Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Thousand Islands, Ontario

After packing our suitcases for our drive to Gananoque, Canada to see the Thousand Islands, we decided to get breakfast at the nearby La Prep restaurant. We had a couple of coffees and pastries and then drove our Toyota Camry out of Toronto. Although car traffic was not very heavy, we experienced a lot of rain showers on our two and half hour drive to Gananoque.

We checked into our Country Squire Resort and dropped off our luggage in our room. Although, it was a very basic, bare bones hotel, we immediately had a few problems. There was a bee buzzing in our room and our bathroom did not flush. These were all minor inconveniences and very quickly remedied. W e decided to get lunch at nearby Moroni's Greek restaurant. I ordered a Greek salad while Inna tried the Gyro and Alex the two pizza slices. My Greek salad was not bad but Alex's pizza looked horrible.

After lunch, we drove to the boat dock, to find out about taking a cruise to see the Thousand Islands. We found a number of cruises available: 1 hour, 2 hour, and 5 hour cruises. Both 1 hour and 2 hour cruises just cruised around the general area, while the 5 hour cruise stopped for two hours at the famous Boldt Castle. We decided to take the 5 hour cruise at 3:00pm. Since it was drizzling, we were initially very worried about visibility. As next day's weather was promised to be worse, we decided to take a chance and go anyway. This turned our to be the correct decision as rain stopped after an hour and we enjoyed a scenic cruise to Boldt Castle and surrounding islands.

On our  cruise, we saw many tiny island, some with houses on them. I was wondering who would live there?

We passed many small islands, and remote homes on our cruise. It must be very lonely to live here.

As we sailed through the area, the rain diminished and the air cleared a bit. I was very surprised by the sheer number and the variety of homes, some located on remote, secluded, inaccessible islands.

We even found the world's shortest bridge between USA and Canada.

To get around here, a motorized boat is a must.

Our Gananoque Boat Line docked at Boldt's Castle, where we were greeted by US Customs officials (as we crossed from Canada back to the U.S.) We explored the castle grounds and really enjoyed the wonderful gardens and the castle grounds.

The Blue Room is one of the main bedrooms setup for Mrs. Boldt.

The castle's kitchen is mostly empty with 1900-era appliances.

The ballroom is beautifully decorated and setup for entertainment with an organ.

After returning back to Gananoque, we had dinner at the respectable Riva restaurant. I had a Black Bear bock beer (similar to Guinness). Inna ordered an Orechietta a la Pollo (a delicious pasta with chicken) and an Alessandra pizza to share. We also ordered an Insalate Caprese. Alex ordered a Buffalo mozzarella pizza. For dessert, we had a Chocolate Cheesecake.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

In the morning, we decided to get some brunch at "The Socialist Pig" - a famous coffee house in Gananoque. It was Canada day and we thought that everything might be closed, but we were mistaken.

After finishing our brunch, we drove straight to Montreal.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Walking on the Edge

I am at 1,168 feet above ground and walking on a thin metal walkway around CN's Tower's upper platform. It's a beautiful sunset in Toronto and I can see for miles around in all directions. I am doing the highly recommended EdgeWalk with my wife.

I can see the nearby Billy Bishop Toronto City airport, the Blue Jays playing the Red Sox in the Ricoh Coliseum below. The first steps onto the ledge are a bit scary. I am the first guinea pig in our group of five.

The Ricoh Coliseum is empty in this photo, but it was full during my walk. I saw the baseball game quite clearly and it was strange to see from such a height.

Inna followed my out on the ledge. She was a bit hesitant first, but she overcame her fear of extreme heights. We got to do lots of interesting poses, such as leaning back and the one from Titanic. It's can be a bit scary to lean forward at this height!

After walking around the tower a few times, we posed for a few family photos. We had a great time on our walk and it was an experience we will never forget.

Here is a short video of my excursion:

As the evening turned dark, Toronto looked all lit up.

Niagara Falls, Ontario

After getting up early in the morning (around 6:30am), we dressed and drove to Niagara Falls. We were told that traffic could be heavy, but we did not expect it to be so terrible. It reminded me of traffic in San Francisco Bay area. Most lanes were barely moving. Since was had 3 people in our car, we were able to use the HOV lane and made better progress.

