Canada Trip #9 – Ile d’Orleans

After spending most of the morning at Montmorency Falls, we headed across the bridge to the Ile d’Orleans.  This should have been a very brief journey across a short bridge but it took a quarter of an eon to cross it because the traffic was dense and intensely slow moving.  I really had not appreciated that there would be a traffic jam heading onto an island.  Once we were on the island, we essentially did a loop around its circumference on its one main road.  It’s a very agrarian island with lots of orchards and vineyards – Cartier named the island after Bacchus when he arrived there in the 1500s – and plentiful charm.

There are lots of places where one could stop off on the Ile d’Orleans as there are a whole load of artisanal food producers, gift shops, and eateries.  We did not have the time nor the inclination nor the budget to visit all of them so we made a selection and stuck to it.  First up was a blackcurrant farm called Cassis Monna & Filles.  It was selling its wares in a very bijou building with a restaurant in the top level and a store below.  We enjoyed sampling the various jams and preserves and most were completely delicious.  The only one I objected to was some sort of chutney that was onion and blackcurrant.  Mr Pict and I have been consuming blackcurrants for most of our lives as they are a pretty common seasonal fruit in Britain but we have really not encountered blackcurrant anything during our years of living in America.  It was, therefore, a treat to be eating blackcurrant again.  We were all thirsty so we bought blackcurrant cordial which tasted just like Ribena, another staple of British childhoods.

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We had a little nose in the barn, which is set up to be a small museum about their history of blackcurrant farming, and which had a window that enabled us to observe the manufacturing of blackcurrant produce.  Unfortunately we had clearly just missed them making something so what we were observing was two workers cleaning up all the equipment.  Still, the exhibits were interesting and informative and we learned the explanation for our blackcurrant deficit at home: blackcurrant farming was banned in America for a long time because of a plant disease called white pine blister rust.  I guess there is, therefore, no tradition of farming or eating them.

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Our thirsts quenched, everyone was getting hangry.  There are lots of microbrasseries, vineyard restaurants, and other upscale places for gastronomes to eat fabulous local cuisine on the island but a) we were travelling with kids and b) we have a budget, so we finally stopped off at a trading post place.  It didn’t look like much from the outside but it had a lovely deck area overlooking pastures and orchards and the food was simple but delicious.

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We had hoped to visit a maple syrup farm and see it being produced but we could not find anywhere that was open and running demonstrations.  We did, however, stop in at a boulangerie because we all love bread and pastries and cakes.  We were spoiled for choice as everything on the shelves looked amazing but we each chose a patisserie item that we could scoff for breakfast the next morning.

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If Mr Pict and I had been visiting the Ile d’Orleans on our own, as just an adult couple, we could happily have spent an entire day exploring and eating.  It really is a place aimed at adults and didn’t have much to divert or engage the kids.  It’s a really lovely spot, however, and so peaceful and green.  I can see why it draws daytrippers from the city.

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Canada Trip #7 – Basilica and Food

Everyone was hungry after the Musee de la Civilisation so we had a wander through the streets around the Place Royale, past Notre Dame des Victoires, in search of a snack.  Beaver tails are a Canadian snack that none of us had ever had before so we opted for those.  Beaver tails are a sort of doughnut-like pastry formed into the approximate shape of – you’ve guessed it – a beaver tail on which various toppings can be added.  The place we stopped into provided roughly a dozen options for toppings.  I believe cinnamon sugar is the traditional topping but we went for hazelnut spread and banana, some sort of cheesecake type confection, and an Oreo inspired spread.  Travelling on our stomachs again!

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Replenished we decided to walk up to the Plains of Abraham.  This is the site of the 1759 battle in the French and Indian War that killed the commanders of both sides, Wolfe and Montcalm.  We knew we could not visit the citadel there due to a staff strike but we had hoped to wander around the exterior.  Unfortunately, no matter what route we took, we were thwarted by construction work.  As the kids were increasingly frustrated and disenchanted by the plan, we decided to abandon the mission.

