Saturday, June 21, 2014

A Sight for Azore Eyes (2014)

Since she is soon retiring, my wife and I recently spent five days of her unused vacation time (seven days total) in the Azores, a group of nine Portuguese islands way out in the Atlantic. For this travelogue I've decided to change my format from a chronology to one organized by topic:

One of the reasons we chose the Azores was that the Portuguese airline SATA offers a direct flight from and to Boston ... it's 4 1/2 hours out there and 5 hours back. This is about my tolerance limit given the skimpy seating space and banal food/drink offered. But these shortcomings can be forgiven in that the airline staff does their very best to accommodate.

When we got to our destination, the main island of Sao Miguel, I ask a cabby how much it would cost to go to Furnas where our hotel, Terra Nostra, was located. I was told 40 Euros which quickly convinced me to rent a car. We easily got a Hertz one for a week for about 245 Euros which was cheaper than what it would have been if we had rented it here in the U.S. However be warned, this trick can't be pulled off in July and August. The car we got was a small stick-shift Peugeot which worked out great.  Having only driven automatic cars for some thirty years, I was amazed by how fast my muscle-memory came back ... and I was easily able to transverse the steepest of hills on this islands.

Interesting vignette – on the way back to Boston I noticed a small triangle decal above our window (row 25 on an A330 Airbus). When I asked the steward what this mark meant, he told me that this was the weak point in the fuselage … a point where one might hack one’s way out in case of an accident. This was all very comforting …

The Island
Sao Miguel is a beautiful island about this size of Manhattan formed from two extinct volcanoes ... therefore it is quite hilly. It is decorated with a multitude of native flowering plants, mostly white hydrangeas ... but also veronicas, hyperica, and many many others. There are also many dramatic varieties of both deciduous and evergreen trees ... including many palms. It is also immaculately clean ... every town we entered had street sweepers wielding their brooms. And it was a joy to see absolutely no graffiti!

This island had two quite new highways spanning its length … the northern one being the most complete. They are mostly four lanes except where topology forces them down to two lanes. Given the many high hills and large ravines there, these highways seem to be exceptionally well engineered and constructed. The traffic is generally quite sparse on them. Like in Portugal, I think the money for these highways was obtained when Portugal entered the European Union. (The southern highway, which we took to Furnas, actually turns into a two-lane narrow cobble-stone road for about the last five miles.)

It is interesting to note that many of the Portuguese residents in the United States (mainly in New Bedford and Fall River, MA) came from the Azores and not from mainland Portugal.  This was because around the turn of the twentieth century, the main cash crop in the Azores, oranges, failed … which caused enough economic hardship to inspire this emigration. (The orange crop was replaced with hothouse grown pineapples and two tea plantation.) Most native Azoreans are easy to identify with their jet black hair and eyes and darker complexions.

The Hotel
My wife got a great package deal on our airline and the Terra Nostra hotel package … our double room was around $150 per night … considering that this was five-star accommodations. The hotel itself is located in the middle of a garden park and sulfur springs which are open to its guests. As it turns out, I, tired from the flight over, fell asleep in the lobby of this hotel while waiting for our room to be readied … and, I think, embarrassed, the hotel management upgraded us to a suite. Not bad …

To me the real plus was the sulfur springs. Almost every day my wife and I took the baths in a very large round spa … about five feet deep and about 50 yards across … constantly being replenished from two stone spouts with warm volcanic spring water infused with iron and sulfur. This spa was surrounded by beautiful huge trees such as Norfolk pines.  After an hour of such indulgence we often stopped for a wide selection of adult drinks at the outdoor terrace before showering and dressing for dinner. But, be warned, a good hot shower is important as a slight sulfur smell can linger on ones robes and clothes.

The hotel also afforded all the expected luxuries … an indoor pool, a steam room, free loaner bicycles, a sauna, a beautiful dining room, exercise equipment, a bar/rec room, facial/massage services, etc. … you name it … it’s got it.  And it was fully rehabbed in 2013 so everything is spanking new.

Also my wife brought her I-Phone and I-Pad … and a Portuguese plug adapter. We spent the first day searching for a 220- to 110-volt converter since I feared that we would fry them otherwise. But as it turns out, this was unnecessary as that genius, Steve Jobs, already put this technology into his products. Thank you Steve!

The town and hotel setting was bucolic. We even had a rooster to wake us up in the morning if we left the balcony door open.

The Food
One downside of the Azores is its food. Not that some of it is not good, but it is notable for its monotony. Pretty much the only ethic flavor is Portuguese … soggy french-fries and rice with fried meats or fish. One popular fish there is called the “fork-beard” whose taste matches its name. My wife did have some delicious swordfish at the famous Ponta Do Garajau restaurant in the small fishing village of Ribeira Quent. And I found my palate teased a few times mostly with soups … leek with chives, pea with ham, and a pureed fish soup. I do not recommend one popular island dish, Cozido Furnas, an olio of various meats, sausages and vegetables cooked in a steaming volcanic vent for up to eight hours … to me it was a wash-out. But, if you are daring, you might try grilled octopus and the barnacles.

We were on the European plan at our hotel so the breakfasts were often a high point of the day … oodles of fresh fruit, delicious native yogurt, local breads and croissants, delicious orange juice, scrambled eggs and bacon, and, for the Germans, cold cuts and cheeses. But again this menu could benefit from a little daily variety. And be sure to indulge yourself at lunch and dinner with the desserts … flan, panna cotta, fondant, crepes with pineapple, etc.

Almost every day we took a morning auto excursion to a nearby town … Nordeste, Povoacao, Ribeira Grande, Porto Formoso, Caloura, Vila Franca Do Campo, etc. These trips gave us a good feeling for the island scene, its people and its food. The vistas are spectacular, the people very friendly and solicitous, and the food … well, see above. Povoacao has a stone arch dedicated to the first settlers to these islands. Walking under it is supposed to bring you good luck. So we did and the U.S. stock market then went up every day we were there ... enough to pay for the trip. Not bad!

There is little real evening entertainment except our last Saturday night there was a local festival, a compelling civilian parade, a band, a choir, a roasted goat, and oodles of loud exploding sky rockets … until about midnight.

Therefore much of our evening entertainment came from the Internet (our hotel had a good Wi-Fi), books, and cable television. There were many American shows … “Dr. Phil,” “American Pickers,” “Storage Wars,” “Diners Drive-ins and Dives,” etc. with Portuguese subtitles. But the real winner was the World Cup games out of Brazil. And we even were lucky enough to see the United States beat Ghana.

Home Again
We had a pleasant ending to this sojourn as our friends, the Noonan’s, picked us up at the airport and transported us back to our excited grand twin-girls.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Sweetness in Seattle (2013)

Seattle Space Needle
My graduating class at Dartmouth (1960) has a very sweet tradition … we (as many as possible) celebrate our major birthdays together … all starting with our 50th in New York City.  Jeanette and I have attended the celebrations in New York, San Francisco, and Boston. This year our class celebrated our collective 75th birthday with a three-day shindig in Seattle, Washington … all organized by a fraternity brother, Tom Grow.  (He did a bang-up job!).  We combined this celebration with a visit with old friends, the Agees, from our early married days in Stuyvesant Town, New York City … with easily a 17 year hiatus.  Here’s how the event went:

Day 1 – Our friend, Dennis Noonan drove us to the airport … then an easy flight … we flew directly from Boston to Seattle on JetBlue.  Debbie Agee met us at the airport and took us directly to Samatha’s (her daughter’s) business, A and B Imports (see: A and B Website), in Ballard, Washington (a section of Seattle).  This was a very impressive operation with two huge warehouse rooms full of cases and cases of wines and spirits from around the world.  Gil, her father, has been helping her for a number of years and, I’m sure has had a hand in her success.  (Gil is the businessman, Samantha (Sam) and Debbie are the crackerjack salespersons.).  After a tour, we all then ate lunch at the nearby Calamity Jane’s (delicious Cobb salads). We then dropped off our things at the Agee abode, a beautiful house with scenic views overlooking

Puget Sound and the Olympic mountains. Debbie then took us on a short tour of the area … ending with hours d’oeuvers (steamed mahogany clams are the best) and drinks during the happy hour at Ray’s Boathouse in Ballard. Gil rejoined us there.  It was a frolic.

