Around Seneca Lake

After the annual family reunion, John and I took an extra day to explore the Finger Lakes region of New York State. We started Sunday morning at Watkins Glen, where a 3-mile round trip hike follows cascading waters through a narrow gorge. The paved trail even goes behind two waterfalls!

Watkins Glen

Driving north along Seneca Lake, we gazed at sloping hills covered with vineyards. We stopped at Rock Stream, where we tried wine produced with grape varietals unfamiliar to us, for example, dry Niagara (white) and DeChaunac (red), two delicious dry wines. The winery also makes grappa, brandy, and port. Next time!

A short drive took us to our lunch destination: the Wienery. Sausages galore and roasted carrot dogs for vegetarians.

At the Wienery

Inspired by a recent Food and Wine article, we spent the rest of our time in the small town of Geneva at the top of Seneca Lake. Here is the opera house:

Geneva Opera House

I got a scoop of gelato from a coffee shop and then we sidled up to Lake Drum Brewing for samples of their delicious beers and ciders: sour brett, sour red ale, ginger cider, and brown ale.

At 3pm, we checked into the bed and breakfast, which had originally been the home of William Smith, who founded the eponymous college in Geneva. Thunderstorms passed through and we had a chance to relax for a few hours before walking back to town for dinner.

William Smith House

Lake Drum was still the only thing open, so we went back for another round and listened to Creedence Clearwater Revival on their record player.

Up the street at Wicked Water, we sampled lovely wines produced by a Brazilian couple — well, the husband is an engineer who helps out his wife and we had a great time talking with him.

We ate dinner at Halsey’s, a place focused on well-prepared Italian food in a relaxed setting. We shared the house salad with goat cheese, nuts, and cranberries. Then, I had an awesome vegetable pizza covered in caramelized onions, cooked in Halsey’s wood-burning oven. John had the truffle burger with sweet potato fries and amazing crispy brussels sprouts petals. Stuffed and happy, we needed a walk.

Down by the lake, we sat to watch the lightning flash far off over the water. A view of the lake from earlier in the day:

Seneca Lake

Having explored most of the open establishments on that quiet Sunday night, we made one last stop before walking back to the B&B. At the Linden, karaoke night was just starting and though we considered each doing a number, the spirit didn’t move us.

The next morning after a tasty breakfast — eggs baked in bell pepper halves with cheese — in the high-ceiled dining room of the B&B, we drove to the Corning Museum of Glass, part art museum, part science center. We skipped the demos and hands-on sections to enjoy the historical glass and contemporary art collections. What an amazing place with so very much to see.

Corning Musuem of Glass

And then the long drive home! The new fan clutch in our 25-year-old car kept the old girl from overheating. Hurrah!

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Month of Travel: New York, Part 2

The cavorting continues… (see Part 1)

Day 3: All Around Again

Deanna, John, and I all sleep in to recover from the dancing and late-night pizza. Around 11am, we make our way to vegetarian hot-spot, Dirt Candy, where we meet up with a friend of Deanna’s. Cyn is a Dirt Candy fanatic and has literally had everything on the menu. I’m not a big brunch person, but that’s the only reservation I could get. And lucky for me, Dirt Candy’s brunch offers the range of options from savory to sweet. I decide to order everything involving beets:  beet juice mimosa, beet coffeecake,  and a beet reuben. I also try, from everyone else’s plates, the red pepper fritters and some biscuits — all so good! Now more than ever, I want to go there for dinner!

Deanna heads off to do a few errands, while John and I board a bus north on the Bowery from the light bulb district to the Flatiron district. Over the last two days, John and I have seen posters everywhere for Night Fever: New York Disco 1977–1979, The Bill Bernstein Photographs. It’s a free exhibit at the Museum of Sex and we’ve got little else to do, so we brave the crowd of college students and bachelorette partiers. The gallery is outfitted like a disco with lights and pumping music:  “It’s Raining Men” incites a rowdy group of 50s-ish women to squeal with delight. The photographs mainly feature nude, intoxicated people on roller skaters, covered in glitter. However, we do leave with an appreciation of the disco scene’s inclusivity and diversity.

Snow is falling, so we quickly devise a plan to see the Nomad Hotel’s famous Library Bar. We don’t have a drink, but merely peek in to confirm that indeed it looks just like the pictures.

We take another short walk to the eternally crowded Eataly, where we marvel at Italian beers and impossible pasta shapes. I buy a few chocolates.

As the snow falls harder, we try to find somewhere to pass some time and keep warm. We walk down Fifth Avenue and stop in a few shops along the way. Dough, a place on my donut list, isn’t far, so we turn down 19th and discover Bottlerocket, a cute wine shop. At Dough, all the seats are taken by people who have long since finished eating, but can’t bring themselves to go out in the snow. John and I share one of the mammoth donuts — so heavy and cakey it’s almost meaty — and shuffle on, a little disappointed.

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Directionless, across from a church, we huddle under scaffolding. There’s not enough time to visit the Merchant’s House Museum, so I quickly look to see what jazz clubs in not-too-far-away Greenwich Village have music happening right this instant. Smalls Jazz Club turns out to be the perfect spot to hole up on a cold, windy, snowy day. John opens the door and I follow the carpeted staircase down to the doorman, like a friendly Charon transporting us to a musical underworld. It’s a cheap cover (so was crossing the River Styx) and we’re lucky to get two stools near the back. The trio, led by Jonathan Thomas, enthralls us and we stay for a bit of the jam session that follows. It’s instrumentalists only and just one woman, a small lady dominated by her baritone sax. Around 6pm, as it starts to get crowded, we depart and climb the stairs up to a world where the snow has stopped.

