Monday, July 17, 2017

A European vacation without the trip across the Atlantic-Quebec

Want to do a "trial" European family vacation without crossing the Atlantic?  Head north to Quebec, Canada. Right now the U.S. dollar is very strong in Canada and it's a quicker flight than even the closest European cities.  Montreal, Mt. Tremblant (darling ski village - are you in Switzerland or Canada?) and Quebec City are full of fun for families of all ages.

My husband and I were fortunate enough to live in Montreal for a year and a half many years ago, and thoroughly enjoyed the culture, the people and the European-esque feel, particularly in the Old Town/Port (Vieux Port ), Notre Dame de Grace neighborhoods.  We are still good friends with many of the people we met while living there.

Brush up on your French.  It's still the main language, but in Montreal, everyone speaks perfect English.  I always enjoyed speaking my high school French while grocery shopping or in a restaurant, only to have someone reply in English - smack down!

In Old Town, meander through the cobblestone streets (St. Paul St. is great for restaurants and shopping) and imagine being in a town in France or Belgium.

The Montreal Subway is a great way to get around town.  It's easy to navigate and very reasonably priced.  Plus, you'll find the underground city, now known as RESO, that connects the stations with  restaurants, bars, shops, businesses, even a library and movie theater.  You can access almost any point downtown via this maze of tunnels.The bitter cold winters necessitated this great respite from the elements.

Right at the port, the young and old will delight at the Montreal Sciences Center - excellent exhibits and hands on activities.  For a more outdoor experience, Voiles en Voiles is a ropes course in a pirate ship - there are zip lines, obstacle courses and climbing walls.

Get a View:
Hike or drive to the top of the city's namesake Mont Royal, and stop at St. Joseph Oratory, a beautiful Church dedicated to St. Joseph. the grounds are lovely, and there is a creche museum, featuring beautiful "birth of Christ" renditions from all over the world.  It's a great view as well.  And, for a higher look at the city, check out the old Parc Olympique, home of the 1976 Summer Olympics, where you can ride a funicular up to the top of the Montreal Tower, the iconic angled tower.  Nick and I once did a 10k race through Montreal and the finish line was in the Olympic Stadium which was really cool.

Come hungry:
Atwater Market is a culinary cornicopia of vendor stalls filled with fresh produce, flowers, pasteries, meats and cheeses.  There are restaurants around the periphery of the market, so you can eat on-the-spot as well take home some amazing local food.  I wouldn't call myself a foodie, but this is a must-do destination and a feast for the eyes, ears and nose.

You can also pop in a bakery for a baugette, crave a crepe (Chez Cora is our favorite - several locations and enormous crepes), find a fondue restaurant, or polish off some poutine, Quebec's unofficial official dish.  And, St. Viateur is famous for their amazing bagels, after all, you'll walk it off through this very strollable town.

Head North:
There are the most charming ski towns just northwest of Montreal - you'll feel like you're in Europe. During the winter and parts of spring, winter activities abound at Mt. Tremblant (the biggest town), but St. Sauveur and Mont Olympia are darling and great for beginners.  In the summer, many of them have zip line courses, alpine slides, water sports and other outdoor activities.

Now Head Northeast:
Quebec City is perhaps the most European-like town in North America.  It's teeming with history and gorgeous architecture, and is the only walled city north of Mexico. Simply wandering its streets is an experience in itself.  Take in the views of and from the Fairmont Le Chateau Frontenac - a castle-looking fortress that sits on top of a hill overlooking the St. Lawrence River.  Staying there will cost you, but at least walk up the hill to enjoy the picturesque vista and enjoy a cafe au lait.

And the exquisite Musee National des Beaux-Arts is a great history lesson in the of art and culture of Quebec.

I've seen really good airfares to Canada recently.  U.S. adults do need a passport, but those 16 and under can use birth certificates.  Best to check for sure before you travel.

I love Canada no matter the province  -- I have been lucky to live in Quebec and travel to British Columbia, Ontario and Nova Scotia.  Quebec is unlike any other place in North America.  If you want to save money, or not travel quite as far and still experience a European adventure, it's a an excellent surrogate and unique destination.

Bon voyage!

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Indiana - Where the Bison Roam

With respect to Brewster Higley who wrote the lyrics to "Home on the Range", buffalo don't and haven't ever roamed in North America.  But, bison have for thousands of years (buffalo are the mammals in Asia and Africa), and were named the national mammal of the United States in 2016. So, we decided to celebrate Fourth of July weekend by seeing some bison in their natural habitat in northwest Indiana at Kankakee Sands Preserve, about 1 hour, 45 minutes northwest of Indianapolis.

The Nature Conservancy purchased the 7,200 acres at Kankakee Sands about twenty years ago. It was once one of the largest marshes in North America, but the natural habitat was stripped and turned into farmland at the turn of the 20th century.  The Conservancy has preserved as much of the original land as possible and restored the rest by planting native grasses and flowers to resemble the prairie land that once was home to thousands of flora and fauna not seen in decades.

In fact, there is a bison jumping over a log on the Indiana State Seal.  However, the Governor's website still calls it a buffalo.

What makes their conservation of this area so unique is that they introduced a herd of bison to the field in November 2016.  The bison are a keystone species which means that other specials in an ecosystem largely depend on them.  A great infographic by The Nature Conservancy explains it. They are also the largest land mammal in North America.

There are now 32 bison, with several calves born this spring.  They are thriving in the land as it was hundreds of years ago.

Unfortunately, the bison were too busy munching on grass far away from the trails and lookout points, so all we saw were some puffs of dark brown in the distance.  However, a volunteer with the Nature Conservancy gave us some background on them, answered our questions and let us touch some of the hair that they had rubbed off on tree stumps, which felt more like cotton than wool.

Still, the area is beautiful and there are grasses and flowers that I haven't seen before.  You could almost see the oxen-pulled covered wagons across the prairie.

We saw a couple of copper colored lizards racing around, too.  Other than a short trail that runs alongside the parking lot, there's no other vantage point to see them, which was a bit of a disappointment.  They are enclosed by a 8 or 9 foot fence with electric on it.  And, signage makes it clear not to jump in with the bison.
Although we were bummed not to see the bison up close, we had another stop on the way back to Indy to see some other mammals native to the United States. We headed to Wolf Park in BattleGround, about 10 minutes from Lafayette.

Established as a research and education center, Wolf Park has wolves, coyotes and foxes.  As wolves have a 1/2 mile long flight distance (the distance they want to flee from seeing a human), it was difficult to do research on them (before the days of wifi, wireless cameras and GPS).  So, they hand raise the pups from 10-weeks old so that they are acclimated to humans.

A guide took around their grounds for a 45-minute tour, describing their habits, how they are raised and their care.

And lo and behold, they also have a herd of bison!  These guys were a lot closer and you could see the big male and a couple of copper-colored babies.  So, all was not lost on our quest to see bison on our adventure!

Wolf Park was just the right about of talking and walking to keep my boys interested. They also have a small education center and gift shop.  They do a lot of seminars and lectures about wolves and other canines.  And, I'd like to go back for their Howl Nights, when you get to go and listen to their trademark sound and learn more about this behavior.  It was great to see these gorgeous creatures in a natural habitat.

We capped off our day with a visit to the Triple XXX Family Restaurant in West Lafayette - great burgers and shakes, and best of all, their homemade root beer.