Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Poulet a la James North


It is always a pleasure to find a place that is wise enough to choose one thing and do it exceptionally well. Charred is one of those places.  This tiny and intimate little central Hamilton resto does chicken, - charred on a charcoal rostisserie and served with homemade piri-piri sauce. 
They do several different riffs on the charred chicken theme - one of the best is the poutine - fresh cut fries, homemade piri piri cheese curds and gravy. Add charred chicken on top and this is a filling and delicious dish. (Regular $5; large $7; charred chicken on top, $3)

  Another good bet is the Charred Sandwich ($7) - pulled charred chicken with peppers and onions, topped with aged cheddar, homemade piri piri mayo and cilantro.

There's also chicken to take out, as well as fresh salads and roasted potatoes.
And that's about it - simple, delicious and really well done.
The space is also unpretentiously simple, with reclaimed brick walls, some local art, and tables in the window that give a clear view of the action on James Street.

Charred is an attractive place for a casual lunch for those who love BBQ chicken and piri piri.  It's another good excuse to hang out on James Street North.

244 James St. N.,
Hamilton, Ontario
L8R 2L3

River Cruising: A Room with a (Constantly Changing ) View

 A Room With a View:  River Cruising on Avalon’s Panorama

The world’s most expensive book, in the Gutenburg Museum in Mainz, an historic mustard factory in Cochem, an underground disco in an abandoned subway station in Frankfurt, and a mechanical monkey that plays the violin in the Mechanical Instrument Museum in Rüdesheim,  – all are intriguing discoveries to be made on a Rhine and Moselle River cruise.
But even more attractive than that is the discovery that you can open the curtains in your new stateroom on board the Panorama and watch the castles drift by at 6:30 in the morning, still in your PJ’s if you like.  That’s the kind of sybaritic extension to the day that I can’t resist. 
It’s not that I’m lazy – the rest of my day will be active and full, but the possibility of starting the day like this, with the window open to the fresh river air, and a cup of coffee from the cappuccino machine in the club lounge is so appealing.
I’m not alone.  River cruising on ships like the Panorama is part of a growing demand from seasoned, and beginner, cruisers.
When Lisa Wilkinson, popular Australian media and television star, christened the Panorama, she was naming a boat that was already a success story.  Even before the ship’s official touring season began with its first passengers coming on board in the spring of 2011, the first season of the Panorama was 98% booked 
According to CLIA (Cruise Lines International Association) the cruise industry is the fastest growing travel segment in the world, and river cruising has had a compounded increase of 10% a year since 2004. 
  So popular are the river cruises that Avalon's sister ships the Vista and the Visionary, have been added to the fleet.

The growth in river cruising is partly the result of a general increase in the number of people cruising, but is also due to the advances in design and upgraded amenities on the newer ships.  Instead of the dark and small cabins of early river boats, as on the first river cruise I took in the early 90’s, new river boats have adopted many of the features of their larger ocean-going sisters. 
The new Panorama boasts some of the largest cabins in the industry, at 200 square feet, with full length floor to ceiling windows that open to French balconies, marble clad bathrooms, L’Ocittaine amenities, wifi throughout the ship, a full fitness centre, larger viewing deck and elegant gourmet dining.  Wine and beer are included, as are excursions, guided walking tours and state-of-the-art digital earphones.  The Avalon fleet has some of the youngest ships in the industry.  Although the company only started in 2004, it has already retired two ships, and  expanded to eleven ships in 2012.
The charm of the river cruise, though, remains in its ability to give its passengers close and intimate connection with the countries they visit.  Shore excursions offer more time ashore, with a variety of excursions and an emphasis on the local culture. This all comes with the convenience of a cruise, one time unpacking, your own comfortable room, all inclusive meals and access to the ship-board amenities.

Avalon’s 2014 itineraries range from European river cruises to Yangtze and Nile sailings to Galapagos expeditions, and new itineraries on the Mekong River in Vietnam.

All good reasons to take to the river this cruising season.

