Gatlinburg – Honky Tonk Heaven


My travels find me in Gatlinburg, Tennessee to play bridge The largest regional bridge tournament in the US – 4100 tables, 16,400 bridge obsessed folks show up to play bridge for a week here every April – and I, my partner Judy, Fern – my friend from the bridge cruise – and her partner Judy (yes – two Judy’s) are 4 of the lucky travellers.

I must say that it sounded like a great idea to go to Gatlinburg until I discovered that there is no airport in Gatlinburg! None – nada – it’s walk, bike or rent a car to get from point A to point B in this part of the US. There is no airport. The nearest airport is in Knoxville – so my Brigde partner (Judy) and I have taken separate flights to end up in Knoxville. Our original plan had us heading out to Gatlinburg right after my flight arrived. Ah the best laid plans … and all that.

Weather was not my friend on Sunday – and my flight from Montreal was delayed just a bit. The major problem happened in Philly. Bad weather (hey folks – it’s just RAIN) delayed or canceled flights all over the Eastern Coast of the US, and my flight from Philly to Knoxville was definitely impacted.

Much phone calling and texting later – we agreed that I’d spend that night in her hotel room in Knoxville (cancel one night in Gatlinburg – and we’d head out the next morning. And this plan worked perfectly. The Historic Gatlinburg Inn, our choosen spot for bedding down, was very gracious. They agreed to cancel the one extra night without penalty (nice folks, eh?). So Sunday night found me knocking on the door of a perfect stranger and asking to sleep with her!

Fortunately, we’d swapped pictures, and Judy is not a serial rapist. We managed to meet, pick beds, and get to sleep. Tomorrow will be aa big, big day!

We get up, enjoy a rather blah breakfast (the hotel breakfast food can definitely not be called fine dining), and head out. Using Google maps, we original choose the shorter, more scenic route, but a bit of miss direction, and we’re driving mostly on highway until close to the turn off to Pigeon Forge.

Does that sound familiar? It should – it’s the home of Dolly Parton and DollyWood. We’re quickly skip past this bit of Americana and are on the main drag of Gatlinburg.

Honky Tonk doesn’t even begin to describe this place. I never even heard of Shoot’m up 7D – but here it is. And it features a horse singing country songs and ‘riding’ an old miner. Seriously – what’s with that. Opposite this ‘attraction’ is a festival of Ripley Entertainments that demonstrates exactly how far out of the loop we in Canada have become. There’s a Ripley’s Haunted Adventure – which sports multiple signs warning those faint of heart or with ‘medicinal issues’ to enter with caution. There’s also a Ripley’s Hollywood Stars – that apparently is all about cars and the Advengers. There are bits and pieces of cars (all labeled ‘do not touch’) adorning the towering edifice. I’m not sure of the point really – but I think I recognize ‘The New Advengers’, although maybe not. There’s also an ‘activity’ center that features a mirror maze, and as it’s ‘marketing tool’, has a guy swinging on a trapeze high above the main floor of the building. These are only 5D – the 7D activity seems to be only the shooting gallery.

There’s an escape room Adventure, a Sky Lift – fancy name for a chair lift, a towering Sky tower that doesn’t appear to be functional, and a huge – seriously huge – convention center. It’s way way too large for the town, so clearly the idea is have a space to bring in tons of visitors.

There are two – count’m two – Moonshine distilleries, a Paula Deen store, a Starbucks, and here’s a surprise – a Walgreens.

All of these are squished into the spaces between hotels, motels, and other ‘sleeping’ establishments. Most are deliberately designed to be cute – faux log cabins, faux castles, and our lodging – the Historical Gatlinburg Inn.

There are plenty of food options as well – a Bubba Gump Shrimp (can you say – everything fried), several sports bars that serve fried everything as well, BBQ places, Pizza places, and two Sweet Shops where you can buy candy by the very very expensive ounce. I wouldn’t suggest shopping for something practical (like – say – fruit or underwear) but if you need a statue of a bear labeled ‘faith’ – they have you covered.

And that’s just in the 5 minute (max) walk from where we are sleeping to the Convention Center. I’m both amused and stunned. But I should have been warned when our warm welcome is marred by my distraction at the size of our hostess. She is simply the largest person I’ve ever seen. And the maintenance man is equally her size. Clearly weight inflation is real and happening in Gatlinburg.

A little about our lodging. The Historic Gatlinburg Inn is just that – Historic. And in desperate need of a serious renovation. I’m reminded of the ‘before’ section of a reality TV show I used to love – Hotel Impossible. This guy would go in and explain how the owners could inexpensively update their hotel – and then proceed to do it to a single room. The Historic Gatlinburg Inn could really, seriously use help.

The good news here is that the staff is unbelievable nice (if perhaps a tad overweight). They couldn’t have been nicer to us. The breakfast buffet was quite nice – and featured a different type of sausage every morning, as well as unlimited scrambled eggs, 2 waffle machines. There were biscuits, Cereal in those little boxes, wrapped apples (why wrap the apples?), yogurt and coffee. There wasn’t a fridge in our room, but we could put food in a small fridge located behind the bar in the rarely used ‘party room’. And they had a pool. Our room even had a view over the river that runs parallel to the Main Street.

My issues with the Historic Inn were in the decor. I’ve never really appreciate exposed pipes, and the retro-fitted sprinkler system meant that there were pipes everywhere. I know it’s hard to hang ceilings to hide those pipes – but honestly, why hang the pipes a foot or more below the ceiling line? It’s so ugly. But the really depressing thing, aside from the seriously outdated old couches in the room (we had two..) were the bathrooms. I’m not a fan of extra doors in bathrooms – although folks seem to love to wall off the toilet – but I really don’t like horrid tub/showers. They are dangerous to get in and out off, and those cheap plastic sliding doors just say – old and gross to me. Put in a laminate counter and a low sink – you are not going to impress me. Tiny old washed to death white towels complete the picture. This is not a luxury bathroom.

I’m also not fond of odd lighting arrangements. Our room was a huge U shaped thing, with an entrance hall that had a wooden bench (handy) for putting our suitcases, the bathroom in the center of the U, and two double beds on the other side. So the distance from the bed to the toilet was as far as it could be, the lighting was several lamps placed randomly in the room, and two wall/ceiling fixtures. One was a chandelier looking object – placed near the beds, but controlled from a switch near the door on the other side of the U, and the other was a long thin bar that extended over both beds. That rather handily had a switch near the bed to turn it on and off.

The problem = we couldn’t find the switches to turn lights on and off for the first 2 days. It just wasn’t obvious enough.

But I was feeling ok about this until I walked down the stairs instead of taking the elevator (an obvious add on tower probably built when they added the sprinkler system). Old couches could be found all through the hallways – I’m guessing that the owners couldn’t decide if these were to be thrown or kept – so they got put here and there in various hallways. The end effect was a rather unfortunate Bordello look – lacking only the ladies in waiting.

I don’t think I’m coming back to the Historic Gatlinburg Inn the next time I come to this competition.

On the drive back to Knoxville, we opt to take the scenic route through the National Park. It’s a lovely, albeit winding, 2 lane road that fortunately was effectively empty around 2:00 on a Friday afternoon. It criss-crosses the river that runs thru Gatlinburg – and alternated between lovely vistas and narrow passes thru rock walls. Had there been crowds of ‘leaf peepers’ – this road would have been a disaster. But we breezed thru, and arrived in Knoxville in plenty of time to catch my flight home.

Signing off to unwind and eat some fruit…

The Soup Lady

Fun stuff in Surprising Places – The Toronto Salsa Festival


I’m in Toronto – staying at the Sheraton Hotel in Downtown Toronto to play bridge. Not very exciting travel I know – but be patient my readers. I promise that good stuff will happen!

I got to Toronto by train. I do love traveling by train. It’s not always a bargain of course. I prefer traveling ‘business’ class – more comfy seats, cleaner windows, and service. I adore service. Make me happy – do something nice for me! Serve me a meal, offer me coffee, or just smile. I’m relaxed and enjoying my travels.

Any way – Trip to Toronto included a lovely dinner, a glass of wine, desert and a glass of Port, Trip home will include a selection of beverages, a lovely dinner, and some more Port. I’m totally counting on the Port on the way back home to Montreal.

I arrive in Toronto – big city, big city smells, big city sounds, big city hassles. I drag myself and my carry-on up Young street to the Sheraton, navigating pass homeless camping down for the night and young business folks checking out the bars that line this main drag. Lot of lights, lots of action. But I’m focused. Get up the street safely (don’t get hit by a car, a trolley, or a group of revellers) and settle down for the night.

Task accomplished, I check in and check out my room. I guess they felt sorry for me – because the room is a bit of an upgrade. It’s in a corner with a lovely view, and a bit of extra space. More than ample for my needs. The bed is huge – it’s king sized, and since I’m on my own, will mostly stay unmussed.

