A Travellerspoint blog

By this Author: zzlangerhans

North from NYC: The Berkshires and New York City


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We were still woozy from our huge lunch at Montréal's Atwater Market when we retrieved Mei Ling's mother from the motel in Plattsburgh. She seemed to have weathered three days in solitary none the worse for wear. Soon afterwards, we stopped at Ausable Chasm for a quick look at the canyon and the waterfall. There's plenty of trails and hikes available with an option for rafting or tubing at the bottom, but it wasn't an option with young kids.
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We didn't stop again until we reached Great Barrington, in the Berkshires area of Western Massachusetts. We were more interested in the Lenox area to the north, but during my search for an Airbnb I came across a place that I couldn't resist. It was a genuine log cabin with a second-story deck and a stone fireplace. Despite its rustic appearance, it was very modern and comfortable on the inside and everyone loved it.
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Great Barrington didn't feel as exclusive as I expected from the Berkshires, perhaps because it was a little to the south of the most affluent areas of Lenox and Stockbridge. The town itself was tiny with most of the restaurants being clustered in a single area near the main road. We took the two older kids to the Cafe Adam, the best upscale restaurant in the area, and had an excellent dinner at the only table on the front patio.
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The next morning we drove to Lenox and just beat the rush at a very popular brunch restaurant. We checked out a local toy store and a couple of boutiques but we were eager to get on to the day's main event and then proceed to our favorite city in the world, NYC.
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The most well-known sight in Lenox is The Mount, the former residence of the turn-of-the-century American novelist Edith Wharton. Wharton helped to design and oversaw construction of the grand mansion herself, and it was where she completed most of the works she is best known for. This summer, the estate was hosting a sculpture exhibition which added a surreal quality to the thickly-wooded grounds.
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The gardens were gorgeous and very well-maintained, rivaling some of the most beautiful estates in Europe. The best part was that I didn't have to watch the kids' every move to be sure they weren't about to destroy some precious artifact.
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The same couldn't be said about the mansion itself. We eschewed the tour and ushered our manic brood through the elegant home as quickly as we could before enjoying drinks and sorbet at the cafe on the terrace. I ordered a glass of wine for Mei Ling and our waitress told us we were welcome to drink the rest of the bottle, which was still half full. WE must have looked like we needed it.
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Driving back through Lenox on our way to the main road, we encountered a small girl with a lemonade stand at the curb in front of her house. It was too small town America to ignore, so we pulled over and I bought a Dixie cup of lemonade for the rather obscene price of five dollars. I was also offered the opportunity to buy one of her tiny Play-Doh versions of vegetables for a dollar, which I felt too guilty to refuse. The lemonade was actually an artificially-sweetened drink mix which I poured out discreetly once I got back to the driver's side of the car, and one of my kids immediately rolled the Play-Doh into a pea which was more recognizable as a vegetable than what the little girl had given me. During the whole interaction, there was no sign whatsoever of any parent despite the fact that the girl couldn't have been more than seven and had her stand right at the curb. I couldn't imagine leaving Cleo out on her own in that kind of situation, even in an upscale area, where anyone could drive by in a minivan and snatch her away in a second. Different parenting styles, I suppose, or maybe I'm just paranoid.

For a few years, Airbnb was an amazing deal in NYC given the insane price of hotels. However, it seems that hosts have now wised up and the price of accommodation has risen to meet demand. Increasing restrictions from landlords and condo boards has also probably chilled the supply. We had hoped to stay in Midtown but the prices for two bedroom apartments were crazy, so we settled on East Harlem instead. When I was growing up in New York City in the 80's this was a pretty bad area, but like many other places it's been gentrified and is now a relatively safe, colorful, and diverse neighborhood. The main negative was the distance from downtown Manhattan, but we were planning to spend most of our time in Midtown and Queens anyway. Once we arrived, I realized parking was going to be a major issue so we made a spur of the moment decision to return the minivan early. Aside from the parking concerns, the La Guardia auto rental agencies are separated from the airport itself by two shuttles which totally negates the convenience of returning the car at the airport. We decided to drive to our favorite place to eat in NYC, the food court at New World Mall, before returning the car. There we met up with my college roommate George and his wife and enjoyed a huge and delicious selection of dishes from the most appetizing stalls.
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The car dropoff was an exhausting experience, mainly because the first Uber driver we called came and left without us. We were waiting inside the agency office and he called us from outside the gate. We asked him to come inside the lot and pick us up at the office but instead he took off and collected a no-show payment. In order to prevent the next guy from doing the same thing, we had to walk out to the gate and sit on the sidewalk until he showed up. Of course, the second Uber driver had trouble locating the agency and I watched him circle the area three or four times before I finally spotted him and flagged him down. The car-free portion of our trip wasn't beginning auspiciously. However, it was good to get to our Airbnb and walk straight in without having to hunt for a parking place.

