Tag Archives: Canada

More plotting and planning…

Above the Great LakesAs I was writing in the last post, until I book the flights my plans are never really set in stone. The beginning of the year is often the time when I start probing prices of airline tickets even if my holiday is still months away. I never book them so early in advance as prices are often the best only 8-10 weeks before the flight dates, but it is still good to know what the average prices are at this early stage, and what the options are in terms of the airlines and the connecting airports.

So I started investigating flights to Denver and quickly realised that they are more expensive than I had anticipated. Direct flights were ridiculously expensive but even for the journeys involving inconvenient changes in America prices were still higher than I was hoping for.

British girls in SFONow, why is changing planes in America inconvenient? The biggest problem is the fact that you have to go through the immigration and customs at the first place you land in the US. It means that when you change, let say, in Chicago, you have to queue for immigration there, then collect you luggage, go through the customs and then check your bags separately for the remaining leg of the journey. It is a real pain and if the connecting time is short you can easily miss your flight. Especially as waiting for immigration can be absolutely unpredictable. I was once waiting over an hour in Chicago and I heard of occasions when people waited for 2-3 hours. The other problem is that American airports are not really designed with international changes in mind. International terminals are often separate from the others and connections are far from logical.

So I started thinking about other options.

I’m still committed to visiting Montana and the northern Rockies but the problem is there are really not that many big international airports there and all the smaller ones involve all the inconveniences I have mentioned above. I even investigated options of flying to Calgary and then heading south from there but it was becoming even more expensive than Denver.

Then I thought about Seattle. It is actually closer to the Glacier National Park than Denver and it opens the prospect of visiting more of Canada. I also remember it as a really nice place, albeit I haven’t been there for more than a decade. Conveniently I also found that the flights there are cheaper than to Denver. The cheapest option so far involves flying with Icelandair via Reykjavík; the change in Rykjavik is going to be much easier than in any of the American airports and also the journey time is broken into two convenient segments, three plus seven hours.

As I mentioned already, it is way too early to buy tickets as my plans can still (and probably will) change plus some other cheap deals may pop up in the meantime. But, it gives me the impetus to play again with maps (paper as well as digital) and start plotting some ideas for a trip. One of the latest results looks something like this:US and Canadian Rockies from Seattle 2

For now I have left one of my favourite places, Portland, out of the itinerary. I really like it but I have been there twice already and skipping it gives me more time to explore the Canadian Rockies, something I wasn’t seriously contemplating even a few weeks ago but an idea which was always on my personal long distance radar. In general the Pacific Northwest is another of my favourite American regions. And it is very varied too. It is not all about coast, mountains, rain and the temperate rainforest. For example the eastern Washington state offers dry, sparsely populated open spaces to drive through, almost like on the Great Plains. Also, I could finally see the famous Mount St Helens. I went there in 2004 but due to the weather conditions the visibility was so bad I couldn’t actually see the mountain itself. However, if the weather in September is bad I can spend more time in cities than in national parks so I could actually go and visit Portland after all. As I said, I’m always flexible with my plans, which are actually no plans but rather general ideas.

The biggest problem of my latest plans is the fact that I was kind of looking forward to visiting Denver and the surrounding areas. It is one of the biggest cities in the US that I haven’t visited yet and I have heard a lot of good stuff about the place. I even started thinking about flying to Seattle and coming back from Denver. Such, so-called “open jaw”, tickets seem to be not that much more expensive but unfortunately fees for the one way car rental are much higher than I was hoping for. For the moment then I have abandoned such plans.

It all leaves me with the ideas shown on the map above. It literally is just a few days old so I don’t even really know where to stop and what to see, for example between Seattle and the Glacier National Park, but at least I have something to focus on. Now I can enjoy another of my favourite pastimes, reading guidebooks and consulting maps and atlases of the places I might visit. It is something I never get bored of. I can also start looking for some interesting travel writing or history books about the region.

