Balancing the Ledger of Life in TNQ

16 Dec

Life to me now seems a constant process of addition and subtraction.

By way of example, this past month we lost a loved one to cancer. My sister-in-law’s removal from us was 18 months in the making but the inevitability of death doesn’t make it any easier. Then on our return to Brisbane we were shocked by the near death experience of a close friend. Happily he is expected to recover well but it could so easily have gone the other way.

Lesser losses include my relative immobility for a month due to a broken foot, having another skin cancer chopped out (shin this time) and the failure of the promised delivery of our house in time for the year end family holiday. All of which when combined with the particular stresses of two swift passages across multiple time zones left this traveller depleted and crabby. I was in no mood to deal with earth movers, builders and town planners, that would be project manager Stuart’s lot (Gypsy Hill update).

It was time to consciously move my life to the credit side of the ledger.

I needed unconditional love, warmth and beauty. I needed a week in Tropical North Queensland.

Solar-powered Aussie that I am, I find the intense heat of Cairns invigorates me, even in mid-summer. I sweat, I detox, I don’t drink alcohol, I sleep well. First stop is a reunion with my sister, Jo, to catch up on six months of conversation.

Next I drive south to Gordonvale and my niece, Jess’ farm. The Pyramid’s familiar green cone is the cue for me to take a deep breath in then breathe out accumulated tension. Emerald canefields relax my mind and by the time I pull into her property and honk the horn I’m feeling fifty per cent better.

Instantly four kids on bikes and toy tractors leap off and run to me for squishy, sweaty hugs and sticky kisses. All but the youngest, a toddler, remember me from my time with them in July (once two-year-old T has removed my sunglasses to make sure it’s Aunty Sha-win). Then a surprise, there’s a tiny, new puppy, a soft, brown ball with tiny sharp teeth. I get an even bigger hug from Jess and we launch straight into a mile a minute conversational catch up while the kids run happily amok.

After a sleepover at the farm I’m ready for some quality time solo in Cairns. For five nights I have a studio apartment walking distance from the city centre. Glenda, the manager (who keeps a pet lorikeet, as you do in Cairns), received my suitcase. It was misplaced for four days by Qantas and Emirates somewhere between Heathrow and Brisbane. Oh joy of joys – clean clothes!

In my street, Lake Street, I identify a yoga studio with a great value introductory offer, a shiatsu masseur and a foot spa, all necessary for my program of what’s now termed ‘self care’, but used to be called pampering. Bring it on!

I once heard a local describe Cairns as halfway between Hawaii and Bali and I agree. It’s good value by Australian standards, with a relaxed, tropical holiday vibe, and excellent spas, salons, and vegan and vegetarian cafes and restaurants.

And whoever runs the show they’re continuing to invest in infrastructure and services with water coolers on the street and solar powered trash compacting bins. I’m conflicted about Cairns’ brand new aquarium, but I suppose if it takes the pressure off the reef from hordes of ignorant day trippers I can almost tolerate the animal exploitation involved.

My days revolve around yoga classes, therapies, walking, swimming, meeting up with Jo and Jess, her husband Justin and the kids. Princess B is turning five this week and I’m invited to her party down the creek. Watermelon, BBQ, swimming and jumping off a log into the water followed by as much Smartie-covered chocolate and vanilla birthday cake as you can eat is a kid’s dream come true. The adults have a pretty good time too.

On my final day I jump on a fast boat out to Green Island. In all my trips to TNQ I’ve never been. Heaving boatloads of daytrippers arrive every half hour. Jungle-covered, reef-ringed Green Island is being loved to death by tourists who have absolutely no clue about respecting flora and fauna. I saw a woman spitting into the bushes and snorkelers thrashing about on fragile corals.

But I’d booked a snorkel trip from a boat and luckily got the first time slot. With only four snorkelers and six novice divers on my boat we motor to a coral bommie just offshore. I’m enjoying observing colourful fish, soft corals and purple and emerald-lipped clams, when I raise my head to check my position and see the deckie pointing to the water near me and hear him shout, ‘turtle’. Sure enough a large green turtle is swimming slowly a few metres away. He/she seems unperturbed by the presence of people at first, but after a while appears to tire of the divers approaching closely, followed by the underwater photographer. It seems like the aim is to get a shot of each person very close to or even touching the turtle. That’s me below, hovering at a respectful distance. Eventually fed up the turtle dives to the bottom and wedges itself under a coral shelf as though hiding.

It’s not long before another turtle friend appears to take over tourism Queensland duties! A ‘two turtle day’ is a good day on the Reef.

