After a difficult day filled with sadness and loss, we rebound with something far more palatable: Calvados
A short drive away from our dock in Honfleur through rolling French countryside complete with farms, thatch-roofed houses, wrought iron gates and quaint gardens, we arrive at the Calvados experience. A cross between Disney and a how-to video, the experience includes a series of rooms cleverly disguised as scenery featured in the videos showing the process of distilling Calvados.
Essentially it is an apple brandy, but the delicate production from fruit to liquor is painstaking. The results are amazing. Following the experience we are able to sample. There is a generous piece of baguette and brie from the region served along with the spirits.
And then we finish the tour in the bottle shop.
My personal assessment of the visit is two thumbs up. It was so well done and informative.
Following the tasting we travel into the quaint village P’tit Beaumont We hop off the bus to take in sweeping views of the lush rolling landscape and also manage to visit a few shops.
From there we return to Honfleur and the boat. After a quick bite for lunch we venture out around the historic harbour town.
Back on board we get ready for a special dinner. it’s a seven course menu with complementary wines.
Today was a hard day for a few reasons. To start, our alarm was set for 6:30 am as we had to be on the tour by 8 am. The weather called for rain. Lots of rain. And our tour would take us to the battlefields and trenches of The Somme. When we set out and walked from the boat to the bus it was not raining but the paths were wet; it had rained quite a bit. Luckily we hit a dry patch and in the semi darkness made our way to the coach. It was not a full bus so we could spread out and relax.
It was a 90 minute drive to the first museum housed in a small village within a school donated and built by Australia. Victoria Hall is on the second floor and contains a neatly curated collection of artifacts from WW1 including letters, photographs, uniforms, artillery and kit items. Some of the items are so well preserved; it’s a miracle they survived at all. The display cases are neatly marked and labelled with care. Among the items are a few German pieces as we learned throughout this day that the losses and suffering were great on both sides. The European Allies in the war (also called the Great War or the war to end all wars) were grateful to receive military aid from other commonwealth countries and this particular museum pays tribute to the Australians who fought in the area and liberated (then defended) the village. It was clear that the weather today fit the somber mood. The images and feelings around the battle fields and trenches was emotional. But as you glanced out of museum windows into the courtyard below you could watch the children playing and laughing. Such a dichotomy yet fitting. One of the guides read a letter from a soldier who questioned if the sacrifice was worth it. Watching the children answers that question.
From here we continued on to the Sir John Monash Centre a short drive away. The skies are clearing and there’s no rain at all but the ground is wet. This is an amazing place built and maintained by Australia. It is an immersive experience into the trench warfare based on the Australia brigade under commanding officer John Monash. His personal story is also very interesting. The bus pulled up to the centre and parked. It was a hilltop and you could see the French and Australian flags flying by the cemetery prior to the entryway to the museum. It’s stark and austere with imposing stone edifices However, the museum entrance itself was designed to have visitors experience entering the trenches. It is a downward sloping maze with street name signs (they named the trenches) such as Wallaby Rd and the rattle of artillery fire is piped in on speakers cleverly hidden in the walls. At the doorway to the museum you are greeted by a foyer displaying large art installations such as a tapestry and a large wooden wall using different native Australian woods to signify each region of the country. Museum staff explain how to use the app as it tracks your location while in the museum and you can play the audio for each display by accessing it on the app. In the centre of the museum is a larger presentation room where you can become fully immersed in the trench battles. After spending an hour or so inside you are transported back to the years of war and your heart becomes heavy with emotion. Once you leave you can walk through the cemetery on site and the devastation and tragic loss is profound. I personally found it hard to breathe and certainly wiped many tears away. Canadian graves were marked with a Maple Leaf but many had no names as remains were not identified. Horrific. These young men were sons, brothers, husbands.
As you can see, we emerged from the museum into a perfectly sunny day. How ironic.
The bus takes us through rolling countryside farms and pastures. We stop for lunch but my appetite is nonexistent; today was day I should have had breakfast. I ate without tasting the food.
After lunch we continue through the picturesque farmland until we reach our next destination. It’s the Newfoundland memorial sponsored by Canada. It’s a piece of land owned and managed Veteran Affairs and is a series of trenches, monuments and graves. At the time of the war Newfoundland was not a Canadian province so the 2000 approx soldiers fought under the British army. Another stark display of the grim conditions during the war. There were trees planted after the war as the ravages of battles levelled the fields and left them barren and broken. There is one weird tree, known as the danger tree, that soldiers used as their landmark to know where they were in no man’s land (the area between the two opposing trenches). On July 1 of 1917 the allied troops suffered devastating losses as they tried to advance and push the Germans back. They were slaughtered. Aside from the trenches (now grassy moguls) there are huge grassy divots/craters from the bombs. The grass makes things soft and park like when in reality these were the killing fields where armies of young men brutalized each other following orders. There are no words. Standing on the grounds you can see the distance from trench to trench and it catapults you to the image of wasteland and death. The danger tree is a stark image.
