The Irish Catholic Hajj Lived

The trek towards Middle America is daunting in an Econoline van, 700 miles and 11 hours long.  Yet the draw for a 17-strong contingent of Philadelphia area products from the Roman Catholic Church and school systems is irresistible, as witnessed by a core group that has made the South Bend trek to University of Notre Dame football games 17 times now.  

The underside of an obscure card table, inscribed with the names of past participants documents the participants from year-to-year.  Those making the Hajj for the first time dutifully add (R) to their names to signify their rookie status.  We also made habit of marveling at the precision organization, courtesy of Major General (Honarary) Edward Brady (Father Judge ’74), and execution.  Staying out of the way – unless called upon – for fear of ruining the mojo.

The group was not nearly as rowdy as might have been – and probably was – years ago.  Then again most of use are on the downhill side of 50 or below sea-level of 60!  It does seem to mute the wackiness.  The one exception being the call to “Huddle up!!” by Staff Sargeant (Hon) Lenny, a call to imbibe shots of intestinal fortitude.

You learn to celebrate Life more managably as you grow older.

Friday was for a tour of the Notre Dame campus, steeped in history not limited to football.  As a Philly guy, never quite bitten as badly by the ND bug, hearing the story of John Cardinal O’Hara (former Philadelphia Cardinal of the Archdiocese and President of Notre Dame) next to his marble crypt is one example.  The Battle of Gettysburg story of Reverend William Corey, steadying New York’s Irish Brigade in the hours before their date with Destiny at Little Round Top and the wheat field, is quite another.

As for the football experience, the pageantry and loyal following the Fighting Irish inspire is evident at every venue.  For me, the excitement generated by the Notre Dame Band of the Fighting Irish, on Friday particularly with the horn section warming up the crowd inside The Rotunda was simply spectacular!


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Saturday, the focus was FOOTBALL … not to be overshadowed by perhaps the nicest stretch of weather shining down on the Best Tailgating Experience ever!  (OK … Honestly the guy with the satellite dish and 40+ inch screen might have an edge here.)  It’s difficult to imagine a better day.

The Miami of Ohio – Notre Dame game was anticlimactic, given the obvious talent gap and the Irish’s ability to step on Miami’ s throat in the 1st Quarter (Final: ND 52 – Miami 17).  But the highlight truly is that there’s much, much more to enjoy at the Notre Dame Football experience than just a lopsided victory!

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View of our rental’s backyard in the vicinity of the University of Notre Dame

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The Irish American Hajj

Sixteen men, one determined young lady, two Econoline vans (bench seats), 700 miles, 11 hours … A journey meant for the die-hard fans of The Golden Dome, The Fighting Irish, Knute Rockne, The Four Horsemen, and other Legends of the Gridiron ….

An American Hajj (Commitment)

A two-decade tradition expanded to include wannabes and hangers-on.  The planning intricate, resourceful, learned … Leadership the envy of military staffers ….

We depart at zero-dark-thirty for the University of Notre Dame with kisses from the women folk left behind. (Admittedly some of which are not all that worried about more spacious beds, cooking for one, and quiet evenings curled up with Netflix.)  The assault vehicles are loaded; GPS devices homed in; coffeed up and leisurely fed by one weekend widow, we are Oscar Mike!

An American Hajj

hajj – an honorary title given to an individual who is engaging in pilgrimage. The honorific title “Hajj” stays with him, even after his return from pilgrimage until his death, quite often as a permanent title and part of his name with friends and public.

main-buildings-golden-dome-university-of-notre-dame-library-of-congress-lc-dig-highsm-18705One weekend this coming September, I will embark on a pilgrimage to the one of the most important sites for American Roman Catholics.  No … not St. Patrick’s Cathedral, not the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, not the National Shrine of Our Lady of Czestochowa … not the Vatican …

I will be attending my first football game in South Bend, Indiana at the University of Notre Dame!

