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West Coast swing: Los Angeles II (Downtown and Echo Park)


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The Original Farmers Market isn't the city's only gigantic food hall. Grand Central Market in downtown LA also evolved from a public market that was established in 1917. The most recent influx of ethnic and gourmet food outposts began in 2013, coinciding with the international food hall movement. As soon as we stepped into the cavernous establishment with industrial decor, Mei Ling and I had to pause to catch our breath. Before us stretched a forest of colorful neon signs proclaiming the offerings of countless food stalls in a vibrant, open layout that extended as far as we could see. If the authenticity and quality of the food here matched the visual impression, we had arrived at food hall nirvana.
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For the next half hour or so, we toured the amazing selection of food stalls trying to decide how we were possibly going to choose what to eat, or really how to choose what not to eat. We ruled out the numerous Mexican options, given that we were going to visit a Mexican food hall in East LA later in the trip. Our first selection was a Salvadoran pupusa filled with our chosen selection of carne asada, nopal, and squash. The pupuseria was a particularly popular and energetic spot with a fairly long wait, but the savory tortilla stuffed with delicious meat and vegetables was more than worth it. We complemented the pupusa with a blisteringly spicy aguachile from the cevicheria next door.
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Once we found a table to enjoy our food, we noticed an enormous line snaking around the entire dining area. We discovered everyone was waiting to buy food at a restaurant called Eggslut at the south end of the market facing South Broadway. Given that hardly any of the other restaurants had a line at all, the lengthy queue for Eggslut was quite impressive. We tried to peek at what people were getting and all we saw were egg sandwiches and orange juice. Finally my curiosity got the better of me and I asked a couple of girls on the line whether the food was really worth the wait. They looked at me strangely. "It's Eggslut!". OK, I said. What's so amazing about it? "We haven't eaten here yet. But everyone says it's really good." I told them I was really surprised people would wait that long for an egg sandwich given that they were on the threshold of an enormous food hall with dozens of restaurants selling delicious preparations of every imaginable cuisine. It's the best food hall I've ever seen in the entire world, I told them. "Really?". They didn't sound excited. I'm sure it's a good egg sandwich, but there's no way it could be so much better than everything else on offer at Grand Central Market. It's a reminder that once something gets hyped on social media, it takes on a life of its own. I think at least half the people on that line were there just because the line was so long.
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Even after we were full we found it hard to leave. We took one last tour through the market taking mental notes which restaurants we would sample on our return visit. There would be plenty of chances in our three full days left in Los Angeles. We got some coffee for ourselves and treated the kids to a sugar rush at an old-fashioned candy stall that was just too beautiful to resist.
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We had a narrow window of time to squeeze in a kids activity before Spenser would need to sleep so we raced north up the freeway to Discovery Cube, one of Los Angeles' many children's museums. The view from the road looked nothing like anywhere I've seen around the world. We were surrounded by low, brownish hills with very angulated, furrowed contours. It looked like a landscape one might expect in a place like Mongolia or Bolivia or possibly even another planet, but here we were just a few minutes away from central Los Angeles.

