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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.

Nashville’s Musical Heartbeat

MoBigGuitar
Music, music, music everywhere! In Nashville, it’s hard to go around the corner without bumping into a songwriter, performance venue or recording studio. Music City truly lived up to its name on my recent visit.
RCAStudioSign copyMy first stop was RCA Record’s Studio B, which was built in 1957 at the request of Chet Atkins to facilitate the needs of RCA Victor Records. Atkins, an amazing guitarist, worked for RCA and was responsible for the move away from what was thought of as twangy “hillbilly” music of the 1930s and 40s, to the more sophisticated, orchestral “country and western” sound.RCAStudioRecordingConsole My guide, Stephanie Layne, a country singer herself, explained that thousands of top hits had been captured here, including those of Roy Orbison, Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, Floyd Cramer, Hank Snow and the Strokes. “Dolly was in a rush to get to her first session here and banged her car into the side of the building. I guess that was her first hit at Studio B,” Layne joked. RCAStudioElvisWallElvis recorded 200 hits here, including Heartbreak Hotel, It’s Now or Never, Fever, and Are You Lonesome Tonight. “He’d come in at 6 pm with hamburgers and his own producer. He’d warm up with gospel songs at the piano. Sometimes he’d be there until 7 am. In June of 1958 he recorded 12 songs in 13 hours. RCAStudio2-MoElvisPianoHis last recordings here were done in 1971, My Way and I’ll Be Home for Xmas.” She pointed to the Steinway. “Want to sit where Elvis sat? You can pretend to play, but DON’T TOUCH!” In 1982 it was converted into office space and then in 2006 philanthropist Mike Curb bought the building and restored it. Today it’s open for tours and is a recording classroom from Belmont University.
Being on Music Row, which is 16th Street and is a 20-block neighbourhood, I took a walk and passed Starstruck Studios, once owned by Reba McEntire.StarstruckStudioApparently, she lost it in her divorce. Layne told me, “Faith Hill started out here as a secretary. Reba didn’t think she could sing.” OwenBradleyParkOwen Bradley Park honoured all the town’s big names I learned this area is considered a Federal No-Fly zone, so the sound won’t be compromised. However, Nashville is booming with construction. That’s where all the noise is coming from these days.
NashvilleSymphonyAt the Schermerhorn Symphony Center, Dave Filipe, the publicist was kind enough to let me pop my head inside this magnificent, classic-looking building. “It was built in 2006 and modeled after European halls. It has some of the best acoustic in the country,” he explained. NashvilleSymphonyInteriorThe symphony is now its 76th season, and is a Nashville institution. The 83-member orchestra has recorded with Taylor Swift, Amy Grant and many other stars. They do 150 concerts a year, mostly classical music, but jazz, kids and a pop series also bring out the crowds. “We do two Harry Potter concerts a year and one Star Wars. We have to adapt to new audiences,” said Filipe. A good idea when you have 1840 seats to fill. To get the music out to communities that otherwise might not hear it, they have a program for disadvantaged youth. “We take 16 kids, from grade 4 to the end of high school. They come to concerts and if they want to go to music school, a symphony member will mentor them.” The program is supported by a Mellon Foundation grant.
CountryMusicHallFameMuseumThe Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum opened in 2001 and expanded with a $4 million gift from Taylor Swift. TaylorSwiftEdCenterThere was even a Taylor Swift Educational Center there with banjo lessons and camps for kids. I took a walk through the Outlaws exhibit with all sorts of ephemera from so-called bad boys including Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson. They had Kristofferson’s military uniform!KrisKristoffersonUniform copy The costumes and cars on display were amazing.Carl Perkins’ blue suede shoes! CMHF-BlueSuedeShoesCMHF-ElvisCadillacElvis’ gold Cadillac! CMHF-PorterWagnerSuit copyEmbroidered suits like this one belonging to Porter Wagoner.
Downstairs, a highlight was a visit to Hatch Show Print. Our guide Tori Zemer informed us the print company was 139 years old. HatchMo2“It’s the oldest letter press in the United Stated. Preservation by production!” Started in 1879 by the Hatch brothers, the business moved five or six times. AT&TBuildingThe last location is now home to the AT&T building, affectionately known as the Batman Building because of its two pointy antenna-like ears. They moved to the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in 2013. What is produced here are the old-time type posters made from hand-inked letter blocks and hand cranked presses. We even got to try out hand at a two colour print. “ZZ Top, Robert Plant and Jack White have signed the press. Sometimes musicans like to come here before a concert at the Ryman Auditorium. The tradition is to sell a limited run of posters at the Ryman before a show.”
