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Nashville, via Hotwire
HIDDEN-PROVIDER SITES

Sunday, July 20, 2003

WHAT: Two nights at the Sheraton Nashville Downtown and round-trip airfare on US Airways, booked three days before departure on Hotwire.com.

HOW I BOOKED IT: I clicked on the Packages icon on the home page. The site covers 90-plus destinations, including Atlanta, St. Louis and Tucson, but this city girl's heart was set on line dancing and the Grand Ole Opry.

A "no changes" warning applies, as does a two-hour time limit from initial query to purchase confirmation. I didn't feel the pressure when "practicing" on Hotwire a few days before I made my purchase, but on Tuesday the blood rushed when the clock started.

I asked for a round-trip ticket to Nashville with a Friday departure and Sunday return. Eight options matched these criteria, arranged in order of Top Picks (you can also sort by star rating, hotel name and price). Hotel details were provided, but except for noting that I didn't want a red-eye, there were no flight specifics. For that, I'd have to wait until after purchasing the package.

I scrolled for the cheapest options and liked the sound of $370 at the Sheraton, including all taxes and fees. I called the Sheraton to check on cheap transportation from the airport (Gray Line goes round trip for $17), then entered my billing information.

A few nail-biting minutes later (for all I knew I'd be on a puddle-jumper leaving at a God-forsaken hour) I had an e-ticket on US Airways through Charlotte, leaving Dulles at 10:20 a.m. Friday and departing Nashville at 10:40 a.m. two days later. Phew.

BIGGEST ANNOYANCE: Losing a great hotel deal ($340 at the Sheraton) and my airport of choice (Reagan National) because I waited a day to book. When I plugged in the same itinerary the next day, the same package popped up -- with a big fat "expired" sign. Then this: "The two-hour purchase window for this search result has passed. The same exact search cannot be conducted within 48 hours of the original search." Man! Thankfully, a similar deal was available from Dulles, but what if my home area was only served by one airport? I'd have been out of luck.

NICEST SURPRISE: My hotel (with pool) was in the center of town: I was able to walk everywhere, save the Grand Ole Opry.

LESSONS LEARNED: Next time I'll do advance recon more than two days before I actually want to purchase -- or I'll log on to another computer. I'll type in my preferred airport from the start instead of just "Washington" to save a step. (The "change airport" button lets you alter the request without having to retype it).

THE EXPERIENCE: Nashville welcomed me with a shuttle driver who announced, unprompted, that "Yup, I'm a hillbilly, a thoroughbred. My wife's got papers on me." After easy flights and a 15-minute shuttle ride to the hotel, I checked into my room, with its queen-size bed and view of the Nashville skyline. A trip to the visitors center (Fifth Avenue and Broadway) yielded a courtesy coupon book and help buying a ticket to the Grand Ole Opry. They advised taking a (paid) self-guided tour of the Ryman Auditorium (116 Fifth Ave. N.), where I saw the devout pay to have their picture taken on the stage where Patsy Cline once sang. One woman was so moved, she gave an impromptu performance. Luckily there wasn't much glass around.

On Broadway, the main drag, twangs emanated from the row of neon-lit honkytonks (and this at 2 in the afternoon) as I headed to the Country Music Hall of Fame (222 Fifth Ave. S.). It rocked: Nudie Suits! Loretta Lynn's Crisco commercial! Elvis's diamond dust-covered Caddie!

Sam's Sushi Bar (200 Fourth Ave. N.) provided a respite from my afternoon of tasseled outfits and recorded "God bless yous." It's the kind of no-frills joint where you write down your own order and then the chef argues with you until given free rein, and he comes out with an enormous plate of the best sushi ever, all for $6.25.

At the Wildhorse Saloon (120 Second Ave. N.), the most famous of the strip of music 'n' mayhem establishments lining Second Avenue, I didn't meet a single local -- but Georgia and Alabama sure were well represented. I line danced (sort of) in the mammoth dance hall, where the music is live and the emcees raw. Even the elderly cowboy up in the two-tiered gallery didn't escape the catcalling; he obliged by shakin' it in the middle of the floor.

Saturday began with a groan . . . and a shriek . . . and then a little bit of rattling. The hotel pipes were feeling their age. I headed to the Frist Center for the Arts (919 Broadway) for some serious art (Ottoman artifacts) and then inquired about the Parthenon, honoring Nashville's claim as the Athens of the South and home to a 42-foot golden Athena.

I was determined to walk there -- and everyone else seemed determined that I shouldn't. "It's three or five miles from here," protested a concierge at the historic Union Station Hotel (1001 Broadway). "You have to take a cab!" said the woman at Centennial Park, site of the Parthenon since 1897. Undeterred, I strolled straight down the main drag, past fast-food chains and car dealerships, and 30 minutes later arrived at a grassy oasis across the street from Vanderbilt University. It was two miles, at most.

Kitsch craving satisfied, I fell into another world just minutes away at the Scarritt-Bennett Center (1008 19th Ave. S.), a retreat with Gothic architecture and a serene meditation garden. Every second weekend in July, the center hosts a Celebration of Cultures, with dahl, injera and other delicacies, Aashid Himons's acoustic blues, Chinese lantern-making and little girls in straw hats performing Colombian folk dances. Everyone seemed pleased, if surprised, at a tourist's appearance, for although there was not a cowboy hat among them, this was a strictly local crowd.

My feet took a rest on the 34X bus to Opry Mills (433 Opry Mills Dr.), where the Bible Factory Outlet rubs shoulders with the Bass store. A peek at the Gaylord Opryland Resort -- a bubble-covered world complete with hotel, general store and river (!) -- and it was time for Eddie Stubbs to announce the Saturday evening broadcast performance of the Carnegie Hall of Country: the Grand Ole Opry (2802 Opryland Dr.). Alison Krauss, Buddy Jewell and others fiddled, strummed and sang for us and their radio audience. Not a bad way to end 48 hours in Music City, even if the shuttle back to the hotel did put me $8.38 over budget.

PACKAGE PRICE: $370, including air, hotel and taxes.

PRICE IF BOOKED A LA CARTE: $505.50, before tax, minimum. Southwest flies to Nashville from BWI for $251.50. I checked Orbitz (flights start at $546), called US Airways ($755.50 for my exact itinerary) and checked with the Sheraton to find they had one room left for $127 per night.

TOTAL PRICE FOR TRIP: Hotwire package ($370), transportation to/from Dulles ($16.40), round-trip airport shuttle ($17), Grand Ole Opry ($29.44), Ryman ($6 with coupon), Country Music Hall of Fame ($13.95 with coupon), Wildhorse Saloon ($6 cover), Frist Center ($6.50), bus ($1.75), Opry shuttle ($9), meals ($32.34). Total: $508.38.

BOTTOM LINE: This was the easiest trip ever. I liked the price, loved the hotel location, and the weekend was a perfect introduction to Nashville for a country music neophyte. The day after I booked my trip, Hotwire launched its Weekender packages, which lets you choose from four departure time windows for a trip in the coming two weekends, eliminating my only reservation about the service.

-- Anne McDonough

© 2003 The Washington Post Company