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Places: Achray Provincial Park, ON

Remember last year’s trip to Achray Provincial Park? The one where we had perfect weather and an amazing weekend at this newfound (for us) gem?

I think it is fair to say that this year didn’t work out quite so well – although we were excited to snag our favourite site five months in advance (to the day, of course…) we arrived in the park at the end of a very dry, hot spell which had resulted in a couple of forest fires. As a result, a fire ban had just been put in place as we entered the park.

The calm before the rain…
Safety first while cooking

The real kicker was although we had a nice first evening, rain started to pour at about 9pm and really only let up for small stretches through the next two days. Although our tarp village made it bearable, the lack of a fire was noticed even more in the damp, cool weather. With no sign of the rain letting up, we were happy to pack it in a day early and head back to Ottawa.

Barron Canyon
Luckily kids can always make their own fun…

Admittedly, Achray was a bit of a dud this year but we will certainly try and make it back next year, hopefully with a bit better luck with the weather.


Summer’s here….but going quickly!!

Wow – summer is here and already it feels like it is flying by. After kicking off the summer with less than stellar weather, we’ve finally had a good stretch and the warm weather is most welcome.

The last few weeks have gone by so quickly; I had a quick work trip to Paris that Heidi joined me for, school ended for the kids, the big guy celebrated his fifth birthday, I acknowledged mine and we had a visit from my sister and her family after Canada Day. This weekend we had another visitor and took advantage of the great weather to get to the beach and play some golf. A couple of photos below wrap up this blur of three weeks. It seems like this pace will continue over the next couple of weeks before we leave for our own summer vacation.

This year we have left our vacation plans until the second part of the summer which I enjoy doing because by the time people at work are starting to return from their own vacations, we are just taking off and sometime the anticipation is just as much fun as the event.

Starting at the end of July, we have a trip to the Maritimes planned with stops in Gaspe, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia. A couple of other camping trips will round out the summer.

What plans does everybody else have for the summer? I trust that I am not alone in feeling like this summer is already slipping by too quickly.

The Stay: St. Simons Island

I first read about St. Simons Island probably three or four years ago when I saw an article about the large number of PGA golfers, including Davis Love III, that keep a residence here. After enjoying ourselves so much in Savannah a couple of years ago, I always kept this in the back of my mind as a possible destination.

While browsing aimlessly through AirBnb over the Christmas holidays as I like to do, I came across a cottage in the heart of St. Simons that seemed to check off all of our boxes and we booked it right away. As much as we liked the area, our accommodation was the star of the trip – not only was the cottage even larger than the photos suggested, the private pool, hot tub and huge backyard made it so there was hardly a reason to leave our place.

Home base

On our first day there we headed straight to the beach, and had the whole place to ourselves. One thing we noticed, and enjoyed very much, was how uncrowded everything was. Despite a beautiful day where I managed to get my first sunburn of the season, we were the only ones on our stretch of beach. Nobody summoned up the courage to go swimming but the kids had a great time playing in the sand and the surf for hours.

East Beach

The next couple of days were unseasonably hot for the area, around 30 degrees Celsius, and we decided that there was really no reason to leave the comfort of our backyard when we could enjoy the pool and the shade of the palm trees. Although I am not always a big fan of sitting still on vacation, these days were fantastic and really relaxing for everybody. In the evenings when it had cooled down we also enjoyed bike rides through some of the beautiful neighbourhoods under the cover of the huge oak trees with the Spanish moss hanging down.

Taking a cruise

Later in the week we ventured a bit further from home, heading about ten miles further down the coast to Jekyll Island. This island was famous for being the Southern retreat and private club of many wealthy American families from the late 1800s to the mid-1900s when they sold it back to the state of Georgia for the princely sum of $600,000. Many of the “cottages” still stand along Millionaire’s Row and the club has been turned into a beautiful hotel. While on the island, we checked out the Georgia Sea Turtle Centre where injured turtles are rehabilitated and they also provide an excellent awareness program. The kids really enjoyed seeing the turtles and we all learned a lot there as well.

Exploring Driftwood Beach

Perhaps my favorite part about the American South is the food! While there we feasted on pork chop sandwiches at Willie’s Wee-Nee Wagon, lowcountry boil at Shucks Seafood Market, and all types of barbecue at Southern Soul which was just down the road from our place. I would drive back for that right now.

