Quebec City: Plus s’il vous plaît [more please].

Now that it’s winter, let’s jump back to 5 months ago when it was still summer and we were in Quebec.

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We spent four days exploring the historic streets of Quebec City at the end of July.  It was probably a sufficient amount of time to visit most of the key spots on our list, although we would have loved to stay longer and savour its unique flair, historic roots, and bountiful culinary offerings.

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We put together a bit of a ‘Breno & Mel style guide to Quebec City’ (a list of everything we would love to experience over again because they were so enchanting).  Here it is:

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Visit J.A. Moisan, the oldest grocery store in North America.  The prices are cheaper than you’d think, and the selection is unbelievable.  Pick yourself out some nice Quebec cheese, some smoked meat, and a few other edible delights and have yourself a picnic on the Plains of Abraham.

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On the topic of cheese, we sampled a few Quebec cheeses during our stay, and our favourite was a 2 year goat cheddar- surprising because neither of us are usually a huge fan of goat.  We were recommended the cheese by a friendly man waiting in line at a fromagerie.  He told us he was going to a party that evening, but wasn’t allowed to come without that cheese.  We were convinced to try it, and were definitely pleased we did.

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Picnic on the Plains of Abraham, the site of the great Battle of Quebec in 1759 between the French and the British, led by General Montcalm and General Wolfe.  Pack a tasty feast of local delicacies and marvel at the rich Canadian history that took place on the ground beneath you.

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For a brief recap on the battle, click here.

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Watch the sun set upon the copper roof tops of Quebec City.  A nice spot is the West side of the Plains of Abraham, by the barracks.

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Wander the quieter back streets of Old Quebec City and admire all the distinct colours and quaint details.  I could have spent hours doing this, imagining how life would have unfolded on these streets a hundred years ago.

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Take the terry across to Levis, and snap some scenic views of the City while on the boat.  Climb the stairs and walk to Chocolat Favouris to indulge in some flour de del chocolate-covered maple ice cream (or any chocolate/ice cream flavour combo that you are feeling).

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Take some time to explore Rue St. Joseph.  Not the commercialized end to the East.  The West part of Rue St. Joseph is MUCH cooler. 

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You will find L’Affair est Ketchup, William J. Walter (a sausage & beer joint), and a good cafe called Nektar that served an excellent brewed coffee, among other gems.

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Rue St-Vallier Ouest, close to where we were staying, was also a happening street.  It didn’t appear on any guides or blogs that we came across before our trip, and we probably wouldn’t have discovered it if we weren’t staying in an Airbnb place close by.  There were some cool looking restaurants & cafes, along with this neat vintage shop called Si Les Objects Pouvaient Parler.

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Rue Saint-Jean, the very first street we explored in Quebec City has some spots you should hit up too, including some cute bakeries and bookshops, as well as the aforementioned J.A. Moisan. Jupon Presse is a cute vintage boutique along this road.

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Strolling the Petite Champlain area will make you feel like you are in Europe, especially if the musicians are out, serenading the passerby with melodies on the violin or accordion. Many local artisans have set up shop in this area, and we had some neat conversations with a few of them.

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Say yes to the maple taffy on a stick.

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Concluding thoughts.

Because of its smaller size, Quebec City was easier to get to know than its larger Quebecois counterpart, Montreal.  I was surprised by just how much it felt like Europe (or what we would imagine Europe to be like, as we have yet to visit that continent.)  We feel proud and very fortunate to have Quebec City on our home soil, and think that every Canadian should really get out here at some point in their lives to heighten their understanding and appreciation of French Canadian culture, as well as to visit firsthand the many sites that are significant to our history as Canadians.  We would love to go back for a round 2 of this fine Canadian gem.

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Merci beaucoup, Quebec, for a truly enchanting time, and to Little Al, for accompanying us on our Quebec adventures!

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Montreal: More than just smoked meat [though you should definitely still eat the smoked meat].