The kids had a fun time at Discovery Cube. It was hard to get them out of the first area which had giant blue building blocks and a cupcake decorating lab. The biggest hits were the home inspection game and the hockey exhibits on the second floor that were funded by the Kings of the NHL. Overall I found it better than our Children's Museum in Miami but not as good as the ones in Houston or Milwaukee, and a far cry short of Experimentarium in Copenhagen. We'll have to try Kidspace on our next visit. Two of them within four days would have been too much.
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The Friday afternoon farmers market was in Echo Park, a hip neighborhood just north of our home base. Before the market, we checked out the Echo Park Time Travel Mart, a unique novelty store with a time travel theme and the memorable motto "Whenever you are, we're already then". Aside from the items related to time travel, there were some really cool games and projects for kids. I picked up a dinosaur model whose pieces were all punch-outs from thin wood sheets and a book of science experiments for the home. It's hard to leave without making a purchase. Aside from the fact that a lot of the stuff is really neat and useful, the profits go to the community reading and tutoring center 826LA which owns the store. Before we left, we made sure to take the opportunity to be the front window display for a few minutes.
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The Echo Park farmers market was a bit of a letdown after the previous day's extravaganza at South Pasadena, but I still got the chance to try some delicious Senegalese foufou. Dinner was still on the agenda, and there were two more food halls on my list in downtown LA. Corporation Food Hall is a fairly recent addition to LA's food hall pantheon, and it was surprisingly empty on a Friday evening. There was a relatively small collection of kiosks in a much more orderly arrangement than Grand Central Market. The place had a very modern, urban vibe with some whimsical touches. One of my favorites was the Italian kiosk Funculo, a play on the Italian profanity "fan culo" with a pair of forks displaying their middle prongs on the sign. The bar at the back presented their cocktail menu on old-fashioned View Master projectors. We had a pretty good meal of noodle dishes and gyoza. Hopefully the relative lack of custom at Corporation on the night we visited was only because it's predominantly a lunch spot for people working downtown. I'd hate to see such a unique establishment fail to establish a permanent presence in LA.
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The route to the other downtown food hall took us past Pershing Square, which was nicely dressed up for the holidays and had a busy ice skating rink at the far end. Despite the fairly heavy presence of homeless people in the area, no one seemed remotely threatening and we weren't bothered at all. The sidewalks were pleasantly busy with people who were out for the evening. It was markedly different from the evening scene, or lack thereof, in the downtown areas of Miami and other major American cities we've visited. We finally arrived at TASTE food hall but despite the sleek appearance of the mall that housed it, the culinary offerings were a disappointment. They were mostly higher quality chains with a sterile atmosphere, just a step above a regular mall food court.
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We'd only been in Los Angeles for two full days but we hadn't felt this thrilled about a new city in a long time. I was reminded of my first time exploring London with Mei Ling, and our visits to Tokyo and Prague. The best part was that my expectations had been so modest, which made the neverending awesomeness of LA even more satisfying. We still had two and a half days left, and many of the best experiences were still to come.

Posted by zzlangerhans 13:23 Archived in USA Comments (0)

West Coast Swing: Los Angeles I (Central and Pasadena)


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This was our third Christmas break trip, and I needed a good follow-up to 2016's Nicaragua and 2017's Yucatan. I initially was set on Lima but eventually decided that our exploration of the city would be limited by personal security considerations. Having three small kids to manage would put a huge target on our backs for petty criminals. It was too soon to go back to Mexico or Central America, and it's really hard to get excited about the Caribbean given that we've already visited most of the larger islands. There was only one option within the US if we didn't want to get frozen solid, and that was Southern California. I'd been there a couple of times in my twenties, and never felt much affinity for the area. Los Angeles seemed kind of spread out, generic, and soulless. San Diego felt to me like a midwestern city transplanted to the Pacific Coast. But now, having explored most of the warm areas in the Western Hemisphere, it seemed like our best option. I knew there was a lot of Asian culture in LA and I figured that at the very least we'd be able to get some authentic Thai and Vietnamese food for a change.

Once I started doing my usual advance research, I quickly realized we were going to find a lot more to do than eat Asian food. I was amazed by the number of ethnic neighborhoods I saw on the map, from Little Armenia to Filipinotown. I was surprised to find we would be within easy reach of a different farmers market on every day of our stay. There were also lots of options for kids edutainment, such as the La Brea Tar Pits Museum and Kidspace. Finally, many of the nearby suburbs like Santa Monica and Pasadena have lots of attractions in their own right. By the time we were ready to go, I had a full schedule of activities for our four full days in LA as well as three days in San Diego. I'd created a daily schedule that was more rigorous than usual in order to minimize trips across the city that would expose us to LA's legendary traffic jams.

