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Unlocking the secrets of Catalonia

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Unlocking the secrets of Catalonia

By Marc Atchison
TraveLife Editor-in-Chief

SANT CUGAT, CATALONIA — The narrow, corkscrew highway I’m nervously navigating is known as the Via Romanesque (Road) and it zigzags through the Pyrenees, dipping dramatically into the bosom of the great mountain range before rising again as high as the pointed peaks.

My pulse quickens every time my little rental dives into one of the many hairpin turns — this must be the road where Spain’s two-time Formula 1 world auto racing champion Fernando Alonso perfected his driving skills.

Every so often, a yawning mountain tunnel swallows my little car and spits me out into Medieval Catalonia where the parched landscape has changed little over time and remains punctuated by the ancient Romanesque architecture I’ve come to admire — churches, castles and villages dating back to the 10th century.

Stone towers — they pop up like pins on a map — are my guide on this five day, 854-kilometre journey back in time. I follow them to the entrances of Catalonia’s treasured Romanic relics, some of which are recognized as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The thrilling back roads don’t just connect the dots, though. They also introduce me to Catalonia’s small rural towns that look frozen in time, the region’s unique culture, its pre-historic treasures — dinosaur footprints everywhere — its remarkable food (the tapas, croquettes, Iberian ham and cheeses from here are so good) and it’s fiercely proud, independently-minded people who make strangers feel so welcome.

My journey starts in Barcelona, Catalonia’s breathtaking capital, where I visit my first Romanesque treasure — an ancient burial slab dedicated to a former count of Barcelona, Guifré II, who died in 911AD. The burial slab rests inside the Sant Pau del Camp monastery, the city’s oldest church which is located in Barcelona’s vibrant Gothic Quarter, off the famous tourist walking street La Rambla.

My visit to Sant Pau del Camp only whets my appetite for more Romanesque architecture, which emerged around the 10th century throughout Europe and eventually evolved into the Gothic style in the 12th century. The best examples of original Romanesque architecture can be found in rural Catalonia, which was a collection of counties in Medieval times. The counts back then wanted to show Rome their commitment to Catholicism, so they erected some impressive churches and monasteries in the more artistic Lombard Romanesque design — smooth walls subdivided by pilasters and decorated with blind arches and doors with mouldings.

So, the next day I set out in the direction of Vic, a handsome city first settled by the Romans around 300AD that’s sandwiched between Barcelona and Girona, where a museum dedicated to Catalonia’s Romanesque architecture and art is located.

The landscape outside Barcelona features lots of cacti and palms and the well-marked divided highway I’m driving is canopied by plane trees. The Pyrenees are silhouetted on the horizon in my windscreen and I’m being lulled into a false sense that the entire five day drive will be this easy — wrong!

The Episcopal Museum located in Vic’s Old Town dates back to 1891 but moved to its present modern location in 2002. The Old Town is also where I find the city’s perfectly- preserved Roman temple.

The museum houses over 6,000 pieces of rare Romanesque art — a wooden depiction of the Crucifixion featuring five individual figures is its most eye-catching exhibition. Alter pieces, paintings and statues, all dating back to the 10th to12th centuries, which once decorated Romanesque churches throughout Catalonia, now have been moved here or to Barcelona’s magnificent National Museum of Art for safekeeping.

Vic’s Romanesque cathedral sits right next to the museum so I’m invited to make the dizzying climb up a narrow spiral staircase to reach the top of its bell tower. I’m glad I do because the view I get from the lofty height — the tower is the highest of its kind in Catalonia — is truly breathtaking. The city and countryside spread out below the tower and from it I see Vic’s dynamic main square that’s surrounded by candy-coloured buildings. Three of the tower’s original 11th century bells remain in working order and as much as I’d like to spend more time in this inviting city, another Romanesque treasure — the Monastery of St. Peter de Casserres — awaits 30 minutes down the road in Carretera. The highway outside Vic suddenly turns challenging — more twists and turns as I drive into the foothills of the Pyrenees. And the scenery here is much more imposing — lots of rocky outcrops and deep gorges.

After parking the car, I trek along a narrow ledge overlooking a reservoir — it feeds Barcelona — to reach the entrance of the former Benedictine monastery that was once home to 12 monks back in 1053 when it opened. While most Romanic churches are long and narrow, St. Peter, because of its confined space atop the rocky cliff, is wider than it is long. It took 100 years to complete but was left to decay after being abandoned in the 15th century. A restoration project between 1994 and 1995 has restored its glory — the cloister, priory chamber, dormitory, kitchen, storage vault and scriptorium where the monks illustrated precious books look as good as new.

While Catalonia’s Romanesque churches and cathedrals look much the same, each, I discover, has its own identity and some interesting stories and characters connected to them. Take St. Peter de Casserres, for example.

“The church was built on the orders of a count, whose son, just three days after being born, apparently spoke and told his father he would live only 30 days,” Silvia, my guide, tells me.

“The son instructed that after his death his body should be placed on a mule and wherever the beast stopped, then a monastery dedicated to St. Peter should be built. The mule stopped here and the father obviously complied with the boy’s wishes. The boy’s remains were actually kept in the alter by the monks for decades,” says Silvia. I didn’t have the heart to tell Silvia that had the mule not stopped, it would have plunged into the deep gorge.

Afterwards, I enjoy a delightful lunch at the Parador Vic-Sau, a charming boutique hotel that sits at the base of the mountain where the monastery is located. The view of the surrounding milky-white cliffs and reservoir from the elevated main dining room is truly spectacular.

The rest of my stops along my Romanesque journey are just as interesting:

• In Ripoll, a handsome town on the banks of the River Ter, I visit the tomb of Count Wilfred the Hairy — he apparently had a lot of hair — in the beautiful Monastery of Santa Maria, which he founded in 888. The count is revered because he gave Catalonia its flag; as Wilfred the Hairy lie dying after a battle, he dabbed four fingers in his own blood and ran them down a mustard coloured cloth, which Catalonia’s flag is based on today. More than 100 monks lived in the monastery during its glory days and produced important manuscripts from the 10th to 12th century — many were stolen during the Napoleonic Wars and have never been seen again. The monastery’s ornately decorated portal is its most stunning feature — delicate carvings tell the story of the Bible. The cloister showcases three original columns and one of its original bell towers is still functioning.

• In La Seu d’Urgell, a lovely town in the heart of the Pyrenees, I’m impressed by the Cathedral Santa Maria d’Urgell, which dominates the Old Town square. The stately structure stands on the same land where the Romans erected a temple. The present day version has a lot of Gothic design incorporated into its walls and showcases lots of 12th-century paintings. While just a hint of the amazing frescos remain, a guide tells me that at one time the entire interior and exterior of these Romanesque churches would have been painted. The town is also famous for producing three saints — St. Ot (the patron saint of rain), St. Ernengol (the patriot saint of droughts) and St. Emigdi (the enginering saint who produced bridges and canals). This outdoor paradise also hosted the white water canoeing and kayaking events at the 1982 Barcelona Summer Olympics and remains a training centre for many national teams, including Canada’s. The massive cathedral stays true to the Holy Trinity — it features three entrances, three naves and its bell tower stands 23 metres high. Next to Santa Maria stands the palace of the Bishop of Aragon, an autonomous state that resides inside Catalonia.

• In Sort, I stop for lunch at a charming restaurant called Pessets and enjoy a meal highlighted by the area’s delicious traditional sausages. A group of elderly Catalonian tourists entertain me with patriotic folk songs and I salute them with a glass of Catalonia’s excellent wine. There are many examples of Romanesque architecture in this forested area known as Pallars Sobirá, and the best is the Church of Santa Maria de Ribera de Cardós — its bell tower, rose window and main apse were all built in the Romanesque style.

