Saturday, October 20, 2012

Day trip: Whiteface Mountain

Whiteface Mountain, near Lake Placid, is the fifth highest mountain in New York and holds the distinction of being the only Adirondack High Peak that one may drive up. What do you know; that is directly in line with my fitness level (I do enjoy hiking, but would probably die if I tried even the smaller High Peaks. Mr. D. did the smallest and barely made it through...). We decided to check out the Whiteface Veterans Memorial Highway on Columbus Day - the last day it was open for the season.

This toll road isn't cheap; the 2012 rates were $10 for the driver and car and $6 additional for each passenger (though it is less expensive than Mount Equinox's Skyline Drive). Trust me: it's worth every penny. Mr. D. was whining and moaning about being awake before noon on a day off from work, but as soon as we started up the mountain, he quietly offered "This is the most beautiful place I've ever been." Mr. D. doesn't stop complaining about being awake over just anything - this is a big deal.

The five mile winding road offers spectacular views of fall foliage the entire way up the mountain. There are plenty of spots to pull over and admire the scenery as you drive up, several with picnic tables if you'd like to bring a lunch in with you. I'm not sure I'd recommend that for Columbus Day, though; we were expecting the weather to be considerably colder at the summit, but were generally unprepared for what we found there.

Whiteface Mountain Castle
As the foliage became less and less peak winding up the mountain, we suddenly found we had time traveled to winter! Ice and snow covered trees adorned the top of the mountain, where the drive up culminates in their ice castle. Ok, it's just a regular castle, but it's been a whole year since I saw ice.

Visitors can park at the castle, which has restrooms (think: camping quality - flooded and smelly. You're not hiking, so stop drinking so much water), a gift shop, and a cafe.

Summit of Whiteface Mountain
From the castle, there are two options to reach the summit. Option #1 is a steep trail to the top. Option #1 is not really an option when it's covered in ice and snow; this left Option #2 - walking halfway to Moria (or just in a long tunnel into the mountain) and then taking an elevator to the summit. The elevator, however, only holds 10-12 people and it takes about 2.5 minutes each way. I wasn't expecting to spend an hour standing in a cold tunnel waiting on an elevator, but I will begrudgingly admit it was worth it for the 80-mile views we had from the summit.

We never did spot Montreal's buildings (maybe you can), but we did see Lake Champlain, Lake Placid, a wind farm, and lots of beautiful foliage. The summit offers a safer, flatter portion (above), but you can also climb around on the cliff a bit if you're feeling braver. We spent the entire day here and didn't have a chance to explore anything else - High Falls Gorge, Lake Placid's Olympic Center (Lake Placid hosted the games in 1932 and 1980), or even the gondola ride up the mountain via the Whiteface ski resort on the other side of the mountain. We had a wonderful day on the mountain, but this area of the Adirondacks absolutely deserves at least a long weekend visit. The trees were even nicer along the drive from the Thruway to Whiteface and we had a very nice late lunch/early dinner at the ADK Cafe in Keene.

October 8, 2012: Keene, NY
Additional Whiteface Photos:

Monday, July 30, 2012

Yankee Trails: Beacons of Light

As I finished my old job at the conclusion of the Spring semester and will not be starting my next academic job until the fall semester, I found myself with an entire summer off. It sounded great at the start, but things do get a bit boring once you realize that no one else gets the summer off and two months of no paycheck (plus the need to move) put a damper on big adventures.

Rock Island Lighthouse
Cue Yankee Trails, a Capital Region based travel company who does a variety of trips, ranging from 1-several days. Many of the places they travel are easy enough to just drive to for me (such as the State Fair in Syracuse), so I wanted a day tour that visited several places and was more driving than I'd really want to do in a day. I chose their brand new "Beacons of Light" tour that traveled to five light houses between the 1000 Islands area and Oswego, at the cost of $99/person. While it was nice to get out for a day, I found myself less than impressed with Yankee Trails and am not in a hurry to travel with them again. From the defensive tone of our tour guide regarding customer feedback, many others offered her criticism and complaints while on the tour; I'm very surprised that for a brand new tour, the company would not have any kind of feedback form available (our guide told us that only tours longer than one day get a feedback form).

