RV Road Trip — Family of Five – One Heck of a Ride!

March 22, 2009 3:43 pm
rv_mar2010

The idea of traveling in a recreational vehicle (RV) with your spouse and kids for three weeks in the summer sounds like one of those amazing things you need to do in life when your kids are the right age. Imagine traveling for three weeks in extreme comfort in a 35 foot recreational vehicle. I always had an interest in purchasing an RV, so I figured why not rent one for a month and give it the old test drive?

These days, RVs are so sophisticated they can be used year round. In fact, there is a whole stealth community of permanent RV users in North America who virtually live and travel in these “road homes”. Skiers love them too and often you’ll see RVs parked around ski resorts. Of course, summer is still the most popular time for travel.

In Canada, RVs are easy to come by with national chain outlets and local RV dealerships renting them out. A growing number of campgrounds also offer on-site rentals. Most RV rental companies provide “housekeeping” packages (dishes, pots, pans, etc.) for a nominal fee. Even if you’re driving or towing an RV for the first time, features like automatic transmissions, power brakes and steering and extension mirrors on both sides of the vehicle make it easy for experienced drivers to adjust to the difference in size, height, and weight. Our RV was amazing. There was a full bathroom with a shower, a kitchen (with lots of cupboard space), a stove, oven, microwave and refrigerator. There were even two flat screen televisions, which were convenient to have during a rainstorm. There was a bunk bed over the driver’s section and two very comfortable fold-out beds in the front. The design of these RVs is quite exceptional and every detail has been worked out for maximum space and comfort. The sound system was also fantastic.

When I arrived home with the Family Truckster, the kids were very excited. They had loads of fun selecting their sleeping spot and packing the RV for the journey. We took the option of renting a bike rack that easily attached on to the back of the RV. I must admit that driving the 35 foot living room on wheels was much easier than I anticipated. The trick is to always have a spotter when backing up or making slow and wide turns. The rideis very smooth and it really was as easy as driving my car. Never exceeding 100 km per hour, I averaged 750-800 kilometres before spending between $130-150 dollars to fill the tank. This was much better than I had expected. We loaded the vehicle up with a full stock of groceries and we were on our way. I was excited and so were the kids.

The first part of our trip was to take us from Ontario’s Muskoka region through Algonquin Park down to Ottawa, across to Montreal and up to Quebec City, where we planned to stay for 3 days. Part two would take us to New Brunswick followed by a ferry to Nova Scotia and then later another ferry to Maine and back home via Vermont and Quebec. We were ready to roll. I got a Rogers rocket stick so I could get wireless access on my laptop and we were on our way.

 

QUEBEC CITY

Believe it or not, Québec City has an RV park in the middle of Old Québec right next to the port, conveniently situated right next to the city’s bike pathway. After a full day of driving we took the kids to get their sillies out at Village Vacances Valcartier, a massive waterslide park 20 minutes North of Québec City (www.valcartier.com). In winter, it’s a snow tubing park but in summer it transforms into Canada’s largest water-park with rides and slides for everyone. The owners also offer daily white river rafting expeditions on the Jacques Cartier River.

Old Québec has such charm and it really comes alive in the summer. The world renowned Cirque de Soleil presented Chemin Invisible — a free performance all summer long. Cirque performers make their way through the streets of three neighbourhoods in Old Québec and meet at Îlot Fleurie under the Dufferin-Montmorency highway overpass. Their show begins at nightfall and lasts 60 -70 minutes including the parade through the streets. The shows are nightly all summer until Labour Day.

Be sure to catch renowned Québec artist, playwright, film director Robert Lepage’s Image Mill, a mega projection (sound and light show) that recounts Quebec City’s 400 years of history using the Old Port’s 600-metre wide grain silos as a screen. This can be seen nightly from the river front in the old port.

Old Québec City is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is North America’s only remaining fortified city. It celebrated its 400 anniversary in 2008. Different guided walking tours are available through the tourist bureau website (http://www.quebecregion.com). We made our way on our bicycles visiting the Plains of Abraham, the National Assembly Buildings and then biked along the shoreline and back up through the streets of Old Québec gazing at the beautiful murals and well manicured lawns and parks.

 

NEW BRUNSWICK

We left Québec City and made our way north along the St. Lawrence and up past Rivière-du-Loup towards the New Brunswick border. It is a comfortable day’s drive from Québec City to the quaint seaside village of Saint Andrews, New Brunswick, a town that has been welcoming vacationers for more than 100 years. It is home to the Fairmont’s Algonquin Hotel and Algonquin Golf Course is said to be the best course in the Maritimes. The area boasts whale watching, the Huntsman Marine Science Aquarium as well as sea kayaking. We spent a day exploring the Kingsbrae Garden and caught the daily lady bug release. This 27 acre site seems overwhelming on a hot summer day but each section is so different from the last that you never lose interest. I am glad I checked with New Brunswick Tourism who recommended Kingsbrae Garden as a family activity. It was not something I would have thought to do but it turned out to be one of the highlights of our time in New Brunswick.

NOVA SCOTIA

We were excited to leave for our next adventure in Nova Scotia. We drove to Saint John, NB to board the Princess of Acadia ferry (http://www.acadiaferry.com) that would take us from Saint John to Digby, NS.

We strolled the decks and felt the Bay of Fundy wind in our faces as we searched the bay for a whale sighting. We were rewarded, so be sure to bring binoculars.

We rolled off the ferry at Digby at headed for Kejimkujik National Park in Nova Scotia’s interior. This traditional Mi’kmaw land is a 381 square kilometre biosphere reserve rich in plant and animal life. Lake Kejimkujik is affectionately referred to as Keji and is a beautiful dark lake similar in colour to steeped tea. Eighty per cent of Kejimkujik Park is accessible only by canoe, including 46 wilderness camp sites.

 

After thoroughly enjoying biking, swimming and camp fires nights at Keji, we headed out again towards the coast to place called Rissers Beach Provincial Park (www.novascotiaparks.ca). RV camping does not get any better than at Rissers. This is literally RV camping on the beach where you can experience firsthand the splendour of the Atlantic. The kids spent the days in the water swimming and building sandcastles and running along the extensive boardwalk alongside the beach. The roar of the surf, the warmth of a fire, a great beach and a wonderful home cooked meal courtesy of the RV kitchen — RV life on the road really doesn’t get any better. Camp or visit the beach for the day.

Along the south shore, there are numerous family activities and stops that are worthwhile including the scenic village of LaHave, NS – capital of New France from 1632-1636, and now a National Historic Site.

We left Rissers to drive to Lunenburg, a famous seaport and British settlement founded in 1753. In its glory days it was the Maritimes’ shipbuilding capital and important offshore fishing sea port. It is the birthplace of the Bluenose and home to the High Liner Fish company. Today tourism is the major industry and the importance of the town has been recognized by UNESCO, who named it a world heritage site because of its unique architecture which features grand churches, wooden houses and a rectangular grid layout that is one of the best examples of a British colonial settlement. We spent several hours visiting Lunenburg’s Fisheries Museum of the Atlantic and toured the aquarium.

The next morning we drove along the Atlantic Coast toward Peggy’s Cove. You could see the Atlantic ocean crashing up against the rocks. We toured the small community and then had a hearty breakfast at the Peggy’s Cove Restaurant. The children were excited and asking all kinds of questions about our adventure for the day, sea kayaking.

We had arranged to go out for several hours in Margaret’s Bay with Eastcoast Outfitters (www.eastcoastoutfitters. net). Margaret’s Bay was at one time a small fishing village but that industry has collapsed and the locals turned to the area’s natural beauty and resources making tourism and outdoor recreational activity a key part of their economic development.

This shop is first class all the way with top notch equipment and excellent guides. We were outfitted with life vest, paddles and skirts and then matched with our own kayaks. We headed out with our super friendly, expert guide, Paul (a former Department of Fisheries and Oceans civil servant from Ottawa) who had retired and returned to Nova Scotia to live the ‘dream’. He was an excellent kayaker and we felt completely safe with him as we manoeuvred for a two-hour trip along the coast, sticking close to the shore around sheltered coves. Paul explained the local marine life in the shallow water and told us stories of the community and the sea. (www. eastcoastoutfitters.ne).

We left Margaret’s Bay and made our way into Halifax for a late afternoon and early evening of walking around. We took in the Busker Festival and visited the port area. Nova Scotia has over 550 festivals each year (www. novascotia.com) including Lobster festival, Scallop Festival, Tall Ship Festivals just to name a few..

The next morning we drove the fifty miles north of Halifax to experience the full effect of the Fundy Tides in at Tidal Bore Rafting Park. Tidal bore rafting is similar to white water rafting but instead of riding river water you ride a tidal bore. As water from the ocean rushes inward and crashes into the water exiting towards the ocean. Riding the tide is one of the craziest but greatest experiences you can do with your family. After a couple of hours of tidal bore rafting you then get to go mud sliding. This is a uniquely Canadian experience and was the favourite moment of the trip for all of us. Bring old clothes, sneakers and lots of soap. The site is open year round but tidal bore rafting is from May to October (http://www.tidalboreraftingpark.com).

Next up was Annapolis Royal, home to Canada’s earliest settlers and originally known as the Habitation at Port-Royal. Founded by Samuel de Champlain in 1605, Port-Royal changed hands many times and ultimately surrendered to the English in 1710. It was the capital of Nova Scotia for about 40 years until Halifax took over the title in the 1750s. Annapolis Royal is said to be one of the oldest continuously populated towns in North America. We parked the RV on a side street and wandered around in this idyllic town where time seems to stand still. We visited the Fort Anne National Historic Site and the Annapolis Basin Museum. Both are very impressive and provide insight into the daily life in New France. After two weeks in the RV, we decided to stay one night at the Auberge Wandlyn Inn Hotel in Annapolis Royal.

The next morning we were up and on our way to the Digby Scallop festival. After touring around Digby, we headed towards Yarmouth to get the afternoon CAT Ferry to Maine. The Discovery Channel called her one of the World’s Top 10 “Super Ships” and you feel like you are on the bridge of the Enterprise from Star Trek. Serving Maine and Nova Scotia – two of the world’s top vacation destinations – The CAT’s 6 hour service from Yarmouth to Bar Harbor or Portland, Maine can save 12-16 hours of driving time. We loved the sleek looking ferry and enjoyed its movie theatres, and on-board dining. We arrived relaxed and refreshed in Maine ready to take our RV road trip to the United States. The CAT Ferry was phenomenal. Sadly, in December 2009 the service was permanently cancelled due to a downturn in the economic climate. Hopefully this wonderful service will return to ferry people between Novas Scotia and Maine in the not-to-distant future.

 

We arrived in Maine at 9:00 p.m. and quickly cleared customs. We had a short twenty minute drive north to our destination, the LL Bean 24 hour store in Freeport, Maine. One of the cool things about LL Bean is that RVs can park for free overnight in the oversized lot. We joined about ten other RVs and shut down for the night. After a half day in Freeport, we were anxious to get to our next stop which was Kennebunkport, Maine. We hit the jackpot when we pulled into the beautiful Salty Acres Campground, located just outside the village of Kennebunkport near Goose Rocks Beach. Salty Acres has seen several generations of families returning annually. RVers and campers can choose an open sunny campsite or a quiet wooded one. We chose a wooded patch close to the entranceway and only meters from the campground’s pool. The campsite has wonderful bicycle trails. It was good to just lay low and enjoy the area and the RV for a couple of days.

We had a nice campfire and did all the campfire songs and stories and just really enjoyed the atmosphere. On our second day, we decided to go into the town Kennebunkport to get lunch at the famous Clam Shack, a legendary lunch place right in the middle of town. Voted by Epicurious.com as one of the top ten seafood shacks in America, the Clam Shack serves up fried clams that persuade food-loving travelers (including us) to detour many, many miles for the taste of these deep fried morsels. The lobster rolls at the Clam Shack also are said to be the best in Maine and after 30 years of making their famous lobster rolls at the Clam Shack, Steve decided to create “The Maine Lobster Roll Kit”. Each Kit Includes: 1lb of fresh picked lobster meat, 6 traditional Maine rolls, 3oz of Clam Shack mayonnaise and a recipe card. We also took a couple of pounds of lobster back for a dinner boil at Salty Acres that evening.

Maine is a summer hotspot for tourists and there are lots of them. However, there is a lot to do and it is easy to take advantage of the numerous beaches. We found the best beaches were York Beach, Ogunquit Beach but my personal favourite was Goose Rocks. After three weeks, we were beached out, lobstered out and biked out. It was time to go home but none of us were RV’d out. It was so comfortable and compact, we had become quite used to it. It was a leisurely day’s drive from Maine through New Hampshire and up through Green Mountains area of Vermont. We stopped for lunch at a wonderful diner in Montpelier, Vermont and then headed north to the border and home to Ottawa. Would we do it again? In a minute. Do we recommend it for any family? Absolutely. Am I proud to be an RV Man? Damn straight. n

 

NOTE: Our RV came from Motor Home Travel Canada Inc. in Bolton, Ontario. They provide excellent customer care and gave us great advice on how to maximize our RV experience.http://www.motorhometravel. com.

Reserve campsites at Nova Scotia Provincial Park early as they book up early (Reservations accepted after April 3, 2010).

NOTEABLE RV RESORTS IN NOVA SCOTIA: White Point Beach Resorthttp://www.whitepoint.com, Hubbards Beach Campground and Cottageshttp://www.hubbardsbeach.com, Dunromin Campsite & Cabins, Granville Ferry, NShttp://www.dunromincampsite.com/

If you are visiting Halifax-Dartmouth and are in a RV or camping you can‘t do better than Shubie Park Campground conveniently located in Dartmouth on the quiet shores of Lake Charles. Here you’ll enjoy a peaceful, wooded setting but can hop on your bike and easily get to the greater Halifax area. We enjoyed the hustle and bustle of metropolitan Halifax in the day and the tranquility of Shubie at night. http://www.shubiecampground.com

 

BELGIUM AND LUXEMBOURG — The Way Life Should Be

March 21, 2009 3:48 pm
luxem2_mar2010

LuxembourgWe can learn a lot about life from the Europeans. They take immense pleasure in good food, good wine, friends, family, music, theatre and history. While we appreciate those things here in North America, over there, it’s different. We always seem to be in a hurry, wanting things now. In Europe, people seem to be much more relaxed. Last June, my 11-year-old daughter and I had the opportunity to experience that joie de vivre first-hand during a trip to Brussels, Flanders and Luxembourg. The trip was as stimulating for me as a parent as it was magical for my daughter. We were with a small group of families and by the end of it we were one big family.

For any trip with children, the flight is a big deal. It’s an adventure. I, on the other hand, am a nervous flyer and stress out during every take-off and landing. The first time I flew with my kids, my 5-year-old was so excited she started clapping in the middle of take-off. As I watched her complete joy, I briefly forgot to be afraid. So when Madi and I took off on American Airlines for Brussels six years later, I was determined not to show my fear. To distract us, (well, me anyway), we looked at our itinerary for the trip. We had all kinds of things lined up but Madi was focused on one thing: swimming. Her entire focus was on Oceade (http://www.oceade.com), a water park outside of Brussels with a subtropical swimming pool, slides and a wave pool. She and I spent so much time talking about it that before I knew it, we were airborne.