Day 2 – After waking in our own separate huge apartment in the Agee’s lower level (looking out on a beautiful garden views), we spent a happy morning reliving old times with Gil and Debbie  Then Gil dropped us off in downtown Seattle near the Fairmont Olympic hotel on his way to his athletic club. There we met a bunch of classmates, picked up our badges and tickets at fraternity brother Rick and Linda Roesch’s room … followed by a four hour City Highlights narrated bus tour including the waterfront, Pioneer Square, International District, Ballard locks (and fish ladder), botanical garden, and ending with a lunch at Anthony’s Home Port.  This was followed by dinner with classmates at the Space Needle and tour of the Chihuly Glass

Tom Grow, the Radigans and Jeanette
Museum (at the base of the Space Needle).  Chihuly is, to my taste, a little over the top … kinda like Salvadore Dali was toward the end.  But I did get a chance to see Dale Chihuly close up … he reminded me of an one-eyed troll.

Day 3 – All class visitors crowded on the ferry to cross Puget Sound to Bainbridge Island where we toured Bloedel Botanical Reserve.  Here we had some time with my Junior-year roommate and frat brother, Charlie Radigan and his wife, Tina.  I hadn’t seen them for probably twenty years and it was great catching up. While most others did the whole tour, I spent a contemplative hour at its beautiful Japanese garden … to be blemished by hearing that another fraternity brother, Gary Stass, had just passed away and my freshman-year crew-mate, Al Stowe, had just entered hospice … an upper and downer melange.  We all then lunched at the stunning home of another classmate, the cable-TV famous Mort Kondracke.  Mort had arranged a fabulous catered barbeque for us

Kondracke House
all. Unfortunately, his caterer pulled a no-show … so Mort and his wife, Marguerite, without missing a beat, raided and emptied-out a near-by deli for our great repast.   Then our class had a “dress-up” dinner at the Seattle Tennis Club … a very impressive locale.

Day 4 – Jeanette and I decided that we were going to “do” Seattle on our own.  We cabbed it to downtown Ballard and, after breakfast at the HiLife restaurant (OK), we caught the Emerald City Trolley for a long tour of Ballard, Fremont (don’t miss the fawning statue of Lenin), Woodland Park Zoo and then to downtown Seattle … finishing at the Pike Place Market.  Next Jeanette “did" the Seattle Art Museum while I did the NY Times crossword.  Then, on the way up to the hotel, we enjoyed Happy Hour at The Brooklyn, a recommended restaurant.  (The oysters and Margaritas were cheap and delicious.)  The whole class then took a boat Cruise to Blake Island and the Tillicum Village where we had a Salmon Buffet Dinner and a

Tillicum Village
Native American Dance Program … a little too touristy for my taste.  … but sincere and well done.

Day 5 --- This was a day to recover a tad.  Debbie took us to the Sunday farmer’s market in Ballard … nothing like it out east here.  The produce was spectacular and the merchants, very accommodating.

Ballard Farmers's Market
When we returned to the Agee abode I made my raddish, scallion and cream cheese spread for lunch (see: Simply Simple) which we all ate on a farmer’s-market bagette.  Not to brag, but we ate every last snippet.  Then, after some more reminiscing, the Agee’s two daughters, Sam and Anistasia (Stach) came over with their boyfriends for a delicious dinner of salmon, veggies and a salad.  Sam’s son, Luke, was with them.  He is a charmer.

Day 6 -- Today we left with the Agees for the Cascade Loop (Rte 5 to Rte 2 to Rte 57-A).  Be careful on 57-A … this stretch of road is a deep-South-style speed trap with 25 MPH signs every few miles.  Here, I was driving and, after passing a cop giving out a ticket, he followed us for about ten miles.  My palms were sweating but I managed to avoid his perfidy. We stayed overnight at the Freestone Inn in Mazama, Washington … in the depths of the North Cascades.  This is a beautiful huge log-built inn with all the

Freestone Inn with the Agees
amenities, balconies, fire places, great vistas, etc.  It was not very crowded and, when I asked about their peak season, I was disappointed to hear that we were in it.  I think the writing is on the wall … unfortunately.

Day 7 – Today after a continental breakfast and some soak time in the hot tub, we left to finish the Cascade Loop (Rte 153 to Rte 20 back to Rte 5).  The scenery on the remainder of this route is spectacular

The Cascade Mountains

 … picture-postcard perfect.  After some meandering, we had a fried oyster lunch (they were the largest I’ve ever eaten … order 6 … 12 is way too many) at the Conway Pub in Conway, Washington.

Day 8 – To start the day, Jeanette and I visited the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation building near the Space Needle.  It is comprised of many multi-media exhibits detailing the many Gates Foundation’s favorite eleemosynary causes.  This, of course, includes the threat of global warming.  To do this, it has a large-screen computer allowing users to type in comments about climate change.  I, of course, complied … typing “How come the Northern Hemisphere is possibly warming while the Southern Hemisphere, with much higher CO2 levels, is clearly cooling?”  When I passed by this exhibit 20 minutes later, my comments had been

erased.  However, I must say that the docents there are extremely polite and helpful. We then had a late lunch with the Agees at Barolo Restaurant (1940 Westlake Ave, Seattle).  Then Jeanette and I picked up Hertz rent-a-car so that we could self-tour the next day and then drop it off at the airport.

Day 9 – Jeanette and I drove north and west from Ballard for a car tour of Whidbey Island.  At the start it was so foggy that we barely could see anything.  We intended to have lunch there but getting lost several times unfortunately precluded this.  Took the ferry back from Clinton to Everett, passing the huge Boeing plant on the way back to Route 5.  Famished, we ate dinner at the Hilton Spencer’s Bar.  It was obviously better than at our hotel, but not a lot.  We stayed at the Clarion … a typical airport hotel … nothing to brag about.  We did this so we could get to the airport at the crack of dawn the next morning.

Day 10 -- Another easy but early flight … we flew directly from Seattle to Boston again on JetBlue It would have been better if I could have gotten my video controls to work.  We thought that we would outfox JetBlue’s bad food by buying airport sandwiches … bad idea … also inedible.  From Logan airport … bus and taxi home. It was good to get back and see the grandkids.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Aloha (2012)

I thought this time I would try a different approach to my travel blog. Now, I am providing mainly pictures with pithy comments (that’s PITHY). Jeanette and I both had Hawaii on our bucket lists so this year we took the plunge and spent eight days there on the “Big Island” (the local name for Hawaii). The best part was the vacation itself. The worst parts were our flights out and back … over twelve hours in the air … although I must admit that U.S. Air did its very best.  (However, not recommended were the expensive and schmaltzy luau at the Hilton Hotel and Bubba Gump's restaurant in Kona)

On to the pics … they are arranged in roughly chronological order:

Our condo at Hali'i Kai in Waikoloa area.  (It was great!)

Our first day at Kona Joe coffee plantation.  Kona coffee ... yawn.

The spa and pool for the condo association.  Fabulous!

The bar and restaurant at our spa ... great food and mai tais!

Sunset looking over our spa's pool.

On our way to snorkeling at the Capt. Cook monument.

That's our white Jeep Wrangler over my shoulder.

At "Lava Lava" -- a nearby free beach ... with lounge chairs.

A farmer's market in Hilo on our last day.

Orchids at a beautiful market on the way to Kilauea volcano.

Last afternoon at a subdued Kilauea volcano.

