Kingston – a pit stop on the road to Toronto


I’m on the road today. Leaving Kingston by train for Toronto. My sisters are flying in to Toronto this morning too. It’s my 70th Birthday – and we are meeting up at the UP station near the train station to spend a ‘sister”s’ weekend celebrating that milestone.

I’m hoping there’s a waiting room or somewhere to sit at the UP Station. I can’t remember for the life of me. But I’m sure I’ll work it out.

I came to Kingston from Montreal by train on Tuesday – to play bridge. They are having a Regional Competition this week, and I’m squeezing in two days of bridge before my birthday celebrations in Toronto. My trip here was uneventful. I arrived early at the train station in Kingston, which is located in the middle of basically nothing but forest/farm land. A local bus driver, with help from two of the other passengers, determined my best bet to get to the St. Lawerence College was to take the slow and winding 16 route. At least I don’t have to change buses, and I get a free tour of downtown Kingston. I also get to chat up some of the locals – who for reasons I do not understand decide to share their medical histories with me. To you both – I hope you feel better soon!

Soon enough I”m at the college, and a young student (he’s a grad student, so not that young, but it’s in comparison) walks me to the door to the residences so I can drop off my small suitcase. He also points out the food court, and the gym where we’ll be playing bridge.

The College is one very long, very narrow building on two floors that is probably the result of joining several smaller buildings into one at some point in it’s history. It’s relatively modern looking, and has most of the expected facilities – non-gender toilets, white boards in all classrooms, and signs. Lots and lots of signs. There’s a cooking school (the student restaurant isn’t open for the summer, but I did see signs of a class being held), a vet school (complete with a furry quick stop, and even a weight room. Recycling here is big – and there are 4 different sorting bins – including one just for coffee cups.

And it’s clean. And relatively empty being that it’s summer and while there are classes – the population is clearly reduced from what it must be during ‘term’. But I”m not here for school – I’m here for bridge!

And Kingston for bridge was interesting. I met some very nice people and saw a lot of the same faces from Toronto Regionals. My PUP (pick up partner) was ‘The Independent Lady’ – 73 years young and very very interesting. She’s been married 4 times – has 2 sons from two different husbands – and is very independent today. I admire this of course, but do not envy her at all! I kinda like my cozy married life of almost 48 years.. But she was a very decent partner – we had our ups and downs on Tuesday, but on Wednesday we put our acts together – and did very well. We came in first in our section in the Gold Rush (yeah!!) and even finished in the top 4 in a side game against some pretty impressive competition. I was very pleased.

Last night we decided to share a 3/4 bottle of red wine after the night game, and went up to the lounge on her floor of the college residence. There were others bridge players there – and we chatted and drank and practiced yoga (yes – someone has the pictures to prove that) until after midnight.

We agreed to try to get together again – like me she travels a lot and lacks a consistent partner. We shall see how that works out. She’s not as good as Fern (the gal I went on the cruise with), although she has more master points. While she’s been playing for a long time, she’s still open to new ideas about defence – what I think is the most crucial part of the game. Everyone can learn conventions – but 50% of the time you are on defence – and that makes or breaks your scoring.

I think there’s a definite problem with folks that have been playing for too many years and are willing to teach, but not so willing to learn – they are sure that they know what they know – whereas I’m sure of what I don’t know.

On the subject of college residences… Well, they haven’t changed much since my Tufts University days in 1966-1970. I honestly felt transported back to that single room I had my senior year. The only difference – they have put bathrooms inside the rooms – so no sharing the toilet. But otherwise – it was identical. My bed was the upper part of a bunk bed that had been split, so a metal frame that was a good 25” above the floor. I had to hoist myself up to get in! I had a single window on one wall – which at least could open. The sheets and bed covering were thread bare and had been washed a zillion times. Same for the towels. The closet had no hangers, so I had to just dump my jackets on the floor, or hang them on the back of the only chair in the room.

On the first night – I was so so cold. I didn’t realize that the thing that looked like an AC on the wall was also a heater. I got up in the middle of the night, walked the long long walk to ‘reception’, and asked for a blanket. (I was already sleeping in my sweat shirt, and wearing socks). She kindly gave me a nice cuddly blanket, and explained how to make the heater work. Finally – I was warm enough to sleep!

