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JOHN TANASYCHUK: 1959-2020 A life full of light.

Hearing of my dear friend John’s death on March 17th in Miami, my mind began opening package after package of memories. One recollection led to another, like an endless set of Russian dolls.

I think of our life stories as chapters, in 10 year increments.

My story with John started in chapter three of our lives, when we were in our 20s.

We met in 1978, during our first year of communication studies at the University of Windsor. John was from Windsor and introduced me, a Toronto girl, to his gritty city’s many charms…peanut toffee sundaes at Queen’s Grill, Tunnel BBQ cream pie, and glasses of draft beer at seamy joints with jars of pickled eggs on the counter.

Then there were the forays to Detroit to punk club Bookies where John would sneak in a bottle of Southern Comfort hidden in his overcoat and we’d thrill to the booze and drug soaked antics of Destroy All Monsters. Another hot spot was Menjo’s, a gay bar known for its wicked dance floor and “The best fucking sound in the Detroit.” (They sold T-shirts with this slogan.)

John had a timeless look. Me, on the other hand?

Many an evening ended at Lafayette Coney Island, where John would always ask for double onions on his chili dog ­– mounds and mounds of chopped, raw onions.

Our shopping therapy took place at thrift stores.  We would spend hours combing through the racks at Sally Ann and St. Vincent de Paul.  John would look for vintage clothing not only for himself but for friends and his sisters.  Then, we would take our treasured loot home and put on a fashion show. John always was style conscious. I called him “The Style Council.” His haircuts changed often, eyeglass frames were a statement and his wardrobe, while subtle, contained eclectic elements.

“I have bangs!” he told me after this haircut.

On one Windsor adventure we came across Morris Dry Goods store, a men’s and women’s clothing shop that still stocked items from the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. It was a treasure trove and John scooped up a pair of pointy, black leather lace-up shoes. They killed his feet, but he managed to wear them out numerous times. Once John asked me what it would be like when we were 50. Would we still be doing this?

One summer, we went with some friends to a cottage on Lake Huron. Sand, sun and lots of chocolate coconut bars were eaten. So much fun. He loved to eat, and I recall him downing about 20 of the sweet little morsels.

Number 15 of the coconut bars.

After university, John worked as a general reporter at the Windsor Star.  He was good at it and his kind, gentle manner, and hilarious sense of humour gained him many friends.  Eventually, he wanted a change and came to Toronto, where I was living.

He started freelance writing, which went OK, but he craved the news room and a year later applied for a job as a food writer at the Detroit Free Press. The newspaper asked for a sample article, so he wrote one about blue foods, to coincide with a blue moon that was occurring that month.

Creative, captivating, informative and full of surprises. That was John’s journalistic style. He got the job and moved to Detroit.

Soon after, John met Joel Katz who was a social worker, and they bought a house together in the suburb of Royal Oak. Joel was an avid gardener and the small house came with a sprawling yard that Joel converted into a magical garden, filled with lilies, hydrangea, ornamental grasses, tall pines, wildflowers and architectural pieces that they scooped from Detroit’s many grand, abandoned mansions. Weekends they could be found digging, raking and planting together.

John and Joel in front of the “hunting lodge.”

It was great to see John in this happy, loving relationship. Their house was a sanctuary.  I called it a fairy tale “hunting lodge” due to the surrounding foliage and warm, inviting interior filled with Mission furniture and patterned rugs.

John loved to entertain. And he loved to cook. Although he was a heavy smoker, his taste buds stayed sensitive and drew him to his calling as a food writer. One assignment was to interview Jane Brody, of the New York Times. He was thrilled and she inspired him to focus on healthy, flavourful recipes. He was intrepid in the kitchen, but also appreciated the simple things. I recall him preparing a pasta dish with carmelized onions and teaching me how to be patient as the onions slowly became golden. It was divine and I still have the recipe.

Joel was HIV-positive when John met him and they both knew their time together might be limited. After seven years, Joel succumbed to complications of AIDS.  John was devastated, but not unprepared. His many friends and family gathered round him for support and he gradually reclaimed his life. 

As his grief subsided, John began to go out again. One night he met Steve Levin at a bar.  John didn’t want to have much to do with Steve at first, but Steve was persistent and eventually they fell in love.

Steve, a jeweller, moved from Detroit to Miami where he owned a condo and wanted to set up another business.  Their relationship was paramount, so John sold the “hunting lodge” and followed him to Miami.

Looking stylie during the early Miami years.

Life in Miami was hot and glitzy. John got a job as food writer with the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel and he and Steve danced the nights away in the city’s steamy clubs.  Life was good. They bought a bungalow on a canal in Miami Beach and John gave it his unique decorating touch with modern furniture, thrift store finds, and mirrors and ornate furniture left over from Steve’s jewelry store. 

By this time, Steve had closed his shop and was dabbling in a number of online businesses. Eventually he focused on his own furniture sales business and John helped organize living room and bedroom setups in Steve’s warehouse. 

It was around this time that they adopted the cats. There were four or five. My favourite was Mr. Silverman, a handsome boy with almost zebra markings and blue eyes.  “We’re lesbian cat ladies,” John joked. 

Domestic life suited both of them.  In 2014 they got married in Toronto. The ceremony was at Hy’s Steakhouse, and the huge afterparty was at an Italian trattoria called Mercatto. I, unfortunately, was volunteering in Vietnam at the time, but my husband (also a Steve) attended and said it was terrific. Many guests had come up from Detroit and love filled the air.

In 2015, John took a buy-out from the Sun-Sentinel. He spent his time helping Steve promote his business through the Internet and focused on friends, his book club, and cooking. Food never ceased to bring him pleasure.  

John and Steve, doing what John loved. Sharing a meal.

My visits were less frequent as I took on another overseas volunteer position in Ghana, then focused on travel writing. But, we always managed to keep in touch.  John was a stickler for birthdays and Christmas.  A card from him always marked the occasion.

Four years ago, he told me he had lung cancer. It was a brief and difficult phone call. He needed time to himself and when he could, he said he would respond to my emails.

A year later, after chemo and radiation, he seemed to be on the mend or at least holding steady. I was taking a cruise out of Fort Lauderdale and he suggested I come early for a visit. “I look the same, don’t I?” he asked with a surprised chuckle when he picked me up at the airport. He did.

Hanging out at John and Steve’s wonderful house in Miami Beach.

During that visit, we did what we always did, tire ourselves out at thrift stores. John (and I) had continued that passion unflaggingly. He had his favourite outlets and always looked to see which coloured tags indicated that day’s sales of 50 per cent off.

We ate glorious meals he prepared and went to restaurants he had reviewed. In some ways it felt like nothing had changed. But, that was magical thinking.

John was great about keeping in touch. Better than me. In 2017 he came to Toronto to visit friends and family before heading to the cottage he and Steve had purchased at Ipperwash Beach, on Lake Huron.  He came over to my house and we sat out on our back terrace and enjoyed a rotisserie chicken and salad. That’s when he met my French bulldog Lola, who took an immediate shine to him. John loved the fact she had a wardrobe of collars.

That day Lola had on her bling collar. John approved.

The last time I saw John was at my annual Christmas party two years ago. Christmas was special for him. Although he had gotten out of the habit of decorating his home, he always sent a thoughtful and carefully chosen card from the “Levitans,” a combination of Steve’s last name Levin, and Tanasychuk. He joked my version would be “LittlePlunk” since my husband’s last name is Plunkett.

I knew something was wrong when I didn’t receive his annual Christmas card last year. Christmas came and went. Nothing.

I called him on his birthday in February and left a message begging him to let me know what was going on. The next day I received an email saying his circle had gotten smaller and he was focusing on himself right now. He said he knew how to reach me when things changed. I knew his health must have been diminishing and wrote back that my heart was at rest just hearing from him.

March 15th Steve sent me a text saying John’s condition was dire, asking for prayers.

I prayed and prayed.

On the 17th John died.

He was such a light in my life. In everyone’s life, who knew him. Inquisitive, ready to laugh, kind, generous, and thoughtful.

Although that light felt dimmed on the 17th, it has begun to come back as I search through boxes of old photos and letters.

I am so blessed to have had 40 years of friendship with you, John.  

Four supportive, solid, uplifting life chapters.

So very blessed, indeed.

In our first chapter of friendship. John’s favourite picture of us together.

Glowing in Glasgow

All sorts of great things are happening in this once dissed city: Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum.

We snuck into the stately manor house on Blair Estate quietly, dropped our bags in our lushly appointed room, then rushed into the bedroom opposite. “Surprise!” my husband Steve and I yelled as our friend Leah turned to look at us, her eyes popping out of her head. Dan, her husband, had rented a wing of the majestic old manor house half-hour’s drive outside Glasgow to celebrate Leah’s 60th birthday.  She knew she was going to Scotland, but she didn’t know six of her closest friends would join her for the holiday of a lifetime.

Blair House Estate.

Dan had chosen Scotland because he and Leah live in the small town of Ayr, Ont., population 4,000. Blair Estate was in Ayrshire and a short drive to Ayr, Scotland, population 46,000. Comparing the two was of prime importance to them. My goal was to enjoy Blair Estate’s landscaped 250 acres, and spend time exploring Glasgow and the nearby town of Kilmarnock, where my grandfather was born.

Our first dinner was at Two Fat Ladies at the Buttery, a Glaswegian institution. Sitting down, I surveyed my surroundings. Gleaming oak and mahogany, stained glass and tartan carpet ­– pure Scottish luxury. To start, we tucked into warm roasted cauliflower salad with crowdie (a soft cheese), honey roast hazelnuts and pickled beetroot. I had Catch of the Day, trout and Steve had seared Scottish sirloin, three onion mash and traditional Diane sauce. For dessert we ordered one malted chocolate cheesecake with salted toffee caramel sauce and the brandy basket with duo of ice creams. Our dreams that night back at Blair Estate were sweet, indeed.

The next morning we took a hop-on, hop-off bus tour of the city to get our bearings, getting off at a number of stops including Glasgow Cathedral with its fascinating Museum of Religious Life and Art, and spooky necropolis in the basement.  

Another captivating stop was Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, a massive structure built in 1901. A local Glaswegian guide named Patricia walked us through. “Glasgow was built on the tobacco and sugar trades. When she lost the colonies, the economy switched to coal mining,” she told us. One of the top 15 most visited museums in the world, it is easy to get lost in Kelvingrove  22 galleries including natural history, arms and armour and art with Old Master and Impressionist works. We walked by a hanging Spitfire plane, a taxidermied elephant, and one of the world’s largest collection of swords and armor and Patricia filled us in on the background of many exhibits, including that of Charles Rennie Mackintosh, an architect and artist famous for his Art Nouveau creations and known for designing the Willow Tearooms in Glasgow.

Another impressive building we toured in the city was Pollok House, once home to Sir William Stirling Maxwell. He was one of the founders of the National Trust for Scotland, a conservation charity dedicated to preserving historic buildings and monuments. Instead of the usual tour of treasures upstairs, we opted for the Servants Tour, which took us into the bowels of the building. “In 1905, the house had 48 servants,” said Jill, our guide, as she led us down the white-tiled corridor that led to the butler’s room. “The men lived in the basement, the women in the attic. The butler was known as a “bottleman” and was in charge of the wine. He also kept the family’s finest silver and glass under lock and key down here. He was the highest paid of all the servants.” Looking around the tidy room I spied what looked like an iron. “What do you think that was for?” asked Jill, lifting the heavy, cast iron implement. It wasn’t for clothing. “The butler ironed the newspaper each day before giving it to the master of the house. This helped to set the ink so he wouldn’t get his hands dirty.”  Jill was full of tidbits about Edwardian manor house customs. “The housekeeper was paid a third less than the butler, but she had her own servant, plus two rooms for her quarters. She was always called Mrs., even if she wasn’t married. The parlor maid was always called “Emma” and the footmen were called John and James and had to match in height and looks. The house had 40 fireplaces, and a half-ton of cok was hoisted upstairs daily to feed them.”  We popped into the china storage room and Jill told us, “there was a china maid to look after this. If she broke something, she’d have to pay for it from her salary. It could take years.” In the large servant’s hall, we learned this is where they gathered for their meals. “The butler said grace and the head footman said a toast to the health of the master and mistress before they ate. They were well fed and had no expenses, so a job here was much desired,” Jill explained.

