Monday, September 24, 2012

Grand River Dinner Cruise - a review of events

The first day of fall doesn't get any special attention from most of the world. There are some people who take celebratory notice to mark the arrival of the Autumnal Equinox but for most people September 22, 2012 wasn't a big deal. Across the world it was business as usual...

Angry Muslims protested, sometimes violently, in numerous countries around the globe, inflamed over a poorly made independent film in which the prophet Muhammad is ridiculed. Chances are 90% of the protesters haven't even seen the movie but it appears 100% of them blame the United States for its existence.

Asian political powerhouses China and Japan are rattling sabres over some innocuous guano-covered rocks in the East China Sea. Doomsayers are predicting escalating tensions could lead to war because (for reasons unclear to me but evidently crystal-clear to the Chinese and Japanese) those remote little islets ("islets" because they're too small to be called islands) are somehow vital to national security and the future of their respective nations.

In other first day of fall news... some idiot in New York was arrested for trespassing after jumping from an elevated train into a Bronx Zoo enclosure where a 400 pound tiger named Bachuta used him as a chew toy.

Meanwhile in Southern Ontario, Canada... 2012's Autumnal Equinox saw bright skies with patchy clouds and brisk winds accompany my wife Tammy and I as we embarked with a party of 40 or so others on a Grand River Dinner Cruise...

It was actually a "lunch" cruise, the company (Grand River Cruises) offers 2 cruise options (lunch and dinner, both featuring pretty much the same menu) and our group was on the 12:30pm departure luncheon cruise which offered a meal and refreshments during a 3 hour trip on the Grand River in one of four boats - long, squat, barge-like vessels that have a one-room enclosed central dining area encircled by a narrow exterior walkway lined with benches and deck chairs.

Embarking on a dinner cruise wasn't something Tammy and I ever envisioned ourselves doing. We're not really into dining out and the whole 'cruise' idea seemed a tad too ritzy for us. We ended up on this river experience thanks to a coworker of mine at the quarry who arranged and booked the cruise. His name is Eric and this is apparently something he's arranged before. Other coworkers expressed good reviews of the dinner cruises with Dave from my crew mentioning often about how "good" the food was. Eric posted notice of the proposed date and spread the word amongst the guys on all 3 shifts with those interested signing their names to the notice. The cost worked out to just under 40 bucks a head and Eric took care of all the details, booking and paying for the Sept 22nd cruise then collecting the money from everyone, ensuring they had instructions on where and when to attend.

I talked it over with Tammy and we decided to join Eric and the others on the cruise.  My Mom was out to visit us the week before and gifted me with $100 when I saw her off at the airport so the 80 bucks to get us on the boat was covered. The cruise promised a 3 course meal of bread & salad, a main course roast beef dinner and desert which sounded fine to us but it was the chance to view the banks of the Grand River from the vantage point a boat provided which most peaked our interest. The chance of seeing birds and perhaps other wildlife during a 3 hr trip through the beauty of the Southern Ontario countryside was for us the cruise's biggest draw.

Besides me, Eric, Dave and another guy named Steve (all from my shift) and our spouses, I had no idea which guys from the quarry had signed up for the cruise. All I knew was "about 40" people were going to be sharing the boat. I don't socialize with my coworkers, I'm not friends with any of them away from the quarry. There's no sinister reason behind that, I don't harbor dislike toward any of my coworkers. In fact, in the 5 years I've worked at the quarry I've grown quite fond of a number of them. I just never 'hang out' with the people I work with.

Grand River Cruises is located on Big Creek, a tributary of the Grand River which meets Ontario's biggest Canadian Heritage river near the city of Caledonia. It was an easy 35 minute drive from our place in Hamilton, a journey filled with rolling vistas of farmland, livestock and wooded green areas which did much to ease our nervous anticipation about the upcoming adventure. While not an 'official' company function it was an outing arranged, paid for and participated in by people from work, people from work and their spouses and/or other guests. As everyone knows, those type of functions can sometimes get interesting and there's always the possibility of problems or issues arising when the work and real life characters of coworkers mingle. Not that I was expecting trouble but I couldn't discount the potential for it considering the diversity of personalities and existing on-the-job issues between many of my coworkers.

Just prior to arrival at our destination a Red-Tailed Hawk soared slowly across the highway in front of us and we took that as a positive omen of the day to come. We actually drove past Grand River Cruises without seeing it... I piloted our Hyundai Accent across some railroad tracks on the crest of a hill a tad faster than the speed recommended on the sign conveniently posted by the Highway Engineering Dept. The ensuing bump/possible-airtime hilarity caused us to go past the place totally unaware it was there and there was some momentary confusion when we reached the road's end at a T intersection without finding what we were looking for.

After backtracking without incident we parked, grabbed our jackets & cameras and joined a group of coworkers I recognized. It was an eclectic group, a cross-section of people from the 2 production shifts accompanied by people identified or assumed to be wives. There were also a number of people complete strangers to me. They turned out to be extended family or friends to some of the guys. (It never occurred to me that I could invite others to join Tammy & I on the cruise.)