Last night I asked for better towels – and that too was provided. So I had a nice warm shower before bed – very nice. Maybe I should have had more water to drink though… Wine tends to give me a bit of a headache, and this morning I feel a bit hungover. But two cups of latte at Via Rail’s expense and a warm breakfast makes for a good pick-me up!

We are playing bridge in the University Gym, and the nearest bathroom is clearly the Woman’s locker room. Two tiny toilets – and the biggest shower space I’ve seen in years. No barriers, no curtains, no separations. I know, guys are not surprised, but for women, we tend to shower in our own space – not in huge open spaces with multiple shower heads. And it smelled horrid. Ah well – I guess Gyms are Gyms.. What was I expecting? Marriott? Not hardly.

Food at the residences was also interesting. I was staying at St. Lawerence College, not Queens. I mention this because it was a bit of a distance from ‘downtown’ Kingston, and the closest food was the ‘food court/cafeteria’ of the college. To get to any restaurant required a healthy walk, or a car. Good news – The Independent Lady had a car. Bad news – the restaurants were Tim Hortons, Subway, and a local Sushi Joint.

The food at the cafeteria was actually excellent – I ate lunch there both days – and it was quite acceptable. But they close at 4:00 PM – And the afternoon bridge game finished at 5:30. So you couldn’t go there for dinner!

The first night – we drove over to Tim Horton’s. The Lady had poutine (seriously?), and I ordered from the Sushi place. It was ok, but too much food, so I carefully took part back to my dorm room and put in the fridge.

The second night we opted to eat at the Residences. The Lady munched on some of my grapes and some cookies I”d taken from Via Rail on my trip into Kingston, I ate most of the remains of my sushi. Not a gourmet meal by any stretch of the imagination.

The company however was stellar. We were sitting outside, and were joined by a young man who is studing to be a Correctional Officier. He was adorable – cute, young, very very strong, and very articulate. He was born in Corsovo (sp?), and had immigrated to Canada while very young. He felt that the Canadian Federal Government had saved his life, and wanted to return the favour by working for them.

We chatted and chatted. He explained that the program is 3 months long, and a new ‘course’ starts every week during the summer, with 30 new trainees. If you finish the program, you are guaranteed a job. But getting into the program is the challenge. Thousands apply, few are accepted! They weight train for an hour every day, the rest of the time is filled with courses and lectures and more physical training. It was an eye-opening look at what kinds of decisions young people make today – and it was very interesting discussing how he felt our prision system is managed.

This morning on my way out to get my taxi to the train station, I saw a large group all dressed in their uniforms heading out to start their day. Man, they looked fit and ready for action.

Yes – both women and men if that was the next question.

One of his reasons for making what I can only think is a odd career choice is that the comarderie among the folks who work/manage the prision system is so intense – something he really wanted. He had done a few weeks in a prison prior to committing to the training program, and had experienced an inmate uprising. This made him want to be part of the system even more.

He also told us that folks can retire from the system after 15 years – young enough to easily get another job where their excellent training make it easy to get hired. His original, and I think final, goal is to be a policeman. This is an inbetween stop. But a long one if it’s a 15 year committement.

One of the interesting things about meeting new folks who are so different from what you normally meet is the increasing odds that you’ll find something that relates them to your own life. And so it was not surprising that this morning I was reading the paper waiting for the train, and ran across a review of the play that my sisters and I bought tickets too in Toronto. Tiled “Out the Window”, it’s subject is police brutality!

Well, how’s that for a blending of fate.

In any case – that’s the news from KIngston. Next stop – Toronto.

Signing off – The Soup Lady

EB Hotel – Now that’s a shower…


This blog post is a continuation of the one about my almost aborted trip home from St. Croix in March. In case you’ve forgotten – our plane ran into a bird on it’s landing approach in St. Croix, and American had to ground the plane until a very expensive piece of equipment could be flown in from New York City. But there was no where for American to put the 200+ passengers in St. Croix – FEMA has taken almost all the housing. So they found a plane in Puerto Rico and flew it down to Miami. Clearly most/all of us will have missed our connecting flights!

I land in Miami, and no surprise here, join a long long line of my fellow travellers waiting for the American agents to re-book us. It’s not as if they didn’t KNOW we were coming – that they didn’t KNOW we’d missed our flights. You’d have thought, foolishly as it turns out, that there would be some kind of triage.

You already rebooked – so all you need is printed boarding passes and a hotel voucher. Oh – you haven’t rebooked yet – ok that will take more time.