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Little Al (ma soeur) flew out to meet us in Montreal.  We collected her at Atwater Market and the adventures unfolded from there. 

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For anyone planning to visit Montreal in the near future, we’ve put together a list of our recommendations. 

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When in Montreal:

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Rent bixis.  It’s a super easy, affordable, and efficient way to get around the city. $7 gets you as many 30 minutes rides in 24 hours as you can fit in. 

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Wander the charming cobblestone streets of Old Montreal.  Admire the historic architecture, and stop in to enjoy a croissant, a crepe, or some other tantalizing French delicacy along the way.

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Fireworks. Check out the impressive fireworks on Saturday nights during the summer.  Best viewed under the big green bridge. 

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Hit up the markets.  Jean Talon Market is the more extensive one, and would be recommended for the “true Quebec” experience, but if you’ve got time, a stroll through Atwater Market is lovely too, and a great place to pick up some local cheese and produce for a picnic.

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Climb Mont-Royal for enchanting views of the city.  It’s an easy & lovely 2.2km trek up along a paved path.

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Visit both St. Viteur and Fairmount and make your vote for the best bagel in the city.  The consensus among the group were that Fairmont was the winner.

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For an extensive selection of bean to bar chocolate, look no further than Tablette.  Ask nicely, and you may just have the chance to sample pretty much any bar in the room.  There is a cafe in house as well, for those of you who like a bit of coffee with your chocolate.

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If you’re looking for some inspiring boutique shops, we DON’T recommend you follow Design Sponge’s recommendations for Montreal- they are quite out-of-date and many of the recommended spots are nonexistent.  (We found this out the hard way.)  Instead, what we would recommend is strolling the charming streets of Plateau & Mile End to uncover your own gems (there are lots to be found.)  A few of our fav finds were: Buk & Nola (our favourite), District 54, Raplapla, and Unicorn.

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Eat Schwart’z smoked meat.  Don’t think twice.  Just do it.  The long line out the door will be worth the wait once you sink your teeth into a bit of their tender smoked beef.  If you’re in a hurry, the line up to the take-away shop next door is usually just a fraction of the line to sit and enjoy your Schwart’z in the restaurant.  

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*Side note: The pickle, which normally comes WITH the Schwartz’s smoked meat sandwich when ordered in the restaurant causes EXTRA when ordering take out.  We still recommend getting the pickle.

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For an after-dinner treat (or let’s be serious, whenever you feel like a bit of sweet indulgence) look no further than Juliette et Chocolat.  I was super impressed with their selection of chocolate in all forms, many of which are gluten free.  We highly recommend the fleur de sel brownie (which comes with a pitcher of salted caramel sauce on the side to drizzle at your leisure), as well as the fleur de sel chocolate pot.

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Eat at Au Pied de Cochon.  Or not.  In case you haven’t heard of it, Au Pied is a very renowned restaurant.  A chef friend of ours flew in for a weekend to eat everything on the entire menu.  Many people had raved to us about it, so we considered it a must-stop.  To be honest, we were actually quite disappointed with our experience at Au Pied.  Not with the food, but with the service.  We were quite neglected by our server, and the restaurant was very loud.  Though the food was very tasty, the overall experience was dampened by the low quality service.  I suppose it goes to highlight the importance of good customer service in a dining experience.  (In case you’re wondering, Brendon ordered the “duck in a can,” expecting it to be the richest thing he had ever eaten.  It was.  The dish surpassed his expectations in richness, actually, making the overall dining experience quite unforgettable.)

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Speak French as much as possible.  Seize the opportunity to practice your French with the locals!  Ne pas être timide (don’t be shy)!  Even if you encounter a few locals who are rude and criticize your French skills, don’t let that stop you.  There needs to be a bit more camaraderie between the French and the English in this country.  Let’s just all be friends, ok?

