Road Trip: New England and Canada

Our first vacation together was to the Dominican Republic back in February 2014. Espen had booked seven days in Santo Domingo. Turns out, that nation’s capital doesn’t have seven days’ worth of things to see. (Believe me, there will be a post about that trip at some point.) After visiting pretty much everything worth seeing in a day and a half, Espen insisted on forgoing the rest of our stay there and heading east to other spots on the island. We booked places on the fly, with one- or two-day stays in each locale.

We learned many things during that vacation but one of the big ones was this: Why book several days for one place you’re unfamiliar with when you can book hotels on the fly and stay for however long you need before moving on? Sure, the risk is that you end up sleeping in your car (rented or otherwise), but so far that hasn’t happened. What has happened, though, is that we’ve been able to stay in places for as long (or, importantly, as short) as we want to before moving along to the next place. At some point during a stay, we pull out our iPads and start planning the next place or two. There’s no urgency in making it to your final destination if you haven’t booked it yet.

Our road trip through New England and Canada is our third one using this method. We enjoyed it so much in the DR that we used it last year for our two-week honeymoon, when we did a road trip through California. A warning: It’s a loooooong post. We hit a lot of places over our two weeks in New England. 

But First!

We saw Paul McCartney! After having missed out on seeing him many times before, Espen was not to be denied. I’m a recent convert to the allure of the Beatles, so I was excited to see him myself. Since we were heading north right after the concert, I feel justified in counting the concert as our kick-off. It was a fantastic show.

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He needs no introduction.

Baltimore

We needed a place not far from the highway so that we could get up early and hit the road. Plus, we really wanted to avoid our notorious D.C.-area traffic. Espen booked us a room at a Comfort Inn. “It’s more like a Comfort Out,” he said once we entered the room. A late-night temperature adjustment from a frigid 61 to a toasty 73 resulted in humidity so thick that the walls were crying and the bathroom floor was slick by morning. That wasn’t the only “extra” in the bathroom. As Espen said after his shower, “I especially like the hair collection on the shower wall — it’s like an homage to the previous guests.” It’s definitely not a place you stay in for the ambience.

Mystic, Connecticut

We weren’t far from Mystic when the sky opened up. Espen did a fantastic job getting us to Mystic safely, but it was a bummer that our first day of vacation had such a wet start.

We were starving when we arrived. At least three friends recommended Mystic Pizza, the pizza joint that spawned the movie of the same name. I’d planned to bypass it, fearing that it was too touristy because of the movie and probably not very good as a result. I have to say that is absolutely one of the best pies we’ve ever had. In fact, it’s one of our favorite meals from the entire road trip. We still talk about it: “Remember that pizza in Mystic …?” 

We relaxed a bit before touring the town. It didn’t take long to see most of it, and we eventually landed at the Irish pub Harp and Hound. The pub opened in 2002, but the building itself dates back to the 1700s, making it one of the town’s oldest. With not much else to do — it’s a sleepy seaside town — we stayed for the weekly trivia contest. 

The pub isn’t exactly a place that sees much diversity. And then we come along with all our interracial coupleness! Everyone was fine, but something funny did happen. The trivia game included extra-credit questions midway through and at the end to help break any ties. The last trivia question? Name the TV show depicting the first interracial on-screen kiss of a white actor kissing a black actress. I kid you not.

Now, whether it was a coincidence or the trivia leaders trying to be all-inclusive with their now-diverse audience I will never know for sure. Regardless, I got the answer wrong. The answer was Star Trek. Turns out Captain Kirk really did go where no man had gone before! Well, at least on TV. We still did well, though, and it was a lot of fun.

Newport, Rhode Island

I’d booked a B&B in one of the town’s many old buildings. As Espen said, “The whole street is a historical landmark!” Following our usual M.O., we hit the town, exploring nearby shops before heading for the main street. We were lucky to have a sunny day after some morning rain, but the extra moisture in the air made for a sticky stroll on the Cliff Walk. We opted to enjoy the beauty outdoors instead of touring any of the mansions dotting the coast. By the time we made it back to our room, we’d walked 10 miles. And it felt it.

