So long Ontario, bonjour Quebec et Nouveau Brunswick

Five bucks goes to the first person who can tell me what a duster is.

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This ephemera is part of the Lorne Katz collection. Another five bucks goes to the person who knows who “Ed” is.

Ed is Ed Mirvish, the late, great one-of-a-kind businessman who built theatres, restaurants and Honest Ed’s –  a square-city-block emporium to bargain shopping. He helped put Toronto on the map back when it was still competing with Montreal. Shoppers lined up for his specials – such as the one shown – the $6.99 duster. When Honest Ed’s closed its doors last year, among the items for sale were thousands of these signs – each one hand-painted and many of them speaking to an era that is now gone forever.

You have to be at least my age to know this, but a duster is also known as a housedress – garments universally hideous and instantly identifiable by their gaudy florals, often embellished with ric-rac trim and a front zipper.  Long before the days of yoga pants or even sweatpants, women threw on their dusters to vacuum, scrub and…dust. My mother wore them. Another item of note – the use of the word “misses” was for women of average height and weight, while “ladies” indicated a curvier body. I haven’t seen the use of “misses”  or “ladies” for a very long time – “vanity sizing” has taken over.

Back to Lorne and Anne Katz – dear friends from our pre-children days in Toronto. We grew up together.  Eventually we moved west, but stayed close and now one of their sons, Jacob, has a child of his own. Their other son Aaron, just got married three weeks ago in Germany to Vanessa; they are living in Berlin and back in Canada for their honeymoon. We had a fabulous multi-course dinner with them when we stopped by for a night with Lorne and Anne – a lot of laughs, but another reminder of time just flying by.

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I have little to report on Toronto – we’ve been in twice to see friends and I will likely be back again at least once in August. I love Toronto – even though housing prices are now rivalling Vancouver, it is still a city of neighbourhoods and nationalities and has retained enough grit and personality to keep it interesting.  Toronto would require a blog of its own, so my best advice if you haven’t been there yet, is …go! Discover it for yourself. I’ll talk about other things.

Like Farren Lake, in eastern Ontario.  Kris and Gord (whom we met two years ago in Mexico and who are partially unhoused) have the perfect solution. They sold their home in Windsor  and moved to their cottage on Farren Lake, where they live from mid-April to mid-October. The rest of the time they travel. Their lovely cottage, which they describe as “rustic” (it’s not – it is snug, beautifully furnished with unique finds and has a screened-in porch), is my happy place. Rock and floating dock, with pristine lake, loons and canoes. It is iconically “150” Canada – all they need is a Mountie and a jug of maple syrup.

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There was a good wind and a chop on the water – the only one who braved a swim was Stephen. You will never see a photo with me jumping into cold water – that is a promise.

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After a great gab and delicious dinner, we all settled down on the dock to watch the sunset.

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Good-bye to Kris and Gord – a la prochaine.

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The beautiful little town of Perth is just a half-hour away, so we stopped by for a visit. It is filled with stone buildings and weeping willows and reeks of history – a photographer or painter could spend hours here.

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So could architecture buffs. This appears to be a private home (I saw no B and B or municipal signs). Typical of the fine details and stately proportions of many Perth homes, although on a larger scale.

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The River Tay runs through town, with lots of shops and restaurants lining it, and the main street.

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We passed by the statue of Big Ben, the champion show jumper from the ’80s, ridden to victory by equestrian Ian Millar, who owns a stable near Perth.

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Their outstanding accomplishments are listed on a nearby plaque.

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And with that, we left Ontario behind and drove straight into La Belle Province. My family is from the Gaspe coast and I was born in Montreal, but entering Quebec is like a foreign country. It always feels a little je ne sais quois, including my inability to make myself understood in my high school (plus one teenage summer immersion in St. Pierre) French. While in Quebec I feel somewhat ungainly and upon leaving, I resolve to buy only fabulous shoes.

Minor insecurities aside, being in Quebec is a buzz. The following photos are just a preview on our way to the Maritimes. We will spend much more time in Quebec on our way back in August.

We called in at the Fairmont Montebello hotel, located about 90 km. from Ottawa.  The world’s largest “log cabin” was built in 1930 in just three months, in the form of a six-point star, out of 10,000 hand-cut B.C. red cedar logs.

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Set on the Outaouais River, used by the first voyageurs, Montebello is a destination for history buffs.

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I spoke to the very friendly concierges, Jessica and Rosalie, posing here with the very shy hotel mascot, Bello.

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We spent our night in Trois Rivieres, drove over the bridge at Quebec City and up the coast toward Riviere-de-Loup, taking the old highway as much as possible.

Some of the sights along the way:

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Quebec has a tradition of wood carving – everything from lamps to furniture to toys. Must be the long, cold winters.

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Habitant-style homes – dormers, stone or wood foundation and steep roofs to allow snow to slide right off.

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Making our way into New Brunswick (Nouveau Brunswick – the other French province). Beautiful scenery on our way to Edmunston – a stop for many on their way to and from the Atlantic provinces.

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We are staying at Motel Cleo – a combination hair salon, spa and themed-room motel (five rooms appropriately decorated – we are in La Chine; Paris and Rome were booked). Our first dinner in the Maritimes and fittingly, it was seafood – at La Pirate de Mer. Stephen had fresh haddock and chips, and I had a lobster roll – split toasted hot dog roll filled with big, fat chunks of lobster. More great food stories to follow.

 

The Beach, the Bard and Bieber

In the last few days, we have visited our old stomping grounds (Guelph), a teenage beach hangout (Wasaga Beach) and the hometown of Justin Bieber (Stratford). While that town is primarily and justifiably well-known for its world-famous Shakespeare Festival, it is possible to download a Bieber-iffic Map that will show you his school, skate park and favourite ice cream parlour. Just in case you’re interested…

Oh, and soon-to-be-retired Peter Mansbridge lives in Stratford and while there is no Peter-iffic map, he is a familiar face around town.  Apparently his home is “impressive.” Stratford is a town full of impressive homes – I wanted to take more photos, but everyone was out working on their gardens. This home is typical:

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No, it is not celebrity sightings or nostalgia that have taken us to these places – once again we are catching up with old friends. This has been a full and meaningful week.

We lived in Guelph for 12 years while the boys were growing up. It is a vibrant mid-sized city about an hour north-west of Toronto; home to the University of Guelph,  a robust restaurant scene and a thriving music and arts scene. The city’s tree-lined streets are filled with beautiful and still relatively affordable homes.

We lived on a street close to the university. Neither Stephen nor I are handy (beyond being able to paint and hammer a few nails) and in a moment of self-delusion, we bought a derelict student rooming house and spent years renovating it.  It was a labour of love, made all the sweeter because we had such wonderful neighbours on our little street.  Our house has since changed hands a few times and no longer looks well-loved. I put hours into that front garden – it feels a bit sad to see it now.

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Our friends Bob and Trish and their three kids, Fran, Rob and Peter lived down the street and the boys all played together. Seventeen years later, we were back on the street, sitting on their back deck and getting re-acquainted. We were so happy that it was possible for all of them to come together from their various homes to see us. The boys are busy with school – Rob taking his electrician’s apprenticeship, Peter going back for Teacher’s Ed in the fall, and Fran working on her PhD in Music Ethnology. Under the category of “great things one learns from young people”, we found out about “shape-note singing” – something Fran has been involved with for a while now with a group from Alabama. There are a number of YouTube videos or this rather dry Wikipedia explanation: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shape_note

From left: Fran, Rob, Bob, Trish, Peter

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Our time in Guelph was happy – young family, busy with work and friends and home. Driving around the city brings back floods of memories, since very little has changed. There are lots of new businesses and swank little shops and cafes, but the signposts of the city remain – including the Guelph Farmer’s Market. For five years, I had a baking business there – every Saturday morning I would bring my muffins, cinnamon rolls and cookies to my corner stand, and spend a few hours selling and chatting with friends.

