Skiing the Unbelievably Beautiful Italian Dolomite Mountains

December 19, 2011 12:05 pm

Ski touring in Italy is highly civilized and geared to a broad cross-section of skiers. Our stomachs did somersaults as the van winded its way up and down the many passes on our way from Venice to San Cassiano, the starting point for a ski touring excursion with Dolomite Mountain s.r.l. Part of the Italian Alps in north eastern Italy, the Dolomites are unique for a number of reasons, including their sheer walls of rock that jut up, their narrow deep valley and their almighty snow, a skier’s best friend. A UNESCO natural heritage site, this region is truly a geological wonder and it boasts being the number one ski resort in the world with over 1,200 kms of groomed terrain. It does so with good reason. This skiing experience, in fact, is truly unparalleled.

It’s not uncommon in Europe to have a gondola in the centre of a village but never before have I skied from one tiny village down into another small village, taken my skis off, walked across a narrow road, put the skis back on and taken a lift up to the top of the next peak. With 18 peaks in the region, one could spend days travelling from village to village. (At one time the locals did just that as the ski trails were the only means of connecting villages.) Thanks to the Dolomiti Superskipass, you can ski the whole region using all 450 lifts with one ski pass. The pass has a magnetic strip that triggers the turn-style and later, you can log onto their web site and track the total kilometres skied by keying in your pass number.


No burgers and fries, instead Burgundy’s and gourmet cooking with a side of the best view ever. Lunch slopeside is serious business.

But skiing is only part of the Dolomite experience. Our tour operator, Agustina Largos Marmol from Dolomite Mountains s.r.l., expertly paired our adventure with stops at incredible restaurants and overnight accommodations. On the first night, we dined at the 2 star Michelin accredited St. Huburtus restaurant located in the Hotel Rosa Alpina in San Cassiano. Third generation owner, operator, Hugo Pizzinini gave us a tour of St. Hubertus’s kitchen. Chef Norbert Niederkofler explained the different types of ovens including the wood oven which is used solely for cooking risotto. The food and white-gloved service was exceptional. Fois gras crème brulée, venison and apple tart were nothing short of divine.

The next morning we headed down the road with our overnight packs on our back. We met a helicopter that swooshed us up to the jaw-dropping 3,342 metre peak of the Marmolada glacier. The view from the top is fantastic. The glacier offers a 12 km run with breathtaking scenery.  Believe it or not, this is intermediate skiing. The locals all seem to ski in large swoops like ex-world cup downhillers skiing invisible wickets. If off-piste is more your thing, you won’t be disappointed. Our guide Alberto provided us with avalanche beacons and we headed off to try some of the steeper ungroomed faces.

Dec11_Travel_SrraiDi Sottoguda_IMG_6962

The Serrai Di /Sottoguda gorge is famous with ice climbers around the world.

Instead of lunching slope-side, Alberto skied us through the 2 km long, magnificent Serrai Di Sottoguda gorge with its sky-high walls of ice.  Popping out the other side at the small village of  Sottoguda. We shouldered our skis and walked down the street to a local café for lunch. At the end of our ski day a “snow-taxi” picked us up slope side and motored us to a remote isolated valley and the beautiful remote Rifugio Façade (it is not accessible by roads.) I can’t recall the last time I experienced true silence. It was magnificent, only to be outdone by the excellent meal that evening. The dining room was busy for a mid-week, end of season evening.

We skied our next day between the peaks of the Pelmo and Civetta stopping to view the historic openings in the rock face where the Austrians tried in vain to fight off the Italians during WWI. Taking in the scenery never gets old. It just gets better and better. That evening we spent the night at Rifugio Lagazuoi at 2700 metres. This Rifugio literally sits on the peak of a mountain. The restaurant area opens to an oversized deck where if you dare, you can look over the edge to the valley way, way below. Accommodations are a little tighter but seeing the sunset on top of the world was magnificent. As is the custom with Italians, the food was great even at almost 3 kms above sea level.


The view from the terrace of Rifugio Lagazuoi.

On our last day — now swooshing down the slopes like the locals — we skied around Cortina-d’Ampezzo, the site of the 1956 winter Olympics and by far the largest of any of the villages visited. (Amazingly, there was still not a printed tourist t-shirt in sight). After skiing the World Cup and Olympic runs, there was no hopping across the road with skis in hand. Instead, we caught a city bus to the gondola that services the peaks on the opposite side of the valley. After a day of hitting the books, the school children here hit the slopes in droves. It was great fun to see them all out having fun skiing.

After another fabulous meal at Tivoli, a Michelin guide accredited restaurant we spent the night at the stunning Cristallo Hotel, Spa & Golf. The hotel has old world charm.

Augustina and her staff at Dolomite Mountains went out of their way to give us a memorable week of skiing, food and friendship. The trip was perfectly tailored to our ski level and surpassed our expectations.

Take a break from the beaches and endless buffets of our southern cousins and head to Italy’s Dolomites for an all-inclusive, ski-touring trip of a lifetime. Whole families can be comfortable swooshing down the wide pistes together, stopping here or there for a coffee or for a spectacular lunch on one of the many patios perfectly positioned to enjoy the stunning scenery. How many times can a person say amazing in one day? We simply stopped counting.

Written by: Karen Temple

Chicago Style

December 9, 2011 7:34 pm

Having been inspired after an annual girlfriends weekend get-a-way to Chicago this past weekend, I wanted to highlight some of my favorite spots for all things design, especially as they pertain to Chicago.

Leonardo Da Vinci said “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication”.  To me, this quote perfectly summarizes my experience of the downtown architectural landscape of Chicago, not to mention the interior design of the Elysian Hotel and the Ralph Lauren Bar and Grill.

Hancock Tower

The docent for the Chicago Architecture Foundation River Cruise gave us a fantastic overview of over 50 buildings erected in less than 100 years, prompting us to enjoy cocktails at one of these, the Hancock Tower, prior to our dinner reservation at “GT Fish and Oyster”, one of the hottest restaurants in the US founded by the Boka Restaurant Group (   I would be remiss not to mention the iconic nature of the Tower with its Mies van der Rohe “less is more” aesthetic.   External X-bracing, pictured right, is a pioneering system allowing greater usable floor space by virtually eliminating the need for interior columns. I absolutely love it when interior load bearing walls are not required!

Another amazing space in this incredible city is the interior design of the Elysian Hotel ( located in the affluent downtown Goldcoaster neighbourhood. The hotel is no exception to sophistication with its simple color palette and beautiful materials.  Note how the palette is consistent using only tones of grey, black and white – could be the makings of what might otherwise be an austere hotel lobby however with the clever choice of finishes and balance of materials, it is perfectly conceived.

Elysian Hotel

The details of this space are both unique and stunning, with Carerra marble, characterized by grey veining atop a white background, which is one of my all-time favorite hardscaping materials. Similarly the crisp white architectural wood mouldings provides an understated profile, while the Dior grey colored walls done in grasscloth for texture add richness to the space. Hits of black on the revolving doors and reception desk add punctuation and scroll patterning both in the flooring and in the iron work make for some incredible detailing. Lastly, the glamorous chandelier adds sparkle and the oversized sculptures evoke drama and a human element.  Simply put, this place is sublime!

Ralph Lauren Bar and Grill

In contrast to this cooler interior color palette, I also had the pleasure of lounging in the Ralph Lauren Bar and Grill, Lauren’s first restaurant venture.  As one of my favourite designers, I have always admired his expert ability to layer different textures and materials. This particular restaurant is not only a feast for the senses but a hallmark of his warm and luxurious styling.  As quoted from the web-site (, the bar/grill is “very British, very swanky, very posh. It begins with the small bar at the front, with a black marble fireplace, mahogany paneling and brass and ebony cocktail tables.  The dining room beyond completes the image. Its navy blue walls, interspersed with more mahogany, are covered with artwork from Lauren’s private collection. Herringbone hardwood floors lead to plush, caramel leather-upholstered chairs and banquettes.”

Chicago truly is a wonderful city, rich in architectural history but whether you are design-inclined or not, inspiration is abound in downtown Chicago – check it out!

Family Vacation Delight: A Week at RIU Paradise Island, Bahamas

November 28, 2011 3:36 pm

Every year, just after Winterlude, I start to get irritable — like every Ottawan! I am pretty well fed up with winter and want to go south. We have three teenage children so travel destinations south becomes key. For a stress free vacation the best bet is always an all inclusive resort. You can relax and not worry about things like meals, snacks, planned activities or meeting a timetable for planned excursions. Believe me, over the years I had the misfortune of visiting some all inclusive places that were dumpy and disappointing. These days, to avoid even the chance of hitting a downer resort, I just book into RIU resorts. These Spanish-based destinations are recognized the world over for their friendly service, high standards and well-managed and maintained accommodations. Most telling is that their customer return rate is the highest in the hospitality industry. Nothing speaks the truth like a returning customer! Last March I decided it was time for a break so we loaded up the kids and headed to the RIU all inclusive resort on Paradise Island in the Bahamas.

Riu Bahamas

There are lots of great flight options from Ottawa, Montreal and Toronto to the Bahamas so booking the trip was a breeze. I had just walked into the lobby of the RIU Paradise Island when I turned my wife and said, “Score”. There is no better feeling than arriving at a destination and knowing immediately that you have  made the right choice.

Paradise Island in the Bahamas is well known for Atlantis, the biggest entertainment centre of the Caribbean which features a casino, an aquatic park and an aquarium. It is big, impressive. Our teen-aged daughter went to the chaperoned “Teen Club” called CRUSH from 8 to 11 p.m. in the evening. The Crush Club has the latest in Mac and iPad gadgets, lots of music, dance areas and fizzy drinks. It has all the stuff teens like. If you go to Atlantis for a day trip the best option is to buy a day pass for each child. The pass provides full access to Atlantis’ pools and facilities like the Aqua venture water park and the aquarium.  It is also located conveniently next to the RIU Paradise Island.

