Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Pilgrim's Progress

So we've seen how the Americans stopped being English colonists and became an independent nation. We've also seen how the people of this new nation drifted apart into two distinct regions and fought battles amongst themselves, in particular over differing views on slavery. But now we're off to see where it all started - where did these Americans come from?

In the early 1600's a bunch of English people had grown unhappy with the way the Church Of England did things and ran off to Amsterdam to create a puritan colony. Eventually they were given permission to create a new colony in America, near the Hudson River, and so they left for the New World. It's probably a good thing that they did - what they would have made of the present-day Amsterdam is anyone's guess!

So they sailed from Holland, back to England, and after some kerfuffle with their original boat, boarded a ship called the The Mayflower. They set off from Plymouth, Devon in September 1620 and two months later landed in... Plymouth Massachusetts! What are the chances? Three and a half thousand miles and they land somewhere with the same name - I'm flabbergasted that more isn't made of that!

Except that they didn't... it isn't true. They actually arrived at Provincetown on Cape Cod. They hung around there for a few months before deciding they didn't like it, so they got back on the Mayflower and travelled across the bay to Plymouth. And in Plymouth, they're so proud that this is where the Pilgrim Fathers (as they later became known) arrived, that they have a fantastic monument to celebrate the fact. 

A rock. Not a particularly big rock. Not a particularly interesting rock. Not even a rock that's still in one piece, or even in its original location. But it's symbolic, and to jazz things up a bit they've built a mini Acropolis around it.

There are only so many angles from which you can admire a rock, so after five minutes of rock admiration we decided to admire the Mayflower itself. Well, not the actual Mayflower, that's no longer with us unfortunately, but in the 1950s a replica of the original Mayflower was built in Devon and then sailed across the Atlantic. They called it "Mayflower II, The Revenge"

You can wander around Mayflower II, which we did, and it's hard to imagine around 130 people existing in such a small space for two months at sea - they must have really wanted to be Americans.

The final stage of our "Pilgrimage" (see what I did there?) was to visit the "living museum" that is the Plimoth Plantation (the funny spelling is apparently the way that the founder of the colony, William Bradford, wrote it). It's a bit like walking in to a virtual reality adventure game - you walk around a recreated village populated with people playing the role of the original English residents, baking bread, chopping wood and generally being "old fashioned".

And if you talk to them they do their level best to remain in character, improvising as necessary. Justine bravely engaged one chap in conversation, asking what he thought of The New World compared to England. He immediately picked up on her accent and (to her horror) asked what part of Yorkshire she was from. Shocked by  the accusation that she was a Yorkshire lass she made some comment about the heat, "how did they feel wearing so many layers of clothing?". The puritan responded, quite reasonably, "How do you feel, wearing so little?". Ouch!

I just took photographs, and tried to look like I didn't know either of them!

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Witch Way To Salem?

Thanks to the infamous witch trials, Salem will forever be associated with all things witchy and spooky. The trials were an example of how things can get out of hand when an atmosphere of suspicion and fear takes over. As men and (mostly) women were accused of witchcraft, their options were to deny it and be hanged or admit their guilt, in which case they would only face prison, but with a caveat - they had to name some of their fellow witch colleagues. So, some were accused by neighbours who had a grudge, others by people who were trying to save their own necks and by the time everything had calmed down, over 150 people had been arrested and at least 20 had been put to death.

If you visit Salem, you are presented with a wide range of potential ghost tours most of which sounded extremely cheesy, so we'd tried to find a walking tour which leaned a little more towards the historical rather than the supernatural. We met at the starting point of the tour in Salem's shopping precinct - it reminded me of Stockport (for those of you who are familiar with one of the North West's premiere shopping experiences) and it soon became clear that even this tour would have a squirt of cheese on the side.

It would appear that the lady who was to guide us around had been to the Dick Van Dyke Institute Of Overacting and we found it difficult to keep straight faces as she beckoned us to follow her from one historic site to another. As the tour continued she'd build up the tension by recounting part of a terrible murder story and then asking "do you want to know what happened next?". In my mind I'm thinking "oh just get on with it woman, tell us about the stuff like we've paid you to" but I don't think she picked up on my British cynicism as she lowered her voice, leaned in towards us and whispered, "well... you'll just have to wait.". We were getting ham as well as cheese.

We were taken round the town and saw various buildings where bad things had happened. But apparently, nearly all of these buildings had been moved there from somewhere else. As we went on, I began to wonder whether any of the buildings were here originally - there's even a large house which has been imported from China - we've no idea why!

Our guide began to describe one of these buildings (again, it wasn't originally in this location, it had been moved from another part of town where they'd needed a parking lot) and the Dick Van Dyke training really began to shine through as she invited us to look up to where the "chiminies" were situated. The more she said "chiminies" the more vividly I could imagine a chirpy whistling chimney sweep dancing across the rooftops, perhaps with an umbrella-wielding nanny alongside him.

To be fair, we did learn some interesting facts about the witch trials including the fate of Giles Corey who refused to plead guilty or not guilty when he was accused. In order to try and force him to submit a plea, stone weights were gradually placed on his chest by the sheriff. Corey still refused to plead and eventually, as the interesting choice of phrase on his memorial stone shows, he was "pressed to death".

After the tour we continued exploring on our own and saw more witchcraft equipment shops than you could shake a broomstick at. Clairvoyants were occupying office space like estate agents do in most towns, and it was interesting to see that, in a town that once killed people for being witches, they were now actively advertising for them!

Excuse me for a minute, I'm just going in to find out what the benefits package would be. If you get a company cat I might be tempted.

Monday, 20 June 2011

Paul... revered?

"How do you view Paul Revere?" we were asked by an American over breakfast at one of our B&B stops. "Is he considered as much of a traitor in England, as he's considered a big hero here?" I answered, "quite honestly, I'd never heard of him until two weeks ago". I've heard of him now though, in fact I seem to have heard of little else.

Paul Revere, wondering how he'll be remembered by uneducated Englishmen

As we arrived in the USA, potential Republican presidential candidate, Sarah Palin, caused a storm by (depending on who you believe) misquoting, mis-remembering, re-spinning or knowing nothing whatsoever about the events that made Paul Revere a national hero.

