Feb 1, 2015

Presidental Places in New York State

Celebrate President’s Day with a visit to a presidential site. In the quiet little town of East Aurora, which ironically is west of Aurora, NY, is the law office of Millard Fillmore, the nation’s 13th president.  The small 1825 building has been restored to that era and includes some of the original Fillmore furniture.  Fillmore was born in a log cabin in Summerhill, NY. Today there is only a sign commemorating the event. It is another case of poor boy does well in America. He became obsessed with educating himself to the extent he became a lawyer, then vice president and president when Zachary Taylor died. During Fillmore’s term as president the Compromise of 1850 was passed and he sent Commodore Perry to “open” Japan.  

Fillmore has an interesting connection with Central New York. The archives in Penfield Library, SUNY Oswego, are the repository of some of Fillmore’s papers giving the college the distinction of being a presidential library.  It seems that Fillmore gave his papers to a lawyer friend in Buffalo with the instructions to burn them after his death.  The lawyer realizing their historical significance was unable to do so and the 10,000-plus letters ended tucked away and nearly forgotten at the Shepard Estate in New Haven, NY.  Upon the death of Charles Sidney Shepard in 1934 the estate passed to his two elderly cousins. They in turn willed the estate to the college in Oswego upon their death. The long forgotten papers came into the college’s Special Collection in 1967 and are available to historians. 

Another presidential site in New York State is Theodore
Roosevelt’s Sagamore Hill in Oyster Bay, Long Island. It was the home of our 26th president from 1885 until his death in 1919. Today it is a National Park. Teddy Roosevelt was born in NYC but enjoyed the bucolic scenery of Long Island and it is where he spent his summers prior to moving there. I remember thinking during my visit to Sagamore Hill that based on the artifacts in the house his life seem to dwell more on nature and adventure than running the country. We can thank him for preserving the pristine areas of the Adirondacks.  He set aside more land for national parks and nature preserves that all of his predecessors. 

One of the most visited homes in New York State is Franklin Roosevelt’s Springwood in Hyde Park. It was his home from 1933 to 1944. FRD wrote that when he was away from Springwood, “All that is within me cries out to go back to my home on the Hudson River.”  On the grounds is the first US Presidential Library. 

On my “To-do” list when I am in NYC is to visit the site of Chester
A. Arthur’s residence. Located at 123 Lexington Avenue, it was the home of our 21st president before and after his rise to fame.  Arthur was vice-president for James Garfield and was elevated to the presidency after Garfield’s death eleven weeks after the assassination attempt. Arthur took the oath of office at his resident. Today it is a multi-use building with a commemorative bronze plaque to identify the building.

In Kinderhook, about 20 miles south of Albany, is Lindenwald, the home of Martin Van Buren, our eight president. It, too, is a National Park. He was one of the founders of the Democratic Party and ran his campaigns from the home.

Jan 26, 2015

Zoos are the best places to watch animals

I, like many people, enjoy seeing animals in their natural habitat and have done so in many places. John and I went on safari in Kenya where we saw thousands of wildebeests and zebras migrating. I was most impressed with the height of the giraffes. When I tell people that we have spent a lot of time over
the years in the rainforest I always add that we have more wildlife in our backyard than we ever saw in the jungle.  John saw a snake once in Costa Rice and we had to pay for a tour to see a sloth. The best place to really see and observe animals is in a zoo. We have been to many zoos in the United States and in several countries. There is always something new and interesting to see and learn. 

One of the best zoos is in Syracuse, the Rosamond Gifford Zoo,
and it is open 362 days a year. They have lions, and tigers and bears and more. One of the most unique primates at the Rosamond Gifford Zoo is the Golden Lion Tamarin from the coastal forests of Brazil. They are on the endangered species list with an estimated wild population of about 3,200 and less than 500 in zoos. They are small with beautiful red manes hence the “lion” name. The zoo offers a variety of programs for all ages. 

