Monday, September 16, 2013

Travel Notes: Two Weeks Stateside

(...And then work got in the way again.  Sorry for the delay - I'm still adjusting to post-holiday life.)

Given that I spent a large part of the last two weeks staying at my parents' house just south of Rochester, New York, I'm not really sure how much travel advice I can offer, but I will share a few notes from the trip.

K and I kicked off the trip with breakfast (English-style but not an English breakfast) at the airport, which we try to do every time we fly if we've left enough time.  There's something about a sausage sarnie (sandwich) and a pint that really puts you in the right mood to fly off on vacation.

Seven-and-a-half hours later (and then another couple of hours in the customs line, baggage claim and cab), we were in Manhattan.  We caught up with friends, had Korean BBQ and brunch, and then found ourselves with a gorgeous Sunday to take advantage of.  We had initially wanted to visit Ellis Island, particularly as the Italian side of my family arrived in America at this port, but it is still closed following Hurricane Sandy.  Instead, we opted for Coney Island, where neither of us had been before.

I was pleasantly surprised.  I had pictured a run-down, seedy place where childhood nightmares begin.  Instead, the boardwalk was a small, clean strip along the beach (which was not so clean), filled with New York sun-seekers.  

We obviously had lunch at Nathan's, because I'm not sure what else you eat when you go to Coney Island.  We both had hotdogs and K even went for the clam order (i.e. deep fried clams).  It was the only best hotdog that I've had in a long time, and I appreciated that they had deli mustard and not just yellow.

The situation with the rides was a bit pricey, unless you actually wanted to spend a lot of time there riding all of them ($25 for 4 hours, each).  We opted for a quick ride on the bumper cars which, let's face it, was what we were really there for anyway.  Fun, but since when do they make you drive only one way around the track on the bumper cars? Kids these days...

Overall, I would recommend going to Coney Island if you're in the mood for a bit of old-fashioned fun and find yourself with a free day in New York.  However, I wouldn't put it on my list of top 20 things to do in NYC.

After a couple of days in New York, we made the six-hour drive to the western Finger Lakes region to my tiny hometown.  K was quite surprised at first at what he perceived to be quite a large town in comparison to where he grew up in Wales, but as he spent more time there came to realise that this was just an American small town (i.e. just like his hometown but with fast food and wide roads).

We spent a lot of time with family.  I am blessed to have a large portion of my extended family living in the same area, but this really makes for a busy trip.  I always feel there are so many people to see and then feel guilty when I don't get to spend very much time with any one person. 

Mid-week, K and I took a mini road trip (2 hours) to Niagara Falls, a place that (oddly) K had visited before but that I never had.  The Falls were pretty beautiful and awe-inspiring and surprised me in a few ways - I was somehow both expected them to be bigger, or maybe closer to the vantage points, and was really struck by how powerful they are.

We got a great last-minute deal on a hotel at (a website I definitely recommend for booking hotels, both in the US and in Britain), so we sprung for a fancy hotel room.  We got a room with a view of both the US side and Canadian side of the Falls, a king-size bed and huge jacuzzi bathtub for $170, including tax at Hilton Hotel and Suits Niagara Falls/Fallsview.

(The view from our bed!)

Our hotel also connected to a casino through a glass walkway.  K and I were all ready for some black jack, but spent around 30 minutes walking through the huge casino (nothing by Vegas standards, I'm told, but large for this part of the world) feeling perplexed.  There were a lot of card tables with games we had never heard of before, the lowest black jack minimum bet was $10 and the slot machines are just confusing.  As neither of us are big gamblers (just don't get it) and I have never played black jack at a casino before (read: was at risk of losing a great deal of money very quickly), we got out of there pretty fast.

The little town in Niagara Falls is like an amusement park that has not changed since 1985, complete with Ripley's exhibits, rides, arcades and wax museums.  It was like going back in time (in a nice, nostalgic way).  The area was a lot less ritzy than I was expecting, but I definitely still enjoyed it for what it was.  

The only part that I did not enjoy was the serious lack of restaurants that weren't either American chains (Applebees, Outback Steakhouse, etc) or really overpriced and still not very good hotel restaurants.  For me, food is one of the most important parts of travel, and this really let me down.

Back in Upstate New York, we did a little wine touring - another Upstate New York pleasure that I had never experienced.  The Finger Lakes region, similar in growing climate to the Rhine region in Germany, consists of a series of deep glacial lakes, often surrounded by (small) mountains, that look like the fingers on a hand spreading across the western part of the State.

The best way to go wine touring in the Finger Lakes is to pick a lake (with Keuka and Seneca being the most popular), renting a limo (so no one has to drive) and going from winery to winery around the lake. 

We went for Keuka - the closest of the big wine lakes to my hometown - and did tastings at Hunt Country Vineyards, Dr Frank Vinifera Wine Cellars, Heron Hill Winery and Bully Hill Vineyards.  The tastings were surprisingly really cheap, ranging from free at Dr Frank to $5 at Heron Hill and Bully Hill.  Finger Lakes wine tends to be very sweet, due to the cold climate, so I found very few at some vineyards that I would actually want to drink again.  However, I was really surprised at the quality of the Pinot Noir at Dr Frank and liked several of the wines that I tasted both there and at Heron Hill. I won't go on like I'm a sommelier (or like I really know anything about wine beyond whether I like it or not), but I would highly recommend wine touring in the Finger Lakes after this day out. It was a lot of fun and some quality time with the family.

About 6 dozen donuts later...

The last weekend of our trip, we drove down to the Pocono Mountains in eastern Pennsylvania for a very close friend's wedding.  The setting and the weather were gorgeous.  The rehearsal, ceremony and reception were held at Mountain Springs Lake Resort in Reeders, PA, a woodland cabin resort surrounding a small lake, which my friend happened to find on Google.

The wedding was gorgeous and included so many personal, DIY details that looked very professional.  I won't share any other photos without my friend's permission, but the reception included burlap table runners, wheatgrass centerpieces (homegrown and in amazing wooden boxes made by the bride's father) and a few candles, and the favour was home-brewed pale ale with a label designed and printed by the bride that could have been sold in any store.  It was very simple and very beautiful. 

Well, with that little self-indulgence out of the way, I'll get back to my normal posting (in a timely fashion, I promise!).

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