It may seem a funny thing to say but having spent the last three months on a variety of palm covered islands we were looking forward to some land-based travel and the contrasting adventure of a few days in New York followed by a train ride to Niagara Falls was an exciting prospect.
We took a flight from Panama City to New York and from the airport to Manhattan by train without any hitches. We were staying in the YMCA on the East 47th Street and took a taxi from Penn Station to the hostel. The room was a bit of a shock to say the least it was hardly bigger than a telephone box into which they had managed to squeeze two bunk beds, however we wouldn’t be spending much time in the room as we had places to see and things to do.
We had prepared a list of all the places we wanted to see and in the next three days we walked our socks off. On day one we took a cruise around the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, walked over Brooklyn Bridge, visited Times Square and went up the Empire State Building. You read about these places but to be there and see and experience first-hand was an experience not to be missed; the views from the Empire State, the buskers and bustle of Times Square, the sense of history seeing Ellis Island, the brilliant gold flashing in the sunlight on the Statue of Liberty.
We were moved by the beautiful water feature at Ground Zero with all the names engraved of those who had died; it was a very peaceful place of remembrance in the middle of busy Manhattan.
On our second day Gill needed to get her iPad fixed which had a cracked screen so we headed off to the majestic and impressive Grand Central Station which has an equally impressive Apple Centre overlooking the main concourse. Apple staff were terrific and without hesitation swopped her IPad for a new one.
After this we had decided to visit the Guggenheim Museum of modern art which unfortunately did nothing for either of us, sadly piles of bricks have spread here from the Tate Gallery and nails in a wall showed little artistic talent or imagination, it was a case of the Emperors clothes for us. The only exhibit which impressed me was some fantastical figures all in white.
It was a beautiful afternoon so we bought some wraps from a stall and sat in Central Park to eat them. We then meandered through the park in glorious sunshine watching New Yorkers relaxing. No trip to New York would be complete without seeing a show on Broadway so on our third night we went to see Phantom of the Opera. Neither of us had seen it before and we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves, even if though it was an expensive experience, it was just one of those things we had to do.
On our last day Gill was meeting an old school friend of hers, MaryAnn who lived in New York and who she hadn’t seen for 50 years so I went off to the Air and Sea Museum for the day. It is based on the aircraft carrier USS Intrepid which served from 1943 to 1974 seeing action many times.
The exhibit also houses the Space Shuttle, an early nuclear submarine and Concorde so I spent all day walking around these fascinating exhibits before heading off to an Irish Bar for a well-earned proper pint and a steak dinner. Gill’s meeting wasn’t till after lunch in the morning so she decided to visit The Natural History Museum and met MaryAnn afterwards on the steps of the museum. They wandered through Little Italy (for the essential ice-cream of course), passing through the edge of Chinatown and Soho before going on to see the UN buildings and Dag Hammarskjold dedications.
Some of Gill’s recollections of New York were, “friendly immigrants and ethnic people, bags of rubbish in streets, safe, vibrant, presence of police (for me an unease about so many armed police at the fireworks venue), many people taking selfies, so many Delis (cheap), expensive restaurants, lack of taxis, street hustlers in Times Square and slow, tired and inefficient Amtrak trains”
We were both exhausted by our four day sightseeing and the many miles we had covered but we saw what we came to see and weren’t disappointed. My ankles and Gill’s hips had held up well but we were both looking forward to sitting down to our 10 hour train journey up through New York State and into the Canadian side of Niagara Falls where we were due to meet some friends of Gill’s, Fred and Liz, who she hadn’t seen for 20 years.
The train followed the wide meandering Hudson River upstate for many miles, passing through a handful of scruffy, nondescript towns. Although restful the journey was disappointing from an experience point of view, trees, trees and more trees in a flat landscape, hour after hour of sameness. We arrived 2 hours late and then spent an hour going through Canadian immigration and customs where we saw a much more welcoming attitude from staff who actually seemed pleased to see us, a pleasant change from the surly unwelcoming attitude we encountered entering the U.S.
Fred and Liz were still waiting for us and whisked us off to the hotel they had booked for us all into. It couldn’t have been better, our room was a suite on the 27th floor looking right out over the falls, which are lit at night. They had arrived the night before to make sure we got the right room which they insisted on treating us to. This was only a taste of the fantastic hospitality we experienced from these two lovely people. After breakfast we put our bags in Liz’s car and Gill and I walked along the promenade past the falls, doing the tourist thing and taking pictures.
