28 November 2007
By Philipp Lenssen & Tony Ruscoe
What do around 16,000 Google employees stare at in the morning when they’ve arrived at the office? They might be looking at Moma, the name for the Google intranet. The meaning of the name of “Moma” is a mystery even to some of the employees working on it, we heard, but Moma’s mission is prominently displayed on its footer: “Organize Google’s information and make it accessible and useful to Googlers.” A “Googler,” as you may know, is what Google employees call themselves (they have other nicknames for specific roles; a noogler is a new Google employee, a gaygler is a gay one, a xoogler is an ex-one, and so on).
A Google employee in Hamburg (photo taken in mid-2007).
In the beginning, as ex-Google employee Doug Edwards told in a blog post in 2005, Moma “was designed by and for engineers and for the first couple of years, its home page was devoid of any aesthetic enhancements that didn’t serve to provide information essential to the operation of Google. It was dense and messy and full of numbers that were hard to parse for the uninitiated, but high in nutritional value for the data hungry.”
Here’s a picture of the Moma homepage that we got hold of – please note that large areas have been grayed out or whitened out:
On the top of the Google intranet homepage, you’ll find the logo reading “Moma - Inside Google.” Next to it is a search box allowing you to find information from Moma in general, information on specific Google employees, information on availability of meeting rooms, building maps and more. You can choose to include secure content or not via a checkbox. Another checkbox offers you to use “Moma NEXT” for a more experimental variant of search results.
To the top right, there’s an option to switch to iMoma, an iGoogle-style tool prepared by the company which allows further customization of the intranet start page. This way, employees may be able to select their own news and service widgets of interest to be displayed when they log-in.
The actual content of the homepage in the picture is split up into 4 columns. To the left, there’s a “My Office” section, with information for employees and a way to choose your own office for more relevant links. It’s followed by the sections “Survival Kit” and “My shortcuts.” In the middle columns, news gadgets are headlined “Welcome to Google!,” “Communications,” “HR” (human resources), “Company Info” and “Internal Google news,” all in common soft shades of Google base colors. The right column is listing Google teams.
When you perform a search on Moma, you will see a result similar to the following; this screenshot, which was edited by Google to include comments, has been published by the Google Enterprise Blog in a post of theirs in July to show-case the kind of functionality available:
On the image, you will see a “universal search” style result including employee information, bookmark results, documents hosted on Google’s intranet, and a list of related queries. Users get to choose between ordering by date or by relevance. One can also limit the results to different segments like “Tech,” “Official,” or “Community.” Google in their blog said the use the Google Search Appliance to power this service.
Ex-employee Doug Edwards mentioned how he came to take for granted everything was available on the intranet, “from the status of products in development to the number of employees at any point in the company’s history.” He adds that the transparency was also a motivator, as “Your failures are also visible to everyone in the company, which provides an even greater motivator to continuously improve performance in the areas for which you are responsible.” These days however, as Doug writes, Google “clamped down on who had access the complete state of the business.”
The following photo shows a result for what seems to be an employee search. The photo is used with permission from Zach at HannaCabana.com, though Zach tells me it had been anonymously submitted to him (note we added blurring to the phone numbers of the zoom version):
On the employee results page, everyone is listed with their name, a photo, their job title, telephone number and more. Clicking through to an employee lands you on their full profile page. Ex-Googler Doug Edwards remembers how many Google employees used “alternative images and titles” for their Moma listing. “I recall photos of samurai warriors and masked figures with titles like ’Shadow Ops’ and ’Black Ops.’ These were later weeded out as part of an upgrade”.
Employee data may also be rendered in different forms. Below is a screenshot we first posted on in February of an internal application called Google Percent:
This service simply shows how many employees are newer than a particular other employee (some areas in the image have been blackened out).
How employees access the intranet
Photo courtesy of Zach, again. The dialog reads, “Many internal apps. One login page.” The input boxes ask for the user’s LDAP (Lightweight Directory Access Protocol) credentials.
A Google employee can log-in to the intranet from within the office, or with a so-called Virtual Private Network (VPN) connection. This connection comes pre-installed on laptops Google hands out, and can be reached via a desktop icon. A Google employee is required to authenticate their sign-in with account credentials.
From within a Google building, an employee may likely reach the intranet via the address corp.google.com. We previously found out Google additionally uses many sub-domains in their intranet, like album.corp.google.com, agency.corp.google.com, alien.corp.google.com, karma.corp.google.com, periscope.corp.google.com, pineapple.corp.google.com. You may also likely just enter e.g. “m” (which maps to “http://m” which is “http://m.corp.google.com”) to be taken to a service like your Gmail-powered email account.
