19
Nov 14

Get Your Skates on to Victoria

It’s winter in Canada so what are you going to do but enjoy the great outdoors? This year, Victoria’s Fairmont Empress hotel is hosting an outdoor skating rink on its front lawn, which faces out towards the harbour all strung with festive lights. There is something rather magical about skating outdoors and it’s hard to imagine a more beautiful background than the Empress. Special events include a Christmas Eve skating session with elves, hot cocoa and cider and Sunday skates with santa. Tickets are $10/$5 per session and skate hire is $5. The rink opens on Friday 20th November and runs till mid-January. Open from 5-9pm weekdays and 1-9pm weekends.

So, now you’re in Victoria, what else is there to do?

wiv2BREAKFAST:  Usually I’m not a doughnut fan, but Yonni’s Doughnuts at Discovery Coffee could be the one which changes my mind. I had a Honey Crueller, all eggy sweet and delicious, it matched perfectly with their Gob’s Magical Espresso blend. I took a bottle of the Cold Brew coffee home and had it for breakfast the next morning. Sure Cold Brew coffee may have more than a whiff of needless hipsterism about it but when it’s as buttery and chocolatey as this, well, call me a hipster and be damned.

wiv1LUNCH:  Oh hurrah! My all-time favourite Vancouver sandwich, the Meat & Bread porchetta is now available at their beautiful new location on Yates Street. Taking the idea of doing one thing and then excelling at it, Meat and Bread’s empire is gradually spreading and you know what? Good. They do things right: the bread is a custom-made ciabatta roll and the meat in their legendary porchetta sandwiches is the finest grain-fed, free-range pork from Two Rivers Meats. If businesses must become chains then at least let them operate on an ethical basis. And yes, I know that Meat and Bread also do other daily sandwich specials but after two years I’ve still not managed to go through the doors and say anything other than ‘Porchetta with extra crackling, please’.

WIV6TIME FOR TEA:  Silk Road Tea are based in Victoria’s Chinatown (the oldest in Canada! Take a look around on this Vine clip.), the creation of Tea Master Daniela Cubelic. I cannot say enough great things about this store! Going far beyond what you’d imagine a tea shop to sell, Silk Road have a wide range of beauty products (and an in-shop spa), shelves of wildly desirable tea paraphernalia –try going in and not immediately needing to own at least three tea pots, infusers and assorted pieces of cocktail ware – and best of all a long tasting table with comfy stools. I went to an iced tea event in the summer which was a blast and gave me so many ideas. This winter their free-to-attend workshop events include Winter Wellness classes, a tea jam-making event and learning about immune-boosting tea blends to ward off colds and flu.

wiv4DINNER:  Sure, there are plenty of great restaurants in Victoria but right now I am OBSESSED with the ambrosial brisket at Hanks Untraditional BBQ. This place is a tiny blink-and-you’ll-miss-it barbecue joint but oh my, it’s worth stopping in. All the meat comes from those super-ethical Two Rivers chaps and you can taste the quality in every bite. My recommendation? Have one of the platters with the cornbread, all warm and buttery from the oven. The pulled pork is amazing and the potato salad superb. Damn, I am actually drooling just writing this.

wiv5STAY:  With Veneto, one of the finest bars and restaurants downstairs and boasting a pole position slap bang in the heart of town, it’s hard to better the location of the Rialto. The rooms are both spacious and spotless and best of all, come with a pleasing raft of extras including free wifi, vouchers for coffee and pastry from the lobby cafe, and best of all, a voucher for a cheese plate at Veneto. Very cool! Oh, and the one thing that won me over completely? Ear plugs. Acknowledging that yes, they are a central hotel and so the street can get noisy is honest, but then immediately sorting that issue out is smart. I love that.

wiv3GET THERE:  I am obsessed with the float planes which whizz across the waters here in BC. I can see them soar above Stanley Park from my window and it’s always a fantastic day if I know that I’m going to be onboard Harbour Air. My advice? Don’t hang back and be polite. Immediately ask the pilot is there’s a chance that you could sit up front, as sometimes there is a spare seat and it’s the best view in the house! If not, don’t fret, you’ll still be amazed by the view from the windows. Top tip: at the Vancouver terminal downtown you can score free espresso-based drinks and tea, as well as a muffin or fruit when you present them with your boarding pass. Also, the Victoria terminal seems to have a penchant for playing excellent 80s music. Prepare to rock out before take off.

MORE INFO:

Tourism Victoria

 

 


09
Nov 14

Challenge 9: Spot a Polar Bear

bear4We had to wait for the all-clear before we could leave the arctic crawler. Our guide, rifle loaded and cocked, walked out onto the rocks and scanned the area making sure it was safe for us to explore. Once out there, I crouched down on the pebble-grey rocks, flecked with coppery lichen and picked a handful of the shiny jet-black blueberries which lay tucked under the sparse sprigs of greenery which somehow grew on the barren land.

