Sunday, August 5, 2007

TRAVELING MAN


During my “wanderings” over the years I have stayed at many “Great Hotels” – the Greenbrier in White Sulfur Springs WV, the Homestead in Hot Springs VA, the Fairmont and the Westin St Francis in San Francisco, Canadian Pacific Grande Dames the Empress Hotel and the Banff Springs Hotel in Canada (I visited Chateau Lake Louise, but did not stay there), the Hotel du Pont in Wilmington DE, and the Mohonk Mountain House in upstate New York.

The list of Grand Hotels where I would like to lay my head in the future include, among others, Le Ch√Ęteau Frontenac in Quebec, the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island, the Hotel Del Coronado in San Diego, and the Sagamore on Lake George. This past Thursday I crossed the Thayer Hotel at West Point off my list.

My visit to the “Pride of the Hudson Highlands” was by way of the Short Line’s West Point/Thayer Hotel Overnight Package, one of several overnights offered by the bus company that interested me. According to the description on the website the package, which cost $200.00 for a single room, includes round-trip bus transportation, overnight accommodations, sightseeing tour of West Point, free movie at the Visitor’s Center, and a cruise on the Hudson River (when available).

The price was indeed right, considering that the round-trip bus fare alone was $67.00 and the advertised single room rate at the hotel began at $179.00.

This was unlike any bus trip I had taken with Starr, Biss or Parker Tours. It was not an escorted group tour – just a combination of features tied together in a package.

I picked up my tickets and vouchers on Thursday morning at the Short Line ticket booth in NYC’s Port Authority bus terminal, presenting the confirmation I had received online. The bus, which was the normal daily Short Line route #781, left on time at 8:45 am. It made several stops along the way as it traveled Route 17 in NJ and into NY at Suffern and along Routes 202, 9W and 218, through Pomona, Haverstraw (a frequent stop during my college days – when the drinking age was 18 in NY but 21 in NJ – FYI the drinking age become 18 in NJ when I turned 21), and past Bear Mountain. This was the same bus route I had taken on my day trip to Bear Mountain State Park last year.

Two hours later I was let off at the West Point Visitor’s Center in the village of Highlands Falls, New York. I could not locate the “free movie” discussed in the online tour description, but I did not look very hard. One of the vouchers I had received that morning was good for one admission to West Point Tours, which departs from the Visitor’s Center. It is a one-hour guided bus and walking tour, with stops at the Main Cadet Chapel, Trophy Point, Battle Monument and the Parade Field.

The Thayer Hotel is located on the grounds of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Access to the hotel is via the “Thayer Gate”, about 500 feet from the Visitor’s Center, where visitors must present the military police with a “valid id” before being allowed to enter. Even though I now have a photo driver’s license, I used my passport as identification just in case. The hotel was up a steep hill to the right of the gate.

The hotel, listed on the National Registry of Historic Places and a member of the National Trust Historic Hotels of America, was originally constructed in 1926 to accommodate U.S. Military Academy personnel and their guests. It was a successor of the original West Point Hotel and is named for Colonel Sylvanius Thayer, Superintendent of the Academy from 1817 to 1833. It completed a $26 million dollar restoration in 1999 and additional renovations in 2003 and 2004.

It was not as big as I had thought from reading the tour description, with 151 luxury guest rooms, 10 meetings rooms, a large Main Dining Room and a cocktail lounge. I had envisioned a huge structure, similar to the Greenbrier or Homestead. The description’s mention of Eisenhower Hall, “which features Broadway-style shows and international performances”, as “the perfect choice for evening entertainment after dinner” made me think it was the hotel nightclub – but in reality it is a separate building on the West Point grounds, and there appeared to be nothing scheduled for the night of my stay. My comfortable room was on the 2nd floor, with a view overlooking the Hudson River.

After checking in I explored the hotel and discovered its “back lawn” with a beautiful view of the Hudson River and the mountains across the river - a perfect place to sit and read or just relax and enjoy the views. However it was too hot at midday for me.

As mentioned above, the tour description included “cruise on the Hudson River (call for availability)”. Apparently it was not available because, instead of a voucher good for a river cruise, my package included a voucher good for one buffet lunch in the hotel’s dining room. I decided to save this voucher for Friday, as the bus back to NY did not leave until 3:07 pm.

I enjoyed a delicious leisurely dinner in the Main Dining Room, which also overlooked the Hudson. I began with another perfectly made Stinger, followed by pea soup with ham, Thayer house salad with champagne vinaigrette, Chicken Cordon Bleu, and traditional strawberry shortcake, ending with coffee and Sambucca. As it had cooled down slightly I enjoyed a cigar while sitting out on the back lawn before turning in for the evening.

Friday morning I “slept in”, knowing it would be a while before I would lie in such a luxurious bed again, skipping breakfast. After checking out I took advantage of my free lunch buffet, accompanied by a pint of “Blue Moon” beer.

I sat in the lobby reading a mystery until it was time to walk back to the Visitor’s Center to catch the bus. While it was probably 90 degrees I found a place to wait under some trees where there was an occasional breeze. The bus arrived as scheduled and we made good time for the bulk of the trip back, arriving at Port Authority about 45 minutes late due to rush-hour traffic at the Holland Tunnel and a long bus queue entering the terminal.

What I learned from my trip was that I should book any return to West Point, and any of the other Short Line overnights, in the fall when it is much cooler. And plan any return to the Thayer Hotel with the Eisenhower Hall performance schedule in mind.

TTFN

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