Sunday, August 28, 2011

August Cycling: Massachusetts and New York

The Farm Ride

After the not-so-rolling hills and humidity of the Hudson River Valley in July, an early August, two-day bicycle trip through western Massachusetts farmland was the perfect change of pace.

The area around the University of Massachusetts, Amherst--pronounced without the "h" if you want to sound more like a New Englander and less like a New Yawker--has endless miles of bicycle friendly roads. A converted railway trail and the Franklin County Bikeway wind through bucolic and breathtaking scenery: waterfalls; barns; cornfields; farmhouses; cornfields; a cow; vegetable plots; and, endless rows of corn.  This organized ride, appropriately named 'The Farm Ride,' meandered through several historically significant and just simply old towns.
Amherst Courthouse
Four colleges and one university populate the Amherst geographic area: U. Mass; Amherst; Smith; Hampshire; and Mt. Holyoke. The actual town of Amherst, in addition to housing the actual college and the University of Massachusetts, has the standard requisite college town requirements: tattoo parlors; coffee shops; ice cream shoppes; pizza parlors; and, not shockingly, bars and pubs. Coffee and "green" businesses abound. Besides Starbucks and a friendly roaster called Rao's, a cute little breakfast place replete with wide-planked wooden floors and cozy booths, the Black Sheep, enticed me with some earthy aromatic single-origin brew and peppy tunes on a rainy Sunday morning.  Also, if you ever visit Amherst, you must not miss the apple strudel coffee cake baked fresh daily at Henion bakery downtown.  The bike ride started with this scrumptious nosh, and my tastebuds have not forgotten it. 

This college town also has ample museums, especially for the literati. For example, the Emily Dickinson museum and the Dickinson homestead are located here; for those with a more highbrow preference, as I whisked by Hampshire College I noticed the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art. (Remember the caterpillar picture book we read as kids? Imagine a whole museum of that fun stuff!) 

Near Amherst, the town of Hadley offers retail favorites like Trader Joe's and Whole Foods, and a farm road straight to the Sugar Shack, where we had the Farm Ride's finale barbecue. In the first whispers of spring, when the maple sap starts "running," this cute little place cooks the sap on premises to make maple syrup and hosts a giant pancake breakfast, too.  

One town in the area, Deerfield, has a cute colonial village and quaint old hotel. The colonial settlement has a rich history of French, Native American, and English influence. No matter how quaint the restoration presents these recreated settlements, though, my first thought is always how miserable and cold those settlers must have been in the winter. 

Moving along the Franklin County bicycle trail into Hampshire County, another town of interest, Hatfield, had many examples of grand colonial architecture.  Mostly agricultural in its origins, this town, founded in 1660, is also known for supplying resources and men for the rebels during the American Revolution

One last place of note is another "green" city, Northhampton [nothing like the "Hamptons" on Long Island], not far from Amherst.  Northhampton has a Berkeley-meets-Greenwich Village feel to it, with cute boutiques, health food, pet-centric shops, and a popular and famous ice cream store called Herrells. Like most places in this area, Native Americans were the original settlers of Northhampton [known to them as Norwottuck, or "midst of the river"].  The majestic scenery of the vast and fertile farmland in the foothills of the Berkshires displays its obvious appeal as a place to settle.  My suspicion, though, is the colonists probably did their settlement shopping in the summer, not the winter.

Summer Streets

For the first three weekends of August, the City of New York closes Lafayette street from the Brooklyn Bridge up to East 72d Street so that pedestrians and cyclists can ride "fancy-free" up the east side without fear of being hit by a cabbie or typical New York driver. Unfortunately, you will still have to deal with the more dangerous obstacles of pedestrians, inline skaters, scooters, runners, and other cyclists who have no idea which side of the road they should be on. In concept, this is a great idea, with lots of inducement to get people off the couch and exercising with free skate and bike rentals and other fitness related activities. [Note: the lines for these amenities are very long, so unless you are very patient, fuggedahboudit]  Along the route are water stations with New York's finest water, and Whole Foods sponsored a picnic area with free samples of purportedly healthy snacks. I can honestly say there is something appealing and exhilarating about riding a car-free Manhattan street.  I had my first taste of this in early May for the Five Borough Bike Ride; now that I live even closer to the City, I thought I should give it another heartfelt try. 

