A Travellerspoint blog

Charleston

sunny 19 °C

I find that I regret leaving each place, thinking that I could have easily spent much more time there, but somehow the place I move on to is even better than the last: it makes for a great travel experience. Last time I was in this part of the world, I sat on the edge of a defunct motorway for an hour or so, dithering over whether I should head west, towards Knoxville and Memphis and on to Texas, or south, through Charleston, Savannah and New Orleans before heading to Texas. I picked west, and enjoyed the trip immensely. This time, I went south, and enjoyed the trip immensely (although I did not get to New Orleans - next time). Charleston is just a fabulous place to hang out and enjoy life.

In the Washington hostel, I met a young couple from Hamilton, New Zealand who were kind enough to offer me a lift. If I hadn't already paid for my ticket, twice, I might have gone with them. (The ticket was paid for twice because I'd organised it before being stuck in Toronto, then couldn't use it. To be fair, I apparently will get a refund at some stage). So, it was a fairly early start to hit the Amtrak train to Charleston: there was a delightful moment in the station when a mother had to admonish her daughter, who was maybe 8 or 9, saying "stop dancing and get on the train". I didn't actually see very much as I travelled because they seem to have created a wee corridor for the railway line, hiding it behind trees. There was one point, however, where I was a bit surprised to notice a couple of giant military aircraft parked beside the railway line - I knew at the time what base it was, but its gone. The train didn't arrive until about 8:00 in the evening and Charleston is off the map when it comes to mainline public transport - both the train and buses stop several miles north of the city - so I decided to stop the night in North Charleston - the motel I picked was about a mile from the station: when I went in, the reception lady said "you didn't walk from the station did you, that's a bad area, really dangerous". I'd noticed a couple of blokes on push-bikes, nothing scarier. It was actually a good motel, and there was a mall with a choice of not too horrible places to eat and a huge used bookstore open till 9:00.

Once I hit downtown Charleston, my hostel was initially a bit of a concern - locked up with no sign of life, and a message to say it would not open until 6:00, I was really wondering about it. I hid my bags behind a tree out the back and went for a wander. Once I was in, however, it was fine, one of the most sociable I've ever been in - starting with the free bagel breakfast, where everyone sits around and chats, and then I came home from my day out and about to find a pot-luck dinner under way. I declined and sat in the next room, and had people coming in for long talks. Other nights, there might be no-one there at all: one poor bloke came along after the office closed and couldn't get in, because not even any of the guests were there - hate to think how long he'd been waiting. Then someone told me that the helicopter buzzing around overhead was looking for a runaway murderer - made me wonder who I'd let into the hostel.

There was a slight downside to such a friendly hostel: I planned to go see one of the remaining tea plantation mansions, and knew there was just one tour a day to get there. Unfortunately, a bit too much bagel chatter saw me arrive at the station just as the tour bus pulled out the other end. I had to console myself walking around the southern tip of Charleston - most of the houses were built in the 1600's and some are very grand. I don't often describe things as awesome, but that was the word that came to mind as I walked around. The grandest of all are on immense grounds with huge gardens which obscure the houses, some have high walls so peeps like me can't interrupt whatever people do in grand houses behind walls. Here's a selection of what can be seen in the area between Broad Street and South Barrack - but really, it was their aggregate effect which worked its magic on me.
House with Piazza

House with Piazza

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South Battery is a gun emplacement - there is also a Fort (Sumter) on an island - which is a pretty big deal of a fort, as it is here the first shots in the civil war were fired. If you couldn't tell from the houses, Charleston has history - it has been here since 1670. There is a monument at South Battery to commemorate the soldiers who fought in the Battle of Fort Sumter. I was amused as an elegantly dressed lady wandered up and was busy taking a photo, and obviously suddenly noticed about this statue, because she exclaimed "ewww! Where's his clothes?" (being elegantly clothed is not a sign of knowing or caring about grammar).
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It is when you head round to East Battery and East Bay that you hit the really old part of town - there are houses here from the 17th century although most are 18th century (including the Old Exchange & Provost Dungeon - the balcony of which was used to read out the Declaration of Independence, and was itself used as a slave market).
Old Exchange & Provost Dungeon