In the morning, we split into two groups. Mei Ling, her Mom and Spenser went to meet up with some of her old work friends and I took Cleo and Ian to the American Museum of Natural History. I hadn't been there since my own childhood, and I had eagerly anticipated taking my own kids there and reacquainting myself with old memories of the field trips and scavenger hunts that took me there. In retrospect, I may have rushed it because I think the kids only got about a quarter of what I hoped they would out of the visit. It didn't help that the museum was absolutely packed despite it being a Monday morning, probably because it was near the beginning of summer vacation. They spent more time chasing each other around and disappearing into the crowds than they did perusing the exhibitions, although they did seem to enjoy the more interactive exhibits.
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We walked back to the East Side through Central Park, but it had become quite hot outside while we were in the museum and the Belvedere Castle turned out to be closed for renovations. I noticed an amazing skyscraper to the south of the park that was the only building visible over the treeline. It turned out to be 432 Park Ave, which had been completed in 2015 and was now the tallest residential building in the Western hemisphere. I don't think that when I was a kid I could have imagined that one day it would be possible to live in an apartment where you could look down on the top of the Empire State Building. The building's relative skinniness and the lack to buildings of similar size around it make it seem even taller. The ultramodern gridlike design gives the skyscraper a surreal beauty that has made it an instant NYC landmark.
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The kids were overheated and irritable after the walk through the park, so I decided to cab it back to the Airbnb and let them rest until it was time to head downtown for the evening. We had timed our visit to coincide with the wedding of one of Mei Ling's co-workers, and the reception was being held in Chinatown. We took the subway all the way downtown and then waited in the crowded ballroom about two hours before the actual reception started. The kids had some fun up on the stage, but by the time things were over the stores outside had all closed and we weren't able to enjoy Chinatown at all.
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The next day we spent the morning in Greenwich Village, one of the few downtown neighborhoods I'd never taken Mei Ling. We had an enjoyable morning strolling around before we ended up at Washington Square Park. The park had undergone an impressive facelift since the last time I'd visited, which must have been more than ten years ago. The hard dirt and concrete were mostly gone, replaced by lawns and a pleasantly-contoured children's playground. Young people and families were sprawled around the grass, seemingly having forgiven the park for its recent history as a haven for vagrants and drug addicts.
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For our last evening in New York City and the finale of the road trip, we'd bought tickets to the Spongebob SquarePants musical on Broadway. It seemed like a great way to introduce the kids to live theater and the reviews were great. I hadn't seen a Broadway show since I was a kid, and it would be the first time for Mei Ling. Once we were inside, what struck me immediately was how many adults were there unaccompanied by children. Of course, there were more kids than one might expect at the usual Broadway show but nowhere near as many as I anticipated. I guess nostalgia is a powerful motivator, but I would never have chosen to go to a musical based on a kids' TV show if I wasn't bringing my children. The show came off pretty well, thanks to the talent and enthusiasm of the actors. One of the best decisions the creators made was not having the actors hide themselves in elaborate and bulky animal costumes, but rather have clothing items and a hairstyle that evoked their characters. Mr. Krabs wore oversize boxing gloves that really looked like claws, Squidward had pants with an extra set of legs, and SpongeBob himself just wore suspenders with pants that were too short and revealed his striped socks. On the other hand, the musical pieces were a little disappointing without any numbers as memorable as The Campfire Song or The Best Day Ever. After the show, we spilled out onto Broadway which is truly an amazing and overwhelming sight at night.
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There was too much energy in the air for us to just call it a night, so we took an hour to wander around Times Square and then a little bit of Midtown, including Rockefeller Center. We tried the obligatory pushcart sausages and pretzels, and marveled at the enormous buildings and elaborate decorative displays that were ubiquitous in the area. As much as I love the ethnic and artistic culture of Downtown, it's really Midtown that embodies the magic and majesty of New York City the best.
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In the morning we had one last view of 432 Park Avenue from across the river in Queens on our way to the airport. Mei Ling was speculating that if we decided to retire in New York City we might one day live in that building, but a quick look online revealed that the cheapest studio apartment was four million. It was a healthy reminder that even though travel makes us feel like Masters of the Universe, we're just little fish in a place like NYC. On the positive side, we only had to face a three hour flight back home to Miami. Even if NYC isn't affordable for us right now, it's good to know we can come back as often as we want.
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Posted by zzlangerhans 04:24 Archived in USA Comments (0)

North from NYC: Montréal


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Just as with China, we seemed to be making a habit of having a new kid every time we visited Canada. First was Toronto, when Cleo was just three months old. Then we took Cleo and Ian to Vancouver, and now we were on our way to Montréal with all three of them. My research had made me super excited about this part of our trip, mainly because it seemed like there was a great mix of ethnic cultures, diverse neighborhoods, and an abundance of European-style produce markets. The last time I'd been in Montréal was twenty years earlier on a work trip, long before I developed a genuine interest in travel, so this was essentially a first visit for all of us.

