Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Tricoastal Holiday Fun and Nostalgia

  The name of this blog reflects my and my family's love of the Atlantic, Pacific and Great Lakes coasts.  On Christmas Eve, all these coasts came together in Pasadena's branch of  Cost Plus World Market, a retail chain that is part Pier One Imports, part Trader Joe's and part "je ne sais quoi." 
  We had a delightful Christmas Eve morning at the store, looking at: housewares and glassware from places such as India, Tunisia and Portugal; chocolates from Canada; wines from California and Italy; and an excellent series of dog cards not found in the malls. 
  Although all of this food, drink and merchanidise are incredibly fun and wonderful, Pasadena World Market often hits the highest numbers on the eclecto-meter with its beer selection.  In September, they had a pumpkin beer made in western New York that had a connection to the Buffalo Bills, the only real New York football team - - which is destined for Super Bowl glory.
  Yesterday, the store hit another high on the beer ecleto-meter.  World Market now offers its customers the chance to assemble a six pack from a great assortment of imported beers and micro-brews. 
  Their inventory includes Genesee Cream Ale, in the short, iconic brown bottles that the Rochester, New York beer company used in the 1960's and 1970's. 
  Genesee was a strong regional beer brand.  At one point, it had a series of witty commercials that were narrated by the late Fred Gwynne.  Then it dropped out of sight.
  Now, Genesee is back.  I do not know how it will do with a new generation of beer drinkers and a new market on the West Coast, but seeing it in the World Market was a pleasant reminder of past travels. 
  My father took me on a college trip to Syracuse in April, 1972.  While we were stranded in a rural motel, waiting out a spring blizzard, we saw these television commercials with upstate expatriates in places such as Oregon, and ending with the comment, "I miss my Genny." 
  On one fishing trip to the Delaware River in the Catskills, my friend Bryce Butler and I fished this trout stream on a humid summer night.  Afterward, we found a restaurant open late in Hancock, New York that had organic cheeseburgers, before the concept was fashionable.  We had Genesee beer in long neck bottles with these excellent burgers.  The beer's taste and coldness made it one of the best beers I have ever had.
  Some years earlier, on a trip along the Great Lakes, I came to Sodus Bay, in Wayne County east of Rochester.  The Bay had a large building and dock complex which was Genesee's malt house.  At the mouth of the Bay was two long, sturdy breakwaters and a lighthouse. 
  While Sodus Bay was more neglected and used for recreation when I visited it, it was amazing to see that this place was once a major Great Lakes port.  In my mind, I could hear the sounds of railroad locomotives and cars banging in the yard and the sounds of ship whistles and horns in the bay.
  Genesee Beer is hardly one of those far madeleines that inspired Proust's personal associations that made him a best seller and staple in literature classes.  But seeing Genesee in the World Market this week was a surprise gift.  It reminded me of friends, family and travel in the past, present and future.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Eastern Sierra Eateries

Whether you are in a blizzard of mayflies on a trout stream or a blizzard of snow on the ski slopes, you will find lots of great, reasonably priced food in the eastern Sierras.

If you leave Los Angeles early in the morning for the Sierras, you are likely to feel hungry about the time you reach the village of Lone Pine.

Just off Main Street is the Alabama Hills Café, with a breakfast worth the long drive. The Café, named after the hills to the west of Lone Pine, serves traditional, innovative and healthy breakfasts. My friend Dennis and I both tried pancakes: Dennis ordered them with fresh blueberries, I tried honey wheat nine grain. All around the room, we saw happy eaters enjoying fruit salads, waffles piled high with toppings healthy and decadent and home-made pastries with a cup of coffee.

The Alabama Hills have been the setting for many movies, from early westerns to Star Trek episodes. I wonder if they came for a meal at the Café; oops, many of the films appeared before the Café was open . . .

For more about the region’s movie history, visit http://www.eugenecarsey.com/camp/alabamahills/movies.htm.

For anglers a key requirement of a good restaurant is that it is open before or after the fishing trip. After some action-packed fishing on the Middle Fork of the San Joaquin River, Dennis and I were driving through Mammoth, seeking a restaurant still serving at day’s end. Through the surprisingly dark late summer night, we found Thai’D Up. We both enjoyed Pad Thai with a rich, brown sauce and two different beers from a local microbrewery.

The next day, we ate a competent breakfast at the MacDonald’s in Mammoth. The food was a capably rendered MacDonald’s breakfast. What was noteworthy about the experience was how attractive this restaurant was. It looked more like a Victorian mansion than a fast-food outlet.

We had lunch in June Lake, at the Tiger Bar and Cafe. We had great sandwiches, a French Dip with roast beef and a Reuben. The server was capable and friendly; the food arrived just in time for several tired anglers.

After staying later on the stream the next night, even fewer restaurants in Mammoth were open. So, we went to a Von’s and got an assortment of appetizers, salads and cold cuts. We had these back at the hotel and accompanied them with one of the last bottles of Steelhead Red wine on the West Coast.

Before returning to LA, we had breakfast at The Breakfast Club. We had meals, excellently cooked and capably served. Sometimes simple foods, grilled steak, home fries or yellow cake, are the hardest to cook right. The Breakfast Club got the basics exactly right.

It was sad to leave the Sierras. However, I plan to return next year. It will be great to dine at these favorites again - - or to experiment and enjoy new restaurants.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Milano Restaurant in suburban Albany

The dining room and some dinner treats!
 Milano Restaurant, in Latham New York, is a warm, attractive place, in a suburban shopping center. It is a large-ish restaurant with lots of tables. Thanks to good interior design, the place feels busy but not crowded.

The restaurant kitchen is open to the dining room. My life dining out often includes regret, wanting to order something else about just after a server brings another dish to a neighboring table. Milano’s open kitchen offers a non-intrusive view of menu options.

Milano has excellent staff. The maitre d’ was welcoming. Kimberly, our waitress, was attentive without being intrusive. She was knowledgeable about the different menu entrees.