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I, therefore, led everyone to see something I wanted them to see which was the Notre Dame Basilica.  I have a thing for ecclesiastical architecture that the other Picts do not share.  They, therefore, enjoyed a rest in the pews while my 13 year old was kind enough to accompany me around the building.  The specific purpose of my mission was to see the Holy Door.  It was installed in 2014 so I had not seen it on my previous visit.  Unfortunately, construction again thwarted my plans and I could not get anywhere near the door.  Why, Quebec?  Why?  Still, the interior of the church is lovely and I think we all appreciated the chance to get out of the blazing sun.

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We ate dinner that evening in the Place Royale.  We selected an Italian restaurant because it had an outdoor dining area that enabled us to enjoy the surrounding architecture and people watch.  The food was decidedly off-theme but it was nevertheless delicious.  The bonus was that, walking back to the apartment, there were finally no crowds in front of the Fresque des Quebecois.  It is a mural painted on the gable end of a multistorey building so it has a sort of trompe l’oeil quality to it.  It tells the story of Quebec’s history and is richly detailed.  I like street art so I was very pleased to have an opportunity to view it without scores of people milling around in front of it.

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Canada Trip #5 – Streets of Quebec

Our first destination in Canada was Quebec City so we headed directly there after departing Burlington.  We had rented a lovely apartment in the old city, near the port, to be our abode for a few nights.  Except for a bit of a fankle over parking and an exceedingly narrow entry staircase, the accommodation was completely perfect for our needs.  We were within easy walking distance of everything we wanted to do in the city, with all its hustle and bustle, yet our street was calm and quiet in the evenings.  It was also a relaxing place to chill in the evenings and early mornings.

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Once we had organized ourselves in the apartment, we headed out for a late afternoon stroll.  My husband and I had stayed in Quebec in 2001 – in the red roofed inn you can see in the background of the photo of Mr Pict – and had absolutely loved our time there.  Our visit back then had coincided with a celebration of Quebec’s colonial history so we had engaged with all sorts of festivities around the old city and, therefore, had not done much in the way of touristy things.  We had, however, come away pretty smitten with Quebec and were hopeful that we were correct and that we would all be just as impressed this time.  We wandered up the Cote de la Montagne with the aim of showing the boys the Chateau Frontenac.

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The Chateau Frontenac is a historic railway hotel that dominates the skyline of Quebec’s upper city.  Built in the 1890s, it was designated a National Historic Site in the 1980s, and I read that it is the most photographed hotel in the world.  I am probably responsible for a few hundred of those photographs.  What appeals to me about its architecture is that it makes me think of the wonky castles I have drawn as either fairytale or spooky buildings.  I especially love its asymmetry and its turrets and towers.  The interior is as swish as you might expect, with lots of marble and dark wood and sparkling glass.  I imagine it must be a pretty swanky experience to stay as a guest there.

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We walked the kids through the hotel’s ground floor and popped out on the Terrasse Dufferin.  This functions a bit like a wide promenade or a beachless boardwalk and it had a really buzzy atmosphere.  We could take in the view across to Levis, look through glass at some of the archaeological dig sites beneath our feet, and watch some of the street performers.

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After walking up to the Parc du Bastion de la Reine to take in the spectacular views over the city, everyone was getting really hungry so we went off in search of a place that sold traditional Quebecois food.  Mr Pict had eaten a meat pie back in 2001, the memory of which has made him drool ever since, so his objective for our evening meal was to find a place selling meat pies.  We found plenty of places selling Quebecois fare but they were either way out of our budget or really not appropriate for dining with children.  Finally we found the perfect place.  The younger kids ordered pizza and pasta, I ordered poutine (I love poutine), and Mr Pict and our oldest son ordered a Quebecois feast.  This started with pea soup and ended with a maple syrup tart and the entree included the very meat pie Mr Pict has been reminiscing about for almost two decades.  Obviously not the exact same meat pie because a) he ate that one and b) that would be gross and fatal, but one that was apparently identical to the fondly remembered pie.  Mission accomplished.

