brave enough to start

family of five who can, should and definitely will, see more of the world


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Days 32 – 34 At home in Hamilton

Luckily for us, our host’s husband was an easy going sort of fellow, not phased by the rather idiotic sounding “we don’t seem to know what day it is anymore” line. His wife, the lovely Beata, was equally understanding and after a few frantic emails the whole thing was cleared up, meaning we didn’t have to sleep in the car after all.

Taking it as a sign from the gods that we needed to slow down and take a breath, we took a couple of days doing very little. We got up late, we wandered around the neighbourhood and we ate pizza with some old friends living in the area. All four boys were in desperate need of a haircut so we called into Mario’s place and he kindly worked his magic to turn our street urchins back into semi presentable children again.

 

After an hour or so chatting with him about our adventures he refused to take the proper payment, even knowing he would likely never see us again. Mario, as they say, is good people, just like Beata. I could feel some of my ingrained British cynicism melting away; all these fellow humans who had chosen Canada to be their home and who were extending such kindness to a British family on the road. What would the Daily Mail make of that?

With Halloween around the corner, we took the opportunity to visit a pumpkin patch with some friends. This was a first for us; if such things exist in England we’ve never been, so we had no idea what to expect.  Howell’s Farm in Fonthill opens annually in the run up to Halloween transforming into a family playground with a corn maze, a haunted spooky barn and a great variety of rides, shows and games to entertain all ages. The boys particularly loved messing around with the autumn leaves and rolling down the hills, whilst the pumpkin slingshot was a hit with both the adults and kids alike.

 

After such a fun and relaxed weekend we were ready to step up the pace again come Monday and top of our list – Niagara Falls.


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Days 29 – 31: The journey to Ontario

By now the boys were becoming more accustomed to lengthy car journeys, which was just as well given that Day 29 involved a 530 km journey to Montreal that we hoped to manage with minimal breaks just for fuel.  We loaded up a series of films for the backseat passengers, plenty of snacks and drinks and spent a lot of time playing spot the moose.  It helped that we passed through some spectacular landscapes but despite our best efforts, the moose were staying out of sight. P1120275The border crossing was entirely uneventful, with no queue as we pulled up to the barrier, a five minute chat with the border staff and a quick wave through. Easy – that’s the way to do it.

Seven hours after setting out we reached our apartment on Avenue du Mont Royal and almost immediately we collapsed into some of the most comfortable beds we have ever slept in. If ever you are looking for self catering accommodation in Montreal I would wholeheartedly recommend Likeahotel.com.

We spent the following day exploring Montreal on foot, our route taking us past the base of Mont Royal, through McGill University campus and into the Downtown area before passing Square Dorchester with it’s comical dancing squirrels on the way to the Cathedrale Marie-Reine-du-Monde. The street murals reminded us of those we saw in Philadelphia and the baffling traffic lights made us glad we’d left the car behind.

Both Nick and I studied French at school but neither of us can really remember very much.  When we first moved to Japan 12 years ago I recall trying to learn Japanese and half of my words coming out in French as if the foreign language part of my brain couldn’t distinguish between more than one additional language.  So it was no surprise that in Quebec when trying to recall sufficient French to order lunch, half the words were now in Japanese.    The stroke of genius came as we made our way back in the evening and happened upon a sushi restaurant. If ever there was a chance of someone making sense of the incoherent soup of French, Japanese and English vocabulary swimming around unchecked in my brain, they were surely to be found in a sushi restaurant in Montreal.

We ate well that night!

Day 31 saw us back on the road, this time facing a 10 hour journey straight to Hamilton.  I’m embarrassed to say that, up until this point, Nick had done all of the driving. In my defence, he actually enjoys driving and is generally happy to do it but the time had come for me to take my turn, so somewhere on the 401 I took over for a few hours and Nick managed a nap.

It wasn’t an enjoyable experience in any sense; one of the real low points was the ignominy of being overtaken by an articulated horse box!  P1120406There are some very large vehicles on the roads in North America.  We do not have 100+ ft road trains using the British roads so it was a bit daunting trying to pass them but after the horse box incident I made the effort.

Typically we hit the rush hour traffic on our way past Toronto which added at least another hour to an already exhausting journey but eventually we arrived at our Airbnb in Hamilton ready to collapse.

