Cultureguru's Weblog

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


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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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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!