The judges have decided—the votes are in! Having traveled more than 8,000 miles and scoured the country for the very best, here are the 2015 DOWNING ROADTRIP AWARDS…in order of encounter.
- BEST HISTORIC SITE: Gettysburg National Military Park, http://www.nps.gov/gett/index.htm Gettysburg, PA
Linda Johnston and me
- BEST HIKING GUIDE: Linda Johnston, http://www.lindasjohnston.com
- BEST COLLEGE REUNION: Laurie Graybeal, Charlotte, NC.
- BEST MUSEUM: Museum of the New South, http://www.museumofthenewsouth.org Charlotte, NC
- BEST NIGHT OUT: Nashville, TN http://www.nowplayingnashville.com/org/detail/32141/Music_City_Nights_LIVE
- BEST DINNER RESTAURANT: Etch, Nashville, TN http://www.etchrestaurant.com
- BEST HISTORIC HOUSE: Graceland, Memphis, TN
The ceiling in Elvis’ media room
- BEST WEIRD ATTRACTION: The Peabody Ducks, Memphis, TN http://www.peabodymemphis.com/peabody-ducks/
- BEST UNEXPECTED GEM: a tie between Augusta, MO, and Manitoulin Is., ON, Canada http://www.augusta-missouri.com & http://www.manitoulin-island.com
- MOST GENEROUS LOCAL: Eunice Boevehttp://www.euniceboeve.net
Angela Bates, Eunice Boeve, me and Cristal at Ernestine’s BBQ, Nicodemus
- BEST NATIONAL PARK: Nicodemus, Nicodemus, KS
- BEST OUTDOOR ACTIVITY: Walk or run around lake in Estes Park, Rocky Mt. National Park http://www.evrpd.com/marina/lake-estes-trail-a-picnic-areas
- BEST DRIVE: Lake Estes, CO to Rock Springs, WY http://www.visitestespark.com & http://www.rswy.net
- BEST PLACE TO STRETCH YOUR LEGS AND HAVE LUNCH: Steamboat Springs, CO http://www.creekside-cafe.com & http://www.steamboatchamber.com
- BEST TRAVELING COMPANION: Karen Casey Fitzjerrell
Karen Casey Fitzjerrell
- BEST HOME STAY: Lazy P Ranch, Buffalo, WY http://www.vrbo.com/656153
- MOST SCENIC DINNER: Buoy’s in Gore Bay, Manitioulin Is., ON, Canada, across from the Queen’s Inn http://www.buoyseatery.com & http://www.thequeensinn.ca
Buoy’s at closing time
- BEST LAKE: Lake Huron, Great Lakes, Canada and USA http://www.great-lakes.net/lakes/huron.html
- BEST HOTEL: The Omni King Edward, Toronto, ON, Canada http://www.omnihotels.com/hotels/toronto-king-edward?gclid=Cj0KEQjw0ZauBRDOnoGQ2PTb9YoBEiQAQ6m_7LgtH67avVzFAsgyGSjTKKV5LSAw4Kzuvv50zDu-JHsaAjAY8P8HAQ
- BEST HIGH SCHOOL REUNION: Gemma Wain, Editor, Toronto, ON, Canada
- BEST LUNCH RESTAURANT: Signs, Toronto, ON, Canada http://signsrestaurant.ca
- BEST PLACE TO AVOID AT ALL COST: Taylor’s Tea Room, Dundas, ON, Canada http://www.tripadvisor.com/Restaurant_Review-g2645488-d4853835-Reviews-Taylor_s_Tea_Room_Takeaway-Dundas_Hamilton_Ontario.html
- BEST AND MOST PRIZED PURCHASES: Two photographs by Janusz Wrobel, studio in Dundas, ON, Canada, and Honorable Mention to hand blown glass by Sam Stang http://www.januszwrobel.com/#1 & http://www.samstang.com
- BEST WATERFALL: Niagara, ON, Canada & NYS, USA, with an
Honorable Mention to Munising Falls, Munising, MI, http://www.niagarafallstourism.com & http://www.gowaterfalling.com/waterfalls/munising.shtml
- BEST WINE-RELATED ACTIVITIES (OTHER THAN THE NIGHTLY DRINKING OF IT): Canandaigua Wineries Visits http://canandaiguawinetrail.com
Thanks again for traveling with us. If you have any questions or comments related to our awards, they’ll be gratefully received!
