Apr 15

Spa-gasm at Spa & Hotel Le Finlandais

spa1I think I may have just found my new favourite spa. And, wonder of wonders, it has a hotel attached too, so should your heart desire (and your wallet allow) you could never, ever leave. After twenty minutes in the spa and hotel Le Finlandais that’s pretty much all I was planning so consider yourself warned, this spa and hotel have impressive powers.

Hyperbole aside, what makes this great? It is, as ever, the attention to detail which elevates it from ‘wow’ to ‘ZOMYGOD!’ Firstly it’s overcoming the issue of location; it’s true that the spa and hotel are located on a singularly unlovely strip of highway some 30 minutes drive from Montreal, and, to make things worse, the hotel and spa are on opposite sides of the road. I snorted to myself when I saw this and rolled my eyes, but a toasty-warm shuttle service from door to door, that I never waited more than 30 seconds for, soon squashed any negative thoughts.  Continue reading →

Apr 15

Dine on the frozen river in Winnipeg at RAW: Almond

RA1If you learn one thing about the people of Canada it’s that they embrace the lot that life has given them when it comes to the elements. Whereas in England we shiver and curse the weather, in Winnipeg, when it buckets down with snow and the wind chill factor takes it down to a horrifying minus 40-something degrees, instead of getting on a plane to someplace warm, they go outside to play. 

RA3Since 2013, chef Mandel Hitzer of Deer + Almond and Joe Kalturnyk of RAW: Gallery, have worked together to create a three week only pop-up restaurant on the frozen ice of the Assiniboine River, RAW: Almond. In previous years, guest chefs including Vancouver’s Vikram Vij and Saskatoon’s Dale McKay have created dining history.

RA4I got to visit on the last night where chef Tristian Foucault of Peasant Cookery cooked up a five course menu featuring foie gras tourchon with a cranberry maple gastrique, duck confit and goat perogies with duck procuitto brown butter, and shrimp crusted king salmon with wild rice and walnut sauce.

RA5Diners perch on fur-covered wooden stumps around a long table on the ice. Heaters blow hot air to keep out the chill but we still kept our hats and scarves on while we ate. Exciting, unique and downright delicious, it’s no wonder the season sells out each year.

RA2Is it worth trying to score a ticket to this unusual event, to freeze your behind off in Winnipeg? Absolutely! Go, embrace the weather, enjoy the festivals and dine in one of the world’s most unique restaurants.

My trip was made possible with the assistance of Tourism Winnipeg and Travel Manitoba, but as ever, my words are 100% my own.

Apr 15

Aboriginal Adventures Part 5: Storytelling with Yolande in the Wendake Longhouse

prn1I looked up over my breakfast and pondered the stuffed lynx staring glassy-eyed into the distance as I spooned up my yoghurt. I thoughtfully licked my spoon and turned my head a little and spotted a stuffed owl. The clink of china and babble of slow morning conversation mixed with a CD of rhythmic chants and tribal songs of the Huron Wendat people. Welcome to breakfast time at the Hôtel-Musée Premières Nations. Just 15 minutes drive from Quebec City, the Wendake reserve houses a museum and longhouse which has bought the culture of the Huron Wendat nation into an accessible tourist destination with a first class hotel and restaurant. Continue reading →

Mar 15

Aboriginal Adventures Part 4: Ice Fishing with the Atikamekw

IF2I guess I’d imagined that ice fishing would be like one of the cartoons that I’d seen when I was a kid. I had some Hanna-Barbera eskimo in my mind, a guy in a parka sawing a hole through the ice, baiting his hook and lowering the line. But this, if you’ll excuse the pun, was a different kettle of fish altogether.

The Atikamekw way of ice fishing means that you don’t drill one hole, you drill eight. “If you have just one hole you’ll only have enough for yourself,” explained Daveen, my Atikamekw  guide. “We use nets so we have enough for us all.” Once you’ve made your eight holes you thread a line through them and pull a net along it under the water. The plan is that you come back the next day to collect enough fish for everyone. I could see the logic but we’d been at it for almost three hours now and the sun was sinking like a hot buttered penny into the horizon, robbing us of light. Continue reading →

Mar 15

Aboriginal Adventures Part 3: The Story of Saint Kateri


I wasn’t expecting to see her when I walked into the tiny church, but there she was, in pride of place on the wall, just above photos of the new pope and the old one.

