Family Vacations: Then and Now

Here we are in the midst of American summer, the prime family vacation period. With hot dogs scorching on the grill and the smell of Coppertone in the air, I couldn’t help but hark back to those summers three and four decades ago when my family and millions of families like ours took to the roads for a summer vacation. It was impossible to resist the temptation to compare those long ago days with the family vacations of today. Perhaps looking back can help make your upcoming vacation just a little better for your entire family.

First off, let’s consider the road conditions that existed, say, 40 years ago, when millions of us Baby Boomers were actually young. In 1959 the Interstate Highway System was in its infancy. This unprecedented frenzy of road-building was initiated on June 29, 1956, when President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the Federal Aid-Highway Act of 1956, which authorized its construction. Sometime later the system was formally named the Dwight D. Eisenhower System of Interstate and Defense Highways, and, as its name suggests, the Cold War was more than coincidental to its creation. At the time it was believed that its 42,500 miles of rigidly similar super-highways were necessary to help counteract the Communist threat.

Prior to the Interstate system America’s roads and highways were a catch-as-catch can affair. Built and maintained by state and local governments, the highways were designed much more for local traffic than for cross-country travel. Because of this road trips in the era before the Interstate were an exercise in trundling through small towns, stopping at umpteen stoplights, and dodging the constables in scores of small hamlet speed traps. From my own memory banks I remember trips from suburban Chicago to Traverse City, Michigan, taking the better part of two days. That same trip can now be made comfortably in about six hours.

Of course, what we have gained in speed, we have lost in local color. That trip to the summer vacation home would take us past the roaring steel mills of Gary, Indiana, and up the sand dune-dotted eastern shore of Lake Michigan. Late that afternoon our family would pull into Grand Rapids, Michigan, zig-zagging through the furniture factories to make our way to a Veteran’s Hospital, where we would pay a visit to my Dad’s great uncle, who had served his country in the Spanish-American War.

In other travels, I vividly remember waking up in the backseat of our 1951 Chevrolet to see the big red-orange ball of the sun emerge over the eastern horizon as we haltingly made our way to Dayton, Ohio, a trip we were making non-stop. And then there was the leisurely afternoon we spent outside a gas station in Springfield, Missouri, lolling on the streets of a strange neighborhood, waiting for the installation of a muffler that had fallen off.

These memories have become the victim of the super-highways. Though they have been a boon to commerce and to family travel, the Interstates have brought with them a uniform dreariness. And the Interstates have separated the travelers from the communities through which they travel. When you’re on an Interstate highway, you roll forward virtually unaffected by the environment around you, because they were designed to do that. In fact, the term "super-highway" denotes a controlled access roadway with at least four lanes of traffic separated by direction. These highways limit access, thus improving safety and permitting higher speeds, but they also distance the traveler from the cities, towns and rural areas that surround them.

This same mentality has also affected the destinations to which we travel. Where in the past, the objects of our travels were often dictated by family considerations and personal interests, now our family vacations seem more likely to be centered on homogenized theme parks and other structured "destinations."

Again, this makes family travel simpler, but one might argue that something has been lost in the process. One of my friends vividly recalls a memorable trip that included a visit to Kokomo Opalescent Glass, a stained glass window factory. Watching the glass being poured and talking to the foreman who loved his craft and was eager to explain it were opportunities that don’t come watching animated characters frolic at a theme park.

Another acquaintance of mine told me one of her favorite memories was a tour through the Kellogg’s cereal plant in Battle Creek, Michigan. Watching the industrial process that culminated in the boxes of cereal that appeared on her breakfast table each morning had a authentic feel that is impossible to duplicate in today’s fantasy lands. A lawyer friend of mine said he gained his first taste of the law when his family stopped to visit a small town courthouse square and discovered a trial in progress.

In one way, however, there is no doubt that family travel is far better than it was 40 years ago — vehicle safety. Today’s cars, minivans and sport-utilities are far safer and more reliable than the family sedans of the good old days. And today’s laws regarding occupant safety have helped immensely as well.

Four decades ago as our family traveled about the country my brother and I rode in the backseat, completely unrestrained by seatbelt or child safety seat. Often my parents would place items in the footwells in front of us, turning the backseat into a playpen, and my brother and I would while away the time reading books, staring out the window and playing round after round of "the license plate game," which consisted of spotting license plates from other states before others in the car could. Sometimes my grandfather would start a story, then stop and pass it to one of us who had to continue the narrative until he or she handed it on to the next person. It was a joyous way to expand our imaginations, but it’s a pastime long lost to CD players, Nintendo and in-car VCRs.

