Saturday, September 29

All duties completed

My tour guide duties have officially ended. Thirty minutes ago my parent's flight departed Toronto airport bound for Vancouver. Poor Dad looks totally exhausted but he swears he's had a wonderful vacation.

It's certainly been a special time for everyone.  I'm thrilled it's all gone to plan and ultimately exceeded expectations all round.  My parents loved the itinerary I pulled together for them.  The weather has also played it part. We've enjoyed daily sunshine with only two rainy day, both of which had indoor itineraries scheduled. To be honest I'm astonished that the activity I planned consistently delivered memorable highlights every day. Nothing proved a dud choice.

I'm now monitoring their flight's progress using an app on my iPhone called Flight Aware. It literally shows the plane's progress in real time, including any route changes mid flight. For example, I know that they've just changed altitude and are currently cruising at 37,500 feet over Lake Michigan. It's astonishing what you can do via the internet these days.

As for me, my flight to Los Angeles departs about 90 minutes from now. I've also heard overnight that my seat from Los Angeles to Sydney was upgraded to business class. A lie-flat bed will be the perfect way to rest and recover after an intensive tour guide gig.

UPDATE: September 30
We've all arrived safely home.  My brother tells me my Dad is in good spirits and full of stories about his adventures in Canada.

Friday, September 28

A trip down memory lane (aka Interstate 81)

In July 1983 I travelled to the United States of America to spend a year as an exchange student. For almost 12 months I lived with a regular middle-class family in the city of Syracuse, New York. Syracuse a small regional city located in upstate New York, about 6.5 hours north of New York City itself. The experience was life-changing.  My mother has often said that I left New Zealand a boy and returned home a young man.

Since 1984 I've returned just once to see my teenage home town.  I made a weekend excursion to Syracuse in early 2001 courtesy of the then recently launched budget airline, JetBlue. Today I returned for a second visit, this time with my parents along for the ride. It seemed the obvious thing to do while we were staying in Gananoque, Ontario as Syracuse lies just 110 miles south of the border. From Gananoque its an easy drive straight down Interstate 81.

We began our day with a brief stop at the Skydeck on Hill Island, one of the 1800 islands that give the Thousand Island region its name.  The Skydeck is a observation tower, a mere 500 metres from the Canadian border, that offers spectacular views of this incredibly scenic location. My parents loved the vista, as did I. The tour guide that escorted us was even able to help Mum spot a distance freighter travelling through the St Lawrence Seaway towards Lake Ontario.

We then crossed the border into the USA.  The crossing was quick and easy with only a few cursory questions about our intentions before we were on our way.  Two hours later we found ourselves wrestling with the confusing maze of freeways that encircle Syracuse. As my navigator, Mum's had to learn how to use software maps on a tablet computer in real time.

I made our first stop the Fairmont Mall, one of my favourite teenage haunts, before heading across the parking lot to Wegmans Supermarket to buy lunch. The supermarket was just as I remembered it.  For a young man from a small country town in New Zealand its mind-blogging array of groceries and fresh food options was an awe inspiring testament to the power of American capitalism.

It was then on to the quiet, leafy suburbs of Westvale where my host family once lived. They've long since relocated but remarkably their house is still there, looking just as it did almost thirty years ago. As we sat looking at the home I surprised my parents with an album of photos depicting the exact same view. My mother was delighted as you can see from the photo that opened this post.

Perhaps the most memorable incident of the day occured when I inadverently missed a stop sign in Westvale. Within seconds of gliding through the empty intersection I had blue and red lights flashing in my rear vision mirror. The local sherrif pulled me over and we had a brief road safety discussion before the topic turned to my life as an exchange student. He let us go on our way with a quiet warning.  Mum later wished she'd had the forethought to ask the sherrif for a quick photo opportunity.

We stopped outside my old home for a quick photo shoot which I'm sure had the neighbours scratching their heads.  We then continued on to visit my old high school before venturing across town to see the Carrier Dome.  The dome is an indoor stadium that seats 55,000 people. I'd once watched a thrilling college basketball game here and our high school had played a regional football championship in its empty confines.

Dad was keen to see downtown.  So we made our last excursion for the day a brief tour through the city's civic centre. Unlike cities in Europe and Australia, Syracuse's lacks a conhesive central business district and so the heart of downtown is rather souless.  However, I did my best to show Dad some of the highlights I recalled from my teenage years. A final stop outside Founder's Park for a few quick photos completed our trip down memory lane.

