Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Vacation to the north, part 3

Tuesday, 8/10:
This being my birthday, I woke up to lots of nice greetings on Facebook (Don bought a brand new shiny laptop just in time for the trip and we had wi-fi practically everywhere, even on the trains). Above, the elegant lobby of the Fairmont Royal York. We started the day at the Art Gallery of Ontario which had a nice exhibit called Drama & Desire, about the influence of stage productions on artists of the 19th century. We couldn't take pictures inside, but the museum was very nice indeed, and I found a David online that was featured in the exhibit:

We walked through Chinatown; we entered and summarily backed out of two restaurants because of my unease with unfamiliar cuisine (one Chinese dim sum, one Jamaican) and hard-to-figure-out dining formats, but finally ate a nice lunch at Rivoli's. Did some book shopping at Chapters, a Canadian Borders, and had a wonderful birthday dinner at an Italian restaurant called Il Fornello; I had a fabulous gin martini (w/3 olives, always a good sign), a very good chicken & pesto cream sauce pasta, and for dessert, some Black Sambuco--which, as the waitress pointed out, was actually a deep purple color when swirled.

Wednesday, 8/11:
To Chez Cora for a breakfast of yummy crepes (a "Sunshine panini-crepe" to be exact); ate at a sidewalk table, a lovely perch for people watching on a delightfully warm and sunny morning. Shopping up at Easton Centre followed--found a couple things at Banana Republic. On to Glad Day, a gay bookstore, and Eliot's Bookstore, full of used book treasures, and purchases were made at both establishments. Had a late liquid lunch at the Library Bar in the Royal York--and an "After the Frost" which was vodka, ice wine, and Grand Marnier. See the atmospheric bar below:

Dinner was at Pizza Rustica (had tuna pizza), at another sidewalk table. I normally don't choose to eat outside, but both times we did here, we had good experiences. The rest of the evening was spent strolling around the Financial District and Old Town, which was on the pleasantly funky side. I'll close this post with a picture of a sculpture outside the Art Gallery, probably a Henry Moore, though I forgot to check the plaque (I'm such a philistine). Last few days coming soon...

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Vacation to the north, part 2

Sunday, 8/8:
Up bright and early to ride the Maid of the Mist, the boat that takes you right up to both falls. You wear these cheap blue ponchos (which Don saved and brought home) so you don't get soaked. They do help, but still, you get wet. It's quite fun, though at its closest and most turbulent, all you can see is a wall of wild white wetness. First, a picture of the Maid of the Mist from land:

Next, land from the Maid of the Mist. Our hotel is the Dixie cup-shaped building in the left clump of buildings (you can click on all the pics to enlarge).

Next, my favorite picture, of people on the boat taking pictures.

The rest of the day was spent walking around the cheesy part of town, which is most of it, with its wax museums (we visited the Ripley's Believe It or Not museum) and carnival-like attractions (we did not visit Dracula's Castle). There are also some lovely park areas along the Niagara Parkway, where we saw a statue of famous engineer Nikola Tesla:

Lunch was at Elements back at Table Rock--so-so food but we were seated at the window overlooking the falls, so it was memorable. Dinner was at a hotel restaurant called Coco's Steakhouse: so-so food, a terrible Singapore Sling, and a hundred dollar tab.

Monday, 8/9:
Breakfast at an IHOP; good but way too expensive. We strolled around the town part of Niagara Falls again, saw an IMAX movie about the falls, and stopped at an Orange Julius--I love Orange Julius, but I don't think there are any left in Columbus, so it was fun. We then took a half-hour drive to Niagara On the Lake, a cute little resort town where the Shaw Festival was in full swing. Quaint shops and little cafes. Had a delicious coconut macaroon at the Irish Tea Room.

That afternoon, we took a two-hour train trip to Toronto. It took a while but it was so civilized--plenty of leg room, no seat belts, a food car, fairly large bathrooms, and no standing in long security lines with your shoes off. Got into town after 8 so we checked in at the Fairmont Royal York, a elegant hotel right across the street from the train station, smack in the middle of downtown, and took a quick nighttime walk around the area. The CN Tower at night was quite a sight, though I didn't feel the need to go up that high. Days 4-7 coming up.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Vacation to the north, part 1

This being our 20th anniversary year, we decided to splurge on a vacation with a little more scope than just visiting New York City or Chicago or a city with a knitting convention (that would be last year's trip to Portland, Oregon). There's nothing wrong with any of those cities--New York is infinitely visitable, and even though we've been to Chicago four times in the past 10 years, we've pretty much covered the same ground there each time: the Loop, the shopping mile, Millennium Park, etc., so I know we could expand our vistas there.

