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.