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Seek out some good coffee.  We found the coffee scene in Montreal to not be overly impressive, but there is some decent coffee to be found.  You just might have to do a bit of seeking it out.  We’ve saved you some of the trouble and have a few cafes to recommend:

Pikkilo (there is also a cool stationary shop right next door that you should check out).

Flacon Espresso (in Plateau).

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Pay a visit to Point G for an impressive selection of maracrons.  We highly recommend the lime-basilique.

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Take advantage of Air B&B.  Montreal has an amazing selection of cool apartments for rent on Air B&B for very reasonable rates.  We had a fantastic experience staying at Manuel and David’s beautiful 4 level apartment.  Our favourite feature feature was the rooftop terrace.

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Thank you, Montreal, for an invigorating and tasty time in your lovely city!  We definitely got our exercise uncovering your many hidden gems, and we are happy that you are in our country.

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Toronto: Speechlessly good.

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The big city of Toronto reunited Brendon with his beloved Jays (go the Jays!), but most importantly with our dear Kiwi friends, Kyle & Bea. 

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Kyle and Bea road tripped through the States last summer, landing in Toronto in October.  We always knew a Canadian reunion was immanent, and were looking forward to this time for months. 

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While in NZ, we journeyed very closely with these two, sharing a meal together nearly weekly.  We’ve missed these times.  We hold these times and these people very dear to our hearts, and so sharing this time together in Toronto was very special.

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We were blown away by Kyle & Bea’s hospitality, and felt so thankful for the times and memories we could share together on Canadian soil.

Toronto was one of our favourite cities for the following reasons:

The Jays.

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At the age of 7 in 1992, young Breno went to watch the Jays play at the Skydome.  (Can you believe the child above is NOT mini Brendon??)

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He recalls having an epic moment of walking out into the staduim and seeing the grand expanse of the Skydome in front of him, and being overcome with a sense of awe. 

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Watching a Jays game was a must, so we went to 2.  Brendon watched the Jays game with the joy of his 7-year old self, shouting “Chicken hot dog” out at Colby Rasmus, who scored a home run while we were there. 

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It was cute seeing how happy he was when the Jays beat the Red Sox 6-1.  Brendon was so proud of his Jays.

The boutiques. 

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Oh my goodness.  The boutiques.  I kind of have a thing for cute design shops.  You know, the ones that carry a mix of cool stationary and prints, locally-made jewellery, home decor items, and potentially even some unique but practical household items?  I find them very inspiring.  Anyways, Toronto is FULL of amazing shops like this.  In all of our travels this summer, I didn’t come across a city that even compares to the volume of inspiring boutiques and design shops we encountered.  Bea was kind enough to do some scouting ahead of time and map out their whereabouts on an adorable set of cue cards, which detailed some extremely well-thought out routes for day trips around Toronto.

The beaches. 

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Toronto has beaches, people.  And being a bit beach-deprived this year, I was all over them.  We took the ferry over to Toronto Island (which is worth the excursion just for the views of the city), found ourselves a nice beach and enjoyed a glorious afternoon in the sun.  They’ve got a great, little organic cafe over there on the island too.

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Sugar Beach is another place beach lovers should be aware of.  This adorable slice of paradise is located directly beside the Redpath Sugar Factory.  The wofts of caramelized sugar that float by are heavenly, and the pink umbrellas are super cute, aren’t they?  And so what that it’s man-made?  It’s super cute and super accessible.  If you work downtown, you can totally beach here on your lunch break.  I mean, I would! 

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We walked to the beach nearby Kyle & Bea’s place, and took in the peaceful glow of the evening light on the Lake.  Amazing to have a gorgeous body of water so accessible from multiple places.

The coffee. 

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Toronto’s got a solid coffee scene.  Favourite spots included:

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Te Aro- a Kiwi-founded coffee company.

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Crafted Coffee (Te Aro), where a brief Transcend reunion occurred.

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Sam James- discrete espresso bar set up with a few locations around the city.

