Vacay.ca occasionally publishes articles on destinations outside of Canada. In this article, Vacay.ca writer Michele Sponagle reports from Buffalo, New York.
Story by Michele Sponagle
BUFFALO, NEW YORK — At the end of a tour of Buffalo’s iconic City Hall, a stunning example of Art Deco, architecture, a group of visitors and I were on the observation platform looking out over the downtown core. Our guide rhymes off a list of other places he’s lived, like Florida and California. Then adds, “But there’s only one city now where I want to live and that’s Buffalo. I love this town.”
He could pretty much be the poster child for how Buffalonians are feeling about their hometown these days. And with good reason. The city – located 104km east of Hamilton across the river from Fort Erie – is booming, not just growing. It’s in full blown boom mode, from the revitalization of the RiverWorks area, an eight-acre parcel of former industrial land that stretches alongside the Buffalo River, to Canalside, which is turning into a year round centre for fun, from ice bikes in the winter to a café set up on an old railway bridge over a canal.
Building a new future
The skyline of Buffalo is now dotted with cranes – a clear sign there are more openings to come. The highlights include: a state-of-the-art medical school being built by the University of Buffalo, the Curtiss Hotel (a 68-room luxury property), Hotel Henry, housed in the gorgeous former Buffalo State Asylum for the Insane (built circa 1880), new craft breweries to join the six that opened just in the last year, and a beer garden that utilizes the ruins of a former grain elevator.
Those new arrivals just gives more meat to what Buffalo has become: a bona fide vacation destination. It’s taken a while for Canadians to grasp that concept. We’re used to the old Buffalo, one that struggled and one weather reports like to mock for the amount of snow it receives. Here’s a reality check: Syracuse, New York, is the snowiest city in the U.S., not Buffalo.
Wake up to the new Buffalo of today and you’ll be amazed – and a little upset that you didn’t clue in to the fact that’s it’s a fantastic city so close by (less than 90 minutes from Toronto) until now.
Sipping and supping in Buffalo
Take its food scene, for example. You already know that Buffalo reigns supreme when it comes to chicken wings – they were invented there more than 50 years ago – but there is more to the city than that. Have a good feast of wings and then move beyond that world into bold new territory.
Seabar on Ellicott Street serves up some of the best sushi you’ll find inland – and with a twist. Chef Mike TK plays with his food in a very good way. Buffalo’s most beloved sandwich, beef on a weck, becomes a sushi roll, and he throws in an eclectic main or two, like chicken and waffles, or meatballs, just because he feels like it.
Also downtown is Oshun, an oyster bar/seafood restaurant housed in the former cafeteria of the Waldorf Astoria (long gone), restored to its Art Deco sleekness. Pluck yourself down on a seat at the raw bar and watch the master shuckers do their thing and catch the flurry of the open kitchen. Start your night with an oyster shooter swimming amid a Bloody Mary (vodka based) or Bloody Maria (tequila). It’s a kind of salty, briny, earthy party of deliciousness in your mouth. Then proceed into the hearty entrées like a perfectly seared ahi tuna or a substantial roasted rainbow trout with grilled peach salad.
If you’re focused more on libations, head to Buffalo Proper Plate and Pour. The bar bustles downstairs while diners look down from a second floor perch. It has a well curated wine list, but it’s the cocktails that have the wow factor. With a floor to almost ceiling wall of booze at the ready, the bartenders here know how to create their drinks (a deal at $10 US a pop) with finesse and they’re as affable as can be, happy to chit chat even though you know they’ve got a long list of cocktails yet to craft.
For those who don’t want sleek and chic, go old school at one of Buffalo’s famed watering holes, like Gene McCarthy’s a historic Irish Pub that is more gritty than pretty. But the beer is cold, the food is very good, and a waitress will probably call you ‘hun.’ It’s well stocked with beer made just next door at the Old First Ward Brewing Company. And for Canadians who complain about American beer being wimpy and watery, try its This is Not a Pale Ale, packing some kick with 5.8 per cent alcohol. This is the kind of place you’ll find sports fans – Sabres, Bills, or Bisons – year round.
In Buffalo, art and design fans are in their happy place with a greatest hits of big-name architects. Frank Lloyd Wright? Heard of him? He is well represented here in the Nickel City with the Darwin D. Martin House (The Rolling Stones were recent visitors), Graycliff Estate (the Martin’s summer home on the lake), a gas station built according to his plans within the Buffalo Transportation Pierce Arrow Museum), a mausoleum in the Forest Lawn Cemetery (also the resting place of Rick “Superfreak” James) and the Fontana Boathouse. Also worth a look in the Guaranty Building, designed by Wright’s mentor/boss Louis Sullivan.
Plus there’s the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, known equally for its stellar collection of modern and Impressionist art. Right across the street, the Burchfield Penney Art Centre showcases local talents from throughout Western New York. The CEPA Gallery is a bit of a sleeper hit. It focuses on the photographic arts and well known for its edgy, provocative exhibitions.
Stay a while
When it comes to bedding down for a night (and you should, even if you live just a quick hop from the border), the options are impressive. Downtown Hotel Lafayette is a sweet boutique hotel set in a historic 1904 building designed by the first female architect in the U.S., Louise Blanchard Bethune. Meanwhile, The Mansion on Delaware pulls out all the stops on luxury and service with a complimentary cocktail hour and 24-hour butler services. Drive to Shea’s Performing Art Center in time for a Broadway show? Yes, please! It’s all part of your stay in this elegant historic home. Leaning towards the more modern? Check out the new Courtyard Buffalo Downtown/Canalside and the Mariott HarborCenter (open August 2015).
No matter where you go is Buffalo, the common thread that runs through it all is pride. Buffalonians have oodles of it. They are proud of the wild ride they’ve endured, from being one of the wealthiest American cities at the turn of the centre to a downward slump in the middle and then today. It has emerged as a place that ticks all the boxes in everything what you’d want from a vacay away from it. Buffalo is taking its turn in the spotlight. You’ve come a long way, baby!
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