The Cleveland Metroparks Zoo, a 183-acre zoo in Cleveland, is another all-season zoo. The Zoo is divided into several areas: Australian Adventure; African Savanna; Northern Trek; The Primate, Cat & Aquatics Building; The RainForest; and Waterfowl Lake. Along with gorillas, big cats, and all the expected zoo animals, the Australian Adventure is a fascinating eight-acre exhibit. A train ride takes visitors past kangaroos and wallabies that roam freely in Wallaby Walkabout and by Kookaburra Station. The Reinberger Homestead is fashioned after a traditional 19th century sheep station offering a peek into Australian home life. Cleveland is always a good destination choice with many museums and attractions.

One of the largest and most progressive zoos in the world is the
famous San Diego Zoo in California with more than 4,000 animals and 800 species. The Skyfari aerial trip offers spectacular views of the zoo but it is just one way to tour the zoo. There is also a miniature train and guided bus tour. There are many programs and unique things to do such enjoying a buffet breakfast while watching the koala colony in their home, the Australian Outback. Watch the keeper feed the koalas their breakfast while you enjoy yours. 

The Alabama Golf Coast Zoo is called “The Little Zoo that Could” because is the only zoo in recorded US history that has ever staged a full scale evacuation for a natural disaster (they actually completed three zoo evacuations - for Hurricanes Ivan, Dennis and Katrina). During our visit to the zoo I loved the close encounters with the baby white Bengal Tigers and playing in the enclosure with lemurs.  They really are “leaping lemurs.” You can’t do that in the wild. 

When we were in Nebraska we visited the Lincoln’s Children’s Zoo. I don’t think there is any such thing as a children’s only zoo. In fact, sometimes places that promote to children offer the best learning opportunities. They let visitors pet critters like turtles and lizards plus there are usually animal feeding stations.

Jan 19, 2015

Making Plantain Fritas

I am always impressed with how hospitable people are –worldwide.  This was the case when we were in Haiti. Haiti is an interesting destination but it is not on many travelers’ radar. There is always so much to learn and experience everywhere we go. 

In the 1700s Haiti was the glory of the French colonies and one of
the richest colonies in the world.  In 1804 Haiti became the first black independent nation. Over the years, poor leadership and other issues caused economic troubles from which Haiti has never fully recovered and the earthquake in 2010. 

I had expected beaches and I was not disappointed. One of my favorite places was Jacmel where there are not only great beaches but shops with great local artwork created out of whatever was handy. We visited a place where artists made artworks out of discarded oil drums.  In Jacmel I was especially impressed with Charlotte, a shop that displayed colorful works of art made of gourds and reeds.   

In Jacmel we stayed at La Colline Enchantee.  The lovely eco-resort is high on a hill just outside of the Jacmel.  The owner Michele Gehy was very friendly and, like all the Haitians we met, proud of their country. While we were talking about Haitian food she mentioned that
plantains are the “Haitian potato.” I told her I had tried the Plantain Fritas and would love to know how to make them because they are not only delicious but would make great hors d'oeuvres.  She said, “Do you want to know how to make them? Come with me and I will show you.”  We went into the kitchen where she proceeded to show us how to make Plantain Fritas– gratis. The Griot de Porc can be made ahead of time, refrigerated and reheated when ready to put in plantain cups and serve.

Plantain Fritas
Griot de Porc 
1 lb of pork 
Juice of 2 limes 
1 cup orange juice
2 onions thinly sliced
1 green pepper thinly sliced
4 to 6 cloves
5 cloves of garlic
1/4 tsp thyme 
1/4 tsp salt
1/4 tsp black pepper
Water as needed

This can be made ahead of time. Cut the pork into small cubes (keep the fat). Make a marinade of the lime juice, orange juice, half of the onions, green pepper, cloves, garlic, thyme, salt and black pepper. Marinate pork in marinade overnight in refrigerator (or at least four hours). Put it all in a sauce pan. Boil on low heat for about 20 minutes. Add water if necessary. Drain. Add rest of onions. Saute over medium heat until brown. Put in the plantain baskets and serve. It can be spiced up according to personal taste.   

