St. John’s: Top 6 Winter Study Breaks

Although we had been to St. John’s before moving here a full year ago in January, we certainly became more familiar with what the city had to offer during the winter, and even discovered new favourite activities. We don’t have a vehicle, but we do have bus passes, and take full advantage of the transit system. Here are just six of our top cold-weather St. John’s activities!

St. John's Study Breaks

 

1. Cross-country skiing

We had no idea that just on the other side of town was a super cheap cross country ski rental spot, with all-level groomed trails, and snow shoeing paths! For $5 an hour each (that’s an incredible bargain for skiing) we could rent skis or snowshoes, poles, and boots, and make use of all of the groomed trails around Pippy Park. Read more about it here

2. Brunch at Yellow Belly

There is nothing better on those bitterly cold St. John’s winter days than splurging a little on brunch. Although there are dozens of places in the city to get a great brunch, Yellow Belly is our favourite. Not only is the full lunch menu available, with plenty of veg options, fresh pizzas, and beer made onsite, the brunch selections include the classics, with a Newfoundland twist.

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I almost always have the French toast, stuffed with cream cheese and local blueberries (or sometimes partridgeberries if we’re lucky), while Rachel loves the eggs Benedict – without the bacon- or the crab cake benny for fish eaters.

3. Skating at Bannerman Park and coffee

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Bannerman Park recently got a makeover, and the best part (along with the outdoor pool, cobblestoned pathways and Beaver Tail vendor) might just be the Loop, the skating rink that is open so long as the weather is cold enough to keep it frozen. Because it’s a) free and b) perfectly located on Military Road, it’s a popular spot on most winter days. All you need to bring is your skates! I

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It’s also conveniently located between Georgestown Cafe and Bookshelf, and Coffee Matters, our two favourite cafes in the city. After an hour of skating, warm up with an americano and a freshly baked bagel at Georgestown, or a fancy latte and a muffin at Coffee Matters. Both cafes also serve a great lunch. After a sugar hit, we’re always ready to go back to the books.

4. Arts and Culture Centre Library

If the wind isn’t blowing too cold, we will often take an hour off and walk up to the A. C. Hunter Public Library, located in the Arts and Culture Centre. The two storey library is the perfect place to kill a few hours. Always toasty warm, the featured books are forever changing, and the huge magazine collection upstairs could occupy anyone. Head downstairs for the cutest children’s library, filled with low bookshelves and books in both English and French.

5. Signal Hill at night

Our favourite place in the city to see the lights of downtown and the Narrows is from the top of Signal Hill. If you’re feeling ambitious, take a walk up the road, and don’t forget a sweater (or five, in Rachel’s case).

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6. See the lights at Bowering Park

Just as the Christmas exam period is looming, pop down to Bowering Park to see the Christmas lights. Early December brings the Festival of Music and Lights to the park, with choirs from the city performing, and free hot chocolate. The City accepts donations to the food bank, and the lights are officially lit for the Christmas season.

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Planning for Montreal: Top 4 To Do’s

For those who follow the university calendar schedule you’ll know that exams are in full swing. Our tiny house is battling six take home exams and five in class exams in the next 9ish days, which isn’t too bad, all things considered.

But hark! The light at the end of the tunnel is almost visible, and with the wanderlust coursing good and strong through our veins, I am now the proud owner of a ticket to Montreal. I know you’re thinking, “What?! That’s not a beach!” No, it’s not exotic. But it sure isn’t this frigid province (sorry NL – love you but seriously, what’s with the weather?!). Some Canadian city has to have more than just a hint of a green leaf.

So with 10 full days of spring weather, tulips, poutine, bagels, city living and no classes coming up, here are the top four things I’m looking forward to in Montreal & Toronto.