I knew all the actual quarry workers of course and enjoy a pretty good work relationship with all of them and none of them were those few whose company is sometimes unbearable to keep. I was mildly surprised to see one guy I haven't seen in awhile... Clayton was production supervisor when he got fired early this year. Prior to that position he worked as a shift foreman and before that he was a "Red Hat", one of the boys for years and has a lot of friends still in the union workforce at the quarry so him attending this cruise wasn't unusual. It was for him a chance to see a lot of guys from the quarry in one place without the company being anywhere in sight. He looked real good, better than he's looked in the 5 years I've known him. Clayton said getting fired was "the best thing they ever did for me" and I was happy to hear he was doing well.

There was one other guy from work who took part in the cruise and I admit I had mixed thoughts about first the potential he might be attending and then the undeniable reality that he was when he and his companions arrived after most of the party had already boarded. He and I became embroiled in a personal conflict of sorts at work last week, a situation he initiated and one which I felt was intended to attack my  personal and professional integrity (just as much, I'm sure, as he felt about his reasons for doing so). The situation, which both the company and union were completely aware of, entangled in it as much as I was, was rectified to what I believe is mutual satisfaction and a future course of working understanding was discussed.

It should be over but I couldn't help but be a little apprehensive at the thought of spending 3-4 hours on a relatively small boat with a guy who less than a week before had in my opinion thrown me under the proverbial bus. As it turned out we pretty much never saw each other during the cruise. Aside from saying "Excuse us. Thank you." while squeezing by on the Grand River Belle's narrow exterior observation deck I never spoke or otherwise interacted with him during the entire voyage. I readily admit I have zero interest in speaking with the man aside from what's required at work to do the job and maintain a harmonious work environment, if I don't have to talk to him I won't (but at the same time I won't be unnecessarily rude to him or anyone he's with.) I won't seek or initiate any contact or conversation with him but that doesn't mean I will deliberately avoid or snub any he might initiate toward me. (Not that I expect he will.)

Actually, that's all stuff that should probably be in its own blog entry. I'd intended to keep this to a straightforward review of Grand River Cruises Luncheon Cruise and somehow digressed to talking about my various relationships with the people I work with. My apologies. Without further ado, here then is my story (and review) of Grand River Cruises Luncheon Cruise undertaken the first day of fall, Sept 22nd, 2012...

The weather was nice, sunny with lots of patchy clouds. Stiff breezes of varying strength kept the temperature in the slightly chilly to 'damn that's cold' range for most of the day but it was certainly better than what had been forecast. For over a week forecasters called for Saturday to have a 99% chance of rain all day. That predicted rainfall actually hit late Friday with heavy downpours blanketing Southern Ontario for most of the night. The revised forecast just before we left our place called for exactly what we had for our entire luncheon cruise adventure, sun & cloud with gusting winds. In other words, it was a beautiful autumn day

Members of our group slowly began moving from the parking lot to the dock area where Grand River Cruises 4 boats were tethered. Captain Bob welcomed us to our boat, "Grand River Belle", where seating was decided by personal choice and speed of arrival. The interior of the boat was essentially a rectangle with tables lining the longer sidewalls, each with 6 chairs. The rear of the boat had a couple unisex washrooms and an area where the crew presumably plated the precooked dinner fare. Captain Bob sat alone at the wheel in the front of the cabin and acted as tour guide and historian throughout the cruise.

Tammy and I grabbed 2 window seats at a table midships while the rest of the group elected to sit in various groups and positions elsewhere. We were joined by Faisal and his wife and just prior to departure an elderly couple unknown to the 4 of us sat in the last 2 seats making us a complete table of 6. Captain Bob advised us we were waiting on Eric to confirm all parties were aboard and servers would be taking beverage orders after we set off on our 3 hour round trip on the Grand River. Eric arrived with his party and confirmed all were aboard and accounted for so Captain Bob called the order to cast off and we began our first ever dinner cruise. After some neat maneuvering Capt. Bob got the Belle turned around and we began a slow trip down Big Creek before entering the much larger Grand River where we headed downriver.

The servers began taking beverage orders - 3 young women seemingly working the boat at random. Ours was quick enough getting to our table after the announcement of service but that's about the only good thing I can relate about her performance. She was amicable enough, welcomed us all to the voyage with a cheery smile and seemed delighted when the elderly couple at the end of the table ordered beers. Her demeanor turned to shock and a look of scornful incredibility when the rest of us declined an alcoholic beverage and asked for coffees instead. She even questioned our beverage choice, like she couldn't believe someone wouldn't want a beer or other alcoholic drink. She brought our coffees and we never saw her again during the rest of the cruise. A different girl brought our requested sugar & cream and later our refills.

On their website and elsewhere Grand River Cruises does a pretty good job hyping the service on their luncheon and dinner cruises so I doubt they officially condone the judgmental rudeness we received from the first of their servers. They also hype the availability of alcoholic refreshments on their cruises but surely they and their employees recognize not everyone chooses to drink and those that don't shouldn't be made to feel awkward for making that choice.