• In Son, I leave the main highway and climb to the top of another winding road to reach the Romanic site of Son del Pi. From here I get jaw-dropping views of the Pyrenees and its lush valleys. The small temple was built between the 11th and 12th centuries and consists of a single nave. Its apse also features arches decorated in the Lombard style. Its most striking feature, though, is a slender square belfry with an interior staircase. Inside, there’s a 15th-century Gothic altarpiece depicting 23 different biblical scenes.

• In Arties, I discover I’m no longer in Catalonia but in Aran, the tiny but affluent principality — much like Monaco — tucked away in the Pyrenees bordering France to the north and Aragon to the west. Known as the Vall d’Aran, this is where some of Europe’s best ski resorts are located. It’s also where I find some great examples of Romanesque architecture in the form of Santa Maria d’Aries and Sant Andreu de Saladú i Santa Eulàlla d’Unha (St. Andrew for short). What makes these two churches so important is they still feature lots of original wall art. “There are many others hidden under the plaster but retrieving them takes time and lots of money,” Lola, my guide, tells me. Some of the paintings remain vibrant. “They ground rare minerals that are only found in the Pyrenees and mixed them with water to produce paint,” says Lola. At one time there were many of these Romanesque churches scattered throughout the Vall d’Aran and “their towers were used to warn of invasions,” says the guide.

• In the beautiful Vall de Boi, I discover the motherlode of Romanesque architecture — nine churches that sit in a picturesque Pyrenees valley outside the small town of Barruero. I spend the day exploring four of the most famous with a Romanic expert named Anna Monsó.

First stop: Santa Eulàlia d’drill la Vall church, which sits beside an information centre. Using interactive exhibits, it tells visitors why so many Romanesque churches were built here and how the counts stole land from their subjects to increase their own wealth and power. Inside Santa Eulàlia, I find the original stone alter and baptismal font and a replica of the wooden crucifixion scene that impressed me in Vic. The church’s bell tower stands 24 metres high and was used mainly for communication and defensive purposes.

Next, Sant Joan de Boi, where Anna points out the irregular shapes of animals in the faded frescos. “The artists only knew of these animals from the stories they were told, so that’s why the elephant has horns on top of its heads,” she smiles. This, like the other 10th-century temples I visit, was also used as a community meeting hall and “they even stored grain here in the winter,” Anna tells me. A lovely village has grown up around San Joan de Boi and it’s a nice place to wander before walking to Sant Climent, which was consecrated in 1123, features its original alter and a 13th-century bench reserved for the church’s hierarchy. An audio-visual system shows how the church once looked when its walls were completely decorated with frescos. Awesome!

A short walk away from Sant Climent, Anna introduces me to Santa Maria de Taüll, a unique church in that it sits in the middle of a stone village. “Most villages were built before the churches but this town was built around Santa Maria,” says Anna. The columns inside the church are bent like an old man’s legs — “they had to wrap the entire church with special supports to ensure it does not fall.”

• On the way to Tremp, where the Romanesque Castell d’en Mur sits, I drive through a semi-arid region of Catalonia that looks like the Arizona desert — large red rocks shaped into animal forms by the elements dominate the landscape.

The ruins of the 11th-century Castell d’en Mur and the Benedictine church that sits beside it, stand atop a remote mountain overlooking a vast valley. Both the castle and church were built from the same massive slab of rock that separates the two Romanesque ruins. While the roofless castle fell in on itself after being abandoned in the 15th-century, the church remains pretty much intact. Only 20 people ever lived in the castle and just a few monks manned the church, whose priceless frescos were sold off in 1919 for the equivalent of 42 euros (less the $100 Cdn.) in today’s money, and eventually found their way to a Boston museum, where they still reside today.

• My last stop before returning to Barcelona is the massive Sant Cugat monastery in the town of the same name — just 17 kilometres from Catalonia’s capital. The beautiful monastery, which sits in the city’s historic area, was started in the 11th-century and completed in the 13th. The Benedictine monks who built it actually arrived here in 985AD but records show the Romans occupied this area as early as the 3rd-century. The structure was partially destroyed in the Spanish Civil War but its beautiful cloister still features 144 original capitals. Some carvings tell the story of the bible, some warn monks of the evil waiting outside the monastery walls, others refer to mythological figures and one honours the man who created them — he worked on them for 20 years.

Finally back in Barcelona, I visit the castle-like Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, a treasure chest of Romanesque relics that was built as a pavilion for the city’s 1929 World’s Fair. It occupies a spectacular vantage point atop a hill overlooking one of Europe’s most fascinating cities. The frescos and wall art removed from the churches are now displayed in the National Museum’s 16-gallery Romanesque section.

Lia, a museum guide, says Italian experts were hired to painstakingly remove the frescos and wall art from their original places and reassembled here. “The movement to research, reclaim and preserve Catalonia’s art, poetry, literature and especially our architecture was started in 1833 by Barcelona’s elite and wealthy,” says Lia.

Walls in the exhibition areas are painted a muted grey to resemble the interiors of the ancient churches and monasteries.

Looking at the remarkable works, one can see how art in Medieval times evolved — crude animal and human features depicted in art from the 10th and 11th centuries become more life-like and softer in paintings from the 13th century.

The museum showcases more than 4,000 Catalonian treasures, but the Romanesque exhibits are by far the most popular.

A lover of Romanesque architecture could easily visit the National Museum and be thoroughly fulfilled. However, by doing that, they’d miss the thrill of driving back in time along Catalonia’s thrilling Via Romanesque.

I can assure you, it’s a trip of a lifetime.

Marc Atchison is a veteran journalist and a seasoned traveller with more than 20 years of travel writing experience. As the former Travel Editor of the Toronto Star, Canada’s largest newspaper, and now Editor-in-Chief and Senior Writer for TraveLife magazine (Canada) and travelife.ca, Marc has been to over 100 countries in the world. Japan is one of his favorite destinations and he’s been there on numerous occasions.

http://www.travelife.ca/

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Destination Ontario: The Natural Wonders of Collingwood

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Destination Ontario: The Natural Wonders of Collingwood

By Cece M. Scott www.cecescott.com

Incorporated as a town in 1858, Collingwood became a shipping hub for products that were destined for the upper Great Lakes ports of Chicago and Thunder Bay. For more than a century, shipbuilding was the town’s main industry. In 1986 the shipyards were closed, and the waterfront is now a revered leisure destination.

BRING IT ON

Located on the southern end of Georgian Bay, Collingwood is the gateway to the Blue Mountains, where skiing, snowboarding, shopping and fine dining off er the best that winter has to offer.

Blue Mountain is Ontario’s largest village resort, just 90 minutes north of Toronto and 11 kilometres west of Collingwood. There are 43 ski and snowboard trails, 365 skiable acres and a vertical drop of 720 feet. At the base of the mountain, The Village features more than 45 distinctive restaurants, bars and retail shops. Along with the popular Scandinave Spa, visitors can also enjoy the village’s two onsite spas.

Off -hill winter activities include tennis, the aquatic centre, snowshoeing, and new for 2018 – the Woodview Mountaintop Skating Trail at the top of Blue.

With the growing popularity of Winter Fat Biking, mountain bikers can now spin their wheels all year long. Fat bikes use tires that are inflated with less air pressure, which make navigating through snowy terrain a fun way to improve balance and strengthen winter legs.

WHET YOUR WHISTLE

The nine-day Whiskylicious festival, running from February 1st to the 10th, is a whiskey-infused celebration of local food. The outdoor ice bars and culinary pairings are inspired by Collingwood Whiskey – a toasted, Maplewood-finished Canadian blend. Located in the downtown core, the festival is a showcase of signature chef dishes, music, arts and brewers.

