Travel: Discover Belgium

April 10, 2013 1:30 pm
A view of the canal in Ghent. (Credit: City of Ghent Tourist Office)

By Emma Truswell

Belgium is all about indulgence, whether it is in food, history, beer or architecture, France’s northern neighbour is worthy of exploring.

Ypres, now know as Ieper, in Flanders Fields Country, or Westhoek, is the perfect destination for history buffs, due to the town’s powerful associations with World War I. Over 150 military cemeteries are scattered throughout the Ypres Salient, serving as solemn reminders of the terrible sacrifice of war. Canadians are sure to want to stop by Essex Farm Cemetery, where John McCrae penned the famous poem “In Flanders Fields.” Still standing are the concrete shelters of the Advanced Dressing Station where McCrae worked as a Canadian Army Doctor in May of 1915, which are open for tourists to explore.

The town of Ieper itself is an impressive replica of the medieval city that was almost entirely destroyed during the war. Restored Gothic style buildings line the streets, the Belfry of the magnificent Cloth Hall towering over the town square. It is this expansive site that houses the In Flanders Fields Museum. The newly renovated museum has state- of- the- art technology, including visitors’ bracelets that contain their personal information such as age, name, gender, and hometown. Bracelets are read at four booths that cater information to suit each tourist’s interests, pulling from over 750 different stories to personalize the war for each individual.

John McCrae Memorial, Essex Farm Cemetery. (Credit: Emma Truswell)

Come nightfall, stop at the Menin Gate for the Last Post Ceremony. Since the 11th of November, 1929, the Last Post has been sounded at the gate every night at 8 p.m., with the exception of the four years of German occupation from 1940 to 1944. Crowds line the street on either side, bowing their heads in respectful silence as buglers from the local volunteer Fire Brigade play Last Post and Reveille under the memorial arch. The walls are inscribed with nearly 55,000 names of those who died or went missing in the Ypres Salient between the outbreak of war and August 1917.

The romantic city of Bruges was next, with winding canals, intimate cafés and cobblestone streets. This picturesque town and UNESCO world heritage site is the ideal getaway for couples. Whether you explore the city on foot, by bike, or seated in a horse-drawn carriage, no Bruges adventure is complete without a tour through the city’s scenic canals. Enjoy waterside gardens and architecture from as far back as the thirteenth century.

Next stop was Ghent, which is often overlooked by tourists in favour of the more traditional Belgian destinations. It may be a medieval town, but this city has a fresh, youthful energy. Picking up on the city’s funky vibe is the recently opened Sandton Grand Hotel Reylof. With a convenient location only minutes away from the city’s prime tourist destinations, this luxurious four-star hotel has made its home in a splendid eighteenth century mansion.

Ghent is home to over 620 monuments and historical sites, which are brandished nightly with gorgeous illuminations that beg for a late-night stroll through the city streets. Scenery can also be enjoyed while drifting through Ghent’s winding canals on a boat ride complete with champagne and appetizers.

JL Flemal (Credit: Visit Belgium)

Hit the shop Van Hoorebeke for some of the best chocolate or grab some mustard from Tierenteyn-Verlent, a charming little shop that has been making mustard since 1790.

No trip to Belgium is complete without a visit to Brussels. Awe-inducing beauty is around every corner. Take a stroll through Brussels Park after admiring the magnificent Royal Palace, or trek up Mont des Arts toward the city’s cluster of museums and attractions. For a completely low-stress option, purchase the Brussels city card for as little as 24 Euro, which provides discount vouchers for local shops and restaurants, unlimited travel on public transportation, and admission into most attractions.

Visitors to Brussels can stock up on traditional Belgian cookies at Dandoy, one of the oldest cookie shops in the city. Check out Laurent Gerbaud’s shop and factory, Gerbaud, and enjoy delectable chocolate creations. He works with only the highest quality chocolate and avoids sugar in favour of natural sweets, such as figs.

Bernard Boccara (Credit: Visit Belgium)

No Belgian adventure is complete without paying tribute to its beer.  Delirium Tremens Café, just off the famous dining strip Rue des Bouchers, has a selection of over 2000 different beers and its very own beer bible. This establishment made it to the Guinness Book of World Records in 2004 for the most commercially-available beers, with a total count of 2004. Rightfully so, Belgians are very proud of their beer. A must-try is Kriek, cherry beer – a uniquely Belgian product. This fruity beer uses open-air fermentation with natural bacteria only found in the fields surrounding Brussels.

From romantic retreats to out-of-this-world food options to an experience of some of the most powerful reminders of war, Belgium has something for everyone. So when you plan your next European vacation, be sure to Think Belgium.

A view of the canal in Ghent. (Credit: City of Ghent Tourist Office)

 

Travel: Discover Slovenia

12:53 pm
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Nestled between Italy to the west, Austria to the north, Croatia to the south and southeast and Hungary to the northeast is one of the most beautiful and yet relatively unknown European gems, Slovenia. Whether it’s food, geography, landscape, architecture, activities or even climate, diversity permeates everything. It may sound cliché, but there really is something for everyone in this small but activity-packed country.

Slovenia is steeped in history and culture for those looking for the traditional Euro experience. If you are into wine, you are in for a treat as there is some incredible wine-making going on here, and if you’re into the outdoors, adventure-type sports (kayaking, white water rafting, extreme rafting) or more calm outdoor sports like hiking, cycling, running (there are some 10,000 km of marked hiking trails to be explored) or canoeing, you need to head to this incredible country. Slovenia will far exceed your expectations.

Back in 2007, the European Union (EU) established a new award, the European Destinations of Excellence (EDEN) to promote sustainable tourism for lesser-known EU members. Countries submit locations based on the theme of that year. With the exception of 2007, Slovenia has won an EDEN every year. And rightfully so. The country is stunning. In fact, Slovenians take great pride in the natural beauty and the richness of their natural resources. Over fifty per cent of the country is covered by trees and over a third of the territory is protected. And for a country of its size, there is an amazing number of microclimates. On the same day, if you’re willing to do a few hours of driving, you can be kayaking in a tank top along the border between Croatia and Slovenia in the morning and then be up in the Alps near the Austrian border needing a thick sweater in time for supper.

But wherever you are, you can enjoy a good bottle of Slovenian wine. In fact, wine making is big in Slovenia. One per cent of Slovenia’s territory is covered by vineyards and it is part of their culture. You see shacks and huts everywhere on vineyards that are there for families making wine together. One of the country’s most celebrated winemakers is Jozef Prus, whose estate is located in the area of Metlika, Bela krajina. Metlika, in the heart of wine-making country, is a quaint village and dates back to the 14th century. A visit to the Prus estate, which is literally a stone’s throw from Croatia, is a must. He has won wine world championships and has been the country’s top winemaker for the last three years.

Not only can you sample Prus’ award-winning wine (which is also inexpensive), you can enjoy some “Belokranjska pogaca” flat cake which is similar to bread. The dish was awarded the status of a protected designation of origin by the European Community and Prus Estates is one of the 20 places in the country where you can get the authentic bread.  Hopefully you can actually meet Prus himself as he is larger than life (and there is even a Canadian connection. His grandfather earned the money to buy the land for the vineyard working in a mine in Canada).

