Travelling to big cities is exciting for various reasons, but one of the things we look forward to the most is trying out new restaurants and new combinations of food. Montreal and Quebec City did not disappoint, and we were taken on a bit of a tour gastronomique of this great Francophone province.
Now perhaps my title is a bit of a stereotype or misnomer, but it is quite standard as a guest at someone’s home to nibble on baguette and to sample some of the unique, wonderful cheeses that Quebec has to offer. They have hundreds of varieties, but in Ontario, we are only exposed to a small percentage, which is a true shame! Quebec residents, monks, and cheese-makers alike have been making award-winning cheeses as far back as the 17th century. A well-recognized favourite, Oka, was established in Quebec in 1892, and used a special process of aging the cheese on cypress wood from the southern United States. It has since been sold to a commercial cheese company. One of my personal favourites is a Perron cheese, an aged cheddar infused with a 10-year port, made in Saint-Prime. I managed to bring some home, but I can’t imagine it will last long. From blue cheese to camembert, from goat cheese to sharp cheddars, Quebec is the place for cheese.
And it is also the place for restaurants. Our first night in Montreal, we dined at the trendy La Bottega in Little Italy. It boasts a true wood-fired oven, imported directly from Italy, and the mouth-watering thin crust pizzas are a testament to what a difference authentic Italian makes. We ordered a few different pizzas to share between four people, and were impressed with the more complex flavour of the rapini and sausage pizza. But we were also pleasantly surprised with the simple delicacy of a plain tomato pizza with buffalo mozzarella. The sauce has a sweetness to it, complimented by fresh basil, and the thin crust just melts in your mouth. I will definitely make the effort to go back for this! Also, don’t miss the lamb ‘popsicle’ appetizers – they are tender and to die for.
Montreal has been known for its wicked breakfast places, and Les Enfants Terribles in Outremont (1257 avenue Bernard) certainly lives up to this reputation. Its wood décor, supplemented by whites and blacks, is somewhere between trendy bar and modern cottage, making it a comfortable place to spend a few hours on a Sunday morning. We opted for the café au lait in a bowl, the best and only way to have it in Quebec; it is so delicious you don’t even need to add sugar. My eggs Benedict, always a tough one in restaurants, were perfectly runny, and the Hollandaise sauce was light, but full of rich flavours. The service was friendly and professional, and I would highly recommend this family-friendly place to anyone who visits Montreal.
Another memorable experience was our last night in Quebec City, dining at Panache restaurant in the old town. It is part of the Auberge Saint-Antoine, a small but very fancy hotel in the lower town, closer to the St. Lawrence River. We reserved online at OpenTable.com, which listed the restaurant as expensive, at three dollar signs, but not the top four (this was a little misleading, but I think the Quebec City tourist area is overall more expensive than Montreal). It had great reviews on sites like Trip Advisor, and often appeared in top ten lists for the city. We were excited and glad to avoid walking around aimlessly trying to find a place to eat, as you often do when travelling to new places. We even dressed ‘fancy’, or fancier than we had been for the rest of the trip. And I am glad we did! When we arrived, the average age was about 40, and most of the men were wearing full suits.
The place was beautiful – exposed wood beams cascading across and above grey stone walls, it was once a 19th century marine warehouse, now turned exclusive (and a little stuffy!) restaurant. But maybe this atmosphere is warranted; the food was delectable and different from our other meals in Quebec, and the overall service was good. We dined on scallops, guinea hen, and various complementary amuse-bouches brought to the table, all with delicious savoury high notes, such as the asparagus and poached egg appetizer, served in a shallow bowl surrounded by a sort of parmesan ‘mousse’. In the end, I would recommend this place, just be prepared to dress as though you’re going to a wedding, and maybe save it for a special occasion.
So if you’re looking for your own ‘tour gastronomique’ in our great country, look no further than la belle province; whether you’re dining in on fine cheeses and wine, or going out for a romantic night on the town, Montreal and Quebec City have much to offer.
Click on the link for more information on the history of Quebec cheese.
For this year’s March Break, we decided to travel to Montreal and Quebec City. Road trips are always more affordable and often more convenient than air travel, and we were travelling on a budget this time around. In this vein, we booked our accommodation through a website called Hotwire.com. The concept of the website, which I am still having trouble comprehending, is to have people book their hotel rooms, and other travel necessities, without actually knowing the name of the hotel you are booking (in essence, this is similar to the Priceline website). You pick your area, for example downtown Montreal, and then a list of hotels appears, with their star ratings and hotel amenities.
