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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
(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…
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.
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
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!
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 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.
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.
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.
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!
Instead we had to walk along the cliff edge, on a mix of ice, snow, and dirt… Which presented some challenges.
Still, it was pretty… And did give a sense of accomplishing… something.
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.)
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!
Not a particularly significant birthday this year, so I wasn’t thinking too much about it. However, some months ago, when looking to pick a date to go see Sting’s The LastShip in Toronto, I figured why not pick my birthday weekend.
Then events got built around that. I took the Friday off (to do a whole lot of nothing special—but still better than a work day). And I noticed that the KW Comedy Festival was having their opening gala the Thursday night before, so I got tickets.
I don’t think it was as strong as last year. My favorite act of the first half was Arthur Simeon, originally from Uganda but now living in Toronto. In the second half it was Emily Galati, the only woman featured, along with the headliner, Sean Majunder. The rest of the comedians were a bunch of white guys. And to be fair, one of them, host Derek Seguin, provided the evening’s most hilarious bit, in his description of the challenges of man-scaping.
But overall, it was some absurdist comedy, which is not really my thing, and a lot of jokes about their kids, or about why they don’t have kids—maybe one of the few safe subjects for white guys to joke about these days? But not as effective, for me, as Simeon, Galati, and Majunder’s takes on politics, social media, racism, and sexism. Tricky time to be funny, I guess, but the event would have benefited from more diversity than it had.
Everywhere you go, always take the weather
When we booked our bus to Toronto, we discovered that the Greyhound schedule isn’t as good as it used to be. Not as many buses, and they all have more stops. (This is just annoying. It’s not as though the train service is any better on Saturdays.) There was one bus that would have gotten us there around 10:50, which would have been ideal, but it would have taken three hours. So we went with the one that scheduled to arrive around 11:30, because it was only supposed to take two hours.
I didn’t think the forecasted 2 cm of snow would really affect it, but I was wrong. For one, I think it was somewhat more snow than that. Regardless, it slowed down all the traffic. We clearly weren’t going to make our 12:15 lunch reservation, so I texted my sister about that, and suggested that she could order for us, and we’d aim to arrive by 1:00.
Off the bus, we had trouble finding a cab, so we called an Uber, and initially had trouble finding them, too, but we did connect. Only to find that they had the wrong Holiday Inn listed as the destination, which I needed to change in the app. Which was not as easy to do as one would hope. By the time I finally got it to work (Jean’s suggestion to turn off wifi was key), we were there!
Fortunately, hotel check-in went smoothly, and calling a second Uber to take us to lunch was drama-free. We ate the O&B Canteen at the TIFF Bell Lightbox. A bit pricey for what you got ($19 for a burger?), but everything was very good.
I didn’t know a whole lot about The Last Ship other than that Sting wrote the music (it was not one of those musicals built around an artist’s famous songs), inspired by the ship building heritage of his home town. But it was really good! Strong cast, great singers, and a very moving story. In the first half, I was kind of with the capitalists (“Be realistic! The ship building industry is dying!”) and identifying with the characters who felt they just had to leave the town to secure their futures elsewhere. But by the end of the second half, I was totally with the workers.
We had an hour after the play before our dinner reservation, which gave us time to walk back to the hotel, and stay there briefly before walking to dinner at Buca Yorkville.
That was a fine meal. We started with three kinds of house-cured fish, which were small taste sensations. We added in a nice rosemary foccacia that was served with the most amazing olive oil. As a main, I had chestnut-stuffed ravioli with porcini, that was just fantastic, and a side of Swiss chard.
Jean had the day’s special of uni spaghetti, also good, but not quite as good as the ravioli.
The wine with that was the waiter’s suggestion of an Italian Riesling, which did work well.
For dessert, Jean went with the waiter’s suggestion of the affogato using decaf espresso, and it really was delicious (they make their own ice cream). I also enjoyed the cranberry millefeuilles that I had.
Apart from the candle on the dessert plate, as my birthday bonus I got a takeout of fresh pasta with little containers of olive oil and pepper and little containers of cheese. And instructions on how to cook this into a meal for two. This I did this past Thursday, and it was very nice.
The whole experience somewhat reminded of New York dining: Impeccable service, fantastic food, but no dawdling. One course arrived promptly after another, and we were done by 8:00. Probably because they needed the table for someone else.
Lazing on a Sunday afternoon
After that rather packed Saturday, it was nice not to have anything planned ahead for Sunday, other than our bus back. We had breakfast at Cora, and decided it was better than the Cora we’d tried previously (forget where, but not the one in KW). We then decided to visit the ROM, as they were featuring this year’s winners of the Wildlife Photography contest. That exhibit was terrific, again. The work to get some of those shots!
