A Tale of Two Cities…Part 1: Berlin

July 8, 2011 10:44 am
Graffiti Park

A city formerly divided, both figuratively and literally, by a giant concrete wall now adorned with art and graffiti from all over the globe…A city formerly divided by clashing political ideologies and philosophies…but no longer. Today Berlin is a city united both by its past and its present. The wall now stands only as a symbol of the past – of what has been and what no longer is – a constant reminder of both Berlin and Germany’s tumultuous history. But this is not a story of that history, rather this is a story of the present, a tale of the vibrant, creative and interesting city that is Berlin.

Berlin streets, nooks and crannies. Photo by Katarina Kuruc.

Walking through the side streets and main streets of Berlin, it is easy to see why this city has become a haven for artists, the not-so underground party-goers, intellectuals and tourists alike. This is because walking down any random street is like walking through a pop art exhibit, complete with bumping base undertones emanating from almost every corner and neon-clothed partyers celebrating to the wee hours of the morning all the while being surrounded by a plethora of cafes, restaurants, museums and galleries.

First stop on anyone’s travel planner in Berlin should be the infamous Berlin Wall (of course!) Although the city is littered with its remains, the main section of the wall remains intact in the area of Ostkreutz-a vibrant, formerly East German area of the city complete with cafes, bars and 48-hour party venues. The walk along the wall is long, but never boring. As aforementioned, the wall has been preserved with art from local and global artists alike. Think: giant outdoor pop art exhibit with a political history. While exploring this section of the city, however, one cannot ignore all the other street art and graffiti that dots the Berlin landscape. Virtually no corner or wall has been left untouched, particularly in one graffiti park I personally managed to stumble upon in the area of  Warshauerstrasse. But if street style isn’t your style and the history of the city is of great interest, then the GDR Museum is the place to go. Complete with actual objects from the former Communist regime, including a Trabant car, this interactive exhibit gives a very good depiction of what life under the Communist regime was really like. The museum is also located near Museum Island, that features some of Berlin’s most famous historical museums-it’s your one-stop-shop for anything ancient and ornate.Yet another amazing outdoor exhibit is the newly reconstructed Topography of Terror, which documents the rise and fall of the Nazi Regime. Not for the faint of heart, but something everyone should see in order to remember the horrors that befell people during the Nazi reign.

 

Berlin Wall. Photo by: Katarina Kuruc

Aside from graffiti, art, and history Berlin also features a wealth of amazing restaurants. Rosenthaller Bar and Grill in Rosenthaller Platz offers personal pizzas starting at a mere 3.90EU (trust me in Europe this is a steal!) along with other grilled and baked goodies. As a result of the city’s large Turkish population, shawarma stands can be found virtually everywhere along with beer gardens and cafes that feature both German as well as international cuisine. Germany is famous for its beer and schnitzel (a breaded and fried pork cutlet) and many of the restaurants in Berlin clearly reflect this national culinary tradition. Surprisingly, however, Asian food also seems to be popular. Transit restaurant, which features a lower priced but equally delicious fusion menu is sure to satisfy any thai/vietnamese craving, also located in Rosenthaller Platz, a trendy area with shops, cafes, bars, hotels and hostels.

 

Transit Fusion Restaurant. Photo by: Katarina Kuruc

On Sundays, any vintage lover simply cannot miss the Mauerpark flea market, which features everything from food to vintage furniture, clothes and other random, yet charming, nick-nacks. Aside from all the vintage commodities another bonus of Mauerpark is the traditional  “Crazy Karaoke” which happens near the market every Sunday, weather permitting. Apperantly a local Berliner started this tradition and it has lasted ever since. A karaoke machine is set-up in front of colleseum-style seating and those brave enough can sign up and wail their favourite songs. A perfect way to spend a Sunday in the city.

 

Mauerpark Flea Market. Photo by: Katarina Kuruc

As mentioned, Berlin is a city of art. Photography, painting, sculpture, you name it and it has got it! One gallery especially worth mentioning that combines photography with biography is the Helmut Newton Foundation, which features the life and work of the Berlin-born fashion photographer. The space is filled with most of Helmut Newton’s famous photographs, movies, scrapbooks and a replica of his home in Monaco. The observer can stroll through Mr. Newton’s famous collection of polaroids, get a glimpse of his most prized possessions and watch several of his movies. A “must” for any fan of photography, fashion or art.

 

Helmut Newton's Monaco home. Photo by: Katarina Kuruc

An this brings an end to the first installment of the “Tale of Two Cities”. Stay tuned for the second part which will feature another post-Communist city: Bratislava.

The Coolest Capital in Europe and the German Riviera

May 30, 2011 11:41 am
Germany4

The Germans do it all and have it all. Exceptional in every way, it is no surprise that Germany continues to hold the annual record as one of the world’s most visited countries. In fact, it is one of the most educated and economically successful countries in the world. It has a powerhouse culture driven by a vibrant film, music and arts scene whose inspiration is driven by the historic legacy of its forefathers. Think of some of the most accomplished and popular artists of all time like Johann Sebastian Bach, Ludwig van Beethoven, Franz Schubert, Johannes Brahms, Richard Wagner and of course the German born Austrian composer Mozart.

Germany today is a mixture of beautiful landscapes, picturesque villages, quaint castles, sandy shore-lines and serene small town life crossed with an uber post modern, successful and thriving city society. It is rich in culture, wealth and opportunity.

My son and I arrived in Berlin after a very comfortable flight on Lufthansa (www.lufthansa.com). We took a bus to the city centre to the historic Friedrichstasse, one of the most famous streets in Europe. With its array of cafés and shops, it is the heartbeat of Berlin and on this Saturday morning Berliners were out in droves shopping and sitting out in the pleasant outdoor cafés. We made a pit stop at one of the many German sausage and French fry kiosks that are scattered throughout the city. You can have a hot lunch and a beer for less than ten dollars. We then checked into the Melia Berlin 
(www.meliaberlin.com) a magnificent boutique hotel next the Spree River and central to the key attractions in Berlin. (Great restaurants, very comfortable and delicious breakfasts.)

