Tuesday, 6 February 2018

Where beer does flow and men chunder - The 2017/18 Ashes in Perth

One rather large item on my bucket list has always been to watch England play an Ashes Test Match in Australia. I've also set myself a target of eventually having watched them play at all the Test venues in Aus. So, when it was announced that the WACA in Perth was going to be replaced by a brand spanking new stadium and that the 2017/18 Test would be the last one at the historic old ground I decided I'd best get myself over to the other side of the world and get it crossed off.

The initial flight out was on the Monday morning before the game was due to start. I met Shep and Dave, two fellow Lancashire members, in a bar on the other side of security and settled into various cricket related discussions. Typically we were delayed due to a buildup of air traffic at Manchester Airport, but we were soon up in the air and on the way. The flight itself was uneventful, with the discovery of the original Ghostbusters on the inflight entertainment system aiding with passing the time. However, at just under 13 hours, this was by far the longest flight I'd ever done and at both the 7 (the usual flight time to Toronto) and 9 (the previous longest flight I'd done to Chicago) hour mark I felt like I was trapped in a bit of a nightmare...

Still, now in Tuesday, we arrived at Changi Airport, Singapore. The delay meant we were seriously pushing it to get across to the next gate, especially with having to go through security again. So there was a bit of a sprint across the airport, but in the end we had plenty of time as the flight to Perth was delayed by about 10 minutes. This one was only a short flight (5 hours!) but on a 'lesser' plane and I was struggling at the end of it. However my first Singapore Sling did help to ease the suffering!

Once down in Perth Airport things got a lot easier. The e-visa system and electronic gates made customs ridiculously easy, although it did mean I got no stamp in my passport, which I was a bit annoyed about. Still, the ease of getting in is worth it I guess, so you can't complain too much. The airport had expanded since my companions were last here and, unbeknownst to them, there were now four terminals. So we opted to get a cab into town rather than sticking to the original plan of meeting the other travellers coming in on an internal flight and sharing a hire car with them.

I arrived at the Ambassador hotel, which was very nice indeed, checked in and got my head down for a bit before heading back out for a walk to explore my surroundings. It had gone cool out by this point and the wind was actually cold, which I wasn't quite prepared for. I'd heard about the Fremantle Doctor, but I didn't realise how strong it actually was! I wandered across Langley Park (Middleton all over the world...) and to the edge of the River Swan before following the riverside path up towards Elizabeth Quay. I passed the rather impressive Supreme Court and marvelled at a rather large Dinosaur advertising a local exhibition. There was even a Woolworths in a shopping centre and an EB Games store to continue the extinct species theme. After checking out the town hall and getting most of my souvenir shopping done early I dropped a few bits back at the hotel and met Shep and Dave and the rather peculiarly named Fenians Irish Pub for a pint or three.

The day before the Test was one of only two full free days I had in the city and the only one I'd get to myself, so I was determined to make the most of it. Jet lag had other ideas, mind, aided by a nearby alarm going off at about half 6 in the morning. Twice. Eventually, after getting out of the hotel a good couple of hours later than planned, I was walking through Perth and up one bloody great big hill to the majestic King's Park.

As well as being a magnificent place to come and hang out, the park is two thirds native bushland. That's right, no need at all to head to the outback and risk meeting all kinds of dangerous creatures, just head slightly out of the city centre to a park with designated trails through genuine Aussie bush. I did nearly get taken out by the huge dragonflies, though, and wearing suede trainers for the sandy, stony path back through the longer trail was a definite mistake. But other than that it was bloody magnificent and well worth the effort.

After all of that I decided that I'd definitely earned myself a beer. I headed back down the hill and into Perth Railway Station, where I picked up the train to Fremantle. I'd been told to get the ferry, but why would you do that when there's trains?!

