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Pandemic vacation in Quebec

That it did wonders for my mental health, there’s no doubt. Despite the constant consideration of risk to physical health in everything we did.

Jean wanted a vacation that actually felt like a vacation, which to him, meant getting out of the province. We weren’t up for flying, though, and of course didn’t want to go to the country to the south even if we were allowed to, which we aren’t. In a week, the only “outside Ontario” destination that was possible was Quebec.

We did start in Ontario, with a couple days in Ganonoque. Then it was three days in Quebec City, and two in Montreal to finish. In the days leading up, I became obsessive about reading the daily covid case counts—which at that point, were actually pretty good. And while away, Ontario trended up a bit, but Quebec was still on a downswing.

It did feel like a vacation. Though one unlike any other. (Including the slightly uneasy feeling about blogging about having managed a pretty good vacation in these times… )

Restaurants

Food-focused travelers that we are, definitely the weirdest thing was taking into account whether the restaurant had an outdoor patio. Any that did—particularly if they had a covered one, which meant dinner couldn’t be rained out—immediately vaulted to the top of the consideration list, when previously that didn’t factor on the list at all!

We sat outside cafes. We dined at the tourist traps on Crescent Street and Place Jacques Cartier in Montreal. I finally ate on a roof-top terrace in Montreal (Jean had done it once before). We ate at Quebec’s Cafe du Monde for the first time, despite the warning that we might get rained on. (We did not.)

Cheese plate on patio
Cheese plate on Terrasse Nelligan in Montreal

We had one of the most memorable dinners ever, during a thunderstorm, on a covered patio attached to a food truck at one end, and a winery at the other, on Ile D’Orleans.

We did not go to some of favourite places, because they were not open, or had only limited opening days, or… had only indoor dining. Hence our best meal of the trip was probably in… Ganonoque, at Riva, on their lovely back patio.

Riva Restaurant in Gananoque, ON
Riva dessert

Obviously, nobody needs to feel bad for us about all this al fresco dining in August. But it was a really weird thing, this focus on the open air. (And also, how early we were eating, with the thought it would just be less crowded then. Which was generally true.)

… Also, it has to be said, we did have one dinner inside. That was not the plan! The place had a patio, we had requested that as part of reservation, and it was not raining. But they just informed us, when we arrived, that the patio was not open that evening. Oh, and did I mention that, had we turned and left, they would still have charged us $50? (This “no show” charge, we had been warned about. The possibility of not getting our preferred seating, we had not.)

My thrifty side kicked in and we stayed, though I spent a lot of the evening feeling uncomfortable, huddled inside the sheets of plexiglass on either side of me. Jean would start anytime someone walked behind him. (Mind, he would do that pre-pandemic, too.)

Food was good. Very creative. But if we were going to eat one place inside, maybe it wouldn’t have been this one, you know? (I mean, we didn’t go to the St Amour!)

Restaurant roll call

In Gananoque, we ate at Riva twice: dinner the first night, then lunch the next day. As already noted, these were likely the best meals of the trip. Lovely weather both days. They were careful about screening and getting contact information, as well.

Riva Restaurant in Gananoque, ON
Riva entree

Dinner the next night was takeout from Sushi Sun, as they had no patio and were not offering indoor dining. We ate it on the beach, sitting at an absurdly small picnic table.

On the drive to Quebec City, we stopped at Rose Cafe in Drummondville, which turned out to be lovely. They had a patio, but it was heavily raining at this point, so we were directed to their greenhouse instead. A bit of warm lunch, but quite nice!

Our first dinner in Quebec City was at Le Lapin Saute, who had warned us that in case of rain, they would not be able to move us inside. But that they did have umbrella coverage. At any rate, the rain had stopped by dinner time. It was a neat location and we enjoyed their sampler platter of duck and rabbit specialties.

Duck and rabbit sampler plate

On Ile d’Orleans we did more snacking than proper lunching, but particularly enjoyed our stop at Cassis Monna & Filles. The weather forecast had called for rain all day, but it didn’t rain much, and was very sunny by the time we reached the lovely Cassis Monna & Filles property. Things would change for our afore-mentioned dinner at Panache Mobile au Vignoble de Sainte-Petronille, which was just a hoot.

Water on patio with view
Before the storm, at Panache Mobile

We had a great view of the falls from there, and the service was really excellent. For wine, we went into the winery and purchased a bottle, which obviously meant a better price. Food was quite good–chicken pate, pulled pork taco…

Chocolate pana cotta
And chocolate pana cotta for dessert

Lunch the next day was at the deservedly popular Cafe du Monde, in the Old Port area.