Back in Brooklyn, we relax with Deanna. She introduces us to the wonders of GrubHub, which yields delicious pasta and risotto delivered to the door, while we introduce her to the delights of The IT Crowd, a British comedy that yields much laughter. It may be New York on a Saturday night, but we are all happy to be together and out of the weather.

Day 4: South Street Seaport to Chelsea

I made plans to meet a friend for breakfast at the Bagel Pub, but somehow our texts got crossed and one of us ended up at the wrong location. John and I enjoy our bagels immensely, but I feel badly that the promise of a meet-up fell to naught. We take a short subway ride and end up in the Financial District. Trinity Church is especially beautiful in the snow.

Trinity Church

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At South Street Seaport, the sun feels so good. I drink my tea until — at last — it’s time for the Audubon Society Eco-Cruise! A friend of Deanna’s leads the 2-hour tour on a NY Water Taxi. We travel through the New York Harbor and out past the Verrazano Narrows. There on a small rocky island, we spot 15 seals! We can only see them through binoculars, but the sight is glorious. Shaped like gray bananas, they lie in the sun and look across at us.

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Back on land at 2pm, John and I seek out lunch at the Dead Rabbit, named “The World’s Best Bar 2016” (more on that). Quiet and laid-back, the Dead Rabbit offers delightful cocktails, including the best Irish coffee ever, and excellent food. I love my pisco punch and our meals — mushroom gnocchi and a scotch egg — rank up there as some of the best restaurant food we’ve ever had.

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We aim to visit the Whitney Museum of American Art, but subway maintenance confounds us. Walking from Union Square, we realize that the Museum closes in less than 2 hours — not enough time to walk there and enjoy the exhibits. As we pass by the Donut Pub, another on my list, we pause to regroup and elevate our blood sugar. Now these are classic, perfectly executed cake donuts! At the recommendation of two girls eating near the cash register, we buy one yeast donut topped with Fruity Pebbles.

John and I pick up the food hall thread and visit both Gansevoort Market and Chelsea Market, two places where we can be warm and walk around. I like small Gansevoort Market and would like to go back when I’m not stuffed. Chelsea always feels too crowded with churning crowds, but I do like the clothing and craft shops there. John and I stop to examine a quirky scarf with pockets, made from recycled men’s suits. Surprise, surprise, this handmade, unique item is a bit out of our price range.

At last we arrive back in Brooklyn. For dinner, Deanna invites a friend to meet us at a nearby pub. We are content with another low-key evening before having to head home the next morning. John and I share that Fruity Pebbles donut for dessert. Mmm, sugar.

What a splendid four days! Thanks to Deanna for hosting us!

Notes for Next Time

Here’s an outline:

See: The Whitney, a house museum (like Merchant’s House), a show

Do: Coney Island

Eat: Pondicheri, Dirt Candy for dinner

So many good places to revisit!

Month of Travel: New York, Part 1

In 2011, I attended the Zlatne Uste Golden Festival, but have never been able to return due to work…until 2017! At last! The festival was just one of many delights during four days in New York.

Three days after arriving home from Toronto, John and I load up the car for New York. The drive up couldn’t be easier, especially now that we don’t have to stop for tolls. I simply chant “EZPass EZPass” and clap as we go through the express lanes.

In Brooklyn, Cousin Deanna stands in a parking spot and flags us down. Christmas trees lie on the sidewalks and it smells wonderful. For lunch, Deanna takes us to her spot, Le Paddock, where we all go nuts for deviled eggs.

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Day 1: World Trade Center to Greenwich Village

John and I head to Lower Manhattan for a hedonistic walking tour. We start at Le District, part grocery store, part French-themed food hall, to enjoy a red from Vacqueyras and a white from Savenniéres at the wine bar. A scoop of espresso ice cream follows for me! From there, we follow the Hudson Greenway bike path north to Greenwich Village.

Tribeca at dusk

We wander through narrow, quiet streets and spot one restaurant. From the corner, it beckons us with its multi-pane windows and the candlelight within. We see people inside and decide we should be early diners too. Sitting at the bar of the Little Owl, truly little with barely 10 tables, we drink Mondeuse and Falanghina, while I eat delicious Eggplant Parmesan.

From there, we stop at Employees Only, a cocktail bar that routinely lands on lists. The friendly doorman draws back a black velvet curtain and we find ourselves in the 1920s. The only anachronism is that the bartenders wear chef’s coats. John has the Billionaire’s Cocktail — bourbon, lemon, grenadine, absinthe bitters —  and for me, Besos Calientes — tequila, grapefruit, lime, habanero bitters. For the two of us, it’s such a relaxing moment. We haven’t seen each other much the last few weeks and tonight we are finally catching up.

On Bleecker Street, we look at the shops and ponder why a crowd is peacefully dissenting “Let her go! Let her go!” outside a police station. (One person across the street tells us a woman put a poster up where she wasn’t supposed to have, but how does that warrant arrest?) Like good Americans, we quickly forget justice and start shopping. John almost buys a vintage vest, but it is too small. Then, I spot the rainbow-colored storefront of David’s Tea and buy two small bags: Turmeric Glow and North African Mint. Good stuff! We take a whirl around Murray’s Cheese.

