Cultureguru's Weblog

Of food, technology, movies, music, and travel—or whatever else strikes my fancy


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Food delivery and takeout services, unmasked

Though the provincial medical advisory panel advised against it (literally predicting that will be a “disaster”), most of Ontario has been allowed to reopen to some extent, including Waterloo region. As we near a year of this “hiding in our basement” thing, and vaccines are finally rolling out in higher numbers, it would just be annoying to get infected now. So I’m trying to stay cautious. I’m finding the lure of haircut harder to resist with each day of increasingly shaggy hair. But I’m good with sticking with takeout over indoor dining (now allowed, with up to 10 patrons).

This Friday’s takeout target was Public Kitchen & Bar, where they do a very nice pot de foie and delicious fruit crepes, among other things. A difference in reopening is that we waited just inside their doors for our order to be assembled, instead of for them to deliver it to our car. They have an open view of the kitchen, and peering in to that, I couldn’t help but notice that none of the four or five cooks in there were wearing a mask.

And that seemed… odd. But I’ll get back to that later.


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Coping with 2021

Feeling that I should blog about something, although it’s difficult with so much going on in the world, and so little going on in my life. I could certainly give my opinion of events, but science says that there’s actually no mental health benefit in ranting about an issue that is frustrating you, but that you have no control over. 

So guess I’ll try writing about the little things in my world that do make me feel better, at least for a while.

Writing about stuff I can’t do right now

Travelling to Europe. Attending concerts in person. Going to the movies, in theatres.

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Christmas 2020

This year, like most other people, we weren’t able to do what we normally do at Christmas time. A chance to develop our new traditions, perhaps? Except… Will we really want to nostalgically recall anything from 2020?

So hey, best to focus on the now, and on the “what you can do” vs. what you can’t. In 2021 and subsequent, we’ll see if anything sticks.

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Fancy takeout

At the red level that Waterloo region is currently categorized as, indoor dining is still allowed, but with each table restricted to four people and the entire restaurant to ten. Those places that choose to stay open under these restrictions are generally offering takeout as well.

Loloan Lobby Bar has a really interesting approach to this, in offering 3-course dinner boxes of mostly prepared items that you heat up and assemble yourself at home. They have a new combination each day. We tried it earlier this month.

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Second wave sojourn

Whereas our last vacation took place in the comfort of declining case numbers and the ease of doing activities outdoors, this time, case numbers were steadily increasing, and it was Fall. The need to use vacation days remained, however, and the idea of just staying home for a week wasn’t that appealing. Road trips remained the only feasible option, but to where?

At one point we were to head north for a wedding, but that all changed when the private gathering rules changed to a drastically reduced number, such that we were no longer invited.

We instead settled on Ottawa, followed by the Kingston area. Ottawa had became something of provincial hotspot for cases (Code red: Ottawa reaches highest level on pandemic scale), but we stuck with it anyway, using the following chart as a guide to what activities to do (hike, stay at a hotel, visit museums), and not (meet with friends, go into a bar).

Source: https://informationisbeautiful.net/visualizations/covid-19-coronavirus-infographic-datapack/#activities

Activities

We started in Ottawa on a Sunday evening and were there through Thursday morning, figuring it would be less crowded earlier in the week. Sunday we arrived late afternoon, and just did a little walking around town in the drizzle… But it was still kind of lovely. (And largely felt as though we had the streets to ourselves.)

Jean commented that the leaves were so brightly coloured, they looked fake in the photos. This is not Photoshop! They were that red!
Pretty Ottawa in the Fall, even on a cloudy night

Monday we made our way to Gatineau Park. I had done a little research on it, and picked out a hiking trail to attempt first. But we kept getting frustrated in our attempts to get there by road closures.

It took a while and a fair amount of driving to realize that some main arteries in the park were closed to cars to encourage “active transportation” (and perhaps to reduce to crowding? Though the arteries were opened part of the day on weekends, so… I dunno. Nor why said closures weren’t emphasized more on their website.)

Anyway… We did eventually come upon another trail that we could park at and walk on. A little challenging, but nothing we couldn’t handle, and it really nice! The colours were just magnificent this year. The only notable covid change on it was that everyone was encouraged to walk in the same direction on the loop. We didn’t run into too many others on it.

On the Luskville Falls trail in Gatineau Park
The titular falls
Views while on the trail
And more views

Tuesday we did a long walk in Ottawa proper, along the river, that was also quite enjoyable. And we visited the Market area in the afternoon, picking up some cheese and a few other edibles.

While quite nice in the morning, Tuesday clouded over later on

Wednesday was rainy, so we made it a museum day. We had been hoping to visit the National Gallery, but it was closed Wednesdays—open only Thursday to Sunday. All museums required advance booking of tickets to limit crowds, so after some debate, we decided on the War Museum in the morning at 10:30 (as we hadn’t been there in a decade), then the Nature Museum at 2:45 pm, when tickets were free (but still required pre-booking).

When time came to go the War Museum, we decided to walk. We figured that with rain jackets, hats, and an umbrella, we’d be OK.

We were wrong.

What had been a light sprinkling in the morning turned into a downpour, with wind. And the War Museum was not that close to our hotel. Our upper bodies stayed dry, but the pants—not so much. And that resulted in leaking into the boots as well. Yuch.

But it’s a big enough place (and not that crowded) that we managed to stay long enough to mostly dry off. Most notable addition from last time: The Holocaust memorial, outside, which reminded me of the one in Berlin.

