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CN Tower, one of the modern Wonders of the World

We both slept really well in a big comfortable double bed with a duvet that is made for curling up and hibernating under. Going down for breakfast we were welcomed by Harry and Pippy at the bottom of the stairs and then by Joanne. Lovely smells had been wafting up stairs getting our taste buds going. Pippy was ready to greet us at the bottom of the stairs with a wag of he tail and playful scampering around.

As with the B&B’s we had stayed at in the Cantons de l’Est, breakfast was not a meal but a work of art and a real experience. It was simple fare but beautifully presented. Joanne chatted with us while we ate and talked about what there was to see and do in Toronto. We had no real ideas of what we fancied doing other than going up the CN Tower so it helped to shape our plans.

We headed off to explore town. Joanne’s house is a few minutes walk from Chester station on the subway and from here it was just a few stops into the main downtown area. Although they have one week passes on the subway they only run from Monday to Sunday and you have to buy them in advance so we could not buy a ticket for the remainder of this week. Instead we bought ten tokens which gives you a discount of 25% compared to paying for each trip on its own.

Our first stop was the Air Canada centre. I asked Stef what he wanted to see here and he said “nothing, I thought you wanted to come here” – a bit of a mix up!! They had panels on the walls explaining the development of the centre from its original use as Toronto’s Post Office up until today where it is a conference centre but mainly home to the Toronto Maple Leafs hockey team. They had a game which was fully booked and we are not in Toronto for the next game where there are tickets so we left empty handed.

We went in search of Tourist Information down on the harbour front only to find that they have closed that office. We decamped in a Second Cup coffee shop to decide how to spend the rest of our day. The weather was overcast but the sun was trying to break through so we decided to give the CN Tower a go. To get there we walked along the harbour front passing five or six tourist boats moored up for the off season rather than out plying their trade on the lake. One was a multi mast schooner type ship, not a patch on Bluenose II. This whole area has the feeling of somewhere that in the busy and warm summer months it will be packed out with people strolling along and enjoying the view. There are a few waterfront cafes and restaurants and a small open air theatre.

Turning back up into town we passed the Rogers Centre and went to ask what they had coming up over the next few days. The car show this weekend did not really do it for us but there is a football game on next week after we get back from Florida so we bought tickets for that instead.

Rounding the corner to the CN Tower I breathed a sigh of relief when the two busloads of school kids that arrived at the same time as us went into the Rogers Centre rather than up the tower. From the ground the CN Tower is pretty impressive, not surprising for the worlds tallest building and tallest freestanding structure. Its primary purpose is as a communications tower. As the height of buildings in Toronto increased they were affecting the quality of radio and television signals in the city so a new tower was needed and hence the CN Tower was built. The decision to also make the tower a tourist attraction was taken fairly late in the design process.

At its base the tower has a circumference of two hundred metres. Looking up it tapers elegantly until the observation deck. We paid our money and went up in the lift travelling at 15mph to reach the observation deck, 346 metres up. It was a strange feeling seeing the city of Toronto falling away beneath us as we ascended. From the deck you get 360 degree views out across the city which stretches for miles beneath you. From here you get a totally different perspective on the place.

Unlike most cities we have been to, there is no easily visible old quarter, although one must exist. The downtown area is full of tall office blocks and apartment buildings interspersed with open lot parking. I found it strange to see so many parking lots in a city which is allegedly notoriously bad to park in. In London, they would be classes as prime real estate patches of land and would have been turned into buildings long ago. There is however, lots of evidence that this is happening in Toronto. Everywhere you look you can see new buildings going up and old buildings being renovated.

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View from the top, looking down on Toronto's skyscrapers

We spent a while looking out and about and then went down a level to see the views from the glass floor. Here I had expected Stef’s vertigo to make him really wary and I did not think he would stand on the glass. He walked onto the glass before looking down to see people on the ground below and was absolutely fine. I, on the other hand, had taken a different tactic. I leaned over and looked through the glass before walking on it and it was a very bad idea. Even though I knew I would not fall my heart lurched as I looked and I felt so uncomfortable I had to walk away!

We stopped for lunch in the tower’s café before heading up to the sky pod, another smaller viewing platform higher up at 447m. Although we were looking at the same things we had seen from the observation deck, the extra 100m created a different impression and was well and truly worth doing. It was a bit of a windy day and here in particular you could feel the tower swaying back and forth. There were a couple of slightly white faces around! Back at ground level we went to see a short film about the building of the tower. It took forty months to complete and was made by 1,537 people.

Made from concrete, the building process was a 24 hour a day operation. In effect they had a big mould that they “simply” poured the concrete into, reducing the diameter of the mould the higher they got. On average they added a foot in height every day. Once the main tower was constructed they added on the observation deck and sky pod before putting the final parts of the tower in place. These had to be lifted up by a helicopter crane and manoeuvred into place, a skilful job on the part of both the helicopter crew and the men tied on to the top of the tower to guide the pieces into place.

They had filmed throughout the construction process and were able to run a sequence showing the tower gradually going up. Before the final pieces were put into place local people had the opportunity to sign their names on the structure, a little addition for posterity. Since it was completed, the tower inevitably attracted those wanting an adrenalin rush from jumping off it or running up the stairs inside it. There is a whole wall panel devoted to listing these exploits.

The most challenging must have been the climb up the stairs in a wheelchair (to raise awareness for people with disabilities) and the chap who took his motorbike up. There is now also an annual charity event for people to walk up the tower, the fastest time being something like seven and a half minutes. For the rest of the day the CN Tower acted as a magnet for Stef. Whenever we passed a point where you could see it he stopped, mesmerised, looking up at the top in a state of awe and saying “we’ve been up there”.

From the CN Tower we headed to the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO). This is undergoing major change and expansion so some of the galleries are closed to the public. They were still able to put on a good show and had an unusual collection of pieces here and some strange new concepts. On one big white wall was painted a circle with concentric circles radiating out from the middle until the diameter was a couple of metres. Each of the concentric circles was painted in a different colour to the last with the colours being repeated in waves. You had to stare at the painting for about thirty seconds and then look away to the blank white wall. Here, you mind transposed the painted circles into a reflected image which looked the same but the colours were different.

