I LOVE Montreal! It has all of the charm of Paris (and the excellent restaurants), with none of the attitude.
Jim and I arrived yesterday afternoon, and as soon as we dropped off our stuff at our hotel (and I changed into my Trump apology T-shirt), we set off to explore. We are staying at the Marriott Springfield Suites in the old quarter, right off one of the main streets, Rue Saint-Paul.
We headed down to the waterfront (to the area called the quays—Pronounced “keys”) to see if we could find out where the cruise ship terminal is located. Mission accomplished, we gazed across the harbor at the site of an early futuristic public housing project, which is still very architecturally striking decades later.
As we walk along the waterfront, I am reminded what a livable city this is (at least in the summer). There is a public bike rental program, and there were numerous cyclists along with the walkers. We also walked over to locate the site of our restaurant for tonight.
Chores accomplished, we headed back up into the heart of the old quarter to one of our favorite streets here; Rue Jacques Cartier. This is a wide pedestrian street/plaza lined with open air cafes and street vendors, which runs from the stately Court of Appeal all the way down to the harbor.
We were fortunate to stumble into a great rooftop bar called la Perché (accessed off an alley behind the restaurant Maggie Oakes). The views were fabulous, and the breeze was heavenly!
After our aperitif, we headed back to the hotel to change for dinner. Our reservations this evening are at Gibby’s, a local white-tablecloth gem of a place specializing in steak and fresh seafood. When Jim and I were here before, we celebrated my birthday with Beautiful Nova Scotia lobsters, and we were eager to repeat the experience. Our memories did not disappoint, and the ambience of this place is really great since it is located in an ancient stone building, which was originally part of the harbor fortifications.
Replete and happy, we headed back to the room. Along the way we stumbled on a huge public light and music show down by the harbor and we detoured to see it. Wow!
This morning, we awoke to rainy skies, about 6 hours ahead of time. No matter, we waterproofed ourselves and headed out. Even though our hotel includes breakfast, I was craving a decent latte, and we found another great restaurant called Great Eggspectations. We also walked about some more and detoured by the Place de Arms to look on the stately Notre Dame Cathedral.
Then it was time to head to the ship, the Regent Navigator. As I write this, I am sitting here with a glass of champange looking city-ward from the ship. Sail with us as the Gringos make port tomorrow in old Quebec!
Another big day in our itinerary is finally here: we are bound for the Giant’s Causeway to see this incredible geological formation that left giant hexagonal basalt columns sticking up like broken teeth or stepping stones on the edge of the ocean! It’s also time for us to get our geek on; specifically, geeking out about Game of Thrones. All along our drive today, we’ll be seeing several of the sites featured in the series, which Jim and I really enjoy. It turns out Steve is a big fan, too.
We drove out of Belfast this morning to the east to drive along the coast, for another very picturesque drive called the Nine Glens of Antrim drive. We will spend the whole day in County Antrim, but you are very clearly still in Northern Ireland, as it seems that each successive town takes turns proclaiming their allegiance to either the Republican or Loyalist forces. You can easily tell this by the prominent use of either Irish national flags or the British tricolor. So much for getting out of the corrosive partisan atmosphere of Belfast!
Nonetheless, the drive was as lovely as advertised! Our first stop was in the town of Carrickfergus, with a fort dedicated to the English invasion of William III of Orange. Plainly, this is a Loyalist town, complete with a mock redcoat statue on the ramparts of the fort.
Next, we stopped in the quaint seaside town of Glencloy, which has been used to film scenes in Game of Thrones, both as the seaside port in Braavos where Arya Stark goes to learn from the Faceless Man, and the cliffside behind the town, which was featured when the Whitewalkers attack the Wilding encampment, a If all of that means nothing to you, just know that Glencloy is the prototypical Irish seaside town and enjoy it for that!
Beyond that, we drove through village after quaint village, with sheep and lambs grazing happily in the fields. One town in particular, Ballycastle, looked like it might be a pleasant place to stay at the seashore, but we would probably pick the westside of the Irish Republic before we would come back here.
Shortly thereafter, we pulled into a carpark on the coast on the cliffs high above the sea. From here, you can see the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge, which connects the mainland to a tiny island that lies just feet off the coast. From here, you can also see the much larger Raflin island, and just 11 miles away, the outline of the coast of Scotland. While I would have liked to climb across the bridge, several in our group don’t deal well with heights, and we still needed to get to the Giant’s Causeway.