We started with cocktails. The Milano bartender knows that a person can never make a gin martini, served up with a twist, too cold. He or she is gifted at making a Manhattan straight up with Wild Turkey. The drink was so nice that I tried to duplicate it at home - - but had no luck.

The only drinking concern was the restaurant’s house Pinot Grigio, Santi Sortesel. It was drinkable but did not have any personality or zing.

The menu is appealing, with a nice selection of traditional and innovative Italian dishes. It has a variety of items depending on a person’s appetite and price; you can order a complete dinner or a pizza.

Milano’s opens dinner with warm and fresh bread with a dipping sauce. I started dinner with an Insalata Milano. The salad was generous and was filled with fresh vegetables.

For entrees, we had linguine all’ Adriatica and linguine with white clam sauce. The linguine in both dishes, spinach for the Adriatica and regular for the clam sauce, appeared to be homemade. The linguine all’ Adriatica had scallops, shrimp, calamari, mussels, clams, red peppers, leeks and tomatoes in a white wine sauce.

The linguine with clam sauce was capably prepared. The linguine was cooked just right and the sauce had a generous amount of clams in it.

There was a small dinner party next to us. We had a short chat with the two couples about the menu. It was nice to have people nearby but not intruding, as happened at one dinner at another restaurant, where an over served guest in an adjoining booth was declaiming loudly about special male medical afflictions he was experiencing.

This was a delightful dinner and we plan to return!


Milano is located at 594 New Loudon Road, Latham, New York. 
The telephone number is 518-783-3334

What's next?

In the next few days, look for posts on dining in Albany and the eastern Sierras.  Two posts are almost ready to roll, they just need pictures. 

Hope everyone is having a great holiday so far.  Boy, 2012 rocketed by, didn't it?


Thursday, November 1, 2012

Beautiful New Stamps for Travelers!

With the issuance of its Earthscapes stamps, the Postal Service has outdone itself.

The 15 stamp sheet includes aerial photographs of diverse American countrysides and cityscapes. The vivid and striking photographs were taken by photographers in ultra-light and regular aircraft - - and from satellites - - at heights ranging from several hundred feet above the earth to several hundred miles in space.

These stamps are immediately relevant to readers of this blog. As you fly across the nation, you will see one or more of the views on the stamps, which are grouped into three categories of earthscapes: natural, agricultural, and urban.

“Once you’ve seen the world from above, you never look at it quite the same way again,” said U.S. Postal Service Chief Financial Officer and Executive Vice President Joseph Corbett. “That’s why the Postal Service is proud to offer these Earthscapes stamps, which invite us to take a bird’s eye view of the land we all share.”

In the top row, we fly over America’s stunning wilderness. While a volcanic eruption scars the forests of Washington State, fog drifts over the timeless sandstone towers of Utah’s Monument Valley. In Alaska, a wide stripe that looks like a highway is a glacier, an immense conveyer belt of ice. The jagged white shards at its base, resembling broken glass, are icebergs, bobbing in a lake.

The stamps in the center row may look like abstract art, but they show five agricultural products: salt, timber, grain, cherries, and cranberries. Center-pivot irrigation systems create the beguiling play of geometric shapes in the middle stamp, although ground dwellers may see only sprinklers in fields of wheat, alfalfa, corn, and soybeans.

Urban life is celebrated in the five stamps in the bottom row. Highways corkscrew around themselves and neat subdivisions sport tiny blue pools. It’s our familiar world, shrunken into miniature — and seen with the new eyes that a fresh perspective can bring. Art director Howard E. Paine designed this educational and visually rich pane of stamps.

The only downside with these stamps is that they are so popular that they sell out quickly at post offices, including Guilderland, New York, my favorite mail stop. However, they can also be purchased from USPS.com   You may have to hunt for the stamps, but once you see them, you will know it was worth the hunt.

Monday, October 29, 2012

California Rivers

Minaret Peaks at dawn
If the weather stays mild, California trout aficionados would do well to head to the mountains before the snow flies.

Recently, Dennis Greninger and I drove north from LA to fish in the eastern Sierras. Although summer hatches were over, we found fish by prospecting with dry flies and nymphs. On the Middle Fork of the San Joaquin, we had two nights in a row where something brought fish to the surface.

We used Mammoth as a base of operations for a three day fishing trip. Mammoth has two fishing tackle shops, good restaurants, a large Vons’s supermarket and some reasonably priced hotels. Here’s what we found . . .

The Middle Fork of the San Joaquin: Because of its just right scale, I really liked the San Joaquin. We fished the Middle Fork in Devil’s Postpile National Park. After Labor Day, the highways and campsites are not crowded

Driving to Mammoth is dramatic. Driving to the Middle Fork takes the drama up another notch. The road climbs mountains and then spirals down into the river valley. Of this drive, my friend, Carl Crawford, says, “The view of Minaret Peaks and the eastern section of Yosemite may be my favorite view on earth.” The photograph with this post is of the Minarets but Carl is right: nothing does justice to seeing the real thing.

We caught native and holdover brown trout. After a fishless month before, I caught a nice brown trout.
Dennis on the Middle Branch
Hot Creek: In upstate New York, the biggest angling hazards are abruptly rising waters from power dam releases or poison ivy. While fishing the canyon section of the public water on Hot Creek, I looked down and saw smoke coming out of a seep hole for a hot spring. Every so often, when the wind shifted, the sulphurous smell of other, larger hot springs wafted past.

The springs are fueled by subterranean volcanic activity and are slightly radioactive, adding a frisson to the Creek’s otherwise enjoyable fishing.

Hot Creek has three sections open to the public. In the middle of the public access is Hot Creek Ranch, with private water in beautiful open meadows and incredibly picky trout

Come to think of it, trout on the entire stream are picky or protected from anglers by water conditions. Despite its name, Hot Creek is a spring fed. It has aquatic vegetation that gums up a fly, has many braided currents that pull a fly from a drag-free drift and has water so clear that the trout know what you are doing before you do.

