Take a dip into Salaberry-de-Valleyfield

July 15, 2016 4:06 pm
The fountain in the bay in front of the Hotel Plaza Valleyfield.

In a small but bustling city midway between Ottawa and Montreal, the Régates de Valleyfield has been happening every year for the last 78 years. The event showcases high speed hydroplanes (basically boat-planes without wings!) that reach up to 225 km/h. There are stadium seats set up for people to watch the races set up along the city-side of the St. Francois Bay, offering extreme thrills from a safe distance. There are also concerts and lots of activities to enjoy, and that’s only for this weekend.

Salaberrry-de-Valleyfield, where the regatta is held, is on a small island just past the tail end of the St. Lawrence River, and it has a long and intricate history with the water that surrounds it. The main strip of the town runs next to a beautiful and clear canal that leads out to the bay, and a string of rivers and lakes that leads to the Great Lakes

If you want to make your way up there this weekend, it’s only over an hour away from both Montreal and Ottawa, and the Régates are definitely not the only things going on in the city.

Photo credit: Hotel Plaza Valleyfield.

I got the chance to go up last week, and I was even luckier because I got to bring my boyfriend Ciaran around with me to explore all the things that the area had to offer, which we both discovered was plenty! It was somewhat of a couples retreat.

Valleyfield loves their watersports, so if you’ve ever wanted to try some whitewater kayaking, there are some rapids located right in the middle of the city, and right next to the Hotel Plaza Valleyfield, the best place to stay if you’re considering a jaunt up to the town. Our room was modern and crisp, with a great view of the bay and the fountain within it that lights up the city at night. The hotel hosts a variety of different people. There are large conference rooms and ballrooms for business events, and the first day we stayed there, there was an extra-large biking party stopping for the night. The area holds over 140km of paved bike paths, a great thing to consider if you plan to bike your way up to or past Montreal.

Although we aren’t exactly the extreme-sports type of people, Ciaran and I geared up for whatever activity we figured we wouldn’t die doing, and water was on the docket.

IMG_0181A favourite activity of mine was stand up paddle boarding, or SUP, as we learned it was called. To be honest, I think this was the activity we were dreading the most; neither of us have ever done it before and really it just looks plain hard.

We were lucky enough to try SUP polo, which is basically a mix between polo and lacrosse, while balancing on SUPs. The games are run on Saturdays and Sundays in the canal right in downtown Valleyfield . The SUP polo games are run by the very lovely (and very athletic) couple, Stéphanie Chiasson et Pierre-Hugues Chatigny, who cleverly put the first three letters of their last names together to create their business name, CHICHA SUP.

When we arrived, they had been waiting for us, along with some local firefighters who had been playing all day. Let me tell you, Ciaran and I fell, a lot. In fact, I probably fell the most…I fell trying to get on the SUP. But after the first dip into the water, after you learn to close your mouth and figure out how to get back on the board (although I could never do it as gracefully as our hosts) SUP polo is incredibly fun!

That's me, falling in for the millionth time.

That’s me, falling in for the millionth time.

It’s only 1$0 an hour, and they provide you with T-Shirts and all the know how to have a great workout and to have some laughs, because really it’s just funny to watch other people fall, and everyone did, even the pros and firefighters we were playing with.

We also got a chance to go to the Parc régional des îles-de-Saint-Timothée, or for short, let’s call it the beach. There you can rent bike, and bike on a trail that runs around the park, which we did (where again I fell pretty hard, but on gravel instead of water). You can also rent SUPS, paddle-boats and kayaks, the latter in which we chased each other around the little islands around the beach.

After we biked and kayaked and worked up a good appetite, we enjoyed packed lunchboxes from La Petite Grange, a lovely little café that brings people from miles away to tastes their breads, sandwiches, patisseries, homemade chocolates and goodies. Our lunchboxes were healthy, hearty and fresh, perfect for a beach picnic, and Ciaran especially liked the cookies and chocolates for desert.

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Something we didn’t get to do because you do have to be certified, is scuba diving. That’s right, it’s a big thing in Valleyfield! There are 12 wrecks in the area to explore, including one massive airplane hidden somewhere beneath the surface. We were going to do some snorkeling, but the bad weather muddied up our plans.

Jean-Michel Lalonde is the owner of Centre de Plongé Eco Dive, a fresh new scuba headquarters located right on the main
strip of Victoria Street across from the canal. It’s a kind of one-stop-shop for all your scuba and snorkeling needs. He sells and rents all the equipment, he gives scuba lessons, and he does both snorkeling and scuba excursions, and, get this, ice-diving during the winter! How very Canadian. This guy knows his stuff, he’s been an instructor for 7 years, 2 of those years he spent in Mexico. He even built his own diving boat, on which we were graciously given a ride to explore the bay.

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Lalonde explained to us that the reason there were so many wrecks in the area was twofold: ecological and for scuba diving. Goby fish were taking over Ontario waters and eating other fishes’ eggs. So, the government of Ontario allowed vessels to be sunk in the waters so that fish could hide their eggs, and so scuba divers could explore those ecosystems. So no, a plane didn’t crash anywhere near Valleyfield.

Ciaran and I only got to see the tip of one sunken wreck, the Charbonnier, which is the oldest and only semi-natural wreck in the surrounding waters. The people in the area sank the old coal boat in the 1940s because trains became the main method of bringing coal to the area. Lalonde said it’s still a mystery why it was sunk instead of being repurposed. Looking down at the tip of the wreck, only about eight feet beneath Lalonde’s boat, did instil quite the sense of mystery and wonder, and it made me eager to get myself certified for scuba diving.

The Charbonnier’s coal was used for an industry that built Salaberry-de-Valleyfield over a century ago; the Montreal Cotton Mills. The English name Salaberry-de-Valleyfield comes from the British mill-owners who ran the mills that employed a major part of the population, and gave birth to the area that’s there today.

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The Muséee de Société Des Deux-Rives, or the MUSO, also situated right downtown, was the perfect introduction into the rich history of the area. Opened in 2010, the MUSO’s main entrance is in a repurposed protestant church, originally built in 1882. The church itself is kept for temporary exhibits, whereas the rest of the attached building holds and interactive journey through the area’s history with Montreal Cotton. The cotton industry that has left the city, but still obviously has a great influence on the architecture and organization of the area. Adèle, our tour guide, was sweet and very informative, and she comes highly recommended! She took us through the different neighbourhoods built for the workers, the history of unions and strikes, and all the different tools used to make cotton into what we have now.

IMG_0022Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t swoon a bit over the dining. We tried two very different restaurants for dinner. The first was an impressively large restaurant called Club Touriste, a beautiful old Victorian villa named after it’s transformation in the 1930’s, which made the old home into a private club. Now a bustling and modern restaurant, its large patio was the place to be. It was as much a dining experience as it was a social one. Once people sat, they stayed for hours, sometimes getting up to see someone they knew on the other side of the patio, but mostly, they sat and enjoyed the food and conversation at their tables.

Ciaran was in his element there, at least when it came to food. Club Touriste’s menu was varied, but our lovely server Geneviève told us to go for the grill, so we did! Although we both started off with delicious variations of duck, me with paté and he with a duck sausage pogo, it was the main dishes that really stole the show. I got a rack of lamb, which was tender and flavourful, and Ciaran went full out and ordered a boar shank for the first time, which he adored. Once he devoured his own dish, he shamelessly ate the rest of my lamb, which I couldn’t finish because the portions were so generous!

We finished our meal with two fantastic deserts, chocolates made by the owner’s wife on my end, and a decadent caramel
cheesecake on Ciaran’s end. That night after a walk about town on the charming canal, we went back to the hotel and fell asleep in our clothes. I believe that’s what they call a food coma!

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The second night, we chose to go to La Bibliothèque Café-Bistro, which is themed after the city college’s neighbouring library. More low-key than Club Touriste, La Bibliothèque has a relaxing and intellectual vibe. It too is a restaurant built within an old beautiful home, but the architecture was kept rather than reworked. The design on the inside was is classic but eclectic, with a library room, bathrooms plastered with old New York Times front pages, and a wrap-around porch that led to the most charmingly lit patio I’ve ever seen. The food was absolutely incredible, modern yet hearty and simple enough that the strong flavours were doing most of the impressing.

Our meals started off with an amuse-bouche; a little jar of lentils with edamame beans and pancetta. This was Ciaran’s first foray into the world of lentils, and he was delighted! Our two appetizers were super savoury: I had Vichyssoise topped with a pecan vinaigrette and a slice of crispy pancetta, while Ciaran had a creamy barley and shrimp risotto dotted with strongly flavoured mushrooms.

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We both got pasta dishes for dinner, which for the heaviness alone might have been a misstep, but no regrets, because they were excellent. Ciaran had what I secretly wanted, the duck gnocchi in a beautiful mushroom cream sauce, but I was very pleased with my arugula pesto penne and shrimp. We kept switching dishes trying to figure out whose was better, and the winner was always whatever sat in front of us at the moment.

