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Hey, ho and away we go! Donkey riding in the Douro

The original choice for our Fall vacation was the Exodus trip Walking the Prosecco Hills, but when we went to book it, they had only one spot left. So we switched to Portugal: Walking and Wine. This was classed as a Premium trip, meaning 4- and 5-star hotels, and was rated a walking level 1, suggesting easier walking than our previous level 2 Exodus trips. We were a bit concerned that October in the Douro region could be somewhat rainy, but we figured we’d just prepare for that possibility and hope for the best.

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The area we’d be visiting

Day 1: The Canadian invasion

A definite plus for this trip was the direct flights from Toronto to Porto, even though the choices were two budget airlines: Air Transat or Air Canada Rouge. We went with Rouge, as it had a better itinerary.

Though it was (Canadian) Thanksgiving weekend, things went really smoothly at Pearson: Baggage drop, check-in, boarding… We even had time (before boarding) for an unusually good airport meal at Lee’s (as in Chef Susur Lee). The flight itself took off on time and actually arrived early. Rouge does have older planes without back-of-seat screens (there’s an app you can use to watch movies on your tablet), but at least we were in a row of just two seats, on the side, which was nice.

We had a bit of wait until our Exodus transport would show up (timed for the British flight scheduled for a couple hours later), so we had some lunch and picked up a local SIM card: $30 for 5 GB of data, baby! Great service at the Vodaphone booth, as well.

The British flight ended up delayed by an extra hour, but by then the Exodus people were there anyway and agreed to drive us and one other person who’d already arrived to the hotel at the original time. We faced a long, slow lineup to check in at the hotel, but once we got to our room, we found that it was fine.

The group meeting was at 5:00. We met our two guides, Ricardo and Luis, and the rest of the group. We’d been expecting mostly Brits, as on previous tours, but of the other 14, only three were British (one of them currently residing in California, which left her with wicked jet lag). There was an Australian couple. And everybody else was Canadian! 11 strong. Other than the Brits and us, everyone else had been doing other touring around Portugal before joining the walking trip. (We did have an extra two days tacked onto the end.)

No organized dinner this evening, so we walked Porto’s twisty streets and found a small (literally, the width of an aisle) tapas restaurant to eat in. We tried a few different dishes that were all good, especially the goat cheese melt, and each had a glass of white vino verde. Jean also had a bit of port with dessert.

Church in Porto (photos by Jean, unless otherwise noted)

Day 2: Walking in the valley

In the morning after breakfast (breakfast was included with the hotel each day, all of them offering a very nice buffet), we left our hotel for the Meso Frio region, a couple of hours’ drive away. Our first stop was a coffee shop, and then we embarked upon one of the more strenuous hikes of the trip, in terms of elevation change. (In length it was 7 km.) It was still easier than many on the other Exodus trips we’d been on, but a vigorous start to this trip. The day was gorgeous.

The scenery wasn’t super spectacular on this one, but we saw a lot of agriculture products growing (walnuts, kale, lemons, grapes…), and some sheep.

We had a bag lunch on the trail, then after the hike (which was a definite challenge for some in the group), we were driven to our new hotel. It was in a vineyard, and was very fine.

Not exactly roughing it in Portugal

Dinner was at the hotel. The food was palatable but not outstanding. It was becoming clear this would be a fun group, though.

Day 3: Going to market to learn about port

This day’s walk was only about 4 km, and all on winery grounds. It was another beautiful day, and we got some great views of the just astonishing terraces of the Douro region. They are just everywhere, and so elaborate!

Terraces in the background

And terraces in the foreground (photo by Helen)

Mid-point through the hike, Ricardo said that those who wanted could go off on an extra little jog to see something special. Many on the trip thought he was saying that it was a market we were going to—though that was a bit confusing, as it was in kind of an isolated, rural place that required some climbing: How were people going to get their wares up there?

Then we arrived a rectangular rock. What Ricardo had been actually saying, in his Portuguese accent, was that we were going to see a marker. Basically, a stone signpost demarcating the official Douro wine region. The placement of these–there are some 300 in total–were an important phase in the development of this wine industry. But a lot of the group was in giggles at their thought that we were going to market.

Ricardo and the marker of the Douru region (photo by Helen)

Our lunch at the end of the hike was at a winery called Quinta do Tedo. It was a buffet with cheese, quiche, cod cakes, chutney, and of course, wine.

We then got a tour and a bit of a primer on the port-making process. At this particular, relatively small, winery, they still used foot crushing for the port-destined grapes. (At least, I don’t think he was kidding about that—our guide here definitely was a kidder.) Though it should be noted that they use the same grapes for port as they do for red wine—just process them differently. Tawny port is aged in much smaller barrels than ruby, imparting more of the wood taste into the drink. Vintage ports are made only in exceptional years. They keep aging in the bottle, but must be drunk pretty quickly once opened. The non-vintage do not age after bottling, but once opened, can be kept for up to year without deterioration.

We then tasted the port: A rose (a type I’d never had before), a tawny, and a ruby. All of them were good and smooth, but the rose was the sweetest, and the tawny was my favorite overall.

Our next stop was the Douro museum, dedicated to the history of wine-making in the region. We got an interesting guided tour of it. Wine-making in the past was extremely labour-intensive!

Back at our hotel, we found a bunch of MG’s in the parking lot. Sadly, they weren’t for us. An MG hobby group were holding a meeting here.

Just a few of the MGs in the parking lot

For dinner that night, we drove into the nearby (15 minutes) town. Big group dinners are always a challenge, but this restaurant managed it pretty well. Ricardo warned us that the entrees were quite large and best shared. Jean was insistent on having veal stew, while I tend not to eat veal, so I shared a salmon dinner with one of the singles on the trip. It was prepared very nicely, and served with good potatoes and cabbage/carrot mix. Jean did a masterful job on his generous serving of veal stew.

Day 4: Vertigo on a rail line, and death at a funeral

We were moving on again, but a full day of activities before arriving at the new hotel. Today’s hike was the longest of the trip, at 10 km, but was mostly flat: a former rail line. The day was once again gorgeous.