After the tour, we headed upstairs to poke about the grand house on our own. The Maxwell family had lived on the site for six centuries, but the main part of the present house was built in the mid-18th century. Walking through the elegant rooms, I felt like I was in a Jane Austen novel. The top two floors of the house were not open to the public because they are still lived in by members of the Maxwell family.

You can’t visit Scotland and not learn about scotch. At Clydeside Distillery, built on the banks of the River Clyde and opened in 2017, not only did we learn how the precious amber liquid is made, we sampled a variety of different brands and educated our palates. “The Morrison family built this distillery to demonstrate scotch whiskey distilling in general,” said Ronnie Grant, our guide.  Many of the big name brands you see in liquor stores today originated in Glasgow in the late 1800s. Distilling was originally done in small grocery stores where the owners would blend whisky, at first illegally. “Surgical barbers and grocers were the first to make their own blends. Johnny Walker was a grocer from Kilmarnock who first blended teas, then whiskey,” noted Ronnie. Other grocers turned whiskey barons included men with last names including Harvey, Dewars, Teacher and Buchanan. Originally, all whiskey was blended, unlike today where many brands pride themselves on being single malts. Ronnie explained the difference. “Blends contain a mix of barrel-aged malt and grain whiskies from different distilleries, while single malts are a product of just one distillery.” Peering into vats of grains, we got a close-up view of the process.  “The grain we use here is barley. It is steeped in warm water, germinates and releases starch and turns to sugar. Then it is dried and deactivated. Next steps are mashing, fermentation, distillation and finally maturation in oak casks. Here, the scotch spends a minimum of three years in the casks,” explained Ronnie.

Back at Blair Estate, it was time to celebrate Leah’s birthday and we headed to nearby Michelin starred Braidwoods Restaurant for a sublime meal matched with excellent wines. After toasting the birthday girl, we toasted Dan for coming up with such a fabulous plan. I couldn’t think of a better way to celebrate a landmark birthday than in a manor house from the 1600s, surrounded by close friends. It doesn’t get any better.

Falling in Love with Portugal

Portugal’s allure is undeniable. Succulent seafood, the azure waters of the Algarve, welcoming people, a temperate climate, and a rich history.  My first grand tour of Europe began in Portugal when I was 18 and my heart was instantly ensnared by its captivating beauty. Last year I returned and was thrilled to find the first love of my travelling life was still as enchanting as I remembered.

Landing in Lisbon, we were met by a dazzling display of burnt orange roofs, cobblestone streets, and walls awash in a lemony glow. Lisbon, with a population of 500,000, is a European gem, often forgotten in favor of bigger, showier competitors. But on this visit, I was reminded of why this beautiful grand dame deserves a second look.

My husband and I made our base the centrally located Tivoli Avenida Liberdade hotel. Poking around the lobby, I came across a history of the storied hotel and learned it had been Portuguese actress Beatriz Costa’s home for 30 years. The black and white film star once shared the silver screen with stars such as Marlene Dietrich and you can see her portrait outside her former suite. Getting into the hotel’s luxe vibe, one of the first things I did was splurge on an Anantara Signature massage. Tivoli is owned by the Minor Hotel Group, which also owns the Anantara spa brand. After my feet were washed in a bowl of warm water, I picked a lavender essential oil for my treatment and melted under the sure hands of my Thai masseuse.

That night, at Sky Bar, on the hotel’s 9th floor, I saw that the hotel still draws A-list guests. Out under the stars, beautifully attired folks lounged on comfy seats while looking out over the twinkling city. It was the perfect place to sip designer cocktails and delectable small bites.

The scene continued at the hotel’s Seen Restaurant where bartenders buzzed under a very real looking tree (the trunk was, the leaves were not) and wait staff served choice selections from “chefpreneur” Olivier da Costa’s tantalizing menu. Dishes were a combination of Brazilian, Portuguese and Japanese – Wagyu beef like butter, fresh caught Portuguese fish and Brazilian palm hearts were just a few of the treats we sampled.

The next day we walked Lisbon’s cobbled streets to burn off a few calories, and headed for St. Jorge Castle, strategically located on one of the city’s highest points. After a calf-tightening ascent, we caught our breath, admired the view and marched into the crumbling stone edifice. Built by the Moors in the mid-11th century, the castle became a home for royalty in the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries. After the Lisbon earthquake of 1755, new buildings were raised over the older ruins and by the 19th century military barracks covered the entire area. The castle and ruins of the former royal palace were rediscovered after restoration work in the late 1930s. We walked the circumference of the castle, admiring the eleven remaining towers and then admired a collection of artifacts found during the restoration.

The Moorish influence can be seen throughout the city in much of the architecture, but taking a tram overlooking the Tagus River towards Belem, we also noticed contemporary hotels and bustling emporiums such as the Time Out Market.  By the time we reached Belem Tower, one of the most photographed historic sites in the city, the sun was going down. Now a UNESCO world heritage site, the structure was built in the 1500s to guard the estuary at the mouth of the Targus and later it served as a customs house. In that light, it almost glowed and it was easy to imagine mighty sailing vessels paying her tribute.

Portugal’s majestic past can also be seen in Sintra, a 30-minute drive from Lisbon. Nestled in the hills of the Serra de Sintra, it was the summer playground of royalty and is filled with whimsical palaces and mansions.  Our first stop was the Pena Palace which sprang from the imagination of King Ferdinand II. Originally a 16th century monastery, the palace was converted into the king’s summer house in the late 1800s. After the king’s death, his son Carlos spent his holidays there until he was assassinated in 1908. The palace had a fairytale-like quality, was painted in gelato colours, and was filled with hidden nooks and crannies. When we finally emerged, the grounds were wrapped in fog thick as cotton wool and it felt as if we had been transported back to another century. Our visit to nearby Quinta da Regaleira, a world heritage site built at the end of the 19th century, had a similar feel. “We get a lot of fog here. It’s what makes Sintra so special,” the clerk at the ticket counter said.

Fotografia: Lionel Balteiro Tivoli – Palácio de Seteais

Our hotel was equally spellbinding.  The Tivoli Palacio de Seteais was built in the late 1700s for King John the 6th, who never lived there. At the start of of the French Revolution in 1779, he left for Brazil. Taking a tour of the property with a staff member, I learned most of the furniture, including handmade carpets and tapestries, was original. “A Dutch ambassador bought it as a summer house for his son, but he didn’t like it here. Too much fog,” noted my guide. There were many owners over the years and in 1955 it was converted into a hotel with two tennis courts, swimming pool, lemon garden, and mountain hiking and biking nearby.

These days, it is part of the Tivoli family and contains 30 guest rooms. The King and Queen of the Netherlands had stayed in our room two years prior, according to the guest book displayed in the lobby. Leafing through the book, I noticed other big name guests included Agatha Christie, Catherine Deneuve, David Bowie, and Mick Jagger. The hotel’s dining room was exquisite and one evening we decided to pair our meal with local wines from Colares.

We learned the winery gives guided tours by appointment and the next morning we went and met Francisco Figueiredo, the chief winemaker. He told us the winery is a co-op and was founded in 1931. “This is a very old wine area. Records show it goes back to the 1300s,” he explained. He noted the devastating blight of phylloxera (microscopic lice that eat the roots of grapevines) didn’t hit this region because the vines grow in sand. “The way we plant, we were protected. There is no water or nutrients in the sand for the lice.” He explained that trenches are dug through two to three meters of sandy soil, the vines are planted in better soil and then covered with sand. “The lice can’t tunnel down to the roots,” he noted. Sipping one of the reds, we noticed it had a lot of acidity and a slight bite of tannins, but also a softness since the wine is finished for a year in French Oak barrels.

Before departing, I wanted to paying my respects to Sintra’s wine industry, and went for a pampering Vinotherapy Facial in the hotel spa. Once the palace’s pigeon house, it had been remodeled into a high- end luxury facility. After the red grape mask and a quartz healing gemstone face massage I looked in the mirror. Did it help slow the aging process as promised? I wasn’t sure about that, but I was rested and ready for our next adventure.

The Algarve was our final destination and on the way to the sunny coast, we stopped in the walled city of Evora. History abounded everywhere, from the Roman temple, built in the 1st century AD, to the towering aquaduct from the 1500s that continues to supply city water today.

In particular, what caught my eye among the winding, cobblestone streets was the Chapel of Bones, attached to the Church of St. Francisco. Built in the 17th century to encourage reflection of mortality and Christianity, the chapel contained thousands of bones placed in decorative patterns on the walls. Just a tad unsettling.

Thankfully, all dark, macabre thoughts were banished by the time we reached the sun soaked Algarve. We checked into our hotel, Tivoli Carvoeiro a 248- room seaside spread that was refurbished in 2017, and prepared for our Carvoeiro Tuk Tuk tour of the area. Antonio arrived promptly in his lime green four-seater and we took off for an open air jaunt to a cliff-side trail, Alfanzina lighthouse, and two ceramic studios, Porches Pottery and Olaria Pequena (Little Pottery). Antonio explained that Porches

 Pottery, was founded by Dublin artist Patrick Swift in 1962.  Swift’s daughter Juliette was behind the counter.  “We have 11 staff and nine painters. When we first came, we had moved from London where my father hung out with painters such as Lucien Freud and Francis Bacon in the pubs. Mother was glad to get out of London and the unhealthy lifestyle.” Juliette noted she couldn’t think of living anywhere else now. “I love it here. The Algarve is steeped in history and sunshine.” Speaking more with Juliette, I learned that her father reinvigorated a local art form that was dying out. “At one time there were a lot of studios making pottery for everyday use. When plastic came along, the studios started closing,” she explained. At Porches Pottery (Porches is the name of the small community where they are located) local artists paint the ceramics for the shop and also make custom pieces.

At Bacchus, a café attached to the shop lined with decorative tiles, I met owner Carlos, who had been born in Portugal but lived in Toronto for most of his life. Five years ago he and his wife Tina and son Rick came back to Portugal and took over the café. “I love the sun and lifestyle here,” Carlos explained.

The final stop on our tuk tuk tour was Olaria Pequena (Little Pottery) where we met owner Ian Fitzpatrick and his daughter Molly. Originally from Glasgow, Ian came to the Algarve after completing art college to work with a friend. “That was 38 years ago,” he said with a smile.

He opened his Olaria Pequena in 1983 outside the village of Porches and today his daughters Molly and Martha, also ceramics artists, give him occasional assistance. Olives and lemons are his main motifs. Although he uses traditional craft techniques, his work is fresh and contemporary and very much in demand.

Portugal has a way of capturing people’s hearts. There’s an easy warmth to the country that stays with you long after you depart. It’s a warmth that draws you back. For some, even to stay.

Decorative Tiles

In Portugal they are everywhere, decorating walls of churches to palaces, parks, shops and railway stations. Often they portray historic scenes and sometimes they are simply street signs. The term azulejo comes from the Arabic word azzulayj, meaning “polished stone.” Inspired by the tiles in Spain’s Moorish-built Alhambra, King Manuel I had them installed in his palace in Sintra. Originally designed with geometric patterns as per Islamic law, the tiles became more intricate and included human and animal figures when Portuguese painters took up the art.