Our arrival was undistinguished, thanks to a steady rain that contributed to one of the worst traffic experiences we've had in our travels. I don't know what the traffic's like on a regular basis, but if that was a typical weekday afternoon I feel sorry for anyone who has to drive to work there. It took us an hour to get to our Airbnb even after we'd reached the outskirts of the city. Mercifully the kids slept through the entire process. I don't know what we'd have done if one of them had woken up and clamored for the bathroom while we were in gridlock. It was still raining hard when we arrived and the only spot available was illegal, so it took some maneuvering to get everyone indoors without getting soaked or getting a parking ticket. Once I found a legal spot and walked back to the apartment, I found it was one of the nicest Airbnb's we'd ever stayed at. Aside from being freshly renovated and immaculately clean, the place was full of character with brick walls and hardwood floors. The kids bedrooms and family rooms had a nice lived-in feel with plenty of toys to play with. I'd chosen the Mile End neighborhood carefully for its central location and heavy concentration of restaurants. Our block had a very cozy, residential feel with dense trees nearly concealing the rows of brick townhouses from the street. On our corner was an enormous church with a very distinctive style including a very Byzantine-appearing cupola and minaret, that I concluded must be Eastern Orthodox. When I had time to look it up I found that it was actually the Roman Catholic Church of St. Michael and St. Anthony, whose architect was inspired by the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul.
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Given the difficulty of finding parking in the area, using the car again that evening was out of the question. Of course, there were plenty of restaurants within walking distance and we settled on a Japanese ramen restaurant a few blocks away. There was a long bar and only a couple of tables in the narrow restaurant but fortunately one at the back was just coming open and they shoehorned us all in. The ramen was delicious and we all ate ravenously.
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The plan for our first morning was to explore the largest daily produce market in Montréal, Marché Jean-Talon, in the Little Italy neighborhood. We probably could have walked from our Airbnb, but the spring rain had started up again and it's tough to keep three wandering kids dry with two umbrellas. The first order of business was breakfast, and we quickly found the food court at the back of the market where we assuaged our hunger with noodle soups and spring rolls at a Vietnamese restaurant.
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We hung around for another hour in the market, admiring the colorful displays of fruits, vegetables, meats, and fresh seafood. One of my biggest disappointments living in the United States is that this covered market culture doesn't seem to exist anywhere. People don't seem to realize that there's any other option besides supermarkets. At least the quality and variety of what we get here is good, but the atmosphere of a real market can't be imitated.
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I'd hoped the sun would have come up by the time we finished with the market, but it was still rainy and chilly by the time we got downtown to the Vieux Montréal area. Naturally, we weren't going to let that stop us so we grabbed our umbrellas and raincoats and explored Montréal's most touristy neighborhood. The streets around Place Jacques-Cartier were very atmospheric despite the preponderance of tacky restaurants and souvenir shops. Just a couple of blocks from the center and perhaps thanks to the rain, we had the beautifully-landscaped blocks of stately stone buildings to ourselves.
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For lunch we drove all the way to the northern Maissoneuve area for its namesake market, which we found to be much smaller than Jean Talon and almost empty. The seedy nature of the surrounding area probably contributed to the lack of patronage. The market had moved from its grand Beaux Arts home to a smaller, modern building in 1995 but we made sure to get a picture of the original location which is now a community center. We put together a light meal that was anchored by a plate of succulent oysters.
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We drove back south along Rue Sherbrooke, the "Broadway of Montréal", until we reached McGill University. We parked and strolled a little way down the busy street and took a peek inside the university campus.
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We drove around the beautiful streets that surrounded the university, admiring the classical architecture of the mansions and academic buildings. The streets were starting to get choked with rush hour traffic but we didn't mind the slow pace of the drive. We decided to head all the way back downtown to look for a place to eat in Chinatown. It was still early, but we hadn't eaten much at Maissoneuve and were looking forward to a good Chinese meal. Montréal's Chinatown was OK, but not anywhere near the level of the ones in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Boston, or San Francisco. We had trouble finding a restaurant whose menu we liked, but eventually Mei Ling found an outpost of a mainland Chinese hotpot chain she knew and we had a decent if unremarkable dinner.
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We weren't expecting the relatively small Atwater Market to blow away Jean Talon, but it turned out to be the best market we'd ever visited in the US and Canada combined. The market is adjacent to the Lachine Canal which traverses the southwestern part of the Island of Montréal. The first thing we encountered was the outdoor food court, so we had a solid breakfast of satay and other freshly-cooked delicacies before even venturing into the market. The produce displays in the outdoor section were even prettier than at Jean Talon, and we bought as much fruit as we could eat.
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Once we entered the indoor section of the market, we regretted not having left ourselves any room for more food. The butcher stalls were phenomenal, and there was plenty of mouth-watering prepared food at the many delis. There was also an enormous bakery and coffee shop from which the warm smell of freshly-baked baguettes wafted temptingly. We resolved to return the next day before leaving Montréal and reluctantly took our departure.
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Most visitors' initial impression of Mont Royal Park is the George-Étienne Cartier Monument, which celebrates the respected statesman's contributions to the formation of the nation of Canada as an Anglo-French confederation. The prominent position of the "angel statue" on the major thoroughfare of Park Avenue has led to it becoming emblematic of the city. We entered the park close to the statue and drove up to the overlook, where we enjoyed panoramic views of the city and took the short hike to the summit.
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The Oratoire Saint-Joseph was on the bubble of my list of sights, as we usually don't make special efforts to visit churches and cathedrals, but we were making decent time so we decided to make the short drive from Mont Royal Park. As it turned out, it was a spectacular building and it would have been a shame to have missed it. Despite the unassuming appellation of "oratory", which usually describes a small chapel, Oratoire Saint-Joseph has been enlarged multiple times since its original construction and now boasts one of the largest church domes in the world. Coupled with its hilltop location, the church has an incredibly imposing and majestic appearance. There are several levels of terraces and blaconies from which one can look out onto the well-manicured grounds and the attractive residential neighborhood of Côte-des-Neiges.
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Côte-des-Neiges is well-known for all kinds of Asian and Caribbean restaurants so we drove from the Oratory down Rue Côte-des-Neiges and eventually selected Poisssonerie, a Middle Eastern fish market and restaurant where we chose our own fish from the market to be grilled for lunch.
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I have a soft spot for botanical gardens when we travel, so we schlepped back up to the northern part of the city to visit Jardin Botanique de Montréal. The long walk from the street to the botanical garden features the Montreal Tower in the background, which is the tallest inclined structure in the world.
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The botanical garden was divided into special areas with Chinese, Japanese, Alpine, aquatic and other themes, each with its own individual kind of beauty. There were also some interesting trunk-like play structures that the kids loved.
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We got out of the Botanical Garden just as it was closing and drove to the last place on my list of Montréal sights, Square Saint-Louis. The square is famous for the brightly-painted Victorian row houses, of which photos will be found in any Montréal guidebook. Here's our obligatory version of the ubiquitous photograph.
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We let the kids stretch their legs in the park that occupied the square and enjoyed lemonade and games in one of the many cafes on nearby Rue St. Denis.
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Walking south from the square, we found ourselves on a pedestrianized street with busy outdoor cafes. We followed the sound of music to what turned out to be an enormous street party on Boulevard Saint-Laurent. There were numerous food stalls, which rendered any search for a restaurant for the evening unnecessary. The kids had tons of fun dancing and participating in sports contests they had absolutely no chance of success in. There was also a breakdancing crew featuring a dancer with just one leg, which was a first for me.
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It was amazing what we had accomplished in just two days in Montréal. We had been just as busy as we had been in great European cities like Rome and Barcelona, and we felt that we had experienced a truly world-class city. We decided that Montréal was our new favorite city in Canada, and resolved to return for a longer stay. We still had one last reward for ourselves for our hard work touring the city, which was a decadent feast at the indoor gourmet food hall at Atwater Market on our final morning in Montréal. We carefully selected a warm, fragrant baguette, a sizable hunk of foie gras, a wheel of chèvre, and some green olives and stuffed ourselves to groggy oblivion. We stocked up with fresh fruit and Lego candy for the long drive ahead of us and headed back towards the border.
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Posted by zzlangerhans 10:04 Archived in Canada Comments (0)