Last sunset on way to airport from Kilauea -- plane left at 11:45!

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Mille Bornes (2011)

Many years ago, Jeanette and I used to play the French board game, Mille Bornes (translation: thousand kilometer stone markers) with our friends, the Higgins.  This year Jeanette persuaded me to spend some more time in France and we thus re-lived many of the vignettes in this game ... although the stone kilometer markers seem to have mostly disappeared..  Despite the unfavorable euro/dollar exchange rate, we figured that there would not be too many more opportunities to see those parts of France that we so far have not enjoyed ... mainly the South of France in the Rhone valley.  So, on October 15th, off we went into the land of wine and cheese ... driven to Logan airport by our friend, Dennis (D1).

Rather than take the Bullet Train to Avignon (which was tres cher) and then rent a car, we chose to pick up the car at Charles DeGaulle airport and then drive to Avignon.  When we found our Eurocar agent, she asked us if we would prefer, at the same price, a Mercedes mini-SUV* or the Volkswagen Golf we had reserved.  Guess which one we picked?  However, this decision to drive there was a little dicey.  This was about a 720 kilometer (450 miles) trip and, driving it after a seven hour flight from Boston, was, for me, a torture beyond description.  I had to stop about every 150 kilometers for some horrible service station coffee (in order to stay awake) and so, by the time we reached Avignon, I was I jagged nerve case.  We did stop for lunch, right below Lyon, in Vienne at La Taverne Maitre Kanter.  It was OK, but not great.  We learned on this trip that, contrary to our previous visits, not everywhere you eat in France is a sublime experience.  (We later realized that this tavern was one of a chain ... as we saw another one in Marseilles.)

When we reached the walled city, Avignon, we finally found the entry porte that led to the street (Rue Carreterie) where we had rented an apartment.  Avignon was the locus of the Catholic church in the 14th century before it was moved back to Rome and there is a huge palace there where the Popes resided during this period.  Our apartment was quite comfortable and large with many accoutrement's including a garage for our car ... and not too far from the Palace of the Popes.  Jeanette then went out and bought some wine, cheese, fruit and sausage at a local market which we ate for our first dinner in France.  I then fell into bed exhausted.

Our first full day started out in Arles (the Van Gogh's residence there, which is no longer standing, was, for a few years, where he and Gauguin often painted together and eventually had a violent argument ... after which Van Gogh sliced off part of his ear.)  Anyway when we left Avignon via back roads on the way to Arles we were somewhat low on diesel fuel, but I wasn't worried for I had seen many petrol stations the day before.  Big mistake!  The low petrol light came on almost immediately and the further we went without finding a station, the more worried I got.  We only found a Total gas station right outside Arles and I was literally expecting to run out of diesel any second.  This was not pleasant as most places on the road there had no place to pull over had we run out of diesel.  These side roads usually had ditches at least a meter deep on the side of the road ... very onerous for a breakdown.  I was near panic when we finally found solace. 

Arles is another walled city, so we parked outside and walked in near the coliseum (amphitheater?) which was under restoration so we could not see inside.  On our way in, I noticed that the walls of the city were pock-marked with bullet holes from which war I could not even guess.  Jeanette did the circuit through the town while I sat and people-watched enjoying a bottle of delicious, bubbly French cider.  After leaving Arles we traveled down along the Rhone River to the Mediterranean as Jeanette wanted to again dip her tootsies in la mer.  The locus where this happened was the Plage Napoleon which, I assume, was where Napoleon landed after he escaped from Elba in 1815.  It was an impressive location near the mouth of the Rhone River with large oil tankers anchored well off shore.  (Piece of advice ... don't try to break in a new pair of shoes on a trip.)

The second day we set off on a random drive.  We crossed over the Rhone and, on some back country roads we saw a sign for Rochefort.  Thinking we might find some genuine cheese we took this turn off.  It was a charming little ville with, like many French towns, a church at its apex.  We stopped to buy some wine and possibly cheese.  "Non, non, c'est RoCHefort, not RoQUefort." was the clerks reply.  We drove on.  We then saw signs for Chateau Neuf d'Pape.  We had meant to buy our son and his wife a bottle of the wine this town is famous for ... so we took the side trip there.  We parked in town and visited a few wine tasting rooms until Jeanette found one where she trusted the merchant (female).  We also found an outdoor restaurant* right in the middle of town (La Mule du Pape) where we settled in for our noonday repast.  It was quite good.  Jeanette had the plat du jour, a pork and vegetable melange.  I had escargots and sopped up all the garlic butter with the basket bread.  And we shared a carafe of the house white wine..  The rest of the day was spent trying to follow a driving tour through the Dome (so named because of all the long-extinct volcanoes) to view the many vineyards.

The following day we drove to Aix (en Provence) driving down alongside the Rhone river.  About half way down we saw a sign for the Isle Saint Pierre winery.  (Isle Saint Pierre being a small island in the Rhone river.) We took a side trip there and bought some passable wine which we finished off in our evening cocktail hours.  We continued on to Aix where we had a toothsome lunch (Le Grillon.)  However, the town itself seems quite modern, sprawling, and not too touristy.  (Jeanette was happy that she didn't reserve an apartment here.)  Jeanette wanted to stop at St. Remy on the way back, but it was getting late and it was starting to rain, so we went all the way back to Avignon.  (We saw a rainbow!)  I discovered another nicety of the Mercedes -- I had the wipers on "intermediate," but, when the rain came down harder, the wipers turned themselves full on. We went to dinner that night at a restaurant recommended by our landlord, En Tres Artistes. It was pretty good. We started with mussels in a delicious broth that had been recommended by a woman (from Singapore) at the next table.  Apparently, these mussels contain small crabs that add to their allure. About every third one there had a crunchy bit that must have been such a crab. I liken this epicurean delight to making a silk purse out of a sow's ear. Many diners would flee from such a discovery unless it had been already touted as something special.  (Or as we said in the software business, it was not a bug, it was a feature.)

We decided to spend our next day discovering Avignon itself.  We started by walking to the nearby farmer's market and then to the Palace of the Popes.  This is an enormous monolithic palace near the northern wall of the city.  It is so imposing that I decided to sit outside doing the International Herald Tribune crossword puzzle and people watching whilst Jeanette discovered what the Popes were up to here.  Her report was that there seemed to be a room for everything ... a room to put on their albs, a room to receive ambassadors, a room to read the scriptures, a room to flirt with the choirboys (just kidding), etc. By the time she exited, the wind had picked up and it turned chilly so we went for a little nosh on the main shopping drag, Rue De La Republic.  We discovered once again that not all restaurants in France are sublime experiences.  We ate at a brasserie whose name escapes me (I paid cash since I didn't trust our waiter ... he kept giving us inflated additions).  I had a bowl of French onion soup which was clearly made with water and not beef stock.  It was insipid.  After some more Avignon exploring we returned to our apartment and had some cheese, sausage, a baguette and some wine for dinner.
The next day we went to St. Remy (de-Province), somewhat south of Avignon but north of Arles.  We used A7 to get there and the route from this highway into St. Remy was impressively bucolic.  For most of its length, this road* lies under a canopy of sycamore trees which were still leaved out and proudly displaying their beautifully mottled bark.  At St. Remy we did some souvenir shopping and then had some delicious hot chocolate.  But the highlight was a visit to the asylum/monastery* (St. Paul-de-Mausole) where Van Gogh spent a year of his life.  Here he painted many of his famous canvases, Starry Night (a view of St. Remy at night), the Olive Trees, and  the Irises ... among about 140 others.  This monastery was quite pleasant and displayed photos of many of Van Gogh's paintings ... often at the location from where he painted them.  Since I have copied Starry Night, I asked a passing monk from where he painted this particular canvas.  He waved his arm and said somewhere up on the hill behind the monastery.  Sigh ...

