Monday, September 23, 2013

There's something about Poughkeepsie, New York

There is something about Poughkeepsie, New York.  I don't know what it is that keeps drawing me back there.  It could be the truly international culture that you'll only see the likes of in major cities around the country.  It could be the small town feel that you get even though it is a larger city.  It could be the food.  However, it's probably mostly about the view.

The views that you get along the Hudson River in Poughkeepsie are some of the best views that you'll get in New England.  They are amazing.  And Poughkeepsie has some of the best ways to get them, and they're all free.  You can't beat free.  There's no way to do that.

The Walkway Over the Hudson started in 1992, with the recovery of a massive old railroad bridge that spanned the Hudson River.  In it's day it was the longest bridge in the world.  It had fallen into disrepair and the railways didn't use it anymore.  It was an eyesore of a kind, and the good people of Poughkeepsie decided that they could do something with that.  And they did.  They took the 1.25 mile bridge and made it into a state park so that people could take a walk, cross the river, and have some incredible views.  It worked.  I've never been up there when it wasn't at least moderately crowded.  It's one of the best places to get out in the city.

So, Poughkeepsie was so happy with the park that they'd created that now you can add to that wonderful walk that takes you 212 feet high above the Hudson.  They've added a walking map that makes a loop with the Mid Hudson Bridge just down the river.  You can do the loop walk and walk across both bridges as well as taking a little stroll through a couple of neighborhoods.  The whole loop walk is 4.5 miles and the views are even more amazing, because now you have two bridges to look at and from.  It's fabulous.

And that's not all.  The Walkway Over the Hudson is only the beginning.  They are making a 12 mile Dutchess Rail Trail for all you walking, running, biking and rollerblading fans.  So far, 8 miles of it are up and running, and the rest is on the way.  Rail trails and river walks have become extremely popular in the northeast, and we see more of them all the time.  They are beautiful, scenic, quiet and a great place to spend your time.  This will be one of the finest I've seen in a while, seeing as the walkway is part of it.

The Walkway Over the Hudson is the longest elevated pedestrian park in the world.  It has returned to the record books after over 100 years with a whole new record, and the people of Poughkeepsie couldn't be more proud of their achievement.  I've never seen anything like it myself.  And the feeling that you get when you're walking across it is something that has to be felt.  I can't tell you how it feels, but I can say it's very special.

The Walkway is so popular that little snack joints have popped up at each end.  You can grab a hot dog, ice cream, water and so on.  The more popular it gets, the more convenient it is to spend significant time there.  That's the way it works with any popular attraction.  The whole setup as it is today is a great one.  You can go there, take a walk, have a snack and a drink, enjoy the view and have a great day.  You can't beat it.  You can learn the history, take an audio tour on your cell phone, and many other things.  It's one of my favorite places and I can't recommend it enough.

Poughkeepsie is a fairly large city that doesn't feel like it.  There are many places to get out and enjoy the day.  In between the bridges is a wonderful riverside park.  There are beautiful views of the bridges and the river from there, and that is where you can catch a dinner cruise in the summertime.  The Ice House Restaurant and Bar is the place to either eat on the waterfront in Waryas Park or catch that dinner cruise. The entire park is laden with benches and seats to look out over the river, with playground sections to keep the kids entertained.  It's a great place to spend some time and just be.

Poughkeepsie is one of those places that makes a good outing.  The riverfront is a great place to spend a day.  Even if you're coming from New York City, this is your spot with the train station virtually in Waryas Park.  For those of us in Connecticut, it makes a wonderful country drive for the afternoon.  Fall is a great time in New England.  I've said that a hundred times.  Our leaves are just starting to change and we're just starting to enjoy the time of year that people come from all over to see.  Poughkeepsie's 212 foot high pedestrian bridge state park is just the way to enjoy it.  Come and see the longest pedestrian raised park in the world.  Come and walk the Walkway Over the Hudson.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Churchill, Manitoba and Their Polar Bears

For years I have been fascinated with nature.  I've traveled the world to see waterfalls, glaciers, mountains, and other amazing facets of God's creation.  Over the years I have seen sheep, cows, deer moose, bears, whales, seals, puffins, monkeys, bison, and so many other creatures.  One of the trips of a lifetime that has always interested me, is that pilgrimage to Churchill, Manitoba, Canada to see the beautifully majestic polar bear.

