Post-COVID Travel Begins: Starting Close to Home

Post-COVID Travel Begins: Starting Close to Home

Who says you have to jet off to far-flung places in search of amazing travel experiences? Regardless of where you live, we’d wager you could get in a car and drive for two hours to find yourself in another world. And you’re probably no more than a stone’s throw from some luxury accommodation. There’s a tendency to think that you aren’t really travelling if you haven’t left your own country. We beg to differ.

These discerning travellers live in Canada―Toronto, Canada’s largest city (4th largest in North America after Mexico City, New York and LA). So, for us, we only have to walk for ten to thirty minutes to be in any number of luxury hotels or to dine in a five-star restaurant. The COVID lockdown here in Ontario’s province has been longer and deeper than any jurisdiction on the continent. But we’re better off for it, and things are beginning to loosen up. So, it was time. We booked our first few days away in ten months, and we were off and running.

A pleasant hour-and-a-half drive from downtown where we live is where you’ll find small-town Ontario. This province is peppered with beautiful little towns and villages, and it’s about time we started exploring them. This year, we began with Alton, the home of Millcroft Inn and Spa, a member of the Vintage Hotels group. And it was lovely.

Two years ago, we stayed at Queen’s Landing in Niagara-on-the-Lake, another Vintage Hotel, so we were expecting great things. Built in 1881 as a knitting mill, the Millcroft Inn is naturally situated on the edge of a mill pond with a beautiful waterfall that used to run its machinery. The interior of the main inn building is a bit non-prepossessing if you really want to know. But, in its defence, we are in the middle of a pandemic, and the plexiglass screens don’t really add anything to the ambience. The bar area looks like it would be wonderful in better times when we could sit at that bar, but we had to eat outside on the patio during our stay. This is hardly a hardship!

A view of the main building from a small opening in the trees across the pond.

The patio is completely covered and sits on the very edge of the millpond. The view across the pond is of densely packed trees completely hiding the rest of the inn buildings beyond. Shortly after we arrived late in the afternoon, we realized we were famished.

We made our way to the patio and had the place all to ourselves as we watched the rain disturb the peacefulness of the pond while drinking beautifully crafted martinis and eating their excellent charcuterie board. To say that the food is terrific would be something of an understatement.

Since Alton is a very pretty but very small village, really, the only game in town for dining is the Millcroft itself. We made our reservations for our three evenings on the restaurant patio in advance, which is highly recommended. Each meal was as delicious as the one before.

Their breakfast menu is interesting, but since we were staying for three nights (we were told many guests stay for only one), the offerings can get tiresome. We also did note that the breakfast service was nothing like the dinner service, which was impeccable. Two days in a row, we had to inquire as to the whereabouts of our meals, which then arrived with tepid poached eggs. The problem at breakfast seems to be that the room-service patrons are given priority over the ones actually sitting in the dining room. This is something they could work on.

We opted to stay in one of their priciest accommodations―what they call a croft room. It is really a two-level suite with a walkout to a small private terrace. Ours was furnished with a private hot tub on the little deck. Since this is a spa, there are several outdoor public hot tubs, but we prefer time to ourselves (as anyone who had ever read anything we’ve written will already know!). It was lovely. What about the room itself?

Where to begin? Let’s just say that it is rustic―rustic to the point of needing a renovation. The bathroom had obviously been done, but that was probably at least a decade ago and could perhaps use another spruce up. But if you love rustic, you’ll be in heaven.

The sleeping area is upstairs, which we knew about in advance. What we did not realize is that the bathroom, on the other hand, is downstairs. That means a long, dark, steep climb down and back up should you have to get up in the middle of the night. It also means several ups and downs of the stairs just to get ready in the morning. Something to consider.

We enjoyed a six-kilometre hike on the property and were happy we took along our hiking shoes. That’s the beauty of a road trip. You can throw extras in the trunk of your car just in case. The trails wander through a wooded area and into beautiful open fields where not a building―or another single person―can be seen. The only downside was that the trail markings are less than accurate, and the map the front desk provided―well, it would be helpful if a staff member actually hiked the trails to see that the map isn’t as accurate as it should be. They need an app for that.

And speaking of technology―the inn has a well-developed AI concierge of sorts. We communicated with it via text, and when we needed ice or hangers, we simply texted, and a personable staff member appeared with our request.

We took advantage of being in an area of our province with which we are not that familiar and took a short road trip each of the full days we were there. The first was to the pretty town of Orangeville, where we had a lovely patio lunch. The next day, we explored Guelph and had another delicious patio lunch in their downtown area. Guelph is a university town, so the downtown is crowded with eateries.

