A Travellerspoint blog

Point the car South - time for home

sunny 90 °F
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As much as we don't want to admit it - we should head home. We left Florida 3 weeks ago and have covered over 3,000 miles so far. We really would like some down time back in our own house and bed and not having to get dressed out of suitcase. Having got a late start out of Montreal combined with a long wait at the border we only made it to Wilkes-Berre, PA on Monday night. While we were in Maine Jim sent a photo of a plate fresh homegrown tomatoes to his Mom, Nancy, who very much misses her much loved north tomatoes. Her reply was "Oh this really hurts!!! I suppose next you'll stop at Wegmans. Love (begrudgingly) Mom". Well......
Turns out right next to the hotel we stayed was Nancy's beloved Wegmans. For those not from the Northeast Wegmans is a chain of huge grocery stores that rival all others out there. They constantly rank highest in all areas that supermarkets are measured. The reply from Jim's Mom to this picture "Have you no mercy? First northern tomatoes - now my house of workshop. The distant bridge beckons!!"

We arrived in Rockville Maryland late in the afternoon on Tuesday. The evening was spent with Jim's brother Kelley with some libations and dinner. Over the course of a few hours we had solved all the country's problems and had we been given more time we could have then solved all the worlds issues as well. We only get to see Kelley a few times a year so it was nice to stop over and get caught up with our lives.

Wednesday morning was an early departure to North Carolina. It is a very scenic drive through mountains and for much of the drive we had no cell service which is a very strange feeling in our ever more connected world.
We arrived at The Grove Park Inn in Asheville, NC late in the afternoon. Mark's sister Kim has worked at this historic hotel for many years and she was able to secure a room for us with an outstanding view.
We had a relaxing evening with Kim and her husband Marshall. A wonderful dinner on the hotel's "back porch" with dramatic views of the hotel grounds and downtown Asheville in the distance. After dinner it was onto one of the hotel lounges with dueling piano players. We had fun providing songs for them to play (we cheated - looked them up on our iPhones). A few too many libations and songs and it was time for bed as we have a long drive the next day.

Ok last day on the road. It seems like the trip passed in a flash. The glimpses of many wonderful times come to mind on the final drive. Although it is a long day on the road before you know it we have arrived....
The odometer reads 4,500 miles from start to finish. We spent 25 days on the road. We will have seen all siblings in both of our families which has never been done in the same year let alone a month. It was an epic trip from start to finish with outstanding weather, many laughs, great memories with family and close friends.

It doesn't get better that that! And onto to Part 2 - Europe!

Posted by jim-n-mark 10:38 Archived in USA Tagged florida asheville wegmans rockville Comments (0)

J'aime Montreal!

A great taste of what's yet to come.

sunny 78 °F
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As we headed from Quechee to the Great White North, ay, we stopped in Waterbury, VT at one of the place I have always wanted to go: Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream Factory. IMG_1083.jpg
Alas, it was but a Griswald moment because (1) we were in a hurry as we left late from Quechee, (2) the lines were long for the factory tour and just to get ice cream, and (3) they weren't actually making ice cream that day. So it was a quick picture moment and an ice cream pop (no line at the outdoor vendor), and back in the car.

We left the mountains of Vermont, and were surprised when we crossed the border (uneventfully) into Canada how the terrain flattened out, and looked more like Iowa cornfields than what we expected Canada to look like. Did we just pass into Kansas or Canada? Oh wait, all the signs are in French. Must be Quebec. Soon enough we came into Montreal and found our hotel, Le Place d'Armes, in the heart of Old Montreal across from the Notre-Dame Basilica, right on the border of the Old City and the newer, modern part of Montreal. Cobblestone streets and neo-clasical old-world 19th century architecture (composed actually of 3 buildings) welcomed us on the outside, and beautifully appointed modern rooms greeted us inside, including a fireplace (albeit electrical) in the room. You know you must be well located when the name of your hotel, Le Place d'Armes, is also the name of a plaza, a street and a Metro station.