John hasn’t eaten much and when he spots the word “tacos” across from Murray’s, his hunger suddenly reveals itself. At garage-like Tacombi, we’re lucky to get seated right away. I move to non-alcoholic drinks and have a super sweet horchata. John tries almost every kind of tiny taco they have — fish, beef, pork, all delicious — and I eat two of the sweet potato-black bean tacos. With corn on the side, we are so content. It’s a short walk to the F train. And what do you know? We home in Brooklyn at 9pm.

Day 2: Upper East Side

For today we have two goals: see art and explore another food hall. On 58th Street, we strike out at Fika, a Swedish coffee shop that by 10am is cleaned out of every last morsel. But with a short walk east, we find heavenly croissants at Plaza Hotel’s Food Hall. We scope the place out and confirm our plans to return for lunch.

Plaza Hotel

In the shadow of Trump Tower, we walk to an unremarkable office building. In search of Galerie St. Etienne, we mistakenly press the elevator button for the 4th floor. The doors open onto a bizarre scene: in a cavernous space, white and purple lights flash and sputter. We can’t see anyone and there’s an accompanying sound, reminiscent of the blaring noises in Mad Max: Fury Road. We know it’s some kind of art installation, but we’re desperate to get away. On the 8th floor, however, we find the Galerie, tucked amidst doctors’ offices. The exhibit “You Say You Want a Revolution: American Artists and the Communist Party” brings us here. Hugo Gellert and Sue Coe are two artists whose work strikes us.

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At the Society of Illustrators, a few blocks north, we check our coats and settle into exploring this institution, which exhibits art, holds competitions, and offers workshops for artists. We see work by the most talented illustrators living today in the exhibit: “Illustrators 59: Uncommissioned, Institutional, Advertising”, an annual juried show. Then on the upper floors, John and I marvel (har-har) at the work of comic book illustrator Tony Harris. Still yet on the third floor, we see a Norman Rockwell mural and wonderful work by artists who designed covers for classic magazines like Woman’s Home Companion and Redbook. For John, this is a pilgrimage. Next time, he’ll go to one of their themed sketch nights!

For a break, we walk over to Central Park where the sun spills over the rocks and the wind can’t reach us.

View from Central Park

Then to lunch at the Plaza Food Court! Seats may be hard to come by, but we eventually get a spot where we have no choice but to listen to a younger woman describe to an older woman, a family friend it seemed, every step in her thought process about whether to move in with her boyfriend. Meanwhile, my broccoli and feta sandwich from No. 7 Sub is fantastic, while John’s fennel sausage from Todd English hits the spot. While I finish up, John decides to find dessert; he comes back with a bag of hot cinnamon and sugar doughnut holes from the Doughnuttery. I buy a small canister from Kusmi tea and then we pick up a kouign amann pastry to eat later. Oh heaven!

Inspired by our visit to the Society of Illustrators, we set off for the St. Regis Hotel, where a Maxfield Parrish mural of “Old King Cole” dominates the bar. In San Francisco, we paid a pretty penny to sit beneath Parrish’s “The Pied Piper of Hamlin” at the Palace Hotel. The drinks cost even more here! But the little bar snacks are delicious.

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For the last mural of the day, we take a short subway ride up to the Met. In 2013, we went to the AXA Equitable Tower only to learn that the Thomas Hart Benton mural, American Today (1931), had been moved! Now, in 2017, we see it in its new home — a custom room where one can sit surrounded by the 10-canvas panorama!

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While at the Met, we also see an exhibit about Max Beckmann, a German artist who moved to New York in the late 1940s. He apparently spent much time at the St. Regis Hotel and the Plaza Hotel — exactly like us!  And I finally get to the Costume Institute!

A happy day of art and with so many lifelong dreams met, John and I board the subway back to the Brooklyn.

Now with Deanna, we head to dinner at Le Paddock and then on to Golden Fest at Grand Prospect Hall. The festival has gotten bigger, but the wine is just as strange and the music just as brilliant! I know to strip down to a tank top and jump into the circle. Deanna and John join me off and on, but mainly I am left to swirl in a sea of sweaty hands and nimble feet. I give myself over to the arrhythmic beats and bilateral dancing patterns.

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When I can dance no more, I go upstairs to the balcony to watch from above. Here one can easily spot the factions, the dancers out of sync, the knowledgeable dancers doing some trickier variant. It’s a marvelous chaotic soup.

Following tradition, we three must have pizza after Balkan Fest! No one remembers where we went six years ago, so Deanna and John do some searching and decide on American Cheez, a bar that serves free pizza when you buy a drink. Really? Yes! The owner treats us like he’s known us forever; 70s rock plays; the women’s bathroom is plastered with old John Travolta photos; posters everywhere; a few TVs — one showing an old movie. The owner gets down his Trump and Ron Burgundy figurines and puts them in all kinds of compromising positions. We love the whole spirit of the place. And truly, there is nothing better than pizza at midnight, but really I’m exhausted and ready to sleep.

Continue to Part 2

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Photo Tour of the -tons Road Trip

A four-day trip to visit family and make progress on my donut shop and state park lists. Nights in Binghamton, Northampton, and Canton.