Another exhibit was a film of a man making a stone spiral pathway. It seemed to be set in a national park. Even if it was not, I was surprised he had got the permission to do what he did (unless he had to take it all away afterwards). Big dumper trucks brought successive loads of big stones and emptied their loads into the water. Once the spiral was complete the film then showed a man running up and down along the path being filmed by a helicopter. After about ten minutes of watching this I gave up and went to look at something else.

As with most of the museums we have been to in Canada this one was interactive. AT the start we had listened to an audio clip of the type of paining lessons one of the local artists used to provide. There were pieces of paper on a desk with three line shapes drawn on it. The audio clip related a short story and you then had to pick one of the shapes to draw an object relevant to the story. So it continued until all three shapes were used. It was designed to test your imagination – not much in my case but more than my artistic talent!

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Excellent Henry Moore collection at the AGO

They also had an audio guide that ran for about ten minutes trying to explain an abstract piece of art and to get you to appreciate the complexity of the drawing. We both listened to the tape, doing the deep breathing exercises, closing our eyes to build the picture in our imagination. At the end of it we could both interpret some shapes in the painting but really it still looked to me as if the artist had lost his rag and just thrown splashes of paint onto the canvas.

In an upstairs gallery they also had a Henry Moore exhibition. Here they have a wide collection of his sculptures, not the final bronzes but the original plaster casts he used for his work. Moore went through a phase of destroying his plaster sculptures as he wanted to be able to control how many casts were made of each. I cannot say the collection did much for me. For some reason I was expecting Barbara Hepworth style smooth and rounded sculptures. The Moore collection was mainly abstract figures. One of his sculptures graces the central courtyard outside City Hall.

By this time we were well and truly museumed out and wanted an easy and relaxing evening. We opted for the pictures and went to see The Constant Gardener, based on a John Le Carré novel. It was a good film but I remember the book to have more intrigue and twists in it. Our day was rounded off at a local Japanese restaurant where, forgetting Canadian portion sizes, we ordered a set meal. It was very tasty but far too much food. Staying in town we opted not to have the left overs “to go” which came as a surprise to the restaurant staff.

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Toronto subway
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Hidden building by the museum

Today’s first mission was a desperately needed haircut for me. We headed into the Eaton centre, one of several across Canada. Their cornerstones used to be the Eaton department stores. A family run company, it seems to have come to an end when one family member tried to oust another. While I was getting my “scarecut” I got chatting to the chap doing it who said there was another big hurricane heading towards the south of America and Florida in particular. This was a bit of a concern as that is where we are heading in a day or two to meet up with my sister and her family.

I went to find Stef who was camped out in the Starbucks café in the Indigo bookstore. We checked the web and sure enough bad weather is heading Florida bound. We mailed Caz and Andy to check their flights had not been changed or cancelled and worked on the basis that if they could get there we would be OK too.

Leaving the Eaton Centre we walked past the old and new city halls. The best views of the old one are now partly hidden by the concrete walkways and fountains that form part of the new one. In the middle of the new building is a saucer shaped part that has earned the building a “flying saucer” nickname. On a warm summer’s day the courtyard in front of the town hall must be buzzing with people. Today it was a bit empty and desolate until we turned the corner. Here there was a small gathering of Chinese people having a rally in support of the five million Chinese people who have renounced the Communist Party. A small proportion of the total population but all big things come from small beginnings.

From here we worked our way up to the Royal Ontario Museum. As with the art gallery, the museum is undergoing an extensive programme of renovations and extension. At both sites there are displays explaining what changes are being made but here at the museum you could also see some of the work in progress. Like the Louvre in Paris, the additions they are making here will be very modern glass structures, designed to resemble crystals, which will be morphed onto the old building. I am yet to be convinced that it is a good thing. Joanne at the B&B told us that some of the museums key donors and sponsors are so outraged at the plans that they have withdrawn their support. No doubt the new benefactor, a Chinese businessman who has made his fortune since he moved to Canada, will be able to add to the $30million he donated for the extension to make up any shortfall.

The main museum entrance is currently closed due to the building work but you can still see its domed ceiling, which is stunning. It is covered in mosaic tiles, most of which are gold so it glitters and sparkles in the light. One of the tour guides started to explain the ceiling to us. The design is four panels which join as a cross at the apex of the dome. Each “arm” represents a different continent or phase in history but she kind of lost the plot here so I left not really sure of what it did tell us! It was built in the early 1930’s by 300 men and the museum tried to ensure that it created as many jobs as possible to help people out in this era after the 1929 Great Depression.

In the main gallery we worked our way through the reptile collection. Here they had all sorts of weird and wonderful lizards and snakes that had been collected from all over the world. They had a display about bats and a not very convincing (to me anyway) recreation of a bat cave from somewhere in South America. The collection of stuffed birds, displayed to simulate a flock in flight interested Stef. While he perused through those I had a look at the stuffed lions, leopards and chimpanzees and then found a perch at the other end of the bird display. I was drawn by the sound of David Attenborough. They had one of his BBC programmes about migrating birds playing.

Upstairs there was a small exhibition about Islam and the Islamic way of life. When you boil this religion back down to basics it has the same underlying principles and beliefs as most others, it is just executed in a different way. As part of the exhibition they had made a typical room in an Islamic house. It was full of dark wood furniture and carved screens for the windows but for me the jewel was the games compendium. This was a large wooden box on the floor opened to reveal a backgammon game board. It looked like different compartments would open up to reveal other game boards and pieces. I would have loved to be able to get a closer look.

For the rest of the museum we split up. Stef went to look at an exhibit called The Evolution of style. This traced the changes in furnishings and room décor through the ages and has some stunning recreated rooms. I went in search of the Lalique glass display, until I re-read the museum leaflet and saw it did not start until December! Instead I saw some beautiful art deco furniture and made a mental note to add them to the designs for my ideal home which I am building up along the way. They also had a display comparing the protective clothing that Ice Hockey players wear to old suits of armour – believe me there is not much difference except the materials and Nike logos all over the place.

