Sunday, October 4, 2015

Si Formidable! The Delicious Food and Welcoming People of Quebec

Wonderful selection of breads at Boulangerie Artisenale Grains de Folie, Amqui, Quebec

We knew we'd crossed over the border into Quebec even before we saw the sign welcoming us to the province. Boulangeries (bakeries), fromageries (cheese shops) and bouchers (butchers) started appearing immediately on the sides of the road. It didn't take long until the RV (of its own accord, I swear), kindly pulled into the parking lot of a charming boulangerie so that its owners could buy some bread and cheese. Despite our abysmally bad French and the owner's equally lacking English, we somehow managed, with a lot of laughing and charades, to leave with 100 grams each of locally made pied-au-vent triple creme cheese, duck and cranberry terrine, raclette with black peppercorns, rustic bread, a couple of chocolate brioche, and a half dozen croissants. Oooh la la!

The cheese selection 

   Recently while traveling in Newfoundland, Luis and I met a couple, Jacques and Carmen from Quebec, who invited us to spend a few days on their small farm, Ferme Aux Trois Vallons in Canton Stanstead. We looked at the atlas and saw that their place was not so far off our route, so we swung by and spent three wonderful days enjoying home-cooked meals and great company. We knew we were in for a treat when Carmen asked us if we preferred farm-raised rabbit or deer for out first dinner. I had found some chanterelles and other foraged mushrooms in woods while hiking, so I brought those in and Carmen and Jacques prepared roast rabbit with the mushrooms along with apples and root vegetables from their farm for a cozy autumnal meal in their charming farmhouse kitchen.

Jacques, Carmen and Luis enjoying the rabbit and chanterelles

 Over the three days we visited, they took us walking around their farm, showing us the various plants and structures they'd built or inherited, including a hunting blind, rabbit hutch and maple-syrup processing hut. They fill their chest freezers with the organic meat and produce that they can access more or less right out their back door, supplemented with the few items that they can't grow themselves. An amazing, generous, lively and active couple, they had done most of the renovations on their 100 year old farmhouse themselves, continued to work the farm and make secondary items such as chocolates or jams and, if that wasn't enough, Jacques is an avid hiker and mountain climber. Having reached the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro at age 69, followed by Mt. Everest's base camp at 70, he was now thinking, at age 74, of climbing the highest mountain outside of Asia, Aconcagua.

Jacques picking dragon carrots from his garden 

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

St. John's, Newfoundland: City of Cod Tongues and Resilience

Jelly Bean Row Houses, St. John's, Newfoundland, Canada 

After three very windy, cold and rainy days here in St. John's Newfoundland, we've finally given up any hope of hiking the many wild areas near the city and are heading west to catch the Marine Atlantic Ferry from Argentia south from Newfoundland to Sydney, Nova Scotia. We're preparing for a 17 hour overnight trip, in which we'll be sleeping in our seats since we can't enter our motorhome during the voyage and cabins cost an extra $200. Hey, we've done it before in other countries on overnight re-purposed school buses with non-reclining seats, constantly ringing cell phones, goats on ropes and chickens in crates. Although those trips weren't crossing the choppy North Atlantic and the Cabot Strait in September Maritime weather...

The Rooms Museum, St. John's 

We did have one sunny day in St. John's and took advantage of it by visiting the downtown area. We took the motorhome in since it was a Sunday and parking was free. If we visit a city on a weekday, we leave the RV at Wal-mart or a public transportation parking lot and hop the nearest bus/local ferry/subway into town. Last Sunday worked out well though since it was Doors Open, a periodic event across Canada that allows visitors to enter different venues such as museums, galleries and historic sites for free, often also offering free guided tours. 

St. John's has had more than its share of tragedy: the Great Fire of 1892 which destroyed most of the east end of the city and left 11,000 people homeless. the numerous losses of life and vessels of fishers and sealers, an influenza epidemic in 1918 and a tsunami in 1929. When the cod population was depleted in the early 1990s, the federal government put a moratorium on catching the fish and 30,000 people lost their jobs and often, their boats and homes. Despite all of these devastating setbacks, the people remain upbeat, resourceful, friendly and welcoming. During the Sept. 11th grounding of flights, many Newfoundlanders took stranded families into their homes for free for weeks, feeding them and keeping them safe and well looked after until the crisis passed. 

