Flee to the Keys and Hawks Cay Resort

March 9, 2016 11:55 am
Lagoon sunset

Photo courtesy of Hawks Cay Resort, by Jason Stemple.

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

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

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

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Photo courtesy of Hawks Cay Resort, by Jason Stemple.

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

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

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

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

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Photo courtesy of Hawks Cay Resort, by Jason Stemple.

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

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

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Photo by Jennifer Hartley.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The level of potential risk you pose to security.

The nature and severity of your offense.

Your age at the time the charges were laid.

Your reasons for wanting to visit the United States.

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

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

Vivian R. Smith.

Explore Lake Placid, a Winter Wonderland!

December 16, 2015 1:23 pm
Olympic Park

Photos Courtesy of Golden Arrow Resort.

Written by: Alessandra Gerebizza & Mike McEwan.

Long before hosting its first winter Olympics in 1932, Lake Placid had developed a reputation as a winter destination for the active outdoor enthusiast, a character that still remains to this day. Melvil Dewey, inventor of the Dewey decimal system, first laid these roots with the creation of the Placid Park Club in 1895, “a place where educators might find health, strength and inspiration at modest cost.” The club quickly gained national recognition for its commitment to winter sports excellence and the property grew to encompass 9,600 acres by 1923.  Nearly 100 years later, Lake Placid has hosted two winter Olympics (1932 and 1980). Not bad for a quiet upstate New York town with a population of less than 3000.

Dogsled rides for the familyTurning onto Lake Placid Main Street on a mild, late-winter evening you can’t help but feel the excitement and energy that once filled this small town centred around two lakes in the shadows of the Adirondack Mountains. The streets are no longer filled with aspiring athletes, but the energy remains as young families, outdoor enthusiasts and curious tourists dot the colorful shops and restaurants that light up the streetscape. Hotels, motels and bed and breakfasts to suit your every need are dotted among the other local shops.

Amidst the myriad of accommodation options is the Golden Arrow Lakeside Resort. The Holderieds family, originally from Germany, bought the Golden Arrow in 1974 and continue to own and operate the hotel with serious attention to sustainability and environmental stewardship in all areas of operation.  The first and only hotel in the United States to receive a Platinum rating from the prestigious Audobon International Organization for their green lodging program, Golden Arrows’ many rooms come with large soaker tubs, fireplaces and dramatic views of Mirror Lake with the Adirondack peaks in the background. The rooms maintain their focus on environmental sustainability through initiatives like recycled decor, building innovation and an extensive recycling program.

The hotel offers a variety of family friendly activities you can access from the grand lobby, which opens onto Mirror Lake’s centre. Cross country skiers can enjoy ski in/ski out lodging from anywhere on the first floor. A really fun experience on the lake is the ever-popular dog sled rides, a big hit with both children and adults.

Once settled in, definitely purchase an Olympic Passport for $35 USD that provides entry to many former and current Olympic training facilities. With your Olympic Passport, you can begin your visit with a trip to the Lake Placid Olympic Museum, or as it was known, the Field House, just a short walk from the Golden Arrow and site of the famous “Miracle on Ice” where the US Men’s Hockey Team managed the unlikely defeat of the U.S.S.R. in 1980. Here you can learn the Olympic history that helped shape Lake Placid and its surrounding communities. If you prefer to see the sites where some of these great athletes competed firsthand, you can take the short drive to the Olympic Sports Complex and, if you are fortunate, witness future Olympians in training at the bobsled/luge track.  If you aren’t afraid of heights you can visit the Skydeck at the Olympic Jumping Complex and marvel at the view from the 120 metre ski jump.

Not far from the Olympic Complexes is Whiteface Mountain, a former winter getaway for President John F. Kennedy and his family.  Included with your Olympic passport is a gondola ride to the top of Littleface Mountain. This is a must do for anyone who wants to get some great panoramic pictures of the mountains on a clear day.  If you are going to be at Whiteface Mountain you may as well take advantage of the highest vertical elevation (1045m) in eastern North America and hit the slopes. Whiteface Mountain has trails to suit every level of skier or snowboarder and offers plenty of rentals and lessons. When it’s time for a rest, grab a table or a cozy Adirondack chair on the large outdoor patio at the base of the mountain or stay later and catch a live act inside the bar. If downhill sports aren’t for you, Whiteface Mountain and the surrounding national parks provide untold kilometres of hiking and cross country skiing trails to explore in every season.

Whiteface Mountain powder

After a busy day of outdoor adventure, Lake Placid has plenty of places to eat on Main Street, within walking distance of Golden Arrow. During the day, Big Mountain Deli and Creperie is a popular spot for locals and tourists alike, offering 46 different sandwiches, each named after the 46 peaks once thought to be within the Adirondack Mountain range.  At night, Smoke Signals and the Great Adirondack Steak and Seafood offer savory and unique local dishes that are sure to nourish and satisfy even the most famished returning adventurer. Generations at The Golden Arrow has the best selection of Burgers in town. Whatever it is you’re after, you can find it on the lovely Main Street.

After riding down Whiteface, visiting the Olympic sites, sledding around Mirror Lake and feeding your inner foodie on Main Street, be sure to visit The Whiteface Lodge spa and treat yourself to any one of the restorative winter facials. The Vitamin C Wrinkle Repair and Brightening Repair Facial is most popular in the winter, and it’s especially refreshing after you’ve been out on the slopes all day!

Whether you’re looking for a family getaway, a romantic couple’s escape or a great place to shred some powder, Lake Placid will deliver on all fronts. Pack up the car and get ready to enjoy this winter playground!

For more information on Golden Arrow visit golden-arrow.com.

Many Shades of Dallas

August 19, 2015 2:00 pm
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Photo by Matt Pasant.

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Sixth Floor Museum. Photo credit: Sixth Floor Museum

There is an overwhelming feeling in Dallas,Texas that anything is possible. It is a city with guts and spirit, and while Dallas oozes wealth, it is also a city with a big heart, kind people and warm hospitality. It has a very eclectic personality with many different scenes. All in all, it is a fabulous place to visit. Just be sure to rent a car to see it all.

For political junkies, Dallas packs a powerful punch. Obviously, a visit to Dealey Plaza, where John F. Kennedy was assassinated, is a must. Walk the grassy knoll, visit the Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza (located in the Texas School Book Depository from where Lee Harvey Oswald fired the gun that killed Kennedy). It has exhibits on the 60s, Kennedy’s presidency and life, and, of course, his assassination. The space from where Oswald fired his gun is a very eerie spot and will send chills up and down your spine.

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George W. Bush Presidential Library. Photo credit: Jennifer Hartley

For a different experience, be sure to hit the newly-opened George W. Bush presidential library. It is a fascinating place, regardless of your political colours. It’s remarkable seeing how Bush views his legacy. The section on the fight against terrorism is prominent, as you might imagine, and the large pieces of the Twin Towers on display are incredibly moving. The crowds seem to congregate in the terrorism section but move along and check out the environmental exhibit and the display on Laura Bush’s work internationally on education. There is a fantastic exhibit on US presidents and baseball that runs until October 4.

Art fanatics will love the well-endowed art district downtown. Dallas is home to the largest contiguous urban arts district in the nation, spanning 68 acres and 19 blocks. Head up the Reunion Tower to get a fantastic view of it all below. Be sure to get a CityPASS which will save you some money to visit many of Dallas’ sites. While you are atop the Reunion Tower, grab a bite and a drink at Chef Wolfgang Puck’s revolving restaurant Five Sixty.

On that wealth theme, while shopping in a mall may not be on your list of things to do, a visit to the NorthPark Center is unlike any mall visit in Canada. NorthPark has everything from high-end shops like Gucci, Rolex, Versace, Louis Vuitton, Kate Spade down to H&M and Forever 21 and everything in between like Macy’s. The mall is consistently ranked among the top five shopping destinations in the United States and boasts more than 26 million visitors annually.

There is of course the reality that in Dallas, you are in the Southwestern United States. While Dallas has incredible Tex-Mex food and delicious margaritas wherever you go, it is also one of the best places to buy cowboy gear. Skip the mall for that and hit Pink’s Western Wear instead.

Once you have your boots, break them in on the Katy Trail. It is 6 km in length and follows the path of the old Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad, which was known as MKT or the Katy. Stop at the Katy Trail Ice House to break up your walk. It is an outdoor beer garden with 50 beers and its patio has been voted one of the best in the city.

