Ground-level intelligence on the top restaurants in the country

Everybody loves to publish lists, but few have so much data as OpenTable upon which to draw. So, when that site puts out a list of top spots, it’s definitely worth a look. The latest, “Fit for Foodies,” is the result of 3 million restaurant reviews, which ultimately led to 50 restaurants that are definitely worth your time. Upon quick inspection, I haven’t been to any of them (which probably makes the list even more legit — my palate is disappointingly simple).

What’s pleasantly surprising is that there don’t appear to be many clichés. Rather than go with critic favorites, this list runs down what eaters dig, so if you find yourself in one of the 13 states represented, ditch the guidebook and take a stab at what turns the locals on.

Unsurprisingly, California turned in the greatest presence, with 15 of the spots on the list (30 percent of the total). New York came in with nine (18 percent). After that, it gets interesting. Illinois gives us seven restaurants, Massachusetts and Washington (state) three and Louisiana, Minnesota, Pennsylvania and Texas responsible for two. Georgia, South Carolina and Maine each posted one.

Click here to see who made the top 50 >>

Vintage trains across the U.S. pair autumn days with history

A few hours trip on a vintage train in the fall is a chance to experience American history surrounded by color brilliance. As trains pass along the edges of small towns and waterways, under canopies of leafy branches and across mountainsides, passengers are treated to stories of commerce, adventure and natural history.

With the push west, railroads connected one part of the U.S. with another as people chased after a better life. As the railroad network spread, bustling cities and towns developed in their wake.

Then Americans fell in love with car travel. Once the Interstate highway system developed and the trucking industry expanded, train use dwindled and many tracks were abandoned.

Fortunately, historic passenger trains have remained a passion and portions of historic routes have become hot spots for tourists.

Here are 10 vintage train trips in 10 different states to put on your list of things to do at least once in your life. Each train promises fall foliage and a chance to experience a unique aspect of history. Climb on, sit back and enjoy trees ablaze in their finest. The variety of the train offerings are as varied as the foliage they pass.

Starting from east to west, these vintage trains pass through portions of the varied lanscape of the United States offering glimpses of American history, each with a unique story to tell. Frankly, in this category, how does one pick 10 out of the bounty? Most are in scenic places that I’ve driven through and remember quite fondly. Others I have added to my own ever growing list of a must have experience.

1. Berkshire Scenic Railway–Lenox to Lee or Stockbridge, Massachusetts. Like many vintage train operations, this railway is run by volunteers who are passionate about trains and their history. The Berkshire mountains offers activities that range from the arts to the outdoors. The Norman Rockwell Museum is in Stockbridge, so pair your vintage train trip with the artwork of an American painter whose life embodied a love of the landscape of the human heart. Here’s the link to the train schedule.

2. Winnipesaukee Scenic Railroad–Meredith and Weirs Beach, New Hampshire. A ride on this train takes travelers along the shorelines of Winnipesaukee Lake to Lakeport with views of Belknap Mountain and islands in Paugus Bay. Add to the experience by having dinner on a weekend evening supper train.

3.Catskill Scenic Railroad–Mt. Pleasant and Phoenicia, New York. This train ride along Esopus Creek is a chance for birdwatching and deer spotting. Look for bald eagles, great blue herons and hawks. Ask the conductor to stop at Sleepy Hollow made famous by Washington Irving’s tale of Ichabod Crane’s dash to a bridge with the headless horseman in heart-pounding pursuit.

4. Stourbridge Line Rail Excursions–Honesdale, Pennsylvania. What better place to experience a vintage train ride then where rail travel began? Honesdale is the birthplace of the American railroad. Back in 1829, the first commercial locomotive started down the tracks towards Seelyville three miles away and came back. The Fall Foliage round trip excursion travels through the Poconos to Lackawaxen. Here is another post on Poconos fall foliage viewing.

