Cover photo by Paul Heaberlin, used under Creative Commons license

Nuts

When we visited Halifax last weekend we flew Porter. It’s great service and we like flying out of the island airport, so…yeah. We always fly Porter.

Anyway, just before both legs (Toronto -> Montreal, Montreal -> Halifax) the head flight attendant made an unusual announcement. Before closing the door she told us that someone aboard was so allergic to peanuts  that she had to collect any open containers of nuts before closing the door. Also, that no one could open any nuts during the flight, and they would obviously not offer almonds as one of the snacks.

First, let’s assume the flight attendant misspoke and conflated nut allergies with peanut allergies, and that the passenger was allergic to peanuts as she first stated. Let’s also assume that the afflicted passenger is one of the estimated 0.6%-1.0% of people with an actual peanut allergy, not the self-diagnosed sort.

Going by a quick and dirty estimate based on Porter’s Q400 aircraft spec, I’d estimate that this passenger sat in roughly 9,300 cubic feet of cabin space. Granted, the air in that cabin is pressurized and recycled for the 90 minutes of flight time, but that’s still a pretty big space to worry about a single package of nuts being opened, no? We’re talking about peanut dust which, having gone airborne and diluted in nearly 10,000 cubic feet, being able to kill you. That seems incredibly sensitive. What happens in a movie theatre? Or a school bus? Or a doctor’s office, where you must surely spend a great deal of time? An airplane crew chief aside, I’m not sure how you control for that in your daily life.

And of course if that person was so massively allergic to peanuts we should accommodate that, and of course the airline was right to protect the passenger.

But maybe

.:.

Cover photo by Paul Heaberlin, used under Creative Commons license

Coney Island Parachute Jump

Just got back from a weekend of fun in Halifax to celebrate my birthday. I’m kind of tired, so no prose this time. Just the highlights of places we hit, both new and familiar.

BAR AT THE PRINCE GEORGE HOTEL
Since we stayed at the Prince George hotel we decided to have a lunch at the new bar downstairs. The fried chicken sandwich was pretty tasty, and they had a surprisingly good beer selection; before I started on the locals I had two from Dieu Du Ciel: the Blanche du Paradis and the Aphrodisiaque.

FIELD GUIDE
After meeting up with our friends we tried to hit this place, but they don’t open ’til 6pm. Next time, then.

STILLWELL
This was the one I was really excited about. It’s a new(ish) place modelled after places like Volo and Pony Bar, and I’ve been following their progress and Twitter account since they were under construction. We all started with samplers; I got the PEI Brewing 1772 IPA, North Brewing Belgian IPA, Boxing Rock Sessionista, and Picaroons Dark and Stormy Night. Our entire group then split a stellar bottle of Brooklyn Sorachi Ace — what a treat. I wrapped up with the Uncle Leo’s Smoked Porter, which tasted like bacon. By the time I left this was my new favourite place in Halifax.

AUCTION HOUSE
This was another new stop for us. There’s a gimmick where they raffle off special appetizers and desserts and such, and people bid using paddles at their tables. We only took part in one auction and weren’t quite willing to part with $20 for a dessert, but it was still kind of fun. We split half a dozen appetizers and I had a Hell Bay Dark Cream Ale.

CARLETON
This was another first for me, even though the Carleton has been there for years. See, when I lived in Halifax, the Carleton was a SMU bar, so I didn’t go there. And old habits die hard. Anyway, it’s gotten a bit swankier inside, and the live music was pretty good. Not a great beer list, but they did have Unibroue Blanche de Chambly and cocktails named after local 90s indie bands like Thrush Hermit and Eric’s Trip. So there was that.

MAXWELL’S PLUM
Yet another Halifax institution which had never had the pleasure of my company. We were getting pretty silly by this point. I remember starting with a Boxing Rock Hunky Dory Pale Ale and ending with a Big Spruce Cereal Killer Oatmeal Stout; there may have been another in between those two but I can’t be sure.