Since it was fairly late when we got there, we headed straight out for dinner and searched out one of the top rated restaurants in Trip Advisor. Walking away from Old Montreal, I was amazed at the hordes of people. Crowds in every direction. Everyone was out on the streets. We got to the restaurant, which was small, concrete and not particularly inviting, also, they were fully booked and not taking any walk-ins. We decided to walk down the famous Rue Saint-Catherine and just find something. More crowds and this being the modern part of the city, there was no charming architecture. I have to admit that at this point, I was not terribly impressed with Montreal. I could have been in New York or any other very large anonymous city, with nondescript urban architecture and tons of people everywhere. Where was the old world architecture (other than our hotel)? Where were the boulevards of Paris? I was getting a little worried.

As we continued to walk, we finally came to the "proper" pedestrian zone of the Rue Saint-Catherine, with strings of pink baubles hung crosswise over the streets; row after row for as far the eye could see. Sidewalk cafes lined the boulevard, and people strolled up and down the rue. This was looking better already. We stopped at a random restaurant and had a good meal, surrounded by people speaking French. We were starting to feel a little more cosmopolitan. As we continued the evening and on into the night, we even ran into some of the same people we had been dining next to. I guess you never know who you might bump into later. The big city was starting to gain some intimacy.

The next day was Saturday, and we went looking for lunch, but our first choice of restaurant, L'Arrivage at the museum, was only serving brunch. So was the next restaurant, and the next. We soon learned the first of many lessons that Montreal had to teach us: (1) Montreal is a "late" city, with everything shifted about two hours later than we were used to in the US and (2) that every restaurant in Montreal only serves brunch and dinner on the weekends. In fact, later that day as we were walking the streets around 4:00pm, brunch was still being served in the restaurants. At the sidewalk cafe that we chose, we were a little taken aback that Eggs Benedict cost $22, but as we deciphered the menu a little more, we realized that it actually came with: fresh orange juice, coffee, a bread basket, fresh chèvre cheese, homemade marmalades, fruit salad, sautéed spinach, grilled tomatoes, salmon gravlax, duck confit (Montreallers really love their duck confit -- it's everywhere!), and more. Now we're talkin'!
Awesome brunch

Awesome brunch

Add a glass of champagne and it was perfect! I think we're starting to get used to and get the feel of this cosmopolitan city. We were starting to like the way Montreallers live.

Over brunch, we reviewed things to do in the city. It became apparent that Montreal isn't really a city full of attractions, but instead, it is a city to be explored and experienced. Lesson 3: Do as the Montreallers, and stroll through the city. No wonder everyone was on the streets the night before. It was a beautiful day and we decided to go to the Botanical Gardens. As we walked to the Metro station, we sauntered through the streets of Old Montreal and started to get a real sense of the old city and we found what we had been missing our first night: more cobblestone streets, art galleries, 18th century architecture, performance artists and musicians in the squares, and one sidewalk cafe after another. This was it! This was the European feel we had been expecting. Montreal was looking better and better.

The subways were a bit of a surprise as they roll on rubber tires, not steel wheels on tracks. Much cushier and no squealing! The Botanical Gardens are located next to the Olympic Park, and are an absolute must-see. We have never experienced such beautiful and extensive gardens anywhere else like these. While the initial rose gardens were a little "off-the-bloom", we were soon enchanted by the Water Garden, the Chinese Garden, the Japanese Garden, the First Nations Garden, and especially the extensive Ornamental Vegetable Garden and the "Flowery Brook". Too bad the lilacs were not in season, because they have a huge lilac "orchard". You could still smell the lingering sweet scent in the air. The Vegetable Garden was enormous with every kind of vegetable you could think of, and many I had never heard of. The "Flowery Brook" was a small meandering brook with little arched wooden bridges criss-crossing it, all nestled in vast fields of lilies of every variety and color combination you could imagine. It was probably the size of two football fields and it was breathtaking. We sat among the lilies and enjoyed a bottle of white wine. It was a perfect afternoon.


