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

Mabou

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.

Toronto

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.

Ottawa

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.

Montreal

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!

US Open Tennis and a Bite of the Big Apple 

19 Sep

Stuart and I are suckers for big international sporting events, especially Tennis Grand Slams. With Wimbledon, the Australian Open and Roland Garros in Paris under our belts, that left only Flushing Meadows, New York. This year they were celebrating 20 years of the main stadium dedicated to Arthur Ashe, the first male African-American to win three Grand Slams and a man who became a quiet, relentless social activist until his early death. The Championship was also celebrating the astonishing career of the first female three-time Grand Slam African-American, Althea Gibson, who pre-dated Ashe by several decades.Arrival into New York on the QM2 was timed for the men’s semifinals and the men’s doubles final Friday. I’d bought four Arthur Ashe Stadium tickets (Anne and Charles came too) back in June when they were released on Ticketmaster (USD227 each). A succession of top seeds dropped away through injury; Djokovic, Murray, Nishikori, and Warinka, and then Federer succumbed in the quarter-final to Del Potro. It was looking good for my personal favourite, Rafael Nadal.

During the week of the Atlantic crossing news access was limited, but from what we could glean Rafa was a semifinalist. Huzzah!

 

Our hotel in the Garment District on 35th and 7th Streets was a short walk to Penn Station for the 20 minute Long Island Light Rail trip to the Billie Jean King Tennis Centre.

Penn Station traffic control e-vehicle charging – too cute.


Security and mobile ticket check were swift and crowds light. Besides Arthur Ashe the only scheduled matches were Juniors, Invited Collegiate and wheelchair tennis.

Our program started at midday. A few minutes beforehand we went to find our seats – way up in the gods. As we passed through ticket check in the stands I heard one of the ushers say ‘open seating’. When I queried him he said we could sit in any vacant seats for the first session, the doubles final. We made a dash for seats about ten rows from the baseline. Score!​
You can see how empty it was in this video.

​Horia Tecau and Jean-Julien Rojer despatched 2016 French Open doubles champions Mark Lopez and Feliciano Lopez in two sets. The score doesn’t tell the full story, there was some beautiful play by Lopez and Lopez, but they made way too many unforced errors.

‘Cause you can never have enough US flags in case we forget where we are.


The semis weren’t starting until 4pm, plenty of time for lunch in the sun and to watch some of the other matches on the outside courts.

 

My efforts to buy a memento from the merchandise stands were thwarted by a total lack of anything appealing. Colours, artwork, designs, all were a throwback to the nineties, and not in a good way.

We paid our tespects to the international tennis hall of fame inductees. No question Martina deserves to be there!

Can’t believe they trusted us to get so close to the real championship trophies.

Come kick off we climbed up to row M, seats 1-4 in Section 315 and settled in for the evening. Ashe is a steep stadium that seats 23,771. Take a tumble there and you’re cactus, but the view of the court from all seats is excellent.

What was not excellent was interference from fellow spectators who couldn’t seem to go more than half an hour without pushing past to get a beer, soft drink hot dog, fries, burger, pizza, nachos or some other diabetes-inducing fast food and drink. If they weren’t feeding their faces they were on their mobile phones and scarcely looked at the players. One woman in front was scrolling through two phones, all whilst gossiping with her girlfriend who was similarly engaged. They could have been at Starbucks for all the interest they took in the tennis. I have friends who would give their firstborn to have had those seats.Charles’ gangster hat came in handy – New York was hot that week!
Not much better were the Swiss father and son beside me who talked non-stop. There were a quite a few Swiss who’d followed Federer and were now consoling themselves trash talking the rest of the players.

 

First up for the semis were Kevin Anderson and Pablo Careño Busta. Busta gave Anderson a run around in the first set taking it 6-4, but Anderson grabbed the next three with huge serves and power passes. Anderson was in the final!​

After a short break the moment I’d really been looking forward to arrived. Rafa and Juan Del Potro strode onto court. Game on! My stomach sank when Rafa lost the first set 6:4.

Del Potro may have been tired from his quarter final with Federer, but from the start of the second set Rafa definitely amped up his play, firing off winners down the line and cross court plus some perfect drop shots. Rafa won the next set to love, then the next two 6:3, 6:2. Happy day! Rafa V Anderson for the final was an interesting prospect, albeit to be viewed on telly.​

It was all over by 10:30pm. More than 23,000 people all wanting to get home simultaneously. Maybe we were lucky, but we hustled a bit and were back in our hotel by 11:15pm. The organisation and crowd control were good.