These days, it's going through a gentrification of sorts, in the shabby chic phase, with many of the older stone buildings still standing and turned into pubs, restaurants and art galleries, and with several of the colorful row houses that line the streets above the wharf being renovated. The city has a sort of older-residents-living-happily-alongside-hipsters-and-recent-immigrants vibe: think Portland, Oregon in the 1990s. The people of the city have a resilience and rebuilding mentality that is the result of years of having to do just that. When you live in the North Atlantic on the province known by locals as the The Rock and very near to the precipice of one of the Four Corners of the Flat Earth, you are made of some stern stuff and take it all in stride. You'd have to be to survive local dishes like cod tongues and seal flipper pie.  

Friday, September 4, 2015

One Year on the Road and Everyone's Still Alive

Luis and I just hit a milestone: one full year traveling through The US and Canada in a 21-foot motorhome. We racked up 22,000 miles, 32 states, 6 provinces, 12 UNESCO World Heritage Sites, 8 National Parks and 108 bumper stickers and we're starting our second year with, well, actually, high winds and freezing rain in Newfoundland, but also, zest for adventure! When people ask us how it's going, we say "Well, everyone's still alive and married". Whenever friends step into our admittedly-small-by-American-RV-standards motorhome, they usually gasp and say things like "Oh hell no! (unless they're from the south, in which case, they say oh hay-ell no!) I would kill my husband/wife/partner within 10 minutes!" How did we do it? Patience, love, days with some time apart and lots and lots of red wine.    

We also have a lot in common. We both love to travel, enjoy nature and hiking, both agree that watching motor sports is about as exciting as watching paint dry (oh, wait...that's just me). Both think that garage sales and thrift stores are the best possible way to spend a few extra hours on the weekend (um, also just me). Division of labor helps us avoid arguments about whose turn it is to do things. I cook, he washes the dishes. I navigate, he drives, which is just as well since my eyesight is so bad that I can't see a road sign or a moose until I'm right on top of it, sometimes literally...just sayin'. I put the clothes in the washer at the laundromat. I mean, come on, he's a boy; he would throw my cashmere sweaters in with the sneakers and bleach on the hot water cycle. He's on drying and folding because, really, how much damage could he do? 

We both favor experience over passive sight-seeing, with the added benefit of checking things off the bucket list. We are both extremely frugal when it comes to spending money on things such as campsites, food, clothes and supplies, but one thing that we won't skimp on is excursions. We are, after all, here to travel. Rappelling down a wall of Horse Cave? Check. Snow-shoeing across Hurricane Ridge? Check. Sampling the wares on the Bourbon Trail in Kentucky? Check, check. That's what it's all about. That's why we're here. And, most importantly, we're having the time of our lives together. 

Thursday, April 2, 2015

New Orleans, Louisiana: Hurricanes, Voodoo & Jazz

St. Louis Cathedral, French Quarter

I hadn't been to NOLA in years, and in truth, hadn't been much impressed by it on past visits. It was probably the circumstances. The first time I visited I was with my ex-husband and we'd argued most of the trip. The remaining visits had been work-related, so I'd only seen a sliver of the city, usually slogging through muddy streets during the steamy rainy season or through the hazy lens of post-meeting happy hours. And so it was with some reluctance that I found myself trudging into the city again. This time it was post-Katrina and I imagined that the city would be in an even worse state, but I couldn't have been more wrong. 

Frenchman Street, French Quarter

Was it visiting the city in the sunny spring weather with azaleas blooming, this time with someone I actually liked and no meetings to attend? Or had the city been transformed post-hurricane? Many of the crumbling buildings and roads had been repaired, parks had been cleaned up, there were more tourists than ever, but a different kind than before, more wholesome and family-oriented, sober even. It was the best trip I'd ever taken to the city and was made even better seeing it through Luis's eyes. I learned later from several locals that the sudden influx of FEMA money had given the city a face lift, an unexpected benefit of the tragedy. And best of all, the incredible can't-keep-us-down New Orleans spirit was stronger than ever. 

