So, my 40th birthday was last week. I’m not one to particularly care about birthdays, even milestone birthdays, but I was excited about this one. Nellie had something planned to celebrate my birthday, and I had no idea what it was. It was a complete secret. Well, almost complete — the night before we left, from my desk as I tried desperately to wrap up work before taking two days off, I saw her waving around a Porter boarding pass. That narrowed the field somewhat.
I’m writing this five days after the birthday festivities ended, in part because work insanity resumed immediately, and in part because it’s taken me that long to recover. Here’s what happened:
We got to the island airport, excited to use the new tunnel. Sadly the tunnel wouldn’t open until that afternoon, so the ferry it was. While waiting in line for the ferry I was surprised to see Kaylea & Matt appear. For a second it seemed like a coincidence, and I thought, “Where are they going?”. Then it clicked — they were coming to wherever my birthday weekend was happening! Traveling companions! Amazing!
Once we checked in and got through security Nellie revealed where we were going: a tour of Quebec breweries, starting in Quebec City and ending in Montreal. Badass! We boarded a little late and took off for Quebec City.
After a wait for our bags and a slight snafu with the rental car (which worked in our favour — we were given a much bigger car for the same rate) we piled in and drove downtown, listening to an awful 80s/90s mix on french radio.
Nellie and I haven’t been to Quebec City since our honeymoon, but Matt & Kaylea knew their way around, so we dropped them at their hotel, checked in ourselves, and walked back to meet them near the Chateau Frontenac. We saw Matt walk around a corner just ahead of us, and when we caught up…boom, there were Jeff & Steph! (Talking to a cop for some reason.) Jeff gave me a full-on bear hug and we all went to find some lunch.
Kaylea knew this place called L’Inox where they make their own beer, so that’s where the adventure started. We sat on the sweltering patio and drank tasty beers and tried to get a little food down our necks before our limo (more on that later) arrived. As we sat there, another surprise: CBJ+M arrived. What the? Deceit! Skullduggery! What great friends. I have great friends.
It started to pour, so we ducked inside, finished up, and then got into the stretch limo Nellie had rented. We were headed north to Baie-Saint-Paul to visit Microbrasserie Charlevoix, but first we had a stop to make. On the way out of town our driver Felix (who was 12) stopped at an SAQ, dropped Nellie and Kaylea, and executed an 8-point turn in tighter quarters than I could even imagine a limo being able to fit. Bubbles aboard, we took off north.
We drank Veuve Clicquot, passing Montmorency Falls and Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré, eventually arriving in Baie-Saint-Paul and the Charlevoix bottle shop. The cashier confirmed that we were the first limo ever to pull into their parking lot. There’s no tasting room, but we loaded up bottles, including a bunch of Vache Folle milk stout. Jeff insisted on buying an expired bottle of rye pale ale from a display out front.
To sample their beers we drove into town to Le Saint Pub for dinner. Or late lunch. Or something. I didn’t eat enough, but did drink another 9% milk stout. We left there, and admired the pretty little town while Felix fetched the limo.
Felix drove us down to the St. Lawrence, where the Rivière du Gouffre empties into the bay which gives the town its name, and we took in the view before jumping back into the limo home.
Back to Quebec City we drove, drinking Charlevoix beer as we went (the expired ryePA? Delicious.) and checked into our respective hotels. Frankly, the rest of the evening is a blur for me. I’d had too much to drink, and not nearly enough to eat. I remember meeting everyone in the bar at the Hotel Clarendon. I remember grabbing cabs to get to Le Projet, which seemed like a really cool place for the few seconds I was there. And I remember the day getting completely away from me, if you know what I mean, and needing to go home immediately. Nellie and I managed to get ourselves into an Uber and I conked out. Way to ruin your birthday, Dan.
The next morning was a rough one, but I got some coffee and a bagel in me, and we got on the road. It was raining when we left QC, but the clouds soon broke and the sun appeared and we drove through the beautiful Quebec countryside. Nellie needed some fluids and I needed some grease, so we stopped in a little town called Donnacona and she got a vitamin water and I got McDonald’s drive-through fries. Those fries saved my life, yo.