Useful Websites

Lisbon – visitlisboa.com

Tivoli Hotels – tivolihotels.com

Sintra – sintra-portugal.com

Portugal – visitportugal.com

Airline Food Survey 2020

The following is a study of 11 major airlines’ snack and on-board food offerings conducted by Dr. Charles Platkin, editor of DietDetective.com. and the director of the Hunter College NYC Food Policy Center. The study provides the calorie/nutrient information, “best bets” and gives each airline a “Health Rating.” This year, Air Canada and Alaska Airlines win the top spot as the airline with the “healthiest” food choices in the sky with Delta and JetBlue in second place.

Airline Food Study 2020 

Survey provides travelers with the
best in-flight food choices, including health ratings to make healthier choices 35,000 feet in the air Air Canada and Alaska Receive Top Rating
NEW YORK, NY (December 19, 2019). There will be more than 47 million passengers traveling during the holiday season (Dec. 19 – Jan. 5) according to Airlines for America (A4A). Knowing the “best” and “worst” choices is a valuable tool for any traveler, so Dr. Charles Platkin, editor of DietDetective.com and the Executive Director of the Hunter College NYC Food Policy Center, once again studied the best “Calorie Bargains” and “Calorie Rip-offs” at 35,000 feet.   DietDetective.com and the Hunter College NYC Food Policy Center have released the 2020 Airline Food Study, rating foods for eleven (11) airlines. The study assigned a “Health Score” (5 stars = highest rated, 0 star = lowest rated) based on criteria including healthy nutrients and calorie levels of meals, snack boxes and individual snacks, level of transparency (display of nutrient information, menu online & ingredients), improvement and maintenance of healthy offerings, menu innovation and cooperation in providing nutritional information, overall sodium levels, availability of meals on flights under 3 hours, and our Airline Water Health Score. The study includes health ratings, average calories per airline, comments, best bets, food offerings, costs, and nutrition information (e.g., calories, carbs, fats, protein, sodium and exercise equivalents). See the full study at dietdetective.com   “This year Alaska and Air Canada share the top spot as the airlines with the ‘healthiest’ food choices in the sky, with Delta and JetBlue tied for second,”  says Charles Platkin, Ph.D., JD, MPH,  the executive director of the Hunter College NYC Food Policy Center and editor of DietDetective.com.   Here are the major airline food headlines:
Alaska Airlines and Air Canada pull to the top for a tie this year as the healthiest airlines. 
Average Calories Same as Last Year: The average number of calories per menu item was 373 calories in 2018 and this year it is almost the same at 375 calories. But keep in mind, calories are not everything; the study also looks at the nutrient content of these foods, as well as innovations moving towards healthier, tastier, less expensive and more sustainable choices. 
Alaska Airlines is the clear leader in making strides to minimize its environmental impact. It was the first to replace plastic straws with paper ones and continues to look for eco-friendly substitutions. Alaska has also launched a #FillBeforeYouFly campaign to encourage flyers to bring their own water bottles and fill them up at water-filling stations in the airport to reduce the use of plastic cups and water bottles on board. 
Shame On You Award goes to Hawaiian for not providing ALL their nutritional information for the study, and to the EPA for not providing penalty information on galley water violations when requested. 
Sodium Matters: Sodium is often used by food providers to boost flavor, especially in the air where senses can be dulled. The average airline meal contains more than 800mg of sodium, which is more than 40 percent of the daily limit of 2000mg set by the World Health Organization. Also, note that in addition to health-related concerns, sodium can make you feel and look bloated because you retain extra water. Watch out for high levels of sodium throughout all airline menus.
Mini-Meals: Full meals or “mini-meal” options are better bets than eating individual snacks, which generally have little nutritional value. 
Short Flights Matter: We urge airlines to provide meals or allow for preorder on shorter flights so that passengers have the option to eat a healthy meal no matter how long they’re in the air. Keep in mind that a 90-minute flight can easily turn into a 5 or 6 hour travel experience when you include getting to the airport, TSA lines, waiting for the flight to take off, deplaning and getting to your final destination. 
You Need to Know: We believe transparency around food is important for airlines. This means providing an up-to-date version of its menu online with all nutrient information  (i.e., calories, fat, carbs, sugar, fiber, protein and sodium), including ingredients. 
Taste Changes in Air: Research shows that our taste perception changes while in flight. Dr. Charles Spence from the University of Oxford found that the three factors impacting taste at such high altitudes are the lower cabin air pressure, lack of humidity and loud background noise. In-flight, air is recycled every few minutes and humidity is normally about 20 percent (compared to indoor relative humidity of 40 percent). With lower humidity and air pressure, we’re likely to be thirstier, and there’s naturally less moisture in the throat, which slows the transport of odors to the brain’s smell and taste receptors. Drink a lot of water. More salt, sugar and flavor enhancers (i.e. spices and herbs) are necessary to make meals inflight taste the way they do on the ground. 
Watch Your Carbs: Eating lots of heavy carbs such as pasta with thick, dense sauces, breads, muffins or cakes will leave you feeling lethargic, cranky and not full or satisfied.  Your blood sugar levels will spike and then fall, which will negatively impact your mood. The fact that food impacts mood, attitude and behavior has been well documented in scientific literature.
Water Watch: This year we published an Airline Water Study highlighting the quality of water provided onboard. Each airline was given a Water Health Score, which has been factored into their overall score in this study. The study revealed that the quality of drinking water varies by airline, and many have provided passengers with unhealthy water. In general, it’s probably best to avoid drinking coffee and tea on board since they are made with galley water. 

Here are the food-service offerings from several of the more popular airlines, along with Diet Detective’s comments, ratings (Health Score: 5  = highest rating), calories, exercise equivalents (amount of walking required to burn off the food consumed) and personal favorites. 
Summary of Health Ratings (5 is highest): Air Canada 4.0, Alaska Airlines 4.0, JetBlue 2.9, Delta 2.9, United Airlines 2.7, American 2.7, Frontier 2.0, Allegiant Air 1.9, Spirit Airlines 1.9, Hawaiian Airlines 1.9, Southwest Airlines 1.7
Air Canada Cooperation in Providing Nutritional Information: Very Helpful Health Score: 4.0 / 5    Fleet Size: 372 Onboard Water Health Score: N/A Average Calories Overall (Individual Snacks, Snack Boxes, and Meals): 347 Average Individual Snack Calories: 308 Average Snack Box Calories: 590
Average Meal Calories: 376 Average Sodium Content Overall (Individual Snacks, Snack Boxes, and Meals): 544mg
Comments: The good news is that Air Canada has added several new items that show some serious health innovation, including the Grilled Chicken Summer Salad and the Wild Rice Superfood Salad. These are great mini-meals, much better than a traditional snack, and are low in calories with great nutrient content. Air Canada also offers a Bento Express sushi California roll. And then there is the Freshii menu, which  provides lower-calorie and higher-nutrient meal choices packed with more vegetables than many other airline options. Air Canada’s meals are relatively healthy and available for trips that are more than 2 hours long. Providing real meals starting at 2 hours is not typical; most airlines start offering real meals at 3 or 4 hours, which is not great if you want to avoid unhealthy snacks. The bad news is that Air Canada needs to include all nutrient information and ingredients on its menu and online – there is no reason not to.The average sodium content of 544mg for all of Air Canada’s offerings is almost ten percent higher than the average among all airlines. However, the average sodium content for meals, at 620mg, is lower than the overall average for all airlines, which is 823mg.  Air Canada also has a larger selection of food items overall, which allows for several healthy options.  Best Bets: For breakfast, the Liberte Greek yogurt is still a good choice and will probably fill you up. The Avocado Smash Box, with fresh guacamole, hard-boiled egg, green apple slices, and multigrain muesli bread sounds amazing and also offers 23g of filling protein to keep you energized. You might want to skip the cheese though.  Other best bets would be the new Grilled Chicken Summer Salad and the Wild Rice Superfood Salad, both of which are relatively low in calories and high in protein for a mini-meal. The chicken salad has 220 calories and 14 grams of protein (which helps to keep you full longer), and the wild rice is a close second with 260 calories and 8 grams of protein. The Campbell’s Chicken Noodle Soup is a low-calorie choice for a snack that will fill you up, but be wary of the 950mg of sodium if you are salt sensitive. The Celery & Carrots with Ranch Dip (if you use no more than half the dip) is still an OK choice. The Sabra Hummus is an OK choice if you share it, and the Sabra Guacamole appears to be healthy, but the Tostitos offer little nutritional value. The Krispy Kernels Natural Almonds come as a large portion but are still a better choice than most of the individual snacks.If meals are available, the sushi California roll is a good choice.  The Pangoa Bowl and the Sriracha Lime Wrap are both high-nutrient/ low-calorie choices. Skip the Smoked Meat Sandwich, since it has nearly an entire day’s worth of sodium along with a high calorie content.  And Air Canada needs to offer at least one healthy kids’ meal.  Alaska Airlines
Cooperation in Providing Nutritional Information: Very Helpful Health Score: 4.0 / 5    Fleet Size: 335 Onboard Water Health Score: 3.3 / 5 Average Calories Overall (Individual Snacks, Snack Boxes, and Meals): 359 Average Individual Snack Calories: 265 Average Snack Box Calories: 464
Average Meal Calories: 388 Average Sodium Content Overall (Individual Snacks, Snack Boxes, and Meals): 472mg
Comments: Alaska Airlines has a variety of snacks, snack boxes, and meal offerings that include some better-for-you options. We applaud Alaska’s transparency compared to other airlines, because its full menu and complete nutritional information are available online, and on Alaska’s app. However, the full ingredient list for each offering is still missing from the website. Although there are improvements to be made, Alaska Airlines has been a clear leader for the past several years, and continues to be committed to healthy food. However, we’d like to see more of the airline’s healthier options, some of which are now available only on flights of more than three hours, available on shorter flights as well.Still, the average number of Alaska’s overall calories is 45 fewer than last year, and the average sodium content, which is 472mg overall, ranks close to the average of 497mg for all foods among all airlines. One highlight is that Alaska is allowing for preordering of foods on their mobile app as well as on their website, so that passengers can reserve healthy foods in advance. Alaska is also a clear leader in environmental initiatives. It was the first airline to replace plastic straws and has launched a #FillBeforeYouFly campaign to encourage flyers to bring their own water bottles and fill them up at water-filling stations in the airport to reduce the use of plastic cups and water bottles on board (do not refill your water bottle on board).  Best Bets: Among the snack boxes, the Mediterranean Tapas hasn’t changed much from last year and is still the healthiest choice. It has olives, hummus, almonds, dried fruit and even a dark chocolate bar. But keep in mind that 545 calories is a bit high for a “snack,” so it would be best if you either shared the box or had it as a meal replacement. For kids (and their parents, because of nagging), the Kids’ Choice Picnic Pack may be tempting, but it’s always better for children (and adults) to eat a real meal.Among individual snacks, the Beef Jerky is low in calories but very high in sodium. The Umpqua Oats Organic Apple Cranberry & Nut Oatmeal has 255 calories and 8 grams of protein, which makes it a healthier choice overall.  The breakfast offerings are a bit heavy and calorie-rich. The Fresh Start Protein Platter has 27 grams of protein, which is high (a good thing) for the number of calories in the platter (340 calories). The Signature Fruit and Cheese Platter also has 27 grams of protein; however, it also has 85 percent of the total amount of saturated fat you should have in a day, so you might want to skip half the cheese. And while you’re at it, maybe skip half the crackers as well. There are fewer lunch/dinner choices this year, but the Fall Harvest Salad is a high-protein, low-calorie choice. When available, the Charge Up Protein Platter is also a great high-protein option.  JetBlue Airways Cooperation in Providing Nutritional Information: Very Helpful Health Score: 2.9 / 5   Fleet Size: 254 Onboard Water Health Score: 2.6 / 5 Average Calories Overall (Individual Snacks, Snack Boxes, and Meals): 295 Average Individual Snack Calories: 120 Average Snack Box Calories: 392 Average Meal Calories: 460 Average Sodium Content Overall (Individual Snacks, Snack Boxes, and Meals):547mg
Comments: The best thing about JetBlue is that it posts all its nutritional information on its website; however, as of this study the information is not up-to-date.  JetBlue has a few reasonably healthy meals on their EatUp Cafe menu; however, they are not offered on flights under 3 hours – not great. At least there are a few OK snack box choices that are available on flights of more than 2 hours. The airline needs to work on this.  In addition, all JetBlue’s free snacks are unhealthy choices. I only wish that the airline would include apples and bananas in those snack baskets the flight attendants pass around.  At least try it once. I would pay for the experiment (on one or two flights). The average number of calories in JetBlue’s food offerings has decreased from 323 last year to 295 this year – nice. However, the average sodium content of all food items is 547mg, which is higher than the average of 497mg across all airlines.  Best Bets: The complimentary snacks aren’t high in calories but they’re low in nutritional value. The best bet would be to choose anything BUT the chocolate chip cookies. It’s hard to believe, but Cheez-Its made with whole wheat flour and having only half the calories of the original version might be an OK choice compared to the others. Too bad. The problem is that the snacks are free; but that doesn’t mean you need to take more than one. As for the EatUp boxes, the PickMeUp is lowest with 300 calories, but it’s not necessarily the most nutritious. The SavorUp box features hummus, multigrain crackers and bean dip with Greek yogurt, and while it’s high in calories, it’s also loaded with good nutrition (e.g. fiber and protein).  Also the FuelUp box is reasonably good, with almonds, dried apricots, apples, and an RX Bar. Have it as a meal though, not as a snack, and skip the biscotti to reduce low-nutrient calories, or share the box with a traveling companion. If you’re on a flight that offers the EatUp Café, the Fresh Fruit and the Jicama and Grape Salad Shaker are very good choices. Skip the Ham & Cheese Croissant, which is very high in calories and sodium. Delta Airlines Cooperation in Providing Nutritional Information: Very Helpful Health Score: 2.9 / 5    Fleet Size: 916 Onboard Water Health Score: 1.6 / 5 Average Calories Overall (Individual Snacks, Snack Boxes, and Meals): 424 Average Individual Snack Calories: 172 Average Snack Box Calories: 560 Average Meal Calories: 495 Average Sodium Content Overall (Individual Snacks, Snack Boxes, and Meals): 780mg Comments: It is nice that Delta provides our team with all the nutritional information for all foods, including sugar grams – nice.  However, as we said last year, we would still like Delta to post all nutritional information and ingredients for every meal–NOT just the Luvo Performance Kitchen meals–online and on its menu. Delta does include labels that alert people who have  dietary restrictions (i.e. gluten-free, Kosher, vegetarian). However, full nutrition information should be accessible for improved transparency. We also urge Delta, and all airlines, to follow Air Canada’s lead and  include meals on flights of under 1300 miles or 3 hours in the air. Options like salads or other lighter fare are important even on shorter flights. If the airlines are worried about food waste, they can have passengers preorder. Delta continues to work with Luvo’s Performance Kitchen line, which has a very strong commitment to healthy eating. The bad news is that the Performance Kitchen items are no longer being offered as complimentary meals, and the remaining free meal options are not as healthy.    Delta’s overall calorie average, now at 423, is 76 calories lower than it was last year – nice. But the average sodium content for all its food items is 780mg, one of the highest of any airline.  Best Bets: For a snack, your best bet is the almonds, and you’ll be surprised by how filling they are. Don’t be fooled by the “whole grain” Cheez-It crackers – not a great choice even for free.  Among snack boxes, the Tapas Box is an OK choice. Skip the rest of them. For breakfast, not the best choices, but it would probably be best to go for the Protein Box. Just eat only one of the two cheese offerings, and have it as a meal.  For lunch and dinner, go for whichever of the Performance Kitchen meals are offered in the direction you’re flying  – eastbound or westbound. The Mesquite-Smoked Turkey Combo is heavy on calories, carbs, and sodium. Among the complimentary lunch options (offered on cross-country flights) there is only one OK choice, which is the Tillamook Cheese and Fruit Box. For the complimentary dinner options (on cross-country flights), the Sesame Noodle Salad and the Greek Mezze Plate are good choices; however, they come with the Tillamook Cheese and Fruit Box, which starts to get extremely high in sodium and calories. So if you choose that option, offer the cheeses to someone else. As for the complimentary dinner meals, avoid the Beef Pastrami Sandwich, which packs enough calories for two meals and a whole day’s worth of sodium. If your sandwich comes with a cookie, save the calories and give the cookie away.
United Airlines Cooperation in Providing Nutritional Information: Somewhat Helpful Health Score: 2.7 / 5    Fleet Size: 786 Onboard Water Health Score: 1.2 / 5 Average Calories Overall (Individual Snacks, Snack Boxes, and Meals):320 Average Individual Snack Calories: 186 Average Snack Box Calories: 463 Average Meal Calories: 431 Average Sodium Content Overall (Individual Snacks, Snack Boxes, and Meals): 464mg

