Tag Archives: Canada

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.

The 40-Year-Old Montreal Virgin

It’s amazing, yet true, that I grew up near the Canadian border, have traveled extensively, am about to turn 40, and just made my first trip to Montreal this year. And it was worth the wait because there’s a chemistry there, and I’m going back for more.

Like Paris, what sparked the trip to Montreal was an art exhibit, the Clark family Impressionism collection making its one and only stop to Canada at the Musee des Beaux-Arts de Montreal. The exhibit was closing January 20 and we were there January 19, along with hundreds of other Impressionism fans. After a half hour of rubbing shoulders with people speaking every language under the sun, vying for a spot in front of Degas’s sculpture “Little Dancer Aged Fourteen” and the 74 Monets, Manets, Pissaros and other Impressionism superstar paintings, we gave up and headed downstairs to the modern art world, which was fun, quiet, and delightfully on the whimsical and saucy side, with Italian artists making polyfoam beds that look like nests, and murals with eyes watching you walk by, as shown here:


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Art Museum

Montreal on the outside, despite Arctic temperatures, was just as hot and saucy as Montreal museums on the inside. Stately churches share curb space with glass towers. True, you don’t see street vendors here in the middle of January, but step inside any bistro, restaurant or cafe, and there are plenty of hot treats to be had, from fondue and grilled salmon to poutine and spicy wings. On a Friday night, PoutineVille in downtown was packed, with diners filling out menus cards like sushi orders as they customized their toppings for their plates of poutine. We had such a great time there, Mike was inspired to make poutine for Superbowl Sunday. Everyone has written about the Montreal food scene, which rivals Paris and New York. I don’t have anything insightful to add to the din except as I said above, I’m going back for more. More macaroons, more poutine, more salmon, more fondue…more of all of it.

Montreal Bagels

Delicious, fresh everything is found at Jean Talon Marche, where we bought some of our groceries for the week before heading home. We bought a pint of the strawberries shown here and they were gone in two days. Going back for more of those, too.

Jean Talon Marche

Also like Paris and New York, Montreal is a city best enjoyed on foot, whether you’re above ground braving the subzero cold or below in underground metro tunnels where city residents flowed like streams. We bundled up and walked around Vieux Montreal, enjoying cupcakes (because that’s just what we do no matter where we go), absorbing the silence and grace of Notre Dame (much needed after some parenting drama along the way), and window shopping (with some actual shopping mixed in).

Outside Notre Dame in Vieux Montreal…
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Inside Notre Dame, reminiscent of a Faberge egg…

Window shopping, literally…

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Macaroons are available everywhere in Montreal and are so popular, someone turned them into miniature jewelry boxes.


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Downtown Montreal

Aside from hearing nonstop French, which is the sexiest language on the planet no matter who is speaking it (like those Montreal cops walking by), one of the most interesting cultural experiences was seeing ads for travel to Cuba, obviously not something you see in the United States. Caribbean beaches beckon during Canadian winters, and this mural in the Bonaventure subway station immediately caught my eye for both its bright orange hues as well as its positive positioning of Cuba. When we visited Cuba in 2003, there were many Canadians in Havana and at the beach resort. I’m envious of Canada’s relationship with Cuba, but here’s hoping things will change.

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Montreal metro stations were immaculate. I may be partial to New York City’s bagels, but Montreal’s underground mass transit system was spotless, not scary, not filled with people wanting to mug me, and sometimes even felt like an art gallery with its many murals and mosaics. When I saw this one, I took it as a prelude to our upcoming trip to Japan.


And finally, what made Montreal the best first date vacation I had ever had–the outdoor rooftop swimming pool at the Hilton Montreal Bonaventure in downtown. I don’t even recall how I stumbled upon this place except that it was through some random Googling, but thank goodness I did because I’m never letting go. Swimming in the snow is as meditative as it sounds. The pool is heated at 87 degrees and you enter the pool through an indoor annex so from the neck down, you are never exposed to the frigid air while wearing your bathing suit. Surrounded by snow and steam, this pool was enjoyed around-the-clock during our weekend, from parents tossing kids in the water (and into the freezing air…I didn’t get that) to older folks getting some laps in before dinner. This pool was the perfect way to loosen up and burn off some poutine, and felt fantastic after a day of sightseeing. Paddling through warm water while looking up at the stars, the half-moon sky and snowflakes hitting your nose felt dreamy and surreal, like a Dali painting. Montreal is now our family’s East Coast Los Angeles, a city we will visit again and again and again, exploring different neighborhoods and searching for new experiences while staying at the same place every time. Montreal is a city for the senses, even in winter when streets are muffled by snow. I need to see Montreal when the sun is hot, when the leaves turn orange, when the daffodils are saying hello. Time to book our next visit there because I’m in love.

The pool during the day…

The pool at night…
Hilton Pool


During my four days in Quebec, I’ve consumed the following: duck, cow, pig, chicken, wapiti, chocolate, cheese, spinach-mushroom crepes, brie with mushrooms, more cheese, maple fondue, baked beans, French onion soup almost every day, Quebecois tortiere, salmon torte (twice), poutine (which means more cheese), McDonald’s (yes, once), macaroons, carrot cake, a handful of strawberries, one dreadfully messy croissant, wine, coffee, hot cocoa and the most expensive glass of orange juice ever to touch my lips.

