High Tech, Low Stress

March 5, 2012 4:03 pm

Winter in Ontario is no time to hibernate. Whether heading outdoors excites you or you prefer to stay indoors, activities in Eastern Ontario await you. For outdoor types, there are countless ski trails and hills,  dog sledding, snowshoeing, ice climbing. For those who prefer warmth, there are lots of indoor entertainment options in theatre, art classes and more. Your winter getaway is waiting, and now it is easier to plan and book than ever before with the new Ontario’s Highlands tourism web site at ontarioshighlands.ca.

Skiing is just one of the many activities to enjoy!

The ontarioshighlands.ca web site, the flagship digital interface of the Ontario’s Highlands Tourism Organization, gives you all the tools you need for travel planning in one convenient location. Not only can you book a vacation package in a matter of clicks, but the web site also provides a high lever of attention to detail that can turn an average trip into an extraordinary one. Want to know where to get the best poutine in Madoc? Want to go ice climbing in Haliburton? Wondering where to ski in the Ottawa Valley? How about where to luge? Learn about the region’s highlights from visitors just like you in the View From You section of the web site.

An events calendar helps you know what’s happening around the region. The Day Trips section turns ideas into a fully fledged adventure. A look at the blog section will let you know what experts suggest for a memorable time. There are also reviews on hotels and attractions.

“Our web site at ontarioshighlands.ca is a great starting point to experience winter right here in Ontario,” says Leah Piltz, Marketing and Communications Coordinator at the Ontario’s Highlands Tourism Organization. “We have so much to do on our own doorstep from snowmobiling to so much more. The great thing is that you can easily plan it all from the comfort of your home or office.”

Dog Sledding

The Ontario’s Highlands web site ups the ante online with its mobile application. The Travel Ontario’s Highlands app is available as a free download for Apple Devices (iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch) in the Apple App Store. It provides you with a travel guide on the go. Browse nearby businesses, events, news and weather as well as create postcards and itineraries which, you can share on Facebook, Twitter or email.

Want to see it in action? There is even a YouTube channel putting you face-to-face with the many activities that you’ll find in the area and of course there are Facebook, Google+ and Twitter pages.

Whatever your vacation tastes, preferences or style, Ontario’s Highlands will help you get there, quickly and easily, all online. To plan your next adventure, visit ontarioshighlands.ca. You won’t be disappointed.

Austria the Winter Away

March 1, 2012 4:14 pm

For anyone who has had a glimpse of life in Vienna, seen the joie de vivre of the Viennese and experienced the ethos of their amazing city, it will come as no surprise that the City topped the 2010 Mercer consulting group’s annual Quality of Living survey of world cities. Vienna, it seems, is the best place to live. (Vancouver placed 10 and Ottawa ranked 14). And there is no denying the indescribable feeling you get when in Vienna. Like many other European cities, you are surrounded in architectural beauty, but somehow in Vienna, there is an additional feeling of being immersed, enveloped and cradled in culture that differs from other Euro cities. Maybe it is because Vienna has achieved incredible international cultural status despite its size. It’s roughly the size of our National Capital Region. (However, interestingly, its population has actually decreased compared with a century ago when it was the Imperial centre of the Habsburg Empire and its 60 million subjects across Europe.)

Vienna Philharmonica Ball

Whether it is music, opera, art, dance or coffee house culture (both traditional and avant garde), Vienna oozes it. You can practically hear the echo of Mozart’s horsedrawn carriage in the streets and yet, paradoxically, this is a cosmopolitan 21st century city where you can dance the night away to techno music, whisk around a ballroom floor into the wee hours or surf the net on Wi-Fi as you sip on a Viennese cup of java in an 18th century café.

While it may not jump to mind as a Mardi Gras or winter destination (for winter weary Canadians, beach holidays have a particular allure this time of year), Vienna offers the holiday seeker every opportunity to have an unbelievably good time.

