Winter Walk

It’s days like this when I love winter and living in Canada.  The air is crisp, the sun is warm and the scenery is beautiful.  I took a little walk around some of the trails in my neighbourhood last weekend.  The week prior, we go a dump of snow, and now temperatures are above zero (Celsius).  It was a beautiful and peaceful day.

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Ann

 

2016 Resolution Round-Up

Last year around this time (ok, maybe it was late January), I shared my resolutions for 2016.  So now that’s it January 2017, let’s see how I did:

Blog more. Once again this resolution was a bit of a disappointment. Oh… the grand intentions I had… I’m not even sure I’ll put this on the list for this year, since 2016 was quite the failure.

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Ann’s quasi-successful 2016 Reading Challenge!

Read 11 Books. Yipee! I actually polished off 14 books this year. I had this handy 2016 Reading Challenge that I printed out and taped to my closet door as inspiration. The year started off great and I was adhering to the Challenge fully, but then partway through the year I started to deviate from the list. The “abandoned”, “intimidates” and “owned but never read” were really hard to do, especially when friends and colleagues were recommending some really great reads. So in the end I “abandoned” the rest of the list and then just concentrated on making it to at least 11 books. So 14 is quite the achievement. And if you can’t read my chicken-scratching in the picture above, here’s the list in no particular order:

  1. Goats and Sheep by Joanna Cannon
  2. The Widow by Fiona Barton
  3. The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney
  4. Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown
  5. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by J.K. Rowling
  6. Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank/Otto Frank
  7. Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
  8. All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
  9. I Let You Go by Clare Mackintosh
  10. The Opposite of Loneliness by Marina Keegan
  11. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
  12. Attachments by Rainbow Rowell
  13. In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick
  14. The Couple Next Door by Shari Lapena

The stand-out, by far, in the above list is I Let You Go by Clare Mackintosh. I recommend this book to everyone.  It is probably one of the best books I’ve ever read.  As I’ve said to friends, you often expect there to be a plot twist in a book, but in this case the way the book is written is the twist.  Say whaaat?  I know, now you’re curious right?  Just read the book.

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Check off at least one thing from my Bucket List. Done! I blogged about my super-quick trip to Stonehenge here. But I’m also happy to say that we visited PEI this summer too, which is a province I have never been too. So that means I’ve done at least two items from my Bucket List. However, I still need to actually post my Bucket List, because really, I could just be making all this stuff up, but I’m not, I really do have a list.

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The beautiful red sand beaches of Prince Edward Island, Canada. Oh and our beautiful feet too.

Write a Blog Post for every book I read in 2016. Fail. I did two (see the list above and note the two sad, little links) and that’s all I’m going to say about that.

Curate a Friendship. I think I put a little more effort into connecting with my few close friends this year, but naturally I could have done better. I did have a girls weekend in Quebec City back in May, which we all agreed was a much needed get-away and something we hope to do more regularly. As for curating a new friendship, that proved to be a bit more challenging. Well, there’s always 2017, right?

How did you do on your resolutions?  (Better, I hope.)

Ann

 

 

Autumn is in the air

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With the exception of Saturday morning, this weekend was an absolutely picture-perfect fall weekend in Canada.  And it was Thanksgiving weekend too, which meant I could each as much pumpkin pie as I wanted (yeah!)

It was a busy family weekend, but I did manage to sneak out late on holiday Monday for a quick walk by the river.  The fall foliage was in all it’s glory.  This is definitely my most favourite season.

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Happy Canadian Thanksgiving – may there be lots of left-over pumpkin pie.

Ann

 

 

 

 

Bucket List: Stonehenge

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I managed to check off one of my Bucket List items for this year. Visit Stonehenge!  A business trip brought me to the UK in late June and since our offices are about halfway between London and Stonehenge, I decided to stay the weekend and head down to Salisbury to check it out.