Speaking of the resort, the rooms were fabulous. The kids shared one room and we had a suite next to them. The rooms featured all the modern amenities including internet access, satellite television, CD player, bar fridge, comfort chairs, great beds, bathrooms and beautiful balconies that overlooked the seafront property.  The beach was spectacular and the turquoise water was a dream as we filled our days with swimming, kayaking, sun tanning, beach volley ball and other watersports. The pool area features two bars and a restaurant with a terrace that served an exceptional array of delicious Bahamian food. Breakfast service started at 7 a.m. and the food area remained open throughout the day.

The beautiful view of the pool in the hotel

The resort also has a fine dining restaurant where we enjoyed dinner one long leisurely night as we tried some of the most wonderful gastronomy prepared by the exceptional RIU chefs. The wine list was to die for. On another night, the kids went the regular dining area and we went to the Japanese restaurant for sushi and several shots of hot sake.

The resort has nightly entertainment that features dancers and local Bahamian reggae-infused bands. Guests gather to watch the show and take in the sounds.

Whether it is hours of enjoyment  at the  beachside  swimming pool, frolicking  in the Jacuzzi, running along the beach or playing beach volleyball or booking into the onsite Renova Spa, which offers  different kinds of massage and healthy therapy treatments, there is always  something to do for everyone of all ages.

If shopping is your thing, then the location of the RIU will not disappoint. It is a ten minute walk to local shops. Two bridges separate the city of Nassau from Paradise Island. You can walk over the bridge or take a sea cab ($10.00) across to the famous straw market in Nassau. We enjoyed walking alongside the colourful colonial buildings and stopped to dine at local restaurants that served a Bahamians culinary favourite – fried conk and rum cake. Be sure to visit  the historical centre, the zoo and the botanical garden. Otherwise, it’s just fun to get lost in the trinket-filled tourist megacentre straw market at the Nassau port. You can always use another straw hat and cheap t-shirt. In Nassau proper, you can find all kinds of aquatic activities from fishing, swimming with dolphins, local Island hopping trips, aquatic parks and trips to take you snorkelling or sunbathing to some of the more remote locales on the island.

The night scene on Paradise Island is hot and there are numerous clubs to attend if you want to go out and dance and make a night of it. Our preference was to just enjoy the atmosphere   from the balcony off our room with its spectacular ocean view.

After 6 days at the RIU Paradise Island Resort, we were not ready to come home. We all wanted to stay another week. However, that’s why they call it a vacation. We left, knowing that we would return. And that is both a compliment to RIU Hotels and something for our family to look forward to.

Love Home Swap: Home Exchanges with Style

October 26, 2011 11:31 am

Half of all Canadians are tightening their belts and planning to stay home this Christmas season, according to a recently commissioned Home Swapping Survey by global market research company Research Now.

“In tough economic times, travel becomes a ‘nice to have’ and is often one of the first things people cut from their budget,” said Debbie Wosskow, founder of Love Home Swap (

Wosskow loves to travel. Yet one day about a year ago she realized: “It’s not viable to vacation with kids. I’d really like to take my house and put it somewhere else if I want to travel.” So she came up with the idea for Love Home Swap and it’s grown internationally ever since.

Debbie Wosskow

Love Home Swap offers an all-new version of an age-old tradition – enjoying free vacations through stylish home exchanges around the world.

According to Wosskow, Love Home Swap offers an initial four-week trial for only $1, after which full membership costs $159 a year for an unlimited number of home swaps. Access to the service’s Luxe membership level costs $299 a year and includes a dedicated Travel Team, personal Concierge support, and “Hedonist city guides”.

Wosskow’s publicist Jennifer Stewart told Ottawa Life: “We’re on a nationwide tour, asking Canadians to join Love Home Swap because there is a huge demand for people to swap with Canadian locations, but there are only 60 properties right now on the website from Canada.

“So we’re here to talk to Canadians about this trend in social travel.  It’s not the typical ‘book your accommodations through a travel agent’ or ‘go online with your hotel’, but ‘reach out to other people, build relationships and travel’.

“You can save on average $2,000 in accommodation per swap, so it opens up a whole breadth of possibilities for the traveling world, especially in these difficult economic times.”

While only 50% of Canadians had heard of home exchanges, 49% said they would be interested in participating in one in the next year because of the cost savings, according to the survey.

Mediterranean styled house with courtyards in Atlanta, GA, photo via

“Love Home Swap is part of a revolution in social travel. Why book an expensive hotel or villa when you can stay in lovely homes for free and swap as many times as you like, wherever you like?,” Wosskow asked.

Home swapping was brought to the big screen a few years back in the popular film The Holiday with Kate Winslet and Cameron Diaz –

Above and beyond accommodation savings, amenities that can skyrocket a vacation’s cost are often included in the swap, including cars, kids’ toys, sporting equipment, and internet access.

For more information, quotes, case studies, or images, contact:

Jennifer Stewart


Debbie Wosskow, CEO, Love Home Swap


Angry Birds in Montreal

October 24, 2011 2:29 pm

It is clear that getting your hands on Montreal Canadiens tickets can be a difficult task and an expensive one. However, there is another sports team worth checking out just outside Ottawa, the Montreal Alouettes, winners of the 2009 and 2010 Grey Cups.

The journey across the 417 from Ottawa to Montreal to experience a football game makes for a great weekend getaway or day trip. Sitting on the steel bench, if you fail to bring a cushion, in the recently renovated Percival Molson Memorial Stadium, home to the McGill Redmen and the Montreal Alouettes, provides a thrilling experience. It also gives you the chance to see a CFL living legend in Anthony Cavillo, the all-time leading passer. The stadium, perched on Mount Royal, arguably the most majestic park in Montreal can now accommodate 25,012 spectators. Since 1998 the sports ground welcomes both teams allowing McGill University, the owners of the stadium, to avoid being in the red.

View of Montreal's skyline

The Percival Molson Memorial Stadium, named in memory of Captain Percival Molson, a McGill student and athlete who died during the First World War, has to be one of the nicest stadiums in Canada. Once inside the bowl, built in 1915 and designed by Percy Erskine Nobbs, your eyes set on a wonderful scenic view of Montreal’s skyline.  However, don’t go straight to your seat as there are plenty of gatherings before kick off. You can join in the tailgating near the coliseum enjoying the park, some grilled meats and perhaps a few drinks. You might want to get a few beers in before game-time since they go for a steep $9.25 inside. You can also sway your way to the nearby Tam-Tam festivities. There tourists and Montrealers alike, gather every Sunday from spring to fall near the George-Étienne Cartier Monument to partake in hippie-like activities. Why not bring your sword and shield to join-in the elaborate medieval battle which takes place on Park Mont-Royal.

Tailgating before the game

During the game, the atmosphere is exceptional as player’s chirp one another and fans screech incessantly supporting their angry birds. Unlike hockey, you are not as close to the action as there is a large perimeter separating the field and the stands. Within the space, cheerleaders and mascots frolic during play stoppages. Speaking of entertainment, at half-time, the Boston Screaming Eagles Marching Band orchestrated a mesmerizing show parading inside the sports arena. It is impressive to see those young musicians and dancers manoeuvring in unity around the field forming shapes seamlessly while playing captivating music. The tenor drums will surely captivate your tympanum.

After the hyperactivity inside the amphitheatre, you can keep up the rhythm waltzing on the nearby Mont-Royal Avenue. This commercial pathway offers restaurants, bars, boutiques and coffeehouses. The strip also connects with St-Laurent Blvd. and St-Denis St, two of Montreal’s most animated arteries. If you’re hungry you could check out the famous Au Pied de Cochon restaurant, fitting after a pigskin game.


Bank on One King West

October 7, 2011 2:31 pm

Next time you are heading to the Big Smoke and need a place to hang your hat, be sure to check out the digs at the übercool, perfectly located One King West Hotel & Residence. At King and Bay, you just can’t get more downtown Toronto than here and the subway is literally outside your door. While One King West is slick, hip, has everything you could possibly need (for business or pleasure) and is ultra modern, the building itself is steeped in history.  And that makes it particularly special and intriguing for history buffs.

One King West’s story began back in the mid 1800s. It was first home to a grocer and wine merchant.  Then, in 1879, the location changed owners to become home to the head office of The Dominion Bank (now TD Canada Trust). That lasted an incredible 126 years.

However, the bank’s incredible growth at the turn of the last century resulted in the need for more space.  This led to the construction of one of Toronto’s first skyscrapers. Beaux-Arts in style with Renaissance Revival detailing, the building was a major work of Darling and Pearson, Architects (You have seen their handiwork a bit closer to home. In fact, look no further than Parliament Hill. They are the architects who designed Centre Block.)

A bank remained on site until 1999. Then it was redesigned and a second tower, adjacent to the old building was built. By 2006, the transformation was finally complete, resulting in One King West Hotel & Residence. (If you want to learn more about the history of the place, the hotel has panels on the walls with interesting details.) Throughout all of the changes, (including this spring’s $2 million revitalization to common areas and meeting rooms) the building has retained all of its majestic beauty. In fact, it was designated a Heritage Building years ago.

One incredible feature of the hotel is the bank vault. At the time of its construction, it was considered the largest and best equipped bank vault in Canada. It is approximately 33 feet square by 25 feet high and is divided into two floors. It is so impressive that it has been used in numerous movie scenes, including the movie Jumper, Max Payne, Red (with Bruce Willis). No surprise, the hotel is a popular location for Hollywood shoots and other movies. And the stars love to actually stay here too. It is particularly busy during the Toronto International Film Festival and the hotel is the official host hotel for the Battle of the Blades.