Externally, like from a laptop at a conference – or if you’re one of the employees mainly working from home, as there are some – employees can access the VPN servers located on sites like Mountain View or Dublin, Ireland, with different hostnames each like man....ext.google.com or de....ext.google.com (we depleted part of the hostname).
Google “eating their own dog food”
Google employees use many of the tools Google produces. They even have launched an internal “dogfood” campaign in 2006. But what they see may be newer versions of the services than those released to the outside.
Photo by Andrew Hitchcock from July, Creative Commons-licensed (edited for brightness/ contrast).
If you work in a team for a product, you may also get a prototypical version of the service. Below for instance is a screenshot from a nightly build of Google Spreadsheets – codename “Trix” – which we were able to take a look at (note several areas in this image have been grayed out):
In above image you can see the disclaimer “Warning: This is NOT production. Data can be lost.” Special links to debug windows are offered to developers as well, one of them being opened in the screenshot. Google employees also get to see previews of completely unreleased tools, such as wiki service JotSpot (which is being integrated into Google Apps), or Platypus, the internal Gdrive client for file-sharing.
For code reviews, Google created Mondrian, a “Perforce backend with some custom Google wrappers on top,” as Nial Kennedy, who shot the following photo (Creative Commons-licensed), notes:
And the following image shows Google in-house tool Trax (this is part of a larger photo by Google employee Andrew from Flickr, but it is not available anymore; we’re not quite sure how this tool works or what it achieves):
But, Google doesn’t just use their own tools. For instance, we came across information indicating that many Google employees prefer social network Facebook.com to their own production, Orkut (e.g. some Google employees considered Orkut too spammy, or too buggy in the past).
If a Google employee encounters trouble with any Google tool, they can call their internal support hotline named “Tech Stop.” The hotline promises 24-hour availability. Numbers like +1 877... (last part depleted) are partly toll-free and partly with toll, and accessible from all over the world. Internally, a Google employee may also simply press 3-HELP (3-4357). Tech Stop centers aren’t just located in the US, but also in places like Hyderabad, India.
Tech Stop support wasn’t always that luxurious though, as Doug Edwards noted in another article. When he left the company in 2005, a supportive Tech Stop was available in every building – but in the beginning when he joined, he notes that for instance not all operating systems were supported. When you were facing an issue with corrupted Windows DLL files, a common response was, “Why aren’t you running Linux?”
Labels: blogoscoped, google
14 November 2007
This morning, I received an email from the marketing folks at Guinness (one of my favourite alcoholic beverages) displaying an image of a Guinness can sporting a colourful new design, as shown here:
We decided to ask the best whizzes in graphic design to think of a fresh modern look for GUINNESS® beer, something more 2007 than 1759. Here's what they came up with.
To celebrate our new packaging, you could win a GUINNESS® fridge and a year's supply of the black stuff to share with your mates. You can also check out the rest of the GUINNESS® designs.
[Here’s a copy of the email on the web.]
To be honest, I was pretty annoyed when I read that email. I thought that once again, some imbecile of a marketing manager had gone one step too far and messed up a perfectly good brand by trying to make it all modern and trendy. I mean, it’s not like Guinness doesn’t already have a strong brand with an excellent image, so why would some mental marketeer want to go and spoil that for the sake of trying to justify their job!?
However, lucky for them, I actually clicked through from the email (partially because of pure rage) to this page, where I was shown five designs from the “new range of GUINNESS® packaging” including the one from the email for GNS Designer Draught (which looks suspiciously like the London 2012 logo) and iGNS (very similar in style to an iPod). The page goes on to explain how they’d commissioned a “fresh modern look for GUINNESS®” but then realised that “good things don't always come to those who wait.”
Absolutely brilliant! Not only did those clever marketing executives at Guinness get me to click through to their site, but they also took the piss out of the utterly shit London 2012 logo in the process. Double points! And they impressed me so much that I decided to blog about their campaign, promoting their brand even more! TRIPLE POINTS!!!
Pure genius. Pure Guinness!
P.S. I’m still a little bit annoyed with Guinness for not making their Surger cans a bit more widely available and the fact that I couldn’t get my hands on any of their Guinness Marmite. Although they’re now selling Guinness Red at my nearest pub, so they get a few points back for that...
The Google Webmaster Central Blog recently announced that Google and Go Daddy were working on a pilot together so that Go Daddy customers could more easily access Google Webmaster Tools.
Here’s how it works:
1. Sign in to your Go Daddy hosting account
Here you’ll see a new Google Webmaster Tools link. Click that link and you’ll be asked to enable Google Webmaster Tools for your Go Daddy account.
