Month: October 2014

Northlandz, Flemington’s ‘wonder of the world’

Bruce Williams Zaccagnino of Flemington spends almost every day surrounded by 100 trains, 500,000 trees and 1,200 structures that he built with his bare hands. And all of it is contained within one 52,000-square-foot building.

How is this possible? Most of those trains, trees and structures are only a few inches tall.

That’s because Zaccagnino founded and created each exhibit of the world’s largest model railroad museum, which is joined by, in Zaccagnino’ museum Northlandz, a doll collection holding more than 200 historic dolls, an 1890s replica steam train and a 2,000-pipe organ, which Zaccagnino plays on weekends.

Northlandz, which is about a mile walk-through, is composed of hundreds of exhibits containing scenes such as a Civil War battle display, the world’s only toothpick farm, a skyscraping city, a miniature carnival and a plane crash site.

The museum has been called “a fantasy journey” by the Travel Channel and a “breathtaking beauty” by the Discovery Channel. Zaccagnino, however, doesn’t buy into the hype.

“We had thousands that said that this is a wonder of the world. I don’t think it is,” he said. “People say that this is better than Disney World. But this is just my hobby.”

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The museum, which receives about 200 daily visitors, certainly began as Zaccagnino’ hobby. The man with many interests and former careers, including concert musician, entrepreneur and computer game software developer, began simply by building model trains in the basement of under-construction home 42 years ago.

Zaccagnino continued to imagine new scenes for his new found craft for 18 years, leading to his building of five basement additions to accommodate his model railways and their accompanying exhibits.

“I’m a worker and I’m an artist, and if you’re an artist, you’re compelled to pursue something,” he said. “I feel like this is my one shot at life so I might as well do it well.”

Persuaded by friends, Zaccagnino began to open his basement twice a year to the public, which brought such excitement s that Zaccagnino decided to create a year-round attraction and opened Northlandz in late 1996. However, even with all of the press that followed, Zaccagnino remained, and continues to be, humble about his creation.

“I’m not here for an ego trip,” he said. “I see this as a gift to the world. Period.”

Years later, it still holds true. Zaccagnino said that teenagers come in rolling their eyes and seniors come in saying that they have seen it all, but everyone comes out of the two- to three-hour tour impressed and happy to have seen the wholesome attraction, free of electronic screens or interactive games.

“Everyone thought that this wouldn’t last long as a business,” Zaccagnino said. “The only one that believed in me was my wife, Jean, who I was married to for 33 years before she died eight years ago.”

Northlandz isn’t finished yet. Zaccagnino said he plans to expand the museum’s doll collection, which takes dolls by donation only. He also has two new wings on the way that will include exhibits such as the Himalayas, Rocky Mountains and Hoover Dam. In spite of the expansive, worldly scenes that Zaccagnino has created, he has never been on a boat, plane or train.

“I have no desire to travel,” he said. “I get bored easily.”

Of the hundreds of scenes, Zaccagnino said he has no favorite.

“I’m like a woman with 10 kids — I can’t have a favorite,” he said. “It’s all good. Every square inch of Northlandz was made to be funny or exciting.”

Today, Zaccagnino still does most of the daily duties himself, with the help of one assistant, Rich.

“Most CEOs move to an executive position and then they farm out their duties,” Zaccagnino said. “But I’m a worker. When I do something, I do it extreme.”

 

Jenna Intersimone’s “Life Aboard The Traveling Circus” column appears Tuesdays. Her “Life Aboard The Traveling Circus” blog is at MyCentralJersey.com, as well asLifeAboardTheTravelingCircus.com. Tweet her at @JIntersimone or email her at JIntersimone@MyCentralJersey.com.

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Written for MyCentralJersey.com

 

Northlandz

Cost: Ages 13 and up $13.75, children 2-12 $9.75, children under 2 free, seniors 62 and up $12.50

Hours: Weekends 10:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., weekdays 10:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., closed Tuesdays

Time Spent: Tour takes two to three hours and is one mile all the way through

Address: 495 Route 202, Flemington

Contact: 908-782-4022 or www.northlandz.com

Lakota Wolf Preserve: Where Wolves Run Wild

Written for my travel column at MyCentralJersey.com

In the many pleasant New Jersey suburbs, the most beckoning call from the wild that residents’ ears will prick at is the howl of a neighbor’s pesky beagle. However, Columbia residents are familiar with a howl of a different nature — the howl of a wolf. Sixteen wolves.