RymanExteriorThe Ryman Auditorium, also known as the “mother church of country music,” is filled with curved wooden seats, much like pews.RymanSeats In fact, after watching an introductory video, I leaned the building was originally constructed as a revival tabernacle by Captain Tom Ryman, king of the riverboats. A former drinker and sinner, Ryman built the hall to house meetings of the Reverend Sam James, who put him on the straight and narrow. After Ryman died it became more of an entertainment center. RymanHoudiniOpera singer Enrico Caruso and Harry Houdini were some of the early performers, as well as the Grand Ol Opry live radio show. RymanStageOn the stage I notice a little area of the original pine flooring, where Johnny Cash and Hank Williams tapped their toes. Due to wear, the rest of the stage has been replaced with Brazilian teak.
MusiciansHoF-JayMcDowellAt the Musicians Hall of Fame and Museum, “Smilin’” Jay McDowell, the multi-media curator and former member of bandBR5-49 walked me through a number of different galleries. In particular, I enjoyed learning about the Wrecking Crew and the Funk Brothers, superb groups of musicians who offered their services to all the big name acts in the 1960s and ‘70s. MusiciansHoF-Rek-O-KutThey had some great historic items on display, including the Rek-O-Kut direct to disk machine that Elvis used to make his first recording… “My Happiness,” a present for his mother. The museum was divided into geographical regions of the United States. Nashville’s started off with the Fisk Jubilee Singers. Fisk was a school where freed African American slaves were first educated and it’s still going today. An interesting fact I learned was that no drums were allowed on the Grand Ole Opry stage…at least that could be seen. The drummer had to play behind a curtain. MusiciansHoF-SunThey even had the original sign and office furniture from Sun Records, Elvis’ first recording home in Memphis.
Wanting to catch a little bit of local talent, I headed to the Listening Room where Justin Ebach, Darby, Jordan Minton and Jackson Michelson were performing. ListeningRoom-Darby:JustinListeningRoom-JMichelsonListeningRoomJordanThe big room had great acoustics and it was a pleasure to hear these musicians tell their songwriting tales and demonstrate their talents. Darby was especially compelling since she was only 15 and sang like an old pro.
GuitarGallery-sign copyGuitarGallery-WallA town that pays homage to musicians and their instruments, it was no wonder there was a vintage guitar collection worth $9.5 million available to admire at Belmont University’s Gallery of Iconic Guitars. The 500-piece collection was donated by Steven Kern Shaw, the son of band leader Artie Shaw, and grandson of Jerome Kern who wrote such hits as Ol Man River and Smoke Gets in Your Eyes. The oldest out that day was an 1887 Martin guitar, the most intriguing was the 1927 Gibson F-5 mandolin, rarer than a Stradivarius violin. Plus, there was a gauntlet of Gibsons, Fenders and Loars.
OprySignOn my final night, I visited the Grand Ole Opry, part of Opryland – an amusement complex of hotel, restaurants and entertainment venues. Opry-StageFront“The show is 93 years old. It’s recorded at Opryland every Friday and Saturday night, no breaks for holidays,” Dan Mason, my guide explained. Singer Kelly Pickler was doing fundraising with listeners for her North Carolina home so devastated by Hurricane Florence, and beloved icon Connie Smith also did a few numbers.Square dancers? You bet! Don’t know how that transmits over the radio, but what the heck! OprySquareDancersMason Ramsey, a 12-year-old Hank Williams Snr. fanatic, was definitely the highlight that evening.Opry-YoungKidHis version of Lovesick Blues, complete with yodelling, knocked my socks off. He got noticed after a YouTube video of him singing in a Walmart went viral. Ellen DeGeneres had him on her show and this year he was signed to Big Loud Records.
Finally, what does everyone do in Nashville? Goes to Broadway, where the honky tonks twang like there’s no tomorrow. Tootsies, The Stage, Legends, you name it, they were all packed.BroadwayTootsiesBroadwayNeon3BroadwayNeon
Would I recommend you go to Nashville? In a musical heartbeat!IBeliveInNashvillMural