Luxembourg

We arrived in Brussels on a bright sunny morning and took a brief ride with Fun Cars Taxi from Brussels Airport to Brussels city centre where we checked in at the Novotel Tour Noire (http://www.novotel.com). Novotels are fantastic places to stay in Europe with a quality of hospitality and service that is consistent wherever you are. They feature modern rooms with all of the amenities and most importantly, for me, wireless access to keep in touch with my home and office while away.

Feeling a little jet-lagged, we went to Mini Europe (http://www.minieurope.eu). Mini Europe is one of those wacky ideas that actually works. It features miniature built-to-scale buildings of some of the most famous places in Europe, such as the British Houses of Parliament or Italy’s Leaning Tower of Pisa. For kids, it’s a trip through Europe in a park. While walking through the exhibits, they learn about the European Union and much of the history of the continent. It is unique and surprisingly inspirational.


Right next to Mini Europe was Oceade and so after a quick lunch we ventured over. The place is enormous with a wide selection of pools and slides. One slide in particular, the Anaconda, is to be avoided at all cost. Don’t do it. Jet-lagged and lacking judgment, I naively went up the stairwell to the Anaconda. It is eight stories high and features a vertical drop of about the same with 5 big loops. I am still pulling the thread from my bathing suit out of my teeth. Madi wanted to go twice. We didn’t.

Our next stop was the Atomium (http://www.atomium.be), the most famous building in Belgium and home of the 1958 World Fair of Brussels (equivalent to Canada’s Expo ’67 building).

Luxembourg

We spent the rest of the afternoon strolling through the beautiful cobblestone streets of Brussels, surely one of the most beautiful cities in Europe. There are Belgian chocolate shops on every corner, beer cafés on every street and a cheeriness about the place that was very comforting. Madi was excited about the buildings and how different they were from back home. She also kept asking me about the bronze statues depicting the little boy peeing that seemed to be in every shop window. That was a goodexcuse to stop, have a beer, get her an ice cream and tell her the story behind the statue.

We had dinner in a restaurant called Babeko (http://www.babeko.be), which was right next to the hotel. We tried the tossed pan-fried scampi in garlic and smoked salmon in a crispy corn wrap and salad followed by the entrecote of grilled beef. Dinner ended with crème brûlée. All in all, it was a great first day.

The next morning, we left for Luxembourg City, a scenic three-hour drive from Brussels. We checked in at Hotel Novotel Luxembourg Centre.

Luxembourg is a multilingual, cosmopolitan and thoroughly modern European city that continues to honour its heritage and culture through the preservation of its historic sites and investments in its many museums, concert halls and theatres.

The old section of the city is classified by UNESCO as a Heritage site. Luxembourg City rests in a valley and was a nexus for conquerors over the centuries and is truly at the heart of European culture and history. We visited the newly restored Casemates, a network of 23 kilometres of underground galleries carved from the mountainous rocks that surround this part of the city. The Luxembourg fortress represents different influences of European military architecture as it has changed hands many times over the centuries. Italian, Spanish, Belgian, French, Austrian, Dutch and German engineers have all influenced the look of Luxembourg today and Europeans often refer to parts of the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg as “Little Switzerland”. We weaved our way through the caves and the flower-lined historic streets of old Luxembourg, stopping at the Museum café for a mid-afternoon chocolate coffee & ice cream drink. Reenergized, we continued on with our tour guide who showed us the Grand Duke’s residence, the Grand Ducal Palace, the Notre Dame Cathedral and the city’s Grand Theatre. The tour guide was excellent and kept things interesting for the kids, mixing in bits of trivia with the more formal explanations.

We went for dinner at the Brasserie Guillaume (http://www.brasserieguillaume.lu),in the heart of old Luxembourg.We sat outside on a wondrous night and enjoyed the house specialty (scallops and pasta) and a delicious Belgian chocolate waffle dessert. I also tried several of Luxembourg’s wines which are clearly world class. (Unfortunately, because of the LCBO monopoly, we can’t get them in Ontario).

luxembourgOn Canada Day, we took a one-hour train trip to Vianden. (The train station/metro is a short walk from the Novotel in Luxembourg City). Our first stop was Vianden Castle (http://www.castle-vianden.lu), which was built between the 11th and 14th century on the foundations of an old Roman “castellum”. Until the 15th century, the Castle was the epicentre for many of Europe’s most influential counts. It towers above the city. We took a chairlift to the top and joined a group tour with a very knowledgeable and funny tour guide. The kids loved him. The history of the Castle came to life with his stories about the Byzantine Gallery, the Grand Palace, the Grand Kitchen, the Knights Hall and the Well. I marvelled at the wonderful condition of this historic building and the modern touches that had been added to make it accessible to visitors. The Luxembourg government initiated a stimulus program several years ago (pre-recession) to invest in all of its castles, upgrading them. This had the triple effect of providing work for craftsmen, preserving the heritage nature of the buildings and contributing to increased tourism at these marvellous historic sites (which help offset the overall costs).

Luxembourg offers special family passes that allow tourists to pay one price to see multiple venues. It’s all very smart. After the Castle tour, we traipsed up the road and here, in the heart of the Ardennes, we went zip lining. I did a few and then decided to spot for my daughter who seemed to take to the zip lines like a monkey to trees. The day kept getting better as we lunched at Oranienburg (http://www.hoteloranienburg.com), located at the foot of the Vianden Castle. Maybe it was the sunny day, the wonderful company or the friendly hosts at the restaurant, but the lunch that day was one of the highlights of the entire trip.

We took the next ninety minutes to walk down the valley back into the town of Vianden and Madi surprised me by wanting to visit the home of the great author Victor Hugo. Vianden was a cherished retreat for Hugo and he lived in the centre of the town right next to the river. Madi knew all about Hugo (way to go Ontario’s public school system!) and she seemed genuinely thrilled to be in his house where he wrote some of his greatest works. We ended the day back in Luxembourg City dining at Restaurant am Tiirmchen. The food was spectacular. We followed dinner with a two-hour stroll through the city, stopping at a café to take it all in.


LuxembourgThe next morning in the town of Echternach (http://www.echternach-tourist.lu), we visited the cathedral and then headedoffonaguidedwalkthroughthe lush forests and trails of the Mullerthal-Trail (http://www.mullerthal-trail.lu). This region is called Luxembourg’s Little Switzerland and is popular with hikers, campers and people who love the outdoors. We stopped for a picnic lunch before heading back to Brussels on a tour bus.

If I were to make a list of the top ten things to see in Europe with your kids, one of them would definitely be the Ommegang (http://www.ommegang.be). This annual event in July is a three-hour play that transforms the Grote Market in the centre of Brussels into a huge theatrical procession. Over three thousand actors take part in the play that replicates a feast and party given in the 16th century to honour Charles Quint and his Court. The city sets up bleachers to allow for 10,000 spectators. There are spectacular costumes, lighting and stories. There are jesters, princesses, princes, kings, queens and a wonderful spectacle at the end of the show where 40 men on stilts joust with each other until the last one standing is declared the winner. It is theatre on a grand scale that is entertaining, informative and a whole lot of fun.

A guided tour in Brussels with kids has to include a stop at the Meet Comic Strip Center (http://www.comicscenter.net/en/home). Belgium, of course, is the home of the famous Tin Tin comic book series (soon to be a movie by Steven Spielberg). It’s worth staying for lunch at the Comic Center’s restaurant, Brasserie Horta (http://www.brasseriehorta.be). There is so much to see and do in Brussels but I suggest you split your time by covering two museums per day then spending the rest of your day exploring the old city streets. The sights and sounds are fabulous and also help you build an appetite for one of the great specialty meals of Belgium, Moules Frites. The most famous Moules Frites restaurant in Belgium is Chez Léon (http://www.chezleon.be) in Brussels. The restaurant has been in the same family for over a century, knows its mussels and has numerous recipes to serve them up.

LuxembourgThe next morning it was off to Bruges, making a stop first in Damme. We took a two-hour guided bike tour along the canals and through little villages, farmland and marshy areas around Damme. It was spectacular. There are hundreds of kilometres of routes. Belgium has a series of bed and breakfasts along this pathway and I am determined to come back with our entire family to spend a week just biking all the paths. It is an incredible recreational and cultural activity. We stopped for a light lunch of chicken stew and dumplings (local dishes), at a local Stampershoeve farm offered by Tourism Damme. This farm also served as a bed and breakfast. We then departed by river boat from Damme to Bruges.

Bruges was touristy but it still has a charm of its own. Bruges is sort of like Ottawa’s Parliament Buildings. If you are in Ottawa for the first time, you have to visit the Hill and if you are in Belgium for the first time, you have to go to Bruges. But it is worth the trip and will not disappoint. We checked in at the Hotel Novotel Centre. The hotel has a great lounging area, an outdoor pool and is situated in the heart of the city. We took a guided tour through Bruges, which included a boat trip through the city’s canals.

The last night of our trip proved to be another highlight for both Madi and I. We attended a medieval dinner (Be a Royal at Bruges Anno 1468) at an old church that had been turned into a dinner theatre, (http://www.celebrationsentertainment.be/en/index.html). There were several hundred guests in this grand old cathedral all seated at tables with white linen settings and grand candelabras. Between courses, actors partook in swordfights and gamesmanship, song and magic. At one point, a falconer and his assistant brought in a very large hawk and a very large owl. The birds flew from one end of the Cathedral to the other barely over the top of the heads of the audience. The kids loved it. I just kept hoping the birds weren’t going to land on my head.

The return home left us with thoughts of the marvellous people we met, the wonderful journey, the great food and the generosity and cheerful demeanour of the people in Belgium and Luxembourg. Even though we were there for a week, it seemed to pass like weekend. We saw much but it left us wanting more.

For information on Luxembourg visit, http://www.visitluxembourg.com For information on Brussels and Flanders visit, http://www.visitflanders.us


The World’s Most Beautiful Voyage

March 19, 2009 4:00 pm
travel_dec2009

The 7 day cruise headed up the Norwegian Fjords past the Arctic Circle and ended in the northern town of Kirkenes, a twenty minute drive from the Russian border. Due to the Gulf Stream, the climate is temperate but because of the high latitude, during the winter, there are a number of cold spells with temperatures hovering around -10°C. Nevertheless, the average winter temperature is about 0 to -5°C and Norwegian Arctic Waters remain ice free year round.

Bergen, a coastal city surrounded by seven mountains, was founded in 1070. It is an historic place that retains its small town charm while having a modern and cosmopolitan feel. UNESCO named the old buildings at “Bryggen” (Bergen’s old wharf) to its world heritage list, recognizing their importance as well as the significance of Bergen’s historic harbour, the Rosenkranz Tower and its famous fish within minutes.

Today, Bergen is known as the cultural gateway to the Norwegian Fjords and the starting point of the Hurtigruten Northern Lights Cruise (http://www.hurtigruten.us). We arrived one day before departure and stayed at the charming and comfortable First Hotel Marin (www.firsthotels. no/marin) in the city centre, a block away from the fish market and historic boardwalk shops. These shops sell a variety of Norwegian trinkets, including the famous Norwegian owns.

Bergen rests in a valley. There are homes on the various mountains surrounding the town that are accessible via a trolley that runs up the side of Mount Floien. We took it to the Floien Folker restaurant that sits atop the mountain overlooking the city. It serves hearty local fare (lamb, beef, stews) and features an exceptional view of Bergen and its historic harbour below. At night, with the city lights, it’s a magical place. We could see our ship in the harbour below.

The next evening we boarded the MS Trollfjord, decorated by Norwegian artists and features Norwegian wood and stone throughout the interior. Large 10 foot windows let the natural light and scenery into the public areas. Even the elevators are made of glass.

VoyageThe sauna and fitness area are located on the top deck. There is also a large, outdoor jacuzzi where my son and I would hibernate for lengthy periods, enjoying the spectacular views of passing fjords as we sailed north. The temperature outside might have been -10°C but inside the jacuzzi it was 80. The ship boasts numerous bars, restaurants, lounge areas, a library, and even an internet café.

The food was superb.We ate a lifetime worth of omega 3’s. Smoked salmon, lobster, arctic char, cod herring, capers, caviar, you name the fish and the ship’s kitchen served it. Specialties included reindeer steak with lignon berries, grilled trout,baked cod and cloudberry cream.Fruit,cereals,desserts and drinks also don the healthy menu that made mealtime a gastronomic delight. The main restaurant featured a panoramic view on all sides so you could see both the passing fjords, fishing boats and other heavy ships making their way along the coast.

Over the next 7 days, we enjoyed watching the gradual transitions from the populated, lush southern regions of the Norwegian coastline to the more sparse landscapes, north of the Arctic Circle.

VoyageThe Hurtigruten company traces its origins more than one hundred years back; it was established in 1893 by government contract to improve communications along Norway’s long, jagged coastline. Hurtigruten, which roughly translates as “the express route,” was a substantial breakthrough and lifeline for communities along the coast. In the early days, the job of sailing the then poorly charted waters was especially difficult during the long, dark winters. However, mail and goods from central Norway to Hammerfest which had previously taken three weeks in the summer and up to five months in winter, could now be delivered in a mere seven days. Over time, the Hurtigruten service expanded to the current round trip between Bergen in the southwest, and Kirkenes in the far northeast. A fleet of 11 ships ensures that each of the 34 ports is visited twice daily; once by northbound and once by southbound ships.

In the 1980s, the role of Hurtigruten changed as operating subsidies were gradually phased out and the operators put more emphasis on tourism. New, bigger and more luxurious ships, such as the MS Trollfjord, were introduced. Today, Hurtigruten still serves important passenger and cargo needs and operates 365 days a year. Our ship may have been a wonderful tourist cruise ship, but it still carried cargo and made deliveries and pickups in each of the ports en route.

Norway is the world’s seventh largest oil exporter and the petroleum industry accounts for approximately a quarter of its GDP. Following the ongoing financial crisis of 2007-09, the IMF deemed the Norwegian krone to be one of the most solid currencies in the world. Norway also has rich resources of gas fields, hydropower, fish, forests and minerals. The country is the second largest exporter of seafood (in value, after the People’s Republic of China) in 2006. Other main industries include shipping, food processing, shipbuilding, metals, chemicals, mining, fishing and pulp and paper products.

VoyageNorway maintains a Scandinavian welfare model with universal healthcare, subsidized higher education and a comprehensive social security system. Norway was ranked highest of all countries in human development from 2001 to 2007, and in 2009 was ranked as the best country to live in by the UN. It was also rated the most peaceful country in the world in a 2007 survey by Global Peace Index.