Nope – didn’t happen. So instead we all stand in one LONG line, waiting our turn. At first (given that it’s after 11:00 PM), there are only two poor agents at the re-booking center. But as the line grows and grows, the number of agents dedicated to getting us taken care of increases. By my turn, there are 7 agents working, so the line is moving.

Since I already re-booked – it’s a print and ‘have a nice night’ meeting. The hotel voucher says EB Hotel – and I question the agent – EB? Never heard of it. He reassures me – it’s a nice one. And sends me on my way.

I leave the airport security area, and cross over to the ‘hotel’ shuttle waiting area. Standing with me are several of my fellow passengers – all of us slated to go to the same hotel. One guy smartly calls the hotel to check on the shuttle – to be told – it’s on it’s way.

Shuttle arrives – not large enough for everyone, but I’m lucky enough to score a seat, which I’m not giving up. I need to be back at the airport at 5:00 AM – and it’s now almost midnight. I don’t want to lose any more of my precious sleep.

My room at the EB is amazing. Seriously – I’ve stayed in some pretty high end places in my life, but this is probably the fanciest hotel shower system I have ever seen. I set my alarm for 4:00 AM – it’s too late now to shower – but I’m willing to wake up early to take advantage of it tomorrow.

About my shower. It’s a hoot! There are 4 different kinds of shower heads. A rain shower in the middle of the space – partly over the large stone ‘sitting’ area, a more standard shower head, 4 body jets that are serious about giving you a massage, and a handheld shower head. It’s more fun than a barrel of monkeys – and I’m having a blast turning every shower possibility on and off – playing with temperature, pressure, and position.

I’m having so much fun – I’m almost (but not quite) late to my 4:30 AM Shuttle back to the Miami airport.

After the excitement of the bird hitting the nose cone, the jet being flown in to St. Croix from San Juan to get us off the island, and the over-the-top fancy hotel shower – the trip on to Louisville, KY is just long and boring. Ah well – can’t have too much adventure at my age – probably bad for the digestion.

Signing off to sip her Illy Coffee – paid for by American Airlines – The Soup Lady

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

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!

Whales – By George – I found Whales!


We wake to another beautiful day in South Africa – blue sky, blue sea, cool breezes. I’m finding it a bit cold, and since today we are going out on a Whale Boat Excursion – I choose to over-dress. I’m wearing almost everything I brought that’s warm – and thinking I wish I had more!

Yesterday I forgot to mention the odd thing. When we drove back from JJ’s Grill, we were stopped just below the entrance to the Conrad Pezula. There was a swing barrier and a guard checking your reason for going past his post. The odd thing – I didn’t see a guard gate when we drove up in the afternoon – nor when we drove back down for dinner. It’s a pop-up guard gate – only visible at night. Different, right?

Back to today – We enjoy the elaborate buffet breakfast provided by the hotel, and then wind our way back down to Knysna. This time we look – nope, no guard gate. But onto our adventure. Whale Odyssey takes small boats out into the ocean to see the whales 4 times a day – and it leaves from Thesen Island, a paradise of lovely shops, cute restaurants, and adorable housing located across a causeway from the main town of Knysna. The folks at the hotel have recommended a restaurant for lunch – the Ile de Pain – I’m guessing French influence here? The sparkling cleanness of Thesen Island is very impressive – it’s a lovely enclave, without a guard gate. First one I’ve seen in all our travels. But based on the ‘odd’ thing last night, I’m guessing that a gate appears on the cross way after dark. And access to the ‘residential’ part of the island is barricaded by a huge metal gate and a swing bridge. So sure you can get on the island – but don’t get near our houses…

Our Whaling trip starts at the Odyssey Shop where we join up with our fellow whale boaters – there are 12 of us, and we are given life preservers and basic instructions – primarily follow the Captain’s Instructions.

Our Captain takes us to our boat – it’s tiny, but with super powerful outboard engines. We’ll find out soon enough how necessary those are. We take our seats in rows of 3 or 4 – and soon cast off. Because we’re old, slow, and polite – we’re last to board. So I’m sitting on the end seat on one row, Victor on the end seat of a different row. Turns out to be great seats though!

The Captain tells us that when he stops the boat – we are free to move around as we wish – and there are plenty of grab rails to make sure we don’t have a problem going over board. But when he says – SIT Down Now – we are to take the first available seat and SIT. That means he’s going to be doing something that will rock the boat – or he sees something that will rock the boat.