 Would I recommend you go to the trouble and expense of experiencing the US Open? Yes, if you are a diehard live tennis fan you must do it, if only for comparison purposes.

 

For me the hierarchy of Grand Slams is now:

 

No. 1 Wimbledon (well-behaved public garden party with strawberries and cream)

No. 2 Roland Garros (noisy French fashion show with champagne)

No. 3 Melbourne, Australia (family fun day out in the oven)

No. 4 Flushing Meadows (rowdy jingoistic baseball game where you can get your face on the big screen)

 

Note for people who eat healthy food: At Flushing Meadow you can take your own food in. Take away Pret a Manger is a good option for vegans.
The rest of our time in Manhattan was a revisiting of favourite places, Broadway, Central Park, the big department stores (my one purchase was a pair of blinged up sneakers from Macy’s), heritage diners, a piano bar that shall remain nameless and a wonderful Indian dinner at Nirvana on 39th and Lexington.


Saturday afternoon we said goodbye to Anne and Charles and connected with my flamenco friend and NY native, Simonetta. She installed us in her Queens apartment then gave us a short tour of parts of New York we hadn’t seen, starting with the wonderful Hangawi Korean vegan restaurant, then the Highline walk and Chelsea Market.

A weekend drag queen convention made people-watching even more interesting.

Simonetta and Hangawi Restaurant.



View from Simonetta’s Astoria apartment (above).


Back in Queens we shopped for food and made our first home-cooked meal for three weeks. On our final NY morning we walked to a local diner then caught the New Jersey Transit train from Penn Station to Princeton where Alastair, like Charles a friendship forged in the fire of Surrey University, collected us. It was an opportunity to reconnect with nature as Alastair and Lynn live by a river amongst acres of trees and grass with deer grazing and hawks circling.


All too soon it was time to move on. Alastair dropped us at the local rental car agency and we drove to Allentown, Pennsylvania. Sounds like an odd choice but we had arranged to meet up with firm friends we made in Kobe, Japan, when we were both expatriots in the latter half of the 80s with young sons the same age. Even though it had been two decades since we’d last seen each other we picked up right where we left off.


Sue has created around a hundred beautiful quilts. Amazing pieces of useful art.
The next part of our journey had to undergo a rapid rework. We’d wanted to bicycle tour from Savannah to Charleston over the course of a week, however Hurricanes Irma, Jose and Maria had other ideas. We looked at the long range weather forecast and found a patch of sunny, warm weather half way between Allentown and our next booked destination, Chicago. I brought up a satellite view and zoomed into a waterside area with lots of beaches, forest and farmland.

 

That’s how we found ourselves beside Lake Michigan in Leelanau County.

Across the Pond with Queen Mary 2: Southampton to New York

16 Sep

A warmly dressed four-year-old boy stands with his older brother between two large red funnels on the ship’s deck. They gaze out to sea. In the distance a shoreline and buildings come into focus. Suddenly the ship’s horn issues an almighty series of blasts. The boy nearly jumps out of his skin. This marks his introduction to New York and the end of his trans-Atlantic crossing on Cunard’s Queen Elizabeth in 1955.Stuart and James in Poughkeepsie, NY. 

Yesterday that boy, now a 66-year-old man, embarked on her sister ship, the Queen Mary 2, to repeat the journey. Instead of his parents, their Swedish au pair, his seven-year-old brother James and baby sister Catharine, he’s travelling with his wife (me) and best of British friends, Charles and Anne.

Stuart and the ‘Three Queens’ at the Titanic display at Southampton’s maritime museum (above) and the newly launched QM2 (below).


If not for Stuart’s nostalgic memories of the Queen Elizabeth none of us would be here. I don’t do cruises (the Hurtigruten is not a cruise, she’s a postal and freight line which happens to take passengers up and down Norway’s coast). The QM2 doesn’t make any stops between Southampton and New York, and as such the trip constitutes an ocean passage. A fine distinction I admit, but it overcomes my natural reluctance to board a floating hotel casino/Club Med, albeit an opulent one.The Queen Elizabeth and tug boat.

To make it even stranger we’ve happened upon the second annual Fashion Week crossing, timed to arrive in New York at the start of Fashion Week. None of us are interested in fashion, but hey, whatever floats your boat. Certainly few of our fellow passengers show signs of having given their appearance more than cursory attention. I see plastic sandals, acres of lycra and distressed Tshirts boarding with us. Will they, chrysalis-like, enter their cabins in tatty casual wear and emerge for formal evenings glittering in ball gowns and tuxedos?