As you might guess from this description, I caught no fish on Hot Creek. However, the Middle Fork was so beautiful and Hot Creek was so challenging that I want to return and try my luck next year!

The joy of catching this fish was doubled as it took a Parachute Adams dry fly that Dennis tied and shared.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Striped Bass Fishing Extravaganza

If you fish at Montauk right now, the waters look just like this picture, Gridlock, taken by photographer Jim Levison

Drop what you are doing. Right now. Get a plane, train, car, kayak or whatever and head to Montauk, New York.

As you read this, the striped bass fishing at the eastern end of Long Island is, according to Jim Levison, a gifted photographer and fishing guide, “epic.”

Striped bass migrate south during fall and concentrate as they swim south past Montauk Point. For the last few days, the fish have been schooling all around the Point.

If you have a boat, they are reachable by boat. If you have a kayak, the weather has been calm enough to launch from the beach and paddle out.

If you are a surf caster, the fish are within easy range of the beach, sometimes right at the water’s edge, churning through the water, like miniature sharks, gobbling baitfish.

This past Sunday, I drove to Montauk to see if there were any fish. As I drove slowly around the circle by the Lighthouse, I saw anglers coming up from the beach with stripers.

On reaching the beach, there were anglers everywhere. The beach was crowded but not elbow to elbow crowded.

Every ten minutes or so, a school of striped bass would come by within easy casting range of the beach. Between 2 and 3:30 PM, I hooked and lost three bass. The fish were taking white bucktail jigs, silver spoons of all types and surface plugs.

Seeing dozens of three feet fish swirling by on the surface almost wiped out my angling manners. It took several times crossing other anglers’ lines to finally learn that you must cast straight out and not diagonally to the fish.

Russ Drumm, the East Hampton Star’s fisheries reporter, advises that it’s better to cast on the edge of a school of feeding fish than in the middle of it. Striped bass do not have sharp mouths as do bluefish but they have lots of sharp edges and when lots of fish are swirling around, those sharp edges can cut your line.

Striped bass come and go. For now, there is a chance to see once in a lifetime fishing at Montauk Point!

Striped Bass links:

Jim Levison's website is fillled with beautiful photographs of striped bass and Montauk.
The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation's website offers useful information on striped bass and on striped bass fishing.

Russ Drumm is an excellent, witty writer.  He has his own website,  www.russelldrumm.com, and his writing is found at The East Hampton Star's  website.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The Pasadena Museum of California Art: An Appreciation

Edgar Payne, Hills of Altadena, 1917-1919. Oil on canvas,
36 x 45 in. Steven Stern Collection

Just a few days ago, my daughter introduced me to a delightful museum in Pasadena, the Pasadena Museum of California Art. This is a smaller museum than the Norton Simon but makes up for any size difference with excellent permanent and visiting collections.

The Museum is in downtown Pasadena, near City Hall.

In recognition of the automobile’s importance in southern California, the art starts with free flowing spray paintings by artist and cartoonist, Kenny Scharf in the Museum’s parking garage. Scharf’s paintings turn the garage from just a place to store cars into a “Kosmic Kavern.”

Upstairs from Scharf’s painting are the main exhibit spaces.

Until Sunday, October 14, 2012, nearly all the museum is given over to nearly 100 paintings and drawings by Edgar Payne, a Chicagoan who moved to California in the early 20th century and was swept away by the artistic possibilities.

Payne was an American Impressionist; his paintings are best viewed from about six to 10 feet away, to best appreciate his use of color and light. Many of the pictures in this exhibit are on large canvasses and are breathtaking.

In addition to painting California landscapes, Payne’s painted scenes from New Mexico and Europe. An artist is not obliged to make his or her work realistic. However, two pictures in the exhibit of the San Gabriel Mountains are almost dead ringers for the mountains as they appear today.

After visiting the eastern Sierras on a fishing trip with my friend, Dennis, I realized that Payne’s paintings of these mountains are as close to an exact copy to the landscape as one can come without a camera.

The Museum does not have a permanent collection but has rotating exhibits. The next exhibits are described in the upcoming exhibits section of the Museum’s website and start Sunday October 28th. The new exhibits are devoted to Swedish-American architect and designer Greta Magnusson Grossman, sculptor and photographer Jessica Rath and printmaker Paul Landacre.

Rath, who works in 'porcelain sculptures and large-scale photographic portraits of hybrid apple trees, is makng art with a bicoastal touch. The LA artist's exhibition is informed by visits to the USDA/Cornell University Plant Genetics Resource Unit in Geneva NY, which preserves endangered varieties of apples from extinction, and its Agricultural Experiment Station, in which apple clones are crossbred to create new varieties for large-scale consumption.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Update on Stamps with Aloha Shirts

About two weeks ago, I wrote about new postcard stamps issued by the United States Postal Service. The stamps include five vivid color photographs of classic and new Aloha, or Hawaiian, shirts.

Then, a week ago, my daughter and I had a 20 minute excursion along the star-studded sidewalks of Hollywood. We lunched at Musso and Frank’s, the oldest restaurant in Hollywood and a favorite of writers, actors and general people about town.

We saw the star for Harrison Ford on the sidewalk, a few steps from the restaurant entrance. We went into a souvenir shop and bought postcards.

After this stroll, we went drove through the Hollywood hills. We were looking for the homes of two noir Los Angeles guys, Jack Nicholson and Harry Bosch, the main character in Michael Connolly’s LA police procedural series. Later, we learned that Nicholson’s house is no more, having burned in 2011. We thought we found a house that might have been the inspiration for the tree house-like cottage that Harry inhabits on Woodrow Wilson Boulevard, but are not sure.

Well, thanks for reading this digression because we are going back to the stamps. . .