You have to have a plan in order to see something so wild and potentially dangerous in it's natural habitat.  No matter how cute they appear, don't forget that these animals are completely untamed and are carnivores.  The people of Churchill have a unique situation and a great solution to how and when people can see these fabulous creatures.

The Tundra Buggy was the solution to the how.  These vehicles are designed to carry an entire group of people and are high enough and rugged enough to keep tourists safe while they go out to snap photos of one of nature's most awesome spectacles.  Bears are naturally curious and most often come right up to the buggies to check out what's going on.

Churchill is located in the far north of Manitoba, along Hudson Bay.  Every fall in October and November, the polar bears stop by to wait for the ice to form on the bay so that they can get on with their winter routine of hunting seals in the ice.  This makes Churchill ground zero for polar bear viewing.

Now, Churchill is more than just polar bears.  November starts prime viewing season for the Northern Lights, or Aurora Borealis.  Scientists from around the world come to Churchill to study the Northern Lights.  It's one of the best places in the world to view them.

In the summer months, Hudson Bay is visited by large pods of Belugas, the world's friendliest whales.  You can go out on the water and see them, or, if you have the guts to get in the water, you can go snorkeling with them.

Churchill also has historic sites that teach us about the days of the fur trade and the conflict over that way of life.  The British and the French fought wars over the control of the fur trade in the early days of Canada's history.


There are many things to do in Churchill.  The polar bears are by far the most famous and the whole town is full of polar bear pictures, sculptures, and tons of souvenirs covered with pictures of polar bears.  Just remember, this is a northern outpost in Canada.  There are no roads to drive there.  You have to take a train for two days from Winnipeg to get there by ground transportation.  Your other option is to fly.  Despite this, the polar bear season is so popular that you need to book well in advance, up to a year to get a place to stay.  This is not a spur of the moment kind of trip.  That will never work out during polar bear season.

The stars of the show in Churchill are the polar bears.  There are remote lodges to get you closer to them.  There is a Tundra Buggy Lodge that is mobile so that it can keep in prime viewing spots.  There are tours in the Tundra Buggies.  There are ground tours as well.  There are many ways to see the polar bears.  Sometimes they walk right into town.

They're cute, but they are wild.  When you get there, your guide, your hotel, and all the locals will warn you to be careful around them.  Churchill is in their land.  They are the true locals, no matter how long men have been there.  Be careful and you will have the adventure of a lifetime.  Not interested in going to the northernmost parts of Canada in the late fall and early winter?  No problem, come and visit the Belugas in the summer.  You'll still be likely to see a polar bear while you're there and there are companies that can find you polar bears to look at almost any time of the year.

Here's another thing to consider.  There is a park that has been designated as a protected area just outside of Churchill where mothers den to have their cubs.  If you go in spring, you might get lucky and see a family.  Just remember, do not approach a mother bear with cubs.  Get out that zoom lens and take your pictures from a distance.
So pack up some warm clothes, grab your camera for God's sake, and haul yourself to northern Manitoba to Churchill, the polar bear capital of the world.  It's a great time, it's a great adventure, and it's something that you'll never be able to forget.


Thursday, September 12, 2013

Fall Fairs in Southern New England

 It's fall in New England again, and that's our best season.  While most of the country has their country, county, and state fairs in the summer months, New England waits for fall.  It's beautiful here in the fall, and it's the perfect time for a fair.  Every weekend there's a fair or a festival to go to, and southern New England has them all.

We not only have the country fairs with arts and crafts, and the town fairs with all the livestock, events and rides, we also have a couple of Scottish Festivals thrown in there just to make it interesting.  And that's not all.  We have Native American pow wows, several different kinds of cultural festivals, craft fairs, and even renaissance fairs.  New England is very busy celebrating and over eating on massively fattening fair food in the Fall.