They picked us up and drove us the 40 miles to their lovely home in Mississauga on Lake Ontario. We spent 5 relaxing days with Liz and Fred, meeting their friends and family and joining in their social life. We drove up to their son John’s house for a barbecue and he drove us around the area to see the many Mennonite farms. The families live very simple lives and shun modern conveniences like cars, computers and mobile phones. Many of the farms had no electricity and the farming was done by hand in old traditional ways, although we did see a few tractors around.
John’s now a man of 50+ with two sons and the last time Gill had seen him he was a gangly teenager of 15 but John remember her clearly from their time together in Nigeria.
We also attended a Rotary Garden Party, Fred and Liz are both very active members and past presidents. Liz was presented with the trophy for the annual Bridge championship. Her prowess doesn’t stop there however Liz is still playing tennis competitively at 76 years old after representing Canada in her earlier years.
On our last day with them we went into Toronto by GO train which took us right into the city centre. We visited the museum there with its very interesting Inuit exhibition. It was too misty to go up the CNN tower, apparently the view from the top is marvellous, maybe another day!
We had a wonderful time staying with Fred and Liz and from here we planned the rest of our tour of Eastern Canada, with helpful advice from Fred on where to go and what to see. One of the places they recommended was Mont Tremblant, a mountain ski resort in the Algonquin highlands and Liz booked our hotel for three nights using points they had accrued on their travels, lovely lady that she is.
We wanted to hire a car for ten days to visit Ottowa, Montreal, Quebec City, and Halifax in Nova Scotia where we could then get a ferry to Bangor in Maine, dropping off the car in Halifax. All the car hire companies however wanted extortionate drop off charges of around $780 which was more than the car rental so we abandoned our plan for Nova Scotia and decided to return to Boston by bus from Montreal. I found a really good online deal with Budget and no drop off charges but being suspicious that it was just too good, Liz drove me to the office where they confirmed they would honour the quote. When we came to pick it up the car the next day it wasn’t the economy compact I had booked, it was a 7 seater Chrysler which they needed returning to Montreal and all for the same price, we were delighted and loaded our bags and said our farewells to Liz and Fred, two of the nicest most hospitable people you could hope to meet and headed off to Prince Edward County on the shores of Lake Ontario.
Then it was on to Prince Edward County where we hoped to meet up with Larry and Jan who we had last seen in St Martin, in the Caribbean and who had hoped to sail through the Pacific with us on Romano when sadly Larry fell ill and I broke my ankles. Liz kept her boat here on Lake Ontario and Larry kept his in the Caribbean and they swapped around summer and winter which gave them the best of both worlds. They were getting Liz’s boat ready for the summer in Canada at a marina and we had booked a B&B nearby.
Picton was our first B&B booking through Airbnb who as many of you may know let out rooms in people’s homes which for us was a great way to meet local families. This first night was booked with a lady called Sherlyn who wasn’t able to meet us but had arranged for Gene a permanent resident to let us in. Gene as it turned out had had a massive stroke and had difficulty in speaking but we managed fine and he looked after us very well throughout our stay and was completely unfazed by his handicap, a really nice guy. Sherlyn was a collector and the house was packed with nick knacks of every sort you could find but there was nowhere to put anything, even the bathroom and the dining room table were piled with stuff, it must have taken weeks to dust. We commented on this in our review and Sherlyn was very sniffy about it.
We had checked in for two nights and that evening we went off to explore the surroundings with the intention of meeting up with Jan and Larry in the marina. After much searching and back tracking we eventually found the marina down a little country lane, not at all where we thought it was. Jan and Larry had just fired up the barbecue and threw on a few more chops for us. It was great to see them again and catch up with their news over a couple of drinks and dinner. We arranged to meet again the following evening at a pub recommended by Larry where they played live music and occasionally Jan was known to sing there. She came from a musical family and her sister was Lee of Peters and Lee from way back in the 60’s for those of you who can remember that long ago.
The next day we set off to explore the island it was a very pretty with lovely views over the water, rolling wooded hills, tidy clapper board houses, clean streets and immaculate “yards”. Nothing was out of place anywhere. We visited an unusual lake high on a hill overlooking the sea which had been used to provide water power to timber and flour mills and power generation plants and ensured the prosperity of the towns around for nearly 100 years until steam took over and the whole area went into decline.