My little stand was at the back right, just past the seating in the windows. There was a coffee stand beside me – a perfect draw for customers.

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The next day we drove to Cambridge to visit Robert and Marilena. Cambridge is a small town west of Guelph, close to Kitchener-Waterloo. Southwestern Ontario is a series of  small towns and cities punctuated by great swaths of cornfields, dairy and beef herds and markets. This is also Mennonite country – the back roads are shared with Old Order Mennonites riding horse and buggy.

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We met Robert and Marilena several years ago in Sayulita, Mexico. They are also friends with Piotr and Ela, our friends from Portland. We would all arrive in Sayulita around the same time – sometimes for 2 weeks, sometimes for longer. It was a time and a place – a lovely shared memory of a favourite destination in Mexico before it became touristy and overly developed. We have all agreed we are unlikely to return there, but we are grateful for the lasting friendships from that time.

We visited Robert and Marilena at their beautiful home in Cambridge – we know our paths will cross again before long.

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Back to Stratford. Stratford is a gorgeous town, set on the Avon River. If it did not have the Stratford Festival and the Stratford Chef School, it would still be beautiful, but the tone was set 60 years ago when Sir Alec Guiness performed from a tent on the banks of the  Avon River and the Festival was born. As it developed in size and stature, the Stratford Chef School moved in, and innovative restaurants began popping up. High-end shops followed, along with luxe bed and breakfasts and boutique inns.  The Stratford Festival runs every year from April to November; set in several theatres and offering a good mix of modern and traditional theatre.  Theatre-goers come from all over North America (and beyond) to watch world-class performances. This is the main theatre:

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It overlooks the Avon River, home to a famous bevy of swans. I had heard they were bad-tempered and snappish, but I did see one being hand-fed, so perhaps they’ve received the memo from the tourism bureau. I maintained my distance and admired from afar:

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Stratford is also home to our friend Dorothy, who has lived here for many years. We all met when we were young, working in restaurants in Toronto. We have more than a few stories of mischief and foolishness before we were all forced to grow up. Amazingly, we have not seen each other since those restaurant days. And yes, of course we have changed, but our 20-something spirits prevail – a good thing, I think.

Dorothy was always brutally honest, witty, and super-smart. I call her Dorothy Parker. She still smokes, unapologetically. We are so happy to have her in our lives again.

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And finally, to Wasaga Beach. Wasaga Beach was party central when we were teenagers – a scuzzy hangout for bad bikers and their girls. Tiny little cottages and chip trucks. Tiny little bikinis and the boys that followed them around. Naturally, we wanted to go there.

Sooner or later, everything gets gentrified, including down-and-dirty Wasaga. Forty years after our teenage-hood, my dear friend Nancy moved there. I have known Nancy since Grade 9, which makes her my oldest friend. We were friends, roommates, confidantes and co-conspirators. She is like a sister.

When Nancy told me she was moving to Wasaga, I was a bit aghast. However, she was not the only one with that idea – there are many Toronto transplants and recent retirees, as well as our mutual friend Lisa. The bikers are still here, but so is artisan beer. The little cottages are still here, but so are new resorts and golf course subdivisions. And who doesn’t love chip trucks?

The big attraction, then and now, is the beach. Part of Wasaga Beach Provincial Park, it is 14 km. long – the largest freshwater beach in the world. It is divided into several distinct beach areas – with the party crowd cordoned off into a couple of packed and noisy sections and the rest left for strolling and bird-watching.

Both of those activities have been curtailed somewhat this year due to record high water levels in Ontario lakes. This beach used to go out at least 100 feet further.

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We had a very pleasant chat with Braden, the park warden who was cruising the beach. Among his duties were making sure the flats of beer flying out of the liquor store on a Friday night would not interfere with everyone’s peaceful and lawful enjoyment of the beach.  He was fully kitted out in boots, flak jacket and baton, but my money would be on the crowds of drunken yahoos if they decided not to play nice. A residue of the old Wasaga still exists.

Braden and my friend Nancy.

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Tomorrow is Father’s Day. Lucky me – I will spend it with my dear dad and my dear husband – two very caring, involved, supportive and loving fathers.

To everyone who is a dad, or who has a dad, or who will be remembering their dads – Happy Father’s Day.

Friends and Family, Inc.

We’ve aways been movers and we’re not sure why. It may be curiosity about the colour of the grass on the other side or we may be restless spirits, but after a few years in any place the call to hit the road becomes too strong to resist.

The downside is we have lifted ourselves out of a stable and secure community but the upside is we have a network of friends and family all across the country. We have a core group of friends and family we belong to and see on a regular basis. We also have old friends we see infrequently or lost contact with at some point, but the ability to easily reconnect is still there. The years just fall away. A big part of this road trip is not just seeing places we haven’t seen, but catching up with as many old friends as possible.

We’re staying with my parents in Fergus and using this as a base to visit everyone else. Fergus is about 90 km. northwest of Toronto; a pretty town filled with stone homes and big trees. When my parents retired here 30 years ago, Fergus was conservative and Protestant and they were CFA’s (Come-from-aways). Now, like many Ontario towns, subdivisions surround the picturesque core and are filled with residents fleeing Toronto in search of affordable housing. The growth hasn’t affected the feel of the town; I really like it here. And I love my parents’ home – many years of great memories.

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When we moved to Toronto from Montreal in the ’60s, we rented a home in North Toronto for a couple of years. Our very first neighbour and friend in Toronto was Don – he lived right next door to us. When he married Anne, they split their time between Toronto and their Nova Scotia home and Stephen and I developed a close friendship with them during the years we lived in Halifax.

We dropped by for a visit – (from left: Mum, Don, Dad, Anne)

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Not to be cranky about the fact that real estate prices have risen in 50+ years, but our stately old neighbourhood in North Toronto now embodies that aspirational, greedy ego-driven change. Just three doors down from Don and Anne is a black hole of “all-about-me” – a 3-years-and-counting project that has disrupted the neighbourhood and will dwarf and outstrip everything on the block.

We drove up the street a couple of blocks to see our home on Briar Hill Avenue – my coming-of-age home and neighbourhood. My parents bought this house for $27,000 in 1966 – a modest (by today’s standards) red brick home with a Toronto backyard, one bathroom and a shared driveway. We shared that driveway with our dear friends and neighbours – Penny, Mike and their boys Chris and Tim.  Penny – I look at that driveway and can still see you racing in or backing out – always on the run.

Our house is the one on the left.

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Stephen grew up in Oakville, but half of his family has lived in London for years. We spent two lovely days there, re-connecting with them all.

From left: Ted (our brother-in-law), Stephen, his dad, our nephew Tyner, his girlfriend Sara, Stephen’s sister Lee Ann, Stephen’s stepmum Nicole.

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We also spent time with Stephen’s sister Andress, her husband Mike and their two adorable children, Ben, 3 and Stella, 1. I took several photos of the kids but they were in perpetual motion, so all but this one was blurry.

Ben, barely restrained by his dad.

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Mike and Andress, in front of their new home. Kids are in bed, the kitchen is clean and the visitors are leaving – that sweet spot in the day of tired young parents.

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Off to St. Catharines for a whirlwind visit with three sets of friends.  Bey and Andy moved here from Gabriola three years ago; in part to be closer to family in Ontario. They traded an oceanfront home for a “pond”-front home – they now live right on Martindale Pond where they can watch the rowers practising and competing.

We walked from their home to Port Dalhousie for lunch. A view of the pond:

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Bey and Andy

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After lunch, we walked through Port Dalhousie (pronounced dal-oozy by the locals) and admired the older homes.  Here is one example of the many charming homes found in Ontario. More to come in the next post.