For more information on Avalon Waterways Cruises, visit www.avalonecruiseline,com

© Barbara Ramsay Orr

Monday, November 18, 2013

A Royal Stay in Ireland

Play The Princess at An Irish Country Estate: Ballyfin

I think every old house has a ghost. 
The owners don’t always admit to having hangers-on from the other side, and perhaps they are only vestigially aware of sharing space with a spirit. But open your inner eye when you visit a much-lived-in space, and you may find that there’s a shadow in the room that isn’t yours.
I sensed another presence as I lay in a cloud of bubbles in the deep tub in the Butler Room’s rococo bathroom at Ballyfin.  The soap was handmade and redolent with roses and sandalwood, the water was warm and I had had a long day in chilly weather. But just as my lids lowered in bliss, the door to the bathroom whispered open and there he was, -James Butler, the Duke of Ormond. 

He was still wearing his armour and battle regalia from his successful leadership of the Irish Loyalists during the mid seventeenth century. His regard was regal, disdainful perhaps, but not unappreciative. He was not a frightening presence, just a tad supercilious.

It is true that the breeze from the open window in the sitting room could have opened the door, and that William Wissing’s portrait of James Butler above the fireplace was in direct sight line of my bathtub, but I know the Duke paid me a visit.

There isn’t a property in Ireland more deserving of interesting ghosts than Ballyfin. Nestled at the foot of the Slieve Bloom mountains in County Laois, the house is today one of the world’s best country manor estate hotels.  The restored neo-Georgian estate, voted best new resort in the world for 2012 by the Robb Report, is an hour from Dublin and sits on 610 verdant acres with walled gardens, a large lake, grottoes and riding paths.
The house has been ranked as one of the finest homes in Ireland ever since it was first built, in 1823. It served as the country home of the Coote family until 1923, when it was no longer comfortable to be an Anglo-Protestant in Ireland. 

The family sold the property to a Catholic Brotherhood who ran it as a school until they were no longer able to afford the upkeep. It sat in deteriorating condition until 2002 when American Fred Krehbiel and his wife Kay bought the property and began a decade long renovation.
The result is a sumptuous fifteen room hotel, with public rooms decorated with authentic period antiques, gilded ceilings, Chippendale mirrors, significant Irish art and restored parquetry floors.  The library, with a large fireplace at either end, is stocked with 18th century books, as well as today’s Irish Times.  Each bedroom is different, with massive bathrooms, modern amenities and king sized four poster beds. 
The Butler room where I slept is decorated in shades of soft rose and cream, with a venerable tapestry above the marble surrounded bath. The in-room bar is stocked with elderberry water and Riedel glasses, organic juices, mineral water, and locally made treats. Stacks of art book sit on the side table. And, I swear, spirits are lingering comfortably in the corners.
This is a house that has seen everything, - from death to deception, from love to betrayal, from wealth to hardship. There must be ghosts. If not ghosts, then some lingering fog of character that hangs in the air and gives a night spent here a haunting resonance.
Don’t be afraid. It’s just history, reaching out to tap you gently on the shoulder.
If You Go
Rates: 2013: from May to September, from CAD $815 – $2173, per room per night, includes full board, all amenities of the estate, drinks, laundry, unpacking service and wifi.
Ballyfin Demesne
Ballyfin, County Laois
Tel: +353 (0)5787 55866

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Absolutely Necessary Things to Pack for a Visit to The Falls

Travel Tips

Each destination has its unique peculiarities, which means  when deciding what you will pack for a visit, there are particular things that will make your time there easier, or more fun, or more rewarding.
For a vacation in Niagara Falls, you need to pack all of the usual suspects – er , objects – that you would for a typical trip, but there are some things that will really make a difference.  Add the following things to your packing list, throw them into your suitcase and you’ll thank me for it!

1.A large clear plastic bag.  Why? If you own a good camera, you will want to protect it from the mist that is an almost permanent fixture at The Falls.  I like to have my camera ready, and I often carry it around my neck, but cover it with the plastic bag to keep it dry.  Sometimes you can use the plastic to shield the camera while you take a shot.  Also bring along some soft dry cloths to wipe any wayward water drops off the lens.  It is particularly important to protect your camera if you take a ride on the Maid of the Mist.  It is such a dramatic occaision for pictures, but the spray is intense.

2.  A folding umbrella – not for the rain, but for the spray if you are going to spend some time at the edge of The Falls and do not want to get soaked. (Actually, on a 30  degree day, it feels pretty good!)
3. A copy of the Frommers Niagara Region Guide that will tell you the best places to visit, eat and stay, and reveal insider tips you would never otherwise discover. (In the interest of full disclosure, I wrote the guide, but trust me when I tell you that it is a thorough and detailed guide, with lots of useful info.)

