Tag Archives: Marc Atchison


Hokkaido – Japan’s northern delight

Latest News

Hokkaido – Japan’s northern delight

Sapporo, Hokkaido, Japan — Its early morning and the streets of Hokkaido’s capital are blanketed with a carpet of freshly-fallen snow. An icy wind sweeps down from the fortress of mountains guarding Sapporo and the sun slowly rises from behind the highest peak, fabled Mount Moiwa, into a cloudless, cobalt sky. The Yezo spruce trees in Odori Park bend under the weight of the snow — their branches appear to be bowing in appreciation of winter finally arriving.

From my hotel window, lovely Sapporo looks like a giant Christmas card.

While others may curse winter, it’s actually looked upon as a gift in Sapporo and the other fabulous ski regions of Hokkaido, Japan’s largest prefecture, which is quickly becoming a Bucket List destination for lovers of the sport.

That’s because this beautiful northern island outpost that’s dotted with lots of snow-capped volcanic mountains — six are active — offers skiers some of the best runs and resorts in the world. In fact, this land of fire and ice gets more snow — between 14m and 18m annually — then does competitors like Whistler (11.7m), Val d’Azure (7.82m), Aspen (4.3m) and St. Moritz (4.3m).

The one thing those other ski destinations don’t have, though, is Sapporo.

“You can’t spend all your time skiing. You need to eat, drink and have fun. And Sapporo has plenty of that,” Katsuko Kemanai, a local guide assures me as we set out to explore the city best known globally as the beer capital of Japan.

“All the major Japanese breweries have factories here — Kirin, Asahi, Suntory and of course Sapporo,” says Katsuko, who has been guiding visitors around her beloved city for the last 30 years.

“We even have a beer museum and it’s the most popular museum in our city. I wonder why?” asks the guide with a wry smile.

At the museum, where I get to sample some of the local brew, I learn that Sapporo’s ground water is the best in Japan and perfectly suited for making beer. Hokkaido is also where hops, the key ingredient in beer, flourish in the wild.

After a day of skiing at world-class resorts like Sapporo Teine, Sapporo Kokusai, Kiroro, Asari and Tomamu — all within a short drive of the city — skiers can dine on lots of traditional Japanese cuisine in Sapporo. Hokkaido, after all, is where the famed Raman noodle first appeared and the agricultural prefecture produces most of the country’s food supply.

No wonder Hokkaido is often called the “bread basket of Japan.”

Entertainment is never in short supply in Sapporo. And for those who are looking for some naughty nightlife, Susukino, in Sapporo’s Chuo-ku district, is the place for you. Susukino is said to rival Tokyo’s Kabukicho and Fukuoka’s Nakasu as Japan’s best red light district and, with over 1,600 bars, nightclubs and restaurants, there’s plenty to keep you up late.

“Susukino never sleeps,” says my elderly guide, who cautions me “to be careful because the prices in Susukino for food and drink is much higher than the rest of Sapporo.”

No one does winter better than Sapporo, the city that hosted the 1972 Winter Olympics and until recently was in the running for the 2026 Winter Games before withdrawing its bid.

The 1972 Olympics still ranks among the best ever held and are remembered at the city’s informative Olympic Museum, located at the foot of the Okurayama Ski Jump Stadium. From the ski run, you get incredible views of downtown Sapporo. There are lots of interactive displays at the Olympic museum and the kids just love this storehouse of history.

Sapporo’s annual Snow Festival in February attracts millions of people each year and during the Christmas season downtown parks are decked out in colourful light displays. A Christmas Market, as good as anything I’ve seen in Germany, dominates Odori Park and has a direct Olympic connection.

“Munich and Sapporo hosted the Olympic Games the same year,” says Katsuko, referring to Munich’s ill-fated 1972 Summer Games, which was marred by a terrorist attack that left 11 Israeli Olympic team members dead.

“Munich and Sapporo became sister cities after that and Munich officials helped set up our Christmas Market,”  the guide says.

From a population of just seven in 1857, Sapporo has grown to almost two million residents, making it Hokkaido’s biggest city and the fourth largest metropolis in Japan.

In 2019, Hokkaido will celebrate its 150th anniversary of statehood and Sapporo will be the epicentre for many of the events surrounding that celebration. Katsuko is quick to remind me, though, that Hokkaido is much older than 150 years.

“Our history dates back to the 10th century when the indigenous Ainu people arrived from Mongolia,” she says. “They were hunters and the area back then was called Yezo.”

The name Hokkaido first appeared in 1868 during the Meiji Era when this vast island frontier was made a prefecture. However, Hokkaido was not officially “united” with the rest of Japan until a high speed train tunnel was completed in 2016 at the southern gateway city of Hakodate, 310km south of Sapporo. The Seikan Tunnel, as it’s known, is 53.85km in length and 23.3 kilometres of this engineering marvel sits under the Tsugaru Strait seabed.

Relics from the Ainu people are scattered throughout Sapporo and some of the best evidence of their ancient culture can be found in concourse displays in Sapporo’s main rail station.

The best place to see all of Hokkaido’s remarkable history is at the Prefecture Museum, housed in the former Prefecture Government Office (parliament), a handsome red brick building from 1888 that dominates the entrance to Odori Park, where a version of Tokyo Tower stands.

