You Just Can’t Beat Florida for Family Fun

March 13, 2009 4:30 pm
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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.”

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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!)

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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
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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…

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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.

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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.

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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
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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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
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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.
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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.”

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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.

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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
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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

Step-Aside B&B in the Village of Gagetown, NB

May 8, 2007 6:30 pm
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As we continue in our quest to encourage readers to “See Canada from Sea-to-Sea-to Sea,” we decided to promote a little-known bed and breakfast in the Maritimes called Step-Aside B&B. Here you’ll find the genuine hospitableness and kindness that Maritimers are famous for. After journeying with my son to the Calgary Stampede (see our December 2006 issue), I decided it would be fun to take a quick long weekend trip with him to New Brunswick to see the Bay of Fundy, Magnetic Hill, Moncton Mid Saint John.

I also wanted to take a tour of the Saint John River Valley and visit the Village of Gagetown, which Harrowsmith Country Life Magazine has called “one of the ten prettiest towns in Canada.” Upon arrival in Saint John, my friend suggested we boat up the river to Gagetown, a resplendent summer’s afternoon journey that took us through some of the most scenic-landscapes in eastern Canada.

We arrived at dusk at the Village of Gagetown, a beautiful and charming community that

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attracts boaters and tourists seeking a ‘step-back-in-time’ experience: pastoral scenes of rolling hills, farm fields, apple orchards, cattle grazing on interval islands, sailboats and rowel’s passing on Gagetown Creek, and ospreys and eagles languidly soaring overhead. The total effect makes visitors feel like they have stepped back into the 18th century. The town also attracts people of all ages seeking a great little community to live in. Gagetown has a wealth of heritage properties and two designated historic sites: the Queens County Court House Provincial Historic Site and Sir Leonard Tilley House National Historic Site. A real draw in the summer is a full-service marina and public boat launch ramp. The marina comes complete with fuel tanks, boat rentals, laundry services, showers and pump outs. Adjacent to the marina are a sports bar and restaurant (The Old Boot Pub).

Founded in 1758, the Village of Gagetown takes its name from Col. Thomas Gage, the original grantee. It shares its claim to be the oldest English settlement in the St. John River Valley with Bunon and Sheffield-Maugerville but, unlike them, on the arrival of the United Empire Loyalists in 1783, it was transformed into a well-laid-out village.

Gagetown is also a recognized birding area attracting over 260 species of waterfowl, shorebirds, raptors and songbirds. The marshes, islands and varied landforms surrounding Gagetown are a favourite destination for birders. During the spring migration, the islands nearby become a staging area for thousands of waterfowl, primarily black duck and common goldeneyes.

As we tied our boat to the community dock, we were met by Maurice and Elaine Harquail – proprietors of the Step-Aside B&B. With a spectacular view of the Saint John River, the Step-Aside B&B must be one of the Ten Best Bed and Breakfasts in Canada. This charming hostelry has four bedrooms, as well as a new deck and glass sitting room. It was named after the town of Step-Aside on the Burin Peninsula in Newfoundland. In the 1920s, a tsunami destroyed the town.

The Harquails are the penultimate hosts. A definite highlight of our two-day stay was breakfast served in the sitting room, which overlooks the river. Full breakfasts include homemade muffins, bread, jams and a wonderful selection of egg dishes served up with Maurice’s witty banter.

On our first night at Step-Aside, Maurice insisted that I drop by The Old Boot Pub, for a nightcap, which lasted for hours as the regular patrons and weekend boaters started up a regular down-home Kitchen Callee. You would be hard-pressed to find a pub in Ontario where people meet and have a drink or two and then within 30 minutes pull out the guitars and play the spoons for a real shivaree. Such is the wonderment of the Marinnies’ culture. A hearty breakfast the next morning did much to assist me in the post-pub recovery process.

When in the Village of Gagetown, plan to spend a little time strolling around. The village is home to some of New Brunswick’s finest artists and artisans. You can see their creations in shops, studios and a contemporary gallery. The village offers a guided walking tour of heritage properties and historic sites.

Gagetown also boasts a farm cidery and winery, craft stores outlets, small meat and grocery and liquor stores, a picnic area, cottages and a heritage inn.

