Sunday, September 24, 2006

What We Did Last Summer -- Part 2 -- Free in the Harbour

Continued from Part 1.

Saturday, July 29. The George Street Music Festival was on, the hotel was full, and there was a room party going on across the hall. Despite this, we had very little trouble sleeping and only moderate difficulty dragging ourselves out of bed on Saturday morning. In the room next door, Chris, Liza, Cameron and Robin had a similar experience -- the drug of exhaustion helped to put all of us to sleep and keep us there.

In the morning, we had a leisurely breakfast after we hooked up with Bernard, Jean, and Erin. It was an opportunity to socialize and renew acquaintances. In 1997, during the months that the NewTel project had lasted, I had had dinner with Bernard and Jean and their children several times. That was where I developed a fondness for the Newfoundland "Jigg's Dinner".

After breakfast, we walked along the waterfront. The harbour was obscured by mist and fog, and fog was rolling down the heights on the other side of the harbour. The Narrows -- the entrance to the harbour, or from our perspective, the exit from the harbour to the Atlantic Ocean beyond -- was completely invisible in the fog.

Along the waterfront, we saw a private yacht -- the Charade, which I later learned had been formerly owned by Paul Allen of Microsoft, and had been the vessel on which Bill and Melinda Gates had spent their honeymoon in Hawaii. We also saw what appeared to be a Portuguese Ministry of Fisheries vessel, and several local fishing trawlers.

Bernard, Jean and Erin left after our walk, after guiding us to the parking lot of the Johnson Geological Centre, on Signal Hill, midway to the top. The day remained gray and threatening. The Johnson Centre is a science museum, focusing primarily on the geology and geomorphology of Newfoundland. It is a modern, world-class place -- everything that the Ontario Science Centre will become again when its modernization is complete.

The gray and threatening day had devolved into a rainstorm which had slackened to an occasional drizzle. We went from the Johnson Centre to the top of Signal Hill with high winds plucking at us. The top of Signal Hill is one of my favorite places in St. John's. To our vast collective disappointment, the Cabot Tower -- and the museum inside -- were closed that day due to those high winds.

Signal Hill has a commanding view of the harbour, the Narrows, and Fort Amherst on the other side, guarding the harbour's entrance. Lost in the mist beyond Fort Amherst, we could also see a hint of the spit of land that was Cape Spear. In the time that we were on Signal Hill, a couple of the fishing trawlers that we had seen earlier put out to sea, sailing through the Narrows headed out into the Atlantic, retracing the course of countless ships through the ages leaving St. John's.

We spent a couple of hours on Signal Hill before we returned to the hotel.

That evening, Erin came by with pizza to handle child care. With the children secure and with Erin's pizza and a couple of movies to guarantee at least limited tractability on their part, Jill, Chris, Liza, and I went out for steaks.

We ate at Peter Belbin's Steak House and Salad Bar on Duckworth Street -- a meal that was both memorable and satisfying. And let me note that when I worked in Newfoundland years ago, we definitely didn't eat like this. I had a lobster with my steak. It was served with the top half standing up and with the claws outspread, a presentation which caused us much laughter. I developed a taste for lobster late in life, but based on my (admittedly limited) sampling, I would have to say that lobster from Newfoundland tastes better than any lobster than I've had anywhere else -- undoubtedly due to the cold deep waters where the lobsters grow.

Sunday, July 31. I spoke with Kevin at his cottage. Modern technology - in this case, cell phones - are wonderful! We packed up the children, got groceries, and headed off to Kevin's cottage. On the way, we had a minor navigation glitch -- we missed an on-ramp that kept us on the Trans-Canada Highway, and found ourselves in Conception Bay South, where we had to retrace our route.

Back on the main highway, the weather changed suddenly and we went from a cloudy day to torrential downfall conditions. There was so much rain that water pooled on the road, and several times the van hydroplaned or gave indications that it was on the verge of hydroplaning. Chris, who was driving, kept us on the road and safe.