Polar bears eat this,” I thought to myself, as the tart sweetness of this most determined Canadian berry flooded my mouth, “I’m tasting what they taste.”

bear3It had been a morning of excitement already out in the wilds of Churchill, Manitoba on the edge of the edge of the world. Where else could you enjoy a drive-by Beluga whale sighting? We’d bumped along through the pot holes and past the shoreline in the old school bus that our lodge used as transit and seen them from the road, their snow white bodies glittering in the sunshine as they swam through the waves.

Today we were on the hunt for the polar bears who’ve made this remote part of northern Canada famous around the world. Each winter between October and November, the bears lumber away from their sumer time habitat and back across to the pack ice to hunt seals. Every hotel room in the sleepy town of Churchill sells out as it becomes the ‘Polar Bear Capital of the World’ with fully-booked tundra vehicles heading off onto the ice for bear watching safaris. There are even mobile hotels which pitch up wherever the bears are, so visitors can spend a few days out on the ice, witnessing the beauty of the bears. More elusive in the summertime, but still possible to see, we were heading out onto the protected tundra in a giant buggy to see if we would be lucky enough to track any polar bears down.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA“Let’s go and see something big and white and furry!” exclaimed our guide as we got on board. Furry and cute they may be, but the reality is they are wild animals–and potentially lethal ones at that. In a town like Churchill, living with bears, and all that entails, becomes second nature. For instance, all car doors are always left unlocked in town, if you spot a bear in the street you need to get away fast and find cover, so you can jump in any vehicle and call for help. Guides travel with rifles and ‘bear bangers’–firecrackers which hopefully will scare a bear off, as no one wants to have to shoot a bear. Churchill is proud of its record of no human deaths by bears since 1983 and takes its bear conservation very seriously.

bear1We slowly juddered across the rocks in the massive arctic crawler, scanning the miles of wind-flattened landscape for bears. So often my heart would leap with excitement, there, a bear! A huge one, curled up by the… no, just a rock. And again and again, it was just a rock; the tundra makes perfect camouflage for the creamy-white bears, being, of course, all creamy-white glacier-formed quartz and scrub with patches of low-lying greenery. But then we saw one, a real bear, elegantly doggie-paddling across a small pond. We stopped the crawler and turned off the engine to wait and watch. As we did, our bear turned to look at us, his black nose and eyes clearly visible against his fur, before deciding we were uninteresting and resuming his dip. Fascinated and delighted, we watched him, before some twenty minutes later he strode out of the pond, fur dripping and shook himself, like an immense dog, before slowly walking away to a patch of rocks, and then he disappeared from sight, cloaked by the landscape.

Look hard - yup, that white dot is my polar bear,

Look hard – yup, that white dot in the water is my polar bear

That was our only sighting that day but I wasn’t sad; I felt like I’d witnessed something wonderful and rare. I’d seen this creature who belonged in a world of snow and ice sun himself on a warm August day. I’d watched the pleasure he clearly felt in bathing in the cool water. This whole vast tundra was his domain. This unforgiving landscape was his home, despite having a climate so harsh that even the trees only have branches on one side, so fierce are the icy winds. We were just privileged visitors that day, lucky enough to share a brief sunny moment with this rare and endangered bear.

bear2

I stayed as a guest of Tourism Manitoba and the Lazy Bear Lodge, but as ever my words are 100% my own. More info: . Lazy Bear Lodge [Official Site] . Travel Manitoba [Official Site]


20
Oct 14

Art Of The Cocktail Festival 2014

PA041115For  relatively small city, Victoria punches well above its weight when it comes to its cocktail scene. Talented bartenders like Veneto’s Simon Ogden and Little Jumbo’s Nate Caudle and its manager Shawn Soole are leading the way in innovative cocktail creations. The city’s annual Art of the Cocktail festival brings together like-minded boozehounds and bartenders alike for three days of seminars, parties and tastings.

PA041140The Grand Tasting event is always an excellent opportunity to discover new spirits and learn more about old favourites too. For so many cocktail fans it’s the stories behind the spirits which are part of the attraction, and there was one which really stood out for me this year. It’s a truly Canadian spirit Ungava gin, made in NE Quebec. Covered in snow and ice for nine months of the year, with the aurora borealis shimmering overhead, this remote part of Canada produces the botanicals which give the spirit its sunny colour and herbacious taste. Hand-harvested by Inuit on the tundra, the gin contains: Nordic juniper, Labrador tea, crowberry, wild rose hips, arctic blend and cloudberry.

PA041148I was excited to see New Theatre Spirits & Tonic, who I’d met on my first visit two years ago back with another delicious creation, this time it’s a ginger ale which was based on a 100-year old law suit which was debated in the House of Lords and concerned an old lady who discovered a snail in her drink. You can read the full story here – and it’s a good one – but more importantly it’s a delicious drink, so look out for their Donoghue & Stevenson’s Dead Snail Ginger Ale – guaranteed to be 100% snail-free.