Top 4 Must Do's in Montreal - So with 10 full days of spring weather, tulips, poutine, bagels, city living and no classes coming up, here are the top four things I’m looking forward to in Montreal

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1. The Istanbul Exhibit at the Aga Khan Museum, Toronto, Ontario

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Both historic and modern photos, landscapes, and albums of the city are on offer in an exhibit entitles “A City Transformed: Images of Istanbul Then and Now”, and I am all set to immerse myself in the history and culture of Istanbul. Read more here.

2. Cafe Culture and Bagel Fixes

And Then I Met Rachel Top 3 Montreal Sights

Montreal is known – of course – for poutine and bagels. And although those are great, I am majorly ready for some coffee, french bread, and serious French Canadian brunch. This shot of Olive et Gourmando is exactly what I’m going for. Brioche French toast, here we come. (Image)

3. Bixi Biking on the Lachine Canal

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Not at night, because I don’t bike very well. But the idea of renting a bicycle from BIXI, Montreal’s bike sharing service provider, and pedaling down the canal is super appealing. There better be a bagel waiting at the end of all that calorie burning. (Image)

4. After all of that eating, exercise and culture, we’re going to need a drink. Potentially an espresso. Thankfully we have this handy chart, and shouldn’t have any trouble finding one. Board games? Yes please. (Image)

And Then I Met Rachel Top 4 Montreal To Do

See you soon Montreal!

 

a fawlt-less trip to torquay

A week in Exeter, in the off-season, is a long time. We had reached the end of what was nearing 8 weeks away from home, and wanted our final stop to be somewhat more relaxing, with less packing and repacking, and more time to enjoy one place.

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Sunrise over the quiet end of Exeter

We booked a full week at a hostel in Exeter – a much better rate than the cost of seven individual nights. However, it was nearing the end of October, and for a resort town, the tourist season had long ended. We spent a few days wandering the shopping district of the city, determined that it was far from our favourite place, and started investigating the train schedules for day trips into neighbouring towns.

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Stormy skies over Torquay

For any Fawlty Towers fans – that British comedy featuring a luckless inn owner and his annoyingly always-right wife – the inspiration for the hotel in the program was found in Torquay, another resort town on the English Riviera. Though turned into a Best Western, the Gleneagles Hotel was once the spot of choice for the cast of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, until the cast experienced unspeakable rudeness from the owner. Instead of simply checking out, John Cleese turned the experience into Fawlty Towers. 

Although we did not end up seeing the Gleneagles/Best Western, we did take the train into Torquay, a pleasant, 45 minute trip from Exeter.

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Out the window of the train!

It was a cold, blustery day, and the sky alternately threatened rain and revealed the sun. However, all was not lost; a man was sketching images into the sand on the beach, toured the trinket-filled, tourist-targeted shops, and stopped into the tiered library, which was definitely a highlight.

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The Torquay Public Library

We had great coffee at Coffee #1, a British coffee chain, less well known than Caffe Nero or Costa Coffee, but better overall. The pier offered excellent views of the choppy ocean, and we wandered among sailors tying up their boats.

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Beach designs, Torquay

Certainly in the tourist season, Torquay would be well worth a stop, for the beach, and the cafes. As it was, we enjoyed the train ride, which was very straightforward, and spend a lovely day taking in the ocean air. All in all, there’s nothing wrong with visiting in October – just bring a jacket.

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The view from our hostel window, Exeter

(If you haven’t already, why not take a wander over to our Facebook page and give it a like? Photos, music, and updates are posted regularly. See you there!)

popping the cork… in cork (not really!)

We arrived in Cork in the dark, after a long ride from Dingle. It was a beautiful drive, through the mountains, with green fields everywhere, and cows roaming. Cork was almost the exact opposite. Although the sky was dark, the stars weren’t IMG_0749visible with all the lights from the city. Everything was lit up – the bridges, the shops, the traffic lights. Not the hostel we had booked, which was up on a hill, hidden out of the way, with poor signage. When we walked it, it was bright, and the girl at the desk was excited that we’d been in Dingle. It wasn’t our cheapest stay, but not our most expensive either. We got two beds in an 6-bed dorm, and it was only a little sketchy. As it got later, we got hungrier, and we ventured out into the city. As we passed the hostel lobby, the Garda – Irish police – were at the front desk… we didn’t linger to find out what the problem was.