I took the train down to Salisbury and then once in Salisbury there is a tour operator at the train station that will take you to the Stonehenge Visitors Centre. It’s a nice double-decker motorcoach and the ride includes some history of the area and Stonehenge itself.

I bought my tickets online about a week in advance, so I had to plan my trip quite thoroughly (ie. like figuring out when I thought I would actually get to Stonehenge, within about an hour or so – yikes!), but it was worth it. There was no line for pre-paid tickets and quite a queue for non-ticket holders.

Once at the Visitors Centre I also paid a little extra and got an audio tour. In general I find audio tours can be hit-or-miss; some work perfectly (if you’re ever in San Fran, the Alcatraz audio tour is amazing!), but others are confusing and often out of sync with what you’re looking at.  In any event, the Stonehenge one was fantastic!  Another (very short, 5 minute) bus ride from the Visitor’s Centre takes you to the ruins.

Once at the ancient site, you can only walk around the perimeter of Stonehenge, at a fair distance. Gone are the days of actually wandering amongst the stones themselves.  To preserve the stones and prevent erosion, the stones were ‘closed’ to the public in the mid ‘70s.  Numbers along the perimeter path correspond with the audio tour and give a detail description of the stones, the surrounding countryside and their significance.

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Look at all those tourist starting at rocks, sorry 'stones'.
Look at all those tourist starting at rocks, sorry I mean ‘stones’.

I maybe spent about 45 minutes to an hour circling the stones. And, I’ll be honest, once that’s done, that’s pretty much it.  I decided to forego the little bus ride back to the visitor’s centre and I took one of the footpaths back through the beautiful countryside and a small forest.  I even startled a pheasant and saw two foxes on my little walk.  It was really a beautiful and relaxing walk – I mean look at this view!

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I caught the motorcoach from the Visitor’s Centre back into the town of Salisbury and got off in the town centre. True to British weather, it poured rain once I got off the bus, but it cleared up quite quickly and it turned out to be a beautiful afternoon.

I had spent about a whole seven minutes (OK, maybe three full minutes) reading up on the history of Salisbury and what to see, so I ended up mostly wondering the streets of the medieval town marvelling at the architecture and thinking I was on the set of a Harry Potter movie.  I did briefly check out the Salisbury Cathedral, with its breath-taking spire.  On the motorcoach ride back from Stonehenge, they noted that as the tallest church spire in England (404ft – combined tower & spire) it had been used as a landmark by the German Luftwaffe and thus Salisbury was spared significant bombing during the Second World War.

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I’m pretty sure you can buy a magic wand in that store.

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Can’t stop me from taking my pic in front of my street. No sir!

All in all it was a fun day visiting Salisbury and Stonehenge, and although I was maybe a little “is that it?” about Stonehenge, it’s still worth it if you find yourself in southern England and you have Stonehenge on your Bucket List.

Ann

Old Orchard Beach: Best Kept Secrets

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Old Orchard Beach, Maine (OOB) has a special place in my heart. I’ve been travelling there pretty much every summer since 1990.  As a kid, my best friend would vacation there with her family for two weeks every summer.  I always thought it was weird to go to the same place each summer, since my family generally went somewhere different for each vacation, when we actually had a vacation.  But then one year in high school my friend called me up and invited me to join her and her family for two weeks in Old Orchard, and it turned out to be one of the most memorable summers of my life.  One visit to the Maine coast, and I was hooked!

When my husband and I started dating, I took him to OOB the second summer we were going out. He’s a total beach guy, so the idea that we could drive 8 hours and be at the coast hadn’t even occurred to him – he was use to driving to Florida for the beach!  Maine cast its spell on him too.

When we had our girls, I briefly considered fore-going our annual trip – the thought of travelling with twin three-month-olds and all the stuff that goes along with travelling with babies seemed too much. But Hubby insisted and it was actually a wonderful trip.  I’m now proud to say that our girls have been going to Maine since they were three months old!

