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Ottawa UnLOCKed: Finding the key to conquering Canada’s Capital City

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Canada’s capital city is clean, green, and home to some of the world’s friendliest citizens, so it is easy to feel immediately at ease here. However, the key to truly conquering Ottawa is all about the locks…ottawa view over river and parliamentKeep Out: Constructing the Canal

While Ottawa is more than welcoming now, the city hasn’t always been that way.  Nearly 200 years ago, a British colonel, Colonel By, was sent over and put to the task of protecting Canada from its pesky American neighbors, rumored to be planning an invasion of Canadian territory by way of the St Lawrence Seaway. It turns out that while we made our way through the city this summer, I wouldn’t have been the first American attempting to conquer this area of Ontario.

It was Colonel By’s task to construct the Rideau Canal, which, in bypassing the St Lawrence River bordering New York, would secure the supply and communications route between Montreal and the British naval base in Kingston. Travel would proceed along the Ottawa River to Bytown (named for Colonel By, this was originally a makeshift town in the swampy wilderness. It’s known today as Ottawa) and then continuing southwest via the canal to Kingston before emptying into Lake Ontario.

ottawa rideau canal locksToday, these eight mighty locks are a perfect starting off point for exploring Ottawa. Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Locks 1-8 lower the waters of the Rideau Canal to meet the Ottawa River 30 feet below. Both the majestic Parliament Hill and magnificent Fairmont Chateau Laurier castle hotel rise high above the Rideau to give this part of Ottawa an entirely old-world feel. Strolling along the path by the locks here is relaxing, and the Bytown Museum (can you guess its namesake?) is a great little spot to learn more about the building of this engineering marvel.

ottawa view over ottawa riverCycling in Ottawa

Looking to cover more ground, we headed to Rentabike, not 50m from the museum along the canal. After stocking up on heaps of great advice from the owner, we hopped on our fancy cruiser bikes and never looked back. First we shot up the canal away from the river, past the paddle boats on Dow’s Lake, and stopped at the sound of pounding water – the waterfalls of Hog’s Back.

ottawa hogsback fallsAlready feeling free of the city just 30 minutes after renting the bikes, a quick turn to the northwest led to a patch of rural farmland. We were now riding through the area known as the Central Experimental Farm, a true urban oasis filled with acres of crops, lush green grass, classic red barns and their barnyard animals. From here, signs for the cycle paths back to the city were easy to follow. Continuing westward, the path met up with the Ottawa River, and it was here we discovered the rock art by Jean-Félice Ceprano, a truly inspiring find we would have never come across without the bikes.

rock art in ottawaOttawa is a cycling city and thousands of Ottawans (very courteously, of course) commute back and forth from work as much as to enjoy the outdoors. In fact, Ottawa has over 200 kilometers of bike paths, we had been told, but in our six hours out on the bikes, we only managed 30 km.

jess cycling along lake dow ottawaBeaver Tails and Boats

Before bringing the bikes back, it was time for a late lunch at the Byward Market. Established by Colonel By in 1826, this is Canada’s oldest public market, covering nearly four square blocks of restaurants, pubs and some incredible specialty food shops. After lunch we popped in to a cheese shop so specialized, it even carries our favorite brand of Norwegian cheese! In an amazing case of self-restraint, however, we walked out empty handed – but only because we knew where we were headed next: the Beaver Tail stand.

ottawa beaver tails stallBeaver Tails are Ottawa’s classic deep-fried, doughy delights and are best enjoyed in Winter with a hot cup of coffee to warm up. You might be enjoying a break from ice-skating along one of the world’s longest ice rinks. Stretching seven kilometers from the Ottawa river, the frozen length of the Rideau Canal converts Ottawa into a winter wonderland and when it re-opens in mid-May, several boats pass through the locks each day, some heading down to the Ottawa River. While one hundred years ago, the river would have been packed with thousands of logs rushing down it as a part of the logging industry, today this aquatic hotspot is packed with speed boats, kayaks, yachts and even white water enthusiasts – although that takes place up the river about 90 minutes from downtown.

ottawa rideau canal boats in lockWe wanted to get out on the river, but also wanted to do a city tour – Lady Dive amphibus tour met both those needs. In its bus form, we tooled through town on four wheels, marveling the architecture and learning about Ottawa’s complicated past. We then plunged into the water next to the Britannia Yacht Club and, as soon as we got our sea legs, we floated past the Museum of Civilization, a mega-museum which takes visitors through 1,000 years of Canadian history and also has a children’s museum and a 3D IMAX theater. Make sure to plan at least one day here, if not two.

ottawa parliament and chateau laurier hotel from riverAlso set on the river is the National Gallery, considered Canada’s premiere art museum. We really enjoyed the permanent exhibits, which are on par with top international galleries. True culture vultures might want to plan in at least half a day to visit, though any travelers on a budget should visit on Thursdays, when entrance to the National Gallery is free from 5-8pm.  Ottawa has plenty of public art as well, from the statue of Canadian blues legend Oscar Peterson (at the corner of Elgin and Albert) to the many statues located on top of Parliament Hill: The ‘Women are persons!’ sculpture and the Queen Elizabeth II statue accurately characterize the history of women in Canada.

Women are persons statueAfter the river cruise, we sprinted up to Parliament Hill for a look at these statues and to take part in the free guided tour of the Parliament building’s Centre Block (daily, more frequent in summer). This tour was the best to help us grasp the political history of the nation as a whole.

Ottawa parliament buildingJust over the Ottawa River

While out on the Ottawa River, it was not immediately clear that we were floating along a heavily-contested, well-protected border. There are no border control guards and we didn’t need our passports. We didn’t even leave the city.