A Midwinter’s Bite of the Big Apple

March 1, 2007 10:43 am
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Got the winter blues or a little cabin fever? Well here’s the cure: New York City. David Letterman is right when he calls it the greatest city in the world. It is. Put aside the fact that it is the commerce centre of the universe or that its storied history goes back over 400 years or that the New Yawk accent is almost as good as listening to a Newfie at a kitchen party. The city itself is a planning and architectural marvel and the sights and sounds it offers provide visitors with an overwhelming choice of destinations worth visiting.

The first thing we did was look for a great place to stay (and there are many) that was within walking distance of the subways (the best way to get around New York) and close to some of the attractions we wanted to visit. After some Internet searching, we chose the Buckingham Hotel in the heart of Manhattan. The Buckingham is located on the corner of 57th Street West and Avenue of the Americas, one block from Broadway near Carnegie Hall and two blocks from the entrance to Central Park. Located in the midst of New York’s world-famous cultural district, the Buckingham Hotel was built in 1929 in what is referred to as midtown. Internationally renowned concert halls, art galleries, museums, and schools of art and dance surround the hotel. The Buckingham has a friendly staff and all the modern amenities, including wireless and Internet access, a business centre and concierge, large bathtubs and really hot showers. The rooms are very clean, bright and spacious – designed with a retro look that took me back to the Roaring Twenties. There is no restaurant in the Buckingham, but that is no problem as there are so many places nearby catering to all tastes and open 24/7.

You can drive to New York from Ottawa in about seven hours but this time we chose to fly to get more time in the city. We flew into LaGuardia Airport and decided to take a shuttle bus from the airport to the hotel. The price was $17US per person. The good news is the shuttle goes right to the door of your hotel. The bad news is the shuttle is crammed full of people and you have to do the milk run, stopping at other hotels until the driver drops you off at yours. Overall it was not a bad experience. You see a great deal of Manhattan as you are driven about in the airport shuttle. The cost for two people to get a cab from LaGuardia is about $45US. Bottom line – take the cab. It gets you there faster and it’s worth the extra  $13. (We took a cab on the way back).

We checked into the Buckingham and took a walk around the block. We noticed a place called Nino’s Tuscany Restaurant (at 117 West 58th Street). It looked so inviting and we knew we were in for a treat as soon as we walked through the doors. Try Nino’s seafood antipasti; it’s literally to die for. My partner ordered the pasta with mushrooms and pancetta cream sauce while I tried the smoked chorizo sausage cooked in a spicy arabiatta tomato sauce with linguini. As Italian food goes, it doesn’t get any better than this place. The wines list was both extensive and reasonably priced. The service was excellent. The desserts were home-cooked and the espresso machine and after-dinner drinks helped cap off a perfect New York meal.

The next morning, we ventured out to a pâtisserie and coffee shop on the Great White Way before heading to Central Park, one of the true pleasures of the Big Apple. You can literally walk for miles and not feel like you are in the city. You get in the habit while in New York City of measuring distance by the number of blocks you walk. We walked about 91 city blocks on our fist day, including 30 blocks along the edge of Central Park as we made our way to the American Museum of Natural History. I’ve always wanted to visit this museum, especially after seeing Ben Stiller’s movie Night at the Museum this past Christmas. To fully appreciate the museum, you could probably spend a couple of days there visiting. We decided to go through the exhibits that met our personal interests. For me, that meant going through the Pacific West Coast Indian Exhibits and the Northeast Indian Exhibits. My partner wanted to see the ocean life exhibit. We both wanted to see the dinosaur exhibit and the animals of the world section. The Museum is 150 years old and built in the grand style of America’s Golden Age. We spent about five hours at the museum and could easily have spent another full day there.

Next up was Macy’s Department Store. Walking down Broadway puts your senses in visual overdrive. There is so much to see: the theatres, restaurants, shops and teeming humanity. Mostly you will remember the lights. I’ve never seen so many lit-up places at night. Between the lights and the people there is a constant energy in New York City that is truly remarkable. We felt perfectly safe walking around New York City — safer than we feel walking around downtown Ottawa at night. The police are very high-profile on the streets of Manhattan. The vendors are friendly. New Yorkers are friendlier than Ottawans, I must say. We enjoyed our 40-block walk and made sure we stopped at a pub on Broadway for a couple of pints to refuel before continuing our journey. We were lucky because we had entered an online lottery via CBS for the David Letterman show and were selected to attend. No one was as surprised as me when I got the call the day before we left saying we had been selected in the draw to be part of the next day’s audience. Late Night with David Letterman is at the old Ed Sullivan Theatre on Broadway.