A word on the chef, Marie-Claude, who just opened the restaurant over a year ago. She is from Montreal, and a sommelière by profession, and so the bottle of wine she chose for us was perfectly balanced for our meal; French, red and named El Pépé (it was basically made for me). We also learned that she is a self-taught chef, and only began cooking since the opening of her restaurant. Obviously, she had a knack for it.

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La Bibliothèque was so good that we went back the next day for brunch, and had equally delicious eggs benedict and a steak sandwich. We’d go back to Valleyfield just for that restaurant! Especially since the prices were so reasonable.

Our last stop was just a block away at Local du Gourmet where we picked up a couple of mousse delights in a jar, one vanilla and one chocolate to satisfy Ciaran’s insatiable sweet tooth.

All in all, it was the perfect place for a couple’s retreat. So if you’re even remotely into water sports, biking, good food, or beautiful scenery, Salaberry-de-Valleyfield is a must. Get up there this weekend for the Régates and cool off in the clean and crisp water, or if you’re on your way up to Montreal, drive through the area and take a look. I know we’ll be back there soon enough.

Cayman Reboot

July 12, 2016 11:00 am
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A British Overseas Territory, the Cayman Islands are unlike almost all other Caribbean Islands. As an international financial centre, residents are educated, affluent and benefit from the wealth of indirect taxation.

Head to the Cayman Islands for a personal system reboot. No green juice required…the hot sun, cool cocktails and delicious food of this luxury Caribbean destination is all you need to change your personal programming.

With some 50,000 inhabitants, Grand Cayman is the biggest and most populated of the three islands. Seven Mile Beach is public, so instead of being segregated in individual hotel compounds, visitors can wander down the sand and breakfast at the Westin, walk into the Ritz for a spa treatment or have drinks at the Marriott. There are no all-inclusives so the island feels like one big open resort.

Start your visit by shaking off the travelling fog with yoga on the beach. The sand underfoot makes it a little tricky to hold a pose, but with the waves gently crashing in and the instructor from Bliss Yoga leading the mind-calming, meditative movements, you will be well on your way to updating your personal system.

Reboot Options

Pet therapy Cayman style is a mid-ocean stingray experience. As you stand in the crystal clear, chest deep waters of the Stingray City sandbar, the rays swim to you like a pack of puppies. They’re attracted by years of feasting on the cast-offs from fishing boats who stopped in the calm waters to clean their catch before heading into dock. The experience is completely natural. There’s nothing preventing the rays from swimming away. If you stick your arms straight out in front of you, they nuzzle into you, seemingly wanting to cuddle. Many of the rays have been coming back for years and the locals have given them names. There are many options to get there. We went in style with Cayman Luxury Cruises.

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With your serotonin level up, it’s time to further de-stress with some kayaking and stand-up paddle boarding. Most hotels either offer equipment for use or have rental facilities beachside. The waters of Seven Mile Beach are calm enough to venture off straight from the beach. There are also kayak tour operators who offer tours through the mangrove forests. Keep an eye out for the iguanas that seem to drip from the trees like the melting clocks in a Dali painting. For a unique experience, opt for a bioluminescent kayak tour under the stars.

If scuba diving takes you to a Zen place, the Caymans are said to have the best diving in the Caribbean. Grand Cayman offers 171 dive sites with a choice of sunken wrecks, shallow dives or the western wall. The sites are heavily regulated and respected by operators who rotate locations to mitigate overuse. Little Cayman is the destination for serious divers who are crowd-adverse. Bloody Bay Wall is considered to be one of the best diving sites in the western Caribbean. New divers planning a dive vacation are encouraged to take their in-class courses before leaving home. The calm seas and clear waters also make for some of the best snorkeling.

If feet firmly planted on earth is the way you cruise, don’t miss the observation tower in Camana Bay. The Escher-esque double helix stairs and the stunning undersea mosaic that rises from street level to the top floor makes it a must see. Admire the artistry of the tile work and note how the marine life and light levels change as you ascend to the top. It’s spectacular. The whole Camana Bay development is an impressive new urbanism work/living development that includes offices, shopping, and some fantastic restaurants, all designed to maximize the experience for visitors and residents alike.

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While the sun and sea rejuvenates your soul, head to a Spa to do the same for your skin. Walking through the doors of the La Prairie Spa at the Ritz Carleton is like entering a Krypton-like dimension. With dim lighting and the sound of water trickling, it is very cool but also classy. The staff is on par with that of a Michelin star restaurant. Who knew that a facial could leave you feeling so relaxed and noodly.

Feeding your Cells

Food on the islands is fabulous. Top chefs have opened restaurants and the farm to table movement is robust. Leading that trend is The Brasserie in Grand Cayman. Acclaimed American Chef Max Dean was on hand with master gardener Joel Walton of Plantation House Organic Garden and owners Lisa and King Flowers. Together they described how, until recently, only imported produce was coveted. But all that has changed and the single, struggling farmers market has now increased to two bustling markets where buyers arrive early to ensure they are not disappointed. The Brasserie is in the hub of Georgetown, a stone’s throw from the busy cruise terminal, but it still manages to have an on-site garden. The restaurant also holds events and classes to promote sustainable cooking. Further, they have developed recipes to promote the consumption of a previously unconsumed fish that, although beautiful to divers, is destroying the local reefs. They share these recipes with other chefs during the very popular, yearly Cayman Cookout in order to help the cause.

A short flight away, on 19 km-long sister-island Cayman Brac, ultra-private Hotel Le Soleil d’Or has taken the sustainable table movement a leap further. Born as a refuge for friends and family, the resort works in harmony with the environment and the local population. Lunch at the 20-acre farm was like tasting vegetables and fruit for the first time. Everything was kissed with freshness and infused with hyper taste. Secluded and exclusive luxury might bring visions of excess and waste, but instead Le Soleil d’Or embodies sustainability.

Updating Your Drivers

Take some time away from the sun and visit the National Gallery in Grand Caymen. This little gem is likely the smallest national art collection you’ll ever see, but considering there were no art supplies on the island until the 1960s, the collection is only going to grow. The museum offers workshops and lectures along with drop–in sessions that are open to the public.

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You can’t recharge your battery if you are herded on and off a bus for an hour-long ride from the airport to your hotel. Considering its 35 km x 13 km size, there are no long cab rides anywhere on Grand Cayman. Everything is close. In fact, Little Cayman is so small that walking to the airport is an option, passing trees full of rare red-footed boobies on the way. The main road intersects the landing strip. When flights are due to land, a car is pulled out to block other vehicles. With only 200 or so permanent residents, you are more likely to encounter an iguana.

Considered a luxury destination, the Caymans do offer budget options for those who don’t mind trading a beach view for beach access. There are some big saving opportunities during May to November’s off-season, but let’s face it, it’s winter that we need to escape from, not the warmer months.

If you are looking for the latest in all-inclusive, winter-busting southern destinations, the Caymans are not for you. Instead, Grand Cayman is a cosmopolitan destination that offers luxuries both big and small. Together with its two smaller sister islands, they are a safe, friendly and a highly recommended destination to reboot your system for foodies and sun seekers alike. Consider them one large anti-depressant for the soul. The hot sand and warm waters of the Cayman Islands will help you recharge your system.

visitcaymanislands.ca.

WHEN YOU GO:

  • This is an island of bankers and brokers so wifi is available everywhere.
  • Safety. Feel confident that you are visiting a country that is completely safe.
    It’s the fifth largest banking centre in the world and the world’s best domicile
    for healthcare.
  • There are lots of annual festivals and events in the Caymans. From Pirates,
    to cooking, legends tennis and open-water swimming, there is always
    something going on.
  • Taxis on Grand Cayman are everywhere, but families be forewarned that
    rates are per-person. A $2O ride in from the airport will cost each person
    on board $20. Public transportation is currently almost non-existent so car
    rental is a great option if you want to move around.
  • For those accustomed to the pre-paid southern holidays, be aware that most
    hotels do charge an additional daily, per person resort fee.

Bring on the Bajans

June 22, 2016 2:00 pm
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Crane Beach, Barbados –  Photos courtesy Visit Barbados

It’s never too late for a southern getaway. The year 2016 marks Barbados 50th anniversary of independence from Britain and while any time is a good time to go, 2016 will prove to be a stellar year to experience all the island has to offer, which is a lot. There is always something going on here culturally and since it is not a large island (it runs about 35 km in length and about 22 km in width), you are just a drive away from being part of the fun.