That said, with twenty-plus years of vacationing in the Old Orchard Beach area, we’ve found a few hidden gems that don’t necessary make the tourist radar, but are definitely worth checking out.

Beach Bagels

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Beach Bagels has been a mainstay in ‘downtown’ Old Orchard for well over ten years (they don’t have a website, so I can’t confirm, so I’m going on my memory…) It’s the go-to breakfast spot and offers great food at great prices. The staff is super-friendly and patient – especially when you’re eleven year-old changes her mind 5 times about which bagel she should get. And the relaxed atmosphere is beach-perfect.

34 Old Orchard St, Old Orchard Beach, ME

Ocean Park Soda Fountain

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Just a little ways down West Grand Avenue, you’ll come across the quiet neighbourhood of Ocean Park. Mostly seasonal beach homes and B&B’s, the main square in Ocean Park has a library, convenience store, small green space and a souvenir shop.  But the main hang-out is the Ocean Park Soda Fountain.  Like a lot of things in OOB, it’s like walking back in time, to a more relaxed era.  Though they serve up breakfast, lunch and snacks, their main draw is the ice cream.  The staff is generally university kids with the tip jar listing colleges they are saving for.  And unlike today’s ice cream shops, the OP Soda Fountain still keeps its ice cream in fully covered freezers.  No fancy glass sneeze-guards here

Ocean Park Soda Fountain, 14 Temple Ave., Ocean Park, ME

Harmon Historical Society

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I’ve always been interested in the history of Old Orchard Beach. It’s a vacation spot generations have been coming to year-after-year, so it’s always neat to see what it was like in the 30’s, the 50’s, the 70’s.  At the top of the hill in ‘downtown’ OOB, sits the Harmon Historical Society.  I’ve driven passed this place for years never realizing what it was exactly. I think that if it was called the Old Orchard Beach History museum, it might get a little more foot-traffic, but alas…  It’s named after one of the founding historical members, W. Warren Harmon. Staffed by volunteers, and funded by donations and memberships, it houses wonderful pictures and relics from the last 100 years of Old Orchard Beach.  If you love history and have a rainy afternoon, it’s a wonderful place to visit to glimpse into the past.

4 Portland Ave, Old Orchard Beach, ME

Saco Drive-In

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Confession: this picture is from last year – as you can tell from the movies.

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If you drive past the Saco Drive-In on Route 1, you may think it’s abandoned or at least closed for the season, except when you read the marquee, and it says “Ice Age: Collision Course ” and “Ghost Busters 2”. The second oldest drive-in still operating in the US, the Saco Drive-In is a must for anyone visiting OOB.  And if you’re into marketing (like I am), you have to read about how the current managers (a couple of twenty-something college kids) took on the failing business and with the help of social media and a lot of hard work, really did something amazing.  I’m proud to say that I was about the 350th fan on their Facebook page, and through savvy marketing, they now have well over 35,000 likes!  You can also read about how those Fans helped to save the Drive-In.

What I also love about this place is that they’ve preserved everything so authentically.  The canteen is awesome and appears to be the original from the ‘60s.  Even the washrooms – all super clean and well maintained – are not retro ‘50s, they actually are 1950’s!  So cool!

969 Portland Ave (Rt. 1), Saco, ME

Biddeford Pool

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If it’s not a beach day or you’ve already spent your money shopping at the outlets, take a short drive up to Biddeford Pool. It’s a beautiful rocky shoreline with great beach-combing and nothing beats exploring the tidal pools for mini crabs and other ocean creatures.

South of the town of Biddeford on State route 208.

Schooner’s Mini-Putt & Batting Cages

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Schooners Mini-Golf is another great, local treasure. The Mini-Putt (or as my girls call it, Putty-Golf) is well maintained and even offers a hole on a pirate ship.  We always spend a couple of bucks on the batting cages, which offer softball, little-league, minor-league and major-league pitching speeds to suit all needs.  Although it never ceases to amaze me how many guys stroll up to the ‘major-league’ cage and strike out 12 balls in a row. I’ll stick with my softball pitch, thank you.