Tuesday thru Sunday is bridge, bridge, bridge. I’ve written before about the issues with PUPs (Pick Up Partners) and this time is no different. Some great, some not so great. My favourite is the older gent from Sault St. Marie – we manage to place 8th overall – among 80 some teams. This earns us upwards of 2 Gold Master Points, and earns me some very nice praise from his wife! She’s a Life Master, he’s playing catch-up to her – and she’s very impressed by how well we did. Hey – I’m impressed by how well we did.

Fast forward to Saturday night. One reason I like Regionals are the night games. Fewer players, lots of fun, and a great chance to do well. And I don’t have to fuss with thinking about what I’m going to do that night in a strange town. So I’m pleased that there are 2 night games on offer this week – one on Friday, one on Saturday.

Friday’s night game goes as planned – I score some more Master Points – have fun – all is good.

Saturday’s night game is a different story. I have a partner – what I lack are opponents. No one shows up! Well – not enough folks show up. And the game is canceled. Bummer. Now what.

It’s 8:00 PM, it’s Saturday night, and I’m alone in the big city. Hmm.

I check out my options – and spot some kids dressed up in Salsa clothes walking around the hotel. A quick chat – and I find out that the Toronto Salsa Festival is this weekend – here in my hotel. Tonight there is a show, followed by 4 hours of social dancing. The show is due to start at 8:00 – and while there’s a cost of admission, the opportunity to see professionals and semi-professionals dance seems priceless. So I cough up the money – and get my pass.

The lovely ticket sellers explain that the show will start when it starts – there have been workshops all day, and until the room is clear, they won’t let the ‘tourists’ in. So I join a line of other earlier comers and prepare to wait.

I’m terrible at waiting actually – so after being polite for a while – I eventually start chatting with the folks in line with me. In front of me are an ‘older’ couple – not as old as me – but I’m as old as the hills – what do you expect. Their daughter is performing tonight – and they gleefully explain her hobby to me.

She has a full time job – but she joined this dance group – and they are frequently invited to perform at shows around Canada and the US. They are unique in that they are all female dancers (how unique is going to be clear later in the evening), and are in great demand. They will go to your event – do their performance – and then split up and dance with everyone. They give Salsa lessons, and make sure everyone has a great time. I can totally see why this would be a hot idea for a team building activity! And she and her fellow dancers are very cute. Fresh faced, young, and unremittingly cheerful.

The folks behind me are friends of other dancers – and as each group gets organized to enter the hall – they come over to blow air kisses (don’t mess the make-up), and share hugs and good wishes. I get a close-up look at some of the outfits – I can’t wait to see what they will look like on stage.

Eventually they get the stage clear and organized and we’re admitted. The couple in front invite me to sit with them, so we snag seats as close to the front as possible. The first few rows are saved for VIPs – which turn out to be the kids who have finished performing!

There are a lot of chairs – probably over 300 – and it’s hard to imagine that the space will be full, but eventually – it is full. The show starts off slowly with the less professional teams – and suffers from some organizational challenges – the music for the first group doesn’t start on cue. But they quickly straighten that out, and the show begins.

I’m completely utterly amazed. Imagine about 100 young, completely fit, beautiful young people dancing, performing, and generally have a wonderful time. They come on stage in various groupings. Larger groups are generally up to 6 or 7 couples – dancing in pairs of course, but all doing generally the same steps. Smaller groups of 1, 2, 4 or up to 6 dancers also come on stage. The fewer the dancers, generally the higher the quality of the performing. And the later in the evening, the better the performances too.

My favourites are a group of young men (5 of them), who call themselves the ‘Kingsmen’ – and frankly are highly suggestive dancers of seriously good caliber. They come back as a group of 6 – 3 men, 3 women – and trust me – they are memorable. I’m getting very curious about what is keeping on some of the outfits the women are wearing – so it’s not a total surprise when one gal has to keep tugging on the top of her outfit. We almost, but not quite, had a wardrobe malfunction!

Another memorable group feature women wearing string bikinis. To Salsa Dance. Really. The gals twerking in St. Croix have some stiff (hee, hee) competition in Toronto.

I’m totally loving this. The outfits are stunning, the dancing amazing – and then the professionals arrive.

OMG – right – that’s why these guys are the professionals. The beat gets more demanding, and the lifts get higher and the tossing more complex. I’m getting exhausted just watching them perform.

I will never think of Salsa the same way again. This isn’t dancing – this is ice skating pairs without the ice! One couple pushes this boundary the hardest by combining lifts, throws, spins and dance. There is even a death spiral – a spin where the woman’s head is inches from the floor – her weight supported totally by the guy. Strength, Beauty, and Speed.

My new friends invite me to stay for the social dancing, and I’m sorely tempted. There are 4 different rooms – each featuring a different kind of music. But my age and the efforts of a long day of bridge win out over my interest in watching folks dance.

I bid everyone good night – and dance well – and walk out past the rows of high heeled dancing shoes for sale. What an absolutely amazing hobby this must be.

If you ever have a chance to catch a Salsa Festival Show – and there will be one next year in Toronto on Easter Weekend – do it. Worth every penny.

Signing off to head off to my King Sized bed…

The Soup Lady

Regional at Sea – or Bridge till you drop!


18 months ago I decided to learn to play proper duplicate bridge – and I’ve been chasing that goal almost daily. Not easy.

When I was in Charlotte several months ago, a gal had her partner for a bridge cruise cancel on her, and she went looking for someone who took playing bridge seriously, didn’t have too many master points, and had the money and ability to travel.

Hmm? Did some one call my name? I’m not the best player in the world, not even close. But I’m serious about getting better – and apparently being able to afford to travel to Charlotte marks me with the money and ability to travel.

Leaving her motives aside – she asked, I thought about it, and then accepted when I found out that Larry Cohen, who I think is the best bridge teacher in the world, would be giving talks every morning.

Fast forward 3 months – and here I am. Sitting in the Harmony of the Seas, participating in a regional bridge tournament. And having a blast. It’s not for everyone. I’m not even sure it’s for most folks. But for me it’s perfect. Bridge with a reasonable (and arguably much better than me) partner morning, noon and night! Perfect!

Let’s call her The Bridge Keener – and we’ve got my partner in a nutshell. Crazily enough – the deal including sharing a room – with effectively a perfect stranger, and of course playing bridge with her in all the games on offer. It’s a bit scary to share a room with someone you never really met – particularly for an entire week. So many things can go so wrong. And my sisters would tell you- I’m not the easiest room mate in the world. But The Bridge Keener has been able to cope with my outrageous behaviour, to ignore my bad roomie habits – and basically make this experience a delight.

We get up every morning with the sun – and a phone call from room service to tell us breakfast is on the way! Why they need to call me to tell me that the waiter will be knocking on my door is beyond me – but they do. So setting an alarm seems redundant. But being a tad anal, we do it anyway. Have yet to be woken by the alarm though!

Anyway – cute guy, hot coffee – and a fruit platter. What’s not to love.

After we get the day started by admiring the view from our balcony while we enjoy our coffee – we head up stairs (or down stairs – there are restaurants in all directions) for breakfast. We have consistently opted for one of the buffet places – I’m not fond of their coffee (room service coffee is better), but I do like to have a bowl of cereal and some fruit. One day I blew it by trying the grits – what possessed me? Cold and yucky. Oh well. Stick to tried and true and hard to mess up I say.

Then it’s bridge, lunch, bridge, dinner, and more bridge.

I know – sounds dull. But trust me – it’s never dull. Lots of things happen. Folks fight, Partners do double revokes (not a good idea), and you get lost in the bidding. I’m pretty decent on play – but if I’m in an un-makable contract – I tend to crash and burn. So instead of down 2, I’m down 4. Oh well, something to work on I guess.

More excitement – Larry Cohn’s lectures, Unlimited cookies, the possibility of placing first, and checking out the slogan wearing fellow bridge players. My favourites – Bling laden hats with “I Heart Larry Cohn” and T-Shirt slogans like “Double Trouble”, or “No one knows the Doubles I’ve seen”.

The Bridge Keener and I have been working hard at communicating with each other with mixed results. We came in first or second several times – and washed out several times. Which pretty much put us in the middle of the pack in terms of Master Points earned. Of the 236 people who participated (a totally booked out bridge cruise), we placed in the upper middle. I’d be short sighted and kinda silly not to be pretty proud of our results.

But it’s not all bridge. We spend a significant amount of our on-board time eating dinner with various members of the bridge group.

Our first night’s dinner was an unmitigated disaster. No, probably worse than that to be truthful. I wanted off the ship – and was thinking of opting out of dinner completely. 3/4 of our table mates were friends from Boca Raton – and I’m not a fan of the ladies of Boca in general – and definitely not of these ladies in particular. They carefully excluded us from their conversation – which as far as I could tell was gossip about what was happening at home. That left my partner, a 90 year old woman player with bad eyesight and bad hearing, and myself isolated on ‘our’ side of the table.

Add to this misery a terrible waitress who hadn’t smiled in about 3 years – and yup – it was bad.

