Sunday, October 28, 2012

Stop the CT drive-by

No doubt, New England has a lot to offer. Vermont has its mountains (green); New Hampshire has its mountains (white); Maine is Vacationland or the Way Life Should Be or whatever moniker they’ve assumed this week; Lil’ Rhodey packs a punch in a small package with beaches and mansions; and Massachusetts plays the field from Boston to the Berkshires.

Then there’s Connecticut. I’ll be honest, they sometimes get a bad rap in the eyes of other New Englanders.

When not stopping at the state’s two popular casinos, other New Englanders see not much more of CT than the green line on their GPS. It is the meatiest portion en route from Boston to New York and points south; New England’s southwestern, shortcut connector. Think I’m exaggerating? Even the name says so (go ahead, look). Sure the rolling hills are nice, but route 84 or route 91, it doesn’t matter, it’s still a highway. Connecticut is part of the journey, not the destination. 

Connecticut lies there in limbo, perceived as the least convivial of the New England states due to ambiguous sports affiliations and commuter preferences. There are those in the Portland/Boston/Providence corridor willing to relinquish the boxy state to New York, giving full domain to the Yankees, Jets and Giants. Part of the state cheers against the Sox and Pats anyway, why not let them embrace their Tri-State roots? NYC can have the Nutmeg State (nutmeg, really? You nicknamed your state after shaved tree bark excessively used by television chefs?).

On Atlantic Coast road trips, drivers commonly and rightfully plan routes with New York City in mind. But going north, when you exhale after escaping Manhattan, the common phrase is then, “ugh, we still have a few hours through Connecticut.” If you don’t think of this as that bad, compare it to the southbound equivalent: “ugh, we still have a few hours through New Jersey.”

As a Massachusetts native, I have plenty to brag about. Whatever you think of my state, there’s no doubt you’ll ever be bored there or just zip through without opportunity to enjoy something that represents us. But it seems that whenever someone mentions pausing to look around CT, it’s because of family, gambling or a pizza place featured in a bad 80s movie. 

But we have it all wrong.

I am here to defend my many friends from Connecticut. After all, they’re exceptionally wonderful people and someone needs to throw them a bone.

There is much more to Connecticut than I will even hint about here. I only spent about 36 hours within its boundaries. But the realization I had was much more powerful than the actual scenery, which was surprisingly beautiful. The Nutmeg State has some wonderful treasures and deserves a closer look.

We must end the CT drive-by!

Ironically, my stomach is actually what opened up the door to Nutmeg State’s brave new world. And as much as I criticize their schizophrenic regional affiliation, I came to realize Connecticut’s beauty lies in how it represents the best of what the Northeast has to offer. 

Off of Route 84 in a town called Vernon is Rein’s Deli, a traditional New York style deli serving massive triple-deckers, Reubens and rye. They start you with a bowl of pickles instead of a basket of bread – naturally. My pastrami, corned beef and swiss was stacked high with quality meat and a welcomed amount of cheese. It was what a deli sandwich should be, something rarely found outside of New York City. The campy, touristy feel of the large restaurant actually felt right for its location; what a NY deli would be, if they had the space.

To wash it all down – albeit a couple hours later – City Steam Brewery in downtown Hartford was reminiscent of the microbreweries scattered across Vermont, Massachusetts and Maine. Like Shipyard or Boston Beerworks, City Steam offers pub food as an aside to its fermented main attraction. With a live band strumming away in the corner, we snatched a spot at the bar and soaked in the scene, complete with rowdy revelers and giant metallic brewing equipment.

I indulged in the seasonal brew, an Oktoberfest that rivaled many of the more well-known iterations of its kind. The Naughty Nurse Amber finished smooth, fruity, spicy and hoppy all at the same time. It was a complex and tasty beer, no question as to why it’s their bestseller.

