Tourist First

Travel notes and advice from around the world. Above, the daily flight from Managua at the San Carlos, Nicaragua, airstrip.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Canada: Montréal on the Run

Perhaps if we had been there longer than two nights, I would have fallen for Montréal the way most people seem to.
My Francophile daughter liked the city so much that she almost ended up going to college there.
As it was, my first-ever visit there, in June 2011, was sort of a disappointment.
My wife, Jane, did find us a cool hotel, the Gault (click HERE for its English-language web site), which is in the old quarter of the city and just a couple of blocks from the lively waterfront (where the red high heels were walking). Our very sleek room was "open format," which meant that everything but the toilet was out in the open, though there was a floor-to-ceiling curtain that could be drawn to separate the sleeping/living area from the bathing/dressing area. Although the area rug in our room needed a good cleaning, I'd recommend the hotel for its location and its friendly staff and would stay there again. But I'd ask for a room on a higher floor. Ours was on the first floor (which, in U.S. terms, would be the second floor) and had no view.
For one lunch, we took a city bus many, many blocks north of the waterfront to the Plateau-Mont-Royal neighborhood and Om, a Tibetan-Indian restaurant (4382 St. Laurent; 514-287-3553). It was friendly, inexpensive and served good food. The shrimp, veggie and cheese momos (steamed dumplings) and the steamed bread were particularly good. I also enjoyed sha ka tsa, a beef dish. Jane had a soup with noodles and chicken.
We had two dinners in Montreal, one at a "new Canadian" place in a basement and one at a large Chinatown eatery. L'Orignal (click HERE for web site) was busy midweek and was quite expensive with entrees as much as $40. And although the restaurant's name means moose, the menu was no more adventurous than lamb sliders as an appetizer. L'Orignal has the advantage of being just a few steps from the Gault, but I'd not go back.
The Chinese place was several blocks north of the waterfront. The walk may have taken 20 minutes. It was La Maison Kam Fung (click HERE for web site) and it's upstairs in a Chinatown shopping complex. The sprawling dining room has large windows and loads of fast-moving servers. We had steamed dumplings, crispy spinach, Peking duck and a beef dish. Way too much food, as the waiter who took our order told us. But the total bill was less than an entree at L'Orignal. For the most part, the food was what you'd expect at any big Chinatown restaurant anywhere. That means it was a bit greasy, perhaps, but also very good.
Had we stayed in Montréal a third night, we could have gone to the opening of a new Cirque du Soleil production at the troupe's home base. If we're ever back, we'll try to time it to see Cirque du Soleil. We were told that elsewhere in Quebec Province we might run into language problems, but in Montréal virtually everyone spoke English. Only at the Tibetan restaurant did anyone even ask if we spoke French.
Maybe that accounts for my lack of enchantment with the city -- it did not seem as foreign as I had expected.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Canada: Toronto, That Toddling Town

What do you think of when you hear someone mention Toronto? I know it's a large city, that it's used in movies as a stand-in for New York, and that it's not Montreal, the other big city and the one where people speak French.
My wife and I spent three days there in June 2011 on business. It was my first visit to Toronto -- we were there in connection with our new Inuit art gallery -- and I had almost no preconceptions.
I was pleasantly surprised to find that is has many interesting neighborhoods, intriguing restaurants, good public transportation, etc. It's also the main marketplace for Inuit art, so there are important Inuit collections in museums and many, many galleries to visit.
We stayed at the Radisson Harbourfront hotel on Queens Quay West. Unfortunately, we booked too late to get a room with a harbor view -- our window looked down on the street with its convenient streetcars and north to the nearby Rogers Centre, where the Red Sox were playing a weekend series with the Blue Jays (and that's why the hotel was full).
There's little to recommend this hotel and many petty things to complain about -- such as the low water pressure in the old-style not-terribly-clean tub/shower with a shower curtain that did not contain the water. It's within walking distance, though, of many downtown attractions, and the streetcar system can take you where your legs won't. We parked in the adjacent garage and didn't use our car at all while we were there.
Two of the restaurants we visited are worth mentioning: Foxley (416-534-8520, 207 Ossington Avenue) and Black Hoof (416-551-8854, 928 Dundas Street West). Neither takes reservations and both are small and crowded. Each offers offer an unusual small-plates menu. I bet that at either you'll have the chance to try something you've never tasted before.
At Foxley, we had wild Nunavut arctic char ceviche (the fish was not chopped as it would be in a South American ceviche), lamb and duck prosciutto dumplings, grilled spiced venison wrapped Vietnamese-style in la lot (wild betel) leaf and tea-smoked sturgeon with sauteed fiddle head ferns (which my wife, Jane, especially liked). The venison and the sturgeon were the standouts, but all was very good. With wine, this was a $140 meal for two.
The next night, a Sunday, we tried Black Hoof, which is in roughly the same shabby-chic-trendy-moving-up neighborhood and was recommended by the bartender at Foxley. The charcuterie is made in house; our plate included thin slices of smoked or dried duck breast, an excellent salami, a good sopressa and very thinly sliced horse salami. Yes, horse, and it was very good. Other dishes we tried included miniature pork tacos (very good), crispy sweetbreads with asparagus (excellent) and sauteed pork belly (who knew pork belly could be so good?). The service bordered on excessive: new dishes and flatware with each dish and a parade of people to keep the wine and water glasses full. With wine, this was a $160 meal for two. And it could be paid for only in cash or with a Canadian debit card.
Now when someone mentions Toronto, I'll think of it as the Carnivore Capital.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Falling for Niagara

