7 Tips for a summer vacation with social distancing and Erie Canal Adventures

Estimated reading time 16 minutes – Let’s start with the hypothesis that our lives have been fundamentally and permanently changed due to the  Coronavirus pandemic. Let’s be honest, we have a long road to reach anything approaching the “normality” of December 2019. Time will show us if we are on a “new normal” or, more likely, just a constantly evolving “next normal.”  In time, as in the 1918 influenza outbreak where 50 – 100 million people worldwide died, our generation too will adapt. So, until our environment changes by finding safe therapeutics and vaccines that are used worldwide, we may be on an unwanted roller coaster of a few next normals.

As the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDS) puts it, “The outbreak of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) may be stressful for people.” We need to find ways we and our families can reduce stress. The America’s State of Mind Report of Express Scripts, a Cigna-owned pharmacy benefit manager, indicates that the “number of prescriptions filled per week for antidepressant, anti-anxiety and anti-insomnia medications increased 21%.”  Fear and anxiety about a disease can be overwhelming and cause strong emotions in adults and children. The need to take care of our own, as well as our families’ mental health, is more prevalent now than ever before.

There is good news to be found from Mother Nature.  We have a built-in gift in all of us:  the  human nature of having “adaptability.” It is one of the most potent defences in our arsenal.  We need to and will adapt. As the summer season starts in the US, many of us are being forced to rethink the vacation and travel plans made way back last year and to change course — perhaps even canceling them.  I am one of them.  My wife and I were to start our October 2020 Slow Boat to Florida discovery journey that I have been writing about since 2018.  While we may be able to visit nearby small towns in the Chesapeake Bay, we will not be doing our more than 2,200-mile, round trip to Florida via the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway (ICW). At this point, we are looking at October 2023 — maybe.

However, summer is not canceled! Let’s not overlook the idea that many of us still badly need to unplug, get away from it all, and recharge.

Adapt, adapt, and adapt some more

In March, I posted my blog titled, “1 more addition to CNN’s social distancing suggestions during the coronavirus pandemic – boating*”.   Yes, boating is truly a great option to consider this summer, and as long as social distancing is required, even if you do not have a boat. (See my January blog, “You want to buy a boat, eh?”)

Travel publications, as well as colorful travel promotion materials, are full of enticing wonderful locations. The problem is that they are mostly in places distant from where we live. I am just not sure how well we can achieve social distancing during the entire trip. The bottom line is that the need for social distancing will be with us for a long while. Since we do not know when that may end worldwide, we need to accept the fact and adapt.  

This summer, surprise yourself with exploring places nearby, here in the US, rather than expecting to travel far. Take a pause, experience the world nearby you, especially the coastal areas where there are a bunch of quaint, charming small towns. Create memories that go far beyond the ordinary in these nearby small towns where the likelihood of Covid-19 is much lower than in larger metropolitan areas.  A few short hours of boating or driving from home may easily take you there. This blog is about locations that you can reach by boat, as well as by car. In other words, you do not need a boat to have a wonderful and memorable coastal-life experience.

River Lock #10 on the Erie Canal in Upstate New York.

It is not too late – 7 Tips for your vacation planning

Before you pick your ideal vacation venue, here are my 7 tips for your vacation planning during this time of the Coronavirus pandemic.

Before you make plans, evaluate the age and pre-existing conditions of your travel party.

As we all know by now, older adults and people of any age who have a serious underlying medical condition are at higher risk for severe illness from Covid-19.

It is totally okay to be concerned about the pandemic.

Remember that you are not alone with your safety and health concerns relating to the Covid-19 pandemic. It is real and everywhere, perhaps some places much less than others, but unfortunately, it is all around us. Covid-19 cases and deaths have been reported in all 50 states, and the situation is constantly changing. If any person or establishment minimizes this fact and makes you feel like you are overreacting, simply move on, pass on them. Those who want your business are proud to talk, upfront, about measures that they are taking so that you are well protected. Keeping you and themselves safe and healthy is the number one priority for all serious establishments. By now, most established vacation venues know that a high level of cleaning is paramount and deep cleaning is not optional.

