Friday, July 29, 2011

Travel and Review: Fire Island Lighthouse, NY (with photos)

I took a recent day trip out to Long Island, NY to go to Robert Moses Beach and the Fire Island Lighthouse.  This is a relaxing way to spend a beach day in this area, so I thought I would put up a quick post about it for those who might be interested...

There are two large beach complexes with various parking fields in this area, all accessible via Ocean Parkway.  If you're driving from west to east on Ocean Parkway, the first you'll come upon is Jones Beach State Park and the second is Robert Moses State Park.  I don't need to repeat a lot of the information available at these links to explain these two state parks.  Suffice to say that there's more than enough information there for you to read....

In a nutshell, these two massive beach complexes each have their own personality.  Since Jones Beach is the first complex on Ocean Parkway that people come to (and thus the most accessible), the primary ocean front parking fields tend to fill up fairly quickly on any given summer day.  Spillover parking then goes to the non-primary parking lots, which require a short walk to get to the beaches.  Jones Beach tends to draw a younger crowd than Robert Moses, and when combining that with the crowd levels that can swell there (especially on weekends!!!), it can be too much for comfort for my beach-going tastes.  We only go to Jones Beach when I take the day off from work and we go on a weekday.  Weekends should be avoided unless you go early in the morning before the crowds get there and then leave when the crowds start to swell too large.

To avoid some of the crowd levels at Jones Beach, I take the extra 20 minutes to drive further down Ocean Parkway and over the Robert Moses Causeway to the Robert Moses State Park complex.  You'll drop some of the crowd just because of the extra drive time and the beaches here are typically a little less crowded than Jones Beach.  Robert Moses also tends to be a little more family oriented but still obviously draws its fair share of young people.  Some of the beaches at Robert Moses are designated as radio-free zones.

We typically park at Field 5 at Robert Moses, which is the eastern-most field that's right next to Fire Island Lighthouse.  The nice thing about this field is its proximity to the Lighthouse, which allows you to take a little walk on a boardwalk through a nature preserve to explore the Lighthouse and the museum at its base.  Additionally, it's nice to park at Field 5 because if you take a little walk east up the beach from the parking field the crowds drop off dramatically.  Be cautioned that if you walk far enough east and the beach becomes isolated enough, you'll probably bump into some nude sunbathers.  Whether or not that bothers you is up to you to decide!  :-)

If you do go to Robert Moses and you park in Field 5, I would recommend spending about 90 minutes out of your day to walk to the Lighthouse, climb to the top, take some photos of the great views, and explore the nice museum at its base.  It's easy to spend even more time than this while there because there's plenty of history in the museum about Fire Island Lighthouse and lighthouses in general, as well as a gift shop and nice staff that will be more than happy to engage you in a conversation about the history of Fire Island Light.

Depending on where you live and how you go home, a stop in Freeport, NY for dinner is a nice idea.  Specifically, there's a street on the waterways there called Woodcleft Avenue that has a long line of waterfront restaurants and bars to choose from.  I've eaten at several of them and they're all pretty good, although I wouldn't say any of them are "great".  The dinner crowd starts to pick up around 6:30pm in this area and by 7:30pm it starts to get pretty crowded, so make sure you get there before then if you don't want to wait for a table.

With all of this being said, click on the photo below to see a few pictures from a recent day-trip that I took to Robert Moses State Park and the Fire Island Lighthouse with my family.  Enjoy!

Fire Island, NY

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Travel and Review: Newport, RI (with photos)

Castle Hill Inn, photographed from Newport Harbor
I've been going to Newport in Rhode Island for vacation since I was a kid when my parents used to take our family there.  Thirty years later, I now take my family there, and it's a relaxing and enjoyable trip.

My impressions of Newport now as an adult are echoed by the same types of memories that I have of Newport as a child.  As soon as I make the right turn off the Newport Bridge and drive toward America's Cup Avenue on the water front, a wave of relaxation comes over me every time and stays with me the entire time I'm there.  Good stuff.... 

The general vicinity of activities in Newport is encompassed within a couple of square miles, but the core of the primary activities that you'll probably do is located in an area of just a few square blocks along the Newport water front of America's Cup Avenue and some of the surrounding blocks in that area.