STILLWELL
That’s right, we went back. It was that good. And before I left I’d noticed they had bottles of Dieu Du Ciel Péché Mortel in the fridge, which our friend Becky had never tried, so I ordered two (and some delicious Atari fries). After this magnificent reprisal the girls dragged us somewhere awful. I won’t even discuss it here. Awful.

PIZZA CORNER
Aaaaaaaaaaand the evening was back on track. And by “evening” I mean 2am. And by “back on track” I mean covered in donair sauce.

EDNA
After a very slow start to Sunday morning we dragged ourselves over to EDNA for brunch. By the time we left it had joined Stillwell atop my list of favourite Halifax places. The food was outstanding — I had a smoked pork chop, eggs, beans, toasted sourdough baguette, duck fat potatoes, and a cappuccino. The space (rustic, open) felt completely welcoming, the music (folk, blues) was perfect, and the clientele was almost universally happy and attractive. I can’t wait to go back for dinner some day.

TWO IF BY SEA
We braved the drizzela and walked down to the waterfront, stopping at TIBS for some fuel: capp #2. From there we threaded the needle of Buskerfest crowds down the waterfront, past a superyacht, all the way to the market.

GARRISON
The rain had let up and the sun was out now, so we stopped for two wee samples on the Garrison patio. I had the Raspberry Wheat and the Nut Brown.

HENRY HOUSE
Since we were just around the corner and felt we needed just a little more food in our stomachs we visited an old familiar haunt for some spicy calamari and a Granite Brewery Best Bitter on the patio. Nellie got one of her new favourites, the Ringwood.

STUBBORN GOAT
Sunday night’s plan was to have a proper dinner at another new stop, the Stubborn Goat. The Murphy girls rejoined us, and we added three others, but none of us had much in the way of energy. Even Nellie and I had to power through a few drinks, but we couldn’t leave that beer selection untouched. I had a Boxing Rock Sessionista, a Picaroons Best Bitter, and a Dieu du Ciel Pénombre. The menu looked impressive, though it didn’t really blow us away…or maybe that was the service, which was pretty amateurish the whole night. Still, I want to go back — our friends assured us this was out of character for the Goat, so we’ll keep it in mind for next time.

No Pizza Corner on night #2; we all rolled out of there and made for home. I crashed into bed immediately; Nellie insisted on watching The Other Woman, which even Kate Upton in a bikini couldn’t save. Our travel back to Toronto was unremarkable except for the limo driver who had spent his childhood working on a blueberry farm only a few miles from our own. Small world.

Thanks for the 46 hours of fun, Halifax. It was a hoot.

Photo by Oefe, user under Creative Commons license

Surprisingly: no beans

In retrospect, February may not have been the best time for a trip to Boston. But of course I didn’t think about that when a Porter seat sale prompted us to visit a new city. Yes, new city: somehow neither of us had ever made it to Boston.

The trip started out well enough: it was snowing when we left Toronto last Friday, but not so much that our flight from the island was delayed. We landed in Boston with no problems, fat fresh snow falling on banks built high in the previous week’s blizzard. My sense of direction is usually pretty good, but I was more than a little disoriented by the time our cab reached our hotel, the XV Beacon. Luckily, in addition to a ton of space and a nice gas fireplace, our room had a great view of Boston Common, so I was centered again. That fireplace, it turns out, would come in handy.

We were already hungry, so we homed in on a nearby place known for both good food and good beer for a late lunch. We took the long way, walking through a bit of the Common where we saw kids ice skating and guided tours of the Freedom Trail starting, before finding ourselves a barstool at Stoddard’s.  Our food was great, and they had some serious American craft brew on tap: I had a Narragansett porter and and a Left Hand milk stout, while Nellie had a Harpoon UFO Belgian white and a Brash “The Bollocks” IPA. We left there pretty fat and happy.

