Travel in the Time of COVID

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Traveling during the covid epidemic offers several differing perspectives and our family seems to have lived through all of them. Should we go? Should we stay home? Stay local? Visit another state? For the better part of last year, we planned our August vacation to Canada. It became apparent that would not be an option. The Canadian border closed in the spring and remains closed.

We couldn’t help but notice that the rest of the country was not exactly cooperating in “flattening the curve”. It didn’t take long to make the decision to remain in New York State. We live here and we felt safe with the covid policies that the state has put into place.

Now that Thanksgiving is upon us, and Christmas not far off, if you are traveling, I hope you will benefit from our experience.

If you’ve decided to stay home, these will hopefully help you the next time you venture out.

Vacationing on COVID-time is *different*.

First, have a plan, have a second plan, and be flexible in all things. We decided on a location we’d only visited for a couple hours last year – Niagara Falls, located in western New York. We would spend one week; it would be an adventure. Customarily, we would change hotels mid-week. We did not. This was a direct result of covid.

We did many things outside: Niagara Falls State Park and the Falls, Broderick Park at the Peace Bridge in Buffalo. Though I prefer indoor dining, we ate outside at restaurants, coffee shops, and ice cream shops. We also visited three monuments that we may not have seen if I wasn’t looking for outdoor things to do.

Masks. You need more than one mask. Ideally, you should have one cloth mask for each day or at least two: one to wear, one to wash (and hang to dry).

Hand Sanitizer. Though you’ll find more hand sanitizer than you can ever imagine everywhere, a travel bottle of hand sanitizer is a must.

Hotels. I was very happy with our hotel. The prices did not seem to be any higher than a regular end of summer week. However, several amenities were not available or drastically changed. The pool and fitness center were closed, but vending machines and ice machines were available. I think they suspended the airport shuttle. We were required to wear masks in the public areas, hallways, elevators, and walking through the lobby. There were hand sanitizer stands next to every elevator on all the floors to use prior to pressing the elevator buttons.

The included free breakfast was a menu to choose items from, and then bring to your room, microwave, and eat there. It usually included a muffin, a fruit, water, milk, or juice, breakfast sandwich, yogurt, and other related items. There was no housekeeping unless you requested it. We did not. We chose to ask for necessary items at the front desk. These included new towels, shampoo, cups, toilet paper. They were extraordinarily nice and very accommodating. Considering the circumstances, I thought they did an excellent job.

Attractions. Many places were closed. Those that were open had restrictions. Masks required, hand sanitizer stations, 25%-50% capacity, 6ft. distancing between groups. Some displays – where placing your face close was necessary in order to see the item – were temporarily out of order. At interactive displays, we were provided with a sanitized mini stylus to use instead of our fingers. We returned them for cleaning when we were finished with the tour.

Due to reduced capacity requirements, several locations issued timed tickets. This combined with lower capacities meant that every day about mid-afternoon tours were sold out for the day, so this required going early, getting your ticket for later in the day and then coming back. Some places preferred that you buy tickets online and show the attendant the ticket on your phone.
Many places used directional arrows on the floor directing so people weren’t intersecting with each other. Many places would not accept cash. The Niagara Falls (NF) State Park as well as the NF Visitor Center only accepted credit/debit cards.

Contact Tracing. Many hotels, attractions, and restaurants asked for our name and phone number for contact tracing.

Restaurants. We felt comfortable at each location we ate at. One place, the Hard Rock Cafe, took our temperature. Due to lower capacity, we were required to wait…outside. If we got up to use the restroom, masks needed to be worn. Some restaurants had no menus and a QR code on the table allowed for viewing the online menu on our phones.

Shopping. Only some places offered samples, like chocolate or ice cream. Fitting rooms were closed as were some public bathrooms. A few places did not take cash.

One of the good things that I noticed was that as crowded as it was, it wasn’t that crowded. There was room to stand and move around on the Maid of the Mist boat ride, which is typically wall-to-wall people.

Because the Underground Railroad Heritage Center limited two at a time in the small gift shop, I was able to have a somewhat lengthy and very educational conversation with the attendant while I waited my turn.

