Tag Archives: Food

Feeling Like a Princess in Prince Edward County

The Barley Room at Waring House has a warm atmosphere, great beer and pub grub. Perfect for a chilly winter outing!

The Barley Room at Waring House has a warm atmosphere, great beer and pub grub. Perfect for a chilly winter outing!


It’s been more than 20 years since I visited Prince Edward County (PEC), and it has changed immensely. On a recent trip I visited vineyards and sampled superb pinot noirs, effervescent sparkling wines, and some luscious cabernet francs. Who knew the limestone-rich terroir of the region is almost identical to that of Burgundy?
WaringSign
We arrived the weekend before Christmas and it was very quiet, due to the stupendous snowstorm the night before. Our little Corolla did yeoman service and got us to the lovely Waring House restaurant and inn from Toronto in just under two-and-a-half hours.
Waring House had a top-notch restaurant with lots of locally produced wines and cheeses.

Waring House had a top-notch restaurant with lots of locally produced wines and cheeses.


Comprising a 1820s stone farmhouse and two modern lodges, Waring House offers 49 rooms and suites that are quite green with geo-thermal heating and low-flush toilets. Our suite was fit for a princess—huge, with gas fireplace, French doors, king bed, mini fridge and dark wood furniture. Dinner, in Amelia’s Garden Restaurant in the farmhouse, was top-notch. I had Arctic Char that melted in my mouth, and a slice of velvety pumpkin ginger cheesecake for dessert. My partner had venison that was bursting with flavour, paired perfectly with a local merlot.
Next day, we hit the wine trail. Prince Edward County has been producing award-winning wine for around 12 years. There are at least 40 wineries in three distinct areas, The West, The East & South and The Northeast. We went West and explored the tasting rooms of seven wineries. Unlike the Niagara region, PEC’s wineries tend to be small and rustic. The winemaker might also be the fellow fixing the outdoor heater.
Discussing pinot noirs with a winemaker at Norman Hardie Winery.

Discussing pinot noirs with a winemaker at Norman Hardie Winery.


Some wineries grow their own grapes, other buy from local farmers and some mix in Niagara grapes. While sampling, it’s always good to discuss a wine’s provenance. My favorites were the Sandbanks Estate cabernet franc (Queen Elizabeth was served Sandbanks wine on her last trip to Canada), Norman Hardie pinot noir, Karlo Estates merlot, Hinterland’s champagne-style bubbly and Rosehall Run’s sparkling rose-–the lovely, pink Pixie took main stage on our Christmas morning breakfast table.
Pixie sparkling rose, a perfect match with Christmas morning eggs.

Pixie sparkling rose, a perfect match with Christmas morning eggs.


Halfway through our wine circuit, we stopped in at Tall Poppy café for amazing grilled cheese sandwiches and salad (thick slabs of bakery-fresh multi-grain bread oozing with artisanal cheese – I was full for hours). An old storefront with tin ceiling and ever changing blackboard menu, this is also a great place for a coffee break with lots of yummy-looking baked goods.
Tall Poppy Cafe, great for a breather between wine tastings.

Tall Poppy Cafe, great for a breather between wine tastings.


Due to the heavy grilled cheese, we decide to have a light dinner at Waring House’s Barley Room Pub that night. Also in the farmhouse, the pub was cozy, offered many local beers and wines and had great live entertainment. A popular spot with locals, it was jammed. After quaffing a few brews and downing a plate of delicious chicken wings, it was a relief not to have to get back in the car since we just had to walk across the parking lot to our suite.
Loved these birdhouses in Picton.

Loved these birdhouses in Picton.


As for other stuff to do, the area is dotted with interesting food producers and antique shops. We just missed the Terroir & Wassail festival, but learned that there are special promotions throughout the year along the “Taste Trail” where you can stop into restaurants, wineries, breweries and artisanal food producers. From my original visit 20 years ago, I recalled the beauty of Sandbanks Provincial Park…but I’ll have to wait for summer for a chance to loll on those gorgeous, freshwater dunes.
Yes, I’m already planning a summer return.
A gorgeous, crisp winter's eve at Waring House.

A gorgeous, crisp winter’s eve at Waring House.

Surprising Sarasota

The Great Room at Ca'd'Zan, John and Mabel Ringling's dream home.

The Great Room at Ca’d’Zan, John and Mabel Ringling’s dream home.


