Friday, February 26, 2016

Past POIs - Royal Canadian Mint [Ottawa, Ontario, Canada]

During our Winterlude 2016 roadtrip, we paid (literally) a visit to the Royal Canadian Mint in Ottawa which is a short walk from Byward Market and well worth a visit in my opinion just to learn about how coins are made.


There are actually 3 locations, one in Ottawa, one in Winnipeg, and one in Vancouver. The one that we visited in Ottawa is open daily for tours from 10:00am - 5:00pm. Call in advance to book a time just in case, tours are available in both English and French. It costs $6 per adult on weekdays and $4.50 on weekends. The reduced cost is because production does not happen on weekends, so while you do get the same tour as on weekdays, you don't get to see what happens. No photography is allow in the tour.


On the tour you learn that they don't actually make circulation coins here (coins that we use as currency), they only make collector and commemorative coins here as well as medals and medallions. Once you complete the tour, you will know how the entire process of how to make coins from metal purification to molds, stamping, and the end result. It worked like how I imagined it would, so it wasn't much of a surprise to me, but for those who don't know, it will be a learning experience. Our tour guide also would randomly quiz us with questions like 'how many types of coins are there' which adds to the experience.


There are other things that you will learn as well such as the highest purity that was achieved at the mint and you get to see the Vancouver 2010 Olympic medals here, the history behind their design and you get to find out how much each medal costs to make. This part was actually pretty fascinating for me.

The tour lasts roughly 1 hour long and it is a complete loop, so you won't get lost. Once you finish the tour, you head back to the boutique upstairs and you can buy any coins that they have available there or you can pose with the gold bar that is there as well. Overall, I thought it was a worthwhile experience and I wonder what they cover in the tours for the other locations.

For more information, visit www.mint.ca

Come back next Friday for another Past Point of Interest!

Thursday, February 25, 2016

2016 - Winterlude Summary

Duration: 3 days (left on Saturday morning, returned on Sunday evening)
Distance Traveled: 878km round-trip (439km each way) and a few short 10-15 minute drives (Jacques-Cartier Park, Canada Aviation and Space Museum)
Cost: $149 + $15 parking + taxes for hotel, $4.50 for admission to the Royal Canadian Mint, food and gas costs

Highlights

Occo Kitchen was our first meal stop and probably our best food stop this trip which was a surprise since the place is a small shop with no washroom and seating for roughly 6 people. The main items that they have are burgers and tacos, check out their website (http://www.occokitchen.com/) and have a look to see if there is anything you like. Parking is limited and note that you may have to eat in your car.

Hamre burger, fries, beef and fish tacos (left to right).
Royal Canadian Mint was our last item on the itinerary and I thought that overall, it was a very nice learning experience. Go on weekdays to see production and although it was there, I don't know if I gained much versus if production was not happening. The guided tour was very well done and lasted about one hour and it takes you through the entire process of how coins are made (they don't print money here). You will learn a lot about RCM and their role in making coins (did you know that RCM makes coins for other countries?). While I wouldn't go again, I would definitely suggest going if you have any interest in coins and at $4.50 per person ($6.00 on weekdays), it isn't a big loss even if you don't learn anything.


Me holding a gold bar.
Canada Aviation and Space Museum was a free stop between 4pm - 5pm daily and worth a visit if you can get here. I think the one hour is enough for most people and I enjoyed it compared to the one in Kingston that we visited last year. There are a lot of planes that from olden days and it shows how far we have come along in aviation.



The Business Inn. Our hotel last time we came to Ottawa and I believe will remain our hotel of choice when we return. The room was great for the price, location is very good and I really enjoy the breakfast that is included. Parking is not included, but it seems like the trend in Ottawa.

Our room at The Business Inn.
Lowlights

This is nitpicking on my part, but I didn't like how restaurants were changing their normal routine based on the fact that it happened to be Valentine's Day weekend. The restaurants that I happened to visit which normally did not take reservations, I found out DID take reservations due to it being Valentine's Day weekend, unfortunately I didn't know until we walked to the restaurant and left disappointed.

What would I change?

I felt that everything worked out fine for this trip. One thing I underestimate was the drive back from Ottawa to Toronto. Since we came back after lunch, it was busier on the highway back when we hit Cobourg. If we left earlier, it might have been better, but who knows.

Until our next trip!

