Western Pennsylvania’s Surprises – Part 2

I know, I know–there has been a bit of a gap between Western Pennsylvania’s Part 1 and Part 2. That’s what happens when you follow a lazy blogger.

So, to review: my last post pointed out our mistaken belief that Fallingwater would be the only attraction the Ohiopyle area had to offer. Were WE ever wrong. Instead, we discovered multiple highlights, many of them located at the Nemacolin Resort.

If you have never heard of the Nemacolin resort, join the club. Neither had we. The Fallingwater website listed several area hotels, beds & breakfasts and inns. Because this trip was an anniversary celebration, a Ramada, Holiday Inn Express or Days Inn was not what we had in mind. Okay, the Nemacolin Woodlands Resort was a splurge, but was it ever worth it!

First some background information: The resort is privately owned by 96 year old Joseph Hardy III, who still has a home somewhere on its 2,000 acres. He leaves its day to day operation to his daughter Maggie, who also is the CEO of 84 Lumber, the source of Joe’s wealth. You can read all about Joe’s history in the lobby of the Lodge.

We stayed in The Lodge, one of several hotels on the property.

Well, not exactly ALL. You need to go to Wikipedia to learn that he had FIVE wives instead of the three the display fessed up to. His first marriage to Dorothy lasted more than 50 years, which means that from his 70’s until now, he made up for lost time by wedding 4 more lovely ladies. Three of his brides were in their 20’s, which made the 50 something woman he wed (wife #4) appear age appropriate. Unfortunately, THAT marriage went the way of the three before, and Joe’s last (possibly current?) Mrs. Hardy was under 30 when he married her. The display tells about his founding of 84 Lumber and its financial success, but somehow I find his marital history far more intriguing. Admit it, you probably do too.

Joe’s interest was not confined to women. He also was fond of classic cars, which are displayed in a “museum” on the property. Here are just a few of Joe’s toys. Notice the motorcycle? That is a replica of Peter Fonda’s wheels, built from parts of the motorcycles used in the movie “Easy Rider”. The Captain America helmet is perched on the back.

Right by the private airstrip is a hangar containing classic planes, including Steve McQueen’s, from a movie I didn’t see and don’t recall. Sorry. THAT museum was locked up, but if you have a burning desire to get up close and personal with those babies, you can call security from the phone helpfully placed by the entrance and they will let you in. We weren’t that curious, so the photo was shot through the window. I’m confident you get the idea.

Although there are many diversions to thrill children and teens, we didn’t partake in any of those.

Instead, we rode the “free” shuttle to the Frank Lloyd Wright “tribute” restaurant located in another hotel (each room at THIS hotel comes with your personal butler. If you are anything like me, you probably are wondering “what does the butler DO??? Hand you your slippers, floss your teeth? ). Lunch outside was lovely, but probably not worth the price.

The view from the outdoor restaurant

The walk back to our hotel, however was pretty delightful. In addition to stopping to visit the two museums, we enjoyed looking at the extensive sculpture collection scattered along the walkways.

My favorite thing, however, was our anniversary dinner. Pricy, yes, but very delicious and quite an elegant experience. Can you tell from the photos below which was the main course?

I chose the Wagu Beef, which is shown in the upper right hand corner. Makes one recall that commercial “where’s the beef”? Yes, I am old enough to remember both the original commercial and the political ad that used the phrase.

Enough about Nemacolin. I’m sure you’ve gotten the idea by now. ANOTHER big area attraction is Fort Necessity. I’m married to a man who never saw a fort that he didn’t love. Although this Fort Necessity isn’t very big, and is a replica of the original, the visitor’s center is fantastic.

I probably was taught this in either elementary or high school, but I had forgotten this fort was where George Washington started the French and Indian War. Here’s what happened: either the French or the British fired the first shot at Fort Necessity. The well done video makes it clear that each side claimed the other was the aggressor. What is important was the way the battle ended. The British had to surrender, and the terms were written in French, a language Washington didn’t understand. his translator wasn’t all that fluent either, and to make matters worse, it had been raining and the ink had run.

What Washington didn’t realize was that he had admitted to assassinating the French commander, and the rest is history.

One final note: if you are visiting the area, The Bittersweet Cafe is a great choice for breakfast. Don’t miss it!

Western Pennsylvania’s Surprises

Do you know where you find a section of the Berlin Wall, Peter Fonda’s motorcycle with Captain America helmet, Steve McQueen’s airplane, the Fort where the French and Indian War started, several Frank Lloyd Wright masterpieces, and a five diamond restaurant? Hint: check out the map above, specifically the Ohiopyle area. It doesn’t look like there is much in the area, does it? At least that’s what I thought till I got there.