For the Montreal hotel portion, we were happy to find that our blind booking led to a stay at Le Sheraton on Rene-Levesque, which is within walking distance of the downtown shopping and restaurants. When we arrived at the hotel, we were impressed by the lobby and the atmosphere – it was very stylish, and had a business-like, professional tone (it was a Monday after all). The hotel bar, just to the left of the hotel entrance, looked recently refurbished, and was all modern, dark lines, with lots of glass to let in the streams of sunlight. The room itself was also nicely appointed, with a large flat screen TV, and a panel for all of your audio-visual hook-ups and needs. Overall, for just over $100, we were happily situated, comfortable, and were in for no unpleasant surprises.
However, moving onwards to the hotel in Quebec City, also organized through the Hotwire website, there were many unexpected things that made our stay less enjoyable than Le Sheraton. We were originally pleased by the look of the hotel Loews Concord on the web, as it appeared modern and unique with its rotating restaurant affording breathtaking views of the city. Indeed, the location is hard to beat; it is only a 10 minute walk to the Saint-Jean gate of the old city, and it is flanked on one side by the Plains of Abraham, a great place to take a stroll even in winter.
But, and it is a BIG but, especially for a high school teacher, the Loews Concord is not the place to stay over March Break if you are looking for a romantic, quiet getaway in Quebec City. From the minute we arrived until the morning we left, 48 hours later, our experience was punctuated by rowdy, mostly drunk high school students lingering around the hotel lobby and riding the elevators by the dozens. For sake of brevity, and I hope to make you laugh, here are the top 5 reasons not to stay in the more popular areas of Quebec over March Break:
5. You will get onto the elevator in the hotel lobby of a 28-floor hotel, and find that EVERY single floor button has been pressed.
4. You will find yourself wondering if you are in Mexico or Cuba, as the girls will try to pass 4-inches of material as skirts or shorts, even though it is March in Quebec City.
3. You will have to translate conversations at the bar for drunk, English 16-year-olds wearing green headbands, since March Break inevitably always falls on St. Patrick’s Day.
2. You will have to deal with the following things on the elevator: exclamations of “dude” and “oh my god!”; holding your breath as hordes of drunk teenagers sweat out alcohol; hearing complaints of teens with painful new tattoos; waiting patiently as they go in and out of the elevator, usually up or down one floor.
1. You will go to the ice machine room, the only one in the hotel, and get almost knocked out by the smell of ammonia, because someone has just peed in there.
Despite all this, we did find some solace in our room, and the view from there is one of the best in the country, no doubt (see photo). I also imagine that eating in the restaurant, with a 360° view of the city would be memorable and romantic, and likely far out of range of the teenager budget. And of course, Quebec city, especially the old town and rue Cartier, are both charming, rich in culture and history, and of course delicious food, so this is not meant to put you off going to visit; it is only to remind you to pick your time of year wisely!
Someone asked me recently to describe my perfect day. This is a tough question to answer, not only for all the philosophical arguments against a ‘perfect’ ideal, but also because there have been many times in my life where, philosophers aside, I have had a perfect day. Like many other people, my best days usually involve being surrounded by family and friends, and often involve either a memorable occasion or traveling.
A few years ago, I had the opportunity to travel to one of the most remote places in North America: Alaska. When people think of Alaska, a few things immediately pop to mind. Cold. Dark. Cruise ships. These are all true of the majority of Alaskan travel; however, we decided to rough it on our own, opting instead for a car rental and a map.
We were a minority in many other respects too. First, most people who travel to Alaska are American, or come from distant places like Israel. We did not meet any other Canadian travelers while we were there. This is a shame, since Canadians are connected with both the people and places in Alaska in so many ways. Much like Canadians, Alaskans pride themselves on a friendly and laid-back attitude; they lead rich lives filled with culture and good storytelling, and hold a deep respect for the natural environment. Not only this, we were also the youngest traveling couple by several years, often decades, which is surprising in a state that is so active, and affords an endless array of outdoor pursuits.
In fact, in the coastal town of Seward (2.5 hours south of Anchorage), only 10% of tourists choose the all-day sea-kayaking adventure amidst the glaciers of the Kenai Fjords National Park. It is a rigorous experience, with a 5 a.m. wake-up call and 8 p.m. return, but the grand views and untouched wildlife are what make this day one of my top ten perfect days of all time.