So the second night the Bridge Keener and I decided to bail on that table and find a table with some empty spaces. Much, much better! But the third night we totally lucked out. The Bridge Keener recognized a gal from a previous cruise – and she invited us to join her table. And it was a hoot! There were 8 of us. The self-sacrificing friend who had agreed to partner a gal with a solid 11 Master Points. (That’s a beginner folks – and her playing got worse and worse over the course of the week), her sister, a diminutive older woman who had come on her own and spent the trip picking up partners. Her success was varied. There was a male – our token guy – who was a computer geek and lawyer and seemed a solid player. Our 6th table companion was a lady who announced she was allergic to noise – particularly my noise. So I got to try to whisper (or better plan – keep my back to her). She was a bit of a stiff neck, but apparently enjoyed our table – she dutifully came and joined us every night. My favourites of our group (aside from the self-sacrificing friend and the older woman) were a mother and daughter team. The last night I found out the daughter was 62 – (a surprise – she looked younger) – which makes her mom an unbelievable 85. They were a hoot. Not doing well at bridge unfortunately – they announced the last night that they need to find regionals with more folks at their level… – but so nice! And funny! We spent every dinner laughing, joking, and basically being silly. Our charming waiter was thrilled with us – and got in the habit of bring extra food when ever he could.

So that goes a long way to explaining my 5 services of Lobster, and my 3 servings of Rack of Lamb!

Bit more on the bridge. One of the goals of most of the players was to get their life masters. And often it’s Gold Master Points that have proven elusive and hard to get. So not surprisingly – at least 3 folks got their life masters on board this trip. One of them was part of our Knock-out exam (unfortunately we got knocked out in the 2nd round) and Swiss Teams. Charming couple, super nice, decent players – and easy to be around.

When she got the points she needed for Life Masters – the organizers made a big fuss – and on the last night they even presented her with a trophy. Man – I want to make life master on a ship and have them recognize me! It’s exciting.

This was the first time I’ve gone to a tournament with a partner – the same partner – for every game. This is a good/bad thing actually. The Bridge Keener and I are decent partners – but we need work. So as reported earlier – our results varied. With PUP (Pick up Partners) you can always pretend to yourself that it was the other guy that was wrong. With a regular partner – you have to take responsibility for your mistakes. And in my case – there were a lot of them. But you can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs (except on the cruise ship – I don’t think an actual egg got cracked the entire trip).

So – great fun (albeit sometimes frustrating) was had. And I’m definitely doing it again. And I’m doing it with the Bridge Keener.

Signing off to study her bridge defence book – The Soup Lady

Harmony of the Seas – The good, the bad, the interesting


Ever wanted to know exactly what it’s like to be on-board a truly massive Cruise Ship? Me too! And I just spent a week on board the Harmony of the Seas – and I’m ready to report the good, the bad, the dreadful, the interesting, the weird, the over-the-top about Royal Caribbean’s largest – and many might argue the fanciest – Ship.

First off – a disclaimer – I’m here as part of a Regional at Sea Bridge Tournament organized by Alice Travel and hosted by Larry Cohen – so I carefully have avoided visiting any of the islands we’ve stopped it. They simply aren’t that interesting in truth. And secondly – in most cases – I’ve been there – really toured that. So spending the time to go thru the formalities to dis-embark, spend an hour queuing in what can only be tourist traps, and then queuing again to get back on board is frankly unappealing.

And I’m not a casino buff. Don’t understand gambling and gamblers – and never will. So that’s pretty much a waste of space on the ship as far as I’m concerned.

But with those disclaimers out of the way – here’s my report.

First the Bad: The ship is huge – 6000+ guests, 2000+ crew. And while RC (Royal Caribbean) makes every effort to break things down so you aren’t aware of the simply massive numbers of people sharing this space with you, it still remains that they are here. And sometimes, it’s crowded. There are 4 banks of 8 elevators to ‘whisk’ folks from floor to floor – and yet it is often faster and more pleasant to just walk up and down the stairs. And we’re talking 16 floors here – not a short hop. But standing in an elevator box, even with a glassed in wall quickly grows dull when there are hoards of other folks crammed into the space with you. And these are not small elevators – the sign says max 24 people! I once counted 12 – and thought we doing a sardine impression…

Another bad thing – well, at least weird thing. The food is what can best be described as interesting. Occasionally they pull off a stunner – the rack of lamb last night was delicious. But generally it’s banquet cuisine – served to appear like it’s not a banquet. But I’m sure and certain that behind the scenes you’d find a bunch of tables, each pre-plated with the different meals. If you want to challenge your waiter – try asking for something – even something as simple as iceberg lettuce – that’s not on the menu. To fill that requirement, a chef (food preparer) has to leave his station and find a head of lettuce. They did it – but they let me know I was asking a lot…

Most of the restaurants that are ‘complimentary’ – ie: included in your fare – serve very similar food. And all but the massively huge dining room that stretches over 3 floors – and I’m thinking is capable of seating all 6000 guests in 2 seatings – are buffets. The idea from the cruise ship folks is to divide and conquer. And from the guest perspective – that works. We’ve taken to grabbing breakfast at the restaurant in the ‘Solarium’ – a sunny space at the bow of the ship. Crowded during the lunch break – but for breakfast, this place has generally smaller crowds and shorter lines. And while the food is rather basic, it works for me. Those eggs that come in a pouch and end up looking a bit like scrambled eggs (my travel buddy thinks they are from a powder.. I hope not), mounds of bacon, whole hams sliced to grab, Lox, boxes of cereals, and lots and lots of fruit. I will admit that the amount of fried things has been reduced from my last Ship experience – over 40 years ago.

Generally the food, while plentiful, is also fairly healthy. It’s not really fresh fruit – ie: no one is cutting up fruit for us to enjoy – it’s all that processed fruit pieces – but there is lots of it. And there’s lots of very delicious salad options.

The menu in the dinning room (white table cloth – pretend service) varies by day and I suspect repeats weekly. If you did this cruise over and over again – you’d die of menu boredom, but for one week – it works well. I already mentioned the Rack of Lamb (yum), but I do think having 5 services of Lobster tails on Lobster night might have been pushing the envelope. But they were good.

Not gourmet by any stretch of the imagination, but filling and wholesome.

The Interesting: Because of the sheer size, there is actually a fairly diverse crowd. There are kids, there are seniors on their scooters, there are teens, there are gals wearing bikinis that make me stare, and there are lots and lots of couples. There is also a fair slice of handicapped. One large group on our voyage is clearly deaf and dumb – and they are also clearly loving being on board. As for cultural diversity – it’s a fairly white bread kinda place – but there’s a goodly slice of folks from other cultures as well. Ladies in Kimonos walk the Promenade, Island folks can be seen here and there, and the number of different languages is pretty impressive.

The Best: Our room. My roomie had opted for a balcony Sea View room – and it’s awesome. Two twin beds, a nice size toilet with a fine shower, plenty of her/her storage space, and our balcony. You slide open the ‘window’, and there are two chaise lounges and a coffee table. And the most wonderful view. I spent almost every spare minute sitting on my chaise using my computer, and watching the ocean and sky slide by. One negative – you can not see the stars. The ship is so well lit – and we’re talking till well after midnight – that the night sky is a haze. Oh well. Not the biggest negative in the world.

The ok – actually – I’ll admit – the pretty good are the options for amusement. This ship has everything. Nightly theatre, a Nightly water show, comedy shows, swimming pools, Water slides, Surfing pools, More hot tubs than I can count, a kiddie splash area, a more adult splash area, an arcade, a casino, a boardwalk, Central Park, a promenade, shopping options, relaxing options, a jogging track that I love (a lap is a kilometre, .6 of a mile for you US folks), a full spa and exercise facility, a card room with computers and some books, endless options for kids including a giant spider web thingy. I mean – it’s surprisingly easy to forget you are on a ship there’s so many things to do that don’t even say ‘ship’ to me. And I’m on a bridge cruise – so we’re playing bridge 3 times a day. Colour me very very happy.

And on the daily news bulletin are more scheduled activities than you can do in a week – and that’s each day. Talks, lectures, games, you name it.

It’s amazing.

The best part – or the worst depending on your perspective – is the Promenade. This is a totally fake (think Disney without even the pretence at realism and a lot less polish) shopping/gathering area. It’s too clean, it’s too organized, it’s too fake for me, And unlike Disney where everything is perfect, things are just a bit shaky. Not everyone in the parade knows all the moves for instance. But folks love it. It’s safe, it’s protected, kids can run free – grannie won’t get trampled – and it’s fun. So while I have issues when I compare it to the ‘reality’ of St. Croix – most folks seem to be totally at peace with the complete artificiality of it. You aren’t going to see anything that’s going to upset you – no homeless, nothing uncomfortable. And the crew is going to be absolutely sure you have a wonderful time.

So – Good: Promenade, Activities, Our Room. Weird: The food. Bad: The size.

Did I have a good time? You bet. Will I do it again? Absolutely. I’ll have to watch my diet, avoid the too fat, too sweet options, dodge the crowds – and enjoy the positive aspects.