After the show, we dropped by the Carnegie Deli for dinner. This was probably the only downer on the trip. Yes, it’s a deli but it is hugely overpriced – a smoked meat sandwich cost $12.95US. The desserts were also overpriced and not very tasty. It’s the only time on our trip when we both felt like we were being had. However, other smaller delis offer the traditional great food at affordable prices on many of the sidestreets. So, if you want to do the deli thing — go off-Broadway.

On our second full day in NYC, we hit the subway and headed to Brooklyn to take in the Annie Leibovitz: A Photographer’s Life: 1990-2005 visiting exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum. The subway is clean and cheap. Oh, if only Ottawa had something like this instead of a stupid Transitway. Entry to the Leibovitz exhibit cost $8US and was worth every penny. The exhibit was exceptionally well done, featuring a cross-section of the genius photographer’s public and private works over the last 30 years. The Brooklyn Museum is beautifully designed in the Grand Style and has a children’s area, a cafeteria and public parking. It is also directly on the NYC subway line, which is good, because it’s near a rough neighborhood – but no worse than many Ottawa districts you don’t want to be caught dead in after dark.

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The NYC Rockefeller Centre

Next up was a subway ride back to Chinatown and then a walk to the SoHo District – one of New York’s hippest neighbourhoods, resplendent in the architecture of the Cast Iron Historic District. There are literally blocks of vendors selling every kind of watch and trinket imaginable. It was an incredibly brisk cold day and I was not dressed warmly enough. It only took moments for me to find a vendor who was selling quality 100% cotton sweaters at a very cheap price. SoHo is popular with professionals, artists, celebrities, musicians and the like; it’s a community unto itself, featuring beautiful refurbished heritage buildings, high-end fashion shops, open markets and an array of restaurants offering delicacies from all over the world. We came upon Il Corallo Trattoria at 172-176 Prince Street – truly one of the city’s finest little eateries. The atmosphere is intimate as the tables are very close together, but you still have enough space for private conversation. The food is lovingly made with the freshest and finest ingredients. We arrived at 5:30 pm; by 6:50 pm, the restaurant was full. That says it all. Next up was a visit to Rockefeller Centre. We skated on the fabled outdoor rink under the statue of Atlas. Then we walked around the NBC studios where Good Morning America and Saturday Night Live are shot. As we headed back to our hotel, we saw a restaurant advertising two-for-one martinis for $11US. Despite our state of pleasant exhaustion, we couldn’t pass on that deal. What a great way to end our NYC weekend. New York City really is a wonderful town.

Some Day at the Beach! Destination Weddings: Cuba

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The Wedding Chapel at Paradisus Rio de Oro all-inclusive resort in Guardalavaca, on the northeast coast of Cuba.
Photo: Catherine Sand

When my brother-in-law announced his intention to wed in Cuba, my wife Trine literally jumped for joy. She had seriously considered holding our wedding party on a beach in the Caribbean, so she could get hitched while barefoot in the sand. I was happy too – I like a beach vacation as much as the next guy, but never having been to anything like this, I had no clue about the customs. As we made arrangements to attend, the big question loomed before me: What are the differences between a “normal” wedding and a destination wedding? This was my first trip to Cuba, so I was looking forward to fine cigars, smooth aged rum, crystal-clear water on fine white sand, and the friendliest people you’d ever want to meet. My brother-in-law Jens is a top-of-the-line kind of guy, so he and his wife-to-be Angela had reserved a week at a five-star resort near Guardalavaca, on the northeast coast of Cuba. The Paradisus Rio de Oro is an all-inclusive resort with private beaches and many free activities, including snorkelling, sailing, dance lessons, horseback riding, kayaking, pedal boats, windsurfing, tennis, volleyball and even Spanish lessons. I’m lazy, so I thought I’d just sit around the pool or lie on the beach, but I ended up trying a few things myself. I loved the sailing and dance lessons but a week just wasn’t enough time to try everything!The flight to Cuba was less than four hours and we were processed quickly at the Holguin airport. The resort’s modern bus picked us up for the short drive from the airport. I loved the scenery and all the carefully maintained classic cars on the road. The sight of palm trees waving in the tropical breeze is guaranteed to put you in a relaxed mood. Check-in at the hotel was fast and efficient – good news for us, given the late hour of our arrival.