While the rest of the country is mourning the passing of summer, New England comes alive.  Most of the fun starts the end of August here in the southern regions.  Every single weekend in my area there is something going on.  We have the Terryville Country Fair followed by the Goshen Fair, followed by the Bethlehem Fair, followed by the Big E, followed by the Goshen Scottish Festival, followed by the Harwinton Fair, followed by the Riverton Fair.  That's just our regular list in the area.

But judging cows and pumpkins isn't the only thing going on around here in the fall.  This is the season when we are all fighting against the oncoming winter.  This is when you'll see the last cruise in of classic cars, the last hot air balloon festival, the last wine tasting, the last organized motorcycle ride, and and slew of walks, rides and drives for charity.  I think as New Englanders, we become busier, just before we get shut down by the cold and snow.  We love to go out and shoot a ton of pictures of the trees, eat a bunch of fried dough and smoked turkey legs, drink a bunch of warm cider, and celebrate the last days of warm weather.

We love to ride rides, get frightened at haunted graveyards, and brake out the fire pits in the back yard for one last hurrah.  It's just the way we are.  It's funny, but a lot of people I know like to spend their summers on the beach, but when that's over, they get busy running around to all the events.  Like I said, it's just the way we are.

So, come on out to Southern New England.  Or come out to all of New England.  It's at it's most beautiful in the fall.  The foliage here is what we're most famous for.  The roads are windy, the skies are their bluest blue, the air is crisp, and the events are plentiful.  Come and see what the easterners are doing in the fall.  You might just be surprised.

Come see why New England is so busy in the Fall!

Thursday, September 5, 2013

I Love Layovers!

I know that in the world of flying, we all just want to get where we're going, but I'm going to take some time out today to remind all of you travelers that the journey is as important as the destination.  Case in point, my advice to take a long layover on a European journey.

I may as well do a commercial for Finnair here, but bear with me.  I've spent a lot of time reading about travel and watching it on television.  Face it, I love to go.  One of the shows that I've watched over the years is Anthony Bourdain's The Layover.  I wondered when I was booking this trip, if that was really a good idea.  I began to look into it for my trip to Switzerland, and I found Finnair.  They offered a great rate from JFK Airport to Geneva, Switzerland with a long layover in Helsinki, Finland on the way.  I'd never been to Helsinki, so I decided to give it a try.  For many years, I've flown exclusively on airlines based in the United States, and thought that I should check out another country's airline.

So, I booked my flights, got a great deal, and opted for the layovers.  On the way over, we had an eight hour day during the day to look around.  I checked my travel bible for Europe, The Eyewitness Guide to Europe, and found some things that I thought would be cool to go and see.  Guides like Insight and Eyewitness, and to some degree Lonely Planet and Rough Guides, will tell you a little bit about the area.  My guide told me that Helsinki was very westernized and many people there spoke English and liked to practice their English.  That sounded good.  It was one less language to worry about  on a trip that didn't involve any translators.

I ordered some free travel materials from Finland and Helsinki to learn more about my layover.  What I found out was that they had set up Helsinki to impress new tourists, so that the layovers would bring repeat customers.  They have a bus that goes from the airport to the city center and back every twenty to thirty minutes.  This brings the tourists to the best of the attractions with no stops and for very little money.  The bus stops right outside the terminal at the airport, and it is on the airport map so that all of us tourists can find it easily.  We hopped on the bus and went straight downtown.  The bus driver did speak English.  He spoke it better than some Americans I know.

So I took the trip with the layover in Helsinki.  What can I say?  First, the people at Finnair are great.  They sent me all the information that I needed to know about flying on their airline two weeks in advance of my trip.  They gave me several different phone numbers that I could call if I had any questions.  That was a first for me.

Flying on Finnair was equally terrific.  We each had personal televisions that we could watch pretty much anything on or listen to music or just see where the plane was.  They had good meals, yes there was more than one.  The staff was pleasant and friendly.  Everyone spoke a plethora of languages to help out all the travelers.  The seating was spacious for economy class and the seats were comfortable.  It could not have been a more pleasant flight.  Take that national airlines of the USA.