Bottom line – It’s a Hoot!

Elephants to the Left, Elephants to the Right – and the Bull is thinking about charging us!


Again we wake at dawn. Today is less foggy – it’s clear with no sign of rain. The Cape area has been suffering from a drought for going on two years, and the lack of rain is an issue. Here in the Shamwari it is less of a concern though. There is a river that runs thru the reserve, and it is flowing freely. Plus the balance between herbivores and carnivores is excellent. There’s no over grazing, and the carnivores eat well almost every day. Or I guess – what ever day they feel like it. So our surroundings are green and lush. Nice.

Coffee, biscotti, and we’re off. The former policeman and his wife have opted not to come – they are sleeping in and relaxing, but the 4 of us are keeners. We’re up, ready and waiting when the safari vehicle arrives!

This is likely to be the last safari I shall ever do. We’ve been to the Southern part of Africa now three times – and I’m done. The grinding poverty amid the extreme wealth is just too hard for me to ignore, but that won’t prevent me from enjoying my last time among the animals.

And we luck out.

We drive into the main section of the reserve, and Freddie spots an elephant. We drive closer, stop and turn off the engine – and realize it’s not just one Elephant. It’s a dozen or so. A complete family. There’s a huge Bull keeping watch on the ridge to our left, and lower down along the track are his wives and kids. And the kids are adorable. Under a week old, playing butting heads and push and shove, they run around our vehicle, get embarrassed and dash behind Mom, and then peak back out. Their trunks are extremely short – just long enough to reach Mom I guess – and they are awkwardly learning how to control them. Where the adults can use their trunks to pick up what ever they want (the ends are almost like fingers – with an opposable thumb), the youngsters don’t have nearly that much control. In fact – they have almost no control. Sometimes they actually act surprised to have a trunk. It’s amazing.

One of the females positions herself directly behind our vehicle. She is using her trunk to check us out – taking sniffs of the back wheels and literally peering into the truck to see what is inside. Meanwhile a young, but fully grown male is standing to our left. He’s either interested in the females, or thinking about some elephant porn because I suddenly appreciate the joke one of the rangers told us.

“How do you know how many elephants are in the herd you are watching? Count the legs and divide by 4. But sometimes the math just doesn’t work.” Everyone laughed at the time – now I can appreciate why you might count 5 legs…

Anyway – we’re snapping madly – enjoying how very close the animals are to us (I could easily reach out and touch the male elephant – if Freddie wasn’t repeating constantly his advice – keep your hands inside. Do not break the outline of the vehicle. Do not talk. Keep quiet.

Meanwhile – we are all keeping an eye on the large Bull. He’s huge – with good sized tusks, and is obviously dominate. No one argues with him. With surprising speed, he decides that he’s not too happy with our vehicle in the center of his family group. And he wants us to move out. He signals his displeasure by getting ready to charge us. He flares his ears, lowers his head, and starts moving directly at us.

Here’s the situation. Our engine is off. We are on a narrow track. There are high bushes to our right – clearly a challenge to move thru if they were empty, but currently there are 3 elephants in there – two junior elephants, and one large female. To our Left there are at least 6 more Elephants – including the 2 young babies, and several females. Behind us is the very curious female who is still sniffing at the tires.

And in front of us is the Bull. His flared ears make it obvious that he’s not happy with us. But to make it worse – he’s in Rut. Elephant must is staining his back legs, and it is obvious that this is one very discontent Elephant.

Freddie warns us again – no sound, no flash, no breaking the shape of the vehicle. Stay calm. It will be fine.

The Bull comes closer and closer until he is inches from our front bumper. One smash with those tusks, and we’re a vehicle without an engine. If he decides to hook his tusks under the safari vehicle, he could easily toss us.

But it’s not the right day. He veers to the left – and starts checking each and every female to see if she’s ready. He certainly is – of that I’m sure.

If we’d been with our Photographer friends – we should have stayed on the chance that we’d see Elephants matting. But this is not a photographers tour – and Freddie is more concerned with our safety then our Photographers. So as soon as the way ahead is clear – we’re off.

Well – that was cool!

But we’re not done yet. Freddie has been monitoring the radio channels – and he’s heard of another lioness sleeping with her cubs nearby. We drive in that direction and spot the sleeping lions. The vehicle that reported the sighting pulls out, leaving us to watch. We no sooner get into position than the sleeping cubs wake up – and they are hungry. They paw at ‘Mom’ to encourage her to feed them – and she gets up, stretches, and proceeds to lead the pack off to find food.

She takes the 4 cubs about 100 yards, and then clearly tells them to stay put. They are too young to hunt, and would only ruin her chances. The 3 female cubs obey completely – is it surprising to anyone that the male cub breaks rank and moves down the track towards where mom is hunting.

We watch as long as we can, but must eventually leave. We’re out past quitting time – and Victor and I have a long way to go today. We do need to pack.

We return to the Lodge, eat our 3rd Breakfast, pack and say fond goodbyes. We had fun here – and I know I’ll always have a special place in my heart for Baby Elephants.

Our return home, while long and very boring, is uneventful. We spend one night in Jo-Burg, fly overnight to London, spend a day sleeping in London, and then the flight back to Montreal.

I’m so glad to see my house and my bed and my grand-kids…

Signing off to enjoy Montreal – The Soup Lady

The Legacy of Apartheid- Founder’s Dinner at the Founder’s Lodge, Shamwari Game Reserve


The 6 of us gather for drinks before dinner in the lounge, and Freddie arrives to escort us into the ‘den’. It’s been reset as a dining room for the occasion, fireplace lit, candles on the table, lovely place settings.

We decide to seat women closer to the fire with me in the middle seat, and the men opposite – Victor facing me across the table. To my right are a former Policeman and his wife, to my left a Lawyer and his wife. I’m identifying their jobs because later on in the evening, our conversation will get very interesting – their jobs have given them very different perspectives on the issues facing South Africa.

But dinner begins politely enough with a menu of options to choose from, including a soup or goat cheese salad, a choice of main course, and a choice of dessert. I opt for the soup, a stuffed chicken dish, and a sweet cake for dessert. I’ve discovered that folks here love their sweet cakes – and I’m quite the fan of their work.

Over the course of dinner, and following several bottles of wine, conversation turns to the current state of affairs in South Africa. Since our dinner companions are all from Port Elizabeth, although from quite different walks of life, their opinions are very intriguing.

They agree that the current government is completely corrupt – an opinion I’ve heard over and over again from the folks who will talk politics with me. I’m not sure that this is a majority opinion however, since none of the folks who are of a darker skin color seem as willing to admit that there is a problem. After all – the party in power is the ANC – Mandela’s group – so calling them corrupt is perhaps not acceptable. I’m not sure.

One thing I am sure about however is that calling the government corrupt seems a somewhat universal theme – folks in the US call parts of their government corrupt, we in Quebec are certain that there is corruption at the higher levels, although pinning it on a specific individual is a challenge. So South Africans are not unique in feeling this way – it does seem however that in some cases the accusation is accompanied by accounts of house buying, major home renovations and trip taking on the government dime.

There is agreement as well on some of the statistics – 20% of folks unemployed, apx 37% living below the poverty line (related stats I’m sure), a frightening amount of crime, along with a looming water crisis in the ‘food basket’ areas of the Eastern and Western Cape. In the 25 days that we have been here there have been reports of several mass murders, including one where gang members gunned down 18 members of the ‘unofficial’ community protection group in one of the informal settlements (Philippi) near Cape Town. And there are some interesting laws that have been enacted – I’m told that farms are forbidden from using machinery to do most jobs – instead they must hire manual labor – a way to keep folks employed. And I’ve personally seen numerous restaurants where the number of staff clearly out-number the clients. This is redundancy mascaraing as employment, but I’m not sure that anyone is fooled.

I ask my dinner companions how they feel about the towering electric or barb wire/razor wire fences that surround almost everything, everywhere in South Africa – and they confess that they are fenced in as well as fenced out. The folks to my right loudly state that the fences are essential – and cite recent incidences of violent crime against older folks living in gated compounds that still aren’t gated enough. The folks to my left on the other hand mourn the lack of open access that they remember from their youth – when kids could play in the streets safely.

Today they explain life in the middle and upper classes is lived inside enclosures. You get in your car inside your compound, and only open the gate long enough to allow the car to drive out – and that after checking the cameras to be sure no one is lurking nearby. You drive to your destination, another gate is opened (after making sure of your identity), and only after the gate is secure behind you do you get out of the car. Play dates have 6 members – 2 Moms, 2 Kids, 2 Body Guards.

If you work in an office building or hotel or factory, the process is the similar – enter your car, open the gate, drive to the ‘office’, open that gate, close the gate – get out of the car. No one light skinned wanders the streets, walks to work, lives without gates and guards and security.

