Bowled Alternatives Sure, you can play tenpins anywhere. But these striking variations are strictly regional.
By Paul Lukas

(MONEY Magazine) – The first item on my travel packing checklist isn't clean underwear or toothpaste--it's my bowling ball. Bowling may not be everyone's idea of a travel-related activity, but the game's pleasures translate surprisingly well to travel situations: Traffic on the Interstate's getting you down? Take the next exit, and vent your frustrations by bashing some pins. Need to stretch your legs after a few hours behind the wheel? Bowling provides just enough activity to get the blood pumping without tiring you out. Rough time at the blackjack table? Many casinos have bowling lanes on the premises, where you can recharge your karma and pretend that the headpin is that dealer who kept giving you lousy cards.

Standard bowling, also known as tenpins, is available nationwide (when in doubt, head for the nearest county seat). But just as various areas of the country have their own accents, civic rituals and culinary specialties, there are also several regional bowling subcultures, which unfold primarily in old, family-run venues whose original design detailing, rickety pinsetting equipment and neighborhood charm are a far cry from the electronic scoring and fluorescent pins now found at so many tenpin facilities.

Let's start with candlepin bowling, which was invented in Massachusetts in 1880 and remains popular throughout New England, where more than 100 candlepin houses operate and the game has been televised weekly since 1958.

Candlepins is played on a tenpin lane, but the pins are much narrower and lighter--hence the game's name. And while a tenpin ball is 27 inches around and can weigh up to 16 pounds, a candlepin ball is barely half that size and weighs less than three pounds, which allows the ball to be held in the palm of the hand and eliminates the need for finger holes--one size fits all. A game is 10 frames, just like in tenpins, but each player gets three balls per frame, rather than two, and fallen pins (or "wood," as they're collectively known) aren't cleared away after each ball. Instead, they remain in play on the lane pit--where they can be knocked into standing pins--until the frame's completion.

Despite the third ball and the chance to make strategic use of wood, the slim pins and small ball make candlepins a challenging game (or, as an instructional pamphlet gently advises, "Do not expect a strike every time you hit the headpin"). Top candlepin league bowlers average only in the 120s, and scores of 200 are rare. A perfect 300 has yet to be achieved--a point of pride among the sport's partisans, who dismiss tenpins as too easy. Still, the lighter ball means anyone can play, and the lower scores tend to collapse the gap between good and bad players, making games more competitive. The game's only significant drawback, in fact, is that the largest concentration of candlepin alleys is in eastern Massachusetts, where local regulations often prohibit taking drinks out of the bar and into the bowling area, leading to a near-unthinkable contradiction in terms: bowling without beer.

Fortunately, the drinking regulations are less stringent in Baltimore, the seat of duckpin bowling. The sport was invented there in 1900 and was extremely popular as recently as the late 1960s, although it now survives at only about 20 facilities in and around the city, as well as at scattered outposts along the eastern seaboard and in New England. The game--named for its short, squat pins, which supposedly resemble a flock of flying ducks when hit by the ball (this requires a bit of imagination)--is played on a standard lane and uses a ball slightly larger and about a pound heavier than the one used for candlepins. There are three balls per frame, but felled pins are cleared away between each throw. The heavier ball and wider pins drive scores a bit higher than in candlepins (although, once again, nobody has ever tossed a perfect 300) and also make for a more satisfyingly noisy game that sounds like bowling's supposed to sound.

Serious candlepinners and duckpinners generally regard one another with a mix of uneasy suspicion and grudging respect but are united in their disdain for tenpins. Few members of either camp, however, are aware of feather bowling, an obscure sport that originated in Belgium in the 1800s and owes as much to bocce as it does to bowling. The game's lone American venue is the Cadieux Cafe, a former speakeasy in a Belgian-American neighborhood in Detroit.

The Cadieux's two lanes, which were built in 1929, are about as long as a standard lane, but that's where the resemblance ends. The wide lane surface is concave, sort of like a giant gutter, and is made from a mixture of packed clay, sawdust and--get this--ox blood. The wooden balls, meanwhile, are actually more like bloated pucks. At six inches across, three inches thick and three pounds in weight, they resemble wheels of cheese, which is supposedly what the game's Belgian founders played with.

The biggest anomaly, however, is the pins: There aren't any. Instead, players try to roll their balls closest to--or, ideally, directly onto--a pigeon feather that sticks up out of the dirt near the end of the lane.

If you think this sounds surreal, well, you're right. But if you think it sounds easy, think again. The concave lane is difficult to master, and the ball tends to make its way toward the feather in a slow, drunken weave before plopping down in the sawdust. Speaking of which: Feather bowling is an excellent drinking game, in part because a ball thrown with the proper subtle touch takes so long to wander down the lane that everyone (including the person who threw the ball) has ample time to quaff some lager, something the Cadieux does not exactly discourage.

Aspiring feather bowlers should call the Cadieux Cafe (4300 Cadieux, Detroit; 313-882-8562) to make a reservation, but keep in mind that the lanes are usually booked up well in advance, and it can take months to get a prime Saturday night spot. As for bowling's other regional variations, a good candlepin venue is the Pioneer Bowling Center (2 West St., West Hatfield, Mass.; 413-247-9506). You can get a listing of additional facilities from the Massachusetts Bowling Association (781-933-4622). And for the quintessential Baltimore duckpins experience, try Seidel Bowling Lanes (4443 Belair Rd., Baltimore; 410-485-5171) or check out the listings at the Unofficial Duckpin Home Page (www And since none of these games require a custom-drilled ball, that's one less thing you'll need to remember to pack.

Paul Lukas, winner of a 1998 Lowell Thomas Award from the Society of American Travel Writers, averages 160 in tenpins.