Category Archives: Canada

Remembering the Cuba I Visited

Last year while walking underground through Montreal’s subway tunnels, I became extremely jealous of Canadians. I’ve always liked them but now I suddenly resented them. There, plastered before us while we waited in sub-zero temperatures for our train was a massive ad promoting a sunny beach vacation in Cuba.

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The ad displayed the usual eye-catching tropical hues of blues and oranges and yellows. I wanted to walk right into that poster. I wanted what the Canadians had, the freedom to pack sunscreen, fly directly to Havana, bask on Cuba’s pristine beaches, shimmy to bachata music in the streets of Havana, dine on “Moros y Cristianos” and slippery pork sandwiches, and buy whatever else fancied them without worrying about not having purchase power.




It wasn’t that way when Mike and I went to Cuba in 2003. We flew through Cancun. Our connecting flights on Air Mexicana were purchased in Mexico. We arrived at 1 am in pitch dark. There were Che Guevara posters and murals everywhere. Everyone smiled and no one stamped our passports. Without credit cards or any access to our money, we had to make the cash stashed in our various pockets last the week. No splurging. We counted pennies and mojitos (just one per meal to stay within budget). What we didn’t account for was that the beachfront hotel where we were supposed to stay had gone out of business. Our cab driver, a young sympathetic guy who actually carried a cell phone, took us to another beachfront hotel that cost a bit more. We could swing it, but it would be tight. And it was. But what a week.

What I remember most about Cuba is its unblemished beaches, sand so white and fluffy it looked like fresh snow fall. The water was that distinct Caribbean blue you can’t find anywhere else in the world. This was the cleanest beach I had ever seen and covered with Canadians and Germans sprawled out on towels and blankets. I remember the fully-suited guards surveying the water with their binoculars, strolling the sand. One came up to me to inform me in rapid Spanish to close up my purse. I remember a beach vendor selling Pringles potato chips, that the beer was about $1, that old men really do play chess all day in Havana, that the chicken dishes I ate in Cuba tasted very chewy and stringy, and that the coffee was phenomenal and made me want to pull up a chair next to those abuelos, sip coffee and play chess til the sun went down.

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Today’s news from President Obama brought this all back. I never understood this mid-century trade embargo with Cuba and it appears millions of others never did either. We always kept trade going with China despite their human rights record while this bizarre, dysfunctional relationship with an island nation 90 miles from US borders needlessly withered. Meanwhile, the Cubans developed a kind of perseverance and resilience and resourcefulness that can only grow from living without, raising generations of MacGyvers who can readily take a bunch of random objects like a battery, an old toothbrush and a spare tire and make a functioning machine. Seriously, you won’t find a better mechanic on the planet than those tinkering in Cuba.

I want US-Cuba relations to normalize, if that’s the word we’re going to use, but at the same time I don’t want Cuba to become the next Punta Cana pit stop. What will the “new normal” with Cuba look like? Las Vegas in the Caribbean? I was drawn to Cuba while walking around Vienna in 2002; I saw a magazine cover story about Havana’s colonial architecture crumbling. Cuba did not have the money to preserve its own history and its yellowed, cracked buildings were slowly collapsing with age. I traveled to Havana as a journalist the following year because I wanted to see what might not be visible for much longer: 17th century architecture, those 1950s classic cars, streets free of McDonalds and Starbucks. You know how hard it is to travel the world and not trip over an American retailer? I’ve only visited two places so far where I didn’t have American capitalism in my face: Isla Isabela in the Galapagos and Cuba. Cuba is old and beautiful and I want it to stay old and beautiful, though I know that’s an unfair demand. Yet, still I worry about what’s going to happen now. American corporate sugar daddies were just waiting for this moment, for a new generation of leaders to scratch their heads and ask “does anyone recall what we were fighting about?”. Economic prosperity is for everyone everywhere, but I’ll selfishly admit here on the Internet: I hope Cuba says no thanks, or at least doesn’t permit American businesses to overrun what makes Cuba so Cuban.