People were both wary and friendly at once. There may have been a glare when you got too close to someone but it turned into a smile and a laugh as we both said “oops, sorry.” It was a delicate dance.

I didn’t know how much we needed to be out of our house. Overall, even with the changes and the restrictions, we still had a great vacation, and it was nice being out and about and almost-kind-of “normal”. Niagara Falls is one of those places that never gets old; we’re thinking about returning next year, although a trip across the border would also be welcomed.

“Friday” Food. August.

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It seemed as though all we ate were chicken wings, mac & cheese, soft pretzels, ice cream, and donuts! Everything was amazing! I’ll have several posts in future days with information if you travel to the western New York area. Some things can even be ordered through the mail!

Listed in clockwise order:

  1. Roast beef and gravy on a weck roll. (Say Cheese! The Comic Book Cafe.)
  2. Pizza Logs. (Anchor Bar – the home of the original Buffalo Wings.)
  3. The Mighty Taco quesadilla with sour cream.
  4. Niagara water.
  5. Char-BQ chicken wings. (Duff’s Wings)
  6. Bavarian Pretzel with mustard and cheese. (NY Beer Project)
  7. Manhattan Mac & Cheese with garlic bread (NY Beer Project)
  8. Small (really! small!) Birthday Bash Ice Cream. (De-Dee’s Dairy)
  9. Angel cream donut (like Boston Creme with vanilla cream inside). (Paula’s Donuts.)
Some of the regional and delicious foods we had while on vacation last week in Niagara Falls, Buffalo, and its environs, NY. (c)2020

Inspire. August.

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August’s inspiration posts were delayed by the entire month, but I am determined that this post tonight at the latest. It is the last day of August and there is still inspiration to be had.

August began with my being sick, some days quite ill, and I went to the Department of Health to take a covid test, which fortunately came back negative.

We’re still receiving updates from my children’s school and they are almost ready to return; one virtually and one in an in-person hybrid model.

We also were able to take a much needed family vacation, which we understand is a privilege in these uncertain times. I credit that to many things, not the least of which is the seriousness that New York State took in combatting the coronavirus. We remained in New York, and that gave us the ability to travel and to do so without a fourteen day quarantine anywhere else we may have gone. It wasn’t our original plan, but we were all together and we had a great week.

I mention this because the one thing I want to share with you for the August inspire post is a museum that we visited that I would encourage everyone to visit. I will write more about it in later days, but here is a small glimpse:

The Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Center is located at 825 West Depot Avenue West in Niagara Falls, New York. It has only been open for about two years, and was reopened on July 18th after Covid closures.

It is very reasonably priced: $10 for adults, $8 for students and seniors (62+), $6 for children 6-12, and Free for children 5 and under.

There is limited parking shared with the Amtrak station and it is on the Discover Niagara Shuttle, a free service in the city of Niagara Falls that operates May through October. They’ve recently reopened after Covid closures.

The Heritage Center is a beautiful balance of the heartbreak of slavery and escape from bondage and the people who helped them flee. It is at once inspiring and emotional. In one instant, a story caused me to weep while others made me feel joy at their new lives in Canada.

It is a small venue, but well worth the time. I would return again to enjoy the few things that were not available due to covid restrictions.

Inside the Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Center. (c)2020
We are *this* close to freedom.
Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Center. (c)2020

Clipped Wings

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​My passport expired on May 31st. My passport lapsed once before, but other than that very brief time, I have had a passport since approximately 1986. I remember checking it’s validity when President George H.W. Bush tapped Dan Quayle to be his Vice President. Remember potatoe? I thought we could not get anyone stupider to run our government, and then the Republicans in 2015 said, “Hold my beer!”

In looking back at my twenty-one year old self, a mere child compared to the knowledge I hold now, it was epically short-sighted and judgmental, especially towards VP Quayle. That’s not to say that I’m no longer judgmental. I do try to be a bit more even-handed in my judgment calls and personal opinions on people in the public sphere. In looking back on Dan Quayle, he wasn’t a terrible Vice President. He was non-descript. I was just out of college when he and Bush were elected, and despite my working for the federal government I really didn’t have a whole lot of attention spent towards the upper levels of the Executive Branch.