Cafe du Monde

Then our “scary” indoor dinner at Bistro l’Orygine. They offered five-course chef’s menus which likely would have been interesting–I would actually have gone for the vegetarian (other options were vegan and non-vegetarian)–but I wasn’t sure I was hungry enough, and also thought that we might end up being there too long. But we didn’t have trouble selecting the recommended four sharing dishes from the regular menu. And as noted, they were quite inventive and tasty.

Tomato dish and wine inside restaurant
Took a while to get a spoon for this dish, but the broth was worth the wait. That BC Pinot Grigio was also terrific. (Also note the plexiglass divider.)

First lunch in Montreal was at a decent but somewhat overpriced patio restaurant in Old Montreal, near our hotel. We had our first dinner at the Labo Culinaire Foodlab, on their rootop terrace. Given the name, I was expecting some sort of molecular gastronomy thing, which we didn’t get. But it was creative, well-prepared food, and good service (except for suggesting their tea options were listed on their online menu, which they were not. Lots of online menus this trip! Bring your phone or you can’t order!)

Three plates on picnic table
Grilled oyster mushrooms, shrimp roll, and tomato / buffalo mozarella grill

We skipped dessert here in favor of getting some ice cream later, in Old Montreal.

Lunch the next day was at on OK Italian place on Crescent Street. We talked to a couple a table over, who were from London (Ontario, not UK), and here on their Honeymoon–the originally planned honeymoon destination being out of reach. In their case, Quebec City was the next stop.

Wine on Crescent Street patio
“Fantastique, tout le weekend”

Then dinner was on Terrasse Nelligan, a very popular rooftop restaurant that didn’t take reservations. We arrived early to get a seat, then bought some time (to get hungry enough for a meal) by starting with a cocktail (virgin one, in my case). We then shared a cheese plate, and Jean had a half-chicken dinner (which he really needed only a quarter of). I had some well-prepared salmon tartar.

Terrasse Nelligan
This “terrasse” would become more busy as the evening went on

Activities

For the hours we had to kill in between meals 💁, we didn’t make too many plans in advance. In Gananoque our main accomplishment was a three-hour hike on a humid Sunday at the Marble Rock Conservation area. We hadn’t expected it would take that long, but we survived! It was a pretty interesting walk, but didn’t make for the most compelling photos.

In Old Quebec, we just walked around, and visited a number of shops. Masks were mandatory in all indoor spaces in Quebec (you were allowed to take them off to eat inside restaurants, of course, but had to put them back on once circulating) and I have to say, I don’t think I saw a single adult inside not wearing one, the whole time. Most kids were too, though the law said they didn’t have to. And, stores were very insistent on you using hand sanitizer upon entry. This started to seem excessive when visiting one shop after another for just a few minutes each, but… I’m not really complaining. Overall I was impressed.

View of Quebec City, with Chateau Frontenac
Quebec be pretty!

We spent one day driving around Ile d’Orleans, stopping at places of interest, which somehow included three wineries (apart from the one we had dinner at)… I discovered that I was quite the fan of Quebec rose. But we also found a few whites and reds we enjoyed. And one dry pear wine.

Six wine glasses with cheese
Vignoble Ile de Bacchus did their wine tasting outside

I felt we had to stop at a jam place called Tigidou because I just loved the name, but it turned out that their jams were pretty great, also. We sat outside to enjoy some with scones, which attracted the attention of local residents…

Chicken seeking scone
Don’t think I’ve ever been this close to a chicken (who wasn’t food)

Museums

We had hoped to see the Boat Museum in Gananoque, but it was not open this year. We did visit the Parc Maritime du Saint-Laurent on Ile d’Orleans, where we were a bit stymied by the screening question of whether we had traveled outside Quebec in the last month. I guess the honest answer would be no, since we had only traveled to Quebec. But we responded that, well, we hadn’t traveled outside Canada, and that seemed to do. (Guess they aren’t getting that many out of province visitors?)

It was a nice waterfront spot. (Jean’s one complaint that day was that, for an Island tour, we didn’t see the water that much.)

In Quebec City, we noticed signs for the Imagine Van Gogh Immersive Exhibit, and thought that sounded interesting, so we got tickets. It wasn’t showing original Van Gogh paintings, but large projections of some of his works (or close-ups of parts of them), set to music. There were some interesting sequences, though it doesn’t quite match seeing actual Van Gogh’s.

In Montreal, we visited the Museum of Fine Arts. The permanent collection was still closed, but you could get tickets for a special exhibit on Paris in the Days of Post Impressionim. This was just a beautiful collection, with pieces by some big names (Picasso, Matisse, Degas), but mostly featuring lesser-known but also supremely talented “independent” artists.