Finally, we came into the town nearest the Causeway and had lunch at a very cozy pub, called, appropriately, The Nook. Somewhat uncharacteristically for Northern Ireland, all of the young women working in the pub were very friendly.
Following lunch, we hopped on the shuttle bus which takes you into the Giant’s Causeway area, and at last, we were free to explore! First I hiked out along the seashore just past the main tourist part of the sight, which was TEEMING with visitors. Then I walked up the trail behind the site to see the organ pipe-shaped rock formations, and then up to the top of the cliffs overlooking the site so I could get some perspective shots. Finally, I scampered down to the main site to see all I could before we left. Sadly, I felt like I did not get nearly enough time here, and I would like to return someday, perhaps when there are fewer tourists.
Then it was back in the bus to continue our tour of Game of Thrones sites. As we drove south from the north coast of Northern Ireland, we headed for the location of the “Dark Hedges”; more properly known as Kingsroad in the series. This location is a country road lined with twisted, gnarly beech trees, and was used a few times, including in the scene where Arya Stark dresses up like a boy to escape from King’s Landing, but is captured instead, and dragged off to the Brothers without Banners hideout (which was filmed in another part of Northern Ireland — Pollnagollum Cave, in County Fermanagh). The actual road is Bregagh Road, outside of Stranocum, in the Ballymoney district in County Antrim. Obviously, this is not a well-kept secret, as tour busses jockeyed for position, and it was a challenge to get a photo without other tourists in it. Some people went to elaborate lengths to strike poses from the GOT scenes.
Finally, it was back to Belfast. We enjoyed a super good meal at the restaurant James Street South. Tomorrow dawns with the last day of our tour, so we all hurried back to pack and go to bed.
Wow! Today was a really action-packed day! We left Lough Eske (in County Donegal) early this morning so we could get Paula and Steve to Derry, where they were set to met with the parents of friends back in Virginia. In doing so, we left the Republic of Ireland and entered Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom.
Dermott drove us expeditiously to Derry, also known as Londonderry (but never by anyone from the Irish Republic). It lies on the seaside, where the River Foyle opens to the north onto the ocean. There has been a town here since 546 when St. Columba founded a monastery here. Derry is a completely walled city, which became one of the first “Plantations” after the British took power back following the Nine Years War.
Derry was the center of several violent incidents during the “Troubles” which resulted in armed clashes between Republican and Loyalist forces in Ireland from the late 1960s until The Good Friday Peace Agreement was signed in 1998. The Troubles arose out of a civil rights movement by the republican (largely Catholic) residents of Northern Ireland against discrimination in jobs, housing and suspensions of civil liberties against Catholics by the unionist, (largely Protestant) local councils and police forces. The city of Derry was the site of the Bloody Sunday massacre when British soldiers shot 13 unarmed demonstrators dead, and the Northern Irish Parliament was suspended, and direct rule from London was imposed.
Dermott dropped us off at the Guildhall Building, which is situated right on Lough Foyle. The building itself is lovely, Neo-Gothic in style (it was built in 1890), with stained glass windows telling tales of Ireland’s history. Additionally, there is a really good comprehensive museum archive, which documents the British Plantation system, as practiced in Ireland, and the seeds of Irish discontent which led to the Troubles, and ultimately, to limited Home Rule for Northern Ireland.
The Guildhall is located right on Lough Foyle, and right across from it is a Calatrava-designed bridge called the Peace Bridge. We all hopped down from the bus and started to walk across the bridge, but the wind was blowing so hard (and cold), that we decided to get a latte instead. After visiting the Guildhall, and learning more about the Plantation system (so we could get a better idea of the factors leading to the strongly opposing political views in Northern Ireland), we collected Paula and Steve, and moved on to see more of Derry.
Then we drove around to see more of the city. You immediately sense the turbulent emotions underlying the divergent political positions as you drive through the streets of Derry, which are divided into strictly Republican/Nationalist and Unionist/Loyalist neighborhoods. First stop, the Bogside neighborhood, which is staunchly Republican, and in the late 1960s, barricaded its streets from outsiders, creating an area known as “Free Derry”. There are extensive murals on the walls of some of the homes depicting political themes, mostly in favor of greater civil rights, and commemorating the struggles of Irish nationalists during the Troubles.