Superior Suites at One King West

Today, guests of the hotel are treated to the historical splendour of the Dominion Bank Building along with the modern sophistication of luxurious hotel amenities and services. The rooms are all modern with unbelievably comfortable beds. All rooms even come equipped with a washing machine and dryer.

The hotel caters to business clients and professional clientele, offering outstanding business services and the most amazing boardrooms in which to hold meetings. Then there is the Grand Banking Hall, with high ceilings, beautiful detailing. It even has
Canada’s longest bar (at 100 ft), modeled after the original tellers’ counter).

It’s worth staying at One King West  for the fitness area and rooftop terrace alone. The gym is amazing. Located on the 17th floor, it offers an incredible view of Lake Ontario. After your workout, you can fill up on the hotel’s breakfast buffet served in the lobby area (or enjoy something a little stronger in the bar.) The restaurants and bars run off the lobby, which acts as the main hub area. It is great for people watching too. The menus are innovative and cater to various diets including celiac, vegan, and vegetarian and also offer local food options. There is something for every palette, including that hard to please health fanatic. (They even have quinoa on the menu.)

The staff are all friendly and aim to please to make sure your visit exceeds every expectation. Check out the hotel web site for further details at While you will get a sense of the majesty of the place, the hotel itself blows the photos away. Whether you’re in TO for business or pleasure, One King West Hotel & Residence won’t let you down.

One King West Hotel & Residence

1 King Street West, Toronto, ON M5H 1A1

1-866-470 KING (5464)

The Greatest Sailing Adventure Ever!

9:23 am

One of the greatest sailing adventures in the world is the Haida Gwaii- Queen Charlotte Islands journey by Maple Leaf Adventures. It is a dream excursion which I took with my 14 year-old daughter. Together we explored the wildlife, nature, history and Aboriginal heritage of Canada’s northwest Pacific coast. Rich wildlife and evolutionary changes have led scientists to dub these islands “the Canadian Galapagos”.

This sailing cruise explores every-thing from the abundant and rich intertidal species and abundant sea life ranging from huge Orca and other whales to sea lions and eagles that make this domain their home. The trip redefined my impression of Canada, of the power of nature and most importantly of the rich heritage and culture of Canada’s Haida Gwaii people. Over the nine days, we experienced first-hand the lush intercoastal life in the Queen Charlotte Islands. We learnt about the Haida culture, a civilization so impressive and a people so noble that it stirs the soul to learn of their demise in the 19th and 20th century as a consequence of European expansion and  of their gradual  cultural recovery  now.

Maple Leaf Adventures has been offering natural and cultural history cruises aboard their century old 92-foot schooner and classic tall ship, the Maple Leaf, since 1986. The ship is made of coastal Douglas fir and cedar with mahogany brightwork. It has 5 huge sails. The company has a reputation as one of Canada’s finest tour operators and is ranked one of “The Best Adventure Travel Companies on Earth” by the editors of National Geographic Adventure, with a perfect score of 100 for customer satisfaction and one of the highest rankings of all 192 companies listed from across the globe. I can attest to the fact that they meet and exceed this standard.

Our excursion began with a ninety minute flight with Pacific Coastal ( from Vancouver to Masset B.C. We met the other passengers and our crew of superior sailors and delightful people. The Captain was the thirty-something James Warburton a lifelong resident of the Queen Charlotte Islands. A wine connoisseur, fisherman, naturalist and environmentalist, he gave everyone a sense of comfort and at no point did we ever feel unsafe or unsure of anything while onboard. First Mate Tavish Campbell is a twenty-two year-old sea faring dynamo who has more outdoor adventure experience in his young life than most people I know. One of my greatest memories of the trip is watching Tavish clean 4 large fish he and James caught. It was like watching a maestro perform a concerto…and the fish were great later for dinner!

Photo by Caroline Penn

Our trip Chef was Lila Ruzicka, a who prepared spectacular meals featuring local food traditions and fresh produce along with the best seafood the Pacific West coast has to offer. The food presentation was a dinner highlight. She did this from the kitchen galley that may have been 6 feet in length. The ship Deckhand, Terese Ayre, was also a talented naturalist, environmentalist and host who always made sure we were comfortable, had lots of hot tea and snacks, had our lifejackets and raingear for excursions and pretty well anything else we required.

Our first day was spent on Graham Island and at the Haida Heritage centre at Skidegate. We had a land tour of the rainforest in Naikoon Provincial Park with stops at Tow Hill, Agate Beach and North Beach. The locals have built an impressive wooden pathway for the hike up Tow Hill and once at the top, the vista view of the Queen Charlotte beaches and terrain is breathtaking. The famous cedar trees that I have always read about and have seen in photos were everywhere. It is hard to believe that right up until the early 1990s Canadian lumber companies were going crazy clear-cutting the forests in the region. Former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney finally put a stop to all this by putting the area under federal protection in partnership with the Haida people.

Photo: Caroline Penn

The art of the Haida totem poles is fascinating. Our guide told us about the history of Bill Reid’s Dogfish pole in Skidegate. Reid is probably the most famous Haida Artist and his totem poles are legendary. One of his great works was for the Canadian Embassy in Washington. A stop in the Kaay Llnagaay Haida Heritage Centre was fascinating. It sells many representations of his and other Haida artists’ work and we were fortunate to meet two totem pole artists working on a new pole which had been commissioned for the federal government. Both artists were Bill Reid apprentices.

Our first night was spent at the Alaska Lodge in the Queen Charlotte Islands. It sits on wonderful beach and is teeming with local wildlife such as eagles, ravens and as we are told, bears.

The next morning, we headed to the Bay to board the Maple Leaf. The boat’s interior accommodations are very comfortable and merge modern conveniences and good space design sense with a decor that nods to her Edwardian past. The spacious main cabin is open and airy by day and the kitchen is compact, including the dining area. Shelving on the wall around the table holds the ship’s library and is a pleasant place to sit and read, chat or enjoy a cup of tea.

Our sleeping was below deck and featured large comfortable bunk beds, six-and-a-half feet long, with fluffy duvets, pillows, throws and brass reading lamps. There are walls on two-and-a-half sides and thick, heavy curtains on the remaining sides. There were five other people in similar accommodations feet away from us. There are three small washrooms on the ship which also can be used as showers. This is precision accommodation that was extremely comfortable especially for sleeping as you could lie in your bunk and feel the gentle floating sensation of the ship. I loved it and found it very relaxing as did my daughter!

The Maple Leaf has lots of deck space on which people may choose to sit and watch the coastal scenery, chat with others, steer the ship, or have quiet time alone.

Photo by Caroline Penn

The first evening was casual, each person getting a general comfort level onboard. The ship galley was prepared for our first meal and as he would do each night on the trip, James pulled out a couple of great bottles of BC wine and we toasted our day, our trip, each other and any other positive thing we could think of before delving into one of Lila’s spectacular meals. The 13 of us are squeezed in tight around the galley table and we share stories of our day and of our lives. James shows us the map of where we sailed and where we are headed the next day.

Our  days are spent sailing and going ashore in the inflatable zodiac boats to experience the magic of different habitats and the special life that inhabits each area. The Maple Leaf has two 15-foot Polaris rigid-hull inflatable boats for shore excursions and wildlife viewing. These  zodiacs, take us to some of the most remote beaches for hikes, seabird watching and marine mammal viewing. The Maple Leaf has access to some of the best places along the Queen Charlotte Islands that are rarely seen as most other tour operators are forbidden to go there. A highlight of the trip is zooming over the water in a zodiac to be near a whale pod or to get close to some Northern Seal lions whose average length is about 3 metres and weigh between 450-1,000 kilograms, making them the largest of all eared seals. These seals live on rookeries which are exposed, remote islands where calving and breeding take place. The males are very defensive of these breeding territories so we were careful to not get too close!

Photo by Caroline Penn

A key point of the trip is to stop and learn more  about the Haida culture. We sail to the remote Haida sites of T’aanuu Llnagaay and K’uuna LLnagaay and explore the natural and cultural heritage of Gwaii Haanas. These areas are protected by The Haida Gwaii Watchmen Program.  In the past, Haida Watchmen were posted at strategic positions around a village to raise the alarm in advance of approaching enemy. Watchmen also crowned poles as carved figures protecting the village from evil spirits. Today, from spring until autumn, the Haida Gwaii Watchmen serve as guardians at these sites.

One night we pulled into the Bay that features the famous Hot springs of Haida Gwaii. The Watchmen are laughing as we all take comfort in the hot spring water-better than any spa treatment in any place I’ve been. The temperature is so hot that after ten minutes most of our group hops out and into the extremely refreshing and cold Pacific Bay next to the hot springs.

Later, heading back to the ship in our zodiac, I noticed James speeding off in a zodiac towards another ship in the Bay. He returned moments later with a basket of fresh prawns. He said it was a great trade as we’ll enjoy the prawns and they’ll enjoy the BC wine he just gave them in exchange. We did enjoy those prawns which Lila quickly fried up in garlic and butter  And by the way did I mention the breakfasts aboard the Maple Leaf each day or the end of trip brunch? Well, you should really go and experience it yourself. In all the adventure and comfort travels I have done, nothing even comes close to this trip. It was simply spectacular. I like to think that years from now my daughter will realize what a special adventure we had but I think she already knows it.