The only problem was that, despite the controlled number of entries at timed intervals, the first couple rooms felt uncomfortably crowded to me. It was like one of my covid bad dreams–except that everybody was wearing a mask. But just as I starting to wonder if I should leave, I moved on to the next room and found fewer people in it. And it remained less crowded for the rest of the visit. Too many people spending too much time at the start of the exhibit, maybe…?

Hotel life

Unlike our July vacation, we didn’t upgrade our rooms this time. In Gananoque we stayed at Comfort Inn, which was pretty much what you’d expect from a Comfort Inn. (Good location, though.) In Quebec City, the room at the Hotel Palace Royal had more charm, but not much more space. The Marriott in Old Montreal was the best experience. They had just reopened and seemed happy for the business. We got upgraded to a suite, which was really nice.

Chateau Frontenac
A more picturesque hotel in Quebec City than the one we stayed at

No hotels were doing room cleaning during the stay, which was fine, except for having to go to the front desk to get more toilet paper. (At the Comfort Inn, this request took a surprising amount of time to fulfill.) The Comfort Inn and the Montreal Marriott had brown bag breakfasts, which did the trick. In Quebec, we were very close to many cafes and other restaurants, so finding breakfast wasn’t a problem.

Remembering to wear a mask in the hotel common areas was tricky at first. Not when walking in from outside, but when leaving your room, where you of course weren’t wearing one. But by the end we were used to it, to the point where it seemed slightly odd to get home and not have to put on a mask to go in.

Elevators were the main problem, and only at the Quebec hotel. At the Comfort Inn, we were just on second floor anyway, and the Montreal hotel wasn’t that busy, so it was easy to get an elevator to ourselves. But the Quebec one was more hopping, and we were on the fifth floor, so trying to not crowd in there was a daily challenge.

Yes, sometimes we resolved it by taking the stairs. One day, all the lights were out in the stairwells, so that was fun! But when luggage-bound, we just waited and waited until one came by that had room. Something to consider when hotel booking…

Book, TV, movie

I, Tonya poster

The earlier dinners and less stuff being open led to more time than usual lounging at the hotel in the evening. We made our way through Netflix’s The Messiah series, which was really interesting! Also on Netflix, we watched the movie I, Tonya, which was much better than either of us had expected. Watch I, Tonya! You do not have to be a figure skating fan. Just ask Jean.

On the drive, we listened to the audiobook of The Alice Network by Kate Quinn. Very engrossing novel; a recommended read.


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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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Moving through the stages

It was rather heartening that as Ontario moved more and more regions to stage 2 of reopening, that cases continued to trend downward. In stage 2, restaurants could serve food and drinks on outdoor patios; one could get haircuts, manicures, and tattoos (but not facials); and malls could open their doors.

Now areas are moving into stage 3: indoor dining (with spaced tables and occupancy limits); bars (!!!)—though only seated, no dancing, live music only behind plexiglass; gyms; and facials (for those who care, which isn’t me). Indoor limits increased to 50, not counting staff. And the case trend? Has become a bit of a roller-coaster.

No doubt this is all rather trickier than the earliest stage of, basically, hiding in your basement.

The mood

I called last summer my “lost summer”, as I spent so much of it battling anxiety and depression, and therefore struggling to really enjoy anything—or even leave the house. This summer, of course, there are so many external reasons it’s hard (or at least unwise) to leave the house.

But weirdly, my mood is so much better this summer. (Mind you, the cat conflicts were really stressing me out last summer, and now my cats are super happy to be getting so much attention. Maybe all I really need is contented pets.)

Not that I’m super cheery all the time. And of course, early on, I was definitely battling anxiety. Like anyone else, I was scared of getting the disease, and virus seemed to lurk everywhere. Now I’m not thinking about it as much–though I still have the occasional, vivid, coronavirus-related bad dream about finding myself in crowds of maskless people.

And I certainly have cranky days on a semi-regular basis. The difficulty in acquiring goods–slow and unreliable Canada Post delivery, shortages, the need to preorder everything, limited store hours–definitely put me in a bad mood at time. And at some points, I was getting super irritated with the government response: that for too long not enough tests were being done, that the testing criteria was too restricted, that contact tracing wasn’t happening fast enough, that the province wasn’t taking a regional approach to reopening.

But on both counts (goods and governance) thing have improving. I still get the crankies, just not quite as often or for as long.

Gratitude can help with these things. Thank God I’m not going through these troubled times while in a dark pit of despair and fear.