Showers and naps were in order before dinner on the patio of The Black Pearl. Service there was spotty at best, but our breakfast at our B&B was spot-on. You have to love a good bed and breakfast, and the Clarkeston didn’t disappoint. Newport is a lively seaside town, and beautiful. Definitely one of my favorite coastal places.

Cape Cod and Hyannis, Massachusetts

We made a detour on the way to Hyannis. I have a cousin whose son, Duron, plays for the New England Patriots. I am not a Patriots fan, so this fact causes all sorts of inner turmoil during football season. I want him to do well, sure, but the team? Ugh! Anyway, it’s still a source of family pride, and when my father learned we were traveling to New England, he requested some gear, including a T-shirt with Duron’s name and number on it. We stopped at the Gillette Stadium fan storeI couldn’t resist the opportunity to get my own shirt. “I feel dirty,” I confided to Espen. I’m still not sure I can wear it in public.

One of my colleagues moved to Cape Cod several years ago to run Woods Hole Passage. I haven’t seen Julie in years, so we stopped for a brief visit before having lunch on the Woods Hole waterfront. The drive along the coast on our way to our hotel in Hyannis took us by some beaches and we took full advantage of one of them. It was a breezy day, so the sand was blowing everywhere, but it was beautiful there on the shore.

We learned quickly that there’s a big difference between Cape Cod and Hyannis, which even varies significantly from Hyannis Port. Once we saw a place advertising “Spotless Efficiencies!” as a perk, we knew we’d crossed over. Our hotel room, however, came with a cup of watered-down cola and cigarette butts and a melange of spots in the bathroom.

We made the most of the evening, taking in a few songs at a local concert in the park before visiting Main Street to check out the shops and restaurants. We ended up at emBargo, whose offerings tended to be better in theory than in execution. 

Ignoring the advice of Aleksa, the front-desk employee at our hotel who had informed us in heavily accented Russian of the $10.95 breakfast buffet available there — “Typical American fare. Scrambled eggs. Bacon. It’s very good” — we went to Persy’s Place around the corner. One gets the sense that it’s a local favorite, and with good reason. It’s not fancy; it’s just good. It was a perfect way to start our drive to Boston.

Boston, Massachusetts

Before we even got to Boston, Espen booked tickets for the Hop On Hop Off bus tour of the city. We hopped off at Fenway to get a closer look at the legendary park. It’s also where we made a crucial mistake: We ordered nachos at a restaurant in the hopes of a quick lunch. Turns out the dish was the size of our collective heads. We didn’t even finish, but it effectively killed our appetite for the rest of the day.

After a long, sticky walk through the city and refreshing at the hotel, we checked out the North End, Boston’s version of New York City’s Little Italy. The neighborhood was celebrating the Madonna della Cava. The festival was lively and even included a Barry White cover band. (Seriously, the singer looked so much like Barry White at first that I had to Google to confirm that he was dead.) The place was packed and there were tons of food vendors and restaurants all over the place. It hurt to smell so much garlic and good food at the festival and not be hungry enough to eat it. Tired and disappointed with our nacho debacle, we called it a night.

Our visit to Boston coincided with the start of Premier League (go, Liverpool!), so our first order of business before leaving Boston that Saturday was to find a pub. Turns out one of the best places to check out a Liverpool match was just over in Cambridge at The Phoneix Landing. The game wasn’t till 10, but already at 9, it was SRO. Little did I know that he had a back-up plan: The Field. This place was quieter and cozier. It’s also where this happened:

Liverpool won their opening match against Arsenal! And they didn’t just win. They scored four goals!

Portsmouth, New Hampshire

We hadn’t gotten very far during our initial walk when we found Gilly’s. We loved the look of the place, and its proclamation regarding its award-winning hot dogs was enough to make us stop for lunch. The place itself was a lot more interesting than the hot dogs, unfortunately.