What to do:

Let's get some information out of the way up front in this post with the following links for good things to do while you're in Newport:
  1. Fodor's profile of Newport
  2. Newport Chamber of Commerce
  3. Whale watching out of Provincetown
  4. Whale watching out of Barnstable
  5. Sailing on the custom 50' Flyer catamaran in Newport Harbor
  6. Information on touring the Newport Mansions
  7. The beautiful Cliff Walk hike above the coast alongside the mansions 
  8. Fort Adams State Park
  9. Visit Castle Hill Inn to relax on the lawn with a drink overlooking Newport Harbor.
  10. Shopping in the quaint shops on America's Cup Avenue.
  11. Cape Cod is within an easy drive of Newport, and this might merit adding some extra time to your vacation if you want to explore the Cape while you're in Newport. 
  12. Going to the beaches, although this is not my primary choice of activity in Newport. 
  13. Enjoy a few pints of Newport Storm IPA beer!  :-)
That should keep you busy!

I've found that three full days in Newport is a good amount of time to strike a balance between activities and relaxation, especially if you're traveling with kids. That would generally mean an activity in the morning, a break for lunch, and an activity in the afternoon.  If you're not traveling with kids (who get tired eventually) or you want to add some time on Cape Cod, then four days is probably better.

The Elms mansion....definitely a must-see activity!
Of all the activities above, I can particularly recommend the Cliff Walk, sailing on the Flyer catamaran, and touring one or more of the mansions.  These are classic Newport activities that everyone should experience.  If you go to the mansions, then try to see The Breakers, The Elms, and/or Marble House.  These are the best of the mansions and they offer an incredible glimpse of the wealth of the gilded age and the lifestyle of the rich and famous in Newport at that time.  Every time I see these mansions I just stare at the beauty of them.  What craftsmanship and extravagance!  There's a bathroom in The Breakers that actually has hot and cold running sea water in the bathtub!  And the ballrooms are magnificent...

A note about the beaches.  Newport has several beaches to pick from (Easton's Beach, 1st Beach, 2nd Beach, 3rd Beach) but I would say that Newport isn't exactly known for its beaches.  First, they can be rocky and have a lot of shells.  Second, due to the geography of the region, there's often a lot of seaweed that washes into the coves where the beaches are located.  Don't get me wrong.  The beaches are OK, but if you're looking for beautiful wide sandy beaches with crashing waves, Newport is not the place to look for that.  You would need to go out onto Cape Cod for "better" beaches...

Where to eat:

The outdoor section of The Black Pearl.  Good food, great location!
When it comes to dining, the water front wharfs on America's Cup Avenue are packed with restaurants to choose from.  Most of them offer some kind of outdoor dining with views of Newport Harbor in addition to their indoor seating.  I don't think I've ever had a bad lunch or dinner in Newport.   Many of the restaurants have been in their current locations for a long time, and that's a good indicator because competition on the water front is fierce.  If any of the restaurants were truly bad, I'm sure they would close quickly.  One note....If you're headed out to the water front for dinner on the weekend in the summer, make sure you get there by 5:00pm or you'll be waiting for a long time to get a table.  Weeknights are a little better for seating, but not much.

Some of my favorite restaurants include those at the links here:
  1. The Black Pearl
  2. The Gas Lamp Grille
  3. The Barking Crab
  4. The Red Parrot
Where to stay:

Store fronts on Thames Street
There are many different types of accommodations in Newport.  Right in the center of town by America's Cup Avenue and Thames Street there are quaint Victorian bed and breakfast inns and a few larger hotels (Marriott, Hyatt, Newport Hotel).  All of these book up early in the summer for the prime summer weekends, so unless you plan ahead you might be prevented from getting a room in these areas simply because they're all full.  The other issue with staying in the prime areas of town is the cost.  All rooms in these locations are over $200/night, and some of them are a lot more.  The Hyatt on Goat Island is one of the most expensive hotels in Newport.

If you're OK with staying 5-10 minutes outside of town, then the Holiday Inn Express at this link or the Courtyard Marriott at this link in Middletown are perfectly viable options.  In fact, I just stayed at the Marriott and it was nice, clean, convenient, and had a good indoor/outdoor pool.

In summary:

The shops and restaurants along Bowen's Wharf in town...
As you can tell from this post, I really enjoy visiting Newport.  It's a bit on the expensive side and I wouldn't put it on my list of places that I need to go every year for vacation, but every 2-3 years I go back there for a few days and I always enjoy it.  It's like re-reading a good book or watching a good movie that you've seen before.  You know what it's about, but you still love reading and watching them again.  Newport is like that.  It doesn't change at all over the years and has been kept up nicely, and it's always ready for a return visit.  It's consistently a fun, relaxing, nice way to spend a few summer days.  Enjoy!

