Monday, April 30, 2007

Our Visit to Toronto

Seth attended another acupuncture course - this time in Toronto. It was actually 2 courses back-to-back so we spent 6 days in Toronto: 19 - 24 April.

19 April 2007, Thursday

We arrived in Toronto on Thursday afternoon rather early but took a detour at customs to the immigration department. Our best guess was that we were "flagged" because I listed Seth's purpose for this trip as "education". We waited for some time in the immigration line and observed their immigration officers questioning many people from European countries - why were they here, who were they staying with, where was their invitation letter, where was their return ticket? When our turn came up, the questions were simple - where were we from and why were we here? I provided Seth's letter from the Acupuncture foundation and confirmed that not only did we have hotel reservations but return tickets as well. It was a very interesting detour but almost seemed a formality. We didn't get the detailed questions as other passengers had.

We located our luggage then called for the rental car agency to pick us up whereupon we were taken in a mini van to the Renaissance hotel where we completed our rental paperwork in a small closet of an office. We were pleasantly surprised that our rental vehicle was a Toyota Camry - quite nice.

After stopping off at a gas station for directions, we made our way to the Four Points Sheraton hotel which was right on Airport Rd across from the very large Air Canada building. We were informed that our reservation had been cancelled but this was quickly fixed and we headed to our room, unpacked, then hopped in the car to find someplace to have dinner.

We really didn't have a specific destination and drove around for quite some time. The traffice was pretty slow and we didn't get anywhere near downtown. We finally just pulled over and walked into the first restaurant we saw - a small Italian restaurant called "Sette Mezzo" . We ordered and shared the Bruschetta sette mezzo (Mixed greens, mascarpone, capers, onions, and smoked salmon 11.95), Insalata excelente (Mixed greens, capers, onions, and smoked salmon sprinkled with goat cheese in a vinaigrette dressing 10.95), and the Pizze Osso buco (Tomato sauce, mozzarella, spicy grilled sausage, roasted red peppers, onions, mushrooms 12.95). It was a TON of food! We took home 1/2 of the bruschetta, 3/4 of the salad, and 1/2 of the pizza. I had rented a refrigerator for our hotel room before we had left for dinner and ended up having the leftovers for lunch the next few days.

We stopped off at a "thrifty" grocery store to pick up some milk, fruit, water, cereal, and utensils. I'm glad that I decided to pick up a cheap knife and a couple of plastic containers - they came in very handy over the next few days. We had withdrawn some cash from the ATM at the hotel but didn't have any change yet so we couldn't get a shopping cart - we didn't have the quarter it took to "unlock" it. So, we each carried a basket and filled them up with our items. When we checked out and paid for our groceries, we looked around for the plastic or paper grocery bags but none were to be found. We asked the cashier - who was none-too-happy to be working here - where the bags were and she curtly asked us how many we wanted. We replied "three?" and she promptly told us it would be 5 cents per bag. This store was truly thrifty! We both got a good laugh out of having to ask for, then pay for grocery bags. What in the world was this woman thinking we were going to do with our groceries!? Carry them out in our arms??

20 April 2007, Friday

I had plans today of going downtown. I had read that there was a Toronto symphony concert on Saturday afternoon and I was interested in getting a ticket. I drove the car to the subway station and was surprised to have to pay $5 to park. I bought a day pass and easily found my onto the right subway for downtown. My first stop was to find the restaurant that we had dinner reservations for this evening - the Opal Jazz Lounge. From the time I left the hotel to actually arriving at the restaurant on foot from the subway station, it had taken well over an hour! There was a parking lot just behind the restaurant and it became obvious that it would be both faster and cheaper to drive the car downtown.

I then located the symphony center and inquired about tickets but the dates that I had were wrong - the youth symphony was playing on Saturday afternoon and I had no interest in seeing them play. I stopped for a bit at a Starbucks and had a coffee along with the lunch I had brought with me - leftovers from the night before. I ate salad, bruschetta, and a slice of pizza. I then made my way over to the restaurant where we had reservations for on Saturday evening: Far Niente. There was also parking pretty close by. I then walked down to the Intercontinental Hotel and found the spa that I had read about online: Victoria Spa. I booked an appointment for a sports massage and pedicure on Sunday - planning to enjoy this luxury after my long run on Sunday morning.

At this point, I hopped on the Union Station subway and took it to Chinatown. I stopped to take a picture of a really funny moose outside of a store:

Must be one of those Chinese-Candian moose.