Slovenia is outdoor sports-junkie mecca. Skiing in the winter is phenomenal. You are in the Alps after all. But summer enables you to take advantage of the country’s abundance of outdoor activities. Kayaking, hiking, canoeing, cycling are particularly enjoyable. Canoeing on the Kolpa River is all about soaking up the nature around you and rich biological diversity (the Kolpa river is home to about 30 different species of fish and you can encounter about 100 different species of birds) all the while drinking beer while you paddle. It’s also pretty amazing that on one side of the river is Croatia and the other side is Slovenia. You can jump out and swim at any point. The whole thing is relaxing.

The Triglav National Park (named after the highest mountain in Slovenia) is located in the northwest of Slovenia, more precisely in the Julian Alps (named after Julius Caesar). It is the country’s only national park. If you are travelling there from Ljubljana, you will drive through mountain passes to get there (Vrsic Mountain Pass in particular). This may raise the hair on the back of your neck but it is worth every second. Slovenia should actually include driving as an adventure sport. Winding through the twisty roads may be slow but it also provides some stunning views. Slovenia truly is among the most beautiful countries in Europe.

Thrill seekers will absolutely adore white water rafting in the Soca Valley, which is very close to Triglav. The Soca River itself is stunning, runs close to 100 km and the colour is a stunning turquoise. Rafting aficionados flock here in droves to experience the Soca but even a dorky Canadian novice can be accommodated. The Soca Gorge is definitely worth catching. Grab a meal at the Pristava Lepena (which is also a resort). The food is outstanding and be sure to try their Marble Trout (a fish of the area). It will make a fish lover out of anyone.

The town of Bovec, close to the Soca, is a great place to hang your hat. It has a real sporty feel to it as a lot of the adventure sports companies are there. It is reminiscent of surfing culture and it oozes hipness. For a fab dinner, check out Martinov Hram for authentic foods of the region and enjoy the view of the mountains. It’s an amazing town.

While sports, mountains and nature are considered by some to be the main attractions to the area, it turns out there is a lot of WWI history. The Walk of Peace is an outdoor museum with the most important remains and memorials of the Isonzo front in the Upper Soca region from WW1. The path runs 100 km so you can check in at the Walk of Peace Information Centre at Kobarid and they will set you up on where you should go. One piece of neat trivia, Slovenia was the setting for Ernest Hemingway’s book A Farewell to Arms. He served in Slovenia as part of the Italian Army in WWI.

In fact, given it is European, the country bubbles over with history. Ljubljana, the capital city, is jammed with medieval streets and old buildings and churches. The Ljubljana Castle, which reigns over the city atop a hill, is worthy of the funicular ride up. There are great views of the city and a great café and restaurant to get your caffeine, food or beer fix. Below, the city bustles and has that Euro feel to it. Café and bar culture abounds and Slovenians, as a general rule, like to have fun and enjoy a glass or two. In fact, the Slovenian anthem is actually a toast. They enjoy life.

The capital city is divided in two by the river Ljubljanica. Take time to explore this city on foot and check out the bridges as they have beautiful sculptures and are stand-alone works of art. There is a great flea market in the heart of the city also worthy of exploration.

About an hour from the capital is the village of Idrija. It is the oldest Slovenian mining town situated in the western part of the country in Goriška Region. Famous for its mercury mine and lace making, Idrija is a fascinating destination with spectacular scenery. A visit the 500-year-old mine is de rigueur. Heading underground in Anthony’s Shaft will blow your mind. The entrance is one of oldest preserved entrances into any mine in the world.

Be sure to check out Idrija lace as well. It is everywhere and has a great story for women. The reality of mining meant the loss of husbands. To cope with financial stresses and the loss of income, women began making lace to make money. Their work took off, empowering them in the process.

Be sure to try “idrijski zlikrofi”, which are little dumplings and well worth the carbs. When it comes to cuisine, Slovenian fare is on the hearty side. You will never leave the table hungry.  Those with a sweet tooth will adore the strudel-type dessert. There are over 100 types to try.

Another trip to the Alps is definitely called for. The regal, haunting Alps in the Solcavsko region with their stunning Alpine peaks are literally breathtaking. There are three glacial valleys, a nature park to roam around in hiking, cycling or running (but the altitude can wreak a little havoc on your breathing). Be sure to stay at the Hotel Plesnik in the Logarska Dolina glacial valley. Surrounded by mountains, it is the perfect place to take in the majesty of the area.

There is a panoramic road that runs about 25 km, up to the Austrian border. It is remarkably untouched by development or tourism. It is practically a religious experience to be up there, alone among the grandness of the mountains and nature.

That road is actually quite symbolic of the country. Slovenia is beautiful. It has history, it has culture, it has delicious food and amazing wine and yet surprisingly, it remains untouched by mass tourism. It has that Euro feel without having been destroyed by mass marketing or multinationals.

And the people are amazing. They are extremely hospitable, proud of their heritage and enthusiastic about sharing their country, opening their homes and hearts to visitors. It is unavoidable to love the place. Get there.

 

Conference and meeting venue delivers extraordinary value close to Ottawa

November 24, 2012 11:14 am
NAV Centre Featured

It’s event planning season in Eastern Ontario and the largest conference and meeting venue in the region is gearing up to make sure everyone leaves a winner — especially those who make events happen.

Situated on the scenic banks of the St. Lawrence River in Cornwall, the NAV CENTRE is a modern venue able to accommodate everything from large meetings to weekend getaways.

With a unique combination of 550 guest rooms, more than 70,000 square feet of meeting space, numerous dining options, health and fitness facilities and an unparalleled commitment to hospitality, there’s no doubt that the NAV CENTRE is built to deliver value.

“A venue that has versatile meeting spaces, excellent dining alternatives and recreational options ultimately gives planners choice and conven- ience,” says Kim Coe-Turner, General Manager of the NAV CENTRE. “Our no-nonsense packages include your stay, your meals and access to all our facilities for one price.”

The NAV CENTRE is a popular spot for organizations that want to have a get-away meeting or team-building exercise in a place close to home but where you still feel you are “outside the bubble”.

As with any first-rate venue, the NAV CENTRE boasts a group of experienced and dedicated staff, including award-winning executive chef Jean-Mathieu Leclerc and a hand-picked executive team with impeccable credentials.

The NAV CENTRE’s courtyards and amenities provide the perfect setting to unwind after a day of meetings.

“Add to that our willingness to take care of all the details, from organizing transportation and banquets to helping promote your event, and you have a value offering that is hard to beat – especially for price conscious businesses.”

That dedication to service has earned it a mark that puts it among only a handful of Canadian facilities; it’s certified by the International Association of Conference Centers for adhering to the most exacting standards.

The power to surprise

One key area where the NAV CENTRE consistently surprises is in leisure activities.

The NAV CENTRE boasts a new, full service spa opened in September to pamper guests with relaxation, massage therapy, esthetics and a variety of rejuvenation treatments.

“The NAV SPA will leave you rejuvenated and ready to rise to the challenges of your work week,” says Coe-Turner. “Our competitive weekend getaway packages make a spa visit a guilt-free indulgence.”

Despite its brand-newness, the NAV SPA’s service partnerships leave you in trusted hands. The spa is managed by Linda Graham-Arsenault, who is well-reputed in the region for spa management.

“Our partnership with Dr. James Lacey, a leading Ottawa-based plastic and cosmetic surgeon, allows you to seek more advanced treatments such as botox and surgical consultations with the enhanced privacy of our facility,” says Coe-Turner.

A trip to the NAV CENTRE can also be tied to regional attractions such as the Upper Canada Village, famous for transporting visitors back to the 1860s.

All-star value and service

The Jet Set Pub, known for its excellent selection of draught beer and pub fare.

