31
Mar 14

PEI: My Island Pictures

PEI1

There are some trips that you make which seem a little magical and dream-like even at the time. Of course; memory softens the edges; that annoying wait for the car that one afternoon or the rainy morning which made you pout, they all melt away with time. But there was something special about Prince Edward Island right from the start.
PEI3
The sharp bright colours of the island made you feel as though you’d stepped into a child’s drawing; the sky so blue, the grass and trees so green and this vivid, almost-glowing red soil and red sand. The coastline dotted about with reminders from the past and standard bearers for the future; lighthouses painted with quaint deckchair-stripes next to bright white bands of wind turbines stretching their arms as they scraped the sky.

PEI4We took a sightseeing trip in a small plane, rising just high enough to make the illusion of it all being a child’s colouring book seem real. We saw the cold, clear waters where some of the world’s best lobsters, mussels and oysters thrive. That iron oxide-rich soil which grows such sweet flavoursome potatoes, the lush green grass which feeds some of the most-prized cattle in North America.

PEI6Over the next week I’d eat and drink so many delicious things – all from just a few miles away from where I was staying in its historic capital Charlottetown. I’d meet some of the warmest and most hospitable people I’ve encountered anywhere in the world; a friendly acceptance and a delight in sharing and showing the best that they had, that felt as gracious as something from a more sepia-tinted age.

almorrisonOne afternoon I met an elderly man in a cafe and fell into conversation with him. He insisted on giving me a copy of a book, ‘My Island Pictures’ a History of Prince Edward Island by folk artist, A.L. Morrison. The pictures have that child-like dreamy quality that the island conjured up for me. I wish I knew if it had been the artist who gave it to me; I was in a rush but adopting island ways, I made time to stop and talk. But I put the book in my bag as I left and didn’t look at it until I got back home to Vancouver; now I can’t match the hazy memory of the lovely old man with the author shot on the book. Flipping through its pages now, it’s all as I remember it, almost like he drew it for me just as I remember it. He must have been the author –  who else would carry around spare copies of their book but an author? And where else would such a thing happen but PEI?

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

More information:

Tourism Prince Edward Island

Air tour in a Cessna 172 Skyhawk thanks to FD Airtours

 

 


26
Mar 14

Saskatoon and the King of Kovbasa

Image courtesy of: http://www.doukhobor.org

Image Courtesy Of Doukhobor

Picture leaving your home and your village; everything you ever knew and loved and travelling unimaginably far away, knowing that you’d probably never come back. Then imagine arriving in this new and foreign land; cold, sick and hungry after a gruelling sea journey of several weeks, then you have to spend days spent passing through immigration. Next, weak with exhaustion,  you’re loaded on a train for a journey of even more days and nights with nothing to rest on but bare boards, rattling across a vast and strange country to your final destination. And when you step off the train, your body aching and sore, your new home is some 20 miles away. And there is no road. No one is there to greet you. There is nothing.

The ache of separation from home and everything familiar must have been almost unbearable.

This is the story of the Ukrainians who arrived in Canada after the 1872 Dominion Lands Act, a law which encouraged pioneers to come to the prairies to settle and farm the land there. Men over 18 and women who were heads of their households were offered 160 acres of land for a $10 administration fee. They had to stay on the land for three years, build a permanent home and farm at least 4 acres and then the land was theirs.

Yevshan Dancers

What they left was heart-breaking enough; ruled over by Austro-Hungary, Poland and Russia, denied education and conscripted to fight for the Austrian army, the people of the Ukraine were treated abominably by those who had invaded their country (and oh, in the light of recent events, how depressing is it to see things have not changed over the years).  But they made things work, these immigrants. They faced up to the back-breaking challenge of clearing bushland and tons of rocks before they could even start to farm. The men left the women and children to subsist on the homesteads, as they took paying work in lumber camps or down the mines. But they survived and lived to tell the tale.  They built communities and they made a life for themselves on the prairies. And like all immigrants, they cherished the customs and the foods of the land that they had left behind. sas8

Which brings me neatly to a huge community centre, Prairieland Park, in the heart of Saskatoon. It’s February and minus 21 degrees outside. The wind chill factor brings it down to minus 30, and I stood outside for just a moment to try and imagine living in this without the benefit of modern clothing (thank GOD for my Canada Goose parka and gloves) never mind making it through without central heating. I lasted maybe a minute or two before scuttling inside into the warmth; my eyelashes began to freeze, my chest hurt from the cold air and what small part of my skin was exposed to the vicious cold ached from the icy wind. But just looking around the people in the room I know that their great-great grandparents didn’t just survive, they thrived. Clearly they were made of so much sterner stuff than I.