The prefecture’s deep agricultural roots are best explored at the Clock Tower Museum (Tokeidai), the former drill hall of Sapporo’s original Agricultural College, which opened in 1878. The clock, made in Boston, was installed in 1881 and hasn’t missed a beat since. The building was moved to its present downtown location a few years ago and stands out from Sapporo’s steel and stone skyline.

Most of the high quality produce grown in Hokkaido ends up on tables in Tokyo, Osaka, Yokohama and Kyoto.

“The Sapporo ki onion is one of our most prized vegetables,”  the guide says. “The word ki means yellow in Japanese and the onion is very sweet.

Hokkaido also produces the world’s most famous cantaloupes, which sell for upwards of $2,000 each in Tokyo’s boutique food shops. I fork over 3,000 yen (about C$35) to enjoy the incredible taste and it’s money well spent.

“The melon farmers actually put little hats on their cantaloupes so they don’t get sunburn,” Katsuko tells me.

Skiers who like to shop will fall in love with Sapporo’s Tanukikoji Shopping Arcade, which dates back to the city’s pioneer days.

“The literal translation of this shopping arcade is Raccoon Dog Street,” says Katsuko.

The one-km-long arcade is a big tourist draw and features 200 shops, most of which sell Hokkaido souvenirs. Outside one shop stands two fierce looking stuffed brown bears and the guide tells me the beasts thrive in the forested mountains surrounding Sapporo.

“They still wander into the suburbs from time-to-time and cause problems,” said Katsuko.

The roofed arcade starts at Nishi-1-chome and ends at Nishi-7-chome, where the city’s famed Nijo fish market is located.

A small manmade canal sits across from the market and Katsuko tells me it was constructed to bring the daily catch from the Sea of Japan straight to the market. The canal, known locally as the Sosei River, is no longer used as a transport route but does divide Sapporo into east and west sectors.

Two of Japan’s most treasured symbols, the Japanese crane and the sea turtle, make their home in Hokkaido.

Both creatures are symbols of longevity and once you visit Sapporo, you hope to live long enough to visit all the fabulous places on Hokkaido.


The top ski areas in Sapporo are:

  • Sapporo Teine is 20km northwest of downtown Sapporo and is made up of two interconnected ski areas; Teine Olympia and Teine Highland. Teine Olympia is perfect for beginners and kids, whilst Teine Highland has some awesome steep tree skiing.
  • Sapporo Kokusai is 46km west of Sapporo and boasts a massive 18m of powder per season. While its in-bounds area gets a bit crowded, there is plenty of fresh snow to be found in its backcountry areas.
  • Kiroro is 43km west of Sapporo and is good for a day trip. Kiroro is a modern resort and it scores full marks thanks to its incredible powder.
  • Asari ski resort is near Otaru, also a good day trip from Sapporo. It has great deserted off-piste and backcountry areas. Asari is at low elevation so it’s good for really windy days when the other ski resorts are a bit nasty.
  • Tomamu is another modern Japanese ski resort that has good piste runs and some great off-piste riding. Tomamu is an 100-minute train ride from Sapporo but well worth the ride. Getting there: Fly to Tokyo with Air Canada and then fly to Sapporo with a regional carrier like Japan Airlines or ANA. You can also take the bullet train from Tokyo to Hokkaido.

Information: For more information on Hokkaido, Sapporo and Japan, go to ilovejapan.ca

Marc Atchison is a veteran journalist and a seasoned traveller with more than 20 years of travel writing experience. He is Editor-in-Chief and Senior Writer for TraveLife magazine (Canada) and travelife.ca


Featured Products


Skiers can’t pass up Switzerland’s Andermatt

Latest News

Skiers can’t pass up Switzerland’s Andermatt

By Marc Atchison

ANDERMATT, SWITZERLAND — I don’t give the bartender a chance to finish pouring my midday glass of wine before asking: “Which chair did Elvis sit on?” The congenial Swiss-American named Kevin, who has been asked the question countless times, surveys the crowded aprés ski bar he runs in the boutique Di Alt Apothek (River House) Hotel and points to a nondescript wooden bar stool with the faded green cushion where someone has discarded a backpack.

“That’s one of the three he sat on — the other two are being repaired right now,” says Kevin as he finishes pouring the remarkably good Swiss wine.

I quickly snap a picture of the “living memorial” to legendary rock star Elvis Presley, who stopped by the charming River House Hotel and Bar when he visited this fairytale Alpine village on several occasions.

“He (Elvis) first came to Andermatt when he was serving a stint with the U.S. Army in Germany (between 1958 and 1960),” Miriam Schuler, an official with the Andermatt Tourism Board tells me later. “And then he came back here with his daughter Lisa Marie when she was learning how to ski.”

Elvis isn’t the only entertainer who has walked the neatly-kept streets of Andermatt’s historic Old Town.

“Sean Connery also stayed in Andermatt when he was filming the James Bond movie Goldfinger (circa 1964) in the (nearby) Furka Pass. The scene where 007 fills up his Aston Martin was shot at the former gas station (now the Aurora Hotel) just down the street (from the River House Hotel),” Schuler tells me.

This idyllic 13th-century village, which sits cradled in the breathtaking Urseren Valley surrounded by jagged snow-capped peaks, is the perfect backdrop for a movie. It’s Hollywood good looks, Alpine charm and dramatic landscape make it one of the loveliest towns in Europe — a place of myths and magic — but it was off limits to tourists for many years.

