Man Voyage IV: NY & Ontario
April 29, 2016 § 5 Comments
This being the fourth year, I’m struggling to come up with new introductions for Man Voyage. The destination may change each year but it’s always about two friends hitting the open road to eat, drink and take stock of our lives. Read the full manifesto here and click the “Navigation” tab to read previous entries. In the meantime, we’ll get right to the good stuff from this year’s trip through the Finger Lakes & upstate New York, the 1000 Islands and Prince Edward County, Ontario.
We stopped for a quick lunch at Grist Iron Brewing Company, in the very familiar Finger Lakes region of New York. We spend so much time here for shows and day trips it’s a sort of second home, and we were anxious to try Seneca Lake’s newest brewpub again. This was Jared’s second visit, my third and we appreciate it more each time. The Front Porch IPA is better than I remembered (stronger too, at 9% ABV) and the Big “O” Organic Smash pale ale is the best beer I’ve had from them yet. Southwest mac ‘n cheese and a hot cup of chicken mushroom soup rounded out a nice lunch, and that elevated view of Lake Seneca never gets old. Our bartender was very knowledgeable of their brews and told us about upcoming expansion plans to add a bigger outdoor space for live music and overhead protection from any inclement weather. Grist Iron is such a great addition to the flourishing brewery scene up here.
I-81 N would’ve gotten us to Wood Boat Brewery in Clayton, NY about 30 minutes earlier but we opted for the gorgeous lakeside drive of Rt 3. The water was obscured by trees for a good while but once it opened up, that view made it hard to focus on the road. Clayton is a waterfront town on the cusp of the 1000 Islands in upstate NY, small and quaint with an antique boat museum and general fascination with watercraft, fitting given its location. Wood Boat is no exception, adorning every surface with vintage boat signage and memorabilia. Not necessarily our thing but their commitment to the theme is commendable. Their spacious outdoor deck provides a good view of the waterfront (just a block away) and would’ve been ideal for dining if it’d been less windy and just a bit warmer. Music is subtly pumped through a few outdoor speakers – mostly overplayed classic rock, but that’s our nitpick.
It feels very much like a neighborhood place; most of the other patrons were locals but that’s not to say it wasn’t inviting. Our waitress was quick and attentive, applauding us for choosing the two best beers on the menu (IPA and oatmeal stout). The brick pizza oven has an opening on the bar so they get pushed right out when they’re done. Our personal pizzas (sausage & pineapple, pulled pork & coleslaw) were fantastic and big enough we took a few slices to go. Clayton might be a short detour en route to the 1000 Islands but it’s definitely worth the stop. The best part of their commitment to the theme? The pizzas are shaped like boats.
Crossing the border at Wellesley Island is much faster than Niagara Falls. There were four lanes open and our agent waved us through after a few routine questions. Once again we opted for the scenic lakeside Route 2 over the quicker 401 – it was much too nice of a day to spend looking at nothing but highway traffic. We arrived in Kingston, found the Confederation Place Hotel on Ontario Street with relative ease, nestled our car into their underground parking lot and ventured up to our fifth floor lake view room for a quick change of clothes. I didn’t realize when I booked online that the hotel is owned by a chain (Howard Johnson’s maybe? I saw it posted in the lobby but can’t remember) so technically we broke our ‘go local’ rule, but at $63 for a lake view room two blocks from our gig that evening it was hard to care. The underground parking was $15 extra and if we hadn’t had the gig gear to haul we probably would’ve researched other nearby options. The room was clean & quiet, the bed was comfortable and the shower was hot… all Man Voyage hotel needs met.
We had a round of pre-gig beers at Stone City Ales downtown, where we experienced our first minor hiccup. Upon entering we were greeted by a friendly gal at the walk-up counter who asked what she could get us. Next to the counter is a partition with a clear glass door leading into the bar and seating area – every state/country/province has their own set of strange liquor laws so naturally we assumed that, for whatever reason, we had to order our beer here and take it into the bar. We ordered an Uncharted IPA and Single Simcoe IPA, she handed us two bombers and told us to have a nice day. We asked if we could have them opened for consumption at the bar and she looked at us like we were mental patients… yes ma’am, we are from out of town. Turns out we should’ve just walked through the clear glass door in the first place. We had a round in the bar and took our bombers home with us; not so much a minor hiccup but rather a dumb mistake that resulted in more beer. Everybody wins.