The memorial is staffed by Canadian students who apply to take on the position. There are two criteria: you are a full time student who is bilingual. The two we met today were lovely. Bright pleasant shining examples of Canadian niceness. One from Cape Breton and the other from Victoria BC. To this day farmers and locals unearth remains of the battles and when they do forensic anthropologists are engaged to determine origins. A large caribou statue stands tall pointing to the Canadian held front line of battle. Among the grassy trenches is a herd of sheep happily grazing blissfully unaware of the history under their food supply.
The final stop on our tour is Lochnagar Crater it’s a very short ride from the Newfoundland memorial. It’s a privately owned site (bought by the owner to ensure it wasn’t plowed into farmland. The crater was made by a 60,000 ton bomb. It’s huge. The site itself is in disrepair due to lack of funding. But the impact is astounding. The crater site is surrounded on all sides by farm fields. Some of which are apparently potatoes.
It was a day for reflection and introspection. Having grown up listening to my dads war stories it impacted me in a personal and sad way. There are no winners of wars. Only innocent young men following orders bravely. Many paid the ultimate price. Lest we forget.
Over night we motored through more locks and arrived in Rouen. We will be here for two days. The day starts with a sunny and mild morning stroll into the historic old town just a few blocks from the boat dock. Our guide leads us to the cobbled streets and back in time to a medieval fantasy of churches and saints and ritual. All I can think about is Les Miserable and how the world was in those years.
A prominent figure in town is Joan of Arc who the French worshipped and the British vilified. We learned from the previous days tour that the Normandy region was held by the British and later fell back to French hands. It was a constant struggle and religion played a major role. Joan of Arc was burned at the stake by the British and became a saintly icon to the French. There are many monuments and even a church in town in her honour. The significance of burning her was a deliberate tactic to disparage the Catholics as having no body to bury leaves the soul in purgatory. In those times churches collected relics which attracted parishioners to come to services. Relics included body parts and clothing items as well as other precious pieces.
The main attraction in Rouen is the Notre Dame cathedral. At one time there were 70 or so churches in town; some only meters away from each other. At the time it was built, the Notre Dame cathedral was the worlds tallest building. It’s amazing gothic stone structure was bombed during WW2 but managed to survive virtually unscathed. It is now undergoing major repairs. It is a huge structure and the spire can be seen from miles away.
The Courthouse, another ancient building also served as the jail. During nazi occupation years it was the nazi admin headquarters where resistance prisoners were jailed and then shipped to death camps in Germany. It’s flamboyant renaissance architecture makes it a prominent structure in the heart of old town. On Juif Street (the Jewish quarter in those days) it continues to function as the court today.
The streets are narrow and cobbled. Store fronts are a mix of modern signage and old facades. Everything is available including mouthwatering patisseries, cheese shops, art galleries, clothing stores and even McDonalds (which is in the oldest building). In some cases the wooden structures are bending and waning but they have been painstakingly preserved to honour the history. Every turn of your head results in a wonder for the eyes. The most famous sight is the Town Clock it is a gateway in the centre of town.
After our guided tour, Rudy and I head to the covered market where fresh flowers, produce, cheese, meat and seafood are displayed in a mouthwatering fashion. Locals bustle around choosing fare and shopkeepers are busy readying their wares in wonderful displays. Everything is fresh and abundant. Wishing we could take it all home with us, we wander back to the boat where a bbq lunch on the top outdoor deck is waiting for us. It’s a gorgeous warm sunny day – perfect for an Al fresco lunch on the Seine!
After lunch we take a bike ride along the river and enjoy the mild breeze while soaking up the landscape. When we return to our cabin it’s time to get ready for a presentation about The Somme battlefields which we will visit the next day. The presenter is none other than Ben who is making his story come to life by wearing a full military costume from 1914 complete with gas mask and weaponry. He sure knows how to engage the audience.
Following the presentation we are invited to a private VIP dinner. The small dining area is elegantly set with white linen. We are dazzled by the 7 course tasting menu accompanied by complementary wine selections. The food is outstanding both visually and in flavour. The evening is capped off with live musical entertainment (60’s style!) and dancing. It was good to move after the feast!!
Is it just me or are unions the pits?? There’s a petroleum strike and it’s escalating to a general strike around Paris. Our cruise is due in Les Andelys but the last lock was “closed”. We were shy of our destination so the cruise staff jumped through crazy hoops to accommodate. We were just fine: didn’t skip a beat. Union protestors only pissed off the general public. Good one.