The NAV CENTRE is currently offering a package that includes an evening at the village’s Alight at Night festival, when more than 500,000 lights adorn the heritage buildings to warm visitors during the winter months.

“We bring you unbeatable leisure value with a package that also includes a junior suite, breakfast, dinner and a $70 spa voucher for only $221,” says Coe-Turner. “We’re offering an exceptional package at a truly exceptional price.

“No matter what the package, one thing that never changes is our commitment to customer service excellence, and seeing you leave happy.”

Versatility, competitive pricing, and excellent customer service make the NAV CENTRE an ideal choice — guaranteed to make the meeting or event planner the MVP.

 

 

Get out there and explore: Coast-to-Coast-to-Coast

July 24, 2012 4:04 pm
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By now, you may have seen the great ads that have just hit the airwaves showcasing the Trans Canada Trail (TCT) as a place for all Canadians. If you’re looking for a way to really enjoy the outdoors this summer, take in some breathtaking views, learn some Canadian history, experience nature and get some exercise with your family — then grab your bike, your hiking shoes and sunscreen and hit those trails.

Initiated in 1992 as a project to celebrate Canada’s 125th year, the Trans Canada Trail is the world’s longest network of multi-use recreational trails. When completed, it will stretch 23,000 kilometres from the Atlantic to the Pacific to the Arctic oceans, through every province and territory, linking over 1000 communities and all Canadians.

To date, more than 16,800 kilometres of the Trail are operational — which is close to 73 per cent of the proposed route. Today, four out of five Canadians live within 30 minutes of completed sections of the Trail.  The goal is to connect the Trail as a continuous route from coast-to-coast-to-coast by 2017, the 25th anniversary of the Trail and Canada’s 150th birthday. With 6,200 kilometres of Trail to go, many in unpopulated areas with difficult terrain, this is a bold and ambitious goal.

The Trans Canada Trail is made up of almost 400 individual trails.

Currently, the Trans Canada Trail is made up of close to 400 individual trails, each with unique and varied features. For day trips or multi-day adventures, the Trail offers countless opportunities to explore and discover. There is nothing more patriotic than to connect with the diverse culture, historic, bio-diverse and dynamic landscapes of Canada, its regions and communities.

The trails are varied. There are of course, groomed trails, but there is some crazy remote wilderness out there to explore as well. If you are into water sports, canoe the routes of early explorers or swim. If cycling is your thing, there are endless biking routes along historic rail trails to boot. View rugged coastlines and prairie sunsets or picnic in a local urban park. The unedited beauty of each trail segment makes for a myriad of inspiring experiences, all offering endless possibilities for fun and discovery.

To accomplish a project of this magnitude is mindboggling.  Think about it.  It will extend from coast-to-coast-to-coast. The TCT requires the collaboration of countless individuals, levels of government, volunteers and organizations. To date, more than 125,000 Canadians have helped build the Trail. Donors and sponsors are recognized in the Trail’s 86 red-roofed pavilions.

Major corporations, foundations and all levels of government have contributed to the development of the Trail.  And then there are the 400 local trail groups, municipalities and conservation authorities that build and manage their local sections of the Trail. They make it all happen. They plan trail routes, raise funds, clear brush, install bridges, secure permits, put up signs, run events and encourage people to get out and enjoy the trail.

The TCT inspires national pride.

Not to get too patriotic, but the TCT really inspires national pride not only for the collaboration and cooperation of everyone involved with the project, but there is that complete awe you feel when you take the time to stop to take in the beauty of our amazing country.

This summer, there is no better way to experience Canada than to hit the trails. Just ask the Governor General, His Excellency David Johnston. As part of the commemoration of the War of 1812, he and Valerie Pringle (who is co-chair of the Trans Canada Trail) cycled 12 km along the Niagara River Recreational Trail for a scenic ride from the Laura Secord Homestead to Fort George. If you find yourself in Prince Edward Island, you can follow the Trail as it winds around the whole province. Discover B.C. wine country on the TCT or follow abandoned Musquodoboit railroad that has been transformed into trails.  Put some calm in your commute and enjoy the Trail as it snakes along lakeshores, even in the urban reality of Toronto. That’s the beauty of the TCT. You get to experience all that Canada has to offer. Plan your visit at www.tctrail.ca.

Vive la France!

July 13, 2012 2:09 pm
La Pointe du Hoc

The best surprise of the Normandy trip was the pleasant drive through the rolling hills and dotted farm houses that encapsulate the entire region. In six days of driving though Normandy we had only one day of overcast skies and rain. Otherwise, it was sunny with not a cloud in the sky. The lush green valleys and pleasant towns have a calming effect that is hard to describe. We stopped several times at cafés and the locals could not have been more pleasant or welcoming. I was excited about getting to the coast, I can sense it from miles away — it must be my Cape Breton roots. As soon as we did, I pulled over and took a big breath of the fresh sea air. It’s an exalting sensation – the closest thing I can compare it to is the “big sky” feeling you get when you visit Alberta for the first time. The natural high is immense.

Boulogne is a busy coastal town with people out on the beach, in the water and in the restaurants and pubs. Its cobbled streets and lively market is anchored in the city centre (Place Dalton) by the 13th century St Nicola Church, protector of Boulogne’s sailors.

Boulogne is on a downward slope to the sea. At the top of Rue de Lille is “old town”, the historic and religious centre. We took a guided tour through its narrow alleys and visited the 13th century Castle-Museum, the Belfry and Notre-Dame Basilica. We stayed at the Hôtel Les Terrasses de L’Enclos, a hundred-year-old building beautifully refurnished with modern amenities and with scenic views of the silhouette of old Boulogne. The hotel offers a pleasant French breakfast of home-baked bread, croissants, homemade jams and strong coffee. First up was a visit to the beach next to the Nausicaä (the National Sea Centre) were we tried land yachting. Imagine sitting on a go-cart with a sail that whips you down a sandy beach. We took a quick lesson and within minutes were pros. A key factor is wind. We had brief moments where we picked up speed followed by complete stops when the wind passed. It was fun and something I’d like to do again. The Nausicaä has to be one of the most impressive and relevant sea museums in the world. Our two-hour tour was like a journey through the world’s oceans and reminded us of our dependence on the sea. The museum curators have cleverly interspersed the history of the local seafaring people within a larger narrative about the fragility of the world’s oceans and the need for sustainable conservation of all ecosystems. Boulogne provided one of our great gastronomic experiences of the trip at the Brasserie de la Mer Boulogne-sur-Mer. A stylish and friendly place with seafood dishes to die for including the mixed grill of fish, cod, salmon, julienne St. Jacques, prawns and bacon, herring and potato terrine, scallops (a portion is five) and the fish of the day (a whitefish type of haddock). My son tried the crème brûlée and announced it was as good as mom’s which is very high praise indeed. It was delicious. Now it was off to Dieppe and the Normandy D-Day Beaches.

A dramatic chapter of Normandy’s history is its role as the epicentre of the World War II D-Day landings. This epic tale is one of tragedy and victory. The most appropriate place to start our D-Day tour of the region was in Dieppe.

Largely undamaged by fighting during WWII, the medieval city of Bayeux is perfectly located as a base for visiting history buffs wanting to visit the D-Day Beaches.

Largely undamaged by fighting during WWII, the medieval city of Bayeux is perfectly located as a base for visiting history buffs wanting to visit the D-Day Beaches.