Hotel options vary. You can spend as much as you want of course, but sometimes a medium-priced downtown Sheraton does the trick if you need a comfortable bed for the night, a gym and pool. Bear in mind the downtown is not an evening hotspot, but the hotel is centrally located and an easy place to get to everywhere you want to go.

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Pies from Emporium Pie. Photo credit: Emporium Pie

In terms of neighbourhoods worth a visit, check out Bishop Arts. Emporium Pies alone is worth a visit. Don’t settle for one pie. Try two or three types and then wash them down with a visit to the Bishop Cider Company down the street. The shops in the neighbourhood all have an artsy feel so wander around and take in the vibe of the place.

The Deep Ellum neighbourhood is another funky part of town, but in a very different way. It’s hip with great music joints that have launched the careers of great jazz artists in the last century as well as more eclectic, alternative bands from the 20th century. Today, it has again surfaced with an exploding music scene. By day, it has quirky shops, cafes and restaurants. Hit the very Bohemian AllGood Cafe for one of its hearty breakfasts. It was voted one of the best breakfast locations for a good reason. And being the Bohemian kind of place it is, you may get your morning Java in a Christmas mug, if you’re lucky.

For traditional Texan food, the Rustic delivers. It is a restaurant that is popular with locals (always a good sign), with 40 beers on tap and a full stage offering live music in the restaurant’s massive backyard. It has an upscale country roadhouse feel to it with country musicians to boot. Country, both new and traditional, really is popular in the South with the young set and grey hairs alike.

That’s the thing about Dallas. It is urbane, hip, uber-cool and yet fully embraces its Southwestern U.S. identity. It’s well worth a visit.

Destination Denver

May 21, 2015 1:00 pm
A view of Downtown Denver from Civic Center Park. PHOTO: STEVE CORNELIUS

The state of Colorado is an obvious destination for skiing and sports enthusiasts but you might not know that the foot of the Rockies is an equally impressive haven for arts and culture. The next time you fly in, don’t hit the highway out of town. Instead, take a trip into the city.

March is the snowiest month of the year in Denver but the sun in the mile-high city melts the white stuff away in no time. It’s midmonth, beautiful outdoors, people are out strolling, joggers clad only in shorts run by and people are sitting on patios having lunch at the trendy refurbished Union Station.

Sunny lunch at Stoic & Genuine in the hip Union Station.
Sunny lunch at Stoic & Genuine in the hip Union Station.

While Union Station continues to serve as an Amtrack station, it is also home to ten incredible restaurants and bars, including the oyster bar Stoic & Genuine. It’s the fourth restaurant in the city for Bravo’s Top Chef Masters contestant and multi award-winning chef Jennifer Jasinski. An oyster bar in land-locked, desert-like Denver seems very strange. However, the Denver International Airport is the fifth busiest hub in the United States making it a modern day ‘port’ and debunking the myth that you can only get fresh seafood on the coast.

Denver is actually a foodie’s paradise and I wonder how Denverites can all look so fit living in such a fantastic epicurean culture. The key is their active lifestyle. With 300 days of sunshine a year, they get outside to hike, bike, ski and more. There is also a great vibe to the city and Denverites are warm and welcoming.

There are breweries and brew pubs galore: 33 in the city and 100 in the greater area. Most do not have kitchens but maintain a symbiotic relationship with food truck vendors, allowing patrons to purchase food curbside and bring it into the pubs. Locals and visitors alike benefit from apps for almost everything including finding a food truck, reserving a table at a restaurant or getting a cab home.

It all started in Larimer Square. Today, the historic strip is home to shopping and great dinning.  PHOTO: STEVE CORNELIUS

It all started in Larimer Square. Today, the historic strip is home to shopping and great dinning. PHOTO: STEVE CORNELIUS

Be sure to visit Larimer Square. Saved from demolition by visionary Denverites, the Square harkens back to the city’s first days as a frontier town. Named after General William H. Larimer Jr, the saloons, banks and post office are long gone and in their place are award-winning restaurants and eclectic boutiques.

Along the way, it’s worth a stop at Rockmount Ranch Wear, the inventors of the snap button cowboy shirts. These U.S.-made shirts have a worldwide following that includes celebrities such as Eric Clapton. He’s not alone. Store owner Steve, (whose grandfather founded the store), says there is a host of celebs wearing Rockmount shirts. As his grandfather once said, “The West is not a place, it is a state of mind.”

The Denver Museum of Art (DAM) may hold beautiful works of art, but the building itself is stunning. It is highly recognizable with its ‘crystal’ extension by architect Daniel Libeskind, representing both the peaks and geometric rock crystals found in the Rockies. The museum collections are user friendly and well laid out with a great flow. The American Indian Art Gallery is fascinating as is the permanent collection, which includes works by Frederic Remington, Georgia O’Keeffe and modern artist Nick Cave. It’s so busy here — the locals obviously love the DAM too.

Denver has so many museums and attractions that it is actually impossible to see them all in one visit. For abstract expressionism, a visit to the Clyfford Still Museum is a must. Credited as the father of the American movement, the artist gained notoriety in the 1940s. However, in the 1950s, he removed himself and his work from the public eye. The museum is home to almost all of Still’s body of work from his sixty-year career.

A small sampling of Denver Public  Art.

A small sampling of Denver Public Art.

Another uniquely Denver experience is the American Museum of Western Art. The collection includes 4 floors of an historic downtown brownstone. There is almost not enough wall space to hold this enormous collection. Viewed by reservation-only guided tour, the exhibition allows guests to get close to masterpieces by George Catlin, Charles Russell, Albert Bierstadt, Frederic Remington and more. The museum will foster a new love for the talented artists who recorded the early days of the American West.

Denver’s art is not restricted to galleries. It’s hard not to miss Denver’s Public Art Program, including the enormous blue bear staring into the Colorado Convention Centre. There is the equally large big red chair in front of the public library and the dancing couple behind the theatre district. Started in the late 1980s, the program channels one per cent of the budget of any capital improvement project to an accompanying art installation. Like a game of grown-up “I spy”, rent a bike from one of the 84 Denver B-cycle bike-sharing stations, download the Denver Public Art App and start your own hunt.

Denver is summed up best by local business Infinite Monkey. British ex-pat, Ben Parsons, is a winemaker — a winemaker in Colorado with no vineyard and no pretense. With his feet firmly planted in the art of wine making and his heart set on leaving a minimal environmental footprint, Infinite Monkey does not bottle any of its product. Instead, it is available by the glass on site, for take away in refillable jugs or in single serving-sized cans. The wine is really good and why not in a can? It’s easy to pack for any back-country experience and equally easy to crush and bring back for recycling. It’s a product that just captures the passion for both quality and forward-thinking, pervasive in Denver.

Born as a supply-based frontier town that serviced the mining and ranching industries, Denver has morphed from a gold rush town to a haven for culture, food and drink. There is so much to do and so many restaurants to try. I haven’t even touched on six professional sports teams that call Denver home or the incredible Red Rock’s venue just outside of town that was the chosen site for mega band U2’s 1983 Under the Blood Red Sky concert. Starting in 2016, the city’s new light rail link to the airport will be up and running, making it even easier for tourists to visit the city.

Make Every Day Sun Day in Clearwater and St. Petersburg, Florida

February 2, 2015 3:04 pm
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Photo courtesy of Visit St. Petersburg & Clearwater

If dreams of daytime highs of +24 instead of -24 or visions of sandy beaches are occupying your mind, then it’s definitely time to take your wind-chilled heart south. Sun, fun and beautiful beaches that will surpass your dreams await you in the St. Petersburg/Clearwater area of Florida.

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Photo courtesy of Visit St. Petersburg & Clearwater

You could hit either location for a beach escape, but it’s worth the effort to see both. They are a mere 40-minute drive apart. Each city has something unique to offer with its own vibe. In part, that is because of the difference in size and population.  St. Petersburg (St. Pete) has more than double the population of Clearwater (250,000 versus 110,000).

Both St. Pete and Clearwater are approximately a 30-minute drive from Tampa Bay Airport. Rent a car.  It is essential to get around.

While there is no question the beaches, beauty and heat are key attractions, St. Pete has an interesting history that dates back to 1875. General John Williams came down from Detroit and bought some land to create a city with beautiful parks and broad streets. Today’s St. Pete is a testament to his vision.

St. Pete quickly placed itself on the map and in 1914 became a key location for baseball spring training. That year also marked the first ‘commercial’ flight which took off from the area. From there, the sky was the limit. Tourism skyrocketed during the Roaring 20s and the city grew and flourished. The city’s beautiful Mediterranean architecture dates from that era.

