Sunday, October 30, 2016

THE MASSASAGA PROVINCIAL PARK, ONTARIO—CAMPING AND CANOEING, JUNE 26-JULY 09, 2016




Sometime in March, 2016 I had reserved two campsites in the Massasauga Provincial Park on Blackstone Harbour—one on the south side of the channel leading to Woods Bay and the other one on the north of the channel. They were quite nice and not far from the park’s parking lot at Pete’s Place Access Point, so even novice canoeists should not find it difficult to get there (although in windy weather that may challenging). We had also invited several of our friends to stay with us over the Canada Day long weekend—eventually Ian & Sue spent a few days with us.
 
Jack, Catherine, Ian, Sue and Miro the dog
We were planning to depart from Toronto at 10:00 a.m., but finally left at 2:00 p.m. The weather was hot and sunny and after 2 hours we arrived at MacTier, where we quickly went to the supermarket as well as purchased cold beer. Just before 6:00 p.m. we reached Pete’s Place Access Point.

The park office was closed, but we were pleasantly surprised to find a self-serve registration & fee station—our names already appeared on the list. We paid the remaining camping fee by credit card and proceeded to the put-in area. Nobody else was around and we did not have to hurry. When our canoe was packed and we were ready to paddle to our campsite, a sizable water snake suddenly slithered from the rock above and jumped into the water, missing our canoe by a hair’s breadth and causing Catherine to utter a very piercing scream which certainly reverberated across the whole bay. Well, we almost ended up with an unexpected (and unwelcomed) guest!
 
Dying evergreen trees
We noticed that the water level was the highest in many years. Indeed, most of rocks that we used to walk on in the past now were under the water, as well as we saw plenty of rust-colored and seemingly dying evergreen pine trees along the shores of the bay. Upon a closer examination, we realized that lower part of their trunks (and, of course, their roots) were submerged, which probably was causing them to slowly die—after all, they were not tolerant of growing in water.
Our first campsite...

Our campsite, although adjacent to the channel, was relatively private and quiet due to a rocky ridge between it and the channel; besides, we quickly got accustomed to passing jet skis & motorboats (noisy!), yet it was something we had expected—after all, it was my seventh visit in this park. Every day we saw many packed canoes and kayaks; some were heading towards Georgian Bay, others back to Pete’s Place. Almost every evening we reveled in sitting on the rocky ridge, under a small, bowed tree, observing passing boats, admiring the setting sun and sipping wine and cold beer. Sometimes we could see campers on the other two campsites, usually boisterous and having plenty of fun!
... and the view from the campsite!

There were plenty of water snakes along the shores of the campsite and they were often attracted to our walking or swimming. Once I saw a big snapping turtle, floating near the shore, but once I came near the water edge, it swiftly vanished. One morning I found a tiny red-bellied snake in the tent’s vestibule—at first I thought it was a big, thick dew worm. There was also a beaver lodge nearby and once I spotted a snake sun-tanning there, but when it saw me, it fled with an astonishing speed and I was not even able to take a good look to identify it. Every day we saw a number of beavers swimming around the tip of peninsula our campsite was located on, from one beaver lodge to the other. They must have been quite active at night, as we often heard loud slapping the water with their broad tails. A small skink was living around the fire pit and from time to time we saw it sun tanning on the rocks. Occasionally a majestic blue heron landed nearby, waded for some time trying to catch fish and later flew off. In the evening and at night we were often serenaded by loons and frogs. In the morning we were awaken by a pileated woodpecker doggedly pecking at nearby trees. A few chipmunks ran here and there, but they did not seek any interaction with us—unlike those at some other parks, where it was next to impossible to get rid of the company of those sociable critters! We also had a resident seagull who hung around the fire pit looking for leftover tidbits—fruitlessly, I might add. And there was also an American Bullfrog, the largest frog in North America, patiently waiting in the shallow water for any prey. As I later found out, they have voracious, indiscriminate appetite and will eat virtually any animal they can swallow, including insects, birds, mammals, reptiles and even other bullfrogs.
Water snake

I spent considerable time observing spider wasps, which were relentlessly digging holes in sandy soil. Later they dragged a spider (which they had paralyzed with a venomous stinger) to the nest. The unlucky spider was to become a host for feeding their larvae—the wasp would lay an egg on the abdomen of the spider and would close the nest. When the wasp larva hatches, it begins to feed on the still-living spider. After devouring the spider’s edible parts, the larva makes a silk cocoon and pupates. Interestingly, some wasps spent a lot of time burrowing potential nests in sandy soil, but suddenly changed their mind and ended up dragging a paralyzed spider for many meters on the ground and finally climbed up a tree where, I presume, they created the proper nest.
Bull frog

During our whole stay the weather was almost perfect—very hot & dry, mostly sunny and even though the fire ban was in effect in the Parry Sound area, the park still allowed campfires. Unfortunately, our final day was stormy and we had to pack up and paddle in the pouring rain, but since it was still very warm, we did not complain much—after all, the area certainly needed rain. Perhaps because of the lack of rain, mosquitoes were not very bad at all—usually they appeared around 9 p.m. and disappeared one hour later.
Our favorite spot, where we enjoyed watching sunsets, observed passing boats and read books

The evening before Canada Day we canoed to Moon River Marina for a few supplies. Catherine was surprised to discover that the store and the LCBO outlet had just closed at 6 pm (somehow I anticipated that). She did manage to talk the sales person into a quick beer sale. On our way back we spotted a building with a lit neon sign ‘OPEN’; it was West View Resort—indeed, the small store carried cream which Catherine was desperately craving for her morning coffee. The resort owner, a very chatty gentleman, happened to sit in front of the store and we started talking to him. I noticed a book called “My Life on the Moon River” by Peter (Pete) Grisdale (who passed away in 2014, aged 94 years). I immediately pointed this out to Catherine, saying that the author used to have a house in the location where the parks office & parking lot were now located—“Pete’s Place Access Point” was named after him.

“This was my brother”, the owner said.

Wow! Indeed, his name was George Grisdale (and the resort was located on Grisdale’s Road!) and he briefly talked about his late brother. When I mentioned Calhoun Lodge (which we had visited several times in the past), Mr. Grisdale grabbed the park’s brochure, “Calhoun Lodge and the Baker Homestead”, opened it on page 5 and pointing to a photo depicting two men working near the fireplace, said,

“Although my name does not appear under the photo, the lad on the right—it’s me!”

Of course, I bought the (autographed!) book, which contains plenty of stories about the author’s war years spent in Europe as well as fascinating tales of local people and events that had taken place in this area.
Canoeing around our campsite

We enjoyed paddling on Blackstone Harbour, especially at night. One day we paddled to Pete’s Place and drove to Parry Sound (and caught sight of a medium-size black bear running across Healey Lake Road). An evening storm, accompanied with lighting, thunders and pouring rain, significantly delayed us from canoeing back to the campsite and for over one hour we sat in the car, waiting for the storm to pass. When it did, it became exceptionally calm and quiet, as though the storm had been just a bad dream. At 10:30 pm, in total darkness, we began heading to the campsite. There was no wind and nobody else was on the water; from time to time we saw distant lighting in the sky, but did not hear any thunders. It was a magical feeling! When we finally approached the shore, I was able to try out my new flashlight, which provided ample illumination at a fraction of its maximum output of 1,000 lumens.

Storm is coming!

While in Parry Sound, we went to No Frills and the Hart Store at the Parry Sound Mall and later drove to the Sequin River where we had traditionally our lunch under the railway trestle, which was constructed in 1907. The trestle is 517 m long and 32 m high, the longest rail trestle east of the Rocky Mountains. In 1914 Tom Thomson, one of the most famous Canadian painters, was travelling by canoe on the Sequin River. He stopped near the trestle and painted the bridge and the former Parry Sound Lumber Company. A sign, depicting the painting, marks the location.
Trestle at Parry Sound, 1914

Later we went for a stroll in Parry Sound and ‘discovered’ an awesome second-hand bookstore, “Bearly Used Books”. I was pleasantly surprised not only by the store’s size and number of books it carried, but also by the diversity of categories and titles! I especially enjoyed the section about local authors/history—I immediately spotted a poster advertising “My Life on the Moon River” by Peter (Pete) Grisdale! After browsing for over 30 minutes, I picked several really good and mostly out-of-print books which I would have never found in Chapters!
An old steel logging ring at our campsite

I had just finished reading “City of Thieves” by David Benioff—an awesome book, set during the siege of Leningrad and most likely loosely based on a real story, as told to the author by his grandfather—and I immediately started reading “The Gates of Hell” by Harrison E. Salisbury, which I found in the bookstore. This excellent novel was also about the Soviet Union—although a work of fiction, I quickly realized that the main character closely resembled the famous Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Thus, it was based on many factual events and realistically showed the intricacies of the brutal Soviet system, from the time of the October Revolution to the 1970s. Incidentally, Harrison E. Salisbury was also the author of “The 900 Days: The Siege of Leningrad” and David Benioff used it extensively while writing his novel.

