Simple Pleasures.

Simple Pleasures.
Irish soda bread on its way up North with Noah.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Hit This Spot While It's Still Hot

Until about two weeks ago, there was only one place where I really loved to swim. That’s Lake George, the mountain-rimmed glacial lake in New York State where my family’s been camping for 52 years. I’m partial to that lake because it’s clear and rocky. No weird muddy froggy lilly pad stuff going on. No sand to get stuck in funky places. No salt to make things sticky.

Who woulda thought I’d find a spot that would give old George a run for the money less than an hour from Montclair? In central Jersey, no less. It’s called Round Valley Recreation Area and until I stumbled upon it on the Internet, I had never even heard of the place. What I read online was intriguing: The area centers around a huge, deep reservoir that is nearly encircled by mountain biking trails and footpaths and, at one end, boasts a swimming area. (It is also one of the few spots in Jersey that offers wilderness campsites). "Perfect jaunt for a hot August day," I says to myself, I says.

Noah and I threw our swim stuff, the dog, and an errant playpal in the car and set off to check Round Valley out. We zipped right down 78, got off at Exit 18 and paid our $5 at the entry booth to get into the park. My heart quickly sunk when we pulled up to a packed parking lot. We trudged across the tarmac in the blazing sun and caught sight of the “swimming area”: A sprawl of brown sand clotted with daytripping moms and crying babes and edged by a stone complex containing a snack bar and changing rooms. So much for the great NJ wilderness. I rolled my eyes and figured we’d chalk this one up along with our paintballing foray (tune in later for details.)

Since the swimming looked so awful, I loaded the gang back in the car, figuring we’d check out the trails--evening though it was 8,000 degrees out and all we wanted to be was wet. We backtracked a few hundred yards to another lot where the trailheads started and …..just like that, we were in another world. Just a few cars, just a few feet to a woodsy path, and crowds were a distant debacle. Not a structure in sight, save for the dam building down in a far corner--just waves of green hills backdropping a crystalline clear lake nearly as blue as the Caribbean. I hate to admit it, but this water was clearer, by far, than Lake George. And here’s the beauty part: It was warm.

We wandered along the path, running into the water at will. Yeah, there were signs saying “no swimming” and “dogs must be leashed,” but the few people around didn’t seem to give a hoot. Finally, the water became so irresistible, I gave in: I hadn’t brought a bathing suit, so I walked right into the water in my clothes and Tevas. Even Ringo, who doesn’t swim, joined Noah, Adam and me, and the four of us splashed around, hooting and hollering in the heat.