From Bogside, we drove up to a point where we could access the walls of the city, and see the city from the walkways there. There are still cannons remaining on the ramparts, ostensibly placed to protect British forces of yesteryear from attacks by the sea. However, as I look at them, it’s easy to see that they are also pointed at the largely Republican neighborhoods in the city, and the feel is vaguely menacing instead of merely historical.
Then we all piled back in the bus to drive on to Belfast. First stop: the Titanic Museum! The Museum is located right in the docklands area of Belfast, and the building housing it looks like it has a giant ship’s bow on all four sides.
We all had signed up for this very interactive tour, and enjoyed learning more about Belfast at the turn of the 20th century, when it was the second richest city in Europe. In addition to all the exhibits which detailed the building of the the Titanic, and its final fateful trip, there was a reproduction gantry which reached up about 4 stories, just like the two which had been built about 100 yards from the museum to build the Titanic. You could take a motorized ride through sections of the reproduction ship, and really get a sense of what a massive undertaking it was. There were also re-enacted rooms which gave you a very good idea of what the traveling conditions were from the those of the first class passengers all the way down to the steerage passengers. There was also a very cool overlay on the window looking over the former shipyard which gave you an idea of the scope of the ship as it was being constructed. Finally, there was a great exhibit detailing the discovery and documentation of the Titanic wreck, with some great footage from the submersible ROV which recorded the conditions of the wreck as it lay on the ocean floor.
We then picked up a local guide, Bibi, who would be our leader to some of the more recent historical spots in modern Belfast. We went first to the Northern Irish House of Parliament (Stormont). It was built between 1928 and 1932 as a result of the Treaty between the Irish and the English which settled the Irish War of Independence, and resulted in the partition of Ireland into the Irish Free State and the British-controlled Northern Ireland. As noted above, this Parliament was suspended after the Bloody Sunday Massacre in 1972, and the Northern Ireland Assembly not re-established until Good Friday Peace Treaty of 1998. A huge purpose of that peace treaty was to restore limited self-rule to Northern Ireland.
Stormont sits in a very pretty parkway way off in the eastern part of Belfast. There is also a prominent statue of Edward Cason, a Dublin barrister, who was the leader of the Northern Ireland campaign against Home Rule under the banner of the Unionist Party. He is largely credited with being the force behind the partition of Ireland in the Irish-Anglo Peace Treaty of 1921.
Our next stop was at the Queen’s College of Belfast. Candidly, in comparison to Trinity College, this seemed to lack a little, with the exception of the fact that after negotiating the Good Friday Peace Treaty, Former U.S. Senator George Mitchell was appointed Chancellor of Queen’s College of Belfast; a post which he held from 1999 until 2009. How cool!
We then drove to western Belfast, which was the epicenter of The Troubles. Many civil rights marches occurred here, among other areas in Northern Ireland, and it became a flashpoint for violence during the Troubles. In response to rising violence from both sides, the British Army erected huge walls between neighborhoods (some as tall as 25 feet high) which effectively partitioned western Belfast into Unionist and Republican enclaves, called “Peace Walls” or Peace Lines. Not only were (and are) the walls physically imposing, but the British erected armed checkpoints at the major intersections, and prohibited vehicular access (and some pedestrians) after dark every day. Ironically, there are more peace walls today than there were before the 1998 peace treaty, but a sad fact is that a majority of the Belfast residents still think these walls are necessary for protection.
Candidly, you could write a doctoral thesis (and many have) on the topic of The Troubles. However, because I will undoubtedly blow the nuances about this issue, you can read more about it in the very good article in Wikipedia here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Troubles.
We made three major stops in western Belfast: We stopped in the Republican Falls Road area of West Belfast, and drove through the nearby Unionist neighborhood of Shankill Road, and made stops to look at the murals on the peace walls in several neighborhoods, as well as the infamous heavily fortified checkpoint station known as “Checkpoint Charlie”. On one of the main peace walls, tourists are actually encouraged to write graffiti messages of peace, and many famous people have done so, from President Bill Clinton to the Dalai Lama.