Old Exchange & Provost Dungeon

East Bay Street

East Bay Street

large_270_IMG_9848.jpglarge_IMG_9853.jpgEast Battery

East Battery

Historic Charleston Foundation

Historic Charleston Foundation

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Two more houses - about the smallest I saw and definitely the largest:
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Charleston was named in honour of Charles II and has long enjoyed a hedonistic lifestyle. I certainly found lots and lots of places to eat, drink and make merry - King Street is the main street, and has maybe six, maybe eight, blocks of glamourous shopping, posh bars and places to eat, with lots more dotted on the side-streets - I went to one called Poogan's Porch (result of a long chat in the hostel) and pigged out on southern fare - mac'n'cheese and fried chicken. I was a bit wary of the mac'n'cheese, because the last time I seriously ate some was when I was a student, eating hostel food - the only way to get any taste out of that mac'n'cheese was to smother it in tomato sauce. This version, though, was delicious (and terribly unhealthy) yet not the best I've eaten. Further up King Street, there are lots of big old buildings which have obviously been run down a bit, but now a lot of them are being turned into very sophisticated bars. I went into one, Prohibition, where they had an old-time band playing and people actually dancing - maybe the Charleston, I don;t know because I wouldn't recognise it - 1920's and 30's style. It was a great place to hang out - I went a couple of times, and once had their mac'n'cheese - fantastic, with local sausage, mushrooms, a hint of spice: they guy eating sliders at the next table was quite jealous.
Prohibition

Prohibition

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Another bar I went into, the Rarebit, ostensibly to meet some people from the hostel but really because I had heard about its ginger beer, made inhouse and it packs a punch: completely non-alcoholic, but a huge fresh ginger kick. I vaguely remember promising the people I was with that I would make some when I get home. I had dinner here as well - they served mac'n'cheese as a side. Might have to make some of that when I get home as well.

I did work when I was there - a day and a half in the public library, half a day in a pub because the library was closed for Veteran's Day and then I discovered that College of Charleston isn't some community college, but is a proper liberal-arts college, with a great library - I particularly liked their solid individual work-spaces. I did make a bit of a mistake - I saw a building called the Towell Library so tried to use it, but it has changed function somewhat.
Towell Library

Towell Library

Towell Library

Towell Library

Alumni House

Alumni House

large_WP_20141111_008.jpgPorter's Lodge

Porter's Lodge

large_WP_20141111_003.jpgCollege of Charleston

College of Charleston

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Speaking of towels, near time to throw it in as I'm running out of pictures. Here are a few randoms:
Old Courthouse

Old Courthouse

Courthouse and Post Office

Courthouse and Post Office

Horse-drawn bus

Horse-drawn bus

Free Tourist Tram

Free Tourist Tram

Promenade

Promenade

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Posted by NZBarry 16:05 Archived in USA Comments (0)

Washington Highlights

overcast 18 °C

In among the various things I saw in Washington, several were standouts. I had originally planned to work in the rather splendid public library because it was, well, rather splendid and not far from where I was staying. On about my second day, however, I checked out the Georgetown University library, which was nothing special, to be honest, but it involved a walk through Georgetown - I enjoyed the walk so much I did it every day. Things always seemed to be a bit misty by the time I got to the uni.
Georgetown University

Georgetown University

large_270_IMG_9759.jpglarge_WP_20141105_028.jpgGeorgetown University Library

Georgetown University Library


The main thoroughfare was pretty interesting, with cool, boutique shops, cafes, bars - kind of like Ponsonby Road but with a lot more going on. There is even a canal, not just a canal but a monumental one - the Chesapeake and Erie Canal National Monument is just off the main street in Georgetown, and looks rather like a canal. Georgetown itself was built here because of the canal. There is a park office, but it is closed indefinitely and the canal boat they used to run tours is laid up, also indefinitely. In its heyday, this canal would have 150 vessels a day, taking stuff from the hinterland out to the Hudson River, so its present state is a bit sad.
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Off the main thoroughfare, things became even better: Georgetown has been here longer than Washington, and indeed there are apparently some in Georgetown who refuse to acknowledge it is part of Washington. So walking through the streets, some of which are cobbled, means seeing lots of good looking old houses, with the occasional cafe or shop sprinkled in to keep up one's energy.
Georgetown