For more beautiful photography by Caroline Penn please see her website

The Art of the Weekend Getaway

September 13, 2011 12:14 pm
Sept11_Photo #2 A glassblower_pg58

As summer days slide into brilliant Fall colors there’s no better time for a cozy weekend getaway. Better still, some of the best Ontario has to offer is right next door. Just hours from Ottawa lie the breathtaking landscapes and quaint country hamlets of Ontario’s Highlands.

Ontario’s Highlands is a new name for a travel region which spans a large part of Eastern Ontario, that includes some of the area that you already know and love, such as Pembroke, Bancroft, Haliburton, Madoc, Smiths Falls, Stirling and Perth. These destinations are perfect getaways for Ottawa residents seeking to shake off city stress. Ontario’s Highlands is also home to the Ottawa Valley which stretches from Ottawa westward to the edge of Ontario’s Algonquin Park. From hiking to canoeing to more urban pursuits such as art gazing, antique shopping and fine dining – Ontario’s Highlands can’t be beat.

Fall is an especially good time to venture out in Ontario’s Highlands – particularly for art lovers. For four weekends from September 10-11 to October 1-2, the Ottawa Valley hosts its annual Rural Ramble. Art studios open up their doors to the public, allowing art buffs to see and speak with artists.

Melissa Marquardt, Marketing Coordinator of the Ottawa Valley Tourist Association, said the Rural Ramble is the Ottawa Valley’s Fall signature event with up to 5,000 tourists attending each year.

Along with the art sampling, the Ramble is “a great way to see the country-side, the beautiful foliage and experience rural living,” Marquardt said.

In partnership with the Rural Ramble, the Madawaska Valley Studio Tour also within the Ottawa Valley, takes place on October 1-2, where visitors can watch 27 top artists forge knives, make handmade soap blow glass, paint, weave and create stain glass and pottery.

But the Fall delights don’t stop there in Ontario’s Highlands. The region includes Lanark County and the nearby by Land O’Lakes area, which also have a lot to offer. While the area’s signature art event takes place over Labour Day weekend there is still much to see and do.

Marie White, Tourism Manager at Lanark County Tourism said Lanark is steeped in artistic tradition. “Our families have been here for generations and different skills have been passed down that are close to our Irish and Scottish heritage.” Artists, Ms. White said, are drawn to the beauty of the area for inspiration. Lanark Country is the Maple Syrup Capital of Ontario and has a high concentration of sugar maples. In the fall, golden sugar maple leaves make a gorgeous contract with rich red maple leaves and white pines.

Other areas of the Ontario’s Highlands region present even more self-guided driving studio tours. In Hastings County, the second largest county in Ontario, you will find the Bancroft and Area Autumn Studio Tour (September 24 and 25 and October 1 and 2.) This studio tour offers the public access to 11 studios from L’Amable through to Lake St. Peter. Established in 1992, the Bancroft tour features ornamental ironwork, fibre arts, wood furniture and carving and leather goods among others.

Hastings County is also home to the Hastings Arts Route (, which offers a trail of painting, pottery, jewelry and photography all unique to the area. An example of the delights to be found is jewelry by Kathryn McDonald – who makes stones and shoreline objects enveloped in copper and sterling silver. To help visitors stick to the arts trail, Hastings County has a series of helpful tourist route signs.

Travelling to the western end of Ontario’s Highlands, the Haliburton County Studio Tour also offers a wide selection of original works and crafts.

While in Haliburton, you won’t want to miss the annual ColourFest ( celebration of fall, scheduled for October 1. In addition to being another great event/location to experience local artists, music is also a highlight of the festival. The lineup includes the Simply Befiddled Musical Trio, The Great Busker Show featuring Mark and Gustavo and the award winning Anne Lindsay Quartet, to name a few. Other highlights include a vintage car parade, a scarecrow contest and a Kid’s Colour Splash aptly described as a “gallery art attack on patio.” Another family favourite is the ColourFest Pet Contest which has awards for best kisser, looks most like owner and best smile.

This Fall, add Ontario’s Highlands to your list of getaway destinations. Whether you visit for a day, a weekend, or more, you won’t be disappointed. For more information, please visit

Weird and Wonderful Venice Beach

August 31, 2011 3:09 pm
Venice Beach, California

Attention sand-lovers and sun-worshippers: if beaches are your thing, Southern California is for you! The area boasts hundreds of kilometres of idyllic white sand beaches, and is undoubtedly one of the world’s top destinations for sun, fun, sand, and sea. So when I had an opportunity to visit SoCal recently, there wasn’t a doubt in my mind that I too would soon be singing the praises of the area’s breathtaking coastlines. I travelled the Pacific Coast Highway and was able to visit beaches all the way from Laguna to Malibu.  What I didn’t expect, however, was that my favourite beach in SoCal would in fact have less to do with the surf and sand, and more to do with all things weird and wonderful.

A street performer on the boardwalk

Specifically, the beach I’m referring to is the infamous Venice Beach! A district of Los Angeles, and just a stones-throw away from downtown, Venice was founded by developer Abbott Kinney in 1905. He intended to create an oceanfront resort-town like its namesake in Italy. If Kinney could see Venice Beach today he would likely turn over in his grave. This is the only place, perhaps in the world where one can see a lady ‘of age’ in a hot pink thong, a muscle-man with arms bulging like they’re about to burst, or a teenager serenading tourists in the middle of the street on a baby grand piano. But that’s all part of the eclectic and electric charm of the Venice Beach Boardwalk.
Walking down the boardwalk of Venice beach, one can be sure of a few things: dodging roller bladers, admiring the eclectic individuals that dot the scene and being bombarded with funny, wonderful, and even some weird sights and experiences. The boardwalk is always filled with buskers (ranging from incredibly talented to incredibly bizarre), which undoubtedly contributed to the overall carnival atmosphere.  Adding to that, the scents of sunscreen, sweat, grease, and the salty ocean air, will leave anyone’s senses truly overwhelmed. 

The colourful boardwalk of Venice Beach

Venice Beach has always been a haven for creative types — ranging from early Beat Generation artists to bohemians to graffiti artists. Today, the area still holds its reputation as a community for artists. It has attracted a broad range of talent, from the drifters and hopefuls to well-known artists such as Jim Morrison of the Doors. At times, however, the word ‘art’ has to be redefined at one’s own discretion – for example, the man freestyle rapping off key about ATM bank machines…perhaps a little questionable!

Of course a trip to Venice Beach would not be complete without a visit to the infamous Muscle Beach. The meatheads’ playground is an inclosed area along the boardwalk, where spectators can watch weightlifting, gymnastics, and acrobatics in a public show of strengths. Muscle Beach has been frequented by ex-governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, Dave Draper, Danny Trejo, and other notable celebrities.

Bodybuilding equipment at Muscle Beach

If the craziness of the boardwalk gets to your head, fear not. Venice also boasts a unique shopping and dining street, named after Mr. Abbot Kinney himself. Unlike so many other areas in Southern California (especially Los Angeles), Abbot Kinney hasn’t been taken over by chains or big box stores. The authentic neighbourhood is a go-to hipster hangout, lined with trendy boutiques, unique restaurants, and sidewalk cafes. This trendy and colourful area offers a must-see experience off the beaten path, while straying away from the wacky boardwalk.

But to truly understand the character and vibe of Venice Beach, it must be experienced first hand! Bring a camera, an open mind, a most importantly, a sense of humour. Whether you join the ‘Arnolds’ at Muscle Beach, watch (or if you dare, join) the stunt rollerbladers/skateboarders, explore Abbot Kinney, or simply stroll the boardwalk, Venice Beach will be a truly unforgettable experience.

As a sign on the beach so aptly puts it: ‘Keep It Weird’, and boy… do they ever!

Italy’s Best-Kept Secret

August 17, 2011 12:19 pm
Church of San Vitale

I remember the morning when I woke up to a ceiling with frescos and a crystal chandelier. I was lying alone in a king sized bed in suite of Hotel Vittoria, in Faenza, Italy, where as the legend goes, the great Italian poet Giosuè Carducci used to lodge. So this is Italy, I thought and laid back down again, overwhelmed by the decadence of it all.

Faithful to the best kind of stereo-types, Italy was full of enthusiastic people, beautiful architecture, amazing wine and superb espresso. But our journey was to take us deep into the gastronomical soul of Italy. Our journey took us through the rural towns of northern Italy through a region called Emilia-Romagna, situated between the Adriatic sea and the foothills of the Italian alps. I’m convinced that Emilia-Romagna is Italy’s best-kept (and maybe only) secret.

Our first stop was the Polesine Parmense farm shop in Parma, Italy, where meat is the main event. I have never seen cold cuts from Parma on a menu in Canada and now that I’ve tasted its version of proscuitto and salame and the prized culatello, I’m disappointed that it is not more readily available. These cold cuts are among the best in the world – savory tastes heightened by complementary flavors of spice and pepper. After centuries of perfecting the technique, the farm counts Prince Charles and fashion head Georgio Armani as some of its many culatello patrons.

Since each kilo of culatello (taken from the inner leg of the pig and cured for approximately 20 months), is worth 16 euro, the basement full of pork was worth around two million euros. Its hefty price tag now betrays its origins as peasant food during Roman and medieval times. The fermented meat was able to last longer, key to a poor family’s survival.

After visiting the culatello shop we stopped at Roberto and Giovanni Cavalli’s balsamic vinegar factory. Cavalli’s family had begun making the vinegar as a hobby, using old wine barrels that date back to the 1800’s. Unlike wine, which has to ferment at a constant temperature, balsamic vinegar is perfected by 20 years exposure to fluctuating temperatures. After doing a tasting of the sweet, thick, dark caramel-coloured vinegar, I predicted that any future balsamic vinegar experience in Canada will always come short — if only because recreating the experience would be so costly: a bottle of 100 ml goes for $300-400 dollars US. If you’re curious, the first step to spotting a bona fide bottle of balsamic vinegar is the traditionelle label, which means the vinegar is aged well and adheres to the complicated fermentation process that Cavalli has perfected.