Their pick-up location in Albany was very easy to find, at the rear of the Petsmart parking lot in Crossgate Commons (though their instructions said to look for a Yankee Trails sign, I didn't notice it). The bus arrived ten minutes early, which was nice, and we were off to Clayton, NY, with one 15 minute rest area stop along the way.

Sunken Rock Lighthouse
In Clayton, we boarded a boat (via Clayton Island Tours) and set off for a two hour tour of the 1000s Islands, which included viewing the Rock Island Lighthouse (above) and the Sunken Rock Lighthouse. Our tour guide was the smartest 19 year old I've ever met and told us lots of stories about the area, pointing out the summer homes of the rich and famous along the way. We also got to see Boldt Castle from the water, which I would absolutely love to visit. As a matter of fact, I wish they had incorporated this into the tour. We spent at least a half hour circling past islands we had already seen while killing time before our lunch reservation; instead of wasting time, it would have been nice to get off the boat and walk around (even in the rain!) - feel like we had actually toured something. Our tour guides indicated that the Rock Island Lighthouse would be opening up perhaps in the next year for tours inside the lighthouse, but we did not see the inside of one lighthouse the entire trip.

Boldt Castle
Once we circled around long enough, we arrived at Riveredge Resort in Alexandria Bay for a buffet lunch. The resort itself was very pretty and, if I ever get back to the area for Boldt Castle, I'd love to stay there. I have traveled enough on group tours that I understand group mentality. I understand why Yankee Trails would want a buffet style lunch for the quickest lunch possible (which I'm sure the kitchen also appreciates).

 I've eaten plenty of "eh" group meals, but this was, by far, the worst group meal I've ever had traveling. Every single thing was made unhealthy and heavy - which is not really what you want when you're on a bus tour all day. I tend of lean more toward foodie, but my Mom, who came with me, is as plain Jane traditional as it gets when it comes to food; she, too, was disgusted by what was served (Mom: "Well, the dinner roll wasn't that bad."). There was a bowl of salad - healthy, right? Nope. Caesar, soaked in heavy dressing. Then there was mayonnaise based potato and macaroni salad - but why?!? They didn't go with one single thing there. Next was a tray of greasy string beans, dinner rolls, pasta in a heavy cream/cheese sauce, breaded fish, and stuffed chicken breasts. I felt like I had rocks in my stomach for the rest of the day. Whomever plans the menu should, at the very least, consider healthy-fying some of the menu items. How hard would it be to have a garden salad without mayonnaise dressing all over it? Fish that isn't breaded? Even pasta without cream sauce? And, really, pasta/potato salad goes with grilled cook-out food. Not breaded fish, cream/cheese sauce pasta, or stuffed chicken breasts.

Tibbett's Point Lighthouse
Ok, inappropriately long paragraph about how bad the food was...but it really was that bad. I would been better off with the trip costing less and using that money toward something at the rest area (which actually did have some surprisingly healthy, though overpriced choices, such as a $4 cup of grapes).

Oh, and with all of that awful, unhealthy food - no dessert included to even cleanse the palate of all that crap!

From there, we climbed back on the bus and headed to Tibbett's Point Lighthouse in Cape Vincent, NY. A woman from the 1000 Islands boat tour joined us on the bus and had a few interesting stories about what it's like to live on an island year round, but did not seem to offer any information about the lighthouse itself (other than reading something out loud). Naturally, as we got to Tibbett's, the skies opened into a torrential it was a very brief visit before running, soaked, back onto the bus. There was a VERY smart older couple in front of us who thought ahead and brought a towel. If you're touring on a potentially rainy day, be smart and pack a towel. Those of us who didn't will be very jealous and impressed with your planning abilities.