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Toronto’s Financial district
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The CN Tower dominates downtown Toronto

We woke today to bright, clear skies for the first time in many days and decided to head back up to the CN Tower to enjoy the views in the sunshine. We stopped along the way at the Eaton Centre to do a spot of shopping before working our way through the Financial District. Here we walked past the Stock Exchange which has a small visitors centre so in we went to have a look.

There is a short film explaining the development of the exchange. Founded in the mid 1800’s it initially traded once a day and had just 18 stocks listed. The session usually took only half an hour. Over the years it has expanded and grown and has been at the forefront of new technology. The Toronto exchange was one of the first to convert to electronic trading systems and is now a virtual trading floor. They had interactive booths that you could use to get more information but unfortunately the parts we wanted to see had not yet been installed. I did pretty well at their quiz though.

Next to the visitors centre is the studio they use for television broadcasts from the exchange. A big curved wall has all the Reuters screens with the latest market information being shown. There were a couple of lecterns for the presenters to stand at and that was pretty much it. You could go up to a small gallery to see the broadcasts in action which Stef did but it was over before I realised where he had gone. It was funny again to see all the workers buzzing around their office block all in dress down gear for Friday.

Back at the CN Tower it was much busier than earlier this week, although still not busy. What we did notice was that there were more children around and that pretty much everyone was talking with a UK accent, the half term holidays have obviously started. Back up in the Sky Lab the views in the sunshine were more stunning than earlier this week. We spent a while just standing and watching and saying “oooh” and “aaah”. Our plans for an afternoon diary writing up in the tower café were foiled though as it was shut for a private party. Our consolation was that the wind was lower today so we were able to go outside and walk around the observation deck without thick reinforced glass between us and the outside (there was just a metal grille fence here instead!).

We found a corner back in town to rest our weary feet and to catch up a bit on diaries and other bits and pieces before heading down to the waterfront for our evenings entertainment. To get there we took the subway to Union and then changed onto the streetcar along the harbour. Although it is really just a tram it somehow seemed much more fun to go on it here than the tram at home. Perhaps it is because it looks and feels much older than ours and because we had no fixed notion of where we had to get off.

At the Harbourfront Centre Theatre there was a performance by Vincent Sekwati Koko Mantsoe, an African dancer and choreographer who is now based in Paris. It was a one man show with him performing his own works. The theatre is small, similar to the theatre in Kilburn in north London, seating just a few hundred people. It was an ideal setting for this performance. I cannot say I was convince by it but Stef enjoyed it. There were two separate works. The stage for the first was just wooden poles which Stef had earlier joked about and asked if he was going to spin plates like they do in the circus. The piece opened with the performer walking slowly around the stage in a crouched position, first forwards, then backwards. After what felt like ten minutes of this I decided he was taking the mickey somewhat. I had not been keen on coming to start with and this was just reinforcing my expectations of the performance from the reviews we had read.

It did pick up and he is clearly a very talented performer. He had the ability to leap high into the air choosing whether his landing would be totally quiet or a loud thump. The dance was set to different pieces of commentary and music all strung together. His influences include martial arts, tai chi as well as different forms of dance and this was all evident in the work. The piece was about personal reflection and was called “Ndaa” (meaning “awakening of self”). To me it seemed to be telling the story of a day from sunrise when the world was waking up, through normal daily routines, a bit of strife and then winding down at sunset. The second piece called “Ntu” (meaning “nothing”) did not do much for me either and I left wishing in part that I had had someone interpreting the dance for me and in part wishing I had not spent the money on the ticket at all. Stef enjoyed it and would probably go to see it again but also found it frustrating that he could not understand the story behind the dance. Perhaps there was none.

Today the rain had come back and it was pouring really hard. Joanne’s directions to the local laundry resulted in a walk much longer than either of us had expected and we had to hide our clean clothes under our coats on the way back to keep them dry! We sorted out what we needed to take with us to Florida and then headed into Toronto to mooch about.

I had really felt like just having a lazy Saturday not doing much, the same way that we would at home. It is one of the things that I miss the most about travelling because you feel obliged to be out and about seeing things. Today was not really a day that either of us wanted to sight see, I think we had both reached Toronto overload. Stef feels like he is one of the locals!! Nevertheless we headed back out into town after saying goodbye to Joanne. She is off today visiting friends in Niagara and we will not see her again until we get back to Toronto on Wednesday.

We camped out in the Indigo bookstore and caught up on the latest news on hurricane Wilma. It is well and truly headed for Florida but I had an email from my sister Beccie to say that the Sarney family were on their way and they sent us a text message to confirm they were on their flight to the US. All should be OK, we are probably just in for a bit of wet and windy weather in the US.

Wanting something to do for the evening we had looked in the local listings papers. Tonight in Toronto there is the world championship of … wait for it … Rock, Paper, Scissors. You know the game kids play where paper wraps stone, stone blunts scissors and scissors cuts paper. We were intrigued and tempted to have a look but a quick trip to their website changed our minds. It looks like an annual contest for nerdy students which seems to be pretty big in the US and Canada.

We opted instead to go for the third time this week to the cinema. I am not sure if a film about a plane crash was really what most people would see the day before they fly but it was Hollywood after all. I enjoyed Flight Plan but Stef spent the next day dissecting the film and finding holes in the plot (which were valid) so it has slightly taken the edge off it.

We were up early today to catch our flight down to Florida. It seems strange that we are finally going as it is something we have talked about for so long. The alarm went off while it was still dark and we packed up our last few bits and headed out into the cold morning. Not having been used for a couple of days, Morty felt cold inside and the engine took a few minutes to warm up and get going.

As it is Sunday and early in the morning, the roads in town were relatively quiet but the motorway was still pretty busy. Stef was navigating while I drove and it seemed like we were going for ages before we finally turned off for the airport. We found the open lot long stay car park and had timed it just right to get the shuttle bus to the terminal. I felt a bit daft walking around in my sandals and socks on a cold autumnal Canadian morning.

We checked in quickly as we only had hand luggage and then went through the formalities of US customs and immigration. They are a gruff old bunch of officials. No smiles or “good mornings” from any of them just a grim faced fulfilment of their duties. We were fingerprint checked yet again (I still hate that) and before long were through to the departure gates. With time to spare we went to get some breakfast in a nautically themed café. Our bacon and cheese bagels were cold by the time we arrived and the bacon was in very short supply, much to Stef’s chagrin.

