Thursday, October 24, 2013

Leaf Peeping in New England (part 2)

(Part one is here)

View from the Long Trail House room balcony, Stratton Mt., VT

We pulled into Stratton Mountain’s lodge at dusk. Dusk came early, an hour earlier than it does back home. But the lodge was fabulous. I had a suite with a fireplace!!!, and a balcony overlooking, well, a small lodge pond with fountains. Each floor had a free laundry (yay!) (Hope the guy who left the sopping-wet black long johns in the dryer didn’t mind me taking them out so I could put my stuff in. They’d been in process when I arrived. Two hours later, he still hadn’t retrieved them.), and the cable was MUCH more extensive than any other hotel’s.

A lodge village was adjacent. Almost all the stores had construction people in them. The stores themselves had been stripped bare, or had various bits of lumber in them. They were being prepped from scratch for the ski season ahead. About three blocks in was a restaurant that was open. I wasn’t that hungry, and ordered a salad with an appetizer-sized quesadilla. Godzilla could have filled up on it. (And been quite happy, since it was deeelicious!) I ate half, got the rest put in a doggy bag (the suite had a fridge and microwave), and decided on a wee bit of hot chocolate for dessert. It arrived: a King Kong-sized parfait glass, half-filled with hot chocolate and half-filled with whipped cream. Out of politeness and because it was just a drink and not, you know, a real dessert, I consumed the whole thing. (It made up for the restaurant not being able to produce decent iced tea. Once again, a Yankee iced tea tasted like it had been brewed with a hefty helpin' of old coffee grounds.)

The next morning I watched The Patty Duke Show and Mr. Ed as I ate my quesadilla’s remains. Checked email from my cover artist to discover she didn’t remember that I’d made a special webpage with all her instructions, so I had to try to track that down on my iPad through accessing my office email archives so as to email her the url again while I made my way outside to be 15 minutes early for the bus.

Whoops. I was only 30 SECONDS before the “butt in the seat” time, but I did manage to make it. AND send the url.

Mt. Washington. You can see the train track that goes straight up its face, like an exclamation point. Note also the uber-ritzy resort. No, we did not stay there.
Today’s travel brought us to some quick stops here and there with nice views. We drove past Mt. Washington, Vermont’s highest mountain (or did we do that the day before?), and then through New Hampshire. The proliferation of maples and other colorful trees mix more evenly with spruces and pines in NH. The landscape was ever so slightly not as impressive, foliage-wise, although the mountains were fabulous because that’s what mountains are. I love mountains, as long as I don’t have to drive in ‘em.

View from patio at the Red Jacket Resort at North Conway, NH. The room door leading outside to this tiny patio had a small sign that said: "Door locks automatically. Please take your key with you." Yes, I'm sure people just waking up and taking their coffee outside to enjoy the morning, while dressed in little or nothing, would take note of that sign.
I must have mixed up the order of previous sites because we still saw a lot today, but at dusk (so early!) we arrived in North Conway at our hotel. It was so-so. The tour provided dinner for us because (I think) the town didn’t have that much going for it food-wise, or other restaurants weren't easily accessible for us bus-tour types. Dinner was nothing to write home about. And the next morning I didn’t get a wake-up call.

Wake-up calls are IMPORTANT, especially when the tour is timed so precisely. Every night I’d program a wake-up call through the phone, set the radio alarm, and set my iPad (which I’d practiced with several days before departing, to see when the alarm would go off and when it wouldn’t. The iPad has to actually be on to sound the alarm, so I recharged every night and left the iPad on while doing so.) Anyway, the radio often wouldn’t work because the stations turned out not to be 24-hour stations, and morning would arrive with only a slight hissing sound. One hotel’s phone programming didn’t work, so I had to call the front desk and have them set it up. One hotel’s phone programmed, but never called me. This happened again at this hotel, and I stopped at the front desk on the way out to inform them of this mechanical failure.

They told me that since we were on the tour and phone calls weren’t included in the price (we’d been told at the beginning of the tour that if we made any calls or incurred any other extra charges, to be sure to pay before we left), they TURNED OFF our alarm programming along with outgoing calls. Uh, isn’t that something they might warn us about beforehand?

So we toured Maine that day. All through Vermont, NH and Maine we kept passing lots of pretty lakes. We went past Maine’s largest one (according to our tour director, though the map seems to show a larger one to the south), Sebago Lake, just before we came into Portland. There we stopped at the harbor for lunch and shopping, and the director gave us TMI about how he was attracted to a girl who worked at the local bakery. This meant that many of the group took off at a dead run to tell the girl and embarrass both. Why do people do this?

Lunch was delicious, but when I ordered the iced tea (yes, we’re going into this again) I told them how much I distrusted Yankee tea. They assured me theirs was great. It was not. I took a sip and told them I didn’t like it. They took the glass away. When I got the bill, they’d charged me about $3 for the tea. The bill had to go through the manager to get the tea taken off. Other than that, lunch was tasty.