North from NYC: Central and Northern Vermont


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Our Airbnb in Bridgewater, Vermont was one of the more unusual places we've stayed. There hadn't been anything available in Woodstock, the main town in the area, so I picked the closest house about ten miles east. The road the house was on turned out to be a steep and winding gravel drive that led up the mountainside directly off the highway. I was a little nervous about the weight of our car with its occupants but the minivan navigated the slope without any difficulty. The house was a lodge-style building whose bottom floor was being renovated, and we had the entire upper floor to ourselves. There wasn't another house in sight, only trees. The interior was decent except for the fact that electricity was only working on one side of the house. Apparently the contractors had done something to disrupt the power supply to the other side while doing the renovations below.
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After dropping off our bags, we headed straight for the Quechee Gorge. A receding glacier cut this canyon into the earth thirteen thousand years ago, and now it's one of the most impressive natural sights in New England. We parked outside the little cluster of tourist shops on the far side of the gorge that calls itself Quechee Gorge Village and walked back to the bridge on Route 4 for the views.
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We took a short walk down one of the trails to the bottom of the gorge, but decided not to overdo it considering we had a dinner reservation not too far off. The kids enjoyed the chance to stretch their legs and see some nature. Back at Quechee Gorge Village we checked out the souvenirs and tasted some liqueurs that were made locally from maple syrup and black currants.
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The next morning we had a classic New England breakfast at Mon Vert Cafe in Woodstock before heading over to the Vermont Institute of Natural Science. Despite its intimidating name, VINS is a very friendly outdoor raptor rehabilitation center with extensive nature trails. We had an hour to kill before the next raptor show so we explored one of the shorter trails, which was still a good workout for the kids. They made enough noise that we were guaranteed not to see any wildlife larger than a beetle.
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The kids weren't enthralled with the raptor show, although I enjoyed the rare opportunity to see these beautiful and powerful birds up close. The kids preferred the part at the end where they got to handle the disassembled parts of the birds that ultimately hadn't made it.
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In the afternoon we took the kids to Billings Farm, a working dairy farm with plenty of large animals as well as an impressive museum of American farming. Unsurprisingly, the kids were most impressed by the ongoing bodily functions of the cows and the corresponding odors.
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The next morning we stopped briefly at Simon Pearce, a boutique glassblowing studio and restaurant on the bank of the Ottauquechee River. The site was once a mill, and until recently the furnaces operated using hydroelectric power generated by the original dam and waterfall. The restaurant is perched over the waterfall with a view of a classic Vermont covered bridge.
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On the way out of the Quechee area we visited the Montshire Museum of Science, which had enough exhibits and activities to keep kids entertained for hours. We only planned a short stop but the kids were having so much fun that we ended up staying most of the afternoon.
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En route to Burlington we crossed the Lincoln Gap Road , which traverses the Green Mountain range. It has a reputation for being the most scenic of the roads that pass through the mountains, but honestly there wasn't much to see from the road itself although it was a pleasant winding drive. The best time to drive the road is probably in September and early October when the leaves are changing and before the road closes for the winter season. I was amazed by the number of houses on the gap and wondered how their inhabitants survive through the winter when the snow piles up and the road is closed. I learned later that the road is only closed to non-residents and is actually plowed regularly.

