Maple Magic

April 12, 2012 8:38 am

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

For the ultimate maple experience, visit 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

High Tech, Low Stress

March 5, 2012 4:03 pm

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

Skiing is just one of the many activities to enjoy!

The 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 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 You won’t be disappointed.

Austria the Winter Away

March 1, 2012 4:14 pm

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

Vienna Philharmonica Ball

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

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

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

One fab hotel is the Falkensteiner Hotel Am Schottenfeld, ( 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 ( 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 ( Other fab restaurants that mix Viennese cuisine with international flare include Kulinarium ( Steirereck ( ) 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, ( 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 ( a beer hall with long wooden tables and huge kegs of beer offered in beer steins the size of a bottle of wine. It is the ultimate Oktoberfest experience that you can get year round and the beer is incredible. The place is even run by monks.

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

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

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

Giddy up to Colorado!

2:18 pm

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

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

Cowboy boots wait for city slickers

Cowboy boots wait for city slickers

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

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

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

A young wrangler learns the ropes at Latigo Ranch

A young wrangler learns the ropes at Latigo Ranch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The pool area at C Lazy U Ranch

The pool area at C Lazy U Ranch

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

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

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

What to look for when deciding on a ranch:

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

•    Does it have a pool?

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

•    Is there flexibility built into the schedule?

•    Is there riding instruction?

•    How big are the riding groups?

•    Is there child care available?

•    Do families eat together?

•    What non-riding activities are included?

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

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

Proposed development threatens Jasper National Park

January 12, 2012 10:59 am

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 ( 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

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.


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.

Dec11_Travel_SrraiDi Sottoguda_IMG_6962

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.


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.

Written by: Karen Temple

Chicago Style

December 9, 2011 7:34 pm

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 (   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 ( 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 (, 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

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

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 (

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

“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 –

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


Debbie Wosskow, CEO, Love Home Swap


Angry Birds in Montreal

October 24, 2011 2:29 pm

It is clear that getting your hands on Montreal Canadiens tickets can be a difficult task and an expensive one. However, there is another sports team worth checking out just outside Ottawa, the Montreal Alouettes, winners of the 2009 and 2010 Grey Cups.

The journey across the 417 from Ottawa to Montreal to experience a football game makes for a great weekend getaway or day trip. Sitting on the steel bench, if you fail to bring a cushion, in the recently renovated Percival Molson Memorial Stadium, home to the McGill Redmen and the Montreal Alouettes, provides a thrilling experience. It also gives you the chance to see a CFL living legend in Anthony Cavillo, the all-time leading passer. The stadium, perched on Mount Royal, arguably the most majestic park in Montreal can now accommodate 25,012 spectators. Since 1998 the sports ground welcomes both teams allowing McGill University, the owners of the stadium, to avoid being in the red.

View of Montreal's skyline

The Percival Molson Memorial Stadium, named in memory of Captain Percival Molson, a McGill student and athlete who died during the First World War, has to be one of the nicest stadiums in Canada. Once inside the bowl, built in 1915 and designed by Percy Erskine Nobbs, your eyes set on a wonderful scenic view of Montreal’s skyline.  However, don’t go straight to your seat as there are plenty of gatherings before kick off. You can join in the tailgating near the coliseum enjoying the park, some grilled meats and perhaps a few drinks. You might want to get a few beers in before game-time since they go for a steep $9.25 inside. You can also sway your way to the nearby Tam-Tam festivities. There tourists and Montrealers alike, gather every Sunday from spring to fall near the George-Étienne Cartier Monument to partake in hippie-like activities. Why not bring your sword and shield to join-in the elaborate medieval battle which takes place on Park Mont-Royal.

Tailgating before the game

During the game, the atmosphere is exceptional as player’s chirp one another and fans screech incessantly supporting their angry birds. Unlike hockey, you are not as close to the action as there is a large perimeter separating the field and the stands. Within the space, cheerleaders and mascots frolic during play stoppages. Speaking of entertainment, at half-time, the Boston Screaming Eagles Marching Band orchestrated a mesmerizing show parading inside the sports arena. It is impressive to see those young musicians and dancers manoeuvring in unity around the field forming shapes seamlessly while playing captivating music. The tenor drums will surely captivate your tympanum.