We also visited the Charles W. Stockey Center for the Performing Arts, which stages plenty of excellent performances. Situated on the shores of Georgian Bay, it makes an excellent location to observe sunsets. We also spotted a new monument that had been unveiled just two weeks before—a life-sized bronze monument of Francis Pegahmagabow, a First World War hero and the most highly-decorated First Nations soldier of WW I.
Francis Pegahmagabow's Monument

Later we leisurely walked on the Rotary and Algonquin Fitness Trail and reached the Waubuno Beach. There was a sizable anchor and a historical plaque:

THE SINKING OF THE WAUBUNO 1879

“This anchor, recovered in 1959, belonged to the steamer "Waubuno", a wooden sidewheeler of some 180 tonnes which was built at Port Robinson in 1865. She carried freight and passengers in the shipping trade which flourished on Lake Huron during the nineteenth century. Commanded by Captain J. Burkett, she sailed from Collingwood on November 22, 1879, bound for Parry Sound. The "Waubuno" encountered a violent gale later that day and sank in Georgian Bay some 32 km south of here. All on board perished, and although some wreckage was later discovered, the bodies of the 24 victims were never found. The specific cause of this disaster has never been determined.”

Incidentally, several years ago we had been camping on Wreck Island (also in the Massasauga Park) where the wreck of the “Waubuno” was located. We had paddled there and seen it in the shallow water, between Bradden Island and Wreck Island.
Our second campsite

As our campsite had already been reserved on Thursday, for the last two days we managed to book campsite #507, located on the north side of the channel, just a stone’s throw away from campsite #508. On Thursday afternoon we made three short trips to the new campsite, transporting our (too) numerous pieces of equipment. The new campsite was quite nice and scenic, we set up the tent on a tent pad near a big rock, farthest from the fire pit. Unlike our previous campsite, this one did not have any rocky ridge between the channel, so we could see (and especially hear) all the passing motorboats—yes, it was noisy! Besides, we were not able to admire sunsets.
Beaver Lodge

The first morning on the new site we heard clatter; as Catherine got out of the tent, she saw a black bear hanging around the bear box. Upon seeing her, it hastily ran away and vanished in the forest. Fifteen minutes later we heard some commotion and yells on the campsite located on the other side of the channel—“there is a bear, there is a bear!” Apparently, the bear decided to check out that campsite and must have swam across the channel.

The following night we again heard some suspicious noises around the tent, as if something were slowly plodding nearby, but whatever was there, disappeared before I had a chance to get out of the tent and shine my powerful flashlight all over the campsite.
Wasp with its victim, a paralyzed spider

On Friday, our last full day at the park, was hot and humid, but in the afternoon there was that distinct calm before the storm, even the air smelled peculiar. We decided to start the campfire at 7:00 pm, a couple of hours earlier than usually. It was a great idea—we just managed to grill our steaks as black clouds appeared, accompanied by lighting and thunder—in no time it was pouring rain! I grabbed the meat from the grill and we had it while sitting under the tarps. Eventually we made a run to the tent. It was raining for some time and we had soon fallen asleep, hoping to get up early morning next day

Unfortunately, it was still raining the whole morning and even afternoon, so at noon, taking advantage of intermittent rain-less periods, we packed up and carried everything to the canoe. As we were ready to depart, dark clouds slowly moved over our location and it was drenching rain! I covered the canoe with our big tarp—it was a great idea! At least it was warm and even being a little wet did not bother us that much. Thirty minutes later, exactly at 2:00 p.m. (the ‘official’ check out time) we started paddling to Pete’s Place, reaching it in less than 30 minutes. From afar we saw a throng of people standing on the docks and in the loading/unloading area—several dozen of girls from a nearby camp were departing for their wilderness camping experience for the next four nights! Besides, there were plenty of other tourists—some were waiting to start their trips, others were just packing up after several days on the water.
Rainbow over Kempenfelt Bay

On our way to Toronto we stopped in Barrie, in a park on the shores of Kempenfelt Bay (Lake Simcoe) where we had lunch—and observed a wonderful, double rainbow! Later we drove to Minet’s Point, where Catherine’s father parents had a cottage and where he had spent his childhood and teen years in the 1920s, 30s and 40s. The cottage was still there (209 Southview Road)—as well as the park where he used to go to all the time!

BEAR-PROOF CONTAINERS

The big sign at Pete’s Place Access Point said, “You are in bear country”, which was true: we had seen bears in this park before and heard plenty of stories of hapless and often petrified campers, losing not only their food and coolers, but also ending up with damaged tents. So, it was always part of our routine to religiously hang food up in the trees so that bears could not reach it. Not that we were looking forward to doing so—each time before leaving the campsite we had to secure the food and hoist it; each time we wanted to get anything to eat, we had to lower the food container and coolers—and hoist them back up. It was often a strenuous activity, especially for Catherine, who, as I said before, was responsible for the kitchen & food supplies.
Bear-proof bin

This year we were for a huge treat—there was a food storage locker (a.k.a. the bear box/bear proof bin) installed on our campsite (and, as we found out later, on a number of other campsites too, especially those most frequented by bears). It was undoubtedly an EXCELLENT idea and I would like to extend my genuine gratitude and appreciation to the Park for installing them—THANK YOU!

However… I hate to rain on the park’s parade and be negative of this otherwise wonderful piece of equipment, yet after using the box just once both of us immediately noticed a number of issues with its design.

For one thing, the bear box’s opening was on top and it took some effort, sometimes considerable, to lift the lid—especially Catherine, who was in charge of the kitchen & food supplies, found it challenging to open (and close) the box and a few times she bumped her head against the lid (you should hear her thunderous swearing then!). Also while closing the lid, we had to exert some force, invariably causing a loud clamor. There were two rather awkward hinges inside the box—I thought they made it more difficult to open/close the box and were prone to break.

When we arrived at the campsite, the box was closed, yet there was some water inside (and a big dew worm!); since there was no opening in the bottom to let the water out, we had to manually remove the water (with a coffee cup) and later used plenty of paper towels to clean and dry its floor. After it rained, some water accumulated inside the box, even though the box remained closed—meaning that it was not totally waterproof.

We also found the locking mechanism somehow unpractical. There were hasps and staples on each side of the box and two carabiners, attached to the box with a thin steel line. I could immediately tell that sooner or later (probably sooner) the steel lines would break or unravel and the carabiners would become detached, they were simply too fragile to withstand continuous usage by throngs of campers, let alone occasional vandals—or a pesky and dexterous bear.

After relocating to our second campsite, as Catherine was about to put our food inside the bear container on the new site, she found it impossible to open it. It took both of us a lot of effort to finally lift the lid—it turned out that one of the hinges had gotten twisted & almost detached on one side, thus blocking the lid from opening. In addition, one carabiner was missing, the other one was already disconnected from the box. We could not believe that our predictions came true so soon! Furthermore, the box was on such uneven ground that it kept tipping backwards when the lid was lifted.

Last year we had spent several weeks camping at various parks in the USA (Yellowstone) and all of them had had bear boxes installed (due to Grizzly bear activity), so we could compare the boxes in the Massasauga to the ones in the USA.

The bear boxes in the U.S. parks were standard cupboard-style, with two front doors, very practical—the top area could be conveniently used as a ‘table’ for temporarily placing various items and it was much easier to put heavy items inside. The closing/opening mechanism was simple and quiet (no awkward hinges) and the latch/lock was ‘built-in’ and did not require fiddling with carabiners (i.e., less parts to break or get missing). The boxes were also permanently attached to the ground. I do not remember any water accumulating inside—and it was so easy to clean them.
Our campsite is behind

Notwithstanding the above observations, we were still very grateful to the park for installing such bear-proof containers!

To sum up, even though we did not paddle a lot, we had a wonderful time in the park and we are looking forward to visiting it again!



CAMPING IN LONG POINT PROVINCIAL PARK, ONTARIO—MAY, 2016




The second half of May is a perfect time to commence the camping season—the bugs have not arrived yet, children are still in school and the weather is quite nice, at least during the day. As I mentioned in my other blog, in 2013 we went camping to Algonquin Park at the end of May and had to cut our trip short due to swarms of black flies (and mosquitoes). Thus, in order to avoid those horrible insects, we decided to go South, not North, in May—where black flies were not present.
 