I was not a history buff by any means, but this king was brought to life by our tour guide, Ben. Ben is an Englishman army veteran who loves to weave a hood tale and he took us on a journey that I won’t soon forget. The cruise director told us that a special guest would lead us to King Richards castle and when our bus unloaded us in town and this character in chain mail with sword and shield and helmet approached I knew we were in for a ride. Les Andelys is a quiet village on the Seine and the surrounding hillsides are rife with sheep and fields. It’s claim to fame is the castle https://www.nouvelle-normandie-tourisme.com/a-vivre-nouvelle-normandie/chateau-gaillard-le-medieval/ which King Richard the lionheart built. Most castles of medieval times took 10 to 20 years to build. But this fortress was completed in a mere 13 months. It took thousands of workers to accomplish and the result was formidable.
The Chateau Gaillard is perched on a steep hilltop overlooking the Seine and the quaint village. It’s construction is complex and thoughtfully planned with bridges and moats and fortifications to make it impenetrable. Our guide leads us up the steep narrow road to the castle. We pass ancient houses and sheep herds to arrive at the top where the views are breathtaking and the history astonishing. Ben is painting a vivid picture of the times and his stories are engaging. I felt like I was transported back in time. As you stand among the restored ruins of the castle it is easy to envision life in those days. Hollywood helps and the reference is made a few times.
The views from the castle are breathtaking but the vantage from a military perspective is not lost on us. Ben describes the scenarios so clearly you are immersed in it. His words mingled with the visual impact are profound. There’s hope and defeat and gore and devotion and courage. In the end, King Richard is shot with a crossbow by a cook. The bow is removed by the King but the arrowhead remained and the ensuing infection was the fatal blow. As the guide spoke you could have heard a pin drop. The story continues with the succession of brave Richard but (very much like today) the leadership thereafter was weak and ineffectual. As our guide said: if King Richards successor was even remotely brave we would be eating Fish and Chips instead of French Cuisine!
The tour ends in the village and we take some time to explore. There are quaint shops and, of course, a church. We enter the church and light a candle to remember and honour those we have lost. The stain glass windows let in enough light to reflect in our remembrance.
The bus brings us back to the boat where we tidy up and belly up. What a day !!!
During the plague years (2020/2022) while we were locked down and handcuffed (thank goodness for the state of Florida) we yearned, dreamed and planned for better days ahead and the resumption of travel. The only one who benefited entirely from the stay at home lifestyle was Molly. So our new adventure may not be sitting all too well with her! Back in 2021 we collaborated with our good friends about ticking off a major bucket list item. They suggested a river cruise and so the plotting began. Our friends did all of the due diligence and reported back that the cruise line of choice was Scenic https://www.scenic.eu/, an Australian owned company where absolutely everything is included. They asked us to review the cruise offerings and get back with our top choices. Amazingly we all had the same number one choice: the Seine River. Clearly the usual choice for river cruises is the Danube or the Rhein but we have never been to Paris. And Rudy is a war buff (is that a guy thing??) so we all agreed that Paris was our place and we started the process.
The itinerary was appealing as it included the Normandy beaches and the Somme. Ironically our ancestors fought for the enemy in this case (Italian and German) so there’s no memorials for that! But as Canadians and living in a free country speaking English we laud the heroes of the war who fought for those rights. We are forever grateful for the life we have to live and enjoy thanks to those who made the ultimate sacrifice. I get goosebumps thinking about the environment that existed for those brave men and women and what they gave up for life, liberty and freedom. ❤️
Once our decision was made we had to decide on timing. This was a huge bucket list item and we had a few boxes to tick off. Such as: cabin location. As boaters on rivers (trying to navigate the Trent Severn) we get that the body of water is narrow and the boat smaller than a cruise ship. We wanted the full exposure possible; we opted for the aft cabins to get the back and side views. Also, it’s a long overnight flight and we opted for business class. Big dreams … once in a lifetime. No compromises.
In order to get everything we wanted we booked a fall trip. The alternative choice was August but we declined based on heat. Fall may be cool and rainy but it’s easier to hike and bike in cooler climes. So it was settled: departure Oct 16.
Having a fur baby is amazing. But arranging travel to accommodate your precious pup can be daunting. We are so grateful to our wonderful friends for helping out. There are three sets of sitters who will be tending to Molly in our home. Luckily they are all dog lovers and will cuddle our girl as we would. Molly might not think it ideal but it’s a truly win/win. Once that arrangement is in place you can plan with confidence. (Even though I inwardly cry and agonize)
As the departure day approaches the finishing touches are made: book parking, arrange phone service abroad, make a packing list, get Euros, confirm insurance etc. whew. It’s a challenge. Isn’t funny how random things pop up as you try to organize a civilized escape???? Geesh. It’s ten lousy days. How does this other stuff suddenly become urgent??? In any event, the departure day arrives and you just make it happen. In spite of the midnight wake up thinking you have forgotten something 🙃
Off to the airport in Toronto. We avoid YYZ like the plague except it’s a must in this case. Air France flies out of Terminal 3 at Pearson. Once we check in we are invited to the lounge (hello business class!) and this is where we meet our friends. There are 3 couples altogether. Everyone is excited and nervous. And all have had to make puppy arrangements. Funny the difference in the female/male reactions to that issue. (We all agree there’s only male and female btw) all the ladies are sensitive to the doggy well being while the guys say it will be just fine. Ok. Whatever. Even though our flight is delayed we are in good spirits when we board.