The contestants

Almost 700 people are here – the majority Ukrainian Canadians – and they are here to taste food from the old country and vote on this year’s King of Kovbasa. The contest is in its thirteenth year and it’s a cultural celebration of the traditional Ukrainian kovbasa sausage. Twelve local butchers enter, and every one attending gets to cast their vote to decide who will win the trophy. It’s a prestigious contest and tasting is taken seriously. Each table gets its own huge platter of samples and there are even instructions on how best to taste the sausage; regular palate-cleansers of pickles, cheese and crackers are essential – as is immediately logging your vote on the cards provided. We’re voting on best texture, seasoning, appearance and overall winner.

sas9This is also a fundraiser event with door prizes, a secret auction and vodka-and-pickle shots for cash donations – with money raised going to an adult literacy program, READ Saskatoon. I watch the the girls and boys in their shiny blue and white costumes bring out the trays of carefully-prepared meats to serve to each table. Later they’ll perform traditional dances on the stage, the girls whirling and swirling their skirts and the boys squat-kicking. I think about how important events like these must have been to those first immigrants; a chance to talk to someone other than your family – maybe the only chance that teenagers would have to meet someone to marry. I think about how much joy and pride is in the room and of the importance of tradition and continuity. I think about how, some days when I am missing my friends and family, I can cry just at the taste or smell of something that reminds me of home.

sas4I understand why these traditions are so fiercely guarded, why people dress up and come out in the heart of brutal winter to gather together and to celebrate. It’s a pride that makes the butchers so competitive – being Kovbasa king really means something – this year SmokeHaus Meats of Martensville swept the board, winning in every category.

The winners

Leaving I stood outside again in the car park, the stars seemed so bright in the crackling cold of the night. To live here; to build a home, dig out a farm, carve out a life and create a community in bitter, brutal weather and then, decades later, to have your descendants dance in a toasty-warm room, full of good cheese and sausages, happy with vodka and beer is the immigrant’s dream. From unimaginable hardship to comparative luxury in just a few generations. I wonder at the strength it must have taken to make that first step and then the next and the next. The faintest flavour of such a life must have been in their mind when they closed the door of their homes that one last time and started their long journey to a new life in Canada, with the hope of better days driving them through the hardship. sas3

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

Further information

Tourism Saskatchewan

Ukrainian Museum of Canada

 


23
Mar 14

Dolphins and Eagles Chase Away Immigration Blues

Dolphins!

Dolphins!

There are dolphins in the sea and eagles in the sky; I whisper that to myself as I walk along the beach, my dog racing ahead of me chasing stones and dive-bombing the sand. On a day like today I need that mantra; I need to see the snow and the mountains and feel them break my heart with their beauty. I need to look out to the sea and believe that whales and dolphins are there – just out of sight. It’s hard being an immigrant. There; I said it. Immigrant – not expat – I don’t want to go ‘home’ I want this to be where I stay and make my life. I’ve fallen in love with Canada and oh, it is a capricious thing to have fallen for.

Today I spent five hours taking exams in reading, writing, listening and speaking… English. I have to pass to prove that I can understand my own language. A $300 piece of red tape to add to the rest. When my lawyer asked if I had taken the test I assumed they were joking but of course, lawyers don’t joke – not even good-humoured ones like mine – I’m glad Wildy are with me on this winding, confused, painful journey through the Canadian immigration system, I’d have become impossibly lost without them.

Image courtesy of Twitter/@Nestah14 https://twitter.com/Nestah14/status/445324444785852416

Image courtesy of Twitter/@Nestah14

But yes, on a day when it feels that the hoops you have to jump through are just too high and too many you need a miracle and that is exactly what happened. Two pods of dolphins swam into the waters of False Creek – just outside my flat – this is, according to experts at the Vancouver Aquarium, very rare indeed.  I watched them swim under the Burrard Bridge, past Granville Island and then head back – again and again. There were so many of us watching them in absolute delight from the beach, just as we thought they’d gone – back they’d swim again. Because it was a grey day,  it was hard to see them but oh! when you did… it felt like magic could really happen. I watched a pod of five swim along, their skin glinting as they dipped in and out of the water. All this – just outside my front door.