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We headed to Font Hill, an area in southwestern Ontario close to the wine district, to visit  Paul and Sue, friends we have known since our pre-child days. We worked together in Banff – Paul was GM at Sunshine Village and Stephen was the food and beverage manager. By then Sue had two tiny kids and I was pregnant.  In the two years we lived there both our boys were born and we had a lifetime of stories to tell – anyone who has lived and worked at a resort will know what that means. Life has taken us in very different directions – it had been 15 years since we had last seen each other. We arrived mid-afternoon and stayed the night, catching up on our lives and reminiscing.  We were happy to be able to meet two of their adult children and their partners.

This is what happens in the blink of an eye – your friends’ children grow up. We remember these boys as little kids.

Their son Colin, his girlfriend Michelle, Paul, their daughter-in-law Jessica, (with second baby Emmett due to arrive in a month), Sue, their son Ross. Missing: baby Henry, down for a nap. Also missing – their daughter Robyn and her family – they live in Oakville.

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Paul and Sue live on the property Paul grew up on – a bucolic paradise complete with two houses, a pool, tennis court and this: an old settler’s cabin Paul’s father had transported to the property.

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Paul also pointed out a massive willow tree he planted over 50 years ago when he and the tree were both little saplings. The tree is now about 80 feet tall.

We talked as though no time had passed between us and left knowing we won’t wait another 15 years before we see them again.

Back to St. Catharines to visit another set of friends we hadn’t seen in a very long time – Vera and Frank. We knew them from our Guelph days and while we went east to Halifax and then west to Gabriola, they moved into Toronto for several years and then retired to St Catharines a year and a half ago.

Another wonderful visit and catch-up, and a promise to keep in regular contact.

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We have many more friends and familiar haunts to visit in Ontario, both now and when we come back this way in late August.

I’m finding it a strange experience to be a tourist in my old province. Everything seems familiar – even places I haven’t been before – they have the “Ontario” look and feel. When we were driving south from Manitoulin Island, I experienced that moment of regret one feels when the holiday is over – similar to when we and the boys were coming back so many years ago.  The next instant I realized that we were not coming home from camping with our boys, we were on a different trip, many years later and our holiday would continue. A parallel reality follows me through Ontario – little pops of deja vu.

Next posting I’ll have photos of the architecture that is so distinctive in this province, and one of the things I miss.  This sight could be found in most of Canada, but it says, “Ontario” to us.

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North of Superior: heroes, home cooking and flying geese

If you are driving east from Manitoba, you’ll know immediately when you have entered Ontario. The ground rules for travel in this province are laid down tout de suite ( in both official languages).  Signs for every misdemeanour from drinking and driving, distracted driving, speeding in construction zones, speeding (and the fines and demerit points assigned) are posted within 10 minutes of crossing the border. These are followed by entreaties to “take a break – fatigue kills”, which makes sense since the stretch of highway from Thunder Bay east across Lake Superior while stunningly scenic,  is notoriously long. One’s boredom is mitigated by magnificent scenery and hopeful glimpses of animals, prompted by frequent postings of “night danger”. We did see two moose and one bear, but all three times were unable to pull over safely as we had cars right behind us.

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We spent one night in Thunder Bay, with plans to hike in Sleeping Giant Park the next day, but the weather gods were still uncooperative, so we switched to Plan B and headed to Wawa. We stopped just east of town to see the Terry Fox Memorial that is situated high on a hill overlooking Lake Superior.  Thunder Bay and Terry Fox will forever be connected, as it is very close to this location that Terry was forced to stop his cross-Canada run for cancer.  It is impossible to imagine the character and strength of this young man, who ran a marathon a day for 143 days under the conditions he did. Not for one moment to compare myself to Terry Fox, but it doesn’t take much to realize I have a long way to go when a 10-km. hike can bring on the whining.

A beautiful setting and appropriate memorial for a true hero.

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About an hour east,  we pulled off the highway to check out the Ouimet Canyon.  It is a massive gorge, 150 metres across and 100 metres deep – with a unique ecosystem at the bottom that supports arctic plants normally found just 1000 km. north. We had to take their word for it, because looking over the side bought on intense vertigo and besides – 100 m. is too far down to see much of anything. A 2-km. boardwalk led to the lookouts, which are well buttressed.

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The view looking back into the canyon.

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On the way back to the car, we passed by a massive deposit of moose poop (I Google’d later), which was a thrilling reminder of how close we might have been to an up-close sighting.

You’ve all either seen or heard about the famous goose at Wawa. It commemorates the final link of the Trans-Canada Highway to Sault Ste. Marie and Western Canada. Since the new highway bypassed and ultimately threatened the livelihood of downtown businesses, the giant goose was erected to attract drivers and direct traffic into town.

In recent years, the poor goose has deteriorated – as you can see from the photo, the body is pretty rusty. A brand-new goose has been built and will be unveiled on Canada Day, but we bring you a final glimpse of one of the most photographed monuments in Canada.

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The miles rolled by and so did the vistas – forests, water and Canadian Shield.

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And construction. Always construction – but we never waited for very long.

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We stopped at Timmy’s for a quick break and met two enterprising German girls who had bought this car in Vancouver (already outfitted with platform), and were spending a couple of months travelling across the country. They were cooking up a lunch of pasta and sauce right in the parking lot. And yes, it was as cold as it looks.

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Finally, we reached Manitoulin Island – the largest freshwater island in the world and a place with a very special place in our hearts. We went there for two or three summers when our boys were young.  It was perfect for little kids – rustic and easy and they were still at an age when going for ice cream was a big treat. We rented a cabin and we ate hot dogs, built campfires, swam in the lake and picked leeches off our legs. We were keen to see how the island survived our rosy memories.

Almost symbolically, we left our stormy weather behind as we drove onto the island.

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Still quite chilly for camping, so we rented a trailer at South Bay Resort – an intro to trailer living for us… and we are sold. Cozy, comfy with a bathroom, tiny kitchen and protection from the elements, but the outdoors is right there – fire pit, picnic table and view of the lake.

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The resort is set on a large lake, with swimming, boating, fishing, all available, and a good mix of tents, cabins and trailers. Many people (the seasonal) leave their trailers here year-round for the very reasonable fee of $1400 a year. This becomes their summer home, and many of the guests here are French from Sudbury (including the young owners) – we are surrounded by great humour and joie de vivre.

The path to the main lodge
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We wanted to check out Bass Creek Resort ( the place we visited with the kids) and had a bit of difficulty finding it at first, as there are no signs on the road. Finally, we turned into the familiar old driveway, only to find it all locked up. The owners we knew had sold it after 60 years (it is over 100 years old), and the new owners had a sign up saying they would not be open until July. So, we decided to trespass (with good intentions), and see how it measured up to our memories. It looked pretty rough, but it hasn’t had a winter cleanup and spruce up for the season yet. Still…what was rustic 25 years ago appears not to have changed a bit. The dock looked rotten, and the cabins looked saggy, but I saw little ghosts…
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Manitoulin is filled with small resorts like this – tired old cabins with mismatched tables and chairs and perhaps the odd mouse or two. I’m sure there are luxurious resorts on the island, but the island is a no-frills place and that is exactly why we love it.  Our host at South Bay confessed it was hard going to keep their resort in the black, but after seven years, they’ve turned a corner.

Not the same can be said for every business. We drove by many buildings that looked just like this one. A lady walking by told us this business has been closed for years – the sign still remains to re-direct potential business.

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Manitoulin is filled with prosperous, thriving farms and enough herds of beef cattle to merit having their own abattoir.

But there are plenty of old farmhouses just like this one – left to the elements after years of sitting empty – no-one willing to take on such a risky venture.

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Manitoulin Island has so much to offer,  including incredibly, a lack of bugs – almost no mosquitoes, no black flies. This may be due in part to being surrounded by water and a steady light breeze, but that would be enough to lure me here for an Ontario summer.
There are fantastic hiking trails, including the famous Cup and Saucer trail (closed while improvements to the trails are being made), but we did check out Bridal Veil Falls.