It was such a relief to open the key safe and let ourselves in to a warm and comfortable home that we could relax in without having to pack up again for another week and a half.

Not long after our arrival there was a knock at the door; the owner’s husband was just passing and saw the lights on. He seemed surprised to see us.

“We were expecting you tomorrow?” he said.  How strange.

With the hectic pace of the last month, constantly moving around and the crazy mileage covered over the previous few days it took a while for us to realise that it was Thursday, not in fact Friday. Slowly the realisation dawned on us that we had arrived a day early.

Oh no…

 


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Days 26 – 28 Exploring Maine

Back in March when we were doing our initial route planning I happened to be chatting to a friend who had recently moved across the pond and had the opportunity to visit coastal Maine.  Stories of pretty towns and coastal walks were enough to tempt me to do some research and what I discovered was that Maine offers New England’s only national park, world class lobsters and, as one of the least populous states in the US, acres and acres of space. That’s got to be worth a visit.

We left Braintree midmorning in the hope of reaching Portland in time for lunch. Nick hooked the laptop up to the car’s media centre and the boys watched a Disney film on the way. With hindsight, Finding Nemo was an unfortunate choice as none of them were keen to try the local cuisine once we arrived, opting for a non-seafood based Starbucks lunch instead.  Undeterred, Nick and I joined the queue outside the Portland Lobster Co, a casual lobster shack situated on the water in the downtown area. A little tank of live lobsters sits on the counter, but thankfully there is no need to select your specimen.

There are very few tables inside, and most people choose to sit by the water and enjoy the live music, watching the boats going in and out of the harbour. Even at lunchtime there is a great vibe here and we would have stayed much longer if we hadn’t had a three hour drive still ahead of us.  The lobster rolls were everything we hoped for; sweet, fresh lobster meat served simply with butter and lemon, and sides of coleslaw and chips; absolutely divine.  If you do nothing else in Portland, do this.

We’d chosen to stay at a gorgeous old farmhouse in Brooksville on the south west of the Blue Hill Peninsula and arrived with enough time for the boys to explore the grounds, climb a few trees and burn off some energy before the sun went down.

The following day we took a drive over to Little Deer Isle (with a year round population of around 300) and its larger brother, aptly named Deer Isle (with almost 2000 residents).  It was a freezing cold day and we experienced our first snow so decided to stop for hot chocolate from a convenience store on Deer Isle. It was a charming experience as I queued to pay and listened to the locals chatting. One customer enquired about the cashier’s sister and was told that she had recently returned to the island, having married the cousin of another mutual acquaintance; another person in the line seemed thrilled to hear the news, and strangely I found myself feeling glad for them all! It was obviously a small community and the residents seemed genuinely fond of each other and happy to share their good news. No doubt some might find this level of familiarity uncomfortable but from where I was standing, having been through so many hectic US cities where even a smile from a stranger was rare, it was lovely.

Back at the farmhouse I took on the challenge of the old stove and baked brownies which turned out surprisingly well considering I had no idea how to control the stove temperature. Much to the horror of the kids, there was no broadcast television, just an old N64 linked to a CRT TV which the boys thought were antiques! We entertained ourselves with board games and enjoyed a low technology evening for a change.

Sun and clear skies were forecast for day 28 so we drove out to Bar Harbor in the morning and enjoyed fudge from Ben and Bill’s Chocolate Emporium. As you walk in the smell of vanilla hits you and even if you have just eaten lunch you can’t help but salivate. It smells like I imagine Willy Wonka’s place would and if I worked there, much like the Oompa Loompas, they’d be paying me in chocolate.  We browsed a few of the shops and watched a cruise ship arrive in Frenchman Bay before taking the car into Acadia National Park and up Cadillac Mountain, the highest peak on the US East Coast.

Both moose and bears are to be found in Acadia although we saw neither, managing instead to spot a bald eagle.  As usual, I was a bit slow with the camera and the best we could get was this fuzzy shotP1120132 but, take it from me, that’s a bald eagle and, bearing in mind they were on the brink of extinction in the US as recently as the end of the twentieth century, it was pretty exciting!