On the last day of my visit, I wrote postcards and sent them home. When I went into the post office, I asked for Aloha stamps. The postal clerk said they were all sold out. Instead, he gave me 32 cents worth of stamps for each card, which winds up as a 20, 10 and 2 cent stamp.

If you want to grace your vacation postcards with these attractive stamps, it might be a good idea to buy them before you get on the plane, train or automobile.

And, if you are in a CVS in California, there’s a very good chance you can pick up an Aloha shirt for a reasonable price, as the well-dressed model below is showing!

This shirt fits right in with the theme of Dodger Blue at a recent game between the Dodgers and Cardinals.
Photograph by E.C. Rowen, with technical advice from S. Singer

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Sending Post Cards in Style!

The U. S. Postal Service's new post card stamps have Aloha shirts, fresh from Hawaii
Photo courtesy of the U.S. Postal Service
 Thanks to the United States Postal Service, sending postcards home has just gotten a little bit more festive!

The Postal Service has a new book of 10 postcard stamps. The stamps, which are also available for individual purchase, feature photographs by Rick Noyle of five classic Aloha shirts. As you can see from the photograph above, the shirts have appealing colors and delightful renderings of surfers, surfboards, fish and birds of paradise.

Aloha shirts, also called “Hawaiian shirts,” are a fixture of my wardrobe - - and in wardrobes of other friends and readers of this blog. I first started wearing such shirts after seeing a picture of journalist Hunter Thompson in an Aloha shirt and white pants.

I bought my first Hawaiian shirt at a sidewalk sale on the courthouse square in either Bloomington or Bedford, Indiana. A few months later, my friends Susan Jensen and Ruth Purcell gave me an Aloha shirt that actually came from Hawaii.

Thanks to decades of pizza and beer, my first shirt fits snugly. My rotation now includes a Susan's and Ruth's shirt and a new shirt.

While I have never been to Hawaii, the shirts on these stamps remind me of the times that we would sing along with Don Ho’s Tiny Bubbles in college watering holes and the nights as a teen staying up to watch the original version of Hawaii Five-O. With the approach of winter, using these stamps will help battle the sadness of shorter days.

With the Internet, it’s tempting to take photos and send them home by computer. However, there is still nothing like getting a postcard with real handwriting and the actual feel of the place depicted in the card.

Buying and sending lots of postcards helps our wonderful Postal Service, which is getting pummeled by the rise of the Internet. When you buy postcards on vacation, it is an artistic way to leave some of your money at a destination that you like!

If any of you have pictures of yourselves in Hawaiian shirts, feel free to send them along. Perhaps with my limited computer skills, I can upload them and add them to this post!

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Saranac Lake Days

The view from the front yard.  Mount Marcy is behind the trees.

We rang out the official last weekend of summer on the West Coast, the West Coast of Saranac Lake in New York’s Adirondacks.

Our friends Jack and Mary Brennan invited us to their camp on Saranac Lake. Their “camp” is an attractive, rambling home from the late 19th century, separated from the Lake by a wide lawn. With its brown paint, large kitchen, screened-in porch and white pines framing the lake view, it is the quintessential Adirondack camp.

For many years, I have wanted to see Mount Marcy, the State’s highest peak, but have not had the ambition or preparation to hike into the High Peaks Wilderness to see it. Within 30 minutes of arriving, Jack pointed out the summit of Marcy to me in the skyline of mountains visible across the lake.

The next two days went along at a pleasant pace. In addition to Jack and Mary, there was a small crowd of congenial, conversational and welcoming guests.

When it got too hot, people swam. For games there were board games and croquet on the lawn. There was a great dinner with grilled chicken and roasted vegetables, served on the big porch - - and an equally great breakfast the next day.

Most of the land across the Lake from the camp is wilderness. So, I was intrigued when, during dessert, I saw a thumbnail sliver of light on a mountain summit. In what seemed liked seconds, the sliver became a nearly full moon. In equally quick time, the moon rose up through the pine trees and moonlight began sparkling on the calm lake.

Later on, we had an unobstructed view of the Moon while sitting by a campfire. The fire-keepers honored the traditions of capable Adirondack guides by starting the fire with just three matches. The silences in the campfire conversations were occasionally punctuated by the cries of loons on the lake.

This camp looks like a near replica of the big house in the recent movie Moonrise Kingdom. And, in fact, one of the guests had the movie soundtrack and played it in the bright morning.

But the movie analogy works only to a point. Many of the characters in Moonrise Kingdom were dissatisfied or treated each other poorly. We were just a band of good-natured people, enjoying the moment. The pleasant memories will help us soldier on, when we are in the gloomy, rainy, snowy and cold days ahead.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

For the Birds

My friend, Steve Jaffe and his wife Janice moved to Virginia, a stone’s throw from the Chesapeake Bay. Steve built a new house, a large pole barn and a garden.  With a combination of fields and woods, Steve always has something going on with flora and fauna.

Recently, Steve sent two photographs of birds sitting on his finger. Here are the pictures and his account of how they joined him. . .

We've had several birds hit the large glass windows on our house. These two guys survived the crashes. They both hit the ground motionless, but I could see they were still breathing.

In the picture above, I walked over and softly rubbed the bird’s head and feathers while several of his clan watched from the nearby fence. After a few minutes I lifted him so he could stand, and put my finger at his feet. He hopped on with no coaxing.

So at that point I'm beating the outside wall to get Janice's attention to get the camera. I walked all the way around the house to get her; the bird stayed on the whole time and obliged three pictures. We then sat on a front porch rocker for a few minutes; He wasn't much of a conversationalist. He finally gathered his wits and flew off.
The second guy hit with a real bang and must have been out for 10 minutes. I picked him up and held him ‘til he could stand. He stayed on my finger for about 20 minutes. He was such a wreck I had to help preen him. I put him in a shady spot where he stayed for some time, and he finally flew off.

