Sunday, June 29, 2014

Niagara Falls isn't located deep in the woods...who knew?

Leaving Lackawanna in our rear view mirror we headed north towards Buffalo on Route 5.
If anyone ever tells you that this is the scenic route and that southern Buffalo is by far one of the most beautiful places on Earth; they are openly lying to you. (Why would anyone do that other than misplaced civic pride?)
Anyway we're here to tell you that this area is a little run down to say the least, and that we are pretty sure that zombies have infested this bevy of crumbling industrial buildings, but we can't prove it because there was no way in hell we were going to stop our RV and check it out. We've both seen the "Walking Dead".

Obviously this industrial part of town has fallen on hard times. It's really interesting to see up close and personal in a apocalyptic kinda way. To see this many gigantic buildings just sitting there abandoned and without any sort of obvious plan for their removal is wild. Look at the building in the photo above; what must it be like to find oneself on the ninth floor at say...2 AM. Spooky one would think. Although these derelict warehouses were fascinating to drive by, we made sure to keep up an average speed on fifty or so mph, and had the RV on lock-down to be sure.

Route 5 morphs into Hwy. 190 in the heart of downtown Buffalo, giving you a quick glimpse of the much more prosperous downtown core before whisking you north towards Niagara Falls.
Downtown Buffalo, NY

Following 190 we started running into late Sunday morning traffic which became more and more dense the closer we got to Niagara Falls. Crossing over the large bridges that connect Grand Island to the mainland the traffic started slowing and we fought for space with loaded tour buses and charters. Now I don't know if you are as naive as my wife and I, but if you are you probably have this vision of Niagara Falls as set somewhere in the deep woods, with maybe a an overgrown wagon trail leading up to it. On this you would be mistaken. No my friends, Niagara Falls is basically a suburb of Toronto, Canada, a city of over two and a half million; most of whom seemed to be hanging over the railings goggling at the falls when we arrived. There are parking lots the size of Rhode Island, buses, trams, helicopter tours, party boats, and tourists taking pictures of tourists.  Simply said, this place has already been discovered. Damn we were too late! With that said, we actually had a pretty good time.
Following the signs to Goat Island we found the RV parking lot and found a place to park. Erley WAS NOT GOING TO BE DENIED, and demanded that we take a slow motion walk with him near the picnic area before allowing us to visit the fabled falls. You could see the mist from Niagara above the trees, and hear the low guttural roar of all that water falling over those mighty cliffs, and see the look of excitement on the faces of the tourists that hurried down the paths towards that natural wonder, and we were headed in the EXACT opposite direction watching Erley ponder the greenish growth on the underside of a picnic table bench. This walk lasted close to a half an hour. Erley doesn't do ANYTHING with a sense of urgency, and this was all about HIM, not some over-hyped water feature.

After satiating Erley's need for "Me Time", we walked him back to the RV, and then fell into pace with the flow of humanity heading for the falls.

It was at this point that the realization that Niagara Falls was located smack dab in the middle of a major metropolitan area really hit home. The first thing that struck us as we headed down the path towards the falls was the highrise buildings towering above the mist on the Canadian side or the river. I can't ever recall seeing a shot of Niagara Falls on TV or in a book and the falls having a backdrop of a modern city skyline. Can you?
I only remember seeing images of the thundering water dropping over jagged cliffs, maybe a honeymoon couple smiling for the camera, or some ancient footage of a man sealing himself up in a barrel on his way to a suicidal adventure. It always gave you the feeling that Niagara Falls was somewhere out there in the deep northern woods of New York. But alas, false expectations always seem to fail us, and once we got over the shock of being in the center of a city we let it go and accepted the falls for what they were, big and beautiful.