Turns out we needn’t have worried about October weather in Portugal

There wasn’t too much drama on this trail, except that to save time, we were encouraged to cross a bridge with openings looking down on a fairly big drop. There was a railing and all, so I thought it would be OK, but once I got on it, the vertigo set in and the heart started racing. I couldn’t get across it fast enough, so every time the group stopped (probably just twice) was kind of torturous. But we all survived it without any obvious panic attacks. (One group member, Carolyn, did so by taking an alternate route down and around the bridge instead, with the second guide.)

The scary bridge (photo by Helen)

After the walk, we were driven to Casa de Mateus, a beautiful property belonging to a member of Portugal’s royal family. Its association with the Mateus bubbly rose wine from Portugal is tenuous: that winery just got permission to use the image of the estate in its branding.

We got a tour of the chapel and the lovely rooms full of art, including the very impressive library, then had some time to wander on our own through the beautiful gardens.

One of the more stunning pieces in the Mateus collection

The goal here was to make a mini Versaille

Our next stop was at the waterfalls in Alvao Natural Park, but they really aren’t that impressive this time of year. Not much water falling.

A more interesting view than the waterfall

Dinner that night was at our new hotel, which was also lovely, and, it turned out, served some of the best food we had on the trip (goat cheese on croute, sea bass or lamb main, creme brulee… All very well prepared). Making it easier to forgive the sometimes choppy service. One thing we learned on this trip was that vinho verde comes in red and rose as well as white. We shared a bottle of the red with the Australian couple. It’s definitely unusual—tastes kind of like a fresh white, but with extra tannin—but when else are you going to be able to drink it? [Red green wine: very Canadian!]

The group was in great spirits, and one point everyone within proximity was in hysterical laughter over Cheryl’s descriptions of scenes from the movie Death at a Funeral—even though most of us had never seen it. It was just contagious laughter. That only accelerated when her acting out of one scene had her backing into another table. Fortunately, the couple sitting there were good sports about it. (I guess I need to watch Death at Funeral now. It is on Netflix. I was warned to watch the British version, not the American.)

Day 5: Winery, oui oui oui! Octopus, non non non!

Today’s walk was through another winery, Quinta das Escomoeiras, which offered longer and more challenging terrain than our previous winery walk. And it was lovely weather again.

We then got a tour by the winery owner, who purchased the vineyard 24 years ago, after a career as an economist. It required a lot of rehabilitation before becoming a going concern. He explained where the name vinho verdo (green wine) came from. In the early years, they planted the grape vines too close together, and therefore didn’t produce a very good quality product. It was low alcohol and actually had a bit of a green tinge. They improved the process and the product later on, but the name stuck.

As vinho verde is a food wine, instead of a tasting it on its own, we had the opportunity to try the white, rose, and red with a delicious buffet lunch. It was a leisurely meal on the patio, with a distinct feeling amongst the group that we could just stay here all day.

Roughing it in the bush

Our favourite wine was the rose, which I considered purchasing, given that I don’t know that we can get anything but white vinho verde back home? (A Google search says that yes, I can.) But ultimately I decided against carting a bottle of wine around for the rest of the trip, and instead bought a small bottle of dried stevia. (Fernando also grew a number of herbs on his property.)

We were eventually convinced to get back into the vans for a ride back to the hotel, with a little stop at a grocery store on the way. We agreed to go into town for dinner this evening. It was a small, family-run restaurant (not a big town, so not sure what else they’d have there), with a somewhat limited menu, but fine for us (and not so much for those who aren’t into fish, seafood, or pork). Jean, I, and Cheryl, sitting next to us all decided to try one of the specialties: octopus in olive oil. It arrived in the form of a large tentacle on the plate (with veggies on the side).

Helen, sitting opposite us, could hardly stand it. She was totally turned off by the look of this food, and was facing three plates of it! (It was actually quite tasty and tender.) Unfortunate, but kind of funny, from our perspective.

I believe that it’s about this point in the trip that we started doing singalongs in the van. (Wine might have played a role in all this.) One song that kept making everyone laugh was “Donkey Riding” (which I think of as a Great Big Sea tune, but it’s actually an old sea shanty). Apparently some people in Alberta used to sing that song in school. “It’s so stupid!” said Cheryl. “Was you ever in Quebec, riding on a donkey? What…? Why did they teach us that?”

Some questions have no answers.

Another one, courtesy Jean, was “Chevalier de la table ronde”, with everyone joining in on the “Oui, oui, oui!” / “Non, non, non!” parts. Kind of an appropos song for this wine-soaked journey.

Day 6: A little rain and a near-death experience in California

The first rain of the trip occurred overnight, but mostly petered out by the time we started the day’s 8 km walk, along a waterway. There are a few tricky bits through some water-covered parts, but nothing we couldn’t manage (though a couple of group members did opt to skip this one, and Helen got a minor injury from slipping on a rock).

The waterway walk

Afterward, we drove up to a chapel on a (small) mountain that we’d been able to see from our hotel. Driving up there, on twisty roads near the edge, Caroline rather casually told us about how she’d been on similar roads in California when the bus driver had a massive heart attack and died, causing the bus to lurch over the edge. Thanks to fast action from one passenger, greater disaster was averted, and everyone ultimately managed to evacuate with only minor injuries.

But I can see why Carolyn isn’t so fond of heights and was rather tense during this drive.

In less death-defying news, the clouds had cleared enough by this time so we were able to take in the views from there. (Those who skipped the hike also joined us here.)

The chapel

The views

Given a choice between the hotel and the octopus restaurant, the group almost unanimously selected the hotel. Jean and I both had a duck with rice dish called arroz de pato that I’d like to find a recipe for. (And also of the caldo verde we had a few times—a kale-based soup that is really nice.)

Day 7: “An air of melancholy has settled over the group”

The morning before leaving, Jean took some lovely photos at our hotel. People were a bit more subdued this day, as the trip was drawing to a close. “An air of melancholy has settled over the group,” Carolyn observed.

We headed back to Porto, and the original hotel. On arrival, we put our luggage in storage, and Ricardo gave us a bit of a city tour: the train station, Cafe Majestic, Se de Porto, Dom Luis bridge… We crossed the bridge and ended up in Vila Nova de Gaia, the sister city.

