Warm Canadian hospitality

The world is getting smaller.

With travel relatively cheap these days (how else could we afford to travel half-way across the world every year?) and the internet making communication so effortless, we found ourselves in Toronto, Canada, being collected by my cyber-friend, Denise.

Feeling like old friends through our association on Facebook and Words with Friends, this was our first face-to-face meeting, and we easily chattered away the 2-and-a-half-hours to her lovely home in the Beaver Valley.

Cyber friends meet

Much fun and laughter ensued over the next few days, meeting new friends…

Ontario hospitality

…cheering on the Maple Leafs ice hockey team, experiencing the outdoor hot tub on a chilly night, sightseeing in Beaver Valley and beyond – we certainly experienced the warmth of Canadian hospitality, and the beauty of the Valley.

Eugenia Falls put on a good display for us.

Eugenia Falls

Our big day out in Collingwood was another highlight, starting with lunch at Northwinds Brewhouse.

Beer is salad

Their relaxed and friendly service was appreciated and the mac and cheese was astoundingly good! Not to mention the beer and cider hybrid.

Northwinds

Next stop was Collingwood Olive Oil Co for tastings of olive oils and balsamic vinegars.

Olive Oil Co

It was an eye opener – or should I say, a taste-bud opener. The peppery aftertaste of the oils; the sweetness of the balsamics – some of them good enough to drink! We bought 2 different bottles which they kindly double-sealed for a safe journey home in our luggage.

Balsamic tasting

About 8kms west of Collingwood, at the quaint Blue Mountain Village (a ski village by the same designers as Whistler Village) we stopped at BeaverTails for a freshly made pastry, resembling, of course, a beaver’s tail.

Beavertail

The light, thin pastry was topped with chocolate and icing sugar – super sweet and, shared between four of us, made a good serving size.

As if there hadn’t already been enough eating and drinking over the course of our visit, we also went beer tasting. Collingwood’s history of shipbuilding includes the fascinating side-launching of new ships (which you can check out on YouTube) – hence the name:  Side Launch Brewing Co.

Side Launch Brewery

We’ll drink to that!

You know, we had such a great time in Ontario, it almost made us want to move there!

Beautiful Beaver Valley

(Almost!)

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Toronto from top to bottom

Arriving at Union Station, Toronto, Canada, it took us a while to spot the red TTC (Toronto Transit Commission) subway sign.

Toronto Transit Commission

Then we were taken by surprise that we had to buy our tickets with cash – fortunately having just enough coin in our pockets to get us out of trouble.

Coming up from Dundas subway station, we lost our bearings and took a wrong turn (or two!) but eventually found our way to the Grand Hotel and Suites.

The room was lovely and seemed so big after our little cabin on the train where we had spent the last 4 days travelling across from Vancouver.

Rather grand

Located in Jarvis Street, the Grand Hotel is out of the main centre of Toronto, but still easily walkable to everything, once we didn’t have luggage to worry about – and had a tourist map in hand!

Our view of Toronto

And we came up with this little impromptu walking tour:

Headed through St James Park…

St James Cathedral Toronto

(right across from St. Lawrence Hall, where we returned the next day to check out the fresh food market.)

Then down past the Gooderham Building, on Wellington St E,

Gooderham Building

(don’t miss the back)

The back of Gooderham Building

keep going – the end is in sight…

Walking to the CN Tower

pass Union Station on the way to the icon of Toronto…

Union Station Toronto

the CN Tower – which (according to Wikipedia) is the tallest free-standing structure in the Western Hemisphere.

I had my reservations about going to their 360 revolving restaurant, suspecting it was just a tourist-trap, but at $36 each just to go up to the viewing deck, it was really only twice the price to have dinner there as well, and enjoy the slowly changing view of Toronto, 350m below, over the duration of the meal.

Toronto from the CN Tower

Their wines were pricey, but the food was superb. High quality, with thoughtful flavour combinations and careful presentation. (We can recommend the pork for main, and the chocolate delice for dessert.)

360 Restaurant CN Tower

Our timing was perfect, having done one complete rotation by the time we finished, just as the sun was setting.