58 Ocean Park Ave, Saco, ME

Beach Lobster

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No post about Maine would be complete without some discussion about lobster.  Beach Lobster is just at the corner of Saco Ave. and St. John Street. Head down there in the morning to pick out your fresh lobsters for dinner and they’ll hold them for you to pick up after your day at the beach.  Crabs too.  They also have great local veggies, in season and amazing blueberries!

35 Saco Ave., Old Orchard Beach, ME

Dickinson’s Candy Shop

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Dickinson’s Candy Shop is a true OOB success story. And this year they’ve expanded.  Offering pretty much every candy you can think of as well as fudge, taffy and ice cream – this is a must stop for my kids. The girls especially like the dancing jelly-beans, which us parents remember from FAO Schwartz toy store in NYC.

42 Old Orchard St., Old Orchard Beach, ME

Smiling Hill Petting Zoo

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Even though this photo is from 10 years ago, it’s still one of my favourites – at Smiling Hills Farm, Westbrook, Maine

Technically this is not really in Old Orchard, but it’s just short drive away in Westbrook, ME. We came across this little petting zoo and dairy shop by accident many, many years ago. We’ve taken the girls here a couple times when they were really young to check out the pigs, geese and goats.  If you have little ones, it great spot to burn off some energy, check out the barnyard animals and explore all the kid-friendly climbing structures (trains, planes, boats oh my!).  The farm store serves a variety of diary products including flavoured milks and creams.

781 County Rd., Westbrook, ME

So if you ever find yourself in the Southern Maine area, or are looking for a fantastic, kid-friendly beach vacation that’s within budget, Old Orchard Beach is the spot.  This is just a small taste of all the things to see and do, and I didn’t even talk about the beach (over 7 miles!) or the pier or the amusement rides!

Ann

 

 

Weekend Getaway: Montebello, Quebec

A couple of weeks ago my extended family hosted a small family reunion in the tiny town of Montebello, Quebec at the Fairmont Le Chateau Montebello. It was a perfect weekend weather-wise, and the perfect location to host such an event.

The resort itself is truly unique. It’s sits on the banks of the Ottawa River and was first built in 1930 as a private club.  What sets it apart is it is entirely built from log timbers.  The main building has three levels, boasts a massive central lobby rotunda which is dominated by probably the most impressive six-sided fireplace I’ve ever seen.

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This is one BIG fireplace!

Inspired by Swiss-American Hubert Saddlemire, and supervised by Victor Nymark, a Finnish master-builder, the Chateau was erected in four short months, using over 10,000 red cedars transported from British Columbia via CP rail. All cut and set by hand!  It’s truly and awe-inspiring site.

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The spectacular timber framing in the main lobby/rotunda.
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The view of the main building from near the marina.
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The gates as you enter the grounds.

The rooms are small-ish, compared to today’s luxury standards, but they are beautifully decorated with, you guessed it, a log-cabin theme. But it’s sophisticated, not kitchy.  The bathrooms are also very small, but fully updated.  My favourite thing about the room was that both the room door and bathroom door still have the original latch hardware.  I wish I took a picture!

The resort is truly a year-round destination. In the winter, it has skating, curling, dog-sledding, cross-county skiing and a whole host of other winter activities.  In the summer, due to its riverside setting, it has its own marina and non-motorized water sports, including kayaking, SUP and pedal boats.  There was so much to explore and do, two nights was almost not enough.

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The Montebello marina on the Ottawa River.

On the first evening we walked the short trail into the town of Montebello, with the lovely trilliums on full display. The next morning we took some bicycles (free, as part of the daily resort fee) and explored some of the 5km of trails that weave through the forests around the resort.  We also played badminton and mini-putt.  In the afternoon, we tried out the kayaks, which was an excellent way to explore the riverside.  There are also stables on the grounds that, for an additional fee, offer guided two-hour trail rides.  Naturally, we felt feeding the horses grass was a little more in our price range.