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White Rabbit (they serve a generous affagato)

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The parks. 

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The way that Toronto does parks was something that really struck and appealed to us.  And the parks are SO accessible.  Green space is very well & purposefully used.  It was neat to see the local parks well-utilized by people of all ages, and for various purposes. 

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Bicycle polo.  Wood fired pizzas.  Mud pits.  Community fire pits.  Skateboard park.  One evening while strolling through Dufferin Park, we happened upon a hipster “storytelling” gathering around a fire pit. 

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Toronto’s slogan “A City Within a Park” is such a neat concept.  Though perhaps their green space is not as plentiful as other Canadian cities, it is extremely well utilized.  Located within the heart of Toronto, one can pop in to grab a coffee at a reputable cafe, then walk a couple blocks and enjoy their coffee.  We think Toronto is on to something with their parks.

The street art. 

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I have yet to visit a city that displays and celebrates street art as much as Toronto does.  There is inspiring street art everywhere, and often in places unexpected. 

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Kyle & Bea’s friend Jeff was commissioned to paint this bear, among many other pieces featured downtown. 

The car-lessness. 

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Toronto is a city where one can definitely live without a car.  We didn’t use our car once during the week we were in Toronto, and loved it.  Our feet, and the occasional use of the subway or streetcar got us any place we wanted to go.  It was a wonderful way to be able to get to know and feel the heartbeat of this vibrant city.  

Other Toronto gems:

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Soma Chocolate- A local chocolate-maker who produces produces bean to bar chocolate.  Go there.  And pick up a Stratus Bar.  Do it.  It could change your life.

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Kensington Market- an eclectic, multicultural gathering place of artisans, vintage shops, cafes, & cultural food vendors.  There’s a definite vibe and energy to Kensington Market, and it’s a good one.  

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Electric Mud BBQ.  Not quite the same as Kansas City BBQ, but with a southern feeling and all the meat and mess of any of the best BBQ joints of the deep south.

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Blackbird Bakery- a relatively new bakery located in Kensington Market, which specializes in delicious, artisan breads.  Brendon recommends the Toronto Sourdough.

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Fat Pasha- we enjoyed a mind-blowing Jewish feast of colour and flavour on their enchanting backyard patio.  

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Bluegrass Brunch- what could be more enchanting & cozy on a Sunday morning than enjoying a family-style brunch while listening to bluegrass tunes?

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Smock- an inspiring cafe/children’s art space.  

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Kid Icarus- an inspiring stationary/design shop located in Kensington Market.  I visited numerous times.  I couldn’t get enough.

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The Distillery district- I totally could have spent more time wandering the red brick streets and perusing all the cool shops tucked away in the Distillery district.

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Toronto, why do you have to be so cool?  Keep this up and we could easily be persuaded to move there… it’s currently Brendon’s retirement dream to live in a condo in downtown Toronto and attend every single Jays game.

We absolutely loved our time in Toronto, especially because of who we got to share it with.  Thanks, Kyle & Bea for showing us an AMAZING time in your super cool adoptive city.

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Chicago: Classsic, tasty, friendly.

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We spent two days in Chicago, one of which was Mel’s birthday.  Our experience in this iconic city can be summed up in three words: Classic, tasty, and friendly.

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Classic.

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Chicago is quite classic in its architecture. 

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Stately towers draw the eye with repetitious rectangles.

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Charming houses share space with nature and businesses below.  The blending of the old with the new is a compelling example of a city aging with style.

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When in Chicago, paying a visit to Anish Kapoor’s “Bean” in Millennium Park is as touristy as it gets, but worthwhile.  

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While you’re there, wander over to Frank Gehry’s band stand shell.  The design of it is really quite impressive, and there’s a good chance you’ll be fortunate enough to take in some live music in the park.

Tasty.

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There are a few things that are ‘must eats’ when in Chicago. For Breno, those were Chicago deep dish pizza and a Chicago dog. 