Georgetown

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One evening, I was working so late that I just couldn't be bothered walking home (it was something like 3 miles) so caught a random bus I found loitering outside the library, hoping it was going where I was: it took me along P Street (couldn't name a street in New Zealand P Street, could we) and eventually things started looking so good that I had to get off (luckily, this was at Logan Circle, which was about 4 blocks from my hostel). Apart from the Whole Foods store (where I spent $25 just to acquire some of their pre-cooked food for dinner), there was a great ice-cream cum coffee shop which was tremendously busy the whole time I was there, a nice Thai place and a bit of an altie vibe which I enjoyed.

On my last day, I took a walking tour run by the hostel which went via Union Station and Congress to the Supreme Court of the United States. This was on the Friday, the one day of the week the Court does not sit, so I couldn't see them in action. I couldn't even get into the Courtroom - even though we were on a tour, we had to standby while an official tour went in. Like many of the buildings in Washington, the Supreme Court was built to demonstrate the status of the US as the pre-eminent nation and an enduring one - with very classical lines. It is made entirely of marble, so is going to be available for the dispensing of justice for a while (let's not get drawn on the quality of that justice). Inside, there are a couple of elliptical spiral staircases which run for (I think) three stories and are entirely self supporting - that would take some fine craftsmanship and a crafty design.
Supreme Court of the United States

Supreme Court of the United States

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One of the key Smithsonian Museums I wanted to see was the Museum of American History, which was a bit of a strange one, as it picks out particular themes to display, so it can be a bit disjointed and certainly doesn't even try to create a narrative of American history. I struck it lucky, because two of the three themes really worked for me. The entire top floor was devoted to Presidents and First Ladies, which did little for me (although I was amused at the props used - dinner sets and dresses for the First Ladies, armament and uniforms for the Presidents). But the other two themes were transport and food - couldn't be better. Both took a social perspective - the various forms of transport illustrated the ideas of freedom (so there's a caravan and a cabin) and connection (so there are trains and buses). There is also the first car to ever cross the USA - in 1903 - despite a marked lack of roads! The team was H Nelson Jackson, Sewell Cracker and their dog, Bud.
Car Collection, Museum of American History

Car Collection, Museum of American History

large_IMG_9776.jpglarge_IMG_9778.jpglarge_IMG_9777.jpglarge_IMG_9772.jpgCrocker and Bud

Crocker and Bud

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The food one was pretty much the opposite, it was focused on fast food and how it led to the breakdown of people eating at the table together. And when it comes to finding a table (and kitchen) to demonstrate the value of eating together, they had Julia Child's entire kitchen, set up just the way she left it.
Julia Child's Kitchen

Julia Child's Kitchen

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Saving the best for last (and it was almost the last thing I did in Washington (apart from another late night visit to Logan Circle) - the Library of Congress.
Library of Congress

Library of Congress

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I was most annoyed to find out (a) I couldn't go in to the reading room without a card and (b) I could have been working there all week if I'd asked for a card when I arrived. The reading room is guarded by Minerva (Roman goddess of wisdom).
Minerva

Minerva


Reading Room, Library of Congress

Reading Room, Library of Congress

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I took another tour, this was run by a rather unusual woman who worked for the library - I actually quite liked her, and she was very enthusiastic about her "Italianate Palace", but she'd pop in odd personal details: somehow she had to talk about something mathematics-related, and she reverted to her schooldays, and told us she was good at math, that she'd help others with their math (OK so far) but then drop in the discoforting detail that she did maths on a Saturday night because no-one ever asked her out. She sounded like a right geek, so I probably would have, had I been there. The library is just beautiful.
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Oddly enough, the security was tighter to get into the library than the Supreme Court - all belts, shoes, watches, glasses etc off. They did have a few things of value inside, I suppose - what's left of Jefferson's library (there have been a few fires in the library history, some accidental, some set by the British - Jefferson donated his library after one such fire, and then half of that was burnt in yet another fire). The library also had a special visitor - one of the four extant versions of the Magna Carta - this is the one from the Lincoln Cathedral.
Jefferson's Library @ Library of Congress

Jefferson's Library @ Library of Congress


Magna Carta

Magna Carta

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All in all, despite some dubious weather, I had a great time in Washington - helped along by my hostel, where breakfasts were a bit special. John worked for the hostel, and he'd not release any breakfast to us until we'd said good morning to him in some language other than our own. He then went around working the room, making strangers sitting opposite each other introduce themselves and working very hard to make people feel at home. That early in the morning, I could only handle it once, and so would escape to find a coffee shop.