PA051252From cocktail contests and bar games which pit bartenders against each other in a battle of speed, knowledge and style, to a vintage fashion show and etiquette chat during cocktail hour, your cocktail festival weekend can take in plenty of fun – as well as booze.

PA051190Education is a huge component of the festival and I attended a fantastic seminar with Peter Hunt from Victoria Spirits on Bitters, those mysterious little bottles which are the spice cabinet of any back bar. Bitters in cocktails are similar to acidity in wine or hops in beer; they balance out sweetness and add complexity to the flavour. Peter took us through the history of bitters from their medicinal use in Egyptian times to using Pink Gin (gin with angostura bitters) in the 1800s as a traditional seasickness cure. Until the creation of the FDA in 1906, Bitters companies could – and did – make wild claims about the properties of their Bitters from saying they could do anything from curing the ‘impure state of your blood’  to fixing liver complaints.

PA061336
To be certified as a Bitter the botanical blend used (herbs, spices, fruits) need to be bitter enough not to be able to be drunk by itself. We got to make our own Bitters, but a warning, care needs to be taken with making bitters at home, sure, natural is best, but Mother Nature has teeth and claws: for instance, tonka beans are banned in the US as they contain courmain which can cause liver damage – although it has a delicious vanilla-like smell and flavour, almond kernels contains cyanide, nutmeg can be toxic… the list goes on. However, in the hands of an expert you’re perfectly safe. Bitters can be used in the kitchen as well as on the bar, Vancouver’s Bittered Sling Extracts were created by a chef-bartender combo with the express purpose of creating products which would add a depth of flavour to both cocktails and culinary creations. You can use Bitters in sauces and in salad dressings, in baked goods like brownies or as a marinade for meat, there are some great recipes here to tryPA061323

 

I travelled as guest of Tourism Victoria and Art of the Cocktail, however my words are 100% my own. 

More Info:

Tourism Victoria 

Harbour Air

Hotel Rialto

Art of the Cocktail 

Ungava Gin 

New Theatre Spirits & Tonic 

Victoria Spirits 

Bittered Sling Extracts 

 


12
Oct 14

Crossing Canada By Train… Again

train1I don’t know when it stopped being grey outside. Lost in the passing landscape I looked up to see blazing blue skies peeking out from a blanket of grey and white cloud. Cows stood sociably together in a field to chew the cud and flick their tails against the flies. The storm had been exhilarating to watch from my train compartment: the rain thrummed against the windows, the sky bruised black and the clouds raced us on our journey.

train4I’d got on at Winnipeg and asked the steward for my bed to be put down. This wasn’t my first time on board ‘The Canadian’ train which chugs its way between Toronto and Vancouver. The last time I’d travelled had been in 2010 and I’d fallen in love with the Canada beyond my windows. The shining lakes of Ontario giving way to the endless flat land and shimmering corn fields of the prairies before the great tah-dah! moment of jaw-dropping beauty as the train rolls through the Rocky Mountains of Alberta and British Columbia. No, I wanted to see it all again, curled up against pillows and snuggled in a blanket.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA To travel on VIA Rail is to step into a bubble away from the rest of the world, often – thankfully – there is no wifi, those work emails can’t be checked even if you wanted to. Instead there is time to sit and think and watch the world go by. There’s a kind of Holiday Camp cheeriness onboard: live performances in the lounge car from musicians who get a free ride in exchange for their songs, guided tastings of Canadian wine and even a movie night. You find yourself, for the first time in decades, musing over where a jigsaw piece goes in the huge puzzle that’s left out for passengers to complete. Over meals in the dining car you exchange snippets of your life story with strangers from around the world. Train Life, in short, becomes a little more contemplative, a little more self-indulgent and a little more gracious. No wonder people love it.

train3For me, also, it’s feeling that sense of great distance and being amazed afresh at the thought of those first Europeans who tried to make their way across this vast land. Of course, the more I learn of First Nations history, the more that feeling is wrapped up in regret and remorse. We Brits – and the French – have more to say sorry for than I could ever begin write. But when I see this great land it’s impossible for the heart not to leap and thoughts of adventure and exploration not to immediately percolate through your brain. I love to see how truly huge Canada is: to look at its soaring mountains, its innumerable lakes, the relentless tangle of forest and oh! that endless flat prairie land. To choose to take hours, days to make a journey nowadays is a kind of wonderful indulgence but it’s one that I’d say gives a destination a special sort of meaning.

I travelled as a guest of Via Rail but, as ever, my words are 100% my own.

More info:

. VIARail [Official Site]


16
Sep 14

Challenge 8: See the Northern Lights

 

Image Credit:  Jenafor Azure

Image Credit: Jenafor Azure


It finally happened: I’ve been chasing the Aurora Borealis for years. Ever since I was a little kid I’ve dreamed of seeing those lights in the sky. I can vividly recall watching a cartoon about a little bear who skated under the northern lights. I couldn’t have been more than five but I remember thinking, “Woah: that looks amazing. I want to see that for real.’ Well – almost 40 years later I finally have.