Burlington is a pretty small city but after the tiny towns we'd visited over the last few days it seemed positively cosmopolitan. We passed the attractive, sprawling campus of the University of Vermont and arrived in the Old North End. Our Airbnb was the upper level of a fairly nondescript two-story house with an outdoor staircase.
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It was Cleo's actual birthday and we decided to mark the occasion at Burlington's best known restaurant Hen of the Wood. We'd already had her birthday party in Miami before we left, but those kids' parties are so frenetic there was no opportunity for us to sit back and reflect on everything that had changed in the six years since she was born. We had a good meal in the cheerful bistro, although there wasn't anything on the menu that was particularly unique. It was nice to have a little time to focus on Cleo while her exasperating little brothers were at the Airbnb with their Grandma.

We had a full slate of activities for our day in Burlington. After a classic Vermont blueberry pancake brunch we drove half an hour to Waterbury for the semi-obligatory Ben and Jerry's tour. As I expected, it was underwhelming although the kids had fun. The highlight for me was making the tour guide squirm by asking if there were any plans for a Donald Trump-themed flavor. Perhaps Orange Cheesecake?
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Next up was Shelburne Farms, our second farm in three days. The visit began with a wagon ride across a surreal landscape of tightly cropped grass dotted with cylindrical hay bales. The main building looked more like a Gothic castle than a farm.
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There was a lot more hands on activity for the kids at Shelburne Farms than at the farm in Woodstock. There were donkeys to brush, chickens to feed, and plenty of old farm equipment in the spacious barn.
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We had to rush back to Burlington to drop off Spenser with Grandma, as he was too young for our afternoon sailboat cruise on Lake Champlain. The Friend Ship was operated by the Whistling Man Schooner Company, although technically it was a sloop rather than a schooner because it had only one mast. The friendly captain gave Ian a quizzical look and asked us how old he was. I couldn't remember what the minimum age had been when I'd booked, so I quickly said he was five before Cleo could answer, even though he was still a couple of months short of his fifth birthday. Cleo gave me a quizzical glance and I looked daggers at her, and fortunately she had the presence of mind to keep her mouth closed. The captain said something to the effect of Ian just making the age limit and we set off.

We spent the next two hours enjoying a peaceful sail on Lake Champlain, enjoying the banter and interesting stories of our captain. I learned that rather than flowing south into the Hudson River, Lake Champlain actually drains into the St. Lawrence river which takes an unusual northerly course to the Atlantic. The kids clambered up onto the roof of the cabin and I watched them nervously expecting them to be chucked into the ocean by a sudden swing of the boom, but fortunately they kept their heads down and made it back to the dock with us. Sad to say, there were no sightings of Champ, Lake Champlain's answer to the Loch Ness monster.
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We went straight to dinner at a surprisingly good Moroccan restaurant at the southern end of pedestrianized Church Street. After dinner we slowly walked the four blocks north to the Unitarian church that gives the street its name, taking in a colorful array of street performers, local characters, and sculpture.
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We couldn't bring Grandma into Canada because of visa issues so we'd arranged a hotel for her in Plattsburgh, NY for the three days the rest of us would be in Montreal. The Plattsburgh stop gave us a reason to cross Lake Champlain via South Hero island, the most heavily settled of the three populated Lake Champlain islands. Most Americans aren't aware of the existence of these unusual, remote lake islands but aside from their rural charm they also have great historical importance as Revolutionary War battlegrounds. We had a very enjoyable drive over the causeway to the island and then through empty country roads to Snow Farm, a vineyard and winery at the southwestern corner of the island. Just before we reached the island, we noticed colorful birdhouses starting to appear on the trees on the inland side of the road. More and more appeared and eventually we passed a thicket where it seemed like there was a birdhouse attached to every single tree. We stopped the car for a closer inspection and saw the little wood was also populated with very lifelike dinosaur models. We drove on further and eventually found a sign explaining the reason for the birdhouses, along with an array of birdhouses for sale via an honor system. We didn't get a good picture of the birdhouse forest, so I scraped one from the New York Times.
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We were the only visitors at the winery, but we were attended to very pleasantly and enjoyed a tasting flight. I was a little confused as the grape varietals listed for the red wines had completely unfamiliar names such as Baco Noir and Catawba. Later I learned that they are hybrids which are grown to make wine pretty much exclusively in the northeastern US and Canada. The splendid isolation of the little winery and vineyard on that overcast day in the Lake Champlain islands is one of my best memories from the trip.
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We took the car ferry from South Hero to Plattsburgh and dropped Grandma off at her hotel with three days of food supplies. We didn't have much in the way of expectations for lunch in Plattsburgh, but TripAdvisor led us to Anthony's, a surprisingly upscale and authentic French bistro where we had one of the best restaurant meals of the trip. During our lunch, Cleo asked me why I'd told the boat captain that Ian was five when he was still only four. That led to a very frank discussion about how sometimes people do lie when they're sure that no one will be hurt because of it. I used the example of when your friend asks you if you like her new dress, and you say that you do even though you think it's ugly. As we were finishing our lunch, an elderly lady came over to the table and told us she overheard our conversation with Cleo. Here we go, I thought, preparing myself for a stern New England lecture on child-rearing. But as it turned out, the woman wanted to tell us she was a retired schoolteacher and strongly approved of the way we taught Cleo about life's little realities. Go figure.

