Get Ready for the Academy Awards

Feeling like winter will never end?  That is the downside of retiring in New England, unless you make the winter pilgrimage to Florida.  However, if you’re wondering what you can do to entertain yourself while you’re waiting for spring, here’s an idea – get ready for the upcoming Academy Awards show on March 2nd.  I’ve been spending my time seeing the nine movies that were nominated for best picture this year.   Now I don’t know what the criteria are for “best picture”, but in my mind it has to include a compelling story line in addition to strong performances.  The strongest of this year’s nominations are based on real life experiences.   Here’s a quick opinionated summary of my viewing:

American Hustle:  I have no idea how this picture got into the nominations.  There are some very fine performances here, one in particular by Jennifer Lawrence, but the story line is simply absurd, in spite of the opening assurance that “some of this story really happened”.  It’s not a high choice for winning, in my opinion, but see it anyway and watch carefully for shots done in Worcester.  I saw the Worcester Art Museum, Union Station, some Worcester street scenes, and the Worcester airport (I think).

Captain Phillips:  This is a wonderful picture about the capture of a Maersk container ship by Somali pirates.  Tom Hanks gives a gripping performance as the captain kidnapped by the pirates.  Even though I knew he got out OK (it is based on the 2009 actual event), I was on the edge of my seat throughout the film.  Not only that, but you get to see the inside workings of the container ship business, which are really quite interesting.  The film is so balanced that you come away with some sympathy for the plight of the pirates.  A very strong bet for “best picture”.

Dallas Buyers Club:  I had no interest in seeing this film, but it turned out to be much better than I would have thought a movie about the early years of the AIDs epidemic would be.  Be warned that there’s lots of nudity, bad language, and drugs, but this memoir effectively plays with the viewer’s emotions.  Matthew McCaughney plays a fairly unlikable person who turns into someone that you are rooting for by the end of the film.  An interesting story, but not a “best picture” contender in my opinion.

Gravity:  I just loved this movie.  Sandra Bullock is compelling as an astronaut stranded in space and trying to get back to earth alive.  It is so rare to have a movie that relies almost totally on a single performer, and even rarer to have that performer be female.  Hollywood should take note that there is a place for strong female roles in the movies!  This movie grabs you and won’t let go until the end.  My strongest vote for “best movie” goes to Gravity.

Her:  If you’re a Star Trek fan, you’ve seen this plot before – one of the crew members gets just a little bit too attached to a character on the holodeck.  Although this time a real person gets too attached to a personality inside the computer, the idea is similar – it will all end in tears.  Not a contender in my opinion, but an interesting movie nevertheless.

Nebraska:  This movie is really different, something rare in Hollywood these days.  Bruce Dern (aged 77) plays a man convinced that he’s won a million dollars in a publishing lottery, and that he has to travel from Billings, Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska to pick up his winnings.  Under duress, his son, played by Will Forte, agrees to drive him.  Although this sounds like a set up for a typical road trip movie, it isn’t just that. The black and white photography is unforgettable, as are some of the family scenes.  I think I lived through the awkward scene where all the brothers are reunited, and can’t find anything to say to each other, so they watch television.  I don’t think it will win the Oscar, but it is well worth seeing.

Philomena:  Such riches – another film starring a woman.  Judi Dench stars as an aged Irish Catholic woman searching for a son born out of wedlock and taken from her by nuns to be adopted.  The trail leads to the U.S., and then back to Ireland again.  The wronged party turns out to be more forgiving than the religious involved in this story.  Well worth seeing, and a strong contender for the Oscar.

12 Years a Slave:  The title tells it all:  Chiwetel Ejiofor stars as a free black man captured and sold into slavery in Louisiana for 12 years.  It’s another movie based on a memoir.  If you saw “Roots”, you’ve seen this movie.  It’s hard to watch, but probably news to the current generation, who has not seen anything like this before.  It is a strong contender for best picture.