See, my typical Northern Lights adventures involves driving for ages in a minibus, far away from any kind of warmth, coffee and civilisation wrapped up in chunky arctic-friendly clothing. Then my personal long, slow journey into disappointment: I freeze and feel my hopes fade away – and then, of course, the long bus journey home again, hoping my fingers won’t succumb to frostbite.

 

Gerald Azure, our incredibly kind and generous host at Blue Sky Mush

Gerald Azure, our incredibly kind and generous host at Blue Sky Mush

But not in Churchill. Manitoba. Oh no! Here at the edge of the edge of the world magical things just seem to happen with ease. That day we’d been dog carting (more of that in another post) at Blue Sky Mush and our hosts Jenafor and Gerald Azure had offered to pick us up and take us to see the lights. We got back at 10p.m., Jenafor was already there “They’re here!” she beamed.

Oh great, I thought – surely that means I’ll miss them again.

But no: a quick 10 minute journey to their place and I hopped out the van and looked up. I cried: I did. I wept like a baby when I saw them dancing in the sky, it took my breath away and filled my heart with pure wonder. It’s everything people say it will be and a little more amazing on top of that. It looks unreal: a green glowing flickering disco across the sky. It looks for all the world as though the sky was sighing in colour. You feel elated and fortunate, just so lucky to be standing there and able to see this natural wonder. I stood on their porch and stared and stared. Whenever I got cold – and I was only wearing a light fleece and a hat for protection!- I’d go inside the wood-fire lit warmth of their yurt.

lights2To celebrate our trip, Jenafor had even made us a cake in the shape of a beluga – and yes, oh – so much to come about those shiny white whales. It may have taken most of my life to get to see them but they were worth the wait: and who knew I’d finally get to see them in the summertime with a slice of cake?

I stayed as a guest of Tourism Manitoba and the Lazy Bear Lodge. Gerald and Jenafor of Blue Sky were kind enough to host us.  But as ever my words are 100% my own.

More info:

Blue Sky Mush [Official Site]

. Travel Manitoba [Official Site]

 


21
Jul 14

Challenge #7: Find A Truly Dog-Friendly Break in BC

fred2“Come to Vancouver! It’s so dog-friendly!” they said. And yes, looking at the maps with all the amazing parks and beaches sure, it looks like a pooch’s dream. But the reality is that for a dog owner used to British rules and regulations, life here in Vancouver is pretty tough. I can’t take Freddie on a bus, in a pub, into any shops, restaurants or cafes – and most baffling of all, you can’t even take your dog in a beer garden. No – not even if they lie quietly under your chair. You have to tie them to the fencing outside so they are on the street. We love the parks and beaches but it’s no place for a dog-friendly holiday.

But Whistler seems to be a different beast altogether. Many of the patios (what Canadians call any outdoor space attached to a bar or restaurant) in Whistler Village are on public walkways so your dog can curl up (legally) next to you and, of course there is all that dazzling wild nature of the Pacific North West mountains and lakes to explore and tire those paws out so they snooze while you eat and booze. So: the challenge this month -  is it possible to have a fun few days with my dog on a mountain break? Or will I be dining off gas station sandwiches in a  car park? I planned to try two kind of breaks – the smarter side and more causal to see if everyone could be happy and actually, it amazed me just how well it all worked out.

fred3So – first check-in was at the Fairmont Chateau Whistler. I figured that if a hotel has Canine Ambassadors then you can be fairly sure that they’ll be dog friendly too. In line with most hotels over here, they charge a cleaning fee of $50 a night capped at $150. When we got to our room there was a special welcome pack waiting for us; a smart lead, a guide to all the dog-friendly places in Whistler and beyond, a pack of treats, poo bags and an absurdly comfy bed. As you can see – Fred was a fan, and after that welcome, so was I.

I miss going to pubs with my dog but it felt like almost everywhere in Whistler Village was perfectly pet friendly. After Freddie had given every single inch of our room a good sniff, we went for a stroll. I stopped off for happy hour at The Mix By Ric’s and sat outside in the sunshine, happily sucking on a tall gin-spiked cocktail as Fred curled up underneath my chair. Normal in the UK yes, but the very first time I’ve done it for almost two years thanks to the laws in BC.

fred4I was on my way to check out dinner at The Grill and Vine at the Westin who’d suggested that I could sit at their patio on the back, attached to the FireRock Lounge restaurant. It was actually kind of perfect; everyone else was on the front deck so we had the place to ourselves. I sat warmed by the dying rays of sunshine; just me, my book and dog. I sipped on a glass of Tinhorn Creek rosé, feeling utterly content. After a full day of exploring the trails as we’d stopped off for a long walk around Shannon Falls along the way up from Vancouver, and so many new sights and smells, Freddie was flat-out. I’d heard sad news that week from a friend whose dog had died after 17 very happy years as her companion, so I cherished that feeling of Fredde’s warm, soft muzzle resting on my foot more than ever.