Fried  Plantain  Baskets
4 green plantains
2 cups water

1 teaspoon salt
2 lemons
2 tbs vegetable oil for frying – or as needed

Peel the plantains. Cut into pieces two inches long. Place in water with salt and juice of lemon for two hours. Remove and drain on paper towels. Heat the oil in a frying pan. Cook plantains for two to three minutes. Remove plantains. Drain on a paper towel. Press the fried plantain pieces in a lemon press of similar device to make the small cup-like baskets. Put them back in the salt and lemon water for a couple minutes. Remove and drain on a paper towel.  Fry in oil until crispy. Fill with Griot de Porc and serve.

Jan 11, 2015

Snowy Getaways

There are many great places to getaway for a night or more in Central New York. Off season rates offer great values. One of the places I wanted to check out this past summer was the new Harbor Hotel in Clayton but I never made it so it is on my “To Do List.”  They are open all year and during the winter they have some great value-laden packages.  Their Romance Getaway includes a one-night stay for two, rose petal turn-down, bottle of champagne, chocolate-covered strawberries plus breakfast. In February they have a Valentine Ice Bar Weekend with 20,000 pound of ice carved into functional bars and other sculptures with complimentary wine tasting and snacks.  There will be ice carving demonstrations. A portion of the proceeds will be donated to The Wounded Warrior Project. 

Even if you are not a snowmobiler, cross-country skier, snowshoer, or a winter hiker, Altmar’s Tailwater Lodge is a great place for celebrating winter. The trees laden with snow can be an awe inspiring site.  Salmon River Falls is nearby and I’d love to see the falls when they are frozen or rimed with ice. 

At Mirbeau in Skaneateles you can pretend you are in France since
the resort, from the gardens to their chateau-style accommodations, is designed to look like a painting by French Impressionist Claude Monet. Mirbeau has the coolest water spa in Central New York. For total relaxation sip wine in their Aqua Terrace, an outdoor pool area, with the fireplace ablaze. Inside their spa has a unique relaxation area with a stone fireplace and heated foot pool. They offer many weekday spa getaway packages that include accommodations, spa treatments, breakfast and even the gratuities are included.  They also offer a variety of fitness programs. 

Even though it is not very close, The Mohonk near New Paltz is a wonderful winter retreat. It is a classic Victorian getaway that looks like a castle on the Hudson.  It is an all-inclusive with nightly rates that include breakfast, lunch, dinner, afternoon tea and a slew of complimentary activities.  You can enjoy their indoor swimming pool, yoga and meditation classes, and guided nature walks plus their open-air ice skating pavilion, groomed trails for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing.  Their spa offers a variety of treatments, an outdoor heated mineral pool, and a solarium for relaxation. One of the things I love about the Mohonk is that it is family-owned since 1869. Not many places can say that. 

If you want to pretend that it isn’t winter then head to a casino
where you won’t know what season it is or even the time of the day. Turning Stone Casino has a variety of accommodations in different price categories from The Inn to their luxurious suites in The Lodge. Golfers can practice at their Golf Dome and test their skills at 38 different courses on
a virtual simulator including St. Andrew and Pebble Beach. There is always a variety of entertainment, excellent dining and their Skana Spa is the perfect place to renew and get rid of the winter blues. Another casino option is the one in Niagara Falls, The Seneca Niagara Casino has a great entertainment schedule from the music of Foreigner to Frank Sinatra, Jr. who I saw a couple years ago and thought he sounded just like his father.  No need to languish during the winter there are many things to do without traveling too far.

Jan 6, 2015

Exploring Aruba

We often stay at several places when we are visiting an area. In Aruba, after our stay at Sunset Beach Studios we moved to the Holiday Inn where we had points for six free nights.  We are IHG members so our free stay included an automatic upgrade and other benefits one of which was a reserved palapa on the beach.  The Holiday Inn Resort recently finished a complete remodel and has three pools and of the longest beach of any Aruban hotel.  