But the most amazing amber color I saw was not in a glass. I set out in the morning on a drive through suburbia, determined for discovery. The morning was hiding behind a thing veil of fog. As it lifted along the back roads of towns like Farmington and Avon, Connecticut exploded in an autumnal rainbow the likes of which I had never seen.

Not in the Green or White Mountains, the Berkshires or lakes of Maine had I ever seen fall foliage as beautiful and vibrant as the foliage revealed in rural Connecticut. Bright oranges, reds, yellows, purples flowed past my car as I zipped by farmland and golf courses. Looking out over the hills, the copper-colored blanket rippled to the horizon, dappled with greens and yellows.

Hints of New York and the other New England states converge into Connecticut's own unique amalgamation. The state merits a closer look, one that will be familiar to many visitors one way or another. Make Connecticut a destination and not just part of the journey. Stop the CT drive-by. Instead, stop and look around. 

You’ll be glad you did. Food, beer and beauty –what else do you need?

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Just Jump!

Hiking Maryland’s Catoctin Mountain

Standing at the edge of Chimney Rock, high above the emerald-green swoops and rises of Maryland's Catoctin Mountain National Park, the only thought scrolling through my mind was, "jump!"

Lush, hardwood forest raced in every direction. The deep green waves rolled toward the horizon and were pockmarked only by a few aerie outcrops similar to the one on which I currently stood. Atop this crag, one of many located in this small grouping of mountains that make up a sort of Appalachian range offspring in northwestern Maryland, the sun shone in a clear blue sky and the land fed my eyes with overwhelming generosity.

But despite the extraordinary view, that nagging feeling just wouldn't go away. It was that familiar, strange lurch you get in your stomach on the timorous approach toward a sheer drop. You know the feeling; we all get it. It is simultaneously thrilling and terrifying. You get it on bridges, tall building balconies, and double black diamond trails. And mountain tops, of course. At a base level, it is far from masochistic. In fact, it is more pride than suicide; an internal jab that taunts Death, “nah nah, nah nah you can’t get me.”

Still, at Chimney Rock, I really wanted to jump.

Immediately in front of me a crevasse carved down into the mountain range. It was shallow enough to see the forest floor but deep enough to end the life of some poor soul with an unfortunate foothold.

The masochistic pride slid over into foolish courage, I took a half step backward, inhaled and lunged forward in oblivion.

Before I could close my eyes, my left foot touched solid ground. The right foot immediately after. I steadied myself and glanced over my shoulder. What was a gorge three seconds before, was now just a two and a half foot crack. Granted, a crack that plunged 30 or more feet to the jagged mountain slope below. But hindsight is a great confidence booster.

Over on the side where I started was where the hiking trail emptied out onto a grouping of terraced rocks that clung to the mainland mountainside. They stepped down towards the crack, like a natural, uneven staircase. There were stunning views of the mountain range but I knew the full effect was waiting atop the rocky island rising high above the forest floor.

To be fair, especially to the teenager nearby who was jumping airily from one side to the other and scampering over the cliff edges like a caffeinated, daredevil squirrel, I had taken the easy way over. I lunged over the crack onto a wide-open platform walled by a six-foot high ledge, marred with handholds for easy grasping. But further up where the crack was a little smaller, was a deep scar that shot down the side of the island. Braver folks than I – and by braver I mean dumber and by folks I mean the teenager – had reached across, gripped the inside of the crack, pulled their body over the gap and wedged up the scar.

Good for him. I was over too and I didn’t need the blind invincibility of youth to get there.

Despite my pride and sense of accomplishment at taking a giant step over a moderately scary hole, I was only on the first tier of Chimney Rock. So I gripped the ledge and hoisted myself up to the top of the island.

I got my foothold on the reddish-pink rock and when I rose, opened my eyes to an unrivaled panorama.

The world fell away from every side of my rocky pillar, collapsing into emerald hues that swept off undulating to the horizon.

I crept out to the furthest point and looked down at the top of a tree. Prudence bade me sit.