As he snored under the table, I had a creamy burrata salad, dotted with wobbly cubes of peppery jelly and tomatoes tasting of sunshine, then a crunchy quail with waffles drizzled with a sweet maple dressing. It was almost two hours before Fred roused himself by which time I’d had another few glasses and watched the sun sink behind the mountains before enjoying a peaceful walk back to the hotel.

fred5To my delight there was not one woof or whine from Fred all night. He slept like only a tired dog can on a plump and comfy cushion. I’d checked out the guide and just beyond the Fairmont is one of Whistler’s most lovely trails; Lost Lake, perfect for a pre-breakfast walk and there is even an off-leash beach along the way. We explored the trails there for a few hours to work up an appetite for breakfast.

fred9Right next to the Chateau is their Portobello cafe, where you can get really good coffee (oh, thank you!), huge breakfast sandwiches and heaped portions of yoghurt, fruit and granola. Whistler is packed with outdoors-y people who never seem to stop hiking, biking and boarding – and man, they need to carb up! You can sit outside and people-watch while you eat, with your dog happily snoozing, post-walk, at your feet.

fred6I’d been loaned a Ford Fusion Energi for the week, so decided to make the most of it by driving up to Pemberton, around half an hour away from Whistler. It’s a stunning drive; the Sea To Sky Highway is a jaw-clanging route at the best of times but with the misty rainclouds capping the peaks, shot through with occasional shafts of golden sun it was even more lovely than usual. We stopped at One Mile Lake along the way and walked around the dog-friendly off-leash boardwalk. The lake was dotted with waterlilies and the tree branches overhanging the path were thick with glossy leaves. We sat under them for a while, taking shelter, listening to the pitter-patter of rain and watching the clouds scud past the peaks.

fred7We had lunch at The Pony, there’s a shady dog-friendly place out the back with a rail where horses are usually tethered. Today it was a tuckered out cocker spaniel who slept while I laid waste to a ridiculously good poutine and fantastically garlic-y caesar salad.

Casual dining with a dog seemed easy enough to achieve in Whistler but what about something more up-market? Incredibly, that’s a yes too. I met a girlfriend for the oyster specials at Araxi on their spacious patio where, if you pick your seat, you can tie your dog next to you and still keep things perfectly within the law. Araxi is one of BC’s best restaurants and to be able to sit there and enjoy their wonderful hospitality without worrying about my dog was a rare and happy treat.

fred12I’m always pretty sad to check out of a Fairmont, but this time I didn’t pout too much as at least the break wasn’t over. I’d be swapping the luxe grandeur of Chateau Whistler for something a little more rustic – a cabin in the woods at Sunwolf in Brackendale. I’d visited Jess and Jake before when I went to spot eagles on a rafting trip in the winter, but summer in Squamish is quite different. I’d noticed in Whistler the rushing water sound wherever I went. All that snow has to go somewhere, of course, and the rivers and brooks become gushing torrents in the summertime. Sunwolf is based on the Cheakamus river, which had become a racing and rushing body of water; there is something profoundly soothing about being surrounded by vivid green with the sound of the forest and water all around and after checking in to my cabin I felt myself slip into an even deeper gear of relaxation.

fred10I’d got one thing wrong though; I’d expected the cabins to be rustic but they were far from that! Mine had a bathroom that wouldn’t have been out of place in a boutique hotel, plus a comfy couch, a wood-burning stove, basic but well-equipped kitchen and best of all – a lovely little bedroom, tucked away in the eaves upstairs. I lay on the bed and looked around, every window looked out on to the trees.

We went for a walk along the river, with Fred sniffing excitedly at everything along the way. He’s usually a fairly highly-strung dog but after a couple of days enjoying all that Whistler had to offer he was clearly loving Sunwolf too. He kept beaming at me, his tail a blur, as he sprang across the rocks and darted through the trees, utterly in doggie heaven.

fred11We could have cooked in the cabin or used the communal barbecue, but owners Jess and Jake invited us over for a table-bangingly delicious steak dinner. I slept soundly that night, lulled to sleep by so much mountain air and the sound of the river just beyond my windows. Waking to the sight of green, green trees the next day and finding Freddie snoring happily away on his blanket downstairs I plotted how I could come back again soon.

Thanks to the Fairmont Chateau Whistler and Sunwolf for providing accommodation for me and to the Grill and Vine and Araxi for dinner. Also, massive thank you to Ford for loaning me a Fusion Energi hybrid car which runs quite happily on both petrol and electric. Pleasingly quiet and impressively thrifty, the whole journey – some 300km – was done on $37 of petrol, which works out to around 20 quid! You don’t need to have a special charging station as the car has its own set of plugs that you can attach to any plug – and yes, Sunwolf had one outside the cabin for me to use.  As always, my words are 100% my own.