That continued for quite some time. Despite each of the following Presidents’ difficulty and shortcomings, I slept well. I trusted what was in their hearts in spite of the disapproval of some policies by them and the Congresses that opposed them.

Now, we have a malignant narcissist running our country into the ground. I’m not going to get into the legalities or the politics of impeachment or armchair psychological diagnosis of dementia or any other possible cognitive or personality disorder. We do know that anything can happen because of the President’s lack of knowledge on many issues and his pettiness and impulsiveness and I live each day in fear for myself, but moreso for my children.

However, other than the security of an escapist sense of protection; a shield against the unknown and the rising anxiety, not only in me, but in the country, the expiration of my passport is a cryptic feeling; not bittersweet, not unambiguous, a little sad, a little motivating to get it renewed, a little feeling of captivity; of being a prisoner in my own land. I’m stuck.

Now, in a country the size of the United States it’s not as though I’m trapped in a 10×10 cell or even a two acre plot of land. I have the entire expanse of the width of the North American continent, so there is definitely a bit of privilege slipping out into my bluster.

We’re planning a family vacation, and with one child already on his own, I’m not sure how many more of these will be available to us. We really love spending time with our kids, and I miss them when they’re off with their friends. 

One of the places on our list of possible destinations is Toronto, which is closer to us than many of our states. 

But… 

I need a passport to get there, to cross the border into Canada. It has never felt more like a foreign country than it does now. I traveled to Canada many, many times as a child and young adult. We had (and continue to have) family there; my grandfather and his family were from Toronto and I have many cousins still living there. For a time, I had considered moving there to go to college, but that didn’t work out for a variety of reasons. I certainly wouldn’t have needed a passport back then. Even though we are not planning on seeing family during this trip, Canada, and especially Toronto and Niagara Falls still feel like going home. While so many things change, the awe of being a tiny part of this foreign land is like breathing new air.

So here I sit, contemplating a haircut, a special outfit for my photo, and popping into the post office to get a renewal application, and then sending it in as soon as possible. I do know that whether or not I use my passport or if I just carry it in my purse, it is the freedom that it grants that lets my heart rest easy. And gives peace of mind. And perhaps, one day will lead to adventure again.

Crowdsourcing Travel

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Earlier in the month our family was having some difficulty deciding on a vacation destination. Our original plan was to take nine to ten days, but our son couldn’t get the first day off (or approved yet) and a very close friend is getting married during the second weekend. Consequently, our time away was cut down to five days. That’s still a decent chunk of time, and we are very grateful to be able to take our kids somwhere special.

I made a Facebook post solicitating suggestions from my friends. I gave them three criteria:

1. Nothing south of the Mason-Dixon Line

2. Nothing west of the Mississippi

3. Able to enjoy ourselves for 5 days with no air travel.

I’m sharing what places were suggested along with some links to the area tourism and travel guides.

Fort Wayne, Indiana

     Visit Fort Wayne

Maine

     Visit Maine

Nashville and/or Memphis, Tennessee

     Nashville

     Memphis from Lonely Planet

     Memphis Travel – free map and guide

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
     Visit Pittsburgh

Ontario, Canada – Toronto and Niagara Falls (or Niagara Falls, NY)

     Toronto from Lonely Planet

     See Toronot Now

     Niagara Falls, Ontario

     Niagara Falls, NY

General Travel Info

AAA
Lonely Planet

August – Vacation/Staycation – Reflection

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We won’t be getting a vacation this year. My husband will get the time off, but we don’t have the finances to go anywhere, so what special thing can we do before school starts up again in a little more than two weeks.

This certainly won’t be the first time we have a staycation. To be honest, most of our “vacation” time was spent traveling the two hundred fifty or so miles to and from our parents’ houses. When my father was ill, and before my oldest started school, we would drive down one weekend, my husband would take my father’s car home so he could work, and then return the next weekend. We did this at least once a month.