To get the most out of the cruise, we took advantage of the port stops. Our first port of call was Ålesund (www.visitalesund.com). I was captivated by its beauty. Ålesund defines the ingenuity, innovation and determination of the Norwegian people. In January 1904, in one of the most terrible fires in Norwegian history, Ålesund, built largely of wood, was destroyed in the dead of winter, leaving 10,000 people without shelter or food. Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany who had often vacationed in the Ålesund region, sent aid and assistance to the population. The Norwegian government then completely rebuilt Ålesund in stone, brick and mortar in the Art Nouveau architectural style of the time. The structures were designed by approximately 20 master builders and 30 Norwegian architects drawing inspiration from all over Europe. The town has an unusually consistent architecture, and Ålesund is a partner city of the Art nouveau network, a European network of cooperation created in 1999 for the study, safeguards and development of the Art nouveau. It is truly a masterpiece of urban design and planning mixed with art.

Our next port stop was Trondheim, Norway’s third largest city, founded by Viking King Olav Tryggvason in the 9th century. Trondheim is also home to the Nidaros Cathedral, (Norway’s only Gothic Style Cathedral) which was built over the burial place of St.Olav, Norway’s patron saint.

VoyageTrondheim is now a commercial and cultural centre offering a wide range of shops, restaurants, bars and night clubs. The Concert Hall (Olavshallen), home of the Trondheim Symphony Orchestra, attracts international artists. Trøndelag Teater is Norway’s oldest institutional theatre. Music lovers are recommended to visit the unique Music History Museum at Ringve. Trondheim is also university town with over 25,000 students, a key segment of the local economy and a big part of the modern day life in this ancient Viking capital. We visited a Viking museum and attended a traditional Viking dinner in a Viking longhouse. It was kind of campy but lots of fun. The theme of the night was Take a Liking to a Viking. The menu included local lamb, potatoes, turnips and carrots, 9th century Viking cuisine. And of course, Viking outfits were de rigueur.

In the early morning, we crossed over the Arctic Circle and our search for the Northern Lights began. We decided to do this while relaxing in the jacuzzi on the upper deck. It was not long before we caught a glimpse of them dancing in the skies. It is truly a sight to behold.

Our next port of call was Bodø (www. visitbodo.com), north of the Arctic Circle. Bodø is home to The National Norwegian Aviation Museum or Norsk Luftfartsmuseum, (www.luftf art.museum.no).

We arrived in Tromsø, (www.visitromso.com) ready for a “reindeer excursion.” The city, north of the Arctic Circle, is a modern and cosmopolitan place with all the amenities you would find in any major European city. Tromsø is surrounded by the beauty of the Lyngen Alps, blue fjords and hundreds of islands. Tromsø is known for its 2 months of midnight sun and its lively, colourful downtown that is rich in Arctic history. My biggest regret was that we did not experience its wonderful alpine ski hills. I am located everywhere along the coast in Norway.

The Sami are an indigenous people who form an ethnic minority in Norway, Sweden and Finland.There is also a small population on Russia’s Kola Peninsula. From about the sixteenth century, Sami have inhabited nearly all of the Nordic countries, and now have permanent settlements. In Norway there are believed to be between 40,000 and 45,000 Sami, largely concentrated in Finnmark, where there are some Ddetermined to return and explore their world class ski facilities. A short 30 minute bus ride to just outside the city, we met up with our Sami guides for some reindeer sledding. This is much more of an art than it is a mode of transportation.Luckily, we had two capable Sami reindeer herders to help us to master the task. I must admit to being afraid of the reindeer and so I decided to take a pass. However, my fearless son seemed to get along with them just fine so off he went on his reindeer ride. I walked down to the shore to check out the stockfish racks I had noticed on our way in. Stockfish are unsalted fish, especially cod, dried by sun and wind on wooden racks on the foreshore called flakes, or in special drying houses. Dried stockfish have a storage life of several years. The method is cheap and effective and the resulting product is easily transported to market. These drying houses are 25,000. Sweden has about 17,000 Sami, Finland around 5,700 and Russia approximately 2,000.

VoyageThe museum is built on the same site as a German airfield from the Second World War. The present day airport is next to the museum and was one of the most important military air bases during the Cold War. Over the years, both military and civil aviation have contributed to the accumulation of considerable expertise in Bodø. A unique exhibit at the museum shows the building of Canada’s Muskoka Airport north of Toronto. In 1943, Norway obtained woodlands and an airfield within Muskoka for the Royal Norwegian Air Force (RNAF) to construct barracks and an airfield under the British Air Commonwealth Training Plan.The instructional camp, built by the Norwegians, opened on May 4, 1942. Over 3,000 Norwegian Air Force personnel travelled to Muskoka’s “Little Norway” to train as pilots and aircrew before returning to the battlefields of Europe.

After the reindeer excursion, we enjoyed a traditional Sami lunch and listened to storytelling and Sami songs about their unique and complex culture (www.visitnorway.com/en/ Articles/Theme/About-Norway/ Culture/The-Sami/). On our way back to the Port of Tromsø,we noticed many impressive bridges along the route which help connect the various parts of the city. Officials were proud to point out that many of these bridges are initially toll bridges but once the bridge is paid for (via the tolls), the tolls are dropped and citizens can then access them for free. What a concept. (Hello OTTAWA CITY HALL! Maybe you should visit Tromsø to learn how to effectively build public infrastructure that is revenue neutral).

Next up was a stop at Honningsvag and the North Cape excursion (www.northcape.no), which I absolutely recommend. We travelled by bus to the North Cape, mainland Europe’s northernmost point. More than simply a geographical landmark, North Cape features ice cold raw, Arctic scenery at a vantage point that lets you see the sea, the mountains and the breadth of the Norwegian landscape. It is truly a stunning place and one of Norway’s national treasures. We departed Honningsvag for the port of Kjollefjord, where, upon arrival, we left the ship to travel over land on snowmobiles. The ship followed the coast and met up with us three hours later. We donned Arctic snowsuits and heavy boots and headed out as part of a group of 20 snowmobilers. Our guides were all friendly, local fellows who all worked in Kjollefjord. They explained that the town business was built on energy harnessed from the Arctic wind, pointing out numerous large windmills that dotted the landscape. The windmills provided the energy to run everything in the entire town — and then some. It is Norwegian ingenuity at work again. The guides were focused on safety and so my comfort level was high. The Arctic snowmobile ride was a two and a half hour journey that ended far too soon.

www.visitnorway.com/en/ Articles/Theme/About-Norway/ Culture/The-Sami/Our final port of call was the northern city of Kirkenes (www.kirkenesinfo. no). The city borders both Russia and Finland. Geographically, Kirkenes is as far east as St. Petersburg and Cairo. Russian signposts, Finnish language, Sami culture and the Barents Sea all intercept in Kirkenes. We stayed at the Our guides asked us to jump into the Arctic Ocean and float for twenty minutes to get used to the buoyancy of the suits. It was quite a surreal experience. My son loved it but I kept thinking that whales might view my orange body as a lunch buffet treat. As I floated, a scuba diver surfaced next to me with two large king crabs and promptly announced, “lunch”. True to his word, we made our way back to the lodge and feasted on king crab scooped up from the ocean floor.

Next up was Arctic dog sledding (www.birkhusky.no). This was the highlight of the trip. We covered 15 km of trail at night with a 7 dog team. I have always been nervous around dogs and the trick with these huskies is to let them know who is the boss. Once they start running, you need to control the reins and the foot brake that stops the dogs in their by the owners of the dog-sledding company on their property. We were served a hot meal of reindeer stew and wine as we recovered from the exhilarating dogsled ride, under the Northern Lights.

The next morning we boarded a flight from Kirkenes to Oslo (www. visitoslo.com). After checking in at the Hotel Bristol (www.thonhotels. com/bristol) in the centre of Oslo, we spent the rest of the day walking around this grand and historic capital. The temperature was just below zero as a light snow fell and the city was lit up like a Christmas tree. I took my son for hot chocolate in the grand square by the royal palace and he said, “Dad, I think Norway is a real special place”. That pretty well says it all.

For more information:
www.VisitNorway.com/us
Social Media:
http://www.facebook.com/VisitNorwayUSA
http://twitter.com/VisitNorwayUSA
http://www.youtube.com/user/visitnorwaycom
Check out a cool Northern Lights game:
http://www.visitnorway.com/us/mynorthernlights/

Fractional Cottage Ownership at Frontenac Shores

Written by Rachael Donovan

FrontenacFrontenac Shores, in Ontario’s Land O’Lakes region, is the place to escape hectic schedules and savour Canada’s four seasons. This is cottage living as it was meant to be.


Located on the spring fed Mississagagon Lake just under two hours from Ottawa, Frontenac Shores cottages boast over 2,000 feet of fabulous private shoreline with three sandy beaches. Surrounded by the Canadian Shield topography and the pristine shoreline with its many crown land bays and islands, the view is breathtaking.

This area of Ontario offers something for every season and for all people, regardless of age and stage in life. In the spring and summer, golfing at a well-groomed executive course is a mere five minute drive away. A full array of water activities is available for watersports fans, including fishing, swimming, canoeing, kayaking, white water rafting and motorized boating.

During the fall,the autumn foliage will dazzle as you hike or bike on trails that run directly from the property. You can also venture a few minutes further and enjoy the trail systems at the beautiful Bon Echo Provincial Park.

In the winter, enjoy door front skating or a fun game of hockey on the lake. After enjoying the fresh winter air, unwind in a private sauna and then cozy up to a spectacular stone fireplace while taking in the winter wonderland panorama.

FrontenacSounds good doesn’t it? When we think of cottage living, we think of peace, tranquility and nature. However, the reality of full cottage ownership maintenance and related costs is quite different. There are the “getting the cottage ready to open” and the “closing the cottage down” rituals. Many people accept these responsibilities as the cost of enjoying cottage life but the good news is that you don’t have to, thanks to Frontenac Shores cottages. Frontenac offers only the good side of cottage living, worry and hassle free. The proprietors Pat and Dave Storms explain that as a Frontenac Shores cottage owner, you have a luxurious cottage that is fractionally-owned, fractionally-priced and fractionally-expensed, while at the same time being fully-managed and fully-maintained, right down to the onsite tended herb gardens.

As a Frontenac Shores cottage owner, you are truly buying Canadian – from the authentic log cottage to the beautifully crafted solid wood high-end furniture. The cottages are built to last by Confederation Log Homes. They boast vaulted ceilings with panoramic views, gourmet kitchens, hardwood and ceramic throughout, an air jet whirlpool bath in the master ensuite, a gas fireplace, screened porch with an enclosed private sauna and a sundeck with a BBQ. Can’t leave technology behind? Don’t worry. The convenience of high speed internet, telephone service, and satellite television are at your fingertips. The furnishings are exquisite and the cottage contains everything you could possible need or desire. There is no roughing it here. This is five-star resort living at a fraction of the cost.

But how does it work? Admittedly, initially the concept may be a bit hard to grasp. With fractional ownership, you share ownership of the cottage, including the land it sits on, the furniture, fixtures, equipment, the club house and all other amenities exclusive to the property. There are 10 shares per cottage and you can purchase up to 7 shares. You have permanent ownership of your share(s) in the cottage and have exclusive use of it for a pre-determined amount of time.

FrontenacYour cottage and surrounding property are cared for on a full-time basis by on-site property managers who answer to the owners’ association board of directors. Services include an inventory and housekeeping check between visits to ensure your vacation home is spotless and has fresh linens. As a fractional owner, there are also annual fees to cover the maintenance of the cottage, grounds and amenities. The fees take care of things like garbage removal, insurance, utilities, taxes on the property as well as a reserve for replacement and/ or refurbishing of the cottage and property management services.

Expenses are based on the number, size and value of the fraction you own. In this way you pay for and maintain only what you use, as opposed to full ownership where you would be responsible for 100 per cent of the operating costs. As with any property purchase, you own it and so can sell your share should you wish to do so. You can also loan your time slot(s) to friends or family and/ or rent it to whomever you please and charge whatever you want. It is your property. As a real perk, should you wish to shake things up a bit, Frontenac Shores also offers worldwide exchange opportunities where you can use some of your time to visit other vacation properties. You can choose from over 2000 resorts, villas, condos and beach homes in 75 countries.

If you are looking to invest in a lakefront retreat and want all fun and no fuss, fractional ownership may be just the thing for you. Whether you are looking for some personal soul-searching time, a private couples’ retreat or a home away from home to reconnect with your family, Frontenac Shores is for you.

IF you like the Tulip Festival, you'll the love Holland Art Cities

March 16, 2009 4:25 pm
Picture 3

In the fall of 1945, Princess Juliana of the Netherlands presented Ottawa with 100,000 tulip bulbs. The gift was in appreciation of the safe haven that members of Holland’s exiled royal family received during the Second World War in Ottawa; and in recognition of the role which Canadian troops played in the liberation of the Netherlands. While being hosted at Government House in Ottawa, Princess Juliana of the Netherlands gave birth to Princess Margriet. Her hospital room at the Ottawa Civic Hospital was declared “Dutch soil” and the flag of the Netherlands flew on Parliament’s Peace Tower. Since then, Ottawa’s Tulip Festival has grown and celebrated the tulip as a symbol of peace and friendship and has created an even stronger international bond between Canada and the Netherlands. If you enjoy the activities around Ottawa’s Tulip Festival, consider taking a trip to where it all started: Holland. In Holland, you can experience one of the most unique and exciting cultural destinations that showcases more art and culture per square mile than any other country on earth. The Dutch call it Holland Art Cities and it is worth the trip.

Through to the end of 2010, the top ten museums in Holland’s four largest cities (Amsterdam, The Hague, Rotterdam and Utrecht) have joined forces to put together an unprecedented art spectacle. This Holland Arts Cities Tour will also have special events to promote the grand opening of the new Hermitage Amsterdam and the re-opening of the Stedelijk Museum.

In February, I decided to take in the preview of the Holland Art Cities Tour and it certainly lived up to its advance billing. Upon arrival in Amsterdam, I took a very relaxed, guided city walk through one of the most picturesque neighborhoods — ‘The Jordaan’. A memorable stop on our walking tour was a visit to the Anne Frank Museum and the house where she hid from the Nazis (www.annefrank.org).

The first thing you’ll notice about Amsterdam is the “bike culture.” Everyone has a bicycle. The transportation infrastructure provides bike lanes throughout the city. The city’s trams also work like a charm. Both the trams and buses effortlessly maneuver around the city’s extensive canal system.

Next up was a visit to the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam where we saw ‘The Masterpieces,’ which is the crème de la crème of the Rijksmuseum collection. Plan to spend two to three hours here. The museum is exceptionally well laid out and the staff are very friendly and attentive. There is wonderful information on the history of Rembrandt and the other great Dutch painters, whose influence stretched beyond Europe and into the far reaches of the world, including Czarist Russia, Italy and the Asian sub-continent.

