Across Two Continents: Visiting the Ancient Byzantine Capital

October 18, 2016 1:20 pm
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All photos taken by Isabel Payne.

Dating back to as early as 660BC, Istanbul has a very colourful palette of cultures and history. The city we know today has undergone huge transformations over time. Founded as Byzantium in 660BC, and then later renamed Constantinople in 330AD, the city was the imperial capital for four empires across roughly 16 centuries until the foundation of the Turkish Republic in 1923 moved the capital to Ankara. I recently had the opportunity to visit this ancient city with Turkish Airlines to explore what it has to offer. The city itself proudly retains much of its colourful history, but has also constructed the modern era alongside the old. The result is three sections of the city that almost allows you to walk through time itself.

What to see: 

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Tourists marvel at the beauty of the Hagia Sofia.

 

Istanbul is literally packed full of fascinating places to visit. From magnificent palaces to hectic markets, there’s a little something of everything to suit everyone’s interests. The sightseeing began starting right in front of our hotel, the Sari Konak Oteli, which was conveniently located steps away from famous buildings like the Hagia Sofia (pronounced Ayasofya) and the famous Blue Mosque. The Sari Konak gave me an immediate sense of comfort and welcoming, with spacious boutique rooms and a gorgeous flower covered rooftop terrace. Small shops and cafes lined the streets away from the hotel and up to the Hippodrome.

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Fancy boats serve food to fast food to tourist and locals alike along the shores of the Bosphorus.

Built in 203AD, the Hippodrome of Constantinople was once the social centre of what is now Istanbul. At its prime, the Hippodrome had the capacity to seat 100,000 spectators to watch horse and chariot racing. While the Hippodrome itself fell to ruins in the 1400s, it still remains a social centre of modern Istanbul with a few historical gems surviving the centuries. Now called Sultanahmet Square, the area connects multiple historical sites into one convenient location. Several artefacts in the Hippodrome have survived the pillaging and tests of time. The Obelisk of Theodosius I is among the oldest of artefacts still on display. The red granite obelisk was originally erected in Cairo by Pharaoh Thutmose II between 1479-1425 BC and initially stood at 30 metres tall. In 357 AD, Roman emperor Constantius II had the obelisk moved to Constantinople and had it re-erected in the Hippodrome. Today, only around 19 metres  of the obelisk survives in remarkably good condition.

A boat tour down the Bosphorus stright grants you an epic view of Rumelihisarı.

The square is also home to both the Ayasofya (or known in English as the Hagia Sofia) and the Sultan Ahmet Mosque (or Blue Mosque). Literally translating to “holy wisdom”, the Hagia Sofia that currently stands in Istanbul is the third iteration of it to have been built. The church was built in 532 by Emperor Justinian I who, sick of the previous churches in the city being destroyed, decided to build a massive new church that would put its predecessors to shame. After the Ottoman empire had conquered the city, minarets were added and the church was altered to be the first imperial mosque of Istanbul in 1453 and continued to function as such until 1935 when it was finally transformed instead into a museum. Now, the Hagia Sofia is the only place in the world where you can see the artworks of two religions contained in one place.

Across the street, the Sultan Ahmet Mosque offers a gorgeous view of ottoman architecture. See thousands of gorgeous Iznik tiles lining the interior, or stick around the area to hear the call to prayer being announced from the mosque’s six minarets. While it’s not the biggest mosque in the city, it is arguably one of the most beautiful to visit. Just be sure to check the dress code ahead of time.

A short walk away from the Sultan Ahmet square leads to the Basilica Cistern, an ancient cistern filled with marble columns that once supported Pagan temples. Right next to it also stands a segment of the Valens Aqueduct, which was once over 900 meters long. From there, a quick tram ride can take you to the gorgeous Topkapi Palace, an Ottoman palace built for the sultan and his family in 1453. Be prepared to spend several hours there marvelling at the gorgeous architecture and well-kept gardens. Further up the hill hosts a number of gorgeous attractions, including the Galata tower, the Modern Art Museum, and Taksim Square.

What to eat: 

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A small cup of Turkish coffee served hot with sweet samples of Lokum: two must-trys in Turkey.

With its proximity to Eastern Europe and the Middle East, it’s not surprising that Turkish cuisine has become a delicious mix of many cultures. Cuisine in Istanbul maintains much of what was eaten from the Ottoman era. For meat lovers, try kofte or freshly caught fish. Begin your meal with fresh hummus or some acili ezme, a spicy tomato dip similar to bruschetta. Appetizers are generally served with freshly made flat breads that smell and taste like a million dollars. Follow up with a warm lentil soup or fresh calamari, however don’t get over zealous on the appetizers– you’ll want to leave room for the main course!  Mains can vary depending on the restaurant. Be sure to try Manti, a dish often called Turkish ravioli, and Pide, a canoe-shaped dish very similar to pizza.

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A sweets shop displays many traditional and non-traditional of freshly made Turkish Delight.

Turkish desserts are especially lovely. Feast on freshly made Baklava or sample the many flavours of Lokum, or Turkish delight. For a frosty desert, try Dondurma (otherwise known as Turkish ice cream) which is noticeably stickier and chewier than ice cream of the western variety. Ornately dressed Dondurma vendors can be spotted all around the city flipping around large amount of Dondurma with thin metal rods. One of my absolute favourite desserts to eat was Künefe, a buttery, sweet, cheese-filled treat that is best eaten when warm and fresh. Head into Hafiz Mustafa for freshly made Künefe topped with pistachio or Dondurma, or try some of their many puddings including Tavuk göğsü, a sweet rice pudding made with chicken breast (yes, you read that right).
Many restaurants in the city offer stunning views with many rooftop terraces. Seven Hills Restaurant boasts one of the most beautiful views in the city. There you can dine while watching the sunset over the Bosphorus, or if architecture is more your thing, sit on the other side of the rooftop terrace for views of the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sofia. For those who want to be close to the water, Villa Bosphorus gives you romantic views of the European side of Istanbul. The restaurant sits right on the edge of the Bosphorus and offers a selection of authentic Turkish cuisine to enjoy while dining next to a breathtaking view.

Where to shop:

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Hundreds of lanterns hang from the ceilings of shops in the grand Bazaar.

Istanbul has thousands of small shops packed with colourful lanterns, detailed pottery and lots of Turkish snacks. A visit to the Grand Bazaar gives you a little taste of everything. With over 4,000 shops, the Grand Bazaar is one of the world’s oldest and largest covered markets in the world. Get your bargaining game on and be prepared to face pushy shop keepers selling everything from carpets to gold jewellery. If cooking is more your thing, the Spice Market boasts an insane amount of spices, including some not normally found in western markets. There you can sample some pomegranate tea or purchase some sumac or a bag of kebab spice to bring home for marinades. If you’re looking for a more European shopping experience, İstiklal Caddesi is one of the most famous shopping streets in the city, lined with great coffee shops, popular clothing brands, and art galleries. The street goes on for 1.4 km and leads from the famous Galata tower up to Taksim Square.

From the Government of Canada: While there is no nationwide travel advisory in place for people travelling to Turkey, it is recommended that you exercise a high degree of caution due to crime, the threat of terrorist attacks and ongoing demonstrations throughout the country. 

Colorado: Peace Among the Peaks 

October 14, 2016 12:54 pm
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A resting place overlooking the Mount Princeton Hot Springs. All photos by Eric Murphy.

Halfway up a mountain looking over Boulder, Colorado I found a narrow rocky trail that split away from the well-worn hiking path. The trail ran alongside a steep, watery drop and arced upwards, disappearing into the looming treeline. Thinking that the potential shortcut might be my only chance to get to the top of Green Mountain before my bus left at 10, I turned off the beaten path and started climbing.

It didn’t take long for the trail to get too steep for me, but the detour wasn’t a total waste. On the way back down I heard a few branches crack to my left. I turned, expecting to see one of the off-leash dogs I’d met that morning, but instead I found a bored looking doe staring back at me through about 50 feet of brush.

A few seconds later, two more mule deer appeared, poking around the forest floor. Within  another minute, a total of seven deer appeared in the shade just a stone’s throw away. I took some pictures but mostly sat and watched the animals going about their day with lethargic ease.

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One of the deer basking in Boulder’s morning sun.

Feeling more in tune with nature, I turned and went back down that narrow path. Near the bottom I ran into another hiker going upwards. She asked me about the trail and I explained it was a bit rocky, but just a minute ahead was the biggest herd of deer I’d ever seen up close.

