Monday, October 13, 2014

Leaves, Apples and Wine, Oh My!

While many older Northerners are packing up and closing their summer residences to snowbird in Florida or Arizona, those of who live in the Northeast or Northwest year round are enjoying autumn. Leaves, by virtue of less daylight time, are revealing their true colors before falling off trees that will remain dormant until late March. Out West (my dream autumn trip), parts of Northern California, Washington State, Upper Idaho, Montana and Oregon provide the landscapes that photographers drool about. Mountainous areas such as Tennessee, Colorado, Pennsylvania and Western North Carolina are all beautiful. Here in the Northeast, we feast on New England, upstate New York, the Poconos of Pennsylvania and upper New Jersey. Of course, any backyard that has a deciduous tree will delight one's sense of sight, but these areas provide extra special backdrops such as mountains, lakes, waterfalls and small picturesque towns.

Brilliant fall colors are dependent on various climate factors during the summer. Late August and early September give good indicators when foliage will reach peak colors and how vibrant the leaves will be. I'm no meteorologist nor scientist but when I returned to New York mid-August, I sensed that the unusual cool weather we were having might lead to less than fantastic colors. Hot wet summers, a gradual cooling September and later frosts might yield great color. A rainy and cold September might knock the leaves off sooner without them giving their full potential of color. This year the colors seem nice, but not as vibrant as other years.

In this tech age, the best time to guess whether it's peak season or not is to log onto and look at the fall foliage map. Areas that are near or at peak are the places to visit. This means that your plans should be flexible, because it can seem that you have to be ready to get in the car with a week's notice. What's the big deal? Those of us who live in the Northeast and Northwest can make flexible plans. Those who are flying in for the season have pot luck. Many people plan fall vacations around foliage season.

So what can you do if the colors are less than stellar? Enjoy the areas where the leaves are. This is where farms, orchards and wineries come in. Farms thrive in many regions of the USA but somehow, the seasonal activities of the farms of New England, New York and Pennsylvania seem special. In New York State, one can visit the east end of Long Island and upstate. Bear in mind that we downstate folks consider any place over the Tappan Zee Bridge as upstate, to the amusement of those who live in Westchester, Rockland and Orange Counties.

Agri-tourism is an increasingly big business. I watched a Long Island Business Report episode focusing on agriculture on Long Island. Farms that focus solely on small roadside stands or selling their products to stores were not doing as well as those that took a chance on specialty products for food or decorating trends, focusing on the hotel and boutique industry, and, as a link to the tourism industry, opening their farms for the "u-pick-your-own" seasons. The latter has grown into full scale productions complete with hay rides, mazes, pumpkin patches, face painting, booths, homemade jam, cider and baked goods, hot corn and baked potatoes.

Lewin Farms in Calverton, Long Island is a huge operation. With over 1100 acres, it seems to dominate the LI scene but there are other farms. From May to October, you can pick berries, peaches, eggplant, peppers, tomatoes, pumpkins and of course, apples. Because of the variety of produce, they have several locations, with the apple orchard in a different location than the farmstand. For the apples, they charge by the pound (whatever you can carry). You can bring your own bags and they sell the old fashioned wooden baskets.

Nearby is Baiting Hollow Farm Vineyard, a fun filled vineyard (check the website for live music) complete with horse rides. Their Harvest 2014 season looks like it will last until January 2015! Combine Lewin and Baiting Hollow (with the nearby Tanger Outlets in Riverhead) and you have a day trip guaranteed to please all ages in the family.

Lewin can be a bit overwhelming (and crowded). Other farms in the area (and they will let you know by the homemade signs along the way) are listed on When I visit one, I will write a review.

Instead of east, with NYC as a center point, one can head north. Tourists are surprised to learn that New York is a top agricultural producer, one of the top five states in the country. Dairy, apples, peaches, potatoes and, of course, wine, are top products. Just one hour out of NYC will have you thinking you are in the midwest somewhere (until you see the Catskill Mountains looming ahead of you on I-87). Masker Orchards, in Warwick, NY, just barely over 100 years old, seems to have perfected the quintessential day in the "country" without having to drive too far from New Jersey, Long Island or NYC.