Water Street Brewing of Binghamton, NY
Free at last from the car, we celebrate at an old favorite, Water Street Brewing in Binghamton, NY. The star is “Cyborg Betty”, an imperial red ale.
Who knew? It's Binghamton
We find important history in a Binghamton parking garage.
Willow cat
Our Binghamton hosts include the glamorous Willow.
Binghamton diner
Dinner is a wonderful cookout with grilled perogies! Then the next morning John’s aunt and uncle take us out to the Red Oak Diner. I get a waffle, because, hey, I’m on vacation!
Mrs. Murphy's of Southwick, MA
It’s a three hour drive to Northampton. We pass through three toll booths and have to pay $0, $0.85, and $1.40. Lunch on the road, not too far from Northampton, is a satisfying cake donut and coffee. Because, hey, we’re on vacation! And we ate all of the healthy snacks.
Forever!
We walk around Northampton’s main street, where I buy fancy green tea and a pair of socks with cats on them. Then to Skinner State Park, which we will have FOREVER.
View from Mt. Holyoke at Skinner State Park
At the park, we drive to the top of Mt. Holyoke for a lovely view.
Starlight Llama B&B
Ready to relax, we check in at the Starlight Llama, a solar-powered B&B north of Northampton. We meet the llamas, emus, guineafowl, dogs, and chickens. The owner gives us recommendations for places to visit in town; we check times and menus and head out.
Northampton building
Not having had a real lunch, we eat an early dinner at Paul and and Elizabeth’s, a vegetarian-friendly, Asian-inflected restaurant. We start with wonderful black bean-filled ravioli and have fun chatting with our waitress, a filmmaker who wears light tortoiseshell glasses. The entrees are gigantic — tempura vegetables and udon noodles with seitan!  John gives the leftovers to a young man, one of Northampton’s many homeless. We continue to explore the town: lattes at Haymarket, a shared flight of beer at Northampton Brewery, and finally wine at the swanky, nearly subterranean Tunnel Bar.
Smith College greenhouse
The next morning at the B&B, we have granola and fresh eggs from the hens twenty feet away. Before continuing east, we go into town to explore the Smith College campus and botanic gardens.
Paradise Pond
In high school, I won a Smith College Book Award, but never bothered applying. This was my much belated campus tour! I’ll say Smith’s Paradise Pond is much more picturesque than UMBC’s Pig Pen Pond.
Wachusett Mt
By midday, we find ourselves at another state park: Wachusett Mountain. It’s a gorgeous day for an easy hike up the Mountain House Trail. For some reason, lots of people have their cameras out on the mountain top.
Wachusett Mt
John and I contemplate the view and then consider our hungry bellies. Yelp points us to Mill No. 3 Farmstand, a fantastic sandwich shop and garden center on the Nashua River. An hour later, we arrive at our hotel in Dedham. We quickly change and then go out to dinner with John’s mom, sister, and niece at the old-school Italian joint, La Scala.
Isabella Stewart Gardener Museum
The next morning, I have an exquisite rose-flavored latte at the Big Bear Cafe in Dedham. John and I pick up his mom and drive to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Only the first and third floors are open, but we still love seeing the eclectic collections, ranging from medieval church pews to Sargent portraits.
Trillium Brewing of Canton, MA
After a quick lunch at Roxane’s Taqueria, John and I take his mom to one of Canton’s microbreweries: Trillium. Their two wild ales — a raspberry sour beer aged in oak and a beer that tastes like wine (aged with grapes in wine, port, and cognac barrels) are totally unique and only available in the taproom.
Sunset in Walpole
In the late afternoon, after a long visit, we say goodbye to John’s mom. I crave a walk and find a park on Google. In the mild air, we dodge soccer teams and goose poop and still manage to enjoy the sunset.
Giant salad in Canton, MA
John decides on dinner at Yard House, a place with a ton of beers on draft and lots of vegetarian options, including this huge quinoa salad in a mixing bowl. I had leftovers for lunch the next day.
Allie's Donuts of Kingstown, Rhode Island
Drunk people in the Hilton hallway keep us up for most of the night. We get up around 5:30am and are on I-95 by 6am. At Allie’s Donuts in Rhode Island, we have our choice of classic cake donuts to spur us on for the 6-7 hour drive home. Some of the best donuts ever and a sweet conclusion to a short jaunt through New England.

Misty Mountain

(Kentuckessee Part 4 of 4)

We drive across Tennessee on I-40 with ease. The amount of brochures at one rest stop amaze me. A couple hundred linear feet of materials organized by regions of the state.

By early afternoon, we come to Johnson City, a railroad hub just west of the Appalachians. After seeing an Al Capone-inspired bar and a mural with his mug, I want to know what the connection is:  Johnson City, nicknamed “Little Chicago”, was rumored to be a hideout for Capone.

For lunch we escape the heat and eat at a deli. Our server, a blond young woman wearing a rhinestone-studded hat, proves to be the friendliest person with neck tattoos we’ve ever met. With her approval, John tries the local beer from Yee-Haw Brewing.

Johnson City, TN

Roan Mountain State Park brings us to this deep corner of Eastern TN. Budding rhododendrons fill the forest, but they won’t be in bloom for another week or two. Near the visitor center we take a short hike following the pretty Doe River, where fishermen wade to catch trout. The sky clouds over and soon rain starts, so we curtail our explorations and drive to our bed and breakfast.

The B&B started out as a log cabin, but additions and renovations have made it a jumble of historic and new-ish. Our room, though dated in its wallpaper and palette, is spacious with an immensely comfortable bed.

Soon the rain stops, so we seize the chance to drive up the mountain. The sun even comes out as we climb to higher and higher elevations. Our car’s 24-year-old engine works hard and the threat of overheating makes me nervous. With fingers crossed, we reach the final parking lot at around 5600′ after crossing the Appalachian Trail.