Saratoga Springs: Discovering a history of health and horses

RMJockeys3Saratoga Springs is firstly a horsey town and secondly a spa town. It is the home to the first thoroughbred race track in the country, built in 1863. The town capitalized on its wealth of mineral springs (21) during the Depression and Franklin D. Roosevelt had a spa complex, including four huge bath houses, built where people could come for various “cures.”RMSeaBiscuit copyWhen I was there this September with some friends, I was able to channel the spirit of Seabiscuit, dip my toes in the bubbly spa water, marvel at the mansions…and yes, eat fantastic food.
FOOD & WINE FEST
After my flight landed in Albany,N.Y., I drove 30 minutes north to Saratoga Springs. Luckily, I was able to catch the Saratoga Wine & Food Festival Boozy Brunch …a wrap up of the Saratoga Food and Wine Fest. F&WCrowdHeld in Saratoga Spa State Park at the Reflecting Pool, it was orchestrated by Colin Cowie (think events for underachievers such as Oprah and Jerry Seinfeld). F&WToddEnglishCaviar copyMenu created by celebrity chef Todd English…lively music by DJ On the Move and lots of old school 1980s hits like Never Gonna Give You Up by Rick Astley. My era! There were Ferraris F&WBatmobileand a Bat car to gaze on, great food and an endless supply of rose and specialty cocktails. There were even scents you could spray on to match the cocktails. My fave was the Bloody Mary – spicy!. Between the dancing, I took a break to get some chicken and waffles. Cowie, ahead of me in the buffet line, noted, “Got to eat something to soak up all the alcohol.”
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ADELPHI HOTEL
My accommodation was the newly renovated Adelphi Hotel on Broadway, the town’s main drag. Now 140 years old, the hotel underwent a 5-year renovation, was gutted to the studs (not what the owners had planned!) and opened again last year. Connie Slocum, the hotel’s director of events, kindly took me on a tour of the property and told me it had previously been a fussy Victorian-style place with resplendent garden. The new look involves taking old details and making it pop with new touches. AdelphiCheckinDeskFor instance, behind the check-in desk was a mosaic made of 100-year-old crystal dishes. AdelphiLibraryStunning Victorian-era furniture was reupholstered in leather and the wooden frames sprayed silver, with touches of lush brocade added here and there. Pier mirrors lined the hallways, in their original state. The ceilings had been hand painted in soft blues and greys, finished with a sponge of distressed silver. AdelphiLobbyThroughout the hotel,the soaring 12 foot ceilings gave the property an airy feel. Originally the hotel had 100 guest rooms. That shrunk to 64 guestrooms with the previous owner, but the new renovation cut the number to 32. My bathroom was the size of a small bedroom, complete with heated towel racks, Toto Washlets (look them up, oh my!), and special makeup removal washcloths. Particularly wonderful was the huge marble shower with raindrop showerhead. Saratoga Springs water is chock full of minerals and feels a bit slippery on the skin – like soap that won’t rinse off. I loved the 4 oz. Raintree (lavender) amenities, gorgeous egg-style tub, double sink, and the floor of black and white basket-weave tiles. AdelphiWaterMadelinesEvening turndown treats? House-made Madelines and Saratoga water.
NORTH BROADWAYBroadwayHollisBook Local historian Hollis Palmer met us on North Broadway, a street abounding in mansions with colourful backstories. Hollis told me he leads around eight bus tour group tours a year and relishes the role. Dressed in bowler and black tux he and his partner BroadwaySandySandy Graff, in a long Victorian dress, looked right at home in front of the historic homes. “In the summer season before the Civil War, Saratoga Springs was the place to be for socialites. After the Civil War, two huge hotels were built. One was the largest hotel in the world with 1.5-mile-long hallways, on 5.5 acres. Plus it had a water park. Back in those days Saratoga Springs was the summer social capital of the country. They came for the waters, stayed for the parties,” Palmer explained. He noted that in 1886 things came to a standstill when the Temperance movement took hold. Booze was forbidden and the state stopped all gambling. Only in 1978 was gambling allowed again. Some of the original home owners on this street (many of whom had stills in their backyards?) The inventor of Arrow shirts, the Drexels (of university fame), and Arrow’s competitor, Van Heusen.