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Snorkelling is one of many activities included in your stay at the Paradisus Rio de Oro.

Sunday was our first full day in paradise and it was hot and sunny. Mind you, so was every other day we spent there. That’s the advantage of going in the summer; the disadvantage was unlucky fishing – our deep-sea fishing trip turned into a pleasant cruise completely uninterrupted by the appearance of any fish. Our skipper, a bearded Hemingway look-alike, kept the mood light with jokes, snacks and drinks while we chatted away the afternoon on the deck of our chartered motor yacht. A pleasant day for us – and the fish too!

The wedding was planned for Wednesday, so we had plenty of time to relax beforehand. My favourite activity was snorkelling. We saw clouds of tropical fish and beautiful coral formations only a few metres off the hotel beach. We had originally planned to go scuba diving, but we beheld so much on our snorkelling excursions that we never felt the need.

Jens and his three sons were more interested in sailing. Every day, they went out with an instructor on one of the Hobie Cats (a small sailing catamaran) that the resort provides for free. Everybody enjoyed swimming in the ocean several times a day and we would usually hit the swim-up bar at the pool around 4 o’clock. It was a nice place to cool off after a day on the beach.

Evenings were a time to rest after playing all day. We tried all the different restaurants, but the buffet restaurant was our favourite. Flambéed bananas may just be my all-time favourite dessert. After dinner, my wife and I would retire to the lobby bar for my evening cigar and rum. In Canada, I’ve always enjoyed my cigar with a good scotch; in Cuba, I was assured that the only way to truly appreciate the flavour of a good cigar was to have seven-year-old rum to sip along with it. I liked that combination so much I bought a couple of bottles of Havana Club to bring home with my cigars. We would usually watch a dinner show while I had my smoke. The entertainment was the usual cabaret-type stuff: dancing and singing with some audience participation thrown in now and then. I liked the jazz band that warmed up the crowd before the big show. It had a bluesy sound with some Latin flair to spice it up.

This prelude was just like the dreamy holiday experienced vacationers to Cuba have been bragging about for years, but what about the wedding? Well, that could not have been handled any more efficiently. Early in the week, Angela met with the resort’s wedding coordinator to arrange the details, such as the wedding schedule, the colour scheme, and the flowers. This is where I noted some significant differences between this wedding in Cuba and weddings I attended in Canada. We could wear more comfortable attire than usual (a definite plus); there was no need to bring a gift for the married couple (that could wait until we returned home); no driving was required as the wedding venue was only a short walk from the resort; and there was very little prep time (we swam in the ocean until an hour before the ceremony).

We were all very impressed with how smoothly the wedding went. The ceremony was simple, beautiful and over before we knew it! The spot the resort designated for the wedding was gorgeous. The guests gathered next to a gazebo on a point overlooking the water. The sun was shining and the sea lapped against the rocks as we drank free champagne and took pictures of the scenery. We sat in the shade from the trees lining the path to the gazebo and enjoyed a light, cooling breeze off the ocean. I remember thinking how different the setting was from all the church weddings I’ve been to in Canada. The scent of tropical flowers, the clean salt air and the casual atmosphere of people at ease made me wonder why more weddings aren’t held in this absolutely divine location.

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The groom and bride, Jens and Angela, happily married and stress-free.

When was the last time you went to a wedding and wished the service was longer? In fact, my only complaint was that they should have taken more time. I was enjoying myself at the ceremony and then – bang! – it was over. The service lasted only a few minutes (admittedly, the bride and groom wanted it short and sweet) and then we were all feverishly snapping pictures and offering our congratulations. We walked down to the beach to take pictures of the bride and groom barefoot on the sand. Then we relaxed in the lobby bar, drinking and snacking until dinnertime. The reception was held in the more formal setting of the El Patio dining room. Other restaurants are available for the wedding dinner, but the cool, refined atmosphere of El Patio did seem the best choice. After a delicious meal and a few speeches, the staff surprised the bride and groom with a beautiful wedding cake and a violin serenade. We ended the night with another few rounds of mojitos in the lobby bar. Ah, Cuba!

