Monday, December 30, 2019

2019 Quebec City Escape (aka Leo Dicaprio's France)

It was imperative that the destination for our 3rd Annual Winter Getaway provided a stress-free and affordable experience.  This time last year, Devon was being released after 3-days in three different hospitals in Prague. After the "Praga-saga" last December, we decided to avoid flights with a short turn around time and sprang for a road trip to Canada. Quebec City was the obvious choice for two Europe-lovers. Let's face it, everyone pretends QC is France. The producers of "Catch Me if You Can" decided to save the money and stage the film's final scene in QC. They literally just pretended that Leonardo DiCaprio was arrested in a traditional quaint French town square. If it's good enough for Leo, it's good enough for us!

We booked 4-nights at B&B Chez Marie-Claire on For about $100/night we got a deluxe king room, daily breakfast (they cook a different hot breakfast menu each morning!), a parking spot (which is a godsend!), and we were truly no more than 12-minutes walking distance from everything! 

We left the morning after Christmas at 7:15am, which is surprisingly a great time to travel. The trip from Boston was just under 7-hours (it would have been 6, but BEWARE: the final fifteen minutes into QC travels over a bridge and there was major traffic). When we arrived at 2pm we still had a whole half-day to explore.

Sam from A Free Walking Tour of Quebec was fantastic and funny! He took us off the beaten path to some of the most unique spots, like to the house where Alfred Hitchcock shot the murder in his religiously controversial film "I Confess."

One of our favorite things to do when we travel is to purchase a piece of framable artwork by a local artist. We are quickly filling the walls in our studio apartment! It didn't take us long to meet Robert Charron, who works primarily in a unique watercolor style. We struck up a wonderful conversation about his travels around the world and of his journey from construction workers to a full-time painter. As performers, we love that this travel tradition supports local artists.

The "Lower Town" (quite literally down the "breakneck" stairs) is the most adorable and festive area in town. Once you make it down the stairs (or take the funicular if you don't mind spending a few bucks) you enter a winter wonderland, complete with snowflake lights, a giant Christmas tree, and dozens of festively decorated shops. 

We caught a spunky acapella rendition of "All I Want for Christmas is You," as well as some traditional holiday choir music outside the Notre-Dame-des-Victoires (aka the Leonardo Dicaprio church).

Take a picture in front of the Christmas tree and stop into the holiday-decorated Maison Smith for a warm drink before exploring these quaint streets and their shops. It gets dark around 4:30 so we actually saw the Christmas lights under two different skies in the same hour!

(Yes, this is the exact area that Leo shot the final scene in "Catch Me if You Can.")

SPOILER ALERT: These facades and roofs were added to appeal to tourism back in the 1970s.

This was intended to be one of our more relaxing trips, and we indulged in that. There isn't an overwhelming amount of indoor things to do, and there is only so much time one can tolerate the cold. We booked a couples massage at Källa massothérapie. We have had quite a few couples massages and this one took the cake! The ambiance was just right for a chilly December evening.

One of QC's spectacles is the toboggan slide at the edge of the upper part of the old town and it is totally worth it! For only $10 (CAD) you receive four rides! Because there is a steep climb and only three sledding chutes, the line for this popular tourist attraction can get long. We arrived right when it opened and were on and off within about twenty minutes. The sun was high at this point, so staying warm wasn't as much of a problem.

Fairmont Le Château Frontenac was not in the budget for our accommodations. Let's face it, it is like... THE most photographed hotel in the world....but that did not stop us from stopping in for the most delicious drinks (and expensive snacks) of all time! 

First of all, the bartenders are artists... they perform all sorts of cool tricks while creating the perfect blend in a fancy glass. 

We did not make a reservation, but we arrived right at noon when the bar opened to get a seat. Space is limited and they try to make it an intimate experience. $55 later we had killed these two fancy drinks, four mozzarella sticks, and a bowl of olives. Worth it? We think so. Plus we enjoyed the Christmas tree display in the main lobby.

Between sledding and warming up at Frontenac, we walked the fortifications on our own. The views of the city are spectacular.  We then attended a very engaging 3D presentation about the history of QC. We highly recommend seeing this short presentation at the Musee du Fort

Alright... for anyone who doesn't know, Devon loves cats. You can follow his international adventures with cats on Instagram @themanofmanycats. Turns out there are coffee shops that allow you to have coffee while cats walk-around on tables and stuff. When our tour guide told us about this, it became a priority for Devon. 