Maddening crowds aside I have a lovely time at Green Island and doze off on the bumpy boat trip back.

I can just squeeze in another full body massage before I fly south. Prone on the massage table I review my ledger one more time. Accounting was one of my least favourite subjects, but I get a warm glow remembering all the happy memories I’ve made and stored in credit. In addition I have a stronger, sleeker, more supple body thanks to seven hours of yoga classes, nutritious food and no grog!

As ever I find myself plotting my return to TNQ before before I have even left. I hope you find a way to balance the books as 2017 comes to a close. It’s been a hell of a year!

(Photo credit for snorkeling and underwater photos to

One Perfect Sydney Weekend: Flamenco, Friendship and Sailing

14 Nov

It might not be for everyone, but for me the combination of an intense long weekend flamenco dance workshop amongst friends, followed by an afternoon of blue sky sailing on Sydney harbour is bloody hard to beat.

Andres Peña Moron just completed another sucessful three-city teaching tour of Perth, Adelaide and Sydney. This was his fourth Australian visit and Sydney turned out in strength to study Bulerias, Jaleos and Tientos with the best maestro from Jerez.

Can you guess who is who? Stuart left and Andres right.

Damian Wright, the phenomenal Sydney-based flamenco guitarist who heads up Bandaluzia, played for the classes which flamenco artist, Jessica Statham, organised at the Spanish Dance School in Stanmore.

Left to right Jessica, Damian and Andres

I hadn’t seen some of my classmates since Andres’ first Brisbane workshop so there was a lot of catching up to do. I also forged new friendships in the sweat of the dance studio. When egos are removed, as happens when called on to dance solo to Andres’ singing, barriers come down too. There was a lot of love and laughter in that room.

Three sweaty flamencas post Jaleos L to R Alessandra, me and Jocelyn.

Andres was also on fine form. He has much more English at his command now than when his sum total was ‘My people’, ‘Very possible’ and ‘I love you’. Some of his new expressions had us in stitches.

As you can see from the photos above our dinner party was a flamenco talk fest!

Explaining how to rescue yourself from coming in too early in the Bulerias remate/close Andres urged us to ‘keep them (the moves) in your pocket’. And a neat remate break he taught us is ‘pure gold’. When we reached a tricky step in jaleos he offered us ‘Plan A and Plan B’, i.e. the easy and the less easy sequence.

It’s only been a month since I broke the fifth metatarsal on my right foot so I was uncertain how long I could cope with dancing in flamenco shoes. Luckily jaleos was scheduled first. I could tolerate dancing for an hour and half, then changed into daggy Birkenstocks for Bulerias.

Given that I expect if I ever dance bulerias por fiesta it will be at a party, not a performance, flamenco shoes would be redundant anyway. I did get the last laugh on Andres when he invited me to dance solo and quipped about me wearing stinky sandals. I immediately kicked the ‘stinky sandals’ off and danced my pataita barefoot, gypsy style, and did rather well I thought!

After eleven hours of flamenco and a fond farewell to Andres and friends we were ready for something completely different. On Friday morning we’d walked to Sturrocks chandlers at Rushcutters Bay to buy gear for my 2017-18 World ARC passage Cape Town to Brazil and gawked at the gorgeous yachts at the marina. I suggested Stuart try to book us a day sail on the harbour for our free Monday prior to the evening flight back to Brisbane. He duly did.

We arrived at Darling Harbour early enough to see Kay Cottee’s exhibit at the Australian National Maritime Museum. Kay is my female sailing idol. In 1988 at 34 years of age she became the first woman to circumnavigate the world single-handedly, unassisted and without stopping.

Her world record 189-day sailing feat has been replicated many time since by younger female sailors, but no one comes close to Kay in my eyes. Remember, this was pre-GPS, pre-satellite phones, pre-mobile phones. Paper charts, instruments, radio only. Just let that sink in.

We were able to board her 11.2 metre yacht, First Lady, preserved exactly as it was when she entered Sydney Harbour 29 years ago. Her first mate, Teddy, sits in the cabin and family photos still line the galley.

But there was no time to tarry over the other exhibits, we were due on the water ourselves. Sydney By Sail runs daily afternoon trips from dockside at the Australian National Maritime Museum.

We were the only guests today so Skipper Neil, a charming Englishman turned Aussie, let us helm the 31 foot Dufour yacht. The weather could not have been better. Neil managed the exit and entry to the berth, but Stuart took us out just past the last green bouy before you get to Sydney Heads proper and I sailed and motored her back in. Sailing past the Opera House and under the Harbour Bridge was a real ‘pinch me’ moment.