After much back and forth, Jeanette cajoled me to driving down to Marseilles.  I was apprehensive about this proposition since my image from Marseilles came directly from The French Connection movie.  This vision turned out to be off the mark.  We arrived and parked in a central lot and then took a sightseeing trip around the city and up to its very top to the church, Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde.  This was on an open tour tram that snaked its way through the crowded streets of this port city with great dexterity.  We were given 45 minutes to take in the church and then catch another tram back to the end of the port.  Unfortunately, on the way back our tram was packed with very loud Russians ... so loud that we couldn't hear the recorded running commentary on the sights.  Jeanette shushed them numerous times, but I guess the Russian word for "please be quiet" is not "shush."  When we concluded this junket, we stopped for lunch at a rather crowded brasserie, the OM Cafe* at the head of the harbor.  (Jeanette's notion of where to eat was based upon crown size.  This one turned out to be correct and we enjoyed a wonderful repast.)  I, of course, had bouillabaisse.  Delicious!  Jeanette had seared tuna.  We shared a bottle of white Loire-valley wine.  The drive back to Avigbon was uneventful.

The last day in the south of France, we spent searching out the lavender market.  After much driving we finally found Coustellet and the Lavender Museum where Jeanette stocked up on gifts. Then some more sightseeing driving.  On our last night in Avignon, I finally convinced Jeanette to try a Chinese restaurant, the Xuan. I've been asking to eat at a Chinese restaurant in most foreign countries we visit.  This was her first relenting to my request ... and it was, to my palate, quite good ... and reasonable.

Our drive back to Paris was not nearly as trying as that going down.  On the way up, we picnicked overlooking the vineyards of Beune ... a very pretty sight ... and ate the many treats Jeanette had bought the day before -- local olives, grape juice, sausage, lemon cookies, etc.  On the way up, Jeanette also discovered that our Mercedes had a GPS system.  She was able to program it to direct us to Charles de Gaulle airport (good thing we knew what a'gauche and a'droit meant) where we dropped off the car. We took a bus into Paris and then a cab to our apartment on the Rue St. Antoine (4th Arrondissement).  After settling in we went out to dinner (the male-dominated restaurant, Le Marche) and, once again, discovered that not all food in France is palatable.  I had veal with morels ... better should be listed as veal with a morel ... better should be listed as veal with about 1/4 of a morel minced into about 20 itty bitty pieces.  It was a ripoff.  I think that diners in France should better look for a female manager or co-manager before committing themselves to a bistro.

On our first day in Paris we met with Vincent Imbert*, a Frenchman who had spent a year with us as an exchange student twenty-five years ago.  It was a very poignant meeting since Vincent's father had just died and he and his wife had just recently parted ways.  We all recounted many of our experiences when he was in the United States and were caught up with his current life.  He has three children, two girls and a boy.  And he currently is in the vinyl siding business (France is catching up) with his own small construction business.  He also told us how his days with us had influenced his life and how grateful he was for that opportunity. 

We then left and went under his wing as he took us to the Musée Jacquemart-André* (recommended by Vincent's mother, see: Wikipedia Entry) after a short subway ride.  This is a very beautiful fin de siecle home now converted to a museum that displays the art and antiquities largess that was collected by this arms dealer to Napoleon and his wife (his previous portrait painter).  There they also had on short-term display the works of Fra Angelico of Florence, Italy.  We ate an enjoyable lunch in the museum restaurant. Afterwards Jeanette and Vincent went to the Eiffel Tower where the lines were so long that they gave up waiting and, after a brief visit to the Notre Dame church, they came back to our apartment.  I had bought some more victuals so, before Vincent left to go back to Angers, we had a snack with some vin ordinare and a quick dinner at a bistro across the street.  We look forward to Vincent (and/or his older daughter) visiting us sometime soon.

The next day we decided to take in the Musée Rodin* (see: Wikipedia Entry) near the Musée D'Orsey (which we also planned to see ... unfortunately it was closed due to a strike ... apparently a frequent event in France).  I have been a great admirer of Rodin and was anxious to view firsthand many of his famous works, The Gates of Hell (of which I had also seen a copy? at Stanford University in California), the Kiss, the Burghers of Calais, The Thinker, Balzac (both clothed and nude), etc.  We ate a very pleasant lunch in the outdoor cafeteria at the museum with a covey of very aggressive pigeons which would attack any unguarded plate of food.  There, I was somewhat surprised to also see so many of Rodin's unfinished works (mostly in marble ... some even seemed to be barely started).  I think it was Picasso who said that he doesn't keep his experiments.  Rodin seemed not to have been so disciplined and thus he was somewhat diminished in my mind.  (Also, Jeanette made an observation about Rodin which I found accurate and compelling -- Rodin sculpted all his subjects' hands and feet as oversized ... apparently one reason how he differentiated himself during his heyday.)  But the museum itself is a very impressive venue.  Many of his sculptures are outside in a beautifully maintained garden with the golden dome of the Hotel des Invalides towering in the background.  Instead of taking the subway back to our abode we spent 60 euros on L'Open Tour, a double-decker open-top bus that snaked its way through this section of Paris with a running commentary of the sights.  Then we were supposed to have a free connection to another leg of this tour that went down our apartment's street.  Unfortunately, this tour stopped at 6:15 and we were merde out of luck.  So we walked home from Notre Dame.  I was sweating profusely when I finally got there.  We had our viands in our apartment that night.

On our last day in Paris, Jeanette went off to "do" the Louvre and the Arc d'Triomph ... and buy lots more souvenirs.  I use my yesterday's L'Open Tour bus ticket to do the bus-tour in the Bastille section of Paris which we had missed the previous day.  We then went to dinner at Robert et Louise*, a restaurant in the Jewish section of Paris which had been recommended to us by our son since he and Anne had gone there on their honeymoon.  It was delicious!  We both had escargots and a nice wine (Irancy) ... then Jeanette, duck and I, a rib-eye steak avec frittes ... and, for dessert, a shared creme brule.  What a way to finish!

The next morning (on October 27th), we were up at 5:30 to catch the Yellow shuttle to the airport and then to cram ourselves into those small American Airlines seats for the eight hour flight back to the U.S. of A.   We had been routed through JFK airport in New York to connect with an American Eagle flight leaving for Boston at 2:25 PM. As often is the case, our AA flight from Paris was somewhat delayed and we had very little time to make our connection. When we got off the Paris flight, an AA employee, Brandon*, was waiting there with orange priority envelopes to help us (and others) through passport control, get our luggage, and then through customs. He was most helpful and I have sent a letter to American Airlines proffering kudos for him. But this was not all. As you might have guessed from my previous aversions to walking too much, I suffer from osteo-arthritis and could not walk fast enough to insure that we got to the American Eagle gate in time. Our guardian angel then commandeered another employee who had a wheel chair. He then rushed me in said chair while my wife huffed and puffed alongside to American Eagle where we just made the connection to every one's relief. Although somewhat humiliated, I was very grateful.  What great service!  Dennis was waiting for us at Boston Logan and whisked us, in a heavy rainstorm, back home.  Thanks D1!

Then of course, after dropping off our bags we drove over to see Rebecca's dearest twin girls whom we had missed so much. 


* highlights

Friday, March 12, 2010

Miami Ice (2010)

Jeanette and I traveled this year for a week in southern Florida ... and shivered through the first five days. (On our third day, Miami hit an overnight low of 40 degrees, tying a record set in 1930.) We spent the first three nights in Miami Beach and stayed at a disaster of a hotel (unfortunately, prepaid). Jeanette thought she had made a reservation at the Indian Creek Hotel in South Beach and instead we got Indian Creek Suites, a small hotel located behind a pizza parlor in North Beach. It took us almost two hours of driving around and about ten cell-phone calls to find this ho(s)tel after landing in Miami. (Hint: any reservation confirmation that does not contain a phone number should be a red flag.) This "hotel" was clean but had seen better days. After a short spate of hot water that first evening, we had only gelid showers until the morning we left. We however are to get a $100 voucher back from our reserving agent, American Airlines, for our travail.

