Monday, August 27, 2012

Liam's baptism in Bangor, Maine

About two weeks after we returned from Quebec -- with a stop to see Susie's sister Joyce and husband Carl in Orono -- we were back in the wild north woods of Downeast Maine for the baptism of Liam MacDonald, son of Glena and Christina. (Christina is the oldest child of Joyce and Carl.)

It was a flying trip to be sure with lots of family on hand -- Dick and Dorothy drove up from Massachusetts and Great Gram Bernice flew out from Michigan.

Christina, Liam and Susie
Christina and Liam

Rev. Carl Bergman -- grandfather!
Naomi Bergman, aunt
Kiera MacDonald, sister

Great gram and two great aunts
uncle Jonathan and grandmother Joyce

father Glen and son Liam
Liam and aunt Naomi
great aunt Susie

Monday, August 13, 2012

Quebec -- Gaspe Peninsula

Traveling the coastal road around the Gaspe Peninsula has been something we've wanted to do for years. The views are often dramatic the farther east by northeast from Quebec City. (Alternatively, there are a couple of ferry routes that will allow you to cross the Saint-Lawrence to the northern side or vice versa. Very handy it would seem.)

We got an early start Sunday morning, checking out of the hotel in Quebec City and were soon out of the city and onto Route 20 heading in the direction of the Gaspe. Before beginning our tour around the peninsula we had one stop to make, and it was right on the way: Cap Saint-Ignace, one of numerous tiny villages along the water. I was in search of a former member of the 3rd Michigan Infantry, George Bernier, and from his pension files knew that he was buried in the parish cemetery in Cap Saint-Ignace. A few minutes driving around the town was all we needed to find the parish cemetery. We parked in the shade and commenced to search for George the old-fashioned way: on foot, stone-by-stone.

After about 30 minutes -- the cemetery was rather small -- and after passing some dozens of stones with the name Bernier on them, we, or rather Susan concluded that he was likely buried with extended family members although the name was very difficult to read.

With the heat and the sun now bearing down on us it was a pleasant respite to return to the car and head back to the highway and off for our first stop, Matane. After leaving Cap Saint-Ignace with the mystery of George Bernier's final resting place largely unresolved, we pointed the car roughly in the direction of France. We found our way back to Route 20, which eventually became Route 132, the coastal route around the peninsula and, for the next couple of days our friend and guide.

Cruising along the coastal highway, basking in the sun, and keeping the heat at bay and the ever-widening Saint Lawrence River on our left, we slid into wind-swept (literally) Matane, one of the few ferry stops for crossing the river (the trip takes about an hour I'm told). Our evening passed quietly and  quickly into history as we savored a delicious meal overlooking the river -- and before we knew what hit us we were back on the road and in the heat.

The road edges its way around the peninsula and is dotted almost solely with small villages constructed mostly from even smaller beach homes, hinting at the wildness that lay just beyond the hills in the interior. In fact, as we neared the very tip of the peninsula we stopped and hiked out to the very tip of the Gaspe itself, along with several hundred folks who apparently were struck with the very same idea at the exact moment.

Before there were fog horns, there were fog cannons

After strolling through the high heat of midday we returned to the car and headed back on the road.

Our stop for the night was in Perce, just south of the village of Gaspe and a short drive from the park. Perce's claim to regional fame rests on geography, or rather on a large hunk of geology sitting just offshore , "La Roche," the rock.

After checking in and dropping our bags in our room we strolled through town as the sun dipped ever further in the west, just about the same time that the tourist bars and restaurants ramped up for the evening. We opted to eat in the quiet of our hotel and enjoyed a tasty meal indeed.

The next morning -- our last in Canada -- we cruised south out of Perce and began our return to the US. Turning west, we crawled through seaside town after town on the southern side of the peninsula, mostly English names here and much more developed than the northern edge to be sure.  We left Quebec for New Brunswick before crossing into the US. Zipping through the heart of Maine potato country we quickly found our way to I-95 and before long stopped in Orono to spend the night with family before making the final run back to Providence.

The road around the Gaspe is certainly a picturesque drive, and occasionally strikingly dramatic. The road itself is in OK shape, and rest areas, of varying levels of sophistication, are scattered here and there, along with the occasional village, a nice benefit to traveling in Canada. (One stop between Matane and Perce had an incredible outdoor photo exhibition of some of the more fascinating women of the Gaspe.)

Wold we go back? Most probably not. But if you haven't gone, you should. Maybe. Or maybe not.

One thing is for sure: it's not France. It's Quebec!

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Quebec -- Dining and Food Review

One of the most important lessons we learned from our road trip to Quebec was that if you want really great food, go to Montreal. Quebec City, as we quickly discovered, is a haven to scores of tourist eateries where, oddly enough, Italian-style food seemed to predominate.

We did find a couple of places that were good value, and many had outdoor seating (not altogether welcome in 90-plus heat), but overall our sense was that what Quebec restaurants lacked in quality they more than made for in quantity.

