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…

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Finger Lakes, NY, Sept 2019

Though I planned on taking time off months in advance, I did not decide on my final travel plans until the very last minute. For the first part of my trip I wound up in the Finger Lakes region of New York between Seneca Lake and Cayuga Lake. The area is very laid back and relaxing and the weather for September is just sublime with the temperatures in the the 60s to 70s. I chose to stay at the Inn At Gothic Eves and it is bar none the best bed and breakfast I have ever stayed in. It manages to mix traditional and modern decor which makes it feel very warm and inviting without feeling dated. The breakfasts are creative and out of this world good. There is a small but quaint downtown area of Trumansburg with a few places to eat and drink. In particular Atlas Bowl has a small but very tasty menu and excellent cocktails. I had three of their Autumn Old Fashions and I would have had 5 more if there wasn’t a chance of me getting in trouble from being too drunk. I know, I’m getting old.

I spend most of my day hiking with a little bit of fishing at Robert H. Treman State Park taking in some fantastic waterfalls and working on my shutter speed photography skills. I’ll let you in on a little secret, those skills still need a lot of work. I have to say, the park and trails and superbly well maintained. If one finds themselves here and wanting to do the trails my one recommendation would be to the Rim Trail first and get all the major, repetitive up and down elevation changes out of the way first and then return on the Gorge Trail. The down side is the waterfalls are kind of at your back on the return trip but it’s easier on the legs. I can’t say I caught anything fishing but that’s the beauty of it, you don’t have to catch anything to enjoy it. It became a nice relaxing time after the hike to kick back, nap, and enjoy the sounds of the creek. Next stop, Niagara Falls. A place I have not been to since the late 1970’s when I was a wee lad.

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.

The Triple A Road Trip: Annapolis, Alexandria, & Arlington

So, it has been a long time since I was last able to publish something on here and I’m glad to be back… for now. I guess you could say we didn’t stay with the “A’s” as we also visited Great Falls. Conversely, we could really stretch the definition to quadruple A as we visited the Arboretum (National Arboretum). However it is defined, this was a fun last minute road trip. By last minute, I mean extremely last minute. I’ve tried to make it a yearly tradition to take time off for my birthday and do something or go somewhere. Of recent years, that has combined doing the American Cancer Society ACS bik-a-thon (a very worthy charity if you are into cycling) and taking a short trip. This year my partner Teena and I were leaving our travel plans to a last minute decision. It came down to this road trip and a last minute cheap flight to anywhere. Unfortunately the last minute cheap flight had many travel date restrictions which did not work out so the road trip won out.

Getting there, we opted to forgo traveling down I-95 and took the back roads through Delaware and Maryland crossing Kent Island and the William Preston Lane, Jr Memorial Bridge which all but takes you right into Annapolis. On Kent Island we took a little side trip to the Southern point of the island which was met with road construction and a private road which thwarted reaching our destination point. On turning around, we saw signs for “Historic Stevensville” and decided to check that out instead. Warning, if you plan on seeing this, do not blink. No this is not some obscure Dr. Who reference. The historic downtown is literally the meeting of several corners. It passed so fast we literally had to go back to confirm what we saw, err, or rather, didn’t see. So onward to Annapolis.

Overall, Annapolis is a visually charming town with small, colorful row homes. There are a lot of the typical tourist shops selling trinkets and T-shirts. It is apparently home of the sailboats “Woodwind I” and “Woodwind II” the latter of which is featured in the movie “The Wedding Crashers”, at least according to the tourist map. And in case you didn’t already know, home of the U.S. Naval Academy. However I have to say, to me, the town was a little too small. I’m not speaking in overall acreage but more of the size of the streets and how close together the buildings are situated. It was a little claustrophobic to me.

That said, what it lacks in street width, it makes ups for in dining and libations. Admittedly, we were only there for one night so it is possible we picked the best two places but I doubt that. Our first stop was the Fox’s Den. Situated in a sub street level unit under other stores and restaurants, its location, decor, and drink selection gave it a speakeasy feel. They have a nice selection of cocktails of which the Penicillin 1870 and District Boulevardier we can speak for as being quite excellent. Additionally, they have a unique craft beer selection and the coconut cream ale I ordered had a perfectly sculpted head in addition to being the smoothest beer I have ever had. Not enough O’s in the word smooth to describe its taste (sorry Genny Cream Ale). We then moved on to find our dinner for the evening. For this I have to give credit my partner Teena for seeing that Café Normandie had IMG_2480rabbit on the menu, a recent favorite of mine, in the form of a rabbit pot pie. The restaurant has a rustic feel to it and though they have a rather refined appearing menu, nothing about the restaurant came off as pretentious either. We opted for a bottle of wine with dinner. While I would like to come across as a connoisseur of fine wine, I honestly just recognized the name “Rothschild” from TV and movies when I ordered the Château Malmaison-Rothschild, Médoc. It was a good gamble as the wine was not only good on it’s own but went very well with the rabbit. The portions were plentiful, so much so, we had no room left for dessert. We soon went back to our hotel and drifted off into our food coma induced sleep.