History and Geography

With the third oldest Parliament in the world with uninterrupted parliamentary governance since 1639, Barbados is an economically and politically stable country. It has one of the highest per capital incomes in the Caribbean (in large part thanks to tourism and offshore banking.) There are over 2.8 million people who live here and the country has a literacy rate of almost 99 per cent, which is one of the highest rates in the world. There is a fantastic hospitable feel everywhere that comes with all that stability. Take advantage of it and rent a car to explore because there are different vibes to the various areas on the island. (The country is divided into 11 areas, or “parishes”).

The West Coast of Barbados is known as the Platinum Coast not just because of its incredible beaches and crystal clear water, but because of the wealth. (Pop star Rihanna (who hails from Barbados) owns a home there, Tiger Woods was married nearby.) Expensive resorts are everywhere with a designer shop complex (Lime Grove) with all of the big names in couture. There is also a lot of history on the West Coast. Holetown was the first settlement in Barbados and if you head to there in mid-February, the Holetown Festival takes place. You can sample local foods and experience a Gospel Explosion. Given Barbados is a religious country (there are over 100 religious groups operating in Barbados), this is a spiritual extravaganza.

There are Great festivals throughout the year. The Barbados Wine, Food and Rum Festival is a growing and fairly new annual event. It takes place in November year and attracts top chefs from around the world and events are held in various locations throughout the island, an added bonus. November 2015 featured among others, celebrity chefs Craig Harding of Toronto and American star chef Chris Cosentino. The event in 2016 precedes the actual 50th anniversary date of November 30, so November 2016 will be a fantastic time to visit Barbados.

While still on the West Side, you may see yellow buses driving by that look like open-air party buses as they blare reggae music. Try and fit in a ride on one of them. It is an unparalleled public transportation experience. Ask a local about the routes so you are taken exactly where you want to be.

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No trip to Barbados is complete without a visit to the Mount Gay rum distillery located in Saint Michael Parish. Various samplings will make a rum lover out of anyone. Rum was actually discovered in Barbados.

Bridgetown (also in Saint Michael Parish) is the country’s capital and is on the southwest part of the island. Parliament is there, of course, but the Historic Bridgetown and its Garrison is a UNESCO World Heritage site and worthy of a visit. Interestingly, Barbados is the only place George Washington visited outside of the United States.

The East Coast has a completely different feel than the West Coast. There is a hip surfer culture developing here. It is one of the best-kept secret locations for surfing. Soup Bowl, as it is called, is just by the town of Bathsheba (Saint Joseph Parish). It is becoming legendary for its waves that rival Hawaii’s. The East is more rugged with stunning cliffs, not prime swimming area, in fact stay out of the water here because of dangerous rip tides, but it is breathtakingly beautiful and awe-inspiring.

The South also has a different vibe to it. It has a lively night life and it is also a great place for water sports, including diving and boating.

As you drive inland, to get from one side of the island to the other, the tree sanctuaries and scenery will amaze you. While it may be a total touristy thing to do, if you’ve got time as you drive inland, visit Harrison’s Cave, a crystallized limestone cavern. It’s not a particularly cheap excursion, but it will provide a unique experience. It is located in Saint Thomas Parish.

Fuel Up

Barbados has incredible cuisine. Gourmet restaurants have been popping up around the island, marrying various cuisines with local twists. If you are craving a Beckta-type meal, there is no shortage of restaurant options. The West Coast, as you might imagine, caters to that palate. Try Champers and The Cliff or Cin Cin for upper-end eating. All three are phenomenal restaurants. Cin Cin has the most incredible surfside tables to boot.

While fine dining is definitely in order, some of the restaurants for authentic Bajan and incredible food are in rum shops. They are local, small restaurants that offer fresh fish, lamb, chicken, rice and bean dishes and fried plantain that is nothing short of divine. You can wash it all down with Banks beer (or homemade rum punch).

Make sure you hit Oistens in the South (Christ Church Parish) on a Friday night for its fish fry. It will redefine bbq fish for you. The flavours, the recipes and fish cooked to perfection make Oistens an absolute must. There are lots of tourists lurking about but ignore that fact and enjoy the experience.

Do not leave Barbados without visiting Cuz’s Fish Shack right by Carlisle Bay (by the Hilton Barbados Resort) in Bridgetown.

While on the East Coast, hit Atlantis Restaurant (Saint Joseph Parish). The view and food are incredible.

Sleep

Saint Peter’s Bay Luxury Resorts and Villas on the West Side is a great option for families and those who want to share accommodations. They are luxury condos that even have their own Jacuzzi on a deck overlooking the ocean. Port Ferdinand, Saint Peter’s Bay’s sister resort, cranks up the upper high-end luxury factor and it too offers condo-type accommodations with service fit for royalty. In fact, royalty does stay there. There are of course all the major chains on the island as well. The Hilton has an incredible beach, as does the Fairmont.

On the East Coast, Atlantis hotel is more of an intimate location with spectacular views, but bear in mind you can’t swim in the ocean there.

Barbados is brimming with opportunities for everyone to have a good time. Bajans know how to have fun and you should join in. With perfect weather, perfect sunsets, sunrises, impeccable beaches, cuisine for every palate and lots of culture and history to feed the mind as well, you can’t go wrong in Barbados.

visitbarbados.com

It’s Time to Discover Niagara

June 14, 2016 11:26 am
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We’ve all heard of Niagara Falls, and rightly so, it’s a gem in Canada’s national landscape. But if you haven’t really discovered the Niagara region yet, it’s time to book your trip! We teamed up with Expedia.ca to bring you some must-do’s to help you plan your trip:


1. Visit the falls…obviously:

niagara1Once you’ve arrived, start off by visiting the falls. Board the famous Maid of the Mist, a boat that lives true to it’s name and brings you so close to both the American Falls, and to the famed Canadian Horseshoe Falls that you become engulfed in the mist of it’s tumbling basins. Want to get behind the scenes? You can also take a Journey Behind the Falls by heading down into the cliff, and exploring the caves underneath the Niagara Falls. If you’re curious to see how the falls were created, Niagara’s Fury will help you do that, with a “4D” experience in a 360 degree theatre, where you can literally see and feel how the Ice Age formed the Niagara Falls.


2. Fun by the Falls:

SkyWheelClifton Hill is your fast way to fun for the whole family around the falls. A ticket will get you access to a myriad of attractions, such as the Falls-adjacent Niagara Skyweel, themed mini-golf, a Wild West themed coaster, a wax museum, and much more. There are also themed restaurants and great shopping to be had, so for families, this is an easy yes.


3. Believe it (or not):

niagara2Niagara Falls has long been famous for having a bit of a fun and kitschy vibe. A fan favourite is Ripley’s Believe It or Not, an experience for the whole family that includes the Odditorium, a 10,000 square feet museum with 15 themed exhibits showing some of the strangest artifacts imaginable (two-headed animals are on the list!). Ripley’s also has the Waxworks museum if you’re feeling like rubbing shoulders with waxy stars old and new, and a moving theatre where you can act out your favourite films.


4. Get up close and personal with wildlife:

niagara5If you’re feeling less funky and more fluttery, then the Butterfly Conservatory and Bird Kingdom, both beautiful places to get in touch with nature, are minutes away from the falls. And let us not forget Marine Land, where you can spend an entire day kissing seals, belugas, killer whales, feeding deer and taking a ride on roller coasters.

 


5. Eat, drink, and be merry:

niagara 6If you’re looking for a more “tasteful” experience, the region’s culinary environment is vast and varied. Whether you want to enjoy fine dining overlooking the falls, find affordable and delicious food for the family, or you want to enjoy the local food and wines of the region, Niagara has the right selection for you. Lundy’s Lane is known as Niagara’s favourite dining neighbourhood, looking for dinner theatre, a pub, fine dining? Lundy’s lane has it all.


6. Drink more and be merrier:

Wine country is also a must visit. Niagara-on-the-Lake is a town based in the region where wine-791133_1280Canada’s VQA wines have found their maturity in the last few years. In staying in the quaint small town, you have the opportunity to see the quieter, more sophisticated side of Niagara. The region carries 32 varieties of grapes in Canada’s largest wine-growing region, so sign up for a wine-tour, and enjoy a relaxing and luxurious experience. Find a cottage on the lake and go into town to window shop (or really shop) in the small boutiques.


7. Take a hike, or a ride:

niagara7To burn off the food and wine, Niagara also has extensive and beautiful paths to explore. Get your walking boots on, rent a bike if you’re looking for a relaxing jaunt through the rolling countryside, or bring your own bike and plan your trip out beforehand so you can rake up your km’s and see as much as the area as possible. Or if you’re still thirsty, take a bicycle wine tour and hit two birds with one stone.


8. Bet on it:

niagara 8If you’re a blackjack fan or a poker aficionado, Niagara has two casinos for your entertainment. Fallsview Casino lives up to its name, overlooking one of the most fantastic natural wonders of the world, it is the largest, and one of the most luxurious casinos in all of Canada. If slots are more your game, then head to Casino Niagara, they have two full floors of slots, and 30 tables to test your hand.