We headed down one level to experience standing on the glass floor – gazing down 342 metres felt surreal.

Looking down

Out on the viewing platform it was cold and windy, and the mesh safety screen a photo-spoiler, so down one more level where we could walk around taking photos in comfort, to our hearts’ content, as the sky darkened and the city lights twinkled.

Night view from CN Tower

In stark contrast, the next morning we headed underground, meandering through the PATH:  a maze of shops, cafes, and services – connecting major buildings in the city, protected from the elements.

Down to the PATH

Just like a never-ending Westfield – and (I’m not kidding) with a Starbucks at every turn!

Underground shopping

Back up on street level, we made our way towards the historic Distillery District:  13 acres of restored heritage buildings which were once the Gooderham and Worts distillery, now housing shops, eateries and yes, even breweries.

The historic Distillery District

We chose Mill St Brewery for lunch, which had great ambiance and many original features. The service was great – a tasting of beer before we ordered the same, and when I mentioned the chicken wings were a little dry, not only did they replace them, but didn’t charge for them either. Now that’s what I call service!

Mill St Brewery

Thank you Toronto! It wasn’t our first visit, and I’m sure it won’t be our last.

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4,500 kms of Canadian beauty

Last Easter, after a fabulous week up at Whistler, BC, Canada, it was time to head off on our next adventure, catching our pre-booked coach for the scenic ride back down the mountain to Vancouver.

Scenic drive form Whistler to Vancouver

The coach drop-off location at Burrard train station, directly behind the Hyatt, was convenient for us to catch a train to Main St/Science World station, across the road from Pacific Central station where we could check in our luggage for our 4-night 4,500km train journey across to Toronto. (Relieved that our 1 small suitcase, rather than 2 smaller bags as per the allowance guide, was accepted as cabin baggage.)

Pacific Central Station Vancouver

Night fell as the train crept out of the city, and we enjoyed a welcome drink and canapes in the bubble-roofed viewing carriage before heading back to our private sleeper cabin (2 movable armchairs by day, and 2 bunk beds by night with basin and separate toilet, and the shared shower literally 5 steps away) and I easily fell asleep to the rocking and rumbling of the train, now travelling at speed.

Excited to see the first views of the morning, we were up early – wandering down to the dining car for an early breakfast at 6.30am (served right through until 9am).

Breakfast anyone?

Each meal for the trip, randomly seated with other passengers to enjoy good food and entertaining company along with the ever-changing scenery. All our meals, (though no alcohol – bar the welcome drinks), were included in our fare.

04. Dining car on The Canadian

It was lovely to see the train snaking its way around lakes and rivers, mountains, and forests…

Snaking our way across Canada

spending some of each day in the viewing carriage, or retiring to the privacy of our cabin, taking advantage of a rare chance to relax and read.

The viewing carriage

Waiting for freight trains to pass is a common occurrence which seriously interferes with keeping to the timetable – and on such a long journey, arrival within 10 hours is still considered “on time”!

Passing freight train

Anticipation built before the slow ride past Pyramid Falls.

08. Pyramid Falls

Spectacular snow-capped mountains and rivers followed – although Mount Robson (the highest mountain in the Rockies) stubbonly hid behind cloud cover.

Clouds obscured our view of Mt Robson

Leaving British Columbia, we entered Alberta. A 45-minute stop at Jasper (the longest stop of the trip) allowed for a good half hour to explore, and a welcome chance to stretch our legs.

Jasper, Canada

We travelled across the prairies on Day Two…

Little house on the prairie

and were surprised at the amount of snow – we braved only a few minutes out in the freezing air at Melville station, Saskatchewan – and joked about being in a snow dome in the viewing car.

The highlight of the evening was crossing an impressive wooden trestle bridge – you need to be ready (with a steady hand) at the back of the lounge car to capture a photo as the track curves around.

Opening our blind on Day Three, the train was stationary, and we were greeted with a picture-postcard scene of freshly snow-covered trees.

Pretty as a picture

And for the next few hours, the magical beauty of icy lakes and snow-covered forests.