I got a cute little magnet for the fridge that shows a panicking lobster in a pot. Got another tee shirt. I always tried to get a magnet and at least one tee from each state, and each morning as I struggled to close my luggage I wondered why I had to do that. I dunno. Our director had told us about a kitchen shop he loved, and because we had a little time, I wandered in. And wandered out with kitchen implements. Yes, on vacation I bought kitchen implements. One was a scraper I’d been looking for and one was one of those push-pull measuring deals Alton Brown uses. I hadn’t been able to find either in stores back home.

Is this not the world's cutest lighthouse?
Then it was time to cruise! It was a surprise thrown in because the weather was nice. We saw a bunch of lighthouses around Portland, and rode some fun wakes like a roller coaster. We could actually see the very tip of Vermont’s Mt. Washington from the harbor. I must have taken a zillion pictures, and just as we got to the prettiest lighthouse ever built, my camera battery gave out. Yes, already. It must have been old.

Thank heaven I hadn’t been able to find said battery when I was doing preliminary packing for the trip, for I’d gone out and bought another. Then I found the battery. That meant I had two backups for the trip. I’d made sure the final backup was in my purse instead of my luggage, so I was able to pop it into the camera and get those lighthouse pics! Manoman, are they going to make great paintings!

Getting back on land, we all headed toward the nearest bathrooms. This was a one-seater, and the line began to stretch around the restaurant that housed it. Our Fearless Leader was distraught that we needed bathrooms. Really, Brandon? What, do you wear astronaut diapers? He had the bus take us back to the visitor center, which had a few more toilets available, and this time (unlike when we’d first arrived in town), the cruise ship hadn’t just arrived with a load of liquid-filled passengers.

From Portland we traveled a bit south to Kennebunkport. Now, Kennebunkport is one of the nicest-looking towns you’ll ever see, but it’s spoiled by having Bush vibes. The Bushes have grabbed the best real estate in town, and that day all flags were flying there, meaning George H. was in residence. Yes, they fly flags, just like Windsor Palace does when the queen is there.

I think we missed the Changing of the Ex-Presidential Guards.
The bus dumped us downtown for shopping, strolling and fudge-buying. I got lost about three times, but downtown’s pretty small and if you walk far enough, you can figure out where you are. We had more than enough time, and I said what the heck, and decided to check out the many art galleries.

Wow, wow, wow! They had fabulous artists on display! Here was Ken Muenzenmayer. “Hey, I took a class with him,” I told the owner, who was actually impressed. Other artists who stood out to me enough that I wrote down their names to research were: Li Wang, Ellen Pelletier, Dan Michael, Charles Movalli and his wife, Dale Ratcliff. (I hope those links work for a long while. If not, Google a bit and you'll find some paintings by them.) I’d KILL to take a class from the last two. Their work takes your breath away. The owner of the Landmark Gallery told me that Movalli had once told him in a class, “Once it looks like a kitten, you don’t have to add whiskers to it.” He said the guy paints with large brushes and it seems haphazard until suddenly everything comes together. Wow.

We got into our hotel and prepared for a lobster dinner that was included in the tour. I’ve had bits and pieces of lobster in various stuffings and chowders through the years, but I’ve never had lobster-lobster. Yes, I’d once stood for forty minutes next to the tank at a Red Lobster (I had ordered food for a party, and RL had lost my order; so professional), and decided I’d never order lobster because these guys looked like they had personalities. But I ordered lobster this night.

Still less messy and 'roid rage-y than what I witnessed that night!
It SHOCKED me the way people laid into their lobsters! First of all, the things were about five hundred degrees. I kept burning my hands on mine. The woman across from me gave a Xena yell and attacked hers with sheer Hulk fury, spittle flying out of her mouth. It was scary. And the lobster wasn’t really anything special. I could have gotten the same texture from shrimp, the flavor was nonexistent, and I SWEAR to you, I got distinct, “They murdered me. I was scared. Now I’m sad,” vibes from poor Mr. Lobster.

Never again. I promise the lobster world, I’ll never have a whole lobster. I apologize.

Man, one of these days I’ll go vegetarian.

View from the Nonantum Resort, Kennebunkport. Just around the bend and beyond that thin stretch of land, is the Atlantic.
Anyway, we went back to our rooms afterward. Since I was traveling alone, I sometimes got tiny rooms stuck in odd places in hotels. This was the case here, but this tiny room had a skylight, a marvelous view of the harbor, and a little woodstove-type fireplace. Darling!

