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Photos and text by Maureen Littlejohn
Walking the streets of Syracuse’s historic downtown, I felt as if a Model T or two could come barreling around the corner at any time. Landmark Victorian architecture commanded my eyes, while Underground Railroad stops and Erie Canal markers pointed to a rich history of progress and galvanizing social change. In the midst of all this homage to the past I spied the glorious rock of the community, the Marriott Syracuse Downtown, once simply known as the Hotel Syracuse. She was built in 1924 and after years of neglect, her doors closed in 2004. I was in town for her comeback.
Smack dab in the centre of historic downtown, Hotel Syracuse hosted Presidents Kennedy and Eisenhower, Elvis Presley, the Rolling Stones and John Lennon and Yoko Ono probably due to its close proximity to the multi-purpose Oncenter War Memorial Arena. Strolling around the neighbourhood, I noticed she was close to the opulent, guilt-age Landmark Theatre which must have been handy for her early celebrity guests. A few more blocks and I came to Armory Plaza, an entertainment district chock-a-block with boutiques, restaurants and bars. It was quiet when I was there, but a boutique owner told me it was usually packed after Syracuse University Orange games (alma mater of Dick Clark, Vanessa Williams, Joe Biden and Lou Reed).
George B. Post & Sons originally designed Hotel Syracuse with 600 compact guest rooms. The general manager informed me there were now a spacious 261. Gazing around the grand lobby, with its towering white columns, potted plants, plush carpets and glorious carved and painted ceiling I could picture F. Scott Fitzgerald surveying the scene from one of the overstuffed armchairs. After all, he did live briefly in the city as a boy.
Meeting with the hotel’s new owner Ed Riley, an Syracuse-born architect, I was amazed to hear how he lovingly restored as much original detail as possible. “We replaced the exterior’s crumbling, 3,000 lb. gargoyles with lighter fiberglass versions that are true to the original design,” he explained. The magnificent, 1940s-era mural behind the front desk had been boarded over by previous owners, but was now uncovered and on display for guests. Hotel furnishings had been ordered from Stickley Furniture, a local company that provided the originals in 1924.
Dining at the hotel’s restaurant 11 Waters, helmed by Chef Thomas Kieran, I was pleased to sample much locally produced fare. Kieran told me he fiercely embraces the Pride of New York State philosophy and serves at least one state-produced item each day. “The area used to provide 90 per cent of America’s salt,” Kieran said. That’s why ‘Salt Potatoes’ (fingerlings cooked in salt water) was a menu staple. Another favorite of mine was the Utica greens (hot peppers, sautéed greens, cheese and breadcrumbs), washed down with a nice glass of Finger Lakes wine.
On a downtown walking tour with history buff Michael Hagerty, whose family owns the inviting Irish pub Kitty Hoyne’s, I marvelled at the Erie Canal Museum which is lodged in the only remaining canal boat weigh station in America. “The Erie Canal was opened in 1825. It was a 363-mile shipping life-line that connected Albany, NY, to Buffalo and the Great Lakes. Goods would be shipped from the Great Lakes, along the canal and then down the Hudson River to New York City or the other way around. It reduced shipping costs and opened up trade between the Midwest and Northeast,” Michael explained. Considered one of the most important works of civil engineering and construction in North America, it’s glory days were numbered once trains and automobiles were introduced.
While in Syracuse I had to drop into Destiny USA, the state’s biggest mall at 2.4 million sq. ft. (the 6th largest shopping/entertainment destination in the U.S.). Shopping isn’t the only thing going on there. Exploring, I came across indoor go-kart racing, laser-tag, the World of Beer with more than 50 beers on tap, and the world’s largest indoor suspended rope climbing course. Yikes. While enjoying a restorative ale at World of Beer, I also learned the mall was the world’s largest LEED Gold certified retail commercial building, and receives 26 million visitors a year.