Roan Mountain

However, mist shrouds the top of the mountain. The chilling breeze and fine drizzle make an extended hike implausible. This happens everytime we’re near the Smokies! It’s an amateur mistake: shorts and a t-shirt feel good down in the valley, but the mountain top is another world. Truly.

Roan Mountain

Roan Mountain
Moss like algae clinging to a shipwreck
Roan Mountain
I might loose myself to the mist

Fearing that a storm might manifest at any moment, we head down the mountain after a time, but the mist is confined to the magical peaks; elsewhere the sun is still out.

For dinner, a fantastic veggie wood-fired pizza rewards our patient waiting at Smoky Mountain Bakers. The peppers are a little spicy, but a few chunks of sweet pineapple offset. On my left is a couple out for a first date. The woman has a glorious TN accent and, embarrassed, admits she majored in Home Economics at college. On my right, one friendly family is replaced by another. John delights two Ecuadorian abuelas, visiting their American relatives, with his Spanish and they correct him on the words for beard and mustache. The topic comes up because this spotted cat roams the deck:

Pizza kitty

I want dessert and hesitantly direct John to Bob’s Dairyland, which, he says, if we don’t go in, we’ll regret it. The place, though called “dairyland”, seems to be more of a BBQ joint, but there is soft-serve. I watch with fascination as the girl uses a milkshake mixer to combine vanilla soft-serve with syrup to make chocolate. Now that’s efficient.

If not for the rain, we might have gone to the state park’s amphitheater for a music night. Instead we read novels on the B&B porch and retire deliciously early. (The Moor’s Account — so good!)

Roan Mountain

After blueberry pancakes for breakfast, we hit the road on a misty Sunday morning. Driving back home is an all-day affair. Our longest break comes at lunchtime; in Roanoke, we eat tartines and paninis at Bread Craft. As with Johnson City, we’re pleasantly surprised by the activity in Roanoke, which has some very cute shops.

The rest of the afternoon goes downhill. Traffic slows due to an overturned truck; we see a massive pick-up truck ram a deer; then there’s the hellacious DC traffic on a Sunday at 4:30pm; and finally, a torrential downpour lets loose just when I try to exit the car to pick up my farm bag of veggies from a friend’s house. John’s poor nerves can’t handle another thing, but the whole time we try to unpack the car a baby’s screams echo throughout the parking garage.

Welcome home! DC traffic

With such an unpleasant ending to the trip, we grumpily bustle about trying to readjust to being home. But by the next day, our love of normal living returns — nuzzling the cat, making our own food, familiar contours in the mattress. Wanderlust temporarily sated, I consider the amazing city I live in and vow to explore its treasures more often. For example, I need to investigate the availability of beer-bourbon cocktails.

Still, the parks of Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana, and Tennessee we visited? Beyond compare. Every state park I visit only feeds the dream to see all those included in my National Geographic book. Been to 28 in 16 states on the list…only 178 to go.

return to start of Kentuckessee travelogue

Honky Tonk Angels

(Kentuckessee Part 3 of 4)

We cross a time zone and exit to follow the signs for Dinosaur Land, Big Mike’s Rock Shop, and Mammoth Cave National Park.

Dinosaur Land!

Since we’re early for our Mammoth Cave tour, the four of us wander around the visitor center. The introductory exhibit about the surrounding “sinkhole plain” makes me nervous. Does that mean the ground could collapse at any moment? Since the visitor center doesn’t offer food, we cross the ravine and go into the park’s hotel. Compared to the state of the art visitor center, the hotel looks like a 1970s holdover. There are two gift shops (no food), a closed cafeteria, and one operating vending machine. I run to the car for a handful of nuts.

With the remaining time, we walk to the historic entrance of the cave, a giant mouth sighing cold, moist air. I can’t help but be drawn into the dark.

Cave breath
From the NPS brochure: “With over 365 miles of surveyed passageways, Mammoth Cave is over twice as long as any known cave…Geologists think there could be 600 miles of yet undiscovered passageways.”

When I come out, the change in temperature fogs up my glasses!

Humidity

At last it is time for our “Domes and Dripstones” tour with Rangers Jacob and Jeff. The group, about 100 of us, travel on buses to a newer cave entrance, equipped with skinny stairs that lead down through the active part of the cave, where dripping water is still carving passageways through the limestone, to a dry open tunnel a few hundred feet below the surface.

Inside Mammoth Cave

The entire time I can’t stop thinking about H. P. Lovecraft stories. I marvel at the literal sheets of rock above my head. I also marvel at the giant slabs that have fallen, who knows how many thousands of years ago. Where do the dark corners go? What feat of engineering made it possible to get a 100 people down into the earth for tours every half hour? Can you imagine coming down here 200 years ago to leave graffiti?

Ranger Jacob stops at a few points along the way to reconvene the group and answer questions like, “What happens if there’s an earthquake?” and “If someone dies on the tour, what do you do?” We learn about white-nose syndrome affecting Mammoth’s bat population. In the final section of the 3/4 mile tour, we see wild stalactites, shaped like beards and drapes, and knobby stalagmites.

Mammoth Cave "Dripstone"

The largest cave system in the world, Mammoth holds many wonders and I would love to go back for more tours.

For lunch, we leave the Mammoth food desert and escape to Novo Dulce, a gastropub outside Bowling Green where the TVs show college softball and competitive fishing.

