I’ve been to a lot of great places in my life. Some are intriguing, popular, sexy even; places that when you hear about them you want to go there immediately. Like New Orleans or Canada (Canada’s hot right now, so to speak). Then there are the other places. Places that I didn’t expect to be amazing. Places that were not on my itinerary because I had never heard about them. The places I just stumbled across. So many of these places were truly amazing finds yet they probably won’t show up in any travel channel or food network episodes any time soon. Trust me though, they are all spectacular and deserve praise. Maybe you won’t put them on your list but if you’re passing by, go check them out! You’ll be glad you did.
1. The Pickled Wrinkle in Birch Harbor Maine
The Schoodic Peninsula is a perfect slice of quintessential coastal Maine: rocky and grey with clean, briny air and thick, mossy forests pine. The towns here are so tiny most are no more than a post office, a gas station/convenient store/liquor store in one and maybe a bar or a hardware store. Birch Harbor is no exception. Birch Harbor is not a town, it is a street corner. No stop light and very spotty cell service.
While hiking, I managed to ask a local wood carver (no, this is not a line from a fairy tale, the man carved wooden chairs and benches for tourists) where I should go for food. He mentioned a few places in Winter Harbor, mumbling to himself about nothing being open before noon, then asked if I wanted to try a local specialty: the Pickled Wrinkle. Smirking, he tried to make me guess what a Pickled Wrinkle is. Well, first I wondered if this was some kind of dirty old man joke. Then, I thought he seemed too nice for that. So, the genitalia of several different animals came to mind next. But, this is Maine not Colorado (see: Rocky Mountain Oysters) . So, I guessed seafood. Duh, I mean this is the seafood capital of the US.
He informed me that Pickled Wrinkles are whelks, or tiny sea snails, that live in abundance along the cold, rocky Maine coast. Despite growing up on the New England coast, and having seen thousands of sea snails in my life, I had never actually eaten one. I love seafood. LOVE. I also love Es Cargo. So I got excited about trying this new delicacy.
However, when I arrived at the tiny restaurant and plunked myself down at the rustic bar in the wood paneled room, I was disappointed to find that the Pickled Wrinkles were out of season. With no small amount of disappointment, I ordered a lobster roll.
I recommend this place because the food was amazing. Plain, simple, fresh. The best Lobster roll I have ever had plus a heaping pile of fresh made potato chips. The staff was friendly and though it is a tiny town, they don’t give you the hairy eyeball for being a tourist. They either ignore you or slap you on the shoulder and comment on the weather. Even though everyone else there seemed to know each other by name, I didn’t feel uncomfortable or out of place.
You may never find yourself here, it is way off the beaten path but, if you do, you can get great food from 11am on any day of the week which is rare in this part of Maine.
2. The top of Cadillac Mountain
Cadillac Mountain (in Acadia National Park) is actually a popular and well known destination. What makes this one special is the time of day-5am. Why am I insisting on sunrise and not sunset? The sun rises over the water in the morning here. It is quiet and perfect…words fail and pictures fall short. You just must experience it for yourself.
Don’t worry, if you decide to try this, you won’t have to hike miles to the top before coffee, there is an open park entrance and a road. It will be cold, even in summer and, yes, very early. If you are near Acadia National Park, roll out of bed, put on a coat, skip the coffee and go sit on a mountain at dawn.
3.Cranberry’s in Hyde Park New York
Hyde Park is well known by history buffs as the location of the Roosevelt mansion and is not exactly in the middle of nowhere. It’s about 5 minutes north of Poughkeepsie. Cranberry’s makes the list because I never would have tried it if I hadn’t been in Hyde Park working the local farmer’s market.
Any given farmer’s market morning starts with set up at 7:30 am which, of course, puts me in search of the closest source of coffee. Cranberry’s is half a block away from the market and comes highly recommended by the locals.
The atmosphere is what you might expect of a family owned coffee shop in a history driven community-old timey, French country kitchen and slightly rustic. Floral wallpaper, wainscoting, fluffy window dressings, large ceramic roosters and the like are the norm. Absolutely nothing wrong with the décor. It works, it’s cozy and the bathrooms are clean! But the food is so much better than the average mom n pop coffee shop.
