Monday, September 5, 2016

CLASSIC TRIP - East Cost Odyssey - Columbia and Charelston, South Carolina 2001

Stay with me, the good stuff starts below after we leave Columbia...

It took us two days to drive down here from Pittsburgh. Of course, we took the scenic route down the Ohio River during a driving rain storm, narrowly avoiding an ominous funnel cloud in Virginia before spending the night in Hickory, North Carolina (I highly recommend the Comfort Suites there, by the way). It was a much more pleasant drive the second day into Columbia.

First of all, I don't recommend taking your South Carolina vacation at the end of August. Unfortunately, I didn't have a choice because this whole trip was predicated by the need to be in Columbia for the last week in August because of a conference I had to attend. It is very hot and humid, oppressively so, at this time of the year.

That's not to say that Columbia is a bad place to visit. It's a pretty town, very southern, situated on the lovely banks of the Congaree River. In any other season, it's a great place to be.

Our lodging would be at the Whitney Hotel, about one mile northeast of downtown. I wish more hotels could be like this one. Our suite had two bedrooms and two bathrooms separated by a large living room. There was a balcony, a dining area, a full-sized kitchen (with full-sized stove and refrigerator), and my favorite feature, a separate laundry room with washer and dryer in our suite. Plus pool, cable TV (two!), A/C, phone, and dataport. Our price? $79 per night...including a full, hot breakfast.

Although accessible rooms are available, we stayed in a regular room with no ill effects other than the narrow bathroom door. If you have a wide chair, make sure to get an accessible room.

Now comes another bad point about Columbia, especially if you can't drive, or have access to, a car. Public transportation here is atrocious. For some reason, the buses are run by the local gas and electric utility. They obviously don't take their mandate very seriously. Buses are frequently broken down, have no markings on them (to let you know who they are or where they are going), and getting information about routes and schedules is just about impossible.

There are two accessible trolley routes that connect the downtown area with the two most popular hang-out areas (the Vista and Five Points). They provide decent service at a good price (25-50cents) but only run a couple of hours in the afternoon and then again during the evening.

We had a rental car. My wife would drop me off at my conference in the morning and then play tourist with Tim during the day.

We arrived on a Sunday. I checked into my conference and then we checked into the hotel. After a drive around town to show my wife where everything was, we had dinner and then settled down for the night.

Monday morning. The bad thing is now I'm back at work and have to wake up early. My wife and Tim drop me off and head to the Riverbanks Zoo. They tell me it was a very nice zoo with lots of neat animals and good accessibility. A lot of it is under construction due to an expansion there. I should be top-notch in a year or so.

I spent my lunch break taking in the McKissick Museum of Art at the University of South Carolina (home of the Gamecocks...boy, does that make for some interesting school clothes. Think about it.). It's an interesting and free museum, if a bit small, located on the historic Horshoe of USC. This is the original part of the campus that dates back hundreds of years.

That evening we had dinner at the New Orleans Riverfront Restaurant. The view was spectacular and the food wasn't so bad, but we've had better New Orleans style food back home.

Tuesday, the wife and kid puttered around town looking for things to do and shops to visit. We met at lunch. We visited the Columbia Museum of Art and had sandwiches across the street at Rising High Bakery.

The museum has a pretty extraordinary collection of art and furniture dating back to the 1400's. The galleries are arranged around time periods including a great collection of original Tiffany glass, original Remington sculptures, and paintings from Dutch masters to contemporary Americans. I only had an hour and a half here. I wished I had much more time.

The Rising High Bakery had great sandwiches with some pretty poor service at the counter. Hmmm.

Picture courtesy of Wikimedia
Akhenaton06 under CC-BY-SA license 
After lunch, the wife and kid returned to the museum and I drudged on with the conference. That evening we had a wonderful steak dinner at the Longhorn Restaurant in the Vista area. This area is full of restaurants, clubs, and shops. It feels much more lively than the actual downtown area where we were earlier. After dinner, we took in some live jazz at a small festival around the corner. This was a nice evening.

