Tag Archives: Lake Champlain

New Hampshire and Vermont in a day.

New England HighwayMy second encounter with New Hampshire was rather brief. I entered the granite state in the early evening and headed straight to North Conway in the White Mountains to find a cheap motel. Conway is a bizarre sort of place, something of a cross between a resort village and a suburban shopping mall. Only in America. Anyway, I just needed some place to sleep and eat, and for that Conway was a perfect choice. After booking myself into a typical no-frills motel I went in search of something to eat. Luckily I didn’t have to search too far as after just a few minutes walk I came across Hillbilly’s Southern BBQ. Yes, an authentic southern BBQ right bang in the middle of New England. Here I have to mention that I absolutely love American style BBQ. In my opinion it is the best contribution of America to the culinary world. So you can imagine my joy when I discovered this little gem.

It was Monday night so the place was practically deserted with only two or three customers by the bar. You must know that in many establishments in America you can order food to be eaten at the bar where you have good contact with the bar staff and fellow customers. Great idea if you ask me. It is especially handy when you travel alone as you can easily strike up a conversation. The food (pulled pork with all the sides) was great, the beer was cold and people (including owner, chef and waiting staff) were friendly. I had a really good evening.

The following day started with an equally tasty breakfast in another lovely local restaurant. I had great plans for that day, namely to drive the impossible to pronounce Kancamagus Highway (part of New Hampshire Route 112). This scenic windy road runs west across the White Mountains and offers great views especially in the peak autumn foliage season. The colours were definitely there but so was absolutely miserable weather. The deeper I drove into the mountains the heavier the constant drizzle and mist got. Don’t get me wrong, it was still a splendid drive, with all the rain and mist adding a magical atmosphere to the landscape, but it wasn’t conducive to longer exploration. So after a short drive with just a few photo stops I sped towards another state, Vermont.

Kancamagus Hwy

According to guidebooks and popular opinion Vermont is different. More hippy, eco-friendly, alternative etc. Practically a slice of Sweden sandwiched between the US and Canada. Is that true? Well, maybe, but I didn’t notice. What I did notice was beautiful scenery and the slow pace of life. The weather did improve a bit and I quickly made it to the town of Barre. There I encountered one of the weirdest sights I have ever seen in America.

Hope Cemetary Barre 2Located on the northern outskirts of the town is the amazing Hope Cemetery. It was established in 1895, and then consisted of 53 acres. Also by 1895, skilled artisans from around the world, especially Italy, had been flocking to Barre to become a part of the booming granite industry. One of the main uses of granite throughout the country was in tombstones and memorials. Silicosis, a respiratory disease caused by granite dust, was common among the artisans and sculptors who were breathing it in every day, which led to an abnormally high death rate. Appreciating this, many sculptors started designing their own tombstones to showcase their skill. And what skills they had. Some of the tombstones are the finest examples of memorial design and granite craftsmanship ever produced. Some of them are also one of the strangest designs you are ever likely to see. A NASCAR racing car? A football? An armchair? A biplane? Those are only few examples, there are many more interesting and beautiful sculptures.

I had a good walk around but unfortunately the miserable weather from New Hampshire caught up with me and I had to move on fairly quickly. From Barre I headed just a few miles up the road to Montpelier which is the smallest state capital in the United States. It was obviously named after the French city of Montpelier. Of course it happened in the times of general enthusiasm for things French as a result of the country’s aid during the American Revolution. No chance of that happening nowadays.

I started my visit from the Vermont capitol. Against its backdrop of wooded hills, the Vermont State House is one of the most picturesque statehouses in the country. Designed in 1857, it is an exquisite example of Greek Revival architecture. Grey granite from Barre was used for its construction but its most striking element is the dome. Made of wood sheathed in copper it is covered with 23.7 carat gold leaf, as pure as can be obtained. A statue of Ceres, the goddess of agriculture, stands atop the dome, symbolizing the importance of that industry to the state. It might not be the most impressive or lavishly decorated capitol I have ever visited but it is definitely worth a stop if you are around. Besides, it was a good place to escape the pouring rain. 