Long Point
It was our second visit in this Park in as many years and we even managed to stay on the same campsite we had bivouacked the previous year (Monarch Campground). We left on Sunday, May 15, 2016, one week before the Victoria Day long weekend. The first two days were cold (probably below freezing at night), windy and rainy (well, the day we left Toronto, it was actually… snowing!), but we still had a wonderful time—our 4 sleeping bags certainly came in very handy. Besides, soon the weather improved and it was almost hot the day we were leaving.
Boathouses

In fact, the first evening it was so cold, windy and cloudy, that Catherine, afraid it might rain, decided to skip cooking at the campfire and headed to the Boathouse Restaurant in Port Rowan. In front of the restaurant I took numerous photos of the row of —what else?—boat houses—it was a picture-perfect view! The meal of fish & chips and bread pudding also hit the spot at this delightful eatery.
Our campsite in Long Point Provincial Park

The campsite, located in a sandy hollow close to the shores of Lake Erie, was very nice and private—and the site across was vacant. There were plenty of poison ivy around the campsite, so we had to exercise caution, especially at night. There were some RVs at the park, most of them on Firefly Campground (which was very open, with little shade) and on bigger campsites farther from the lake and closer to the road. The beach was quite wide and long. The park’s occupancy rate was quite low, but according to the online Park Reservation System, there was not going to be a single vacant campsite over the upcoming long weekend! We hardly saw any mosquitos—but after sun tanning in the dunes Catherine realized there were plenty of ticks all over her and one had to be removed with a tweezers. Since ticks are carried of Lyme disease, from then on we were very careful to avoid any areas where ticks could be present. We spotted a lot of various birds at our campsite; one of them, a very friendly and inquisitive red winged blackbird, hung around our site all the time—it had a very distinct shiny silver band on one of its legs, no doubt a souvenir of his involuntary stopover at the nearby Bird Observatory! At night we could see from the campsite city lights on the other side of Lake Erie, in the USA—as well as from time to time I could spot a big freighter traversing the lake.
It was cold!

We also rode our bikes to the ‘old’ section of the park, Cottonwood Campground (which was still closed), and it had a number of first-come, first-served campsites. Some sites at Cottonwood were nice, but too close to the road and not as cozy at the ones at Monarch. The separate day use area had huge dues and picnic areas.

Although we were quite busy with our activities, I still managed to finish reading one book, “The Courtyard”. Its author, Arkady Lvov, smuggled it from the Soviet Union in a shoe-shine kit. The book dealt with the lives of the residents of an apartment building in Odessa from 1936 to 1953. Readers had an opportunity to closely observe their everyday struggle under communism and their dealing with the absurdities of communal living and daily repressions, albeit some trivial, of the Stalinist system. Although almost 700 pages long and at times somehow boring, overall I enjoyed this epic work as it gave me a unique and humorous insight into the lives of individuals representing various sections of Soviet society, who shared the same apartment building.
Poison Ivy at campsites

Long Point is the world’s longest freshwater sand spit, about 40 km long and about 1 km across at its widest point. The Point’s sand dune system is constantly shifting. It is also home to various wildlife and plants. Several hundred years ago there was a portage here and a historical plaque located just before the entrance summarized its history:

Long Point Portage

This portage, which crossed the isthmus joining Long Point to the mainland, was used by travelers in small craft following the north shore of Lake Erie in order to avoid the open waters and the length of the journey around the Point. Although used earlier by the Indians, the portage was first recorded in 1670 by two Sulpician missionaries, Dollier de Casson and René de Bréhant de Galinée. For about 150 years traffic increased over the carrying place, first as a result of the French expansion to the southwest, including the founding of Detroit in 1701, and, after 1783, because of the movement of settlers into this region. The portage was abandoned in 1833 when a storm broke a navigable channel through the isthmus.

The shallow waters and shifting shorelines around Long Point claimed a lot of victims in the early 1800s, and wrecks were frequent. In 1828 deliberations on a proposed channel at the base of Long Point to create a safer route for the ship traffic. In November, 1833 a big storm washed a cut 400 meters wide and 4 meters deep across the base of the Point and the government of Canada kept maintaining it. Storms changed the channels’ characteristics over the years from the width of a ship and 1.5 meters deep to nearly a kilometer width and 7 m deep. In 1879 a wooden lighthouse was built to guide ships to the tricky channel. Some storms closed one cut and opened another, so ships, seeking shelter from open lake storms, often had a hard time finding their way. No wonder that many ships ran aground around Long Point. Furthermore, during the mid 19th century, that area became a center for land-based piracy, called ‘blackbirding’. Local residents, called ‘blackbirders’, erected fake lighthouses during times of low visibility. Ships trying to enter the old cut would run aground. When the crew abandoned ship, the blackbirders would loot the ship of cargo and other valuables.
The Old Cut Lighthouse

Fortunately, not all locals were so callous. Abigail Becker (1830–1905), also known as the Angel of Long Point, saved the lives of numerous sailors caught in storms along the shores of Long Point. In November, 1854, she spotted an overturned rowboat and immediately realized there must have been a shipwreck nearby. Six sailors managed to reach the Old Cut lighthouse (the lighthouse keeper already gone for the winter) and they were nursed back to health by Abigail. Not long afterwards, on November 23rd, 1854, the schooner “Conductor” was caught in blinding snow squalls and captain Henry Hackett decided to change the course and head towards the safety of Old Cut. Unfortunately, finding the cut in such a weather was almost impossible and soon the schooner ran aground. As it was stuck in a shallow sandbar, 200 meters from shore, it was mercilessly pounded by the waves and torn apart as 8 men clinging to the rigging. After spotting the wreck, Abigail got her children and rushed to beach opposite the wreck, where she started a huge fire, thus encouraging the men to swim to the shore—the only viable chance they had to survive. And so they did, with her help, reach the shore—she waded into the water to drag the men to the shore, where the blessed fire and hot tea that was waiting for them! There is a historical plaque in Port Rowan dedicated to Abigail Becker:


The Heroine of Long Point

In November, 1854, the schooner "Conductor" was wrecked off this shore during one of Lake Erie's many violent storms. Jeremiah Becker, who resided nearby, was away on the mainland but his courageous wife, Abigail, risked her life by repeatedly entering the water while assisting the exhausted seamen to reach land. The eight sailors were housed and fed in her cabin until they recovered from their ordeal. In recognition of her heroism she received a letter of commendation from Queen Victoria, several financial awards, and a gold medal from the Life Saving Benevolent Association of New York.

The “Old Cut” channel remained navigable until 1906, when it was filled in by storms, thus ending Long Point’s brief history as an island. The lighthouse was decommissioned in 1916. Its refurbished likeness on the original foundation is a remainder of Long Point’s fascinating human and natural history—as well as for those not familiar with Long Point’s history, it looks out of place. (Sources: Bird Studies’ information plate, “Wikipedia” and “Lake Erie Stories: Struggle and Survival on a Freshwater Ocean” by Chad Fraser).
Relaxing in the dunes

Long Point is very well-known for its bird migration and one day we visited (for the second time) the Bird Observatory/Field Station, located on Old Cut Blvd. It was just fascinating to watch the staff (partially made up of volunteers) catch, identify, measure, weight, band and release various birds. It was also a great opportunity to learn about birds, as the staff are very knowledgeable and willing to share their knowledge with visitors.

We found out that some birds were persistently hanging out around the observatory (certainly feeders full of seeds were one of the main reasons) and not only had they been caught numerous times, but sometimes more than once in one day! A small store sells books and other ornithological materials. Several informative plates along the nearby trail tell the story of Long Point and bird migration. Just be careful and do not get caught in the fine nets designed to trap birds, or you might end up being banded (or perhaps handcuffed), too! Although I was not interested in birds that much, each visit to this field station turned out to be a very inspiring, delightful and thrilling experience.
Twins' Ice Cream Parlour

We went to the nearby town of Port Rowan several times and of course, each time had excellent ice cream at Twins’ Ice Cream Parlour, as well as spent a few hours browsing in the Thrift Shop and a well-stocked dollar store—a lifesaver for campers forgetting needed items or a getaway on a rainy day. Like last year, we brought bikes and were looking forward to riding on numerous biking trails near Waterford, Simcoe and Delhi.
Asparagus

Port Rowan and Long Point are in Norfolk County—a well-known agricultural area, which has been the center of the Ontario tobacco belt. Because of the decrease in the tobacco consumption, many farmers have switched to other crops, like ginseng and asparagus. There were still plenty of almost historical kilns (curing barns, where tobacco leaves were undergoing a curing/drying process), often heated by coal—some, semi-abandoned, sat empty, others transformed into storage.

