Sunday, 17 February 2019

Day 162 - Centralia, Sheetz & Roadside America, PA

During our research for this road trip, we have tried to find some quirky and unusual things to see, not just the normal tourist traps. Ghost towns and abandoned areas are a particular favourite of mine but the logistics of the trip meant that we haven't managed to take in as many of these as I would have liked.

Today we were going to right that wrong with a trip to Centralia. Centralia sits in a coal-rich area of Pennsylvania and this caused its population to swell to about 2,700 in the 1890s. Ironically, the coal seams in the area not only gave the town its heyday, but also its downfall.

In 1962, a deliberate burn of a trash heap unexpectedly ignited one of the coal seams. Several attempts and proposed attempts were made to extinguish the underground fire, but none were successful. The fire was simply left to burn.

Centralia gained national interest in 1981 when a 12-year-old resident fell into a sink hole that suddenly opened up in his back yard. Luckily he was dragged out of the hole, but this triggered the beginning of the end for the town. Residents were bitterly divided as to whether to stay or leave, but government buyouts of the properties and land resulted in the population dwindling to just 7 as of 2013.

One of the cool things I wanted to see was a section of PA Route 61. After several attempts to repair the damage caused as a result of the fire, it was officially condemned in 1994 and has since been dubbed "Graffiti Highway" due to the vast amount of graffiti that has been daubed upon it.

I had done quite a bit of research on visiting the condemned section of the highway, and read conflicting views on the legality of doing so. However, we had made the journey here and the walking route we took onto the highway had no visible signs telling you not to, so we went ahead. There were a few other people wandering up and down. No-one seemed to be doing anything bad - just taking a few photos and soaking up the eeriness of the surroundings, just like us.

I didn't want to hang around too long, however, so we quickly made our way back to Fin and had a drive down what used to be the main street through the town. We saw intersections and plots where we could imagine houses, shops and businesses once standing, but nature was slowly reclaiming the land. I was so glad we made the trip here and ventured onto the closed highway. We didn't see any smoke from the fire, but estimates suggest it will continue to burn away underground for another 250 years!

We were soon getting peckish, and stumbled across a recommendation we had been given by my boss Wyndham about a year earlier. Sheetz is a chain of convenience store/fast food restaurant/gas station combos that can be found all over the central-east area of the US. Given that we needed both gas and food, this seemed like too good an opportunity to pass up. After filling Fin, we headed over to the touchscreens to order some fast food. Despite Sam's not looking that appetizing, the food was tasty.

Tummies and tanks filled, we headed to our next Pennsylvania attraction - Roadside America. Built in 1953, this is the "World's Greatest Indoor Miniature Village and Railroad" so a visit was a no-brainer really. Arriving at the venue we were worried it was closed, as the car park was virtually empty. Venturing inside, the staff were delighted to see us and chuffed that a couple from the UK had made a special effort to see their attraction.

It was pretty impressive, as you will see from the video. We were also given a little treasure hunt whereby we had to find the 13 Halloween characters (such as Jason from Friday the 13th, Count Dracula and Pinhead) that had been hidden in the scenes. I think we got all but one. It was a lot of fun actually, and seeing daytime turn into night when all the streetlights came on, and then back into dawn, was pretty cool.

We had done a fair bit of driving today, so decided to head back to the hotel in Hershey for a bit of a freshen up, and then into town for some food. Options were a little bit limited, but we decided to head for an Italian that had been recommended - Fenicci's. Being an Italian meant there was only really one choice on the menu for me... check out the video to see what I went for :)

Saturday, 16 February 2019

Day 161 - Rocks State Park, MD & Hershey Chocolate World & Tröegs Independent Brewing, PA

We started the day with a stop off at Rocks State Park which we had read about before the trip and were interested in seeing the 855 acres of 'rocky forest land nestled in rural countryside'.

As we drove into the park, we started to wonder whether our research had failed us as there wasn't a single rock in sight! We stopped off at one of the picnic areas for a quick wee break and to try to find a map to work out where all these rocks were.