This year, the Apple Pie Trail FEEST is on Friday, February 9th, and is sponsored by Red Prince Apple to benefit the Blue Mountain Village Foundation. This magical evening features local food, cider, wine and music, along with moonlit trails with stops at fire-lit cabins. The five-kilometre guided trek takes participants across southern Ontario’s longest suspension footbridge, and through the trails of Scenic Caves Nordic Centre.

SUMMER THRILLS

The distinctive shoreline and blue waters of Georgian Bay, mixed with the area’s rich marine history, are natural highlights for all types of boaters.

The Ridge Runner Mountain Coaster (Ontario’s first) is a one kilometre ride through the Niagara Escarpment’s diverse terrain. Drivers can reach an exhilarating 42 kilometres per hour.

Popular golf courses in the area include the 18-hole, par 71 Duntroon Highlands Golf Club, which offers spectacular vistas of Collingwood, Stayner and Blue, as well as the Blue Mountain Golf & Country Club, The Georgian Bay Club and Batteaux Creek Golf Club.

STROLLIN’ ALONG

With 60 kilometres of four-season, well-marked, multi-use trails, touring around Collingwood is perpetually pleasurable. The downtown core is jam-packed with trendy clothing stores, spas, galleries, fine dining, artisan cafes, live music venues, pubs and bars, in addition to dozens of art galleries and studios. Colourful panels and murals are creative reminders of Collingwood’s historical past, spanning more than two centuries.

Visitors and residents are passionate about the The Good Food Stroll – a walking or biking tour that showcases Collingwood’s love affair with food. Much is sourced from local farmers, and includes restaurant pit stops, cafes, specialty food outlets, food markets, cafes and sweet shops.

THE SPIRITS OF COLLINGWOOD

The soil and unique climate associated with this region are key elements in the making of the distinctive wine at Georgian Hills Vineyards. During the winter, visitors can snowshoe through the vineyards and enjoy artisanal cheeses and a glass of wine after their trek.

Collingwood’s craft breweries, include Northwinds Brewhouse & Kitchen, The Collingwood Brewery and Side Launch Brewing Company Inc. (named for the town’s shipbuilding industry).

Meaford is the heart of Ontario’s apple country. Stayner and Thornbury, a short drive from Collingwood, offer eclectic variations of the small town experience, and numerous pick-your own farms en-route.

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Docking at Bermuda’s historic Dockyards

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Docking at Bermuda’s historic Dockyards

By Marc Atchison
TraveLife Editor-in-Chief

SOMERSET, BERMUDA — A “mosquito” is annoying our cab driver as we make our way along the picturesque coastal South Road leading to the historic Royal Navy Dockyards.

“I just want to swat them,” grumbles Jerry the cabbie as he tries to manoeuvre around the slow-moving motor scooter (a.k.a. mosquito) ahead.

“Just listen to them – the buzzing sound they make is just like a mosquito; and you know what we do to mosquitos.”

Jerry steps on the gas and quickly passes the nervous tourist driving the tiny scooter. There are many ways to get to the Royal Navy Dockyards — the former British military garrison that juts out into the Atlantic at the northern tip of this fish hook-shaped island —from our Fairmont Southampton Hotel base. We could have taken the local pink bus or a national ferry to reach a place that has become one of Bermuda’s most popular tourist attractions, primarily because the Dockyards is where the mega-cruise ships anchor.

But a taxi’s the quickest way and the chatty cabbies, as we’ve discovered on previous visits, are a fountain of information, providing passengers with lots of local tales and tips.

Jerry, a slender man with a chiselled face who speaks with a lovely Bermudian accent, is excited to find out we hail from Canada and tells us that Nova Scotia fishermen helped develop St. David’s Island where he’s from. St. David’s is in the northeast part of Bermuda near St. George, the country’s treasured World Heritage Site and oldest city.

“The Nova Scotians, whose descendants still dominate St. David’s, were the ones who invented the shark oil barometer, which we still rely on today to help predict the weather,” says Jerry about the device mariners have relied on for centuries to detect storms at sea and local weather patterns. “No Bermudian house would be without one.”

The South Road takes us past pink-sand beaches, tranquil bays filled with stones carved into animal shapes by the pounding surf, lovely resorts like the Reefs — it clings to a jagged cliff looking out on a breathtaking seascape — pretty cottages painted pastel shades and national landmarks like Gibbs’ Hill Lighthouse, a cast iron structure built in 1846 which can be seen from almost everywhere on the island. At Barnes Corner, where South Road ends, the cabbie navigates onto Middle Road and apologizes for turning up the volume on his car radio but “there’s a big motor boat race going on today (early August) and a friend of mine has entered. I just want to see how he’s doing.”

Jerry suggests when we reach the Dockyards we find the Commissioner’s House and go to the second floor. “From there you’ll have a great vantage point from which to view the race.”

When we pass the entrance of prestigious Port Royal Golf Course, Jerry tells us he’s a member of the club where an important PGA Tour event is held each October. Cabbies in Bermuda obviously make a lot of money because entry into the exclusive golf club does not come cheap.

As we slowly make our way along winding Middle Road, we tell the driver we ate lunch the day before in Hamilton at a historic pub called Hog Penny – the fish chowder and onion rings there are the best in Bermuda.

“Ah, I know the Hog Penny well,” says Jerry, who goes on to say the pub’s name is taken from one of the country’s earliest coins.

“The coin was named the Hog Penny because when Bermuda was first discovered by shipwrecked settlers, they found the place was overrun with wild pigs (who were left behind by the Spanish decades earlier when they dropped by for a short visit). “In fact, Bermuda was once known as Devil Island because when the pigs squealed in the bush, settlers thought it was the devil hollering at them.”

We can hear the roar of the high-powered racing boats when we cross the fabled Somerset Bridge – the smallest drawbridge in the world – and then Jerry points out Scaur Hill Fort, which dates back to 1860 and from which you get jaw-dropping views of the Great Sound and the Royal Naval Dockyards in the distance.

Just before entering charming Somerset Village, where we see locals huddled at outdoor bars listening to radio play-by-play of the boat race, Jerry points out Heydon Trust Chapel and says it was built in 1616, making it one of the earliest structures in the New World.

As we pass the Royal Naval Cemetery, which dates back to the 1700s, he tells us the historic Dockyards is not far off.

“I’ll leave you off in front of the National Museum and from there you can walk around and see everything,” says the cabbie.

The narrow streets of the Dockyards, which remained in British hands until the 1990s, are filled with passengers and crew off the two cruise ships tied up at the deep-water port and every pub and restaurant is filled to capacity.

The National Museum and its exhibitions give us a good insight into what life was like when this island was in British hands and the old structures that once held arms and supplies for the troops stationed here have been converted into chic art galleries, restaurants and gift shops.

The Dockyards Glassworks, which also houses the Bermuda Rum Cake Company, is filled to capacity with tourists buying souvenirs to take back to the ships. And over at Dolphin Quest (always a controversial facility), an attendant tells us the performing dolphins have access to the open sea and aren’t being penned up as they are at some other places.

We finally make our way to the top of the Commissioner’s House, from where Jerry suggested we would see the speed boats best. From there we watch the high-powered vessels make their run back to Hamilton and the finish line and then decide it’s time to hail a cab.

Information

Both Air Canada and WestJet offer direct daily flights to Bermuda from Toronto. Hog Penny Pub is located in downtown Hamilton.