We drove the 27 mile Park Loop Road, stopping frequently to enjoy the beaches, views of the valley and coastal scenery before heading up Cadillac Mountain.  From the summit you can see for miles out into the Atlantic Ocean and apparently on a clear day you can see as far as Nova Scotia in the east.P1120113

It was a bit breezy up top so we didn’t hang around too long but nevertheless it was well worth the trip and somewhere that I’d love to revisit in the Summer months.

All too quickly our time in Maine was coming to an end and that evening we packed up yet again, beginning to feel a bit like we are on the run, ready for our longest journey yet to Montreal in the morning.

 

 

 


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Days 22 – 25 Disc golf, Cape Cod and soaring in Vermont

In an attempt to catch up on the two month backlog of blog posts, it is time to cover more than a day at a time with each post, before I forget the details altogether.

One of the main reasons for including New England in our route was to experience some of the Autumnal colours that the area is famous for at this time of year.  We started with Borderland State Park, about 30 miles south of Boston.  At almost 1800 acres, the park offers hiking trails, a variety of water sports and even cross country skiing in the Winter, but the draw for us was disc golf.

Outside of Wii Sports, disc golf is a game I’d never heard of but the boys were enthusiastic so we picked up a couple of frisbees at a nearby sports mega mall and headed to the first tee.  What we discovered is that disc golf is not as easy as it ought to be! We laughed at each other’s poor attempts to launch a frisbee with finesse and enough speed and lift to travel further than a couple of feet, before watching some of the more experienced locals.  It turns out that just like traditional golf, having the right equipment really helps.  There are, in fact, different types of disc for different jobs – some are more rigid than others and some are flatter or heavier – all of these factors can influence distance and accuracy.  So just as you wouldn’t use a putter to tee off, you can’t expect a floppy beach frisbee to navigate accurately through a forest with any reliability.  We still had tremendous fun and have some hilarious videos of our bumbling attempts.P1110810

We took the scenic route back to Braintree via Mann’s Pond, Sharon and enjoyed more fall foliage, parks and playgrounds before calling it a day.

The following morning we were up early to explore Cape Cod. We started at Woods Hole where the Science Aquarium of the Oceanographic Institute is home to local sea creatures including two seals (who cannot be released on account of blindness and an inability to hunt for food) and numerous fish and crustaceans. This is a small, free of charge aquarium that dates back to the late nineteenth century and claims to be the oldest in the nation.  We passed an informative hour looking at the exhibits and chatting to the staff, who could not have been more helpful and invited us back for the seal feeding later in the day.

Walking from the aquarium to Taft’s Playground for a picnic lunch, we passed Eel Pond, picturesque with its moored fishing boats and million dollar waterside residences. Life here feels slow and relaxing and we passed more time than we meant to just playing and eating and generally taking it easy. It’s on my list of places to spend the elusive lottery winnings, once they come our way.

Back in the car, we decided that Chatham Lighthouse might be worth a look. The drive took us along Falmouth’s Main Street, filled with quaint, locally owned shops and restaurants where I’m certain I could have had a good time but I guess it’s good to save something for next time.

Once in Chatham we strolled to the lighthouse and then down to the beach and the sand spits with their spectacular views of the sunset over the Atlantic. During the Summer months these beaches are said to be packed but on a mild October day there were very few people – possibly because it was restaurant week in Chatham and everyone was eating! Not to miss out, we found a family friendly restaurant to indulge and had a cracking fish supper.

I’d share details of the restaurant if it wasn’t for the fact that later that evening Nick was reacquainted with his calamari in a most unfortunate turn of events.  Unfortunate, because the following day we were due in Vermont for a soaring experience I’d booked for Nick’s 40th.

Ever the pragmatist, Nick decided to make the journey and see how he felt once there.  We were looking at a three to four hour drive to get to Sugarbush so we started early and hoped for the best. This was another one of those occasions when the hire car’s sat nav was adamant the journey would take 4 hours whilst Google maps promised a route almost 30 minutes shorter.  As the journey progressed we encountered the odd traffic jam and the lure of Google became too much, so we hit the alternative route button.

Big mistake.

Google doesn’t care about mountain roads. It doesn’t care if your route will take you up roads that are impassable if it has rained a bit too heavily or if you don’t happen to have an off roader.  Nick and the boys thought it was side-splittingly funny that I had a minor coronary every time we turned a corner and refused to turn back so I closed my eyes and looked at it as penance for my lack of sympathy with the food poisoning.