We arrived in the early evening after a fairly rocky flight from Miami, and picked up our rented Ford Explorer uneventfully. I knew from the forecast that Los Angeles would be a lot cooler than Miami, but I'd forgotten how cold 50 degrees Fahrenheit felt when we were used to the 70's and 80's. We'd packed warm coats and long pants, but I hadn't brought anything but sandals and my feet felt frozen for most of the trip.
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We didn't have to meet our Airbnb host so we went straight to dinner from the airport. Los Angeles and San Diego have both been eager participants in the food hall movement, with LA particularly having an abundance of options. We love food halls because we can mix different cuisines into an amazing fusion dinner, there's great energy, and we don't have to worry about how much of a disturbance the kids are making. It was the perfect solution to fill our stomachs after an exhausting day of travel. The food hall closest to our Airbnb was called Squaremixx, a collection of small restaurants that are all franchises of Korean chains. While the food may not be the highest level of Korean cuisine, it's indisputably authentic. At one stall at least, no English was spoken. Squaremixx occupies much of the third floor of a shopping center called Gaju Market. The ground floor is given over entirely to a Korean supermarket which we browsed for half an hour after eating our fill.
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Los Angeles isn't a cheap place to stay, and over the last couple of years Airbnb has been catching up with hotel rates. However, Airbnb is still by far the best option for a couple with three kids since we need two bedrooms. The kitchen and large refrigerator are also indispensable, and we love the way Airbnb makes us feel like we're living in the city we're actually only visiting. I had a decent jump on the crowd and was able to get a great place in the central neighborhood of Westlake for just about $150/night with everything included. The area might have been a little working class for travelers who needed to feel submerged in LA glitz and glamour, but it was the perfect location for us. As one can see on the map, we were just a few minutes drive from all the amazing Asian neighborhoods in LA: Koreatown, Filipinotown, Chinatown, and Little Tokyo. We were also about halfway between Santa Monica and Pasadena, the two most far-flung suburbs that we had plans to visit. This made it easier to focus on specific areas of LA on each day of our stay and avoid the traffic.
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Our cottage turned out to be very pleasant, with a lot of character. There was a fire pit on the front porch which we never had time to use, a spacious living room, and two comfortable bedrooms. Space heaters in each room ensured that we wouldn't have to worry about the cold temperatures when we were indoors. The owners were collectors of old cameras, many of which were placed on the shelves around the house. A sign on the refrigerator reassured us that none of the cameras would be filming us during our stay, a possibility which had not occurred to me until I read the sign. Street parking proved impossible, but fortunately the hospital next door allowed long term parking for about 5$/night.
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We kicked off our first morning with a huge breakfast at Du-Par's. a 24 hour diner within the Original Farmers Market. The food was amazing, including possibly the best buttermilk blueberry pancakes I've ever tasted. I probably didn't push the kids to eat as hard as I usually do so that there would be more left over for me. The interior of the diner had a very classical, warm feel that made the meal even more enjoyable.
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The back door of Du-Par's is also the threshold of the Original Farmers Market, where there are no longer any farmers but rather a large array of specialty restaurants, gourmet food vendors, and some miscellaneous boutiques thrown in. Many of the food stalls looked so appetizing that I regretted having gorged myself at breakfast. The Cajun food and the French seafood restaurant that was attached to a fish market were particularly appealing, but the quantity and variety of restaurants was overwhelming. Since we couldn't eat any more, we spent a half hour in the French gourmet market Monsieur Marcel, which had the same ownership as the French restaurant and fish market. The employees were very gracious to the kids, who were high on sugar and insisted on touching and demanding samples of practically every item in the store. After we were sure we'd explored the entire market, we left but vowed to return for dinner at Monsieur Marcel. The video is actually from our return visit a few days later.
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Just a couple of minutes south of the Original Farmers Market are the famous La Brea Tar Pits and museum. We spent some time in the pleasant park that the museum shares with Los Angeles County Museum of Art, which is a beautiful building surrounded by some interesting landscape art.
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The Tar Pits themselves aren't much to see, being fenced off and largely obscured by leaves and grass, but the museum has a very unique design. The ground level containing the exhibits is encased within a shallow hill reminiscent of a primitive burial mound. At the top of the hill is a metallic ceiling structure with relief images of Pleistocene mammals. From here, one can look down into the central atrium of the museum. The kids couldn't tear themselves away from rolling down the hill until their clothes were coated in broken grass.
