Tuesday, 30 September 2014

The Waterfalls of New York State

After a week in Toronto, and two weeks prior to that in Chicago we felt it was time to find some proper backcountry to spend some time in again. The Waterloo State Recreation Area in Michigan was pleasant, but the area is covered by roads and towns, and there is little in the way of large hills or mountains. If we had left Toronto heading east, we would have entered New York State in the US near to the Adirondacks, a huge area of wilderness, but having left Canada via Niagara, it made more sense to head to the Catskills instead.

New York State is covered in natural beauty, and not wishing to miss it all in a dash to the Catskills, we identified two state parks to visit en route. Our first stop was Letchworth State Park, which we only found out about as our planned route took us through part of it. After a beautiful drive through increasingly hilly and forested terrain, we arrived at the park in the early afternoon, and booked a space in the largely empty campsite. Letchworth State Park consists of thin ribbon of state land, running on either side of a gorge formed by the Genesee River; the park is best known for the three impressive waterfalls formed by the river, deep below the gorges rim. The campsite, at the far north end of the 17 mile long state park, is a fair distance from any of the parks waterfalls, and not wishing to spend the remaining hours of daylight walking along the road, we drove further south, closer to where the action is. Our first day in the park was spent picnicking at a dramatic bend in the river, before hiking down into the gorge and along the south rim between the lower and middle falls.

After a night in the quiet solitude of the campsite, we left early in the morning and drove further into the park, before hiking along the remaining section of the gorge between the middle and upper falls. The peak of autumn is clearly still some weeks away, but it was a pleasure hiking through such a beautiful area, with the leaves beginning to change colour, and the signs of autumn developing.

It is difficult to comprehend a country so covered in natural beauty, that a site as astounding as the canyon and falls at Letchworth are simply one of many small attractions that few but locals would spend time visiting. If the Letchworth falls were in England, they would undoubtedly be one of the most impressive sites in the country, but in America they are lost among the countless other sites.

Niagara Falls and a Struggle to Remain Calm

Heading back the US from Toronto, there were two sensible routes that we could have taken. One would have taken us north and east, along the north shore of Lake Ontario and into America near Kingston, while the other was to head west to Hamilton on the tip of Lake Ontario, before heading south to the Niagara border. Our next major stop was to be Boston, and whilst both routes would have worked, the southern route passed Niagara Falls, an opportunity I didn't want to miss despite the areas reputation as a tacky tourist nightmare. We therefore headed out of Toronto, backtracking to the west, in the direction of Niagara.

The town of Niagara on the Canadian side of the falls, is a depressing site as you drive through, and parking was predictably expensive, but all of the shortcoming were forgiven when I saw the falls. Niagara is not the tallest waterfall in the world, nor does it have the highest flow rate, but a combination factors combine to make it an astoundingly impressive sight. The unbroken curtain of turbulent water running over the wide crescent on the Canadian side of the falls is an amazing site, and we spent a long time staring in amazement at the view, which is relatively unspoiled by the development nearby. The Canadian planners had the foresight to retain a green boundary between the falls and the sprawl of hotels and attractions nearby, and so standing on the edge of the canyon, there are few distractions to detract from the view.

In a rather different way the adjacent town is quite a spectacle, like an Americanised version of Blackpool. Walking around the town I found it difficult to image what kind of person would come to a place as beautiful as Niagara Falls, and chose to spend the day in the dinosaur themed crazy golf, or the House of Frankenstein.

Having got our fill of the view over the falls, we jumped back in the truck, and headed for the adjacent bridge to the non-commercial border crossing. Having had such swift border crossings and customs dealings in Orlando, Brunswick, McAllen, Nogales and Detroit, it had never occurred to me that the crossing into the US at Niagara would be any different, particularly in light of the huge numbers of tourists that must cross there each day. The crossing started normally, with the polite lady in the booth asking all of the normal questions; after a while she gave us the all clear and directed us into the adjacent build so that Jamie could get his ESTA visa approved; it was at this point that our day started to go pear shaped.


The Detroit border crossing into Canada was swift and painless; we spent five minutes in the immigration office getting a temporary six month visa, and we were soon on our way with no vehicle search and no inspection of any of our paperwork. Having left Ann Arbor late in the day, there were not many hours of daylight left by the time we arrived in Canada. Not wishing to spend a night in a truck stop, we left the 401, and headed to the north shore of Lake Erie to find somewhere to spend the night. After a drive along the coast north of Point Pelee, we found a quiet parking lot at the end of spit of land jutting into the Hillman March Conservation Area. The muddy and choppy waters of Lake Erie were a surprise after our days on the placid shore of Lake Michigan, but the windswept coast gave us a quiet and picturesque place to walk Boris and spend the night.

The following day we drove the remaining distance to Toronto, where we would soon be meeting my cousin Jamie who would be joining us for a couple of weeks. On entering Toronto, we were immediately engaged in a time consuming search for a place to park on the crowded and narrow streets. I have clearly been spoiled by the wide streets, huge parking spaces, and drive-everywhere attitude in America, and so it was a shock to return to the reality of parking in an old city. It is rare that I find somewhere as awkward as London to park a truck, and I was surprised to find Toronto so problematic. Not only is the entire city covered by a three hour maximum parking law, but temporary parking permits are only issued to vehicles under five meters in length, and not to motorhomes of any size. Even more absurd is that Toronto residents must even pay for a permit to park on their own driveways!