Thursday, the wife and kid said they'd seen and done everything they could think of in Columbia and said take the car to the conference, we'll just chill at the hotel. That evening, we took in some minor league baseball as the Capitol City Bombers took on the Columbus Red Sticks.
There was hardly any fans in attendance, maybe 100 people tops. As you can see, I was able to commandeer some really cool seats. It was a blast, but a bit buggy after dark. (The team has since moved away...I wonder why - Ed)

Thursday, wife and kid are pretty bored now. They tried to take a long walk during the day, but the August heat in Columbia just saps your energy. The air conditioner at the hotel was better. I'm pretty bored by the conference.

We walk over to the Five Points area (kind of a grungier Vista) a few blocks south of the hotel for pizza.

Friday. It's finally over. The conference ends at 11:30. While Columbia is pretty, it's also pretty sparse on things for visitors to do. Three days here would be great, five is stretching it a bit. Well, now it's on to our ultimate, and much more exciting, destination...Charleston.

Ah, the conference is over. Time to rejoin my family on our vacation.

While I spent the last three hours counting the minutes until the last speaker shut up, my wife and Tim were packing the bags at Columbia's Whitney Hotel.

You know...why do they even bother to have a speaker for the last morning of a conference? People are just attached to the cell phones...trying to bump up a flight...looking for an excuse to duck out early...arranging a ride to the airport...all we hear of the person up from is "blah, blah, blah." Wouldn't it be better just to end it the day before...the last full day?

Oh well, it's finally 11:30 and I'm zooming back to the Whitney. The family is already in the lobby with the bags. We toss 'em into the car and off we go.



It's a ninety minute drive over to Charleston and I'm in a different world. Columbia's a fine city but it can be a bit staid, the public transit is terrible, and there's just not a whole lot to do over a full week. Charleston has a fine transit system, hundreds of top-notch historical sites, great restaurants and bars, and a joyful, fun atmosphere.

See our first trip to Charleston here.

Again, as in our last trip here, we stay at the Quality Suites. Unfortunately, the quality of the hotel had gone down markedly from our last trip. To see what I mean, you can check out this review that I wrote for Epinions - http://www.epinions.com/content_41189346948 .

This evening we have another great dinner at the Southend Brewery and Smokehouse.

Afterward, we walked over to the office of the Original Charleston Walks and saw what kind of tour was being offered tonight (last time we really enjoyed the Ghost Walk). This time, our journey into Charleston's rich tapestry of history would be focusing on the pirates who had lived, plundered, and died here.
A Former Pirate Brothel, Now the Oldest Building in Charelston

As with all their tours, this group meets at the beautiful gas-lit park next to its office. Our guide takes us out the back entrance of the park as we quickly get to the first stop, an art gallery that is the oldest building in Charleston (circa 1695-?) where pirates drank and caroused in the brothel.

Also along the tour is the building (now a private residence) where pirates where tried and sentenced, the spot on the battery where their tarred corpses were hung as a warning to others, and spots around town where Edward Teach (Bluebeard) showed up from time to time.
All the walking tours are wheelchair accessible and I highly recommend them for an intimate look into this fascinating city.

Last time we were here, we visited Fort Sumter in the bay, the recipient of the first shot fired in the Civil War. This time we visited the other end of the trajectory, Fort Moultrie on Sullivan's Island.

It's much quieter here and you can take in many of the batteries that comprised the shoreline providing shore-based defenses for over a hundred years. There are spots where a wheelchair could get to the upper level but the thick ramparts will block all but the very hardy from getting a view across to Fort Sumter. There is a very interesting template in the visitor's center showing just how cramped it was in the Confederate submarine Hunley. The submarine itself has been found and recovered since our last trip and now has its own museum.
Patio Dining at Slightly Up The Creek

Our last evening here and we have a superb dinner with shrimp-boat views straight out of Forrest Gump as we dined at Slightly Up The Creek, situated along the banks of Shem Creek in Mt. Pleasant. As these pictures show, we had one last sunset break on us for our odyssey.

Then is was over.  The next morning, after 17 days on the road...two countries, 8 states, and too many miles to count... we turned in our trusty rental car at the Charleston airport and flew home.

-Darryl
Copyright 2001 - Darryl Musick

Friday, September 2, 2016

CLASSIC TRIP - East Coast Odyssey - Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania



After Ohio's Amish country, we head east to the Keystone State, Pennsylvania. The next three night's worth of lodging will be at the Amerisuites Inn in Cranberry Township about 10 miles north of downtown Pittsburgh.