First the basics. Connections to Vienna are remarkably easy. Air Canada will get you to Frankfurt where you can hop onboard an über efficient Austrian Airlines (AA) flight. AA’s level of service is astounding. A fast train link up gets you quickly to the centre of Vienna. English is widely spoken which is particularly helpful.

One fab hotel is the Falkensteiner Hotel Am Schottenfeld, (www.falkensteiner.com/de/hotel/schottenfeld). It is incredibly clean, the staff unbelievably helpful and the hotel itself perfectly located for discovering Vienna on foot. And that is the best way to get to know Vienna. The crazy thing is that while Vienna is a city of close to two million people, it feels much smaller, almost cozy.

Vienna has been home to much international intellectual, cultural, political and social influence. From the genius of Freud to the brilliant modernist artistic hand of Gustav Klimt (Vienna will be celebrating his 150th birthday this summer), Vienna has always been at the cultural forefront. You can learn all about it in any number of museums and art galleries scattered across the core. The MuseumsQuartier is a must see (www.mqw.at) with different galleries and art for every taste. The complex, which takes up a couple of blocks, marries the architecture of the 18th and 19th centuries with and ultra modern buildings with restaurants and cafés where the artsy set hangs out. It is close to many of the other tourist attractions including the Hofburg Palace. Regardless of all this history and the countless places to visit, somehow Vienna does not feel touristy.

Vienna in the Winter. Photo: Hugh Durant

If you head to Vienna in winter, catching the ball season is de rigueur and that alone can be the focus of the trip. Experiencing a Viennese ball will exceed every expectation. It is pure magic. Ball season is etched into the collective soul of the Viennese (kind of like Tim Hortons and hockey for us in winter). It starts New Year’s Eve and runs right up until Mardi Gras.

There is a real sense of pomp and ceremony at these events. The balls open with debutantes and their male escorts. It is a sea of white dresses in majestic rooms and it is quite the sight. Children learn how to dance practically before they can walk. It is such a part of the Viennese identity and dancing schools are everywhere. The Tanzschule (dance school) Elmayer will offer classes to everyone, including dancers with two left feet in an attempt to teach them a move or two. Thankfully, you don’t really need to know how to dance to enjoy the balls.

Many balls are organized by professional guilds, such as lawyers, pharmacists, confectioners, medics, gardeners, the press, the police, technicians, chimney sweepers, or locksmiths. There are balls from several universities and high schools as well as dancing schools and public institutions. You usually don’t sit down at a ball and this is what makes the events so lively. Everyone is in motion all the time. People walk from one room to another, soaking up the energy and music from each hall.

I had the opportunity to attend three balls and each one was different. The Bonbonball, takes place in the grand Wiener Konzerthaus. Sponsored by the confectionary industry, it is a candy girl’s dream come true. It was festive with a young crowd all the while retaining a regal feel.

Sacher Torte a decadent Viennese dessert. Photo: Hugh Durant

The Nacht der Wiener Wirtschaft (night of the Viennese economy) had a much more reserved but majestic feel to it and took place in the gothic Rathaus (City Hall). (Its architecture is very similar to the Hall of Honour and Rotunda of Centre Block on the Hill.) Last but not least, there was the Elmayerkränzchen, (a ball hosted by a dance school). I didn’t even bother trying to dance at that one. It was a marvel just to watch the dancers. That ball marked the end of the Vienna Ball season on Mardi Gras and took place in the Imperial Palace (Hofburg) (which you can visit during the day and learn about the Hofburg Empire.)

Cafés are everywhere in Vienna and one of the most amazing is the Café Sperl. Its claim to fame is that it has been used in many movie sets including that 1990s’ Gen X classic flick Before Sunrise. But it also offers an extensive coffee menu and is just an interesting place to people watch. Café Mozart has amazing schnitzel (a must try when in Vienna) and every café has a wide array of sweets and pastries to suit every taste. The Viennese take their coffee and pastries seriously and the coffee menu in each of these cafés would make Starbucks blush.