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

2016 - Winterlude Day 3

Today, we do the Royal Canadian Mint tour, have lunch somewhere and head back to Toronto.

Breakfast was the same as yesterday, I don't believe it ever changes here. Not complaining though! After breakfast we checked out of the hotel and walked to the Royal Canadian Mint for our tour at 11am, stopping at Confederation Park for some more freebies. Today, it looked like Four O'Clock was out of tea because they weren't here, however, we got some more free cookies from RedPath, coffee from McDonald's and some marshmallows from Metro. I ended up making $10 for doing a survey while waiting for Allison to finish her marshmallow (which she saw I was doing and snuck in a second marshmallow thinking I didn't see it). It was a good morning so far.

Breakfast at The Business Inn. 

Hee-ya!
The RCM is a short walk from Byward Market and it cost us $4.50 to do the tour today even though it should be $6. Go on a weekday since you will see production happening (production is closed on the weekends, but the tour still happens). The tour lasts about 1 hour and you need to book in advance I believe (at least I did). It was interesting to learn about the Mint and worth a visit in my opinion. I learned a lot while there and although I had a lot of questions, the guide was able to answer everything I had. While production was happening today, I don't know if it added too much to the experience, maybe it had to do with the time of day. We saw them stamping coins out of a sheet, trimming them down to the correct size and that's about it. So you can weigh that in on your planning.


I'm a fairy! 
Me holding an actual gold bar (valued at $650,000).
With the Mint finished, it was roughly 12pm, so we headed to Scone Witch for lunch which is on Elgin, near Confederation Park. The shop is nice and was very busy when we got there, we lucked out and go two seats at the window (there is probably enough seats for 30 people). We ordered the brunch ($12) and a sconewitch with soup (I believe $8). Tomato and roasted red pepper was the soup of the day and I though it was okay, seemed like a tomato soup. The sconewich we got was salmon and cucumber which Allison seemed to enjoy. I thought they were both good, the scone was nicely done, however it was a bit slim on filling.

For the brunch, we got the vanilla cream scone with Mediterranean veggies and goat cheese. The portion was good for the price and I thought everything tasted good and it was well plated. The jam was really nice which was wildberry if I remember correctly. And I really enjoyed the vanilla cream scone (not sure why).

The Scone Witch, sconewitch and soup on the left, brunch on the right.
After lunch, we headed back to the hotel, go out car and left. Dinner was at Halibut House in Ajax since the traffic was really bad and we thought it would be good to stop for dinner and hopefully the traffic would die down, which it did. We ordered the two piece halibut with chips and I thought the food was good. The fish had a nice golden doneness to it and tasted pretty good. We missed out on the special of the day since we didn't see the board, $6 for haddock and chips. I wouldn't mind stopping by again if I had cravings for fish and chips.

My last free coffees...
Two piece halibut with chips, one portion.
Thus ends another roadtrip of ours, our next one will be Washington, D.C. during the Easter long weekend. Tomorrow, I will post a summary of our trip. Until next trip!

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

2016 - Winterlude Day 2

The plan today is to visit the slides at Jacques-Cartier Park in the morning, Rideau Hall at 11am and wander around in the afternoon.

Breakfast was nice, I actually forgot what was included besides the take out bag and the breakfast sandwiches. There were also hashbrowns (a bit salty for me), yogurt, juice, Nespresso machine, regular coffee, various bagels, muffins, toast, eggs, and waffles. The best part for me is a toss up between the breakfast sandwiches and the takeout bags. The takeout bags include a water, granola bar, apple, oatmeal cookies and a mint. I like that they make good snack bags so I don't need to hunt for things while wandering the city.

Breakfast at The Business Inn.
After breakfast we decided to visit the slides at Jacques-Cartier Park which is in Gatineau, Quebec, a short drive or shuttle ride and we got there by 10am. The place was very empty when we got there and we were able to quickly do all the slides that we wanted and not having to line up makes the experience that much better since it was really cold out (-30 before windchill). We did the group slide twice, the solo slide once and we did the tube slide twice before leaving roughly 20 minutes later.