For information on the Fairmont Southampton and its sister property the Hamilton Princess, go to www.fairmont.com

Marc Atchison is a veteran journalist and a seasoned traveler with more than 20 years of travel writing experience. As the former travel editor of the Toronto Star, Canada’s largest newspaper, and now editor-in-chief and senior writer for TraveLife magazine (Canada) and travelife.ca, Marc has been to over 100 countries in the world. Japan is one of his favourite destinations and he’s been there on numerous occasions. http://www.travelife.ca/

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Travel: The Laurentians

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Travel: The Laurentians

An area of tangible dualities

By Kate Robertson

Located north of Montreal, Les Laurentides is a region crossed by the rounded Laurentian Mountains. The area features vast forests, more than 9,000 lakes and 100 fresh-flowing rivers, as well as thousands of kilometres of crosscountry skiing trails.

Photography, courtesy of Tourisme Laurentides

Naturally Beautiful

Mont Tremblant National Park, the largest in Quebec at 1,500 square kilometres, is a canoeing and hiking paradise. Guided activities are available through Kanatha-Aki (which means Guardian of the Boundless Earth, in Algonquin) for horseback riding, fishing and visiting the wood bison – the largest land mammal in North America. This Quebec reserve is the only one that is dedicated to protecting these endangered animals. If reserving with Kanatha-Aki, be sure to pre-book a cheese fondue. After spending the night in a rustic cabin or teepee, there’s nothing quite like dipping chunks of fresh baguette into the gooey goodness of melted cheese, while sitting in front of the wood stove in the open-beam lodge.

Wood bison at Kanatha-Aki. Photography, Kate Robertson

Originally built in 1936, the Mont Gabriel Hotel & Spa is located on top of a mountain. On a clear day, you can see the Montreal Olympic Stadium from your room, and golf enthusiasts will enjoy the picturesque, 18-hole, on-site course.

Foodies Unite

The Chenin du Terroir is a 226-kilometre food trail that takes you along country backroads with many enticing stops along the way. Make sure to stop at Tarterie du Verger de la Musique for freshly baked pies and their signature apple bread. This sixth-generation, family-operated business has patented the recipe for their gourmet bread, which includes a full pound of apples in each loaf. During apple season, arrive early to score some of this chewy, cinnamon-y delicacy, as they often sell out of the more-than 500 loaves that they bake per day.

Warm up with the velvety smoothness of a cheese fondue at Kanatha-Aki. Photography, Kate Robertson
Tarterie du Verger de la Musique’s signature apple bread. Photography, Kate Robertson

Down the road from the bakery is Vignoble Riviere du Chene. Here you can take a tour, and learn about the typicality of the terroir and grape varietals, as well as the responsible farming techniques and winemaking methods that they use. Tours run from May until the end of October, but wine tasting is available year-round. A soft, fruity rosé named after their daughter, Gabrielle, just might be the perfect pairing to go along with the apple bread, and other tasty treats from the food trail, for an impromptu picnic.

Vignoble Riviere du Chene. Photography, Kate Robertson

Nominated as one of the best beekeeping farms in the world and recognized across North America for the diversity, and quality, of their products, Intermiel manages 5,000 beehives. The farm also has a 600-tree apple orchard, and 16,000 maple trees that are tapped for syrup each spring. The beekeeping tour is fascinating. Did you know that bees cover a radius of six kilometres to get their pollen? Also, the queen bee lives for five years because she eats royal jelly, but the worker bees only have a lifespan of 45 days. Check out the unique merchandise made from honey and wax that they have available in their store, as well as artisanal alcohol products, which include house-made mead, ciders and brandies – all prepared from the the farm’s own ingredients.

Mont Tremblant. Photography, courtesy of Tourisme Laurentides

Yin and Yang

Known world-wide for its famous ski resort, the village of Mont Tremblant is the second oldest village in North America. The buildings and cobblestone, pedestrian-only streets are reminiscent of quaint, European styling.

The best of all worlds can be experienced here. If you want an outdoor adventure getaway, you can enjoy the beauty of the area by hiking or biking. D-Tours offers e-fat biking, which are electrically assisted bikes with fat tires. The extra boost is most welcome when navigating the hilly terrain. Take in the stunning panorama with a gondola ride, or enjoy the challenges of some breathtaking golf courses.

Village of Mont Tremblant. Photography, courtesy of Tourisme Laurentides

For a quieter, more-relaxed holiday, the rustic, Nordic-style Scandinave Spa is located in a wilderness setting. As with traditional thermal spas, there are hydrotherapy baths with hot and cold installations, steam and hot sauna options, as well as relaxation areas. If you dare, you can take a dip in the Diable River, where the temperature is around 12 degrees (colder in the winter). After, wrap up in a large blanket and cosy up in front of the fire pit. Reconnect with your inner self, as the entire spa is a silent zone.

Scandinave Spa. Photography, courtesy of Tourisme Laurentides

The Laurentians is an incredible, all-season destination, but with its monumental stands of maple trees, along with a bountiful harvest, Fall is a glorious time to visit.

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Travel: The Oxford Experience

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Travel: The Oxford Experience

BY CATHERINE DALEY

Pirates, Adventurers and Fortune-Seekers; The Enigma of Stone Henge; The Meaning of Life; Broken Genes; The Arts and Crafts Garden; 200 Years of British Murder; Lewis Carroll in Oxford; Political Thinking in the 20th Century; Upstairs, Downstairs in the English Country House – these are only a sample of the 60-some courses being offered over a six-week period during the summer of 2018.

Photography, courtesy of Oxford University and participating students

Areas of Study

Created in 1991 by Trevor Rowley, The Oxford Experience is just that – an experience. Using much of their same words, The Oxford Experience is a residential summer programme providing one-week courses in a variety of subjects aimed at non-specialists in the areas of archaeology and early history; art; music; houses and gardens; literature and creative writing; modern history and philosophy; natural and social sciences – plus it provides you a unique opportunity to sample life in Christ Church – one of the university’s most beautiful, and impressive, colleges.

Small study groups (approximately 12 people) are taught by experienced tutors. Your fee includes the course, which runs from approximately 9:15 a.m. until 12:30 p.m. Monday through Friday (plus a field trip), as well as three meals per day in the Hall and accommodation in a study bedroom of Christ Church. Each participant is invited to sit at the High Table one evening during the week, and on the final night, a celebratory dinner is held.

Captivating Dining

After attending an orientation meeting in a lecture hall on the Sunday evening prior to our course, a few hundred of us strolled through the Tom Quad to the staircase of Bodley Tower, and made our way up was The Buttery, which is home to one of the college’s oldest bars, where students and guests can enjoy wines, whiskey and beer – some specially produced for Christ Church.

Lawn and garden behind Christ Church

The Hall is the finest surviving section of the college’s original foundation. Completed alongside the kitchens in the 1520s, the Hall has been in almost-constant use since the sixteenth century. It was the Renaissance splendour of this Hall that charmed the makers of the Harry Potter films to build a replica in their London studios.

Tom Quad

At the appointed time, an attendant struck a wooden board three times with a gavel, and announced that dinner was now served. The sheer grandeur of the Hall was irresistible, but I had to pay attention to those who had been there before me and take my cue as to what to do next. We stood behind our chairs until the gavel was struck again and a scholar recited a shorter version (in Latin) of the pre-dinner grace. The efficient staff immediately began to serve, and in no time at all we were breaking bread with fellow participants from around the world – many of whom had been coming back year-after-year, and took more than one course per summer.

Dinner table setting (by class) on the final evening.

Student Life

After a buffet-style lunch, the afternoon is yours to enjoy. As part of the programme experience, you can choose to attend special guest lectures and cultural events, attend an evening of whisky tasting, book guided walking tours or additional outings, and play a round of croquet (weather permitting) on the grounds of Christ Church. Every evening at 6 p.m., Evensong is spoken or sung in the Cathedral, which is the oldest part of the college and located next to the Hall.