Not long after we pulled off the highway at Fromagerie des Grondines for some cheese, then got back on the highway and continued on to Shawinigan. The plan was to visit Trou du Diable, another brewing favourite. Again, no tasting room per se, but WHAT a cool shop: an almost overwhelming selection of bottles available, and great swag. Nearly everyone bought a tshirt or a hat — I’m wearing mine as I type this. We could have stayed there all day if we didn’t have places to be. I still had no firm idea of where those places were, mind you; I was just along for the ride.
Oh yeah, and I got another surprise when we pulled into the TdD parking lot: brother #2 and his wife, who flew in from Nova Scotia the night before. Incroyable! I didn’t see that one coming. I got a little choked up. Had to wait a second before getting out of the car.
So now we were ten, and loaded up on beer, and — after a grocery stop in Trois-Rivières — on our way to a town called Sorel-Tracy on the Richelieu River. We arrived around 4, at a house called Le Maison Relaxio, and I promise that I am NOT making that up. Once we walked through we understood the name. It’s a beautiful, modern five-bedroom house with a big indoor pool, a games area, outdoor patios with decks and grills and stoves, a sauna, a hot tub, an enormous kitchen, a home theatre in the basement…it felt like we were in Beverly Hills. And it was ours for the night.
We snacked on an enormous charcuterie board and cracked craft beers and blasted hip-hop. We went for swims, and swung in hammocks, and battled at air hockey. We sat on docks, played pool, sipped wine. Matt and Jeff did every activity station in the place, like they were at camp. Before long Matt and his line chefs began preparing dinner: burgers made of beef and pork, stuffed with confit goose, and topped with local cheddar. Also: potato salad and grilled corn, and (obviously) wine and beer.
There was much more swimming after dinner. Nellie made friends with a plastic dolphin. Kaylea and I drank expired milk stout straight from bottles. Jeff swam around with the pink umbrella. Steph crashed early as she is wont to do. No one wanted to leave or let the day end, but eventually we all crashed. We needed three more days here at least.
Today it was back to Montreal, so everyone fueled up on a giant pork-ridden breakfast. I drove in a leftover burger for good measure and THAT GOOSE my god almighty god. Anyway, it was a short drive, but no one really had the wherewithal to tackle either Unibroue or a long drive to Brasserie Dunham. We just wanted to get to Montreal. We dropped CBJ+M at their hotel, and drove a few more blocks to our own: the Hotel Place d’Armes.
Unfortunately our room wasn’t ready yet, so we left our bags and went out in search of coffee. I found an espresso at Café Différance, and we found fresh local beer at Les Souers Grises, a brewpub on the site of an old nunnery.
We walked in the hot sun to our hotel, where our room…still wasn’t ready. So off we went to the hotel bar to cool down with wine and gin, until suddenly…CBGB showed up! Nellie told me the surprises were over! Tricksy! False! We had a drink with them, but only one, as we all needed to clean up and now our room was ready. And what a room it was: a two level loft suite. Nellie had gone all-out, no doubt. We put on some tunes, showered, changed, and were ready for a drink when Andrew & Denise popped over.
We walked up the flight of outdoor stairs to the rooftop patio. Well, the lower one; the upper one was full and featured no shade, which is no place for two Dickinson men. We took over the corner couch, ordered a bottle of Möet et Chandon, and enjoyed the views.
We needed a drink locale to rally prior to dinner in the plateau, so we picked Gorge Rouge, a fairly hipster hangout a block from our restaurant. My French isn’t quite up to the task of a complex drinks list, but we muddled through, and got another surprise when two more friends showed up: MLK! In fact, they’d driven to Montreal just for this dinner. What a pair of beauties.
When it was nearly time for our dinner we walked the block to La Salle À Manger, and filled a table for 14. No, wait, make that 16: JP+Sue had just arrived. NOW, Nellie promised, there were no more surprises. This was it: the finale, the apex, the ne plus ultra. So we tucked in to dinner. And oh my. Dinner.