This is where all the famous port is made: Taylor’s, Graham’s, Offley, Fonseca, Sandeman… Here we got another tour of one of them (not the biggest name), which provided a somewhat clearer explanation of the whole process than we’d received in Quinta do Tedo. (One more tidbit: late vintage ports are those they had thought might become vintage, but then decide aren’t quite good enough, so they stop the aging process by adding alcohol. So they become another that last a good while after opening. And are generally pretty nice ports.) Here they made white port as well as the other types. We warned that extra dry white port—still isn’t what most people would consider a dry wine.

We tasted a white and a tawny here. In this case we preferred the white.

We then had free time til dinner, so Jean and I wandered off in search of lunch. It was very busy in that area, but we did eventually find a recommended place to eat—a bit tricky to locate using Google because it was upstairs. Almost as soon as we sat down, we were offered white port. Sure, why not. The food was also good, a few tapas followed by a dish called Bacalhau à Brás (I think) that is quite popular in these parts—a mix of cod, potato, and egg.

We did some random ambling before checking in to the hotel and meeting the group for dinner, which was at a restaurant across the street. And was kind of a shambles! Orders mixed up. Bills incorrect. Timing way off. We ended up with two mini-bottles of wine after ordering one, and I believe we were over-charged for appetizers. But at least the food tasted OK.

We said our good-byes to everyone at the end, and then we had two days on our own.

Day 8: History, architecture, and a zombie hurricane

To start, we changed hotels, to one that was a little cheaper than the one included in our tour. It turned out very well. The room was a little smaller, but the location somewhat more convenient, and it had bathrobes! (I’m a sucker for getting a free bathrobe.)

We took a little stop at the local McDonald’s, which seems wrong, but this was very attractive one. (Also, the coffee there is pretty good, and I needed the restroom.)

Not your average McDonald’s

But the Ribeira / Vila Nova de Gaia is a very crowded area of town, so this day we decided to head to the Malagaia area.

Porto's tiled Church

Jean took a few photos on the way. This tiling is very characteristic of Porto

We visited the free Museum of Photography which, apart from exhibiting some photographs, also showed photographic equipment from years past, which was quite interesting!

Photography Museum

Photos in one minute! It’s easy! (That was a bit of an exaggeration, if you read the fine print…)

For lunch, we happened upon a Michelin-recommended restaurant that gave us one of the best meals of the trip. Highlights were Jean’s sea bass and my strawberry soup with basil ice cream for dessert.

Carpaccio of Pinnaple was terrific!

This pineapple dessert with port ice cream was also nice

Jean then agreed to go on a tour of the Casa de Musica, or music hall, that is a fairly recent addition to Porto. No photos, but it’s an architecturally interesting building with all sorts of nooks and crannies to tour—VIP rooms, babysitting area, floating bars in the window, acoustically perfect concert halls… Definitely worth the 8 euros and 1 hour to learn about it.

Rain was predicted for the evening, as Portugal was expecting its first-ever “zombie hurricane” (Hurricane Michael, rising from the dead). The epicentre of high winds wasn’t Porto, but certainly it got heavy rainfall. So we didn’t go too far for dinner. We found a slightly pricey but quite decent restaurant nearby to suit our needs.

Day 9: Potted Potter

In Porto, people line up to get into a bookstore called Lello. One reason they do this is that it’s a gorgeous building. The other is that JK Rowling was inspired by Porto to write Harry Potter. And I expect it’s the latter that really explains the crowds, as Porto has a lot of nice buildings.

We decided to do it. We got there at soon as it opened, at 9:30. There was already a line. You have to buy tickets to get in (credited against any book purchase), so we did that. After about 20 minutes in line, maybe, we were let in.

But it’s crazy in there. It is gorgeous, but so packed with people, it’s hard to appreciate. And forget about calmly perusing for something to read. They tell people not to be too loud in there, to not disrupt people trying to think (or whatever). As if anyone could get lost in thought in here! But at least, now we know.

After that, we decamped to the Museum of Art. It’s not a very big one, but did have some nice works, particularly sculptures. And it wasn’t crowded at all.

One of the gorgeous statues on display

After lunch at our new favourite restaurant in Porto, we did a little shopping. I got a purse made of cork (yes!) and a cute top. Jean bought a bag. Then it was a bit more walking, and a final dinner at a restaurant with a Madeira focus, that was quite pleasant.

The Catholic Glow!

Last day photo, and one of the best

The flight home, in contrast to our smooth departure one, was rather chaotic, with people lining up all over the place and impossible to hear announcements. And once on, we ended up having to wait an hour while they located and removed the bags of six people who didn’t make it onto the flight, for some reason. But then the flight generally went as well as can be expected, until my luggage didn’t show up.

The Air Canada attendant explained that my suitcase had ended up with the “connecting flight” ones—likely moved during that search for the bags to remove, one supposes. After 2 hours of waiting, it hadn’t make it onto the carousel, so they agreed to have it delivered to me. It did arrive on my doorstep by 6:00 AM the next day. (And that way we did beat the worst of rush hour traffic driving home from the airport, as Jean pointed out.)

A final song to finish, in salute to Carolyn, who seems to have played a rather prominent role in this blog post!


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Annual expedition to Lake Erie area

We seem to have made it a habit to visit the Lake Erie wine region about once a year. We’ve been liking it partly because it’s less crowded than the Niagara and Prince Edward County areas. But, seems that it, too, has been increasing in popularity recently. Though we didn’t wait til the last minute, we basically couldn’t find anywhere to stay in Kingsville. We ended up at a fine but uninspiring motel in the uninspiring nearby town of Leamington. We slept there but spent our days elsewhere.

Activities

The initially rainy forecast fortunately changed, and we had mostly sun on Friday and Saturday (though an incredible thunderstorm overnight Saturday) and just intermittent rain Sunday. Kingsville was having a Folk Festival, with Alan Doyle as the headliner. (That might have explained the difficulty finding a place to stay.) We decided not to get tickets for that, but did walk the grounds around there Friday night.

On Saturday, we did some hiking at Point Pelee park again. There were signs up that the stable flies were out (see: Be aware of the Stable Flies on Trip Advisor), so we stayed away from the tip, and we didn’t particularly notice them in other parts of the park.

