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Unidentified flying pumpkins

At pumpkin patches throughout America, families are looking for the best jack-o-lantern varieties—green stems and no soft spots, according to Martha Stewart.

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But in Clayton, New York, pumpkin lovers use a different criteria. They’re searching for heavy, thick rinds so their pumpkins can withstand being catapulted, hurled or slingshot out into the St. Lawrence River. Prizes and reputation, after all, are at stake.

Autumn in the 1000 Islands is heavenly anyway–fewer crowds, sun-lit cruises to fairytale castles, lighthouses and maritime museums, but when you add in Punkin’ Chunkin’, the annual high-stakes pumpkin launching competition on October 19, what could possibly excuse a tourist’s absence?

Especially now that Delaware’s long-running World Championship Punkin’ Chunkin’ (WCPC) shuttered their competition a couple years ago after logistical problems, a collateral injury and a lawsuit.

In Clayton, these slight inconveniences have been avoided thanks to the 17-point safety guidelines that include, among other things, the wearing of hard hats, the sounding or air horns and rigid test firings of the hand-built catapults and trebuchets the day before.

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This quirky event, one of 1000 Island’s premier events, also includes a barbecue competition, a Farmers Market and wood carving.

For more info, click here.

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While on the banks of the mighty St. Lawrence, stop in at 1000 Islands Harbor Hotel, an AAA Four Diamond hotel that’s within walking distance of everything in the charming community of Clayton.

 

I love Lucy’s hometown

On August 21, 1941, Frank Sinatra played the Pier Ballroom in Celoron, New York for the whopping price of $2.50 per couple. For 60 years, crowds came by trolley and steamship to this popular Moorish-style dance hall on the southwestern shore of Chautauqua Lake that also boasted the world’s largest Ferriss Wheel and a roller coaster that zipped out over the water. Chautauqua-Harbor-Hotel-1260x800

Eventually, the ballroom burnt down, the ten-story Phoenix Wheel was dismantled and this prime lakefront property, except for a few fans snapping selfies with the infamous “Scary Lucille Ball” statue, was largely forgotten.

Until now.

The new Chautauqua Harbor Hotel, evoking the grand hotels of yesteryear, is breathing life into this beautiful nine acres of Celoron shoreline. With 135 rooms and stunning views of the lake, this Four-Diamond offering even features some of the park’s old carousel horses at their outdoor bar.

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The Golden Girls, the hotel’s three concierges who grew up here, moved away and returned for their beloved hometown’s renaissance, have loads of fascinating stories and can steer guests to the tiny childhood home of Lucille Ball. As for that Scary Lucy statue, it’s still there, much to the embarrassment of locals who started a FB group in 2012 to protest, but luckily a new statue that actually looks like the First Lady of Comedy has been erected nearby. lucy4lucy

You decide!

How many karaoke bars does it take to come up with a punchline?

Move over, drunken renditions of “Purple Rain.” The hottest new karaoke bar has neither music, nor beats.

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Rather, it’s karaoke for aspiring comics. At Jamestown, New York’s $50 million National Comedy Center, visitors can take the stage, grab the mic and try out already-successful comedy bits by their favorite comedians, from Ellen DeGeneres to Dave Chappelle. Like its  musical cousin, comedy karaoke displays lines on a screen and even adds tips on when to pause and when to wait for a laugh. Or not.

This real stand-up lounge (there’s even alcohol to assuage potential embarrassment) is one of 50 interactive exhibits at the museum recently designated by Congress as an official cultural institution.

Exhibits run the gauntlet from Chaplin’s cane to Seinfeld’s puffy shirt, from vaudeville to an adults’ only Blue Room (it’s segregated downstairs), from holograms of modern comedians performing actual sets to YouTube videos of cats. There’s even a surprise bench with a hidden whoopee cushion.
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Jamestown, the birthplace of Lucille Ball, also has an annual comedy festival, the Lucille Ball Desi Arnaz Museum and free showings of popular comedy films. Ghostbusters is on tap October 11.

National Comedy Center, 203 W 2nd Street, 716.484.2222.

