The anticipation of attending a three-day transit workshop in Minneapolis last week delighted me in many ways beyond the content of the event itself: a nonstop flight (rather than enduring a connection) of reasonable duration (just 2.5 hours); the prospect of using one of our country’s best-integrated, most frequent, and best-networked public transit systems (rather than the bother of driving and parking a rental car); and the fun of trying out a new (new for me) hotel brand, the AC By Marriott.  My pleasurable expectations were fulfilled, save for the flight home.  Many business trips are an endurance contest, start to finish, whereas as this one was just short of a joy all the way. How often can we say that about traveling?

An unexpected amusement at the outset of my journey: The recent RDU Delta Sky Club renovation included the whimsical addition of five pictures of native North Carolina food and drink: Lance Nabs (the famous crackers were founded in Charlotte and still made there), Cheerwine (the very cherry soda founded in Salisbury, NC a century ago), Mount Olive Pickles (from, well, Mount Olive, NC), Texas Pete Hot Sauce (founded in Winston-Salem) and Krispy Kreme Donuts (founded in Greensboro).

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All well and good, but where, I wondered, was the picture of Pepsi-Cola?  After all, Pepsi was founded in 1898, and my Great-Grandfather, attorney Alfred Decatur Ward, incorporated and patented Pepsi-Cola for the inventor in New Bern, NC.

I was quite pleased with the RDU Sky Club in other respects, too.  It now has roughly twice the interior space of the old one, and the décor is sunny and light, and the atmosphere quieter than, say, any of the horribly-overcrowded Sky Clubs at MSP, my destination.

Once at my gate, I mused as I waited to board about the spacious and sunny feeling of the concourse, too.  It feels so serene compared to the claustrophobic nature of low-ceiling airport terminals like Charlotte and Philly.

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The plane was the usual despicable, way-too-small RJ that airlines often dispatch these days instead of real aircraft, but I had been notified two days earlier that my upgrade request cleared, so I breathed easy as the massing crowd began to circle the gate to board.  I was reminded that airline employees, not usually paragons of sincere kind-heartedness, privately disparage those who wait close to the boarding area as “gate lice.”

I settled into my one-side seat 1A and dozed until takeoff.  On climb-out I was surprised to be offered a cold breakfast.  I accepted and was soon sated, glad I had scheduled myself on a morning flight.

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After dining I snoozed and read until the wheels went down for landing.  Looking out the window I caught a magnificent view of the Minneapolis CBD and fumbled with my phone to get a quick picture.

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Normally I pay close attention to my arrival gate at any airport because I have to figure out how to navigate to the rental car shuttle, but knowing I was taking light rail transit from the heart of MSP Airport, I didn’t even take note of our gate when the plane parked.  Instead, I looked overhead for the sign directing me to the light rail station in the basement and followed the excellent signage to the subterranean platform for the train into downtown Minneapolis.

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So what is light rail, or LRT (light rail transit)?  It is an all-electric fast train that runs on tracks in its own exclusive corridor. In the Twin Cities it operates at ten minute intervals for 20 hours a day so that you don’t have to consult schedules.  Just show up at a station, and a train is never more than 9 minutes away.   Once riders near bus or LRT lines know the routes and connections, they rarely have to drive again.  The secret of an integrated system like that of the Twin Cities Metro lies in network strength and frequency.  Both equate to freedom from having to drive and park.  The more robust the frequent service transit network (“frequent” transit meaning service at least every 15 minutes), the more likely it’s going where you need to go.

In Minneapolis-St. Paul the buses and trains are all-weather, too, and always have been, even when streetcars were the way to go, as this picture from the Metro operations center shows:

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And they were always frequent, too, as seen in this old State Fair photograph:

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Transit guru Jarrett Walker is fond of saying that “frequency is freedom” and Metro lives by that mantra, as advertised everywhere:

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Back to my easy transit odyssey from the MSP Airport to downtown Minneapolis:  I had already obtained and activated an all-day pass through the first-rate Metro Transit app on my phone, so I just boarded the train and enjoyed the ride.

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The Twin Cities Metro Blue Line light rail is above ground everywhere but at the airport.  One of two LRT lines, the Blue Line carries an amazing 30,000 weekday riders between the Mall of America where there are excellent BRT and regular bus connections and Target Field in downtown Minneapolis with many more transit connections, including the Northstar commuter rail line and the Green Line LRT to the University of Minnesota and to St. Paul (which carries an astonishing 40,000 weekday riders).