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Apparently that pool is a popular swimming spot in the summer, but we just followed the 2-km.trail along by the creek.

IMG_0064And then we came upon a sign that took me back to my Girl Guide days – “leaves of three, let it be”. I know poison ivy exists out west, but for some reason it reminds me of Ontario.
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Our trail ended here – where the creek spills out to the North Channel.

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Much of Manitoulin is First Nations land, including parts like Wikwemikong that are unceded, as their chiefs refused to accept the treaties being offered at the time. The island is policed by both O.P.P. (Ontario Provincial Police) and a native police force. Without any insider knowledge, the two cultures appear to co-exist without too much trouble.  Summertime is non-stop with crossover events such as festivals, fairs, marathons, pow wows, fishing derbies, etc.

Manitoulin specializes in “summer food” – barbecued meats, ice cream, shortcake, and fried foods. While there are any number of spots to indulge, locals and tourists come from all over the island to Mum’s in Mindemoya. They serve killer breakfasts and dinner-plate sandwiches, but they bring in the crowds for their baking, in particular for their cinnamon rolls – about 5″ x 5″ of sticky deliciousness. They are on the counter at 11:00 am, and in the summer, they are gone by 11:30.  We decided to split one. “Do you want butter with that?” (which apparently is considered a legitimate question).

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“Home cooking” is the way of the road here and sugar, fat and salt are restaurant mainstays – a cardiologist’s nightmare.  We popped down the road to Carol and Earl’s for a perch dinner, which began with a generous salad (or soup), followed by: a dinner plate piled with hand-cut fries, and topped with five pieces of battered perch and a cup of creamy coleslaw. Earl looked a bit crestfallen that we weren’t having pie.

Stephen couldn’t leave without at least diving in the water. It was 15 degrees out and I was wearing a hoodie, watching from the sidelines. Clark Bay swimmers – we’re throwing down the gauntlet!

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Winnipeg: so much more than mosquitoes

We haven’t had to deal with Winnipeg’s famous mosquitoes because we have been dealing with cold and rain instead. But they’re coming… and the city is ready. They will begin their fogging program soon – spraying vulnerable areas to try and keep the staggering numbers of skeeters under control. At that time, dogs and children are advised to remain inside – poison being spread for the greater good.

As well, trees are banded for cankerworms – the battle against nuisance insects is vigilant.

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Our weather, which started out in such promising fashion a week ago, has turned on us. We’ve been dogged with cold and rain and winds since we left Grasslands. Naturally we would prefer sunny and warm, but since we are a nation of weather-kvetchers, this feels right.

The last time we were in Winnipeg was 25 years ago, visiting dear friends who had moved here from Toronto. They rented a fabulous home on a leafy street, of which Winnipeg has no shortage (fabulous homes and leafy streets.) This time, we are staying on the 3rd floor of an old house in an Airbnb on Spence Street (an “emerging” neighbourhood, according to our host). It’s very cute and compact – Stephen describes it as having a “first apartment” feel. We spent a day walking around the nearby neighbourhoods and were struck by the variety of homes and the beauty of the treed boulevards and gardens. Winnipeggers are spoiled for choice.

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Winnipeg appears to have considerable wealth, judging by the number of very exclusive homes. We walked past this “gated” neighbourhood, flanked by stone pillars.

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A couple of blocks away, we headed up Wellington Crescent, one of Winnipeg’s “addresses.”

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Many homes looked like this one – imposing and stately.

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I loved this barn and silo construction – faithful to the prairie landscape, right down to the native grasses in front.

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In fact, much of Winnipeg shows really well. It has a bit of a reputation as “murder capital”, and it still feels edgy, but as for being in actual danger? I think Winnipeg’s rep may be more perception than fact.

We drove past the famous intersection of Portage and Main several times. From past references, I was sure we would find a desolate no-man’s land, populated by sketchy characters and pawnshops. (That can be found further north).  Portage and Main is ringed by banks and insurance buildings and is right in the heart of downtown.

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The Legislature Building is as resplendent as would be expected, including a floral tribute to the 2017 Canada Summer Games.

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We missed a lot of the Exchange District – due to the miserable weather we were unable to walk around much, but we did do a drive-by. The Exchange District is the historic centre of the grain exchange, and its 20-block area has over 150 heritage buildings. Home to theatres, shops, restaurants and condos, this is a very exciting neighbourhood that envelops history with modern-day.  We passed by two theatres that perfectly illustrate the feeling of this area – the old Pantages Theatre:

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…and the newer Centennial Concert Hall

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The VIA Railway Station is close by – we walked through and it reminded us of Union Station in Toronto.

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Unlike Toronto’s station, this was eerily quiet – the next train not for several hours, and almost no-one around. It gave us a chance to admire the tiled floors, the stone columns and the domed ceiling.

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We walked through to The Forks, which has been an aboriginal meeting place for over 6000 years. It is right at the confluence of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers and today has a market, shops, restaurants, performance venues and miles of parks and walking trails along the river. We checked it out the first day we arrived, when it was actually sunny and the place was packed.

The Provencher Bridge leads pedestrians over to St Boniface, the French part of Winnipeg, and the final burial spot of Louis Riel, the famed leader of the Red River Rebellion.  We walked across the bridge, then turned back again to The Forks – planning on visiting later. We never made it back – we just ran out of time.

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This was our first glimpse of the Canadian Museum of Human Rights.

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We stopped to watch this young man practicing parkour (the discipline of running up and around obstacles, often upside down, before landing.)  His impromptu parkour structures are part of a celebration circle, to honour the ancestors who gathered there centuries before.

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Aboriginal culture (and issues) are quite dominant in Winnipeg. Just behind this circle is  a very different circle – a memorial to Manitoba’s missing and murdered aboriginal women and girls.

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We walked by this arresting billboard – proclaiming outrage at the silence surrounding indigenous genocide. I don’t understand the symbolism and would love to find out if any of you have any ideas, or know the artist.

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Metis artist and activist Jaime Black began the REDress project in 2010, in which she hung installations of red dresses to begin the discussion of over why over 1200 murdered and missing aboriginal women and girls have received so little attention. She has had exhibits all over the country, with hundreds of red dresses donated to her art. One of her exhibits is on display in the staggering Canadian Museum of Human Rights.

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We spent four hours at this museum today, and it took every drop of energy we had to get through it. It is wrenching to see what we have done and continue to do to one another.  The notion that there is no “other”, that we are all equal, has been very slow to come. We did not walk away feeling we have made much progress.

This is a must-see museum – it has achieved greatness on all levels – from the architecture to the content within. Architect Antoine Predock designed a building that would literally and figuratively take one from darkness to light.

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The twists and turns of the ramps parallel the human journey. (You can also take the elevator, but it felt like a necessary part of the experience to climb the ramps.)

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Dealing with the question of human rights, the term generally refers “to the rights and freedoms we have simply because we are human”. It need not be more complicated, nor equivocal than that, but as we travelled through the floors, we understood that while the notion of human rights has been trammelled throughout history, it has not stopped.

Human rights touched on many areas, including Canadian indigenous perspectives, language rights, protecting rights, the Holocaust, breaking the silence, taking action, and inspiring change. Much of this was powerfully portrayed through art, interactive exhibits, videos and personal anecdotes.

Another important element of human rights is one’s willingness to speak up in the face of injustice. Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel said it most eloquently.

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Winnipeg is so many things – a hotbed of artistic creativity, a bedrock of history and a place of protest and activism that spawned the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919, which resulted in the labour movement. We could easily have stayed for another 2 or 3 full days – we’re leaving so much undiscovered.