Our three-day adventure was just the beginning. We can feel it in our bones. We’re waiting until the winter for our first post-pandemic big trip when we have three weeks of island-hopping planned. Until then, we’ll be hitting the road every opportunity we get!

Visiting Hiroshima: A sobering day for travelers

mapWhen we first booked our recent cruise through Asia, we were looking forward to visiting Jeju Island, a short stop between leaving China and arriving in Japan. We were unfamiliar with it, but a bit of research uncovered the fact that it is something of a resort island – and a part of Korea. Well, we booked that cruise a year in advance because it was the perfect itinerary, and like world events are bound to do, Korea was much in the news. Never mind that the focus was North Korea and Jeju Island is part of South Korea, but one thing led to another and the cruise line altered the itinerary. We really don’t know why. We would now bypass the island and head instead to Hiroshima, which had not been on the original itinerary. We weren’t disappointed.

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The Hiroshima cruise terminal

We arrived in this, our first Japanese port, under grey skies. It seemed fitting somehow. As usual, there was a bus ride from the port into the city and when we disembarked the bus, we were in the middle of what is a somewhat unprepossessing town: a lot of drab, post WW II buildings. Naturally.

It seemed a bit ironic to us that the nuclear threat from North Korea may have played a part in the rerouting of our ship only to find ourselves in the middle of the city that was devastated on August 6, 1945 by the world’s first atomic bomb ever deployed – dropped from an American B-29 bomber killing some 80,000 people. A sobering thought indeed.

In the midst of all this post-war drabness sits a magnificent park with a river flowing through the middle of it. It then becomes clear to you that on the edge of that river, surrounded by gardens, walkways, a reflecting pond and a museum is what we now refer to as the “atomic dome.” It is what is left of the only structure left standing near the epicentre that fateful day when the bomb exploded above the city raining down destruction everywhere. It is the Hiroshima Peace Memorial.

Standing there beside the dome, which is really the remnants of a government building, the Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall to be precise, we felt the poignancy of it. We cannot in any authentic way know what it was really like. But inside the museum, they have tried to make you feel it.

The museum includes a display that begins with the city as it was the day before the attack. The bomb then drops and the recreation demonstrates how the radiation spread out, destroying everything in its path. Frightening.

We didn’t spend a lot of time in the museum which is text-heavy (and yes, it is in English as well as Japanese); rather we left the group we were with (as usual) and walked around the park. The skies opened and the rain began.

When we boarded the bus, we headed to Miyajima Island and its famed Shinto Shrine.

That, however, would have been so much better if it hadn’t been for the torrential rain. And the tour guide who insisted on standing in the torrential rain blathering about this and that while everyone got soaked. We left that tour, too. Good thing we had a private guide waiting for us in Tokyo!

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Live! From Beijing

It seems to us that if everyone in the world just had the chance to visit one another’s countries, we would all understand one simple fact: we are all more alike than we are different. That has certainly been the case in China ( and in the past in Turkey, Chile etc.)

The more we see in this astonishing country, the more we wish our respective leaders could look into the eyes of the children and others on the streets and see the smiles…and smile back. We’ve been here in China through a long weekend where folks from the countryside flock to the cities to see their own tourist attractions, and these are people who have seen few Westerners. We have provided endless amusement, and have been asked on numerous occasions to pose with the kids and the older family members for selfies! We always agree to their delight.

In the past few days we’ve strolled Tiannamen Square, explored The Forbidden City, and climbed the Great Wall which was made even more outstanding as a result of our Silversea overland experience. We had the good fortune to have a tour guide who took us to the northern entrance to the Great Wall area and we climbed the wall in almost utter seclusion, far from the crowds we could see in the distance. Oh, and overnight in Beijing? The Four Seasons was beyond divine.

We are now on our way to Japan but will forever be grateful we visited surprising China.

Travel Planning: Asia in our sights

It’s mid-April and here in the northern hemisphere the calendar says it’s spring. One look out our windows here in Toronto, however, tells a whole different story. We’ve been in the grips of a late-season ice storm for the past few days and it could not look more like winter out there. What better time to be thinking of Hong Kong and its current 25° C temperatures!

We’ve been actively planning this Asia trip for some time. It all began some time last year when, despite Asia having been on our travel bucket list for some time, we mused that perhaps we didn’t really need that 15-hour flight. When our son got wind of our thoughts on the subject he implored us not to give up the idea. In his view we HAD to visit Hong Kong and Tokyo at least. He had performed in both cities on various tours with Les Ballets de Monte Carlo a few years ago and told us that we’d love both experiences. So, we decided to take his advice and plan a trip that would include both.

