Carrying the Olympic Flame!

(Kingston, Ontario, Canada)

The 2018 Winter Olympics are now underway. This has reminded me of one of my greatest travel experiences ever: carrying the Olympic flame through the town of Morrisburg, as part of the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics torch relay.

The Olympic Bus dropped me off at my designated stop…

It was a tremendous honour to be selected as a torchbearer for the 2010 Winter Olympics. I wasn’t at all bothered that I was assigned to run a segment in Morrisburg, located about 140 km east of my hometown of Kingston, Ontario. This would be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity…I would have travelled anywhere to make it happen!

It takes a lot of support vehicles to accompany the Olympic flame!

There were four of us carrying the flame through Morrisburg on that gray overcast day in December of 2009.  They told us to savour the moment and not run too quickly.  I settled on a slow jog…I wanted to RUN with the flame, but I also wanted the moment to last.

Exchanging high fives with some of the Olympic Cheerleaders, as the flame nears

It all happened so fast.  Before I knew it, the Olympic flame was approaching.  With a roaring crowd, the flame was passed to me and I high-fived the previous runner.  If you’ve ever doubted the inspirational power of a noisy crowd, try running with the Olympic flame.  There is no effort required:  you just float!

Receiving the Olympic flame in Morrisburg!

I tried to slow my pace, but it was very difficult.  I remember waving at everybody and having a giant grin on my face for the few minutes that I had the flame.

And I’m off!

It was over so quickly.  I didn’t do any special training for the run (just my usual hockey and curling) but it turned out to be totally unnecessary.  The adrenaline jolt was immense and I could have run forever.  I high-fived the next torchbearer after passing on the flame  and my grin remained in place for days afterwards.

Heading down Ottawa Street in Morrisburg

That night, the last stop of the Olympic relay was in Kingston and I attended the associated festivities in the market square.  As I wore my baggy and desperately unfashionable torchbearer uniform, I became a temporary celebrity and appeared in what felt like thousands of pictures with complete strangers.  I met a 1956 Olympian but also many others who were thrilled just to say hello to somebody who had briefly carried the flame.

Me and my bodyguards!

While I slept reasonably well the night before, I couldn’t sleep at all after running with the flame.  In fact, I don’t think I slept more than three hours per night for about the next week.  Yes, it was that much of a buzz!

I’m clearly on a bit of a high after my run!

This proved that you don’t need to travel far to have an unforgettable experience.  And “experience” is the key word:  travel is so much better when you are “doing” rather than just “seeing”.  Even though it is only 90 minutes away, I can honestly say that Morrisburg will always be one of my favourite travel destinations!

Next stop: Switzerland!

[Many thanks to my wife and my former colleagues at Empire Life, who took the photos in today’s post]

La Victoire!

(Kingston, Ontario, Canada)

My last post discussed the strategy involved in finding good airfares during the very expensive summer season.   I hadn’t bought our tickets yet but was on “high alert” for short-lived deals.   Much to my surprise, our tickets to an unexpected destination have now been bought!  Here’s the story…

The harbour in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia

Although we have an almost endless list of potential destinations,  our preferred destination was Lithuania.  Lithuania is a slightly-off-the-radar destination in Eastern Europe that nonetheless appeared to be very rewarding.  However, one drawback of an off-the-beaten-path destination is the lack of competition between airlines.  By the time of my last post, I had already decided that the only reasonable airfares would be to nearby Warsaw (Poland), or Riga (Latvia).

The steep backstreets of Lunenburg, Nova Scotia

The airfares to Vilnius (Lithuania) were generally well in excess of C$1,500.00 unless we wanted to take a very indirect route.  However, even the airfares to Warsaw were not dipping much below C$1,300.00.     We then expanded our search to places like Berlin (Germany) and Stockholm (Sweden), which would then be combined with a overnight ferry to either Latvia or Lithuania.  These prices were a bit lower but there still was nothing under C$1,000.00.

Entrance to the Citadel: Halifax, Nova Scotia

And then, just when things were appearing bleak, my strategy of subscribing to various travel mailing lists paid huge dividends.  I was notified that WestJet was introducing a new summer service from Canada to Paris.  They were offering special promotional fares for a very limited time.  We had to make a quick decision…and when the prices are that low for a summer flight to Europe, the decision is easy.  We managed to get return tickets from Montreal to Paris for less than $600 each (inclusive of fees and taxes)!  This is ridiculously low for the first half of July.