John and I had driven along the south coast of Aruba but once we left the main road the highway markings were few and far between plus many roads on the wild, barren north coast are unpaved so we took a tour with jeep ABC Tours. One of the benefits of a tour, besides taking people to the significant sites, is that the guides are knowledgeable.  Our driver/guide, Rocky, was
great. The north coast is very different than the southern coast.  It is barren with a rocky coast pounded by high waves.  There are no hotels and few buildings.  We visited the beautiful Alto Vista Chapel, built in 1952 on the site of the first Aruban Catholic Church built by the Spanish in 1750.  Along the road to the chapel there are the Stations of the Cross and a labyrinth. 

We stopped at a couple of natural bridges sculpted over thousands of years by the strong winds and pounding waves. Arid Aruba was not suitable for plantations and has few natural resources but in 1824 gold was discovered by a 12-year-old sheep herder which created gold fever. We stopped at the Bushiribana Ruins, one of the old gold smelters. By 1916 it was no longer profitable to mine gold in Aruba. 

There are many interesting rock formations some of which have
petroglyphs. The Ayo and Casibari Rock formations look as if they were dumped there by giant beings.  They were sacred sites for the indigenous people hence the ancient drawings. I always wonder what the people were trying to say with their artwork. 
Some have hiking and climbing trails which offer great views. We stopped by a pretty Dutch-style private home and Rocky explained how traditional houses were built and that many people are restoring them.  In the hotel district there is an authentic windmill across from the Butterfly Farm. It was built in 1804 in the Netherlands and brought to Aruba in 1960.  We truly enjoyed the tour and would like to do it again as there is a lot more to see.

Our accommodations for 11 nights had been very reasonable so it
was time to treat ourselves.  We spent our last nights at the luxurious, adult-only Bucuti &Tara Resort on expansive Eagle Beach, one of the world’s top beaches.  I knew it was going to be awesome when we were greeted with sit-down check-in and champagne!
Needless to say our room was wonderful and had a balcony. After our complimentary breakfast on the restaurant’s deck we spent the day on our beach lounge with a book from their lending library. I took some dips in the infinity pool. We stayed at the beach to watch the sun set which was followed by a five-star dining experience at Elements Restaurants. The service and ambiance were excellent as one might expect from a privately-owned hotel where the owner makes a point to meet every guest.

Dec 29, 2014

Aruba - One Happy Island

The small island of Aruba in the southern Caribbean Sea has sandy beaches, cooling trade winds, and friendly people so the island is dubbed “One Happy Island.” Aruba is considered one of the safest Caribbean destinations where even the water is drinkable. 

John and I had Delta vouchers for a free flight because we volunteered to give up our seats on a recent flight.  The flight wasn’t overbooked but was over the weight limit. The flight attendant said it was easier to take off four passengers than to take off 500 pounds of luggage which would have upset passengers when their luggage didn’t arrive with them plus those of us with flight vouchers were happy to fly for free.  

We decided on Aruba because the airfare matched our vouchers
and we had never been there.  After we arrived we were met by Royal Car Rental. John wanted to go to an ATM machine to get florins, the local currency, which turned out to be unnecessary as USDs are accepted everywhere and prices are usually listed in both currencies.  We picked up our vehicle and set off.  The roads are good and there isn’t a lot of traffic which was good because there are several roundabouts which can be confusing.  