Fremantle is a lovely little place, known for being the site of a convict jail which you can visit. The intention was to do that last, with a brewery and two bars on my list to hit first. Of course, everything went to pot when on the way to my first stop off I saw a huge sign for a craft beer bar, which just happened to be on my route. Well, it'd be rude not to, wouldn't it? A pint in the Ball & Chain it was, alongside a rather nice serving of barramundi and chips. From there I crossed a park and headed to my main target for the day, Little Creatures Brewery. It didn't disappoint. The beer was fantastic, the food looked good and the staff were brilliant. I really didn't want to leave, but with a limited time in town I had to go out and explore.

On one of the staff's recommendations I had another extra stop off, the Norfolk Hotel. Again, I could have spent the rest of the day there. From there it was onto The Monk Brewery & Kitchen and from there I walked over the road to the Sail & Anchor. Both very good bars with an excellent range of real ale on, although the latter wasn't quite as laid back as the rest had been which started to get to me a little bit. Hunger had a little to do with that, so with a beer head on I went to a local takeaway across the road called Hungry Jack's... For those that, like me, didn't know, it was Burger King under a different name. Still, it filled a hole.

By this point it was starting to get a bit late and the light was fading. Still, slightly tipsy Michael decided that you had to visit Fremantle Jail regardless, so armed with Google Maps I headed off to find it, passing some sort of Oval on the way (I failed to get in). Eventually I did find the jail, all closed up for the day! Still, I had a wander around the outer walls, found the aptly named Holdsworth Street and got a good snap of the lit up entrance. As I was completely unsure of the train times back I decided enough was enough and made my way back to the station, stumbling across the Fremantle Oval on my way. A sports ground with an open gate? Well, why not? A quick diversion through there and I was back at the station and, eventually, back in the centre of Perth. I met Shep and Dave in the Grosvenor and Shep gave me a visiting members' guest pass he'd got for day 4. A day out of the sun? Go on, then.

And so Thursday morning came around and your extremely giddy writer was up and out early, heading down to the WACA to take it all in before the Test Match started. After a wander round both outside and inside I found myself a spot on the West Grass Bank and settled in for a great day for England, Malan's superb ton and a very decent score filling the English in the ground with optimism.

Off the pitch the 'entertainment' came from a group of Aussies dressed as chillis. They couldn't understand it when they were pulled up about singing "I'd rather be a P**i than a Pom" and there was a bit of idiotic behaviour at times, but in the main they did behave themselves. However, a run in with the exec box behind us (still don't know what happened) and a few other incidents meant that they were first banned from every bar in the ground and then, when someone else got them a beer, they were all 'asked' to leave. The stewarding in the public areas was the only thing that let the place down for me, people were kicked out for some very harmless things. But I guess that's what happens when you've a private firm doing security.

The end of the day was spent shivering (the Fremantle Doctor came in with a vengeance, aided by the grass bank being covered in shade thanks to the aforementioned exec box), although that was a relief from the sun. A few of us were also trying to avoid being hit by the rubber ball two lads were playing cricket with using the KFC bucket army hats.

Talking of avoiding the sun, I have to mention the free sunscreen dispensers around the ground and the water fountains. Between them and volunteers going around with sun cream, water and frog sweets they did everything they could to help people protect themselves from the Perth sun.

The evening was then spent on a solo bar hop across Perth. The rooftop Bob's Bar was a pain in the backside to find, but find it I did. I would have eaten if the Doctor wasn't blowing so strongly up there. The Belgian Beer Cafe was excellent, although they rung last orders not much after 8pm. The Generous Squire was nice, but by this point I'd found out my companions were staying in their hotel bar for the evening so I thought I'd tick off as many of the craft beer bars on my list as I could. I headed off on a bit of a walk to Northbridge and attempted my first stop off at The Bird, but as it was five dollars to get in I politely declined and headed over to Lot Twenty. A wonderful bar with very friendly staff in a very interesting environment. And there was audio from Blackadder Goes Forth playing in the gents. Another one to put down on the "I wish I could stay longer" list.