We found pizza and a drink at a small pub across the bridge. Cork, like most cities in Ireland, is built on a river, which makes for lovely wandering, and for the directionally challenged like Rachel, generally easy to find the way home.

Our nights in Cork were long – it’s a big party city, and a dorm room is not the calmest place to be – but the days wereIMG_0772 lovely. There are probably almost a dozen bookshops in the city, mostly centered around a major, pedestrian friendly shopping area. Cute cafes, including a Costa Coffee we spent a rainy afternoon in, booking tickets and hostels for the next leg of our trip.

I had an interest in Blarney Castle, which was conveniently only a short bus ride from Cork. Although the day was cloudy, we took the city bus out to Blarney. The grounds surrounding the castle are immense, sprawling and green. For children, it would be far more attractive than the castle, filled with duck ponds, fields for playing in, and flowers to sniff (I’m pretty sure picking them would be frowned upon). By the time we reached the castle, it was absolutely pouring. Even our rain gear was drenched. For people who like castles, this was a good one. Although many of the roofs are gone, the many turrets are great for climbing and exploring, and unlike some more in-tact and delicate structures, Blarney Castle was good and destroyed by the time we arrived, with very few restrictions on where you could wander. In the sunshine, it would be absolutely lovely. In the rain… we say it’s authentic.

And since we were all the way out at this tourist attraction, and we were already wet, I was convinced to be slightly manhandled by a burly Irishman in order to kiss the Blarney Stone. Legend says that by kissing the Stone, one will never be lost for words – clearly that’s not a problem… maybe it worked!

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For those who may not be as in love with the castles as I am, there were some very interesting caves just down the path from the castle, included in the price of admission to the grounds. It was a perfect respite from the rain, though very dark, and although I am not a geologist of any sort, I suspect there were some interesting features for those who might be more knowledgeable.

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For Rachel – not as much of a castle-lover as I am – was far more engaged by our second highlight of Cork, the English Market, a covered food market in the centre of the city. Along with all the merchants selling local produce, meats, fish and souvenirs, on the second floor there is a sweet little restaurant and a posh cafe, where we splurged on coffees and a treat, overlooking the wandering shoppers and the merchants with their wares. Although it was a bit of a touristy day, with the market and the castle, we got to see a slice of Irish life in the market, and saw lots of side streets in Cork trying to find our way there!

Cork was not our favourite stop by any stretch – the hostel was slightly creepy, the weather did not hold up, and I cannot recall huge sections of our few days there – but Blarney Castle was memorable. Blarney (the town) was very cute, and the sheer number of bookshops we got to visit made the trip worth it. And, if the rain just won’t stop, the Costa Coffee across the river is the perfect place to wait it out, book a ticket, or hope for a bus out.

dingle – an off-season backpackers’, small-town paradise

With a population of about 1200, Dingle village is a tourist hotspot in the summertime, often practically overrun with touristsdingle. The picturesque town is located on the Dingle Peninsula, a mountainous piece of land, jutting into the Atlantic Ocean. We arrived in the late afternoon, on the last day of September. Tourist season had been over for a few weeks, and almost no one got off the bus except us. We hadn’t booked a room, the bus had taken all day, and we had run out of snacks. We were greeted by a young man encouraging us to take a room in a hostel up one of the mountains, about a ten to fifteen minute drive from the town. Having learned our lesson from Limerick, we hit the streets to find a room in town, not a short drive away. IMG_0730 Dingle exceeded all expectations, and completely made up for our disappointing stay in Limerick. The sun was bright and warm, the tide was in and the ocean sparkled, and everything was absolutely green. Very few streets would have accommodated two cars passing at once, but fortunately, we encountered almost no one driving, as the town was so compact it would be silly to take your car anywhere. We found two cheap beds in a 12-bed dorm in the Grapevine Hostel, but unlike our other dorm stays, this one was empty. Apparently Dingle is not such a hotspot after early September, and we were some of the only backpackers in town. I have no idea why – it was almost like a secret haven of perfect Irish solitude, with friendly people and cobblestone streets, complete with cows and the waves lapping in the distance.