Driving in from West Virginia, it seems as though every freeway is under construction and our map from Yahoo! Maps is woefully inadequate. Luckily, our AAA map of Pennsylvania is more up to the task of navigating us over to Cranberry.

Cranberry Township seems like one of those suburbs that grew way too fast for the infrastructure to keep up. The main streets are clogged, strip malls abound, and construction is everywhere. A few barns dot the landscapes pointing out the doomed farms they reside in.

Unfortunately, our AAA Pennsylvania Tourguide is not up to par with the AAA map and we cannot find Amerisuites. I have to find a pay phone to call them. The woman answering the phone gives me cryptic directions to continue down the street I'm on and look for the Long John Silver's across from Eaton Park.

That's all I could get out of her after several tries, so I drive on to see what I can find. About three blocks later, I see a Long John Silver's across from an Eat 'n Park drive in diner (shouldn't that really have been named Park 'n Eat? Never mind...). I turn in the adjacent access road and there it is, the Amerisuites Inn.

I cannot rave enough about this hotel. A huge two room suite with a full kitchen and separate dining area. In room ironing board, full refrigerator (not an honor bar), and an on-site laundry room. In theory, the indoor pool sounds nice but is just too noisy to enjoy.

We are treated to a daily newspaper and a continental breakfast that includes pancakes and waffles.

We were very comfortable here. The rate was about $80 per night and we slept like babies, although the room did not have a roll-in shower.

The next day we take a drive around the area to see what's there. We arrive in the little town of Zelionople about 10 miles north of Cranberry. It's a cute little town with an incredible amount of traffic flowing through it. Imagine being on Main Street in Disneyland with the traffic of the 405 freeway flowing down the middle. It was incredibly noisy.

The Zelionople Diner provided us with lunch. What an unbelievable bargain this place was. It's a sit down place with friendly service. I had a meat loaf dinner with mashed potatoes and dinner rolls...$2.75. My wife had a tuna casserole dinner...$3.00. Tim had a hot dog...75 cents. Sodas were extra at 75 cents each with free refills. It was all delicious. Try to match that at any McDonalds.

After lunch, we return to the hotel for a nap...we have a big night ahead of us.

Next, we drive over to downtown Pittsburgh and park across the river adjacent to the baseball stadium. Tim is a transit buff and wants to try every mass transit system he comes across. Pittsburgh has a small trolley system. Downtown it's in a subway. All downtown stops are accessible and transit in the downtown area is free.

We ride around for awhile seeing the sights at the different stops. There's a massive stone jail connected via an enclosed stone bridge to an equally massive courthouse. There is a pretty fountain at Steel Plaza. There are some department stores to see.

In all, downtown Pittsburgh looks like an area that is slowly coming back to life after an extended nap. The city seems to be shaking off its rust belt doldrums. It is a pleasant place, but still has a ways to go. I look forward to seeing it again in the future.

We walk over to the baseball stadium, PNC Park, to see it there are any tickets left for tonight's game against the Houston Astros. The game is sold out except for standing room only tickets. Tim really wants to see the stadium to add to his quest to see them all. Already on this trip he has added three and this is the last city we'll be at with a major league field. We go ahead and get the tickets.

There are still over two hours till game time. It's back across the river (which is beautiful, by the way) to the Renaissance Hotel where we build up a tab in the Bridge bar.

When it's time for baseball, we head across the bright yellow Roberto Clemente bridge. It has now been closed to traffic and only pedestrians and sidewalk vendors inhabit its lanes. Directly on the other side is PNC Park.

In we go. Of course, we have nowhere to sit, so we take the pregame time to make a circle tour around the stadium. It's small, capacity 38,000, and every seat is good. The view from home plate takes our breath away. It's a perfectly framed view of downtown Pittsburgh with the Roberto Clemente bridge in the foreground looking like the Yellow Brick Road leading into Emerald City. I look at the picture included here and think that it's so pretty it looks fake. Nope, that's the real view, folks.


The View From Home Plate at PNC Park

Ushers tell us where the best places are to stand during the game. Other ushers tell us to watch for empty seats after the first inning because there will be season ticket holders who don't show up.