Travel

And, getting away can help too. After a few stay-cations, we hoped to go somewhere for our July vacation, albeit within this province. At least it’s a big province!

But planning it was tricky. The final regions of the province had just moved into stage 2, with no indication when stage 3 would happen. We’d think of places, like Manitoulin Island, then find they didn’t particular want visitors or, like Tobermory, that their hotels were priced such that well, maybe they didn’t want visitors, either. Restaurant-wise, we’d be limited to patios and takeout.

So it became mostly a family-visiting trip, but as the drive to Timmins is long, we added a stop in Orillia on the way up, and a stop in Sudbury via Muskoka on the way back.

Hotels

Jean’s Mom was quite suspicious of hotels, doubting they could possibly be kept clean enough. I was considerably less worried. As we’re learning, it’s not so much surfaces that are the issue, but people (and their moist breath). Hotels aren’t particularly crowded these days, and of course, you get a room of your own.

Thinking we might be eating takeout in them, we decided to upscale our rooms a bit and get a suite. This proved a bit disappointing in Orillia, where we stayed at the Stone Gate Inn. Certainly the room was big enough, with the extra kitchen and living room we wanted. But it also seemed a bit old and shaby. And covid protocols there meant no coffee maker, no dishes at all (not even wrapped plastic cup), no complimentary newspaper. While I believe these items were available upon request, it was kind of odd.

The complimentary breakfast was handled by having us call in the night before with what we wanted and what time. The next morning, they’d call when it was ready, and we’d go to the lobby and pick it up to bring back to our room to eat. That, we actually liked–preferable to the usual buffet breakfast!

But in general, we were happier with the Sudbury Homewood Suites by Hilton. The suite there was basically the same size and layout, but just a bit newer and shinier. (They made a point of noting that the TV remotes had been sanitized.) And, it included a coffee maker, dishes, and newspaper. Whether that was because we were there on the first day of stage 3 or just a difference with that hotel chain, I dunno.

There we could have eaten breakfast in the dining room (turned out to be the first day of stage 3), but we decided to just bring it to our room anyway. It was a pick up your own food deal, but with everything cold individually wrapped, and hot options served by staff wearing gloves and mask, and not via a common utensil.

Restaurants

We had been thinking of just doing takeout in Orillia, but the uninspiring hotel room, combined with the fact that patio menus looked more interesting than takeout ones (for the same restaurant, I mean) led us to eat at a restaurant for the first time since March.

Oh my God, it was so great.

We had fine weather for our two suppers there, so that made outdoor patios appealing. We ate early the first night, and thus were able to grab the last available table at Rustica Pizza Vino. (Then they had to get our contact information, just in case.) I did feel that the tables were nicely spaced, and the breeze was comforting. We had to look at the menu online, on our phones. All the waitstaff wore masks.

So we weren’t feeling especially stressed as we were served wine, and very fresh salad, and tasty pasta, then dessert (affogato!). It was glorious.

The next night, at The Common Stove, was even better. (We made a reservation the day prior.) They used an alley between buildings as their “patio”, putting a covering over it with lights, that actually gave it a really nice atmosphere! They had quite a creative menu that was delicious, from starter to dessert.

Eating out for the first time since March. Table service, I’ve missed you so.

In Sudbury, we made patio reservations at another Italian place, Verdicchio Ristorante. Our Timmins friends were wondering what said patio would be like, given that the restaurant was located in more of an industrial mall. But they had also done a lovely job of fencing off a patio area, adorning it with vines and grapes. We enjoyed the food and wine here as well.

A lovely patio in a parking lot

We’re now inspired to finally try a local patio as well. (Think we’ll still hold off on indoor dining for now.)

Answering the call

The pandemic also spotlighted the fact that when all restaurants close, it becomes really tricky to meet certain biological needs while traveling. On this trip, things had opened up enough that it wasn’t too much of an issue, but I still wanted highlight:

  • The truly lovely facilities available at the Scout Valley Loop Trail site in Orillia. (Pretty nice walking there, as well.)
  • The remarkably good facilities at a little restaurant in White River, just outside Sudbury. This stop allowed us to enjoy our hike on the AY Jackson trail.
Falls at the AY Jackson trail

Shopping

In Orillia, we did another thing we hadn’t really done since March: Casually browse through some stores for fun. It was a Monday, and none of the stores were busy—in fact, we were generally the only customers. As well, Orillia’s new mask bylaw had just come into effect. So it felt pretty comfortable. I got a nice new pair of walking shoes, and some earrings from a really cool art store.

A social circle

Timmins, we had to conclude, was looking kind of sad, and we weren’t particularly enticed to either shop nor dine out. But of course, that stop was mostly about seeing people.