As we've driven round the US we've learned more and more about the American Revolutionary War in which the cheeky colonists decided that they no longer wished to be ruled by The King Of England and pay taxes to the Great British Parliament (or Awesome British Parliament, as I'm tempted to call it). No, they wanted "liberty" and "freedom" and all that other stuff that the Americans deem to be so important.

Amongst the incidents which led up to the big scrap was the Boston Tea Party in which the colonists, upset with the taxes which parliament had imposed on tea imports, decided to seize a large shipment which had arrived in Boston Harbour and tip it into the water. Its not clear whether they remembered to warm the pot first - personally I doubt that they appreciated the importance of this small but vital step in tea brewing.

The colonists had built up an arsenal of arms just in case things got a bit tasty. The British decided it was time to nip that sort of thing in the bud and on April the 18th 1775, planned a secret mission from their HQ in Boston, to Concord to seize this arms cache. However, the rebellious chaps in Boston got wind of this plan and sent local bell-maker, patriot, tea party participant and all-round cool dude Paul Revere on an overnight ride to warn the colonists along the route that the British soldiers were coming.

Paul Revere on his "midnight ride"
Now this is where Sara Palin gets herself in to trouble because when asked about this event by a TV reporter she behaved a little like I used to when asked by a teacher about some homework I was supposed to have done (but hadn't) and instead of holding my hand up in admission of guilt, tried to waffle my way out of the situation. So she said something like "Paul Revere rang all his bells and set off the air raid sirens to warn the British that the National Rifle Association were about to kick their butts" - I've paraphrased a little but then if Palin's supporters can attempt to change the wikipedia page on Paul Revere then I reckon I'm entitled to rewrite history in my own blog.

The bottom line is that Sara Palin managed to look and sound like she didn't really know about this crucial event in American history and became the target of mockery and ridicule (although to be honest I think that her statement declaring her support for "our North Korean allies" was far more worrying).

Anyway we were passing Concord so we came to see where we (the British) started to lose our grip on them (the no-longer-want-to-be British). There's a National Park trail between Concord and Lexington and we drove along it stopping at various important locations. We saw the statue honouring the "Minute Men", so called because they were available to fight at very short notice, not because they were incredibly tiny!

The Minute Man statue
We watched a multimedia thing which told the story of Mr Revere's journey as he rowed across the Charles River before jumping on a horse and riding through Lexington and on towards Concord, waking households as he went and passing on the warning that the British were coming. He was captured before he completed his journey but he'd achieved what he set out to do, and the colonists were forewarned and forearmed, ready to repel the British troops.

So now we're experts on the American hero Paul Revere. We've seen the place he was captured, the house where he lived, the church where he plotted, the plot where he's buried, paintings of him, bells made by him, the bottom of a warship clad by him and an original pressing of his first US Billboard top 10 hit single!

Everywhere we've turned he's been there and now, like Sarah Palin, I've "had it up to here" with Paul Revere!

Sunday, 19 June 2011

Bar Trek

The day after Brandon we meandered through more of Vermont, including a brief drive through Manchester - we felt we had to go, but it was about as interesting as our new friends from Brandon had suggested it would be. We did see some more covered bridges (there were lots in Lancaster County, and they're popular in Vermont too it would seem), but we need to be careful that we don't become "covered bridge spotters" as that could turn in to an obsession, and a very dull one.

We'd booked a B&B in Townshend and when we arrived that evening, we were advised to visit Rick's Tavern, out on Route 30 near Newfane, for a quick drink and a bite to eat. Apparently Mick Jagger was in there previously, and if it's good enough for one ageing, successful English rockstar, then it's good enough for this slightly younger (but still ageing), unsuccessful English wannabe rockstar.

We wandered in to the tavern which was almost completely empty apart from one guy sitting alone at the end of the bar. We sat at a couple of stools at the other end of the bar and ordered drinks and two bowls of chilli. Behind the bar were hundreds, maybe thousands, of badges from what must have been every fire station in the US. I was browsing each of these when my attention was diverted by the things that I've noticed at every pub we've been in so far - the TV screens behind the bar. There are usually at least three screens, even in the smallest joints, and often they're showing at least three different baseball games for the benefit of the Bud Lite consumers sitting at the bar. But the event that's being screened tonight isn't really sport, though it's no less competitive. Tonight, live from Vegas, is Miss USA 2011, hosted by our very own national treasure, Kelly Osborne.

So we're sitting in a bar in the middle of nowhere, watching the mother of all beauty pageants with the two barmaids and the bar regular, each of us voicing our opinions on the style of each contestant's evening dress, swimsuit or walking style. As the evening goes on, the coverage delivered by Ms Osborne attempts to give us an insight into the personalities, politics and principles of these lovely ladies. One of the contestants, Miss California, lists her passions as "hockey and space exploration". That's right, you read that correctly, Miss California is "passionate", not about bunny rabbits, pansies and niceness, but about a sport that caused Vanouver's population to rip it's own city to pieces, and… space exploration!?!

The impromptu panel of judges assembled in Rick's Tavern begin an animated discussion, wondering if Miss California has already tried her hand at space exploration - if not, is it something she plans to do soon. Our regular points out that he is passionate about fishing, but space exploration is a far more complicated and expensive hobby. Anyway, she had our vote straight away, although not being US citizens I don't think we were allowed to vote - maybe if we'd phoned Kelly directly she might have been able to sort something out.

Unfortunately, long before we got to the results of the judging, it was closing time and we were ushered out by a no-nonsense barmaid (if you're familiar with Carla from Cheers, you'll be on the right lines). The next morning I jumped on to the internet, desperate for the result. Guess who's the new Miss USA? That's right, it's Intergalactic Starfleet Commander Alyssa Campanella from California. Only a matter of time before she's Miss Universe.

Saturday, 18 June 2011

Brandon - The Friendliest Place In The World?

Some of the places we've visited (and are still to visit) are absolute must-see locations, e.g. Niagara Falls, New York, Ben & Jerry's. But North America is a big place and, even though we're only covering a tiny part, some of the distances between the "must-sees" have been too big to cover in a day. So to break the journey into manageable chunks we also needed to stop in places we'd never heard of, but we always tried to find something of interest at each destination.