In addition to providing an exciting experience for cat enthusiasts, Café Félin Ma Langue Aux Chats Quebec Cat Cafe is run by two veterans with a mission of helping those who don't have a place in the world and need a safe haven. The cafe hires veterans and those with Autism Spectrum Disorder and Downs Syndrome. Even if you don't LOVE cats (aka Lenni) you can enjoy this lovely environment and support good business for a good cause.

QC is most beautiful with its holiday night lights! Do not let the early darkness deter you from stepping out and experiencing the ultimate beauty and holiday experience that QC carries with it into the New Year! 


Due to an impending ice/snow storm, we had to cut our trip a night short. This is the only catch- with the convenience and leisure of driving comes the lack of reliability of northern weather in winter! The good news is that we felt we had fully experienced this tiny city and walked it in its entirety more than enough. We grabbed a final warm drink, packed the car, and headed to one final destination. 

Montmorency Falls is a natural wonder! These waterfalls are actually taller than Niagra Falls and are just a 10-minute drive from the inside of QC. We took the cable car to the top, walked the suspension bridge and then returned to our car. If we were to do it again, we would not pay the extra $15/person for the cable car. Apparently, there is a north entrance that avoids the cable car...making this quick excursion a lot more affordable.

Restaurants in QC tend to be very small because building permits within the fortified city allow for very few changes to the structure. We found that restaurant owners pack as many tables as possible into these tight spaces, and usually, every restaurant is on a wait...This leaves very little room for servers to maneuver around the restaurant. We were pretty impressed. For a roomy and less crowded spot, venture on the path less taken to Le Veravin.

Traditional QC eats include poutine, french onion soup, and steak frites. We found that duck, rabbit, and deer were meat staples on many menus. 

For the gluten-sensitive folks, most menus had a good amount of options. There were even three pizza places that specialized in gluten-free options! We took advantage of this at Polina Pizzeria, which had an awesome vibe with a really cool cover song playlist! 

But generally speaking, the Quebec diet is fairly bread, cheese, and meat-heavy, with limited salad creativity. 

We ate breakfast at our B&B most mornings, but we did enjoy our breakfast at Au Petite Coin Breton. The setting was unique, service was fast, and they even had gluten-free crepes!

Our favorite meal was at L'Entrecôte Saint-Jean! Our student recommended the Parisian bistro on account of its delicious steak sauce. Basically, there is only one meal option, and it comes in 5 oz, 7 oz, and 10 oz options. Devon and I each got a 5 oz and devoured it in minutes (for Devon this is unusual). We recommend the 7 oz!

A few tips:

  • BUNDLE! As New Englanders, we are used to cold winters. What we experience regularly in February is closer to QC December temps. Double-up on heavy soaks, and don't even bother with cute boots. Be sure to have water-proof winter boots with traction. Hand warmers were a life-saver on our walking tour.

  • DO THE FREE WALKING TOUR BUT BE SURE TO TIP! Unlike Europe, tipping culture in Canada is similar to that of the US. As mentioned, Sam is an excellent tour guide...give him a great tip at the end of the tour!

  • PLAN INDOOR ACTIVITIES! We typically like to walk around and make the most of the outdoors. In Canada, it gets dark early and it can be too cold to roam at a leisurely pace. Divide up your day between indoor meals, coffee with cats, museums, and outdoor sightseeing and shopping.

  • MAKE DINNER RESERVATIONS! If you go around the holidays (or in July apparently) tourism is WILD! It is good to have a plan, especially when it is freezing and you have food allergies. Lunch was not a problem, but the one night we did not make a reservation, we tried three restaurants before we were seated.

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Protests, Palaces & Harry Potter: 5-days in London 2019

Typically, we have a hardcore plan when we travel. We want to see and do all the best things and usually get everything done. But after Prague, we switched gears; this trip was about pacing ourselves and reconnecting after a week apart. There were things on our list that we suddenly had no interest in and we found ourselves wandering in and out of beautiful gardens and parks, stumbling upon Royal Guard changes and cavalry parades, and completely dismissing the idea of entering the major sites we had initially intended to visit.