Our AirBnb host lets us check in early. This time we’re staying in a two-bedroom house with a small porch on a quiet East Nashville street. The host gives us recommendations for the neighborhood, while we all take turns scratching her dog.

Charlie the dog

One of the more eclectic AirBnbs John and I have ever stayed in, this place features assemblages, presumably designed by a mad botanist: animal skins, a deer head or two, wild succulents in all manner of pots and jars, a typewriter. I love the record covers hanging on the wall above the shower. The entire house realizes a well-developed and no-holds-barred aesthetic.

In the late afternoon, we take a short walk to an amazing intersection where we sample all the visible establishments. Holland House serves up perfect cocktails in either the cool, dark interior or the sun-kissed patio. My “Golden Ticket” is the best drink of the trip: described as “buffalo trace, falernum, grapefruit, lime, tiki bitters, sage, saison, mint.” Beer and bourbon cocktails are my new love. Then at The Pharmacy, I drink a chocolate egg cream, while John, Johnny O, and “Haley” split the wurst platter. Finally, at Mas Tacos Por Favor, John and I get, what else, tacos. My vegetarian fillings are 1) fried avocado and 2) butternut squash. Just enough to be sated.

The Pharmacy

We spend some time relaxing before heading out for an evening in the Gulch neighborhood. Construction confounds our Uber driver, so we get out and walk along a gravel road to Tennessee Brew Works. Inside, large glass windows overlook the brewery floor and we review the beer options while listening to a woman belting along to her guitar. When I find out that they serve “beer-bucha” and that they’re out of it, I settle with “Walk the Lime”, an easy-going wheat beer.

TN Brewing Co

We also visit Jackalope Brewing, just a short walk away, where it’s more of a man-bun crowd. The bartender is super friendly and likes asking questions and sharing his thoughts. Nashville is the next Austin! he warns. My “Lovebird”, a fruity Hefeweizen, is delicious. John and I share a plate of cheese curds and the four of us sit outside at a picnic table. Through the window, we wonder about the drinkers inside playing trivia. (“See how she’s sitting? She’s not with that guy; she’s with that guy.”)

A little after 9pm, we walk over to the Station Inn, a bluegrass venue that happens to have a country band tonight, steel pedal and all. Away from the more industrial brewery district, the old Station Inn sits amid towering modern buildings. The area reminds me and John of Bethesda or Rockville, MD and the whole Gulch looks newly developed. We even pass a Google Fiber office!

Station Inn

But inside the Station Inn, all that fades away. It’s a listening club without a bad seat in the house. Hearing the singer’s stories, I get a tiny window into the collaborative community of singer-songwriters in Nashville; the band leader sings his own songs, his friend’s songs, then the lead guitarist sings too. They perform a fun number along the lines of “if Texas is so great, then what the hell are you doing here.”

A young Uber driver who used to live in Arlington, VA comes to collect us. Johnny O makes a request for a late night pie, so we go to Five Points Pizza where the classic slices are supremely satisfying. We sit at the counter with a row of other pizza eaters and chomp away. It’s a longish walk home, but we make it.

On Friday morning, we return to the Gulch for breakfast at trendy Biscuit Love. The hot chicken is a real hit at our table. I now regret not trying the chocolate gravy. I had something annoying healthy with kale instead.

Johnny O and Lady Winterbottom clamor to see the Parthenon in Centennial Park. Along the way, we take Johnny O to his first drive-through ATM (they’re not common in Europe). It’s my second time at the Nashville Parthenon so I opt to sit out in the sun to read, watch the ducks, and smell the magnolias.

Centennial Park

Centennial Park magnolia

Parthenon

From Centennial Park, we go to the Bicentennial Park behind the State Capitol. It seems like such an easy drive, but traffic clogs the streets around the Nashville Farmers Market. Finally, we find a spot on a side street and walk through the memorial celebrating all the native Tennesseans who had great musical careers.

At the market, I head for the food hall to find lunch. My vegan meatball sandwich from Sloco is a real downer; I find the strangely soggy bread unpleasant, but I stick with it. My three meat-eating companions aren’t hungry, but I do solicit their interest in sharing a delicious mini-chess pie from Ms. Geraldine.

Mini chess pieWe head downtown to spend the afternoon on Broadway, the Nashville-equivalent of Bourbon Street. Whenever we like what we hear, we go in.

Giddy girls on a bachelorette party spree crowd the first bar we visit where a woman wearing bunny ears blows us away with her big voice and 90s covers. In the back of the bar, a few people build a structure with a life-sized Jenga set. John’s journey into the crowd of women to take this picture results in his getting his armpits tickled by a stranger.

On Broadway

We also wander through a cowboy boot store and the Johnny Cash museum before our next musical course. The irresistible sounds of rockabilly lure us into another bar and we sit for a long time to watch the High Jivers. They play one swinging tune after another, all punctuated by the guitarist’s rocking solos.

The HighJivers

Finally, we head to Robert’s Western World where a powerful vocalist evokes country music’s golden age.

Robert's Western World

On the way back to the AirBnb, I ask the group whether we can stop at the Shoppes on Fatherland, a collection of boutiques. At Galena Garlic Company, John and I buy a bottle of lemon vinegar and a Nashville hot chicken spice mix (I’m hoping to use it on tofu). Then at ChocolateFX, we marvel at amazing horror-themed chocolates (like instead of chocolate bunnies, there are skulls) and get a few truffles for later.