He makes sure we are all clear on this point, that no one is feeling ill from being on a boat – and with a “Yes Sir” – we are all ready to go.

Our trip takes us thru the Lagoon, and between the Heads and out to sea. The trip thru the Heads is truly neat. The Captain slows the boat to a crawl and watches the waves coming in thru the narrow neck. When he sees several smooth rollers in a row – he guns the engine and off we go. We shoot thru the neck and up and over the rollers. These waves are so large that often at the top, the engines are out of the water completely!

There is a Whale Spotter positioned high up on the Eastern Head – and he’s radioing instructions to the Captain. He manoeuvres the boat away from land and towards the East – moving towards the position described by the spotter. All of a sudden he says – this is too good to miss – and turns the boat sharply towards the South. We are quickly among a pod of around 200 Normal Dolphins – who think the arrival of a boat is great fun. They jump and splash and swim around and in front of us – around and around we go among the Dolphins – snapping away madly. The Captain says they are fishing, and rounding up a bait ball – but they still take time to play with us. You just know this will be the highlight – how often have you ever seen a pod of 200 dolphins at play?

The spotter radios down that he has seen a whale – and off we go among the huge waves towards the designated location. And when I say huge – I mean these are large waves. They tower over the boat – but since they aren’t breaking this far away from shore, we just roll. Up and over – or along a trough, the ride is actually fairly smooth given the size of the waves and boat. Lucky I guess – I spoke to other folks who took a boat out on Tuesday, the day we got blown off the Penguin tour, and the boat just made it out from the neck before the Captain announced – this is too rough, and they headed right back into the harbour.

We find the whales that the spotter had seen – and it’s underwhelming. I’m sorry – yes, they are huge – yes, there are 4 of them – but all we can see from our low vantage point 50 meters away is a broad back floating inches above the surface of the water. They aren’t even really blowing – I was expecting towering heights of water, but no – little puffs – and that’s it.

The first pair opt to dive – and they are gone. A second pair appear a bit further off – we move towards them, but like the first pair, they are busy doing their thing, and not really showing off for the tourists. Did someone forget to send the fax?

We piddle around in this area hoping for something more thrilling, and then head back. Whale ride over.

As I said – the Dolphins were definitely the highlight – and they were amazing. So I’m pleased – and I buy a sweatshirt to prove that I was here at 34 degrees South Latitude! Bonus, it’s warm and cozy. And as stated many times this trip – it’s been a lot cooler than I’d thought it would be (90 degree days dropping to 70 degree days… seriously confusing to this old body).

We eat lunch as planned at the Ile de Pain – and it’s wonderful. I opt for a flat bread with olives (they grow olives in this area) and it is delightful. A bit overly generous with the olive oil, but that’s been a theme here in South Africa – if you’ve got it in abundance – flaunt it! And apparently Olive Oil is on that list.

It’s back to the Palace for a Spa Treatment. I know – totally outrageously extravagant – but oh so relaxing. My husband has a hot stone massage which he rates as one of the two best he’s ever had. I had a lovely Swedish massage – and enjoy every minute. After the massages, they put us on massaging water beds for 15 minutes of ‘cool’ down. Totally extravagant and completely delightful.

Dinner is at the Anchorage – a tiny (6-7 tables, tops) sea food restaurant in downtown (can you call part of a 7 block city – downtown) that boast super high ratings and great reviews. And it totally deserves them both. Our waiter – Benjamin – is a riot. He clearly loves his job, his restaurant, and his food – and delights in making sure we pick the best options of the bunch. He and my husband get into a bit of a discussion on the subject of dessert – and not surprisingly, Benjamin wins. His suggestion of a milky chocolate concoction that is unique to the Anchorage is a clear winner. For the main course – I try the Prawns. Everyone has been raving about the Prawns here on the Whale Coast – and I’m finally convinced to give them a chance. It’s a bit like eating tiny lobsters – lots of finger work involved, and your reward is really just the sweet tail parts! Prawns, by the by, are what we would call Shrimp – but these are the giant size versions. Almost 5” long, they are about 50% head and legs – just 50% tail.

Victor gets Angel fish. This is surely not the same fish we call Angel Fish in the Caribbean – it’s a fairly large filet of a very delicious white fish. So good food and delightful service. Perfect.