When the U.S. Coast Guard and Army Air Corps set up shop in the region in the 1940s for training, the activity in the area during that war and post-war period increased. It brought thousands of people to the area.

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Architecture in St. Petersburg. Photo courtesy of Visit St. Petersburg & Clearwater

It developed a reputation as “God’s waiting room” but that has vanished over recent years. There is a really great lively vibe to St. Pete now. It is a warm community with an eclectic centre with funky, quirky shops, microbreweries, cafés, bars (with patios of course). There is a certain cool, yet eccentric, sophistication about the city. With scores of galleries, an active performing arts community and seven museums, the city is the cultural hub of central Florida. While being indoors may not be a top priority, the Dali Museum is a fantastic place to visit. It is the home to the largest, most comprehensive collection of Salvador Dalí’s work outside of Spain.

If glass art is your thing, then hit the Chihuly Collection. It is the first permanent collection of Dale Chihuly’s work in the world.

Not surprising, given the fantastic weather, the streets have become an art gallery themselves, with over 30 public art projects scattered throughout the city. St. Petersburg Preservation offers a great walking tour where you can see some of the pieces as well as get a comprehensive history of the place.

St. Petersburg/Clearwater hold a Guinness World Record for the most consecutive days of sun, lasting 768 days (which started back in 1967) so you may just want to spend as much time as you can on the beach. Many of the region’s beaches regularly make the top 20 lists of many different surveys.  The ones that will truly take your breath away include St. Pete Beach, Clearwater, Caladesi State Park (well worth the drive), Fort DeSoto (a stunning 900-acre county preserve with five islands and over 10 km of undeveloped beaches).

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The Don CeSar Hotel. Photo courtesy of Visit St. Petersburg & Clearwater

If you just want to camp out at a hotel, spoil yourself and have the beach and a beautiful beach- side hotel at your fingertips, there is no better place than the Loews Don CeSar Hotel, known as the ‘Pink Palace’. Splurge. It is worth every dime. Built in 1928, it faces the white, sugar-like sands of the Gulf of Mexico and has had quite the guest list including people such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Al Capone, Lou Gehrig, Babe Ruth, Presidents Carter and Clinton, to name just a few. (There are also guests that apparently never leave … the Pink Palace supposedly is haunted.  It was used as a veterans’ convalescence home during the war/post-war period. Furthermore, there are reports that the founder of the Don CeSar benignly and posthumously wanders around his hotel.)

It has been used in movies as you might imagine, including Once Upon a Time in America (Robert DeNiro) Forever Mine (Ray Liotta, Ralph Fiennes). Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers used the hotel for an MTV video special.

It has two pools, a hot tub and an incredible outdoor bar, all of which are close to the beach. Your kids can swim in the pool (if you bring them) while you sit nearby in the hot tub. If you want them to disappear altogether, there is a children’s activity centre where they can have fun while you peacefully enjoy the beautiful sunsets from the Don CeSar beach. They are stunning.

The food is what you would expect from a high-end hotel. However, there are many eclectic off-site dining spots to experience the local flavour. Frenchy’s, (which was actually founded by a Quebecer), and Crabby Bill’s are two regional chains that are legendary, local institutions. They are reasonably priced and are peppered around the St. Pete/Clearwater area.  Frenchy’s has the best seafood ceviche you may ever have. Its fresh grouper is also incredible. Crabby Bill’s has excellent fish and seafood as well, (including, yes, the most, delectable crabs), and somehow has a bit more of a laid-back feeling, although everywhere in the region a welcoming, relaxed environment seems to permeate.

There is an expression in Clearwater that every day is sun day and it’s for good reason.  There are 361 days of sun and a fabulous average temperature of 73 degrees in the area.  While it has the same weather as St. Pete, Clearwater has a different vibe.  It has a bit more of a resort town/party feel to it and a lively post-sunset night life.

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Winter from the Clearwater Marine Aquarium. Photo courtesy of Visit St. Petersburg & Clearwater

Be sure to hit Pier 60 for its nightly sunset festival with a movie, artisans, crafters, buskers, music.

If you do decide to venture away from the beautiful beaches there are lots of touristy-type activities. There is dolphin watching, sailing, cycling, boat tours and many water sport activities.

Kids of all ages will enjoy a ride on Captain Memo’s Pirate Ship, the Pirate’s Ransom. It is a big hit with the younger set and those over 21 will enjoy it too, if only for the free drinks – even before noon.

The blockbuster movies Dolphin Tale I and Dolphin Tale II have recently put Clearwater on the radar screen for a lot of people and the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, (CMA) where the movies were filmed, is an absolute must-see. Winter, a dolphin who had her tail amputated after having been stuck in a crab trap, and now has a prosthetic tail, survived against the odds and has thrived at the Aquarium. She became an international symbol of resilience for the physically challenged and the Aquarium has become a pilgrimage of sorts. Her story touched millions and Hope, another rescued dolphin, has added to the attraction of the place.  Other rescued sea life are fun to see as well. The CMA’s mandate is to rescue, rehabilitate and release healed marine animals as well as to educate the public.

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Frenchy’s Oasis Motel

In Clearwater, and in St. Pete for that matter, there is any kind of accommodation you want.  If you want big chain hotels, some with the price tag to go along with it, they are there. Less extravagant chains are there too. There are options on the beach and others that are not. However, the fact of the matter is, wherever you are, the beach is never far away.

For an intimate experience and to get a feel of old-school Florida, try Frenchy’s Oasis Motel. The same person who founded Frenchy’s restaurant chain bought the original motel (the Olympia) and renovated it, but did so maintaining a retro feel. It has all the necessities, like a great outdoor pool in the centre of the motel. The place is small and has a community ambience to it. There is a 24-hour common area with a computer and printer, a great coffee machine and a tv and movie collection that you can watch there or borrow for your room. While there is no maid service, there is daily towel replacement if you need it and the pool is well equipped with towels and toys. The rooms have a kitchenette but skip the cooking as there are incredible restaurants everywhere.

One of the great things about Florida is that it is not that far away so travel time can be minimized and beach time maximized. If a week is impossible for a getaway, even a long, four-day weekend to St. Petersburg/Clearwater will get you that hit of sun to get you through our tumultuous winter.

Just do it. You won’t regret it.

Lake Tahoe–America’s Backyard Wants You to Come Play

October 27, 2014 3:00 pm
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Ever enjoyed an afternoon in the sun at Meech Lake? Maybe you have ridden there by bike, hit the slopes at nearby Camp Fortune, zip-lined at the aerial park or visited Chelsea for a meal or to meander through art galleries. Now, imagine if Meech Lake was the largest alpine lake in America, as in 22 miles across, crystal clear for 75-plus feet down and surrounded by some of the best and most skiable terrain in the world. This is Tahoe.

Photo: Jorik Blom

Photo: Jorik Blom

The ancient summering ground for the Washoe Indians, Tahoe was stumbled upon during the gold rush. It became the summer retreat for western America’s elite, who built elaborate estates and enjoyed their private retreats until roads opened access to everyone. In 1960, local ski hill, Squaw Valley hosted the Winter Olympics and the area became known to the world. Today, standing at the water’s edge looking at the snow capped peaks that fill the landscape, Tahoe is a beautiful, peaceful, soulful place. However, turn around and there is a bevy of the most thrilling activities that beckon you to join in.

Tahoe is shared by two states, California and Nevada, and divided into two areas, North and South. Both are spectacular and offer great skiing and off-slope adventure opportunities. The locals all seem to have their favourite spot.

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Duly named, Après Ski is the place to go for a light meal or for a post-activity glass of wine.

South Tahoe is a little busier and borders the Nevada state line. A town of 20,000 plus, the South is part back to nature, eco-friendly with a glitzy neighbour right next door. Ski all day at Heavenly in California and when the lifts close, take in a show at a casino in Nevada or head to one of the many great restaurants in South Tahoe. Hit the Après Wine Company for wine by the glass and tapas. Dinner at The Boathouse On the Pier is the perfect place for a great meal and to enjoy the sunset. There is also Jimmy’s Restaurant at the Landing Resort. British expat, Maria Elia, runs the kitchen. Recently renovated, it is a stunning location and the food is fabulous. A little more laid back, The Beacon Bar and Grill at historic Camp Richardson also has great lake views and no worries if you have your back to the window. There is an enormous mirror that serves as a trompe-l’oeil. Enjoy that and one of their signature Rum Runner drinks and you’ll never know you weren’t facing the beautiful lake view.