Further Info:

Fairmont Chateau Whistler [Official Site]

Sunwolf [Official Site]

Tourism Whistler [Official Site]


02
Jul 14

Challenge #6: Eat at a Top Chef Canada Winner’s Restaurant

dale1Eat at a Top Chef Canada Restaurant? Er, challenge accepted. Tucking into an award-winning chef’s delicious menu is definitely more my speed than hurtling down a mountain – or even skating down a canal. For non-Canadians, Chef Dale MacKay won the first season of Top Chef Canada in 2011, when he was based here in Vancouver but last year he decided to up sticks and move back to his hometown of Saskatoon to open Ayden Kitchen & Bar. So while I was visiting the city to merrily stuff myself with sausages at the King of Kovbasa festival, a trip to Ayden was clearly on the cards.

dale2It makes total sense as a restaurateur to leave BC: Vancouver real estate is amongst the most expensive in North America and the space that Dale has in Saskatoon could easily fit a trio of Vancouver eateries inside; a lavish private dining space plus a cavernous basement area to prep and store. Also, whereas restaurants serving on-trend high-end comfort food with a nose-to-tail, house-made aesthetic paired with craft cocktails are a dime a dozen in Vancouver, they are something more of a rare beast in Saskatchewan.

dale3I visited for lunch and dinner service and both times, the restaurant was hopping; a lively business lunch and catch-up-over-salads crowd gave way to couples and groups of clearly delighted dinner guests. So – what’s on the menu? Mackay is known – and rightly so – for his charcuterie; firm meaty pates, satin-soft creamy parfaits, fat-speckled and peppery salamis and juicy sausages were all sublime. In-house pickled vegetables added tartness and tang to his meaty charcuterie boards. Mackay has a deft touch with Asian flavours too, his Thai wings popped with chili but were beautifully balanced and aromatic with kaffir lime and lemongrass. Meat is locally-sourced and if the burgers I tried are anything to go by then Alberta beef need to watch out – Saskatchewan is coming for you. In a city that’s not yet known for its dining scene, Mackay is leading the charge. And where one successful restaurant opens, another – and then another – cannot be far behind. And at the end of the day, if a Top Chef Canada winner is making it work then there’s good eating to be found in the prairies.

My trip was made possible by support from Tourism Saskatoon, but – as ever – my words are 100% my own.

. Further information: Tourism Saskatoon

. Ayden Kitchen and Bar

 


23
Jun 14

Nordik Spa-Nature Aufguss Ritual: ‘Pagan, Wild and Incredibly Thrilling’

spa1For a spa-fiend like myself, the joy of discovering a new ‘spa toy’ is a rare and wonderful thing; so you can imagine what a bundle of glee I was at Gatineau’s Nordik Spa-Nature when I found not just one but three things I’d never experienced before. Nordik Spa-Nature is the largest spa in North America, boasting 7 outdoor baths, 8 saunas and an infinity pool set across three separate areas of beautifully landscaped gardens surrounded by soaring trees. I visited on a Friday afternoon in winter and even though the spa was busy with groups of girlfriends and blissed-out couples, it never felt crowded. So! New spa toys: the first thing I spotted which I’d never seen before were heated hammocks. It was snowing the day I was at the spa and, of course, Nordic-style spa-ing means bouncing between heated pools or saunas then taking icy plunges before relaxing. The hammocks were lined with a Neoprene-like material which seemed to wick away moisture from my wet swimsuit and the heater was phenomenally effective. Climb in, zip up to almost over your head and then wiggle your hips to encourage a spot of swaying and you’re in heaven. To be able to lie all snug and toasty-warm in a hammock in a sopping wet cozzie and not feel cold or wet, while watching snow fall was a truly magical experience. spa3I’d read a little about the Källa treatment before I visited. It’s essentially a huge communal float-tank in what they say is only the second salt-water floating pool in the world. Silence is required on entry; you go downstairs to a low-ceiling blue- lit room with flickering candlelight. You’re told to lie down on a lounger and slip on the headphones, handily positioned by each bed, to listen to instructions. I really enjoyed the sense of mystery and not knowing what to expect. I was told to shower before and afterwards, avoid rubbing my eyes in the pool and to move carefully to avoid splashing others. The water – a 12% blend of Epsom salts heated to 95/96 degrees – gives you an incredible buoyancy. I carefully waded in, lay back in the shallow pool (you can easily sit up) with my ears underwater. Initially thoughts raced through my head and I found it impossible to switch off, but the subtly-insistent effect of the mesmerising music playing from the underwater speakers along with the womb-like warmth of the pool and the muscle-melting effect of floating meant that the next thing I knew, I was waking up. Floating gently in the water so utterly relaxing that I’d actually fallen asleep. The best thing? It was only a $40 add on. spa2The final surprise was the Aufguss sauna ritual, I’d been told when I arrived to listen out for the gong and if I wanted to participate, to make my way immediately to the largest sauna. The ritual is performed four times daily so I timed my departure around the 5p.m. event so that it would be the last thing I did before I left. Spa-goers gathered in the sauna and were told to sit on the lower levels if we didn’t want to experience too intense a level of heat. If we needed to go out, we could go – but not come back. The Aufguss master came in with a basket of snowballs which had been sprinkled with essential oils. He spoke to us briefly in French and English to explain the ritual and then the door closed and music began – extracts from the stirring classic Carmina Burrana. The Aufguss master smashed the snowballs onto the heated sauna stones and then, as the steam rose, he whirled and snapped a towel around to fan us with the instantly-super-hot air. It felt pagan and wild and incredibly thrilling. I went from pleasantly warm to dripping with sweat in a few minutes. The music swooped and fell, the towel dancing around above our heads and the intense heat all combined to create a genuinely new and exciting kind of sauna treatment. At the end we all clapped, the doors were flung open and we cooled down in a cold plunge pool outside. I left feeling fantastic. Thoroughly energised, completely relaxed and so delighted to have discovered these new spa experiences. If you’re visiting Ottawa, just hail a cab to cross province borders into Quebec (just a fifteen minute drive) to check out this brilliantly well-planned gem of a spa in Gatineau Park.

