Thursday, November 10, 2016

Life on the Caribbean Princess

Caribbean Princess
For those of you interested in cruising, we wanted to provide a quick review of our cruise ship experience. This was a very port-intensive cruise, so we spent relatively little time on board, but to be honest, the Caribbean Princess was a mixed experience.

Typical buffet meal

Excellent customer service from the Ship's Front Desk – went above and beyond to accommodate us

Best buffet food of any ship we have ever sailed on

Outstanding meal at the specialty restaurant called "The Crown Grill" 

The "head-banger" stateroom

Stateroom was horrible – we had a small stateroom with two closed-up extra beds (for children, we think) that hung on the sides of the walls and jutted 9 inches or so out into the room, making the room claustrophobic, plus those damn beds were real headbangers (just ask Frank who smacked his head on them almost every day!). Will definitely AVOID rooms like this from now on!  Unless you need extra beds for your kids and want to go on-the-cheap, stay away from those side beds.

Anytime Dining was a mess – we couldn’t get a table without a reservation and even those with reservations were waiting long periods of time (we gave up and usually ate at the buffet)

The Entertainment Theater was much too small – people arrived an hour before in order to get seats, we stopped even trying.  Only small saving was that there are multiple shows; but even that was hard to gauge for the least-crowded showing.

And finally, here are some stats on the cruise and the cruise ship.  During our time aboard "The Caribbean Princess," it was commanded by Captain Mario Ciruzzi, an Italian-born citizen from the south of Italy.  Our cruise started from the port of New York City and ended up in the port of Quebec City for a cruise distance of about 2269 statute miles, stopping at 7 ports (we had to skip Charlottetown on Prince Edward Island because of high winds).  Bummer, because Frank's old work buddy (Paul Ehret) had introduced Frank to Prince Edward Island (PEI) mussels years ago, and we were both anxious to get the really good ones from PEI when we stopped there. However, the scrumptious little buggers were not to be had on PEI.  We did manage to scarf down some PEI mussels on the ship that night - mmmmmmmmmm!  Thank you Paul.  Great experience.

The cruise ship Caribbean Princess moored in Bar Harbor
About the Caribbean Princess (CP): The CP is a 113,561 gross ton vessel registered in Hamilton, Bermuda.  It comes in with a length of 947 feet and a breadth of 118 feet.  The Princess holds a max number of 3573 passengers, and a max number of crew members at 1227.

Here's a final little ditty that may interest our travelers who don't already know this.  The word Quebec is a French pronunciation when visiting Quebec City.  The French there (which are the vast majority of the city) call it "ke-BEK" City, not kwi-BEK City, the way an American says it.  It's the French way!!  This gets even more complicated, because the British in and around Quebec City call it "Cue-BEK" City, and Americans say it the way Americans pronounce a word that begins with the letters "Qu".  Yes, 3 totally different ways to pronounce Quebec City, depending on your nationality!

Overall, we really had a wonderful time on the cruise, but we did want to give you an honest assessment of our ship.

Thanks for traveling with us!

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Quebec City: Romance in the Rain

Chateau Frontenac majestically situated above
the port and the Lower Town
After two days at sea, our cruise ship chugged down the Saint-Lawrence Seaway into the downtown port at Quebec City, ready for an overnight stop there, and the end of the cruise for us. We had plans to stay an additional couple days, as we knew so little about this city. Those of you who know us, know that we’ve spent a lot of time in France, touring around over the years, and studying the language. That made Quebec City an obvious place to vacation. So let’s explore!

Our weather karma finally gave out; Quebec City was cold and raining with a bitter wind that roared down the St. Lawrence River. We saw plenty of umbrellas flipped inside out, and tourists huddled in doorways trying to get out of the wind. At one point, the rain even changed over to a very heavy sleet, but it only lasted a few minutes. However none of this could detract from the beauty of this elegant and romantic French city.

Anne and Serge on Place Royale
in the Lower Town of Quebec City
Lower Town

We began our explorations with a private tour of the Lower Town, following our tour guide Serge Perron on foot thru the wet streets around the area near the port where our Caribbean Princess was docked.  Quebec City is quite old as North America goes; it was founded by Samuel de Champlain in 1608, just one year after our own 1st city of Jamestown (1607) was established. The Lower Town was once the “Wall Street” of Quebec with many former bank buildings and the Place Royale, a pretty little square built as a tribute to King Louis XIV. 

Shopping street in the Lower Town
The whole area was filled with shops and restaurants, which like the Place Royale, had been refurbished a few times thru the years.  So what we saw was not exactly original (although it looked terrific), but a rendition that closely emulated the past.