“Andermatt was a Swiss Army base since World War II and the town relied heavily on the military for our survival,” says Schuler. “When they decided to close the base (around 2004), we all feared people would start moving away because there would be little work in the valley.”

That’s when an unlikely hero came to Andermatt’s rescue.

Enter Samih Sawiris. The Egyptian billionaire businessman, who developed the hugely successful El Gouna holiday resort on the Red Sea, was urged by a former Swiss ambassador to Egypt to fly over the Urseren Valley to see if he thought it had potential as a holiday resort.

It was love at first sight for Sawiris and he quickly committed his time, huge sums of money and his boundless energy to returning Andermatt to its tourist roots — from the middle of the 19th century to the beginning of World War II when the army arrived, the Urseren Valley was a hotspot for well-healed holidayers.

Andermatt is now a beehive of activity with workers hurriedly building six hotels, 42 apartment blocks and upwards of 30 luxury villas on the edge of the Old Town. When the new infrastructure is ready, Andermatt will become the largest ski resort in central Switzerland and a four-seasons destination thanks to its new 18-hole championship golf course, which was completed last year.

In all, the Egyptian businessman has invested 1.8 billion Swiss francs ($2.4 billion Cdn) and intends to spend another 130 million Swiss francs ($173 million Cdn) on connecting Andermatt’s world-class ski runs with neighbouring Sedrun, thus creating one of the most exciting venues for skiers in the world.

The crown jewel of Andermatt’s new hotels is the remarkable Chedi, a five-star wonder and member of the Swiss Deluxe Hotels group. The Chedi Andermatt, which opened in 2014, is situated within walking distance of the town’s lovely train station — it, too, will be updated as part of Andermatt’s renaissance — and lies just a few metres from the Gemsstock cable car.

The Alpine-style resort is a unique property with lots of Asian touches throughout its sleek interior. Those influences also flow into the oversized rooms and restaurants — the hotel’s Japanese dining room would not look out of place in Tokyo.

With 196 fireplaces and a world-class spa at the Chedi — the Thai word means temple or Buddhist stupa — there’s plenty of cozy places to warm up and relax after a day on the glorious ski slopes surrounding Andermatt. And Andermatt offers some of the most affordable skiing in Europe.

“A one-day ski pass in Andermatt costs about 51 Swiss francs (about $70 Cdn) and that’s a great value when compared to other popular ski resorts,” Schuler tells me as we pass the lovely Parish Church of St. Peter and Paul (circa 1602), whose steeple dominates the Old Town skyline. The tiny cemetery outside the church, which looks like it belongs in a Swiss fairytale, contains many of the original settlers of the Canton Uri, the county in which Andermatt is located.

Looking up into the mountains that surround Andermatt, I see the famed Swiss huts dotting the landscape. They are utilized during the summer months by the many hikers and climbers who invade the Urseren Valley. The handsome huts cling to the mountains and offer shelter and food to the hikers.

“We call the mountains here Swiss cheese because there are so many holes in them,” laughs Miriam. “When the army was here they dug tunnels in the mountains for security purposes.”

Being in the heart of the Alps, Andermatt is surrounded by famous mountain passes, which helped in the early development of the Urseren Valley. The roads that zig-zag through the passes are some of the most fun to drive in all of Europe. The Furka Pass, at 2,436 metres in elevation, was the one on which 007 (Sean Connery) raced the Mustang convertible, driven by a beautiful female lead, Tilly Masterson, in the Bond classic Goldfinger. Equally famous is the Gotthard Pass, which connects Italy with this amazing Swiss ski region.

“Milan is just a two-hour drive from Andermatt and many Italians come here to ski,” says my guide. “Andermatt was originally a trading post between Switzerland and Milan.”

The streets of the Old Town are lined with many handsome hotels and restaurants, all offering exceptional value and service. One of the loveliest on the cobbled main street is the Hotel zur Sonne, which, according to Miriam, “is owned and operated by an 80-year-old woman.”

The cozy Sonne is, like many of its neighbours, a timber-lined building whose peeked roof compliments the Alpine scenery surrounding this incredibly beautiful town of 1,300 permanent residents.

Everywhere you look in Andermatt, you see water.

Glacial streams cut through the Old Town and Miriam proudly tells me “Lake Toma, which sits above Andermatt, is the source of the Rhine,” Europe’s most important river.

“Andermatt is the water castle of Europe,” boasts the guide.

One of the most famous tourist spots in Andermatt is the remains of Devil’s Bridge, located a short drive from the centre of town. The legendary bridge, which hangs over the Schöllenen Gorge, has one of the region’s many mythical stories connected to it — it was reportedly built by Satan in just three days.

Devil’s Bridge was part of the original Gotthard coach road, which opened the region to the world. A famous battle between 40,000 French and Russian troops was apparently fought on the tiny bridge on Sept. 25 in 1799. Another myth?

One sure thing is that Andermatt’s future is as solid as the mountains that protect it. In the next few years, it will become a superstar of ski resorts. Elvis would be proud.


Marc Atchison is a veteran journalist and a seasoned traveller with more than 20 years of travel writing experience and is editor-in-chief and senior writer for TraveLife magazine (Canada) and http://www.travelife.ca/


Featured Products


The world is Virginia’s oyster

Latest News

The world is Virginia’s oyster

Marc Atchison
TraveLife Editor-in-Chief

TOPPING, VA. — Travis Croxton sticks out his meaty, calloused hand and welcomes me with an enthusiastic emoji smile. His ruddy, boyish face makes him look much younger than his 40-something years. His attire — untucked pink and grey plaid shirt, faded blue jeans and worn sneakers — is not the usual uniform of a business tycoon. But then again, Travis Croxton is not your usual titan of business.