Coupled with a blue sky and sunshine, the spot reminded me of the great mountains far west of there in places like Yosemite or Colorado. Smaller, of course, without that sweeping grandeur, and yet a whole lot more attainable. Catoctin’s size is an asset; it’s location a pleasant surprise.

Earlier, the hike up was somewhat taxing, uphill with a fair amount of switchbacks. But it was quick, well maintained and not crowded. The National Park Service website claims it is the most strenuous hike in the park due to the steepness, but I’d mark it as an overall moderate 3. 8 mile roundtrip loop. A few different trailheads start from various locales, making Chimney Rock a manageable two hour hike to its peak elevation of 1419 feet.

I had started on the Wolf Rock / Chimney Rock Loop from the Catoctin Visitors Center. From there, it was 1.8 miles up to Wolf Rock, the lesser attraction along this woodland carnival route. A half mile later, the trail dumped out at Chimney Rock. 

Many visitors to Baltimore or Washington, D.C. rarely venture far from the Inner Harbor or National Mall. But this upper corner of Maryland was offering more stunning sights than either city.

And history, of course, is not far from anywhere in this region. As I sat on my perch, I began to wonder if I might catch a glimpse of the Leader of the Free World. Camp David, the Presidential retreat, is located in Catoctin Mountain National Park. The location of high-powered secret meetings, peace accords and tales around the campfire with world leaders was somewhere below me, hidden in the labyrinth of trees that crawled up hillsides and down into valleys. Who knows, maybe Obama, Putin and Netanyahu were roasting marshmallows and singing Kumbaya?

International politics aside, there really is nothing like clean air and a mountain top view to erase your mind to the point of ease. For a few blissful minutes, I sat atop Chimney Rock thinking of nothing. No feelings but a warm draft caressing the edge of the outcrop.

The calm was broke by an enormous bird that launched up from the trees countless miles away. It caught an updraft and soared to the clouds, which, for me, seemed just barely out of reach. It was too far away for me to tell what kind of bird it was.

Nevertheless, I was a bit envious while I watched him fly. In a few moments, I could use a pair of wings. That terrifying thrill was returning to my stomach. I still had to get back to the other side. But this time, I wasn’t nearly so eager to jump.

 For more on hiking to Chimney Rock in the Catoctin Mountain National Park, go to

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Walking the course - A day on foot in St. Andrews, Scotland

Head over to the official St. Andrews, Scotland tourism website to check out my article about the historic day I spent walking around the seaside town.

Or check out the full text from the I Love St. Andrews website:


12 OCTOBER 2012 
Michael Hartigan
Michael Hartigan is a freelance travel writer from Boston, Massachusetts, USA. From San Francisco to Scotland, he has explored and written about unique people, places and traditions around the world. Michael’s writing has been featured in the Arizona Republic newspaper, Literary Traveler magazine, USA Today and in his monthly travel column published in a series of local Massachusetts newspapers. He believes that you should go wherever it takes, but always come back with a good story. Follow his blog at and on Twitter @WhereverItTakes

I had been walking all day and yet I envied the four people strolling toward me.
There was a husband and wife, their grown son and his grandfather – three generations of one family, chatting and laughing as they sauntered down the low-cropped stretch of grass. One by one, each broke off and headed in a different direction. Then under the gaze of me and a dozen other onlookers, they made their final approach to the 18th green of St. Andrews Old Course.
They converged again near the pin. The son complimented his mother, who was closest to the hole. The grandfather took a turn with each giving his advice on the ball’s lie. Mom knocked hers in and got out of the way. Son and then dad finished up easily as well.
Grandpa went last, more out of deference than out of any time-honored rules of the game. He knocked in his ball with an effortless stroke, to the great applause of the spectators around me up along the terrace rail. He looked up apparently unaware people were watching, a wide smile emerged and he tipped his hat to the crowd.
The grandson scooped the ball out of the hole and placed it in his grandfather’s hand.
“I’m so glad we finally got over here to do this, Grandpa,” he said in his very American voice.
“Me too,” the grandfather said. “Better than I imagined. This was one for the history book.”
The family sauntered off the 18th green, mom and dad arm-in-arm, junior at their side laughing with his grandfather. Their caddies followed at a professional distance, respecting the moment as much for its individual athletic achievement as for its significance to this family.
The American family moved on, already recounting with excitement their unforgettable day on the links and leaving it to the next foursome teeing of in the distance. I envied them, getting to walk the course in the footsteps of golf’s greats. It was easy to see why the experience was so special, when you can add your own bit of history to an iconic world landmark. And how this iconic landmark adds to your own personal history.

