Tag Archives: New York State

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.