In a hearty southern drawl, he welcomes me to his famous oyster restaurant, Merroir, which sits on the banks of the Rappahannock River in this rural area of Virginia called the Northern Neck.

“So glad you could drop by,” says Croxton, who, along with his cousin Ryan are legends in these parts for helping revive the oyster industry in and around Chesapeake Bay.

Like Travis, Merroir’s looks are also deceiving. Its exterior resembles a roadside shack, complete with slamming screen door. Inside, patrons huddle around small tables on a narrow porch or a cramped bar enjoying lots of shellfish that’s washed down with oyster beer (a tasty brand called Pearl Necklace that is poured over oyster shells during the brewing process). The overflow crowd sit at picnic tables on an el fresco terrace made of crushed oyster shells.

The kitchen staff, led by an entertaining chap named Peter Woods — he sports a stylish snow-white pointed goatee — works in a shoebox-sized cookhouse that becomes a steam room during Virginia’s sweltering summer months. Appearances aside, People magazine dubbed Merroir “the most popular restaurant in Virginia” and Zagat named it one of its Top 30 restaurants in America.

“On a busy day we serve between 600 and 800 people (many are tourists who come from as far away as Canada),” says Croxton, who opened Merrior as a tasting room next to where he harvests the buttery oysters that feed his main business, the Rappahannock Oyster Co., of Topping, Va.

Croxton is just one of the passionate people in this area who are dedicating their lives to an industry that was on the verge of extinction in the 1980s thanks to overfishing and pollution.

Their efforts and results have been nothing short of miraculous:

  • The rivers leading into Chesapeake Bay have all been cleaned up;
  • The oyster industry is now one of the Northern Neck’s biggest employers;
  • The catch is so bountiful that Travis is hoping to soon export his oysters to countries around the world like China, Japan and Vietnam;
  • And tourism here is booming thanks to the number of annual oyster festivals — the state even features an “oyster trail” that introduces visitors to fairy tale Northern Neck towns like Irvington, Kilmarnock and Urbanna, all of which have lots of dollhouse homes and inns.

Travis and Ryan, co-owners of the Rappahannock Oyster Co., now have restaurants in Richmond, L.A. and Washington, and are hoping to soon expand to Houston.

“When we first started you could not see the bottom of the Rappahannock because it was so murky with pollution,” Travis tells me as we look into the river’s now crystal- clear waters where oysters sit on the sandy bottom maturing in cages.

“It wasn’t easy,” remembers Travis, who, along with Ryan gave up well-paying jobs in the financial sector to take up the challenge of aquaculture.

“We used all our savings and maxed out our credit cards to make it work,” says Travis, whose family’s roots in the oyster business date back to the late 1800s when his great grandfather started the Rappahannock Oyster Co.

“Oysters are filter feeders that protect the (Chesapeake) bay and clean the water (oysters filter 50 gallons of water a day). Because of that, and some strict government rules, the rivers (where the oysters are raised) are no longer polluted. Our (farmed) oysters are grown in open waters right next to wild oysters.”

One of Travis’ proudest accomplishments is creating employment in this economically challenged part of Virginia.

“People are returning here from Richmond and other big cities to work in the oyster industry and that makes me very happy,” says Travis as he introduces me to several of his 390 employees, whose backbreaking efforts result in the perfectly shaped, sweetest- tasting oysters this shucker has ever enjoyed.

“It takes 18 months of constant monitoring to get the oysters to market size,” Travis reveals. “The Rappahannock is a great place to farm oysters because of its sandy bottom and its four seasons. It gives our oysters a unique taste.”

The cousins also farm oysters in the York River and the black narrows of Chincoteaguez Bay and raise three types, the mildly salty Rochambeau, the heavily salted and aptly named Olde Salts and, my favourite, the Rappahannock, a deep cupped variety that is sweet and buttery with a crisp, clean finish. Yum!

Travis gets orders from around the world and tells me he ships his oysters in special ice packs (at a constant temperature of 7.2C) to help preserve their freshness. “Oysters can last up to two weeks using our method,” says Travis, who adds that online orders are up to “70 to 100 per week.”

Travis’ efforts have also created a cottage eco-tourism industry in the Northern Neck. Travellers who come here to enjoy oysters can also learn about its long history by attending the Virginia Oyster Academy run by a delightful woman named Joni Carter at the elegant Tides Inn resort in Irvington.

Carter, a filmmaker (Journey on the Chesapeake for PBS), historian and oyster aficionado, offers some real insight into the industry during a short lecture, and tourists who participate learn things like:

  • The Indigenous people introduced Virginia’s first settlers to oysters when they arrived in the 16th century (“The protein from oysters helped save the settlers’ lives in the early days,” Carter tells us.);
  • Early settlers consumed at least 10 bushels of oysters annually — pickled, smoked, baked or stewed;
  • Waterman is the name given to those who harvest wild oysters in small boats called a deadrise;
  • Wars broke out in the 1800s over oysters when northerners and pirates invaded Chesapeake Bay after their own oyster beds dried up;
  • Oysters contain zinc, which enhances their reputation as an aphrodisiac;
  • There are only five species of oysters (Pacific, Kumamoto, Atlantic, European Flat and Olympia);
  • You can tell how old an oyster is by counting the rings;
  • Oyster shells have been used to build roads and homes — they were crushed to make mortar and plaster — as well as chicken feed, fertilizer and, at one time currency (early settlers were paid off in oysters);
  • While it takes 18 months for oysters to reach market size using aquaculture techniques, it takes almost three years in the wild;
  • There is a taste difference between wild and farmed oysters — the wild oysters have a stronger, saltier taste while farmed oysters are milder and more buttery and are preferred by restaurants;
  • While oysters can last up to two weeks refrigerated, they are best eaten in three days to ensure freshness.