We did see some less annoying wild life.

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On Sunday we spent some time in Amherstburg, particularly at Fort Malden. We hadn’t been before, and it was an interesting visit. The fort was placed there by the British to defend against the Americans—not always successfully, as it was also the site of the “longest American occupation on British soil.”

We were there in time to a see (and, especially, hear and feel) a canon firing by the staff. And as you see, there were also certain interesting canon-related statues.

Wineries

We did “official” tastings at three—Aleksander Estate, Muscedere, and North 42—and had lunch at Oxley Estate. The winning grapes across several wineries seemed to be the Pinot Gris, Rose (from either Cabernet Sauvignon or Franc grapes), and Cabernet Sauvignon. Aleksander had a Chambourcin, which is unusual—and a nice light red. North 42 were sadly out of their delicious Sauvignon Blanc sparkling, but did have a really interesting dry Gerwurtz. Muscedere had some very cute goats helping to tend the grounds; the Vidal named in their honour was nice and apple-y.

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We previously weren’t that impressed with Oxley’s wines (unlike their food), so weren’t going to bother doing a wine tasting there, but they did offer “wine flights” with lunch. That meant you got 2 oz. of any three wines of your choices. I did that, and along with Jean’s one glass, we found that their wines had quite improved. We especially liked their Pinot Gris and Auxerrois, both more complex fruity whites.

Restaurants

The guy doing the wine tasting at Aleksander suggested Merlis to us for dinner. We decided to try it. The owner was super chatty and loved to explain how he sourced all his ingredients as locally as possible and changed the menu up regularly. To help us decide what to eat he first for a hunger assessment on a scale of 1 to 10. As I was more of a 3 or 4 I was guided to the eggplant Parmesan—it was actually pretty light and quite tasty. Jean was hungrier had the meatloaf special (along with helping me with my side gnocchi).

We also discovered an incredible chocolate shop in Kingsville, by the simple name of Old Dutch Guys Chocolate. Some of the best truffles I’ve had in ages.

North 42 had opened a bistro restaurant that we looked forward to trying on Saturday. Unfortunately, the service was kind of choppy, and while the food wasn’t bad, it didn’t really blow us away. Nice room, though.

Overall best this time (as we didn’t make it Mettawas Station) was probably Oxley Estates. We arrived right a big rain storm had sent them scrambling (much of the seating is outdoors), but they were able to accommodate us promptly nonetheless. And our meal of a cheese platter for me and pickerel for Jean was quite nice.


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Discombobulated (or at least discomfited)

Been a bit quiet on my blogging front lately, but not for any major reason. Just that things have been a bit off—just off enough to prevent me from focusing on a blog post.

Canoe trip

Not mine, of course—Jean’s. He was away for two weeks in the northwest Ontario wilderness. No wifi. No cell service. Just a brief, one-way, satellite-delivered daily message giving location and brief status update.

Away from it all at Wabakimi Park

By a combination of organization and happenstance, I had enough activities booked at that time to keep me busy and stave off loneliness: barbecue with dance friends, dinner and lunch with other friends, an outing to Stratford with my sister and brother-in-law to see To Kill a Mockingbird, blood donation appointment, Canada Day fireworks, even an unusual number of meetings at work, including some over lunch and dinner.

But it was still all out of the ordinary: Jean being not only away but basically out of touch (I think “out of touch” is just harder to deal with in these days, when we expect everyone to always be in cell range), combined with so many other social activities.

I wonder if I’ve been changed in the night. Let me think. Was I the same when I got up this morning? I almost think I can remember feeling a little different. But if I’m not the same, the next question is ‘Who in the world am I?’ Ah, that’s the great puzzle!

— Alice, Alice in Wonderland

Renovation

Another activity during canoe trip time was cleaning out the main bathroom and master bedroom, in preparation for these rooms getting renovated. This involved going through piles of stuff and resulted, in a time, in these rooms looking cleaner than they had in years. A good thing, albeit with the side effect of making even my bedroom looking slightly strange, which was vaguely off-putting.

Buffy: But it seemed perfectly normal.
Xander: But disturbing, and not the natural order of things and do you think it’ll happen again?

Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Once More with Feeling

When Jean got back, we moved the big pieces out of the rooms. This proved somewhat easier than we’d feared (most items could be broken down into smaller, lighter pieces), and also put an end to parts of the house looking neater, as we had to find space for everything in the remaining rooms. We tried piling the mattress on top of the guest bed mattress, but that made the bed we had to sleep in comically tall, so instead we propped the mattress up against the wall, making the already cramped guest room considerably more cramped. Our second bathroom is, similarly, hopeless cluttered with items from the main bathroom.

The first day of renovation is what they call the “tear down,” when they take out all the old stuff to make way for the new. Here’s the before and after:

So if I thought the house felt a bit alien before…

Weekend away

Since we had tickets to Rocky Horror Show on a Thursday of that first renovation week (of a total four or five, they predict), I figured why not stay on and make a long weekend of it. Jean wasn’t able to get time off right after that long canoe trip, but that just meant a slightly commute for him back to work Friday while I explored Stratford.

Really, in the scheme of things, it was the most normal I’d felt in weeks.

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Me with my people

So now I’ll catch up on some recommendations that I might have have made had I been blogging more regularly…

Wining and dining

One of the dinners out in KW was at King Street Trio, which I hadn’t been to in years. It was a pleasant surprise. For one thing, it’s a nice quiet place, and those are increasingly hard to come by. For another, importantly, the food was quite good.

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King Street Trio always has oysters on offer

And while you might wonder a bit at the pricing, note that they offer 30% / 20% / 10% discounts on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, respectively. We were there on a Tuesday, so that worked out well for us! Apart from our waitress being in a bit of a hurry for us to order drinks before the group had arrived, it was a good night out, and I’d go again.

Friday night, Jean and I decided to book a fancier dinner in Stratford for our pending anniversary next week, namely at The Prune dining room. It has to be said that the service on arrival was a bit chaotic. They initially forgot to give us menus… It took ages, and a few repeated requests, to get water… Our matching wines didn’t always make it out before the food it was to match… And while it’s true we arrived at the time they would have been trying to get a bunch of tables finished in time for the 8:00 theatre, that should be something any Stratford restaurant learns to get a handle on. And The Prune isn’t new.