Salmon River Lighthouse
Our next stop was the Selkirk Lighthouse in Pulaski, NY, where we met up with Ted - the lighthouse expert and highlight of the trip. Finally - someone who could speak intelligently about lighthouses on a lighthouse tour! I know nothing about lighthouses and I was annoyed up to this point about the lack of information; an aficionado would be miserable on this tour. Ted, in his replica lighthouse keeper uniform, was awesome and I wish he had been a part of our tour from the getgo. The Selkirk Lighthouse is, interestingly, available for rental; it appeared unoccupied at the time and Ted let slip that he was unable to convince the owner to let us take a peek inside due to such "short notice." Here is Yankee Trails severely dropping the ball. They cannot arrange for us to see the inside of lighthouses not open to the public, but they really could have tried here. It was very disappointing, to say the least. (Especially since the creepy abandoned hotel next to the lighthouse would prevent me from staying there).

Oswego Lighthouse
The bus followed Ted to Fort Ontario, where we viewed our final lighthouse - the Oswego Lighthouse, from a distance. The fort itself was closed when we arrived, but this was another missed opportunity for Yankee Trails to give us a place to walk around (instead of wasting time before lunch). Had they gone in reverse order, a quick trip to the Fort could have happened. If they wanted to be more on topic, a maritime museum would have been a nice, brief diversion. Aside from circling around in the boat, the initial itinerary indicated we would be returning to Albany at 11pm; we were back by 9pm.

I think Yankee Trails is best utilized for transportation only type trips - a ride to your cruise, a ride to a Yankees game, or a ride to a casino. If you're after a well organized, interesting, and informative tour - not so much. I hope that if they offer the Beacons of Light tour again it will improve, but I'm not particularly hopeful based on their lack of interest in customer feedback on its inaugural run. If I really just wanted to spend a day glancing at things from afar, I could have saved $99 and looked up some photos online. Heck, other than the time spent with Ted, I probably could have learned more about them online too.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Grant Cottage, Wilton, NY

Grant Cottage
Mr. D. and I took advantage of the beautiful weather and decided to visit Grant Cottage, which is about forty minutes north of Albany on Mount McGregor (in Wilton).

Mount McGregor Correctional Facility
We were a little surprised to discover that the cottage shares the mountain with a prison; as you drive up, you stop and sign in with the prison guard (who was very nice and suggested a trip to Prospect Mountain as well - added to our summer to do list!). A recreational yard is within view of the cottage and we were even more surprised to be watching a game of prison basketball...definitely not on the original agenda! The correctional facility, which had former lives as a sanitarium (first for TB patients and later for WWII veterans) and a school for the developmentally disabled, opened in the 1970's. Before the prison, it was the site of the Hotel Balmoral, which burned in 1897. The cottage itself actually began at the site, but was moved downhill with the construction of Balmoral, which was so popular of a vacation spot it was even served by train!

The tour, which costs $5 per person, begins at the visitor's center, where a brief film about Grant and the Cottage is shown. Joseph W. Drexel invited Grant and his family to stay at the cottage as Grant struggled to complete his memoirs in a race against his mouth and throat cancer; after Grant died here, the cottage was preserved, with caretakers occupying the second floor and the first floor left as it was when Grant died. Chairs Grant brought with him from New York to sleep in still occupy the office; floral arrangements sent for his funeral sit in the home; effects of the President, including robes and hats, are on display, as is the bed in which he died. The clock, stopped at 8 past 8 by Grant's son, Frederick, still rests upon the mantle.

We considered ourselves especially lucky and one of the volunteer tour guides, Bob, sat on the porch with us for at least twenty minutes after the tour, telling us stories about Russian princesses (Princess Cantacuzène - Grant's first grandchild) fleeing the Russian Revolution, former sanitarium patients becoming caretakers, and even a Japanese caretaker of the cottage who was interned in the house rather than an internment camp (and who was able to get her sister's children to be interned with her after the sister died in a camp in California). If one does not yet exist, someone needs to write a novel based on the life of this cottage, the lives it has seen, and how they fit into the larger construct of US history.