After the hyperactivity inside the amphitheatre, you can keep up the rhythm waltzing on the nearby Mont-Royal Avenue. This commercial pathway offers restaurants, bars, boutiques and coffeehouses. The strip also connects with St-Laurent Blvd. and St-Denis St, two of Montreal’s most animated arteries. If you’re hungry you could check out the famous Au Pied de Cochon restaurant, fitting after a pigskin game.


Bank on One King West

October 7, 2011 2:31 pm

Next time you are heading to the Big Smoke and need a place to hang your hat, be sure to check out the digs at the übercool, perfectly located One King West Hotel & Residence. At King and Bay, you just can’t get more downtown Toronto than here and the subway is literally outside your door. While One King West is slick, hip, has everything you could possibly need (for business or pleasure) and is ultra modern, the building itself is steeped in history.  And that makes it particularly special and intriguing for history buffs.

One King West’s story began back in the mid 1800s. It was first home to a grocer and wine merchant.  Then, in 1879, the location changed owners to become home to the head office of The Dominion Bank (now TD Canada Trust). That lasted an incredible 126 years.

However, the bank’s incredible growth at the turn of the last century resulted in the need for more space.  This led to the construction of one of Toronto’s first skyscrapers. Beaux-Arts in style with Renaissance Revival detailing, the building was a major work of Darling and Pearson, Architects (You have seen their handiwork a bit closer to home. In fact, look no further than Parliament Hill. They are the architects who designed Centre Block.)

A bank remained on site until 1999. Then it was redesigned and a second tower, adjacent to the old building was built. By 2006, the transformation was finally complete, resulting in One King West Hotel & Residence. (If you want to learn more about the history of the place, the hotel has panels on the walls with interesting details.) Throughout all of the changes, (including this spring’s $2 million revitalization to common areas and meeting rooms) the building has retained all of its majestic beauty. In fact, it was designated a Heritage Building years ago.

One incredible feature of the hotel is the bank vault. At the time of its construction, it was considered the largest and best equipped bank vault in Canada. It is approximately 33 feet square by 25 feet high and is divided into two floors. It is so impressive that it has been used in numerous movie scenes, including the movie Jumper, Max Payne, Red (with Bruce Willis). No surprise, the hotel is a popular location for Hollywood shoots and other movies. And the stars love to actually stay here too. It is particularly busy during the Toronto International Film Festival and the hotel is the official host hotel for the Battle of the Blades.

Superior Suites at One King West

Today, guests of the hotel are treated to the historical splendour of the Dominion Bank Building along with the modern sophistication of luxurious hotel amenities and services. The rooms are all modern with unbelievably comfortable beds. All rooms even come equipped with a washing machine and dryer.

The hotel caters to business clients and professional clientele, offering outstanding business services and the most amazing boardrooms in which to hold meetings. Then there is the Grand Banking Hall, with high ceilings, beautiful detailing. It even has
Canada’s longest bar (at 100 ft), modeled after the original tellers’ counter).

It’s worth staying at One King West  for the fitness area and rooftop terrace alone. The gym is amazing. Located on the 17th floor, it offers an incredible view of Lake Ontario. After your workout, you can fill up on the hotel’s breakfast buffet served in the lobby area (or enjoy something a little stronger in the bar.) The restaurants and bars run off the lobby, which acts as the main hub area. It is great for people watching too. The menus are innovative and cater to various diets including celiac, vegan, and vegetarian and also offer local food options. There is something for every palette, including that hard to please health fanatic. (They even have quinoa on the menu.)

The staff are all friendly and aim to please to make sure your visit exceeds every expectation. Check out the hotel web site for further details at While you will get a sense of the majesty of the place, the hotel itself blows the photos away. Whether you’re in TO for business or pleasure, One King West Hotel & Residence won’t let you down.

One King West Hotel & Residence

1 King Street West, Toronto, ON M5H 1A1

1-866-470 KING (5464)

The Greatest Sailing Adventure Ever!

9:23 am

One of the greatest sailing adventures in the world is the Haida Gwaii- Queen Charlotte Islands journey by Maple Leaf Adventures. It is a dream excursion which I took with my 14 year-old daughter. Together we explored the wildlife, nature, history and Aboriginal heritage of Canada’s northwest Pacific coast. Rich wildlife and evolutionary changes have led scientists to dub these islands “the Canadian Galapagos”.