No doubt in some yet-to-be-discovered scroll tucked in a Galilean sea cave resides an ancient admonishment for all Roman Catholic citizens of the United States to make The Pilgrimage of The Fighting Irish at least once in one’s lifetime!  I’m sure of it.  It must exist … for how else to explain this overpowering physical attraction to The Program???

This is a phenomena with which I grew up in Irish Catholic Philadelphia during the 1960-70s.  It’s been a fascinating thing to witness, especially when few – if any – of those adults and children with whom I grew up actually attended Notre Dame!  The dedication is real and pervasive to the point where many families and friends set aside at least one weekend each football season to make the annual pilgrimage.

Frankly, an Irish Catholic’s love for Notre Dame football is not all that difficult to decipher as a natural development of growing up in undeniably wholesome and homogenous settings, where The Church was a central and integral part in the lives of our Parents and Grandparents … and thus onto us.  It’s a confluence of Sports and Religion unique in its roots, devotion and enduring strength.

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Rockne, The Four Horsemen, and friends

It’s origins likely the outgrowth of the rise of collegiate football in the decades preceding the existence of the National Football League (NFL); and the result of The Fighting Irish’s success and broad appeal in the collective conscience of those proud Catholics. While “the greatest generation” – the generation of my father and uncles, Irishmen all –  lived its formative years, Notre Dame football was a constant presence.

My father was born in 1919.  The years of 1918-1930 were the Knute Rockne years.  A twelve-year stretch consisting of FIVE undefeated seasons and SIX where no more than 2 losses were booked by The Fighting Irish!  So it’s not hard to see how a generation was immersed in the success and glory of Notre Dame football, even in a time long before football polls, National Championships, and the dreaded BCS.

Unfortunately, the lack  of clear-cut test for determining such pressing issues as football supremacy begot arguments that probably sent many an Irish-Americans into Saturday confessionals

For some reason I was not bitten as severely by the ND football bug as so many were in my extended fraternal family.  I like Notre Dame football; enjoy watching; and always pull for them when I catch their broadcasts.  But the fanaticism never took complete root.

In my family, I have had uncles and cousins make the pilgrimage as once-in-a-lifetime excursions or as regular visits.  I had at least one cousin buried in full Notre Dame regalia.  So many funerals and a few weddings had references to The Fighting Irish.

It’s a guy thing … a Catholic thing … a family thing …

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A family thing … Brother Pat and his two sons, Joseph and Andrew

Yet despite all that kelly green DNA, I never had the Irish-urge to see Notre Dame play locally or even think about taking the trip out to South Bend.

That changed a few weeks ago, when a close friend suggested we go out to God’s Country with mutual friends, who have made ND football an annual gig.  I demurred at first … again not smitten with the ND bug.  Then I found out my brother – a true ND football devotee – had decided to join the very same group from his home base on the West Coast.

Though I may not be a Notre Dame football disciple, I am certainly a huge fan of family, friends, fun, and good times.

What better reason could there be to embark on such an American hajj?!?

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Experience the Couples Massage!

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Not us pictured … Divorce might result if it was!

Hope you enjoy this very carefully, very tastefully written review of our first couples massage experience.  Hopefully I will not end up sleeping on the couch … again, when the incredibly lovely Carol stumbles across this post and discovers I shared an semi-intimate moment solely as a way to promote tourism to the Dominican Republic.

OK … and for the laughs.

As I see it … at my age … any day that starts off with me in a pool with a naked female is a Very, Very Good Day!

When it comes to the massage, one must acknowledge that the ability to render a proper massage is an Art!  The techniques are to be admired and enjoyed, but require training and experience.  Although many an intimate couple will play at the Art of Massage, without the proper knowledge and experience, the massage is just a means to an end.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that ….

I will be the first to admit my skills at massage never advanced beyond the clumsy basics.  After this experience while in Punta Cana, I can honestly state that I had no idea just how inexperienced I was.