Comments:  United is improving for sure. The airline’s average calories for all food items are significantly lower this year than they were last year, and the average sodium content is 464mg, which is lower than the average across all airlines. Also, the average meal calories are very reasonable at 431. The bad news is that there is no nutritional information on the website, no ingredients list, and United is still lagging behind other airlines on the environmental front (still using plastic straws and cups).  Best Bets: The Beef Jerky and the Hummus are the only good bets for snacks. None of the complimentary snacks are healthy options, but if you must indulge, choose the pretzels. Get the Tapas snack box, which is high in calories but has many healthy foods, including almonds, olives, hummus and bruschetta; just toss out the cheese spread, and share it unless you’re eating it as a meal. Skip the Classic and Select snack boxes, and say no to the kids’ snack box.  For breakfast, the Overnight Blackberry Vanilla Oats is an OK choice, but it does have 41g of sugar, while the Egg White & Chicken Sausage Flatbread Sandwich, with only 310 calories and 21g of protein, will keep you full longer.  Avoid the Egg White Sandwich if you’re sodium-sensitive. For Lunch/Dinner, the Mezze Sampler, which has lots of veggies, hummus and grain, is your best bet.   American Airlines Cooperation in Providing Nutritional Information: Mostly Helpful Health Score: 2.7 / 5    Fleet Size: 968 Onboard Water Health Score: 1.5 / 5 Average Calories Overall (Meals, Snack Boxes and Individual Snacks): 481 Average Individual Snack Calories: 144 Average Snack Box Calories: 471 Average Meal Calories: 585 Average Sodium Content Overall (Meals, Snack Boxes and Individual Snacks): 678mg
Comments: With more than 900 planes, American is a leading airline and should certainly make a more concerted effort to provide healthier food choices. We like its continued partnership with Zoe’s Kitchen, a clean food company focusing on a Mediterranean diet, and we are glad the airline dropped the chocolate in the Hummus Duo, lowering the calories by 140 to a reasonable number, but they still need to serve healthier food. The Vegan Snack Box is good news, not just because it’s vegan but because of the nice offerings it includes. The bad news is that the airline is still not publishing a menu with nutritional information on its website — not good. Nor did American provide us with complete nutrition information (e.g. carbs, fats, protein and sodium). We appreciate the airline’s responsiveness, but given its size, it should have healthier menu options and provide online menus with full nutritional info and ingredients. Pringles are the only snack offered for purchase, not good. Come on, American–healthy food is good business, Have you heard of Whole Foods? Overall, American’s calories have increased from 417 last year to 481–not the right direction.  And the sodium levels, at an average of 922mg for meals, is much higher than the already high average of 823mg for all airlines that serve meals. (Note: 2000mg is the World Health Organization’s daily limit.) Best Bets:  The Continental Breakfast offering with Chobani Yogurt is a good choice (only available until Dec 1st, after which it’s replaced by a high calorie Belgian waffle).The Breakfast Platter is an OK choice with hardboiled egg and apple slices, and on cross-country flights to/from San Francisco or LA and NYC, the complimentary Vegan Snack Box (oats) is a decent option. If you purchase lunch or dinner, the Harissa Chicken Wrap (without the cookie) seems to be the best option. The Hummus Duo is higher in calories and sodium, but it can be a good choice to share between two people unless you eat it as a meal. The lunch/dinner version of the Vegan Snack Box (hummus) is also not bad if you’re flying to/from San Francisco or LA and NY and you eat it as a meal. If you’re trying to eat healthy, skip the chocolate chip cookie in all meals that come with one – it’s 200 calories, and not worth it. Avoid all the free or paid individual snacks and/or snack boxes except for the two complimentary vegan boxes on flights where they are available (transcontinental). 
Frontier Airlines Cooperation in Providing Nutritional Information: Very Helpful Health Score: 2.0 / 5    Fleet Size: 91 Onboard Water Health Score: 2.6 / 5 Average Calories Overall (Individual Snacks and Snack Boxes): 289 Average Individual Snack Calories: 298 Average Snack Box Calories: 257 Average Sodium Content Overall (Individual Snacks and Snack Boxes): 367mg

