Exploration Day: Climbing our country with foreigners

by Sonja Stark on October 13, 2014

Black Mountain

Black Mountain

Call it Columbus Day, Indigenous People’s Day or Exploration Day but despite the mixed legacy of Christopher Columbus, 1492 marked the beginning of trans-Atlantic journeys to the New World for millions. The age of discovery is still alive and well climbing in the Adirondacks on this beautiful holiday weekend.

It’s chief leaf-peeping season in Saratoga County. Brilliant shades of orange, yellow, gold and red dominate the Lake George area. At the summit of Black Mountain, on the east side of the lake, you’ll be greeted by a colorful views stretching in all directions including a ranger’s cabin, fire tower, random antennas and working solar panels.

As timing would have it, we (George, Mutti and little Renee) paired up with a diaspora of political science majors from all over Europe and Asia. Some were out of breath and panting, others had found their hiking rhythm and nearly all neglected to remember hiking sticks or comfortable hiking boots.

What they did bring were items from their home countries. The Czech Republic students proudly unfurled their nation’s flag in the wind. The Brits quenched their thirst with bottles of homegrown hops. And, the Chinese students nearly lost their balance on the cliffs taking countless selfies. Climbing the ‘daks brings out the adventurous spirit of all nationalities.

Black Mountain

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Retracing Roosevelt history in the rain

by Sonja Stark on October 6, 2014

SpringwoodRetracing the Roosevelt history takes time but much of it unfolds in nearby Dutchess County. And, thanks to the Ken Burns’ “The Roosevelts – An Intimate History” documentary that aired on PBS in September, tourism is topping out in Hyde Park. Like millions of others, I too watched (parts of) the popular 14-hour, seven-part series; taking notes of exciting places enjoyed by the greatest president in the history of the United States.

Weekends at the FDR Presidential Library and Museum are bursting at the seams on rainy Saturdays. “Oh, I’m sorry but all of our tours are completely sold out” a park ranger told us, regrettably. Instead, we were welcome to tour the grounds (had we had umbrellas) including the Rose Garden where Franklin and Eleanor are buried, free of charge. We lingered in the glass enclosed lobby of the Visitor and Education Center with just enough memorabilia, including a pictorial floor map in mosaic tile and an orientation film, to feel like we didn’t miss anything.

Wilderstein Mansion, 330 Morton Road, Rhinebeck, NYAfterwards we traveled north to the town of Rhinebeck with a stop at the Wilderstein Estate. As you might recall from the Bill Murray movie Hyde Park on Hudson, the Queen Anne style country house is where FDR’s distant relative, Margaret “Daisy” Suckley was born and lived. Matters of importance today have more to do with preservation than FDR’s romantic confidante. We crashed the tail end of an event commemorating the first phase of restoration of the 1888 Carriage House. The community raised a half-a-million dollars to save the building from collapse. There are breathtaking views of the Hudson from an expansive veranda and tours of the multi-gabled attic and dramatic five story circular tower.

Wilderstein Mansion, 330 Morton Road, Rhinebeck, NY

Wilderstein Mansion, 330 Morton Road, Rhinebeck, NY

Val-Kill Eleanor Roosevelt CottageAnother stop on the Roosevelt retrospective includes a modest stone house Eleanor enjoyed called Val-Kill. It’s the only National Historic Site dedicated to a first lady. Eleanor lived here from 1945, after the president passed, until her own death in 1962. Show your pay stubs from the FDR Library and Museum and the entrance fee is waived.

Albany XXThe Dutchess County Tourism website provides a vast inventory of more Roosevelt landmarks including: Top Cottage, the St. James’ Episcopal Church and the 1.8 mile Roosevelt Farm Lane Trail. There was no time left in our day but we’ll be happy to return.

Tip: Dry off from a retracing the Roosevelt history with a pint or two of Albany Ale XX on tap at the Mill House Brewing Company in Poughkeepsie. Remember, FDR accomplished the greatest feat of them all when he made the executive decision to repeal Prohibition!

