Cultureguru's Weblog

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


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Wining and dining while trying to avoid cooties

I promise this won’t turn into a big politic rant, but it’s just a fact that the Ontario government no longer cares if I (or anyone in Ontario) gets Covid—as long as not too many of us end up in hospital with it. (And even there, they keep mumbling about how they have some spare hospitals beds now.)

Stubbornly, I’d still rather avoid it, if I can. Even for the triple-vaccinated, it seems unpleasant to have. And then there’s those possible long-term effects: Long Covid. Early dementia. Diabetes. Higher risk of heart attacks and stroke.

Happily for privileged me (and here I could do a rant about how the government has abandoned the less-privileged and the more-vulnerable, but I won’t), I do have considerable ability to, well, just stay home and avoid people. And the temperament to not mind it all that much.

But it is nice to leave the house once in a while. And I do have vacation days to take. We’d really enjoyed our time in Niagara-on-the-Lake in November, so earlier in the year, we planned to spend a few nights there in late March.

Then the government dismantled everything that had made that fall trip feel comfortable: Capacity limits—lifted. Vaccine passports—gone. Mask mandates—history. Meanwhile, the Omicron BA.2 variant, the most contagious one yet, makes its inexorable rise.

And thanks be we weren’t headed to Ottawa, which has already reached historic levels of Covid infections

Still, most of our planned activities seemed relatively low risk. The outdoor hiking is obviously not a problem. Wineries offered private tastings. We could mask in the common areas of the Inn we were staying. But what about dinner???

Spring has not really sprung in these parts yet, so patios weren’t an option. And sure, you can do takeout. But we didn’t want to. Niagara-on-the-Lake has some terrific restaurants. And we love the whole multi-course, wine-matched, lingering indoor dining experience. But Covid-wise, there’s so little you can control when in a restaurant: you can’t mask, you can’t know in advance how well-ventilated the restaurant is, you can’t prevent other people from being seated near you.

And then I got an idea…

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Yet another Ontario vacation

I had more vacation days left than I needed for Christmas time, and there seemed little point in carrying them forward into the first three months of next year. So we took the first week of November off, and visited Niagara-on-the-Lake and the north shore of Lake Erie.

Beautiful tree on a sunny day in Niagara
This is November?

Fortunately the weather proved cooperative. We had a warm late October in southern Ontario, and while it got cooler this first week of November, it was very sunny—and that warm October meant that a lot of trees still had their colourful leaves. So not a “dreary” November week at all.

In Niagara-on-the-Lake, we stayed at Harbour House, which is a pretty nice spot. It was not a huge room, but the space was very well organized, and it came with little perks like a bathrobe and a wine-and-cheese hour. I was a bit surprised that we had to show proof of vaccination upon checking in, but that was for the included indoor breakfast, which was quite good—granola, fruit, and yogourt, followed by a hot item such as quiche.

It was also on the lake, which meant some great walks were right there.

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Killarney Mountain Lodge

Originally we’d been thinking about flying to Nova Scotia in August, but then noted that there wasn’t a single car available for rent in the entire province that month. (This is due to the pandemic-caused chip shortage.) Then, we considering going there in early September, but we ran into the issue that our catsitter had a similar thought, and was flying to New Brunswick. Scary Covid projections for Fall were also starting to fly about then as well, and we got a little weirded out about being reliant on airlines to get us back home.

So switched it all up and decided to just drive to Killarney Mountain Lodge for four nights.

Killarney Mountain Lodge at night
Killarney Mountain Lodge at night
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Traveling to all the hot spots

Remember when a place being a hot spot was a good thing? Lively and exciting? (Or possibly a way to connect to wifi?) Now it’s describing villages with abnormally hot temperatures caused by global warming “heat domes”, and in COVID terms, regions with a large number of cases.

Ontario so far is having a relatively normal summer weather-wise, with a mix of hot, sticky days and cool, rainy ones—along with a few exciting thunderstorms, sometimes with hail. (Ontario is not the place for people who enjoy weather constancy.) And COVID-wise, Ontario—with definitely the slowest reopening plan in North America—is doing pretty well. Except for a few hot spots.

One of these was my original home town of Timmins, which until recently had weathered the pandemic really well. But the Delta variant just tore through the place—and more alarmingly, through the remote northern villages up there—in May / June time frame.

We nevertheless decided to visit. Their plight had led to an extensive local vaccination effort, and as a result, almost all our family ended up fully vaccinated sooner than expected. And we hadn’t been there in nearly a year. Felt like time.

Also felt like a bit of déjà vu of last summer’s July visit…

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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
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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 wouldn’t have wanted to go to the country to the south even if we were allowed to, which we weren’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… )

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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.

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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.

20190730-Sudbury-044-HDR-Pano
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!

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