I'm going to adorn the windows with something that keeps the birds away.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Summer Houses

The Sunset over Cape Cod Bay, September, 2011

Although the summer has rocketed by, there are still over two more weeks until Labor Day, summer’s official end.

If you have the time, this is a marvelous time of the year to take a vacation in the country before fall and winter return. A “vacation” can be anything from a day trip to an entire week at a cottage on the water.

Just a week ago, our friends Aosta and Seth invited us to a summer house party on Otsego Lake. Although the drive was less than two hours, it was if we had entered another world.

The view to the south of Otsego Lake

The house they had rented had a lakeside deck and it was possible to look all the way up and down the Lake. Much of Otsego Lake’s shores are wooded. If you squint just right, it’s possible to imagine that James Fenimore Cooper’s Deerslayer would come out of the woods at any moment.

After considering this historical fantasy, we were back in a congenial present. There was a large dinner table, crowded with food, lots of genuinely friendly and congenial people and the Lake was a delight to swim in.

Speaking of delightful swimming: when pools and lakes are too warm by the summer heat, swimming at a bay or ocean beach can be refreshing. Saltwater swimming can be the gift that keeps giving, even into late September. The water can be warm as the leaves are changing.

While out in the country, keep an eye out for fresh produce. In some communities, the farm stand is as busy as a supermarket. But there are also places where a farmer or gardener puts out a few ears of corn or tomatoes on a table by their driveway.

With the nationwide drought, the number and variety of vegetables may be less than last year. So, that makes any produce you do find all that more appreciated.

In July, lightning bugs ruled the night sky. They are now gone from our backyard. However, the night is still alive with a chorus of unseen insects that hum, buzz, whir and make other noises that might arise from a piece of music composed by Philip Glass.

I hope you have a great time between now and Labor Day. If you have any stories from present or past summer vacations, feel free to share them as comments at the end of this blog post!

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Hassle-free Travel between JFK to Manhattan

A taxi to JFK is a fast, convenient and sometimes
reasonable way to get to the airport
(© Andrew K. Stauffer, akstauffer.com )

New Yorkers have the following old joke:

Lost tourist: How do you get to Carnegie Hall?

Man on street: Practice. Practice. Practice.

With practice and planning, we now have options in traveling from Midtown Manhattan to John F. Kennedy (JFK) Airport: personal car, taxi and the Long Island Rail Road (LIRR)/Air Train combination.

Choosing car, cab or train depends on your schedule, number of travelers and budget. When we traveled between midtown and JFK in January, there were three of us and a large suitcase. Compared to the cost of three one-way tickets on the LIRR and Air Train, the taxi cost was reasonable, the service more convenient. Coming back, with two of us and no baggage, the Air Train was as convenient as the taxi and less costly.

Here’s how the options stack up:

Personal Car: If you already have a car in the city, this can be a reasonable option. The costs include tolls if you use the Queens-Midtown or Brooklyn Battery Tunnel and, possibly, short-term parking.

JFK has limited automobile access from the Van Wyck Expressway to the north and the Belt Parkway to the west and east. In rush hour, both roads clog up. Limited routes and rush hour traffic require planning enough time to get there.

If you go to JFK for a passenger pick-up, you can park in short-term parking or use the recently opened “cell phone parking lot,” at the Federal Circle exit, near the airport entrance.

When your traveler is ready for pick up, he or she calls from the curb and you then go get them. If you try this plan, take time before arriving at the airport to learn where the flight is arriving, there are many terminals, and where arriving flight pick-ups are.

With two people available, one person can wait at the terminal for a welcome and helping out. The other drives back to the cell phone parking lot and waits for the call.

Taxi: The fares are $45 now, plus tolls and tip, if any (no surcharges apply, and there is no luggage charge in NYC) for any trips to OR from JFK and anywhere in Manhattan, or $52 starting September 4, 2012.

When we took the cab in January, it was clean; the driver was alert, careful fast. The big suitcase fit nicely in the trunk. The cab dropped us right at “departing flights” at our terminal.

If you leave from a hotel, hotel staff may push you to use a car service instead of a taxi. Car services are not constrained by a flat fare and you could pay significantly more.

Here is the Long Island Railroad station at Jamaica, where rail travelers can transfer to and from the Air Train
(Photograph courtesy of MTA Long Island Railroad)
 Air Train: This is a combination of LIRR and Port Authority rail service between Penn Station, at 33rd Street and 7th Avenue, and JFK. There is also a less expensive subway/Air Train connection, but it takes longer and may be more complicated for people new to the subway.

The Air Train is a set of computer-guided rail coaches that go between airport terminals, rental car offices and parking lots - - and the LIRR’s Jamaica station in Queens.

On the trip where we took the taxi out to Kennedy, we returned via Air Train. The walk from the Jet Blue terminal to the Air Train station took five to 10 minutes. It was speeded along with moving sidewalks and was in a covered, climate-controlled walkway.

The Air Train and LIRR trains run relatively frequently. Both services are clean, well-lighted and felt safe at 9 PM on a Sunday evening.

You pay the $5.00 Air Train fare when leaving the train at Jamaica or the stations in JFK. Staff will help with ticket machines; it is possible to buy an Air Train/LIRR pass, which saves a few dollars.

Once you pay the fare, you walk one or two minutes and are in Jamaica station. The LIRR takes about 15 minutes to get to Penn Station from there.

LIRR/Air Train pricing may be confusing. The price depends on whether you travel on a week day or the week-end - - or peak/off-peak. A one way Air Train/LIRR ticket ranges from $8.75 to over $13.00. The Port Authority website explains fares. The Long Island Railroad website also includes pricing information.

Friday, July 27, 2012

A Nice Change For Breakfast!

Paley Park, next to a Le Pain Quotidien
restaurant in midtown Manhattan

Le Pain Quotidien has both a communal and
individual tables (photo courtesy of Le Pain Quotidien)


Le Pain Quotidien is a bakery/restaurant that provides a tasty alternative to standard travel breakfasts.