Thanks to the power of the internet we discovered that, on Saturday, Brandon, a small town in Vermont was celebrating its 250th birthday as well as the sesquicentennial of the Civil War (who knew that word even existed). This felt like a great opportunity to really get to the heart of small-town America. It also provided an opportunity to sample another American institution, The Motel. We've stayed in Hotels, Bed and Breakfasts and a log cabin, but having seen so many movies featuring a Motel (perhaps most famously, Hitchcock's Psycho), it felt like we needed to experience one ourselves.

So on (yet another) glorious sunny day, we arrived in Brandon and found a group of men dressed in Civil War uniforms and ladies in big dresses and bonnets.

Various old houses were open to the public and volunteers were showing people around and pointing out interesting features. One of these volunteers showed us a room where, allegedly, Martin Cruz Smith wrote the novel Gorky Park. We got chatting, established that we'd come all the way from England to honour the town's birthday, and he encouraged us to check out some of the other events that were happening today - in particular, the silent film screening that evening. We'd already considered this but he spoke so enthusiastically about it that we were now definitely going to give it a go.

As we left the final house on the tour, we were briefly transported back to Niagara - the sky had darkened, we'd heard distant rumbles of thunder and then a downpour refilled my poor shoes (the ones which had only just dried out after the Maid Of The Mist). We ran to the Town Hall and, despite looking like refugees who had crawled across the Atlantic sea-bed in search of freedom, we were ushered in to a talk being given on Vermont's part in the Civil War. This included incidents from Gettysburg, which we could picture vividly having already visited the famous battlefield. The speaker concluded with the Gettysburg Address which felt quite moving and served to further enhance the feeling of pride and all-round-American-ness, and by the sound of it, had been enough to bring a halt to the rainstorm outside too.

Feeling even more knowledgeable about the Civil War, it's time for something a bit more practical. We've been on the road for a couple of weeks now and two pairs of socks can only take you so far, so we decide to take advantage of the local launderette (laundromat?). We're about to head there when we realise we're being followed. "Is that my English friends?" - It's "the silent movie guy" we met in the earlier house tour. He asks if we're heading over to the square to hear the singing. We weren't, but it seems rude not to now he's mentioned it so we accompany him to swell the small crowd which is standing in front of the church, waiting for a choir of 250 locals (at least that's how many they'd hoped to recruit) to burst into song.

Our new friend introduces himself as Gary, and then introduces us to his wife Nancy who's one of the choir members. We talk a little about the town and as the music starts he explains the background to some of the songs we're hearing. There are evocative songs from the Civil War followed by rousing patriotic standards and even a song about Brandon itself, written by the conductor of this musical extravaganza.

I feel a huge sense of pride as the small brass band begins to play God Save The Queen, but to my dismay, they've changed the words to something else - this has nothing to do with The Queen being saved by God - this is treason! I shall be writing an extremely strong letter to the editor of the Brandon Times about this insult. I sense that Gary realises how upsetting this is for us and tries to smooth the whole incident over - I choose to keep a stiff upper lip and not jeopardise the "Special Relationship".

We end with highly charged and emotional rendition of The Star Spangled Banner and the audience join in with their hands pressed firmly against their chests. Lumps appear in our throats and for a moment, Justine and I feel proud to be American, until we both realise that we don't know any of the words!

Some of the singers taking part in Brandon's 250th birthday.
It's time to return to the laundromat to collect our washing. As she's unloading the contents of the machine into a big basket, Justine is shocked to hear the now-familiar voice of Gary. He's followed us here… is he stalking us?

Well apparently, he and Nancy have had an idea - why don't we come back to their house, put our washing in their dryer, they'll get pizza, and then we'll come back in to town for the silent movie. Now if this happened in England, I would immediately assume that they were deranged axe-murderers (or worse) and run screaming to the authorities. To be honest, if someone in a laundrette in England even spoke to me, I'd be highly suspicious. But hey, we're on "vacation", it's been a heart-warming day, and they seem nice enough - what's the worst thing that could happen?

So while Gary heads off to buy pizza, Nancy rides with us in The Black Slug and shows us to the way to their lovely house, tucked away in the woods - you'd sure find it hard to call for help around here if something bad happened, like an axe murder for instance.

The biggest pizza I've ever seen arrives and we all eat, drink and chat about stuff. It turns out that Gary is a world-renowned (I hope he won't mind me saying that) conservation biologist who has had books published on the subject and has travelled the world lecturing. I have an 'O Level' in Biology (grade 'C'), so as you can appreciate, we had a lot in common. (I probably would have got a grade 'B' if our teacher hadn't left to pursue a career as a TV weatherman but hey, that was a long time ago - I'm over it now).

The friendliest people in the world?

After we finish the excellent pizza, Nancy retrieves our dry washing from her laundry room (I'm wondering if it would be rude to ask her if she'll iron it all - that's probably going too far isn't it?) and we all drive back to Brandon Town Hall just in time for the Buster Keaton double-bill.

Apparently this has become a monthly event - the Town Hall is turned into a makeshift cinema, a silent movie is projected onto a screen on the stage and a chap called Jeff Rapsis from New Hampshire comes along with his keyboard and provides a live music score. It's fantastic. The first film is a short slapstick-style affair from Buster Keaton's earlier work, but there are some very clever touches - Keaton manages to appear on screen as multiple characters at the same time - that would be easy using today's CGI techniques, but this was from the earliest days of cinema.

The second film is called The General and is based on an incident from the Civil War, in which a railroad locomotive (The General) was stolen from the Confederates by the Unionists. It's a much more sophisticated feature-length offering with a really engaging story. All the stunts and "special effects" had to be performed live, and you had to keep reminding yourself of that as you watched. One scene included a whole train being driven onto a collapsing bridge and plunging into the river and a second take would have been out of the question. It was a great atmosphere - the hall was full and everyone laughed out loud or cheered in response to the film. I could now understand why Gary had been so keen that we attend - we enjoyed it way more than we'd hoped we would.

But the most impressive part was the soundtrack - as the opening credits rolled the orchestral score burst into life and I had to keep reminding myself that the music was being created live by one man at the front of the hall. And I'd expected it to be a kind of Keystone Cops jangly-piano thing, but it was a much more modern film score that wouldn't have sounded out of place alongside a contemporary thriller, and the guy just kept playing for the duration of the film - I'd have been exhausted after 5 minutes!