The Couples Massage package was an extra to the all-inclusive concept at Barceló Bávaro Beach.  But it’s worth every penny!  The spa is located within the Palace Deluxe Hotel complex. and is accessible at any time by Premium Club members.  Besides the quiet, fragrant massage rooms, the spa includes a large outdoor pool and jacuzzi, indoor jacuzzi and small pool, but no drink service.  (You can bring in adult libations if you so desire.)

The experience begins in the gender-specific locker rooms where one can shed all the decorative physical trappings of modest society … at least on the female side.  The men however were encouraged to keep their swimsuits or shorts on …

Bummer … Completely understandable, I guess … Still a bummer …

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Draperies are closed to enhance the romantic mood, and were opened only after the massage was completed.

Once ensconced in a fluffy terry cloth robe, Carol and I met up in the couples suite.  Quiet, dimly lit by candles, with a romantic arrangement of towels in the shape of a heart and two obviously smitten terrycloth swans, richly appointed with fragrant flower petals.  The atmosphere exudes everything you need to slowly slip into a coma of complete relaxation.

What caught me off guard was finding Carol sans ALL Decorative Trappings of Modest Society, while I was still in a swimsuit.  WT … ?!?

But I guess the presence of two female masseuse explains the discrimination to which I was unexposed.  Not that I’m complaining …  At least one of us was completely stripped of all Decorative Trappings of Modest Society!

Even funnier was the experience of the gentleman in the couple who accompanied us to the DR.  He was instructed to shed his swimwear and sling his … uh … male-hood in a “banana hammock”!

When I heard of this AFTER our massage, I was relieved I wasn’t required to sling The Hammock!  Otherwise Carol would have been laughing throughout the entire massage experience!

The massage itself starts with an exfoliation, cleaning and massage of the lower legs and feet while reclining peacefully and blindfolded, which simply makes the experience a bit more mysteriously unsettling.

“What the heck is she doing?  What’s that stuff??  Oh, that’s nice …”

Next comes the main massage event, complete with security-inducing sheet and coverlet on the traditional massage table.  It was during this transition that I noticed Carol and I were differently dressed.

Have I mentioned that already???

To make a long post shorter, I will not go into a detailed playback of the massage itself.  Rest assured it was expertly applied and deeply relaxing.  This being my first professional massage experience, I can say without reservation that the good masseur at Barceló know what they are doing!

champagnesetup02Once the experts were done, the drapes to our private couples room were thrown open to reveal a small pool set off in an equally private walled-off courtyard.  And when we slipped out the door, we were surprised by the presence of two lounge chairs, a bottle of champagne and two glasses!

As one masseuse bid us farewell and drew closed the drapery, she made a very clear pronouncement, “I will be back in 20 minutes!”

That’s when the light went on!

Hmmmm … Carol still au naturel … champagne … massage oils … a pool and complete privacy … for 20 minutes!?!

Well, I appreciated the optimism, especially as to my personal stamina, but that presumption was a bridge too far.  We did however enjoy the personal intimacy of being secluded in an extremely relaxed state in a very cold pool, and enough bubbly to liberate one’s inhibitions.

But that water might have been a bit too cold …

As it turned out, it was one of the best days of the vacation.  The couples massage is definitely worth the price of admission, assuming of course you get a masseuse who knows what they’re doing!

For me … I hit the daily Double the next day with ANOTHER naked female in the pool.  But it was a dolphin …

Travel: Punta Cana, Dominican Republic

dominican-republic-fact-fil-578x298I am not much the world traveler.  When the kids were young, all our vacations were Domestically oriented.  It was simpler, more affordable, easier to manage with kiddies.

That will hopefully change a bit now that Carol and I are entering (almost) Empty Nest Syndrome.  My better half has the leg up so far, enjoying several south-of-the-border vacations with a friend.  But if they are having this much fun, I may smarten up and start following her around more.

