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Travel: Behind The Scenes

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Travel: Behind The Scenes

Check out the softer side of Vegas

By C.A. O’BRIEN

While the flashy side of Las Vegas still shines glaringly bright, try taking a counter intuitive approach to fully appreciate its wild west history and wild desert landscape. Vegas is definitely a city of contrasts.

If it’s been a few decades since you last visited, you’ll notice some big changes. Since the 1960s, Las Vegas has experienced incredible growth. Between 1990 and 2000 (alone), the population almost doubled – an increase of 82.5 per cent.

With this type of development in an arid, southern Nevada location, one can’t help but wonder how water is supplied to the thousands of hotel rooms, homes and businesses in the area. Operated by the Las Vegas Valley Water District, you can gain a better understanding of the journey that water takes at the Las Vegas Springs Reserve. Here, 180 acres are also dedicated to nature walks, displays, events and activities.

CORDIAL RECEPTION

Hospitality is at the core of any Las Vegas experience, and they do it up right. Not into gambling? Not to worry. Most hotels offer incredible spa experiences that are richly luxurious, with skilled practitioners who will ensure that you receive the highest level of care and attention. The Sahra Spa & Hammam at The Cosmopolitan Hotel, and the ESPA Spa at the Vdara Hotel & Spa, are sure bets – and you’ll love every glorious minute.

Sahra Spa & Hammam – image courtesy of the Cosmopolitan Hotel

STAR-STUDDED DINING

A glass is seldom half empty in Vegas, and here dining out is a heightened gastronomic experience. The best performers go to Vegas to strut their talents, as do the best chefs. Touted as one of the finest restaurants in the United States, chef Charlie Palmer and his team serve up a unique menu format at the Aureole restaurant in Mandalay Bay, along with the option of trying multiple wines throughout dinner. From a selection of more than 3,000 bottles, the wine team pours, and tags, each glass to denote the producer, variety and vintage before they are presented to your table.

Located in the Aria Resort & Casino, the Bardot Brasserie recently opened for lunch. Chef Michael Mina has put a modern spin on a Parisian influenced menu.

The Cromwell is now being billed as one of Vegas’s prime boutique hotels. Emmy award-winning celebrity chef, Giada De Laurentiis, shares her spectacular Italian cuisine at the restaurant bearing her name. When being seated at GIADA, ask for a table by the window for a panoramic view of the Bellagio fountains and Caesars Palace.

The Primrose Restaurant at the newly launched Park MGM (formerly the Monte Carlo) is a casual interpretation of time-honoured elegance. Feature walls of framed works of art are different in each guest room.

Hoover Dam – image courtesy of Sundance Helicopters

NATURAL WONDERS

For one of the most spectacular experiences, book a helicopter ride over the Hoover Dam and the Grand Canyon. Sundance Helicopters offers a tour option that includes a champagne breakfast in the canyon – there’s nothing quite like it.

The breathtaking desert landscape shows its true colours with hues of red, rust, pink and mauve. Explore the city’s unexpected side at the Red Rock Canyon, and then stop for dinner in a more-suburban setting at the Andiron Steak & Sea.

Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area

BYGONE DAYS

You may have an ingrained image of the Vegas that was. At the Neon Museum, you can walk through a retired graveyard of old signs in various states of disrepair (some have been restored), that depict long-forgotten joints – from classy to tawdry.

Located on Fremont Street, the downtown Container Park is an open air shopping centre and entertainment venue constructed of repurposed shipping containers. Boutiques, food vendors, a performance stage and a children’s playground, cater to the whole family.

The Neon Museum – image courtesy of Neon Museum

THE BEST OF THE BEST

When it comes to entertainment, Las Vegas is the recreation hub. Canada’s own Cirque du Soleil evokes powerful images, along with exceptional ability and talent at tailored performances. You can choose from a handful of themed Cirque shows performed at various venues. MJ ONE is an electrifying tribute to the king of pop, and The Beatles LOVE celebrates a musical legacy.

From Elton John to Celine Dion, from comedy to magic, and from night clubs to jazz bars, there are few places in the world that offer so much – all in one place. Las Vegas is the epicentre of all things outstanding – talent, food, hospitality and luxury.