Posted by NZBarry 16:50 Archived in USA Comments (0)

Long Night to Washington

overcast 20 °C

I think I left Toronto just in time - there was just a twitch of snow, so light I thought it was a few small leaves floating about, a couple of days before my passport turned up. The news came through and I swooped on the Greyhound site (so much cheaper than any other departure option) and booked a ticket through to Washington that evening. I guess travelling overnight on Greyhound has a certain mystique, as people hear Greyhound and think drunks and losers. Apart from the fact that it wasn't actually a Greyhound bus and the shocking state of the Buffalo station, it was fine. I had a double seat to myself for most of the way, with a teenage bloke joining me for about an hour at one stage, and they served up some most excellent fried chicken at one of the stops. The only real problem was getting through the border, at Peace Bridge. It must be a regular smuggler's route - they very calmly and very politely searched everything I had, and that of many other passengers. It caused quite the delay. Don't think it was smugglers, more likely they were bored and just looking for something to do as it was very quiet. At least they confirmed that I really have lost my passport - just as well, as I don;t know what sort of questions it would have led to if they found it.

After a 45 minute stop in the Transit Authority in Washington and we were off again, on another non-Greyhound bus and I was in Washington at 1:00 (p.m.). As we drove in, I realised that my only real images of Washington are of grand buildings, but the drive in was quite nondescript. Matters changed dramatically when we hit Union Station - it is just down the road from the Capitol so had to be built in suitable style. Here's the wikipedia description:

Classical elements included the Arch of Constantine (exterior, main façade) and the great vaulted spaces of the Baths of Diocletian (interior); prominent siting at the intersection of two of Pierre L'Enfant's avenues, with an orientation that faced the United States Capitol just five blocks away; a massive scale, including a façade stretching more than 600 feet and a waiting room ceiling 96 feet above the floor; stone inscriptions and allegorical sculpture in the Beaux-Arts style; expensive materials such as marble, gold leaf, and white granite from a previously unused quarry.

Unfortunately, there are bits falling from the ceilings, so they've installed a heavy mesh, which meant no photos were possible, except for the clock - which is famous for having a mistake on its face.
Arriving in Washington

Arriving in Washington

Union Station

Union Station

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I was there for a few days, so had a good walk around the centre, several times as I planned one sight-seeing thing a day, and then off to work. First up was the National Building Museum, which sounded like it would be just my thing. It was certainly in the right sort of building
National Building Museum

National Building Museum

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Unfortunately, in terms of exhibits, it fell a bit flat. There was some Lego, a room with little mock-ups of designs - it looked so boring I didn't pay to see the exhibits. I was amused watching a teacher run through an alphabetical list of do's and don'ts in the museum for his wee (all of about 5 years old) charges - somehow, in his alphabet, E comes before D.

This post is really about the also-rans of my visit to Washington - in the next, I present my highlights. I was very impressed at the scale of the Mall of Washington and the government buildings generally, plus there's the Smithsoniam (sadly, my top of the list museum, American Art, was closed for refurbishment). I must confess that I had trouble identifying some buildings - I just took pictures of those which really caught my eye, as well as a few monuments (and I have one of them which I have not been able to identify - its plaque was blank). Of course, I could identify the White House, not that I could get very close (I was a wee bit surprised to see that despite its size and having an even bigger guesthouse across the road, the President had to put up a tent to deal with the visitors (I was not invited) and the Capitol, at the other end of town:
White House

White House

White House

White House

Capitol Hill

Capitol Hill

US Capitol

US Capitol

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That last photo might be a bit hard to identify - it is an intake for the air-conditioning for the Capitol. From there, you look straight down at the Washington Monument (where they were expecting 800,000 odd people for a free Veteran's Day gig featuring Eminem, Rhianna and Springsteen).
National Monument