So while there is no doubt that in-vehicle safety has improved immensely in the 40 years since may of us were young, one has to ask what intangibles of wonder, imagination and community we have lost in the process. The good news is we can have the best of both worlds. We can have the convenience speed and safety of the Interstate system and still have the opportunity to get off the endless bands of concrete and into the landscape. We can have the carefree fun of visiting a theme park and still have the chance to visit a factory, courtroom or church. And we can have the safety and reliability of today’s cars, minivans and sport utility vehicles complete with their state-of-the-art entertainment systems and still talk to one another and teach our children lessons of life that we feel are important to them.

This summer, don’t just drive carefully, drive thoughtfully, too.

-- Jack R. Nerad

You and the Dealer

How will you buy your next vehicle? Will you click on an online buying service, gather some information and then fill out a computer form to make your purchase? Or will you make the more traditional trek from dealership to dealership parrying with car salespeople before making your purchase? Or will your experience be some combination of these two extremes?

One thing is certain: the business of selling vehicles is changing minute-by-minute, but just what the process will morph into no one, not even the purported experts, is quite sure. There are those who suggest that in the future consumers will get their pre-purchase information from online services, take a test drive at a facility designed just for that activity with no salespeople or sales pressure, and purchase the vehicle via computer. The computer purchase process will include specifying the vehicle, color and options, arriving at a price and securing financing, and in this scenario the first time the consumer would see her or his vehicle would be when it’s delivered to home or office.

Others say that, though the Internet has generated a lot of heat and noise lately, the actual buying process won’t change very much in the next decade. Sure, they argue, consumers are arming themselves with more information than ever before, getting much of it from the Internet. And sure, some people are getting a firm transaction price from a dealer via the online services like Auto-by-tel. But when it comes to actually test-driving the vehicle and making the deal, the traditional dealership will remain the only game in town.

Does the Car-Buying Process Need to Change?

With the number of auto brands competing in the U.S., consumer demands are clearly driving changes in the market. But there is some controversy over whether the current system needs a big overhaul. One group that recently took a look at the issue is Automotive Retailing Today (ART), a non-profit organization of new-vehicle dealer associations and car manufacturers. An ART-funded study conducted by The Gallup Organization found that 76% of consumers were either very or extremely satisfied with their most recent experience at a new-car dealership.

Interestingly, however, while three-quarters of consumers felt well-satisfied with their most recent experience with a car dealership, they don’t think the experience others have in car dealerships is as good as the one they had. When consumers were asked, "In general, how do consumers feel about the new car buying/leasing experience?" less than half (42%) felt it was positive. And when 100 members of the automotive media were asked the same question, only 2% said they believed the experience was positive. Obviously, the media impression of the process differs from the reality. But the fact that less than half of consumers suspected the general experience in the dealership was a good one indicates that there is room for positive change in the industry.

That view is reinforced by a recent study of 33,000 new-car buyers by Strategic Vision, a San Diego-based market research firm. In its fourth annual study on the auto sales experience, the firm asserted, "Despite all the buzz about changes in automotive retailing, new-vehicle dealerships are making little headway in improving buyers sales and service experiences."

Strategic Vision’s just-released 1999 Dealer Total Quality Index (DTQI) reinforces that opinion. The DTQI compares consumers’ experiences with various car brands’ dealers against consumers' collective ideal of how the process should work.

The 1999 industry average was 839 out of a possible 1,000 -- not bad by grading standards. One might call it a solid B. It suggests that despite general media negativity about the vehicle purchase experience, the typical car buyer doesn’t think it’s all that bad.

One problem pointed up by the study, though, is the fact that the experience doesn’t appear to be getting any better. In 1998, the DTQI was an almost identical 838 and in 1997 it was 837, so progress has been moving at a crawl if at all.

If there is one area where there seems to be a disconnect between seller and buyer in the car acquisition process it’s in the area of trust.

"It’s important to people that they feel secure in their relationship with the dealer," Daniel Gorrell, vice president for Strategic Vision, "but in the current process there are obstacles in that path."

Despite being funded by car manufacturers and dealer organizations, the ART study pointed to the same basic issue. Some 89% of consumers said they considered dealer trustworthiness very important, yet only 45% were satisfied with their dealer’s trustworthiness in their most recent transaction.

One of the biggest obstacles to mutual trust, according to Gorrell, is the negotiation process. He asserted that just 10-15% of consumers actually like to negotiate purchase prices; the rest either simply put up with the process or actively dislike it.

Whether dealers diagnose this difficulty and affect a change is open to debate. Gorrell suggests a different type of automobile distribution, perhaps using the Internet, might be required to make the change that consumers seem to want.