5. Western Maryland Scenic Railroad–Cumberland, Maryland. On this 32-mile round trip excursion between Cumberland and Frostburg you’ll pass through the stunning vistas of the Alleghenies. It’s possible to connect a train trip with a bike trip on the Great Allegheny Passage trail that connects to the C&O Canal Towpath Trail.

6. Tennessee Valley RailroadChattanooga, Tennessee. How can you not want to get on a train in Chattanooga that heads to a town in Georgia called Chickamauga? This train has a layover at the Chickamauga Military Park, the Civil War battlefield. This railroad has run autumn leaf specials for 42 years.

7. Arkansas and Missouri Railroad–Springdale, Arkansas. Travel through the foothills of the Boston Mountains on a train that refuses to accept “pack mules” and “pet chickens.” The Boston Mountains are an extension of the Ozarks. This company’s trains pass over 100 ft. high tressels and through a 1,702 ft. tunnel.

8.Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railway–Antonito, Colorado and Chama, New Mexico. Constructed in 1880, this railroad, touted as “America’s Longest and Highest Narrow Gauge Railroad” is an historic gem. Fall events also happen through the third weekend of October. The railway’s Web site’s history page has maps that show landmarks you’ll pass by.

9. Mt. Hood Railroad–Hood River, Oregon. Ever since 1906, trains have passed through the Columbia Gorge in the Hood River Valley. This railway also offers special events and reservations are recommended. In October, the Pumpkin Patch Express is the fall related event, although there are several other options as well. Here’s the October schedule.

10. Mt. Rainier Scenic Railroad–Mineral, Washington. The longest continuously operating steam train in the Pacific Northwest, this train passes through Mt. Rainier’s foothills on a two-hour round trip journey. Pair fall foliage with time at Mount Rainier National Park. Like other scenic railroads, this one offers special events through the month.

To find more fall foliage train options, check out Fall Foliage Train Rides at

TSA getting serious about luggage theft – arrests TSA agent stealing from luggage

The Transportation Security Administration is in the news a bit too much with stories of their staff stealing from our luggage.

The problems at JFK airport were so serious, that the TSA and Delta Airlines worked together to try and nab the crooks in action.

It didn’t take long till the sting operation turned up its first victims – TSA worker Brian Burton and baggage handler Antwon Simmons were caught on camera stealing a laptop, an iPod and 2 mobile phones.

The very people who are hired to keep our airlines safe are too crooked to be trusted with our valuables, a very worrying statistic, especially since this is by no means the first time TSA workers have been involved in luggage theft.

These two clowns even tried to hide their handywork by swapping tags on bags, which means the rightful owners would not only lose their stuff, they’d get it delivered days later than scheduled as it would be sent to the wrong airport. In the worst case, their bags may never be recovered.

Words like scum, filth and disgusting pop into my mind when I read about this – but I am happy the TSA is taking matters into their own hands. By regularly organizing these sting operations, their staff might start to think twice about robbing the traveling public.

I’m also concerned that TSA workers are able to leave the airport with our valuables. In any normal retail or manufacturing organization, you can only take home what you came in with. Being able to leave the sterile area of the airport with laptop computers and mobile phones that don’t belong to you should not be possible.

Diamondback Terrapin turtles shut down JFK airport

Well, there go all our anti-terror measures. Forget dangerous bottled water, or nail clippers – all it takes to shut down an airport is a bunch of lost turtles.

Yesterday morning, 78 of them decided to leave the bay and crawl onto an active taxiway. When an American Eagle flight noticed them, they notified the tower and the FAA halted all traffic for about 12 minutes.

It took a crew 35 minutes to gather up all the turtles and give the all clear for flights to resume.

What surprises me the most, is that this is apparently a fairly common thing – jets hit turtles several times a year at JFK. Surely a small fence could prevent the turtles from causing havoc at the airport? It’s one thing to be delayed due to bad weather, but to sit in a plane awaiting a departure slot because of turtles is just insulting.