There are of course exceptions – in the townships and informal settlements – life is very different. There are fences – but they surround the township, and as a legacy of Apartheid have few entrances so that the police can close off the township quickly if need be. Within the township, as we witnessed when we were traveling with Mr. Podbrey, there are few fences. But still even these buildings have wrought iron gates at the doors that can be locked closed for the security of those within. No matter our status – we all apparently have things we must protect.

The former policeman and his wife to my right seem to feel that all this security is beyond necessary, it is essential. There is too much crime for the police to deal with, and taking security into your own hands – or the hands of your community is just, proper and expected. (Later I will chat with a lady who lives in Jo-burg. She tells me that the cost of this security in her neighbourhood is 2,500 Rand a month – a huge amount to folks who consider paying 20,000 Rand a month for food for a family of 5 outrageous).

The lawyer and his wife disagree – they think that all this excess security only builds up the need for more and more security. It’s a self-fulling prophesy. You expect the worst, and that’s what you will get. I must agree with them when I think of Canada, the US, Britian, Europe, Thailand, South Korea – most of the other places where I’ve spent time. In all these places, fences are mental, not physical. My stuff is this side of a line, yours is the other side – and we’ve both agreed that this is the case. No fence is needed. And surely not 6’ high stone fences topped with razor wire and huge mechanized wrought iron gates. How have all these places managed to convince folks that you should respect what is mine – not feel you can/should just take it? Where and when did South Africa go this other route? Folks who have never left South Africa (Africa?) are unlikely to appreciate the huge difference in mental state that exists

The lawyer’s wife argues that supporting all the various charities and foundations that are working to make things better is a valid road to improvement. The couple to our right thinks these things are a waste of money. Putting the money into more and better police is the way to improve safety in South Africa.

On the other hand, I think back to our conversations with the young folks in the Khayelitsha Township outside of Cape Town. They were much more positive about the future – planning on getting an eduction and perhaps working in IT if Soccer doesn’t pan out as a career. Meanwhile our dinner companions tonight are thinking of sending their kids – and grand kids – abroad to ensure their future.

We are physically and mentally stuck in the middle. We come from a place where there are few if any fences, and if they exist, they exist to keep pets from roaming the neighbourhood, or to keep young kids out of swimming pools, not to create compounds. In fact, in my community, building a fence completely around my yard would be against the law. I’m not allowed to do this – but then neither is anyone else in my neighbourhood. I’m wondering if one would have to start by tearing down all the fences. You certainly can’t tear down a few – it would make those few a target.

Here’s another frightening fact about South Africa – this one gleamed from local newspapers. In Cape Town, only 12 of the 35 public pools will be open this summer because of the water crisis. But while this seems reasonable, it is worrisome. How will black and coloured city dwellers cool off during the hot hot summer months ahead. Granted public pools are only one way – but they are an accepted place for young people to play, to exercise, to be. Close them and you rob young folks of an acceptable option, and kids are not going to sit at home. That’s not going to happen. My expectation – there will be a dramatic increase in crime by young folks in Cape Town during the summer – from frustration and boredom, not from malicious intent. I’m sure there is a water shortage – but I’m also sure that there are other ways of dealing with it that will not just make a bad situation worse.

In a breakdown report of unemployment stats in the same newspaper (quoting a report just released but with data from 2015) it was stated that 30% of Africans (blacks?) are unemployed, compared to 19.6% of coloured and 6.4% of whites. And women outnumber men of course. To have a basis for comparison, I looked up unemployment records during the Great Depression in the US in the 1930’s. The highest rate of unemployment then was 17%. So we are talking about almost double the amount of unemployment among the largest groups in South Africa.

In the Western Cape alone there are 628,000 unemployed individuals in the second quarter of 2017. This in an area filled with wineries, farms, lots of tourism, and several huge employers. Again to put things into perspective – that’s 1/3rd of the population of Montreal, and more than the entire population of Vermont.

In the end, we all agree to agree that there are huge problems in South Africa, problems that aren’t helped by a government seen by many as hopelessly corrupt, and made worse by unequal applications of primary facilities – large police presence in upper class areas, single police cars patrolling the huge and unruly informal settlements.

And we can all agree that all groups are being forced into paying for protection that the government can’t or won’t provide. The fees that folks in the enclaves pay monthly for ‘protection’ are by their standards out of line – perhaps 1/4 of their food bill to use something meaningful as a source of comparison. In the informal settlements – the cost is even higher. It might cost a mother her son in Philippi, a price no one should have to pay.

The serving of dessert changes the tone of the conversation, and we all focus on what will happen tomorrow. The first game drive starts at 6:30 AM – so it’s time to head off to bed.

We can’t solve South Africa’s problems over coffee.

Signing off – The Soup Lady.

A Bad Day – a very bad day


We wake in the luxury of the glorious suite in Le Quartier Francaise – and eat a marvellous breakfast. So how could a day that started so well end so poorly. Bad communication would be my fast answer – but it was a slow process.

Our start is delayed by the hotel who has assigned one of the gardeners to wash our car. He’s in the middle of a slow, careful job when we arrive, ready to go. Nothing to do but wait till he is done – and of course give him a nice tip. He did do a wonderful job.

Our plan for today includes going back and checking on the Antique store we’d seen in Stellenbosch, my husband is looking for those things you hang on decanters that describe what is inside – and this looked like just the right place. No problems there. And I need to buy some socks – it’s been a lot cooler here in South Africa then I’d expected – and my light weight summer socks just aren’t up to keeping my feet warm. Again – no problem. So after breakfast and saying good-bye to the staff at the hotel, we head back to Stellenbosch.

It is a bit of a challenge finding a parking spot, but eventually we do – and go into the local department store. This is the first time I’ve seen mixed races shopping at the same store – and it was a surprise. But Stellenbosch is a much smaller town, and I’m guessing that there are no other department stores. In any case – it was great to see. We found my socks – in the men’s department – and then checked out the Antique store. No luck there.

Now is when things went a bit south. My husband, I thought, had told me no deadlines today except a 6:00 dinner reservation – and the distance from Stellenbosch to Hermanus wasn’t huge. So I figured – todays the day for finding whales. There’s is a curvy road that hugs the coastline – offering stellar views of False Bay and later the Indian Ocean – and lots of turn-off sections where you can stop to scan the water for whales. It’s labeled on all the maps as “The Whale Route”. Sounds promising, eh?

And all the marketing for Hermanus virtually guarantees whale sightings from June to November – particularly in October when the males arrive to mate with the females.

I’m so psyched to finally see whales! Free Whales, up close and personal. The photos on the web are amazing – and I’ve totally bought into the marketing. I shall see whales.

Meanwhile, unknown to me, my husband has spotted info on a winery that is just outside of Hermanus and offers some of the best wines in Africa. I suppose if I’d said – oh by the way – I’m expecting to stop at all the overlooks, we’d have been ok. If my husband had said – I want to go to this winery and I don’t want to arrive around 4:00, it’s too close to closing time – we’d have been ok.

But we’ve been married 47 years – and still manage to get it wrong.

I spend the drive thinking – this time my husband will take the overlook – he knows I want to see whales. At one point dozens of cars are pulled over – with folks obviously seeing something below them – and I totally expect him to stop. But no – he keeps on driving – eyes straight ahead, clearly hating the curving road and keen to get off it. Finally he pulls over at an overlook where there are no other cars – and naturally – not a whale in sight. “See – no whales”.

Back in the car… drive on. Looking at the map, I can see what seems to be a village called Pringle’s at the end of a bay that juts out into the Indian Ocean. That would be a nice place for lunch. We stop in – but the only shopping we see is a mini-mart – so it’s Pringles and an ice cream for lunch. Then back on the road. A bad food choice never makes my husband happy.

At this point, my husband has let me know that he really wants to go to this winery – so I sadly forget about seeing whales and we motor on. We pass a sign at a village called Betsy’s Bay that advertises whales and penguins – which I read out loud. “Do you want to stop?” At this point my husband’s body language, which he has refused over the years to admit he has, is saying “No – Don’t stop”. So I go, no – let’s get to the winery. About 30 minutes later he admits that it’s taken too long – that he doesn’t want to go to the winery too close to closing time – they won’t open the better bottles for him.

At this point, it’s too late to go back, so we continue forward. I haven’t seen whales or penguins – he won’t get to go to his winery. I try to convince him that we can go tomorrow on our way to Mossel Bay – but I’m not sure it’s working. The drive to Mossel Bay will be a long one, and a good winery tour can’t really be rushed.

The Whale Route eventually ends at Hermanus, and we arrive at our hotel a bit before 4:00 PM. It looks great on the outside – beautiful windows overlooking the bay – which in theory should be brimming with whales. Not a one in sight right now – but maybe later. We are taken to our room – which is outside of the main hotel, across a barren parking lot, past an iron grate, thru a narrow passage between high walls, and eventually up a flight of stairs.

