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Monday, December 29, 2014

Some things I won't do before I die....


For those of you who are convinced I have a death wish - here is a list of some of the things I won't do before I die.  Well maybe.....

Sunday, December 28, 2014

How far would you travel for an Oyster?

The Citadel

September 12, 2014

Halifax is not a large city – according to Wikipedia it’s rated 14th in population size in Canada  –  about 300,000 - just a little smaller than Victoria on the opposite coast.  Both cities boast small downtowns with few buildings over 10 stories.  Both were important British naval ports and their layouts are similar.
Our hotel is right across the street from the Citadel – a must see sight in Halifax – we wander over right after breakfast.  As with many of the attractions (as we discover around the trip), the events  at the fort are in the “shoulder season”  which means that things have been scaled back. The reconstruction of the fort is impressive as are the tours led by docents in period costumes answering questions. Plan to spend a couple of hours there.

Halifax to Dartmouth Ferry
We do the usual – take a harbour ferry, check out StPaul’s Church, the oldest building in Halifax – still sporting shrapnel from the 1917harbour explosion and meander along the harbour  esplanade.

We have been warned that in Halifax the pedestrian is King.  Cars must give way to pedestrians or face a healthy fine.  It’s a novel experience to see that as soon as we approach an intersection cars and trucks immediately screech to a halt.  It’s also scary to watch pedestrians blindly crossing streets without even looking sideways – absolutely certain that the cars will stop for them.  I feel sorry for these people:  they wouldn’t last two minutes in Vancouver or two seconds in Montreal.
Alexander Keith Brewery Tour

My son-in-law highly recommended the Alexander Keith’s brewery tour.  It turns out to be the lowlight of our day.  It’s way overpriced for a glass of beer and bad theatre ($17.00 Geezer rate).  You  can definitely give it a miss.  (NOTE: TripAdvisor gives it a 4.5/5 out of five )

 September 13, 2014

The following day we climb into our rental car and head out into the wilds of Nova Scotia. For someone from British Columbia where a short jaunt would be two or three hours I am surprised how close everything is – usually only 30 or 40 minutes.

We’ve heard a lot about the “lighthouse route” so we chose to take the scenic ocean route rather than the “freeway.”   We thought we’d see oodles of colourful lighthouses.  What we didn’t realize was that the “lighthouse route” doesn’t actually run along the ocean – but is often a half a mile or more from the shoreline.  If you want to see any lighthouses you have to turn off the road and head down to the ocean.  Often these “scenic routes” aren’t marked and signs are scarce – even on the highways.  This is in stark contrast to the highways in the rest of Canada where there’s a sign telling you “something” every 50 meters. I guess Maritimers believe if they tell you once that’s  sufficient - or you should be smart enough  to know where you’re going.

For the most part we rely on Google Maps.  I brought my dashboard mount for my cellphone and we have, for the most part, a reliable guide.  The friendly guy at Budget Rent-a-car was willing to rent me a gps unit for only $15.00 a day.  For the cost of a two week rental I could have bought a deluxe GPS unit.  Don’t fall for that: use your phone.

September 17, 2014

One of the “must see” destinations on our list is the Bay of Fundy.  I’ve heard about the unbelievable tides and wanted to see them for myself.  I’d experienced incredible tides on HaidaGwaii (The Queen Charlotte Islands) a few years ago on the longest day of the year.

At Haida Gwaii we had arrived  at the water’s edge early in the
Queen Charlotte City: Tide out!
morning – just as the tide was falling.  We carried the first kayak down to the water and returned to the truck to get the next one.  When we arrived back at the water the first kayak was high and dry and the water had retreated about twenty feet.  We moved both kayaks back to the water’s edge and leave to get the next kayak.  

By the time all four kayaks are down to where the water’s edge was previously the water in the harbour was completely gone – leaving only a mud flat.   We were forced to reload the kayaks and drive around the island to find a suitable deep water launching site.   I am told the tides in the Bay of Fundy are even more impressive. 

Alma at Low Tide...
Our destination is Alma - a small town in New Brunswick.  We have the option of driving or taking the car ferry.  We opt for the car ferry from Digby to St. John – a choice I would not recommend. The car ferry is an ancient relic that must have seen service as a cod transporter, because the car decks absolutely reek of rotting fish. 

Alma is a small fishing village on the Bay of Fundy and a great
...and a few hours later
place to experience the most extreme tides.   Like most of the other areas we traveled to the town is basically closed for the season.  Most of the restaurants and tourist attractions close after Labour Day leaving only a couple of restaurants, a motel and a gas station open to service the local residents. 