North Tahoe offers equally great dining. It is a little more spread out than the South but if all goes as planned, 2015 will see a trans-lake ferry service that will move guests back and forth across the lake. So, you can stay in South Tahoe but have easy access to North Tahoe.

Family friendly is the way they roll in Tahoe. The Ritz-Carleton at NorthStar even sets up tents in your room for your kids to have an “indoor campout.” They also have a great kids’ program, Ritz Kids designed by Jean-Michel Cousteau’s Ocean Future Society.

Why not split your trip between North and South? The drive alone will make it worthwhile. You will pass the beautiful Emerald Bay and see spectacular granite cliffs drop away to the lake below. You will see the long driveway that leads to the water- front mansions of Rubicon Bay. Try to spot the driveway leading to the estate of the Corleone family from the Godfather II. You will love the drive through thick forest where the pine trees seem to touch the sky.

Taking a break from the outdoors at Villager Candle Shop, Pottery Painting & More, NorthStar Village.

Taking a break from the outdoors at Villager Candle Shop, Pottery Painting & More, NorthStar Village.

Tahoe is a year-round destination but surprisingly it sees more visitors in the summer than in the winter. However, if you are a skier, take your first trip to Tahoe in the winter. With Alpine Meadows, Kirkwood, Heavenly, Sierra at Tahoe, NorthStar, Squaw Valley, Homewood and Sugar Bowl, the Tahoe Basin has more lifts than the entire state of Colorado. It’s no wonder the area fielded more athletes for the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics than anywhere else in the U.S. All the hills are great. Combined with the average annual snowfall, at hill level, of 350 inches, Tahoe is hard to beat. The two big ones are Heavenly with 97 trails and 4,700 acres and Squaw in the North which has 177 trails and 3600 skiable acres. That is a lot of terrain. (To offer a comparison in terms of size, local Ottawa fav Camp Fortune has 95 acres.) Both Heavenly and Squaw are fantastic destinations and both offer multi-day and multi- hill ticket options. Don’t forget the sunscreen as the region gets on average 307 days of sun a year.

Most ski areas offer activities including rope courses, snowmobiling, dog- sledding, snowshoeing, skating, spas and more. Heavenly has the high-energy zip line called the Blue Streak that will knock your socks off. NorthStar, a true ski-in ski-out resort, has a craft workshop/store called Villager Candle Shop, Pottery Painting & More where you can do mosaics, make candles or paint.

If you enjoy curling, South Tahoe’s only indoor hockey rink has a dual purpose: hockey, of course, but it is also home to Lake Tahoe Epic Curling. The club offers drop-in curling (currently on Sundays) for existing curlers of varying levels.

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Stand-up Paddleboarding with southtahoesup.com.

Stand-up paddle boarding (SUP) is amazing. Almost anyone can do it — no special talent is required. The board is wider than a surfboard and rounded on the edges to ensure smooth gliding through the water. Summer or winter, Tahoers believe that it is always the perfect condition to SUP. It is incredible to see fully clothed, barefoot people stand-up paddle boarding with snow-capped peaks behind. You can hire a guide and head out for a day tour or just go on your own for an hour or two.

Most resorts have rope courses but we headed to the woods in North Tahoe and harnessed our inner monkey at Tahoe Treetop Adventure Park at Granlibakken Resort. This adventure park is open winter or summer and has 3 kid and 5 adult courses. With 120 suspension bridges and 13 zip lines it has something for everyone. The course is marked just like a ski hill with green, blue and black markers so you can get a sense of the level before attempting a course. Adrenaline junkies and beginners will both be satisfied and it is safe too. The smart belay system only allows for one carabiner to be unhooked from the safety cable at a time. Make sure to book ahead.

If snow-shoeing, cross-country or back-country are your thing, local stores rent the gear and offer guide services. Gear rental is inexpensive, about $22 a day for snowshoes, poles and boots or $15 a day for x-country equipment. Depending on the level of experience you are looking for, you might need to take an introductory course as winter survival, avalanche knowledge and mapping skills are key and don’t forget to check the weather before heading out. (tahoeweatherblog.com)

There is so much to do in Tahoe — both North and South Tahoe have fantastic tourism bureaus with very helpful web sites to help you plan any type of trip, including lodging. Airport transfers are easy as both North and South Tahoe are a short 40-minute drive to the Reno Airport. There are both shuttles and car rentals available. With Olympic-caliber hills, great dining, seemingly limitless activities, some of the most amazing views, it is a great time to head to Tahoe.

gotahoenorth.com
tahoesouth.com 

 

Extreme Colorado

June 11, 2014 1:30 pm
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If you just want to see the Rocky Mountains, stay home and look at a picture. If you want to experience them the way they are meant to be experienced, get a helmet, grab a guide and get ready for an extreme adventure. Colorado is the destination for rafting, rock climbing, skydiving, paragliding, and even surfing. If the Rockies themselves don’t humble you, the experience will.

gallery_4_A_chris_fullWhitewater Kayaking and Sledging

The high season for whitewater kayaking and sledging is on right now. Colorado’s rocky rivers make for some of the most exhilarating rafting no matter your level of experience. The Colorado River, Arkansas River, and Clear Cree are accommodating for paddlers of all skill levels, as you can chose from calm to rapid rivers.

 

 

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Rock Climbing

Local and international climbers flock to Boulder, Colorado, home of some of the most legendary rock-climbing enclaves in the world. One of the most popular is Canyon State Park, with more than 500 climbing routes! Don’t look down but do look around as you take in one of the most spectacular sights you’ll ever see.

 

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Skydiving

Colorado is one the best places to experience the quintessential extreme sport of skydiving. Feel the air above the Rockies and enjoy the views of the snow capped mountains and green meadows, as you free fall from 18,000 feet. Indoor skydiving lessons at SkyVenture will get you well prepped for your moment of truth.

 

 

Screen Shot 2014-06-10 at 12.15.19 PMParagliding

Soar through the crisp Colorado air while paragliding in Telluride. The box canyon (a narrow canyon with a flat bottom and vertical walls) makes Telluride a world-class destination for paragliders. The canyon walls create an updraft, which keeps you sailing longer.

 

Eisbach_die_Welle_SurferRiver Surfing

New to the extreme sports scene is river surfing.  Glenwood Springs Whitewater Park is a manmade surf and raft wonderland.  A popular sport year round, the best time to go to Glenwood Springs is between May and September, when the mountain snow melts and makes the swells stronger. The break, known simply as G-Wave is an ideal spot for pros and newbies alike.

For trip ideas, inspiration and accommodation deals, visit http://www.colorado.com/canadian/welcome-colorado

Philadelphia Freedom

December 2, 2013 12:13 pm
Liberty Bell Center

So Much To Do — So Little Time

It’s easy to get to by air but we decided to drive. Traveling through New York State is one of the great road trips you can take. You pass through a majestic landscape, wonderful rolling hills and low mountainous terrains. It is about a seven-hour drive from Ottawa to Philly. We arrived in Philadelphia at night and were immediate seized by the size and grandeur of its large boulevards and grand buildings.

We were fortunate to be booked into the historic Kimpton Hotel Palomar (www.hotelpalomar-philadelphia.com), a LEED Gold-certified Art Deco boutique-style hotel housed in the 80-year-old American Institute of Architects Building in downtown Philly. If you visit, be sure to dine at Square 1682, the hotel’s restaurant which features local American cuisine combined with world influences.

Independence Hall

Philadelphia’s Independence Hall. PHOTO: G. WIDMAN FOR GPTMC

Philly is a great walking city – especially in the core. Our first stop was at The Barnes Foundation (www.barnesfoundation.org). This museum was established by Albert C. Barnes in 1922 and holds one of the finest collections of post-impressionist and early modern paintings, with extensive works by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Paul Cézanne, Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Henri Rousseau, Amedeo Modigliani, Chaim Soutine and Giorgio de Chirico, as well as American masters Charles Demuth, William Glackens, Horace Pippin and Maurice Prendergast. The collection is so eclectic. It also includes Old Master paintings, African sculpture and Native American ceramics, jewelry and textiles, American paintings and decorative arts and antiquities from the Mediterranean and Asia. It is all so interesting and impressive that we lost track of time. This is a must-see.

Philadelphia has a plethora of wonderful restaurant choices. The city is known for its pretzels, tomato pizza and Philly cheese steaks. Before heading to our next stop we visited a local diner and ordered one of each. And it was worth every carb.