In the meantime I’m just finishing an fascinating book about the Irish in American cities so the review is coming here soon. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

American Reading: History


book collection verticalEven when I’m not travelling to America I continue reading books on that subject. Today I would like to share with you three fascinating titles about the early colonial history of America. The first two especially are close to my interests as they investigate in depth early British – American links.

So, the first book I would like to mention is Making Haste from Babylon: The Mayflower Pilgrims and Their World by Nick Bunker. It describes in great detail the crucial events of the late 16th and early 17th centuries which lead to the establishment of the Plymouth Plantation by the “pilgrims”. Actually, this book is as much about British history as it is about American. In fact it probably tells us more about Britain and Europe in those years than about America. The book concentrates on the Puritan movement which developed at that time and which flourished in a few regions of England from where the majority of the influential pilgrims came from. Bunker concentrates on Nottinghamshire and some parts of Sussex. He also describes the political and religious situation in Britain in those years as well as the European wars, politics and economy (which all contributed to establishing New Plymouth). This book is well researched and investigates many different angles to an otherwise well known but often simplified and stereotypical story of the pilgrims. There is for example a great chapter describing puritans exiled in Leiden which provides great insight into Dutch history and British – Dutch links.

Overall I really enjoyed this book. Some reviews on various websites are a bit critical, especially about the author describing lots of detailed facts and not linking them as well as he could or, on the other hand, stretching some links too far. For a non-historian like myself (though with a great interest in history) this criticism is too harsh. Also, living in London I really enjoyed all the small facts and links to the whole history to London, like mentioning inns and churches where Puritans met in the City, or streets where prominent backers of the whole colonial enterprise lived.

The second book I want to write about today is Death or Victory: The Battle for Quebec and the Birth of Empire by Dan Snow. It describes events almost exactly 150 years later than the first book. By then the British and French colonies in America were well established and had started playing a major role in those countries’ history. They were no more peripheral outposts but places crucial to the development of the great colonial empires. As the title implies the book concentrates on the battle of Quebec in 1759 in which British forces defeated the French and took over North America. As with the aforementioned story of the pilgrims this is another detailed and well researched book focusing on a relatively narrow subject. It describes the British military machine of that time (including many technical aspects of the Royal Navy and British Army) and colonial societies, but it concentrates on this one particular military campaign. There are a lot of references to diaries and letters by British and French officers (especially the British commander general James Wolfe) which gives the book quite a personal feel. As a geographer I also enjoyed the detailed descriptions of local topography and wider geography and how it influenced those historic events. The author describes for example how tides on the St Lawrence river influenced manoeuvring by the navy or how the steep slopes on the both banks of the river limited landing possibilities. Overall this book is a great read for a history buff like me.

Now, what I also really enjoyed is how these books connect to my travels. A couple of years ago I managed to visit Plymouth, Massachusetts, where pilgrims established their settlement and the last year I visited Westerham, Kent, where general Wolfe was borne and where he lived in house which is nowadays called Quebec House (more about the visit here). Now I would definitely like to visit Quebec to see the places described in the second book. However, that has to wait as I just came back from another of my US adventures and need to replenish my budget.

And that’s where I have to mention the third book I wanted to write about today: The Accidental City: Improvising New Orleans by Lawrence N. Powell. Yes, you guessed it. It is yet another detailed historical book concentrating on a fairly narrow subject. But don’t worry, it’s not as narrow as the previous two. Basically it is a history of the first 100 years of New Orleans. And what a fascinating history it is. For a start the city is located in the wrong place. Literarily. Its founder, Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville, ignored orders from France and established it in a less than ideal site (with limited commercial or agricultural merit, founded on unstable soil, and subject to heat, disease, floods, torrential rain, and hurricanes) in a place where he had some properties and personal interests. As you can see corruption is not a new phenomenon. The book covers the period starting from founding of New Orleans in 1718 and ending in 1815 by when the city is already under control of the young United States. In that span it switched from French to Spanish hands (1763), was burned and flooded a few times, moved back under French control (1801), before being taken over by the Americans and fighting off the British. All this is interesting in itself but the best aspect of the book are the parts where the author describes its geographical, demographic and social background.

