July 14, 2007

Not In Kansas (City) Anymore

First of all, Kansas City is really hard to get to/from. As far as I can tell, besides Continental out of EWR, Midwest Airlines is the only company to provide non-stop service between New York and KCI - which means if you're like me, with a slightly sensitive schedule and cost-conscious work ethic, you end up flying on American via Chicago O'Hare.

Big mistake.

Wednesday was supposed to be an easy travel day with an early dinner with Jesse (my former employee who brought me to KCI on business), but instead my 12:25 flight to ORD was cancelled, sending me from LGA to EWR (yes, an entire state away) and putting me on a variety of new flights, one point at which I was planning to fly into Wichita and then drive three hours to my final destination. Thankfully American Airlines was kind enough to rebook me on a Continental direct flight, which still left Newark almost three hours late because of the big storm that hit Wednesday afternoon. It's the least they could do, though, after cancelling my flight and being unable to get me to Kansas City any other way.

Today I wasn't quite as lucky. I knew the hell I'd been through on my way out, so instead of driving 2.5 hours both ways to visit another Laura Ingalls Wilder site, I stayed kind of local and just poked around the greater metro area a bit, visiting nearby "Historic Downtown Liberty" (and its Jesse James Bank Museum) and choosing to try to catch the 2 p.m. instead of the 6:55 I was booked on.

The 2:00 flight was delayed til 2:40. I couldn't get on the flight from the standby list. The 5:35 flight was delayed til 7:45. I was second on the standby list but it wasn't even clear if that flight would ever take off. So instead of frolicking through the Kansas frontier as planned, I sat in the Kansas City airport for five and a half hours.

I tried other things. I went to the Continental counter to see how much a one-way ticket was ($500, and I had no Onepass miles to redeem). I even called Continental to see if there was some deal I could get, or if for some reason a round-trip would be cheaper. No luck. They thought I was crazy. I called American and begged them to book me on a Continental flight like they had on my way out, but because my flight wasn't showing a delay (YET, I insisted in my head), they couldn't do anything about it.

By the time I left (ontime, contrary to my paranoia), I couldn't wait to get out of Kansas City. And I never wanted to fly American again.

I did have a good trip, though, once I finally got there. It was 9 p.m. when I arrived, but the sun was just setting...As I drove to downtown, I started to smell something smoky, and as I asked myself if my car was on fire, I realized I'd hit my first waft of BBQ. Starving, I scrambled to get to my hotel and check in, knowing full well that local restaurants would probably stop serving dinner around then. I dashed into The Aladdin (a cute, newly restored Art Deco hotel Marriott's light showby the convention center), pleaded with the front desk to send me somewhere for food once I checked in. At first, she suggested the restaurant at the big lit-up Marriott (which is really remarkable, very Times Square) across the street, but when I made a face (remembering Marriott catering in college), she said, "Well, there is this place called The Mango Room around the block that I really like..."

Let me tell you, she did not steer me wrong. This place - which was empty by the time I squeezed in there, twenty minutes before closing - is incredible, with Caribbean-meets-Southern cuisine with a twist. I had the pleasure of chatting up the bartender, who seemed almost too knowledgeable until he revealed that he was just filling in, and he was actually the chef. I oohed and ahhed over the sweet potato muffins and herbed biscuits that he started me with, but they were nothing compared to the night's dinner special I ordered: jerk pork shoulder with basmati rice, and taro and plantain chips with mango salsa. Even the house salad (which came with the unusual choice of feta and a lime/pepper vinaigrette) ROCKED. I washed it all down with their homebrew mango- and pineapple-infused vodka, which I really needed after all that travelling.

They sent me off on a snifter of Pyrat rum which tasted like burnt orange zest (that's a good thing), and I slept like a baby that night.

I was in Kansas City for work so I had to get up really early the next day to take Kelly Sweet to the local soft rock station KUDL, which I didn't realize til later is referred to as "Cuddle." Cute. We managed to get there in one piece despite all the road closings and construction in KCI (and some wacky GPS directions), and we even had time to go our separate ways for a bit before our next meeting together in the afternoon.

Union StationKelly took a nap, but I decided to check out Union Station, the recently restored historic depot in downtown Kansas City, that Amtrak still runs through. It's a marvel of beaux arts architecture and feels like a combination between Grand Central (both have central clocks) and Philly's 30th St Station. You've got a great view of Liberty Memorial from there, and of course some fountains.

I had just enough time for a quick trip to Waffle House for an early lunch before picking Kelly up again and taking her to Hallmark's corporate office, which was also pretty cool to visit. They own all the real estate around Crown Center and have a visitor's center and a department store in addition to their corporate tower.

Because I couldn't leave KCI without having some saucy ribs, Jesse and I hopped back over to Union Station for dinner at Jack Stack Barbecue at The Freight House. The building is an old eyesore that's also been recently restored, and the historic location definitely added to the ambiance. I had a sampler platter and we shared some cheesy cornbake, which is basically mac n cheese except with corn instead of macaroni. I have to try to make that. Topped off with a Boulevard Brewing Co. wheat beer (small consolation for not having time to take a brewery tour), and once again, I was ready for bed.

Today didn't end up being the vacation day I hoped for, but I did have a leisurely breakfast at City Market, where I ate Dutch-style pear and pecan pancakes at Succotash and found Missouri- and Wizard of Oz-themed Christmas tree ornaments to bring home with me. It wasn't the bustling environment that I've come to expect from, say, Greenmarket or Chelsea Market, but there is lots of fresh produce and some Middle Eastern and Indian specialty items...

I got to see a decent amount of Kansas City - though I have to say there was less to see than I expected, my initial impression upon researching leading me to believe there would be a ton to do and see. I crossed many bridges over the Missouri River, drove along the row where all the casinos are, waved hello to plenty of road work construction guys, and stayed in an eclectic, boutique-style hotel that was a bit off the beaten path. At least if I had to travel for work, I could do it in my unique style.

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