Johnny O and Lady Winterbottom suggest that we go back to Holland House as they loved the cocktails yesterday and they also want tacos, since they passed up the chance before. So we revisit our haunts, if I can presumptuously call them that. At Mas Tacos, I don’t repeat yesterday’s order; instead I get elote (grilled corn with cheese), which I say surpasses the tacos in deliciousness.

After the usual afternoon quiet time, the four of us pile into the car for a trip to the Nashville Palace, near the Opryland Hotel. The sister club to Robert’s Western World, the Nashville Palace remains committed to traditional country sounds and fried food. I have mozzarella sticks and a decent garden salad that looks like it came from a supermarket deli case. Again, just about every woman under the age of 35 is attending a bachelorette party. A few older couples dance, but rarely is there more than one couple on the dance floor at a time. On the bandstand, no one person is the sole vocalist. A guitarist has a voice like Patsy Cline; the drummer sings a bunch of songs; another guitarist sings a long set. The Patsy Cline-soundalike leads the crowd in a “Holler and swaller!” A little blond girl dances wildly and gets called up on the stage, while her parents stand off to the side, out on the patio in fact, embarrassed. “This happens everywhere we go!” they say, resigned. John requires liquid courage to get out on the floor, but he does it. We swirl around and laugh. I lead.
Nashville Palace

At some point, the sky opens up and rain starts. I want more music and consult my own color-coded Google Map to see what’s near Dino’s, where John and the others want to go for burgers. My eyes land on Fran’s East Side and in the disorienting downpour, I manage to direct the car to this homey, neighborhood karaoke bar. It’s the size of a living room, decorated with Christmas lights, filled with smoke, men in white tank tops playing pool table and one TV in the corner showing the Copa America. A big white refrigerator sits behind the bar. A thin, leathery man with a high-pitched voice is concluding his tune. Poor Johnny O and Lady Winterbottom seem stunned for a moment by this unabashed display of the white American working class in their element. Feeling unusually confident, I walk directly to the bar to order and sit on a stool. Except for the smoke, I’m loving this celebration of the human voice, all the accents, the feeling of community. A table of young women go up one by one, each one with a more fantastic voice than the last. Are they professionals hanging out on an off night? But I’m getting looks from the others that perhaps I’d better finish my beer so they can get their meat. No matter the relentless rain, I’m happy to be back in the fresh air.

Dino’s looks like a rough dive from the outside, but inside the line cooks are all hipster dudes. I nibble at John’s fries and we all watch more of the Copa America. The night feels strangely anti-climactic, but I suppose it’s because I know the trip is coming to an end.

At 6am on Saturday morning, John and I drive Johnny O and Lady Winterbottom to the airport. Thankfully, the Family Wash opens early. Their coffee machine may not be working, but their semolina spinach biscuits are insanely good (better than Biscuit Love, I say!). This is a place I want to go back too, plus it’s a music venue!

Into the car and off to the East.

Continue to part 4

Back to part 2

Next Year…in Louisville!

(Kentuckessee Part 2 of 4)

Now joined by our friends, Johnny O and Lady Winterbottom, we drive the final 90 minutes from Cincinnati to Louisville. I am super excited about the lunch spot I’ve picked out called Hillbilly Tea. I will have tofu! Travel isn’t always easy on a vegetarian.

Delighted by the adorable menus printed on cloth a la burlap sack, the four of us place our orders. Happy to be reunited! Happy to be in this hip place in downtown Louisville! Our waiter tells us it’s a “soft opening” since the restaurant was closed for a year and has changed locations. It’s all very exciting until two of us have to change our drink orders. Then there is no cucumber salad. Then there is no tofu. Then there is no lamb burger. We are living through Monty Python’s cheese shop sketch. There are other people, but what are they eating? At last, what food we end up eating is quite good and our beleaguered waiter gives us a discount. What cowardly chefs hide their faces, while this poor guy has to deliver a string of endless bad news?

Whiskey Row is under construction, but we still find many glorious buildings to ogle. The copy of Michelangelo’s David — in gold — is rather a surprise.

Whiskey Row in Louisville
Come back in 2017! There was construction near NuLu too!
Downtown Louisville
I love buildings like this!
Louisville's David
“Unveiled in 2012, this fiberglass statue sets the standard for the biggest male package on public view in the U.S.” (RoadsideAmerica)

Around 3pm in eastern Louisville, we arrive at our AirBnb, a beautifully renovated historic townhome. John and I choose the west-facing bedroom with sliding doors, a fireplace, and wide-planked wood floors.

After a short rest, the four of us walk to Market Street. Our route takes us past warehouses and a few vacant lots. Good coffee at last courtesy of Please and Thank You. I buy loose leaf tea as a souvenir to take home (it’s so very good!).

Please and Thank You

We have our choice of breweries in the neighborhood. John directs us to Akasha, which has something for everyone: sour suckers like myself to the bitterest hop heads. We meet Marvin the dog and Jane the bartender.

Akasha Brewing

Marvin the dog

Jane provides the roadmap for the rest of the day (the sun goes down at 9pm) with her recommendations. While at Akasha, Johnny O spies a t-shirt from the New Albanian Brewing Company. He decides he must have it. John decides he must have it too. Suddenly acquiring these shirts becomes our #1 priority. Get in the car. We’re driving to Indiana.