For our 30th anniversary (October 2015) we promised ourselves a nice tropical trip; and finally decided to book an Apple Vacation to Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic with another couple with whom we have vacationed with the last few years.  For me, it’s been awhile that I hit the Jamaican beaches on our honeymoon.

A long time ago … in a land far, far away …

We left in late September, returning in the first week of October.  More on that experience and our closer-than-comfortable proximity to Matthew later.

Being a neophyte at international vacationing, I prefer Simple over Elaborate; so chosing an All-Inclusive route fits my emergent needs perfectly.  Our choice was Barceló Bavarro Beach, an adults only all-inclusive situated within a larger, free-range resort complete with family oriented and other less-inclusive … I assume … options.

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Barcelo Bavaro Beach, Punta Cana

 

To rate the experience as one of our Best Vacations Ever is no overstatement!

The Barceló Group is a family owned Spanish tourism company founded over 85 years ago.  Employing 23,000 people at 100 hotels in 19 countries and 685 travel agencies in 22 nations, they really have their act together!  Despite that I had never heard of them before last week.  Now they top the list as my favorite international resort.  (Yes, as mentioned, it’s a small sample size.)

The accommodations were very good, given the great idea to upgrade our package to the Premium Club, that – among other benefits – gave us an ocean-front view.  The upgrade allowed for dinner at all the resort’s restaurants; provided discounts on excursions; and access to other limited-access amenities.

The resort staff were nothing if not exceptionally friendly and obliging.  The resort was spotless and comfortably appointed.  The adult beverage stations were convenient; the service friendly, generous, and – most times – quick.

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View outside our room

The food was good, not great; although the resort’s best restaurants (Kyoto Japanese, La Comidie French) made for memorable meal experiences.  Skip México Lindo and the Sante Fe Steakhouse establishments.  The El Coral Restaurant (seafood) and La Dolcé Vita (Italian) were also very good.  We heard Le Fuente (Spanish menu) was excellent, but we missed that one.

The breakfast and lunch buffets were good, clean, and nourishing.  But you know buffets … Timing is everything!  Almost everywhere the meal wait staff was friendly and attentive.

Yet … It was a trip we almost did not make.

Attempt #1 … Scheduled for June originally, we had to push the trip back a few months due to one of our – ahem – less youthful companions ripping a vital tendon while playing power forward with “less experienced” individuals.

Attempt #2 … Scheduled for the very end of September through the first week in October (“That’s hurricane season, ya know.”, I helpfully added at the time.) drew near just as Category 1 (soon-to-be-a-4 ) Hurricane Matthew drew near to the southern Caribbean.  The night before the scheduled  participants (all with intact tendons) debated the Probabilities, Possible Outcomes, and Risks until eventually concluding we all really, really needed many fruity drinks in a clothing-minimizing locale and “To Hell with …” caution.  (And it was going to cost too much to change!)

That evening Matthew passed to the south of the D.R., then spent a few days nagging the northern coast of South America … and growing in strength before heading north. Much more fortunately for us than the good people of Jamaica, Haiti, and Cuba, Matthew threw us nothing more than a day and a half of rain.  It was not even enough to keep us from doing what activities we had already scheduled.

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Carol & I … pre-drowning attempt on snorkeling/booze cruise

The excursions and packages we took advantage of were …

  • Snorkeling & Booze Cruise (A+ … Look for a separate blog post later.)
  • Dolphin Discovery (A)
  • Couples Massage (A+++ … Will touch on this also at great personal risk.)

Of course, one does not need the expensive (but honestly well worth the price) excursions to have an entertaining time!  Barceló Punta Cana has much to offer without leaving the friendly confines of the resort.  There’s golf, a casino, a discotheque, a bowling alley, miniature golf, water parks for both young children and adults, several live show venues and offerings (Most of these were a bit corny and amateurish.), Dolphin Island (We chose to go off-campus for our experience.), tons of shopping opportunities, a sports bar, and daily activities on the beach and in the pools.