Back to the Conrad Pezula and yes – the gate has re-appeared. Our fire is lit, and after enjoying the view, the stars, the absolutely giant full moon, we settle in for the night.

Tomorrow is a long driving day. I do look forward to those. (Not). But it can’t be helped. We must get to Port Elizabeth for the last few days of our trip along the Garden Route.

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

4 Wineries in one day is too much of a good thing..


It’s not that I object to visiting Wineries – I’ve been to dozens. It’s just doing 4 in one day really wipes you out. Even if you only sip small amounts of the wine – and carefully spit as much as possible, the mental effort is telling.

So I was a bit concerned that today we were doing 4 wineries – and that we had to get from the lovely Tuscan Villa Guest House in Fishhoek to the first winery in Stellenbosch by 10:00 AM. But we gave it our best. Things went great at the start – we drove past the beach towns on the Indian Ocean side of False Bay, and up to the major road that cuts Eastward along the water. Everything would have been fine – except that the major highway was closed to Eastward traffic. No worries – we’ll just follow the detour.

Except the detour takes us right though the center of the Khayelitsha Township.

Ok – I’m not worried. We just won’t stop.

Of course that’s easier said then done. Folks treat the road running thru the township as a walking path – so they cross anywhere they like, and cars have to stop or run over them. But because we’re travelling slowly – I get a chance to see what early morning at the edges of the Township look like, and it’s interesting. The dozens and dozens of guys who run the grills are setting up for the day. They drag 1/2 steel drums that sit on wooden legs out to the side of the road and fill them with either charcoal or wood. Then a grate sits on top and they grill their meat – from the looks I got – it’s mostly chicken, with some other cuts. And it honestly smells wonderful. I’m curious as to the prices – or for that matter – why they do this. We decide that it’s hot and stuffy inside the tiny houses – and cooking out on the street makes cooking a social adventure – plus keeps the house cooler. And if you can manage to sell some – even better.

The key point here is that the number of folks doing this is staggering. I spotted probably several hundred in just our short drive on just that one road. And I’m guessing there are hundreds more doing the same on all the other roads thru the township.

I also learned a new term – there are townships – legal areas for folks to live, provided with what we might think of as the minimum infrastructure needed – roads, basic sewer, running water (although it might be a single faucet for several homes to share), and electricity. Again – several homes might be sharing a single electric ‘box’, mainly because one ‘plot’ might be shared by 4 different family homes. But still – infrastructure exists. Then there are the informal homelands. These are not provided with any infrastructure by the government – no water, no sewer, no electricity, no garbage removal. At best, there might be port-a-potties. The problem – they are as ‘permanent’ as the townships. Luckily, we are driving thru a legal township, so there is infrastructure including stop signs and cross walks.

We eventually clear the township without any problems (it huge, remember), other then getting a bit hungry, and continue to head North East. Our goal is the wine making area of Stellenbosch.

There are literally dozens and dozens of wineries in this single area, by one account over 150 of them – and the hill sides are covered with grape vines, both bush type and trellised. Squeezed among the vines are the manor houses and wine making facilities. The ones called Estates use only the grapes grown in their own vineyards to make their wines. The other wineries will buy grapes from smaller producers, refining them on site to make their wine.

The 4 wineries we visit are Beyerskloof, Kanu, Mulderbosch, and Overgaauw. The first was probably the best of the bunch – not only was the wine great, but we could easily get it shipped to our address in the states. Winner! Kanu was utterly forgettable – not great wine, not a wonderful manor house – absolutely nothing to recommend it. We hit Mulderbosch in time for lunch – and ordered a pizza for me and a charcuterie plate for Victor – they served us enough food for 4 people, we couldn’t finish even half of either portion. This has been an ongoing issue here in South Africa – frequently the portions are completely unexpected – and we end up with way too much leftovers. The wine tasting itself was ok – but not great. Last, and probably the nicest in terms of personal service was Overgaauw. The gal that gave us the tasting was the sister of the current owner – who is the fourth generation of his family to run the winery. Her wedding pictures were featured in several places around the tasting room. We absolutely loved both the wines and the history of the winery. And we actually walked out with a bottle of their port. Oh, was it yummy.

