Thursday, October 31, 2013

Hauntings...Just for Those of You Who Aren't Quite Done With Being Scared

I have to admit, I love Halloween, so since it is Halloween and I'm not quite done being scared, I thought I would do a little blip in my little blog about the scariest cities in America.  These are the places where you can go and wait out the day until night falls and the ghoulies come out to play.  These are the places where the paranormal experts go and come away still confused.  These are the places that all the best stories are about.  Of course, as a sideline, most of these places have great parties most of the time.

First on the list that I got from the Haunted America Tours people is New Orleans.  This place just reeks of something otherworldly from it's above ground cemeteries like St. Louis to the ancient practice of voodoo, to the otherworldly tales of pirates untimely demises.  The plantations are haunted, the homes are haunted, the gardens are haunted, and of course the cemeteries are haunted.  Come and take a tour of all the most haunted spots in the Crescent City, and you will be surprised just how many paranormal hot spots there are.

Second on the list is Galveston, Texas.  This island community is inhabited by many normally unseen guests, or residents as the case may be.  Galveston has been ground zero in Texas for hauntings for years.  Mayfield Manor is probably the most publicized spot, but there are tales of ghost ships in the harbor with pirates of old on them, and the entire Strand district is filled with spectral residents.  There are many places from the Strand to the harbors where ghosts are cited by many on a regular basis, so don't be surprised if you stay in a hotel and have no choice but to share your room.

Third is the battlefield at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.  Now, it comes as no surprise that one of the bloodiest battlefields in the Civil War could be haunted.  If you believe in ghosts, this would make all kinds of sense.  Turns out though that it goes back a little further than that.  Word has it that when the battle was fought, George Washington, himself was riding around on his horse.  As the story goes, he still rides around the area today.  Is it real?  Who knows, but it is a really good time trying to find out.


Fourth is Key West, Florida.  This lovely little island has been home to pirates, refugees, voodoo practices, and some pretty eccentric artists over the years.  That makes for some pretty interesting ghosts.  Everything from the stories of Hemingway and his suicide, to pirate tales of old make this the best viewing of spectral curiosities in all of Florida.  You can still go to see a voodoo queen and have your future told by local psychics.  Rumor has it that the best one is that the spirit of Elvira likes to hang around the old hanging tree in the middle of Captain Tony's Bar.  Also, check out the haunted doll.  You just have to try it.

Fifth is Savannah, Georgia.  This city is famous for being haunted.  I've never met anyone who's heard of this city and hasn't heard that it is haunted.  There are way more than just one guidebook to the ghostly sights and activities of this place.  Most people consider this to be the most haunted city in America, or at least seriously creepy.  The entire historic part of the city is deemed to be haunted.  There are ghost tours all over this town.  It has haunted forts, buildings, cemeteries, dark streets, and so on.  This was the location where they filmed Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.  Many say that the city has a midnight side.  There are many ways to tour this dark city in it's darkest hours.  There are horse and carriage tours, walking tours, train tours, plantation tours, and so on.  There is no end to the ways that you can get spooked in that town.


Sixth is Charleston, South Carolina.  Welcome to the land of Blackbeard.  This is where the legendary pirate held the city under siege for many days.  It's said that his spirit is still in the area, even though after the incident he moved along up the coast.  But this city was very important during the Civil War.  In fact, some people say that it's where it all really started.  Fort Sumpter still stands here as a historic reminder of many things including that war, and most visitors will tell you that there are still sentries patrolling the fort's walls today, even though they've long been dead.  But, whatever the case, Charleston has much the same reputation as Savannah, and there's never a dull moment after dark.

Seventh is San Francisco, California.  This is home to the infamous Alcatraz Prison.  This was home to Al Capone and so many hardened criminals of legendary status.  If Alcatraz isn't haunted, I would be amazed.  But not only are there ghosts of criminals wandering through Alcatraz, there are ghost ships sailing around the harbor since they were originally lost in the fog of the bay.  Also, there are the ghosts of the Golden Gate Bridge where over 1,000 people have committed suicide, and apparently are still here.  There are many older neighborhoods that are deemed to be haunted in this city as well.