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We strolled back through the streets to head back to our apartment but we stopped off first at the riverfront where there were water features blasting water and venting steam for the boys to play among.  They got absolutely soaking wet but thankfully the apartment was just a very short walk away so they could walk back through the streets barefoot and dripping.

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Canada Trip #2 – Ben & Jerry’s and other Food

Before we crossed the border into Canada, we spent a couple of days pootling around in Vermont.  This enabled the boys to claim a new state.  My plan had been to take the boys to Shelburne Museum, an incredible, vast, eclectic and eccentric museum.  I had absolutely adored that museum when I visited back in 2001 but we agreed the kids probably wouldn’t find it had the same impact since we visited the similarly bonkers House on the Rock last year.  Shelburne Museum would have absorbed the entire day so abandoning that plan freed up time to do a lot more exploring.  A lot of the first day in the Burlington area was food-based – but don’t worry because we definitely earned our calories.

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First up was Ben & Jerry’s.  Mr Pict had been when he was a kid and before it was an ice cream empire and the kids and I had never been before.  I anticipated a small factory tour and a lot of brand merchandising but thank goodness we turned up early enough to get on the first tour of the day because that place is crazy.  It’s like a small theme park.  By the time we were taken off on our factory tour, the reception and shop area was packed with people like herring in a barrel.  It was ridiculous.

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The tour itself was efficient but interesting.  Sadly no ice cream was being produced because some part was getting replaced but we got to see the machinery and have the process explained to us, including the ways in which Ben & Jerry’s is different from its competitors.  It helped that our tour guide was an amusing nerd and it also helped that we got to sample a scoop of ice cream at the conclusion.  Extra samples meant that our youngest son lucked out and was given two samples.

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After the tour, we wandered around in the “Flavor Graveyard”, the way in which the company memorialises flavours that it has tried out on the general public and then permanently withdrawn.  We had learned that there are other flavours that get withdrawn and then make a comeback.  Those are called zombie flavours.

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That area of Vermont is also known for its cheese and cider so, much later in the afternoon, we went off to sample and buy some of both.  First up was the Cold Hollow Cider Mill.  While cider and apples were certainly the running theme of the store, there were lots of other products for sale too so we had a good pootle about but we kept our focus on the cider.  We watched a video about the company’s history of cider production and got to sample some.  I am generally not a massive fan of non-alcoholic cider or apple juice but it was ice cold and refreshing and just what I needed at that point in the day.  The kids were peckish so they chose a snack each.  Two of them chose hot dogs that had been steamed in cider, one chose an apple cider doughnut filled with cream, and the youngest bought four miniature fruit pies.

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Then we popped into the Cabot cheese farm store.  I am lactose intolerant so had to keep my sampling to a minimum but the boys and Mr Pict had fun taste testing all of the available cheeses and I tried some delicious mustard that I decided to buy and bring home with me as an edible souvenir.

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Dinner that evening was fast food of the local variety.  Al’s Food Frys is apparently a local Burlington institution so we decided to give it a try.  I must admit that the use of “Frys” instead of “Fries” made me all manner of twitchy and fast food is not my favourite way to eat but it is fun to try something new and specific to an area.  I must admit that the fries (not frys) were pretty delicious, really potatoey and with fluffy insides but crisp on the outside.  Those who had burgers said they were scrummy and my 12 year old loved the flavour of coating on the fried chicken he ordered.

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Day two of our trip was definitely about “travelling on our stomachs”.

Food Glorious Food

Well my determination to make and preserve time for art this year did not get off to a flying start in January.  I have been solo parenting since the beginning of the year and then I came down with some gnarly virus that caused me to have a fever for three days.  That illness, however, meant I had to take a couple of days off work to recover and recuperate when I was fit for nothing that could not be done on the sofa.  I, therefore, put together something in my art journal.  I used an Art Journal Adventure prompt – Food – as my inspiration.  I love cooking and eating so I decided to construct a simplified self-portrait which then combined with a Carmen Miranda type headdress composed of clippings of magazine photos of food.  It’s a very simple page, quick and easy to put together, but it was good food for the soul to actually do something creative when I was feeling so gross.