This sailing cruise explores every-thing from the abundant and rich intertidal species and abundant sea life ranging from huge Orca and other whales to sea lions and eagles that make this domain their home. The trip redefined my impression of Canada, of the power of nature and most importantly of the rich heritage and culture of Canada’s Haida Gwaii people. Over the nine days, we experienced first-hand the lush intercoastal life in the Queen Charlotte Islands. We learnt about the Haida culture, a civilization so impressive and a people so noble that it stirs the soul to learn of their demise in the 19th and 20th century as a consequence of European expansion and  of their gradual  cultural recovery  now.

Maple Leaf Adventures has been offering natural and cultural history cruises aboard their century old 92-foot schooner and classic tall ship, the Maple Leaf, since 1986. The ship is made of coastal Douglas fir and cedar with mahogany brightwork. It has 5 huge sails. The company has a reputation as one of Canada’s finest tour operators and is ranked one of “The Best Adventure Travel Companies on Earth” by the editors of National Geographic Adventure, with a perfect score of 100 for customer satisfaction and one of the highest rankings of all 192 companies listed from across the globe. I can attest to the fact that they meet and exceed this standard.

Our excursion began with a ninety minute flight with Pacific Coastal ( from Vancouver to Masset B.C. We met the other passengers and our crew of superior sailors and delightful people. The Captain was the thirty-something James Warburton a lifelong resident of the Queen Charlotte Islands. A wine connoisseur, fisherman, naturalist and environmentalist, he gave everyone a sense of comfort and at no point did we ever feel unsafe or unsure of anything while onboard. First Mate Tavish Campbell is a twenty-two year-old sea faring dynamo who has more outdoor adventure experience in his young life than most people I know. One of my greatest memories of the trip is watching Tavish clean 4 large fish he and James caught. It was like watching a maestro perform a concerto…and the fish were great later for dinner!

Photo by Caroline Penn

Our trip Chef was Lila Ruzicka, a who prepared spectacular meals featuring local food traditions and fresh produce along with the best seafood the Pacific West coast has to offer. The food presentation was a dinner highlight. She did this from the kitchen galley that may have been 6 feet in length. The ship Deckhand, Terese Ayre, was also a talented naturalist, environmentalist and host who always made sure we were comfortable, had lots of hot tea and snacks, had our lifejackets and raingear for excursions and pretty well anything else we required.

Our first day was spent on Graham Island and at the Haida Heritage centre at Skidegate. We had a land tour of the rainforest in Naikoon Provincial Park with stops at Tow Hill, Agate Beach and North Beach. The locals have built an impressive wooden pathway for the hike up Tow Hill and once at the top, the vista view of the Queen Charlotte beaches and terrain is breathtaking. The famous cedar trees that I have always read about and have seen in photos were everywhere. It is hard to believe that right up until the early 1990s Canadian lumber companies were going crazy clear-cutting the forests in the region. Former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney finally put a stop to all this by putting the area under federal protection in partnership with the Haida people.

Photo: Caroline Penn

The art of the Haida totem poles is fascinating. Our guide told us about the history of Bill Reid’s Dogfish pole in Skidegate. Reid is probably the most famous Haida Artist and his totem poles are legendary. One of his great works was for the Canadian Embassy in Washington. A stop in the Kaay Llnagaay Haida Heritage Centre was fascinating. It sells many representations of his and other Haida artists’ work and we were fortunate to meet two totem pole artists working on a new pole which had been commissioned for the federal government. Both artists were Bill Reid apprentices.

Our first night was spent at the Alaska Lodge in the Queen Charlotte Islands. It sits on wonderful beach and is teeming with local wildlife such as eagles, ravens and as we are told, bears.

The next morning, we headed to the Bay to board the Maple Leaf. The boat’s interior accommodations are very comfortable and merge modern conveniences and good space design sense with a decor that nods to her Edwardian past. The spacious main cabin is open and airy by day and the kitchen is compact, including the dining area. Shelving on the wall around the table holds the ship’s library and is a pleasant place to sit and read, chat or enjoy a cup of tea.

Our sleeping was below deck and featured large comfortable bunk beds, six-and-a-half feet long, with fluffy duvets, pillows, throws and brass reading lamps. There are walls on two-and-a-half sides and thick, heavy curtains on the remaining sides. There were five other people in similar accommodations feet away from us. There are three small washrooms on the ship which also can be used as showers. This is precision accommodation that was extremely comfortable especially for sleeping as you could lie in your bunk and feel the gentle floating sensation of the ship. I loved it and found it very relaxing as did my daughter!