For most Canadians the word Dieppe evokes a strong response. Five thousand troops of the 2nd Canadian Infantry Division landed at the French port of Dieppe on the English Channel Coast in August 1942. The purpose was to make a successful raid on German-occupied Europe over water, and then to hold Dieppe briefly. The results were disastrous. In a nine-hour raid involving nearly 5,000 Canadian soldiers, more than 900 were killed and 1,874 taken prisoner — more prisoners than the army lost in the 11 months of the 1944-45 NW Europe campaign.

As we drove into Dieppe we were struck by the quaint beauty of this seaside gem. Cafés along the waterfront were bristling with activity and the stores in the market square were just closing down for the day. The coastal road in front of the town abruptly ends and then veers in a u-turn back toward the centre. There is a rock face right at that turn and painted on that rock face is a huge Canadian flag that says “thank you, Canada”. It was an unexpected sight but speaks volumes about the feeling of the people of Dieppe towards Canada. I immediately felt comfortable and at home – almost like Dieppe was somehow a part of Canada. We visited the only Dieppe Museum that pays tribute to our soldiers’ sacrifices. It is a small museum next to the beach run by local French veterans. It has artefacts and uniforms and an impressive collection from many of the Canadian soldiers who fought in the battle. Despite numerous attempts by these French vets to engage the Canadian government and officials from Canada’s War Museum, no Canadian government officials had ever visited this place. The French veterans opened the museum to keep the memory of the Dieppe Raid alive. (OLM has since met the officials at the Canadian War Museum to advise them of the collection and French Veterans’ requests but 10 months later they have yet to engage these French veterans to try and secure this important collection which is a critical piece of our national history).

We stayed at the Au Grand-Duquesne Hotel in the city centre next to the market. This boutique hotel is a unique and stylish place, just a stone’s throw from the Dieppe harbour. The best reason to stay here is its gourmet restaurant and exceptional wine cellar. Any trip to Normandy cannot pass without experiencing a classic Normandy recipe perfectly executed. We tried the escargots and a lamb dish, with an elegant Côtes du Rhône. The Friday night atmosphere (it’s a favourite haunt of the locals) and service were a perfect way to celebrate Dieppe and toast our Canadian vets.

The next morning we departed for the Château de Taillis August 1944 Museum in Duclaire, a pretty town near Rouen. We strolled around for over an hour absorbing ourselves in their authentic collection of D-Day artefacts from Allied and German soldiers. The goal of the museum is to be an educational resource for area students who have never been touched by war.

Afterwards we were off to Normandy’s historic capital city – Rouen. Described by Victor Hugo as “The city of 100 steeples”, Rouen is also known as the place where Joan of Arc was convicted and burned at the stake in 1431 at the Place du Vieux Marché or as the city that was the inspiration for Monet’s Cathedral Series. Rouen was heavily damaged and lay in ruins at the end of World War II after a particularly brutal occupation by the Nazis. Liberated by the Canadian First Army on August 30, 1944, the residents used ingenuity and determination to rebuild Rouen to its former glory. Today, it is a spectacular city of young families and busy professionals. We walked along the Seine and stopped for a wonderful lunch at the Brasserie Paul next to the Cathedral. Then we were off to see the Gros Horloge, a beautiful golden clock in the centre of Rouen. You can climb the belfry (steep spiral staircase) to see how the clock mechanism works and view the town bells. At the top of the belfry is a magnificent view of the city of Rouen with its charming half-timbered houses, historic Place du Vieux Marché (Old Market Place), home to the modern Church of Jeanne d’Arc and the daily market which is the heart of Rouen. The Place also features numerous restaurants including Les-Maraichers, a favourite of the locals.

The Inter-hôtel Notre Dame is a safe bet in Rouen. It is centrally located, clean, comfortable, and quiet and offers easy access parking and a nice breakfast! The next morning we departed for Honfleur, the picturesque and colorful harbor city located on an estuary of the Seine River. Honfleur’s timber-framed houses and the narrow backstreets inspired the painters Claude Monet, Eugène Boudin, Johan Jongkind, and Gustave Courbet and it is regarded as the birthplace of Impressionism. Saint Catherine Church, built in the 16th century in the port of Honfleur, is the largest wooden church in France and offers mass and religious services daily. The “Vieux Bassin” in Honfleur is packed with tourists and sightseers. For Canadians, Honfleur is historic. In 1506, Jean Denis departed Honfleur for Newfoundland and the mouth of the Saint Lawrence. In 1608, Samuel de Champlain departed from Honfleur and arrived in Quebec, becoming the “The Father of New France” and founder of Canada. It was a wonderful moment to be in the town where it all began. We felt a kinship with the place that maybe only Canadians can feel. The irony was not lost on us that it would be Canadians, the proud descendents of Champlain, who would come back to the Honfleur region hundreds of years later to free the French from their Nazi captors.

Our final Normandy trek was to the D-Day beaches. During the nights of June 5 and 6, 1944, more than 16,000 paratroopers landed in Normandy. British, American and Canadian troops landed on various beaches on the Normandy coast and engaged in heavy fighting which eventually led to the end of the European theatre of WWII. A key objective in the days after the invasion was to take the city of Caen from the Germans. We decided to go to the Caen Memorial first before heading to the beaches. Established in 1988 and dedicated to peace, the Caen Memorial (Le Mémorial de Caen) is regarded as the best World War II museum in France.

Batterie Longues sur Mer

Over the next two days we stopped at all the D-Day landing beaches, including Utah Beach, Omaha Beach, Sword Beach, Juno and Gold beaches. Highlights included visiting the Canadian military cemetery of Bény-sur-Mer and the American cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer where many of the soldiers featured in the famous series Band of Brothers are laid to rest. We spent half a day at the The Juno Beach Centre at Courseulles-sur-Mer, which opened on June 6, 2003. The Centre presents the war effort made by all Canadians, civilian and military alike, both at home and on the various fronts during the Second World War. The Minister of Canadian Heritage has designated the Juno Beach landing site to be a site of national historic significance to Canada.

After the beach visits, we went to Bayeux and checked in at the Hôtel le Brunville. Located in the heart of Bayeux, this hotel proved to be a great staging point for day trips in the area.

The beaches of Bessin near Bayeux are still known for the Allied landings in June 1944. Historically the beaches of Bessin have always been popular seaside resorts. Back in 1858, with the opening of the Paris-Caen-Cherbourg railway, people started to flock to the beaches at Asnelles, Arromanches, Courseulles-sur-Mer, Vierville-sur-Mer and Grandcamp-Maisy. The joy of seaside recreation attracted wealthy Parisian families which led to the development of the Hôtel Belle-Plage, Grand Hôtel des Bains in Asnelles, Hôtel des Touristes in Vierville and many opulent villas like the Villa Les Tourelles in Arromanches and the Villa les Hirondelles in Grandcamp-Maisy by the sea. My favourite place for the entire trip was the beach town of Ouistreham. We stayed at the hotel La Mare Ô Poissons and had a gourmet dinner in their restaurant. We walked through the picturesque town and strolled along its beaches. Today these spots are as popular as ever for the French and for foreign tourists alike who enjoy a tranquil respite of sandy beaches, mild temperatures, natural beauty and the exceptional and welcoming hospitality provided by the locals. France’s Normandy region is thriving; the soldiers who liberated it would be pleased to see that all is back as it should be.

Travel: Arras, Lille & Normandy, France

July 12, 2012 5:22 pm
Pg52_Arras_Shutterstock

Vive La France!