The first course arrived soon after Captain Bob piloted the Belle from the close confines of Big Creek to the wider expanse of the Grand River channel. A loaf of bread, with a knife and cutting board, arrived first. I cut a slice and elected to forgo the little packaged butter that was offered. (there was no other choice except salad dressing) I had no issue with that, I'm a fan of 'naked' bread but this was very dry and while soft the crust was very crumbly. It wasn't good enough that I went back for another slice. Tammy didn't have any but the other 4 at our table seemed to have no issues consuming most of the small loaf. In retrospect I regret not eating more of the bread because despite being dry and sorta stale it was better by far than the salad that followed it.

A small bowl of watery head lettuce with a smattering of shredded carrots, thinly sliced celery and some soggy purple foliage. Choices of dressing were limited to Kraft's French, Thousand Island or Rancher's Choice', all in small individual serving packs which were on the table when we boarded the boat. I elected to go with the Ranch but it did little to make my salad taste any less swamp-like. The lettuce which comprised the bulk of the salad was crunchy and juicy but that didn't make it palatable. I didn't finish it and neither did others at the table.

During the break before they began serving the main course Tammy & I joined a number of others outdoors on the Belle's exterior observation deck. I smoked a cigarette and enjoyed the riverbank views we cruised slowly past. To our right (South) the land belongs to the Six Nations and showed little evidence of habitation save the occasional dirt road. On the left it was a lot more inhabited. We passed trailer parks with riverside occupants that ran the gamut from ultramodern showroom model quality units with all the attendant add-ons and playthings including a floatplane moored out front, to sketchy looking trailer-treefort hybrids surrounded by beaten down cars and brush-covered piles of rusty tractor parts, proudly flying the Stars & Bars of the former Confederate States of America under a battered but still proud Maple Leaf. I even spotted a giant chicken at one place, probably 12 to 15 feet tall. Another place had a castle on a hill. Sights only visible from the river, invisible to traffic on the road paralleling the Grand's path.

Captain Bob announced the Main Course was imminent and we returned inside to our seats. Despite the unpleasantness of the first course I was still hopeful Grand River Cruises could pull off a winner with the main course, their signature roast beef dinner complete with mashed potatoes, vegetables and gravy. Seriously, it's pretty hard to mess that up, right? Sad to say, the meal was far from grand in any respect. Portion size was small. Part of my thin slice of beef was ice cold. The gravy was hot but it was more au jus than it was gravy, oily-brown in color, thin and runny. The vegetables, green & yellow beans with baby carrots, were okay. I had a couple sketchy beans but that's not uncommon anywhere and the baby carrots were cooked perfectly and quite delicious. The mashed potatoes on the other hand... Wow! They came loaded with salt. I probably ate more salt in that one serving of potatoes than I have in everything else I've eaten this month. I wasn't the only one who thought the spuds were overly salty but to be fair, I did ask a couple beer drinkers if they found them salty and neither said they'd noticed although they both headed straight for refills after dinner. I was thirsty too but stayed with coffee. I don't know if those salty potatoes were the result of a culinary accident or sinister ploy to increase beverage sales but whatever the case they killed the meal for me.

Tammy & I went outside after the main course. We didn't return for desert which was apparently some sort of cake. I had no interest in trying the final course after the disappointing first 2 offerings. The quality of the food was a big letdown, far below our expectations (which were actually quite modest. We weren't expecting something spectacular, just generous portions of good tasting food.) The service was fine except for the one blip at the start of drink service and Captain Bob was excellent - he even took us on an extended voyage by cruising past Big Creek on our return trip allowing us a look at the upstream version of the cruise - but the actual luncheon meal put a damper on our Grand River Cruise experience.

The scenery during the trip is awesome! The leaves are beginning to change color and there are numerous photo opportunities presented by things on the riverbanks. Be it fallen trees or giant truck tires used as a levee to rustic scenes of docks, boats and portable toilets, the Grand River provides plenty of things to look at during the 3-4 hours a dinner cruise takes.

As far as birdwatching goes, the cruise supplied little action but what we did see was very cool. A number of Belted Kingfishers were spotted as well as a Blue Jay and a few Turkey Vultures. I managed a few blurry shots of a kingfisher and scored a long-distance shot of a Great Blue Heron perched in a tree but the definite highlight was the following picture of a Green Heron in flight.

Overall I have mixed feelings about the Grand River Dinner Cruise. If you think the ambiance of the dining experience - cruising in a boat on the Grand River for 3 hours- is worth 40 bucks a head then don't let the mediocrity of the food dissuade you from checking out Grand River Dinner Cruises. However if receiving a decent meal is a necessity then I personally cannot recommend you spend the 40 bucks on a Grand River Dinner Cruise. That being said, I can't discount the possibility of again taking part in a dinner cruise. I truly enjoyed the lazy boat trip on the river and even for just that $40 isn't an outrageous price. We had a lot of fun and its safe to say many of our cruise-mates we're having a blast. (The boat ran out of Coors Light) As a once a year adventure I think it's worth the money and who knows, maybe next time the meal will taste great. Even if it doesn't the chances are the Grand River itself will provide an experience that makes up for it.


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