We walked a tiny bit of that off by circling the Common and Public Gardens, getting our bearings, figuring we’d do the heavy-duty touring the next day. We saw a little more of Beacon Hill, and had dinner at Bin 26, a wine bar not far from our hotel. It was okay, but didn’t blow either of us away. Still, any place with that many wines by the glass has to be commended, even if the wine list is like a puzzle. We walked back to our room in the chilly night, past the golden dome of the State House to our hotel, and planned our adventures for the next day while  the downtown lights gave us a little reminder of home.

Plan, schman. Turns out something the Weather Channel called “winter storm Plato” decided to show up and pelt Boston with a wicked (see what I did there?) blast of snow and cold. We set out with every intention of trying to see some of the Freedom Trail, but it was just too cold and windy…we got maybe a few blocks before the ice pellets stinging our eyes drove us inside. We couldn’t bear the thought of retreating to the hotel though, and decided to jump on the subway.

Needless to say, I had The Kingston Trio’s “MTA” playing in my head from the moment we bought that ticket. We decided to go way out to Allston, in the middle of Boston College and Harvard and a bunch of other schools, to try a place called Deep Ellum…the top-rated beer place in Boston. It was a long, brutal walk through the storm from the train stop to the pub; getting through a door never felt so good. It was packed with students scarfing down hangover brunch, but we found two seats at the end of the bar. Despite being twice the age of anyone else in the place we got asked for our ID. Incroyable!

The beer selection was impressive: the draft list alone consisted of a couple dozen American craft brews I’d never even heard of, and we  took full advantage. I had a Jack’s Abby “Smoke and Dagger” smoked lager, a Pretty Things “Saint Botolph’s Town” rustic dark ale, a Rising Tide “Daymark” rye APA, and a Jack’s Abby “Saxonator” dopplebock, while Nellie had a Wormtown “Petite Belma” IPA, a High and Mighty “Beer of the Gods” German ale, a Pretty Things “Baby Tree” quadrupel, and a Green Flash “Palate Wrecker” IPA. Food-wise we had a nice soft pretzel, some sausage & mustard, and poutine (!) with duck gravy. We wrapped up with one more (another Palate Wrecker for Nellie, and a stout on cask that I don’t quite remember) before starting the return trip. It was still brutally cold, but at least the ice pellets had stopped hitting us in the face.

We got back to the hotel and made full use of it for the rest of the afternoon, taking long hot showers, curling up in front of the fireplace, watching travel shows about warm destinations. We weren’t up for another excursion when it came to eating dinner; luckily Mooo (a new steakhouse) is in the hotel’s basement, so we ate there. It was pretty decent: Nellie had lobster bisque and filet mignon, while I had short rib croquettes and prime sirloin, paired with a 2007 Heitz Cabernet Sauvignon. After spending the whole afternoon at Deep Ellum we needed that food in our stomachs too.

We went out the next morning with every intention of doing at least some of the sights on the Freedom Trail, but didn’t get far…it was still fantastically cold. We got as far as the Boston Massacre site and turned back for the hotel. A shower and some packing later and it was time to go. I have to say, the whole process of flying out — from getting to the airport (in the hotel’s Lexus SUV house car) to checking in (no lineups, and friendly, funny TSA agents!) to waiting to board (lunch at a Vino Volo and painless boarding) to the super-smooth flight — was one of the most painless travel experiences we’ve ever had. Always good when a trip wraps up like that.

So, while it wasn’t a bad trip — indeed, we had a lot of fun — it was certainly limited by the weather. Clearly we’ll need to go back, not just to see what the city is like in the warm sun, but also to further explore a feeling we both had almost immediately about Boston…that it feels an awful lot like Halifax. I guess that makes sense — both are old North American cities, not terribly far apart, designed largely by the British around the mid-18th century — but we still both had the strong feeling of familiarity almost immediately upon arriving. The commons in the middle of the city, the public gardens, the waterfront, the wealth of colleges (though Boston’s are certainly more prestigious), the unusually strong ties between the cities with traditions like the annual Commons Christmas tree and the love of Boston sports teams in Nova Scotia…it all made Boston feel familiar to two people who consider Halifax kind of their spiritual home. And just as we’d never assume good weather before travelling to Halifax, but trusting to find its’ charm indoors and out, so we’ll plan a return trip to Boston someday.