DAIRY BARN DINNER
Dinner was at Longfellow’s, a little outside town near Saratoga Lake. Comprising two old dairy barns, it was full of nooks and crannies, had an indoor pond plus waterfall.LongfellowsBar I had steak blue cheese salad, filet mignon nuggets wrapped in bacon, on a bed of chopped greens, with a big slab of blue cheese in the middle. This place specializes in comfort food.LongfellowsBluecheeseSteakSaladLongfellowsEggplantParm My friend’s eggplant parmesan was big enough for two people.
SODA POP AND CHIPS
Many things were invented in Saratoga Springs. Soda Pop was introduced by Dr. Clark 1814. Capturing the carbonated water coming out of some of the springs, he almost single-handedly bled the springs dry and was eventually stopped by local government.
Regarding my favourite savory snack, here’s the story I found on the back of a bag of Original Saratoga Chips.SaratogaChips “At Moon’s Lake House in Saratoga Springs in 1853 a patron ordered friend potatoes with his meal. When served, he complained they were too thick and soggy. The cook, George Crum, was upset about the criticism so sliced a new batch of potatoes very thin, fried them in boiling oil until crispy then lightly salted them. What was intended as a slight turned into a hit and became known as the Original Saratoga Chips for more than 160 years. – since 1853, America’s First Kettle Chip.”
MUSEUM OF HORSE RACING – NATIONAL HALL OF FAMETrackHorseGate
After gazing at some sleek thoroughbreds with twitchy ears out for their morning exercise on the Saratoga Race Course, we headed to the Horse Racing Museum and National Hall of Fame. Karen Wheaton, the facility’s education curator, explained, “The horses are frisky today. When it is windy their hearing is affected. They are prey creatures and have 340-degree sight around their bodies and very acute hearing.” The 45-minute tour took us past many portraits and plaques including one dedicated to Julie Krone, the first woman jockey in Hall of Fame. “It is still an anomaly to have a female jockey,” Wheaton explained. I also learned a little bit about the gear.RMSaddle Saddles are feather-light and look like shoe horns. Jockeys, according to New York State law must wear a safety vest and helmet. The coloured silks, or jacket they wear represents the owners of the horse. RMJockeyHorseReplicaSurprising fact, jockeys don’t exercise the horse, that job goes to the “exercise trainer.” Sometimes a race is the first time a jockey will even get on a horse.” If they don’t click with the horse trainer, a jockey can be changed,” Wheaton told me. How do you get to be a jockey? “There’s a school in Kentucky. Plus, they work on the apprentice system and a jockey may start out as an exercise trainer. If they are small enough they have a chance. Horses can run as fast as 42mph, especially if you are light. RMJockeyScaleJockeys weigh in at 108-110 lbs. For steeple chase the weight limit is 120 lbs,” Wheaton said. Before Jim Crowe, the first jockeys were African Americans and often children. One famous black jockey was Isaac Murphy, considered one of the greatest riders in America, winning three Kentucky Derbys. I learned that John Morrissey, an Irishman and bareknuckle boxer was the founder of thoroughbred racing in Saratoga. He wanted to attract society not only for the waters, but to stay and spend money, so he had the racetrack built in 1863. It is still home to a society-filled 40-day racing season every summer.
THE SPRINGSSpringHandMineralWater There are 21 public mineral springs in town, and 14 can be found in the 2,400-acre Saratoga Spa State Park. Locals bring gallon jugs to the fountains, often under decorative gazebos, and fill up. Geologically, the springs occur because a fault line runs through the town. The most popular, good tasting spring is called State Seal, near the bath houses in the park. Tasting the sweet, clear, cold water, I could see why this pavilion got lineups. SpringPavilion copyThe water at some other springs I tried was quite pungent. Good if you feel the need to load up on sulphur. Spa-HallofSpringsDriving down the park’s majestic Avenue of the Pines, we headed to the Hall of Springs which was built as a drinking hall, but the water’s mineral content corroded the pipes. Now it is an elegant event space. Next to it was the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, SPAC www.SPAC.org. BroadwayBalletSlipperThe New York City Ballet Company have been in residency here every summer since 1966. That’s