Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Harvest Hosts-a-palooza!

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I mentioned in my last post that we changed up our travel plans in order to avoid the crush of humanity that would be flowing into Cooperstown, NY for the annual induction ceremony of the Baseball Hall of Fame. Instead, we decided to stay in the Finger Lakes region and try out our Harvest Hosts membership.

Harvest Hosts is a program that allows self-contained RVs to overnight at unique properties, including wineries, breweries, distilleries, farms, museums, and so on. The membership costs $44 per year and there are hundreds of hosts across the country and Canada. For adventurous RVers, it's another great resource in our planning toolkit.

We joined Harvest Hosts the minute we hit the road in 2014 and never once took advantage of our membership. There are a lot of great places in the west that are hosts, but at the time, we had not honed our boondocking chops and mostly opted for the security of full hook-ups. After we got our solar and became experienced boondockers, we found places that we preferred or that were more convenient for us. In our second year, we didn't renew our membership.

Once we decided to travel on the east coast, however, where boondocking opportunities are few and far between, Harvest Hosts became more attractive. So we re-upped and started planning.

Our first stop was Chateau Lafayette Reneau, a beautiful winery on the hillside of Seneca Lake just a few miles from Watkins Glen. We arrived around noon and settled in to a gorgeous view. In return for the opportunity to stay at a Harvest Host location, members are encouraged to visit the gift store, tasting room, café, etc. and support the business with a purchase. So, in a way, we were required to purchase wine. Tough life, right? And, it isn't unusual to be allowed to stay for a second night so we happily extended our stay in such a beautiful setting.

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We had a wonderful view, albeit tilted, at the Chateau Lafayette Reneau winery.

Parking a big rig on a hillside, though, can be a challenge. When we arrived, we had driven up on blocks and put Scoopy's rear end into into a bit of a depression in order to try and level somewhat but we were still pitched forward quite a bit. In order to protect our front windshield from the torque of extreme leveling, we just lived with it. Even now I can't tell you with any certainty if all these factors contributed to what happened next, but it's possible.

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You can see that we compensated for the downward slope by backing up to an equal down slope.

When we were leaving, I pulled out of our spot before Scoopy's airbags had completely filled. In doing so, I took off bits and pieces of the top layer of rubber on her two front tires. The fact that I am pretty sure both gauges registered more than 100 psi is beside the point, Scoopy was on such a forward incline, she just didn't raise up enough to clear the tires. I didn't even go far, literally a few feet, but it was enough to ruin the tires.

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Looking like little pieces of carbon, our tire treads were shredded!

This was a costly mistake. If we accept that RV tires age out at around 7 years, we're about 2.5 years early on replacing the front tires. Also, since we couldn't drive anywhere, the tire guys had to come to us with two big ass tires and replace them onsite. On the other hand, we were at a winery, which helped mitigate the suck factor somewhat. So while Scoopy was being worked on, Steven and I sat on the terrace with a glass of wine, occasionally waving at the guy and giving him a thumbs up. I'm sure he thought we were nuts. A couple of hours and $1,325 later, we went on our merry way to our next Harvest Host location about 40 miles away.

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Man at work.

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Chouters at play.

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Almost there…

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Mickey was super friendly and super efficient. Thank you for making this as painless as possible!

Next up was Climbing Bines, a hops farm and brewery on the other side of Seneca Lake where we were tucked in between the silos and had a lovely, quiet evening. Again, we visited the brewery and enjoyed walking the grounds and hops fields. Since many of the host locations in the Finger Lakes region are just a few miles apart, we were able to scout out our next location before moving the rig. We had selected an Amish farm and visited with the wonderful hosts, but a heavy rain overnight caused us to rethink that decision. We didn't want to get stuck or cause damage to their lawn. (Speaking of getting stuck at a Harvest Host location, here is a cautionary tale from our friend Tammy at The Lady Is A Tramp.)

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My quilting friends would have loved this Amish store, it had a ton of beautiful ones on display.

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We really were hidden away between these siloes at Climbing Bine brewery.

With the Amish Farm out of the picture, for our third Harvest Host stop, we chose White Springs Winery near Geneva. The parking lot was paved and mostly level and the view was beautiful. We were invited to sit outside on the terrace even after the winery had closed for the day. Again, we stayed two nights and after hours, we were the only ones there. This is what I love about Harvest Hosts.

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Our little slice of heavenly parking space and Steven samples the offerings at White Springs winery.

