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Second wave sojourn

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

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

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

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

Activities

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We were wrong.

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

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

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

Knowledge (street sculpture)

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

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

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

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

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

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

A rather magnificent tree we spotted on our journey

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

Restaurants

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

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

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

Restaurant roll call

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scallops a la Riva

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

Fancy takeout from Chez Piggy

Hotel life

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

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

Book, TV, movie

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

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

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

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

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

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


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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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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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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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Touring the province

Originally, our summer vacation was just going to be to Toronto, then Timmins, with one point in between (North Bay). A family canoe trip was planned for the start of the Timmins portion. I wasn’t too keen on that, so I was just going to hang with Dad during that time.

But then, the canoe trip started to get generally low on participants, to the point where it seemed a bit pointless. So Jean and I decided to add a few more points between Toronto and Timmins.

Toronto

Of course, the impetus for this portion was the Queen + Adam Lambert concert that I’ve already written about. The concert was on a Sunday night, but we went to Toronto on Saturday. We traveled by Greyhound (and just for added fun, took the Ion—Waterloo’s new light rail transit—to the Greyhound station). On the way, I grew nostalgic for the days when Greyhound could get you to downtown Toronto in about 90 minutes. Yes, the bus left a bit late, and yes, they’ve added stops, but the main reason it took about 3 hours to get there was traffic. Traffic, traffic, traffic.

So we arrived around 3:00, and we had a 5:00 dinner reservation (because we didn’t book far enough ahead to get a better time). So we high-tailed it to our hotel, the Beverley. There we experienced the world’s slowest elevator ride on the way to the smallest room I’ve ever stayed in, at least in Toronto. But, it was pretty conveniently located to everything we had to get to.

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‘Tranna

And the first of those places was Buca Yorkville, where we had our dinner reservation. It’s pricey, but they’ve never let us down, and with a small exception, they didn’t this time, either. The waiter was helpful at guiding through the menu and in picking a wine.

We started with some oysters and raw salmon, then for mains, I had the risotto and Jean the braised octopus, which was really amazing. My dessert was a hit, but Jean’s, a take-off on tiramisu, was the only misstep of the meal.

Appetizers at Buca
Starters
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Squid; tasted better than it looks
Dessert at Bucca
Less successful dessert

Sunday morning after breakfast we went to the AGO, where we decided to buy their new, cheaper annual pass, which will pay off as long as we go at least once more this year. We first went to Yayoi Kusama’s celebrated Infinity Mirror room where, we were surprised to discover, we were given a grand total of 60 seconds to look around and take photos. Good thing that’s not the only thing we had planned to see!

We also visited a special exhibit on women and photography (as subjects and photographers) and viewed some of the permanent collection of Canadian art.

We followed that with a bit of shopping, at places like Mountain Equipment Co-op, then went for another early dinner. This time it was at Taverna Mercato, an Italian place near the Scotiabank Centre. The food was pretty good, but boy, was it loud—packed to the rafters with a mix of Blue Jays and Queen fans.

Our return trip to Kitchener was by Via Rail. It got us there in less than 90 minutes. (Too bad there are only two Via trains per day.)

Tobermory

We stopped back at home for the car and more luggage (and lunch), then made our way to Tobermory. We hit quite the thunderstorm on the way in to town. It had eased by the time we got there, but it remained a rainy evening. So we skipped walking around and just had dinner—some rather good local fish at Leeside—and watched some TV at the hotel.

Manitoulin Island

We were booked on the early morning ferry, which was punctual, so fortunate that breakfast at Leeside was fast. It was a beautiful day, so once on the island we decided to drive to the Cup and Saucer trail and walk that.

Even at this relatively early time, it was quite a popular destination! We even took a side trail at one point just to ditch some people. But it is a nice walk, and gives you some decent elevations, at least by Ontario standards.

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View from the top of the Cup and Saucer
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Me in my stylin’ hiking clothes (including new hat from MEC)

We then drove to Little Current for some lunch and to check into our hotel. This was the nicest booking of our trip, at the Manitoulin Hotel and Conference Centre. Along with a fast elevator and big rooms, they offered beautiful views and a pool that we actually used. We had breakfast at their restaurant, and that wasn’t bad, either. For dinner, we got into a popular little restaurant after a short wait at the bar, and both enjoyed local fish dinners, of trout (me) and white fish (Jean).

Sudbury

It was about a three hours drive from Little Current to Sudbury, where we stayed at the Day’s Inn right by Science North. (This was our fourth hotel in four days, and it was starting to get disorienting.) We had a good lunch at an Italian wine bar, Di Gusto, before taking a walk, then visiting Science North.

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A view of Science North on our walk
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One of the exhibits featured the Body World plastinated bodies
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They also had butterflies

For dinner, we got into the Tommy’s Not Here restaurant. It was quite good. I had one of their specialties, the lamb.

Timmins

We made it to Timmins on Thursday, and our visit was mostly about family. My sister Michelle also arrived this day, with her husband and one son joining the next day. (The other son was working at camp and couldn’t get away.) My other sister was also scheduled to arrive the next day, but her flight ended up cancelled due to mechanical difficulties! That was a bummer all around, especially for her.

The initial event drawing us to Timmins this long weekend were celebrations of my aunt’s 90th birthday. But my Dad thought he would take advantage of the family traveling there to also hold an inurnment ceremony for my Mom’s ashes. That took place on Saturday a morning, a simple ceremony at the cemetery.

Father Pat, Michelle, and Dad with the ashes

Dad then hosted a lunch at the house. He decided to have it catered, which obviously reduced the workload a great deal. The company, Radical Gardens, did a nice job. I think the extended family enjoyed the gathering.