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We asked around for the best place to get a Chicago deep dish pizza.  At the top of the locals’ picks were Giadano’s, Lou Malnati’s, and Uno’s, and Piquod’s.  We decided on Giordano’s because it was closest to our current location, and took our pizza pie to the beach.  This move seemed to astonish the locals and made for a great moment in our accomplished picnicking history.

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We had just laid out the blanket on North St. Beach when a young man walked by and eyed up the deep dish pizza on Brendon’s plate.  “Oh my god!  That’s amazing,” he says to Breno.  His friend simply gives thumbs and nods up in upmost approval.  Perhaps it never occurred to them to combine these two elements?

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Some locals brought to our attention that there was probably an item left off our list: The Italian Beef Dipped sandwich at Portello’s.  They just raved about it.  So I suppose we had to try one of those too.  We crossed the two remaining food items off our list with a single visit to Portello’s. 

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We got two Italian beef dipped sandwiches (I went bunless) with a Chicago Dog on the side.  The sandwich was flavourful and soggy (like a good beef dip should be). 

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As for the hot dog, Brendon says he’s never quite eaten a hotdog like that one, so I suppose that’s a good sign?  He says the freshness of a juicy pickle and ripe tomatoes on top was a great touch.

Friendly.

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By now, we have visited a few different cities, and must say that some of the best customer service experiences we have ever had were in Chicago. 

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A shout out goes out to Intelligencia Coffee, both the Logan Square location, as well as the new Wicker Park location that just opened the day we visited.  We were greeted so warmly and given such a wonderful experience by the staff at each of their cafes.  Awesome coffee too. 

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Other special mentions go out to Fleur- a very cool floral/textiles design shop, Gaslight Coffee, and the Bang Bang Pie Shop for their super friendly service and praiseworthy offerings. It really doesn’t take much to make an encounter with another human a positive and lasting one, yet most of the time people don’t do it. Chicago on the whole had it together.

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Our Airbnb host, Merissa, was absolutely lovely and set us up well with a stylish & comfortable place to stay, as well as recommendations of her favorite Chicago spots.  Her pet bunny, Hurricaine, was the cutest.  We had such a great experience staying in her thoughtfully decorated apartment. 

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We were out our first evening in Chicago strolling the well-known Wicker Park area.  Aspiring to tick one item off our Chicago food list, we asked a random duo walking beside us where one could get a good Chicago dog around here.  They didn’t know, but invited us to come to a gig with them that was happening just down the road at an arcade.  We went with it, and were glad for this chance to get a feel of the local indie music scene, get to know a few of the very friendly locals and get some tips for the rest of our time in Chicago.

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Chicago, thanks for being so delicious and welcoming to us Canadians. 

 

Kansas City.

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Kansas City held a heartwarming reunion with our dear friends, the Keels.

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We arrived in New Zealand the very same week as this amazing family, and shared in the joys, wonders, and bewilderment of moving to a new country and continent together.  It felt so good to be in their presence again, share stories of adjustment, and validate that the experience of going to New Zealand was indeed real.

It was very special to share some wonderful times with our friends Tim, Mimi, Mabry, Annie & Blaise in their very cool hometown of Kansas City.  Some of the highlights included:

Kansas City Barbecue.

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I didn’t know it was a thing.  But it is.  It is QUITE a thing.  Kansas City BBQ is a culture unto itself that must be experienced to be understood.  Tim & Mimi took us to some of their favourite BBQ joints.  Our first Kansas City BBQ experience was takeout from Oklahoma Joe’s, a BBQ place run out of what looks like a gas station.

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Make no mistake- Oklahoma Joe’s is serious BBQ business.

Brendon savoured his Z-man sandwich, while I thoroughly enjoyed my beef brisket (sans the bun.)  I appreciated the thin slices, minimal fat, and thorough application of bbq sauce.