After getting up close and personal and hanging out over the barrier to get the classic shot of the fall's rainbow effect, we stuck around a little while and people watched. It's amazing just how much of an international tourist destination this was. As two American tourists we were easily in the minority of visitors here. We we surrounded by a huge number of East Indians, Middle Easterners, Asians, and Europeans. 
Very few of the people within earshot were speaking English. You had a family of four speaking German over there next to a couple who spoke Japanese. Closest to us a group of five or six East Indian women dressed in traditional Sari's chatted, while a four Middle Eastern teenagers looked bored while waiting for their parents to finish taking pictures of the falls. It was hard to believe we were just miles outside of Buffalo, we could have easily been in any number of international tourist destinations. It was a very cosmopolitan crowd.
We walked back to our RV and had a picnic of sandwiches, jerky, fruit, and chips out on the same picnic tables Erley had so dearly loved when we arrived. It was nearing one PM and we wanted to hit the road and figure out a place to camp for the evening. Backtracking through a series of maze like roads we found our way off Goat Island and headed in the right direction following Route 104 north out of the city of Niagara Falls.
Just twenty minutes or so north of the tourist hullabaloo of Niagara Falls we ran into an almost eerily empty dam complex on the Niagara River called the Robert Moses Niagara Power Plant. Situated almost across the street from Niagara University, this mammoth dam and reservoir system is by far the largest producer of electricity on the East Coast, and the visitors center is really big and actually quite nice. (And I might add, completely deserted on this early Sunday afternoon.)
We checked in through security (it is a dam after all in this post 911 era) and headed up the escalator to the sky bridge that took us out to overlook several stories above the turbines and river far below. The visitor center was quite informative, with interactive exhibits, historic photography, and films. It was really large and seemed even bigger due to the fact that there was only one other couple in the complex while we were there. Quite a shock after having spent the morning at Niagara Falls. 
We poked around through the exhibits and went out on the catwalk to take in the amazing view and then headed back down to the reception area where we asked a very nice woman where we might find some good pizza in the area. She suggested a little village just northeast of there called Lewiston. So off we went in search of Pizza Pie.
The historic Village of Lewiston turned out to be nothing short of picture perfect.  It was almost too good to believe, almost in a Stepford Wives meets Disney Land sort of way, especially after having just seen the likes of Dunkirk, NY. The old town was set up along a picturesque tree-lined street where beautiful old brick buildings had been thoughtfully re-purposed into restaurants and cute little shops. Brick and cobbled walkways fronted prosperous looking bakeries and cafes, and at the end of town there was an actual city square with a honest to goodness Dixie style band playing in a whitewashed gazebo. Really!?! I kept waiting for the all the little robotic cherubs to poke their heads out and start  to sing "It's a small world after all." I think I walked around saying we should move here. That's how enamored I was.
In the center of the village stands the stately and historic McDonald Frontier House. Built in 1824 this was actually a hotel and stagecoach stop with many famous east coast dignitaries having stayed there, including Charles Dickens, John L. Sullivan, and President McKinley to name a few. We drove around for a little while trying to find a place to park our 22' RV in the popular little village. We finally took a leap of faith and parked in a Funeral Home's parking lot that was empty on this late Sunday afternoon. There didn't seem to be any "NO PARKING" signs so we took a chance and in the end it paid off. We strolled down the street looking at the shops and trying to decide which restaurant to get dinner. We had already determined that we would get something to go, because we still had to find a grocery to stock up, and a park to camp for the night. As we walked down the sidewalk we spied a bakery across the street, always a treat when you're on the road. Ducking inside we were amazed at how nice it was, and the quality of the goods displayed.
The "Village Bake Shop" was obviously well known having been featured on "Road Trips" in 2012. We went about purchasing a number of different tiny cookies, and a small apple pie which they are famous for. Loaded down with dessert items we crossed the street once again and found a nice Pizzeria and ordered a small combination pizza and an order of Buffalo Wings to go. With our dinner secured we drove back towards the modern section of Lewiston and found a great grocery store. DiMino's Lewiston Tops Market was modern, well laid out with a lot of interesting wares. This was quite a step up from our last grocery shopping experience in Dunkirk. After a quick stop to fill up with gas we went searching for a place to spend the evening. We decided to check out Four Mile Creek State Park, which overlooks Lake Ontario after one of the managers in the Top Market had suggested staying there. 
Just ten miles north of Lewiston Four Mile Creek State Park was another pleasant surprise. Set on a tall bluff the campsites were nicely spaced, treed, and within close proximity to a beautiful field and walking trails. After dinner we went for a walk with Max and Erley over to this amazing open space which we had completely to ourselves. 
There was a single bench placed all by itself off to one side and we all went and sat on it for awhile and then we let out enough line on Erley's leash so he could pretend to hunt around a big clump of wild roses. It was really nice having all of this privacy and getting a chance to share some quality time with the animals without having to worry about hoards of screaming children or cars or distractions. We were just chilling with Max and Erley and it was really nice. Erley found himself a big old fallen Oak trunk near the wild roses which he thought was the bomb and he spent at least twenty minutes exploring and scratching on his new found log.
We took Max off the leash and led him out towards the bluff and he had a great time running back and forth between Jerani and I. 
It's always nice when he gets the chance to really stretch out his legs after spending so much time on a leash or in the RV.
No sooner had we leashed him up when a couple of bunnies came out of hiding to wander the field as the sun started to set. 
The sunlight caught the tree line and created a gorgeous back drop to the field and as it started to get dark we watched a lovely moon rise on this cloudless night.
We all sat on the bench looking out over Lake Ontario watching the evening sky change from blue to purples and pinks, and when the mosqitoes finally emerged and chased us from our reverie we both knew that although they are far and few between it was days like this that had made us want to plan this trip in the first place. 