why the town is filled with ballet slipper statues. The SPAC amphitheatre has 5,200 seats and combined with open air seating on the lawn there is a 20,000 capacity for the season’s program of dance and music. Also in the park is an 18-hole golf course, two swimming pools, (one is family, the other Victorian Pool where ballet dancers hang out). There are 10 event buildings on campus including Home Made Theatre with 500 seats. SpaExteriorOf the four original bath houses, Washington Bath is now the Dance Museum, Lincoln Bath is offices, Roosevelt Bath 2 is set to become and wellness centre and Roosevelt Bath 1 still operates as a bath house. One journalist said getting in the tub here was like bathing in warm champagne. Built in 1934 and part of the FDR Works Project the facility has 42 baths. SpaRelaxRoomDoorAfter checking in and waiting in the tranquility rest area an attendant calls my name and escorted me to my personal bath room – literally! As well as tub, each has a water closet. The tiles and tub are original,” she noted as she handed me a towel and showed me how to use the plastic foot stool as a stabilizer once in the bath. The tub was four inches below floor level and the salt content of the water made it very buoyant. She laid a towel at one end of the tub so I could lean my head back, with feet on the jammed in stool. Ah. Bobbing like a cork, then stability and relaxation. SpaFootBathThe water colour was rather off-putting, like watery brownish tomato soup due to iron content but soon my skin was covered in tiny bubbles. Leaning back, I almost fell asleep. In no time the 45 minutes was up and my skin was baby soft.
GIDEON PUTNAMGideonLobby2 Lunch was in Putnam’s, a casual dining room in the Gideon Putnam Hotel, the only hotel in the park. GideonBuddhaBowlI had the healthy Buddha bowl with sweet potatoes, avocado, romaine, carrots, chickpeas and pomodoro peppers. Juicy burgers. But the best thing was the complimentary house-made potato chips and onion dip. GideonChipsYum! If case you wondered, Gideon Putnam was an original settler in 1763, though of as the founding father of Saratoga Springs.
After lunch Mark Davis, a hotel sales manager, took us on a tour. The place was sold out, so no peeking in any of the 124 rooms (22 are suites). We were told the six rooms with verandas used to be for TB patients who got wheeled out to enjoy the fresh air. “This hotel was built at the emergence of the vacation nation in the 1930s. It was OK to travel for health. Back then the doctor would tell you to take the waters and give you a prescription,” explained Davis. The lobby was lovely, with four working fireplaces. The original interior designer? None other than Dorothy Draper. Although it is a gorgeous location, it might be a bit quiet for some, so a shuttle bus is available to take you downtown and to the race track.
SARATOGA ARMSSAPorch I love creative restoration of old buildings, so I visited Amy Smith whose parents opened the Saratoga Arms in 1998. “Built in 1870 it had 16 rooms originally. We expanded in 2004 and now have 31,” she explained. They serve a complimentary full breakfast and evening drinks are available on porch. Each room is unique, Amy’s mother and her interior designer friend come up with creative ways to show off unique furnishings. “Every year four-to-five rooms are refreshed or totally redone – carpet, drapes, furniture.” For those who like variety, they can opt for the “Sleeping around Package” and stay in a different room each night. Children over age 12 welcome, but sorry, no pets.
HATTIE’SHattiesExteriorThis is one of Saratoga’s historic landmarks. Opened in 1938, the location has been serving Southern and Louisiana cuisine ever since. Hattie’s goal was to serve the backstretch folks (African Americans) who maintained the Saratoga Springs race track and stables. In a covered courtyard, I noticed locals bellied up to the bar (open spring and summer). The main dining room, I was told, is open all year. The fried chicken was to die for. HattiesFriedChickenHattie’s current owners have kept her secret recipe, beating Bobby Flay in the Throwdown. HattiesFriedGreenTomatosFried green tomatoes, pimento cheese ball, lump crab cake, meatloaf, and catfish were also on the menu. The epitome of comfort food is served on tables covered with gingham table clothes. The decorations? Painted hens and Mardi Gras beads.
AdelphiExteriorNightVery full and very satisfied, I headed back to the Adelphi. Not far away, but worlds apart, in lovely Saratoga Springs.