9. Waterworks:

niagara 9Ever been on a White Water walk? Niagara has one of those that allows you to see some of the world’s wildest whitewater, and it’s only a short walk from the Falls themselves. If you’d like to get a little closer to the water, then book a Whirlpool Jet Boat tour, where you can speed along the Niagara river at 80 km/h while the guide takes you through Niagara’s historical past. There’s also the Fallsview Indoor Waterpark that might be better for a little more controlled water fun. The waterpark has 16 waterslides, a giant wavepool, and for the parents, adult-only hot tubs.


10. Catch some fireworks:

niagara10Finally, in Niagara it’s easy to end the night with a bang if you head back to the falls at the end of your day. Niagara has the longest running fireworks series, set against the backdrop of the falls themselves. They run at 10 p.m. every Sunday, Wednesday, Friday and Holiday from May 1 to Oct. 31.

1000 Islands Harbor Hotel

May 24, 2016 1:22 pm
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Photo courtesy of 1000 Islands Harbor Hotel. 

Weekend Escape to the 1000 Islands

Famous for a certain salad dressing, Clayton, New York is also well-known as the gateway to the luxury hotels that dotted the 1000 Islands during the Gilded-Age. Heading into its second summer in operation, the 1000 Islands Harbor Hotel is the modern face of this historic little town.

A short hour and 40-minute drive from Ottawa, Clayton is very easy to get to. Crossing into the US over the Hill Island bridge make sure you look down and take in the view of the magnificent archipelago that is the 1000 Islands. There are more islands here than in the Great Barrier Reef. Some are barely big enough to hold the dwellings that perch on them like something from the pages of Dr. Seuss.

HaborHouseHotel_ClaytonThe 1000 Islands Harbor Hotel is located right on the water. It is one of only two dozen hotels in upstate New York to receive the prestigious four diamond rating from the American Automobile Association. The hotel has 105 guest rooms, a great restaurant and bar area along with meeting rooms and free wifi. The gym is very well equipped and there is a hot tub and pool too. The staff is super friendly and the hotel décor is classy conservative. Wonderful historic photographic prints of boating life on the St. Laurence River decorate the walls.

The guest rooms are spacious with a classy cottage décor. The wood floors are a welcome change to standard hotel broadloom and the beds are supper comfortable.

Every morning there are complimentary coffee and hot beverage stations set up on each floor and nightly turn down service includes a pillow chocolate. Nice touch. When you book, it’s worth paying the small surcharge for a river view.

There is a great vibe to the town. Main street boasts a spa, wine bar, general store, gift shops and even an opera house. Summer is the high season here so some of the shops and restaurants are only openly seasonally, including the boating museum.

The hotel is a real gem. Take advantage of one of the many themed weekends or simply visit for a quiet getaway. In the cold of late November, it was a perfect place for a retreat. A return visit in the summer is in order to take advantage of the local boating culture, tour the islands and soak in some sun on the hotel’s great patio.

Atlantis: A Watery Paradise

May 18, 2016 11:40 am
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Photo courtesy of Chris Ross.

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Photo courtesy of Ethan Kaplan.

It’s hard not to be taken by the beauty of the beaches on Paradise Island in the Bahamas. A natural reef acts as a buffer, calming the waves that gently crash onto its’ shores and the sun is said to shine 300 days a year.

Hollywood was an early fan of the island, which has been featured in several movies including two from the James Bond franchise. The Hollywood set has also taken to the beauty of the area building homes on private islands surrounding Nassau and Paradise Island.

The Atlantis resort is a truly dreamy, watery escape that lies across the bridge from the island of Nassau. The striking architecture of the Royal Towers with a 25-storey high bridgelike structure joining the two towers is impressive. For the equivalent of an average family’s yearly total mortgage payments, you can rent a suite as high as $25,000 a night. At that price, the chances of sneaking a peek of a celebrity guest are increased.

The Royal Towers were the first part of Atlantis to open and were built in a record 18 months. The entrance features a beautiful carving of Poseidon and the doors are two storeys high and carved with sea horse-shaped hinges. The doorman insists the doors only close when a hurricane is threatening the island. Once you enter, look up and take in the beautiful frescoes that surround the vaulted ceiling. The attention to detail is a real treat.

Further inside, look down to get your first glimpse of the Atlantis aquarium experience. The lower level of the Royal Towers doubles as the back wall of the massive aquarium. Atlantis boasts 14 lagoons, eight million gallons of salt water and 50,000 fish including sharks, sea turtles, stingrays, Goliath groupers, eels and more. To take in all the aquariums, be sure to head to the “dig” tunnels that connect the Royal Towers to the outside aqua adventure park.

To get a closer look at the marine life, choose among several hands-on marine experiences, including feeding and swimming with stingrays, snorkeling in the massive Ruins of Atlantis tank which is decked out with artifacts from the fabled lost city and home to sharks and many other fish. Stop by Dolphin Cay to get close up with these perpetually-smiling mammals. All the activities are available for an extra fee and are very popular so be sure to book early.

There are 18 waterslides, a not-so lazy river and 11 pools, although the whole place seems like one huge unending pool. There is so much to see and do that it is easy to overlook the detail that went into making all the ponds, pools and lagoons. It’s unparalleled and the landscaping is first class.Take time to appreciate the beautiful sculptures sprinkled through the resort. It’s easy to get around. Well-manicured paths connect the five hotels, the pools, the stunning marina and Marina Village. Some of the walks can be long but if you’re not up for it, the hotel offers a complimentary shuttle service between all the buildings. Leave your wallet in your room as most restaurants, including the poolside locations, do not accept cash. (However, this does not apply to the two on-site Starbucks coffee shops.) Paying with your room key is very convenient and you don’t have to worry about losing your Visa in the not-so-lazy river.

The Atlantis Resort is like an exclusive club but it is available for all to experience on a per- day basis. Nassau has a deep-water port that accommodates up to four cruise ships a day. A favourite destination for the cruisers is the Atlantis resort. They arrive daily and contribute to the busy, happening vibe of the place. If a relaxed adult-only experience is more your style, stay at the Cove in order to have access to the Cain at the Cove. Exclusively for Cove guests, the Cain at the Cove is a beautifully landscaped pool area with a mini-outdoor casino and restaurant. For a more exclusive experience, rent a beach hut or cabana.

Get a feel for the local scene and wander up and over the bridge to Nassau. It’s an easy 15-minute walk and once you taste the cracked conch, grouper finger, even pork chops and plantains at one of the fish fry shacks under the bridge, you’ll want to be wandering back there daily. It is a culture clash compared to Atlantis and definitely a worthwhile experience.

The Atlantis Resort at Paradise Island is a warm-weather playground, a kind of Disney of water and sun. The white sandy beaches can’t be beat and the water park will keep the whole family busy all day.


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Photo courtesy of Macduff Everton.

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Photo courtesy of Macduff Everton.

Atlantis is a great family destination that will leave you with life-long memories. Prior knowledge of the addition expenses will help avoid a premature coronary at checkout. Here are some things to be aware of:

  • Mixed drinks are $15 US and beer is $8 (except in the Casino where price jumps substantially).
  • 15% gratuity is added automatically to all bills plus the 7.5% VAT tax
  • Meal plans can be purchased before leaving home and run from $99-$160 per person. (Note that gratuities are not included in the price and will be billed to your room. Children 12 and under eat for free with an accompanying adult but again, the room will be charged for gratuities on the value of their meal.)
  • A $49 per person, per day resort fee will be added to your bill

Discover more at atlantisbahamas.com.

Tips for Planning Your Desitination Wedding

May 12, 2016 12:31 pm
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It’s the height of wedding season, so Paradisus Resorts – offering ideal settings for destination weddings – has tapped their Corporate Romance Manger, Marilyn Cairo, to compile the Top Ten Expert Tips on the “dos” and “don’ts” of planning the perfect destination wedding to ensure your big day is flawless and memorable. Additionally, Marilyn has shared some of the top trends she’s seeing for 2016 weddings.

With properties in Mexico and the Dominican Republic, Paradisus Resorts feature romance offerings that are customizable to meet the needs of the most discerning couple. Paradisus Resorts’ qualified Romance team is readily available to help guests curate the ultimate, romantic escape with an unsurpassed level of all-inclusive romantic luxury.


 Top Ten Expert Tips

1. Location: While a destination wedding may be your lifelong dream, remember without your guests there is no event.  Consider travel costs and accessibility from where the majority of your guests will be traveling from when selecting a destination.

2. Knowledge is Power: Ask the hard hitting questions before making a commitment when shopping around for a destination wedding.

3. Peaks and Valleys: The best time of year to travel to the Caribbean and Mexico is the fall. Room rates are lower and some hotels reduce their wedding package pricing or offer added perks/concessions.