Culture, history, old masters and circus people. Just what you’d expect in the sunshine state…what? Did I mention I just got back from Sarasota, Florida? Considered one of the best art towns in America, Sarasota is perched on the Gulf of Mexico, half-way down the state. The area has more than 90 sites listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Take a quick drive, cross a bridge and you’ll hit Longboat Key, one of the six barrier islands that lie between Sarasota Bay and the Gulf. There are 35 miles of sugary sand along these islands and my first night we had dinner on the beach, watching dolphins chase schools of fish as the sun lowered into a golden pink sky. The stone crab was heavenly, as was the view.
Top 10 Activities in Sarasota:
1) Visit all the barrier islands and make sure to walk along the beach on Siesta Key, ranked No. 1 in the USA by Stephen Leatherman, aka “Dr. Beach.”
2) Tuck into the buffet at Der Dutchman in the Amish/Mennonite neighbourhood of Pinecraft. The broasted chicken (fried and roasted so the skin is amazingly crunchy) is to die for, as are the fresh salads and pickled beets. Save room for peanut butter pie. Pick up a tray of cinnamon rolls at the attached bakery, then nip into Carlisle Gifts to peruse the beautiful Amish quilts.
3) Eat seafood at The Shore Diner. Try the crab cakes and truffle fries or the eggs Benedict with lobster salad. Heavenly.
A beastie on the Myakka River.

A beastie on the Myakka River.


4) Photograph ‘gators at the Myakka River State Park from an airboat. The tours run 3-4 times a day, are around 1-hour long and cost $12 for adults, $6 for children 6-12, and kids 5 and under are free (they must sit on an adult’s lap).
Manatees are in the elephant family! Water ellies!

Manatees are in the elephant family! Water ellies!


5) Check out Hugh and Buffett, two manatees at Mote Marine Laboratory Aquarium. They were born at the Miami Seaquarium and would have had difficulty adapting to the wild, so instead they help researchers understand their physiognomy and habits. All the animals here, sea turtles, penguins and dolphins take part in research programs that will ultimately help manage wild populations.
6) Sift through sand for shark teeth. Do this on any beach, or sign up for a pail of sand at the Mote Aquarium for guaranteed finds.
7) Kayak through the mangrove tunnels: Kayak Sarasota offers guided kayak tours at 10:15 am and 1:30 pm. If you’re lucky you might see dolphins or manatees. For sure you’ll see cormorants that like to suss out paddlers. www.ikayaksarasota.com
8) Catch a first-class performance. Choose from the Sarasota Orchestra, Asolo Repertory Theatre, Sarasota Ballet, Sarasota Opera or Florida Studio Theatre.
Exterior of Ca'd'Zan, like a Venetian fairy palace.

Exterior of Ca’d’Zan, like a Venetian fairy palace.


9) Circus legacy. John Ringling of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus moved with his wife Mable to a permanent home in Sarasota in 1926. Ca’d’Zan is a 56-room Venetian-inspired villa full of marble bathrooms, hand-painted frescos and pedigreed French furniture (some is said to have belonged to Marie Antoinette). Next door is the Museum or Art, containing Ringling’s personal collection including paintings by Rubens, van Dyck, Velazquez and Gainsborough. Also on the sprawling property is the Circus Museum where you can try your hand at tight-rope walking or squeezing into a tiny clown car. www.sarasotaCircusHistory.org
A beautiful banyan tree at the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens.

A beautiful banyan tree at the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens.


10) Take a breather at Marie Selby Botanical Gardens, on Sarasota Bay. Wander the 14 acres, contemplate life as you look over the Bay, marvel at the orchids and bromeliads. A leisurely lunch under the banyan trees makes for a perfect afternoon.

Niagara-on-the-Lake: Taste the Season Wineries

Our first stop, Chateau des Charmes.

Our first stop, Chateau des Charmes.

In November, with winter in the air, my husband Steve and I ventured to Niagara-on-the-Lake for a little wine and food pairing. We had bought the Taste the Season touring pass for around $45 and were determined to visit as many wineries as possible. The pass was good for weekends throughout the month and this was the last weekend. It was like a circuit cocktail party. Steve kept his wine tasting to a minimum, since he was driving, and I did a little more imbibing so I’d know which bottles to buy. Suffice to say we came home well stocked!