After a full week of solo travel for graduate school, I met Devon at Paddington Station for five full days in London. I had already made a pit stop here for one night before heading to Stratford-Upon-Avon at the front end of my travels. Immediately upon making our way up from the tube to walk to our hotel, we were greeted by a mass protest overtaking the few blocks we were trying to navigate down. Do not get us wrong, we 100% support climate change awareness- but when you are jetlagged and carrying all your bags on a 74-degree day when you're expecting 50 degrees, it is not something you want to deal with at the moment. 

Cool thing though- Emma Thompson was there supporting the protest. She's a goddess.

A few days later when we were settled in, we can across this same protest at the Marble Arch just at the entrance of Hyde Park and had a much better time checking out what was going on. In a country in which 50% of the population seems to ignore or just not believe in the significance of climate change, we were fascinated by how incredibly eco-friendly English culture is on the whole. Generally speaking, we found most shops, restaurants, and bathrooms offered recycled hand cloths instead of paper towels, used glass cups for water instead of plastic, and used 100% recycled materials for take-away. The folks protesting are already working with leadership who DO recognize climate change is an enormous problem; they are asking for transparency with just how bad it is and for immediate laws that will quickly decrease the levels of fuel emissions.

After settling into our perfect economy room at the Rathbone Hotel, Devon had his first tea at 108 Brasserie. One traditional afternoon tea is a MUST-DO! Traditional teas began in the 1840s, when Anna, the Duchess of Bedford would become very hungry before dinner. It is a great way to fill up, relax and socialize in what is often an elegant or trendy environment. 

*Quick Tip: There are all sorts of pricing options across the city, but because this was Devon's first and their gluten-free options were excellent, we went for a mid-range option which was about 33£/person ($42).  

We decided to explore our area just outside the West End. To begin with, there was a pedestrian only side alley just a few feet from our hotel that was reminiscent of something you'd find in the old towns in Athens and Greecian islands. We ended up breakfasting and dining here a few times. They even had a bakery that was dedicated to being entirely gluten-free for Lenni.

*Quick Tip: London is the most vegan, gluten, dairy free and general dietary restriction friendly city we have ever visited outside the US. Even American food chains offer big signs that indicate vegan options here. Much like the attitudes about caring for our planet, English food culture leans fairly progressively toward accommodating those with dietary needs or who choose a vegan lifestyle.

We found ourselves wandering into Regent's Park. This was not the plan, but it ended up to be the perfect way to spend a beautiful half-day. The gardens and parks in London are many and stunningly manicured.

Our first full day was our only regimented one. At the suggestion of a local friend, we headed across the Tower Bridge for a walk along the South Bank. 

*Quick Tip: The London Bridge is lame by comparison to the Tower Bridge, so be sure to walk across that one or at least check it out! 

The suggested route was perfect. Upon crossing the bridge go to Boroughs Market, which is essentially an open-air food market with cheap specialty eats. Devon tried his first English meat-pie and Lenni had some delicious pad-thai.  Sit by the water and enjoy!

*Quick Tip: We picked an ideal location for walking. We LOVE walking and if you do too, make sure you choose an area that is fairly central! We were only 10 minutes from The Harry Potter theatre, 13 minutes from Trafalgar Square, 25 minutes from Westminster, 28 minutes from the Marble Arch and 35 from Saint Paul's. We only used the tube when we traveled to the South Bank area because we weren't quite acquainted with the city yet, and to return from Saint Paul's. Although the tube is extremely clear and easy to navigate, the beautiful weather gave us a chance to really understand the layout of the city. There was one day that we walked about 10 miles on foot!

Our first official stop was Shakespeare's The Globe Theatre. This is a MUST-DO! The tour is only 40 minutes, but it moves very quickly. Sam Wanamaker's replica of the original globe is the closest anyone has gotten to understanding how Elizabethan theatre functioned. The space itself is beautiful and full of color and life (literally we watched the actors warm up for rehearsal). Our tour guide, Mark, was excellent! 

We then came upon another food market, which had almost two dozen options. Gluten-free crepes for Lenni and German sausage for Devon.

*Quick Tip: Food in London is expensive, and to be honest, not always very good! These unique markets are a cheap way to fill up and usually have some pretty tasty options.

We stopped into The National Theatre and were able to check out a free exhibit about the use of their incredible technology for crafting scene changes in the Olivier Theatre. We also stopped into the Royal Music Hall and watched a jazz band perform few songs in the open gallery.

*Quick Tip: We did not see any plays or concerts here, but you do not need to. Just go in and walk around. It is free and a great way to glean the arts culture in this city!