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It was just the two of us and Kevin, our guide, in his Mercedes when we toured Ireland a few years ago. Here is our transportation parked out front of Ashford Castle. 

We looked at land-tour options and those included a number of regional flights in China. We wondered if we really wanted to spend that much time in airports where we didn’t speak the language, and worse, couldn’t even read the language characters. That seemed like a bit of a drag to us, although we considered a Kensington private, guided tour, since we had used them before in Ireland and were more than satisfied. But there were other options. We could consider transportation between cities by ship.

As long-time readers know about us, cruise ships are really just comfortable methods of transportation for us usually. Okay, we sometimes do like an island hop in the Caribbean on a six-star ship, but in recent years, our “cruises” have been selected based on their itineraries. So, we decided to check out our favourite cruise lines to see what they offered in Asia.

We explored Oceania, Regent and Cunard. We even considered Holland America, although we haven’t travelled on them in years. It turns out that the vast majority of the itineraries on offer include one but not both of the must-see cities on our list – Hong Kong and Tokyo – and truth be told, most cruise lines don’t actually seem to go to Tokyo at all. Then we hit on Silversea. (You might remember that we sailed on Silversea’s new ship the Silver Muse in the fall down the western coast of South America – in actual fact, we had booked this Asia cruise even before we left for that one!)

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We’ll be sailing aboard the 382-guest luxury cruise ship the Silver Shadow. [Photo credit: https://www.silversea.com/ships/silver-shadow.html]
Silversea was the only one we found that began in Hong Kong and ended in Tokyo. That was perfect: we could spend a few days in Hong Kong before sailing, then end with four or five days in Tokyo. So, we booked. One of the nice features of this itinerary was also that the ship spends two days in each of the important ports of call: Shanghai, Beijing, Osaka. It also offers a couple of mid-cruise land tours where you leave the ship for an overnight on shore so that you can explore places you couldn’t do in a single day. Next on the agenda – right after touching base with our long-time travel agent Angela (Maritime Travel) who booked our non-stop flights to and from our destination – was to plan how we would see the sights.

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First, we looked at the cruise line’s own offerings. We decided to book their overland trip in Beijing. When the ship docks in Tianjin (the port for Beijing) we’ll be on the fast train into the city for touring. Then we stay overnight at the Four Season’s Hotel in Beijing. The next day we head to The Great Wall then back to meet the ship. Unlike the shore excursions which, on Silversea, you book in advance but pay for when you disembark the ship, this overland trip had to be paid for in advance. Done.

As we looked at the other offerings, it occurred to us that there were choices among them that would permit us to see as much of the stops as possible. So, we booked a number of excursions. Silversea’s shore excursions, in our experience, appear expensive to the untrained eye, but they do have fewer people on buses and are generally good value for the money. That took care of planning for Shanghai, Hiroshima, Osaka and Kyoto. That left us with our book-ends: Hong Kong and Tokyo.

Naturally we looked to Tours-by-Locals, our go-to company for private touring around the world.

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Our private guide in Hong Kong has now arranged our transportation from the airport to our hotel on Hong Kong island, will provide us with a private tour of the city and arrange for our transportation to the pier. Our Tokyo guide has arranged three days of city touring and a day of touring outside the city – then will drop us at the airport after four days there. And all of this was arranged through Tours-by-Locals’ web site where we were able to arrange all the details which are personalized for us. Our Tokyo guide has even provided us with materials to help us acclimatize to Japanese culture as well as an extensive list of recommended reading. Well, we opted to prepare for this trip not through too much reading, but via two video-based courses.

We bought two courses from The Great Courses, a site that we’ve gone to throughout the years for a wide variety of educational programming: Foundations of Eastern Civilization (Craig G. Benjamin PhD), which was 48 half-hour lectures and Understanding Japan: A Cultural History (Mark J. Ravina PhD), 24 half-hour lectures. And yes, we watched every one of them.

Both professors are experts in their fields, but more important perhaps even than that is that their passion for their respective specialties is palpable in their terrific delivery. We didn’t take notes, but we feel that having done this in advance, we can more fully experience the history and culture of our Asian destinations. We’re looking forward to seeing in real life many of the places and experiences both shared with us.

Now that we’ve booked and finalized everything, and prepared our brains for new adventures, we’re just about ready to board that plane. We leave in five days. Hope you’ll come along with us!

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Getting ready…trusty Briggs & Riley carry-ons.