They actually encourage you to picnic within the orchard and parking is a generous affair. There are "lots" but some areas of the orchard are wide enough for cars to park within the rows of the trees themselves. They charge a flat rate of 26.95 per bag picked (they provide the bags). On the bag itself is a map of the orchards (it helps to know your species of apples). There are apple picking poles around for the high branches but these were few and I never got ahold of one.
Maskers Orchard: Family Fun Area (Editorial Use Only)

In the Family Fun Area was a full scale "festival:" country store, pony rides, haunted house, apple maze, face painting, pizza, apple pies, pumpkins, ATM machine (they do take credit cards, no Amex), and, hallelujah, rest rooms. You could spend all day (and a lot of money) there. I saw many whole pizza pies being ordered. We had an apple blossom (sort of like a dumpling) that was pretty good and took home a dozen apple cider donuts as well as our bag of apples. The bag hold a lot!! One bag was sufficient for our family of three for at least a month. They 14 varieties and post the ripening schedule on their website. I missed the Golden Delicious and Granny Smiths, but you can believe I'll be checking next year. By the way, be prepared to have your car checked for bootleg apples. They mean what they say about paying on your way out. No honor system here.
Maskers Orchard's Country Store (Editorial Use Only)

Further up Route 17 or I-87, depending on how fast you want to get there, are two in New Paltz that I have visited. The benefit of these farms is the proximity to several vineyards, Minnewaska State Park and the charming town of New Paltz itself, with its funky college vibe and historical French Huguenot houses. In between Warwick and New Paltz is Woodbury Commons, another shopping outlet (Premium). Apple Hill FarmDressel Farms and Wilklow Orchards are all good. They don't seem as carnival-like as Maskers but they all have some sort of family fun.

In every region, be prepared for traffic galore. Between the outlets, vineyards, farms and every day life on the week-ends (school football games, etc), my suggestion is to be at the farm by 10AM. When you are ready to leave around 12 noon, you will see the crowd heading in and you'll be glad you got there early.

All Photos Copyright Marcia Crayton, 2014. All Rights Reserved.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Review of the Jewel of the Seas

Royal Caribbean: Jewel of the Seas


Copyright Disclaimer under section 107 if the copyright act of 1976, allowance is made for "fair use" for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, and research. Fair use is a use permitted by copyright statute that might otherwise be infringing. Non-profit, educational or personal use tips the balance in favor of fair use.

I am going to be honest. When experienced cruisers critique cruise lines, I have always heard stereotypes about the quality: Carnival is the party line, Disney is best for kids (and is expensive) and Holland and Norwegian seem to cater to older folks. Then I heard, that although Carnival can be less expensive sometimes, one should always treat oneself and go up a notch and sail with Royal Caribbean.

Cruise lines, as you know, categorize their ships into classes. Therefore, when I boarded the Jewel of the Seas, in Royal’s Radiance class, one source likened this class to Carnival’s ship Spirit class. Since I have been on the Carnival Pride, it seemed like a fair comparison.

The décor was lovely. Some ships can seem like a bad night in Vegas (Sensation Boulevard on the Carnival Sensation comes to mind) and some can seem like Titanic imitators (the grand staircase on the Disney Fantasy).  But for some reason, the blond wood grain interior was soothing, classy and relaxing.  Each landing on the staircases was highlighted with tasteful art that inspired many passengers to take pictures. Glass elevators proclaimed the day of the week with a removable panel on the floor and a lit staircase rose from the lobby.  (Digression: why do cruise ships have beautiful staircases and then let the photographers block them every night for hours?)

Deck 4 was the main drag: the lobby, customer service and excursion desks and one entrance to the Tides dining room, the one main dining area for dinner and sit-down breakfast.

The fun continued on Decks 5 (shops and photo gallery) and 6 (the Safari Club, casino, Pit Stop bar area and movie theatre).  The rest of the activities were located on the traditional upper decks (11, 12, 13).

The corridors were slightly wider than the Carnival Pride or Sensation or again, it could have been the color scheme, tricking me into thinking that. They were decorated with pop American art, such as portraits or black and white photos of Hollywood stars.

My stateroom was a little less spacious because we had a balcony (my first time). It got a bit cramped with 3 people for 7 days but we toughed it out. The balcony came in handy when we were in port because we were able to dry our swim wear from the day before (not recommended, by the way, by any cruise line).

The main dining room, Tides was divided into 2 levels: assigned dining was on the first floor and the flex time diners were on the balcony. No waiters singing, though. You heard many Carnival folks wondering where the “entertainment” was.

I was a little surprised that the food was not much better than Carnival. I had heard that Royal as supposed to be a real notch above and the food seemed comparable. The lunch buffet was sometimes better than what was served for dinner. They had an international theme happening, with a different region every day: Caribbean, European, Asian American.  I spoke with several cruisers who had been on Carnival and Disney and we all agreed that hands down, Disney still has better food.