Many farmers have decided to switch to farming ginseng, yet it requires a large investment of capital and it takes at least three years before the first harvest. Since ginseng is native to the floor of the mixed hardwood forests, it requires little sunlight. Thus, fields where ginseng is cultivated must have been modified to resemble its natural preferences by erecting shade that can filter most of the sunlight.
Old kilns

We also visited several farms growing asparagus—it is said that one sure sign of the spring season is asparagus appearing in local stores—or on farms, from which we could directly purchase it. We bought a couple of very fresh bundles and at the campsite we added some butter, wrapped them in aluminum foil and grilled over the fire. They were soft and delicious!
Ginseng plantation

After planting asparagus, it takes several years before the first harvest, but amazingly, it is a perennial vegetable and can be productive for 20 to 30 years if given proper care. If the stalks are not picked they will grow into tall fern like with small red seeds. There were a number of workers employed on the farm—some harvesting, others sorting and washing asparagus. Many of them were seasonal workers were from Mexico and Caribbean countries, they annually come to Canada to work on farms, since not too many Canadians are interested in such work—they much prefer living comfortably in cities, often in subsidized housing units and collecting social assistance (i.e., welfare) which the Liberal governments in Ottawa and Ontario generously bestow on them, almost no questions asked. O, Canada… I feel like crying…
Morden Cemetery

While driving from the park, several times we passed by the Morden Cemetery, located at Concession Road East and East Quarter Line. It was an ‘abandoned’ cemetery, operated by Norfolk County (which has one hundred and eleven documented burial sites/cemeteries). Such cemeteries are quite common in Ontario. Unfortunately, many headstones got lost, vandalized, broken and unreadable and local authorities decided to just collect them and erect them in one place, not necessarily at their original locations. Most of the burials occurred at the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century. Many of the graves are children’s.


DELHI RAIL TRAIL

Although it was very windy, we drove to Delhi and found the beginning of the Delhi Rail Trail (which runs almost 14 km from Delhi to Simcoe) on Fertilizer Road, near the Co-op Fertilizer Plant. Surprisingly, there were semi-abandoned tracks on the other side of the road and they actually ran parallel to the Delhi trail for about one hundred meters. They were part of Trillium Railway, also known as the St. Thomas & Eastern Railway, operating between Delhi and St. Thomas, which carried fertilizer, grain, salt, ethanol, forest products and other goods. The line ceased local operations at the end of 2013. The rail lines were established by the Great Western Railway in 1873 and the Simcoe-Delhi line must have been abandoned several decades ago.
Delhi Rail Trail

There was a small parking near Fertilizer Road and several informative plaques. The trail passed through fields and forests, sometimes very close to farmers’ buildings and crossed several roads. We saw some other people also using the trail-cyclists, joggers and hikers. The shoulders of the trail had plenty of poison ivy. Because it was very windy, we decided to turn back a few kilometers before reaching Simcoe. Overall, it was a very easy, flat and scenic trial, perfect for beginners.

WATERFORD HERITAGE TRAIL

Old Waterford Train Station

The Waterford Heritage Trail is almost 20 km long and passes through forests, wetlands, fields and grasslands. It follows the right of way of the Lake Erie and Northern Railway (LEN), which commenced operation from Galt to Port Dover in 1915, transporting passengers and freight. It made stops in Galt, Brantford, Waterford, Simcoe, Port Dover and other places in between. The passenger service was discontinued in 1955. The line between Waterford to Simcoe was abandoned in the early 1990s.
The Black Bridge

The most prominent—and still existing—feature of the LEN is the imposing Black Bridge that carried it across the Toronto Hamilton and Buffalo Railway (THB) and Canada Southern (CASO). In the past Waterford was an important railway hub. Passengers could go by train not only to New York, but also to Detroit and even Chicago. The passenger service on the THB line ended in the 1960s and freight service in the late 1980s, when the route was abandoned. Remarkably, up to 120 trains per day used to pass through Waterford!

We departed from Simcoe at Lion’s Park (on Davis Street East), which had ample parking. According to the information plaques along the route, this trail is part of what is known as “Brock’s Route”—it is for the most part aligned with the route that Major General Isaac Brock took between Hamilton and Port Dover through Brantford in the war of 1812-1814.
View from the Black Bridge towards another old rail bridge

After riding for 9 kilometers, we arrived in the town of Waterford. On our right (at the end of Nichol Street W) stood big silos, now apparently abandoned—their side draws, designed to unload their content directly to railways cars, were still in place. The empty site across from the silos is where the LEN station once stood.
Brock's Route

We continued for about a hundred meters and reached the impressive Black Bridge (which just celebrated its centenary), now modified for the new trail users. From the bridge we could admire Waterford Ponds and the town of Waterford. There was also a small pedestrian bridge—I think that once it had connected the LEN and THB.

As we did not have the time to continue on the trail towards Brantford, we retraced our route for approximately 600 meters, where the trail split—I guess it had been another junction connecting the LEN and the THB. We took the other sloping paved trail, turned right under the Black Bridge and ended up riding on the THB and Canada Southern right of way. A few minutes later we arrived at the old railway station of the Canada Southern Railway Company at the west end of Alice Street ( its sign still proclaiming, “Waterford. Pop. 2700. Elev. 820”). This modest station, built in 1871, resembles train stations in the USA. Fortunately, not only has it been preserved, but also thoroughly renovated and now it is the home of “Quilt Junction”.
The Waterford Heritage Trail

After enjoying two slices of pizza at a local pizzeria and cycling on several streets in town for a while, we got back to the trail via Nichol Street and returned to Simcoe.

Altogether it was an easy and very pleasant excursion which also allowed us to learn so much about local history. Kudos to the organizations and individuals that maintain this trail!

PORT DOVER

We drove to Port Dover en route home to Toronto just a week after the Friday the 13th celebrations, when thousands of motorbikes descended on this small town. In fact it was the Friday eve of the May long weekend and very busy once again. We walked to the lighthouse, then bought a pizza at Harbour Pizza and had it while sitting near the Port Dover museum, on the Lynn River. We got chatting with a local lady. Catherine asked her about a newly opened Bed & Breakfast on the former Clonmel Castle Estate property and got directions to visit. It was still a beautiful stone-fenced property that looked straight out on an Irish movie set, but had been subdivided and had a new subdivision of upscale homes just meters from the entrance. There were a number of very informative plaques along the Lynn River with photos and interesting facts pertaining to Port Dover’s history and I took liberty in reproducing some of that text below.
Pizza delivery in Port Dover!

In the 1840s the mouth of the Lynn River was dredged and the first piers and lighthouse were built. Soon commercial wharves and warehouses sprang up along the banks of the Lynn River. They were essential for loading and unloading the trading schooners, which made regular stops here, bringing manufactured goods and other merchandise and taking away farm products, lumber and tanned hides. With the coming of the railways in the late 1800s, schooner trade fell off and the harbor and creek sides became the domain of commercial fishing boats.
Port Dover

In the twentieth century Port Dover was the heart of Canada’s freshwater fishing industry. The stretch of the Lynn River was once lined on both sides with net shanties, docks and processing plants associated with these fisheries. By the 1970s Port Dover was home to the world’s largest freshwater fishing fleet. Well, I only spotted one old shanty on the other side of the river.

There were several photographs on the plaque, depicting the banks of the Lynn River in the late 1890s and early 1900s—and red dots indicated the exact spot where we were standing now. Indeed, it was just unbelievable to look at all the structures that dotted the shores then—almost all of them now gone! It remained me of the ghost town of French River in the mouth of the French River: old photographs showed numerous buildings standing on the rocky shores—when I visited that place in 2008, I could only see the lighthouse and the ruins of a once very tall chimney. Time marches on…
Port Dover, an old shanty

When the prohibition was introduced in the United States in 1920, commercial fishermen on Lake Erie were experiencing one of their industry’s cyclical downturn—what a wonderful coincidence! Soon boxcars full of whisky were appearing on railway sidings and their contents were shipped across the lake aboard a variety of craft, and then transferred to American vessels. Thousands of cases of Canadian whisky and beer made their way to American speakeasies. With the end of the prohibition in 1933, this colorful era was brought to an end as well.
The story of my life

Near Port Dover we briefly stopped at Canada’s First Forestry Station and Interpretative Center and drove around for a while. This station was established by the Ontario government in 1908, on 40 ha of wind-eroded sandy land. There was a huge tree trunk on display, its growth rings clearly visible. The information plaque, “The Story of My Life”, was explaining the history of this 277 year old tree—in its own words!