Every now and then I participate in some event, usually fitness related, that I am grateful to have experienced once, but do not need to repeat. Summer Streets by bicycle is one such event.  (Another is the 50-degree October day Bronx Mud Run, which included waist-high wading in the ocean and a post-race "rinse" with a cold garden hose.)  The first challenge of Summer Streets was cycling the six-plus miles from my apartment in the southern part of Brooklyn up to the Brooklyn Bridge. This included passing through some sketchy neighborhoods, dodging potholes, and holding my breath for the ride over and near the Gowanus Canal.  After passing Cadman Plaza in downtown Brooklyn, home to several gorgeous courthouses, I ascended the ramp to the Brooklyn Bridge.

Now, traversing the Brooklyn Bridge is a must and on my list of repeat activities. Traversing the bridge by bicycle, however, is not. It is a harrowing experience, and because cyclists and pedestrians share one narrow walkway, it is quite dangerous, evidenced by frequent ambulance-worthy accidents.  Despite the clearly marked bike and pedestrian paths, the inevitable human 'common sense' factor--the same one you witness watching people board an airplane--makes navigating the proper lane a challenge. Due to the intensity of the journey across by bicycle, I have included a picture from a previous visit.

Again, I do recommend viewing and crossing the Brooklyn Bridge. The magnificent structure never takes a bad picture.  On the Manhattan side, do not miss viewing and also marveling at the new Gehry structure. Originally known as Beekman Tower, at 76 stories, New York by Gehry on 8 Spruce Street is "the tallest residential tower in the Western Hemisphere, and the first ever designed by Frank Gehry."  

On the Brooklyn side, many people cross over the bridge and then look around like they are not in Kansas anymore. Head toward the water. Along the waterfront the greenway and park [] have superb people watching opportunities and picture-perfect vistas of the City and the East River.  There is no shortage of fabulous restaurants; whether it is Grimaldi's pizza or the fancy River Cafe--both are worth the wait. 

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Welcome to Bay Ridge, Brooklyn

I recently moved to Brooklyn, a borough of New York City, approximately fifty miles almost directly west of Islip, where I was living on Long Island.  Although a relatively short distance, some distinct differences in the areas are immediately apparent.  I do still live near the water; however, instead of living on the South Bay between Long Island and Fire Island, I now live on the Lower Bay, the gateway from the Atlantic Ocean into the New York Harbor. Also, instead of the Long Island Railroad whistles, I now hear the cargo ships' horns blowing as they traverse under the Verrazano Bridge.  
The Bay Ridge neighborhood initially developed in the early 1900s when wealthy Manhattanites wanted to distance themselves a little from the hustling bustling City. They built some beautiful mansions along a street called Shore Avenue, and a few remain today.  Shore Avenue runs parallel and somewhat elevated from a beautiful greenspace of parks and recreation areas.  Along the actual shoreline another long bicycle and pedestrian path offers vehicle-free stunning views. Conveniently located a block from my apartment, the pathway either leads to Coney Island [see picture on left] or toward downtown Brooklyn, with some of the best views of the Manhattan skyline and Lady Liberty guarding the harbor [see picture below].


Over the years, many working class families of Irish and Italian descent further developed the neighborhood. This heritage can be seen in much of the intricate masonry in many of the buildings and homes. Little details--whether a garden, a granite or brick driveway, a fountain, or ornate wrought-iron gate--distinguish each residence.  Given the Italian heritage, the Virgin Mary has a little alcove at a few homes, too.  

One unique home, described as extreme Arts and Crafts architecture is not far from my apartment building.  This private residence, known locally as the "Gingerbread House" and formally as the Howard E. and Jessie Jones House, was built in in 1916-1917. 

Although Bay Ridge does have a few more ethnic groups represented, I did see my fair share of white tank tops on the way to the Farmer's Market this morning. Needless to say, Italian markets and restaurants abound, so eating well will not be a problem in this neighborhood.  On a final Italian-themed note: the 1977 movie, Saturday Night Fever, was filmed and based in Bay Ridge.  Who can forget John Travolta a/k/a Tony Manero strutting his stuff at the Odyssey 2001 disco. Need I say more? 

My building also has a little history. According to the superintendent, Briarleigh Hall was designed by a woman architect about 90 years ago.  In an August 1929 classified newspaper section I found, this building advertised some fancy amenities: an elevator [1929!!]; Frigidaires; a roof garden; a gymnasium; and a ballroom. No rent prices were listed for this place, but other apartments advertised at $50 a month. Much has changed since then. The elevator remains, but none of the other amenities. The rent is not $50 a month, either!