Icy lakes

Through Manitoba and then into Ontario (and their time-zone changes), we now travelled through thickly wooded areas…

Straight through the woods

with the occasional lake or river – some still iced over, yet only patches of snow left on the ground.

Ever changing scenery

We noticed the new cabin crew was not as lively as the first, but the animated and engaging bar staff made up for them!

Enjoying a drink

Our final morning, with the sun shining brightly, the landscape continued to change: from lakes and lake houses to farmland; then from remote unspoilt countryside to signs of “civilisation”.

Lake house

Our scheduled arrival time was long gone, and from the chatter on the train, not everyone was prepared for such a delay. Snacks were served, then a light lunch, as time continued to march on.

After our stop-start journey, we eventually pulled into Union Station, Toronto, around 3.30pm – a mere 6 hours behind schedule, but all smiles after our cross-Canadian adventure.

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A perfect day in Pemberton

As much fun as it is to go to well-known places and cross tourist icons off your bucket list, it’s equally good to venture to a place you have never heard of before.

So, on recommendation from the tourist office in Whistler, British Colombia, Canada, we took a Greyhound bus from there up to the village of Pemberton, nestled at the base of Mt Currie.

Pemberton

It was a good call. Fabulous scenery on the drive up (including a totally frozen lake)…

Frozen lake on the way to Pemberton

and the drop off point was ideal for taking a walk around One Mile Lake.

This way

We opted for the easy hike – a track by the forest around one side of the lake…

By the forest

and a boardwalk across the water on the other.

On the boardwalk

Mountains, water and forest – just perfect (except perhaps for the swarm of tiny insects hovering over the water at one reedy spot).

Walking around One Mile Lake

Many a photo was taken.

Trees water and mountains

Tall tree

One Mile Lake

Then we headed into the town centre – a bit of a trudge really, rather tired by now (and surprisingly warm) from our little hike. The view of the surrounding mountains was truly spectacular and made it well worth the effort.

Pemberton

One of the locals told us we were very lucky because it had been raining and cloud-covered earlier in the day. Fresh snow glistening in the sunshine – our photos hardly give it justice. How could you ever tire of that view?

Suitably hungry, we went to “Grimms” – a home-style country café – for a humble lunch of soup and sandwich, followed by a delicious cherry pie.

Cherry Pie at Grimms

Of course we had to check out the old-style General Store – they sell “everything”!

Pemberton General Store

Homeward bound on the normal BC bus… and you get what you pay for ($9 for the 2 of us compared to almost $20 on the Greyhound bus)… the beautiful views were marred by the grubby windows, and the cameras were put aside.

We could have easily spent more time up there, and (time permitting) ventured even further north.

Thumbs up from us to Pemberton!

Thumbs up to Pemberton

 

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On top of the world

Owning a week of timeshare is one way we keep our travel costs down and we were thrilled to secure a week at Whiski Jack, Whistler, Canada, in April.

We took a coach transfer from Vancouver up to Whistler where we had to check in at their office in Creekside, which was no problem when they organised a taxi at their expense to take us (plus our luggage and a few groceries) straight to our mountain-side unit.

Whiski Jack Resorts checkin

We loved the wooded view from the balcony of our cozy unit, with a glimpse of the ski run in the distance.

View from our unit

It was fun to take the walking trail back down to Creekside…

Trail to Creekside ski lift

although we weren’t entirely sure if we went the right way, we eventually found our way across a bridge and down by the ski slope. We were surprised at how much snow there still was at what we thought would be the end of the season.

Creekside ski run

Creekside was rather sleepy (and no sightseers allowed on that ski lift) but there were shops and eateries, handy to have close by, and we enjoyed a fabulous meal at Dusty’s.

Creekside

It was just a short ride on the Number 1 bus to the pretty Whistler Village – the main hub of activity – especially with the World Ski and Snowboard festival on, and lots of special events happening daily. (We bought a batch of bus tickets at the Tourist information centre for a small saving and for the convenience of not having to have the exact fare each ride.)

Whistler Village

There’s a funny story as to why we wanted to be in Whistler at that particular time of year… Tony’s daughter was working in Whistler (like many Aussies – 75% of the casual workforce we heard!), and as she was turning 21 it seemed like a good idea to centre our trip around her special day… except that, by the time we booked our tickets, she had flown the coop back to warmer climates!

Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory

Nevermind, we weren’t complaining – we probably would never have made the trip to Whistler otherwise, and we are so glad we did!

The absolute highlight of the trip was our sightseeing gondola ride up Whistler mountain…

Gondola ride up Whistler Mountain

and across to Blackcomb on the Peak-to-Peak.

Peak to Peak from Whstler to Blackcomb

Truly spectacular views.

On top of the world

It took our breath away.

On Blackcomb

We enjoyed some time on each peak, on this glorious day, stopping for some sustenance at the lodge, before taking the return journey, still in awe of the views.

Peak to Peak

Spectacular!

Whistler mountain views

We really did feel on top of the world.

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Visiting Vancouver

We might be seasoned travelers but perhaps that makes us too relaxed at times, and the night before flying to Canada, attempting to check-in on-line, we discovered that we needed visas! Oops. Oh well, easily fixed. What would we do without the internet?

The Air New Zealand flights from Melbourne to Vancouver (via Auckland) passed pleasantly with meals, movies, and a perhaps little too much New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc (my favourite drop).

After 17 hours of flying did our luggage feel this heavy?

Heavy luggage Vancouver Airport

We bought a Compass day pass at Vancouver airport train station, giving us unlimited travel on the Skytrain (airport to city), the ferry between Waterfront and Lonsdale, as well as the local buses. Good value.

Ferry ride Vancouver

It was just a short walk for us from the Lonsdale ferry terminal to the Pinnacle Pier Hotel in North Vancouver.

Lonsdale Quay

A lovely place to stay, and not far from the Lonsdale Quay Market.

Pinnacle Pier Hotel

Undeterred by the lateness of the hour, nor by the Melbournesque weather (overcast and drizzly) we headed back across on the ferry into Vancouver for a little evening exploration.

Vancouver skyline

In honour of this 3-continent round-the-world trip, taking in Canada, France and Japan, we sought out the “Japadog” street vendor. The Kurobuta Terimayo was fresh and light, but when all’s said and done, it’s just a hotdog with Japanese mayo and seaweed.

Japadog

From there we headed into the Gastown historic area and stumbled upon the fascinating Steam Clock.

Steam clock

I loved the decorative street lamps of Gastown…

Time is precious Gastown

but didn’t appreciate the brazen beggars who weren’t satisfied with just a dollar or two.

Gastown

There were plenty of eateries to choose from in this popular district. The Old Spaghetti Factory looked interesting, and we enjoyed the decor and ambience as we sat at the bar waiting for a table. The cocktails were well priced (but remember to allow for taxes and tips) and took the edge off our appetites, so we ditched the idea of a late-night dinner in favour of a good night’s sleep.

The Old Spaghetti Factory

After an early workout in the well-equipped gym, we enjoyed our breakfast downstairs. Beware: Pacific Northwest smoked salmon has the texture of smoked trout but those potatoes had a delicious kick!

Eggs benedict

We took the local bus from our hotel for an unguided tour through North Vancouver, over Lion’s Gate Bridge (one of the longest bridges in Canada) and through the secretive woods of Stanley Park before alighting at the Hyatt Regency Vancouver, where we would catch our coach transfer up to Whistler later that day. The bus ride took longer than anticipated and squashed Tony’s dreams of shopping at the market on Granville Island for supplies for the week, particularly when we were not able to leave our luggage at the Hyatt unattended. Something we really should have checked!

Sandwiched between our very enjoyable week up at Whistler and our fabulous train trip across to Toronto (more on all that later!) we scored a second half-day sightseeing in Vancouver. This time, leaving our luggage at Pacific Central Station, we hopped on a bus which conveniently took us directly to Stanley Park: my Number 1 “must do in Vancouver.”

We spent an hour or two there, walking around the marina, amongst pretty cherry blossoms in the otherwise dormant gardens…

Stanley Park

through quiet wooded areas…

Stanley Park

and down to the Seawall.

Burrard Inlet from Stanley Park

You could spend days there and not see it all!