2. Enable Webmaster Tools and verify your domains
Once enabled, Google will attempt to verify your domain names. Out of the seven domains I have registered, it only successfully managed to verify five of them on its first attempt, but you can select individual domains and retry at any time.
What Go Daddy is actually doing here is creating the HTML verification file for each domain in your hosting account and uploading it to your web space, which Google then verifies in the usual manner.
3. Sign up for Google Webmaster Tools
In order to use Google Webmaster Tools through the Go Daddy control panel, you’ll need to setup what is essentially a Go Daddy Google Apps account for the wmt.secureserver.net domain. Since they’re using the SAML Single Sign-On (SSO) Service, this is pretty straight forward. All you need to do is click a link, read the terms and conditions and click a button.
Don’t let the random email address shown for your login name confuse you; you’ll never need to enter this or a password anywhere as authentication is handled through the Go Daddy control panel and Single Sign-On.
4. Use Google Webmaster Tools
Once you’ve created your account, you’re able to use all the usual features of Google Webmaster Tools for your Go Daddy domains – and any other domains you choose to add to your account.
This is all made possible through a Google Apps integration. Here’s the URL – which currently redirects and causes an ASP.NET error if you’re not signed in to your Go Daddy account. I originally spotted this service was enabled in Google Apps about four months ago but Webmaster Tools still isn’t listed on the Google Apps Partners page as a feature. While it seems to be a custom integration for this pilot, the Webmaster Tools Team says they “look forward to working with other web hosting companies to add Google Webmaster Tools to their products soon.”
So, is it useful? Well, it’s useful for any Go Daddy customers who weren’t already aware of Google Webmaster Tools and who don’t want to use a Google Account to do this. Personally, I’ll continue to use my Google Account though. I guess it’s a shame that it’s not possible to just link my current Google Account to my Go Daddy account so that whenever I add a domain, it automatically gets added and verified to my standard Google Webmaster Tools dashboard.
Google partnered with Go Daddy to sell domain names almost a year ago. Earlier this year, there were rumors suggesting that Google might even acquire Go Daddy. Google is already an ICANN accredited registrar but if they were to seriously consider selling domain names and “proper” hosting themselves (i.e. not Google Pages) buying “the world’s largest hostname provider in the web hosting space” would certainly be a good start. Could this be just the beginning of something much, much bigger?
Labels: blogoscoped, google
8 November 2007
I’ve been busy going to quite a few gigs recently, so here’s a summary post of the last four I’ve been to. Sorry it’s another long post. I really should learn to write and publish these things straight after the event...
Klaxons – Wednesday 10th October 2007
You may have read in my previous post that while we were in Canada last month, we went to see Klaxons at The Opera House. It was touch-and-go whether we got to see them though. First of all, we went to the wrong venue. Then we heard people in the queue saying that it had sold out. And then the door staff thought that Suzy didn’t look nineteen and reckoned they couldn’t let us in without any ID. Anyway, for some reason they changed their minds and let us in after we explained that we were just stupid Brits who didn’t usually take our passports to gigs.
After a bit of waiting around, support band OPOPO appeared on stage and played some of their crazy disco house punk tunes. This isn’t really my kind of music, but I thought these three lads from Toronto were pretty good; they certainly know how to have a good time on stage and definitely made sure the audience knew what they were called and knew how to find them online. (Young British bands, take a leaf out of OPOPO’s book!) My personal favourite of their set was the song where the lead singer was shouting something about his computer having a virus. Since he’d been playing samples from his MacBook and some loud noise was now filling the venue, I thought for a moment he might have been serious. Turns out it was one of their tunes called Computer Menace... I think...
It seems like Klaxons mustn’t be that big in Canada yet as this place seemed pretty small – probably not even one thousand capacity – which always makes a more intimate gig. Since we got there early so we could buy our tickets, we were right at the front of the queue and first into the venue, so we were two rows from the front too. In total contrast to gigs in the UK, there was no barrier or security between the crowd and the stage. And they served alcohol in glass bottles.
I hadn’t listened to much Klaxons stuff before this gig and there was a strange mix of people in the crowd too, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. I knew some of their tunes – like Golden Skans, Gravity’s Rainbow and It’s Not Over Yet – but I’d not listened to their album. Not knowing all the tunes can sometimes make a gig less enjoyable, but not in this case because Klaxons know how to get a crowd going and play some amazing music.