1) Chateau des Charmes: The Earth & Sky Pinot Noir was matched with beet cured rainbow trout served with three onion crème fraiche. Delicious! The wine was light and a great enhancement for the amazing ruby-coloured trout.
2) Colaneri: The winery exterior had a Napa-meets-Disney feel about it, sort of aged but newly built. The wine was an easy-going 2011 Isieme Red Blend but the pairing was exquisite – a braciole, or strip of flank steak topped with prosciuitto, covered in tomato sauce and rolled into a pinwheel. Very authentic.
3) Cattail Creek Estate Winery: 2009 Estate Merlot was paired with a sirloin chili. Very stick- to-the-ribs. Perfect after skiing.
4) Konzelman Estate Winery: One of my favourites! A 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon served with a pulled beef and Quebec Brie slider. Rich and luscious and perfect for the chilly weather.
5) Marynissen Estates: A 2011 Primary red matched with a shaved beef slider with horseradish aioli and baby arugula. Not my favorite. Slider was light on the meat and Marynissen makes much finer reds.

Strewn also has an excellent restaurant and cooking school.

Strewn also has an excellent restaurant and cooking school.


6) Strewn Winery: Love this place, in an old jam plant. We sipped 2007 Strewn Three, a white blend, and munched three appetizers – mushroom with Muskoka cranberry sauce, creamy French onion and goat cheese spread on a cracker, and house spiced beef with Horseradish jelly. Yum!
7) Riverview Cellars Estate Winery: A fragrant 2012 Gewurztraminer matched with an herbed goat cheese and roasted vegetable tart. I would have preferred it if the tart had been warmed, but otherwise very tasty.
At Reif, the chocolate brownies were to die for!

At Reif, the chocolate brownies were to die for!


8) Reif Estate Winery: My favorite of all! We had the 2012 Cabernet Franc with a dark chocolate brownie infused with blackberries and covered in cassis ganache. A sweet way to end our tour!
I plan to go again next year, and hopefully get in two weekends instead of one. In the meantime, there’s the Icewine Festival, January 1-31, 2014 and the Days of Wine and Chocolate, on weekends in February 2014. A nice way to keep warm in winter!

Curacao: Blue waters, blue cocktails, deep history

Downtown Willemstad, Curacao.

To be honest, the only thing I knew about Curacao was that it produced an eponymous liqueur – the blue version is very popular at bachelorette parties  — not that I go to many these days. It’s very sweet, with essence of orange, and the last time I had it was over ice cream.

The girliest of girly drinks: Blue Curacao.

Before leaving on WestJet’s new non-stop flight from Toronto – five easy hours! – I did a bit of research. Curacao is one of the ABC Dutch Caribbean islands comprising Netherlands Antilles (the others are Aruba, and Bonaire) and is very close to Venezuela. It has a population of 150,000 and is around 60 km wide. The volcanic rock foundation makes it arid and difficult to grow anything. The oranges used in the Curacao liqueur are actually a bitter adaptation of Valencia oranges. The Spanish tried to grow them in 1499, but due to the harsh climate they morphed into the aromatic and bitter laraha oranges that are used today.

Terrace at the Santa Barbara as the sun starts to set.

I stayed at the Santa Barbara Beach & Golf Resort, a 30-minute drive from the city of Willemstad and the airport. The resort was gorgeous, with private beach, a dock where diving boats could pick up passengers, sprawling golf course and lovely terrace restaurant overlooking the Caribbean Sea.

Sightseeing was more than beaches. Curacao has the oldest synagogue in continuous use in the Western Hemisphere – Mikvé Israel congregation was established in 1651 and the current synagogue building was inaugurated in 1732.

It was also a hub for the slave trade, although very little of that heinous period is left standing.

All Curacao’s produce at the floating market is shipped in.

At the floating market in Willemstad all the produce comes from Venezuela.

The Governor’s Palace in downtown Willemstad.

Captain Blight fired a cannon at the Governor’s Palace.

Exterior of the Old Market.

Stewed goat from one of the vendors at the Old Market.

Daily lunch staples at the Old Market include cactus soup, goat stew and fried fish.

Curacao distillery museum.

Genuine Curacao Liqueur is made in Willemstad on an old plantation site. You can get tastes of the latest flavours including chocolate and coffee.

The Hato Caves.

The HATO Caves are beautiful and actually above ground.

Dinah Veeris’ wonderful herb garden.

Dinah Veeris’ Den Paradera, an herbal garden, is a lovely stop and if you are lucky she or her son will take you on a tour.

The colours of the fish match the liqueur!

Curacao is a diving and snorkeling paradise.

Euro-style at Saint Tropez Ocean Club.

The Dutch influence is big at various Euro-style restaurants and boutique hotels such as Beach House Curacao and St. Tropez Ocean Club.

Shrimp, rice and salad at Jaanchies.