Dinner table setting (by class) on the final evening.

Enjoy a picnic in Christ Church Meadow, stroll the gardens or soak up some atmospheric knowledge in one of the more-than 100 libraries in Oxford – the largest library system in the UK.

For some additional atmosphere, grab a pint at The Eagle and Child (nicknamed The Bird and Baby) pub. It was here that The Inklings (a literary discussion group), which included the likes of Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll), C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and Charles Williams, met for lunch during the 30s and 40s in a lounge at the back of the pub known as the Rabbit Room.

The dreamlike world of Oxford is a bit like going down the rabbit hole and, definitely, worth the experience.

Courses fill up quickly and early booking is recommended. conted.ox.ac.uk/about/oxford-experience

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Aruba is an island of smiles

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Aruba is an island of smiles

by Marc Atchison

TraveLife Editor-in-Chief

ARUBA – Ricardo, the man taking me on a driving tour of this lovely Caribbean nation whose motto is “One Happy Island,” is not happy.

“My wife forgot to put my sunglasses back in the car and now I will be squinting all day,” he moans after picking me up at the exclusive Tierra del Sol Resort, home to the island’s only 18-hole golf course, a Robert Trent Jones Sr. beauty that hugs the coastline of the Caribbean Sea.

Maybe the sun won’t come out today, I suggest. Ricardo frowns.

“My friend, the sun always shines on our island — we get less than 20 inches (50 centimetres) of rain annually, so that means lots of sunny days.” Ricardo says our tour will be short. “Our island is very small (less than 33 kilometres long and about 10 kilometres wide at its widest point). We’ll have plenty of time to see all the highlights and I’ll still get you to the dock for that catamaran sail I promised you later today.”

With that, Ricardo turns his car onto the main highway, which completely encircles this coral island of snow-white beaches, tall cactus and honeycomb rock formations.

The road is lined with candy-coloured homes and Ricardo points to handsome Santa Anna Church where workmen are hurriedly repairing part of its roof, which was torn off when a small tornado touched down the night before.

Because Aruba sits about 25 kilometres off the Venezuelan coast, there’s a distinct Spanish influence in the island’s architecture.

We are heading in the direction of an iconic lighthouse at the northernmost tip of the island, which has become Aruba’s most famous landmark. The 30-metre-high California Lighthouse (named for the steamship California which wrecked on the jagged rocks just offshore in 1891) overlooks the island’s treasured sand dunes and secluded Arashi Beach, which boasts the whitest sand on the island.

The parking lot is filled with buses carrying Latin American tourists, all of who want their photographs taken in front of the lighthouse.

“Most of our tourists come from the United States and Canada, but in recent years, thanks to the economic boom in places like Venezuela, Colombia, Panama and especially Brazil, we are seeing a lot more of our Latin American neighbours,” says Ricardo, who adds, “Aruba boasts an impressive 30 per cent repeat visitor ratio — the highest in the Caribbean.”

Back on the highway, Ricardo points the car in the direction of Oranjestad, the charming capital whose Dutch name reminds us of the influence Holland had on this small nation when it was part of the Dutch West Indies.

Aruba got its independence in 1986 but the Dutch influence remains — while the island has its own parliament, Aruba’s foreign affairs interests are still handled by the Dutch government and King Willem-Alexander remains the island’s head of state.

Just before entering the charming capital, we pass bustling beach areas lined with highrise hotels, casinos and clubs. Palm Beach and Eagle Beach are where most of the tourists gather and where cruise ship passengers come to party while in port. Aruba is one of the most popular cruise destinations in the Caribbean and each year welcomes 320 ships and over 600,000 passengers.

Over an early lunch of freshly caught fish at a quaint local restaurant in Oranjestad, I hear people talking a lilting, melodic language.

“That’s our local tongue — Papiamento,” says Ricardo. “It’s a combination of many languages, including Spanish, Dutch, Portuguese and English.” While we eat, he talks about the 96 different nationalities that live on this tiny bit of land in the Caribbean Sea and about how Aruba has the best drinking water in the world.

“That’s scientific fact, not me boasting,” smiles Ricardo.

The drinking water here is fresh from the tap — no need for bottled water — and its purity comes from the fact that it’s filtered by the island’s sand and coral rock.

Aruba is a diver’s paradise. Coral reefs and wrecks give masked visitors plenty to explore and Ricardo reminds me that our catamaran outing is at 3 p.m., “so eat up because there’s still some things I want to show you before we go snorkelling.”

Ricardo cuts through the centre of the island on some dusty back roads where Aruba’s harsh desert landscape is fully exposed. Here, giant cacti and bulging rock formations dominate the horizon.

At Paradera, my driver stops at the entrance of the Casibari Rock Formations — giant boulders exposed when the sea pulled back millions of years ago.

Visitors climb the rocks where large iguanas lie sun tanning on blistering hot boulders. If you climb all the way to the top, Ricardo tells me, your IQ will increase by 20 per cent “because the rock surface makes people smarter.”

Another scientific fact, I wonder? “No, just a good local legend,” smiles Ricardo.

We see other giant rocks — the Ayo Rock Formation — just before we reach the coastal highway again and the driver turns north, where we come upon a colourful little church known as Alto Vista Chapel, built by settlers in 1750. The iconic little church has become a tourist stop but hymns being sung inside remind us that locals still come here every day to pray.

A short drive south from the church, we visit the Bushiribana Ruins, an old fort-like complex where the early Dutch settlers would bring the gold they extracted from the interior and melt it down before loading it on ships bound for Amsterdam.

In front of the ruins is a beach area known as the Wish Garden where hundreds of tiny inuksuks line the shore — an indication that Canadians have left their mark on this stretch of sand.

The site of the natural bridge Ricardo has been so anxious to show us comes into view as we hit the top of a hill. But where’s the bridge?

“It collapsed — a victim of nature a few years ago,” sighs Ricardo. However, the number of buses in the parking lot indicates that the site, which offers a smaller natural bridge known as Baby Bridge, and a coastal view that’s simply breathtaking, remains a popular tourist stop.

On the drive back to Oranjestad to catch our catamaran, I can’t help noticing some wind-shaped trees that line the roadway.

Ricardo identifies them as diva-diva trees, which owe their shape to the constant trade winds that blow ashore here.

Catamaran tours are one of the most popular activities on Aruba. Visitors pile onto the sleek two-hull sailing vessels and venture just offshore where they snorkel and dive in waters teeming with reefs and wrecks.

Our catamaran captain goes over all the safety instructions before we push off to explore the Antilla, a World War II wreck which her German captain scuttled rather than hand it over to the Allies.

The water surrounding the wreck is teeming with tropical fish and the show is well worth the $40 sailing fee — a three-hour tour that includes snacks and an open bar. While enjoying an Aruban cocktail (lots of spicy rum and a splash of fruit juice) on deck after our dive, a smile breaks across Ricardo’s face as he rummages through his knapsack and pulls out his sunglasses.

“The glasses were here all the time,” he laughs. “I’m happy now.”

It’s not hard to smile when you’re on this One Happy Island called Aruba.

INFORMATION

  • Air Canada Vacations, Sunwing and Air Transat offer seasonal service to Aruba.
  • Best times of year to visit Aruba are January to March and especially during Carnival time just before Lent.
  • One of the best places to visit in Aruba is Arikok National Park, home to great hiking and biking trails, natural rock formations and many caves.
  • Aruba has become a preferred honeymoon destination in recent years.
  • Food on Aruba is a blend of Caribbean and South American recipes.
  • One of our favourite restaurants on Aruba is Papiamento, housed in the old Ellis Family home which is still run by the family.
  • For more information on Aruba, go to http://www.aruba.com.