We finally reached Niagara Falls around 9:00am, but since we were hungry, we decided to stop by at Abby's for breakfast. Alex ordered some pancakes, but they were so large that he barely finished one.

After our large breakfast, we reached Niagara Falls. We parked our car at nearby parking ($20/day) and walked to the Horseshoe Falls on the Canadian side. The falls very truly spectacular and huge mist was coming off.

We saw Maid of the Mist boats from the American side and Hornblower Niagara cruises from the Canadian side visit the falls. The falls are truly spectacular and a wonder of the world.

Next, we walked to the smaller, but still imposing American Falls.

We decided to try out the Hornblower cruise to the Falls on the Canadian side, as it would take too long to get the Maiden of the Mist on the American side.

We got very close to both the American and Horseshoe Falls, and we got terribly soaked! However, it was a lot of fun!

We also decided to see the falls from the nearby Skylon tower to the waterfalls from a high point of view.

Here is yours truly.

Here is a beautiful view of American Falls from the Skylon Tower.

And, here is a gorgeous view of Horseshoe Falls.

On the way back to our car, we saw a beautiful rainbow over the falls.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Raining in Toronto

Is travel really worth it?

I was contemplating this very thought, as I was sitting in the San Francisco airport, waiting for my Air Canada AC756 flight to depart for Toronto (for our first leg of Eastern Canada trip).

First, you spend time getting to the airport (contending with traffic on US-101), then you wait checking-in at the airline terminal (Air Canada was running really slow). Then, you endure a time-consuming TSA check and passport check. Then, there are flight delays to contend with. At least some of these complaints could be relieved by a well thought out airport but San Francisco 's SFO is not that airport. All of the European airports (Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Stockholm) are far superior in every way (faster check in, much better quality food, more places to sit, etc).

When we finally arrived in Toronto (after an hour flight delay), we rented a car from Hertz (a Toyota Camry) and drove to our Cambridge Suites hotel. The rain was heavy and I made few wrong turns, but we arrived successfully after using both Garmin GPS and my trusty Google Maps on my iPhone 5S. The Garmin could not find satellites for the longest time so I used the iPhone initially.

Our plan was to visit Toronto, see Niagara Falls, explore Thousand Lakes, and explore Montreal.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

After waking up, we ate breakfast at the breakfast buffet in the hotel's Portico restaurant. The food was of average quality and I had a yogurt and a fruit salad, while Inna ate scrambled eggs and toast.

Finishing breakfast, we noted that rain was still falling fairly hard, so we decided to spent most of our day at the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM).

The Royal Ontario Museum is rather vast -  I didn't expect it to be so extensive. At first, we walked around aimlessly, looking at the Jurassic area dinosaurs, but then we decided to take the free 11:00am Egyptian tour.

The Egyptian tour was very informative and I learned some tidbits about life in Ancient Egypt, the mummification process (by looking at some mummies on display).

After the tour ended, we decided to get lunch in the museum's cafe. The cafe had edible food and I had a fairly decent Greek salad, while Inna tried a rice plate with chicken (not very delicious), and Alex enjoyed some horrible-looking pizza.

After lunch, we decided to visit the special exhibit on the volcanic eruption at Pompeii. A lot of ancient Roman artifacts were well-preserved after the deadly eruption and many of the pieces were on display.

The Pompeii tour was quite informative but we were tired and decided to rest a bit. We really liked the guided tours and decided to do the Highlights of ROM tour at 2:00pm. However, the older lady who gave the tour spoke too quietly and we decided to try again at 3:00pm. The 3:00pm tour was with our former Egyptian guide and it worked out much better.

We visited Egyptian salon again, followed by some Mesopotamian artifacts. We also stopped by at the Dinosaur gallery, where our guide talked about the various dinosaurs on display.

Afterwards, we walked to the paleontology wing, where we saw a small remnant of a meteorite on display (that's 4.7 billion years old). This meteorite hot British Columbia in 2010 and was one of the few pristine samples available. From there, we waked to the hall of First People's - what Canadian call original Canadian natives.

There were lots of artifacts on display, including many canoes, kayaks, clothing, and paintings of ancient native life.

