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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.

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!

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.


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?


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.


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.

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

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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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 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.


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?

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

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.

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

Niagara’s Twenty Valley