Comments: Frontier was incredibly responsive, providing information quickly – nice. However, it would be great if the airline offered some healthier items. The average calories in their inflight offerings decreased for each category this year, but there is still room for improvement as to what those offerings could be. Again, Frontier is an innovative airline – please apply that innovation to food. The sodium content of its snacks is 367mg, which is much higher than the average for snacks across all airlines. And the average number of calories in its snacks is 298, which is 15 percent higher than the average across all airlines. 
Best Bets: The best bet for snacks is to choose the KIND bar or the Jack Links Beef Steak (as long as you’re not sodium sensitive). Neither of the bundled snack boxes provides a nutrient-rich, low-calorie option.
Allegiant Air Cooperation in Providing Nutritional Information: Very Helpful Health Score: 1.9 / 5    Fleet Size: 91 Onboard Water Health Score: 3.3 / 5 Average Calories Overall (Individual Snacks and Snack Boxes): 325 Average Individual Snack Calories: 390 Average Snack Box Calories: 240 Average Sodium Content Overall (Snack Boxes and Individual Snacks): 362mg
Comments: The good news is that Allegiant was very helpful throughout the study. Nice job!    And compared to last year, it has lowered its overall calorie average slightly, from 336 to 326 calories. It would be wonderful if the airline added a few more nutritious food items to the menu, perhaps an apple or a salad shaker. Best Bets: Among the individual snacks, the nuts might work if you shared them with at least one other person. The Hummus Snack Pack is also OK.  Avoid the Deli Snack Pack, and the Wingz Kids Snack Pack is not a healthy choice
Spirit Airlines Cooperation in Providing Nutritional Information: Very Helpful Health Score: 1.9 / 5    Fleet Size: 135 Onboard Water Health Score: 1 / 5 Average Calories Overall (Individual Snacks and Snack Boxes): 360 Average Individual Snack Calories: 370 Average Snack Box Calories: 319 Average Sodium Content Overall (Individual Snacks and Snack Boxes): 450mg
Comments: Spirit’s inflight offerings were hard to find on the airline’s website. No nutritional information is provided for the food offered, and, overall, there are not many (if any) healthy options. The good news is that the airline responded incredibly well to our queries–nice.
The average sodium content of Spirit’s snacks is 403mg, which is well above the average across all airlines. The airline’s average individual snack calories are also significantly higher at 370 than the 255 average across all airline snacks.
Best Bets: The FlyFit Protein Mix of nuts would be a good bet if split among four people, because each bag contains about four servings of nuts. The Nissin Cup Noodle Very Veggie Chicken Flavor is OK at 330 calories and might feel like a real meal, but it’s very high in sodium. The Cheese Tray is a much better choice than the Cafe Snack Box, but it would be better shared between two people. It’s too bad that the Quinoa with Artichoke & Roasted Peppers is no longer on the menu, because it was a healthy and satisfying snack option. 
Hawaiian Airlines Cooperation in Providing Nutritional Information: Not So Helpful Health Score: 1.9 /  5    Fleet Size: 57 Onboard Water Health Score: 3.1 / 5 Average Calories Overall (Individual Snacks, Snack Boxes, and Meals): 556 Average Individual Snack Calories: 369 Average Snack Box Calories: 515 Average Meal Calories: 898 Average Sodium Content Overall (Individual Snacks, Snack Boxes, and Meals): 755mg
Comments: This year, Hawaiian Airlines showed a tiny bit more effort, but, to be honest, it is now the ONLY airline that does not provide us with complete nutrition information. Much of the meal nutrient content had to be estimated by our registered dietitians, and the information provided by Hawaiian was confusing. There are a lot of high-calorie and high-sodium options, and many of the snacks will not be satiating. If you are flying Hawaiian it’s very important to note that ALL meals are free, and they are large, and there is a lot of food provided during flights from or to Hawaii – anywhere from 1122 to 1514 calories, and 1338 to 2453 milligrams of sodium. Those are very unhealthy numbers. The average sodium content of all Hawaiian’s food offerings is 775mg, which is way above the average across all airlines.  Best Bets: Among the snacks, choose the Kitchen & Love Quinoa with Artichoke and Roasted Pepper Quick Meal. That’s it for healthy snacks; pass on all the others.  Among the snackboxes, the Gluten Free Box has some healthy components, including the hummus, chickpea snacks, and the turkey stick. But skip the fruit snacks, and the cookies. For meals, it’s much more complicated. NYC/Boston to Hawaii and Hawaii to NYC/Boston are long, 10-hour-plus flights, and food service includes several free meals throughout. The actual meal is OK; however, you should avoid all the free-meal extras, including the chips, the pineapple coconut treat, potato salad, cole slaw, cookies, cheese, crackers, snack mix, and alcoholic beverages.  If you do insist on eating all the unhealthy “extras,” they will leave you feeling tired and uncomfortable. 
Southwest Airlines Cooperation in Providing Nutritional Information: Somewhat Helpful Health Score: 1.7 / 5    Fleet Size: 754 Onboard Water Health Score: 2.4 / 5 Average Individual Snack Calories: 106 Average Sodium Content Overall (Individual Snacks): 135mg
Comments: For one of the top carriers, Southwest does not offer much variety or nutritional value. If the airline really does have a heart (as  it does on its logo), it would care about the food that’s being served. Southwest needs to add some healthy snacks. And this year, for the first time in 20 years, the people we contacted were not nearly as helpful as they usually are in providing information for the study. The communications team’s kindness was its only saving grace. The airline’s average calories for snacks has decreased from 138 last year to 106 this year. The average sodium for the few food offerings is low at 135mg. Best Bets: The pretzels are the only reasonable choice, they but have no nutritional value. More than on any other airline, when you fly Southwest, you need to bring your own fresh, nutrient-dense, healthy food, such as nuts and fresh fruit.   ###

Quebec’s Maritime Marvels

The haunting view from Isle-aux-Grues.

I have visited many parts of the belle province, but never Chaudière-Appalaches or Bas St. Lawrence, on the south shore of the mighty St. Lawrence river. When given a chance to tour this area in the fall, I jumped.

Aboard the shortest scheduled flight in the world.

After landing in Quebec City, we drove a short distance to Cap-Saint-Ignace and climbed aboard an Air Montmagny 8-seater and took off on the world’s shortest scheduled flight to Isle-aux-Grues. A staggering four minutes. Great for some aerial photography. The island was part of a 21 island/islets archipelago of the same name, and it was the only one inhabited year round. Our host, Gilles Tardif picked us up at the tiny airport and we headed to his inn, Maisons du Grand Héron. “I bought it as a summer home and the islanders convinced me to also open a restaurant there. Now it is a main gathering place.” Located next to the ferry dock, it was a prime location to catch islanders coming back on a 30-minute ride from the mainland. Gilles treated us to a delicious dinner of black sturgeon, caught in the St. Lawrence. “There are only two places in the world you can find this fish,” he explained, “here and in Iran.” As well as the inn’s eight standard rooms, it offered guests a choice of two teepees and two yurts. I was in the main part of the inn with a terrific view of the river.

Michelle Beaulieu and the ultra creamy brie of Fromagerie de L’Isle.

The next day we headed to a main employer on the island of around 90 inhabitants. At Fromagerie de L’Isle, sales manager Michelle Beaulieu treated us to some samples of cheese. My favourite was world award-winner Brie le Riopelle de l’Isle, a triple cream formula with flavours of mushroom and butter. After sampling the Cheval Noir, aged 60 days with an ash rind, and Curé Quartier, with an orange, chewy rind, I could see why Michelle proclaimed “We have the best cheese in Quebec!’

Despite its small population, Isle-aux-Grues’ church still stands proud.

Gilles took us on a little tour of the island, stopping at a lovely church, Paroisse de Saint-Antoine de L’Isle-aux-Grues, and the Jean-Paul Riopelle natural reserve where almost three kilometers of trails looped around 300-year-old trees. “More than 200 species of birds come here. We have the highest wetlands in North America and are a feeding stop for migrating birds such as bobolink, short-eared owls, great blue herons, snow geese and eagles,” Gilles explained.

Thousands of immigrants went through mandatory health checks on Grosse Isle before being welcomed to Canada.

The next island in the 21-island Isle-aux-Grues archipelago we visited had special significance for me. Grosse-Ile was a quarantine station for the port of Québec from 1832 to 1937. The main entry point for immigrants to Canada was experienced by three of my grandparents when they came from the United Kingdom in the 1920s.

Parks Canada took over operation of the site in 1990 and costumed historic interpreters walked us through the steps the immigrants had to go through. “Line up, men on one side, women on the other,” ordered a young man in a navy uniform. After introducing himself as the site’s assistant doctor, he told us to stick out our tongues. “If it is black, white or brown, you might have a disease,” he warned, noting the worst were typhus, diphtheria, small pox and cholera. Lucky, we all came out pink. He showed us the huge pressurized cages where the immigrants belongings would be disinfected, they led us to the showers where they would have stood under a nozzle spurting a mixture of water and disinfecting mercury hydrochloride. “The disinfection building was built in 1890. We have the best preserved quarantine station in the world,” he informed us.

The mass gravesite of more than 5,000 Irish immigrants.

Grosse-Ile is also the site of the Irish Memorial National Historic Site. Our Parks guide, Chady Chahine, led us to a quiet corner of the island where white crosses marked the mass graves of more than 5,000 Irish immigrants, many who perished during the potato famine in 1847. A towering Celtic cross was positioned looking out over the water to honour the largest potato famine cemetery outside Ireland.  In other areas of the island, there were 30 restored buildings, including the first, second and third class hotels where immigrants were housed, depending on their berth on the ship they arrived on.

One room was hung with promotional posters urging immigrants to come to Canada. I noted not one said anything about winter. “People were offered 160 acres of land. This was really enticing since the average small farmer in Europe at the time had an average of 15 acres,” Chady explained. To get to Grosse-Ile, there’s a ferry at Marina de Berthier-sur-Mer that takes 45 minutes. Admission, including the ferry, is $70 and people bring picnics since there is no café or restaurant on the island. The site opens in May and closes at Thanksgiving.

Tranquil Auberge Glacis features fine dining.

Back on the south shore of the St. Lawrence, we drove to Auberge Glacis, a charming inn that had once been an old mill. Located near L’Islet, it was surrounded by farmland and the dining room featured a tasting menu that integrated 55 local producers.

Canada’s only hydrofoil, the HMCS Bras d’Or.

The next morning, we headed to the Maritime Museum of Quebec in L’Islet. The highlights here were tours aboard the Earnest Lapointe, a Coast Guard icebreaker built in 1941, and a Canada’s only hydrofoil, HMCS Bras d’Or. Capt. Bernard Girard, who helmed oil tankers for 25 years, showed us around the ice breaker. I learned that ships like this don’t directly plough into the ice, but climb up over it. “The weight of the ship comes down and breaks the ice. When she’s breaking ice, trying to sleep is hell,” he said, indicating one of the crew’s bunks. The hydrofoil was an experimental project, used from 1960-71. Based on work of Alexander Graham Bell and Frederick Walker “Casey” Baldwin, her speeds could get up to 117 km per hour (the fastest unarmed warship in the world at the time). Unfortunately, it was an expensive project and when a new government came in, the military budget was cut.

Driving to Saint-Roch-des-Aulnaies, we stopped to walk the gardens of Seigneurie des Aulnaies and tour the historic home of the Dion family. “The house was built in 1853. It’s a Regency style with 11-foot-ceilings. We have all the original Dion furniture,” explained our costumed guide, clad in period dress complete with hoop skirt. Also on property was the village mill, the largest bucket wheel in operation in Québec where stone-ground flour is made to this day. Du Pain C’est Tout Bakery next door, owned by baker Charles Létang, proudly serves bread baked daily with heritage wheat such as Red Fife, Marquee, and Huron. My grilled cheese on cranberry bread made with Marquee flour was ooey, gooey good.

Entering the Bas-Saint-Laurent region, we parked the van and climbed 150 m to the top of Montagne a Coton. Catching our break, we scanned the horizon, glad for the breathtaking view and also happy to have burned off a few calories.

Kamouraska’s impressive church.

A five-minute drive away was Kamouraska, a charming town with artisanal bakeries, chocolate producers, a gourmet grocery, craft soap maker, fish shop, art centre, and general store. The impressive Saint-Louis-de-Kamouraska Church, stood impassively over the bustling town. A little outside town, it was time for some thirst quenching at Tet d’Allumette microbrewery.

Beer with a view.

Sitting on the outdoor terrace overlooking the St. Lawrence, we sipped sample flights and watched the sun slowly begin to sink. One of the most joyous patrons here was Marcel, a nine-month-old French Bulldog. I was in heaven.

The faux lighthouse of Saint-André de Kamouraska.

On our way to Notre-Dame-du-Portage, we stopped at Saint-André de Kamouraska. Winding down a path lined with wild roses, we came to a picturesque little lighthouse. Going inside, we found that it wasn’t a real lighthouse, just a shelter for hikers in the area and maintained by the locals. Very cute.

Dinner was at Auberge du Portage, with a fantastic view of the St. Lawrence. I had the yellow perch. Delicious.

The next day we caught a boat in Riviere-du-loup and headed out on the choppy water to Ile-aux-Lievres, Island of Hares. The island was bought 20 years ago by a non-profit group called Duvetnor and today, 3/4 of the island is owned by the provincial government. Duvetnor was founded 1989 by a group of biologists to protect the seabirds that nest on the islands. Before reaching Ile-aux- Lievres, we passed Iles-du-Pot a L’eau-de-vie, Brandy Pot Island, where Duvetnor had converted the lighthouse into a three-room inn. This was a birders paradise. The islands are home to thousands of Razorbills, Common Murres, Black Gullemots and Common Eiders. Melody Lachance, a coordinator with Duvetnor, told us that for around 100 years the island was uninhabited, just used for logging and hunting. “Duvetnor bought the islands 20 years ago. Now there are seven cottages and an inn with nine bedrooms, as well as some rustic campgrounds. Guests staying at the inn have meals included but if you are camping you have to bring in your own supplies,” she said.

The café on Isle-aux-Lievres.

Dropping off our gear in our rooms, we made our way out to an old logging trail behind the inn. “I’ll take you to the end of the world,” teased Melody. When we emerged at the windy, rocky edge of the island 30 minutes later she popped a thermos, cups and muffins out of her bag and we sat silently drinking in the stunning scenery.

Chilling at the End of the World.