After consulting a map, we decided to head to a feature called King and Queen Seat which looked to be the most visited area of the park.

We pulled up into the car park and walked down a short path which opened out into an overlook surrounded by impressive rock formations. 190 feet below was Deer Creek and the rocks called King and Queen Seat rises up above the creek. We saw equipment from a couple of climbers who must have been taking on the challenge of scaling this huge rock formation, something I would not consider even on a good day, let alone a cold and wet one.

Lee of course had great fun scaring me by walking to the edge of the rocks, hands in pockets with not a care in the world, whilst I stood as far away from the rocks as I could, wishing he would just hurry up and hoping he didn't trip! (Lee later confided in me that he was secretly pooing his pants as he neared the edge!)

There are quite a few trails in the park and on a drier and warmer day, taking one of these down to the valley floor and back up again would be a cool challenge to do but today we decided we needed warming up with the heated seats and a hot coffee instead.

The location of the park was very rural and unless you were either a local or had planned a visit for the day, I don't think you would stumble across it. We headed back on the road and headed towards Hershey. The drive took us through some beautiful countryside in Maryland and past a number of small and quaint little towns, each seeming to have a little quirky attraction to look at as we passed by.

We eventually hit the main roads and headed towards our next destination, Hershey's Chocolate World.

I was never a big fan of Hershey's chocolate until this trip but I am a huge fan of peanut better and after discovering Reese's Chocolates, I am now a full-on addict!

Entrance to Hershey's Chocolate World is free but this only gets you access to the huge gift store, the restaurant area and a free ride on the Hershey's Chocolate Tour. You then have to pay for tickets to the other attractions. We decided to buy a ticket for the Historic Hershey Trolley Tour.

Hershey's Chocolate Tour was a lot of fun. Entrance to the ride takes you through a maze of rooms explaining the history of Hershey and how chocolate is made. I expect on a busy day, this is to distract you from waiting in the queues but it was 2pm on a Sunday when we visited and we went straight through this area to the start of the ride. We then jumped into a Hershey's Kisses car which took us on a 'factory tour'. I was a little disappointed at first that it wasn't a proper factory tour, it was a child's amusement ride through a fake factory explaining the process for making Hershey's different products with talking cows, singing chocolate bars and clever lighting and animation but it was a huge amount of fun. At the end of the ride, we all received a sample chocolate. I would have loved to do a real factory tour but I don't think one exists for Hershey, I will have to wait until we get home and then try to persuade Lee to take me to Cadbury's.

We jumped on board the trolley for the Historic Hershey tour and was greeted by our driver (who was struggling to walk so I was little nervous about him being in charge of this old fashioned trolley) and our tour guide, a young local guy who was a Mennonite like Milton Hershey.

We learnt a lot on the tour about Mennonites, the life of Milton Hershey and what happened to the company after his death. Following this tour, we both have a lot of respect for the Hershey company. Milton Hershey and his wife were unable to have children so instead they decided to help others by establishing the Hershey Industrial School. In 1918, Hershey transferred the majority of his assets, including control of the company, to the Milton Hershey School Trust fund, to benefit the Industrial School.

Today, the school is called the Milton Hershey School and it is a majority shareholder in The Hershey Company and sole private owner of Hershey Entertainment and Resorts Company. The profits are used to fully fund the schooling of 2,000 students per year in the school as well providing investment in local services such as the local hospital, theatre and museum.

The tour took us all around Hershey explaining the history and along the way, we were treated to different Hershey chocolates. We finished the tour back at Chocolate World and were given a Hershey's chocolate bar each and were asked that before we eat it, we read the writing on the back. It said:

"Every Hershey product you've enjoyed has helped support children in need through Milton Hershey School. Thank you for making a difference!"

This message is on every Hershey chocolate bar (we did check a few back in the gift shop) and we'd never noticed it before.

Before leaving the trolley, there was one question I needed answering. Why were there so many KitKats in the gift store?! Surely this is a Nestlé product. Our tour guide explained....