Lil’ E with her rack of ribs…which she polished off completely

Other highlights we hit were the St. Simons Lighthouse, the historic downtown of Brunswick, and the Fort Frederica National Monument. One of the things we really enjoyed about our stay on the island was that although there were a few things to keep us busy, we weren’t overwhelmed with things to do and were able to really just take it easy. This is such a great part of the country, with an interesting history and really friendly people so I am sure we will be back soon.



Places: The Drive

While our family has never shied away from a big drive, our March break road trip was one of the most ambitious yet. Our destination for the break was St. Simons Island in Georgia and to get there involves a lot of time on the Interstate. You can see the full route we took there and back on this map. We decided to break it up a bit more on the way down, stopping for two nights on the road.

Our first stop was the Federal Pointe Inn in Gettysburg, PA. We toured the downtown which is filled with buildings that had significance in the battle of Gettysburg on the first night and enjoyed our historic hotel, previously an old schoolhouse. This was a gem, with soaring 15-foot ceilings, wide hallways, only 18 rooms but all the modern conveniences that you would want.

Federal Pointe Inn
Cemetery Hill

About 800kms later down the I-95, we pulled into Florence, SC for our second night on the road. While it may not have quite the same level of fame as the ‘other’ Florence we visited in the fall, I would argue that the fried seafood at Tubb’s was better than any that can be found in the Italian version.

From Florence, it was a half-day trip to our final destination but we took our time, stopping at the Savannah National Wildlife Refuge to spot some gators, and at our favorite restaurant from the last time we were there; Sisters of the New South. This ‘meat and three’ spot cannot be beat and we couldn’t justify being so close without stopping in for some fried chicken and sides.

Gator hunting
Meat and three

On the way back, we decided to compress the trip even more so we could spend as much time as possible down south and still make it back for work on Monday. We decided to skip the I-95 on the way home so we did not have to deal with the congestion that is always present around Washington D.C. Instead, we headed north toward Charlotte on the I-77 before merging on to the I-81 that would deliver us to the 401. This was a much more pleasant drive as we were able to enjoy seeing the Blue Mountains and had a great hotel in Harrisonburg, PA just outside Shenandoah National Park. As with any good drive home, I think we took approximately three photos during the course of the two days, none of them particularly good. It was also downright comical to see the number of Ontario plates heading north on the I-77; every second car seemed to be headed back to winter. In the two days, we ended up travelling just over 2000kms; no matter how you slice it, North America is still huge!

Overall, we traveled just over 4200kms – a heck of a distance but I don’t think it would be hesitant to do it again. The kids were champs in the car, they loved stopping at the rest stops along the way to run around like crazy, play Frisbee and freeze tag and then load back up with their iPads to watch Big Hero 6….again!

When you do 1100kms a day, the ‘no eating in the car’ rule is suspended

I haven’t run it by H yet but I happened to stumble upon this version of the ultimate American roadtrip today. Maybe next year….

Purchased: ChefX

I am certain, after being told numerous times, that buying Christmas or birthday gifts for me is near to impossible. Despite that, I know my parents always put great care into thinking of gifts that are shippable, useable and wanted. This year, that led them to purchasing a gift certificate to a relatively new service in Ottawa called Chefx.

The basic premise of Chefx is that they provide and deliver all the ingredients you need to make a great meal after working with local chefs to develop easy-to-follow, step by step recipes which are also provided. I remember reading about it when it was first started; I believe the entrepreneur is a former public servant who had the guts to strike out on his own with this new idea.

There are two meals offered each week and you are able to choose which one(s) you would like by selecting through the website. I found the website a little confusing, but part of that was because I was using a gift certificate rather than traditional ordering. For our first meal last week, I ordered the Lemon leek lamb patties, a recipe developed by Marysol Foucault from Chez Edgar. This is a great little restaurant on the Gatineau side of the river that I would recommend to anyone visiting Ottawa – I have been a few times and it has always been stellar so I expected that her recipe wouldn’t let me down either.

The ingredients are all delivered in a cooler to prepare the meals for that week. The delivery came on Sunday and after unpacking, it was clear that they think of everything. All the ingredients are clearly labelled and the only thing missing was the salt and pepper. (which was noted on the recipe)

Ingredients ready to go

Putting the recipe together still involved some chopping, various steps of cooking, and messing up the kitchen a bit so it is certainly more involved than ordering take-out but I’d say it is much more satisfying as well, and healthier I’m sure. I had my sous-chef, Lil’ E, to help me through the process. The ingredients were all top-notch, clearly they have a better source of produce than I do for the middle of winter in Ottawa.