As we were relatively early for check in we had managed to get seats by the exit row and had loads of legroom. Stef did his usual and zonked out pretty much as soon as we got on board. I had picked up a copy of today’s Sunday Observer (pretty impressive that they have it in Canada in time for morning flights) and spent the flight reading the Sunday paper. At Orlando, we had expected to have to go through lots of security controls and checks again but there were none and we just walked out through to departures, starting to peel off layers in the heat.

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Relaxing by the pool

Caz and husband Andy had come to meet us and big hugs were exchanged all round before heading off to the house they have rented from the parents of one of Ben’s friends. Driving from the airport down to Kissimee we passed big longs stretches of mall type shopping and eating  interspersed with big housing developments that looked like they were primarily geared towards holiday homes. The place we were staying was just the same. It was a large house that could sleep ten with its own private pool and jacuzzi in the garden covered by a big framed bug barrier.

They had had a very long journey to get here yesterday and we all spent the afternoon soaking in the pool, drinking gin and tonics and adjusting to the humidity. It felt pretty muggy, not as bad as some of the places we went to in Ecuador, but if this is what it is like at the end of October the summer months must be unbearable. As the day wore on the wind started to pick up and then at about six it started to rain, hard. We watched the water pouring onto the street outside accompanied by flashes of lightning and the odd rumble of thunder. This was the start of Hurricane Wilma passing by.

Despite the bad weather we decided to eat out and headed for the local Red Lobster. There was a queue of people waiting to get in and our expected less than an hour wait was more than an hour. When we finally got to our table it was then another hour before food arrived. Stef and I were surrounded by four very tired looking people who all desperately wanted to get to bed. The food when it arrived was not great and to add insult to injury they overcharged us into the bargain. Needless to say, there will not be a repeat visit to the Red Lobster!

Happy Birthday Caz!

With the temperatures dropping we had slept with the window open. Not a great idea as the wind rattling the blinds kept waking me up during the night. I think the wind affected everyone’s sleep and there were six slightly bleary eyed people who finally came downstairs this morning. As Caz opened her presents and we had breakfast we deliberated what to do today.

The storm was still raging overhead but was due to die down this afternoon. Stef had felt the house shaking a little overnight from the wind and you could well believe it. Yesterday and today we watched the news reporters on the telly being blown about and soaked whilst giving the latest updates from further south closer to the centre of the storm. I was glad we were not further south and had a little conversation with myself about why people would still choose to live there knowing that this was likely to happen on an annual basis. It is a bit like people living in an earthquake zone. I suppose not everyone has the luxury of being able to choose and afford to move somewhere else.

It was not really a day to be out and about sight seeing so we ruled out a trip to one of the many local theme parks and decided to go shopping instead. You get more bang for your buck here than in the UK and my nephews Joe and Ben have been saving their money to buy stuff while they were here. Joe was in search of some new basketball gear and had been told that Walmart’s was the place to go for it, so off we went.

It was still windy and wet as we were driving and when we finally found Walmart it was a dash from the car to the shop to stop ourselves getting too soaked. Along the way the roads were still pretty wet and you could see that the water level was high in the rivers and ponds we passed. Palm fronds littered the road.

When we arrived at Walmarts it was quite quiet. Everyone went in different directions to have a look around and I felt like I spent a lot of time there hunting around to find the others. There was no baseball gear but we picked up some games and a few other bits and pieces and headed for the food section to get in some supplies. By this time everyone was fed up and just wanted to get out of the shop. Stef took position with the trolley acting a s a central contact point while the rest of us went looking for different bits and brought them back to base.

It was only when we headed for the checkout that I realised how busy it had become. The queues for each till were huge. It was also as if we had been magically transported back to the UK. It felt like everyone in the shop was British! The bad weather had kept the schools closed so they were understaffed and it took about an hour to get through the checkout. The process was not helped because the person at the till also packs your bags for you and will not let you do it for yourself!!

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Noodles in the pool

Back at the house we had lunch (the hot chicken still amazingly warm) and chilled for the afternoon. Joe went back to bed, Stef went for a swim while Caz, Andy, Ben and I played one of the games they had bought at Walmart. It was called The Game of Life and was good but complex with a lot going on. One of the beauties of it is that it has a finite end so the game wraps up round about the same time you start to get bored of playing it.

As predicted by the morning’s weather reports, the hurricane blew over by early afternoon, almost exactly on queue. It was still a bit windy but the skies were clearing up and the air was now fresh compared to yesterday’s stickiness. With a pool available to play in it was too much of a temptation not to make use of it so we spent the rest of the afternoon playing about. The US$5 spent on a ball proved to be very worthwhile with Joe and Ben showing great skill at volleyball and diving. We had a birthday toast of bubbly in the Jacuzzi until the cool air became too much and we had to retire inside out of the wind.

It was probably not the ideal way that Caroline would have spent her birthday but the weather had limited our options. A tasty meal cooked by Andy and another Game of Life rounded off the day before we all crashed into bed feeling pretty whacked out.

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Stef, Ness, Caz, Joe, Andy, Ben
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Kraken krakpots!!!
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Acrobats with the dolphins
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Shamu splashes the crowds

Wilma has well and truly blown away this morning leaving clear skies and fresh air, so fresh that a fleece was needed for most of the day. Our destination today was SeaWorld. One of Andy’s friends works for Anheuser-Busch, the company that owns this theme park, so we had free tickets to get in. We splashed out and paid an extra $4 for the car park which meant we were near the entrance, and near the exit for getting out. It was well worth it.

I have never been to a theme park before and must admit I was a bit wary of what we would find. There had been a bit of a debate about where we would go. Andy and Stef both wanted somewhere where there were scary rides, neither Caz nor I were interested in that. SeaWorld has a bit of both and was a good compromise and I really enjoyed the day after the first hour.

We decided to get the thrill ride over and done with before the queue got too large. A good call as it turned out because it took Stef, Andy and Ben an hour to queue up for the Kraken roller coaster, and that was at about ten in the morning. Had Caz, Joe and I realised how long they were going to be we would have gone to see something else while we waited. I have never understood how people get pleasure on these rides. Certainly watching people going by there was a definite mix of fun and fear showing on their faces. Finally we saw Andy, Stef and Ben go by and then realised why it had taken so long. They had waited so that they could be on the front row. Stef and Ben loved it, as did Andy but he was the only one to admit that he was shit scared at the same time.