The Maple Leaf has lots of deck space on which people may choose to sit and watch the coastal scenery, chat with others, steer the ship, or have quiet time alone.

Photo by Caroline Penn

The first evening was casual, each person getting a general comfort level onboard. The ship galley was prepared for our first meal and as he would do each night on the trip, James pulled out a couple of great bottles of BC wine and we toasted our day, our trip, each other and any other positive thing we could think of before delving into one of Lila’s spectacular meals. The 13 of us are squeezed in tight around the galley table and we share stories of our day and of our lives. James shows us the map of where we sailed and where we are headed the next day.

Our  days are spent sailing and going ashore in the inflatable zodiac boats to experience the magic of different habitats and the special life that inhabits each area. The Maple Leaf has two 15-foot Polaris rigid-hull inflatable boats for shore excursions and wildlife viewing. These  zodiacs, take us to some of the most remote beaches for hikes, seabird watching and marine mammal viewing. The Maple Leaf has access to some of the best places along the Queen Charlotte Islands that are rarely seen as most other tour operators are forbidden to go there. A highlight of the trip is zooming over the water in a zodiac to be near a whale pod or to get close to some Northern Seal lions whose average length is about 3 metres and weigh between 450-1,000 kilograms, making them the largest of all eared seals. These seals live on rookeries which are exposed, remote islands where calving and breeding take place. The males are very defensive of these breeding territories so we were careful to not get too close!

Photo by Caroline Penn

A key point of the trip is to stop and learn more  about the Haida culture. We sail to the remote Haida sites of T’aanuu Llnagaay and K’uuna LLnagaay and explore the natural and cultural heritage of Gwaii Haanas. These areas are protected by The Haida Gwaii Watchmen Program.  In the past, Haida Watchmen were posted at strategic positions around a village to raise the alarm in advance of approaching enemy. Watchmen also crowned poles as carved figures protecting the village from evil spirits. Today, from spring until autumn, the Haida Gwaii Watchmen serve as guardians at these sites.

One night we pulled into the Bay that features the famous Hot springs of Haida Gwaii. The Watchmen are laughing as we all take comfort in the hot spring water-better than any spa treatment in any place I’ve been. The temperature is so hot that after ten minutes most of our group hops out and into the extremely refreshing and cold Pacific Bay next to the hot springs.

Later, heading back to the ship in our zodiac, I noticed James speeding off in a zodiac towards another ship in the Bay. He returned moments later with a basket of fresh prawns. He said it was a great trade as we’ll enjoy the prawns and they’ll enjoy the BC wine he just gave them in exchange. We did enjoy those prawns which Lila quickly fried up in garlic and butter  And by the way did I mention the breakfasts aboard the Maple Leaf each day or the end of trip brunch? Well, you should really go and experience it yourself. In all the adventure and comfort travels I have done, nothing even comes close to this trip. It was simply spectacular. I like to think that years from now my daughter will realize what a special adventure we had but I think she already knows it.

For more beautiful photography by Caroline Penn please see her website

The Art of the Weekend Getaway

September 13, 2011 12:14 pm
Sept11_Photo #2 A glassblower_pg58

As summer days slide into brilliant Fall colors there’s no better time for a cozy weekend getaway. Better still, some of the best Ontario has to offer is right next door. Just hours from Ottawa lie the breathtaking landscapes and quaint country hamlets of Ontario’s Highlands.

Ontario’s Highlands is a new name for a travel region which spans a large part of Eastern Ontario, that includes some of the area that you already know and love, such as Pembroke, Bancroft, Haliburton, Madoc, Smiths Falls, Stirling and Perth. These destinations are perfect getaways for Ottawa residents seeking to shake off city stress. Ontario’s Highlands is also home to the Ottawa Valley which stretches from Ottawa westward to the edge of Ontario’s Algonquin Park. From hiking to canoeing to more urban pursuits such as art gazing, antique shopping and fine dining – Ontario’s Highlands can’t be beat.

Fall is an especially good time to venture out in Ontario’s Highlands – particularly for art lovers. For four weekends from September 10-11 to October 1-2, the Ottawa Valley hosts its annual Rural Ramble. Art studios open up their doors to the public, allowing art buffs to see and speak with artists.