After lunch, we went back to the hotel to change, then had to scurry to the Nature Museum. Here they had created a guided path through the museum exhibits to reduce the amount of contact. That worked quite well. The museum closed at 4:00 (the reason the 2:45 tickets were free), so we had to hurry our way through a bit. But Jean still got some pictures.

Knowledge (street sculpture)

Our destination upon leaving Ottawa Thursday was Prince Edward County. We visited Wapoos Winery first (as we often do when visiting the County) for lunch and a wine tasting, which they did outside, under a tarp. We got a nice overview of all five wines we would be tasting, then we had to take the glasses to a nearby table to actually do the trying.

They seemed to have fewer wines this year than in the past (possibly due to the times), but we really liked the grapefruit-y Gensenheim and their appassimento Cabernet Franc. We’d also quite enjoyed the Gamay Noir we’d had with lunch, but the only one in the store was a $47 reserve version which didn’t seem like it would be the same one we’d had (as it wasn’t that expensive) and if so, we didn’t like $47 much, so we just bought bottles of the other two.

Next stop was at Del Gatto, which Jean thought we had been to once before, but I didn’t. Regardless, it was a good stop. They did their tastings inside, at a good distance from the only other couple also visiting. We left with some Riesling, a sparkling, a Frontenac Noir, and a wine called Quattro that was blend of Baco, Chambourcin, and Foch (not sure why it’s called Quattro when it’s three grapes, but whatever).

Finally we got ourselves to Black Prince Winery, who did tastings outside. They had both wines and vinegar on offer, and it was a fun experience going through the options—on vinegar in particular, he was good about steering us toward the more promising options. But also with wines—he was right that we enjoyed the oaked Chardonnay, which used local rather than French oak. We bought a couple bottles of that, along with some Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc reserve.

On the vinegar front, we went with peach, maple balsamic, and a red wine vinegar called Holy Jumpin’.

Friday was nice, so we did more hiking, this time at the Landon Bay section of Thousand Island park, near Gananoque. We quite enjoyed our morning here on a sunny day, adding on loops and repeating parts to get a longer walk in.

A rather magnificent tree we spotted on our journey

Saturday was somewhat rainy in afternoon (after a nice morning), so instead of going to Wolfe Island, we just took a drive on the Thousand Island parkway. And did a bit of walking around Kingston on our return.

Restaurants

We had noted that both takeout food and outdoor dining were on the low risk spectrum, whereas dine-in was at the further edge of the medium risk. So, we thought, best avoided. (Dining in has since been prohibited in Ottawa, but we were visiting before that happened. Just before.)

Of course, patio dining was trickier in October than it had been in August. There was not only rain to worry about, but cold. Trying to figure out which places had not only covered, but ideally heated, patio space wasn’t always easy. But we did spot some just from walking around. And the Ottawa Citizen did have one helpful article: The future of outdoor dining: Ottawa restaurants brace for the cold.

Breakfast was sometimes so big we didn’t need lunch. Then for dinner, we more or less alternated between patio and takeout—including from some pretty fine places (that probably didn’t used to offer takeout at all…).

Restaurant roll call

The first dinner was takeout from Whalesbone, a restaurant we had given up dining in long before covid, simply because their reservation system was too convoluted to deal with (and they were too popular to get in without one). It was lovely to be eat their food again—so good! And it went well with the white wine we had brought from home. (When picking up, we were a little shocked how loudly they were playing music in the restaurant, though. Didn’t seem wise.)

Cooper’s Gastro Pub, attached to the Embassy Hotel we were staying at, had a heated patio, so that’s where we had our first two breakfasts. Our sense of safety was enhanced by having the whole patio to ourselves. The meals were good but large; we opted for takeout from nearby cafes for the next two breakfasts. We especially enjoyed The Ministry of Coffee.

The first dinner out was at Rivera on Sparks Street, which we tried mainly because we had seen that they had a big enclosed patio (in a tent), with heaters. It was very cozy, and while not a cheap place, it was very good! Burrata with tomatoes, ricotta gnudi, lamb cavatelli…

We were next planning to get takeout from Beckta, an old favourite that had only indoor dining, until we realized we’d have to pick the food up mid-day and later cook it ourselves at the hotel, which didn’t seem very vacation-y. So instead we got food from their sister restaurant, Play (who had closed their patio at the end of September). Their “small plates” were all quite tasty, even after the relatively long walk back to the hotel with them. And the Exultet winery Pinot Noir rose we had brought from home was flexible enough to match the variety of dishes.

On that rainy Wednesday, though, our finally honed plans for safer dining got foiled. Leaving the War Museum, it started to pour again. We were still far from both our hotel and any restaurants with fully covered patios. And we’d had a smaller breakfast and didn’t particularly want to skip lunch.

So… We did have one indoor meal, at the Mill St. Pub. It wasn’t very full, and the tables were definitely distanced. But to play it safer, we kept our masks (KN95’s) on most of the time. (Mask off, take a drink, mask on.) And we ordered only one course, which we were able to eat fairly quickly, and which limited overall time spent there. It was quite decent pub food—they had matching beer recommendations for each dish (I had a curry).

Dinner that night was at Back to Brooklyn, because the Ottawa Citizen had focused on how much they had invested in weather-proofing their patio, and their menu looked decent. The patio was gi-normous, covered in sheeting, and had heaters. I’m not sure how much air was actually moving through it (though it did have a big opening), but we weren’t worried, as we were the only ones dining in it on this cool and drizzly night.

