Things to do

Nov 15

Vancouver International Wine Festival 2016 Tickets Released


It’s one of my favourite events in Vancouver’s culinary calendar, the Vancouver International Wine festival; a blizzard of fun wine-based events, tastings, and special winery dinners which takes place each February, just in time to give us all a boozy lift in those grey winter days. Each year the festival’s focus shifts to a different country –last year celebrated Australia – this year it’s all about Italy with 60 wineries from nine regions representing the country and offering visitors to the festival a chance to sample some 50 varieties in the tasting room.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I love this event for so many reasons; I’m just starting to learn more about wine and each year I come away with a little more knowledge and a whole lot more favourites, thanks to the fascinating seminars and winemaker dinners. Last year I was lucky enough to attend an incredible event showcasing rare wines from California winery legend Robert Mondavi. A gloriously Vancouver-ish event, it took place at the Observatory restaurant, a the tope of Grouse Mountain. I got to watch the bright winter sun set over the city and then learn more about Mondavi’s divine wines in the company of their winemaker Nova Cadamatre, all paired with Observatory’s Chef Dennis Peckham’s inspired cooking.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIf you’re planning a trip to Vancouver now’s a great time to snap up discounted tickets on tasting room events until December 31 (or until quantities last). Or, for an excellent bargain, you can score a free ticket to the tasting room, which, this year along with Italy, will showcase 156 wineries from 14 countries by booking a hotel via  Best paired with a ski holiday to Whistler or maybe a city trip to Victoria, start planning your wine break to Vancouver now…

Further booking info:
Phone: 604-873-3311, toll free 1-877-321-3121 (Monday to Friday, 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m.)
In person: 305–456 West Broadway, Vancouver (Monday to Friday, 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m.)



Oct 15

Peddling through the Prairies: Explore Edmonton and Calgary by Bike

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI guess it makes sense that the prairies are so utterly cycle-friendly: flat, wide open spaces and oh, those endless skies. I got to spend some time in Alberta recently on trips to Calgary and Edmonton, both cities that I’d always associated with gleaming high rises and traffic-packed downtown cores. Turns out I was wrong: there’s plenty of green space and winding rivers in both cities and good cycling to be found in both.


OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI took a tour around Calgary, freewheeling across bridges and pedalling through the recently opened St Patrick’s Island Park, a gorgeous newly renovated leafy space in the  middle of the Bow River, with hiking and biking trails and killer views across the city’s skyline.

in Edmonton I cycled the River Valley Trails and had to stop a dozen or more times to take photographs of the lush parkland all around me. It was the start of fall; the seasons were sliding from one to the next and the trees blazed with their autumn finest.  I love it when I’m genuinely surprised by a city –and to have two such similar experiences in a matter of days delighted me. It always reminds me: forget what you think you know – go find out for sure what things are really like. IMG_0506

I travelled with support from Destination Canada and Travel Alberta. For further information check out Tourism Calgary and Tourism Edmonton.




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 →

Jan 15

Storm Watching in Tofino at the Wickaninnish Inn

sw002The waves break first on the rocks that jut out to sea before crashing and flooding over the ones which lie directly below my window. The spray soars in the air–higher than my balcony– before falling back into the swirling white-foam waters. I snuggle up, swaddled in my Hudson’s Bay stripe woolen blanket and revel in that joyous feeling of watching a storm rage while I’m warm, dry and toasting myself by a roaring fire. sw005The floor to ceiling windows of the Wickaninnish Inn bring the raw chaotic beauty of the outside world to the cosy calm of indoors. This morning, before the sky darkened like a fresh bruise, I pulled on the bright yellow gum boots and rain jacket that were in my wardrobe and headed out to Chesterman’s Beach. There are curious sights to see here with the beach ringed by fir trees and red cedars: out to sea there are several small low-lying islands, bristling with trees which soar up, looking for all the world like greenly-mossy whales.  Rubber hose-like bull-whip kelp seaweed lines the beach with a frill of sandy-coloured sea foam whipped up on the wet sand like so many egg whites. I walk to the far end of the beach, feeling the wind get colder.

sw006The clouds scud past the weak December sun, flicking the day’s switch from light to shade and back again. I look back to the Inn and see the water lapping higher up the beach than when I first set off and I turn back at once, keenly aware that in a fight between the pounding waves and I, I would certainly lose.