Our first morning we traveled down to South Beach and had delicious coffee and pastries al fresco at the Tastee Bakery on Washington St. (around 15th St.) It was very good and reasonably priced ... and also had Internet access. (The people watching was also worth the price of admission.) Consequently, we went back the next morning too. For the rest of that first morning we walked around South Beach and found it very charming ... albeit with many boarded-up shops. We then ate lunch at the Jerry's Famous Delicatessen nearby (overstuffed pastrami sandwiches, a Cel Ray soda, and an egg cream). Next, we drove down to Key Biscayne and the Bill Baggs State Park. Key Biscayne justified itself as one of President Nixon's favorite vacation destinations (remember Bebe Rebezo?) The state park is maintained in a wild state but still feels tidy. Don't ignore a visit to the light house and the light-house cafe (white sangria). On the way back to Miami Beach we side-tripped to Little Havana and bought some hand-rolled cigars at the El Titan de Bronze plant on S.W. 8th Street ... a very convivial atmosphere. That evening we ate dinner at Fifi's Place on Collins Ave. in North Beach (recommended by our friends, Judy and Dennis). Luckily, we got there early enough to get a table (6:30) but don't risk it sans reservation if you want to duplicate what was a very delicious dining experience (best soft-shell crabs we ever had.)

The next day, after our breakfast at Tastee's, we drove further south to take in the Jewish Museum (and check out the stone crab claw prices at Joe's Stone Crab House -- $45 for five jumbo claws) and then up to Ft. Lauderdale to take a look around. After lunch at the Oasis Cafe on Seabreeze Blvd. in Ft. Lauderdale (OK, but not great), we took the local water taxi through it's full range of stops (also recommended by Judy and Dennis). This water taxi is a great value as they provide a running commentary (punctuated by jokes) of the sights ... mainly the mansions and super yachts of the rich and famous. Then, after returning to South Beach, we had a fabulous meal at the Chalan's restaurant. This is a Peruvian bistro that specializes in the freshest of seafood and a native Peruvian beer (Cusquena, cheap too). It was the best beer I've had in quite some time (the last best being San Miguel beer on tap at the Philippine pavilion of the New York World's Fair), but I wouldn't order it anywhere but a place with high turnover. I had the Aguadito de Mariscos (fish soup) and I can't remember any better. During dessert (a large flan) a little Peruvian girl behind us fell over backwards in her chair. Jeanette helped her up while this embarrassed sylph was being cajoled by her parents for her inattentiveness. Next, out of her pocket came two small hand-painted cards which she gave to each of us. Her parents, in broken English, said that this was her way of saying "thank you" ... all very sweet.

The next morning, after a smidgen of warm-water for our showering, we were off to West Palm Beach (breakfast at IHop ... not bad) and the Hilton Homewood Suites on Metrocentre Blvd. What a difference! For not much more scratch, we had a huge room with a kitchenette and all brand-new accouterments. We stayed there for five nights and enjoyed the room and the included full breakfasts immensely. On the way up, we stopped at a flea market on Route 1 south of West Palm which was full of French Canadians (mostly Quebec license plates). Even many of the vendors there spoke French ... all very strange and out of place. That evening we met our friend Rosemary where she lived, north in Jupiter, FLA. We had cocktails at Guan-a-bana's on Route A1A (lots of tequila and tiki lamps) and then dinner, up the road at Jetty's (good seafood and service). Rosemary's son, Moritz, had been our son's best man so we did lots of catching up on our respective lives.

The following day was devoted to Cape Canaveral. We picked up Rosemary on the way and spent a long drive up there enjoying her stories ... and buying fresh-squeezed Indian River orange juice from a road-side stand. Although the tour of the Kennedy Space Center is expensive ($40 per person) it is well worth it. We first ate a pedestrian lunch at the Orbit Cafe. Then on the tour we were bussed around the space complex with running commentary often by old timers and saw a few short educational movies. We got to see the Space Shuttle launch platform (from afar), the Mercury launch control room, the International Space Station center, a full-size Apollo/Saturn V rocket (up close ... it's huge) and an IMAX 3-D movie on the Apollo program, narrated by Tom Hanks. This last item was the highlight for me for it involves many realistic simulations of what it was like to walk on the moon. Don't miss it. We even saw from our bus a large alligator on the side of the road and many white egrets. I got a distinct feeling of bitterness from our tour guides as they described Obama's recent canceling of NASA's Constellation and Ares rocket program which was to return our astronauts to the moon in 2020 and then on to Mars (a very under-reported story as it will mean maybe 15,000 lost jobs). After a long drive back to West Palm Beach, dropping off Rosemary along the way, we ate a quick snack at Wendy's near our hotel.

The next day we visited another set of friends, Steffie and Andy, on Hutchinson Island, east of Stuart, FLA. Steffie was the former wife of my best friend, Jay, who died too many years ago. It was a day full of great sights, greater food, and even greater remembrances. They have a beautiful condo right on the Indian River. You can walk right out onto the dock. Hutchinson Island is not overbuilt (as was also the case with Key Biscayne and Jupiter) like much of the rest of Florida (with huge ugly high rises) and is well worth a visit. Afterwards, dinner was a shared pint of Cherry Garcia ice cream back in our hotel room.

The next two days we spent the mornings on the sand at Palm Beach (it finally got warmer) and the afternoons touring the area ... including a walk through City Place, a shopping mecca at the heart of West Palm Beach ... and a visit to the Johnson History Museum in the old Palm Beach court house. This museum has knowledgeable and eager docents, lots of fascinating historic exhibits, and, best of all, it is free. The first day we ate lunch at E.R. Bradley's Saloon on Clematis Street (try the Cobb salad) and the second day, Taco Vida, a Mexican restaurant in City Place (everything is fresh, good, and reasonably priced.) Both nights we ate in our room after stocking up with seafood (shrimp and snow crab claws) and salad stuff at a local Publix market ... and some potables at the nearby liquor store.

Our last morning we drove back to Miami International Airport on Route 95 (be careful about the confusing toll road warnings as a careless mistake can cost $100 ... I hope I got it right). When we arrived in Boston we went frugal and took the Silver Line bus ($2@) to South Station and then the commuter line ($6.50@) to Natick. Even after all this fun, it was so great to be home and see our sweet, sweet twin baby granddaughters again.

Monday, June 8, 2009

High Society (2009)

Jeanette and I recently (early May of 2009) vacationed for the first time in New Mexico. It was just about five weeks after I had rotator cuff surgery so I couldn’t drive and was still a tad weak. On Monday (thanks Dennis M. for the airport drop-off), we flew into Albuquerque at around noon and rented a car to drive up to Santa Fe. The drive was uneventful but the distant mountain scenery was majestic … peppered by nearer-by American Indian casino after Indian casino. Our destination was Bishop’s Lodge, a classy resort and spa a little north of the city. This turned out to be an ideal choice as it was quiet and solicitous … although I couldn’t avail myself of its many amenities. We were famished since no palatable food was offered on Northwest Air so, after unpacking, we set off to the nearby Tesuque (a local Indian tribe) restaurant, it having been recommended to us by our daughter, Rebecca (who was at this same locale one week prior, in fact staying in the same room at the Bishop’s Lodge.) This was also a good choice for its ambiance, margaritas and enchiladas … all putting us into a Southwest mood. It’s a little like a neighborhood bodega, bar, pizza place, restaurant rolled into one with a funky wait staff and lots of locals. Of course, it became an instant favorite that we returned to several times during our trip.