Las Vegas Springs Preserve – image courtesy Las Vegas Springs Preserve

 

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Decor Expert: Suitcase Splurges

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Decor Expert: Suitcase Splurges

Souvenir shopping & packing tips during your summer travels

By: Kimberley Seldon

For many of us, marvelling at and sampling local crafts, furnishings, and foods is a major part of the whole travel experience. If you’re like me, you’ll agree that nothing compares with the satisfaction of buying at the source. Here are some of my favourite suitcase splurges—those little gems that pack easily and forever remind you of a favourite destination.

  1. ORIGINAL ARTWORK should be at the top of every traveller’s shopping list. Unframed works of art such as oil paintings and photographs are nearly indestructible, fit easily into suitcases, and carry fond memories for years to come. You may want to sign and date the back of the artwork; noting the trip’s purpose (a honeymoon, retirement, big birthday) and details about the purchase. This way you’ll maintain an accurate record of your experience that future generations will enjoy.
  2. POTTERY AND PORCELAIN are worthy (though fragile) take-home choices. French Barbotine, Spanish Majolica, and Japanese Aritaware (or Imari) can be called into practical service once home, or simply enjoyed on display. Wrap the more delicate pieces as carry-on items for travelling home.
  3. ANTIQUE BOXES made of wood with inlaid marquetry or fashioned from exotic materials, such as tortoiseshell or shagreen (shark’s skin), are widely available and easy to transport. Larger antique boxes were a precursor to the laptop; allowing travellers to keep stationery, ink, and quills close at hand when far from home. Today’s collectors look for boxes that once held toiletries, stationery or tea.
  4. SERVING TRAYS lay flat amid folded clothing and are always welcome gifts back home. Regional examples might be made of tole (painted metal), acrylic, wood, pewter, or silver, depending on locale. Consider a trip to the local grocery store where you may find good-looking trays at a fraction of the price of gift shops.
  5. VINTAGE TEXTILES and local fabrics are easily found at antique shops, markets and local shops. Once home, remnants may be framed or used to create decorative pillows.
  6. DISHTOWELS AND BEDDING fashioned of linen, cotton, or hemp are also readily available and easy to transport. Vintage examples often feature embroidered details or monograms and work beautifully as guest towels. When purchasing bedding, consider that European beds are typically smaller than North American equivalents. Consider adding a hem or cuff to the perimeter of vintage bedding, in order to increase its overall size.
  7. LOCAL DELICACIES such as jam, pâté, cookies, and tapenade can be savoured for weeks following a trip. I search for beautiful sugars wrapped in unusual packaging, infused with lavender, or decorated with fanciful details to give away as hostess gifts once I’m home.
  8. CHANDELIERS, SCONCES, AND LANTERNS from Europe, Africa and Asia can easily be re-wired to meet North American safety standards or converted to candle use. A large 10-light chandelier may set you back about $300 to re-wire; a pair of sconces, somewhere around $40 to $50.

Happy travels.

Photography By: Simon Burn

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7 reasons to visit Holland in 2018

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7 reasons to visit Holland in 2018

Leeuwarden
Leeuwarden, that charming 10th-century town located in Friesland state, has been selected the European Capital of Culture for 2018 and the former royal residence has lots planned to celebrate its selection. The biggest attraction will be performances by the Royal de Luxe, the world-renowned French mechanical marionette street theatre company that uses giant figures to wow the crowds. Leeuwarden also has 50 major projects and hundreds of community initiatives planned throughout 2018.

Keukenhof Garden Show
The annual Keukenhof Spring Garden Show — an enormous floral spectacle — is held between March 22 and May 13 and people from all over the world come to admire the breathtaking display of over seven million tulips, daffodils and hyacinths. If you’ve never been, book a ticket with KLM or Air Canada because this is the most beautiful garden show in the world.

Alkmaar Cheese Market
The Alkmaar Cheese Market reopened on March 31 and will stay open until Sept. 29. The market, located in northern Holland about 30 minutes from Amsterdam, is where you’ll get to see 2,200 giant cheese wheels on display. These cheese markets date back to 1365 in Waagplein, the only town with a scale big enough to weigh the giant chess wheels at the time.