“I grew from an acorn in 1723 along the bank of the Lynn River, when there were only native people in this region … When I was 25, in 1750, I could start seeing what was going on around me … I saw horse-drawn carriages travelling along Norfolk Street … In 1795 the popular governor John Graves Simcoe came to visit our county and camped close by …In 1812 war broke out with the United States and I could see the militia practice all around me … In 1914 there was war again and many soldiers practiced where I could see them before they went off to fight in Europe … The farmers had cut down too many trees and the good soil was blowing away. In 1908 a few people at St. Williams had started a nursery to try to stop the dust storms by replanting the trees … In about 1980 my end was coming near: new insects from foreign lands attacked my leaves … Then disease struck my bark and I passed away in the year 2000. I had to be cut down and people made many beautiful things from me.”

While driving near Simcoe, we spotted a small distillery in a tiny community of Green’s Corners, which for the last 6 years had been producing rice-based Silver Lake Vodka. It was possible to buy (or sample) the product at the distillery, but it was already closed.
McQueen Cemetery

On our way home I noticed a historical plaque in Port Dover—there was a small McQueen Cemetery-United Empire Loyalists Burial Ground. The United Empire Loyalists were those who had been settled in the thirteen colonies at the outbreak of the American Revolution, who remained loyal to and took up the Royal Standard, and who settled in what is now Canada at the end of the war. Apparently the McQueen cemetery is on the original McQueen farm in Port Dover. One of the oldest, and most prominent graves, was that of Alexander McQueen, who died in 1804. The inscription days the following:
Alexander McQueen's grave

In memory of Alexander McQueen
Died 10th July 1804
Aged 93 years
As a highland soldier under the valiant Wolfe,
He helped to capture Quebec and
Win Canada for Britain.

This memorial is erected by one of
His great, great grandsons
Mr. Justice Teetzel
1908

We wished we could have stayed in Long Point Provincial Park for the long weekend, but as I mentioned before, all campsites had been booked. It was our first camping trip of 2016 and we enjoyed it a lot!



PLAYA ANCON, CUBA—HOTEL ANCON AND TRINIDAD—JANUARY 10-18, 2016



In January, 2010 we had gone to Cuba and spent one week at the Costa Sur Hotel. During that trip, we had visited the lovely city of Trinidad, traveled by an ancient steam train to Valle de los Ingenios (Valley of the Sugar Mills), taken a day-long trip to Topes de Collantes (Collantes’ Highs) in the Escambray Mountains range and spent half a day wandering in the village of La Boca. We had enjoyed the trip so much that we decided to come back one day. Indeed, six years later we were embarking on our second trip to that area—and eleventh to Cuba.
 
Welcome to Hotel Ancon!
On January 10, 2016 we arrived at Pearson Airport in Toronto. Because it was a Hola Sun vacation package, we had to pick up tourist cards from the Hola Sun representative at the airport (otherwise we were getting them on the plane). While waiting for our Cubana flight, Catherine noticed a rather ominous black-painted Airbus 320 on the tarmac.

“Perhaps it was used to transport important guests to a funeral of a prominent individual”, I said jokingly.

To our surprise, soon WE were boarding this very plane (hopefully not flying to any bereavement services)! As I found out later, this particular aircraft (LY-COM) was 21 years old and leased by Cubana from Avion Express—probably Cubana got an extra discount for accepting this kind of a rather uncommon and unappealing color, analogously to car dealers offering discounts for cars painted with gloomy and unpopular colors!

Since Cubana allowed two check-in pieces of luggage, 23 kg each and one 10 kg carry-on (yes, 56 kg or 123 lb. altogether), at least this time we did not have to worry about our bags being overweight! The flight departed on time; we were served quite good food, enjoyed sitting in the first row behind the first class (which cost $150 more) and chatted with an interesting gentleman married to a Cuban woman, the age difference between them being 51 years. As we were approaching Cienfuegos, I could clearly see from the plane’s window Bahia de Cienfuegos, Punta Gorda and even the Hotel Jagua, where we had stayed in January, 2012! At 7:56 p.m., after a 3 hour and 39 minute flight, we landed in Cienfuegos. Since we were never given the custom declaration forms on the plane, everybody was frantically trying to fill them out after clearing the immigration and security. While waiting for our luggage to appear on the carousel, I was able to briefly play with a very friendly and frisky customs dog that was eagerly running around and diligently sniffling at tourists’ baggage. I also wanted to exchange money at the airport, but there were a bunch of people around the exchange window and I decided to pass—luckily, we did bring some pesos with us.
 
Hotel Ancon-the Entertainment Area and two bars
The bus was already waiting for us and as Catherine was taking care of our luggage, I took care of something much more important—namely, walked to the nearby kiosk/restaurant and purchased 3 cans of cold beer (Bucanero) for 1 CUC each—well, first things first! Next to the bus was a police cruiser (a Russian Lada) with a young cop inside and I managed to have a simple conversation with him. He was quite surprised when I told him that in Ontario it was illegal to drink beer on the bus or just in any public places, as I was doing while talking to him.

“You see”, I said, “in this respect Cuba has much more freedom than Canada”.

The bus ride to the hotel took 90 minutes and we engaged in conversation with a very nice and interesting 75+ gentleman from Pennsylvania, who had been regularly coming to Cuba (through Toronto) since 1995, totally disregarding any US regulations against such trips by Americans. During our stay at the hotel we often chatted with him.

With John from Pennsylvania on the hotel’s patio. We often enjoyed Spanish coffee and stimulating chat. In January, 2017 I had this blog printed & bound and mailed it to him—I even found a Canadian postal stamp depicting Robertson Davis, a Canadian writer, who bore a striking resemblance to John. I never got a reply from him—only recently did I find out that he passed away in February, 2017…

We arrived at the hotel at 10:30 p.m. and we were thrilled to have gotten a 3rd floor room, in the separate, superior ocean-view section—we had selected that section mainly thanks to TripAdvisor’s recommendations.

When a porter showed up to carry our 5 pieces of luggage to the room, Catherine, without looking at the slip she had just acquired from the reception, told him confidently that our room number was ‘312’.

“Are you sure it was room 312?” I asked her.

“Yes, I am sure”, she replied.

Somehow I had a hunch that it would be a good idea to verify this information.

“Let’s take a look at that piece of paper”, I insisted.

She pulled out the voucher… and it clearly said, ‘room 8312’.

“Well, I was close enough, just off by one digit”, she said frankly. After all, for Catherine it was such a minor mistake…

The hotel employee carried the bigger luggage pieces upstairs and we tipped him $5.00 Canadian (as we did not have too many pesos); he was visibly displeased with the amount of the tip. Yeah, many Cubans working in the tourist industry had become spoiled, believing that they deserved tips which in no way were commensurate with the level of services they performed.

Incidentally, when we were sipping cappuccino or Spanish coffee at the outdoor patio outside the lobby, we could actually see room 312 and I was always laughing that we almost ended up there!

HOTEL

The main hotel building was very similar to the Hotel Tropicoco near Havana (Playa Este), where we had stayed in 2009. Made of concrete, the hotel was built by the Soviets in the 1980s (according to the inscription, the Grand Opening took place on October 15, 1986) and in one word, it was ugly. The saving grace was that it did allow a view of the ocean from the walkways as it was perched on leg-type supports, as well as it had a very nice beach and of course, was close to the charming town of Trinidad.
 
Our room 8312, in the Superior Section
Incidentally, one Cuban man told us that there were plans to demolish the Hotel Ancon within the next several years and build a golf course. I do not know if it is true, but considering its totally obsolete, antiquated and dreadful Soviet architecture, I would not be surprised at all if one day the hotel was gone. It would be sad, however, if the next door neighbor, the Brisas, were torn down too.

The superior, ocean view section (where we stayed) was built about 17 years ago and was much nicer than the original part of the hotel. There was a swimming pool, but it was closed (not that we were ever planning to use it) and probably had not seen water for several months; obviously, the swim-up bar was closed too ;). There were two bars near the entertainment area, one served quite good sandwiches, hamburgers and French fries and the other one offered various drinks, including cold beer—bring a big mug! Another two bars were in the lobby area; we often used the one close to the patio, which was open in the evening and served excellent cappuccino and Spanish coffee. On the lower level (below the lobby) were two stores (tiendas) selling alcohol, clothes, postcards, souvenirs and the like. There were also other vendors, offering carvings, arts and crafts, postcards, books and the like. A family of cats wandered around on the hotel’s property and some were quite nice and tame; twice they followed us to our room and stayed with us for a while.