The Wolf of Wall Street:  If there is any justification for a three hour movie, this isn’t it.  If they took all the “f” words out of this movie, it would only be two hours.  Again, there’s lots of nudity, sex, bad language, and drugs.  I didn’t expect to like this movie, but I did.  There’s a scene in which Leonardo DiCaprio has taken too many drugs, and has driven out to a local country club to make a phone call, as the feds have tapped his home phone.  By the time he reaches the phone, he can no longer speak coherently.  And then he can’t even walk or crawl.  Although this sounds ugly, it was so funny that I haven’t laughed so hard since Woody Allen got out of the comedy business.  Put your scruples on hold, and go see the movie.  It probably won’t get best picture, and doesn’t deserve it, but it’s well worth seeing.

Once you have taken in all of these movies, plan a party for March 2nd, and see how close you came to picking “best picture”.

 

 

 

Make a Last Visit to the Higgins Armory Museum

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The Higgins Armory Museum will be closing on December 31st, and its holdings will be transferred to the Worcester Art Museum.  So, you have a short time available to make a last visit to see this unique collection in the installation designed for it.  The founder, John Woodman Higgins, a prominent Worcester industrialist during the early 1900s, spent a lifetime building his collection. In 1929 he began construction of a five-story building to house it, and in 1931 the John Woodman Higgins Armory opened its doors to the public.   The building is the perfect home for this rare (outside of Europe) collection of knightly armor.  It is five stories of steel and glass.  While I’m sure the Worcester Art Museum will do its best by this collection, don’t miss this last opportunity to see the collection in its original home.  It is a sad thing that the Worcester area was unable to sustain this collection in the building designed for it.

So, what is there to see here?  It is a collection that children will love, but adults will also be enchanted.  The first floor houses the museum store (which has great gifts for kids), plus an orientation gallery that has a short film about John Higgins and his collection.  The second floor has a kids area (packed with kids when I was there), and an exhibit called “Knight to Remember”, which has photographs of the history of the building and the collection.  The film from the first floor is playing again in this exhibit.

The third floor is where we really get serious, with the “Great Hall”.  This is where you will see full sets of armor, plus  knights on horseback.  There’s also an explanation of jousting, and how it developed.  The fourth floor is a balcony over the third floor, with exhibit cases of armor from around the world, and artifacts from the “World of Knights”.  Did you know that they had armor for both horses and dogs?

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Loved the mustache and teeth on this one!

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Seniors 60 and over are admitted for $10.  The museum is a bit difficult to find.  It is located right behind the Greendale mall in Worcester, MA at 100 Barber Avenue.  The first time that I went there, I could see it, but I just couldn’t seem to get there.  MapQuest is in order here.  Here’s the link to the museum’s web site: http://www.higgins.org/history-museum

The time is short – plan a visit soon.

Walk the Quinebaug Valley Rail Trail

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The Southbridge Entrance to the Trail

This rail trail is fairly new, and not well known.  If you happen to live anywhere near the Webster-Dudley area in Massachusetts, you will find it very convenient.  Here is the link to the website that gives you the trail description, how to find the trailhead, and what to expect on the trail:  http://bikeitorhikeit.org/quinebaug_valley_rail_trail.htm

On a recent lovely fall day, we walked the trail from Dudley to Southbridge, approximately 3.5 miles.  We took two cars, put one at the Southbridge end (in the Golden Greek parking lot), and drove in the other car to the access point in Dudley on Mill Street.  The trail was easy to follow, with only one tricky point.  When you get to a point where you run into a yellow barrier blocking the trail, look right and go down that trail to get to a new bridge that takes you over the Quinebaug River.

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View from the New Bridge

Do not take the railroad bridge over the river, as it doesn’t look safe.

You’ll find benches on the part of the trail belonging to Dudley.  There are no benches when you cross into Southbridge, so do your sitting early in the walk if you’re going from Dudley to Southbridge.  The trail parallels the Quinebaug River.  The views are lovely.

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There is a bit of traffic noise as you get closer to Southbridge, but for the most part this trail is a wonderful escape into nature without actually being very far from civilization.