(PART 1 OF 2)

We arrived at Charles de Gaulle/Roissy International Airport in Paris and transferred to the Train à grande vitesse (high-speed train) for Arras, Nord Pas de Calais. Arriving in Arras, opposite the railway station, is the War Memorial, which depicts a French WWI soldier leaning against the monument, watching over an angel with outspread wings, representing peace. And that set the tone for the trip.

We checked in for two nights at the Holiday Inn Express in the city centre. This hotel has all the amenities. The next morning, we took a two-hour guided tour of Arras. Then we rented a car for the remainder of the trip. The Pas de Calais area is simple to navigate if you have a GPS (recommended). We really loved modern-day Arras, which has been meticulously restored to its pre-World War I grandeur. This town has two large squares: the Grande Place and the Place des Héros, also called the Petite Place. Most notable are the Gothic town hall (rebuilt in a slightly less grandiose style after the war) and the 19th-century cathedral. The original cathedral of Arras, built between 1030 and 1396, was one of the most beautiful Gothic structures in northern France but was destroyed in the French Revolution. The abbey’s church was demolished and rebuilt in fashionable classical style in 1833 and now serves as the town’s cathedral.

The Wellington Quarry – la Carrière Wellington

During WWI, Arras was literally the front line. Battles were fought around the city and at nearby Vimy Ridge. The Wellington Quarry – la Carrière Wellington is an underground museum built in a section of the many kilometres of tunnels dug by Allied Forces in the 1914-1918 war. Following the arrival of the British in the Arras sector in March 1916, a network of tunnels was dug beneath the Ronville and Saint-Sauveur districts of Arras. These new tunnels and rooms were linked to the existing ancient tunnels and quarries or pits already under the city. The new tunnels were fitted with running water and electricity supplies. Accommodation in the underground city was available for the soldiers to live and sleep in, and there was a large hospital for treating the wounded in a labyrinth of rooms with enough space to fit 700 beds and operating theatres. Signposted names and numbers were given to the tunnels and rooms underground. The New Zealanders based in this particular system named the place “Wellington“, after the capital city of New Zealand. For eight days, 24,000 British and Commonwealth soldiers lived in secret in these tunnels specially adapted by New Zealand sappers from medieval chalk quarries. The Wellington Quarry tour follows a duck board trail through 17 stops which – using films, pictures and audio accounts – recreates different aspects of the soldiers’ lives during those tense days. A film graphically recounts the battle that ensued and its effects on the outcome of the Great War.

We made our way to the Vimy Memorial just north of town. The Battle of Vimy Ridge marked the first time Canada fielded an entire army of her own (four Canadian divisions). It was fought there on Easter Weekend 1917 as part of the broader Allied offensive known as the Battle of Arras. The Vimy Memorial is a spectacular and stunning tribute to Canada’s war dead. Visiting this monument was a powerful experience and I daresay I shed a private tear. My great uncle died in France in WW1 at age 21. All of the cemeteries and landscapes in this region are peaceful and beautiful. We left Vimy and visited the German War Cemetery located in Neuville-Saint-Vaast, a village near Arras. Established by the French in 1919 as a cemetery for German war casualties from the regions north and east of Arras, it is now administered by the German War Graves Commission and is the largest German cemetery in France, containing 44,833 burials. Next we went to the Canadian Artillery Memorial, near the village of Thélus. The memorial commemorates the exemplary action of the Canadian artillery during the taking of Vimy Ridge.

Vimy Memorial

We left the Arras region and took a leisurely  afternoon drive to the beautiful French town of Lille. Prior to WW2, Lille was an industrial centre for northern France. It has evolved over the past 60 years into a stylish metropolis; its modern architecture  compliments the  city’s historic buildings.

We checked into the Novotel Lille Centre Grand Place, a classy four-star hotel close to the Grand Place and the old town. Lille’s narrow streets and old world charm are distinguished by an array of exceptional restaurants and classy shops. We arrived at 5pm and everyone seemed to be out in the cafes. I’ve never seen so many cobblestone streets! One of the highlights of our trip was dinner at Le Fossile Restaurant in Lille.

Situated on a leafy corner a block from our  hotel, Le Fossile has been serving patrons in Lille for over 35 years. The brick  restaurant has exposed dark wooden beams, Tiffany-style lamps, and a wine cellar that stores cognacs and armagnacs from 1882 until the present day. A perfect onglet steak is served. We started with escargots ‘Fossile’ followed by the onglet with shallots which is carved tableside. We finished with dessert and a café  ‘Fossile’ with armagnac. This is one of the meals on my …“most memorable  meals ever list”.

The next morning, we spent hours just walking around and taking in the historic sites of Lille. Be sure to visit Lille’s citadel. We arrived the day before the Lille Flea Market, Europe’s biggest event of early fall. Two million stallholders, onlookers, bargain hunters of all kinds – young, old, children, families – all descend on the city for two days and nights, selling their wares  along kilometres of pavements and squares, and on the banks of the Deûle in the shadow of Lille’s colourful old Flemish buildings. The excitement was palpable as people set up for the giant flea market.

Lille Flea Market

We departed Lille for Boulogne-sur-Mer. The drive through the hills and valleys of northern France is very relaxing. We stopped at La Coupole in the village of Helfaut in the Nord-Pas-de-Calais region.

In July 1943, the Germans began the construction of a base (La Coupole) from which to build and launch V-2 rockets. Today, La Coupole and the area is preserved as a museum featuring a riveting history of WW2 and a particularly touching tribute to the French Resistance and to Jewish victims of the war. Our next stop at Boulogne-sur-Mer and the Normandy Beaches would prove to be as exciting as the rest of our visit to Normandy. But that’s a story for another time.

Helpful web sites

www.arras-france.com, www.hiexpress.com, www.franceguide.com

www.veterans.gc.ca/eng/memorials/ww1mem/vimy

www.novotel.com/gb/hotel-0918-novotel-lille-centre-grand-place/index.shtm

www.carriere-wellington.com, www.lacoupole-france.com, www.lefossile.com

Normandy, France

Part 2 of 2

The Normandy Coast, Dieppe, Rouen, Honfleur, Bessin near Bayeux

Arras and Lille were wonderful and we were now headed to the Normandy coast which covers 360 miles and features the famous cities of Caen, Rouen and Boulogne-sur-Mer.

Our first overnight stop will be Boulogne-sur-Mer www.tourisme-boulognesurmer.com, which is the largest fishing port in France.

The best surprise of the Normandy trip was the pleasant drive through the rolling hills and dotted farm houses that encapsulate the entire region. We lucked in because in six days of driving though Normandy we had one day of overcast skies and rain. Otherwise it was sunny with not a cloud in the sky. The lush green valleys and pleasant towns have a calming effect that is hard to describe. We stopped several times at local cafes and the locals could not have been more pleasant or welcoming. I was excited about getting to the coast. I can sense the coast from miles away – it must be my Cape Breton roots. As soon as we got to the coast I pulled over and just took a big breath of the fresh sea air that gives you such a natural high. It’s an exalting sensation – the closest thing I can compare it to is the “big sky” feeling you get when you visit Alberta for the first time. The natural high is immense.

Boulogne is a busy coastal town with people out on the beach, in the water and in the restaurants and pubs. Its cobbled streets and lively market is anchored in the city centre (Place Dalton) by the 13th century St Nicola Church, protector of Boulogne’s sailors.

