Taking a Field Trip Aboard the Party Bus

By Fritz Hahn
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, November 10, 2006

I love to travel, but I've never been much for group tours. Being herded from place to place with a pack of strangers? What if they're boring? What if they're the kind of people who'd rather have dinner at the well-known tourist haunt than the back-street spot where locals go?

I feel the same way about pub crawls -- I'd rather explore on my own and have the freedom to move on in case (or when) I get bored. Then I heard about a new service called the Boomerang Nightlife Party Bus.

For $25, riders get free admission, front-of-the-line privileges and drink specials at four or five nightspots and transportation between bars. At the end of the night, they are dropped off back at the Metro station where they started. It sounds like a bar-crawl limo service, and I'm curious about the other benefits. After all, getting a cab from Virginia to the District and back is frequently more than $25 round trip.

Boomerang runs bar crawls Thursday through Saturday. Thursday and Saturday start with happy hour at the Dupont branch of the Front Page before heading to Capitol Hill, Adams Morgan, Georgetown, Midtown (the area between Farragut North and Farragut West stations), Dupont Circle, H Street NE or the Southwest Waterfront, while Fridays begin at the Front Page in Ballston before hitting a trio of nightspots in the District, then back to Arlington. The Boomerang's promoters tell me they work with about 15 bars, so the lineup changes often.

Last Friday, my friend Kathryn and I made reservations for the Boomerang. All we knew was that we needed to be at the Front Page before 9 and that there would be happy hour specials for all participants.

The Front Page: We make it to the Front Page about 15 minutes before scheduled departure and wander around the bar before finding the Boomerang crew in the back room, where some of our fellow passengers are taking advantage of discounted beers and engaging in celebratory shots. There's an interesting mix of riders waiting to board: military guys, women in short skirts, even a few older men. Everyone is huddling with their groups, eyeing new arrivals curiously. For the next four hours or so, these are the people we're hanging out with.

We spot "party coordinator" Nikki DuBois, thanks to her Boomerang T-shirt and the large Boomerang flag next to her. She checks us in and hands us our wristbands.

There are about three dozen passengers tonight, so after a last check of the reservations clipboard, Nikki and partner/husband Dave lead us to the bus. Kathryn leans over to me and says, in a singsong tone, "I see novelty hats!"

On the bus: If the Boomerang Nightlife Party Bus is in your neighborhood, you won't miss it, because the large, painted school bus is almost as conspicuous as the Partridge Family's. Inside, the high, vinyl-covered-seats and hard-to-lower windows make it much like the buses we rode as kids -- though this one looks like it was hijacked and redecorated by high school students on spring break in Acapulco. Colorful streamers and "Zona Caliente" signs hang from the ceiling, and walls are painted with corny sayings, such as "Beauty is in the eye of the beerholder" and "24 hours in a day. 24 beers in a case. Coincidence?"

As we take our seats, Nikki and Dave climb on and begin passing out plastic leis, enormous sombreros and zebra-striped cowboy hats. Strewn around are plastic maracas, as brightly colored as macaws. It's going to be that kind of evening.

The music is relentlessly upbeat -- "Hot Hot Hot" and "Hips Don't Lie" -- and as we make our way into the District, some of the passengers are already in the festive spirit, shaking their maracas and grooving along to Jimmy Buffett.

Nikki gets on the PA system and runs down the basics for the night: We're hitting bars in Dupont Circle, Midtown and Chinatown, spending exactly an hour at each before moving on. There will be a 10-minute warning to finish drinks and pay tabs before leaving. The bus will return to the Front Page in time for last call and will drop passengers off at every Metro station between Rosslyn and Ballston. As we head up Connecticut Avenue toward Dupont Circle, Nikki perkily announces that the first stop is Steve's Bar Room, "and Steve wants to buy everyone a drink!" The assembled party cheers. "It's 9:27. Let's synchronize watches!"

Steve's Bar Room: As we get off the bus, a bouncer checks IDs and hands us each an orange carnival ticket, while Dave and Nikki proffer Boomerang-logo beer cozies.

In shifts, we head for the private elevator that takes us up to the bar. Steve's used to be a private VIP area connected to the neighboring Greek restaurant Acropolis (now Heritage India), though it's now an independent operation. The Steve in question is Steve Swetlow, who became a familiar face on the nightlife scene after years at MCCXXIII and Ozio.