Since we had tickets to do the CN Tower's Edge Walk tour at 8:00pm, we hurried to get dinner at a well-rated Khao San Road Thai restaurant. The entrees - especially the Pad Thai and the famous Khao Sai. Our spring rolls were a delicious start and the coconut-lemon grass soup was delicious but a bit spicy. We were lucky to get to Khao San Road prior to opening; otherwise, we would have never made it in. It's such a popular place to eat.

I enjoyed the "Tom Yum"" soup, while Alex liked his "Bangkok Pad Thai".

 Inna tried the "Khao Soi" and was delicious!

Nearby, we saw a theater playing the musical "Kinky Boots". We just had to stop for a photo.

When we arrived the the CN Tower, it was still raining and very foggy. We had the option to reschedule for the next day, at 8:00pm (and we decided to do so). Instead, we strolled around downtown Toronto (which seemed absolutely dead on a Sunday). Even the famous Distillery district looked as dead as Los Gatos on a Sunday night.

However, we did manage to find an open French patisserie - Cluny and enjoyed a few pastries with hot tea.

We really liked all of the interesting street food trucks in Toronto.

And while walking around Toronto, who could miss the Hockey Hall of Fame?

We really enjoyed Toronto, though we were not very lucky with the weather.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Review: Marriage of Figaro at San Francisco Opera

A truly great opera brings out inherent emotions - be it overwhelming joy or profound sadness.

The Marriage of Figaro, based on a comedy by a Frenchman, taking place in Spain, but sung in Italian, does not bring out either. However, there are a couple of instances when I felt sympathy for its main characters.

The Marriage of Figaro tells the story of Count Almaviva, his wife Countess Almaviva, and his two servants: Figaro and Suzanna, who are trying to marry. There are many subplots running through the opera, to provide background amusement (i.e. the page Cherubino lusting after Barbarina.

The opera was originally composed in four acts by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, with libretto written by Lorenzo De Ponte, from a comedy by Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais.

The opera's setting is 18th century villa of Count Almaviva outside Seville, Spain.

Wikipedia has an excellent description of the opera's central plot:
The Marriage of Figaro continues the plot of The Barber of Seville several years later, and recounts a single "day of madness" (la folle journée) in the palace of Count Almaviva near Seville, Spain. Rosina is now the Countess; Dr. Bartolo is seeking revenge against Figaro for thwarting his plans to marry Rosina himself; and Count Almaviva has degenerated from the romantic youth of the Barber into a scheming, bullying, skirt-chasing Lothario. Having gratefully given Figaro a job as head of his servant-staff, he is now persistently trying to obtain the favors of Figaro's bride-to-be, Susanna. He keeps finding excuses to delay the civil part of the wedding of his two servants, which is arranged for this very day. Figaro, Susanna, and the Countess conspire to embarrass the Count and expose his scheming. He retaliates by trying to compel Figaro legally to marry a woman old enough to be his mother, but it turns out at the last minute that she really is his mother. Through Figaro's and Susanna's clever manipulations, the Count's love for his Countess is finally restored.
Philip Sly plays the part of Figaro, Luca Pisaroni sings as Count Almaviva. Nadine Sierra is the Countess and Lisette Oropresa plays the part of Suzanna. Patrick Summers conducts the orchestra in San Francisco's production. Cherubino (a boy page) was played by Kate Lindsey.

I found that Lisette Oropresa played the part of Suzanna well, but her singing was very quiet (even sitting in the front row). None of the singers particularly impressed me but I thought that Count Almaviva (Luca Pisaroni) sang reasonably well.

The detailed synopsys of the opera is below:

Act I: A room in a villa

Figaro and Susanna, servants to the Count and Countess Almaviva, are making preparations on the morning of their wedding. When Susanna learns that the Count has given them the bedroom adjacent to his, she protests. She fears that the Count will use this proximity to exercise his right as a feudal lord to initiate the new bride to the ways of lovemaking, an intention he has already communicated to Susanna via her music teacher, Don Basilio. The Count’s designs anger Figaro, and when Susanna leaves, he promises a revenge that will preserve Susanna’s virtue.

Marcellina and her former employer Doctor Bartolo arrive with a plan to prevent Figaro’s marriage. Marcellina wants to marry Figaro herself and plans to do so by enforcing the terms of an unresolved contract for a loan she made to Figaro years earlier. Susanna returns and shares a contentious exchange with her rival.

