We’ve been with a lot of people lately. Georges and I love people. But after visiting five sets of fabulous friends in Canada over a recent 18-day span in July, we looked forward to returning to the U.S. and enjoying some down time on our own.
Crossing the border hardly took a second, a real contrast to our experience going the other way earlier this month. The U.S. border agent practically yawned as he waved us through, hardly requiring us to come to a full stop to answer his perfunctory two or three questions.
From there we embarked on a five-day-600-mile westward interlude along the shores of Lake Ontario and Lake Erie. Eventually we’d hook up with Mom and a mini-family reunion on Catawba Island in northern Ohio, but in the interim we rambled our way through the Thousand Islands and Niagara regions of New York and across the lovely Presque Isle in Pennsylvania.
Best of all, we took advantage of the long-awaited opportunity to experience Harvest Hosts.
Harvest Hosts is an association of vineyards, farms and special attractions that provide free overnight parking for self-contained “comfort campers” like us and RVers. For a small annual fee members can search a special Harvest Host website – using customized parameters according to interests and location – that lists participating businesses, summarizes their specialities, and provides contact information and directions.
You’re encouraged to buy a bottle of wine at a host vineyard or some vegetables at a host farm as a way to show your appreciation – which hardly seems too much to ask in exchange for a free night’s lodging. We have to buy groceries somewhere, right? And what better way to support locally sourced food and drink?
That’s a shot from our third Harvest Host experience, the Freedom Run Winery just east of Niagara Falls. Owner Larry Manning (together with wife Sandra) is serious about his wine making. He and G fell easily into an extended oenology conversation peppered with phrases like “double malolactic” and “carbonic maceration.”
A storm threatened to roll in as we sipped a deliciously dry 2017 Vin Gris Estate Rosé.
The storm never really materialized. We liked the wines we purchased one evening so much that we went back the next morning for more on our way out.
Here’s a shot of the view from our Casita window that evening.
The night before our visit to Freedom Run we stopped at Ontario Orchards just outside of Oswego, New York. The farm’s general store was a Disneyland of locally produced food and drink, together with other goods as well.
The corn on the cob was the sweetest we’d ever tasted. And we really got off on green-bean crisps, devouring nearly half the bag in one sitting. The Ontario Orchard Hard Cider was excellent, too.
Warning: At 8.2 percent alcohol, Ontario Orchard Hard Cider as stout a sud as it is tart. (I loved it.)
But the Ontario Orchard adventure had just begun. At checkout we were given a hand-drawn map to the farm’s parking area, which led us over hill and dale to a huge grassy meadow some 15 minutes away. It felt a bit like a scavenger hunt; we got lost a couple of times en route, which just served to heighten the anticipation.
Finally, we found the parking area. We had This Spot on Earth totally to ourselves, shared only with some fireflies. There was a field of Christmas trees on one side, a cornfield on another and rows and rows of apple trees on the other.
It was delightful! I sat in my zero gravity chair, sipped a drink as the sunset (at about 9 p.m.) and felt like the Queen of Sheba.
Earlier, our first night back on American soil – and our inaugural Harvest Host experience – was at Thousand Islands Winery just a stone’s throw from the international bridge near Alexandria Bay, New York. The wines were mostly sweeter than we like, but their Cabernet Sauvignon was very good.
Later, we stayed a night at Black Willow Winery just northeast of Niagara Falls. Host John couldn’t have been warmer. We enjoyed the Trilogy Red meritage with G’s pork roast that evening, saving the Trilogy White meritage for another time.
The dramatic sunset photo that leads this post was taken here – credit G’s photographic prowess. Moments earlier, I’d snapped this photo looking out from the cherry trees at the Casita, vineyard and sunset beyond.
That night it rained, and it drizzled into the next morning. I sat on the Black Willow Winery’s patio, delightfully at peace, watching it rain as I updated my journal….
Our final Harvest Host on this leg of the trip was Buccia Vineyard along Lake Erie just across the Ohio line from Pennsylvania.
Bill and Melissa – he’d fare well in a Paul Giamatti look-alike contest! – purchased the vineyard and four-room B&B last year. She’s still working full time in HR Caterpillar Inc., but he spent much of the winter upgrading and renovating the property, and they re-opened for business in January.
We enjoyed their Chambourcin, a spicy red that provides a nice contrast to other wineries in the area that emphasize the sweeter wines made from regional Concord grapes.
G made Bill and Melissa dinner on our two-burner stove and served it on their patio, where the four of us sat for hours talking about life’s twists and turns, creative wine-pairings, travel adventures, and living your dream – which is exactly what Bill and Melissa are doing.
By way of context with regard to Harvest Hosts, we love to stay in state and national parks, too. And in Texas, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers campgrounds are super. (We don’t do many private RV parks as we’re more about birding and bonfires than recliners and satellite dishes. Plus, private parks often provide attractions we’re not interested in – think pools, game rooms, movie theaters and playgrounds – and they generally cost a good bit more.)
State parks can range in price from $20 to $100 a night, depending on the location and season. Many are lovely – Palmetto Island State Park in Louisiana, for example, and Cheesequake State Park in New Jersey are among our favorites so far. But since we don’t plan ahead – deliberately – state parks don’t always have a spot for us, particularly on summer weekends.