I couldn’t get the phone alarm to program, so I did it through the desk. I couldn’t get the room temperature to moderate. I couldn’t get the wifi to work. “Sometimes you have to step outside in the hallway to get it,” the desk told me. The guy came up and showed me how the thermostat I was trying to program was the one for the stove and not for the real room heating/AC. He pointed me down the hall to a PC where I could print out my boarding pass.

I wasn’t wearing my shoes, but I padded down the carpeted hallway. The PC froze on the middle page of the boarding pass process. I sat there muttering low-level curses when a man from South Africa? (he had a very odd British accent) came up, assured me that PCs and Macs were pretty much the same thing and to stop being a baby and move over, he’d do it for me. (Okay, he didn't quite phrase it that way, but the meaning was sorta there in a superiority kind of way.) And the PC froze on the middle page of the boarding pass process. Ha!

So I went back to my room in defeat. My room key wouldn’t work. The front desk was actually about a half-block away, and I was in my sock feet. For some ungodly reason I’d actually overheard and REMEMBERED two of my fellow passengers talking about their room number. I knocked on their door and got them to call the desk.

Got new keys. Got the heat/AC working. The wifi fizzled after two minutes. Decided to hit the sack.

More Kennebunkport. (I took this pic because I needed a full horse to finish a Montreal picture with a carrage in it.)
Breakfast the final day. I decided to ask a large table with four people seated if they minded me sitting there, and they assured me it would be fine, and pointed me at one of the three empty seats where I would be welcome. When I returned from the buffet they informed me I could NOT sit there, as they had seated some (absent) friends in my place. Nice of them to tell the new guys that I was sitting there already. (I'd arranged the setting to show I'd be sitting there, just in case.) I took the remaining empty chair. ANYWAY, when everyone had all their food, the others announced grace, a guy said it, and the woman across from me opened ONE eye to stare at me throughout the prayer. Like I was making a fuss, sitting there quietly as I was. Maybe she was waiting for me to burst into hell-flame. Sheesh.

I was seated next to a man. When coffee was served, his wife to his other side put sugar in his cup for him, then sugar in her own, cream for him, then cream for herself, and then reached over to stir his coffee for him, then stirred her own. She was done up like a Stepford, and he looked like he'd had a moderately busy day on the farm, all grizzled and rumpled. Later I asked around, and people told me about the "religious" group. Then I recalled an earlier day of the tour, saying something about the possibility of going to a psychic we'd seen along the way, and some woman getting all hissy. She was one of the group. Sheesh again.

But all in all, the other passengers were fine. I learned not to talk politics. The ones who (loudly) voiced an opinion—which happened rarely—had poorly-defined issues with Obama. We had one very short lady who seemed like Betty Boop’s crazy cousin. She talked in a loud baby voice (how she loved the attention!), and everyone knew she would buy anything pink, especially purses and travel bags. (And fudge.) I think she bought three travel bags during the trip. She was funny in a crazy cousin way. Good in small doses, but maybe not for eight days.

The crowd ran to middle age and older. They came from all over the US, except for New England, and one couple had flown in from Australia. One of the women often required a wheelchair. (Every place we went could accommodate the handicapped.) I wondered how her husband, who could make two—well, one and a half—of me, could handle things. He often toted her wheelchair when it wasn't being used, plus lugged their other stuff, and often did this on steps and steep surfaces. (The wheelchair was stowed under the bus when not in use. Also stowed under the buses was Evil Tour Director's bike, which he used in his off-hours. He rode almost all the way around Martha's Vineyard when his group was shopping.)

Brandon alternated who got to leave the bus first: drivers' side, door side, or starting from the back. I noticed that many people waited until the seat before them had completely emptied out before they got up, retrieved what stuff they wanted from the bins overhead, and eased out into the aisle. I'm afraid that by the end of the trip, I had trained myself to pop up out of my seat as soon as the people in front were starting to get out, so I'd be ready as soon as they'd finally managed to toddle down the aisle. Unfortunately, this means that I am now one of those people who emerge as soon as the "you may get up now" message comes through on the airplane. I grab for my stuff in the bin and stand in the aisle between the chair arms so people in my row can also get up and start arranging things. Efficiency, people. Efficiency!

I was traveling alone because I’m basically a hermit, but there was supposed to have been another single traveler on the trip. She was to have come with two other ladies, who told me over breakfast one day that she was a parole officer, and that the previous week one of her parolees (what do you call them?) had sicced his three dogs on her and they had bitten her. She would be fine, but at that point they weren’t sure if she’d have to start rabies shots or not. If she did, the shots would have to be administered on a strict schedule that she couldn’t meet if she went on tour. Hope they threw the guy in jail for a long, long time! Hope she’s really okay.