For some reason, something quite simple that’s always impresses me is when band members swap instruments for different songs. Jamie Reynolds and James Righton exchange bass guitar and keyboard between some of their songs and also switch who sings lead vocals, which really helps to bring a bit of variation into the set. Admittedly, some of the tracks weren’t really to my taste, but that didn’t spoil the gig at all. (Which is more than can be said for Ash... see below.)
I’ve now been listening to their album quite a bit since we got back. Apart from a couple of dodgy tracks, I’d say this is probably one of my most favourite albums this year.
Editors – Monday 22nd October 2007
I’d only been back from Canada for the weekend and then I had another gig to go to on the Monday, this time at The University of Sheffield’s Octagon Centre, a venue where I’ve been to club nights, seen bands play, sat my university exams and attended my graduation. Anyway...
To be honest, I’m a bit of a late-comer to Editors. Even Chris Riley – who has very little decent musical knowledge and still thinks that The Stones Roses, Guns N’ Roses and Rolling Stones are the same band – was listening to them almost two years ago. I knew he’d be up for seeing them live, so I thought I’d give them a go seeing as though I liked their strong single releases which I’d heard on the radio. And I’m glad I did.
These guys sound great live; their tight drum beats, clean guitar melodies and faultless vocals really mean they own the stage and the audience. Although being able to watch the lead guitarist made me realise how little he appears to do (i.e. lots of arpeggiated picking without really moving his fingers) but his riffs and licks are perfect and help to give Editors their unique sound almost as much as Tom Smith’s vocals do, so I can’t really fault him. Anyway, I thought the entire show was amazing. There’s no need to just take my word for it either, because you can read what Chris thought about the gig on his blog.
So, Editors rock. It’s official.
Ash – Thursday 25th October 2007
Three days later and I was back in Octagon to see Ash. I wouldn’t really say that I’m an Ash fan, but I used to listen to their stuff in the mid-to-late 1990s and thought it would be good to see them live. (In fact, I’d completely forgotten until we left the gig that I’d seen them a couple of years ago when they were supporting The Darkness who were on their first arena tour at the time.)
Ash released a new album earlier this year, so they obviously played quite a bit of new stuff to help promote it. Unfortunately, I thought that most of the songs I didn’t recognise were all a bit rubbish. Perhaps I should’ve listened to the new album before the gig, just in case there were some “growers” in there, but you shouldn’t really need to do that if the songs are half decent in the first place.
Also, I couldn’t help thinking that the gig was all about Tim Wheeler (lead vocals and lead guitar). I know there are only three of them in the band and he writes all the songs, but he had a spotlight on him for pretty much the entire gig and liked to go off on his own doing some overly long guitar solos. Don’t get me wrong, I love overly long guitar solos when they’re played in the right place at the right time, but these just seemed to unnecessarily prolong songs and meant I was more tired at work the day after the gig that I should have been.
I thought 1977 was a really good album, but perhaps I’m just relating the songs on that album with my college days (particularly the “Sick Party” hidden track at the end of the CD). I enjoyed those songs at the gig, so it was a shame about the rest...
The Pigeon Detectives – Saturday 3rd November 2007
Although I originally thought this gig was going to be in the Foundry at the Student Union, we ended up back in the Octagon again for the third time in two weeks. Thankfully this gig wasn’t on a school night though!
I’d actually bought tickets for this gig before I was properly aware of any songs by The Pigeon Detectives. Having listened to a few samples on iTunes, Suzy bought me the album for my birthday in July and I’ve been listening to it ever since. This is now another one of my most favourite albums this year.
One of the great things about The Pigeon Detectives is that you can actually tell what they’re singing, which means you can sing (or shout) along when you see them live. Of course, if you’re going to sing along, you should really get down the front and jump around at the same time. However, despite Coco Riley claiming that he “might even attempt a mosh” at this gig, I couldn’t convince him to get down the front to get all sweaty and squashed with me and Jo.
If I had to use just one word to describe what The Pigeon Detectives were like on stage, I would have to say: “Energetic!” I think there’s something about a classic five-piece band – i.e. lead vocals, lead guitar, rhythm guitar, bass guitar and drums – where the singer doesn’t have to play a guitar, meaning he can actually be a proper front-man, running about the stage, climbing on the speakers and interacting with the audience. Having said that, throwing the microphone into the crowd probably doesn’t keep the sound men very happy!
One thing that annoys me at gigs is when bands disappear, pretending to be leaving the stage for the night, and then they come back on for an “encore” regardless of how much the audience is clapping and cheering. So, it made a refreshing change when The Pigeon Detectives played their final song, left the stage and the lights came up so that the clearing up could begin. (And the cheesy Phoenix-Nights-esque version of I’m Not Sorry which played as the venue emptied was an excellent touch!)