Jackson Square

Of course we had to sample the amazing food: beignets, cafe au lait, boudin, oyster po' boys, etouffeeThere is music everywhere in New Orleans, in the streets, coming from the windows of the bars and cafes, in the concert venues. Even the National Park Service offers free concerts most days of the weeks, and you can listen to incredibly good music for free or for a small donation in the squares and parks of the French Quarter every day of the week. We wandered down the back roads and found brightly painted houses, small local pubs and voodoo shops filled with every charm, curse and amulet that you could want. So far, it has been on of our favorite stops, a city full of life, music, color, mysticism, friendly and helpful people and some of the best food in America. New Orleans is back and better than ever. 

 Cafe du Monde

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Key West, Florida: Jimmy Buffet Has Left the Building

The Green Parrot Bar, one of the few remaining old buildings still standing in Key West (photo by Simone Cannon)

It had been 30 years since I last visited Key West, aka briefly as The Conch Republic , Cayo Hueso (Bone Island) and Margaritaville, thanks to the famous song by Jimmy Buffet. The last stop, both literally and figuratively, on the US mainland. Key West was originally used as a residence for the Calusa tribe, then alternately owned by the Spanish and British, until Florida was ceded to the United States in 1819. The island has a colorful past: it has been repeatedly exploited  over the years by pirates, various countries' military forces, Cubans and Bahamians who cut down the trees, hunted turtles and fished and was used as a base by bootleggers during prohibition in the 1930s and South American drug runners from the 1960s to 1980s. During that period, it was also a place of refuge for people with few other options; quite literally, the end of the road. A laid back place with cheap rent, open bars and beautiful sunsets, where you could relax on the beach, forget your troubles and maybe get a fresh start. 

  A couple cycling in front of the Southernmost House, now a boutique hotel, Key West (photo by Simone Cannon)

When I visited in the 90s, new development was slowly building, but you could already see in which direction the island was moving. Although still charming in its own way, the old Key West is gone. With a few exceptions, the rickety bars and Victorian wooden houses have been replaced by Coach and Express stores, slick art galleries and upscale martini bars. The rents have gone through the roof, on average, $2,000-$4,000 for a one bedroom apartment and the renters and owners, semi-understandably, are intolerant of squatters, including RV dry campers. Years ago, you could park your small motorhome, van or car almost anywhere along the side of the road in the keys, but now, the only camping near Key West is the KOA on Sugarloaf Key at a rate of $104 a night, not an option on our tight budget, so we had to drive from and back to Long Key State Park. Parking has always been difficult, but now it is almost impossible to find a space, especially for a motorhome. After driving around for ages, someone finally told us that we could park for free in the empty lot across from the Eco Discovery Center and walk to the town center. 

Willie T's Bar, Key West

There are still vestiges of the Key West that I remember: you can still walk down the street with a cocktail, you can still see the performers on Sunset Pier at Mallory Square while watching the sunset, and there are still lots of tacky souvenir shops, but the beaches have been taken over by corporate resorts, condos have been built on every square inch of undeveloped land and the island is very much geared to the affluent American and International tourist. Tour buses and hop-on/off trolleys abound, boutique hotels and expensive restaurants are everywhere and privately chartered sports fishing boats are a booming business. Newly arrived residents even tried to rid the island of the famous roosters by hiring a rooster hunter (really), but many of the older residents kidnapped and hid the roosters in their homes to save their lives and the rooster hunter eventually gave up and went home. The long-time residents are trying to hold the fort down for as long as they can, but eventually, the developers will sadly hold most of the cards. Time marches on, development continues and there is a lot of tourist money to be made...I get it, but Jimmy Buffet has definitely left the building.   

At least the roosters are still there...(photo by Simone Cannon)