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Greater Buffalo...A pleasant Surprise

We were suffering from PTSD as we started down Route 5 towards Buffalo; but  we figured that nothing could be as bad as yesterday, so we had no where to go but up. It was Sunday morning and the weather was perfect, not too hot and not too cold without a cloud in the sky. Rounding a curve on a high bluff overlooking Lake Erie we caught our first glimpse of the city of Buffalo far off in the distance.
Now about the only thing we know about Buffalo having grown up on the West Coast is from bits and pieces from movies, TV, and the news. We know it gets unbelievably cold here in the winter. They have an NFL team named the "Bills". Buffalo Hot Wings get there name from the city, and there are a lot of vacant and decaying buildings. Other than that, Buffalo is more questions than answers.
Before heading into the city we pulled off at a little grassy knoll overlooking the water to stretch our legs and walk the dog. It sat across from an old Chinese Restaurant and a 60's era Pharmacy. The age of everything once you leave the West Coast takes a lot of getting used to. Almost everything is new where we come from, and you just don't see businesses in buildings that have changed little in the past thirty or forty years. Back in the car we headed for Lackawanna, a small suburb just to the south of Buffalo where Jerani's research of the city pin-pointed what looked to be a beautiful old conservatory and botanical gardens. We always love going through gardens, and it was right off our route into Buffalo so it was perfect. We found the turn off for Lackawanna, and as we drove into the little city we were amazed to find a huge church dominating the sky line.
This was no ordinary church mind you, but a true cathedral like you might find in Europe. It was unexpected, and since we had an hour until the Buffalo Botanical Gardens opened we found a place to park and got out to walk the dog and check out the church. "Our Lady of Victory Basilica" was completed in 1926 after five years of construction and has a capacity of twelve hundred.
At the time of completion the Basilica dome's height of 165 feet was second only to the dome of the U.S. Capitol building in Washington D.C. It truly is a beautiful building, and to find it like this was an added bonus in a day that was already heads and tails better than yesterday.
To the east of the Basilica was a beautiful old Catholic cemetery and we walked Max around the fenced perimeter until we came out on the backside of the church and returned to the RV.
We had a quick snack in the Pleasure Way before getting back on the road and driving a mere two blocks over to the Conservatory and Botanical Gardens.
Another unexpected surprise in the small town of Lackawanna was this magnificent Victorian era Conservatory.

The design was modeled after the beautiful Crystal Palace at Kew Gardens in England and was built by a Buffalo construction company, George P. Wurtz & Son for a total cost of $130,000. Upon opening in 1900, the conservatory was the third largest public greenhouse in the United States and was ranked as the ninth largest in the world. It was surrounded by Buffalo's South Park which was designed by Fredrick Law Olmsted, the same man who was behind the design of New York's Central Park.
We walked down the grand entrance right at opening time to see the botanical gardens inside, and spent over an hour touring the many wings of the Conservatory at everything the gardens had to offer.
The architecture is amazing inside the turn of the century building. The old white painted metal and rippled frosted glass, the maze-like exhibit rooms, and hidden spaces inside were great to be able to take our time and poke around in, especially since it was a sleepy Sunday morning and we were two of only seven or eight visitors rattling around in this giant greenhouse.

There were Koi pounds and glassed-in bee hives, rock waterfalls, and Cloud Gardens. It was like we had the whole place to ourselves and we felt like we could actually linger in each exhibit instead of being forced along by the crush of a crowd. It was very laid back and relaxing and it allowed us a chance to catch our breath after the dreadful day we had Saturday.

It was getting pretty warm and although we had left the RV's windows open and the Fantastic Fan on we still never want to be "those people" who leave their pets in broiling vehicles so we took a really quick tour of the outdoor gardens and then went out and retrieved our animals.

Ten minutes later we were back on the road and heading north towards Niagara Falls.