Gouda Cheese Valley
If you’re visiting Alkmaar’s cheese market, you might want to extend your stay and tour the Gouda Cheese Valley, where most of the cheese consumed by the Dutch — they pack away 15 kilos each a year — is produced. The cheese valley is made up of Gouda, Bodegraven, Reeuwijk, Woerden and Krimpenerwaard, and each town has a long history with the creamy product. Cheese first arrived in Holland in the Middle Ages.

National Mill Day
Don’t miss National Mill Day (May 12-13). On that day, 950 windmills and watermills open their doors to visitors and the lineups are usually long. The iconic windmills have played a major role throughout Dutch history in reclaiming land and processing raw materials. Some are quite beautifully decorated inside and out.

Cycling Kinderdijk’s Windmills
Speaking of windmills, you can see the greatest collection of Dutch windmills in Kinderdijk while cycling along a route that passes right in front of them. There are 19 windmills in Kinderdijk and the cycle path also cuts through some charming Dutch towns. Cycling in The Netherlands is easy and all areas have well-marked bike trails.

Heritage Days
On September 8-9, you can get free admission to about 4,000 historical buildings during Heritage Days. Just about every city in The Netherlands participates and you’ll get to see some real treasures in places like The Hague, Utrecht, Amsterdam and Maastricht.

For more information, visit https://www.holland.com/global/tourism.htm

Marc Atchison is a veteran journalist and a seasoned traveller with more than 20 years of travel writing experience. http://www.travelife.ca/

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The best countries for stretching the Canadian dollar

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The best countries for stretching the Canadian dollar

Going on vacation doesn’t have to be expensive; here are four countries where your Canadian dollar will go the distance.

There’s a misconception that travelling is expensive, but it doesn’t have to be. With the right amount of planning and preparation, you can easily visit new destinations every year. The key to success is finding a spot that fits your budget.

There are many countries and exotic locations where the Canadian dollar won’t go as far as you would like so doing your research before booking a flight is important. Looking for ideas? We’ve rounded up some amazing countries that will stretch your dollar as far as possible.

Indonesia

Between the unbelievable beaches, the luxurious resorts and friendly people, Indonesia is a great spot for your next vacation. The flights will be on the pricier side but once you get there the cost of living is much lower than many other countries, which means your money will go farther. Ubud, Seminyak, Canguu and Kuta are the most popular cities for tourists.

An inexpensive meal in Indonesia is roughly $3 a person. You could even get away with spending $20 a day if you budget properly.

Hungary

Looking to travel to Europe but don’t want the price tag? Eastern European countries are very affordable for Canadian travellers. Known as the Paris of the East, Budapest is home to some of Europe’s most spectacular architecture. This popular city is best known for its thermal baths and nightlife but the skylines and culinary wonders are definitely underrated.

An inexpensive meal averages about $8 per person. When planning your budget, look to put aside between $20 to $45 per day.

Belize

This small country is quickly gaining popularity with Canadians, especially after WestJet introduced direct flights. Belize is a popular spot for divers and snorkelers because of the many different species of marine life. You may also be familiar with the well-known wonder, the Great Blue Hole. Whether you are looking for a relaxing vacation or one filled with adventure, you will find it in Belize.

An inexpensive meal in Belize will set you back roughly $4.75 per person. It can be easy enough to get away with spending $60 to $70 per day during your stay.

Portugal

If you’re looking to combine beautiful beaches with stunning architecture, than Portugal is a must on your travel list. There are direct flights to Lisbon from Toronto almost year-round, making it an easy destination to get to. Spend a couple of days exploring the history of Lisbon before heading down the coast to the Algarve to enjoy the beaches.

An inexpensive meal in Portugal is roughly $13 in a restaurant. If you are willing to rough it a bit, tourists can get away with an $80 to $100 per day budget in Portugal.

Madisyn is a freelance writer and social media obsessed traveller based out of Toronto. Always looking for her next adventure but glued to her phone, you can contact her at madi@therestlessworker.com or visit her at www.therestlessworker.com

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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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