Did you ever plan a trip, thinking that it would be all about a particular site, then discover that the area had a whole lot more to offer? Enough for two posts, even?

We were drawn to the area by a newspaper article I had clipped about Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater decades ago. It sat in my “Fun Things To Do” folder until earlier this year, when I figured we either needed to visit the damn place or throw out the clipping. If I had done the latter, you wouldn’t be reading this post.

A quick internet search uncovered a special Fallingwater experience–a sunset tour, lasting three hours, ending with appetizers on one of the decks. The tours are only offered on Friday and Saturday nights, are limited to 10 participants, allow interior photography, and include parts of the house not shown on the other tours. For $150 per person, you can pretend that you are a guest of the owners. Just our kind of gig.

The newspaper article included a photo similar to this one

So how was it, you ask? Well, the house was quite fascinating, especially given that it was completed in 1937. As you can see from the photo above, the house was built over a waterfall. When the windows are open, you can definitely HEAR that water falling! Closing the windows successfully shuts out most of the noise…and also the cooling breezes. Fallingwater, you see, is not air conditioned. Did they even HAVE AC back in the late ’30s?

You’re probably thinking “What’s the point of living over a waterfall if you can’t stick your 10 little piggies into it”? Right? Well, Frank was also thinking just that, so here’s what he did.

The stairway leading down to the water is pretty cool, but what is even more impressive is the way the glass panels slide away.

Do you think he accomplished his goal, which was to bring the outside in?

Here’s another example. You are out in the middle of nowhere, so window coverings are not needed, but in the bathroom, why not have planters built into the window to form a natural curtain?†

When we first entered the living room, it looked like the corner was completely open. It took a while to see what is obvious from the reflection on the window–that two panes of glass are joined in the corner.

Wright not only designed the building, he also created all the furniture throughout the house. I was surprised to see a king sized bed in the master bedroom. Our guide explained that it was actually two twins pushed together and united by a single headboard and bedspread, something TV in the 1950’s would never have shown. (It isn’t that visually interesting, so I didn’t bother posting a photo of it–everyone knows what a king sized bed looks like.) How surprising that it took about three decades for that great concept to catch on!

The kitchen, bedrooms and bathrooms are all very small. The focus is on the large living/dining room and the outside balconies. Check out the banquettes in the living room. Not what I consider the most comfortable seating, but maybe if you imbibe enough from those nearby bottles, you won’t notice.

At the other end of the living room is the dining area. Are you expecting the tour to turn left or right into the kitchen? Well, it doesn’t. The kitchen is a tiny space down a flight of stairs and through a very narrow hallway. The owners clearly didn’t spend much time there. That was the domain of the servants. There are no photos, because the kitchen was so tiny, I couldn’t figure out how to frame it.

I was quite happy that our appetizers were not served in the dining room; instead, we enjoyed our hummus, crackers, cheese and veggies on one of the decks.

A staff member was getting everything ready for us. You can see from that blue pole in the foreground of this photo that necessary repairs are being made on the building.

While enjoying our appetizers, one of the other guests strongly recommended that we visit another of Wright’s nearby buildings. Kentuck Knob was built about 20 years later, for friends who were frequent guests of the Kaufmann family, the owners of Fallingwater.

Okay, so I know this is heresy, but I actually liked Kentuck Knob BETTER than Fallingwater. It has all of the usual Wright features, but it just seems more LIVEABLE. Interestingly enough, it is considered “usonian” (Frank’s term for his “middle income” houses.) This “middle income’ house was built for the Hagans, the owners of the ice cream company in Uniontown PA, and was sold to its current owner, Lord Peter Palumbo, who, since 1996, when not using it as his vacation home, opens it to the public.

A photo of the Lord and Diana (wearing her “screw you, Charles” dress) appears in the house. I grabbed this from the internet

Take a look at the cutouts under the eaves. They are a source of light into the living room and supposedly repeat design elements found in the building. (I’m taking that on the guide’s word. I couldn’t spot any of those elements.)

Notice how the carports–Wright’s invention — are nestled into the landscape. The hill behind forms a partial roof.

Although we weren’t allowed to take photos INSIDE the house, there was no rule against shooting through the windows into the interior, which is what I did.

Now take a look at the role the cutouts play in the interior space.

The wall opposite the banquettes is all windows and glass doors, offering access to a walkway and a spectacular view of the valley below.

