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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).


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Visiting l’accent de l’Amérique

Our next destination after Prince Eward County was Québec City—currently branding itself as l’accent de l’Amérique, which is kind of clever. The 6-hour drive there seemed rather long, and a bit of a waste of another nice day, but we passed the time listening to the audiobook of Ready Player One, a fun, near-future sci-fi novel recently turned Stephen Spielberg movie. (The audiobook was read by Will Wheaton, which made one detail in the novel especially amusing.)

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Guess what was playing in Picton while we were there? Didn’t see it, though; didn’t want to spoil the book

We had booked a room at the fancy and historic Château Frontenac, which was having anniversary specials. So we had the door man, and concierge services, and a great, central location. The room was just one of their “basic” ones, but it was still a good size and comfortable.

Chateaux Frontnac lobby

Our modest little hotel

And the outside of it. It’s huge! You can get lost in its corridors.

We had wanted to have dinner at Toast, but—cue the jokes—Toast was closed due to fire. So we booked (or really, had the concierge book for us) at their sister restaurant, Simple Snack Sympathique, or SSS. We found it just as delightful as we remembered Toast being, with creative food combinations and lovely presentation. I had the Québec Exquis special, which was a prix fixe of three courses all incorporating maple syrup in some way. (Québec Exquis was a one-week period in which Québec restaurants featured three-course, prix-fixe menus built around items from québecois food producers .)

First up for me was snow crab, then duck (the maple sauce was amazing), then maple éclair. Jean went with the regular menu for foie gras, smoked pork, then fromage fermier (farmer cheese!) for dessert.

Tastes as good as it looks

We enjoyed a selection of wines from the Languedoc region with that—also part of the Québec Exquis special. (By the way, we had no idea before leaving that all these restaurant specials would be on.)

Jean took to getting up early for photos, while I had more leisurely mornings. Worked out for both of us.

How the world looks to morning people, apparently

Our first full day there, after a joint breakfast (not at the hotel), we walked down rue St-Jean, the shopping street outside the Old Town. This time we didn’t find too many treasures worth buying, though: just a bargain-priced collection of sheet music, for me.

We’d never been to Ile D’Orléans before—an island about a 30-minute drive from Québec—and had been planning to visit it this trip. But after driving around Prince Edward County, which is nearly an island, visiting various food-related destinations, we weren’t sure if we wanted to get back in the car and do the same here? On the map provided by the hotel, though, I noticed that there were bus tours we could take to the island. So we signed up for La route des saveurs, starting at 2:00, and running for 2.5 hours

Joining us on the tour—which started right at our hotel—was a friendly couple from Carolina, on an anniversary vacation, and two young women from South Korea, in Canada for what seemed like an absurdly short time for such a long trip. We found out that a popular South Korean show was filmed in Québec City, leading to an increased number of Korean tourists going there and looking for the “red door”. (CBC story: How a popular Korean soap opera is drawing Asian tourists to Quebec City.)

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Not the red door, but still a cool shot of Old Québec

Our guide was a lively young man with an enthusiasm for both Québec and the culinary products of Ile d’Orléans. Being early spring, with snow still in the fields, the island landscape wasn’t as lovely as it presumably becomes when plants are in bloom. So, we don’t have too many photos from this part. But, we did enjoy the tastings at each stop.

  1. Chocolaterie: Your typical artisanale chocolate shop, except that they also had an ice cream shop with chocolate-dipped cones. We enjoyed the chocolate maple sample, and bought another set of maple-based chocolates for later consumption, but resisted the ice cream, figuring that would give us a sugar overload too early in the tour.
  2. Maison Smith: A coffee shop where we sampled a maple latte. Normally I don’t care for sweetened coffees, but this one had a very light touch with the maple, and I quite enjoyed it. The owner gave an interesting overview of his business as well. We bought some ground coffee here, for planned use at our Ottawa accommodations.
  3. Sucrerie: Probably the most interesting stop, as the maple syrup was currently being gathered here and we got an overview of the whole process. We tasted various strengths of maple syrup and the maple jelly, which we bought a jar of.
  4. Cidrerie Bilodeau: Here they make dry and sweet apple ciders of various types, from dry sparkling to iced apple, any of which we were able to sample. We bought a cassis / apple blend that we figured could make interesting kir-like drinks. And also a jar of the most delicious apple butter I’ve ever had. Should have bought more. [There was no obligation to buy things at each stop. We just did.]
  5. Nougaterie: Run by an originally European couple who immigrated to Canada and established this business. They had nougat in an extraordinary range of flavors, all super-fresh as it was made on the premises. We restricted ourselves to purchasing a single salt caramel bar. Amazing-tasting caramel, though.
  6. Cassis Mona et Fille: Probably the most famous destination on the island. They make a range of products based on cassis (black currant), and gave us an overview of them all. In the summer, they also run a restaurant that is supposed to be quite good. All the drinks were lovely, but we especially blown away by the creme de cassis, which we bought (more kir!). We also got some cassis mustard (yes, it’s purple).

All that eating did not stop us from going out to eat later! We went back to an old favourite, Thai restaurant Apsara. We had one of the set menus that is a real bargain, even when we upgraded the included wine to be a Blanquette de Limoux. Each course was fresh and delicious. And the ladies got a lovely change purse as a gift at the end.

Assortment of Thai desserts—and note the cool teapot

The next morning we spent more time wandering in the Old Town, as we’d previously been rushing through it.

 The afternoon we spent at the Québec Art Gallery, which has only modern and contemporary works. Our favourites were the Inuit sculptures, which were just amazing. The building was formerly a prison, and we also had a look at the old cells. Not big!

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One of the exhibits at the Quebec Art Gallery. (Photo by me, hence the blurri-ness.)

Our last dinner in Quebec, on a somewhat rainy evening, was at Le St. Amour. We’ve always loved Le St. Amour. It’s in this gorgeous, high-ceiling roomed with a sunroof. And the food is always amazing. It didn’t disappoint this time, either.

We started off the evening trying to work in French—French menus, speaking French to the waiters (an ongoing amusement of the trip was Québecois complimenting Jean on how good his French was, for an Ontario. Well, I hope so.). But we detected a bit of an anglo accent from one of our waiters—bit unusual in these parts—and it turned out he was originally Australian! And still had that accent in English.

L’amuse bouche at Le St. Amour. Or as they call it in English, the amuse bouche. (Food just sounds better in French.)

So he was happy to English-it-up with us, and then we were hopelessly back in English-land with everyone, with even the native Québec waiters. Oh well!

This part will come as a shock to you all, but I had the Québec Exquis special, while Jean ordered off the regular menu! For me this meant a main course of escargot and Jerusalem artichokes, a main course of duck, and a chocolate mousse-themed dessert.

Dessert

Jean started with foie gras, then had a lamb leg and ground lamb ravioli, and concluded with a cheese plate. We shared a bottle of Languedoc red, a Grenache-Syrah blend (no Mourvedre). With dessert I had a red banyuls (“a little French love letter to chocolate”, is how this wine is described) while Jean was recommended a sherry, which he enjoyed.

Cheese for dessert

A great capper to a very enjoyable visit. Our next stop on the way home was Ottawa.