The Shankill Road Loyalist Neighborhood
After this mentally grueling afternoon, we made our way to the Europa Hotel in central Belfast right next to the Opera House, and then made our way to dinner at a nearby restaurant, Ginger Bistro (recommended by Dermott), we had an excellent meal and went to bed.
Today we left Dublin, headed south for our ultimate destination of Kilkenny. Along the way, we enjoyed many stops along the way. The first of those was at the National Stud Farm, where many of the premier racehorses in the world are bred. These horses compete in both flat races and in steeple jumping. Me; I was just there to see all the new colts!
We continued to drive through the Irish countryside, admiring all the green. Every so often, we’d pass by a Norman tower house, built sometime in the medieval ages. In any other country, each of these would be its own tourist attraction. But here in Ireland, they’re just part of the scenery because they are so common.
Our driver guide, Dermott, next took us to Mount Juliet golf course so the guys could a round of golf. Jim has been practicing for a couple of months so he didn’t embarrass himself. We all ate lunch at the golf club, and then left the boys to their torture.
For the rest of us, we went sightseeing in the Kilkenny area, and stopped first at Jerpoint Abbey, which is the ruins of a Cistercian monastery founded in 1160. The cloister in the middle has fallen into ruins, but you can still see the intricate carvings in the interior. Sadly. most of the front of the Abbey was undergoing renovations, which somewhat messed with the moody look of the church. Damn scaffolding anyway!
We got into Kilkenny proper about 4:30, which gave us just enough time to dash into the Castle of Kilkenny, which was built in the 1190s. Kilkenny was a very important city from medieval times onward. The Butler family (of Anglo Norman descent) came to power in the late 14th century, and the Butlers lived in Kilkenny Castle from then until 1935. Kilkenny was the medieval capital of Ireland. The castle is very large and well-maintained, and has a lovely location on the River Nore.
We then checked in to our hotel, the Lyrath Estate Hotel. The girls and I enjoyed some wine on the lovely patio, and then we enjoyed an Asian dinner at the restaurant in the hotel after Jim got home from golf, and we got ready for another day of exploring Ireland.
Yesterday we arrived late afternoon in Dublin, and reunited with our friends literally on Grafton Street here in theTemple Bar area of Dublin, it was really too late to do any sightseeing.
Well, we survived Day One with our intrepid travel group in Dublin, the Terrific Ten! True to form, it was a day of aggressive schedules! We’re staying in the Brooks Hotel, which has a fabulous location, right off Drury Street.
Our first activity of the day was a tour of the Kilmainham Gaol. The Gaol was completed in 1796, and was originally intended to house only 400 inmates, but ultimately came to house over 8,000 inmates. This happened largely as a result of the Potato Famine from 1844-50, because as the crops failed, tenant farmers were thrown off their farms, and winded up in the cities. So many people came to the cities that the Parliament passed so-called “vagrancy” laws, and started throwing people in jail just because they were on the street. However, the most infamous use of the Gaol came after the Easter Rising in April, 1916, when the Irish Republicans rose up and tried to throw off British rule. In all, 14 leaders of the rebellion were housed in Kilmainham Gaol, sentenced to death and shot before a firing squad. While many of those in southern Ireland initially were against the rebellion, the cruelty with which the executions were carried out ultimately turned the tide in favor of the independence movement, and Ireland was granted limited “Home Rule” in the Irish Anglo Treaty of 1921, which partitioned Ireland into the Irish Free State and Northern Ireland, which remains a British dependency. Sadly, although the war against the English ended with the treaty, Ireland itself devolved into a civil war between those who supported the treaty with limited independence from England, and those who still wanted complete autonomy.
The last prisoner was released from Kilmainham Gaol in 1924, and the Gaol was allowed to go to ruin as an emblem of English oppression. However, a group of private Dublin citizens pitched in to restore it in the 1960s, and its care was subsequently taken over by the Irish state as an important site of the history of Ireland.
After that uplifting visit, we walked a short distance to take the tour of the Guinness Brewery, established in 1759 by Arthur Guinness. We dutifully propelled ourselves through the self-guided tour, and hopefully, learned something about brewing beer. Then we stopped for lunch in one of the restaurants, and collected our complimentary pints of the good stuff! One other cool thing about the Brewery tour is that the top floor of the main (former) storehouse building has been turned into a bar with a 360 degree view of Dublin.