With queues that long to contend with, and the park visibly getting busier (all British people from what we could tell) we decided to try and book in advance to get into the killer whale show in the afternoon. Although you can get express tickets to jump the queue for Kraken you cannot do this for the shows so its pot luck whether we will get in.

We then spent the day working our way around the various bits of the park, seeing most of it along the way. Our first stop was at the Wild Arctic show. We took the “air” option to get to the arctic rather than walking. This was a short simulator ride on a helicopter bound for an arctic outpost. As we flew a “storm” blew in creating the excuse for some hairy dips and dives before we arrived at the arctic.

Here there were Beluga whales. At Tadoussac in Quebec they have Beluga’s but we had not seen any so it was good to finally see what they looked like. They are very unusual. White, they have no fins and they reminded me of monster worms. The polar bears looked bored and I suspect needed a bit more space than they had as they were simply sleeping in their tank. The show was stolen though by the walrus. It was huge, very blubbery and very horny. It was certainly a “big boy” if you get what I mean.

Keeping with the arctic theme we went to see the penguins. The entrance takes you along a conveyor belt in front of the penguin enclosure, a very clever way of keeping people moving. The penguins here were really active with lots of them swimming about and waddling about on land. There were interactive panels, all at kiddie height, so that you could learn more about the different species. The way out took you past another big tank with loads of puffins. Again we had missed these on the east coast of Canada. I love watching penguins but the puffins were even more fun. They seem to be a link between penguins and bird and incredibly entertaining. They actually fly under water and are so hyper they make the penguins look lazy!

From here we went to see the “Clyde and Seamore Take Pirate Island” show. A mime artist attempted to warm up the audience for the ten minutes before the show started. As it was full of Brits they had a hard time but did manage to get the crowd with them. Clyde and Seamore did not manage to keep the momentum going but instead slipped in a few “come on, we know you are British but loosen up” type of jokes.

The show was sea lions and otters performing. Rather than just having them showing off their tricks they had set the whole thing into a pirate story about buried treasure. The sea lions were pretty amazing, mimicking their trainers and doing their stuff, including soaking the front few rows of the audience. They have even managed to train an otter to perform and it was the otter who kept stealing the treasure map.

It was good but not as much fun as the dolphins. Again, the show was set to a story, something about a princess finding her prince I think. It involved a lot of people doing circus style acrobatics and then diving into the pool. The dolphins would swim down to meet them and bring the acrobats up balanced on the edge of their nose. Other people were pushed along in the water by the dolphins or rode on their backs, either holding onto their fins or standing up as if the dolphin was a surf board. To me it was amazing that they could train these animals to perform in this way. It must take a huge amount of time and dedication but both the people and the dolphins involved in the show seemed to be having a great time.

In the shark encounter they had a small pool outside where you could feed baby sharks. They must have been well fed that day because they seemed uninterested in the fish that people were throwing in to them. Below ground, a tunnel took you underneath a pool with different types of sharks and fish. Some people had donned wet suits for their shark encounter and were actually in the pool (in a metal cage).

After the sharks we went to see the manatees. These look prehistoric and are now a bit of an endangered species. Their natural habitat is under threat and they are being killed or injured by fishing and boating. The manatees they have at SeaWorld are all animals that have been rescued after injury. One had a big chunk missing out of its tail fin, another had nasty scars across its body from where it had been gouged by a propeller.

We had a quick look at the alligators and sea lions and at some time during the day found ourselves in the Anheuser-Busch hospitality zone. It’s a clever bit of marketing by the company because you can go and get free beer. Next to the hospitality zone they have a small stables where they keep Clydesdale shire horses that are one of the trademark images of the company. Back in the 1930’s someone presented a team of eight horses to the then head of the company and that is how it all started. They are beautiful, large horses. As we were there they were hooking up a team to a traditional old barrel cart. Their harnesses and tackle were all highly polished and looked pretty heavy. The end result was stunning.

Earlier in the afternoon we had gone to the Shamu Stadium to see the killer whale show. Even though we got there are the time we were told to the stadium was full and we could not get in. We were a bit peeved to say the least but knew that there was another show at the end of the day. This time we wanted to make sure we got in and we got there very early. Andy and Stef went to make sure that the Budweiser was still OK while Caz and I queued with the boys. There were loads of seats to spare at this show.

In the sea lion and dolphin shows the first few rows were marked as the splash zone. Here the first fourteen rows had warnings you would get wet and we soon found out why. They had about six killer whales most of which were only little. One part of their “act” though was to swim round the edge of the tank splashing water over the side with their tails. People got well and truly soaked. Their show was similar to the dolphins with people being hoisted high out of the water on their noses and with them jumping out of the water and shimmying along the sides. I suppose the added edge was whether they fancied human for tea rather than fish!

I had thought that the dolphins were fast and powerful with the speed that they sawm round their tanks. They were not a patch on the whales. You got a real sense of how powerful these animals were and I am sure you cannot force them to do something they do not want to do. A team of about forty people was involved in training the whales. It must be a fantastic job to do, incredibly rewarding but needing a lot of patience at the same time.

On the way back home we stopped off for dinner. We bypassed Hooters, a place seen in a film that Joe and Ben had watched and famed for its well endowed waitresses. It looked tacky from the outside and the sign on the door asking men to keep their shirts on but offering free food to women who took their shirts off did nothing to make us want to stay. Instead we headed for a Japanese restaurant and had teppanyaki.

This was a new eating experience for the Sarneys but one we have had before at Benihana’s in London. You have your own chef who cooks your food at your table but does so with a bit of entertainment thrown in. They twirl their knives, do silly things with prawns, make butterfly (throwing bits of butter through the air) and generally have a bit of a laugh. The food was great and unlike the Red Lobster, I think they will be getting another visit.

Today our short detour to Florida comes to an end and we are heading back up to Canada. It has been great to see familiar faces and to have some warm weather as it is getting a little chilly now in Canada. The family who own the villa had lent Caz and Andy a GPS system to help them find the house and to get around in Orlando. Stef went to set it up and it was then the source of amusement as we were dropped off at the airport.