This one-room lounge is cozy, if only slightly bigger than a two-bedroom apartment, with a long L-shaped bar, a couple of couches and flat-screen TVs. When our three-dozen-strong group floods in, it more than doubles the number of customers. Bartenders struggle to deal with the sudden influx, and when we all start waving drink tickets, one of the pair on duty doesn't know what they're good for. (Eventually, the answer comes back: a free rail cocktail or bottle of beer.) As we drink, the crowd begins to get more social; people are talking to those standing next to them or getting down to the DJ's hip-hop and club mix. Others are kind of quiet, like the guy who sat at the bar smoking and sipping a Bud Light while his buddy introduced himself to women.

Steve's is a solid, somewhat low-key way to start the tour. We chat with people, find out that Nikki used to be a high school teacher and then discover that the vending machine near the bathrooms dispenses $3 cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon as well as candy and cigarettes. (Me: "Wouldn't it shake up the can when it falls?" Guy behind me: "I wouldn't open it.") Before we know it, it's time to move on.

Back on the bus: Nikki herds us outside, and we board for our next destination. Everyone is better lubricated at this point, so there is plenty of maraca shaking before the bus even pulls into traffic. In a couple of minutes, we are at our next stop: Rumors. At least we are getting $3 beers and $2 shooters.

Rumors: There's not much difference of opinion about Rumors: Either you love the frat party atmosphere in the packed, sweaty room, rocking out to Journey, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Jay-Z with college students, just-out-of-college professionals and some older guys who wish they were still in college, or you avoid the place like the plague. (Confession: I'm usually in the latter camp.) Nikki tells me it's one of the more popular stops on the tour, and I can see why: Whether you're from Arlington or Foggy Bottom, Rumors is the kind of place where you feel like you can cut loose. (Just ask the omnipresent bachelorette parties.) After grabbing drinks, we join a few people on the large dance floor, where the mass singalong to "Don't Stop Believin' " is truly awe-inspiring. (Not so much the shooters: After my friend knocks one back, all she says is, "There was vodka in it.") When the hour is up, I'm surprised Nikki and Dave manage to find everyone in the packed room, but we haven't lost anyone -- yet.

Back on the bus again: By this time, people are dancing on the seats. The rattling of maracas could drive a sober person insane, so we're beginning to pity our very patient bus driver. Nikki, shifting effortlessly between school chaperon and cruise director duties, announces that we're going to play some party games on the way to the next stop. In one, co-ed teams have to untie a tightly knotted T-shirt using only their teeth, and then pull it on over both people. Cue much laughing and whistling, and the vibe closely resembles an MTV Spring Break in Cancun reunion show.

There's another game, too, which involves passing a roll of toilet paper from the front seat to the back seat without having it rip, but it's not nearly as exciting. Soon enough, we're at the last port of call: RNR Bar & Lounge.

RNR Bar & Lounge: The newest venue on the Boomerang agenda, RNR opened in Chinatown in early September, only a few weeks after Coyote Ugly left the building. The quick turnaround isn't surprising -- new owner Chris Sanders, formerly of Home nightclub, hasn't changed much about the place, removing the old bras and signage and replacing them with flat-screen TVs. The bar counters are still sturdy and wide enough to dance on. We're ushered to the second floor, where a DJ is spinning. By this point, many of the Boomerang folks were hanging out like old friends, asking each other to dance, ordering drinks, talking about fellow riders. The guys on the work outing are laughing with the women on the girls' night out, the birthday girl is celebrating with a crew at the bar and so on. It's too bad when the night finally ends, though a bunch of riders say they'll stick around for another drink at the Front Page.

The Boomerang Bus is what it is: A night of cheesy fun, dancing and silly party games, with a driver ferrying you between destinations. If you don't want to embrace the atmosphere, you might not have as much fun as your sombrero-wearing, maraca-shaking cohorts.

An upcoming event of note: On Dec. 16 and 21, the Boomerang is sponsoring special holiday bar crawls, where all participants are asked to dress as Santa or Mrs. Claus.

The Front Page 4201 Wilson Blvd., Arlington; 703-248-9990.

The Front Page 1333 New Hampshire Ave. NW; 202-296-6500.

Steve's Bar Room 1337 Connecticut Ave. NW; 202-293-3150.

Rumors 1900 M St. NW; 202-466-7378.

RNR Bar & Lounge 717 Sixth St. NW; 202-589-0016.

Boomerang Nightlife Party Bus 202-725-6226,http://www.ridetheboomerang.com Scene: A night of barhopping and cheesy party games, complete with designated driver.

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