Read on for my Ship’s Log of the voyage, hereafter known as the SLog.

 

Thursday August 31, Day One

Arrive for designated 3pm embarkation half an hour early. Not a problem – baggage is dispatched curbside, we’re processed smoothly, pass through a security scan and board the ship at 2:45pm. Find our cabin (called ‘stateroom’ in Cunard-speak) number 1592, amidships portside with balcony (as booked by Anne, thank you very much!) and start unpacking. Charles and Anne are right behind us. Their cabin is next door, so we pause to toast the commencement of the voyage with a flute of sparkling wine, compliments of the Captain.

The obligatory lifeboat drill is a hoot but I manage a straight face at the muster station.


From the stern viewing deck we make out two small dancing figures on the distant dockside (for security reasons non-passengers can’t get close to or board the ship). They are our niece Sally and her husband Nick waving us off. We’d had a delightful departing lunch with them at The Dancing Man Brewery.
By 5pm we’re nudging away from the dock. Ever so slowly we make our way along the estuary passing small yachts and are soon clear of the headlands. We are too far from shore to see Sally and Nick who have relocated to Queens Park for a better view of the ship’s progress out of port. Our course takes us along the eastern side of the Isle of Wight then below the island heading due west.

6pm Stuart lines up at the purser’s office to rent his formal DJ. No reservations allowed, early bird gets best fit.

 

Try to check in with family in Australia but realise the charges for internet connection for the week are equivalent to the deposit for a small house so opt for a digital detox. Good decision as I overhear next day an exasperated Swede complain to the Purser that he’d paid for internet connectivity but got zilch.

8pm We reconvene for the second half bottle of bubbles then find our way to the magnificent Britannia dining room for dinner. We have a designated dinner table for the week and three staff to attend to us. The ratio of staff to passenger is almost one to one. Dinner is pleasant, the chef has concocted vegan dishes for me, and I’m given a wide choice of options for lunch and dinner the next day.Friday September 1, Day Two

Clocks go back an hour in the night. We’re out of English waters and have started our course on the Great Circle Line. We wake early to blue skies, calm seas and walk parts of the ship we haven’t yet seen, bridge room, library, health club and spa. With 13 levels and 345 metres bow to stern it’s easy to clock up 10,000 steps a day passing joggers and speed walkers doing their laps of the deck. We join Charles and Anne and four strangers at a round window table for breakfast (Stuart orders kippers of course!). My nearest neighbour just happens to come from the Gold Coast, only a few kilometres from my parents so we happily swap travel stories. I never see her again. Magically the 2,200 or so passengers disperse throughout the vessel and it never feels crowded.

Frocks for the fashion show stored in the nightclub.

Back in the cabin Stuart spies a smallish dark grey dolphin from the balcony. It’s speeding away from the boat arcing through the air every couple of seconds. It turns and heads back leaping towards us then disappears.

 

10am A line dancing class for me while Stuart and Charles battle it out at paddle tennis and Anne joins the intermediate bridge group. I expected a handful of people for boot scooting but the Queens’ dance floor is full. With clear instructions and demonstrations by the good-humoured young instructor we learn three sequences to three different pieces of music. Too soon our 45 minutes is up. I could have danced all morning! Instead I hit the gym for my own yoga practice. Tucked away behind some huge Swiss balls I can do my own thing while watching the comings and goings. Highly entertaining to watch widely varying fitness routines including the 70-year-old plastic American Barbie doll in pink short shorts and red gloss lipstick who set up her ipad and followed a ‘tapping’ video centimetres away from me. Bizarre.

12md Lunch a deux back in Britannia then a nap.

 

3:30pm Lecture on the life and music of Roy Orbison by former BBC1 producerJohnny Beerling includes insightful interview and studio clips with Roy and details the tragedies that befell him and his family. Roy’s assessment of his voice as ‘not sounding like anybody else’ was typically unassuming. Roy’s voice pierces straight to the heart.

 

4:30pm Gallop down to Queens with Anne to claim a table before the afternoon tea service ends. Darjeeling tea and cucumber sandwiches are lovely accompanied by s string quartet.