Best local place to rest your weary,sore-from-laughing-body. Chautauqua Harbor Hotel, a 4-Diamond luxury hotel on the shores of historic Chautauqua Lake in Celoron, New York.

Only in Green Bay: Five Cool Things You Will Find Nowhere Else

On September 9, the Green Bay Packers begin their 100th season of football.

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But even more impressive is the Packs, who have won more titles than any other team, are the only publicly-owned, non-profit professional sports team in America.

Rather than kowtow to wealthy owners who move teams around like chess piece pawns, this storied franchise is owned by 361,060 community members, many who still show up to shovel snow off bleachers on game day.

Here are five other quintessential Green Bay things you will find nowhere else:

1. Public funds that actually benefit the public. In the last two decades alone, NFL teams have received more than $7 billion in public funds to build stadiums. That would make sense if, like in Green Bay, the actual profits benefit the community. But in 30 of the 31 NFL franchises, while taxpayers shoulder a great deal of the cost and debt, the profits go straight into the private pockets of the already-wealthy owners. In Green Bay, 100 percent of the profits are invested back in the team, the stadium and the community. Its new Titletown District, for example, offers free daily yoga, dance, games and other activities.

2. An ad free stadium. It’s estimated that the average American is exposed to 500 ads per day. At least they get a break at Lambeau Field. Unlike most professional stadiums and arenas that are festooned with everything from insurance ads to viagra commercials, Lambeau Field is mostly ad-free starting with its name.
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Ergo, the Dallas Cowboys play at AT&T Stadium, the Minnesota Vikings at US Bank Stadium and Pittsburg Steelers not only strut their stuff at Heinz Field, but their Jumbotron features a pair of giant catsup bottles. Packers are able to honor their founder, Curly Lambeau, who started the franchise in 1919 with a handshake with an editor friend in the second-floor editorial room of the old Green Bay Press-Gazette.

3. Craft beer dominance. Anheuser-Busch is the NFL’s official beer sponsor, so while Lambeau Field, like its 30 stadium brethren, offers Bud Light (only difference, it’s cheaper here), it also sells a profusion of craft beers from Green Bay’s six craft breweries, the most per capita in any NFL town.

In fact, if you’re heading to Green Bay for the centennial celebration do not miss these oh-so-awesome craft beers: Green Chop Session IPA (Badger State Brewery), Wisco Disco (Stillmank Brewing Company), Packerland Pilsner (Hinterland Brewery), Dark Helmet Schwartzbier (Titletown Brewing Company), Platinum Coffee Blonde Stout (Copper State Brewery) and Midnight Confection (Noble Roots Brewing Company).
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4. Behemoths riding tiny bikes. For 60 years, Packers players have ridden kids bicycles to and from training camp practices at Nitschke Field. Youngsters line up outside their locker room at Lambeau Field and hope their favorite players, already suited up for practice, will choose their bike, streamers and all, and maybe, if they’re really lucky, autograph their banana seat. Sometimes the bikes (and the riders) are so miniscule, players simply pick up both and carry them. green bay 2

The heart-warming tradition began in 1958 when a couple brothers showed up to watch practice every day on their brand new Schwinn Jaguar bikes. One day, one of the brothers gathered up his nerve and offered a ride to John Symank, his favorite player. John accepted and the excited boy returned to the locker room to ferry as many players as possible back and forth.

5. An economy based on toilet paper. Green Bay, known as the Toilet Paper Capital of the World, didn’t invent TP, (you can thank the Chinese for that), but it was their Northern Paper Mills who, in 1901, issued the first ever “sanitary tissue.” Until then, “toilet paper” mainly amounted to corn cobs, grass, vinegar-soaked sponges or the Farmer’s Almanac that, at one time, was printed with a hole so it could hang off a nail or string in the outhouse.

By 1920, Northern Paper Mills was the world’s largest producer of bath tissue and between 1925 and 1935, toilet paper production doubled, staving off the worst of the Great Depression for Green Bay.

Not to mention that it paved the way for its prosperous citizens to create a fan-owned operation and an enduring relationship between team and community unlike any other in the NFL.