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It’s hard to believe we had this place all to our selves in the evenings. What a view!

We certainly didn't exhaust all the possibilities in the area, but we figured it was time to move further down the road and get closer to our next stop in Swanzey, New Hampshire were we had made reservations for a week. We chose our fourth Harvest Host, Bowman Orchards just north of Schenectady, NY. Here we visited the farm store, the bakery, the orchards and watched the antics of an especially entertaining goat, just one of the many farm animals on the property. It was a busy place with lots of family activities, but again, once the business was closed, we had the place all to ourselves. Amazing!

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Evening light on the little store at Bowman Orchards.

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Plenty of animals to see. That goat was giving Steven the hairy eyeball.

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A beautiful evening at Bowman Orchards.

We both thoroughly enjoyed our Harvest Host stays and anytime we're in an area that offers a cluster of hosts such as the Finger Lakes Region, we'll make sure our membership is up-to-date! Other than the whole tire debacle, which had nothing to do with the host, we had a fantastic experience.

UP NEXT: Broke down on the side of the road. :(

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Exploring the Finger Lakes Region

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Even though we made more than our usual number of advanced reservations for our trip east, we ended up with four or five weeks with no plans at all. We had an idea of places to go, but no set route or campgrounds. It turns out just that bit of flexibility worked really well for us.

Months ago I tried and failed to secure reservations in Watkins Glen, NY, in the Finger Lakes area. My go-to campground was the city park, Clute Memorial, but it was already booked up. It wasn't until we got to Niagara Falls that we tried one more time. Lo and behold, a spot had just opened for a week! Perfect! Without this site, I doubt we would have made it to this area so we are very glad it worked out!

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All tucked in at our site in Clute Memorial City Park.

Watkins Glen is a popular destination. It sits at the south end of the beautiful Seneca Lake, which is ringed with gorgeous wineries, breweries and appealing shops selling local goods. It's also home to Watkins Glen State Park, one of the most popular state parks in the country, according to a 2015 USA TODAY Readers Choice Poll.

The reason for that is the Gorge Trail. It's very accessible two-mile hike follows the glen's stream that descends 400 feet past 200-foot cliffs. In the early morning it is cool and shaded, winding its way past 19 waterfalls, some of which you walk behind and through. We didn't get too wet and the mist was refreshing. Once we reached the end, we had the option to turn around and retrace our steps or take a shuttle bus back to the parking lot. We chose the latter.

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The Gorge Trail is like walking through a scene from Lord of the Rings. Pure magic.

While the trail was certainly a highlight of our visit, the one thing I was looking most forward to was the Corning Museum of Glass, which is about a half hour away in, well, Corning. It was absolutely amazing. I was mesmerized from the moment I walked in and saw the giant Chihuly installation. We started in the contemporary gallery and made our way through the historical exhibitions. We ended up in the Hot Shop, where the artists demonstrate how decorative pieces are made.

There are thousands of exhibits in the museum but my favorite was the installation featuring row after row of Corning glasses. When I was a kid we would get these glasses from boxes of detergent, or a gas station. You know, the cheap kind often used as promotional giveaways. Our kitchen cabinet was full of them, although we never seemed to get a full set in the same color. They always seemed to be whatever color was popular at the time, which would match your countertops or fridge, like harvest gold. I thought it was a very contemporary display of childhood memories and it really appealed to me.

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The Corning Museum of Glass is just amazing, from the vast collections to the hands-on demonstrations.

Years ago in Seattle, our local PBS station KCTS would hold annual fund drives featuring Dale Chihuly, arguably the best-known glass artist ever. At a certain level of giving, one of the items patrons would receive in return was a private tour of Chihuly's Hot Shop. We managed to snag those tickets on a couple of occasions, so having already been, Steven took our then 10 year old daughter, Zoe. At the time, it just so happened that PBS was shooting promos for future fundraisers and for the next few years during fundraising season, there was Steven and Zoe on television in the Chihuly Hot Shop looking like they were learning a lot about glass blowing. :)

While in Watson Lake, we made a few day trips, traveling around the lakes and visiting nearby towns. The Finger Lakes area is New York's largest wine producing region, with over 100 wineries and vineyards located around Seneca, Cayuga, Canandaigua, Keuka, Conesus, and Hemlock Lakes. The area reminded me of the farms around Flathead Lake in Montana. There are hundreds of cherry orchards there. I guess the whole lake effect is good for growing stuff and that is certainly the case around Finger Lakes.