Get Acquainted with the Work of John Singer Sargent

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The Boston Museum of Fine Arts has a wonderful collection of the oil paintings of John Singer Sargent.  However, through January 20, 2014 you have the opportunity to see his watercolors, and thereby make a more in depth study of his work.  Sargent did his watercolors for his own entertainment, but his first efforts were purchased by the Brooklyn Museum of Fine Arts.  The Boston Museum bought most of his subsequent watercolors, and this exhibit combines both collections.  It is a large exhibit, and probably deserves a couple hours of your time.  As opposed to Sargent’s detailed oil portraits that took a long time to paint, there are few people in the watercolors, and they were painted quickly.  While it is interesting to look closely at the watercolors as most of the people in the exhibit were doing, be sure to step back to the middle of room, which is in my opinion, the best viewing distance.  One of my personal favorites from the exhibit is a portrait of a tramp:

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This show is well curated, and the descriptions of the works frequently contain commentary on how the painting was constructed.

Many of the paintings in this exhibit are from places that Sargent visited in Europe, such as this one of the Villa Falconiere at Frascati outside of Rome.  On this painting, you can see the pencil outlines that he used to construct the picture.

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There is an entertaining film at the end of the exhibit that shows an artist working on a reproduction of the one of Sargent’s harbor watercolors.  After you have seen this film, you will be impressed with what Sargent managed to do while painting in a rocky boat.

The MFA is also running three lectures on Sargent’s work on November 5, 12 and 19, from 10:30 to noon in the Remis Auditorium.  If they aren’t already sold out, they would be a great option for getting better acquainted with this talented artist.  While you are at the MFA, if you are in the mood for more Sargent, see the murals he painted for the MFA in the grand staircase and the rotunda.  And, of course, you won’t want to miss his portraits in the American wing.  The gift shop at the end of the watercolor exhibit has many books on Sargent.  If you have ever been interested in John Singer Sargent, now is the time to study his work at the MFA.

Here is the link to the MFA’s web site on the exhibit: http://www.mfa.org/exhibitions/john-singer-sargent-watercolors.  Click the “Visit” tab at the top of the page for hours, admission prices, etc.

 

Walk the East Side Trail

It’s beautiful out there.  What are you doing in the house?  Today is a great day to get outside and walk the East Side trail in Worcester, MA.  This 3.5 mile trail reminds you that nature is never far from us, even in the city.  You can access the trail from either Christoforo Columbo Park on Shrewsbury Street, or from opposite the boat ramp on North Lake Street along Lake Quinsigamond.  You can reach the Lake Quinsigamond access by exiting off I-290 at the Plantation Street exit.  Everyone else will go either left or right.  You go straight, and you will enter a medical complex on your way to Lake Street.  You can park on the street or in the remote sections of the medical complex parking lot.  Walk south on Lake Street until you see this building:

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Then look for an access point on the other side of the street that looks like this:

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See the blob of blue paint on the wall?  You will be following these blue blazes on the trail.  Look for them, as they can be on the trees, on rocks, or even on fences.  As soon as I entered the woods, I saw a huge bird that made me think I was in Jurassic Park.  It came to rest in the top of one of the high trees along the stream.  I tried to get closer to find out what kind of bird it was, but it flew away, so I will be forever curious.  I haven’t seen a bird that large in the US before.

Shortly after you start the trail, which winds along a scenic stream, you have to cross Plantation Street.  This is not pleasant, but it is the only dangerous crossing on the trail.  After I crossed the street and got back in the woods, I disturbed three deer that were apparently just waking up.  You cross a couple of tiny streets in quiet neighborhoods before you finally reach a meadow area near a golf course.  It is surrounded by old stone walls, and last week, had lots of milkweed plants with bursting seed pods.  I think that the little parachutes on milkweed seeds are beautiful, and I scattered a lot of them on my walk.  There was a gentle breeze that day, and they looked magical as they floated off to their final destinations.

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After the golf course, you enter an area that backs up to Green Hill Park.  There are lots of trails in this area, so be careful that you follow the blue blazes on the trees.  You can’t get very lost, even if you follow the wrong trail.  There are water towers, old mine shafts, and a quarry to visit, plus a great view of Worcester.

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You can also take a side path to stop at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Green Hill Park, which I think is quite emotional.

Then you have another large street to cross, Belmont Street.  The path down to Belmont Street is steep, and they are doing construction on the street, so caution is advised.  The trail then goes around Bell Pond, which is quite scenic in the fall.