A small summer cottage in Chester, Nova Scotia

I know what you’re thinking:  Paris is not anywhere near Lithuania.  But there were a few ways to justify this.  Firstly, if we still wanted to see Lithuania, an internal European flight from Paris to Vilnius or Riga would be relatively affordable.  Secondly, we both previously have expressed interest in seeing parts of France that are close to Paris:  my wife has always wanted to see Normandy, while I have always wanted to see Brittany.  Finally, although I had visited Paris as a 10-year-old, neither one of us had been to Paris as adults (other than changing flights in Paris).

Unplanned photo in Pugwash, Nova Scotia

The more we researched northern France, the more attractive it became.  So while our summer itinerary is not yet completely settled, I suspect that this will indeed turn out to be a tour of France’s northern coast.  And, as Paris can get crowded in the summer, we have already booked our hotel there for the last few days of our trip.

The beach at Pugwash, Nova Scotia

While Lithuania looks like it is on the back burner for now, we are still thrilled about this unexpected twist.  In fact, given how much we learned about Lithuania (and Namibia, our original destination), it’s like we are getting three trips for the price of one.   That’s one of the reasons why I’m describing this unexpected turn of events as “La victoire“!  And we’ll still make it to Lithuania and Namibia in the future.

To further commemorate the near-randomness of our summer trip, I’ve included some photos from our 2009 summer trip to Nova Scotia.

The Science of Summer Airfares

(Kingston, Ontario, Canada)

I thought that I would be announcing our summer destination in today’s post. However, I still have not booked the flights…and until those flights are booked, it would be premature to say anything. The big reveal of our “off-the-beaten-path” destination will have to wait!

Penguin at the New England Aquarium (Boston, Massachusetts)

Finding a good deal on intercontinental summer flights is an extremely challenging task.  It’s high season and the airlines aren’t crazy:  prices are significantly higher and any special deals are extremely short-lived.

Elizabeth Cary Agassiz House, at Radcliffe College (Cambridge, Massachusetts)

For a long time, the accepted wisdom was that the best deals could be had at the last minute.  However, as technology has improved, airlines have become much better at filling flights and extracting maximum revenue from passengers.  Simply put, any seats still empty at the last minute will probably be priced very high because there will always be someone desperate enough to buy them.

A happy penguin couple at the New England Aquarium

Alas, booking far ahead of time is not effective either:  prices are usually very high because anybody booking 6-12 months ahead of time is obviously committed to the destination and the time of year.   The trick is to find the “sweet spot”, when airlines identify relatively undersold dates and destinations…and briefly reduce prices enough so that those flights get closer to full and much higher prices can be charged for the remaining seats.

The Massachusetts State House in Boston – we went on a tour here

There are some OK deals out there now.  However, they are not for our preferred destination.  They also tend to be for flights with sleepy arrival/departure times, longer layovers, older cabins, and less comfortable seats.   This is our fallback position, as these deals tend to be available for longer periods of time.

Many creatures are motivated by food (New England Aquarium in Boston)

Sometime in the next few weeks, about 5 months prior to departure, there will probably be a good deal for a good itinerary with a good airline.  The window of opportunity will be very small and we will have to take advantage of it immediately.  While one could say it’s a lot of pressure, it’s also very exciting.  Some people like finding a good deal at flea markets…I like finding a good deal on travel.  Keeping our travel costs down enables us to travel as much as we do.

Underwater at the New England Aquarium (Boston, Massachusetts)

Of course, I don’t have any pictures of “the science of airfares”.  Instead, I’ve decided to include some pictures of our 2011 trip to Boston, Massachusetts:  something completely random, to reflect the fact that we still don’t know exactly where we will end up this summer.

You can’t have too many pictures of penguins!

Stay tuned, to see if we conquered the science of airfares!

Travel Flashback: Skiing in Scuol, Switzerland

(Kingston, Ontario, Canada)

As the countdown continues for my upcoming Swiss ski trip, I have found some more interesting materials in the archives.  This time, the pictures are from my visits to the remote Swiss town of Scuol in the winters of 2004 and 2006.

The narrow streets of downtown Scuol (2004)

There is something to be said for letting one’s destination be a bit of a mystery.  I didn’t know anything about Scuol (pronounced “Shkwoal”) when I arrived there in March of 2004 for a Swiss Abroad ski camp.  It’s certainly not a place that I would ever have selected on my own:  the ski area does not have an international reputation.