Marcellina leaves and Cherubino arrives. The young page has been banished from the castle after the Count found him in a compromising position with Barbarina, the gardener’s daughter. The page is pleading with Susanna to intervene on his behalf when the Count pays a surprise visit. While Cherubino hides, Susanna refuses the Count’s propositions. When they hear Don Basilio approaching, the Count also hides until he overhears Basilio telling Susanna that Cherubino is suspected of flirting with the Countess. In the midst of his tirade about Cherubino’s indiscretions, the Count inadvertently uncovers the page from his hiding place. The confusion is interrupted by the arrival of Figaro. He and some villagers stage a tribute to the “fair and just” Count. The Count responds to the morning’s events by delaying the wedding until that evening and by sending the pageboy away to fill a position in his regiment.

Act II: The Countess' apartment

Susanna is relaying the morning’s events to the Countess when Figaro enters to explain his plan, a diversion that Figaro asserts will ensure that his wedding proceeds as planned. He has sent an anonymous letter to the Count warning that the Countess is planning a tryst with a lover. Additionally, Susanna is to agree to the Count’s proposition for an illicit encounter, but Figaro has arranged for Cherubino to be disguised as a girl and sent in Susanna’s stead. Figaro retrieves Cherubino, and Susanna and the Countess dress him for the charade.

Cherubino sings about his overwhelming feelings of love.  This is one of the most famous arias in all of Marriage of Figaro: Voi Che Sapete. It is an easily recognizable tune that is timeless and memorable.

Voi, che sapete che cosa è amor, You ladies, who know what love is,
Donne, vedete s'io l'ho nel cor! See if I have it in my heart!
Quello ch'io provo, vi ridirò, I'll tell you what I'm going through,
È per me nuovo; capir nol so. It's new to me; I can't understand it.
Sento un affetto pien di desir, I feel a liking full of desire
Ch'ora è diletto, ch'ora e martir. That now is pleasure, now is agony.
Gelo, e poi sento l'alma avvampar, I freeze, and then feel my soul burning,
E in un momento torno a gelar. And in another moment go back to freezing.
Ricerco un bene fuori di me, I look for a good outside myself,
Non so chi il tiene, non so cos'è. I don't know who has it, I don't know what it is.
Sospiro e gemo senza voler, I sigh and groan without wanting to,
Palpito e tremo senza saper, I quiver and tremble without knowing it,
Non trovo pace notte nè di, I find no peace night or day,
Ma pur mi piace languir così! And yet I like suffering this way!
They are surprised by a knock on the door from the Count. Cherubino hides, locking himself in the closet. The jealous Count, angered by the anonymous letter, threatens to break into the closet, but when he and a reluctant Countess leave momentarily to obtain the necessary tools, Susanna takes Cherubino’s place in the closet. The page escapes, jumping out of the window. The Count and Countess return, and Susanna emerges from the closet. The Count begs forgiveness but defends his suspicions with the anonymous letter. The women admit the letter was fabricated by Figaro.

Figaro enters and denies knowing anything about the letter. Then Antonio, the gardener arrives, outraged that someone has jumped from the window into his flowers. As Susanna and the Countess discredit Antonio for being a drunkard, Figaro claims that it was he himself who jumped. With the Count’s suspicions renewed and confusion mounting, Marcellina arrives along with her cohorts and makes her claim for Figaro to either repay his debt to her or marry her.

Act III: A courtyard of the villa

Susanna and the Countess have created a new plan in which Susanna is to promise to meet the Count, but instead the Countess will go in disguise and reveal the Count’s infidelities. Susanna arranges the supposed rendezvous, but her efforts are nearly ruined when the Count overhears an exchange between her and Figaro.

Don Curzio, the judge, oversees the trial between Marcellina and Figaro. Figaro claims that he cannot marry her because he requires his parents’ permission, and being an orphan, that is not possible. Figaro’s story of being kidnapped as an infant sounds familiar to Marcellina, and a birthmark on Figaro’s arm confirms that he is Marcellina’s long-lost son, the result of her affair with Doctor Bartolo. The proud parents embrace their son and their future daughter-in-law, and a double wedding is planned.