The halted flights and clean up caused delays of up to an hour and a half, which is a pretty miserable way to start your vacation (if you were so lucky to be heading somewhere nice).

Hotel review – The Hotel On Rivington – New York

The Hotel On Rivington is a New York boutique hotel, right in the middle of the Lower East Side. The hotel is probably one of the easiest to locate in the entire area, because it stands 21 stories tall between the 4-5 story buildings.

The Rivington describes itself as a full-service boutique, and of all the hotels I’ve tried in New York, the Rivington is the one that will be the most memorable. I’ll admit right away that I am not a big fan of boutique hotels, as many of them tend to use the term to justify tiny rooms and snotty attitude. The Rivington proves that smaller boutique hotels can be welcoming, while staying true to their roots.

The building itself is fairly narrow, and Rivington is a pretty busy street, so don’t expect a large open check-in area (or lots of parking space, though Valet service is provided). On the ground floor is their restaurant (THOR) and the check-in desk is on the second floor.
Check-in was quick and efficient and I was quickly on my way to my 9th floor suite. It took me a good 20 seconds to unlock my door, as the hotel issues RFID keys which have to be held up against a small black square on the door. I wish the check-in clerk had mentioned this to me. Since this is a boutique hotel, they keep the hallways nice and dark, which of course does not help in locating the door key tag reader.

Once in my room I was pleasantly surprised by the layout and space available. The room is narrow, but long and consisted of a living space, bathroom and bedroom/work area. The living room has a pretty minimalistic design, but still offers a leather sofa, table and flat screen TV. Floor to ceiling windows let in a lot of light during the day, and provide an awesome view during the night.

The bathroom is equally well designed – some rooms offer a basic shower, while others have an in-room bath tub and steam room. The shower in my room took a little getting used to, as the top portion of the windows are open, and your private parts are only shielded by a frosted pane of glass in the bottom half. Still, it was pretty damn cool to shower at night while looking out over the city. (Apologies for the poor photo).

The bedroom has a (very small) desk and a Tempur-Pedic bed. This room also features floor to ceiling windows, and the bed looks right out over the city. There is something soothing about opening the (remote control) curtains and looking out at the Empire State Building while you drift off.

Along the hallway are closets, one of which hides the minibar and a safe (large enough for a laptop). The minibar is surprisingly well stocked, though not surprisingly, the prices are insane. In the minibar, you’ll find everything from full size bottles of Champagne and Tequila to 3 different “intimacy kits”, though you’d better be pretty damn desperate if you are willing to pay $23 for 3 rubbers and a tiny bottle of lube.

The hotel has very capable WiFi, though you do need a login key (which was provided at check-in). The desk area is far too small to get any real work done, and there was just one open outlet under the desk.

Rooms at the Rivington are not cheap, especially if you want something more than a basic room ($225). Higher rooms or corner suites start around $380/night and go over $650 for a “unique room”. If you need something really insane, you can spend a night (or two) in their 3 level penthouse suite which includes a massive 21st floor patio and hot tub.

The hotel provides in-room breakfast or a free breakfast in their ground floor restaurant. I ordered a room service breakfast which came to $44 with tip and service fee. I ended up eating the breakfast off the large headboard of the bed, since the desk is just too small to hold anything larger than a laptop. The french toast with fresh fruit was delicious, as were the grilled potatoes, but the $4.50 bagel was cold and did not taste fresh.

I had a very enjoyable 2 night stay the Rivington, and have become less judgmental about hip hotels. Sure, I’m still not hip enough for most of them, but I can see the Rivington being the perfect destination for a romantic getaway. The area around the hotel is much cooler than I had expected and the hotel is a real gem. Prices are high, there is no denying that – but this is New York City, and in New York City all hotels are expensive. Even a big brand name hotel near Times Square charges $349 for a basic queen bedroom. At that price, I’d say the Rivington is absolutely worth checking out.