SIPPING AND SAVOURING IN THE TWENTY VALLEY

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Fall in southern Ontario means harvest season. It’s a delicious time to get out and sample what’s grown in our own backyard, especially wine. One area I recently discovered that’s a mere hour and 15 minutes’ drive from Toronto is the Twenty Valley. Anchored by the town of Jordan, close to St. Catharines, the region is the sassy younger sister to Niagara-on-the-Lake and is chock-a-block with wineries, farms, funky boutiques and gorgeous parkland.MoGrapes
My first stop was at Featherstone Estate Winery, where sheep keep the vineyard manicured and a falcon named Amadeus scares away pesky starlings that can decimate a crop. LambsFeatherstone“We bring in the lambs annually to do leaf removal on the vines. We call it ‘ewe-unized’ labor,” jokes owner David Johnson. When the lambs reach a certain weight, they are sold and end up on local restaurant menus. AmadeusDavid’s wife, Louise, joined us with Amadeus perched quietly on her gauntleted arm. “He acts as a deterrent when he flies over the fields. The smaller birds leave,” she explains. Inside, David pours me a splash of of Black Sheep Riesling. It is superb. I savor the fresh, crisp apple flavor tinged with a hint of honey.
My appetite was stirring and I headed for 13th Street Winery for lunch. 13thWineryDougWBut before eating, I sipped tasters of sparkling rose, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Gamay Noir. Doug Whitty, the owner, told me his family has owned the property for three generations. “My grandfather came here in 1908 from Ireland during the potato famine,” he explained. The grandfather was drawn to the attractive farmland and an established community of Mennonites who had come up from the New York area during the Battle of 1812 to escape George Washington and his troops. “They valued peace and stability, but were persecuted because they were British supporters,” Doug explained. 13thWIneryLunchPatioAt a delightful outdoor patio, I noshed on goat cheese, heirloom tomatoes, salad.13thWinerySalad13thWineryPies Dessert was freshly made cherry pie. Heavenly!
Amidst the rolling farm fields, I came across Balls Falls Conservation Area. There were no falls because the water had been so low on Twenty Mile Creek during the summer but that didn’t matter. BallsFallsLEEDBldgSet within the beautiful Twenty Valley, the park was once home to a mill owned by Loyalists George and John Ball who came to the area in 1807 after leaving New York. BallsFallsMillExteriorI wandered around the preserved structure, marvelling at the wooden troughs and milling machinery. “It’s one of the oldest surviving flour mills in the province made of wood,” my guide Jill Walters explained. “Milling flour produces a lot of combustible dust and many of the old mills have burned down.” Thanksgiving is the only time the mechanisms are powered (with electricity) and they sell the resulting whole wheat flour to the public. I took a quick peek at the park’s Centre for Conservation, a LEED-Gold Standard (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) structure full of light and laminated maple beams where school groups gather for educational presentations. A lovely place to learn and appreciate the environment.
There were 28 wineries in the region and there was no way I could hit them all. But I did visit a few key establishments. CreeksideChalkBoardAt Creekside Winery winemaker Rob Power had me taste a sparkling sauvignon blanc called Backyard Bubbly that was fruity and delicious. During my site tour, a highlight was the barrel cellar, one of the oldest and largest in the Niagara Region. Afterwards, I dug into a fragrant, peach-wood smoked suckling piglet, thick molasses baked beans, braised red cabbage and buttery roasted new potatoes at the winery’s eating spot, The Deck, helmed by chef Nathan Young, open from May until Thanksgiving.
At the Sue-Ann Staff winery, a series of Fancy Farm Girl vintages caught my attention. Flirty Bubbles, Foxy Pink Rose, Frivolous White and Flamboyant Red were available for tasting and my favorite was the bubbly one (surprise!). Sue-AnnStaffSue-Ann’s family has been farming in the region for five generations. She lives in the original farmhouse, which also serves as her shop and tasting room. So far, her production is small, 5,000 cases a year, but it is growing. She also hosts weddings at a permanent tented site on her property overlooking a large pond.
The last winery I visited was Westcott Vineyards where Victoria Westcott graciously showed me around. WestcottWinery-VictoriaWineTankThe winery was started by her dad Grant and step-mother Carolyn. Their first vintage was produced in 2012. The tasting room opened last year and Victoria came on board to lead the customer experience. Some of the wines were named after flowers. I especially enjoyed the Lillias unoaked Chardonnay which was light and crisp with the slight tang of quince. Hanging on the walls were many black and white photos including Victoria’s step-mother’s grandmothers. “They were both presidents of Temperance leagues, which is pretty funny considering what the family business is now,” she said, giving me a wink.
Twenty Valley is a hidden gem that’s easily accessible and filled with people who are passionate about producing quality products. Who knew?