Back to Brooklyn’s elaborate and large patio, that we had all to ourselves

We were actually pretty impressed with the quality of the food, and would consider this place again (if they survive), even though, for whatever reason (this wasn’t a tapas place) they brought our appetizers and entrees at almost the same time. And had almost no dessert menu.

Our first meal after leaving Ottawa was at Wapoos Winery, who were fine with serving us on their patio, even though everyone else was eating inside. Menu was smaller than previous times, but still good.

In Kingston we dined twice at Jean’s favourite, Tango Nuevo, which had taken over much the sidewalk for two large, covered patio areas (which were quite popular). We were a little under-dressed for it the first time and got a bit chilled, but we knew better the second. They were still offering quite a large menu, and we had a completely different set of tapas dishes each time. All excellent.

We got ourselves to Riva, in Gananoque, for lunch on the Friday. It was brisk on the patio, but we managed, and the food was excellent as usual.

Scallops a la Riva

And we also frequented Kingston’s famous Chez Piggy. The first time we got their terrific charcuterie board as dinner takeout. We had enough left for breakfast the next day. Then Saturday, which was pretty nice in the morning, we sat on their patio for brunch.

Fancy takeout from Chez Piggy

Hotel life

We were pleased with both hotels we stayed at: Embassy Hotel Suites in Ottawa, and the Four Points Marriott in Kingston. In both cases we got suites, which gave us the extra space of a kitchen and living room area for the extra time we spent there eating takeout and watching TV.

The Ottawa hotel really wasn’t busy, so we never had trouble getting the elevator to ourselves for our trips to and from the seventh floor. The Kingston hotel got a bit busier as the weekend approached, but still no real elevator issues. (We were again on the seventh floor. Guess that’s where the suites are.) The TV at the Marriott had Netflix, YouTube, and Prime integrated with the cable (as I have at home), which I enjoyed. At Embassy Suites, we used an HDMI cable connected to a Chromebook to watch Netflix on the TV.

Book, TV, movie

The audiobook for the drive was a recent release by Nick Hornsby, Just Like You. It tells the story of the budding romance between the recently divorced Lucy and the younger Joseph, who also happens to be Black. The narration alternates between the point of view of each character. Though on the surface they have little in common—separated by age, class, race, and education—somehow, it works. But not without some bumps along the way.

It was quite an enjoyable read, very funny at times. The sections discussing the pending Brexit vote made me a bit anxious, knowing how that turned out… But well illustrated the ridiculous-ness of asking the populace to vote on such a complex issue.

At one point Lucy and Joseph muse about going to see the movie Florence Foster Jenkins, starring Meryl Streep. They don’t quite make it, but it did inspire me to watch that one night. It’s hardly a must-see, but it’s an enjoyable film, quite good-natured.

We (along with much of the world at that time, it seemed) tore our way through Emily in Paris that week.

Sure, it traffics pretty heavily in French stereotypes, but it was still lovely to see glimpses of Paris. Jean thought Emily was cute, and I enjoyed her wardrobe. And appreciated her crush on Gabriel—though Camille deserves better from both of them. It was like candy—not great as a steady diet, but fine in the small doses (10 half-hour episodes) available.

As counterpart, we did try watching Ozark, but that was seeming just too dark. So, we switched to The Crown. Less dark than Ozark, less candy than Emily, and Jean, to his amazement, is quite enjoying it.


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Local patio

Loloan Lobby Bar was not one of those restaurants that offered takeout during the shutdown, so we did prick up our ears when we heard that it would reopen once patios were allowed. In this, they were aided by City of Waterloo deciding to block off Princess Street for pedestrian use.

Our experience with Loloan in the past has been a bit of mixed bag. We’ve never had a bad meal there, but have had a number where the food didn’t seem quite outstanding enough for the price. On the other hand, we were fairly blown away by their New Year’s Eve dinner. As that was a fixed menu, Jean suggested that maybe we weren’t good at picking the right things at Loloan.

Their online patio menu had a fairly minimal number of items, but they looked good. They were not taking reservations, so we decided to just head there right after work on a not-rainy Wednesday.

The first surprise was their notice that they weren’t taking any credit cards, just debit or cash. Interesting choice.

The second was that the cutlery we received, once seated, was distinctly… plastic (and wooden, for the chopsticks). The glasses, however, were glass.

And the menus were literally hot off the presses: we had to wait for them to be printed (not excessively long, or anything). We didn’t have trouble choosing items of interest from the short array. We went with pork satay and pork / vegetable dumpling appetizers, lemongrass cod with rice and cucumber salad as the main, and the only dessert, which combined a variety of tropical ingredients. We shared everything.

The list of wines by the glass was modest, and Jean asked which one might work best with the variety of food we’d selected. The waiter returned with a Chenin Blanc that wasn’t even on the menu, but was fantastic. Later, when I’d finished a kir, they returned with an off-dry Semillon/Sauvignon blend that we also really enjoyed, and that was also not on the list. Nice touch.

The two appetizers were very delicious, though also served in more “disposable” containers. The waiter at one point commented that a lot of their dishes were still in storage… The mains and dessert came on actual plates, though, which we were very excited about. Even better, they were also delicious! This time, we did feel we got value for the money.

The side dish part of the main course (with my main dish, Jean)
Dessert included coconut sorbet, mango gel, and lychee gelee

I’d had the impression that Princess Street was supposed to shared by several restaurants, but Loloan seemed to be the only one operating this day, and they had quite a few tables available. I noticed they did some of the cooking outside the restaurant, on a barbecue, and that all the staff were wearing masks.