Melissa Marquardt, Marketing Coordinator of the Ottawa Valley Tourist Association, said the Rural Ramble is the Ottawa Valley’s Fall signature event with up to 5,000 tourists attending each year.

Along with the art sampling, the Ramble is “a great way to see the country-side, the beautiful foliage and experience rural living,” Marquardt said.

In partnership with the Rural Ramble, the Madawaska Valley Studio Tour also within the Ottawa Valley, takes place on October 1-2, where visitors can watch 27 top artists forge knives, make handmade soap blow glass, paint, weave and create stain glass and pottery.

But the Fall delights don’t stop there in Ontario’s Highlands. The region includes Lanark County and the nearby by Land O’Lakes area, which also have a lot to offer. While the area’s signature art event takes place over Labour Day weekend there is still much to see and do.

Marie White, Tourism Manager at Lanark County Tourism said Lanark is steeped in artistic tradition. “Our families have been here for generations and different skills have been passed down that are close to our Irish and Scottish heritage.” Artists, Ms. White said, are drawn to the beauty of the area for inspiration. Lanark Country is the Maple Syrup Capital of Ontario and has a high concentration of sugar maples. In the fall, golden sugar maple leaves make a gorgeous contract with rich red maple leaves and white pines.

Other areas of the Ontario’s Highlands region present even more self-guided driving studio tours. In Hastings County, the second largest county in Ontario, you will find the Bancroft and Area Autumn Studio Tour (September 24 and 25 and October 1 and 2.) This studio tour offers the public access to 11 studios from L’Amable through to Lake St. Peter. Established in 1992, the Bancroft tour features ornamental ironwork, fibre arts, wood furniture and carving and leather goods among others.

Hastings County is also home to the Hastings Arts Route (, which offers a trail of painting, pottery, jewelry and photography all unique to the area. An example of the delights to be found is jewelry by Kathryn McDonald – who makes stones and shoreline objects enveloped in copper and sterling silver. To help visitors stick to the arts trail, Hastings County has a series of helpful tourist route signs.

Travelling to the western end of Ontario’s Highlands, the Haliburton County Studio Tour also offers a wide selection of original works and crafts.

While in Haliburton, you won’t want to miss the annual ColourFest ( celebration of fall, scheduled for October 1. In addition to being another great event/location to experience local artists, music is also a highlight of the festival. The lineup includes the Simply Befiddled Musical Trio, The Great Busker Show featuring Mark and Gustavo and the award winning Anne Lindsay Quartet, to name a few. Other highlights include a vintage car parade, a scarecrow contest and a Kid’s Colour Splash aptly described as a “gallery art attack on patio.” Another family favourite is the ColourFest Pet Contest which has awards for best kisser, looks most like owner and best smile.

This Fall, add Ontario’s Highlands to your list of getaway destinations. Whether you visit for a day, a weekend, or more, you won’t be disappointed. For more information, please visit

Weird and Wonderful Venice Beach

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

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

A street performer on the boardwalk

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

The colourful boardwalk of Venice Beach

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

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

Bodybuilding equipment at Muscle Beach

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

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

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

Italy’s Best-Kept Secret

August 17, 2011 12:19 pm
Church of San Vitale

I remember the morning when I woke up to a ceiling with frescos and a crystal chandelier. I was lying alone in a king sized bed in suite of Hotel Vittoria, in Faenza, Italy, where as the legend goes, the great Italian poet Giosuè Carducci used to lodge. So this is Italy, I thought and laid back down again, overwhelmed by the decadence of it all.

Faithful to the best kind of stereo-types, Italy was full of enthusiastic people, beautiful architecture, amazing wine and superb espresso. But our journey was to take us deep into the gastronomical soul of Italy. Our journey took us through the rural towns of northern Italy through a region called Emilia-Romagna, situated between the Adriatic sea and the foothills of the Italian alps. I’m convinced that Emilia-Romagna is Italy’s best-kept (and maybe only) secret.

Our first stop was the Polesine Parmense farm shop in Parma, Italy, where meat is the main event. I have never seen cold cuts from Parma on a menu in Canada and now that I’ve tasted its version of proscuitto and salame and the prized culatello, I’m disappointed that it is not more readily available. These cold cuts are among the best in the world – savory tastes heightened by complementary flavors of spice and pepper. After centuries of perfecting the technique, the farm counts Prince Charles and fashion head Georgio Armani as some of its many culatello patrons.