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Then we encountered L.C.’s.  L.C.’s has been known to have the “slickest floors in Kansas City.”  We’re talking smoky, messy, rustic style Kansas City BBQ here.  The kind of bbq where the air is a thick, translucent haze, rolls of paper towel sit on the tables and slices of white bread are used to sop up the glorious mess on your place.  It was epic.

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Mel’s first major league baseball game.  

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Mimi’s dad generously got us tickets to see the Kansas City Royals play the Detroit Tigers from the 4th row … pretty amazing viewing the game from there!

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Visiting Jacob’s Well.

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Tim started Jacob’s Well Church years before moving to NZ, then returned as Senior Pastor.  Mimi is also the Director of Children’s Ministry.  An inspiring place to visit.  One afternoon, Brendon had the chance to share his thesis work with some of the pastoral team there, which was an encouraging and affirming experience for him.

Kansas City Coffee.

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The coffee scene in Kansas City was awesome.  None of our cafe experiences disappointed in the least; mind you, Tim had hand-selected them all for us, so we knew they would be good.  Coffee highlights of the city included:

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Quay Coffee- A really nice geisha full of florals and gentleness.

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Second Best- Some nice espresso, a Kenyan pour over, and a crunch peanut butter affagato.

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Oddly Correct- An enjoyable cappuccino and an exceptional old fashioned sour cream glazed donut.

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PT’s Coffee- A Colombian (single origin) espresso, Kenyan pour over, and iced almond chai.

Meeting Jeremy Collins.

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We were on our way to the cafe Oddly Correct when Tim mentioned we should stop in and visit his friend Jeremy who works in an artists space next door.

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Jeremy kindly took the time to share some of his work with us, including some sketchbooks from a recent trip to Venezuela, and the trailer to his upcoming film, Drawn.  It’s hard to explain what our brief visit with Jeremy did… invigorated/stirred our souls a bit maybe, or gave us a hope that people really can find ways to incorporate their passions and live out their convictions in ways that are possible and meaningful.  Jeremy’s film, Drawn, is being featured as part of the Banff Film Festival, and premiers in Banff this fall.  We are going to try to be there for it.  You can watch the trailer here.

Miscelaneous gems.

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Kansas City far to cool to be thoroughly explored in 3 days.   We probably just touched the tip of the ice berg really, but here are a few other places that stood out as being exceptionally awesome:

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Little Freshie has amazing gourmet snow cones.  Blackberry lavender, anyone?  Or green tea pear?

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Utilitarian Workshop is a super cool design store full of local handmade jewellery and other beautiful objects.

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Our time in Kansas City was overall rejuvenating and inspiring.  The Keels spoiled our socks off and we are so thankful for the time that we could spend with them.  Thanks so much, Tim, Mimi, Mabry, Annie, & Blaise for making our time in Kansas City so epic!  Until next time, friends! x

Next stop: Muscatine, Iowa.

Halong Bay: Bay of a thousand islands.

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At this point in our journey, we were beginning to feel a bit tired and travelled out.  The idea of an organized day tour where all your transportation and food was taken care of sounded awfully appealing.  So we signed up for a tour of Halong Bay through APT Travel.

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After a four hour ride on a minibus, we arrived at the Halong Bay pier.  The Nu’u Nghi boat was waiting for us, and minutes upon setting sail, we were presented with a beautiful seafood feast.

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The perfectly timed meal ended when we pulled up to the Don Thien Cung caves, and got off the boat to explore them for about a half hour.

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(The coloured lights are just for effect.  The inside of the cave is not actually rainbow.)

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Next stop was a fishing village, where a small group of Vietnamese people live year-round.  There is even a school here on the water, where children attend until age 11.  After that, students leave the village to continue school on the mainland.  We were given the chance to kayak in and around the fishing village and surrounding cliffs.

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It was crazy to fathom the unique challenges of living in a small fishing community such as this one.  We wondered how they felt about their existence being a tourist attraction.