4. Strength in Numbers: Most hotels will offer reduced rates, incentives and concessions for wedding groups who commit to a minimum number of rooms under contract. 

 5. Listen to the Experts: Hotels that are committed to destination weddings will have on-site wedding coordinators. Listen to their advice; who else knows the resort better than they do. They are your eyes and ears during the overseas, long distance planning phase. There’s no added cost to utilize the service and expertise of the resort’s coordinator.

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6. Keep it Local: One of the easiest ways to cut costs is to keep it local. Instead of insisting on midnight blue orchids that have to be imported, use flowers grown locally. Don’t insist on bringing your own vendors. Ask the resort for a list of their trusted vendors and capitalize on the relationships built by the resort with these vendors.

7. Time is on Your Side:  Book at least 9-months in advance for best date selection.  Last minute planning can result in unexpected costs. Plus, make sure the save-the-dates are in the mail well in advance to allow family and friends time to budget and plan. 

8. Legal is so “Yesteryear”: There is no need to get legally married in the destination you’ve chosen. Take care of the legal paperwork in your home state to save hundreds of dollars on the cost of a legal ceremony in another country. You’ll avoid a variety of other ‘legalities’ such as needing to translate documents and blood tests.

9. Arrive in Style: Plan on arriving at your destination at least three days prior to the wedding day. Use the extra time at your destination and resort to scope out the place, get to know the staff, and meet with the resort coordinator and vendors. 

10. Don’t Go on Price Alone: Trust in the hotels that are willing to show you their pricing upfront. Every ‘free wedding’ promotion has restrictions and requirements. 


Top Destination Wedding Trends for 2016

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1. Experience:
Couples are incorporating local culture and traditions into their wedding weekend to create an overall experience. For example, if tying the knot in Mexico, organize an off-site tour or host a tequila tasting happy hour.

 

2. Food: Exciting culinary options that pays homage to the location of your destination wedding has become an investment for most couples. Live action Sushi station at the cocktail hour or a food truck at the after-party are unique ways to create a memorable culinary experience.

 

3. Multiple Events: Couples are turning their destination wedding into an action-packed getaway. A true destination wedding is a minimum three-day event. A prepared itinerary for weddings guests filled with exciting activities will turn a destination wedding into an experience.

 


Visit paradisus.com to plan your next destination wedding!

Hyatt Ziva Cancun: Best Of The Yucatan Peninsula

March 31, 2016 10:03 am
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Photos courtesy of Hyatt Ziva Cancun. 

Cancun and the Mayan Riviera are popular vacation destinations for Canadians. At the tip of the Yucatán Peninsula, the newly refurbished Hyatt Ziva Cancun provides another great reason to keep going back. Surrounded by the Caribbean Sea on three sides, this family friendly all inclusive resort encompasses three towers (Pyramid, Club and Premium), two beaches and numerous room options for couples or larger groups. Offerings include two story family suites and swim-up suites with infinity pools. The rooms feature spectacular views of Caribbean Sea and Hyatt’s brand of high end, classy, signature service. The design incorporates a contemporary feel with a bow to Mayan traditions and colour.

The lobby design features a glass and coral stone theme that leads to a grand staircase cleverly designed for dual use as seating for the live entertainment at the resort’s outdoor amphitheatre. Amenities include free resort-wide Wi-Fi, room service and TV’s with a great selection of channels. Rooms have espresso makers, beach butlers and access to the Bar del Mar Lounge for tapas and cocktails. You can easily spend most of the day on the beautiful beach or at one of the three lagoon-style infinity swimming pools which have lots of beach chairs and a really comfy, cool vibe. The resort staff is terrific and you’ll never wait for a cold drink. Young families can take advantage of the Kidz Club while adults can visit the resort’s seafront Zen Spa for a mud rap or caviar facial before going into the hydrotherapy pool or resting under the shaded huts on the beach. All non-motorized sports are free including bicycling, yoga classes, the weight and workout gym, snorkelling, aerobics classes in the pool, paddle boarding and water basketball and volleyball. You have the option of renting two-story wooden cabanas (USD$150-$240 per day with swim-up bars and a big hot tub) and there are fees for motorized water sports which is the norm throughout the Caribbean. Patrons take full advantage of the Ziva’s six bars located poolside and throughout the hotel. They offer everything from fine wines to tequila, beer, mojitos and margaritas. I was drawn to Tres Cervezas with its onsite micro-brewed beer and delicious nachos, wings and guacamole.

The Hyatt Ziva Cancun has nine restaurants serving a variety of choices including Italian (Lorenzo’s), French (Bastilles) and American fare (Chevy’s Diner) with a flare. If you are in the mood for Asian food, try Moongate. The resort also has an excellent Spanish steakhouse called Tradewinds. Early risers will enjoy the coffee house Casa Café.  I’m a big fan of Chiapas coffee in Mexico and the café didn’t disappoint. If you are off schedule you can go to 24 Horas and have a snack 24 hours a day. A nice touch is the pleasant staff who roam the resort with fruity crepes and spicy pineapple on a skewer. Families will find that their kids will be dragging them to Pasteles for yummy deserts of chocolate, gooey gummy bears, gelato and cotton candy.

Hyatt Ziva Cancun - Habaneros - 1085542A lunch spot favourite at Zivia is Mercado, which offers buffet style services of seafood (smoked fish), chicken, beef and vegetables along with an assortment of dessert pastries. Unlike a lot of buffets, where everything is precooked, a lot can be cooked fresh for you like: Omelets, Eggs, pancakes, crepes, sea bass, salmon and shrimp.

The hotel is close to many shopping facilities such as Plaza La Fiesta (a decent place for souvenirs). Chedraui Selecto is a supermarket that offers local fare and souvenirs, sunblock and beachwear if you left anything at home. The area has lots to offer within walking distance. Public transit or local taxis and both are offered in Cancun. Taxis are available at the hotel or you can walk down the street towards the shopping centre where you can get a taxi at a much cheaper rate.

The Hyatt Ziva Cancun is a perfect getaway for your next trip to Cancun. It has friendly, professional staff, great room offerings, superb restaurants and bars and wonderful onsite land and water activities in a spectacular and relaxing environment.

Céad Mile Fáilte: A Hundred Thousand Welcomes

March 17, 2016 9:40 am
A view of the port city of Cobh with The Cathedral of Saint Colman in the background.

I’m of Irish descent and like millions of other Irish Canadians, the pull towards visiting my ancestral homeland has always been strong. My great great grandparents came to Canada from Waterford in County Cork in the mid-18th century at the height of the potato famine and my Irish heritage has held a strong presence in my life. The opportunity to visit last December with my son did not disappoint. Ireland is glorious in December. Cool days and colder nights, but still green and charming. I noticed a sign upon arrival in Dublin that said Céad Mile Fáilte or A hundred thousand welcomes. Hard to explain it but upon arrival, it felt like home. I rented a car and adjusted to the reality that the Irish, like their British counterparts, all drive on the wrong side of the road. It concentrates the mind and makes you forget your jet lag pretty quickly.

dubbr_phototour54We checked into the historic Shelbourne Dublin, a luxury hotel in Dublin city center, overlooking St. Stephen’s Green, Europe’s grandest garden square. This would serve as our point of departure for the next two days as we began to explore Dublin’s cultural and historic buildings. After a sumptuous breakfast in the hotel’s famous tea room, we began a 6-hour walking tour of the city through its heart, St. Stephen’s Green. Our first stop was The Little Museum of Dublin. This museum tells the story of 20th century Dublin and features over 5,000 artifacts in a collection that was entirely donated by Dubliners. It was a perfect start and served to put Ireland in context for us historically, culturally, socially and economically. A highlight of this museum was the exhibit celebrating the career, music and roots of U2. Irish humour flourishes in the place. Take a quote from Bono for example, in explaining the difference between the Irish and Americans. “In the United States, you look at the guy that lives in the mansion on the hill, and you think, you know, one day, if I work really hard, I could live in that mansion. In Ireland, people look up at the guy in the mansion on the hill and go, one day, I’m going to get that bastard.”  The Irish are cheeky and their humour and joie de vie are evident everywhere. Next up was a short walk to Trinity College, the oldest university in Ireland. Founded in 1592 by Queen Elizabeth 1, the 40-acre site retains some of its ancient seclusion of cobbled squares, gardens and parks. The College is famed for its great treasures including the Book of Kells, a 9th-century illuminated manuscript, the Books of Durrow and Armagh, and an early Irish harp. These are displayed in the College Treasury and The Long Hall (library) which house over 300,000 books, some dating back to its foundation.  Most of Ireland’s state-funded museums are free and very close to each other. Ireland’s Parliament building, Leinster House, can be toured weekdays. Next door is the National Library,  which features exhibits on W.B. Yeats, James Joyce, Jonathan Swift and other famous Irish writers and poets. The National Gallery,  holds the national collection of European and Irish fine art.The Archaeology Museum displays Celtic gold artefacts, including beautiful artistic necklaces called lunulas and torcs. The National Museum of Ireland, is Ireland’s premier cultural institution and home to the greatest collections of Irish material heritage, culture and natural history in the world. After 6 hours of touring we decided it was time for a “Guinness Stop” something that would become a regular occurrence on the trip. In Dublin there are hundreds of bars, pubs and restaurants that serve great beer, whiskey and food. The most renowned is the Temple Bar district. The Temple Bar pub and O’Donoghue’s are among the many great pubs of Dublin that cater to visitors and locals and serve as a musician’s paradise for live performance venues.