Despite a couple of over-excited dickheads who were pushing people around a bit too much and tried to start the odd fight, I’d say this was my second favourite gig of the year, only just being beaten by the Arctic Monkeys gig in August. That’s because The Pigeon Detectives really know how to write and play awesome songs which really get the crowd going. And that includes their new stuff.
(Chris Riley – who has very little decent musical knowledge and still thinks that The Stones Roses, Guns N’ Roses and Rolling Stones are the same band – enjoyed himself so much that he posted what he thought of the gig as soon as he got home, even though he was still a bit tipsy! Personally, I think he’s going of the rails a bit now that he’s started going to gigs...)
Labels: music, personal
6 November 2007
Laurenty mentions in the forum that Google has added some new official themes for the iGoogle homepage. I’m not seeing these yet, but after a bit of digging around I was able to find the necessary XML files. So, if you want to enable any of the new themes before they’re made available to you, simply follow these instructions:
Enter the following in your browser’s address bar:
Where jr.xml can be the XML filename from any one of following new themes:
Click the Save button.
And if you want to see the Easter eggs for these themes, you can use the same technique I posted about earlier this year.
Could this be a sign that the iGoogle Themes Directory is getting closer to launch?
Labels: blogoscoped, google
2 November 2007
Last month, Suzy and I spent 10 nights in Canada. I realise this post will probably be a bit long and boring for most people, but hopefully it will be of interest to anyone planning on going to Toronto, and will also help to remind us in years to come of what we actually did!
WARNING: Very long and potentially boring post coming up! If you’d prefer to look at pictures, you can just view my Toronto, Canada set on Flickr...
Day 1: Monday 8th October 2007
We checked in at Manchester Airport with Zoom Airlines, where we found all their staff to be smiling and unusually cheerful. By booking Premium Economy seats, we got more luggage allowance, more leg room, free alcoholic beverages, a choice of meals, free headphones and priority luggage. Not bad really for about £50-80 extra each way. After a quick stop in Glasgow to pick up some more passengers, we began our flight to Toronto Pearson International Airport.
For our in-flight meals, Suzy had chicken and vegetables and I had Shepherd’s pie, although it may have been Cottage Pie since I heard it called both and couldn’t tell whether it was beef or lamb. Both were served with melon and chocolate cake. Later, we got a ham and cheese sandwich for a snack. Not bad food really (although Suzy says her chicken was a bit grey). During the flight, we both watched Live Free or Die Hard and Shrek the Third which were good enough to keep us amused for a while. Suzy also watched some of Evan Almighty.
To get from the airport to the hotel once we’d landed and waited all of about two minutes for our priority luggage, we went with the TTC route, catching the 192 Airport Rocket bus to Kipling Subway station and then the subway for the rest of the way. When we surfaced from the subway, we got our first glimpse of Downtown Toronto and were quickly shown how polite and helpful the people of Toronto can be when a woman stopped her car in the middle of the road – despite the traffic lights being on green – to ask us if we were lost and needed directions! (I guess our luggage, maps and the ‘lost’ look on our faces gave us away as tourists.)
After finding the Metropolitan Hotel (booked via Expedia) and dumping everything in our room, we went for a quick wander around the area to get our bearings and then had a drink and bite to eat in the hotel bar.
Day 2: Tuesday 9th October 2007
Breakfast at Over Easy (56 Yonge Street) was good, although most things on the menu seem to come in large portions, mostly fried and served with home fries. After breakfast, we walked to the CN Tower (which we couldn’t really see due to the mist) and booked a table in the restaurant for Saturday night. We then walked up through Chinatown on our way to GreekTown on the Danforth. (Apparently I insisted on walking but once we realised how far it actually was, we eventually got the subway.)
GreekTown is an inconspicuous place; you’d never know that this is the largest Greek neighbourhood in North America. Some of the street signs are in Greek and there’s an occasional Greek restaurant, but apart from that it looks pretty normal. For lunch, we had really tasty authentic Greek gyros at Messini (445 Danforth Avenue) which each came served with a huge Greek salad.
After all the walking and eating, we headed back to the hotel for a power-nap and then went around the corner to Spring Rolls (40 Dundas Street West) for a Thai meal. The menu there has almost too much to choose from and everything we saw looked really good – and in keeping with what we had experienced so far, the portions were massive and really good!
Day 3: Wednesday 10th October 2007
After our McDonald’s breakfast in Atrium On Bay, we wandered down to see the old and new Toronto City Hall at Nathan Phillips Square where there was also a small farmers’ market. After taking a few photos and listening to Suzy read The Rough Guide to Toronto, we made our way back to Chinatown for lunch, going through Kensington Market on the way.