That’s basically how we blew a whole day. Popping in an out of the water. Strolling along the reservoir under the trees when we felt like it. For a whole hour, I stared up into a beautiful pine while Ringo and the boys splashed. The day disappeared before we knew it. And we had done, well, not much. But it’s a day I’ll remember well when the temp dips below freezing and the chaos of the working year is in full swing.
Wanna Go? Need to know……
Getting There: Take the GSP South to 78 West. Follow 78 West to Exit 18. Follow signs to the park. Once you pay at the gatehouse, take your first right into the parking lot for the trailheads. There’s a lower parking lot near the water that’s for divers or boaters or something. The upper parking lot is closer to the trailheads. Park there. This trip took us about 50 minutes without traffic. Park info: 908-236-6355.
Trail Tips: If you are looking at the lake and the lower parking lot, there’s an easy trail that starts just to your left. Follow a sort of dirty muddy road for a few hundred feet, then bear left and follow the trail around the shore of the lake. It’s shady in most parts and stays close to the water. I believe you can walk all the way to the dam at the far side. There is also the much longer Cushetunk Trail (probably good to do in cooler weather) that goes around a fair part of the lake--it’s a little less kiddy and grandma friendly and is also farther from the water. Very popular with seasoned mountain bikers. I plan to hike this in the fall with the guys.
When to Go: As mentioned, this lake is so gorgeous, it’s a shame not to visit when it’s hot enough to jump in. I was concerned about it being crowded on the weekends, but when I returned to the same spot on a Sunday with the rest of the family in tow, it was still blissfully quiet and relatively unpopulated (unlike the dreaded swimming area). I’ve got to guess that fall is gorgeous here--and the hike along Cushetunk must be a blast. I’m sure there’s a way to avoid the GSP (maybe catching 287 off 78, then going up to 80?), but dealing with the GSP rush hour thing is tricky on the weekdays. So, you might want to leave after the morning rush and try to get back to the GSP going north before it starts jamming up with commuters coming from the Holland Tunnel.
What to bring: Water shoes (the bottom is rocky and pebbly), goggles and snorkels (the water at Round Valley is so clear, many scuba divers come here), sunblock, bug spray. Pick up lunch before you leave home….the pickings are very slim once you get off 78 and the snack bar at the swim area only sells burgers, hot dogs, etc.--not very picnic-friendly fare. Also consider bringing fishing rods (kids under 12 don’t need licenses in NJ, I believe). The lake is stocked with trout and other species--we didn’t catch anything but that doesn’t mean much. And if you have kayaks or mountain bikes--bring em. Chances are, though, that if you have this stuff, you already know this place.
Cost: There’s a $5 charge per car weekdays; $10 per car on the weekends.
Fear Factor: My biggest fear here was getting busted for having Ringo off leash and for swimming in the “no swimming” reservoir. Didn’t happen. To me or to anyone else breaking these rules during our visit. I’ve got to believe this isn’t really a drinking water source---there are no fences blocking people from getting at the water and scuba divers and boaters are allowed in. It’s got to be a lifeguard/safety thing. So swim at your own risk--which is really pretty minimal, since the shore slopes so gently into the water even little ones can splash around while mom sits on her keester. (Don’t quote me on that.)

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

To Hell with the Hard Rock. Take the Kiddies to Buddhabar.

I’ve been married long enough to know that I need not spend my anniversary at some romantic restaurant staring into the eyes of my beloved. We’ve gone that route before and usually end up telling one another we need new glasses and Botox. So last May 31, when my husband and I found ourselves up against our big night with no big plans on the the board, we took a Meat Packing District denizen’s recommendation, and popped into Buddhabar for a coupla drinks and dinner.

Neither of us knew squat about the place…other than that it wasn’t Buddakan, the super luxe temple of excess where the uber hip flock for overpriced Asian food. I guess we both assumed that because the word “bar” was tacked onto the name Buddha (in itself comical), this spot would be more cajz--perhaps a good place to throw back a few Kirins and order a round of dumplings.

We must have walked up and down hipster-packed Little West 12th Street five times looking for Buddahbar before we realized it was the spot fronted by a pair of those tell tale red velvet club ropes. Hmmm. We hauled open a pair of enormous doors, the sunlight slipped away behind us, and we were suddenly walking through a darkened tunnel flanked by luminescent Buddhas. We were greeted at the end of this tunnel by one of the most cavernous and spectacular spaces I’ve seen yet in Manhattan. And by a coat-hanger of a hostess (and her many clones), whose neckline scooped so low it revealed her belly button. (I am not exaggerating.)

The place was virtually empty--no self respecting clubber would be seen anywhere at 7 on a Saturday, of course. So we ambled over to the bar area, climbed onto a pair of bordello-inspired couches and ordered up some absurd club cocktails--I think mine was a, don’t laugh, Buddhatini. As we moved from cocktails to dinner, and as the place started filling up with studiously garbed Buddha babes and beaus, the truth about Buddhabar became hilariously apparent: When you see more than five girls yank down their black minidresses in a span of 15 minutes, it’s a dead give away they have bought a new dress for the occasion and are probably from Paramus or Peoria. This place--with its flames, sky-high statues, meandering indoor streams, costumed characters, and kooky drinks and eats--was basically a high-end theme restaurant just a hair away from being a big-time bridge and tunnel attraction. Moments after a buxom 20-something-year- old girl fell off her platform shoe and nearly landed in our sashimi, Paul and I looked intently into each other’s eyes and said, virtually at the same time: “The boys would think this place rocks.”