Eighth is Chicago, Illinois.  Most people know at least a little of Chicago's unusual and sometimes violent and tragic history.  There are legends here.  The biggest one if of course how Mrs. O'Leary's cow started the great Chicago fire that leveled the city.  Every cemetery in town is supposedly haunted in Chicago.  If not by victims of the fire or one of the local odd cults that have come through there over the years, then by anything and everything connected to Al Capone and the gangsters.  There are haunted restaurants, harbors, skyscrapers, and cemeteries all over town.


Ninth is Miami, Florida.  That's right, Miami.  That one took me a little by surprise, but once I heard about the Biltmore Hotel, I was sold.  The Biltmore was once a beautiful mansion. Then it became a hospital for many years.  Apparently when the Biltmore was turned into a class A hotel, some of the victims of the hospital didn't get the memo.  Apparently, there are unexplained happenings and noises all over the hotel, especially on the 13th floor.  But that's not the only supernatural occurrences in town.  There are many famously haunted cemeteries, and even some nightclubs.  So go out and party with the paranormal.

Tenth is Salem, Massachusetts.  This surprised me, because all of the horrifying stories about this city are historical fact.  I would honestly have thought that it would rate higher on the list.  Salem has been haunted since at least the 1600's following the famous Salem Witch Hunt.  Two girls reportedly were taken over by evil spirits in the city and for the next several months, the people of that city lived in fear.  At any point, you could be next.  Citizens were accused, tried, hung and even crushed because they were labeled witches.  Some say that even dogs were killed because they gave people the evil eye.  This city was turned upside down by fear, hatred, and delirium which allowed that travesty to happen.  Is it any wonder that the spirits of these folks might not yet be at rest?  There are many tours on the subject in the city, and many places that have been preserved from that time.  The cemetery still houses the residents that were put to death, if you dare get that close to them.  The House of Seven Gables of course is also famed for being haunted.

So, if you haven't been scared enough after Halloween, there's some more ideas for you.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Viewing the Elusive Aurora Borealis or Northern Lights

Ever since I was a kid, I've seen pictures and heard tales about the Aurora Borealis.  The Northern Lights are a wonderful display of gases in nature that fascinate most of us humans.  It's one of the phenomena in the world that creates in us that sensational feeling that always gets us in trouble -- curiosity.  For many, the idea of getting to see these wonderful colorful displays of pure light that cannot be manufactured today becomes a quest.  I've been there people.  Is it worth going all over the world to see some dancing lights in the sky?  I think so.  So, how do you do it and when?  Let me try to help.

I would love to say that the perfect time to see the Northern Lights is in the middle of summer when it's warm in the northern parts of the world.  I would love to tell you that you can see them well from Florida or the Caribbean.  I would love if that were true, but it's not.  The Northern Lights tend to be more viewable in the fall and winter than any other time of the year.  And, here's the heartbreaker, you really need to head north in one of those seasons.

Where to go?  Well, start in Norway, as the experts say that Tromso is probably the best spot in the world to view the spectacle.  Also in Norway are Alta, Svarlbard, and Finnmark.  You can also see them from the Ice Hotel.  They are all known for their views of the Aurora Borealis.  In Sweden is one of the top spots, Abisko.  This is a very popular spot to view the lights along with Kiruna and just about anywhere that you might be willing to go in the Laplands.


Of course it's also great to watch for the Northern Lights in Finland.  But in Finland they really roll out the red carpet, which is no surprise to me.  That country is friendly and nice.  The Aurora Chalet is the place to be in Luosto, where they will call you when the lights appear.  It's convenient and by far the most American way I've ever heard of to view the lights.  Also popular in Finland are the towns of Nellim, Utsjoki, Ivalo, and Kakslauttanen.


Here's an obvious choice.  Go to Iceland.  Where do you go to see the Northern Lights there?  Anywhere.  That whole country is viewing ground zero.  Take a look into travel specials to go there too.  Iceland Naturally has all kinds of specials throughout the season so that you can have a wonderful experience and a really good time in Iceland as well. Remember, I will always recommend Iceland.  It's a great place to be.