Just outside my window

Just outside my window

Later at my desk, I looked up and saw an eagle swooping just beyond my 21st floor window; its wings stretching impossibly wide, circling against a backdrop of the mountains, their snowy tops peeking out from a wispy pashmina of mist. So bring on the endless forms and the crazy exams because there are dolphins in the sea and eagles in the sky.

I shot this rather shaky video – but oh! DOLPHINS!


21
Mar 14

Challenge #4: Go to Whistler and Zipline Down a Mountain at Night

I’m trying to be brave and try new things—truly I am. But as I hang in my harness, my teeth chattering in the sub-zero cold, swinging in a cradle as helpless as a baby, I began to think, ‘hey – what was so wrong with the old ways?’. It’s pitch black ahead of me on the mountain, just a small twinkling light, god knows how far away – that’s where I’m heading on this insane zipline and god help me, if they’re not about to release the brakes

Ready to swing off into the dark void. Squint and you'll see the lights below.

Ready to swing off into the dark void. Squint and you’ll see the lights below.

A curse on this whole ‘try something Canadian and new’  plan. I’ve given ziplining at night a whirl and decided that, nope, it is absolutely not for me. Was it the screaming through the darkness god knows how high up – just attached by a wire – that made me turn my stomach? Or perhaps it was the fatal-crash feeling every time I ‘zipped’ into the end of each line? Or maybe it was the weird sensation of being horribly scared as I flew in darkness across the mountain and yet at the same time - feeling weirdly bored because I couldn’t see anything? Whatever, as fish gotta swim and birds gotta fly, this girl has gotta never do this again. And yet… I could see that if you liked it (and I was with a crew who clearly adored it) then this would be all kinds of fun.

Making tracks up the mountain

Making tracks up the mountain

It all started rather nicely with a heated snowcat ride up Rainbow Mountain. I loved this! The snow was deep, it felt like the most delicious sort of rufty-tufty Canadian fun inside the ‘Cat; blankets-over-the-knees and the rumble of the engine as we climbed at a thrilling angle up, up the mountain. The light was on in the cabin and my fellow zippers-to-be were excited. I peered out into the night: nothing. Sadly the fun bit was over too soon – we got dropped at a yurt half-way up the isolated mountain for dinner.

Normally I’d have been dancing with excitement over this; it had been catered by the Bearfoot Bistro – one of my favourite Whistler restaurants – but as I sat down and sipped on water (never have I wanted a glass of wine more) and watched the flames dance in the log fire, I realised I was genuinely nervous about what lay ahead. I pushed my perfect short rib around the plate, forcing down a few mouthfuls of whipped buttery mash and savoury gravy before giving up. Bad enough to scream, but how much worse if I threw up later?

See - how perfect and lovely is this adorable yurt?

See – how perfect and lovely is this adorable yurt?

When you dread what lies ahead, there comes a point when you don’t want to delay – you just want it to be over. Make the dinner, end, let’s just get this done, I wished to the gods of bad decisions and perilous ideas. Who knows – I was not letting the tiny flame of optimism burn out at this point – maybe I would love this. But every minute we spent in that gorgeous little wooden yurt made me doubt it more and more. For those familiar with the drill, you know what lies ahead – you carry your own kit from line to line over your shoulder. I wasn’t expecting this and as I slid around on the narrow trail in the half-light on the ice and snow, I wondered if I wasn’t about to find a far, far faster way down.

The two staff with us on the mountain with us were fantastic – friendly, helpful, fun and – kind – when it was clear that I was struggling to stay upright one of them shouldered my load and I was never made to feel like I was making a fuss. One of the group after one line decided that was enough; and they were kind to her too. Idiot that I am, I decided to stick with it. Maybe I’d grow to love it? (I didn’t.)

Not everyone hated this. OK - so ONLY I hated this...

Not everyone hated this. OK – so ONLY I hated this…

There were only 4 ziplines but it felt like oh, so much more; one was the longest in Canada, 600 feet above the ground and over a kilometer long. The part of me that wasn’t hating it all, was wondering what it would be like in the daytime? Maybe if I had all that stunning scenery to distract me from me grinding terror, I’d have had more fun?

It was very cool hanging out in the trees.

It was very cool hanging out in the trees.

