Niagara Falls & Buffalo September 2019

I’m likely to make a lot of Canadian enemies with this post but here it goes… If you ever plan on visiting Niagara Falls, here is what you do. You find a place to park that does not cost money (if possible), you get out of the car, you look at the falls, take a couple of pictures, you collect your stuff, you get back in the car, and you go far, far away because that place is easily one of the top 5 tourist traps in the world. Am I exaggerating, possibly a tiny bit but I don’t thinks so. I’ve been to many other places that don’t even remotely compare. I’ve been to many other places in Canada including Vancouver, Banff, Toronto, and Montreal and again it’s no comparison. Those places were amazing, well worth every penny, but were anything but tourist traps. And to be fair, even though I did not stay on the US side, I have no doubt it is every bit as equal a trap.

Don’t get me wrong the falls themselves are a beautiful site. They are awesome in their appearance and sheer power. I just take umbrage with a place that looks to squeeze every bit on money out of a person and actively block opportunities to get a free glimpse at such at natural wonder. After I checked into my hotel, I wondered down with the intent to walk to the falls. I never suspected there would be no directed route to walk to them even though my hotel was right there. Instead there was a pay to ride elevator/escalator type are that gets you down to the falls. So I went to find a way to walk down. As I walked I passed multiple terrace areas that one would think would have a view of the falls from up high. No dice. Every time I walked to one of them, trees blocked the view. I have nothing against trees at all. It just seemed odd every one of these areas had the view blocked. I had to walk about a 1/2 mile or so before I could start walking down to the falls. The walk was fine. I can’t say it was scenic as the area is dotted with casinos, stores, souvenir shops, etc, and nothing that really celebrated the falls themselves. Once there it seemed that all the areas to park were pay lots and I did not see any place were one could park for free. While the falls themselves are impressive, I just find it shameful all the ways they try to make every bit of money from a piece of nature that should at least have some free ways to view it if not be totally free to view.

I spent my two nights at the Embassy Suites on the Ontario side and I have to say I was not that impressed. The rooms themselves were very clean, the staff courteous, and my room had a very nice few of the falls. I can’t say much more than that unfortunately. First and foremost, they need to do something about their elevator situation. They had five elevators that went to all of the 40 plus floors and since there is such a large volume of guests, waiting for an elevator is almost an exercise in futility. Not only did it take a long time for elevators to get to your floor, invariably they were packed to the brim further increasing your wait time. As I had gotten in late that evening I decided to eat in their high end steak place, The Keg, which boasted views of the falls. While it was a little after 9:00PM I was still realistic and did not expect a table with a great view. That said, I was still not prepared for my seating arrangement. As a side note, it is not unusual for me to travel alone. I actually quite enjoy it. I like the solitude and not having to worry about a group’s itinerary. Likewise I have no issue dining alone but it seems for this restaurant, the lone diner becomes somewhat of an afterthought. Again the staff was nice and I was seated in a decent amount of time… to a high top table right next to the kitchen door… that kept bumping my table every time the door opened… right in view of four other empty tables. I was a bit astonished. I felt like I was in a bad sit-com or being punked. I would completely understand being seated by the kitchen if the place was packed and no empty tables were in sight. I would have no problem with that arrangement. To have my table in place constantly hit by the kitchen door while multiple empty tables were in my view was disappointing to say the least. The meal itself was just OK. Not horrible, not great, very middle of the road. It did take a long time for my server to follow up after I was done eating so I could get my check. Again, had it been busy, I would have understood. The overall experience left one feeling like an afterthought if I may repeat myself. At the very least the bed was very comfortable and I slept well. In the end, I would not recommend this hotel.

Now I can’t say the whole trip was a bust. There were two very good parts that made me glad I took this journey. First was the Niagara Parks Butterfly Conservatory. I was told of this place many years ago and finally made time to see it in person. The conservatory itself is set on the grounds of a botanical garden and houses numerous species of butterflies. The interior is a small man made and maintained tropical environment. When one walks in, you are immediately surrounded by numerous butterflies of various colors flying all around you as well as periodically landing on you. It is somewhat otherworldly, almost Harry Potter-ish. Some species are indeed more photogenic than others with a couple of the more colorful ones opting to continually fly rather than land for a photo op. I actually enjoyed the conservatory more than the falls themselves.