As part of the academy course, we get to meet an actual waterman, William Saunders, who takes tourists out onto the Rappahannock River to show them how wild oysters are harvested.

The crusty Saunders, who has been a waterman since the age of 8, bears the scars of his trade — his face is as tough as leather thanks to the long stretches (“up to 63 days straight on one occasion”) he’s spent on the water.

After picking us up at the Tides Inn dock in Irvington, Saunders, with his small dog Rusty acting as his first mate, heads out into the widest part of the river and dredges the bottom. His hauls include lots of oysters, blue crabs and other sea life. While searching through his catch for the perfect oysters, he grumbles that “watermen get 16 cents each” for their oysters at market while aquaculture producers get “60 cents to $1.20” for theirs. (Aquaculture techniques are much more expensive.)

“Aw, you’ll like this one,” says Saunders, who takes out a sharp knife and pries open a large oyster covered in mud before handing it to me. My mouth jolts alive with the taste of the sea as I quickly devour the salty liquor and meat in one gulp. Delicious! “Here, have another,” says Saunders, who tosses the open shells back into the river. “It’s important to restock the river with the old shells because the new oysters attach themselves to the shell reefs that form here. In fact, you can get $10 (U.S.) a bag for old shells,” says the man who can harvest up to 4,000 oysters in two hours.

On our way back to the Tides Inn, Saunders tells our small group that Virginia has eight oyster tasting regions and the taste differs in each — “just like wine regions.” When we dock, The Tides Inn’s head Chef T.V. Flynn is waiting with a tray of chilled oysters, which he roasts on a small barbecue in their own nectar and some melted butter infused with herbs.

One of the most popular items in the inn’s elegant main dining room is Angry Oysters — wild oysters are dredged in breadcrumbs and deep fried before being tossed in a spicy hot sauce. “It’s our take on Buffalo Wings,” says Chef.

Flynn also demonstrates the correct way of opening an oyster without causing serious harm to one’s self — he expertly uses a razor-sharp two inch blade. He also tells us the best oyster shucker in the state is a local woman named Deborah Pratt. She has represented the U.S. at several Oyster Shucking World Championships in Ireland and can shuck and present an oyster in less than five seconds.

“Deborah shucks two dozen in less than two minutes,” Chef tells us.

As Chef’s oysters bubble in their juices on top of the BBQ, William and Rusty head back out to sea. “Don’t forget to give them some of our local wine,” barks Saunders as his tiny boat disappears on the horizon.

Some of the Inn’s wines come from the award-winning Dog and Oyster vineyard just outside Irvington. The boutique, six-acre property grows four varieties of grapes — Chardonel and Vidal Blanc are used for their white wines and Chambourcin and Merlot for the reds.

The vineyard also holds Sip and Slurp events where we get to sample the wine — unexpectedly good — and local oysters under a blue sky canopy amongst the vines. The owners of the Dog and Oyster also run the charming Hope and Glory Inn in Irvington. The pretty boutique hotel, which looks like it jumped off a Norman Rockwell canvas, has been named one of the Top 10 in America and its fine dining restaurant, the Dining Hall, features some incredibly fresh farm-to-table and boat-to-table cuisine. An old schoolhouse, the inn’s tiny bar is called Detention and it’s the perfect place to end a day after learning so much about Virginia’s incredible oyster industry and the amazing people involved in it.


Marc Atchison — the senior writer and editor-in-chief for TraveLife magazine — is a veteran journalist and a seasoned traveller with more than 20 years of travel writing experience. http://www.travelife.ca/


Featured Products


Live like a king at an Italian wine castle

Latest News

Live like a king at an Italian wine castle

By Marc Atchison

GUARENE, ITALY — I swing open the large shuttered windows of my palatial Castello di Guarene suite and there, under a cobalt blue sky, Italy’s legendary Piedmont wine region spreads out in all directions.

The handsome sandstone castle’s elevated position allows me a bird’s eye view of the lush valley below and the patchwork quilt of vineyards that make this one of the world’s great wine producers.

The surrounding UNESCO-protected hills where the famed Piedmont wines are produced — Barolo and Barbaresco being the best known globally — are covered with a fine dusting of freshly fallen snow. The vines that only a few months ago were flush with fruit have been stripped bare by the winter winds that constantly whip through the fertile valley. Off in the distance, the snow-covered Alps — France and Switzerland lie just north of charming Guarene — billow up on the horizon like large mounds of meringue.

What a magical sight.
The valley is also dotted with lots of small red-roofed villages, each with its own ancient watchtower and castle. None, though, is quite as beautiful or prominent as the Castello di Guarene.