“Cool,” she responded flatly, as if I’d just told her the sky was blue. At first I had a little trouble wrapping my head around her lack of enthusiasm. When I was growing up in Ontario, my father slammed the breaks on his truck every time someone spotted a lone deer in the distance.

This attitude is common in Colorado though. It’s not that people don’t appreciate what they have. There’s just too much to appreciate. The ever-present mountains, the sweeping plains between peaks, the all-season sun, the art and beer, it’s just too much for one population to celebrate every day. But for one spring week, I had a chance to pack my bags and see the centennial state with fresh eyes, and man did I celebrate.

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A man plays one of the painted pianos in Fort Collins.

Fort Collins 

Two days before my spiritual experience with the deer on Green Mountain, my plane landed in Denver’s sprawling airport and I headed straight for Fort Collins, a city that looks old but feels young. Brick and stone buildings abound and the main downtown streets are extra wide, a souvenir of the city’s mining days that allowed massive carriages to make a u-turn on the once muddy roads.

It didn’t take me long to realize that Fort Collins is something of a Mecca in an already beer-obsessed state. The city of 150,000 has 20 breweries, including the massive New Belgium Brewery, the fourth largest in the US. We visited the brewing company that afternoon, and about 10 minutes into the free tour I was convinced that their brewery should be considered a world heritage site. This place was enormous, with fermentation tanks bigger than my apartment and five free beers along the tour route.

Downtown Fort Collins is beautifully preserved. A few buildings are so quintessentially 19th century American that their design inspired Disneyland’s “Main Street USA.” Quirky street art abounds, and the city even has a fleet of nearly 200 hand painted pianos scattered around for anyone to sit down and play.

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The view over Boulder.

Boulder

Boulder is a city with many faces. Head just outside the sprawling University of Colorado campus and you’ll find shirtless fraternity members playing beer pong on their front lawns. Hike up to the mountains and you’ll be surrounded by fit people walking their dogs and carrying long coils of rope towards terrifyingly sheer cliff sides. Explore the Pearl Street Mall and you have a solid chance of seeing a busker folding himself into a cardboard box.

No matter where you go, the city is filled with life. This could be a result of the roughly 300 days of sunshine the city gets each year, or the fantastic food. The perfect lunch spot in Boulder is the Sink, which has a longstanding reputation for serving up the best pizza in the city. Somehow this hole in the wall juggles a welcome feeling for tourists alongside a heavy college dive-bar vibe. The walls are coated with offbeat and irreverent paintings. The most noticeable is a floor to ceiling cartoon mural of Robert Redford, who worked there as a janitor in 1955. After a ghost tour of the city I settled into my cabin at Chautauqua, a national historic site filled with quaint lodges.

At 6 a.m. I ate some leftover Sink pizza that was even better cold, and headed out to the trail. Paths veered off in three different directions and the mountains dominated the horizon. Jagged rock formations called flatirons clung to the mountainsides, bursting from the treeline like a row of pointed teeth. I made it my morning goal to try and get to the top of one. Sadly, the top half of Green Mountain was closed for raptor preservation, but every minute of my hike was an adventure, especially the brief deer sighting.

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Crossing some open land on a Colorado Trail Ride.

Buena Vista 

Two hundred kilometres south of Boulder and 2500 feet closer to the sky is a town called Buena Vista. The town is brimming with old stone and wooden buildings that look like they were ripped from a Wild West film. This is the land of white water rafting, grazing cattle and fourteeners, the tallest of Colorado’s Rocky Mountains.

All around town people were riding mountain bikes towards the nearby hills or tying rafts to the roofs of their Subarus. People seemed itching to get out into the country, and I followed suit, setting out on horseback for an hour long ride through the backcountry with no highways in sight. The guide led our group across wide open fields, along narrow wooded paths and through rivers deep enough to get our boots wet. The horses trotted along in single file, but there were a few faster uphill climbs that added a pulse pounding side to an otherwise very relaxing hour.

By late afternoon I ached down to my bones, so I headed to the secluded Mount Princeton Hot Springs Resort, which sits at the foot of a breathtaking cliff face. I can’t think of a better place to stay after a day on the trails. In the resort, fresh spring water from the mountains mixes with the hot springs, creating a chalk creek that can be icy cold or 50 degrees, depending on where you sit. Floating between the hot and freezing sections is absolute bliss. For those looking to just warm up, separate basins filled with nothing but hot, odourless spring water are only a few steps away.

Hotel rooms and log cabins dot the hills above the springs and spa. I stayed in one of the 30 cabins, which had two bedrooms and an enormous loft. The high ceiling, fireplace and kitchen made the space feel like a rustic version of home.

Outside the cabin were chairs lined up on the porch to face the resort and different peaks. I spent the rest of my evening there, glancing between a book and the mountains.

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Denver’s Larimer Street after dark.

Denver

For the final two days of my trip, I gave the world of hiking trails and grassy fields a heartfelt goodbye and waded into Colorado’s booming capital. Denver is a city of young people on sleek bicycles, where every restaurant is trying to break the mould in a quirkier way than the one next door. You feel cooler just by standing close to it all.

During the two days I spent in Denver it was easy to feel like a pinball bouncing between an endless series of colourful restaurants and bars. Their palatial downtown train station reopened in 2014 as an indoor market and you can sip a cocktail, buy a book or check into a hotel room before hopping on your train. My group had pre-dinner drinks in the second floor Cooper Lounge, sitting underneath Volkswagen Beatle sized chandeliers.

Dinner that first night was at TAG, a place that immediately blew me away with its sushi tacos. Picture a bubbling hard shell nestled in a guacamole blanket and filled with sticky rice, charred Hawaiian ahi and mango salsa. I was in love. After trying the rest of TAG’s more conventional sushi, I headed back out onto Larimer Street. The ceiling of lights strung above Larimer gave the narrow road a dreamy quality so late into the evening. I made sure to try two of the underground “speakeasy-style” bars before giving up for the night.

The food adventure continued the next morning back at Union Station at a breakfast spot called Snooze, which started in Denver and has since spread to three other states. As one of their servers set down my Oreo-covered pancake, he told me that the restaurant started out as a master’s thesis, a fact that might have surprised me five days before, but after a week in Colorado it seemed natural as sweet potato pancakes (another Snooze staple).

After spending two days in the city, my last glimpse of nature surprised me in the Denver Airport. While I was standing with my bags, a tiny bird darted past the gates and along the ceiling before settling on a metal rafter right above another departing group.

It started singing, but like my experience with the grazing deer on Green Mountain, no one seemed to notice.

Caveman Luxury at Kayakapi Premium Caves

August 9, 2016 12:56 pm
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All photos by Isabel Payne.

On June 1, I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to spend a few nights in a cave. Located in the touristy Cappadocia region of Turkey, Kayakapi Premium Caves offers a hotel experience like no other. Named after the historical neighbourhood it’s located in, a stay at Kayakapi means sleeping in luxuriously renovated caves originally built in the 18th and 19th centuries. Each room is carefully designed to incorporate elements of what it was originally used for, with a sense of comfort and homeliness that most of us wouldn’t expect when strolling into a cave.

Each room has its own personal courtyard and outdoor seating area that offers a gorgeous view over the land below. The interiors also vary quite a bit. My room had a comfortable seating area near the entrance way and my bathroom had a large stone Turkish bath as well as my own personal Hammam. Other rooms contained larger family rooms, hot tubs, or even an indoor swimming pool! Beautiful secrets are scattered around the hotel grounds.

After a small walk, I found myself in a garden with a romantic view of the mountains and vineyards below. I woke up early the next day and went back to that very spot for a gorgeous view of the sunrise with hot air balloons dotting the sky. Another short walk down the mountain landed me in the unrenovated area of the cave neighbourhood. While they are still renovating more caves to become future hotel rooms, some interesting caves still dot the area. The House of Saint John the Russian is an interesting place to visit if you can, as well as several Roman baths.

If you’ve had enough of sight-seeing and just want to relax, Kayakapi offers all the facilities you’d need to never leave the hotel again. Their onsite restaurant, the Maide restaurant, cooks up fresh and delicious breakfasts, and in the evening serves up some luxurious and mouth-watering meals. Near the restaurant you can relax by the swimming pool which also has a breath-taking view, or simply sit a spell in their guest lounge, where you can access computers as well as local and international newspapers.