So how did I leave things with Cuba? Money was squeaky that week, but Mike and I made it back to Mexico with 15 cents to spare. By the time our six days were up, we had just enough money to cover a cheap lunch at the airport, which was a sandwich and an ice cream that we split, plus our airport departure tax for two. I had to pee before boarding, so I went to an airport bathroom and bought some single-ply toilet paper from the attendant because the stalls didn’t provide freebies. Mike thought that was a bit of a binge–that I’ve gone in the woods without toilet paper before–why did I have to blow money on some wipes now? But I just couldn’t fly back to Mexico feeling that way so I gave the attendant the coins I had left in my pocket and she gave me back 15 cents because I had overpaid her. Flushing my last bit of spare change now didn’t feel so hard. We left Cuba with 15 cents between the two of us, which was 15 cents more than what I expected to leave with so I felt like a winner walking out of a casino. About two hours later when we were settled into our hotel at Cancun, we ordered a massive dinner, too many daiquiris and charged it to our credit card. We were back in full capitalistic action with that youthful feeling that anything in the world was ours again if we could afford it. But I admit, feeling broke in Cuba gave me a bit of a thrill. Now with the embargo set to lift, American tourists can buy all the toilet paper in Cuba they want, wiping without worry, but they won’t appreciate it the way we travelers did under the embargo.



Snorkeling Through Glass

Chasing art exhibits is never a budget-friendly experience, but it is always worth it. My first true art chase happened in January 2011 when I convinced the family that it was worth the money to fly to Paris to see David Hockney’s ipad art exhibit “Fresh Flowers.” There was skepticism at first, of course, and then tickets were booked, planes were boarded, art was admired, and everyone came home thinking “Wow! Let’s do THAT again.”

So we did. This time without planes.

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I don’t even remember when or where I read that glass artist Dale Chihuly had an exhibit in Montreal, but it happened sometime when we were in California this summer. Surfers surfed the ocean; I surfed the web, and suddenly we’re back in Canada for a weekend wandering through another museum. Because that’s what we do.

The Chihuly exhibit at Musee Beaux Arts Montreal, which is fun to say (go ahead and say it with a French accent) and even more fun to visit, has now been extended to October 27. When I booked tickets, the exhibit was scheduled to end on October 20, but people keep coming, and when you’ve got a crowd-pleaser, keep on keeping on. My husband is now well-accustomed to my art-chasing shenanigans, but he walked away really impressed by the Chihuly exhibit, and noted that I had successfully pulled off another spontaneous, art-chasing weekend in which everyone thoroughly enjoyed themselves and no one felt bad about the money we should not have been spending. Now that’s a win. Our kitchen may crumble, but, by God, our minds are enriched!

What’s so awesome about Chihuly anyway? Why does a seventy-something, frizzy-haired chunky dude wearing an eye patch and who doesn’t even really blow glass anymore still draw crowds? Chihuly is a controversial figure from Tacoma, Washington, a multimillionaire whose contributions to art are indelible, but beyond that, I don’t have an answer as to why I, and, apparently millions of other folks, find his work so mesmerizing. Maybe it’s the way he bends color and light. I feel the glass more than I see it. The Montreal exhibit features trademarked Chihuly classics: “Mille Fiori” (my favorite), “Persian Ceiling” (very trippy), and “The Boats,” (my other favorite). “Mille Fiori” or “A Thousand Flowers” was inspired by his family’s garden, but to me it felt like snorkeling through the Caribbean, finding secrets within a buried coral reef unharmed by modern life. “The Boats” gave me a similar feeling, like I was floating. Tentacled glass reaches for you, for the ceiling, for the floor. Colors twist. Light bounces. Curves of glass play hide-and-seek. Chihuly’s work is playful and serious. It’s technique and abandon. It’s jagged and smooth. I found a place to sit in these galleries, to absorb all these contrasts, and to look for a long time.

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So if you live in the Northeastern United States or Southeastern Canada, get to Montreal before October 27. The art museum is quite full on weekends, so weekdays may offer you more Chihuly to yourselves. After all that gawking and staring at masterfully-designed glass, you’ll be hungry, so read my poutine trail story for CheapOAir, and find out where to get some decent fries, gravy, and curd. Should you miss Chihuly in Montreal, he has a longer-running exhibit at the Seattle Center, where you’ll also find the iconic Space Needle and Experience Music Project. Friends keep inviting us back to Seattle, and it’s on our to-do list. We’ll also be catching Chihuly in the Southwest this winter; a new Chihuly exhibit debuts next month at the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix, Arizona, and I’m already planning on getting tickets since we’ll be in the ‘hood.