Ridiculously cute older couple, hand in hand
There is a short path to a scenic overlook with gorgeous views and there are quite a few picnic tables clustered near the cottage, so bring a picnic lunch (though I'd suggest taking your lunch and a blanket to the overlook...much nicer scenery than a prison).

Make a day of it and check out Moreau Lake State Park or, as we did, run into Queensbury for some pineapple Dole Whip at Martha's Dandee.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Cruising from NY to the Bahamas on the Norwegian Jewel

I spent months trying to figure out what a good "we are turning 30" trip would be this year; I priced airfare to Nashville, Hawaii, and Miami; I planned and replanned road trips.  We eventually settled on the idea of a cruise with Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL) leaving from New York and stopping in Orlando, Great Stirrup Cay, and Nassau, going with NCL because they were the only line going from New York in March.  Neither of us had cruised before and I spent loads of time researching my trip on Cruise Critic, which had tons of user reviews and advice.  The best advice?  Bring Dramamine (I also bought Sea Bands, but we had nice weather), lots of sunscreen, surge protectors/extension cords, and avoid the buffet for lunch on sail away day.  Avoid the art auctions (unless you just want some complimentary champagne), don't bother with the Internet service (which is very slow - it can take ten minutes to send an e-mail), and if you're planning on gambling at the slot machines, check on Slot Play for half price vouchers (but don't plan on gambling if you don't want to smell like eighteen ashtrays because there is no ventilation in the casino area).

The Pier & Check-in
Getting to the pier is very easy. My brother was kind enough to drop us off, but it is just as feasible to park at the pier (just expensive) or take the train down and get a cab over (much less expensive). We arrived super-early (around 9:30am) in an attempt to beat Saint Patrick's Day parade traffic for my brother, who had to get to the other side of Manhattan near the end of the parade route. Boarding started around 11:30am and we were in the third group on board.

The Room

We stayed in room 11062 on the Jewel, which is a mid-ship mini-suite with balcony. The room was actually bigger than I expected and our steward, Alfi, was very nice and on top of things (we loved the towel animals every night). There were only two American outlets (one European) in the room (both at the desk), so we brought a surge protector and two extension cords, which absolutely came in handy.

The problem with the room
On the second to last day of the cruise, Mr. D. went to get something out of the closet and found his clothes were wet and everything smelled like mold.

 NCL responded very quickly (someone was up at our room before I even got back from the service desk) and washed all of his clothes that were wet and/or stained from the carpet in the room. They asked us if we wanted to move our room, but only for that night (and without any of our things), so we declined. The following day, they sprinkled odor-stopping stuff on the carpet (remember that stuff the janitor in grade school would sprinkle over vomit and then it would smell like vomit and deodorizer?) and put the dryer on it...and it was awful - loud and smelly to the point where we had to leave the room.

The Food
The food on board was alright. We found the portions in to be oddly smaller than expected (eight rings of calamari in Tsars? 3 spears of asparagus constitute a side of vegetables at Cagney's?), though I suppose you could always request more. I initially avoided the buffet at all costs, but once we ventured up to the buffet, it really was not bad. They had an awesome salad bar, daily hot features, grill food (burgers, hot dogs, etc), rotating Indian and Asian dishes, dessert, and ice cream stations. It could get pretty busy during peak times and we sometimes had to walk into some of the other rooms for seating, but never had trouble getting a table. We did dine at several specialty restaurants (Moderno, Cagney's, Le Bistro, and Chin-Chin), all of which were good.

Pictured: Left - Le Bistro escargot, filet, creme brule, French onion soup, and chocolate dessert.
Right - Cagney's appetizers (shrimp cocktail and crab cakes), filet, and creme brule
Activities on Board
Every morning, we got a flier listing the on board activities for the day. We loved the alcohol tasting classes; for $15 you are able to sample several half-size drinks while hearing about the alcohol going into the cocktails and being afforded the opportunity to play a few party games. The mojito tasting and (several) martini tastings we attended were a highlight of the trip.  It's a great way to meet some other passengers and try a few new drinks for a very reasonable price.