Flash forward to a late Saturday afternoon in early August: We get the boys into the closest thing they have to unstudied casual chic--khaki shorts with rolled up, slightly wrinkly oxfords on top. We cruise into the Meatpacking District and snag a parking spot right on the street (again, no one really shows up til 9 or 10 around there). We take a walk around--the people watching (and window shopping if you’re into it) is pretty snappy. Then we saunter into the restaurant. The boys’ eyes nearly pop out of their heads. (And not because of all the short skirts.) They love the whole experience, the whole side show feel of the place…right down to the “copper waterfall sink and the guy giving out free gum” in the men’s room (don’t think Noah knew a tip was in order). “This,” declares my 13 year old, “is what I call an insanely cool restaurant.” Mission accomplished.

We top off the evening by heading diagonally across the street and climbing a stairway up to the High Line, that spectacular park that’s just opened along what used to be the abandoned elevated train tracks. I am a bit nervous at first about going up--it is about 9 PM and Paul has gone uptown to work a concert, so I am alone with the boys. But once we get there, all worries fall away. The place is teeming with people--strolling, lying on the park’s skyline-view chaise lounges, soaking up the hot August night. We buy some Ronnybrook ice cream cones and lap them up as we stroll. It is all we dream New York can be. Then we pop back down to street level and jump in the car for the burbs. Now that’s a theme night grown up and kids can all handle.
Wanna Go? Need to Know….
Getting There: In case you don’t know this already, Little West 12th Street is in a weird spot. You can take the Lincoln Tunnel, go down Ninth Avenue, turn right on 14th, then take left on Washington Street and then a left on Little West 12th. If you Mapquest it, the address is 25 Little West 12th. If you go early, there’s usually parking right on the street. Call the restaurant for reservations (and garage info if you want it): (212) 647-7314.
Trail Tips: If you don’t want to blow money on dinner at Buddhabar, you can grab a couple of drinks and appies there, then walk over to Chelsea Market and pick up some good eats (I think it closes at 9). If you want to go to the High Line after Buddhabar, come out of the restaurant, cross over Little West 12th and walk toward the river (to the right). The nearest entrance to the High Line is at Gansevoort and Washington Streets (literally right there). The northernmost entrance is at 20th Street.
When to Go: If you go to Buddhabar early in the evening, you‘ll be fine: The night crowds aren’t out yet, rezzies are pretty easy to get even on a Saturday, and there’s often still parking outside. If you have dinner at about 7, you’ll still have time for a stroll on the High Line, which closes at about 10 (I believe).
What to Bring: Don’t look like you’re going to a wedding. And don’t look like you just finished a trip on the Circle Line. I got away with a long sundress, (I’d wear slacks otherwise). Paul wore , a good t-shirt and casual jacket. You’ll see I have none of my own pictures in this blog. Just couldn’t bring myself to do it. You might be a bit more self-actualized, so you might want a camera. Your call. Don’t bring any child young enough to cry in a restaurant. Same goes for a kid too young too sit still in her/his seat. I’d say this is a perfect adventure for tweens/teens and their parents/generous aunts and/or uncles.
Costs: I think each cocktail at Buddhabar was about $16. Dinner can include things like sushi, sashimi, dumplings and some hot entrees. Both times we’ve been it’s been fine. Not spectacular. But certainly better than the stuff you’ll get at Planet Hollywood. We got out for under $150 for the 4 of us, booze included. (We ordered a bunch of rolls, some apps, and one hot main for the boys.)
Fear Factor: The only thing to be afraid of in the Meat Packing district is fatal pretentiousness. You, like me, will be able to get past it. I know it.