Temple_Bar_02We left the Temple Bar district for a stroll on Grafton Street, Dublin’s famous shopping area. Taking in the atmosphere of Christmas lights and the sounds of buskers was truly magical.We had dinner that evening at the Shelbourne Hotel’s Saddle Room Restaurant. This cozy and intimate spot  specializes in steak, oysters and seafood and has an exceptional wine list. As we dined, a light crisp, white, shining snowfall covered the streets. The snow was gone by the time we left the next morning. It was a cool brisk sunny day and we  made our towards Kilmainham Gaol, one of the largest unoccupied prisons in Europe

It has been described as the ‘Irish Bastille’. Between the year it opened in 1796 and its closure in 1924, Kilmainham Gaol witnessed some of the key moments and personalities in Ireland’s emergence as an independent nation. It is Ireland’s leading historic monument exploring the theme of nationalism. Robert Emmet and the leaders of the 1916 civil war uprising were executed here. Charles Stewart Parnell, leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party, was imprisoned here in 1881-82. The Gaol museum holds one of the finest collections of nationalist memorabilia in the country, and the exhibition displays some of Irelands most impressive objects, including an original and rare 1916 Proclamation and some items relating to Michael Collins and the circumstances of his death in 1922.For me, Kilmainham Gaol was one of the highlights of our trip to Ireland. Next up was a stop at The Porterhouse, Ireland’s first brew pub located in the Temple Bar, to drink some genuine Irish Stout. Porterhouse beers have won gold medals at the world’s most prestigious international brewing industry award (the brewing Oscars) in 1998/1999 and 2011/2012. They make their  own stouts and ales for their pubs in Dublin, Cork and other locales in Ireland and they ship to the US beer market. They also import  various beers from around the world with a keen eye on Belgium.

Gallagher’s Boxty House was next, in the heart of the Temple Bar. This is a restaurant with a strong connection with the land, culture and history of Ireland. It’s a place where people are invited to embrace the origins of the Boxty Pancake and the history of the potato in Irish cuisine and culture. Owner Padraic Gallagher is one of Ireland’s most renowned and respected experts on the potato and other Irish foods. We sampled the dumplings, corned beef, Irish stew, roasted black pudding and some Irish whiskey.

The next day we left Dublin and headed south through the rolling Irish countryside towards Cork. We stopped for lunch in the small village of Delgany, Co Wicklow to meet with Patrick Ryan at The Firehouse Bakery. Ryan is a former lawyer turned master baker. His 2011 BBC programme The Big Bread Experiment, a three-part series following a unique social experiment with one ambition — to reunite a community through bread — made him a celebrity with foodies in Britain and around the world. The wood fired oven is at the heart of everything Ryan does. Hand-crafted loaves, freshly-baked pizzas, slow-cooked meats define this award-winning artisan bakery. Ryan and his partner Laura Moore also operate a bread school in Heir Island in West Cork.

We enjoyed the next three hours driving through  the  mist and rain of the Irish heartland  arriving in Cork  (the name Corcaigh means a marsh) in the early evening. A historic seaport city, Cork began on an island in the swampy estuary of the River Lee and over several centuries expanded up the steep banks on either side. Today, the river flows through Cork City in two main channels, which explains the many crossing bridges throughout the city. We checked  into the famous 5-star Hayfield Manor Hotel. The Hayfield Manor is very welcoming and friendly property located on a hill-top estate overlooking the city. It features large luxurious and comfortable rooms with all the amenities including free wifi, beautiful grounds, a work-out room, spa and indoor heated pool. The decor is elegant and tasteful and the newly-built additions complement the older parts of the building. The Manor serves sumptuous Irish breakfasts with a variety of fresh fruit and juices. Fine dining is offered at Orchids Restaurant or you can drop into Perrotts Garden Bistro, a casual meal alternative. Head Chef Stephen Sullivan prepares contemporary Irish cuisine using the freshest ingredients from the land and sea in the Cork region.

The best way to see the city of Cork is to walk. St. Patrick’s Street and the heart of the shopping district and attractions of Cork is a twenty minute walk from Hayfield Manor. Cork offers a wealth of shops, bars, restaurants, and attractions. We spent two days exploring this historic port town whose coat of arms bears the motto ‘A Safe Harbour for Ships’. Corkonians are known as the most chatty of all the Irish. In the heart of the city, is the English Market, which is a large, gallery-type building covering an entire city block with a vaulted glass roof. First opened in 1788, the Market has undergone various changes. The market provides vegetables, fresh seafood, dairy, meats, cheeses — everything for the table. After a morning of walking around Cork it was nice to step out of the overcast mist that had engulfed the city and step into The Farmgate Café in the English Market. Committed to food grown in the Munster region, its small menu is dictated by the food stalls in the market so menu options change daily. Their lamb stew with Guinness and apple strudel hit the mark.

448px-Jameson_distillery_in_DublinCork is a foodie’s paradise and there are pubs and restaurants everywhere serving Irish comfort foods, curry, chowders, spiced beef, fish and chips and glorious desserts. Most restaurants stop serving food at 8 p.m. After that beer, wine and spirits reign until closing time. Like Dublin, you can find traditional live Irish music in venues throughout the city. Next up was a quick side trip to The Jameson Distillery in Midleton and then a visit to  Blarney Castle to take part in the ole Irish tradition of Kissing the Blarney Stone (although I still think it is a tourist thing-but it’s fun-sort of like kissing the cod in Newfoundland). Cork is a destination city for  beer and cider and you can get some of Ireland’s best cider at The Roundy’s home-made hot cider house.

After two and half days in Cork, we once again saw sunshine as we made our way south to Cobh for a guided walking tour along The Titanic Trail and  a visit to the Cobh Heritage Centre. Cobh is the port city where the Titanic left on its maiden (and last) voyage. More importantly, this small town was the port from which millions of Irish people left Ireland during the great potato famine to immigrate to North America. The rich history and tragedy of this period is well documented in The Cobh Heritage Centre. Any Canadian of Irish descent visiting Ireland should visit Cobh. I was struck by presence of The Cathedral of Saint Colman in Cobh — built by money sent back from Irish immigrants to honour the town from which they left. A  large and elaborately detailed neo-Gothic building, it prominently overlooks the harbour. The historian Emmet Larkin has called it “The most ambitious building project undertaken by the Church in nineteenth-century Ireland.” It is still imposing today. The next day we drove to the small port town of Kinsale and checked into The Old Bank Townhouse. Located in the heart of Kinsale, it is within walking distance of everything and directly across the street from the town harbour. It is an amazing heritage building (over 200-years old) that has been renovated but retains its charm. It serves hearty breakfasts, with home-made breads (from the bakery downstairs) and jams. We spent an afternoon exploring Kinsale. A popular venue is Fishy Fishy Kinsale, a ‘must do’ stop. This restaurant  has won acclaim with foodies in Ireland for its  wonderful seafood dishes made from  the freshest local catch from lobster to crab, crayfish to cod, monkfish, squid, john dory and haddock. They serve the best traditional fish & chips you will ever taste in their newly-established Fishy Fishy Chippie.  Like many restaurants in Ireland, Fishy Fishy is committed to prioritizing the core indigenous ingredients of Irish cuisine and promoting local and artisan producers.

After a day in Kinsale we headed back to Dublin and checked-in to the modern and stylishly contemporary Fitzwilliam Hotel in St Stephen’s Green, which caters to business and family travelers. After settling in we headed out to learn more about the Gaelic games. In Ireland, Gaelic games, music, dance and language are at the heart of what it is to be Irish. The two main ones are Gaelic Football & Hurling, both of which are organized by the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA). Other games organized by the GAA include Rounders and Gaelic Handball. During the late 19th century, Gaelic games in Ireland were dying out. This decline was stopped and reversed by the Gaelic Revival group. Today, Gaelic Football and Hurling are the most popular games in Ireland.

