I-95 Hotels

Some notes on hotels we’ve hit on this trip along the I-95 down through New England.

Country Inn and Suites in Saint John (okay, not technically on the I-95) is a very nice place with very large two-room suites for less than $100. Nicest place we’ve stayed in Saint John so far.

Howard Johnson’s in South Portland, ME is tired and dated. We ended up in a smoking room, which was overpowering. Avoid if possible.

The Swissotel in downtown Boston is a very, very nice hotel. It’s got huge and well-appointed rooms, it’s very centrally located, and you can often find rates as low as $139 (good for Boston) on their website or on Travelocity. Killer is the parking (true of all downtown hotels in Boston): $28 for 24 hours.

AmeriSuites in South Portland, ME is a good deal at $84 for a large suite with breakfast. Nice little indoor pool. Crappy and expensive business center (dial-up Internet on an underpowered PC for 25 cents a minute). Very convenient to the Maine Mall.

Holiday Inn in Bangor, ME (the Civic Center one downtown, not the one out by the airport) looks tired and dated from the outside, but is quite pleasant inside. Local calls are free (a first for this trip), but you pay for breakfast (though not too much).

Pete’s secret hotel tip: I’ve booked all of our hotels on this trip using CAA/AAA rates and have saved about $100US doing so. If you think you’re going to stay in more than 4 or 5 hotels in a year, a CAA membership will pay for itself. That said, I’ve never been asked to see my CAA membership card.

Pete’s second secret hotel tip: the websites of most hotel chains have a “best rates” or “lowest rates” selection when you’re searching for rooms. If you select this option, you’ll almost always exclude rates that require membership (AARP, CAA/AAA, etc.) or other special qualification that you may, indeed, qualify for. What’s more, on the Holiday Inn website, you can often find special web-only weekend rates using the special web-only rates link; these rates often don’t appear in a general room search.

Pete’s third secret hotel tip: in our experience, if you have women in your party you’ll often get better service and a better room if you send one of them in to check in to a hotel. Both my mother and Catherine have benefitted from this: my Mom scored us a palatial suite at the Moncton Holiday Inn for $112 a couple of years ago and Catherine got us a large corner room at the Swissotel in Boston. This never happens for me.

Seafood in Maine

Because we are in Maine, we have eaten seafood for dinner for the past two nights.

On Sunday we stopped just north of Old Orchard Beach in southern Maine at a large place called the Clambake Restaurant. The Clambake was unusual because of its ordering mechanism: customers go to a central ordering queue, place their order and receive drinks, and then retire to a table. About 20 minutes later their number is called and they retrieve food from a central food distribution window. So it’s sort of like a take-out place, but you eat in. Catherine and I both had shrimp and lobster claws. This was Seafood with a capital S: no garnishes or other distractions, simply a giant mound of shrimp and lobster the a slightly spiced breacrumb mixture sprinkled on top. It was very good, but about 50% too much food. Worth a stop if you’re hungry.

Tonight we stopped just north of Belfast, Maine at a place called the Maine Chowder House, a restaurant and gift shop mini-complex on a bluff overlooking the ocean. The location was very scenic, and the food (clamcakes for Catherine and chowder for me) was hot and good tasting, but the service was abysmal. To begin, they hit my number one restaurant offence, the “customers with wriggling child(ren) left waiting for a table for 10 minutes when plenty of tables are available.” This was followed by the “wait 10 minutes for menus and water glasses after being seated” followed by the “wait 20 minutes for food” followed by the “wait 5 minutes for the check”. They didn’t seem particularly busy or over-stressed: somehow the system just broke down. The final snafu: I walk to the cash to pay and the cashier, upon seeing me, says “I’ll be right back” and then disappears for 5 minutes. I ended up leaving the money on the counter and heading out.

Other eatings of note on this trip: Chiang Mai on Rte. 101 in Nashua, NH is a decent Thai restaurant (the Kapow rice packs an appropriate punch); the Harrisville General Store in Harrisville, NH makes great sandwiches and has excellent, friendly, human service; the food court in South Station in Boston is best avoided at all costs; room service in the Swissotel in downtown Boston is excellent for breakfast (pancakes and waffles), but as expensive as you might expect; Gritty Macduff’s in Freeport, ME is a great place for lunch, with a broad and tasty menu and good beer brewed right there.

Tomorrow we cross the border into New Brunswick and leave the land of unsweetened iced tea behind, much to my chagrain. But we’ll be home after almost three weeks away, which we’re very much looking forward to.

Aliant Helpfulness

Earlier in the week my office’s net connection went off the air. Some investigation with the help of the on-call tech support person at Aliant revealed that the Newbridge DSL device needed to be rebooted; thankfully, our friend Lida was still staying at the World HQ, so I was able to get her to do this.

Last night around midnight the same thing happened again. But Lida’s on her way back to New Hampshire, which created a problem. I called the Aliant support desk, got routed to the on-call pager, and about 35 seconds later got a call back from a very helpful woman named Heather.

Heather took the details of my situation, didn’t think I was insane, and promised to follow up. About 45 minutes later, Heather called back to tell me that she was able to have a tech remotely reset the Newbridge device and that everything was back in action.

This is a Good Customer Service. Thank-you.

UPS Madness, Amtrak Fun

My friend Stephen ended up mysteriously in the USA with no identification, which made the prospect of getting back into Canada somewhat daunting. (You may ask “how did he get into the US in the first place?” the answer to which is that he did have ID on the way in, but left it on the dash of his travelmates’ VW Fox and they took off north back into Canada).

