Niagara Wine Country

IMG_5208It feels like fall today, with gusty winds, clouds, and temperatures no higher than 70F/20C.

It made me think of how my grapes will like it, and I’ll be picking them next month.  It also made me think of Niagara Wine Country, and since I had nothing in particular to do this morning, I drove two hours away to wander around the area.

I’ve been here countless times but I never tire of it.  At any season, it’s an enjoyable excursion.

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Niagara on the Lake is a small town in Ontario with a very British feel.  Have some tea, pop into the cute shops (many British products, many Canadian made goods like hats and Christmas ornaments), buy some delicious baked goods or candies, go to a Shaw play, eat a filling meal with local specialities, or visit a fort.  Then, go wine tasting.  There are countless vineyards, and none are bad.  Many are picturesque and welcome visitors to take photos without expectations of purchase.

If you do want to purchase a wine, this area is famous for ice wines.

If you are here in the summer, local produce like peaches and strawberries are delicious and very affordable at farm stands.

Of course, Niagara Falls is only twenty minutes away so you will have plenty of options of things to do there as well.

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Photos taken by me August 5, 2017

 

 

Summer in the Finger Lakes

IMG_4675Sunrises and sunsets can be very dramatic in the Finger Lakes region, but this sunrise might have been one of the most beautiful I have seen.  This summer has brought rain and thunderstorms, which has given us some fantastic cloud formations.

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And, rainbows.  So many rainbows.  We had double rainbows three evenings in a row.

IMG_4907This past weekend there were two Lavender festivals.  I attended the one in Skaneateles.  It was as if I transported myself to Provence.

IMG_6040My favorite summer activity here is fruit picking.  Cherries for $2.49 a pound.  Western NY is actually the second most agriculturally rich area in the USA – in terms of variety and abundance – Sonoma, CA is ahead of us.

I love to travel, but home is pretty great at this time of year.

(photos are my own)

Toronto

IMG_5977I had a lovely trip to Toronto over the weekend.  If you are planning on going to Toronto anytime in the next month, I highly recommend the Georgia O’Keeffe exhibit at the Art Museum of Ontario.  The entire museum is stellar, and well worth the steep admission fee.

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I also visited Casa Loma, a short drive or subway ride from the city center.  The building itself is massive, but I wasn’t too inspired by the interior.  There are certainly nice elements in the decor, but nothing I plan on remembering well.

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The views from the Casa Loma tower, though, are wonderful, and the gardens are very nice too.

IMG_5980I would suggest finding some good food at the Kensington Market area, where there are plenty of coffee shops, bars, cafes, and open air food stalls.

The area certainly tries to be counter-culture, but it seems everybody (tourists included) mosey around to find good eats.

I ended up enjoying the ethnic neighborhoods more.  Chinatown, Little Italy, and Little Portugal were some areas I visited.  Little Portugal is mostly residential, and ended up being my favorite.  Lots of little gardens, interesting houses, Portuguese bakeries, and it is fun to hear many speak the language.

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Previously while in Toronto, I focused on the harbor area visiting sites like the CN Tower, attending a Blue Jays game, and walking around Centre Island.

I’m already looking forward to another trip to this city to explore additional areas.

(Photos: taken in Toronto)

Mexico City

I had free miles to use and will be taking a very affordable trip to Mexico City in September.  I’ll only have a couple days there, but it will be my second time visiting.  It’s a fabulous city, full of friendly people, amazing art, fascinating history, and colorful markets with delicious and cheap food.

IMG_4936Last time, I took a daytrip to Teotihuacan and climbed the temples.

IMG_4913This time, I may try to visit a nearby city like Puebla.  Puebla is famous for its cuisine.

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But, I still have a great deal to see in Mexico City, including more Diego Rivera murals.

IMG_4897I’m looking forward to it!

 

(Photos by me)

Granada and Masaya

 

(Ruben y el Mundo, YouTube video), photos are mine

I did a daytrip to Granada, a beautiful city that is extremely walkable.  Very colorful homes, gorgeous churches (six that I visited), a lovely central park, and a quick twenty minute walk to Lake Nicaragua.  There is a large market too, but note that it caters to locals so many vegetables are whole, uncooked, and unwashed.  There are few souvenirs.  That’s one of the things I loved most about Nicaragua – everyone speaks Spanish to you, there are no name brand stores or fast food joints, and all the food is Nicaraguan – don’t expect a sushi restaurant or even a Mexican night of tacos.  I did pass one Irish pub, so I guess Guinness is universal.

Food here is cheaper than at Laguna de Apoyo.  I got an extremely filling meal of rice and beans, fried egg and cheese, plantains,  and fresh juice for $3.

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I recommend climbing La Merced church tower.  Lovely views, and a nice breeze which is comforting when it is so hot and humid.  I found some museums, but ended up wandering the city streets instead as it was a lovely day.  There is a chocolate museum for you chocolate lovers.  There is also a cigar factory where you can roll your own cigar and meet the resident parrot, but obviously people smoke cigars there so if you are sensitive to smoke like I am, steer clear.