Our fondest memory of Portsmouth has nothing at all to do with its seaside atmosphere, shops, or restaurants. Rather, it has to do with our delightful bartender at the hotel, who appeared barely old enough to serve drinks. When Espen checked us into the hotel, I noticed an advertisement for a special rum punch served at the hotel bar. I’m not an expert on rum punches, but the ingredients for this one made it sound like one fine cocktail for a hot day. After our long walk, it was time for some refreshment. So before making our way for dinner, Espen and I took a seat at the bar.

Me: I’ll take one of those rum punches I’ve read about.

Espen: Me too!

Bartender: Sure! Let’s see … [He walked over to the row of bottles.] I think I’ve got some rum here.

Me: Oh — I thought this was your signature drink. I saw the flier when we came in.

Bartender: That’s just some promotion we have. I’ve never actually made one. But I think I can figure it out.

Espen and I exchanged looks.

Me: Well, what about a mojito?

Espen: Me too!

Bartender: Sure! I’ve made lots of those!

It was easily the worst mojito either of us have ever had, so bad that Espen didn’t even finish his. Not enough mint. Not enough sweetness. Just awful. Anyway, if you’re ever in town, don’t order a drink at the Portsmouth Sheraton.

Portland, Maine

We’d heard great things about the Kancamagus Scenic Highway and decided it was worth the detour. There we were on the highway heading north for White Mountain when the check engine light came on. Thankfully, the service center wasn’t too far from the highway and had time to check it out. Our representative at the dealership couldn’t have been nicer. To help us while away the time, he suggested an outing for us, asking the avuncular shuttle driver to deliver Espen and his “lady friend” to the mall. Lady friend! Obviously he didn’t know we were married, but he clearly knew something was up between us. It still makes me laugh — so old-fashioned and sweet.

Given the extra hours out of our trip to deal with the car, we didn’t have time to spare for the mountain drive and instead headed straight for Portland and the Ramada Plaza on Riverside Street. I thought I’d booked us a great place near a river. Nope. No river. There was, however, a strip club across the street.

During our walk around town, we stumbled into Vinland. The name drew Espen immediately and reservations for dinner were quickly booked. Vinland is one of those uber-cool places that uses only locally sourced food and presents its dishes with great care. We each took advantage of the five-plate tasting menu, complete with wine pairings. Everything was delicious, but they were short-handed and service was sloooooooow. Still, that oat cake Espen ordered still crosses my mind. It was that good. Breakfast the next morning at Sinful Kitchen was pretty fabulous, too. We even braved the ghost pepper sausage.

Bar Harbor, Maine

Espen has a thing about state capitols. If we’re near one, he wants to check it out. Augusta wasn’t too far out of the way, so we made a detour. It was good to stretch our legs a little, so we walked around the statehouse and checked out the (forgettable) state museum. The town is extraordinarily quiet, belying the batshit craziness of the current resident in the governor’s mansion.

When I told a few coworkers that we were hitting Bar Harbor, they insisted that we go to Jordan Pond House, there in Acadia, to try the popovers. And it wasn’t just them. When we started looking up things to do (OK, places to eat…) in Bar Harbor, on every list was the directive: Get the popovers! What no one mentions, though, is the insanity of the parking. The parking lot is not reserved for the restaurant, so anyone visiting Acadia can park there. And on that beautiful summer afternoon, the park was insane. We circled two parking lots before I finally said, “You know what? It’s just bread.”

After hearing how amazing Bar Harbor is from a few people, I was disappointed. It’s small with some touristy shops. Unless you’re there for Acadia National Park, there are more charming seaside towns — Cape May, New Jersey, and Newport, Rhode Island, for example — that are more picturesque, have more to do, or both. Even our plan to see the sunrise was nixed given the amount of rain due to hit overnight through the early morning. Oh well. We had to hit the road anyway. Québec awaited.

Québec City, Québec, Canada

The road to the Canadian border was littered with signs warning of moose. Almost as badly as I want to see the Northern Lights, I want to see a moose. When we visited Norway a few years ago, Espen took a two-hour detour up a mountain in an area known to have moose just so we could hopefully spot one. No luck. I thought we’d have our big break during this drive, but nope.