Jaanchies, on the west side of the island, is an institution with hearty lunches and many, many birds.

The birds flock to Jaanchies for their own special treats.

The west side of the island is home to Christoffel Park and the wonderful Playa Kenepa – it’s like being in a promotional poster for a hidden tropical paradise.

Big Knip beach. A paradise!

Beaches Big Knip and Cas Abou – places I will dream about forever!

Cas Abou: for a small fee you get showers, toilet facilities and a bar.

Northern Louisiana: Meat Pies, Catfish and Where Bonnie and Clyde Met Their Maker

Where Bonnie and Clyde were ambushed. There’s a marker by the side of the road now.

1)    Bonnie and Clyde Ambush Museum reports on the last chapter of one of the most documented criminal love stories in America. Gibsland, where Bonnie and Clyde were ambushed has a funky little museum funded by private donor in Dallas and run by “Boots” Hinton, son of one of the law men who shot the famous couple to death on a nearby back road. A video from 1934 shows a re-enactment of the event. There is some question if Bonnie actually ever killed anyone herself. The museum has replicas of their tombstones (they were buried in separate cemeteries in Dallas) and Bonnie’s epithet is what she wrote for her mother’s tombstone 6 months earlier. “All the women like to hear that story,” Boots confided. There’s a replica car that was used in one of bio pics shot in the area, but the real death car is on loan to a museum in Washington D.C. Although you wouldn’t know it now, the museum is housed in the little café where Bonnie and Clyde bought their last sandwiches. “They only had two before they were shot,” said Boots. Gazing around at the photos, I can see Bonnie was very pretty. “Clyde met her at a restaurant where she was waitressing,” said Boots. In a glass case I spy her red velvet beret and the brooch from her dress. The wonky black and white newsreel style movie I watched when I came in said her belongings included a cosmetic case, just like any normal girl.

2)    Second Hand Rose. The best reason to go to this jam-packed emporium is to meet Millie Rose, a dynamo with a frizz of red hair and two Boston Terriers that follow her everywhere. Poke around and you might find a treasure amongst all the knick-knacks.

Luigi’s has the best bread pudding in the region!

3)    Luigi’s Restaurant serves up a mean deep fried catfish that melts in your mouth. For dessert, bread pudding with buttery, sticky rum sauce is a must. The restaurant is located in a small strip of shops next to the site, which once housed the funeral parlor where the bodies of Bonnie and Clyde were taken after they were killed. It’s a parkette now, but across the street is the town’s little museum, which is filled with pictures of the criminal duo.

Melrose Plantation.

4)    Melrose Plantation. If you go during the Fall Tour in October, you’ll see lots of docents and their daughters in period dress. Three families have owned the plantation over the years. The first was a freed slave who prospered, but then lost it all. Mrs Cammie Henry was last owner and she was famous for hosting an artists’ retreat. Author William Faulkner stayed for a short time, but Mrs. Cammie being a teetotaler was not a fan of his. People had to review what they had done each evening at dinner. The retreat was inspirational for a staff member, Clementine, who cleaned the rooms. One of the guests left their paints so she tried her hand at painting and did some fascinating scenes of everyday life. Some people are bigger than others. The more important people are bigger, and those she didn’t like are smaller. My favorite was the black angles with their hair flying straight up because of all the wind. You can view her cabin and an excellent gallery of her work. Her grandson is now selling pieces for $70 in the gift shop.

The Steel Magnolia house – once a B&B, now up for sale.

5)    Natchitoches: See the house where Steel Magnolias was filmed, check out the uber modern Louisiana State Sports museum, shop the oldest retailer in the city, the Kaffie-Frederick General Mercantile hardware store (lots of cool kitchen gadgets and Christmas gee gaws), and visit Northwestern State University and the Bead Town mural, a concept by artist Stephan Wagner to recycle discarded Mardi Gras beads.

Laysone’s delicious meat pies.

6)    Laysone’s Meat Pie: Lunch here is a must. Angela Laysone is the daughter of the original owner. A big gal with B&W striped chef pants and a black bandana, she is now rolling out a plan to sell the crayfish and beef meat pies in sports stadiums in LA and Texas. They are deep fried and delicious. Even the green beans are deep-fried! The décor is decidedly old school. In-window A/C units, brownish/greenish walls. But who cares, you are there for the pies!

Looking for chicken.