Not so my companions, who whooped their way through the evening. They flew down the mountain, their helmet lights like little halos, and whooped like bad angels as they went. Apologies for this most anaemic of phrases but really: if you like this kind of thing, you’d love this. It’s well organised, if you could stomach the food it was delicious, the yurt and snowcat were a lot of fun and yes, if hurtling through the night is your bag then have at it.
I plan to keep my feet on the ground for now.

God bless them for having me – I was a guest of Superfly – who were so nice to me even though I clearly loathed it.

Also thank you to my chateau home away from home, the Fairmont Chateau Whistler who gave me somewhere beautiful and serene to rest my very achey bones after all this crazy. Oh, how I wished I’d have been able to stow away one of their special mustard-spiked cocktails with me on the line – maybe that would have helped?

As ever – my words though are 100% my own.


17
Feb 14

Welcome to the world’s eagle capital

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I’d never imagined myself to be a birdwatching enthusiast before but like so many other things Canada has changed me completely. From my new-found love of leaf-peeping and attempts to develop ice skating skills to my enthusiastic embrace of drinking clamato juice cocktailsthere is apparently no limit to what I won’t adore about Canada. So, now I’m a ‘twitcher’ – why else would I be floating down a river on a bluebird sky day in early February, gazing with delight into the leaf-less trees? My new rationale being that if the world bald eagle capital is just 45 minutes drive away, well – you hop into a car, right?

Jake from Sunwolf gets our craft ready

Jake from Sunwolf gets our craft ready

A little explanation: half-way between Whistler and Vancouver lies Squamish, known as the Outdoor Adventure Capital of North America. You can hike, mountain bike, kayak, whitewater raft – everything. Ten minutes drive from Squamish is Brackendale, and as well as being a huge draw for enthusiastic types in North Face-branded clothing, it’s also where you’ll find the world’s greatest concentration of bald eagles, if you visit between November-February.

I’d visited Sunwolf late last year en route to Whistler and eaten a spectacular breakfast at Fergie’s cafe there. As well as dishing up quality rib-sticker brekkies, Sunwolf’s British owners Jake and Jess also have cosy cabins to rent along the Cheakamus River and host guided whitewater rafting trips and eagle float adventures.

Let the Eagle-Spotting begin

Let the Eagle-Spotting begin

It was a perfect day for a float along the river; after what seemed like endless grey skies and non-stop rain, the soft warm touch of sunshine on skin felt like a long-forgotten magic. And the sun was blazing down that morning. But it was cold on the river, so we suited up in the Sunwolf lounge in waist-high waterproof trousers and bundled up in scarves, mittens and hats.

Hopping into the dinghy without A) falling in or B) embarrassing myself, was surprisingly easy – my kind of outdoor adventure – all I needed to do now was sit back, listen to the soft splash of paddles on water and watch for eagles as Jake told us stories of the river and the Chum salmon which brings the eagles here in their droves. It’s a circle-of-life thing;  beautiful in its complexity and simplicity. Each year the salmon come to spawn in the pristine glacial-fed waters of the Squamish and Cheakamus rivers where they – in turn – were spawned.

It would have been hard to pick a more perfect day

It would have been hard to pick a more perfect day

It’s incredible that these fish who spend their lives out in the ocean return ‘home’ to start new lives – and it’s also where they come to end their life too. After spawning, the salmon die and in turn become a necessary life-giving food to another species. In some parts of the world bears feast on the salmon, but here it’s the eagles who thrive and survive. For a few months, the river is becomes an all-you-can-eat sashimi buffet and the eagles the stretchy pants-wearing regulars.

Waters so pristine you could clearly see the rotting salmon aka eagle-dinner

Waters so pristine you could clearly see the eagle’s dinner

I lost count of the number of eagles that we saw; mostly perched, presumably digesting huge meals, in the branches. Whenever one took flight the awe of seeing their impossibly wide wing span hit me every time. I may not be a fully fledged bird-spotting enthusiast but damn, I’m enthusiastic whenever I see a beautiful wild creature – especially in such jaw-clanging surroundings. Only the prospect of another meal at Fergie’s could cheer me after our trip was over. I really loved it: so peaceful, so much beauty and so many new things to learn along the way.

I travelled as a guest of Sunwolf but as ever my words are 100% my own.  

Also, thank you to BC Ford who loaned me a Ford Focus Titanium for my road trip. I’ve never driven a car that could actually park itself before! Genuinely amazing feature. 