After consulting various customs and immigration websites for both countries, it became apparent that crossing the border with no ID just wasn’t going to work, so Stephen managed to contact aforementioned Fox owners and arranged for them to FedEx his ID to him in New Hampshire.

Except that they didn’t FedEx it, they sent it via UPS. I think UPS stands for “Useless Poor Service” because the envelope sent Tuesday afternoon and due in Dublin, NH on Wednesday morning was actually “temporarily left” in Pennsylvania, and therefore not able to reach New Hampshire until Thursday morning. To make matters worse, when we checked in on Thursday morning with UPS, they told us that they’d goofed again and the envelope was in Brattleboro, Vermont.

You would think this was a Good Thing as, in fact, our plans for today were to drive Stephen to Brattleboro so that he could catch the train north to Montreal and home. But, alas, Brattleboro is not a “UPS location,” it’s only some sort of mystical UPS weigh station, so packages that are stuck there are not able to be retrieved. Some back and forth with UPS revealed that at some point the envelope would pop out in Keene, NH where we could retrieve it. Unfortunately the best estimate of when this would happen was “sometime today.”

So we rearranged our schedule and planned a stop in Keene on the way to Vermont.

Except that when I arrived in Dublin to check in this morning what should I find but Stephen’s envelope, delivered at 9:00 a.m. Which means that as I was being told it was lost in Vermont it was, in fact, deliver in New Hampshire.

So UPS is bad at both trucking and tracking, and has lost my business and, no doubt, Stephen’s.

The residual ill-feeling in our hearts towards Brattleboro as a result of this debacle — through no fault of Brattleboro’s, of course — prompted Stephen to rearrange his travel plans entirely.

So this evening we drove down to Boston where we deposited Stephen at South Station at 9:05 p.m. for a train to Toronto. Except Amtrak doesn’t go from Boston to Toronto, so Stephen is taking a train to New York City that arrives at 1:00 a.m., then enjoying New York until 7:00 a.m. at which points he catches a 12 hour train to Toronto.

This may, on the surface, appear to be an insane way to travel. And it does have insane components, indeed. But the combination of exoticness, non-sensicalness, and thrift (the entire journey is only $93US) is what makes it appealing in a way that perhaps only Stephen and I can properly understand.

So as I type this note in my comfortable discounted Swissotel room in downtown Boston, Stephen is on an Acela Regional steaming south.

Tip: if you want to hear an interactive voice response system that’s world class and extremely functional, dial 1-800-USA-RAIL from anywhere in North America. It’s a work ot art.

Tri-state Travel Wonders

We’ve spent the past week circling around the the confluence of New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Vermont.

On Sunday night we went to the last night of the 2002 season for the Northfield Drive-in, which is located exactly on the Massachusetts/New Hampshire border between Hinsdale, NH and Northfield, MA. It was their annual Labour Day quadruple feature (Monsters Inc., Signs, Mr. Deeds and Reign of Fire: we stayed for the first three). It’s a wonderful drive-in, and possibly the one I’ve attended that best matches my memories of a “classic” drive-in from my youth: a large kids playground out front, lots of families with lawn chairs (some with barbeques who came early for dinner) and a genuine cross-section of people from goth teens to huge families. Their projection building and canteen were in an interesting location, much closer to the screen than most and sunk down almost underground. Best canteen server I’ve ever received, anywhere.

On Tuesday we passed through the same eye of the same needle on our way to North Adams, Massachusetts, which is the unlikely home of MassMOCA — the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art. North Adams is an otherwise decaying mill town (think Bangor, Maine) in far-western Massachusetts that has been somewhat revitalized by the founding of a funky art museum in the shell of the abandoned factory buildings in its downtown core. The spaces are huge, and so offer themselves well to the exhibition of huge pieces of art. I’m not an “art guy,” at least in the goatee sense, but I was awed and impressed. Well worth a day trip from the Boston area if you’re in New England.

By virtue of our tri-state follies, we’ve been in Brattleboro, VT twice this week (and I’m on my way there after I post this, as my friend Stephen is taking the train north from Brattleboro to Montreal this evening). Brattleboro is a weird, weird town. If you’re travelling from the east, it’s the gateway to Vermont, and it certainly plays that role well, especially if you consider the liberal food-loving part of the Vermont gestalt.

Our first meal was at an Indian restaurant. Not a great meal, and the service was severe. But nice to have dal and currie in the middle of our travels. Our second meal, two days later, was at an all-organic Asian-inspired restaurant run by the same people who used to run Latacarata in Peterborough, New Hampshire. All organic means all-organic, from the meat to the vegetables to the wine. I had the “Zen Meal” from the menu, a $16 set of entrees served in a Japanese bento box; there were snow peas served with sesame seeds, some tasty dumplings, rice with seasoning, several variations of tofu, and a very clean tasting squash soup. The service was delightful — even with Oliver having an infant nervous breakdown freakout through much of the meal — and the meal ranks high on my lifelist.

Before we left Brattleboro we stopped by the Brattleboro Cooperative grocery store, which is a cooperative in the “locally, cooperatively owned and run” sense, not the “owned by a pretend cooperative based in Halifax” sense that we are used to in Charlottetown these days. It was, quite simply, the grocery store of grocery stores, and almost enough to make us think of picking up and moving to Brattleboro. Another place worthy of a stop if you’re in the area, if only to get ideas for your home community.

Tomorrow I’m off to Quincy, Mass and Nashua, NH for a server relocation, Saturday’s our last day on the lake and Sunday we begin our trek home to the Island.