It’s a huge aircraft and we take our places up front in the “pods”. It’s the most cool set up with a chair that flattens to a bed with a side table and large screen. Everything is top notch electronically with gadgets and interactive devices. You’re supplied with a pillow and blanket and welcome champagne (vive la France) and it keeps getting better. At 11 pm my time I think it’s time for bed. I’ve watched two movies (Marry Me with JLo and Elvis … both I loved ) and my eyes are getting tired. I take out my contacts, hearing aids and earrings (it’s a process) and flatten my seat for sleep. Well. It worked. I missed breakfast. (Dinner was great btw) and I am startled by the “we are making our decent” announcement. What????
It’s early morning and we are arriving in Paris at Charles de Gaulle airport. Air France uses Clarins amenities on their flight and I have freshened up with the tonic and facial cleanser. Yum! (I should have brushed my teeth but didn’t bring my stuff into the bathroom) Once we disembark we have to clear security and customs .. a breeze since they use facial recognition. A totally streamlined system that incorporates body scanning and image screening. Cool!! Then we take the hike to collect our bags. It’s a massive airport with a huge capacity. While I take a moment to use the ladies room our bags have arrived. Very impressive. We proceed to the exit where the Scenic reps are waiting and we are immediately transferred to a private car to take us to the ship.
It’s about a 40 min drive. And our driver is limited in English. He points out a few highlightsen route such as the Olympic structures for the 2024 summer games. We also notice Amazon warehouses ….
At the boat we are greeted with smiles, welcoming remarks. And champagne. This is going to be good!!! We join our friends on board and excitedly await our cabins. There is no disappointment when we are presented with our keys and a concierge escorts us to our cabin. At the very back of the boat we are ushered into our home for the next week. Breathtaking. I’m in love. Storage galore, a fully stocked mini bar. More champagne. Plush robes and slippers. Aaahh.
Our first night at dinner we are seated together and the wait staff is attentive and accommodating. Dinner is delicious. Wine is delicious. What else is there??
After dinner we continue the frivolity in our friends cabin. We watch the scenery as we enter the locks. And enjoy more libations. And then it’s time for bed. What an adventure so far!!
The final leg of our journey begins in Kamloops BC. It’s a humble town along the Thompson River with a few hotels and an open table ice cream shop. We really don’t get to see much as the drop off is late and we are pooped. But after a good nights sleep we are ready for the last day on board the Rocky Mountaineer. The sun is bright and warm. Another hot day is apparent.
The dry desert like surroundings look hot from our front row perch. It’s almost like you can feel the rocks heating and sizzling. There is abundant sage brush and it’s practically the only flora to be seen. It’s the type of rustic sage that Indians use for smudging and cleansing. It looks a bit like lavender. We start to see the layers of rock all around us as we chug along.
There’s a few good gold rush stories and the woeful tale of Billy Miner (the infamous train robber) adds to the colourful history of the Wild West. There’s a few wineries popping up and one of them pays homage to Billy by including his “most wanted” poster on their labels. All the wines are cleverly named after his antics such as Stick Em Up. Cute.
We spend breakfast with Luanne and Dewey. They are a retired (GM) couple from St George Utah. They’ve got no kids or pets but they have skied all over the world. Now they are also into “Jeeping” and pickleball. They like all sports, including hockey! But it was the jeeping that intrigued us so they explained. When they moved into their 55+ community a few years ago, they were invited to join a jeep club. Firstly you need a jeep. They have a Wrangler. But, they enthusiastically explained, that a base jeep is ho hum; you need to spruce it up with huge tires and other gadgets so that you can do the trails. St George where they live is near the Nevada border and so the desert terrain is where they go. As a jeep herd they gather at prearranged spots and “jeep” then hike and picnic. The group has gotten so big they’ve formed a splinter group with their neighbours. Who knew?? The cutest thing was, when I asked Luanne where her favourite destination is, she says it’s where her husband proposed. They were skiing and he popped the question.
The food is good on the train. I’m impressed with the menu for such limited facilities. The tables are nice white linens and everything looks so perky and inviting in the sunshine. It’s a glorious day!
After breakfast we head back to our viewing station. The landscape is slowly starting to change and there are a few trees here and there but still very arid. We are on the look out for big horned goats and osprey and bald eagles. We see all three but my camera action is not quick enough. The eagles and osprey are soaring around their aeries. The goats are trying to get watered at the river. I’m sure they are super hot, too.
Before long we are seeing a definite change in terrain. The trees start getting more plentiful and we can see white peaks again in the distance. We also see some haze. We are close to Lytton where wild fires are again threatening in the area. The haze is smoke. It’s easy to see how the region is a tinder box.