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Caribbean Cruise – Sea Days

Our first and last days of cruising were spent at sea.  They served as the maritime equivalent of our road-tripping repositioning days where we do nothing but driving.  However, unlike entire days spent trapped in a car with five other people, the cruising equivalent was wonderfully relaxing.

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As you may have noted if you have read any of the travel episodes of this blog, we jam-pack our vacations with activity.  There really is very little down time, not for the adults at least.  However, on the ship – with no chores to do, no cooking, cleaning, or laundry* – I found myself with large chunks of free time.  What a luxury!  I read two and a half books within one week.  I even (accidentally) napped one afternoon.  Woah! With the exception of the two times when I had ‘flu, I have not napped since I became a parent almost 16 years ago.  We took ourselves off for afternoon tea – sometimes formally, with dainty sandwiches and little helpings of sugary treats, and sometimes informally, with mugs of tea and slices of cake from the buffet.  One evening, Mr Pict and I sat out on the lido deck to watch a movie on the big screen.  It was pouring with rain but the air temperature was warm so we stuck it out.  We wrapped ourselves up in beach towels, complete with snoods, and made ourselves feel cosy with mugs of tea and a packet of popcorn.

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There was lots to do on board, including areas we had absolutely zero to do with such as casinos, bars, and clubs.  The swimming pool was small and often so crammed full of people that it was akin to human soup so the kids only really used the pool on a couple of afternoons.  They loved the flumes and hot tubs.  There was a volleyball court, a mini golf course, and some deck games.  We took advantage of the library, not for the books but for its collection of board games.  Sometimes we played in the library and other times we took the games back to our rooms.  We participated in some trivia events (including a satisfyingly challenging Harry Potter one where the kids and I got to exercise our nerd knowledge), we went along to some stand up comedy routines, and we watched several shows in the ship’s large theatre.  The production values of the stage shows were incredible.  While the quality of singing and dancing could be professional but patchy, the production was always slick, polished, and very impressive.

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While I did not take advantage of the opportunity to eat whenever I felt like it, the boys sure as heck did.  They absolutely loved being able to wander along to the buffet area and order a burger, munch a slice of wood fired pizza, or construct a burrito, or (less often) make up a salad or grab some fruit.  They certainly took advantage of the amazing desserts on offer.  I had to give one of my sons a dressing down upon learning he had eaten seven slices of cake in one evening.  Seven!  At home, under the auspices of parents, they eat at set mealtimes and have the option to snack on fruit between meals.  Needless to say, they loved the freedom of being able to snack on pretty much anything they felt like it whenever they felt like it.

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We had a formal dinner as a party of eight every evening.  We had the same table and the same waiting staff each evening so we got into a relaxing groove with it, even when we had to dress up for the “elegant” nights.  I cannot remember the last time I managed to eat three courses in one sitting but – largely thanks to sensible portion sizes and partly just due to irresistible deliciousness – we ate three courses each evening.  Everything was cooked to perfection.  Some meals were tastier than others, of course, but all were impeccably cooked and immaculately, sometimes exquisitely presented.  A whole week without meal planning, with zero cooking, no washing up, and no complaining from the kids about what they were being served, was very much a luxury for me.

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I was not sure that cruising would be for me.  I definitely have the mindset that vacations have to be utterly packed with experiences in order to represent value for money and, therefore, I found it mentally difficult to transition into a vacation that involved entire days of doing “nothing”.  I actually found it difficult to give myself permission to relax.  I also felt guilty that my ability to relax and experience the luxury of laziness was down to the hard work of incredible numbers of crew who were missing the holidays with their families in order to cater to mine.  However, despite all that, I did enjoy the experience of cruising and would consider doing it again as a way of sampling different destinations.