Have fun.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Great Jaunts, Part II: Go Climb a Rock.

When I take my kids out in the woods or out in the wilds, I find no thrill in the experience if everyone’s life is at stake. (Been there, done that, children still traumatized from the experience.) So, when I got a bee in my bonnet about taking the youngins rock scrambling up in New Paltz for the first time a few years ago, I knew just what I had to do to preserve all of our sanity: I’d pass up Bonticou Crag, my fave scramble in the area, swallow my pride, and shell out bucks for day passes at Mohonk Mountain House.

Mohonk Mountain House, if you aren’t familiar with the place and haven‘t read my previous blog about it, is a rambling, old resort that occupies one of the most gorgeous spots in the Shawangunks. Perched next to a mountaintop lake, it is surrounded by miles of gazebo-dotted trails and rimmed by a profusion of carefully tended gardens. It is also home to The Labyrinth--a well-used, carefully marked maze of ladders and rock scrambles that leads intrepid climbers to the resort’s mountaintop tower. While not risk free, it’s about as cushy as a bouldering spot can get. I mean, even if you do happen to fall and crack your skull open, there’s a nice tea salon inside the hotel where your clan can hang out while you’re rushed to the local ER. (Actually, day trippers aren’t allowed inside. But I’m assuming they’ll take pity if someone actually gets bloody while visiting.)

Now, when I was a kid and we wanted to hit the Labyrinth, my father refused to pay for a day pass at Mohonk just on principle. So--principled man he was--he’d usually con his way out of paying by telling the gatehouse some farfetched story about scoping out the restaurant for a family reunion. Or he’d try to cajole at least a couple of us kids to hide in the trunk so he could cut down on the per person charge. At this point in my life, it still makes me gag to pay a steep fee just to use the grounds. And I’m not too proud to say it irks me just a bit to be the interloping day tripper on Mohonk’s privileged premises. But, it’s easy to get over myself and the charge once we’ve parked the car, hiked our way up to the hotel (the shuttle busy is for babes with bingo arms,, thanks) and started scrambling up that good ol’ Labyrinth.