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Disney Pin Trading - The addiction (and fun) begins!

My starter set of pins...
When I went to Disney back in the 1990's with my wife, Disney was just getting started with pin trading.  For those who don't know what this is, it's the process of buying and trading metallic pins that you can get at stands in the Disney parks around the world that are adorned with all kinds of scenes related to the Disney parks, characters, movies, etc.

There are thousands of different pins available to date.  Anniversary pins, annual pins, specialized pins, limited edition pins.  You name it, there's a pin for it.  Shockingly, a big missed opportunity for Disney is that they don't publish an annual guide of all the pins, which I'm sure many people in the hobby would love to have and be willing to pay for.

Even back in the 90's when it was just getting started, I could see the potential popularity of the pin trading hobby because people of all ages swarmed the few pin buying stations that Disney had in each park looking for pins to fit into their growing collection.  I was intrigued by this and went over to one of the stands to check out the pins.

I quickly saw that it can be an expensive hobby!  The most basic pins are about $7, the typical fancier pins are around $10, and they get even more expensive than that depending on how complex/fancy the pin is.  Over the years, the prices have remained pretty much the same, and I would imagine that they have to because how expensive can you make a pin???  There's a price point that these things need to stay at so people will buy them over a period of years. 

At the time, I didn't get into the hobby because quite frankly I didn't want to spend the money on it.  Then, on our last trip to Disney in 2010, my kids expressed an interest in buying pins.  Although I heroically resisted this additional expense on what was already turning out to be a very costly trip, I caved in and bought the kids some pins.  They were thrilled to get them.  And thus a new hobby in my family was born...

We all started talking about the pins, stopping at the pin stands, looking at other people's pins, etc.  Once you get into it, all of a sudden you'll notice them all over the place!  And the Disney cast members walking around the parks wear them too, so you can walk up to them and ask them to trade (which they always do).  Even I got into it when my wife bought me a collector's edition starter kit for Christmas.  You can see it in the photo above where they're attached to the red pin lanyard.  I like to collect the pins that have scenes of the parks and Disney hotels in them.

Now I can't wait to get there this year to see which new pins to add to my collection!!!  I can feel the money being sucked out of my wallet before we even get $10 a pin!  When you add this to my "Disney coffee mug" hobby (I buy at least two on every trip there), I'm not going to have enough money for gas to drive home!

It's now a little over ten years since Disney started pin trading.  Wisely, they've made it possible to get some pins online at the 'Pin Trading Around The World' website at this link to extend their selling opportunities once people leave the parks.  At this site there are links to their pin trading blog, the pin store, and other helpful information for those just starting out with collecting.

Here are two interesting stories about pin trading:
  1. Getting to the Point with Disney Pins
  2. Big Pin Hunting at Disney
If you weren't previously aware of all this, check out the Disney Pin Trading website and all of the pin trading activities and locations the next time you're in the parks.  But bring some extra cash, because I bet that you too will soon be hooked on collecting and trading Disney pins.  See more photos below...

Decisions, decisions.  Which pin to buy???!!!

A smile as they check out the shiny new pin purchases...


Monday, July 4, 2011

Happy July 4th - Independence Day

Happy July 4th! 

I was out with the family this weekend and saw this flag on top of the Walkway Over The Hudson.  I was feeling patriotic so I snapped this shot of it in the wind from far away and added an inner glow to the edge of the frame for a unique look.

Wherever you are and whatever you're doing on this U.S. Independence Day, I hope you're enjoying your barbecues, cold beer, fireworks, and good music with family and friends.

Add a thought of hope that we can work together to get this great country of ours out of the wars that we're in overseas so that our military can come home and we can focus on getting the U.S. back on track to enjoy peace and prosperity once again.  We need to stop spending so much money overseas on wars that we can't win and instead start taking care of ourselves for a change....

Saturday, July 2, 2011

New free photo apps from Fotopedia (North Korea and Burma)

In this previous post about Fotopedia, I mentioned the nice photo apps that Fotopedia has put together and offered for free or a nominal charge.  This is just a quick post to let people know that they've added two more nice free apps to their catalog that are available for download now:
  1. "Dreams of Burma", which is available at this link.
  2. "North Korea", which is available at this link.
Both of them share all of the features that I've previously mentioned about these apps.  Enjoy!