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Lake Nicaragua is nice, but Laguna de Apoyo is far cleaner if you are wanting to swim.

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My daytrip on my second day was to Laguna de Masaya and the Masaya volcano.  I highly recommend it.  Masaya has a nice folk art museum for less than $1 admission.  It has a great market with hammocks, wood crafts, ceramics, etc.  Bargaining is a must, and you must do it in Spanish.  I found that even with poor Spanish, I got prices down 25% easily.

I walked to Malecon, a nice park with a walkway along Laguna de Masaya with great views and shade.

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I took a taxi for $3 to the volcano.  I then bargained for the driver to stay with me and take me back to Laguna de Apoyo.  People are so friendly and kind in Nicaragua.  He was eager to be my unofficial guide, telling me about the volcano and recent eruptions.  He pointed out various rock formations.  I understood about 75% of his quick Spanish, but he was happy to rephrase things.  Note that you must sign in at the volcano and you get a quick safety lesson.  You have five minutes (up to 15 depending on the wind and activity level of the volcano on the day you go) to be close to the crater.  I had five minutes to grab some pictures and stare in wonder.  There is a night option too – if you want to see glowing lava.  Admission in the day was about $3.

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I also recommend stopping in Catarina for El Mirador, a high viewpoint of Laguna de Apoyo.

I highly recommend Nicaragua.  I felt completely safe, found it to be very affordable, loved exploring the culture and sights, and the nature is amazing.  It remains a little off the typical tourist track, so definitely consider it if you want to dive into the Hispanic culture.

 

 

 

Laguna de Apoyo

(YouTube, Pitahaya Property Group)

I am back from my two day whirlwind in Nicaragua.  I chose to stay lakeside at Laguna de Apoyo.  This property group’s video gives you a nice bird’s eye view of the beautiful natural surroundings. Note that it also shows Lake Nicaragua (the shots with the city), which is a half hour away.

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Speaking of bird’s eye views, there were a lot of birds – every morning before dawn it was as if you were in the middle of a huge brass band playing extra loudly.  Add in monkey howls, and you don’t need an alarm clock.  But, thankfully, the cacophony allowed me to get up before sunrise and watch a breathtaking show as the sun slowly rose over the water.

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The lake does not allow any motors, so it is clean and perfect for swimming, kayaking, and paddle boarding.  Rentals are available, with life jackets for $10 (USD) for an hour.  I just swam, and the water is 82 degrees.  The water is clear – you can see the rocky bottom as you wade out.  It gets very deep very quickly.  There have been recent drownings, so wear your life jacket if you go far out.  There are waves.  The lake was a volcanic crater.

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There are numerous restaurants and hotels lakeside, but no massive developments that disturb the views and nature.  The cheapest hostels are about $15 USD a night and the most expensive resort is about $80 a night.  The cheapest restaurants are about $5 for dinner, and the most expensive (if you ordered a fish dinner) would be about $20.  Here is my typical dinner: bean soup, plaintains, passion fruit juice for about $7, tip included.

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Yes, Nicaragua is super affordable!

Laguna de Apoyo is one hour from the capital Managua and its airport.  The easiest way to arrive is by taxi, which costs about $15-$25 depending on the time of day and your bargaining skills.  Laguna de Apoyo is located 25 minutes from the Masaya volcano and 25 minutes from Granada. There are bus services, but they are a good walk from the lake and run at very specific times so you can’t be as flexible in your schedule.  But, buses are very cheap.  They are colorfully painted school buses.

If you like nightlife, there is none except for listening to chirping.  It gets very dark, as there is little development on the lake, and all restaurants close and have lights out by 10pm.  The stars are lovely, however.  I went to bed by 10pm as I got up at 5:15am to monkey watch.   It was a perfect place for me to stay, but if you like lots of activity, do the Laguna as a daytrip.

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Photos: my iPod photos

 

 

 

Nicaragua

I will be taking a very short trip to Nicaragua.  With only two days, I will be busy trying to see as much as the city of Granada as possible and enjoying some time in nature.

Columbus explored the land in 1502, but the first Spanish settlement was founded in 1524.  Granada is the oldest European city in the Americas.

Most of Nicaraguans are Mestizos, a mixed Spanish-indigenous background.

Nicaragua became independent in 1838.  The first years were rough, with civil war between the two main cities: Leon and Granada.  Today, the capital city is Managua.

The USA became quite involved in Nicaraguan politics in the 20th century.  From having the Marines occupy the country to supporting dictatorships to the horrid Iran-Contra Affair, the US-Nicaragua relationship has been fraught with tension.

Although now technically a democracy, President Ortega changed the constitution to run for a third term, and his rule has been certainly controversial.  One major debate is the idea of a Nicaraguan Canal, with support from the Chinese.  Supporters believe it would boost the economy enormously, and as evidence cite how Panama is the wealthiest country in Central America.   Those opposed fear environmental destruction, loss of indigenous culture, opportunities for mass corruption and foreign influence.

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Photo:  of Granada, by Elemaki , Wikipedia, free distribution