Wine tastings done, we drive on to our hotel in Stellenbosch. And what a charming village it is. Part University Town, part tourist Mecca for wine tasting, it’s lively, open, and easy to wander. Our hotel, the Olde Werf (Old farm yard) was a recent complete renovation – the entrance way was an older manor house, but once past that you are in a completely modern facility – including heavy glass panels in the floors allowing light to filter down from the sky lights to all the walk ways. The Glassed in Elevator shaft is also a statement piece, as is the area around the infinity style swimming pool. In our room, the bathroom is part of the bedroom – so much so that one wall of the glassed in shower forms a part of the wall of the bedroom. Not great for privacy while showering, but we’re all friends.

Huge floor to ceiling double sided mirrors formed dividing walls between the sink and the bed area. With a floor to ceiling curtain pulled to one side, but available to close off the bathroom.

If I’ve done a bad job of describing the room – it’s because it’s rather hard to describe – but very ‘designer’. The bad news – the walls are incredibly thin. We can hear the folks on either side of us, not distinctly, but clear enough to be annoying. Hopefully they will quiet down after dinner.

It was suggested by the gal at Overgaauw that for dinner we try the ‘Wine House’ – which turns out to be spelled Wijnhaus. It offers wines by the sample size (for about 50 cents a glass), by the glass (for maybe $5), and by the bottle (for around $20). Wine here in SA is inexpensive, readily available, and delicious. It is also abundant. Folks start drinking wine at noon – and we are not sure when (or if) they ever stop. For dinner we order what we think are reasonable options, but both main courses turn out to be huge. Victor’s Chicken Schnitzel consists of two huge pieces – and my 4 Lamp chops are ample for me – Victor is on his own to finish – and he can’t. But it was delicious.

We meander down the busy street – filled with cafes bustling with students enjoying the warm evening, and head back to our hotel. Once there, we say hi to the doorman, parking valet, and security guard – all standing at the front door. We also greet the two night clerks at the front desk before climbing the stairs to our room. I also spot at least one other employee at the bar serving late night drinks and coffee. Staff levels in SA are very high by North American Standards – which is a good thing I guess – given the level of unemployment.

The best news – our neighbours are also exhausted – so all is quiet.

Signing off in hopes of a good nights rest – 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

Exploring Cape Town with Maurice Podbrey


We have long been supporters of Centaur Theatre in Montreal, and in fact this trip is based on an ‘Auction’ item that was part of their 2016 fund raising campaign. Completely independent of that – my husband has long maintained a casual friendship based on the occasional donation with Maurice Podbrey – the founder and original Artistic Director of Centaur Theatre.

So – it seemed natural to let him know that we were coming to his hometown of Cape Town – and I guess it seemed natural to him to give us a tour of his ‘city’.

Today and tomorrow are planned to be spent with Maurice – but before we can meet up with him, we must change hotels.

I was unimpressed from the start with the Southern Sun – and after taking advantage of the two nights that were part of our Auction package, I suggested that we change locations. Our new ‘home’ is the Cape Heritage Hotel. And a lovely place it is! Where the Southern Sun Cullinan was cold, expensive, and decidedly too large for my taste, the Cape Heritage is warm and friendly – and breakfast is included. It’s a bit further from the Water Front – but in a much nicer area of town. There are shops around – which means there are people around – and it feels a lot more cozy.

The Hotel itself is small – but glorious. Hard wood floors, high high ceilings, African inspired art and furniture, lovely rooms for relaxing that are not so massive as to make one feel lost. Our room is lovely. A huge king sized bed, a full sized desk, a small fridge (I’m beginning to see a pattern – we’ve had a fridge in every room so far), and the bathroom is huge. At least as large as the one we had in Pretoria at the Opikopi – but without that insanely large walk-in closet. The decor in the bedroom is African Oriental – so red and black colours, wall hanging that vaguely imply ‘Orient’, and occasional touches that scream orient like boxes of soap crystals and a painting of a modern geisha. On the main floor of the hotel are a collection of common rooms and open spaces – two ‘lounges’, plus an enclosed courtyard with a coffee shop and bar. Called ‘The Vine’, it celebrates a grape vine planted here in 1771 – and still producing wine grapes every year. Since it is early spring here – the vine is just beginning to put out leaves – but it is massive.