On our walk, we passed by a number of other sites, including The Tate Modern and an outdoor book market. There seemed to be plenty to do, but we were slowing down. We caught a glimpse of the under-construction Big Ben and the ridiculously long line at the London Eye. We walked a ridiculously crowded Westminster Bridge back to our side of the city.

Our only plan on Day 3, was to see Harry Potter and the Cursed Child Parts 1&2. If you don't already know, this play is performed in two parts and each part is about 2.5 hours in length and you get dinner between ... so it really is a full day commitment. If you can snag a ticket 6-months in advance through a rather complicated but efficient lottery system, like we did, this production is a MUST DO! It sounds super touristic, but it was absolutely the best things we did here. To be honest, we essentially paid for two tickets each to two shows...and it was still cheaper than seeing it on Broadway...soooo it was now or never.

Without spoiling the magic, we never got tired or bored during our five hours of theatre... it is impossible. This production is so riveting that we never wanted it to end. 

Pre and post-show we strolled thru Trafalgar Square and through the West End. We also checked out Covent Garden and saw some locals in their Easter Sunday finest. 

There are so many street performances- we found ourselves stopping and checking everything out. We headed back here on our final day for a few fun souvenir purchases at Apple Market and watched one more street performance act.

*Quick Tip: If you have the time, you can see each part of HP separately. For example, you can purchase a ticket to see Part 1 on Tuesday evening and Part 2 on Wednesday evening. We didn't want to lose two evenings, so we opted for a full day event, which happened to be Easter Sunday, so many things were closed that day anyway. Also, be sure to check the official website if you know you want to go. They release a new block of tickets every 4-6 months. The only way to get them is to wake up REALLY early if you are from The States and log in to their lottery system. You are placed in a digital queue and are then able to select your tickets.  

The next day, we had big plans for entering Westminster Abbey and Parliament, but with the holiday extending into Monday, the lines were outrageous and we decided to pass. Although we were bummed that Buckingham Palace staterooms were not open to the public when we were there, we were in for a treat when we found out that the changing of the guard included a full mount (yes, that basically means a parade of horses). Apparently, this is not common and we were lucky enough to have stumbled upon it with no prior knowledge. The changing of the guard is VERY crowded, but because it was not a typical change, it was worth it).

Around noon, we had a special treat. Lenni had been given a gift by her employer to enjoy while in London- a very generous gift that was put to amazing use! Tea and Fortnum & Mason is one of the poshest things you can do while on holiday here- next to Harry Potter, it was our favorite activity. Essentially Fortnum & Mason is a luxury department store. Its 4th-floor tea room is pristine, the food and teas are delicious (yes there is, of course, an allergy menu), and there is even a live pianist. 

We felt privileged to have such an experience ... it is nothing we could have afforded on our own, but if YOU can, we highly recommend the splurge  

We spent most of our day post-tea on the palace grounds at Buckingham and later at Kensington and Hyde Park. We realized that we didn't need to enter these sites (which are extremely expensive!) to have a great time. We lucked out because the weather was in the upper 70s all week, so we leisurely strolled the many manicured gardens, visited statues, and enjoyed each others company. 

*Quick Tip: Finding food generally was a challenge for us. Outside of the two lovely teas that we had, and despite being allergy friendly, English food is not our favorite. It is also EXPENSIVE! We found ourselves walking from restaurant to restaurant (because there are truly a million) and turning our noses at the menus... and we are not fussy people! The best meals we had were actually non-English. We really enjoyed fresh Pad Thai and Mexican just on our block in Fitzrovia. Once we figured that we did not like fish and chips and mushy peas, we stuck to non-English options.

Our final day was slow. We slept in and had a leisurely breakfast outside. 

*Quick Tip: Breakfast and Lunch deals can be found at most chains. The good news is that in London, most of the chains are unique at their location and it shows in their we get all the "cuteness" and elegance at a chain rate.

We headed back to Covent Garden and checked out Drury Lane before heading to Saint Paul's Cathedral. The 20£/person price and the 528 step ascent to the top of the dome is worth the view. And that is not all. If you like mosaics, crypts, and generally beautiful spaces- there is something for you here! Included in the cost is an audio guided tour. We made use of this at points, but generally just guided ourselves.   

At the end of this trip, we had gone OVER budget. We thought that $500 would be enough to cover our food and entertainment for 4.5 days (this number does not include Harry Potter), but due to the conversion rate, $500 does not get too far for the pound. But we made it work and really committed to what we wanted to spend our cash on.