But, as we learned on the Parliament tour, the Ottawa River is where English and French-speaking Canada converge, and this border, a sociocultural one, is fervently protected on either side. This fact is not obvious to casual visitors except for strict language difference on either side of the river. We had overheard snippets of French throughout our time in Ottawa, but our day trip over the bridge to the Gatineau Park on the Quebec side saw us struggling to order lunch in some pretty rusty French. Luckily most of our day hike through the gorgeously green Gatineau required very few words at all.

gatineau park viewpoint daniRide along the Rideau Canal

Both sides of Ottawa boast such fresh, green space, as do the 202km along the Rideau Canal. These calm waters can be explored by boat, which takes up to seven days to make it through all 49 locks along the Rideau Canal to Kingston on the St Lawrence River. During our time in Ottawa, we chose to cycle and drive most of the way, meandering along country back roads and through picture perfect towns like Merrickville and Perth. There is also a trail for hikers, bikers and cross-country skiers.

No matter how you choose to explore Ottawa, whether by boat, bike, car or kayak, the key to discovering the city’s heart begins along the city’s locks.

ottawa rideau canal sunset

For more information on the Rideau Canal, check out the Rideau Heritage Route.

A big genuine Thank You goes out to Ottawa Tourism, who provided some great tips and tricks to help us get the most out of our Ottawa trip.

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Street Art special: Oh Canada!

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We’ll be the first to admit that before spending so much time in Canada this summer, we pictured wide open spaces and wild life roaming, not urban centers wrapped in world-class street art. We certainly saw a lot of rural locales, but often this was as we city-hopped through Ontario and Quebec, spotting murals and graffiti popping off store fronts, taking over entire buildings and catching our eye around every corner. As huge fans of street art, we were excited to find many terrific pieces everywhere. So which Canadian city do we think has the best street art?

Street Art in Quebec City

quebec city street art On our short visit here, we spotted just a bit of street art in Quebec City, but may have missed a lot touring mainly the historic Old Town area. We’re guessing there is much more, considering the amount of creativity put into the free, nightly Cirque du Soleil show, which combines urban art with classic dance, set outside under an overpass just beyond the city walls.

Street Art in Ottawa

shepard fairey ottawa obey Ottawa had some street art, and while much of it wasn’t too spectacular, Ottawans were able to boast the giant Obey poster by Shepard Fairey, one of the most influential and worldwide known street artists, thanks to that iconic Hope poster of Barack Obama.

Street Art in Montreal

montreal street art woman In Montreal we saw plenty of street art, especially in the Plateau neighborhood which has larger-scale murals.

montreal street art ladyThis lady with her rooster was definitely one of our favorite pieces – check out her ‘gringo’ tattoo!

montreal street art

Montreal had really great street art, but there was no way it could keep up with what we considered the best city for street art in Canada that we have found so far:

Street Art in Toronto

toronto street art toronto graffiti catToronto was heaven for us street art fangirls, in particular the area around Queen Street. Here we found entire alleys that served as outdoor galleries, filled with innovative, clever work.

toronto street art alleyAnd there was so much more urban art than just graffiti in back alleys, like this great guerrilla gardening graffiti combo… toronto graffiti car toronto car & mural…and loads of urban art in other forms. We loved seeing these neon bikes permanently affixed to stairwells and various sign poles throughout the city.

toronto pink bikeToronto definitely has the most original and inspiring street artists! The best thing about this form of art is that it lives and breathes, and changes constantly, so we can’t wait to see something completely different on our next visit!

toronto street artCheck out this slideshow for a more complete collection of Canadian street art:

[flickrslideshow acct_name=”Globetrottergirls” id=”72157627954736931″]. .

Have you been to Canada? Where have you seen the best street art? Share in the comments below

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A little piece of Europe: 24 hours in Quebec City

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Enjoying the sounds of surrounding French chatter, we considered dipping in to another creperie when the sound of clicking of hooves on the cobblestone street distracts us and we swivel around to get a shot of the horse-drawn carriage as it comes into sight. The symphony of sounds on the streets are so classically French it is hard to believe we are actually in Canada.

quebec city horse-drawn carriageWhile a city 400 years old might not be much in Europe, it makes Quebec City just about the oldest city in North America. The French influence here is as much in the architecture as the language, with the gray brick houses that line the streets harking back to a village in Normandy.

quebec city housesTo remind ourselves that we are indeed in Canada, we stop for the classic (French) Canadian dish, Poutine, at Chez Ashton, and make sure ours is loaded with cheese curds and gravy from the best poutine makers in town.

Canadian PoutineAfter the quick carb overload, we walk it off with a hike up to Parliament, passing through the only intact city walls north of Mexico. The Parliament building itself is a testament to the French settlers who founded Quebec in 1608, and several snap-happy tourists (yes, us included) line up to take pictures of the intricate sculptures and frescoes on the building.

parliament sculpture quebec cityFrom here we walk over to La Citadelle, the city’s former fort which protected Quebec from the Americans in the 19th century (Quebec was actually taken at that time by the British). Today, looking out here over the views of the mighty St. Lawrence river, the imposing canons placed all around the fort remind the relaxing teens and tourists of a time when Canada was at odds with its neighbor to the south. If you happen to be in Quebec between June and September, make sure to get to the Citadelle just before 10a.m. to witness the traditional changing of the guard ceremony in the capital of French-speaking Canada.

quebec city cannons
Château Frontenac might make it on every ‘Must-See List’ written on Quebec, but witnessing the building close up, it is impossible to consider it any other way.  Towering over all the buildings of Quebec and visible from far out of town, the castle hotel is the center point of Quebec’s skyline and featured on every postcard of the city. The hotel makes for a great stop to indulge in a glass of champagne and to take in the views over the city.

view over quebec cityNext stop is the Terrace Dufferin, a large boardwalk promenade high over the river, as we leave Haute-Ville, the Upper Town, and make our way down the hill to Place Royale in ‘Basse-Ville’, the Lower Town. Some take the 2 minute, $2 ride down the steep hill in the Funiculaire du Vieux-Québec, but we prefer snake through alleyways and scale staircases on foot down to Place Royale. The story goes that Place Royale  is the actual square where French explorer Samuel de Champlain began the settlement of Quebec.

