Sunday, August 5, 2007

Not Your Grandparents Vacation - Niagara Falls

My family and I must be some of the last people to see Niagara Falls. Whenever I mentioned we were headed to Niagara I would inevitably hear "oh I remember going there when I was ten" or "I went there forty years ago and it was great." Well I have to say I haven't heard one person say they were disappointed, and neither was our family. Niagara Falls is a wonderful getaway vacation for the family or couple. Niagara is home of America's oldest tourist attraction, the Maid of the Mist, 1846, so the park has had time to get everything perfect. The beauty of the falls is indescribable. The roar of 6 million cubic feet of water pouring over the crest every second is quite a rush.

Taking in all the tourist offerings on both sides of the border is part of the fun. Start with buying the Passport to the Falls ticket package on the American side at the state park entrance. This passport is only $28 (a savings of more than 35% over individual tickets) to the following attractions: The Maid of the Mist®, Cave of the Winds, Discovery Center, Observation Tower, Niagara Adventure Theater, Aquarium of Niagara - and you'll find this a pleasure after walking all day - unlimited rides on the Niagara Scenic Trolley.

In the visitor center, where the passports are sold, is an IMAX movie that traces the history and myth behind the falls. You can watch the movie first to get a sense of the history or wait, as we did, to enjoy the cool theater and comfy seats after a long day of walking. Beyond the visitor entrance stroll down to the waters edge and see the rainbows, hear the roar of the falls and watch the never ending flow of water cascading over the edge. The Maid of the Mist boat ride has carried the rich and famous for over 150 years and is the most popular attraction. The boat can be taken from either the Canadian or American side. Once you don your complimentary yellow raincoat and board the boat you will travel past the American Falls, the Bridal Veil Falls and over to the Canadian Falls, also know as the Horseshoe Falls.
The most amazing site for me was the Cave of the Winds tour and the Hurricane deck. Traveling 175 feet through the rock we emerged at the bottom of the gorge and walked over an intricate set of stairs and decking that is removed every November and rebuilt in the Spring. We were as close as 20 feet from the Bridal Veil Falls and felt the tropical storm-like winds buffeting us around. The more adventurous in our party, not me, you get get soaked from the falling water that hit a rock first and then doused the brave. On the Canadian side there is the Journey Behind the Falls that is awe inspiring. As part of the Passport to the Falls there tickets for the Aquarium of Niagara and Discovery Centers located close to the park. The aquarium has a hometown feel with a friendly and informative staff. The seals have been with the aquarium for decades and thanks to the care of the staff have lived longer than their normal life expectancy in the wild.

After hours there is plenty to see and do in the area. We stayed at the Hilton, on the Canadian side, with an amazing view of the falls and of the evening fireworks scheduled regularly throughout the year. One note on the hotel that kept our girls entertained when it was raining outside, was the three story spiral water slide. I even took a few turns and went back for more.
Within walking distance, for the younger healthier set, is Clifton Hill. The area reminded me of a boardwalk, carnival type of atmosphere (without the beach and boardwalk). We visited a haunted house (scary), video arcades, the Sky Wheel, a giant enclosed Ferris wheel, and many souvenir shops. The area is packed with people, the smell of pretzels, cotton candy and fried food. We did stop at the Hard Rock Cafe, one on each side of the river, and had a giant Sundae and appetizers. One of the more interesting places to visit for an evening or rainy day is Ripley's Believe It or Not. It is like other Ripley's in various vacation sposts around the country and is always educational and fun for everyone. For the gambler the Canadian side has a giant casino with rooms overlooking the falls.
We only touched on a few of the many wonderful attractions in the area but hope to return and enjoy more of this historic area loaded with friendly people.

"Although it was wonderful to see all that water tumbling down, it would be even more wonderful to see all that water tumbling up."
-- Mark Twain