More Info:

Sunwolf - Rafting, Cabins, Whitewater rafting and Eagle river floats – plus – Fergie’s delicious cafe!


10
Feb 14

Challenge #3: Skate the Rideau Canal

I want to give up; my shins are throbbing, my eyes smart from the snow storm, my feet are aching and my back, unused to the weight of the heavy snow boots that I’m carrying, really hurts. All I want to do is lie down on the ice and stretch out. And we’re only at 3 km. Not even half way. I’m never going to make it and I feel crushed by failure. What had I been thinking when I decided I’d skate the length of the Rideau Canal?

Getting patriotic on the canal

Getting patriotic on the canal

It all began a few years ago when I heard about Ottawa’s Winterlude festival; it sounded so magical, Canadians skating on a beautiful frozen canal, drinking hot chocolate under the blazing blue skies and munching on maple syrup-drenched ‘beavertail’ pastries. It’s the world’s longest skating rink and I wanted to skate it; to whizz gracefully on silver blades, skimming under bridges and around corners. There was, of course, just the one problem: I couldn’t skate.

A chance came to visit during the festival so I put Operation Silver Blades into action: I took lessons, I bought skates and 5 weeks later, boarded the plane to Ottawa feeling confident. But, of course, a canal is not like a freshly smoothed-over ice rink. There are no handrails, no way to steady yourself before you launch onto that bumpy ice. There are cracks and there are parents pulling children in sleds. And just to add an extra challenge – there was also a snow storm – in just a few hours 15cm of snow would fall on Ottawa that day – all things I’d never experienced at the rink. And then there was me and my failing nerve; I’m ashamed to say I froze. I was overwhelmed and scared I’d fall and really hurt myself. So for what seemed like an hour, I just stood there – willing myself to just, skate, dammit! Push one foot to the side, glide, other foot down, glide, push… like I’d done for hours around and around the Denman Street rink in Vancouver.

It was hard just getting ON to the canal…

It was hard just getting ON to the canal…

Bambi-like, my legs wobbled underneath me as I eventually pushed off. I managed maybe a minute – and then a couple walked in front of me, I panicked and crashed to the ground, badly bruising my knees. I lay on the ice and felt defeated before I’d even begun. Getting up was one of the hardest things I’d ever done. If I’d been alone I’d have laid there and cried before crawling off to a bar. But I wasn’t -  and the humiliation of giving up was greater than the shame of failing so I got up. Put one skate in front of another and painfully made it to the first bridge. Just 15 more stops to go. Oh boy.

It was curvier than I imagined, this canal, and wider too and oh, there were so many more people than I’d thought. Young children zoomed past, fell, sprawled on the ice and then jumped up and sped off again. I saw older couples skating hand in hand, teenagers madly texted as they glided by. There was a carnival-like atmosphere and a definite pattern to the ‘traffic’ of the skateway. At the points of entry the ice was scuffed up, I’d wobble and slow down, awed by the challenge of staying upright and avoiding the mobs of people, strollers and sleds all converging at once. Things would even out after a few minutes, I’d have longer sessions with fewer people around, my confidence would rise and I’d whisper to myself, ‘you’re doing it!’. I loved those moments of getting into the perfect rhythm, my skates smooth on the ice, gliding along just as I’d pictured it.

You know it's snowing too much when you turn around and see this following you.

You know it’s snowing too much when you turn around and see this following you.

But it was hard and my muscles begged me to reconsider. I spent most of my time on the ice in a silent debate with myself over whether it was enough to have tried and failed or whether failure was simply not acceptable. There was pain written into the DNA of this canal; it was built in 1832 by immigrant Irish and French-Canadian workers as a way for British ships to avoid possible American attacks along a vulnerable stretch of the St Lawrence river. The work was brutal and many died in its construction. My creaky muscles and frozen fear were just one tiny snowflake in a blizzard in comparision.

Just after 3km I hit a mental wall; I felt used up and spat out with nothing left to give. Through the blizzard it was hard to see but ahead lay a rest spot. I made for the banners fluttering in the distance and followed the sounds of drumming and African singing. Queues of happy born-to-do-this locals cruised along with a cup in one hand and a pastry in the other. I skated to a bench and collapsed. I closed my eyes and listened to the drummers and breathed slowly; the air smelt of bonfires, braziers burned with dancing flames in the snowfall and there was a sweet scent of syrup from the boiling maple taffy that was setting on the snow at a nearby stall. I took my mittens off and pushed my hair back only to discover that it had frozen solid into little dreadlock-like icicles.