Speaking of masks, I had recently tweeted this tidbit:

I know it could just be correlation, and not causation, but it was still great to have three days of 0 new cases locally this past week.

I haven’t done a ton of shopping, but for what I have, I am finding that almost all customers are respecting the mask bylaw. What confounds me a bit are places where the salespeople are not. For me that’s only been two places, but others report…

What do you do about that? Because I feel like something should be done. I’m good with not confronting another customer who’s not wearing a mask. But the staff? I realize they could claim the same “medical exemptions” that customers do, but hey, how about wearing a face shield then (as I saw one grocery worker do, and I’m cool with that).

And, I also appreciate that it’s a lot harder to for them to wear a mask for a whole work shift than it is for me on my short shopping trip. Some masks are more comfortable than others, and would be nice if employers (or the government?) supplied those.

But before we can come up with solutions, we have to draw attention to the fact that there’s a problem. And I don’t know how to do that.


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Eating out (in)

In the Before Times, early March, the day after I got my hair cut and coloured, I popped over to Starbucks for my free birthday latte. And that night I went out for dinner with my husband.

None of that seemed particularly remarkable at the time, of course. We had a dinner at King Street Trio. It was a Tuesday, so not especially busy, but a number of tables filled. The service was attentive. The food was not highly memorable, but it was well prepared. Nice night out.

During the “It’s starting to get weird now” time, mid-March, I experienced the most crazed grocery shopping trip of my life, as it seemed that all my neighbours were there, preparing for the apocalypse. I did not yet know that this would be my last “crowd” experience for some time. I wasn’t yet freaked out by being packed in there with so many people. But there was no mistaking the strangeness of this frenzy of buying. I even took a photo.

The first but not last time that the grocery store TP shelf looked like this…

I had changed my mind about my original plans for that weekend, which had been to try to get last-minute lottery tickets to Hamilton in Toronto. Once I read that Broadway in New York went dark, somehow seeing a play in Toronto no longer seemed like a good idea. (And I was right! The Saturday matinee performance we were going to attempt to get tickets for was destined to become the first of the cancelled Hamilton performances.)

We went ahead with our backup plans of visiting some local museums: the Homer Watson Gallery (a bit disappointing), the Ken Seiling Museum (very good!). We felt quite safe doing that, as in both cases, we were practically the only people there. And then we went out for lunch, at Cameron Seafood Restaurant. Normally a very popular dim sum spot, we were their lone customers for most of the meal (which was very good, and service very attentive!).

Sunday, we went for a interesting local hike, on the GeoTime trail, and were not particularly concerned about how many other people were doing the same.

Then on Monday, the museums and restaurants were closed, and I was working from home full time, and you all know the rest.


In the After Times, food-wise, it was the lattes that I missed the most, at first.

I was used to a weekly walk to my local Starbucks for one, the occasional weekend latte with Jean or with friends, and supplementing those with the mediocre-but-it’s-still-a-latte latte from the office coffee machines.

The Starbucks app briefly offered free delivery, before declaring that I now lived too far from the nearest outlet still open. I wasn’t about to do their drive-through thing—really don’t like drive-throughs (though I appreciate how handy they are to have now). For Jean’s birthday, we got takeout lattes and two “Benwiches” from Kitchener’s Cafe Pyrus. That was nice, but not convenient enough to do frequently.

So I started researching espresso machines—devices I’d resisted earlier exactly because I liked going out for lattes! Loops and lattes. Meeting friends for coffee. Polishing off a nice dinner out with out a cappuccino.

Sigh.

Pandemic-inspired purchase: Breville The Infuser, from Wayfair

(It’s some consolation that it does make really good lattes. Very handily, I have a husband who loves making them for me.)

As for restaurant dining (which I also miss, but not as acutely), the only option now, obviously, is takeout. Jean and I essentially never did takeout before—never even got pizza delivered or whatever. But if we want any of the local restaurants to survive this, we needed to start.

So after Cafe Pyrus, we tried Grand Trunk Saloon. They make absolutely delicious fried chicken, but when at the restaurant, ordering the “bucket of chicken” always seemed absurd: way too much food! Even for two. But as takeout? Yay, leftovers!

So we picked that up, and found that it was good. Including the leftovers.

Then inspired by a Globe and Mail article about virtual dinner parties, I suggested to some friends that we have virtual takeout night. We each ordered and picked up dinners from Swine and Vine, who’ve been coming up with new takeout menus weekly. Then we Zoom-connected with them while we each our dinner.

It was fun! (Even despite a few Zoom challenges.) And the Swine and Vine food was just delicious, from starter to dessert.

Next up, we’re taking a couple of days off, even though we can’t really go anywhere or do very much. But at least we can still get takeout! I think our target will be The White Rabbit. Might even splurge and get one of their bottles of wine…

Jean is still managing to take some nice photos from

I will leave you with this Google Map link to area restaurant, cafes, and food shops that are offering curb side pick-up or delivery during the COVID-19 pandemic.


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No escape from reality

Ooh, Buffy‘s on. Could be a nice distraction.

Xander: She fell.
Willow: The flu.
Cordelia: She fainted.
Xander: The flu, fainted and fell. She’s sick, make it better!

Giles: Death and disease are, are things, possibly the *only* things that, that Buffy cannot fight.

Killed by Death

Huh. Well, how about some tunes.

