July 29, 2000 — I left New York just before dawn, but not before completing a ceremonial loop around Manhattan. I chose to enter the island via the Broadway Bridge, an unglamorous iron causeway that extends Broadway from 220th Street in Manhattan into the Bronx. In case you didn’t know it, Broadway just happens to be the world’s longest street. You can follow it north all the way to Albany.
THE BEST HIGHLIGHT of the loop around Manhattan is the stretch of the FDR Drive heading south from Houston Street to the southernmost tip of the island. It affords an excellent up-close view of the downtown skyline, including the three bridges connecting Manhattan and Brooklyn (the Manhattan, Brooklyn and Williamsburg Bridges) and the entire financial district.
Heading north from the city, I took the Taconic State Parkway. I’ve always liked the Taconic because it seemed a bit of an anachronism, even though the state transportation department long ago broadened the roadbed and turned it into more of a conventional highway.
DELVING INTO DUTCH LANDS
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As you reach Dutchess and Columbia counties, the highway becomes a scenic and well-worn ribbon of split, four-lane concrete that hasn’t been redesigned in probably 40 years or more. Especially quaint (if dangerous) are the intersecting local roads that traverse it.
More important, as the Taconic runs up the spine of the Hudson Valley, it takes you through some prime eastern New York state farmland, where the original Dutch settlers built their farmsteads. Many of the roads and streams in the area still retain their Dutch names.
The Taconic ends in the picturesque town of East Chatham, N.Y. Then the westbound segment of Interstate 90 begins. Otherwise known as the New York State Thruway, it is a well-constructed but ultimately stultifying 300-mile road taking travelers west to Buffalo.
BARNS AND EPITHETS
Upstate New York offers plenty of attractions, especially in the scenic Finger Lakes region. Mostly, however, the Thruway winds through flat farm country, where Holsteins proliferate and where the folks who live there have invented new epithets for Hillary Clinton not yet in the dictionary.
The Thruway ends on the outskirts of Buffalo, where I picked up I-290, which circles the city and runs through the suburb of Tonawanda, N.Y. I’d done the New York-Buffalo route enough times to know in advance this would be a strictly utilitarian segment of the drive. But I did allow myself one pleasure stop, mostly because it fit within the Prime Directive of road trips: Wherever you stop, make sure it’s on the way.
After pulling off the Sherman Boulevard exit, I headed west on one of Tonawanda’s long strips of corporate malldom, in search of Ted’s Hot Dogs (recommended by the Sterns). I knew I was getting close when Sheridan intersected a street called “Fries.” The squat, colorful building sat a couple miles down the road, fronted by a large American flag and a tall road sign.
REAL DOGS, CRUNCHY FRIES
Ted’s does hot dogs. But that’s not really giving due credit; these folks have taken the frankfurter to a new level. Unlike the dirty-water dogs of New York’s street vendors or the wizened specimens at the local convenience store, these are large, plump dogs slow-grilled over Ted’s charcoal flame. They are the ne plus ultra of hot dogs, with a casing as crisp as the pickles.
You stand in front of the counter and select your dog’s toppings, everything from chili to long dill pickle slices. A side order of crunchy, salty fries was a perfect match. (The only letdown was the cheese that accompanied the fries — a bright orange Velveeta-type concoction that lacked zip.)
From Buffalo, it’s a short hop north through Niagara Falls (I’d seen them before) to the Canadian border. It’s necessary to go through customs, which is generally a low-key affair that usually involves no passports or much of anything else.
Though the approach highway to Toronto is the grandly named Queen Elizabeth Way (QEW), it is really just an uninspired multi-lane route jammed with rush-hour traffic, an unglamorous end to the first day’s 12-hour haul, the longest of my trip. (I had planned it this way, glad to get the less-inspiring part out of the way first so I’d have more time later on.)
Lodging: From the dozens of bed and breakfasts in Toronto, I chose the Toronto Townhouse B&B in Old Cabbagetown, Toronto’s historic Victorian neighborhood. (No one is sure where the name of the neighborhood came from, though one theory attributes it to a large Irish population early on.)
The Townhouse was not without its drawbacks. Though I was pretty sure I’d asked for a private bath, I ended up sharing a bath that was about five paces from the dining room. Early-to-breakfast guests were treated to the ghastly sight of a bleary-eyed me stumbling toward my morning shower.
Another concern: parking. While the Townhouse has several spots in back, Tan suggested I park on the street and said it would be safer to empty my car. Also, there was only one phone line for guests — a common problem with B&Bs for those of us tethered to the office by our laptops.
Eating: Tan recommended dining options. Toronto, like New York, has an unlimited range of culinary possibilities, and because it also has a large Asian immigrant community, I followed my New York instincts and decided to seek out a good Chinese restaurant.
There are limitless options for eating in the neighborhood, from traditional Chinese to Vietnamese barbecue stands, but I took Tan’s recommendation and tried the Pearl Court restaurant, on Gerrard Street East. The moment I walked in, it was clear this was the right choice.
The first indicator was that about half the signs were in Chinese only, always a clue that neighborhood folks eat there — and indeed, I was one of only two Caucasians in the place. (The other white man was sitting, looking a bit lost, with a table of nine Chinese men, all of whom were chattering away in their native tongue.)
Pearl Court is the sort of restaurant you can seriously devote yourself to. It has an extraordinary seafood selection in addition to all the other delectable choices. The specials alone — deep-fried quail, steamed oysters in black bean sauce, lobster with bean thread in a hot pot — are enough to inspire a fit of drooling. Any questions about freshness were silenced as the table nearby ordered a fish entrée and the fish was promptly hauled in a net from the tank in the front window straight through the dining room and into the kitchen. The only off-note was the service (brusque, though effective).
The best part of the meal — well, almost the best — came with my check. Just as with Canadian speed limts (noted in kilometers, not miles, per hour) you have to keep reminding yourself that all prices in Toronto are in Canadian dollars. The bill for the evening, which would have been affordable by U.S. standards, was absolutely inexpensive when converted from its Canadian total. Driving on Canadian highways is very much the same as driving on U.S. roads, except that everything is in kilometers.
This phenomenon would be repeated several times over the next few days, a happy consequence (for a Yank like me) of the U.S. dollar’s strength against its Canadian equivalent. Traveling in Canada can be a bit like a visit to a country where everything is discounted 30 percent.
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