Since we were in Chinatown, we went for an authentic Chinese lunch at Bright Pearl Seafood Restaurant (346-348 Spadina Avenue) during Dim Sum Happy Hour. For anyone like us who’s never had Dim Sum served in the traditional way, the whole experience may seem a little strange.
The dishes are wheeled around on small trolleys by waitresses who sometimes sing what they’ve got (in Chinese) between stopping to offer you one. If you want whatever dish they’ve got, you simply take the plate (and not just one prawn, like I did) and let them mark it off on your sheet so that they know what you’ve had. We tried things like fried prawns, steamed beef balls, steamed pork in rice roll (I think) and steamed squid with curry sauce. Mmmm! If you’re ever in Toronto and like Chinese food, you must visit Bright Pearl. According to their website, Dim Sum Happy Hour is 09:00 to 11:30 and 13:30 to 16:00 (Monday to Friday) and you can get 15% off between 09:00 and 11:00 on Saturday, Sunday and Holidays.
I could’ve stayed there all afternoon and tried one of everything but Suzy wouldn’t let me because she wanted to take me on a Suzy Tour of the University of Toronto buildings. These all appeared to be well maintained, and the atmosphere around them felt pretty friendly and welcoming.
Again, after all the walking, we headed back to the hotel and I started to read my copy of the NOW magazine which I’d picked up earlier. While browsing the week’s live music listings, I read that Klaxons were playing in Toronto at The Opera House and that tickets were still available.
Having seen the extremely posh and impressive Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts – Toronto’s Opera House and home to the Canadian Opera Company – earlier that day, we went down to see if we could buy tickets on the door... only to find that we actually needed to be at The Opera House which is in a completely different class! (It’s basically like the Leadmill but in Toronto.) Anyway, we got a streetcar to near the venue and got some food from The Real Jerk (709 Queen Street East) where we had some really tasty homemade Caribbean cooking before the Klaxons gig. (I’ll be covering the gig in a later post...)
Day 4: Thursday 11th October 2007
For breakfast, we called in Subway across the road from our hotel for BLTs. Despite ordering two six inch BLTs on different bread, the shop assistant insisted on charging us for one foot long instead, explaining that it would be cheaper and that the customer is always right! After that, we got the subway uptown to Casa Loma.
Casa Loma is described as being “Canada’s Majestic Castle” when really it’s more like a mansion, or even just a big house, with one hundred rooms; old buildings and castles are something the Brits do much bigger and better than the Canadians! Casa Loma was a fascinating place with an intriguing history. More recently, it’s been used in various films, including Chicago, Cocktail, The Pacifier, The Tuxedo and X-Men. If you want to know more about it, I suggest you read the Wikipedia articles on Casa Loma and Sir Henry Pellat.
Since we hadn’t finished looking around by lunchtime, we had something to eat at Druxy’s in the basement of Casa Loma. I got the best roast beef deli sandwich on an onion roll, complete with a proper helping of beef and some Dijon mustard that was so hot it came down my nose, and Suzy had a roast chicken and guacamole sandwich. Eating places like these, where they’re inside the attraction, are usually overpriced and poor quality but this place was pretty reasonable considering the freshness and quality of the excellent sandwiches.
After we’d finished at Casa Loma, we headed back Downtown and checked out a few restaurants we’d read about.
In the evening, we went to Hard Rock Cafe (279 Yonge Street) for some cocktails at the bar before being shown to our table. Oddly, the barman advised me not to have a Joe’s Bloody Mary – “a headbangin’ combination of rich & spicy Bloody Mary mix, Absolut Citron vodka and Joe Perry’s (of Aerosmith) mango tango hot sauce” – as they’re often returned because it’s not what people are expecting. But after a pint of boring lager, I had a couple of these anyway and they were fantastic! Naturally, we ordered and ate too much, especially considering we were already nearly full after sharing the Jumbo Combo starter!
Day 5: Friday 12th October 2007
We woke up and realised that for the past few days we’d been eating lots and lots of meat and not much fruit or vegetables, so went to Richtree Market in the Eaton Centre for a fruit salad and cup of fresh mango juice before walking down to the see the buildings on the waterfront. We had contemplated getting the ferry across to the Toronto Islands but as it was cold and windy (and, frankly, my feet were still aching from all the walking around we’d been doing) we decided to give it a miss.