KitKat was originally created by Rowntree, a UK company who expanded to Europe but didn't have a presence in the US. They signed a contract with Hershey allowing them to produce and distribute KitKats in the US.

When Nestlé acquired KitKat through the purchase of Rowntree, they had to honour the contract with Hershey and the contract doesn't have an end date. Hershey can continue to produce and distribute KitKat bars until the company is sold to another company. 

KitKats are one of the biggest selling chocolate bars for Hershey but due to the agreement they have in place with Nestlé, they are not allowed to introduce any new variations (such as peanut butter flavoured or KitKat chunky like we have in the UK). 

Another mystery solved by Project MERTA!

Our hotel in Hershey was the Marriott Fairfield Inn, a basic hotel but it had a gym, swimming pool, free hot breakfast, free fast wifi and lovely clean modern rooms. We were upgraded to a suite thanks to my Platinum status and for one of the first times on this trip, it was great to know that we were going to enjoy the upgrade for more than just one night.


We headed out for dinner, to Tröegs Brewery, an independent brewery owned by two brothers Chris and John Trogner. As well as being a working brewery, the building is also a bar and restaurant selling their own great beer and high quality fantastic tasting food. We of course had to try a good number of their beers in a tasting before both choosing the one we liked best to have with our food.

After eating and drinking all we could, we walked around the brewery itself on a free self guided tour. We were able to see all the different stages of the beer making in action, see the working lab were new ideas and recipes were developed and learn the story of how Chris and John went from backyard beer making to an award winning major brewery company.

Sunday, 3 February 2019

Day 160 (Part 2) - Baltimore, MD

We left Washington and thankfully it was a weekend and the sun was shining so the traffic wasn't as bad as our journey in.

We were headed just an hour and a half North East to the city of Baltimore. It was a relatively simple drive along the Baltimore-Washington Parkway and before we knew it, we had arrived.

We checked into our hotel where we were welcomed by a couple of bottles of local beers and a Sangria, before heading out to explore. 

There have been so many underestimated places on the east coast, probably because this is an area we just hadn't experienced as much as the West coast in our previous trips of America. Baltimore immediately added itself to this list. We had only planned a day here, mainly because we are now short on time and need to get back to Miami for our flight home before the visa expires but also because we had read that Baltimore had a number of dodgy areas in and around the tourist areas and we thought spending too much time here might lead to us accidentally finding ourselves somewhere we shouldn't be. 

We were staying in Inner Harbor as our research said this was the main tourist area where you can walk or grab a water taxi to the key sites. From out hotel, we walked across the road to the water's edge where there was the 7-mile brick Waterfront Promenade. 

Here we saw the USS Constellation, the last all-sail war ship built by the U.S. Navy and the only Civil War-era vessel still afloat. 

Part way along the the Promenade, we came to the Baltimore World Trade Center which is also the World's tallest regular pentagonal building. 

Outside the Trade Center building was a memorial to the victims of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, dedicated 10 years after the attacks. The memorial includes three 22-foot long steel beams from the New York World Trade Center, which were part of the 94th to 96th floors of the north tower. These had been fused together and placed alongside damaged limestone pieces from the Pentagon’s west wall. 

We bought a ticket to head up to the 27th floor of the World Trade Center, called "Top of the World", to see the 360-degree panoramic view of the city. The view was awesome and we enjoyed trying to spot the different buildings from the map at each window. 

Unlike other "Top of the World" experiences we have had in the past in skyscrapers, there was more than the view here. We learnt about the history of Baltimore from different information stations around the floor and from fun interactive games. But there was also a more sobering side, with a museum for the victims of the September 11th terrorist attacks, including a detailed timeline of what happened when, artifacts from the twin towers and Pentagon, an exhibit dedicated to the passengers of Flight 93, details of all the 68 Marylanders who lost their lives that day and on the windows of the building, the names of every victim from the attack. This memorial was on par with the one we had seen in Oklahoma. It was a place that made you stop, think and remember. 