Originally the capital for Prussia, Berlin has served as a cultural centre for hundreds of years. After much of the city and its population were destroyed in the 17th century’s Thirty Years War, Frederick William, the King of Prussia instituted a policy of religious freedom that resulted in the city attracting new people from all over Europe. It quickly established itself as a progressive, cosmopolitan and free city. However, WWI and the subsequent seizure of power by the National Socialists in 1933 would forever change Berlin. At the end of World War II, Berlin was divided with the Russian Communists controlling a repressed East Berlin and the Allies controlling a free West Berlin. In 1961, the infamous Berlin Wall was constructed, physically separating the German city into two parts. Through the city, you can follow the trail of where the Berlin Wall once stood and we followed it to Checkpoint Charlie, one of the Berlin’s most popular attractions. Opened in 1962, shortly after the Berlin Wall was built, Checkpoint Charlie was the formal border access point for people to cross from East Berlin to West Berlin and vice versa. The nearby museum traces the history of a then divided Germany and portrays the tensions of the Cold War between the major world powers. Other related themes include the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

Be sure to check out the Reichstag (www.bundestag.de) whose interior was completely gutted and reconstructed in the 1990s. The new Reichstag retains its historic style but embraces the future with a postmodern glass dome that was erected on the roof as a gesture to the original 1894 cupola. This glass dome provides an impressive view over the city, especially at night. The German Parliament or Bundestag officially convened there for the first time on April 19, 1999, moving back from the Cold War capital of Bonn. The Reichstag is now the most visited attraction in Berlin. Directly across from it is the German Chancellery or Bundeskanzleramt (www.bundeskanzleramt.de) which is also a postmodern style building.

The next day, we headed to the museums section of Berlin in the centre of the city. History junkies will not be disappointed. The German Historical Museum has a permanent exhibition that features Germany’s two thousand year history. We were fortunate enough to be in Berlin for the opening weekend of a ground-breaking exhibition about Adolf Hitler. This exhibit was the first time since World War II that a major museum has explored the relationship between the Hitler and the German nation. Hitler and the Germans: Nation and Crime was an exceptional look at how Hitler managed to both charm and horrify a nation. The exhibit was packed as Berliners tried to come to an understanding of how they were long ago seduced by National Socialism. It is an extraordinary exhibit.

Shopping is another popular pastime in Berlin. Potsdamer Platz is a great centre with cafés and restaurants. Friedrichstrasse is a wonderful walking boulevard featuring the world’s most acclaimed international designers as well as upscale art galleries, cafés, delicatessens and shops.

There are phenomenal restaurants in Berlin. Local neighbourhood restaurants are best and offer meals for under $25.00 with beer, dessert and coffee. If you want to cover more of the city in a day then take the Berlin Wall Bike Tour (www.berlinonbike.de) or you can also see the city by boat. Berlin has an enormous system of waterways and is home to more bridges than Venice.

The next day we headed for Rostock, the 800 year old hanseatic port city on the Baltic coast, a two and half hour drive north. Germany is famous for its Autobahn and recently celebrated  the invention of the first automobile by Carl Benz 125 years ago. I was at first exhilarated to be driving 180km per hour (no speed limit) but noticed that many cars were still passing me by. After the initial thrill, I settled in at 120 km per hour. As we passed the fertile plains, bountiful farmlands, and old growth forests of the German countryside, the old merged with the new as the scattering of huge modern windmills jutted across the countryside showcasing German ingenuity and innovation at its best. The windmills provide clean energy to most of the region. (German is a world leader in clean and green alternative energy.)  Rostock retains medieval charm mixed with a cosmopolitan feel. Its historical town centre features typical German brick architecture and a small town feeling that disguises its larger stature as a port, commerce, trade and university centre.

We checked into the cozy Steigenberger Hotel Sonne (www.die-kleine-sonne.de). We headed to the  harbour brewery aside the port for dinner at the Zum alter Fritz  (www.alter-fritz.de).

The Baltic Coast region of Germany is outstanding and incredibly beautiful. Less than three hours north of Berlin, the region is a magnet for European tourists who come to swim in the turquoise and cobalt sea and sun on the pure white sand dunes that roll along the peaceful shore.

The pace of life seems to slow down in the Mecklenburg-Vorpommern region. We stopped for a morning in Warnemunde, where the Warnnow River flows into the Baltic Sea. Once a small but very important seaside fishing village, the town is now more of a tourist destination thanks to its beauty. Twenty minutes away is the spa resort of Bad Doberan, a small town steeped in tradition that lies just off the Baltic coast surrounded by lush beechwood forests.

The 33rd G8 summit took place at Kempinski Grand Hotel in Heiligendamm in 2007 with good reason. It is stunning. Heiligendamm remains Germany’s most elegant seaside resort.

In 1823, the first race track on the European continent – located between Heiligendamm and Doberan – opened, thus becoming the cradle of German horse racing. Then, in 1862, a narrow-gauge railway was built, connecting Doberan with Heiligendamm. In 1910, the track was extended as far as Kühlungsborn and a steam-driven train still runs along it today. The high nobility of Europe, even the Tsar’s family itself, spent the summer holidays here. After the Second World War, the buildings in Heiligendamm were used as a sanatorium and for convalescence. Then, in 1996, a private consortium acquired the historical buildings of Heiligendamm, along with 500 hectares of land and after three years of careful reconstruction, the Grand Hotel Heiligendamm was opened on 1 June 2003, ringing in the rebirth of Germany’s oldest, grandest and most exclusive seaside health resort.

We checked into the centrally located Hotel Prinzenpalais (www.prinzen-palais.de) in Bad Doberan, 4-star hotel housed in a neo-classical building built in 1821. With full modern amenities, it also has a sauna and Jacuzzi and a remarkable restaurant (which serves the most impressive breakfast buffet.) Bad Doberan is a quaint town with nice cafés and walking paths. Be sure to visit the historic “Bad Doberaner Munster www.muenster-doberan.de, a 14th century Cistercian abbey (Cathedral) built in a brick gothic pattern and rich with medieval furnishings.