The next phenomenon is the convergence of the Thompson and Fraser Rivers. As they flow together their distinct colours remain separate (like a layer of neopolitan ice cream) for about 3 km before they merge into one. It is flowing and rushing like mad. Right into an area called Hells Gate , aptly named by the explorers trying to set up trading posts! We are told there’s more water gushing down than at Niagara Falls. It’s an absolute wonder how the river banks and deadly waters were handled. Our train virtually is on the edge of the river and feels like you could easily plunge over the edge and tumble down. The other marvel is the hydro lines and the highway. There are no words, and photos don’t do justice, for this rugged and remote region.
Once we are back down to riverside level we can feel the changes. More trees. More lush. Some shade. And we enter into the Fraser Valley home to a great agricultural terroir. The train passes vast fields of crops and along the train tracks are wild berry bushes to discourage the hungry wildlife from wandering into harms way of the trains. There are all kinds of freight trains en route carrying coal and oil and other commodities. Sometimes we have to provide the right of way and it’s long trains!!
We glide past Hope where the first Rambo movie was filmed. And other small towns. This is a change from the desolate areas we have come through. As we approach Vancouver we notice more civilization and traffic. Right around Surrey where we have a glimpse of the big city in the distance we start to get ready for the final threshold. But this last few miles takes us hours. It’s agonizing in the heat and everyone’s a bit more vocal. It could be the endless adult beverages that flow freely from morning on. More drinks are offered to placate the anxious guests.
We are meeting Sarah’s (Rudy’s daughter) mother in law, Vija, when we arrive in Vancouver. We haven’t seen her in person in years (she thinks 10!) and we are looking forward to catching up. Our hopes of a timely arrival, however, are dashed by the crazy delay and we get to the Pan Pacific Hotel just in time to greet her and, how appropriate, have another drink! The view over the harbour and Stanley Park is fantastic. And so is the company. Vija is a powerhouse. She’s a single lady that is in total control of her life’s path. She’s a world traveller. She sits on several boards. She lives in downtown Vancouver and doesn’t skip a beat. Her insights are interesting and engaging. We talk briefly about the obvious homeless problem in the city. Our shuttle bus passed through several blocks of tents, bodies, trash, movement and despair on route to the hotel. It was shocking and sad to see.
Our drinks vanished with the time and we hug good bye promising to not let another ten years fly by. We literally run to our room to get a much needed shower! Man we were hot and sweaty. As we dive into bed we groan at the thought of another early morning. Our flight is scheduled to leave Abbotsford at 9:40 am. It’s over an hours drive from our hotel. Ugh. 5 am wake up call.
The alarm goes off and the sun is already shining. I think sun in Vancouver is a good omen! While we get ready to launch on the last part of our trip, I check the Swoop flight status. Big surprise!! It’s delayed until 12:55 pm. The rush is over but the delay is a bummer. Better than cancelled. But the later we arrive in Hamilton the later our car ride will be back to Molly. I try not to let myself really miss her, but on the last day of any trip I can’t wait to hug her and get a wet lick.
I’m tapping out this post on our flight. We are descending into the Hamilton airport. It’s sunny above the clouds and I’m hopeful for a sunny drive home. Sun is my good omen. All in all a great trip. We couldn’t have squeezed another minute into it! It’s great to see old familiar faces mixed with new experiences, but I have to agree with Dorothy: there’s no place like home. ❤️
What a day! The Rocky Mountaineer does not disappoint!
We are picked up at our hotel by bus and shuttled to the train station in Banff. There are over 500 of us making the journey and the train is long! There are 12 passenger cars which consist of two levels: main floor with a viewing balcony, dining room and washrooms and a second floor with lazy boy type seats and a glass dome for panoramic scenery. As we board the train staff are directing us to the second level and at the top we find out our seats are at the very front and the seats opposite us are vacant!! Bonus!!
The train departs at promptly 8 am amidst staff waving at the station. It’s a gorgeous sunny day with miles of blue sky. As we chug along the town of Banff is left behind and we are heading into vistas only visible by train. True back country. The tracks meander along the River and through dense forested areas but everywhere you look there’s another postcard view that simply can’t be captured by a camera. I feel my eyes misting as I marvel at the spectacular display of natural wonder. It’s truly miraculous how the elements weave themselves into such breathtaking beauty.
We are supplied with a map of our journey and the mile posts are explained. It’s like buoys on the water; each marker is numbered and shown on the map. You can follow the entire journey. The first area we pass is Lake Louise and then we dive into the wilderness and an area of the continental divide where a corkscrew tunnel (I can’t even imagine how these were dug out!) winds us down from the peak elevation of 1,700 meters. It’s ear popping territory.
The river ebbs and flows (and in some case rages) as it pounds down the mountains. It’s a colour that can only be described as surreal: aqua, green, blue … amazing. The colour is due to the glacial water that flows into the river. It’s a snaking moving force that guides us as we roll through the terrain.