The price of your admission allows you to wander through Lord Palumbo’s spectacular sculpture meadow. I was particularly taken with the part of the Berlin Wall. His collection also includes three red British phone booths at the visitors center.

I’m tired of writing and you are probably tired of reading so the rest of the area attractions I promised in the first paragraph will have to wait until the next time I post.

National Parks Part 2 – The Hints Keep A Comin’

Okay, so you’ve decided to visit Yellowstone and the Tetons.  Now what?

Hint #1:  Jackson Hole and the Tetons
If you are flying in, it’s a good idea to spend your first night (or more) in Jackson Hole.  By the time you arrive and pick up your car, you will probably be tired.  Jackson Hole is great place to catch your breath, rest up and enjoy the scenery.  It is also much easier to get lodging, and because we were visiting outside of ski season, the hotel rates were quite reasonable.

So, what does Jackson Hole have to offer?  Museums, scenery, shopping, and great restaurants!  We particularly liked Gather, which was only a couple of blocks from our hotel.  The food was delicious, creatively presented and reasonably priced.  Chicken with pancakes and berries plus flourless chocolate cake were just two of our choices.

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chicken with pancakes

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flourless chocolate cake

If you have a sweet tooth (and as you can tell from the photo above, I do), then you will definitely want to stop at Moo.  In addition to great ice cream, they also offer truffle animals that are almost too good to eat.

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Did I mention shopping?  Every man needs at least one of these hanging in his closet.

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Nature lovers can’t miss with a hike in the Rockefeller Preserve.  Follow this linkfor trail maps, hours and rules for visiting.

Be forewarned.  To get there, you have to travel on some unpaved roads.   And some of the trails are a bit rocky, but the scenery is magnificent and oh so peaceful.

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We spent our first two nights in Teton Village,  then headed for Yellowstone early in the morning, stopping for breakfast in Jackson Hole.  If you follow my advice from my last post and stay in Jackson Hole at Springhill Suites, you would be able to enjoy a free breakfast (they start serving EARLY) and would get to Yellowstone even earlier than we did.  If, however, you choose to experience the Teton Village, check out the Mangy Moose for breakfast, and Osteria or Spur for lunch or dinner.

Hint #2 Take a Tour
Be sure to reserve your tours WELL in advance, especially if you are visiting during peak season!  If you visit Yellowstone during non-peak season, some activities might not be offered.  For example, none of the boating activities were available on Yellowstone Lake, but there was still more than enough to do.  The Event Plannerwill tell you what is available, when.

We booked two tours–the “Circle of Fire, and “Wake Up to Wildlife”.    The Circle of Fire tour lasted all day, and was a very good value at $86 per adult.   Every seat on this large tour bus is a good seat, with excellent views wherever you sit.

We paid $100 per adult for Wake Up to Wildlife.   We did NOT book in advance, so we ended up taking this tour on the day we were checking out of our hotel–not ideal, but it was all that was available.

The “historic” yellow buses used for Wake Up to Wildlife can only seat 13 people, ( three rows of 4, plus 1 beside the driver.)  The tour is supposed to start at 6:15 AM and last until around 11:30.

Both tours charge half price for children under the age of 11; both tours pick up and drop off at several park hotels, and for both tours, the bus driver is also your tour guide.  Both of ours were retirees who thoroughly enjoyed their jobs.  Their love for the park, its history, animals and lore was obvious.  While driving, they kept us entertained with stories, jokes and oh so much valuable information.

Hint #3 The Wildlife
You don’t need to take a tour to see wildlife.  It didn’t take long for us to encounter our first of MANY bison and elk.   These animals are very comfortable strutting their stuff along the roads, in the roads, pretty much where ever they want.  That does have an impact on travel time and traffic, so keep that in mind, relax and enjoy the show.

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The park literature does a great job reminding visitors that these are wild and potentially dangerous animals, so we kept a safe distance, but we DID observe others who got dangerously close.

We didn’t see any bears, and although we theoretically DID spot some wolves, an osprey, pronghorns, some mountain goats and a badger community,  most were way too distant to see without binoculars.

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Can you spot the mountain goat in this photo?  Neither could I, but I was TOLD there was one to the left of that snowy patch, near the bottom.

On the Wake Up to Wildlife tour, our guide supplied the scope, and some of “wolf watchers” we encountered along the way were kind enough to share their equipment with us.  But even with powerful scopes, I never was able to see the wolves.