It’s been a long last day, Cristal doing all the final driving from Rhinebeck into NYC, dropping things at her apartment, at my apartment, and then out to my house. She’s dealt with double parking, cutting in, blocking in, speeding and reckless driving on top of all the other traffic woes. But here we are, safe and sound, at home in East Hampton. Our groceries have, happily, been delivered—a perk of living out here—and the first load of wash is in. My own suitcase is still half-unpacked and I haven’t touched the two months of mail waiting for me; the garden is distinctly overgrown, and there were 59 messages of varying importance on the answering machine. But here we are, seven weeks later, having had the experience of our lives and enjoyed (almost) every minute of it.
We have a list of some twenty-five awards we’d like to share with you in a day or two, but for now I am signing off. There is no deeply felt summation here; I fear I would get sentimental in the extreme if I tried to do so. But what I would like to say here is that America is every bit as varied and diverse in both its population and its landscape as I hoped it would it be. We are so incredibly lucky in this wide ranging variety, it is impossible to compare our country with anywhere else. Cristal and I both had a fantastic time—there is no other expression to round it off—and we both would do it again.
Stay tuned for the Award Ceremony, but for now, thank you for coming along—we’ve enjoyed your company.
Springwood, Hyde Park
The sitting room at Springwood
My daughter’s take on visiting ‘Springwood,’ the Hyde Park home of Franklin Roosevelt, was that visiting the homes of famous people was like reading People magazine; her point was that the way people lived is no reflection of the impact they had on the world. Good point, but I dragged her along anyway.
For anyone who has seen the recent Ken Burns
series on the Roosevelts, actually visiting the house is an insightful supplement. Here is the story of the financial hold his mother had on him and Eleanor, and here is the story of his tremendous fight to hide his incapacity to walk while showing a great capacity to think and live normally.
One of numerous letters sent to FDR as President–it just says, “Attaboy.”
The Presidential Library—the nation’s first, and started while he was still in office—is a comprehensive showcase of the Depression, a sad chronicle of the nation at its lowest point. In addition, the estate also includes Top House, FDR’s getaway, and Val-Kill, the cottage Eleanor designed and furnished independently of her mother-in-law’s influence and her husband’s harried life.
Eleanor’s sitting room at Val-Kill
The visit was a splendid last day of sightseeing for us before we head home tomorrow. And how did Cristal feel at the end of it? She said she was glad she went because now she would like to know more about the Roosevelts and what they accomplished.
The view from Springwood
FDR’s grave in the rose garden
In the last days of travel as lengthy as this has been, the mind slowly turns toward what awaits at home. For Cristal, who had only been back from three years living in Colombia (less some visits home) for one week before departure, there are applications for a new full-time job to get out, a renovated apartment to move into, and the arrival of her boyfriend to look forward to. My own mind is swimming around two months of mail and bills to deal with, bathrooms that will be modernized, doctor appointments and the start of a new book. As Cristal deals with numerous deliveries and unpacking belongings sent from Bogota, I’ll be considering the cheapest way to update my house, and making plans to escape once again in October—to a conference and on to Wyoming. It’ll be a busy August, no doubt.
For today, we made a start on sorting what needs to be dropped in the city and what will be taken on to my house, and how to place everything in the car for the speediest evacuation of luggage on city streets without parking spaces. We wonder why we have so many breakable goods in tow and why the suitcases don’t close. We’re thinking ahead to lunch in the car and fighting traffic on the Thruway.
The Beekman Arms, oldest inn in America
But today also offered us a small glimpse into old America. Settled by the Dutch, in 1686, as much of the Hudson Valley was, Rhinebeck also played a part in the Revolutionary War. The oldest inn in America is here and, even today, there is a local chapter of Daughters of the American Revolution. But it is to the old Dutch families that the area mostly owes its character. On our last stay, a couple of years ago, we visited one of the Vanderbilt mansions. Tomorrow we’re off to see the Roosevelt homes.
There we were, taking the long way—the scenic route—down from Canandaigua to Rhinebeck, tooling along pleasantly through the glorious Catskill Mountains, when a speeding car whizzed past us practically slamming into another vehicle, who just managed to slip into the right hand lane directly in front of us. Had the speeding vehicle hit the other car, it would surely have spun around in front of us including us in the crash. Cristal and I were both shaken by the incident, but remain in fine fettle. What the occupants of the nearly-missed car were like, I dread to think.