There was also a massage service at the very end of the lower level in a separate room off the ‘gym’, by appointment only. Catherine had a 1 hour booking for 15 CUC which she sad was pretty good. In addition, there was a wine restaurant, you could pay extra and reserve a meal & wine tasting for the evening. We never saw anyone in it.
 
View from our window
A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE BANK…

Besides, there was a bank in the hotel, which was very convenient. I successfully exchanged money there in the beginning of our stay. Regrettably, my second attempt turned out to be a total fiasco. On Saturday around 9:00 a.m., before breakfast, I went downstairs to the bank to exchange money, but it was closed. I asked the sales lady in the nearby tienda if she knew when the bank would be open; she said it was closed on Saturday, but the reception upstairs (in the hotel lobby) could exchange money.

Thus I went to the reception, only to be informed by the receptionist(s) that it was impossible to exchange money there; instead, she suggested that I try going to a bank in Trinidad (!). As I always endeavor to double check everything (especially in Cuba), a few minutes later I asked the public relations lady (whose desk was next to the reception window) about the bank downstairs. Lo and behold, according to her, the bank would be, after all, open today, but around noon, since the exchange rate had not arrived from Havana yet and sometimes it did not come until noon.
 

Around 11:00 a.m. I went to the bank and it was still closed; I was hanging around it for next 30 minutes, but to no avail. So, I again asked at the hotel reception when it would open—this time I was told that the bank employee was on lunch. For another 30 minutes I kept checking whether or not she was back, yet the bank’s door was closed shut.

Finally, for the second time I asked the tienda sales lady if she knew when the bank employee would be back from her lunch.

“The bank is closed on Saturday”, she repeated.

“It’s not what I was told in the hotel reception”, I said. “The bank employee is supposedly having her lunch”.

She looked at me incredulously and briskly called the reception; after a brief conversation she told me to go there to change my money. Indeed, the reception employee (the same I had spoken to in the morning) was expecting me and without further ado exchanged my $100 Canadian into 68 CUCs (albeit a few days ago I had received 70 CUCs at the bank downstairs).

This whole episode left a rather bitter taste in my mouth—after all, for several hours of my precious vacation time I was chasing after a non-existent employee!


BEACH

The beach was nice and sandy, there were loungers and palapas, but it was quite difficult to get a lounge chair—unless you ‘reserved’ it early in the morning by placing something on it. To be exact, it was Catherine who religiously took care of this issue early in the morning, at 7:00 a.m. The first morning she put 2 old worn towels on 2 chairs at 7:00 am, only to return a few hours later and find a couple occupying the chairs and no towels to be seen. She politely asked the British couple if they had seen the towels and they pointed to beside the chairs. They had apparently blown off. Soon after Catherine had clothes pins and weighted bags to secure her lounger. She later realized she should have asked the couple if they were staying at the Ancon—she was positive they were not and she would have asked them to vacate as we ended up with a very poor area to sit in that first day. In fact, we could not even sit together. Later we noticed that some people occupying lounge chairs did not have any wrist bands—many tourists from town (i.e., Trinidad) arrived every day by bus to enjoy ‘la playa Ancon’ and perhaps some of them simply used hotel beach loungers. It was a pity that security guards did not make sure that lounges were used by paying hotel guests only! Moreover, adding more chairs/loungers would be an even better solution.
 
At the beach
One day a group of French speaking tourists from Quebec were conducting a very animated and loud conversation which lasted for a long time; I was sure they could be heard by half of the sunbathers on the beach! During our stay a wedding between a Canadian gentleman from Quebec and a Cuban girl took place at the hotel. It was fun to watch although they took over the beach bar and entertainment stage for most of the afternoon/evening.

We always stayed on the beach directly in front of our hotel and could see our loungers from the balcony. The beach was quite long and it was possible to walk along it towards the east for several kilometers. Catherine went for such strolls every morning; she ran into Cubans asking her for clothes and she eventually did give them some. She promised one less aggressive older man she would come through when she was leaving. He never bothered her during her walks as did some of the women who would have you strip down on the beach.
There was a bar in the east section of the beach, but it did not belong to the hotel and you had to pay for whatever it was selling—it was apparently catering to the tourists and Cubans coming from Trinidad to the beach for the day.

OUR ROOM #8312

The room was located in the ‘superior section’ and a three minute walk from the main hotel lobby was required—it led near the (empty) pool and the entertainment area as well as necessitated climbing the stairs to the third floor (no elevators in that section). It was a rather small room, but it was okay. It had a balcony, facing the ocean and the beach, from which we could admire sunsets. A couple of loungers/chairs on the balcony would have been nice, though! The TV had plenty of channels, including CNN and Canada’s CTV, albeit from Montreal (in English). The air conditioner worked, yet we tried to sleep with the balcony door open and drawn curtains so that mosquitos could not get in (as a matter of fact, I do not remember being bitten by any mosquitos or sand flies). The bathroom was small, had a bathtub, we always had hot (and cold) water. There were two small double (or twin) beds. The small fridge kept our beverages cold and the safe was free. We got two magnetic cards; both opened the door and one of them also opened the safe.

The maid did a great job cleaning the room every day and we left her tips mainly in the form of clothes—we brought a bunch of brand new shirts, many with attached price tags (from $12.99 to $69.99) and we used them not only as tips, but also as payment for services—Cubans loved them! Since the entertainment area was close by, we could clearly hear the music from our room. Incidentally, we never went to any performance, though we did spend part of an evening watching a newlywed (Canadian/Cuban) party use the stage for dancing before the entertainment started.
 
Spanish coffee
Not long before our trip, I had picked up a book on World War II. Even though I had read hundreds of books about this war, almost all of them had been written by Allied soldiers. This one—“The Forgotten Soldier”—was written by a young German soldier, Guy Sajer, who after joining the German army at the age of 16 in the summer of 1942, fought on the Eastern Front. After initial successes of the German army in the Soviet Union, he soon faced cold, hunger, diseases, Soviet artillery and sadistic German officers. This was the most realistic, brutally honest and shocking war book I had ever read. And what was even more remarkable, the author, born in 1927, was still alive as of August, 2016! So, I was often totally engrossed in reading this enthralling book while sitting on the balcony or on the beach.

RESTAURANTS

The main dining hall/restaurant (Bahia de Casilda) was adjacent to the lobby. We always skipped lunch, only had late breakfasts and twice or thrice dinner there. For breakfast we had some fruits, salads and fried eggs with bacon or cooked-to-order omelets as well as very good yogurt (not available every day). Dinners offered the regular fare, there were three cooking stations and I was always able to find something I liked. The red wine was quite passable. Most of the time we sat near the windows, at the end of the dining hall. The open windows were also used by several birds to fly in and out. Overall, I had no problem with any of the food that was served—although the selection was not as plentiful and tasty as that in other hotels in Cuba we had recently stayed at and I can certainly understand tourists who were expressing their disappointment with the food. Then again, I never come to Cuba to expect some amazing food anyway. Catherine found the dining room rather depressing. The long ceiling to floor windows were always shut & shuttered with drapes. Only the 3 windows at the end by the serving station were open.
 

At the lower ground floor there were two a’ la carte restaurants—Italian and Seafood (Restaurante el Pescador). Catherine loved that it was outdoors, but did rain our first evening there and we had to switch tables. We also wanted to try having a meal at the Italian Restaurant, but were informed that it served only pasta, so we skipped it, dinning twice in the Seafood Restaurant. It had a fountain and the second time we managed to sit next to it. I ordered sea food salad, Surf & Turf (grilled shrimps with special gravy& saddle of pork with Barbacoa sauce), the Commodore (fish filet and grilled shrimps), Arroz Casildeno (rice with fish, pork, chicken, vegetables & white wine) and cheese cake. Both of us found the food quite good, some dishes were excellent.

Curiously, the same evening a couple were also having a’ la carte dinner. We spoke to them several days later and they said that the food was awful and they quickly left the restaurant. No wonder that tourists reading TripAdvisor’s reviews are often extremely confused and do not know whom to trust!
I still remember this humorous, yet very clever Jewish tale: in a small town in pre-war Poland, two yeshiva students had been arguing over the correct interpretation of some Torah verses. Unable to settle the issue, they went to see the Rabbi to get the right answer. The first student put forth his arguments and the Rabbi said, “You are right”. Then the second student presented his reasoning to the Rabbi, who also said, “You are right”. One of the onlookers, who heard the whole conversation, asked the Rabbi, “Each of the students presented two completely contradictory arguments. How can they could be both right?” After pondering for a while, the Rabbi said to him, “And you are right, too.”
 