At the end, Gary and Nancy took us up to the front to introduce us to the one-man orchestra and we promised to send more people over from England for next month's screening. Then we said our farewells to our new friends from Brandon, satisfied that they had not turned out to be axe murderers - just really nice people.

Or were they? We return to the Brandon Motel, it's dark, and eerily quiet. We tiptoe into our room. The ceiling fan spins slowly, and could do with a drop of oil - it makes a scraping sound, a little reminiscent of a large knife being repeatedly sharpened. I'm sure I hear a noise coming from the bathroom and gingerly push open the door. I sense that there's something behind the shower curtain. Suddenly my mind conjures up an image of Gary and Nancy standing in our shower, armed with an axe, or a machete, or both. I snatch back the curtain… thank goodness… it's just Norman Bates!

Friday, 17 June 2011

At The Drive In

We're spending our first night in Vermont with llama farmers in South Hero. I'm not making this up. South Hero is situated on an island in the middle of Lake Champlain and it's such a quiet and picturesque setting - the only sounds you hear are the water lapping at the shore, the birds singing and the llamas… erm… a-llarming?

Two snooty llamas
The couple who run the farm also raise pigs, make their own maple syrup and wool from the llamas - just to be clear, it's the wool that comes from the llamas not the maple syrup.  Having said that, if bees make honey and earwigs make chutney, who knows what llamas are capable of!

One snooty llama (bottom left) and a big sky
As we head out for the evening and ask for a key for the front door, we're told that we won't need one. It seems it's so quiet around here that they don't bother to lock the doors - it feels like we've travelled back to "the good old days", which is where we're off to next.

We've never been to a drive-in movie theater (sic) before - I don't know anyone who has (feel free to correct me if I'm wrong). The north of England is not famed for it's drive-ins so the opportunity has never arisen. Well, it arose tonight in the shape of the Sunset Drive-In in Colchester (Vermont, not Essex).

We "drive-in" at about 8:15pm and the friendly man in the booth hands us a little leaflet detailing the films that were playing on each of the 4 screens. We choose our movie, pay our $15 and, after thanking us for choosing his drive-in, (I think he actually was the owner) he directs us to screen 4.

Screen 4 is a big flat piece of corrugated iron, painted white. In front of it, people had already parked on a series of grass ridges - we select a spot between a couple of very large 4x4 SUVs.

On an open bit of grass over to the left, a man is throwing a ball to his son, who is catching it in his baseball glove. Then two couples roll up in a station wagon and lay blankets on the bonnet and roof. They proceed to spray themselves liberally with insect repellent before taking up positions on the car, the lads on the roof, the girls on the bonnet.

We tune the radio in to the frequency shown on our leaflet and are greeted with the sound of Sunset Radio. The Everly Brothers fill the car with their close harmony wholesomeness and are followed by a spot of Buddy Holly. It already feels like an American movie, and the American movie hasn't started yet. If only The Black Slug was an open-top Chevy and my hair was long enough to style into a "quiff".

In need of food, we walk across to the snack bar (shed) where we join a queue (should that be a line?) of families who are ordering burgers, hot dogs, popcorn and pretzels. These people are probably very nice and friendly but everyone looks kind of tough, no-nonsense, monster-truck-wrestling types to me and I'm careful not to make any sudden movements that might result in a brawl or a shootout. We order burgers, fries and onion rings and return to the safety of The Black Slug.

Just before sunset, the movie begins (we've chosen to see Super 8). Watching a film on a massive sheet of corrugated iron, thorough your windscreen while the soundtrack plays from your car radio works surprisingly well. The burgers and fries are kind of McDonaldsy but suit the mood. I've bought 12 bottles of beer from the Long Trail Brewing Company - I'm not intending to drink them all, but one or two go down well while Jus enjoys a cream soda. The fireflies dance around between the cars and Steven Spielberg keeps us entertained.

When "Super 8" has finished we have the option of staying for the second film "Thor" but quite honestly, going back to the 50's is quite tiring and it's getting late, so we return to South Hero and climb under our handmade patchwork quilt. We decide we quite like "the good old days".

Chilling Out With Ben & Jerry

As we cross the border back into the US of A, the only French thing is the name of the state - Vermont which is just as green and mountainous as you would think.  To satisfy my inner child, we take a trip to the Ben & Jerry's factory at Waterbury.

The very sight of the place is enough to make you smile - with oversized cartoons and bright colours (or should that be colors?).  As we purchase our tickets, the guy asks us,  "Why do cows wear bells?"…  "Because their horns don't work of course!!!"

The tour begins with a short Moo-vie which tells us the Ben & Jerry's story - this moo-vie contains a number of other bad cow puns. Then we're taken to a viewing platform which allows us to look down on to the factory floor and as our guide explains the process, we can see the various pipes, conveyor belts, pumps, vats and the people that make it all work. A guy who's looking after the machine that puts the lids on the tubs looks up and waves - they're either really happy in their work, or drugged up to the eyeballs for our benefit.

Finally, we're taken down to the Flavor Lab (notice I've got bored of correcting the spellings), where new and exciting blends are created. And it's here that we get what we've all been waiting for - some ice cream. Today's new flavor (sigh) is "Late Night Snack" and it was inspired by Jimmy Fallon of "Late Night With Jimmy Fallon" fame (no, we'd never heard of him either - I suspect he's like Jonathan Ross, but not as highly paid).

Late Night Snack is basically vanilla ice cream with caramel and, wait for it… ready salted crisps covered with fudge. Yep, fudge covered crisps - and I thought we couldn't beat chocolate covered bacon.

But it's really quite nice, the saltiness of the crisps offset by the sweet juxtaposition of the fudge, perfectly balanced with the ice cream creating an explosion of flavours and sensations. Sorry, went a bit Oz Clarke there, but it was good.

We finished the tour with a few more cow gags.

Q: What do you call a cow that's just given birth?
A: De-calf-inated.

Q: What do cows have for breakfast?
A: Moosli.

Q: Why do milking stools only have three legs?
A: Because the cow has the udder.

Anyway, time to Moo-ve on!