Boulogne is on a downward slope to the sea. At the top of Rue de Lille is “old town”, the historic and religious centre. We took a guided tour through its narrow alleys and visited the 13th century Castle-Museum, the Belfry and Notre-Dame Basilica.  We stayed at the Hôtel Les Terrasses de L’Enclos, a century old-building beautifully refurnished with modern amenities and  scenic room views of the silhouette of old Boulogne.  They offer a pleasant French breakfast of home-baked bread, croissants, homemade jams and strong coffee. First up was a visit to the beach next to the Nausicaä (the National Sea Centre) to go land yachting. Imagine sitting on go-cart with a sail that whips you down a sandy beach (yes, the sand must be hard packed). We took a quick lesson and within minutes were pros. A key factor is wind – we had brief moments where we picked up speed followed by complete stops when the wind passed. It was fun and something I’d like to do again. The Nausicaä has to be one of the most impressive and relevant sea museums in the world. Our two-hour tour was like a journey through the world’s oceans and reminded us of our dependence on the sea. The museum curators have cleverly interspersed the history of the local seafaring people within a larger narrative about the fragility of the world’s oceans and the need for sustainable conservation of all ecosystems.  Boulogne provided one of our great gastronomic experiences of the trip at the Brasserie de la Mer Boulogne-sur-Mer  (http://www.auxpecheursdetaples.fr/boulogne.htm). A stylish and friendly place with seafood dishes to die for: the mixed grill of fish, cod, salmon, julienne St. Jacques, prawns and bacon, herring and potato terrine, scallops (a portion is five) and the fish of the day (a whitefish type of haddock type). My son tried the Crème brûlée and announced it was as good as mom’s which is very high praise indeed. It was delicious. Now it was off to Dieppe and the Normandy D-Day Beaches.

A dramatic chapter of Normandy’s history is its role as the epicenter of the World War II D-Day landings. This epic tale is one of tragedy and victory. The most appropriate place to start our D-Day tour of the region was in Dieppe (www.dieppetourisme.com).

As we drove into Dieppe we were struck by the quaint beauty of this seaside gem.

For most Canadians the word Dieppe evokes a strong response. Five thousand troops of the 2nd Canadian Infantry. An army formation made up of two or more brigades, usually fifteen thousand or more men. The Canadian Army had both infantry and armoured (ie, tank) divisions. Division landed at the French port of Dieppe on the English Channel Coast in August 1942. The purpose was to make a successful raid on German-occupied Europe over water, and then to hold Dieppe briefly. The results were disastrous. In a nine-hour raid involving nearly 5,000 Canadian soldiers, more than 900 were killed and 1,874 taken prisoner – more prisoners than the army lost in the 11 months of the 1944-45 NW Europe campaign.

As we drove into Dieppe we were struck by the quaint beauty of this seaside gem. Cafés along the waterfront were bristling with activity and the stores in the market square were just closing down for the day. The coastal road in front of the town abruptly ends and the road veers in a u-turn back toward the centre. There is a rock face right at that turn and painted on that rock face is a huge Canadian flag that says “thank you, Canada”. It was an unexpected sight but speaks volumes about the feeling of the people of Dieppe towards Canada. I immediately felt comfortable and at home – almost like Dieppe was somehow a part of Canada. We visited the only Dieppe Museum that pays tribute to our soldiers’ sacrifices.  It is a small museum next to the beach run by local French veterans. It has artefacts and uniforms and an impressive collection from many of the Canadian soldiers who fought in the battle. Despite numerous attempts by these French vets to engage the Canadian government and officials from Canada’s War Museum, no Canadian government officials had ever visited this place. The French veterans opened the museum to keep the memory of the Dieppe Raid alive. (OLM has since met the officials at the Canadian War Museum to advise them of the collection and French Veterans’ requests but 10 months later they have yet to engage these French veterans to try and secure this important collection which is a critical piece of our national history).

We stayed at the Au Grand-Duquesne Hotel  in the city centre next to the market. This boutique hotel is a unique and stylish place, just a stone’s throw from the Dieppe harbour. The best reason to stay here is    its gourmet restaurant and exceptional wine cellar. Any trip to Normandy cannot pass without experiencing a classic Normandy recipe perfectly executed. We tried their escargots and a lamb dish, with an elegant Côtes du Rhône. The Friday night atmosphere (it’s a favourite haunt of the locals) and service were a perfect way to celebrate Dieppe… and toast our Canadian vets.

The next morning we departed for the Château de Taillis August 1944 Museum in Duclaire, a pretty town near Rouen. We strolled around for over an hour absorbing ourselves in their authentic collection of D-Day artefacts from Allied and German soldiers. The goal of the museum is to be an educational resource for area students who have never been touched by war (www.chateau‐du‐taillis.com).

The author's travels

Afterwards we were off to Normandy’s historic capital city – Rouen (www.rouentourisme.com).  Described by Victor Hugo as “The city of 100 steeples”, Rouen is also known as the place where Joan of Arc was convicted and burned at the stake in 1431 at the Place du Vieux Marché or as the city that was the inspiration for Monet’s Cathedral Series. Rouen was heavily damaged and lay in ruins at the end of World War II after a particularly brutal occupation by the Nazis. Liberated by the Canadian First Army on August 30, 1944, the residents used ingenuity and determination to rebuild Rouen to its former glory. Today it is a spectacular city of young families and busy professionals.  We walked along the Seine and stopped for a wonderful lunch at the Brasserie Paul next to the Cathedral. Then we were off to see the Gros Horloge, a beautiful golden clock in the centre of Rouen. You can climb the belfry (steep spiral staircase) to see how the clock mechanism works and view the town bells. At the top of the belfry is a magnificent overview of the city of Rouen with its charming half-timbered houses, historic Place du Vieux Marché (Old Market Place), home to the modern Church of Jeanne d’Arc and the daily market which is the heart of Rouen. The Place also features numerous restaurants including Les-Maraichers, a favourite of the locals.  

The Inter-hôtel Notre‐Dame (www.hotelnotredame.com) is a safe bet in Rouen. It is centrally located, clean, comfortable, and quiet and offers easy access parking and a nice breakfast! The next morning we departed for Honfleur, the picturesque and colorful harbor city located on an estuary of the Seine River. Honfleur’s timber-framed houses and the narrow backstreets inspired the painters Claude Monet, Eugène Boudin, Johan Jongkind, and Gustave Courbet and it is regarded as the birthplace of Impressionism. Saint Catherine Church, built in the 16th century in the port of Honfleur, is the largest wooden church in France and offers mass and religious services daily. The “Vieux Bassin” in Honfleur is packed with tourists and sightseers. For Canadians, Honfleur is historic. In 1506, Jean Denis departed Honfleur for Newfoundland and the mouth of the Saint Lawrence. In 1608, Samuel de Champlain departed from Honfleur and arrived in Quebec, becoming the “The Father of New France” and founder of Canada. For my son and me, it was a wonderful moment to be in the town where it all began. We felt a kinship with the place that maybe only Canadians can feel. The irony was not lost on us that it would be Canadians, the proud descendents of Champlain, who would come back to the Honfleur region hundreds of years later to free the French from their Nazi captors.

Our final Normandy trek was to the D-Day beaches. During the nights of June 5 and 6, 1944, more than 16,000 paratroopers landed in Normandy.  British, American and Canadian troops landed on various beaches on the Normandy coast and engaged in heavy fighting which eventually led to the end of the European theatre of WWII. A key objective in the days after the invasion was to take the city of Caen from the Germans. We decided to go to the Caen Memorial first before heading to the beaches. Established in 1988 and dedicated to peace, the Caen Memorial (Le Mémorial de Caen – www.memorial‐caen.fr/portailgb) is regarded as the best World War II museum in France.

