Wednesday, 18 December 2013

The Late Train

We left Montreal on time . . . the last on-time moment of our train journey home to Saskatoon. But as with all travel, especially train travel, you have to go into it with an adventurous spirit and relaxed attitude. It helps that VIA Rail treats you pretty well! 

Computer problems - Just outside of Dorval (20 km from Montreal) the train stopped for an hour due to a main computer system being down. 

Bad weather - Stormy, windy, snowy weather meant that train schedules in and out of the Toronto area were totally messed up. Local commuters were late getting home, missing connections and those coming in for an opening play were quite likely going to be late or miss it altogether. VIA automatically offered up to 50% discounts on next train bookings. 

Train cancelled - When we finally arrived in Toronto two hours late, we went to check our bags for the Toronto/Vancouver train which was to leave at 10 pm. It was cancelled and not leaving until 7 am the next day. We wondered where on earth we were going to find to stay, thinking that hotels might already be packed with stranded travellers and, if we did find a hotel, how were we going to get there with taxis likely very busy as well.

We were shuffled around to about three different people but within an hour, with much anxiety and confusion on the part of the VIA staff, we had a voucher to stay at the Fairmont Royal York Hotel located just across the street. Very nice!

Out of Sync - The next morning, still amongst a bit of confusion, we finally got away from the station by 9 am. Although it was very slow going and lots of stops and starts for a good part of the day, likely due to this not being the normal time that the passenger train would travel and therefore having to make way for more freight trains than usual. 
A northern Ontario sunrise - photo taken from moving train.
We seemed to make up some time overnight but then at breakfast the train stopped and stayed stopped just a few miles east of Armstrong, Ontario. Pretty much in the middle of nowhere!

Broken down freight train - We soon learned that a freight train ahead of us had broken down. We had to back up so they could push it off to the side.  

Backlog of freight trains - Due to the breakdown there was then a backlog of other freight trains that took first priority. After all, that's where the big bucks and monetary incentives are. 

Out of time - By the time we could have got going again the engineering staff’s work time had run out and they had to bring in another crew -- as per legislation for safety reasons. Remember, we're pretty much in the middle of nowhere! Apparently the replacement staff were brought in by helicopter to Armstrong and then by vehicle to the train. 
Lots of snow!
The view (for 9 hours) from the back of the train.
The view (for 9 hours) from the dome car, looking forward along the top of the train.
Out of food - Nine hours later we finally were en route again but food supplies on the train were getting low. (We certainly didn't go hungry!) The VIA train heading east stopped and gave our train some food supplies and, during the nine-hour wait, the chef from our train went into Armstrong and bought more food.

The "artist on board" the train was Shelley O'Brien who has an absolutely amazing voice and played a custom-made ukulele. Her website describes her music as "quirky pop songs" and many of her own songs that she sang were about nature and animals. She was very, very good! When she played "Tennessee Waltz" I could just imagine Dad & Elaine getting up and dancing to it. 
Shelley O'Brien
Jam session! We convinced Tanner (from Saskatoon) to bring out his guitar.
Make way for the freight trains - We arrived in Winnipeg about 6:30 am which was a few hours later than the train staff had been anticipating before we went to bed the night before so I'm guessing we stopped a few more times for freight trains. We left Winnipeg at 9 am and pretty much flew through the prairies! Twelve hours later (and 20 hours late) we were finally home! 

The great thing about this trip was the people on the train. Everyone was pretty laid back and no one seemed overly stressed about being late. The VIA staff were excellent. There was nothing we could do about the problems and none were VIA's fault. We met some really fun, interesting people and had lots of laughs. I highly, highly recommend train travel!
A full moon -- looking out the back of the train (note the train tracks).

Friday, 13 December 2013

Miami to Montreal -- Then Home!

Leaving the Keys, we had just a half day in Miami before starting the long journey north. We headed downtown for the afternoon and wandered the waterfront area, had coffee and then supper at Il Gabbiano, a very nice Italian restaurant with an ocean view.