sw004Back in my room, I do what storm watchers have done for generations: find myself the perfect spot that’s not too far from the fire and just close enough to the windows, and savour a mug of creamy hot chocolate. The waves have a rhythm, the water gushes into the inlet below hissing before it slaps the rocks and then sighing as it floods out again. Here in Tofino, in this picture-perfect slice of Pacific Northwest heaven at the end of a long and winding road, they get around 12 feet of rain each year. They are battered by hurricane force winds. And you couldn’t find a more contented set of people. Out in Tofino they know that there’s no such thing as bad weather– just the wrong clothes.  sw003Storm watching season at the Wickaninnish Inn is as popular for visitors as the idyllic days of summer. And I understand why. It’s mesmerising. At first, I try to capture the perfect wave, the arch of spray before it falls back into the sea. But after some hundreds or so snaps I finally put my camera down and just…watch. Each wave as it smashes against the shore smoothes away a paper-thin layer of stress. I’m glued to my window all afternoon, watching the waves and listening to the ocean’s music. By the time it’s dark I’m in a dreamy state of pure relaxation and I don’t close the widows for my whole stay: each night I go to sleep lulled by the hiss and crash of the waves, warmly wrapped up in a blanket-topped duvet, dreaming of capturing that perfect wave. Thanks to Tourism Vancouver Island, Tourism Tofino and the Wickaninnish Inn who hosted me. As ever – my words are 100% my own.

More info:

Tourism Vancouver Island, Tourism Tofino, The Wickaninnish Inn.

Dec 14

Challenge 12: Kayak with Belugas

Image via Jenafor Azure

Image via Jenafor Azure

They come dashing through the water, their shiny white bodies flashing in the sunlight, cutting a streak through the greeny-blue gentle waves. Beluga whales. One, two, a dozen, maybe more, swimming with their gunmetal grey new-born calves in the millpond stillness of the Hudson river at the mouth of Hudson Bay. This is Canada’s Great White North, Churchill in Manitoba, where this morning I saw a polar bear lumber past at the side of the road as we left the little airport. I don’t know it yet, but tomorrow I’ll see the Aurora Borealis shimmer for the first time. I’ll cry tears of joy and hold my friend’s hand tight as the sky pulses green and purple above us in the velvet-black of the night sky.

Image via Jenafor Azure

Image via Jenafor Azure

This feels like an enchanted place: far away from the modern world, impossible to reach by road, only accessible by train or plane, sketchy phone signal and scant internet. A refuge, in fact, and it’s here for a few weeks in the summer that you may be lucky enough to see a polar bear and her cubs as you stroll on the beach. And it’s also where you can strap on a life jacket, push a kayak into the water and paddle out to see belugas whales swim right up to you and playfully nudge your oars.

Image via Jenafor Azure

Image via Jenafor Azure

They’re mischievous, these whales. They want to play. I push myself hard, thrashing my paddle fast through the water, speeding across the shallow waves to try and catch a pod a little further out beyond the harbour. For a brief moment they join me, one on either side, rushing me along making me part of their pod for a few tantalizingly short seconds. I know already these are moments that I’ll run and re-run in my head for the rest of my life. Nothing to the belugas and everything to me. I laugh out loud, whooping with glee before my arms tire and I rest my paddle. But the best is still to come: two juveniles, seeing that I’ve stopped, race towards me at breakneck speed, darting under my craft, creating a white water wake. I shriek like I’m on a roller-coaster and lift my paddle to ride the beluga-made wave. The sun begins to set and I paddle off into the gloriously gaudy peachy-pink sunset.

Magic hums in the air here: polar bears doze on beaches, haunting lights dance in the sky and glittering white whales wait to play with you in the rosy waves…

Image via Jenafor Azure

Image via Jenafor Azure

I stayed in Churchill 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] Images thanks to Jenafor Azure at Blue Sky Mush [Official site].

Dec 14

Challenge 11: Learn to surf

Learn to surf in Canada. In the wintertime. Oh boy…  surf3

Over on Vancouver Island if you make the trip down the narrow winding two lane road to Tofino you’ll discover Canada’s surf capital, which boasts 35km of  stunning sandy beaches ringed with pines and soaring firs plus reliable rolling waves. Winter is meant to bring some of the best surf so I planned to try and catch my first break here.

surf1I’d signed up with Surf Sisters three hours introduction to surfing.  The day starts with Surf School 101 where we learned the basics from Nicole, our good-natured surf coach: from not peeing in the wet suit (dude, manners!) to what type of board we’d be surfing on (a longboard–good for beginners and apparently a more ‘elegant’ surf style) and also the names of the parts of the board (it’s always good to know the name of what’s about to smack you in the face). We also learned surfing etiquette (one person per wave) and the difference between rips, waves and swells and how to spot a ‘green wave’ – the ones that we’d hopefully be riding.