Dublin, like many cities these days, has its own set of “Hop On, Hop Off” double decker busses with open viewing on top. Not only does the Guinness Storehouse have its own stop on the circuit, but there’s even an express bus that goes there directly. Jim and I have found that these bus tours are an excellent introduction to any city, particularly when you don’t have a lot of time in town (as we didn’t on this trip). We availed ourselves of the red bus system, and were able to ride it directly to another main sight on our hit list: the Trinity College and its Book of Kells exhibit. Trinity College was originally established as an Augustinian monastery in the 1200s. After the purge of the monasteries by Henry VIII, Trinity College was founded by Elizabeth I in 1592. it was originally started as a Protestant university, and the first Catholics were not admitted for over 200 years (in 1793). Still, they fared better than women, who were not admitted until the early 20th century.
We took the brief college tour, and admired the disparate architectural styles while learning about some famous Trinity graduates, including the playwrights, Samuel Beckett and Oscar Wilde, writers Jonathan Swift and Bram Stoker and politicians Edmund Burke, Conor Cruise O’Brien and and John Redmond. Without a doubt, though, the most outstanding feature of the college is its Book of Kells, an exquisite illustrated manuscript of the gospels of Matthew, Mark Luke, and John, which were written/illustrated by monks about the year 800 A.D. (possibly on a monastery on the island of Iona). Words cannot describe how beautifully written and painted these pages are! However, no pictures were allowed, so you’ll have to use your imaginations (or Google).
We finished up our visit to Trinity College with a tour of the Long Hall, home to \Trinity’s fabulous old library. If you’ve ever imagined a traditional European library, this would be it; complete with a single hall with coves of books reaching up to the ceiling , some thirty feet above. It was magnificent!
Then we jumped back on the double decker bus and toured as much of Dublin as we could until it stopped running at 6:00 p.m.
We finished our day with a fabulous meal at an Italian restaurant in the Temple Bar area called Il Vincoletti! Tomorrow, into the countryside of Ireland.
Today’s port is Bonaire, which contrary to Curaçao, is not a separate constituent country, but a “special municipality” in the Kingdom of the Netherlands. Together with Sint Eustatius and Saba, they are known as the Caribbean Netherlands. Collectively, all of the constituent countries and special municipalities which had been Dutch Caribbean colonies, were known as the Netherlands Antilles until they were dissolved beginning in about 1975.
Although what we could see of the town also featured some of the same cute and colorful Dutch colonial architecture, our mission for the day was to go diving. This island has long been on my bucket list of dive spots I wanted to investigate, ever since my dad deemed it the best diving he had experienced in the world. From the amazing crystal clear waters of the harbor, I had a feeling he was right.
Shawn and Sylvia set off on a snorkel excursion. Here are a couple of pictures of them setting off.
Jim and I had other plans for the day; we went off to VIP Diving, rated Number 1 in Bonaire by Trip Advisor, to experience the scuba diving here. We had two dives planned for the day, both literally right off the beach! Unlike the rather large dive group we had yesterday, today, there were only three of us diving with the dive master. The equipment appeared very new and well-cared for and the dive shop where we met our group was very state of the art.
Our first dive was at a location called Invisibles, which featured an outer and an inner reef wall. Our first mission was to look for the resident local seahorse, which our DM, Jürgen Pfalz, was able to find with little trouble. Sadly, I learned that my underwater camera had permanently died, so there are no pictures to share. We also saw tons of parrot fish, triggers, puffers, and the best of all, a couple of sea turtles! The second of these was very preoccupied with grazing on some sea lettuce so he let us get very close. Dad was right, the diving is superb here, and I wished we had more days to stay!
The second dive was at a location called the Salt Pier. One of the things you quickly notice about Bonaire is how arid it is. As we drove further outside of town, we passed several miles of salt ponds where Cargill operates a salt mining operation right across from the multiple dive spots along the beaches. The interesting thing about these ponds is that they are all pink, which is caused by an algae in the water, which blooms as the trapped sea water warms up in the spreading ponds. The algae is in turn eaten by brine shrimp, who also turn pink, and then provide food for migrating flamingoes, who also turn even more pink. The salt pier, as its name implies, is a pier for loading salt into ships to be shipped around the world. Since it was not being operated today, we were able to dive around the pilings of the pier. As we waited out our surface interval on the beach, a lone flamingo flew slowly by.