As the Strategic Vision study pointed out, "The most interesting trend was the increase in buyers using the Internet to search for vehicle information. From 13 percent in 1997 and 26 percent in 1998, that has grown to 35 percent in 1999." Others recent studies have suggested Internet use is even higher. Armed with more information, consumers seem to be forcing a change in the traditional ways of doing business.

"More informed consumers are changing the negotiation process," says Gorrell. "Often they know exactly what the dealer paid, which is making the bargaining process more straightforward. They also feel greater freedom because Internet information makes them feel more in control of the process. Interestingly, this improvement in dealer relations is being driven by third parties."

Some would argue that the availability of information like invoice pricing hasn’t improved the level of trust between buyer and dealer. In fact, some say it has just added one more element of conflict.

At this point, with car-buying services springing up like dandelions on a suburban lawn, it remains to be seen if the information available online will change the entire dynamics of the car-buying process. But surely, it is helping to make a change that many consumers feel is for the better. And even more surely, the process will continue to evolve.

Great Summer Drives

Summer is upon us, the time when millions pack up the car, strap in the family and hit the road. Although some make a National Lampoon vacation of the process, it surely doesn't have to be that way. With a small bit of planning and, very importantly, the right route, a summer drive with the family, a loved one or even alone can be a fantastically pleasant experience. Oh, you might not have an epiphany, but then again you might.

Because the route is so all-important Driving Today has taken it upon itself to choose some of the best scenic routes in the nation. In our combined decades of pleasure driving for some of America's most renowned automotive magazines, we've seen a gaggle of pretty roads. But we're here to tell you that the four we highlight in this edition of Driving Today are certainly among America's best. And, so that it doesn't seem that we're playing favorites with localities, we have chosen roads in the Northeast, the Southeast, the Midwest and the Pacific Coast. Given the space we have available that's about as ecumenical as we can get. And so, without further ado, here are four Great Summer Drives.

Baxter State Park Drive, Maine

If you're prepared to go slowly and stop and smell the wild flowers along the way, the Baxter State Park Scenic Drive will provide rich rewards. The narrow road sinews 94 miles through the western and northern edge of the park, leading to quiet campsites, ponds, waterfalls, tumbling brooks, and spectacular scenic views. A fairly short jog off busy Interstate 95, the scenic road is about as far from an Interstate in spirit as you can get. The route is narrow, sometimes traffic-clogged and, if the rains have stayed away, it can be dusty as well. But for breathtaking views and the crisp smell of real outdoor air, the route is right up there with the best of them.

Baxter State Park is a result of the efforts and vision of one man -„ Percival Baxter. As governor of the state of Maine, Baxter was a firm proponent of preserving the Katahdin area from being overrun by the logging industry. As a politician his efforts were only partially successful, persuading the legislature to create a game preserve on 90,000 acres of the mountain.

Many might have congratulated themselves for a noble effort and let things go at that, but not Baxter. Instead, as a private citizen he started buying up the land from the lumber companies. In this way he amassed more than 200,000 acres, which he then deeded to the state of Maine with stringent restrictions on how it could be used. Today his legacy is Baxter State Park, which is a tightly controlled nature preserve kept in its "natural wild state." To assure its sanctity the park is operated by the Baxter Park Authority, a state entity distinct from the state's parks department.

Travelers need to remember that the park wasn't designed for driving. This route encourages you to pull over and take in the scenery from outside your car. But as long as you're prepared for a slow, bumpy ride, the effort is more than worth your time.

Leelanau Peninsula, Michigan

This drive starts in Traverse City, a popular resort town on the aptly named Traverse Bay in western lower Michigan. Taking perhaps the better part of a day, the route flows leisurely past colorful cherry orchards, bucolic Midwest farm scenes, quaint little villages and the scenic wonder of Sleeping Bear Dunes. The area is also filled with history. To avoid persecution a branch of the Mormon sect took refuge on nearby Beaver Island, and the tale of their relationship with the mainlanders could be the subject of an historical novel.

The Leelanau peninsula stretches out into Lake Michigan with Traverse Bay on its eastern reaches. A cruise up the western shore of the bay will take you through the attractively un-touristy towns of Sutton's Bay and Northport. After a stop in the historic state park beyond Northport, whose scenic offerings include a vintage lighthouse, you swing back south on route 22 toward the quaint and now attractively touristy town of Leland. Formerly a workingman's fishing village, the town now fishes for tourist dollars much more so than brown trout, but the smoked trout and whitefish to be had there are still delicacies to be savored. Continuing south from Leland will quickly bring you to Sleeping Bear Dune State Park. Called Sleeping Bear by the Native American population because of the huge, tree-covered dune's resemblance to the forest creature, it is accessible both by car and on foot. Before venturing out of your car for a hike to gaze at Lake Michigan be advised, however, that some of the hikes take hours, so it is not for the frivolous. Still, those wanting to get a glimpse of the grand scale of the sand dunes can drive to one of several scenic lookouts within the confines of the park.