WINERIES
Featherstone Estate Winery
13th Street Winery
Creekside Estate Winery
Westcott Vineyards

SHOPPING
Jordan: This quaint town is bursting with lovely shops including Valley Jewellers, Pamela’s Tintern Road, Mary Rose’s Lavender Boutique, and Irongate Garden Elements.
Pottery: At Johann Munro’s Shed Pottery look for souvenirs and gifts that are both practical and whimsical.
Fruit and Produce: Peach Country Country Farm Market: Producers of peaches, cherries, apricots, plums, apples and raspberries.

WHERE TO STAY
Inn on the Twenty: Boutique hotel in Jordan with 27 rooms with fireplaces and soaker tubs. Breakfast included.

MORE INFORMATION
Niagara’s Twenty Valley

Tracking Toronto’s Forgotten Architectural Treasures

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I used to hear about the Guild Inn, located near the Bluffs in Scarborough, as a young girl. It was a fancy place, once a mansion, and my parents went there on a few special occasions for dinner. Out exploring the Bluffs area recently, I decided to search out the property. The Inn is gone, replaced by a special events venue that is popular for weddings.GuildSign copy But, what I was most interested in was the Guild Park, now managed by the City of Toronto. That’s where the architectural gems collected by the property’s former owners, Rosa and Spencer Clark, now rest.ClarkPlaque copy The park is filled with flowers in summer and walking through it felt rather surreal.Garden copy The large stone fragments are spectacular…and in a way make me long to see the original edifices from which they came.ArchPillar copy Sadly, Toronto underwent a huge growth development in the 1960s and many treasured older buildings were torn down. But walking past these wonderful pieces of art, it felt like I was taken on a journey back to the grand days of Toronto’s Victorian past.RobertHolmesPainterhead copyRobert Holmes was a painter famous for his florals.RoyalConservatoryMusic copyWhat’s left of the old Royal Conservatory of Music.StoneCuttingFlywheel copyA stone-cutting flywheel.
VictoriaParkSchoolBell copyThe bell from Victoria Park School.
This place is magical. I must go again.

Exploring Toronto’s Beltline Trail

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Toronto’s rail-to-trail linear park, the Beltline Trail, covers 9 km and is actually three connecting sections…The York Beltline Trail starts up around Caledonia Rd. and Eglinton Ave., the Kay Gardner Beltline Parks runs from Allen Road, through Mount Pleasant Cemetery and then connects to the Ravine Beltline, a very pretty stretch that loops through the Don Valley, past the Evergreen Brickworks and back up to Mount Pleasant Cemetery.
Stephen Plunkett took these shots on the Kay Gardner portion of the trail. Such a great green sanctuary in the middle of the city!OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Peterborough: Canoes, Coconut Rum and Wicked Vodka