Being a single rider meant I had two seats to spread out in. I soon made a nest with my junk. There were a few empty rows in the back, and sometimes others would go back there to take a nap or stretch their legs. We were discouraged from using the bus bathroom for anything other than an emergency. On the final day, due to seat rotation (every day we moved 3 seats clockwise, so no one could stake a claim on the good seats) I was sitting near the back, and the ladies across from me had to use the john. They reported that there were signs in it that told men not to stand, and that there was also a sign that had a big “#2” on it, with a line crossed through it, like going number two was prohibited.

Astronaut diapers, I tell you.

Boston is just a short ride from Kennebunkport. We arrived there about 10 AM so people could catch their flights that had been ordered to be noon or later. Mine was at 5:30. Many others had such late flights. Some of us got dropped off back at the Hilton, where I sat next to the two oldest ladies from the group (it was the final trip for one of them, whose husband was having bad health problems. She was in her mid-eighties.), and we had lunch at the hotel restaurant. The iced tea was still rotten.

Bidding them adieu, I walked to the airport instead of taking the shuttle (exercise!). It took over an hour to get through security. They stopped me. “That’s an iPad in there,” I said helpfully as the guard got on latex gloves to search my carry-on. She pulled out an unopened bottle of sunscreen. Oops. I thought I had that in my other luggage. She GLARED at me and didn’t say a word as she dropped it into the trash.

Read for a couple hours, got an awful lemonade from Wendy’s, found a Cheers shotglass for Francine (at work)’s collection and what the heck, got one for me as well, and got in the plane. As the doors closed, someone screamed in the back. “My baby!” Something something else. All of a sudden a hysterical woman was running to the front. “Let me off! Let me off!” She had a companion who was trying to calm her. They huddled with the attendants, let off a few more shrieks, and finally the door opened. It took the attendants three trips to make sure their carry-ons were gathered, and then we had to wait for people to go through the cargo hold to get their luggage. “Family emergency” was all we were told.

Top to bottom, left to right: Vermont (maple leaf), poor little Maine lobster, Plymouth pilgrims, Norman Rockwell's very funny self-portrait cover, Martha's Vineyard, The Spouter Tavern (that's a whale there) from Mystic Seaport, and a disappointingly blah Boston magnet that I got before I determined that I was going to start collecting INTERESTING magnets, dammit!
Then home again, home again. It cost a hair under $100 to park my car at the airport. I took 433 photos. I bought, I think, eight tee shirts and seven refrigerator magnets. One big slice of fudge. Two kitchen implements. I had a bagful of hotel shampoos and conditioners. I also brought home an extra eight pounds that stuck around for almost a week before they disappeared one night, just like that. I was glad I’d taken an extra vacation day for recovery.

Bus tours are very economical ways to vacation. For 8 days I paid about $1800, if you include the final tip to Brandon and Keith (which our booklet suggested), and don’t include meals, souvenirs, or flight. All our breakfasts were included, as well as three dinners. Keith said our final mileage was just a couple miles over 1000.

I like bus tours because they give me a quick, overall view of a region. I get to be able to point at a TV show later and yell, "I've been there!", plus I now know where I want to return to to spend more time. Like after this trip I want to paint some along the Maine or Martha's Vineyards shores, and maybe on the streets of Woodstock, VT.

Caravan furnishes a booklet with all your info, including how much to tip various people and what to bring along with you. (Sunscreen, travel alarm, etc.) Even so, one of the older ladies on the tour hadn't packed a sweater or jacket. We worried about her, but she said she was doing fine.

Brandon gave us lots of info on other vacations. Caravan's #1 tour is Costa Rica, which Brandon says he's been on and wants to get his parents to go as well, because it's fantastic. (Me, I've had several very bad past lives south of the border, and have never been tempted to wander farther south than Florida.) He says that the best time to travel is in mid-season, which allows time for tour workers to figure out what their job is without them being burnt out by it all yet. If you're older, you want to travel in late August or early September to avoid kids. If you're going to Alaska (Caravan doesn't go there, but Brandon did Alaskan tours before he switched to Caravan), you definitely want a land-cruise package. Save the cruise for last so you can relax. Try if at all possible to get multiple days in Denali. Don't go until June. (He showed us pictures of him changing bus tire chains in a snowstorm on May 29.) If you go on the Yellowstone tour, hit in July or August because earlier won't get you as long a whitewater ride because the river they do it on hasn't risen enough yet.

Next year: Trying to decide: Alaskan land/sea excursion ($$$) or Caravan’s “Mt. Rushmore, Grand Tetons & Yellowstone” tour, which would allow me to see an old stomping ground I’ve been wanting to revisit, as well as do some location research for my novels if I tack on a couple extra days before and after. Then again (and this is days later that I write this), I may take the Yellowstone tour with a Casper add-on, and then take a separate Amtrak "Empire Builder" ride, which would hit three cities I want desperately to see. Do you have an opinion? Have you taken any tours you’d like to recommend? Do you want to ride along on my next trip? Maybe we can raise a little heck!

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