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You’ll leave your heart in Lisbon

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You’ll leave your heart in Lisbon

By Marc Atchison
TraveLife Editor-in-Chief

LISBON — Johanna, the pencil-thin server, delivered pillows of pasta floating in a delicate rosé sauce to our alfresco and ordered us to “enjoy.”

When she returned a few minutes later from inside Lisbon’s most recommended Italian restaurant — Stravaganza on Rua do Crémio Lusitano — she asked if we were Americans.

“I have been to San Francisco,” Johanna reported just as garbage collectors dumped a load of empty wine bottles into their truck, setting off a cacophony that echoed off the stone walls of the old neighborhood.

As the lovely young Johanna headed back toward the restaurant entrance, she turned and told us, “You will find Lisboa (the Portuguese name for Lisbon) is much like San Francisco.”

The two cities do have a lot in common we would discover:

Both share similar hilly landscapes: Lisbon, in fact, is known as the City of the Seven Hills.

Each has endured their share of earthquake woes: San Francisco was levelled by the great quake of 1906 while Lisbon was almost totally destroyed by one in 1755.

The two cities even have similar transportation systems: Lisbon’s trams and funiculars are not as historic as San Francisco’s legendary cable cars but their cheerful colors do brighten the handsome streets of its old quarter.

Lisbon even has its own, smaller version of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge: The 25 Abril Bridge was built by the same company who constructed the American icon and it’s even painted “international orange” just like its San Francisco cousin. And just like San Francisco, Lisbon has its share of great neighborhood restaurants, with, as far as we’re concerned, Stravaganza topping that list.

The funicular was not in service the night a young woman at the Hard Rock Café gift shop pointed us in the direction of Stravaganza, which sits atop a steep hill in an area of the city that had to be totally rebuilt after the 1755 quake, which also involved a tsunami and many fires. In all, over 15,000 people perished back then – the fires and tsunami killing most of them.

So we huffed and puffed our way to the top of the cobblestone street where the restaurant was located and quickly got an introduction to the neighborhood life that makes Lisbon one of the most enchanting places in Europe to visit.

Here, on narrow streets where car mirrors and walls are separated by razor-thin spaces, people gather after a hard day’s work and enjoy a glass of port wine and reasonably- priced meals at one of the many café-style outdoor eateries – the ones where people have to move their chairs to allow the odd local car to enter a street.

And while Lisbon does indeed have a lot in common with America’s most beautiful city, it retains the regal good looks of Europe’s other great capitals while at the same time offering its own unique features.

There’s the regular collection of wide European boulevards, great squares and mammoth statues honouring Portugal’s heroes, the most massive and important of which is the one dedicated to the Marqués de Pombal, the country’s first prime minister whose responsibility it was to rebuild the city after the earthquake.

The handsome boulevards, like Avenida da Liberdade, that branch off the roundabout where the revered prime minister’s statue now stands have that Paris look about them. Flower-laden jacaranda trees form a canopy to protect strollers and diners from the blistering sun and outdoor cafés are manned by servers wearing long black aprons.

Avenida da Liberdade, the longest avenue in the city, was built as a place for the nobles of the 18th century to stroll. Now it’s lined with high-end shops and prestigious addresses where the descendants of those nobles call home.

Another feature that makes Lisbon Paris-like is its version of the Eiffel Tower. The wrought-iron Elevodor de Santa Justa was built in 1902 by a student of Gustave Eiffel to connect Lisbon’s upper and lower towns. It’s not as dramatic a structure as Paris’ landmark but it’s still pretty impressive. It costs $7 to go up and come back down. The elevator is wedged between narrow buildings on Rua de Santa Justa in the city’s old shopping area.

Most of the buildings that make up the city’s upper area look much the same as the next. That’s because in an attempt to rebuild quickly after the 1755 earthquake, architectural design was sacrificed for haste — it took only two and a half years to rebuild Lisbon.

One structure that makes Lisbon unique is the massive Roman-style aqueduct that runs through the city. Built by Portugal’s King John in 1747 to carry fresh water to the city, the impressive structure has 109 arches and dominates the skyline.

Lisbon is a joy to walk and many of its buildings are covered with hand painted tiles that date back centuries. The tiles were the building material of choice over history here because they kept houses cool in the painfully hot summer months and were easy to clean. Unfortunately, some of the beautiful buildings in Lisbon have been scarred graffiti artists.

One place spared the artist’s brush was the beautiful Sao Domingos, located in the old quarter, which served as headquarters during the Inquisition. The handsome structure is just off the main square.

The only part of the city not damaged in the great quake – by the way, the last major earthquake to hit Lisbon was back in the 1960s and the next major one is not expected for another 200 years – was stunning Rossio Square in the city centre or Baixa area. Dramatic fountains and more statues dominate the square that sits in the shadow of the city’s ancient fort. Most of the great squares in Lisbon are made of black and white tiles and designed in such a way that it gives visitors the impression they’re walking on waves. It takes a few seconds for you to adjust to the sensation.

The city’s main attractions are connected by a small subway system, the Metro, which, at about $2 a ride, is one of the best bargains in town.

The pungent smell of salted cod piled high outside Lisbon’s small fish shops is a constant reminder of this country’s sea history. Cod, while in short supply these days, still makes up a large portion of the Portuguese diet and we spotted one cookbook with “365 recipes” for cod alone.

The Chiado area is where you’ll find some of the city’s more traditional shops, ones displaying hand painted ceramics. There’s also lots of eating and dining spots in this area, including a famous café called Brasileira on Rua Garrett, where Portugal’s famed poets and writers once lingered over espresso.

You can hop on a tram known here as an eléctrico and head over to the amazing Mosteiro dos Jeronimos, a great church started in 1502 by order of King Manuel I. The massive church is a mixture of Gothic and Manuel architectures and its stained glass and sculpted columns are some of the most beautiful in all of Europe.

This is the place where kings and queens where married back in the days of Portugal’s monarchy, which ended in 1910. The church was named in honour of St. Jerome, the patron saint of writers and poets, many of who came from Lisbon.

The most impressive of all Lisbon’s great monuments is one called Padrao dos Descobrimentos (Monument of Discovery), which dominates the city’s revitalized waterfront along the Taugus River. The massive stone structure was erected in honour of Portugal’s Prince Henry the Navigator in 1960, 500 years after his death. It also commemorates Portugal’s many other famous explorers and adventurers. You can ride an elevator in the belly of the statue and get a great panoramic view of the city and its handsome skyline.

Another feature that sets Lisbon apart from other European capitals is its mixture of new and old architecture.

“The people who live in Lisbon don’t have to travel to America to see new designs because we have so many futuristic buildings here,” a local woman named Helena Ribeiro told us.

Most of those “new” buildings are grouped together on the site of the Lisbon’s successful Expo 98, known as Parque das Nacoes. An overhead rail system connects all the buildings left over from the world’s fair. They now house the city’s aquarium, modern arts museum and its brand new casino.

The casino is one of the biggest in Europe and has been an overwhelming success since opening in 2006. The glass and chrome interior of the casino, which features floors that change colour every few minutes, is truly spectacular and its 800 slot machines and gaming tables are usually standing room only most nights. The casino’s restaurants have quickly caught the eye of city diners with their imaginative menus and creative cuisine.

Lisbon offers visitors a varied nightlife, with lots of chic bars and restaurants but in recent years has become known for its erotic clubs, where performers from Brazil are the headliners.

Just another thing it shares in common with San Francisco.