The Catskills, after the Rockies and the Tetons, are mere hills, but green ones at that, thick with trees, bisected with rivers, dotted with old towns. We took a detour to visit an old hotel at which I had had several vacations as a child. It has just undergone a name change along with its twenty million dollar makeover, but looked pretty much the same. It strikes me now as something from another time, another era, and it wouldn’t appeal to me to stay there now. Its sister hotel, on the other hand, right next door, is in gloomy decadence, rather like an old southern mansion that has been left to decay.
So here we are in our last home away from home, a small chalet-type house in Rhinebeck, in the Hudson Valley. Compared to other houses we’ve rented over the past weeks, and homes we’ve stayed in as B and Bs, it somewhat misses the mark. We found the beds unmade, a single toilet roll at 2/3 use, which we’ll have to replace, air con only in the bedrooms—insufficient at 85 degrees—and, worst of all, Cristal’s ‘room’ was the chalet attic, boiling hot with no shades on the windows. We have duly moved her mattress and bedding down to my room. I’m not sure if we’re ‘spoiled’ travellers; we discussed this earlier today, wondering about our expectations. As Cristal is currently unable to find mugs for our evening tea, I don’t really think our expectations are too high.
Some years back there was a campaign for good food and healthy eating with the slogan, “You Are What You Eat.” In fact, it started as a television series in the UK and spread from there. It’s an adage I’ve tried to follow, but obviously, when traveling, it’s far more difficult than at other times.
Here in the Finger Lakes, as I’ve been saying, life pretty much revolves around food production and wineries. There’s a good-sized Amish and Mennonite community whose pristine farms line the roads with cabbages, corn and other vegetables. We started our outings today with one of the markets they attend, and ogled the variety. After that, we went on to a “Garlic Festival’ at one of the wineries, an event brimming with oils and vinegars to buy in flavors you’d never think of, honeys of every variety, and, needless to say, real garlic—not the store-bought stuff that’s virtually tasteless, but garlic that sings and zings in your mouth. No “EEEE-uwwwws” here, please; this was delicious stuff. And finally, we ended the day with a ‘wine walk’ in the town of Canandaigua, going from shop to shop, tasting wines and cheeses, cookies and dips.
But one man’s meat is another man’s poison, as the saying goes. Here at our B and B the day starts with what the innkeeper obviously views as a gourmet breakfast. This morning this consisted of tea, mango juice and pure grape juice shots (nothing like Welch’s). There was a gigantic blueberry muffin waiting on our plates as we sat down, swiftly followed by peaches on whipped feta atop bruschetta with a balsamic reduction. Before the last bite was down, blueberry pancakes were staring us in the eye with two rashers of bacon, baked with a sprinkle of sugar and walnuts. Finally, with hardly a second to spare, a mound of sliced strawberries sitting on a split scone sat in front of us, pretty as a picture. I won’t describe yesterday’s breakfast in such detail, but I will tell you it ended with wine ice cream on chocolate cookies.
If I am what I eat, I dread to think exactly what I am.
On Sundays opposite my New York apartment there is a farmer’s market. Most of the vendors come down from the Finger Lake region here in upstate New York, standing out in winter weather with numb fingers, half asleep from their very early rising to get to the city. Today, in glorious summer sunshine, I got to see their produce first hand.
vineyards in the Finger Lakes
The Finger Lakes region is primarily known for its wine. New York State wine used to be a joke many years ago, but a number of the wineries have now managed to build their reputations to an acceptable level. Cristal and I did a bit of a wine tour around the Lake—to the extent that it’s something of a miracle I can still write today. As Designated Driver, I had to decline tasting at the last winery—beginning to feel somewhat wary of facing these winding country roads.
Carp in The Japanese Garden at Sonnenberg Mansion
Our tour also included a stop at the Sonnenberg Mansion, a post-Civil War home
The ‘Old Fashioned Garden’ at Sonnenberg Mansion
in the Tudor style built by Frederick and Mary Thompson, a wealthy NY banker and his wife. Mary apparently loved flowers and gardening, and the grounds around the house are divided into twelve different types of garden. But what caught my eye was the story of how flowers actually ‘saved’ her life. She was travelling in Europe when she discovered the tulip festival in the Netherlands was taking place. She therefore changed her plans to return home and went to see the tulips. Mary had had tickets to travel on the Titanic…
Weeks ago in Nashville, as we wandered around The Old Opry and read stories of the great and the good of country music, there was the biography of Waylon Jennings. Jennings, before he was truly famous, had been a guitarist for Buddy Holly. He gave up his seat on Holly’s fateful flight to another man.