We paid our compliments to the chef and piled back into the car, excited for our next stop in Montréal.

Posted by zzlangerhans 06:32 Archived in USA Tagged vermont quechee_gorge woodstock burlington mad_river_valley Comments (0)

North from NYC: Central Massachusetts and Southern Vermont


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I've only written about our United States traveling when it was part of a round-the-world journey, but the fact is we enjoy taking road trips in the US and have done quite a number since we started having kids. Now that I've prioritized travel blogging a little more perhaps I'll go back and write up some of the road trips we've done in the Pacific Northwest, Upper Midwest, Deep South, and Texas. I'll start with the most recent because it's the freshest in my mind. The impetus here was our annual trip to New York City, our favorite destination in the world. When I thought about interesting places to combine with NYC, Vermont immediately came to mind. I hadn't been there since I was a kid, but the state is well-known for its beauty, great cuisine, and variety of activities. Once I started studying the map, I realized how close the northern part of Vermont was to Montreal and soon our trip expanded from one week to two and the NYC part of it shrunk to three days. There's just too much world out there to see to waste time in places we've already been, even the greatest city in the world.

Our arrival in New York was surprisingly painful, considering our flight was less than three hours. A choppy descent got everyone rattled, and then we had to take two shuttle buses to the rental car agency due to the neverending construction at La Guardia airport. The airport shuttle was particularly horrible, a stuttering and smoggy half hour to cover about three miles. Fortunately the minivan pickup went smoothly and we were on the road by seven. I'd decided to leave NYC for the final part of the trip, mainly due to the timing of things we wanted to do in Vermont but also to leave our most highly anticipated stop for the end. Finishing a trip with an anticlimax is no fun. Instead we decided to drive to Massachusetts from the airport to be ready to kick off our vacation in Old Sturbridge Village the next morning. I had high hopes of stopping for a good dinner somewhere in Connecticut but the family was exhausted and a little nauseous so we ended up snacking at a rest stop convenience store instead. The Airbnb in Massachusetts was a nice surprise, a cozy and beautifully-furnished colonial-style home on a quiet suburban street.
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After an ample breakfast at a diner in Southbridge, we drove a few miles to Old Sturbridge Village. I still had vague memories of a field trip there from my grade school years, and I figured it would be an original experience for the kids. If we were really lucky, they might actually learn something. We arrived early enough to be ahead of the summer camp groups, but it seemed like the little town hadn't really woken up yet. There weren't that many actors around, and some of the ones who were didn't seem ready to demonstrate their 19th century skills. I remembered it from my childhood as more of a bustling town, but I easily could have been thinking of Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia instead. It was still a pleasant place to walk around for a few hours, and the kids enjoyed the flintlock rifle demonstration.
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We stopped briefly at Dinosaur Footprints Reservation near Holyoke, Massachusetts. The small park is adjacent to Route 5 and it only takes a few minutes to reach the ancient tracks left there millions of years ago. We didn't build up the kids' expectations, otherwise they probably would have been disappointed by the shallow, weathered impressions in the rocks. Honestly, if I had walked through the area without knowing the footprints were there I probably would have missed them. Fortunately, the kids are still young enough that I can still excite them by leaping around and imitating a dinosaur tromping merrily across the landscape. Cleo was curious how the dinosaurs crossed the highway, and was flabbergasted when I explained that when these footprints were made there were no highways, no cars, and no people.
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The next stop on our northward route was the town of Shelburne Falls, which had a couple of unusual scenic attractions. The Bridge of Flowers was created all the way back in 1929, which is an amazing lifespan for a landscaping project. The peaceful path across the bridge lined on either side with beautiful plants and flowers is a testimony to humanity's endless power of creativity. It's unfortunate that we haven't found a way in this country to reclaim more of the industrial eyesores that dot the landscape.
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Just a few blocks from the Bridge of Flowers is a geological formation known as Glacial Potholes. It's a big hunk of metamorphic rock filled with holes and depressions of various sizes that were formed thousands of years ago. Interestingly, the potholes aren't directly related to glacial activity but rather to erosion by water currents. We missed the turnoff to the overlook so we didn't see the potholes themselves, although there are lots of pictures in the link. Instead we found ourselves down at the riverbank with views of Salmon Falls, which descends into the pothole area, and the little hydroelectric plant that generates some of the electric power for the area.