In those ensuing years, I was able to travel a bit with help from friends, and my husband went to his mom’s with the kids for a weekend or to ComicCon, and we did many road trips – day trips – just to get away from our four walls, which always seemed to be in need of housekeeping. It still does.

What’s a family to do?

We are fortunate to live in and around the capital of New York, and so there are many options for day trips from amusement parks to historical sites, horse racing, and shopping. We recently did a quick overnight to Destiny USA, the largest mall in New York, and very similar, if not in size and scope, to the Mall of America. It was like a mini-vacation, and my husband and son checked off nine new comic stores (in less than twenty-four hours) while my daughter and I went shopping at Lush and drank bubble tea at Kung Fu Tea. We’d never been there before, and so it was nice. It was different. And it was really not expensive at all.

Where to start?

AAA

Tour books, maps, they can even make reservations for you. I actually prefer to do this myself since we rent our car from Enterprise, and this trip was free because of points accumulation.

Priceline

We booked our hotel (in the carr on our way to Syracuse) online. We didn’t find out the hotel until after we chose and paid for it, but we got a comfortable $78 room with free breakfast for $46.

Know before you go

In NY, we have a wonderful I Love NY app that offers you suggestions on where to visit, where to eat, and what to do. Google your own state, and discover what’s right in your backyard.

Look for discounts

Again, use AAA. I always forget to ask about a AAA discount when I’m at home, but it’s available in many places. Military, senior, and student discounts are also often available. Look online for special offers, coupons, and recommendations.

Make memories

Buy an inexpensive journal in the dollar section of Target or any dollar store. Use your cell phone camera to take photos of the places you’ve been, and the family you’re with.

One of the things that amazes me is discovering the “tourist” things to do in my “hometown”. We spend all of our time traveling somewhere else that we forget that people often are traveling to our neck of the woods, and we should take some time to explore our own environs.

Here are some suggestions for the central New York region, whether you’re local or visiting from afar:

1. ESAM – Empire State Air Museum

2. Erie Canal Cruises

3. Six Flags Great Escape and the Lake George Area

4. VIA Aquarium

5. Grant Cottage

6. Saratoga Race Track

7. Schuyler Mansion

8. Niagara Falls – New YorkCanada (You will need a valid passport for travel to Canada. Visit the State Dept. for more information.)

9. Destiny USA

10. National Comedy Center

Inside Lock 17. Erie Canal Cruises. (c)2018

50-47 – Niagara Falls

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I can’t remember how many times I’ve been to Niagara Falls. It is the one place that I’ve been to in almost every place of my life. I went as a kid with my parents and siblings, I went with my husband while we were dating, we brought my young son right before he started kindergarten, and we recetnly went with our whole family of five.

The city iteself changes, and over the last forty years or so, the Falls have even changed, but yet, they still remain the same.

I recognize the crowded streets, the carnival like atmosphere, the bright lights, the cold spray from the Falls, the huge ferris wheel that we could see from our hotel room window.

Parking was worse this last time, and I had trouble with my knee, but overall it was a lasting memory that we will enjoy for a long time.

Standing across from the Falls, my hand on the cold stone wall that kept me from falling down the hill to the sharp rocks below. I would stand there and stare, occasionally taking pictures, occasionally closing my eyes and just standing there, listening to the wind, the water hitting the bottom. I couldn’t feel the spray from there, but I could see it.

We wanted to take the kids on the Maid of the Mist, but the boats had also changed. Maid of the Mist only docked on the American side. The Canadian had a new tour from Hornblower Niagara Cruises. The boats were red trimmed, and the ponchos were red and biodegradable. The boat was less choppy and I liked it much better than when I was a kid.

When I was a kid, I refused to go on until my family came back safe, then my Dad took me alone. Since they didn’t drown, I figured it was okay for me to go. The anxiety is strong in me. At that time, you couldn’t keep the rain jackets. They were much heavier, rubbery, and hot, so very hot.

This boat still rocked and we were drenched from going under or close enough to the falls that the spray was heavier than any torrential downpour I’ve ever been in.

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