Did it!

Did it!

Boosted by a cup of hot, sweet apple cider, 4km came and went. Things were harder now; there were no more beavertail stands, no more hot cider and poutine stalls – this was serious skating – and I didn’t know if I could do it. The next stop was at 5km and now I admitted it; I knew now that the full 7.8km was not going to happen. I hurt too much. I was beaten. I’m told that making it to the Bronson Bridge by Dows Lake was pretty much considered ‘the end’ by locals and I have no idea if I was told that by someone trying to be kind but hell, I figured I’d take it.

It was hard not to cry when I rounded that final bend, a blend of exhaustion and driving snow in my eyes. My feet ached and face  was scarlet but I had done that most Canadian of things – skated in the snow on ice. Better than that –  soon I’d be taking those skates off and chugging hot chocolate. Nothing will ever taste so sweet again.

IMG_1022

That was yesterday…

It’s only as I leave after a hectic 48 hours batting around the city that I realise that maybe the badge of failure that I thought I had isn’t mine after all. We drive along the canal and I tell my taxi driver about what I did, and that I feel I maybe let myself down. And we keep driving and it’s so much further than I thought – as we approach the 3km mark, where I thought I’d have to give up, I feel a surge of pride: I didn’t stop. I kept going. Finally we arrive at Bronson and he slows down and tells me that it’s far. That I did well. That I’ve inspired him to try with his daughter next weekend. I sit back in the car and feel as warm and happy as when I took that first welcome sip of chocolate. I did it.

At the airport, my driver stood at the kerb and called me back, “Hey! Well done!” And then he began to clap. “Ottawa salutes you! You did well.” And this time, I believe it. I skated the Rideau canal – maybe not like I’d imagined but I did it all the same. Next time, I’ll make the full distance – or maybe I won’t – the only certain thing is that I’m going to keep on falling – all I need to do is keep on getting up.

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

Info:

Ottawa Tourism

Rideau Canal Skate way


29
Jan 14

Challenge #2 Learn to Skate Like a Canadian

I started 2014 off with a splash – by leaping into the freezing cold sea at English Bay in Vancouver with a heap of other Crazy Canucks for the Polar Bear Swim – and I vowed to make this a year of fresh challenges – well, here’s my latest. This weekend I plan to skate the Rideau Canal in Canada’s capital, Ottawa. My challenge? Um, I don’t know how to skate… or rather – I didn’t, but thanks to my hero, Raymond – now I do.

My Hero, Raymond

My Hero, Raymond: he doesn’t usually wear antlers – this was his christmas special! 

It seems to me that Canadians are pretty much born with a pair of skates or skis strapped to their feet (their poor mothers!). I’ve sighed so many times over enchanting stories of my new friends’ Canadian childhoods: playing hockey out on a frozen pond, skating at home on a rink that their dad made by flooding the backyard – none of this was ever possible back in England, of course, and even skating rinks are few and far between. Not in Canada – I was amazed to discover eight beautifully maintained rinks in Vancouver and there was one just around the corner from me – and that is where Raymond skates into this story. We met last year at a Wine Festival event and once I realized I needed to learn to skate, then I knew he was my guy: an ex figure skater and now heading up the teaching programme at the busy Denman Street rink, I couldn’t have asked for anyone better. 

Never would have believed I could do this! Thanks Raymond

Never would have believed I could do this! Thanks Raymond

I was terrified even lacing the skates up; all I could think of was falling and hurting myself. Bambi-like I wobbled onto the ice but accompanied by Raymond (and some pretty cool Lorde tracks) it all felt slightly less terrifying.That was five weeks ago and since then I’ve practiced, learned how to stop, fallen over and – crucially – worked out how to get up again. Just after Christmas I splurged and bought my own skates and last week I went for a truly joyful glide around the outdoor rink in Whistler. I may not be skating like a Canadian yet, but I’m giving it my best shot: Ottawa: here I come.

 


25
Jan 14

Vancouver Getaway: 48 hours in Seattle

Behold! The astonishing work of Dale Chihuly

Behold! The astonishing work of Dale Chihuly

Take a look at a map of Canada, go on – there – see? Vancouver is perched on the west coast and really, just a hop, skip and jump away from the US border. One of the things that you notice about life in Vancouver is that people are always popping down to Seattle for the weekend, I guess it’s the equivalent of a Eurostar Paris mini-break for us Brits. But what to do when you get there?