Being a Monday few boats were about, just the regular ferries and water taxis. We waved ahoy as we passed an obvious ‘round the world’ yacht with seven children and two women aboard. I’ll bet those kids have some stories to tell!

By coincidence I discovered in chatting with Neil that the owner of the sailing business is preparing his own yacht to participate in the 2018-19 World ARC starting from Darwin in September. We’re now in touch and will be swapping experiences down the track. The flamenco family and sailing fraternity make our blue planet seem a much smaller place!


(Just a reminder, this is not a commercial blog. I pay to keep it ad free and do not receive discounts, contras or freebies, ever!)

To follow Andres Peña Moron you will find him on Facebook or get in touch with me through the comments section. He and Pilar Ogalla, his wife and dance partner, will premier a new work at the Festival de Jerez, on March 3, 2018.

Bandaluzia promotes their gigs and recordings here

Australian National Maritime Museum Free entry to the permanent galleries including First Lady exhibit

Sydney By Sail

Yots Cafe next to the Maritime Museum do a speedy, tasty, vegan pizza and pasta

An update about Sailing Hall of Fame yachtswoman, Kay Cottee

World ARC

Sturrocks Chandlery at Rushcutters Bay is a boaties’ candy store

Dunbar on Sea, East Lothian, Scotland

22 Oct

October 20-23, 2017 

Oh, I do like to be beside the seaside. No, I reeeally do like to be beside the seaside. Given the choice I’ll always gravitate towards seawater. I think it’s molecular attraction.

Our final weekend before the long haul back to Australia was a weekend stay in a seafront house in Dunbar, just 40 minutes/40k from Tristan and Jenny’s home in Duddingston, Edinburgh. Driving onto Dunbar esplanade the tang of seaweed hit my nostrils and I breathed in deeply. Pure joy and relaxation with each lungful.

The semi-detached house was once home to the Coastguard captain. It would have been an enviable commute, all of five minutes.

From the front rooms at high tide we watched sea spray shooting up past the sea wall and even at low tide could hear the rumble of surf.

Sue, who owns and runs the house for holiday lets, stays in a tiny cottage in the garden when guests are in situ. Her taste is eclectic, every room holds a strange, colourful and interesting array of art and ornamentation, with a large collection of fascinating books. An indoor dolls’ house and and outdoor Wendy House call to children. I can imagine the bliss of young kids when they stay there in the summer holidays. Two fireplaces and a old fashioned free-standing enamel bathtub plus a firepit in the garden appealed to the grownups. Sadly, it was too warm for a fire, but the tub was well used.

Once a busy fishing port Dunbar still has a couple of net trawlers, a few lobster boats, and a handful of pleasure craft in port. Known to have the most sunny days in Scotland, (hence the moniker ‘Sunny Dunny’) its beaches and golf course draw holidaymakers, supplementing employment from a cement works and the Torness nuclear power station down the coast. Yep, you read that correctly. Scotland has wind, wave and nuclear power.
Dunbar is also within the Edinburgh communter belt with a fairly frequent train service.

High street shops seem to be doing well and there’s a clear community spirit. Saturday morning the queue to get into the newly built pool and leisure centre at opening time was well out the door.

Notable local historical figures include John Muir, the conservationist, naturalist, founder of the Sierra Club, and ‘Father of the National Parks’ in the USA who was born in a house on the high street (now a museum) and Black Agnes, Countess of Dunbar and March, heroine of Castle Dunbar. Agnes held the castle for five months (13 January – 10 June 1338) during her husband’s absence with a handful of men against 20,000 English soldiers under the Earl of Salisbury during the second war of Scottish independence.

A weekend of gentle walks (my broken foot is mending well), delicious home-cooked and restaurant food (I recommend The Rocks Hotel and Restaurant), board games and lounging about reading was perfect preparation for the journey to Australia.


On the way back to Duddingston we stopped in at Tantallon Castle (built mid-14th century), the ruins of what must have been an impressive and almost impregnable red sandstone fortress long held by the Douglases. 

But enough of this gallivanting, Melbourne here we come!

New Scotland, Canada, and Cape Breton’s 21st Celtic Colours

14 Oct

Nova Scotia is unique, language. music, dance, food – you won’t find them quite the same anywhere else. But three small examples illustrate how different the people are too.Whilst waiting outside St Mathew’s Church, Inverness, on Cape Breton Island, to collect afternoon concert tickets, a man driving by slowed then stopped at the intersection. He smiled at us and called out a cheery, ‘Good day’. I don’t believe it was a case of mistaken identity. This happened more than once.