Re-energized, we headed over to the Philadelphia Museum of Art (www.philamuseum.org). With a collection of more than 227,000 works of art and more than 200 galleries with painting, sculpture, works on paper, photography, decorative arts, textiles, and architectural settings from Asia, Europe, Latin America, and the United States, it’s one of the largest museums in the United States. You could easily spend two or three days making your way through the many interesting exhibits. Since we only had one afternoon, we decided on one called Spy: Secret World of Espionage – a fascinating exhibit that took a behind-the-scenes look at true stories of international intrigue and espionage and featured more than 200 items and unusual artifacts, such as the ice axe used to kill Leon Trotsky, CIA items never before shown to the public, and the famous ENIGMA machine used by Germany in WWII to send coded messages to its military. Special pins given to all undercover OSS agents in WW2, a two-man submarine, a robotic catfish used by the CIA, as well as numerous disguises and the stories behind the agents who used them are all on display.

Next was a visit to the National Constitution Center (NCC)at Independence Mall (www.constitutioncenter.org). The NCC is the only museum in the world dedicated to the United States Constitution and explores the four-page document through exhibitions and artifacts. It is a spectacular tribute to Democracy and the U.S. Founding Fathers. First you enter an amphitheatre and with the help of an interpreter and a unique historical video, you are taken through the birth of America’s history, pre-Indepen-dence to the present day. Afterward you are shuffled out into one of the most impressive historical museums in the world. You can rent an audio guide or read the script next to each display that narrates in some detail the great moments in U.S. history. The last display is a large room with life-size bronze statues of all the Founding Fathers as they would have appeared in 1776. American exceptionalism is the overriding narrative here and it works.

Our last stop of the day was the Liberty Bell Center (www.nps.gov/Inde/Liberty-Bell-Center.htm). The 2,080-pound Liberty Bell is a famous symbol of independence for American citizens and has a biblical inscription: “Proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof.” When the bell arrived in Philadelphia in 1752, it was hung in place and when tested, it immediately cracked. Two artisans were hired to recast it twice. It was first called the “Liberty Bell” in the 1830s, by a group of abolitionists who adopted it as a symbol of their cause to end slavery. In the late 1800s, the Liberty Bell traveled around the USA to expositions and fairs to help heal the divisions of the Civil War.

Benjamin Franklin Parkway

The Philadelphia Museum of Art crowns the mile-long Benjamin Franklin Parkway which is home to many parks, public works of arts and museums. PHOTO: B. KRIST FOR GPTMC.

Happily exhausted with all the ground we had covered that day, we walked back to the hotel. Philadelphia is located at the confluence of the Schuylkill and Delaware Rivers. Known as the City of Brotherly Love, Philadelphia was founded by William Penn in 1681 when King Charles II ceded a large piece of his American land holdings to Penn to satisfy a debt the King owed to Penn’s father. Penn was a real estate entrepreneur who envisioned his Philadelphia to be the perfect combination of city and country. He built the city around a plan that incorporated five major squares with wide streets to act as barriers against fires. He encouraged families to build homes with large gardens by deliberately distributing the land in large plots to encourage a low population density. Penn was also a Quaker who promoted religious tolerance and this inclusiveness attracted people of many different faiths to Philadelphia.

Within 20 years of Penn’s arrival, the experiment for his visionary city had worked and Philadelphia was the third largest city in the new colonies, behind Boston and New York. Penn was an early supporter of colonial unification and was the first to press for a Union of all the English colonies in what was later to become the United States of America. By the 18th century, Philadelphia had become the United States’ largest city – first capital and home of the Liberty Bell, Declaration of Independence, and Constitution. As we walked through the grand parks and crossed wide boulevards, it was easy for us to see that Philly has proudly retained its founder’s vision as a beautiful and wonderfully modern metropolis that still places a high premium on its parks, trees, gardens, lawns and green spaces.

Cityfoodtours.com/philadelphia is an informative sightseeing tour that combines food tasting with a walk around the city. You learn about Benjamin Franklin, William Penn, and how they got a Philadelphia Flyers Jersey on the Penn Statue atop City Hall plus other local trivia while tasting pretzels, cheese steaks, tomato pie, Philadelphia cream cheese and many other treats. Half the fun is listening to the very interesting and charismatic native Philadelphian guide share all kinds of gems about the city’s fascinating history and characters. The best part of this excursion was being able to go where the locals really eat — all low-key, independently owned, charming places that speak to the city’s unpretentious and fun nature. A trip highlight for me was visiting the impressive City Hall—the second-largest municipal building in the United States. Often described as an architectural treasure inside and out, the exterior is covered with sculptures representing the seasons and continents, as well as allegorical figures, heads and masks, including a 27-ton statue of city founder William Penn atop the tower.

Of all the things we did in Philly — and they were all fantastic — DeTours Urban Excursions (www.detourstouring.com) was unexpectedly my favourite. It was my first time ever on a Segway tour.  There is a 20- minute training program before you  head out I can’t think of a better way to tour a city. Our guide was great. Halfway through, it started pouring rain and we all pulled out the ponchos provided to us and kept going. It was warm out and the rain felt good on our faces as we skirted through the streets of Philly marveling at its modern skyscrapers, historic colonial houses, grand neighbourhoods, pleasant shopping districts and the many buildings covered with graffiti art (Philly has the largest public mural art program in the world). You can cover in three hours what would take almost two days if you were walking.

As we headed out of the city on the drive home, we knew one thing for sure about Philadelphia. We’ll be back to this incredible city!

www.visitphilly.com or www.uwishunu.com

 

 

 

Giddy up to Colorado!

March 1, 2012 2:18 pm
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From the novice to the most experienced rider, the very young to the very old, whole families come together while enjoying the great outdoors.

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

Cowboy boots wait for city slickers

Cowboy boots wait for city slickers

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

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

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

A young wrangler learns the ropes at Latigo Ranch

A young wrangler learns the ropes at Latigo Ranch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The pool area at C Lazy U Ranch

The pool area at C Lazy U Ranch

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

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

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

What to look for when deciding on a ranch:

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

•    Does it have a pool?

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

•    Is there flexibility built into the schedule?

•    Is there riding instruction?

•    How big are the riding groups?

•    Is there child care available?

•    Do families eat together?

•    What non-riding activities are included?

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

      www.coloradoranch.com

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

www.duderanches.com

Chicago Style

December 9, 2011 7:34 pm
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Having been inspired after an annual girlfriends weekend get-a-way to Chicago this past weekend, I wanted to highlight some of my favorite spots for all things design, especially as they pertain to Chicago.

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

Hancock Tower

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

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

Elysian Hotel

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

Ralph Lauren Bar and Grill

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

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

Weird and Wonderful Venice Beach

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

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

A street performer on the boardwalk

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

The colourful boardwalk of Venice Beach

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

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

Bodybuilding equipment at Muscle Beach

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

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

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

An Adirondack Olympic Experience

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nordic ski specialists Brian and Karen at High Peaks Cyclery.

Nordic ski specialists Brian and Karen at High Peaks Cyclery.

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

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

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

When You Go

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

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

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

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

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

An Adirondack Olympic Experience

December 14, 2010 9:50 am
Whiteface Mountain.

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

Lake Placid Bobsled Experience.

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

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

The rustic lobby at High Peaks Resort.

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

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

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

The next day we met Brian and Karen at Whiteface Mountain, which has the greatest

Whiteface Mountain.

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

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

Olympic ski jump.

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

When You Go:

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

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

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

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

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

You Just Can’t Beat Florida for Family Fun

March 13, 2009 4:30 pm
Jan09_FL_Sandpearl_firepit

I admit to my bias. I love Florida. The sun, the fun, the beaches, the people, the food, and the amenities. It really doesn’t get any better for a family vacation. Our children are between 10 and 13 so exploring and doing different things is a big part of what we look for when we go on vacation. Our most recent trip took us to Florida’s beautiful St. Pete’s/ Clearwater (http://www.floridasbeach.com) a pristine sandy peninsula located on Florida’s West coast, bordered by the Gulf of Mexico to the west and by Tampa Bay to the east. It is home to both Caladesi Beach, America’s No. 1 beach in 2008 and Fort De Soto Park, America’s No. 1 beach in 2005. There are 35 miles of white-sand beaches on some eight major barrier islands. Many popular Florida attractions such as Busch Gardens in Tampa, the Walt Disney World Resort, Sea World and Universal Studios Escape in Orlando are just a short drive away. For our stay we wanted to do local things in the Clearwater and Tampa area. Having briefly toured Tampa in 2005, we wanted to revisit its historic cigar manufacturing section called Ybor Village. But that would come later. First St. Pete’s/Clearwater.