History of Quebec mural

We also saw an impressive, multi-story mural covering highlights of the history of Quebec. It’s embarrassing how little we know about Canada (they, of course, know all about us).

Chateau Frontenac

Intro to the Upper Town

Because of the inclement weather, Serge finished our walking tour with a drive up to the Upper Town (aka Old Town) which sits on a 300 foot cliff. He helped us to get our bearings in this new place and drove us past one of the main attractions here in Quebec City: the Chateau Frontenac, a huge bastion of a hotel that sits at the highest point of the city. It can be seen from virtually anywhere in Quebec City, as it protrudes above the cliffs that create the “upper city.”  This behemoth has 618 hotel rooms on 18 floors, and opened its doors in 1893.  It is the most photographed hotel in the world! Our Hotel Clarendon, built in 1870, is located right in the historic Old Town about a block from the Chateau Frontenac (a 2-minute walk) and is the oldest continuously-operating hotel in the city.

Unique Quebecois fortified wine
called Caribou
Foodie Tour

We always love the curious and different indigenous foods of places we visit, so it was necessary for us to investigate the “Quebec-ie” foods by taking a local food tour. Our foodie tour thru Quebec City was led by a spry, mouse-like 60-year-old guide named Judith who showed us some of the hot eating spots around town. We sampled smoked salmon topped with the ubiquitous Canadian maple syrup, buckwheat crepes, choco (!), and some of Quebec’s white wines. We also tasted two of Quebec’s most unusual products: caribou (a fortified wine that used to be made with caribou blood), and poutine (a Quebecois fast food).

Maple syrup tasting

We even had a maple syrup tasting where we sampled the three types of maple syrup: early, middle, and late (based on the timing of the tapping). We tasted maple sugar in a variety of formats – maple syrup mixed with honey, maple syrup tea, locally grown cranberries (laced with maple syrup), and maple syrup candies. Maple syrup, as you may have guessed, is quite the big industry in Canada. In fact, Canada produces 71% of the world's pure maple syrup; 91% of which is produced in Quebec. All the Quebecois maple syrup we tasted was, in our opinion, a cut above anything you can find in the USA!

Poutine, a favorite fast food in Quebec
We walked outside the walled city thru the St. John Gate where our group ducked into a snack bar. At various times, the rain was pelting our group of about 15 people with vicious force. We often found ourselves ducking under eaves, archways, and soffits along the way until the rain periodically eased up. 

Our tour leader Judith brought us to this snack bar for the best poutine in the city. We have never eaten this or even heard of it before but were anxious to dig in and try some. It’s actually a simple fast food amounting to a small paper tray of French fries, covered with fresh cheese curd chunks, beef gravy, and a few spices (maybe some chives, salt, and pepper). A new and delicious way to serve & enjoy fries!

At the Le Moine Echanson Restaurant, Judith got the group some white organic Canadian wine and a piece of dough that resembled a fritter; it appeared to have been browned in hot oil. Very tasty, much like a doughnut flavor. And at La Billig Restaurant, we tasted a buckwheat ham and cheese pancake, served with a delicious glass of 5% alcohol cider. A perfect combination!

Yummy chocolates!
And finally, at the Enrico Chocolaterie, we sampled a couple of their fancy chocolate niblets, several of which contained maple sugar. Naturally, we had to buy a few expensive chocolate bars to bring home. We always find these foodie tours fun and entertaining and replete with cultural info that surfaces as a result of the foods we sample, the people we meet, and questions we ask and have answered.

Powerful Montmorency Waterfalls
Montmorency Falls and L’IIe D’Orleans

The following day, we took a tour outside Quebec City with a French guide named Gaston, who was a pleasant, prompt, proper & courteous 60-ish looking gent who spoke impeccable English, and who had lived for 18 years in Australia.  Gaston and his wife returned to Quebec City because they like the cold weather better than the heat of Oz.

Braving the Montmorency Falls
Gaston loaded us into his White Honda SUV, and we made our way outside the city to see the famous Montmorency Waterfalls in “Parc de la Chute Montmorency.” It was raining quite hard at times, and a fine mist was rising off the churning falls and the river below. Water particles belched upward and swirled about, and everything for several hundred yards was completely wetted; it was difficult to even keep our cameras dry!