Going through Oranjestad, the capital, I thought, “I am not going to like it here.”  There were three cruise ships in port so the area was full of tourists and the city looked like an upscale mall with many glitzy shops.  Then we continued north past the various hotel zones and arrived at our accommodations, Sunset Beach Studios.  It was perfect for us. We had a small room with a kitchen and a side porch that looked out onto the ocean and, as the name suggests, a great place to watch the sunset.
The staff was wonderful and helpful in many ways. They recommended the car rental and also a food market on the way where we could shop. The food market was huge and busy with everything one would find in the states from fresh Florida oranges to Steward’s root beer.
We bought food for breakfast but, even though our place had grills available, we found getting takeout from Wendy’s (there is a slew of familiar food chains and restaurants) perfect for us. We ate on our patio porch and watched the sunset. Sunset Beach Studios has great off-season rates and a discount for long stays. We were only booked for five nights.

The island is 20 miles long and six miles across making it an easy
island to explore. One day we drove to the iconic lighthouse at the northwest end of the island.  I noticed people had piled stones in various places which I found interesting because I had marveled at the artist who creates 100s of balancing stones along the river just outside Ottawa.  These are not balanced but just piled up.  When I asked about it we were told they are “Wishing Stones” as in wishing to return like throwing a coin into Trevi Fountain in Rome.

Another day we borrowed the hotel’s snorkel equipment with the intention of snorkeling but ended up driving around instead.  There are several small beaches along the way and all beaches in Aruba are public.  John took kite surfing lessons so we drove to the southeast end of the island where there are more beaches and where experts kite surf.  

Dec 22, 2014

The Battle of New Orleans

The end of 2014 brings to a close two years of celebrating the
200th anniversary of the War of 1812. The war is called “The Second War for Independence” because after the American Revolution the British did not respect our independence; but it is also called “The Forgotten War” mainly because it only lasted two years and was fought mainly on the water. Many of the battles were fought on Lake Ontario and Lake Erie and even though the bicentennial is over visiting sites along the Great Lakes still makes a great way to learn and remember.  Fort Ontario in Oswego has War of 1812 events yearly and Sackets Harbor has a reenactment every summer. 

Unbeknownst to those in New Orleans the Treaty of Ghent had been signed on Christmas Eve 1814 ending the war so one of the war’s most decisive battles was fought after the war had ended. The Battle of New Orleans is considered the greatest American land victory during the War of 1812. It was fought in the town of Chalmette near New Orleans between December 23, 1814 and January 8, 1815, to protect New Orleans since British troops were intent on capturing the port. It is the battle in which U.S. Major General Andrew Jackson led a team of about 5,000 soldiers – regular
troops, state militiamen, volunteers, and even a band of pirates. Most of them had no official training and had never fought together. Jackson led them to victory against 7,000 British soldiers. In one two-hour period during the battle, more than 2,000 British soldiers were killed, wounded, captured or missing compared to a 71 American casualties (13 dead, 39 wounded, 19 missing).It was later made famous by Johnny Horton in the fun song “The Battle of New Orleans.” It tells of the determination of the Americans in the line “We fired our cannon ‘til the barrel melted down, so we grabbed an alligator an’ we fought another round.” After the war Andrew Jackson became an American hero whose popularity eventually led him to become the seventh president of the United States and landed his image on the $20 bill. Three other men who played roles in the War of 1812 also ended up at the White House – James Monroe John Quincy Adams and William Henry Harrison.

John and I have visited the battlefield but I would love to be there
between January 6 and 11, 2015 for their big Bicentennial Celebration. However, the story of the Battle of New Orleans is told year round at the Chalmette Battlefield. New Orleans is a popular destination but many miss this important part of American and Louisiana history. 

We learned interesting facts while visiting War of 1812 sites in NYS, Louisiana and elsewhere.  We Americans don’t make much of the fact that one aim of the war was to annex Canada but when visiting sites on the Canadian side of the St. Lawrence this is often mentioned. Two major events that took place during the war were the burning of the White House on August 24, 1814, during James Madison’s presidency, and the Battle of Baltimore a few weeks later, which inspired Francis Scott Key to write “The Star-Spangled Banner.” One of the most impressive presentations of the American Flag is at the end of the film at Fort McHenry when the curtain opens and there it is in all its glory.