The town is truly a beachfront location. There is a great pier jutting out from the beach that is a central attraction both day and night. The town organizes nightly themed events on and around Pier 60. You can also fish off of Pier 60. Fishing poles and bait rent for about $15.00. One of the highlights of the trip was spending two nights on the well lit Pier 60 with my son as we cast our lines trying to catch greenback fish. The local anglers were pros. Part of the fun is just chatting with them and watching their technique. Strategically placed lights underneath the pier allow you to watch the fish swim. That evening my son and I felt as though we owned the Pier, especially as he managed to wrangle up a stone crab in front of a crowd of impressed spectators. A popular but very expensive meal in Florida and one not usually caught on a fishing pole! We managed to get the stone crab off the line with our fingers still intack and toss it back into the sea. My son was pretty excited about all the attention. One of those “Kodak moments.”

Jan09_FL_CMA_crab

Hands-on discovery aboard the Clearwater Marine Aquarium’s Sea Life Safari.

There are all kinds of neat activities in Clearwater for families with kids. Spend an afternoon at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium (http://www.cmaquarium.org/cms/), the world’s most-watched marine life rescue and environmental education center. The CMA works to restore and preserve Florida’s marine life & environment. Its stranding response team is one of the United States most successful. Many of the sick or injured animals they rescue are released after rehabilitation but some become permanent CMA residents due to the extent of their injuries. Residents include Winter the dolphin with her prosthetic tail, sea turtles and river otters. As a nonprofit organization the CMA has a dolphin show that helps raise money for the centre. They also rely on public generosity for funding. The majority of the facilities staff are volunteers. The highlight of the visit was a two-hour boat trip aboard the Sea Life Safari on Florida’s beautiful intracoastal waters. We saw dolphins, sea birds and other marine life while a CMA staff member narrated the scenic ride. The kids were able to assist the guide as he dropped a net into the water and pulled it out. It was full of shells and different species of fish and other marine life. Each item in the net was removed and the kids got to touch, feel and gently pass around the sea critters before releasing them back into the bay. Our children absolutely loved this experience. (And so did we!)

Jan09_FL_Sandpearl_H62JLD06

The Sandpearl Resort’s beautiful art-filled lobby.

Accommodations are the highlight of any good trip. If you visit Clearwater it really doesn’t get any better than the beautiful Sandpearl Resort (http://www.sandpearl.com). Situated along 700 feet of pristine beachfront property in the heart of Clearwater, the Sandpearl Resort is the first new resort to be built on Clearwater Beach in 25 years. It has exceptional modern amenities while capturing both the tradition and historical glory of old Florida. The entrance to the sprawling yet comforting lobby features spectacular high ceilings and beautiful artworks worthy of a fine art gallery. There are dozens of big comfy classy chairs and a wonderful coffee bar off to the side. The grand lobby windows look directly out onto the Sandpearl’s ocean beaches and poolside amenities. The mezzanine is filled with the low key but wonderful omnipresent sounds of a grand piano. We were guests in a beautifully decorated self contained family suite that featured high ceilings, two bedrooms with ensuite baths, a living room, dining area, a snazzy kitchen with all the amenities including a washer and dryer – great when travelling with kids. The floor to ceiling windows overlooked the shoreline and made for spectacular sunsets. All rooms and suites are nonsmoking. The Sandpearl staff is very friendly and knowledgeable about both the Sandpearl and the St. Petersburg/ Clearwater area. Whether we made dinner in our suite or ate at one of the Sandpearl’s restaurants, we could always count on a spectacular sunset to set the ambiance as we dined. The Sandpearl Resort has two wonderful restaurants. The Caretta on the Gulf is a world-class culinary experience featuring an array of South American, Caribbean and other international inspirations. If you enjoy sushi, The Ceviche, Sushi and Raw Bar offers a fresh daily selection of local seafood. The resort also features an extensive collection of wines from around the world. The Caretta on the Gulf is two levels above the beach with indoor and outdoor seating — a wonderful culinary experience. We loved the Tate Island Grill which is poolside and opens on to the beach. It has a laidback and casual cuisine which is great for lunches and snacks while basking in the Florida sun. At dusk, the staff light up the Sandpearl’s beachside fire pit. There are enough chairs for everyone to sit around and recover from the day’s activities.

The hotel website says that “Sandpearl is a comfortably elegant beachfront retreat that enriches the spirit and inspires the soul.” I don’t think I could describe it any better! You know you are in a great spot when you don’t want to leave!

Jan09_FL_PatioColumbiaYborCity

One of the many beautiful dining rooms at the world famous Columbia restaurant in Ybor City.

After 4 days in St. Pete’s/Clearwater we hopped into the van and headed 30 minutes east to the beautiful city of Tampa. Tampa Bay is a lush sophisticated city with a rich history, wonderful people, spectacular beaches, piers, golfing, cultural attractions and sports facilities. If you’re an Ottawa Senators fan, arrange a trip to Tampa during a week when the Senators are playing the Tampa Bay Lightning. There are so many great things to do in Tampa that you may wish to plan ahead to get the most out of your trip (http://www.visittampabay.com). We wanted to visit the Tampa Aquarium and the historical city within a city called Ybor City (pronounced EEbore). Situated in the heart of Tampa Bay Ybor is a small city rich in history and culture. Don Vicente Martinez Ybor, an influential cigar manufacturer and Cuban exile, moved his cigar business from Key West to Tampa in 1885. Other cigar factory owners quickly followed suit and before long “Ybor City” was the cigar capital of the world, populated by thousands of Cuban, Spanish, Italian and German immigrants. That reputation endured until the emergence of Fidel Castro and the embargo on Cuban tobacco. It is now designated as one of three National Historic Landmark districts in Florida. Today, Ybor City is a fusion of Tampa’s past and present where the majestic architecture of cigar factories, wrought iron balconies and brick-lined walkways, meet modern-day galleries, shops and restaurants to form a unique and extraordinary entertainment district. Ybor City is a walking city and has an array of restaurants, bars and nightclubs. The Ybor City Museum has a vast collection of riches and information that celebrates the fascinating heritage of Ybor and provides insight into the history of Florida. It was well worth a visit as we were able to better understand the linkages between race, culture and wealth in 19th century America. Afterwards, we walked down the street for lunch at the wonderful Columbia Restaurant. Owned and operated by the same family since 1905 the Columbia is Florida’s oldest restaurant and the world’s largest Spanish restaurant. The Columbia received the “Distinguished Restaurants of North America (DiRoNA) Award of Excellence” in 2005 and also earned a Golden Spoon award as “One of the Top 25 Restaurants in Florida” in 2005 from Florida Trend magazine. Decorated in beautiful wood, brass and tile, it features several sprawling yet intimate dining rooms, a world class wine list and a menu that presents a delicious array of culinary delights. One of our waiters had been with the restaurant for 50 years. Make sure you go back for dinner to see the nightly Flamenco Dance show. This restaurant and Tampa Bay landmark is a must-see on any trip to Tampa.

We also recommend that you visit the Salvador Dali Museum (http://www.salvadoredalimuseum.org) and the Henry B. Plant Museum (http://www.plantmuseum.com). Built by railroad magnate Henry Bradley Plant, in the midst of the sand swamps that was Tampa; Plant constructed the most astonishingly magnificent hotel of its day and filled it with treasures from around the world. With its splendid Moorish architecture, opulent furnishings, and spectacular tropical gardens, Plant’s Tampa Bay Hotel attracted a host of celebrated guests, from Teddy Roosevelt to Sarah Bernhardt to Babe Ruth. A visit to the Henry B. Plant Museum and the authentically restored rooms of the Tampa Bay Hotel is like a trip back in time.

Jan09_FL_canoe_bird

Canoe Escapes is two-hour paddling adventure through that includes native birds and alligators!

For our tip to Tampa however we wanted to have accommodation from “modern times” and we stayed at the Saddlebrook Resort, which is just 30 miles north of Tampa International airport, and easily accessible from downtown Tampa. Home to the Arnold Palmer Golf Academy and a world renowned professional training center for both tennis and golf, The Saddlebrook features phenomenal golf and sports facilities, luxury accommodations, spa getaways, a kid’s camp, and golf and tennis lessons and vacations. It is also the home of 45 tennis courts, a half million gallon swimming pool, and multiple facilities for business conferences, weddings or other family celebrations. It is fully wired and has a business centre. The resort has over 800 deluxe guest rooms and we chose suite accommodations of two- bedrooms and kitchen. Our room was situated in a lush area close to the pool and other amenities with internet connectivity and every other modern convenience you would wish. Our children spent most of our two days at The Saddlebrook in the pool. We did venture out for a Canoe Escape on the Hillsborough River (http://www.canoeescape.com). Canoe Escape is located only 12 miles from downtown Tampa and 10 minutes from Busch Gardens. It was founded in 1991 by the Faulk family. Canoe Escape offers both self-guided and interpretiveguided paddling adventures.