We are in the ‘beggar’s quarters’! It’s been a hot day – maybe 30 (90 to those in the West), and our room is amazingly stuffy. There’s no A/C, a very basic bathroom, and the windows overlook the green metal roofs of the next houses. It’s not the worst place I’ve ever been – but it is certainly the worst place I’ve even been that cost what this one does! There’s a single fan under a table, no chair, a bed, and two end tables. No room for anything else. The decor are cheap whale posters that are faded with age, the curtains are dusty, and the window in the bathroom leads out into the hallway – perfect for strangers to get a listen to you doing your business.

To add insult to injury – there are folks fighting – loudly – in the room 2 doors down. I expect the doorman to say something, but he doesn’t. Just accepts his tip and leaves.

We take out our essentials – not much choice, and walk back down the stairs, thru the alley, past the gate, across the parking lot and into the hotel proper. It’s at least 20 degrees cooler in the hotel – heavy stone and proper fans makes a difference. I ask at the desk if there’s an option to change rooms – but I’m told no – the hotel is full.

We carry on the best we can – we take a walk along the ‘whale watching’ path (still no whales), get to the whale museum too late to go in, check out the shops (kinda yucky), and eventually find a big grocery store – Pick and Pay. This is the highlight of our walk – a grocery store.

Slowly we wander back to our room, freshen up a bit, and head out to dinner. Because we rushed so much driving the ‘Whale Route”, we are actually too early.

The restaurant – called “Harbour Rock” overlooks the Old Harbour of Hermanus – and it is famous for it’s sushi, it’s seafood and it’s whale watching. But no whales show up – and I foolishly as my husband reminds me – order Pork Belly.

It’s horrid.

But I’m not ashamed to complain – and let’s give the restaurant full credit, they immediately suggest that I take the fish and chips. Perfect choice – totally yummy.

Dinner done – we head back to our stuffy bedroom to settle down for the night. We leave the windows open to capture any fresh air that might wander in, although that means enjoying the sounds of the local teenagers showing off their cars up and down the Main Street. You can’t see them – but you can surely hear them. And that couple is still fighting two doors down. Wow – they have stamina.

We finally get to sleep – only to be awoken by gale force winds blowing madly thru Hermanus. The room is actually shaking! Victor gets up and closes the windows – leaving us with only the fresh air from the corridor to enjoy.

Finally – it’s time for breakfast and we discover why the hotel is full. There’s a huge school group of Primary Age (10-13) staying here. They are incredibly polite – but have been assigned all the better rooms. And of course gobbled down most of the food set out for breakfast. Teen age boys can really eat!

I’ve had it up to here! And let the resort know about it. The manager, who makes no attempt to make me feel better, explains that they have three kinds of rooms – Ocean front, Not ocean front and budget. Months and months ago, when my husband made the reservation, he picked Budget. And this is what we got. And when you asked for a room change, the front desk clerk didn’t realize that you’d be willing to pay more – and those rooms in the back with no AC and no ventilation are our budget rooms.

My comment – if you want to go that route – make it clear on Booking.com that you are getting no AC, no cross ventilation. Don’t expect guests to figure that out for themselves. She does admit that she’s been trying to convince the owners of the hotel that they need to be more careful. Nice – now it’s the owner’s fault!

I’m not happy – but I’m not sure if my major angst is related to the distinct lack of whales, the lack of communication between my husband and myself, or the ‘budget’ rooms in the hotel.

To make me feel better, my husband kindly agrees to drive me back to where we saw the sign for penguins and whales yesterday. So we make the attempt. But the wind has picked up to gale force overnight – our little car is getting blown all over the road – and some of the gusts threaten to take us into the gutters. Once we get to the penguin park, I attempt to walk out to the viewing platforms, but the wind is so strong, I can’t make forward progress. Victor gives up before I do – the blowing dust is hard on the skin and eyes. He takes shelter in a cafe near the car park, and when I give up on the penguins, I join him.

The cafe is housed on the site of a whaling factory in the early 1800’s – brought on two ships from Norway. Photographs of the workings of the factory, and of the folks man-handling the whales up onto the ‘plate’ in front of the factory are very cool.

I feel a bit better about the entire thing – and slightly modified, we head off on the long drive on N2 to Mossel Bay.

Despite N2 being a major highway – it’s one lane in either direction for almost all of it’s length in this section.

Driving the N2 turns out to be quite the adventure. Don’t forget that we are still getting those wind gusts – although they are easier to deal with further inland. As we drive, we learn a lot about the driving rules in South Africa, most of which aren’t in any book I’ve ever seen.

First off – there are shoulders on the sides of the road. In Canada – those shoulders are only for stopping, not for driving. But in SA – that’s not the case. IF you are overtaken by a faster car – and you manage to spot them trying to pass, the polite driver pulls over onto the shoulder. He doesn’t slow down, or heaven’s forbid – stop. Nope – he continues driving at his normal speed, but on the shoulder. We don’t quite get that rule – and the first few cars that pass us – pulling into the on-coming line and then pulling back into our lane – seem to try to clip us by pulling in as tightly as possible to our right front bumper. This is pretty scary – and we don’t know what it is we’re doing wrong. It is only when I notice how other cars that we attempt to pass are pulling over that we get the hint.

Following that rule – the overtaking cars just pass us – sometimes blinking their lights to say ‘thanks’. Whew – one lesson learned.

Another lesson – cross walks are few and far between, so if folks want to cross the road – they just run. So slow down when you see folks on the side of the road. They could well be in the middle of your lane by the time you get near.

And a third lesson – N2 is boring. You pass herd after herd of sheep, the occasional herd of cows, and ever more occasionally – horses. We did spot an Ostrich farm – but Victor was in the drive till we arrive mode – so no stopping. Once I even saw a single Oryx watching the traffic fly by and a herd of Springbok in amongst a herd of sheep. Interesting, eh?

We eventually pull into Mossel Bay – and find our hotel. When the doorman carrying our bags exits the main hotel and heads for the back section, both Victor and I involuntarily go – Oh NO! But we shouldn’t have worried. He’s taking us to a lovely room – with AC and windows on two sides – that overlooks the harbour of Mossel Bay. Lovely. And again – the huge bathroom. Boy folks in SA love huge bathrooms.

A bit of a wander before dinner lets us discover a place that employs folks from the Townships to make and paint traditional African Animals like Elephants and Giraffes made of layer upon layer of paper and glue. They are lovely – and they have a warthog – aka Pig! Of course I buy it. They also have hand made construction paintings on match boxes with magnets. The logic, explained to me by the very adorable artist is that folks always know where the refrigerator is when the power goes out. So putting the matches on the fridge just make sense. Making the boxes look nice – and they look very nice – was an after thought.

Well – I like it – and buy several to give as gifts to my family.

For dinner we go to Kaai4 – a braai (BBQ place to you) that is extremely casual, extremely fun, and right on the water. We relax, have a beer, and thank goodness that tomorrow isn’t a long driving day!

We do a slow wander back home, a quick look at the stars (I’d really like to see the Southern Cross), and it’s bed time.

Tomorrow we are off to Knysna- another of the towns on the Whale Route. And I’m foolishly hoping to see whales…Signing off – The Soup Lady

Wine, Whales and Penguins – All on the way to the Cape of Good Hope


Our journey continues with a lovely breakfast at the Cape Heritage Inn (oh, I do love this place), fond good-bye’s from our hosts, and our first attempt at driving on the Left in South Africa.

Unlike St. Croix, which is also drives on the Left, but with normal US cars – these cars have been built for drive on the Left. That means that the driver’s seat is on the right, and the controls for simple things like windshield washers and turn signals are reversed. Victor struggles manfully with the controls – while I attempt to navigate us out of Cape Town.

Our first destination is a Winery called Groot Constantia. It’s the home of Grand Constance – world famous for being Napoleon’s wine of choice while he was on St. Helena. Naturally – we have to try some. It’s quite yummy, and the personalized tour of the wine making facility, while not new news, is still very interesting. Our wine tasting paired the wines with chocolates that had been custom made to match – yummy.

All of this takes quite a bit of time – so we decide to eat lunch at the Vineyard, and we share a traditional African meal, Bobotie. It’s a ground meat pie, topped with a fried egg, and served with yellow rice that’s been flavoured with raisins. It is huge and delicious – and very filling. We relax (perhaps a bit longer than we should), and eventually head out ever Southward.

Our next stop is Boulder Beach near Simon’s Town. It’s home to over 2,000 Penguins – who have been living, fishing, mating and having babies in this rock strewn bit of South Africa since 1982 when 2 breeding pairs first arrived. The Penguins are everywhere – they live in depressions under the African shrubs that dot the hillside, and they splash around in the waters of the Indian Ocean that lap the shore. Because of all the huge rocks, the waters here are just rough enough to bring in the fish, but not so rough as to make it hard for the Penguins to get in and out. It’s a perfect place – and they clearly love it.

Part of South African’s National Park System – there’s a fee to enter, but it’s clean, well kept, and well – full of Penguins. It was great.

We take lots of pictures – my favourite shows a tiny baby staring directly into my camera from under his mother’s protective wing, and then head on South.