We then visited the “Treasures of the Earth” exhibit, that I don’t recall having been to before. It featured some beautiful minerals, gems, meteorites, and rocks, and had a section on Canadian mining, in which my home town featured prominently.
Gold from Northern Ontario mines
Since Richmond Station is very difficult to get dinner reservations at, but recently started opening Sundays, we thought we’d try to just go there and see if we could get in for a late lunch. It worked! We got a table.
To start, with shared the duck liver pate—creamy and rich. Then I had the lamb forestiere cavatelli, while Jean had duck two ways. We had a half-glass of sparkling to start with that, then a glass of red each. We were left too full for dessert.
All that was left was to gather our luggage back at the hotel, then get to the station. There was a bit of Uber drama here too, that I won’t get into. But we made it to the station in plenty of time, and that bus was not delayed.
With The Berlin having changed to a tavern format, we weren’t sure where to go for New Year’s Eve dinner this year. We strongly considered The Bruce in Stratford, which had a dinner, dance, and room option, but that would have been rather pricey—they charged more than usual for rooms that night—and likely not worth it giving that Jean had to work til 5 on the Eve and had to plans to canoe the morning of New Year’s day.
We then considered Swine and Vine, but weren’t entirely bowled over by the set menu. We’d earlier in the year been a little underwhelmed by Loloan Lobby Bar, but a friend who’d been more recently had been very impressed. They were offering a 9-course menu. We decided to go with that.
As per tradition, to get there we took Grand River Transit up on their offer of free transportation, despite it being a miserably rainy evening. We had one connection, which worked out well, and arrived slightly early (as the route planner predicted), which wasn’t a problem for getting seated. Unsurprisingly, given that Loloan’s dining area isn’t all that big, they were sold out for the evening.
the mighty bouche
grilled spiny lobster, wing beans, black trumpet mushroom & sea buckthorn berries, green curry
sous-vide and seared mcintosh farm goose breast in ‘gaeng som’ nage, young papaya paysanne
Matching wine: 2016 Arnot-Roberts Chardonnay Watson Ranch, Napa Valley, CA
If I recall correctly, the amuse featured cucumber and papaya with various flavorings. I do know that it was an auspicious start.
The wine arrived next, in rather generous 3 oz servings. Chardonnay can be tricky, but this was a really lovely, unoaked one. We weren’t completely sure what it was meant to match, but it was indeed both of the next items, the lobster and the goose.
We always get a bit skeptical of lobster in our far-from-the-sea location, but I’m not sure why, since lobster is usually cooked from live? At an rate, the lobster was very good, and this was a lovely combination of flavors.
The goose, though, was possibly the highlight of the evening. It kind of tasted like duck. Unusually delicious duck (and duck is usually pretty delicious). The broth was salty, but not too salty.
kashmiri chili oil roasted salt spring island sablefish, tomato, lemongrass and turmeric ‘shan state’ glaze, jasmine rice and organic potato saffron croquette, northern divine caviar
dark west sumatran grass fed beef short rib curry and medium rare striploin in classic ‘padang’ style with duck fat jerusalem artichoke, aromatic creamed greens, red cabbage ‘achar’ and black truffle
Matching wine: 2015 ‘Banshee’ Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, CA
2015 was a warm year in Oregon (we found out from the sommelier), so the Pinot Noir was fruitier and fuller than they often are. Quite lovely.
The main course serving sizes were quite modest, as you can see, making it entirely possible to get through nine courses without feeling stuffed. The sablefish was nicely cooked, very moist. The croquettes were a highlight.
The Cabernet Sauvignon was of course a fuller wine. It was a great example of the style, but it’s not our favourite style, so we actually didn’t finish these glasses.
We also aren’t big beef people, but this rib dish was also nice, and we did finish that.
croquembouche: the classic french festival pile. *pandan *tamarind *chai *blueberry ginger *lime curd
Matching wine: 2016 Stratus Botrytis Semillon, Niagara, ON
No photo of the croquembouche, but they were little balls of light pastry with the listed fillings, which was fun.
The “boytritis semillon” is less-appealing sounding name for the same grape and process that French Sauternes wine go through. So this was a pleasant, complex sweet wine, but it would have benefited from more aging.
The cheese course included three types of cheese, along with naan, honey, and other accompaniments. I can’t remember the details, four glasses of wine in, but it was a creative and tasty assortment.
The chocolate was single, house-made truffle each.
So yes, each course was a hit, and the wines were very enjoyable. (Should mention that matching wines were a choice, and that they could have been done with just a choice of three instead of four. Which appears might have been smart for us.) Service was excellent throughout, also. It wasn’t a cheap night out, but it might have been worth it.
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.
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.)
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.
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!
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.
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 HarryPotter. 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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.