In the calm before the storm we are touched at how charming this area of Quebec is, until we are suddenly constricted within these narrow alleyways, surrounded by masses of cruise ship passengers in full on group-think mode who pass by in waves, following their tour guide from place to place. The city is definitely sweeter earlier in the morning and after dark, when many of the big tour groups have left the city.

quebec city lower town alleyAlthough the Place Royale is probably the most picturesque part of the town, this army of determined tourists is hard on our exploratory spirit, and we take a seat at a typically French cafe to rest. I couldn’t be happier with my French style Café au Lait, and Jess loved her super strong espresso shot.

quebec city coffeesBack up to the Haute-Ville again for dinner, we scope out several locals’ eateries on Rue Saint-Jean towards the university, far away from the overpriced tourist traps around Place Royale. As we poke our heads in and out of shops on this road, we are now reminded of Edinburgh’s Royal Mile rather than France.

quebec city houses old townAfter powering up on veggie sushi (what could be more French, after all, than sushi) we just make it over to the free outdoor Cirque de Soleil show, held under an unusued underpass in the center of town. Called Les Chemins Invisibles, the quality of this free show is top standard Cirque de Soleil at its best.

The perfect way to end a perfect day in Quebec City…

Travel Tips for Quebec in the summer

The Cirque du Soleil show: Les Chemins Invisibles
As we mentioned, we couldn’t get enough of this one hour show, so if you do visit Quebec during the summer months, you can visit the free Cirque du Soleil show Les Chemins invisibles (Invisible Paths). This urban renewal project was created for the city’s 400th anniversary celebrations in 2008, but has been maintained ever since due to its extraordinary popularity.

cirque du soleil les chemins invisibles quebecThe Summer Festival
During Quebec’s summer festival at the beginning of July, hundreds of musical acts at various indoor and outdoor venues play to over 1 million visitors, making it the largest festival in Canada.

Travel Tips for Quebec in the winter

The Ice Hotel
Quebec City is home to one of only two ice hotels in the world. From January to March visitors are able to stay in beds completely made of ice and quipped with deer furs and Arctic sleeping bags. Even if you don’t dare spend the night, stop in for a visit, and make sure to grab and ice-cold drink in a glass made of ice!

The Winter Carnival
Held every year in February, the winter carnival is a big outdoor festival in the Plains of Abraham, where you can pursue winter activities such as skiing or snow rafting, ride in snow sled-slides, see some fantastic ice sculptures and outdoor shows or ice skate on the giant ice rink.

quebec city art

Have you been to Quebec City? We would love you to share other must-see or must-do tips in the comments below.

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Why we didn’t like Niagara Falls (but still recommend you go!)

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This is Niagara Falls?

On our way to visit Niagara Falls, Dani and I had both been picturing rustic log-cabin restaurants, maybe a few lumberjacks, a small town feel and definitely something a bit more romantic. After all this is supposed to be the Honeymoon Capital of the World. We never expected this…mega tourist trap.

Pulling into town, however, we found ourselves suddenly driving downhill on a wide street with cheesy tourist attractions stacked up tightly on either side. A wax museum, a haunted house, Ripley’s Believe it or Not…

“Wait, is that another wax museum?” I asked.  “I think so,” Dani remarked. “And I just saw two more haunted houses on my side.”

niagara falls townAs we reached the bottom of this long, strange road, I turned right – away from the Hershey’s Chocolate store and toward the intense sound of rushing water.

The Falls are magnificent

Just a split second later, there it was! The awe-inspiring view of Niagara Falls. There are actually three sets of falls pounding into the Niagara river below – the American Falls and smaller Bridal Veil Falls on the American side and the massive Horseshoe Falls on the Canadian side.  Immediately humbled, we cruised slowly along the four-lane thoroughfare which hugs the pedestrian viewing along the cliffs, gawking at the sheer size of this sight.

We managed to find $5 parking (instead of the lots with New York City level prices) and walked down to gaze at the Falls. Seeing Niagara Falls on postcards and in pictures does not compare to the sight of this incredible natural wonder in person. Two things really stood out. First, the water seems to speed up as it reaches the falls, as if it can not wait to plunge over the cliff. By the time it goes over, the water is moving so quickly and just looking at this makes you comprehend your own delicate mortality.

niagara falls horseshoe falls water powerSecond, the sheer force with which the 4 million cubic feet of water per minute hits the river below causes much of it to shoot back up into the air, with the spray reaching at least twice as high as the 180 feet it dropped in the first place. This ‘cloud’ of mist can be seen even when the Falls themselves are out of view. This part of the walkway, and all onlookers standing here, is soaking wet.

niagara falls horseshoe falls with mistMaid of the Mist is a must

Being such a popular tourist attraction, there are several tours to choose from which will get you up close and almost within reach of the Falls. We steered away from the package deals and chose only the 30-minute Maid of the Mist boat tour. With all passengers covered in plastic ponchos, the boat set off onto the Niagara river, which drains Lake Eerie into Lake Ontario and forms the border between the U.S. and Canada. The steady ship reached the Horseshoe Falls within minutes and we were immediately drenched by the mist. Actually feeling how much water soaked us at the edge of the mist helped to visualize just how much water is contained within the waterfalls themselves. We can highly recommend doing this tour as it is quick, painless and gets right to the point. While it feels adventurous, boats leave every half hour from the dock to the falls, making this a common and safe experience for everyone.

niagara falls from river tour on maid of the mistIndeed, Niagara Falls are one of nature’s incredible wonders, and everyone should see them if they get the chance. Most agree that the views are better from the Canadian side, but cross the Rainbow Bridge to the American side and check it out for yourself. From what we could see, there are far less tourist eyesores and it could well be a more natural experience. Back on the Canadian side, we just couldn’t help but be disappointed by the fact that the Niagara Falls might just be the most unnatural wonder we’ll ever visit. Luckily, we found a solution, a way out of the tourist trap – and it involves a lot of wine.