We decided to eat at one of the two restaurants in the hotel, Suite 701, which is not on the 7th floor, but on the ground floor. We were greeted by pink lights and the heavy beat of dance music, and led to a table right by the front door, where we could watch the people go by as they peered inside wondering what they were missing. Chic-dressed patrons came in, but then seemed to disappear. Where did they go? Dinner was quite good although we kept it light before heading back to Rue de Saint-Catherine for some more night life.

The next day we decided to follow the advice of a friend of ours, and visit the Marche Jean Talon, an expansive outdoor (but covered) market, with stall after stall offering the freshest fruits and vegetables, fromage (cheese), charcuterie, fish and seafood, wines, a french bakery full of baguettes and pastries, chocolates, fresh flowers, prepared foods, and much more. Most of the produce stalls have platters of cut-up tomatoes, cherries, oranges, peaches, grapefruit, melon, and on and on, all for you to try to entice you to purchase from their stall.
We went round and round, picking up a baguette, cheese, fruit, tomatoes, wine, macarons, cookies, etc. and headed back to the subway for a trip to Mont Royal, the "mountain" (really a big hill) in the middle of the city, from which the city gets it's name, which is one giant park. Lesson #4 learned: take the #11 bus or a taxi from the Mont Royal subway station to actually get to the mountain top. We walked to the base which is a long walk, and then decided to cab it to the overlook. We never would have made it walking the whole way. Once at the overlook, we walked through the wooded paths quite a ways to find a grassy park area (at the very top) where we felt very European indulging in our glorious pique-nique.
We took the very steep, but relatively short route down the mountain toward the old city, which consisted mainly of stairways clinging to the steep rock face.

When we returned to the hotel, we discovered that there is a Terrace bar on the roof of the hotel with a wonderful overlook of the city. So this is where all those people were going when they came into the restaurant the previous night. This would be a cool night-time hangout! For dinner, we decided to return to the Old City and really get a feeling of the old world at night. This is where the Old City really shined. People slowly strolling down the streets, the old-world architecture highlighted by strategically placed uplighting, galleries and cafes aglow, people sitting in the cafes conversing in French. It reminded me of Van Gogh's nighttime painting "The Cafe Terrace on the Place du Forum". Just beautiful. It really felt like you had left our continent and landed on The Continent. It was a great taste of what we were expecting for the second leg of our Epic Vacation, when we explored Spain, France and Italy.

For dinner, we went to Jardin Nelson, adjacent to the Hotel Nelson, and discovered a beautiful outdoor courtyard, with lush foliage and these enormous inverted white patio umbrellas, shaped like tulips or trumpets with the "ribs" on the inside and lit from within. Truly charming.
We had heard that this was a place to go for atmosphere and not necessarily the food, and the critics were right. The live jazz band contributed to the amazing ambiance and it was well worth a visit, even if the food was mediocre. I had a crepe (which is their specialty) with rabbit (hey, it's French, and when else am I going to have it?) The crepe was rather "waffle-y" in flavor and texture, and the rabbit, while good and not at all gamey (tasted like pork), was in a heavy creamy sauce that could have used some freshening up with some herbs and acid. If we were to return, I would suggest eating dinner elsewhere, but definitely come here for a drink and to soak up some ambiance.

The next day we decided to skip the next couple of scheduled stops (Thousand Islands and Niagara Falls), and start heading south back towards home.
That was the nice thing about our trip -- it was unscheduled and we could do as we pleased. Overall, Montreal was one of our favorite stops of this trip, and we would definitely love to return some day.

Posted by jim-n-mark 11:30 Archived in Canada Tagged gardens montreal place mont canada jean botanical royal d'armes talon saint-catherine Comments (0)

Terror on the way to Quechee!

This car climbed Mt. Washington

sunny 80 °F
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We turned the car west from Camden, Maine, and headed to our next stop, which was Quechee, Vermont, to visit Carol, longtime partner of Jim's recently passed father. On the way to Vermont, though, we had to pass through New Hampshire, and decided we needed to visit the highest point in the eastern US, Mt. Washington. Unlike most high mountains, you can actually drive all the way to the top of this one, with it's summit at 6288 ft. What we weren't quite prepared for was (1) the twisty, turning and very narrow road that makes the corners of your car edge over the precipice of the descending abyss as you squeeze past cars going the other way, and (2) the drop in temperature at the top.