Bussing it back downtown, we had dinner at SteamWorks Brewing Co (just by Waterfront station) and couldn’t fault the atmosphere, view, service, and food. Starting with a house-brewed beer, I ordered Fish Tacos for a light option, but it was both generous and delicious: two flavor-packed tortillas plus yam (sweet potato) fries – and I just had to eat it all!

Steamworks

It was a great way to finish off our two-part visit to Vancouver. I’m sure we’ll be back.

 

 

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Completing the loop

Last year, we drove from our house in central France, up to Belgium and across to Germany before embarking on our “big day” travelling homeward-bound across 3 countries (I just love that about Europe!) to complete our 3000km “loop.”

We left Stadtkyll, Germany, and arrived in Luxembourg City, Luxembourg, just an hour later – and soon stumbled upon a chocolate shop (Chocolate House – Nathalie Benn) in a perfect location, directly opposite the Grand Ducal Palace.

We sat back, watching the guard marching up and back with endless precision, while we languidly stirred our “Hotchocspoon” into the hot milk, topping it with homemade marshmallow and chantilly cream, alongside an equally decadent chocolate cake.

Suitably refreshed, we made our way to the Chemin de la Corniche and tried to capture the magnificence of what has been called “the most beautiful balcony of Europe.”

For a small fee, we explored some of the 10 miles of remaining defence tunnels carved into the rocky cliffs, called the Casements du Bock. Dating back as far back as 1644, they were more recently used as shelters during World War II. I wonder how many people have traipsed these hand-carved tunnels?

We left Luxembourg and were shortly back in our beloved France, arriving in Nancy for a late lunch – somehow surprised that it’s such a big city. We were blown away by Place Stanislas – the recently restored 18th century plaza in front of the imposing town hall.

Amazing gilted iron gates and a huge archway entrance (“Arc Héré”) with fascinating buildings and enticing cafes on every side.

Quiche Lorraine anyone?

Unfortunately the perfect weather waned as we neared Dijon and we drove straight into a thunderstorm.

It was pelting down by the time we arrived at Hotel Le Jarquemart, located in the historic area of Dijon.

Having accidentally given our room to someone else with a similar name, they upgraded us to a larger room and I was proud of myself for sorting that out entirely in French – appreciating being back in a country where I have at least a partial understanding of the language.

When the rain eased off we wandered off to buy a baguette and of course a treat as well. Who can resist French patisserie?

Next morning, after a decent buffet breakfast at the hotel, we spent the morning having a better look around this gorgeous historic area.

Off to find the market, we headed the wrong direction and found ourselves at Place de La Liberation instead – but we’re glad we did!

Perhaps if we had followed the designated tourist walk, marked by owl signs, we wouldn’t have got lost at all? But it’s something we are quite used to!

The market was impressive, with a variety of goods outside and plenty of fresh produce inside, of course featuring locally made Dijon mustards.

Homeward bound, we stopped for lunch and stretched our legs at a little town called Dompierre-sur-Besbre.

And then, finally, home sweet home for some down-time… for a few weeks anyway. More adventures always await us!

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A week in western Germany

Last year, during our 3000 km, 11-day driving trip, we spent a week based in a timeshare resort (Landal Wirfttal) in Stadtkyll, Germany, just over the Belgium border.

It was our second visit to Germany, but the first time in a rural area, and I was caught off-guard when checking in – I don’t think I have ever been so completely language-less on our travels before. Nevertheless, pointing and nodding sufficed, and we found our basic, but perfectly comfortable cabin perched quietly on the hillside.

Exploring the adjoining woods was most enjoyable – fresh air and exercise at its best…

with lovely vistas overlooking the quaint village of Stadtkyll – providing plenty of photo opportunities.

We used the resort as our base, and spent most days driving off in one direction or another for big days out, sometimes screaming along the Autobahn at top speed while other vehicles zoomed past as if we were standing still.

We had a great day visiting Trier – said to be Germany’s oldest city…

Called into Koblenz – nestled in the junction of the Mosel and Rhine rivers…

and followed the magnificent Rhine from Koblenz to Assmannshausen…

then across to frantic Frankfurt – where we found a quiet corner.