It is a short walk from the Rijksmuseum to the Van Gogh Museum. The ‘Van Gogh and the Colours of the Night’ exhibition was wonderful. I recommend you rent one of the audio pieces and do the tour with this headset. It takes about two hours to do it right. The audio provides both an overview of the exhibition and the historical context for Van Gogh, his art and his influence. Both the Rijksmuseum and Van Gogh Museum have gift shops that are reasonably priced and worth visiting. Afterwards, it was off to a canal cruise to discover Amsterdam by boat. These cruises are very popular and reasonably priced. They serve beverages some delicious, season-appropriate beverages (we needed a hot rum and coco — to get the winter chill out).

Next up was our preview of the new Amsterdam Hermitage. This project was brought together by a consortium of private groups and is an absolutely spectacular museum in the heart of Amsterdam. Displaying original works from the Hermitage St. Petersburg (on loan) and other related exhibits, its opening has created quite a stir in the art world and is well worth the visit. Next, we headed by tram over to the Stedelijk Museum at The Nieuwe Kerk and visited their exhibition titled “Holy Inspiration: Religion and

Spirituality in Modern Art.” Nieuwe Kirk is a Cathedral that is no longer active as a church but is now used to house modern art exhibits. Some of the modern art stretches the limits and challenges the very construct of religion. Thus, it provided for a very “unique” experience — one I am not sure I fully absorbed.

A short 40 minute drive from Amsterdam is the Gemeentemuseum in The Hague were you can find the exhibition, ‘XXth Century.’ If you prefer more contemporary art like this, the Photomuseum and the exhibition of ‘Man Ray’, may be more to your liking. The Hague, like Amsterdam is a port city. Nearby is the town of Scheveningen, a beautiful port town with exceptional views of the North Sea. If you go, check out the ‘Harbour Club’ restaurant. They have great seafood dishes in a wonderful setting in the harbor.

A short 40 minute drive from Amsterdam is the Gemeentemuseum in The Hague were you can find the exhibition, ‘XXth Century.’ If you prefer more contemporary art like this, the Photomuseum and the exhibition of ‘Man Ray’, may be more to your liking. The Hague, like Amsterdam is a port city. Nearby is the town of Scheveningen, a beautiful port town with exceptional views of the North Sea. If you go, check out the ‘Harbour Club’ restaurant. They have great seafood dishes in a wonderful setting in the harbor.

We then got a sneak preview of the exhibition ‘Flowers’ from the Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis in The Hague. Again, using the audio tour really enhanced the enjoyement and brought meaning to the content of the beautiful and meticulously detailed paintings of flowers by the Dutch masters.

Princess Juliana would be pleased to see how art has further linked our two countries after her gift of tulips.

IF YOU LIKE THE TULIP FESTIVAL YOU’LL LOVE Holland Art Cities

4:25 pm
Picture 3

In the fall of 1945, Princess Juliana of the Netherlands presented Ottawa with 100,000 tulip bulbs. The gift was in appreciation of the safe haven that members of Holland’s exiled royal family received during the Second World War in Ottawa; and in recognition of the role which Canadian troops played in the liberation of the Netherlands. While being hosted at Government House in Ottawa, Princess Juliana of the Netherlands gave birth to Princess Margriet. Her hospital room at the Ottawa Civic Hospital was declared “Dutch soil” and the flag of the Netherlands flew on Parliament’s Peace Tower. Since then, Ottawa’s Tulip Festival has grown and celebrated the tulip as a symbol of peace and friendship and has created an even stronger international bond between Canada and the Netherlands. If you enjoy the activities around Ottawa’s Tulip Festival, consider taking a trip to where it all started: Holland. In Holland, you can experience one of the most unique and exciting cultural destinations that showcases more art and culture per square mile than any other country on earth. The Dutch call it Holland Art Cities and it is worth the trip.

through to the end of 2010, the top ten museums in Holland’s four largest cities (Amsterdam, The Hague, Rotterdam and Utrecht) have joined forces to put together an unprecedented art spectacle. This Holland Arts Cities Tour will also have special events to promote the grand opening of the new Hermitage Amsterdam and the re-opening of the Stedelijk Museum.

In February, I decided to take in the preview of the Holland Art Cities Tour and it certainly lived up to its advance billing. Upon arrival in Amsterdam, I took a very relaxed, guided city walk through one of the most picturesque neighborhoods — ‘The Jordaan’. A memorable stop on our walking tour was a visit to the Anne Frank Museum and the house where she hid from the Nazis (www.annefrank.org).

The first thing you’ll notice about Amsterdam is the “bike culture.” Everyone has a bicycle. The transportation infrastructure provides bike lanes throughout the city. The city’s trams also work like a charm. Both the trams and buses effortlessly maneuver around the city’s extensive canal system.

Next up was a visit to the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam where we saw ‘The Masterpieces,’ which is the crème de la crème of the Rijksmuseum collection. Plan to spend two to three hours here. The museum is exceptionally well laid out and the staff are very friendly and attentive. There is wonderful information on the history of Rembrandt and the other great Dutch painters, whose influence stretched beyond Europe and into the far reaches of the world, including Czarist Russia, Italy and the Asian sub-continent.

It is a short walk from the Rijksmuseum to the Van Gogh Museum. The ‘Van Gogh and the Colours of the Night’ exhibition was wonderful. I recommend you rent one of the audio pieces and do the tour with this headset. It takes about two hours to do it right. The audio provides both an overview of the exhibition and the historical context for Van Gogh, his art and his influence. Both the Rijksmuseum and Van Gogh Museum have gift shops that are reasonably priced and worth visiting. Afterwards, it was off to a canal cruise to discover Amsterdam by boat. These cruises are very popular and reasonably priced. They serve beverages some delicious, season-appropriate beverages (we needed a hot rum and coco — to get the winter chill out).

Next up was our preview of the new Amsterdam Hermitage. This project was brought together by a consortium of private groups and is an absolutely spectacular museum in the heart of Amsterdam. Displaying original works from the Hermitage St. Petersburg (on loan) and other related exhibits, its opening has created quite a stir in the art world and is well worth the visit. Next, we headed by tram over to the Stedelijk Museum at The Nieuwe Kerk and visited their exhibition titled “Holy Inspiration: Religion and

Spirituality in Modern Art.” Nieuwe Kirk is a Cathedral that is no longer active as a church but is now used to house modern art exhibits. Some of the modern art stretches the limits and challenges the very construct of religion. Thus, it provided for a very “unique” experience — one I am not sure I fully absorbed.

A short 40 minute drive from Amsterdam is the Gemeentemuseum in The Hague were you can find the exhibition, ‘XXth Century.’ If you prefer more contemporary art like this, the Photomuseum and the exhibition of ‘Man Ray’, may be more to your liking. The Hague, like Amsterdam is a port city. Nearby is the town of Scheveningen, a beautiful port town with exceptional views of the North Sea. If you go, check out the ‘Harbour Club’ restaurant. They have great seafood dishes in a wonderful setting in the harbor.

A short 40 minute drive from Amsterdam is the Gemeentemuseum in The Hague were you can find the exhibition, ‘XXth Century.’ If you prefer more contemporary art like this, the Photomuseum and the exhibition of ‘Man Ray’, may be more to your liking. The Hague, like Amsterdam is a port city. Nearby is the town of Scheveningen, a beautiful port town with exceptional views of the North Sea. If you go, check out the ‘Harbour Club’ restaurant. They have great seafood dishes in a wonderful setting in the harbor.

We then got a sneak preview of the exhibition ‘Flowers’ from the Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis in The Hague. Again, using the audio tour really enhanced the enjoyement and brought meaning to the content of the beautiful and meticulously detailed paintings of flowers by the Dutch masters.

Princess Juliana would be pleased to see how art has further linked our two countries after her gift of tulips.

Czech Out the Inspiration Outside of Prague

March 14, 2009 4:29 pm
Picture 5

The Czech Republic is often described as being the crossroads of Europe -a meeting point for various cultures with countless educational and historical points of interest. The Czechs share the culturally-diverse country with Moravians, Silesians, Slovaks, Germans, Polish, Romanians and other nationalities. Their differences over the centuries have cost them dearly in wars and bloodshed. The Czechs have been conquered and re-conquered, repressed and freed, only to be repressed again. However, their spirit for independence has never died. The modern Czech Republic and Slovakia were founded on January 1, 1993, after the division of Czechoslovakia in the post-USSR period. The decision was made by ballot, democratically and peacefully.

While it may be a small country in the heart of Europe, the Czech Republic is a country of great historical and cultural importance. It is a country where historic monuments and entire towns have been included on the United Nations World Heritage List. Through the centuries, the Czech Republic’s contributions to literature, the arts, the humanities, governance, religion and music have been remarkable. The Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV, reformer John Huss (Jan Hus); the “Teacher of Nations” Comenius (Jan Amos Komensky); composers Bedrich Smetana, Antonin Dvorak and Leos Janacek; writers Jaroslav Hasek, Karel Capek and Franz Kafka; Nobel Prize winners Jaroslav Heyrovsky and Jaroslav Seifert; and opera stars Emmy Destinn and Jarmila Novotna are just some of the renowned people from this small area situated in the middle of Europe. After visiting the Czech Republic for the first time and getting a sense of the Czechs’ the strong pride for their history and culture, I understand why it was appropriate that the man chosen to lead the Czech people to their freedom from the Soviet Communists in the early 1990s was the internationally acclaimed writer and poet Vaclav Havel.

The Czech Republic serves as the hub of several major areas, including Western and Eastern Europe, the Balkans and Scandinavia. It also shares the longest border with the Federal Republic of Germany — the strongest economical power in Europe. The physical land area of the Czech Republic puts it within the category of smaller countries. In size order, it falls into 21st place, following Hungary, Portugal and Austria, ahead of Ireland, Lithuania and Latvia. The number of inhabitants places the total population of the Czech Republic 14th in Europe after Hungary, Portugal and Belorussia, and ahead of Greece and Belgium.

Prague is the capital of the Czech Republic and is generally considered to be one of the world’s most beautiful capitals with an exquisitely preserved historical center and highly efficient modern infrastructure. After surviving the German occupation of World War II and forty years of communist rule, the Czech Republic has spent the past 15 years transitioning into a completely restructured free-market economy. Tourism is at the forefront of that market, and Prague remains the greatest tourist magnet. Picturesque all year round, Prague is said to be most beautiful in spring when it comes alive with blossoms. The concert halls and gardens of the city attract music-lovers from all over the world who enjoy The Prague Spring Festival, in April and May. Winter in Prague, especially the pre- Christmas season, is also very popular. The city is splendid with wondrous lights and boasts activities that are mainstay attractions. However, for the locals, this is a time for people to visit the mountains. The Giant Mountains are the highest and most beautiful range in the country. Likewise, summer is a time for hiking in the countryside or swimming in the countless lakes and reservoirs. At this time of year, South Bohemia’s lakes and extensive forests, is the place to visit. Additionally, autumn is the best time to visit the wine festival in South Moravia, after the grapes have been harvested.

My trip would take me to north-eastern Bohemia during the “Indian Summer” autumn period. The region’s name is derived from the Celtic tribe Boii, who were the first inhabitants of the area. There is also definitive evidence that the region was once occupied by the Slavs in the 6th century A.D. My goal was to visit the many sites in the Czech Republic that are listed in United Nations World Heritage compendium while also making stops in the towns along the route to get a sense of the local customs, food, history and heritage.

We left Prague by bus and travelled 75 km to Chlumec and Cidlinou to visit the castle Karlova Koruna , which means “Charles’ Crown” (www. kinskycastles.com/castle-karlovakoruna. htm). Designed by the Italian baroque architech Jan Santini Aichel, the castle (Charles’s Crown) is one of the foremost Baroque castles in the Czech Republic. It is being renovated to its glorious pre-communist splendor and will be one of many castles showcasing both the Italian influence on design and the impact the Catholic Church had on the people of this region. Next we visited Hradec Kralove (www.hradeckralove.cz), once a royal fortress town in the centre of East Bohemia whose beginning dates back to the year 1225. Today, its unique collection of historical sites and structures consists of gothic, renaissance and baroque monuments. The city also takes pride in its modern architecture monuments from the 20th century. The masterpieces from such architects as Gocar or Kotera contributed greatly to the Czechs giving the city the title “The Salon of the Republic.” While visiting we stopped for lunch at the Protrena husa Restaurant. This was my first real experience with local Czech food and they did not disappoint. I tried the roast goose and it was one of the highlights of the trip. I’m told by chefs that cooking goose is an art. If so, Czechs have it mastered.

Czech Inspiration (www.czechinspiration. cz) is the coming together of eight historical Czech towns (Cheb, Jindřichův Hradec, Hradec Kralove,Kutna Hora, Litomysl, Polička, Telc, Trebon) to jointly promote their region on the premise that there is more to the Czech Republic than just Praque. It is easy to spend a day or two in each of these towns. Each offers an array of history, culture, food, museums and the arts. Oh, and did I mention how beautiful and picturesque they are, or the friendly demeanor of the locals? Litomyšl features a gothic town hall and a stately renaissance home decorated with over 8,000 original graffiti. The unique architecture of the building led to its entry in the UNESCO World Heritage list in 1999. It is the native town of Czech composer Bedřich Smetana. In the main square you will find a Gothic town hall and a number of Renaissance and Baroque buildings. The most significant is the 16th century Knights’ House (Dům U Rytířů), which currently houses an art gallery. Other places of interest include a unique museum called the Portmoneum which features wall paintings and furniture carved by Czech artist Josef Váchal

The picturesque town of Polička is in the Bohemian-Moravian Highlands. It boasts a long history and a number of preserved historic sites. Not far from Polička is the early Gothic castle of Svojanov, one of the oldest in Bohemia. A UNESCO Heritage site since 1992, Telcč lies in the southwest of Moravia in the Czech-Moravian Highlands. The Jesuits were based here in the 17th and 18th centuries and left behind a whole complex of baroque buildings. The town of Trebon was founded in the middle of the 12th century and lies in the middle of a landscape conservation area which is now a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. The sprawling Trebon Castle is one of the biggest in the Czech Republic. It is surrounded by a magnificent park and fortified wall. It is worth taking a trip to the Czech Republic to spend a week visiting these eight Czech Inspiration towns!

A visit to the Museum of Merkur (www.merkurtoys.cz) is an interesting side trip. In the post-WWII period, the west had its Lego toys (which have since gone global) and the east bloc countries had their Meccano sets. A Czech invention, they were built in a factory in Polic nad Metuji, Bohemia. Next, it’s a short trip to the town of Broumov (www.broumov-mesto.cz). The Hospital Church of The Holy Spirit is situated on the outskirts ot town. This church was first mentioned in the 14th century. Originally a wooden church, it was rebuilt in 1450 and in 1689 it was reconstructed in stone. In learning the history of this small church you can learn much about the history of this region and its cultures. A very worthwhile stop!