Information

Rua Augusta is one of the best streets in Lisbon for shopping and dining. Lisbon’s museums are free. They are closed Mondays.

The city’s transportation authority offers visitors 24- and 72-hour pass options that cost just a few dollars but allows access to the subway, buses and even inner city trains.

There are seven women for every man in Lisbon.

Stravaganza Restaurant is located at 18 Rua do Cremio Lusitano. Two highly recommended places to stay in Lisbon are Hotel Dom Pedro at Av. Eng. Duarte Pacheco in the city’s business district, not far from most historic sites.

Go to www.dompedro.com for information.

The other hotel the chic Bairro Alto Hotel, a boutique style property with just 55 bedrooms in the city’s old quarter.

Go to www.bairroaltohotel.com for information.

For more information on travel in Portugal, go to https://www.visitportugal.com/en

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Travel: Fly Fishing

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Travel: Fly Fishing

By Catherine Daley

A Sporting Obsession

I have lasting memories of the 1992 movie A River Runs Through It, and I can honestly say that it has nothing to do with Brad Pitt. Images from the movie stayed with me because of the beautiful fly fishing scenes. And, in 1993, the academy agreed with me and awarded it an Oscar for best cinematography.

My daughter was a rower when she was in university. For some reason I equate the timing and fluidity of fly fishing with the choreographic nature of rowing – watching a crew of eight sweeping their oars in perfect unison. Fly fishing is all about the fluidity of the waves (referred to as loops) as the line unfurls during the cast. Unlike other casting methods, when you’re fly fishing you’re casting the line rather than the lure. Apparently there’s a great amount of physics involved in performing the proper cast, but photographer, fly angler and co-host on So Fly Podcast, Gabriel Bizeau, says that you can liken it to mastering a perfect stroke when playing golf – it takes a lot of practice. During the off-season, you might find Bizeau honing his technique in an empty field. “Consistency is the main skill – you have to be precise. You want to make your loop as small as possible when you’re swinging. If you deviate from your path with your arm, you get tangled and that’s when you start swearing,” laughs Bizeau. “It’s not as peaceful as everyone thinks. It’s about keeping focused – it’s a mind game.”

Bizeau started fly fishing with his father at a young age. He attended a hunting and fishing club in his home town in Quebec when he was around the age of five, and in the winter he took fly tying classes.

A box of trout candy.

Tying flies is an art form that anglers have been trying to perfect for hundreds of years. Unlike other types of fishing where you drop a lure into the water and a bobber signals that you have a fish, fly fishing is about enticing the fish to strike (bite the fly). Artificial flies are made by fastening hair, fur, feathers and other natural (or synthetic) materials onto a hook. Flies are tied in different sizes, colours and patterns to resemble local terrestrial and aquatic insects, baitfish or other prey that are attractive to the species of fish that you’re trying to target. “It’s a very personal thing, but you’re trying to replicate, and animate, a fly, so that it looks alive to the fish,” says Bizeau. “You can work from old patterns or invent your own flies. When I’m making fl ies, I’m always thinking about how it’s going to swim. Will it float well? And what kind of fish can I catch with it?”

Bizeau’s favourite hand-tied mouse fly.

Like many anglers, Bizeau is adamant about preserving our resources, and is strictly catch and release. The barb on the hook is flattened so that it’s easier to remove from the fish and does less damage.

The trout of Bizeau’s dreams.

The sport of fly fishing is becoming increasingly popular, and Bizeau admits that, for him, it’s become an obsession. “When I’m tying flies in the winter, I’m dreaming of going fly fishing in the summer. You have to stay focused. If you’re not ready and you lose a fish – it’s the worst.”

Many of us would probably be better fishermen if we did not spend so much time watching and waiting for the world to become perfect.
– Norman Maclean, A River Runs Through it and Other Stories

You don’t have to drive far to find great fly fishing spots like this in Southern Ontario.

Southern Ontario is packed with tributaries, streams, rivers and lakes with wonderful fly fishing opportunities. For catching giant brown trout Bizeau suggests the upper Credit River. The lower Grand River is great for largemouth bass. And for a feisty fight (one of Bizeau’s favourites), Lake Ontario is teaming with carp.

Rob Cesta, owner and operator of Drift Outfitters, lands a big one.

For more information visit DriftOuttters.com in Toronto, or Grand River Outtting & Fly Shop in Fergus at OntarioFlyFishing.ca.

Photography, Gabriel Bizeau, GabBizeauPhotography.com

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Travel : Thailand

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Travel : Thailand

By Kate Robertson

Enjoy it like a local

With a long-standing tourist industry, Thailand is often described as a magical place to visit. It is the number one destination in southeast Asia, and attracts millions of visitors each year. Combined with a population of more than 68 million, the multitude of people may seem daunting, but there are lots of places you can visit to avoid the crowds.

Buddha and prangs, Ayutthaya

Vibrant Bangkok

Even in the bustling city of Bangkok, consider visiting lesser-known temples, instead of the Grand Palace or Wat Pho (where the 46 metre long reclining Buddha lies) to stave off throngs of tourists. Take a tuk-tuk (three-wheeled motorcycle taxi) to Wat Ratchabophit or Wat Suthat to see impressive gold-leafed Buddhas, magnificent wall murals, pagodas and sweeping ceramic tiled roofs.

Intricate mosaics on temples.

At nearby Talad Trok Mo morning market, mingle with the locals and stroll the narrow alleyways where vendors are set up in front of crumbling shops. Here you can browse the fresh produce, meats and fascinating (often unrecognizable) food items. Take the time to watch flower vendors skillfully weave jasmine into beautiful, aromatic Thai garlands, which are worn on the wrist or hung over the rear view mirror in taxis for good luck. This is a good place to try some traditional street food like pad prik khing (a red curry with meat and long beans), or khanom buang (sweet Thai crepes).

Bangkok’s main river, Chao Phraya, connects with a maze of centuries-old canals. Hop aboard one of the local water taxis (traditional long-tailed boats) for a charming cruise down Bangkok Noi Canal, where you will see traditional stilted shacks mingled with beautiful temples, factories and upscale homes. Ask the driver to stop in front of the temple to feed the catfish, where women sell bags of stale bread (the catfish are protected here). If you’re lucky you’ll spot large monitor lizards sunning themselves on shore.

Natural Chiang Mai

Nestled amidst forested mountains, Thailand’s northern capital has a more rural, laid back feel. There are plenty of temples to see, but it’s also a great place to get in touch with Thailand’s natural side. Within a short jaunt from the city, you’ll experience lush green countryside, rainforest eco-reserves and Patara – an ethical elephant farm and rescue facility. At Patara, you will be assigned your own elephant for the day, and taught how to bathe, feed and ride it, as a keeper would.

Patara Elephant Farm & Sanctuary.

Bordered by Myanmar and Laos, not only is the climate cooler in Chaing Mai, but the food is less spicy on the tongue than in other parts of Thailand. An example of this is their most popular street food khao soi – a Burmese-influenced, rich noodle soup with seasonings and chunks of meat, topped with crispy noodles.

Thai massage is available everywhere and is very affordable. Indulge in a luxurious treatment at CHI – the spa at Shangri-La Hotel. Your masseuse will lead you down small pathways, over bridges and alongside ponds to your own private hut where you will be pampered, starting off with a salt foot scrub in rose-petal water.

Karsts around Krabi.

Krabi Island Hopping

With more than 100 islands nearby, the beach resort town of Krabi, located on the Andaman coastline, is the perfect place for island hopping. Here, the vivid turquoise ocean is dotted with dramatic karsts (limestone formations rising out of the water) and blanketed with emerald green foliage. It’s hard to capture a pictorial reference, even in your imagination.