We were at the church to meet a local man who was giving us tickets for the show. This chap overheard us at lunch bemoaning the fact that the Celtic Colours International Festival concert that afternoon was sold out (as were many of the musical events across the island). He offered us his two spare tickets, gratis. We accepted the tickets but insisted on paying face value. It was a tussle I tell you!Joanne MacIntyre and her four sons singing a capella in Gaelic at St Mathews. Spine tingling!

Then, as I hobbled into the regular Saturday night regular dance at the West Mabou hall, I greeted an elderly chap just putting his cane on the bench. We commiserated with each other about needing a walking stick, his for his hip, me for a damaged foot from a careless misstep onto the pavement that morning. I sat and watched him dance every dance for the next hour, a wide grin on his face, sweat leaking through his checked shirt.

Next day at the afternoon ceilidh at the Celtic Music Interpretation Centre in Judique there he was again! This time with two ladies as well as his stick. Once more he danced every dance.

Even though we only stayed four nights it’s clear to us that this small island at the furtherest tip of Nova Scotia is peopled by super friendly, fit people!


Our trip to Novia Scotia, and particularly Cape Breton, coincided with fall foliage and the 21st annual Celtic Colours. Starting and finishing in the impressive, historic citadel and port city of Halifax, we drove and walked as much as humanly possible in a week (given my injury). On reflection we should have allowed two weeks.The only moose we saw in Nova Scotia, or as Stuart would say, ‘No moose in the spruce!’.

Halifax is fascinating. So many tragic events have impacted upon it; the catastrophic harbour munitions explosion and resultant tsunami of 1917 that killed 2,000, injured 9,000 and obliterated an entire waterfront community, the search, retrieval, storage and burial of 150 of the bodies from the Titanic, and the search and recovery effort for Swissair flight 111 which crashed into the sea off Peggy’s Cove with the loss of all 229 people on board. Halifax was also the embarkation point for thousands of Canadian armed forces personnel who lost their lives or health to the Second World War.

The full force of the city’s importance to the War of the Atlantic hit home when we toured the last surviving Flower Class Corvette, HMCS Sackville, one of 109 of such vessels. Sackville, like many of the Corvettes operated out of Halifax. Their role was to escort and protect Allied shipping in the mid-Atlantic gap. That six-year campaign was the longest sustained military battle of the war. Sackville is now a Naval Museum at Halifax Dock and in dire need of funds to preserve it properly as an accessible historical vessel. 

Halifax is also a symbol of hope as it was the gateway for more than a million immigrants and refugees. By contrast again, it is a favoured port for modern cruise ships, including, of course, Queen Mary 2. Up to four ships can dock simultaneously.

Its mid-18th century citadel and the immaculately maintained Victorian Botanical Gardens are both within easy walking distance of the dockside.

We were impressed by the range of bars, excellent restaurants and live music venues. Favourites were The Wooden Monkey for its amazing vegan fare, and The Old Triangle, a proper Irish pub with live traditional music nightly and chatty locals.

Our quaint, 130-year-old hotel, The Waverly Inn, was frequented by Oscar Wilde on his lecture tour and by PT Barnum when he visited Halifax scouting for talent for his circus.

From Halifax it was a short drive south along the coast to Peggy’s Cove and the most reproduced lighthouse in the world, Peggy’s Point, or so it seems. My advice: go early in the morning to Peggy’s Cove before it’s crawling with selfie-snapping tourists and the roads are blocked by massive coaches. 

Then, on the way back to the car park and visitors’ centre, pick up a take away coffee and some blueberry flapjack from charming Peggy’s Cove Cafe and Gift Store. Drive back towards Halifax for five minutes. On a bend to the left you should see a car or two parked by the sea side of the road. Pull over there, bring your coffee and goodies and walk along the trail towards the sea for ten minutes until you come to a rocky granite outcrop overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. That’s Polly’s Cove, the perfect spot for a panoramic morning coffee away from the madding crowd and the start of a scenic coastal walk. The wild cranberries dotted here and there weren’t quite ripe but we couldn’t resist sampling a few.

Leaving mainland Nova Scotia for Cape Breton Island we stopped overnight at Louisbourg, a town time forgot. With its well preserved weatherboard heritage homes and a lighthouse and coastal path that almost rivals Peggy/Polly’s, Louisbourg has the added attraction of a reconstructed early 18th century fortress. It was originally built by the French then variously held by the French and English over the course of fifty years until the English army destroyed it in 1758.

The early 1960s reconstruction of what was formerly designated an historic site as a National Park was a work creation and retraining scheme by the Canadian Government for men who’d lost employment with the closure of the local coal mines.