One of the nicest towns in the Czech Republic is the historic border town of Náchod which was established in 1254 along the banks of the Metuje river. Today the town is a natural, historical, tourist, administrative and industrial centre of the area — from the entry at Branka (which means “gate”) up to the whole Broumov edge. There are many monuments in the town, including a Renaissance castle with a French garden; St. Lawrence’s gothic church in Masaryk square; the old Baroque town hall; the new neo-Renaissance town hall; and the renovated, historic post office. There is a regional museum and a visual arts gallery here, too. With its historic town centre and laid

back atmosphere, the town is the true representation of the modern Czech state. It has a wonderfully renovated hotel called Hotel Bernanka (www. hotel-beranek.cz) and boasts partial ownership of one of the Czech Republic’s most famous breweries, Primator Beer. The Primator brewery is in the town and welcomes organized visits. Of course, at the end you can try the beer.

Another great gem is the town of Mlada Boleslav which is the home to the Skoda Museum.(www.skoda-auto.cz). This museum was one of the highlights of my visit to the Czech Republic. Skoda has been around longer than Ford and the museum takes you all the way back to their origins through the present day. The town also boasts a restaurant called the Galatea which serves a great Czech autumn stew.

After traveling the Bohemian and nether regions of the Czech Republic, we returned to Prague and all of the incredible historic sites and culture the city has to offer. We took a guided walking tour of the historical centre of Prague (www.prague-info.cz), stopping for a wonderful dinner at the U Karlova Mostu Restaurant in the city centre before departing on an evening boat trip through the city (www.prazskebenatky.cz).

Immensely charmed by this country and its people and history, I can’t wait to return. If you visit the Czech Republic, plan your trip by spending the first two days in Prague. Then, travel into the regions and do the Czech Inspiration Tour before returning to Prague for another day or two. It is a trip you’ll not forget… and never regret!

You Just Can’t Beat Florida for Family Fun

March 13, 2009 4:30 pm
Jan09_FL_Sandpearl_firepit

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

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

Jan09_FL_CMA_crab

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

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

Jan09_FL_Sandpearl_H62JLD06

The Sandpearl Resort’s beautiful art-filled lobby.

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

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

Jan09_FL_PatioColumbiaYborCity

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

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

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

Jan09_FL_canoe_bird

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

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

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

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

Jan09_FL_lazyriver

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

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

Journey to Israel

2:45 pm

I was eagerly anticipating my trip to Israel. The land of Israel’s central place in antiquity is an endless source of fascination. So too is Israel’s more recent past and its contested place in the world today. It would be like no other trip I have taken. Nevertheless I must confess to experiencing brief rushes of anxiety when I thought about Israel’s relationship with Palestinians in particular and the rest of the Arab (and Persian) world more generally. My images of Israel were shaped by media coverage of conflict, primarily between Jews and Palestinians, but also between Jews and other Arabs. We would see the tension etched in the faces we encountered. As it turned out, these preconceived notions were shattered within minutes of having arrived in Israel. There remain, of course, unresolved issues between the country and Palestinians. Nevertheless, in every part of Israel we visited, we observed peaceful, friendly coexistence between Jews and Arabs. Moreover, not once over the course of the trip did anyone feel unsafe. By the end of our adventure, Israel’s varied geography, staggering beauty and warm people would give me a much greater appreciation of this splendid country.

Like the rest of Israel, Tel Aviv’s combination of splendid geography and the sacred and the secular makes for a fascinating place. Upon arriving in the city it is impossible not to be inspired by the Mediterean Sea: on this day it shimmered dark blue under the hot sun and equally brilliant, cloudless blue sky. White sand beaches contour the city’s coast. But even when walking on a beach one is never far from architecture documenting Israel’s holy status. Thus while walking close to the shoreline we encountered the Statue of Faith which includes depictions of Jacob’s Dream, The Sacrifice of Isaac and the Fall of Jericho. Synagogues dot the landscape. Yet Tel Aviv is also undeniably modern, as is attested by the string of new hotels along the Mediterean shoreline and its legendary nightlife. Alas, we were only there long enough to appreciate the former but not the latter. The trip began in Tel Aviv but after a whirlwind morning tour of the city we began a drive north that would take us to, among other places, Jaffa, Haifa, Akko, Metula, Masada and, finally, Jerusalem.

Haifa is a port city (the Haifa port is the biggest in Israel) that also sits next to the Mediterean. But Haifa’s varied elevation is also one of its defining features, particularly for a tourist. The city sits on the slopes of Mount Carmel. Standing at an elevated spot in Haifa affords one a splendid view of the city, the port and the Mediterean. The city’s unique geography also contributes to the beauty of much of its architecture. Perhaps Haifa’s most famous landmark is the Bahai Shrine. In an already elevated part of the city, it sits perched on a hill featuring beautiful, staggered gardens and lush trees.

Later that afternoon we drove further up the coast to Akko, another port city on the Mediterean. It is a gateway to its past, both ancient and more recent. Akko’s port-city status heightened its strategic importance to imperial empires. Thus, Akko was the capital of the medieval crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem during the Crusader period (1104-1291). It was also an important Ottoman town in the 18th and 19th centuries. Remarkably buildings and other infrastructures from both periods have been beautifully restored. What is truly unique about the buildings, however, is that many feature stonework from both periods. Other common features of an Ottoman town were restored or recreated. A bathhouse vividly simulates typical activities in what was a refuge for men. It is worth a visit.

We ate lunch at Uri Buri Fish Restaurant. We persuaded Uri Jeremias — the owner and chef — to agree to speak with us over lunch. We were informed his food was legendary. Uri Jeremias is Jewish, but built the restaurant in a predominantly Arab part of Akko. He is a powerfully built man with a gentle but determined disposition. His balding head and long gray beard gives him the look of an ancient philosopher. As it turned out, he waxed philosophical while simultaneously declaring his mistrust of that particular discipline. “Live as though you have 200 years left to live,” he remarked at one point over lunch. This approach to life explained why he was busy converting a house dating back to the Crusader period into a boutique hotel, even though he was no longer a young man. His optimism was also reflected in his relationship with local Arabs. He proudly declared that he had many Arab employees. He expressed dismay over the images of conflict between Jews and Arabs ceaselessly peddled by the mass media. The commonly held belief that Jews and Arabs despise each other was an utter distortion of reality. At one point, he looked outside the restaurant, towards the Mediterranean Sea. There were people strolling by the water, enjoying the splendid scenery. “Does this look like a place beset with conflict?” he asked.

The next day we drove through the Golan Heights, at one point even reaching the Lebanon border. Towards the day’s end we arrived at the Mitze Hayamin Hotel, located in the Eastern Galilee, very close to the Hermon Mountains and the Golan Heights. This boutique hotel conveys the sort of intimacy not typically found in larger hotels. The atmosphere was unmistakably relaxed. I was relieved to be directed to my room after a long day of sightseeing and driving through winding roads. The trip to this point had already exceeded my expectations, but not because our accommodations were especially beautiful. On this evening, however, it was my room that was nothing like I had experienced before in a hotel. Most spectacular of all was the room’s deck and the view it offered its guests. I marveled at the scene as I stepped outside. The sky was still cloudless and a shimmering blue. Immediately beneath me were rolling mountains that stretched northward, seemingly endlessly. Some sections of the mountains were tree filled, other sections dry and bare. Small communities were nestled in the valley. The Sea of Galilee, shrouded slightly by a hazy sky, was nevertheless visible in the distance.

{mospagebreak}

The Mitze Hayamin was by far the most decadent and luxurious hotel in the region. Its founder’s vision was to create a hotel that was not only environmentally sustainable, but was also designed to stimulate that sort of awareness among its guests. We walked by beautiful gardens that nevertheless did not appear overly manicured. The idea was for the natural landscape to seamlessly blend in with the constructed landscape. We then came to a stable housing a horse as well as goats and calves. The contrast between the two settings in some respects could not have been starker. On the one hand, the rooms, the massage, and the spectacular views of the Sea of Galilee were the epitome of luxury. On the other hand, we now found ourselves standing by three friendly calves content to lick our hands and receive our attentions. The smell of hay wafted through the air. Workers dressed in farm wear were tending to the animals. For a few minutes it was though we were a world away from the luxurious environment in which we had spent the previous night. Yet as different as these two settings might seem, experiencing them together was totally congruous with the aim of the hotel’s founder.

As spectacular as my accommodations and the view of the mountains and the Sea of Galilee all were, the highlight for me was the Swedish massage I received shortly after we arrived. The massage itself was wonderful: my muscles were tired following a full day of travel. My masseuse was named Noa, a Jewish woman. She suggested at the outset that we could talk or I could rest silently why she did the massage. I thought it strange that I would not talk to a stranger while she rubbed her soothing hands all over my body. And so while she gently, professionally relaxed my tense muscles, we talked about many things, but mostly about Israel and why she loved Jerusalem. Although she is not living there now, she has always been drawn to Jerusalem: the city possesses a spiritual energy that she finds irresistible.

I found myself slowly slipping into a dreamy state while nevertheless never losing my desire to continue talking. This was the first opportunity to talk to a local Israeli at length without anyone else present. As content as I would have been to quietly rest, I was happier to engage in a heartfelt conversation. I sensed in her a deep love for her country that intrigued me. But towards the end of the massage, she politely informed me that I must close my eyes and keep quiet. I dutifully followed her instructions. For a few precious moments, as she gently rubbed my closed eyes and caressed my forehead and cheeks, I did slip into a dreamy sleep. But what the masseuse managed to direct me towards was more than simply sleep. For the first time in as long as I could remember, I felt tranquil and at ease. Like the rest of our adventure, it was an experience I will not soon forget.

The BEST of Mexico

March 12, 2009 4:39 pm
Picture 10
RIVIERA NAYARIT & RIU PALACE PACIFICO COMBINE TO MAKE FOR ONE GREAT TRIP!

Riviera Nayarit is the new “it” spot in Mexico. Not easy to accomplish especially if you are competing with the Mayan Riviera and Caba San Lucas. Nevertheless, the Rivera Nayarit deserves its reputation as an ideal destination for soft adventure, outdoor recreation, water sports, cultural exploration, dining and immersion in the local scene. Located just ten minutes north of the Puerto Vallarta International Airport and at the heart of the Banderas Bay, Riviera Nayarit has been blessed with unmatched natural beauty, including some of the best beaches on the Pacific and abundant flora and fauna. With seven world class golf courses, including the home of the 2002

EMC World Cup, the Riviera is fast becoming a golfers paradise. There are numerous activities like bay cruises, city tours, whale watching, and swimming with dolphins, snorkeling, scuba, hiking, biking, and horseback riding at affordable and economical rates. I took the plunge and tried swimming with dolphins. While normally nervous around animals, I quickly became comfortable in the pool, as the hotel’s trainers created a relaxed and enjoyable atmosphere (http://www.vallarta-adventures.com).

From a quaint “Posada” hotel on a forgotten beach, to the ultra modern family travel oriented resorts in upscale Nuevo Vallarta and Flamingos, Riviera Nayarit has the kind of accommodations and services that make it a world class destination. We spent a week in the area as guests at the RIU Palace (http://www.riu.com) on Flamingos Beach, 2 km from Nuevo Vallarta and just 12 km from Puerto Vallarta. The RIU Palace hotel line is the resort company’s most sophisticated and luxurious line.

The RIU Palace is the luxury level of RIU resorts — designed, built, and serviced to exceed AAA Four- Diamond ratings. The RIU Palace Pacifico certainly lived up to those expectations. It is situated on a choice beach front location with elegant palatial architecture, sophisticated decor and features an extensive range of fine cuisine. There are five restaurants’ on site which offer an expansive array of meal choices. The first is La Peninsula serving a buffet that is great for breakfast or light lunches. It features an ocean terrace so you never have to stray far from the beach. The formal Krystal Fusion restaurant provides international cuisine and requires reservations. If you like sushi and Japanese food as I do, you’ll love the restaurant Kyoto. It has wonderful and authentic Japanese décor to match its delicious menu. A visit to Mexico would not be complete without enjoying some authentic Mexican cuisine. Luckily, ‘Guacamole’s’ offers just that, with a menu not limited to burritos and tacos, but also fresh salads, seafood and steak The RIU Palace also serves Italian food at its Toscana pool side restaurant. All the restaurants have world class wine lists. One of the best features of the RUI Palace Pacifico is the Petite Pigalle, a wonderfully authentic Parisian lobby bar. The grand piano in the corner of the room makes for a popular gathering spot. The Petit Pigalle is next to the main theatre show room where Vegas style shows are featured nightly. Just a short way down the beach you can enjoy the RIU Vallarta, the sister hotel to the Palace Pacifico. This equally fabulous resort provides a great 1920s art deco feel.

The vision for the RIU hotels emanate from the Luis Riu Güell and Carmen Riu Güell management team. Luis, who was on sight during our stay at the Pacifico, surprised me by mentioning that he had worked with the same architect and interior designer team for over thirty years. “We reinvest our profits each year in constructing new hotels, updating existing facilities, providing staff training, and developing new products and services. We also keep abreast of new trends through market and consumer feedback -allowing us to respond to our guests and to consistently appeal to new clients by building hotels in desirable locations and offering new and innovative services at its existing locations. RIU constructs the majority of its own resorts to ensure we keep our high standards.” Luis Riu and his small management team supervise RIU projects from conception to completion.

The seemingly unlimited beach activities that one can choose from at RIU are as numerous as the coastline is long. Body surfing, boogie boarding, beach and pool volleyball, water aerobics, bobbing through waves or just sunning and sipping seem to be popular favorites. For those who want a bit of action, there are always options like surfing, windsurfing, sailing, jet skiing, ocean kayaking, parasailing, snorkeling and the generally unforgettable bounce of a banana boat ride. Whatever your preference, you are welcome to change it frequently and partake in the seaside’s sunny and sandy diversions that are always just steps away.

Exploring the winding coastline of the Riviera Nayarit can certainly be the highlight of your entire vacation. We took a couple of hours, one afternoon, and walked down the beach stopping at Nuevo Vallarta, a small Mexican town on the beach. Wander through and look at all of the local artisans crafts. You can pick up some very nice local art and gifts. We then made our way to a beach side hacienda offering a special of 5 coronas for 80 pesos (about $12.00). You can imagine… The next two hours went by quickly as we took in the day. Artisans stopped by to sell us local jewelry and beads, it supports the local economy and the keepsakes are nice to bring home. On another afternoon, we ventured over to the Marina Riviera Nayarit (http://www.marinarivieranayarit.com). This impressive place is recognized as the best marina in Mexico with first class services surrounded by spectacular views of Banderas Bay and downtown La Cruz. Boaters can enter this full service marina (30-400 ft) to access fuel, dry dock, lift, wifi, restroom, showers Palapa Restaurant, Sky Bar and other great marina services before heading out again.

Make sure you rent a jeep or car and take the drive to see the sights, sounds and scents of the region as they unfold along your journey. The cascading green mountains and rolling blue Pacific are borders on either side as you amble through seaside pueblos. Fishing villages combine with surfing havens and artist colonies to form the perfect blend of the “yesterday” and “today”. The variety of beaches and settings you’ll discover are picturesque and sure to leave you with unforgettable memories. We stopped in the small village of Sayulita and spent a morning on its beaches and later, traipsed through its small shops. Paradise doesn’t get any better than Sayulita. A surfer’s paradise, this little village is one of the hidden gems of Mexico.