As the day begins with outstanding views it also begins with outstanding food and service. Shortly after boarding we are invited to get a seat n the dining room. They present menus with interesting options. Rudy and I choose the salmon and scrambled egg. Delicious. Our table mates from Utah tell us about their love of skiing (including at Blue!!) and how they are enjoying seeing the mountains in the off season. They’ve been to the Banff area many times to ski.
In this area, a bustling lakefront vacation area, there is plenty of boat traffic and beach goers. Apparently the lake is houseboat heaven due to limited actual cottages and people buying boats instead. Good idea!! Nonetheless, everyone enjoying the cooling lake on this hot day (39C) stopped to wave at the train. The tour guide told us that one local resident,Doris, was always in her front porch to wave. Every time. Supposedly she is alerted by her dog that a train is approaching and they both head to the porch to wave. Doris became such a thing that the staff of the Mountaineer pooled their points to buy her passage on the very trains she waves at. When her train passed her house she was amazed to see the staff and her dog waving at her!! This story is featured on a train tv show. Cool.
We drift into Kamloops BC fully sated, hot and sweaty. The landscape has softened from humongous snowy peaked mountains to dry rolling hills reminiscent of Vegas. The bus collects us at the station and transfers us to our hotel. We were given room keys on the train and our luggage is waiting for us in our hotel room. The service is seamless and efficient. I’m impressed.
It’s 7 pm. Which translates to 10 pm Ontario time so I missed my daily call with my parents. I collapse into bed after a luxurious shower…. Final approach tomorrow.
Fun fact: I’m writing this from my premier perch on the train!!
Yesterday was a full day. It started with an early (ungodly if you ask me) breakfast followed by a tour bus pick up at 8 am. At breakfast our bill comes clipped to a very cool retro postcard; I immediately write a quick hello to my folks and, using a stamp from the front desk, post it in the vintage mail box by the elevators. We depart Calgary with our small group and bus driver Paul. The coach is brand new and well equipped; comfortable seats. As we leave Calgary behind the weather is cloudy and grey. A huge contrast from the perfect sunshine of the last couple of days. It’s about a two hour drive to our destination: Banff.
The highway starts to wind and twist its way through the foothills and into the mountains. I didn’t realize that Banff was actually in a National Park and you need a pass to be there. We pass several areas where cars are pulling off to get their passes and carry on into the park. Our first stop is Lake Minnewanka which translates to lake spirit. It’s the largest (22 km long) and deepest lake in the park. At the lake we are dropped off to use the facilities prior to hopping on the tour boat for a one hour cruise of the lake. Our captain takes us to the turnaround point in the lake and shuts off the engines letting us enjoy the backcountry (no road access) scenery and sensations. Tranquil and quiet.
After the cruise we board the coach and make our way to Banff where we are dropped off to grab lunch on our own. Rudy and I find a local brew pub with a second floor balcony overlooking busy, vibrant Banff Ave. The town is brimming with people, strollers, dogs, bikes, busses and cars. It’s a cacophony of sights and sounds. What I love is the flower pots everywhere bursting with colourful blooms. We savour a beer and a quick snack before rejoining our group at the coach.
The next stop is Bow Falls located directly behind the Banff Springs Hotel. The falls are a mini Niagara with a wicked drop off followed by rapids on the Bow River. We could see the white water rafting vessels just down stream. Rudy shuddered as he remembered the last white water excursion! Back on the bus for our final tour of the day at the Banff gondola up Sulpher Mountain.
The gondola ride was a 10 minute jaw dropping adventure to the peak. At the summit we met a group of “kids” (everyone is a kid now … my guess is late 20’s or early 30’s) from Texas who had hiked up. It took them over 2.5 hours. Our knees hurt at the thought. After a good viewing period in the broiling hot sunshine we boarded gondola for the decent. The views were nothing short of spectacular!!
Back on the bus we have three hotels to stop at so everyone has their overnight stay. We are staying at The Moose. Located in the heart of downtown Banff, it has a log cabin feel with a dining area and a rooftop pool. By the time we arrive and find the check in place for the train, we are ready for a quick bite and wind down. We enjoy a nice bottle of Tom Gore cab sav with our dinner and bring the remaining drops to our suite. It was a long day and we are grateful for the crisp linens and quiet.
Retirement makes you evaluate your new priorities. One of them, for us anyway, is to explore some new places. You realize that, inspite of being really old, your parents are still providing lessons. Todays lesson is keep on moving and being curious because some day you’ll be content to just “be”. So since we have the time to focus on our spare time (which is all we have now) we have made a bucket list. A list of places and experiences that we would like to check off.
The first tick is The Rocky Mountaineer. I’ve seen ads and promos for this train adventure for some time. But seeing the ads now, when you can actually consider it!, made me act. Especially since the company was offering “free upgrade” to Gold Leaf. A bucket list bargain. Perfect.