If you’re ever visiting Cappadocia, I highly recommend a few nights at Kayakapi! Check out our gallery below for more photos of this gorgeous hotel.

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

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.

New Multilingual Infoline Available to Tourists in India

February 11, 2016 2:45 pm
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As promised, the Indian Government has taken steps to improve the safety and security of local and foreign tourists by creating a “24/7 Toll-Free Tourist Infoline,” available in 12 international languages – English, Hindi, Arabic, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Chinese, Portuguese, Russian and Spanish. Launched this week by Dr. Mahesh Sharma, Minister of State (IC) for Tourism & Culture and Minister of State for Civil Aviation collaborating with Tata Business Support Services, the Infoline is designed for travelers with minimal knowledge of India. By calling 1800111363 or texting 1362, tourists will be connected with information about travel, tourism and what to do in an emergency – all in their respective language.

The 24/7 Infoline will soon be followed by the launch of the “Incredible India Mobile App,” to further meet the needs of tourists, along with a refreshed Incredible India website. These new resources will provide India’s travelers with tips, tricks, and security on their next trip to India – whether they’re doing yoga in the Himalayas or on safari with tigers, information and help is only a phone call or text away.

History, Religion, Geography and Great Food: Majestic Israel Has It All

July 22, 2015 10:00 am
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To even attempt to adequately describe Israel is, to put it mildly, a daunting task. While well-known images of the country abound, absolutely nothing can prepare you for the complete amazement or the unexpected emotions you may feel as you explore this magnificent country. Whether you are religious or not, well-versed in Christian, Muslim or Jewish history or theology or not, does not matter. The majesty of Israel will completely envelop you.

You could spend a lifetime trying to see everything and still not feel like you have a handle on Israel. Every space, every part of its 20,000 square kilometres (by comparison, Canada has over 9 million square kms) feels like it has some sort of historical or religious significance to discover. However, even with just a week, you can pack a lot in. For a glimpse of the various sides of Israel, visit Tel Aviv, Caesaria, drive around the Sea of Galilee, swim in the Dead Sea, climb Masada, eat shawarma in Akko (Acre), and of course a stay in Jerusalem is a must.

Israel is an intense place. As one Israeli put it: “In Israel, you can’t get lost. You will either bump into the sea or barbed wire.” That barbed wire reality in this democratic country, (it is the only democracy in the Middle East), is a reminder that Israel has lived through precarious circumstances and because of that continued political situation, there is a certain sense of constant alertness and strength in its people. Out of the vigilance comes an attitude to seize every moment as a gift and live life to the maximum.


Israel_IMG_20150502_151930Tel Aviv-Yafo
In a country steeped in history, Tel Aviv may at first seem out of place. The economic engine of the country, it is a young, lively, wealthy and culturally rich city. Located on the Mediterranean, beach culture thrives as people flock to the coastline whenever they can. On average, there are 318 clear sunny days in Tel Aviv so there is an abundance of opportunities to do so. Outdoor cafés and bars are everywhere. Even though there is the usual hustle bustle of a big city, there is also a more relaxed vibe to day-to-day life than you might expect from a big city.

There are great food markets in Tel Aviv. Visit the Carmel market to get everything from spices to every kind of olive imaginable to delicious, healthy and cheap street food. Tomato salads, hummus, falafels, pita, fresh and pickled vegetables served on little plates and shawarmas are staples in cafés and food stands.

However, if you are looking for a gourmet meal, you are in luck. Over the last 10 years, there has been a restaurant explosion in Tel Aviv. Reserve at the reputable Herbert Samuel restaurant on Koifman Street. With a celebrity chef and price tag that goes along with that, the restaurant is top notch and is worth the extra shekels.

(Wash down dinner with a glass of Israeli wine. There are over 250 wineries in Israel. Israel is a leader in irrigation and its wine and agricultural industries are the proof. Enjoy them both.)

To burn off the incredibly food, explore pedestrian-friendly Rothschild Blvd. The area is known as the White City and is a UNESCO World Heritage site because of its Bauhaus architecture — there are some 4,000 buildings built in the Bauhaus or International Style in Tel Aviv thanks to German Jewish architects who immigrated to to the city after the rise of the Nazis. If political history grabs you, stop by Independence Hall on Rothschild, where the Israeli Declaration of Independence was signed in 1948.

Tel Aviv has a vibrant nightlife. Rothschild Blvd is a hot spot but HaYarkon (along the beach) and Florentin (which is a less urbane part of Tel Aviv but is definitely a trendy hot spot at night) are also a few areas to hit when the sun goes down.

While Tel Aviv is a young city, (it was founded in 1909), Jaffa (Yafo), a few kilometres down the beach from Tel Aviv, is over 3,000 years old and is one of the oldest ports in the world. In 1950, the two cities were united under one municipal entity, Tel-Aviv-Yafo.

As is the case with many port cities, the ancient city of Jaffa (called Joppa in the Bible and was supposedly named after Israel_IMG_20150430_140737Japheth, a son of Noah), has had a varied and colourful past. Throughout the centuries the city has been conquered no fewer than 22 times. As an ancient city, it has all the character you expect. It is mentioned in both the Old and New Testaments (Book of Jonah in the case of the Old and St. Peter is said to have had his heavenly vision in Jaffa that it would be good to convert Gentiles to Christianity.) Fast forward a handful of centuries, Jaffa was a dismal place. Then in the 1970s and 1980s, artists moved in and since then it has been gentrified. Jewelry stores, painters, musicians have taken over the core, beautiful ancient part of town. A visit to the Ilana Goor art museum is a must to understand the place as it is today. Jaffa port is another great night hot spot and offers a fantastic view of Tel Aviv.

Unfortunately, at some point you have to sleep. There are a multitude of hotel options in Tel Aviv. There are beautiful boutique hotels such as the high-end, pampering Norman Hotel. One unique feature of the hotel is that it has a beautiful, long poem, Castle in the Sand, written in 1956 about Israel, etched into its wall. However, there is something spectacular about being on the beach and for that, the Intercontinental David, Tel Aviv is the perfect place. It has an incredibly large pool and bar that overlook the Mediterranean. The hotel’s buffet breakfast puts North American buffets to complete and utter shame.

Caesaria
Caesaria was a section of land along the coast given as a gift by Augustus Caesar to King Herod. He built a massive port with entertainment facilities, bathhouses and temples. Today, there are the incredible remains to visit but there is also the full-functioning Roman theatre with astounding acoustics.

For Christians, it is an important site, because it was where the Roman Governor Pontius Pilate lived. While the crucifixion took place in Jerusalem, Pilate was not a fan of the city and only went three times a year to keep the peace during festive times. Otherwise, Pilate hung his hat in Caesaria. St. Peter converted the first Gentile, Cornelius, to Christianity in Caesaria and it is where St. Paul’s trial began.

Akko (Acre)
Another World Heritage site is Akko (Acre) because of its importance for the Crusader period. Yet Akko is one of the longest continuously inhabited places in the region so its history is long. Visit the Crusader sites of course, but walk through market, visit the beautiful port area and grab a shawarma. The ancient section of Akko is predominantly Arab so you get a feel for an Arab town. (Interestingly, Israel actually has three official languages, Hebrew, Arabic and English and all three are seen on street signs everywhere in the country.)

Galilee
The Sea of Galilee (which is more of a very big lake by Canadian standards) has towns and villages built around it. The Galilee Israel_IMG_20150502_110152region is where Christ spent most of his three-year ministry. You could spend weeks on the Gospel Trail.

For a taste of the Trail, visit the Mount of Beatitudes (from where Jesus first prayed the Lord’s Prayer, gave his Speech from the Mount and it is the supposed location of the loaves and fish miracle, where Jesus fed five thousand with five loaves of bread and two fish. Magdala, from where Mary of Magalene hailed, is along the road. Tiberias is an interesting stop along the route and a great place to sleep along the Sea of Galilee. The Rimonim Galei Kinnereth Hotel is right on the Sea and a great place to take a breather, reflect on what you see or just relax. It has a fantastic pool that overlooks the Sea.

As you drive along the highway that separates Israel from Jordan (it is the highway that will take you to the Dead Sea), look up to see caves embedded in the mountains where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found. In another spot, you can see off in the distance where Jesus spent 40 days and 40 nights being tempted by the devil. You will pass over the River Jordan, which surprisingly is more of a stream, but still powerful to see. This is just to name a few places. Everywhere you look in Israel there is something significant.