Interestingly, the theatre entertainment was not bad. I have to cheer for the performers who are really trying to give a good show because many of them are either Broadway hopefuls or have just come from there. The content of the shows are often restricted by copyright laws and the contracts with companies that create them. Again, Disney is an exception because they have their own catalog to draw from. It’s not fair to compare.

The live performers were also not bad. If they lacked anything in exceptional talent, they certainly made up for it in enthusiasm and professionalism. I have to remember that my level of expectation can be too high since I come from New York.  Think resort entertainment or summer stock and you’ll appreciate it.

One very nice treat was the movie theatre, rather than having a movie screen on deck. It was small, but a good treat. They would schedule a movie for the entire day, so you could catch a screening at your leisure.

The fitness room was awesome. It was spacious and well maintained, I don’t recall seeing one out of order machine. There were enough treadmills and elliptical machines for at least 30 people. There were free weights and machines. I am not a spa person, but I looked through the area and took some flyers so that I could report. The products were massively expensive for this class of ship ($100 per bottle for one of the detox products) but they offered many specials on some of the services.

The track on deck was not as large as Disney’s but twice the size of the Carnival Pride, Glory and Sensation. Those tracks are so small I actually get dizzy and lose count (11 times around is a mile). For the Jewel, 6 times around was a mile, which wasn’t so bad. Like the other ships, though, except for Disney, the track is on the upper deck, which makes the wind a big factor on some days.

The pools, surprisingly, were saltwater. Even more surprising was the fact that the gift shop did not sell goggles. The excursion desk had snorkel masks for sale, but they really should consider selling goggles for those caught by surprise by the saltwater pools. These pools were more spacious than the Carnival Pride. I could actually swim a “lap” in the solarium pools.

Speaking of the solarium, it was a lovely area of the ship. It was supposed to be the adults-only area of the ship, but the web site advises that during inclement weather, children under 16 are allowed with supervision. It was enclosed, with a pool, hot tub, bar area, and a food area open when the Windjammer buffet area was closed. It was quiet and they had soft music with sprinkled with bird sounds. Very relaxing.

The water slide was a big disappointment.  First of all, it was not open all hours, about two hours a day. Then, it was restricted to ages 3-11 years. The person monitoring the slide said that he keeps turning away all the adults and teens. The rock wall was an exciting touch but also open only 2 hours a day. I am wondering if Royal Caribbean is saving money with less personnel. This particular itinerary called for only one day at sea. The rock climbing wall would open while the ship was in port, closing about one hour after sailing. Not very convenient. You had to return back to the ship early to catch it.

The basketball area stayed busy. I’m sure the folks were annoyed when they used it for dodge ball (for both the kids and adults). Near there was the miniature golf, always a treat and the golf simulator, which I did not have a chance to experience.

The video arcade also saw a lot of activity. You passed through it to the children’s club. The tweens and teens were not too impressed with the clubs for their age groups but since, they can be wishy-washy about organized activities, it is difficult to take their review too seriously. Therefore, Royal stated that if no one showed up within 15 minutes of an activity’s start time, the event would be cancelled. One nice perk was the free lanyard they gave to all kids for their room keys/cards.

There was no burger grill on deck. Interestingly, the Windjammer café closed down for certain hours but you could get a bite to eat in the solarium or the charming Seaview Cafe, which functioned like a free luncheonette: you ordered your food off a menu and they served you. The décor was like a 1950’s diner. These two options turned out to be necessary when we returned from a day on land and if you had the late seating. 

The Safari Club area was very nicely laid out. Ironically, it turned out to be where the kids wanted to be, also. We had to remind them they had their own area. Their answer was that the better events seemed to be in this area for the adults and it was true. Putting a Wii in one corner did not help to kids out! Once again, the décor was inviting, classy and not ostentatious. I was surprised that the comedy was not held here, it was certainly the ambiance for it. This area included the Schooner, the Zanzibar lounge, the Congo bar, the Game Reserves and the Serengeti Card Club.

Activities during the day were comparable to other lines: bingo games, raffles, cruise sales talks, trivia games and karaoke.

However, my biggest gripe (and several other cruisers, also) was the lack of beverages and access to them when they were available. For hygiene’s sake, there were no beverage dispensers. Instead, the free water, lemonade and iced tea were poured by the staff into cups when the buffet was open. There was a hot coffee and tea station right outside the Windjammer Café that seemed to be open 24 hours. But iced water? It became a treasure hunt. At first, I thought I was missing it. Then, as I inquired around, I heard other passengers also looking for water. There was a fountain in the fitness area but no dispenser so you could not fill up your water bottle (to prevent contact between the mouth of the bottle and the dispenser spout). Finally, on the third day, after a particularly hot excursion into Antigua, a dispenser was placed in the solarium area (with a sign not to fill up your bottle directly from the spout).