The next morning we were off to the DC area. Our first stop was to the National Arboretum. While there is no admission fee, they do work partially off of donations. They have quite the impressive collection of Bonsai trees on display, some growing since the 1600’s. Overall, I’m for any green space within city limits. However, traffic noise was quite noticable which did take me out of the moment at times. Likewise, I would have liked to see more foot paths through the park rather than or in addition to black top roadways to get around. It’s a very worthwhile excursion but I might recommend doing it during the cooler spring or autumn months.

We then made our way to Alexandria, VA and the Hampton Inn which would be our accommodations for the next two nights. Though outside of the Old Town district of Alexandria, that was balanced by the overall room price, the inclusion of a hot breakfast, and a free shuttle to and from Old Town making it’s location rather moot. Over the next two nights, we fully took advantage of the shuttle and wandered up and down King Street sampling numerous watering holes and their various cocktails as well as multiple restaurants pacing ourselves with appetizers and meals. There is such a multitude of great places to eat and drink, I think one would have to work hard to be disappointed. While I can’t go into detail regarding every place we ate, I can at least list a few of them. La Tasca has amazing tapas style appetizers and sangria, Hen Quarter has great fried chicken, comfort food, and bourbon (and bourbon flights). If you prefer something a little more mainstream but still with it’s own identity, check out a regional chain called Blackwall Hitch. Like more of a dive bar feel (said with all due respect) hit up the Bayou Room, the lower level of Two Nineteen Restaurant. There seems to be something for everyone on King Street. The one place that stands out from all the rest also happens to be another French place, La Fromagerie. They have a wonderful assortment of cheese and charcuterie you won’t find at many places. Additionally, their wine selection is even more unique. I asked our server if she could surprise me with a wine I would not normally be exposed to. I was presented with a 2016 Domaine De Clovallon Les Indijènes. From what was explained to me by our server as well as reading online, this is an unfiltered wine that is allowed to ferment spontaneously that comes from old vines which had survived a regional catastrophe. The result was an aroma of berries that was slightly musty and a taste and feel that was earthy with a hint of fruit, dry, and mineral like. It was without a doubt the most unique wine I have ever had. Despite what you may think from my description, it was quite excellent. As an added bonus they have an out of place yet hilarious painting of John Goodman from The Big Lebowski. I am most certainly this eatery’s target demographic.

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Old City Alexandria has much more to offer than just food and drink. Their waterfront region is quite vibrant with parks making for a nice evening stroll as well as water taxi services to DC  and National Harbor. So nice, it makes me wish nearby Philadelphia could / would bring theirs up to par. There are ghost tour bar crawls and many small museums we did not get a chance to visit while there. Additionally, they seem to support local artists a great deal. To be repetitive, there truly is something for everyone.

The Next day we proceeded to Great Falls National Park. It’s a very short ride outside of the DC area but a world away in scenery. It is a National Park so there is an entrance fee of $10 per vehicle which covers all passengers that is good for 3 days (or $5 per person by foot or bike). As the name suggests, this is home to a rather splendid water fall. There are several viewing points to get that photo op you are looking for with two of them wheelchair accessible. There are also multiple hiking trails, with one that goes through the ruins of the old canal locks. The falls are as great to view as listen to and the trails are nicely kept and marked. Though I have to say the “ruins” are a bit underwhelming. Afterwards we then went to the George Washington Masonic National Memorial. This stop piqued my interest as I have a fascination with the Masons, the Knights Templars, and their rumored connection. As one might expect, it is quite lavishly ordained in its architecture with highly sculpted columns, murals, and statues. There are several floors with varying information regarding Washington himself, the construction of the monument, and the Masonic organization itself. The 9th floor has an observation deck with a great view of Alexandria and DC in the distance. While Alexandria has Philadelphia beat on the waterfront, Philadelphia’s Masonic Temple and tour far outweigh the George Washington Masonic Memorial.

Our final day was spent visiting Arlington National Cemetery. For what the George Washington Masonic Monument has in
its opulence, Arlington has in it’s simplicity, tradition, and somberness. Whatever your opinions are of war and the governments who engage in them, I think and hope we can all agree those soldiers who have defended  their country during times of war should be honored. It takes a special person to put their life on the line forIMG_2552 something larger than themselves. The tombstones and memorials are beautiful in their simplicity with maybe the exception of the Memorial Amphitheater IMG_2586which is not only ornate but quite large in stature. Overall, it is a crossroads of beauty and sadness. Many memorials create a place for quiet contemplation and introspection such as the eternal flame marking the grave site of JFK and Jackie Kennedy. Those who guard the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier are rather awe inspiring in their precision of motion, dedication, and commitment. The changing of the guard alone is worth visiting these hallowed grounds. Though I had visited here years prior, I am glad we decided to include this on our trip.

So many people make visits to the DC area specifically to see the nation’s capitol. I’m not saying there aren’t things to see in DC. However, do not overlook the areas surrounding the capitol. There is much in the way of history, nature, and entertainment around DC that one should check out. Specifically, I can’t recommend Alexandria enough. So much so, that my partner and I are already looking to go back.