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The newest celebrity sighting in Roxbury, NY: a rat!

by Sonja Stark on October 1, 2014

Roxbury RatRoxbury, NY might just be one of the most ‘happening-est’ hamlets in New York state. Narrow county roads leisurely wind through the renowned Catskill mountains traveling down from Albany or up from NYC.

The first time I visited was while shooting a feature story with CBS-affiliate WRGB, reporter Dan DiNicola. Bless his soul, DiNicola discovered a vintage baseball team that played traditional ball like it was played in 1898. We videotaped the “Roxbury Nine” at the beautiful Kirkside park. The boys caught pop flies and grounders with bare hands and only the catcher was allowed to use a poorly-padded mitt.

The second discovery was watching Animal Planet. A popular series called “Tanked” invited the show hosts to a fun and funky motel to install an Egyptian-style aquarium in one of the guest rooms. The Roxbury Motel has been dubbed “cool design,” “whimsical elegance” and “decadently over-the-top” for rooms decorated with a theme inspired by a famous TV series, film or cartoon of the 1960’s or 70’s. Someday, I’d love to spend the night in a suite inspired by Austin Powers: a ‘shagadelic’ yellow-and-orange checked floor, zebra-patterned sofa and metallic table and chairs.

And, yesterday, my third visit in Roxbury, was while shooting an episode of “Unlikely Animal Friends” for Nat Geo at a local farmhouse. A NYC Licensed Wildlife Rehabilitator shared a heart-warming story about his adorable pet rat Olivia. Chris Durham is also a writer, artist and successful actor who divides his time between his city digs of Manhattan and his cozy upstate crash pad. No, he did not purposely befriend a rodent because he missed the subway system. I can’t divulge details until the show airs in early 2015 but be aware of the local connection when you see it.

When we arrived, the double french doors of Durham’s cottage were thrown open revealing a hillside ablaze in the peak colors. A trickling stream ran quietly through the property. It was like the perfect postcard setting for a movie.

Like Durham, other celebrity personalities have also found the peaceful and charming Roxbury close enough from the city to escape to on weekends. Past and present residents include playwright Arthur Miller, actor Walter Matthau, playwright Tom Cole and sculptor Alexander Calder. Actors Alan Cumming and Dustin Hoffman, musical theater composer Stephen Sondheim, soap opera actress Elizabeth Hubbard and, I’m sure, many, many more are current residents. But, unlike them, it’s Olivia, the cheeky rat, that’s the big star due to make her television premiere sometime in January.

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Superstars support the Walkway over the Hudson

by Sonja Stark on September 27, 2014

Fireworks during Starry, Starry Night

The Walkway’s impact on the community has grown immensely since opening in 2009. Last night, the popular tourist destination hosted their annual fundraiser to help build a visitors center for 2015.

In attendance from Ulster and Dutchess counties were 450 long-standing and relatively new supporters of the longest pedestrian bridge in the world.

Martha Stewart and Sonja StarkAppropriately dubbed ‘Starry Starry Night,’ the fundraiser was especially grateful for a surprise visit from one of t.v.’s biggest stars, Martha Stewart. The celebrity author lives in nearby Bedford and attended the event with Dr. Lucy Rockefeller Waletzky, chair of the New York State Council of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation.

My guest didn’t stir the crowd like Martha but birthday girl, Nola Royce, had an equally engaging time.

Crowds gathered at the silent auction tent to bid on popular items while a trio of musicians played jazz favorites. A responsive cuisine staff refilled plates with fresh hors d’oeuvres and topped off vino glasses. Just in time for the High Holidays, savory cuts of brisket were passed out on small plates.

Following presentations honoring Dutchess County Executive Marc Molinaro and Ulster County Executive Michael Hein, the event culminated with a fireworks display from the walkway. The cloudless sky provided a group of local astronomy hobbyists the opportunity to describe constellations to curious guests. Nola and I peeked through a high-powered telescope to admire Perseus.