Golfers will love the Wittenbeck Golf Course which (www.golf-und-meer.de) sits atop a hillside that looks out to the Baltic Sea. Spectacular.

Next up was the Baltic Resort town of Kühlungsborn and an overnight stay at the Hotel Polar Stern (www.polar-stern.com). Located next to the beach the Hotel Polar Stern sits at the centre of what many are calling the new “German Riviera”. Albrecht and Dagmar Kurbjuhn, the proprietors of the Polar Stern came to Kühlungsborn, the region’s largest seaside resort, in the early 1990s shortly after reunification. They fell in love with the relaxing Baltic Sea atmosphere, the white sandy beaches, wooden piers, pine-tree forests and warm summer temperatures. They had a leap of faith and purchased the Hotel Polar-Stern, a 100-year-old “spa town” type building that required extensive care and renovation. They never looked back. Today the Polar Stern is one of the most hospitable and charming hotels along the coast.

The Kühlungsborn marina is filled with schooners and small ships. We visited a tall ship while we were there. Behind the marina is a beautiful forest area where you can zip line. (www.kletterwald-küehlungsborn.de) Kühlungsborn is a gem.

The Mecklenburg-Vorpommern region is also famous for its lakes and beautiful countryside. The next day we drove around the countryside and along the coast to the beaches of Darss and then visited the island of Rugen with its Dover-like white cliffs. We also stopped at the Ozeaneum (www.Ozeaneum.de) in Stralsund which won the “European Museum of the Year Award” in 2010. To end our trip we drove across the Rugendamm Bridge that connects Rugen to the mainland. Rugen is Germany’s largest island, an archipelago of 30 smaller islands and peninsulas in the Baltic Sea. The area hosts a diverse group of seaside resorts, fishing villages, sandy beaches, and tree-lined avenues, lighthouses and lakes and is a vacation paradise. It is home to Jasmund National Park known for its famous white chalk like cliffs that rise majestically out of the turquoise green Baltic Sea. I’ve now been to the French Riviera, the Mayan Riviera and the German Riviera. My son asked me which one I preferred. It was a no brainer.

Panama Wow! The New RIU Plaza Hotel

January 6, 2011 1:12 pm
Panama

Panama is derived from an old Indian word meaning “lots of fish and butterflies.” It has one of the world’s most spectacular ecosystems and jungles but less than an hour away, there is the vibrant urban life in Panama City. America spoils back to Spain.

Canal de Panama

The Panama Canal

I have always been fascinated by the stories of the Panama Canal (www.pancanal.com) which many consider to be one of the most important feats of engineering in history. The narrative is almost too fantastic to believe and dates back to the 16th century. Spanish conquerors were keen to ship the riches of Peru, Ecuador and other South and Central America spoils back to Spain. The idea was preposterous. Join the Atlantic to the Pacific by means of a gigantic swath cut thought the jungle? But the building of such a canal would shorten distances enabling new, faster commerce routes to be opened up. In 1524, the Spanish presented a plan to Charles V to build a canal that would cut three months of the journey to ship gold back to Spain. It was believed that the savings on this alone would justify such an enterprise and a working plan for a canal was drawn up in 1529. However, subsequent wars in Europe put the project on permanent hold. By the early 19th century, a German scientist named Alexander von Humboldt had revived interest in the project and in 1819 the Spanish government formally authorized the construction of a canal and the creation of a company to build it. The discovery of gold in California in 1848 and the rush of would-be miners stimulated America’s interest in digging the canal. After numerous stops and starts, by 1880 a Frenchman named Ferdinand Marie de Lesseps, the builder of the Suez Canal, organized a company to build the Panama Canal but by 1899, his attempt had failed due to disease-carrying mosquitoes and the inadequacy of machinery. The construction of the canal was restarted by the Americans in 1904. The Americans had a perpetual lease on a 10-mile strip beginning in 1913 in exchange for an annual cash payment of $250,000 but in 1999, the Panama Canal was ceded back to the Panamanian people. It now serves as a key economic driver in the country and is currently undergoing an expansion that will double its capacity while providing jobs and significant economic opportunities for Panama. When you visit the Panama Canal, be sure to stop at the museum in the visitor’s centre or visit the Interoceanic Canal Museum www.panama-museums.com in Panama City. After watching some of the world’s biggest ships pass through the canal, drop by for lunch at the onsite Miraflores Restaurant.

Hotel RIU Plaza Panama

If you visit Panama City for business or pleasure, you will be guaranteed a wonderful experience at the Hotel Riu Plaza Panama (www.riu.com). The international RIU chain was founded by the Riu family in 1953 as a small holiday firm and is still owned by the family’s third generation. The company specializes in sun and sand holiday resorts and 50 per cent of its establishments offer RIU’s acclaimed all-inclusive formula. Today, RIU has 107 properties and 42,000 rooms globally serving over 3 million guests each year and they have won just about every major hotel hospitality award possible by following their mission statement, “We’re all about you.” This is the first of RIU Resorts new city hotels that will cater to business and leisure travelers. The Plaza is situated very close to the very best the city has to offer in culture and entertainment. The hotel has 645 comfortable and spacious rooms with desks, free wireless ADSL, flat screen TVs and state-of-the-art bathroom fittings. Many of the rooms have breathtaking views of the city. Other facilities include a gym, a spa & wellness centre and an open-air pool with a Jacuzzi.  For business travelers and event organizers, the hotel has 21 conference rooms, with free wireless connection and a maximum capacity of 1300 persons.

RIU Panama Plaza

The RIU Plaza’s world class restaurants offer sophisticated decor and great food: fusion cuisine in the Tastes Restaurant, as well as a Sushi Lounge, the Arts Restaurant, the Studio 50 and the Ibiza Lounge (situated beside an open-air swimming pool). The Chefs at the Riu Restaurants have been recruited from the best restaurants in Europe and North America and their meals are a gastronomic experience that is artful in presentation and delicious.