With its offerings of local wine, cheese, meat and produce, the Emilia-Romagna province is a living example of the of the slow food movement, a “non-profit, eco-gastronomic member-supported organization that was founded in 1986 to counteract fast food and fast life, the disappearance of local food traditions and people’s dwindling interest in the food they eat, where it comes from, how it tastes and how our food choices affect the rest of the world.” The movement was in part a reaction to McDonald’s opening near the Spanish steps in Rome. Capitalizing on the anti-consumer, anti-capitalist sentiment Italian Carlo Petrini officially launched the organization three years later, which now boasts over 100,000 members.

Our tour led us through an area and a lifestyle which saw food in a web of interconnected relationships. One of these relationships was with the land, another was with the farmer, another was with the person who was preparing your meal, and another was who you were enjoying your meal with. The slow food movement’s name literally parallels with the eating habits of Italians. All our lunches and dinners took over an hour to consume, some over two and a half hours. In every restaurant, all the other diners were eating at the same pace and people trickled out of the restaurant around midnight. There was a clear integration of consumption with the surrounding environment. Here, in the land of granola bar breakfasts and TV dinners, we seem to have lost that connection to our food and land.

How people dress seems to be with as much pride and flair as their food. When I first arrived, it seemed as though everyone was dressed as a movie star. Actually, that’s not true, they dress classier than movie stars. That I didn’t bring a pair of stilettos was my one regret of the trip. I was mortified that ninety-year-old grandmas were sporting sexier footwear than me.

The churches of Emilia-Romagna, inspired wonder and awe – if slightly contaminated by Dan Brown-esque conspiracies (I caught myself looking for Rose Lines and Mary Magdalene on more than one occasion). What I didn’t expect to encounter was the Byzantine mosaic masterpiece of the Church of San Vitale in Ravenna. Ravenna was the capital city of the Western Roman Empire in during the 4th century AD. The Church was finished around 600 AD and was preserved by the Benedictine monks and is the only remaining church from the Emperor Justantine to survive. The glittering, golden ceilings of San Vitale depict something very different than the frescos from the medieval ages and the Renaissance. The scenes on the walls were of the pre-Christ and focused on the Emperor’s court and the glories of nature. For example, there are over eighty species of birds featured in the mosaic. Legend has it that Gustav Van Klimt studied the cathedral and borrowed the luminescent shapes and colours for his painting The Kiss.

I didn’t fall in love with Italy until the day when we biked from Faenza to Bisighella, a medieval town with a castle perched on the top of three hills. The ride, took the panoramic route from Faenza through the foothills of the Tuscan-Romagnolo Apeninne. It was biking through the lush green farmland, dotted with old castles and farmhouses, that I was struck by historic legacy of the land and overcome by the realization that I was actually, truly there in the hotspot of Western civilization. It was unquestionably the best cycle ride in my life. Biking in Italy is to driving in America. On this trip it also served as my only defence from gaining twenty pounds.

We had many rides but our last bike jaunt was a nauseating shuttle-ride through the route of the Nove Colli, one of the most famous one-day “gran fondi” race or ride in Italy. It took place on May 23, and follows a 210 km route from the harbour of Cesenatico, up and down nine hills, and then back to a finish line on the seafront, which is also the finish line of the granddaddy of Italian bike races, the Giro d’Italia.

After the bike interlude, our tour returned its focus on gastronomy and we were taken to Forlimpopoli. The town is the birthplace of Pellegrino Artusi, a writer on gastronomy who is considered the “father” of Italian cooking. Born in 1820, he traveled the countryside of Italy and collected recipes and methods of cooking, food conservation and food preparation. The recipes were cooked by Marietta, his invaluable right-hand woman, and published in his 1891 bestselling book Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well.

In Forlimopoli, we went to Artusi’s birthplace, the Casa Artusi, which is now a museum and culinary centre. We were taken upstairs to the kitchen and shown how to make piadina, a typical flat bread unique to the coast regions of Emilia Romagna and the Republic of San Marino. After our piadianas, we had a memorable stop at Dozza, a hilltop town which houses the wine museum Enocteca Regionale dell’Emilia Romagna in the 14th century castle in the center of town. Actually, memorable is the wrong word, orgasmic is a better fit. Gian Alfonso Roda, the president of the Emilia Eomagna regional wine museum, had us taste a variety of wines including frizzante and regianno rosso. The last wine, a dessert wine known as passito, was described by Gian as a “meditation” to be enjoyed over a book. Or, as we did, with the traditionelle balsamic vinegar and aged parmesan cheese. If you’re wondering what happened when these three ingredients were combined, I assure you, it was nothing short of a taste-gasm. As people reluctantly left the room I hung back hoping to lick the last of the balsamic vinegar off the plate.

In the best-selling memoir Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert makes a trip through Italy to obsessively eat her way to recovery from her divorce, what her friend calls a “No Carb Left Behind” tour.  She writes, “I am doing rude things to my body in Italy, taking in such ghastly amounts of cheese and pasta and bread and wine and chocolate and pizza dough…I’m not exercising, I’m not eating enough fibre, I’m not taking any vitamins.”

I believe that by gorging, she missed the point. For me, Italy was about enjoying what you had, finding the community in everything you do and cultivating the resources around you with pride. It wasn’t the quantity, but the quality that I’ll remember Emilia-Romagna by.

As Artusi writes, “I should not like my interest in gastronomy to give me the reputation of a gourmand or glutton. I object to such dishonourable imputation, for I am neither. I love the good and the beautiful wherever I find them, and hate to see anyone squander, as they say, God’s bounty. Amen.”



One of the best regional wine is the Lambrusco, a sparkling red that only locals and visitor are treated to as it is made for consumption within the year.

Living La Vida Local

July 29, 2011 11:05 am
Cuba -0045

Unlike the typical Cuban getaway – in mid-winter complete with package tour and all you can eat buffet, I decided to see Cuba in reverse. That is, in full early July heat and staying at the opposite of a resort – at a Cuban home complete with grandma, mum, adult kids and babies – out in the Havana suburbs. It proved to be unforgettable “auténtica experiencia” – and one I would not willingly exchange for the pre-packaged kind.  It’s not often after all, that you get to meet an 85 year old Cuban grandma who spied for Castro during the Revolution, have a Spanish speaking guide or to walk the streets of Havana at 4am with a bunch of newly made Cuban friends. Then there was learning how to hail cabs local style, eating at unknown hole in the wall restaurants and learning how to push your way into a line up for a hot Latin jazz band a la Cubana. It was a week of living la vida local – Cuban crazy, fun, hot and humid – and not for the faint at heart.

Photos by Juan Carlos Gort-Bastardo

For starters, the first thing you discover about Havana is that it well, isn’t Ottawa. While in Ottawa public servants are sensibly tucked into bed recouping from a day pounding the keyboards in an air conditioned office, young Cubans are out all day and night – and they are partying, hard. As my Air Canada flight landed into Havana Airport almost three hours late – turning  a scheduled 9:33pm landing into an after midnight touch down, I was concerned my host family would be sound asleep oblivious to my knocks on the door. Worse still, my cab driver was lost. I need not have worried. My arrival at 1am left my Cuban hosts unfazed and slightly puzzled by my apologies. Eighty five year old Grandma Carmen was on the balcony enjoying a well earned rum along with her daughter Esperanza. In relaxed Cuban style, they were warm and welcoming as I explained in broken Spanish the flight delay and the lost cab driver.

Photos by Juan Carlos Gort-Bastardo

I was offered rum, snacks (dried plantain and fresh mango) and shown my digs. My room did not disappoint. The  room was at the far end of a sprawling, grand-looking Spanish-Cuban style house, complete with 12 foot ceiling, photos of Castro and gorgeous antique furniture. The room was large, with louvered wooden slat screens that opened out into a small garden and a large private luxury bathroom. At $40 Cuban pesos a night with a huge breakfast of fresh, garden picked pawpaw, mango, soursop, toast, omelette, cheese, honeydew melon jam and best of all, thick Cuban style coffee  – it was a bargain. But the best was yet to come – a one week whirlwind tour of Havana with a local – Carmen’s 31 year old grandson Juan-Carlos – who doubled as interpreter, tour guide and photographer, and who has lived in Havana all his life.

Photos by Juan Carlos Gort-Bastardo

My week of living La Vida Local started next morning, after six hours of light sleep at the untimely hour of 8am in the morning.


Tale of Two Cities…Part Two: Bratislava

July 18, 2011 9:00 am
Streets of Old Town Bratislava

In the middle of Europe lies a very small but proud country, with a small but lovely capital city. The country that I speak of is Slovakia and it’s lovely capital – Bratislava. Bratislava is in part, a world divided, with half its foot in the past and the other half brightly in the future, architecturally and aesthetically speaking at least. The most obvious divide exists with the Danube River, which flows through the center of the city and separates the old town from the Communist-built Petrzalka, perhaps equally as interesting but not as aesthetically pleasing as its older counterpart. There is so much history here, that it is a wonder how it all fits into a city with a population of barely 500,000. Bratislava’s geographic location couldn’t be more beautiful, as the city is nestled between the Carpathian mountains and the Danube river. But aside form its history and location, Bratislava is also a city buzzing with  social life, which becomes obvious when one enters any of the many restaurants, trendy cafes and bars, modern shopping centers or galleries alike.