Even with the very good zoom on my camera, this photo of badger butts was as good as I could get–so you can imagine what the deleted ones looked like!p1190766-e1529274095714.jpgI had better luck outside of our hotel in Mammoth Hot Springs, where several of these little guys were cavorting across the street.P1030127

My opinion, based on my ONE experience, was that we would have been better served to skip “Wake Up to Wildlife” and explore on our own.  (Others who have experienced the tour are encouraged to weigh in).  Here’s why: on our own, we could have stopped when we wanted, for as long as we wanted.  The bus was unable to stop  when animals were sighted along the way, so, for example,  we SAW many “red dogs” (the locals’ name for baby bison) during our tour, we weren’t able to stop and watch them, or get a good shot.

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photo taken from the yellow bus on Wake Up to Wildlife

Because of its size, the bus was limited to parking in specific areas.

On our own, we could have left when we wanted and returned when we chose.  Despite being in the lobby on time (at 6:15 AM!!!), the tour bus didn’t leave the parking lot till 6:40 AM.  If you think that made me grumpy, you’d be right.   Oh yeah, one more thing:  There is no coffee making paraphernalia at Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel, and nothing is open at 6:15.  You DO get a bottle of cranberry juice and a muffin, but that’s it until your return at around 11:30.  We knew that, so stocked up at the nearby General Store the day before.

There WERE positives:  The bus driver’s stories and his telescope for viewing animals.

Hint #4  Yellowstone is MUCH more than Old Faithful
I was completely blown away by the incredible geological features of this amazing park.  The Circle of Fire Tour takes you to the main highlights, such as Geyser Basin at West Thumb.   This area, bordering Yellowstone Lake is fascinating.  Check out the colors from the mineral deposits!P1190635

When the Park first opened, visitor were able to board a ferry in West Thumb that would take them across the lake to our hotel.  While we were there, no boats were sailing or chugging across the lake, probably because the ice wasn’t completely gone until May 21 (according to our guide).  Even though the ice was about 30 inches thick, it is hard to understand how the lake can remain frozen with all the smokin’ hot activity close by. Okay, I am going to TRY to insert a video of the boiling mud.  Hope it works.

We stopped at a couple of waterfalls as we made our way to Old Faithful, arriving at the complex with about an hour and a half before the geyser was expected to erupt, just enough time to get lunch, before the show.

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I decided to avoid the crowd, take a seat under the trees, and watch from the distance.

The only place where we encountered crowds during our tour was at Old Faithful.

If I had to choose a favorite spot, it would be very difficult, but I guess I’d choose the Fountain Paint Pots.   I just loved the stark landscape.

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The male bisons travel solo.  I’m wondering how he manages to saunter over this hot area?

I could keep going with photos from the Circle of Fire Tour, but you get the idea.  The geological features are jaw dropping!  And it is great to have the guide explain what is going on.

Hint #6 Getting hungry?
The choices pretty much boil down to amusement park quality food, fine dining or “do it yourself”  from purchases at the General Stores.  We tried all three and for us, it was easy to determine that fine dining was the way to go.  Because we are used to New Jersey and New York restaurant prices, the food did not seem all that expensive to us.
I would NOT recommend eating in the Yellowstone cafeteria!  The food resembles airplane food, except at least airplane food is not served and consumed in the midst of chaos.  To be fair, it WAS fast.  In retrospect, I wish we gone with the slower, but probably better, restaurant at Old Faithful Inn.

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The entryway of the Old Faithful Inn

If you want to have dinner at the Lake Hotel, (and I hope you do), you will need to make reservations well in advance.  I made reservations for both nights we stayed there, figuring we could cancel if we didn’t like the food.  We liked it so much, we ended up having all our meal there.

At Mammoth Hot Springs, you can’t make a reservation; it is first come, so beware if you see a bus loads of tourists pulling into the parking lot.

An unexpected bonus?  All of the waitstaff were knowledgeable about the park and were happy to share information with us.  Their tips led us to some wonderful spots we might not have found on our own.

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Our waiter told us where to go to catch the perfect sunset on the lake.  We had the place all to ourselves.

Tip #7 Don’t miss theTravertine Terraces at Mammoth Hot Springs
The view from the top of the terraces is pretty spectacular.

P1030110.jpgAlthough you CAN drive and there is a parking lot at the top,  it is so much more fun to walk up and down.  It is roughly the equivalent of  26 flights of stairs (according to my fitbit), but there is plenty to see along the way.  You can stop, gawk, and catch your breath.

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We celebrated our 43rd wedding anniversary at the Mural Room, Jackson Lake Lodge in the Tetons.  Where else could your butter be shaped like a moose?

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Although I could go on and on about the glories of Yellowstone, I think you just have to experience it for yourself.

Next adventure?  Iceland.  Hope you’ll come along!