 

 

 

Bison, prairie dogs and pronghorn antelope

“I feel like a cowboy”, said Fanny, a young Belgian who has been travelling for several months across Canada with her partner Jay. They think the prairies are “awesome” and in fact, love almost everything they’ve seen since arriving in Montreal eight months ago.  They are here because they heard great things about Canada and they wanted to open up and explore life before careers and family took over. Part of the attraction for them was our huge and varied landscape.

It is essential to get off the Trans-Canada Highway to see the best of the country. While some of the secondary roads are patchy and rough, others are well-maintained and practically empty. We sailed merrily along at 110 and 120 (and higher) for much of the time.

We were keen to visit Grasslands National Park in southern Saskatchewan to get up close to that deceptively passive terrain. Just look at this photo. Hidden in those hills and valleys are dozens of birds, rattlesnakes, bison, prairie dogs, Richardson ground squirrels, coyotes, and burrowing owls. You’d never know it, and that is the defining quality of the prairies – you need to get out of your car and travel on foot to appreciate what is there, right in front of your face.

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As we were heading toward Grasslands we got a sneak preview of the abundant animal life. We stopped by a marsh to view the hundreds of birds that were either in the water or flitting about stalks of grass. This area was just teeming with life –  so many native birds we had never seen. It was an astounding sight, but before we could attempt to take any photos we were driven back to our car by swarms of biting insects. We were actually swatting and running, like something out of a comic strip.  A serious bird-watcher or photographer might want bee-keeper style headgear and a bottle of Deet.

There are also many deer and antelope and I now have “Oh give me a home, where the buffalo roam” stuck in my head.  This little pronghorn antelope bounced across the road and stopped for a photo.

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The prairies are just like everything you’ve seen from photos.  Ribbon roads, railway trestles and fence posts figure prominently.

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So do grain elevators. Most town have one, right beside the railway tracks. Grain elevators, trains and the big sky –  iconic elements of the prairies.

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The fields are dotted with abandoned and crumbling  structures.  These weathered old homes aren’t going anywhere – at some point, the roof will cave in and no-one will even notice. They bear witness to a pioneer past.

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Saskatchewan is a province that constantly reminds you of the disproportionate person-to-land ratio. While the cities and larger towns prosper, a lot of small “towns” are actually crossroads – there are no stores, gas stations or hotels.  Success  is a tiny hamlet with a couple of dozen homes. The signpost is pocked with bullet-holes – target practice or frustration?

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Grasslands National Park is about 35 km. north of Montana, and Val Marie is the closest small town in Canada – again, about 35 km. to the campground. Our original plan was to stay one night in Val Marie to reorganize our car, power up our devices, buy some food and get set for 3 days of rustic (no showers) camping. It did not turn out that way. The one bed and breakfast (Convent Inn) was closed for the long weekend (?!?) and our other option, the Val Marie Hotel, was horrifying filthy. It was a shabby building with a Beverage Room Entrance, but we were willing to overlook the externals until we saw the shared bathroom. Off to the campground we went (minus groceries, since the grocery store also closed for Holiday Monday).

Our first sight of the campground saved our sagging spirits – this would be a great adventure. Our first night we sat in front of a campfire, watched the night sky and listened to coyotes howl.

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Grasslands is relatively new (4-5 years old), and infrastructure is still a work in progress. This campground has 24 sites, as well as 4 cabins and an overflow site, with spotlessly clean pit toilet buildings, potable water taps, dump pits for grey water and animal-proof garbage and recycle bins. The main building to the right is the Parks Canada office/wifi centre, and there are plans for showers at some point.

It is also populated with dozens of Richardson ground squirrels, who have an impressive system of tunnels. They seem willing to share their home with us and while they run and chase each other and pop in and out of their tunnels, they do not come close to people (or their dogs). They are also impressively car-smart.

There is an 80-km. Ecotour drive that runs the periphery of the park, providing a comprehensive and scenic overview of the lay of the land, as well as several lookout stations. We stopped at the black-tailed prairie dog colony. Grasslands is the only place in Canada where they exist in the wild.  They are often confused with ground squirrels, but these little characters are much larger and way more sociable. They bark and chat and chase each other, and have created a fascinating inter-connected community of big mounds and tunnels.

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And of course the big draw are the bison herds. They were brought into the park in 2006 from Elk Island National Park and today the herd stands at about 350. We were given a dangerous animals brochure (bison and rattlesnakes) and advised to remain at least a football field away from bison, particularly at this time of year when they are calving and more aggressive. These are majestic creatures – woolly and shaggy and huge.

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This one was right at the main gate, but we stayed in the car for photos – he was stomping and shaking his big head – clearly he was not on welcome committee detail.

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As for rattlesnakes – we had no luck with sightings. They advised us to wear boots and long pants tucked into socks, and we could have borrowed snake garters, but we ventured out and kept a close eye on the ground cover.

We headed out on an 11-km. trail, which was well marked and great for the hamstrings (described modestly as undulating prairie). No animal sightings on that hike, but lots of panoramic vistas.

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Very happy to be heading back to the barn – we had hiked out to the far range of hills and back.

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Unfortunately, the weather turned suddenly, as is often the case in the Prairies. We experienced significant howling winds on our last night, with our tent snapping and falling in on us – a long night and terrible sleep. We woke up to a changed forecast – really strong winds (up to 90 km.), followed by rain, so we reluctantly made the decision to leave.

On our way out of the park, we stopped to chat with a couple from Victoria who are also travelling across Canada, but doing it with a lot more comfort. They are pulling a bright yellow trailer emblazoned with Big Canadian Stuff and will be on the road until October. They have definitely made the case for having a warm, dry home-away-from-home, especially for travelling long distances through North America in three seasons.

We’re rethinking…

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We drove east on Hwy, 13, part of the historic Red Coat Trail. This is the trail taken by the North-West Mounted Police to bring law and order to the wild west; now indicated with distinctive route markers.

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We are hanging out for a couple of days in Weyburn, home of Tommy Douglas. We’re in  a Canalta hotel (a Western chain of hotels) and decided to stay an extra day to regroup.

This is a hotel that caters to work crews and once a week they leave out dinner for them. Last night it was cabbage rolls and potato salad. We rolled in with a filthy, bug-splattered car packed to the rafters with smoky camp gear. We hadn’t had showers for three days. Within minutes, we were checked in and sitting down to an unexpected and delicious meal. We were taken care of by very kind Prairie folks who made us want to stay a little longer. Another hidden charm –  the people. When Steve commented this morning how much he enjoyed the cabbage rolls the night before, they arrived over to our breakfast table with two plates of leftovers – “You can heat them up later.”

Breaking bad in the Badlands

Most of the people we’ve met so far in rural Alberta are just a tad different from their counterparts in B.C.  and I’m quite sure they are proud of that. Once you get out of the big cities and past hyper-touristed Banff, there is more than a touch of the wild west to be found.  In the short few days we have been in this province, we have seen this:

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And this, the Last Chance Saloon in Wayne, AB, right in the heart of the Badlands.
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After a long day of climbing hoodoos we stopped here for a beer and some local colour. Actually, everyone there was from somewhere else. Wayne’s population dwindled down to roughly 40 souls since the decline of coal mining in the 50s and the marketing of the Last Chance Saloon as a haunted hotel and inspired watering hole is their only stab at keeping the hamlet on the map.

We were joined by a couple who appeared to have begun drinking the day before; the man attempting to speak in whole sentences and the woman thinking she was. They invited us to join them at their trailer for perogies and beer, but we declined, thinking we’d never be heard from again.

I asked our server Erin about her tattoo, and was told a quite moving story. Her father passed away four years ago and she asked the funeral director to make a print of his hand on paper, which she then had tattooed on her upper arm. I tried to imagine how it would feel to lose a parent so young; perhaps this is her way of holding on to him.