The beach itself is a beautiful spot, yet we only spent parts of two days there.  Most of our resort “downtime” was spent in the pools, fountains, and walk-up/swim-up bars.  There is plenty of shaded areas for the sun-adverse, like me.  You really cannot beat the quiet relaxation of the pools on the adult-only side of the resort.  And if you want more noise while enjoying the refreshing waters, head over to Barceló Palace, the center of the resort, where most of the action takes place, including the swim-up pool bar!

In my humble, inexperienced opinion, you would really have to struggle to not have a grand time at Barceló Punta Cana!

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Pool at Barcelo Bavarro Beach

 

 

 

Destination wedding: Nags Head, NC

Nags_Head_town_welcomeThis was to be our first Destination Wedding, that modern development in the marriage experience. The Destination:  Nags Head, North Carolina.

Now normally I’d be a bit annoyed at the prospect of a 7-hour drive (or so GPS Lady claimed); but for a favored family member taking the plunge into the Pool of Marital Bliss, the effort is the least one can do.

Throw in the prospects for a Beach Party (or two), and suddenly it doesn’t seem like such a long trip. We had never taken the opportunity to visit the fair State of North Carolina; and we had certainly heard a number of good things about the Outer Banks region.

Afterall, could all those OBX car stickers be wrong?

Unfortunately that 7-hour drive turned into an interminable 11-hour Passion Play, which by its conclusion had neither me nor the spousal unit in a particularly good mood.  GPS Lady had wanted me to take Route 13 South past Wilmington, DE.  But of course, I knew better, didn’t I?  Taking I-95 and running into a 2.5 hour parking lot south of D.C.

The one saving grace was that even those who had taken Route 13 on Friday, June 21 also stood in bumper-to-bumper traffic, courtesy of the Firefly Music Festival, a happening hosted at Dover Speedway. All of us suffered that day in our attempts to reach Nags Head!

By Saturday though, those horror stories began to fade from memory.  That’s what a really nice day on a really nice beach can do for you.  Well, that and a few adult beverages consumed quite legally by a gentle ocean on a magnificent afternoon.

Peaceful beach in Nags Head (Ramada Inn)

Peaceful beach in Nags Head (Ramada Inn)

The choice of venue was the Ramada Plaza Nags Head Oceanfront, mainly for its convenience and ample room for the roughly 60 people who traveled there for the nuptials.  The Ramada certainly fit the bill for solid amenities and a right-on-the-beach experience.  Our only complaint was the slow kitchen service during the one breakfast we ate there.  But there are plenty of other dining opportunities offered in town.

(The day after posting this, I mutter, “Oh (poo), I forgot the Wedding!!”  The following edit was added …)

The nuptials were among the best in the many weddings I gave witnessed.  The ocean backdrop, the sand between your toes, the intimacy, and Reverend Jay Bowman.  

Reverend Bowman presided over the exchange of vows.  He was of unparalleled passion; a bold, joyful voice; and a keen perspective on the depth of Love, the breadth of Commitment.  If you’re ever looking for an officiant for an Outer Banks wedding, you can do no better than Jay when it comes to expressing the emotions of your magnificent moment! 

The ocean was not only a star-filled backdrop with dolphins cruising just off the beach and large birds diving like darts into the ocean in search of fresh seafood.  The ocean also served as Jay’s righteous metaphor for the commitment and future relationship of K & B. 

More weddings should be done just this way, even if not on a beautiful beach in North Carolina! 

If breakfast is the most important meal of the day, we didn’t find an outstandingly good one at the places we chose to eat-in.

The one morning favorite we did find – tragically on the way out of Nags Head – was Duck Donuts, located on Rt 158 north of the Ramada.

I know … donuts?!?