At pretty much the first junction Andy ignored the GPS and went the way that he knew was the shortest route. After a while though the GPS instructions were followed which ended up being a bad idea. We missed one of the junctions and ended up going a very long way round to the airport. When we got there we had ninety minutes before our flight left which we thought was loads of time. What we had not bargained on was Air Canada only having one desk open to check people in and no fast self serve check in machines. Boredom at waiting in the queue started to give way to frustration and concern that we would miss the flight.

One we were checked in we were told that boarding would start in fifteen minutes. For some reason Stef got a mental block on this and, despite me correcting him several times, decided that the flight was leaving in fifteen minutes. The Sarney’s accompanied us to the security check gate and there was a tearful farewell as we went on our way. Its daft really because when we are at home we probably would not see each other for a couple of months but somehow the distance adds an extra edge.

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Farewell from Florida

Stef managed to get us fast tracked through to the security check which was just as well as we would probably have missed our flight otherwise. US airport staff here were as slow as they were when we hubbed through Miami coming up from Ecuador. We got to our gate to find that boarding had not yet started. In the end our flight was half an hour late leaving so we did have loads of time after all. With good tail winds we made up time and landed on schedule back in cold Canada.

We headed back to Morty who forgave us for deserting him for a few days and made our way back through the Toronto rush hour to Joanne’s bed and breakfast. We had a very warm welcome, I think she had missed us, but we were surprised to find that she only had one of her dogs, Harry, with her. Pippy has gone to stay with her sister for a week.

We are starting now in earnest to look at options for selling Mortimer in Vancouver. We have been in touch with a couple of dealers, one of whom is prepared to give us half of what he is worth – no good. Andy suggested trying to sell on ebay.com (did you know this was founded by a man who was looking for a way to sell his wife’s collection of Pez sweet dispensers!) so we headed out to start to look.

Rather than going into central Toronto we stayed locally within the Greek town area of Danforth Street. The section from the 300’s to 500’s is just one restaurant or café after another most of which have standard bistro sounding menu’s but just with a Greek twist. We found a Starbucks and started to look around for information. Behind us was a very hairy Greek lady and her husband who were simply sitting and watching the world go by. They kept interrupting and asking questions, not in a making conversation sort of way but more out of nosy curiosity.

We tried one of the Greek restaurants, Pan, for dinner. It came highly recommended by Joanne and the restaurant itself and the staff were very friendly. We shared a plate of taramasalata, hummous and tzatziki with pitas to start and I regretted it because I was full before my main course, moussaka, arrived. The moussaka portion was huge but it could have done with a bit more seasoning as it was a bit on the bland side. Full and tired we headed back to Joanne’s and the luxury of her big bed and warm duvet.

On our last day in Toronto we decided to do a spot more sightseeing. When we first went to the CN Tower we spotted the Toronto City Pass. This gets you in to six or seven of the main attractions in town. We bought ours at the tower and got a free upgrade to include the film and simulator ride. Going to just one more of the attractions meant that the ticket more than paid for itself. We still had bits left to go and see and decided today to head for Casa Loma.

Casa Loma is a 98 room “castle”, the largest private house in Canada, which was the life long dream home of Sir Henry Mill Pellatt. Never finished in his lifetime, it is a medieval castle on a hill overlooking Toronto. Work started on the castle in 1911 and three hundred men worked on it. Reputedly it cost Sir Henry $3.5 million at the time to build and furnish. He and his wife lived there for ten years before the bank that financed him went bust, taking him with it.

Initially a shrewd stock market investor, he was responsible for bringing electricity to Toronto. His later forays into property were funded by bank loans but coincided with war time when people invested into war bonds rather than property. His debts could not be repaid by the auction of his belongings, which raised only 10 per cent of what he owed, and he was forced to hand over Casa Loma to the Toronto authorities in lieu of his debts. Today, several of the auctioned items have been donated and returned to Casa Loma.

The building is a bit of a fantasy in a similar way to Hearst Castle in California. As with Randolph Hearst, Pellatt was powerful and had great financial resources at his disposal. They both built grand houses that really make a statement about them and their ambitions. Unlike Hearst though, which was designed to accommodate many guests, Casa Loma was only designed to have suites for Sir Henry, his wife, one guest and a suite for royal visitors, who never came to stay.

Pellat was a military man and that also influenced the designs in his house. The Great Hall was wood panelled with large open fireplaces. Off here is a large library, again wood panelled and with a dark wooden floor. Next is the dining room, which I think is small for the one hundred guests they would have for dinner, mainly regimental it seems. A corner nook provides a more intimate, and a more airy, dining space for six to eight people. Off the dining room is a large, marble lined conservatory with raised beds. Sir Henry was a keen gardener and orchid keeper and the conservatory was an important room in the house.

His study was a small room but the cornerstone to his business interests. On either side of the fireplace, wood panels hid secret entrances. One led down to his extensive and well stocked wine cellar. The other led upstairs to his suite. A smoking room (did you know smoking jackets were worn to keep the smell of the smoke from gentlemen’s dinner jackets?), a billiard room and a large drawing room completed the rooms on the first floor.

Upstairs, Sir Henry’s suite was pretty functional. His bathroom was full of mod cons with running water, a shower, bath and bidet. It must have been a cold room though as it was all in marble. In contrast Lady Pellat’s suite was light, airy and very feminine. In poor health she spent much of her time there and Casa Loma was the first house in Canada to have an elevator (Otis 1) to enable her to get about. She was instrumental in founding the Girl Guide movement in Canada and often provided parties for the guides at Casa Loma. The Royal Suite was also decorated in a more feminine style. Knighted for the work he did introducing electricity to Toronto, Sir Henry obviously expected to receive Royal visitors and must have been disappointed that this was not to be.

The rooms on the third floor have now mainly been turned into a museum about the Queen’s Own Rifles, Sir Henry’s regiment. You can also get access here to the two towers of the house from where there are stunning views out and across Toronto (if you can block out the train line and telephone cables). A servants room has also been restored, very simple in comparison to the rest of the house.