Masada is definitely worth a visit. It has particular importance for Jews as it is a symbol of their resilience and strength. Over 900 Jews took over the fortress on the mountain (a palace built by Herod) and instead of capitulating to Roman control, they killed themselves. You can climb to the top or take a cable car. The view of the desert and the Dead Sea is unbeatable.

Swimming in the Dead Sea should be on everyone’s bucket list. Covering your body with mud and floating on the water is indescribable. It feels oddly disgusting and renewing all at the same time. The Dead Sea Salts are famous for a reason. Your skin is remarkable after a dip.

Israel_IMG_20150504_101527_hdrJerusalem
Sacred for Jews, Christians and Muslims, Jerusalem is the holiest of the holy. The Jewish and Christian sites are open to tourists. The Western Wall (or the Wailing Wall) is open 24 hours. It is incredible to visit it at night when you can have a more intimate experience. Bask in the reverence of the place. Then go back during the day and see what it’s like when packed with little boys having their Bar Mitzvahs, or when hordes of school children are singing, transforming it into a plaza of celebration.

For Christians, to visit locations across Jerusalem where Christ spent his final hours is moving. To visit Mount Zion (the location of the Last Supper), Gethsemane (where Christ prayed until arrested), walking the Via Dolorosa, (the stations of the Cross) followed by a visit to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (where Christ was crucified, and according to some traditions, buried and where he rose from the dead) is unbelievable.

You will of course notice the beautiful Dome of the Rock, the Muslim shrine where Muhammad rose into heaven. It is also sacred for Jews and Christians as well. It is breathtaking to see but unfortunately it can be a tricky place to visit.

There is only one place to stay in Jerusalem and that is the Hotel Mamilla. Luxurious, modern, hip and pampering, Mamilla has every amenity you can imagine and it is a mere 10-minute walk to the Jaffa Gate entrance into old Jerusalem and all the staff are incredible. Everything about this hotel is perfect. There are other more famous, historical places to stay, but the Mamilla is a new hotel and in time will no doubt be added to that list.

It is virtually impossible to fully capture the spiritual and emotional side of a visit to Israel, not to mention the culinary experience and the sheer beauty of the country. To see greenery, then desert, then lakes, caves and everything in between including modern life and the marriage of the old and the new in Israel is breathtaking. After you experience the country, you too will view it as the holy land, in whatever way that means to you.

Visit Ottawa Life in the coming weeks for further information on food, restaurants and for a more detailed background on Israeli sites, off-the beaten track.

Disney Dreaming

February 6, 2015 12:59 pm
DISNEY DREAM AT CASTAWAY CAY

When it comes to creating an extraordinary world of escape, there is nobody who does it better than Disney. Whether you are nine or 90, it is impossible to come away from a Disney experience and not be amazed by it, even awestruck, and completely relaxed and renewed. Disney has created an environment, where no matter how stressed out you are, no matter your level of worry, you will be transported into its alternate reality, filled with all the stuff that dreams are made of.

Feb15_Disney_0327bz_8339gd_25978_origWalt Disney World in Orlando or Disneyland Park in California or other members of the Disney theme park family around the globe are well known but since 1998, Disney has been taking its world of magic to sea. The Disney Cruise Line is made up of four ships (Magic, Wonder, Dream and Fantasy) that travel to destinations including the Caribbean, Bahamas, Europe, Hawaii, and Alaska. (New itineraries of varying lengths are always being added.)

The shortest cruise is a three-night excursion from Port Canaveral, Florida to the Bahamas and back on board Disney Dream. From the minute you hear its horn signal as you depart, (the first seven notes of When You Wish Upon a Star), the fairy-tale tone is set for your voyage.

A first-time cruiser might fear feeling cramped or restricted onboard but this is a needless concern. These ships are like communities on the water. Dream, for example, is over 1,100 feet in length with 14 passenger decks. In comparison, it is longer than the height of either the Eiffel Tower or the Chrysler Building. The staterooms are also 25 per cent bigger than many other ships and larger than some hotel rooms in Europe.

Feb15_Disney_0907ax_1294gd_8d_origJust outside your cabin door, you will find endless activities and adventures for everyone.

First, for children and youth, Disney spares nothing to ensure a good time. For the younger set, there are costumed Disney characters with whom children can interact. Specific times and locations where the characters can be found are given to parents in the daily activity itinerary (a very useful tool that lists all ship activities) provided in the room.

By day, kids can frolic in the water. There are two large pools and one smaller water-play area for smaller children. Above them all is a gigantic screen with endless Disney classics running all day long. Dream sports the first water coaster at sea, the AquaDuck, which stretches 765 feet in length, spans four decks in height, and zips over the edge of the ship, 150 feet above the water, much to the glee of every rider. There are also bottomless drink machines as well as an ice cream bar and other fast-food options open well into the night to keep your children’s (or your own) sugar high going. For healthier food options, the Cabanas casual dining restaurant delivers. The buffets are amazing with lots of variety.

ANIMATOR'S PALATE UNDERSEA MAGIC SHOW ON THE DISNEY DREAM

In the evening, Disney created an innovative option for dinner. With its rotational dining concept, featuring three themed restaurants, guests dine in a different venue each night, accompanied by their same serving team. The Animator’s Palate is a fascinating restaurant that has screens everywhere with Disney characters popping up. The artwork on the walls is stunning with drawings and paintings of the animation process that brings the characters to life. It’s worth taking the time to look around and soak up the creativity.

All parents need time without their kids. Disney understands. There is a nursery for wee ones, a teen club (Vibe), a tween club (Edge) and a club for other ages (Disney’s Oceaneer Club and Lab). They are drop-off centres with Disney Counselors who keep your kids busy. In fact, your kids have so much fun they don’t want to leave. There is a large interactive computer game on the floor where groups of children play together, guided by the Disney Counselor. A giant screen in front of them boasts Disney characters who appear and interact with the children. There are flight simulators, sailing simulators and other computer games. It is one sophisticated play area as you might imagine and probably expect. There are, of course, traditional arts and crafts, dancing, hula hoops and of course, movies. The Counselors are amazing and the Oceaneer Club and Lab are open until midnight so take advantage of the long hours and enjoy some well-deserved free time.

Hit the adults-only locations, for example. There is a whole variety of bars for every taste. Check out the spa, impressive fitness centre and adults-only pool. There are two kid-free gourmet restaurants to boot with incredible wine lists (with an extra cost).

BUCCANEER BLAST! FIREWORKS AT SEA ON THE DISNEY DREAM If you do want to hang out with the kids, there are endless organized activities. Every night, there are original and elaborate musicals offered in the Walt Disney Theatre. Themed deck parties are a lot of fun. There is an unbelievable fireworks display, the first of its kind at sea. (In fact, Disney, which is always looking to provide that something extra, has many cruise industry firsts.) If you are a movie buff, you will be blown away with the full-sized movie theatre that offers movie premieres at sea on the same day a film debuts in theatres, including films in Disney Digital 3-D. Family dance parties, bingo, karaoke, animation lessons, family game shows are all on the agenda if you choose. The fact is there is always something going on. Be sure to experience the detective game with your children. You set off to find clues around the ship with a special paper that, when it comes in contact with enchanted artwork, provides the clues.

If you want to just stay in your stateroom, each television has dozens of Disney movie choices as well. There is wifi available but truthfully, it is pretty expensive. It is a great excuse to leave the real world behind.

While there are many Disney cruises with various ports of call, the three-night Bahamas excursion has one day stop on Disney’s own private island, Castaway Cay. Disney is the first cruise line to have a dock allowing guests to walk on and off the ship (thus eliminating the need for boats to bring them ashore). On Castaway Cay, there are the usual water activities you would normally expect from a traditional, beach resort experience. If you feel like moving around, there is an organized 5k run, but if running isn’t your thing, there are bicycles to check out the island. It is quite stunning.

While immersed in fantasy and fun, the reality is Disney is one professional, slick, sophisticated, wellrun organization. Every logistical detail is perfect right down to the yellow-coloured lifeboats. Rather than the traditional regulation colour of orange, Disney was granted special permission by the U.S. Coast Guard to paint the lifeboats yellow, in order to keep with the special colour theming of the ships, the colours of Mickey Mouse himself. This may seem like an insignificant feature, but it points to the lengths Disney has gone to create the perfect environment.

Another example of its supremely well-oiled organization is how well you are taken care of ashore. Whether you are heading to Orlando for another Disney experience or heading to the airport, Disney buses will get you there. There are Disney representatives to guide you every step of the way.