What I find most frustrating about breakfast on the road is the relatively stark choice of healthy food with sparse taste or tasty food with lots of fat and salt. And the presence, early in the morning, of loud television at some places does no help, either.  Why does almost every hotel chain in America assume every breakfast diner is deaf and that the television volume should be set accordingly?

Le Pain Quotidien, a restaurant chain founded in Belgium, offers a mostly organic breakfast that is as plain or as rich as you would like. The chain has restaurants in New York, California, four other states and the District of Columbia and in overseas locations as diverse as Brussels and Qatar.

The Le Pain Quotidien breakfast menu is fairly consistent at each location. I particularly like their breakfast special which includes a croissant and a slice each of baguette, whole wheat and five-grain breads. The restaurant’s breads have the paradoxical properties of being both light and substantial at the same time. The bread has a slight, but not overpowering, taste of sourdough.

You can also get individual pastries, soft-boiled eggs, steel-cut oatmeal and fresh fruits. The orange juice is very nice. The coffee is all right, better than that at the Holiday Inn but without the pizzazz of coffee at the Marriott.

Later in the day, you could return for quiche, tartines (breads with assorted meat, vegetable and cheese toppings) and salads.

We have eaten at Le Pain Quotidiens in Pasadena, California and in midtown Manhattan.

At both, the dining room was quiet and peaceful, allowing a wake-up without crowds or loud television. The service is unhurried but if you have to catch a plane, the staff will speed your order.

Each restaurant has common layouts and features. These include a choice between sitting at a communal table or individual table. Diners can also buy cookies, pastries or jams and spreads to go.

However, the restaurants also draw on their communities. In Pasadena, for example, we had breakfast outside. The Pasadena location also had an egg white omelet, which is very good. In New York City, we were delighted to discover that one of the midtown locations is just to the right of that wonderful mini-park, Paley Park.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Mega Bus

Despite the buzz it has created, Megabus gets a low grade for one of my least pleasant trips of the year.

The worldwide bus company offers eye-poppingly low fares. One way fares between Albany, New York and New York City ranged from $13 and $19, when I traveled last week. That is not the $1.50 suggested in the company’s advertising but is excellent value for traveling over 150 miles one way.

It appears these are online only fares. Yet, ordering online with Megabus is easy. Further, when I could not find my reservation in my e-mail, the woman at the company’s call center found it for me. She was friendly, efficient and was working in the United States. The other Megabus staff, drivers and staff at the stops are also generally friendly and efficient.

Low fares make Megabus popular and crowded. On my trip, the bus was either full or nearly full. At the Megabus stop in the City, on 10th Avenue between 40th and 41st Street, there were long, but orderly and good-natured lines of people heading for New England and for Pennsylvania.

The Megabus Albany to New York City run is not between traditional bus terminals. In Albany, the bus stop is at two small shelters at the north end of an open parking lot by the Albany-Rensselaer train station and the stop on 10th Avenue is on the street. If it was raining or snowing the City stop would not be comfortable.

The reason I give the service a low grade is that the company appears to have overbooked my trip. When my bus from New York City stopped in Ridgewood, New Jersey, there were three passengers trying to board and only two seats vacant. The driver directed a college-aged young woman to leave the bus because of no seats. She appeared to have a reservation from an online purchase and it was not certain what the company was going to do to make things right for her trip.

This situation was not just a problem for the passenger who could not travel. The bus driver was enforcing safety rules by not allowing the young woman to ride but the circumstances made him look like an ogre. While he and the passenger debated, the bus was not moving, passengers were squirming in the uncomfortable seats and the bus was delayed.

Several friends find Megabus fares, its routes and travel times irresistible and it certainly had a schedule that worked for me. But if you travel by Megabus, please . . . show up early, so you get the seat you paid for!

Monday, June 11, 2012

Crying Children and Southwest: A Revelation

A crying kid is not the first person one would think would offer a life lesson. However, on a flight home from California, I learned a lot from a little kid with big lungs.

Our Southwest flight was full. We had few seating choices as we boarded later in the check in. The only row with two seats together was in front of a family, with a crying child.

For two hours or so, adult beverages and an excellent mystery helped tune out the crying and wailing.

After awhile, the crying became hard to tune out. The noise was making me cranky.

However, when I walked back from the bathroom, I took a second to look at the family. The view from the behind was different than the sound from the front. The older sister was playing with her younger sister, trying to distract her with dolls. Unlike many families, where the kids are at each other’s throats much of the time, this girl was pitching in and trying to lead.

Then, later on in the flight, the little girl was calming down and peering over the seat. We started talking to the family. They were not bad parents. They were nice people. They were on their way home from a big family gathering in California, just as we were on the way home from our daughter’s graduation.

Sitting next to a crying child was annoying but the family worked together to calm the girl down. This was a refreshing change from the many times that families let young children just act out in public, standing there all the while with that look on the face that says, “Whose child is that?”

At some point in the conversation, the father said to us, “I don’t know why this is happening.” “We have,” he concluded with a puzzled glance, “flown before and never had this problem.”

I realized the phrase “I don’t know why this is happening” is universal to being a parent. Most parents try to do right by their children. Yet, regardless of how much hope and effort they bring, there are always surprises - - good and bad - - as parents, children and families move through life.

So here's to parents everywhere and, while we are at it, Happy Father’s Day!

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Warmwater Fishing Heats Up!

Even though air temperatures are yo-yoing across much of the Northeast, water temperatures are is warming up enough for bass, pickerel and panfish to start moving.

This morning, we rowed across a lake in upstate New York’s Helderbergs. Our host, Willard, said the fish were hitting, “shallow, a few inches below the surface.”

For the first hour, it seemed as if the fish Willard had found were gone. Further, no fish were hitting a fresh night crawler, fished deep.