7)    Natchitoches Alligator park: We head over to Castaway Island where a crowd has assembled and is gazing out over a pond at what looked to be the tail of a crashed airplane. It was show time. A voice over the loud speaker told us two stranded pilots had to fend off hungry meat eaters. From a wooden, Cajun-style houseboat the pilots-cum-staff members hung a bloody parcel on a stick over the edge. Suddenly the water was boiling as 100 alligators swarmed towards the vessel. A huge daddy, at least 15 feet long, leapt out of the water and snapped up the meat. “What are they feeding them?” I asked a tour guide. “Chicken, mostly necks,” she replied. At lunch in the snack bar, I braved a plate of fried alligator. The chewy nuggets tasted just like….chicken.

What I Love About Shreveport

Elvis plays the Louisiana Hayride at the Memorial Auditorium, 1955. Photo © courtesy of Louisiana Hayride Archives – J. Kent

1)    Memorial Auditorium, where Elvis got his start on Louisiana Hayride in 1954. In 1969, guitarist James Burton signed on with Elvis and stayed with his band until Elvis’ death in 1977. Burton is a Shreveport boy and has a recording studio across the street from Memorial Auditorium.

James Burton, Shreveport’s guitar legend.

If you are lucky, he might come out and chat with you.

Geauxsicles are like luscious frozen smoothies on a stick.

2)    Geauxsicles Gourmet Ice Pops opened two years ago and offers fabulous flavours like Mojito, Lemondrop, Sister Hazelnut, and my favorite, Sublime. These little treasures are frozen smoothies on a stick and are chock full of fresh fruit. There’s even a diabetic-friendly option made with Truvia.

3)    Strawn’s Eat Shop, one of the city’s most iconic restaurants, features mile-high strawberry pie to die for. The owner is a professional poker player and family members have opened a couple of additional locations to the original at 125 Kings Hwy.

4)    Marilynn’s Place – opened by Bozz Baucom and named for his mother, this former gas station is comfy casual, largely self-serve and is known for jambalaya, crawfish etoufée and beignets, which are served with coffee all day long.

An institution!

5)    Herby-K’s, home of the Shrimp Buster since 1936. What the heck is a shrimp buster? Pounded shrimp piled high on buttered French bread and laced with spicy red sauce. South Living magazine loves this place.

6)    Red River Revel, a fantastic, affordable arts and crafts fair in early October with 125 artisan booths (jewelry, paintings, woodwork) lots of excellent concerts (Blind Boys of Alabama were there this year), fantastic food (charities set up booths and sell catfish, candied nuts, chocolate covered cheescake on a stick, crawfish and other delights).

Cooking up a storm at Blue Southern Comfort! Guest chefs try their hand in the kitchen with the lovely owner Carolyn Manning (Top row, second from R).

7)    Blue Southern Comfort was just opened by Carolyn Manning, a former real estate agent. This superb little spot has around 5 tables and tons of charm. Her gumbo and cheezy grits are magical. Secrets include her home smoked tasso pork shoulder, and the grits contain a mélange of cheeses including cheddar, parm and jack. BYOB right now, but she is waiting on a liquor license.

Shreveport’s people and history on the side of the AT&T building. A mega mural!

8)    “Once in a Millennium Moon,” one of the largest murals in the country spans around 30,000 sq ft. on the AT&T building downtown. It is filled with local celebrities, family heirlooms like garters, a christening top, a wedding veil, war tags, the Torah, and a portrait of Native American Mary Whitesnake Rambin wearing three sets of black beads passed down by her grandmother that were brought from Europe to trade in exchange for beaver, deer and other hides.

9)    Papa Fertitta’s is the last historic Mom and Pop grocery store in town and it’s on the National Registry of Historic Places. Known for it’s fantastic sandwich, the “Muffy” (heavier than an anvil, made with cold cuts and olive paste), it’s a great place to stop for a beer and a bite

10)The Robinson Film Center is a two-screen cinema that shows great art house fare and is supported by actors such as Val Kilmer and Matthew Broderick. Abby Singer’s Bistro, upstairs, offers tasty pre- or après movie dining with a twist. Try the duck nachos.

10 Best Atlantic City Destinations Off the Boardwalk

Atlantic City, the Jersey Shore’s gambling Mecca, is chock-a-block with casinos, but there is plenty to do for non-gamblers as well. Next time you’re in the Boardwalk Empire, check out these hidden gems.

Joe Di Maggio’s favourite hang out in Atlantic City.