We hustled along the manmade boardwalk in the front of the falls, getting a good gander (albeit a wet one!) at the raging falls. The falls are higher than Niagara Falls, but not as wide. Very impressive! As we moved ever closer to the falls from the sidelines, we made the decision to return to the welcome center to dry off and warm up a little. The falls were very intense and quite scenic, but we were cold and wet, and we were ready to call it a done deal!

Typical French farmhouse on L'Ile D'Orleans
with St. Lawrence Estuary in the background
Gaston took us over a connecting bridge to “L’Ile D’Orleans” (The Island of Orleans) which is an unspoiled island sitting in the middle of the Saint Lawrence River about 3 miles east of downtown Quebec City. The little island is 21 miles long and about 5 miles wide at its widest point, and it feels like a world apart from the rest of Quebec.

L’Ile D’Orleans attracts tourists like us because of its rural natural beauty and its renowned local farming produce, such as apples, strawberries, potatoes, and maple syrup. Numerous bed-and-breakfasts and inns, regional cuisine restaurants, roadside fruit stands, art galleries and craft shops attract some 600,000 visitors every year.

We found it interesting that many of the farm buildings on L'Ile D'Orleans have a round footprint. Why? Seems that the French here are a bit superstitious and believe that the devil hides in the corners. So they outsmart the devil with round buildings! Haaa! 

Driving the rural Chemin Royal
 (circle road around L'Ile D'Orleans)
We drove the only main road on the island, the circle road also called the "Chemin Royal," which curves around the island for the approximate 50-mile circumference. Along the way, we stopped at a small chocolate shop, a maple syrup-producing facility, a cidery and just enjoyed the views of the fab isolated scenery. There are no stores here. No shopping facilities. No hospitals, or doctors, or schools. You are totally on your own. Quebec City seems close, but with traffic, it takes about 1 1/2 hours to reach. Many rugged people live here, relying solely on themselves and their own resources for survival.

Tapping sugar maple for maple syrup

We especially enjoyed the maple syrup production place, called the "Sugar Shack."  We got an interesting tutorial and tour on how to make maple syrup. We learned that the sugar maple tree must be at least 50 years old to tap the sap. Lisa, our Sugar Shack guide, told us that freshly-tapped maple syrup is called "maple water" and must be heated for long periods of time to evaporate some of the water and create the syrup. After her rendition of the work needed to get a gallon of maple syrup, we concluded that obtaining maple syrup is one of the more time-intensive jobs here in Canada. No wonder maple syrup cost so darn much!  But, it tasted sooooo good here in a land where it is freshly made. Wish we could get some like this back home.  

Rolling maple syrup on snow
We also got to roll maple syrup on a popsicle stick after it was cooled in a tray of snow. A fun way to enjoy maple syrup!

Pouring cider at Domaine Steinbach

The Cidery called Domaine Steinbach was another great place to visit. They gave us several tastings of various ciders, some of which were spiked at 11% to 19% alcohol. We never knew that cider was converted to spirits anywhere! The Cidery also offered an incredible number of other products to sample: mustards, salsas, confitures (jams), teas, and much more were available in addition to the cider itself. We had so many tastings of all those things, we called it lunch!

Frank imitates Bacchus at a winery on L'Ile De Orleans
With surrounding views of the changing St. Lawrence River Estuary, we were inundated with bucolic beauty everywhere. We thought what it might be like to live like this, close to nature, totally autonomous, and without the amenities that we find so comforting and readily accessible in our life back in Pennsylvania. No, we concluded; in the end, this life is for the young and tough. Not the old and feeble like us!

Aux Anciens Canadiens
Around Old Town

Back in Old Town, we ate dinner at a restaurant recommended by Gaston called "Aux Anciens Canadiens." Great place situated in the oldest house in Quebec City and specializing in authentic Quebecois cuisine.

Eating like the Quebecois in Old Town at
the Aux Anciens Canadiens

We ate a marvelous multi-course meal featuring local meats like red deer and elk, swigged some local beer, and topped it all off with creamy Maple Syrup Pie which was simply out of this world. Just writing about it is making us salivate!

Another view of the lovely fortress-like
Chateau Frontenac

We spent our last day wandering around the charming Old Town, doing some souvenir shopping, and taking a walk on the walls that surround the city. 

Kangaroo stew!

We were lucky enough to stumble  on a quintessential French cafe called Le Petite Coin Latin. Cute French decor, a sweet little old French waiter, Edith Piaf singing in the background, and wonderful food. Anne was in heaven! She was so enamored with the place; she momentarily lost her mind and ordered a stew made with kangaroo meat (where do you get that in Canada?) These Canadians sure like unusual meats. Anyway, it tasted great and marked the first time we have ever eaten kangaroo!