So what is the best part of a destination wedding? Quite a few features kept it from being ordinary, but here is the defining difference: a destination wedding is a holiday for everyone involved. To avoid any semblance of the hectic activity that often plagues a weekend wedding, this event was held mid-week. Plenty of time to get ready for it while enjoying sand and surf. And think of all the times you have helped out after the wedding of a friend or family member. Cleaning up, organizing, transporting – somebody has to do the grunt work after the happy couple leaves. That’s the beauty of a destination wedding – the bride and groom are already on their honeymoon, and all the guests happen to be on vacation!

It puts a whole new spin on the expression “Cuba Libre”! We Canadians felt a tremendous sense of freedom in Cuba!

For more information, contact the Cuban Tourism Office at: (514) 875-8004 or e-mail: montreal@gocuba.ca

By Dale Hovdebo

The Cowboy Trail: A Father and Son Journey to the Calgary Stampede and Rocky Mountain Dude Ranch

January 8, 2007 12:37 pm
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I’ve always dreamed of taking my son to the Calgary Stampede, visit a ranch, and then go horseback riding in the foothills and do some white water rafting in the Kananaskis River Valley. I thought it would be a great father-son trip. Knowing that my 10-year-old son loves the outdoors and animals, I figured he would have no hesitation in going on such a trek. So in July we packed our bags and flew direct to Calgary to do the cowboy thing.

It’s hard not to be impressed by Calgary. Upon arrival, you notice the modern and well-designed airport with well-placed signage and lots of coffee shops and other stores. The cowboy culture hits you immediately as you see local Calgarians walking around in their cowboy boots and hats. It was Calgary Stampede time: a 10-day citywide celebration of everything western, where everyone can become a cowboy. There is western dress, country-and-western music, western food, beer and wine, and western attitude and hospitality.

Fittingly, our Calgary Stampede experience started with a visit to the Alberta Boot Company (www.albertaboot.com). For over 25 years, the company has nurtured celebrities and regular folk who are intrigued by the mystique of the Wild West. As Alberta’s only boot manufacturer, the Alberta Boot Company is proud of its product, but what really sets this outfit apart from the competition is that its hand-crafted, custom-fit cowboy boots are actually manufactured on the premises. Such is the reputation of this boot maker that the RCMP, municipal police forces and military units have become regular clients. Of course, the Alberta Boot Company will provide the same service for anyone who walks through the door. To my surprise, my son was quick to identify some nice-looking cowboy boots and put them on within five minutes of entering the store. They were 100% leather with a solid heel and a comfortable look and feel. These boots were priced at S180. My son insisted he would wear them not only for our trip, but also as a regular day shoe when we returned home. So we got them. He is still wearing the boots and absolutely adores them.

Pancakes curbside at the Stampede Parade

We then headed over to the Alberta Hat Company. We got a close-up look at the craftsmen at work. One of the machines used to mould the hats was almost 100 years old… and the process today is pretty much the same as it was back then. We watched as the hat maker made the White Calgary Stampede hats famous the world over as a symbol of Cow-town. We walked out with two – now all we needed was a horse… and we knew that a steed was on its way.

That night, we tried the buffalo burgers at a local restaurant. The taste was very similar to beef – just a little richer, but delicious all the same. My son and I were both pumped for the next morning’s Calgary Stampede Pancake Breakfast followed by the parade. I’ve been to parades many times, but none comes close to this one. The variety of floats is highly entertaining – everything from mini-fire trucks to stagecoaches and mountain men. The Canadian Forces had a great contingent in the parade with an array of armoured personal carriers and jeeps. The parade lasted a good two hours with nary a dull moment. Each year, the City names a Queen of the Rodeo who leads the parade on horseback. This year, past Queens rode in the parade. There were Queens of the Parade from as far back as 1952 and 1953. So if do the math, you have to figure these ladies are now in their early-to-mid-seventies and still roping and riding. That was impressive.

Next it was off to the Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth, with 1,100 events scheduled every year. When an event brands itself as “the greatest,” that is a high calling and Calgary has certainly earned its spurs in this regard. The Stampede Grounds cover a whopping 137 acres. Guy Weadick, a famous working cowboy and vaudeville entertainer, launched the Stampede in 1912. It has since grown to become a volunteer-supported, not-for-profit community organization that aims to preserve and promote western heritage and values, while providing programs that foster understanding of the agricultural industry in Canada’s west. On top of that, it’s one helluva big party.