But I had spent the previous few hours doing something similar and suddenly I realized that’s the thing about St. Andrews – not just the golf course but also the entire town itself. Here you don’t just walk past history, you step right into it.
A few hours prior, I was on the other side of St. Andrews, a couple miles and a few thousand years away starting my day on foot in this seaside town.
I’m not one to plan a route and if I do it is spotty at best. So I looked at a map and thought I would try to trek in something of a circle; I’d use the natural shape of the town to bring me to its landmarks and back again.
I debated my strategy over breakfast at Mitchell’s Deli on Market Street, one the three main thoroughfares running through the heart of the town. As I sipped a perfectly made cappuccino and fueled up with soft-boiled eggs and “buttered soldiers” (toast strips), I made the decision to stick with my original plan, which was that I had no plan, just a sense of direction. And that had already gotten me to Mitchell’s, so it was working so far.
I knew my next move was heading to the sea. I did not anticipate the wonder at its edge.
In Europe cathedrals are as plentiful as stripes on a tartan. Some are opulent and massive, others the site of major historical happenings. But none can place you in the midst of its time period as well as one with no roof.
The ruins of St. Andrews Cathedral soared into a clear blue sky and I found the reason I came here: to experience Scotland, not just to see it. I knew in Scotland I would be able to walk through and over ruins and castles and churches. But I never expected to have such a vivid reaction to touching stone and walking in the shadow of crumbing walls.

In front of me was the west front entrance, a massive pointed arch that builds upon itself into a series of arches. Above it the left side of the cathedral front was falling away broken, while the right remained stubborn and erect, maintaining the integrity of some of the arches, the height and the swooping mason work that made this building magnificent.
I walked down the path, through the stone portal and into the now open-air nave. The bases of the cathedral’s original columns still sat sturdy in their spot. The stone south wall on the right rose into pointed arch windows.