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So back to our campground. It is run by a Harley-riding couple who look far more outlaw than they probably are, but still – I was afraid to ask them for a photo. As I’m writing this, there are about 10 big bikes around the campground – all friends of the owners.

And yet, on May 24 weekend, the campground is quiet, except for the people next door playing badminton. Sites are clean and well-cared-for, bathrooms and showers are spotless, there is even wifi throughout. We asked ahead of time about noise and were told that partiers are “thrown out.”  Adjusting my preconceived notions …

Our first dinner on our first night camping. It is so good to be back – we sleep like babies, wake up at 5:00 am to a cacophony of birdsong and everything tastes good. Love the evening campfire and watching little kids ride around on their bikes.

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I don’t want to miss telling you about our drive through the Rockies. It is something everyone should do at least once. The roads are beautifully engineered, even at the highest elevations. There are frequent pullouts for picnics, pit stops and photo ops. The scenery is so beautiful it looks like a painting. Mount Rundle, close to Banff:

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Wildlife is plentiful in this area and the highway was so dangerous to both the animals and the drivers that several years ago the province erected fencing and built overpasses (for the animals). It may have been ridiculed at one time, but it seems to have worked like a charm – we did not see so much as a dead squirrel.

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We couldn’t resist stopping in Banff. We lived there over 30 years ago and both our boys were born there. No question we have all changed a lot in that time, but Banff is unrecognizable from the rustic alpine town we knew and loved. Amazingly, the duplex we rented has not been torn down, although it is rather dilapidated looking. We lived on the top floor.

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Although Banff is in a National Park, there is little about it that speaks to nature. Masses of tourists pack streets that are filled with high-end shopping, souvenir shops and cheek-by-jowl hotels and it makes me sad.  Someone got the planning all wrong.

After leaving Banff, we arrived at our campsite just outside Drumheller around 5:00 pm.

This is the landscape we came for, the stunning slash in the Red Deer River Valley that is made up of box canyons, hoodoos, coulees and sparse vegetation. The badlands are spread out over a wide area – an area that exposed coal seams in the 1900s, as well as the fossilized remains of dinosaurs.

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After the coal disappeared, the area fell into decline until the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology opened and brought dinosaurs (and tourists) to the forefront. This renowned museum showcases one of the world’s largest collections of dinosaur skeletons with dynamic, interactive displays intended for all ages. It was fascinating  – we stayed for a few hours. The museum gave me fresh respect for the artistry and planning that is involved in  effective museum curation and display. Dozens of dioramas showed species of dinosaurs with painted backdrops.

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We watched a staff member demonstrate how  bones and fossils are prepared and the delicacy required to avoid damaging them.

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Off to the hoodoos we went!

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If there is anything more surreal than a field of 2-storey capped rock formations set against a Homer Simpson sky, I don’t know what it might be.  The hoodoos are fenced off from visitors, but the rest of the landscape is open. We climbed around the 70-million-years-old layers of sedimentary rock with dozens of excited kids who were zipping and leaping about on the rocks like small mountain goats. We were a little more sedate and after an hour or so we sat to appreciate the vista.

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Our view across the Red River.

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This creature met us on the way back to our car. At first we thought it was a rattlesnake, but discovered from our campground host that it was a bullsnake – similar in colouring, but not poisonous. It  was still a thrill to see it – about four feet long and menacing enough.

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Some more shots of the area – this one taken from Horseshoe Canyon, about 15 minutes outside Drumheller.  We climbed down to a number of the trails along the bottom of the valley. There were a few flowers in bloom, but very little vegetation. Amazingly, we saw several small cactus – how in the world do they survive the bitter cold and snow in the winter, I wonder.

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We were grateful to be here this time of year – our days reached about 25 degrees, which was comfortable for hiking. The valley is blistering in the summer – probably even in another month it would be too hot to stay down there for very long.

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One last shot of Horseshoe Canyon.

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We head out tomorrow in the direction of Grasslands National Park in Saskatchewan. See you again in a few days.

On the road again…

After a wonderful, whirlwind month visiting friends and family on Gabriola, Vancouver Island and Vancouver, our final destination was Kamloops to visit more family. This is a shot taken of the Kamloops valley; our last memory of  “home” before we hit the highway to drive east.

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Our original plan was to drive coast to coast to celebrate Canada’s 150th birthday. We wanted to visit as many National Parks as possible, since entrance fees are free this year (with a pass) in honour of that event and we have time on our side.

We drove across the country from Halifax twelve years ago, but that involved reluctantly leaving our youngest son behind, driving 8-10 hours a day for 5 days to meet the movers on the west coast (who were then two weeks late), anxiety over the unknowns of one new job (Stephen), and having to find a job (Ginny). We were moving to a small island of 4000 people after a lifetime of living in cities. Plus we were travelling with our cat, who remained annoyed the entire time. Our stress levels were through the roof and we remember very little of the landscape that blurred by our car window.

This time we have no pets, our sons are self-sufficient adults and we have allotted three-and-a-half months to see as much of the country as possible.

Our first reality check: we are about one month too early to visit the mountain parks.  Many of the upper trails are still snow-covered and the parking lots are closed to cars. It is quite cold at night for tent camping. There is SO much to see – we could easily devote three months just travelling through British Columbia and Alberta. We decided we will save those provinces for next summer and concentrate on all points east.

The road trip…  our three favourite words.   It is so exciting and energizing to watch the landscape unfold and the weather patterns shift. We left the rolling ranch country and desert landscape of Kamloops and soon were heading towards mountain peaks.

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Everything changes in the mountains. The air is clean and sweet, signs for wildlife start to appear and the creeks and rivers look cold and slightly unforgiving.

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We stopped at Craigellachie to see the site of The Last Spike – the joining of the east and west railway line, commemorated in this overwrought plaque:

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Just as we arrived, The Rocky Mountaineer pulled through, symbolically uniting east and west. We soon joined the hordes of photo-snapping German tourists, which felt like a good luck charm. If there are Germans we must be on holiday!

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Mountain roads are twisty, beautifully engineered and fun to drive. It’s never boring – every turn in the road brings a fresh adventure.
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We drove past a sign that said, “Road Closure from 2 pm to 5 pm” and thought it meant “single lane” or “slow going”. Imagine our surprise when we came to a complete halt at 3:00 pm and stayed put for another 2 hours. We were just 27 km. from our destination, Revelstoke. But, early in the trip and still in “go-with-the-flow” mode, we amused ourselves by going for walks, talking to other drivers and reading our books.  Soon enough, the work trucks started to file past us in the opposite direction and our wait was over.

We stayed in Revelstoke for two nights because we have fond memories of this town and wanted to revisit some of the trails we had hiked before.  In 2010, our son Alex Burr was one of 32 students chosen by the Parks Canada-sponsored “Canada’s Greatest Summer Job”, and spent that summer interviewing and taking videos in Revelstoke and Glacier National Park to celebrate the Park Canada’s 125th anniversary. We visited him for a few days in July, which meant the roads were clear to drive right up to the Meadows in the Sky Parkway (closed to us this time). We hiked and biked in town and drove out to other hiking spots, so this time around, we chose two areas we felt might be available. In fact, neither of them were officially open, (they open tomorrow), but we parked our car and with the tacit (you didn’t hear it from me) approval from one of the workers, we ventured in to the Skunk Cabbage Boardwalk Trail. I’m not sure if these jazzy red Adirondack (Muskoka?) chairs are part of this years celebrations, but they look shiny and new.

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The Skunk Cabbage Boardwalk Trail is delightful this time of year as the flowers are just coming out, so we were able to walk without being treated to their distinctive odiferous scent. The flowers attract bears and while there was evidence of recent visits we had no encounters. This area is also home to a huge number of migrating birds and we were serenaded all the way through.

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On to the Giant Cedars Boardwalk Trail, just a couple of kilometres down the road. We didn’t see any giant trees like we have seen in Cathedral Grove or the California Redwoods, but they were impressively large nonetheless, and we indulged in a half hour of “forest-bathing.”