Food in Vienna was, as expected, hearty and heavy. To sample tra-ditional Viennese cuisine head to the restaurant Plachutta (www.plachutta.at). Other fab restaurants that mix Viennese cuisine with international flare include Kulinarium (www.kulinarium7.at). Steirereck (www.steirereck.at ) dishes out contemporary Austrian cuisine and is located in heart of the central city park.

Austrian Alps. Photo: Hugh Durant

A short train ride away and you are in Salzburg. Salzburg has a very different feel to it than Vienna. Being so close to Munich, the Bavarian influence is palpable. While Salzburg does not have the urbane, cosmo feel of Vienna, it does have a rocking night life, even in February and March. And unlike Vienna, Salzburg thrives on its tourism. Even though it has a deep and rich cultural history, it is most known for The Sound of Music. (You can take a bus tour of filming locations. While it may sound like the schmaltziest thing you could do, it is actually a great way to see the surrounding area and learn about its history (some of it is sordid given Nazi connections to the region).

More importantly, Salzburg is the birthplace of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and for any classical musician or fan, a visit to the very room in which he was born may seem like a religious experience. To experience a bit more of life in Mozart’s time, (www.mozartdinnerconcert.com)you can enjoy a candlelit dinner and concert performed by opera singers dressed in era clothing as you eat tra-ditional recipes from Mozart’s time.

Any beer and bratwurst lover will revel in time spent at the Augustiner Bräustübl Tavern (www.augustinerbier.at) a beer hall with long wooden tables and huge kegs of beer offered in beer steins the size of a bottle of wine. It is the ultimate Oktoberfest experience that you can get year round and the beer is incredible. The place is even run by monks.

For a small town, lots of other great stuff has come out of Salzburg. Next time you pop open a Stigl beer or indulge in a Red Bull energy drink, you can tip your hat to Salzburg, as both originate from the area.

If nature is more your thing, Salzburg is a stunning place. Cradled by the Alps, there are numerous walking paths where you can experience the breathtaking beauty of the mountains.

When the time to leave arrives, it is sadly all too easy to get a commuter flight to Frankfurt to catch a flight home. There is no doubt you will leave wanting more of Vienna, Salzburg and a desire to see more of Austria. I guarantee it.

Giddy up to Colorado!

2:18 pm

From the novice to the most experienced rider, the very young to the very old, whole families come together while enjoying the great outdoors.

Valet parking, Colorado style, involves a few cowboys, a chuck wagon and a tour of the grounds. This toss back in time is a great way to transition into a Colorado all-inclusive dude ranch vacation, and that was exactly how our week began.

Cowboy boots wait for city slickers

Cowboy boots wait for city slickers

Colorado has a wealth of dude ranches that have been offering city folk a taste of the wild west for the last 100 years. Located just two hours north of Denver, Colorado, guests arrive on Sundays at Latigo Ranch for a one-week program that has lots of flexibility and can accommodate families of all ages.

The Yost and George families have been running the ranch for the last 20 years. They truly make you feel like you have come back home to visit. Lisa and Randy George along with their two grown children, Hannah and Spencer, can be found in the kitchen cooking up delicious meals, always with a choice of meat, fish or vegetarian. Jim Yost is head wrangler while his wife Kathie manages the office and shop. When unattended, the ranch shop works on the honour system with index cards available for guests to mark down their purchases for future payment.

Our fellow guests from Vermont were on their seventh return visit to the ranch. Having visited many other ranches in their day, the couple are dedicated to Latigo citing the riding instruction and small group sizes as one of the main reasons for coming back. The food alone is enough to get me to return. All meals are taken together in the dining room with the adults eating with hosts while wranglers keep the kids entertained.

