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Panama, luxurious vacation destination

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Panama, luxurious vacation destination

Famous for its canal and skyscraper-filled capital city, Panama is becoming increasingly popular for those travellers who are looking for reliable tropical weather, white sandy beaches and mountainous rainforests. The good news is that prices are quite reasonable, and there’s a plethora of luxurious resorts for the ultimate vacation.


The Buenaventura Golf & Beach Resort is located in the Cocle Province, which is just over an hour north of Panama City. It’s a great choice if you’re looking to get away from the hustle and bustle. Start your day here with a golf game on the par- 72, Nicklaus-designed championship golf course. Only hotel guests and private members are allowed, so you won’t feel rushed as you make your way along the emerald-green fairways. If your game’s not up to par, guests also have access to the Cobra Performance Centre, where experts will examine your swing and design a plan to improve your game.

With seven pools and more than three kilometres of white sand beach, your biggest decision will be which palapa umbrella you should settle under. While relaxing, ask the resort’s award-winning mixologist to suggest a fitting libation. They specialize in cocktails using local ingredients like guayacan, which grows in the nearby rainforest. A must-try is their signature tropical mojito, which is served in a banana leaf-wrapped glass, and looks as good as it tastes.

While you may be content to stay put, this region is one of the most beautiful in Panama, filled with agricultural farmland, cloudforest mountains, national parks, jungle waterfalls and colonial towns. Buenaventura’s concierge can help you to arrange tours, which include birdwatching (Panama has close to 1,000 bird species), hiking in the rainforest canopy at nearby El Valle de Anton, or visiting an archeological site that dates back to AD 450.


If you’re looking for a bit more action, then The Bristol in Panama City is a good bet. Here, in the heart of the financial district, you can lounge by the pool after you browse the $3 million-dollar private art collection throughout the hotel, featuring works by famous Panamanian and Latin American artists.

For the best of both worlds, check out the recently opened Santa Maria Hotel & Golf Resort (10 minutes from the airport and 15 minutes to downtown). Located within an exclusive neighbourhood in Panama City, you can enjoy sipping pina coladas and eating ceviche by the pool, while watching the golfers pass by on another Nicklaus-designed golf course. For a nourishing Panamanianstyle massage, visit the spa for a cacao and coffee treatment, which involves a full-body coffee exfoliation and organic cocao wrap.

A walking tour of Panama City’s old town (Casco Viejo) introduces you to historical landmarks, building and plazas, while traversing 16-century cobble-stoned streets. The Panamanian government is investing in the renovation of this district. Still, it’s already home to some of the city’s most charming hotels, cafes and boutiques.


Designed by Frank Gehry, the BioMuseo reviews the historical creation of the isthmus that formed Panama, and how that affected the course of the earth’s biodiversity. Panama has the most diversified wildlife in Central America with species native to both South America and North America.

No visit to Panama is complete without a trip to the Miraflores Lock Centre, so book a tour to view massive ships squeezing through this 100-year old canal lock. Make sure that you check on the timing of the next ship, so that you can watch the lock in action.

For an up close and personal experience of the canal, a boat tour is the only way. In Gamboa, where the Chagres River meets the canal, hop onboard a small lancha, which will whisk you across the Gatun Lake. You’ll pass large cargo ships in transit across the canal, and then travel down small river tributaries, where your eagle-eyed guide will point out local wildlife, including iguanas, sloths, toucans and monkeys. Hang on to your belongings, as these cheeky characters have been known to jump on board.


Rum is to Panama, as whisky is to Canada. Visit Hacienda San Isidro to learn how this small sugar cane mill became a leading rum manufacturer of their world-famous Ron Abuelo.

Before you leave, experience a coffee tasting. An expert will advise you of tasting notes and flavours for locally grown blends that include catuai and geisha. And, of course, prolong the memories of your trip to Panama, by brewing up a cup of your favourite blend when you get home.