Situated between Utah and Omah beaches la Pointe du Hoc features fortifications built by the Germans to prevent Allied landings from the sea.

Over the next two days we stopped at all the the D-Day landing beaches, including Utah Beach, Omaha Beach,  Sword Beach, Juno and Gold beaches. Highlights included visiting the Canadian military cemetery of Bény-sur-Mer and the American cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer where many of the soldiers featured in the famous series Band of Brothers are laid to rest.  We spent half a day at the The Juno Beach Centre at Courseulles-sur-Mer, which opened on June 6, 2003. The Centre presents the war effort made by all Canadians, civilian and military alike, both at home and on the various fronts during the Second World War. The Minister of Canadian Heritage has designated the Juno Beach landing site to be a site of national historic significance to Canada.

After the beach visits we went to Bayeux and checked in at the Hôtel le Brunville. Located in the heart of Bayeux this hotel proved to be a great staging point for day trips in the area.

The beaches of Bessin near Bayeux are still known for the Allied landings in June 1944.   Historically the beaches of Bessin have always been popular seaside resorts. Back in 1858 with the opening of the Paris-Caen-Cherbourg railway, people started to flock to the beaches at Asnelles, Arromanches, Courseulles-sur-Mer, Vierville-sur-Mer and Grandcamp-Maisy. The  joy  of sea-bathing and seaside recreation attracted wealthy Parisian families which led to the development of  the Hôtel Belle-Plage, Grand Hôtel des Bains  in Asnelles, Hôtel des Touristes in Vierville and many opulent villas like the Villa Les Tourelles in Arromanches and the Villa les Hirondelles in Grandcamp-Maisy by the sea.  My favourite place for the entire trip was the beach town of Ouistreham. We stayed at the hotel La Mare Ô Poissons (www.lamareopoissons.fr) and had a gourmet dinner in the restaurant. We walked through the picturesque town and strolled along its beaches.  Today these spots are as popular as ever for the French and for foreign tourists who visit to enjoy a tranquil respite of sandy beaches, mild temperatures, natural beauty and the exceptional and welcoming hospitality provided by the locals. Seaside recreation is thriving in France’s Normandy region; the soldiers who liberated it would be pleased to see that all is back as it should be.

We dedicate this story to Garth Webb (1918-2012), Meritorious Service Cross, D-Day Veteran   Founder and past President, the Juno Beach Centre and a True Canadian Hero.

www.normandie-tourisme.fr  

Musée du Débarquement ‐ place du 6 juin – 14117 Arromanches www.musee‐arromanches.fr – T 00 33 2 31 22 34 31 contact : Madame Isabelle MARIE, directrice des publics 

Overnight in Bayeux

A twin room has been booked (half pension including 2 dinners, the room, breakfasts and city taxes) at Hôtel le Brunville

9 rue Genas Duhomme à Bayeux ‐ Tel.: 00 33 (0)2 31 21 18 00 – www.hotels‐bayeux‐14.com

 

Travel Diary: South Africa

May 10, 2012 3:20 pm
DSC_0570

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

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

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

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

Taking in the vast mountainous landscape in Golden Gate National Park

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

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

Red: Bloodshed

Blue: Open Skies

Green: The Land 

Black: For the Black People

White: For the Europeans

Yellow: Natural Resources EG. gold

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

The unifying flag.

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

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

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

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

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

My 12-year-old friend, Ntkatse.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Travel Diary: Maputsoe, Lesotho

April 25, 2012 5:56 pm
DSC_0506

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

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

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

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

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

Nyane, the newest addition to Rachel's Home

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hilda, mother of 57

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

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

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

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

Maple Magic

April 12, 2012 8:38 am
Maple-Syrup

April means maple syrup and according to National Geographic, the best sticky stuff in Ontario is in Lanark County just outside Ottawa, in Ontario’s Highlands. Known as the Maple Syrup Capital of Ontario, Lanark’s maple syrup was ranked first in a list of top ten foods to eat in Ontario.

That’s great news for Ottawa foodies seeking to make the most of the final weeks of the maple syrup season that runs from late February to April. Located between Ottawa and Kingston, Lanark County offers up a treasure trove of choices for even the most discerning maple syrup connoisseurs. And for those simply seeking to enjoy a great Canadian tradition, the area has a wide selection of sugar bushes ideal for individuals, couples and families alike. Guests can enjoy maple syrup treats from maple taffy, watching maple syrup production and indulging in maple syrup-soaked breakfasts.

Maple Magic – Ontarioshighlands

Wheeler’s Pancake House and Sugar Camp and Fulton’s Pancake House and Sugar Bush provide but a sample of the County’s maple syrup delights. Wheeler’s, located on Highland Line near McDonald’s Corners, offers the complete maple syrup and family fun experience including pancake meals, trails, barn and playground, a blacksmith shop, a Maple Heritage Museum, and of course, maple syrup production. Fulton’s is located on #291 6th Concession Road and is another great option. Fulton’s has a modern sugar shack, a gift shop and a restaurant capable of seating 120 people that serves up pancakes, sausages, baked goods and yummy combination plates. Also not to be missed are sumptuous male syrup treats from The Maple Shoppe that include maple syrup, butter, maple candy and granulated maple sugar. For some sweet pampering, Fulton’s offers a fragrant line of Maple Luscious Bath and Body Products containing maple sap, maple syrup or maple sugar sand.

But it’s not just Lanark County that excels in maple syrup production. Other locations in Ontario’s Highlands, from Madoc to Haliburton and the Ottawa Valley, also have their own fair share of star maple syrup producers. In the Ottawa Valley, Mapleside Sugar Bush and Mapleton House are great options. Mapleside Sugar Bush is located near Pembroke and offers maple syrup at its finest along with a gourmet range of maple syrup products including candy, maple mint vinegar, mustard, male BBQ sauce and maple meat rubs. Mapleton House, a licensed restaurant and gift shop near Hardwood Lake, provides maple-inspired catering for weddings, anniversaries, retirement parties and family reunions. In Madoc, O’Hara Sugar Maples offers tours of their sugar bush, though hours vary throughout the season.

Fortune Maple Syrup

In nearby Haliburton, maple fans can enjoy the maple sensations at the Wintergreen Maple Syrup and Pancake Barn and Camp Can-Aqua. Wintergreen offers a full line of maple products and gifts, sugar bush tours, fruit pies, a full maple menu and group BBQ events and corporate gifts. Nearby Camp Can-Aqua doubles as a summer camp and it produces some of the top quality maple syrup available at food retail outlets in Bancroft, Algonquin Park, and the Muskokas. Maple syrup bottle sizes range from 40ml right up to a hefty four litres. Tours of the Sugarhouse are available upon request. Then there is Ontario’s First Maple Winery. Check out Moon Shadows Estate Winery on Highway 118 in Haliburton. It offers its famous chilled maple wine, as well as a quality selection of other gourmet wines from fruity autumn pear to blackcurrant and fuzzy peach.

And if all that isn’t enough to satisfy your maple mania, Lanark County has one more option. The Perth Festival of the Maples celebrates everything maple for one day only on April 28 – to mark the official end of the maple syrup season. Festival highlights include fantastic shops, vendors offer-ing award-winning maple products, displays, stage entertainment and children’s activities concentrated on scenic downtown Gore Street.