Ontario has this guideline about creating a “social circle” of up to 10 people that you agree to be close contacts with. No one’s to belong to more than one social circle. Well-intentioned, but kind of complicated, and also impractical for large, geographically distributed families. So we have not formed any formal “social circle”, but are just winging it.

We did visit indoors with my Dad and Jean’s Mom, but avoided hugging–though I don’t know how much sense that made. We visited with the brothers (mine and Jean’s) mostly outdoors. We visited with friends in their outdoor gazebo–though they thought it was absurd (and hilarious) that we brought own beverages. We did visit the interior of Jean’s sister’s house in Sudbury (but still no hugging!). And on the way home, we stopped in to see my sister and family at their rented cottage in Muskoka, mostly hanging outdoors.

Rented cottage living…

It’s going on two weeks now, and everyone seems to have survived these encounters.

Of masks and men

As we were traveling, masks were becoming mandatory in more and more communities in Ontario—even in northern ones, where I had figured the low case incidence and less crowding would cause them to give it a pass. But as in Orillia, we arrived in Sudbury just in time for their mask bylaw, and in Timmins it was to go into effect the following week.

Sign in Orillia (with its own sense of justice)

The provincial government’s approach of being all in favor of face masks but requiring every city and town in the province to decide for themselves whether to make them mandatory is bizarre. Super inefficient, for one thing. And obviously leading to each place in the province having their own little twist on the mask mandate, even if they’re only five minutes apart. Some examples off the top of my head:

  • Toronto has no enforcement. Waterloo Region has fines up to $1000.
  • In Sudbury, you only need masks if moving inside a restaurant. In Waterloo, you need to wear them on restaurant patios as well, until seated.
  • In Toronto, until recently, you had to wear masks on the municipal subway and buses, but not on the provincial Go trains and buses they connect to.
  • A number of work places are not covered by the Waterloo bylaw, including day cares (for the workers, not the children).
  • In Guelph, stores and restaurants themselves have to enforce the mask mandate. In Waterloo, it’s enforced by the municipality.

It’s just all muddled and stupid and confusing. But, at least most places seem to be getting there, and best I can tell, compliance is reasonably good.

Reading list

Libraries reopened, sort of, a few weeks before we left, and I decided to acquire physical material (book books) before leaving. You have to reserve what you want online, then go pick it up. At my local library, for some reason, it’s a drive-through pickup. I’m not a fan. It was quite a line-up of cars, making it slow, and all that idling is not environmental. At the pick-up spot, you called to give your library card number. The loan was then brought out and placed in the trunk, in a paper bag, with a note assuring that the book had been “quarantined” for at least 72 hours prior.

A bit excessive, maybe? And I’m still left wondering how someone without a car (or a cell phone) is supposed to borrow books. (Normally, I walk there myself.)

I also borrowed a few items from the Kitchener Public Library, and that pickup process was much better. Go in on foot (limits on the numbers, but there was only other person there when I arrived), wearing a mask, hand over your card to the employee behind the plexiglass, and your books are brought out to a table. Faster and less carbon emission-y.

With both libraries, items are now checked out for six weeks rather than three–very good for me.

But I’m making good progress on all of them. From Kitchener, I got a series of Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season 10 comics. I’d been rewatching a lot of Buffy lo these many weeks, but as it was moving along into Season 5, I stopped, feeling that I just didn’t want to get into [Spoiler alert!] Joyce dying, then Buffy dying…

But in Season 10 Buffy comics (I learned via Google alert), Buffy and Spike finally have the mature, loving, healthy romantic relationship they never quite around to on the actual series. I then learned (via Google searching) that these comics are out of print and rather impossible to purchase anywhere at a reasonable price. So I was rather pleased the library came to my rescue!

Spuffy smoochies!

From Waterloo I acquired Jan Wong’s Out of the Blue. I’ve been meaning to read it for some time, but I’m finding it especially interesting now–likely more than I would have before last summer. Because it’s about how she uncharacteristically responded to some work stressors with a severe bout of anxiety and depression. In between describing what was happening with her fairly public career as a Globe and Mail columnist, she provides research into the nature, cause, treatment of, and prevalence of depression. Some really good stuff on a topic I didn’t know as well as I thought I did.


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Things accomplished during my stay-cation

The companies have made it clear that we need to take the vacation days to which we are entitled this year–and preferably not all in that last quarter of it. We hope to eventually be able to visit family, even if it’s a hug-free and highly hand wash-y affair.

But our initial two-day vacation was strictly home-based, with different goals than a typical vacation. Less about museums, mountains, and fine dining—and more about just keeping busy with something other than work.