Slide at Jacques-Cartier Park
Slides at Jacques-Cartier Park
Slides at Jacques-Cartier Park
We had to leave early since I had planned to visit Rideau Hall at 11am and they said that we should be there 10 minutes before. Parking is free and available all along MacKay St, it is a short walk to get to Rideau Hall. The tour is free, but you need to call to make a reservation and it lasts roughly 1 hour. Rideau Hall is where the Governor General lives and it was a neat building to visit. The guided tour starts with a security check, so make sure to have all metal items available for inspection. Pictures are allowed and there are some neat areas inside. By the end of the tour, you get a better understanding of the building and the history behind the Governor General and their role within the Canadian Government. I would suggest coming if you have the time. It also isn't too far from Byward Market, about a 30 minute walk.


Rideau Hall.
Rideau Hall. 
Rideau Hall.
Shawarma Palace was where we went for lunch, a short drive from Rideau Hall. There is parking available on premise, however, I ended up parking on Augusta St which is right next to it anyways. Lunch was one chicken shawarma plate and one falal wrap and between us, we finished the wrap and had about 20% of the plate left before we stopped. It was a lot of food. The plate includes hummus, salad, potatoes, rice, shawarma and pita. The food is good, however, I think that there is a better shawarma restaurant that is near Rideau Centre that I liked more from last time. There is a lot of seating available here. We arrived at around 12:20pm and it was pretty busy there but no issues finding a spot.

Shawarma Palace, chicken dinner on the left, falafel pita on the right.
After food, we went back to the hotel and rested since I was having a bit of a food coma and napped for about an hour. We headed back to Confederation Park for some more freebies of coffee, tea, cookies, and marshmallow as well as a Goodlife grocery bag. Wandered to the Rideau Canal and took some pictures, however we did not brave the weather and skipped out on skating today and would try again tomorrow.

Me at 0.0km.
Firepit!
Dinner was at Fiazza Fresh Fired Pizza which reminds me of Famoso in Toronto but with less non-pizza options. There were only two types of salad and the other option is pizza. The ingredient list seems better than Famoso but the cost adds up quick if you want to make your own. We ended up ordering two pizzas from their pre-made list which was the Capri Pesto (pesto and red sauce blend, goat cheese, roasted red peppers, artichokes, olives, and Fiazza cheese blend) and the Bella Prosciutto (prosciutto & arugula (after fired), alfredo & red sauce mix, blue cheese, rosemary, and Fiazza cheese blend) and a ginger beer. The food was good, no complaints there, my issue is that they converted it from a serve yourself restaurant to a full service restaurant for Valentine's Day weekend. I understand the purpose, however, they were really under-staffed for it. They had one hostess and one server for the entire restaurant which looked like would sit at least 50 people. The pizza makers seemed under-staffed when they received a bunch of orders for tables of 8+ people. Overall, I think the food is worth the visit, but maybe not for a special occasion. Bella Prosciutto was $12.95, and Capri Pesto was $10.95.

Fiazza Fresh Fired Pizza, Capri Pesto on the left, Bella Prosciutto on the right.
Swag!
Ice sculpture chair. 
On our walk back, we saw The Cupcake Lounge and stopped by for two cupcakes, one strawberry champagne and one key lime. We walked back to the hotel and called it a night. The cupcakes were okay. They were a bit deceptive since it looks like a lot of frosting but it actually is like a muffin with a bit of frosting on top. Nothing wrong with them but I expected more frosting than cupcake.

The cupcake lounge, strawberry champagne on the left, key lime on the right.
Tomorrow, we will visit the Mint for a tour and have lunch before heading back to Toronto.

Monday, February 22, 2016

2016 - Winterlude Day 1

Welcome to day 1 of 3 of our Winterlude 2016 roadtrip!

We left Toronto at around 8:20am and our first stop is Occo Kitchen for lunch. We got there slightly before 1pm and didn't realize that the restaurant is a hole in the wall. There was seating for roughly 7 people and there is no washroom available, so make sure you go ahead of time (they say go across the street and visit the mall, odd... where do they go?).

Anyways, onto the food, you can find their menu on their site http://www.occokitchen.com/ and they specialize in a small menu of burgers, tacos, salad and sides. We ordered a beef taco ($4.95), crispy fish taco ($4.95), the hamre burger ($12) and a small garlic & herb fries ($3.50).

From left to right, Hamre burger, garlic and herb fries, beef taco and fish taco.
The tacos, I quite enjoyed both of them, however, due to how they are presented, I had a hard time getting all the ingredients in every bite, but when I did, I thought they were really good. By the end though, it was only the main component that was left and left me a little disappointed since I know it tasted better two bites ago.