We had planned to spend a couple of days in Ithaca, home of Cornell University and other notable sites. We did make it to the Saturday Farmers Market, which was great, but the whole town was so busy it was hard to get around.

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The Ithaca Farmers Market.

We also ate some fabulous BBQ and visited a Wegmans grocery store. I had heard about Wegmans for years but never visited one until we were in Niagara Falls. I have to say I was disappointed, the isles were narrow and the place was just generally overcrowded. Nonetheless, I did find a prized item that I have not seen anywhere else: Parmesan rinds. When a store grates their own cheese, they have leftover rinds which probably got tossed in the trash until an enterprising chef decided to put them to good use and now they are suddenly in demand. I use them in soups and sauces and I love the flavor the rinds add. I now have a freezer full and that is my only love for Wegmans. :)

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Brisket, burnt ends and pork belly. OMG. Being the carnivores we are, meat doesn’t last too long on our plates :)

As our week in Watkins Glen came to an end, we had planned to head north to Burlington, Vermont, visiting Cooperstown along the way. But then someone asked if we’d be attending the induction ceremony. I thought she was talking about a ceremony at the Elks Lodge and frankly, I wasn’t planning on it. But then she clarified that she was talking about the induction ceremony in Cooperstown for baseball players, where tens of thousands of people would be gathering. Oh. I didn’t even know that was a thing. But, hell no.

Since we had no obligations or reservations in Burlington, we changed up our schedule to stick around Finger Lakes. With all those orchards, wineries breweries and farms, we decided it was time to finally try out Harvest Hosts. We'd been members for a couple of years, but until now, we've never used it. Finger Lakes seemed perfect and offered lots of options! This is why we don’t like making reservations, flexibility is true freedom!

NEXT UP: Harvest Hosts-apalooza!

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Niagara Falls

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Steven here, helping Linda get caught up on our blog posts!

Even though Niagara Falls is not on the list of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World, it should be. Let's call it the eighth wonder. Way back when I was a wee lad in Dublin, I remember looking at pictures of the falls in Encyclopedia Britannica. They were always far away, in some exotic place in my imagination. I never really thought I'd get to see them in real life. Well, I also never thought I'd be traveling around the United States in a tin can on wheels either, so there's that.

Linda does the majority of our travel planning. I'm pretty easy about where we go as I'm enamored with nearly everything in this country. It works well for us because she'll say to me "We are going to blah blah," and I'll be all, like, "cool!". The two of us are very happy with this arrangement.

Occasionally, she'll suggest a location that really grabs my attention. It's usually something larger than life like the Grand Canyon, Devil's Tower in Wyoming and of course, Niagara Falls. When she plans stops in special places like these, it reminds me of how lucky we are. We love each other's company, we travel well together and we get to share some of the most astoundingly beautiful places in the world together.Okay, enough of the hyperbole but it's honestly how I felt when I thought about our planned visit to Niagara Falls.

After leaving Port Huron in Michigan and going through dual border crossings, we were ready to relax at our new digs in Youngstown, New York. We found Four Mile Creek State Park easy enough and, after a quick check in, headed to our campsite. Oddly, each post in the ground is set at a 45 degree angle with two different site numbers on each side. Depending on what way you enter the loop, the signs can be easily misread.

I began guiding Linda into our site which had a fairly acute angle, only to realize we were in the wrong one. Once we discovered this, getting re-positioned required a complete loop around the campground, a drive by the office and a sharp turnaround in the maintenance yard, all without my assistance as I was waiting patiently at our actual site. We finally got Scoopy backed in and I plugged into the 30amp pedestal. I then looked around me. After much head-scratching, I realized there was no water at the sites. There were only a few spigots scattered throughout the campground. Since we were staying for a week and didn't have a full fresh water tank, this was a problem. We had a shot of Jameson and considered our options. We thought about just blowing it off for that day, but thought better of it and pulled back out to go get water. After we got settled back in, we congratulated ourselves on doing the right thing by indulging in another couple of shots of Jameson. What an ordeal!

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Border crossings and challenging campsite maneuvering. We earned our Jameson!

The next day, we were excited to see the falls. They are an easy 15-mile drive from the park. We skipped the Discovery Center because I was too excited to see the actual falls. Because we were out early in the morning, we managed to get ahead of the crowd.