1)     The Irish Pub – The walls of this cozy pub are jammed with boxing posters from the days of Jack Dempsey, and just about any other Irish memorabilia including JFK for President posters. Joe DiMaggio’s favourite AC haunt has an expansive menu of pub grub including St. James Potatoes (an Irish version of poutine), Jersey crab cakes and liverwurst and onion sandwiches. Plus there are reasonable rooms to let for people who don’t mind being just up the street from the boardwalk. St. James Place. www.theirishpub.com

2)     Dante Hall Theater For The Arts – where locals go for concerts and local dramatic productions. 12 N. Mississippi Ave. 609 347-2162

3)     White House Sub Shop – Best two-foot-long sandwiches on the Shore. Fillings range from white tuna to meatballs and sauce and the fresh loaves come from nearby bakery Formica Bros. Try the White House Special, a belly-filling winner of Genoa salami, ham, capicola and provolone cheese. 2301 Arctic Ave.

A multitude of multi-grains at Formica Bros. Bakery.

4)     Formica Bros. Bakery – A Ducktown staple since 1919, Formica Bros. uses grandfather Francesco’s methods to create some of the best bread in the city. The bakery café serves coffee, biscotti and slices of grandmother Rosa’s famous Italian Tomato pie. 2310 Arctic Ave.

The original 1910 design for James’ salt water taffy.

5)     James Factory Tour – See how salt water taffy is made at this AC candy institution on the boardwalk, founded in 1880. Admission is $4.50, tours are on the hour from 10 am-3 pm, Mon.-Fri, June-August.

6)     Waterfront Sculpture Walk – Need a break from chiming slots? Behind Harrah’s and linked to Borgata and the Golden Nugget resorts is a landscaped mile of three-dimensional art that looks out over Atlantic City’s back bay. Dancing dragonflies, steam punk-style clocks and golden-framed fence installations will captivate your imagination while local fishermen provide the backdrop, casting their lines into the bay for blue fish.

The lighthouse is a popular spot for weddings.

7)     Absecon Lighthouse – opened in 1857, this historic beacon is 171 feet high and it takes 228 steps upward to get to the panoramic views of Atlantic City, ocean and surrounding areas. Check out the Keeper’s House Museum. Near Showboat Casino at Pacific and Rhode Island Avenues.

8)     Flyers Skate Zone – Ice skating throughout the year. 501 North Albany Ave. www.flyersskatezone.com

A Caribbean Cownose Ray delights visitors at the Atlantic City Aquarium.

9)     Atlantic City Aquarium – Intimate aquarium with shark and ray touch tanks, diver feeding show, and 100 varieties of sea life. www.acaquarium.com

10)  Atlantic City Fishing & Dive Center — If you are a diver, or want to catch a big one, this charter operation can take you to nearby wrecks for underwater exploration or line casting to snag seabass, blackfish, ling, cod, progy and triggerfish. 455 N. Maryland Ave.

Best of Atlantic City Casinos

 

Just got back from a great Society of American Travel Writers conference in Atlantic City and wanted to share a few casino highlights. I’m not a gambler, but there’s so much more going on at these resorts including burlesque shows, spas, great restaurants and shopping.

One of Golden Nugget’s wonderful suites.

Best Room Value: The Golden Nugget’s Hollywood-style uber spacious suites. The former Trump Marina Hotel Casino has gone through a $150 million renovation and the rooms are gorgeous: floor-to-ceiling windows, double bathrooms and enough floor space to go bowling.

Skygarden in the stunning Revel Casino-Hotel.

Best Architecture: Revel Casino-Hotel feels like a $2.4 billion South Beach transplant, with huge airy lobby, billowing white curtains, indoor/outdoor pool and exquisite sky garden with ocean views. Atlantic City’s newest casino resort, Revel has 14 restaurants helmed by award-winning chefs and was launched last year with a sizzling performance by Beyonce.

Best Shopping: Tropicana’s Quarter is a 200,000 square-foot complex with dining, entertainment and retail and the Marketplace is 21,000 square feet of the same. You’ll find 24 shops in these two areas that carry everything from handicrafts to designer labels. Retail includes Chico’s, Erwin Pearl, Francesca’s Collections,  Godiva Chocolatier, the Hat Emporium, Old Farmer’s Almanac General Store, Swarovski and Talk of the Walk, a family owned and operated chain that opened its doors on Atlantic City’s boardwalk in 1951 (check out their in-season markdowns!). www.tropicana.net

Best Glam: Sophisticated and sleek, the Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa lobby wows visitors with a magnificent Dale Chihuly chandelier, the retail shops are top shelf (Hugo Boss, Misura, and Just Cavalli), and the spa features full-sized indoor pool, a Jacuzzi that could fit 40, and treatment rooms with million dollar views. Dinner is a fine diner’s dream with restaurants by Wolfgang Puck, Bobby Flay, Geoffrey Zakarian and Michael Schulson and the burlesque show is a must see, cheeky, sexy and full of adult fun. The juggler alone is worth the price of admission. www.borgata.com

The Atlantic Club’s jazz brunch is a must.