Today was also our last full day in Canada (and the USA). Tomorrow we drive 300kms to Toronto to catch our respective flights back to New Zealand and Australia. It's been an incredible vacation, one that's exceeded my parents wildest dreams. We return home with more wonderful memories and my father's bucket list all but complete.

Thursday, September 27

Boldt Castle

Today we spent an afternoon cruising the picturesque Thousand Islands of the St Lawrence River. It's a fascinating area where the rich and famous spend summer relaxing in glamous cottages on their own private island. Our cruise lasted four hours, including a two hour excursion to Heart Island, home of the stunning Boldt Castle.

The castle is an incomplete holiday home (or mammoth cottage as its owner once described it) built by George Boldt, a former owner of the Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York. He commissioned its construction as a gift to his wife Louise.

In 1905, after four years of labour at a cost of 2.5 million dollars, the home was nearing completion when tradegy struck. Louise died suddenly and heart-broken George was too grief stricken to continue its construction. For almost 70 years the castle lay derilict until it was given to the nearby bridge authority who've since lovingly restored it.

While Boldt Castle is impressive, its not the only breath-taking summer house in the area. Our cruise took us past island after island loaded with beautiful, oplulent homes. Each had its own manicured lawn and the family boat house was often as stunning as the homestead it serviced. Some of the islands are so small that the accompanying summer house effectively swallows the entire island. It's quite remarkable what money can buy!

Perhaps the best highlight today was the weather. Last night's forecast predicted thunderstorms and showers for this afternoon. Instead we enjoyed increasing bouts of sunshine which made for a perfect day on the water. Unfortunately the autumn colours haven't peaked yet so the magical experience I'd originally planned wasn't to be.

However, during the initial drive south from Ottawa we did start to see some spectacular reds, oranges and yellows. Mum devoted her travel time to some impromptu photography training, snapping furiously at every splash of autumn foliage we passed. She was determined to capture as much of the colourful spectacle as possible.

Wednesday, September 26

Ottawa

Ottawa is the national capital,of Canada. It's metropolitan area is home to more than 1.2 million people. The city was founded in 1826 as Bytown. In it's ealy years it served as a base for workers constructing the Rideau Canal. It was renamed Ottawa in 1855, before being chosen two years later as the capital of the British Canadian Provinces. It's selection was very much influenced by location, midway between Toronto and Quebec City. Even today part of the city sits in Quebec and part in Ontario. Today I took my parents on a walking tour of the city's most prominent highlights. We began our tour at Parliament Hill where the elegant, green copper roofs of the national parliament dominate the skyline. As with every national capita., the grounds host an array of bronze statues. My favourite is the Women's Sufferage memorial which deplicts some stout women celebrating their newly won rights.
It was then on to the National Gallery to have our photos taken under the popular Marman statue. This is a giant spider-like creature sitting in the midst of an otherwise empty plaza. A quick look at the Ottawa River and Parliament's equally elegant rear was next before heading off to the ByWard Markets for lunch. The markets take up several city blocks including a mix of street stalls and carefulky restored buildings.
After lunch we crossed the Ottawa River and spent the rest of the day at the Canadian Museum of Civilisation. This is the Canada's national museum and as such is filled with a myriad of cultural icons including totem poles, native costumes and plenty of artifacts from 460 years of European settlment (if one excludes the Vikings who reached the shores of Newfoundland in 1000AD. The museum had a special display on Queen Elizabeth II's association with Canada. Mum loved the throne on offer and had herself comfortably seated before Dad and I could draw breath. Clearly some of us are destined for greater things!

Fall's first colours


As we gaze out across the skyline of Ottawa we can see the first colours of Fall beginning to appear. The colours grow bolder literally day by day as the cooler weather starts to take hold. While the temperatures are dropping our luck with the weather continues to hold.

Today dawned bright with largely blue skies and sunshine despite forecasts still predicting scattered showers less than 24 hours ago. We couldn't have been happier! Furthermore, for our final days in Canada the weather is predicted to be sunny on all but one afternoon.

The first of the season's fruit and vegetables are also now on display in local markets. We stumbled across two impressive displays of gourds, pumpkins and marrows at Byward Market earlier today. As you can see, the market's colours were almost as stunning as the trees around us.

Onwards to Ottawa

Our last morning in Montreal was spent wandering through the picturesque parkland on Mont Royale, a large hill that sits behind Downtown Montreal. An expansive lookout on the hill's summit offers visitors a stunning view of the city and the majestic St Lawrence River.

However, it wasn't the view that left a lasting impression on my parents. Instead the park's friendly squirrels provided the day's highlight. At one point we found ourselves surrounded by almost half a dozen of these surprisingly tame creatures.