Then, things woke up. The first fish was a pickerel, just about the legal minimum length, in New York - - which is 15 inches. Pickerel are nick-named “snakes” for their long, submarine like bodies. The best part of catching this pickerel was that I was able to release it without hurting the fish or getting a handful of its needle-like teeth.

Next, we caught - - and immediately released - - several large- and smallmouth bass. Some of the fish were small, but two of them were good-sized.

The trip wound up with a few hits from rock-bass, and a sunfish following a lure.

On this trip, lures were successful but bait was not. We had luck with a Panther Martin, several different Mepps spinners and a wonderfully fishy-looking jointed Rapala.

The fish on this trip are what are called warmwater fish; they can live in waters much warmer than the cold streams and lakes required by trout and salmon.

Even though we had a great session on the water, the best is likely yet to come! We did not see any nests made by panfish, such as sunfish. The fish, while plentiful, were still hitting the lures in a sluggish manner. So, more and livelier fishing is likely to arrive soon.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Opening Day of New York Trout Season, 2012

  Returning from salmon fishing in the Yemen to upstate New York, the 2012 Opening Day for trout season was low-key, yet productive.

   In New York’s Capital Region, weather was back to seasonal temperatures, two weeks after record-breaking spring temperatures. Water levels were perfect, with no run-off. It was cool and overcast, which helped when sneaking up on the stream. The only drawback was that water temperatures were cold.

  On a trip to several streams in Rensselaer County, the county between the Hudson River and Massachusetts, Pete Howard and I saw many cars parked by streams. Yet there were many places to fish with no other anglers.

  At our first stop, a small stream off a county highway, we each caught and released brook trout that were eight or nine inches long and had many nibbles.

  At our second stop, the water looked incredibly fishy - - but no fish were biting. I learned the next day that people on the same stream had experienced slow fishing, punctuated by catching a 23 inch long brown trout, a good fish for any stream, let alone this smaller stream.

  Many anglers do not like to fish in the early season, disliking the erratic weather or the cold water. However, one of the most valuable parts of fishing Opening Day was the chance to sweep out the winter cobwebs.

  Pete and I got our tackle in order, learned what was running low and now have everything in the correct vest pocket or tackle box compartment. We had extended casting practice in flowing water, rather than in the backyard. And we caught some fish!

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen: The Movie

In this scene from Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, Fred Jones,
played by Ewan McGregor, presents to
Harriet Chetowode-Talbot a salmon fly named after her. 
           The movie Salmon Fishing in the Yemen is as witty, whimsical and thoughtful as the novel by Paul Torday.
            Director Lasse Hallstrom’s and screenwriter Simon Beaufoy’s vision of the story in Torday’s first novel sometimes goes in different directions than the book does.  However, Hallstrom’s light but sure directorial touch and Beaufoy’s screenplay capture the essential truth of the novel and, in some cases, make the story and characters more real than they are in the book!
            Emily Blunt plays Harriet Chetwode-Talbot, who represents a mysterious sheik who wishes to bring salmon fishing to the Yemen.  Blunt captures Harriet’s romantic side and the gamut of her feelings as she falls in love with a British Army captain and then waits after he is called up for dangerous duty - - and she is smart and determined in undertaking the sheik’s project.
            And Chetwode-Talbot needs smart and determined when she approaches the British government for assistance.  Senior civil servants think the idea of salmon in the Yemen is batty and fob her off on Doctor Alfred “Fred” Jones, a fisheries functionary specializing in the life of the caddis fly, played by Ewan McGregor.
            After several rude, condescending conversations with Chetwode-Talbot, Jones is suddenly is attracted to the idea and falls for it, hook, line and sinker.  McGregor convincingly shows Jones’ progression from skeptic to believer in the sheik’s plan; this progression is key to the movie exploring issues of faith and belief. 
In short order, Chetwode-Talbot and Jones are flying north to Scotland, to meet the sheik, played by Amr Waked.  Each person comes to Scotland as an individual, with their own hopes and fears.  But over several days, they become a team, each learns to pool their strengths and help the others overcome weakness.
            Hovering over the project, like puppet master wannabes, are Patricia Maxwell, , the Prime Minister’s Press Secretary, played by Kristin Scott Thomas, and Bernard Sugden, Jones’ boss, played by Conleth Hill.
            In the book, the Press Secretary is a man and casting Thomas did not initially seem like a good idea.  However, Thomas quickly won me over, playing the role with verve and satirical wit.
            While Hill’s role is minor, he makes every second count.  He has a pasty demeanor; his performance evokes the best of Ricky Gervais in The Office and the pointy-haired boss in the Dilbert comics - - and adds his own comic flourishes.
            The actors move quickly beyond individual great performances and come together in a seamless, appealing repertory.
            Salmon Fishing in the Yemen was filmed in London, Scotland and Morocco stood in for Yemen.  The clear photography makes it easy to feel the damp coolness of Scotland or the blast-furnace heat of the Middle East. 
            Catching salmon is unpredictable; they are nicknamed “the fish of a thousand casts.”  Yet the production crew gets salmon to miraculously appear on cue in the nick of time.
Simon Beaufoy chooses the book’s most pertinent scenes and adds his details that build on the book.  In the book, a girl brings water to Chetwode-Talbot and Jones in the heat of the day.  The scene illustrates hospitality - - and provides a clue leading to the success of the project.  Beaufoy sticks to the structure of Torday’s scene and makes the points concisely and vividly. 
Then, he, McGregor, Blunt and the other actors come up with wonderful acting details.  I particularly liked a scene where McGregor is looking for the right picture to illustrate a caddis fly monograph.  He shuffles absent-mindedly through pictures of caddis flies from a high-powered microscope, hoping to find something that will appeal to “modern readers.”
            With its wit, great acting, striking settings, wit and the exploration of believing, this is a great, must see movie for celebrating spring and optimism.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen: The Book

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, by Paul Torday, Harcourt, 336 pages, $14.