New Orleans has developed distinct ethic and cultural mix and source of this mix is in those first 100 years. It always had a large slave population but under French, and especially Spanish, rule that society developed in a distinctively different way to other parts of the American south. Part of the reasons were the different cultural attitudes of French and Spanish to race that was distinctly different to the Anglo-Saxon attitude . Also, the Spanish slave code was “more progressive” (if we can ever call it that) compared to anything the English, or even the French, society ever came up with. All this made New Orleans a city like no other.

The book is at times quite heavy in details. For example the author describes the legal nuances of French and Spanish law (especially regarding the slave codes) as well as lists plenty of names of local dignitaries. But all those details really help to understand why New Orleans developed the way it did. And besides, for me the more detailed the book the better, I simply hate simplified histories.

So, that’s it for now. All three books are well worth a read. If you only have time or patience for one of them start from the one most relevant to your interests. Oh, and as soon as I read something good I promise to share it with you again. In the meantime there will be more travel stories coming, including of course the fabulous New Orleans.Bourbon Bar


Northeastern adventure.

I love the New England countryside. Forested mountains, hilly pastures, red barns. Pictures like from a postcard. We decided to go there in the middle of September which was too early for the famous autumn colors so that we could escape crowds which usually ascend to the rural roads during October. After three days in Boston we headed north and that’s where, for me, the real New England begins.

My favorite New England state is Vermont. Especially the Lake Champlain coast and islands. From Burlington we took US Hwy 2 north and then across the causeway, to visit tiny settlements located on the islands on the lake. From the south they are: South Hero, Grand Isle, North Hero, Birdland, Alburgh and some other tiny hamlets with names I don’t even remember. There you can visit country stores, art galleries or local cafés. Even just stopping for petrol you can chat with friendly locals over a cup of tea or a coffee. We would have liked to stay a few more days in the area but, as it is usual with such road trips, we had more things to see and not that much time. After crossing yet another causeway we entered the New York State. Specifically a town called Rouses Point. Most people associate this state with urban craziness of NYC but up there north, next to the Canadian border, things couldn’t be more different. Towns are small, country music rules and the sky is big.

We decided to have a pizza at the tiny Gino’s Pizza. It was place where furniture remembers early eighties, people are friendly and chef looked like he just came from Naples but spoke with a strong Yankee accent. When we asked for a big pizza, he said that because we are Europeans we should first have a look how big the big pizza actually is. It was absolutely enormous so we took his advice and scaled down to the medium one (which was still bigger than any big pizza you can get anywhere in UK).

Absolutely full we headed north again. After crossing Canadian border without too much hassle at the quiet and deserted border station we drove towards Montreal. I expected a lot from the famous city but unfortunately I was seriously disappointed. The biggest reason was a dreadful weather. It was raining like a hell for the whole afternoon so we only had a quick around the city center walk and went back to our car completely soaked. At this point we decided to pass the Montreal sightseeing and drove west towards Toronto, hoping for a weather change.

And what a difference a day can make. The following day was absolutely fantastic. Sunny and warm but not to hot. Perfect for a peaceful drive. We went off the main motorway and decided to explore the back roads. I especially recommend the Thousand Islands region and the best way to visit it (apart from a boat of course) is to drive the 1000 Island Parkway. It is an absolutely amazing road, hugging water all the time, with great views over the islands. Some of them are tiny with just one tree, on some there are houses, on others the whole mansions and even one castle. Yes a castle. It was build by a millionaire and apparently has 120 rooms.

Another good way to see the varied topography of the St. Lawrence waterway is a visit to the viewing tower located on the Hill Island, right next to the border crossing to US. To get there you have to drive narrow and steep suspension bridge next to the massive 18-wheelers. It is a bit scary. From the top of the tower you can see how many island and channels create the region. At the westernmost point of the region is historic city of Kingston where you can stop for dinner or a bit of shopping.