Panama City is a thriving, culturally diverse, entrepreneurial and strategic business centre. Spaniards, Mestizos and indigenous peoples coexist alongside Indian, Chinese and Arab communities, many of whom first settled in the country as migrant workers to help build the Panama Canal. The global recession missed this country and the city has a construction boom trying to keep up with the surging economy. Much of the skyline is covered in newly built business towers and condos which reflect the Panama City’s growing influence as one of the most valued destinations in Latin America. Five star hotels, museums, bars and restaurants attract business people and tourists alike.

The New Town section of Panama City has attracted thousands of investors and condo buyers but  beyond the new steel and glass towers, is a 2 km tree-lined avenue Calzada de Amador. Panamanians love walking along this urban pathway where you can view the skyscrapers and modern growth of New Town and then turn and look across the bay and see the picturesque Old Town.

Old Town is the historic centre of Panama City which in recent years, has actually undergone a remarkable renaissance. The colonial buildings have been renovated and the streets, which were formerly squalid, have been revived with new businesses, homes, galleries, restaurants, shops and boutique hotels.

The heart of Old Town is the Plaza de la Independencia. It was here that the declaration of independence was read out in 1903. It is both easy and pleasant to lose oneself here and soak up the sun and the atmosphere of this district that combines colonial elegance with Latin flare and modern amenities. Panamanians are religious people and the Catholic Church still plays a vital role in the daily lives and traditions of its people. In the church of San José you will find one of the country’s treasures – the magnificent Altar de Oro, or Golden Altar. In 1671, when the pirate Henry Morgan wrecked havoc in the city, a priest managed to save this Baroque masterpiece from the pillaging. At the southern end is Plaza de Francia, dedicated to the role of the French in the construction of the Panama Canal. It is surrounded by the Paseo de las Bóvedas, which was conceived to protect the old town. From here you can enjoy beautiful views of part of the Old Town and the enormous ships waiting to enter the canal. The Presidential Palace is one of the most beautiful, best-preserved buildings in this area. Its magnificent state of conservation is no coincidence as it currently houses the Panamanian heads of state.

The Embera Village of Parara Puru

The highlight of the trip for me was a visit to the Embera village of Parara Puru. The Embera Indians are native to Panama, and the Embera village is one of three Indian villages in Panama that still exists where the natives live their lives as they did hundreds of years ago.

On our way by canoe to the Embera Indian village of Parara Puru.

On our way by canoe to the Embera Indian village of Parara Puru.

The Parara Puru village is about 2 hours from Panama City in a remote area that requires a one hour canoe ride up the Charges River. The surrounding jungle is full of tropical birds and wildlife unique to the area. Panama has the most biodiversity of any Central American country. Deer, numerous monkey species, tapirs, sloths, armadillos, anteaters, peccary, coatimundis, and several cat species, including the elusive jaguar, inhabit this terrain. Among the reptiles are crocodiles as well as a variety of lizards, frogs and turtles. The area’s snakes, like the giant boa, are relatively harmless, but an encounter with a coral, bushmaster or fer-de-lance can be deadly. We passed some spectacular waterfalls and on a suggestion from the Embera guide went for a swim to take a break from the heat.

The Embera people paint their bodies with juices from the jaguar fruit which also serves as a mosquito and insect repellent.  Beyond the steep embankment to their village was a main hut that serves as a gathering spot for the village. The living huts are raised on stilts from four to 6 feet off the ground to keep out insects, snakes and small animals. After looking at local crafts and jungle-made jewelry, we were hosted by the village chief to a lunch of fried lake tilapia served in plantane leaves. While we ate, the Embera performed several traditional dances. It was a wonderful experience and needless to say I found it quite perplexing two hours later to be in my room at the RIU Panama Plaza sending emails while having a room service snack. Such are the wonderful extremes of Panama.

Panama City serves numerous international airlines including American Airlines (www.aa.com)

For more information on Panama Tourism visit the Panama Tourism Bureau: www.panamainfo.com.

For tours and shuttle buses in Panama, visit www.ptysstours.com

For Embera Village visit: http://www.aventuraspanama.com/WGIRAS/GIRAS_EN/emberaindianvillage.htm

An Adirondack Olympic Experience

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nordic ski specialists Brian and Karen at High Peaks Cyclery.

Nordic ski specialists Brian and Karen at High Peaks Cyclery.

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

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

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

When You Go

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

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

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

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

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

An Adirondack Olympic Experience

December 14, 2010 9:50 am
Whiteface Mountain.

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

Lake Placid Bobsled Experience.

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

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

The rustic lobby at High Peaks Resort.

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

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

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

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

Whiteface Mountain.

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

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

Olympic ski jump.

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

When You Go:

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

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

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

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

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

Ireland Welcomes You Home

July 1, 2009 10:23 am
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Your Irish Heritage Is Waiting To Be Discovered.

It seemed fitting to take my daughter on a trip to Ireland to explore the land of her paternal ancestors. Thanks to the mild oceanic climate, the south and south west of Ireland are a beautiful lush green carpet peppered with towns, farms and plenty of history.

Ireland’s rich history includes settlements dating back to 8000 BC, the arrival of the Vikings in 800AD and the English conquest in the mid 1500’s but it’s the history of the potato that has shaped modern-day Ireland. More potatoes were grown per acre than any other crop. Locals benefited by the root vegetable’s ability to survive the ravages of war by laying hidden underground. The Irish population flourished thanks to the potato but in 1845 a lethal fungus attacked  the  crop  leading to  complete  crop  failure  in  1848  and  the  resulting  Great  Irish Famine. As a consequence, millions of Irish emigrated abroad seeking a new life.

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The Dunbrody Famine Ship in New Ross.