We pull over at the public wharf on the edge of town.  Several large fishing boats were resting on the mud twenty feet below the wharf.  We continue on to check into our lodgings then head back to town to check out dinner possibilities.   When we pass the wharf we visited only a few hours earlier, the fishing boats are all afloat and just about up to the wharf level.   This in the space of only a few hours.

September 19, 2014

As I mentioned earlier Google Maps was fairly reliable with one notable exception.  I’d heard a lot about  Malpeque Oysters.  They are supposed to be among the best oysters in the world.  A visit to Malpeque Bay on Prince Edward Island was one of the first “must sees” I put on our “to do” list. 

Confederation Bridge
Of course this means a visit to Prince Edward Island and a trip across the much vaunted Confederation Bridge.  If you’re not interested in Anne of Green Gables or Charlottetown  you can probably see all of PEI in a day. 

Checking the guide books I find that “the” place to have Malpeque  oysters is the “Oyster Barn” right on the water.  I program the address into my GPS and we head off.

It’s about a 40 minute drive from Summerside and I am encouraged by the numerous signs along the way proclaiming the culinary excellence of the Oyster Barn.
An empty Malpeque Bay

As we arrive in Mapeque  Bay the Google Map Lady (GML) announces our destination is just ahead on the right.  The only building in sight is a shuttered barn-like structure.  The faded sign proclaims it to be the “Oyster Barn.”  It appears to have been closed for some time.  We look around for another eating establishment but can’t find any.  In fact we don’t see a single soul.  It appears like with many other attractions we have arrived too late.

I consult Google again and am surprised to find in one of the many listings for the Oyster barn there is another address.  I assume perhaps we have arrived at an older establishment or perhaps they have another restaurant in a nearby town.

I program the address into Google Maps and off we go.  We follow  GML’s directions down a paved highway.  After about ten minutes she has us turn onto a gravel road; a short time later she has us turn onto a rutted seldomly used road, and finally as we come into a small complex buildings she informs me to“Turn left now” onto a grassy strip that seem to run between the backs of two rows of houses.   A short time later she proclaims:
“You have arrived at your destination.”
The only thing I can see is a guy pressure washing his driveway.  He looks up as well pulled to a stop.
I roll down the window. 
“I’ve come for the Oysters,” I inform him.
“What?” was the puzzled reply.
“According to the Google Lady, this is the Oyster Barn.”
“Never heard of it,”
“That can’t be.  The Google Lady says it is, and at that moment she confirmed it.
“You have arrived at your destination.”
“This ain’t the Oyster Barn.”
I hold out my phone.  
“Do you want to argue with Google?”
After a short conversation the gentleman tells me that he knows of a fish store a bit down the road that might have some Oysters.
I get the name of the place from him, look up the address in Google, program it into the GPS and off we go for round three.

After retracing our steps, GML puts us on a paved road and twenty minutes later we arrive at the fish store.  There is only a bike in the parking lot, but it appears to be open, so I am encouraged.

I enter and find the store manager loading the last of a tray of Oysters into the bike owners saddlebags.
“You do have some more in the back don’t you?”
“Sorry,” is the reply.  “That’s the last of them.  As of tomorrow we’re closed for the season.”
I briefly entertain the thought of grabbing the bicyclist’s saddle bags out of his hand and making a dash to the car.  But since he appears a lot bigger and more fit than me I give up the thought.”

I explain to the store owner that I have come all the way from British Columbia for Malpeque Oysters and am am sadly disappointed I can’t find them.

“If you don’t mind a bit of a drive, there’s a bar in Stanley Bridge, that probably has some.”
Well, in for a dime in for a dollar.  We’ve come all this way and the day is half over.  Why not?

I program the bar’s address into Google and off we go again.  About half an hour later we pull into the tiny town of Stanley Bridge and find Carr's Oyster Bar.  I’m not encouraged – there are no cars in the parking lot.

We park and walk up to the door and are pleasantly surprised to find it open.  Once inside I am confronted with a huge table filled with ice and oysters.  The waitress observes me staring at them.
“How many of them would you like, sir?”
“All of them.”
A plate of Malpeque Oysters
“You’re joking, right?” she replies.
After a brief discussion on the merits of the different sizes a compromise is reached. I will take twenty of the small ones. Michele and I retreat to the outdoor deck overlooking the bay and wait for the waitress to shuck the oysters.  

A few minutes later my oysters and a cold beer arrive.  It had taken the better part of a day and I don’t know how many hundred kilometers to get these oyster and I am suddenly worried that it might not have been worth it.