I can’t stay on your life support
There’s a shortage in the switch

I think I’ll get outta here, where I can
Run just as fast as I can
To the middle of nowhere
To the middle of my frustrated fears
And I swear you’re just like a pill
‘Stead of makin’ me better
You keep makin’ me ill

Pink, Just Like a Pill

Jesus.


But hey, y’all, we’re doing all right. Feeling healthy, first of all, which is the main thing. Both still employed full-time, which is certainly something to be grateful for. Managed to get toilet paper this week, which is good, especially since they were all out of Kleenex.

And yes, they had no bananas.

Which leaves me with my final words of wisdom for now: Plantains are not at all the same thing as bananas. Do not put raw plantains in the chocolate cream pie!


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Doing stuff on the weekend

Been having a number of fairly unscheduled weekends of late, which generally suits me, but last weekend I did get out of house a number of times. And survived!

Willibald

Willibald is a distillery and restaurant located in the nearby small town of Ayr. We’d been hearing about it for a while—including one claim that it was as good as our beloved Verses—and finally had dinner there with friends last Friday.

It’s in a pretty cool space, with some communal tables that they divide up with table decorations, so you don’t quite feel as though you’re dining with strangers. We got a bit of a history of the place from our waitress. It started as a whisky distillery, and they more recently added gin. The restaurant has been open about two years.

Chateau Pentus wine at Willibald
The night’s wine selection, and the plant that divided up the table, over to the left

None of their whisky was available (it’s aging(, but I decided to try one of their gin cocktails. Made with pink gin, ipa, ginger, balsamic, lemon, and mint, it was very good—but I think the gin was fairly disguised.

Wine is a relatively recent addition to their menu. As a distillery, they previously thought they wouldn’t offer wine (save one house red and white), but when they decided to have an Italian-themed winter menu, adding wines seemed apropos. We got a bottle of Champs Pentus, which is a GSM, but from the Languedoc region rather than the Rhone—making it a cheaper option.

Normally their food menu has a focus on local and fresh, but since the pickings are slim on that front this time of year, the menu was built around pastas and pizzas. We had the sourdough foccacia, rigatoni with pork ragu, and cavatelli with butternut squash, pancetta, sage, and walnut. So a real carb-a-palooza! But everything was very good. And the wine suited nicely.

Shannon, Cassidy, and Cavatelli
The Cavatelli

For dessert (why stop with the carbs now?), I was intrigued by the olive oil gelato and the limoncello sorbet, so we tried both. Both nice, with the olive oil gelato the winner overall.

At the end of the meal, the waitress said that we were the “fancy” table and that they were trying to impress us, because they want more customers of our ilk. What made us “fancy” was ordering that whole bottle of wine, and one of us getting a cheese plate for dessert. Funny!

But she can rest assured that we do plan to try it again. It might not have been Verses-good, but it was still quite good (and not Verses-expensive). It would be cool to see what they put together with the seasonal produce, when they have it. I hope they retain some wines…

Choir! Choir! Choir!

Choir! Choir! Choir! are a Toronto-based duo who gather amateur singing enthusiasts together and teach them to sing a popular song in choral harmony. They are crazy popular over here in Ontario.

This was my second time joining in on their performances. I probably didn’t report on it the first time, but we did Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams”. And I enjoyed it enough to be willing to go again.

I’m in this crowd of singers somewhere!

This time the song was Abba’s “Mamma Mia”. Both times were at Centre in the Square, but this time, instead of having us all up on an extended stage, the two guys were on the smaller stage, and we filled the auditorium. And I do mean filled—it was completely sold out.

The evening lasted around two hours, and we did not spend the whole time working on the one song. To warm up, we did some quickie run-throughs of other Abba songs—”Fernando”, “Take a Chance on Me”, and “SOS”, and to close out, we got “The Winner Takes It All” and “Dancing Queen”. (No “Waterloo”, despite the repeated requests—including very loudly by one woman right behind one person in our party of six.)

Really focusing on Abba lyrics, you see dark and desperate they really are: When you’re gone, how can I even try to go on? / I’ve been angry and sad bout the things that you do. / If you’ve got no place to go, if you’re feeling down. Last time we finagled ourselves into position to sing the main melody line; this time we couldn’t move around, so had to tackle the high harmonies—for most of the song. At one point that switched. But, it was an interesting challenge, though one that gave me a sore throat by the end of the evening.

And, it certainly wasn’t all Abba. Other warm-up songs were Queen’s “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” (yay!) and Madonna’s “Vogue”. And throughout the evening, there were random break-out singalongs, including “Backstreet’s Back”, “Ring of Fire”, “One Week”, excerpts from Sound of Music, and a suggestion that maybe a Grease night would be fun—only to lead into the lamest song of that soundtrack, “Sandy”. Along with a bit of mocking of Gordon Lightfoot (so don’t expect a Choir! Choir! Choir! version of “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” anytime soon).

I found it all quite fun. I’d maybe even do it again.

Snowshoeing (despite limited snow)

Jean was determined to go snowshoeing on Sunday, despite us getting less than the forecast amount of snow. He found five of us willing to go along, though we were all a bit dubious.

We went to the Elora Gorge. Normally when we snowshoe here, we can do so on the frozen-over water. This year, that was not an option!

Running water of the Elora Gorge
Not a snowshoe trail

Instead we had to walk along the cliff edge, on a mix of ice, snow, and dirt… Which presented some challenges.