Built in 1726 by an aristocratic family from nearby Turin — the industrial hub of northern Italy and host of the 2006 Winter Olympics — Castello di Guarene flourishes today as an exquisite 5-star Relais & Châteaux hotel where guests come to enjoy the scenery, fine dining experiences — there are many Michelin star restaurants in the area — and sip the vintages produced from the Nebbiolo grape, which thrives in Piedmont’s rich soil.

The 30-room property — a miniature version of Highclere Castle of Downton Abbey fame — was bought by two local industrialists five years ago and then closed for three years during a massive renovation where it was brought up to 21st-century standards. The results are nothing short of miraculous, especially when you consider none of the castle’s original stately charm was compromised in the modernization. In fact, 80 per cent of the original 18th-century furnishings remain in the rooms and public areas. However, each of the 15 guest rooms now features modern bathrooms that are wrapped in white Italian marble. Satellite TV and free WiFi keep guests connected to the modern world while enjoying ancient pleasures like canopied beds and walls draped in delicate fabric. The 18th-century silk wall coverings used throughout the castle were imported from China at the time and during renovation were removed, cleaned and replaced. The results have to be seen to be appreciated.

For generations, the Reoro family occupied the 30-room manner house. It was the life-long dream of Count Giacinto Reoro of Guaene, an industrialist and amateur architect, who sadly died before the castle was completed. His sons, Traiano and Teodoro, finished what their father started and the Italian gardens they laid out around the castle in the first half of the 18th century have bloomed into one of Europe’s most impressive. The house was later sold to another prominent Piedmont family before becoming one of Italy’s most sought-after accommodation.

I’m instantly impressed upon arrival at Castello di Guaene. A long sweeping driveway leads me to the main entrance, where high-end cars bearing licence plates from privileged places like Monaco are parked.

Once I push open the massive wooden door guarding the three-storey castle I’m awed by a stunning double staircase filled with a giant Bohemian crystal chandelier. It leads to the Salon of Honour on the first floor, where important guests were received. The salon is dominated by an enchanting chandelier made of fine coloured Murano glass. Off the Salon of Honour, hotel guests can explore the museum, a remarkable library filled with 300-year-old books and transcripts and a picture gallery featuring lots of original art — many are portraits of the kings, princes, ladies and knights who visited the family in ancient times.

There are over 200 crystal chandeliers hanging throughout the spacious castle hotel, along with countless paintings and frescoes.

The main floor has a small reception area that flows into a large, cozy lobby filled with a giant fireplace, a unique red brick arched ceiling and lots of overstuffed furniture where guests gather for drinks and to socialize.

The Castello di Guarene’s gourmet restaurant, Vele, also resides on the main floor and features an escape route — it’s not for guests trying to duck out on the check, though. Fearing invaders, the count included a long escape tunnel in the original design. While it apparently was never used by the Reoros, it gets plenty of use today because it connects the hotel’s amazing grotto swimming pool that’s bathed in colourful recessed lighting with the property’s compact but impressive spa, staffed by highly-trained therapists.

The main floor also features a small billiards room, a lovely little bar and a cute bistro restaurant — the castle’s original kitchen —that’s used when the main dining room is closed.

While each of the 15 guest rooms is unique in its own right, there are several that stand out from the rest in grandeur and are always in high demand. A perfect example of that is the sublime Castle Luxury Room named after the count’s father, Andrea Traiano. Located on the third floor, the Traiano Room’s main feature is a white arch that runs from one side of the spacious suite to the other. Fine Chinese fabrics dating back to the 1700s and silk velvet draperies adorn the room’s impressive four-poster bed.

Another highly sought-after room is the one named after Vittoria di Revello, whose family bought the castle from the Reoros. The room is wrapped in warm red fabric and offers breathtaking views of the surrounding hills, named after the Roero family, and the far-off Alps.

The Bishop’s Room, which was intended to be Count Reoro’s bedroom, features a priceless Bandera fabric bed and the room’s furniture is covered in multi-coloured wool embroidery, which was inherited by the count from his cousin, the Bishop of Alba, the nearest city to Guarene.

One of the main activities of guests staying at Castello di Guarene is to visit the area’s many wineries for tastings, or to pull up a chair at one of the area’s famed restaurants which have earned Michelin stars.

There’s even a wine route through the Langhe and Roero hills — separated by the Tanaro River — that takes you through the small villages, rolling vineyards and thick woods that make up this idyllic area of Italy. Oh, and the Alps are never out of sight.

Because this wine region gets less traffic than Tuscany, the winding roads are less travelled and accommodation is plentiful. Three wineries experts say you must visit to truly appreciate the products produced here which are the Manzone vineyard, maker of the best Barolo in Italy; the Ca’ del Baio estate, where Barbaresco, considered the poor cousin of Barolo is produced — it’s actually velvety in taste and really quite good; and the large traditional wineries run by Adriana Marzi and Roberto Bruno, where the art of wine making has changed little over the centuries.

While exploring the area’s wine region, you’ll come across plenty of small restaurants and trattorias where nona (grandma) still rules the kitchen, but there are 39 — at last count — Michelin star restaurants within driving distance of Guaene and, unlike their big city cousins, these gourmet rooms are affordable.

One of the highlights of my trip was a table the Castillo di Guarene staff reserved for me at the one-star Michelin Massimocamia Restorante in nearby La Morra, on Alba Road.

