paying only $770.82 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 to my pending mystery trip 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.

Even after I’ve committed to the trip, 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 constantly arises at home, at the office and at dinner with friends. Everyone wants to get in on trying to solve the mystery. Everyone wants to be right. I feel a bit like a Vegas bookie as people around me weigh the odds and place their bets. (Actually, now that I think of it, this little game could have been rather lucrative.)

We know enough to make it intriguing but not enough to come to any definitive conclusion. The clues are tantalizing. I figure that flying out of National means that 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 continuously seize on this tidbit. Our imaginations run wild. What could it possibly be? A train ticket? A personal chauffeur (paging Tom Branson)? 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 in a post-trip debriefing. She will even scour a wall-mounted map to begin brainstorming a vacation.

“We really do start with a blank slate,” she says. “They’re all customized to the individual person.”

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 traveler 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 vacation to the 15 to 20 hours so far that 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 in the month between when I booked it and when I will actually take it.

It’s amazing how much not knowing what you might get crystallizes 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 realize that my underlying travel wish list is, against reason, perpetually coloring my guesses.

I keep clinging to the notion of Iceland. Yes, of course, a trip to Iceland would almost certainly mean a nonstop 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 that I’d already been to Quebec City and loved it. Plus, with public transportation and great food, what place could be a better match for me?

The possibilities that my family puts forward show their biases, too. My husband floats Portland, Ore., 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 that this might be the answer.

Apparently, the next time we’re planning a vacation, we need to consider Montreal, Iceland and Portland.

My dad suggests Santa Fe or Taos, N.M., places that he has visited. He theorizes that the on-the-ground transportation portion is for a rental SUV, insurance against snow in those two destinations.

Despite my hope that so much money would not be going toward my ride — I really do prefer public transportation in unfamiliar places — I begin to admit that 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 driver’s license, or at least share the number on it.

Still, I hold out hope that there’s a more exciting explanation. I’m the eternal optimist.

Three weeks into the countdown, the wait is tormenting me. I think glaciers move faster.

Barrett had told me to expect an e-mail from her a week before my departure. I’d find out my flight time and get a weather report and a rough packing list.

The Sunday before the Sunday that I’m scheduled to leave comes and goes. Where are my clues? Expecting a tease that doesn’t arrive is worse than the days when I never expected anything. I will myself to be patient. After all, it’s the weekend. Even I try not to work then.

The next morning, I shoot off a note to Barrett. Minutes later, I get a note from her. Our e-mails had crossed.

The facts are these: I’ll be flying Frontier out of National at 8:45 a.m. Sunday. The weather forecast predicts sunny days with highs in the 50s and lows in the 20s. I should bring my driver’s license, 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 that 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, it was such a blur — I start throwing destinations into Weather.com. I mean, how much could that tell me, right? Surely that forecast could apply to any number of destinations. I check the three places that seem promising. They’re all pretty close. Belatedly, my conscience revives itself. I feel dirty.

My co-workers start to talk about looking at the Frontier route map. My survival instinct kicks in and I sprint away from my desk, all but sticking my fingers in my ears and shouting “lalalalala.”

Two days before my departure, I come home to a quiet house. The USPS envelope with my itinerary sits at my place on the dining room table. (Why the last-minute shipment, which Barrett acknowledges makes people nervous? “It would be too much of a temptation sitting there on the dining room table for a week.”) I carefully open it, per Barrett’s blessing.

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???”

Where??? indeed.

I shake the package, as if that would tell me something, anything.

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. That works out just fine for the guy in “The Tell-Tale Heart,” no?

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.

Duh.

“It’s like Occam’s razor,” my husband philosophizes as he pulls my suitcase out of the trunk. “The simplest explanation is usually the right one.”

Really, where else would I be going on Frontier out of National?

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’ve lived with for weeks.

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. Maybe this will be okay.

Over breakfast in the terminal and on my flight, I peruse the recommended activities, of which there are about 10. In other words, enough to fill my few days but perhaps not as many as I think my $300 should have bought me. (On the other hand, the $220 plane ticket, $250 rental SUV and $185 per night room at the chic Hotel Monaco are just as good as or better than I would have done on my own.)

Barrett later tells me that my trip came during the company’s transition period, as it shifted to building more detailed itineraries for an additional $100.0

Those who don’t pay that fee now get a guidebook instead, which I would have greatly appreciated, given how much additional research I end up doing in Denver using the Internet and the city’s visitors guide.

Still, 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 nearby Manitou Cliff Dwellings. After the dwellings, I take her advice and stroll Manitou Springs, home to some of the best falafel I’ve ever had.

Back in the city, I pass several hours at the top-notch Denver Art Museum. For a midweek afternoon, the place is hopping thanks to the superb, now-closed “Passport to Paris” exhibit. I also sample the beer scene during a brewery tour at Great Divide Brewing Co. And I have to give Barrett props for recommending the house-made root beer at Wyn­koop Brewing Co., complex with flavors of licorice and vanilla.

The Denver Museum of Nature and Science is another obvious yet enjoyable attraction. Like the art museum, it offers stunning views of the Rockies.

When I return to Washington, everyone’s anxious to hear about my trip. I tell them that Denver is a great city but that I also wish I’d had more time to explore the historic gold-mining towns that dot the region.

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 that I probably would never have chosen on my own.

Is that worth a $300 fee? Is the element of mystery worth $300?

Before this whole adventure, I would have said no. Now, I think yes.

I return to the questionnaire's most philosophical question and reconsider my answer. Maybe sometimes the trip is more about the journey than the destination.

DETAILS

About Magical Mystery Tours, www.magical-mystery-tours.com

• Research fee is $300; an extra $100 gets you an itinerary and reservations.

• Suggested trip budgets start at $1,200 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 traveler.

• Payment includes transportation and accommodations, plus taxes. You cover luggage fees, meals and anything you plan on your own.

• The company recommends giving its team six to eight weeks to plan your trip. Less than six weeks’ notice may incur a rush fee.

• 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.

Becky Krystal is a member of The Post's Food and Travel staffs. In her spare time she loves to, of course, travel and cook.
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