Now, we all know that cruise lines are trying to sell you the beverage packages (soft drinks and/or liquor). However, Americans are accustomed to thinking that basic water is one of their constitutional rights and having one dispenser in a corner wasn’t cutting it. Unlike other ships, the lemonade and iced tea was not available 24/7.

Royal went out of its way to keep everyone healthy. Cruise lines have been almost fanatic lately with the hand sanitizer but this particular voyage seemed to be even more so: they dispensed before and after every meal (even if you went near the dining areas but were not going in); before you got off and when you got back on the ship (in three locations on the gangway, at the security area and one near the towel return) and had self-serve dispensers at every stair case landing. I was waiting for the masks.

Finally, the staff was professional, courteous and friendly. The cruise director did not make too many announcements and the captain was very capable and serious about his job. For example, as usual, drinks are for sale as soon as you board, and as usual, there is a safety drill prior to sailing. The two events may be hours apart, therefore almost guaranteeing that some passengers may not be cooperative in attending the drill.  The captain refused to sail until it had been reported that everyone had been accounted for and everyone was on deck for the drill.  In addition, the crew conducted another drill while we were in port one day.

Would I sail with Royal Caribbean again? Yes. The Radiance class? Yes. However, I must say, I would not rank Royal Caribbean above Carnival. At this point, they are neck and neck.


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Tuesday, June 24, 2014

A "Band" New Day: Disney Magic Bands

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1. What are Magic Bands? The Magic Bands, introduced in 2013 and updated in 2015 are waterproof wristbands with a chip using RFID technology inside that can function as your admission ticket, your annual pass, your hotel key if you are staying in a Disney resort, your "credit card" in Disney (if you are at a resort) and also, your FastPass+. Got that? 

If you pre-order, your bands will arrive in the mail, now in a more discreet package then before

2. How do I get one? You will receive one when you book a Disney resort or buy an annual pass. It will be mailed to you. Your name will be inside. If you buy a regular ticket at the park, you get a plastic card but you can purchase a Magic Band and link the ticket.  If you already have one, you can decline the band when you book your resort online. If you don't customize it, you will get the standard gray color when you check in.

Big Thunder Mountain Railroad (Magic Kingdom): FastPass worthy for the kids

3. How do you use them? Simply touch "Mickey to Mickey." In other words, you touch the Mickey icon on the bracelet to the Mickey icon at the ride or cashier. The technology will read who you are and confirm your FastPass or charge your credit card for a purchase. A PIN is required for purchasing. 

Disney's All Star Resort: The Bands are your hotel keys

4. How do I link my information? Your info will be linked when you check in if you are staying at a resort. If you buy a band, you can link it through the My Disney Experience app. When you book a FastPass, the info links to your band.

Space Mountain (Magic Kingdom): Stand by and Fast Pass entrances

5. What else may happen with my Magic Band? Ride through it's a small world® and find out. There are limited edition bands that do extra effects when you use them or the band may indicate your status. For example, I am part of the Disney Vacation Club and my band turns a different color when I enter one of the parks.

The original Disney Magic Bands ® They will still work.

6. What happens if I lose it or it doesn't work anymore? The battery inside supposedly lasts for at least two years. My first one was still working after 4 years. You can go online and deactivate any Magic Band in your account.

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Copyright Disclaimer under section 107 if the copyright act of 1976, allowance is made for "fair use" for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, and research. Fair use is a use permitted by copyright statute that might otherwise be infringing. Non-profit, educational or personal use tips the balance in favor of fair use.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Coney Island: Sharing a local treat

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Coney Island Boardwalk
As per Wikipedia, Coney Island is one of the oldest amusement areas in the world. Seaside resorts, traveling fairs and carnivals, world's fairs along with the Industrial Revolution (resulting in rides) and an increase of the masses having money to spend on entertainment gave rise to amusement parks. Coney Island, being near the shore, was a natural location for NYC to have its own. One could say that Coney Island was one of the original staycations, easily accessible by subway from Manhattan yet far enough to feel like you're out of town, literally at the seashore, staying at one of the fabulous resort hotels that were popular in the mid to late 1800s.
The Cyclone
The name Coney comes from the Spanish "conejo," which means rabbit. Apparently, the peninsula was full of the little bunnies until development limited their numbers. "Coney" was a nickname that stuck.