We found an unusual sandy beach on the banks of Ontario and spent the afternoon chilling out.
In the evening we met at the pub and had a nice meal with Jan and Larry. The guitarist was someone Jan didn’t know so she was happy to sit and chat and listen to the music.
In the morning we packed up the car and headed for Ottawa and on the way passed through Kingston one time capital of Canada and a pretty town with lovely buildings and waterfront at the end of Lake Ontario and at the entrance to the St Lawrence.
This was our second Airbnb accommodation, this time with Abdul, who proved to be the perfect host. We had the run of his very modern house and could use all the facilities we needed. The only other person staying there was a Lutheran minister from Virginia called Christine. Christine was large in every sense, big lady, big personality, big sense of humour and we got on famously. Her idea of religion was based on love and tolerance and pretty much anything went! She was on a Sabbatical and travelling by car up to a convent in Saskatchewan where she was planning to meditate for three months. I would have loved to be a fly on the wall!
We drove into the centre of Ottowa that evening and went for a walk around. It’s a beautiful City and everywhere is so clean and tidy and well organised. It was a”Rib Fest” when we were there and a whole street near the parliament buildings had been closed off to allow stalls to be set up, each selling their own version of “prize winning” ribs. We queued to get into a pub where people were taking their meals in with them, so they could have a drink and a seat and the pub was surprisingly cool about it all. I have to say the ribs there were excellent although we probably paid a lot more than the street vendors were charging. The following morning we were back in town and took a “hop on hop off” bus, twice, first time without stopping to see what was worthwhile to visit, the second so we could get on and off at various places, it’s a great way to see a city and the commentary gives you an insight you wouldn’t otherwise have. The influence and links with the British are everywhere and the Canadians clearly value their Commonwealth membership and links with UK, even many of the state flags are defaced Red Ensigns and the currency carries the Queen on all there coins and notes so we felt very much at home. As you drive around Canada the place names are also familiar, Portsmouth, Bath, Halifax, Bristol, Yarmouth, Edinburgh but they are all in the wrong place so you find St Andrews next door to Cornwall which is all very confusing.
All along the banks of Lake Ontario on the way to Ottawa there are Loyalist Towns where the Union Jack is still flown. These towns were settled by people fleeing the revolution in the U.S. and we also learned something new, that the U.S. declared war on Canada and Britain in 1812 and invaded Canada but were repulsed with a mixed army of Canadians, Loyalists, Indians or First People as they are now known in Canada and the British Army. The war lasted two and a half years, I didn’t know that the U.S. had invaded Canada, my history lessons at school missed that out either that or I was asleep.
Leaving Ottawa and heading north we went to Mont Tremblant, in the Laurentian Mountains where Fred and Liz had booked us into the Le Sommet des Neiges hotel on the side of the mountain. We had lovely suite with a kitchen, lounge and dining area and a balcony overlooking the town. The town was host to the Iron Man contest with the winners representing Canada. There were events all around the town and crowds were urging on runners who looked half dead. We went out for a walk on our first evening and were immediately attacked by voracious biting insects, it was straight into the nearest outdoor shop to buy a can of insect spray, we had left ours on the boat thinking we were done with biting things for a while. The following morning we took the cable car just outside our hotel using the complimentary tickets from the hotel.
The views from the top were terrific, it was a beautiful day and you could see for miles over the town and lake beyond.
Mont Tremblant is a major ski resort and has all of the facilities you would expect with ski runs and snow sprays all around the mountain. We had noticed they also had a luge so Gill and I went off to have a go. First Gill went down and I stayed behind as camera man to capture her blasting past and then me and then we had a race. As a male and naturally modest I can’t say who won, despite being blocked and rammed at every attempt to pass by the very aggressive competition.
Our next stop was Quebec City – beautiful with a definite French influence in its architecture, cobbled streets, cuisine and people, a very different place in terms of culture, very but not as well maintained as other cities we had seen in Canada and not as friendly.
If we stopped and opened a map anywhere else people immediately came up and offered to help, there was none of that in Quebec. There were numerous references to its early history and many statues of French heroes but very little about the English conquerors, apart from one lone statue of Wolff on their Parliament building. Quebec was very much a “country” apart from the rest of the other 12 “English” Provinces.
