Thursday, May 23, 2013

Lake George, New York: Magic Forest Theme Park

Any traveler who enjoys seeing odd attraction is used to the idea of making quick turnarounds after speeding by something that might be interesting.

Such was the case when we went by the Magic Forest Theme Park in Lake George (although it's right outside the north of Glens Falls on Route 9). A 30-foot statue of Uncle Sam always deserves a close look. Here he is, much bigger than life and towering over Santa Claus.

The park wasn't open when we went by, but the descriptions seem to indicate that it's an area mostly designed for very young children. In other words, adults need to brush up on their fairy tales.

The reviews of the facility range widely. It's an old-time park, which has its charms but probably could use a makeover in spots. Yes, there are bigger and newer parks down the street in Lake George, so it's fair to say that this will basically appeal to those who are so young they might find The Great Escape rather intimidating.

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Ticonderoga, New York: Fort Ticonderoga

The American Revolution might have come out differently had it not been for Fort Ticonderoga, located in New York State along Lake Champlain.

With the Americans in trouble in Boston, Colonel Henry Knox led the transport of 60 tons of supplies from the Fort to the eastern end of Massachusetts. Think about what a logistical nightmare that must have been in 1775-76, including the lack of roads and the many mountains. The cannons forced the British troops to evacuate Boston, and the Continental Army moved in.

That's the most well-known part of the Fort's history, but there is more to it. The location was an important one during the French and Indian War as well as the Revolutionary War. The area was originally called Fort Carillon, but the French abandoned it in 1759 and the British took over. The fort was renamed for Ticonderoga, and it grew in importance when Crown Point fell victim to a large fire in 1773. Near the start of the revolution, Ethan Allen and Benedict Arnold thought Fort Ticonderoga was an easy target, and they were right.

The Fort has now become a good-sized tourist attraction for those visiting the Adirondacks. It's a great setting, with a fine view of the lake, and it's in a park-like area. There are all sorts of special events planned during the course of the year. One note - it's a short season in that part of the world. If you visit before mid-May or after mid-October, the gates are likely to be locked. So plan ahead.

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Crown Point, New York: Fort St. Frederic

The French and Indian War might be our least remembered conflict, since it is the oldest one on these shores and didn't involve the United States ... which wasn't a country at the time. However, there are plenty of historic sites in New York and Pennsylvania dedicated to preserving that conflict.

Such as place is the Crown Point State Historic Site. It is a plot of land on a peninsula at the southern end of Lake Champlain. Therefore, it was in a strong strategic position in the good old days.

In the 1750's, the British tried and failed to take Fort St. Frederic four different times. However, when events turned by 1759, the French simply left it and the British took over the space.

The British Army opted to build a new, bigger fort on higher ground overlooking the French location, which was right on the lake. Two of the main buildings are visible in the picture above, although they've taken a beating over the years. Part of the problem was an explosion in 1773. The Americans took control of the fort during the early stages of the Revolutionary War, but they later evacuated after taking some supplies.

The fort is on a great spot in terms of scenery, and it overlooks the new bridge to Vermont that was finished in 2011. The area does have a visitors center, and for a small fee tourists can see a short film about the history of the region that is quite well done. There are some items dug up from the 1700's on display as well, and a couple of state staffers are there to tell you all about the place. If you prefer, you can simply walk the grounds for free - there are murals to explain what happened.

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Montreal, Quebec: Montreal Tower

Back in 1976, the idea behind the Olympic Stadium was to have the first retractable roof. A device would hang over the top of the building and support a cover. When the weather was nice, a button was to be pushed and the roof would come off - perfect for the building's eventual tenant, the Montreal Expos.

Except ... the roof never worked too well, and the cover was left on. Eventually, the city of Montreal opted to construct a permanent tower. Not only would it hold the wires leading down to the roof, but the top could serve as a viewing point for the city.