Plan to voluntarily add 14 days self-quarantine time to your vacation at the tail-end, once you’re back home.

We all need to adapt and think differently about the duration of our vacations. You need to leave healthy, be healthy during your vacation, and stay healthy after you are back home. Let’s face it, traveling increases your risk of getting infected and spreading Covid-19. Being within 6 feet of others increases your chances of getting infected and infecting others. Also, if you get infected while traveling, you can spread the virus to loved ones when you return, even if you don’t have symptoms.

View of the Erie Canal in Chittenango, New York

Select vacation spots nearby you

Why nearby vacation spots? Let’s start with driving times. Drowsy driving is similar to drunk driving. As those who have gone on a long continuous journey on the water know, there is the watchkeeping or watchstanding role on a boat or ship to operate it continuously. The watch schedule of the crew is based on so many hours on and so many hours off, for this reason.

Until a safe vaccine and a treatment medicine are found and widely utilized, try to select locations near your home location. Social distancing-friendly coastal travel destinations are all around us. The reality of any type of travel, be it by car, airplane, train or bus, RV, passenger ship, or even private boat, is that it carries with it a degree of risk due to our dependency on a number of services, which bring interaction with others.  When you add in trying to maintain a 6-foot social distancing requirement into the mix, it is not difficult to realize that it is much less risky to reach your vacation spot, fast, while having as few service stopovers as possible. So, pack your lunch or dinner, have all your drinks ready, and eat in your vehicle.

Check out the State Health Department of your selected vacation spot and learn the latest status there, not just in the state but also in the county where you will be vacationing.

This may sound like tedious work but, remember, not every county in the US is equally impacted by Covid-19. Selecting a spot in a county with a small number of Covid-19 cases and deaths may improve your safety and health while you are vacationing. Follow state and local travel restrictions. Check the state or local health department where you are, along your route, and at your planned destination to learn the latest information. Also, at any point, if you or a member of your trip feel that they are coming down with something, anything, do the Covid Check as many times as needed.

Select higher-end, reputable establishments for your vacation

You will quickly find out that during the current pandemic times, a bit more costly vacation in a reputable establishment will buy you a bit more health safety. You will immediately notice that when asked, or even before, they will tell you all the safety measures that they have implemented and are applying. Don’t expect or try to negotiate discounts, more than likely it will not be there.  Due to enhanced cleaning, as well as 6-foot social distancing requirements, health safety costs have gone way up, leaving little or no margin for discounts.

Bring your protective mask supplies and wear a mask in public places at all times.

Use hand sanitizers (at least 60% alcohol) and keep them within easy reach. Exercise your standard approach of taking enough of your medications to last you for the entire trip. It may sound odd, but have some non-perishable food in case restaurants and stores are closed. If you need to learn more about how to clean during the pandemic, check out this CDC link for household disinfecting tips.

An ideal vacation venue on the East Coast

Boating is a perfect venue for a perfect summer vacation on coastal waters. You do not have a boat, or a great boating location is a bit too far for you to reach by your boat? Good news! You do not have to go far to have a great vacation in a canal boat, like they do in France and many other countries. Also, boat ownership is not required. An alternative is just driving to small coastal towns. I have covered a few here in my blog.

Here comes Erie Canal Adventures

To me, spending time and waking up in a pleasure boat on the water is one of those marvelous feelings. You stick your head outside of the cabin, immediately noticing many things that you may have taken for granted in your daily life back home. Sun rays saying good morning behind gently swinging trees. Fresh cool air that wraps around you, making you take a deep breath and with each exhalation, let go of all of your stress. Seeing the wet surface of the boat may make you wonder if it rained last night, only to realize that you are looking at dew shining on its surfaces. Just unplug and be fully present in the moment. Enjoy life.  