Kate Robertson can be contacted at kateflyingsolo@gmail.com


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Churchill, Manitoba more than the land of the polar bears

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Churchill, Manitoba more than the land of the polar bears

Located on the west shore of Hudson Bay, Churchill, Manitoba is known as the polar bear capitol of the world. It is here that approximately 1,000 of the world’s largest land predators make their annual migration. In the fall, they congregate amongst the Krummholz trees, wetlands and moon-like rock formations on the edge of the Hudson Bay, and wait for the ice to become thick enough so that they can venture out to hunt for seals before returning to land again in the late spring. In order to keep the streets of Churchill safe, polar bear guards keep watch around the perimetre of this town to deter any bears that may have lost their way.


In 2017, international artists were invited to Churchill as part of the Sea Walls Festival, which was initiated to protect the world’s oceans. A total of 18 murals were painted on buildings throughout the town. One mural was painted on a plane wreck found along the 30-kilometre length of Churchill’s drive-able road. The sleeping polar bear depicted on the polar bear holding facility is also a must-see. This facility was built in the 1980s as part of a program to protect residents and prevent the killing of problem bears.

At the Itsanitaq Museum, you will find a comprehensive collection of historical artifacts dating back to the Pre-Dorset culture (1,700 BC), as well as contemporary Inuit art depicting daily activities of the north. A stuffed polar bear provides an intimate perspective of the size of their teeth and claws.

Gift shops are filled with northern novelties, including fur lined moccasins and Inuit art. At the Northern Store, you can buy everything from food items to snowmobiles.


Located approximately 2,000 kilometres north of Winnipeg, and just below the Nunavut border, winters in Churchill are long – lasting approximately eight months. When the ice in the Churchill River starts to move again come spring, the tundra comes alive with arctic wildflowers, and animal and bird migration. Churchill is uniquely positioned on the corner of three biomes – marine, boreal and tundra. As a result, it’s possible to view the flora and fauna particular to each biome within a very small area.

At the Churchill Northern Studies Centre, visitors can take part in an amazing learning adventure. At this comfortable, 84-bed facility, you will share space with active-research scientists. One of their most popular adventures is a five-day Belugas in the Bay program. Churchill is the summer feeding grounds for more than 3,000 belugas – the largest population in the Arctic. Kayaking with these charming, talkative whales, is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Also at the centre, you can discover a birding hotspot, where more than 250 species of birds nest, or pass through on their yearly migration. You might see hundreds of snow geese, as well as such rarities as Ross’s Gull and the Bohemian waxwing.


With Frontiers North, you can take a ride in a heated tundra buggy along trails, through tidal flats and permafrost lakes. Expert guides share stories of northern life, in addition to tales about local bear personalities, including the mighty fighter called Scarface Victor, and Dance, so named because of his light-footed sparring maneuvers. Keep your eyes open for arctic fox, hare and polar bears, as they return from their annual hunt on the sea ice.

After the long winter in Churchill, dog-sledding changes to dog-carting with the spring thaw. Charismatic musher, Dave Daley of Wapusk Adventures, takes you on a mile-long trail ride through the boreal forest with 28 enthusiastic huskies. Daley loves to share his heroic, life-anddeath, dog-racing stories.


To get a birds-eye view of the area, book a tour with Hudson Bay Helicopters. The pilot will point out local hangout spots for caribou, moose and bears. Polar Bears like to rest, and conserve their energy, on the kelp beds.

Churchill is one of the best spots on the planet for aurora borealis (northern lights) viewing. Because it lies directly beneath the Auroral Oval in the Northern Hemisphere, there’s auroral activity for more than 300 nights per year.

In addition to convenient flight access, the train from Winnipeg is set to re-open this spring.


Kate Robertson can be contacted at kateflyingsolo@gmail.com



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The natural wonders of Collingwood

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The natural wonders of Collingwood

By Cece M. Scott 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 offer 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 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.


The Whiskylicious festival, running from Feb. 1 to 12, 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.

