Thursday, May 28, 2015

Who Ever Thought of Newburgh?

I've driven over the Beacon-Newburgh Bridge on the Hudson River in New York State probably 300+ times in my life.  In all those times, I never went to Newburgh or Beacon.  I first drove through the area in 1984 on my first road trip to Connecticut.  I was stopped at Sing Sing because there was an escape in progress.  I later met a man who did some work with hazardous waste in Newburgh, and told me all about the industrial side of the city.  After 9/11 my boss tells me that he had to guard the bridge due to terrorist threats.  I do know that ships come through the area all the time, and that at some point in history, it was a whaling community.  I know that there is a passenger railway for Metro North on one side of the river and a freight train line on the other.  I have stopped in at Orange County Choppers, but that's barely in the area.  I never investigated Newburgh, because it didn't sound that interesting from a tourism point of view.

From the bridge I could see that the valleys were pretty.  But, what was down there?  I never pondered it, until recently.  I'd heard that somewhere along the river were boat tours, and I thought that maybe it would be fun on my day off, because I had to work most of the holiday weekend.  So, I hopped online and started doing some research.  I found that there was more than one tour on the Hudson River, and some of the best looking ones were in Newburgh, NY.  I was surprised.

After looking around, I thought that the River Rose was the way to go.  What I didn't know until I got on the boat was that this is an authentic river boat built in 1934 and brought to Newburgh in 1999.  It's a great little river boat and the guys who run it do a great narrated tour of the valley from the dock in Newburgh to West Point.  On the way back there's a gentleman who plays tunes on his guitar and harmonica for the guests.  There is food available and a bar as well.  It's something that I would never have thought about Newburgh.  But, is that really special?  Is that an adventure for anyone?  No.

But this is.  Newburgh has one of the cutest waterfronts I've ever seen.  This recently rebuilt neighborhood, has restaurants, day spas, parks, and marinas, as well as the docks where you catch the various tour boats, water taxis, and river ferries.  I was expecting an industrial neighborhood with warehouses and shipping docks in it when I went.  I took my map, because I'm not a fan of satellite navigation.  I prefer the old fashioned explorer way of doing things.  However, when I crossed the bridge and got off the highway for the first time ever, I immediately encounter signs that led me straight to the wonderful waterfront.  They have done it up right with plenty of parking and murals on the train's support walls.  There are kids riding their bikes and people pushing baby strollers all over the place.  You can eat inside or outside at each and every restaurant.  It's absolutely fabulous and it's all only a hop skip from the historic part of town and all the historic homes and buildings and not far from the park where the George Washington Headquarters Historic Site and Monument is.  The boat tours are the main event, but the waterfront makes it a nice day all around.  It was not something that I expected.

Then there were the other surprises.  There's a castle and an island, and there used to be a moat around it.  Not kidding.  Bannerman Castle sits on Pollopel Island in the middle of the river just south of Newburgh.  I had to ask, because it's not really well known outside of the waterfront world, but there are tours and there are a lot of them.  They have weekend day tours to the island to see the castle and the island and hear the story of the place.  They also have tours that go out for shows, like the Iliad.  They have tours that go out to look at the stars.  It's a great place to go and wander around just to look and take some really great pictures.  So, pick your tour and book in advance and be aware that it is not for baby strollers or handicap.  I'll probably talk about it more when I get to go, but I didn't know about it until I went on the other tour.  But, even a drive by is cool.

You never know what you'll see on a river cruise, but you can bet that if someone has gone to all the trouble to have multiple cruises on a section of a river, it's probably good stuff.  We saw the castle and island as well as some great cliffs with people climbing right up the sides of them.  There was a beach, a small village, some roadside stops, some beautiful old houses, and West Point Academy.  The guys on the boat told us that part of the Wizard of Oz was filmed there.  Did not know that.

The tour was two hours and cost $22.  The restaurants along the waterfront have various cuisines, but they are all reasonably priced.  I had some of the best service ever at the Riverfront Grill.  In the end, we had a great afternoon in Newburgh, which was something that I had never considered before.  We saw some big ships and some sailboats, and I'm pretty sure that you can rent a jet ski at the marina.  There's music on weekend nights at Billy Joe's Ribworks as well.  It's just a great area, and I thought it deserved to be mentioned, because I'm sure that if, in all the times that I crossed that bridge, I never thought of stopping in Newburgh...well I'm probably not alone.  So, get off the highway, check out the surprises in Newburgh, NY and have a great time on and along the Hudson River.  Enjoy!

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Where's the Most Amazing Place to Go Swimming?