The second fun part of the trip was meeting up with a past friend. On my second day I traveled back across the bridge to Buffalo to meet up with a friend and her family to watch the Bills take down the NY Giants. Many of them are fellow South Jersey residents and Eagle fans such as myself. It was a great afternoon of great food, laughs, and it was like being back in Jersey watching Sunday football. It’s always special when someone you know and haven’t seen in a long time welcomes you into their home. I so enjoyed their hospitality and it was one of the things that made the weekend great.

On the return trip I decided to take the long way home. I guess I should first mention my experience at the border coming back. I gather it’s both the job and training of a border patrol agent to be suspicious of everyone. Still, I was rather perplexed when he asked me in a very suspicious tone, “You drove all the way from Jersey to see the falls?”. I’m really not sure what he was getting at? Don’t people from all over drive to see the falls? Was I supposed to fly or take the train? Has the guy never heard of road trip? Maybe like the restaurant staff, he finds traveling alone an odd thing to do. So I then headed southward to Pennsylvania Route 6 and drove that east then winding my way to Route 15. Both of those roads are quite the scenic drive. If you ever have the opportunity, check them out.

Where to next? I’m thinking some place warm and tropical to visit another past friend. We’ll see…

New York- June 12, 2019

June 12th. Many things have happened on that date in history. In 1099 Crusade leaders visited the Mount of Olives where they met a hermit who urged them to assault Jerusalem. The 12th of 1923 saw Harry Houdini escape from a straight jacket while suspended upside down 40ft in the air. “Cleopatra” starring Elizabeth Taylor, Rex Harrison, and Richard Burton premiered at the Rivoli Theatre in New York City in 1963. In 1987 Ronald Reagan challenged Mikhail Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall. June 12th is the birthday of Anne Frank, George H.W. Bush as well as actors Jason Mewes, Timothy Busfield, Eamonn Walker, and Jim Nabors. And most recently, the person who is  President of the United States, on paper anyway, added to his long list of embarrassing comments and stated he would accept information from a foreign power on his political opponents and not involve the FBI. And lost in all that information is my birthday, June 12, 1973 which is at the root of my trip to the Big Apple. After a pretty rough beginning to my year which saw both the end of a relationship followed by surgery requiring my head to be cut open, I made it a point to be very selfish and do something just for me on my birthday.

I found out months ago that one of my favorite guitar players, Paul Gilbert, was not only playing at the Iridium Jazz Club in NY, but also playing on my birthday. As such, I not only got a ticket for the show but splurged for the meet and greet before the show which not only entailed the usual swag bag and photo op but also a guitar lesson from the man himself. But first, let’s get the bad news out of the way.

I made my reservation to spend the night at the Manhattan Hotel at Times Square. In short, DO NOT stay there. The price was reasonable for New York and the rooms shown on the website appeared very modern, bright, and clean. I can only assume most of the photos were of their higher end suites and rooms for my room appeared nothing like them. The hallway leading to the room was dark and dank. There was obvious dirt on the hall furniture, pealing wall paper, and stained ceiling tiles galore. While my room seemed clean, the furniture was old, scratched, and dented. The bathroom was beyond dated with many chipped tiles and the overall lighting of the room was again dark making for an uncomfortable space. Fortunately I wasn’t going to be spending much time in my room. The only positives I can say is that the staff was courteous and I did not wind up with bed bugs (thank goodness). I did my due diligence in making all this known to the hotel manager. OK, enough of my complaining, it’s time to head out.

First off, for anyone who has never been to New York, do not be surprised at the prices. One might look at the cost of things and feel they are overpriced and compared to other cities and towns, yeah, they are. But it’s across the board. No one place is getting the better of you than the other. It is what it is in New York. I started my evening grabbing a couple of drinks and light snack at the SuperNova Bar inside the Novotel Hotel. It’s a decent enough bar with an outside area that has a great views, specifically of Times Square. So far, a good start to the evening. Afterwards, I made my way to the Iridium for the meet and greet.