Our tour is booked. We chose a shorter train excursion so that we could squeeze in some visiting time. Having family out west makes any trip out of Ontario a chance to reconnect with expats. Frame it around a birthday (my brothers) and voila.
We fly a discount airline (Swoop) out of Hamilton to avoid the hoopla in Toronto. However it seems incompetence and chaos are contagious. Our flight was delayed 8 hours (and then some) and upon arrival in Edmonton our bags took another hour plus to hit the conveyor. This regardless of the ungodly hour (2 am) and that our flight appeared to be the only one. Ugh. On the very bright side, I get a text from my nephew who is waiting to pick us up. He’s my hero.
Ben (my nephew) navigates through the airport jungle and onto to open road. Seems like the entire city is calm and peaceful except for the airport?! Weird. At the hotel we are grateful to collapse into bed and conk out.
Rudy’s daughter and son-in-law pick us up the following day and bring us to their house for lunch on the deck. It’s a hot sunny day and the deck is shady and breezy. What a perfect venue to catch up on years of missed in person stuff. It was awesome. There’s no better feeling than knowing (and seeing!) them thrive in love and life ❤️
After lunch we head to Ben’s house where my brother and his wife and Ben’s girlfriend are waiting. Another deck and more reconnecting. The sun is warm but it’s assisted by the very heartwarming heat that happens naturally when you’re bursting with love. Definitely priceless.
Rudy’s daughter leaves; they have an older dog (we get it) and have to work the next day (we also get it). The rest of us start the process to head for dinner. Ben has chosen a locavore restaurant that’s walking distance from his house. We have reservations at 5:15 pm. The place is https://www.rgerd.ca/ and it definitely lives up to to its rep as a buzzy high end eatery featuring everything local. Our meal is amazing and everyone agrees it was a fabulous choice. We celebrate my brothers birthday in style. After dinner we Uber back to our hotel.
The next day my brother picks us up for brunch. Again, we meet at and walk from Bens place. His neighbourhood, it turns out, is an up and coming hip area with tons of foodie options. Our brunch is outside (another stellar weather day) at https://www.tiramisubistro.ca/. I’m delighted with my asparagus risotto topped by scrambled eggs. Everyone’s meal looks delicious and is accompanied by hot, strong coffee. After brunch there’s a lot of hugging and kissing as we pile into my brother’s suv 🚙 for the trek to Calgary. He’s going to drop us off on his way back to Medicine Hat. The 3 hour drive flies by and before we know it we are pulling into the Hyatt.
It’s a bit sad to say bye to my brother. We thoroughly enjoy his company and dry sense of humour. And always look forward to the next time.
Not enough time to pout … we are off to dinner with my very dear friend Donna. Or D as I’ve called her for years! She lives in Calgary with her husband and spends most of her time in her pottery studio. Her two daughters join us also; I’m known as their fairy god mother going back years from when they were little. They are now close to 40. Yikes. Lots of history for sure. The best treat of the night is meeting the granddaughter, Paige. She’s adorable and the spitting image of her mother. Such a delight. After dinner the youngest daughter (now a police officer) drives us back to the Hyatt. What a full and emotional couple of days.
After a (extra long and steamy) shower with my favourite amenities (leLabo Rose31) we head to the bar for snacks and wine. It’s a good time to review our itinerary for the next phase of the trip. The Rocky Mountaineer!!
So I’ve been lax. Going through the daily motions. Covid fatigue? Possibly. Personal rut? Also likely. And then whammo! A hastily planned vacation hits me like a thunder bolt and I’m firing on all cylinders. Who knew being retired and living life needed a jump start?? Who knew vacations in retirement are just as rejuvenating as they were during the working years?? It’s a new realization. And it’s great!
Retirement, after all, is going through your daily routine except without working. Not working is awesome; don’t get me wrong. But if you’re not careful it can be mundane and treadmill-ish. The mundane can creep up on you and suddenly you take stock and realize you’re bored of the same old. I think the covid trance is also at play wiping out live entertainment and dining options. Pointless mandates that, in addition to not working (to wit here we are 2+ years later …), are slowly killing people and their livelihoods. You want to support local business, but it’s getting old already. My heart literally breaks when I think of entrepreneurs who have had the rug pulled out viciously from beneath them. And silently thanking kismet for our lucky timing in retirement. We’d be broke and out of business for sure. Divine intervention saved our assets. No doubt about it.
But I think the tide is finally turning. People have been manipulated too far. And the push back has started to show cracks in the (to now) mostly compliant herd. Funny how the herd actually missed the herd part in the immunity factor and embraced the nanny government mandates. All the while letting our most vulnerable languish. Alone and afraid and sad. Totally unacceptable and yet we stood by.