Ditto for national parks. We adored our time in Prince William National Forest in Virginia and Acadia National Park in Maine, for example. Great scenery, spacious sites, clean facilities, knowledgeable rangers. And you can’t beat the price. We can do most national parks for $13 a night, sans hookups, thanks to G’s senior pass.
But spots in the summer can be hard to come by the way we travel, so the prospect of a free overnight at a winery or a farm via Harvest Hosts is a welcome respite.
Bottom line: G and I have become big Harvest Hosts fans.
But we did more than just eat and drink our way across Lakes Ontario and Erie.
On our first full day back in the U.S., we bicycled from the visitor’s center in Alexandria Bay to the town of Clayton in Thousand Islands. We took plenty of water this time. And on the way we saw our 17th Casita of this road trip! (We’d seen one in New Brunswick, but other than that hadn’t seen any since South Carolina in May.)
G’s backpack did a little advertising for The Dallas Morning News’ Guide Live publication. We ate homemade “creton” sandwiches (thank you, Francoise!) under the shade trees near the Clayton marina and watched the speed boats show off their racing gravitas up and down the St. Lawrence River.
That called for a glass of wine at the Coyote Moon Vineyard, whose downtown Clayton location featured a great view out back. We enjoyed chatting with Mary and Fred from Rochester.
The next day, it was Niagara Falls. Thank goodness it threatened to rain; kept the Sunday crowds away. We’d seen the falls from the Canada side in 2012; this was G’s first view from the U.S. side.
In some ways the view from the Canada side is better, the angle for viewing both the Horseshoe and American falls is superior. But in other ways the views from the American side is better. As counter-intuitive as it may seem, there aren’t the prominent casinos on the U.S. side and the viewing spots are less degraded by rank commercialization.
We started at Whirlpool State Park. The whirlpool below seems so harmless.
We learned about Carlisle D. Graham, who in 1886 was the first person to ride through the Whirlpool Rapids in a barrel. Actually, he did it four times – once with his head outside the barrel, which left him partially deaf from the waves pounding on his ear.
Martha E. Wagenfuhrer (known as “the Maid of the Niagara Falls Rapids”) was the first woman to traverse the rapids in a barrel – the same day that President McKinley crossed the gorge on the trolley.
Most dramatic, and tragic, though, is the story of Captain Matthew Webb. He was the first person known to swim across the English Channel. But he died while attempting to swim the Whirlpool Rapids in 1883.
G made lunch in the parking lot in the Casita – a delicious omelet with potatoes, bacon bits, celery – and we finished off the apple kuchen we bought at Ontario Orchards. We were practically the only ones there when we arrived in the morning; the parking lot was barely a quarter full by the time we left. This lulled us into thinking nobody else would be at the falls on such an overcast day….
We drove on to Niagara State Park on Goat Island and paid $10 to park. We wound up waiting in line about 15 minutes – more than we expected but far less than is typical for a July weekend. The sun was trying to peak out on and off the whole time we were there. It was a beautiful, moody day, in the 70s, very humid, no rain – except for the mist from the falls!
There is a trolley, but we decided to walk around the whole island. I’m glad we did. What great views, including this obligatory selfie from the top of the Niagara River before it descends over the falls.
We’re close to the top of Horseshoe Falls now. The deep aqua color in this next photo is the top of Horseshoe Falls.
Here is Horseshoe Falls with the Maid of the Mist boat approaching….
Here’s a short video I took of Horseshoe Falls.
We watched the boats go right up to kiss the falls and then turn around and let the current push them back. The U.S. boats are pointy-nosed and full of people in blue slickers. They are Maid of the Mist VI and VII. The Canadian boats are round-nosed and full of red-slickered people. They are called Hornblower. The boats leave every 15 minutes….
Horseshoe Falls is about 167 feet high and more than 500 feet above sea level. It’s famous for daredevils going over it in barrels. Annie Edson Taylor plunged over in a barrel in 1901 and survived. She thought this would make her famous. Sadly, she died years later in a poor house.
Since then, people have gone over using rubber balls, inner tubes, kayaks and even a jet ski. One of the information plaques recounted how seven-year-old Roger Woodward survived a plunge in 1960.
Little Roger was on a boat with his sister and family friend. The boat flipped over and Roger and the family friend were headed to the crest of the falls. His sister was thrown toward Terrapin Point, where two men ran to the river and pulled her to safety. Roger, who was wearing a life vest, survived the plunge and was rescued by the Maid of the Mist boat. The family friend, described only as “Mr. Honeycutt,” perished.
Suddenly, the winds shifted and we got wet from the mist. A rainbow appeared briefly below.
We walked over to the top of the American Falls. The view from the observation deck was fabulous. Here’s a short video of the view.
These falls are actually higher than Horseshoe at 176 feet, though the precise height depends on how much water is commercially diverted from the Upper Niagara River above the falls. That’s because the amount of diversion affects the “bottom level” of the measurement from the crest.
Here’s another selfie with both falls in the background – American to the left, Horseshoe to the right….
This waterfall is barely 490 feet above sea level, lower than the Horseshoe Fall slightly upstream. So you can already see the effect of the descent from Lake Eerie to Lake Ontario via this passage and on to the mighty St. Lawrence River and into the Atlantic Ocean….
What a wonderful time we had in this region – enjoying five wonderful Harvest Hosts and working our way generally west from Thousand Islands in New York, across Pennsylvania and into Ohio.
Next up is a family reunion on Catawaba Island, but we look forward to many more Harvest Host experiences in the future.