In the basement, Sir Henry had planned a shooting range, three bowling lanes and also a swimming pool but none were completed. Of the pool, all that is there is the concrete shell but it would have been on a par with those at Hearst. From the cellar a tunnel leads eight hundred metres under ground to the stables, car pool and potting shed. Only the latter is still in use. Excess and style continued in the stables which are decoratively tiled and rather swish.

The house is a gem and was leading edge for its time. It came fully wired for electricity and had nooks for telephones everywhere. In total they had 59 phones and their own switchboard. Chances are you have already seen parts of the house. It has been used for many films including the X Men and Chicago and, much to my dismay films by Jean Claude van Damme!

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Strange shoes

Having seen the inside we went for a quick look around the gardens. One of the curses of the modern age is that a fair proportion has now been turned over into car and coach parks but a lot still remain. As with the house, the gardens had fallen into a state of disrepair but four acres have been renovated by The Garden Club of Toronto. Where they could they have incorporated elements of the castle’s original gardens into the new designs.

Immediately in behind the house, and flanking the Great Hall, a terrace leads down into a formal garden with a fountain and perfectly manicured lawns. Around the property there are woodlands, a water garden and cedar grove as well as the space used by the stables for greenhouses and the potting sheds. All in all the gardens must have been a significant part of the overall estate.

After the Casa Loma we stopped off to visit the Bata Shoe Museum. The museum, set up in 1995 by the Bata Shoe Museum Foundation, showcases shoes and footwear spanning 4,500 years. Its origins stem from the private collection of Sonja Bata who started collecting footwear in the 1940’s.

They have a permanent exhibition that traces footwear over the years and through different cultures. These range from simple woven sandals through to highly exotic and decorative shoes used for ritual purposes. Some are strange, such as the high platformed shoes worn in bath-houses in the middle east. The heating comes from under the floor so high heels and platforms were needed to ensure the feet did not get too hot. In pretty much all cultures highly decorated footwear is used as a symbol of wealth and prosperity.

A small exhibit displays some celebrity footwear. The Church’s shoes worn by Pierce Brosnan are alongside those of Hollywood greats (so great I cannot remember their names!) Madonna, Britney Spears and (surprisingly!) Phil Collins. One of Shaquille O’Neal’s Nike trainers was also on display. At over seven foot tall he wears size twenty trainers when he is wowing the world with his basketball skills.

The rest of the museum was taken up with temporary exhibitions displaying some incredible footwear in more recent times. My favourite was a very simple high heeled black satin shoe that was edged with “diamonds”. They had the latest trendy names (Jimmy Choo, Monolo Blahnik) alongside Vivienne Westwood, Vivier (a famous French chap), Dior, Dolce and Gabbana and Ferragamo. Some of my other favourites were made by Rayne, a company I had not heard of before and that is no more. They were by appointment to various generations of the Royal Family.

From here we went in search of the Lonely Planet guide books that we need for the rest of our trip and then headed to the Rogers Centre for our evenings entertainment – a football match between the Toronto Argonauts and the Hamilton Tiger Cats. Neither of us know anything about the rules but as it turned out that did not really matter. The game is made up of four quarters each lasting fifteen minutes. In total it took three and a half hours to complete. We were stunned.

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As usual, not much happening!

The football itself almost seemed to be a side issue and it felt as if not many people were really watching the proceedings. Instead of going to a game I left feeling as if I had spent just under four hours in an entertainment centre with constant noise, music, games and tactics to keep the crowd happy. The guys sitting next to me spent most of their time eying up the cheerleaders. One guy proposed to his girlfriend there and had it emblazoned on the big screen and then her response. I kept willing her to say “no”. If he is that tacky that he proposes on a big screen at a football game he deserves a no!!

They ran competitions, stopped play for adverts, threw freebie t-shirts into the crowd and generally did everything they could do to distract people from watching the game. The clincher came at half time with the Wendy’s (burger chain) kick for a million. Someone had been picked from an on line lottery. He had to kick a ball from ten, twenty, thirty and then fifty yards. If he scored he won prizes, the fifty yard kick being worth a million dollars. This game took place at half time and they stopped it before the last kick for a break. By this time Stef and I were in despair – they had actually interrupted a break to have a break!!??!!

This was really the theme for the game as well. We were totally confused about what was happening. Just as they all started to do something they stopped and one load of players ran off the pitch and another load ran on. The game play was held up several times either for commercial breaks or because there was an award to be made or the cheerleaders were doing their stuff. It is the most comical and commercial sport I have ever watched and quite a few times play was taking place without us even noticing it had started. The audience seemed to enjoy themselves though but in the fourth quarter when home victory was certain (it had been pretty much all the way along) people started leaving in droves. By the time the match ended the stadium was half empty. Very bizarre!

So its farewell to Toronto. We said goodbye to Joanne and Harry and headed out of town in Morty. The roads out were busy as we expected but we were soon northbound on route 400 working our way around Georgian Bay. We had been told that by now the leaves outside of Toronto would all have fallen so we were pleasantly surprised to see trees still in their full autumn colours. It is a sight to be seen and one that I would love to come and see again.

A couple of hours down the road and the landscape had started to change. Gone were the tree lined sides of the road. Instead they were replaced by rocky stretches with little vegetation. Here, as in many parts of Canada we have been though, roadworks are underway and the single carriageway roads look as if they are being widened to dual carriageway at least. We stopped in Foots Bay for a comfort break and a bite of lunch before carrying on North.

There is a campsite open on Georgian Bay at a small village called Killarney and that was our destination for today. It was a 60km ish detour off down a rough paved road but through some beautiful countryside. The area here is popular with hunters and there are signs for lodges along the way and a couple of outfitters who provide hunting equipment. Killarney village appeared and with it the signs to the Roche Rouge campground.

Here we were met by a friendly lady who had that small town inbred sort of look to her. She lives here with her two sisters, brother and father but it was nto really clear what they did. The sites have water but no power but compensate with great views out over Georgian Bay and level ground. They told us that they have a baby bear who comes to the house so not to be alarmed if we see it. They think that its mother has been killed by hunters and that it is now on its own. They are feeding the bear which is not really a good idea and is something they should not really do.