It’s not a fear-free venture, mind you. In fact, Ben and our neighbor Nicole sobbed the whole way up when they took on the Labyrinth at 10 years of age. But Noah and tiny Stefanie, just 7 and 8 at that point, scrambled up without a hitch. Except, perhaps, for the infamous Lemon Squeeze--a long ascent via rickety ladder through a rocky chimney at the top of which climbers must physically haul themselves up into the sunshine. They all cried, but I got them there, even if pushing them all up to safety took a permanent toll on my rotator cuff. The take home message here is that each of the kids I had in tow not only survived, they felt amazing pride in the fact that they succeeded. And every single one declared they would do it even faster….next time. And there have many “next times,” not necessarily with the same players, but with kids and adults of many ages who have all lived to tell their tale. Including me. Now, as for Bontcou…
Want to go? Need to Know….
Getting There:
It’s about an hour and 15 minutes from Montclair, up the GSP to the NYS Thruway to New Paltz. It’s a quick and pretty drive from Exit 18 to Mohonk Mountain House, as long as town isn’t choked with apple pickers (the legions of which include us at some point in mid October). Find exact directions at
Trail Tips: The hike up from the parking lot to the hotel is scenic and not too long….about two miles maybe. You could also take the free shuttle, which lets you off at the picnic lodge. Ask anyone there how to get to the hotel. Then ask anyone on the hotel grounds how to get to the Labyrinth. It should take an hour or so to get to the tower via the Labyrinth…all along the way reassure the kids that they will not come down the same way. It’s a gentle stroll back to the hotel down a well-tended path. Fit grandparents and non-climbers can walk the gentle way up and meet scramblers at the top.
When to Go: The Labyrinth is good for a visit any time it’s dry out and pleasant enough to be outside. I tend to stay away from Mohonk Mountain House on peak summer and autumn leaf-peeping weekends, since the hotel books up, and crowds pack the whole New Paltz area. In fact, if you don’t get there early enough on some prime weekends, the hotel stops issuing day passes in order to control crowds.
What to Bring: Sunblock, sneakers, crummy clothes you don’t mind snagging on rocks, water. Pack a lunch for eating up at the tower. Don’t have the kids carry daypacks--they can be cumbersome while climbing. As for the adult sherpa in the pack, pack as little as you can and put it in the smallest daypack that’s practical--you won’t want anything big and bulky on your back either. You might also take a bathing suit and leave it in the car--there’s some good swimming in the Mohonk area (Lake Minnewaska or, if you hike in to it, spectacular Lake Awosting.)
Services/Costs: As mentioned, lowly daytrippers aren’t allowed in the hotel. I do think the hotel is happy, however to sell the hoi polloi overpriced bottles of Poland Spring from a kiosk outside near the lake. The picnic lodge (where the shuttle bus drops and picks up) will also sell stuff to interlopers. I pick up eats/drinks just after I pull off the Thruway and begin heading into New Paltz. Now for what it costs to lurk around Mohonk Mountain House: Adults are $23/weekends and $18 during the week. Kids are $18/weekends and $13/week. As mentioned, the hotel only issues a limited number of passes and they are available on a first come, first serve basis. I know it hurts to pay for a walk in the woods, but hey--it’s cheaper than shelling out $1000 to stay at the resort for the night (which is, um, really fun, too).
Fear Factor: Anyone who tries the Labyrinth should be tall and strong enough to climb a ladder and climb up big rocks. As I mentioned earlier---you can’t really state a specific minimum age here. My younger son did fine at 7. My older, more cautious Ben, was threatening to call DYFS. I wouldn’t bring a grandparent on this (they can stroll up the path and meet you) or anyone who is terrified of heights. And it’s never a bad idea to bring along an extra adult, in case there’s a problem or in case one or some of the kids opt out.
Nearby: There’s so much to do and see in the New Paltz area, I can’t even attempt to give you a thumbnail here. Frankly, though, you’ll have enough to do on the grounds of Mohonk Mountain House to keep you busy for a day. There are rowboats to rent after you finish the Labyrinth. You can check out the gardens if you please. You’ll probably need to save further exploration of New Paltz for another day.

Have fun.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Hot? Try Hacklebarney.

Let’s say you’ve got a free morning or afternoon. It’s sunny. You want to get outside. Maybe get a touch of exercise. But it just so happens that it’s a kajillion degrees out.

My advice: Pack up the kids, the dog if you have one, and a picnic lunch and head for Hacklebarney, a gem of a state park tucked off a side road near Chester, NJ. This rocky, quiet, glacial glen is so effectively cloaked by its leafy canopy of trees, I don’t even bother with sunblock when we pay a visit in high summer (Bug spray is another story.) The icing on the cake: The trail follows a splashy, waterfall-bedecked brook that is just deep enough for a dunk but shallow enough for kids to play in. In fact, our boys and their buds usually come dressed in swim suits and water shoes and walk the whole way through the river, catching frogs and having water fights, while Ringo and the grown ups take the rocky path right beside the river. Picnic tables are sprinkled along the path--we generally choose a spot for lunch that’s right on the water so the kids can frog hunt while we read or play Take Two. Then it’s back to the trail, which slopes down to a gorgeous (sunny) spot on the Black River, a fast running little number during the spring that usually runs pretty low by August. It’s supposed to be a good spot for trout fishing, but we’ve never caught anything and I’ve never seen anyone else catch anything either. (So I don’t know if it’s worth schlepping your fishing rods). Once you hit the Black River, you can retrace your footsteps if the kids want to stay wet, or cross over the brook and take the woodsy loop back up to your car. If I walk Hacklebarney alone I can do this whole walk in one hour--add kids, grandparents, a picnic and water fights and you can easily kill two or three.