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Espen shared my disappointment in not seeing a moose.

What we were supposed to do in Bangor: Call our credit card companies to alert them we would be using our cards in Canada. Call AT&T so we could use international data plan.

What we forgot to do in Bangor: Call our credit card companies to alert them we would be using our cards in Canada. Call AT&T so we could use international data plan.

All this could’ve been rectified with a quick call from the car. Unfortunately, driving through Maine’s remote areas we discovered there was no cellphone coverage. Further, the GPS in the car didn’t cover much of Canada. Basically, while we had an address to our hotel, we had no idea how to get to it. Couldn’t use our phone because no data. No data because no phone. No phone because no call in Bangor.

After crossing the border — where, by the way, the agent did not stamp my passport, much to my disappointment — we were back to civilization and cellphone coverage. That didn’t fix the GPS problem, though. Eventually, there was nothing but a sad white screen. “It’s like we’re driving in dough!” Espen lamented.

Maybe it was the long drive from Bar Harbor coupled with not knowing where we were going, but it’s safe to say that neither of us were thinking clearly after a while. When we passed a sign that read “Québec 85,”  I said something along the lines of “Wow! Eighty-five more miles!” much to the delight of my metric-system-savvy husband. But I wasn’t the only one off my mental game. Espen pondered whether the warmer afternoon had something to do with the warm-hearted “Latin temperament” as compared with the U.S. My response? “Maybe it’s because the sun is out now.”

We arrived in Québec City and fell almost instantly in love. Espen noted similarities to European countries he’s seen. Our hotel, Hôtellerie d’Expérience au Monastère des Augustines, was in the Old City. It’s a former cloister and they’ve worked to maintain a place where people can go to relax and refresh. They even request that guests enjoy breakfast in silence as an homage to the sisters who founded the monastery. By the end of our second breakfast, we had developed our own sign language, including some serious eye-rolling thanks to three French guests who ignored quiet time.

But back to Québec. WE LOVE THIS CITY! It is so beautiful and just so incredibly clean! (Like, do little cleaning fairies come out at night?) We hit the street close to the golden hour, so the city was just beginning to be cast in the warm glow of the setting sun. Espen still chuckles at my initial reaction when we hit the streets. Childlike wonder. Awe. Joy.

We spent a long evening walking throughout the Old City, eating (way too much) at Aux Anciens Canadiens, strolling along the city walls, and watching fireworks and street performers. The next day was spent resting while touring courtesy the Hop On Hop Off bus. No rest for the weary, though: We hit the Old City’s streets again, visited the observatory (meh), and had a fantastic dinner of small plates at 1608, the wine bar located in Canada’s most beloved hotel, the Fairmont Le Château Frontenac.

Ottawa, Canada

Thanks to comments from a few Québec City locals, we decided to bypass Montreal and head to Ottawa instead. Interestingly, the French folks in Canada seem to take a dim view of the English-speaking side of their country: We counted zero signs to Ottawa. To Gattineau?Absolutely! The closest we got to a street sign announcing Ottawa read, “Welcome to the region of the nation’s capital city.”

You can’t visit Ottawa without taking in its historical By Ward Market, so after checking out Parliament, we headed over. Most of the shops had closed for the day, but we were too hungry to shop anyway. Lured by the intoxicating smell of garlic and tomato sauce, we landed in a cobble-stoned courtyard for some Italian food.

The front-desk clerk at our hotel had raved about the city’s nightly light show in which images are projected onto the Parliament building. This summer’s theme, she said, was the Northern Lights. I was really excited, given my desire to see them. A show about them would be almost as cool. She looked confused but smiled politely, remarking that it was on of the city’s best light shows yet.

Finally, it was showtime. The first images flashed with the loud-speaker detailing with Canada’s early history. And then there was more history and images about Canada. Some stuff about the War of 1812. More history … and then more history. About 15 minutes into this light show, I whispered to Espen, “So … I guess my definition of Northern Lights was a little off, huh?” No wonder the front-desk clerk was confused by my enthusiasm. It was a great show, though, and it made me fall that much more in love with our neighbors across the border.