On to our tour. Maurice picks us up in his ‘little buggy’, an older car that while small – completely works in this very crowded city. Our destination is ‘Fish on the Rocks’ – a Fish and Chips establishment in Hout Bay. To get there we climb out of Cape Town, over the saddle between Table Mountain and Signal Mountain, and on thru a decidedly touristy beach area towards Hout Bay. The ‘Fish on the Rocks’ lives up to its reputation – the fish and chips are lovely. Two portions is more than enough for the three of us – and there are even left overs. The highlight of my visit here is not the food – it’s the seals that are swimming and playing in the Kelp forest right below the shack that houses the restaurant. They are having such a wonderful time – floating on their backs, sunning themselves, and occasionally ducking down into the water to munch a fish (or two).

After lunch – we head on towards Noordheok thru Chapman’s Pass. This is a scenic and rather dramatic road carved into the mountains that form the backbone of this part of South Africa towards the Cape of Good Hope. I’m very glad that Maurice is driving to be honest – and rather happy that for this part of the trip we are on the inner lane! The road drops off precipitously into the rocks and water below, with little in the way of guard rails or American security features. Don’t lose control – it would not be a happy ending.

But the views are stunning – a huge and very empty beach stretches for at least several kilometres after the crest of the pass, and there are frequent pull-offs where you can enjoy a picnic lunch, or just admire the view. At one there are folks whale spotting – and we can just see the fins of at least 2 whales fishing casually in the waters far below us.

Maurice explains that this is the ‘cold’ water side of the point. On the Indian Ocean side, the water is warmer. So the fish life is different. We’re heading towards the ‘warm’ side later in this trip to see the whales. And I think the Penguins also live on the warmer side. On the ‘cold’ side is Cape Town – and trust me – it’s cold. Colder than I expected in any case. I feel a bit like my dad did on a trip to Montreal – I’m wearing everything I own – all at the same time!

Anyway – our destination is a coffee shop. Maurice loves his coffee – and this is one of his favourites. So we stop in Noordhoek, get our coffee – and head back to Cape Town.

Maurice invites us to his home in Cape Town after the ‘long’ drive – and we accept. He lives in a 2 bedroom apartment that he rents from an older gentleman in England. Since Maurice is 83, and the gentleman in question is in his 90’s – one must wonder how long this arrangement can continue – but never mind – we are invited in and it’s quite fun.

Maurice is working on a new project – a one hour version of his life story. And since Maurice has been famous forever, at least in Montreal terms, getting his life story down to an hour isn’t going to be easy. He is or was friends with Mordecai Richler, Leonard Cohen, Irving Layton, Peter Sellers among others. As Artistic Director of Centaur he ‘discovered’ and remains friends with David Fennario, Vittorio Rossi, and Rich Salutin. He regales us with short tales from his life – stories his father told him, stories he has told others, and summarizes a bit of his life. His wife is still living and working in Montreal – so they get together as chance and travel permits. His kids and grand-kids call him on the phone frequently – and this is probably one his greatest thrills. He quips that he must be lonely – he hasn’t stopped talking since we arrived! I disagree – he is simply a marvellous story teller – and we are an appreciative audience.

He demonstrates with a pencil how life evolves. He starts by balancing the pencil on his finger, this is middle age. 1/2 your life behind you, 1/2 ahead – balanced between the past and the future. As you age further, the pencil slips downward – more past, less future. But then you have grand-kids – and the pencil flips. Now the future extends ahead of you forever.

Beautiful.

We chat, eat a bit of fruit, and eventually decide to do a Greek dinner. Some wine – not so much song, and then Maurice takes us back to our lodging.

Tomorrow he has promised to take us to his newest love – a sports club he supports in one of the Black townships that surround Cape Town. He has described Cape Town to us as the most segregated city in South Africa, perhaps in the world. The whites live in very specific sections, often with a view of the water, and incredibly high real estate values, the ‘colored’ folks live in bands of housing that surround the white enclaves, and the ‘Black’s’ live in bands that surround the ‘colored’ bands. The bands are kept intact by several forces – the price of real estate, the value of being ‘in’ your community, and the discomfort of being ‘out’ of your community. I suspect that unspoken forces also have an impact – I’m thinking of condo and community associations that must approve new owners (and thus can control who buys in). Clybourne Park, recently performed at Centaur Theatre, referenced this issue. It’s not a new problem – but here in Cape Town, I’m guessing that this kind of pressure is real.

So – tomorrow should be an interesting day – Today was definitely a winner.

Signing off in anticipation of more to come – The Soup Lady