Rather than boring uniforms, almost all staff on site wear period costumes. We had interesting chats with marines and captain’s wives who’d researched their character’s histories deeply. Young French marine, Jean Montagne (in his other life a university music student), well into his fourth year of service at Louisbourg complained bitterly about harsh conditions and almost constant debt. With 24 hours on duty and 48 hours off he had the opportunity to generate additional income, however the winters were so hard the fortified town’s population of around 4,000 fell to a quarter and seasonal labouring work dried up.

Wendy Margaree Band

Our B and B, Heritage House, Luoisbourg

From Louisbourg we drove to the port of Sydney for The Grand Opening show of the Festival, called ´We Walk As One’, an almost sold out event in a converted ice hockey stadium holding 2,000 people.

Memorial to young sailors lost at sea above and the giant ceilidh fiddle on Sydney’s waterfront below.

Two Inuit women, who go by the name of IVA, opened the program with a trio of mesmerising throat singing duets, mostly sung nose to nose in a loose embrace. Then we had hilarious, talented Gaelic singer Cathy Ann McPhee with Celtic harpist Patsy Seddon closely followed by the multi-talented Cape Breton Band, Coig. A troupe of step dancers from tiny coastal Cheticamp joined them on stage for the final part of their set. These middle and high schoolers of all shapes and sizes were so polished and foot perfect it was a joy to watch them.

In the second half the big names came on, Heather Rankin of the Rankin Family from Mabou with her unmistakeable cut glass vocal tone and finally the trio, Michael McGoldrick and John McCusker from Ireland with John Doyle, originally from Cape Breton, who blew us away with their musical virtuosity.

It wasn’t all music and dancing though, we drove the full Cabot Trail coastal loop and also walked the Skyline circle. The fall colours were yet to hit their peak but it was still beautiful and we had plenty of sunshine to light up the leaves.

Salty Rose’s and the Periwinkle Cafe Ingonish

On our final night in Mabou we stayed at Laurel’s bed and breakfast, a lovely farmhouse. Of course Laurel, whose grandmother was Cape Breton born, is an accomplished singer, arranger and music professor. By now we’d come to expect everyone could at least dance, sing and play one musical instrument, if not perform all skills on demand! Laurel patiently answered our many questions about Cape Breton history and culture over the best vegan breakfast we’ve had on this trip.

I was sad to say goodbye to Laurel and her sweet dog, Hector, as I felt we had just started to relax into the island’s slower pace. Passing over the causeway to Cape Breton has a slightly ‘Brigadoon’ feel to it. We didn’t fall in love with a local, but do feel great affection for the place and people. I now understand why so many folk who work in distant parts keep a cabin at Cape Breton.

The Rankin family owned Red Shoe in Mabou above


Inverness Beach above and Nova Scotia’s coffees below.

Postscript:  To celebrate Canada’s 150 years as a federated nation all national parks have free entry in 2017!

Four Canadian Cities in 8 Days: Toronto, Ottawa, Quebec City and Montreal

9 Oct

You know the beer tasters they serve in fancy pubs, four small glasses of different brews? Our city experience on this Canada trip was a taster. Just enough to sample the differences and know which ones we preferred. 

This wasn’t our first visit, we’d both been in Canada for business, but now we were tourists with time to explore.


Stuart and I incline towards different things, my tolerance for galleries is higher than his whilst Stuart likes science museums. We do however agree on what makes a great city. Much of what makes a city ‘work’ for visitors comes down to the city authorities plus geography, topography, culture, language and history.


All four cities are worth visiting, but there was a clear winner and runner up for sheer gorgeousness and interest. You’ll be able to tell easily which those were from the photos and comments. Obviously this was a highly subjective, brief experience. Who knows, you might not even like beer.


A flat, bustling, lakeside city of 2.8 million people, Toronto famously has the most diverse population in the world. You’re as likely to hear Punjabi as French here. The birthplace of outstanding universities, company headquarters for global IT companies and major consulting firms like McKinsey, as well as home to major ice hockey teams and the Toronto Blue Jays (do not underestimate the importance of these sports to Canadians). The city’s grid layout makes it easy to walk around the distinct neighbourhoods and the Ontario lakefront is pleasant, but not as appealing as it could be. At pavement level there is considerable litter and bird droppings in a lot of areas with a feeling of grubbiness in several neighbourhoods. As I noted on my first visit a decade ago, people who sleep rough in Toronto (no doubt with drug/alcohol/mental health issues) often lie down in the middle of the pavement and sleep/pass out. Tourist numbers are on the low side.