Streets of Old Town Bratislava

Walking through History

The old part of Bratislava is unique: it survived over 40 years of Communist rule, which left the city’s historical buildings neglected and shabby. After the fall, however, large reconstruction projects took place and most of the buildings were returned to their original grandeur. One just needs to walk through the many alleyways and cobble-stone streets of St. Michael’s Gate in order to appreciate the history of the space. It also doesn’t hurt that many of the old buildings have been turned into small cafes, shops, restaurants and bars, which provide both a charming and distinct atmosphere to enjoy a meal or drink. While artists and crafts people set-up shop in various stands throughout the old town, underground wine cellars dot the city and provide a place where one can sneak off and take a sample of wine at virtually any time of the day. Verne cafe, which is located right across the Carleton Hotel and the US Embassy, is one such locale that features authentic Slovak cuisine, keg house wine (“sudove vino”) and an eclectic collection of furniture. In the summer, virtually all restaurants and cafes have outdoor patios, but I am not talking about plastic lawn furniture, it’s white table cloths or carved wooden pub tables and benches for a truly authentic European dining/drinking atmosphere. The Slovak Pub, on Obchodna Street, offers exactly this kind of authentic Slovak eating experience. Complete with historical Slovak farming equipment on display and various other traditional paraphernalia along with organic Slovak food fare and drinks, this place is a must for any tourist keen on trying Slovak food made Bratislava-style.

Old Town

Main Square

If history isn’t your thing, then Eurovea is sure to please. The 2 year old modern construction features funky cafes, trendy restaurants and a large shopping center, all located scenically on the edge of the Danube. The lawns of most establishments here even include large bean-bag seating, comfortable for even the pickiest of guests.  Many locals and tourists alike, congregate here for  food, drinks, shopping and sun – a perfect way to spend a lazy summer afternoon or weekend.


Across the Danube lies Petrzalka, the Communist-built concrete jungle. Although seemingly vast and uniform, even this part of town has its hidden gems and charm. For the shopper in you, there is Aupark – a large shopping center featuring H&M, ZARA, New Yorker etc. Plus a plethora of restaurants, some Slovak, some fusion. It is also a strong reminder of what the regime destroyed, created and left behind. A constant reminder of the Communist functionalist aesthetic.

Petrzalka and the Bratislava Castle

However, one cannot leave this city without visiting Bratislava’s emblem: the Bratislava Castle. Part restaurant, part museum this magnificent structure overlooks the entire city, and gives any visitor an appreciation of the small-in-size but rich-in-culture capital.

Unique Bratislava

A Tale of Two Cities…Part 1: Berlin

July 8, 2011 10:44 am
Graffiti Park

A city formerly divided, both figuratively and literally, by a giant concrete wall now adorned with art and graffiti from all over the globe…A city formerly divided by clashing political ideologies and philosophies…but no longer. Today Berlin is a city united both by its past and its present. The wall now stands only as a symbol of the past – of what has been and what no longer is – a constant reminder of both Berlin and Germany’s tumultuous history. But this is not a story of that history, rather this is a story of the present, a tale of the vibrant, creative and interesting city that is Berlin.

Berlin streets, nooks and crannies. Photo by Katarina Kuruc.

Walking through the side streets and main streets of Berlin, it is easy to see why this city has become a haven for artists, the not-so underground party-goers, intellectuals and tourists alike. This is because walking down any random street is like walking through a pop art exhibit, complete with bumping base undertones emanating from almost every corner and neon-clothed partyers celebrating to the wee hours of the morning all the while being surrounded by a plethora of cafes, restaurants, museums and galleries.

First stop on anyone’s travel planner in Berlin should be the infamous Berlin Wall (of course!) Although the city is littered with its remains, the main section of the wall remains intact in the area of Ostkreutz-a vibrant, formerly East German area of the city complete with cafes, bars and 48-hour party venues. The walk along the wall is long, but never boring. As aforementioned, the wall has been preserved with art from local and global artists alike. Think: giant outdoor pop art exhibit with a political history. While exploring this section of the city, however, one cannot ignore all the other street art and graffiti that dots the Berlin landscape. Virtually no corner or wall has been left untouched, particularly in one graffiti park I personally managed to stumble upon in the area of  Warshauerstrasse. But if street style isn’t your style and the history of the city is of great interest, then the GDR Museum is the place to go. Complete with actual objects from the former Communist regime, including a Trabant car, this interactive exhibit gives a very good depiction of what life under the Communist regime was really like. The museum is also located near Museum Island, that features some of Berlin’s most famous historical museums-it’s your one-stop-shop for anything ancient and ornate.Yet another amazing outdoor exhibit is the newly reconstructed Topography of Terror, which documents the rise and fall of the Nazi Regime. Not for the faint of heart, but something everyone should see in order to remember the horrors that befell people during the Nazi reign.


Berlin Wall. Photo by: Katarina Kuruc

Aside from graffiti, art, and history Berlin also features a wealth of amazing restaurants. Rosenthaller Bar and Grill in Rosenthaller Platz offers personal pizzas starting at a mere 3.90EU (trust me in Europe this is a steal!) along with other grilled and baked goodies. As a result of the city’s large Turkish population, shawarma stands can be found virtually everywhere along with beer gardens and cafes that feature both German as well as international cuisine. Germany is famous for its beer and schnitzel (a breaded and fried pork cutlet) and many of the restaurants in Berlin clearly reflect this national culinary tradition. Surprisingly, however, Asian food also seems to be popular. Transit restaurant, which features a lower priced but equally delicious fusion menu is sure to satisfy any thai/vietnamese craving, also located in Rosenthaller Platz, a trendy area with shops, cafes, bars, hotels and hostels.


Transit Fusion Restaurant. Photo by: Katarina Kuruc

On Sundays, any vintage lover simply cannot miss the Mauerpark flea market, which features everything from food to vintage furniture, clothes and other random, yet charming, nick-nacks. Aside from all the vintage commodities another bonus of Mauerpark is the traditional  “Crazy Karaoke” which happens near the market every Sunday, weather permitting. Apperantly a local Berliner started this tradition and it has lasted ever since. A karaoke machine is set-up in front of colleseum-style seating and those brave enough can sign up and wail their favourite songs. A perfect way to spend a Sunday in the city.


Mauerpark Flea Market. Photo by: Katarina Kuruc

As mentioned, Berlin is a city of art. Photography, painting, sculpture, you name it and it has got it! One gallery especially worth mentioning that combines photography with biography is the Helmut Newton Foundation, which features the life and work of the Berlin-born fashion photographer. The space is filled with most of Helmut Newton’s famous photographs, movies, scrapbooks and a replica of his home in Monaco. The observer can stroll through Mr. Newton’s famous collection of polaroids, get a glimpse of his most prized possessions and watch several of his movies. A “must” for any fan of photography, fashion or art.


Helmut Newton's Monaco home. Photo by: Katarina Kuruc

An this brings an end to the first installment of the “Tale of Two Cities”. Stay tuned for the second part which will feature another post-Communist city: Bratislava.

The Coolest Capital in Europe and the German Riviera

May 30, 2011 11:41 am

The Germans do it all and have it all. Exceptional in every way, it is no surprise that Germany continues to hold the annual record as one of the world’s most visited countries. In fact, it is one of the most educated and economically successful countries in the world. It has a powerhouse culture driven by a vibrant film, music and arts scene whose inspiration is driven by the historic legacy of its forefathers. Think of some of the most accomplished and popular artists of all time like Johann Sebastian Bach, Ludwig van Beethoven, Franz Schubert, Johannes Brahms, Richard Wagner and of course the German born Austrian composer Mozart.

Germany today is a mixture of beautiful landscapes, picturesque villages, quaint castles, sandy shore-lines and serene small town life crossed with an uber post modern, successful and thriving city society. It is rich in culture, wealth and opportunity.

My son and I arrived in Berlin after a very comfortable flight on Lufthansa ( We took a bus to the city centre to the historic Friedrichstasse, one of the most famous streets in Europe. With its array of cafés and shops, it is the heartbeat of Berlin and on this Saturday morning Berliners were out in droves shopping and sitting out in the pleasant outdoor cafés. We made a pit stop at one of the many German sausage and French fry kiosks that are scattered throughout the city. You can have a hot lunch and a beer for less than ten dollars. We then checked into the Melia Berlin 
( a magnificent boutique hotel next the Spree River and central to the key attractions in Berlin. (Great restaurants, very comfortable and delicious breakfasts.)

Originally the capital for Prussia, Berlin has served as a cultural centre for hundreds of years. After much of the city and its population were destroyed in the 17th century’s Thirty Years War, Frederick William, the King of Prussia instituted a policy of religious freedom that resulted in the city attracting new people from all over Europe. It quickly established itself as a progressive, cosmopolitan and free city. However, WWI and the subsequent seizure of power by the National Socialists in 1933 would forever change Berlin. At the end of World War II, Berlin was divided with the Russian Communists controlling a repressed East Berlin and the Allies controlling a free West Berlin. In 1961, the infamous Berlin Wall was constructed, physically separating the German city into two parts. Through the city, you can follow the trail of where the Berlin Wall once stood and we followed it to Checkpoint Charlie, one of the Berlin’s most popular attractions. Opened in 1962, shortly after the Berlin Wall was built, Checkpoint Charlie was the formal border access point for people to cross from East Berlin to West Berlin and vice versa. The nearby museum traces the history of a then divided Germany and portrays the tensions of the Cold War between the major world powers. Other related themes include the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

Be sure to check out the Reichstag ( whose interior was completely gutted and reconstructed in the 1990s. The new Reichstag retains its historic style but embraces the future with a postmodern glass dome that was erected on the roof as a gesture to the original 1894 cupola. This glass dome provides an impressive view over the city, especially at night. The German Parliament or Bundestag officially convened there for the first time on April 19, 1999, moving back from the Cold War capital of Bonn. The Reichstag is now the most visited attraction in Berlin. Directly across from it is the German Chancellery or Bundeskanzleramt ( which is also a postmodern style building.