Falls of the Ohio

Fossils at Falls of the Ohio

Luckily, Indiana is just across the river and suits my plans perfectly as I wanted to see Falls of the Ohio State Park, where we fossil hunt for a time before continuing out to New Albany. The guys get two shirts each! The beer is good (I like the English Mild called Community Dark), but the pizza is to die for.

Pizza at New Albanian Brewing

The pizza only whets our appetite. We get back to Louisville and decide to seek out proper dinner. A kind Uber driver takes us to another of Jane’s suggestions, Monnik in Germantown aka “Schnitzelburg”. I drink a bizarre-sounding, but delightful concoction of bourbon, IPA, rhubarb, and Campari. John tries an amazing brown gose. We are all happy with our food: burgers and BBQ jackfruit. Lady Winterbottom is a real champ, suffering from severe jet lag and here she is eating dinner at 10pm. We are all spent.

Germantown, Louisville

John always wakes up early when we’re away from home. He’ll usually go out in search of coffee around 6am and then I’ll have myself up and ready between 7-8am. Before breakfast, we go for a walk around Eastern Louisville, a checkerboard of empty lots and residential blocks: near the hospital, through a new townhouse development, past warehouses and studios. We’d like to see the waterfront park and pedestrian bridge, but that feels too ambitious at the moment.

At last it’s time for breakfast with our other half. We’re all so happy with our plates at Toast on Market, where we are introduced to a delicious hash brown casserole — like mac and cheese but with potatoes instead of pasta.

Today is Bourbon Day. John and Johnny O enjoy such spirits, Lady Winterbottom likes to try new things, and I’m the driver. We head east toward Frankfort, the state capital.

Three Boy Farm
We were in Ali’s hometown just a week before his passing.
Three Boy Farm
Beautiful Kentucky

Our first stop is Three Boy Farm Distillery aka Whiskey Thief, a very small enterprise that produces about 200 barrels a year and grows their own corn. We meet the owner, the wife, the children, the assistants, the wood supplier and his assistant, the two dogs. The three tasters in our party get to try four or five things! It’s a wonderful start to the day.

On the way to the second stop, Woodford Reserve, we spot horses grazing like some Kentucky postcard. Woodford is fancy. We get a tour through their historic facility and bottling plant; I can’t decide whether it’s for real or mostly a display. When the tour group of about 30 people enters the tasting room, there are two glasses (the usual and their special “double oaked”) along with a Ruth Hunt candy at each place. Though our guide instructs us to analyze each sip, one nervous guy vacuums up his bourbon samples in one gulp. Another person asks the bizarre question: “Does the bourbon get distilled in the barrells?” Was he even on the tour? I re-discover how little I like bourbon and how much I like chocolate.

MASH
Cooking grain at Woodford
Woodford Reserve Still
There are three stills! So refined.

Then we all paw over the beautiful gift shop. John buys bourbon candy ice cream for all of us to share as we regain our senses after smelling sour mash and sweating in the heat.

John and I can’t handle another long tour, but we compromise with Johnny O and Lady Winterbottom, henceforth known as Haley, the name she gives herself to fit in better in the south, to visit one last distillery and follow the instructions for self-guided visitors. The Buffalo Trace “campus” features an impressive range of industrial buildings as well as lovely gardens and a clubhouse. It’s a busy factory area; trucks go in and out and we can see men rolling barrels in the distance. A friend told John he had to buy Buffalo Trace’s bourbon cream, so we do. (That reminds me! We need to try it in coffee!)

Buffalo Trace
Warehouse at Buffalo Trace

As the driver, I take us to a late lunch before going back to the city. My fellow Yelpers send me to Adelia’s Cafe, a tiny unassuming spot with incredible paninis! Sweet sustenance!

The drive back is hot and we get snarled in traffic due to construction. When at last we park downtown near the historic Brown Hotel (1923), I am thrilled to be out of the car. The hotel lobby bar decor lives up to its opulent reputation. A good bourbon cocktail seems like the best way to punctuate a day of touring distilleries. John and “Haley” order Manhattans and I follow the bartender’s recommendation for a “Kentucky Derby”: Evan Williams single barrel bourbon, sorghum, and grapefruit. It’s wonderfully refreshing. Johnny O claims to be too warm for bourbon and drinks a beer. We enjoy listening to the piano player and talk with the friendly bartender, who tells us to go see the ballroom while it’s open.

After the daily afternoon siesta, we head out in the evening to the Bardstown Road district. This two-lane street is lined with shops, restaurants, bars. It’s the most dense area we’ve seen and lots of people are out. We visit a few spots including Carmichael’s Bookstore with its amazing selection of books and cards; Holy Grale, a gastropub formerly a church; and El Camino, where we eat outside surrounded by tiki torches. Around 9pm, everyone is starting to close up. Johnny O prefers his cocktails after dinner, so we are the last customers of the night at The Joy Luck, although the sun hasn’t fully set.

On Thursday, John and I wake up early again. We walk around the Old Louisville district with its magnificent Victorian homes and visit nearby Cherokee Park, designed by Olmsted. The park has a wonderful, wild feel and all the trees make the city invisible.

Old Louisville
Old Louisville mansion
Old Louisville
Another great house

On the way back, John and I pick up donuts and coffee at Nord’s Bakery. What a treat! Each couple gets to share three “Long Johns”. My favorite is the cinnamon-sugar dusted one; the filled donuts are good, but too too much.

Then at 9am, all four of us are on the road heading toward Central Time, counting down to roll back the clock.

continue to Part 3

back to Part 1