The pier was its own undersea ecosystem, and we saw large purple egg masses laid by the sergeant major fish who live there. We also saw some rather large barracudas floating in about the upper six feet of water. All in all, it was a very fun dive spot, with lots to look at, if not the corals and sponges of our earlier dive. The entire coastal area of Bonaire has been designated as a protected Marine Preserve, so the dive operators must collect a $10 entry fee from each diver. However, we were happy to learn from Jürgen that the government really does use these funds to perform coral conservation and other marine preservation activities. We really enjoyed our day with him, and I would highly recommend VIP Diving to anyone considering a dive in Bonaire! Bonaire is very highly considered as one of the best drift dive locations in the world, but I guess we’ll have to wait for a future trip to experience that!
We went back to the ship to enjoy our final evening aboard the Star Breeze. Tomorrow we disembark in Aruba, where we will stay for a few days before flying home.
We landed in the port of Takoradi, Ghana this morning. As the busses left the very modern port, we could see an immediate difference in the flora of Ghana. While Côte d’Ivoire had lots of sand and palm trees, Ghana appeared to be much more green and lush. There were thick coverings of tropical trees such as mango, banana, papaya, coconut, red palm, plus cashews and cacao trees. Fittingly, our mission for the day was to drive deep into the Ghanaian countryside to visit a rain forest and walk along a walkway constructed at the canopy level.
As we were leaving town, we saw a couple of political rallies along the road we were traveling. As a contrast to our own dismal election season, the participants here all seemed really upbeat. They were literally dancing in the streets! We’re in the middle of election season for the Ghanaian President, just like at home (except that the election here doesn’t take place until the first week in December). Unlike at home, our guide tells us that there is really no rancor in the race, although it is very close. Ghana is proud of its stable political situation. Ghana gained its independence from Britain in 1957, but underwent a period of several dictators, finally resulting in the suspension of its constitution in 1981. However, a new multi-party constitution was adopted in 1992, and most rule since has been achieved through democratically conducted elections, usually favoring one or the other of its main 2 political parties.
Since we had a long drive to get to the rain forest, our guide told us a lot about his country, and I’ll try to relay some of the high points for you here. Ghana is the first West African nation we have been in that has a majority Christian population, followed by Muslims, then those who follow indigenous beliefs. As we drove, you could see that the country was making substantial investments in infrastructure,; in particular, building roads, power plants and schools to serve its 25 million inhabitants. We passed numerous Christian churches (predominantly evangelical) with members all wearing their Sunday best.
We also learned about the high percentage of inhabitants who rely on traditional medicines created from herbs, plants and trees. Our guide told us, for example, that the leaves of the Nim tree can be boiled to provide an effective medicine for malaria, which is common here. (Yes, we are taking our anti-malarial medications!)
Finally, we got to the Kakum National Forest, and got ready to hike up to the canopy. When they said “rain forest”, they weren’t joking. OK; it didn’t really rain, but after 5 minutes, it sure felt like it! Maybe its just my own post-menopausal problems with climate-control?! To make matters worse, I had opted to carry all my camera gear on my back in case we had some bird or animal sightings. Walking along the wet forest path up a very rocky and slippery path, I seriously doubted my sanity!
However, when we finally got to the tree house entrance to the canopy walk, we could begin to look down on the rain forest and it was awe-inspiring. Stepping out on the swaying rope canopy bridge was more in the nature of terrifying.
However, when we got the hang of it, I found I could briefly let go of 1 hand clutching the ropes to take these pictures, and we went on to do all 7 bridges. No wonder the gift shop here does a brisk business in the “I Survived the Kakum Canopy Walk” t-shirts!
With the walk under our belt, we loaded up the bus again and set off for the seaside town of Elmina, where we would have refreshments at a hotel overlooking the sea. Elmira used to be the colonial center of Ghana, and there is still a castle on the point there guarding its bay.
After a short respite, it was time to hit the road again for our long drive back to the ship. JIm and I were both exhausted by the heat, humidity and our long hike in the forest, but even so, we looked forward to exploring Togo tomorrow.