Winding our way through the wineries

No, there was no drowning of sorrows in copious amounts of wine. Instead, after beating the crowds to some breathtaking early morning views at Niagara Falls, we set off into the Canadian wine country. Sleepy narrow two-lane roads weave through historic villages which open up into vast fields filled with countless rows of wine as far as the eye can see. We glided along the road, stopping in for samples at a few charming wineries and picking up fresh organic peaches, pears and veggies from farmers stands along the way.

niagara wine country ontarioTip: try the sweet dessert ‘ice wine’, a local Ontario wine which uses grapes picked only after the first frost of the year.

Suddenly, 15km from Niagara Falls, a spot of slow traffic began when there had previously been only a few cars on the road. Where were we all of a sudden, we wondered?

Love at first sight: Niagara-on-the-Lake

This charming, historic town of Niagara-on-the-Lake is everything Niagara Falls is not. Independent shops and restaurants fill the bottom floors of historic buildings, which are set back on streets lined with breezy trees, exotic flowers and lovely sidewalks meant for strolling. Everything in town seems to center around good food and good wine.

Whereas the town of Niagara Falls seems like Las Vegas without the flash and fun, Niagara-on-the-Lake is more like the Canadian version of Tuscany, with its Dolce Vita attitude. Surrounded by 26 wineries, it seems easy to focus on the ‘sweet life’ here.

niagara on the lakeIt was love at first sight, and as we rambled along peeking into shops and checking out restaurant menus, we made an even more exciting discovery. Food and drink here is more fairly priced for infinitely higher quality than the fast food tourist fare down the road. To add to our delight, we spotted plenty of affordable classic hotels and boutique bed and breakfasts throughout town.

As we left Niagara-on-the-Lake, the car was filled with delicious wine, fresh blueberry scones and our homegrown fruit and veg to enjoy once we got back home.

niagara wine country fruit standTip:

If you visit the Niagara Falls, which you really should, skip the cheapie budget digs on ‘motel row’ out of town, and don’t waste serious cash on the 42-story hotel/casino monstrosities all vying for the best views of the falls. We say make Niagara-on-the-Lake your base, take a couple of day trips to the falls and spend the evenings relaxing in this adorable haven just down the road.

Have you visited the Niagara Falls or other spectacular waterfalls? What were your impressions? Share your thoughts in the comments

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Ooh la la – Cycling in Montreal is a dream

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Slouched down on a Montreal curb just after 1pm, Dani and I were starving, fatigued and wondering how, after over 5 miles of pounding pavement, these aching feet were going to carry us through the remaining must-see neighborhoods on our list. We fell in love with Montreal instantly upon arriving the evening before, and knew that we had to pack in as much as possible into the 48 hours we had to spend in the city. From 8am the next morning we were out sauntering along wide thoroughfares, cutting through Montreal’s many green spaces, schlepping it up hundreds of steps in Mont Royal park to the incredible view point below followed by a forest hike, a stroll through a university campus and down to the Cathédrale Marie-Reine-du-Monde, which now loomed behind us as we considered napping out in front.

montreal marie reine du monde cathedralBeginning to feel defeated, we saw a glimmering light of hope in the distance in the form of a sleek steel bike rack loaded with shiny silver bicycles. We had discovered Montreal’s public bike rental system and, knowing we could easily pedal our way through town, it took only five minutes before we were whizzing away from the bike station.

Montreal’s Bixi bike rental system is similar to city cycling schemes in Paris, London, Mexico City, Munich, Seville and several North American cities. As of 2009, the publicly-funded Montreal system became the largest in North America, with over 5,000 bikes (worth $2,000 each!) available at 400 depots around the city. Even though we were faint and weary, jumping on a set of wheels couldn’t have been easier to use.

jess on bike in montreal

Start at the payment machine by swiping your credit card to pay $5 for the 24 hour bike rental. The machine gives a code which you enter in to any of the stations that hold a bicycle. Once the bike is released, you are free to ride around the city for the next thirty minutes at no additional cost. After 30 minutes, bring the bike to any of the nearby stations, dock it, and wait two minutes. Swipe your card again for a new code, unlock the new (or same) bike, and you’re off again on your way. The system is best used by locals who just need to get from point A to point B, but we easily used the bikes to tour the city. Montreal is loaded with these stations, conveniently located on corners throughout the city, so finding a drop off point was no problem, and it was almost always near something we had wanted to stop to see anyway.

Houses in Plateau Neighborhood

Should you accidentally run past the 30 minute mark without realizing it, your card will be charged $1.50 for every extra half hour. The system is also surprisingly fair. If you arrive to your drop-off destination to discover all docks are taken, just swipe your card, and the machine  recognizes no availability, gives you a 15 minute grace period and tells you all available nearby station and how many docks are available at each.

The system is a breeze to get the hang of, and within 10 minutes we had pedaled all way down to the old historic down town, riding past the Notre Dame, before riding along the riverfront all the way up to the town hall.

montreal notre dame

A looming thunderstorm sent us home earlier than we would have liked, but with the bikes, this was no problem at all. We just exchanged the bikes to get us a full half hour and pedaled back to the many stations in the Mont Royal Plateau neighborhood where we were staying.

Not a drop of rain fell that late afternoon, and after dinner and a quick rest, our hosts drove us to see a  live outdoor concert in La Ffontaine Park. They were ready to make a night of it, but we were exhausted. Luckily, instead of them having to drive the sleepyheads home, we still had nearly plenty of  hours left on our bike rental, so were able to just hop on two nearby bikes and make it home in no time at all.