Speaking of neighborhoods, while visiting Montreal, it’s worth going a bit out of your way to stop at Point G, a cookie shop on Avenue Mont-Royal. This is off the tourist track, where buildings are shorter and streets are a mix of apartments, cafes, dry cleaners, artists’ studios, and bars. Point G, which specializes in Plaisirs Gourmands or Gourmet Pleasures, is a macaroon mecca, and as colorful as a Chihuly exhibit. Flavors come in 22 varieties, like lime-basil, orange blossom, and balsamic vinegar, in addition to traditional dessert flavors like chocolate, caramel and raspberry. All macaroons are gluten-free or “sans gluten” as they say up north. I’m eating a couple macaroons from my box of twenty as I write this. I have two left, and I know that international macaroon-chasing is just not in the cards.

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Trouble Sitting Still

Spanish royals funded Christopher Columbus’s travel. The Dutch East India Company paid for Henry Hudson to cross the Atlantic and tour North America. Centuries later, no matter who you are or where you’re going, getting from here to there still costs a lot of money, even when you navigate Internet deals or work corporate membership points systems. It’s been an expensive year here at Casa Martinez-Woznicki; a milestone birthday trip to Japan, my husband traveling to a few national conferences this year to promote his debut science fiction novel The Daedalus Incident, some quiet time in the Adirondacks and Vermont, our annual summer schlepping around California, which we always love, and this Thursday, we return to Montreal, because, well, I’m chasing art exhibits again, like I did when we jumped the Atlantic to see David Hockney’s art in Paris.

(Here I am heading to London on Christmas Day, 2009; again…just can’t sit still.)

This time, I’m chasing Dale Chihuly’s Utterly Breathtaking exhibit hosted by America’s most trusted trading partner, Canada. I had wanted to return to Seattle to see Chihuly’s Garden and Glass pieces and catch up with some friends. Then, I learned a similar exhibit in Montreal was ending next month, and click, click, click, tickets were purchased, hotel reservations were made, and everyone is now figuring out what they want to put on their poutine next weekend. We’re excited. What would make it even more exciting is if someone else would pay for it, but I’m no Columbus or Hudson, and this blog doesn’t get the kind of traffic that excites tour companies (not yet anyway…gotta think positively!), so our jaunts come from our own pockets. All of them. Visiting Montreal twice in one year, you ask? Sure, it’s expensive, unnecessary, not entirely prudent. I completely agree with you. Mike and I have already designated 2014 as “The Year of Austerity” which will involve some discipline when it comes to making travel plans. But like any diet, you already scheme of ways to cheat.

I don’t seek to be a nomad, ditch the shackles of modern Western life and travel the world. There are some places that don’t interest me, and I like having our nest and enjoy the freedom to visit other nests. But austerity and exploration don’t go hand-in-hand. I was recently interviewed by Anna Pratt from The Society for Professional Journalists for its freelancers’ blog The Independent Journalist, where I state that travel isn’t about distance but about having a sense of exploration. Sounds inspiring, right? What I didn’t say is that the costs of short trips add up quickly, and sometimes taking one long, far trip can be easier to track. Montreal is an example of one of these three-day weekend excursions that are intended to cost less than they actually do.

How does one stick to a travel diet (which is really a money diet) while writing about travel and occasionally giving in to that urge to explore? I don’t have the patience for outsmarting online airline sales or digging for bargains or working reward programs to score the best deal. Plus I’m not good at it. I like going, doing, and writing. What seems to help is reliving my own trips for CheapOAir; this week I wrote about eating in Tokyo, cafe culture in Toronto, and recently blogged about leaf-peeping in Vermont. Upcoming writing assignments for CheapOAir include spas, haunted Savannah, and more coverage of my favorite West Coast cities, Los Angeles and Vancouver.

Reliving vicariously through myself will get old and I hate sitting still. We’d have a beautiful new kitchen by now if I could sit still. Yesterday, we bought a Honda CRV after our beat up 2002 Honda Accord decided it was time to leave this world (car payments are another reason for a needed “Year of Austerity”). So maybe there’s more road tripping in our CRV and less time in the clouds in 2014. Plane or car, tickets or gas will come from our wallets, so I better get cracking on the work that pays the bills.

Hanging With 1,300 Bloggers in Toronto

Five years after launching, TBEX, an international conference for travel bloggers and peddlers of tourism, sells out its sponsorship. That tells you (and me) quite a bit. Everyone seems to want to ditch it all and Instagram their global adventures. The 2012 conference in Colorado attracted almost 800 people. This year, more than 1,300 attendees descended into Toronto with big dreams, tight budgets and cell phones hot from incessant tweeting.