Canal boat of Erie Canal Adventures. Photo: Courtesy of ECA

Without a doubt, the Erie Canal Adventures company’s canal boats are one of the best venues on the East Coast to deliver that experience. When I saw that they have the same type of canal boats on which I have always dreamed of journeying on the picturesque canals of France, it immediately spurred my interest. Since for the moment, France is too far, I had to reach out and talk to them.

Although I had a very good idea about the Erie Canal, I have never been on it or on its shores. It is too far from home with our boat, Life’s AOK. The company offers a one-of-a-kind European experience, yes, in the US. We can have one of their 11 charming canal boats for 3-, 4-, or 7-day excursions. If you have never navigated a boat, no problem, they will teach you. Going at 3 – 8 miles an hour, boating in lazily-flowing canal waters is not an adrenaline-rush kind of navigation experience.

Bicyclists enjoy riding along the canal way of the Erie Canal trail in Upstate New York

The real experience is in the journey itself, where you can stop pretty much anywhere to your liking on the canal and experience beautiful surroundings. That includes charming towns; open-air restaurants right on the shores of the canal; fantastic farmer’s markets featuring fresh, local ingredients; nearby wineries through the Finger Lakes region, home to more than 100 critically-acclaimed wineries. While you are navigating at 3 miles an hour on the canal, if they wish, your companions can bicycle along the canal path for a while. Yes, Erie Canal Adventures boats come with bicycles so that you can easily check out and enjoy the small towns that you are visiting. 

One of the best social distancing vacation ideas 

By now, you know that I am big on waking up in pleasure boats somewhere in a coastal area. As an experienced in-pleasure-boat-waker-upper, I had to ask Allie Keenan, who owns the company together with her husband Brian, what  it is like waking up in their canal boat. If you think about it, a canal boat is just like a hotel room on the water with a kitchen, bathroom, and other creature comforts. She said, “If a guest backed up into a little town or even a very remote area, most people enjoy having their breakfast on the boat, or maybe going out and getting a cup of coffee and coming back to the boat and kind of strolling around in the early morning. Depending on what their destination plans are, they typically would do a lot of their boating right after breakfast. So they kind of get on the road and then enjoy the next town.”  In other words, you have all the time you want—the flow of your journey (pun intended) is totally up to you.

The galley of a canal boat of Erie Canal Adventures features a stove, oven, pots, pans, dishware, utensils, and most things you may need. Photo: Courtesy of ECA

Kitchen… breakfast on board? Since we have similar amenities on Life’s AOK, a cabin cruiser boat, typically I would not think too much about those amenities. But being in the “next normal” times, on an excursion on a canal boat, I had to ask about their preparedness for the guests renting their canal boats. Allie was more than happy to share details of their preparedness. As a matter of fact, their website welcomes you with similar information. Allie said, “We’ve taken all the guidance from the CDC, as well as local guidance here, and put into place several different new procedures.”  She explained that they always cleaned out the boats after each guest. However, because we are in these challenging times, they are taking their cleaning several steps higher and deeper. She said, “The kitchen is typically fully operational with pots and pans and dishes and all sorts of stuff. So we actually are doing what’s called a remote tote, where we’re actually taking all of the kitchen equipment, taking it off the boat in between sessions and putting a fresh group on the boats, so that they’ve already been disinfected.”  Referring to bed linens and other laundry items, she explained that they are always professionally laundered by a laundering service that meets all the hygiene requirements of a typical high-end hotel. Allie said, “We feel very confident that our staff is equipped with all the different disinfectant products and tools to make sure that the boats remain clean and safe for the journeys of our guests.”

When will Erie Canal Adventures be ready for guests?