It’s the 10th anniversary of the The Apple Pie Trail – and apple pie is just the beginning. Inspired by South Georgian Bay’s applegrowing history, the mighty apple is celebrated with a culinary adventure trail, farms, shopping and local experiences.

Take the five-kilometre trek across southern Ontario’s longest suspension footbridge, and through the trails of Scenic Caves Nordic Centre.


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-km 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.


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 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-yourown farms en-route.


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Hokkaido – Japan’s northern delight

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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


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Scottsdale, Ariz. the ultimate desert destination

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Scottsdale, Ariz. the ultimate desert destination

According to some dream interpreters, dreaming of being in a desert is one of the most beautiful and serene dreams that you can have. And, sand reflects your creative and artistic abilities. Many people find that the desert connects them on a spiritual level, and there’s no disputing the health benefits of this arid climate. With all the natural light, vitamin D strengthens your immune system, teeth and bones, and also lifts your spirits.

Scottsdale Arizona


There certainly is an element of mystery, and a dream-like quality, that entices many to the sunny, winter weather of Arizona. Part of the greater Phoenix area, Scottsdale is sometimes described as the desert version of Miami’s South Beach. Initially founded in 1894 as a farming community, artists and writers discovered this unique landscape, and began visiting in the early 1900s. As the popularity of the area grew, it paved the way for the first resort, which opened 1909. Today, Scottsdale is a much-revered tourist haven, and home to some of the top resorts in the United States.

Old Town Scottsdale is known as the west’s most western town. Up until 20 years ago, there were wooden sidewalks and a barbecue joint on every corner. Today, the town has retained it’s historical charm and there’s lots to explore. In February you can still grab a ride on the pony express.

Old Town Scottsdale


From JoyRides AZ, you can book a golf cart and tour historical sites like the Little Red School House, now the home of the Scottsdale Historical Museum, as well as the Rusty Spur, the city’s first, and longest running, saloon, and the still-operating Cavalliere’s Blacksmith Shop, which is housed in an adobe building from 1909.

At the Western Spirit Museum, you can learn more about the regional history and view rare artifacts. Around town, there’s a plethora of turquoise jewellery stores, cosy cafes and Native American craft shops, as well as dozens of art galleries.


With close to 100 restaurants, Old Town is also a great place to discover a variety of dining options, and not just steak and potatoes. Try Diego Pops, a stylish diner where they serve modern Mexican fare (think brussels sprout nachos). Be sure to try their pretty pink prickly pear margarita – a local specialty.

Arizona might not be top-of-mind when you think about wine, but a stop at Carlson Creek Vineyard’s tasting room will prove otherwise. You might visit Craft64 to sample some great Arizona craft beers on tap, but make sure that you also stay for the wood-fired pizza.

For upscale American fare, visit that award-winning Citizen Public House, and try the pan-seared scallops with a cola gastrique, served over roasted sweet corn grits.

The Waterfront District is built along a major canal, lined with palm trees, art sculptures and fountains. Grab a table on the waterfront patio at the trendy Olive & Ivy, where Mediterranean meets California cuisine. Across the street is the Scottsdale Fashion Square – the largest mall in Arizona.


For a birds-eye view of the desert, book a hot air balloon ride. Keep you eyes open for wild burros and javelinas (wild boars).

Take a hike in the 30,500-acre McDowell Sonoran Preserve, located just 15 minutes outside of the city. Here, you can fully appreciate the desert landscape. Make your way through palo verde groves, cacti and creosote bushes to reach breathtaking summits.

Discover more than 50,000 desert plants at the Desert Botanical Garden. If you visit before May, 2019, check out Electric Desert, a stunning light and sound show, which turns the desert and the garden’s fauna into a living art installation.


Scottsdale offers up a wide selection of resorts for all tastes and budgets. For the ultimate in R & R, try the recently renovated Phoenician, with its large day spa, multi-pool complex, and world-class 18-hole golf course.

The Omni Scottsdale Resort & Spa at Montelucia is also a multi-pool property. The arching entryways, fountains and floral walkways are reminiscent of Spain’s exotic Andalusia region.