Still, they did such a good job with the food, and the wine matching, that we just couldn’t stay mad. (We never really got that angry, to be clear.) Talented chefs, my friends! Particularly with vegetables. Never had such fresh and light pea and ham soup. The smoked tuna with tomatoes and olive was astonishing. The chicken overshadowed by the creamy mashed potatoes and intense morels. Cheese tortellini similar outdone by the spring vegetable ragout it came in.

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Jean with his cheese plate finale (and new beard)

After Stratford, on Saturday, we headed off Goderich way to spend some more time touring before heading home. On the way, Jean recalled that someone had recommended a winery in these parts, so near Seaforth, we visited Maelstrom Winery.

We looked super eager, because we were there right at the crack of 11:00, when they opened. That meant we got the full attention as the only patrons. We talked to the wine maker about his trials and tribulations in getting the winery going. Being new, they’re still in the experimental phase, but we did find some wines we quite liked: A smooth vidal, a refreshing frontenac blanc, and a really nice blend of cabernet franc and baco noir. They also have this wine called the abyss which is a blend of five varietals, resulting in a truly unique taste.

You heard it here first (maybe?): Ontario’s newest wine region—Lake Huron.

It’s not TV, it’s Netflix

While cleaning out rooms, I did watch the much-discussed Nanette Netflix special. (If you haven’t heard about it, here’s a New York Times round-up of its many positive reviews.) I  would recommend it, as long as you know not to expect a barrel of laughs here. (There are laughs, just not a barrel of them.)

But I was struck by how many people said they’d never heard of Hannah Gadsby, which means that they’ve never watched Please Like Me on Netflix. A series whose four (short) seasons I recently polished off.

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A scene from one of my favorite episodes of Please Like Me, in which Josh and his parents have a multi-course menu surprise at a fancy restaurant

I don’t know if that the show is everyone’s cup of tea? It’s basically an Australian comedy about a group of friends in their early 20s. It’s just that it also regularly, and honestly, deals with some heavy issues, notably mental illness (but also abortion, homophobia, STDs). So it too, definitely has laughs. Just not always a barrel of them. I grew quite fond of the characters, though.

Stratford culture

The two plays I’ve seen so far this season—To Kill a Mockingbird and Richard O’Brien’s Rocky Horror Show—have both been extended, so I clearly went with the popular picks. Both are indeed very good. To Kill a Mockingbird is framed by having the adult Scout look back on her childhood from the vantage point of the 60s civil rights movement, and that works well. The child actors are terrific and the story remains affecting (bring the kleenex!).

Rocky Horror, on the other hand, is presented as pure fun. This is actually the third live production of this I’ve seen, and of course—given that the other two were amateur productions—this had the best singers (incredible voices), the most inventive choreography (it’s the Time Warp—but updated!), and fantastic costumes: particularly flattering to fine male forms on display, I have to say.

But for all that, I don’t know that I enjoyed this more than those productions—I’d just say equally. This thing just really works live. So if you haven’t yet experienced it, Stratford is a good place to start.

My Friday afternoon matinee performance at Stratford was not a play, though, but a perform by Steven Page (formerly of The Barenaked Ladies) and the Art of Time, doing a series of songs by the likes of Leonard Cohen, The Beatles, Gord Downie, Jane Siberry, Elvis Costello, David Bowie, and yes, The Barenaked Ladies…

The Art of Time uses contemporary composers to arrange pop songs for piano, violin, saxophone, bass, guitar, and cello. I generally love the results. I was in the fifth row for this show, and the set list was right up my alley. Steven Page is interesting in how he can be so funny in his banter, and some of his performances, but also be “you can hear a pin drop” serious in conveying the angst of songs like Elvis Costello’s “I Want You”. The ensemble will be doing a number of shows in this, their tenth anniversary year, so you might to check that out.

They also did this one at Stratford: “Entourage” by Steven Page.


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Finding things to do in Ottawa

  • Why don’t you use Air Bnb?
  • Why does anyone stay in hotels anymore?
  • A whole apartment in Budapest for just $60!

After hearing reports like the above for a couple of years now, ith our Ottawa leg, we decided to give this Air Bnb thing a whirl. We wanted a place close to downtown, that would be self-contained, and cheaper than a hotel (or why bother)? We picked one that met those qualifications and otherwise seemed OK, per photos and reviews.

We got there and… Well… It sure was a contrast to the Château Frontenac in Québec City.

The place was kind of… run down. Creaky, uneven floors. What looked like a hole punched in the wall. Water pooling at the bottom of the fridge. Trash strewn around out back. An electrical outlet of dubious safety. And we could really hear the next-door neighbours.

On the other hand, it was basically clean, we spotted no insects of any sort, the location was very convenient, it had a strong the wifi signal, and after a visit to the Byward Market to add fresh fruit and Montreal-style bagels to our arsenal of produce from Ile d’Orléans, we made ourselves the best breakfasts of the trip.

Still, now I have an answer when people ask, why would anyone stay in a hotel anymore?


Ottawa during the golden hour

Unlike our accommodations, Ottawa looked very regal while we were there

Our first Ottawa dinner was at Fairouz, a restaurant specializing in high-end Middle Eastern food. It’s a smallish place, and somewhat noisy, but with very good service. We had with spicy olives, salmon pastourma, lamb kofte, and date cake for dessert. It definitely was a step above your typical Middle Eastern food—but that type of food still isn’t our favourite.

We then had to decide what to do with ourselves in Ottawa, a city we visit rather more often than Québec City. We decided to give the Museum of History another chance, now that the Canadian History Hall was open. They also had a special exhibit on The Franklin Expedition that was of interest, especially since we’d been watching AMC’s The Terror.

The walk to the Museum of History

The Franklin Expedition exhibit was really terrific. It was interactive and laid out in a way that gave a good sense of what the men went through. The bit about the recent discovery of the two lost ships was featured less than I expected it would be, but it was featured.