So we went on a cruise. Just got back today. Five days of sunshine and pampering service. We loved every minute of it. But our decision to cruise at this time, not to mention our decision to winter in Florida during covid (omg …. the cases!!) was met with raised eyebrows and question marks. Be safe. Ya whatever. In order to cruise we needed a covid test prior to boarding. Rules. Safety first. Armed with our tests, vax info and masks, we board the ship. Everyone vaccinated had to wear a wristband so that they could enjoy the “V” areas on board. Yes. There was segregation. Appalling. The ship which normally held about 5000 passengers and 2000 crew, was sailing with full crew but only 1800 guests. Lucky us! It was very VIP. But the weirdness of all crew wearing not 1 but 2 masks with big indications that it was N-95. They also wore buttons with their photo under a caption reading “my smile under the mask”. There were hand sanitizer stations everywhere (not that they help … most nasty viruses fall into the .1 percent not covered by the “kills 99.9% of germs” … just ask Rudy – he got the noro virus on a ship once). It’s all optics as I’ve noticed. And still the cruise lines were under the microscope for being covid super spreaders. Hogwash.
The vacation, in spite of the reminders that things were far from normal, was rejuvenating. A complete break from the day to day routine. The cruise offered an app so you could plan your on board and on shore activities. I eagerly scoped out the possibilities and filled my calendar with exciting and interesting options. Not one of them materialized. LOL. I was delighted just to be. No yoga. Or pickleball. Or bourbon tasting. Or Pilates. It was vacation bliss! Our first beer on board was a lovely refreshment that tasted so good!
Because of the low passenger count, we got a great deal on a jr suite. First time ever for us and we have cruised a lot! The suite was on the 10th deck of 14. A huge ship. The room was 50% bigger than usual and included a walk-in closet and bigger balcony. The extra space was great and the seating area included a couch and a chaise. Very roomy and comfortable. I don’t think I will rush back to a regular cabin ever again.
For cruisers, you are all too familiar with the onboard safety seminar. They assemble everyone at a muster station and review the safety protocols including how to fasten a life jacket. However! Covid requires that social distancing is a must (except for when you’re fighting for position in the sales at the shops!!) so the safety procedures are done by video on the app; you watch the videos and it says “complete”. Even if you really didn’t watch I suspect. Clever, no?? It also meant that hoards of guests didn’t bunch up at time to get off the ship. After breakfast, return to your stateroom and wait for your group to be announced. Sure. Ok. We ignored the announcement. We got off the ship at 8 am and were in our car driving off at 8:20 am. Some of the extreme efficiencies developed in the name of covid are actually awesome. You wonder how many other efficiencies have been established … like working from home. How ingenious!
For 5 days we lounged and read and ate and, after dinner, enjoyed some of the shows. In particular there was a skating production (yes, the ship had a rink) that was quite remarkable. The headliner stage shows were also good. If you had a wristband on you could sit in the main theatre; if not you had to sit in the balcony. You could not attend the ice show. Crazy. We talked about how ridiculous that was and how it mirrored the themes in our Pam Jenoff books (if you haven’t read her novels I highly recommend!!). Non vaccinated people are second class; very disturbing to say the least. I’ve voiced my concern and disapproval to our local MPP. I’m sure he rolls his eyes. Especially since he’s leaving politics after his term (he’s had a few scandal type issues over the years) but not without his juicy pension! Who cares about rights and freedoms?!
The food, as usual, was amazing on board. Adding to the pleasure of taste is the service and the ability to walk away without clean up or dishes!! bliss!! Our waiter was from India and we were his last voyage before a 2 month break. He was going home to India and would be married. He seemed so young and so happy to perform his duties. I hope he has a safe trip. He was flying from Orlando to NYC. Then on to Doha and Mumbai and finally to Goa. I could tell he was excited and looking forward to seeing his family and his girlfriend. His name is Sykes and I wish him well.
I brought two books along. And I quickly plowed through them necessitating a trip to the library on board. I entered through the ornate wooden door on level 3 and entered the library/computer centre. It was deserted. The book shelves were bare except for three books: a Clive Cussler (no thanks … I’m not a fan of Dirk Pitt- Rudy and I jokingly call him Dirk Diggler), a book on card games (no thanks) and finally a Catherine Cookson novel which I chose. It was the most of the least appealing. As it turned out “The Parsons Daughter” was a good story that reminded me of Downton Abbey. A late 18th century British country manor; I couldn’t put it down. I must say, the Brits know how to ramp up the sultry bits!!
Before we left to head to the port, Rudy collected our mail. My dad mailed a birthday card and asked every time we spoke if I’d received it. The card was not in the box, but my book order from Barnes and Noble was there! My friend Marilyn is my book/reading guru; her recommendations are always bang on! She started me on the Seven Sisters historical fiction novels. I read the first one. Then I had to order the next 6!! Rudy suggested I bring a couple along on the trip but I felt I had enough book weight in my bag. As usual, he was right. Don’t tell him. Now that we are home I’m ready to dig in to the next installation!!
On that note, I’m signing off. With every intention of not letting my creative writing outlet either again for so long.
Thank you for watching Molly, Blair. We missed her but you afforded us peace of mind. 🐶💕