Walt Disney World is a mere hour drive from Port Canaveral. That, of course, is worthy of its own trip. However, there are themed Disney hotels/resorts that are great places to either get you in the Disney mood before your cruise or to continue the magic after. They all have organized activities as well, including movie night on the beach with marshmallow roasting, but the real attraction is the theme park. That said, even if you don’t have time to visit the park, the hotels are fabulous places to stay.

Another fascinating feature of all the different Disney branches is the diversity of the staff. The Disney Cruise Line alone has more than 86 different nationalities represented. All staff is, without exception, kind, warm and hospitable. Furthermore, all ages are represented, including seniors. It is strangely moving to see Mickey Mouse earrings in the mature ears of some of the Disney guides. It speaks volumes to the fact that the wonders of Disney are for everyone.

Disney Fantasy at SeaDisney Cruise Line is the recipient of many prestigious cruise industry awards and to experience its magic first-hand you fully understand why. This March Break, or for any break you and your family need, Disney will deliver in ways beyond your imagination.

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While you might think ships are environmental disasters, the fact is Disney takes its responsibilities seriously, showing business savvy and sophisticated forward thinking by taking steps to minimize environmental impact. There are many initiatives but here are a few:

• Each ship has an on-board Environmental Officer to oversee all the recycling, waste minimalization efforts.
• Disney reclaims natural occurring condensation from the air conditioning units, recycling it to supply onboard laundry facilities and using it to wash the decks. That step alone saves 30 million gallons of fresh water per year.
• Each week, more than 1,000 gallons of used cooking oil are offloaded and recycled. One hundred per cent of that is recycled in ports of call. In Nassau, for example, cooking oil is recycled and converted into biodiesel fuel to power a local fleet of vehicles.
• On the ship hulls, there is a coating that is non-toxic which reduces surface resistance in the water, allowing the ship to be more fuel efficient.
• Organic cleaning products are used.
• There are advanced wastewater purification systems on-board.
• Disney Cruise Line clean up. So far, it has removed 31,000 pounds of trash and debris from beaches and waterways.

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For more information go to: disneycruiseline.com

 

Italian Retreat

January 12, 2015 3:30 pm
pipistrelli

When we think of Italy urban centres like Florence, Rome and Milan probably spring to mind. But leave the hustle and bustle behind, slow down and soak up life and the beauty and tranquility of Italian village life.

villapipistTranquil Tuscany

Located 15 minutes from the medieval city of Siena, there’s a property ideal for travellers looking to experience authentic Italian living.

Nestled in the hills of Tuscany, the Montestigliano Estate is a fully functional agritourisim farm that has three thousand olive trees, fig trees and other seasonal crops. The beautiful 18th-century, renovated farm home Villa Pipistrelli has multiple rooms, each with its own washroom and a separate annex, linking it to other bedrooms, a kitchen and a sitting area. Of course, there is wi-fi. The view of the Sienese countryside is breathtaking. In the morning, you can enjoy an espresso while looking at the mist rising from the hills.

A short 10-minute walk and you can see the rest of the estate and its restored farm houses of different sizes that are also available for rent. Near the main courtyard, there is a kitchen and hall large enough to hold everyone staying in the properties. Proprietors, the Donati family, host dinners here complete with music and dancing.

Take a guided tour of the farm and see the olive orchard from which the family makes the most delicious olive oil. See how the olives are picked and saved before being pressed to make the “Montestigliano” brand of olive oil — which is on the table at every meal. Massimo Donati, the farmer in the family, offers olive oil tastings. Somewhat like a wine tasting, savour the different flavours and complexities that high-quality olive oil possesses.

The property is so beautiful, you could spend the whole time exploring its 2500 acres. However, there are nearby towns to visit and experience.

One such village is Stigliano. Here you can meet with local farmers and producers who are happy to share the history of farming in the area. Farmers markets have been struggling here for a long time but recent regional government support is giving them new hope.

bottegaMake sure to stop at La Bottega di Stigliano which sells only local products. From jams, marmalades to honey, cured meats and different breads, this market/store may be small in size but it has plenty of variety. The restaurant upstairs serves only local products and makes its pasta. In fact, you can watch being made.

Meat lovers will enjoy the variety of cured meats while listening to staff explain the unique process of how each cut is made. One of the local suppliers, Spannocchia, raises the Cinta Senese pig which is native to this region and is famous for its tenderness.

Siena is only a short drive away and is perfect for a day trip. Quaint, with lots of gelato shops, cobblestone roads, vespas and large piazzas, it is also steeped in history much like the rest of Italy.

Siena-based author, Dario Castagno, offers tours that explain the history of the town, which dates back to the year 900 BC and the different “contrada” or neighbourhoods that make up the city.

Siena has 17 of them. Each is named after an animal or symbol and each has its own crest, chapel, trade and history. The contrada are more like large families. Members take part in weekly dinners, pitching in to set up, cook, serve and clean.

The contrada are individually represented in the Palio, a famous horse race which happens once in July and again in August of each year. The 17 contrada take turns competing in the race. The horses and jockies race around the Piazza del Campo three times and the winning contrada takes home a hand-made banner and bragging rights until the next race.

palazzo donatiA Renaissance Experience

To experience the peace and authenticity of Renaissance Italy, plan a stay at Palazzo Donati in the small town of Mercatello sul Metauro, located in neighbouring Le Marche region, the land of white truffles. The home housed nobility in the 1600s. The kitchen in the basement is a highlight. It’s big and beautiful with an open fire pit for cooking and keeping food warm. Remarkably, it’s authentic to the Renaissance time. Proprietor, Luisa Donati is happy to share the history of the small town and her house which is situated on the main square.

The town is small but includes many hidden gems including beautiful chapels and women making tombolo (a kind of lace) as well as the little butcher shop (there is only one). It is a short drive to nearby towns where friends of Luisa are eager to share their businesses and stories with you.

In Carpegna, Emanuel Francioni and his grandfather run Antica Stamperia, an ancient fabric stencil and print-making operation. They carve out stencils and make the print paste themselves before stamping it onto different fabrics for tablecloths, runners, aprons, etc.

Back at Palazzo Donati, Lina, a local expert, can show you how she makes tagliatelle pasta by hand. Every year there is a pasta-making competition in the main square, and every year, Lina wins (even the one year, British chef Jamie Oliver competed).

italy5Luisa Donati offers all-inclusive “Discover Artisan and Foods Traditions of Italy” vacations. You can sign up on your own or organize your own group of 6 to 8. Guest learn to shop for their ingredients in ‘Italian Express’ and then cook it up. Wine tasting and museum visits are also incuded in the program.

Slow down and soak up rural Italian life at the Montestigliano then indulge yourself in a foodies dream vacation by visiting Palazzo Donati. Enjoy superb cuisine, outstanding quality of life — an authentic Italian experience.

www.montestigliano.it | www.lemarcheholidayvilla.com

The Ardennes in Belgium

December 16, 2014 2:33 pm
Malmedy - Wikipedia
Featured Image: Wikipedia

The interest in the exploits and sacrifices of Canadian soldiers and other allied veterans on the battlegrounds of Europe is increasing as the veterans of WW2 continue to shrink with each passing year.

We wanted to take a trip allowing us to spend a week leisurely travelling through the wonderful valleys and forest of the Ardennes in Belgium and visit many of the WW2 historical sites in the region. When planning a trip for a family or small group, it is worth contacting the Time Travel Company in Belgium.

Most tour operators specialized in WW tours offer a maximum number of activities in a minimum amount of time. The Time Travel Company is focused on ensuring visitors discover other things and get in the heart of Belgium. They offer “all in” packages, including hotels, restaurants featuring special regional meals, guides and site and museum visits, while keeping bus travel time to a minimum. The distances between the sites are short and allow you to really enjoy the tour. Their guides are selected to ensure your experience is memorable and pleasant and their tour groups are limited in size so you feel comfortable. Our tour guide was a local resident named Michael Baert, who has studied the Ardennes Offensive in detail since 1994 and has walked the woods and talked to veterans for years. He is recognized as a true local expert on the Ardennes history and the Battle of the Bulge.