Jim tends to be a little nervous about his car, and his sharp inhalations of air whenever I drive has made us realize it is usually best that he is the pilot and I the navigator. I did not dare drive his car along this road, and even with Jim behind the wheel, I could tell he was terrified. While they tell you that you must keep your car in 1st gear the whole 8 miles up to the peak and back down again, with a speed limit of 20mph, Jim usually kept it between 10-15 mph, and crept only inches at a time while passing oncoming cars in some particularly harrowing places and corners. So it took us a while to ascend, but as part of admission, you get, in addition to a "This car climbed Mt. Washington" bumper sticker, an informative audio CD that explains the history of the road and what you are seeing as you pass through hardwood forests, then evergreen, then to the tree line with its diminished and twisted and gnarly shrubs called "crumholtz" (German for crooked wood), and on to alpine tundra and nothing by lichen covered rock. Jim was very relieved when we finally made it to the top.


When we got out of the car, we were assaulted by the freezing wind that blew over this mountaintop. Down in the valley below, it was 73oF, bu at the top it was 43oF, with a 35 knot wind, making the wind chill an almost freezing 34o. We were wearing shorts, and Jim flip-flops. Brrrrrrrrrr! As we trekked the short distance to the actual summit, there was a line to have your picture taken, and we had to stand in the blowing wind for what seemed an eternity before it was our turn.
I can totally believe that this is where the Worst Weather on Earth was recorded with the highest recorded wind speed ever at 231 mph. This mountain gets hurricane speed winds over 100 days each year.
Right next to the summit is a little log cabin, which was actually a hotel of sorts opened in 1853, apparently before they had any sense. Inside was a small "lobby"/dining room, a small kitchen, and a bunk room with 12 racks stacked 3 high and 4 in a row. The amazing thing is that this was constructed as a competitor to another small building right next door, also a hotel. This one with chains over the whole building's roof chaining it to the ground so it would not blow away in the winds! Insane!

After quickly viewing all the breathtaking scenes from this high vantage point, we retreated back into the warmth of the car. Our descent from the summit back to the valley floor was just as harrowing as the way up, but it was a fun adventure. We concluded that Cadillac Mountain has nothing on Mt. Washington, and that this was the most terrifying road we had ever driven, including some I have driven in the Alps.

We continued on our way to the town of Quechee, Vermont, the town where Jim grew up as a teenager. We stopped at the covered bridge which crosses the Ottoquechee river almost across the street from Jim's childhood home, and viewed the tremendous, and still unrepaired, damage to the foundation of the bridge and the neighboring building, now condemned, that was wreaked by Hurricane Irene in August 2011, and which dumped huge rainfall in the Northeast, flooding many rivers, and wiping out many of Vermont's famed covered bridges.

We had a pleasant home-cooked dinner with Carol, her daughter Jennifer and granddaughter Dewey and got up-to-date on the happenings of small town Quechee. The next day we joined Carol for lunch at Simon Pierce, the famed glass-blowing factory overlooking the waterfall. Then back in the car and on to Montreal!

Posted by jim-n-mark 06:42 Archived in USA Tagged washington mt. quechee ottaquechee Comments (0)

The Rocky Shores of Maine

Or, is it possible to overdose on lobster?