Some other activities included demonstrations (towel animals, ice carving, fruit sculpting), trivia, late night games and parties.  You'll never get to all of the activities you mean to, but there's always something going on.

You'll also want to check out the evening entertainment on board.  We saw a hilarious comedian/magician (Jean-Pierre), shows with singing and dancing, and a Cirque inspired show - all of which were very fun.  The game shows just seemed to be passenger money drains and, really, the casino is a much more fun money drainer.

Pro tip #1: Figure out which side of the ship you are on and pay attention to the sunrise/sunset times.  You should absolutely plan on waking up early to watch the sun rise one morning (Even this face appreciated the sunrise), but it helps if your room is facing the right way.

Pro tip #2: If there is a Spongebob movie playing (NCL has an agreement with Nickelodeon), there will not be other goofy, young at heart thirty year olds there...just a few confused eight year olds.  Go to the bar instead.

Pro tip #3: During sail away, you can get some really nice views of the Statue of Liberty (and get to go under the Verrazano Bridge), so hang out on the top deck.

Port of Call: Orlando
Norwegian offers loads of prearranged excursions.  Lots of the message boards recommend renting a car for substantial savings, but here's the thing: if you are on a Norwegian excursion and get stuck in traffic, the boat will wait for you.  If your rental car breaks down? Not so much.

We both love Disney and there was no question that we would be spending the day there. There's not a lot of time; figure on a 1.5 hour bus ride to and from the transportation center plus the time to queue and take transportation to your park of choice. Plus you're paying for a full price Disney ticket when you're really only getting approximately 6 hours in the park. A great value? Not so much. Appropriate for a first time Disney trip? Don't even think about it. We got about 7 rides in (aka the only time Mr. D. has managed to get through the Magic Kingdom with only one visit to the Haunted Mansion), gawked at the new Fantasyland work, and shoved Dole Pineapple Whip in our faces. If you want to do Disney the right way, plan a trip to Disney. If you want a fun revisit to a favorite park, spend the day there on your cruise.

Port of Call: Great Stirrup Cay
Great Stirrup Cay is the private island owned by NCL and it was our least favorite part of the cruise (next to the mold in our room). While NCL has obviously been doing a lot of work on the island, it's simply not enough. The beach is seriously comprised of rock, bottle caps, cigarettes, and a little bit of sand. Clam shells and cabanas are your only options for shade (no chair shades), which are available for rental. In order to find them, you have to walk and walk and walk, way past where you think the NCL beach ends. Then, there is no signage - nothing telling you how much rental is and no real indication to anyone that you have rented a particular clam shell. One of the two men watching the clam shells spoke no English (to the point where someone asked: "Do you have to pay for these?" "No." [then runs to get the other guy]) and there was no organization for the cabanas; one couple who did not want to pay for a clam shell was told to go use the cabana since no one was taking money there. After spending $30 for the privilege of sitting in the clam shell, I found there was no drink service on this remote, far away beach. I think my expectations were fairly reigned in throughout the cruise, but I do expect that after collecting $30 to sit on an area of the beach far away from any bar or restroom, NCL should have, at the very least, sent at least one person over for drinks.

So, Great Stirrup Cay will get you a good spot to take photos of the boat and a BBQ lunch buffet, but it left me with a very unfavorable impression of NCL; they could have done much better here (Seriously! I wanted to give them money for alcohol and tip their employees to bring it to do you screw this up?).
Port of Call: Nassau, Bahamas
We booked an excursion to Atlantis for our day in Nassau in which we were supposed to get a tour and a beach day (there is another option to visit the water park that we did not opt for).  Ok, you don't need the "tour," which is an escort from the bus to the beach.  The "tour" also means you'll have to hang around for most of the morning for that specific "tour group" to head over to the resort.