Trust me, you have to try them! Warm still when we picked up our order, Duck’s make all their donuts as plain as a cruller can get.  Difference is, they will make your donuts to order, fresh out of the oven and iced, coated, sugar-fied, dipped, or lightly sweetened, however you want as you watch.  They are light for such doughy goodness and absolutely delicious.

Other than Ducks however, we did not find any true culinary Wow Factors among the places we chose.

The one exception being the venue chosen for the post-wedding reception. Port of Call, also located on Rt 158, was a hit with those of us in the wedding party.  The buffet arrangement consisted of a well-rounded menu of delicious appetizers and entrees.  The prime rib and garlic mashed potatoes were the biggest hits.  My favorites on the appetizer line were the shrimp and scallop options, both wrapped in bacon … of course!

Amusing that most of my travel blogs always get stuck at some point on food!

Anyway there is naturally much more to do in Nags Head than eating.  I’m not much of a water bug, but there was plenty of activity at and beyond the water line, although the beach and ocean seem much, much quieter than a typical day on the South Jersey beaches with which I am familiar.

That may well be Nags Head’s biggest attraction … The Quiet!  No boardwalk.  No overcrowded beaches for a weekend in late June.  Few airplane-towed advertisements … no fudgy-wudgy guys trolling the hot sand … few pleasure boats in sight from beachside …

On a stroll up the beach, we found long stretches of sand with a family here, a couple there with no one within 15-20 yards of their quiet, chosen blanket space.  The beach itself was extremely clean, consisting of a rougher, brown sand than one encounters in South Jersey. The beach at the Ramada location was narrow but plainly more than sufficient for the numbers we encountered.

The Ramada had a HUGE advantage though, with a well-stocked and well-manned bar just over the top of the dune, located on a gazebo set upon the hotel’s beach-access boardwalk.  And on that Saturday afternoon, four hours of entertainment in the form of a blues and rock trio.

Hence the secret to losing the bad memories from that 11-hour drive!

Key to diminishing your stress, like that of a ridiculously long car trip

Key to diminishing your stress, like that of a ridiculously long car trip

Now of course all that quiet and no boardwalk tests your imagination should you desire the nightlife.  There were plenty of places to enjoy the younger bar and dance party scene.

Kelly’s Restaurant had a very large live entertainment venue.  The food?  Not that good and served in a rather dated decor.  The club room on the other hand looked like a great place to have fun.

Port of Call, the reception venue, also had a very nice – and loud – two-story bar and club room.

Another worthy attraction located just down the road in Kill Devil Hills was the Wright Brothers National Memorial, a U.S. National Park dedicated to the site of Orville and Wilbur‘s first successful efforts to put Man where he did not naturally belong.  Well worth the price of admission ($4 per person), the visitors center is a museum to U.S. aviation history.

A 25-minute presentation of the Wrights’ lives and aeronautic accomplishments was enjoyable and informative; and it was preceded by a five-minute education on recognizing and surviving the dreaded rip tide.

As the Park Ranger emphasized, water safety is key to enjoying your time on the beaches of North Carolina!

Outside you can view the precise location of the very first Wright Brothers flights; view the primitive shacks that housed their living quarters and protected their aeroplanes; learn about the history of Kill Devil Hills; and enjoy a very thorough stretch-of-the-legs in a walk up to the Monument perched atop a very prominent hill.

Orville and Wilbur's fantastic contraption

Replica of Orville and Wilbur’s fantastic contraption

Finally, if you did not learn from my lesson for the trip down to Nags Head, take my advice and take Route 13 North home.

On a Monday afternoon, we covered the distance back to the Philly area in roughly 6.5 hours.  There are long stretches of open road, but also red lights and changes to speed limits with which to contend.  But the trip across the Bay Bridge and Tunnel is quite enjoyable.  The scenery, pace, and fruit & produce stands along the way make the ride so much more relaxing and interesting than parking on I-95!

We definitely plan to revisit Nags Head someday.  We’ll just plan the trip down a bit smarter next time.