But twenty years seemed to call at least for something different. Our first plan was a train trip; Don has always wanted to do one of those journeys where you go through the Western National Parks, but those are hugely expensive. Instead, we decided on a Northern trip, at least as far north as I could get excited about going: Canada. We (OK, Don and a travel agent) planned an eight-day trip that involved 1) driving from Columbus to the Canadian side of Niagara Falls; 2) 2 nights at Niagara; 3) leaving the car in Niagara and taking a train to Toronto for 3 nights; 4) taking a train to Stratford for 2 nights for the Shakespeare Festival; 5) train back to Toronto, bus to Niagara, drive home. (BTW, the picture above is of us a few years ago on a plane, but trust me, we still look exactly the same ;-)

I've never been out of the country except for a couple of day trips from Tucson to Nogales, Mexico when I was 10 years old, and this called for my first passport, which made me feel so grown-up. We bought a Toronto travel guide, did some minimal planning for sightseeing and shopping (books for both of us, yarn for Don), and got tickets for two shows at Stratford. And we're off...
Saturday, 8/7:
Six-hour drive to Niagara with a Google Maps printout, a road atlas, and a borrowed GPS that was nothing short of fabulous. Smooth drive, with a bumpy patch at the Peace Bridge at the Canadian border (see above); traffic lanes were poorly marked, resulting in us being in a lane that wasn't really a lane. But we got through it and got to our hotel, the Tower Hotel at Fallsview, around dinnertime. Our room on the 27th floor (the tower is mostly empty, with only four floors of rooms, 27-30) had a kind of sideways view of the American Falls, but the view from the 26th floor observation deck was a knockout.

We took the Vertical Railway down to Table Rock at the falls (pictured above), and spent some time taking in the truly majestic sight of the mighty falls. The constant roaring of the falls and the constant presence of mist in the area were both easy to get used to. Table Rock had lots of gift shops, slightly more upscale than Don was expecting--he's a big fan of the TV show Wonderfalls, which was set at a rather kitschy shop. A friend of mine from the library requested one of those pressed pennies that you can get at arcades, and since I'm always thinking of others, that was the first thing I did.

We strolled along the Canadian side and took some pictures--that's Don to the left, with the permanent Falls rainbow behind him--then had dinner at My Cousin Vinny's, a pleasant Italian restaurant which is apparently a chain, though I'd never heard of it. Had a good Italian beer, Birra Moretti. This was the first of the increasingly expensive and mediocre meals we had in Niagara Falls. Yeah, it's a tourist trap and I should have expected this outcome. Meals that we could have had for 45-60 bucks in Columbus (including cocktails and sometimes a dessert) were 60-80 bucks or more in Niagara Falls, and the food was completely undistinguished--not exactly bad but not worth the price. If we do Niagara again, I would plan to either eat fast food the whole time, or cut to the chase and go to the fancy-fancy places. Days 2-7 coming up...

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Bad bio, great music

OK, I'm vowing (again) to do something constructive with this blog. My original desire was to make this a place for relatively short posts, expanding on things I wrote on Twitter or Facebook. Let's try that one more time.

I finished a biography of Stevie Wonder yesterday, "Signed, Sealed and Delivered: The Soulful Journey of Stevie Wonder" by Mark Ribowsky. It was not a good book. He seems to have spoken to perhaps three people who know or knew Wonder; most of his info about Wonder's life is from magazine articles and interviews. He does an OK job discussing the music, but even there, analysis is given short shrift. The one interesting story he digs up has to do with how Wonder used and discarded Malcolm Cecil and Robert Margouleff, synthesizer whiz kids and the producers of most of his greatest albums (including Talking Book and Innervisions).

I wish books like this were honestly marketed, as being not really biography--you come away from this with no real sense of what Wonder the person is like--but music journalism. Had the author focused more narrowly on the music, I might recommend this, but I can't. However, the book has sent me back to the music; I popped Innvervisions in my car CD player today, and I've got Talking Book and Songs in the Key of Life ready for the next few days.