Our 2-hour canoe experience was all downstream, which meant less time paddling and more time enjoying the surroundings. As we coasted our canoes through this cypress swamp full of Florida’s unique flora and fauna, I was very much focused on the alligators that were at times feet from our canoe lazing away on logs or on the nearby shore. Apparently they don’t bite or eat humans because they are not fed by humans and are quite full from eating other things! Still I was, well….petrified. But the guides were experienced and had all the safety precautions in place and my kids loved the whole atmosphere. As the river bends and turns it is hard not to be lulled by its beauty and abundant wildlife. From our canoe we sighted white ibis birds, deer, turtles and hundreds of songbirds.

To cap off our trip we headed across Florida’s world famous Everglades toward Fort Lauderdale. Highway I-75 east, aptly named Alligator Alley, is a fascinating drive. Not unlike a drive across the Canadian Prairies except there are tropical wetlands on either side of the highway which are home to many unique species. Our kids were glued to the windows counting alligators as we drove.

Jan09_FL_lazyriver

The lazy river at Fort Lauderdale’s Grand Pelican Resort is endless fun.

Fort Lauderdale is Clearwater’s larger, hip cousin. Known as the Venice of America, it is a major yachting centre with marina’s seemingly in every direction. We stayed at the beachfront Pelican Grand Beach Resort (http://www.pelicanbeach.com). With 156 suites, it is a sophisticated, luxury, colonial retreat. The beach is so close that you feel you can reach out and touch it. And yes, there are pelicans. We delighted in their low flying diving shows. The kids spent their days between building sand castles and swimming on the beach to tubing on the poolside lazy river. Our daughter was particularly proud of her 100 simultaneous tubing loops. Meals at the hotels’ North Ocean Grille on the beachfront veranda were a definite highlight. The atmosphere was magical and the menu featuring local favorites and American classics pleased both the children and us. The staff were magnificent. — very family friendly.

COLORADO: A little off the beaten path but well worth the ride…

March 12, 2009 4:34 pm
Picture 11

Colorado is a breathtakingly beautiful state. With 300 days of annual sunshine, the world-famous Rocky Mountains, record snowfalls and great vacation values offered year round, Colorado is a very appealing destination. After spending a week in Colorado the words “unforgettable outdoorsy experience” come to mind. Incredible golfing, whitewater rafting, skiing and snowboarding, mountain biking, horseback riding, camping, fishing and other outdoor adventures are just some of the perfect activities that can be found in this wonderful region. You’ll also find authentic historic attractions, terrific arts and entertainment, plus award winning dining and countless other vacation options from the extreme to the extremely relaxing.

We began our trip with a quick flight into Denver. From there, it’s a scenic and relatively short drive to Fort Collins (90 minutes). Fort Collins has a thriving local arts scene, a world class university, numerous eclectic shops and restaurants, hundreds of miles of walking and biking paths, and a plethora of other outdoor activities. My favorite part of this mountain city is “Old Town”, a section in the historic core which, through a preservation program, has been maintained with its original architecture and heritage, albeit with modern shops and restaurants. This area was placed on the National Register of Historic Places, in 1978, and Fort Collins was named a Preserve America city by the White House, in 2005. There are several excellent restaurants in the city but I recommend Enzio’s Italian (http://www.enzios.com), in the heart of Old Town, which features great Italian food made fresh from scratch and accompanied by an outstanding wine list. The atmosphere is real Americana with high ceilings, white linen and lots of wood and large windows. Another restaurant of note is called Plank. This restaurant serves local organic food purchased daily and makes a special meal each evening from the day’s selected ingredients. On the night we dined, Plank featured a seven course meal, each served with a different beer from The New Belgium Beer Company (http://www.newbelgiumbeer.com). Fort Collins is the second largest producer of beer in Colorado and the state is ranked first in the country in volume produced by breweries (kind of ironic for a town that was “dry” until 1969). Each brewery has its own distinctive style, and The New Belgium Beer Company is recognized not only for its famous beers, including the award winning and tasty Fat Tire and Amber Ale, but the company is also recognized globally as one of the world’s leaders in eco-friendly and sustainable business practices. Visitors to Fort Collins can sign up for a “Foam on the Range Tour”, at one of the city’s many breweries.

For breakfast, stop by Café Ardour in Old Town and dive into a cup of strong mountain coffee and a distinctive local breakfast. House favorites include waffles, grilled sandwiches and homemade soups. You need to be fully nourished to take on the city’s hundreds of miles of bike paths. Making a day of it, we rode along marked paths that zigzagged in and out of the town, through the university campus and through numerous nature trails with the incredible Colorado Rockies as a constant backdrop. A picnic lunch along the trail re-energized everyone for the afternoon ride. You could not have asked for a better day.

However, a better day came when we went whitewater rafting in the Poudre Canyon Valley. We first stopped at VERN’s Place for a hearty breakfast. A landmark establishment in Northern Colorado, this restaurant has a 60 year tradition of serving great home-style cuisine for adventurers, fisherman and locals. I would say that if there are TEN THINGS you must do in life, one of them has to be whitewater rafting in level 4 rapids (there are only 5 levels!) in the Colorado Rockies. It was cold, it was wet and (in a good way) it was as nerve racking as it was, at times, scary. I always felt safe, even during the THRILL momentswhich were numerous, and I would do it all again tomorrow! (http://www.awanderlustadventure.com).

One of the great things about Colorado is the wonderful road system which allows you to drive through the mountain ranges while enjoying the scenic vistas. Rivers, plains and snow capped peaks are just outside your window and literally within reach. We drove up into the Cache la Poudre Canyon and stopped to take in several of the historic sites and natural vistas. Our end destination was the spectacular mountain town of Grand Lake (the largest natural lake in the state), on the western side of Rocky Mountain National Park. It is an odd feeling to travel thousands of feet up a mountain range and then enter a town that has a huge lake. The town could have been the scene of a Norman Rockwell painting and is very ecofriendly and hospitable to tourists. We took a one hour historic boat tour at the Grand Lake Marina. (I highly recommend this tour because you get so much information about the town and its history while you are literally viewing the town from the lake). We lunched at the Stage Coach restaurant and later spent an additional couple of hours on a walking tour of Grand Lake.

Next up was 2 days of horseback riding at Drowsy Water Ranch (http://www.drowsywater.com). For over 70 years, this 600 acre ranch, nestled in its own private mountain valley, has provided visitors from around the world with authentic western vacations. The Drowsy Water Ranch (DWR) homestead lies nestled in aspen trees on both sides of Drowsy Water Creek and is everything you’d expect a ranch to be with barns, stables, corrals, log cabins and ponds amidst unforgettable mountain scenery. Lacking pretense of any sort, DWR is for families who want to relax and ride horses. If you’re more interested in fancy food, massages or tennis, make your reservations at one of Colorado’s 35 other dude ranches. “People are here to be a cowgirl or a cowboy for a week,” said owner Randy Sue Fosha, sitting in the 80-year-old main lodge under the watchful glass eyes of deer and moose trophies. “They are guests in our home.” I stayed in a nice cabin by a creek with a wood burning stove for heat (plus modern amenities like bathroom, refrigerator, electricity etc). The Main Lodge is the daily gathering place for parents and youngsters alike. The door is always open and the coffee pot is always fresh. A warm and friendly environment to kick-back and enjoy card-playing, browsing in the library or just visiting with new friends you will unavoidably make while out on the trail. Randy Sue and her husband, Ken, are focused on one thing — teaching their guests to ride horses. If you have never ridden, they’ll teach you to ride. If you have ridden before, you will love the trails that take you through some of the most scenic parts of the Rocky Mountains and along rivers and trails that will leave you with memories for a lifetime. This doesn’t mean the Foshas don’t pay attention to other amenities- plentiful food and evening entertainment- if you’ve never been to a square dance; get your dancing shoes on. Everyone dances. It’s sort of like Dancing With The… er… cowboys and cowgirls under the Stars. By the end of a week at Drowsy Water, even the greenest greenhorn will feel comfortable in the saddle. n went whitewater rafting in the Poudre Canyon Valley. We first stopped at VERN’s Place for a hearty breakfast. A landmark establishment in Northern Colorado, this restaurant has a 60 year tradition of serving great home-style cuisine for adventurers, fisherman and locals. I would say that if there are TEN THINGS you must do in life, one of them has to be whitewater rafting in level 4 rapids (there are only 5 levels!) in the Colorado Rockies. It was cold, it was wet and (in a good way) it was as nerve racking as it was, at times, scary. I always felt safe, even during the THRILL moments which were numerous, and I would do it all again tomorrow! (http://www.awanderlustadventure.com).