The photo at right shows one of the Maid of the Mist boats nudging close to the Horseshoe Falls (also called the Canadian Falls) at Niagara Falls. The photo was taken from the Rainbow Bridge, which connects Niagara Falls, ON, and Niagara Falls, NY.
My wife and I visited the falls in June 2011 and took this boat ride, which is something everyone should do. Our trip was guided by Barbara Ireland's "36 Hours in Niagara Falls" article in the May 29, 2011, New York Times. Click HERE to see the article.
There are several things first-time visitors should know about Niagara Falls.
(1) The best views are from the Canadian side, where many hotels offer rooms with views of one or both falls (the two are Horseshoe Falls and the American Falls).
(2) Neither the American side nor the Canadian side is a particularly nice town, but the American side has a small state park with up-close views of both falls. The Canadian side has the bigger hotels, a big area with amusement park attractions, and a long waterfront promenade that takes pedestrians close to the precipice of Horseshoe Falls.
(3) A few minutes' drive on the Ontario side will take you to a relatively charming town called Niagara-on-the-Lake and to Ontario's wine country. Dozens of mostly small wineries produce excellent ice wines using vidal, riesling, sémillon and gewürztraminer grapes. Many of the wineries have excellent restaurants with more interesting menus than you'll find in either of the Niagara Falls towns. Much of the wine that these small operations produce is not sold outside Ontario -- indeed, the wine bar mentioned below did not offer any ice wine at all -- and many sell their wines only at the wineries. So taste and buy as much as you can!
We stayed in Niagara Falls, NY, at the newish Giocomo hotel, which takes up a half-dozen floors in one of the tallest buildings in town, a 1920s office tower, which means that when you're walking around, it's easy to find your way back to the hotel. Click HERE for the hotel's web site. We were there for two nights mid-week and, after complaining about the view, were upgraded from a room that looked directly into another room at another hotel to a room from which we could see the mist rising above the falls. The hotel with its over-the-top flocked wall coverings has a delightful Dom Deluise ambiance; clearly, someone had a lot of fun designing it. We walked to everything on both the American and Canadian sides.
Our only notable meal at the falls was a small-plates dinner at Wine on Third, a wine bar and tapas place in Niagara Falls, NY, a few minutes' walk from the Giacomo. Click HERE for its web site. We really liked the heirloom tomato salad, the chorizo and manchego empanadas, and the artichoke and prosciutto crostini.
For us, two nights was enough, but we didn't visit the amusement park area, we didn't go to the casinos, and we visited only a few wineries. More determined tourists could probably keep themselves occupied for another day.

Friday, June 3, 2011

A Few Travel Snapshots

Before your next trip, you can search the Internet for images of any location. By the time you go to that obscure Italian village, you can have a pretty good idea of what it looks like.  And, oddly enough, the photos that you take there are likely to be much like the ones you saw online.

Scientists at Cornell University analyzed data from 35 million Flickr photos and made some surprising discoveries: Not only did the world's most photographed cities (and the most captured landmark in each) emerge, but also so did the most common angles for shooting each place. The study, released in 2009,  suggests that through their cameras, tourists "vote" for favorite places, things, and the best representation of them—and, by and large, they agree. Everyone takes photos of the Eiffel Tower, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, and palm trees at sunset. 

Here are some of my favorite photos from trips taken before I started this blog. If you've been to the same places, the odds are your photos are very similar to mine. 

The lighthouse at Isle Au Haut, Maine. Acadia National Park
 shares this beautiful island with a small lobstering and fishing
 community (along with a number of vacation homes).

Is anyplace else on earth as wonderful at sunset as
the Southern Caribbean? This is a cove on the
 west side of St. Vincent.

Bartolomé Island is a volcanic islet in the Galápagos.
Pinnacle Rock is one of the most-photographed
 features of the island chain.

Cameras are a must for hikers atop Perito
Moreno Glacier in southern Argentina.

This is what you see from the London Eye, the gigantic
 Ferris wheel that's England's newest landmark. The building
 below houses an aquarium; the water is the River Thames.