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Inside the atmosphere was mainly that of a kids' museum, which was fine by us. The kids mostly ignored the static displays and skeletons in favor of interactive exhibits like a mammoth tusk battle and the animal poop quiz. The gift shop was a big hit as well.
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After La Brea we had a couple of hours to kill before our first farmers market, and the perfect piece to fit into the gap was the Griffith Observatory. The observatory is a Los Angeles landmark, visible high up on Mount Hollywood from most of the city. Griffith Park itself is an amazing feature of Los Angeles. It is one of the country's largest municipal parks and contains the Greek Theatre, the Los Angeles Zoo, and countless miles of hiking trails. We had fairly easy driving until we got into the park at which point traffic slowed to a crawl. It took another half hour to reach the observatory, where we found the entrance to the parking lot barricaded and police directing cars to continue down the road to a large parking lot at ground level. It took another twenty minutes or so to hike back up to the observatory but the effort was more than worthwhile for the glorious views of Los Angeles which unfolded beneath us.
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The observatory was ferociously crowded, to the extent that movement was difficult in the anteroom containing the Foucault pendulum. I'm not sure if it's always like that, or if it was just a function of the holiday season. I found myself wishing that there had at least been a nominal admission fee to diminish the hordes. The indoor exhibits looked interesting, but trying to keep my eye on the kids amid the throngs proved too stressful and we quickly found our way to the observation decks. Oddly enough, the famous Hollywood sign isn't on Mount Hollywood but rather Mount Lee to the west. Never fear, Mount Hollywood is the one with actual views of the sign.
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The observatory had several decks, with the wind getting steadily stronger and colder the higher we climbed. It was all worthwhile because the views of the city kept getting more amazing. There aren't many major American cities I can think of with mountains close enough to give a view of the skyline. I was impressed by how restricted the skyscrapers were to the downtown area. The rest of Los Angeles looks practically rural in comparison.
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I already mentioned that there were so many farmers markets in and around LA that we were able to visit one each day of our stay. Why do we care about farmers markets when we travel? It's the embodiment of our anti-tourism travel philosophy. Aside from satisfying our love of food and its diversity, farmers markets are great places to interact with locals and people watch. They're also often a good alternative to a restaurant meal when you have three ebullient, squabbling kids. The best market I could find on a Thursday was in South Pasadena, just outside the northeastern boundary of the City of Los Angeles. Although it was 12 miles away, it only took us half an hour to get there. In fact, we never encountered any of the horrible traffic that LA is famous for. Maybe it was because we were there between Christmas and New Year's, or maybe we were just lucky. Somewhere along the way I spotted an odd statue of a man or troll diving down a wall next to a disembodied fist which may have been punching through. Was it a recent commentary on the border wall controversy, or something older that was completely unrelated? We only had a moment to snap a picture from the window, and I wasn't able to discover anything about the sculpture online afterwards.
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The South Pasadena farmers market was huge, one of the biggest true farmers markets I've seen in the United States. The large majority of stalls were devoted to produce and all of those were operated by the actual growers. The diversity and quality of the fruits and vegetables were awe-inspiring, and the neighborhood was beautiful.
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At the back of the market was a collection of food stalls and food trucks that was a level above the usual simplistic tacos and fried foods. We had finally finished digesting our enormous breakfast and we were ready to try out the selection at the market. The combination of barbecue, Thai soups, and Mexican food was so good that we obliterated any chance of going out for another meal that evening. By this point is was dark and getting steadily colder, so we were happy to call it a night at seven. Even though it was early, we'd done far more in our first day in Los Angeles than on an average day of travel.
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Posted by zzlangerhans 14:06 Archived in USA Comments (0)

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 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 the 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 was finally able to flag 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 field trips and scavenger hunts. 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 early in the summer vacation season. 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: 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 a Saturday. 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.

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

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