Was it worth traveling 6000 km?  You bet!!
My concern proves unnecessary.  They are definitely the finest oysters I’ve ever eaten.  If you like oysters, you should definitely give Carr’s Oyster Bar in Stanley Bridge a visit.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

That's no lady that's my wife.... in that car

Checking out the Atlantic Provinces has always been on my bucket list, but I thought I’d like to get the more exotic destinations off the list before I tackled something so close to home.  For all my world travels I’ve only seen about two thirds of my own country – not having ventured much beyond Montreal.

Many of our friends have visited the Maritimes and speak glowingly about them.  My wife, Michele, expressed a desire to “maybe” take a trip with me to see them.   She said “maybe” because she still has memories of the last major trip we took together – our honeymoon – some forty years ago.  With Michele bad memories die slowly.  However upon further consideration she concluded that if I could travel around the world for more than ten years and still return in one piece she might chance another trip with me - particularly since it wasn’t too far from home.

Michele likes to research things incessantly – so she googled everything Maritimes.  Our plan was travel after Labour Day when crowds have abated and rates dropped.  We’d fly to Halifax, rent a car and drive around for a couple of weeks, then head back to Halifax and home.

While Michele researched the” “must see” sites I tackled the rent-a-car situation.  After a lot of on line research at the usual sites: Priceline, Travelocity, Expedia, Etc., a friend informed me the best deal is to book through Costco.  Of course you need a Costco card –which I just so happen to have.  I checked out the rates on line at  Costco for Alamo, Avis, Enterprise, and Budget.  Costco’s online site lets you compare each companies’ rates for comparable cars.  All of the quoted rates were less than anywhere else and  I was pleasantly surprised to find  Budget’s rate for a Kia Rondo was less than any of the others. 

There was one question I couldn't find an answer for online.  The other car rentals included a second driver – there was no mention as to whether or not Budget offered the same.  I called the  help number on the Costco site and was told by Daina,  the Costo representative ,that a second driver was included – if it was a spouse.  I asked for a moment to confer with my wife to find out if she still considers herself my “spouse,” and after a few moments she ceded that she still might be. 

Daina wanted to know if I wanted to book with her.  I told her if she could meet or beat the price I’m currently saw on my computer I would.   She asked if I had ”something else” she could work with.

“I’m a member of the auto club,’ I offered.
“So is everybody.”  She replied.
I tried several other clubs and associations.  Finally in desperation I said.
“I’m a senior.”
“Aha!” she replied. “Now that’s something I can work with.  You qualify for the geezer discount.”
She worked through the math, and when she finished the quoted rate  for the Kia was actually 40 percent less.  Truly amazing. 
“Book It, Dano.” I said.
“My name is Not Dano, it’s Daina.”
“Whatever.”
“There’s just one thing, I have to tell you.”
“I knew there was a catch.”
“To get that rate you have to prepay in full now.  However if you can’t make it, you can get a full refund if you let us know 24 hours in advance.”

I told her I thought that was reasonable and gave her my credit card information, along with all the other pertinent information.  She also asked for our flight number in case the plane should be delayed.

During the next several weeks Michele and I poured over books and Brochures, trying to decide what to see.  We immediately realized that two weeks wasn't much time to see four provinces. 

The first thing to go was Newfoundland.  We decided that  it required a trip of its own.  We were also worried about the weather on the Rock in September – it could be great or horrid.  So Scratch Newfoundland.  That left us with three provinces: Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island. 

We couldn't fly direct from Vancouver to Halifax so we opted for a quick stopover in Calgary.  What we hadn't counted on was an unseasonable early fall snowstorm in Calgary.  Who would expect a full scale winter blizzard on September 7th?  The snowstorm played havoc with Calgary’s power grid and the airport experienced a power outage as we made our final approach.  For half an hour we flew loops around the airport before power was restored and we could land.

We arrived in Halifax an hour late and I headed over to the Budget booth to pick up the car and that’s when the fun began.