 

This is only the second time I’ve gone for a meet and greet and I have to say this one exceeded my expectations. First off, there was only three of us total which made for a very personal and intimate experience. Paul himself was so completely laid back, down znHwEmpEQQSDfcHNxIqv%Qto earth, and friendly. I never once got the feeling that he was phoning it in. He genuinely seemed to enjoy spending time with his fans. It started off with a guitar lesson where he first went over some alternative playing techniques which was followed by a couple music theory lessons. You can easily see how much he loves playing guitar, talking about it, and passing on what he knows. The lesson was followed by the usual photo op. Then we got sit through their sound check which was basically a short 4 song set being played just for us. The experience ended with the usual swag bag of a T-shirt, guitar picks, CDs, and autographs. Meet and greets are always a bit pricey but compared to the last one I did, this was less expensive and definitely had more bang for the buck. Well done by Paul, his band, and his crew all around.

Once the meet and greet was done, it was time for the show. I paid the extra $10 bucks for reserved seating and combined with being there for the meet and greet, this got me a great seat right up front. Similar to a comedy club, the Iridium has a two item minimum which can be any combo of food and drink. However, while again it’s on the pricey side, where it differs from a comedy club is that the food is much better quality if not somewhat basic. The show itself was awesome. I had seen Paul before and this show was so much more. I’ve been a fan of his since the late 80’s and liking his stuff with Racer X and less so with Mr. Big. I have to say, over the years he has not only gotten better but his playing has matured so much. While he retains his technical chops and ability to shred, he has now coupled that with so much more soulfulness and fluidity. His new material from his new album “Behold Electric Guitar” is simultaneously a departure for him yet still quintessentially Paul Gilbert in his technique. In addition to his new material, he performed a couple of cover songs that he made is uniquely his own. One was a genius mash up of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” and one of his older songs, “Scarified”. The other was a little tribute to Ronnie James Dio and Ritchie Blackmore with the song “Still I’m Sad”. Please check out the embedded videos to see what I mean. Playing as part of four piece with keyboards rounding out the bass and drums made for a fun, groovy set. Not just a great guitar player, Paul tells very funny and entertaining stories setting up his songs as the set goes along. The only down side is that it made the 2 hours quickly pass by. If you are a guitar player, a fan of guitar players, or just a fan of good music, you owe it to yourself to check out Paul Gilbert (Disclaimer: Paul Gilbert nor his associates has paid me one red cent to write these kind words. Ahem, ahem, cough, cough.)

My night unofficially ended by checking out a couple of high end roof top bars, specifically the St. Cloud Roof Top Bar and 230 Fifth Rooftop. The former is atop The Knickerbocker Hotel having both an indoor and outdoor bar that also has a great view of Times Square. The latter is farther away with a large indoor section and an outdoor bar the next floor up. Both very different in their decor and equally nice. That said, they were both dead with the St. Cloud closing early. So, while the city may never sleep, it seems most of the people actually do.

Despite a couple of not so great things, I had a great time and very much enjoyed the quick jaunt up to Manhattan. The only thing I would do different in the future is pick a night with more people out and about and do a much better job in choosing a hotel.

Boston- Food, Fenway, Friendship, and METAL!

This was certainly not my first foray to Bean town. It’s a city that thanks to one of my best friends Brian Haley I’ve explored multiple times. One of the many things I like about Boston is that it has so much to offer but is not so large it becomes daunting. It has history, great restaurants, and a great public transportation system that allows you to easily go all over the city. This was one of those three day whirlwind trips (not my first) Brian and I planned out many months ago centered around seeing one of our favorite metal bands, Anthrax. As usual, there was much more than just the concert.

My train arrived at 1:15pm on a Saturday and Brian was there to meet me at South Station. Our hotel, The Verb, was close by and we were quickly checked. Definitely a different hotel. The hotel has a music theme to it. A small area of great music memorabilia and a small record library available to guests as each room is furnished with a record player. If you are looking for something like the Four Seasons, this may not be the place for you. Parking is a flat fee of $48.00 (not nightly/daily) which for city parking is phenomenal per my friend Brian. It is also located right next to Fenway and around the block from House of Blues where Anthrax was playing making things quite convenient. If you are looking for a place that is a lot of fun with friendly, helpful staff, and you don’t mind a sign with a large guy who looks like Chris Barron from the Spin Doctors, then this maybe right up your alley.