It was a short walk to Musiikki Cafe, an excellent coffee/whiskey bar and even more excellent gig. Owner Chris and sound man Alex welcomed us upon arrival, concocted a plan for me to play my solo set unplugged in the window front downstairs then move to the 2nd floor stage for the Echo & Sway later in the evening. The bar downstairs blends an extensive combination of coffee and cafe staples (espresso, lattes, americanos, etc) with whiskies of all qualities, though I did spy several top shelf brands and a few that were unfamiliar to me. They’ve also got other spirits and mixers for a small selection of cocktails, and a weekly discounted whiskey feature – this week it was J.P. Wiser’s Hopped, dry hopped in the same fashion as an IPA. A harmonious blend of whiskey and beer properties, it was quite tasty but would probably be just an occasional sipper for me. Band members are allotted two free drinks each, and I spent mine on a top-notch Old Fashioned and a bottled blonde ale by a Canadian micro I can’t remember. Jared went with two of the Hopped whiskies, neat… classy guy, that one.
The performance space upstairs is equally stellar, with a small stage at the head of an elongated room. Interesting side story: one of the cafe’s regular performers was carrying a cello on his back when he was hit by a car. The cello was destroyed beyond repair, but saved his life in the process. He donated it to Musiikki, who made it a stage backdrop with orange lights strung throughout. There’s also a chandelier of sorts fashioned from an old wooden door, freshly painted and affixed with small lanterns. The room is lit almost exclusively by those two pieces during showtime. There’s also a wall for bands to sign and a single keg with a local pilsner on tap.
The gig was superb. I had a loyal crowd for my solo set and several who stuck around after (namely Kevin and Julie, who sat with us) to chat about our tunes and travels, and life in Kingston. The crowd fluctuated upstairs for the TE&S part of the evening, many coming and going but seated and attentive in between. As our set was winding down we were flooded with a large group who not only insisted we continue, but with more original songs no less. Sore fingers and hoarse throats notwithstanding, we’d have been damn foolish to ignore a request like that.
We hung around awhile to mingle and enjoy another round of drinks. We shared stories of traversing the UK with a group of English girls and talked about everything under the sun at warp speed with a particularly fiery Aussie named Christine, who bought us a round of cocktails and proceeded to drink all three of them herself. Our new friends directed us to Mr. Donair for late night eats, where we assembled a massive platter of poutine topped with tzatziki & sweet sauces, cucumbers, peppers and extra cheese. Likely a terrible idea come morning, but bordering on genius in the moment. We retired to our room exhausted but grateful for such an evening. Unique spaces and fun audiences like this beat the shit out of nightclubs and run-of-the-mill bars any day, and are reasons in and of themselves for independent artists to play music and tour.
We awoke refreshed and not nearly as digestively screwed as we’d anticipated following our poutine bomb. After a quick toast & juice breakfast at the hotel we headed back to Musiikki for our morning espresso. There were a half dozen other cafes downtown but we wanted to take a better look at some of the local art on their walls and patronize them again for giving us such a great gig. Jared chatted beans and roasting with the morning barista and we grabbed some local literature before moving on. I’m overstating it for a reason: Musiikki is too fucking cool. We picked up some gifts and assorted nerdery at Novel Idea Books and Kingston Gaming Nexus before heading out. These stores seem to be thriving and it’s always nice to chat with small business owners in other towns. As always: shop local, folks.
After another beautiful waterfront drive along Rt. 33 we arrived at MacKinnon Brothers Brewing in Bath, a wonderfully chaotic little farm brewery and tasting room. We’d no idea where to go once in the parking area but we wandered the grounds, observing the brewing area and gorgeous rural setting until we spied a small shed with a bar and handmade stools inside. The bartender couldn’t have been friendlier as she began pouring us samples of Crosscut Canadian ale, 8 Man English pale, Red Fox summer ale (brewed with a touch of beet juice, giving it a nice red hue), Origin German-style Hefeweizen and Wild peppermint stout. Not a bad one in the bunch. One of the brothers came in and joined us for a full beer simply because “it’s Friday, and it’s lunchtime.” Can’t argue with logic like that.