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We dropped our bags, and headed out to find dinner, but got completely sidetracked by a trail leading past the harbour to the water. We walked down a road filled with now-deserted summer homes, to a small path that ran alongside the water, and emerged in a field of cows. IMG_0728 (2) (1) Had traditional Irish fish and chips (and not so traditional but equally delicious pumpkin risotto) at a pub on one of the main streets, and on the walk back to the hostel discovered the Phoenix Cinema, a small, independent theatre, which just happened to have a movie showing! IMG_0742 We popped in, paid a small fee, picked up one of those perfectly European mini ice cream containers, and joined the other locals from Dingle to watch Mr. Morgan’s Last Love, starring Michael Caine. Not only was it a very good movie, but it was a perfectly non-touristy moment, and the woman sitting next to us encouraged me to partake in the (free) tea and cookies being served before the show. We emerged onto the dark, quiet street, only to hear the distant sounds of a fiddle and accordion. Following the music, we discovered Murphy’s Bar, absolutely packed with locals singing along with the two older men playing their instruments and having a grand time. We were the youngest ones there by 30 years at least, but the music was great, and the bartender told us you could see live music almost every night in Dingle, often at two or three different pubs. For such a tiny town, the arts scene was alive and well.

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The perfect end to a perfect, Irish night. The next day we found books and food, and we were happy. The Tree House Cafe featured a great Irish breakfast, and colouring pages for the many children who frequent the popular spot. Goat Street Bistro was a little above our price range, but it being the off-season, we couldn’t be picky. I highly recommend the leek and potato soup. Dingle features not one, but two bookshops, a public library, and two dozen other independent businesses, selling everything from fresh cheese to stationary. And Murphy’s, an ice cream parlour chain gaining popularity across Ireland, included not only excellent ice cream, handmade in Dingle, but also featured a small family from St. John’s, NL, who had got the same flight deal we had. IMG_0747 Their 14 month old daughter had met another small Irish girl, and the two families were discovering the many things they had in common, as we all sat in our corner of the world, enjoying our ice cream. Dingle made our trip. We will be back.

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our first – and probably last – visit to limerick

If we learned one thing during our first weeks in Europe, it was to determine where the heck your accommodation is in relation to anything you might want to see, before booking a room. We had been having good luck so far, not only in finding affordable places to stay, but also managing to get good locations. Our luck ran out in Limerick.

The very kind tour bus driver who took us from the Cliffs of Moher to Limerick was very concerned that everyone on his bus make it directly to their final destinations. This made sense, as all of them except us were seniors, mainly from America. The other two Canadians on the bus, two women from the west coast, had not yet booked a room for the night. The lovely driver found them a good hotel, and even went into the hotel with them to negotiate a good price on a room. The other American bus passengers were astounded at the kindness of the driver  – he didn’t just want to leave them on the streets of Limerick with their bags and nowhere to stay. Apparently, he didn’t want to do this to us either, because, even with passengers still on the bus, he drove us straight to the door of our hotel.

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Hostels were hard to find in Limerick. Either they were full, or we were too far out of the tourist season, or there perhaps weren’t very many. Whatever the reason, we had used a discount hotel booking site to secure a room in an actual hotel, with an actual bed, and a real shower. Amazing. Downside: it was so far out of Limerick, even the bus driver was a bit shocked. He took us anyway though – we never had anything but absolutely helpful bus drivers – and helped us with our backpacks, and he and the Americans waved at us as they drove off. We were in the middle of nowhere. There was no grocery store, no cafe, and we were very glad we had some snacks left in our food bag, stale as they may be.