One of my favorite entrees came from Le Cochon Dingue where I enjoyed fries smothered in very silky, rich gravy, topped with cheese curd and duck confit. Here’s a sexy closeup of tonight’s dinner, which was washed down with real hot cocoa and some carrot cake.

I already mentioned Aux Anciens Canadiens in an earlier blog entry, which is a great way to experience traditional Canadian cuisine–meals that reflect both English and French influences. Here’s Mike wondering whether to order something that flies or something that roams. Both ended up on his plate.

A fantastic spot for lunch is Casse Crepe Breton where the crepes are poured, flipped, and folded right before your eyes. For about $8 you can choose from a variety of ingredients such as spinach, mushrooms, ham, and egg (I’m forgetting the others) and customize your crepe. For an additional $1.50 (all dollar references here are to the Canadian dollar, which is doing slightly better than the American dollar at the moment) you can get a delicious side salad. Another $3.75 gets you a bowl of hot chocolate, which immediately reminded me of being back in Paris where drinking from a bowl feels very cool.

For those with a sweet tooth, there are countless opportunities to spike your blood sugar. Quebec’s dinner entrees often reminded me of dining in Britain’s pubs–meats stuffed in pastries and pie shells. Quebec’s passion for sweets is where I tasted France’s influence. Near Casse Crepe Breton is the “Chocolate Museum” where the air is filled with the sweet smell of freshly ground cocoa. There’s no admission to this museum; it’s two rooms. One is dedicated to the history of chocolate and the adjoining room is dedicated to being a part of that history. Go back and forth between the two and read about chocolate while eating chocolate. Here, Anna admires the chocolate sculptures.

Several blocks away up and down steep sidewalked hills (this is how french-fry loving Quebecers keep their slim figures) is le Quartier Petit Champlain, a cobblestone street of 18th century buildings lined with shops selling painted glass, souvenir T-shirts, First Nation art and memorabilia, tchotckes, jewelry, beaver skins, and handpainted silk scarves. Madame Gigi’s Confiserie is on this street, where plates of rainbow macaroons decorate the windows. I admit the colors of these macaroons were startling at first, but don’t let an extravagant neon green cookie deter you. They come in fabulous flavors like pina colada and taste just as sinful. A delicious place for a bite and a break.

Sampling one of Madame Gigi’s chocolate macaroons before getting back on the bike:

And if chocolate and pina colada macaroons fail to quell your hunger, there are less ostentatious cookies. Many are maple flavored, but Anna received some sugar dusted cookies shaped like le laupin (the hare) and le cochon (the pig). Apologies for the suggestive positioning of the cookies…they came that way.

If you’re interested, during a museum tour today about the Huron-Wendat people, I received a brochure with some recipes, including a recipe for wapiti tartare. I’m not a big meat eater, but First Nation cuisine sounds interesting. I’m stuffed now, but maybe something to try at home? Or we just find another way to make a trip up north to Wendake, which is a half hour drive north of Quebec, and see what’s cooking.

Oh, Canada!

Colonialism’s footprints run along the walls of Quebec. The streets look like Paris, yet the shops sell dream catchers, moccasins and hats made of beaver skin. The people speak French, yet vestiges of Inuit and Algonquin words linger; the city’s name “kebec” means in Algonquin “where the river narrows,” referring to where the icy serpentine that is the Saint Lawrence River narrows at a cliff where our hotel, Chateau Frontenac, stands watch and waits for guests to arrive. Designed by American architect Bruce Price, Chateau Frontenac was built to entice luxury travelers riding the Canadian Pacific Railway. More than 100 years later, it’s filled with families enjoying a break from the routine, not to mention a lovely sixth floor swimming pool that offers great views of the city skyline and of the Laurentian Mountains.

I have visited Vancouver and Toronto several times each, but never Quebec City, where this week I am enjoying maple fondue, waipiti, and poutine. I’m managing to still fit into my jeans by swimming every morning, biking along the St. Lawrence, and walking all over old Quebec, including around Quartier Petit Champlain. This neighborhood is very close to Chateau Frontenac and offers the contrasts of the Old and New Worlds. Several artists keep their shops here, but I’ll blog more Quebec’s amazing art scene later.

During our stay, we’re sampling Quebecois cuisine, and have learned “le petit dejeuner” is not at all petit: beans, toast, eggs, sausage, and pork pie. You won’t feel hungry for lunch until about 3 pm. The dinners aren’t petit either. Our menu last night at Aux Anciens Canadiens looked more like a guide to a zoo, but it was actually quite helpful since I thought “waipiti” sounded more like a colorful, tropical bird than a large, hairy cousin to the elk and moose. Since 1675, Aux Anciens Canadiens has been serving gourmet game and spirits to travelers seeking to escape the chill off the river. Come hungry and eat slowly by the fireplace.

Time to digest, from all that I’ve eaten to all that I’ve seen these last few days. More to come from this rich and fascinating city…bonsoir et a demain!