After a deep sleep and a power breakfast we were back up on our bikes and squeezed in a full morning of sightseeing before heading  to Quebec that afternoon. Covering several miles, we were able to make it to the Fairmont and St Viateur bagel shops, where the best of Montreal’s famous bagels are made and weave in and out of countless alleys and side streets to spot so many samples of Montreal’s incredible street art. And this was all for the $5 we paid to rent the bikes the day before.

montreal street art

The Bixi system in Montreal couldn’t be easier to use and is the cheapest, yet most exhilarating form of transportation in town. Drivers in the city appear to really respect cyclists, so the nerves you might feel cycling in New York City, for example, are not an issue here. The cycleways are clearly marked on the street and while many of Montreal’s roads are one-way for cars, cyclists can often ride in both directions, making getting around by bike a breeze.

Have you rented bicycles in a city you visited, and would you do it again? Share your thoughts in the comments!

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500 days on the road: Tops & Flops of the last 100 days

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While we were finishing up our five-week, 5,000 miles (8,000km) road trip last week, we used the long hours in the car to reflect on the last 100 days, which we spent in sunny Lisbon, in Canada, where we traveled in Ontario and Quebec, and finally road tripping along the East Coast and through the South of the U.S.

Lisbon to Toronto

north america road tripHere are the Tops and Flops of our last 100 days:

**Top Travel Moments

Beach days in Cascais, Lisbon

One of the best things about the Portuguese capital is the miles and miles of beaches that surround the city and the best part about that is how easy it is to get to these beautiful beaches. The popular beach town of Cascais is an easy 40 minute train ride along the coast (sit on the left of the train for the best views!). There are beaches all along the way to stop at, but we really loved arriving in Cascais, walking up and down the promenade and lazily laying on the sunny Atlantic shores. The town itself is well worth exploring too, with beautiful tiled houses, and plenty of narrow alleys to get lost in. Because we knew that this would probably be our last chance to be a beach bum for the next three months, we made a few train trips out to Cascais, and we discovered several great restaurants of all budget ranges and cuisines.

reflections cascaisCycling through Ottawa

We love renting bikes in almost every city we visit, but what we loved about Ottawa was just how easy it is to cycle in, through and around this Canada’s capital city. Ottawa has over 200 miles of perfectly-maintained cycle paths that can take you from the city center to lakes or farmland within 30 minutes. Our day saw us spend over seven hours on our Ottawa rental bikes exploring and enjoying Ottawa.

Ottawa parliament sunsetNYC2NOLA Great American Road Trip Highlight: Labor Day weekend in Savannah

Our Great American Road trip from New York to New Orleans brought us to Savannah for Labor Day weekend. Our long weekend there was as relaxing as it was active and a major highlight on our road trip! We were very lucky to be able to party hearty at the Craft Brew Fest at the Westin Savannah. We tasted tons of domestic and international craft brews, bellied up to one of the best Sunday brunch spreads we have ever had, and slept in the most comfortable hotel bed since leaving our Ottawa housesit in early August.

african beers at savannah craft brew festNYC2NOLA Great American Road Trip Highlight: New Orleans

Finding the right way to express just how much we enjoyed New Orleans is still a difficult task, as we were just so surprised at the incredible layers of this fine southern city. Of course we knew that New Orleans was much more than Bourbon Street, but had no idea how fantastic this city is – from the Garden District and Magazine Street to Treme, the sculpture garden in City Park and of course the entire deliciously charming French Quarter.

new orleans louisiana picturesArriving to Chicago in time for my birthday

Our 500th day of travel sees us reaching Chicago just in time for my birthday. This is the first time I have been home to celebrate my birthday since 2003, and only the second time since 1998, so it means a lot to be able to spend time with friends and family while we gear up for the next major leg of our travels. One of my bestest besties from back when phones still had cords threw me a birthday bash with my closest friends and I couldn’t have asked for more. After such a long time on the road, it really warms your heart and eases your soul to be surrounded by your friends.

**Favorite Places in the last 100 days

Lisbon

We decided to head to Lisbon on a whim back in May, and the city quickly eclipsed almost all other European cities for us. It’s hard to describe the feeling of sunny freedom we felt here, but it was also the cultural diversity, rich history, tiled houses and exotic-sounding language that sits just outside of our Spanish-speaking reach.

lisbon pictures portugalMontreal

The largest city in French-speaking Canada, Montreal is a healthy balance between all that is good about Europe and all that we love about North America. Montreal is a cycling city, easy to explore by bike, the food is delicious, and the culture incorporates the laid-back coffeehouse culture we love so much abut Europe.

montreal canadaCharleston, SC & Savannah, GA

Putting both these small southern cities on our itinerary put us smack in the center of a long-standing rival between Charleston and Savannah. Which do you like better, nearly everyone asked. What do you prefer about Charleston? Don’t you just love Savannah, it has so much more to offer than Charleston, and so on. So, rather than put our foot in it either way, we’re choosing both cities as some of our favorites in the last 100 days – and there is no compromise being made here as we truly loved both! Savannah is quirky, mystic while Charleston oozes that classic southern charm.

charleston & savannahNew York, New York

Anytime and always, we love New York. This time around we spent most of our time in Manhattan exploring the quintessential New York stops: The Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island and a trip on Top of the Rock. We padded the pavement north, south, east and west through Central Park early one morning as well as taking long night strolls through Greenwich Village, Times Square and along 5th Avenue. We also explored some areas that we hadn’t been to before, including parts of Brooklyn, Coney Island and the Little Odessa area around Brighton Beach and are already looking forward to our next visit to the Big Apple!

new york new york**Most disappointing places

Atlanta, Georgia

Maybe we built it up too much and were too excited about spending time in Atlanta, but it turns out – we don’t really understand the city at all. We relate Atlanta to hip hop and R&B, but couldn’t find a trace of promotion around this aspect of the city. Sure, we experienced Buckhead, Vinnings, drove past the Governor’s Mansion and we loved the only-in-Atlanta experiences like the CNN studio tour and the World of Coca Cola, but felt no connection at all with the city. Its expansive, suburban set-up was difficult to navigate without a car, and each trip in the car must be destination based – you have to know where you want to go, you never just happen to pass a great bar or restaurant from the six-lane highways and jump off.