Instead, we went on a tour around the Steam Whistle Brewing brewery, located in an old building shaped like a horseshoe which used to be home to a steam locomotive repair facility. (The similarity between the name and location is apparently a coincidence, as the owners had already decided they wanted a steam whistle like in the Flintstones before they found the premises.)
On the tour, we learnt all about the company and what makes them different, and I got to sample quite a bit of their premium pilsner lager which is nice and crisp and apparently won’t give you much of a hangover because it only uses just four natural ingredients.
We left before I had time to test that theory and I finally got to sample a hot dog from one of the carts we’d walked past every day since we arrived.
At night, we’d booked a table at Fisherman’s Wharf (69 Richmond Street West) which had won the WHERE Toronto Most Memorable Meal Award 2007 for the Seafood category. Once we were at our table, we were a little worried about what sort of meal we were going to have as I could hear an American man on a nearby table saying how the meal he was eating was the worst meal he’d ever had in his entire life and that they should have gone to the steakhouse like he’d apparently said in the first place. As it turns out, he was probably sulking because his friends didn’t want to go to the steakhouse.
Our starters here were pretty average, but the seafood platter for two which we had for our main course was great... but only if you like to eat prawns, mussels, scallops, crab, oysters and a full lobster, otherwise you may as well go to a steakhouse instead.
After our meal, we went for a walk and saw loads of teenagers running around the city wearing different coloured fluorescent necklaces. After trying and failing to figure out what was going on, we eventually stopped some of the kids and asked them. It turns out they were playing a huge game of urban capture the flag.
Those crazy kids!
Day 6: Saturday 13th October 2007
On our way to the Royal Ontario Museum, we stopped at Tim Hortons for a sausage, egg and cheese (they put cheese on everything) breakfast bagel and a coffee. The museum’s housed in a pretty impressive building where they’ve literally fused modern architecture with the original church-like building. When we went, a few of the rooms were empty as they were re-jigging their exhibits but what we did see was pretty interesting, particularly all the First Peoples artefacts.
For lunch, we went to Sushi Train (750 Yonge Street), our first proper sushi restaurant where all the dishes go round on a conveyor belt. The plates are all colour-coded according to price, ranging from $2.00 to $5.50, so you just take what you want and the waitress adds up how much you owe by counting your empty plates. I could have stuffed my face with sushi all afternoon but didn’t want to spoil my appetite too much as we’d got a table booked at the top of the CN Tower for early evening.
You obviously can’t go to Toronto without visiting the CN Tower. Although many people say it’s expensive to eat at the 360 Restaurant, it’s actually pretty good value because you get to go up in the lift and check out the lookout and glass floor levels for free providing you purchase a main course, saving around $25 each. We managed to book a table for 17:15 which meant that we would get to watch the sunset at 19:45 and see Toronto in daylight and by night.
After doing 15 MPH in the lift up to the restaurant, the first thing you notice is how fast the restaurant turns. It takes 72 minutes to do a complete revolution but when you see the room moving it does feel like it’s moving pretty quickly. And when you get to your table, you then realise how high up 351 metres actually is. Our table was right next to the window, so we had a fantastic view and were able to take lots of pictures in between each mouthful. The food was tasty, it was well presented, the service was excellent and the location was amazing. Definitely recommended.
Day 7: Sunday 14th October 2007
For our last full day in Toronto, we had a McDonald’s breakfast somewhere on Yonge Street and then walked down to St Lawrence Market, dodging all the people who were running The Toronto Marathon on the way. After that, we walked to the The Distillery District, a national historic site which represents the “largest and best preserved collection of Victorian Industrial Architecture in North America” formerly known as The Gooderham and Worts Distillery. Today, it’s basically a load of expensive boutiques, studios and coffee shops which is occasionally used as a backdrop for films. All we bought was a couple of drinks and two massive slices of cake from Café Uno.
After walking back Downtown, we went shopping in the Eaton Centre. Thankfully, neither of us are serious shoppers, so it only took a couple of hours before we’d finished and were having a hot dog from the usual place for a mid-afternoon snack.
In the evening, we had a nice meal at the Pickle Barrel (312 Yonge Street) – once again, good food and massive portions – and then we had an early night in preparation for leaving early the following day to go to Niagara Falls.
Day 8: Monday 15th October 2007
We woke up early, packed our suitcases and went to Starbucks across the road from our hotel for breakfast. Shortly after that, we checked out and waited for Auntie Wendy and her husband Vic to pick us up in their massive people carrier. (Auntie Wendy was a school friend of my mum’s who emigrated to Canada when she was about 13 years old. They kept in touch for years via airmail and more recently moved to email and the occasional phone call.)