Of course you can stay stateside and go to Alaska.  That's the best viewing ground in the U.S.  Anchorage, Fairbanks, Denali Park, and the whole Yukon Territory are great places to visit.  Don't forget, they have an ice hotel there too.  Check the prices for all of that, because there are specials to Alaska just for the Northern Lights season for you to take advantage of.

Canada is obviously a great spot for the Auroras.  Where?  Well, the Yukon Territories are the best, just like in Alaska, since they're basically the same place.  Yellowknife is known for it's views, and it is a fact that the place is so adorable that Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson spent their honeymoon there.  But, if that's not your Canadian taste, you can also do a lot of great viewing in Calgary and Manitoba where the polar bears live.


Don't forget Greenland.  I normally do, because it's one of those places that you never hear about when it comes to tourism.  Greenland is a great viewing platform for those lights, and they can be seen the best from Kulusuk and Ammassalik.


The British Isles are one of those places that are most generally associated with their rain and cloud cover, but if you are there in the winter when the clouds part, you'll get a great view of Auroras.  I will warn you that you won't get the shows that you may get elsewhere and you need to have the time to wait for the weather change, but if you do, the show is great.  Aberdeen, Isle of Skye, Northern Highlands, and Dunnet Head are the best of the best for viewing.


Of course the list is rounded out by Russia.  It's famous for being cold and snowy and the nights being long in winter, so of course it's a great place to view Northern Lights.  Russia can also provide an exotic travel experience for you and has some of the most northern cities in the world.  The Russians are used to the weather, so they live pretty normal lives in spite of it.  If you want to stay closer to a city, this may be your choice.  The best places for viewing are somewhat away from the bustle in Murmansk, Siberia, and the Kola Peninsula.  How far is that from a city?  Murmansk is a city, so have fun.  They also have a special train tour there to view the lights.

Now, if you don't want to go to an ice hotel, stay in a tent or an igloo, or go to the wilds of the Earth to view the Aurora Borealis, there's another way.  There are several companies that offer cruises.  Holland America is the most obvious, but there are many others.  The great part about the cruise is the comfort and convenience.  Not only will they keep you warm and entertained when the lights aren't in view, they will call you and tell you when they are.  It's a great way to not have to think about it, but still get a great view.  the ports of call are pretty good too all along the coast of Norway.  Another thing that you can do is take an evening cruise in Iceland.  They take you out for dinner to get you away from the lights of Reykjavik so that you can have a clearer and more pronounced view.

So, if you want to see them, that's where you go, and from November to March is when you go.  How you get there is up to you.  How you travel around to view them is up to you.  There are many ways to accomplish this quest.  So, don't hide inside during the winter this year.  Put your parka and  bunny boots on and head out to view nature's most awesome spectacle.  The Northern Lights.


Thursday, October 17, 2013

A Columbus Day Road Trip in Massachusetts and Vermont

There is nothing quite like taking that one last look at the beautiful fall trees just before they fall into ruin for the winter season.  I took a great road trip this weekend and just wanted to share.  It started out at my home in western Connecticut, and took me and my son all over the area.

We started up Route 7 which is known for being one of the most scenic routes in the area.  We had to stop along the way so I could take pictures of trees, churches, bridges and whatever else struck me.  My son is a patient guy and lets me play with my camera, even when he knows that the lighting situation is going to be impossible.
We stopped at Stockbridge, home of the Museum of Norman Rockwell.  This picturesque burg is a great place to just wander and look.  The Red Lion Inn is old and beautiful, and even if you're not staying the night there, you should try the little restaurant and pub for some food.  It's great ambiance.
In the fall you see the most beautiful views.  Old farm houses turn into photographs waiting to happen, just because New England and mother nature are providing a spectacle.
Virtually any spot along the side of the road makes a great picture.  That's the great thing about New England in the fall.  The great thing is that a trip in western Mass is relaxing, and takes you away for that last trip of the year.  Jiminy Peak in Hancock is right along the way, and they are open for the weekend.  There you can stop and take a ride on an alpine slide or a mountain coaster.  You can also go on a Segway tour.  It's a wonderful way to spend the day.

