Stumped For A Gift? Visit a Museum

Mother’s Day and Father’s Day are one or two months away and if you are lucky enough to still have your mother and/or father around now is as good a time as any to think about what to get them. Rather than just picking up something at the last minute from the local drugstore you might want to try to find something a little more creative and relevant for your loved ones. I am reminded of this after visiting the Gift Shop at Leu Gardens last weekend.  The place is jammed packed (literally – it’s hard to move around too quickly in there) with all kinds of “gifty” things for your favorite gardener. From accessories to books the variety of items on offer was quite diverse and the store offers gift certificates if you can’t make a decision.

Of course, I bring this up because I love museum stores and I’ve recently visited a few interesting ones. Sometimes the merchandise can be pretty pricey but many have a wide range of items that are truly unique to the region or focused on a particular interest. I’ve purchased coasters from the Dali Museum in St Petersburg, Florida, a decorative ceramic tile from the Museum of Fine Arts store in Boston and jewelry from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

In New Orleans, we visited the Museum Store at the New Orleans Museum of Art (NOMA) and I was sorely tempted to buy a new scarf. I decided against it because I already have quite a collection of scarves. However, my friend did find some beautiful garden tags to label her herb garden. The brightly lit store has a significant children’s section with books, games and toys.

Many of these stores offer discounts to members which can be a reason to join if you love the merchandise enough to buy a significant amount of items over time. And, in some cases you don’t have to go into the Museum itself (either via the online store or via a separate entrance to the store on site) to visit the store, thus eliminating the admission to some places. 

So what follows is a list of some of my favorite museum stores.

The Dali Museum, St Petersburg, Florida. Huge store with Dali prints and Dali images reconstituted into all kinds of merchandise.

The Harry P. Leu Garden and Museum Store, Orlando, Florida. Small store crammed with decorative garden items and books.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City. Unique jewelry items. Art prints including limited editions, books, toys, clothing and accessories.

The Morse Museum, Winter Park, Florida. Tiffany Lamp reproductions and stained glass items. Stationery, apparel and accessories.

The Art Institute of Chicago. Beautiful prints and books. Unique jewelry items as well.

The Smithsonian, all the museums of this institution have a store but these, located in Washington DC stand out in my opinion.

World of Coca-Cola, Atlanta, Georgia. Okay this place is a living commercial for Coca-Cola products but I’m a Diet Coke fiend so if you love Coke memorabilia this is the place to go crazy.

Shanghai Museum of Art.  You won’t necessarily find any bargains here but what you find is genuine merchandise without the typical haggling and harassment you will find as a tourist in Shanghai.  A peaceful place to shop for quality items.

This is just a small sampling of what’s out there. Do you have a favorite Museum Store?

Priscilla Emery, one half of the Travel2some


Tony Cheng’s Mongolian Grill – Tradition Amongst The Change

A few weeks ago, while in Washington DC on business, I had the opportunity to have dinner at an old favorite. Actually, my choice was pretty much made for me since the only restaurants located within walking distance of my hotel were located in the Gallery Place/ Chinatown area of DC and the area was teeming with Caps fans converging on the nearby Verizon Center for the evening’s game.

I had just finished visiting the Smithsonian Museum of American Art and was starving. This area of DC has changed significantly over the last 12 years and has a lot of restaurant choices but most were packed to the gills, with lines going outside the door in some cases. And, when I checked Open Table for a place to get a reservation I was out of luck until much later in the evening.

Then I remembered Tony Cheng’s Restaurant right around the corner from all the hustle and bustle and near to the Chinatown gate. The restaurant upstairs is a standard “sit down” place but downstairs has the “grill,” a buffet that hasn’t really changed since I last dined there, more than 12 years ago. The dining room was a sea of red Caps’ jerseys but I was seated immediately.

I always loved this place and this visit re-cemented that adoration. The waiter took my drink order and asked if I was familiar with the routine. Since I was, no explanation was necessary but he did issue a reminder, vegetables and noodles in the bottom of the bowl, meat on top.