The main reason I wasn't stopping longer was Northbridge Brewing (also going by Beerland Brewing Co. which confused me to no end when trying to find it). After trying a pint I settled in with a rack of tasters and a pizza whilst listening to the live music. I also bumped into a couple of Essex members that I knew through a Lancs supporting mate. All in all, a very good evening.

With the initial excitement of the first day long gone, Friday was a very sluggish start indeed. It was a warmer day which was already in evidence when I met Shep and Dave at their hotel to walk down to the ground. Cricket wise it started brightly with Bairstow getting his ton and England setting a record partnership at the WACA. However the usual story of quick wickets put paid to that and England finished with quite a few runs less than we'd hoped for. By the end of the day I was bored of watching Australia rack up the runs. Queuing up for an expensive XXXX gold in a slow queue were people were getting brassed off with a, by now, one beer limit just added to my frustrations. Add in the chunnering buffoons in the posh bit behind me and I was glad when the umpires called time for the day.

The evening saw another solo bar hop. I should probably have stayed in Petition Beer Corner which had about 15 draft beers on and countless bottles and cans. After a few drinks and a chat with the staff in there I headed back towards Northbridge in a failed attempt to be sociable. There was something on at NBC, so I got turned away and, after a wander, I ended up in a bar called Universal. I tried a beer which everyone had told me to avoid and instantly regretted my bravado. After standing at the back feeling awkward as the place got busier and louder I headed a couple of doors down to an American sports bar called Patriots, drawn in by the promise of food. I ate, I drank and then I gave it all up as a bad job and walked back to the hotel. There was a large police presence around as well, but I guess that was a usual Friday night thing.

Saturday saw another slow start, with the snooze button getting a bit of a hiding. I regretted both that and going straight to the museum in the ground when I wandered onto the hill and discovered that I'd lost my spot. I tried to get on part of the back wall where people had been sitting, just inside an area cordoned off for the kids taking part in the lunch break activities. Unfortunately there was a different steward working that section to the previous couple of days and he was a bit of a jobsworth, so I ended up settling a bit further down the hill. However, as people moved around I managed to get to move back in, easing the slight anxiety that was building as I did so.

The cricket again went to pot with England seemingly happy to throw down declaration bowling. Marsh's ton and Smith's double ton helped you spot the English supporters on the bank around me. Throw in England reviewing a decision that ended up being not out due to a no ball and, well, it was one of those days. I'd started keeping a track of the different county supporters around the ground. My main criteria was non cricketing flags and shirts didn't count, so sorry Derby County, Derbyshire joined Gloucestershire as the only two first class counties I didn't see represented in Perth.

The Chillis were spotted again, this time in normal dress and behaving themselves. There was a Scottish bloke engaging in a friendly (genuinely) exchange with the English fans below him. Until he was thrown out for bending over and pretending to lift his kilt up, much to the dismay of everyone else. Being near the kids' section provided a few bits of entertainment, with one little girl excitedly pointing out a "balloon" to her dad, whilst everyone else tried not to laugh as they watched an inflated condom drifting across the stands. Later on, her brother got extremely upset because other kids were picking up and playing with one of the large amount of cardboard bucket hats he had collected over the day, protesting as if they were all priceless artifacts. And people wonder why I'm in no rush to have children!

I left slightly earlier than usual as I'd got a ticket to watch a bit of football. Perth Glory were at home to New Zealand side Wellington Phoenix in the A League. I've watched all sorts of nonsense to tick a new ground off in the past, so this was too good an opportunity to pass up. I headed up there with enough time to wander the ground beforehand, picking up a few bits and pieces and the usual programme. I resisted the temptation to go into the away section (although a few England fans who were also groundhopping did end up in there) and spent the first half sat at the back of the top tier behind the goal. I spent the second half wandering around until settling back into the top tier, this time down the front. It was an impressive ground, with the old facade still there amongst the modern backdrop. I was also impressed to see a terrace at one end. The game, however, was dreadful, although whether that's the standard of the league or the standard of the two teams at the bottom I don't know. Glory won 1-0 and as soon as the final whistle went I bolted out of the ground to the next craft beer place I had down to visit.