On our last evening, we went on a Vallarta Adventures sojourn called Rhythms of the Night. The adventure begins with a scenic sunset cruise across Banderas Bay to the isolated cove of Las Caletas. As the sun sank low into the Pacific Ocean and darkness descended, we enjoyed a privileged view of the scattered lights that glittered along Puerto Vallarta’s coastline. The lights faded into darkness, and as the voyage continued under the star-studded sky we saw a flicker of torches that guided us to the secluded haven of Las Caletas. Under a star filled night, Las Caletas is transformed into a magical paradise. Flickering torches, gently lapping seas and swaying palms set the mood. Soothing music mingled with the song of the jungle as we followed a torch lit path to an open air, jungle amphitheatre. In a spellbinding performance, stories of an ancient civilization were revealed through music and modern dance by one of Mexico’s most innovative contemporary dance troupes.

Afterwards, the enticing aromas of grilled steak, chicken and fish lured us towards a secluded beachside table bathed in the soft glow of candles. We savored every moment of this unique dining experience. Our perfect evening wrapped up with dancing under the stars on the short boat cruise back to Nuevo Vallarta. What a perfect way to end the perfect trip!

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

4:34 pm
Picture 11

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Deeper into Israel: Holiday in the Holy Land

March 11, 2009 2:54 pm
Picture 16

Part II of Don MacLean’s Journey into Israel

As we traveled further north, it seemed as though we were moving deeper into Israel, both literally and figuratively. As my mind and body adjusted to the time change, my initial impressions of the country began to more fully take shape. It occurred to me that there is a depth to the experience of traveling in Israel that is not easily matched in many other places. One does not go there simply to lie on a Mediterranean beach or to meet beautiful women (although many Israeli women are strikingly beautiful). Israel’s history, geography and people, I was discovering, demand a deeper engagement on the part of visitors.

Hours after leaving the port city of Akko we arrived at the Hagoshrim Kibbutz. I imagined a kibbutz, almost by definition, would be a modest and somewhat dull place, devoid of beauty. This was the price for maintaining equality and the communal lifestyle practiced in such places. The setting alone in which the kibbutz was located disabused me of this idea. Tall and lush leafy trees tower over the low story facilities. A walking tour deeper inside the kibbutz revealed outstanding gardens, spacious homes and splendid facilities, including a basketball court, a gym and a pool. Their outdoor restaurant at which we ate in the evening was similarly stunning. The night was warm and the sky was cloudless and star filled. Trees and a small stream served to create an intimate and beautiful setting. Indeed the setting seemed too beautiful for both the kibbutz and the restaurant not to be thriving.

Nevertheless, I wondered if this uniquely Jewish institution was becoming a relic of Israel’s past. The kibbutz is socialist in nature but socialism is an idea that is almost everywhere in retreat. Eytan Rachini, Goshermin’s managing director, explained how the kibbutz has changed. The community still aspires to achieve material equality, but establishing communism is no longer the goal. People buy homes and vehicles. Children are raised by their parents and not by the whole community, as it used to be. Like any community, the kibbutz has had to continually adjust to changing economic conditions.

After a few days of traveling during which we rested at a winery and witnessed where Jesus would speak to his followers, we stopped for the evening by the Dead Sea. Like the Sea of Galilee, the Dead Sea is rich in history. But what is most striking about this body of water are its physical dimensions. Located at the southern end of the Jordan Valley, the Dead Sea is located 1300 feet below sea level and has the highest level of salt and mineral content in the world. Its location explains another distressing feature of the Dead Sea: its high rate of evaporation, which is annually about 5 feet. The loss of water has been accelerated by Israeli and Jordanian diversion projects. This made for scenery that was at once beautiful and startling. On this afternoon the sea was still and the cloudless sky a rich blue. The mountains formed a stunning backdrop. Yet one could sense how far the water had receded, exposing more of the desert in which it is situated.

A few of us were eager to swim except, of course, one does not swim in the Dead Sea so much as float on it. For me at least there was some initial trepidation as we waded into the warm water. The thought of floating on water was so counter intuitive, as though I was about to defy the laws of gravity. After a few anxious moments I opened my arms and fell backwards, still half expecting to sink beneath the water’s surface. Instead the water held firm and I found myself able to stretch out my legs and hold a magazine with both hands. It was a magical moment.

The experience of traveling through Israel is shaped by Jewish history. This is obviously true of Jerusalem. Masada is perhaps less well known, even though it is the place of one of the most tragic episodes in Ancient Jewish history. Masada is the fortress King Herod had built on top of a largely inaccessible mountain, west of the Dead Sea. Although Herod had his own protection in mind and had it stocked with corn, oil, wine and dates, he did not have occasion to stay in the fortress before his death in 4 B.C. By the time of the Jewish rebellion against Roman rule in 66 C.E., a Jewish community of approximately 1000 people was living there. The Jewish rebellion culminated in their mass suicide in 73 C.E.

There is also an intimate connection between Israel’s geography and the experience of Masada. Although the Dead Sea is visible from the elevated fortress, it is nevertheless located in a desert. There is no vegetation and the sun is especially hot, which is somehow fitting. Indeed the sparse, desert landscape serves as almost a time warp. In Masada, the imaginative leap is not as great for a visitor contemplating life in Judea not long after the time of Jesus. There has been no sort of development of the area. Rather the aim has been to, as faithfully as possible, restore the place. Thus tours of Masada reveal how people might have lived in the fortress. We learn how water was collected and stored through the construction of a series of dams and aqueducts. The water was necessary for drinking of course, but also for hygienic, recreational and religious purposes.

Gazing from Masada’s elevated perch, moreover, it is not so difficult to visualize Roman soldiers numbering in the tens of thousands meandering their way through mountainous desert before surrounding the fortress. Similarly one could easily imagine the Masada community’s shared sense of dread. Their only defense against the powerful Roman army was the mountain itself. The Romans could not so easily penetrate a place so elevated. Nevertheless, as the tour made clear, it was only a matter of time before the community’s defenses were breached. The Romans were determined and ruthless. Indeed, as one friend remarked, the tragic episode at Masada helps to crystallize the relationship between the ancient Romans and Jews. Rome’s imperial ambitions were countered by Jewish determination to live as a free people. For the consequence of being captured by the Romans was not necessarily death. To be sure, death would have been the fate of many, but not necessarily all. Slavery was another likely possibility. The mass suicide was thus a final and courageous act of freedom.

Learning of all this as we walked on the mountain under a scorching sun left me feeling at once exhausted and somber. We found shade and took a short rest. After Masada we left for Jerusalem, where more potent emotional experiences were still to come.

Jerusalem is different than most other places we had been in. When driving through the Golan Heights, or gazing at twilight at the Sea of Galilee, or swimming in the Dead Sea, there is a sense of spaciousness that belies Israel’s relatively small size. Jerusalem, by contrast, is a beautiful but dense city. Jerusalem is exceptional in another way. Whereas the energy running through most modern cities is secular in origin, much of Jerusalem’s energy is spiritual and is firmly rooted in its history and its unique status as a holy place for three of the world’s major religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

Walking through the Old City of Jerusalem is perhaps the best way to experience the coexistence of the major faiths in such a shared and concentrated space. The old city is divided into four quarters, Christian, Jewish, Muslim and Armenian. We first visited Mount of Olives, where Jesus met with his apostles before his crucifixion. We followed the ‘stations of the cross’ and saw where Jesus was crucified and the tomb in which he was buried. In the Jewish Quarter, the ‘wailing wall’ is an intensely moving experience for many who visit. People lay their hands on it and stuff prayers into the wall. Visiting King David’s tomb is also a must. The atmosphere in both quarters is intensely pious and reverential even though there are streams of visitors and locals passing through.

The Muslim Quarter in old Jerusalem possessed a slightly different sort of energy. The Dome of the Rock and Al-Aksa Mosque dominate the landscape. Both are Muslim holy sites. Nevertheless, the atmosphere seemed less pious, perhaps due to the amount of commerce taking place. The main laneway is crowded with people and small stores. Vendors smile and ask you to step into their shop as you walk by. Men, both young and old, sell freshly squeezed orange or grapefruit juice.

Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Memorial located in Jerusalem, should not be missed. However, one should be prepared for a difficult experience. Watching footage of the Jewish experience in Europe during World War Two is heart wrenching. You witness men, women, boys and girls as their world is systematically eroded and finally destroyed. You sense in their sad bewilderment that for a long time they had no idea what tragic fate lay in store for them. In the footage showing them walking to the train stations, Jews look exhausted and physically weak. But in most images that I recall, they do not look terrified, nor do they look determined to resist or challenge the soldiers walking them towards certain death. As our guide suggested, this was because they were typically reassured that they were simply being ‘relocated.’ The Nazis combined casualness and systematic ruthlessness in their approach to dealing with the “Jewish question.”

Every aspect of the building’s design and structure is meant to deepen the intellectual and emotional experience of walking through Yad Vashem. As you enter the memorial, walkways narrow and the lighting fades. You are meant to feel constricted and uncomfortable. It is only as you begin the walk that takes you back outside that the walkways widen and the dim darkness lifts.

We left Yad Vashem with heavy hearts. Nevertheless we looked forward to spending more time in the beautiful and holy city of Jerusalem.

Lake Placid

November 1, 2008 11:00 am
Atop Whiteface Mountain, the fifth highest mountain in the Adirondacks, sits the State of New York Weather Monitoring Station.From here you can walk around for a great 360-degree
view. Photo: Orda Media

Atop Whiteface Mountain, the fifth highest mountain in the Adirondacks, sits the State of New York Weather Monitoring Station. From here you can walk around for a great 360-degree view. Photo: Orda Media

While best known to most Canadians as a winter vacation spot and home to the 1980 Olympic Winter Games, Lake Placid is truly a four-season destination. For sports enthusiasts (extreme or otherwise), food and wine connoisseurs, shoppers and antique hunters alike, the village of Lake Placid and surrounding area has something for everyone.

Nov08_MLI Fall Garden

The Mirror Lake Inn Resort and Spa in the fall.

There are many wonderful places to stay in Lake Placid, from camping grounds, to hotels, motels and lodges. If you really want to treat yourself, a stay at The Mirror Lake Inn Resort and Spa is a must. This enchanting get-a-way is located  on  7  acres  on  a  hilltop  overlooking  the  Adirondack high  peaks  and  Mirror  Lake.  The  Inn’s  beautiful  décor includes  warm  mahogany  walls, polished  walnut  floors  and stone  fireplaces.  Guests  are  sure  to  find  their  “happy place”. The Inn has three fabulous restaurants. Collectively, they have too many awards to mention, including a AAA Four Diamond Award — all richly deserved. The elegant and superbly appointed suites are charming yet elegant, each with an incredible view of the mountains and  lake.  The  Inn  has  all  of the  amenities  you  desire including  a  full-service  spa  and  salon,  a  full  fitness  centre, heated indoor and outdoor pools, sauna, whirlpool, and private sandy beach. For those at work, the Inn offers state-of-the-art meeting and reception rooms. For those at play, in the summer you will enjoy tennis, boating, kayaking,fishing, and nearby golf. During winter the Inn offers a private skating rink, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, and nearby downhill skiing. Whether you  are seeking a romantic get-a-way, a family vacation or a work retreat, you will return home feeling pampered and rejuvenated.

On  our  first  day,  we  drove  up  the  Whiteface  Veterans’ Memorial  Highway  and  toured  Whiteface Summit.  About twenty minutes from Lake Placid, in the town of Wilmington, Whiteface Mountain is the fifth-highest mountain in New York State and one of the High Peaks of the Adirondack Mountains. Its summit is the only one of the Adirondack high  peaks  accessible by  car.  The  drive  up  the mountain  is truly  beautiful.  Stop  along  the way  at  one  of  the  nine designated spots to take in the view and learn more about the surrounding area by posted signs.

At  the  end  of  the  highway,  before  reaching  the  actual summit,  you  will  see  a  two-storey castle  built  from  granite excavated during the highway construction. In the castle, you will find a cafeteria, a gift shop and a magnificent view through the many windows. To reach the summit you can either take a short hike of a little less than a mile up the mountain edge, or you can take the elevator. We took the elevator which we reached by walking down a 426 foot long tunnel deep inside the mountain. The elevator climbed about 27 stories to reach the summit. As it climbed, we could see the stone through the wire mesh door. It was truly incredible. At the summit, the treeless and unfettered 360  degree  panoramic  view  took  our  breath  away.  On  a  clear  day,  you  can see  all  the  way  to  Mont  Royal  in Montreal.  The pure, soul calming peacefulness of being at the peak of a 4,867 foot high mountain is truly something to experience.

The only thing more impressive than the view, was the history behind the building of the highway. Built in the early years of the Great Depression it provided much needed work for masses of employed labourers. I couldn’t help but be struck by the thought that while in 2008, we often seem to find it difficult to make buildings and scenic are as truly accessible  for  people  with  disabilities. However,  in  the 1920’s,  then  Governor  of  New  York  State,  Franklin  D. Roosevelt  had  the vision  to  create  access  to  the  top  of  a mountain  so  that  everyone,  regardless  of  physical limitations, could have a first hand experience of reaching the top of a mountain. Often it takes a real leader with a vested interest to make things like this happen.

Nov08_MLI Cottage deck

Dining on the deck of The Cottage Cafe, the Mirror Lake Inn Resort and Spa’s casual pub-style restaurant. Photo: Mirror Lake Inn Resort and Spa.

After  our  incredible  experience  at  Whiteface  mountain, we  returned  to  the  beautiful  Mirror Lake  Inn  where  we enjoyed a delicious lunch on the outside deck of The Cottage over-looking the water. The food was outdone only by the wonderfully friendly staff. After lunch, we took advantage of the super shopping and welcoming sales staff in the village of Lake Placid. We went for dinner at the Boat House Restaurant situated on the shores of Mirror Lake. This was just the right pace after a full day of explorations and outings. It was enjoyable casual dining, with an incredible view of the lake.

The next day, we ventured over to the High Peaks Wilderness area where we met with the staff of the Adirondack Mountain Club (ADK) at the Adirondack  Loj Visitor  Centre. ADK runs conservation, education  and advocacy  programs  that  strive  to  find  the  balance  between protecting  natural  resources  and  encouraging  the public’s respectful use of the resources for recreation. These young folks were something else — highly informed on all aspects of Lake Placid’s natural history. They arranged a kayak outing for us on Heart Lake with a hike on Mt. Jo. The two mile, moderately challenging hiking loop is great for a family. It is one  of the  easier treks with one of the best views of the High Peaks.  After our excursion, we returned to the Loj where we enjoyed a delicious picnic lunch by  “Simply  Gourmet  Deli”,  and  listened  to  colourful  historical  tales  of  the  area  and  its  ancestors  delivered with passion from the ADK staff.