sunny 82 °F
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We headed north from Boston to the coast of Maine, and sure enough, the archetypal rocky shores soon appeared before us right on cue. Our first stop was Oggunquit, a small town a short ways up the coast. On the way, we passed through some more touristy areas and came to the conclusion that Nor'Easters like their beaches, and there aren't that many of them that are wide and sandy, so wherever a sandy shore exists, it is going to be a popular tourist area. And the more people that are there, the more touristy and less quaint the destination. Many of the areas of southern Maine certainly fit that description. But Oggunquit, while having a sizable beach that grows and shrinks with the great tidal surge, is small, walkable and quite quaint. There is a lovely walk, about a mile long, called the Marginal Way (because it is on the margin of the ocean, not because it is marginal), that hugs the bluffs along the ocean, just below the cliff-hanging homes, and it offers several breathtaking views and photo ops. Oggunquit is not a large town, and one day there was enough to explore it fully.
As we continued north, our original next destination was going to be Bar Harbor, but after a heartfelt invitation and insistence on a visit from an extended family member (thanks so much, Neall), we decided to stay in Camden for a couple of days and just do a day trip to Bar Harbor. We certianly learned a few things from some of the locals. First, central coastal Maine is referred to as "Down-East". I found this a little confusing as all of coastal Maine is "east", and I would think that southern Maine would be "down". But apparently my logic does not work in Maine. Down-East starts around Rockland, I believe, just south of Camden and continues north beyond Bar Harbor. The other lesson was the pronunciation of Bar Harbor. From now and forever onward, I will only be able to say "Bah Hah-bah", as that is the correct pronunciation according to locals.

Camden is the family home of Chase, our nephew, and his side of the family, and it was a treat to get to see it and where some of his roots lie. Camden is another very charming New England town, with a lovely harbor and park area overlooking the harbor with a waterfall running down into the waters, and with quaint shops and restaurants lining the tightly angled streets.
We stayed in the guesthouse on the family property which has a a few houses on it, and had an awesome lobster dinner with Danny, Chase's uncle. We got to meet Christina, Danny's new girlfriend, who was very charming, easy going, and genuine. She hails from a family of genuine lobstermen, so she provided us with all sorts of tips and stories on the catching, cooking and eating of lobster. It was great and we laughed a lot.
The next day we headed to Bah Hah-bah, about 2 1/2 hours north, and were very surprised when as we approached, tall mountains loomed ahead on the island on which Bah Hah-bah sits. (See, I'm going to get you to say Bah Hah-bah before you even realize it!). It is a pretty large island and if you look at the topography, it becomes clear that it is actually a series of mountains thrust up from the sea in a neat row, with the ocean filling in the valleys between the mountains, creating numerous bays. It makes for stunning views, and Bah Hah-bah does not disappoint. We ate lunch at The Bar Harbor Inn which is perched on a hill descending to the harbor below, with numerous hilly islands in the backgrounds and a few lobster boats and a 4 masted sailboat bobbing in the waters just offshore. The picture perfect image of Maine!
Bah Hah-bah is yet another quaint New England coastal town with a walkable shopping and eating area downtown. Following the advice we received from others we met, we drove up Cadillac Mountain, which is the tallest mountain on the island. The weather was perfect which made the views spectacular, and we could really get a sense of the mountainous topography of the expansive area. It was a great way to see the whole island and the surrounding waters with its numerous islands and bay.
We returned to Camden that afternoon, had a delicious dinner at Atlantica and called it a night before taking off for Quechee, Vermont the next day. A couple of side notes: since we were staying at a family home a little ways out of town, we were really removed from city lights, and it got so dark at night, it was amazing. You could not see the hand in front of your face, and the stars outside filled the sky like I have not seen in many, many years.

The second is more of a question: is it possible to overdose on lobster? Starting in Newport, RI, we tended to order lobster for at least one dish per day, sometimes having it twice a day. Lobster rolls, lobster Mac and cheese, steamed whole lobster, lobster and gnocchi, lobster salad, lobster, lobster, and more lobster. It was everywhere, and we felt an obligation to eat as much of it as possible, because, well, we were in New England and that's what you do, right? Also, due to an early molting season, lobster prices were down to $7.99 a pound in some places. It was cheaper than many cuts of meat. Although in some restaurants, they still charged a hefty $24 for a lobster roll, while you could find them at a road side shack for $8.99. So, best Lobster Mac and Cheese? Had to be at Nancy's on Martha's Vineyard. Best Lobster Roll? I'd vote for the one we had the year before when we visited our friends at Port Jefferson, Long Island. Maybe it was the setting, maybe it was the company, or maybe it was because it was an unusual treat then, and not as ubiquitous as they had become in Maine. I hate to say it, but we were actually getting pretty sick of lobster. It was time to say goodbye to the coast of Maine, and to the eastern coast of the US, and to lobster. It was time to head inland and trade shoreline for mountains.