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Bienvenue à Montréal

As we leave Gananoque and head northeast along the edge of the St Lawrence river, our radio roulette game takes an alarming twist. As "91.5, Moose Creek Classic Hits" begins to falter and then disappears, we press the seek button and are confronted with the unthinkable - French pop music.

Now it is a well known fact that the French can't do pop music - in general it sounds ridiculous - like something that Antoine de Caunes would have introduced and then danced awkwardly to at the end of Eurotrash. So the thought of wall-to-wall Charles Aznavour makes me shudder. We notice that the road signs are suddenly all in French, including stern looking matrix signs warning us that "Rue De La Ponte Du Marie-Claude n'est passable" whatever that means, or ordering us to "Fermez La Vache". This is outrageous - they should be speaking the Queen's English - we didn't come all this way to be insulted.

As we approach Montreal, the "Eurotrash Channel" begins to break up and we flick up to the next one which is in English. Which is good, because we're hitting Montreal in the rush hour and the regular traffic reports brought to us by our two chirpy drive-time presenters (Ken and Donna if I remember correctly) will prove invaluable. Or at least they would, if all the road and bridge names weren't French and weren't pronounced at breakneck speed (in order to be able to squeeze in the vital information that this traffic report had been brought to us by Zak's Tattoo and Piercing Parlour, or something). As we continue to speed through Montreal at 0.000005 mph, (even The Black Slug can cope with this speed) Ken and Donna continue to reassure us that it really is as bad on the roads as it appears to be through our windscreen, and that the temperature really is as hot as it feels.

The hotel we've booked in Montreal (the Chez Swann) is very cool and contemporary. In fact it's so cool that it doesn't feel the need to display any outward indicators that it is in fact a hotel; so when the sat-nav finally announces we've reached our destination, Jus has to go wandering up and down the street asking if anyone knows where it is. Meanwhile, I sit in The Black Slug, hoping that I'm not violating some old Montrealian by-law which forbids english speaking drivers from parking on the left on a Wednesday. Eventually we find it - glass doors open into a long concrete corridor with some big piece of art and a reception desk with a couple of MacBooks sitting on it, and an arty girl with bleached hair behind it. It just looked cool (but then I can be very superficial!)

All the trendy types seem to be whizzing around on bikes, so, to get a feel for the city, we hire a couple of retro-urban-roadsters and take advantage of the large number of cycle paths (including some impressive two-lane bike motorways).  We then spend the next couple of days pretending to be cool, arty kids living in this cosmopolitan place.

We browse the old city which is lit by gas lamps at night, wander through leafy parks, and take a brief look at the "underground city" which is a bit like the London Underground but with shops and hotels and museums and apartments as well as the trains.

To really satisfy our arty pretensions, we wander into L'Hotel Montreal which houses a collection of pop art originals from the likes of Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Damien Hirst and even a David Hockney (though we've got loads of them in Saltaire). I'm feeling so arty that I'm almost getting used to the strangeness of being in North America, but having to greet everyone with a cheery "bonjour" or thank people with a badly pronounced "merci".

Montreal. Frencher than a baguette being carried by a man called Pierre with onions round his neck?
Montreal seems to be a big festival city and they frequently close off many of the streets to accommodate them (which probably explains why the traffic congestion is so bad). We've arrived during "FrancoFolies" which, according to the organisers, is the biggest music festival in the French-speaking world. No sign of Charles Aznavour though, I may have to revise my opinions on French pop.

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Thousand Island Distressing

What goes well with Ice Wine? Well it's a dessert wine (or pudding wine as the northerner in me would rather call it) so something sweet would do nicely. And as we walked throughout Niagara On The Lake's small high street we saw a display of chocolate toffee apples in the window of a chocolatierisserie (if that's the right thing to call it).

Inside was a huge array of hand made chocolates, popcorn with interesting coatings and lots of toffee apples and "marshmallow kebabs" dipped in chocolate and coated in sprinkle-stuff. As with many situations we've found ourselves in on this trip, we felt a bit out of our depth by the language differences. Yes, it's English, but there are words we don't use in the same way and it can lead to confusion. So amongst the array of sugary delights in here we had clusters, brittles, bombs, barks and moguls and we weren't sure what we wanted. We naively asked the girl behind the counter about the bacon moguls, imagining it was some quirky Canadian joke, but no, the bacon moguls are little discs of chocolate with bits of bacon inside. Chocolate… coated… bacon…?!? She persuaded us that they taste delicious so we bought some (because we're daft like that).

OK, so we've tried it, and it tastes of bacon which has been covered with chocolate, but it somehow seems to kind of make sense, although I'm not sure it was what the Pilliteri Winery would have suggested to accompany their unique sweet ice wine.

But while I'm happy to try one Canadian delicacy, there's another one which we keep seeing but which I won't be trying. Poutine is, according to Wikipedia, "a dish consisting of French fries topped with fresh cheese curds, covered with brown gravy or sauce and sometimes additional ingredients". So, cheesy-chips in gravy, but give it a French sounding name and they think they'll get away with it.

Wikipedia goes on to say that "The dish may include additional ingredients such as lobstermeat, rabbit confit, caviar, and truffles". So cheesy-chips with caviar, in gravy! The next time any of my French colleagues says anything derogatory about English food….

Anyway, we've arrived in Gananoque which is on Lake Ontario in the Thousand Islands region, so named because there are well over one thousand islands. This is where Thousand Island Dressing was created and all this food talk is making me hungry. So we push the boat out (or push the boot oat if you're Canadian) and try "fine dining" at the Gananoque Inn. I'm thinking it's going to be good as I order the duck breast with ginger marmalade and the waiter informs me that the chef would suggest it is cooked medium-rare. Well the chef probably know what he's talking about so I'll go with the recommendation.

I'm not sure the chef did know what he was talking about, and if it costs the best part of forty Canadian Dollars to produce some dry slices of overcooked duck breast and a couple of microscopic drops of jam then frankly, I'm going to stick to my chocolate covered bacon chunks!

Gordon Ramsey - if you happen to be reading (you never know) then this place is screaming out for you to come and sort oot. Nice view though.