I did some quick shopping and picked up a couple of Chinese zodiac etched cubes for the kids, some Chinese music CDs, and a new purse for myself. I hopped back on the subway and took it back to the station where my car was, then drove back to the hotel as Seth was done with his class that evening.

We changed into nicer outfits and drove the car downtown to the Opal Jazz Lounge. Parking was not a problem. Our reservations were for 6:30 but we were asked to arrive by 6 pm when they called to confirm our reservation. The gentleman claimed that they were "very busy" and that we needed to arrive early. We were the first ones there for the evening and even by the time we left, just after 8 pm, there were still plenty of tables that were open for a Friday evening.

We started with their evening special, crab cakes - each came with its own sauce and all were delicious:

For my entree, I had the Muscovy Duck Leg Confit with sauteed mushrooms and porcini white truffle oil:

This was definitely the best duck I've ever had. The portion was HUGE, the skin was crispy yet the meat was tender and juicy.

For dessert, we had the homemade strawberry ice cream with bananas foster:

After dinner, we stuck around a little while waiting for the jazz to start at 8 pm. At just after 8, a piano player introduced himself along with his Japanese guitar player. Their jazz was very interesting and we heard 2 pieces composed by the guitar player. We left the restaurant and walked a little downtown checking out the Calphalon culinary center - there were lots of people upstairs taking what looked like a cooking class. I checked the class schedule and there weren't any more scheduled for the weekend. We walked back to the car noticing how many people were out and about walking downtown - this was a very common scenario in this city - it seemed like anywhere we were, there were people out walking. Torontarians seem very fit conscious and cosmopolitan - I frequently felt "underdressed" when I was walking around downtown with just jeans and a sweatshirt on. We headed back to the hotel and called it a night.

21 April 2007, Saturday

After a breakfast of Kashi Go Lean Crunch, FF lactose free milk, yogurt, and some grapes, I headed out to see Casa Loma. The castle wasn't hard to find and I thought I would park here and then catch the subway downtown but I was disappointed to see that all day parking was very expensive. I spent about 1 1/2 hours touring the castle.

It was very interesting to see how decadent this structure was. After paying for admission, you can get your digital audio device and guide yourself through the different rooms punching in the various numbers to hear short audio clips describing the history of what you are seeing.

My favorite part was the master bathroom where the castle's owner, Sir Pellatt, had the most "up-to-date" shower installed:

After touring Casa Loma, I drove downtown and found my way to the Kensington Market. I wandered around a bit in the market and down into Chinatown. The Market was full of stores selling fresh fruit, vegetables, cheese, bread, etc. I wandered into a cheese store and gave the man behind the counter $10 for a sampling of cheese. He gave me a peppered Bourin cheese (soft), a Brie, a hard yellow cheese, and another softer almost swiss-like cheese. They smelled wonderful and $10 actually bought quite a bit. While I was wandering around the Market, I ate my lunch - leftovers from Sette Mezzo again. After a couple of hours, I headed back to the hotel. It was about 3:30 and the Market was quite a bit busier than when I had first arrived. When I arrived back at the hotel, I took some time to cross train a bit in the fitness center using their elliptical machine and then lifting some weights. I went back to the room, showered, and dressed for dinner. We had reservations again this evening downtown.

We headed to Far Niente restaurant this evening and arrived downtown quite early for our reservation so we took the subway back up to Kensington Market and bought some fresh bread to go with our cheese. We arrived for our reservation still a little early but were seated right away. The restaurant wasn't as crowded as I had thought it would be given it was a Saturday evening but it did fill up more as the evening got later.

We each had a cocktail then ordered the Fondue (fontina cheese, truffle honey, and hazelnuts served with sourdough bread and barlett pears). This was clearly the best Fondue we have ever had.

We each ordered the restaurant's signature entree - the Lobster Pot Pie (1 1/4 pound Atlantic lobster with tarragon cream sauce, fingerling potatoes, leeks, carrots, wild mushrooms, and a puff pastry crust). It was heaven in a pot.

For dessert, I had the restaurant's version of "S'mores" which was a little too sweet for me. Besides, I was more than full after the fondue and lobster.

We staggered back to our car and drove back to the hotel and called it a night.