Posted by jim-n-mark 04:36 Archived in USA Tagged and mac lobster bar harbor camden maine rolls cheese oggunquit Comments (0)

Beantown Bound!

sunny 84 °F
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Leaving Matha's Vineyard by ferry put our total ferry count to 7. On the boat sitting next to us, were a couple who pulled out a guitar and fiddle and started playing a lively set of bluegrass tunes. Who knew we would have a little serenade on the deck of the boat? We hoped it wasn't a foreshadowing of The Titanic. ;)

We said our goodbyes to the Sullivan's and continued on our journey on our own. Arriving in Boston, we searched out our accommodations in the heart of downtown, but when we arrived at the purported address of the Ames Hotel, there was no sign of a hotel there.  It was a bit crazy with traffic and one-way streets so we decided to park in the nearest parking building and search on foot.  We returned to where the hotel address was and still no signs of any kind, just two gentlemen standing guard at the door of what appeared to be an office building.  As we approached, they welcomed us in and sure enough it was the right hotel.  I guess part of their mystique is similar to a speakeasy:  you have to be in-the-know.  Very modern inside with great rooms and the most abundant sorts of amenities beyond the usual mini-bar stuff, including t-shirts, hats, first aid kits, pleasure kits, etc. - all within the room.  It certainly exceeded all expectations and a reasonable value as well, costing less than half of what we paid on Long Island.  We can highly recommend the Ames!
That afternoon we decided to take it easy as it was the first time we had to ourselves for the past week or so, so we explored Faneuil Hall (just a block from our hotel) before returning to the Ames.  We indulged ourselves by staying in the room and watching "The Most Exotic Hotel Marigold" movie on our TV, which was still in theaters.  (Note to Nancy:  you were right, this movie was better than Prometheus.)  For dinner we went to a restaurant recommended by the hotel bartender, but it was very loud, the food mediocre, and the service completely disengaged.  It was one of the few times we did not take the recommendations from Trip Advisor or Yelp, and it showed.

The next morning we explored Boston Commons, the Public Garden, Newbury Street, Chinatown, Boston Harbor and back to the Faneuil Hall/Aquarium area - all on foot.  Quite a walk.  We had a little lunch at Legal Seafood, then boarded the Old Town Trolley tour for an historical excursion of Boston, with quite the animated driver/narrator.  Huzzah!!! he would loudly exclaim at every opportunity, while both explaining the colonial patriot movement and yelling in a friendly, although startling, manner at nearby pedestrians.  He was informative and fun!
He also explained why Boston is called Beantown. I had guessed it had something to do with Boston Baked Beans, but wasn't sure of the details. Our guide explained: during colonial times, it was forbidden to cook on the Sabbath, so the day before, colonists would start a big pot of beans and let it simmer until the next day. After church, they would return home and the beans were served. I guess beans are one of the few foods that you can slow cook for a full day or more.
During the tour, we passed though the Beacon Hill neighborhood, with it's quaint shops and little streets, and decided it was a good place to return for dinner.  We checked out three restaurants within one block, and decided to eat at Figs, a Todd English (famous chef) restaurant, specializing in pizza and a few pasta dishes.  I was very surprised that such a prominent chef would have his name on such a small restaurant.  Only about 8 tables and 6 barstools filled this teensy tiny space.  The pizza was, however, delicious.

Returning to the hotel for a nightcap, the bartender, Collin, a former minor league baseball player, was very nice and congenial and made up for the previous night's rather uppity bartender, who had made the wrong drink and tried to blame us for not ordering correctly, while she lectured us on the nuances of ordering a shot neat, straight, straight up, or as a sidecar.  She could surely learn a lesson from Collin on the nuances of being a more friendly bartender.

Posted by jim-n-mark 13:41 Archived in USA Tagged hotel town tours old boston trolley ames Comments (0)

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