Best Jazz Brunch: The Atlantic Club Casino Hotel’s Ono Chinese Bistro serves up superb Chinese dishes and sushi and on Sundays the ocean-view room hums with the live jazz tunes of local favorites. If you’re feeling lucky, try the casino slots, deemed the loosest in New Jersey by Casino Player and Strictly Slots magazines.

Robert’s Steakhouse at the Trump Taj has the best crab in town.

Best Crab Cakes: You wouldn’t necessarily think a place specializing in red meat would do justice to crustaceans, but think again. Robert’s Steakhouse, at the Trump Taj Majal Casino Resort serves the most mouth-watering crab cakes in town. Succulent meat is packed together with no binders or unnecessary flavour enhancers except for a creamy red pepper aioli. Heavenly!

Harrah’s Pool After Dark packs ’em in.

Best Pool PartyHarrah’s huge indoor pool, under a glass dome is a big draw for Jersey Shore partiers. After sunset, the chic, palm-filled space becomes The Pool After Dark at Harrah’s Resort with cover charge, DJ and lots and lots of room to mingle.

Lobamba Village Tour

Children in Lobamba love having their picture taken.

People who are only visiting Swaziland for a short time can get a feeling for the true life of Swazis by taking a village tour. Yes, the first impression of Swaziland is smooth paved highways, shopping malls filled with trendy, Chinese-made merchandise, grocery stores overflowing with packaged goods…and yet, this is not the experience of 80 percent of the population. The majority of Swazis live in rural areas. Their homesteads comprise mud and stick huts, they have to walk long distances to get water, they cook porridge in three-legged pots over an open fire and many children do not attend school because the fees and costs of uniforms is more than parents earning $2 a day can manage. Unemployment is rife and a single wage earner often supports extended families of up to 15 people.

When I had a visitor recently, we went on a guided walk through Lobamba Village with a local tour operator called All Out Africa. The Lobamba region is between Manzini and Mbabane. It’s the cultural capital of the country and is the home of eLudzidzine, the King’s traditional royal residence. The royal stadium is host to the annual Reed Dance and the Royal Kraal draws thousands each year to the Incwala ceremony. The parliament buildings are here, as well as the National Football Association headquarters.

We started our tour at the museum, which explained how Swazis are really Zulus who broke off relations with their warring leaders in the 1700s. Following the Dlamini clan, they settled in the safe, mountainous region now known as Swaziland. The museum chronicled the Transvaal rule, the era of the British protectorate and independence in 1968. Much emphasis was placed on the current king’s father, King Sobuza, who brought in archeologists and anthropologists to help define what is now knows as Swazi culture and tradition. This includes the traditional garb, the national ceremonies and an uncodified and unwritten “cultural” law.

The Eternal Flame, lit only on special occasions.

Next to the museum was King Sobhuza II’s memorial, consisting of a statue and a sort of mausoleum only accessible to Swazis. It is also home of the so-called eternal flame, which is lit only for special occasions. The best part of this memorial facility is the display of King Sobhuza’s cars. A humble man who liked to walk barefoot and sit on the ground, his three cars were gifts. My favorite was the 1957 Buick, with flashy fins and a flat tire.

King Sobhuza’s 1957 Buick!

From there we walked to the village of Lobamba, a warren of stick and mud homes with a population of 8,000. King Sobuza had his royal residence there, which is how the village developed. These days many residents work at the present King’s royal residence, a few hundred meters away. Swazi tradition says once a king has died, his home cannot be touched by anyone else. Sobuza’s residence is now a crumbling amalgam of small buildings overgrown with weeds.

Beki, our guide shook his head as he showed it to us. “I don’t know what will happen with the current king. He has so many mansions. They are not humble like King Sobuza’s. If nothing can be done with them when he dies it will be such a waste.”

Every other person we passed called out a greeting to Beki, who lives with his mother’s side of the family in their stick and mud compound in the village. “Are you thirsty?” he asked? We nodded. Leading us to a small courtyard filled with low benches, he ordered some of the local brew. A woman brought us a large pickle jar filled with what looked like grey dish water. “Sorghum beer,” explained Beki, taking a swig. I took a small sip from the communal jar. Sour and unappealing, that was enough. Beki disappeared into the hut and then came out with a clay bowl filled with a thick white liquid. “Maize drink, non-fermented,” he explained. This was cool and sweet. Much more to my liking.