Allie said that this year is a little bit different because of the Covid-19 outbreak. The Canal Corporation of New York has put out a mariner message that by July 4th, the entire canal will be open north of New York City, which is five hours from the Erie Canal and connected to it by the Hudson River. She said that there might be a few sections of gateways into different lakes that may not be navigable until August. She added, “But for our part, for where our customers are, it is fully navigable by July 4th.”

Where in the world is the Erie Canal?

I bet even most people who have heard of the Erie Canal would not be able to put their fingers on the map to show where it is. Yes, it is in New York state, but where? So, what is it about the Erie Canal and why would you want to have a boat journey on it anyway?

1817-1825 New York State builds Erie and Champlain canals. Erie connects Hudson River with Great Lakes: 363 miles long. Champlain connects Hudson River with Lake Champlain: 66 miles. Both canals are 4 feet deep; locks 90 feet long, 15 feet wide; boat capacity 30 tons.

Welcome to another time capsule. This is a place that in 2000, the United States Congress designated as the Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor. The Erie Canal is North America’s most successful and enduring man made waterway. It connects the Atlantic Ocean to the upper Great Lakes. The Erie Canal was the first transportation system between the East Coast of the United States and the western interior that did not require portage. It opened on October 26, 1825. 

Map showing the Great Loop (image courtesy of Raven Cove Publishing).

The Erie Canal is a part of America’s Great Loop, which is made up of both natural and man-made waterways, including the Atlantic and Gulf Intracoastal Waterways, the Great Lakes, the Erie Canal, the Rideau Canal (in Canada), and the Mississippi, as well as Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway. The entire loop is approximately 6,000 miles (9,700 km) long.

A unique access to natural awe

What is it that a vacationing guest can expect if they are lucky enough to decide on this unique journey in the US? Allie Keenan, the owner of Erie Canal Adventures, sums it all up, “It is an amazing type of vacation. What gets us so excited is how happy people are to have the experience. So then when they get off there, whether it’s a three-night or seven-night journey, they are just in such love and awe of the Erie Canal. They just find it so peaceful and tranquil. And the canal towns along the routes are just all very, very focused on hospitality and really making sure people enjoy the beauty of the canal.”

What kind of canal boats are waiting for you?

Again, if you have never piloted a boat, it is no problem on the Erie Canal, especially in these canal boats. Think of it as renting a delightful RV on the water that goes 3-8 miles/hr. If that is not cool enough, here is what they say about it, “Throughout Europe, narrow-boating has become an RV type vacation option that allows participants to park their hotel room, in the thick of nature, quaint villages, and experience engineering marvels. Our boating experience here on the Erie Canal has all of these elements. The towns you will encounter have truly embraced the canal as a central part of their culture and identity.” You can see the boats here.

Decisions, decisions—should you go East or West on the Erie Canal?

Erie Canal Adventures boats are in a marina in Macedon, New York, east of Rochester, near Lock 31. So, which direction should we go?  Allie said if we take a seven-night journey and go west, we would go through a bunch of different canal towns like Fairport, Pittsford, and Spencerport, all the way up towards Lockport, which traverses five locks, taking you almost 50 feet up. She said, “Typically on heading west, you’d go to Lockport and back to our location.” What about the eastbound trip? She added, “If you were to head east toward the Syracuse region, you can go down towards the Finger Lakes, through the Cayuga Canalway and get in towards some of the Finger Lakes or you could head towards Baldwinsville, which is a nice canal town on the Syracuse side. And you pass through Montezuma, which is a huge bird sanctuary and a natural habitat for many different animals. So it’s really tranquil heading east, versus west is much more the bustling canal towns.”

Map of Erie Canal

Allie said that for them, the best choice is definitely the westbound route because there are great opportunities to stop in at the towns and bike ride into the various different museums and sites, as well as enjoy the restaurants. She said, “We really enjoy the west a little bit more.” 