It takes a little studying to figure out the lay of the land. There are actually three waterfalls that make up what we know as Niagara Falls. On the US side there are two; the American Falls and Bridal Falls. On the Canadian  side is the much more expansive Horseshoe Falls. That's the one I was most familiar with. We discovered that the Niagara Falls Observation Tower would give us the best view so we headed in that direction.

We kinda spontaneously decided to do the boat ride known as Maid of the Mist and, after donning a nifty disposable rain poncho, found ourselves at the foot of the violently cascading water of all three falls. I fired off one shot on my camera before my lens was dripping wet. It's hard to register what you're seeing in such a short time with the crowds and the mist and the bobbing of the boat. Still, it was worth it and, again, we had beaten the big crowds. Even as we got off, I could see an increased number of people waiting for the next boat.

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A view of Rainbow Bridge and Niagara Falls, Canada across the water. The falls are just beyond the bridge.

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The Maid of the Mist experience was a wet one but we got plenty close to the cascading water.

As many tourists as they pack into these rides, the equivalent boat excursion on the Canada side is even worse. They squeeze them in like sardines and we estimated between 600-700 on the boat we saw. No thanks, our experience felt much more sane. A nice bonus as we left the Observation Tower was a big colorful rainbow in front of the falls (see image at the top of this page).

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Our experience was much less packed in than this one from the Canada side of the falls.

During our stay, I went back to the falls for the nightly lights on the falls event. You have to have a special kind of insanity to wrestle with the crowds in the evening. When I arrived at sunset, I couldn't believe the sheer volume of people. My intent was to stake out a spot at the Observation Tower platform. I wanted to do some long exposure photography and then shoot the colorful lights shining on the falls after dark. Unfortunately, those kinds of photographs need a tripod. Hoping people won't bump off the camera while I'm making my masterpiece is a pipe dream. As the evening wore on and the light faded, the crowd swelled. Despite the claustrophobia, I managed to get a few photos I’m happy with.

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I love this kind of silky look on waterfalls using long exposure photography.

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Lights shone from the Canadian side illuminating American and Bridal Falls with a variety of colors.

Before we left, we spent a morning on the Canadian side of Niagara to get a close-up view of the Horseshoe Falls. We managed to park for the long view but when we got up closer, it was impossible to stop without paying a big parking fee. I hopped out of Toadie and got some shots from one of the overlooks, while Linda circled around and picked me up.

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The view from Niagara Falls, Canada and, of course, a waterfall selfie!

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The aforementioned sardine-packed Canadian cruise boat approaches Horseshoe Falls.

Another highlight of our stay was Old Fort Niagara, It's a living history site featuring original 18th-century stone buildings, built by the French and British and daily interpretive programming that spans its three centuries of history. The fort is beautifully preserved and we arrived just in time to see a cannon-firing demonstration.

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The Living History cannon displays were fun to watch.

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Such a beautiful setting and one of the most well-preserved forts we’ve visited.

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Mr. Photographer couldn’t resist the Renaissance-like light coming through the windows and doors.

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There were lots of activities going on with demonstrations of how people lived back in the day.

One of the other things that was high on our list while in the area was a visit to the George Eastman Museum in Rochester. I couldn't wait to get a glimpse of their photography collection.

The original house is a colonial style with beautiful lush gardens. The sun was shining when we arrived and we enjoyed walking around the grounds. The museum has a modern annex housing many contemporary and permanent exhibits and the attached original residence is preserved as it was while George Eastman himself lived there. It's a kind of hybrid experience, both modern and historical.

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The spectacular front façade of the George Eastman House.

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Nearly all the walls were ivy-clad.

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Wonderful grounds and we had great weather to enjoy them.

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Inside the George Eastman House has been meticulously preserved.

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George Eastman and Thomas Edison and a tour I took of the history of photography.

It was fascinating to see the evolution of photography, from crude box-style cameras to the smart phones we carry with us everywhere. Even with the relatively primitive technology of the late 1800s, there is a magical beauty in the photographs on display. In my own work, I'm very influenced by this particular era.

So much to see and so little time. If we are back in the area, we will definitely make a return visit.

Niagara Falls did not disappoint but I think the key for us was to go early in the morning because the crowds of tourists can really get quite overwhelming.. If you do plan on going over to the Canadian side, pay special attention to signs for directions back to the US. I think some were removed and we missed a few turns as a result sending us around in circles.

Next up: Watkins Glen and Finger Lakes!