I don't like beaches.  We all know that.  I do love to swim however.  As a matter of fact, I used to run a swimming pool and teach lifeguards.  I can tell you that swimming and going to the beach are almost entirely unrelated.  So, last year for the summer, I included some beaches that most people would never have thought of.  It's my way.  For my third anniversary of writing this blog, I thought that I would help people see one of my favorite places in an entirely new light.  I thought that I would help you see it more like I do.  That wonderful place is Iceland.  Geysers, Waterfalls, the Leifer Erickson Memorial, and Reykjavik are all things that we know are in Iceland.  We also know that there are glaciers and volcanoes, hence the tag line of it being the land of fire and ice.  But, let me tell you something that you didn't know about Iceland.

Iceland is one of the most ruggedly beautiful, yet completely civilized countries in the world.  The midnight sunsets are something unique that you can't see anything quite like anywhere else in the world.  Iceland has over 300 significant waterfalls and over 40 volcanoes, including Eyjafjallaj√∂kull which shut down a lot of airports back in 2010.  There are also 13 glaciers in Iceland, led by Vatnajokull, the largest glacier in Europe.  But here's some things that you may not know about Iceland.

That myth about there being no trees in Iceland?  False.  There are not an overabundance of them, but they are more plentiful in the Eastern part of the country.  Iceland has only been an independent country since 1944.  The fact that they expressed their thoughts that they should be independent to the Danish rulers and the decision was reached in one of the most amicable transfers in history is one for the record books.  Icelanders are only second in the world to their former rulers in Denmark for happiest people in the world.  The Icelanders love where they live, they love their lives and they love who they are.  It makes one wonder what it is about northern latitudes that create such happy people.  You would think that people would be happier in the southern climates with the beach at their disposal all the time.  Well, let's see.

Iceland has figured out how to harness that thermal energy coming from all those volcanoes.  The government has piped it into every building in the country to provide heat.  So, heating costs aren't much.  That's one thing that would make us all happy.  But, better yet, they've channeled that thermal heat into recreation.  We've all heard of the Blue Lagoon, one of the world's premiere spas.  We've all had that thought about how we would like to go there, because it would be a hoot to don a swimming suit and go outside and swim in Iceland.  How cool would that be?

Pretty cool, let me tell ya.  If you like to swim, Iceland is the place for you.  There are hundreds of pools all over the country that are open from early morning until late at night all year round.  They are outdoors, indoors, and combos.  They have pools, hot tubs, waterslides, kiddie play pools, saunas, health clubs, and all kinds of stuff.

Once the thermal heat was conquered in Iceland, these places started popping up all over the place.  Reykjavik has a bunch of them.  People in Iceland love to swim, soak, and get out no matter what the weather is like.  In the city, every subsection has one.  It's where the Icelander goes to relax and have some fun.  You don't even have to drive in Reykjavik.  You can take the bus to several of their pools.  If you want to try out local culture, go for a swim.

Some of these swimming complexes are enormous, but they are all well patroned.  At this point in time, the local beaches here in New England will be opening for the summer, but the water and the air are too cold to make it worth getting in the surf.  Strangely, we could all be swimming in the pools in Iceland, and we could have been doing it all year long.  It's something to think about as we go into the throes of climate change.  The people who live in the north love to live there.  The statistics tell us that.  Why?  Who knows.  Maybe it's because of the swimming.

There are tons of us each year who go to Iceland to see the glaciers, the icebergs, the northern lights, the city of Reykjavik, the volcanoes, and the waterfalls.  It's one of those great places where you don't really have to worry about the language, and you don't need to book a tour.  You can just go and wing it pretty easily.  But, just for the fun of it, bring along a swimsuit and visit the pools.  You want your friends to think that you've lost your mind, while you've actually found a great find.  Tell them you went to Iceland to go swimming.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

More France for Memorial Day

Who hasn't heard of Normandy?  My grandparents talked non stop about it, because it was one of the pivotal places of their lifetime.  I know, that dates me too.  World War II was something that those of us today can't even fathom.  It was war on a scale that the world has not known since.  Normandy France has been the center of more than one conflict in their history, given that the name comes from the British from their time on the land.  Today, Normandy is a beautiful part of Northern France, not far from Paris, overlooking the English Channel.  Mont St. Michel is at the end of it hanging out with Brittany.  There are many seaside villages with artists hanging out along the harbors, and there are artist's homes that have become famous with the art world.  But, this part of France is known mostly from the outside for one thing.