That evening, Melody gave us a presentation on the island. “This is about science, conservation, and tourism,” she explained. We learned that Duvetnor’s founder, Jean Bedard was a Quebec biologist who along with seven colleagues, decided to do something to protect the nesting areas. One of their prime missions was to make harvesting of Eider down sustainable. Eider females are brown and camouflaged, while the males sport striking white and black feathers.

Eider eggs (all empty – for display purposes only), covered with down.

“Seagulls are their biggest predators. The females pool together to defend the ducklings. If a baby loses its mother, the aunties take over,” explained Melody. Since 2003, 20,000 females have been banded. The delicate work of no-harm down collection was devised by Duvetnor and the method is now embraced by Conservation Canada. Females pluck down from their breasts to cover their eggs and keep them warm. In the old days, harvesters would gather the down, in some cases disturbing the nest so that the female would not return. Today, Duvetnor staff and volunteers visit each colony only once towards the end of incubation to collect a portion of down in each nest. It is cleaned and sterilised by Duvetnor, then sold to wholesale companies in Europe that supply quilt (comforter) and outdoor wear manufacturers. Profits made from eiderdown has allowed Duvetnor to purchase, protect and enhance several islands of the Lower Saint-Lawrence and to maintain its ecotourism program. One kilogram of Eider down is worth around $1,000 and a king-sized eiderdown duvet can cost up to $10,000. The eiderdown harvest is an important way Duvetnor can sustain its activities. Along with the St. Lawrence, colonies are found in the far north, including Iceland and Greenland.

What a view at Parc Nationale Bic!

Driving towards Rimouski, we stopped at Parc Nationale Bic, where 200 harbour seals make their home, the biggest colony in the St. Lawrence estuary. A climb to the highest point in the park delivered a spectacular view of the St. Lawrence.

La Reserve Bistro’s fantastic halibut tower.

Dinner that night was at La Reserve Bistro in Rimouski. A warm, bustling establishment, it served a lot of fresh seafood including a halibut tower, salmon tartar, and oysters on the half shell.

Early diver’s suit at the Historic Maritime Museum.

The next morning, we drove to Pointe-au-Pere and the Historic Maritime Museum where I learned of Canada’s worst maritime disaster, the sinking of the Empress of Ireland.  Owned by Canadian Pacific Steamships, the vessel went down in 14 minutes when she was struck in heavy fog by the SS Storstad. The accident occurred in St. Lawrence in 1914 and 1,012 people were lost. It was heartbreaking to see the artifacts that had been retrieved including a tiny child’s purse. Of 138 children on board, only four survived. Amazingly, a stoker named William Clark who had been rescued from the Titanic, also survived.

One of the highest lighthouses in Canada.

Also on the site was a lighthouse that had operated from 1909-1975. At 33 meters high, it is one of the tallest in Canada. Climbing up the spiral stairs was a challenge, but the views at the top were worth it.

Heading into the Onondaga.

Testing my tolerance for cramped spaces, I boarded the Onondaga, a 90-metre submarine that had a crew of 70 men.   Built in 1967, it was a cold war initiative and was decommissioned in 2000. Donning a headset, I was guided through the extremely compact interior and learned that missions lasted up to 90 days, travelling speed was seven km per hour and it had circled the planet 23 times. Judging by the tight escape hatches, crew members really had to watch their weight.

My final stop was Reford Gardens, a 30-minute drive from Pointe-au-Pere in the Gaspésie region. Despite it being mid-September, the garden was flourishing. There were more than 3,000 species of plants in more than a dozen gardens. It wasn’t the right season for its famous Himalayan blue poppy to be in bloom, but I saw pictures of this exquisite flower at Estevan Lodge, the summer home of Elsie Reford who created the gardens from 1926 to 1958. Alexander Reford, Elsie’s great-grandson, the garden’s director and historian, met us at the gate and we lunched at the Bufton Café. The geranium bars at dessert were perfection, decorated with real flowers. “Bufton was the name of Elsie’s butler,” Alexander explained. “George Steven was Elsie’s uncle. He built the Canadian Pacific Railway in five years.

Estevan Lodge.

He built this house as a summer place to fish salmon. John D. Rockefeller used to come here and fish. George gifted the property to Elsie in 1918.”

Walking past gurgling brooks, and pathways lined with late blooms, Alexander noted that his great-grandmother was 54 when she started gardening. “It was an organic process for her. She’d try things out and if it didn’t work, she’d rearrange them,” he said, adding, “well, she’d have someone else do the heavy lifting. But she was a tough, old bird. Loved to fish and hunt.”

For 20 years, the International Garden Festival that runs from June to October, takes over a section of Reford Gardens. The innovative outdoor designs are submitted by landscape architects, artists and creative souls from around the world. Colourful and interactive, the installations were a delight. My favourite?  The one with a swing!

Stratford, Ont. – Traditional with a Twist

The city’s magnificent City Hall.

I had not been to Stratford, Ont., for a few years and this time I was surprised by some great food, chocolate (in a realm of its own) and a marvelous transportation option. Getting there was a breeze. You can hop on a $29 bus from downtown Toronto as long as you have purchased a theatre ticket. So relaxing!

Welcoming cocktails at The (Old) Prune’s Bar 151.

After the two-hour bus ride, which picked me up at 10 a.m. from in front of the InterContinental Hotel, it was time for lunch. The (Old) Prune was located in the historic downtown in a lovely old house that has been remodeled. Casual yet sophisticated, they offered locally inspired cuisine and the newest addition, Bar 151 offered creative cocktails.

Delectable garden radishes.

I sampled a number of dishes including garden radishes with wasabi butter and sea salt, mussels escabeche, and foie gras & chicken liver mousse (restaurant owner Shelley Windsor’s favorite. “I almost gave myself gout, I ate so much one year,” she confided.)

The main plate was spring pea ravioli with morel mushrooms, white sesame and wild leeks. So fresh! Dessert was a delicate chevre cheesecake with macerated rhubarb and fennel. Shelley Windsor, from Cornerbrooke, Newfoundland, and her husband Bill, moved to Stratford 18 years ago from New Brunswick. “We had an opportunity to go to Vancouver or Stratford. We chose lifestyle over career,” says Shelley. But career has taken off, too, and they now own numerous restaurants in town including Mercer Kitchen + Beer Hall. It’s also interesting to point out that the Stratford Chef School, renown for education some of the country’s best chefs, started off in the Prune kitchen.

Gallery Stratford, housed in the old Pump House.
An exhibit by Libby Hague featured provocative wood cuts.

My group, a number of journalists and local Stratford tourism reps, boarded a bus to get to our next destination. It was supplied via Meet Stratford Road Trips. The company offers lots of options to explore the surrounding countryside but we focused on in-town attractions – Gallery Stratford and Stratford Perth Museum. Gallery Stratford is one of Ontario’s longest operating public art galleries, open since 1967. Contemporary exhibitions focus on regional and Canadian art. Located in the former pump house, its a five minute walk from Stratford Festival Theatre and the Avon River. The gallery is open seven days a week, making it a pleasant stop before a matinee. Admission is free but donations are appreciated.

Me and the Biebs.

At Stratford Perth Museum, I walked through the front door and pop phenom Justin Bieber popped out to meet me. Well, his cardboard cutout, that is. The Steps to Stardom exhibit (which runs until November) chronicles the Stratford native’s journey to the top of the charts, starting with busking in front of the Avon Theatre to raise money for a trip to Disney World with his mom. “The exhibit opened last February and lineups started at 6 a.m. People came from all around the world including Paris, Berlin, and Australia. The Belieber Community is really strong online. They took shots, tagged them, and the exhibit grew,” notes Kelly McIntosh, the museum’s administrative co-ordinator.

If you want to be in the heart of the action, there are a couple of downtown boutique hotels to chose from including Bentley’s Lofts, bi-level loft suites, or the Mercer Hotel, with Jacuzzi tubs and faux fireplaces. Both are close to restaurants, shops and all four theatres. I stayed in the Mercer Hotel and loved being able to pop downstairs to shop on Ontario Street’s many unique boutiques.

The Common’s uncommonly delicious green Thai curry.

One dinner to remember was at The Common with Chef Tim Otsuki, a Stratford Chefs School alumnus. The menu was a fustion of Asian, Caribbean and North American dishes featuring many local ingredients. My meal in a bowl was a green Thai curry that had subtle flavours of lemongrass and just the right nip of hot spice.

Chef Eli demonstrates the proper way to dice an onion.
Getting my shallot chop down.
Voila! The perfect French omelette.

At the Stratford Chefs School Open Kitchen you can take a one-off cooking class and our group opted for a champagne breakfast. Latkes with smoked trout, French omelette, and puffed pastry with rhubarb and strawberries was a decadent way to start the day. My biggest takeaway was learning how to make a French omelette. Now I need to practice at home! Thankfully, chef Eli Silverthorne was an excellent and patient instructor.

On the chocolate line at Rheo Thompson Candies.
Mint Smoothie madness – ice cream, coffee, liqueur and tea!
At Rheo Thompson they understand the importance of the giddy up.

The sweetest part of my adventure was a visit to Rheo Thompson Candies. Traditional recipes dating back to the 1930s have made this spot a favourite for locals and visitors alike. The Mint Smoothies were to die for — I especially liked the dark chocolate version with a dark chocolate peppermint center. The company is 50 years old and was bought from original candymaker Rheo Thompson in 1992 by Christine and Mark Steed. Christine was born and raised in Stratford and is adamant about keeping her customers happy. “We don’t monkey with the traditional recipes Rheo Thompson used, especially the Mint Smoothies which we are famous for.” They also make around 150 other confections including pecan patties, humbugs and fruit jellies. Plus, now you can get Mint Smoothie coffee, ice cream and liqueur.

Phil Buhler demonstrates a flight of beer fantasy.

A working man’s kind of place, Jobsite Brewery, is also very family friendly and served great wood oven pizza. Opened last August , the location used to be a lumberyard and inspired the name. The two owners are also agricultural construction dudes (need a manure pit installed?) and converted the site into a brewery in a scant two months. Phil Buhler and Dave Oldenberger view beer production similar to construction. “We love producing a product and seeing people enjoy,” explains Buhler. A cute touch was the different coloured construction nails you use to pick out the beers for a flight. My favourite brew was the Impact IPA with delighful grapefruit notes.

Ash Moore demonstrates the art of the pour at Junction 56.

Junction 56 Distillery is the place to go for creative spirits. Along with vodka, gin and whiskey, they make a Fireshine liqueur with cinnamon, the Rheo Thompson Mint Smoothie liqueur and a rhubarb gin. Owner Mike Heisz worked at Blackberry as an engineer but got tired of making lists of people to lay off. “I wanted to work for myself,” he says noting that now he uses an iPhone. The distillery opened in 2015 and now offers 15 products, five of which are available in the LCBO – vodka, gin, black raspberry gin, Rheo Thompson’s Mint Smoothie (soon to come) and Moonshine.

Being a chocoholic, I couldn’t resist doing Stratford’s Chocolate Trail. For $30 you get six vouchers to trade for delicious treats in various shops. At the MacLeod’s Scottish Shop I scooped some chocolate chip shortbread, at Buzz Stop a quarter-pound bag of Bavarian Chocolate Coffee, at Rheo Thompson four Mint Smoothies, at Olive Your Favourites an aged dark chocolate Balsamic vinegar, at revel coffee cafe a mocha coffee/steamed milk concoction, and at Treasures a jar of Nith Valley Apiary’s cocoa honey. Chocolate heaven!

Chef Ryan O’Donnell at Mercer Kitchen + Beer Hall shows off one of his Asian-inspired creations.
Our server (another Ryan) was in charge of the dessert flights.

Dinner my last night was a Mercer Kitchen + Beer Hall. Executive Chef Ryan O’Donnell is an afficiando of Japanese fusion cuisine and some of the small plates I dug into included Karaage fried chicken pieces, crispy tuna sushi roll, pulled pork toastada with spicy BBQ sauce and a Spider Dog 2.0 with flaming chorizo sausage, Desserts are pretty amazing here, too.