While our tour was historical in nature, we also had lots of opportunities to learn about local cultural heritage and languages (Dutch, French German, Flemish, Walloon), enjoy delicious local cuisine, drink famous Belgian beers and spoil ourselves with Belgian chocolate.

atlas hotelOur trip began with a direct flight from Toronto to Brussels. We checked into the very snazzy Atlas Hotel in the heart of Brussels. Brussels has so much to offer with its restaurants, museums, bars and nightlife. We did the tourist thing and strolled around the city, stopping for beers and a nice dinner at a local pub.

The next morning our Time Travel tour guide picked us up and we took a leisurely drive out of Brussels towards the beautiful Ardennes Forest. As we traveled through the Belgian countryside, I was struck by the beauty of the small towns with pretty chapels and storybook stone exterior homes with well-manicured lawns. The Ardennes is a peaceful and serene place surrounded by miles of farmland divided by four to eight foot hedges acting as natural fences for livestock.

We then checked into the Hotel Spa-Balmoral. Located on the hill of Balmoral, surrounded by trees, in perfect harmony with the generous natural landscapes of the Belgian Ardennes, the Hotel Spa-Balmoral offers a panoramic view of the valley and Lake Warfaaz, one of the most beautiful locations in the region. It features a Well-Being and Beauty Centre, including a Finnish sauna, outdoor jacuzzi, steam room, solarium, covered swimming pool, massages, beauty treatments, cardioweight machines and a free shuttle to the Thermes of Spa, and to a golf course (less than three k.m. away). If you want to go to a spa hotel in Belgium, this is the place. The rooms were comfy and BIG, and we had a great view from our terrace of the Spa valley! The exceptional Belgian breakfast served here is a great way to start your day!

Next up was a visit to the cemetery of Henri-Chapelle where 7992 Americans are laid to rest. Most died during the U.S. advance into Germany. The American cemeteries in Europe are honored hallow spots and the grounds and buildings housing them are immaculate. They provide a true honour to the soldiers who lives were lost.

Photo: Joseph Jeanmart

Photo: Joseph Jeanmart

If you are visiting The Ardennes, one of the most unique stops you will encounter is the Remember 45 Museum located four km from Henri Chapelle in Thimister-Clermont. This privately-run museum has a powerful human dimension. Marcel Schmetzes established it in an old barn and the 110 First Infantry Division soldiers left most of the artifacts on the Schmetzes’ farm during the war. The museum is dedicated to showing the gratefulness of the Belgian people “to all G.I.s who came, at the risk of their life, to give us our freedom back.”

The next morning began with a walk through the woods near Hollerath. This is where the German Battle of the Bulge offensive began in the Ardennes. The surprise German attack on the American soldiers almost changed the course of the war. There were some atrocious acts carried out against American soldiers and Belgian civilians by the Gestapo during the Battle of the Bulge. Belgians still revere and hold the American military in the highest regard in this area. This is no more evident than when visiting the site of the massacre of several U.S. prisoners in Baugnez, in December, 1944. Nearby in La Glieze sits a King Tiger tank, serving as a reminder of the horrors of war. One can only imagine the fear the locals felt when dozens of tanks came barreling through their small towns destroying everything in their path.

bellevaux malmedyWe toured the Bellevaux Brewery, set in middle of lush farmlands close to La Glieze. The owners transformed their farm into a small Belgian microbrewery, with aspirations to brew the highest quality ale.

The Melba Hotel in Bastogne is a great place to use as a home base to explore the area. Located a block away from the town square, the Melba offers comfortable rooms with a variety of services, including hearty healthy breakfasts and wifi. The hotel restaurant and bar feature local Belgian beers and exceptional dinner meals highlighting local fare. Another great local restaurant is the Wagon Leo. The front part of the restaurant was in an old train car that was extended into a larger restaurant. The food, service, atmosphere and staff were exceptional. The restaurant is one block from the Bastogne town square.

In March 2014, the new Bastogne Museum opened, providing an important interpretation and context for the causes and significance of WW2. Using up-to-date displays, film and interactive exhibits, the museum tracks the years leading up to WW2, the war itself and how cataclysmic events led to a final and desperate bid by Hitler and the Nazis to push the Allies out of Europe. This was a bold and violent attack in the Ardennes forest between December, 1944 and January, 1945. The Battle of the Bulge was the largest, most murderous and bloody battle of WW2 between the Germans and Americans. The British and Canadians were involved in the fight on the periphery. Over 610,000 American forces were involved in the battle, which included over 19,000 Americans killed, 100,000 German casualties and 30,000 killed. Tourists can also visit the German cemetery near the small village of Recogne where 6807 Germans are buried.

Mardasson Memorial. Photo: JL Flemal

Mardasson Memorial. Photo: JL Flemal

The Bastogne Museum sits next to the Mardasson monument, a new memorial centre dedicated to the WW2 and its soldiers who fought and died at the Battle of the Bulge. When visiting the Battle of the Bulge sites it is best to start at the Bastogne Museum. Spend half a day there and then take a short drive through the beautiful Belgian countryside to visit Schumann’s Corner. This is where many historians say the U.S. troops “went into hell” in beating back the pounding and violent German offensive. There is a memorial at the spot and a trail taking you through the foxholes in the woods where much of the fighting took place.

It is worthwhile to visit the Museum of Bras, which is eight km from Bastogne. It transports you back to 1944 with its destroyed houses, first aid stations and images of shellshocked and war weary citizens.

The final stop was a visit to the Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers in Europe (SHAPE), where we were given a briefing on NATO by a NATO military expert. The Time Travel Company arranged this unique outing and it was one of the highlights of the tour.

Upcoming Time Travel Company excursions for 2015 include Vimy Ridge, Flanders Fields (The Somme) and excursions for the 200th Anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo near Mons, Belgium in 2015.

Destination Weddings Made Easy

July 15, 2014 9:23 am
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For many, their wedding day is something they think and fantasize about from a young age. Exotique Weddings is here to make sure that all of those dreams become a reality. Venturing out to some of the most romantic locations, they specialize in destination weddings and ensure that the most important day of your life is one no one will forget.

A subsidiary of Onkar Travels, Exotique Weddings is then able to help not only with the planning and execution of your big day but can include an entire wedding package to help plot your travel there and even your honeymoon afterwards.

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Planning a destination wedding can of course be stressful, with the added factor of dealing with a place you may not be too familiar with. Exotique Weddings works hand-in-hand with event planning companies abroad in India, Thailand, Mexico and Hawaii so there are no unexpected surprises once you arrive. In addition to this, certain focus has been given to planning weddings in other locations such as Malaysia, South Africa, and South American and Caribbean countries—wherever you would like to go!

The always enticing and romantic beach wedding can be done a million different ways. Exotique Weddings offers an all-inclusive package with local musicians, sea food, fine dining, wine and of course the beautiful white sandy beaches.

Private villas, gorgeous gardens, on the beach, or overlooking it from a gazebo, many wedding venues are offered. No matter your religion or culture, your dream beach wedding is made possible here.

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For those intrigued by the rich colours and culture of India, a highly recommended wedding idea is the Royal Wedding. Held in renowned places across the country where famous Maharaja’s once lived, these occasions are lavish and extraordinary—anything but typical. The most opulent and luxurious palaces and forts are available as venues lending their lavish charm to your big day.

In helping you tie the knot, Exotique Weddings offer additional complimentary services to put your mind a little more at ease. For the bride and groom-to-be’s air tickets are covered and they will receive a wedding portrait. Just in case not everyone is able to make it to your special destination, they will also design your very own wedding app and can make arrangements to share your wedding live online with your friends and family all over the world.

Even the most unusual wedding requests can be accommodated. In the past, Exotique Weddings have arranged to have a baby elephant there for pictures, celebrities to attend wedding receptions and even helicopter flower showers! From monogrammed wedding décor to all gold cutlery and designer fireworks, even your most wild wedding dreams can come true.

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Making Your Dream Vacation a Reality

June 24, 2014 9:27 am
Deepak, Jasveet & Rosalita

Last Wednesday, June 11, Onkar Travels released new brochures available for travel agencies and companies for their new season (October – March). Hosted at Indian restaurant, Aahar on Churchill Avenue, the buffet dinner was delicious before everyone settled in to learn of all the travel opportunities Onkar has to offer.

Food Collage

Established in February of 1980, Onkar Travels is one of the largest travel networks in Canada. Affiliated with multiple travel associations, they aim to make your dream vacation a reality. Anything that you want to experience they can and will make possible.

A leading wholesaler in airline tickets, they also have consolidated or net fare contacts with various major airlines to send you all over the world.