A Short Guide to Toronto

Avid readers (my Mum) might remember a post from our World Tour where we managed to take in the city of Los Angeles in a mere 24 hours. Well we needed a new challenge, so we've beaten our previous best and ticked off Toronto in 24 minutes.

Now I must point out that this is no reflection on Toronto. It may well be a lovely city, worthy of spending days, if not weeks to appreciate everything it has to offer. But we simply didn't have any time to spare on the journey across the top of Lake Ontario. However, seeing as we were so close, we decided to drive through it rather than around it, and once in the middle we thought we might as well make a brief stop. So, for armchair tourists with short attention spans, here is my 24 minute guide to Toronto;

It has a car park.
It has a really big tower.

Hope you find that useful.

Monday, 13 June 2011

The Long And Wine-ding Road

Niagara On The Lake is surrounded by huge vineyards and over the years, more and more wineries have opened up, some of them creating a particular regional speciality - ice wine. Ice wine is made from grapes which have been allowed to freeze on the vine (temperatures get chilly round here) and the resulting wine is supposed to have a very intense sweet flavour - we needed to try some.

Fuelled with enthusiasm for all things cycle related, we hired a tandem and started our training for next year's Toronto-to-Niagara event with a tour of the wineries, stopping occasionally to sample their isotonic sports wine.

We're becoming old hands at the whole tandem lark, and the 30 odd miles we covered were mainly on flat roads, so didn't pose too many problems. The only real challenge we faced was one we'd never encountered before. Long, straight, flat roads quickly start to feel quite dull, and this area is big on long straight flat roads. We got to a point where even Jus was starting to hope for a bit of a hill, or the odd hairpin bend just to give us something different to think about.

But the wine was good, the weather was perfect (again) and our B&B has a beautiful garden with a hot tub that you could live in. Mmmmm, time for another "sports drink" I think.

Elite athlete recovery facility, Niagara On The Lake. Hot tub on top deck!

Sunday, 12 June 2011

Niagara Crawls

We left Niagara Falls (USA) and drove across the Rainbow Bridge to enter Niagara Falls (Canada). After facing more questions from a trained-to-be-miserable border guard ("look this place is practically ours, you've got The Queen on your money… just let us in"), we drive along the other side of the river and can see the falls from a new angle. This is a better overall view in many ways, but the surroundings aren't as nice as on the US side and we're glad we chose to stay over there last night.

But the traffic is absolutely unbelievable. We're sitting in a jam which stretches all the way along the promenade (or whatever you call the pavement alongside one of the natural wonders of the world) and we're wishing that we'd grabbed a parking space we saw just after we crossed the border. As we crawl along, with The Falls to our left, it becomes clear that this is no ordinary Sunday lunchtime at Niagara. There's loud music pumping out of a serious PA system up ahead, while a guy booms encouragement down a microphone - "here's number 2182, it's Dave, give him big hand… good job Dave"

It appears that we couldn't have arrived at a better (or worse) time as this is the finish line for the annual "Ride To Conquer Cancer", a 2 day, 200 mile or 200 km (depending on how energetic you feel, and also where you stand on the whole metric/imperial political divide) cycle ride from Toronto to Niagara Falls. There's a fantastic atmosphere, thousands of people and it feels quite emotional to see cyclists, many in little team groups, coast across the finish line cheered on by family and strangers.

Our first night in Canada is spent at a B&B in Niagara on the Lake (a very pretty little town right on the edge of Lake Ontario, about 30 mins drive from Niagara itself). Over breakfast we meet a couple who took part in the event. They set off from Toronto, having loaded their luggage into a massive truck, cycled the 100 miles to Hamilton, camped overnight, along with the other 4500 participants and then resumed on Sunday morning to do the second 100 miles to Niagara. I did a 100 mile cycling event last year, but believe me, if it's a choice between finishing at a leisure centre car park on the outskirts of Bolton, or cheered on by thousands as you glide past Niagara Falls, I know which one I'd choose.

What a finishing line
But I may have been a little over-enthusiastic when I told them I'd love to do the event next year and they gave me their e-mail address so we could get in touch and they'd help us sign up.

Cliffe… Adam… Arms... Any of you up for joining "Team Crabsticks" next year?

Saturday, 11 June 2011

Wet Wet Wet

The Americans have an adjective which is used to describe mundane objects such as socks or coffee - Awesome.  "Awesome socks dude" or "This framazapacinno is awesome!".  Well, the framazapathingy (even with sprinkles) probably isn't actually something which inspires awe. At best it's a nice hot drink.

However, Niagara Falls IS awesome.

The Niagara River connects two of the "Great Lakes" (note, not the "Awesome Lakes", just "Great"), Lake Ontario and Lake Erie, and it divides the US and Canada.  About half way between those two lakes, the river has eroded a step in the rocks - quite a big step.  There are a number of islands in the river and two of these, Luna Island and Goat Island cause the upper part of the river to split into three, just before it crashes over the edge. So there are three "falls", the smallest, Bridal Falls is in the middle, with the American Falls next to it, and further along on the other side of Goat Island is the largest, the Horseshoe Falls.

The American, Bridal and (in the distance) Horseshoe Falls

From the park on Goat Island you can get very close to the river as it drops over the edge (almost within touching distance) and the noise, the spray and the feeling of power is - well, awesome.

However, to really appreciate the power of the falls we had to do two things. First, The Maid of the Mist is a boat trip which takes you past the American and Bridal Falls and on into the middle of the Horseshoe Falls. When you buy your tickets you are issued with big blue plastic rain capes, mine seems supersized - it's a Big Mac!

These are completely necessary. We're on the top deck along with many others, and as we approach the heart of the Horseshoe, it's like someone has taken a jetwash and turned it on us.

The Maid of the Mist in the eye of the storm
I've enjoyed many wet weekends in North Wales but I've never seen so many grinning faces simply because they're getting very wet. Justine has thought ahead and is wearing a pair of plastic pumps, but I've not been quite so clever and my Converse Baseball Boots are not the most waterproof footwear I own - they're starting to fill up with water! Still, at least the rest of me is reasonably dry and as I narrowly avoid joining a very friendly American Bachelor Party, we leave the boat - everyone still grinning.