I'd seen Meat Candy on a list of places to try beer wise, but as impressive as the selection was, I ended up coming away more impressed with the food. A fried chicken restaurant, which was a 20 minute walk from the football ground. It was cosy, the lass serving me was very friendly and the hot chicken sandwich was amazing. I loved it and when I next make it back to Perth they'd better still be open.

With the state of play and the fact that I'd got a members' area pass, Sunday was a much later start. There wasn't much to report during the day, aside from being in a nice, air conditioned members' area with a bar just behind me serving decent beer at decent prices. With the state of England's batting it soon became clear that the end was nigh, but the rain came to make sure it was definitely pushed to a fifth day. In fact, the rain was absolutely ridiculous and contributed to everyone hanging around the ground gates waiting for an opportunity to leg it. We gave up and jumped in a cab instead.

That night was spent mainly in the bar at the Mantra, Shep and Dave's hotel. We met up with an Adelaide lad, Andy, that we'd met at Old Trafford in 2013 and some friends of Shep and Dave's from the Notts Taverner's bar at Trent Bridge were in as well. A couple of us ended up back at the bar in my hotel before I declared and called it a night.

Monday started off very wet indeed. For a few, brief hours we thought we may well save the match and keep the series alive. I had breakfast at a place called The Coffee Club just by my hotel before heading down to the ground and back into the members' area. After more rain and the hope of the pitch being damaged by leaky covers all hope was lost as the teams came back out and we lost a wicket straight away. From there on in it wasn't all that long before it was confirmed that my first experience of watching England abroad was to see us lose The Ashes. Not unexpectedly, I know, but still, it wasn't pleasant.

I reconvened with Shep and Dave at the Mantra, as they had bailed before the end. After a few beers and a postmortem I headed round the corner to Aachi, an Indian restaurant I'd spotted by chance a couple of days previously. As it was, a very good curry was just what I needed to make me forget about everything I had just seen.

The plan for the next day was to meet up with Shep, Dave and another Andy to go out for a drive. However, in the morning I reverted back a few decades by visiting the rather wonderful Nostalgia Box, a retro video game and console museum. I cannot do the place justice, I really can't. Some of the things they have need to be seen to be believed. The consoles going back to the 70s were just amazing. Not only that, but I got to remind myself how bad I am at Duck Hunt and I got to play Pong on a 40 year old machine. Honestly, it was a slightly aging video game nerd's dream come true.

Once I had run out of time in there, it was off on the drive to Lilac Hill and Midland Guildford Cricket Club. In the days of England travelling to Australia by boat they would land in Perth and play their first tour game here. It really was a lovely setup, with a picturesque park as the backdrop. There were a couple of (Aussie Rules) football grounds around as well, Swans Districts being the biggest one around here.

From there it was a drive back to Fremantle, where Andy went to a cafe for a bite to eat and we three went to the Ball & Chain for a couple of pints. On the way back we pulled into Cottesloe so that I could take in the view of the Indian Ocean across the beach. Again, there was a picturesque golf course and Aussie Rules football ground in the vicinity as well.

I ended up joining Shep and Dave back at their hotel for another couple of drinks before we went over the road for food in Blue Rock. This was also where something that started out as a bit of a joke actually came to fruition - my 50th unique new beer of the trip. The bottle was raised to the restaurant with the comment "that's one half century more than most of our batsmen will be going home with" ringing in my ears. There was just time for a few last drinks with my two companions before our farewells. They were off out to Melbourne in the morning, I was flying back home in the afternoon.