Players are boys and girls across all age groups from under 8 to under 18, and men and women of all ages. Every weekend, Club matches are played in every town and village of Ireland. The very biggest matches regularly attract attendances of over 40,000 per game. The All-Ireland Finals attract 82,500 every September to an extraordinary stadium in Dublin: Croke Park based close to city centre Dublin. The Gaelic Games have are as popular to the Irish as hockey is to Canadians. We headed back to the Fitzwilliam Hotel for dinner at the famous Michelin starred Thornton’s Restaurant. Head Chef and Proprietor Kevin Thornton is widely regarded as Ireland’s best chef. Thornton’s offers a wonderful, fine dining experience in a beautiful setting. It was a majestic way to spend our last night in Ireland.

If I was to give Ireland an Michelin rating it would certainly be three stars.

How to get there: Air Lingus

How to get around: Hertz Car rental 

About Ireland: www.discoverireland.ie , www.ireland.com

About Dublin: www.visitdublin.com

Flee to the Keys and Hawks Cay Resort

March 9, 2016 11:55 am
Lagoon sunset

Photo courtesy of Hawks Cay Resort, by Jason Stemple.

March Break is one week away and if you are looking for a last-minute destination, escape to the place that inspired Ernest Hemingway’s classic novels, that has the best ceviche and key lime pie you may ever taste and has breathtaking beauty. With a chill, Caribbean-esque attitude and island time, the Florida Keys will give you that perfect feeling of getting away from it all.

The Keys are a combination of some 1,700 islands that start where the Florida Turnpike intersects with Highway 1.  You will find the locals refer to locations based on mile markers on the one highway/road in and out of the Keys. The Keys start at Mile 120 and run south to Mile 0 in Key West.

As you drive down Highway 1, you may notice it looks like a protected area.  That’s because it is. The Everglades National Park, protecting more than 1.5 million acres, is the 3rd largest national park in the lower 48 states, behind Yellowstone National Park (2nd) and Death Valley National Park (1st). It provides habitat for numerous rare and endangered species like the manatee, American crocodile and the Florida panther. It is a World Heritage Site, and even just driving by en route south provides incredible scenery.  If you do want to stop and check it out, it is open for visits and has programming and trails.

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Photo courtesy of Hawks Cay Resort, by Jason Stemple.

Continue driving and you will hit Key Largo (miles 108-90).  Be sure to stop at mile 102.4 at The Fish House restaurant. The décor is completely kitsch, but don’t let that scare you off. The fresh fish dishes are spectacular. It would be a lost opportunity not to stop. Locals rave about it for good reason. The Matecumbe dish (fresh fish done light with tomatoes, shallots, basil, capers, olive oil) has been featured on the Food Network and is an unparalleled fish experience.  The ceviche is incredible as well. The yellowtail snapper, mahi-mahi, grouper, Florida lobster and stone crab (it is in season until May) are impeccably prepared in a variety of ways to please every palate. Their key lime pie is the perfect way to top off the meal.

Not that you will be spending too much time indoors, but you do need somewhere to grab some sleep. There are countless motels, trailer parks, small inns, motels with calming-sounding names and big chain hotels along the 120 miles. However, the best place by far from which to explore the Keys is from a home base at the Hawks Cay Resort. This paradise, large resort is located right in the middle of Mile 61 in Duck Key. It is the perfect oasis. Not only is it the ideal place to stay, it is a destination unto itself.  It has everything you want or need with helpful staff to make sure you get it. The luxurious, spacious rooms and cozy beds will keep you rested and have you feeling like Sleeping Beauty. There are various accommodation options (villas, suites, rooms that open up onto the 21-over pool area) that are there to make you feel as relaxed and comfortable as possible with spacious areas and cozy beds, leaving you fresh and ready to take on the adventures of the day.

As a resort, it has an enormous list of outdoor activities.  A Smart Board in the lobby lists the daily events. For starters, you can book an offshore or backcountry fishing charter leaving from the Hawks Cay Marina, paddle your way around the island on a stand-up paddleboard (lessons and rentals are available) or swim with dolphins. Dolphin Connection, onsite at the hotel will delight kids of all ages (big ones included).

Children can attend Camp Hawk Environmental Education Academy while you relax by the pool, by the salt-water lagoon, get a massage at the spa or just wander and stroll around the enormous property. If walking is not part of the plan, there is a trolley to take you around the site.

Pirate Ship Pool (2)

Photo courtesy of Hawks Cay Resort, by Jason Stemple.

There are six phenomenal and massive pools, and if you are so inclined, each is perfect for swimming or for exercise. Of course you could also just hang out in the hot tub with a drink of the day (which you can sample for free early in the day by the 21-over pool.).

There are tennis courts, a fully-equipped gym and in the waters of the Keys, there are more than 1,200 colourful creatures waiting to be discovered during a dive. The Florida Keys are home to the only living coral reef system in the continental United States.

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Photo by Jennifer Hartley.

The lush surroundings and the beautiful vantage point to watch sunsets on one side (and sunrises on the other) are another bonus of the Hawks Cay. Take a sunset boat cruise (it is short, only 1.5 hours tops) and sip wine, beer and bubbly as you watch the sun set in the beautiful blue sky.  There is a party atmosphere on the boat so enjoy it.  You are strongly encouraged to enjoy the beverages in the quantity of your choice.

There are superb restaurants on site, Alma has fine dining, then there’s Ocean (comfort food), Beach Grill (fantastic ceviche, calamari and burgers), to name just a few and the Tiki poolside bar offers up incredible mojitos, margaritas and local beers to quench your thirst.

If you decide to venture away from Hawks Cay, Key West is 60 miles away. Visit the Hemingway House to see where Ernest Hemingway lived and soak up his creativity in his writing studio. Hit Sloppy Joe’s Bar and Captain Tony’s Saloon to see where else he got his inspiration. Both sites were Hemingway haunts. Captain Tony’s was the original site of Sloppy Joe’s until the bar owner (a friend of Hemingway’s) got into a fight with the landlord and moved to its current location. Both are worthy of a pint.

But you won’t want to stay away from Hawks Cay long, because there is so much to do and experience there.  Most of all, it is the perfect place to relax and unwind.

Get Your Travel Tips from the Best

February 18, 2016 10:16 am
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We all know the hassle of planning a trip from scratch. You start out hoping to save some money, and by the end of it, all you have to show for it is wasted time and accumulated stress. As more and more people run into this problem, travel companies are coming back in a big way.

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Gregory Luciani, president and CEO of TravelOnly.

One company that never went away is TravelOnly. Led by Gregory Luciani, this family business has been operating for more than 40 years. Although TravelOnly keeps their main office in Brantford, Ontario, their locations stretch from coast to coast and they employ more than 625 professional travel agents across Canada.

Their secret? TravelOnly combines excellent customer service with cutting-edge software to find the right vacation for clients and get them an unreal deal. Luciani always has an eye out for upcoming trends and the next top-destination. While TravelOnly has a great selection of relaxing cruises, they also offer more pulse-pounding adventure tours and eco-travelling for the younger generation.

There’s a huge diversity of programs. People can sign up for destination weddings, golf and ski vacations, honeymoons, corporate meetings and ship charters.

All these years of great service haven’t gone unnoticed. Most recently, the company was awarded the Top Canadian Travel Agency award by Ensemble Travel Group, and Sandals Resorts has named them Top Destination Weddings Agency for Canada and Canada’s Best of the Best Agency.

So when you start hitting the planning stage for the vacation you’ve been dreaming about, looking into TravelOnly will be definitely worth your time. You can find out more about them and their vacation packages at TravelOnly.com/en.

A US Waiver: A Canadian’s Ticket to the Land of the Free

February 17, 2016 9:50 am
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Having a criminal record in Canada can be a serious roadblock in many areas of life, especially when it comes to travelling to the United States. If you have a criminal record in Canada, you will be denied entry into the United States.  Even if you are only stopping on the way elsewhere, a criminal record will put a damper on your travel plans. A US waiver application is the only solution.

glasses-983947_640The United States authorities will know that you have a criminal record as soon as they run your passport through their system. They have access to the Canadian database that chronicles all criminal activity in the country. All they have to do is type your name into their computer and your record will appear. Not only will you be denied entry, you could face possible serious consequences for trying to enter the United States illegally.  That could result in your vehicle being seized and you could potentially be imprisoned as well. The border guard has discretion in this regard.

In the years following the 9/11 attacks, the rules regarding entry to the United States got much stricter for those with a criminal record in Canada. It’s not enough to have a pardon. In order to travel to the United States in this case, you will need what is referred to as a US travel waiver.

A US waiver is a document designed to allow those with a criminal record in Canada to still travel to the United States. The document is issued by the United States Immigration Office, not the Canadian government. Whether you will be granted a waiver depends upon several different factors, including:

The level of potential risk you pose to security.

The nature and severity of your offense.

Your age at the time the charges were laid.

Your reasons for wanting to visit the United States.