P1020611Then you are back in the woods on a downhill roll to Christoforo Columbo Park, and the end of the trail.  I made my walk into a loop trail by walking up Shrewsbury Street toward the UMass Medical Center, through the medical center, and on down to the North Lake Road, which follows the shoreline of the lake.  This takes you back to the parking lot you started at.  Alternatively, you can retrace your steps, and see the walk from a different viewpoint.

I think it is wonderful that all the powers that be were able to stitch together these parks and make such a lovely walk in the center of a city.  The trail has some steep places, but by and large, it is an easy walk with lovely views.

Here is the link to download a trail map: http://www.gwlt.org/pdfs/EastSideTrailMap.pdf

 

Visit an Old Growth Forest

Did you ever wish you could go back in time and see what America looked like before white people came here and took down the timber?  I’m pleased to tell you that you can still have the experience of being a pioneer.  A visit to the Mohawk Trail State Forest will allow you to visit the tallest trees in New England.

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 The Mohawk Trail State Forest has 400-500 acres of old growth forest.  The hemlocks are 500 years old,  the red spruce 400 years old, and other species in the area are 300 years old.  These aren’t trees that are large in diameter, but they sure are tall.  I used a telephone pole to estimate the height of the stand of trees that the road runs through, and they looked to be at least 6-7 telephone poles high.

The Mohawk Trail State Forest isn’t difficult to get to, but it will take some time to get there, as it probably isn’t anywhere near where you live.  Go up Interstate 91, get off at the Route 2 West exit, and go about 20 miles west.  You’ll see the entrance sign to the forest on your right.

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 You can camp among these wonderful old trees, or you can just come for the day.  Day visitors have to park near the entrance and walk in.

The Cold River runs right along the campsites, so they are ideally located with views of the tall trees and the water.

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View from the campsites.

 If you want to hike up to the hemlock grove, be prepared for a steady 1.25 miles of climbing trail.  You want the trail to Indian Lookout which starts at the end of the campsites.  The park has maps that will show you where that is.  I’m not telling how long it took me to hike the 1.25 miles up there, but let me reiterate that the trail is steep and rocky.

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View from Indian Lookout

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Hemlock Trees near Indian Lookout

With the fall coming on, now is the perfect time to visit this forest.

 

Visit the Big E

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I’ve been planning to visit the Big E for years, and just never got there.  Every year it seemed that by the time I made plans to go, the event was over. This week I stopped procrastinating and went.   The Big E is on through September 29th, so if you’ve never been, perhaps this is your year to stop procrastinating.

The Big E (it stands for Eastern States Exposition) is located at 1305 Memorial Drive, West Springfield, MA 01089.  Here’s the link to their website: http://www.thebige.com/fair/index.asp

We found it was probably best to MapQuest the route, as the official directions tell you to “follow the signs” once you get off I-91.  We think that someone has made off with one critical sign on the route.  A one day senior pass to the Big E is $12.00.  Pretty much everything opens at 10 a.m., and the wise visitor plans to arrive slightly before 10 a.m. to get parking.  Visit on a weekday, if you can.  Even on a weekday, it was crowded.  It is called the Big E because it is big.  There’s a lot of walking involved, so be prepared.

So, what is there to do at the Big E?  For one thing, there is every kind of non-nutritious food imaginable.  Even binge eaters need to pace themselves.  Cautious eaters probably want to walk the food halls and see all the things that are available before they make a commitment.  Every time I saw something that looked good, I saw something that looked better down another path.  You can also bring your own food, as there are places to picnic.

The second thing to do at the Big E is shop.  All the “state” buildings have vendors selling products from the state in question.  There are also many vendor booths outside the permanent buildings.  You will find things that you don’t see in America’s malls, so it might be a good place to get some early Christmas shopping done.  For example, one thing that caught my eye was cutting boards made from different types of wood.  The different colors were used to make a pattern, like a checkerboard, or a zigzag.  There was also a lot of beautiful pottery.  And way too many jewelry booths.

At least a tiny bit of the original agricultural focus of the Big E still remains.  One of the most popular exhibits (so crowded you had to wait to get a space at the front) was an incubator where chicks were hatching.  Another crowded exhibit was the hands-on area at the Lego booth in the Connecticut building.

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You’re Never Too Old for Legos

There is also the performance part of the Big E.  The main performers are in the evening, but something seemed to be going on all the time we were there.  In front of one of the state halls, young kids were doing tumbling on a trampoline.