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As you can see, Halong Bay is a pretty stunning place.  Although impossible to capture in one photo (unless from the air), Halong Bay is comprised of 1900-2000 islets.  It is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

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Limestone cliffs, partially covered with lush plantlife, jet starkly around of the water.  Though pictures do not do justice to the immense awe that this place conjures, perhaps they convey more than words.  We’ll leave you now with a few images to take in.

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It felt kind of weird to be the tourists in the tour group, but hey, after several weeks of organizing our own adventures, it was actually kind of nice to sit back and enjoy an excursion that someone had already done the work of orchestrating for us.

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We got to know Halong Bay better than we were planning to.  Left behind again by our transport, after the agent PROMISED we would not be forgotten, we got to spend a bit of extra time hanging out in Halong Bay.  (But of all the places to be stranded… we suppose it could have been much worse.)

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The town itself didn’t have a lot to offer, but we spent some extra time chilling out by the water.

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The beach is where Halong Bayers seem to flock to in the evenings.  And why not?  It’s beauty is hard to ignore.  Young and old alike go for a dip to escape the heat.

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It appeared that some organized swimming lessons were going on.  This was definitely the busiest beach we encountered throughout our time in SE Asia.

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We highly recommend you visit the world wonder of Halong Bay if you ever get the chance!  (We heard the overnight cruises, or the ones that overnight on Cat Ba Island are pretty epic, but weren’t able to make it work.)

Thanks, Halong Bay, for sharing your splendor and beauty with us!

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Hanoi: A place to sit and watch the world go by.

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I hit a low point in our travels once we reached Hanoi, which we travelled to by rail.

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After being dropped at the wrong location by our taxi driver, finding our hotel was obstacle number one in Vietnam’s capital.

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Traffic was insane. Imagine, literally, a river of scooters flowing through the streets.

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Crossing the street was at your own risk, and definitely a risk at that!  You just kind of had to go for it… slowly.  The general principle is that the traffic will go around you.  We are proud to say that we managed to avoid being hit by a scooter through the entire duration of our stay in Vietnam.

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Appealing restaurants were a little harder to come by in Hanoi, as were people who spoke good English.

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Northern Vietnam appeared less tourist-friendly than their neighbours in the South.

Sidewalks

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The smells, the chaos, the noise, the dirt, the cluttered sidewalks, the persistent nagging of street vendors… they were starting to get to me… one could say I was nearly “Asia’d out.”

THANKFULLY, I stumbled upon this article by Steve Jackson, who offered some wise & timely words:

“THERE IS NOT ONE SPECIFIC THING WORTH SEEING IN HANOI.

NOT ONE.

And yet Hanoi itself is unmissable.

Spend your time rushing around to see any of the sites on the above list and you may miss its charms.”

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We thought Steve’s words to be very knowing, so we took his advice and did a little research on the Hanoi cafe scene.

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After strolling around Hoi Kim Lake, we caught a cyclo who pedalled us to the doorstep of Cong Caphe.

Cong Caphe

On the walls inside this reputable Hanoi Cafe hang Vietnam war paraphernalia.

Cong Caphe

On the menu, a variety of coffee beverages, and a limited number of snack items, including pop corn.

Cong Caphe coconut coffee shake

Highly recommend the coffee and coconut coffee shake. An interesting flavor combination, but it works! Brendon says his best Vietnamese coffee experience was here as well.

Cong Caphe

Although the view was somewhat limited, the cafe itself was a great place to sit and think about Hanoi.

Beware that within the small cafe, smoking is permitted, so air quality has the potential to be quite poor. You’ll have to forgive Cong Caphe for the lung damage.

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Thanks to Steve Jackson, we adapted a much more relaxed perspective about our time in Hanoi, which challenged me to focus less on ticking things off a list, and instead, look around and appreciate who and what was around me at that moment.

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Mochi

Hanoi sewing machine

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Hanoi

Saigon: A sensory tour.