Atlantis makes up for Great Stirrup Cay 100%. The beaches are beautiful (though by the time our "tour" got us there, shades were all taken), we were handed towels and bags, and there was no problem scaring up a drink. Or two.

The resort itself is huge, so expect to do a bit of walking and do check out the several aquariums there.

We headed back to the ship a little early so we could do some shopping downtown (read: buy rum). Here's another reason you'll want to get to Atlantis ASAP - more time to shop!

Would I go again?
Cruising was a lot of fun. It was a relief to disconnect from twitter and my work e-mail for a week and spend time relaxing with good food, good drinks, and good company. I loved sitting out on our balcony - watching the sun come up, watching the waves, and even spotting a dolphin coming into port in Florida. The staff members we spoke to were generally very nice and many of them have very interesting stories about cruise ship life if you're willing to chat with them. I would not go out of my way to cruise with Norwegian again due to the poor private island experience combined with the not-so-great way of dealing with our moldy, leaking closet, but I also would not pass up a really good deal. Leaving from New York was just so easy and it was nice to go somewhere warm without getting on a plane.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Proctors Historical Walking Tour

Last fall, Mr. D. and I went to Proctors for their first ghost tour (they will be having another one on August 25, 2012) and left wanting to know more about the history and architecture of the 1926 crown jewel of F.F. Proctor's Vaudeville circuit. Lucky for us (and about 100 others), they offered a walking tour of the facility today (and do this every now and then).

...and this is why you have no good photos from me. I was too distracted to bother remembering my camera this weekend...

[Note: the stage was set for Menopause: the Musical, so no photos of the stage here]
We started out the tour with a brief history of Mr. Proctor and his theater and then split into groups to tour the building. The first stop was Key Hall, a banquet facility in a space formerly occupied by Key Bank. The space still contains the bank vault as well as the safety deposit box vault, giving the room a unique feel. If Bonnie and Clyde ever tours and Proctors gets the show, I really, really, really hope that they will have some kind of party here (and invite me). Can't you just picture it? Photo opportunities with the cast in front of the vault, catering staff in period dress, tommy guns here and there, and some sort of red specialty cocktail. It's genius, I tell you.

It's always difficult for me to imagine Schenectady in its heyday as a thriving city growing up around General Electric and American Locomotive Company - with 95,000 people living there during its peak in the 1930's (methinks thinks could be worked into that Bonnie & Clyde party...). As a matter of fact, the skylights in the arcade are a testament to the prominence of Schenectady in times past; during WWII, it was such a big deal of a place that it was a potential German target! The lights had all been blacked out as a result, but are now restored.

We spent some time backstage talking to Keith, the production manager - which was a real treat. He showed us the load-in area, talked about the flexibility of the space, and the wide array of considerations a production manager must make for shows coming into town (ranging from technical requirements to catering). I did not take too many photos backstage, as the Menopause props/wardrobe were set up, but I could have listened to him talk all afternoon.

We were also able to tour the dressing rooms, both the larger areas and the star rooms. The large ensemble dressing room was full of tables - some bare and just waiting to be decorated, others designed to represent various touring shows (and signed by that cast). I cannot even say how much I love this idea (ok, it's even better than my Bonnie & Clyde party).

If you know me at all, you know exactly which table I made a beeline for (and if you don't, let's just say that I like Hair a little bit).

Of course, there's the theater itself, with over 2,600 seats (want an idea of how big this is? The Gershwin, the largest Broadway house which currently features Wicked, seats 1,933. Most seat 1000-1300.) and loads of original fixtures (from the bathrooms to the fireplaces).

As I noted during the last tour, I'm not alone in loving this huge historical theater. Every person we talked to obviously loves what they do and I couldn't help but wish I could hear every story that our guide alluded to being able to go on and on about.

If you've ever seen a show at Proctors, have any interest in the history of Schenectady, or are fascinated by what happens behind the scenes in the theater, go on a Proctors tour. They are currently free of charge and it's a wonderful way to spend a morning.