If you prefer a smaller, boutique setting, the newly-constructed Mountain Shadows also has an 18-hole golf course. Initially opened in 1959, the original hotel was popular with Hollywood stars like John Wayne and Elizabeth Taylor (check out their photo collection). With gorgeous views of Camelback and Mummy Mountains, it’s easy to see why.

Kate Robertson can be contacted at kateflyingsolo@gmail.com


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Just-right cruising with Viking

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Just-right cruising with Viking

By Ann Metcalf

Large ocean liners can accommodate up to 7,000 people, and a new one is currently under construction that will accept 9,500 passengers – and that doesn’t include the crew. They’re like floating cities that off er everything from pools, spas, casinos, entertainment, restaurants and more. When you want to disembark at a desired location, it can be a very long process. And because of their size, these ocean liners often port in areas that are a fair distance from a city centre or tourist attraction.

Founded in 1997, Viking has grown from four ships to more than 60 river cruise vessels. The size of their fleet has afforded them the opportunity to negotiate prime docking rights in European cities. If you’ve never been on one of their river cruises, you owe it to yourself to book one. Unlike the huge ocean liners, you dock in major cities and have the freedom to walk off , and on, at your leisure. Most river cruise ships accommodate less than 200 passengers.

In 2015, Viking applied their award-winning philosophy, along with their exceptional attention to detail, with the christening of their first ocean ship – the Viking Star. The fleet now includes five ships, with a sixth launching next year, and four more scheduled to set sail by 2023.

These small ships accommodate just over 900 passengers, and all suites have a veranda. Add approximately 450 crew, and you’re getting first-rate service. And, because of their size, they can navigate rivers and oceans. While itineraries are available for the Mediterranean, the Caribbean, Australia, New Zealand, Africa, Asia, Alaska, and North and South America, a Scandinavian journey reflects the company’s heritage.


This popular cruise departs from the UK in late June. From the Greenwich port, you make stops in Edinburgh, the Orkney and Shetland Islands, and then travel to six ports in Norway. It’s the perfect time of year, and as you get nearer to the Arctic Circle, round the- clock sunshine lights up your experience.

Viking includes a tour in each port for on-board passengers. Optional tours are also offered for those with specific interests. On the ‘Into the Midnight Sun’ cruise, you may opt to go sea fishing in Lofoten, harvest king crabs on safari in Honningsvag, or break bread with a local family in Tromo. Sea kayaking, wildlife hikes, Husky treks, and visits to maritime museums, are just some of the available tours – all rated by activity level. Bergen, Norway


When you have a day at sea, or if you choose to stay put and enjoy the amenities on the ship, the relaxed luxury will have you rejuvenated in no time. Try a Swedish massage, followed by the spa circuit, which includes a hot tub, a steam room, a snow grotto, and a salt-water pool that provides a lounging area, with jets coming at you from all directions.


Because each state room includes a veranda, sometimes just staying put while you traverse through the fjords, marvel at the mountains, enjoy a glorious sunset (or the all-night sun), is simply perfect. You have a birds-eye view of some the most spectacular landscape you’ll ever see, so order in room service – it’s all included.

But don’t deny yourself a broader gastronomic experience at the four on-board restaurants, including Italian (try the ribeye), and The Chef’s Table, which alternates themed menus every two nights.

When it’s done right, you just know it – and Viking does it right.




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Travel: Czech Republic

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Travel: Czech Republic

A 100-year Celebration

By Kate Robertson

Old Tower Square, Prague

The Czech Republic has experienced its share of upheaval over the past century. Czechoslovakia gained its independence following the collapse of the powerful Austro-Hungarian Empire after World War I. Then, in late February of 1948 the Czechoslovak coup d’état took place when the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia (with Soviet backing) assumed undisputed control over the government, marking the onset of communist rule for the next four decades. In late 1989 the nonviolet Velvet Revolution lasted one month, one week and five days, and signified a restoration to democracy in Czechoslovakia and the collapse of the communist regime. A self-determined split of the federal state of Czechoslovakia into the Czech Republic and Slovakia took place on January 1, 1993.