I travelled as a guest of Ottawa Tourism – but as ever – my words are 100% my own.

Info:

Ottawa Tourism [Official Site]

. Nordik Spa-Nature [Official Site]


16
May 14

Challenge #5: Float in Canada’s Dead Sea

Because if someone tells you that ‘Canada’s Dead Sea’ is a few hours drive away, well, you just get in a car, right?

manitou_opt-2

I’ve been a little obsessed with Manitou Springs ever since I first read about it, it’s a rarity; there are only three lakes in the world that have this particular chemical composition and the others are in Israel and the Czech Republic, but Manitou Lake is right here in Canada. There are 27 different kinds of mineral salts in the water; it’s particularly high in magnesium and sulphate and what all these naturally-occurring chemicals reportedly does is make the water buoyant and, according to the legend of the Cree First Nations – also rich with healing properties. Of course, winter in Sakatchewan is no time to go for a dip in a lake but thanks to a pool and spa complex you can skip the bitter sub-zero cold and soak up the benefits all year round.

manitou3After an hour or so driving the arrow-straight Yellowhead Highway which neatly cuts across all four western provinces, I turned off towards Watrous and after a few minutes was flooded with a sense of deja vu. I heard a distant rumble on the horizon and slowed down and then I saw it: a freight train which seemed like it was a hundred cars long. I jumped out into the minus 20-something  bone-numbing chill and watched it pass. It was as I listened to the clickety-clack of the rails on the track that I realised I had been here before. Four years ago, crossing Canada on the “Canadian” train from Toronto to Vancouver. I watched the train disappear into the distance and thought about what a different life I led now compared to the girl on that train then.

manitou6When you’re feeling contemplative, the best thing to do is listen to country music, and of course, the prairies had radio stations to suit. I drove along singing songs about cowboys and cheating hearts, no other cars on the road following the train line and my memories. Yes! Here were the huge grain silos that I’d snapped photos of from the window of the train. In the dead of winter, the fields heaped high in snow, it seemed impossible to imagine the fields golden and green again. But the sun was bright and the sky impossibly blue. I pulled over again to watch the powdery snow snake across the road in the wind.

manitou2And I finally got to see my first ‘wild’ creatures as I turned down the narrow road lined with high trees a mile or so away from the lake and the hotel. I slammed on my brakes as dozens of white-tail deer galloped and skipped across the road, leaping gracefully over a fence to the fields beyond. Yes, they were ‘only’ deer but they were so alive and vivid, their hooves clattering across the road, seeing them felt like a rare joy and treat.

But yes, the question I know you want answered: can you really float in the water at Manitou Springs? Is it ‘Canada’s Dead Sea’? Well, yes, you can; it’s somewhat unnerving to lie back, floating easily on your back and then try and sit up, I kept flipping back, as though I was held up by unseen hands. My skin and hair felt gorgeous afterwards and after talking to a few of the many seniors bathing in the pool, it’s a popular spot for easing arthritis and other joint pains. The hotel, like the pool, is fairly utilitarian, but most importantly, spotlessly clean. It’s not an “upmarket spa” or a “boutique hotel” at all, but what you’re here for is to experience the pool and its seemingly restorative waters and really, this is the only show in town to do that.

manitou5I tried a couple of the signature spa treatments, one with therapeutic mud from the lake and another using mineral salts – honestly, I’m not sure I’d recommend them, unless you don’t mind traipsing from your treatment room, naked and covered in mud or salt, wrapped in the bottom sheet from your couch, before taking a brisk walk through the reception before hosing yourself clean in a toilet with a shower. Call me a picky princess, but I’m not a fan of that so until they build a shower IN the treatment room, I’d suggest you stick to treatments which don’t require you leaving the room as the therapists were good but stymied by the lack of decent facilities.