Not having used Morty’s facilities for a while we needed to empty and refresh our water tanks and also buy some food. With no dump station at the campsite we had to go to the National Park site about ten minutes back the way we had just come. The campsite here was pretty large and all set in beautiful woodland. It was officially closed and there was no water or power but there were a few people still camping here. We found the dump station and emptied our tanks then headed into town to buy some food.

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Sunset over Georgian Bay

It reminded me of Nuevo Berlin in Uruguay, a sleepy little village on the edge of water with not much to it and not much going on. There was a liquor store and the village general store which the people at the campsite had told us would have everything we could possibly need. It did have quite a range of different bits and pieces but as it is now the off season they only get deliveries of fresh food once a week.

The fruit and veg had seen better days but were in a much healthier state than the steaks that had turned a light brown colour. As it was still nice weather, Stef had set his heart on having a barbecue and would not be deterred. I gave up trying to persuade him to go for bacon instead and left him to it. He assured me that the steaks on the next layer down looked OK and I took his word for it. It was only later when the shop was shut that I unwrapped the steaks and found that they looked no better than the first ones we had seen. We cooked them through well and still ate them and so far are not suffering any ill effects.

When we got back to the campsite we took advantage of the sunset to take some good photos of Morty. Before we knew it the sun had gone down and as we got a good campfire going the skies were lit from below the horizon in the fabulous mix of reds, oranges and blues that only a sunset can bring. After dinner we stayed outside star gazing for a while. It was a totally clear sky and we could see the Milky Way and the odd shooting star. Stef had also spotted a couple of satellites arcing through the sky at a steady constant pace.

It was not long before the fresh air overcame us and tiredness set in. Even though it was still early the lure of being curled up in our own bed on board Morty for the first time in ten days won us over and we said farewell to the night sky and crashed out.

This morning we woke to a dry day, initially cloudy but with the sun coming out and shining through. Wanting good pictures of Morty to use in our on line adverts we decided to have a clear out and, to use a Joanne expression, became “neat Nicks”. We emptied all the visible clutter, cleaned floors, windows and surfaces and then Stef went to work with the camera. We are not sure how many photos we will need or will use but it is good to have the opportunity to take some in bright sunlight and with a beautiful backdrop into the bargain.

Both of us had hoped that we would see the baby bear before we left Killarney but it was not to be. We headed out onto the main route 69 and before long were on the border of Sudbury. Here we stopped at tourist information to see what there is to see and do locally. The main attraction is a science museum which did not appeal to either of us. We had a quick bite in the sunshine before heading on towards Sault Ste Marie.

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"Neatnicked" for the ad

We needed to top up with petrol but missed the turn for the station at Sudbury. We have been warned that on our cross country trip we will need to top up both the petrol and the propane whenever we see a station open and were both jittery that we would not find an open petrol station in time. Quite a few of the roadside stop places we have passed in this side of Ontario are closed, and they look as if the closure is more than just seasonal. We knew what our limit for distance was before we would have to turn back to Sudbury but fortunately found a stop before then.

While Stef filled up I went in search of tea and coffee. We had stopped at a truckers stop which not only had washrooms (i.e. toilets) but also showers and a café. Useful to know as more and more of the campsites in our listings are now closing down. As I was getting the coffee I got chatting to one of the truckers. We thought we were going a long way today. He is planning to get to Thunder Bay today, we are allowing another day to get that far! We chatted about Canada, how much we have enjoyed it and how we would love to be here in the midst of winter. He and the lady at the checkout then reminisced about winters gone by. They have not had a white Christmas in this area for many years.

This added more confusion to our debate about what weather we can expect through November and how cold it will get. Everyone we talk to seems to have a slightly different view. The emerging pattern however is that whilst it is getting colder the real cold weather does not really kick in until January or February so we should be OK.

Our route took us along the shore of the North Channel, only split from Lake Huron by a stretch of islands. The area still has First Nation communities and there are local elections being held for Chief. A bridge spanning a wide river has been daubed with “this is Indian land” leading me to think that the usual tensions between the First Nation communities and the later settlers are still alive in this area of Ontario.

It is beautiful scenery again with water dominating the landscape. The ground is now starting to level out and the rockiness that we saw on the way to Killarney yesterday has given way to higher levels of vegetation. We passed a couple of deserted and now derelict houses facing onto the lakeshore. They must have been spectacular in their day.

On the way to Sault Ste Marie (or the Soo as it is known locally) we called Tom and Paula who we had met in New Brunswick many weeks ago, with the hope of catching up with them as we passed by. It was a bit short notice and unfortunately we got their voicemail rather than them. It is such a beautiful day that they are probably out and about enjoying the sunshine with their dog Mac. It is a shame that we will miss them as they were good fun to talk to and I am sure we would have enjoyed spending a few hours in each others company.

By the time we reached the Soo it was already getting quite late. We checked to see if the Koa campsite was open as one we passed earlier seemed to be although it should have been shut. No such luck here but we did have an alternative further out of town. We headed back to the local supermarket to buy some food for dinner and Stef optimistically went to Canadian Tire to get the essentials in case another barbecue was possible.

We then headed out of town looking for our campsite, the Glenview Cottages and RV Park. We found it from its light blazing on the roadside only to find out that they have already shut the RV park and that only the cottages are open. Not much good to us but they did refer us to another campsite, Blueberry Hill, further up the road in Goulais River. By this time it was dark and I was wary driving as we are back in moose country and I did not want a collision. We found the Blueberry Hill site and it was open. Not only that they have an indoor heated pool.

Rather than hooking up at our site we drove around the side of the building (very American) and hopped out to go for a swim. The pool room was lovely and warm and the water was just right for a dip. Swimming lengths (the pool is twelve strokes long) went out of the window when Stef found a ball and some of the noodle floats (pipes made from foam) like they had in the pool in Orlando. For abut twenty minutes we had the pool to ourselves but were then joined by a couple who live in the Soo and had come up here for the weekend because the weather was so good.

While we were playing about in the water I was lovely and warm but as soon as we stopped to chat I could feel myself cooling down quite quickly. We hopped out, dried off, jumped into Morty and drove round to our space. Dinner, a glass of vino and a film was a sure fire recipe to send us both to sleep.