What kind of a car would you like, sir?”
“I don’t know,” I replied surprised that he would ask since I already had booked a car.  “What kind of cars have you got?”
“Oh all sorts, Beemers, SUV’s, sport convertibles.”
“All for the same price I’m paying for my Kia?” I asked amazed.
“Oh, no sir,” he replied. “They’re more – starting at only ten dollars a day more.”
“No thanks,” I said.  “I’ll just take the Kia I reserved.”
“Oh I’m sorry sir.  We don’t have that car anymore.”
“What?” I replied.
“Oh yes, it’s gone.  We had to release it.  You were an hour late.”
“Fine.” Then you can fix me up with another car.  The common practice is to upgrade me to the next car you have available if you don’t have the car I booked.
“Certainly, sir. We can get you out of here right away. It’ll be only ten dollars more a day.”
My temper began to rise.  “Listen, you don’t understand.  That was my car you let go.  I prepaid for it.  It’s like a hotel room you prepay for.  It doesn’t matter if I check in late. It’s mine for the period I rented it - even if it sits in the lot.  You had no right to release it. “
“You were late,” he replies not giving an inch.   The line behind me is growing longer by the minute. “Besides the lady who took my order in Vancouver asked for the flight number which you have there on the monitor in front of you.  You knew the flight was an hour late.”
“I’m sorry sir.  But we can get you out of here for just ten dollars more.”
“Have you heard of bait and switch?”  This is against the law.  I want the car I reserved.
A large sigh.  “Okay, but I’ll have to have one brought in from Halifax.  It will takeat least  half an hour.”
“Fine.”
Michele and I retire to the side and begin to wait.  The next couple steps up to the front of the line and the same story is repeated over and over.  This seems to be a standard ploy by Budget in Halifax to get more money out of you. 

The crowd of unhappy customers begins to grow beside us.  Finally after forty minutes I’d had enough.
I took a business card out of my wallet and sidled up to the front of the line and handed it to the attendant.
“Here.  You might want to give this to your boss.  I’m an international travel writer and he might want to keep an eye out for an article in the papers next week.”
He studies the card for a moment and picks up the phone.  Within 60 seconds my Kia is at the door. He also hands me a bunch of coupons for discounts on future rentals (like I’m going to ever use Budget again).  On the way to the car I hand out the coupons to the other unhappy customers.  So after an hour at the budget booth we’re finally on our way.

Lesson Learned: Which ever company I book with in the future (and it probably won’t be Budget) I will ask point blank what happens if I’m late.  Do they hold the car?  If so for how long?  What happens if the car I booked was not there?  What’s the policy then.   I’ll then make sure I have the person’s name and employee number. 

By the time we pull out of the lot it’s dark and Michele is driving since my eyesight isn't what it used to be –especially on rainy nights.  I pre-booked our first night at the Cambridge Suite Hotel in downtown Halifax.  The hotel has glowing reviews in tripadvisor, is reasonably priced and they threw in two nights parking for eight bucks.

I take out my phone and program Google maps to the hotel address and off we go.  The route takes us over a pay bridge.  I look for a guy in a booth collecting tolls, but all there is a bucket you throw a toony in and the arm lifts and off you go.  How many million dollars did we spend here in Vancouver to find an automated  transit fare system?  They could have bought the Halifax system for a dollar fifty.

Google routes us through a series of dark one way streets finally bringing us to a dark strip mall and announces: “You have arrived at your destination.”

I don’t see anything that looks remotely like a hotel lobby - but there is a light on in a  doorway.  I tell Michele to pull up to it and I’ll go and see what’s doing.

Once inside the doorway I discover a small lobby so I’m in the right place.  I walk up to the registration desk and announce myself.  I’m pleasantly surprised that the attendant is the same guy I talked to on the phone when I booked the place.

After a pleasant check in he hands me the keys, tells me how to get to the hotel parking lot is,  and suggests a place for dinner. 

I go out to give Michele the info.  I open the door, step into the car, sit down and turned to Michele.  Then it hits me.  This is not my wife sitting next to me.
“You’re not my wife,” I exclaim to the startled woman.
I look up and see Michele in the car ahead laughing her head off. 

Evidently while I was inside another car pulled up behind her and she moved ahead a bit to make room for it.  I simply blindly got into the car in front of the door.

After a hasty apology we find the parking lot, unload and head up to our room.  It is now quite late and after a long day of travel and fighting with the rent-a-car people we aren’t in the mood to start looking for restaurants. 

The check-in guy had suggested the hotel restaurant and I suggest we go there.  How bad could it be?
Actually it turned out to be quite good – excellent in fact – one of the best dinners we had in the Maritimes.  Evidently the hotel recently snagged a renowned chef and had won a slew of awards.  Not only that the prices were extremely reasonable.  If you’re in Halifax I’d recommend it – even if you aren’t staying at the Cambridge Suites.

We head up to the room to plan the next day’s activities and hit the sack.

NEXT:  CAN GOOGLE FIND THE "PERFECT" OYSTER?

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