A bit of culture:

Thanks to smart city planning you can tick off all your must-visit attractions without slogging your way around Seattle. The Space Needle, Chihuly Gardens and the EMP museum are all within a minute’s walk of each other on the 74 acre site of the 1962 World Fair. Get there by the pleasingly-retro monorail. On a clear day, views from the 520 feet high observation deck of the Space Needle are wonderful and you’ll see Mount Rainier as well as a full 360 view of the city and its waterfront. The Chihuly Garden and Glass gallery is filled with the ultra-bright, other-wordly creations of American glass-blowing artist Dale Chihuly. Just around the corner you’ll find the Frank Gehry-designed EMP museum, founded in 2000 by Microsoft co-Founder Paul Allen which focusses on popular culture from music and comic book art to sci-fi and fantasy. Interactive fun for all ages.

Drinking and dining

Seattle’s food scene showcases west coast fresh, local and sustainable cuisine; head to funky Ballard to dive into seafood at the wildly popular Walrus and Carpenter and feast on oysters -raw and fried – house-cured charcuterie and local cheeses, or sample the moles and salsas of Oaxacan comfort food at the Carta de Oaxaca. Down by Pike Place, Matt’s in the Market is the place for zingingly fresh fish or try Cafe Campagne for a taste of French cooking. One of North America’s most innovative cocktail bars, The Canon is tucked away in the Capitol Hill area, but well worth seeking out for their carbonated, foamy and ice-cream based cocktails. In the same neighbourhood, the kooky Unicorn bar is a must-visit for their curious list of carnival-friendly cocktails,  shots and fun line up of pinball games and live music.

Luscious oysters at the Walrus & the Carpenter

Luscious oysters at the Walrus & the Carpenter

Hit the shops

You can buy high street brands at home, so head to Capitol Hill to score unique local designer labels and one-off creations. You can make a loop exploring E Pike on Capitol Hill, for men’s skate gear and hip-hop inspired local designers like 13th Floor, try 35th North. Pick up jewellery by Beachstone, a professional rock climber who makes delicate stone trinkets at Retro Fit – look out for women’s vintage finds and Seattle designers at Le Frock. For foodie finds, head down the street to the famous Pike Place market – a wonderful place to browse for a few hours. Of course, popularity brings crowds and at high season it’s likely to be jammed as cruise ships dock nearby, but you can’t go to Seattle and miss it. If you’re a foodie sign up for the Savor Seattle two-hour food tour with 16 different sample bites and sips and a chance to chat with some of the personalities around the market including its famous fish throwers.

Doing it for the kids

The bustling waterfront holds a treasure trove of family-friendly activities – but perfect for the (inevitable) rain shower that will happen summer or winter, is the aquarium at Pier 59. It’s well laid out, the staff are wonderfully friendly and kids big and small will be engaged by the hands-on exhibition areas, petting aqua-zoos and the chance to get kitted out in diving gear.

Time for bed

Tap into that fashionably hip scene and stay at The Ballard, which opened in May 2013 although it gives the impression of a far more established hotel with lashings of retro detail. Ideal for fitness fans, the gym is one of the largest I’ve seen in a hotel and they have an adults-only saltwater lap pool. Want something more central? The splurge and book in at the Fairmont Olympic for their lavish marble staircases, victorian parlour palms and trademark world-class customer service. Pro-tip? Sign up to the free-to-join President’s Club to scoop free wi-fi and use of their chauffeured town car for local trips.

Seattle's most familiar monument

Seattle’s most familiar monument

 

 

For further info:

Seattle Monorail

Seattle Space Needle

The Hotel Ballard

The Fairmont Olympic

The EMP Museum

Chihuly Garden and Glass

The Walrus and the Carpenter

The Unicorn


09
Jan 14

Shangri-La Toronto

Rising by Shanghai-based sculptor, Zhang Hua.

Rising by Shanghai-based sculptor, Zhang Hua.

“What’s that?” I asked my cab driver, “It’s gorgeous.” ‘It’ was a silvery sculpture that reached into the sky and bought to mind flight and freedom right there on the pavement in downtown Toronto.

“It’s the Shangri La” said my driver.

“You’re kidding!” I said. “I’m staying there tomorrow.”