The Canadian History Hall, which is on two floors, is also really well done. It starts with Native history and their story gets included throughout, much more than if this Hall had been put together a decade or so ago, I suspect. We then get the stories of the French explorers and settlers (and the Filles du Roy), the Acadians, the United Empire Loyalists. We revisit Confederation, Louis Riel, the building of the railroad. Exhibits continue on to more current events: the world wars, Expo 67, Trudeaumania (the first), the two Quebec Referendum, the October Crisis, the legalization of gay marriage, the Idle No More movement, and so on.

It was all very interesting, and we ended up spending far more time at that museum than we’d expected to. At one point we took a lunch break to eat at the fairly indifferent (nowhere near as good as Apsara) Thai restaurant across the street (the Green Papaya), then headed back. We were there til 3:30.

The day had turned lovely, so we then did some ambling about Ottawa. I also stopped off at clothing boutique near the Air Bnb, featuring local designers. I tried on a number of items and did end up purchasing a pretty cute little black dress (about $120).

Look what happens when you have guests ... what a mess!

Ottawa

For dinner, we met up with some friends at Play Food and Wine. The service was a bit error-prone: a cheese plate including blue cheese despite an allergy having been reported to that very thing; duplicated dishes arriving when different dishes had been ordered. But everything got rectified and we did enjoy our various small dishes, though nothing especially stood out this time.

Saturday was predicted to be rainy, but in the end, less rain fell than expected. We started the day at National Gallery. It was partly under construction, and featured no special exhibits, but we hadn’t been in a few years, and so just enjoyed the regular collection, particularly the European and American works.

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Jean was there!

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So were camels!

We then had a decent lunch in the Market area, resisted the offerings at the Poutine festival on Sparks Street, and did some shopping around the Bank street area, mainly picking up books and magazines (like, on paper!). The independent coffee shops all seemed to be overflowing with patrons, so made our way to Starbucks at the Chapters.

Our final dinner of the trip was at the Beckta Wine Bar, and it was quite lovely. We started with some oysters, and both had the Parisian gnocchi (ricotta, asparagus, pine nuts, peas), which was worth doubling up on. (I suspect we had dessert as well, though I can’t remember what, now.) Service was very good (not error-prone) and helpful with the wine matching.

A nice ending to this leg of the trip. Then it a blessedly uneventful drive home on Sunday (during which we didn’t quite finish Ready Player One).


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Visiting l’accent de l’Amérique

Our next destination after Prince Eward County was Québec City—currently branding itself as l’accent de l’Amérique, which is kind of clever. The 6-hour drive there seemed rather long, and a bit of a waste of another nice day, but we passed the time listening to the audiobook of Ready Player One, a fun, near-future sci-fi novel recently turned Stephen Spielberg movie. (The audiobook was read by Will Wheaton, which made one detail in the novel especially amusing.)

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Guess what was playing in Picton while we were there? Didn’t see it, though; didn’t want to spoil the book

We had booked a room at the fancy and historic Château Frontenac, which was having anniversary specials. So we had the door man, and concierge services, and a great, central location. The room was just one of their “basic” ones, but it was still a good size and comfortable.

Chateaux Frontnac lobby

Our modest little hotel

And the outside of it. It’s huge! You can get lost in its corridors.

We had wanted to have dinner at Toast, but—cue the jokes—Toast was closed due to fire. So we booked (or really, had the concierge book for us) at their sister restaurant, Simple Snack Sympathique, or SSS. We found it just as delightful as we remembered Toast being, with creative food combinations and lovely presentation. I had the Québec Exquis special, which was a prix fixe of three courses all incorporating maple syrup in some way. (Québec Exquis was a one-week period in which Québec restaurants featured three-course, prix-fixe menus built around items from québecois food producers .)

First up for me was snow crab, then duck (the maple sauce was amazing), then maple éclair. Jean went with the regular menu for foie gras, smoked pork, then fromage fermier (farmer cheese!) for dessert.

Tastes as good as it looks

We enjoyed a selection of wines from the Languedoc region with that—also part of the Québec Exquis special. (By the way, we had no idea before leaving that all these restaurant specials would be on.)

Jean took to getting up early for photos, while I had more leisurely mornings. Worked out for both of us.

How the world looks to morning people, apparently

Our first full day there, after a joint breakfast (not at the hotel), we walked down rue St-Jean, the shopping street outside the Old Town. This time we didn’t find too many treasures worth buying, though: just a bargain-priced collection of sheet music, for me.

We’d never been to Ile D’Orléans before—an island about a 30-minute drive from Québec—and had been planning to visit it this trip. But after driving around Prince Edward County, which is nearly an island, visiting various food-related destinations, we weren’t sure if we wanted to get back in the car and do the same here? On the map provided by the hotel, though, I noticed that there were bus tours we could take to the island. So we signed up for La route des saveurs, starting at 2:00, and running for 2.5 hours

Joining us on the tour—which started right at our hotel—was a friendly couple from Carolina, on an anniversary vacation, and two young women from South Korea, in Canada for what seemed like an absurdly short time for such a long trip. We found out that a popular South Korean show was filmed in Québec City, leading to an increased number of Korean tourists going there and looking for the “red door”. (CBC story: How a popular Korean soap opera is drawing Asian tourists to Quebec City.)

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Not the red door, but still a cool shot of Old Québec

Our guide was a lively young man with an enthusiasm for both Québec and the culinary products of Ile d’Orléans. Being early spring, with snow still in the fields, the island landscape wasn’t as lovely as it presumably becomes when plants are in bloom. So, we don’t have too many photos from this part. But, we did enjoy the tastings at each stop.