That time I took a selfie with Bambi

Last October, the US Fish and Wildlife Service rejected 25 separate petitions to award endangered species status to the Pacific walrus, the mole skink, Bicknell’s thrush and, well, 22 other threatened species that, according to scientists, are hanging on by their shrinking habitat.

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Conservationists, concerned about environmental rollbacks, are frantically writing petitions, sending fundraising letters and giving speeches to convince a pro-development government that biodiversity protects against climate change and ensures a stable food supply.

Perhaps a better tactic would be to take them to Parc Omega, a 2200-acre wildlife park in Montebello, Quebec. When you’re looking into the golf ball-sized eyeball of a wapiti or giggling from the tickling tongue of a white-tailed deer or standing less than six-feet away from a yawning wolf cub, you quickly come to realize that all of us are in this together.

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That’s why famed zoologist Serge Lussier came out of retirement to run this park where humans have life-changing encounters with three kinds of wolves, polar foxes, bears and moose.

“It’s hard to find the will to protect anything you don’t really know,” Lussier says. “Everything changes when you come here, when you have intimate interactions with the natural world. I took this job because this is how we change the world.”

At Parc Omega, you can sleep with wolves, feed carrots to elk and experience special connections with buffalo, foxes and a moose/goat duo who are BFF’s.

The view alone is worth the admission price. Sitting on the less-visited side of the Laurentian Mountains, Parc Omega offers a 7.5-mile safari through the meadows, mountains, forests, boreal and other ecosystems of Canada. And while it fits the dictionary definition of a zoo (a collection of wild animals for study, conservation of display to the public), at Parc Omega, it’s the animals who wander freely and the homo sapiens who are caged inside cars.

The most unique feature is the one-on-one’s which you’re guaranteed to get if you take Lussier’s advice to “pay admission” with half a carrot

But why stop there? Most cars make the journey with a minimum of five pounds of the ubiquitous orange veggie. The animals literally greet you in your cars, even sticking their snouts inside to fully make your acquaintance. These remarkable encounters are fun for kids and adults alike.

I’ve run into Sylvester Stallone, Nicole Kidman, Michael Douglas and other celebs in my travels, but those chance meetings pale in comparison to sharing a carrot with wild boars, muskox, Alpine ibex and caribou.

If you go from February to April, you can hike (it’s short) to the park’s cabane a sucre, an old-fashioned sugar shack. You can watch maples being tapped and sample maple taffy lollipops laid out on the snow.park omega 4

Parc Omega also has an 1847 farmstead, a First Nations Trail (wishes made while walking under the wing of the beautifully carved Thunderbird are rumored to come true), a grilled cheese and hot chocolate-style restaurant, picnic sites and tipis, prospector tents and beautifully-carved log cabins for overnighters. The House on Stilts overlooks the black bear and timber wolf enclosures and has a balcony and palm-leaf roof.

Lussier is currently unrolling corporate events and bridal parties at the wolf overlook.

But if you simply want to channel Dr. Doolittle, get up close and personal (whether you talk or not is up to you) with animals of all kinds, here are a few useful tips:

1. Along with carrots, take paper towels. Animals drool. And expect your car to get muddy.

2. Keep your windows at half mast. Baby Ibex like to climb in cars.

3. Tune into the park’s FM radio stations that provide guidance and directions in both English and French.

4. Don’t skimp on time. Approximately halfway between Montreal and Ottawa, Parc Omega makes for a great day trip, but no matter how much time you allow, you’ll inevitably wish you had more.

 

Visit Brazil without the jet lag

Learn this word: sim. It’s pronounced “seem” and it means yes in Portuguese. It’s really all you need to know for your “vacation” to Fogo de Chão, the Brazilian churrasco that originated in the Serra Gaucho region of Brazil and has spread like an open fire pit across the United States.fogo 2

Sim, of course, is the proper response to the handsome gauchos who will visit your table with juicy cuts of 16 types of meat all roasted over open fire pits. If you find the word difficult to say (not because it’s a particularly complicated word, but because uttering any word when your mouth is watering and lusting like it inevitably will can be challenging), just nod.