The fantastic Festival Theatre where Billy Elliot was playing.

Theatre is what Stratford is really known for, and that night I witnessed a performance of Billy Elliot at the Festival Theatre. It was top-notch and the actors received a standing ovation.

The beautiful Avon River.

As I climbed on the 11 p.m. bus, that picked me up right at the theatre, I looked forward an easy trip home. But that night the Raptors became NBA champions. Many downtown streets were closed for the jubilant crowds, so the driver dropped us off at Islington subway station. No complaints from me, the subway was still running and I avoided traffic jams.

Stratford is a dining delight, a cultural treasure and beautiful, to boot. Definitely worth the two-hour drive from Toronto. Especially when taking the special Stratford bus!

Sitting Pretty in the Florida Panhandle

In the Florida Panhandle, fish rule. Go into just about any restaurant and there will be a giant stuffed marlin swinging above your head. Thankfully, I love fish (as do these pelicans). Recently, I visited three Panhandle destinations to suss out what the area has to offer.

DESTIN

Harbor Docks mascot.

After landing at Florida Northwest International Airport in Panama City, I picked up a rental car and headed to Destin, about an hour’s drive west. First stop was at Harbor Docks, a restaurant on the water that opened in 1979. They specialize in locally sourced seafood and chef Dang McCormick, from Chaing Mai, offers Thai dishes every day at lunch. This is where I caught sight of my first panhandle marlin, hanging feistily from the rafters.

My accommodation was at The Island, by Hotel RL, on the Gulf of Mexico shoreline.  Built in the 1960s, it had been recently refurbished. My beach-view suite was spacious and well appointed with mini fridge, microwave and a roomy balcony. With cold drink in hand, I marvelled at the many beach volleyball games that were going on, despite the fact that a storm was set to break any minute.  And rain it did!

Feeding the birds on the dolphin cruise.

The next day, thankfully, the sun came out and I took a Southern Star Dolphin Cruise. Captain Jason told us there were around 100 dolphins living in the area and we spotted quite a few darting after their fish dinners. This was a great outing for the families on board, the captain even took photos with all the children.

Just up the road from my hotel was Henderson Beach State Park. A ¾ mile nature trail wound through the dunes and I stopped often to read signs describing the flora and fauna of the region. Benches were scattered along the trail and I took a moment to just sit and breathe in the salty, pine-scented air.

Destin is an anglers’ heaven, as I found out at the Fishing and History Museum. Outside there was an historic seine fishing boat named Primrose, a cabin housing the old post office and a memorial walkway naming all Destin’s famous fishing families. Inside, the walls were hung with 75 mounts of locally caught fish. Black and white photographs chronicled the massive fish caught in the area over the years. One room was set up as an impromptu theatre with a video describing the birth of the 65-year-old Destin Fishing Rodeo – a fishing tournament with lots of history and prizes. “Originally a commercial fishery, Destin has now become a mecca for charter fishing boats,” Kathy Blue, the museum’s executive director, explained. 

She was right. Wandering along nearby Harbour Walk later in the afternoon I came across a row of stalls where freshly caught red fish were being cleaned and packaged up for sports fisherman who had spent the day on the water.

Paula Deen, the deep fry queen.

Stopping in for a quick gander at Destin Commons, an outdoor shopping complex with more than 90 shops and restaurants, I stumbled upon the launch of a new Paula Deen restaurant. Who knew the controversial southern fried belle would be in attendance that day to sign her new cookbook?

NAVARRE BEACH, SANTA ROSA COUNTY

Driving west, in about 40 minutes I came to Navarre Beach. I had arranged to rent a bicycle from Sage Paddle Company and soon was peddling past houses and out to the Gulf Islands National Seashore.  Wow. Powdered sugar beaches and not too many people. This was pure natural shoreline with nothing but dunes and one covered picnic area. The sand actually squeaked underfoot!

 After an exhilarating ride, I met the bike/paddleboard company’s owner, 16-year-old Sage Offutt who was camped out in the parking lot with her service French bulldog Oliver. Oliver had been trained to know when a migraine was coming on so Sage could take her meds before it became full-blown. “He knows because he can sense my serotonin levels as well as my sleeping and eating patterns. He warns me by licking me. I haven’t suffered from a migraine for almost a year,” explained Sage. Before getting Oliver a little more than a year ago, she was getting migraines up to four times a week. Sage told me she has a rare genetic disorder called Ehlers-Danlos syndrome which affects the body’s connective tissues and is very painful. Who knew Frenchies could be such wonderful health canaries?

Sage’s business got off the ground when she was 11 and had just moved to Navarre Beach from Colorado with her family. Her dad wanted her to get involved in more than lying on the beach and as a pilot experiment he gave her $5,000 to start up a paddle board rental company. “There was no other rental company around and it really took off,” Sage explained. She was supposed to pay her dad back at the end of the year, but instead it only took 17 days. Now she also rents scooters, kayaks and bicycles. This won’t be a permanent career for her, though. “I’ll probably sell the business after I finish my undergrad. I want to study medicine, pediatric neurology, and help kids out like me who have health issues,” she explained. In 2016 she was named Florida’s Young Entrepreneur of the Year by Governor Rick Scott and in 2017 she was invited as a VIP guest, representing the state’s small business owners, to his State of the State address. I could tell that, although demure and self-effacing, Sage was a real force of nature. Now with Oliver on board, she’s unstoppable.

Lunch was at Cactus Flower Café, a California-style Mexican food eatery where everything is made from scratch. Salsa is made twice daily, and a whole avocado is used in each order of guacamole. No animal fat is added to the refried beans and extra virgin olive oil is used for sautéed items. Everything I tried was light and flavourful – chips and salsa, apps including queso bites, flauta and mango shrimp, mahi mahi fish taco and Mexican wedding cake for dessert. Speaking with the manager, I learned there are four Cactus Flower Cafes, two in Pensacola, one in Pace and the one I visited in Navarre.

Exploring the area a little further, I came upon the Navarre Beach Sea Turtle Conservation Center. As soon as I stepped through the door, I was greeted by the most wonderful little creature.

Sweet Pea was a green turtle who had been found on a Texas beach, tangled in fishing nets. She was transported to the Gulfarium, a Destin marine adventure park that does rescue and rehabilitation, where she underwent surgery. One of her flippers was removed and part of her shell. Despite such a horrific experience, the six-year-old, little Green turtle seemed genuinely happy zipping around her indoor pool. “We move the rocks around and float a ball on the surface so she gets a change of view,” Jared Lucas, a volunteer animal caretaker, told me.

Navarre Beach Pier, the longest pier in the Gulf of Mexico.

Later, on the Navarre Beach Pier (the longest in the Gulf of Mexico at 1,545 feet long and 30 feet above the water), I saw members of the Conservation Center in action. Crammed with fisher folk, I watched as one excited customer landed a small mahi mahi and another reeled in a Spanish mackerel. Parked at the far end of the pier was a turtle rescue vehicle.

Bob, part of the turtle conservation team, helps fisherman untangle turtles who get caught in their lines.

“We have rescued more than 60 turtles since the program started a little more than a year ago,” Bob, a retired air force pilot told me. As we stood there looking out at the water, I saw a dark shadow swim by and then surface. A Green turtle, just about the same size as Sweet Pea! Bob told me that most of the shrimp boats in the Gulf now use TEDs – turtle evacuation devices, which allow the creatures to exit the bottom of the net without impacting the shrimp catch.

“We get green, loggerhead, Kemp’s ridley and leatherback turtles here. The Kemp’s ridley are the most endangered. There was a program to increase their numbers in the Gulf, but the BP oil spill happened in their prime feeding area, so the numbers are still declining,” Bob explained. My heart aches when I recall that sickening oil avalanche. But I am so glad in places like Navarre Beach people are being educated and turtles are being saved.

While in Navarre Beach I stayed at Beach Colony, a Southern Vacation Rentals condo complex right on the beach and very close to the Navarre Beach Pier. These rentals very spacious and a good option for families. Mine was three bedrooms, with a huge living room, dining area, kitchen, three bathrooms and a sprawling balcony overlooking the water.

Not wanting to cook, I headed over to the nearby Springhill Suites Resort by Marriott Navarre Beach. Cocktails were on the terrace and after sunset some people remained, huddled around a stylish propane terrace fire. It was starting to get a little chilly, so I went inside where chef James Fontaine told me he grew up on a sailboat. His love of the sea could be seen on the menu. I started with crab cakes jammed with claw meat and topped with a mustard caper remoulade. Next was a salad of greens, strawberries, blueberries and grilled salmon, coated with sweet, spicy pineapple juice. I sampled some of the grouper (by this time I was getting very full) and took home a slice of salty caramel cheese cake which I just managed to find some room for. Delicious.

PANAMA CITY BEACH

My final panhandle stop was Panama City Beach, just a half-hour from the Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport. I checked into the Edgewater Beach & Golf Resort, with fabulous beachfront access, a pool and close proximity to another pier. I noticed people came early in the morning and staked out spots under the pier where they would sling up hammocks. Armed with a towel, hammock and cooler, what more could you ask for? Oh yeah, sunscreen. I forgot to put it on one day and got really burned. The sun is wicked in Florida.

Bar at the Grand Marlin.

On a two-hour trip with Island Time Sailing, I was set to spot dolphins, but there weren’t many. Instead, it was the sunset that really had me in awe. The pinks, golds and oranges were stunning. Dinner later was at the Grand Marlin, not far from the cruise dock.

I dug into a kale Caesar salad topped with blackened Gulf Shrimp. So good.

My last water activity was jet skiing to Shell Island. I signed up at Lagoon Pontoon and was joined by a group of travellers from Brazil. Some of us were a bit nervous, but after following our guide Wesley’s instructions we were on our merry way. Shell Island is uninhabited and a nesting ground for various shore birds. It’s also a hot destination for pontoon boat tours that bring in groups to swim from the sandy shores.

Hungry after that jet skiing, I headed to FINN’s for fish tacos. It was Taco Tuesday and I got two for one! Stuffed with mahi mahi, tomatoes and coleslaw, these tacos draw fans from miles around. The kitchen was set up in a food truck, parked permanently by a patio next to a surf shop. Patron sit at picnic tables and munch their meals on the patio. Attached to the surf shop was a wonderful coffee café where I sipped one of the smoothest cold brews I’ve ever tasted.

To get a top-notch view of the area, I went to City Pier, a shopping destination and home to a monster big Ferris wheel called SkyWheel. The air conditioned wheel car was the perfect place to snap shots of the waterfront and beach area.

My final dinner was at Firefly, a sushi restaurant near the Edgewater Resort. I ordered the crab and tuna tower with mango, avocado and cucumber. It was amazing and a delicious end to my sunny, sandy, fishy adventure on the Florida Panhandle.

Brussels, alive with fabulous art and food

Brussels: Grand Place at Night

Waffles, chocolate, cobblestone streets, grand plazas. Brussels is my kind of town. The city was my final stop on a recent, whirlwind tour of Belgium. The train to Brussels from Ghent was a quick 40-minutes and before I knew it I was checked into my hotel, The Dominican. Originally built as a Dominican Abby in the 1500s, the building was also once home to the famous neoclassical painter Jacques-Louis David from 1816-1825. As I rode the elevator to my room, a soundtrack of chanting monks filled the air. A peacefulness prevailed in the property of 150 guest rooms and suites, and the main floor was dedicated to an airy restaurant and bar where remnants of the Abby’s cloistered halls remain.

It was Sunday and I was determined to see as many galleries as possible since they were all closed the next day. After purchasing my Brussels City Card, I made my way to the Royal Museums of Fine Art of Belgium.

Waffles everywhere, even outside the Royal Museums of Fine Art!