The Adirondak Loj itself is something to see. It is a beautifully rustic year round outdoor centre only five miles south of  Lake  Placid  on  the  shores  of  Heart  Lake.  In  the  heart of  the  grand room  is  a  lovely  stone  fireplace  and  huge windows looking out into the forest. The Loj has private rooms, family bunkrooms, and a co-ed loft, bathrooms with showers and change areas, and a cafeteria with meal plans. This is a great place to stay while you explore the area. If camping is more your thing, the ADK’s Wilderness Camp ground offers camp sites, lean-tos and cabins.

Next, we headed for the Olympic Jumping and Sports Complexes. Our first stop was at the Freestyle Aerial Training Centre,  a  year-round  training  and  competition  site  for  freestylers  and  part  of  the  US  Olympic  Training  Centre constructed  by  the  New  York  Olympic Regional  Development Authority.  We  saw  young  kids,  possibly  future Olympians, practicing their ski jumps, twists and flips while landing in a 750,000 gallon pool. It was incredible to see the drive in these young people loaded down in their skis and boots as they, one after the other, gave it their all only to pull themselves out of the pool and try again. Who knew ski jumping was an all year sport!

At the Olympic Sports Complex, we lived up to their slogan of “for those who take their fun seriously!” by daring to ride down the 1980 Olympic bobsled track with it’s world famous zig zag turns. The experience was an exhilarating high-speed adrenaline rush of the highest order. It is a “must do”. We walked away with a whole new respect for the Olympian bobsledders. They must be fearless! A tour of the mountain and bobsled tracks gave our hearts a chance to return to a normal beat! This was definitely a highlight to end our afternoon of outdoor activities.

Following a little R&R back at the  Inn, we went to the Lake Placid Pub and Brewery. Lake Placid’s pub of choice since  the  1960’s,  it  is  known  for  its  on  site  micro  brewed ales  and  lagers including  the  famous  Ubu  Ale.  It  has everything  a  good  neighbourhood  pub  should  have  — great  food,  friendly  service  and  good  drinks.  For  the undecided, the pub offers a beer tasting service by extremely well-informed staff. To add just a little fun to your laid back evening have a s’more fondue. It will bring the child and chocolate lover out in you. This pub ensures a really fun night out and a great place for friends to recap the day’s adventures. Whether that included a summer’s day on the lake, a fall day hiking in the mountains, a winter’s day on the slopes or a spring day taking in the sights on your bike. I’m sure these walls have heard it all!

Lake Placid has something for everyone, every occasion and every season, and at just over a three hour drive from Ottawa, it is a perfect get-a-way.

By Rachael Desjardins

The Campania Contradiction

August 1, 2008 10:48 am
cinque-terre-340348_1280

Naples and the Amalfi coast —History and a passion for excellence collide under gaze of Mount Vesuvius

Page 32_IMG_2140As our plane made its final approach over the Sea of Sirens the view of the Neapolitan islands of Capri, Ischia and Procida with their imposing rock faces dotted with cliff-clinging edifices and lush greenery dropping down to the emerald green sea below was enchanting.
Our trip began in the complex and beautiful city of Naples. More than just the birthplace of pizza, Naples is a cultural and gastronomical mega centre. Originally founded by the Greeks, Napoli, as it is know to Italians, has been dominated by countless foreign invaders. The Roman Emperor, Augustus, was so taken by the beauty and bounty of the region that he built a fortress high on the cliffs of the Isle of Capri from where he ruled all of the Roman Empire. Later, the Normans then the Spanish controlled the city. Each left cultural marks that are visible in both the architecture and the language of modern day Naples.

Page30_IMG_2074

Naples is a sculptural, three dimensional delight.

Neapolitans says they live in a city of layers. In fact, if you descend 40 meters below the city there exits a labyrinth of tunnels, the remainder of the Roman aqueduct system, which was used as a bomb shelter during WWII. Consequently, there is no underground parking in Naples and the subway expansion is running way behind schedule as they keep uncovering ‘new’ ruins.

Back at street level, Naples is a seaport city and is the third largest metropolis in Italy. It is also the capital of the Campania Region — Campania meaning “fortunate countryside”. One could spend endless days exploring its historical castles and museums. A must see is the Museo Archeologico which houses artifacts excavated from the Roman ruins of Pompeii, Vesuvius and Herculaneum along with other artistic treasures. The Museo MADRE houses the city’s contemporary art collection and the Museo Capodimonte, originally intended as a hunting retreat for King Charles of Spain, is said to be one of the finest art galleries in Italy. Dating back to the 15th century, the Chiesa del Gesù Nuovo is both the name of a church and a square. With its fortified looking, diamond-encrusted façade, the church is unique to the Campania region. The Castel dell’Ovo, or the Egg Castle, is a 12-century Norman castle that sits 100 meters offshore on the site of the original Greek settlement of Megarides. Flanked by marinas, the castle affords great views of the fashionable seafood restaurants and hotels that line the boulevard along the Naples waterfront.

Page30_IMG_2186

Neapolitans stop to shop at the popular Galeria Umberto I with its gorgeous steel and glass roof.

On the west side of the city sits the trendy suburb of Posillippo. From there, the view down to the historic city centre, as well as across to the islands and over to distant Mount Vesuvius, is spectacular. A good way to see the sight in Napoli is atop a double-decker bus. CitySighseeing Napoli offers many different routes with convenient hop-on-off, 24-hour service. We took a break from our tour and relaxed for a coffee and a pastry at the famous Caffe Gambrinus. Located in the Piazza Trieste e Trento, the café offers views of the Castle del Nuovo, a 12th century castle built for Charles I of Anjou, the then King of Sicily; the Royal Palace; the historic Galeria Umberto I and the famous opera house, the Teatro di San Carlo. Later that evening, we returned to Piazza Trieste and Teatro di San Carlo to see a performance of Verdi’s I Lombardi Alla Prima Crociata. Built in 1737, the theatre is a cultural gem. You are transported back in time as you sit in the elaborate, baroque, five-story theatre with its impeccable acoustics. Tall people beware, the doorways are very low.

Page32_IMG_2341The next day we headed for the hills. We zigged and zagged up to the base of the volcanic crater of Mount Vesuvius. Best known for it’s explosive eruption in 79 AD which destroyed the Roman cities of Pompeii and Herculanum, it’s hard to believe that Vesuvius is an active volcano with over 3 million people living at its feet. Make sure you bring solid shoes and water for the steep 1000 metre climb to the craters edge. The view of the Bay of Naples from up top is wonderful.

Page30_IMG_2315

A house embedded into the mountainside on the coastal road between Positano and Naples.

On the steep hill overlooking the bay of Naples we stopped at Casa Scola in Gragnano and lunched at this fabulous agri-tourism retreat. While we ate our host explained the tradition of olive oil tasting and demonstrated the techniques of rating olive oil. Similar to a sommelier of wine, the taster is accredited and can discern so much from what seems like a simple taste.

Leaving Vesuvius behind us, we drove down the Amalfi coast. A UNESCO world heritage site, this narrow, rocky coastal road with hairpin turn is undeniably breathtaking. Once a power house trading region that predated and rivaled Venice for wealth and importance, the Amalfi region now caters mainly to foreign tourist. We stopped in Positano, a resort town built on the terraced cliffs. The streets are too narrow to accommodate cars so hotel bus boys use golf carts to transfer luggage up to the main road. Unlike the white sandy beaches of the Caribbean, the beach here is beautiful but past volcanic activity leaves it looking almost black.

Page30_IMG_2301 (1)

A view from the beach in Positano with the village clinging to the cliff behind.

We spent the night in Sorrento, a quaint cliff/seaside city of 17 thousand inhabitants. It is filled with beautiful shops showcasing local porcelain and handiwork but is known more for its limoncello production. Stop for a tasting at I Giardini di Cataldo, a lemon orchard right in the centre of town. Sorrento is very popular tourist destination. It is wise to plan your visit before the peak season of summer.

On our way back to Naples, we spent a day exploring the ruins of Pompeii. Make sure to hire a guide at the entrance. They are so knowledgeable that they make the ruins come alive and are well worth the extra 11 euros. Look for the grooves in the cobble-stoned roads from the chariot wheels. Take a hat and lots of water as there is very little shade. This ancient city is quite large and you won’t want to miss a thing.

Our trip ended as it began, in Naples, enjoying the incredible culture and food of the city. The smells of lemons, the beautiful gardens along the coast, the breathtaking views, the spectacular sunsets, the incredibly fresh and delicious food, the compact streets, the rich the history and the proud people all combine to make the Campania region of Italy the trip of a lifetime.

Wining and Dining

Visiting the Campania region makes you wonder how we have become so removed from the production of our food.The Italians have an intimate relationship with everything they eat. They take immense pride in the freshness and purity of local meats, fish and produce. The result is the best food you have likely ever eaten and some of the best wines you’ll ever drink.  We were fortunate to dine at restaurant Rosiello in the trendy end of town called Posillipo. The restaurant grew many of its own vegetables on the cliff below as well as growing grapes for its feature wine. The service was bar none. The food was so good it was like experiencing eating for the first time. The view across to the Isle of Capri was spectacular.

In Positano, we ate at Ristorante L’Incanto, located on the beach. The narrow streets do not allow for cars but the walk down is worth every step. The fish carpaccio was beyond excellent.

In Naples, we dined at La Tradizione on via R.Bosco. The service was top notch and the food was fabulous. The buffalo mozzarella was unlike any cheese we had ever eaten before. The local favourite seafood pasta was delicious.

In Sorrento, we stayed at the impressive Imperial Hotel la Tramontano and dined at its panoramic Restaurant Belvedere. The service was impeccable. The Maître’D was a Roger Moore look a like. The restaurant is a must for its breathtaking views of Naples, mount Vesuvius and the isles.

Historical Walks The Gatineau Park

June 24, 2008 8:50 pm

For history buffs, nature lovers, bird watchers, and hiking enthusiasts, Katharine Fletcher’s Historical Walks continues to be the unique guide to the human and natural history of Gatineau Park. Fully illustrated with maps, archival and contemporary photographs, the book is a one-stop reference and handbook to the 363-square kilometer park situated on the Quebec side of the Ottawa River, just 20 minutes north of Parliament Hill by car. In Part I, the author tells the story of the pioneers and settlers who originally homesteaded here, and explains how the park came into being. Part II, invites the reader to explore a range of ecological zones including the micro-climate of the Eardley Escarpment, the tranquility of beaver ponds, and sylvan meadows. Here, Katharine also offers numerous tips on bird and wildlife viewing throughout the park. The last part of the guide features 24 summer hiking trails. (Although primarily a summer hiking guide, Katharine indicates shared bike paths throughout the park, and describes winter trail usage for winter hikers, snowshoers and cross-country skiers.). Visit www.chesleyhouse.com

Historical Walks, The Gatineau Park Story by Katharine Fletcher C$19.95; 192 pages, Fitzhenry & Whiteside: 3rd Edition, 2004

The Rocky Mountaineer: Journey of a Lifetime

January 8, 2008 10:56 am
rockymountaineer_431

There are certain things you should do at least once in your life if you are Canadian. One is to visit the nation’s capital. Another is visiting Montreal and Quebec City. Still another is taking a tour of the Cabot Trail in Cape Breton. Obviously, there are the Calgary Stampede, a drive across tile Prairies and camping in Algonquin Park to consider. A sojourn across the arctic is also incredible. In spite of this phenomenal list of national travel destinations, I think a train trip on the Rocky Mountaineer would be in the TOP five of my Ten Best Vacations ever in Canada.

Travelling on board the Rocky Mountaineer is an unforgettable experience, considered by many to be, a trip of a lifetime. The two-day rail journey recaptures the romance of rail travel as it follows the historic train route constructed over 100 years ago through Canada’s West and the Canadian Rockies, uniting the country. The entire train ride takes place during daylight hours to ensure you enjoy every minute of the breathtaking scenery of glacier-fed lakes, majestic mountains ranges and ferocious rivers. The Rocky Mountaineer train travels in both eastbound and westbound directions between the beautiful coastal city of Vancouver, British Columbia, the resort town of Whistler, British Columbia, and Jasper or Banff and Calgary, Alberta.

I had first heard about the Rocky Mountaineer in the mid-nineteen nineties. What really peaked my own personal interest was when I heard that they were offering Winter Rail Vacations from Vancouver to Banff and promoted them as journeys through “the Land of a Million Christmas Trees”. I decided it would be a great trip to lake with my ten-year-old daughter right after Christmas. So we prepared for a trip though the wondrous snow-capped mountain peaks and frozen streams and lakes of Beautiful British Columbia’s Fraser Valley and Alberta’s Banff national park. We decided to go with the Gold Leaf package offered by Rocky Mountaineer for the trip. The package includes excellent on board dining, reclining seats with lots of legroom, spirits, fine wines, beverages, and fruit and snacks along the way. The service also includes live musical entertainment and a dedicated children’s program in two specially designed cars that are easily accessible from the “Gold Leaf” service car. On the overnight stop in Kamploops, the staff of Rocky Mountaineer takes care of your hotel check-in and ensure that your luggage is delivered to your room and picked up the next morning.

The interior of The Rocky Mountaineer

We flew from Ottawa to Vancouver on Boxing Day (December 26th). Rocky Mountaineer had booked us in at the Sutton Place hotel in downtown Vancouver. Sutton Place is a sophisticated European styled luxury hotel around the corner from all the shopping and restaurants on Robson Street and is idea for all visitors. My daughter’s eyes lit up when we walked into the lobby with its high ceilings, Victorian furnishings, beautifully polished hardwood floors and wonderful display of Christmas trees and decorations to celebrate the season. “Storybook” is the only way to describe it. The hotel offers a spa, sauna and indoor pool. We took advantage of the sauna and pool to freshen up form the long flight. Our room was well appointed with marble accented bath and shower, Internet hook-ups, room service- the works! All rooms have an evening turn down service. We then took in the afternoon tea at the hotel’s award winning Fleuri restaurant. In addition to breakfast, lunch and dinner, the Fleuri also offers afternoon tea and chocoholic buffet, on weekends. There is also a coffee shop within the hotel. The Sutton Place Hotel (www.suttonplace.com) was a great way to decompress in Vancouver before we began the next day’s journey into the Rockies.

We began our on board trip the following morning on the Rocky Mountaineer. The Rocky Mountaineer has a dedicated train station for its trains in Vancouver – the station is very user friendly and informative. There is a photographic and historical journey of the company and all its routes posted on display in the station and staff are accessible to answer any questions. While waiting to be checked in, guests are offered complimentary coffee, and for our trip the station had arranged for a group of carollers to sing to guests.  (The train leaves the stations at 7 a.m. so we were at the station at 6:20 with our luggage). Once the train got rolling, the staff passed out champagne orange juice for the adults and orange juice for the kids and toasts were made to everyone on board. Then we were invited to the dining carriage below us for breakfast. The meals feature attentive white linen service provided by the on board attendants who serve the gourmet meals prepared from regional cuisine by the on board chefs. Luxury and comfort were words that came to mind as we enjoyed the on board atmosphere and outside view.