Acquiring a waiver to enter the United States is time consuming.  It can take several months to even prepare the request for the waiver, and several more to await the verdict. For those reasons, it’s best to submit a waiver application as much in advance of your desired travel date as possible. For best results, it’s best to work with an agency who specializes in helping clients prepare waiver applications.

Once you receive your US waiver, you will be allowed to travel to the United States for a specified period of time without fear of being deported, arrested or otherwise impeded because of your criminal record. It’s never advised that you attempt to circumvent this rule and enter the United States undetected. Remember: It’s not enough to claim that you did not know you had to have a waiver. It is your responsibility to know what travel documents you need.

Vivian R. Smith.

Stand out in the Acadian Peninsula

February 12, 2016 3:32 pm
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The sea and the sights in the Acadian Peninsula await you.

The Acadian Peninsula is surrounded by stunning views of the water, with the Chaleur Bay (known as one of the most beautiful bays in the world) on one side, and the Gulf of Saint Lawrence on the other. You are Village Historique Acadienbound to enjoy fresh seafood and beautiful scenery year-round, and the cities of Tracadie-Sheila, Caraquet, Shippagan and Lameque are always offering hospitality and things to do during your stay.

Wintertime adventurers can enjoy cross-country skiing, snowmobiling trails, snowshoeing trails and tobogganing. You can also catch the thrills and chills of Tracadie-Sheila’s Polar Bear swim, along with Tracadie-Shield’s other frosty events such as a pond hockey tournament and a fantastical ice carnival.

During the warm months, The Acadian Peninsula does not disappoint. Make sure to visit the Acadian Costal Drive, known for its warm beaches and rock-strewn coast. You might just catch a glimpse of the sea star, a creature that serves as a symbol of Acadian culture.

Aquarium-Pic-SalonVisit the Village Historique Acadien to learn more about Acadian history from 1770-1949. Watch as the past is brought to life through historic buildings, captivating storytellers and a bustling Village. Swing by the Miscou Lighthouse, which has been described as one of the most beautiful places on earth by the American Travel Writers association. The lighthouse is the only National historical site in the Acadian Peninsula, and standing in the area you can enjoy a beautiful view of Chaleur Bay. Explore Miscou Island and enjoy a walk on one of the many surrounding boardwalks, or bask in the warmth of its beautiful sandy beaches.

Beaches are plentiful in the Acadian Peninsula, along with bike trails, museums, delicious restaurants, watersports and art galleries. There is just so much to see and do, you are bound to find something that will please every member of your family.

To plan your visit to the Acadian Peninsula, visit peninsuleacadienne.ca.

The Outdoors Really Are Great in Miramichi

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Beaubears Island (Miramichi)

Settled against New Brunswick’s East Coast, Miramichi is a place where the air is fresher and the trails seem to go on forever. If you feel like you can count the number of adventures you’ve had so far this year on one hand, this is a town you have to visit.

Miramichi winters are fantastic, and there’s no better place to go if you’ve been feeling like Ottawa’s snowfall FolkFestival_0194has been a bit lackluster this year. Well, in the ‘snowbelt,’ they average just under 300 centimetres of snowfall every year, and this opens up a huge network of snowmobile trails. The area has plenty of places you can find snowmobile parts, great accommodations and most importantly, access to over 600 kilometers of groomed trails.

When the snow melts, the hills open up for mountain bikers. At French Fort Cove Nature Park they have fast and winding trails. If you’re extra brave, you can visit three nights a week to hear the story of the Headless Nun.

Out on the water they have boat tours with costumed guides and world-class fly fishing. If you want to take your fishing to the next level, Miramichi has a ‘catch and release’ striped bass fishing tournament that brought in more than 1,000 anglers last year. The team that catches the four heaviest fish wins a top prize of $5,000, and there’s also a prize for the longest catch.Miramichi (Tubbing)

When Pete Bowman from the show Fish’n Canada visited the tournament for filming last May, he said “we have never experienced anything like this in our lives,” and there’s a solid chance that after you’ve spent a few days in Miramichi, you’re going to be saying the same thing.

You can find out more about Miramichi’s history, culture and all the things you can do there at Miramichi.org.

Find Natural Beauty in Bathurst

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The city of Bathurst, NB is celebrating its 50th anniversary, making 2016 a landmark year for the bustling town. You can find Bathurst in the northern part of New Brunswick, sitting on the shore of the Chaleur Bay.

Bathurst is a place for adventure, so why not plan a trip to Atlas Park, open year-round, and located just 20 minutes from town? During the winter months, Atlas Park offers under-ice scuba diving, scenic cross-country ski and snowmobile trails and an ice skating rink. Atlas Park also offers an exciting selection of summertime activities, including scuba diving, fishing, paddle boat tours, walking paths, barbecues, picnic Daily Point Nature Reserve 2 (Bathurst)grounds, and even an amusement park for children young and old to enjoy.

Bathurst is a great summer travel destination, particularly if you are a lover of the great outdoors. Enjoy a walk on The Daly Point Reserve, found just northeast of Bathurst harbor. The reserve boasts 100 acres of immaculate salt marsh, wooded plots and gorgeous wildlife trails. Bring your binoculars for bird watching, and a lunch basket for your picnic.

Speaking of lunch, it’s a little known secret that the Nepisiguit River is one of the best salmon fishing spots in all of the Atlantic. Cast a line along the shores of the river, or enjoy a relaxing canoe ride and bask in the beauty of Nepisiguit’s striking tree-lined shores.Waterfront (Bathurst)

End your day with a visit to La Promenade Waterfront. Positioned on the Acadian Coastal Drive, the waterfront development hosts an assortment of charming shops, art, boutiques, restaurants, and an outdoor pavilion that hosts a variety of year-round activities. Take a stroll down the boardwalk, and don’t forget to take photos!

Spectacular views can be seen of one of the most stunning bays in the world: the Chaleur Bay.

To plan your trip to Bathurst, visit Bathurst.ca.

Sno-Fest and Salmon Suppers in Campbellton

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The historical Campbellton, NB, is situated on the picturesque Restigouche River, just opposite of Point-a-la-Croix, Quebec. Established in 1889, there is just so much to see and do in Campbellton!

The Campbellton waterfront boasts many year-round attractions. During your stay, visit Salmon Plaza and enjoy lunch in one of the Plaza’s many cafes and eateries. Don’t forget to take your photo with local-legend Restigouche Sam, a stunning 8.5 meter-tall stainless steel salmon!

RiverainCampbellton Sno-Fest is the region’s weekend winter celebration, offering up an abundance of snow sculptures by local artists, as well as sleigh rides, dogsled rides, tube sliding, ice-skating, family activities, fireworks, snowman building and so much more! Dance the night away with Sno-Fest Night Life while enjoying the hospitality of local venues and musical talent.

As warmer weather prevails, you do not want to miss the weeklong Campbellton Salmon Festival. The Festival is an annual celebration of the world-famous Restigouche salmon, and it is one of New Brunswick’s longest running community festivals. Bask in the Festival’s Canada Day celebration with a giant fireworks display, witness an action-packed road race and enjoy the entertainment of live bands and a carnival. Make sure to take advantage of the Festival’s salmon suppers, too.Sugarloaf Bike Park - Online 1

If you love music, The Campbellton Bluegrass Festival is the place to be. A summer weekend full of incredible Bluegrass music, you can expect to enjoy the sounds of local talent, as well as some top-notch visiting bands. Set up camp along the shores of the Restigouche River and take a hike on the stunning Appalachian Mountain Range.

To plan your visit to Campbellton, visit Campbellton.org.

Unforgettable Edmundston

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Mountain bike in Edmundston

If you’re planning a Maritime adventure, historic Edmundston is the perfect place to start. Settled right between Quebec and Maine on New Brunswick’s left side, Edmundston is exactly the sort of greeting you want to find when entering a new province.

Edmundston has far too much great history for a city of only 16,000 people. Museums across the county explain both the history of the Acadians and pioneers. If you dig deep enough, you’ll find the story of how one exasperated settler declared the area an independent republic, and for decades the “Republic of Madawaska” name stuck. For a short time, they even had a flag and their own order of knights.

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The city has more art galleries than you can count on one hand and some great public art as well. Explorers, or those who sign up for a guided tour of the city, can find great statues, topiary art and some elaborately painted benches. If you’re looking for something a little more elaborate, you can catch shows in English or French at the Edmundston Arts Centre.

If you’re more into natural art, Edmundston is home to the New Brunswick Botanical Garden, home to calm pools and plants from all over the world. You will have to wait a little while for this one though, as the garden is only open from mid-May to October.

Now if memory-making is your goal, you should know that Edmundston is nestled in a valley with great bike trails, waterfalls and three covered bridges, which we all know make the absolute best photo backgrounds. 2016 may be the perfect time to make Edmundston’s rich heritage and nature part of your own personal history.

You can find out more at tourismedmundston.com.

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