Hamre burger on the left, fish and beef tacos on the right.
The burger was very nicely done. The meat patty was nice and moist and the bread was able to hold it's shape due to the type of bread that they had. It had a lot of guacamole in it and Allison really enjoyed the candied bacon in it, I thought it tasted really good overall.

Fries were just fries, nothing to complain or rave about here in my opinion. We both felt that it had herb, but lacked garlic, so I'm not sure what happened there. Included is their own ketchup and mayo, we both agreed that the mayo was good but the ketchup was a let down.

Overall, I would easily recommend coming, however plan that you may end up eating in your car due to how the seating arrangements work. While there, we saw a good amount of customers (at least 15) and some who gave compliments saying that it was the best burger they've ever had (and it was really good). Note that this is actually a little bit further than Ottawa (about a 10 minute drive), so it isn't within Ottawa proper.

After lunch we went to The Business Inn and checked in. Based on our previous experience, I think we will return in the future due to the location and breakfast and this time, we were limited to the Executive Room since I didn't book on time and it cost us $149 a night ($15/night for parking).

Our room at The Business Inn.
Based on the layout, we were really impressed by how large the room felt. It included a king size bed, sofa bed, a small kitchen with everything you need, a computer and printer in case you need to do any research or print outs and a nice 46" Sony TV. Overall, I thought it was very nice and very spacious. However, due to the layout, the TV actually felt small, which seems odd given that it was 46" (it is advertised as such in their welcome book).

My plan was that we visit the Canadian Aviation and Space Museum from 4pm-5pm since it is free, so with our extra time, went for a little stroll to see Confederation Park which is where the ice sculptures are. Unfortunately due to the warm weather this year, a lot of the sculptures were damaged and it was disappointing to see since we knew that a lot of people put a lot of time and effort into them only to have them melt shortly after. They normally last throughout the entire Winterlude event.

This year, we got a lot of free samples that I don't recall in 2014. We got a lot of tea from Four O'Clock, Metro had an Ice Cafe where you can go get a free hot chocolate with optional whip cream and caramel drizzle along with a cookie (oatmeal or chocolate chip) and they even have a fire pit where you can roast marshmallows if you wish (sticks and marshmallow are free, you just need to ask). McDonald's was there offering out free small coffee to anyone there. Amarula was giving out free samples as well (although they ask that you stay in their patio area). And RedPath sugar was giving out free cookies and recipes. The free drinks and firepit was really nice since it was really cold today (-30 before windchill). Good Dinosaur was advertising their movie where you could take a picture with their ice sculpture. We stayed for about 40 minutes before we left.

Metro Ice Cafe.
After we finished wandering Confederation Park, we headed back to the hotel to get the car and drove to Canada Aviation and Space Museum (roughly 15 minute drive). We got there at around 4:20pm and left when it closed at 5:00pm. This gave us enough time to do one loop of the building and I think it was enough time for me.

Having visited the National Aviation Museum last year, I would say that this one seems more interesting due to the layout and the age of the planes. They have a lot of really old planes that looks like the Wright Brother's plane and some are hung in the air while others are on the ground. There is a lot of information to learn if you are interested but I just went to take pictures and look at some planes. Easily worth a stop if you could get here and since it is free daily from 4:00pm - 5:00pm, why not? You just have to park $1 per half hour of parking. As a plus, since it was cold outside, everything is indoors!





We drove back to the hotel to drop off the car and then we tried to have dinner at The Whalesbone restaurant but unfortunately it was fully booked even though on their website it says that they don't take reservations for dinner... We were told that since it was Valentine's Day weekend, they were taking reservations. When we asked if they had a space for tomorrow (Feb 14), they said yes! But at 10:30pm... Oh well, wasn't meant to be this trip. Ended up at Mamma Teresa as suggested by a coworker which is an Italian restaurant that is a house converted into a restaurant.

We ended up getting Mamma's Dinner for two ($74.95) which includes terrine of veal as a starter which had the veal, some pickled vegetables and some dressing. I didn't really enjoy the starter, I thought the veal terrine was a weird texture (not sure why I wasn't given thinly sliced veal instead) and the pickled vegetables were really sour for my taste.