The next morning we “did” Santa Fe … starting out at its farmer’s market near the train station where we had a bite of breakfast … good coffee and day-old pastries. The market was a little sparse at this time of year, mostly notions, potions and long strings of chilies. Jeanette bought a few designer soaps for her office mates. There were also many (expensive) mescaline lettuce mixes which seemed surprising to me until I realized a few days later that salads were the food of choice in this burg. In fact, I think Santa Fe should be re-christened the “Salad City.” We next found our way to the International Folk Art museum where we had to wait for its 10:00 AM opening. The highlight of this museum is the Girard collection (in a separate wing), a mass of over 10,000 folk art items (one might even say tchotchkes) from around the world. Even though not all of these items might be considered great art, together the incredible numbers of them are overwhelming … there are dioramas with literally hundreds, if not thousands, of individual hand-made items. We took a docent tour of this wing which is highly recommended since none of the exhibits have any textual accompaniment. We next went downtown Santa Fe and viewed the magical spiral staircase at the Loretto Chapel – supposedly built without external supports by an iterant carpenter. It is basically a beautiful wooden spring that has, since its construction, been augmented for safety’s sake by internal steel supports. We next visited the Georgia O’Keefe museum to view a fairly complete synopsis of her love affair with the photographer, Edward Steichen, and Santa Fe. There were her famous labial flowers, her bleached-out desert skulls, her New York street scenes, and her Southwestern landscapes. I think I liked her generally unheralded landscapes best of all (see above). That night we ate again at Tesuque.

The next day we took the compulsory trip up to Taos – the art and skiing mecca of New Mexico. I say “up to” even though my researching on the internet says that Taos’s altitude is below that of Santa Fe’s. I didn’t realize that the altitude of Santa Fe was so high – 7,000 feet … which is much higher than that of Denver. Even Albuquerque, into which we flew, is at 4,958 feet high … slightly above Denver. Taos, where we traveled that day is listed at 6,952 feet above sea level … although; I think it is actually much higher, since it was there that I got a touch of altitude sickness … a cold sweat and shakiness. (And Los Alamos is the highest at 7,300 feet, but I didn’t get ill when we went there since it was a day later and I was more acclimated to these higher altitudes). We took the “high road” (Rtes 78, 518, etc.) to Taos (more head scratching here) and along the way we stopped at Chimavo where there is a church that is supposed to offer a healing dirt. This is a very interesting locale as it is festooned with literally thousands of makeshift crosses attached to trees, fences, and altars. Apparently the dirt must work … at least in the minds of the supplicants … since there are so many of these testaments to its healing powers and even many crutches left behind by those cured. Jeanette thought that this rustic church was one of the most beautiful she had ever seen … and she has seen quite a few. It was rough-hewn and decorated with much religious folk art (assumedly American Indian). I must admit its decor was charming. Even though I write cynically about this healing dirt – found at the bottom of a small pit in a church anteroom – we nevertheless brought back a small container (anyone want some?) Considering the amount of dirt that is carried away (one Mexican couple took about a peck of it), it must be replenished nightly from some less sacred source. There was also a raging river that runs nearby this church which is very impressive given the very arid nature of the surroundings.

I must confess that Taos itself was a bit of a disappointment. My expectation was for a tree-lined, well-manicured hamlet, much like Monterey, California. Instead we entered Taos on a four-lane highway flanked by Arby’s, Home Depot, McDonalds, and the like. The downtown itself is a little more charming … its air filled with many white puffs of cottonwood seeds … but still not up to my expectations. We ate a respectable lunch at the Taos Inn and then did some souvenir hunting at the many small shops in town. There is a lot of bad art in Taos … including in the museums. We did go to one of the better museums, The Harwood, and saw a few good pieces and lots of schlock. The upstairs exhibit featured not Edward Hopper but Dennis Hopper (think “Easy Rider”) whose art and photos were just a cut above the typical street art. It was about this time that I started to get woozy from altitude sickness so Jeanette drove me down to Santa Fe via the “low road” (Rte 68). Along the way we stopped at Buffalo Thunder, an Indian casino where Jeanette won $30 and I lost about $23 playing the nickel poker slots. Then we ate dinner at Gabriel’s, right north of Santa Fe on Rte. 84, where they served delicious margarita’s and made guacamole right at your table (hint: if you are just two people, ask for a half order). It was here and then that we heard, via cell phone from his brother, of the death of our dear friend, Russ Seymour. We drank a toast to him with our already-ordered margaritas. I don’t think we will every drink another one without thinking of Russ.

The next day we went to Los Alamos with a side trip to the Nambe pueblo (on its own reservation). Jeanette had an obsession about seeing pueblos until we realized that many were not ruins but actual small Indian living-and-breathing villages. This was the case with the Nambe pueblo. It was like driving into an adobe condo parking lot with signs warning “No Photos”. We quickly left there and drove on toward the Nambe waterfalls (same river that flowed by Chimavo). Noticing many 25 MPH speed limit signs, I urged Jeanette to be careful as I suspected that this was a source of revenue on this American Indian reservation. We eventually got to a toll gate before the water falls where we were notified that to proceed would cost $10 per person plus $5 for the privilege of taking photos. We quickly U-turned and slowly crept back to the main road. We then were finally on our way to Los Alamos. It’s a long drive up to this town with some nice scenic overlooks. Los Alamos itself is, I believe, prettier than Taos. We first went to another farmer’s market with many of the same sparse offerings. Then we ate at the Blue Window Bistro, a nice pick with lots of healthy menu choices.

Almost across the street we then visited the Bradbury Science Museum. (It is not named after Ray Bradbury but an early director of the Los Alamos Laboratory.) This is a must-see (and free) tourist destination that is worth a number of hours of reflective browsing … and don’t forget to watch the many short movies about the history of the town, the development of the Atomic bomb, and what the Laboratories have been doing since the signing of the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty – fascinating. They even have life-sized models of the bombs dropped on Hiroshima (Fat Man – uranium 238) and Nagasaki (Little Boy -- plutonium). But also take time to view the dozens of other informative science exhibits. Before leaving Los Alamos, we visited, on the advice of our son, George, the Black Hole, a bizarre shop with thousands of government surplus items from the Labs. (It is a little hard to locate, but certainly unique.) If you are electronically inclined you could also spend hours here. When we entered I asked if they had a surplus thermo-nuclear device. They didn’t find me funny. Interesting side bar – if you look up to the mountains surrounding this area you’ll see thousands of tree trunk spikes … the result of a controlled burn about 20 years ago that got out of hand destroying this forest and much of this section of town. Back in Santa Fe we enjoyed another cocktail hour of margaritas (we had previously bought the tequila and mix) and salsa chips. For dinner we went once again to Tesuque.

The next day, Friday morning, we went to a local flea market which was mostly devoted to Indian crafts – rugs, turquoise jewelry, woven baskets, etc. Jeanette did the circuit while I did a more leisurely stroll through a much smaller set of those booths being set up for the weekend. While visiting one booth I witnessed the following exchange – a bleached-blond woman of a certain age was inspecting some rugs when she asked an Indian up on a ladder (“Native American” to my PC friends), “Is this rug Indian … I don’t mean Indian, but (gently slapping her open mouth with her palm) woo-woo Indian.” The man on the ladder suffered this insult in stoic silence. We then went to Bandelier National Monument as Jeanette wanted to see a real ancient Indian pueblo. The road to Bandelier duplicates much of the way to Los Alamos, but eventually gets even more scenic and breathtaking. Again feeling a tinge of altitude sickness, I stayed behind watching an informative movie while Jeanette hiked up to the ruins. She said it was quite dramatic although she declined to climb the 18 ladders to the very top of the pueblos. On the way back we stopped again at Buffalo Thunder and donated a few more dollars to the tribe. Again to our room for our cocktail hour and then we went back downtown so that Jeanette could light some votive candles at the St. Francis Cathedral to our grandson, Stanley; Jeanette’s brother, Leo; our recently departed friend, Russ; and his son, Daniel. We ate a sumptuous dinner at the nearby restaurant, The Shed. Recommendation: make reservations first and also ask for any sauces on the side … they are very spicy.

