Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Vacation, all I ever wanted

Took a family trip last week. Some people summer at the Vineyard. Others prefer the Hamptons. I summered in Utica.

Tell someone you are going to Utica for vacation and wait for the confused look followed by one of the following questions:
“Seriously, Utica?”
“On purpose?”

Yes, Utica. While it might not be in its historic prime, Utica has a lot to offer a family. Here’s what we did.

Day 1: With lunches packed and the family truckster loaded, we got on the Thruway and headed out to Herkimer. Gems Along the Mohawk is right off NYS Thruway Exit 30. I had pre-bought Erie Canal tour tickets online ($19 for adults, $12 for kids ages 3-10). You might be able to find a cheaper deal if time an online coupon deal right.

We boarded the Lil Diamond 2 and cruised East on the Mohawk. Portions of the cruise tour are pre-recorded but the boat captain also provides a lot of the tour over a small PA system. In the middle of the tour, the boat goes up and down Lock 18 of the Erie Canal. If you have never gone through a lock on a boat, it's pretty freakin' cool. This lock provides about 20 feet of elevation change and made me want to take a Panama Canal cruise.

You start up here...
 and start sinking...
and sinking...
and sinking...

 and then cruise out the other end...

Then you do the whole thing in reverse. Fresh off the boat, we set off to our hotel which had an indoor pool. Universal truth: kids love pools. After a swim we headed out to dinner. I had always wanted to try Chesterfield Restaurant.

It was too dark inside to get good food pictures. Strangely, my family is starting to get used to me snapping food pictures. I went with Utica greens and chicken riggies and enjoyed both. They recently added a pizza oven. Our waiter said it was a few days old. The kids tore into a large cheese pizza and ate the leftover slices the next day. From the taste I had, Chesterfield’s is onto something very good pizza-wise. I’d definitely come back. We went back to the hotel and the kids pretty much passed out.

Day 2: I got up with the kids and brought them downstairs for breakfast (the hotel had a buffet). To sports fans, two-a-days means two workouts a day during pre-season training. When you’re on vacation with me in a hotel, it means kids go swimming twice a day. After breakfast, we changed into bathing suits and hit the pool. I remembered to bring these little sinking fish. The kids had a lot of fun diving for them. We woke up my wife, dried off and sunscreened up and then we were off to the Utica Zoo (found an online pass - $15.50 for a family of 4). Nice enough zoo. I thought the zoo in Syracuse was a little nicer, but we had a good time going around. The kids got to see a Gibbon take a piss and then a dump (they are 7 and 9 so this was quite hilarious to them). That whole Jurassic Park dinosaurs are birds theory...this crane made me a believer. It's creepy and makes it makes noises you wouldn't want to hear in the dark.

Somewhere at the zoo, we picked up Passport Coupon Flyer that had some coupons for places we were planning to visit. After our day at the zoo, we headed back for the second swim of the day and then we were off to the Franklin Hotel for dinner. I still really like this place. As recommended by Mr. Dave, I tried the fried hot pepper appetizer with a beer.

I really enjoyed the peppers and I’ll offer up this advice: When Mr. Dave endorses something, give it the benefit of the doubt. I’m still putting this rub he recommended on everything. We stopped at the pharmacy next door to the Franklin to pick up a few things. Most importantly, Birthday Cake Oreo Cookies. I don’t know why, but the kinds are under the impression that when you eat those cookies while watching a TV show in a hotel, that’s “a party.” Our room had two TVs. Putting them on the same channel was also mandatory at the party.

Day 3: We had to skip swimming and headed to the Utica train station after breakfast. We got on the Adirondack Railroad and headed north to Thendara. The ride was nice and the kids were excited to be on a train. The train had two passenger cars (I thought they were nicer than the Polar Express cars running out of Saratoga), a baggage car and a snack car. The baggage car was pretty cool. The doors were open to the air, but blocked off by a gate. A steady 40 mile an hour wind was flowing in and at times, you were close enough to touch the trees.

Once in Thendara, two school buses take you into Old Forge. We walked over to a place called Walt’s Diner. I wish this place was closer. Just a great, friendly little joint with good food. There’s a pretty big water park in Old Forge, but the layover wasn’t long enough to make it worthwhile. Next door to the park is a place called Calypso Cove. They have an arcade where you play games to win tickets that can be cashed in for little prizes. A handful of games including several rounds of skeeball netted us 142 tickets that got traded in for a slinky, a bracelet and a little plastic flip thingy. Calypso Cove has a few other things. There’s no entry fee. You buy $5 tickets that can be used for a zipline ridge, go karts, mini golf or bumper boats. That Passport had Buy 1, Get 1 Calypso Cove tickets.

After Calypso Cove, we headed back to town and did a little souvenir shopping. Then the busses took us back to the train. The train returned to Utica around 6:30 and the kids were a wiped out. We headed back to the hotel and had Franklin Hotel leftovers for dinner, followed by a quick Oreo party.

Day 4: We packed up and checked out of the hotel. Then we drove over to the Children’s Museum next door to the train station. (The Passport had an admit one child free coupon. Entry was $22 for a family of 4 with the coupon) It is a nice, quirky museum with some funky hours (make sure it is going to be open when you want to go) but it is all not-for-profit and run by volunteers. They had a plane the kids could sit in and move the flaps plus a lot of other nice exhibits.

From the museum, we headed to the FX Matt Brewery. There is also a Passport buy 1 adult, get 1 adult free coupon for the brewery and the kids were free. Each tour ticket comes with a voucher for 2 drinks in the tasting room.

I don’t think the tour guides really care about the drink tickets. So for $5, we got an interesting tour for 4 people, 4 pints of their soda, and 4 pints of beer. I’m not sure there is a better deal anywhere and the kids really liked having a soda tasting. Interesting little fact: The extra carbon dioxide generated during the beer brewing operation is captured and then used to carbonate the sodas.

On the way out, you can pose with Schultz and Dooley.

After the tour, we grabbed a few slices of tomato pie on the way out of town. We were off to my in-laws for an annual family picnic. And that was a good time too - except for shoveling out a barn, cutting down a tree and weed whacking a ditch, but you won't have to schedule that into your Utica trip.

Bottom line, if you’re looking for a relatively cheap mini vacation that doesn't require a ton of car time, check out Utica. You’d be surprised what the city has to offer.


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  2. Just ran across this old post thanks to a link from Mister Dave. Jon, where else did you eat/do you recommend in the Utica/Rome area? Also, was the tomato pie from Roma's?

    1. Besides Franklin Hotel and Chesterfields I like the Utica Greens at Georgio's in New Hartford.

      Yes, the tomato pie was from Roma's Sausage and Deli on Bleecker. They also make a generous, cheap sub. I routinely try to get some tomato pie from Napoli's which is about a block away but they keep weird hours and never seem to be open when I pass through town. In fact, they were closed for vacation on this trip and that's how we ended up at Roma's. Depending on your tomato pie passions, I'd put Roma's version at so-so. They always have a few slices wrapped up in plastic by the register.

      Check out these two post from the Explore Upstate Blog. Lot of good dining information here. One post is a more old school of Utica and the other is focused on newer flavors brought upstate through immigration.