We followed Kevin's instructions to his cottage, where I introduced Kevin to Chris and Liza and the children. Kevin and Jill needed no introductions -- they had met in '97 when Jill came out to Newfoundland to visit me while I worked there. Kevin introduced us to his wife Jen and to the children -- Maryanna, Liam and baby Gavin, and to the host of other guests who dropped by through the course of the afternoon to visit.

Within an hour of our arrival, the sky cleared, and the children did some swimming off the end of the dock. Maryanna, in particular, demonstrated her affinity for moving effortlessly through the water.

At dinner that night, Robin (aged four and a half) said to Jen, "Do-Ming thinks he's smarter than I am." Pausing, she continued, "I just let him think that!"

When we left that night, Jen solemnly promised Robin that she would keep her secret.

On the way back to the hotel, we had a minor adventure -- somewhere along the way, there had been a tire puncture -- the passenger side front tire was flat. By this point, it was late, and the children were asleep in the back of the van. With the user manual for the van, Chris' LED flashlight, and a friendly motorist who stopped to help, we were able to extract the jack, lift up the van, find and remove the spare, and finally change the tire. For future reference, note that the spare for the Dodge Caravan is stored in a well underneath the rear deck of the van, and you have to unscrew an oddly arranged retaining bolt in order to release it onto the ground.

For the most part, the children remained asleep, and we made it back to the hotel with no further incident.

Monday, July 31. Jill's birthday was sunny, bright, and warm -- the very antithesis of Saturday or Sunday.

I took the van to a Canadian Tire store (which we had seen coming in from the airport) and had them replace the tire. After the tire repair was complete, I went back to the hotel, picked everyone up, and proceeded on to the first of the day's activities -- the Visitor Centre on Signal Hill.

From the Visitor Centre, it was a short walk to Gibbet Hill. The children found blueberries and partridge berries growing on the ground and the slopes. They all raced up, mountain goat-like, but I struggled -- the climb was another demonstration of how overweight and out of shape I have become. Despite my exertions, the sunshine was enjoyable :-) And I didn't die of a heart attack.

By early afternoon, we went down to the waterfront, where we bought tickets for a three hour boat tour. For the record, the boat was called Iceberg Quest 2, not the S.S. Minnow :-)

Our trip on the tour boat took us out through the harbour, past the Narrows, and out toward Cape Spear.

Once out on the ocean, I looked back toward land and saw the Cabot Tower on top of Signal Hill.

The day remained warm and sunny and clear, with only a hint of clouds in the sky. The boat operators insisted that all the children be in life jackets -- a requirement which added to the sense of adventure.

But the main purpose of the tout was whale watching, and we were not disappointed. In celebration of Jill's birthday, a female humpback whale and her calf swam beside the boat for much of the outbound leg of the tour, at one point coming within a couple of boat widths. When they spouted, my glasses got covered with a fine, warm mist -- I had to scrub off my glasses before I could see again. The boys giggled and made remarks about whale snot.

For his birthday in May, Corwin had been given a digital camera -- he used it to take the shot above of a humpback fluke breaking the water as the whale rolled and dived.

Humpback whales can be identified as individuals by the variations in the pattern on the edge of their tail fluke. This next shot, zoomed up, would provide appropriate data to allow identification of this individual.

All good things end. The boat reached the headland of Cape Spear, and followed along the coast, allowing the tour guide to point out the caves in the cliffs before turning back. There are two lighthouses at Cape Spear, dating back to the 1800s. Later in the afternoon, we would be getting close-up looks at them.

We encountered the same pair of whales on the return leg. Our last sight of mother and calf were their two tails in the air as they sounded, a cetacean wave "goodbye".

After we returned from the boat tour, we collected our faithful van from the parking garage. Total cost for parking, in the downtown business district of St. John's on a weekday -- less than ten dollars. This was a sum that caused those of us familiar with equivalent prices in downtown Toronto to smile widely.

For the rest of the afternoon, we went on a road trip to Cape Spear, which we had seen earlier from the boat. Cape Spear is the most eastern point of the North American continent. We managed to get there after correcting from a wrong turn which got us a chance to see a bit more of the countryside around St. John's.