We could’ve used their new fully functioning bathroom facilities if we’d arrived two days later, but the roadside port a potty with resident farm dog chaperone suited us just fine. We took home a few small growlers (Origin and Wild) and a set of coasters handmade from tree branches on their property and imprinted with their logo. It was a beautiful start to the day.
I’m not sure I’d ever ridden on a ferry before this and I’m positive I’d never driven onto one. We envisioned it being much more of a pain in the ass but the Glenora Ferry was smooth sailing all the way; the best option from Bath to Prince Edward County, and the most scenic. It’s free and departs the end of Rt. 33 (Loyalist Parkway) every half hour. Once the boat was in motion we got out to walk around and snap some pictures. The ride was only a few minutes but it beat just sitting in the car. Once we docked the gates opened and we picked up Rt. 33 on the other side. I’d love it if this were a part of my daily commute.
We’d planned to make the Inn at Lake on the Mountain part of the beer tour before discovering they wouldn’t be open for the season until May 1st. Disappointing but the mystery of the lake itself is interesting and the view is even better. We made our way into Picton for a snack and round of beers at County Canteen, a cozy little spot on the main drag with hardwood floors and exposed brick inside, and a small patio with funky lanterns and string lights out front. Vegetarian rice paper rolls with peanut dipping sauce were great alongside a Muskoka IPA and Flying Monkeys Pilsner, and they had a nice enough variety of Canadian microbrew on tap we likely would’ve stayed for a few more if there weren’t many more attractive looking places to stop that day. Our waitress/bartender was sweet but we found it odd when she told us they “don’t start giving out our WiFi password until peak season.” Seems like an odd policy but whatever. We bought a few gifts for our boys at Books & Company two doors down and made use of theirs while petting the resident bookstore cat.
A few short miles (well, kilometers) down the road was Barley Days Brewery, housed in what appears to be a small airplane hangar painted up like an old barn. We stayed longer than we’d planned thanks to a generous bartender who let us try everything though we only paid for one sampler (four liberal pours for $1, a damn good deal in itself), and a patron who wanted to chat with us while downing a few pints of cherry porter himself. Their dark beers were among my favorites, particularly the Ursa Major Black IPA and Scrimshaw Oyster Stout. Others could take a lesson in brewing with maple syrup: I find most in the style too sickeningly sweet and despite many reviews suggesting their Sugar Shack ale is the same, I found it perfectly balanced between bitter and sweet. The gift shop is loaded with local food items we were tempted to take home but weren’t sure what we could legally get through customs, though we did buy a bottle of hot sauce made by the bartender as part of a side business. Two of the friendliest people we met, she even offered to call ahead to our next stop to make sure they were still open. Ahh, the perks of traveling in the off season.
We should have had her call 66 Gilead Distillery because he was locking up when we got there. The grounds are beautiful, on a farm with some antique accents and animals running around. In keeping with the generosity we’d experienced in Ontario thus far, he gladly opened back up to give us a few samples and talk in great detail about the ingredients and making of each of their spirits. He really knows his stuff as we got a pamphlet’s worth of information on each one. The Crimson Rye whiskey and Loyalist Gin were great and I was contemplating a purchase until I saw the price list. I’m obviously not averse to spending decent money on well-made liquor but with the money I’d already spent (and intended to spend) on alcohol this trip, between $50-$70 for a single bottle was a bit much. If Jared hadn’t already intended on buying vodka I probably would’ve sprung for something just to thank the guy for opening back up. Next time I’ll ease up on beer and fit one of their spirits into my budget.
Our first of two food disappointments this trip was missing out on Terracello Winery. They’re rumored to have fantastic red wine and pizza that rivals Italy and we’d only eaten the spring rolls at County Canteen thus far. Their advertised hours were 12-6, and I even emailed ahead to make sure they’d be open since it’s not peak season, which they confirmed. We arrived shortly before 5:00 on Friday and they were closed, with nobody in sight. It’s understandable that they’d quit early if things were slow but it still sucked. Jared grew tired of me bitching about wanting pizza so he fished our Wood Boat leftovers out of the back.
