NY's state capital is celebrating the 400th anniversary of Henry Hudson's arrival with refreshed historical sites, attractions and value.
My family and I recently discovered that Albany, New York is a great family vacation destination for a fun and educational getaway. If you are planning a multi-generational family trip, Albany fits the bill well. My 77-year-old father, a life-long New Yorker, came with us and marveled at his home state’s capitol, seeing it for the very first time.
Albany’s vibrant, condensed downtown is pedestrian friendly. It is a well-served transportation hub, making it a good “car optional” trip from many departure points and thus, a good value, too. It has a growing restaurant scene, with an eclectic variety of nearly 70 eateries located downtown. Add a slew of festivals, free exhibits and special activities that are planned to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Henry Hudson’s sail up the Hudson River to the mix, and 2009 shapes up to be a great time to visit.
DUK Tours of the Riverfront
The Albany Heritage Area Visitors Center (518/434-0405) located in historic Quackenbush Square, is a good place to start. Its small planetarium offers frequent screenings of “Albany: A Cultural Crossroads,” that gave us a brief, easy to watch overview of the city’s history. It made the point that Albany’s growth had much to do with its location on the Hudson River which gave Albany easy access to the Atlantic Ocean, so essential to its prosperity.
Just in front of the Visitor’s Center we were able to board the Albany Aqua Ducks Tour (518/462-3825). This amphibious vehicle gave us a good look at the city from dry land, but things got really fun when it transformed into a sea worthy vessel that took us out onto the Hudson River. It offered panoramic views as well as first-hand understanding of the river’s importance to Albany’s historic growth.
Leading the tour was “Henry Hudson,” dressed just as he would have been in the year 1609. We all enjoyed blowing into the duck mouth-shaped “quackers” (whistles) that we had been given when we embarked. We tooted at the friendly locals who waved at us. This noisy, splashy ride was fun for our entire group.
Hudson River Heritage is Albany’s Heritage
To commemorate the quadricentennial of Hudson’s historic sail up the river, the Albany Institute of History and Art (518/463-4478) is featuring a wonderful new exhibit, “Hudson River Panorama: 400 Years of History, Art and Culture.” It uses a multi-media approach that includes videos, interactive maps and photos to reflect on the river’s historical and contemporary importance. Families are given a free Discovery Guide to help navigate the exhibit. Old and young alike enjoyed the section on transportation, which displays canoes, kayak paddles and model steamships.
In the Ancient Egypt gallery, don’t miss the two resident mummies, one of whom is actually a mummified dog. Before exiting, all visitors are invited to draw their impressions of the Hudson River exhibit on one of several large panels. Museum educators provide materials such as crayons, markers, colored pencils and stickers.
Established in 1791, the Albany Institute is older than The Smithsonian. The museum’s permanent collection features a lovely selection of Hudson River School paintings, which spotlight the region’s natural beauty. For 2009, the museum has a packed schedule of family-oriented educational programs, including gallery talks and do-it-yourself art programs centered around this exhibit. They even offer programs tailored to homeschooled kids ages 8 and up. Summer will offer a full roster of vacation art breaks, which feature studio art workshops for children of all ages.
World War II Naval Experience on the Hudson
The USS Slater is a World War II destroyer escort moored on the riverfront. It is a historical museum that gave us a real sense of what day-to-day military life during wartime must have been like for the young sailors onboard. It has been restored to its original configuration, includes much of its original equipment and is staffed by a devoted all-volunteer corps.
We joined an hour-long tour led by a friendly retired naval veteran. We saw the crew’s sleeping quarters, mess deck, as well as radar and radio rooms, all well preserved in a virtual time capsule. I enjoyed seeing the kitchen, or galley as our guide called it, as it is fully functional and is used to prepare meals for the volunteers who are invited to eat on-board. Some kids will enjoy the real military artillery.