It was also possible to have one meal at the adjacent Hotel Brisas (in its top restaurant), but since only six Ancon guests were allowed to eat there every evening, we never did get to go. It took us (or rather Catherine) some time and a lot of patience before we managed to get a voucher for another restaurant at the Brisas under a giant outdoor palapa (it featured a stuffed, life size ox inside). We actually walked there directly from our hotel across the beach path; we had a very casual, romantic and tasty meal and enjoyed it very much. By the way, the Brisas was a lot nicer than the Ancon, with Spanish style architecture.

HOP-ON-HOP-OFF BUS TO TRINIDAD

One of the main reasons we went to the Ancon was its proximity to the town of Trinidad, one of the most beautiful towns in Cuba. Located 10 km from the Hotel Ancon, it was a very short ride from the hotel by bus or taxi—well, some tourists brought bikes and they rode to town. However, there was also a hop-on-hop-off bus, departing from the Hotel Ancon to Trinidad at 10:00 a.m., 12:30 p.m., 3:30 p.m. and 6:00 p.m. and from Trinidad to the Ancon at 9:00 a.m., 11:00 a.m., 2:00 p.m. and 5:00 p.m. It cost 2 CUC both ways (keep the ticket if you are planning coming back).
 

The first time we decided to take the last bus going to Trinidad. It departed from the front of the hotel just before 6:00 p.m. and besides us, there were only two other tourists and a hotel employee aboard. We were quite surprised that the bus was almost empty, but since it was the last run to town, we figured out that there were not too many tourists wanting to go to town this late and then get a taxi back to the hotel. We were so mistaken, as nothing could be farther from the truth!
 
The Polish Fiat 126p
After two minutes the bus pulled into a nearby parking lot near the beach (close to our section of the hotel) and we gasped in surprise, as a seemingly endless throng of backpackers and beachcombers streamed onto the bus. We were pretty sure that two-thirds of them would be left behind, but again, we were wrong! The apparently veteran driver took charge, telling people on the bus to put their packs onto the storage shelves and squeeze to the back of the bus. All in all, upon arrival in Trinidad we counted 69 people plus the driver—and it was a rather small bus! I felt as though I was riding a bus in the communist Poland of the 1970s and early 1980s, where such situations were quite typical, but Catherine found it quite disagreeable (even though it was a very short ride, her front-row view was ruined) and said that she could not imagine living in a communist country (or in India, I guess, where passengers routinely travel on the roof of whatever mode of transportation they are using). Ordinarily, the bus should have stopped at the other hotels (Brisas and Costa Sur), but obviously, this time it did not—or the driver would have had to place extra tourist on the roof!
 
Plaza Mayor
We took the bus two more times to Trinidad and on one occasion back to the hotel. Normally it was on time and it stopped very close to Plaza Carillo (where the Iberostar Gran Hotel Trinidad was located), on Calle San Procopio (a.k.a. Lino Perez), close to Calle Gutiérrez (a.k.a. Antonio Maceo), almost in front of La Casa Manuela. Since twice we stayed in Trinidad until after 10:00 p.m., we took cabs back to the hotel—in both instances, antique American cars from the 1950s and the price was 10-12 CUC—yet both times we bartered by giving the drivers new t-shirts, they were more than happy to accept them in lieu of pecuniary payment! One evening we asked the cabdriver to pick up a hitchhiker on the way back to our hotel—lo and behold, he was a ‘Brit’, staying at the Costasur and the cab driver dropped him off first as it was on the way—charging him for the ride!

TRIPS TO TRINIDAD:

This gorgeous town, founded in 1514, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is one of the best preserved cities in Cuba—when the sugar trade, the main industry in the region, collapsed, the city became ‘forgotten’ and thus managed to retain its unique architecture.

We visited the town of Trinidad three times during our trip and stayed there till late evening. Since at that time Trinidad was celebrating a Culture Week (“Semana de la Cultura Trinitaria”), it was teeming with tourists of various nationalities—in fact, on several occasions I noticed that there were MORE tourists than Cubans! Also, I had never before seen so many casas particulares—on some streets literally every third house had the distinctive ‘casa particular’ sign and we were told that sometimes all of them were occupied and tourists ended up sleeping in parks. Furthermore, we saw plenty of amazing private restaurants and very often their staff were standing at the door, inviting tourists in.
Acabamos de comer en el hotel”, we invariably said (meaning that we’ve just eaten in the hotel) and this expression always worked.
 

We would have loved to have a meal or two in one of them, but in general we were not hungry. However, one late evening we were wandering along a narrow and crowded street, with plenty of stalls serving food and we did end up having a very tasty dinner. We enjoyed walking all over town and even though we often walked in dark, potholed and cobblestoned streets, at all times we felt very safe and Cubans were always willing to give us directions. I presented some gifts to a relatively young man, who had lost both arms in an accident.
 
Church of the Holy Trinity (Iglesia Parroquial de la Santísima Trinidad) at Plaza Mayor.
On Saturday we attended the evening mass at the Church of the Holy Trinity (Iglesia Parroquial de la Santísima Trinidad) at Plaza Mayor. This church dates from 1892 and was built on the site of a previous church, destroyed by a cyclone in the 19th century. Inside the church there are plenty of various statues, but the most famous was a wooden statute of Christ, “The Lord of the True Cross (El Señor de la Vera Cruz). When in the 17th century the statue was being shipped to a church in Veracruz, Mexico, the ship carrying it was pushed back to Trinidad three times by bad weather; only after abandoning some of its cargo (including the statue) was it able to continue its journey. Perceived as divine intervention, the local population decided to house the statue of Christ in the church. The church also has an impressive altar dedicated to Our Lady of Mercy (Nuestra Senora de la Piedad).
 
Wooden statute of Christ, “The Lord of the True Cross
(El Señor de la Vera Cruz)
The Plaza Mayor is the center of the town and judging by the impressive 18th and 19th century buildings surrounding the plaza, it is apparent that trade in sugar from the nearby Valle de los Ingenios and the slave trade greatly enriched the city! We often walked from the Plaza Mayor to Plaza Carillo, admiring this city. Cobblestoned streets and houses with red terracotta-tiled roofs, large main door (with smaller entrance door cut into it) are the most noticed characteristics of Trinidad. One evening we sat on one of the benches in the Plaza Mayor and had a bottle of champagne we had previously purchased in a store. Incidentally, the store was also selling 1 liter bottles of 40% vodka for just 2CUC, or $2.00 US, or less than $3.00 Canadian.

We also enjoyed a bottle of store-bought prosecco at Plaza Carillo until the loud non-Cuban music drove us away. As in Canada, there was the omnipresent can/bottle collector picking up after the littering masses.

Another interesting building near the church is the House of the Conspirators (La Casa de los Consipiradores), with its characteristic wooden balcony on one corner, overlooking the square. It was a former meeting place of the Cuban nationalist secret society “La Rosa de Cuba”, the Rose of Cuba.
 
The House of the Conspirators (La Casa de los Consipiradores)
Indisputably, one of the most distinctive buildings in Trinidad is the Church and Monastery of Saint Francis (Iglesia y Convento de San Francisco). Currently it houses the Museum of the Struggle against Bandits (Museo de la Lucha contra Banditos)—i.e., the counter-revolution forces that took refuge in the nearby Escambray Mountains after the Cuban Revolution and continued fighting against Fidel Castro’s government. Out of curiosity, I went to the museum, which displayed photographs, documents, letters, weapons, a piece of the American U-2 spy plane shot and similar artifacts. Since everything was only in Spanish, it was impossible for me to understand much.
 