Chef Massimo Camia, a delightful man with a moonbeam face and an infectious smile, serves up classical dishes that are among the best this traveller has ever enjoyed. The taste of his veal cheek smothered in a Barolo reduction and the green ravioli pasta he infuses with pesto still linger on my tongue weeks after my visit.

Castillo di Guarene will treat you like royalty when you visit Piedmont.


  • Guarne is in the Piedmont wine region and is a 90 minute drive from Turin.
  • The best way to get to Turin from Toronto, Vancouver or Calgary is with KLM Royal Dutch Airlines via Amsterdam.
  • There are over 30 Michelin star restaurants in the Piedmont area and each tries to outdo the other with fabulous dishes using local farm-to-table ingredients. Staff at the Castello di Guarene will be more than happy to recommend one that suits your palette.
  • There are many wine tours available of the fabulous Piedmont vineyards. The best time to visit is in late fall at harvest time but winter, when rates are low, is a great value.
  • Rates at the Castello di Guarene start around $500 a night but the experience is priceless. For more information on Castello di Guarene and to see rates, go to https://www.castellodiguarene.com/

Marc Atchison — a veteran journalist and a seasoned traveller — is Editor-in-Chief and Senior Writer for TraveLife magazine (Canada) and http://www.travelife.ca/


Featured Products


7 reasons to visit Holland in 2018

Latest News

7 reasons to visit Holland in 2018

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/


Featured Products


Tiptoe through the tulips

Latest News

Tiptoe through the tulips

Holland is at it’s most beautiful in the spring when the tulips bloom in a rainbow of colours.

By Marc Atchison
TraveLife Editor-in-Chief

LISSE, THE NETHERLANDS — Holland looks good any time of the year but it’s especially beautiful in the spring when the national flower, the tulip, blooms in a rainbow of colours and blankets farmers’ fields and gardens throughout this incredible land. The Dutch celebrate the annual event with festivals and parades but to truly see the tulip in all its glory, a trip to this flower capital, located about an hour outside Amsterdam, is what’s really required. That’s because this is the home of the Keukenhof gardens, one of the most beautiful of its kind on the planet.

On the final leg of my Eurail train trip through France, Spain and Italy, which ended in Amsterdam, I joined tourists from around the world and went to see millions of tulips, daffodils, hyacinths and other bulb flowers that have poked their heads up through Keukenhof’s fertile landscape — the breathtaking Kodak moments this place provides amazes everyone.

“I come see the tulips right from the (Schiphol) airport,” a young Chinese tourist, still clutching her suitcase, tells me even before she’s checked into her Amsterdam hotel. “My mother tells me to get lots of pictures and send her pictures of the tulips,” she continues before disappearing into a throng of tourists. The annual tulip event draws over a million visitors to the lavish gardens that are spread over 32 lush hectares. Over 7 million tulips were planted around Keukenhof for this year’s festival and when the 800 varieties bloom, they create a magical carpet of colours that looks like a painter’s palette.

Keukenhof is blessed with lots of fountains, lakes, a working windmill and the unique artwork featured by local artists makes this a great place to spend an entire day. Amsterdam’s annual Tulip Festival will also be in full bloom throughout April and the beginning of May and many private gardens will be accessible during this time so visitors can marvel at their wonderful collection of bulbs.

One of the best tulip displays will be in the garden of Amsterdam’s hottest hotel, the 5-Star Waldorf Astoria, which is located in six UNESCO World Heritage-protected canal homes on the Gentlemen’s Canal.

The incredibly chic Waldorf Astoria has planted thousands tulip bulbs in its lovely gardens, which can be seen from its elevated lobby area or its chic restaurants. A visit to the Keukenhof Gardens and a stay at the Waldorf Astoria Amsterdam is the perfect way to celebrate spring and you can be sure your room will be decorated with lots of tulips.

The Keukenhof spring garden show runs annually. For more information, go to www.keukenhof.nl

The Waldorf Astoria Amsterdam can arrange a private visit to Keukenhof. To check out availability and rates at this incredible property, go to hilton.com. For information on Amsterdam’s Tulip Festival go to tulipfestivalamsterdam.com. Getting to Keukenhof from downtown Amsterdam is easy – just take a train from the city’s historic Central Station to Schiphol Airport where you can catch a bus to the gardens for about $15.

KLM Royal Dutch Airlines offers daily flights to Amsterdam from Montreal, Toronto, Calgary, Vancouver and Edmonton. Go to klm.com to find out fares and schedules. For tourist information on Holland, go to www.holland.com/

There’s no better way to get around Europe than by train and Eurail Group and its many partners make the experience seamless and fun for tourists, depositing them in the centre of all major cities and close to the major attractions. Eurail has many affordable options available so check them out at www.eurailgroup.org/railplanner

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 and travelife.ca, Marc has been to over 100 countries in the world.



Featured Products


Unlocking the secrets of Catalonia

Latest News

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.



Featured Products


Docking at Bermuda’s historic Dockyards

Latest News

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.


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/


Featured Products


Glacier Express a frozen Swiss treat

Latest News

Glacier Express a frozen Swiss treat

By Marc Atchison
TraveLife Editor-in-Chief

ANDERMATT, SWITZERLAND — From my seat aboard the Glacier Express, I feel like I’m looking at an endless series of Giovanni Segantini paintings. The breathtaking Alpine pastoral landscapes that the legendary 19th-century Italian artist was so famous for painting are framed in my window as the scenic train slowly moves through the heart of the Swiss Alps.