"Snowshoeing" the cliffs of Elora

Still, it was pretty… And did give a sense of accomplishing… something.

Elora Gorge in winter

Cats

And couldn’t resist posting this lovely portrait.

Gus the cat
Your reward for making it to the end of this post


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Ireland

We headed out for our one-week trip to Ireland without great expectations. We had done some research and put together an itinerary that seemed manageable in the limited time we had. We had a lot of friends who had been to Ireland repeatedly and gave recommendations. I had no reason to think we wouldn’t like it, too, but weren’t so much looking forward to anything in particular there as just the fact of getting away and being off work for a week.

(Photos by Jean unless otherwise indicated.)

Weather

We first checked the weather a week or two in advance, and it did not look good at all! Pretty much saying it would be raining daily—in fact, that we would be leaving each area just as it was clearing up, then going to another rainy one.

Well, no one goes to Ireland for the weather, I thought. Still…

But forecasts have a way of changing, and this one did. Apart from one partly rainy day in Galway, we basically had… A whole lot of sun. And the last day in Dublin actually started out warm enough that we didn’t need to cart around a jacket.

Maybe good weather isn’t essential for enjoying Ireland, but it never hurts!

Galway and Cliffs of Moher

We initially hoped to fly to Shannon and out of Dublin, but by the time we were booking, the direct flight from Toronto to Shannon was sold out. We could have flown through London to Shannon, but we weren’t crazy about having to connect through Heathrow. And in researching it, we found that flying direct to Dublin, we could then get a train to our first destination, Galway, likely faster than with the later arrival in Shannon, with transport to Galway.

So we found ourselves landing in Dublin, and after picking up a few things at the airport, taking a bus to the train station and heading to Galway. It had been recommended to us as a better first stop than our initial first idea, Ennis.

Galway was a nice way to start the trip. It’s pretty small, and our B&B was in easy walking distance to the main square and other points of interest, so our first couple days were pretty leisurely—well-suited to our jet-lagged brains.

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The streets of Galway

In a first for us (excluding family), we were traveling with another couple–Cassidy and Shannon. Or, as the Galway B&B owner insisted on calling her, Cassidy and Salmon. Why he had trouble with the most Irish name in our group is a mystery (let alone why he’d think anyone would be named salmon?), but thinking about that made me giggle the rest of the trip.

Our main Galway activity, on the second day, was a walking tour. That was quite good—gave the lively history of the city, and brought us to the main landmarks, a number of which we never would have found on our own, such the original city walls preserved and restored inside a mall. We were the only ones on that particular tour.

Other than that, and a visit to the free Galway Museum, we just ambled about city—the Sunday market near St. Nicholas’ church, the main square, a cool rock mural, a river walk.

The rock mural in Galway (photo by me)
On the river walk in Galway

In the evening, we attempted to go to a pub to listen to music, but that didn’t go very well. The first place was super crowded, and once the music started, we could barely hear it, partly from distance and partly because they were, strangely, playing other music through the speaker closest us. The second place we couldn’t get a seat at all (though did listen a bit from an adjacent room).

The next day, we noticed that our car rental time was mysteriously listed as 4:00 pm, when we wanted to leave in the morning, and that if we had wanted a ride we had to call 24 hours ahead. Oops. By calling, we were able to get an earlier rental arranged, but not the ride, so Jean and Cassidy took a taxi there. They exerted a lot of pressure on us to buy insurance from them (we’d bought some from home), but they resisted and we ended up with a car that the four of us and our luggage fit into. Just.

We then drove off to see the Cliffs of Moher. Pretty impressive looking, but boy, it’s windy! We spent a couple hours here, walking around and trying to see puffins, then headed off for the Dingle peninsula via ferry. (So that’s planes, trains, automobiles–and boats!)

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Not a postcard! Jean’s photo of the Cliffs of Moher
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It was some windy there!
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Hey, look, there were puffins! (Honestly, I couldn’t see them on the day.)

This is where we discovered Google Maps propensity for sending us down tiny little country roads in an effort to save 2 minutes (which of course never worked because you could not drive anywhere near the speed limit on such roads!).

Look at all the space to pass! (photo by Cassidy)

Jean heroically did all the driving, but we all tried to help with navigation and with reminding him to stay on the left side of the road.

Dingle peninsula

Our Dingle B&B offered bigger and more comfortable rooms than the Galway one. It was run by Camilla, who is quite the character. “I’ve given all the details to Cassidy,” she’d say, and Cassidy would later reveal that all she’d talked about was irrelevant to us. “I think today we’ll send you to Killarney,” she say, apparently assuming that she was in charge of our Dingle itinerary. (Admittedly, we often took her suggestions.) She also also regularly recommended multiple 1- to 2-hour hikes a day. (We did walk a lot on this trip, but not in those chunks of time.)

Her heart was definitely in the right place, though, and her breakfasts were delicious. The most notable item was the optional starter of porridge–cooked in Bailey’s Irish Cream. Yes, it’s very good! The B&B was about a 25-minute walk to downtown Dingle, bits of it on narrow roads and bridges with really no sidewalk. So that was a daily adventure.

Awaiting our boozy porridge (photo by Cassidy)

Dingle is a cute port town, fun to walk around in. And here we had better luck attempting to listen to live music: we got seats and we could easily see and hear the band, who were pretty good! It was interesting how they took some familiar melodies and sang different lyrics to it, “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” being one of the songs that got this treatment.