After a slow crawl around some inner west side neighbourhoods, we found a place to park that didn’t have resident’s permit restrictions, and was wide enough for us to park without blocking traffic. Unfortunately the space was on a busy road, we partially blocked a bike lane, and like all of Toronto, the parking was limited to three hours. Thankfully our foreign plates posed too much of a problem to the local parking wardens, and they ignored us for the week that we spent there. Unfortunately we were less lucky with another aspect of the area that we had parked in.

From Chicago to Canada via the Costa del Michigan

After leaving The Windy City behind us, we headed around the southern tip of Lake Michigan, briefly passing through Indiana, before driving into Michigan State. Some superficial internet research had indicated that most of the beaches on the east coast of the lake were worth visiting, and so we chose one that avoided a lengthy detour, and that permitted dogs on the beach.

We arrived at Grand Mere State Park in the late afternoon, and wasted no time heading down to the beach to catch the sun setting over the lake. The main car park is situated a little way back from the shore, and we walked down the mile long path, through the forest, marsh and sand dunes which separate the parking area from the lake. The Gold Coast, as Lake Michigan’s east coast is known, has a good reputation, and from the moment we saw the beach at Grand Mere it was easy for us to see why. The shore is backed by huge, well established sand dunes, and from the vantage point of the final dune, one can see miles of pristine golden beach stretching in either direction.

The sand on the beach of Grand Mere is soft and clean, the fresh water of the lake is clear and warm, and the area is massively underused. When we arrived at the beach we were the only people there, and on our two hour walk along the shore, we saw only one other person. It is ironic that having driven through the Florida Keys, the Caribbean coast of Mexico, and the iconic resorts of Acapulco and Mazatlan, the beach we have most enjoyed on this trip has been in land-locked Michigan, more than a thousand miles from the sea. Boris clearly liked the area as much as we did, displaying his enthusiasm by hurling himself down the sand dunes in a barely controlled plummet.  As the sun began to set, we walked back to the truck, and found a secluded spot to park, just outside of the park boundary.

We spent the following two days on the beach, listening to music, sunbathing, swimming, and unwinding in beautiful surroundings. The weather in the American mid-west is certainly not guaranteed to be favourable in September and according to locals that we spoke to, we were lucky to be there on two of the best days in weeks. With a limited time before were due to meet my cousin in Toronto, we left Grand Mere following a fairly direct route towards Ontario’s capital. We would loved to have visited the remote peninsula regions in northern Michigan, but time and budget conspired against us, and we instead stuck to the I-94 in the south of the state.

In search of stop-over points to break up the long drive to Toronto, I came upon the Gilmore car museum near Kalamazoo. I am interested in all things automotive, but neither me nor Naomi could be called car buffs; and so before we arrived I was unsure how entertaining we would find the museum. I needn’t have worried, the museum is awesome in every respect.

Wednesday, 10 September 2014


When we first started this trip, Jim’s maiden voyage having fully metamorphosed into a motorhome, we were cautious about boondocking in big cities. Even from the start, we were happy to park on the side of the road in smaller towns, and off the road when out in the boonies, but it took us a while to build up the confidence to do the same when in cities. In Miami and New Orleans, cities which we visited within a month of leaving England, we elected to stay at RV parks. But on entering Chicago, more than seven months later, we had developed a good enough understanding of what we can and cannot get away with, to feel confident parked on the side of the road.

Chicago may have one of the highest gun crime rates per capita in the USA, but like all cities, there are safe areas and troubled areas. Not knowing Chicago at all, it took us a short while to find a suitable parking spot in a nice area, but we soon settled on Skinner Park. The park is in the well-heeled West Loop area, and is a two mile cycle ride into town, or 5 minutes on the L train. It turned out to be a great place to explore the city from, and it wasn’t until nearly a week later that we had any problems parked where we were.

We stayed in Chicago for more than two weeks, and could easily have spent another two without seeing half of the attractions that Chicago has to offer. It sounds cheesy, but for me, almost every day was a highlight; Chicago is culturally world-class, and, there are few cities that I have enjoyed spending time in more. I understand that the last few years have seen heavy redevelopment, but to a tourist new to the city, it is a fantastic place to visit. The good transit system, the host of fantastic parks from the centre to the suburbs, the clean and picturesque beaches, the multitude of free festivals throughout the summer, the fantastic live music scene, and the awesome restaurants, all mean that it is a difficult city not to enjoy.

On our first few days in Chicago, we explored the central Loop and Near North areas with the huge sky scrapers, parks and cultural centres that characterise the city.

We spent most of our first day in the Chicago Art Institute, and still failed to see more than half of the gallery space. It is easy for a European to think of London, Paris, Florence or Rome, as the centre of the world’s great art collections, but there are few galleries that I have visited with collections as significant as the art institute. The gallery covers almost every period of art history, and has important pieces in all of its areas. During our visit, I remember staring at pieces by Caravaggio, Constable, Lichtenstein, Manet, Miro, Monet, Picaso, Pollock, Rothko, Turner, Warhol, and many, many others. If it hadn’t been for the entry fee, and the abundance of other places that we wanted to visit, I would gladly has spent another two days there.

On our second day in Chicago’s downtown, we took a walk along the Navy Pier, Chicago’s most visited tourist attraction. In a city filled to bursting point with galleries, museums and parks, it was disheartening to learn that the most visited attraction is a tacky mall with a smattering of overpriced bars and restaurants. The pier was distinctly underwhelming, but the experience was not wasted. A local church group had overbought tickets for a boat cruise on Lake Michigan, and invited us to join them. We spent the next two hours eating an excellent buffet lunch, and admiring the view of Chicago’s skyline in the sunshine on the deck of a boat.