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What were we doing precisely this time last year?  Exploring Vietnam.  Since I wasn’t able to keep up with blogging about all of our South East Asian escapades, now seems like a fitting time to re-visit the places we encountered one year ago.

Saigon Breno

As our first impression of Vietnam, Saigon (Ho Chi Minh) was a pretty cool city to visit.  Let us take you for a bit of a sensory tour through the streets of Saigon.

Taste

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Pho, pronounced “fur” (with a British accent.)  Essentially, pho consists of noodles in broth with your choice of chicken, beef, pork, and sometimes if we were lucky, vegetable.  The option to add in fresh herbs and sprouts on the side added flavour as well as nutrient value.

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In our search for the best pho in the city, we learned an important lesson: Lonely Planet doesn’t know everything.  The option that was NOT in Lonely planet turned out to be our favourite.  *International travel tip: Locals are a better resource than the travel guides that everyone else is using.

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Fresh vegetables and herbs, wrapped in pretty bundles.

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Basil.  Lots of basil.

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Banh Xeo, a Vietnamese sizzling pancake.

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Spring rolls.  Crispy awesomeness.

Smell

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Fried sweet baked goods being sold by Vietnamese women on the roadside.

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Char grilled meat.

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Durian, or other over-ripe, aromatic fruits.

The pungent aroma of seafood left to dry in the sun.

Hear

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Aggressive marketplace ladies.  “Lady, what you like?”

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Cyclo drivers, eager for business.  “Where you go?  I take you there?”

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Constant honking of horns.

The sizzle of street food.

The roar of Bui Vien Street (pictured above) at night as the people come out to live it up.

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Children playing.  Sometimes not so cooperatively.

Feel

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Sweat dripping off your brow, and down every other part of your body.

The breeze from scooters whipping by.  Another near miss.

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A moment of tranquility in one of Saigon’s serene parks, as well as some mild relief from the heat.

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The sweet, layered refreshment of a Vietnamese iced coffee.  The cold glass against your overheated skin is heavenly.

See

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Helmets for scooterists.

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Tall buildings.

Scooters zooming in and out of days and nights.

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Lights.

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Inspiring boutiques with upstairs cafes.  A few of our favourite finds included L’usine and Magonn.

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Wires, criss crossing the streets in all directions.  And COLOR.  So much color.

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The Notre Dam Cathedral.

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Boats that are fish.

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As you can see, Saigon was a full-out experience for the senses.  We hope this post allowed you to have a taste of this vibrant city, if you havn’t had the chance to visit yet for yourself.

Victoria. Charmed and completely delighted.

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And then, we met Victoria.

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It was a long-awaited reunion with members of our NZ family, Mark & Laurel, who had become among our favourite adventuring companions and like family to us while in NZ. 

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Spending time with these two was at the top of our Victoria highlights, but there is more to this city worth mentioning.

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Victoria wooed us. 

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With her rugged, log-cluttered beaches,

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pink cherry blossoms, 

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moss-covered trees,

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lush plantlife,

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and thoughtful range of cute boutiques. 

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It boasts a strong coffee scene, with a few fairly established roasteries.  Fernwood, Bows & Arrows, Discovery, & Habit were among the cafes/roasteries we visited.  

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We appreciated how easy it was to find parking and get about in the historic but funky downtown core.  There are a number of areas by the seawall that are lovely for strolling.

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Mark and Laurel took us out to China Beach, one of their favourite beaching spots, where we set up camp for an afternoon and enjoyed the company of friends, some unexpected bouts of sunshine, and the rugged beauty of Canada’s West Coast.

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The natural beauty of the provincial capital was very evident.  Rain was forecasted for the week, but still the sun shone. 

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Having these amazing people to explore the city with made our time there all the more epic.

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We had high expectations going in, but feel that they were met and probably exceeded.

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Victoria, oh Victoria.  It is only a matter of how long we can bear to be apart.  Until we meet again!

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