Sculpture work at Prague Castle

The 20 years of independence between the two world wars was an amazingly rich period for the nation, and became one the main centres of modern European life. This year, the Czech Republic is celebrating 100 years since it gained that independence in 1918.


Prague is Czech’s vibrant, historical capital, and its one of the most visited cities in Europe. Hit, accidentally or not, by American fighters in 1945, there were many civilian casualties and damages to homes and historical sites. An amazing 866 hectares of the old city are UNESCO protected for their gothic, renaissance and baroque mix of architectural wonders.

To best explore the city’s must-see attractions, wear comfortable walking shoes (the cobble-stoned streets are endless), and be prepared for crowds. Start at the enormous, beautifully reconstructed Prague Castle. A guide can fill you in on lesser-known facts, like when President Havel (leader after the Velvet Revolution) climbed through a window onto a balcony of the presidential palace, along with members of the Rolling Stones, to address the public, when nobody could find the key to the door.

Charles Bridge

Take a stroll across the Charles Bridge to the Old Town (13th century) to view the Astronomical Clock, as well as the Jewish Quarter. On the border of Old Town and New Town (don’t be fooled by the name, it was established in the 14th century), you will find the iconic golden-roofed National Theatre, where you can purchase tickets to a play, ballet or opera. Theatre, and the arts, are extremely important to the Czechs, as it has helped them survive the hardships of the different regimes.


To learn more of the Czech Republic’s rich history, head to the Skoda car factory, which is located in Mlada Boleslav, about an hour from Prague. Known as one of the best selling Czech brands in the world, their museum will give you insight into how the company started. Apparently, two bicycle manufacturers merged in 1905, along with a heavy equipment manufacturer and, together, they started to produce cars. Take a tour of the factory to see the production line. Amazingly, a car can be completed here in just 24 hours.

Ajeto Glassworks

The country-side is filled with picture-book, half-timbered houses, barns and green pastures. World famous, Bohemian glass-making started in this area back in the 13th century. The special sandstone that was found here was perfect for glass-making. Take a tour of Ajeto Glassworks, and watch the artists melt the glass in 1,200-degree (Celsius) ovens, before expertly blowing it into the final product.

At the Museum of Glass and Jewelry, in nearby Jablonec, you’ll soon see why this area became an imperial centre for costume jewelry and glass products, which were much-desired by people from all over the world.

Spend the night in historical Liberec at the Clarion Grand Hotel Zlaty Lev, with its period furnishings and crystal chandeliers.

Dark beer goulash and dumplings


Czechs love meat. Beef tartare is a common appetizer. If you’re adventurous, try some of their different cuts, as well as organ meats. For the less courageous, stick with hearty, traditional dishes, like roast duck served with dumplings and purple cabbage, goulash stew with thick dark beer, schnitzel with potato salad, or svickova – a sweetish, creamy vegetable sauce served over a piece of beef sirloin.

For Prague fine dining, visit the Michelin, award-winning Alcron Restaurant (in the Radisson Blu Alcron Hotel), or for a rowdier atmosphere, try La Republica restaurant and beer bar.

Czech beer poured with lots of head


Czech has a long history of brewing, and beer is plentiful. Czechs fondly refer to it as their ‘water’ or ‘liquid bread’, and don’t really acknowledge it as an alcoholic beverage. To taste a local favourite, order Rezane – a mix of a dark and light beer.

Close to the Prague Castle is the Strahov Monastery craft brewery. Monasteries have a long history of beer brewing. The monks at Strahov do a fine job with brews like the Anti- Depressant Dark Lager – the name says it all.

Czech beer is served with a lot of head. Locals like the taste of the foam and consider it a sign of a good beer. Cheers!