Taking a break on the slopes of Motta Naluns (Scuol, 2004)

But what a pleasant surprise!  Instead of being an international resort where English was commonplace, Scuol was located deep in the Rumantsch-speaking region of Switzerland’s Graubünden canton.  With its narrow streets, unusual architecture, and highly distinctive regional cuisine, it was unlike any other winter resort I had previously visited.  And it was literally at the “end of the line”:  the train could go no further.

Traditional ways in the village of Sent (2006)

As you can see from the photos, the lack of international visitors is no reflection on the skiing:  one of the pistes (the “Traumpiste”, or “Dream Slope”) continued for more than 10 km from the top of the resort to the nearby village of Sent.  The ski area’s vertical drop was in excess of 5000 feet.    And yet, we rarely encountered any other skiers:  everybody you see pictured on the slopes is part of the ski camp.

Getting ready for another long piste at the top of the resort (Scuol, 2006)

I enjoyed Scuol so much that I returned to the region with my wife in the summer of 2006 and celebrated the Swiss National Day in the village of Sent.  I hope to write about our summer visit in a future post.

I’m enjoying the slopes high above the treeline (Scuol, 2006)

It is always a pleasure to discover a place like Scuol that has avoided mass international recognition.  This is what we’re hoping for in the summer of 2018.   We usually plan these summer trips well in advance and, several months ago, thought that we had found a great destination in southern Africa.  We even bought a guidebook and had blocked off the provisional dates off in our calendar.  As far as we were concerned, it was just a question of booking the flights when the airfares hit the “sweet spot”.

Near our hostel in the old part of Scuol (2004)

However, travel does not take place in a bubble.  Due to a number of external factors, including the political uncertainty in nearby Zimbabwe, we reluctantly decided to put this destination on hold.   The timing just wasn’t right.

Ready for some skicross shenanigans (Scuol, 2006)

As a result, the search for our summer destination is once again underway.  Looking at the pictures of Scuol, my desire to go somewhere off the beaten path was affirmed:  not only are such places fun, but they are also highly advisable during the summer when prices and crowds are onerous in high-profile destinations.   I’m watching the airfares closely and will pounce on the next opportunity.   Stay tuned for the details!

Swiss Ski Camps

(Kingston, Ontario, Canada)

Although I have been to Switzerland a total of 20 times, I have not been there since starting this blog in early 2014.  My only Swiss posts have been travel flashbacks to earlier trips.  Happily, that is going to change in early 2018, as I will be returning to Switzerland for an extended ski safari.

Some of my friends having lunch outdoors, at the 1992-1993 Swiss Abroad ski camp in Splügen, Switzerland

Switzerland is an expensive destination and simple economics dictated that I ski elsewhere for the past several winters.  However, I have found a way to make this work and will be skiing in both Wengen and Lenk this winter.

Me, halfway down the “Black Rock” piste above Wengen, Switzerland in 2002

Why Wengen?  You may have heard of it as a stop on the World Cup ski circuit:  the famous Lauberhorn piste is a real test of both daring and endurance.  However, I chose Wengen this year because of the great experiences I had in the Grindelwald-Wengen-Murren region (a.k.a. “Jungfrau Ski Region”)  between 1999 and 2011 with the ski camps for the Swiss Abroad.

Having lunch outside in the sun: the “Tipi” at Kleine Scheidegg, Switzerland (March 12, 1999)

The Organization for the Swiss Abroad (“Auslandschweizer-Organisation”, or “ASO” for short) organizes ski camps every year for Swiss citizens who are living abroad.  I attended many of these camps and met lots of people who continue to be great friends.  In fact, my current ski posse arose from the ASO camps.  Some of us have been skiing together for 20 years!

Skiing by torch light down to Grindelwald (March 13, 2000)

The ASO camps feature a LOT of skiing, in addition to other sports and cultural activities.  It’s a great way to connect with one’s Swiss roots…and become a much better skier.  The camps tend to move around each year:   I attended camps in resorts such as Splügen, Scuol, Arosa, and Grächen.  However, I attended at least five such camps in Grindelwald and Wengen.

Me, in front of the Jungfrau (March 9, 1999)

This winter, I will have the opportunity to take up-to-date photos of the riotous scenery around Wengen.  I will also be playing the role of guide:  with all that experience, it will be a pleasure to show one of my Canadian friends some of the many highlights of these iconic mountains.