  1. Chocolaterie: Your typical artisanale chocolate shop, except that they also had an ice cream shop with chocolate-dipped cones. We enjoyed the chocolate maple sample, and bought another set of maple-based chocolates for later consumption, but resisted the ice cream, figuring that would give us a sugar overload too early in the tour.
  2. Maison Smith: A coffee shop where we sampled a maple latte. Normally I don’t care for sweetened coffees, but this one had a very light touch with the maple, and I quite enjoyed it. The owner gave an interesting overview of his business as well. We bought some ground coffee here, for planned use at our Ottawa accommodations.
  3. Sucrerie: Probably the most interesting stop, as the maple syrup was currently being gathered here and we got an overview of the whole process. We tasted various strengths of maple syrup and the maple jelly, which we bought a jar of.
  4. Cidrerie Bilodeau: Here they make dry and sweet apple ciders of various types, from dry sparkling to iced apple, any of which we were able to sample. We bought a cassis / apple blend that we figured could make interesting kir-like drinks. And also a jar of the most delicious apple butter I’ve ever had. Should have bought more. [There was no obligation to buy things at each stop. We just did.]
  5. Nougaterie: Run by an originally European couple who immigrated to Canada and established this business. They had nougat in an extraordinary range of flavors, all super-fresh as it was made on the premises. We restricted ourselves to purchasing a single salt caramel bar. Amazing-tasting caramel, though.
  6. Cassis Mona et Fille: Probably the most famous destination on the island. They make a range of products based on cassis (black currant), and gave us an overview of them all. In the summer, they also run a restaurant that is supposed to be quite good. All the drinks were lovely, but we especially blown away by the creme de cassis, which we bought (more kir!). We also got some cassis mustard (yes, it’s purple).

All that eating did not stop us from going out to eat later! We went back to an old favourite, Thai restaurant Apsara. We had one of the set menus that is a real bargain, even when we upgraded the included wine to be a Blanquette de Limoux. Each course was fresh and delicious. And the ladies got a lovely change purse as a gift at the end.

Assortment of Thai desserts—and note the cool teapot

The next morning we spent more time wandering in the Old Town, as we’d previously been rushing through it.

 The afternoon we spent at the Québec Art Gallery, which has only modern and contemporary works. Our favourites were the Inuit sculptures, which were just amazing. The building was formerly a prison, and we also had a look at the old cells. Not big!

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One of the exhibits at the Quebec Art Gallery. (Photo by me, hence the blurri-ness.)

Our last dinner in Quebec, on a somewhat rainy evening, was at Le St. Amour. We’ve always loved Le St. Amour. It’s in this gorgeous, high-ceiling roomed with a sunroof. And the food is always amazing. It didn’t disappoint this time, either.

We started off the evening trying to work in French—French menus, speaking French to the waiters (an ongoing amusement of the trip was Québecois complimenting Jean on how good his French was, for an Ontario. Well, I hope so.). But we detected a bit of an anglo accent from one of our waiters—bit unusual in these parts—and it turned out he was originally Australian! And still had that accent in English.

L’amuse bouche at Le St. Amour. Or as they call it in English, the amuse bouche. (Food just sounds better in French.)

So he was happy to English-it-up with us, and then we were hopelessly back in English-land with everyone, with even the native Québec waiters. Oh well!

This part will come as a shock to you all, but I had the Québec Exquis special, while Jean ordered off the regular menu! For me this meant a main course of escargot and Jerusalem artichokes, a main course of duck, and a chocolate mousse-themed dessert.

Dessert

Jean started with foie gras, then had a lamb leg and ground lamb ravioli, and concluded with a cheese plate. We shared a bottle of Languedoc red, a Grenache-Syrah blend (no Mourvedre). With dessert I had a red banyuls (“a little French love letter to chocolate”, is how this wine is described) while Jean was recommended a sherry, which he enjoyed.

Cheese for dessert

A great capper to a very enjoyable visit. Our next stop on the way home was Ottawa.


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Traveling between storms

This year in Ontario, the spring thaw was very much delayed: March and April were just persistently cold, and occasionally snowy. (Apparently, this was somehow due to melting in the Arctic, pushing the cold down to us.) It was capped off, April 14 weekend, with a terrible ice storm that made driving treacherous and caused power outages. (and wasn’t even that pretty). The only sensible thing to do was hunker down at home. Fortunately, we had no plans anyway, so that was pretty easy for us to do (and we luckily did not lose power).

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The ice storm produced more clear, deadly ice than the pretty white frosty (though also dangerous) kind

Then this past weekend, large swatches of southern Ontario had crazy high winds that knocked down trees, shingles, fences, road signs, and bus shelter frames. Again cue the power outages (including us this time, for about 2 and half hours), followed by (in many cases, including ours) Internet and cable outages.

So it was fortunate that our vacation occurred between there, during a week of pretty normal spring temperatures: pleasantly warm (even if a jacket was still required), with the occasional bit of rain (timed such that it didn’t really interfere with our activities).

Our first destination was Prince Edward County. Though just starting their tourist season, it was already pretty busy—it was challenging to find weekend accommodations. We ended up staying in the Picton area, instead of the usual Bloomfield, due to the Picton County Inn having room for us. We figured we’d take advantage to spend more time in that part of the county, which is bit smaller in population and sparser in the number of wineries.

Picton, looking moody

Our first stop was at the original Prince Edward County winery, Wapoos. We had lunch there—fish and chips for Jean, mushroom risotto for me, both of which were good but not great—and noted that their wine list featured a number of unusual grapes. We enjoyed the wines we tried at lunch enough to then visit the tasting room (after walking the lovely grounds). It was a nice experience, and we emerged with a Seyval Blanc that we’d had at lunch with the fish, a Geisenheim (see what I mean about the unusual grapes? This one tastes like grapefruit!), and a 2017 Shiraz of county grapes, which was a huge contrast to their 2015 Shiraz of Niagara grapes (the county version being much lighter).

Dinner that night was a late one at the Merrill Inn—we weren’t able to get in before 8:30. They were having a County-licious three-course prix fixe dinner here, which is what I had, while Jean ordered off the menu. (This would prove a theme for the whole trip.) We enjoyed the meal, with good service in a nice room, and well-prepared food. I had a salad and cioppino while Jean went with gnocchi followed by osso bucco. We shared my included dessert of affogato (and despite it being walking distance, were very responsible on wine: just one glass each).

Exterior view of the Merrill Inn

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Interior view, during the appetizer round

We attempted breakfast the next day at our Inn, but it was packed, so we walked up the street to Lydia’s Cafe, and had very nice breakfast there: They had Montreal bagels! We also picked up some yummy wild blueberry chocolate fudge (for later eating, not for breakfast. Although, you know, fruit…).

It was quite a nice day, so we then drove off to do some hiking at a bird sanctuary—even though we don’t know much about birds. Indeed, it was a bit early and there weren’t that many types of birds out, but we saw some, along with snakes and frogs. Really it was the sound of birds, and frogs, that was most striking there, this time of year.