All Photos copyright David L. Jennings

Friday, August 3, 2007

Spice It Up in Old Mesilla

If your travels take you to Las Cruces, New Mexico or El Paso, Texas schedule time to travel to Old Mesilla, New Mexico. It is only a few minutes from Las Cruces and about 45 minutes from El Paso. The food, shops and historic Plaza are well worth the time for the epicurean, shopper or history enthusiast. I recommend eating and touring at La Posta de la Mesilla, in a building compound constructed in the 1840's. A decade later Sam and Roy Bean (of Judge Roy Bean fame) ran a passenger and freight service from the building. After the Civil War, the La Posta compound became an important stop on the Butterfield Stagecoach Line.
Inside La Posta are several shops of fine jewelry, hand made clothing and souvenirs. When I visited here thirty years ago there was a large tank of piranhas that would thrill those waiting for a table. The large tank now holds colorful fish, not to be too disappointed, there is still one large piranha alive in a smaller tank. Next to the aquariums are several large cages with colorful parrots and a young Toucan who is very friendly, he'll come down to have his back rubbed.
Since 1939 La Posta has been preparing and serving great New Mexican style meals. The Tostada Compuesta, a toasted corn tortilla filled with beans, red chili and meat, lettuce and tomatoes originated from their kitchen. Personally, I find the New Mexico style flat enchiladas with red chili sauce and an over easy egg on top unequaled anywhere. Spicy hot or mild fresh chili abounds. The atmosphere is lively, the service first class and the people friendly. Be sure to try the sopapillas with honey as part of the meal or even for dessert.
Located across the street from La Posta and throughout the plaza are jewelry stores, gift shops, clothing sales, other restaurants and a book store, all in historical buildings. The Billy the Kid gift shop always fascinated my wife's grandmother because of the name. Her grandmother's maiden name was Brady and she is the great-great-grand daughter of Sheriff William Brady who was shot and killed by Billy the Kid in Lincoln, New Mexico. To her, having jeans, gift shops and souvenirs named after Billy the Kid is like having Charles Manson post cards, restaurants and bumper stickers celebrating how he killed innocent people.
The Billy the Kid gift shop dates from the 1850's and once housed the capital of Arizona and New Mexico. The building was later the courthouse in which Billy the Kid was sentenced to hang. Perhaps the gift shop and galleries would be better served if they changed their name to the William Brady gift shop and gallery.

Other buildings around the plaza are also of historical significance. The Thunderbird gallery and gift shop is New Mexico's oldest recorded brick building. Constructed around 1860 with burnt bricks from the owners kiln the building is still in good condition. Other occupants have used the building as a town hall, residence and saloon. The gallery and gift store is very interesting and has a lot of Indian jewelry. Further down the street is a bookstore and more souvenir stores. Across the Plaza is the Double Eagle restaurant named for the 1850 ten dollar gold coin. The restaurant is fine dining and has a history of its own related to the treaties with Mexico. There are also plenty of ghost stories associated with the Double Eagle and other historic buildings around the plaza.

Originally built of adobe in 1855. The San Albino church was rebuilt to its present structure in 1906. The church is located on one end of the Plaza. This is a favorite location for local photographers and students from nearby New Mexico State University. As a student, at NMSU over thirty years ago, I remember the challenge of capturing just the right image from the countless photo opportunities around the Plaza. The challenge is still there for the amateur to the professional photographer. I enjoyed recording the images used for this review as much as I did thirty years ago. Another interesting place to visit before you leave is located opposite the church. Established around 1850 the El Patio Cantina has been operated continually by descendants of Colonel Albert Jennings Fountain. Colonel A.J. Fountain was also the lawyer for Billy the Kid when he was being tried just down the street. Old Mesilla Plaza is a great place to spend the day, have lunch or dinner and peruse the shops. This is a definite return trip location.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Are You Going to San Francisco?