Therefore, hiking the local trails was the main excitement. Though it’s somewhat discouraged, we did drive to trail in Cambridge, and to a RIM park trail on the other side of Waterloo. But the best one we did was in the nature area just outside our door.

Young deer
This guy wasn’t too worried about us
Duck

We also enjoyed walking the neighbourhood Columbia Forest that we snowshoe on in winter. Not as much wildlife viewed, but some lovely foliage, along with it just being interesting terrain (for this part of Ontario).

Trillium
Trillium, Ontario’s flower
Purple flowers
Little purple flower (I’m not good at identifying flowers!)

I’d had the idea of ordering wine from a Beamsville winery and driving to pick it up, but then that seemed… not really that fun. And a lot of wineries offer free shipping.

So while we were not low on wine overall (we just routinely buy bottles way faster than we drink them), we were out of certain styles, such as Ontario Riesling. Not worth standing in an LCBO line up for, but definitely worth ordering from Angel’s Gate Winery: we got both dry and off-dry Riesling styles. And while at it, added a still and a sparkling Sauvignon Blanc, a Gamay Noir, and a Syrah. Though warned that shipping could be delayed, the box arrived in two days. We’ve only tried the dry Riesling so far, but it was excellent (and only $15, despite being a well-aged 2008).

Restaurant Relief Case

We’d also been mooning over Wine Align‘s offers of wines normally sold only to restaurants, but now available to the public at the price restaurants would have paid. When the latest case included a donation to support local restaurants and food banks, that seemed excuse enough to go ahead. The mixed case of 12, which just arrived, includes an Italian Chianti, Argentian Malbec, New Zealand Sauvignon, French Cote du Rhone red, and a Spanish cava.

For food, of course, it was mostly home cooking. I made a chocolate-peanut butter pie, I roasted a chicken for dinner one day, and on another made “baked” ziti in the Instant Pot, by following this recipe: Instant Pot Baked Ziti—only vegetarian style, as I didn’t have any ground turkey or Italian sausage. It was still really good, and very easy.

The last vacation day, we got takeout from White Rabbit.

White Rabbit takeout
Fish tacos, cauliflower “wings”, protein power bowl, and more! (Yes, we had leftovers.)

Then, there was the matter of my hair. Going on nine weeks since my last hair appointment, it was both rather long (at least for me) and rather gray-rooty. I decided to tackle the easy part first: dyeing the roots. I was lucky that one of the few remaining colours available from Shoppers was the one I wanted anyway, and also that I don’t have complicated color requirements that (I have learned from Internet reading) are tough to do at home. I just wanted to make the gray more brown. Success!

Me with long but brown hair
Hair coloured but not cut

As for the cutting, Jean’s since made a few modest efforts to shorten the longer pieces that were falling into my face.

He hasn’t missed his calling as a hairdresser.

But, it’s also not a total disaster, and with a bit of gel and hairspray, I can now mostly just style that hair off my face, which is fine. I’m a bit daunted about what to do about the overgrown layers behind that… Attempt a trim? Let it all grow out to equal length? Bah. Still pondering that one.

In the most-est fun ever, we also got our taxes done. This year we used a new (to us) “pay what you want” software, SimpleTax. It doesn’t “walk you through” the tax form in the same way as TurboTax does, so it’s good to have an idea what deductions you qualify for (and therefore, to not have a very complicated taxes to file). But, that also gave you more ability to move around the different forms than TurboTax did, and I liked that aspect. (Along with paying less to do my taxes.)

And it’s true (and maybe sad) that doing taxes wasn’t even the least fun thing I did on vacation. That would be spending a lot of Sunday (the one day with crappy weather) trying to figure out what was wrong with my Sonos sound system. It somehow kept losing the Internet, even though our Internet was running fine. This affected our morning alarm (CBC radio), which set up the whole day badly, and continued with streaming music stuttering out on a regular basis all day.

It’s also very strange to have your Google speaker tell you: “I cannot find the Internet.”

Cat meows at Alexa speaker
From https://www.iizcat.com/post/5485/When-a-cat-meets-Alexa-comic-

The fix, for the 0.0001% who care, was unplugging, then restarting, the Sonos Boost.


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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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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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Vacation, all I ever wanted

I had a week’s vacation to use before Christmas, and Jean always has a backlog. We found a week in October that worked for us and our catsitter, but then the question was, where do we go? Having done Ireland in June, this wasn’t going to be a big Europe trip.