The next day, we headed to the museums section of Berlin in the centre of the city. History junkies will not be disappointed. The German Historical Museum has a permanent exhibition that features Germany’s two thousand year history. We were fortunate enough to be in Berlin for the opening weekend of a ground-breaking exhibition about Adolf Hitler. This exhibit was the first time since World War II that a major museum has explored the relationship between the Hitler and the German nation. Hitler and the Germans: Nation and Crime was an exceptional look at how Hitler managed to both charm and horrify a nation. The exhibit was packed as Berliners tried to come to an understanding of how they were long ago seduced by National Socialism. It is an extraordinary exhibit.

Shopping is another popular pastime in Berlin. Potsdamer Platz is a great centre with cafés and restaurants. Friedrichstrasse is a wonderful walking boulevard featuring the world’s most acclaimed international designers as well as upscale art galleries, cafés, delicatessens and shops.

There are phenomenal restaurants in Berlin. Local neighbourhood restaurants are best and offer meals for under $25.00 with beer, dessert and coffee. If you want to cover more of the city in a day then take the Berlin Wall Bike Tour ( or you can also see the city by boat. Berlin has an enormous system of waterways and is home to more bridges than Venice.

The next day we headed for Rostock, the 800 year old hanseatic port city on the Baltic coast, a two and half hour drive north. Germany is famous for its Autobahn and recently celebrated  the invention of the first automobile by Carl Benz 125 years ago. I was at first exhilarated to be driving 180km per hour (no speed limit) but noticed that many cars were still passing me by. After the initial thrill, I settled in at 120 km per hour. As we passed the fertile plains, bountiful farmlands, and old growth forests of the German countryside, the old merged with the new as the scattering of huge modern windmills jutted across the countryside showcasing German ingenuity and innovation at its best. The windmills provide clean energy to most of the region. (German is a world leader in clean and green alternative energy.)  Rostock retains medieval charm mixed with a cosmopolitan feel. Its historical town centre features typical German brick architecture and a small town feeling that disguises its larger stature as a port, commerce, trade and university centre.

We checked into the cozy Steigenberger Hotel Sonne ( We headed to the  harbour brewery aside the port for dinner at the Zum alter Fritz  (

The Baltic Coast region of Germany is outstanding and incredibly beautiful. Less than three hours north of Berlin, the region is a magnet for European tourists who come to swim in the turquoise and cobalt sea and sun on the pure white sand dunes that roll along the peaceful shore.

The pace of life seems to slow down in the Mecklenburg-Vorpommern region. We stopped for a morning in Warnemunde, where the Warnnow River flows into the Baltic Sea. Once a small but very important seaside fishing village, the town is now more of a tourist destination thanks to its beauty. Twenty minutes away is the spa resort of Bad Doberan, a small town steeped in tradition that lies just off the Baltic coast surrounded by lush beechwood forests.

The 33rd G8 summit took place at Kempinski Grand Hotel in Heiligendamm in 2007 with good reason. It is stunning. Heiligendamm remains Germany’s most elegant seaside resort.

In 1823, the first race track on the European continent – located between Heiligendamm and Doberan – opened, thus becoming the cradle of German horse racing. Then, in 1862, a narrow-gauge railway was built, connecting Doberan with Heiligendamm. In 1910, the track was extended as far as Kühlungsborn and a steam-driven train still runs along it today. The high nobility of Europe, even the Tsar’s family itself, spent the summer holidays here. After the Second World War, the buildings in Heiligendamm were used as a sanatorium and for convalescence. Then, in 1996, a private consortium acquired the historical buildings of Heiligendamm, along with 500 hectares of land and after three years of careful reconstruction, the Grand Hotel Heiligendamm was opened on 1 June 2003, ringing in the rebirth of Germany’s oldest, grandest and most exclusive seaside health resort.

We checked into the centrally located Hotel Prinzenpalais ( in Bad Doberan, 4-star hotel housed in a neo-classical building built in 1821. With full modern amenities, it also has a sauna and Jacuzzi and a remarkable restaurant (which serves the most impressive breakfast buffet.) Bad Doberan is a quaint town with nice cafés and walking paths. Be sure to visit the historic “Bad Doberaner Munster, a 14th century Cistercian abbey (Cathedral) built in a brick gothic pattern and rich with medieval furnishings.

Golfers will love the Wittenbeck Golf Course which ( sits atop a hillside that looks out to the Baltic Sea. Spectacular.

Next up was the Baltic Resort town of Kühlungsborn and an overnight stay at the Hotel Polar Stern ( Located next to the beach the Hotel Polar Stern sits at the centre of what many are calling the new “German Riviera”. Albrecht and Dagmar Kurbjuhn, the proprietors of the Polar Stern came to Kühlungsborn, the region’s largest seaside resort, in the early 1990s shortly after reunification. They fell in love with the relaxing Baltic Sea atmosphere, the white sandy beaches, wooden piers, pine-tree forests and warm summer temperatures. They had a leap of faith and purchased the Hotel Polar-Stern, a 100-year-old “spa town” type building that required extensive care and renovation. They never looked back. Today the Polar Stern is one of the most hospitable and charming hotels along the coast.

The Kühlungsborn marina is filled with schooners and small ships. We visited a tall ship while we were there. Behind the marina is a beautiful forest area where you can zip line. (www.kletterwald-kü Kühlungsborn is a gem.

The Mecklenburg-Vorpommern region is also famous for its lakes and beautiful countryside. The next day we drove around the countryside and along the coast to the beaches of Darss and then visited the island of Rugen with its Dover-like white cliffs. We also stopped at the Ozeaneum ( in Stralsund which won the “European Museum of the Year Award” in 2010. To end our trip we drove across the Rugendamm Bridge that connects Rugen to the mainland. Rugen is Germany’s largest island, an archipelago of 30 smaller islands and peninsulas in the Baltic Sea. The area hosts a diverse group of seaside resorts, fishing villages, sandy beaches, and tree-lined avenues, lighthouses and lakes and is a vacation paradise. It is home to Jasmund National Park known for its famous white chalk like cliffs that rise majestically out of the turquoise green Baltic Sea. I’ve now been to the French Riviera, the Mayan Riviera and the German Riviera. My son asked me which one I preferred. It was a no brainer.

Panama Wow! The New RIU Plaza Hotel

January 6, 2011 1:12 pm

Panama is derived from an old Indian word meaning “lots of fish and butterflies.” It has one of the world’s most spectacular ecosystems and jungles but less than an hour away, there is the vibrant urban life in Panama City. America spoils back to Spain.

Canal de Panama

The Panama Canal

I have always been fascinated by the stories of the Panama Canal ( which many consider to be one of the most important feats of engineering in history. The narrative is almost too fantastic to believe and dates back to the 16th century. Spanish conquerors were keen to ship the riches of Peru, Ecuador and other South and Central America spoils back to Spain. The idea was preposterous. Join the Atlantic to the Pacific by means of a gigantic swath cut thought the jungle? But the building of such a canal would shorten distances enabling new, faster commerce routes to be opened up. In 1524, the Spanish presented a plan to Charles V to build a canal that would cut three months of the journey to ship gold back to Spain. It was believed that the savings on this alone would justify such an enterprise and a working plan for a canal was drawn up in 1529. However, subsequent wars in Europe put the project on permanent hold. By the early 19th century, a German scientist named Alexander von Humboldt had revived interest in the project and in 1819 the Spanish government formally authorized the construction of a canal and the creation of a company to build it. The discovery of gold in California in 1848 and the rush of would-be miners stimulated America’s interest in digging the canal. After numerous stops and starts, by 1880 a Frenchman named Ferdinand Marie de Lesseps, the builder of the Suez Canal, organized a company to build the Panama Canal but by 1899, his attempt had failed due to disease-carrying mosquitoes and the inadequacy of machinery. The construction of the canal was restarted by the Americans in 1904. The Americans had a perpetual lease on a 10-mile strip beginning in 1913 in exchange for an annual cash payment of $250,000 but in 1999, the Panama Canal was ceded back to the Panamanian people. It now serves as a key economic driver in the country and is currently undergoing an expansion that will double its capacity while providing jobs and significant economic opportunities for Panama. When you visit the Panama Canal, be sure to stop at the museum in the visitor’s centre or visit the Interoceanic Canal Museum in Panama City. After watching some of the world’s biggest ships pass through the canal, drop by for lunch at the onsite Miraflores Restaurant.

Hotel RIU Plaza Panama

If you visit Panama City for business or pleasure, you will be guaranteed a wonderful experience at the Hotel Riu Plaza Panama ( The international RIU chain was founded by the Riu family in 1953 as a small holiday firm and is still owned by the family’s third generation. The company specializes in sun and sand holiday resorts and 50 per cent of its establishments offer RIU’s acclaimed all-inclusive formula. Today, RIU has 107 properties and 42,000 rooms globally serving over 3 million guests each year and they have won just about every major hotel hospitality award possible by following their mission statement, “We’re all about you.” This is the first of RIU Resorts new city hotels that will cater to business and leisure travelers. The Plaza is situated very close to the very best the city has to offer in culture and entertainment. The hotel has 645 comfortable and spacious rooms with desks, free wireless ADSL, flat screen TVs and state-of-the-art bathroom fittings. Many of the rooms have breathtaking views of the city. Other facilities include a gym, a spa & wellness centre and an open-air pool with a Jacuzzi.  For business travelers and event organizers, the hotel has 21 conference rooms, with free wireless connection and a maximum capacity of 1300 persons.