Being the gentleman that Brian is, we had a couple rounds of McCallan that he brought for the weekend. We quickly headed out and started an unplanned bar crawl of the Fenway area bars. Unfortunately, we neglected to pace ourselves not acknowledging we are no longer in our early twenties. After a brief break back at the hotel, we decided to hit The Citizen Public House and Oyster Bar. I rarely say “no” to oysters. The darkly lit but warm decor was perfect for our last stop of the night. The food was excellent with a wide selection of savory choices but nothing too out of the ordinary. After starting with a round of oysters, I went with the safe choice of their cheeseburger. It was quite good despite being a common menu item. Flavorful, juicy, and cooked to order. We rounded out the meal by sharing some bread pudding, as any hardcore heavy metal fans would do. However, the star of the evening was their Manhattan (hopefully you are not sensing a pattern to my blog articles). I’m quite a fan of both Gin Martinis and Manhattans and this was by far the best cocktail of that ilk I’ve had. I simply let the waiter surprise me with his choice of bourbon from their vast selection and viola, perfection. His choice was Basil Hayden’s small batch bourbon from Clermont Kentucky. It was the perfect balance of sweet combined with the slight bite of bourbon.

The next day, after breakfast, we decided to take a tour of Fenway Park. I highly recommend this if you have the chance. Even if you are not a baseball fan, there is a lot of history here. Some well known, some not so much. While they have replaced many of the original seats, there are still sections under the 2nd level that still have the original seats from when it first opened in 1912. The view from the seats atop The Green Monster is quite good and to me is worth a return trip to see a game from up there. You have the lone red seat commemorating when unsuspecting fan Joseph A. Boucher survived Ted William’s record 502 foot dinger.  The prior owner’s Thomas A. Yawkey and Jean R. Yawkey names in Morse Code on the left field scoreboard which is where they used to have picnics and listen to the Red Sox away games. It was also a great surprise to see that they have created Fenway Farms where they grow produce on the roof to supply the stadium food services.  A very well done and informative tour.

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Before we knew it, it was time to get to the show. We arrived early as I had surprised Brian by getting the VIP meet and greet before the show. It is something I’ve wanted to do and I knew Brian being an even bigger fan that I would enjoy it. One might get exaggerated images of backstage passes and partying with the band but that is not the case. There was a pretty large group who had gotten the package and it was well organized for the most part. It was also pretty quick but I think it rather had to be. I can only imagine how many fans they meet and sign autographs for before each show and this was the last show of their American tour. Even still, they were very down to earth, very appreciative of their fans. In particular, Joey Belladonna seem to really light up when I told him how great it was to see him back with the band.

Anthrax shared co-billing with Killswitch Engage and they had two opening bands in The Devil Wears Prada and Code Orange. All the bands put on a great show and put out their all.  However, Brian and I were there to see Anthrax and we were not disappointed. Their set was intense and they played a great mix of old and new songs. Joey’s vocals are still amazing after all these years and their energy has not diminished one bit. It’s been 26 years since I first saw them and they still do not let down their fans. The mosh pits were still fierce and despite some minor aches and pains post show, I was please to know I could still hang in the pit. And just when you thought the intensity could not get any higher, they hit the war dance part of “Cry for the Indians”, their closing song, and the floor went insane. Just of sea of bodies moving like a tidal wave. Thankfully I had the big man Brian to help keep me vertical. It was great to see that even though those in the pits are much younger than Brian and I, they are still very cool and maintain proper pit etiquette, helping up those who fall to the ground, and not making intentional moves to hurt people. On the funny end, I’ve always known I’m not as heavy as I look and it was once again confirmed here. In my still successful run at crowd surfing, Brian and the guy who tried to get me up dropped me and the security guard who got me at the front of the stage collapsed under me. Oops. Still quite a rush.

Boston. Just go there. You will have a great time no matter what you do. If you have the chance, take the Fenway tour if not take in a game. If you are fan of Metal, go see Anthrax. They put on a phenomenal show. You probably still have plenty of time but why wait?