We first considered going to the Lake Erie region, but even with mellowing out the vacation by limiting it to six days, that seemed too long to spend there. And there wasn’t anything obvious nearby to combine it with. (I’m sure Detroit is interesting, but…)

Jean then thought of the Gananoque / 1000 Islands region, which we’d never been to. Some Googling suggested we’d find things to do there. Then we figured we’d combine that with a return visit to Prince Edward County.

Gananoque / 1000 Islands

(Aside: The Google Maps pronunciation of Gananoque is hilarious and had us giggling all trip.)

Gananoque is a pretty, compact town on the water. It was great to be able to walk everywhere we wanted to go after parking at the Inn. And we loved the Inn—Absolute One Thousand Island Suites—because we had so much space! Apart from the expected bedroom and bathroom, there was a living room area and a full kitchen.

We wasted no time in making ourselves at home

The little downtown had some interesting shops, including a great art gallery and a delicious bakery where we provisioned ourselves for breakfast and had lunch one day. This is not a wine region, but we did visit Gananoque brewery, where their tasting flight was… far more beer than we were expecting to drink. (Good thing we were walking everywhere.) We’re not big beer people, but theirs was pretty good. I tasted four and finished my two favourites; Jean did similarly. That was enough for the cheap drunks that we are.

The major tourist activity in these parts is the 1000 Island Boat Cruise; they offer several daily. We went for the 2.5 tour on the Monday, at 4:00 pm. That gave us plenty of time to visit the 1000 Islands History Museum in advance, and it was rather better than we were expecting! It included an interesting film on Boldt Castle, the highlight of our upcoming boat tour. We’d hoped to also visit the Boat Museum, but it was closed for the season (which didn’t stop the cruise from promoting it).

Boldt Castle was built by George Boldt, millionaire proprietor of the Waldorf Astoria in New York, for his wife. Unfortunately, she passed away before it could be quite completed, and Mr. Boldt never returned. After being left to the elements for 73 years, the Thousand Islands Bridge Authority took it over and restored it as a tourist attraction. With the five-hour cruise (and a passport—it’s on the American side), you can visit the Castle grounds. We just stayed on the boat and circled them.

Boldt Castle
Boldt Castle
Boldt Castle
And another view
Up the Creek!
And a view of Gananoque

By Tuesday we were ready to get in the car again to visit the parks, though they really weren’t far away. First stop was the 1000 Islands Tower. We were blessed with a perfect day for views, weather-wise.

The View from Hill Island's Observation Tower
Fall colours of Ontario
The View from Hill Island's Observation Tower
A closer look at the 1000 Islands Bridge
The View from Hill Island's Observation Tower
A few of the 1000 islands (there are actually 1864)

We then did some hiking. We discovered that Thousands Islands Park has different locations, and the first we walked in… Wasn’t super interesting. But the Landon Bay trails were quite nice.

More interesting section of the less interesting park
Hiking amid the Fall Colours!
Landon Bay hike

We had lunch in the tiny town of Rockport that day. Cute place, food was OK, but so small we were quite glad we weren’t staying there. (It also offers cruises.)

We weren’t sure how the food would be in this area, but we did well. The first night we ate at Sun Sushi, and that was some of the best sushi we’ve had in a while. Don’t know that I’d ever had scallop sushi before… And I have had yellowfin, but this was really good yellowfin!

Sun Sushi
Sun Sushi offerings

The second night was very delicious Italian food at Riva. Jean has declared this his favourite meal of the trip.

Riva Restaurant
Beautiful sky over Riva restaurant

Our last dinner, at a pub, was a less inspiring environment, but it was good duck confit. It had the advantage of being near the playhouse, as we had acquired tickets to see New Canadian Curling Club, a comedy about a group of immigrants to Canada who decide to learn curling. Only the replacement instructor (after the original gets injured) isn’t so sure he likes how immigrants are changing his town… Despite the somewhat heavy subject, it was a pretty fun play.

Prince Edward County

Much as we’d enjoyed Gananoque / Thousand Islands, we felt we’d hit the highlights and so headed off to Prince Edward not too late on Wednesday. We were thinking of trying to do more hiking, fewer wineries this time out. Nonetheless, we arrived too early to check into our Inn, so we then went to… a winery. Wapoos. It has a full restaurant, and it was time for the lunch. (That was the excuse.)

The precurssor to wine :)
It was harvest time in Prince Edward County

Wapoos has beautiful grounds and decent food, so we tend to enjoy visiting there, and this time was no exception. We also did a wine tasting and found a few bottles we liked, including a delicious 2015 Frontenac Reserve.

We found out that they also owned the cider store across the street, so we went and tried some of that, too. We liked the cider combined with honey, as well as elderberry, along with the sparkling. So we also got some of that. Then we visited the Fifth Town Cheese Company and got a few of their wares.