The Stick and Mud gallery owned by artist Lucky Mlotsa was next on our agenda. Peering into the dark, one-room hut, I was greeted by a small man with long dreads and a bright smile. “Welcome, come into my home and my studio,” he said expansively. Three cats were curled up on top of a huge loud speaker. “That’s for my band, we rehearse here as well,” he explained. The walls were covered with Lucky’s art, colourful paintings of Swazi life, from the Reed Dance ceremony to a depiction of the busy main intersection in Mbabane.  “I’ve been teaching some community members to paint and on Saturdays I hold children’s classes,” he said, adding, “Four of my students have won national competitions and they were on TV. That’s when I started taking myself seriously.” Lucky explained he is in the process of appealing to the government help him start an arts academy. “I want my efforts to be permanent,” he said.

We had worked up an appetite by this time and Beki lead us to a local butchery for lunch. Picking out some chicken from the glass case, he walked over to an adjacent outbuilding containing a grill fired by large logs. The chicken was soon sizzling on the grill and when it was done we settled down to colourful plates of coleslaw, boiled pumpkin leaves, tomato and avocado salad, pap (made from cornmeal, it resembled grits), and barbequed chicken. All to be eaten with our hands. Delicious and messy. Thankfully I came equipped with Wet Ones.

We said goodbye to Beki and thanked him for showing us a little slice of everyday life…so different from the hustle and bustle of my urban existence.

Swazi NGO Meeting Culture – It’s about the food!

Dessert at the Royal Swazi Sun, where many meetings and launches are held.

I’ve been attending quite a few NGO campaign launches, workshops and stakeholders’ meetings since I came to Swaziland and have noticed that things are run a little differently than in Canada. Food is very important and helps draw attendees (humm, maybe not that different. North American press events are the same). I must say, it’s a little disquieting to know many people in Swaziland live on less that $2 Cdn a day…and at these meetings the plates are piled high. Not sure where this all came from…maybe a throwback to British rule? Donor tradition here? Or Swazi custom, where any gathering requires a feast, especially if official dignitaries are invited.

Here’s a little rundown.

1. Invitation comes to your office via hand delivery. This can be 1 week to 1 day prior to the meeting.
2. If it is a campaign launch, it will be a 1/2 day affair. Stakeholders meetings are usually a full day and workshops or training sessions usually go from 3-5 days.
3. Venue – launches are generally in a fancy hotel or resort complex. Usually government officials are invited. There is strict protocol to be followed and lots of long speeches. Workshops are held in very nice hotels and attendees stay overnight. All accommodation and meals are covered. For instance, a workshop hosted by the UNFPA will invite stakeholders to a lodge out of town so they actually stay for the duration of the workshop. Usually there are around 30 attendees at these meetings, along with presenters. The stakeholders’ meetings I’ve attended are a day long and held in convention spaces, or guest houses with meeting rooms.

Heading in for lunch.

4. The meetings are usually scheduled for 8 or 9 am. They start an hour (at least) later.
5. Meetings break around 10-11 for tea. This means tea and coffee, and muffins, biscuits and/or sandwiches.
6. Lunch break is around noon-1pm. Often it is buffet style, meat, veg, rice, potatoes, salad and dessert. This can be for 1-2 hours.

Salads salads salads.

7. Presentations continue after lunch. They are just about always power points, with some question and answer time.
8. By 5 pm the day is over…time for dinner!! (At workshops)
9. Even at community events, say World AIDS Day, with hundreds of attendees, there are speeches, entertainment, more speeches, and lunch…everyone lines up at tents outside and gets a Styrofoam box of chicken or beef stew and rice. Fruit for dessert.
10. Most NGO staff members attend at least a couple of these workshops, launches and stakeholder meetings per week. It can be hard to get your own work done.
11. Examples of gatherings: Gender Links Summit (2 days at Lugogo Sun), Sexual Offenses and Domestic Violence Bill workshop (2 days at Maguga Lodge), Girls Empowerment Club stakeholders meeting (1 day at Great Alpha Restaurant), World AIDS Day (1 day, Mavuso Centre), International Day of the Girl Child campaign launch (1/2 day Happy Valley Hotel and Casino).
12. After these sessions attendees are full of info and food. Most of us have to skip meals for a few days to get back to normal.