From the jetty, some wooden steps allow you to get part of the way up the cliff beside the curtain of water and, again, the rain capes earn their keep as we get soaked by the spray and the mist. This feels a lot like the other attraction we were intending to try, The Cave Of The Winds, and we're tempted to give that a miss as it feels like we've already got as close and as as wet as is possible.

But The Cave Of The Winds is only another $11 each and we'll probably never come here again. So, we're issued with another rain cape, yellow this time and significantly shorter - this one only comes down to my knees. I guess we're not going to get as wet on this one, right? We also get a pair of stylish plastic sandals, which is a good thing for me as my feet now feel like they're encased in custard and I'm making embarrassing squelches with every step I take. So I put on my sandals and, just in case, I wear both my capes - the long blue one underneath and the nice yellow one on top. With my long flowing two-piece robes and my plastic sandals I feel like "Polythene Jesus", and I'm getting some envious looks from some of the style gurus around here.

We climb the steps up past the Bridal Veils Falls and head towards the "Hurricane Deck". It's like someone is firing golf ball-sized hailstones at you. Most people are backing into the spray as it lashes into their backs, shrieking and laughing.

Me on the Hurricane Deck - Observing the "No Smoking" sign!
An Indian man who I've never set eyes on before, smiles at me, slaps me on the back and shouts something in my ear, but I can't hear a word. Everyone is getting soaked and everyone's faces are beaming. If you want world peace, organise a coach trip from the UN, kit the world's leaders out in big blue rain macs and send them up to the Hurricane Deck... sorted. Oh, and tell them not to wear "sneakers" - mine still haven't dried out!

Friday, 10 June 2011

Pollywogg Holler

And so we leave Lancaster and travel 240 miles north, through Halifax, Mansfield and Liverpool. During our car journeys we've been playing Radio Roulette.  We listen to a local FM station until we begin to get out of range, and the signal starts to break up - then we press search to find the next strong frequency signal and listen to that… whatever it might be!  Well for the last couple of hours it's been Country-Rock all the way.  Tales of hard-drinkin' men whose best girls have walked out on them, but they still have their old V8.  Or soldiers, fighting the A-Rabs, because "Freedom Don't Come Free".

As we get further north, we start to see "Gentleman's Clubs" dotted along the side of the Interstate.  There's an advertisement for a bare-knuckle boxing event tied to a lamp post.  And I'm convinced I can hear the sound of banjos - duelling.

After several miles of driving past tree-lined hills with no signs of habitation at all, we turn off the Interstate onto a deserted dirt-track and drive into the forest.  Ten minutes later we see a figure moving by the side of the road.  A man with long flowing grey hair and an even longer flowing grey beard waves at us.  We stop and I wind down the window, while Justine tries to remember whether the rental car came equipped with a shotgun.  The hairy man extends his hand and welcomes us, to Pollywogg Holler.  Bill (for that is his name, and this is his place) tells us to park in the parking-lot.  The "parking lot" is a clearing, just big enough for our car (the Black Slug, as we now call it - due, mainly, to it's incredible powers of acceleration).  We park there and set off in the direction Bill had indicated, passing through a large steel dome, then back into the woods.

We hear something moving in the trees to our left and wish we'd purchased handguns in Philly.  But it's a deer which, disturbed by our arrival, bounds off to safety through a series of strange sculptures scattered in between the trees.

We finally reach a few wooden cabins.  As we stand looking at the cabins, wondering what to do next, a golf buggy whizzes into view, piloted expertly by Pat - boyfriend of Micky (son of Bill).

She invites us to hop on the back of the buggy so that she can show us round Pollywogg Holler's various lodgings.  We'd reserved a place in the Phantasy Dome, a canvas-covered geodesic structure which has a suspended, floating circular bed.  However, Pat informs us that a particularly bad hailstorm has peppered the dome with holes and that we might want to consider some of the other accommodation.  The golf buggy has the sort of acceleration that the Black Slug can only dream of and we do well to avoid being fired off the back as Pat puts the pedal to the metal.  She takes us to see the Phantasy Dome and, whilst it does look like a cool place for a party of 100 or more, we agree that the weather does seem to have taken it's toll - if it rains tonight, we'll have a wet bed (no funny comments thank-you).

So we drive on to the Sugar Shack, a cute little cabin with a fireplace (and the only place which boasts its own toilet).  Then we see a couple of "lean-to" cabins - imagine a wooden bus shelter with a double bed and a curtain across the front overlooking a frog's pond.  If you really want to feel "outdoorsy" these would be perfect.  Trouble is, I'm a bit of a wuss when it comes to flying bugs, and this looks like the place they come to hang out and chill.

Finally we settle on "The Sauna".  A beautifully carved front door reveals a wood-fired sauna room with a sleeping platform above it.  You get to the sleeping area by climbing a series of wooden planks, no more than 8 inches long which stick out of the wall, before stepping onto the last plank which is supported by a steel band and which dips and creaks loudly the moment you put your weight on to it.

Once you've conquered this mini assault course you're rewarded with a cosy little room with a double mattress on the floor and a pair of handmade doors which take you on to a small balcony.  Although lacking en-suite facilities, the balcony does feature something which even the top boutique hotels we've visited lack - underneath a rocking chair, find and lift up a small plank from the floor to reveal a "piddle spot" - perfect if you're caught short in the night and don't have the necessary ropes, crampons and sherpas to complete an expedition to the toilet cabin.

The "Piddle Spot"
Having chosen our home for the night we join Pat in the main lodge and are served cheese and crackers with some local wine.  We meet The Holler's two cats, one of which is named Margaret Thatcher, for reasons I never quite understood - something to do with her being a strong, powerful woman who destroyed the trade unions and ate mice?

Finally we meet Micky, who at first seems to have a slightly zany sense of humour, but over time you realise he has a very zany sense of humour - we warm to him.  He cooks steaks and shrimps on the grill and the four of us sit, talk, drink wine and laugh - we all have a thoroughly good time.  Then it's over to the bar area.  Near the bar is a little stage with a PA system - Pollywogg Holler hosts musical acts from near and far, while people eat pizza, drink beer and party.  As we continue sipping our wine, Micky and Pat share their musical tastes and we play "Pollyw-oke" as music drifts out of the Poll-iPod.