CNN studio tour atlantaInterstate Highways

We traveled over 3,000 miles from NYC to NOLA, and over 5,000 miles on our Canadian and our U.S. road trips combined, so while we wanted to do a lot of back roads driving, much of the time was spent on Eisenhower’s interstate highway system to get from point A to point B. Some of the drives were breathtaking – especially from Washington, DC to Asheville, but otherwise highway life is an unhealthy, uninspired blend of the same fast-food and budget hotel chains. Finding anything fresh or creative on the interstate is like needle hunting in a haystack.

american interstates highwaysMemphis

Blues, Soul, Elvis…Memphis has a rich music history, but we had a hard time finding much of anything left. Beale Street, once the beating heart of the blues, now seems like a cheap commercialization of its past, and the downtown area lacks charm. But it is the rust on signs and bridges, falling down signs and city center office buildings sitting completely empty that made us so sad.

memphis beale streetToronto

Don’t get us wrong – Toronto is a very cool city. Great food, creative street art, very plenty to do, but we didn’t feel the charm of Montreal or Quebec, the ease of Ottawa, and because we had expected to adore the city, we ended up feeling disappointed by Toronto – which doesn’t mean we didn’t like the city, though!

toronto canada**Best food moments

Indian Food in Lisbon

Goa, India was a territory of Portugal until the mid-20th century – a happy discovery for us as we dined at Indian restaurant after Indian restaurant throughout our three weeks in Lisbon. While seafood fans can eat like absolute kings in this port city, vegetarians could have a much harder time finding veggie dining options, but the dozens of affordable, quality Indian restaurants really save the day.

lisbon indian foodLa Grande-mere Poule breakfast cafe – Montreal

Cute as a button from the outside, this breakfast cafe offers up hearty but healthy plates of pipping hot pancakes, french toast and enough egg dishes for an entire summer of breakfasts in this fine francophone city.

breakfast montrealEggplant Parmesan pizza in New York

We have a must-eat dish in many cities we visit often. In Leon, Nicaragua, we would make a beeline for Desayunazo’s gallo pinto, in Germany it’s pretzel rolls, and in New York City it’s eggplant Parmesan sandwiches…until now. Rarely do vegetarians get to cram an entire baguette of heavy, meaty, saucy Italian deliciousness into their mouths, so eggplant parm sandwiches really used to hit the spot. Until this time. We found this great place off Wall Street that puts thin slices of eggplant Parmesan on pizza. Not eggplant cubes or anything we’ve had infinite times in infinite places. We mean an entire layer of thinly breaded eggplant parm slices on top of delicious New York style pizza with cheese and sauce on top. We now have a favorite New York food, ladies and gentlemen.

eggplant pizzaMary Mac’s Tea Room – Atlanta, Georgia

If you’re looking for down-home southern cooking with a smile and you happen to be in Atlanta – make sure to eat in one of the six tea rooms at Mary Mac’s. The menu is about as traditional as southern cookin’ can get – drink Mint Julip or Peach Iced Tea to wash down Chicken and Dumplin’s, Crawfish, fried green tomatoes, mac-n-cheese, broccoli-cheese souffle or fried breaded okra. For dessert, we sampled the banana pudding and peach cobbler.

Mary Macs tea room vegetable platter**Travel recommendations

Couchsurfing

We did not spend one cent on accommodation throughout our time in Canada. This was primarily accomplished through our five-week housesit outside of Ottawa, but in the last 100 days we’ve also really gotten involved with couchsurfing (finally!). We were hosted in Toronto, Montreal and Quebec, and couldn’t be more pleased with how it went, having met interesting locals who gave us tips and showed us around town in a way we never could have otherwise seen those two cities. Not only does couchsurfing save us a lot of money on accommodation, but we also appreciate getting to know areas outside of the downtown hotel areas and getting insider tips from people who live in the towns we visit.

couchsurfingHotwire.com

Hotwire.com is one of the booking websites that offers great mystery deals, whereby if you give up your right to know exactly which hotel you will stay in until after booking, you can choose an approximate area of the city and how many stars the hotel has, and get up to a 60% discount on rooms. We used Hotwire quite a lot on our U.S. road trip, as the site has great deals in many cities allowing us to remain within our comfortable budget range, but stay in hotels that would normally be out of reach for us. We were never disappointed, and stayed in some great hotels thanks to Hotwire in the last 100 days.

hotwire.com**Worst travel moments

Movie tour in Savannah

Savannah is famous for both the book and the film version of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, as well as the setting for much of Forest Gump, so we thought a movie tour would be an interesting addition in our touring of this city. We were excited to watch the film clips as the bus went from location to location. Unfortunately, and for the first time ever, we actually recommend our readers NOT to take part in something – avoid the Savannah movie tours. The information was shallow, not knowledgable, there was little passion involved on the part of the guide, and at one point, he offered for everyone to get off the bus and eat ice cream at a well-known ice-cream parlor (aka tourist trap). This was the only tour we had to book a day in advance for, but don’t waste your time or money – these tours are not worth it!

Laptop burn-out

Over 500 days ago we purchased our little Asus Netbooks and loved them as family until one day, Dani’s netbook crashed. Luckily Dani is good at backing up and so didn’t lose everything, but she did lose loads of recent documents and downloads, and we had a heck of time transfering data and getting back up and running on a new computer (a brand-new Apple Macbook Air). The second netbook is on its last leg and also about to crash as well, so we are on the hunt for a new laptop for the next big stop on our trip – Asia!