Popular before World War II, Coney Island descended into almost a delicious seediness, where only hardy NY locals would dare to go. Nathan's, the famous hot dog stand, the Cyclone, one of the grandfathers of all roller coasters, the Deno's Wonder Wheel and the inactive 1939 World's Fair souvenir, the red Parachute Jump managed to survive despite the disintegration of the 1960s and 1970s. New York State may not have the best of everything but we do have almost one of everything and city folk in particular patronize the beach and enjoy the boardwalk with the best of them.
Surf Avenue
Meanwhile, an entire community built up around the resort area, complete with houses, housing projects, schools, churches and supermarkets. Street names like Neptune, Surf and Mermaid pay tribute to the seaside theme, but make no mistake, Coney Island is a real neighborhood and a vital part of NYC.

Coney Island limped along until the 1980s revitalization started. Despite the fact that it can seem like one big business, Coney Island was always actually several independently owned parks, the most famous seemingly being Deno's, Luna Park and Steeplechase Park. You can read about the process on Wikipedia, but now, 30 years later, thanks to local politicians and developers, the area is a hot spot.
The new Thunderbolt, Coney Island (editorial usage)
Locals, however, are not giving it up to the tourists so easily, however. NYC can promote it to the out-of-towners all it wants but Coney Island belongs to us, always has and always will. When you visit, just remember you're in our house and our rules apply. But don't worry, there is plenty of NYPD to keep everyone in line. The place seems to be even more alive after dark: with everything lit up and the noise of the games spilling out onto Surf Avenue.
Nathan's Famous
You can make a day or weekend of coming to this part of Brooklyn. Get there early, and visit the NY Aquarium. Still rebuilding after Superstorm Sandy, there is enough to do and enjoy while you interact with marine life and learn about conservation. Next, stroll down the street and take in a few rides. The amusement parks still operate old school: admission is free and you buy tickets (or books of tickets) to ride the attractions. Old and new games are there, also: bring lots of cash, they are not as cheap as they used to be! You'll find Luna Park, Deno's Wonder Wheel Amusement Park, and more! Comprehensive info can be found at Coney Island Fun Guide.
Soaring Eagle
Believe it or not, the sideshow still exists. I've never been in to see if there really were freaks of nature, but take a chance if you dare and enjoy a relic of the old carnivals. You can also visit a museum dedicated to "defending the honor of American popular culture!" Coney Island USA.
Wonder Wheel (trademarked, editorial usage)
Cut through the parks and head to the famous boardwalk, immortalized in many movies, including the building in the film Two Weeks Notice at 21st Street and the Boardwalk. Warning: NYC waters never really warm up, our season is too short, but the Parks Department is making an effort to keep the beaches clean and you are guaranteed to be totally entertained by the locals. It's never boring. Official season is Memorial Day to Labor Day for the life guards and they mean it. In the winter, dare to dive in with local polar bear clubs, especially on New Year's Day.
The Boardwalk
When you get hungry and thirsty, this is the best place to fall so far off your diet that you have no choice but to walk it off on the entire boardwalk. Custard ice cream, seafood, candy, popcorn and all sorts of interesting drinks tempt you along the boardwalk and Surf Avenue. Of course, the most well-known is Nathan's Famous. Many New Yorkers will not eat Nathan's anyplace else. Somehow, it tastes better down here. However, the other spots are just as good, particularly since Nathan's can seem slow and the lines can be very long.
MCU Park (editorial usage)
In the evening, take in future sports stars at Municipal Credit Union (MCU) Park and cheer on the Brooklyn Cyclones, one of our local minor league baseball teams. Like any other sports venue, you do not have to be a sports fan to enjoy an outing at the ballpark. With the mascot running around and all the fun things in between innings, a minor league game becomes quite intimate. The park is smaller, the players are accessible and the crowd is fun. It is certainly cheaper.
Williams Candy Store, next to Nathan's, Surf Ave

Afterwards, stroll back to Williams Candy store and take home one of the famous candy apples or get some more ice cream.
Subway Station
Getting there: the old BMT lines, now known as the MTA F, Q, N, D trains will take you to the area. The main buses would be the B36 and B68. By car, it gets a little complicated and parking between June and September is ridiculous, but for a small fortune, you can park in privately owned lots without running out to the meter every 15 minutes.

So, come on down to our very own seashore resort area and take a few moments to enjoy yourself.

Copyright Disclaimer under section 107 if the copyright act of 1976, allowance is made for "fair use" for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, and research. Fair use is a use permitted by copyright statute that might otherwise be infringing. Non-profit, educational or personal use tips the balance in favor of fair use