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Not long after that we crossed the border into Vermont and rolled into Brattleboro. Usually we don't meet the hosts at our Airbnbs since we prefer the flexibility of checking in and out whenever we want, but this was one of those rare cases where we got a personal welcome. Our apartment was on the third floor, and our hosts lived below us on the second. On the first floor they ran an art gallery and a catering business. We settled in and then headed to dinner at Three Stones, a local restaurant that served highly-recommended traditional Mayan cuisine. Even at six PM, we had to have our dinner at the bar but the delicious food was well worth the minor inconvenience.
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We began the next day at the Brattleboro Farmers Market, which was our main reason for stopping in the town overnight. It was a good-sized farmers market with a wide variety of prepared dishes, artisanal foods, and crafts. It was our first experience with the wide variety of Vermont cheeses and the multiplicity of products that can be made from maple syrup, including liqueur. There was a huge sandbox as well to keep the kids out of our hair while we examined every stall.
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Just outside Brattleboro is the Robb Family Farm, which was established more than a hundred years ago and is currently operated by the fifth generation of descendants. The farm currently focuses almost exclusively on producing maple syrup without many of the recent technological advances that have spurred output but, in their opinion, at the expense of quality. The patriarch of the family guided us around the operation, from the tanks that receive the sap directly from taps in the maple trees to their shiny new evaporator.
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Next stop was Grafton Village Cheese, an enormous cheese store where they manufacture a large variety of their own cheddars. There's an observation deck for the cheesemaking operation but there wasn't much happening on Saturday when they were there. The kids were fascinated by the free samples and I kept having to chase them around the store to make sure they were using the toothpicks instead of grabbing the cheese with their fingers. We bought some blue cheese and a couple of different kinds of cheddar. The shop felt like a temple dedicated to the worship of cheese.
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On the way out of Brattleboro for good we stopped at a casual restaurant where the West River flows into the larger Connecticut River. The food and mojitos were forgettable, but there was a nice view of the little lake created by the confluence. Someone had installed a sculpture of a sea monster in the middle of the lake that twisted slightly in the wind and appeared to be moving against the current, and for a while we had the kids thinking it was the real thing.
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A few miles north of Brattleboro we stopped in the famously quaint town of Newfane to admire the two hundred year old buildings in the village center. A lady saw me taking photographs in the green and handed me a pamphlet explaining the history of each building. Vermont is like that.
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Our last stopover of the day was the beloved tourist trap Vermont Country Store in Weston. Aside from the vast array of Vermont food products and locally made clothing and crafts, there was a large selection of old-fashioned games that fascinated the kids. They spent a good ten minutes just trying out the Whoopee Cushions.
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Thanks to our early start on the day it was still early in the evening when we reached Woodstock, our overnight destination in central Vermont.

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Posted by zzlangerhans 06:56 Archived in USA Tagged vermont massachusetts weston brattleboro sturbridge newfane shelburne_falls Comments (0)

Around the World 2017: Odense and trip conclusion


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On a cursory inspection of the map of Denmark, the island of Funen (Fyn to Danes) might not appear to be an island at all. The Little Belt strait that separates Funen from the mainland is barely a kilometer wide for most of its length. On closer inspection, rounded Funen looks a little like a soccer ball being kicked between the mainland father and his son Zealand. We had chosen Odense as the last city for the trip mainly because it was close to the midpoint between Aarhus and Copenhagen, but it also had the advantage of having a famous zoo. We arrived in Odense in time to have a few hours at the zoo before it closed, so we made it our first stop. There was a diverse selection of animals that were in very natural enclosures yet were still easily visible. One of our favorites was the manatee, a testimony to the amazing power of natural selection to fill environmental niches. There was a pretty cool playground for the kids as well.
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We had planned on visiting Bazar Fyn, another Middle Eastern mall, for dinner after the zoo but unfortunately the opening hours didn't coincide with what I had researched. Instead we made our way to central Odense but found most restaurants closed on a Sunday evening. Eventually we settled on a gourmet burger restaurant and ate as well as we could, considering there was nothing on the menu whatsoever except burgers and sides. Our Airbnb proved to be a disappointment as well. It was on a second floor that could only be accessed by a ladder-like staircase, so I had to haul up our bags and then the kids one by one. Once inside, we locked and barricaded the door to prevent any chance of the kids wandering back out and falling down the ladder. We also discovered that almost none of the lights worked and the host had only provided us with one stained dish towel for the shower.