The first stop on our heritage holiday was the Dunbrody Famine Ship in the quaint town of New Ross, County Wexford. Located in the ancestral home of former American president John F. Kennedy, the trust in his name funded the construction of the replica ship. Although seaworthy, the Dundbrody is permanently moored, serving instead as a living museum. After viewing  a short  film,  we  took  a  guided  tour.  A  highlight  was  the  performance  by  two actresses playing the part of ship patrons. From 1846 to 1865, the Dunbrody and many other ships like it ferried passengers fleeing the famine to the Americas. Life was not easy on these cargo ships that were fitted with bunks for the voyage to America. Quarters were very cramped and unhygienic. Access to fresh air and light was limited to a half hour per day, weather permitting – and that wasn’t often. Many died during the crossings and the ships were given the inglorious nickname of coffin ships. Upon arrival, the bunks were torn out and the hulls filled with timber, cotton and guano for the voyage home.

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Cobh as seen from one of its many piers.

Further west, in the Cork Harbor sits the port city of Cobh (pronounced Cove). The second deepest natural harbor in the world, Cobh was the single most important port for emigrants. More than 2.5 million adults and children left Ireland by its shores. The Cobh Heritage Centre is a wonderful little museum situated in the old Victorian railway station. Built in 1890, the station would have seen a host of Irish emigrant traffic. My daughter was very excited to learn that her great, great grandparents likely came through that exact station on their way to Canada. The museum has excellent displays that provide insight into conditions on the famine ships and the convict ships as well as describing the background that led to the exodus. The Centre also pays homage to the victims of the Lusitania, sunk by German U-boats during WWI, and the Titanic. For genealogists, the museum offers a research service that  can  be  accessed  on  site  or  online.  The  Centre  also runs  a  monthly  heritage  story contest. Written works can be submitted at story@cohbheritage.com.

We  were  lucky  to  be  in  Cobh  the  day  of  the 2009  South  of  Ireland  Pipe  Band Championships.The  highlight was  at  the  end  of  the  day  when more than  80  (I  stopped counting) pipers from different bands all played at once. On April 11, 1912 the Titanic made its final stop in Cobh (formerly known as Queenstown) before heading out on its maiden voyage. One hundred and twenty seven passengers boarded the ship in Cobh, forty of whom survived.  Many  of the  same  buildings  are  still  intact  including  the  famed  Cunard  Lines offices. Unfortunately, Michael Martin, a local Titantic historian, was unavailable to take us on his world famous Titanic Trail walk which brings to life the strong maritime history of Cobh. We purchased a guidebook from the tourism office and headed out on our own. The walk took us up a steep hill to St. Colman’s cathedral designed in 1868 by the famous E.W. Pugin in the neo French gothic style. The cathedral has the only carillon in all of Ireland.

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Discover the beauty Killarney by taking a tour through the scenic Gap of Dunloe. The tour inlcudes return transport to Killarney by boat, landing at historic Ross Castle.

Our  next  stop  was  Killarney.  The  copper-rich  area  dates  back  4,000  years  but  is  now referred to as the tourism capital of Ireland. Killarney and the surrounding areas are teeming with ancient pagan and Christian sites as well as breathtaking scenery, pristine beaches and plenty  of golf courses.  In  1861,  Queen  Victoria  visited English  nobleman Henry  Arthur Herbert, staying at his estate in Killarney. Impressed by the area and its beauty she decreed that it should become a National Park. Today, of the 26,000 thousand acres occupied by the park almost half of the area is the Bourn Vincent Memorial Park with the focal point being Herbert’s Muckross House. The mansion, its gardens and furnishing give great insight into local 19th century life and craftsmanship. Hire a bike, hike, or take a jaunting car (an Irish calèche) but do explore this UNESCO designated biosphere reserve. We joined a group to explore the Gap of Dunloe, a glacial breach valley with fantastic views, and decided on a horse  and  trap  as  the  weather  was unseasonably  hot. We  returned  to  Killarney  by  boat landing at Ross Castle in Lough Leane. The castle grounds begged us to sit and stay. We lingered by the waters edge until our hunger got the best of us.

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The view from Muckross House near Killarney.

Our hostess Kathleen, from Kathleen’s Country Inn in Killarney, expressed dismay at the large tour buses that motor into town and then rush off again full of passengers eager to kiss the Blarney Stone. In her opinion, the true spirit of Ireland is alive in the Dingle peninsula. Ranked 18 on the 2008 World’s Top 100 Destinations in Europe, Dingle didn’t disappoint. Our only regret is that we didn’t have more time to explore this Irish gem.

Before leaving Killarney we doubled back to tour Ross Castle. Reconstructed using period materials  and  techniques,  this  14th  century  castle  is  alive with history  and  a  is  fantastic experience. The military stronghold of the O’Donoghue Clan, the castle fell to Cromwellian forces in 1652. Quarters are tight and tours are limited to groups of twelve so make sure to book ahead.

Our last stop was Ireland’s third largest city, Galway (pop. 72,729). The principle port of trade  with Spain  and  France  during  the  middle  ages,  it  is  currently  known  for  its  arts, theatre, television and radio sector. Galway was the only European stop on the 2009 Volvo Ocean Race. Referred to as the “Mount Everest of sailing” it is a grueling 39,000 nautical mile race around the world. The city was booming as it hosted this two-week festival. We took in the free entertainment and marveled at all the sleek boats.

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A vine covered gate on the grounds of Lord Brandon’s Cottage near Killarney.

As Europe’s least populated country, Ireland is easy to navigate. It takes no time to get accustomed to driving on ‘the wrong side’ of the road but a little more time to adjust to the twisty, bumpy country lanes and the roundabouts. Fast food outlets can be found in larger cities but were happily absent in most of the towns we visited. Even though my daughter embraced her Irish heritage, learning more in a week than she ever would have at school, she was firm in letting me know that there would be no bag-piping in her future as the outfits were so ‘not cool.’ Whether your interests lie in history, genealogy… or Guinness, plan a visit to Ireland. Its natural beauty and friendly people will have you wishing you had Irish heritage too.

Click here for more information about Irish tourism.

Shelter for the Soul

April 1, 2009 10:49 am
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Western Newfoundland: A place that rush hour forgot.

Stepping out of the airport in Deer Lake you can feel your gears shifting down almost immediately. Things just are calmer and gentler in Western Newfoundland.