After a few more hours, we've had more than our fill of wine and are shown the way back to the sauna by torchlight.  Justine's greeted home by a June Bug flying up into her face - Micky snatches the flying beetle out of the air, and before Jus can tell him not to hurt it, he pops it into his mouth and crunches into it.  "Tastes like shrimp" he tells us in his Jack Black tones (if they ever make "Pollywogg Holler, The Movie", Mr Black has got to be top of the cast list).

Once we're alone we sit on our balcony and look out across the pond.  All you can hear are the frogs "hollering" (Pollywoggs are apparently tadpoles) and all you can see are fireflies sparking on and off as they hover over the water.  Maybe its just the wine but this place really does feel quite magical.

The Sauna
In the morning I'm feeling a little unwell (probably that last glass of wine) and begin to question the wisdom of sleeping at the top of a climbing wall.  Still, by the time we've had bagels and bacon and coffee and juice, I'm on the mend.  We're joined at breakfast by a family of four who arrived late last night.  Mom and Dad are in the area for a college reunion (Mom used to come to Pollywogg Holler, 20 years ago for some "wild" parties).  Their two kids keep Micky busy by insisting that he drives them around on the golf cart, or showing him the collection of slugs they've found (thankfully, Micky restrains himself and doesn't eat any).  They are also delighted to meet Mr Nuts - Micky's hand-trained squirrel who comes to the table and takes food from your hand.

We leave with hugs from Pat and a warm handshake from Micky and make our way back to the car.  As we prepare to drive off, Micky and Pat hurtle past on the golf cart, spewing dust into the air - he's probably off to find more bugs!

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

The Battle of Sweatysburg!

Having furnished ourselves with the full details of the American War of Independence when we visited Philadelphia, we now need to brush up on the other one - the Civil War.  The largest battle of this conflict between the American people was fought over 3 days at Gettysburg.  We've made the hour-or-so journey out to Gettysburg and are now being kitted out to take to the battlefields - on horseback.  We're greeted by Pam, the owner of a number of horses and after waiving our rights to take any form of litigation should anything bad happen, we mount our steeds.

I'm on Dakota, who seems to be interested in only one thing - eating.  Justine is presented with Rio who, apparently, is the boss all the others, but a bit of a problem horse.  Whether Rio's prone to missing drug tests or losing concentration at crucial moments I'm not sure.  (If you don't understand this reference, speak to someone who's into football).

So we head out through the woods with Andi, our guide and she begins to explain how, after about a year of conflict between North and South, the Union Army led by General George G. Meade and the Confederate Army led by Robert E. Lee stumbled across each other.  Now my knowledge of the American Civil War is limited and the only thing I know about General Lee has been picked up from The Dukes of Hazzard, so I had to ask Andi to backtrack a bit and give me a quick idiots guide, which she did very well.  Armed with enough background information, we emerged onto the battlefield.

There are a huge number of monuments out here - it seems that every state has one commemorating their fallen - but other than the monuments the whole area has been preserved and looks exactly as it did around the time of the battle.

As our horses walk in single file, we can start to imagine Confederate sharp shooters lurking behind trees, waiting to pick us off one by one.  It's around 100 degrees farenheit (20 degrees hotter than normal for the time of year) and a severe heat warning has been issued for parts of Pennsylvania and Maryland.  Andi tells us that the battle was fought in hot and humid conditions, not dissimilar to these - we're absolutely boiling and the thought of wearing wool uniforms and carrying equipment and supplies whilst cannons are being fired towards us is not a pleasant one.

By the time we'd finished our tour, I was starting to feel that I was in control of Dakota, rather than the other way round.  Justine had been hit (by the heat) and I feared that Gettysburg may claim one final casualty, but once we got her down from Rio and into the shade she started to recover, and we were able to continue our tour… time for the pub we think!

Monday, 6 June 2011

Scooters, Buggies and Blackberries

We leave Philadelphia having really enjoyed the place.  We haven't even got round to mentioning the huge number of cool urban bicycles that everyone seems to use to get around, or the Irish dancing out at the harbour where it felt more like Ireland than when we were actually in Ireland, or the amazing delicatessen just round the corner which made us wish we'd been self-catering.

Anyway we have to move on, and we pick up a hire car (an automatic with the driver's seat on the wrong side) and take the first tentative steps of our "Road Trip".  In an unusual departure for me, I sit and read a good chunk of the owners manual before even starting the engine.  It took a while to get used to the automatic transmission (I can't help feeling you're not really in control of a car if it decides when to change gear for you) but eventually we were on the Interstate (or the Freeway, or Turnpike, or whatever a dual-carriageway is called over here).

After an hour and a half we've passed through the familiar sounding town names of Devon, Bradford and Chester, but as we get nearer to Lancaster things start to get odd.  We go through "Paradise" which seems nice enough but I think they're over-egging it a little on the naming front.  Signs point to "Blue Ball", and "Fertility", and "Virginville".  We pass though "Bird-In-Hand" and finally,  we get to "Intercourse".

What's even stranger than the names is the population.  First we see a man with a beard and a big straw hat scooting along the side of the road on what can only be described as, a scooter.  Then there's a couple driving a little black horse-drawn buggy along the street.  And over in the fields there's a man ploughing a field on an old-fashioned plough pulled by a team of six horses.

This is Amish, or Pennsylvania Dutch country (Dutch should be Deutsch as the Amish people originate from around Germany and Switzerland).  The Amish emigrated from Europe to the United States so that they could practice their form of Christianity without fear of persecution.

What we found really interesting was how much a part of the wider community they appear to be.  I expected very private people who wouldn't speak to "The English" (as the rest of the population are referred to), and would avoid contact with us.  But they have local businesses and sell things in the markets - we bought some fantastic home-made lemonade and a "Whoopie Pie".

There are obvious differences between the Amish and the English - the Amish rejection of technology and their deliberately plain uniform dress, but everyone seems to respect each other's way of life - when the big new Target Supermarket was built it became the first branch in the USA which has a buggy shed where you can tie up your horses.  And while we were driving around we were frequently greeted with a friendly wave from an Amish farmer ploughing his field or a young lad driving a cart along the road.  But I'm not sure I understand where the line is drawn - while walking round the farmers market I saw a teenage Amish girl sitting in the corner typing a message into her Blackberry!