Cars Driving Family

End of the driving drought

Every once in awhile, during a typical workday, I’ll come up from my basement desk and look out at my car sitting in the driveway.

Recently it was covered with a fine mist of yellow pollen, which is easy to spot from that vantage point; harder when you’re up close. Then it was small leaves blown around by early summer winds and rain until they took up residence on the windshield wipers, on the door frames and in the crevices of the side mirrors. Every other car in the neighbourhood is dealing with the same affliction. This stuff would, of course, blow off if we drove a bit.

When the pandemic first hit and we started staying home, traffic slowed to a trickle. Our street connects two east-west routes in Toronto and while it’s hardly a major thoroughfare, it’s typically busy. It was eerie to see it so silent in those first few days and weeks of lockdown.

It’s fitting though that the most recent drive I took was to bring my daughter to her first Covid-19 vaccination. A 33-minute drive away, just over 27 kilometres. Traffic was substantial on the highway but given that it was mid-day and many of us are still working from home, where are you all going?

The answer could be nowhere. Throughout the winter and last fall, and last summer for that matter, a drive became a thing to do. Let’s just drive downtown and see what’s going on, we’d say. Knowing that there’s probably not much of anything happening. The streetcar would be crawling along its tracks and people would be walking, sure, but the typical weekday and weekend crowds were non-existent.

Look, there’s my office (now closed as we await a signal that all is clear to return to work, but in a new location). Is Brandy Melville open? my daughter would ask. Yes, but with strict capacity limits and an inevitable lineup outside.

When were kids, our parents would once in a while take us for a drive. Usually on a Sunday evening and only in the summer. Sometimes we’d convince our father to take us to our favourite park in Paris, Ont. For my sister and me at the time it probably seemed exotic (it had a twisty slide. We had to make do with the regular straight slides in the parks in our neighbourhood.) But I remember the thing we seemed to do more often was drive along country roads. My father, as we would come to know, thought of himself as a farmer stuck in a stock broker’s suit and the country drives were an attempt to get back to his rural roots (and routes).

Between that long ago then and this suspended now, a drive was replaced by a commute. Which was punctuated by trips to see friends or family a few hours away. Those were in turn replaced by road trips–to New York, to Myrtle Beach, to Orlando, to Athens, Georgia. Trips that were defined by being behind the wheel, moving across the pavement putting kilometres behind us as we looked ahead to the many more to come. Stopping as strangers in some locale and greeting others who were doing the same thing.

But the aimless drive? That just didn’t happen. Until at least we were cooped up in homes/offices rarely going farther than the grocery store (which became at first an expedition in itself: Gloves? Check. Hand sanitizer? Check. Mentally prepared to stand in line? Check.) But we needed to get out. Somehow. Anyhow. The idea of a drive became both entertainment and escape. Forgotten were the hassles of traffic, aggressive drivers, construction-induced gridlock.

Now, as I come up from my basement office and look at the car in my driveway, I remind myself that automobiles are made to move. Humans are too. And once in a while we both need to exit the driveway and let the wind take the dust away.

Family Travel

A summer road trip to Maine

It’s hard to leave Canada behind on a trip to Maine. Once you’re in the state, you’ll notice that road signs often carry distances in both miles and kilometres. And it’s not uncommon to see “Welcome Quebecois” banners strung across streets in the many beach towns and hearing French being spoken as often as English — reinforcing the fact that Quebec residents have known for years that Maine’s Atlantic shoreline is the place to be during the summer.


Maine beach

We — myself, my wife Sharon, our 11-year-old daughter Carlyn and for the first time, our dog L’il Bit —headed to Maine last August to experience that true feeling of summer, which for us includes great food, some fantastic beaches and some unplugged fun like biking, boogie boarding, beach Frisbee and arcade games.

Driving from Toronto, we headed south through Massachusetts, stopping in Springfield at the end of the first day. The plan was to hit as many Maine beaches as we could. Our first home base was Kennebunkport, then we moved north to Saco, then a quick jaunt to Portland before backtracking a bit down the coast and then turning inland to head home, passing through Burlington, Vermont. As we found, rules vary on when dogs are allowed on Maine beaches (some don’t allow them on the beach before 5 p.m.), which required some creative scheduling on our part.

Arriving in Kennebunkport, we were booked into the Colony Hotel, an old-school (and pet-friendly) American gem. Built in 1914, the Colony has no air conditioning in the guest rooms, which means the ocean breeze is a welcome constant. (There are also no TVs in the rooms, but there is Wi-Fi, much to the relief of the 11-year-old).