 

8pm It’s the first of three formal nights, this one themed ‘The Black & White Ball’. Since I’m travelling for ten weeks with one small case and a daypack I’ve left my ball gowns at home (just kidding, don’t own one). I cobble together something that should get me past the dress inspection at the restaurant entrance. No one gives me a second glance. Stuart’s hired DJ and shirt look spiffing.


The grand ballroom is packed after dinner. The two women who have ignored the black and white code stand out painfully. My favourite is the tiny Japanese woman wearing an exquisitely patterned black and white kimono. Sedate waltzes, a foxtrot and samba give way to a jive. Time to hit the dance floor!

The professionals show us how a Fox Trot should be done.

 

When we’ve had enough of that scene we move next door to the night club where a young, African-American band is playing danceable covers. Grooving in high heels to ‘Happy’ and ‘I will survive’ is made even more challenging by the swell that rolls under the stern. Ship’s clocks go back another hour tonight so we make it a late night.

 

Saturday, September 2, Day Three

Rain in the night and it’s hard to make out the horizon for sea mist. Three metre chopping waves turn the sea white but the ship carves through it all with only a slight roll.

10am Latin Dance Cha Cha lesson for me. I partner Ann from Derby who is travelling solo. She usually dances as the man/lead so I offer to take the lead. We are well matched and pick up the sequence easily. Leave the lesson wanting more.

 

There are plenty of self service laundries – do a quick wash and dry.

 

12md Lunch at the Kings Court buffet which has plenty of vegan options. Nap, then the 2:15pm fashion show, a yawn-inducing collection of business and formal shirts for men and women.

 

3:30pm Tea at Queens Court serenaded by a female harpist playing Debussey and Chopin followed by a yoga session, swim and jacuzzi. The ocean rollers are mirrored by waves in the pool. Odd sensation. All the open decks are closed as we’ve officially hit a Force 8 gale.

Pre-dinner cocktail with the Captain. No hand shaking allowed to keep bugs at bay.

 Sunday, September 3, Day Four

Heavy seas with uncomfortable swell. Grey skies. Makes line dancing interesting! Very glad of anti-seasickness pills. Forgo silver service lunch for the Kings’ Court buffet – salads and vegan sushi are good.Room service breakfast with a smile.

2pm Fashion show of gowns and mens’ formal wear plus a couple of spangles swimsuits by Julien McDonald is at capacity and people are turned away. I expected pouty, strutting models, but they’ve clearly been told to enjoy themselves dancing to the 70s disco music and it makes for a great vibe as they shimmy around the ball room. The gowns are favourites of Beyonce and other curvy celebs. Maximum bling and flesh factor for women and the men’s shirts, jackets and DJs are shiny and tight fitting. Only one female model is too thin. Her shoulders and arms are so bony and her hip bones protrude so painfully it detracts from the gorgeous gowns she wears.

Pre-dinner show is called ‘Warby and Farrell’, two Cockney English pianists who double up on one grand piano. They have a gentle line of banter and are crazily talented. A video camera projected to a big screen shows the intricacy and speed of their hands. Their ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ would win Freddy’s admiration. Anne and I accidentally lose Stu and Charles between the theatre and the Commodores’ Bar at the bow of the boat. A top spot for cocktails with a panoramic view of sunset.Dinner is informal and we go to the big band dance evening. Stuart’s knee is playing up (too much jiving earlier) so we just observe.

 

Monday, September 4, Day Five

Sunshine is back and seas calmer but still need to take pills. Do laps of deck 7 after breakfast then try the Quick Step modern ballroom dance class with my now regular partner, Ann. Again we master the basics easily. Good teaching is the key. A few more laps of the deck then yoga, salad lunch and siesta.

3:30pm Afternoon tea has become a daily ritual and today is a tea dance with a brass band. Some scary looking elderly American women have overdone cosmetic surgery and try as we may to not look at them they hold a terrible fascination. One dances with her equally strange husband, the two of them jerk their way around the dance floor, only her face immobile.

 

The tea cakes are different every day – disaster for those with a sweet tooth.
5pm Line dancing again – we review an earlier dance and learn two more new sequences. It’s great exercise and a good laugh.

 

7:45pm A sunset cocktail at the Commodores’ Bar with whales putting in a passing show, blowing and breaching.

 Informal dinner followed by the 10:30pm Variety Show by Mike Doyle, a Welsh singer-comedian, a favourite of Queen Elizabeth. His voice is strong enough to carry his act but he obviously gets a kick out of taking the mickey whenever he can, his mimicry is spot on.