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In “downtown” Dingle

The first full day’s main activity was driving the Dingle Peninsula, which was fantastic—it’s so beautiful!

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Also not a postcard, but a great photo of the gorgeous landscape

We didn’t fit in too many 1- to 2-hour hikes, but we did visit a couple historic beehive huts sites, held a baby lamb, hikde up around the Clogher Head pullout, and saw the remains of the Riasc monestary and the Gallarus Oratory.

The “near weightless” baby lamb (that had Shannon rethinking lamb on menus for the rest of the trip)
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With dogs and sheep among the ancient beehive huts
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Walking in the Dingle peninsula

We got back in enough time to have some Murphy’s ice cream and sign up for a boat tour to see Fungie the dolphin. That’s quite something! This is a dolphin that they think used to be in an aquarium, and so is somewhat used to people. He doesn’t travel much, staying in the Dingle waters. He employs a whole industry of people who thrill tourists by taking them out to see how close he gets to the boats, jumping up in their wake.

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Fungie!
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And again!

Day two we drove to Killarney, the only bit of the Ring of Kerry that we fit in. Google Maps again had fun sending us down funny little roads (and, at one point, what I think was a hiking path). And even in the park, the roads were quite narrow.

I learned that Ireland is the most deforested country in Europe, with Killarney showing the treed landscape it once had. (The rest of the Dingle peninsula looks like farms.)

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Killarney in Ireland

Our first stop in the park was Ladies View, which was a ways out and maybe not worth the drive, but it did have a really great gift shop and a good restaurant. We then stopped to see the Torc waterfall. We did a bit of a hike here, but it didn’t really bring us to spectacular views.

Torc waterfall
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Us blocking the view of the Torc Falls

Finally, we visited Ross Castle, where we got a tour. That was interesting. It explained what life would have been like in a tower castle, built for security and not comfort. (Hint: Not great.)

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Ross Castle

On our last Dingle day we drove through (and stopped at) Connors Pass, on our way to Tralee to return the car and take the train back to Dublin.

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Last day in Dingle
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At Connor’s Pass
Having a boo at Tralee’s only tourist attraction, this windmill (photo by Cassidy)

Dublin

We got to Dublin (for the second time) rather late, leaving time only for checking into our hotel and having dinner. Our hotel rooms were large by European standards, with king beds. And a reasonable distance to the main sites (with all the streets featuring sidewalks!).

It was funny how everyone had recommended we do the Hop On Hop Off bus in Dublin, so we had bought a two-day pass for that in advance. We did enjoy our first ride on it, featuring live commentary by the driver. But the thing is that nowadays every other bus has taped (multi-lingual) commentary, which is not nearly as good. Some drivers interject commentary between the taped, which helps, but… It wasn’t always practical to wait for the next live commentary bus, so I think they’ve diminished the experience.

A really common question I got about the trip, before and after, was whether we went to the Guinness Factory. Yes, we did. This was the only item that Cassidy requested we include in the trip—leaving the rest of the planning to us—so it was the least we could do. We bought advance tickets for 10 in the morning, because it’s cheaper and somewhat less busy then.

Beer for breakfast! At the factory at 10:00 AM, sharp

That is quite the operation! It’s not just a tour of how you make beer. It’s five ornate floors, each with its own focus: The history of company, the process of beer-making process, tasting rooms (you have to gulp not sip Guinness to avoid the bitterness), transportation considerations, Guinness advertising information. It’s like Disneyland for beer.

Complete with cartoon animals (photo by Shannon)

At the very top is the bar where you get the famous full glass of Guinness. Jean initially refused to, feeling he already had ample proof on this trip that he didn’t like their beer. But we later coerced him in getting a glass of the Guinness lager, rather then the traditional stout the rest of us drank, so we could try it. It’s quite nice, you know! Refreshing and limey, quite different from the stout. Wish it was more available here.

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Top of the morning to you!

Cassidy and Shannon during this time were trying to, long distance, close out on the sale of their house (!) after a great offer came in, so between that, all there is to see at the factory, and a rather good gift shop, we spent about 3 hours at Guinness!

With the time we had left that day, we visited National Gallery, which is free and fairly small, but had some nice pieces by Carvaggio, Picasso, and Monet. And then we walked around to see some sites, including the Temple Bar area.

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Dublin streetscape
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Christchurh Cathedral in Dublin

The next day we headed first to see the Books of Kells at Trinity College. Despite not having advance tickets, we were able to go right in. It was pretty crowded, which made it harder to linger over the exhibits. Definitely interesting exhibit on how this book survived as much as it has (so many fires, so many pillages!), demonstrating the value the Irish put on the written word. And good analysis of the work involved in the creating it.

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Book of Kells… replica (the real thing being rather more difficult to get photos of)

The tour then ended at the Old Library. It’s a “copyright library”, which means that it houses a copy of very book published in Ireland. Making it a very cool room packed with historical tomes—in which the crowd can spread out more. Some historical artifacts are displayed here as well.

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The gorgeous Old Library at Trinity College

We then visited the Oscar Wilde statue in the park (which is partly under construction—the park, not the statue), then the free Museum of Archeology, which Jean and I whizzed through. Cassidy and Shannon informed us that we thereby missed a whole section of the Viking exhibition. Oh well.

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Reclining Oscar Wilde

Next on the itinerary was visiting Kilmainham Jail, which the Galway guide had informed us we had to book in advance, so we had. That was a guided tour. It gave a lot of the history of the Irish struggle for independence and what happened to those who fought for it.