This guy—or gal—was kind enough to pose. Wonder what kind of bird it is. (I’m kidding!)

We then visited what would be the highlight winery for us: A small one called Exultet Estates. They’re especially known for their Chardonnay, which they were out of, but everything else we tried, we really liked as well. And it was some unusual stuff: a dry apple wine (be good with chicken or pork), and an apple port. A white wine made of Pinot Noir grapes (would work with fish). An orange wine made of Pinot Gris grapes. A lovely red Pinot noir (could have this on its own), and a Pinot noir rosé (in a dry, food-friendly style).

Anyone interested in drinking more than just big reds (none of their wines are of that style) should consider a stop here, even though their small-batch production means some higher prices. We left with nine bottles.

After an aborted attempt to lunch in Millford (the restaurant Google suggested wasn’t open yet), we went back to a creperie in Picton for that, which worked out fine. We then headed out to one more winery: Del Gatto. At this time of year, they only had two types of wine available for tasting: an off-dry Riesling and a red Frontenac. Both pretty good, but we bought the Frontenac, as that’s yet another unusual grape. We then made a stop at Fifth Town cheese, which is small and somewhat crowded, but does have wonderful products available for sampling. We came away with quite a haul from here. (We had a cooler, and fridges in our rooms on this trip.)

Our dinner at Blumen Garden Bistro, at the more normal hour of 7:00, was even better than our Merrill Inn one. I started with beet soup, followed by delicious rabbit gnocchi. Jean started with a bison appetizer, then had the roast duck, which he liked, but he was even more impressed with the vegetable sides.

We walked the 2.2 km there and back, which allowed for enjoying a bottle of Pinot—especially Jean. He insisted we each get dessert, and he had a really delicious banana pudding thing. I had a chocolate marquis with raspberry.

The next morning we managed to have breakfast at our Inn (it was all right), and then it was off to Québec City. (More to come.)

 


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Four days in January

Now that I’ve come up with it, the title of this post seem vaguely ominous, as though I’m about to recount some tragic event that, in four short days, changed my life forever.

But no, sorry, this is nothing that interesting, I’m afraid. (Mind you, I am glad I haven’t recently experienced a great tragedy.)

Jean’s work has been requiring more travel lately, including three weeks in Barrie (about a 2-hour drive away). The first weekend in between, he came home. The second one, he decided to go a conference in Toronto. I would join him there.

This conference is annual, and normally I just stay over for one, maybe two nights. But with us having seen less of each other, I went there Friday after work and took Monday off, such that we could spend three nights and (part of) four days together.

Due to heavy Toronto traffic, my Friday bus was late arriving. Meanwhile, Jean was dealing with the fact that he couldn’t get into his hotel room, because the hotel (Doubletree by Hilton) had mistakenly registered him as staying only one night, even though we had booked for four (and had the paperwork to prove it). Initially, they also weren’t sure where his luggage was. (Turned out it was still in the room.) That all got straightened out shortly before I arrived.

Originally we’d been planning to meet with my younger sister and her husband for dinner, but she’d contacted us a couple days before with the realization that her son had a basketball game and her husband would be out of town, so… We made other plans. Which was just as well, as with the bus delay and hotel troubles, we would have been late for dinner.

But we were on time for the alternative we booked, old reliable Ki, where we once again had a really nice meal of their “modern sushi”, with a bottle of Grüner Veltliner.

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The jalapenos gave this a nice kick

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Sushi and sashimi assortment

Saturday morning Jean had more conferencing, and we had an early dinner booking, so in the afternoon, we just did a bit of ambling about on Toronto streets…

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Hospital street art

Til the weather became rainy and unpleasant, at which point we decided to explore the Toronto underground. This told us that… A lot of stores in the Toronto underground are closed on Saturdays. Kind of weird.

Dinner was at the very popular Richmond Station, which we’d really enjoyed this past summer. Given its popularity, we were only able to get reservations at either 5:15 or 10 pm. We went with 5:15 pm. We were able to do the chef’s surprise menu, which made it easy. They were able to give us five courses before they needed the table again, and everything was lovely, from the raw oysters…

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To the truffle mushroom soup, and on to the trout with cauliflower and barley…

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to the beef main course, and the hazelnut ice cream dessert, and polished off with some chocolates and macaroons.

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The wine we had was a French Pinot noir that was a pretty flexible match.

We were back at the hotel early enough to watch Eddie the Eagle on Netflix. Pretty much the definition of “feel good movie”, that one, but it’s well done. Eddie the Eagle was the British ski jumper at the Calgary Olympics who had taken up the sport only a year before, and came dead last in the competition, but was thrilled just to land on his feet (and, incidentally, set a British record for that sport). This movie was good at showing that this really was an accomplishment! Landing at Olympic ski jumping is not easy.

So, I’d recommend it. (Canadians, though, will have to look elsewhere than Netflix to watch it. They dropped it on February 1. Hence my hurry to watch it in January.)

Sunday late morning we met with my other sister at the Crown Princess for dim sum. Food and conversation were good, as usual.

Then we headed to the ROM, where they were featuring three special exhibits. Once we got through the rather long entry lineup, we went to the first one, on the Vikings. And found it somewhat underwhelming. Definitely I learned more about the Vikings, but that included the fact that they didn’t leave behind that many artifacts. I was expecting something more spectacular, I guess.

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I was amused by Zuul’s tag line

The Wildlife Photography exhibit, on the other hand, was really great. Lots of fantastic photographs (none of which we could take photos of, of course). As for Christian Dior exhibit? Honestly, we didn’t go ub because of the lineups. Which is really unfortunate, because when we first got to the exhibit door, there was no lineup. Had we realized, we would have gone in then and looked at the Wildlife Photography afterwards. But we didn’t, and we didn’t.

Our dinner that night, with some friends, was at our first new (to us) restaurant, Pearl Diver. It was a little bit noisy, but friendly service and definitely good at preparing its signature cuisine, seafood.

Pearl Diver Restaurant (1 of 1)

Jean’s meal was Spanish-style: No sides! But they weren’t all like that.

And snowy Monday was basically about getting ourselves on the road, back to our respective destination cities.