Our next destination was Toronto. Driving from the east we used the famous (or infamous) Hwy 401. Some say it is the busiest road in the world. It has anything from12 to18 lanes and it is a weird experience. Fortunately we arrived to the Toronto area late in the evening and avoided famous rush hours on the 401.

Toronto is actually a very nice city. If Montreal was a disappointment, then Toronto was a big positive surprise. Great weather definitely helped for a positive experience. The day started with a visit to the CN tower. For a long time it was the tallest free standing structure on earth but by the time of our visit it was already overtaken by Burj Dubai. To be honest it doesn’t really matter if it’s not the tallest any more. It is still an amazing structure and offers stunning views from the viewing platform located at 346 meters. Everyone brave enough should try to walk over the glass floor panels. Even I knew this is very strong, perfectly safe floor I still tried to step on the little metal frames joining the glass panels. I also realized that most people did actually the same thing. After the tower we walked around the nice and compact Toronto downtown and visited the provincial parliament building which offers quite interesting, free, guided tours.

But the best part of the whole Toronto experience was visit to the beaches. Yes, Toronto has beaches. Just a few miles east from downtown. All you have to do is to take one of this cool, old fashioned, red trams and in 30min you can enjoy the seaside-like environment. Actual beaches are surrounded by some nice old houses and the main drag (Queen Street East) offers great food and shopping. There are even Kew Gardens for Brits with a homesick feel. They are a bit smaller than our Kew but it is still a nice spot. So our day in Toronto ended with a nice long walk, on the beach, at the sunset.

The following day we went towards Niagara. But before we reached the famous waterfalls we popped in to Niagara-On-The-Lake. It is a lovely small town set, as the name suggests, on the lake shore, and surrounded with wineries. It is totally a tourist trap, full of tour buses and American tourists looking for a British experience close to home. But don’t worry’ it is still worth visiting and offers some good shopping. Locally made wine, Irish accessories, antiques, organic food. Almost anything that shopping addict might need. And of course it is the perfect place for an afternoon tea.

The best way to approach Niagara Falls is to drive Niagara Parkway. It is a scenic road connecting Lake Ontario with the Lake Erie and it follows Niagara River for all of its 56km.

Some say, Niagara Falls is so commercialized, kitschy and tacky that going there it is a total waste of time. I don’t think so. True, you have all the possible gift shops you can only imagine, and all the tacky attractions, but the falls itself are still worth seeing. You just have to ignore the kitsch around and concentrate on the falls. And believe me, it is not that difficult because they are truly amazing. I would recommend going down to the base of the falls. After paying quite a hefty fee you can enter the tunnel leading to the base of the falls. It is worth of all the money you paid. Once you approach the falls itself you can feel that everything is actually vibrating. Thousands of tons of falling water makes the ground shaking. Then you enter the platform offering view of the falls right next to you, actually almost above you. You can also see the falls from the smaller side tunnels which opens right behind the curtain of water. After the whole experience we were almost completely soaked. The plastic ponchos you get when you enter the tour don’t give much of a protection against the eternal mist forming behind the falls.

After the falls we continued south on the Niagara Parkway which becomes very rural and quiet just a few miles from all the hustle and buzz of the falls. But it still offers a beautiful scenery and is worth driving.

We entered back to US at Buffalo which is completely insignificant and not worth stopping. But countryside around is very pleasant. We went off the main highway again to drive the back roads of upstate New York. We got lost a bit and almost run out of fuel but saw some nice towns and villages. After diner in one of this small towns we headed east towards the Big Apple, still long way to go. We had to spend a night somewhere and it wasn’t easy to find motels off the main interstate highways in this rural region. We finally spotted one in the town of Warsaw. It was one of the dirtiest and dodgiest motels I have ever slept in, but it was late, it was raining, we were tired and it was extremely cheap. Anyway, if you can, avoid staying in motel in Warsaw, NY.

The next day we spent driving quiet highways on the New York – Pennsylvania border region heading steadily toward the New York City which was our final destination.

But this is the subject for a completely different story.