We got there in one piece and that’s all I have to say about that.

Sugarbush is beautiful in the Fall, as is Vermont generally with some of the most startling reds, oranges and yellows I’ve ever seen.  Nick filmed the landscape from the cockpit of the glider and, if I ever figure out how to do it, I’ll add the GoPro footage to the website.

I’d booked him a thirty minute flight, during which time the boys and I enjoyed watching the tow planes take off and land and chatted to the staff and volunteers who drove the boys around on the golf buggies and explained all the procedures.

Nick lasted about 22 minutes before he felt the risk of seeing last night’s dinner for a third time was too great and he landed looking just a little off colour. I tried to be sympathetic but was still smarting from the mountain road, not least because, whilst the boys had been busy mocking me, they felt their father was a hero!

To make us all feel better we decided that what we needed was a tour of Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream Factory up the road. There was a short film to watch before our guide took us to a viewing window to watch the process of ice cream making and finally a stop in the tasting kitchen for the free samples that had lured us in the first place. Delicious.  I am officially a Ben & Jerry’s convert and look forward to sampling some of the unique flavours created especially for Japan once we get there. Purple Sweet Potato with Sweet Potato chunks anyone?

After some very busy days, day 25 needed a slow start. Our final day in Massachusetts was spent washing and packing before we squeezed in one last game of disc golf over in Franklin.  This allowed Nick to drive through Foxborough and past Gillette Stadium, home to his beloved Patriots that so far, have never played at home during any of his 4 visits to Boston.

One day though…


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Day 21 – Columbus Day Whale Watching

Holiday Monday and it was back to Plymouth to board one of Captain John’s open deck vessels for a four hour round trip out to Stellwagen Bank where the whales come to feed.  We had no idea what to expect and since we were at the tail end of the season, before the whales start their migration south, the crew were cautious about what we might see, but we were hopeful that we would glimpse a humpback or two.  Sailing out of Plymouth harbour you get another view of the Mayflower.  We passed the paddleboat Pilgrim Belle P1100339and two lighthouses before turning out into the open water.  A professional marine biologist accompanies each sailing and described the birds and animals we might see as we made our way out of Cape Cod Bay. The question we all wanted answered of course was “are the humpbacks still here” and our biologist, ever the professional, wouldn’t commit to an answer except to say “the expectation is that we will see whales.”

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After an hour or so, and with our expectations properly managed, we reached Stellwagen Bank and joined 3 other boats on the lookout for humpbacks. Everyone was on tenterhooks as we all stared out in every direction.  Our guide drew our attention first to the port side “humpbacks at 10 O’Clock;” everyone dashed over to look.  Sure enough, in the distance we saw the distinctive V shapes of the flukes, or wing like sections of two tails disappearing into the water. P1100594.JPG How exciting!

Then, a couple of fellow tourists shouted from the other side and again we all scurried across, cameras in hand as we snapped clouds of air and water vapour spouting about 15 feet high as the humpbacks exhaled.  The relief was tangible: “They are still here.”

Out in the distance we saw another boat with what appeared to be several humpbacks directly off its starboard side.  “Look at that – they are right there, wow, how lucky those people are to see them so close…” We hoped that our boat would turn towards them but instead we seemed to be turning away.  Our guide sensed our impatience and explained that the Captain John fleet are signed up to a commitment for responsible whale watching – they do not chase the whales, but sit patiently at a safe distance and wait for them to come to the boat.

We didn’t have to wait long.

Over the next hour, more and more whales approached, kick feeding on all sides of the boat.  

P1100939This is where the humpback raises the back part of its body and then slaps the water with its tail, creating a sound so loud that the fish are stunned and confused and easy for the whale to capture.

Our guide pointed out circular clouds that started to appear in the water. “They are creating bubble nets” she told us excitedly – “watch for their mouths!”  Sure enough, seconds later, the humpbacks surfaced, opening their enormous jaws and scooping up their feast.

There really aren’t enough superlatives to describe how incredible this experience was.  We recorded as much as we could and every time I play back the footage and hear the kids’ excited laughter it gives me goosebumps.  Our guide estimated that we saw upwards of 90 humpbacks that day, with at least 30 right next to our boat.  As first experiences go, it was phenomenal, something we will all remember for the rest of our lives.  In some ways we are reluctant to do it again in case it doesn’t live up to that first experience, but on the other hand, we can see how addictive it could become.  If we lived in New England I’m sure we would go as often as we could afford.