Dani with her Asus Netbook**Travel mishaps

No Map, No Hotel Room in Boston

Luckily, we have no major mishaps to report in the last 100 days, but we have to admit to one mishap which should not have happened to the well-traveled globetrotting people we claim to be. It was a long, hot drive from Quebec City, across the border (with some hassle to get Dani back into the U.S. which caused a two-hour delay) and into Boston. When we arrived in the dark of night, we were focused only on making it to a bar to meet Adventurous Kate before she left for Europe. We had booked no room in Boston, had no map of the city, and didn’t leave the bar til around 11pm. We headed over to the hostel which was conveniently just around the corner from the bar where we had met, but was completely booked. We were so ridiculously relaxed about the whole ordeal until it was 2:30am, we had driven for over three hours, couldn’t find an affordable hotel or motel that didn’t have roaches, and, without really saying it out loud, had decided that checking into a hotel wasn’t really worth it anymore, since we had planned an early start on the next day. So we headed over to Cambridge because we knew that sleeping in the car would be safer in Good Will Hunting’s academic stomping grounds. Yes, we slept in the car off of a quiet little side street just around the corner from Harvard University. Oops…

harvard book store in cambridgeIf you enjoyed that, check out more of our Tops and Flops:

Our Tops and Flops of 400 days of travel: Panama, Germany, Italy, Spain
Our Tops and Flops of 300 days of travel: Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Rica
Our Tops and Flops of 200 days of travel: Mexico, Belize, Guatemala and El Salvador
Our Tops and Flops of 100 days of travel: Las Vegas, California, Arizona, Mexico

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500 days on the road: Reflections on the last 100 days

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Each time we sit down and reflect on the last one hundred days, the initial feeling is always a stunned sort of shock at just how much we have seen and done in the last quarter of a year. In our pre-nomadic era, one hundred days could have come and gone without much more changing than a few new purchases, a short city break or two and some crazy nights out with friends. Now, as nomads, we move continents, lifestyle patterns, languages and learn new things almost every day.

500 days Canada Portugal USAIn the last 100 days we have been to (only) three countries, driven well over 4,000 miles in three different rental cars, been on several boats, crossed countless major bridges, tasted dozens of new dishes from a handful of entirely new cuisines, met loads of new, interesting people (and made some great new friends), relaxed in our own personal jacuzzi, stayed at a few exclusive hotels as well as some dingy roach motels, and had the opportunity to tour through the eastern and southern US states to get a feeling for what life in America is like today.

500 days Canada US PortugalWe love Lisbon

One of the best aspects of nomadic lives is that we can cancel or change plans at the last minute. A three-week stay in Lisbon happened randomly when our planned Cross-Canada Road Trip fell through and we were looking for somewhere warm, cheap and European to spend three weeks before beginning our housesit in Ottawa. Lisbon couldn’t have been a better choice. The city has the metropolitan, multicultural feel, casual lifestyle, clear and sunny skies and miles of beaches that come together to be the sort of place we could live in one day.

lisbon portugalNorth American car dependency

Instead of just unpacking and staying in the Portuguese capital, we instead flew into Toronto for the beginning of over three months in North America. Just two days after arriving, it was time to pickup a rental car in Buffalo, New York. The sense of freedom we have while traveling in Europe disappears here, as the availability of public transportation is either negligible (United States) or expensive (Canada). In the last months we have gone on to rent two cars for a total of 11 weeks which has been a budget breaker, but totally worth it.

Our Ford Focus at Boone Hall PlantationHousesitting in Ontario

Six of those weeks were spent housesitting outside of Ottawa. This period of time was the longest we have stayed in one place since before our official GloberotterGirls adventure even began. We enjoyed the peaceful, safe neighborhood, the well-maintained house, making our own food and actually settling in to a routine that was really key to several professional and personal successes. In the end, however, that tingling excitement of our next steps started to slowly envelope us into the cloud of euphoria that hits each time we are about to make our next bold move.

Mailbox CanadaMontreal, Quebec and learning about Canada

After the homeowners returned, we hopped in the car and headed to Montreal and Quebec for a week. By that time we realized just how much we learned about Canada. As most Americans can admit, we don’t learn all that much about the neighbors to the north in school, and  Canada doesn’t make headline news much either. We were there for national celebrations like Canada Day and Colonel By Day, ate national foods like Poutine, Beaver Tails and Tim Hortons (it is practically a national cuisine!), visited cities like Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal and Quebec and explored the expansive countryside, watched shows like Corner Gas and heard enough people tacking ‘ey’ on to the ends of sentences that it almost slipped out our mouths a couple of times.

canada 2011From stationary to constantly mobile

And so began our mega road trip, through Montreal and Quebec, down across the border in to Boston, and to Manhattan, NYC, where we started the longest ‘leg’ of our trip: the Great American Road Trip: NYC2NOLA. It was an intense four weeks. Constantly on the go, we took a bus from NYC to Philly, on to DC, rented a car and drove over to Asheville and Charlotte before heading down to Charleston, west to Savannah, up through Atlanta and over to New Orleans. Then we extended the trip up through Memphis to Chicago.

usa 2011 road tripThe road trip has been as enthralling as shocking, a slap in the face of the hardships of life in America right now. Long talks ensued about life here – from the blatant disregard for health and wellness, crumbling infrastructure (Memphis) to the fascinating bits of local culture we discovered throughout the Northeast and the Deep South. I am from Chicago, which is very different to anywhere we just got through visiting, and as I haven’t lived in the US since August 2001, it is a true eye-opener to rediscover post 9/11, post Katrina, post Great Recession, post Bush, post first-election-of-black-president America.

us road trip 2011This was no vacation for us: the whole road trip was about keeping our eyes open all the time, taking everything in, and coming to understand America in a deeper way.  It hasn’t been about confirming or changing stereotypes, but witnessing first hand what each place is like, the feel, the attitude and the people.