This book review is the first of two posts about Salmon Fishing in the Yemen. The second will discuss the movie that the book inspired.

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen is a wonderful book about the beauty of salmon fishing and the beauty of finding hope in an often hopeless world.

This is the first novel by Torday, an Oxford graduate and British businessman, described on the book jacket as “a keen salmon fisherman.”

In this book, Harriet Chetwode-Talbot, a partner in the real estate firm Fitzharris and Price, asks Doctor Alfred “Fred” Jones, a fisheries biologist at a government agency in London, to help with an astonishing project. Harriet has a client who wishes to fund introducing salmon and salmon fishing to Yemen.

Jones is a bland, George Smiley-esque civil servant, with a self-described “dislike of the irrational, the unpredictable and the unknown.” His wife is an ambitious financier but his main passions in life are fishing and researching topics such as “The effects of increased water salinity on the caddis fly larva.”

Fred thinks the plan is stupid and avoids Harriet. However, the Prime Minister learns about the proposal and takes up the cause. In a bureaucratic drama, David Sugden, Fred’s boss, summons Fred and tells him he can leave the office with either a lay-off notice or a signed letter eagerly offering to meet Harriet.

The ultimatum peeves Fred. Yet, as his wife is about to jet off to bank meetngs in Switzerland, something stirs in Fred. Suddenly, he is enthusiastic about the project. Then Harriet introduces reveals her client, Sheikh Muhammad ibn Zaidi bani Tihama.

The Sheikh wishes to bring salmon fishing to Yemen to reconcile warring factions. But Fred soon realizes the project has bigger aims. The Sheikh sees the project as a form of faith. “Without faith,” he says, “there is no hope and no love. Faith comes before hope, and before love.”

In the West, many are ignorant of Middle Eastern people and societies. Torday opens a window on life and religion in that region. He shows how people of good will in the West and Middle East can work together and respect each other.

This book rests on a wacky idea. Yet with vivid description and a gift for character development, Torday makes wackiness routinely believable. Each person in Salmon Fishing is imperfect but Torday gives most of the characters delightful imperfections, not psychoses. There are beautiful descriptions of Scotland and Yemen, quirky humor, with a kilt, romance, intrigue, political shenanigans and the project itself.

In this highly recommended read, Torday takes readers through many surprises as the story moves swiftly to book’s end. The pace and suspense are much like the experience of a big salmon burning line off the reel on its first run after being hooked.

Finding Salmon Fishing in Yemen is an experience that may be as challenging as salmon fishing itself.  Perhaps with the upcoming movie launch, copies will be more accessble soon.

One of my favorite Capital Region bookstores, the Open Door, is planning to order a few copies for the shelf.  My favorite California bookstore, Vroman's in Pasadena, says it can order the book.  If you bought the book at Vroman's on a Sunday, you then could go over to the Pasadena Casting Club and try some casting!

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen: On the Page and Onscreen!

Ewan McGregor and Emily Blunt in the movie version
of Salmon Fishing in the Yemen
The novel's bookcover

In the next few days. look for two posts about the novel and movie, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen.

The novel is out in both hardcover and paperback for several years; the movie arrives in theaters on Friday March 9, 2012.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Mid-Winter in New York City

From left to right (we hope)

From the opening of Book of Mormon
(Photo from Book of Mormon website)

Hurley's Pub

Le Mirage

If you visit New York this winter, there’s lots to do at reasonable prices on a Sunday.
People who live in the suburbs can visit the City by train, without the nuisance of parking the car. Metro-North Railroad, for example, has free or reasonable parking at its stations.
Once you get to the City, there are theater matinees. We wanted to see The Book of Mormon and my wife, Dorothy, got us tickets by planning ahead. If you are flexible in theater choices, it is possible to get discount tickets in Times Square the day of performance.
Go see Book of Mormon! I heard and read features about it when it first opened. When Dorothy and my daughter Lily wanted to see the play, I thought, “Why bother? All the good parts were already on National Public Radio?”
In fact, thinking you know this play from snippets in news and arts coverage is as foolish as those blindfolded wise men who thought they knew what an elephant was from feeling one part of the animal.
Book of Mormon opens immediately in musical and comedic high gear. Trey Parker, Robert Lopez and Matt Stone load this play with kooky jokes and insights about people and religion. Because Parker and Stone created the irreverent program South Park, the $64,000 question is how they will proceed: a skewering, a surprise ending or a combination?
After the show, we walked through Times Square, a riot of light and color at night. It’s slightly less crowded after the City recently closed some streets and made them a pedestrian mall.
We dined at Hurley’s, an Irish pub, where the atmosphere was congenial, although I think the bartender poured the Guinness in a single shot, rather than waiting a few minutes after filling the glass halfway. Nevertheless, the fish and chips and hamburger were tasty and service was attentive.
In looking for New York City hotels, I learned that prices on Sunday night can be reasonable compared to the rest of the week or weekend. Our hotel, the Best Western Plus President at Times Square, allowed us to check in early. Although they will store luggage, it was reassuring to have the luggage stowed away right off.
This boutique hotel was recently renovated and Presidential art is all over the place. Pop Art-style portraits of John and Jackie Kennedy graced our room.
The neat and clean room was small compared to those in a suburban motel such as a Courtyard or Holiday Inn. But, we were there to see the City and not the hotel so this was not a concern. The room was stuffy, which we remedied by turning on the window air conditioner.
When we got started the next day, we explored for breakfast. We found Le Mirage (212-354-1234) on 43rd Street between Fifth Avenue and Avenue of the Americas. Le Mirage has many delectable, reasonably priced breakfast and lunch choices. We had an egg white omelet wrap with spinach and mushrooms and an egg sandwich on a pillowy, fresh hard roll, with two cups of coffee, for under $9.00.
Then we returned home, mentally refreshed by the play and the liveliness of the City.