Plates of miniature banana and chocolate cupcakes awaited us leaving the bridge. We slipped a handful into empty coffee cups for the ride home, half tempted to instead spend the entire night gazing up into the celestial heavens of September.

Starry, Starry Night Event

Starry, Starry Night Event

Starry, Starry Night Event

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Cinching up summer in NYC

by Sonja Stark on September 23, 2014

German-American Steuben Parade 2014

NYC

German-American Steuben Parade, NYC

German-American Steuben Parade, NYC

There’s no denying Autumn is here when you see girls dressed in sexy checkered dirndls and men in leather lederhosen marching up 5th avenue.

This past Saturday marked the 57th year of the German-American Steuben parade celebrating with waves of traditional folk costumes, colorful floats, bands, beer and sauerkraut.

A group of alphorn players stopped briefly in front of the Metropolitan museum to blow their signature Swiss instrument. Precocious students from the Niskayuna High School German Program broke from the traditional teutonic procession jumping for joy all the way from 68th to 86th street.

It was the last day of summer in the city as evidenced seeing the parade, catching Jeter play one of his last home games at Yankee stadium and coming across a wedding in progress amidst the changing colors of Central Park.

NYC

German-American Steuben Parade, NYC

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Hosting Russians is an enlightening opportunity

by Sonja Stark on September 22, 2014

KseniyaFor the last few weeks, I’ve hosted a young, diminutive, digital media journalist from Tula, Russia by the name of Kseniya or ‘Susha’ for short. She just left on Sunday and already I miss her.

Her visit was part of an annual government-sponsored program called Open World that fosters greater understanding between societies by focusing on mutual interests that are non-political in nature.

Locally, our sister-city organization, the Albany-Tula Alliance, has spent nearly 25 years doing the same by encouraging peer-to-peer exchanges with students, educators, business leaders, scientists and civil society organizations.

Susha is the leading editor of Tula’s most popular news website called MYSLO. She was most interested in visiting Capital Region media outlets so a number of outlets: the Times Union, WRGB, Albany Business Review and Overit Media; along with dozens of Tech Valley businesses, took time to entertain the curious editor with facility tours and one-on-one instruction.

Open World at Albany Country Club

Open World Trip 2014

Kseniya Visits WRGB and Saratoga

It’s a legitimate question to ask Susha how others feel about events happening in Russia. Americans, naturally, want to discuss the Ukraine crisis or the annexing of Crimea or President Putin. The ATA wisely steers clear of political affairs but, social, economic and environmental issues are equally important, so, I ask.

Susha, not unlike the professionalism expressed by many educated Russians, knows how to calculate a diplomatic response; no doubt in an effort to prevent trouble with the status quo. Unlike the broad solidarity of most Tulans – 95% support where the country is heading, she admits that she’s not as optimistic.

First of all, a long tradition of state censorship on self-expression (getting more emphatic every day) often leads to reporters being fired and/or misinformation being spread. Second, Russia’s recent embargo on imported Western food is inflating the cost of basic necessities. And, third, growing hate crimes against the LGBT is extremely troubling.

So, why the high percentage of Russian nationalism? It’s complicated but the desire for stability over change seems to appeal to the philosophical core of most. Susha also reminds me of what happened to those who demonstrated in 2012 following allegations that the presidential election was rigged. Thousands were arrested and journalists blackmailed or threatened.

Which brings me to why I host repeatedly every year. Perceptions shape opinions and it’s important to know why others feel the way they do. It’s incredibly interesting to learn about ethical and moral situations that plague other countries. Mindful of the polls, I tread lightly and try to stay as open-minded but still, as someone who values freedom of speech more than life itself, it’s hard not to become a little defensive.

But, beyond the big issues, Susha and I bonded over a love for the Big Bang Theory, Mother Nature (Thatcher Park and Central Park were both highlights) and creative web design. Give her another week here in New York State and I might have had her even enjoying a pint of pumpkin craft beer!

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