At this point I would like to make a digression. Upon seeing the museum’s name, I immediately thought of Poland’s anti-communist underground resistance movements formed after the Second World War, which were fighting against the Stalinist government of Poland well into the 1950s. Whereas I do not remember any museum dedicated to such struggle, there were plenty of monuments commemorating “the armed struggle to consolidate the people’s power”—meaning the struggle of the new Polish communist militia, secret police or military forces against ‘bandits’ (i.e., anticommunist fighters). The latter were invariably portrayed as traitors, collaborators, spies, monsters and murderers, whose names were obliterated from the history. Ironically, following the collapse of communism in Poland in 1989, those ‘bandits’ were officially rehabilitated, awarded high military awards (in many cases, posthumously), had monuments dedicated to their memory erected and were considered heroes—unlike those who had persecuted them. Well, history likes to repeat itself…


Anyway… the Church and Monastery of Saint Francis, built in 1813, eventually fell into disrepair and were demolished in 1920—only the bell tower was left standing. The bell tower is depicted on the 25 centavo convertible peso coin—as well as it appears on most photos of Trinidad. The tower was accessible to tourists and I managed to reach its top via very narrow and steep stairs, to a small chamber where the bells were. It offered a breathtaking view of the city—I could even see Playa Ancon and our Hotel!
 
Plazuela del Jigüe (named after the jigüe (acacia tree), under which the fist Mass in Trinidad was celebrated in 1514 by Bartolomé de las Casas.
Not far from the church of Saint Francis was a small square, Plazuela del Jigüe (named after the jigüe (acacia tree), under which the fist Mass in Trinidad was celebrated in 1514 by Bartolomé de las Casas. Incidentally, this 16th century Spanish Dominican friar & bishop (1484-1566) spent 50 years of his life actively fighting slavery and the violent colonial abuse of indigenous peoples.

In a nutshell, Trinidad is a stunning town, one of the most beautiful in Cuba!
 

TRIP TO LA BOCA

We also spent several hours in the village of La Boca—the hop-on-hop-off bus stopped there (unless it was full—but this time we were able to take it both ways as we left in the morning and returned mid-afternoon).
 

We had visited the village of La Boca 6 years ago, in January, 2010. At that time it had had just a few casas particulares and few restaurants; most of the houses had been run down & in very bad conditions. I remember that after sunset we had not been able to find any restaurant or taxi and eventually asked a local resident for a ride to the hotel. I had also taken wonderful photographs of very young four girls standing in a window—and I hoped to give the photos to them now.
 
Photo taken in January, 2010
Our first impression of La Boca—plenty of positive changes! We spotted a lot of new casas particulares and restaurants; most of houses had improved a great deal, there were numerous ‘construction sites’ all over the place. When we spoke to one Cuban, he said that because now Cubans could legally own, buy and sell their houses, they had finally an incentive to take good care of and invest in their homes. Yeah, capitalism, even in such a limited form, was evidently working there! We also spoke to a restaurant & casa particular owner—his restaurant, called “La Barca” (The Boat), in the shape of a boat, was under construction. He told us that it was a difficult, expensive and time consuming process. We finally found the house where I had taken the photographs of the four girls in 2010; unfortunately, all of them were in school, so I left the photos with the father of one of them.
 
Private business
Since nothing lasts forever, our vacation came to an end, too. The checkout time was at 1:00 p.m., so we had packed up everything in advance and went to the beach in the morning to enjoy the last day of our vacation. We came back to our room at about 12:15 p.m. and when I tried to open the safe (where our passports, money and cameras were), neither magnetic card worked. I called the reception to report this issue and was told to come with the card so that it could be reprogrammed. Two minutes later Catherine called the reception and asked the receptionist to send somebody over to our room as it was difficult for us to come—she wanted to shower—besides, it was not our fault, after all. The receptionist insisted on her coming to the reception—and simply hung up on her, thus forcing Catherine to take a walk to the lobby and join the lineup of people checking out! It was still about 20 minutes to 1:00 p.m.—yet we also discovered that now both cards ceased to open our door as well.
 
Street vendor
Well, we had the perfect right to use our room (including the safe) until the checkout time and it was quite disappointing and nerve wracking that the cards stopped working BEFORE that time—if anything, they should have had a ‘built-in’ grace period of at least 30 minutes instead of making our last hours unpleasant and testing. Incidentally, we had experienced a similar glitch several years ago in the Club Amigo in Guardalavaca. In any case, after showering we were ready to leave the room (it was possible to pay about 10 CUC per hour to stay longer), but decided to remain for as long as possible. Fortunately, nobody came to kick us out and we were able to enjoy the room for over two hours.
 
Garlic, garlic!
The previous day we had met two Cuban women in front of the hotel by the parking lot; one was apparently suffering from some mental health problems. She had kept pestering us for gifts—we did not have any on us, but told her we would bring something tomorrow. It was a good idea—when we were packing, there were plenty of things we did not want to bring back to Canada and we put them in a shopping bag. Indeed, as promised, she was waiting for us in front of the hotel! Soon we boarded the bus and headed to the airport.

We said good bye to our bar cats and the French-Canadian regular visitor who watched over them and exchanged addresses with our American gentleman, then boarded the big Yutong bus, filled with Polish/Canadian tourists. We made one bathroom stop on the way where the villagers and 2 scrawny dogs stood and tried to engage us in buying fruit—but did not beg.

AIRPORT IN CIENFUEGOS

The Cienfuegos airport was small, but it had a duty-free store carrying rums, vodkas, cigarettes, cigars and other articles, so I did all my final shopping there, as I always did in Cuba. There was also a bar serving beer and other drinks. Two adjacent glass doors led to the tarmac—“Gate 1” and “Gate 2”. Because our boarding pass did not specify the gate number, I said kiddingly, “It would be terrible if we took the wrong gate!” What a difference in comparison with the Toronto Airport, which probably had a hundred of gates and 2 Terminals. Cuba will need to expand its infrastructure to accommodate the anticipated Yankee invasion.

On the plane we sat next to a Cuban man who was going to stay in Toronto for several months. I asked him how he got his Cuban passport and Canadian visa. He smiled and showed me his passport—actually, it was Spanish!
 
Catherine is buying HUGE avocados. She also HUGELY overpaid for them
Since 2008 Spain has issued over 100,000 Spanish passports to Cubans under a law that allowed descendants (children and grandchildren) of those exiled during the Spanish civil war to reclaim Spanish citizenship. An estimated 1 million Spaniards had emigrated to Cuba at the beginning of the 20th century, including the father of former Cuban leader Fidel Castro and Cuban President Raul Castro.
Thus, there were suddenly plenty of Cubans who were able to not only travel visa-free to the US, Canada, Europe and Latin America, but could also officially work in many European countries and legally emigrate to Spain! As a matter of fact, I knew about this Spanish law—when we had visited Havana for the first time in January, 2009, I had seen hundreds of people lining up in front of the Spanish embassy. Yes, it was the Cubans waiting to apply to reclaim their Spanish citizenship! I am curious if the Castro brothers also qualify to reclaim Spanish citizenship—maybe they have already taken advantage of this new rule and secretly obtained Spanish passports, just in case?
 
Trinidad's picturesque cobblestone streets
Most of the times planes coming to Toronto from the south do not proceed directly to the Pearson Airport, but make a wide 180 degree turn over Toronto and then approach the airport from the north-east. Such turns usually takes place… over Catherine’s house—whenever we sit in her backyard, we see (and hear!) tens of such circling planes. This time our plane also made the same maneuver and through the plane’s window I could see not only Catherine’s neighborhood, but also her house!

We had found out from a Canadian tourist that it was LEGAL to bring exotic fruits to Canada (as long as they were not cultivated in Canada), so we brought 5 HUGE avocados (their pits were almost the size of the avocados sold in stores in Canada!), meticulously declaring them on the Canadian customs declaration form. Indeed, the customs officer asked Catherine a perfunctory question about them and let her go through without any problems.

CONCLUSION

Since we go to Cuba with a very open mind, overall we enjoyed our stay. Although the hotel’s crude, concrete architecture was not too appealing, we had been aware beforehand what kind of establishment we would be going to—and that was why we booked a room at the Superior Ocean View Section, which was a very good choice. Despite our generous tipping the hotel staff were NOT as nice, friendly and attentive as those in the other hotels we had recently visited [namely Colonial Hotel (Cayo Coco), Hotel Club Amigo Caracol (Santa Lucia) or Club Amigo Atlantico (Guardalavaca)], but they were still adequate. The food was OK, the room was clean (with plenty of hot water!) and we could count on catching the bus to Trinidad—visiting this charming town was the highlight of this trip and the main reason staying in this particular hotel.
 
Catherine with our taxi driver and his antique car
Would I go to this hotel again? If the price were right, maybe I would consider staying there and treating it as a main base to explore Trinidad and other attractions in the area. However, if I were planning on spending more time on the beach and around the hotel, I would rather pay more and pick the adjoining Brisas as I liked its Spanish, colonial-inspired design. Nevertheless, I had, as always, a great time in Cuba and I am looking forward to another trip in November or December!