Randy Sue and her husband, Ken, are focused on one thing — teaching their guests to ride horses. If you have never ridden, they’ll teach you to ride. If you have ridden before, you will love the trails that take you through some of the most scenic parts of the Rocky Mountains and along rivers and trails that will leave you with memories for a lifetime. This doesn’t mean the Foshas don’t pay attention to other amenities- plentiful food and evening entertainment- if you’ve never been to a square dance; get your dancing shoes on. Everyone dances. It’s sort of like Dancing With The… er… cowboys and cowgirls under the Stars. By the end of a week at Drowsy Water, even the greenest greenhorn will feel comfortable in the saddle.

Incredible Ithaca!

March 8, 2006 10:39 am
Ithaca_Falls

After a hiatus of several years from the pages of Ottawa Life Magazine as a backpacking international travel writer, I have returned with my wife Annie, this time as parents embarking on our family’s first vacation to ‘gorges’ Ithaca, New York. Located in the central Finger Lakes Region, Ithaca is a pleasant five-hour drive from the National Capital region.

To test the rumoured excellence of New York State’s road signage, we left Ottawa in the general direction of Ithaca, but did not plot our course on a map. Crossing through Johnstown and Ogdensberg, we followed Interstate 51 to Syracuse. From there, we motored to Ithaca along the scenic southwest routes 11 and 13. The signage is indeed excellent. Effortlessly, we arrived to a warm reception from the hospitable proprietors of the Spruce Row Campsite & RV Resort (www.sprucerow.com).

With over 200 tent and trailer sites, Spruce Row offers an abundance of private camping and fully equipped cabins. The resort offers an assortment of paddleboats, playgrounds and hayrides, as well as a miniature golf course and tapered swimming pool. Parents who want to engage in activities with their children have plenty to do. We awoke the next morning, with camp-heads and a hankering for a big American breakfast. We were also keen to explore our surroundings.

Bisecting lush fields and dense woodlands, the winding country roads led us to the Falls Tavern Restaurant in nearby Trumansburg, where heaping breakfasts, fresh juice and plenty of hot coffee are served. We were greeted by the warm buzz of lively conversation and three old-timers sitting alongside a table facing the door. You couldn’t help but smile as they gave our family a watchful appraisal and offered friendly nods. We had an opportunity to chat with one of these sage patrons, after eating a stick-to-your-ribs meal. A fellow by the name of Koskinen spoke with a quiet pride of the community he had “no desire to leave” and described a rich history of ingenuity, diversity and reinvestment.

A busy day at the Ithaca Farmer's Market.

Indeed, Ithaca has enjoyed an abundance of novelty, growth and sophistication. In the first halt of the 19th century, the area had its own railway line (since converted for use as a hiking trail.) Cornell University was established in 1865 as a co-educational institution. We are told that many of the students fall in love “with the Finger Lakes area and decide to settle there. The 1920s saw a booming silent cinema industry spearheaded by the acclaimed Wharton Studios, where the classic Perils of Pauline serials were made. By the end of the 1990s, Ithaca had established its reputation for superb tourism. Today, this wonderful region boasts an abundance of attractions that promote sustainability, dynamic ingenuity and a strong communal network.

Perhaps the most famous acheivement in innovation was the perfection of coffee by Ithaca’s own Gimme! Coffee (www.gimmecoffee.com), established in 2000. I had the good fortune to experience Gimme! Coffee early on in our visit to Ithaca and noticed that many locations around town were serving this fine brew.

We next visited the Sciencentre (www.sciencenter.org).The facility has an abundance of interactive exhibits that promote Science. The monumental Sagan Planet Walk is a scale-model of the solar system stretching over one kilometre to the downtown Commons. Each planet station was designed by local artist Erin Caruth and commemorates the famous astronomer and Ithaca resident Carl Sagan. The Sciencentre is one of eight institutions to visit on the educational Discovery Trail (www.discoverytrail.net).

Following our tour of the solar system, we boldly explored the historic Downtown Ithaca Commons (www.downtownithaca.com), a pedestrian marketplace with an international flair reflecting the diversity of the local population. At a Tliai restaurant, a polite proprietor entertained my clumsy attempts to order a chicken and cashew dish in the Thai tongue. (One could say I was tongue-Thaied!) turns out the server was Laotian.

Shopping alternatives include the Dewitt Mall, Centre Ithaca or Wegmans. While downtown, we spotted the Ithaca version of a police cruiser, a bright yellow VW Beetle. (It may or may not have had a happy-face painted on it!). I took this vehicle as symbolic of the community’s laid-back and progressive manner, while Annie thought it spoke of good taste.

Area restaurants use local produce whenever possible. The 80-year-old Ithaca Bakery (www.ithacabakery.com) should be included on any vacationer’s itinerary. The mouth-watering aroma of fresh baking coupled with the immeasurable deli offerings will tantalize and satisfy the various cravings of a hungry family. Glenwood Pines Restaurant (www.glenwoodpines.com) features a six-ounce Pinesburger served on French bread from the Ithaca Bakery. The Moosewood Restaurant (www.moosewoodrestaurant.com), home of the famous cookbook, is known for its vegetarian creativity. We regularly stopped at Purity Ice Cream for bountiful scoops made with fresh local milk.

A spectacular view of the falls.

The next morning, we planned an early trip to Ithaca Farmer’s Market, a cooperative of local vendors displaying a plethora of fresh fruits and vegetables, baked goods, preserves, arts, crafts and prepared meals. All products made or grown come from within a 50-km radius. We were delighted by stall after stall of tantalizing curios and edibles. Departing from the pier at the Farmer’s Market, Tiohero Tours (www.tioherotours.com) offers a one-hour narrated tour of Cayuga Lake and provides information about the local geology and history, told through the entertaining yarns of the captain and crew. The tour company also raises awareness of water-quality issues affecting the lake and uses bio-diesel fuel and biodegradable paint on their craft.

The region’s three sprawling State Parks beckon with their network of inviting hiking trails. Guided hikes are offered as well. With our Farmer’s Market picnic in hand. we planned to visit the 66-metre Taughannock  Falls that majestically cut through the soaring shale cliffs of a post-glacial gorge. We portaged our children up the accessible path to the base of the park. A popular tourism slogan, Ithaca is Gorges, lives up to its promise, while the locals love to tell you that these falls are higher than Niagara.

Robert Treman State Park is a tranquil forest sanctuary: 14 km of well-groomed hiking trails wander along the rugged gorge of Enheld Glen and Lucifer Falls. Following our vigorous hike, we took a refreshing swim in Cayuga Lake, loaded up at Wegmans, and retired to cottage life at beautifully situated Williams Ridge Cottages (315-364-8485).

Following the next lazy morning, we decided to shake a leg up at the Finger Lakes Grassroots Festival of Music and Dance (www.grassrootsfest.org). This annual event showcases traditional and contemporary roots music and is loads of fun for the whole family. Just don’t forget your tie-died shirt and dancing sandals! Just Joking! You can buy it all there! I went from squeamish bureaucrat to bluegrass-billy in no time.

Originally organized as a concert to benefit the local AIDS association, the GrassRoots Festival has grown into a nationally recognized event and is one of New York’s few self-sustaining not-for-profit arts organizations. Today, the festival continues to raise money for the fight against AIDS and other worthy causes, while providing an excellent profile of local and invited artistic talent.

My family’s weeklong vacation wound down, with Annie and I realizing that plenty of other attractions remain for our return visit. As we drove out of town, listening to Blue Rodeo’s Finger Lakes, we noticed a bumper sticker that read:

“Ithaca: 10 square miles surrounded by reality.” This summer, when you and your family need an escape from reality, consider a rejuvenating visit to Ithaca, NY. You’ll be glad you made the trek.

For a complete list of vacation ideas, contact the Ithaca/Tompkins County Convention & Visitors Bureau (904 East Shore Drive, Ithaca, NY 14850; tel.: 1-800-284-8422; www.visitithaca.com). The friendly and knowledgeable staff will provide an exciting range of options to suit any traveller’s interests and needs.

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