National Monument

Simon Bolivar

Simon Bolivar

large_270_IMG_9719.jpglarge_270_IMG_9724.jpglarge_270_IMG_9745.jpglarge_270_IMG_9746.jpglarge_270_IMG_9747.jpgAshes to Answers

Ashes to Answers


That last one is a monument to celebrate fire rescue dogs. Up next to the White House, I really liked the Eisenhower Executive building, with its odd protuberances, and was surprised at the Reagan Building (because it fits in so well with its surrounding buildings but is actually only 20 years old - there had been a plan to have a building there all along, but the workmen making the other buildings found it a useful place to park, and the habits stuck, for decades). Quite surprising alongside these major buildings, is the former lock-keeper's cottage, which is just across Constitution Avenue from the White House, and is built according to a completely different scale and aesthetic.
Dwight Eisenhower Executive Building

Dwight Eisenhower Executive Building

large_IMG_9739.jpglarge_WP_20141105_011.jpglarge_IMG_9738.jpgRonald Reagan Building

Ronald Reagan Building

Lock-keeper's Cottage

Lock-keeper's Cottage


As you drive up Constitution Avenue, the buildings are just huge - the point is to create an idea of the immense power of America, and it works - apparently, as official visitors are brought into town, they're driven along the intimidation route, just to get them in the right frame of mind before meeting the President.
large_WP_20141105_012.jpgUS International Trade Admin

US International Trade Admin

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And then there were just a few random buildings around I needed to snap - an art gallery near the Eisenhower Building, the infamous Watergate Hotel, looking a bit sad (the fact it was raining didn't help), the Organisation of American States Building (who knew this organisation even existed? It isn't about the states of America, but the nations comprising the American continent), Judiciary Square (where the local courts are and then some unidentified randoms
Art Gallery

Art Gallery

Watergate Hotel

Watergate Hotel


Organisation of American States

Organisation of American States


Judiciary Square

Judiciary Square

large_WP_20141105_015.jpglarge_WP_20141105_007.jpgSpy Museum

Spy Museum

Posted by NZBarry 15:01 Archived in USA Comments (0)

Disaster: Two Weeks in Toronto

sunny 22 °C

So, about Halifax not wanting me to leave? Turns out all of Canada was in on the act. After a last visit to the Rocket Bakery and a chat with Laura, I caught a taxi to the airport with plenty of time (there is a bus, but it stops 2 km short of the airport on Sundays. Small towns, huh.) I go in to check in and naturally have to produce my passport since I'm flying to New York, and reach into where I keep it in my backpack. Not there. I check my pockets. Not there. I take my bags away and empty them all on the floor of the airport. Not there. I search my memory to see if it has any recollection of putting my passport somewhere safe. Not there. So plans get a bit of a spanner chucked into them: I had a carefully laid out line of buses and trains all the way down the East coast, a gig to go to in Philadelphia, hostels booked. Instead, I get Air Canada to take me to Toronto, report the loss of my passport to the airport police there (no police anywhere near St John's airport), have a surprisingly nice stay at the airport Travelodge and start working out how to replace my passport.

For those who know me, it may come as no surprise that this is not the first lost passport incident in my life. In my very first trip overseas, within less than a week of leaving home, I'd lost my passport. I put it on the counter in a Bangkok Post Office while I bought some stamps, and someone swiped it. In the bad old 1980's, I was able to go to the Consulate that night, borrow a couple of hundred dollars and sort out a new passport within a couple of days. Now with modern technology and communications (I even have a Government approved digital image of me in the fancy RealMe system), getting a new passport took two weeks. It is a good thing I'm running in arrears with my blogging, because there were a few false alarms, when I thought I'd be good to go but wasn't. I learned not to book transport out until I'd actually seen the passport.