There were oysters. There was house-made charcuterie. There was seared tuna. There was some sort of enormous concoction of shrimp and salad and tomatoes and onion rings piled on a single huge loaf of bread. There was boudin noir. There were probably things I’ve forgotten now one week on. And finally, there was an entire suckling pig, including the head (which I held up Lord Of The Flies style, and which JP ate). Through it all there was a never-ending supply of goddamn outstanding wine, hand-picked by Kaylea. The Loire cab franc she ordered nearly stopped my heart. She gets me.
We bought a shot for the kitchen staff — they came out of the kitchen to thank us — and then we killed the lemon dessert which signaled the end. What a meal. What an event.
The adventure ended here for a few people: MLK, CBJ+M, and Andrew & Denise who had to leave early the next morning. For our part, we didn’t have much left in us either. We hailed an UberX and sped home.
One friend who knows me well (too well?) whispered an instruction to me that night: to look around the table and never again doubt that people love me. My insecure brain will never fully believe it, but there they all were. Those words glowed in my head as I drifted off to sleep.
Sunday we slept in, because of course we did. We ordered a big greasy room-service breakfast and headed back up to the Plateau, because it was time for church: a visit to the Dieu du Ciel brewpub. I had somehow, criminally, never been to this place, the home of Canada’s best brewery and maker of my favourite beer, Péché Mortel. The intrepid ten left over from dinner the night before were all here, and we enjoyed a tour with one of the brewmasters (who actually sat with us for hours and talked beer…such a great guy) followed by a tasting flight. Then we basically just killed the rest of the board. I’d started feeling ill while in the brewing room (humid, no air moving, not enough food in my stomach, etc.) and had a bit of a slow start, but the chai beer seemed to save me. I sampled three or four more, and was starting to rally.
CBGB departed for their train, and three of the remaining little piggies went to market (Marché Jean-Talon, that is) to fetch dinner for the evening. The rest of us went around the corner to Dépanneur As to buy some beer. There was so much Quebec beer there I’d never heard of that I didn’t know where to start. Jeff, JP, and I each loaded up a box, waited forever for a cab, suffered through said cabbie’s ridiculous roundabout route, and arrived at Matt & Kaylea’s Airbnb rental.
Their place had a beautiful (and dinosaur-ridden) back patio, so we drank cold beer and wine, and put Ben Harper and Nina Simone and NoFX and Bob Marley records on the turntable (!), and ate another Matt-feast: shrimp, oysters, duck bacon & goat cheese, scallops & chanterelle mushrooms, seared yellowfin tuna, a maelstrom of king crab, and (since we were in Quebec) a tarte au sucre. That was it. I could eat no more. We hugged it out and caught our last Uber of the trip.
The fairy tale was over. Time to go home. We collected our steed, dropped our beer off in the trunk of JP’s car, drove to the airport in the most clusterfuck-y manner possible, and checked in to our flight. Not that we were in a time crunch, but it’s still nice to sail through that Nexus line at security.
Our flight home barely even seemed like a thing, it was like a thought. We arrived back in Toronto barely 100 hours after we’d left, but it felt like we’d been gone for weeks. We walked through the island airport tunnel for the first time, and a few minutes later were home, suddenly feeling very lonely.
Of course, I needed that alone time. Not that I’d have traded it for anything, but the constant social interaction and being the ostensible reason for the festivities was just as exhausting for me as the rich food, heavy drink, and lack of sleep. Much like our other epic adventures with friends, I needed a vacation after our vacation.
But like all great adventures, they turn more brilliant as a day or two passes. Only today, after an especially intense week at work, do I really feel like I’m able to see the arc of the thing. During the weekend itself I was so busy being shuttled around, and then so overwhelmed by everyone’s arrival and attention, that I was barely reacting or getting excited. It took almost a week for the emotions to hit me. Gratitude. Appreciation. Joy, outright joy.
I can’t, and certainly didn’t, thank anyone enough for coming all the way from Toronto and Barrie and Ottawa and Nova Scotia. I’m bad at things like that, but I think they know that about me by now. I think they also know I love them whether I say it or not.
I also didn’t (and almost never do) thank my wife enough. The sheer logistics of what went into this trip was incredible, let alone the care and thoughtfulness. I might have guessed the destination, but never could have expected the company. I could never have anticipated the memories I now have.
I am so lucky. And what else could a man want on any day of his life?