Floating restaurant, Ban Ko Klang.

A 10-minute boat ride through the mangroves will take you to Ban Ko Klang island, which is a predominately Muslim fishing community. Local initiatives here include the farming of a special sang yod rice (violet/reddish in colour) and batik-making to help to sustain the local economy. Without cars on the island, you’ll have to rely on a tuk-tuk for a tour of the tiny villages, where you’re likely to see water buffalos and goats grazing in expansive fields along the way. Take note of the song birds that hang in cages outside of each home – the more birds, the higher the family status. Before you leave, make sure you enjoy a fresh fish lunch in the peaceful ambiance of one of the rustic floating restaurants.

Ayutthaya

Founded in 1350, Ayutthaya was once the capital of Thailand before it was attacked and burned by the Burmese army in 1767. A guided bicycle tour is a great way to visit the many archaeological ruins of Buddhist monasteries and prangs (reliquary towers), which point to how majestic this city once was. After the ride, reward yourself with a bag of sai mai (threads of sweet, colourful cotton candy), which are sold everywhere on the streets.

Although Thailand is smaller in size than the the province of Alberta, there are so many amazing things to see and do, you’ll be planning your return trip before you even arrive home.

Photography, Kate Robertson

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Destination Ontario: Hamilton & Burlington

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Destination Ontario: Hamilton & Burlington

By Cece Scott www.cecescott.com

Golden Horseshoe Port Cities

Hamilton

Founded in 1816, Hamilton has experienced an epoch-making revitalization over the past few years. The city is becoming known for its vibrant arts community, tasty culinary destinations and still affordable housing. An equidistant hour’s drive from Toronto or Niagara Falls, Hamilton is Canada’s ninth largest municipality, and Ontario’s third. With leafy streets and epic architecture, Hamilton offers quirky neighbourhoods and historical charm.

CULTURAL CONSIDERATIONS

James Street North is at the centre of Hamilton’s developing arts’ scene, along with King William Street, Locke Street and King Street. James Street North has a wide selection of new eateries to choose from, including Jack & Lois, which was mentioned on You Gotta Eat Here, E-Talk and in The Huffington Post, plus Charred, Mesa and the health-conscious Green Bar. Funky boutiques offer everything from party ware to jewellery and fashions from local designers. Nearby Ottawa Street captures Hamilton’s eclectic spirit with dozens and dozens of storefronts that include D.Y.I. shops, fabrics, antiques, collectibles and restaurants.

James Street art crawl

For great shopping and dining, visit Gore Park in the city’s downtown core. Take some time out on a park bench to smell the roses while admiring the stately statues of Queen Victoria and Sir John A. Macdonald.

The Art Gallery of Hamilton has been an epicentre for the arts for more than 100 years, and is Ontario’s third largest public gallery. The McMaster Museum of Art (MMA) was founded in 1967 at McMaster University, and houses more than 7,000 pieces of art.

Hamilton’s live theatre scene offers diverse performances at Theatre Aquarius, and at smaller companies like the Players’ Guild of Hamilton and Hamilton Theatre Inc.

DAY-TRIPPING

Hamilton’s historical attractions include the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum, the HMCS Haida National Historic Site (Canada’s most famous Tribal Class warship) and Dundurn – a National Historic Site built in 1835. Now a museum, the castle was the former residence of Sir Allan Napier MacNab, Prime Minister of Upper Canada, 1854 to 1856. The current Duchess of Cornwall, Camilla, is the museum’s patron, and is the great, great, great granddaughter of MacNab.

Other noted attractions include the Canadian Football Hall of Fame, (Michael ‘Pinball’ Clemons is a member), the African Lion Safari Park and the Cathedral of Christ the King.

Canadian War Plane Museum

THE GREAT OUTDOORS

Residents and visitors can cycle along Hamilton’s 7.5 kilometres of waterfront trails through the 40-acre Bayfront Park, which includes an outdoor skating rink and soon-tobe- refurbished public marina, and connects to the Royal Botanical Gardens. The Hamilton Escarpment offers spectacular views of the city and of the Hamilton Harbour.

Webster’s Falls

Hamilton, and the surrounding area, boasts more than 100 waterfalls. Webster’s Falls is located in the Spencer George/Webster’s Falls Conservation Area, and is considered Hamilton’s gem. Enjoy a self-guided walk along the well-maintained trails that provide access to a host of waterfalls along the Niagara Escarpment and Bruce Trail. Trekkers can also hike the King’s Forest Waterfall Walk to Albion Falls, the Devil’s Punchbowl Battlefield Creek Walk and the scenic Iroquoia Walk, among others. Picturesque cycling routes include the Escarpment Rail Trail, Dofasco Trail Loop, the Hamilton-Brantford Rail Trail and the Chedoke Rail Trail.

VALLEY TOWN

The picturesque town of Dundas is located close by, and features 19th century buildings, sophisticated boutiques and food emporiums. Nicknamed the Valley Town because of its location at the bottom of the Niagara Escarpment on the western edge of Lake Ontario, Dundas is a short 20-minute drive from Hamilton.

Burlington

At the centre of the Golden Horseshoe is Burlington. This city is ideally situated between Toronto and Niagara, and offers the best of all worlds. It’s home to 115 parks and 200 annual events. For five years in a row, Burlington was named the best mid-sized city in Canada, as well as Ontario’s second best city to live in by MoneySense, 2017.

Rock Climbing at Rattlesnake

YEAR-ROUND HIGHLIGHTS

Seasonal changes in Burlington are celebrated with flair. In the early spring, Maple Festivals are popular at the Bronte Creek Provincial Park and Conservation Halton. Tulips and lilacs are the first to bloom at the Royal Botanical Gardens, and the return of the cherry blossoms are always a highlight at Spencer Smith Park.

Come summer, there are a plethora of ways to stay active, including hiking on the many trails, cycling along the waterfront, or casting a line and picnicking at one of the many parks in the area. Farmers’ markets are plentiful as are open-air patios for dining al fresco. In June, the Sound of Music Festival kicks off and continues throughout the summer months. Canada’s Largest Ribfest is held on Labour Day weekend at Spencer Smith Park, and is a great way to close out the summer.

Fall into Nature celebrates the changing colours along the escarpment and throughout the region. Autumn festivals include the Pumpkins to Pastries Trail and the Harvest Festival.

Winter activities in Burlington include outdoor skating, skiing, snowboarding, snowshoeing, and hiking. Closer to the holidays, long-standing events like Holiday Traditions at the Royal Botanical Gardens, the Candlelit Stroll and the Festival of Lights in downtown Burlington are delightful destinations.

BLOOMIN’ GORGEOUS

A National Historic Site of Canada, The Royal Botanical Gardens (RBG) is a four-season experience. The RBG boasts the world’s largest lilac collection, and includes 2,700 acres of gardens, nature sanctuaries, on-site restaurants, a gift shop and yearly festivals.

CREATIVELY SPEAKING

Each year, The Burlington Performing Arts Centre includes an impressive lineup of music, theatre, dance and comedy. The Art Gallery of Burlington hosts a variety of exhibitions throughout the year, including the Soup Bowl and Arts Burlington Christmas Show & Sale. There are many small galleries and studios to explore, and the Art in Action Studio Tour is scheduled for the weekend of November 4th and 5th. To learn more about early life in Burlington, the Ireland House Museum offers a guided tour. Doors Open Burlington is on September 30, 2017.

Owl at Raptor Centre

Photography : Tourism and Culture, City of Hamilton; Webster’s Falls, bigstockphoto.com, Tourism Burlington; (rock climbing and Raptor Centre) Conservation Halton

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