The Lakota Wolf Preserve, hidden deep within the thick forestry of the Kittatinny Mountains up various winding dirt roads, is home to 10 Timber, three Artic and three British Columbian wolves. They also house one rescued wolf hybrid, three bobcats and two foxes.

Besides the untamed locale nested in Northwest Jersey, rather than more urban cities, other stark differences between the Preserve and other New Jersey zoos is that unlike their stiffly detained zoo counterparts, Preserve wolves run amok on 10 acres of forest. Also, all of the wolves living at the Preserve were born in captivity — taken from zoos and preserves across the nation at a young age so that they could assimilate with their packs.

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Becky Mace, Co-Founder of the Preserve, with Sequoia – Photo Courtesy Jim Stein

Jim Stein and Becky Mace, a married couple who manage the Preserve, raise the animals and conduct tours with no staff other than themselves. They can receive as many as 300 visitors in a single week including school, scout, tour and photo groups.

Wolf Watch tours, conducted at 10:30 a.m. and 4 p.m. every day except Monday, consist of a half-mile forest hike or shuttle bus ride to and from the spot where the wolves roam and about an hour tour, hosted by Stein and Mace, for $15 for adults and $7 for children at Camp Taylor, 89 Mount Pleasant Road, Columbia.

The tour, which takes place in the center of the observation area amidst four wolf packs, details the social structure of wolf packs, their eating habits, why man has feared them for so long, and their lives’ impact on ours among the wolves’ playing, eating and howling.

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A pack of playing wolves during a Wolf Watch Tour – Jenna Intersimone

Stein didn’t always spend his days with his rather large backyard pets, who are housed behind two rows of fence buried six inches in the ground and topped with three rows of barbless wire cantilever. Before his day job consisted of butchering road kill for wolf meals, chopping ice, refilling tubs of water and importing fluids, he was a General Motors mechanic. When he met wildlife photographer Dan Bacon in 1997, he also spent some time volunteering at Bacon’s makeshift wolf preserve in Colorado, where he kept several animals born in captivity who needed a home to live out their remaining years.

When Bacon could no longer care for the wolves, Stein quit his job, took them in with his now-wife, Mace. They moved back to their New Jersey roots and founded the Lakota Wolf Preserve.

“We love and respect wolves, and we wanted to take a handful of them already born in captivity and give them a good place to live out their lives,” Stein said.

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Co-Founder of the Preserve Jim Stein with one of his “children” – Photo Courtesy Jim Stein

“These animals aren’t mean or vicious like they are portrayed in the movies. If these wolves weren’t introduced to humans at such a young age, they would actually spend their time hidden deep in their enclosures, petrified of humans. One of our goals is to help educate people that there is a need for them in this world since they are beneficial to the environment and balance in nature.”

Six states have open hunting seasons on wolves, including Montana, Idaho, Wisconsin and Minnesota, which worries the wolf-loving couple.

“It is sad that the only place people might get to see a wolf is at a preserve,” Stein said.

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A wolf pup at the Preserve – Photo Courtesy Jim Stein

Lakota Wolf Preserve

The Preserve is within Camp Taylor Campground at 89 Mount Pleasant Road, Columbia.

Wolf Watch tours embark twice per day, at 10:30 a.m. and 4 p.m., every except Monday. Make sure you get there a half-hour early to register, pay and either be shuttled or walk to the observation site.

Tours cost $15 for adults and $7 for children under 11. Cash or check only.

The expeditions last 90 minutes in total, including about a half-hour of total travel time between getting to and from the observation site from the registration site.

If you plan to attend on a weekday or with parties of 10 or more, you need to make a reservation by calling 877-733-9653. If it’s a weekend and you have 10 people or less, there is no reservation necessary.

No pets or open-back footwear.

For more information, visit www.lakotawolf.com.