Specializing in trips to India, they design tours with their experienced and expert team to provide travelers with the best that India has to offer in all facets and areas. Their latest information from “Incredible !ndia” depicts the tours available that will not only show you the Taj Mahal. Taking you along to both well-known and more discrete towns and cities, you see that there is more to India than just the pictures on postcards.

Their trusted brand is dedicated to serving you with the vacation you’ve always dreamed of. While they specialize in trips to India, that is not the only available destination. They offer “Incredible World Tours”—their brochure appropriately named. Each tour offers something different for the desired area. From other places in Asia such as Singapore, Thailand or Malaysia to European destinations such as Italy and Switzerland, you not only are presented the opportunity to see all the famous landmarks of the region but experience things off the beaten path—things not many others have discovered.

It is here that Onkar Travels have found their niche. Onkar Travels can design personalized tours and getaways to ensure that their clients get everything they want out of their trip. From the day you begin planning your adventure, Onkar Travels encourages active interaction to tailor the trip to your every need and want.

Reading Materials

In this, they live up to their slogan: Turning Journeys into Memories.

Where will your next journey take you?

Inspiring Korea

June 3, 2014 2:00 pm
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Korea is a vibrant place. It has modernized itself over the past 50 years while still maintaining a strong flair for its traditional culture. Many of the country’s tourist attractions focus on feeding one’s well-being, be it physical or spiritual. There is phenomenal food to nourish your appetite and there are bike tours along the Hangang to get your body moving. Or, visit the recently-opened taekwondo park, Taekwondowon. Feed your inner peace by spending a night as a Buddhist monk in a temple stay program. With so much to explore, you are guaranteed to find some inspiration from this tranquil nation.

Korean.food-Bibimbap-02Jeonju is a city regarded as the cultural heartland of Korea and known for its food. The city’s signature dish is bibimbap, a mixed rice delicacy topped with vegetables and chili pepper paste that are stirred together just before eating. Beef or a fried egg are usually added as well.

Gogung is a famous place in Jeonju to eat bibimbap. The restaurant has also perfected goldongban, a famous dish prepared for the kings of the Joseon period. While the food is the primary attraction, a unique feature is the small bibimbap museum, where the history and regional varieties of the dish are laid out. Since bibimbap is one of Korea’s most famous of dishes, it comes in many forms, including vegetarian.

Take a bike ride along the Hangang,  an iconic Korean symbol, which runs through Seoul. Bike tourism is becoming a trend in the country, with themed bicycle paths across the nation that are based on each region’s nature, culture, and history. Rent a bike at one of the many kiosks, and head out for a ride. There are 1,757 kilometres of paths to choose from.

Under Mt. Baekunsan in Muju, which is surrounded by the scenery of nine valleys, is the new taekwondo park, Taekwondowon. Stretching over 2.31 million square metres, the park is meant to serve as a mecca for over 70 million people who practice the sport.

521A30481The optimal goal of Taekwondowon is to achieve “one world through taekwondo.” The park is divided into three-themed zones: Body, a space for experience; Mind, a space for training; and Spirit, a symbolic space. Other features of the park include hotels, traditional Korean housing, youth hostels, an indoor spa and outdoor leisure facilities.
A variety of programs let you experience various aspects of taekwondo and Korean tradition. Taekwondowon also offers single day-training programs, which last one to two hours. Choose from traditional physical training, sound meditation, interactive games, or healing therapy. The Taekwondo Museum showcases the history, spirit, techniques and the future of taekwondo through  several exhibition halls. Take in the taekwondo performance, that highlight the process of mastering this martial art. .

Looking for a unique experience to top off your visit to Korea? Templestay is a program that allows you to experience the life of a Buddhist practitioner. There are several traditional temples that preserve the 1,700-year-old history of Korean Buddhism.

Typically, a stay with the program would comprise of an overnight stay at a temple and participation in Buddhist rituals. Rise to the tolls of the temple bells before the sun does. Realize the method of eating ecologically and live in harmony with nature, through a monastic meal called BaruGongyang. Find tranquility in a cup of tea during a tea ceremony known as Dado.

Korea has much to offer. Be inspired by its beauty. Whether you are seeking exotic new dishes, better health, or inner peace, you will be able to find it all here.

For more information on This country’s hot spots visit Korea Tourism or Seoul Tourism.

Your Peru: An Empire of Hidden Treasures

April 27, 2014 11:32 am
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Tucked away on the west coast of South America lies Peru, one of the continent’s hidden gems. As one of the most diverse nations on our planet, you can take a dip in the ocean and explore the jungles, or climb Peruvian mountains and encounter the cold, dry air of the Andes. In town, observe ancient cultures that still live on today.  In the cities, you will encounter a strong night life and a culture that has an intense love for food. With all these wonders to discover, you’ll find that one trip is not enough.

Peru embraces many traditional festivals, rituals and ways of life from pre-Columbian times. The legacy of ancient Peruvian cultures is showcased by traditional clothing, folk art expressions, and ways of working and cooking. For a taste of this culture, visit Ayacucho, a town filled with history, nature, and art. Visit ancient temples such as the Temple of Santo Domingo, the Temple of San Cristóbal, and Temple and Convent of Saint Francis of Assisi, all built in the 16th century. Take part in an Andean ritual celebrating reciprocity called, “payment to the earth,” where offerings to Pachamama (Mother Earth) are buried to give her strength and energy.

If you want to explore a Peru of adventure, try trekking the 39-kilometre Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. From April to October, you can make the four-day hike along one of the most incredible trails in the world. Passing through cloud forests and alpine tundras, vast archaeological sites, and the dense, lush jungles will prepare you for your arrival at the breathtaking Machu Picchu citadel.

Peru’s finest example of ancient Inca culture can be found high in the mountains. Machu Picchu, now a World Cultural and Natural Heritage site, was built in the 15th century by the Inca Pachacútec. The intricate stonework without the use of cement is just one of the mysteries of the place: archaeologists still theorize about the purpose of the citadel.

Though Peru is rich with ancient culture, Peru’s cities are modern and cosmopolitan, with a variety of entertainment, art, music and design.

In Peru, gastronomy is considered a symbol of national identity. Named by The Economist as one of the 12 most exquisite cuisines on the planet, there are thousands of options and ideas to discover. At places known as “huariques” (small, family-run restaurants known for excellent cuisine) or market stalls, taste home-made flavours made by local chefs.

In Lima, sample seared cuy or Amazonian river snails covered in a spicy chorizo sauce at Malabar, one of Peru’s top restaurants located in the heart of San Isidro. At Astrid y Gastón, another Lima restaurant which specializes in novoandina cooking, the seared cuy is served Peking-style with purple-corn crêpes – complete the meal with selections from their first-rate international wine list.

Take your time to marvel at Peru’s hidden wonders, for there is never enough time to discover them all.

Marca Peru
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Top 4 James Bond Destinations

December 18, 2013 2:51 pm
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I do wonder how the vacancy advert that James Bond first saw that persuaded him to apply to become 007 read. “Situations Vacant: Spy. Must be quick-witted, good with guns and women. Must enjoy travel.” Well, maybe not, but that final line must have been part of it, as Bond is certainly an experienced globe-trotter.

The first Bond film, Dr. No, set the bar very low. The entire film was shot in London and Jamaica, which just happened by coincidence to be where the two homes of Bond creator Ian Fleming were situated. From then on, each Bond film took in locations that ping-ponged across the globe, even though in most films 007 seemed to eventually end up inside a massive hollowed-out extinct volcano.

If you fancy a bit of Bond-hopping, here are four of the best Bond destinations.

 

SCOTLAND

Ian Fleming did not actually at first give much away about 007’s background, but later said Bond’s antecedents were Scottish (and much later admitted this choice was down to Sean Connery‘s portrayal of the character. Connery was born in Edinburgh). If a Bond aficionado takes a trip to Eilean Donan Castle, which is located on a small island in a loch in the Scottish highlands, they’ll instantly recognise the villain’s lair in The World is Not Enough. If they’re a real film buff, they’ll also recognise it from the film Highlander, which of course starred one Sean Connery.

 

JAMAICA

The iconic moment from the first James Bond film, Dr. No, was filmed in Jamaica. That moment revolved around a small white bikini, and the Swiss-born beauty who wore it, Ursula Andress, emerging from the cool blue Caribbean sea. That beach is now called James Bond Beach, and was also used in Live and Let Die. The true attraction for Bond fans in Jamaica is GoldenEye, which was Ian Fleming’s home on the island and is now part of a luxury hotel. Within the hotel you can still see Fleming’s writing desk and typewriter. The only thing to disappoint Bond fans about Jamaica is the lack of casinos, but the nearby Bahamas does play host to various tours, including the Pokerstars Caribbean Adventure.