After two or three hours on the road, we arrived in Niagara Falls, parked up near the SkyLon Tower (in a dodgy car park for $5 rather than the official one for $10) and had a few sandwiches before walking down to see the falls.
Before we went, I didn’t realise that “Niagara Falls” is actually the name for the set of waterfalls which includes the Canadian Horseshoe Falls, American Falls and the smaller Bridal Veil Falls. (In fact, I only learnt that the falls were shared between America and Canada a few weeks before we went!) Nor did I really know how HUGE all the falls are. As you get nearer to the Horseshoe Falls, it suddenly feels like it’s raining, but then you realise that it’s just the spray! And it’s only when you stand right next to the top of the falls and can see the sheer volume of water throwing itself over the edge that you realise how amazing the waterfall actually is.
Of course, we went on the Journey Behind the Falls, where you “experience the awesome spectacle of one-fifth of the world’s fresh water crashing down 13 stories to the basin below” from both the side and behind the falls, and the Maid of the Mist, which takes you up close to all the falls on a boat ride. Visiting the falls in October when it was almost out of season meant we got a good, clear view all along the wall overlooking the falls and didn’t have to queue to do anything.
Also at Niagara Falls is a stretch of buildings which contains amusement arcades, souvenir shops, waxworks, museums and other attractions; it’s a bit like Blackpool only smaller and possibly cleaner. After seeing all this, Vic and Wendy took us back to their house in the quiet community called Port Elgin, called at a Swiss Chalet for some tea (or supper) on the way.
Day 9: Tuesday 16th October 2007
After a long and lazy lie in, we finally woke up and had breakfast, which was when I realised that bagels aren’t so bad after all (especially cinnamon and raisin ones toasted with butter) and Suzy realised that Canadians buy milk in bags rather than bottles! Imagine that! After getting over the shock, Vic and Wendy took us on a tour around Downtown Port Elgin (which is actually just a main road through the village) and to see the beach and their boat which they’d just pulled out of the water for the winter.
After soup and sandwiches for lunch, we then went on an educational trip to the visitor centre at Bruce Power Nuclear Generating Station where Vic used to work. Learning all about nuclear fuel and how a CANDU reactor generates electricity may sound like a dull thing to do on your holiday, but it was actually really interesting – and we got to see some Wild Turkeys walking down the road on the way there!
In the evening, Auntie Wendy made us a lovely steak pie for tea and then we just watched TV and relaxed.
Day 10: Wednesday 17th October 2007
After more bagels for breakfast, we took a ride out to the small community of St Jacobs, home to many Mennonites. On the way, we saw one of the few roundabouts in Canada and stopped at Picard Peanuts Ltd, where we saw the most varieties of nut-based products we’ve ever seen. You get to try before you buy, so after sampling almost every type of nut on display, I bought some Wasabi Peanuts and Blazin’ Hot Peanuts... and they are both MEGA HOT!
St Jacobs itself has quite a few tiny shops and museums. We went to The Maple Syrup Museum, Home Hardware Exhibit, Electricity Exhibit and Telling The Mennonite Story at the Visitor Centre, where we went on a “multi-media journey” to learn more about the Mennonites and their beliefs.
Later that afternoon, we went to At The Crossroads restaurant for an all-you-can-eat-buffet. There was an excellent variety of home-style cooking hot meals, salads and homemade desserts, and it was excellent value for money. Needless to say, I definitely got my money’s worth...
Day 11: Thursday 18th October 2007
In the morning, Vic kindly cooked us all bacon, egg and home fries for breakfast before we left Port Elgin and made our way to Wendy’s sister’s, who lives near Toronto airport. On the way, we stopped for a coffee and cookie at Starbucks and looked around the huge Chapters bookstore, Wal-Mart and Fortinos, where we bought a roast chicken and Caesar salad for dinner.
After dinner, we got dropped off at the airport, checked in and got on our flight home. We decided not to watch Mr. Bean’s Holiday or Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban but did watch Wild Hogs which was pretty funny in the early hours of the morning.
For tea / supper / breakfast (what do you call that meal they give you on an overnight flight?) we had beef ‘something’ with vegetables and rice, served with a strange salad that wouldn’t have been out of place on a kebab and a weird chocolate brownie which didn’t seem to be cooked. I thought it was all pretty good. Suzy wasn’t convinced. Later on, we got a cheese and red onion sandwich for a mid-night snack (that hyphen’s there because it’s a snack you have in the middle of the night and not necessarily at midnight) and managed to get about 30 seconds of sleep before arriving back in England.
Any questions? Is there anything I’ve not covered?
Labels: food, personal, restaurants, travel