Part of my group, preparing to ski down the James Bond 007 piste from the Schilthorn to Mürren (March 11, 1999)

And the highlights are many.  There is the brilliant chocolate cake at Wengernalp.  There is the black-rated “007” ski run from the top of the Schilthorn (and its rotating restaurant), made famous by James Bond in “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service”.  The black-rated pistes called “Oh God” and “Black Rock” that lead down from Eigergletscher also offer unforgettable challenges…partly because the scenery is so distracting!  Above Grindelwald, you can watch an Alpine Ibex watching you from an impossibly high and inaccessible peak.

Avalanche! The Wetterhorn, above Grindelwald, on March 13, 2000

It goes on and on.  There is the astonishing 2km sheer vertical rock face of the Eiger, which rises to a height of 3,967m:  I can think of no more intimidating mountain in the world.   To me, it is even more impressive than the adjacent Jungfrau, which rises even higher to 4,168m (13,675 feet).  There is the car-free village of Wengen, perched on top of a cliff that plunges down 500 metres to the valley below.  There is the “Tipi” at Kleine Scheidegg, where I have eaten many a sun-dappled picnic lunch outdoors…but where I am determined to have one of the freshly cooked pizzas and sausages.

About to ski down “Oh God”: March 15, 2000 (Wengen, Switzerland)
Pausing halfway down the “Oh God” piste, above Wengen (March 15, 2000)

I am really looking forward to revisiting some of these past highlights, as well as discovering new ones.  To accompany today’s post, I’ve unearthed some archival photos of my Swiss Abroad ski camp experiences from 1992 to 2002.

Looking for Ibex, high above Grindelwald in the “First” ski area (2002)

Stay tuned for more on Swiss skiing…and on my evolving plans for the rest of 2018!

Christmas in Toronto

(Toronto, Ontario, Canada)

My second trip to Toronto this fall was entirely different from the first.  This one was focused on Christmas shopping and the entertainment district:  I didn’t get anywhere close to Bloor Street or The Annex this time!

Pulled Pork and Goat Cheese Pierogi at “Loaded Pierogi”

We stayed in a hotel very close to the St. Lawrence Market; lunch was at a popular new restaurant called “Loaded Pierogi”.  The menu here is essentially confined to pierogi, but the toppings are the real attraction.  I went for the pulled pork and goat cheese pierogi, while my wife went for the bacon and caramelized onion pierogi.  These sustained us for an entire afternoon of Christmas shopping.

Christmas Market in Toronto’s Distillery District

Toronto’s Distillery District (see also the photo at the very top of this post) is transformed into a European-style outdoor Christmas Market for the weeks leading up to Christmas.  Perhaps to control the crowds, there is a cover charge of $6.00 on Friday evenings and weekends.  As with most such charges, it does not add any real value but we didn’t have any choice with the timing of our visit.

The Dutch Shop, at the Christmas Market in Toronto’s Distillery District

Fortunately, to set off any ill feelings about the cover charge, there were some vendors from the “old countries”.  I enjoyed the Dutch kiosk and there were also some Swiss treats at one of the German kiosks.  We focused only on the “must-have” items, as we still had some unusual shopping lined up for the following day.

A Dutch restaurant in downtown Toronto

As I had enjoyed my visit to the Second City comedy facility in Chicago in 2014, we caught an evening show at the Toronto location.  We enjoyed the show itself but the leg and shoulder room was abysmal. We didn’t really have any choice for our seating, but you will definitely want to avoid the front row if you are of even average height and width.  Unfortunately, the advertised free improv session is after the *second* show of the evening, so you will have a long wait if you attend the first show.

19th century baking at William Lyon Mackenzie’s house in downtown Toronto

On Sunday morning, we had a fun shopping experience at the Swedish (!) Christmas Market.  I have never seen so many Swedes in one place outside of Sweden before.  The line-up for the food stalls was massive, as this market takes place only on one weekend and the “regulars” knew exactly what they wanted.  However, there was no cover charge and we ended up getting some really interesting items for Christmas.

Yonge-Dundas Square in downtown Toronto – starting to look like Times Square!

Thanks to some corporate sponsorship, a number of historic sites in Toronto had free admission that weekend.  We visited the William Lyon Mackenzie House on Bond Street:  besides being a forefather of one of Canada’s longest-serving Prime Ministers (William Lyon Mackenzie King), Mackenzie was also the first mayor of the city of Toronto and was a leader of the 1837 Upper Canada Rebellion.  We enjoyed some authentic baked goods, prepared the 19th century way in a very unpredictable gas-fired oven.