Look at the 3-gun fire power on
this multiple camera-toting tourist

We had a very unusual experience when three Asian (probably Chinese) tourists approached us on the street and began babbling something about camera. Frank thought they wanted him to take their picture, but they wanted a picture with US! Of course, we agreed, but it was so weird. The one guy had three super expensive cameras hanging around his neck, and he especially wanted a shot of Frank thoughtfully rubbing his beard. (To clarify: Frank rubbing his own beard -- not Frank rubbing the Asian guy's beard lol). Frank was happy to comply, and it turned out to be a great photo. Who knows what billboard in Beijing Frank's face may appear on?

More pics:

Anne sucks on maple syrup taffy rolled in snow
at The Sugar Shack

Anne and our tour guide Gaston at the Sugar Shack

Admiring the grapes at winery on
L'Ile D'Orleans (St Lawrence Estuary in backdrop)

Fountain in the center of Old Town in Quebec City

St. John's Gate in the ancient city walls
of Quebec City

Here's to another successful travel adventure!

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Halifax, Sydney, and Prince Edward Island

Halifax, Nova Scotia

Sculpture called "The Emigrant" recognizing those
who came here to start a new life
We’ve been waiting patiently for this special port of call, since we were anxious to learn more about the role Halifax played in the saga of the sinking of the Titanic.  Halifax is a city of 400,000 people located on the eastern side of mainland Canada, in the province of Nova Scotia. The words “Nova Scotia” mean New Scotland, and as you’d expect, there is a major Celtic influence throughout Nova Scotia.  This entire province of Canada has a mere 1 million people as its total population. The small city of Halifax faces the Atlantic Ocean and lies about 700 nautical miles from the actual spot where the Titanic sank back in 1912. 

Many do not know that the Haligonians (what the people of Halifax call themselves) were directly responsible for retrieving 306 bodies of passengers immediately following the infamous Titanic catastrophe. As they said at the time, the living went to New York City and the dead were brought to Halifax.

Actual intact deck chair from The Titanic
We began our search for more info on the connection between Halifax and The Titanic at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic with its small but illuminating Titanic exhibit. We followed the line of white stars painted on the floor of the museum to the special Titanic exhibit where a movie explained how the White Star Line hired Halifax’s “cable ships” to retrieve the bodies of the victims. These cable ships were responsible for maintaining the Transatlantic Cable, and their crews knew how to navigate the Atlantic Ocean under any kind of conditions.

Piece of the Grand Staircase retrieved by the Haligonians
from floating Titanic debris
The cable ships set out with stacks of wooden coffins, several undertakers, a priest, and all the embalming fluid in Halifax. When they arrived at Titanic’s last known location, even the hardened sailors were shaken by the sight of dead bodies bobbing in the ocean. There were so many bodies that they ran out of embalming fluid and decided to bury 116 of the third-class passengers at sea. 

Even when the ships returned to Halifax, the class system was still obvious as first and second class passengers arrived in coffins, third-class passengers in cloth bags, and the crew on open stretchers. The undertakers did an exceptional job of numbering each body, noting any identifying marks (like scars or tattoos), and attaching any personal belongings. Their meticulous methodology allowed many of the bodies to eventually be identified and returned to loved ones.

Shoes of the Unknown Child
The crew of the cable ships also retrieved portions of the wreckage of the Titanic, not as scavengers, but in the maritime tradition of saving part of a lost ship. This small exhibit held the most remarkable actual Titanic relics we have ever seen: a deck chair fully in tact with the White Star logo carved on the back, and lots of beautifully carved wood including a piece of the Grand Staircase! One of the saddest artifacts was a small pair of shoes belonging to the body they called “the unknown child.”

Anne relaxes on the deck of The Titanic

In the end, 150 unclaimed souls were interred in Halifax cemeteries. The kind people of Halifax held a series of funerals at various churches throughout the city to honor these fallen victims.

In the afternoon, we took a bus tour to visit the scenic Peggy’s Cove and to see Fairview Cemetery where the largest number of Titanic victims are buried.

Colorful homes in Peggy's Cove

The famous lighthouse of Peggy's Cove
Peggy’s Cove was a scenic little coastal town, and we could see why tourist buses such as ours would bring guests to this small town.  Peggy’s Cove has a striking lighthouse at the end of the colorful town, perched on a massive, solid-appearing rock heap that was covered by shutter-snapping tourists that were roaming about like ants on a honey pile.  But despite the distraction of the abundant and annoying picture seekers (BTW, we have not forgotten that we too were part of this craziness!), Peggy’s Cove was a picturesque attraction outside Halifax. In fact, the lighthouse at Peggy’s Cove is said to be one of the most photographed lighthouses in the world!