It was about an hours’ drive to Gananoque Brewing Company in downtown Gananoque, not far from the border. We were hungry after missing out on Terracello pizza (look Jared, I’m still griping about it) but couldn’t pass up one last Ontario brewery. We’d had so much remarkable brew and the Gan was no exception. Jared went in while I parked our car on a nearby street and I arrived a few minutes later to find him already sipping on a canned Bell Ringer IPA, also on draft but on a faulty tap line. I ordered a Coopershawk pale ale and we kicked back in their picture window seats, lined with comfortable cushions and pillows. Their were spent grain and hop pellets all over the floor and a perfect view of the brewing action, directly behind the bar with nothing to separate them but some kegs and stacks of malt bags. We chatted about ‘Murica with a few locals at the bar before raiding the fridge for some takeout cans of IPA, Naughty Otter lager and Black Bear Bock. The bartender comped our round of beers to make up for the faulty draft IPA, which was incredibly generous considering it didn’t affect my beer at all. We shoved the last of our Canadian money in her tip jar and left wondering if everyone in this country is as friendly as all of the wonderful people we’d met in the previous 24 hours.
Border patrol was a bit more harsh on our way back through. “Why would you drive SIX HOURS from Pennsylvania to only spend ONE NIGHT in Ontario? What were you DOING up here?!” Just doing his job but still a bit unnerving.
I’d never stayed in a bed & breakfast until our UK tour last year, when we wanted to splurge for a nice stay in Worcester and all of the boutique hotels were either booked or overpriced. Staying in someone’s house and socializing with other guests when I’m usually a grumpy asshole in the morning never sounded too appealing, but we took a chance and were pleasantly surprised. Sackets Harbor B&B was more of the same: a big house on a quiet street owned by a nice couple who didn’t make two scruffy young hooligans feel out of place. They welcomed us late at night, coordinated a time for breakfast, gave us a key for the front door and sent us out for dinner, asking only that we not make a ton of noise if we got back too late. We were the first guests of the season and had the place to ourselves.
The Hops Spot and Sackets Harbor Brewing Company are located side-by-side, two blocks away on the main street downtown. The former is supposed to have dynamite food so we’d planned on dinner & drinks there and additional beer at SHBC afterward. Again, advertised hours until 10, and we arrived at 9:00 to a closed building (only now when I’m checking the website do I see “RE-OPENING APRIL 27, 2016” … damn these places with seasonal hours). Better than Terracello, that was at least posted online and we just didn’t see it.
SHBC was extremely hit or miss. Per the instructions at the host station, we wandered into the bar to be seated for dinner but couldn’t find a bartender anywhere. We only saw people drinking until we realized the bartender was one of them, nestled in a far corner sharing rounds with patrons. We paid no attention, as sipping a bit on duty is both a perk and part of the job. After five solid minutes though, we tired of waiting so we seated ourselves at a table, then waited another 10 for her to bring menus and take our drink order. She was a sweet gal but also flat out drunk. She had difficulty focusing her eyes and began slurring her words. I wouldn’t care how much she’d had if she could still function but it took her a ridiculous amount of time to check on tables, as she rarely left her corner of the bar.
All of the waiting wouldn’t have mattered if the beer and food were exceptional but much of it was pretty ordinary. They have an atmosphere and feel that cater to locals but the quality of a tourist brewpub. 1000 Islands pale, St. Stephens Stout and Barstool Bitters were decent but underwhelming, as were Jared’s seafood chowder and fish tacos. I will praise their willingness to cook a rare burger – my Adirondack with bacon, cheese and apple slices had a good amount of blood in it and was damn tasty. I’ll assume the excessive imbibing and subsequent inattentiveness from the bartender isn’t a regular thing and I certainly won’t fault them for the overabundance of obnoxious popped collar frat boys because brewpubs attract all different types of clientele. The atmosphere is cozy and inviting but I expected a little more from a place that, as I discovered via Liquid Alchemy‘s review, has been around since 1995 (Side note: read Liquid Alchemy’s review. He has many positive things to say about SHBC and per the comment the owner left on this page, it sounds like we visited on an off night. I’ll definitely give it another go next time I’m in the area.).
We had a hell of a good night’s sleep and piping hot showers the following morning at the B&B. We were also in bed by around midnight so we could get a decent nights’ sleep and still make our 8:00 breakfast time. Fruit, cereal, juice, freshly baked banana bread and made-to-order eggs and bacon all made a great breakfast. Mary and her husband were kind hosts who made us feel welcome to socialize while granting us our own space. Everything was very casual.