Each animal gave us its best begging pose before a fight broke out between two of the most active attention seekers. This left us with just one squirrel to finish his food enticing act. His routine climaxed with a run up my Mother's leg where he clung, looking expectantly into her eyes. Full credit to Mum. She didn't bat an eyelid.

We left Montreal shortly after lunch and made our way to Ottawa. We got off the freeway and followed the Ottawa River through villages and farmland as far as the outskirts of Ottawa itself. The scenery was spectacular.

We're now camped out in a serviced apartment hotel in the central city. The hotel upgraded us and so we've found ourselves sitting in the penthouse on the top floor with views stretching out across the nation's capital.

· Posted from my iPhone

Monday, September 24

Montreal birthday

We've enjoyed a quiet couple of days in Montreal. Yesterday was rather foul day weather wise so we hung out most of the day in our hotel. I've booked us into the Westin Hotel located on the edge of the old town. This was a last minute decision influenced by a discount the hotel published a week before we began our vacation.

The hotel's most renown archetechturial feature is its swimming pool located on the fourth floor. A large section of the pool's base forms a glass roof over the valet parking entrance. We've seen more than one robed person in the lifts clearly determined to swim their way across the heads of arriving guests.


Montreal's old town is appropriately quaint. Many of its old stone buildings have been beautifully perserved and several streets are still cobbled. This is reputedly North America's oldest European founded city (back in 1642).

We wandered the cobbled streets today enjoying sunshine that broke through early in the morning. We even stopped for a hour to toast my mother's birthday in a rooftop bar over lookimg the old port and St Laurence River.

Our afternoon was spent checking out the magnificant Olympic Stadium complex that almost bsnkrupted the city back in 1976. The site is currently in the midst of an extensive refurbishment with a dramatic new planeterium curently under construction.

Our day then finished with a tasty french meal in a simple stone building in the heart of old Montreal. We toasted Mum's birthday with superb French wine and ate our fill of pork medallions, venison and filet mignon. Delicious!

Oh yes - one final word of advice for any intrepid traveller planning to hire a car in Montreal. Don't! Driving here is a nightmare. The city operates a completely random one-way traffic system clearly designed to discourage inner city driving. The urban maze is then magnified by an endless series of construction sites and their accompanying detours. On more than one occasion I found a ten minute drive into town transformed into an journey into automotive hell.

Finally, to add insult to injury, many of the city's road markings are worn and thus impossible follow in the dark.  Try finding them at night during a torrential downpour! If you'll excuse the pun, this system of one-way streets, foul weather and poor road markings was the perfect storm that greeted me last Friday evening when I drove out of the airport in an unfamilar rental car (on the "wrong side" of the road).  The drive to our hotel will always be remembered as an experience bordering on insanity.

Saturday, September 22

Are we happy now?

Big grins all round as we departed Liberty Island, New York. Big Apple? Been there, done that! Loved it!

 

A perfect day for flying

Our second (and final) day in New York dawned with brilliant blue skies and sunshine. A perfect day to go flying; which is exactly what we did. At 9:45am our helicopter tour of New York departed from the Downtown heliport at the southern tip of Manhattan. For the next 20 minutes we flew past almost every conceivable New York landmark including the Statue of Liberty, the World Trade Centre construction site, Central Park, Yankee Stadium, the George Washinton Bridge and even the Queen Mary which had docked overnight in Brooklyn.

We then took a quick taxi tour of Wall Street and the NYSE before making our way through another of the city's ubiquitous security mazes into the 9/11 memorial. The memorial opened on the tenth anniversary of the infamous terrorist attack last year and so it's a new and rather unique landmark in the Big Apple. It was also my first visit. The memorial is superbly done. I was moved by its simplicity and the wonderful calm oasis it creates in a city that never sleeps.

Our final tour stop for the day was a ferry ride out to Liberty Island to stand in the shadow of the mighty lady herself. The island is also the perfect place to look back across the Hudson River for a classic view of the Manhattan skyline. While waiting to board the boat we also stopped for while in Battery Park to enjoy another New York classic;. A hot dog from a umbrella shaded street vendor.

All in all we've enjoyed an absolutely magnificant day in New York. Dad came off the ferry with a smile from ear to ear. We're now safely tucked up in our lavish hotel in Montreal after a short, uneventful flight. Sadly the weather in Montreal is forecast to be rather damp for the next few days, clearing later in the week as we slowly make our way back toward Toronto via Ottawa and the scenic Thousand Islands district.