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After lunch at the fabulous Modern Cafe back in Revelstoke, we drove to Begbie Falls for a 6-km. round-trip hike. The bridge over the Columbia River enroute to Begbie.

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This area is a hot spot for mountain biking as well as hiking and there were a number of challenging bike trails with ominous signs,” Extremely difficult. Use at your own risk.”

We were happy to plod along on the road, our (my) only concern the cougar or grizzly that might be lying in wait.

We walked out of the forest into a clearing to be treated to a view of the ski hills that are slowly shedding their snow cover.

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The path to the falls is steep but well-maintained and the view was worth the scramble down. The falls are much bigger than they look in this photo.

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The town of Revelstoke is just on the brink. It will never become Banff and the locals are anxious to keep it that way. They want to balance progress and economic prosperity with sustainable growth and retention of character. The older homes and civic buildings are beautifully maintained and the shops and cafes downtown have character and quality. We were here just before the season begins; these streets will soon be packed.

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As we travel across the country, we will camp, stay with friends and family and try to find affordable hotels/hostels that are not party-central. When we read about The Cube Hotel in Revelstoke we  thought we would give it a try. If only all hostels were like this one.

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This old warehouse was bought by owner Louis-Marc Simard and his partner and completed gutted.  Spotlessly clean and decorated with original art, the lobby and communal areas are inviting, comfortable and fully equipped. A full, delicious hot breakfast is included. Our room – comfy bed, sink and toilet in the room, immaculate showers down the hall, waffle-weave dressing gowns, flat-screen TV and decent reading lights. All this for $68 a night.

We could easily stay another day or two in Revelstoke. As I write this, I am listening to a train wind its way through town, the sound of the wheels on the tracks echoing through the valley. If I had to choose between living by the ocean or right in the mountains, it would be difficult.

We’re heading for Drumheller and the badlands tomorrow – we’ll be there for a few days of hiking and hoodoos. And camping – an activity I thought I had left behind.

My friend Nicola sent me this graffiti she snapped on a hike in Mexico. She thought we might relate.

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More Hanoi – same-same but different

“Same-same but different” is a phrase that is ubiquitous in SE Asia, and its meanings vary depending upon the speaker. A vendor trying to convince you that the North Face jacket is not a fake, or a chef trying to explain the taste of a tropical fruit you can’t find at home – same-same.

In my case, same-same but different means this posting about Hanoi will be similar to the last one – more stories and images about people and places that have touched our hearts. Hanoi is a city we can’t get enough of and yet it is so exhausting and all-consuming we are finally ready to head home.

The next two photos tell a sad story – legions of young and middle-aged men who seem to have little to do. We see them gathering in groups like this or sitting on their motorbikes, checking their phones. What becomes of a country that is emerging into a new level of prosperity if so many are left behind?

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This game is popular – we see it on street corners and in parks, being played by men at all hours of the day. We noticed money exchanging hands with this game.

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These little kids are Vietnam’s hope for the future.  Rock, paper, scissors is apparently an international favourite.

IMG_1241A young man playing the violin in the park by the lake. There are not a lot of buskers, which we found surprising.

IMG_0789The dancers, on the other hand, are out most nights. There are traditional dances and small performances and then there is the dance-off. It seems to be open to anyone who wants to get up and twirl around. The kids were certainly up for it, and there were a few couples who appear to have had some practice. Smiling not allowed.

The lake is quite close to our hotel and is a magnet for night-time entertainment. There is a gorgeous restaurant that offers outdoor lakeside seating, and as is the strange case of so many restaurants of its ilk, it has a great view and mediocre Western food – soggy pizza and limp fries. We snagged one of the front row seats and ordered (expensive warmish) beer.

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Speaking of food, we had an exceptional meal at Don’s Bistro, situated on West Lake, a much larger lake just north of the Old Quarter. Don is an expat chef who happens to be a dear friend of a friend, and so we popped by for lunch, a visit and a bike ride round the lake.  Don’s Bistro has been around for a number of years and is the go-to place for locals and tourists alike when they want a bit of a treat meal, as it overlooks the lake, has stunning decor, flawless service and is still very affordable.  As is often the case when I have beautiful food put in front of me, I get so excited I forget to take photos. I did remember to take a shot of our desserts.

Passionfruit creme brûlée ( served in scoured-out passionfruit halves), and vanilla bean ice-cream in chocolate cup.

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After lunch, we borrowed two of Don’s vintage Japanese postman bikes and rode around the lake – about 17 km.  The first part of the ride was through ex-pat neighbourhoods and nicer homes. This is one of the few places in Hanoi you can ride a bicycle and not encounter much traffic.

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And now for some random shots of buildings. There are many really gorgeous buildings in Hanoi, but they are often partially blocked by high fences. I was able to take several unobstructed shots of very interesting buildings and homes in Hanoi, and initially they will appear to be shabby, but they are the heart of the city.

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This is an example of a Vietnamese and a French colonial roofline. The French (on the right) has high windows and carved embellishments. The Vietnamese has a low roof and tiny window. Apparently, this style developed because citizens were not allowed to look at the King when he passed by, so they built these tiny windows so they could sneak a peek without being detected.

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Many buildings are narrow and tall – built that way to avoid paying higher taxes (smaller footprint); resulting in some fanciful structures. We’re wondering – one flat to a floor? Two? I would love to go on a house tour in Hanoi, if there are such things. As is the case with so many densely populated cities, so much is hidden from sight and drab doors open up to reveal surprising beauty.

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Not a lot surprising beauty here, I wouldn’t think.

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A banyan tree, common to SE Asia, among other countries. So beautiful.

IMG_1267 We took a walking tour of the Old Quarter with two students who were practicing their English. The Old Quarter began as the merchant area (still is), with 36 guilds. Over time, the guilds have changed, but the streets are still representative of certain trades and services, which makes shopping very practical.

On Tin Street, our guides told us about the furnace-type objects sitting on the ground. They are used to burn fake money to send to their deceased loved ones. This will help them out in the afterlife.

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The students were very sweet and tried very hard, but English was still as struggle for them. It didn’t matter – they pointed out a number of things we wouldn’t have known about, including the herbal medicine street. It used to be run by Chinese, but when they fled after the war, the Vietnamese took over. Fascinating, although I could not find anyone who spoke English, so buying a big bag of herbs would be out of the question.

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The fruit vendors ride around on bicycles and carve pineapple right in front of you. A whole pineapple for just over a dollar,  and carved in a spiral in about a minute.

Pay close attention to the size of this street – it has to do with the next photo.

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Let’s pretend you own a Bentley. You know, the car so exclusive it goes by one initial. If you owned a Bentley, would you honestly drive it through the tiny streets of The Old Quarter, with hundreds of motorbikes, bicycles, cars, delivery trucks and grubby tourists brushing by it? Well, if you had a Bentley it probably comes with a driver, but still… So you can imagine our surprise when we turned a corner and came upon this sight.
At first we thought, “must be a knock-off”. I don’t think so – even the Vietnamese aren’t this talented. So why is a Bentley parked in the Old Quarter? Another imponderable.

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Still in the Old Quarter, we came upon this funny little bar – Hang-Over. Aptly named, I’m sure, as this is the ‘hood for 50 cent beer, but the mother in me reacted right away. “Young people, do not get a tattoo or piercing in a bar called Hang-Over. That approach to over-drinking may extend to the tattoo “artist” and you’ll be sorry.”

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Weddings here can be elaborate affairs that require pre-wedding photos, well in advance of the actual date. Today, we saw not one, but two pre-weddings – one of them photo-bombed by a little kid on a bike.