The two pictures above are probably my favourite shots from the entire trip. After parking at Cape Spear, we made our way upward, toward the two lighthouses. I stopped to rest, and Corwin and Robin spent a few minutes with me, hanging out. Jill was there to catch the moment on camera.

So I posted the photo above to demonstrate my quintessential lack of respect for authority :-) However, the sign itself is puzzling. Unlike many other locations at Cape Spear where the path would give way to sudden sheer drops down to lethal looking rocks, this place was a nice and gradual descent to a sheer cliff -- not nearly as apparently dangerous as some other spots.

The photo below documents an interesting architectural detail of the smaller lighthouse. This building design apparently requires windows to be placed in particular locations on the building facade. However, glass windows are weak points on walls of structures built on top of the cliffs at Cape Spear, where they are subjected to extremes of wind and storm-driven rain. The builders recognized that windows were not a good idea, so they compromised -- the lower right hand window, as well as the upper left and upper right are fakes -- artfully constructed of framing wood and paint. This elegant solution allowed the requirements of form to be met without the demands of function taking a hit.

The final Cape Spear photo is a group shot of all of us. Behind us, only a couple of metres away, is one of those sheer drops I have discussed earlier -- complete with not only lethal rocks, but dangerous looking waves to generate enough undertow to drag away the lifeless body of anyone who fell. However, at the moment the shot was taken, we are all as far East as we have ever been while still in North America, and the entire population of the continent are west of us.

The ending to Jill's birthday was marked by dinner at a chain restaurant (in deference to the finicky tastes of children), followed by an early bedtime. Next day would be a long travel day.

Continued in Part 3.

What We Did Last Summer -- Part 1 -- Arriving to St. John's

The Autumnal Equinox has passed and fall is here. So what better time to talk about everything we did this last summer?

The major highlight of the summer of 2006 was our trip to Newfoundland -- a trip that began with a casual conversation with our friend Liza a couple of years ago, identifying 2006 as the year in which all our respective children would be old enough to be able to handle the travel requirements and to appreciate the trip. From this first conversation grew a consensus, then an intent, and finally a plan.

My own history with the city of St. John's, Newfoundland goes back to 1997. Off and on, between April and December that year, I spent many weeks there as an employee of a consulting firm working for Newfoundland Telephone on an experimental component of their Peoplesoft project.

While there, I had worked with Kevin and Bernard, two IT staff members of NewTel. Subsequently, I had stayed in touch with Kevin when he and his partners left NewTel and formed their own company. And every twelve or eighteen months, I would see Bernard -- usually when NewTel sent him to Toronto, although he and his wife, Jean, spent a week of vacation here a year ago.

In the lead-up and planning, Kevin and Bernard offered many suggestions for activities, proving once again that the success of any operation depends in no small part on intelligence gathered on site by operatives familiar with the local cultural, economic, and political environment. Kevin invited us to his cottage, and Bernard offered us his front yard as a parking space when we had considered doing the trip in an RV. When we came to our senses and sanity returned (i.e. we looked at the daily cost of an RV rental), our plan scaled down, and as a preliminary move, we shipped a box to Bernard containing some bulky travel necessities.

Friday, July 28 The phone rang at an ungodly hour in the middle of the night. We had already been awake and dressed for ten minutes. It was Liza, confirming that their family was similarly up and getting ready. I drove down, picked up Chris, Liza, and their children, Cameron and Robin, and all their luggage and as previously arranged, hauled them up to our house. While I was gone, Jill -- in a last minute burst of superhuman effort -- reorganized our luggage.

With the entire group together, fed with Chinese barbecue pork buns, and luggage on the front steps, we were ready. Shortly, in a not-quite-large-enough van sent by the cab company, we were on our way to the airport and our charter flight to St. John's. Consolidating the cab ride saved some money -- and saving money is always a good thing. We had gotten a good deal on the airfare as well -- it was sufficiently low that airport fees and taxes actually cost more than the flight. The downside was that we were packed into the aircraft at a density level that showed that the charter company (Skyservice) was committed to the idea of using every available centimetere of room for revenue generating seats. In this model of aircraft interior design, the idea of "leg room" was ruthlessly suppressed. Liza, Jill, and myself merely felt hemmed in -- but Chris, with his nearly two metres of height, felt a more acute level of discomfort.