We headed out of the Trade Center after about an hour and continued our walk along the Waterfront Promenade. 

The water taxis in Baltimore are not as regular as you are led to believe. We thought they would be like buses, arriving regularly throughout the day at their stops along the harbour. We found that they only picked up from stops every couple of hours and the times were variable, maybe we were just in the off season with a limited service. We planned to reach one of the water taxi stops in time to catch it over to Fell's Point and after a short 10 minute wait, a water taxi docked and we boarded. 

The water taxi was cheap at only $9 per person for a one way trip and allowed us to rest our tired feet and enjoy the sites of Baltimore from the water. 

Established around the mid 1700's, we had wanted to visit Fell's Point to learn about the historic waterfront community which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and was known for its shipbuilding, pirates and mass immigration. But it wasn't just the culture that had driven us here, we'd also been told that this area had the greatest concentration of bars in the whole of Baltimore, 120 in this one area!

As we pulled into the Fell's Point dock, we noticed that something was going on. It was packed full of people and stalls. Our planned quiet stroll along the cobblestoned streets learning about the history whilst popping into a bar or two for refreshment was thrown out into the water the moment we stepped off the water taxi. You could barely walk due to the number of people who were packed between stalls selling local food, crafts and produce. There were several stages outside with musicians and every bar looked packed inside and out.

We later found out that the festival was actually the Fell's Point Fun Festival, initially set up in 1966 to raise funds and awareness against a freeway that was planned to run straight through the neighborhood. There was no freeway but the festival continues every October and apparently is attended by over 700,000 people.

We walked through the festival looking at the stalls before finally finding a bar at one end of the main street which quieter than the others so we could have a rest stop. 

Refuelled, we headed back into the madness to explore some more of the stalls and to find some food.

We were told by a local (we'd met in the previous bar) that we couldn't visit Baltimore without trying a crab cake. "You ain't had a crab cake until you'd had a Baltimore crab cake". So we headed to the stall selling not just Baltimore's greatest crab cake but the World's!

Served in a bread bun, it really was the best crab cake I've ever tasted and eating it in the middle of a Festival listening to music and watching all the drunk people around us, probably just made it taste even better (if that's even possible for a World's greatest).

Right next door to the crab cake stand, was one of the biggest BBQ's I've ever seen filled with huge chunks of meat. The smell was amazing but unfortunately we were both far too fall to squeeze anything else down. Americans know how to do street food well!

We continued to do a bit more exploring both of the festival, the local sites and of course, some of the 120 bars. With a huge concentration of bars in one area, it was great to see how each bar had found a uniqueness. One of our favourites was Max's who asides from having loads of different beers on tap and in bottles, was covered in memorabilia and antiques. 

The party went into the night but it reached a point for us when the streets turned from festival into drunken night out and the bars went from chilled Sunday afternoon drinks to late night clubbing. We decided it was time to head back to our hotel. We booked an Uber, grabbed a cookie from Insomnia Cookies (which does awesome cookies throughout the day and night) and headed back to our hotel in Inner Harbor.  

Whilst I think we underestimated Baltimore and need to return here one day to give it the proper time it needs to explore, it wasn't until we were chatting to the Uber driver on the way home that we really understood the reviews we'd read about the safety of this city. Like any city, you have to be careful where you go and what you do. We tend to stick to the tourist areas which generally are safer. Most cities have good areas and bad areas but the difference with Baltimore is that those areas can be blocks next to each other rather than whole neighborhoods or districts. 

Unless you are a local, you might walk down a perfectly safe street into a less safe street without even realising it. We noticed this in our Uber home where we went from an upmarket street straight into a street containing a lot of homelessness and poverty before hitting another street which again, looked safe. Our advise to anyone visit Baltimore is to stick to Inner Harbor (the main tourist area), research how to get to places outside Inner Harbor that you want to visit (are they safe to walk, is there a water taxi or should you Uber) and if travelling at night, always take an Uber.