I press my nose up against the window, awed by the natural beauty that so inspired Segantini. The only interruption is when the train enters one of the 91 tunnels located along the 291-kilometre route — day suddenly becomes night when the Glacier Express, billed as the “slowest express train in the world,” is swallowed up by the remarkable man-made mountain cavities.

Since boarding the train in St. Moritz, Switzerland’s winter wonderland for the wealthy, I’ve been overwhelmed by the breathtaking Alpine scenes and the service supplied by Glacier Express staff. They pour me beer made from the glacial waters I see streaming off the mountains in spectacular waterfalls, feed me regional cuisine using farm-to-table ingredients grown in the idyllic pastures that sit below the train tracks and educate me on the fascinating customs and traditions of the Alpine people.

I dart from one side of the panorama coach to the other so as not to miss any of the natural splendour passing by — the train travels at an average speed of 35 kilometres an hour so guests can feel the full impact of the Alps.

The most spectacular section of the trip is between Preda and Bergun, where the Glacier Express navigates six towering viaducts, three spiral tunnels and two helical tunnels that make it possible for the little red and white train to scale a height difference of 400 metres (1,300 feet). It’s no wonder this section has been recognized by UNESCO as one of its World Heritage Sites.

While the scenery leaves me breathless, the engineering feats needed the create this, one of the world’s truly great train routes, overwhelms me. There’s no better example of that than the 65-metre-high Landwasser Viaduct, one of the most photographed landmarks in Switzerland. The 142-metre-long (465 feet) stone bridge, which was completed in 1902, is supported by five arched walled pillars that rise from one of the route’s deepest gorges to allow the train to reach a tunnel of the same name. In all, there are 291 bridges along this fascinating route, which stretches from St. Moritz to Zermatt, where the mighty Matterhorn is located.

While the train proceeds, passengers listen to commentary on earphones supplied at each seat and learn that it took five years and over 5,000 men to build the line, which, at the time of its completion, was the most expensive railway project ever undertaken. The engineering achievements accomplished here were later used to build other great railways, like the Canadian Pacific, which united Canada from coast to coast.

During my four-hour journey, I’m entertained by eagles flying over the domed coach and I marvel at the serene Alpine villages and their neatly-kept shuttered homes that appear every so often. Equally impressive are the many jade-coloured lakes that are fed by glacial streams.

At times, the passages are so narrow I think my car will scrap up against the rock walls or fall off the narrow-gauge tracks into the abyss of the deep gorges. The train is most popular during the summer months but winter weekends can be hectic as well, according to the conductor.

Before we reach Andermatt, we pass some important towns and cities, like Chur (pronounced Coor), which is the oldest town in Switzerland with 5,000 years of history. Its Old Town is a great place to wander and the fact the Rhine River turns towards the north from here is another source of pride for the population.

This is also the area where the fictional character Heidi is from. Swiss author Johanna Spyri made Heidi famous in her late 18th-century books and the cute Alpine girl stills remains an iconic figure worldwide.

Shortly after we leave Chur, we enter the Rhine Gorge, which is often referred to as Switzerland’s Grand Canyon. Formed after the last Ice Age, the gorge offers some dramatic rock formations but until this part of the railway was finished in 1903, it remained inaccessible to tourists. The gorge is also home to 350 species of butterflies and rare wild orchids.

The Glacier Express slowly climbs out of the gorge and we start moving towards Disentis, the historic town that boasts the largest Romansh-speaking community in Switzerland. Romansh originates from the spoken Latin and was brought to Switzerland by Roman soldiers. Since 1938, it’s been recognized as one of the national languages of Switzerland.

The conductor tells me that most Swiss can speak German, French, Italian, English or Romansh. He also informs me that every Swiss citizen uses the country’s remarkable rail system — on average, each of the 8.4 million Swiss travel 2,300 kilometres by train each year. “That makes ours the densest rail system in the world,” he proudly boasts. “You’ll know we are getting close to Disentis when you see the double spires of the church,” he says.

The church, which is attached to the Disentis’s Benedictine monastery, dates back to 1683 and the abbey still remains one of the most prestigious schools in all of Switzerland. Being the first town on the Rhine River is also another thing the locals like to boast about.

Before heading into the spectacular Oberalppass, the engine is replaced with a much stronger one, but even with more horsepower, the Glacier Express still needs the assistance of a giant cog wheel — another engineering triumph of Swiss railway engineers — to reach the 2,033 metres (6,700 feet) above sea level that we’ll eventually climb before descending into Andermatt.

The Alpine scenery, which just a short time ago featured green meadows when we left Chur, is now snow white and as we climb higher, the drifts are as high as the coach window.

“We need very special snow trains to clear the tracks so the Glacier Express can keep moving through here,” says the conductor.

Soon after that, the Glacier Express pulls into lovely Andermatt, a 12th-century town that is being turned into Switzerland’s most modern ski resort, and the conductor bids me uf widerluege (goodbye).

My remarkable journey aboard the Glacier Express (it proceeds to Zermatt) is over but the memories of this trip though the majestic Swiss Alps will live on forever.


The best way to get around Switzerland is by train. Swiss Travel System — http://www.myswitzerland.com/ — offers many options, including the Glacier

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 favourite destinations and he’s been there on numerous occasions. http://www.travellife.ca/


Featured Products


Aruba is an island of smiles

Latest News

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.


  • 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.


Featured Products