I can’t help myself; I get giddy with delight over a fancy hotel. Holly Golightly may have gone weak at the knees over Tiffany, but for me it’s a top class hotel that makes me think:      “…the quietness and the proud look of it; nothing very bad could happen to you there.” The check-in was fast, the service with a real smile and within minutes I was leaving the airy lobby with its Fazioli piano and zipping up to my room. When you notice details like how cool the carpets are (reminiscent of cherry blossom and bamboo leaves) as you trot to your room, then you can bet that your socks will be suitably knocked off when you get inside.

They were.

shangrila2

I know. It’s just carpet. But really – it’s more than that. It’s about the attention to detail and making every small thing beautiful.

I was wondering how Toronto would compare to Vancouver and the TO did not disappoint; a ludicrously huge and comfy bed, a decadent bathroom with a big-enough-for-two soaker tub overlooking the city and a satisfyingly high count of amenities from emery boards and tooth brushes to a mini-loofah and lashings of L’Occitane to raid.

mirajTO

Curl up and relax…

I was there to check out the sister spa to the Miraj in Vancouverthis is a glossier and more sophisticated version of the great little hammam on West 6th – but the principal remained the same -  and the treatment and therapist was just as good – leaving me to relax on satiny cushions admiring my equally silky skin after a heavenly steam, skin-brightening scrub and a final oil application.

Modern fine dining

Modern fine dining

Drinks in the lobby lounge later were a treat – the menus come tucked away in a little compendium of books and champagne buckets stand ready for your bubbles. I’d heard wonderful things about the Bosk restaurant, and after a slew of strictly casual fine dining experiences, it was lovely to feel that here was a restaurant worth dressing up for. Bosk may have an east coast address but it certainly had a west coast feeling with local, organic and sustainable woven through the menu and the seafood treated with loving care. A pleasingly large by-the-glass wine selection makes food pairing a pleasure – my advice? Ask the sommelier to match for you – you won’t be disappointed and you’ll definitely try delicious new things.

I travelled as a guest of Tourism Toronto and stayed as a guest of the Shangri-La– all views are, however 100% my own.

More Info:

The Shangri-La

188 University Ave, Toronto, ON M5H 0A3

Phone:(647) 788-8888

Web:  Shangri-La Toronto


02
Jan 14

2014: the Year of New Experiences #1 Polar Bear Swim in Vancouver

It’s easy to make new year resolutions – and so much easier to break them, so this year I’ve decided to skip the usual list and go with just one resolution that should be easy to keep: Do More New Things. I want to dive into brand-new Canadian experiences every month this year and I decided to kick off by joining the Polar Bear Club on Vancouver’s English Bay for an icy January 1st dip.

Walking down to English Bay with my friend Felice, who I’d shamelessly whined at until she came too, I can’t pretend my heart wasn’t hammering – what if it was too cold? What if I wanted to back out? But once we arrived excitement took over; this was the 94th year of the dip and the biggest in its history with some 2,500 people jumping in. Jostling for space amongst the guys dressed as disgraced Toronto mayor, Rob Ford, and a guy dressed as a rasher of bacon, I decided to just try and enjoy it. We jumped the wooden fence to the beach and stripped off to our swimming costumes. The sand was wet and cold, within a few minutes my feet were numb. And then it began -there was no formal bell or whistle, no ‘ready, steady, go!’ but as we saw everyone race forward we grabbed hands and made for the waves.

polarbear swim

I didn’t feel the water at first, not until it hit mid-thigh, I ducked, shoulders-down and then it hit me – I gasped at the icy cold; I genuinely felt like I was having a heart attack. For a few seconds I couldn’t breath – the water was shockingly, painfully cold, I jumped back up, mouthing frantically then shrieked! Then the adrenaline flooded through me, man!  This was great, I raced back out of the water and joined my friends – all of us wild-eyed and beaming – we’d done it!

We did it!

We did it!

I was in the water for maybe 30 seconds at the most but it’s half a minute I’ll always remember and it feels like it was 30 crucial seconds that will shape the rest of the year. We raced back to my apartment building and hopped in the hot tub to thaw out. Over the next half hour, more frozen polar bear veterans joined us; I loved the feeling of camaraderie, of a moment of craziness shared and the start of something adventurous beginning.

Here’s a great video from Tristan Harvey which shows what happened:

Here’s to a new year of Canadian experiences and fantastic first times…

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