Since each kilo of culatello (taken from the inner leg of the pig and cured for approximately 20 months), is worth 16 euro, the basement full of pork was worth around two million euros. Its hefty price tag now betrays its origins as peasant food during Roman and medieval times. The fermented meat was able to last longer, key to a poor family’s survival.

After visiting the culatello shop we stopped at Roberto and Giovanni Cavalli’s balsamic vinegar factory. Cavalli’s family had begun making the vinegar as a hobby, using old wine barrels that date back to the 1800’s. Unlike wine, which has to ferment at a constant temperature, balsamic vinegar is perfected by 20 years exposure to fluctuating temperatures. After doing a tasting of the sweet, thick, dark caramel-coloured vinegar, I predicted that any future balsamic vinegar experience in Canada will always come short — if only because recreating the experience would be so costly: a bottle of 100 ml goes for $300-400 dollars US. If you’re curious, the first step to spotting a bona fide bottle of balsamic vinegar is the traditionelle label, which means the vinegar is aged well and adheres to the complicated fermentation process that Cavalli has perfected.

With its offerings of local wine, cheese, meat and produce, the Emilia-Romagna province is a living example of the of the slow food movement, a “non-profit, eco-gastronomic member-supported organization that was founded in 1986 to counteract fast food and fast life, the disappearance of local food traditions and people’s dwindling interest in the food they eat, where it comes from, how it tastes and how our food choices affect the rest of the world.” The movement was in part a reaction to McDonald’s opening near the Spanish steps in Rome. Capitalizing on the anti-consumer, anti-capitalist sentiment Italian Carlo Petrini officially launched the organization three years later, which now boasts over 100,000 members.

Our tour led us through an area and a lifestyle which saw food in a web of interconnected relationships. One of these relationships was with the land, another was with the farmer, another was with the person who was preparing your meal, and another was who you were enjoying your meal with. The slow food movement’s name literally parallels with the eating habits of Italians. All our lunches and dinners took over an hour to consume, some over two and a half hours. In every restaurant, all the other diners were eating at the same pace and people trickled out of the restaurant around midnight. There was a clear integration of consumption with the surrounding environment. Here, in the land of granola bar breakfasts and TV dinners, we seem to have lost that connection to our food and land.

How people dress seems to be with as much pride and flair as their food. When I first arrived, it seemed as though everyone was dressed as a movie star. Actually, that’s not true, they dress classier than movie stars. That I didn’t bring a pair of stilettos was my one regret of the trip. I was mortified that ninety-year-old grandmas were sporting sexier footwear than me.

The churches of Emilia-Romagna, inspired wonder and awe – if slightly contaminated by Dan Brown-esque conspiracies (I caught myself looking for Rose Lines and Mary Magdalene on more than one occasion). What I didn’t expect to encounter was the Byzantine mosaic masterpiece of the Church of San Vitale in Ravenna. Ravenna was the capital city of the Western Roman Empire in during the 4th century AD. The Church was finished around 600 AD and was preserved by the Benedictine monks and is the only remaining church from the Emperor Justantine to survive. The glittering, golden ceilings of San Vitale depict something very different than the frescos from the medieval ages and the Renaissance. The scenes on the walls were of the pre-Christ and focused on the Emperor’s court and the glories of nature. For example, there are over eighty species of birds featured in the mosaic. Legend has it that Gustav Van Klimt studied the cathedral and borrowed the luminescent shapes and colours for his painting The Kiss.

I didn’t fall in love with Italy until the day when we biked from Faenza to Bisighella, a medieval town with a castle perched on the top of three hills. The ride, took the panoramic route from Faenza through the foothills of the Tuscan-Romagnolo Apeninne. It was biking through the lush green farmland, dotted with old castles and farmhouses, that I was struck by historic legacy of the land and overcome by the realization that I was actually, truly there in the hotspot of Western civilization. It was unquestionably the best cycle ride in my life. Biking in Italy is to driving in America. On this trip it also served as my only defence from gaining twenty pounds.

We had many rides but our last bike jaunt was a nauseating shuttle-ride through the route of the Nove Colli, one of the most famous one-day “gran fondi” race or ride in Italy. It took place on May 23, and follows a 210 km route from the harbour of Cesenatico, up and down nine hills, and then back to a finish line on the seafront, which is also the finish line of the granddaddy of Italian bike races, the Giro d’Italia.