To walk or not to walk

When you are on your Erie Canal Adventures journey, prepare to have the dilemma of trying to decide whether to walk or not to walk. So you pulled your canal boat to the shore. What happens now? You can certainly stay in the boat and enjoy the environment.  Allie said, “All the towns as you pull into a town, the docks are right in the center of town. Typically not every town, but most towns, it’s right along the canal. All the shops and restaurants are in very, very close proximity. If you don’t want to bike into town because you want to get some groceries or do anything like that, obviously there are Ubers and stuff like that around as well.”

What about wineries? I am told that the Canal meanders through the Finger Lakes region, home to more than 100 critically-  acclaimed wineries.  Limo tours or even Uber can help facilitate that trip for us. Allie said that there is one in Fairport that’s bikeable.

If you prefer beer, prepare to enjoy it as much as you want. I am told that upstate NY has seen a major resurgence of craft and microbreweries, some using locally grown hops. Apparently, many of the best breweries are in close proximity to the canal.

Well, that’s it for now. Stay well. I hope to say hello to you if you spot my boat, Life’s AOK, in one of the locations that I’m hoping to visit in 2020, that is if Coronavirus permits us.

I bid you Fair Winds and Following Seas.

Sign by the New York City Parks Department indicates the appropriate measurement for social distancing of six feet at Marine Park in Brooklyn, New York

6 things I learned

  • When we look at the history of the 1918 pandemic, we see that communities worldwide lost people at different rates. While 60% of some communities were wiped out, losses in others were less than 10%. Recently, Dr. Jeremy Brown of the National Institutes of Health’s Office of Emergency Care talked about his book on the history of influenza, covering the 1918-1919 season: The Hundred Year Hunt to Cure the Deadliest Disease in History.
  • The waterway today referred to as the Erie Canal is quite different from the nineteenth-century Erie Canal. More than half of the original Erie Canal was destroyed or abandoned at the time of the construction of the New York State Barge Canal in the early 20th century. The sections of the original route remaining in use, mostly west of Syracuse, were widened significantly, with bridges over the canal rebuilt and locks replaced.
  • The most important benefit of small water vessel cruising is an immersive experience in the destination. Small vessels allow an in-depth exploration of nature, culture, history, and learning not possible on larger vessels.
  • The aqueduct over the Mohawk River at Rexford is one of 32 navigable aqueducts on the Erie Canal.
  • More on the Erie Canal: Peak usage of the canal was 1855, when 33,000 commercial shipments took place.The canal has 34 numbered locks, starting with Black Rock Lock and ending downstream with the Troy Federal Lock. Both are owned by the federal government. It is a part of America’s Great Loop, which is made up of both natural and man-made waterways, including the Atlantic and Gulf Intracoastal Waterways, the Great Lakes, the Erie Canal, the Rideau Canal (in Canada), and the Mississippi, as well as Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway. The entire loop is approximately 6,000 miles (9,700 km) long. The Erie Canal runs east-west more than 350 miles between the Hudson River near Albany, New York, and Lake Erie at Buffalo, New York. Along the way, 34 locks raise and lower boats more than 570 feet.  The canal has an elevation difference of about 565 feet (172 m). Back when it was first opened, it was much faster than carts pulled by draft animals and cut transport costs by about 95%.The canal gave New York City’s port an incomparable advantage over all other U.S. port cities and ushered in the state’s 19th century political and cultural ascendancy.  Although minimal commercial traffic still uses the canal, today the canal is mostly used by recreational watercraft since the retirement of the last large commercial ship, Day Peckinpaugh, in 1994. 
  • You can find more about the Erie Canal and its legend here.

4 things I recommend

How easy*?

*My rating for how easy it is to do the Erie Canal Adventures journey is based on following my 7 recommended tips plus the trip itself. If you just consider the Erie Canal Adventures journey by itself, my rating is definitely Easy (Dark Green).

Marina where you can tie your boat near Erie Canal Adventures

If you go with your own boat, the owners of Erie Canal Adventures have their full service marina nearby Erie Macedon Landing.

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