Our trip began with a drive south toward the town of Stephenville. The location of a U.S. WWII base Stephenville is a proud little town that has been plagued by recent plant closures. In the music shop on Main street you can find accordions of all sizes and colours. We picked up a couple of sandwiches at Danny’s Bake Shop and headed to the Port au Port Peninsula for our first hike. The rain was coming down hard so we drove the loop around the Peninsula and marveled at the well-kept houses of this French speaking community. The closest thing to a store that we saw was a man selling fresh produce out of the back of a cube van. The scenery was spectacular. We gave into the weather, donned our rain suits and hit the hiking trail. It was absolutely pouring but the trail was fantastic.

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The Corner Brook Stream Trail is a groomed hiking trail that is accessible from many points including most hotels in the downtown.

Next was Corner Brook. This small farming village set in a beautiful valley exploded into a town when Bowater opened a sawmill. The plant, now operated by Kruger Incorporated, is enormous. At first glance it seems like an eyesore but a visit to the local museum puts everything in perspective and you realize how the mill management created the “town” for their workers with a bisecting green space that includes a trail system and even a swimming spot. The water is so clean you can see the bottom.

We continued our visit of Corner Brook with Cycle Solutions who offer cycle tours, trips and other adventures. From the top of James Cooke National Historic Site high on the south side of town we rode down through the neighborhood streets. It was a steep, thrilling ride. I marveled at the number of homes with doors well above ground level that seemed to serve no purpose. The boys from Cycle Solutions called these mother-in-law doors. Must be Newfie humour! We headed toward the mouth of the Humber River on the north end of town and stopped for a tour of the Railway Society of Newfoundland’s museum. With tongue firmly planted in cheek, the train, no longer in service, is referred to as the Newfie Bullet. The museum and train tour give a glimpse into the history of the province. Our ride back to Cycle Solutions was a little more challenging but well worth the work. Back at the bike shop, I thanked the guys and visited Brewed Awakenings next door for a well-earned smoothie.

We stocked up on trail mix and beef jerky and headed for Gros Morne National Park. Just outside of town, we passed the local ski are, Marble Mountain, that gets an average of 16 feet of snow every year and the temperature rarely dips below -5̊C. Corner Brook is an outdoor adventure paradise!

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Kayaking on Bonne Bay with Gross Morne in the background.

Further up the highway we turned onto Route 430, the Viking Trail, and the entrance to Gros Morne National Park. A UNESCO world heritage site, the National Park is unlike most as it has small communities peppered throughout the park. Forewarned about Newfie speed bumps, it didn’t take long to find one — a moose that is. The park is full of them. It’s also full of hiking trails. With over 100 kms of trails that range from short and easy to long and strenuous there is something for everyone.

We stopped for the night at the Shallow Bay Motel in Cow Head, a family owned business that makes you feel like you have come home again. Not only is it one of the friendliest little motels it also has great entertainment. Proprietor, Darryl House teamed up with the Corner Brook based Theatre Newfoundland Labrador (TNL) to bring the Gros Morne Theatre Festival to town. Now working on its 14 season, this summer theatre festival is top shelf. The TNL has toured its plays in 6 Canadian provinces, the UK and Australia. Offering two shows a night the company’s productions offer a glimpse of rural life in Newfoundland. We were lucky enough to see two shows. Keep an eye on the GCTC schedule as Ottawa is regular stop for TNL productions.

Western Brook Pond is nothing like the name suggests but well worth the 3 km hike in. We bought tickets dockside and boarded a boat for a guided tour of the fjords.The billion year-old cliffs are spectacular. It was great to chat with other tourist and swap stories. On the trip back to dock our captain kept us entertained with local music.

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The view across Bonne Bay from Neddies Harbour Inn, Norris Point. The red glow of the Tablelands is visible on the horizon.

At Norris Point we visited the Bonne Bay Marine Station. A world-class research and teaching facility, it is open to the public for Interactive Aquarium Tours. The biologist filled us with a wealth of information about the unparalleled marine ecosystem of the bay. We met Pierre the two-toned American lobster and learnt a whole bunch of nifty facts including the scallop myth. Apparently, if you’re eating a scallop anywhere west of Nova Scotia — you’re likely not. A ray like, shellfish-smelling fish called Skate is caught, cut and sold to us “westerners” as scallops.

 

Full of local bay knowledge, we set off for an afternoon paddle on the Bonne Bay. Gros Morne Adventures offer daily, guided tours that leave from their beach-front shop in Norris Point. With the view of the Tablelands on one side and Gros Morne Mountain looming large on the other side, we paddled out onto the bay. It didn’t take long to get the hang of a two-man sea kayak. We saw a mink scurry by on the rocky shore and a Humpback whale surface about 40 feet in front of us. An eagle flew overhead. Wow, simply spectacular!

Completely sastisfied with our day’s adventure we headed to Neddies Harbour Inn for the night. A beautiful spot looking out over Bonne Bay, Neddies has a spa like atmosphere. We enjoyed a superb meal and hit the hay. Next up was an early morning, guided hike.

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Parks Canada Interpreters run seasonal, daily activities like the Discovery Hike on the Tablelands.

Some 500 million years ago, the rocks of the Tablelands were the underside of the ocean’s floor. Their red glow can be seen from most vantage points in Gros Morne. During the Parks Canada hike on the Tablelands Trail, the interpreter explained how millions of years ago the rock was forced up to the surface. It’s incredibly barren atop this rocky terrain but an odd little plant call the Pitcher plant has carved out an existence. Like a mini Venus’s-flytrap, it’s an example of nature’s uncanny ability to adapt to its surroundings. As the weather became unbearably hot the guide shared with us one of his favourite swimming holes. “Just past Birchie Head take a right just before the bridge. Park and hike in.” After a stop for sandwiches,it didn’t take us long to find the spot. The swimming was glorious. A few local boys came to jump off the rocks up stream and a lady arrived with her dog. We stayed all afternoon.