If the answer is yes, be sure to bring your camera or journal to capture some memories of a lifetime. There are plenty of sites to see and experiences to enjoy in this city by the bay. San Francisco is one of those notable cities with instant name recognition with unique areas like Fisherman's Wharf, Nob Hill or the world's crookedest street, Lombard street. The city is known for its iconic landmarks like Alcatraz, the Golden Gate Bridge, and of course it's cable cars with their distinctive ding ding ring of the bell. You can still ride the historical cable cars first tested and built in 1873 by Andrew Hallidie. Check out the cable car museum for more information. Northern California is rich in history and culture with people immigrating from throughout the world during the 1849 Gold Rush through the 1990's boom giving the city a great diversity. Visitors today can enjoy exotic foods, cultural and artisitc festivals as well as great entertainment, history and architecture. From the moment we arrived at San Francisco International Airport the ease of getting around the city was remarkable. After picking up our luggage, we took the free AirTrain shuttle to the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) station. We bought tickets from a clearly marked ticket machine and entered a clean modern rail system. Within 30 minutes, we arrived at our downtown destination, the Powell Street Station. Just above the station, we were welcomed with a large crowd at the Powell and Market cable car turnaround. Art and jewelry vendors were in abundance in the festive environment. We were entertained by a tuxedo singing gentleman with a deep melodious voice as we lined up to buy a transportation pass good for 1, 3, or 7 days. I recommend buying The Muni Passports as soon as you arrive. The pass is good for unlimited rides on the San Francisco Municipal Railway (Muni), which provides transportation
to all points of interest within San Francisco, as well as unlimited cable car rides. The pass pays for itself after 2 or 3 rides on the cable cars. Once settled into a downtown hotel, more about that in a moment, we took the Powell-Hyde cable car past Chinatown, up and down Nob and Russian Hills past the top of Lombard Street to the end of the line at Aquatic Park near Ghirardelli Square. Both these lines end near Fisherman's Wharf. We thoroughly enjoyed walking up and down Jefferson Street all the way down to the Embarcadero and Pier 39. The area is lively and offers plenty of souvenir shops, eateries, fine restaurants, and of course fresh seafood.
We took the one-hour from Pier 39. This cruise passes the harbor seals lounging on the docks on the way to the Golden Gate Bridge, past Angel Island and around Alcatraz. A running commentary provides interesting facts about the city. Located at Pier 43 1/2 is the Red and White Cruise line that follows the same basic itinerary, except for the passing of the Pier 39 seals. Reservations for both cruises are only $18.00 per adult when booked on line. If you enjoy spontaneity, the tour will cost a few dollars more at the booth.
Whether you like history, architecture or a good crime story Alcatraz is the place to visit. There is no entrance fee to visit Alcatraz Island. However, there is a charge for the ferry service to and from the island provided by a private company. Adult tickets are $24.50. These tickets go fast so I recommend reserving online in advance. Once you arrive on the island and enter the formidable prison there is an opportunity to take the audio cell house tour. This audio program is exceptional. The program has actual prisoners and guards telling their stories as you enter and pass key areas in the cell house. The audio tour starts and stops at your control and is available in several languages. I spent extra time “walking the yard” to get a sense of what the prisoners had to look at out while doing time. What fascinated me were the cells with windows facing San Francisco, or the top bench in the exercise yard, where prisoners could hear the merriment of evening parties and see the occasional fireworks displays during holidays. This must have been torturous for the prisoners so close to civilization and yet locked away. For additional information on schedules, prices, and to purchase tickets in advance (tickets are made available about 60 days in advance) go to the Alcatraz Cruises website.

One of the most fun stops I had was along the Embarcadero, across the street from the Port of San Francisco Ferry building at a small park. My wife and two daughters took turns mugging for the camera with the reproductions of the Yin and Yang Egg Head sculpures, by the late Robert Arneson. The originals, along with others, are placed on the University of California, Davis campus, where Mr. Arneson was professor of art. Another interesting stop for me, particularly because I'm not into upscale clothing, is the Neiman Marcus store located just off Union Square. I was there not for the shopping but to view the beautiful architecture and Rotunda restaurant. The glorious stained glass ceiling is from the original building completed in 1896. In 1981 Neiman Marcus bought the property, had the building demolished, and redesigned by famed architect Phillip Johnson. The large oval stained glass dome depicts a sailing ship representative of the maritime activities of San Francisco. The stained glass dome is comprised of 2,600 stained glass pieces.

Now, about the downtown hotel we stayed it, the Hilton on O’Farrell Street, it was five stars all the way. My inattention to detail was the problem not the hotel. I was hungry after arriving a day late, thanks to United, and being to early to check in, we dropped our luggage off in the lobby and took the elevator to the 46th floor and the Cityscape restaurant. I should have realized that lunch was not going to be inexpensive. The clues I should have picked up on were as follows: it was Sunday brunch, the waiters were dressed eloquently, there were fourteen foot high windows around three sides of the room giving us a sensational view of San Francisco’s most famous landmarks. If that wasn't enough I should have picked up on the peeled and veined shrimp and Alaskan king crab legs on the buffet plus a three piece string ensemble playing softly. After receiving the check, and turning pale, I politely asked my two girls and wife to return to the buffet and eat like we weren’t going to have dinner later, or breakfast and lunch the next day. Even with the high price, the highest I have ever paid for brunch, the experience was one we will never forget. The entire San Francisco Experience ranks as one of the best family vacations we have taken.
While in San Francisco we met friendly and gentle people wherever we went. So if you go, be sure to make some memories, see the sights and ask how much lunch will cost before you order. Wearing flowers in your hair is optional.