Who is that? I asked my guide.

It’s Saint Kateri, she told me. The world’s only First Nations saint.

Truth be told I’d not wanted to bother with the church at all on my tour around the reserve at Wendake. I was here to find out about the Huron-Wendat, to soak up their culture at the Hôtel-Musée Premières Nations, and so no, a catholic church was definitely not on my Must See list. But oftentimes when you’re with a guide you try to be polite, so, I’d walked in from the cold, kicked the snow from my boots at the door and looked around in a disinterested kind of way before double-taking at the altar. A glowing, gorgeous native girl, her long brown hair in braids, holding a crucifix. Not what you’d expect at all.

Continue reading →

Feb 15

Aboriginal Adventures Part 2: Nothing Is Wasted, Everything Used.

isabel3I’ve lived here my whole life.” says Isabel as she shows me how to carefully thread the tiny beads on to the wire needle. “You’ve never lived anywhere else?” “Never. I love it here. My front door, I’ve never locked it. Ever. I know everyone and everyone knows me. My mum is my neighbour. I see my dad every day. Any time I’m not working and I want to talk to someone, I just go outside.” I try and pick the beads onto the wire, I’m not deft as Isabel, my little beads flick off, ricocheting across the table. I apologise and she giggles. Isabel tells me about her sister who’s currently living in British Columbia for a short while on a work contract, her face changes as she talks of how much she misses her. “She’ll be back. I know, she’ll be back.Continue reading →

Feb 15

Chinese New Year in Richmond

richmond3The last time I can remember this scent in the air was in Sri Lanka; the smoky perfume of incense mixed with the sweet smell of flowers left as offerings to Buddha. But this time I’m not in Kandy’s Temple of the Tooth, there is no elephant tethered outside, no mischievous monkeys clambering the temple walls, nor gaudily-painted tuk tuks or King Coconut sellers ready to take your money. No, despite the incense and the gloriously golden glitz of the multi-armed Guan-Yin, I’m actually just a few miles from Vancouver in Richmond.

A short stop away from the Canada Line train, along the Highway to Heaven (the poetic name for No. 5 Road) you’ll find some 20 different places of worship: temples, mosques and churches co-exist peacefully together, side by side. Take a turn on to the Steveston Highway and you’ll find the most dazzling of all, the International Buddhist Temple, North America’s largest, modelled after China’s Forbidden City in Beijing and the start of my exploration into how to celebrate Chinese New Year in Canada. The festival is a big deal in Richmond, where some 60% of residents are Asian-Canadian, so before each Lunar New Year in February, the temple does a brisk business in the golden baubles and flowers trade, with the devout stopping by to purchase armfuls of each to take home and to give as gifts.   Continue reading →

Feb 15

High Above the Clouds, Fondue Dinner at the Sea to Sky Gondola

fondue2I was wrong about the weather.  As we set off from Vancouver along the twisting turns of the Sea to Sky highway, the rain lashed down, blocking our view of one of the most beautiful drives in the world. The tail end of the Pineapple Express, a west coast storm system that had dropped what felt like a river of rain over the city in a few short days, was putting a decidedly damp start on our trip to Squamish’s Sea to Sky Gondola. I’d been excited to see far out across Howe Sound as we made our way up the Stawamus Chief, Squamish’s famous granite domed mountain. And from seeing photos, knew that it would be a knock out view when we got up there. But the rain and clouds had put paid to that. Or so I thought. We rose gently in the gondola, coming what felt close enough to touch the wet rock of the Chief, then we were plunged into a dense mist, like being wrapped in cotton wool, as we floated upwards, unable to see a thing. But then we broke through the clouds, weak rays of sun piercing through the dappled shades of grey and oh, what a sight! Continue reading →

Feb 15

Aboriginal Adventures Part 1: Travel to Manawan, Quebec

“Do you like to live so far away from everyone?”

“Yes. It’s nice to to be with the nature here, the city is too busy.”

mlmw4I don’t think I’ve ever known what it meant to travel somewhere truly isolated before. Spending time in Manawan, a First Nations reserve for the Atikamekw (pronounced ah-tick-a-mick) nation some five hours away from Montreal pushed my limits like no other trip has done. You can only get to Manawan via a gravel path from the small town of Saint-Michel-des-Saints, or in winter by speeding over the frozen lakes on a snowmobile.