Evening view of the CN Tower and Union Station, taken from just outside the Royal York Hotel in Toronto

For lunch, we went to “Real Mo-Mo’s” and had some Tosti Hawaii.  Despite the name, it is in fact a largely Dutch restaurant with dishes ranging from Dutch pancakes to Bitterballen and Uitsmijter open-faced sandwiches.   It was hidden away on a small street just north of the St. Lawrence Market – yet another place to check out on a return visit.

I’ll be back in a couple of weeks with some details on my 2018 travel itinerary:  I’ve got trips planned for both the winter and summer months!

Eating in Toronto: from Chile to Korea, via Hungary

(Toronto, Ontario, Canada)

My October trip to Toronto was only for one night, but I made sure I took advantage of some of the great food that the city has to offer.

Inside Jumbo Empanadas, on Augusta Avenue in Toronto

My first stop was an old favourite:  Jumbo Empanadas in the Kensington Market district.  I go here for pastel de choclo (corn pie) whenever I can…and the translation of “corn pie” really does not do it justice.  I  wrote about its awesomeness in a previous post and I am happy to report that it was just as good this time around.

The corn pie (pastel de choclo) from Jumbo Empanadas in Toronto’s Kensington Market

The setting is not fancy.  The view from the front window is colourful (see photo at the top of the post), although you can see little else but other Latin American shops and restaurants in this part of Kensington Market.  But it’s the food that matters, and the addictive mixture of sweet, savoury and spicy (I went for the special salsa as well this time) proves that the Chileans know a thing or two about complex flavours.

Madison Manor, in The Annex

As the concert hall was at the edge of a neighbourhood called “The Annex”, I stayed at a B&B called Madison Manor located just off Bloor Street West.  I have a special affinity for this part of Toronto, as I lived within walking distance of it in the early 1990s.  I wandered by my old apartment on Avenue Road and was amazed by how much “intensification” had taken place in the area in the past 25 years.  But the building is still there and the location is still excellent.

Hungarian Renaissance in The Annex?

As for the Annex itself, another favourite haunt of mine was the Country Style Hungarian restaurant.  As you can see from the photograph, it’s still there too but I didn’t have a chance to stop in this time.  However, if you’re ever in the mood for a big Hungarian meal after a long day of wandering around the city, this is your place.  It’s still family-run and the only remaining Hungarian restaurant in this part of Toronto:  there used to be about a dozen.  Happily, it appears that a Hungarian pastry shop has sprung up next door…perhaps a renaissance is taking place?

Honest Ed’s: a landmark in The Annex

The evolution of the neighbourhood is ongoing.  I never actually bought anything at the legendary Honest Ed’s bargain emporium…and it is now too late, as it recently closed.  I snapped the above picture to visually capture it before its almost certain redevelopment.  Like the downtown Sam the Record Man, this is a long-standing landmark that people still talk about even though it is no longer open.

This is where I had lunch in Koreatown, Toronto

Immediately west of The Annex is Koreatown.  This was just a bit too far for me to visit on a regular basis when I lived in Toronto, but was perfectly situated for lunch on this trip.  It was difficult to pick one restaurant over another (there are a *lot*), but I eventually settled on the Jin Dal Lae simply because it had recently opened.

My lunch at Jin Dal Lae…not including the soup (and after I started on the spicy side dishes)

I ordered the Bulgogi Bento Box for $8.95 and wasn’t expecting much for that price in a city where eating out can be quite expensive (by Canadian standards).  I was very surprised to receive eight small side dishes, ranging from fried tofu to kimchi, before the box itself arrived.  In addition to gyoza and a heaping helping of tender bulgogi, there was also soup (which didn’t make it into the photo)…and I utterly failed in my attempt to have a light lunch.

While this trip took place about 4 weeks ago, I will find myself in Toronto again soon.  Stay tuned for details!

The Final Journey

(Toronto, Ontario, Canada)

Like most Canadians, I awoke on October 18 to the news that Gord Downie (the front man for Canadian music icons The Tragically Hip) had passed away from brain cancer.  Shortly after announcing his diagnosis, Downie and the Hip embarked on a 2016 farewell tour of Canada that featured sold-out concerts and an outpouring of emotion.  The final concert, in my hometown of Kingston, was an especially monumental event and was broadcast live on national television.