Life is full of those, ‘what if I had done this?” or “ what if that happened?” but for most of us, it doesn’t hit with such a resounding thud.
As I write this, I am watching a load of clothes perform a wild dance of twists and turns in a tumble drier—a reckless carousel of laundry. Having managed to previously get the wash done in either homes or motel laundry rooms, we have finally been reduced to a Laundromat. It’s not a pleasant experience, sitting here in intense heat, but a novel one for me, and perhaps good fodder for a book. Oldies but goodies are blaring on the sound system, and the pin board has some interesting notices, everything from smoked meat to a cute puppy found without a collar.
We’re in Canandaigua in the Finger Lakes region of New York. Our license plate is no longer unusual, no longer an object of comment, and I’m pleased to be able to use the US dollar once more. The magnificent view of Niagara has been traded for an attic room view of Lake Canandaigua. We chose this area to go wine tasting, which we hope to do tomorrow. But for now, forgive my brevity, having wasted a couple of hours from one of our last days, we’re going to gather the semi-dried clothes and get the hell outta here.
On this blistering hot day, taking the boat to see Niagara Falls up close and personal was certainly a welcome outing. Very well organized, the seemingly thousands of people are shuffled through air-conditioned pathways, elevators down to the docks, poncho hand-out and on to the boat in military fashion. While I dreaded donning the plastic rain protection in the heat, I couldn’t get it on fast enough once we approached the falls. That’s one heckuva lot of water.
As we sauntered back along the riverfront path, a small girl of about six years went running past us crying her eyes out and calling for her Mama. She finally collapsed on the lawn sobbing, and two young women went over to help her as we came up. A small crowd gathered for a while but dispersed when it seemed the two young women had things under control. Cristal and I stayed to help. The child spoke French but not English. As we discussed how we could help her find her parents, a man came running up, thanked us abruptly as the child acknowledged and recognized him. However, he grabbed the child, speaking to her in some other unidentifiable-to-us language. He started to yank her along—still whimpering—as the four of us stood watching in some dismay. We discussed what had happened: she was talking French but he wasn’t. Was he the parent? A step-father? An uncle? While I wouldn’t say she went off with him happily, she went off willingly. I pointed out that, just because we didn’t like the way he treated her, didn’t mean we could prevent a relative or guardian from taking her. The experience obviously left us all bewildered and uncertain, a bitter taste in our mouths and the thought, had we done the right thing?
So, like the man in the program says, what would you do?
I had looked forward to our visit to Fort York, imagining an 18th Century fortification in an area of green on the outskirts of Toronto. Maybe it was the broiling 90 degree temperatures or the fact our taxi had to drop us in an underpass that took the glow from my mood, but sadly Fort York was nothing like I had imagined. A modern visitor center a long walk from the barracks and other remaining buildings put a pall on our mood as we sweltered in the heat. But worse was the lack of information on each of the buildings, the fact that we’d never been told we could take an audio tour, and the high rise condos and two major highways which encircle the site like Godzilla snaring the unwary. It was a short visit.
After a stopover at the studio of photographer Janusz Wrobel, whose photographs of water are internationally acclaimed, we stopped for lunch at a little ‘English Tea Room’ in the village of Dundas. The Olde Worlde charm soon paled into insignificance as we waited fifty minutes for a simple salad and quiche lunch, and the meter ticked away by our parked car. Tea was plunked down in front of us to steep while we waited for the ice to be bought and brought, causing the tea to be so tannin-heavy it proved virtually undrinkable. There were no apologies for the wait as the hostess sashayed around us, only 2 other tables occupied. This is the first time I’ve ever left a restaurant without leaving a tip.
We are in Niagara Falls at the moment, on the Canadian side. I read once that it was the commercialization of Niagara that partially encouraged President Grant to make Yellowstone a National Park. If it was commercialized in 1872, with people going over the falls in barrels, you can only imagine what it’s like now. No longer the place where runaway couples hoped to elope, it’s a gambling mecca, and as neon as Vegas. I’m hoping the view and the walks will recompense.