On our last day in Newfoundland we drove out to Trout River on the Gulf of St. Lawrence and enjoyed dinner and the sunset at the Seaside Restaurant. Gros Morne is the antithesis of the ready-made destination. It’s about slowing down, exploring nooks and crannies and finding yourself. With its ancient mountains, fjords, hiking trails and beautiful sandy beaches, your soul will find peace.

Vienna

March 24, 2009 3:23 pm
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I knew as soon as I stepped on the Austrian Airlines plane that this was going to be a great trip. The airline staff in their classy red outfits were genuinely friendly and made a bit of a fuss over my daughter. Their motto is “we fly for your smile” and my daughter was already beaming.

Arriving at Vienna Airport, we took the 16 minute City Airport Train (CAT) to city centre (www.cityairporttrain.com) and found our way, to our hotel located in the 7th district. Also called Spittelberg, this area is famous for its artistic flair and is known for its proximity to Vienna’s great museums. As we walked the final block from the subway stop to the hotel, a dusting of snow covered the city. People were dotting in and out of the numerous espresso shops and cafés as the city came alive. Vienna was waking in all its winter splendour and we were pretty excited that we would have 6 days to learn more about its charms.

We checked in the Hotel Altstadt Vienna (www.alstadt.at), with its numerous paintings and were greeted with a warm and friendly welcome. The hotel has 42 elegantly decorated rooms and no two are alike. All the amenities, including computer access 24/7, make the Hotel Altstadt a gem in the heart of Vienna. The Englishstyle Red Salon Room with its oversized and grand windows offers a wonderful breakfast buffet and a bar, where you can relax next to the open fireplace. As the week progressed, we would start and end our days in this wonderful room. The service was impeccable and the staff friendly and helpful.

It was February and this already vibrant city was celebrating one of its biggest weeks of the year — the week of the Viennese Ball. Vienna has about 150 public balls listed in the ball calendar (www.ballkalender.info) with some events having an attendance of up to 5000 — this in a city of only 1.5 million. The excitement made me want to return and experience one first-hand.

One of the most revered buildings in Vienna is the Austrian Parliament Buildings (www.parlament.gv.at). Designed in Greek revival style by notable architect Baron Theophil von Hansen and built using Austrian marble — a tour proved to be a great way to start our trip. Our guide described the history of the buildings, the government, the people, and much of the history of the former Austrian Hapsburg monarchy which was helpful throughout the trip. Next up was the Vienna Ice Dream, a 5,600 squaremetre outdoor ice skating rink on the grounds of a wonderfully illuminated Vienna City Hall. You can rent skates or bring your own. Afterwards, relax at a large heated marquee, sampling apple strudel, crispy waffles or a baked potato concoction called Kasespatzle.

The next day we visited the inner city which included the famous Hofburg Palace and Sisi-Museum. The Hofburg Imperial Palace is mammoth in size, consisting of over 2600 rooms and was the seat of one of the most powerful and successful families in Europe, the Habsburgs, who ruled over much of Europe from the 12th century right up until the first World War. The Palace served as the family’s headquarters and winter residence. The Hofburg Palace features many different architectural styles ranging from Gothic to Baroque to Art Nouveau and is so grand and overwhelming in scope that it singularly has the effect of highlighting the great achievements of the Hapsburg Dynasty. Today, the Hofburg Palace is also the home of the Vienna Boys Choir and houses many offices of government, including the President of Austria’s official seat. Next to the Palace is the famous Heldenplatz (Heroes Square) where a number of statues celebrating the Habsburg’s victories can be found. The Palace is also home to the Sisi Museum which was a big hit with my daughter.

The Sisi Museum in the Imperial Apartments of the Imperial Palace looks at the life of the celebrated Empress Elisabeth (Sisi), who has become a cult figure. Elisabeth’s private life is at the center of the exhibition. From her carefree time as a young girl in Bavaria to her surprising engagement with to the Austrian emperor to her 1898 assassination in Geneva, the museum shows the restless life of the legendary empress. A fascinating woman, she was at once an athlete, a feminist, a mother, a spouse and an Empress and had an insatiable interest in other cultures, in travel and in liberty. She was in many ways a century ahead of her time. We spent several hours at the Sisi Museum and even then there was more to see.

The birthplace of the coffee house scene, Vienna lives up to the reputation as the ‘coffee house capital’ of the world. We stoppped for lunch at Café Central, one of the most famous cafés located a short walk from the Hofburg Palace. Freud, Trotsky and Lenin and others all sipped hot coffee here, mulling over the great quandaries of their day. Today the Café is a resplendent room that retains its original 1857 design. The best rule for finding the cool cafés of Vienna is to follow the Ringstraase (the wide avenue that surrounds the old city). Bear in mind, many of Austria’s coffee shops allow smoking inside.

We spent the rest of the day strolling around central Vienna, admiring the statues, visiting the old Stephansdom cathedral and visiting many of the shops and boutiques. At Mozart House (www.mozarthaus.at) we experienced Wolfgang Amadeus Mozarts’s classical music in the unique and original Sala Terrena room where Mozart himself composed and played so many of his great pieces. The early evening performance by a virtuosic quartet was a magical evening. It was a highlight of the trip. It was great to see my violin-playing daughter revel in the mastery of the talented musicians whose instruments seemed to play themselves.

The entire next day was spent in Vienna’s famous Museums Quarter, one of the ten largest cultural complexes in the world (www.mqw.at). Located in the heart of the city, the Museums Quarter comprises historical buildings from the 18th and the 19th centuries which have been combined into a single entity of 20 museums, cultural organizations, shops, cafes and restaurants. Together they make up Vienna’s longest Baroque façade. Billed as an art space, creativity space and living space, the museums and exhibition halls are closely tied to modern day art, artists and culture in Vienna.