We decide to while away the rest of the pregame time in the Outback Steakhouse built into the stadium's left field side.

There are two rooms here at the Outback. One with a view of the field and one with a view of the city. You are not required to have a game ticket to enter either one (though you need one to exit out into the stadium). Since you can watch a free baseball game with your meal, guess which room was more crowded.

We just want to have a few drinks, so we choose the relative solitude of the city view room which does have closed-circuit TV's to keep tabs on the game action.

I have three beers (Iron City Ale and Yeungling's of course) and my wife has two glasses of wine. Tim has a Coke. The anthem has been sung and "Play ball" is commanded, it's time to head back out into the stadium. I'm dreading the bar tab but am very pleasantly surprised to see that it's only $18. For you baseball fans, you know that's a bargain. For the rest of you, that's what the three beers alone would cost in most stadiums.

Outside the exit of the Outback, I see a wheelchair accessible section near the third base side of the left field foul pole with three seats empty...one wheelchair spot in the middle of two seats. We go ahead and sit there, mindful we may have to move if the ticket holders show up.

After 4 innings, it's apparent that we will not have to move and enjoy the rest of the game. This is just a wonderful place to see a ball game. The food is wonderful with those grilled sausages, pirogies, and 15 inch kosher dogs. I now have a new favorite baseball stadium. Too bad the Pirates are not playing up to the same level.

Accessibility is also very good with wheelchair seating sprinkled liberally throughout. There is even a front row reserved for wheelchairs next to the Pirates dugout.

This is a brand new baseball-only stadium which replaces the old dual-purpose Three Rivers Stadium. The next day, the Steelers will take the wrappings off of their new stadium, Heinz Field, for an exhibition NFL game.

Not for us, though. We head south through the gorgeous countryside of southwestern Pennsylvania. Our destination today is Fallingwater, Frank Lloyd Wright's signature house design.

Along the way we see there is something called Fort Necessity National Monument. Not being one who can pass up a place like this, we stop in. I'm very glad we did.

Those of you who have read our trip reports here will know I'm a lover of history. Fort Necessity is a very historical place so I am in heaven here.

What is it? It's just a little meadow off the side of the road with a small circle of upright logs making up the fort. It just happens to be the spot where a young British colonel by the name of George Washington fought his first battle two and a half centuries ago in the French and Indian War.
Fort Necessity

It's one thing when you plan to go to a historical site such as Fort Sumter. It's a another thing completely when you stumble upon such a major historical spot completely unaware that it's there.
Docent Demonstrating a Musket at Fort Necessity

We listen as docents in period dress describe what the conditions were like and what lead up to that fateful encounter with the French troops that day long ago (Washington lost this battle in case you're keeping score). Another demonstrates the arms of the day including a musket firing. A native American docent gives the Indian view of the times in another tour. I am in complete awe.

We continue on to Fallingwater. This is a masterpiece of American architecture. I'm sure just about everybody has seen a picture of this house Wright designed for Pittsburgh department store magnate Edgar Kaufman. It sits spectacularly over a waterfall.


Fallingwater

Unfortunately, Wright did not design it with wheelchairs in mind. Tim and I are limited to the living room, dining room and kitchen while my wife continues on the complete tour. I am a bit miffed that the foundation still charges the full $15 for the tour even when you cannot physically get past the first two rooms. They do offer to show you a video of the rest of the house, but it's just not the same.

Afterward, it's back to Pittsburgh where the three of us, hungry for dinner, stop off at the Ponderosa Steakhouse. I'll save you the details...the Ponderosa is the absolute worst restaurant we have ever had the misfortune to eat at. You know that episode on the Simpson's where the kids are stranded on the island and the girls says "I'm so hungry I could eat at Arby's"? Well, I'd have to be near death to ever set foot in a Ponderosa again.

Well, that's it for Pittsburgh. We had another wonderful night at Amerisuites, drove nine hours the next day to Hickory, North Carolina, stayed at the wonderful Comfort Suites there, ate at the Cracker Barrel (which is as good as the Ponderosa is bad), and continued on to our next stop...

-Darryl
Copyright 2001 - Darryl Musick