They home make the soups, cole slaw and mac & cheese daily. The food is well balanced and not overly heavy or greasy. The baked goods are probably the best thing they do. Anybody can make cookies and crullers, but Cranberry’s does it very very well. Maybe top 5 best backed goodies that I have ever tried. Even their gluten free stuff is good. Better than good! The gluten free peanut butter cookie is better than other regular cookies. There is also a chocolate, coconut devil bar thing that is amazing.
Then there is the coffee. It was so much better than I had anticipated. There are about 10 flavors, some are local brews. Now you must understand that I personally loath flavored coffees; they just don’t taste natural. But for the first time in my life (when they ran out of regular and decaf was out of the question) I tried the vanilla coconut coffee and actually liked it. Loved it, in fact. It actually tasted coconutty and yummy without the metallic, brain numbing aftertaste.
I definitely recommend going for the flavored coffee first here. Also, very important, in the summer they make ice cubes out of coffee. This means that your iced coffee doesn’t get watered down when the cubes melt. It makes the coffee extra strong which is a beautiful thing.
So, if you are a history buff or you are on your way to Rhinebeck, drive right past the strip malls and the local Dunkin and stop at Cranberry’s instead.
4.The Carriage House Restaurant & Tavern in Patterson New York
I’ve driven on route 84 many times and there really isn’t much between Beacon NY and Danbury CT. So, when my friend Natalie said she was going to be in Holmes NY for the summer working at a camp, I had to figure out where we could get dinner in the middle of nowhere. To make matters worse, we were meeting up on a Monday. There were about half a dozen restaurants in the area but most were closed. That left only the local sports bar. I cringed and sighed. Nat and I are both big foodies and a sports bar in the middle of nowhere didn’t seem like a good idea but we didn’t have a choice.
When researching on yelp, I didn’t understand how any basic sports bar could possibly get 4.4 stars over dozens of customer reviews. I mean, I’ve been to some great, amazing, fabulous restaurants that only got 3.9 stars. Well, this place deserves the rating. I will never turn up my nose at the humble sports bar again.
First of all, aside from the bar and the big flat-screens, it really looks more like a cozy restaurant than a man-centric, dirty bar (nothing wrong with those, by the way). Everything was spotlessly clean, the building is new and, best of all, it has a beautiful outdoor patio with flower boxes and umbrellas. We sat outside, of course.
They have good wine and really really good food. Natalie had the Black & Tan Steak sandwich. It was so amazing with thick fresh bread, juicy steak, cheese and some kind of creamy, spicy sauce. As tiny Nat struggled through her massive sandwich, I had the Buffalo Chicken Salad. I love buffalo chicken, so when I say I expected heavy, breaded chicken dripping in buttery sauce-this is not a bad thing! But it wasn’t. The salad itself was super fresh. There was a yummy corn, bean and avocado salsa. The chicken was grilled and covered with a house-made buffalo sauce. If what we ate was any example of the rest of the menu, The Carriage house makes a really great pit stop for any trip. Despite its neither here nor there placement on the map, you might want to stop here for lunch or dinner the next time you drive by on Route 84.
Oh, and if you want some awesome homemade country-style (see thick and creamy) ice cream try Old Farm House Ice Cream in Pawling.
5.Waterfall on Little River near Stowe Vermont
I passed through Stowe in 2009 on a road trip through New England to visit friends. I immediately gravitated toward the mountains; wanting to explore the pristine beauty of rural northern Vermont. Outside of Stowe, on the way to Smuggler’s Notch on Mountain Road and just after Mount Mansfield it didn’t take me long to find a hidden waterfall in the woods. I’m not sure these gorgeous falls even have a name. You won’t find them on Google maps but, trust me, they are there and they are work going out of your way to find.
In the lush woods by the side of the road, just after the Mansfield Mountain ski area, there is a small pull-off. When I first pulled over I had no idea I would find this massive waterfall. I just saw a small trail going into the trees and thought I was going for an impromptu hike. I wandered down a loamy path under the trees, and soon heard the sound of crashing water. I soon found myself gazing down at huge tiered pools. It was the perfect unexpected find.