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Young people will be drawn to the rides and games.  We did venture on to the Ferris Wheel, but pretty immediately ruled out all the rides where the rider goes upside down (and that’s a lot of them).

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View of the Games Area from the Ferris Wheel

There didn’t seem to be a master schedule of everything that was going on the day we were there.  Some events were announced just before they started over the public address system, but if you want to see something special, you best bet is to carefully cruise the website for times before you go.  You would need real endurance to arrive at 10 a.m. and stay through the evening entertainment, but I’m sure people do that.

Visit the Boston Harbor Islands

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Did you know that the National Park Service owns a flock of islands in the Boston Harbor that you are welcome to visit?  Many of them you can only get to if you own a boat, but the National Park Service has an arrangement with Boston’s Best Cruises to get you out to two of the islands: Spectacle and Georges Island.  These are the two most popular; Spectacle because it has a beach, hiking trails and fabulous views of Boston, and Georges because it has Fort Warren, a pentagon-shaped fort constructed in the mid-1800’s.  In the summertime, it is possible to visit both islands in a single day.  After Labor Day, the ferry schedule makes this possible only on the weekends.

We went to visit Spectacle Island on a recent Wednesday.  The round trip ferry fee was $15.  There are no fees for visiting the island once you get there.  The ferry we originally booked had “issues”, and we had to wait an hour and a half for a working ferry to arrive.  Part of the fun of visiting the island is the ferry ride over and back.  It is about a half hour each way.  You go past the shipping yards where the cargo ships are loaded and unloaded.

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You get fabulous views of the Boston skyline.

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There are trails on the island, a not terribly attractive beach, a visitors’ center with some history of the island (and bathrooms), and food service in the summer.   There are many lovely spots for a picnic, so don’t hesitate to bring your own food, particularly if you want something more nutritious than a hotdog or hamburger. Just look at the view of Boston from the Island.

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The island is called Spectacle Island, not for the spectacular view, but because it once resembled a pair of spectacles.  You’d be hard pressed now to recognize the original island, which was once a garbage dump.  It is serene and quiet, except when the jets are leaving Logan.  We found that once we hiked to the far side of the island, we didn’t hear the jets.  The trails are not onerous.  When we reached the top of one of the hills, we found kite flyers.    The fairly constant wind in the harbor makes for great kite flying.

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View from the kite flyers

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View of Thompson Island

Our three hour visit to the island was just about perfect timing, as there are almost no trees, and the sun was fierce the day we visited.  Even SPF 50 was not up to the job of protecting our skin after three hours in that sun.  On our return, we were delayed a half hour in docking, which meant that we killed time where we could see the Constitution and the Bunker Hill monument.  Boston’s Best Cruises motto should be “We’ll get you there – eventually”.  We’ll be saving Georges Island for our next trip.  The National Park Service offers tours of the fort, so don’t miss them if you go.

Catch a Show at Tanglewood

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Tanglewood, located near Lenox, Massachusetts in the Berkshires, is the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.  It is located on the site of a fabulous old mansion.  The grounds are beautiful.  You can bring a picnic to eat before the performance (watch for some of the most elegant picnic equipment you have ever seen), if you choose to sit on the lawn and listen, or you can try for tickets in seats in the shed.  Tickets inside are expensive, and need to be purchased as soon as you find a concert you are interested in.  Lawn tickets are much cheaper, and can be obtained at the last minute for most concerts.

Here’s what you need to know if you want to attend a concert, and aren’t staying in the Berkshires at the time:

It’s a long drive out there from almost anywhere in New England.   Consider attending a rehearsal instead of the actual concert.  Rehearsals are usually on Saturday mornings, so you have time to drive out there, eat a picnic lunch while enjoying the concert, and get home before dark.  There are usually very few interruptions in the rehearsal, so it’s pretty much like the final concert without all the fancy clothes.  Lawn tickets for rehearsals are only $11.  While you are out there, don’t forget to take time to walk the beautiful grounds and visit the Visitors’ Center on the ground floor of the Manor House.  It has the history of the Tanglewood property and the festival.