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I got off at the Hennepin Ave station and was immediately asked by a smiling Metro Transit customer service rep on the platform where I was going. When I told her the AC By Marriott Hotel, she walked me to the corner and pointed the way.  A block later I was standing in front of the hotel.

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Or at least I thought I was. The building proudly announced it was the AC, but I could not locate the entrance, and the street-level windows were all curtained, which made peering in impossible.  Where was the entry?  I tried a nondescript door which looked like a service entrance and found myself inside a vestibule with another door to what, as I squinted to look in, might be a lobby.

But the door was locked.  I noticed a squawk box and pushed the button to call someone.  When I announced myself as an arriving guest, the interior door slid open.

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It was not a reassuring first impression of this newish brand (new for me, at least) of Marriott.  Taking the measure of the interior space, which was quite dark compared to the sunlit street, I spotted what I thought could be the front desk, though it was modest by most hotel standards.  As my eyes adjusted to the shaded environment, I saw two smiling young women beckoning me forward.  In no time they had me checked in and assigned to a room, even though I had arrived just past noon.  No rigmarole about room availability or arriving early; they gave me my key and pointed me to the lifts.

As I surveyed the lobby and adjacent bar and breakfast area, I was struck by how trendy, modern, hip, and chic the minimalist furnishings and décor were.  All blond woods and some stainless steel, but the woods had won the day by far.  The public spaces looked and felt expensive, arty, relaxed, cool, and classy.  Huh! I thought.  I never associate “class” with any Marriott hotel brand.  “Turgid,” maybe.  But the AC lobby felt, by contrast, European, unlike any Marriott I’ve ever seen.

Upstairs in the room my initial impression was mixed: Like the lobby, a Euro-minimalist design with a lot of wood, but only one window to the outside world.  However, as the room seeped into me, I realized that I liked the unique hardwood floors very much, and also the room’s dark wood and natural colors. Bathroom and shower were also spiffy, with lots of glass and a rain shower head.

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Back downstairs in the lobby/bar area, I asked the doorman why the front doors were locked. Locked 24/7 to keep street riffraff out, he cheerfully told me, and the elevators worked only by key card to any floor, again to keep out undesirables.  He apologized for my trouble getting in and slipped me an elite pass to the free evening drinks and modest buffet in the lobby. Later, the barman would also comp me a drink for no reason except that I chatted him up and told him how much I liked the upbeat modern design of the hotel.

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By contrast to the breezy AC atmosphere, I stopped at the nearby Marriott Renaissance for drinks with colleagues the following night, and I realized that I loathed its cookie cutter pretentiousness.  Didn’t much like the Renaissance’s $131 bill for one round of eight drinks, either. Over sixteen bucks per drink for the usual beer and wine made me like the AC even better.

Asking around, I learned that the AC hotel brand was created by a Spaniard, Antonio Catalan, in 1998. Senor Catalan envisioned more casual, Spanish-styled properties, which tend to be less formal, but modern in flair. He sold the chain to Marriott in 2011.

Marriott seems to have done well with AC in the US by not monkeying around with the concept, even though Marriott is reputed to be indifferent to its properties these days. Some observers view Marriott’s strategy as creating brands to pump rooms into markets and then to sell everything by marketing Marriott Rewards and Marriott generically.

Be that as it may, the AC was a refreshing change.  It made me feel young and made me think of words like “pizzazz” and “zest.” It exuded a relaxed, understated elegance without self-importance.

Returning to the airport by the same efficient and fast Blue Line LRT, I ran the TSA gauntlet and found my way to the nearest Delta Sky Club.  It was claustrophobically over-crowded, but I needed some fluids and a snack.  I stayed long enough to sample the buffet, but the human congestion drove me out to another Sky Club nearer my gate.  Finding that one SRO as well—and looking very messy, like a bar after the big game was over, I didn’t stay.  My wait at the gate was more pleasant than the club though the airport was mobbed everywhere.

No upgrade awaited me that night, and on yet another dreaded RJ.  Sure, I had a seat in the so-called Comfort+ rows that claimed to be a few generous inches more spacious front to back than the rest of coach, but the four-across seats in the slender CRJ tube are equally cramped whether just behind the first class curtain or in the last row.  The large guy seated next to me in the window seat of row 6 was a Diamond also denied an upgrade, and he was rightfully glum.  As we were both very frequent flyers, we toughed it out for two and half hours to Raleigh without complaint, shoulder to shoulder with zero room between us, both uncomfortable as hell.  It was the lone unpleasant experience on an otherwise remarkably tranquil trek.

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