Another surprise, both coffee shops and, as I noted in an earlier post, pastry shops are also rare But then we naively assumed before arriving that Quebec was going to be like going to France only closer and with a dialect. After all, it's billed as nouvelle France, and the Gaspe Peninsula is like a stubby thick finger pointing right back to where everyone came from. While the dialect certainly made one feel they were traversing a forlorn region of Mother France, the food was altogether a big disappointment.

Oddly enough, fresh, local butter seemed scarce -- but packaged Sealtest was certianly popular.
Fresh, local butter seemed hard to be found

Ethnic food seemed scarce, aside from the Italian mentioned earlier. In our wanderings about town we did notice a few Asian restaurants but they tended to lump several broad cuisines together: Vietnamese, Thai, etc. The one night we tried an Asian restaurant near to our hotel (our fault I know, as it was in the heart of Touristville) was probably the worst meal of the trip: bland and pedestrian.

We did have a couple of pleasant food experiences, and our lunches, while unremarkable were certainly OK. In fact, the best food we found was outside of the old city (beyond the walls), in upper town and out rue Saint Jean.

So, here's our list, with a simple grade for your note takers:
  • 48 (next to hotel, breakfast only): B-
  • Pizzetta: pizza, A-
  • J. A. Moisan: deli, pastries, groceries, A

Simple Snack Sympatique, burger, salad, give it a B:

Simple Snack Sympatique

the ever-popular and ever-present burger
Voodoo Bistro: burger, salad, grade of B:

more calamari
burger, of course
Aux Anciens Canadiens: traditional Quebecois, C:

nothing like hot soup in 90-degree weather!

Restaurant Asia: Asian (right),  D:

Commensal, vegetarian, B:

Tutto Gelato gelato (duh), B:

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Quebec -- Accommodations Revew

During a week of traveling in Quebec, we spent four nights in Quebec City at Le Port Royal, and one night each at the Hotel Belle Plage in Matane and Hotel Cote Surprise in Perce.

All three were adequate and we would probably recommend both of the hotels in the Gaspe; they seemed fairly representative of the typical tourist lodgings, especially in Perce. However, I cannot recommend Le Port Royal.
Hotel Le Port Royal
Quebec City
This hotel, located in the old port area of old Quebec, bills itself as a four-start accommodation but we'd give it two at most.

First they lose a star for having no room service; yet they are directly connected with a restaurant on one side (where one can eat breakfast and charge it to the room) and a bar/lounge on the other.

They lose another star for terrible concierge service. I emailed in advance to arrange for flowers and a split of champagne in the room when we arrived. The email was received since I was queried as to how much I wanted to spend on flowers. I also asked if they could make reservations at a particular restaurant in the city for a special dinner. When we arrived, no flowers, no wine, no reservation. The restaurant I had chosen was listed in their own hotel services book as one of their "partners" and yet when they called to make the reservation (at last) there appeared to be confusion and uncertainty over the booking.

Second, soon after we arrived in the city we learned that Cirque du Soleil was in town and had set up near the hotel. I asked the "concierge" if they could get us tickets. She suggested I do it myself online. Whoa! That wasn't friendly.

Third, on our first morning in the hotel, I woke up, got dressed (important in Canada) and went downstairs to find coffee and pastries. I stopped at the front and asked if they could suggest a place to find fresh pastries and coffee. The young woman recommended I go next door to the Petro Canada filling station.

Yeah, right, that's what I came to Canada for, to buy fresh pastries from a gasoline station. (Just for the record, they look terrible.) I had to go and hunt down a place on my own. 

Fourth, the hotel has only one small elevator, which had to be shared with all the staff (cleaning, moving luggage etc.) and it was so slow I suspect they were relying on squirrel power to hoist it up and lower it down. Fortunately, we were only three flights up. Our room, or suite , was designed primarily and almost solely with an eye on form, certainly not function. It was long and narrow, rather like living aboard a 30-foot boat with a lovely view of Petro Canada. The AC unit was at one end, by the bathroom and the bed at the other end.

Lighting was terrible and all but useless -- but I'm sure it was aesthetically pleasing. Lastly, late on our first full day we had to ask at the front desk to have the room made up. No apologies, no "pops," nothing. Nada. Zip. Niente.

 Hovering on the upside, the staff was friendly and pleasant if clueless, and, with the exception of the valets, virtually useless.

Hotel Belle Plage
view from the restaurant
The Belle Plage in Matane was functional to be sure and right on the water, although our room was in an annex across the street, a section that had been built sometime around the time of Champlain's arrival in New France. Anyway, they were accommodating when we asked for a fan -- although they seemed puzzled, since it was only 120 degrees in the room.

But the food in the restaurant was good if pricey, the wine nice, the service very adept and the view of the water sublime.
Hotel Cote surprise
We found the Hotel Cote Surprise to be adequate and certainly nicely located, and our room did have a unique layout: the sitting area was actually raised to loft status in order to overlook the famous "roche" or rock that seemed to draw Quebecois tourists like a flame draws moths; and us, too, of course.

We wish we could have stayed longer to have taken a boat ride closer and to explore a tiny island offshore. The food at the Cote Surprise was fine -- the town promised little beyond pub fare -- but again pricey. Service was pleasant and all-in-all we give it thumbs up.

 Still, when combined with the food costs, neither hotel in the Gaspe was a good value.