Upon return to the Waring House Inn, we found that our room was way small (though I’m sure larger ones are available). Bit of a downer after the Gananoque one.

We didn’t accomplish much else this day; just walked around Picton some, and ended up with dinner at Warans. They do interesting take-offs on sushi, like pork-belly “sushi” which looks like sushi, but is actually cooked pork with hot rice. A bit startling to bite into, but it was good!

Tuesday we made up for our lower-activity day. We started with a hike in Macaulay Mountain Conservation area. Rather low on information—no trail maps, for example—but with a bit of help from Google and the fact that the trails were marked, we managed to get around. Really nice place for a hike, actually, though we didn’t get great views (and therefore no great pictures).

After that it was back to Picton for a crepe lunch (the French crepe was délicieux) and off to Milford to visit three wineries. Exultet we had visited before; we still quite liked their products, though Jean had forgotten how pricey they were. I had not, but we still bought some. Then to Long Dog, where we had a really nice chat with the woman doing the wine tasting. (Did I mention that at both places, we were the only ones there?) They do a sparkling Gamay, which we’d never had before. Quite liked that. We also got a bottle of their Pinot noir.

Finally, Lighthall Vineyards, where they make not only wine, but cheese, and you get to taste both. Their cheese is fabulous; we got as much of that as was reasonable for a perishable product. And some Pinot Gris (learning that the difference between it and Pinot Grigio is skin contact—Pinot Gris has it), Chardonnay, and Pinot Noir.

It was time to walk again. Gorgeous day. (We were so lucky; pretty much all gorgeous days.) We visited the Bird Observatory—too late for the owl banding, but what can you do. We did see a number of birds, an absolutely incredible number of frogs, and a snake! We also did a walk in another conservation area—possibly Little Bluff.

Carrot Top!
Not quite sure where this was taken, but certainly indicative of the weather

Dinner was in Bloomfield, at Bloomfield Public House. Very good service. We had the day’s special, smoked rabbit with blueberries, quinoa pilaf, and vegetables.

Friday we headed off to Wellington, which is very pretty. It’s also rather small, though, so once visited, we thought, how about a couple more wineries?

Living on the Lake
Pretty Wellington

Karlo Estates is always a nice one to visit. They pair all tastings with bar snacks, and they lovely room, with resident cats. The only problem with that was that I’d had news from the catsitter that one of the cats was hiding and not eating, a likely sign of illness, so they didn’t help take my mind off that fact. I really felt that one of the resident cats (they were all so friendly!) was just too thin.

Still, nice visit. We got a few bottles here, too. Then we visited Hinterland, which primarily makes sparkling wines. They were busy at the back and didn’t even notice we were there for a bit! But we did enjoy their products. We are sparkling fans.

We couldn’t afford to visit any more wineries, frankly, so we went to Sandbanks Provincial Park to walk the Dune trail. It’s all sandy, which does make it different from the others we did.

Coniferous Color!
Photo taken at Sandbanks Provincial Park

We just had a snack lunch this day (cheese! And cider!), so we were ready for the night’s supper, back in Wellington, at the Drake Devonshire. Nice place! We didn’t have reservations, so had to sit outside, but it was warm enough for that. This was likely our best dinner in Prince Edward County on this trip.

Drake Devonshire Inn and Restaurant
Outdoor dining in October
Drake Devonshire Inn and Restaurant
Jean’s lamb was a highlight

We took off fairly promptly after breakfast the next morning, the catsitter having reported not much change re: the not eating and the hiding. But basically within 10 minutes of us being home, the cat was out, then eating, and generally looking and acting all fine and dandy. Presumably she had been feeling ill, but whatever had been troubling her had clearly passed.


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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!
20190618-DingleIreland-250-2
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.


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52 candles

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 Last Ship 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.

Buca Yorkville mmmmm!

Jean had the day’s special of uni spaghetti, also good, but not quite as good as the ravioli.

Uni Spagetti (Sea Urchin)

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.

Birthday Girl!

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.

Duck Paté at Richmond Station!

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.


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New Year’s Eve 2018

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.

Starters

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

The Amuze!

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.

Lobster Bits :)

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 best ever Goose sous-vide!

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.

Mains

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

Matching wine: 2015 Bergstrom Cumberland Reserve Pinot Noir, Willamette Valley, Oregon

passionfruit calamansi sorbet

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.

Dessert

croquembouche: the classic french festival pile. *pandan *tamarind *chai *blueberry ginger *lime curd

cheese

chocolate

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.

Looking beyond the Chocolate

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.