The gaucho will proceed to carve off a slice of say parmesan-encrusted pork or medalhoes com bacon (yes, that’s bacon-wrapped steak) at your preferred temperature. A whole team of gauchos will relentlessly continue bringing new spits of sizzling, sexy seared cuts of heaven until you muster the willpower to flip over your coin from red to green, signaling “finito.”

The reason it’s so damned hard to practice restraint at Fogo de Chao is because the gauchos cooking the meat have done it for you. The beef, the lamb, the pork, the chicken is allowed to slowly cook, giving the natural flavors time to do their glorious thing.

fogoWhile you’re at it, you’ll also want to say “sim” to Fogo de Chao’s Market Table, a stunning display of salads, veggies, charcuterie and cheese. It comes with every meal and, trust me, it will require great self-discipline NOT to fill up on it’s delectable offerings. It also allows your veggie/vegan friends to join in.

“Sim” comes in handy at the Feijoada bar that features rice, black beans and bread, and once again, when offered Brazil’s national drink, a Caiprihina made with muddled sugar and lime and cachaça, a rum-like liquor made with sugar cane.

A night (or even a lunch) at Fogo de Chao provides the perfect Brazilian getaway—no packing, no passports—just a dizzying display of all things Brazilian.

Culture shock guaranteed (thank God!) at Kanatha-Aki in the Canadian Laurentians

We live in a culture defined by algorithms, divisions, repetitions. In this self-imposed echo chamber, we see and experience more of what we’ve previously chosen and less of the totality of possibilities. kana5

We begin to think everyone sees life as we do, that all people lust after the newest consumer products, the latest Netflix hit, the biggest house they can possibly afford.

That’s why visiting a place like Kanatha-Aki is so refreshing. Rather than reinforcing the closed system we believe is reality, this gorgeous nature preserve in the Canadian Laurentians opens us up to different ideas, different cultures, a competing narrative.

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The guardians of Kanatha-Aki (using the word owners doesn’t quite seem appropriate) is a French outdoorsman named Stéphane Denis and Dominique Rankin, the Algonquin nation’s last hereditary chief.

Together, they respectfully oversee this piece of undisturbed wilderness, opening it up city folks like me who have a tendency to forget the deep connection we share with the natural world.

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The word Kanatha-aki is an Algonquin term that means “guardian of the boundless earth” and its mission is for all humans to discover the most beautiful and wildest of Mother’s Earth’s offerings.

I felt so blessed to spend a day with Dominique, the revered chief, to hear of his adventures with Dalai Lama, Nelson Mandela, to hear how he has forgiven his early captors, to learn of his morning ritual committing himself to being in harmony with all living beings.

We shared a delicious cheese fondue in one of the log cabins on the property, a visitor’s center of sorts where people come for such outdoor activities as dog sledding and ice fishing in the winter and trekking and ziplining in the summer.

There is a tipi at the summit where visitors can overnight on pine beds and bison skins, trapper’s huts where they can sample balsam fir tea and maple syrup cooked over primitive wood-burning stoves and a Mikizi (it means Eagle) cabin where purification ceremonies and other healing rituals take place.

But mostly, visitors come to remember what it’s like to breathe uncarbonized air, what it’s like to be one with wolves and fox and even the sled dogs who are all treated with the same respect.

I took an expedition (led by a delicious guide whose long hair and beard created the spitting image of Jesus) on a dog sled to the Kanatha-Aki wood bison reserve, the first such preserve in Quebec. This Athabascae species, the largest bison alive, have been around since prehistoric times, having survived the Ice Age and contributing to mankind’s survival on the planet.

On the vernal equinox 2005, the herd gave birth to a white female bison, the seventh in the world, which according to Rankin, fulfills a prophecy about the healing of earth and mankind. In honor of this auspicious event, 25 sacred pipes were simultaneously lit by Amerindian chiefs and medicine men throughout North America.

So if the reverberation in your echo chamber is getting old, head to Kanatha-Aki, located in Val-des-Lacs in the majestic Laure ntian Mountains, adjacent to the Mont-Tremblant National Park.

T8aminik (that’s Dominique’s Algonquin name) delights in sharing the simple, profound Anishinaabe teachings in your choice of Algonquin, Cree, French, English, Odjibway, Atikamek and Innu.