The Expos are gone, the Tower remains. It's the tallest inclined tower in the world at 541 feet, and the city and region are sprawled out below visitors who take the funicular up to the viewing area. (It's like a cable car.)

When we were there, a storm was just moving into the area. That's why downtown Montreal was a little hazy. It got worse, to the point where we wondered if the funicular would have to stay put for a while as the storm passed. But we made it down safely.

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Montreal, Quebec: Biodome

Montreal hosts the Summer Olympics in 1976, and many of the activities were centered around the Olympic Stadium east of downtown. Once the Games were over, Montreal was left with a large space in the middle of a reasonably residential area. What to do?

Turn the space into other useful attractions, of course.

The Biodome might be the most interesting. It contains four different ecosystems that Canada hosts - rain forest, maple forest, Gulf of St. Lawrence and sub-polar region. There are animals, birds and plants from each region represented.

The building is laid out into four different quadrants, so visitors start walking on one path that winds its way through all of them. The sub-polar exhibit might have been my favorite, but that may be because the staff was feeding the penguins. The puffins are mighty cute too.

The picture to the right probably needs to be clicked on in order to see it in increased size. There are indeed lots and lots of birds on the recreated cliffs of the St. Lawrence, which overlooks a large amount of water.

Olympic Park has many more attractions, including a planetarium, soccer stadium, and movie theaters. The actual stadium is there as well, even if baseball's Expos are long gone. The area does have a large underground parking garage as well.

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Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Cape Vincent, New York: Tibbetts Point Lighthouse

Attention, geography fans.

Speaking as someone who once drove to the spot where the Erie Canal either ended or began at the Hudson River, you'll love Cape Vincent.

All of the Great Lakes eventually drain into the St. Lawrence River, and Cape Vincent sits on the spot where Lake Ontario turns into a river. The place is marked by the Tibbetts Point Lighthouse. The brochure on the town lists the lighthouse as the top local attraction.

Captain John Tibbetts donated the land for the lighthouse way back in the 1820's. They named the place after him. The Coast Guard still has control over the facility, but it does it by remote control in Oswego. There is a visitors' center that is open Memorial Day to Columbus Weekend.

You get there exactly the way you'd think you would. Get off at the last exit on Interstate 81, take a left, go on Route 12 to Route 12E. Eventually you'll run into a road that's marked as a dead end, but actually extends a handful of miles west to the lighthouse.

It's a nice little spot for a summer visit.

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Alexandria Bay, New York: Shortest "international bridge" crossing

Care to go from one country to another via bridge as quickly as possible?

This is the place to go, according to the tour guides.

On the left is Zavikon Island, which is located in Canada as part of the Thousand Islands. On the right is Little Zavikon Island, which is said to be in the United States, If you click on the picture, you can see the bridge between the two a little better. It is 32 feet long.

But there's a catch. It's not true.

According to official maps, both islands are actually on the same side of the border - Canada.

But I sure wish this was true - if only because this web page would receive many more hits.

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Alexandria Bay, New York: Boldt Castle

Boldt Castle is, at its heart, a love story.

George Boldt moved to America from Prussia in the 1860's, and worked his way up to become the manager of the Waldorf-Astoria. That hotel set new standards for luxury; the original version was where the Empire State Building is now.

Boldt was well compensated for his work. He had enough money to build a summer home in the Thousand Islands that could remind him of the castles back in the homeland. George thought it would be a great tribute to his wife, Louise. The construction of the building went on and on, with nothing overlooked. The family did spend a few summers there while the work continued.

However, Louise died in 1904. George sent a telegram ordering a half to construction, and he never again set foot in the building. It was left to rot, or least be hit by the elements and vandals, for more than 70 years.

Finally, in 1977, the Thousand Islands Bridge Authority bought the place and started the business of renovating. So here we are, 36 years later as of this writing, and they are slowly turning into the showplace it was supposed to be.