Jested Tower, Liberec


Kate Robertson can be contacted at kateflyingsolo@gmail.com

Photography, Kate Robertson


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Home exchanges 101

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Home exchanges 101

One of the features in our Aug./Sept. 2018 issue, “Loving Frank,” is about a home exchange managing experience editor Allan Britnell recently had in Chicago. (The home was an early Frank Lloyd Wright design.) Here’s a sidebar from that piece on home exchanges.


One of the ways we’ve been able to travel so much on a magazine editor’s income is by using home exchanges for our accommodations. Last summer, we spent a month travelling through England and France and only had to pay for one night’s hotel accommodations.

Direct exchanges are the most straightforward: You stay in my home for X-number of days, and I’ll stay in yours for the same period of time. The other option is a “non-simultaneous” exchange. The two parties agree to swap homes, but not at the exact same time. This is a great option for people with vacation homes as they can retreat to the cottage while guests are using their primary home.

No money changes hands between homeowners; you simply play the monthly or annual fees (starting as low as $10 a month) that that the various home exchange websites charge. Some sights, such as LoveHomeSwap.com, include a “points” system where members can use accumulated points in lieu of an actual exchange. We stayed in London last year on points while our Chicago hosts used our home, allowing us to “bank” the visit until this spring.

There is a bit of work clearing out personal items and prepping for your guests’ arrival, and if you’re booking multiple exchanges you’ll need to someone come in to change the linens and tidy up between guests, but the cost savings on accommodations far outweigh any minor inconveniences.


The hardest part is the time spent searching out locations online and trying to coordinate timing (thank you again Mehnaz!), but we’ve found the experience to be far more rewarding than simply saving money on hotels. Owners usually leave a “house guide” outlining how to operate various household items (ranging from the TV remote to where the fire extinguishers are), that also includes recommendations for where to eat, shop, and sights and attractions that most tourists would miss. We’re often in contact with our hosts/guests during our stays sharing updated details, and we’ve keep in contact with many of the families we’ve exchanged with.

We’re lucky enough to live in a nice part of Toronto (nestled between High Park and the Humber River), close to shops and restaurants, and a short walk from the subway. It also helps that our house was designed and decorated by my wife, Mehnaz Malik, of NatariDesign.com.

If, like Frank Lloyd Wright, you’ve built your home to be a showcase for the quality of your work, then you may well draw attention from the owners of Tuscan villas, wild western spaces, Caribbean condos, or anywhere else you might like to spend your down time.

Then again, if you’re like the cobbler whose kids have no shoes and living in a perpetual jobsite, home exchanges might not be for you!


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August/September issue coming soon

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August/September issue coming soon

Our next issue is with the printer and should be landing in mailboxes shortly. We kept our managing editor, Allan Britnell, busy on his summer vacation working on the two main features in the issue. One is about a road trip he took with his family to Chicago early in the summer. But the Britnell family doesn’t stay in hotels when they travel; they’ve avid fans of home exchanges. In this case, they had the chance to stay in a home designed by famed architect, Frank Lloyd Wright.

Those of you with the travel bug who are looking for an interesting and affordable way to explore the world will want to take note of his sidebar, “Home Exchanges 101,” where he explains the ins and outs of swapping homes.

I know he also went abroad later in the summer, travelling to Denmark and Spain. (The guy likes to travel!) While there he took more notes and photos of some of the unique building practices and designs he spotted that we’ll include in another travelogue in an upcoming issue.

The other feature in this issue, “Building an Envelope,” obviously enough looks at the various components of the building envelope, covering everything from foundations to roofing materials.

Finally, I’m very pleased to welcome aboard our newest columnist, Manny Neves of Hardcore Renos. We profiled Neves back in our February/March issue where readers learned of his unusual route to the business that starts with a filmmaker’s eye and includes a lifelong passion for architecture. Going forward, in each issue of the magazine he’ll explore a topic of concern for contractors in his piece, “What’s on Manny’s Mind?!?”

Of course, we’re always interested to hear what’s on your mind as well. Send your ideas, comments, and suggests to Allan at allan@renocontractor.ca.