Seward is a fishing town on the south coast of Alaska, with much charm in its history, and many fascinating natural wonders to behold nearby. We stayed on Lowell Point on Resurrection Bay, a small hamlet of vacation homes, B & Bs and campsites, surrounded by calm, dark blue water, and mountains upon mountains still covered with snow in August.
Although it is still part of Seward, Lowell Point has a very unique style and comfort; it is set apart by a dirt road pocked with potholes, that careens dangerously between cliff side and bayside, where fishermen (and women) are perched for the day’s catch (usually Halibut). Fishing derbies are common in the area, and fishing charters leave regularly from both Seward proper and Lowell Point.
We stayed in a B & B called Angel’s Rest, decorated in a style reminiscent of the coziest Canadian cottages. It is a place so popular the owners had to build more accommodation across the street from their original three cottages on the water. Luckily, we did most of the planning for our summer trip in the winter months. You can imagine that when you plan for a place like Alaska, which boasts a population barely over 50, 000 in its biggest city, the best places fill up quickly.
Our tour was organized by a place called Miller’s Landing, a place that offers fishing and other boating tours. It is a mid-sized cabin surrounded by fishnets and buoys in bright oranges and blues, and exudes an atmosphere of humility and well-being. Inside you will find the friendly faces of the Miller’s Landing staff, who offer warmth not only in their demeanour, but also in their offer of free coffee and tea to fend off the chill of the Alaskan waterfront. There is also an immense wood-burning stove crackling brilliant flames, where tourists hover around, warming their backsides.
Alaska is known as the land of eternal daylight in the summer; however, this did not always translate into eternal sunshine. After many overcast days full of clouds, rain and even snow in Denali National Park, we awoke to clear skies and sunshine on the day of our sea-kayaking trip. We packed on the layers, Alaska is the place for ever-changing weather, packed our dry bag full of snacks and extra clothing (toque, mitts and rain pants included), and headed off to Miller’s Landing to meet our guide for the day, who was young, down-to-earth and knowledgeable.
The Kenai Fjords National Park can only be accessed by boat, since the park is teaming with glaciers that stream off the Harding Icefield. Our destination within the park was Aialik Bay; our mode of transportation: fishing boat! It was a chilly 3 hour ride, but Captain Joe was brimming with energy and personal stories. Most people who live in Alaska have a story to tell – many of them are from “the outside” (anyone outside the state of Alaska) and travel to the northern state to work and live for the summer months.
We found that these wanderers venture north for a variety of reasons, but the common denominator is that they come to Alaska for the natural environment and its wildlife. Captain Joe was no exception, and took his time to stop and enjoy the myriad wildlife along the way. Sea lions lounged lazily on the rocks; sea otters went belly up as they relaxed in the ocean; puffins floated along silently; and porpoises jumped playfully in the wake of the boat. And all the while the lesson was clear – do not disturb the wildlife or their natural environment. Alaskans do their best to preserve the precious and rare species that flourish north of 60 degrees.
We got dropped off on a stony beach, our yellow and blue kayaks glistening in the mid-morning sun. Our progress to Aialik Glacier was quick and the waters calm, our anticipation growing stronger as we heard the thunderous roar of the calving glaciers (as the glacier melts, huge chunks of ice fall off into the water, mimicking the sound of thunder). This spectacle is one of the great wonders of the world; a massive ice mountain carved over hundreds of thousands of years, turquoise blue rivers seemingly dancing on its surface.
Our next destination was Pederson Glacier, a two-hour paddle from the tip of Aialik Bay. On the way, we stopped along a cliff side to admire the many puffins, flying back and forth across the channel, and learned that these birds can barely fly! (They either need to ride a wave, or take-off from an elevated landing, in order to get enough momentum to soar into the air). We also discovered that sea kayaking in the fjords, and indeed traveling in Alaska in general, is a practice in the art of silence. You take in nature quietly, appreciating its beauty, holding your breath without realizing it. And then there’s the wildlife. In order to get a true sense of who these animals are in their natural environment, we must creep along slowly and without sound, our eyes and imaginations quietly active.
When we arrived at Pederson Glacier in the afternoon, we had to paddle through colossal chunks of ice, small islands in themselves, which create a mind-boggling maze of dead ends as you try to reach the glacier. We were left to view the glacier from afar, but the water was so crystal clear and calm that the whole inlet – dark mountains, green hills, snow, ice – was reflected as a mirror-image. Most of the time, we floated along silently, as the melting ice floes ‘plipped’ and ‘plopped’, making ringlets in the glassy water.