Wanna Go? Need to Know?

Getting There: Hacklebarney is just under an hour from Montclair. Google it for details or punch the following address into Mapquest or your GPS:
Hacklebarney State Park 119 Hacklebarney Rd Long Valley, New Jersey Phone: 908-638-6969

Trail Tips: Soon after you pass the bathrooms, you’ll see a steep stone staircase down to the left….we generally take that route and follow the path alongside the stream, which takes us down to the Black River. It can be sort of rocky--what’s nice is that grandparents and parents with Baby Bjorns can can take the smoother, gravelly path that parallels the river higher up and can meet the splash-pack down at the Black River.

When to Go: I love summer best at Hacklebarney, though the weekends get busy. That said, it is a great outing during the fall and spring. Just beware of the pumpkin/apple picking crowds that jam the roads near Chester in October.

What to Bring: Water, swim suits (in summer), bug spray, towels for drying off and for covering your picnic table, water shoes, small plastic shopping bags for garbage and dog poop, plastic container for examining frogs/bugs, Scrabble tiles, books, trashy magazines. Also bring a leash for your dog---we generally let Ringo roam free, but things can get dicey when the park fills up on the weekends. (Officially, dogs must be leashed.)

Services/Costs: Ample free parking. No admission charge. Decent bathrooms, one spot for garbage.

Fear Factor: It’s virtually impossible to get lost at Hacklebarney. Most paths seem to lead back up to the parking lot. There are warning signs about bears but I’ve never seen one. As far as crazy rapists and that stuff goes, I never feel uneasy at Hacklebarney, even when I go alone on a weekday. It’s a pretty popular, though not crowded, spot.

Nearby: If you visit during the fall, stop by the old cider mill for, um, cider or an ice cream after you wind up your day in the park. Chester also has a bunch of produce farms and a bevy of cutesy antique shops and boutiques, if that’s your kind of thing. If you go to Hacklebarney in the late afternoon, you could top off your day with dinner in Chester.

Have fun.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Screw the Mall. Get Out There, Jersey Jane.

Yeah, we still did our two-week camping thing in Lake George. But a far-flung family vacation--that included dad--wasn't in the cards this summer. Neither was a work-friendly home environment for me, since we can't seem to convince either of our sons that sleepaway summer camp is a nifty idea.

All of this meant that--at various times when various day camps were in and out of session--I had kids lurking around AND the perfect excuse to declare it was IMPOSSIBLE (!) for me to work during the weekdays. My mission: To keep the kids off of electronics and on the hunt with me for close-to-home adventures that would spare my wallet undue stress and make us feel okay about hanging out in the Garden State this summer.

What I hope to post over the next couple of weeks are quick takes on some of our best discoveries (full disclosure: some are new to us this summer, some are favorites I've been doing since I was a girl.) Here's the need-to-know info: My older son, Ben, declared several years ago that he "categorically Hates Nature" and has stood his ground ever since. My younger son, Noah, would rather be chasing frogs and toads than just about anything and is practically allergic to anything cultural. My dog Ringo is really cool and I prefer any activity that can include him. And I am officially terrified of ice-cream-eating crowds and any tourist mecca that comes close to having a theme. Taking all of this into account, I tackled the city stuff with Ben, the woodsy stuff with Noah, and--when I had both of them plus Paul and Ringo (George and John didn't attend)--I tore my hair out trying to come up with something that would make us all happy.

And ya' know, we did pretty darned well--from the Methodist camps down at Ocean Grove to the pristine, Carribean-clear waters of Round Valley Reservoir to the 4H kids preening their pigs at the State Fair in Augusta, Jersey can really be quite exotic and wild and beautiful. I know, it's still Jersey. And I sure would like to get to Idaho next summer. But we had some great times...and I heartily recommend that you try a couple of these trips before this summer takes its last gasp. Or any time you've got a dead day and the mall starts beckoning.... Stay Tuned.