There is no road. There is no transit. You are alone.

I close my eyes for a moment and lean against his back, my crash helmet bumping a little against his as we speed across the snow on his motoneige. We smell of wood smoke from the stove crackling away in his father’s hunting shack on the edge of the vast frozen lake. Every once in a while I catch a little of the scent of the moose that we fried and ate with boiled potatoes before we set out.

mlmw2Even though I’m wearing (count them) five layers under my Canada Goose parka, plus a cashmere scarf triple wrapped around my neck and bundled over my nose AND a fleece head mask and hat, the painfully icy wind still manages to find chinks in my armor. It hurts, first it’s sharply cold, then a slow, aching burn, but it’s impossible to adjust anything with my huge down-stuffed mittens so I resign myself to the pain and look out over the christmas card scene around us. The trees are heavy with snow and as we zip along the narrow trails I feel like I’m in Narnia.

mlmw3It turns out that I’m a rotten driver when it comes to snowmobiles, maybe with practice I’d be better but there was no time, so that’s why my Atikamekw guide, Daveen, is ferrying me along this afternoon. There are too many narrow forest trails along the way and a section that cuts along a break-neck drop. As we skimmed over it, I looked down and thanked my lucky stars that for once I acquiesced and went as a passenger, not driver. I couldn’t have done this.

This trip is teaching me that I have limits: I’m a soft Brit, used to soft warm beds and a soft, relatively smooth-edged life. It’s all rough, hard edges out here on the reserve in the hunting shack. Everything takes so much time and nothing comes easy. Take washing a pan for instance: we wanted to clean it, but first we had to fill it with snow and put it on the wood stove, then wait for the snow to melt –and wow, snow melts down to nothing, it’s all air and no water– and then clean it. That took almost an a hour. An hour to clean one pan. Life is hard here, every single little thing.

MLMW5Many of the usual conversational gambits that you’d have when you meet strangers are irrelevant here for the most part. What do you do for a living? Well, it’s likely that they don’t have a ‘job’ but they’re also likely engaged in working within the community, living on the land in the traditional way; hunting and fishing if they’re men and staying home if they’re women, sewing and beading elaborate regalia for dances and ceremonies. All my usual chat of ‘where d’you like to go’ and ‘what d’you like to do’ melts away into irrelevance too. For the most part, people stay here and well, that’s that. It’s all about family and friends and community. There’s one snack bar in Manawan. One grocery store. That’s pretty much it for places to go in our sense of the word, but again, here’s another difference, for the Atikamekw, the best place to go is on to the land, their beloved land, which supports them and which, in turn, they cherish and protect.

Image © Google Maps.

Image © Google Maps.

My trip was made possible thanks to the CTC, Tourisme Autochtone Quebec, Tourism Quebec and the kindness and hospitality of Gilles, Daveen and Carson Moar, however as always – my words are 100% my own. 

More Information:

Tourisme Autochtone Quebec  Tourism Quebec Canadian Tourism Commission.

Jan 15

Welcome to West Coast Paradise at the Wickaninnish Inn

MLwick002The water is wreathed in mist where the pale milky grey sky, smudged at the edges with darker storm clouds, meets the gunmetal grey of the ocean through a soaking Pacific Northwest drizzle. But the ocean is still, with barely a white horse breaking the surface of the waves. Wisps of mist hang softly over the vivid green firs which cling tenaciously to the sloping sides of the mossy islands which quietly reveal themselves on either side of the ferry as we cruise through the fog. The clouds hang low and long in this part of the world with the mountains peeking through. It was dark when I set off for Horseshoe Bay, the green and amber lights of the tankers out at English Bay reflected on the water. I drove through Stanley Park and across the Lion’s Gate bridge with its lights twinkling in the sleepy December dawn. Such early starts remind me of being a child, of being carried from my bed in the arms of my mum and tucked up in the back of my parents’ car. Lulled by the sound of the radio and the rhythmic trundle of the traffic I’d fall asleep, then wake, confused but excited: ‘Are we nearly there yet?” blinking sleepily and wondering when we’d be at the beach. Continue reading →

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