We were so eager to eat that I forgot to take a picture of the final result but it actually came together pretty much like the picture on the website – I was impressed with that! The recipe was delicious and a departure from what I would typically cook. The portions were also very generous – I ended up eating it in my lunch the next day as well.

Although I meant to post this last week, after doing another meal this week (elk burgers with pistachio winter green salad) , I think this service is certainly something that I will do on an ad-hoc basis. I am not sure that I could always keep up with a subscription that included one or two meals each week.

To Eat: Paris, France

Last week I was back to Paris for a couple of days of meetings and also had the opportunity to visit some new spots around town that I hadn’t had the chance to make it to previously. Although the weather was a little dodgy, it held off enough to allow for plenty of walking – which was needed to do to make up for the plenty of eating I also did. I only had three occasions to really go out for dinner and my colleague and I hit the following: A Noste, a tapas spot that mixes traditional french, Basque and Spanish cuisine; Les Papilles, a french wine shop with a set menu that I have visited before but could eat at every day; and Clamato, a seafood spot that is the more casual cousin of the famous Septime.

The final spot, Clamato, claimed the honour of the most difficult menu I have ever encountered in French. Even in English, I would have been guessing at many of the types of fish and preparations but in French, it was a completely blind order.

The taco truck inside A Noste – seating for three!

If I was recommending one spot in Paris for people visiting, Les Papilles would probably be it. It is a four-course menu for about 30 euros – consisting of a soup, some sort of meat, typically cooked in a cassoulet, a cheese course, and then a dessert. It is a small spot where the owner is always there and involved in your service and although there are a good number of tourists, it is balanced out by a nice number of Parisians as well. The food is a pretty good representation of french cuisine I think – plenty rich and available with a nice selection of wines also.

The final spot I visited on my own was Frenchie To-Go on Rue du Nil. I had eaten at Frenchie’s wine bar before too and been very impressed – this lived up to the hype. And one thing I always enjoy – the owner/chef was actually there when I visited, just as he was when I visited the wine bar.

Walking off some calories on the Promenade Plantee – the original elevated railway line park that the High Line in NYC is based on.

Purchased: New Wheels

As mentioned in a previous post, our Honda CR-V, the first car I have ever owned from ‘new’, started to show some signs of its age this summer. First, the A/C compressor blew out on our roadtrip this summer, then we realized we would need new front brakes before the summer, and there was also the increasing number of creaks and squeaks that seemed to appear every time we drove it.

None of this was a surprise with an 8-year old car so we made the decision rather quickly to try and sell it off before dumping a bunch more money into it. We were lucky enough to sell it on our work bulletin board to an eager buyer and it was gone within days.

The CR-V in happier times. Outer Banks, NC.

We often have discussed our need for more space, particularly when people are visiting or we are on a long road trip, so the minivan became our point of focus. We settled in on the Honda Odyssey as it seemed to check all the boxes for us.

While a quick and easy sale was great, it also left us without a car and we needed to move quickly. I had heard of Unhaggle previously, and since we had a pretty good idea of what we wanted, I put our specifications in. Esentially what Unhaggle offers is the car costing sheet – what the dealer pays for the car – for free. In addition, for a fee of $99, Unhaggle will solicit offers from car dealers in your area with the idea being that they will compete against each other for your business and you end up with the lowest price.

I was going to pursue this but reading through a few message boards online, people seemed to think you could get a better price most of the time by negotiating yourself rather than putting it through Unhaggle if you were willing to put in a little bit of time.

One thing that has really changed since we bought our last car is that car dealerships will actually respond to, and bargain over, e-mail. Almost every dealership I e-mailed in our two days when I knew we needed a new car was good about coming back with a solid offer and also willing to beat other offers that I got over e-mail. This ended up being almost as efficient as using a service like Unhaggle.

We basically figured out the price floor pretty quickly for our vehicle and I checked online via RedFlagDeals and a couple of other forums to ensure we knew what the best prices others were getting.

With that, it only took us about an hour and a half in the dealership to review the features of the Odyssey, go back and forth once on price, and then decline all the extra warranties, rustproofing, and whatever else they try to add on. All in all, a very smooth sale and we knew we were getting what we wanted at a very good price.

Two weeks in, and we are both pretty happy with our purchase. The space in this car is endless, it will be great to be able to take extra passengers and we are eager to plan out some exciting family roadtrips over the next few years.