Carol tells us all about lobsters
Carol, our tour guide, gave us a demo on lobsters.  She used her lobster pets, named “Larry” and “Lucy,” to show us how to handle them, how to determine the sex of a lobster, and how to cook them in a pot of boiling water.

Carol described the Maple Syrup Industry here and all the nuances of making maple syrup. Nova Scotia only produces .5% of the maple syrup of Canada, whereas Quebec produces 92%.  Also the primary employer here in Halifax is the military; lots of military contracts keep the economy of Nova Scotia alive.

Anne fondles "Larry the Lobster"

For whatever reason, Halifax has seen more than its share of catastrophes. The Titanic disaster was followed by the Halifax Explosion on December 6, 1917 when the munitions ship Mont Blanc collided with a Norwegian ship called the Imo, and the resulting explosion blew up the north end of Halifax killing some 2,000 people. This was the largest man-made explosion prior to the atomic bomb.

Then on September 2, 1998, Swiss Air flight 111 crashed on some rocks near the beach southwest of the airport killing all on board. The plane had caught on fire in the air, and the pilot tried to make it to the runway but fell short. Carol took us past a memorial to the 229 passengers who lost their lives. 

Most recently on 9/11, many flights were rerouted to Halifax when the American airspace was shutdown. We drove past the giant hangar where the Haligonians took great care of their unexpected guests. The people of Halifax are still remembered by the passengers who spent several harrowing days here before being able to return home to the U.S. Even now 15 years later, passengers still make pilgrimages to Halifax to express their thanks.

Hull-shaped row of Titanic
grave stones
At long last, our bus reached the Fairview Lawn Cemetery where 150 souls from the catastrophe of the Titanic were buried. Each grave marker has a name (if known), a number associated with the body cataloging procedure at the time, some info about the person (if known), and of course, the same death date: 15 April 1912.  Strange to see this many graves with the same death date all grouped together, laid out in a design that resembles the hull of the Titanic.

Grave of the real J. Dawson, coal shoveler on The Titanic 

Some visitors are intrigued to see the headstone for a J. Dawson. But he has nothing to do with Jack Dawson, the lead character played by Leonardo Di Caprio in James Cameron’s movie “Titanic.”  He was actually Joseph Dawson, a 20-something year old coal shoveler on board the Titanic.

Grave of the "Unknown Child"
now identifed
The most poignant grave was the one for an unknown 19-month-old child. For almost 100 years, this child remained anonymous until DNA evidence identified him as Sydney Leslie Goodwin whose entire family perished.

Giant Fiddle, dwarfed by our cruise ship, welcomes
us to Sydney

Sydney, Nova Scotia

Sydney was founded in 1785, and the first settlers were mostly poor Englishmen and disbanded soldiers fleeing the American Revolution. The city has a population of 102,000 people and is situated on the northeast side of Cape Breton Island.

Colonial kitchen at the restored Cossit House
Sydney was a sleepy town, but we did visit the Cossit House which is one of the oldest houses in Sydney built circa 1787. We also stopped by a Craft Fair and chatted with some of the locals, enjoying their humor and their pride in their city. 

Frank enjoying a local brew called
Alexander Keith's IPA
We ended up in a pool hall called Dooley’s where we sampled a local beer called Alexander Keith’s India Pale Ale. Fun stuff!

Some interesting facts about Nova Scotia and Canada: More Gaelic is spoken in Nova Scotia than in all of Scotland. Canadians eat more macaroni and cheese than any country on earth. Nova Scotia is made up of 3800 islands and Cape Breton is the largest. Nova Scotia is the 4th largest film production center in Canada and is home to many Canadian and Hollywood film and TV productions. Marconi, the father of telecommunications, sent the first official wireless message across the Atlantic from Nova Scotia in 1902.

Prince Edward Island

Due to high winds in the Charlottetown harbor, our landing on Prince Edward Island was cancelled. No fresh mussels for us (sigh)! However, at dinner that night on the ship, they served us mussels in shells about 4 inches long and actual mussels about 1 ½ inches long. Never saw them this large – big and juicy! To cap it off with further deliciousness, the cooks had placed a pot of melted butter alongside the mussels, and you could just add as much as you like.

More pics:

Member of the Titanic  orchestra

Shoreline at Peggy's Cove

Greetings from Peggy's Cove!