In the morning we headed to the pedestrianized center for brunch. We soaked up that familiar Scandinavian atmosphere of cobblestone squares walled by rows of dissimilar townhouses and countless sidewalk cafes. Unfortunately, a large area in the very center of the old town was undergoing some extensive reconstruction and was completely dug up and blocked off.
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Slightly away from the center we found a pretty residential street that led us to the Hans Christian Andersen House. Outside the small museum dedicated to Denmark's most famous author was an outdoor theater with a castle-like stage next to a shallow pond. People had started to gather on a grassy embankment in front of the stage. We were just in time to see a beautifully-performed play incorporating several of the famous fables. After the play, the characters came out and mingled with the audience. Naturally, Cleo's favorite was the princess from "The Princess and the Pea".
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It was time to say goodbye to our last new city of the trip, but fortunately Denmark had one last amazing castle for us to see before our return to Miami. Egeskov Slot is also on the island of Fyn, half an hour south of Odense. We had seen several beautiful castles in Denmark but this 16th century creation was the closest thing to a fairytale that we'd seen since Neuschwanstein in Bavaria. The surrounding moat was filled with lily pads and carpets of bright green algae. The castle itself was just part of a huge complex including the gardens, an extensive collection of vintage automobiles and airplanes, and an adventure playground for kids.
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The gardens provided quite a workout as we herded the kids along the paths through the rolling landscape. In one area the hedges were trimmed into the shape of squirrels, peacocks, and spirals that Cleo immediately identified as poop.
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We skipped the interior of the castle and spent our remaining time in the play area, where the older kids tried out the canopy walk and the zipline.
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We arrived back in Copenhagen in time for dinner on the patio of a Thai restaurant in the center of town. The meal was good enough to help us forget our misadventure with Thai food in Gothenburg.
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We'd selected an Airbnb in the southern district of Amager, close to the airport, to avoid any risk of traffic on the way to our flight home the next morning. I still had to drop off the rental car in Malmö as there wouldn't be any time to do it in the morning. We settled in to our last Airbnb and I took off at about nine fifteen to return the car. I was under a little time pressure because the rental agency had told me their garage would be closing at ten. I filled up the car in Amager and then headed for the Øresund Bridge for the last time. Just as I approached the bridge, my heart sank as I realized I had neglected to bring my passport. Even though Denmark and Sweden are both in the EU and theoretically passports shouldn't be necessary to cross the border, they had checked ours the first time we entered Malmö from the bridge. I believe the policy has something to do with attempts to stem the flow of Asian and African migrants. I only had a few seconds to decide what to do. Returning to the Airbnb to get my passport would lose me half an hour and eliminate any chance of getting to the auto rental agency in time. If I got turned back at the border, I'd lose an hour and also the fifty Euro toll. I'm not sure how my thought process went in the end, but I decided to go for it and took the bridge. I spent the entire time on the span trying to gauge my chances of making it through. I paid the toll and nervously approached the checkpoint. A female agent asked for my passport and I told her I'd forgotten it, and handed her my driver's license. She frowned and told me she'd have to check in the office, and I waited in my car for what seemed an interminable length of time. Finally she reappeared and told me they'd let me through, but next time to bring my passport. That was a huge relief. Returning to Copenhagen at that point would have been a terrible way to end the trip. I raced to the rental agency but the checkpoint episode had delayed my arrival until a few minutes after ten. They'd given me a passcode to use to get into the garage but it didn't work on the only keypad I could find. In the end I parked the car at the curb just outside their office. I still had to walk to the Malmö train station, take the train to the Copenhagen airport, and then a taxi back to the Airbnb. It was almost midnight when I was finally able to get to bed.

The following morning we had one final hurdle which was getting from the Airbnb to the airport. Uber had been banished from Denmark earlier that year. I had attempted to reserve a taxi on a local app I had downloaded the previous night but based on prior experience with European taxi apps I didn't have much confidence. I had also figured out the bus route, but it required a two block walk to the stop as well as a change of buses. Around seven in the morning we brought all our bags to the curb hoping to flag down a taxi on the street, but we hardly saw any cars at all at that early hour. Just as we were about to start schlepping all our belongings to the bus stop, a taxi suddenly pulled over. It turned out to be the one I'd reserved from the app. It was a tight fit since the app didn't have any option for requesting a larger vehicle, but we packed everything in and got to the airport in plenty of time for our flight.
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This had been our longest and most ambitious trip ever, but we made it through again without any significant adverse events. Looking back a year later, the most memorable parts were the night markets in Taipei and Shenyang, Copenhagen, and the Norwegian fjords. I can't think of anywhere we went that wasn't worthwhile, and the time allocation was perfect. Enjoying such a long trip gave me the confidence to plan our longest European road trip yet, a five week Odyssey through Iberia and Southwest France that begins two weeks from today.

Posted by zzlangerhans 05:04 Archived in Denmark Comments (0)

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