*Quick Tip: Always remember to check your bill here to see is a 10-12.5% service fee is included so you don't over tip! AND a travel rewards credit card in some cases is better than continuing to take out cash at an ATM. You will at least build rewards points that you can eventually reimburse yourself with.

We are confident that another trip to England will be in the near future. Until then... cheerio!

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Solo Travel.

These two words have loomed over my few weeks leading up to my trip:

Solo. Travel.

Let's begin with the best way to start any trip. UPGRADED FLIGHT!
Thank you British Airways for the last minute upgrade from truly the VERY last seat on my overnight
flight to the private World Traveler Plus cabin. I got all sorts of extra goodies, like socks,
special headphones, a toothbrush, a fancier menu to choose from, and a welcome beverage.
This made a world of difference for my solo flight fears.

Let it be known that I had not slept in a bed by myself for more than one night in YEARS
(other than the two nights I spent solo while Devon was in Prague Hospital). So a full eight nights
on my own started to feel overwhelming the closer I came to my departure.

Some solo travel tips:

1. DO everything in your power to make your life easier. You won't have a partner to carry your
bags when you get tired or need one of your hands to pull something out of your pocket.
I managed to pack everything I needed for two weeks into two carry-on bags. Although I would
have had no problem on this flight, sometimes British Airways collects carry-on rolling suitcases
and requires that they are checked if it is a very full flight. This happened on our return flight to
Greece and our bags ended up getting lost. I couldn't chance that while on my own, so I
consolidated. Yes, I have to hand wash and hang dry some socks, undershirts, and underwear,
but it is completely worth it to walk off the plane and get to my next destination.

2. DO pay extra for safety. I had a one night stay in London before heading over to
Stratford-upon-Avon. I chose a 4-star hotel with 24-hour desk service. It was just a 10-minute
walk from Paddington Station, which was incredibly convenient for the short turn around I had to
get to S-u-A. My room was a closet, but for $90 it was worth it!

3. DO NOT rush. After I settled into my hotel room I decided to check-out the neighborhood,
Hyde Park, and find a bite to eat. I took the time to walk a bit of Hyde Park. I reminded myself to
slow down and literally stopped to smell the flowers.

4. DO make plans to meet up with a local friend, if possible. I was very lucky that my high school
theatre pal Maria was in town before she headed to Sicily. Meeting with her for an early dinner
and walk around some of Central London helped ease the initial loneliness I was feeling, and
also gave me some confidence in navigating the city.

5. DO treat yourself. After almost two very full days of traveling, I settled into
Mercure: Shakespeare Hotel in Stratford Upon Avon to find that once again, I had been
upgraded to a much larger room than the budget room that I expected. 

I hadn't eaten all day, and I am only just  becoming comfortable with eating alone in public. The thought was that I would grab something
and bring it back to the hotel room. But then I passed Hathaway Tea Rooms ... I had been
waiting to have tea for over a year, and I decided to just do it for myself! I have the most delicious gluten-free tea in my own private back tea room. It was quiet, relaxing, and I felt no need to rush!

6. DON'T be insecure about being a tourist! I couldn't wait to see the Gower Statues.
I spent a good amount of time examining each one.

I think Falstaff is my favorite.

I then took my time examining each character's corresponding mask and the flowers that represent each of their genres.
I found myself openly crying at this site. AND I DID NOT CARE.

7. DO be adventurous. I had seen a sign for live music outside a bar near my hotel. I
figured if I was going to have dinner alone, I might as well hear some music.
After I ordered my glass of wine, I realized the bar had not food.

The barkeeps offered me a banana though! Lamplighter ended up being the best decision for

my first night in town. The crowd was small, the music was great, and the barkeeps made me feel very welcomed. I found that the conversation was easy.

I was even invited to sit with a father and son at their table! I didn't ever feel uncomfortable-

just genuinely interested in getting to know these locals.

By the time I got to my first day of classes, I already felt fulfilled by my solo travel experience
and was ready to meet my classmates. I had stopped by the Institute the day before my classes
started and received a rundown of the place, which made the first day feel a bit less

Happy solo travels!

2019 Quebec City Escape (aka Leo Dicaprio's France)

It was imperative that the destination for our 3rd Annual Winter Getaway provided a stress-free and affordable experience.  This time l...