We’d planned to walk off our breakfast via the self-guided tour along the hiking trails at Sackets Harbor Battlefield State Historic Site, a block away from the B&B. It began that way until we wandered down by the water and discovered a more scenic, if much more precarious and possibly illegal trek on some jagged rocks underneath an outcropping of cliffs. We walked until a blockage kept us from going any farther, both of us narrowly dodging several spills into the frigid water as we stepped on the slipperier rocks. There were no signs we couldn’t take the walk though it was certainly off the beaten path.
Weedsport in the northernmost reaches of the Finger Lakes is a small town that time hasn’t been kind to. Strongly reminiscent of our once booming lumber region of central PA now a shell of its former self, much of Weedsport looks like a ghost town. Many of the buildings downtown are worn and decrepit with empty storefronts, but the same way local favorites like Avenue Coffee and Broken Axe Brew House have helped to revitalize our downtown, I imagine Lunkenheimer Craft Brewing Company is breathing some new life into this one. Located unassumingly behind the Old Erie restaurant on the main drag, Lunkenheimer houses a small brewing operation behind what looks to be a handmade wooden bar and draft system, accented with growlers from other NY state breweries. We grabbed a six beer sampler for $5 and planted ourselves at a table outside – we wanted to chat with the bartender but it was just too damn nice out. None of the beers blew us away but were all decent enough, the Hoppy Little Kolsch being a favorite and very easy drinker while sitting in the sun. Seems like a place with a lot of potential that I wouldn’t hesitate to visit again in a few years, once they’ve developed their craft a bit more and Weedsport hopefully has more to its downtown than a vape shop.
A 15 minute countryside drive south, Auburn has some nice brick streets, boutique stores and the original Genesee beer sign in its downtown. They’ve also got Prison City Pub & Brewery, another relatively new addition to the area serving beer so damn good they tailored the food menu to their brewer’s selections. It’s hearty fare: burgers, sandwiches and the like, with some small plates and appetizers to share. The pork belly tacos with house-made kimchi & avocado lime sauce were my favorite meal of the weekend. Jared had a lighter lunch of everything pretzels with queso sauce & beer mustard and while everything was delicious, the focus really is on the beer. The berliner weisse has made a stateside resurgence in the past several years and while my favorite of the style is still Nodding Head (Philadelphia), Prison City’s Klink was tart and refreshing. The Bleek Warden Belgian strong pale and 4 Piece pale were both sessionable enough to enjoy a few pints but still packed with flavor.
They really went all out with their theme, an effort we always appreciate. From the lock & key logo to their wall of mugshots for pub club members, the prison details are ever-present. Our waiter was unbelievably friendly, apologizing for our two minute wait and hustling to take great care of seemingly every table in the place by himself with occasional help from the bartenders. Prison City is fantastic and I only wish it were closer to the Watkins Glen/Hector/Lodi areas we frequent so we could include it on every trip. We got a later start than planned thanks to our impromptu hike in Sackets Harbor so we passed up Good Shepherd Brewing Company, just a few blocks away. Next time.
We walked a few blocks north to the Thirsty Pug Craft Beer Market, located in the Genesee Mall. The mission statement on their website reads:
Here at the Thirsty Pug, beer is our passion. We carry only the best craft beer available and promise you’ll always leave with a great product. Our constantly growing and rotating inventory ensures a fresh and diverse selection. Our knowledgeable staff is happy to assist you with beer selection, food pairings and even designing your own beer tastings at home! Come explore the complex, diverse world of beer and experience the Thirsty Pug advantage.
They couldn’t have chosen truer words to run their business by. I’ve no idea if the guy working was the owner or just an employee but he was ecstatic to be talking beer with some locals when we walked in and shifted the conversation to us when they left. Thirsty Pug has a killer selection and I bought much more than I’d intended, with a great mix of styles from all over the world and from several breweries I’d never heard of. Everything is neatly organized by style and most are available to buy in singles. They have a few draft beers as well, and I enjoyed a Liquid Crystal hoppy farmhouse ale from Brooklyn’s Grimm Artisinal Ales while Jared poked around the rest of the mall.
Another year, another round of first rate establishments discovered in our small corner of the world. As if the gentleman at Thirsty Pug wasn’t helpful enough, he may have given us a few ideas for next year.