With a Consulate just a few hours away in Ottawa, getting a new passport would take no time,I thought. Nope. With the improved NZ passport system, they're issued only in Wellington, London and Sydney. My digital photo was no good: I'd have to get it done the old-fashioned way, with someone signing the back, someone who knows me and has a NZ Passport. After a bit of research, sending it back to New Zealand was going to be the quickest, as it was going to be quicker to send it there than to the one person in Canada who met both criteria! [Although now as I write this, it suddenly occurs to me that I do know someone right in Toronto and another down the road in Windsor. D'oh!] I paid a small fortune for couriers both ways, so what do the passport office do when they [very quickly, to be fair] issue the passport? Put it in the post. The POST! My trusty envoy in Wellington retrieved it and got it on the courier which (a) failed to get it to Auckland for 24 hours (b) retained it in Memphis for a similar period and then (c) when it finally arrived in Toronto, detained it because they don't deliver on Saturdays. Let's not even suggest a Sunday delivery. The post would have been quicker. My Monday involved a refresh of the Fedex website every five minutes - oddly enough, Jess at the hostel I was staying in was quicker to tell me it was there than Fedex.

My time in Toronto was not all bad. I found a nice coffee shop at the main library, Balzacs, and when the right barista was on, the coffee came out perfect. I ate some nice food - great ramen in a wee shop I went into simply because it was the busiest in a line of restaurants, even better dumplings in a place that turned out to have been voted the best Chinese restaurant in Toronto (again, I went in because t was busy). I went twice to a place called Lee Chen just because it was straight outside the public library and then three times to a place called Fran's, a diner started 70 years ago which still sells diner food but is a bit more posh and has a bar, because I enjoyed the atmos and the food. I wasn't carrying my camera around so have hardly any photos, and they're all of food.
Mother's Dumplings

Mother's Dumplings

large_WP_20141023_001.jpgRibs @ Fran's

Ribs @ Fran's


Getting work done was a bit of a trial as Toronto seemed to have a permanent go-slow on the internet - the public library was always rammed, cafes seemed to go slow, the Bora Laskin library at UToronto was transferred into a telephone box while they refurbished, and wouldn't let me use the internet anyway. Oddly enough it was only in the last few days when I tried the rather splendid Robart's library that I got that sorted - I have an eduroam account which has never worked but suddenly decided to leap into life.

I paid a couple of visits elsewhere - a few days down to Niagara, because it is close and really a bit of a cliche. I saw the falls the first evening I was there and then, um, forgot about them. I was staying at the other end of town, in the old part (although I did splurge one night in the Sheraton which is right beside the falls, but I barely heeded them). I was curious about Queen Street, Niagara - it is the old main street, and last time I was there, it seemed doomed: a derelict former department store taking up a lot of space and the shops barely occupied. Now, the department store has been replaced by a nice sort of park and while maybe 35% of the shops are empty, lots of them are quite new business, and there's more coming (although at least two had their closing down signs out). One of the better new businesses is Jeffro's BBQ, although for the life of me, I don't know why I went for stodgy old chicken when he had brisket and ribs.
Niagara

Niagara

large_IMG_9707.jpglarge_WP_20141026_002.jpglarge_WP_20141026_001.jpgJeffro's BBQ

Jeffro's BBQ

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Saving the best for last, my other visit was out the other direction, technically to Whitby as that's where I stayed (and spent a day working in the wonderful Whitby public library), but really to visit some friends in Peterborough. I was picked up in the morning in Whitby and chauffeur driven up to Peterborough, where a promise made a couple of years ago to take me to Costco was honoured. I gave Jim strict instructions that if I looked like I was going to buy something ridiculous because it was cheap, like a tonne of toilet-paper - so impractical to carry - he was to shoot me. We wandered around sampling anything that looked palatable (from the people providing samples, not the shelves), had one of their very cheap but still tasty hotdogs and shopped. I was shown the sights of Peterborough - it really is a pleasant town - and taken out to the Lift Lock, which was the highest lift in the world when built: it lifts vessels 65 feet when the standard was just 7. No action when we were there, unfortunately.

