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Things I’ve Learned from Travelling (Close to Home)

August 26, 2012

Donkeys in Prince Edward CountyLast week, I reflected on the fact that I’ve only seen/explored something like 6% of my home province of Ontario, Canada (in all honesty, I’ve probably actually visited no more than about 1-2% of it; the rest is just countryside that I travelled through to get to my destinations).  Most of this ‘local adventuring’ has been undertaken solo (see ‘The Joy and Power of Running Away’, November 2010), although I have managed to entice my husband to come along (usually on two wheels, once or twice on four) on a few excursions into ‘the great unknown’ (he loves to drive; I, on the other hand, like to stop occasionally to check out bookstores and antique shops, museums, hiking trails, awe-inspiring vistas, beaches, and donkeys in farm fields – thus my penchant for travelling alone when I truly want to explore a new locale).

I’ve learned a great deal from my travels through southern Ontario (I’ve learned a lot when travelling further afield as well, but I’ll save that for another post).  Here are some of my observations from recent road trips:

  • Pelee Island MapObjects in the rear-view mirror may be closer than they appear, but places on a map are always further away/apart than they look. For example, when I first reviewed a map of Pelee Island (the southern-most inhabited point in Canada) a couple of years ago, I cavalierly thought, “I won’t need to take the car over [on the ferry], I can just walk to the Inn, and then rent a bike to tour the rest of the island”. Fortunately for me, I changed my mind – because the map was NOT to scale and I’d neglected to check the mileage guide (which clearly indicated that the Inn where I was staying was 7 km / 4.3 miles from the ferry dock, and that the island was 42 km2 / 16 square miles in size).  I love to walk, but I never would have made it to the Inn (never mind managed to bike all over / around the island)!
  • By the way – did you know that the movement of a ferry can set off your car’s motion-activated theft alarm signal? I flew into a panic when the voice on the ferry’s loudspeaker announced, “Would the owner of the red Mustang please report to the lower car deck” but that turned to chagrin when I found out they just wanted me to shut off the alarm (the ‘guard’ on duty said to leave the car unlocked to prevent it going off again).
  • ‘Travel times’ on online mapping sites like MapQuest and Google Maps assume that you will be travelling at the ‘average posted speed limit’. As anyone who’s driven any of the 400-series highways in southern Ontario can attest, you rarely get to drive that fast (especially in/around the Greater Toronto area) and even on secondary highways and ‘back roads’ there is always construction and/or detours (and/or poor signage) to contend with that can extend travel time significantly.  I’ve learned to allocate at least an additional 25% of the time indicated for every trip and to never – EVER – believe anyone or anything that says it will ‘only’ take ‘x’ amount of time to get somewhere (because it always takes more)
  • Highway Service Centre Out of ServiceMy husband nags me (incessantly) to fill my gas tank when it’s no less than ¼ full. I’ve learned to top up well before it reaches that point when I’m travelling – because the one time I didn’t there were two traffic slowdowns, some lengthy highway construction, and a detour that had me keeping a keen eye on the gas gauge as it edged perilously close to the big red ‘E’ well before I knew I would reach the next highway service centre. And then – wouldn’t you know it – the government agency responsible for managing those road side relief centres had decided to tear down the one I’d planned on stopping at – and it was another 16 km to the nearest exit and gas station.  Fortunately, I made it, but I was running on fumes! Never again!
  • One of the things I love about exploring new places is the excitement of straying from the ‘recommended sights to see’ and heading down the side streets and/or going a little bit ‘off the beaten path’ to find unique stores and galleries, coffee shops and bakeries, second hand and antique shops, parks and beaches.  The small, independent places generally don’t have the budget necessary to afford ads and write-ups in the marketing materials produced by the local Tourist Board or Chamber of Commerce, but they almost always offer fascinating products and services, friendly staff, and some great deals.
  • Port Dalhousie CarouselSimilarly, talking to people who live in an area can result in discovering ‘hidden gems’.  I wouldn’t have known about the Port Dalhousie Carousel if I hadn’t taken the advice of a woman from Niagara-on-the-Lake who suggested I take the scenic route home and stop to see the carousel (I’ve been back to Port Dalhousie several times since – I’m a bit of a carousel nut).