Vermont State Capitol

The town itself is rather sleepy but pleasant and has some great wooden houses as well as quite a few good independent eateries. I had a very tasty BBQ sandwich in one of them. 

Montpelier VermontIn general Montpelier was lovely but the weather wasn’t really improving so I decided to head west again. I used the network of local state highways and started driving across the beautiful Green Mountains towards Lake Champlain. Of course at the time of my visit (October) the mountains weren’t green at all. They were red, yellow and orange. Absolutely mad colours which made a great sight even on a rainy day. Finally, towards the end of the day, the weather did improve and I even managed to get some glimpses of the setting sun.

This little bit of sunshine caused quite an amazing transformation. I quickly understood what all the fuss about the Vermont foliage was about. At that moment the colourful Green Mountains shrouded in mist were behind me, Lake Champlain ahead of me and I was surrounded by the beautiful rural landscape of the Champlain Valley. I have to say it must be one of the most beautiful corners of the world. Rural perfection (if such a thing exists). I stood there for quite a while simply admiring the views. I just stopped besides the road but I felt as if I was at the end of the world or at the gates of paradise. There was no traffic, not a single car in sight for quite long moments.

Rural Vermont

I could have stayed there a lot longer but it was getting dark and chilly so I got into my trusty rental Lincoln and headed towards New York state, just across the bridge over Lake Champlain. I left Vermont almost exactly 24 hours after entering New Hampshire the night before. Wasn’t it short? Of course it was, but this time I was only really passing through as my schedule was rather tight.

Besides, I’m sure I will visit New England again.



New York State

What do you see when you hear ‘New York’? Gleaming skyscrapers? Yellow cabs? Buoyant nightlife? Trendy dudes? Probably. But here I’m going to write a few words about the other New York, the New York State. Sure, it is home to New York City where all those above-mentioned images are absolutely correct, but there is also, so called, “Upstate”, where forests, mountains, lakes, small towns and industrial heritage are the norm.

Welcome to New YorkAnd that’s where I entered the state. Not via one of the bustling airports or traffic choked highways of NYC, but by crossing a small bridge from Vermont across Lake Champlain. You could say it was the proverbial middle of nowhere; just farms on the Vermont side of the lake and forested mountains on the New York side. It was getting dark, fog had started wrapping the hills and the whole landscape was as rural as you can get.

My first stop was the town of Ticonderoga. Surprisingly the chain hotels were all full but they directed me towards some older independent motels. The one where I finally stayed looked like it was straight from the 50s, judging by its look and décor, but its owner was super-friendly. The wi-fi didn’t work but he was so apologetic that I just couldn’t go anywhere else. And I got a discount too.

The next day the sun was shining and I hit the streets of Ticonderoga early. Or rather one short main street to be precise. Just a few blocks and two sets of traffic lights. But that was enough to have a good local luncheonette where I treated myself to a truly awesome breakfast. After which I was ready to visit the main reason I was in this neck of the woods in the first place, Fort Ticonderoga.

Fort Ticonderoga gunBuilt by the French between 1754 and 1757, it was of strategic importance during the 18th-century colonial conflicts between Great Britain and France. It again played a role during the American Revolutionary War as it controlled an important route between the Hudson River Valley and the Saint Lawrence River Valley.