6. Agave Restaurant in Newburyport Mass
There are many many good Mexican restaurants, so I bet you never thought you’d go to a small town in coastal Massachusetts for Mexican food. Well, you should. I may be biased because Newburyport Mass is my home town, but they have some amazing food there. I think the great seafood and superior Chinese may have been responsible for making me into the foodie I am today.
Anyhow, stopping in Newburyport for food might not actually be out of the way, it’s right off of 95. I have been back to visit several times in the last 6 years and arguably the best Mexican place I have ever been to is Agave Mexican Bistro on State Street. The food is good, yes, but the first and last most important thing is that the margaritas are the size of your head. They are good too, and I am a margarita snob for sure. Different flavors, selection of tequilas, frozen or strait. I honestly don’t remember what flavor I had, after one I was gone, but it was fruity and just so good. So was the spicy ceviche and the house made tortilla chips and salsa.
If you’re not in the mood for Mexican, try Szechuan Taste around the corner. Homemade duck sauce. Believe me, this makes all the difference.
7. Landmark Inn in Warwick, NY
I went to Warwick to sell my work at the Apple Fest. I had never been before but heard good things. It is an affluent community of stately old but well kept buildings; an oasis in an otherwise farmy, sleepy area.
Driving through, it looked like there were a few decent restaurants in town, but I asked some of my customers where to get dinner and they said the best place (the only good place in their opinion) was the Landmark Inn. So, after packing up for the night, we went. We got lost at first, went the wrong direction out of the town proper, because the GPS doesn’t recognize the address listed online.
Be warned, the décor is a little strange. The foyer is nice-well lit, wide board floors, high ceilings and the bar is appropriately dark, rustic and masculine. It is the dining room that is strange. It seems that someone thought it would be a neat idea to use a bunch of old doors as the ceiling-knobs and all. The whole ceiling is covered in doors. Not plaster or tin or paneling-doors. The effect is just weird. Disturbing even.
My advice if you go- don’t look up. Focus instead on the symphony that will be happening in your mouth when you taste the food.
It’s not just good, it is spectacular. Every bite was perfect; the flavors, the textures, the pairings everything about it was stellar. Even the salads were perfect. I don’t know what other adjective to use. The pumpkin ravioli was especially good; silky, flavorful and swimming in dark green olive oil and some wonderful cream sauce. The French onion soup was the best I have ever had with a murky, meaty broth and thick bread. Fresh, fresh crab cakes, good wine and a spot-on dessert made the meal complete.
But don’t take my word for it, go try it. Really, if you live anywhere in the NYC metropolitan area or 50 miles in any direction, there is no good excuse not to. In fact, you could come to Applefest 2015 and try it out afterward.
8. Route 675 between Luray and Woodstock Virginia
On our southern road trip, Jackie and I planned to go to the Luray Caverns. We planned to hike in the Blue Ridge Mountains. We planned to go to High on the Hog for authentic southern BBQ. We did all of the above. The Luray Caverns were amazing, much better than we expected. High on the Hog wasn’t very good, overrated. Hiking to the Humpback Rocks on The Blue Ridge Trail was spectacular. That is all a story for another time.
However, we didn’t plan a drive on what the locals call the skyline trail. I have my nutty GPS to thank for this unexpected adventure. After Luray and dinner at High on the Hog, we needed to head back to our hotel in Woodstock and we didn’t have directions. So, we used my trusty, if slightly insane, GPS to find our way back in the twilight.
On the way to Luray, we drove on a main road and expected to go back the same way, but soon we were meandering past cow pastures, blasting Phantogram’s “Fall in Love” while Jackie heckled the cows from the passenger window. Suddenly we were driving up a very steep road with a long drop-off. I was freaking out slightly. I am ok with heights, but driving on high, twisty roads is always stressful.
Finally, with Jackie’s coaching, I got us to the top of the mountain and it was worth the drive. Endless views of the valley below became a magical good omen for the first day of our 4000 mile road trip.