Another great stop on this trip is Mount Greylock.  It's in North Adams, Mass, and it's the highest peak around.  There is a road to the top, and when you get there you can climb the observation tower to get amazing views of the area.  There's a snack bar, and plenty of hiking to keep you occupied.

Natural Bridge State Park is also in North Adams, and is a cute little park with a real natural bridge.  I've been taken in by ads for natural bridges before and found them to be only in fantasy land a bridge, but this one is real.  It is small, but it is real.  The park is scenic and a great little stop along the way.

Further north on Route 7, you enter Vermont.  Bennington is the first real town on the tour there.  Bennington is a scenic town and is known for all of it's covered bridges, but one of our favorite places to stop is the Hemmings Garage and Museum, also home of the Hemmings Motor News for you car enthusiasts.
The museum is small, but it's free and is full of some great classics.  There's more than just cars there.  They have all kinds of stuff from bicycles to mopeds, to three wheeled cars, to tow trucks.  It's a lot of fun and my son will tell you, it's cool.
The Hemmings Garage and Museum is a great place to spend some time.  They have a great sense of humor and a great little gift shop.  If you need to fill up your car, they are also a regular old gas station.

Wilmington, VT was our next stop along Route 9.  This little hamlet is one of my favorite places in the world, and they are now official survivors of Hurricane Irene in 2011.  This tiny little town was virtually washed away in that hurricane and are still getting everything entirely back up and running.

The river that runs through the downtown of tiny Wilmington rose up over it's very high banks and took out everything in it's path.  Dot's Restaurant is still trying to rebuild.  We hope that they get all the donations that they need to finally reopen the heart and soul of this little town.  We miss Dot's, and can't wait to stop there again.
Wilmington is a wonderful little town along one of the prettiest byways in the area.  The shopping is second to none there, and Bartelby's Books is a great place to pick up an Archer Mayor novel.  They are only a few miles from Mount Snow, and not all that far from Bromley Ski Resort.  The area is busy all winter with skiers, and all summer with motorcyclists.  From May through October there is a large flea market every weekend just east of town.  The area is full of great hiking, canoeing and kayaking, shopping, and just plain meandering.
On the way to Brattleboro from Wilmington is Hogback Mountain.  It's just a little stop along the way, but it comes with great views, and a fabulous store.  The store has all the gifts and local stuff that you can imagine.  They have some great snacks too.  There's a little natural museum that represents the area if you like as well.
Brattleboro Vermont was really something in it's heyday as an outlet king.  Today it's more of a hippie town.  It's a great stop on a Columbus Day roadtrip though, and we took advantage of the lower hotel rates there.  There are a lot of restaurants and shopping, but be prepared to pay more for healthy food, and green shopping.  It is of note that author Archer Mayor, known locally for his mystery novels, lives and works as a forensics police officer in that city and some of his books take place there.

Day two was the completion of our loop, and the loop wouldn't be complete without a stop at Gould's Sugar House and Restaurant on Route 2 in northern Mass, also known as the Mohawk Trail.  Gould's is famous in the area, and has been in operation for years.  I've never really figured out when they opened.  I think it was 1929.  Helen Gould is still working in the diner on the premises, even though I don't think anyone really knows how old she is.  It's a wonderful experience.  You get to see how they make syrup, eat some great waffles with premium maple syrup, shop in a great store for all kinds of country things, and even have maple ice cream.  It's a great stop with wonderful people and a great view.

Of course, Shelburne Falls, MA is right along the way, where we switch from Route 2, to Route 112.  This is the home of the beautiful Bridge of Flowers, and beautiful waterfalls.  This little town is also wonderful to look at in the fall, and has great shopping.  They have a bookstore there where you can get most of Archer Mayor's novels.
Huntington, MA was the last official stop on our tour of the local foliage.  This little town has a great country store, a dam with great hiking trails all around it, and the old but still interesting, swinging bridge.  There are businesses in town named after the old bridge, but it's all but inaccessible.  It does make for some interesting walks in the woods though.