The ancient part of the jail was really horrible and dank, but the newer section was built on a different principle (Victorian), with the emphasis on the importance of light for rehabilitation. It’s a famous space that has been used in a number of movies. After the tour we spent some time in attached museum.

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You might have seen this in a movie

We thought a good follow-up to that would be a tour of a whiskey distillery. That was not Disneyland for whiskey, but an introduction to whiskey and its history, and a tour of a working plant, the first to open in Dublin in 125 years (there are now two more). I hadn’t realized that beer and whiskey more or less start the same, but then whiskey goes through a much different process.

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Vats at the Teeling Whiskey tour

At the tasting, Cassidy and Shannon concluded that they didn’t really like any type of whiskey. Whereas Jean and I did, but we had different favorites. I preferred the slightly sweet “single grain” type, and even bought a small bottle of that to bring home. (No idea when I’ll drink it…)

I liked the middle one; Jean the last one (photo by me)

Food

We weren’t really sure what to expect on this trip, food-wise. Unlike France and Italy, Ireland is not exactly known for its cuisine. (“What are you going to drink there?” asked my hair dresser, concerned for me that Ireland does’’t make its own wines. Turns out they can import that stuff.) But then, neither is Scotland, and we really enjoyed the food there.

Ireland was much the same. Especially if you like seafood, there is some very good eating to be had. (They also make some really nice ice cream and chocolate.)

In Galway, we got a bit of guidance from the Rick Steeves book. We ate a a perfectly decent seafood place the first night called McDonaghs, the highlights being the grilled mackerel and the fish chips, then ate a nice Michelin-starred seafood restaurant the next: The Seafood Bar at Kirwan’s. The “duck bon bon” I had there were not sweet, but they were delicious, and Jean appreciated that the seafood chowder included smoked fish. My delicious king scallops main came with blood pudding, which sounds gross, but was actually quite tasty (and was also accompanied by way more potatoes than a person could possibly eat). Jean enjoyed his cold seafood plate, with smoked mackerel being the highlight on it.

Leaving the Cliffs of Mohr on the way to Dingle, we just needed somewhere for lunch, but ended up at: A Michelin-starred restaurant! Given the time crunch, we all had fish and chips—but they were really good fish and chips.

Our first night in Dingle, we wanted a change from the seafood, so tried a jazz and pizza wine bar. They didn’t have any live jazz, as we had assumed (just a jazz soundtrack), but they have did have good pizza and an interesting selection of wines by the glass. Jean and I shared a duck confit and red pepper one–with the red pepper appearing only on my half.

But on the second night, we were back to Michelin-starred seafood restaurants with Out of the Blue. It’s a small place, so we had to eat outside, but it was nice day, so that worked. We shared a bottle of a nice Chardonnay from Limoux, and most of us started with smoked mackerel, then had cod with fennel and tomato relish. Jean deviated in starting with tomato and orange soup, followed by black sole. That was all excellent, but I think the highlight was the Ile flottante that Jean and I shared for dessert.

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Starters
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Mains
Dessert

It turned out that little Dingle had three Michelin-starred restaurants, and (with Camilla’s help) we managed to get into another one on our final night: The Global Village. It definitely had good food—a crab taster appetizer with crab prepared four ways, a duck and goose main, a lamb entree. But the service kind of went off the rails late in the meal, with a bizarrely long wait for dessert that they admitted was due to a problem getting the order in, but then followed by an almost equally long wait for the bill. (1 Michelin star = good food. 2 Michelin stars = good food and service. This was a 1-star.)

In Dublin we also had good meals, though Michelin didn’t recognize most of the places we ate at. We had two dinners at The Little Kitchen, which was near our hotel. The first night they happened to be hosting a large, loud graduation party, which really wasn’t ideal. The second night was much calmer. But the food was very good both times, especially the duck pate starter.

We didn’t take the hotel breakfast, and we ended up at a couple good breakfast places. The first one, Tang, took an interesting, Mediterranean twist on typical breakfast dishes. The second one, The Garden Room, was a beautiful restaurant in a fancy hotel. It was a somewhat pricey buffet, but very good—house made granola, nice croissant and other pastries, good cheese selection, that sort of thing.

At The Garden Room restaurant (photo by Cassidy)

The final meal of note in Dingle was at The Bank, a restaurant that was indeed in an old bank building, which was pretty cool. The food there was good but not great.

At The Bank restaurant (photo by me)

And yes, we did eat at some pubs, for lunches—including one with a Star Wars theme.

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Outside the Star Wars pub (they filmed some of that in Ireland)

Tips

  • Traveling as two couples in Ireland, we discovered that they won’t split restaurant bills there. Ever. It often says so right on the menu. But a few meals in, we also discovered that if you are willing to do the math yourself, they have no problems charging different amounts on different credit cards. So that’s how we managed it.
  • Though this didn’t end up being needed, we decided to pay just slightly more to get flexible train tickets that would allow us to take a later (or earlier) trains if we had to. We were a bit confused by the Dublin to Galway one, which had no times on it at all—just a three-day date range in which it could be used. Turns out you can just get on the train with that—no need to get it validated or anything. (They didn’t even take the ticket, so what stops you using it again, I’m not sure.)
  • Local SIM cards easy to get—I picked up mine at the airport. And they are easy to use–pop it in and works. The one I got was 20 Euros for 4 GB data.
  • Tipping really isn’t necessary in Irish restaurants. They always seemed surprised when we wanted to do that.