We discovered the chain called Freshii – it was a good day when we could find a Freshii bowl.


This is Canada’s Canberra, where the theatre of federal politics is played out by politicians, civil servants and a supporting cast. Happily for them the backdrop is the confluence of the Gattineau and the Ottawa Rivers with towering cliffs topped by a Disneyesque Parliamentary Complex. Ottawa, super clean and is easy to navigate on foot with all major sites within thirty minutes of each other. The smaller populations of 950,000 means the cultural offerings are fewer and less diverse but the national museums and collections located here have been generously funded. People are generally bilingual but initial contact is usually in English. I saw some street dwellers and beggars but fewer than Toronto. There are not a lot of tourists. We noticed some similarities to Melbourne in the hipster culture of dress and cafes/bars.

Quebec City

Strokingly beautiful by day and breathtaking by night, the historic walled part of the city perches atop the cliffs and hugs the portside of a broad reach of the St Lawrence River. Proudly French in heritage and language, with a population of 540,000 Quebec is highly dependent on tourism. The Chinese have discovered Quebec City in a big way. When the river is navigable (May through October) cruise ships dock here, up to a maximum of four at a time.

Incredibly Queen Mary 2 berthed right on the old dockside the morning after we arrived – was she following us? She only visits Quebec City once a year and stays for two nights so we had plenty of opportunity to see her in all her glory from the dock and from the water as we took a river cruise (principally to view the Motmorency Falls) and also crossed over by ferry to Levis on the opposite bank.

Special mention for the Chateau Frontenac Fairmont Hotel situated on the clifftop above the port. Yes, it is ludicrously photogenic, but it is also a very well run hotel. I reserved a table for dinner (one day beforehand) in their more casual restaurant overlooking the river. We had a magnificent view of QM2 as the sun set and the city and ship’s lights came up and the dinner and drinks were delicious and reasonably priced.


With 1.8 million French-speaking Montreal is a busy, prosperous city with a lively downtown. From our hostel near the Latin Quarter, we could walk to all the major sites and neighbourhoods (or the subway would be good for those less mobile). From the riverfrontage on the St Lawrence a gentle rise takes you up to Mont Royal. The topography is therefore not as striking as Ottawa or Quebec City and there aren’t as many landmark historic buildings, however the quirky public art and richness of the cultural offerings more than compensates. This is city that loves to party.

Note on train travel:

We took Via Rail between cities, booking online all but one leg which we bought at the station. Stations are centrally located, trains run on time and while the rolling stock is aging seating is comfortable, bathrooms clean and all trains had wifi and a drink and snack service.


Note on accommodation:

Central city hotel accommodation is relatively expensive (always more than AUD200 a night) so we chose two Auberges which are well run hostels that have dormitories as well private en suite rooms.

Postscript: Big shout out to two gorgeous women, Eliza in Toronto and Jacinthe in Ottawa. Thank you for sharing your experiences and insights with us.

Chicago: Just Go

28 Sep

I don’t know why it’s taken us so long to see Chicago. Maybe I felt like I already knew it as it’s been the backdrop for so many of the movies and TV series that have entertained me over the years. Top of the list is John Hughes’ “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”. I’ve watched it several times, first with young sons and latterly as a kind of guilty pleasure, that I’ve memorised whole sections of dialogue. Ferris gave me my mantra: “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” 

Frankly, a large part of my reluctance to go to Chicago was ignorance of how truly fabulous the city is in real life, coupled with an unwillingness to travel to the US during the Trump presidency. Stupid I know. What can one person’s passive rebellion do? Similarly I won’t go to Myanmar while it is governed by its repressive, genocidal regime. Call it Travactivism.

However when we committed to the Queen Mary 2 Southampton to New York trip all sorts of possibilities came into play and my cognitive dissonance dance began. My resolution was, ‘Well, if we’re going to be in the States let’s make it count and see some iconic place we’ve never been to before’.


Chicago leaped out as the obvious choice.

The entry point by car from the east.

Yes, I went up there to get this shot.

Three nights was never going to be long enough to do it justice so we confined ourselves to packing in all the sights and delights of downtown and the lakefront. Staying smack bang in the centre of The Loop helped. We walked or cycled most places, only taking taxis at night to zip between music venues. On our final day we hopped the L train just for the experience and then took the blue line to the airport. Three bucks a ticket!

The scorching September Michigan weather continued in Illinois. It was lovely to see office girls in pretty frocks and sandals collecting their lattes on the way to work or eating sandwiches in fountain squares.Chagall mozaic in the street and detail below.

We watched cheerful bicycle paramedics prepare for their day’s work.