.:.

Photo by Oefe, user under Creative Commons license

Photo by bobolink, user under Creative Commons license

How Porter might have blown it

Oh Porter. I loved you. Like, a lot. For those of us who travel a fair amount and dislike most airline experiences, you were a breath of fresh air. I talked you up every chance I got. I always chose you over Air Canada if possible, even after AC began flying off the Toronto island airport. But Thursday’s experience — albeit it at Dulles, not your YTZ home — may have cost you a die-hard customer.

I was already booked on PD728 to Toronto at 8:45PM. As luck would have it I was able to end my day early so I thought I’d see if I could catch an earlier flight. My assistant called Porter, who told her it would be much cheaper to switch to PD726 (leaving IAD at 4:20PM) in person at the airport. So, after my presentation I jumped in a cab and arrived at IAD at 3:15. By 3:20 I was in a line of three people waiting to be checked in at the Porter desk. There were two people working the desk, so I figured I was in good shape.

I was wrong.

One of the two employees working the desk was new, and unable to process new check-ins. The other wasn’t at the counter, but rather in the room behind the desk making phone calls on behalf of a customer having Visa problems. Now, I do not begrudge her this; the customer needed help, and she was trying to provide it. But was there no way to have the other employee — who couldn’t process new check-ins — handle the phone call? Was there no way to call for additional staff? Was there no way to prioritize people like myself, and the passenger in front of me, as we rushed to make an earlier flight?

However, like good Canadians, the two of us waited patiently while the newly-returned Porter employee checked in the first passenger in line (and her family) and finished with the customer experiencing Visa problems. This took twenty minutes. TWENTY MINUTES. By the time the customer in front of me, also trying to get on the 4:20PM flight, got to the desk he was told that he was too late, and that the flight was boarding in just ten minutes. I had been standing in line for twenty minutes; the customer in front of me had clearly been waiting longer than that. If the counter had been properly staffed, or had the staff allocated work correctly, or had they prioritized in some way, we both could have made it easily, even at an airport as complicated as Dulles.

What made the experience even more frustrating was what followed: the poor passenger in front of me was told to return at 6:45 — more than three hours later — to check in for the next flight. He, being a nice guy and aware that I was also trying to make the flight, turned and told me the situation — that he’d have to wait three hours in the departures area just to check in to PD728, and then proceed to the gates. I felt sorry for him, but also felt relieved that I already had a seat confirmed on PD728 — Porter had emailed me 24 hours before — and assumed the staff would check me in so I could at least proceed to the terminal A gates, which are infinitely nicer than the departures level at Dulles. However, before I had a chance to do so, the two staff members put out a sign saying the counter was closed and disappeared into the back. I called to them; no answer. I waited a few moments; they did not return. I was incredulous. They didn’t even speak to me; they simply assumed I was in the exact situation as the passenger in front of me (who I didn’t know) and closed up shop.

About an hour later I realized my email from Porter actually contained the boarding pass and barcode I’d need to get through security. Luckily I could now kill three hours in a better part of town than Dulles departures. I should have realized that sooner, but I also shouldn’t have had to figure it out on my own…I should have already been sitting in an airside lounge, having been checked in by an agent.

I realize I was asking a lot to move my flight up, and that extenuating circumstances (a passenger wrestling with visa issues) made it difficult, but never in my experience has a challenging thrown a Porter employee. If Porter had lived up to my expectations of them — well-deserved expectations, I must say — I’d have been on the 4:20PM flight and home in Toronto by 6:00PM, instead of sitting in a Dulles airport bar for three hours.

I’ve been a long and loyal Porter advocate, but on Thursday my faith was shaken. I’m not sure how long it will be before my trust is restored. What I do know is that I will not defend as loudly, nor promote as proudly, the Porter service as I have in the past. And that’s a shame.

.:.

Photo by bobolink, user under Creative Commons license