On a final note, an interesting story coincides with my living in Bay Ridge.  On May 1 of this year, on a final stretch of the Five Borough bike ride, I cycled through a cute little neighborhood shadowed by the Verrazano bridge. [See] I asked my friend the name of the neighborhood but really did not think any more about it.  Little did I know then that exactly three months later, the twinkling blue lights of that Verrazano bridge would be the last thing I saw as I drifted off to sleep!  Life is funny that way, and for those types of synchronicity, I am most grateful!

Saturday, August 6, 2011

The Hudson River Valley

About an hour north of Manhattan, and nestled just across the river from West Point, the quaint Village of Cold Spring-on-Hudson awaits hiking enthusiasts, antique lovers, and history buffs. Cold Spring [not to be confused with Cold Spring Harbor on Long Island], established in 1846, thrived economically from the West Point Foundry until about 1911 when it closed.

Rumor has it George Washington took a drink from the cold spring on a hot day and the name stuck. On the hot, humid mid-July day that I visited, the name was also appropriate. Cold Spring looks every bit as quaint and all-American as you would expect from a New York village with a small population. The stunning scenery to this gateway to the Hudson River Valley began an adventurous weekend tour of the Hudson River Valley ("HRV").

For the past three summers, I have visited the HRV: the first year to attend a wedding at West Point [Happy Anniversary to the Rogers]; last year for a forty-mile bike ride; and this year as an encore to the bike ride with an additional thirty [or so] miles.  Now, if you want to see the beautiful scenery and history of the towns along the Hudson River, you can opt to do so in the summer or fall, by car or bicycle.  If you want to be comfortable and relaxed on the tour, I do not recommend the hottest day of the summer by bicycle.  These are not fun bucolic rolling hills, and it is not a "dry" heat. [For the record, these are not mountainous hills, either; it's just that my native-Floridian-spoiled muscles prefer long, flat surfaces]. 

Despite the hills and heat, this area, full of charm and beauty, has a few noteworthy highlights: 

After Cold Spring, head north.  In 1678 a group of French speaking Huguenot refugees came to this area and settled in New Paltz. The aptly named Huguenot Street features seven authentic Dutch colonial style homes dating to the early 1700s.  Also, a former railway, now a Trailway, winds east from New Paltz, through a town called Highland, and crosses the Walkway across the Hudson to Poughkeepsie. This bridge allows only pedestrians or cyclists, and the views are fantastic.

Heading north of Poughkeepsie, you can visit some mansions of Hyde Park.  For example, Bellefield Mansion, on the site of FDR's home, dates back to the 18th century and is now the onsite headquarters of the National Park Service. Compared to some of the other mansions, it is modest, but its garden is a charmer. The garden was designed in 1912 by Beatrix Farrand, a renowned landscape architect at the height of her career. She not only created gardens for the Rockefellers, the Morgans, and Edith Wilson at the White House, but she also pioneered the concept of “garden rooms.” And, as a genealogical note, she was Edith Wharton’s niece.  You will also be happy to know that directly across from FDR's beloved home and property is a drive-in movie theater.

Moving along the mansion trail, you can see Frederick Vanderbilt's 600-acre estate that he purchased in 1895.  It is now a part of the National Park Service with stunning views of the Hudson River.

Next up is the Mills Mansion ("Staatsburgh"), owned by Ruth Livingston Mills, who initially inherited a 25-room Greek Revival home on this site. She was married to Ogden Mills, a financier, and they did a "little remodeling" in 1896 to transform it into a Beaux-Arts mansion of only 65 rooms and 14 bathrooms.

Traveling a little farther north, you can see many towns on the cliffs, such as Rhinecliff. [See church pictured to the right]  

Nearby, Bard College, has stunning architecture, old and new, including a theatre designed by Frank Gehry: 

From Bard, travel north to the town of Rhinebeck and cross the Rhinebeck-Kingston bridge into--no surprises here--Kingston.  Kingston was New York's first capital in 1777, but the British burned it on October 16, 1777, after the Battles of Saratoga. From here, take a leisurely ride south along the west side of the Hudson River, and enjoy the scenery.  There are a few wineries and some cute little places to stop along this route. Unfortunately, I was not in the mood to take photographs at this stage of the bike ride. Of course, there is always next summer...