Many thousands of words have already been written about Downie in the days since his passing.  Rather than add to that total, I have decided to write about something else that also happened on October 18:  I attended Johnny Clegg’s concert at Koerner Hall at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto.   Sadly, there is a tragic  parallel between Clegg and Downie.

I first wrote about Johnny Clegg in this post from late 2014.  He is one of South Africa’s greatest musicians and played an important role in the fight against Apartheid.   His songs were generally sung in both English and Zulu, he fully embraced Zulu culture, and he had racially integrated bands at a time when racial segregation was the law.

View from the back of Koerner Hall, prior to the concert

I wrote about Clegg again in the spring of 2016, when he unexpectedly performed a concert in Kingston.  At the time, nobody knew that he had recently been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

After his most recent course of chemotherapy earlier this year, Clegg announced that he was in remission and wanted to embark on one final tour called “The Final Journey”.  This brief and highly selective tour would take him to some of the places that had strongly supported him through his career.  In Canada, one of his biggest markets, concerts were scheduled in Toronto, Montreal and Quebec City.

Attending Clegg’s concert gave me an idea of what it must have been like to see The Tragically Hip on their final tour.  Knowing that this was his final tour added exceptional poignancy to the entire evening.  That feeling intensified when Clegg dedicated a song to Downie.  It became almost intolerable when Clegg sang songs such as Osiyeza (The Crossing).

Clegg wrote Osiyeza after the premature 1992 death of bandmate Mntowaziwaio Ndlovu.  it was extremely moving to hear Clegg sing it on this tour, as the lyrics comment on how a person can affect others even after that person is no longer alive.  During this song, as with several others, the woman seated beside me was wiping away tears.

View from my seat at Koerner Hall. No zoom lens – I had a great seat!

Another poignant moment was when Clegg performed Cruel, Crazy Beautiful World.  Clegg wrote this song in the late 1980s for his then-newborn son Jesse.  Jesse, who is also a musician and has had six Top Ten hits of his own in South Africa, was the opening act at this concert and joined his father onstage for a couple of songs.  It must now be hard for Jesse to hear lyrics such as “One day when you wake up, I will have to say goodbye”.

It certainly wasn’t all sad, though.  You could hear a pin drop when Clegg talked about the anthropological inspiration for Scatterlings of Africa:  as always, his stories were fascinating and didn’t insult the intelligence of his audience.  How many other musicians refer to mitochondria during their concerts?  And songs like Dela, always a live favourite, exploded with joy and excitement.

Clegg put a lot of energy into the concert.  It may have been energy that he didn’t really have.  I considered waiting around, as I had met him at the previous three concerts I had attended.  However, I then overheard that his post-show energy level made it unlikely that he would appear for a meet and greet.  At that point, I decided to leave the concert hall.  I reasoned that Johnny Clegg had already given enough.

O siyeza, o siyeza, sizofika webaba noma
O siyeza, o siyeza, siyagudla lomhlaba
Siyawela laphesheya lulezontaba ezimnyama
Lapha sobheka phansi konke ukuhlupheka

(From “Osiyeza (The Crossing)“, by Johnny Clegg)

Pembroke’s Hidden Treasures

(Pembroke, Ontario, Canada)

From the Château Montebello, it would have been a fairly easy drive back home to Kingston.  However, we were looking forward to seeing some old friends near Pembroke before returning home…so we took a long drive on the north side of the Ottawa River.   After passing through Thurso (birthplace of Guy Lafleur!), our progress became quite slow.  We didn’t want to go on the Autoroute, but construction and congestion were the order of the day.  Finally, some distance west of Ottawa, the road opened up.

Downtown Shawville, Quebec

This seemed like a somewhat forgotten corner of Québec.  There were few towns and I don’t recall seeing a stop sign or traffic light until we reached Shawville.  Although Shawville was clearly the largest town around, even it was very quiet.   After stocking up on some Québec-only provisions, we crossed the mighty Ottawa River back to Ontario.

Wildlife in downtown Pembroke

Our first impressions of Pembroke were lacklustre.  The skies were grey and the main street was under considerable construction:  perhaps because of this, there were also some vacant storefronts.  Just over a block away from the main street, we saw a fox relaxing on a pile of gravel!  We weren’t expecting this in a city of 16,000 people, especially at the beginning of rush hour.