 Highlights for me were:


Scoring a half-price seat for “Hamilton: An American Musical” at the CIBC Theatre just one block from our hotel. I couldn’t believe my luck seeing it.

The show surpassed my high expectations; fast, funny, hummable, danceable, clever choreography, costumes and staging with standout leads. Lin Manuel Miranda’s replacement, Miguel Cervantes, was terrific, but Alexander Gimignani’s King George stole the show.

Only one seat was available so Stuart missed out. Don’t feel sorry for him though, he had his own adventure that night. We went for a preshow drink at the lush Palmer Hilton hotel lobby bar and come showtime I skipped off to the theatre. Stuart was supposed to go for a Chicago deep dish pizza dinner then to a jazz bar, the Green Mill.

Lobby bar at the Palmer Hilton

I was back in the hotel at 10:30pm but Stuart didn’t arrive until 11pm, rather the worse for wear and starving. It transpired that four American women who had been sitting drinking next to us befriended him in the bar, bought him a drink, and then they all went to the club together where nobody ate much but everyone drank some more. The old dog still likes to play!
Top daytime experience was the Chicago Architecture Foundation boat tour on the lovely cruiser, Chicago’s First Lady. In ninety minutes we received an expert introduction to the history and architecture of Chicago from Claudia, a volunteer guide from the Foundation. We’d seen the city panorama from the 103rd floor of The Willis Tower, but the view from water level with the play of light and shadow and reflections on the glass-encased buildings was exquisite.

And the splendour of the Institute of Art Chicago’s collection is almost overwhelming. We went the afternoon we arrived, a Thursday, as they’re open until 8pm. Even with two hours we were pushed for time to see all we wanted to. We’d stupidly forgotten to check the time difference from Holland (Michigan) to Chicago. It was only when we were sitting down to a vegan sushi dinner that we realised we’d gained an hour and could have seen much more. 

The Chagall windows alone were worth the admission. (Collage below)

The fourth peak Chicago experience was Millenium Park, especially Crown Fountains, both by day and by night. Such a simple concept brilliantly executed by Catalan artist Jaume Plensa. I could have watched for hours mesmerised by the different faces of Chicagoans projected on the cascading glass cubes. In the daytime kids splash in the shallow black granite pool between the towers.


Fifth in the league of great stuff has to be our mega music night. Wandering north of the river we stumbled into Chicago House of Blues, one of the great blues music venues. It’s known for funky decor and excellent visiting acts so we wanted to find out who was on the bill while we were in town. We talked to the first person who came along and when we expressed interest in seeing the Saturday night show, a return gig by a former child blues guitar/singer prodigy called Jonny Lang, the staffer said, ‘Wait a minute, I’ll just go see if we have tickets available’. He came back from the ticket booth with two tickets and said, ‘Here you are, enjoy!’ He wouldn’t let us pay so we promised to spend up big on drinks and food on the night.

That helpful person was the assistant manager, Joe G (Joseph Gasparo Jr), who started at the club as a bouncer in 1996 and worked his way up.

Stu with Joe on stage.
That same night Melody Angel, a beautiful, young, self-taught blues/rock guitarist-singer was gigging at Buddy Guy’s Legends. With some swift footwork we managed sunset drinks at Raised Rooftop Bar followed by dinner at House of Blues, then checked out Jack Broadbent (Jonny Lang’s support act) before zooming down to Buddy’s for Melody’s set, then back for Jonny whose set started at 10pm. Tiring but well worth it!

The gorgeously talented Melody Angel.​


Guitars of some of the legends who’ve played at Buddy Guy’s above and Jonny Lang below.

The final Chicago highlight (there were more but I’m alread testing your attention span) was our city cycle ride early Sunday morning to Navy Pier and then north along the lake on a well constructed two lane cycle way separated from a walking/jogging path.

The lake water looked clean as were the beaches. Different sections leant themselves to different activities and groups: families with sun shades and paddling toddlers, bikini clad beach volleyballers, exercisers, sun bathers, it looked like a midsummer’s day on the Cote D’Azur.

We only saw three police officers all morning, three uniformed chatting African American men bareheaded in the full sun. The lakeside area is designated parkland and alcohol consumption is illegal (except in the only licenced premises, a cafe/bar called The Shore Club).

This brings me to my final comment on Chicago. Whatever one’s opinion of the incumbent Mayor, the high profile Democrat, Rahm Emanuel, he is doing some things right, especially for visitors. The streets are the cleanest of any major city I have ever been in bar none and I never felt unsafe.