These two photos are of some funky decoration along a waterfront wall.

We stopped in Charleston for a couple nights to break up the trip and went to the South Carolina Aquarium. We'd stopped here in March and once again we were very impressed with the staff and volunteers who are very engaging and randomly come out into the lobby area with various animals to show people. Andrew got some great photos of Pippin the barn owl and of a snake (can't remember its name). 

We did a tour of their sea turtle hospital facilities which was also very good. There were only the two of us and, because of our interest, the volunteer guide spent way longer with us than most tours last. Very, very educational and much less tourist driven than the Turtle Hospital in Marathon, Florida. 
An aquarium resident giving me "the look."
A foggy morning on the bridge and a dolphin in the foreground,
On the second morning we went on a carriage tour. Lots of history education and an entertaining guide.

Very large beautiful homes on the Charleston waterfront. 
 We also did the self-guided Gateway Walking Tour through church and graveyards.

The Circular Church
Tis the fall season in Charleston.
Sankofa is a West African symbol depicting a bird looking over its back.
It means "learning from the past in order to move forward."
No more fog. The start of a colourful sunset. 
For our second "break" in the long train ride we stopped in Schenectady, New York, and got our first taste of winter. Brrrrr . . .

The historic Stockade Inn in Schenectady. Had a very good supper in the restaurant here.
Arriving back in Montreal, the forecast was for -16 and winds of 40 km/hr. NOT the warm Bahamas or Florida we've been used to the past few weeks. I quickly messaged my friend Pat, who used to live in Montreal, for suggestions on what to do on a cold winter day in Montreal. He suggested the Pointe-a-Calliere Museum of Archaeology and History. (Yes, I know there's supposed to be accents in there somewhere but I haven't the motivation to figure out how to do that!)

We're not normally too excited by museums but the online reviews were quite good so, between that and Pat's recommendation, we decided to give it a try. And ended up spending over four hours there! The multi-media show that covered several thousand years of Montreal history in 30 minutes was excellent! The displays were interesting; the basement is an archeological dig; there was a pirate exhibit for kids; and a display on the history of the Beatles in Montreal, which included "John Lennon's famous Rolls-Royce, with its flowery paint job" on temporary loan from the Royal British Columbia Museum. My favourite quote was from John Lennon's Aunt Mimi: "The guitar is a fine hobby John, but you'll never make a living at it."

The museum also has a lovely restaurant overlooking the St. Lawrence River.

And humourously . . . the clerk at the ticket counter suggested the best route through the museum in order to avoid the multitude of school groups that were there!  :-)
View from the Belvedere of the Museum
Tomorrow we start the westward part of our train journey home . . . Montreal to Saskatoon.

Friday, 6 December 2013

Random Thoughts and Photos from the Keys

It's been a fairly relaxing week here in the Keys. We've really enjoyed our little rental home in Marathon -- great location close to many of the things we wanted to see and do, and we've actually sat out on the deck for a bit each afternoon, read our books and enjoyed the warm weather. And read Facebook posts from friends at home about the bitterly cold weather. We'll be there soon enough!

We went diving for two days with Abyss Dive Center. With the new underwater housing and strobe for Andrew's camera, he got some more great photos.  It's interesting how dive places differ. On the first day there was a dive master on the boat but we realized later it was only because the other couple with us (less experienced) hired one. On the second day we were the only divers and the boat captain simply described the reef and away we went. Thank goodness we both have reasonable navigation skills because we definitely needed them!