  • Eating well (i.e., adequate portions of ‘normal’ food at reasonable prices) when visiting a ‘tourist’ region can be tricky, too. Restaurant listings and ‘recommendations’ in visitor guides (and/or on promotional websites) are geared for tourists with a sense of ‘culinary adventure’, small appetites, and deep pockets.  I’ve learned you can’t trust their accuracy. For example, our biggest disappointment on our most recent adventure was a much-anticipated dinner at a restaurant that boasted ‘the best hamburger you’ve ever tasted’ (purportedly an 8 oz hand-pressed patty with homemade ‘fixins’ on a bakery fresh bun). What my husband received was a miniscule (maybe 5 oz) burger served with corn relish, lettuce and a slice of under-ripe tomato (cheese and/or bacon were $1.00 extra each) on a doughy white bun with a side of potato chips – for $12.00. (My ‘steak sandwich’ consisted of three of the smallest pieces of steak I’ve ever seen in a tiny little bun [about the size of a tennis ball] with a side of cooked frozen sweet potato fries [a $2.00 upgrade from the potato chips] for $14.00 – oh, and they didn’t have half the beers on tap that they advertised, either!)  I found that the best way to avoid this kind of dining ‘faux pas’ is to talk to local residents and find out where they eat (I almost guarantee you it won’t be in any of the places listed in the tourist brochures!)
  • Great Room - no Coffee MakerThe ‘coffee maker in every room’ has become so ubiquitous that I never would have thought to ask if one was provided until I stayed in two places (one several years ago; one this summer) that didn’t have one. Personally, I don’t mind going out to get a coffee in the morning, but my husband is totally uncommunicative until he’s had his two requisite cups – so having to walk almost a mile (and then wait in line for ten minutes) to get his caffeine fix was NOT his idea of a good time! From now on, I’ll make sure to ask about coffee supplies when I make my reservations!
  • I love smaller  hotels or motels that offer free continental breakfast (paying $6.95 for a bagel with cream cheese, $2.50 for a cup of tea or a glass of juice, and $3.95 for a small bowl of fruit really irks me).  As an alternative, I’ve found it beneficial to simply pick up ‘breakfast supplies’ (muffins, fruit, a small bottle of orange juice, and some cheese) and eat in my room before heading out on whatever adventure I’ve planned for the day. I save money, time, and what occasionally turns into a bout of early morning indigestion that can ruin a day.
  • Don't Drink The WaterI normally don’t buy bottled water, but I now make sure I take a 12 pack with me when I’m travelling – because twice I’ve ended up in places where the tap water was unsuitable for drinking.  In those areas the local stores (naturally) charge outrageous prices for bottled water (I’ve paid as much as $3.00 for a single small bottle of water and I’ve seen 12 packs that sell for something like $1.50 here priced as high as $10.00 when it’s the only water that’s safe to consume). I also find it handy to have a bottle in the car when I get stuck in a traffic jam in 100 degree heat.
  • Surprisingly, a woman travelling alone is still often met with some skepticism – especially when dining solo. I don’t know why that is (I bet men aren’t given perplexed looks by waiters or waitresses, hotel clerks, and bartenders when they check into a hotel alone, or sit at a table by themselves) but I’ve learned to be upfront about it (so far, I’ve never felt frightened or threatened in any way by stating that I’m on my own). I learned the hard way that this is necessary when I once tried for almost 20 minutes to catch the eye of a waiter who’d been ignoring me because he’d ‘assumed’ I was waiting for someone to join me (guess what kind of tip he got?!?!?)
  • My Swiss Army KnifeIt pays to have a good quality ‘Swiss Army knife’ on your person, wherever you go.  I’ve had to use the corkscrew (when visiting ‘wine country’, shouldn’t EVERY hotel room come with a corkscrew?!?!?) and the knife (to cut cheese purchased) on several occasions, as well as the screwdriver (to fix a rattling fan), and the nail file of my trusty ‘multi tool’ set (I carry it in my purse at all times).  I believe in the Boy Scout motto:  “Always be prepared.”

There are lots of other things I’ve learned from my little escapades into the near nether regions of Ontario but the most important one is this: there’s no place like home, and no bed like your own when you’re on … the other side of 55.

Hearts Desire Quote

  1. August 26, 2012 4:06 pm

    True true true… particularly Dorthy’s quote…

    • August 26, 2012 5:32 pm

      I have an absolutely BEAUTIFUL back yard, yet I often go off looking for ‘better’ places to be. Dumb!


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