Sarah-Simone, Neal, and Dad with the spread (I’m in the background, there…)

We had a couple more family events that weekend, these ones focused on my aunt Irene, who is a fantastic-looking 90 and still sharp mentally. My uncle Gilles hosted a pot luck / pizza party in his yard Saturday night. He had tarp up in case, but the weather was cooperative in any event. Then there was also slightly more formal afternoon affair on Sunday at the McIntyre Lion’s Den, also catered by Radical Gardens.

In between all that, Jean and I managed to visit with some of his family as well!

The drive back from Timmins seemed interminable, but basically went as well as can be expected on a holiday Monday. Now to figure out where we might go on another little driving trip in the Fall…


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Ireland

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

(Photos by Jean unless otherwise indicated.)

Weather

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

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

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

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

Galway and Cliffs of Moher

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

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

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

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The streets of Galway

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dingle peninsula

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

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

Awaiting our boozy porridge (photo by Cassidy)

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

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In “downtown” Dingle

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

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

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

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

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

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Fungie!
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And again!

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

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

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Killarney in Ireland

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

Torc waterfall
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Us blocking the view of the Torc Falls

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

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Ross Castle

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

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

Dublin

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

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

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

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

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

Complete with cartoon animals (photo by Shannon)

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

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Top of the morning to you!

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

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

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Dublin streetscape
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Christchurh Cathedral in Dublin

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

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

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

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The gorgeous Old Library at Trinity College

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

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Reclining Oscar Wilde

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

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

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You might have seen this in a movie

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

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Vats at the Teeling Whiskey tour

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

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

Food

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Starters
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Mains
Dessert

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

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

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

At The Garden Room restaurant (photo by Cassidy)

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

At The Bank restaurant (photo by me)

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

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

Tips

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


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Advantages to spending Christmas in Timmins

Not everyone comes from an exciting home town, but home it is, and that’s where we typically head for Christmas. Of course, the biggest bonus is getting together with family, since we are now disbursed and rarely all in the same room. (“I really enjoy these leisurely McNair breakfasts, with conversation,” Jean commented, on about day 3. “Doesn’t really happen with my family.” Of course, other good things do happen with his family, I feel I should add!)

My brother and niece unwrapping gifts Christmas

Overall, it was a lovely Christmas, with most everyone up, no travel problems, delicious food, and no one with serious ill issues.

But I also realized there are other benefits to Christmas in Timmins.

Snow

Sometimes it’s only a little snow, sometimes it’s a ridiculous amount of snow, but there’s always snow in Timmins in December! If you live in some beautiful, sunny, and warm part of the world, not having snow at Christmas is not much of a tragedy, despite its traditional association with the season. But in southern Ontario, where we now live, no snow typically means gray, coo, dreary, drizzly weather. It’s just depressing. (And thanks to climate change, it’s what we can expect for one of two Christmases from now on.)

Me in a snowy landscape, full of natural Christmas trees

Taking care of (government) business

This one applies only to those living in Ontario, but… Are the lineups to take your driver’s test just too long in Toronto? Have you been putting off replacing your old red and white health card? If you said yes, then you’re probably related to me.

Having been discouraged by the Toronto crowds, on December 24, my nephew went to the Ministry of Transportation office in Timmins, and passed his driver’s test! Same day, his father went to Services Ontario and got himself a proper photo ID health card. In about five minutes.

Same province, fewer people, faster service!

Shopping!

Of course Southern Ontario has more stores, but is more always better? No running around to different LCBOs to get the wine you want; you just go to the only one there is and make do with what they have. And at the only men’s clothing store downtown, you might just discover, as Jean did, that custom-made shirts are much cheaper there, and that they’ll ship them to your house.

Grosbeaks

The blue jays, cardinals, and eagles we have around here are cool, but dig these red and yellow grosbeaks. (The pileated woodpecker also made an appearance.)

Wherever you were for Christmas, hope you made the best of it. In Timmins this year, that wasn’t hard.

 


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

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

tsy

The area we’d be visiting

Day 1: The Canadian invasion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Day 2: Walking in the valley

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

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

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

Not exactly roughing it in Portugal

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

Day 3: Going to market to learn about port

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

Terraces in the background

And terraces in the foreground (photo by Helen)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just a few of the MGs in the parking lot

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

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

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

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

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

The scary bridge (photo by Helen)

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

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

One of the more stunning pieces in the Mateus collection

The goal here was to make a mini Versaille

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

A more interesting view than the waterfall

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

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

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

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

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

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

Roughing it in the bush

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

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

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

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

Some questions have no answers.

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

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

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

The waterway walk

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

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

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

The chapel

The views

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Day 8: History, architecture, and a zombie hurricane

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

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

Not your average McDonald’s

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

Porto's tiled Church

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

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

Photography Museum

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

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

Carpaccio of Pinnaple was terrific!

This pineapple dessert with port ice cream was also nice

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

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

Day 9: Potted Potter

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

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

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

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

One of the gorgeous statues on display

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

The Catholic Glow!

Last day photo, and one of the best

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

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

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


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Annual expedition to Lake Erie area

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

Activities

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

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

We did see some less annoying wild life.

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

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

Wineries

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

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

Restaurants

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

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

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

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


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Finding things to do in Ottawa

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

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

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

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

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

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


Ottawa during the golden hour

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

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

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

The walk to the Museum of History

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

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

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

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

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

Ottawa

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

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

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Jean was there!

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So were camels!

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

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

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