Trent University was also on the agenda - the entire centre campus was designed in the early 1970's by one man, Ron Thom. His design brief must have come from someone like Henry Ford, saying you can use any building product you like, so long as its concrete.
Peterborough Lift Lock

Peterborough Lift Lock

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Trent University

Trent University

Trent University

Trent University

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I'm being mischevious - it has a lovely setting on the Otanabee River: its library is built out over the river a bit. Not all like the latest addition to the campus, Peter Gzowski College, which admittedly is not in keeping with the rest of the campus.
large_WP_20141025_004.jpglarge_WP_20141025_011.jpgBata Library, Trent University

Bata Library, Trent University

Peter Gzowski College

Peter Gzowski College


After a detour to feed the family animals, it was time to feed ourselves, which we did on a semi constant basis - with a visit to Horton's, another to DQ, a fruitless journey for a do-nut shop and then to a bar for dinner, where I gained a memento of my visit: a ceremonial pair of chopsticks with which I was supposed to eat my dinner, a lamb curry.

Good times, all day. Thanks guys.
Hooligans

Hooligans

Posted by NZBarry 13:32 Archived in Canada Comments (0)

St John's

overcast 20 °C

Being stuck away on the East coast of Canada makes Halifax just a bit awkward to leave. My plan had been to catch an overnight ferry which runs from the south of Nova Scotia down to Portland, Maine but it finished running for the year a bit before I was ready to leave. Then inspiration struck: why not go to an even more remote place? A while ago, I read Theatre of Fish by John Gimlette, who wrote about his touring around Newfoundland, tracing the footsteps of his great-Grandfather and noting the devastation to small maritime communities when they could no longer fish for cod, and more recently I read The Shipping News. They both made me want to spend some time there. While I wouldn't have time to get out and explore the Rock, I could at least have a few days to St John's and fly on to the States from there.

Halifax didn't seem all that keen to let me go: I was well in time for the hourly airport bus, but it was not there. Other buses came through, and I found out that there was a gas leak which had led to the road being closed and big traffic jams, and that's where my bus was stuck. I got talking to three others waiting for the same bus - three New Zealanders, as it happens, on their way to a wedding on Cape Breton - and we decided to share a taxi. Of course, then there were no taxis and none of us knew how to get one, but eventually one turned up to drop a passenger off at the bus stop, so we were finally on our way - with the airport bus pulling in just as we left.

St John's turned out to be a great wee city - first settled in the early 1600's, it only formally incorporated in 1921 and has about 200,000 residents. It was the kick off point for the first transatlantic flight and has a Marconi history of its own, as the first transatlantic radio message was received here. It was largely a fishing port until the fishery collapsed in the 1980's, but has had an oil boom - the main CBD is in much better health than Halifax. It is essentially two long main streets (Duckworth and Water) running along the harbour's edge, so close that you'll ships tied up at the ends of some streets.
St John's Harbour

St John's Harbour

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The whole town is built on the side of a hill - I doubt that there are more than about 10 square metres of naturally flat land in the whole place. About three kilometres up the hill is where they've put both the public library and the university - so I spent my time there trundling along the main streets, climbing the hills up to the university and, of course, doing some work there, getting claustrophobic in the extremely high shelving.
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One of the unique features of the place is its colourful houses, with about as many stories about how they came to be that way as there are colours - the two leading contenders for most accurate story are that fishermen painted their houses the same colour as their boats, so they could find them or that it is the St John's way of giving the finger to the fog and general grey weather - I didn't see the sun until my last day, and that only happened because we got hit by the tail end of a hurricane, which cleared away all the cloud.
Coloured Houses, Misty Day

Coloured Houses, Misty Day

large_270_IMG_9702.jpglarge_IMG_9700.jpglarge_IMG_9706.jpgNewfoundland National War Memorial

Newfoundland National War Memorial

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That last picture is of a very cool record shop, Fred's, which had lots of local music - I spent a couple of hours in there and came out with a couple of discs, including one by Ilia Nicol. I was looking for something to do that night and more than a little surprised to find that Ilia Nicol had a gig that very night. I'd talked a bit about local music with the guy at Fred's and he never mentioned it, and he obviously knew she was playing as I saw him there. The gig was in a venue called the Levee in St John's infamous George Street, made infamous by having the greatest concentration of bars in all of North America, most of them playing music, loudly (once they finally open, that is, at 10:30 at night).