I’ll leave you with the pictures.


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Day 20 – Boston – the Freedom Trail, Columbus weekend parade and the USS Constitution

Another beautiful day in New England and the perfect chance to take a walking tour of Boston.  P1090994The Freedom Trail is a 2.5 mile winding path that links significant landmarks in the history of the American Revolution. We had lunch in Boston Common where the trail starts and then made our way to the State House following the red brick line through the streets, in a manner reminiscent of Dorothy (that would be me) and her trusty companions.  We stopped at the Granary Burial Ground where a friendly chap called Jimmy Cole stands all year round, loaning out copies of his free guide to the graveyard. The guide is several pages long and, although a little dog eared, it is clear that Cole is a keen historian, and a humble one at that.  He has created the guide through his own research and now makes his living through the donations he receives from those grateful for his shared knowledge. It’s an interesting read and I particularly enjoyed his story of how he worked out that the current stone over Paul Revere’s tomb is not the original – all using his “noggin,” as he puts it, as well as his explanations for the coins left on many of the stones.  With more time I would love to have stayed and absorbed more but the kids were impatient to follow that red line and we had another 13 stops to make.

P1100066As we approached North End we encountered an Anti Columbus Day protest, calling for the holiday to be changed to honour the indigenous people, as it is in South Dakota and parts of California. Having seen protests outside the White House, the boys were unfazed by this one and we took the opportunity to tell them about why Columbus Day is becoming less popular.

Just around the corner, in the Italian District, a drum beat heralded the start of the Columbus Weekend parade celebrating local Italian links with the area. Clowns mingled with boy scouts and locals dressed in renaissance costumes. P1100074 P1100083P1100079 P1100131

Teddy exchanged air punches with Tony DeMarco and, much to the boys’ delight, the Ghostbusters made an inexplicable appearance.  We enjoyed the holiday atmosphere and stayed to the very end before heading onwards to Charlestown where the USS Constitution currently sits in a dry dock, part way through her 3 year refurbishment. The USS Constitution is the oldest commissioned warship in the world although her duties these days are ceremonial and educational.P1100273

Members of her crew were on board to talk to us about what life would have been like for serving officers and crew in the 19th Century and what their role was today.  We had a good look around the lower deck and the boys posed for pictures at the helm, the wheel being considerably bigger than the three of them!

After a long but thoroughly enjoyable day, we headed back to the car to make our way back – not quite three clicks of the heels but not so bad!


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Day 19 – Plymouth and the Mayflower

Braintree, is about 20 minutes south of Boston by car and an hour or so north of Cape Cod; ideally placed for exploring both but, with a week to fill, there was plenty of time and we wanted something different to begin with. The answer was Plymouth.

Plymouth is where the original pilgrims eventually landed and settled in December 1620 following their voyage on the Mayflower from Plymouth in England, after a month long stop in Cape Cod. Following the long and difficult journey, more than half of the voyagers perished in the harsh winter that followed and were buried in a large unmarked grave high on the hill by the survivors trying to disguise the extent of their losses from the native community. P1090976A replica Mayflower sailed from England in 1957 and now stands in Plymouth (MA) harbour. Plymouth Rock, believed by some to be the very landing point of the Mayflower, bears the year of that first landing and stands in what has been designated the smallest state park in Massachusetts. We had a quick look, decided that it was indeed a large rock with the date inscribed on it, and moved on!P1090984

The town itself is lovely with cute shops and restaurants along the harbour and a thriving whale watching trade that got our attention.  The largest fleet is run by a business called Captain John – a sure sign that we ought to take a chance and book, so we bought tickets for the following Monday; Columbus Day.

It was at that point that Nick realised his wallet was missing.  The ferocious pace of our travels so far was taking its toll on all of us and the long drive the previous day added to Nick’s fatigue; he couldn’t be certain whether he had his wallet when we set out earlier but he definitely didn’t have it now. We retraced our steps through the town just in case and then drove back, somewhat stressed and contemplating the process of stopping credit cards and trying to arrange new ones whilst constantly moving around, only to find the offending item on the night stand when we got back.

What a relief.