So, my advice is to take that last look at the leaves before they fall and someone comes along to rake them away.  Fall is a wonderful time to get out and enjoy the crisp blue skies and the fiery foliage.  The loop that we took was Route 7 from Great Barrington, MA to Bennington, VT.  Route 9 from Bennington, VT to Brattleboro, VT.  Route 5 from Brattleboro, VT to Greenfield, MA.  Route 2 from Greenfield, MA to Shelburne Falls, MA.  Route 112 from Shelburne Falls, MA to Huntington, MA.  Route 20 from Huntington, MA to Westfield, MA.  It was all beautiful and I highly recommend it.

Some other things to look at in the area.  You can always stop off at Yankee Candle Company's flagship store in Deerfield, MA.  Also in Deerfield is Magic Wings Butterfly Sanctuary, Deerfield Zip Lining, and Historic Deerfield.
In Greenfield, MA there is Poet's Seat Tower, and the French King's Bridge.
In the Holyoke/Springfield, MA area there is the Holyoke Mall which is a different kind of mall from the norm.  There is also Six Flags which has special attractions for Halloween.  There are lots of museums, including a Dr. Suess Sculpture Garden and the Basketball Hall of Fame.
It's a wonderful trip to take with a lot of things to see.  Don't miss the fall.  It can be the best time of the year.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Halloween is Here Again!

It's that time of year again.  It's my favorite.  It's a lot of fun.  It's Halloween time!

This year I bring you some of the best of the best, and the House of Torment in Austin, Texas is the first one on the list.  This place has not one but three, count them, three haunted houses.  There is the House of Torment Blackthorne District, Cursed Ancients Emerge, and Slaughterhouse the Harvest.  Everything here is spooky and high tech.  Whether it's asylum patients, the undead, or the cursed, you will have a great time being scared out of your mind.  They do have disclaimers for several medical conditions, and the prices are a little high, but well worth it.  So come on down to Highland Mall and check it out.

Nightmare on the Bayou, Houston, Texas.  This place is a crazy haunted house and guess what?  They claim to have real ghosts in the house.  You will have your wits tested here to the nines.  Be ready to scream.  Once again, high tech and pricey, but a whole lot of fun.  Come on out to Houston and see what it's all about.

It's the Bates Motel and haunted hayride.  This place is in Glenn Mills, PA and has a lot to do.  Give yourself time here.  It is expensive, but this place has not only the scariest motel ever that's all haunted up for the season, it also has a haunted hayride and a really scary corn maze.  It's got it all.  They have a lot of special effects, a lot of special events, and a lot of monsters.

Do you like to be scared?  Welcome to the Darkness in St. Louis.  This is all part of Scarefest.  Here there is not only the Darkness, but also the Haunting of Lemp Brewery and Creepyworld.  St. Louis has a lot going on here.  Once again, with all the high tech going on, it is a bit pricey, but well worth it.  Once again with this one you can buy all kinds of combo tickets or individual tickets.  It all depends on how scared you wish to be.

Down in the southeast, Atlanta, GA way they're getting their pants scared off at Netherworld Haunted House.  This place is huge and high tech.  You won't be the same after this one.  Here we have multiple attractions, Deadland and the Boogeyman.  Be prepared to wait on the weekends, and have a great time in Norcross, Georgia.

On to the 13th Gate Haunted House in Baton Rouge, LA.  This place is run by Midnight Productions and has some great special effects.  You'll love being scared here.  Here we have two attractions, 13th Gate and Necropolis.  They have all the warnings for your health that tell you it will be a lot of fun.  Not to mention that this one costs decidedly less than most of the others on this list.  Check it out and enjoy.

Last but not least is Pennhurst Asylum Haunted House.  This attraction is in Spring City, PA and has four, count them, four attractions for you to get the crap scared out of you.  There is the Dungeon of Lost Souls, Tunnel Terror, Ghost Hunt and Pennhurst Asylum.  It is pricey, but you get a lot of  different fun for your buck, so don't be put off by it.  Once again, the place is infamous and there are warnings for your health.