The beehive that was TBEX made for an interesting three days, and I hope the million buzzing conversations happening at once yield lasting relationships, which mean more to me than compensated press trips. Yes, I want to see the world, but I’ve been doing it on my own dime so far, an approach that’s gotten me into some pretty big publications. I’ll keep doing what I’m doing, try some new things along the way, see where that goes and if someone wants to fund that, well, super.

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Meanwhile, Toronto. I’m not a party blogger, I’m a travel blogger so I skipped sponsored convention parties and wandered the city with Mike and Anna because that’s what we do and we’ve developed a rhythm with our sojourns. We stayed at the Westin Harbour Castle, a curvy hotel on the waterfront that is lovely on the inside and surrounded by construction work on the outside. In fact, much of Toronto is under construction, as the city enjoys an influx of immigrants and Canadians seeking opportunity. More than 51 percent of Toronto residents aren’t even from Canada. Luxury condo complexes are sprouting up like beach umbrellas. And even in early June, with Lake Ontario’s temperatures just hitting a nippy 60 degrees, there are real beach umbrellas to sit under at a place known as Toronto’s HTO Park.

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Like a Jean-Claude and Christo exhibit, the HTO Park uses the sunny appeal of large objects to draw in passersby. Cities are innately gray, filled with steel, glass and concrete; a yellow umbrella against a cerulean blue lake pops. Before 2007, this space, like so many stretches of waterfront, was polluted by aggressive industry. It was re-imagined as a green space for urban dwellers, a soft, sandy oasis amid all the hard steel, glass, and concrete. The umbrellas are plastic and permanently installed so strong winds off Lake Ontario won’t suddenly turn an umbrella into a torpedo. Sit under these umbrellas that are the color of fresh lemon peel, have your back to the city, and watch the lake sparkle. Anna built a sand castle. I sat and daydreamed. HTO Park is one of the few city parks I have visited in this world where I felt a genuine re-connection with nature, and it wasn’t just because I had sand between my toes. For about ten, fifteen minutes, I forgot we were in Canada’s largest metropolis of more than two million people. Usually in cities, you have to cocoon in a shoebox of an apartment or a hotel room to feel privacy. In Toronto, hang out alone on a city beach on a Monday morning. It’s better than being the first customer at your favorite Starbucks.

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The Distillery District was another favorite Toronto discovery. This wasn’t my first trip to Toronto; I had visited in 1992 and 1995, though it was probably a different city 20 years ago, and my visits came before the rebirth of the Distillery District as a hipster hangout and the city’s only pedestrian village. It was early Sunday evening and shops were starting to close as we arrived, though I managed to score a lovely necklace hand made by someone in Poland, which resonated with me, because, well, take a look at my last name. We ate sweet potato fries and Mike sampled beer at Mill Street Brew Pub, but the real highlight for us was Balzac’s cafe, a coffee chain that feels anything but. To quote Andrew Weir, the vice president of communications for Tourism Toronto, Balzac’s is a local favorite, “a time warp but with a modern espresso machine.” If I lived in Toronto, this would be my home office. It’s a two-story, 1895 harbor front pump house renovated into a funky Parisian-style cafe now pumping coffee. A diaphanous chandelier looms over guests on the first floor, whereas on the second floor, a sofa the color of tiger lilies faces the CN Tower, a landmark that appears to be visible from every vantage point in the city. Balzac’s is where you bring a good book or have a meaningful conversation or think the kinds of thoughts that will set you on a new course in life. And that’s just as awesome if not better than being the first customer at your favorite Starbucks.

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Outside Balzac’s sits an old pickup truck. This is how I picture our retirement in Vermont.

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A closed shop in the Distillery District, which is good, because I might have impulsively purchased a funky purse I don’t need. But I would’ve been funky.

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Of course, you have to do the CN Tower when visiting Toronto. It’s 114 stories, one of the tallest, pointiest skyscrapers tickling the clouds, and there’s a view of Lake Ontario that on a clear day makes the $35 admission ticket more than worth it. During our last night in Toronto, we enjoyed an eerily beautiful sunset.

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Toronto’s restaurant scene rivals New York’s or London’s or Tokyo’s. You can find fresh innovative anything anywhere. Our most innovative foodie experience happened during our first night at Susur Lee’s restaurant on King Street. I don’t want to spoil it. Just go. Anything you order will be amazing. The menu is here. A native of Hong Kong, Chef Lee has been named one of the top 50 chefs in the world. We get why. Oh, and they sprinkle edible flowers on your drinks and some of the waiters have sexy accents. Make reservations.