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*No laundry for seven days was a thing of wonder for me, someone who usually has to do an average of one load per day.  Of course, I paid for it when we arrived home and disgorged the contents of our cases as I had to do several loads in 24 hours but it was very nice indeed to have a break from the daily grind of laundry nevertheless.

Caribbean Cruise – Dominican Republic

Our first destination on the cruise was the Dominican Republic.  It was the only day on which we went on an organised excursion.  This was a good move for two reasons.  First of all, the ship docked in a cove that was designed purely for cruise ships which meant it was completely artificial and overtly touristy and the nearest actual town was too far to walk to.  Secondly, the excursion turned out to be excellent and allowed us far greater insights into the Dominican Republic than our own explorations would have done.

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We met with our tour guide and driver and hopped on the minibus.  There were the eight of us and a dozen other people so it was a small group.  The nearest city to the dock was Puerto Plata and, as we drove through, our guide was able to point out several things unique to the country and explain a bit about the culture.  We saw lots of whole roasted pigs on sticks being cooked and sold at stalls on the busy streets.  We learned that this was because this type of roasted pork was the traditional meat for Christmas dinner and lots of people would be buying it that day, Christmas Eve.  We were also informed that the city took its name not from the metal silver but because of a particular tree that grew on the hillsides, the grey leaves of which seemed to look silvery in the mountain fog.  Our drive also took us past various views of the mountain named Isabella.  We learned that this was a name bestowed upon it by Christopher Columbus and that the first European village in the New World was located nearby.  It was such a beautiful place to be the launch pad of a history of disease, conflict, slavery, and genocide.

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Soon we were leaving the city and were wildly bouncing and careering along unsurfaced, winding, uphill roads that took us into the lush vegetation of the rural areas of Puerto Plata province.  On the way, we learned about eclectic subjects such as vernacular architecture, mahogany, the lottery, and tiny stores that sell individual ingredients such as one egg or a few slices of meat at a time.  Our destination was a village where we could learn more about the rural way of life in the region.  We were invited to enter one home, which was Tardis like in its use of space.  I especially enjoyed seeing the kitchen, which was an adjacent but separate building from the home, and the clay wood fired cooker.

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We were shown around the agricultural area and the produce being grown was identified and its uses explained to us.  I found that to be thoroughly interesting.  I, for one, had never seen coffee plants in real life before.  I also saw my first breadfruit tree.  Our 9 year old had two bucket list items for his time in the Caribbean: to see bananas growing and to see cacao in the wild.  He achieved both goals on the trip as there were seven varieties of banana being grown, including a red variety I had never seen before, and there were trees full of cacao pods.  Our wee chocoholic was elated.  He was even more ecstatic when he learned that he was going to get to sample hot chocolate made from the locally grown cacao.  It was richly delicious.  Other members of the family tried the freshly ground coffee.  We all thoroughly enjoyed chunks of freshly harvested pineapple and guava.

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Our next stop was the village elementary school.  As an educator, I found it really interesting to see the similarities and differences in the education system and the way the school buildings and classrooms were organised.  I was, however, glad that school was not in session (given it was Christmas Eve) as I would have felt uncomfortable seeing the students used props for tourists.

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We then had a break for lunch.  It was a buffet of the types of food Dominicans would eat on a typical day.  I especially enjoyed the rice and beans.  The boys loved the fried chicken.  During our lunch pit stop, there was some dancing entertainment to showcase the fusion of indigenous, African, and European culture in the Dominican Republic.  We also saw a man making cigars and sampled some local alcohol.  Our cat fanatic 9 year old was absolutely thrilled to meet a local cat.

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The final destination for the day was a beach, as this area of the country is famed for its beautiful beaches.  The boys loved the opportunity to just let loose and splash and crash among the waves.  Our guides provided some body boards so they tried that out too.  Even as someone who does not like sand, I had to agree it was a pretty good way to end the trip.

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I liked what I saw of the Dominican Republic, from the brief sampling we had, and would definitely consider returning to explore more of the country, its varied history, and its diverse cultures.