Ilia was actually up first in the line out - on her CD she's quite mellow, but live there's quite a bit more energy - she needed it, because the Levee is in a little courtyard it shares with three other bars - one doing very loud rock and roll, another doing some sort of goth-heavy metal mash-up and the other, who knows, no-one could hear what was happening. The next band up was another local band called the Domestics - it took me a while to warm to them, but then they did this amazing song called What Kind of Man Are You, where the band took a back seat and let the rather mournful vocals shine. I also enjoyed their last song - You're Never Coming Back. They were kind enough to tell us that Gonzales (the former hurricane) had been further downgraded from a tropical storm, then spent a few minutes telling us how to prepare for a storm.

The main event was a band called the Naysayers, three bearded guys and a rock chick, 30's, in from Dawson City, Yukon - very loud, with an acoustic guitar, played furiously: in that venue, I found the music relentless. Most of the crowd disappeared when they came on, although a different group came in so it wasn't deserted. I'm afraid I deserted, however, they just weren't doing it for me. Outside I had a fairly random confrontation with an attractive enough woman in a green greatcoat. She came toe to toe with me, raving about some sort of implement she wants from US, waved her hands around to illustrate its size. The only thing I understood is it is for smoking, its like smoking 5 cigarettes at once, not e-cig, not hookah and it won't kill you. Sounds magic. After all that, I needed a bad kebab.
Entry to George Street

Entry to George Street

Ilia Nicol & Band  @ The Levee

Ilia Nicol & Band @ The Levee

large_IMG_9677.jpglarge_IMG_9678.jpgThe Domestics @ The Levee

The Domestics @ The Levee

George Street

George Street


Downtown had very few chainstores - a couple of Subways, a Hortons, a Starbucks, but otherwise it was all local shops and cafes and one thing that struck me was the number and quality of the menswear shops - I went into one, Chafe & Sons, which has been going for more than 80 years. It was a sizeable shop, so much stock I could hardly move. One illustration of the depth of their stock: they'd put up a shelf which ran the entire length of one wall, maybe a metre down from the ceiling - the shelf was stacked to the ceiling with caps! I'd been planning to buy a cheap belt from somewhere like Walmart, but I was happy to pay these guys a bit more. Just along from there is an amazing cafe - the Rocket Bakery - which I came across in my first walk and made a point of going to every day I was there - a couple of the staff were a bit off, but the rest were great, nice food, nice coffee but it was the shop itself which spoke to me.
Rocket Bakery

Rocket Bakery

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Just along from there is another cafe I swore I wouldn't go into (I think that cafes which can't do better than name themselves coffee or bean or variants thereof don't get my business), but I was wandering past Coffee & Company and there were a couple of old guys doing some really authentic music, the woman behind the counter was rather, um, appealing and they had fantastic cakes. Another cafe I stumbled across was in The Rooms - the local museum - which is where I took the elevated photos of the harbour. I mentioned I had a bad experience with cod on Cape Breton Island - here they had codcakes, so I thought I'd give them a go. Alright, I guess. I had a third go at cod - coming back down the hill, I was hit by a downpour just as I passed a cod shop - I think its official, I don't like north Atlantic cod.
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Codcakes & Beer @ The Rooms

Codcakes & Beer @ The Rooms


Last couple of pictures don't really fit anywhere else - the Newfoundland Supreme Court, and then up past the Cathedral, the entrance to another church caught my fancy.
Supreme Court of Newfoundland

Supreme Court of Newfoundland

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I need to finish by talking about the hostel - in some ways its one of the worst I've been in - just two toilets, so that I had to go to the cafe next door, and four chairs to sit on in the kitchen area. But it was one of those "it was the worst of times, it was the best of times" kind of places - one of the best hostel experiences I've ever had. I happened to mention to Elizabeth in the office that I was finding it weird that there was nowhere to sit - apparently the office is where people come to chill: I met heaps of people but best of all were the three women who worked there, Elizabeth from Toronto (obsessed with Brazil), Jeannine from Germany (obsessed with whales) and Laura from Bulgaria (obsessed with rum). I had been planning to go for a final night out on the Saturday, and was occupying 25% of the seating in the kitchen pre-loading (having ONE quiet beer!) when they came in. I fell for all three, as a collective.

Posted by NZBarry 16:04 Archived in Canada Comments (0)

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