On the first evening we decided to go to a Music Festival up on the heights, this involved hundreds of steps and steep streets to get up there. After an hours hard climb we joined the throngs of people headed the same way, the streets were closed to traffic to allow the crowds through. The festival was held on The Plains of Abraham and is free to all.
We stayed for a couple of hours and listened to a few acts and then headed back to our B&B, at least it was all downhill. The following day we toured the city and ate lunch overlooking the St Lawrence Seaway and watched the cargo ships and yachts passing to and fro. Gills father who was a young deck officer at the time was here on the St Lawrence when she was born, so it had a special significance.
In the morning we left Quebec for Montreal where we would catch our bus back to Boston. After Quebec Montreal was huge and sprawling, we went directly to our B&B so we could drop off our bags and return the car. We were met by Alex who owned the flat which was really student accommodation but clean and comfortable and we had use of the kitchen and the other two guys living there were friendly and accommodating enough to us oldies. We dropped off the car on the other side of town and made our way back to our temporary home by metro. In the morning we set off to visit the Olympic Stadium and Botanical Gardens and then the old town where we watched live music outdoors on the street including some excellent opera.
The next day we were up early to catch the 8 o’clock bus to Boston. The bus station wasn’t far so we dragged our cases through the streets which being Sunday morning were very quiet. The journey to Boston was 9 hours through the wooded valleys of Vermont, New Hampshire and Massachusetts. It would have been a spectacular drive in the autumn. We were both very sorry to leave Canada, the hospitality had been superb, the people kind and open, the country so neat and tidy.
The border crossing back into the states was about 2 hours south of Montreal where we were reminded again of the unwelcoming nature of US immigration. Everyone was herded off the bus and made to stand at the back of the room while selected suitcases were removed from the hold on the bus for inspection. It took an hour and a half to process the thirty people on the bus, fortunately we were one of the first to be taken and got back on the bus again to wait. It wouldn’t hurt these guys to smile and be polite and treat people like fellow human beings rather than cattle!
When we arrived in Boston we headed for the airport to pick up a car which because we changed the on-line deal was a lot more expensive. The economy car we booked with them had no boot (trunk) and we had lots of cases so unfortunately we had no choice but to upgrade and of course end up paying through the nose. In Boston we stayed with Karen and Andy, a welcoming young couple, he was English and she was an American and they had met in the UK, got married and came to live in Boston where he worked as a carpenter. They were also new to Airbnb and were letting out their spare room for a bit of extra cash. That night Gill and I we went out and had an excellent Indian curry and in the morning set out to explore Boston waterfront in the pouring rain. Our first stop, of course, was the Boston Tea Party Museum based on a replica ship, the whole story told by actors in period costume, well worth a visit. We found out it wasn’t Paul Revere who made the famous ride he was actually captured by the British just after he set off and it was Longfellow’s poem that erroneously accredited him with the bringing of the news to the rebels. The manipulation was deliberate on Longfellow’s part but he needed a hero and Paul Revere was it.
Nor was the Tea Party solely about taxes it was mainly about the right to self-determination. The settlers didn’t like being run from London by people who knew nothing of the country and its issues. George III refused to acknowledge their pleas so they took matters into their own hands. Not everyone wanted to separate from the crown and the loyalists as they were known headed for Canada which of course remains loyal to the crown to this day. The weather was unfortunate and didn’t show Boston off to its best so we headed back to our B&B to cook a meal Karen and Andy were also cooking a meal so it meant four of us worked together and shared the kitchen work space and the cooker it was a challenge but we made it.
In the morning the skies had cleared and we set off North to explore Maine and to meet up with our cruising friend Rich who we had met in Rio Dulce and who we knew was cruising on his boat Kelly Rae in Maine.
Maine has a deeply and intricately indented rocky coastline, dotted with tiny towns and hundreds of islands, well-known for its fishing industry, particularly lobster. The mainly white or pastel, well-kept wooden clapperboard houses typify this area of New England.
The first two nights we decided to experiment and stay in a converted Chicken House with Jessica and her family. They lived on a farm which was no longer worked and purely used as a holiday home by the family in the summer. The Chicken House was quite well furnished, no smell of chickens and was about 50 yards from the main house.