Burlington, Vermont

You read that correctly. After Ottawa, we drove all the way back to New England, this time to Burlington. Why? Because back when we’d planned to go to Montreal, I booked a nonrefundable room in Burlington. Sure, we could’ve just eaten the cost and saved us the long drive, but Espen is a trooper.

After a delicious lunch at Penny Cluse, we hit downtown Burlington’s Church Street Marketplace. The open-air pedestrian mall is charming, to be sure, but we couldn’t help but wonder, “Did we really just drive 200 miles for this?” A walk down to the waterfront didn’t change our minds. Sure, it was nice, but there really didn’t seem to be that much to see or do. To be fair, though, we were still a little drunk off of Canada’s awesomeness. There are few places that could’ve competed with that.

That evening we took advantage of the hotel’s free shuttle and headed downtown for dinner. Still full from our big lunch, we opted against any of the crowded restaurants along the main street and instead checked out Vin Bar to take advantage of its cozy setting and small plates. It was perfect! The proprietors appreciate good food and wine and it shows. An added bonus to this spot was its proximity to the Vermont Comedy Club, where we had tickets to see Dan Soder with Tim Dillon. They were hilarious! After being doubtful about Burlington, we ended up having a great time.

Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada

The ride from Burlington the next morning just after dawn was beautiful, complete with the sun rising over Vermont’s mountains. I even got to see a camel and a sheep grazing together on a farm as though they were best buds. You don’t see that every day. (And you won’t see it here, either. I didn’t have my camera in the car at the time. Let that be a lesson.)

Until this ride, my only experience with New York had been New York City. It’s weird how your perception of a whole state can rest on a fairly small island. Turns out New York has a lot of small towns and farms. It also has its own share of folks longing for days gone by. Just before we stopped for breakfast at the Big Apple Diner, I had already spotted two Confederate flags. (Anyone who say that flag is about history and not hate is full of crap.) Anyway, I was a little leery about stopping at this diner, but then figured, What the hell?! Let’s diversify this place! A few of the patrons checked me out as though a unicorn was in their midst, but our waitress couldn’t have been nicer, and the food was hearty. Espen said his blueberry pancakes were the best he’d ever had.

Thus began The Great Starbucks Hunt of 2016. Waking up from a quick nap, Espen wanted some caffeine. The Starbucks app indicated a store just a few miles past the next service area. The only problem was that it wasn’t a Starbucks. Nope. It was the old homestead of an old-timer who eventually made his way outside to see about these city slickers making a hasty retreat from his wooded lot.

The next place was another bust. No fewer than four EZ-Pass tolls later and Espen was still without his Pike Place. By the time he did get it (at a service plaza!), it had become the most expensive ever.

After nearly seven hours on the road, we finally made it to Niagara Falls, New York. Alas, despite all that time spent in the car, not to mention beverages imbibed, it wasn’t easy making it over the border. It took three hours to go three miles, thanks to an earlier accident. Our reward once we got to the border? The one asshole Canadian border agent. Any plan I had to ask him to stamp my passport was immediately shot. 

We managed to get down to the falls just before sundown. They are spectacular! We wandered along the Canadian side from vantage point to vantage point, taking it all in before going to Marilyn’s for dinner, where we were treated with amazing views of the falls and the fireworks.

The next morning, the beginning of our last day on the road, we headed over to the American side to enjoy even more of the falls. Lucky for us, we got up early enough to beat the crowds. After some parking hilarity (parking attendant: “No matter what he says later, I saw who was driving”), we boarded the Maid of the Mist and then toured the Cave of the Winds. If you ever doubt the power of the falls (though really, why would you?), by all means take the Cave of the Winds tour. I don’t even know why they bother with ponchos. You’re going to get wet. Just accept it. It’s as close as you can get without being in a barrel.

Espen still had several Canadian dollars to get rid of, so we headed back over the Rainbow Bridge, this time on foot, for lunch. And I finally got my passport stamped.

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