The beaches.  Omaha, Juno, Utah, Gold, Sword were the names.  On June 6, 1944 these were the site of one of the largest invasions ever undertaken.  Thousands were killed on both sides of the conflict.  The remnants of this invasion and ensuing battle still lie off the shores today.  The men came ashore and made their way up the sheer cliffs that rise from the channel all over the area.  It was difficult upon difficult, but the allies made their way through hell to free Europe from the Nazis.  It worked.  And now we should all take a little time to remember the sacrifices that were made on our behalf.

The American Cemetery overlooking Omaha Beach is probably the most well known memorial to D-Day.  Thousands of soldiers are buried here.  During those times there were many battles raging around the world, and many people were facing extermination.  It's something that is hard to wrap your mind around today.  The soldiers that came here to fight, were fighting for peoples right to live.  The race war was still in full swing in America, even though the Civil War was supposed to have brought that to a halt, Jewish people were being exterminated by the Nazi's and persecuted by Communists and Muslims alike.  Japan was judging themselves better than everyone, causing emigrants from that country to be persecuted all over the world.  They all came to Normandy to fight, and they came to make a difference.  They came to stop the madness.  For that time, they all came together and they all fought together for a single cause.  And in the end, thousands of them lie in rest together.  Somber, yet noble.  We all should think about where we would be today without these brave men who gave their lives so we could stay free.

The American Cemetery at Normandy is visited by over 2 million people each year.  There are many symbolic spots in the cemetery, like the garden which flows with the river of freedom.  There's the overlook that maps out the beaches below for you.  There are statues and monuments throughout.  It's something that will move you, no matter who you are.  But there's more.  Not far is the German Cemetery.  In the middle of that one there is a monument to the parents who also lost their sons in the war.  This gives you a chance to really think.  Sometimes I think that we should do that while on vacation.  German boys, Austrian boys, Swiss boys, and boys from all over Europe were swept up in the propaganda created by Hitler and  his men.  They believed in their leaders as we all do.  They gave their lives for Hitler, and they died doing what they had been led to believe was right.  War is senseless.  We all know this, so take a little time to visit the German Cemetery and see the other side.  There also is the British Cemetery, and this one is not only beautiful, but the melting pot of the place.  Here you will find graves and monuments to soldiers from several countries such as Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Poland, and much more.  This is also where you will find the French soldiers that helped us fight for their freedom.  I know a lot of people that think they know all about Normandy.  The people that I know don't know about that.

Caen, Arromanches, Bayeux, are the towns closest to the beaches.  Arromanches is what I would call ground zero.  The war museum at Caen is the place to go to learn all about what happened here.  They also have a section dedicated to the rise and fall of Communism and a gallery of Nobel Peace Prize Winners.  There's a lot to learn about there.  Bayeux is the home of the Bayeux Tapestry.  This tapestry is about 80 meters long, over 900 years old and is the most famous tapestry in the world.  It depicts the Battle of Hastings and was possibly commissioned by William the Conqueror himself.  Not sure about that however.  The tapestry is housed in a museum that tells all about the history of the Normans.  It's a great stop. 

But here's the adventure that I think everyone will find fascinating.  The beaches themselves.  Once you've visited the cemeteries, the museums and the towns that were liberated along the shores; you should see where the battles raged.  I advocate taking an educational vacation, and this is one of the best.  Remnants from the military landings are all over the place.  Bunkers, spikes, barbed wire, weapons, barges, boat hulls.  It's amazing.  The allies made a sea barrier to help them land, and it is still there.  You can see it right from the beach.  These folks who live in this area will never forget the war.  It is still all around them.  Amazing.  Even more amazing, they don't want to forget.  They are proud to have survived the battle and the Nazis.  They are thankful to all the allied forces who came to help.  It's one of those places that no one should overlook.  It's moving, not thrilling, but well worth the visit.

Tanks are on display in a lot of places.  It's not what you would expect.  It's not what you're used to hearing about when it comes to France.  Many people speak English in this part of the country, unlike the rest of France.  History is something that the locals are well versed in.  There are so many tours that you can take around the area.  There are people who lived through it still there telling the stories.  Most travel agencies have a tour to this area of France.  It's something that most people don't really think of anymore, but it is something that you should think about.  It's all part of my belief that we should know enough that we don't ever let it happen again.  Knowledge is the thing that we can use to battle tyranny and annihilation.  Most of us lost ancestors in that war.  We should remember that.

The beaches are beautiful.  The cliffs are beautiful.  The towns are beautiful.  The food is good, the sights are amazing, the locals are friendly, and the history is alive.  The beaches of Normandy are something that will stay with you for a lifetime.  They should.  That's why the governments of the world have gone to so much time and trouble to make them into the monuments that you see today.  Go and learn something about World War II.  Go and see the amazing land that is called Normandy.