 

ISTANBUL

The continent-straddling city is used in several Bond films, such as From Russia With Love, The World is Not Enough and in the third film of the rebooted franchise, Skyfall. The city serves as the gateway to Turkey and is a culture-rich diversion in its own right. The one must-see place to visit is the Tokapi Palace, which is the historic home to the Sultan. It is also home to the Grand Bazaar, a city-within-a-city composed of over 3,000 shops along 61 covered streets.

 

HONG KONG

Bond’s go-to place in Asia, Hong Kong has featured in You Only Live Twice, Die Another Day and The Man With The Golden Gun. The latter film, which starred as Christopher Lee as Charlemagne, one of the most memorable Bond villains ever, included shots filmed in the stunning Peninsula Hotel, notable as one of the finest hotels in the world. The hotel is noted for its fleet of “Peninsula Green” Rolls-Royces and for having one of the oldest fashion arcades in Hong Kong.

Travel Diary: South Africa

May 10, 2012 3:20 pm
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I heard a “joke” in Ficksburg, South Africa, which went something like this, “What is the difference between a tourist and a racist?” The answer: “Two weeks.”

This racist attitude was evident throughout my travels in Southern Africa.

I travelled to Lesotho and South Africa to work at an HIV/AIDS orphanage called Rachel’s Home [see my Travel Diary on Lesotho].

Along the way, we stopped in a quaint, tourist destination called Clarens, South Africa, known as the “Jewel of the Free State”. Clarens is near Golden Gate National Park and looks like God tucked this a picture-perfect village right into the mountains.

Taking in the vast mountainous landscape in Golden Gate National Park

Here, I purchased a patch of South Africa’s national flag to sew on my backpack. The patch came with a description which read:

The meaning attached to the flag is not official, but the following are generally accepted. 

Red: Bloodshed

Blue: Open Skies

Green: The Land 

Black: For the Black People

White: For the Europeans

Yellow: Natural Resources EG. gold

The “Y” symbolizes the merging of the nationalitys unity. 

The unifying flag.

Despite misspelling nationalities, I can’t see how this flag could possibly unite the nations. White signifies Europeans, while Black represents Black people, not Africans. I wonder if this prolongs the history of racism and legacies entrenched by colonialism and apartheid in South Africa?

Worldflags101.com confirmed the colours have no official meanings, but stated the aforementioned symbolism is widely accepted. This website highlights the colours black, green and yellow as those of Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress party and the red, white and blue can be found on the former Boer Republic’s flag. “The Y shape represents the convergence of South Africa’s diverse society and the desire for unity.

The South African flag was adopted on April 27, 1994, after Nelson Mandela was elected President. It was meant to signify the dawn of a new, democratic South Africa and reflect the country’s political transformation. It is one of the world’s newest flags.

The Government of South Africa’s website explains the unifying metaphor, “The ‘V’ form and flowing into a single horizontal band to the outer edge of the flag, can be interpreted as the convergence of diverse elements within South African society, taking the road ahead in unity. The theme of convergence and unity ties in with the motto Unity is Strength of the previous South African Coat of Arms.”

The greatest culture shock I have experienced is the pervasive racist mentality that hangs in the air in South Africa, but in the Rainbow Nation, this mentality is the norm.

My 12-year-old friend, Ntkatse.

This shock should come as no surprise to an individual from of a “multi-culti” nation, but hearing phrases such as, “them and us”, “the blacks”, and “the girl will get it”, made my skin crawl and my heart hurt.

In Maputsoe, Lesotho, I worked with 57, Sotho children who loved to compare my skin tone to theirs. I have never experienced being an ethnic minority. In Lesotho, my pasty skin turned to a painful shade of lobster red in the harsh African sun. I am a caucasian female of Hungarian and British descent from suburban South-Western Ontario. You can’t get much more white than that.

During a round of duck, duck, goose, the game was put on hold when the children asked to remove my socks and running shoes in order to observe what mystery lay underneath my footwear.

On another occasion, I sensed the children were talking about me in their native, Sesotho, so I asked my 12-year-old confidant of three years, Ntkatse, what they were calling me. She replied, “Lekhooa-They are calling you white person.” Lekhooa can be a derogatory term depending on the manner in which it is delivered.

Ntkatse scolded the children and then we laughed because we love each other and our world views do not include these ethnic divisions.

My first trip to Rachel’s Home was in 2009 and upon my departure, I promised the children I would see them again. When I returned to Lesotho, I kept my promise to the children, and became a constant in lives haunted by abandonment. This caused me to be seen as what I can only describe as an equal-a friend-to the children. My skin colour became irrelevant. What a beautiful thing.

 

Travel Diary: Maputsoe, Lesotho

April 25, 2012 5:56 pm
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A big, white pickup truck pulled into the compound, one afternoon at Rachel’s Children Home, an HIV/AIDS orphanage  in Maputsoe Lesotho. A tiny figure cowered in the truck’s bed. Two police officers emerged from the truck and instructed the figure to hop out.

The officers explained this figure-a young girl-was to be left at Rachel’s Home. She brought nothing with her. No suitcase. No passport. No birth certificate. Legally, this child does not exist.

She is one of over 100 thousand orphans living in Lesotho, a small, African kingdom, roughly the size of Maryland, decimated by the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

The child wore a hoodie full of holes and pants covered with dirt, short enough to draw attention to her bare feet.

One of my team members, Jane McWilliams, reached her hand out to the child. The child accepted and we could see her face for the first time. She smiled. We learned her name was Nyane Lesenyeho and she was 12 years old.

Nyane, the newest addition to Rachel's Home

Over the eight days I spent at Rachel’s Home, I had the pleasure to get to know Nyane. I learned she loved to play, could speak English very well, she had a brother living in another city, and man, could she dance.

My favourite memory of my second trip to Lesotho is spending an entire Saturday afternoon dancing to traditional Sesotho [the language spoken by the Sotho in Lesotho] music with the children. Nyane knew the most moves, which was bittersweet to watch. Joy poured out of her as she danced, not for show, but for herself. This meant she had a family who taught her to dance, who loved to celebrate. What happened to them? How did she end up on the streets? I don’t know the specifics, but I do know just under one quarter of Lesotho’s population of two million is HIV positive and everyone has been affected by the horrors of AIDS.

Nyane might’ve slipped through the cracks, if not for Hilda and Godwill, evangelists, who started Rachel’s Home nearly 10 years ago. Hilda said she felt a strong calling to sell her home and move her family of seven, to Lesotho to open an orphanage after an orphaned baby was left on her doorstep.

Today, there are 57 orphans living at Rachel’s. The children go to school on the compound until grade six and then are sent to boarding school and later post-secondary studies in surrounding cities.

Central Presbyterian Church, in Cambridge, Ont., supports Rachel’s Home. It is their goal to send each of the children to post-secondary studies because it is the only way out of poverty and despair in Lesotho.

Up to this point, this dream has been achieved. Three girls are currently attending post-secondary studies at various institutions. Tsepang Nyenye, 22, is studying accounting at the University of Lesotho. Her sister Libuseng, 24, is studying nursing and midwifery at the same school. Maleshoane Seforo, 21, is in her first year at the Integrated Business College in Lesotho. Tsepang said she wants to get a good job in order to have enough to help others. This is the mentality at Rachel’s Home – pay it forward, in a sense.

Hilda, mother of 57

When you meet Hilda, the mama of the orphanage, for the first time, you are blown away by her sheer presence. You can physically see the rays of joy radiating from this woman. Her smile is blinding. She is unlike the typical portrayal of a third-world woman. She is always dressed well, in bright colours, with her cell phone and car keys in hand ready to tackle her never-ending list of errands. She said she is happiest when all of her children are home.

Hilda said she felt like a princess during our visit because she was given the time to rest and spend time with her children. Our team consisted of 30 Canadians from all walks of life. We built shower facilities, painted each room in the orphanage, upgraded the security on the compound and spent time with the children.

Unfortunately, Hilda has thyroid problems and is in need of an expensive operation. Central Church is looking into getting Hilda well again; without Hilda there is no Rachel’s.

For more information check out: our website, Twitter feed and Facebook page.

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