For the ultimate maple experience, visit YoursOutdoors.ca

For the ultimate maple experience, visit YoursOutdoors.ca to learn about a variety of maple experiences, including a three-day special package, The Art and Syrup of maple. During this maple extravaganza, guests can learn about maple syrup production, explore a sugar bush on snowshoes, dine on maple cuisine, enjoy maple wine at the neighbouring Moon Shadows Estate Winery, indulge in a Maple Sugar spa foot treatment, and even make a maple syrup pitcher and glass at a glassblowing workshop. Guests stay at the cozy Inukshuk Manor B&B. To top it all off the package features a house concert by local musicians Bethany Houghton playing the cello, violin and fiddle and Ernie Demuth on guitar.

No matter what your maple craving, Ontario’s Highlands is truly the best place to find it. To find out more visit the Ontario’s Highlands website at www.ontarioshighlands.ca.

High Tech, Low Stress

March 5, 2012 4:03 pm
winter

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

Skiing is just one of the many activities to enjoy!

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

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

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

Dog Sledding

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

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

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

Austria the Winter Away

March 1, 2012 4:14 pm
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For anyone who has had a glimpse of life in Vienna, seen the joie de vivre of the Viennese and experienced the ethos of their amazing city, it will come as no surprise that the City topped the 2010 Mercer consulting group’s annual Quality of Living survey of world cities. Vienna, it seems, is the best place to live. (Vancouver placed 10 and Ottawa ranked 14). And there is no denying the indescribable feeling you get when in Vienna. Like many other European cities, you are surrounded in architectural beauty, but somehow in Vienna, there is an additional feeling of being immersed, enveloped and cradled in culture that differs from other Euro cities. Maybe it is because Vienna has achieved incredible international cultural status despite its size. It’s roughly the size of our National Capital Region. (However, interestingly, its population has actually decreased compared with a century ago when it was the Imperial centre of the Habsburg Empire and its 60 million subjects across Europe.)

Vienna Philharmonica Ball

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

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

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

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

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

Vienna in the Winter. Photo: Hugh Durant

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

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

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

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

Sacher Torte a decadent Viennese dessert. Photo: Hugh Durant

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

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

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

Austrian Alps. Photo: Hugh Durant

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

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

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

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

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

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

Giddy up to Colorado!

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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

Proposed development threatens Jasper National Park

January 12, 2012 10:59 am
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A recent decision by Parks Canada regarding the national treasure that is Jasper National Park is cause for alarm. Given that Parks Canada is mandated to protect our landscapes and ensure ecological integrity for present and future generations, many Canadians are outraged by the possibility of a new ‘visitor experience’ development proposed for Jasper National Park.

The park, located in Alberta, is a UNESCO World Heritage site, admired for stunning mountainous landscapes and abundant wildlife. The proposed ‘Glacier Discovery Walk’ would see a roadside viewpoint along the Icefields Parkway (Highway 93) turned into a 400 metre interpretive boardwalk, complete with a glass-floored observation platform. The viewpoint, which overlooks the beautiful Sunwapta Canyon, would be built and operated by Brewster Canada, and thus effectively privatized. Visitors would arrive on site via shuttle bus, take a guided interpretive walk, and finally reach the vista point. In addition to the walkway and viewing platform, further amenities would be built, including washrooms, ticketing booths, and parking facilities.

The proposed 'Glacier Discovery Walk'

If approved, many worry the project could set a perilous precedent of using our parks for profit. Instead of protecting Canada’s natural resources for present and future generations, Parks Canada’s focus could shift to visitor experience. Elizabeth May, leader of the Green Party of Canada, stated, “Canada’s National Parks are not meant to be money-makers. They are primarily supposed to protect a range of ecosystems and to allow Canadians to appreciate the wonderful natural spaces and wildlife that we are so lucky to have in this country.” The beauty of Jasper National Park speaks for itself, and man-made intrusions should be kept to a minimum.

The beauty of Jasper National Park speaks for itself - without any manmade intrusions.

Worse yet, profits made from the Glacier Discovery Walk would not stay in Canadian hands – Brewster Canada, who would build and operate the project, is an American company. This begs the question– should American or other foreign private companies be profiting from Canada’s treasures? Ultimately Brewster Canada would value financial gain over ecological integrity, or the preservation of our unique heritage, which has potentially frightening possibilities. And once again, if approved, the project could set a dangerous precedent of allowing foreign companies to gain from Canada’s natural heritage.

Avaaz, a global civic organization, is campaigning to keep Canada’s parks in public hands. Their online petition (http://www.avaaz.org/en/jasper_development/?cl=1492650291&v=11853) has over 125,000 signatures, in an attempt to “save Jasper Park before it’s too late.” Thousands of other concerned citizens have written to Parks Canada and the Harper government in an attempt to have their voice heard. Stating they strongly value public input, Parks Canada will allegedly make a decision regarding the proposal late January.

“I just can’t believe we would have to pay an American company to see what is in our own backyard,” said Ottawa citizen Janet Robertson, 45. “It is just unbelievable that Parks Canada didn’t immediately act to say this is unacceptable.” Canada’s parks are a legacy truly worth celebrating – let’s keep it that way!

Skiing the Unbelievably Beautiful Italian Dolomite Mountains

December 19, 2011 12:05 pm
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Ski touring in Italy is highly civilized and geared to a broad cross-section of skiers. Our stomachs did somersaults as the van winded its way up and down the many passes on our way from Venice to San Cassiano, the starting point for a ski touring excursion with Dolomite Mountain s.r.l. Part of the Italian Alps in north eastern Italy, the Dolomites are unique for a number of reasons, including their sheer walls of rock that jut up, their narrow deep valley and their almighty snow, a skier’s best friend. A UNESCO natural heritage site, this region is truly a geological wonder and it boasts being the number one ski resort in the world with over 1,200 kms of groomed terrain. It does so with good reason. This skiing experience, in fact, is truly unparalleled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The view from the terrace of Rifugio Lagazuoi.

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

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

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

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

www.dolomitemountains.com

Written by: Karen Temple

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!

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

November 28, 2011 3:36 pm
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Every year, just after Winterlude, I start to get irritable — like every Ottawan! I am pretty well fed up with winter and want to go south. We have three teenage children so travel destinations south becomes key. For a stress free vacation the best bet is always an all inclusive resort. You can relax and not worry about things like meals, snacks, planned activities or meeting a timetable for planned excursions. Believe me, over the years I had the misfortune of visiting some all inclusive places that were dumpy and disappointing. These days, to avoid even the chance of hitting a downer resort, I just book into RIU resorts. These Spanish-based destinations are recognized the world over for their friendly service, high standards and well-managed and maintained accommodations. Most telling is that their customer return rate is the highest in the hospitality industry. Nothing speaks the truth like a returning customer! Last March I decided it was time for a break so we loaded up the kids and headed to the RIU all inclusive resort on Paradise Island in the Bahamas.

Riu Bahamas

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

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

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

The beautiful view of the pool in the hotel

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

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

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

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

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

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

Love Home Swap: Home Exchanges with Style

October 26, 2011 11:31 am
MartLgElev_Country_French_house_plans

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

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

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

Debbie Wosskow

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mediterranean styled house with courtyards in Atlanta, GA, photo via www.lovehomeswap.com

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

Home swapping was brought to the big screen a few years back in the popular film The Holiday with Kate Winslet and Cameron Diaz – http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0457939/.

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

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

Jennifer Stewart

Jennifer@jscommunications.ca

613.401.1097

Debbie Wosskow, CEO, Love Home Swap

debbie@lovehomeswap.com

1.877.778.8485

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