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While I attended convention sessions about marketing, blogging, and marketing your blog, Mike and Anna spent a day at the world renowned Toronto Zoo to see white lions, snoozing polar bears and the latest additions, pandas. Giant pandas on loan from China just began their 10-year stay in Canada last month. People are excited and lines are long. I had to wonder if Anna’s generation would be the last to see pandas for there are only 1,600 left in the world and two of them are hanging out in Toronto. I remember the white lions from my 1995 visit to the zoo, and apparently the year before was when the last white lion was seen in the wild. So many of these rare animals now live in faux habitats in captivity, under intense preservation efforts, and while that initially feels sad, it also makes me feel hopeful that perhaps their numbers will turn around, and we can correct our wasteful ways…maybe even restore a little more green balance back to our planet. Getting off my conservation soapbox, the zoo was so fantastic that my daughter won’t cut off her admission wristband, and that’s never happened.




And finally, Niagara Falls, nature’s ultimate shower about an hour outside Toronto. Perhaps the best time to visit the falls is the day you check out of your hotel, for if you’re in a rush and didn’t have time for a morning shower, a ride on the Maid of the Mist (on the US side) will remedy that. Adults cost $15.50 USD and kids are $9. You get a half-hour ride around the falls, plenty of OMG photo opportunities, and a blue plastic poncho, which you will most certainly need. “Mist” is an understatement; you will get hosed.

The area is a bit over-developed with gaudy commercialism, but the park is pretty and the falls are riveting. Maid of the Mist tours have been running since 1846, and Niagara Falls is America’s oldest state park, protected by a small group of environmentalists who in the 1860s, on the tail of the Industrial Revolution, had the foresight to challenge economic leeching along Niagara Falls. The falls, the zoo, Toronto’s city parks all gave me a feeling of hope, that caring about our natural resources isn’t just something that’s trending, but is intrinsic and hopefully timeless. TBEX brought me to Toronto and I learned a great deal, but I would say I learned just as much outside the convention center as I did inside.

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Get Sappy

Maple syrup making is a sticky business (that’s right…I went there). Just ask my neighbors to the north where there was an $18 million maple syrup heist–about 3,000 tons worth–in Quebec resulting in several arrests. Maple syrup cartels? Yeah, we got some of those here in our cold corner of the world. Maple syrup tourism is also big business, attracting outdoorsy types and city slickers interested in how the stillness of maple trees yields so much golden revenue or wanting to try new culinary dishes in which a splash or two of maple syrup complements or draws out the flavor of an entree.


Maple syrup is indigenous to North America, so for visitors coming to United States for the very first time, perhaps skip burgers and hot dogs and treat yourself to a true taste of the land. We’ve got plenty. My favorite state in the union, Vermont, is the biggest producer of maple syrup with 75,000 acres of Vermont forests churning out more than $32 million worth of maple syrup. Not surprisingly, it shares a border with Canada’s biggest maple syrup producer, Quebec province, which pumps from its trees between 70 and 80 percent of the world’s maple syrup. Thus, the maple leaf on the nation’s flag.

Peak maple syrup season is happening now, when days get warmer but nights are still cold–that’s when the sap starts to rise inside the trees. Taps start tapping when maple trees reach a certain level of maturity, around 30 to 40 years. This is a great time to savor nature’s bounty, an act usually reserved for fall. Tour the sugar shacks or “cabane a sucre” in Quebec or book a weekend at a cozy inn in Vermont and enjoy homemade pancakes with fresh syrup or maple syrup fondue with fruit (one of my favorites). Anyone who reads this blog knows I could go on and on about Vermont and Quebec. I also gush about Vermont and Quebec for CheapOAir. That’s because both regions are beautiful and the food is sublime. One of my favorite places for maple fondue is Le Petit Chateau, a small restaurant next to the giant hotel Le Chateau Frontenac, an extremely classy place worth putting on the credit card. Here I am in downtown Quebec enjoying Le Petit Chateau’s maple fondue paired with a flute of hard apple cider. Both went down easily.


Talking about maple syrup has me thinking it’s time to book a weekend at a favorite Vermont hotel, TopNotch Resort and Spa or maybe we’ll return to Basin Harbor Club where we got married. I’ll let you know where we land.