After wearing myself out with retail therapy, I craved some revitalization time in nature. Clark Reservation State Park, a 15-minute drive from downtown, was a good choice. Reading the park’s welcome panel, I learned that it was a geologic wonder from the last ice age. Rugged cliffs and rocky outcrops surrounded a wetland and a glacial plunge basin lake. The surface waters (warmish) did not mix with the frigid bottom waters. Surprisingly, it was home to a number of species of fish including pickerel, bullheads and sunfish. I didn’t get close enough to see any aquatic life, but I did glimpse some cedar waxwings, and kingfishers. The insistent hammering of woodpeckers accompanied me as I wandered along Cliff Trail, 175 feet above the water. At the Nature Center, open May-Labour Day, all my questions about the area’s flora and fauna were answered.
Next on my agenda was Beak & Skiff Orchards, voted Best Apple Orchard in the Country by the readers of USA Today. Picture perfect with red barns, white trim, bakery, gift shop, pony rides for the kids, this well-oiled operation also featured the 1911 Spirits tasting room. I tasted soft cider, hard cider as well as clear vodka and gin made from apples. Who knew apples could be the base for these spirits? My big takeaway was learning the difference between the vodka and gin. “Gin has flavoring, usually juniper and a bit of coriander, otherwise it’s the same. We’re the only place in the country to produce gin from twice distilled apples,” Danielle Fleckenstein explained. Helming the tasting room that day, Danielle said it was a 5th generation family business and that the orchard had a mind-boggling 350,000 apple trees. Definitely a “Tree to Bottle” setup.
About a half-hour’s drive away from the orchard, I came upon Skaneateles (pronounced “Skinny-Atlas”), an adorable jewel of a town. Known as the Eastern Gateway to the Finger Lakes, it is located on the north shore of Skaneateles Lake (which means long lake in the Iroquois language). Crystal clear, the lake is one of the cleanest bodies of water in the world and is the source of Syracuse’s drinking water.
Poking my head into the many boutiques, a friendly store owner informed me that the historic downtown dates back to 1796. One showpiece building was the Sherwood Inn, built as stagecoach stop in 1807. Meticulously restored, the inn allows visitors to check out unoccupied rooms. Peeking through open doors, I saw a handful of lovely accommodations with gas fireplaces and antique furniture sitting on slanting, pegged wooden floors.
Anyela’s Vineyard, owned and operated by Jim Nocek and his wife Patty, was my last countryside stop. “I’m a nutritional physiologist-turned winemaker,” Jim explained. A scientist at heart, he showed me how he protects his vines from the cold after the fall harvest by carefully removing them from the trellises. “We bury them in the earth to insulate the sensitive primary buds which become the fruit,” he explained. He planted the vineyard’s vines in 2001 and the first bottle was sold in 2008. In 2015 they opened another tasting room in the cellar where wine barrels were once stored “Summer is a wonderful time to visit us. We host music concerts in the Robinson Pavilion, an outdoor amphitheatre that was completed last year,” Jim said. Good to know for next time.
Back in Syracuse, I wrapped up my stay with a meal at Dinosaur Bar-B-Que, voted best BBQ in the nation by Good Morning America. This location was where the chain started and clippings on the wall made it clear that champion eaters like to frequent the place. The Travel Channel’s Man vs. Food host Adam Richman tucked into a Pork-Sket Platter (brisket, pickled jalapenos, pulled pork, melted cheese and coleslaw) and The Food Network’s The Best Thing I Ever Ate host Adam Gertler chowed down on a half-chicken dinner. Not to be outdone, I had brisket and wings with macaroni salad and tomato/cucumber salad. Clutching my full belly, I had to shake my head when the waitress offered me dessert.
Checking out their website, I discovered that Dinosaur Bar-B-Que began in 1983 as a mobile concession stand with a 55-gallon drum cut in half. It was operated by three friends to attract attendees of the Harley Rendezvous massive bike gathering near Albany, NY. For five years they served bikers at various motorcycle shows, fairs and festivals. In 1988 they settled in downtown Syracuse and two years later the restaurant had tripled in size and seven more locations opened in the Northeast – Rochester, Harlem, Troy, Newark, Stamford, Brooklyn and Buffalo. Warm, authentic and delicious, the food and rustic ambience at Dinosaur Bar-B-Que made it a winner in my books, as well.
Even though Syracuse is only a four-hour drive from Toronto, I had never visited before. The city is a little off most people’s radar. But it shouldn’t be. On this trip I learned a lesson. It is worth the drive.