The grill is centered in the middle of the dining room and there are two access points to the food. You, essentially, move around in a semi-circle around the buffet and fill your bowl with the items you want cooked on the grill. The food generally “cooks down” so filling up the bowl is a requirement unless you want to make lots of trips back and forth to your table. The vegetables include cilantro (an herb but who cares), carrots, peppers, onions, bean sprouts, snow peas and more. There are also noodles and scallions – cooked white rice is automatically placed on your table. The choice of meats are thinly sliced frozen versions of beef, chicken, pork and lamb. Shrimp costs extra.

After you’ve filled your bowl you end up in front of the tiered array of sauces and oils that are used to cook the items. You can pick your own sauces or just hand the bowl over to the cook and have them select the sauces appropriate to the meat you’ve selected. Over time I’ve realized that the cooks are a better judge of what will taste good than I am so I just handed them my bowl and watched them cook my beef and vegetables loaded with cilantro. This whole exercise took less than 5 minutes from the time I was seated.

When I returned to my table the bowl of white rice, a dish of marinated cabbage, and a basket of sesame bread were waiting for me. The bread is ideal for sopping up the sauce at the bottom of the bowl. I went back a couple more times for chicken and lamb and I was done. The meal is topped off with a small dollop of the ice cream selection(s) for the day and a fortune cookie.

And, of course, the check. The buffet costs $16.95 plus drink, tax and tip. For this neighborhood and the quality of food this is still one of the best deals in town. The neighborhood may have changed a great deal over the last several years and most people will say that is a change for the better but it’s nice to know that Tony Cheng’s still offers its traditional fare at reasonable prices.


Amtrak’s AutoTrain Economics – An Update

Several years ago I wrote an article comparing the costs of a typical road trip up the east coast from Central Florida to NYC versus taking the Amtrak AutoTrain back from Virginia to Florida.  The link to that article is here.  Overall the economics are pretty much the same from the drive versus AutoTrain standpoint but there have been some changes since the article was written.  The cost of taking the AutoTrain has gone up a little bit and the cost of gas has gone down a little bit (about 20 cents a gallon depending on where you live).  I plan on taking the AutoTrain up to the Washington DC area in a few weeks and thought I’d compare the costs.  The reason for taking the train isn’t all focused on economics –  my sinuses could use a break from the up and down of flying.

So here is an update comparing the cost of taking a flight to DC and renting a car versus taking the AutoTrain up and back and not having to rent a car. 

The total cost to take the AutoTrain roundtrip is $635.  Broken down this is the roundtrip cost of a coach seat (about $268 using a AAA 10% discount rate) and the  cost of transporting the car ($367).  The coach seat is just that.  It is not a compartment.  But it is equivalent to a business class seat on a plane with outlets to plug in cell phones, laptops, etc.  Dinner and a continental breakfast are included.  What you sacrifice here is time.  Even so, I find I can get quite a bit of writing done on the train that I can’t get done sitting in the cramped quarters of an airplane seat.  I also have to take into account that the mileage to the Amtrak AutoTrain Station in Sanford, Florida from my house is less than that going to the Orlando International Airport.

So what’s the cost to fly and drive to DC from Orlando.  I could take into account that I don’t have to leave the day before the flight would leave and arrive on a different day but there are no extra hotel days involved so hotel costs are the same.  Here we are just comparing overall flight, meal, car rental and airport parking costs.

  • Flight roundtrip to Reagan National Airport – $247 on USAir.  That is the cheapest flight that will accommodate my business schedule and closest to where I’m staying in Virginia (at least according to Kayak).
  • Checked Bag Fee: $25.  The AutoTrain doesn’t charge for checked bags since your bags are in the trunk of your car.  You can bring a carryon for the overnight.
  • Rental Car Costs:  $382 including tax using Avis.  This is for an equivalent size car to mine and doesn’t include the additional gas charges but I’m also assuming I will have to fill up my car while in the DC area. 
  • Airport Parking:  $49.
  • Food at Airport: $15.  Since flights don’t offer any food this cost has to be factored in.

Total: $718

A difference of about $83 more for the flight and car rental.  That may not sound like a lot to some people but I also know that when I go to this particular trade show I end up having to ship stuff back home because I can’t take it back with me on the plane.  That can add up to significant shipping costs that I won’t have to incur if I just stow the stuff in the trunk of my car on the way back.

Just something to think about if you want to take the AutoTrain on your own and think of it as too expensive.

Priscilla (one have of the Travel2some)