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Once upon a time, Peterborough, in the heart of Ontario’s Kawartha Lakes cottage country, was a manufacturing centre, home to General Electric and Evinrude Outboard Engines. It was also “the canoe-building epicenter of the world,” according to Kelly Jessup, Peterborough and the Kawartha’s Economic Development marketing officer. Quaker Oats and tourism are the city’s primary drivers now, but back in the day the Peterborough Canoe Company was one of the biggest players. Today, the canoes built in this small Ontario city surrounded by more than 100 lakes, are by small, hand-crafted operations.
The first thing I spied at the Canadian Canoe Museum (with more than 600 canoes it is the largest collection in the world) was Gordon Lightfoot’s Old Town canoe.In the 1970s, he paddled the Nahanni River and flipped it. You can still see the scars on his beloved “Canary Yellow Canoe.” The second item to catch my attention was Pierre Trudeau’s buckskin jacket that he wore paddling in the Northwest Territories.CanoeMuseumTrudeaJacket copyThe museum is currently housed in an old manufacturing plant, but it is in the midst of $65 million fundraiser to build a new home by the Peterborough Lift Lock on the Trent Severn Waterway scheduled to open 2022.
I signed up for a Voyageur canoe tour and our guide, Jen Burnard (lead animator of the museum’s educational program) showed us on a map of the Great Lakes the routes these 36-foot-long canoes took during the fur trade years.VCJenBurnard “They went as far as Fort William on Lake Superior, delivered trade goods and then returned to Montreal laden with furs,” Jen explained.
The canoe could take up to 16 adults with “window seats,” or a total of 22, but we were a much smaller group. More work paddling! Jen had us paddle at the hard-core pace (just for a few minutes) the voyageurs would have done and it was neat to feel far less drag on our paddles as we glided along the river.VCGettingReady
Up up and away! Entering the Peterborough Lift Lock, Ed Donald, the Lockmaster, told us it was built between 1896 and 1904, is 65 feet high and takes 90 seconds to get from top to bottom or vice versa.

That tiny figure at the top is Ed.

That tiny figure at the top is Ed.

Ed, who has done this job for 29 years, told us “this is the highest hydraulic lift in the world.” He sees around 5,000 boats go through a year and most are “transient,” many heading from Florida to Georgian Bay, or the other way around. The lock operates from May through to Thanksgiving. That’s when “We put the lady to bed,” said Ed. The tour took 90 minutes and cost $20.
Lunch was at Ashburnham Ale House. There are many craft breweries in the area due to the fact that the natural PH balance in the water makes for good beer. I had the warm, smoked maple salmon on a bed of salad greens. Delicious!AshburnTrout
Black’s Distillery was opened four months ago. The gorgeous stills looked like something Captain Nemo would have aboard.BlacksInterior The whiskey, vodka and gin is organic. Red Fife wheat is used to make the vodka, which is 20 times distilled. Yikes! I had a wee taste and it was smooth and almost buttery…due to fat lipids, owner and master distiller Robert Black told me. Who knew? Another interesting fact? Gin is made from vodka with added herbs and other goodies. He uses a secret recipe of botanticals with lemon peel, juniper, lavender, sage, coriander, cardamom, cubeb and angelica.BlacksGinIngredientsJPG Currently, their products are available in 25 LCBO locations in the province. Robert let me try a tiny sip of the “cask proof” barley whisky (57%…strong, but still smooth when diluted with a bit of water).
Robert, who is a tool and die maker, trained with a master distiller in British Columbia three years ago and is now following his dream. “Ten years ago I visited Scotland and I loved the peaty flavours. I thoughts, this is a really cool job.” A scotch and gin man, he notes, “On a damp day whiskey warms you from the inside out. On a hot day gin refreshes you.” I did a taste comparison with a commercial whiskey (no names to be disclosed) and compared to Robert’s brew it tasted artificial and almost soapy.
Robert and his life/business partner Barb Matchett living the dream.

Robert and his life/business partner Barb Matchett living the dream.


Persian Empire Distillery produces more than 30 alcoholic products, including pomegranate liquor and a coconut rum with actual pieces of coconut floating at the bottom.PersianCoconutRum They also specialize in middle eastern favourites such as saggi (made with raisins), fini (made with cashews) and arak, (flavoured with aniseed). The distillery is owned by Bruce Khabbazi and his wife Sara, originally from Iran. They have been in the business for 20 years and currently have five products in LCBO outlets.PersianStills Interestingly, they also are the world’s biggest producer of yogurt soda, a middle eastern favourite that tastes a bit like butter milk. “We use milk from Kawartha Dairy. Our house brand is Mashky, plus we produce for many other companies. We make a plain, mint and cucumber version,” Lorne, our guide and a distillery employee told us.PersianYogurtSoda copyPersianMashky
Canoes and booze…who knew Peterborough had so much to offer!