Picturesquely located on a peninsula at a narrows near the south end of Lake Champlain, the fort is nowadays lovingly restored. Or actually it is more of a reconstruction because not much is left of the original fort as it quickly fell into ruin after the Revolutionary War. Luckily it was acquired by the Pell family who started its reconstruction as early as 1909 which makes it one of the oldest preservation projects in North America. Nowadays you can wander around the fort by yourself or join one of the tours led by the period dressed guides. I would recommend the second option as these guys are really knowledgeable but also have a good sense of humour. You will laugh during the tour. They also offer musket firing and other presentations.Fort Ticonderoga

The best way to fully appreciate the layout of the fort is to have a look at it from the nearby Mount Defiance. It is just a 10-15 minute drive but it is a bit tricky to get there, make sure to get the leaflet with the precise directions from the museum store. And then don’t get scared when the road gets rough. It is steep, narrow and full of potholes but the view from the top is amazing. You can clearly see the fort as well as big swaths of Lake Champlain, Green Mountains in Vermont and Adirondacks in New York.

New York CapitolFrom Ticonderoga I headed south to Albany which is the capital of the Empire State. That’s correct, it is not the Big Apple but this rather smallish city which is the capital. There are different explanations why this is the case (and I’m not sure which one is correct), but it doesn’t really matter. What matters is the fact that Albany is a rather unique place. For a start, the state capitol has a bit of an unusual shape as it lacks a dome. Apparently there were plans for the dome, and even a tower, but during the 32 years of construction it was discovered that the weight of the building was causing it to shift downhill as well as some fractures. So, no dome then. In effect the building looks like an oversized château from the Loire valley, kind of out of place in Upstate New York.

If the capitol is a bit out of place then its surroundings are absolutely bizarre. The Empire State Plaza is a complex of state government buildings located immediately south and south-west of the capitol. Built between 1959 and 1976 it was the brainchild of Governor Nelson Rockefeller and it is huge. It consist of various marble and steel buildings set around a row of three reflective pools. On the west side there is a row of four identical, so called, Agency towers which are 23 storeys tall. On the east side there is the 44-floor Erastus Corning Tower and the performing arts venue called “The Egg”, named for its shape (you will know why once you see it). On the south end (opposite to the capitol) there is the Cultural Education Center which looks so weird, it is hard to describe it in a few words. It is also big, with 1,5 million square feet (135,000 m³) of floor space.The Egg

To be honest the whole complex looks and feels massively oversized for a city the size of Albany. But it is also absolutely fascinating and photogenic, especially on a sunny day. The best way to fully appreciate it, and to get an understanding of its layout, is to visit the viewing deck on the 42nd floor of the Corning Tower (which happens to be the tallest building in New York state outside NYC). From there you will be able to see all the government buildings located around the reflecting pool as well as the rest of the city (which feels dwarfed by the complex). Then there is the Hudson River and endless mountains and forest surrounding the city and stretching far into the horizon.

Albany is an easy place to visit. You can leave your car in one of the vast parking lots underneath the Empire Plaza which are connected to the underground walkways connecting all the buildings.

For anyone interested in grandiose architecture Albany is a must-visit place. Together with places like Brasilia or Canberra it is one of the largest purpose-built government complexes in the world. Some compare it to buildings built by Fascist governments and criticise its size and cost (it cost $2 billion and 9000 people were displaced during it construction). But there is no denying that it is an unique and well worth visiting place.

BinghamtonFrom Albany I headed west towards the Finger Lakes Region in the centre of New York state. On my way I stopped for a night in Binghamton where, by coincidence, I also stayed 5 years ago on my previous trip to this part of the world. It is one of those nondescript towns where I usually end-up staying in cheap chain motels and eat in one of the countless fast food joints located on the endless strip-malls stretching for miles and miles. They are not highlights of any trip but I have seen plenty of similar places all across America and I think I even like them. I can’t explain why but I find them strangely fascinating with all the grittiness and anonymity. They all look the same, it doesn’t matter if they are in Michigan, or in Colorado, or in Kentucky. These are the places where everyone minds their own business and you can easily blend in. By and large no one will see you as a tourist. Tourists don’t visit places like Binghamton, but I would say that this is the real face of America rather than beaches of Santa Monica, theme parks of Orlando or boutiques of NYC.