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Cruising one of the trails on the complimentary bikes.
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Croquet anyone?

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The on-site stables.

The list of activities seemed endless; croquet, tennis, volleyball, a children’s playground, bonfire pit, you name it. You can even sign-up for off-road adventure driving or helicopter tours, right from the resort itself.

The outdoor pool wasn’t yet open but we did check out the indoor pool. What a delight!  It was huge, and though you can’t really tell from this picture, the entire ceiling is rather intricately painted, a nod to its heritage.  I also liked that the pool temperature is posted.

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Now this is a hotel pool!

The only part of the resort that was somewhat disappointing, was that there was no coffee shop, or spot to grab a quick bite to eat. The main restaurant/bistro was really the only option available but its sit-down dining, which with two active kids, we really didn’t want to do in the middle of the day.  Same with breakfast.  Fortunately, a short ten-minute walk into Montebello offered a couple of great homestyle-breakfast options.

It’s an an easy drive from Ottawa (1.5 hours max) or Montreal ( 2 hours max), but take note, it is on the pricey side of hotels and there is also a daily resort fee that needs to be factored in too.  But all in all the Fairmont Le Chateau Montebello is a fantastic weekend get-away destination both for couples or for families – you’ll always find something to do, even if it’s taking a leisurely stroll and just soaking up the atmosphere.

Ann

 

Book Report: The Trouble with Goats and Sheep by Joanna Cannon

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The Trouble with Goats and Sheep by Joanna Cannon

The cover of the book describes it as ‘part whodunit, part coming of age (with) secrets behind every door’. The brief summary on the inside cover sets the scene as the summer of 1976, a neighbour is missing and two kids, Grace and Tilly, decide to figure out what happened, and in doing so reveal all kinds of secrets no one expects.  Sounds tantalizing, right?  That’s what hooked me in.  Unfortunately, the book, in my opinion, didn’t live up to this even brief plot outline.  I’ll be honest, I pretty much forget that it was a whodunit halfway through the book.

It’s the sizzling, hot summer of 1976 in Great Britain (I know, I’m already having a hard time to suspend my disbelief about that one), and Mrs. Creasy is missing. The rumour mill on the quaint cul-de-sac starts churning concerning her whereabouts.  Grace and Tilly, both ten, decide that if they can find God (as if God is some misplaced shoe), then they will surely find Mrs. Creasy.  The neighbours all suspect the recluse Mr. Bishop, is somehow involved in the disappearance.

The story jumps back and forth both in time and in who is narrating the story. For the most part the story is told from the perspective of Grace, the ten year old, but other parts are told in standard third-person, leaving the reader somewhat disconnected.  Something happened on the street ten years prior that all the neighbours are whispering about, and are suggesting it’s connected to the current disappearance, but the author is so vague about the details, it doesn’t generate the momentum it is clearly intended to create.

The neighbours on the street are indistinguishable and not memorable. Grace herself, despite being only ten, seems unrealistically wise beyond her years at some moments, then like a kid at others.  The book is filled with religious overtones, the title being the main one, but I had a hard time understanding why, as most didn’t really seem to add significantly to the storyline.

Finally, since I didn’t grow up in 1970’s Britain, I found myself looking up all kinds of unusual British words and food references – sou’wester, Black Jacks, Flying Saucers, Angel Delight among others.  I suspect if the setting was in the US, these 70’s cultural references would be more nostalgic, but for me they fell flat.

As you might expect there was a bit of twist at the end of the book, but I was already so disconnected from the characters and the story, that I barely noticed. And in fact, once I was actually finished the book, I was like, “is that it?”

So if you haven’t guessed by now, the book was a bit of a disappointment for me. But if nothing else, it satisfied by goal of reading a book that was published in 2016, so that’s a plus!

Ann