The next morning we packed up our bags, and set off on foot – because that’s what Canadians do, apparently – into Limerick. It was indeed a long way out, but not impossible. We found a new hotel, also on a budget site, for very little money, and even though the woman at the desk clearly thought we were crazy, she let us have our room.

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Although a very nice little river runs through Limerick, and if you cross the bridge there is a bit of a shaded walkway that’s sometimes attractive, and some very chic looking neighbourhoods, the city itself was a bit grimy (sorry, Limerick) and left something to be desired. Sure, we may have been a little late in the season, and the people were friendly, but we weren’t feeling the love. After a quiet night in the hotel, we grabbed a pricey breakfast at a cafe filled with middle-aged people, all in suits. Having had no success finding either the library or a bookstore, we determined this was not a place we would like to stay, and got back on the bus.

Bus driver: Where you going?

Us: To Dingle!

Bus driver: Really?

Us: Yes!

Bus driver: But why…?

Us: We’re Canadian!

Bus driver: Righto…

And off we went. It was a very long drive.

doolin to limerick, via the cliffs of moher

Our time in Ireland had started to feel a bit like a three-week vacation on an Irish bus. But no matter.

From Doolin, we had been able to see in the distance the faint outlines of the Cliffs of Moher – our final destination on this particular winding road.

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We avoided the rain yet again, as the bus departed in the direction of the cliffs, following the Wild Atlantic Way, a coastal driving route meandering from Donegal to Cork. We arrived at yet another major tourist destination, but because of the sheer size of the cliffs, and the many ways in which to explore the site, it seemed close to deserted.

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O’Brien’s Tower is one of the major highlights at the cliffs, and one of the few things Rachel had on a “must-do” list. The tower was built as a look off for the many tourists who visit the site, and on a fog-less day (few and far between in Ireland) they claim you can see a great distance down the coast in both directions, into the neighbouring counties. Unfortunately, the 3 euro per person fee to climb the tower and take in these spectacular views was 6 euros too many for us. Alas, the views were excellent from the ground, and there were Irish men wandering in period costume, coercing (or encouraging?) people into climbing the tower.

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20 kilometers of coastal walks -the Cliffs Coastal Trail- are accessible from the Cliffs of Moher, 8 kilometers of which are actually part of the cliffs. Although we were at the cliffs for just under two hours, we managed to explore at least three of the jutting points, and could observe hikers in both directions. It is even possible to walk from Doolin to the cliffs, approximately an 8 kilometer walk. These walks are definitely going on our list for our next trip, not only because the views are spectacular, but also because the crowds thin out so significantly once you pass O’Brien’s Tower, it’s like standing at the edge of the world, all by yourself.

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Having read an article recently in a local paper, describing the lack of supervision and guard rails at a Nova Scotia tourist site, it is a bit funny to stand close to the edges of the Cliffs of Moher, and have absolutely nothing between you and the sheer drop into the ocean. At the highest point, the cliffs are 214 meters high, and although I think there was a small sign mentioning the risk of high winds, common sense prevails among most of the visitors, and a good two feet is left between the crowds and the rocky edge.

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We got the best of both worlds, weather-wise, during our short stay. The sky was completely clear upon our arrival, making for perfect photography set-ups, but as the afternoon wore on, the fog from which we had been fleeing all day gradually covered up O’Brien’s Tower. Although the cows in the neighbouring field were unimpressed, mooing and sitting down in protest, the effect of the fog was quite awesome, and by the time of our departure, none of the cliffs in the distance were visible. We got lucky, but definitely check the weather forecast before setting out to the site. The fog will completely obscure any hope of a vista, and any kind of high wind makes for a really cold, and rather unpleasant, visit.

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Our bus driver arranged with another bus driver to take “the two Canadians” for 5 euro each, on his bus to Limerick instead of returning to Galway, saving us a bus fare. Turns out, the bus tour we joined was one for seniors, and we became more of an attraction than the fog-covered scenery. We were a big hit, and we even met other Canadians. I offered Rachel a gravol, and we were back on the road.

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