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Around The Globe: International Design Influences

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Around The Globe: International Design Influences

The top five destinations inspiring Canadian interiors

From Cuba’s impact on Hemingway’s literary works, to Van Gogh’s oil paint masterpieces depicting Japanese traditions, world travel has been inspiring people for centuries. Travel inspires art, industry, and innovation, but there’s one unexpected way travel also influences the world: decorating the home.

According to new research from Booking.com, Canadians are taking decor ideas home with them from their vacations. Almost half of all travellers are inspired by the chance to stay somewhere new, and eager to take on interior design work in their own homes upon their return.

“Most Canadians start by taking a piece of art home with them from their travels, or a soft furnishing like pillow covers or curtains,” says Nuno Guerreiro, regional manager of Canada for Booking.com. “The majority are inspired by local designs and new cultures, but over half of all travellers are actually motivated by the interior design of their holiday accommodations—this way, they’re able to recreate the experience of being on vacation in their own homes.”

From Mediterranean colours to northern comforts, Canadians are looking beyond Pinterest for their next home decor project. Here’s a look at the top five destinations inspiring Canadian travellers to redecorate, and how you can bring the other side of the world into your own home:

1 – Santorini MEDITERRANEAN BLUES The sun, sand and seaside views in Santorini make it the perfect inspiration for a relaxing home oasis. Adding bold royal blues to a Canadian home will call to mind a breezy, beach vacation in the sun, while white walls and furniture will remind travellers of Santorini’s unique seaside architecture. Plus, accents like mosaic tiles and beach-wood patterns truly brighten a room, transforming living areas into a Greek haven.

For an authentic taste of Santorini style, travellers can get inspired by the Kima Villas Suites. The resort’s infinity pool, combined with stunning coastal views, will have you craving the style in your own home.

2 – South Africa COUNTRY FARMHOUSE A country farmhouse, like those common in South Africa, is the ideal inspiration for city-dwelling travellers looking to transform their homes into a quiet retreat. Using warm earth tones and textural accents, plus elements like wood panels, ceramic and patchwork fabric, Canadians can revamp even the busiest home into a tranquil, pastoral oasis.

The Orange Grove Farm in beautiful South Africa is an ideal destination for an in-depth look at this design style, with accents and a private terrace  overlooking a working wine and olive farm.

3 – Copenhagen SCANDINAVIAN SIMPLICITY Scandinavian design is already a popular trend in Canadian homes and is gaining more and more momentum with a recent surge in popularity (thanks, Ikea!). A natural inclination for hygge, the “newlydiscovered” Danish trend of living a cosy, charming and content way of life; natural light, simple design and minimalist decor are at the foundation of this utilitarian design—no clutter allowed. Travellers looking to embrace this lifestyle need only add a few simple decorations to complete the look.

A great place to discover the modern, simplistic designs in Scandinavia is the Woodah Hostel in Copenhagen, where there’s a place for everything and  everything is in its place.

4 – Kyoto JAPANESE ZEN Japanese author and organizing consultant, Marie Kondo was onto something—Japan’s impeccable organization, Buddhist faith and minimalist decor are the perfect way to bring Zen into your home. The peaceful decor trend focuses on form and function, using neutral tones to improve tranquility. Plants and manicured trees are a must, adding to a toned-down atmosphere.

Find your inner (home) Zen with inspiration from the hotel Nazuna Kyoto Aneyakoji Tei, where a welcoming energy flows through glass floors, gardens and strong wooden accents.

5 – Canada COSY SKI LODGE Canadians know how to make the most of a cold winter, so it’s no surprise that a cosy ski lodge is one of our top inspirations for home decor. Warm colours, real wood elements and a fireplace stacked with crackling logs will bring a feeling of warmth and comfort to any home.

Not just any ski lodge will do here—the beautiful Westin Resort and Spa in Whistler offers the ultimate inspiration for Canadian home relaxation.

kimavilla.com, orangegrovefarm.co.za, woodah-hostel.com, nijo-nazuna.jp


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