My mind began to fit the remains with what might have been. I was able to recreate the structure in my mind and because of that, it became more real than just listening to some audio guide or looking in some pamphlet.
I walked down the aisle, now covered in grass, toward the far end where a double-spired wall still reached up like arms to heaven.
The small markers scattered around gave me enough information to piece together why this was the most important church in Scotland.
The accessibility was what helped me place myself literally in spots where history unfolded, more so than in any other historic or religious landmark I had ever seen. To touch and walk amongst the ruins, as opposed to obeying velvet ropes and curators, makes you a part of the place, rather than just a visitor.
I spent over an hour walking through the ruined cathedral, the abbey and the substantial graveyard that is home to some elaborate graves and stonework. The entire site had an eerie, unique beauty that begged reverence.
I found myself wandering through the monastic walls toward the water and within minutes was walking past the small remains of St. Mary’s Chapel. I headed for the breaker wall jutting out into the water, framing East Sands and promising me a different view of St. Andrews.
From the point of the breaker wall I turned to take in the spectacular sight of the cathedral’s crumbing skyline, with the roofs of St. Andrews popping beyond and St. Andrews Caste standing guard castle further up the shoreline.
A few more information signs led me back up to the cliff walk, providing excellent historical information and grounding this whimsical seaside locale in fact. I stopped at a street vendor selling local mussels cooked-to-order in creamy broth from his green cart right along the cliff walk. The waves crashed behind him and I enjoyed the best yet simplest meal I had in Scotland.
Hunger gone, I took my time ambling along the cliff walk, to the castle that stood as a broken stone sentinel above the sea. Before entering I stood on a marker in the road where a man was executed and looked down upon the ruins of the man-made sea pool where the upper class played.
Further along the walk became a road – The Scores – and spread out into the lower campus of St. Andrews University.
Lavish buildings with flowers popping in color dotted the coastline and I stopped once or twice to peek into a garden or investigate a University building. The cathedral and castle had dropped me into a medieval daydream, where bishops and kings struggle for power inside great stone structures by the sea. But this road dragged me forward through time with every step.
I emerged with the golf course on my left, the beach on my right. I continued down to West Sands.
Just like the breaker wall, being out on the beach showed a different angle of the town. Unlike the breaker wall, I enjoyed this view with my toes curled up in the soft sand. It didn’t take much for the iconic movie music associated with the spot to start chiming in my head, especially after a group of school children ran past at top speed.
I made the sensible choice not to drop everything and jog giddily along with them, humming the tune in stride. Don’t think I didn’t want to. Sitting in the sand, munching on some snacks from my backpack was enough for me, though.
Rounding back I exited the sand and followed the walkway along the golf course. After a stop at the clubhouse, I found myself in the middle of the hilly putting greens.
A golf ball skittered down from the grass across my path. I debated stopping it but golf etiquette stayed my foot.
“You could’ve helped me out,” yelled a woman from ten yards away. She was holding her putter like a war club above her head. The man with her was laughing, cautiously.
I smiled and kicked the back onto the grass.
“Yes. Thank you,” she yelled to me, before turning to the man and saying, “see, it was a good shot.”
I skirted along the first hole before arriving without fanfare at the Royal and Ancient Golf Club. Inside the grand building several men sat by the window in their finery, sipping glasses of what I could only assume was expensive liquor. In my hiking boots and t-shirt I felt underdressed just standing outside the window. So I moved along, pausing for a group to tee off on 1.
In the distance I saw a foursome snapping photos on Swilcan Bridge. Next to me several people were lined up along the rail overlooking the last green of the Old Course, awaiting the arrival of the latest group.
The American family foursome came and went. I was left to continue on in one direction or the other. I wanted somehow to share in the joy they had clearly received from golfing in St. Andrews. I thought about walking along the far side of the course and scurrying out between groups for my own photo on the historic Swilcan Bridge.
Then again, I could have headed back into the town and zigzag between the shops and restaurants along the old medieval streets.
It became a difficult decision, like whether to use an iron or a fairway wood.
I looked down at my feet, which were sore from walking all day. But that was no reason to stop. I’d just do both.
It would be a little extra walking, but that was a good thing. As I had seen in St. Andrews, you can make history with every step.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Stunning Scotland: St. Andrews

Take a walk around this seaside town and you'll be strolling through the ages. From the majestic ruins of the seaside St. Andrews Cathedral to the windswept tee boxes of iconic Old Course, a day in St. Andrews, Scotland is bipedal time-travel. And since they never invented those hoverboards and your DeLorean is probably in the shop, the best technological accessory you can have is a camera. Medieval ruins soar into the salty sky and a historic university campus sprawls out along the cliff's edge. Here are some of my favorites from St. Andrews, Scotland.

 The 18th Hole - Old Course

 Last Hole on a cloudy day - Old Course

Castle by the Sea

 West Entrance - St. Andrews Cathedral ruins

 Reaching for Heaven - St. Andrews Cathedral ruins

 Gravestone - St. Andrews Cathedral ruins

 Garden by the Ruins - St. Andrews cliffwalk

 The Royal & Ancient - Golf Club along the Old Course

 St. Andrews Skyline - from seawall at East Sands

West Sands View