A Taste of the Seneca Lake Wine Trail

Written for MyCentralJersey.com

The waiter comes out uneasily, holding nothing, like a messenger on a mission.

“Yes sir, we do have Chianti,” whispers Craig, a waiter at Stonecat Café, an acclaimed organic regional restaurant nested in Hector, New York, on Seneca Lake of the Finger Lakes. “We just don’t put it on the menu since we like to feature our local wines.”

Stonecat Café has a good reason to focus on homegrown wines. It is located directly on the Seneca Lake Wine Trail, which holds 32 wineries on the deepest of the Finger Lakes, about a four-hour drive from Central Jersey, making it a sound pick for a long weekend getaway, especially in autumn due to the changing foliage. Each winery is located at a three-minute drive or less from the next alongside various roads running next to Seneca Lake.

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Unlike many other wine trails, the Seneca Lake Wine Trail, which traces its winemaking history back to 1866, sees itself as a community of winemakers who come together at local eateries such as the Stonecat Café to bring the austere beauty of Seneca Lake to the glass. Each vineyard brings its own personality and flavors to the lake’s edge, making for a comprehensive tourist destination that feature events throughout the year.

However, I didn’t think I was coming to Seneca Lake for the wine.

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Following a recommendation from a friend, we ended up staying at Seneca Secrets in Burdett, a collection of three rustic, yet updated cabins located on the east side of the lake for $150 a night. Upon our arrival, it became obvious that the Seneca Lake Wine Trail had a steady grasp on the area.

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However, 32 wineries hold an impossible amount of tastings even for the most ambitious of travelers. As a result, I took to the trail to get the best recommendations of wineries, asking locals for their take on which wineries were the must-sees. Although their answers were varied, they created a roadmap for my journey north on the Seneca Lake Wine Trail.

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Wagner Vineyards is a necessary stop for wine enthusiasts due to its size at 250 acres and magnitude of vineyard attractions, including a brewery. Also, unlike some of the nearby smaller wineries, Wagner offers a tour of its wine cellars. For $4, I took the tour, sampled seven pre-chosen wines and hung out outside on the lush grounds, overlooking Seneca Lake in front of the vineyard’s grape plants.

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Hazlitt 1852 Vineyards holds a much more quaint operation than Wagner Vineyards that is more family-friendly. At Hazlitt, staff walked us through the backgrounds of their wines, such as that of the Red Cat and the 2012 Vidal Blanc Ice Wine, or “liquid candy.” During our tasting of six wines for $5, we also basked in the antique-barn appeal of the tasting room. Although there isn’t as much grounds since Hazlitt makes its wine in Naples, New York, there is a small bar/restaurant outside.

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Ventosa Vineyards, a casual Italian-grape winery, has one asset that no other area wineries have — Tocai Friulano, an Italian grape found in the region which is only grown at Ventosa. At this vineyard, we also enjoyed a view of Seneca Lake with a tasting for $3. We also had lunch at the full restaurant on the premises, Café Toscan, which serves light Italian cuisine with vegetables from its own private garden.

The Seneca Lake Wine Trail has an expansive group of wineries which can be visited throughout the year, as events are planned for all seasons. However, if you’re looking for an autumn weekend away, Wagner Vineyards, Hazlitt 1852 Vineyards and Ventosa Vineyards are the best wineries along this age-old trail to enjoy a glass alongside Seneca Lake.

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Seneca Lake

Drive takes about four and a half hours from central New Jersey.

Stay at Seneca Secrets in Burdett, a community of three cabins which costs $150 a night for two bedrooms, two full-sized beds, a living room, one bathroom, kitchen, and immediate access to outdoor grill, firepit and Seneca Lake. See more atwww.senecasecrets.com.

The best wineries include Wagner Vineyards, $4 for seven wine samples, Hazlitt 1852 Vineyards, $5 for six wine samples, and Ventosa Vineyards, $3 for wine samples.

Other area attractions include Windmill Farm & Craft Market (www.thewindmill.com), Watkins Glen State Park ($8 per car), the Stonecat Cafe (breakfast, lunch and dinner, $12.5 to $30 for dinner, http://www.stonecatcafe.com), Finger Lakes National Forest, Finger Lakes Distilling ($3, www.fingerlakesdistilling.com), and Schooner Excursions ($29 to $49, www.schoonerexcursions.com).