Once we got to Helsinki, the airport was small, the customs people were friendly, and the whole experience was easy to navigate.  We caught the bus and headed downtown to see what we could see in about six hours.  The day was beautiful, and we were looking forward to a little adventure.  Let the layover begin.

There's more than one town square in Helsinki.  We took the bus to the center of town, just like I'd read about.  We got off at the train station, and the driver made sure that we knew when we had to get back in order to catch our flight on time.  The train station is the centerpiece of that part of town with the clock tower and a  town square there.  From there we headed out to see what we could see.

We went to the Helsinki Cathedral.  This is on another square, elevated many steps up onto a hill.  The cathedral is the largest Lutheran Cathedral in the country, I believe.  In the square in front of it there is a statue of Tsar Alexander II.  He was the last tsar to rule Finland.  The Lutheran Cathedral was built shortly after that period in history.  The inside is beautiful.  You can go in and look around all you want.

We looked around the inside of the cathedral, stopped and the gift shop which was in a little building next to it, listened to the street performers in the square below, and looked around for our next sight to see.  From the top of the cathedral steps we saw the Russian Orthodox Cathedral, so we walked over to see it.

Helsinki's Russian Orthodox Cathedral is the largest of it's kind in that country, dating back to the time of the tsars and the several decades that they ruled the country.  The inside is ornate and amazing to look at.  The cathedral still gets a lot of use today.  Just  because Russia no longer rules doesn't mean that there are no Orthodox believers left by a long shot.  When we were there, it was quite crowded.

Barely across the street from the Russian Cathedral was the waterfront.  There we not only saw old wooden ships that were for rent, but cruise ships, fishing vessels, and sight seeing boats of all kinds.  We opted not to take a boat trip due to our limited time.

Instead, we went to the market place that was on the docks and the waterfront.  There we saw all the native handicrafts, clothing, and art.  We learned a lot about how intertwined Russian and Finnish traditions are.  They had woolens and wood carved totems, but they also had lacquer boxes and nesting dolls.  It was educational, beautiful and fun.

After that we wandered.  We found great shops, little museums, fabulous architecture, and old grand hotels.  It was a beautiful old town, and I'm glad I got to take a look at it.  We learned a lot about Helsinki in just a few hours.  We learned that like most of Europe, if you need a taxi, go to a stand.  We learned that they have street trams in Helsinki rather that subways.  We learned that they still have pay toilets with attendants for the tourists.  We also found out that they have an amusement park right there in the city.  That also is not uncommon in Europe.

So, we went into the unknown.  I didn't know much about Finland or Helsinki.  We found out that it was more European than we thought it would be, but that was great.  We also found out that they have a taste for American things there, that reminded me a little bit of Russia back in the 1990's.  I saw over ten McDonald's while we were there.  I saw several Subway sandwich shops while I was there.  I saw many American stores and restaurants while I was there, including a gigantic Toys R Us.  On the trip back we stayed overnight, and I discovered that they had four Holiday Inns.  Once I learned that, the concept that they spoke English very well didn't seem so exotic.

So, we took the time and saw something along the way.  Sometimes it looked just like the USA, like when we passed the rest area with the McDonald's on the way back to the airport.  It was a unique experience, and the Finns have placed it out there as an option to get people to come back and visit them.  Would I do it again, as a vacation location?  Would I go to Finland?  Yes.  Mission accomplished for Finland.  I like their country and would gladly go back, but they did have to show it to me and get my undivided attention for a while.

Finnair has been going for ninety years, and I wish them 90+ more.  By the time we reach middle age, like I have, the one thing we tend to have is time.  This was a trip where I took some extra time, I saved $300 per ticket, and saw some amazing things.  I found an airline that I would fly again and again, and that I would recommend to everyone I know.  I got a glimpse of a country that I'd never really thought about, and I liked it a lot.  I met friendly kind people, and had a great experience.  All on a layover, just like Anthony Bourdain says.  It's a great idea, it saves money and it adds to the adventure.  So, sleep on the plane.  There's nothing to see over the Atlantic Ocean at night anyway.  Enjoy your layover for once.  Enjoy!