The only problem was – no water or toilet facilities. They were situated at the back of the main house, through the kitchen, through the dining room, through the lounge, through a study and there it was, shared by 5 adults and two children! At night when nature called the field was a much better option!
During the following day we drove along coast to Rockland, a major fishing port and we visited the fish harbour where they were unloading some of the boats with a giant Hoover which hosed fish into waiting trucks. The place was mobbed by seagulls just waiting for a fish to drop off a truck. Each truck held tens of thousands of herring; no wonder there aren’t many fish left in the sea.
The next town along the coast was Rockport situated on a pretty inlet with many boats at anchor. Some were beautiful old wooden schooners, superbly renovated by proud owners. From there it was on to Camden where we sat eating our sandwiches, overlooking picturesque harbour and bay at the foot of waterfall and at Belfast the most northerly point we visited, a ship building and repair town, we turned and headed home.
When it came time to join Rich we moved to the Hawks House Inn in South Bristol. The hotel was run almost solely by the new owner, Steve a very large and lovely guy with a very camp style. He was a great host and kept the guests in fits with his quick wit and funny stories. Steve didn’t have a restaurant that was a future plan but the breakfasts were superb, everything we could think of was on offer. In otherwise beautiful sunny weather, we experienced a day of fog for which this Atlantic coastline is also famous so our pictures of Round Pond are somewhat murky.
Rich was anchored off a friend Cheryl’s house at Round Pond nearby, where we were to meet them that evening. The house was in a beautiful location overlooking the sound and we sat out on the terrace watching the sun go down over a few drinks and a lot of chat. Cheryl and her husband had built the house several years before but sadly Glen had recently died.
Cheryl suggested we might like to join her and some of her friends on a visit to Boothbay Botanical Gardens. The gardens were one of the best we’ve seen combining natural gardens and plants with fascinating and ingenious moving stainless steel wind sculptures, “whale” rocks spouting water, a lovely children’s garden complete with the largest tadpoles I have ever seen(over an inch long), beautiful water gardens, vertical herb gardens, an imaginative Faerie Land amongst rocks and trees alongside the river, it was a great day out followed by a relaxed evening back at Cheryl’s in good company.
That evening Rich asked if we would like to go for a sail the following day in Kelly Rae, his Pacific Seacraft 34 and Gill and I jumped at the chance to get back out on the water. It was a beautiful day with fair winds as we set off to explore the surrounding islands. Gill helmed most of the way and thoroughly enjoyed sailing the boat. We saw puffins on one of the islands skimming across the water in search of food. You could spend months cruising Maine and never get tired, it’s a very interesting and picturesque coastline.
That night we took Rich out for a meal, Cheryl had gone cycling with friends. We ate at a waterside restaurant run by the local fisheries company where you brought your own bottle. Gill and Rich ordered while I went off to the local store to buy some wine. Gill wanted to try the clam chowder but they only had a haddock variant so Gill and Rich settled for that, I had a much anticipated lobster and clam dish, a nice meal in a lovely setting.
We asked Rich if he fancied crewing for us across the Pacific. He liked the idea but wanted to think it over depending how his own boat plans worked out. We were in no rush so we agreed he would let us know in September, he’s an experienced solo sailor and we get on well together.
We left Hawks Bay after an early breakfast and Steve’s parting gift of still warm blueberry muffins which he had baked that morning, for the long drive to Boston to drop off the car and catch the bus for the 4 hour trip to New York.
It was the 4th July when we arrived in New York and the hostel told us there was a big firework display was to be held on the water at East River, not far from the YMCA, so we headed off and joined the throngs. We found a great spot right in front of the barges from where the fireworks were launched. After a wait of an hour or so watching the crowds and you could hear many different languages being spoken. The display started at 9.30, it was spectacular and went on for about 40 minutes, lots of ooo’s and ahh’s from the crowd.
The following day I was flying back to Panama from Newark and Gill from JFK to London so we parted in the subway and headed off in our different directions. Gill went to have a look at the High Line which is a disused aerial railway that has been converted into gardens and a high level walk through lower Manhattan.
Unfortunately my flight was much earlier than Gills so I didn’t make it but headed straight for the airport. It was just as well I did as the trains for Newark were only every hour and one had just left as I arrived.
Our next blog will be in about 5 months time and cover our journey through South America to Colombia and Ecuador and perhaps Peru if time permits.