Taughannock FallsAfter Binghamton everywhere else would look beautiful and fascinating but the Fingers Lake Region is genuinely interesting. My time was limited so I only chose one destination to visit, the Taughannock Falls State Park. Beautifully located on the banks of the Lake Cayuga it is home to one of the tallest single-drop waterfalls east of the Rocky Mountains. Its main cataract drops 66 metres, which is a full 10 metres more than the mighty Niagara. You can hike to its base at the bottom of a long and narrow gorge (with walls reaching 120 metres tall), or you can take the rim trails which offer great views from the top of the falls. In other words, this small state park is a real gem. In fact, I suspect that in many countries in Europe it would be probably designated as a national park.

This was the turning point of my journey. From Taughannock Falls I started heading back east, ultimately all the way to the hustle and bustle of the Big Apple. But that was still hundreds of miles away and for now I was simply enjoying a peaceful drive across the New York countryside.Rural beauty

I would recommend Upstate New York to anyone visiting north-eastern USA. Even if you mainly come for the highlights of NYC it is well worth sparing a day or two to tour this fascinating region.

Northeastern adventure.

I love the New England countryside. Forested mountains, hilly pastures, red barns. Pictures like from a postcard. We decided to go there in the middle of September which was too early for the famous autumn colors so that we could escape crowds which usually ascend to the rural roads during October. After three days in Boston we headed north and that’s where, for me, the real New England begins.

My favorite New England state is Vermont. Especially the Lake Champlain coast and islands. From Burlington we took US Hwy 2 north and then across the causeway, to visit tiny settlements located on the islands on the lake. From the south they are: South Hero, Grand Isle, North Hero, Birdland, Alburgh and some other tiny hamlets with names I don’t even remember. There you can visit country stores, art galleries or local cafés. Even just stopping for petrol you can chat with friendly locals over a cup of tea or a coffee. We would have liked to stay a few more days in the area but, as it is usual with such road trips, we had more things to see and not that much time. After crossing yet another causeway we entered the New York State. Specifically a town called Rouses Point. Most people associate this state with urban craziness of NYC but up there north, next to the Canadian border, things couldn’t be more different. Towns are small, country music rules and the sky is big.

We decided to have a pizza at the tiny Gino’s Pizza. It was place where furniture remembers early eighties, people are friendly and chef looked like he just came from Naples but spoke with a strong Yankee accent. When we asked for a big pizza, he said that because we are Europeans we should first have a look how big the big pizza actually is. It was absolutely enormous so we took his advice and scaled down to the medium one (which was still bigger than any big pizza you can get anywhere in UK).

Absolutely full we headed north again. After crossing Canadian border without too much hassle at the quiet and deserted border station we drove towards Montreal. I expected a lot from the famous city but unfortunately I was seriously disappointed. The biggest reason was a dreadful weather. It was raining like a hell for the whole afternoon so we only had a quick around the city center walk and went back to our car completely soaked. At this point we decided to pass the Montreal sightseeing and drove west towards Toronto, hoping for a weather change.

And what a difference a day can make. The following day was absolutely fantastic. Sunny and warm but not to hot. Perfect for a peaceful drive. We went off the main motorway and decided to explore the back roads. I especially recommend the Thousand Islands region and the best way to visit it (apart from a boat of course) is to drive the 1000 Island Parkway. It is an absolutely amazing road, hugging water all the time, with great views over the islands. Some of them are tiny with just one tree, on some there are houses, on others the whole mansions and even one castle. Yes a castle. It was build by a millionaire and apparently has 120 rooms.

Another good way to see the varied topography of the St. Lawrence waterway is a visit to the viewing tower located on the Hill Island, right next to the border crossing to US. To get there you have to drive narrow and steep suspension bridge next to the massive 18-wheelers. It is a bit scary. From the top of the tower you can see how many island and channels create the region. At the westernmost point of the region is historic city of Kingston where you can stop for dinner or a bit of shopping.