By the end of the day we were a little sun burnt and very much exhausted by the exhilaration that comes with spending an unforgettable day in the pure outdoors. We felt both satiated and calm. Even if you are not an extreme athlete, I encourage you to try an off-the-beaten path trip such as this one, because it will truly be an unforgettable one.
Sea-kayaking in the Kenai Fjords is not the only Alaskan travel experience that makes it onto my list of ‘perfect’ days. There are so many other wonderful outdoor pursuits for those who thrive on being active while they travel: camping and hiking in Denali National Park; biking the many trails in Anchorage; canoeing and portaging through the Swan Lake Canoe Route; the list is infinite and can be made to suit whatever you believe to be your perfect getaway. Now, when you think of Alaska, I hope you are inspired by some other words that come to mind: adventurous, untouched, rejuvenating.
For various reasons, no one can rightly argue that the Vancouver 2010 Olympics were anything less than fantastic. We truly “owned the podium” in our success with the gold medal count, and proved to the international community that our athletes are a force to be reckoned with. Much of this has to do with the government finally realizing the positive potential of financially backing our athletes, a process that has been a long time coming, and one that will continue, as recently announced in the new federal budget.
The combination of home location, and the performance of Canadian athletes, led to an outburst of red and white in the streets of Vancouver, and across the country. People were vying for the signature red mitts, scouring the Bay and Zellers to see what they could get. There were stories of places being sold out, or having sent any remaining inventory to the west coast, where Olympic fever reached its pitch. The media commented on the unlikelihood of witnessing this patriotism on any other occasion than the first of July, and how it was a refreshing sight to see.
And yet, in the afterglow of a hugely successful Olympics, we are left to wonder – how long will this Canadian patriotism last? Will those hoodies, toques, and mitts be abandoned to the dark corners of closets and drawers, only to be taken out for our national birthday? Or will we proudly sport our Canadiana no matter what time of year it is? Will our colours come out of the wood work for the 2012 Olympics in London? Most of us know the advantages of wearing a Canadian flag overseas, but what about the advantages of wearing it here?
Some people believe that this Olympics has forged a new identity for Canadians. It reiterated a few old, but great stereotypes – that we are the best nation when it comes to hockey, for example – and reignited a passion for a community connected by its successes and by its challenges. So how will we continue to show our connectness in the days, months, and years to come?
This is not to say that our patriotism must be worn on our sleeves; there are so many other things that make us Canadian, besides a pair of red mitts with a white maple leaf. We signify good citizenship, peacemaking, and a respect for other cultures, just to name a few. But these things all start somewhere and perhaps for now, as small or insignificant as it may seem, that somewhere is a smile shared by strangers who pass each other on the street, wearing the red and white.
Any girl who’s fashion conscious in Canada knows the clothing store Aritzia. It is one of Canada’s rareties; a name brand born and bred in Vancouver, it has found success across the country, and in the U.S., amidst so many American companies that seem to dominate our fashion landscape.
Although Aritzia was established in 1984, their signature hoodies didn’t find their way into east coast drawers until the 2000s. However, once the word spread, their TNA sweats and over-the-shoulder bags could be seen on teens and adults alike in the GTA, quickly blurring the age line between the two groups. Their various clothing lines are trendy, and they look great on a runway, but at $110 for a printed hoodie, is it worth it?
First off, their sweats are certainly comfortable and stylish; these are a far cry from our childhood Cotton Ginny. But avoid purchasing these in black, or washing them on a regular basis. Their colour fades after a few washes, and I’ve even had a pair of sweatpants rip at the seam after a few months and little wear. This is something I might expect from a lower quality, less expensive store, but not Aritzia.
And then there’s practicality. I purchased a winter coat from Aritzia last holiday season, and wanted to find just the right jacket to suit my style and my need for warmth. Indeed, the jacket is warm, and I picked it because of its interesting details – the buttons are magnetized, the pockets are top facing and have outside zippers. I didn’t want the “typical” Aritzia jacket because I was hoping to be slightly different than anyone else. Despite this caveat, it was obviously popular – it was the last one of its type in a few different Aritzia stores.