And so, my time was done. I got up, packed, checked out, left my bag at reception and made the long walk up to the brand spanking new Perth Stadium (Optus Stadium, for sponsorship purposes). I'd hoped to get up close and walk around the outside, especially as there'd been a test event there a few days earlier, but alas it was still a building site all around, so I had to make do with a pleasant riverside walk and admiring it from a distance instead. I wasn't expecting much from Perth from what I'd heard, but I was pleasantly surprised. It is a lovely city and the views you can get are wonderful. There's plenty of parkland and no shortage of things to see. I still couldn't quite get over seeing Christmas stuff in summer weather, though.

I had one last meal in The Coffee Club before retrieving my bags and having one last walk through town to kill a bit of time. I was feeling a bit tired by this point, though, with such a long walk in the morning and the heat was cranking up, too, so I gave in and jumped in a taxi to the airport. The driver was Iranian and we had a good chat, with him reminiscing about adjusting to the weather when he first arrived.

It turned out the check-in desk only opened three hours before the flight, not four as I'm used to for long haul flights, so I went for a drink at a bar just further down from the desks. There seemed to be quite a lot going on this side of the airport, which makes a change to most places. Eventually I was in and heading through security, where myself and others were 'randomly' selected for screening and testing for explosive materials. Only it wasn't random, if you walked past when there was a group being screened you didn't have to stop, if the benches were empty, you got waved in. I have no problem with these measures being in place, but don't lie about the methods used to screen people.

First impressions of the terminal were not good, but the more I wandered, the more I saw. I did a bit of last minute shopping and got ready for the flight, with another delay before boarding.

The flight to Singapore passed fairly incident free, although I was sat next to some entitled git who needed the odd sharp reminder about personal space. And across from me was a total pisshead and his wife who sunk far more wine than I think they should have been served. He struggled to stand upright and walk off the plane in a straight line, that's for certain.

I didn't have much time in Singapore again, but I did have a bit more breathing space this time as we actually arrived early. After jumping on the SkyTrain between terminals I picked up a couple of Singapore souvenirs and went to look at the Koi Karp. I didn't have time for the butterfly gardens, though. What an airport, seriously, it's amazing. After trying not to lose the plot with the clueless passengers in the security line I was eventually through and able to relax before the boarding scrum. There were some interesting flights on show, Stockholm via Moscow being one and my flight to Frankfurt was then going onto New York.

I found my aisle seat, on the end of a middle row of four, and could barely contain my joy when the seat immediately next to me was left vacant! It was good to be able to stretch out, although after an initial good bit of sleep something woke me up and I then struggled to settle. It wasn't the best of flights after that, but it really could have been a lot, lot worse.

We arrived into Frankfurt early and after being flagged up by the scanners and having my feet checked by security (that German sense of humour, feeling your toes and going "six?!" Mate, I've been travelling for nigh on 24 hours, leave it out, will you?) I was into the not very impressive airport and having a bit of a wander. I picked up a nice German bobble hat and then settled down by the gate, only to find out that we were going to be delayed due to the fog in Manchester. There was something mumbled about construction work as well, but it didn't make sense.

After more wandering and resisting a McDonald's, I eventually made it onto the plane. I took my seat on the back row and couldn't believe my luck when, this time, I had two empty seats next to me. Time to sit back and relax. The flight passed off incident free and, once again, immigration re-entering the UK at Manchester Airport was a complete pain. It says a lot when getting into Australia was far easier and much less hassle than coming back home.

All in all it was a brilliant trip. I'd not expected anything from England, so I couldn't let that ruin the experience. It was everything I'd thought it would be and more. Plans for South Africa in 2019 and a return for the next Ashes Down Under are already being made.

The full album of photos can be found here.

Sunday, 1 October 2017

Canada - February 2017

Back in February I headed back to Canada for the fifth time to see Nicole and Tony's wedding. After a few months of having a brief draft of the trip ready to write up, I decided it was time to get back into the swing of writing again with NaNoWriMo coming up, as well as a few big trips abroad, including another Canadian wedding, so a touch belatedly, here we go again.