If you are building a mansion, you want to have a grand entrance. This (shown right) is a pretty grand one, as the stairs move up from the fireplace. It was a much better picture from the top of the stairs than the bottom. The ground floor includes a dining room, ballroom, billiard room (a Clarence, N.Y. company even donated the pool table), and reception room. It all looks terrific.

The second floor has some finished bedrooms and bathrooms which are decorated in the 1900 style. The upper floors aren't done, but they do offer a look at what sort of shape the place was in when the Authority took it over. The grounds are particularly nicely kept. Boldt Castle has become the top tourist attraction in the Thousand Islands, and that's no surprise.

You can get there by a tour boat - one leaves from Alexandria Bay every half-hour - or by private craft. There is a customs bureau on Heart Island to check on Canadian visitors. Put it this way - it's worth a trip every so often just to see how the renovation project is going.

Here's a video on it:

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Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Alexandria Bay, New York: Thousand Islands

More than 100 years ago, some of the rich and famous wanted to get away from summer's big city heat. The Thousand Islands area was a good spot for that. So millionaires headed north and started to construct unique summer homes on the islands there.

Many of those buildings are still there, and you can still see them. However, you'll have to get on a boat. There are tours up and down the St. Lawrence that allow a relatively close look at such homes. Just be sure to avoid some of the cargo ships that go through the St. Lawrence - they do make for quite a sight on the river.

You probably can think of all of the problems involved in building a house like the one shown above. How does it get power? Telephone lines? Where does sewage go? How do you bring in building materials? The general answer is, if you have to ask about cost for such a structure, you can't afford it.

Millionaire's Row is the best part of the cruise. Some of the names of the original owners are still well-known today, such as the original executives behind Macy's department stores (Abraham and Straus) and George Pullman of railroad car fame. Down the river a bit is the Singer Castle, built by Frederick Bourne of sewing machine fame.

There are 1,864 islands in the Thousand Islands. Anything that stays above water year-round and has a tree is considered an island. In other words, the picture on the right is an island, although probably the housing is a bit cozy for most people.

For those who know something about history, this was a rather popular spot during Prohibition. It was rather easy to transport certain beverages across international lines up here, particularly at night. And if the authorities turned up en route, the bottles of evidence were dumped into the river. In fact, divers say bottles are still on the river bed., 

The Thousand Islands are quite pretty in season. A local told me they roll up the sidewalks once fall arrives, since the temperature can be as low as 35 below at times in winter. It should be mentioned that the area right around the river is by far the best part of the region; there's not much to see or do if you get a mile away from the water - which I blurted out is "a river of pretty."

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Sackets Harbor, New York: Battlefield

The little village of Sackets Harbor probably is best known for a horse, at least for now. In 2003, Funny Cide captured the hearts of the horse racing world by winning the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness. Once was the Belmont was over, Sackets Harbor returned to being a cute little village on the edge of Lake Ontario.

It wasn't always so quiet. The entrance to the harbor was the scene of a battle during the War of 1812 between the Americans and the British. The 200th anniversary is coming up as of this writing. The base guarded the end of the lake as well as part of the St. Lawrence River. By the way, the Americans won.

The grounds have been preserved in tribute to those who died in the War of 1812, and the state runs it. There is a small visitors center. The grounds are a nice place to look out on to the lake and harbor, by the way.

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Sackets Harbor, New York: Old McDonald's Farm

It's tough to tell from the website if someone named McDonald really does, or did, have a farm in Sackets Harbor. Then again, it probably doesn't matter. The owners have turned this particular farm into a tourist attraction called Old McDonalds Farm in Sackets Harbor, which is off Lake Ontario near Watertown, New York.

It's open for tours in season, which is mostly when the weather is warm. You can see several hundred animals while visiting the facility. Yes, the pigs live on Pork Ave. The visitor center, shown above, has the usual assortment of stuffed animals and locally produced farm products. The kids must love it all.

One tip - be sure to check to see when it is open. No use making the drive for nothing.

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