With zero dog shit, litter or broken glass I had no qualms about walking barefoot back to our hotel late Saturday night (those shiny shoes I bought in New York gave me bleeding blisters almost immediately. Aaaah vanity, thy name is woman).

Sure, there were panhandlers and some interesting characters about, but they never bothered us and the people who are sleeping rough have pretty salubrious digs (during warm weather – not sure where they go mid-winter). The riverside where South Wacker Drive runs out is peppered with tents, washing lines, bicycles and deck chairs. Someone had even set up an outdoor office.

All in all Chicago was a deeply satisfying experience. We understand now why it is such a popular destination for domestic tourism.


“You’re still here? It’s over. Go home. Go.”

(Last line by Ferris Bueller)

Postscript: Other TV favourites set in Chicago are ‘Chicago Hope’ with Mandy Patinkin, E.R. with George Clooney of course, and more latterly, ‘The Good Wife’. I was delighted to see the spin off series, ‘The Good Fight’ written around Christine Baranski’s character, Diane Lockhart. Go Diane!

Indian Summer Lakeside: Leelanau, Michigan

26 Sep

Clean sandy beaches, farmers’ markets, vineyards, hops, apple trees and cherry orchards, along with microbreweries, kayaking, hiking and cycling – Leelanau County at the 45th parallel on Lake Michigan has a lot to offer and we pretty much did it all in five perfect Indian Summer days. 

Once we ditched our plans for South Carolina and Georgia and found the fine weather forecast for Michigan I used google maps’ satellite view to locate beaches and lots of green space and zoomed in on Leelanau, a peninsula projecting into Lake Michigan. The entry point is Traverse City, a pleasant low-rise lakeside town. From landing in Detroit to Traverse it’s an easy two hour drive.

We based ourselves at Suttons Bay half way up the eastern side of the peninsula. Suttons prides itself on what it doesn’t have – no fast food franchises, parking metres or stoplights. It does have a vistor information office, Inland Seas Museum, a small marina, sandy public beach, an excellent cycle trail (the TART Trail), a laundromat, large supermarket, bicycle, SUP and kayak hire and a strip of shops and cafes.


To get our bearings we took a scenic drive from Suttons north to Omena and on to Northport and the Grand Traverse Lighthouse, then over to Leland.

Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore is lovely but has very little easy public access. We hiked up and down and up and down Sleeping Bear Dunes (many times) from Little Glen Lake to Lake Michigan and back. A good workout for the legs.

While I did laundry duty Stu sampled Hopalot Microbrewery which he pronounced excellent so we both went back next day and enjoyed live music.

We also tried Ben Crow’s Green Bird Winery and organic Cider and also dropped into Black Star Winery and Equestrian Centre and the Aurora Winery for tasting.

For a change of pace we rented a double kayak and paddled the waterfront checking out lovely lakeside properties and the magnificent heritage ketch, the Inland Seas.

The next day we rented bicycles from Suttons Bay Bikes to Cycle the TART Trail System from Suttons Bay to Traverse City – an almost flat 34 miles return of rural landscapes. Our reward was cherry pie at Cherry Republic. Got thoroughly soaked by a storm cell on the return – invigorating!

Leo Creek Preserve was sandy scrub one year ago. A team of volunteers has transformed it into a welcoming, productive community permaculture garden.

On our final day we drove to Port Oneida through fall colours and did the Pyramid Point Walk through meadows, beech and maple to the high sand bluff overlooking Manitou Island.

To break our car journey on to Chicago, the next destination, we stayed in Holland for two nights. It too is on Lake Michigan, but it’s historically an industrial town and less appealing than Leelanau.


We rented bicycles again, this time from the friendly folk at Cross Country Cycle store, a huge place with nearly 600 bicycles and two friendly dogs.

We rode mostly cycle trails via a coffee stop at well-run Lakeside Cafe by the marina out to Holland State Park and the Big Red Lighthouse, (not so big actually) built in 1907.

It was another hot day so shady umbrellas at a downtown Irish Pub and a cold Kilkenny revived us for the return cycle via Windows on the Waterfront. We gave the adjacent Windmill Island a miss, it looks totally fake.

In the evening we drove up to Grand Haven for sunset over the lake then found delicious vegan Indian food at Cumin Restaurant in Holland, run by a charming group of Nepalese.


On our other night in Holland we went to the movies and to see ‘Home Again’ in a Gold Class standard cinema for USD6 each (standard Tuesday night price). We were the only ones at the screening.

For a relaxed family holiday or a couples’ getaway Leelanau’s clean air, waters and easy-going locals make it ideal. No tour buses or selfie sticks here!