A young wrangler learns the ropes at Latigo Ranch

A young wrangler learns the ropes at Latigo Ranch

There are some great activities to experience during non-riding hours. Try your hand at lassoing, axe throwing, whip cracking, shooting or if you prefer something a bit tamer, there is dancing as well as cookouts and overnight campouts. All of this takes place at 9000 feet with a backdrop of the Colorado Rockies that never gets old.

The maintenance crew, dining room servers and wranglers all seem to be best friends. Their happiness is contagious, ultimately contributing to making your stay extra special.

If your bum gets a little numb, all ranches offer off-ranch activities from hot air ballooning to golf, fly fishing or white water rafting excursion. We chose the latter and were a little skeptical with the 42ºF temperature when we headed out for a day on the river. But it was unbelievable. Tony and Erin from Red Tail Rafting gave us nothing less than a great day. It was exhilarating, and at times relaxing but most of all fun. By mid-morning, our sun-baked skin was craving the splashes of cold river water that crashed over the edge of our dingy. Some cliff jumping, dingy splash wars and a great riverside lunch all added up to a great day out.

Before leaving Latigo Ranch guests design their own family branding iron which is then branded into the wall of the main dining room. Guests burn dots into the paneling around their brand to indicate the number of return visits. Judging by the number of dots I counted, Latigo is a resounding success.

Upon arrival at Latigo Ranch your car is hidden away and a chuck wagon transitions you to a week of frontier living.

Upon arrival at Latigo Ranch your car is hidden away and a chuck wagon transitions you to a week of frontier living.

We left the cozy cabins, beautiful mountain top views and home cooking and headed down into the valley for a visit to the C Lazy U Ranch. An Orvis recognized premier fly fishing destination, C Lazy U is named for the shape of the 2 miles of Willow Creek which meanders through the property.

Closing in on its 100th year in business, C Lazy U is a more glammed up resort-like ranch with higher-end amenities and camping à la glamour which they call glamping. Picture one of those big old canvas tents but inside there are hardwood floors, a real bed complete with high end linens, bedside tables and solar lighting. The ranch runs a 12-month operation. In addition to horseback riding, the ranch offers hunting in the fall and snow cat skiing in the winter.

Children are grouped by age, spend their days riding and their evenings dining and doing activities together with their counselors. Parents can choose to ride or not, fish, hike or spend a day being pampered at the luxurious Lazy You Spa. There is also a 12, 000 sq foot indoor riding arena.

The pool area at C Lazy U Ranch

The pool area at C Lazy U Ranch

Fridays are family days when the whole gang gets to ride together after first posing for a mounted family photo. C Lazy U is the only ranch that has an on-site bar. Other local ranches allow guests to bring their own alcohol. Evenings are very social as the adults gather for apéritifs before dining together either in the main dining room or on the gorgeous poolside terrace. If you have any energy after the incredible meal, there is nightly entertainment.

Proudly donning our plaid shirts and with a newly-discovered love of cowboy boots, we were sad when our four-wheeled ride came to shuttle us back to Denver for our flight home to Ottawa. A dude ranch vacation is about horses, horseback riding and experiencing the Rocky Mountains but while you are enjoying this taste of the wild west, you’ll find your family reconnects while having just simple, old-fashioned fun in the great outdoors.

For more information on either of the ranches profiled or to learn more about a Colorado Dude Ranch vacation, visit www.coloradoranch.com

What to look for when deciding on a ranch:

With so many ranches to choose from, make sure you know the features your family will require. Some offer a little more grit in a relaxed setting while others are more luxury cowboy.  Here a few questions to consider when deciding which ranch to saddle up to:

•    Does it have a pool?

•    Do they offer family rides and if so, how often?

•    Is there flexibility built into the schedule?

•    Is there riding instruction?

•    How big are the riding groups?

•    Is there child care available?

•    Do families eat together?

•    What non-riding activities are included?

•    Are they a member of the Colorado Dude Ranch & Guest Association?


•    Are they a member of the Dude Rancher’s Association (DRA)?


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