by Joshua Maloni
Mike Shubic, one half of the Rand McNally/USA Today "Best of the Road" "Best for Food" team the "Road Bros," returned to Lewiston this week - but not to judge its culinary offerings.
"I met so many wonderful people here in the Niagara and Lewiston area, I thought it was just a great opportunity to come back, visit, and enjoy some of the things that I didn't get an opportunity to do while I was here," he said Thursday. "It's been fantastic."
It was almost one year ago that Shubic and Brian Cox visited Lewiston, which had won the online "Best for Food" vote in the 2012 Best Small Towns in America competition. In a three-day period, the "Road Bros" explored and dined at nearly every village restaurant.
Though Lewiston made a strong case, Santa Fe - and its signature pepper - scored better with the judges. The New Mexico town ultimately claimed the "Best for Food" title.
"It wasn't just our decision. We presented our findings to the panel of judges at 'Best of the Road,' " Shubic said. "I think one of the things that really stood out for Santa Fe was they have such a culinary identity. ... Everything is wrapped around this chile. I mean, from breakfast, lunch and dinner. Even in their desserts there's a yin and yang between the spicy - the heat, the savories - and the sweets. I think that's what really stood out is they just really had a culinary identity. And they had just an abundance of restaurants.
"While Lewiston was fantastic, I think, maybe the sheer size was another differentiating factor."
Shubic and Cox, both online travel video bloggers ("vloggers"), lived up to their "Road Bros" name last summer, making stops in Charlottesville, Va.; Burnsville, Minn.; Bloomington, Ind.; Walla Walla, Wash.; Santa Fe and Lewiston.
"The experience was, honestly, one of the best times, and one of the worst times of my life," Shubic said. "It was so much fun; it was so interesting; it was such a unique opportunity to really feel like a rock star going into these towns. It was a surreal experience."
In Lewiston, the "Road Bros" were given a police escort into the village, and were heartily welcomed by hundreds of community members. Shubic and Cox received a key to the village, VIP access to local attractions, and even a serenade.
"On the flip side, we were going nonstop for over a month. Every single day working 14, 16 hours at least," Shubic said. "And just being on the go all that time, I mean, you had no time for anything personal, whatsoever. You had all these obligations to write, to do videos and everything. It was just very overwhelming to be able to handle all of that - and then to be 'on,' if you will, in front of the camera; with the guests that we were dining with. It was emotionally draining.
"By the end, I think I must've taken a month off. Just not talking to anyone. Just kind of trying to get caught up."
Shubic has resumed traveling and has kept busy since wrapping up his "Best of the Road" commitments.
"I've been doing a lot of stuff for mikesroadtrip.com," he said. "I've been traveling a lot. Most recently, I went from Arizona; I spent five weeks going up to Toronto for the annual North American Travel Blogger Convention. I made a lot of stops along the way. I've been on a lot of press trips. I went to Puerto Rico. Just traveling around the country. And I'm planning on spending about two months in eastern Canada. I've been all over BC, Alberta and Nova Scotia, but nowhere in between."
This week, Shubic was spending time in Niagara County, lodging in downtown Niagara Falls and touring the canal region, the Wine Trail and Old Fort Niagara, courtesy of the Niagara Tourism and Convention Corp.
"We went to Carmelo's yesterday, which, obviously, was a stop on the 'Best of the Road' - and it was also one of my top five favorite restaurants in Lewiston," he said. "I did a post on the top five best restaurants in Lewiston. They were one of them."
Shubic said his time on the road last summer bolstered his desire to find more places like Lewiston.
"I think one of the things, which I thought was so wonderful about 'Best of the Road,' is that it kind of dovetails what I do for 'Mike's Road Trip,' and that's kind of trying to discover these small towns in small-town America. Because I think they're kind of the unsung hero in the heartland of America," he said. "Everybody goes to New York or LA or San Diego or Seattle, but not a lot of people go out of their way to go to small-town America. And so I really enjoy discovering these small towns that exceed my expectations.
"And Lewiston was one that absolutely exceeded my expectations. I didn't expect it to be so charming. I didn't expect there to be so many fantastic restaurants, and the sites being right there by the river. I was highly impressed."
Lee Simonson, who led the volunteer charge for Lewiston in the "Best of the Road" competition, said the village, even in defeat, was the beneficiary of a multitude of riches. He cited "priceless national exposure on the Travel Channel," Rand McNally/USA Today's inclusion of Lewiston as a "Top Ten Best Small Towns in America" destination; and subsequent videos produced by Shubic "that showed Lewiston at its best."
"Lewiston proved, once again, the power of volunteerism," Simonson said. "The entire effort was initiated and organized by a group of citizens that had no name and no budget. And yet, we successfully competed against some of the top professional marketing organizations in the U.S."
In addition to revisiting Lewiston, Shubic recently reconnected with Cox.
"Funny enough, we actually were on the same press trip - completely unbeknownst to one another until maybe right beforehand - in Puerto Rico," he said. "We went on this amazing press trip put on by Diamond PR, and it was in conjunction with San Juan Marriott and the Puerto Rico tourism board.
"They sent six travel video bloggers down there, and we had several days to go around the island - they gave us a car - filming. And then we came back and had a day-and-a-half to edit. And then they had a film festival, where we presented our videos. They had, maybe, 100-plus people that were all in the travel-tourism sector viewing our videos. They had a panel of judges. And then they also had a viewer's choice award, which I ended up winning. So, that was fun."
Find out more about Shubic, and his travels, online atwww.mikesroadtrip.com.