Next Stop: South East Asia

After a few weeks of friends, family, rest and relaxation here in Chicago, we are heading to Denver for a few days before flying off to South East Asia! We are ready for a new and even bigger challenge after so long on the road. We have never been to Asia and don’t speak any of the languages like we do in Latin America, Europe and the U.S., so this will be a huge step out of our comfort zone. We couldn’t be more excited to explore an entirely new part of the world in as much detail as we have examined our own!

asian vibesThank you

The past 100 days have been so successful only thanks to the people & friends who have helped us make the most of this amazing adventure:

  • Jenne and Marcel for taking care of us so well in Canada
  • Irene for the great advice and taking us out to see a great band in Ottawa
  • Ottawa Tourism for all the advice and bike rentals
  • Jacob, Jenne and Brent for bonfires and Dani’s first-ever s’mores
  • Brad of Brad Sucks for good music and computer advice
  • Dave & Deb from ThePlanetD for the great Toronto recommendations
  • Manuela and Lahcen in Montreal for the hospitality and taking us out for some great Middle Eastern music
  • Bernarda in Toronto for opening her couch to us and letting us use her Lonely Planet
  • Weena and Daniel in Quebec for super sightseeing advice, very comfortable beds, great cheese and a gigantic, delicious chocolate muffin
  • AdventurousKate in Boston for recommending that great Thai place and taking the time to hang on her last night in the U.S.
  • Aaron of Aaron’s Worldwide Adventures in New York for showing us the Highline Park, sheltering us from the rain at the Chelsea Market, feeding us great Mexica food and showing us all around his fav. Manhattan neighborhoods
  • HKHotels for being excellent hosts while in Manhattan
  • NYCGo for providing CityPasses which helped us to maximise our time in NYC
  • Don Faust for his amazingly thorough and helpful advice about almost everywere on our trip – Philly, New Orleans and Washington, DC
  • Page from AllOverTheMap for the off-the-beaten-track D.C. advice
  • My Costa Rican ‘brother’ Jorge, who I haven’t seen since my exchange year in Costa Rica in 1999-2000 and his wife Emily, who now live in Washington DC and took us to Little Ethiopia for great Ethiopian food
  • Caz and Craig from yTravelBlog for all their road trip recommendations
  • Traci from GoBigOrGoHome for the Philly and Virginia tips
  • Andi from My Beautiful Adventures for a fabulous lunch and girly afternoon and Charleston travel tips while at Cafe Monte in Charlotte
  • Caroline from CarolineInTheCity for the Charleston recommendations
  • Our reader Camella for more fantastic Charleston tips
  • The Charleston Visitors Bureau for top tips and the city pass which allowed us to see so much of the city in such a short period of time.
  • Mike and Juergen from For 91 Days for their in-depth posts on Savannah and putting us in touch with the lovely Erica at the Visitors Bureau who helped to pimp our Labor Day weekend by pumping us full of delicious Craft Brews
  • Alex at the Westin who took on the vegetarian food challenge to cook us up some amazing grits patties
  • Nicole at Visit Atlanta for great advice on vegan restaurants and two CityPasses
  • Nicole, our long lost Georgian friend we know from our time in England at the University of Sussex – it was so great to meet up, drink wine and eat some super yummy southern food at Mary Mac’s Tea Room in Atlanta!
  • We’d also like to thank our reader Ann who sent us through great recommendations on what to see and eat in New Orleans
  • The New Orleans Visitors Bureau for CityPasses
  • InterContinental Hotel New Orleans for providing a lovely room in the heart of Nola
  • Last but not least, we would like to thank everyone who is following our journey!

globetrottergirls in north americaLooking back:

Reflections of 100 days of travel
Reflections of 200 days of travel
Reflections of 300 days of travel
Reflections of 400 days of travel

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Polaroid of the week: Street art in Montreal, Canada

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polaroid of the week canada quebec montreal street art

After having spent six weeks almost entirely in the English-speaking part of Canada, we finally moved on to the Province of Quebec. Our first stop was Montreal, a city known for its big French influence, with Paris-style cafes and bistros set on tree-lined boulevards frequented by fashion-forward Francophones. But who would have thought that the city is also home to such a thriving street art scene! We found creative, unique graffiti on almost every corner and found that Montreal has the best overall street art we’ve seen in Canada – so far.  We loved this piece here, reminding us of our Mexican adventures last year at this time – plus we got a giggle out of the gringo tattoo!

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Polaroid of the week: Niagara Falls, Canada

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polaroid of the week canada niagara falls

After almost seven weeks in Ontario, we finally made the trip to Niagara Falls, and following the advice of nearly everyone we met, we chose to view the falls from the Canadian side rather than crossing the border and viewing them from the American side. This was the right choice – the views from the Canadian side are incredible! From here you watch the water flood over the side of the Bridal Veil falls on the American side  and the Horseshoe Falls, as the Canadian Falls are called, which are 167ft high and shaped, as you might guess, in the form of a horseshoe (pictured here). The power of the water, the rush of the falls can be felt on a Maid of the Mist boat tour that will take you right up to the falls themselves. As we approached the Falls, the thunderous pounding sound takes over your hearing, the spray splashes at first, until it pours down from all sides into the boat. There you stand, floating just a few feet from the over 600,000 gallons of water that crash down the Horseshoe Falls every single second.

We darted from one side of the boat to the other, soaking wet, giggling, taking pictures, and enjoying a truly awe-inspiring  experience at Niagara Falls!

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Polaroid of the week: A vintage car in Ontario, Canada

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Polaroid of the week Canada Merrickville Vintage Car

Ontario is car country! They love their classic cars here and we see proud owners of vintage cars cruising through the country side in their well-maintained rides all the time. During the summer there is a classic car show in some town at almost every weekend. The Merrickville car show is one of the biggest in Ontario, with over 1000 registered cars, trucks, and hot rods, one tractor and even one pimped out school bus!  It feels as if time stood still here is the old town of Merrickville as you zig zag through the vintage cars lining the Rideau Canal.

If you enjoy this weekly Polaroid series, please ‘Like’ our Facebook fan page where we post  photos from our travels every day.

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