The stunning lobbey of the Rimrock Resort Hotel is surpassed only by the spectacular view of Banff National Park

Our journey followed the Kicking Horse Route, which goes from Vancouver to Banff and is approximately 900 kilometres. (We travelled 442 kilometres the first day and the balance on day 2).The trip winds through four mountain ranges, dozens of bridges and tunnels and alongside numerous waterfalls, lakes and rivers. (The Rocky Mountaineer offers travel by rail through five protected areas: Mount Revelstoke National Park, Glacier National Park, Yoho National Park, and the oldest and the largest of the Rockies parks, Banff and Jasper. Three provincial parks combined with the four National Parks located in the Rockies, comprise the UNESCO Rocky Mountain World Heritage Site. This ranks as one of the largest protected areas on the planet). One of the best things about the Rocky Mountaineer experience was listening to the interpretive commentary by the knowledgeable and friendly on board attendants regarding the history of the railway, the local geography, the wildlife, and their insight into the importance of how the railway has contributed to Canada’s development as a nation. They had great trivia and information to share about the people, places and things that happened during the building of the railway that have made it one of the great engineering feats of its time. I found myself shifting back and forth between our glass domed coach on the second level and going downstairs to stand outside on the platform to stare in awe and take in all of the incredible scenery. While standing outside on the platform between carriages you can still hear the attendant commentary through the train’s outdoor speaker system.

Our stopover on the first night was in the historic and thriving town of Kamploops B.C. The train arrived in Kamploops at 6:30 and we were taken by shuttle bus to our hotel. Shortly thereafter, we gathered in a theatre at the hotel and were served a buffet meal as a prelude to The Great Canadian Lumberjack Show, a theatrical play that was highly entertaining and in keeping with the spirit of the area and the trip.

We were up early the next morning and back on board the train at 6:30 am to begin the second part of our journey towards Alberta and Banff. Again, we began the day with a delicious breakfast while taking in the exceptional scenery which was quickly changing. The train began the ascent into the Rockies that would take us to an altitude of over 4000 feet higher than when we began.

The Canadian West is fortunate to still be home to a wide variety of plants and animals. The wildlife in the Canadian Rockies helps to distinguish this region from all others, and makes for a perfect vacation. Along the Rocky Mountaineer’s route we saw many of the large mammal and bird species for which this area is known including elk, moose, osprey’s, and eagles A highlight for my daughter was seeing an elk swimming across one of the smaller lakes we crossed. There are also grizzlies and black bears, bighorn sheep, cougars, wolves, lynx and caribou – the habitat is also home to many species that rely on large tracts of land to survive.

A view of the Rimrock Resort Hotel nestled among the trees in Banff National Park

Shortly after our lunch on the second day the train stopped and the conductor came on the speaker system to ask everyone to look out their windows… and sure enough, out of the forest came a man in a red suit wobbling along. It didn’t take long for the sounds of kids saying “look it’s Santa Claus” to be heard throughout the tram. Eventually, Santa boarded and spent some time with the kids and then with the adults…another nice touch on a classy trip.

Our Rocky Mountaineer train trip ended in the heart of the Canadian Rocky Mountains in Banff, AB. We were booked for one night at The Rimrock Resort Hotel located in Banff National Park. Nestled in a pristine mountain setting above the town, the Rimrock Resort Hotel (www.rimrockresort.com) offers comfort and luxury combined with the most breathtaking mountain and alpine valley views to be found anywhere. We checked into the hotel and were taken by its fabulous lobby decor and floor to ceiling windows that provided a lookout over the property and its exceptional amenities. We took a day to explore Banff but it wasn’t enough and I am determined to return. People from all over the world vacation in search of the Banff experience, whether it’s the restaurants, shops, cultural activities, or adventures in the wilderness. On Banff’s bustling main avenue, virtually every language from German to Japanese is spoken. Within minutes of Banff, you can be hiking in a quiet secluded forested area or skiing. We are saving this for our next trip.

For more information contact: www.rockymountaineer.com or www.whistlermountaineer.com or call 1-800-665-7245.

Sandals Dunn’s River Villagio in Jamaica: Highest Standards for Sun Seekers

December 1, 2007 9:30 am
Bird’s eye view of Sandals Dunn’s River Villagios’ pool area.
Dec07_Jamaica_front

A canopy of lush gardens greets travelers at the front entrance of Sandals Dunn’s River Vellagio in Ocho Rios.

There’s a reason why Sandals Resorts are recognized as offering the best in Caribbean service. We recently visited Sandals Dunn’s River Villagio in Jamaica and experienced first-hand their exceptional service and hospitality. Thirteen Sandals properties are located in Jamaica, St. Lucia, Antigua, the Bahamas and Cuba. Each offers stunning beachfront locations: a choice of à la carte restaurants, from white-glove dining to barefoot elegance; all premium-brand wine and spirits, luxurious accommodations in a range of categories, water sports, wedding services and spas by Red Lane Spas with services and treatments inspired by the region. For truly indulgent pampering, there is also a Butler service.  We decided to go all out and chose the indulgent pampering route, Butler and all. I must say it was exceptional from the moment we stepped off the plane in Montego Bay. We were whisked into the Sandals Welcome Lounge at the airport for refreshments. Moments later, a driver picked us up in a Mercedes town car and drove us the 90 minutes from Montego Bay to our destination.

The drive is beautiful as you weave through exotic villages and pick up the first inklings of the vibrant spirit of the Jamaican people, fiercely independent culture and storied history. Jamaica is an island in the West Indies, 90 miles (145 km) south of Cuba and 100 miles (161 km) west of Haiti. Jamaica is made up of coastal lowlands, a limestone plateau and the Blue Mountains, a group of volcanic hills, in the east. In the early 1980s, a visionary hotelier realized that Jamaica’s best asset was its beauty, beaches and people. It was from this premise that Gordon “Butch” Stewart created Sandals.

Born in Kingston, Jamaica, in 1941, Stewart grew up along the north coast, a tropical paradise boasting some of the most beautiful beaches in the world and an area that is now home to four Sandals resorts, including Sandals Dunn’s River Villagio. Stewart started out by opening his own air-conditioning business in Jamaica in the late 1960s and got into the tourism and hospitality trade almost by accident… buying a dilapidated hotel in Montego Bay in 1980 at a time when the tourism industry in Jamaica was recovering from a collapse in the 1970’s due to the misguided policies of a socialist government. With no hotel experience, Stewart decided to approach the business with a simple philosophy. “Find out what people want, give it to them and in doing so, exceed their expectations.” Twenty-seven years later, Sandals has grown into a billion-dollar, privately-owned, Jamaica-based empire that includes 18 Caribbean resorts, Appliance Traders Ltd (his air conditioning and manufacturing company), The Observer newspaper and 24 other diversified companies that collectively form the country’s largest private-sector group, biggest foreign exchange earner and largest non-governmental employer. To this day, Stewart owes his success to salesmanship. He is known as the “Cupid of the Caribbean” and “The King of All-Inclusive Resorts.”

Dec07_Jamaica_butler

The Butler service meets guests’ every whim 24 hours a day.

Sandals Dunn’s River Villagio is bordered on one side by a stunning sweep of gorgeous green mountains and on the other by the best stretch of white-sand beach in Ocho Rios. It represents an amazing melding of Caribbean charm and opulence with an Italian Renaissance-style lobby displaying vaulted ceilings, marble columns and an ornate staircase. Sandals carried through the Italian theme to its staff, bringing 24 performers, musicians and chefs directly from Italy. The staff is friendly, professional and courteous. Restaurants, activities and accommodations are exceptional. Our room had a phenomenal beachfront view with 24-hour room service, and every modern amenity you could think of. We decided to go catamaran sailing, snorkeling and ocean kayaking during our stay. The great thing about the staff is that they don’t just hand you the snorkeling gear and say, “see yuh.” They actually go out and swim with you… which if you are a little nervous does much to allay your fears. Our diver would surface with us and describe the coral and fish we were seeing close-up. When we sailed the catamaran, we tagged along with an American couple and a Sandals scuba-diving team member who handled the boat. He grew up in the area and told us much local lore. We stopped and took a dip in the aquamarine waters off a white-sand beach where a waterfall met with the ocean. Simply fabulous.

We returned from that activity and headed to a two-hour rest and relaxation session at the Red Lane Spa… a sanctuary for mind, body and soul that reinterprets classic European spa rituals with a distinctive Caribbean flair. After the spa, we decided to have dinner at the 5 Star Diamond Internationale Room, where international gourmet cuisine is served in a very elegant atmosphere with white-gloved service in air-conditioned comfort.  I tried the surf-and-turf combo of fresh lobster and local beef sirloin. The food was spectacular, and the service was also personable and friendly. Over our five days at Sandals, we dined at several of the resort’s sensational gourmet restaurants: Windies featured the exotic spices favored in West Indian dishes; Ristorante Colombo offered a diverse selection of cuisines. Minutes away, the stage is set each night for the knife-flashing drama of Teppanyaki at Kimonos. My personal favorite was the Marco Polo Restaurant whose specialty gourmet serving is West Indian cuisine in an al-fresco setting overlooking the waterfall pool. A lunch favorite was Ristorante d’Amore, which offered pizzas and other Italian and Jamaican delights. The Il Capitano Romantic specialty gourmet restaurant serves regional Italian dishes. By the beach is the relaxing Pizzeria del Campo, a wonderful outdoor trattoria that serves fine Italian pastries, flavored coffees at Bar del Campo, ice cream at Gelateria Luigi and praline/cotton candy at Mondorle e Zucchero Filato.

Dec07_Jamaica_BeachBoat

A Sandals Boat rests along the beach.

Each night we looked forward to the theatrical show that the resort hosts for its guests… everything from opera singers to dancers to reggae nights. Each night is a different act and a different show. So much to enjoy – so little time! The Butler service is non-intrusive and works very well. You are provided a cell phone and if you want anything you just hit a button on the cell and the Butler’s Tamon and Omar answer. They will arrange local trips, restaurant reservations, car service meals, towels for the beach, chairs and breakfast service to your room or on the beach and pool deck. Sandals Dunn’s River Villagio is a true haven for golfers. Golf to your heart’s content without paying any greens fees and revel in the breathtaking beauty of one of Jamaica’s most scenic golf courses… even as you thrill to the challenge of some of the most exciting 18 holes in the Caribbean, if not the world. And, just to ensure that your mind is on nothing but golf, golf and more golf—even the transfers are included.

Sandals works with a bevy of local operators who provide an amazing array of fun adventure-type tours.
I must say we enjoyed the Chukka Canopy Tour. It’s basically a zip line hundreds of feet up in the jungle that you can cross in a harness at harrowing speeds (at least for me!). The Chukka line is a new trail through lush jungle in the heart of the spectacular Cranbrook Flower Forest, which leads to the start of this unforgettable zip line tour adventure. (Price per Adult: US$89. To get there you need to take a 30-minute drive through the unspoiled hilly interior where your expedition starts. You literally drive up the side of a mountain. Among the many other options are river tubing with paddle and life vest or the exceptional Mountain Bike Ride high up the St. Ann through woodland and meadows. You begin at the quaint village of Mount Zion to a thirst-quenching stopover at Spicy Grove Tavern, ending at a picturesque cove, carved by nature out of rock to form a serene pool for swimming and snorkeling. After five days at Sandals Dunn’s River Villagio, I don’t think I could get any more relaxed. Yeah Mon, let’s do it again next year!
Visit www.sandals.com for more information.

Petite auberge Les Bons Matins B&B

November 8, 2007 2:03 am
Alex_Bessette_01

Thousands of Ottawans visit Montreal weekly for business and pleasure. Montreal has it all, live theatre, music, a vibrant arts scene, and exceptional restaurants in a French joie de vivre culture. On a recent business trip to Montreal, I was lucky enough to have been booked into the Petite auberge Les Bons Matins B&B. While it bills itself as a B&B, it reminded me of a boutique hotel I had visited while staying in Paris. Located in a in a series of adjoining and magnificently restored century-old townhomes in downtown Montreal, Les Bons Matins B&B is just a short hop from the Bell Centre, two blocks down from bustling Sainte-Catherine Street, Montreal’s premiere shopping mecca; and only steps away from lively Crescent Street, one of the city’s hottest spots, where trendy restaurants, cafes and nightclubs abound. You could hardly ask for a better location. Once here, you probably won’t need to use your car at all! Everything is within walking distance: shopping, restaurants and museums… The Lucien L’Allier Metro station is only 30 metres away! This station is a gateway to the Bell Centre, Windsor Station and Place Bonaventure.

A beautifully decorated room complete with fireplace sets a tranquil mood.

The Petit auberge Les Bons Matins B&B is furnished with the finest, carefully refinished antiques. Climb gated iron stairways to your room. The decor is young and vibrant. Hardwood floors, hand-woven Persian rugs and original artworks make for a colorful and welcoming atmosphere. Each room comes equipped with a private bathroom (with shower, bath or two-person whirlpool bath), phone, wireless Internet service (they also have computers with high-speed connection available in the living room near the front desk), color TV with cable, VCR, alarm clock, vanity mirror and hair dryer. My room had a super comfortable queen-sized bed with tasteful and colorful linens, which complimented the wonderful cross-section of antique and modern furniture. The bathroom was a designer’s dream, tiled tastefully with a big Jacuzzi tub. When you enter from Argyle Street, you walk into a welcoming and comfortable sitting room decorated with beautiful works of art from local artists and adorned with fresh cut flowers, fruit baskets and tables that offer an array of pamphlets on what to do while in Montreal. Guests have access to the kitchen for a snack at any time and can also help themselves to coffee, tea, herbal tea, hot chocolate, iced tea and cookies at any time… and it’s all on the house!

Breakfast is served from 7 am until 10 am in a classy and comfy dining room. On the menu are fresh-squeezed orange juice; fresh-ground, freshly brewed French-style coffee; home-baked bread; croissants and pastries; fruit salad made fresh daily; mouthwatering homemade waffles and French toast; an assortment of natural cereals; yogurt; a selection of the finest cheeses and cold cuts; Canadian smoked salmon; homemade jams; and a variety of mouthwatering dishes, such as eggs Benedict, quiche and omelets any way you like, served with bacon or ham are all part of the menu.

Rates are seasonal and there are discounted rates from time to time (from $99 to $199). Petite auberge Les Bons Matins B&B also offers a meeting room that can accommodate up to 10 people. It is available from 8 am until 5 pm and includes two coffee breaks. (With the simultaneous reservation of four rooms (comfort or deluxe) or three suites, the conference room is free for one day.) The spacious room features ergonomic armchairs, air-conditioning, wireless Internet access, white board and sheets and Business Stay. I highly recommend this location for a productive retreat, especially for small to mid-sized businesses and government agencies.

Comfort, class and pizzazz make this one of the very best picks (and best-kept secrets) for overnight stays in Montreal. Book in advance because they do sell out.

Petite auberge Les Bans Matins B&B
1401, avenue Argyle

Recent Posts