But we survived the flight -- three hours to St. John's, with a one-and-a-half hour time zone shift ahead from Eastern to Newfoundland Time.

The airport in St. John's was larger and brighter than I remembered from when I was there nine years previously. Insteading of walking down stairs from the aircraft onto the tarmac, and then walking across the tarmac into the terminal building, we debarked onto a jet bridge and from there directly into the upper Arrivals level of a renovated, modern, and expanded international air terminal.

The first glitch in the trip was the rental agency wanting to charge extra for Chris and Liza as the extra drivers. Convincing the clerk to check with her manager regarding the policy on CAA memberships solved that problem (and saved a couple of hundred dollars). The next glitch was less minor -- the 2006 Dodge Caravan that we were assigned was the standard version -- not the roomier, deluxe Grand Caravan version that we had tried out weeks earlier at the beginning of June.

Nonetheless, we managed to cram the luggage -- all the luggage -- into the back, got Corwin and Robin's car seats set up, and got everybody aboard. With the help of directions from the tourist information counter in the airport and Chris' GPS device, we drove into St. John's, with a stop at a Tim Horton's for lunch. The directions were perfect, and with the stop for lunch, we got to the hotel on Le Marchant Road just after the three o'clock check-in time.

Once in the hotel, adults rested, children played, and I came to the realization that crucial contact information for Kevin had been left in a file folder in my briefcase at home. I had printed out an email from Kevin containing his contact information, but I had forgotten to forward the email from my work account to GMail. Although I had my laptop with me, and could connect to my work account, I had archived all of my email in anticipation of being away from work for an extended period of time. The email was there -- but it was physically on the computer on my desk at work, not on the network -- and therefore inaccessible. I had no way of contacting Kevin, and his office voice-mail message indicated what I already knew -- he was gone for at least two weeks, at his cottage somewhere outside the city, where the only way to contact him was through a cell phone number which I didn't have.

While I fretted over how to get in touch with Kevin, I was able to check off an easier task -- that being to get in touch with Bernard. Bernard was still with the telephone company -- now called Aliant -- had also just started his vacation, and was dealing with some errands, but he offered to stop by the hotel that evening. Although I was beginning to have my doubts about how much longer any of us could stay awake, all the pieces of the puzzle were coming into place.

After examining my alternatives with Kevin, I decided that simplicity was best -- I made a phone call back to the office in Toronto where I asked a colleague to turn on my computer, log in, open my archive, and forward the email I needed to my GMail account. Seconds later, and thousands of miles away, I had the information I needed, and was able to leave Kevin a message. I love modern technology....

That afternoon, the two boys -- Corwin and Cameron (age 9) -- walked with me from the hotel on Le Marchant Road down to Water Street -- the St. John's waterfront. We passed some old stomping grounds -- the Delta Hotel, and the Magic Wok Chinese Restaurant.

Although I wanted to continue farther, I faced a mutiny in the ranks -- the boys assured me that twenty minutes of walking had reduced their legs to stumps and they could not possibly climb the hill back to the hotel. There was a light, intermittent drizzle and the air was cool -- a definite difference from the heat wave we had left behind in Toronto.

Making our way back to the hotel with the help of a taxi cab, we waited for Bernard, his wife Jean, and daughter Erin to arrive, which duly came to pass by early evening. Bernard brought along the the box which Chris had sent a couple of weeks earlier. In the lead up to this trip, Chris, Liza, Jill and I had identified some "nice to have items" -- Chris and Liza's camp cooler, books, pocket radios, miscellaneous hardware -- and we had shipped all of this to Bernard so as not to take up luggage space for the plane.

After a brief visit, our evening was rounded out by dinner at the Magic Wok -- a Chinese restaurant at least as good or better as some fine restaurants in Toronto. The culinary highlight of the evening was duck and ginger soup -- light, fragrant, and tasty.

Our Newfoundland vacation was under way!

Continued in Part 2.