Milking the Stampede for all its worth

The Rodeo is not to be missed. The Stampede provides the performing cowboys with some of the richest payouts in the rodeo world. From saddle bronc, bareback-riding, bull-riding and the famous chuck wagon races, there is enough rugged excitement for everyone. We were trackside for the chuck wagon racing – a highly skilled sport that requires nerves of steel. There are 32 horses on the track per race between the horses attached to the chuck wagons and the riders running beside them. I think this is where Hollywood got the idea that cowboys were fearless. Then again, if you watch the bull riding, you come to understand the old adage that there is a fine line between courage and stupidity. My son and I were in awe of the bull riders, dedicated sports professionals who have spent years in the saddle to get to this level of competition. We took a tour in the chutes where they keep the bulls. These beasts are big and mean and ready to rumble. The cowboys and their trainers treat all the animals with great respect and it is hard not to notice the bonds between the riders and their horses and their genuine concern for all the animals. We then toured the back gate areas, which encompass all the cowboys’ dressing rooms and on site medical services. Several doctors tended to the injured cowboys, who sustained broken ribs, cracked wrists and banged-up knees. However, the skill set of these cowboys is so high that they are able to avoid most serious injuries.

It you want to find out where Canada’s food really comes from, visit the Stampede Stock Show which provides a critical link between the agriculture business and urban consumers. At Stampede Park, there are hands-on activities for everyone in the family, including hair-raising rides and carnival games at the Great Midway and the nightly Grandstand Show featuring an unbelievable line-up of top entertainers. If you don’t want to take in a show at the Grandstand, then you have a choice of numerous live venues in downtown Calgary. Featured performers this year included George Canyon, The Road Hammers, Alan Jackson, Kenny Chesney, Carolyn Dawn Johnson, Aaron Pritchett and many others. Calgary is the capital of country music during the Rodeo season.

Make sure you visit the Calgary Tower. It actually looks like Toronto’s CN Tower but is not as tall. However, it is tall enough to give you a 360° panoramic view of the city and the Rocky Mountains in the distance.

Calgary has an amazing array of shops, boutiques and restaurants; you will not be hard-pressed to find something of interest. My son and I spent several hours looking for one of the very cool embroidered cowboy shirts that are a favourite of the cowboy fashionista crowd. Junior found a western shirt he could wear for our next adventure: horseback riding at the in Kananaskis Country.

Canoeing on the Kananaskis River

The Kananaskis River Valley is a 90-minute drive west from Calgary. The geographic beauty of the area is incredible and we were excited to reach our destination: the Rafter 6 Ranch (www.raftersix.com). It was common in the Old West for ranches to be named after the brand used. When businessman Stan Cowley bought the ranch, he kept the name. It is now home to one of the largest log structures in the world. Here you will find an authentic, relaxed cowboy atmosphere. The ranch has some modern amenities, but you won’t find telephones or television sets in its rooms or cabins. The Ranch is so authentically Wild West that it has been used as a backdrop for many movies, including The Legend of Grizzly Adams, Across the Great Divide and The Adventures of the Wilderness Family.

My son was very excited to head out for an afternoon of horseback riding. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I was afraid of horses. When I was 12, I was thrown from a horse and had not been on one since. I was also afraid the horse might bite me. Well, next thing you know, my son was on his horse and learning the reins. I figured it was time to pony up, until they brought out my horse, Big Jess. I just kept thinking, why can’t they give me a pony? Big Jess was pretty damn big all right. There were 12 in our group and the ranch hands were really good at explaining the basics of horseback riding. We would end up spending several hours riding up and down the Rocky Mountain foothills and along river bends and up though pastures and forested areas. I was probably so nervous watching out for my son that my equinophobia (fear of horses) vanished. You just need to let the horse know who is in charge, be gentle with the beast and talk to it. You can really feel a bond developing with the creature. The horseback riding was probably one of the greatest enjoyments of my life and it was all the better riding with my son who just loved it. At one point, we came upon an open field dotted with cattle. My son was very excited as we approached the animals. He said: “Look, Dad, there’s a wild cow up there.” As we rode back to Rafter 6 along the Kananaskis River, it started to rain. Thank goodness for those cowboy hats, because the wide brim kept us very dry. We went back to the lodge and had a great meal as our hosts stoked a magnificent blaze. That night, we witnessed a dizzying lightning storm from the safety of the lodge.