I actually landed on the 31st of January (pedant alert) and actually had the most pleasant experience I've ever had at Canadian Customs. The last words the official said to me were "enjoy the wedding" - a big change from previous visits. Thanks to the fabulous Union Pearson Express I also managed to get downtown quicker and much cheaper than the previous trip and the taxi debacle. I was checked into the hotel late afternoon and headed upstairs for a lie down...

Rather stupidly, some might say, I'd decided to ignore the inevitable jet lag and had bought a ticket to watch the Toronto Raptors play a home game against the New Orleans Pelicans in the NBA. It was mainly a chance to tick a new sport/league off and I headed to the very back of the Air Canada Centre to get my standing room spot (basically a small walkway with a rail to lean on) and take in the game. I also stumbled upon a craft beer stand on the lower level which saved me from drinking Molson...

The game had been marketed as a special one for Chinese New Year, with various things going on around that. There were quite a few Chinese at the game as well, seemingly a lot of them were at their first game as well and didn't seem used to being in a stadium/arena.  It would be interesting to know how many have been back since. The start time had been brought forward half an hour as well, which also showed when loads of people started piling in at the original time.

The game itself was difficult to follow, although the increasing tiredness may well have had something to do with that. The end to end nature of the game was extremely quick paced and the turnover of possession was at lightning speed a lot of the time. There also seems to be no advantage rule, every foul saw the game stop, even if players had possession in dangerous territory. The atmosphere was aided by a DJ in the middle of the stand behind one end (no, really), cheerleaders and some blokes walking around into each block encouraging people to start the generic chanting.

The arena hosts both ice hockey (more of that later on) and basketball, so the arena's layout changes for each sport, mainly down on the lower tier. Extra courtside seats, which are basically folding seats, are added in for players, coaching staff and celebrity fans. The game itself was an exciting affair, with Toronto pulling level late on in normal time and then winning 108-106, the winning points coming with 4.3 seconds left of overtime. An enjoyable experience, although I was completely lost by the end of it.

The following day started with a gentle walk about the Eaton Centre before heading towards the Harbour Front for a walk through the snow. This was my first experience of Canada in the winter and, by god, it was cold, particularly in the evening. After a bit more of a wander and a look in a few sports shops, I settled in Real Sports Bar and Grill for food and a couple of beers. A superb place that I always make sure I visit whenever I'm in town.

The photo from this time around doesn't do the place justice. Their gallery will give you a better idea - or just go!

From there I jumped on the Go Train to BMO Field, home of local MLS side Toronto FC. It has been expanded since I last visited, so I had a wander around the outside to check out the impressive new stand. The ground itself was built on the site of the old baseball stadium, Exhibition Stadium. In the car park there are stone plaques marking the positions of the plates, although home plate had been removed for repair. Very interesting for a ground nerd like me, though. Next door to BMO Field is the Ricoh Arena, where the Toronto Marlies, the AHL affiliate side of the Toronto Maple Leafs play their home games.

From there I walked across to Fort York, a National Historic Site. After a quick wander around the bits you could get to without paying to get in (I only got there with about 40 minutes left before they closed) I set off walking again to Lamport Stadium, where the Toronto Wolfpack rugby league side where making their home. I can't see them being able to play there if they ever get to Super League, but then again I also can't see where else they could actually, realistically play.

Walking was definitely the activity of the day, as I set off on another leg stretch into the Trinity-Bellwoods area of town. The first stop off was a brief wander through Trinity Bellwoods Park and then onto the main reason for me being out in this part of town - Bellwoods Brewery.

It was a pity that I could only hang around for a couple. A small, quiet, laid back little bar with a large range of different beers on. Their signature Jelly King was a lovely drop and I would have liked to have tried a couple of the other variations of it, but food plans were getting the better of me. After trying a couple of different beers I walked back towards BMO Field and got the Go Train back to Union Station.