Took a calming cruise in Cologne…

And closer by, went to see the medieval moated castle at Satzvey

and centuries-old semi-timbered houses at Kommern.

So many fabulous sights and experiences – I hope to tell you about them in more detail in future posts.

The German countryside was so lush and green everywhere we went, and the resort such a peaceful place to relax after a busy day out.

Or to freshen up and venture into town for a hearty meal.

We really had a wonderful week in western Germany.

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Back to it!

I can’t believe how long it is since I last blogged. Changing jobs and moving house were all-consuming tasks over the last 6 months (as we opt for a more “normal” lifestyle for a time), but now that I’m settled in on both fronts I can turn my attention back to those things I enjoy doing, in those precious moments of free time.

What better, then, than to share some photos of our beloved Argenton-sur-Creuse, and the simple but satisfying lifestyle it represents to us, as we count down the weeks till we are back there once more…

Walking around town is always an enjoyable pastime.

A stroll by the River Creuse always offers plenty of photo opportunities. We never tire of this view:

Our favourite spot by the River Creuse

And of course there are plenty more beautiful vistas!

We love going for walks by the River Creuse

It’s equally good to hike up the hill to La Bonne Dame…

La Bonne Dame

and enjoy the view across the rooftops of Argenton, and beyond as you catch your breath.

Argenton rooftops

Or wend your way around quaint streets lined with stone houses…

Quaint streets

or up enticing alleys.

Enticing alleyways

There are many places of historical interest to stumble upon, and let your imagination take you back to times long ago.

Places of historical interest

And a daily walk is a good way to build up an appetite for the obligatory baguette…

The obligatory baguette

or something sweeter, still warm from the baker’s oven at any number of the town’s boulangeries (bakeries).

Croissants still warm from the bakery

Ah, that’s the life! Don’t you think?

Can’t wait to be back.

 

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Visiting the land of beer, waffles and chocolate

When in Belgium it’s only right and proper to drink beer, eat waffles and indulge in some chocolate, don’t you think?

On our one day in the city of Brussels we did just that.

First things first though – stopping for a coffee.

It seems that good coffee is the one thing my husband misses about our home town of Melbourne, Australia. Personally, when travelling, I would much prefer to visit a café unique to the city we are in, but hey, I’m not the coffee drinker! So Starbucks it was. Again.

Mind you, the fabulous view of Brussels’ main square made this one unique.

Thank you Starbucks

La Grand Place (known in Dutch as De Grote Markt – market square) is truly magnificent, with highly decorative, gilded architecture on all sides, dating from the 14th to 17th centuries. No wonder it’s UNESCO listed.

Brussels Markt square

The more you look, the more you see.

Markt square

All that sightseeing builds up an appetite and waffles were calling.

We took the opportunity to compare the Brussels Waffle to the Liege Waffle. Although it was hard to choose between them, I preferred the lighter crisper Brussels version, and Tony the slightly heavier, doughy Liege waffle.

Belgium or Liege waffle

Later on, after trekking the cobblestoned streets and sleek shopping arcades (Galeries), it was time for a refreshing beer. Who knew I would turn into a beer drinker? There are so many to choose from here, all served in their own glass – on our travels we saw a shop that boasted 500 different Belgium beers, but I hear there are over 1000!

We were recommended to try the local triple-cooked chips. Beer and chips? Why not? Obviously we weren’t counting calories.

Une biere et frites

And chocolate… almost every second shop was a chocolate shop! We window-shopped in the highly priced “Mary’s” but decided on a beautiful box from “Neuhaus” (who bill themselves as “the inventor of praline”) featuring delectable chocolates from across their history since 1857. Oh my!

Neuhaus chocolates

Chocolate, chocolate everywhere. Every type, shape and size imaginable. Even in the shape of “Manneken Pis”…

Belgium chocolates

… a quirky little bronze fountain (not far from Grand Place) which has become a tourist attraction…

Manneken Pis

“Peeing Boy” (to be polite) is often dressed up in various festive costumes, but on this day he was naked.

Lucky for him it was a warm day.

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