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Our trip is over. So many more stories and photos left on the cutting-room floor, but it is time to go now. At least for the next few weeks. We’re flying out tomorrow, and will spend the next five or six weeks in B.C.,  seeing dear family and friends again. After that, we’re on the road again – driving across the country in search of big Canadian 150th birthday stories, and hoping that not every campsite and motel room has already been booked. I’m sure we’re not the only ones with the same idea.

We’ll see you back on the blog mid-May, and hopefully see many of you face-to-face over the next several months.

Thank you so much for coming along with us, and for your emails and blog comments. It meant the world to us. See you soon!

How to do nothing in Hanoi

By the time we leave for Canada on April 16, we will have spent a total of 10 days in Hanoi, interrupted by two trips away – one to Halong Bay and one to Sapa. We are halfway through our final week and the best advice we received was from a Travelfish article called, “Do nothing and see the best of Hanoi.”

Of all the places we have visited over the past few months, Hanoi is one of our top contenders for “most favourite.” Parts of the city are 1000 years old. The streets are narrow and chaotic, with alleyways leading to what? Opium dens? Are there even such things as opium dens any more? Hanoi feels slightly seedy and illicit in parts – we may not partake, but it’s fun to know it’s there.

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We have been to a few museums, but we think you’ve had enough of the guided tours. We know we have – we want to stick to the street theatre.

In Hanoi, the action is all in the street. Most people live in small places, so the sidewalks and parks become an extension of their homes. We’re close to Hoan Kiem Lake; a city treasure that is encircled by trees, gardens and benches. If I was so inclined, I would get up at 6:00 am to join the tai chi exercises on the lake, but I’m not, to we have enjoyed our afternoon and evening strolls and people-watching instead.

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It is very common to see people of all ages wearing pyjamas at all hours of the day and night. Women wear loose two-piece outfits, usually in a small floral print. They may call them something else, but they’re jammies.  The older gents can’t be bothered to pretend.

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You don’t often see Asian men with long white hair. Cell phones, on the other hand, are everywhere. The poorest vendor will be texting while waiting for business.

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No need to be stuck away in the kitchen while everyone else is having a good time.

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Also a common sight – a tiny matriarch guarding her turf. This woman was barking out stern instructions to a young man trying to park his scooter. He listened.

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Why not make a joyful noise at 9:30 in the morning? Karaoke rules in Vietnam – we’ve often run across wannabe singers in stores and markets.

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Dogs rule in Vietnam as well. Most of the cats we’ve seen look starved and matted, but some of the dogs live at least as well as their owners. They ride on scooters, they eat yummy leftovers and they get their hair done.

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There is no shyness around private ablutions and personal grooming right on the street. We’ve seen many men peeing, small children squatting down in parks, and our favourite – the public cleaning of  teeth with toothpicks. I think it gives the men something to do – sit on a park bench for hours and pick their teeth, punctuated by spitting on the ground.

Picking lice out of hair is another thing we often see – one woman bent over another woman’s head, carefully picking through with tweezers. It makes sense – quarters are cramped, buildings are old, it is hot and humid, and bugs thrive.

With few exceptions, the Vietnamese people have lovely feet. Their heels are smooth, their toes are uniform and their nails are well-tended.

A travelling pedicurist, complete with a small fan for the customer’s comfort.

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If you were walking down the street, and suddenly realized your hair needed a trim, you’d be in luck. There are plenty of barbershops and hair salons, but you have to admire the resourcefulness of anyone who sets up a chair and mirror on the sidewalk. (And the bravery of their clients.)

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Shopping in Hanoi is mind-blowing. There are day markets, night markets and street vendors. There are gift shops and fake North Face stores by the hundreds. Luxury boutiques showcase tiny perfect dresses in their windows.

Even the vendors tend to specialize. If you want feather dusters, this lady has you covered.

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The Old Quarter in Hanoi has a section called “36 Streets” – a carry-over from the old guild days where specific trades and crafts had designated streets. You can go to the shoe street, the silk street, the basket street, etc. – a very logical shopping process. Or, you can come across a business that mixes it up a bit. This men’s clothing store also sells rice by the pound.
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The war may be over, but you never know when a hankering for camo will strike.  Don’t- mess-around gear, or fun outfits for the whole family – your choice.

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We stumbled upon a mannequin street. At least a dozen stores devoted to the sale of mannequins, which prompted us to wonder about the business plan of setting up such a shop. How many mannequins does one need to sell to pay the rent, and what is the demand?

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It’s not all low-brow fun though. We passed by a very fancy white and gold shopping centre, complete with uniformed doormen, shiny tile floors and  elegant brass trimmings.

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Home to the likes of Louis Vuitton, Ferragamo and Cartier, this was a look-don’t-touch excursion for us. We’re pretty sure these precious items are not knock-offs. The mall was almost empty, but possibly 8:30 pm on a Monday is not the optimum time to shop for a $2,000 handbag.

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It was a pleasant change to escape the traffic and heat and stroll through air-conditioned luxury for a few minutes, and I did spritz my wrist with j’adore on the way out.

Hanoi is also all about the food and street food is everywhere. A lot of the typical Vietnamese eating happens on tiny plastic stools on the sidewalks.  There is usually just one selection, so you squat down and eat what’s put in front of you. You will also need to change your attitude about hygienic conditions, but it’s best to stick to places that are crowded.

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On the other hand, you want to keep a few standards – what works for a Vietnamese tummy might not work for you.We would not eat anything that came out of this little hole-in-the-wall. It’s probably fine, but I can’t help but wonder where the rats are. Btw, I saw my first city rat last night – running down the lane leading to our hotel. I discovered a talent for high jumping I never knew I possessed.

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Last September, Anthony Bourdain took President Obama out for dinner in Hanoi to one of his favourite no-frills restaurants – Bun Cha Huong Lien. By all accounts, the locals were beside themselves. Obama is a hero to many Vietnamese and the fact that he sat on a plastic chair and slurped soup in a working-class neighbourhood joint was beyond.

Naturally, we made the pilgrimage. This is a place that could best be described as “modest.” See the four items pictured on their sign? That’s the menu. The restaurant was well-known before for their bun cha – the Hanoi speciality of fragrant broth, slivers of tender grilled pork, tiny seasoned pork patties, and noodles, served with a heaping plate of buttery lettuce and fresh herbs. But Barack and Bourdain have made them famous and now they’re packed every night.

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This is not date night – service is brusque, turnover is quick, the tables are sticky and the floor is dirty. Walls are unadorned except for a few photos of Obama.  In less than an hour we had finished our dinner of bun cha, a skewer of grilled meat and a couple of seafood rolls.  The food was outstanding and set us back $10, including two beers.

“I’ll have what Obama had” – no doubt the first time the girls heard that from a tourist.

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Banh Mi is another Vietnamese staple, and there are a number of variations. This one was a baguette served warm and crusty, spread with rich pate, then filled with thinly sliced grilled pork, an egg omelet, cilantro, cucumber, shredded carrots, pickles, tomatoes, lettuce and chili sauce. Washed down with icy beer.

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Hanoi  coffee culture is a huge deal – cafes  are on every corner and four to a street. They all have their own atmosphere, but what they have in common is exceptional coffee.

Coffee drips from a metal press into a small cup – it takes about 2 or 3 minutes, but is worth the wait. Vietnamese coffee (ca phe sua da)  is served cold, in a glass filled with ice, a 1/2 inch layer of condensed milk and topped with strong coffee – highly addictive. Neither of us ever take sugar in our coffee – this has changed everything.

Hanoi has a few other coffee specialities – coffee with whipped egg white on top (like drinking creme brûlée), coffee with frozen yogurt on top, and my new favourite – coconut coffee. Coffee with condensed milk and coconut milk mixed into a slushy on top. Oh, you have no idea how delicious that is – coffee and dessert rolled into one.

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I thought I would leave you with something sweet! I will get another quick blog posting out to you in a couple of days. There are so many more images and small stories to tell.