Yet, each time I wore it, the jacket revealed something newly awkward to me. Sure, the magnets seem like a great idea, but try grocery shopping, or going to the ladies’ room, or standing too close to the doors in your office building. I often get stuck to the grocery counter when bagging my food, and struggle to grab my jacket as it clings to the bathroom door. I feel like it’s a tug-of-war to leave work sometimes. Plus, the pockets are too high so you’re basically doing the chicken dance to warm up your hands, and even if you do manage to get them in there, you’ll scratch your already chapped winter fingers on the outside zippers.
All these ‘interesting’ details – what a sham! And because of their no return policy on sale items, I couldn’t return it. The worst is when they put essentially the whole store on sale! It sounds great, I mean it’s a SALE, but it’s 20% off many way overpriced items, and it’s a FINAL sale. This way they can ensure that even if you aren’t happy with the clothing, you have absolutely no way of returning it or getting your money back because of the big black stamp: “Final Sale”. I suggest if you’re going to shop Aritzia, avoid sales because if for some reason it doesn’t fit right, or something’s weird about it, you have no way of returning it. That’s one more thing too, because Aritzia has so many different labels, they all fit differently. I have been trying to solve the riddle of Small versus Extra Small on their various clothing lines for years.
I think at one point, earlier in Aritzia’s life, their clothing was better quality, but with their expansion and move to mass production, the quality has decreased. In fact, although I think their clothes are trendy and do look good before they fade, I haven’t purchased anything in the store for over a year, when it used to be one of my “go-tos” for shopping. The only time I get Aritzia clothing is as a gift, probably because I can’t really afford it, or justify it myself. Can you?
The Group of Seven have appeared in my world and imagination at various points in my short lifetime. From that first introduction at the art gallery, to art classes, to calendars that still hang on my wall from year-to-year, to the Tom Thomson (who largely influenced the group) reproduction I bought at a charity auction last Christmas, to the history lesson I taught in November; after all of this, I will never tire of the Group of Seven. It seems they have been here with me at every stage of my life, and I hope they will continue to follow me as I move and change into different versions of my current self.
One of the information panels at the art gallery asked if there is any truth to the Group of Seven’s version of Canadian culture and life, and juxtaposed artists’ works from the same time period to highlight similarities and differences. Yes, there were some major differences, but I think I tried to ignore these, in an effort to counter anyone who may try to shatter my passion for the group. However, it did get me thinking about art and truth, and the fictionalized versions of our lives that we represent through different media. Perhaps it is true that the Group of Seven does not accurately portray everyone’s experience in the 1920s, 30s and beyond, but they certainly capture the beauty, movement and rawness of the Canadian landscape, a place most of us like to return to every once in awhile, in an effort to escape the other “reality” that is the stress of everyday life. Over 80 years later and it is still true that the masses venture north on the weekends or on holidays, craving the sound of water lapping against a sandy shore, or a sunset fading between the shadows of waving trees.
Recently, the AGO went under extensive renovations, and they have done an impeccable job with the Canadian artists section of the gallery on the second floor. I particularly enjoyed the historical sources they included, such as this quote, posted above a wall with a collection of at least 50 different Group of Seven paintings: “[The] new type of artist. . .puts on the outfit of the bushwhacker and prospector; closes with his environment; paddles, portages and makes camp; sleeps in the out-of-doors under the stars; climbs mountains with his sketch box on his back.” Frederick B. Housser wrote this in 1926, and for me, this captures the essence of the Canadian experience as our country was developing into a nation all its own.
Indeed it was these bushwhackers and prospectors who came to Canada: to discover, to settle, to encourage others to join in both the beauty and toil of the new immigrant experience. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, Canada was still mostly a land untouched, and I think the Group of Seven capture this special bond between humans and nature that existed for most Canadians at the time. As a child growing up in Ontario, some of my fondest memories include camping, canoeing, and carrying those canoes on my back through the forests of Algonquin – the same forests where Tom Thomson spent much of his short life.
Nature is an experience that spans generations here, and I think this is one of the reasons why I feel so akin to these artists. So regardless of what the critics say, for me, the Group of Seven will always represent one side of the true Canadian experience, and one side of myself. And I will continue to enjoy their art for years to come: losing myself in the icy mountains and blue skies of a Lawren Harris, or traveling to a singular house in one of A.J. Casson’s country landscapes.
So I’ve finally swallowed my pride and started a blog. I am a little scared, and a little excited, but mostly nervous. However, if I want my wish to come true: to become a writer who sits on the end of a dock, writing on her laptop all summer, I have to start somewhere. And that somewhere is here! Unlikely as it is, I have joined the world of blogging.