RIU Panama Plaza

The RIU Plaza’s world class restaurants offer sophisticated decor and great food: fusion cuisine in the Tastes Restaurant, as well as a Sushi Lounge, the Arts Restaurant, the Studio 50 and the Ibiza Lounge (situated beside an open-air swimming pool). The Chefs at the Riu Restaurants have been recruited from the best restaurants in Europe and North America and their meals are a gastronomic experience that is artful in presentation and delicious.

Panama City is a thriving, culturally diverse, entrepreneurial and strategic business centre. Spaniards, Mestizos and indigenous peoples coexist alongside Indian, Chinese and Arab communities, many of whom first settled in the country as migrant workers to help build the Panama Canal. The global recession missed this country and the city has a construction boom trying to keep up with the surging economy. Much of the skyline is covered in newly built business towers and condos which reflect the Panama City’s growing influence as one of the most valued destinations in Latin America. Five star hotels, museums, bars and restaurants attract business people and tourists alike.

The New Town section of Panama City has attracted thousands of investors and condo buyers but  beyond the new steel and glass towers, is a 2 km tree-lined avenue Calzada de Amador. Panamanians love walking along this urban pathway where you can view the skyscrapers and modern growth of New Town and then turn and look across the bay and see the picturesque Old Town.

Old Town is the historic centre of Panama City which in recent years, has actually undergone a remarkable renaissance. The colonial buildings have been renovated and the streets, which were formerly squalid, have been revived with new businesses, homes, galleries, restaurants, shops and boutique hotels.

The heart of Old Town is the Plaza de la Independencia. It was here that the declaration of independence was read out in 1903. It is both easy and pleasant to lose oneself here and soak up the sun and the atmosphere of this district that combines colonial elegance with Latin flare and modern amenities. Panamanians are religious people and the Catholic Church still plays a vital role in the daily lives and traditions of its people. In the church of San José you will find one of the country’s treasures – the magnificent Altar de Oro, or Golden Altar. In 1671, when the pirate Henry Morgan wrecked havoc in the city, a priest managed to save this Baroque masterpiece from the pillaging. At the southern end is Plaza de Francia, dedicated to the role of the French in the construction of the Panama Canal. It is surrounded by the Paseo de las Bóvedas, which was conceived to protect the old town. From here you can enjoy beautiful views of part of the Old Town and the enormous ships waiting to enter the canal. The Presidential Palace is one of the most beautiful, best-preserved buildings in this area. Its magnificent state of conservation is no coincidence as it currently houses the Panamanian heads of state.

The Embera Village of Parara Puru

The highlight of the trip for me was a visit to the Embera village of Parara Puru. The Embera Indians are native to Panama, and the Embera village is one of three Indian villages in Panama that still exists where the natives live their lives as they did hundreds of years ago.

On our way by canoe to the Embera Indian village of Parara Puru.

On our way by canoe to the Embera Indian village of Parara Puru.

The Parara Puru village is about 2 hours from Panama City in a remote area that requires a one hour canoe ride up the Charges River. The surrounding jungle is full of tropical birds and wildlife unique to the area. Panama has the most biodiversity of any Central American country. Deer, numerous monkey species, tapirs, sloths, armadillos, anteaters, peccary, coatimundis, and several cat species, including the elusive jaguar, inhabit this terrain. Among the reptiles are crocodiles as well as a variety of lizards, frogs and turtles. The area’s snakes, like the giant boa, are relatively harmless, but an encounter with a coral, bushmaster or fer-de-lance can be deadly. We passed some spectacular waterfalls and on a suggestion from the Embera guide went for a swim to take a break from the heat.

The Embera people paint their bodies with juices from the jaguar fruit which also serves as a mosquito and insect repellent.  Beyond the steep embankment to their village was a main hut that serves as a gathering spot for the village. The living huts are raised on stilts from four to 6 feet off the ground to keep out insects, snakes and small animals. After looking at local crafts and jungle-made jewelry, we were hosted by the village chief to a lunch of fried lake tilapia served in plantane leaves. While we ate, the Embera performed several traditional dances. It was a wonderful experience and needless to say I found it quite perplexing two hours later to be in my room at the RIU Panama Plaza sending emails while having a room service snack. Such are the wonderful extremes of Panama.

Panama City serves numerous international airlines including American Airlines (

For more information on Panama Tourism visit the Panama Tourism Bureau:

For tours and shuttle buses in Panama, visit

For Embera Village visit:

An Adirondack Olympic Experience

January 1, 2011 1:50 pm
a little whiteface - photo from ORDA

Imagine the blades of a bullet-shaped sled twisting through narrow, icy turns as gravity pulls you down a mountain at speeds of up to 50 mph. Crossing the finish line, you hear your name announced over a PA system, you pose for a photograph with your driver and brakeman. OK, so you may not have won an Olympic gold medal, but in Lake Placid, you can have a taste of what it would be like.  And it is one exhilarating way to start a weekend of Adirondack adventures.

Olympic history seems to flow through the veins of many locals and is present in many of Main Street’s businesses. Athletes from across the globe have come here twice in pursuit of gold, once in 1932 and again in 1980.

Our home for the weekend was the newly renovated High Peaks Resort in the heart of Lake Placid. Surrounded

by the Adirondack Mountains, America’s largest protected wilderness, and in walking distance from downtown boutiques, High Peaks Resort is just a short three-hour drive from Ottawa on beautiful backcountry highways. It is the ideal hotel for families with both indoor and outdoor pools and a pet- friendly policy. With spacious suites and elegant décor, it also makes a perfect romantic getaway. Our room overlooked Mirror Lake, framed by the Adirondack Mountains, with a luxurious European-style bathroom including a natural stone tile shower and rainfall showerheads.

After our bobsled experience, we headed back to town and walked down Main St. for the annual Lake Placid Holiday Village Stroll, a local favourite — for very good reason.  A magical event for the whole family, there are complimentary activities and treats at every storefront. Main St. parallels Mirror Lake and provides a beautiful wintery scene. Santa was even on hand for photos. Free wine tasting, happy hours, live music, cookies, hot cocoa and apple cider were all part of the event.

Also on Main Street is High Peaks Cyclery. We dropped in to plan the next day’s outdoor excursion on Whiteface Mountain. Friendly owners Brian and Karen Delaney greeted us. As Nordic specialists with over 23 years of experience, they have expansive knowledge of the local ski trails and a large array of rental equipment.

We ventured to Caffé Rustica for a gourmet dinner. Known for wood-fired pizzas, it is also a European-style restaurant with Mediterranean cuisine with menu choices such as sautéed shrimp with garlic, shallots, white wine and lemon over herbed risotto and tuna steak with asparagus salsa. The Lake Placid Centre for the Arts provided the evening’s entertainment where we caught the Nutcracker Ballet.

Nordic ski specialists Brian and Karen at High Peaks Cyclery.

Nordic ski specialists Brian and Karen at High Peaks Cyclery.

The next day we met Brian and Karen at Whiteface Mountain, which has the greatest vertical drop east of the Rockies. (There are ski runs for every level.) The highest skiable terrain stands at 4,650 ft. We were geared up with brand new ski equipment from Scarpa and Black Diamond to trek up the hill. Ideal for backcountry skiing, climbing skins are stuck to the bottom of the skis for grip and an alpine trekker binding is attached to the boot, giving the heel lift and leverage. Once you reach the top of the hill, you can adjust the binding to ski down. This is called “earning your turns” and makes for a great workout. After this lesson, we tried telemark skiing, which is also known as “free heel skiing” because the binding only connects the boot to the skis at the toe allowing you to completely flex your knee and fully bend the turning leg. Named after the Telemark region of Norway this technique was first brought to public attention around 1868. Our excursion with Brian and Karen was a highlight of our trip.

That night, we ate in High Peaks’ Dancing Bears Restaurant. American food fare is served up in a bistro-style. A variety of sandwiches, pizza, nachos and burgers are offered as well as homemade soups and salads.

Our final day in Lake Placid was spent skiing and snowboarding at Whiteface Mountain. The gondola ride with views of the surrounding Adirondacks was breathtaking. Lake Placid is a gold medal vacation destination for residents of the National Capital Region. With a variety of outdoor activities to suit any ability, gourmet restaurants and boutique shopping, this friendly and quaint town has no shortage of things to do.

When You Go

WHITEFACE MOUNTAIN – Grab an Olympic Passport and try the bobsled or skeleton experience, visit the Ski jump complex or the Olympic Museum. Whiteface Mountain is also the #1 ski resort in the Eastern United States and provides excellent conditions for skiers of all abilities with 86 trails. 5021 Rt. 86, Wilmington. 1-877-SKIFACE.

DANCING BEARS RESTAURANT – Where past Olympians celebrated their victories on the slopes and ice is a welcoming family-style atmosphere perfect for street watching and enjoying American fare. 2384 Saranac Ave. (518) 523-1120.

SUGAR SHACK DESSERT CO. – Red velvet cupcakes, white chocolate macadamia nut cookies and brownies all made from scratch. 2567 Main St. (518) 523-7540.

CAFFE RUSTICA – Gourmet Mediterranean style food in a warm, rustic restaurant with an impressive wine list. 1936 Saranac Ave. (518) 523-7511.

HIGH PEAKS MOUNTAIN GUIDES HOUSE (AND LODGING) – Everything you need to plan an exciting adventure with rental equipment, a resource library including maps, books and expertly-trained guides in rock climbing, hiking, backpacking, kayaking, mountain biking and more. 2733 Main St. (518) 523-2368.

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