The original plan was to head out to a curry house that was recommended years ago and I've still not made it out to. But by the time I got back downtown I was starting to feel more than a little tired and rough, so I headed into the Eaton Centre and grabbed an Indian from the food court. It was decent, saved me a trip out on the streetcar and I headed back to get my weary head down.

The next day started with breakfast back in the Eaton Centre, followed by my standing outside the entrance to the Hockey Hall of Fame waiting for it to open. I've talked about this place before in previous Canada write-ups, so there's no need for me to do it again here. I spent a good couple of hours wandering around looking at the various exhibits, with the main focus as always being the Stanley Cup. Maybe one day I'll be able to stand next to it after the Leafs have won it again?

The next place I was visiting was a first time visit to the St. Lawrence Market. A myriad of different food stalls with other craft and souvenir places dotted throughout. The sights and smells were wonderful, although I was a bit surprised that the biggest queue was for fish and chips... I settled for a peameal bacon butty and a box of fabulous brownies. Yes, I was a pig! There was quite a bit more walking to make up for it though, as I headed down through the magnificent Distillery Historic District where I spent an hour or so sampling a few wares at Mill Street Brewery. A cracking line up of beers were on offer, although they didn't advertise percentages for their seasonal beers... One or two caught me out with their strength!

From there it was back out into the cold and yet another walk to the railway museum at Roundhouse Park. As well as looking round at their displays, I also ended up chatting to a fella who'd moved to Toronto around 50 years ago... From Preston! He was completely gobsmacked by the fact that he was talking to someone who was over from his old hometown.

From there I crossed the road and walked past the outside of the CN Tower and then round the outside of Rogers Stadium before resting my legs inside the good old Steam Whistle Brewery for a couple of drinks. After that it was back to the hotel for a rest before the next bit of sport.

My first port of call that evening was the old site of Arena Gardens, which was the first ever arena used by the Toronto Maple Leafs (then called the Toronto Arenas) - opening in 1917. I then carried on up the road for a bit and re-visited Maple Leaf Gardens (the previous, famous old home of the Leafs until 1993), only on this trip I was heading up to the Mattamy Athletics Centre in the roof of the old building to watch a local university ice hockey side, the Ryerson Rams, play a home game. Basically because it's as close as I'm ever going to get to seeing hockey at Maple Leaf Gardens. It was a good night and a good game with the home side running riot. After that I had a wander to Nathan Phillips Square to see the Toronto sign lit up at night, before trudging back in the -7 degree cold to get back to the hotel.

Friday saw my last few hours of staying in Toronto, so after a monster breakfast at Fran's on a recommendation, I headed up to Casa Loma on the subway to have a quick nosey around. It's a lovely old building and it would have been nice to have gone inside, but time was against me, so it was eventually back downtown before heading to St. Paul's Catholic Cathedral and then getting the streetcar back to take in the excellent Amsterdam Brewhouse down by the Front. A few beers were sampled in there alongside a good chat with one of the bat staff about all things beer related before I collected my things from the hotel and boarded the Go Train to Burlington from Union Station.

After meeting up with Nicole and Tony, it was back into St. Catharines and food and drink at the Lazy Lizard before heading home for the night. Saturday saw a real lazy day and Sunday I ended up in Chip 'n' Charlie's bar in Niagara Falls for the Super Bowl (no idea what was going on) before a quiet night at Nic's uncle Bobby's turned into a bloody late finish... It was no surprise, then, that Monday also turned into a day of doing absolutely diddly squat.

Tuesday actually saw me leave the house with all traces of jet lag finally gone. So it was off to the Flying Saucer for a spot of dinner joined by Nic's brother Alan and Theresa and her husband Martin. And my word, is it good. Saucer fries... Just try them if you're ever there, trust me. After Nic did some running around for the wedding and a quick visit to Theresa's house it was back to Nic's for a few beers with her and Tony.