Our last full day there, Saturday, we went to the Pecos National Monument, another pueblo that had been abandoned in the early part of the last century. It was recommended to us by someone we had met at the Tesuque restaurant (another salad eater). This pueblo had been donated to the U.S. government by that old actress Greer Garson and her husband. They must have also left an endowment because it was sumptuously maintained. I must confess it was not a highlight of our trip although I did enjoy a guidebook description of the early days of a dude ranch in the Pecos canyon. And on our last night there, after our in-room cocktail hour we ate a most delicious prime-rib dinner in the Bishop’s Lodge dining room. It was quite reasonable … they even comped us on our wine. We went to bed early since we had to get up early for our 8:30 AM flight out of Albuquerque. Unfortunately the Inn dropped the ball on our wake-up call so we were rushing all the way to catch our plane. (Fortunately, Jeanette had heard the birds singing and realized we had been forsaken.) Daughter Rebecca picked us up in Boston and deposited us back in Natick. Thank you again Rebecca.

Northern Exposure (2008)

Recently Jeanette and I had the good fortune to travel to Canada (New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Cape Breton Island) with our old friends, Barbara and Terry Higgins. We went there to view the fall foliage and partake of the Cape Breton festival of fiddling, bag-piping, and step dancing called "Celtic Colours" (graphic is for this coming year). The reasons we agreed to this sojourn was that the Higgins had made this circuit three other times and know all the hidden jewels … and, most importantly, we had journeyed with them before (to Spain in 1975) and know that we are simpatico travelers. Our trip took twelve days and covered over seventeen hundred miles. Here follows a synopsis of the high points of our trip. Each grade [in brackets] is my opinion of the merit of each venue:

WEDNESDAY (October 8th, 2008)
We met the Higgins at the Starbuck's in Wellesley and took off north up Route 95. We saw the trees gradually progress from green to full autumn splendor as we crossed into New Brunswick, Canada at Calais, Maine. The ride up was smooth and punctuated with a litany of jovial recollections from our Spanish trip. We then progressed to St. Andrews, New Brunswick and checked into the St. Andrews Motor Inn [C+]. Later we ate at The Gables [C], a restaurant close by … nothing special. Try the fried clams … not the mussels.

THURSDAY (October 9th, 2008)
The next morning we took the Princess of Acadia car-ferry [C] over to Digby, Nova Scotia from St. John's. We had to take this ferry because the Cat ferry from Bar Harbor, Maine had ceased running early due to high fuel costs. We checked into the Harbour View Inn [B+], a charming B&B (run by Vince and Darren), a little off the beaten path in nearby Smith Cove. This was to be our base of operations for the next two days. It has comfortable rooms, tasty breakfasts, and a convivial atmosphere. After settling down, we took an afternoon car trip to Church Point wherein stands a huge stone church and, further on, an even bigger wooden church (both mind boggling). Each had been built circa 1900 in an apparent contest between neighborhood boat-building communities. Unfortunately, staggering maintenance cost may doom their futures. We stopped at the local Café Chez Christophe [A+] to make reservations for dinner but found that they were fully-booked due to a planned evening of live music. We cajoled our way into a 4:30 sitting which was a bit of luck. It was fantastic. Try the lobster Thermidor (if available). Another hint (which we later used to our advantage) … look for one or more "Best of Canada" stickers on the front door of restaurants you are contemplating.

FRIDAY (October 10th, 2008)
We spent the morning in Annapolis Royal visiting its Fort Anne [B+], (worth a visit) which had been held alternatively by the British and the French since the 1600's, and also did some souvenir shopping. We ate our lunch at the local Café Compose [A], run by an Austrian couple that offers wonderful seafood bisque and delightful Viennese pastries (a must with a cup of java). Next, off to Bear River, a community, because of extreme tides, that was built almost entirely on stilts. Our primary objective was the Flight of Fancy gallery run by Bob Buckland-Nicles, an engaging British ex-pat. (Bob is a post-graduate hippy who convincingly espouses all the sixties' love-not-war mantras. Later, I found out why -- the IRA had blown up a building near him in England. He was on the next plane to Canada.) This store features a wide variety of local arts & crafts … many of which we later saw at their source. If you get friendly with Bob (hard not to do), ask him to show you his landscape sandstones upstairs. We ate our dinner at a small café up the street, The Changing Tides [B]. It was a very good value with basic diner-food choices (try the coconut cream pie).

SATURDAY (October 11th, 2008)
After another tasty breakfast we departed Smith Cove for Mahone Bay. But first we went to the farmers market in Annapolis Royal to buy some of the local produce (apples, cider, cheese, etc.) Further on we stopped at Halls Harbor Lobster Pound [B] in Kentville for lunch … well worth a visit. Next, a pleasant drive brought us to Mahone Bay, a charming seaside village which was in the middle of its annual scare-crow festival. All over town were hand-made manikins dressed in all sorts of unusual clothes and posed in a wide variety of comical stances. We stayed at the Mahone Bay Bed and Breakfast [A] hosted by the glib John McHugh, a very entertaining and well rehearsed story teller. Hint: pay your bill in cash and save the Canadian hotel tax. At John's suggestion, we ate dinner at Cheesecake Gallery [B], a small café up the street. The food is good (better mussels) but the ambiance here suffers from an attempt to display a wide variety of brightly colored art on red-painted walls … a rather garish combination.

SUNDAY (October 12th, 2008)
After John's most stylish breakfast and some more of his entertaining stories, we took a short trip to Blue Rock, a nearby peninsula jutting out into the Atlantic. It has a unique geology comprised of a flint-like rock that has a blue cast and is all very rustic yet scenic. Don't miss it. Then we continued on to Lunenburg, a charming nearby seaside town with numerous craft shops and fine restaurants (many, unfortunately, not open on Sunday). As a result, we stopped at a nearby delicatessen for many tasty victuals which we took across the harbor for a scenic picnic lunch and some seagull feeding. When we returned to Mahone Bay there was a flea market in progress right across the street from our B&B. Barbara and Jeanette shopped while Terry and I lounged on the B&B's front porch. Later we took a short trip up a hill to the home and studio of Kate Church, a local artist. Kate is a rara avis. She is quite soft spoken yet very creative. Her commercial artistic thrust consists of small Ichabod-Crane-like "sculptural puppetry", a.k.a., "playful finery" that follow Kate's flights of fancy. By contrast, we were lucky enough to also be shown some of her upstairs paintings of lusty female nudes that are 180 degrees apart from her figurines. The contrast between Kate's two muses seems to me quite revealing. For dinner we ate at the Old Black Forest Café [A] outside Lunenburg, a German-American restaurant with all the German classics (except for potato pancakes and red cabbage). It is highly recommended both for the quality and quantity of its fare.

MONDAY (October 13th, 2008)
This morning we made the long drive to Cape Breton Island and stayed at a rustic B&B, Creignish Craftworks [C+], run by Sandra Kuzminski Buker … just a few miles beyond the causeway onto the island. Sandra, a free-spirit, artist, and sculptor, had fixed a Canadian Thanksgiving dinner of roast chicken with all the fixings for us and her other guests … also including her friend John Beardman, a New York artist and Cape Breton summer resident. He paints in the style of DeKooning and entertained us with many revealing stories of the vicissitudes of the New York art scene. That evening we enjoyed our (Jeanette's and my) first "Celtic Colours" performance. It was called "Generations" and was performed at the Community Centre in Judique, Cape Breton. It featured the Beatons (Kinnon, Andrea, Betty Lou); the Grants (Aonghas and Angus, fiddlers from Scotland); the Dewers (Marion, Allan, Joan); the MacMillans (Seonaldh Beag, Calum Alex, Gaelic singers from Scotland); and Doug MacPhee (a florid-faced piano player)

There is something mesmerizing about Cape Breton fiddle music, particularly when two or more players go at it. They play a jig refrain. Then they play this same refrain with a few variations. Then they play another permutation. Then another. Then, at some point, they repeat the whole sequence with, seemingly more changes and in an up tempo … changing from a jig to a reel. Then more hypnotic sequences even faster … till one's eyes begin to roll back in one's head. This goes on and on until, magically, they stop on a dime. How they all know when things are to cease simultaneously is beyond my observational skills. Even if step dancers are following this fiddled rondo, they also stop on some invisible cue. And they always do … and often with a little flourish … all very mesmerizing and entertaining.