The Museum of Modern Art, Ludwig Foundation Vienna or “MUMOK”, is the largest Central European museum for modern and contemporary art. Next up was the Leopold Museum with thousands of works of Austrian art and the world’s largest collection of works by Egon Schiele. We also took in an exhibit of the works of the famous Austrian artist Gustaf Klimt. The Kunsthalle Vienna showcases video, film, photography and some pretty odd looking architecture. We also dropped by ZOOM Children’s Museum, Austria’s first children’s museum which includes a sensory play zone for young children exhibits and a multimedia lab.

Other arts and culture institutions within the Museums Quarter include The Vienna Architecture Center, the Tobacco Museum and the new Children’s Theatre which hosts puppet shows, musicals and opera from Austria and other countries.

Ten minutes from the Museums Quarter are yet more museums such as the Art History Museum or Kunst Historishe Museum (www.khm.at), a must see for its architecturally dazzling design and exceptional exhibits. We spent a full day here visiting the Egyptology Exhibit, a Greco- Roman exhibit, several renaissance era painters’ exhibits and a wonderful wing on historic coins. Directly across the way you can visit the Natural History Museum. Next up was a short visit to the Schmetterlinghaus at Burggarten (www.schmetterlinghaus. at), one of the world’s most beautiful art nouveau structures in the Imperial Palace which has been turned into a year round greenhouse for butterflies. Afterward we had lunch at the Palmery next to the Schmetterkinghaus, a very popular restaurant (www.palmenhaus. at) that on Fridays becomes a popular dance club for locals.

When visiting Vienna make sure to drop by the Haus Der Musik (www. hdm.at). We spent five hours in this amazing music museum located near the Vienna State Opera. Its multimedia and interactive exhibits challenge you to experience music and sounds in a whole new way. This place is a music historian’s dream. There is an exhibit on the great Austrian composers (Mozart, Strauss, Mahler, Hayden etc), one on the Vienna Boys Choir and there is even the chance sit in a small theatre and listen to the Vienna Symphony Orchestra in surround sound.

Afterward we headed over to Figlmuller Restaurant (www.figlmueller.at) known throughout Vienna for its famous wiener schnitzel. The place was packed. Seating is border house style so you end up sitting next to people you have never met — which makes for great conversations. Wiener schnitzel is Austria’s most famous dish and this place did not disappoint.

Our final day in Vienna began with breakfast at Cafe Sperl. We spent the rest of the morning at the world’s most famous riding hall, the Winter Riding School, (www. viennaticketonline.com) located in Vienna’s Imperial Hofburg Palace and home to the famous Lipizzans, Europe’s oldest and highly prized breed of horses. The Lipizzans and their riders enchant visitors from all over the world with their truly unique performances and we marveled at the skills of both the horses and riders.

We then hopped on the subway and went to Prater Amusement Park, (www.prater.at) a popular spot for kids and families with over 250 attractions. Many of them are closed in the winter months but the nostalgic ultra high Ferris wheel is open year round allowing for a unique bird’s eye view of all of Vienna.

For our last evening we rode the tram just to see where it would take us. We roamed through parts of Vienna that we would not normally have seen. It’s a great thing to do to just watch people go about their business and take in new neighbourhoods. Each street was a new experience. As we walked back to the hotel from our last tram ride, it began to snow as if on cue to finish off a perfect trip.

WHEN YOU GO:

• Once you depart CAT at the city centre (Wien-Mitte) you can access the multitude of subways and trams available to travel throughout Vienna. Children under 14 are free and a round trip is 15 euros. However, if you purchase a Vienna Card (www.wien.info/ en/travel-info/vienna-card)the round trip by CAT is only 7.50 Euros.

• For only 18.50, Euros the “Vienna Card” offers 72 hours unlimited use of public transport within city limits and includes discounts at many museums, some restaurants and cafés, shops and other tourism-related services. Available in hotels and at the tourist information centre on Albertinaplatz and the tourist information point at the a irport. We highly recommend it.

• On Sunday, just about everything is closed except hotels, coffee shops, and internet cafes. But the big art museum, the Kunst Historiche Museum, is open. For more info on Vienna visit www.vienna.info.

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

March 22, 2009 3:43 pm
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The idea of traveling in a recreational vehicle (RV) with your spouse and kids for three weeks in the summer sounds like one of those amazing things you need to do in life when your kids are the right age. Imagine traveling for three weeks in extreme comfort in a 35 foot recreational vehicle. I always had an interest in purchasing an RV, so I figured why not rent one for a month and give it the old test drive?

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

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

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

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

 

QUEBEC CITY

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

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

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

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

 

NEW BRUNSWICK

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

NOVA SCOTIA

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

BELGIUM AND LUXEMBOURG — The Way Life Should Be

March 21, 2009 3:48 pm
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LuxembourgWe can learn a lot about life from the Europeans. They take immense pleasure in good food, good wine, friends, family, music, theatre and history. While we appreciate those things here in North America, over there, it’s different. We always seem to be in a hurry, wanting things now. In Europe, people seem to be much more relaxed. Last June, my 11-year-old daughter and I had the opportunity to experience that joie de vivre first-hand during a trip to Brussels, Flanders and Luxembourg. The trip was as stimulating for me as a parent as it was magical for my daughter. We were with a small group of families and by the end of it we were one big family.

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

Luxembourg

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

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


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

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

Luxembourg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The World’s Most Beautiful Voyage

March 19, 2009 4:00 pm
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The 7 day cruise headed up the Norwegian Fjords past the Arctic Circle and ended in the northern town of Kirkenes, a twenty minute drive from the Russian border. Due to the Gulf Stream, the climate is temperate but because of the high latitude, during the winter, there are a number of cold spells with temperatures hovering around -10°C. Nevertheless, the average winter temperature is about 0 to -5°C and Norwegian Arctic Waters remain ice free year round.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fractional Cottage Ownership at Frontenac Shores

Written by Rachael Donovan

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

March 16, 2009 4:25 pm
Picture 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4:25 pm
Picture 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Czech Out the Inspiration Outside of Prague

March 14, 2009 4:29 pm
Picture 5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You Just Can’t Beat Florida for Family Fun

March 13, 2009 4:30 pm
Jan09_FL_Sandpearl_firepit

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

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

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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!

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