22 April 2007, Sunday

After another breakfast re-run (Kashi go lean crunch cereal, FF lactose free milk, yogurt, and grapes), I headed downtown intending to use the fitness center at the Intercontinental hotel before my spa appointment but part of the expressway was closed and we were detoured onto Lakeshore road right along Lake Ontario. The weather was gorgeous and I made a quick decision to park at Coronation Park and run alongside the Lake. There were multitudes of people out this morning: biking, running, walking, rollerblading, etc. I was very impressed with how fit-conscious the people of Toronto were. The running/biking paths along the Lake were outstanding and very well marked. I had an outstanding run - going about 45 minutes until I got to the pedestrian bridge then turned around and ran back to the park. It was about 7 miles total and felt great.

I then drove towards the Intercontinental hotel and pulled into a parking lot, paid the $6 to park and then realized that I was still quite a ways away from the Intercontinental hotel. Since I was going to also get a pedicure, I opted to go and park a little closer but the parking lot attendant wouldn't refund the money I had paid not even 10 minutes earlier. After haggling with him, he did refund $2. I parked in a parking lot caddy corner to the hotel and was shocked to pay $20 to park there on a Sunday morning. I crossed the street and made my way into the Intercontinental hotel up to the 4th floor where the spa was located.

I showered first and took my time after being given a robe and flip flops to wear. I was then shown onto the patio and juice bar where I sat and ate my lunch - cheese and bread while reading the paper. After finishing lunch, I sat by the pool reading a magazine when I was greeted by my masseuse - a young man from Latvia. I had signed up for the sport massage (called a therapeutic massage) which wasn't at all like the last sport massage that I had had. This massage was more like a typical massage than what I would call a therapeutic one. I suppose I could have asked the masseuse to go deeper but decided against it.

After my massage, I was taken back to the patio where I got my pedicure. I had a nice conversation with the Japanese woman doing my pedicure. She suggested that I visit Richview mall - a very large mall near Mississauga. After my pedicure, I waited for quite some time for my nails to dry. I finally headed out of the spa at about 4:00 pm.

I decided to take the expressway back to the hotel which was the wrong choice because it was still closed and the traffic had slowed to a crawl along Lakeshore Road. It took about 2 hours to get back to the hotel. When I finally got back to the room, I looked up nearby restaurants in Mississauga and came upon the website for Axia - a restaurant serving Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Thai, and Vietnamese food - each prepared in a different kitchen. The menu was gigantic with some 200+ choices. I had the lychee bubble juice with tapioca and we decided to start with the Korean beef potstickers which were pretty good. We also ordered the sizzling shrimp and the Singapore noodles. When the waitress asked us if we wanted mild or spicy we, of course, opted for spicy. Wow, spicy was an understatement. I think I drank at least 4 tall glasses of water, the food was that spicy. We stuffed ourselves silly and skipped dessert. After stopping at the gas station to get some gas and pick up some snacks (smarties and potato chips), we watched a movie in our room - Babel which was ok, imo. We never touched the snacks - we were still both too full from dinner which sat like a rock in my stomach. Neither of us felt 100% the next morning - the food was good but just too darn spicy.

23 April 2007, Monday

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Getting ready for Alaska!

Our trip to Alaska is less than a month away. I was able to book all of our shore excursions online - here's what we've planned so far:

26 May 2007 - At Sea
27 May - Juneau; Gold Panning Adventure and Salmon Bake at 1730
28 May - Glacier Bay
29 May - Sitka; Tongass Rain Forest Nature Hike at 0900
30 May - Ketchikan; Saxman Native Village and Lumber Jack Show at 0730
31 May - Victoria; no shore excursion planned

We're all checked in online as well and I've printed out our expedited boarding passes. Checking in at the pier should be a snap.

I was at first disappointed when I called Holland America to book our reservation at the
Pinnacle Grill. Being "alumni" of HA, I figured we'd be able to book a ressie at thePinnacle Grill, their 5 star reservations-only restaurant, before boarding but I was informed that we had to make those reservations once we boarded. Bummer. Then, one night, I was surfing on the HA website and happened to peek at the online Bon Voyage ordering pages. Lo and Behold, I could purchase not only the wine package that we wanted (5 bottle admiral wine package ) but could make reservations for dinner at the Pinnacle Grill for all 6 of us by purchasing and sending us each a "gift certificate". I even got to send personalized invitations to everyone in our party.

There's also a wine package option for the Pinnacle Grill but I thought we'd order that before dinner if we wanted to share it.