Meanwhile, Susanna and the Countess write a letter to the Count confirming the tryst that evening. They seal the letter with a pin. Barbarina and the village girls enter to bring flowers to the Countess. The Count and Antonio interrupt to reveal Cherubino dressed as a girl hiding amongst the crowd. Barbarina intercedes and convinces the Count to forgive Cherubino. Having found the page at last, the Count uses the opportunity to try to force Figaro into admitting what really happened in the Countess’s bedroom earlier in the day. The villagers begin the wedding procession. Before completing the ceremony, Susanna slips the Count the note sealed with the pin.

Act IV: The garden of the villa

Figaro and Marcellina happen upon Barbarina in the garden searching for the pin she was meant to return to Susanna as confirmation of the tryst. Barbarina naively reveals her mission, and an enraged Figaro swears revenge for what he believes is his bride’s unfaithfulness. Figaro engages Bartolo and Basilio as witnesses and hides himself in order to catch Susanna with the Count. Marcellina returns with the Countess and Susanna, warning them that Figaro is hiding nearby. Marcellina hides, and Susanna and the Countess exchange clothes. Susanna hides, and the Countess, dressed as Susanna, awaits the Count’s arrival.

Instead, Cherubino comes. Finding the supposed Susanna, he propositions her until the Count interrupts. Cherubino hides. The Count makes advances towards “Susanna” until Figaro intercedes. 

After reading a note from Susanna to the Count, Figaro (falsely) assumes that Susanna is cheating on him. Angry, he declares that all women are roses with deadly thorns. He sings the following famous aria Tutto e disposto:

Tutto č disposto: Everything is set:
L’ora dovrebbe esser vicina; the hour should be near;
Io sento gente...č dessa! I can hear people... it is her!
Non č alcun; It's nobody;
Buia č la notte... The night is dark...
Ed io comincio omai a fare and I am just beginning to practice
Il scimunito mestiere di marito... the stupid work of being a husband...
Ingrata! You ungrateful!
Nel memento della mia cerimonia While remembering my ceremony
Ei godeva leggendo: he was enjoying in reading:
E nel vederlo io rideva And while I was seeing it I was laughing
Di me senza saperlo. at me without knowing it.
Oh Susanna! Susanna! Oh, Susanna! Susanna!
Quanta pena mi costi! What a great suffering you cost me!
Con quell’ingenua faccia, With your ingenuous face,
Con quelgli occhi innocenti, with your innocent eyes,
Chi creduto l’avria? Ah! who would imagine it? Ah,
Che il fidarse a donna, č ognor follia. that it's foul to trust in a woman.
Aprite un po’quegli occhi, Open your eyes,
Uomini incauti e sciocchi, you incautious and stupid men
Guardate queste femmine, Look at these women
Guardate cosa son! Look what they are!
Queste chiamate dee These you call goddesses
Dagli ingannati sensi, with deceived senses,
A cui tributa incensi to whom the weak reason
La debole ragion. tributes incenses.
Son streghe che incantano They are witches who enchant
Per farci penar, only to make us pain,
Sirene che cantano Sirens who sing
Per farci affogar, to draw us,
Civette che allettano Owls who attract
Per trarci le piume, to take out our feathers
Comete che brillano Comets who shine
Per toglierci il lume. to take our light away,
Son rose spinose they're thorny roses
Son volpi vezzose; they're charming foxes
Son orse benigne, they're benign bears,
Colombe maligne, malign doves,
Maestre d’inganni, masters in cheating
Amiche d’affanni, friends of worries
Che fingono, mentono, who pretend, lie,
Amore non senton, don't feel any love,
Non senton pietŕ, don't feel any pity,
No, no, no, no no! no, no, no, no, no!
Il resto no dico, I don't tell all the rest,
Giŕ ognuno lo sa. anybody knows that.
The Count flees and the Countess hides. Susanna, still pretending to be the Countess, steps forward, and Figaro recognizes his wife’s voice. The plot becomes apparent to him, but he plays along for a moment, until Susanna reveals her true identity, and both are reconciled.

Figaro and Susanna (still dressed as the Countess) stage a love scene for the Count’s benefit. The jealous Count calls for help, and one by one, everyone is extracted from hiding. The Count points to the woman he believes has betrayed him, but the real Countess steps forward, removing her disguise and unveiling the entire charade. The Count, overcome with guilt, is forgiven by the Countess. All couples are happily restored, and go off to enjoy the wedding festivities.