 

The ballroom tonight is turned over to a contemporary band so I manage a quick boogie before bed. Clocks go back another hour tonight so there’s plenty of time to sleep!Tuesday, September 5, Day Six

Sunny, warm day with light seas, perfect for lapping deck seven four times.

10am Latin Dance lesson is the Rumba, finally! I partner Ann again and we find it even easier than the cha cha cha. The class proceeds at the pace of the slowest learner which is frustrating.

 

11:40am We have a rendezvous with Charles and Anne for shuffleboard cut short by Stuart and Charles’ table tennis tournament so we go our separate ways. Me to buffet lunch, then the pool, laundry and nap. Charles and Stuart have a group of sports’ chums that keep them busy. Deck quoits proves popular.

Dinner is Formal, ‘Roaring Twenties’. All four of us have gone to some trouble to dress the part in our gangster and flapper costumes. When we walk into the cocktail bar people are complimentary. Our dinner table neighbours don’t recognise me wearing a black, short bob wig. Disappointingly only about ten per cent of people have taken the theme seriously. We all have a turn on the floor and I’m invited to dance the Charlston by a dance host, a tiny man called Peter. He’s an excellent lead and we have a lot of fun with it.Wednesday, September 6, Day Seven

Cloudy start and warmer still with light seas. Clocks have gone back a third hour.

 

Today is my chance to try fencing. It’s a 9am class and the other participants have all been attending each day but the instructor, Neil, allows me to try to catch up. I’d watched part of a class earlier in the week and decided it looks like a kind of dance. I can dance and I’ve seen ‘The Princess Bride’, how hard could it be? Once I am kitted up with a canvas protective jacket and face mask I start to feel overheated and claustrophobic. We warm up with an exercise I pick up quickly and I start to feel more comfortable. That lasts only until we start the fencing bouts. The effort of moving rapidly forwards and backwards the full length of the ballroom with lots of lunges is more aerobic than anything I have done recently. Still I acquit myself ok and when it comes to the competition I beat two women before a seventeen-year-old German lad lands two chest blows and I’m out. That’s me with my instructor Neil.

I just have time to recover before the 10am line dancing followed swiftly by the 11am jive class. Stuart partners me for this and we cover the basic steps plus a behind the back turn. Hope to try it on the dance floor tonight.

 

Such an energetic morning calls for a swim, lunch and a long nap.Our final afternoon tea with piano music, then a shuffleboard game and some reading in a deckchair is a civilised way to end the final day.

 

Cocktail hour is a chance to recap the day’s activities. Charles had a golf marathon and was runner up in his comp.

 

Dinner is informal. We chat to our serving staff and give them their tips. Cunard add a daily tip charge to each passenger to cover all the staff except bar staff (not sure of the logic there) but we felt our Filipino waiters and our Ukrainian sommelier gave exceptional service. Early to bed as we have a 4am wake up. We place our suitcases outside the cabin door to be transported to the terminal for collection next morning.

A typical dessert, the iconic English Summer Pudding. 

Thursday, September 7, Day Eight

4:14am Even with the extra hour as the clocks go back for the fifth hour, it feels like a short night when we go on deck in the cold and windy dark to watch the ship pass under the Verezzano Bridge with only four metres to spare. By 5am we can see the solid outline of Manhattan’s lights and the white blob of the Statue of Liberty on the opposite shore. As we get closer and closer and make out the detail of the statue and the buildings it feels surreal, Gotham City-like and quite wonderful. The only thing missing is the two blasts of the ship’s horn. I guess there’s a curfew on such noise.

Ready for anything!​​

6:30am Final breakfast tied up to the Brooklyn Terminal. The unloading of suitcases and loading of supplies begins in earnest with cherry picker type machines and forklifts. 

8am Vacate our cabin and disembark. Again the process of claiming baggage, passing immigration and customs is troublefree and we’re heading to our private transfer minivan by 8:15am. I stop for one final photo of the vast and elegant bow of the ship bathed in New York sunshine.

The QM2 earned my respect with uncompromising quality. Superb fittings and finishes, attention to detail, and the warm professionalism of the staff won me over. I won’t be signing up for another crossing any time soon, but I unreservedly recommend the Southampton to New York trip for anyone wanting to escape reality for a week, celebrate a life milestone or just reconnect with themselves and their partner in luxurious surrounds.

 

Most importantly Stuart enjoyed himself hugely, not a single iceberg was sighted, and we arrived in New York bang on time to see the US  Open Tennis Championships at Flushing Meadows!