There's the list.  Remember, if it warns you about your health, that means it's really good.  If you've heard about it already,  it's probably great.  If it's made the tops of all the lists like these places, you have winners.  Remember, Halloween comes but once a year, so don't wait til it's too late to enjoy all the fun.  If you are near any of these places and you do not stop by, you have only yourself to blame.

Have a great Halloween, be safe, don't hurt anyone including yourself, and enjoy!

Happy Halloween!

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Queen of the Mississippi

It's rare that I recommend taking a cruise.  In today's world they tend to develop mechanical problems, carry disease, and crash off the coast of Italy.  Combine that with the fact that you spend your vacation on a boat and not seeing things out there in the world, and no, I'm not a fan.  There are different kinds of cruises though.  Once in a while, I find one worth mentioning.

The Queen of the Mississippi is a brand new cruise ship that is made to look and feel a little bit like the old river boats that used to sail people up and down the Mississippi River over a hundred years ago.  The amenities are spot on for modern times, but the trip is designed to be a trip through the pages of history.  While there are tons of things on board to enjoy, this is not your thrill a minute Carnival Cruise with the malls and waterparks on board.  This is a little slower with a lot more time on shore seeing the things that you really want to see.

The staterooms are beautiful and live much like a hotel room.  That's a must these days.  The view of the river is the great part.  The Mississippi River is roughly a mile wide in the south.  That makes for some dramatic views any time of the day and night.

New Orleans is a popular taking off and first shore excursion point.  Shore excursions from the cruise are for people who are looking for culture and history.  You can take the city tour that takes you to the French Quarter and to other historical sites in New Orleans.


Along the way on this cruise you will get to visit plantations, such as Oak Alley, which have been preserved to educate the public about the lives of the people who lived and worked on these grand old enormous farms.  Some of the plantations that you can visit on the cruise still have antique cotton gins that work and still produce field after field of cotton.  Some of the plantations have museums that teach about the lives of slaves and what they endured.  Some of the plantations have wine tasting and some of them are living on as a bed and breakfast type hotel.  These places are laid back and beautiful.  These are places to learn something and be a shutterbug.  You won't find wild parties here or dance clubs.  This is the old south, and it's still there for people who want to learn what it was once all about.

Natchez, Mississippi is home to an enormous collection of Antebellum homes and other historic structures.  This is the southern version of Newport, Rhode Island.  Taking a city tour of this town is like stepping back in time, because the whole historic section of town is grand.  You look around you and you see nothing but old grand homes.  It feels like you traveled back in time.


This cruise stops for Graceland.  Once again, if you're 21 and you're looking for thrill rides or hot clubs, this is not for you.  Graceland of course, was Elvis Presley's home.  The King of Rock is laid to rest on the property.  Fans have come from all over the world to see this home.  But, for those of us who like Elvis and aren't obsessed, it still is a beautiful place to visit.


While in pursuit of history, you will get a chance to stop by Vicksburg.  In 1863, this spot was the site of a bloody battle of the civil war.  Thousands were killed on this parcel of land, and it is now a national park.  Here you can learn more about the battle, the war, and the south's viewpoint on that historic war.

Finally, your cruise will come to rest in Memphis.  Memphis is full of blues, barbecue, riverside attractions, and other wonderful things.  It's the perfect end to a great river cruise on the mighty Mississippi. 

Cruising the Mississippi is not a thrill a minute, but it is quite an adventure.  It's more than a cruise.  It's a look into a way of life that has long since gone by the wayside.  It's a glimpse into a culture that's all but disappeared.  You will get to see southern history, meet southern people, experience southern life, eat southern food, and hear a lot of jazz, blues, and Elvis music.  It's a great way for those of us who have tired of the usual cruise ship itineraries to try something a little slower and more meaningful.  It's a great way to learn what you didn't get to learn in school.  Real history can't be learned in a book.  You need to go out there and take a closer look.

Come and see something amazing and stay on a paddle wheel boat on the Mississippi.  It will be one cruise that you will never forget.  You'll remember the places that you visit too.