The next morning, we were up early to enjoy a hearty breakfast and head out to white water raft the Kananaskis River. The temperature of this fast-flowing river is 46°, so we had to put on wetsuits to ensure we did not freeze when we hit the water. White water rafting in a mountain river stream is one point, we all bailed out to do some body-surfing down the river – protected in our wetsuits as we drifted along. The beauty of the cliffs and mountains as we coasted downstream is unimaginable. My son and I were having the time of our lives.

The hospitality at Rafter 6 Ranch is wonderful; we were sad to leave, but buoyed by our experience. A wedding party was checking in as we left. A young couple would soon marry in the small chapel at the Ranch. I was thinking what a great way to start a life together.

Cowboy hats and "wild cows"

The good news was we were leaving to visit another ranch and do some more horseback riding. We drove to the Brewster Kananaskis Guest Ranch (www.kananaskisguestranch.com) – about a 45-minute drive west of Calgary. With 83 years of ranching, the Brewster family knows how to live the lore of the west. Missy Bigley Brewster started the guest ranch in 1923. It is right next to the Bow River and has both horseback-riding expeditions and a courreur de bois canoe expedition that runs out of its camp. We went horseback riding along the Bow River for several hours. I must say I was not as nervous, except for one stretch where we were riding along a cliff on the edge of the river – which was about 300 feet below us (we were a safe 30 meters from the edge). By now, my son and I felt like pros on horseback.

The Guest Ranch offers overnight trips but we chose to stay at the lodge and enjoy the great hospitality, which included an incredible barbequed meal, bonfire and absolutely amazing country music singer who entertained us until it was time to hit the hay. The next morning, a driver picked us up and we went 20 miles upstream and canoed down the river, back to the lodge in a courreur de bois-type canoe. The Bow is a fast-moving river and paddling was not too strenuous. We saw an array of wildlife, including beavers, falcons, owls and eagles. We arrived back at the camp by mid-afternoon. From June until September every year, guests at the lodge can enjoy golf, river rafting, hiking, group voyageur canoe trips, rodeos and plenty of western hospitality.

Then it was back to Calgary and on to our flight home. What a trip! I think my son and I will both be cowboys for the rest of our lives. I’m also not afraid of horses anymore.We can’t wait to return to Alberta.

Calgary is a boomtown in more ways than one. Billed as Canada’s safest and cleanest city, Calgary enjoys the most days of sunshine per year of any major Canadian city. Westerners call it the Calgary Advantage: Chinooks in the winter account for its great ski culture. The land area is 721.73 sq km (278.54 sq mi) with over 8,000 hectares of parkland and open space within Calgary’s city limits Calgary has the highest percentage of post-secondary   educated citizens (over 60%) in Canada. The population distribution is one of the youngest in Canada, with an average age of 34. Calgary is also the most wired city in Canada, with 67.4% of residents having Internet access. Calgary’s employment rate and per capita income are both ahead of the national average, and there is no provincial sales tax, no capital tax, no machinery and equipment tax, and reasonable property tax on land and buildings. In 2005, Calgary was ranked as the best place in Canada to work by The Globe and Mail which noted that Calgary was second only to Toronto in the number of corporate head offices located there. Calgarians in the corporate world will tell you they are second to none in terms of quality of life!

For more information, contact the Calgary Exhibition & Stampede at www.calgarystampede.com or Travel Alberta at www.travelalberta.com.

Incredible Ithaca!

March 8, 2006 10:39 am
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After a hiatus of several years from the pages of Ottawa Life Magazine as a backpacking international travel writer, I have returned with my wife Annie, this time as parents embarking on our family’s first vacation to ‘gorges’ Ithaca, New York. Located in the central Finger Lakes Region, Ithaca is a pleasant five-hour drive from the National Capital region.

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

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

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

A busy day at the Ithaca Farmer's Market.

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

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

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

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

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

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

A spectacular view of the falls.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ST. PETERSBURG: The Most Beautiful Northern City of Them All

August 8, 2005 10:53 am
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St. Petersburg, often referred to as the Venice of the North, is truly a remarkable city. Whether during the white nights of summer – the sun doesn’t set until after 10 pm each night from March to late August) or the special charm of the white days of winter (from November 1 to March 31), the city’s remarkable beauty and vibrancy captivates residents and visitors alike. St. Petersburg is truly one of the great architectural wonders of the world.