For more information on the Seneca Lake Wine Trail, visit www.senecalakewine.com.

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Jenna Intersimone’s “Life Aboard The Traveling Circus” column appears Tuesdays. Her “Life Aboard The Traveling Circus” blog is at MyCentralJersey.com, as well asLifeAboardTheTravelingCircus.com. Tweet her at @JIntersimone or email her at JIntersimone@MyCentralJersey.com.

Why Seneca Lake is the Perfect Fall Getaway

I worship the fall.

I actually feel like October is my real birthday month, when I can pumpkin pick, apple pick, watch horror movies, drink fall beers and get fake-scared on haunted hay rides all month long (My actual birthday is in February). I like October so much that I usually refuse to travel during those 31 days, being that for the only four weeks out of the year, I actually prefer to stay in my kingdom of fall foliage in the forests of northwestern New Jersey. This rule has led me to book three trips cross-country from November to December. Whoops.

Anyway, following a mishap at the travel agent where my family left holding no confirmations being that we couldn’t agree on a single getaway, a travel savior came into focus.

Rich, my dad’s lawyer friend, who he does plumbing for.

Rich has a daughter, Amy, who runs some rustic cabins up in Seneca Lake, New York, which is the deepest of the Finger Lakes. I’ve never been to the Finger Lakes, barely ever been to upstate New York (too pretentious) but I figure it’s gotta be pretty nice in the fall, I mean this is a lake, so I agree to leave my short-lived hometown paradise for a precious weekend.

Turns out, Seneca Lake a fall empire.

Although this was unknown during our four-hour drive north starting at 9:00 pm, it being so dark out that we couldn’t find our cabin which we were 20 feet away from, it was immediately obvious when we woke up and stepped out the door. All around, we were surrounded by fall foliage, autumn-themed wines and beers, cool outdoor activities and farmer’s markets. If you’re looking for a weekend getaway (because you don’t live in the middle of nowhere, obviously) here’s the reasons why you should head to Seneca Lake, New York.

1. The Seneca Lake Wine Trail because honestly, who doesn’t love being toted to 32 wineries, all within a three-minute drive of the next? The Wine Trail, which can trace its winemaking history back to 1866, is composed of wineries lining the east and west sides of Seneca Lake, full of beautiful fall foliage in a serene environment. Most wine tastings, in which you can taste five to seven local wines while overlooking Seneca Lake, cost $3 to $7 (generally) making for a pretty cheap yet blurry afternoon out. With the variety of personality that each vineyard exhibits, you can’t really get bored (or sober).

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2. The Windmill Farm & Craft Market is the first craft market in upstate New York, with the numbers to prove it – they receive an average of 9,000 visitors a week. With about 200 shops, they sell all kinds of cool stuff like leather goods, homemade pastries, jewelry, knitwear, toys and games and a million other things, mostly being sold by the Amish. Even though the market itself lies about 30 minutes away from from the other main attractions of Seneca Lake, it is worth the scenic and relaxing drive up the New York countryside.

3. Watkins Glen State Park may cost $8 to get in, but it is also, and rightly so, the most famous of the New York state parks due to the 19 waterfalls cascading down 200-foot cliffs within two miles. Hikers can travel the trail, equipped with their walking shoes, to capture this truly spellbinding winding walk. You can’t miss the spray of Cavern Cascade or the various pools, especially in this season made for the outdoors.

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4. Finger Lakes National Forestbecause what’s the outdoors without a hearty hike? Check out this park, which features 30 miles of interconnecting trails that will take you to pastures, forests, ravines and gorges. This is especially a great spot if you’re equipped with a horse, mountain bike or binoculars (for some quality wildlife watching).

5. Boating on Seneca Lake is an obvious must-do when you’re staying on, umm, Seneca Lake. If you’re not lucky enough to have a nearby friend with a boat like we did (sorry), then don’t miss the opportunity to travel on an uncrowded body of water by booking a trip on one of the excursions. Try out Schooner Excursions, which go for $29 to $49 depending on the time of day of the cruise.

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