Every Southward we go – past adorable towns, beautiful beaches, and African Scrubland. We arrive at the entrance to the “Cape of Good Hope National Park”, and pay our $13.50 Canadian each to go in. A bit steep – but clearly this is a place for tourists – and South Africa knows a tourist trap when they see one. If you went to Cape Town – wouldn’t you go to the Cape of Good Hope?

The well maintained road winds along the top of the ridge – with the Light House at the tippy top of the final peak – Cape Point – clearly visible in front of us. When we arrive at the base we realize there are two options for going up to the Light House – climb a zillion steps, or take the tram. We decide to do neither – Victor has plans for later today, and wants to see and get gone. So we turn around, and head to the lower road that runs along the shore. Here we end up at the actual Cape of Good Hope – and reward ourselves with a bit of a walk, a bit of a stare into the ocean – and a photograph! The waves that roll in are unhindered in their journey North from Antarctica and are huge. They crash onto the rocks at our feet – then fall back into the ocean for another try. It’s beautiful. We spot Ostriches that have made this scrubland their homes – and they are apparently raising a family based on the number of what I think are Ostrich chicks at their feet. We also spot Baboons who have decided that the tourists here are easy pickings. They aren’t the least bit concerned about us – unless we happen to have some food. They climb on cars – try to get into car windows, even test the door handles. Wily beasts…

We now head back towards Noordhoek, where there is a Food Market on Thursday evenings. The idea – grab food from a stall, and enjoy sunset! Sounds good – so we head North. We pass folks doing a bit of whale watching in the Indian Ocean (I can see the spouting of the whale as we drive past) and somewhat surprisingly – a shanty town.

Housing in this part of the Cape has been quite a bit better -so the sudden appearance of the shanties is a bit of a surprise. It’s the one and only we’ve seen since we left Cape Town. In general this part of South Africa is less barricaded and blocked in – which feels better to our western sensitives.

And after a few wrong turns, and some GPS confusion, finally find ourselves at the Market. This is a hugely popular local event – the food is reasonable, and the view spectacular tonight – not a cloud in the sky.

We check out the offerings – there are about 2 dozen stalls, set up with cooking facilities and serving Pork Belly, Fish and Chips, Pork Steaks, Greek Food, Vegetarian options, BBQ Pork Belly Sandwiches, even Tuna Steak. So many choices, and all priced at around $8. I opt for the Pork Belly with cooked yams, Victor gets the BBQ Pork Belly Sandwich, and then goes back for the Tuna Steak. He also gets a bottle of white wine, and we relax on a picnic table to watch the sun set into the Atlantic Ocean. Peaceful and so lovely.

After dinner, We carefully drive on to our lodging for tonight. We’re staying at the highly rated Tuscan Villa Guest House in Fishhoek, and it’s worth it’s rating. Our double sized room features another of these huge bathrooms – with a large shower and huge freestanding tub. We’re warned yet again about the water crisis – and asked not to use the tub. Well – we weren’t planning on it – so you are ok. Our charming hostess explains that the fines for ‘over use’ of water are extremely high, and she’s being forced to use the shower at her son’s place to avoid having the guest house deemed an over consumer. That kind of thing is really hard to control too. We promise to be careful, and she wishes us good night.

We remove the fresh lavender stalks that have been carefully laid on our towels, our pillows, and the bath mat, and settle down for the night.

Tomorrow we are heading North to the wine tasting district of Stellenbosch.

Signing off out of total exhaustion – The Soup Lady

Opikopi in Pretoria – Such a delightful surprise


We leave London on British Airways – an 8 hour but thankfully boring flight to South Africa.

The plane is one of those double decker numbers – with a great deal more seats in First Class and Business Class than are found in lowly Economy. Clearly BA has decided that catering to the wealthier makes sense, because I counted just 140 seats in Economy – with an additional 32 seats in ‘Premium Economy’. The rest of the giant plane was filled with those oh so comfy flat bed seats with your private walls.

In walking past the better folk to our seats in ‘Premium Economy’, I even noticed that there were double flat bed seats for two in the center of the ‘business’ class section. Well, if only I’d know that was on offer…

Service in Premium Economy was rather nice – real silverware, even if the knife couldn’t cut anything – and plenty of service folks to ask if I needed anything. Food looked good, tasted OK, and at least prevented boredom from setting in too fast. I watched 3 movies – of which Rogue 1 was probably the best. Attempted to sleep (not successfully), and generally whiled away the time.

I did enjoy the new BA short film on safety. It’s done in a tastefully moderately comic style, and featured name (and not so name) actors giving the traditional ‘fasten your seat belt by pulling on the buckle’ announcements. The highlight was when one of them actually pulls the toggle on the life vest. I’ve always wanted to do that.

The flight only seemed endless – eventually we did land in Jo-burg and after an uneventful tour of the customs area, we were greeted by a rather portly, fairly casually dressed gentleman holding a sign with our name on it. Ah – our driver. We were driven to our home for the next 2 days – the Opikopi Guest House in Pretoria. And were immediately impressed.

Our host greeted us with an offer of ice water or coffee (I’ll have a latte thanks) which we enjoyed while the younger man on duty carried our suitcases to our room. Coffee done – we were duly escorted to the ‘President’s’ suite. Given that there are only 17 rooms on the property – and that apparently they are all fairly to extremely fancy – don’t be too impressed. Although I’ll admit – I was! Our room was actually 3 rooms. An entrance room with two twin beds, a microwave and a small fridge, leading directly to a Mahoney floored ‘Master’ bedroom with a king sized bed – and the largest bathroom and closet I’ve ever walked into. Huge. The bathroom featured a giant free standing whirlpool tub, a two headed shower the size of a standard bathtub, a sink, a separate room for the toilet, and the aforementioned closet.

And what a closet it was. I mean – you need two safes don’t you? One tall and thin for those critical tall and thin objects (swords? Canes with gold heads? Reams of paper files? What would you put in such a thing), and one a bit larger than standard for purses, money belts, gold bullion… There were drawers and drawers and drawers – the ceiling had to be about 18′ from the floor – and the drawers went floor to ceiling. I’m not sure how you’d even reach the upper ones. And there was hanging space galore, but none for dresses. All were sized at 1/2 size for suits and jackets and pants. The effect was marred a bit by the actually useful stuff – an iron and ironing board, and about 10 hangers. I can’t imagine what this space could have been before it was the ‘President’s Suite’. I’m guessing that the twin beds in the entrance room are a recent addition. Perhaps that was the sitting/dining area for a one bedroom apartment. Well – we’re comfy – and that’s what counts.

Being the exploring type – I checked out several of the other rooms at this ‘Guest House’. Most of the rooms seemed to be normal sized, albeit with high high ceilings and generally huge bathrooms. Single showers though – not our double sized monster. But there was one room that I admit did make my heart strings flutter. It’s a multi-bedroom home – with a private pool, several dining areas, a full kitchen – and at least one bedroom on the main floor and two on the upper floors. Lots of space for a one night visit to Pretoria.

The center part of the Guest House – the public areas so to speak – are open to the air dining tables surrounding the small but at least there swimming pool. There are French Doors that open into the main parts of the public space – more dinning areas, and a very full breakfast bar. An Expresso machine tucked into a corner answers the question – where did that Latte come from. And there must be a rather full kitchen hidden in the back because the rather extensive menu would require it.

It’s a perfect place to sit in the sun or the shade and relax, read, or in my case – Blog!

There is also an on-site ‘wellness spa’ – one room devoted to massage tables and a machine for removing tattoos. I was told that this is a big business these days among resort guests. Who knew?

There is a tiny conference area – in use while we ere on site, and lots of housekeeping types wandering the premises. The owner – a lovely woman in her early 60s came over to greet me personally yesterday, and we chatted a bit about future travels. She’s off on a cruise next month with her brother and sister-in-law. I’m headed for the Garden Route of South Africa.

Like most of Jo-Burg that we’ve seen – security is an issue. If not a stated issue, it’s an understated current. For example, To get to the Opikopi, we drove thru a gate into a ‘guarded’ community – and then thru another automated gate to arrive on property. The Opikopi property is surrounded by high cement walls, topped with live electrical fencing. And all the rooms at the ground floor level have wrought iron grates as well as classic wooden doors. There is staff 24/7 – and while I didn’t see a ‘security’ guard, it is clear from the layout that you’d have to pass the office area to reach most of the rooms.

We didn’t feel much like leaving our peaceful surroundings with it’s water fountains, mirrored planters, and singing birds, so we didn’t. We spent the day sitting around the pool – generally relaxing after our oh-so-hectic stay in London. By silent mutual consent, we opted to ignore our surroundings, and just enjoy the Guest House.

Speaking of birds – they are up very early here – and very noisy! There is one that sits outside our window going tuc, tuc, tuc endlessly. And the birds are well hidden. While I can hear tons of bird song – I don’t see any of them. But then I’m not a bird watcher – so I suppose my lack of vision isn’t that surprising. But it is lovely to hear them going about their business so happily.