TUESDAY (October 14th, 2008)
The next day we drove north to Inverness. On the way there we stopped at Mabou Mines. This is a little off the beaten path consisting of impressive gypsum cliffs and a small fishing harbor. We went fossil hunting on the beach and I found an ancient geode-like rock -- a brown stone shell containing a sand-like core (see my comments later under Parrsboro). We also stopped at a nearby sheep farm (Bellemeade) whose owner was very informative about sheep husbandry (including how to fend off coyotes). We then continued on our way and stopped for lunch at The Mull [B+] in Mabou. (It also had a "Best of Canada" sticker on the door.) We also stopped at the Glenora Distillery, a very pleasant building and tasting room. However, we just missed the distillery tour (on the hour) and decided not to stick around after asking the price for a bottle of its single malt whiskey -- $80. Even in Canadian dollars, this seemed a stretch.

We continued on and checked in at the Inverness Lodge [C], really a motel … a little on the skids. We ate dinner at the Coal Miner's Café [F], the very worst meal we ate on the trip. It's not even worth describing the gruel we were served. But, the evening was resurrected when we saw our next Celtic Colours performance, "Tribute to Mary Janet MacDonald," at the Strathspey Place in Mabou, Cape Breton. This performance featured lots of step dancing and honored Mary Janet MacDonald. Six of her seven children (one, a finalist in Canadian Idol competition) sang a number of songs to her (including "To Margaret's Eyes", a tribute to her mother and step-mother) … it was all very touching.

WEDNESDAY (October 15th, 2008)
The next morning we motored on to Baddeck, about half way up Cape Breton on the opposite coast. On the way we stopped at the Herring Choker [B] for a pleasant lunch and bought bread and cold cuts for dinner. We stayed the night at the Dunlop Inn [A], in Baddeck. The Dunlop Inn is a very comfortable B&B right on the water. Although there is no resident manager (it is owned by the Telegraph House) it is still well attended to. If one has some extra time in Baddeck, may I heartily recommend the Alexander Graham Bell Museum [A] where we went that PM. This is the locus of much memorabilia from this inventive Scot who dabbled in many technologies beyond the telephone -- the hydroplane, teaching of the deaf, animal husbandry, light wave communications, kites, and airplane controls. Its exhibits also bring video-taped insights into the Bell's summer home life and his devotion to his wife, family and scientific assistants, such as McCready who headed his hydroplane work. We next had our cold-cut dinner picnic before we went on to our final "Celtic Colours" performance, "Cellidh in the Glen" at the Glendale Parish Hall … featuring Calum & Seonardh MacMillan again, Colin Watson (with "jigging" or mouth music), Brandi MacCarthy, Dave MacIsaac, Brian Doyle (the MC and guitar player), and Ashley MacIsaac (piano player and fiddler extraordinaire … also known as "Cape Breton's bad boy") substituting for an ill Maybelle McQueen,

THURSDAY (October 16th, 2008)
The next morning we set off to do the Cabot Trail [A] (through the Cape Breton Highlands National Park). Normally, it is suggested to do this trip in a counterclockwise direction so you don't have to view things through oncoming traffic. However, due to a slight cases of acrophobia (the cliffs are often quite high) in our group, we did the reverse. On our way there we stopped at Larch Wood Enterprises [B+] in East Margaree to see (and buy) its beautiful larch wood cutting boards therein manufactured. We again picnicked as we entered the park, finishing up the remainder of the previous night's victuals.

The Cabot Trail itself is spectacular with numerous scenic overlooks interspersed with dense forests. That night we stayed at the Keltic Lodge [A], at Ingonish Beach, Nova Scotia. This is a grandiose luxurious resort hotel with manicured grounds and a massive main hotel (and a golf course for those who like to "take a good walk spoiled"). We stayed in one of the myriad of out-lodges with an anteroom complete with a fireplace (ask at the front desk to deliver your fireplace supplies). Our room was very comfortable if a little in need of a plumbing update. That night we ate in the large grill room with live Irish music, good drink/food, and a solicitous staff.

FRIDAY (October 17th, 2008)
The Keltic Lodge offers a sumptuous breakfast buffet with all the fixings. We asked our waitress if they offered Nova Scotia salmon. She said "yes" but it was extra. Somehow she managed to get us three orders without any further charge … about half of which we wrapped up with some bagels and cream cheese for a later lunch. As we exited the Park we stopped at "Sew Inclined" [B], a hat shop crammed full of finery hand-made by Barbara Longua (a touch expensive). You should give it a view. On the way back to Baddeck we stopped at the Gaelic College [B], in St. Ann's, Nova Scotia for a little souvenir shopping. Then we took a very circuitous route back to Baddeck through and near North Sydney and the Bras d'Or Lakes … culminating with a short ferry ride. We ate dinner the Telegraph House [B], Baddeck … to live piano music. W enjoyed an honest meal with coconut cream pie (again) for dessert. Our lodging for the night was at the Broadwater Inn [B] on the outskirts of Baddeck. It was the original home of McCready, the previously-mentioned Bell lab associate.

SATURDAY (October 18th, 2008)
We left that morning after an extended breakfast listening to the patter of John Pino, the owner of the Broadwater Inn. He told us numerous intimate anecdotes about the Bell family and the Grosvenors (of National Geographic fame). You should start him talking while you sip your coffee and enjoy details you never would hear at the Bell museum. It is clear that the Baddeckians loved the extended Bell families while at the same time sniggering at their numerous eccentricities. We started our long trip back from Cape Breton by traveling to Parrsboro, New Brunswick (on the Bay of Fundy and the home of the world's highest tides) where we stayed at The Maple Inn [A]. (Ask for the room with the steam shower.) This B&B is run by another Austrian couple with Teutonic efficiency and attention to details. On the way we stopped for lunch at Masstown Market (on Rte 104 near Truro) for fantastic seafood chowder and other sundry grocery shopping. In Parrsboro, our first stop was the Parrsboro Rock & Mineral Shoppe (Eldon George, proprietor). There I gave Mr. George, in exchange for identifying it, the "sandstone concretion" I had picked up in Mabou Mines. We then spent some time combing the nearby beach looking for agate, amethyst and other semiprecious stones. (We found none.) That evening we ate dinner at the nearby Trinity United church which was having a corn beef and cabbage communal dinner. The meal was cheap and delicious and the church folks were very warm and solicitous.

SUNDAY (October 19th, 2008)
We left Parrsboro early after a nice breakfast for the remainder of our long trek back home. Terry and I alternated driving the required 700 or so miles. We stopped at the Ganong Bros. [A]. a candy store in St. Stephen, New Brunswick, right before the border crossing back into the U.S. (don't forget your passports and driver's license) where we loaded up on caloric gifts for our friends (and a bit of self-indulgence). The rest of the trip was very tiring but we did find time to shop at the state liquor store in New Hampshire. Finally, we ended where we had started … at the Starbucks in Wellesley.

Thank you Barbara and Terry

Four things occurred during our Canadian trip that made things even more palatable:
1) The U.S. dollar kept strengthening relative to the Canadian dollar … by about 10%!
2) The price of gasoline kept falling … by over 10%!
3) The U.S. stock market hit bottom (hopefully) and began its long climb back up!
4) The Canadian national elections took place and the liberals got trounced … go figure!