We recently went out for the Michael Feinstein concert with the Boston Pops Orchestra.  When we arrived, we found that they had sold us a seat that no longer existed.  Due to some stage construction, one of our three seats had been eliminated.  Now the BSO presumably knew that the stage was being altered, had my mailing address, my email and my telephone number, and never bothered to contact me before we arrived.  Their solution was to put a folding chair in the aisle in place of the missing seat, probably a fire code violation, and certainly a nuisance for the people trying to get to their seats.  An alert usher finally found us three seats further back, but with a better view, so it all ended with smiles.  However, I should mention that this is the second time that this has happened to me.  If you go for an inside seat, try to get them anywhere but on the outside edges of the auditorium.

Michael Feinstein was very good, but the concert didn’t start until 8:30 p.m., much too late for most of the audience, who were leaving in droves as the Boston Pops was playing the The Stars and Stripes Forever, their closing number.  I have to wonder why they didn’t start this concert at 8 p.m., as it was only a two hour event, and an earlier departure time would have suited the audience better.

So, in summary I would say that you can have a fine time at Tanglewood, but you have to decide for yourself if it is worth the trouble to get out there.   The BSO concerts are broadcast on the radio, so that is another option if the drive out is too much.  Here’s the link to the Tanglewood web site: https://www.bso.org/brands/tanglewood/tickets-events.aspx.  This is also where you’ll find the season schedule.  If you get on the mailing list, you’ll get the full season schedule in the mail.

 

Consider a Trip to Cooperstown, New York

I do realize that Cooperstown, New York is not in New England, but at only 3.5 hours of driving from central Massachusetts, it is a reasonable distance for a short vacation.  If you decide to go, here are my “don’t miss” recommendations for a stay of 2-3 days.

  • The Baseball Hall of Fame:  Even if you aren’t excited by baseball, this is worth a visit to learn the history and great players of America’s favorite pastime. Everybody that visits Cooperstown visits this museum – you have to go.  It’s required.

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The Baseball Hall of Fame

    • A ride on the Glimmerglass Queen to see Otsego Lake:  You can see all the locations included in James Fennimore Cooper’s The Deerslayer (in my opinion, his best book of the series).  This is a relaxing trip with beautiful views.

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View from the Glimmerglass Queen

    • Visit the Fenimore Art Museum:  When I was there, they had two major exhibits on – The Wyeths, a Family Legacy and The Hudson River School: Nature and the American Vision.  I particularly liked the Wyeth exhibit.  Who knew that almost everyone in the family, including the in-laws, painted?  You’ll see works by the Wyeth women that you probably haven’t seen previously, and there’s a family tree so you can keep track of who’s who.  This museum has a large collection of Native American art.  If, like me, you find it difficult to assess the quality of Native American art, this is a good place to start your education.  Also, the museum has a large lawn that gives you great views of the lake, so don’t forget to walk around the outside of the building.P1020533

The Fenimore Art Museum

  • Visit the Glimmerglass State Park:  This park is at the other end of the lake from Cooperstown but is worth the drive.  Again, there are beautiful views of the lake, and scenic hiking trails.  There’s also a beach, picnic tables, and camping sites.

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Along the Trail at the Glimmerglass State Park

  • Visit the Glimmerglass Opera:  Try to come when there is something that you would enjoy playing.  The grounds are lovely, and the performances are first class.  This is an event for which you really have to do some planning, however, as the season is short, and well attended.  You definitely need to reserve tickets in advance.

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The Glimmerglass Opera House

  • Visit the Farmer’s Museum:  This is a look back in time to circa 1845, when most Americans earned their living by farming..DSC01380

Tourists Admiring a Team of Oxen

Cooperstown can be crowded in the summer.  I recommend that you find a place to stay in the town itself, so you can walk or take a trolley to most of the above attractions.  It is difficult to find parking in town on nice days, and much easier to go by foot.  The town is awash in bed and breakfasts.  Find a good one using TripAdvisor.com, or any other travel site that you trust.  There are wonderful restaurants in town that run the gauntlet from quick sandwiches to elegant dining.  Again, use your favorite travel site to find something that meets your needs.  I’m not a shopper, but the town does have lots of shops that sell things you won’t find at your local mall.

A short vacation to Cooperstown might be just the thing to get back in touch with nature and our American roots.