Our next destination was Toronto. Driving from the east we used the famous (or infamous) Hwy 401. Some say it is the busiest road in the world. It has anything from12 to18 lanes and it is a weird experience. Fortunately we arrived to the Toronto area late in the evening and avoided famous rush hours on the 401.

Toronto is actually a very nice city. If Montreal was a disappointment, then Toronto was a big positive surprise. Great weather definitely helped for a positive experience. The day started with a visit to the CN tower. For a long time it was the tallest free standing structure on earth but by the time of our visit it was already overtaken by Burj Dubai. To be honest it doesn’t really matter if it’s not the tallest any more. It is still an amazing structure and offers stunning views from the viewing platform located at 346 meters. Everyone brave enough should try to walk over the glass floor panels. Even I knew this is very strong, perfectly safe floor I still tried to step on the little metal frames joining the glass panels. I also realized that most people did actually the same thing. After the tower we walked around the nice and compact Toronto downtown and visited the provincial parliament building which offers quite interesting, free, guided tours.

But the best part of the whole Toronto experience was visit to the beaches. Yes, Toronto has beaches. Just a few miles east from downtown. All you have to do is to take one of this cool, old fashioned, red trams and in 30min you can enjoy the seaside-like environment. Actual beaches are surrounded by some nice old houses and the main drag (Queen Street East) offers great food and shopping. There are even Kew Gardens for Brits with a homesick feel. They are a bit smaller than our Kew but it is still a nice spot. So our day in Toronto ended with a nice long walk, on the beach, at the sunset.

The following day we went towards Niagara. But before we reached the famous waterfalls we popped in to Niagara-On-The-Lake. It is a lovely small town set, as the name suggests, on the lake shore, and surrounded with wineries. It is totally a tourist trap, full of tour buses and American tourists looking for a British experience close to home. But don’t worry’ it is still worth visiting and offers some good shopping. Locally made wine, Irish accessories, antiques, organic food. Almost anything that shopping addict might need. And of course it is the perfect place for an afternoon tea.

The best way to approach Niagara Falls is to drive Niagara Parkway. It is a scenic road connecting Lake Ontario with the Lake Erie and it follows Niagara River for all of its 56km.

Some say, Niagara Falls is so commercialized, kitschy and tacky that going there it is a total waste of time. I don’t think so. True, you have all the possible gift shops you can only imagine, and all the tacky attractions, but the falls itself are still worth seeing. You just have to ignore the kitsch around and concentrate on the falls. And believe me, it is not that difficult because they are truly amazing. I would recommend going down to the base of the falls. After paying quite a hefty fee you can enter the tunnel leading to the base of the falls. It is worth of all the money you paid. Once you approach the falls itself you can feel that everything is actually vibrating. Thousands of tons of falling water makes the ground shaking. Then you enter the platform offering view of the falls right next to you, actually almost above you. You can also see the falls from the smaller side tunnels which opens right behind the curtain of water. After the whole experience we were almost completely soaked. The plastic ponchos you get when you enter the tour don’t give much of a protection against the eternal mist forming behind the falls.

After the falls we continued south on the Niagara Parkway which becomes very rural and quiet just a few miles from all the hustle and buzz of the falls. But it still offers a beautiful scenery and is worth driving.

We entered back to US at Buffalo which is completely insignificant and not worth stopping. But countryside around is very pleasant. We went off the main highway again to drive the back roads of upstate New York. We got lost a bit and almost run out of fuel but saw some nice towns and villages. After diner in one of this small towns we headed east towards the Big Apple, still long way to go. We had to spend a night somewhere and it wasn’t easy to find motels off the main interstate highways in this rural region. We finally spotted one in the town of Warsaw. It was one of the dirtiest and dodgiest motels I have ever slept in, but it was late, it was raining, we were tired and it was extremely cheap. Anyway, if you can, avoid staying in motel in Warsaw, NY.

The next day we spent driving quiet highways on the New York – Pennsylvania border region heading steadily toward the New York City which was our final destination.

But this is the subject for a completely different story.