The Nook Creperie in Pembroke, Ontario

However, our concern soon dissipated.  We walked by the waterfront campus of Algonquin College (see photo at the top of this post) and saw signs of life.  Then, returning to the main street, we saw a lot of locals entering a restaurant called “The Nook Crêperie”.  We were assured by a couple of patrons that this would be a great place for dinner.

One of the crepes at The Nook

They were absolutely correct.  Our crêpes were appealing inside and outside; the soup and dessert were both also excellent.  We never would have found this place if we had followed our initial instincts to avoid the downtown construction zone.   We then found our B&B:  just a few blocks from downtown, it was a charming Victorian red brick home in an equally charming neighbourhood.

Our B&B in Pembroke

We met our friends the next morning…and made only a small dent in the huge amount of spruce beer (biére d’épinette) that we had each stockpiled in anticipation of this day.   The strange obsession with spruce beer is a long story.  It has its roots in a long-ago Ottawa River canoe trip from my friend’s house to a general store in nearby Fort-Coulonge, Québec.  I don’t think either one of us particularly likes it, but the tradition has taken on a life of its own.  If you ever want a soft drink that is ridiculously high in calories, cloyingly sweet, and redolent of Pine-Sol, then spruce beer is the beverage for you.

Biére d’épinette: available in name brands AND store brands!

And that seems like a fitting way to end our summer vacation.  We saw a lot of Québec, enjoyed a lot of sports, and ate very well…or at least had fun with our food.  How can you not have fun with pizzaghetti?

I’ll be back in a couple of weeks with a special report on a very special event!

Sports Camp 2: Le Château Montebello

(Montebello, Quebec, Canada)

The Château Montebello is a famous hotel located on the Quebec side of the Ottawa River.   Like the Manoir Richelieu, it is a self-contained resort with a rich history.   It has been described as the largest log cabin in the world, as it is built from 10,000 logs.  Being so big, of course, also makes it difficult to photograph.  As a result, I don’t really have a satisfactory photo of the entire complex.   You’ll have to take my word for it:  it’s big.

The drive-thru check-in at the Château Montebello

Although I had certainly heard of the Château Montebello, I had never stayed there.  In fact, I had never seen it, as it is set back quite some distance from the road and it is impossible to see unless you drive all the way in.  After dropping off our bags at the drive-thru check-in, I entered the famous hotel for the first time.

The huge fireplace in the main lobby of the Château Montebello

It is quite something:  the hexagonal core of the hotel is huge and is anchored by an equally huge fireplace.  The rooms are located in 4 wings that radiate out from the hexagon.  There is wood everywhere; it must be very cozy in the wintertime.   The logs aren’t just on the outside:  they also make up the interior walls of the rooms.

The hub of the sports camp at Château Montebello

It had only been about a week since we visited the Manoir du Lac Delage and enjoyed an immersion into summer sports.  It soon became clear that Château Montebello was going to be the site of Sports Camp Part 2!  With the main sports equipment pavilion just south of our wing, it was going to be very easy to indulge in multiple summer sports.  And we did!

Part of the marina at the Château Montebello

The sports this time around included mini-golf, basketball, badminton, horseshoes, pétanque (again!)…and our brave journey onto the raging Ottawa River.  Our canoe at Lac-Delage had felt a little tippy, despite the extremely calm waters, so we were looking for something a little sturdier on a river that had an actual current.  The obvious choice seemed to be the pedalboat:  this is a two-seated craft where your sole means of propulsion (other than the current) was pedal power.  How hard could it be?

Our wing at the Château Montebello

As my camera got soaked when we got into the canoe at Lac Delage, I decided not to take it with me when we went out in the pedalboat.  Although I don’t have any pictures of our pedalboat journey, I will never forget how wiped out we felt after about 45 minutes out on the river.  Don’t be fooled:  pedalboating is probably the most exhausting way to travel on the water.

French Toast at the Château Montebello

After more than a week of holidays and eating out, we weren’t really ready to eat a lot of rich food at the hotel.  Taking advantage of the refrigerator in the room, we self-catered almost all of our meals.  However, as we decided that we should experience at least one meal here, we had breakfast in the hotel on our day of departure.  As you can see, the tablecloths were very white and the dining room is opulent.   We sat behind the buffet serving area in a room that overlooked the hotel grounds.

Breakfast buffet at the main dining room in the Château Montebello

After two nights at the Château Montebello, it was almost time to return home.  There was just one more stop to make…stay tuned for our visit to an entirely different community on the shores of the mighty Ottawa River!

The Odyssey Continues…

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