The next day saw the obligatory trip to the Falls themselves. I was on my own for a few hours and with it being out of season, it was nice and quiet with a chance to wander round and take everything in without thousands of tourists getting in the way. I crossed over to the American side for a bit, but as most of it was shut and the temperature was getting towards -10 I decided to go back to Canada and warm up in the fairly new Niagara Brewing Co. - which was a very good idea. The beer was spot on, including an ice wine beer which is one of the best I've ever tasted. The two girls serving were extremely friendly and knowledgeable making it a very nice hour or so in there. After grabbing a burger at Wendy's and having a last wander round I met Tony when he'd finished work and we headed back to St. Catharines, where, as there was now a house full of kids, I moved into the Capri Inn for a couple of nights.

The next day started off quite lazy, with a walk up to Montebello Park and back from the hotel and taking the opportunity to try a Bacon Big Mac, purely for the novelty. Later on I wandered back into St. Catharines and, after a quick walk round, got the bus back into Toronto to finally watch the Leafs play. I was stood in the same spot that I did for the Raptors game to watch them take on the St. Louis Blues, ticking the NHL off the leagues list meaning the only major North American league I've not seen a game in now is the NFL.

The game itself started off poorly for the Leafs, but they came back into it and should have won. Instead, 20 seconds into overtime, the Blues won it and I trudged back through Toronto to get the coach back to St. Catharines. It was a late night, but it was worth it, despite the result. I fully enjoyed it and enjoyed the whole experience a lot better than I did for the Raptors game. Knowing the sport in question probably helped with that, though.

The next day I dragged my tired and groggy self back to Nic's house before the drive to Niagara on the Lake, where the wedding was taking place. I was staying at the Best Western, but the wedding itself was at the Pillar and Post. After settling in with a drink at my hotel, I walked across and met Nic for a couple more and the rehearsal. After that, we went for something to eat at the Olde Angel, a British themed pub in NOTL. From there it was back to the hotel, a few presents were dished out and I eventually got back to my own bed for the night.

The wedding wasn't until the afternoon, so after getting up I went for a walk through the snow, taking in the local golf club (you wouldn't have known it was a golf club thanks to the snow), Lake Ontario, a monument to the Battle of Fort George and, after a failed attempt to find what Google Maps had labelled Mississauga Beach, back to the main town, through Simcoe Park to Queens Landing and a spot on the harbour looking across to the USA. After all that I needed food and beer, so I headed back to the Olde Angel for a few halves before the wedding itself.

Not a lot I can say about the wedding itself. I managed to survive doing a reading and the service itself was a lovely, quiet affair and it was really just ace to see Nicole happy. The night descended into the usual with me waking up the next morning with an unfinished beer in the room!

It's safe to say I didn't feel my brightest on Sunday. When checking out of the hotel one of the women on reception saw my name and started going on about Reg from Coronation Street. I just smiled and went along with it... I then attempted to drag a suitcase with a broken wheel through a few inches of snow in the rain... It wasn't going well, until a couple pulled up and asked if I needed a lift. Back home you'd have had people laughing at you as they drove past... I got back to the Pillar and Post in one piece and joined a few others for brunch. There were a few sore heads to say the least. Nic and Tony were staying at the hotel for a few days, so I said my final goodbyes to them and Dave (Tony's best man) and his wife Natalie ran me back to St. Catharines. The day ended with me in front of the telly doing nothing with a pizza...

And so began my last day in Canada. After clearing up quite a bit of poo thanks to an upset dog (I'll let him off though, because I just love him) I spent the last few hours in St. Catharines sat round with Bayleigh and her boyfriend Dryden, with Theresa popping in to say bye as well. Eventually the Airbus came and took me back to the airport, where a bit of duty free shopping and the odd beer killed the time before I flew back to Manchester.

As always it was a top trip and it was good to see so many friends again. After promising I wouldn't leave it as long again before coming back, I didn't quite realise I'd be back in May 2018... Before you know it the next adventure will begin.

The full set of photos can be seen here.