Starter.
Entree was veal mamma, chicken parmigiana, tortellini Giuliano, linguine with clam sauce and zucchini. Veal mamma I think had too much lemon juice and tasted very sour, like the pickled vegetables in the starter. The tortellini and parmigiana was nicely cooked. Zucchini reminded me of zucchini tempura. The star for me was the linguine with clam sauce, it was very nicely cooked and tasted very nice, which is odd since I am not usually a fan of fishy taste.

Entree
Dessert was tiramisu with spumoni which I learned is Italian ice cream similar to Neapolitan, there are three flavours and it tastes pretty good although it has some bits that remind me of fruit cake bits that I didn't like.

Dessert
You end with your choice of coffee or tea. For $75 for two, I thought it was pretty good. I'm not sure I would come back, but it is a nice restaurant. Don't be sticker shocked by the prices, the portions are more than generous. The regular entrees look large enough for two people and we ended up take a fair amount of our entrees back with us at the end. The restaurant is dimly lit which I don't like about restaurants since I cannot really see my food or person that I'm eating with that well. You can find their menu here: http://www.mammateresa.com/

Walked back to the hotel and caught the NBA All-Star game which was the 3 point competition with the slam dunk contest. First time catching it and had no idea what it was about but there were a lot of people talking about it. The slam dunk contest was cool to watch and this year, it lasted longer than usual since there was several rounds where two competitors were tied. Went to bed after that.

Tomorrow, we visit Rideau Hall in the morning and the afternoon is open.

Friday, February 19, 2016

Past POIs - Bicycle Heaven [Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA]

A quirky little 'museum' that you should visit while you are in Pittsburgh is Bicycle Heaven. It claims to be the World's Largest Bicycle Museum and Shop, and it certainly seems like they have a large collection, however it feels more like a collection than an actual museum.


From the outside, it looks like a regular industrial warehouse building until you go inside and even then, it looks like it is a shop that has a lot of bicycles. The magic happens when you go upstairs. Upstairs is where they have an enormous collection of bicycles and bicycle parts that would easily amount to well over 2,000 bicycles and over 90,000 bicycle parts.


Bowden Bikes is the most expensive item that they have and they actually have 17 of them out of 544 that were ever made. Just a few years ago in 2013, one of them was sold for $42,000 USD. Can you imagine a bicycle that costs that much? Why is it so expensive? It actually has a fibreglass frame, for something made in 1950, this was a really big deal. Fibreglass made the bicycle really light weight, however once damaged, they are basically impossible to fix.


Bicycle Heaven actually gets quite a bit of press coverage, CBS, Pittsburgh Magazine, New York Times, Associated Press and more, so do try to make it out here if you happen to be in the area. And best of all, it is free to visit, all they ask is a donation (which is optional). Your length of stay is entirely dependent on your interest. I would say that one hour is a good length of stay, there are a lot of really cool bikes to take pictures of, some of which you could even ride (well, pretend to).

Hopefully my photos give you a good idea of what is there. If you want more information, visit their site at http://www.bicycleheaven.org/.

Come back next Friday for another Past Point of Interest!

Friday, February 12, 2016

Past POIs - Spanish Steps (Scalinata Spagna) [Rome, Italy]

A tourist favourite when they visit Rome, however, do you know why it is called the Spanish Steps?

The area actually has an interesting history. At the base of the steps is Piazza di Spagna (the Spanish Square) and at the top is the Piazza Trinità dei Monti (Trinità dei Monti Square, named after the church seen at the top).


The church at the time was owned by the French and the steps were built in order to connect the church with the popular piazza below. So, the French built a massive staircase to connect them, and that is the staircase that you see today. It was financed by French diplomat Étienne Gueffier and designed by Francesco de Sanctis and Alessandro Specchi with construction starting in 1723 and completion two years later in 1725.

Originally it was named Trinità dei Monti after the church and the piazza at the top of the staircase but it was later renamed to Spanish Steps after the piazza at the bottom which is named Piazza Spagna due to there being the Spanish Embassy nearby.


There are a total of 135 steps, however, there is an elevated drainage system at the base of the staircase which adds an additional 3 steps. This is one of the longest and widest staircases in all of Europe and well worth a visit although it is fairly crowded all the time.

Fountain in Piazza di Spagna.
As a visitor, make sure that you don't eat or drink on the steps because it is actually against the law to do so.

Come back next Friday for another Past Point of Interest!