The Old Masters Department was breath taking. I started off in the Bruegel Box, a room where the 16th century artist’s paintings were projected, one at a time, on three walls. Standing in the centre of the room, I felt like I was rubbing shoulders with the villagers of his painting Proverbs then surrounded by demons from The Fall of the Rebel Angels. Wandering through the galleries I saw many of Bruegel’s works, as well as those of Jacque-Louis David, Rubens, Rembrandt, and Van Dyck. It was rather overwhelming and once I had completed the round I headed next door to the Magritte Museum to take in a totally different creative talent.

René Magritte was a surrealist well known for his paintings of pipes and men in bowler hats and much of his work was done between 1940-1965.

Brussels is very walkable, much of the historic downtown is pedestrian only and everywhere there is something to look at, from the statue of the little boy peeing, to The Grand Place, or central square with the commanding Town Hall, Museum of the City of Brussels and the opulent guild halls, sparkling with touches of gold paint.

After living and breathing Brussels for a day, I needed sustenance and headed to Bonsoir Clara for a little refreshment. A popular spot with locals, the menu featured Belgian/French cuisine with dishes such as terrine of duck foie gras, shrimp croquettes, salmon tartare, panfried baby sole, and rack of lamb. I wanted to go light that night and opted for the avocado, smoked salmon and goat cheese salad which was divine.

The next day I engaged a walking tour guide named Paquita who met me in the hotel lobby. She informed me that the city historically had been know for its woollen goods, especially tapestries. Our first stop was the Cathedral (officially known as St. Michael and St. Gudula Cathedral), a mammoth structure with an interior of white stone that was filled with light.

Most impressive were the stained glass windows, some done by Bernard van Orley in 1537. “He was the master of the master Bruegel,” Paquita explained. The Brabant Gothic-style cathedral was begun in 1226 with the choir and various part came later including the stained glassed windows from the 16th century, the pulpit (carved from one giant piece of oak) in the 17th century, and the carillon in 1975. Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor and Napoleon Bonaparte are just two of the world renowned figures to have passed through its doors. “To prove they were humble before God, they both used a small side door,” said Paquita on our way out, pointing to a shabby brown wooden entrance now permanently locked.

The next church on our tour was Notre Dame de Chappell, where Bruegel the Elder is buried. Getting in the spirit of the Flemish Masters 2018-2020 program, the church has hidden small figures, recognizable from Bruegel’s paintings throughout the church. It was so funny to see the sombre Catholic statures of saints bedecked with these funny characters, including a blowfish, a male figure relieving himself on the moon, and a little round frog-ish imp scampering up a ladder. We also saw some of the same figures at the train station!

Mad Meg climbs the train station stairs.

Needing a little warm up, Paquita took me to one of her favourite coffee and chocolate shops, Laurent Gerbaud, where you get your pick of a handcrafted chocolate to go with your beverage. Fantastic!

Chocolate to die for.

My final dinner in Brussels was at Henri’s, a tiny chef-owned operation where I was able to sit by the kitchen window and watch the action. I opted for steak frites and it melted in my mouth.

Belgium far exceeded my expectations. There is a lot more happening in the Flemish Masters 2018-2020 program with new visitors’ centres and exhibits popping up until well into 2020. If you get a chance, go! Check out the Visit Flanders website for more information. Visitflanders.com

Ghent, a beautiful city you never heard of.

My Belgian adventures continue…From Antwerp, I caught a one-hour train to Ghent. The trains in Belgium make exploring the country so easy. From the train station, I took a taxi to the historic centre of town and my hotel, the Pillows Grand Hotel Reylof. The hotel was once the home of wealthy poet Baron Olivier Reylof, built in 1712. Newly renovated, the 157-room accommodation had a unique library/lounge area atop a sweeping staircase where I was able to sort out my plans and sip a cup of coffee before exploring.

Ghent is crammed with castles, churches and shops, plus there’s a huge university so students are everywhere. I purchased a Ghent City Card and the first place I visited was the Castle of the Counts. Armed with headset and remote, I embarked on an entertaining, self-guided tour through the massive stone structure and learned of the original inhabitants – Philip the Good, Count of Flanders, and his wife Elizabeth, and second wife Isabella. Not merely a home, this stronghold in the center of downtown Ghent, was also where justice was meted out and many a grisly execution occurred here.

He told me he was Philip the Good’s cousin.

One of the best ways to get to know a place is by taking a tour with a local guide. Ghent native Patty Delanghe walked me through the ancient city and helped unravel many tangled tales.  She told me that in the Middle Ages, Ghent was very wealthy, due to the wool trade. During the Industrial Revolution, the textile industry really took off and Ghent remained a leading, quality cloth producer right up until the 1980s.

Wandering around Ghent’s streets was like walking into a fairy tale. Small tour boats plied the waters of the Lys and Scheldt rivers, ancient homes and businesses lined the river banks, church spires rose among the clouds and young people swarmed the streets and cafes. Of Ghent’s 250,000 population, students comprise 70,000, the largest in the country.

We stopped into St. Bavo’s Cathedral, the city’s oldest parish church, to see a world renown treasure. The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb (also known as the Ghent Altarpiece) was painted in 1432 by Hubert van Eyck. After his death, it was said that his brother Jan, a diplomat and artist, completed the work. Patty explained that the oak panels were first covered with an extremely fine layer of chalk and then van Eyck painted the figures on in layers. Close up, the fine details of the faces were exquisite and realistic. There was a translucence to the piece that almost made it glow. Patty noted that in 1934, two panels of the altarpiece, The Just Judges and John the Baptist, were stolen. “The diocese of Ghent received a number of ransom notes and one panel, John the Baptist, was returned to lend weight to the demands. But no ransom was ever paid, nor was the other panel returned. The mystery remains unsolved to this day.” Currently, a team of specialists is working to restore the vibrancy of the original colours which have dimmed due to layers of varnish, fire damage and other environmental factors over the years.

Another highpoint (literally!) was the belfry, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, where the huge alarm bell to protect the city’s citizens resides. I also enjoyed seeing St. Nicholas’ Church from the early 12th century, and the Great Butcher’s Hall that dates back to the 15th century where locally cured Ganda hams hang from the ceiling. Walking along the winding cobblestoned streets Patty also pointed out beguines, clusters of houses where single women (often widows of knights who fought in various crusades) lived together as a Catholic community.

After a full day on my feet, my appetite was fierce and I stopped into Souvenir, a tiny gem of a restaurant helmed by chef Vilhjalmur “Villy” Sigurdarson. I opted for the 9-course carte blanche menu with paired wines. The dishes were largely planted-based and delightful. I started with the house cocktail, made with gin, tonic, green tea and elderberry flowers – light, crisp and a tad tangy. “Tonight, we serve dishes made with plants from West Flanders, as well was fish from the North Sea,” Villy explained. The small plates included an oyster with young white cabbage and fennel, hake smoked in hay with kohlrabi and marigold flowers, three types of mushrooms, white and green asparagus with charred leeks, skate baked in butter and a dessert of Jerusalem artichoke with brown sugar and winter thyme cream. Delicious.

The second night I went to Mémé Gusta, a bustling spot filled with families and a funky, vintage décor – comfy sofas, flowered wallpaper, wooden tables and funky chandeliers. “The owners won a chef challenge on TV to open this restaurant based on their grandmother’s recipes,” Patty explained. I started with a small bowl of grey shrimp the size of my baby toe, then proceeded with buttery, pan-fried sole, and the mandatory frites with a pot of mayonnaise for dipping.

Ghent may be a place nobody has heard of, but in a way that is great. It’s a place where locals go about their business undisturbed and visitors can fit right in.

Belgium’s Artful Masters… Starting in Antwerp

The fabulous Mier shopping street.

The last time I was in Belgium I was 18. Not that long ago… Well, yes. Many things have changed, but also much has not. The chocolate is still exquisite…as are the waffles.

No shortage of my favourite food.

Along with the food, my main mission on a recent visit to this western European country of 11 million was to see famous masterpieces, including those done by the Van Eyck brothers, Pieter Bruegel the Elder and Peter Paul Rubens. The Flemish Masters Project 2018-2020 is a program of exhibits, virtual experiences, restorations, festivals and whimsical jaunts that art lovers can partake in throughout the country.

After touching down in Brussels, I hopped a train (the station is in the airport) to Antwerp. The trains are fast, frequent and well priced. I zipped to Antwerp in about half an hour for around 10E. Antwerp Central train station was completed in 1905 and was named the most beautiful railway station in the world by Mashable magazine in 2014. With soaring stone pillars, an imposing dome and decorative floor patterns, I could see why. Although damaged by bombs in the second world war, the station was restored In the 1980s and by 2007 an expansion for high-speed trains was complete.

The very regal Antwerp train station.

My hotel, Radisson Blue Astrid was conveniently located across from the train station. Dropping off my bags, I headed out to see the city with a local guide, Toon Livens (Toon is short for Antoon). The diamond district was fascinating, teaming with gemological centres, banks and traders. The security was serious. Toon told me the two groups of people involved in the diamond business are orthodox Jews and Jains (from India). Jewish diamond specialists were once predominant, but the Jains started arriving in Belgium in the 1960s. They started with low quality rough stones that they would send back home for cutting and polishing. It costs 1/10 the amount to cut and polish in India versus Europe. Now three quarters of Belgium’s diamond trade is controlled by Indians and 80 per cent of the world’s rough diamonds are processed in India. As you can see below, security is tight in the diamond district.

My first taste of Flemish art was in the home and studio of painter Peter Paul Rubens. He purchased the home in 1610 and lived there with his family, and painted with colleagues such as Anthony van Dyck in the studio. Although the home’s walls were hung with many outstanding works, I particularly enjoyed seeing Rubens’ self-portrait.

Nearby was The Cathedral of Our Lady, the largest Gothic Cathedral in Belgium that took 169 years to build. Toon pointed out four masterpieces by Rubens including Raising of the Cross, and Descent from the Cross. “These two works were confiscated by Napoleon and moved to France, but they were returned in the 19th century,” he explained. Rubens’ magnificent Assumption of the Virgin Mary graced the altar at the front of the cathedral and to one side was his Resurrection of Christ.

In the fall, the Rubens Experience Center will open and visitors will be taken on a virtual tour of the artist’s world. That’s also when the Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp reopens after extensive renovations and you’ll be able to see one of the finest Rubens collections in Belgium.

Dinner that night was at Grand Café Horta, an art Nouveau structure lodged within a glass enclosure near the gorgeous covered shopping mall that was once a posh entertainment venue called Stadsfeestzaal.

Steak tartare…amazing.

One of the best ways to explore involves buying a City Card, which are available in many Belgian metropolises. My Antwerp City Card, 35 Euros for 48 hours, provided free entrance to museums, churches and discounts on attractions and tours, plus free access to public transportation. For free, I took in DIVA, a virtual experience that mixed storytelling with exhibits of Antwerp diamonds, and the Red Star Line Museum which chronicled how between 1873 and 1934 two million people (most looking for a better life) were transported from Antwerp to North America on Red Star line ships, mostly to New York, but some to Canada.

My last visit in the city was to Chocolate Nation, conveniently located next door to my hotel. The city card allowed a 10 per cent discount on admission. I was given a headset and remote control that I could activate throughout the exhibit to receive explanations about the ships that come to Antwerp carrying tons of cacao beans, local beanologists who pick only the finest, the roasting process, and how 1 in 10 pieces of chocolate found around the world are from Belgium. A highlight was the chocolate bonbon-making demonstration. At the end, a plate of finished chocolates was passed around and I popped one into my mouth. Heaven. Smooth, creamy, rich. Not at all like the waxy industrial chocolate so prevalent in North America.

Topping off my explorations was dinner at RAS overlooking the Scheldt River. As the sun was setting, I tucked into a delicious seafood salad with huge shrimp, seared scallops and slices of sole. A rich ending to an adventure in the city of diamonds, chocolate and culture.