The full tour requires some climbing up narrow ladders through tight spaces. Dad stayed on the main deck for these portions of the tour, where he enjoyed chatting with numerous volunteers, many of them seniors themselves.
The USS Slater offers a popular overnight program for kids at least 8-years of age, who participate in activities that give greater understanding of what the day in the life of a sailor was like. Participants learn Morse Code and a variety of naval customs and traditions. Kids eat and sleep as the sailors did, in original bunks called racks. This program is only offered to organized groups of at least 20 kids, at a cost of $45 per child, which includes meals.
Speaking of meals, we were happily surprised by Albany’s bounty of culinary choices. The Hollywood Brown Derby, (518/463-19445) which in its heyday was a legendary spot for show-biz royalty, has re-located right to downtown Albany. This glamorous yet unpretentious spot hit the right note for our family. It is a place where Hollywood’s golden age comes to life.
Kids will like going through the huge collection of original caricatures of old-time celebrities that are displayed on the restaurant’s back wall. My father enjoyed recognizing most of the celebrities in the portrait area. He usually takes quite a bit of teasing from his grandchildren, as he does not know Lindsay Lohan from Miley Cyrus, but this time he was the one in the know, as the kids didn’t know Clark Gable from Humphrey Bogart.
The music was upbeat jazz and the dÃ©cor, art deco. We dined on classic American fare, steaks, shrimp cocktail and surf and turf. The kids’ menu features the usual suspects, grilled cheese, chicken tenders, burgers and pasta. Cobb Salad and Shirley Temple’s were invented at the Brown Derby, so we indulged in both. It was a great meal in an entertaining setting.
Another good choice is the memorable Le Canard EnchainÃ©, next door to the Visitor’s Center. The French chef/owner is from Chamonix, in the French Alps. This accounts for the restaurant’s Gallic flair and serious wine menu. Although there is no children’s menu, the staff was super accommodating, and will do half portions of anything, as well as pasta, meat or chicken prepared in a kid-friendly fashion. We all feasted on fresh salmon, roast duck, salad dressed with a memorable Champagne vinaigrette, and incredible desserts such as tarte tatin and crÃ¨me brulÃ©e. It would be the perfect place to celebrate a special occasion.
You will find many hotel chains in all price ranges represented in downtown Albany. Weekend rates are usually the best value here as midweek, the New York State legislature and its guests are hard at work and occupying the downtown hotels. Throughout the summer, prices are a great value, too.
We chose to stay at the Crowne Plaza, and the location could not have been more convenient, walking distance from all the sights. The hotel has a nice indoor pool located in the lower level. It is next to the fitness center, which has a glass wall, so that you can work out and keep an eye on your kids as they frolic in the pool. They offer a complimentary shuttle service from both Albany International Airport and the Amtrak Train Station, for those arriving without a car. All rooms have free in-room wireless Internet access.
Year Round Calendar of Special Events
Although 2009 is gearing up to be special, each year Albany hosts many family oriented celebrations, including the Annual Tulip Festival celebrating the city’s Dutch heritage, held Mother’s Day weekend, and starring 200,000 tulips in bloom.
Summer brings the annual Riverfront Father’s Day Pops Concert, featuring the Albany Symphony Orchestra and ending with a fireworks display over the Hudson. In warmer months, the Albany Riverfront Park also hosts a weekly series of outdoor concerts held each Thursday at 5 o’clock.
September is time for the Annual Jazz Festival, followed by the Annual Capital District Apple Festival in early October. The blustery winter season is not excluded from the fun, with the city’s post-Christmas Winter Festival, that includes live music, fireworks, holiday crafts and food.
My family and I had a great time exploring Albany. We left feeling as if we had made a true discovery, and look forward to exploring the New York State Capitol, the New York State Executive Mansion and the New York State Museum on future visits. We think it is well worth considering for a fun family getaway. It suits those interested in history, art, and just having a good time.
You may want to choose to discover its many pleasures soon.
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