When we got back to our place, we used the hose by the fish cleaning station to more thoroughly rinse off our dive gear. The great white heron that we've seen on occasion got brave and came in quite close. Once we finished with the gear we realized he thought we must have been fishing! In the second photo he's standing on the cleaning station and looking straight at me as if to ask "Where's my lunch!"
The friendly neighbourhood great white heron.
"Hey! Where's my lunch?"
When we were in the Keys several years ago (~2006) we don't remember there being so many iguanas. They aren't native to Florida and have reproduced to the point of becoming pests who eat everything in sight. Mangrove bushes seem to be one of their favourite places to hide (Where's Waldo?) and munch on the leaves.
A colourful iguana on rocks by the water.
Can you spot the iguana?
The little iguanas blend in really well!
Where is he? Can you see him doing the splits with his back legs?
On Thursday we spent the day in Key West. The Key West Butterfly and Nature Conservatory was probably one of the best butterfly gardens we've been to. So many beautiful butterflies (that actually cooperated somewhat for photographs!), nice water features, and lots of colourful flowers and plants. 

Our second stop was the Key West Aquarium which was built during the Depression in 1933 as part of the Works Progress Administration Program in order to create jobs. It started out as an open air building with a roof being added in the 1960's. In 1943 it was leased to the Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard to use as a rifle range. It was restored to an aquarium again in 1946 but having been battered by hurricanes several times it's definitely seen better days.

We also visited the Key West Tropical Forest and Botanical Garden which had several really nice trails.
I liked the pattern of the middle of this palm leaf.
We had hoped to get out kayaking today but it was fairly windy so we spent the morning at the Dolphin Research Center.  Our recollection of this from our previous visit was that it was quite touristy but today it didn't seem too bad. The shows weren't as "flashy" or entertaining as most dolphin shows but more educational focused and we saw very visible signs of the researchers and students doing their work.
Posing for the camera all on his own. (i.e. not during a "show")
Dolphins checking us out.
Alas, all good things must come to an end. Tomorrow we head back to Miami and on Sunday start our train journey toward home.

Monday, 2 December 2013

The 3 R's -- Rescue, Rehab and Release

With another week to spare before the rush of Christmas holiday travel will probably start and thinking two weeks of diving would be enough, we booked a small vacation rental home in Marathon, Florida. It's a bungalow, located on a canal where residents can dock their boats and just one property away from the ocean.
Kitchen and dining room in our vacation rental.
Living room.
It's relaxing sitting on the deck -- except in the late afternoon & evening when the mosquitos and no-see-ums come out! 
Looking left from the patio.
Looking right from the patio -- out to the ocean.
Marathon is about half way down the Keys and, on a trip several years ago, was one of the places we remembered best due to a tour of the Turtle Hospital - a place dedicated to the rescue, rehabilitation and release of sea turtles.

There are about 38 turtles in the hospital right now. Some of them are permanent residents as they are unable to survive in the wild because of their injuries which are mostly a result of boat propellers. Some of the permanent residents will be adopted by zoos or aquariums for their exhibits. Many of the "patients" have fibropapilloma (tumours) caused by water pollution. The tumours are surgically removed, the turtles stay in the hospital for a year and, as long as the tumours don't come back, then they can be released. Once the turtles recover, they will be immune to fibropapilloma -- sort of like chicken pox in humans.

Note the fibropapilloma on this turtle's left eye and flipper.
This turtle has graduated to the large pool area until he's fully recovered and ready for release.
This loggerhead turtle named "Gizmo" was rescue in late October and is still getting antibiotics
to help him recover after found in very bad shape.
The turtle ambulance.
If you live in Florida, get a turtle licence plate and support a good cause!
The hospital buildings also have an interesting history. In the mid 80's it was a motel that had both a fresh water and salt water pool. The motel owner turned the salt water pool into a rehab area for turtles and funded it mostly himself. In 2005 a hurricane caused considerable damage in the area, the motel closed and the turtle hospital became a charitable organization. The motel office is now the gift shop and reception area for hospital tours and the motel guest rooms are offices and accommodation for hospital staff, some of whom need to be on-site 24 hours a day. The building next door that houses the hospital surgical area used to be a nightclub.

We've seen a lot of iguanas here at various places we've been at. Can you spot the two iguanas in this photo?