After the bike interlude, our tour returned its focus on gastronomy and we were taken to Forlimpopoli. The town is the birthplace of Pellegrino Artusi, a writer on gastronomy who is considered the “father” of Italian cooking. Born in 1820, he traveled the countryside of Italy and collected recipes and methods of cooking, food conservation and food preparation. The recipes were cooked by Marietta, his invaluable right-hand woman, and published in his 1891 bestselling book Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well.

In Forlimopoli, we went to Artusi’s birthplace, the Casa Artusi, which is now a museum and culinary centre. We were taken upstairs to the kitchen and shown how to make piadina, a typical flat bread unique to the coast regions of Emilia Romagna and the Republic of San Marino. After our piadianas, we had a memorable stop at Dozza, a hilltop town which houses the wine museum Enocteca Regionale dell’Emilia Romagna in the 14th century castle in the center of town. Actually, memorable is the wrong word, orgasmic is a better fit. Gian Alfonso Roda, the president of the Emilia Eomagna regional wine museum, had us taste a variety of wines including frizzante and regianno rosso. The last wine, a dessert wine known as passito, was described by Gian as a “meditation” to be enjoyed over a book. Or, as we did, with the traditionelle balsamic vinegar and aged parmesan cheese. If you’re wondering what happened when these three ingredients were combined, I assure you, it was nothing short of a taste-gasm. As people reluctantly left the room I hung back hoping to lick the last of the balsamic vinegar off the plate.

In the best-selling memoir Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert makes a trip through Italy to obsessively eat her way to recovery from her divorce, what her friend calls a “No Carb Left Behind” tour.  She writes, “I am doing rude things to my body in Italy, taking in such ghastly amounts of cheese and pasta and bread and wine and chocolate and pizza dough…I’m not exercising, I’m not eating enough fibre, I’m not taking any vitamins.”

I believe that by gorging, she missed the point. For me, Italy was about enjoying what you had, finding the community in everything you do and cultivating the resources around you with pride. It wasn’t the quantity, but the quality that I’ll remember Emilia-Romagna by.

As Artusi writes, “I should not like my interest in gastronomy to give me the reputation of a gourmand or glutton. I object to such dishonourable imputation, for I am neither. I love the good and the beautiful wherever I find them, and hate to see anyone squander, as they say, God’s bounty. Amen.”



One of the best regional wine is the Lambrusco, a sparkling red that only locals and visitor are treated to as it is made for consumption within the year.

Living La Vida Local

July 29, 2011 11:05 am
Cuba -0045

Unlike the typical Cuban getaway – in mid-winter complete with package tour and all you can eat buffet, I decided to see Cuba in reverse. That is, in full early July heat and staying at the opposite of a resort – at a Cuban home complete with grandma, mum, adult kids and babies – out in the Havana suburbs. It proved to be unforgettable “auténtica experiencia” – and one I would not willingly exchange for the pre-packaged kind.  It’s not often after all, that you get to meet an 85 year old Cuban grandma who spied for Castro during the Revolution, have a Spanish speaking guide or to walk the streets of Havana at 4am with a bunch of newly made Cuban friends. Then there was learning how to hail cabs local style, eating at unknown hole in the wall restaurants and learning how to push your way into a line up for a hot Latin jazz band a la Cubana. It was a week of living la vida local – Cuban crazy, fun, hot and humid – and not for the faint at heart.

Photos by Juan Carlos Gort-Bastardo

For starters, the first thing you discover about Havana is that it well, isn’t Ottawa. While in Ottawa public servants are sensibly tucked into bed recouping from a day pounding the keyboards in an air conditioned office, young Cubans are out all day and night – and they are partying, hard. As my Air Canada flight landed into Havana Airport almost three hours late – turning  a scheduled 9:33pm landing into an after midnight touch down, I was concerned my host family would be sound asleep oblivious to my knocks on the door. Worse still, my cab driver was lost. I need not have worried. My arrival at 1am left my Cuban hosts unfazed and slightly puzzled by my apologies. Eighty five year old Grandma Carmen was on the balcony enjoying a well earned rum along with her daughter Esperanza. In relaxed Cuban style, they were warm and welcoming as I explained in broken Spanish the flight delay and the lost cab driver.