surf5What no one mentioned though was one of the most complicated things about surfing is actually wriggling into the kit. Wetsuits are not easy to put on, but as I was to find out later, that’s nothing compared to taking them off. I seriously contemplated finding out the cost of taking a knife to it and cutting the thing off me. Take a friend and beg them to help you with this, as you will need a wetsuit to surf in Tofino where the water temperature ranges between 14-7 degrees Celsius– too cold to really enjoy suit-less. I was surprised– and very happy to discover –that the suit and gloves meant that I was actually toasty warm on a December day after spending almost 90 minutes in the water.

surf4Wading out into the water, clutching my board under my arm as the waves kept coming, I realised that surfing was going to be a lot more demanding than I’d imagined. First just getting out to a gap between the waves was tough, the board kept trying to escape my clutches and the sting of saltwater in my eyes made me gasp. Getting on the board and lying down was relatively simple, but going from that to standing? Impossible.

surf8Time after time, Nicole lined me up and gave me a good push off. I’d paddle, wriggle forward and try to jump up then tumble over. Once I got properly dragged underwater, my board got away from me and as the waves tossed and pounded me under I cradled my head with my hands, remembering Nicole’s warning that the most dangerous thing out there would be my own board hitting me. I took refuge in the shallows for a while, catching my breath and coughing up the last of the sea water from my lungs whir admiring the view.

surf7It turns out that surfing is yet another sport that I am simply no good at. However, thanks to the efforts of Nicole and beginner’s tenacious luck, I at least managed to stand up once on my board, before calling it quits and staggering off to do battle with my wetsuit in the carpark.  But as I fell off again and again, what kept me going was the thought of the traditional Tofino post-surf treat just a few minutes away at the Tacofino food truck. Heavenly fresh baja fish tacos. Piping hot. So, so good after surfing.


Thanks to my fellow students for so patiently letting me photograph them. Thank also to Surf Sisters and Tourism Tofino/Tourism Vancouver Island for hosting me. 


More info:

Tourism Vancouver Island  Surf Sisters  Tacofino

Dec 14

Challenge 10: Watch a hockey game

Canadians are obsessed with hockey in a way that makes even the British love of football seem like an idle fancy. I’ve tried my best to get interested but when it takes me around 10 minutes to spot the puck on-screen (it’s so small and moves too fast!) it’s hard to sustain an interest. However, recently I got to watch the Vancouver Canucks play live and I think I may have discovered the key to becoming interested. I LOVED watching it up close; the hiss and slither of the skate blades and that satisfying thwack and slap of a stick hitting at the puck. I’m not going to pretend for a second that I had a clue what was going on, but I did love it and I’d suggest a night at a game as a perfect way to see Canadians at their most Canadian.

IH1Ten things you probably need to know before you watch an ice hockey match: 

  1. It’s just ‘hockey’ not ‘ice hockey’.
  2. It’s a ‘game’ not a ‘match’.
  3. I’ve been told (by a man, through gritted teeth), that’s a ‘puck’ not a ‘ball-thing’.IH2
  4. The game starts with the national anthem, if it’s a USA/Canadian game there’ll be both. Charmingly, everyone stands and sings, rather than boos.
  5. Whenever pretty much anyone does anything on the ice (scores, falls over, gets sent off) a cheery burst of 80s rock anthems and pop tunes bellows from the sound system.
  6. It’s easy to pick a team, there are only seven Canadian teams in the NHL, I suspect this makes for fiercely passionate supporters. It’s not like so many UK cities where you have to choose which team to support – and potentially split family loyalties. IH3
  7. Fighting seems to be accepted. I’m told it’s not but hey, there was so much punching and pushing and shoving on the ice, it made football look squeaky-clean in comparison.
  8. They take a LOT of breaks: there are breaks to smooth down the ice with a Zamboni, breaks to seemingly get everyone on and off the ice (no idea why), breaks that are actually intervals. IH5
  9. If you’re lucky enough to watch the Canucks at the Rogers arena, thanks to some rather smart staffing, award-winning bartender Jay Jones is in charge and so it’s possible to drink a well-made cocktail, a BC wine or craft beer while you watch. On the food side, new chef Robert Bartley has introduced a programme of pleasingly-delicious stadium food from chunky ocean-fresh lobster rolls to house-smoked pulled pork sandwiches.
  10. My best advice? Get seats in the ‘club’ section, you can order food and drink to be bought to your seat here so you don’t miss a moment of the action. Failing that, make it dinner and a ‘show’ by booking a table at the Centre Ice Grill which has a great view from the top of the stadium.

Thank you so much to the Fairmont who treated me to a night at the hockey, special thanks to Nancie Hall who put up with me asking a thousand questions. Also thanks to Jay Jones for a delicious round of Vancouver cocktails. 

More info:

Rogers Arena


Useful guide from The Guardian – a Beginner’s Guide to the NHL

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.


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]

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]


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