Founded in 1703 by Czar Peter the Great to modernize Russia’s economy by forming a closer economic, cultural and technical bond with Europe, St. Petersburg was built in only nine years and became the capital of Russia in 1712. The wide Neva River and many other smaller rivers and manmade canals organically blended into the cityscape and determined the size and direction of its main avenues.

Manicured gardens and historical architecture.

After the Russian Revolution in 1917, communists moved the capital to Moscow and changed the name of the city to Leningrad. World War II was not kind to Leningrad. The 1-day Nazi siege is one of history’s great tragedies. Hundreds of thousands of citizens perished from the cold, starvation and bombardment, but the city survived and triumphed. Reconstruction of the city’s industry, public works, museums and libraries began almost immediately after the siege broke. Today, St. Petersburg is Russia’s second largest city. The population currently stands at 4.6 million. The city is growing fast, its historic center surrounded by modern office centres, shopping malls, hotels and hyper-markets, as investment floods in from Russian and foreign banks.

We arrived by overnight train from Moscow. We were in a sleeper car for four, which was roomy and comfortable. The seats easily rolled into beds – with two bunks on top on each side. The cherry red train left Moscow at midnight and arrived promptly at 8 am the next day. The washrooms on board were clean and modern. We were given bed-wear and a snack box with yogurt, fruit, cheeses, meats and oils. The Russian train staff was very friendly and helpful with boarding and un-boarding. (In April, the Russian government announced that a new high-speed train between Moscow and St. Petersburg will be in service by 2010, reducing travel time to three hours.)

The first thing we noticed about St. Petersburg is the clean and modern Moskovsky train station in the heart of the city. (If only we had a centrally located train station in Ottawa!) The coffee bars were busy as we left the station to depart for The Grand Hotel Europe, one of the oldest and most esteemed hotels in the world. After checking in, we met over espresso in the Mezzainine Cafe to plan our day. We decided to attend several museums, but how to choose from among no less than 250 museums in St. Petersburg? The city is rightfully proud to be the home of the Hermitage and the Russian Museum, which are among the largest museums in the world. The Hermitage’s collection of art surpasses that of the Louvre! It occupies five historical buildings in the city centre, including the Winter Palace, once the czar’s official residence. One can easily spend a week taking in all the Hermitage has to offer but our very articulate and informed guide showed us the highlights during our eight-hour visit.

St. Petersburg is one of the great cultural capitals of the world. The only thing that seems to be more exciting that its past is its future, as it undergoes a modern renaissance.
The GRAND HOTEL EUROPE – St. Petersburg
A Member of The Leading Hotels of the World

The illuminated Grand Hotel Europe.

The Grand Hotel rakes up almost an entire city block. Its architecture is drawn from the 18th century imperial traditions of France and Austria. The hotel was the centre of social activity and hosted famous writers, academics actors and royalty from around the world during its heyday in the 19th century. The communists closed the hotel after the 1917 Revolution and used it as a meeting place for the local trade union and as a school for orphans. It served as a hospital during the siege of Leningrad in World War II. In the post war years, the building once again served as a hotel, run by Soviet officials but a pale shadow of its former self. This all changed when the Soviet Empire collapsed. By 1989, the old hotel had closed for reconstruction, reopening in 1991 as the first five-star hotel in the New Russia. By 1995, The Grand Hotel Europe was recognized as the best hotel in Russia and named a member of The Leading Hotels of the World. This excellence was clearly recognized in 2005 when the famous Orient-Express Hotel Corporation purchased the entire property to be in their stable of global five-star properties. The Grand Hotel has seven restaurants, including Russia’s leading fine dining establishment, L’Europe Restaurant. The hotel has a fitness centre, business centre, banquet and conference rooms, Internet hook-ups and all the modern amenities. Then there is just the architectural beauty and history of the place. Oddly enough when we were visiting so was Mikael Gorbachev. The hotel often has celebrity guests and is sensitive to their security needs while ensuring that their presence doesn’t impact negatively on other guests. A member of Gorbachevs entourage told us that of all the hotels he stays at in the world, The Grand Hotel Europe in St. Petersburg is still his favourite!

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