Manitou4The lake was covered with snow when I visited and I trudged outside for a walk to see what it was like. Cars have to be plugged in at the mains in freezing climates like this, you need a block heater or it’s likely that your car simply won’t start. I stomped past a row of plugged-in cars on down to the lake. The snow was deep, I was almost immediately up past my knees and it was hard to walk, but I could imagine this place in the summer; I saw past the bandstand thick with snow and the ice cream stall closed for the season and imagined that same blue sky and bright sun beating down on waving fields of golden corn and prairie flowers instead of reflecting the endless snow.

I travelled as a guest of the Canadian Tourism Commission, Tourism Saskatoon/Saskatchewan and Manitou Springs Resort Hotel & Spa and but as ever, all my words are 100% own.

·  Manitou Springs [Official Site]

·  Tourism Saskatoon [Official Site]

· Tourism Saskatchewan [Official Site]

 

 


25
Apr 14

Diving Birds and Bluefin Tuna on Prince Edward Island

“Making $5 on a lobster is a dream; at $4 we make money but we’re at $3 right now.” Veteran fisherman Captain Kenny looks out to the choppy gunmetal-grey water and grins ruefully before putting the ‘hammer’ down to speed us out to sea towards the horizon. There are seals out there bobbing and diving in the water, snacking on mackerel and somewhere—hopefully— Atlantic Bluefin tuna. The plan is to find them and hand-feed them with mackerel; we just have to catch the mackerel and then track down the tuna.

boat2As we crash through the increasingly rough sea, Captain Kenny yells out fishing stats above the roar of the engine and the rhythmic slap of water against the windscreen. The cod seem to not be coming back; they disappeared, over-fished into almost extinction in the 1990s and have barely been seen since. There are strict regulations on fisheries now, necessary for the survival of the oceans but hard on those who’ve made their living for generations from the ocean. A recent wild halibut season was only 12 hours long, Kenny tells us, there’s a quota and once that’s met, that’s that. It’s the same for the Bluefin Tuna that we’re seeking out right now, “I’m only allowed to catch one tuna, the weight is checked at the port,” he explains. “You clear $6,000 on one tuna if you’re lucky - often far less – there are 360 people with licenses to catch them and our quota is 125m tone of bluefin tuna for all of PEI.” The weight is subtracted from the quota and then – incredibly – names are picked out of a hat to decide who can fish for more than one.

boat3

We stop to catch mackerel, alas, it turns out I’m a rotten fisherman and the only thing I catch is another person’s hook. Fortunately there are others on board less ham-fisted than I when it comes to finding big tuna’s dinner. We bag half a bucket’s worth and speed off again until, eyes narrowed against the horizon, Captain Kenny slows the boat down and we all peer at the sonar monitor which he uses to find the tuna.

boat4The green and blue display looks pleasingly like a vintage Atari video game, and I find myself watching for fish icons to come swimming across the screen. But there is no sign of tuna – even though fisherman’s lore tell us that they are there – fishermen have always looked for these giant fish by watching birds. From their aerial vantage point birds can spot of schools of fish and they’re always on the look out for easy pickings. If they spot mackerel close to the surface and start bombarding the water, it’s likely that the tuna will be close and feeding too. It’s incredible to watch the birds dive again and again for their supper; they flap their wings, circle close and then just a few feet away from the water hurtle beak-down into the waves. The sky becomes a white-winged squadron of dive-bombing birds, It’s mesmerizing.

I watch the birds wheel overhead and then smash into the water, just beyond us wind turbines spin slowly in the breeze and all around the boat, seals bob in the water like beach balls, “Swimming dogs is what they are,” grins Captain Kenny, and offers around a plastic bottle of his home-brewed Moonshine. It’s surprisingly smooth but makes you catch your breath as it burns a heady trail down. It’s just what’s needed to numb the disappointment of a no-show tuna trip. They’re down there alright, Kenny explains, pointing to a dark pattern at the bottom of the sonar screen; just too far down for us and they’re not hungry enough to come to the surface.  Maybe it’s that second (third?) gulp of Moonshine or maybe it’s just the excitement of the boat and the seals, the kamikaze birds and the thrill of the hunt but as we chug back to harbour I’m really not feeling sad at all. You can’t schedule nature, tuna won’t swim up to be fed on demand and there’s always something a little refreshing about that in this overly-organised world. A nice two-fin salute to us humans who’ve messed things up so much perhaps? But oh, we’re trying now are trying to fix things and  eco-tourism initiatives like this and Captain Kenny’s Hook & Release fishing excursions are what will keep fishermen in business and – hopefully – give the oceans time to re-stock with fish.

I travelled as a guest of the Canadian Tourism Commission and Tourism PEI but as ever, all my words are 100% my own.

· Giant Blue Fin Tuna [Official Site]

· Tourism PEI [Official Site]

· Ocean Wise – Find Sustainable Seafood Choices [Official Site]

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