We've also had time to walk on the beach, hike some trails in a couple State Parks and visit the Crane Point Museum and Nature Center which has several nature trails and a wild bird center which, like the Turtle Hospital, is focused on rescue, rehabilitation and release.
Jellyfish on the beach. Colourful insides!
The elaborate door of the Crane Point Museum
Interesting colours in the water amongst the mangroves.
Andrew getting the down low view for some photos.

Friday, 29 November 2013

A Windy Week on Andros Island

Last week in San Salvador, we couldn't have asked for better weather or calmer water. This week, Andros Island has been experiencing a lot of wind and some rain. We completely missed one day of diving and several other days we did just one dive instead of three.

We stayed here at Small Hope Bay Lodge two years ago and really enjoyed it. It's a family owned business that has been around for more than 50+ years. The turnover of staff from two years ago was very low and they all seem to love their jobs and are treated very well.

When compared to Riding Rock in San Salvador, it's superior in terms of the accommodation and meals but from a diving perspective there are definitely fewer fish than around San Salvador, particularly larger fish which (to us at least) indicates the area is more fished out.

Having said that, the diving thrill of the week here was seeing a whale shark. We'd seen a turtle earlier in the dive and, when Andrew pointed to something behind me, I turned expecting to see a turtle. But above me was a very, VERY large black object with white spots. A whale shark!! Wow! They are not common in this area of the world. Dive staff told us that one might be spotted once a year or less. Unfortunately this was one of the very windy days so Andrew hadn't taken his camera. It was a thrill though and only Andrew and I and Dennis, one of the dive masters, saw it before it swam off into the darkness.

Of course, Andrew still got some great photos.

It was a very busy week here between U.S. folks taking advantage of the Thanksgiving weekend and a family of 20 being here for their dad's/grandfather's 75th birthday. It was a challenge for the dive and resort staff to keep everyone occupied in the not-so-great weather. Luckily there is a games room and some inland blue holes which they took people to for snorkelling.

We leave here tomorrow and have a week in the Florida Keys so diving is not necessarily over yet! :-)

A windy morning.

Andrew checking out the solar hot water setup.
Why is it called a "tourist tree?" Because it's red and peeling!
Taking a hike through one of the rocky mangrove areas.
A spot to relax . . . when it wasn't blowing a gale!
A full boat on a calm day. By the time we finished our first dive it was raining like crazy!
Sassy the dog.
Getting ready to head out on another windy morning.
It's hard to take photos in a rocking boat. And this wasn't the worst day!
Divemaster Frederico driving the boat. 
Big-ish waves.
Relaxing in the main lodge.
The outdoor eating area area, bar and barbecue was used whenever the wind allowed.
The main lodge.

The cabins. 

Bright decorations in preparation for U.S. Thanksgiving dinner.

This was one of three tables full of desserts for Thanksgiving dinner. Yum, yum!
For those who have made it this far, here's my rant of the trip.

When I booked at Riding Rock I specifically asked if they could accommodate vegetarian meals. Oh yes, of course they can. No problem! But yet they were surprised when we showed up and said we were vegetarian. They were completely unprepared and had no imagination whatsoever. We ate plain iceberg lettuce salad with a couple strips of green pepper and a couple chunks of tomato at every meal except breakfast. We had only rice and over-boiled vegetables for at least a couple of meals. They kept asking us what we wanted to eat but even when we made suggestions based on ingredients we knew they had, they only accommodated one request. On the positive side, the desserts and breakfasts were good.

On Small Hope's reservation form they specifically ask you to identify any dietary needs. But again, they made no accommodation for us and in fact kept adding the left over breakfast bacon to various salads until we politely complained about it to the right person. Luckily their variety of salads was greater than at Riding Rock, they had a few soups we could eat and, as above, the desserts and breakfasts were very good.

So, my suggestion to resort owners . . . if you're going to say you accommodate vegetarians or specifically ask if there are dietary needs, then pay attention and follow through. Otherwise, don't bother.