Its creaking wood floors remind you of its history and the wide-open verandah offers a perfect view of the ocean. We ate a late dinner there one night watching a thunderstorm roll in with lighting poking through the clouds.

Just down the street from the Colony, is Mabel’s Lobster Claw, where we enjoyed a lobster dinner on the patio and Carlyn tackled — almost literally — her first full lobster and came away with a new appreciation for seafood. Mabel’s is a popular spot, with both locals and tourists, and it’s small, so be prepared to wait. The Clam Shack in Kennebunk Village, about a five-minute drive or 15-minute bike ride away is another great place for lobster. You can enjoy it with a beer for lunch at one of the patio tables.

Ogunquit, which is about a half hour drive south along the coast from Kennebunk Village is one of the most popular Maine beach havens, and it was packed when we arrived. We made a slow crawl down Shore Rd. into the heart of the town of Ogunquit, until retreating to North Beach so Carlyn could try out her new boogie board. Father and daughter bravely took on the waves (with daughter enjoying greater success) until another thunderstorm cleared the beach and drove us to lunch.

Sunshine, clear skies and summer heat followed the storm and we followed that to York Beach, and about 20 minutes drive southwest from Ogunquit on U.S. Route 1.

York Beach combines the best parts of the Jersey Shore with the spirit of Maine from the 1950s. Downtown, there’s The Goldenrod, a candy store and ice cream shop that’s been open since 1896. While you’re deciding what kind of fudge, ice cream or saltwater taffy to try, you can be mesmerized by watching taffy being made, the brightly coloured strands of the sticky stuff being twisted and pulled on machines in the windows. You can also order taffy by mail, if you just can’t wait to get there in person. Around the corner and just off the beach is the Fun O Rama arcade — a noisy magnet for kids with their parents change burning a hole in their pockets.

After a full day of beaching, boarding and candy eating, the 45-minute drive up the coast on I-95 to Saco was a quiet one. The next day, though, we were back at it again, this time heading to Old Orchard Beach. Old Orchard Beach is arguably one of the most famous Maine beaches and it’s a quick 10-minute drive from Saco along scenic Old Orchard Road. The beach itself is vast and marked by The Pier, a collection of bars and restaurants that juts into the water. The water is shallow and its awesome waves mean its great for boarding. It’s also really great for a round of Frisbee, even if the waves and fellow canines too easily distract the dog. Just up from the dunes is the Palace Playland, Old Orchard Beach’s signature amusement park. The dog cowered at the sound of balloon darts but Carlyn loved the spectacular views of the beach from the Ferris wheel.

Dinner that night was on the patio at The Landmark, where L’il Bit was welcome to sit at our feet. We struck up a conversation with some French Canadians who had been taking their summer vacation to Maine for years. After just a few days of sand, sun and waves in a few very different places, we can certainly understand why.

A version of this story appeared in the Spring 2016 issue of CAA Magazine


Bikes Cycling Transportation Travel

Going Dutch: Amsterdam by bike

I travelled to Amsterdam to see the city by bike and then wrote about it for the summer 2014 issue of CAA Magazine. It was my first visit to Amsterdam and I loved it. Now I just have to make the time to go back.

Bikes Cycling Travel

Amsterdam by bicycle

There’s nothing like riding a bike around Amsterdam to rekindle a love of cycling. I spent a week there recently, reporting and writing a story for CAA Magazine (for the upcoming summer issue), on seeing the city by bike, like a local.

It was an easy thing to do. I got off the plane, took a short taxi ride to the hotel, dropped off my bags and headed out. For me, part of the appeal of the story was the chance to see a famous city by riding around its streets and also to do some basic, on the ground, experiential reporting. It’s rewarding for me every single time I get to do it.

And while writing stories like this are a small part of my job, they are among the favourite parts of my job. And I know, there are truly worse ways to make a living.

Amsterdam, of course, did not disappoint. Every day the streets were full of bikes and I was on one of them, which meant I was doing something the Canadian winter deterred me from doing; I was getting some exercise and I was revelling in the cobblestone streets, the history and the entire cycling scene. I was one of them, a biking Amsterdammer, for a short time anyway.

For the past few weeks since I’ve been home, I’ve been checking out some Toronto bike shops with an eye to buying a new bike. I haven’t bought one in about 20 years and my Raleigh Matterhorn 12 speed is still going strong. Strong, but heavy, which is why I thought it’s time for a new model. But as enthralled as I am by the shiny, lightweight road, hybrid and mountain bikes I’ve been trying out, I can’t help but think back to all the battered, clanging and often rusted bikes I saw on the streets of Amsterdam. It gives me pause in my purchase process and reminds me that I don’t really need shiny and new if my goal is just to get out there and ride.