Food at the Guest House is rather interesting, given that both my husband and I are pretty dedicated ‘foodies’. I would generally rate it a 4. They are keen, the offerings are interesting, there is lots of variety – and some nice highs with the occasional oops.

Our first try was a simple Pizza – and it was perfect. Nice size, great tasting cheese, well made – perfect.

Our second meal – dinner – was less successful. I opted to try a new kind of fish (well – new to me anyway) – the King Klip. Being in the experimental mood, I also ordered Pumpkin Fritters with a Carmel sauce. The resulting dish was unappealing. The fritters were sweet, sweet, sweet – and the fish bland. And the ‘stir-fried’ veggies had been cooked that afternoon – and thus were over-cooked by the time they arrived at our table. My husband did a better job of ordering, his stuffed chicken wrapped in bacon was quite delicious. My dessert selection – a Peppermint Tart was extremely rich – way too rich for me to finish. Oh well – there’s tomorrow.

For the next day – I boo-booed again at breakfast. As an included meal – it was extremely complete. The ‘cold’ portion was a buffet with various sweet pastries (I’m getting a theme here – South Africans either love sweets – or think all tourists need more sugar), stewed prunes, apples and apricots (more sugar in the syrup), grated cheddar cheese to put on your toast, several jams and chutney’s (are you surprised that they were sweet too?), and some dry cereals. The ‘Hot’ portion was on order but included. The very kind waitress suggested the Tuna Pancake or the Avo Omlet. I decided to try the pancake – which was actually a crepe stuffed with tuna fish – and topped with goat cheese. Oops, I’m allergic to goat cheese. So I swapped plates with my hubby who described my choice as delicious, and tried his French Toast served with Maple Syrup and Bacon. The Bacon was good, the French Toast forgettable, and the Maple Syrup a fake. But I loved my latte – and my plain toast was perfect.

Lunch was a lot more successful. I choose what was described as a cheese sandwich – and it was amazingly good. Properly grilled, served with a delicious salad with lots of Avocado and Walnuts, and with an order of beautifully made French fries (Chips) on the side.

Ok – I’m getting the drift. Go for simple… Expect sweet!

So for dinner I ordered a ‘Man’ size portion of Mutton Chops. These were absolutely delicious – perfectly cooked, tender and super tasty. And I loved the salad. Unfortunately the stir-fried veggies were yesterday’s veggies – over-cooked and sad. So I just ate around them, loving what was well made – the mutton chops and salad.

And keeping with the simple is best motif – I ordered vanilla ice cream for dessert – and it was exceptional. Rich, creamy, almost the texture of the best made soft ice-creams but clearly with a very high butter fat content. Huge portion too.

Today’s breakfast was again a hit – a simple perfectly cooked poached egg on a lovely piece of brown toast. Give me that with a Latte – I’m happy.

Unfortunately, I looked up South African Cuisine AFTER dinner last night to realize that I’d miss ordering two very traditional dishes – Bobotie and Hoenderpastei. The latter is Chicken Pie, and the former is described as a meatloaf with raisins and a baked egg on top, often served with bananas. Oh well – I shall keep my eyes open for other opportunities to be a bit more experimental.

Our plan for today is pretty much the same as yesterday – relax, listen to the birds, do the email thing – and eventually wind up at the Rovos Rail Station for the next part of our trip – a 2 night, 3 day adventure on the most elegant train on earth, “The Pride of Africa”.

I’m excited…

Signing off to pack. The Soup Lady

Well – about time I posted again, eh?


Yeah – I know – been gone for months.

It’s not that I wasn’t busy – not busy isn’t in my vocabulary, it’s more that reporting on trips to places like Maine (I love the sea – but is a family holiday worth a blog post) or Toronto (to play bridge – at the National ABCL conference – can you say boring) worth blogging. I say no.

So – what am I doing that is worth Blogging? Ah – that’s a very good question.

I just spent 4 wonderful days doing Theatre in London – which besides being unbelievably expensive – is also a top ranked city for theatre.

We caught two current offerings – Woman in Black (Ghost story that’s been running for 28 years or so) and a brand new play – The Play that Goes Wrong. We also opted for pre-fix meals before the theatre – one of which was a huge bargain, the other of which was terribly over priced. So even the best of planners can go astray.

First review – The Woman in Black with dinner at the Homage Grand Salon – in the Waldorf Hilton. First question – What happened to “Waldorf Astoria” – did Astoria lose out to a bidding war with Hilton. I suspect yes, but the signs were very consistent. But I digress, as I so often do. On to the review. The meal started off nicely – my daughter opted to join us – and the very kind Matre D’ allowed that he could seat 3 as easily as 2. Given that the place was sold out (he turned away folks while we were waiting to be seated), I was pleased. But I was much less pleased with the meal. I don’t mind small portions, in fact I prefer them. But these portions had been downsized to non-existence. And it wasn’t that much of a price bargain either. 23 pounds per person, plus extra for dessert, extra for drinks, extra for coffee – extra for tip – and some of the meals on the menu had surcharges that ran 50% of the price of the meal. Very very pricy dinner for a lovely restaurant, kinda icky service – we had to go find people to get water, butter, a knife – and to order dessert. Which by the way was the highlight of the meal. A decided high note in a meal that didn’t rate 2 stars – let alone 5.

But on to the Show.

The theatre is one of the smaller theatres in the West End – and it was packed with young women – looking for a good scare. And they obliged the actors by screaming pretty consistently at almost everything. Which is a good thing – Ghost Stories are much more fun if people scream.

The story of the play is pretty scary – although it takes some time to get to the scary parts. And the acting, as would be expected in London, was top notch. I won’t give anything away by saying that it did succeed in scaring me. I’d rate the play 4 stars, dinner 2.

The next night we picked much, much, much better!

Dinner was at a very casual place called Boulevard Brasserie – a ‘French’ restaurant within 150 feet of our theatre. The meal actually started off better – the waiter was much less pretentious, and while our table was smaller – the restaurant itself was cute and fun. Decidedly brasserie. Again we had pre-ordered the theatre meal – and were extremely impressed with both the quality of the cooking and the size of the portions. At least here they don’t think smaller is better! Bread was extra – and I needed to order the bread. My smoked salmon appetizer simply begged for it. And good bread it was too – served with both butter and an olive paste. Yum. My dinner was a lovely cooked trout, at least twice the size as the fish I’d starved on the night before – perfectly cooked and delicious.

Dessert was the only course where the Homage Grand Salon trumped the lowly Brasserie. Their potted chocolate was far superior to my too large and too dense Valrohna Chocolate Tart. But hey – at 1/2 price – the Brasserie was by far and away the better bet.

Again on to the Show..

We’d picked “The Play that Goes Wrong” because Victor felt strongly that we wanted something light and funny – enough seriousness in our lives. So the reviews made this one sound perfect.

Curiously – we had to subject ourselves to a bag and personal pat-down before we could enter the theatre. This hadn’t happened the night before, but we were assured that it wasn’t that unusual for London. Our seats – purchased at a substantial discount thru Time Out, were on the front row. But in these tiny theatres, it’s rather hard to get a bad seat. And we were center front at least.

The play started with a bang – the mantle of the fireplace falls off, and the stage hands madly attempt to fix it with duct tape while trying to tell the audience to ignore them.

And the play goes up, or perhaps down, from there. It is absolutely historically funny. So funny that I actually had issues stopping laughing – not helped at all by one of the actors breaking character to chastise me from the stage – “This isn’t funny – stop laughing!” You try to stop after that – I dare you!

The idea is that a group of rather amateur actors are finally getting to put on a play in a ‘real’ theatre – and the play in question is a murder mystery. There’s all the requisite components – house with hidden doors (including one in a grandfather clock), folks with too many secrets (including romances between several of the characters), and a section of the stage that serves as a study raised above the rest of the stage and reached by an elevator on stage. But of course – things go wrong, the mantle falling off is just the first of many gags that combine physical comedy with exquisite timing. When the study threatens to fall off the walls into the audience – with two actors continuing to speak their lines while game-fully trying not to slide off – well – the audience is torn between laughter and concern for their safety. I still don’t know exactly how they managed not to slide down – the angle of tilt was at least 35 degrees! It was steep!

Through all the mishaps – only one actor manages to stay serious – and I truly have no idea how he manages that feat. There are actors who overact their parts – there are stage hands that try desperately to fix things (doors that won’t open, props that go missing, and sound effects that either happen late, don’t happen at all, or happen incorrectly. A door slam to the face takes out one of the lead characters, and a stage hand with a script is quickly drafted to take her place. When the lead actress recovers and tries to get back her role a bit later – a fight ensues between the stage hand who is enjoying the applause and the over-acting lead actress not pleased at being replaced.

If you have ever been involved in amateur theatrics – or if you just want to laugh until your sides hurt – this play is completely irresistible.

5 stars for dinner, 5 stars for the Theatre – a prefect evening is a lovely town.

On Tuesday our trip changes pace – we’re heading to South Africa! So stay tuned.

Signing off to play with her newest grand-daughter – the Soup Lady.