From Sleeping Bear Dune, you can make a short southward journey to the town of Empire and then head almost due east back to Traverse City or you can continue south a few more miles to Frankfort, a Lake Michigan port that long served as home to the Ann Arbor railroad car ferries that have been crossing the lake for more than 100 years.

Whidbey Island Area, Washington

The charming little town of La Conner, Washington, which lies about a hour-and-a-half north of Sea-Tac airport, is a good jumping off point for this road trip. Part farming town, part port city, La Conner has become a weekend destination for many Seattle residents, but has somehow retained much of its small town authenticity despite the presence of some trendy coffee bars and gift stores. An artist's community that revels in its funkiness and sense of humor, it is also the home of the famous Rainbow Bridge that has graced many a car commercial.

Leaving La Conner, you head north a few short miles to connect with route 20 which will take you off the Washington mainland onto Fidalgo Island. With attractive Padilla Bay to the east, the road makes a swift entrance into Anacortes, a port and fishing village that has now found itself a tourist destination. Here artists and writers mix in the bars, taverns and restaurants with real working men and women in a Steinbeckian tableau.

Backtracking south out of Anacortes, after a meal of Northwest fish and chips, will take you to Desolation Pass State Park. As its name might suggest, the Pass has held tragedy for many vessels trying to negotiate its narrow strait against what at times is a dauntingly swift current. Safe on the wooded cliffs above, you can watch the action and soak in the Washington sunshine, which is often disguised as clouds.

Once across the Pass, you arrive on Whidbey Island, one of the loveliest islands in the United States. Though tourists have found the place, it isn't overrun with tourist traffic, at least during the week, and it offers secluded seashores, picture-postcard farming scenes and some colorful, well-worn villages.

Frankly Oak Harbor isn't one of them. It's a bit of 1990's suburbia in the midst of a 19th century place. But Coupeville, a tiny burg a bay or so away, is much more "of the place," and a fine place to stop. If you're into fine dining, the Captain Whidbey Inn, located just outside Coupeville, is definitely worth a visit, both for its cuisine and its architecture.

From Coupeville south, the rest of the island is worth a dozen side trips. By all means stop in Langley, yet another artists' community that is chock full of quaint shops and offers an interesting repertory theater during the summer months. In Columbia Beach, hop on one of the state-run car ferries that will provide an interesting hour-hour cruise to Mukilteo on the mainland. Then you can leisurely meander back to La Conner or head south toward the delights of Seattle.

The Florida Keys, Florida

Okay, so it may be hot. And it may be humid. Quit complaining. You're surrounded by gorgeous aquamarine water, and the parks and beaches along the way make it easy to take a cooling dip. And even though it looks like the Caribbean, the Keys are part of the good old USA, which means, among other things, the air conditioning actually works. So avoid the winter crowds that clog the Keys and make this spectacular cruise in the summer, when the area is, almost literally, your oyster.

An easy if somewhat tedious drive from Miami on US 1 will bring you to Key Largo, the title of a vintage Humphrey Bogart movie and a keystone island in the archipelago. In fact many visitors never leave Largo because it offers so much, but they're missing a great deal of what the Keys have to offer.

Traveling southeast on Route 1, the Main Street of all the Keys, will take you on the route of Henry Flagler's trans-ocean railroad, an incredible feat of vision and engineering that was completed early in this century. Without Flagler, the Keys might still be a motley collection of tiny sand islands totally inaccessible from the mainland except by shallow-draft boat.

Each of the islands in the chain offers its own personality. Some are sleepy places to while away time in a rope hammock. Others offer terrific nightlife, eclectic dining opportunities and boating, fishing, snorkeling and diving experiences par excellence. On Islamorada, the Cheeca Lodge is known for its famous guests and fishing tournaments. Departing Long Key, the route takes you across the breathtaking Seven-Mile Bridge, a structure that was memorialized in the movie "True Lies."

The final destination is Key West, the southernmost point in the continental United States, and a place that offers something for every appetite, with the exception, perhaps, of snow skiers. Key West is a town known for its party atmosphere. In fact, even sunset is reason to raise a cheer and down a cold one. Duval Street, once the haunt of Papa Hemingway and Truman Capote, among other literary lights, is as close as you can get to a miniature Bourbon Street.

And when you've finally had enough of the never-ending toga party, just point you car back east and in ninety miles you're back on the mainland.

Safe driving.

-- Jack Nerad