Photos by Juan Carlos Gort-Bastardo

I was offered rum, snacks (dried plantain and fresh mango) and shown my digs. My room did not disappoint. The  room was at the far end of a sprawling, grand-looking Spanish-Cuban style house, complete with 12 foot ceiling, photos of Castro and gorgeous antique furniture. The room was large, with louvered wooden slat screens that opened out into a small garden and a large private luxury bathroom. At $40 Cuban pesos a night with a huge breakfast of fresh, garden picked pawpaw, mango, soursop, toast, omelette, cheese, honeydew melon jam and best of all, thick Cuban style coffee  – it was a bargain. But the best was yet to come – a one week whirlwind tour of Havana with a local – Carmen’s 31 year old grandson Juan-Carlos – who doubled as interpreter, tour guide and photographer, and who has lived in Havana all his life.

Photos by Juan Carlos Gort-Bastardo

My week of living La Vida Local started next morning, after six hours of light sleep at the untimely hour of 8am in the morning.


Tale of Two Cities…Part Two: Bratislava

July 18, 2011 9:00 am
Streets of Old Town Bratislava

In the middle of Europe lies a very small but proud country, with a small but lovely capital city. The country that I speak of is Slovakia and it’s lovely capital – Bratislava. Bratislava is in part, a world divided, with half its foot in the past and the other half brightly in the future, architecturally and aesthetically speaking at least. The most obvious divide exists with the Danube River, which flows through the center of the city and separates the old town from the Communist-built Petrzalka, perhaps equally as interesting but not as aesthetically pleasing as its older counterpart. There is so much history here, that it is a wonder how it all fits into a city with a population of barely 500,000. Bratislava’s geographic location couldn’t be more beautiful, as the city is nestled between the Carpathian mountains and the Danube river. But aside form its history and location, Bratislava is also a city buzzing with  social life, which becomes obvious when one enters any of the many restaurants, trendy cafes and bars, modern shopping centers or galleries alike.

Streets of Old Town Bratislava

Walking through History

The old part of Bratislava is unique: it survived over 40 years of Communist rule, which left the city’s historical buildings neglected and shabby. After the fall, however, large reconstruction projects took place and most of the buildings were returned to their original grandeur. One just needs to walk through the many alleyways and cobble-stone streets of St. Michael’s Gate in order to appreciate the history of the space. It also doesn’t hurt that many of the old buildings have been turned into small cafes, shops, restaurants and bars, which provide both a charming and distinct atmosphere to enjoy a meal or drink. While artists and crafts people set-up shop in various stands throughout the old town, underground wine cellars dot the city and provide a place where one can sneak off and take a sample of wine at virtually any time of the day. Verne cafe, which is located right across the Carleton Hotel and the US Embassy, is one such locale that features authentic Slovak cuisine, keg house wine (“sudove vino”) and an eclectic collection of furniture. In the summer, virtually all restaurants and cafes have outdoor patios, but I am not talking about plastic lawn furniture, it’s white table cloths or carved wooden pub tables and benches for a truly authentic European dining/drinking atmosphere. The Slovak Pub, on Obchodna Street, offers exactly this kind of authentic Slovak eating experience. Complete with historical Slovak farming equipment on display and various other traditional paraphernalia along with organic Slovak food fare and drinks, this place is a must for any tourist keen on trying Slovak food made Bratislava-style.

Old Town

Main Square

If history isn’t your thing, then Eurovea is sure to please. The 2 year old modern construction features funky cafes, trendy restaurants and a large shopping center, all located scenically on the edge of the Danube. The lawns of most establishments here even include large bean-bag seating, comfortable for even the pickiest of guests.  Many locals and tourists alike, congregate here for  food, drinks, shopping and sun – a perfect way to spend a lazy summer afternoon or weekend.


Across the Danube lies Petrzalka, the Communist-built concrete jungle. Although seemingly vast and uniform, even this part of town has its hidden gems and charm. For the shopper in you, there is Aupark – a large shopping center featuring H&M, ZARA, New Yorker etc. Plus a plethora of restaurants, some Slovak, some fusion. It is also a strong reminder of what the regime destroyed, created and left behind. A constant reminder of the Communist functionalist aesthetic.

Petrzalka and the Bratislava Castle

However, one cannot leave this city without visiting Bratislava’s emblem: the Bratislava Castle. Part restaurant, part museum this magnificent structure overlooks the entire city, and gives any visitor an appreciation of the small-in-size but rich-in-culture capital.

Unique Bratislava

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