4. Your ipod or iphone – the Niagara Falls Adventure Pass lets you download a lively commentary for all of the places on the tour, with the history and lore you need to really appreciate what you are seeing.

5.  Some blank postcards and a good pen – for collecting autographs.  Niagara Falls attracts famous people like flies to honey.  There is seldom a week goes by without a notable character showing up Falls side.

6. a good pair of binoculars – that way you can visit the Canadian side of The Falls, but use your binos to get a close view of the American Falls, as well as the birds, Navy Island and the details of the rocks and islands at the top of The Falls.

7. Motion sickness pills – if you stay in The Tower Hotel – which stands atop a 500 foot tall tower – you might need them.  One whole wall of each room is all windows, and the tower will sway slightly if the wind is a bit agressive.  Very exciting, but maybe a bit queasy for a delicate tummy.

8. Your lucky rabbit foot, four leaf clover, or lucky charm – you will want to visit the glamourous Fallsview Casino, and with luck you may leave richer than you arrived.  (You will have a good time even if you loose a bit of coin.)

9. Your favourite mantra – the  Cham Shan Budhist Temple (aka The Ten Thousand Budha Temple of Peace) is a special building that you will not want to miss.  A little contemplation and some time to appreciate the truly special architecture here will put you in a Zen state of mind.

10. An easily washed, stain resistant t-shirt .  Niagara Falls is a surprising hotbed of Italian cusine, due mostly to extensive Italian immigration after WWI and WWII.  Places like Antica Pizza, or Mamma Mia’s offer up slurpy family-style plates of pasta, meatballs  and pizza – messy but delicious and affordable  and not to be missed. Just like Mamma used to make, – if Mamma was named Gina or Serafina.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Bargaining eh?

Niagara Falls for the Bargain Hunter

Regretably, we are a nation of non-hagglers.

Canadians, in general, are not good at bargaining.  It’s somehow – well – not polite to badger someone into cutting their prices.  Bargaining is not a Canadian thing.

But paradoxically, there is no one who enjoys a bargain more than we do.  So what we are good at is searching out the best places, best prices and best buys.

Here’s five of the best buys in Niagara Falls, no bargaining or bartering required. (Now that’s a real Canadian deal.)
1. The Bundled Attractions Pass: The Niagara Falls Adventure Pass is a great way to save money.  The pass costs 40% less than if you bought four attractions seperately. For $46.95 per adult, and $34.95 per child, between April and October, you get admission to the Maid of the Mist,  Journey Behind the Falls,  Niagara’s Fury and White Water Walk, along with two day’s rides on the Peoplemover, an all day on-and-off shuttle service along the Niagara Parkway. Also, you’ll receive reduced price admission to the Butterfly Conservatory, Sir Adam Beck 2 Generating Station Power Tour, Whirlpool Aero Car, Old Fort Erie, McFarland House, Laura Secord Homestead and the Mackenzie Printery and Newspaper Museum. An added bonus of the Pass: visit a Niagara Parks Welcome Centre and staff will reserve your times to see several attractions, allowing you to bypass line-ups and feel like a real VIP. You can buy your pass online and print your own, and you can even arrange to download a guide to your MP3 player. Great Value!

2. Free Light Show: The Falls are illuminated 365 days of the year and they are a spectacular sight.  Smart visitors find a good spot in Queen Victoria Park to sit on the grass and just enjoy the view. Costs nothing.

3. A Night on-the-town Bargain ( if you are a female) Rumours Nightclub welcomes all females on Friday night. No cover charge all night for ladies at this popular dance and drinks bar.

4. Gamble on a Great Night Out for 25 cents ( and up): The people watching is great at the Fallsview Niagara Casino.  You could spend a night just roaming through the gaming rooms watching the action.  But you can gamble yourself – you can bet the minimum amount in one of the one-armed bandits (slots) -  25 cents.  If the stars were aligned correctly, you could go home with more money than you spent.

5.  Even a Bargain Hunter Has to Eat: Dining in Niagara Falls can be expensive, but if you are willing to go a little bit away from the Falls area, there are some real dining bargains.  For a delicious. filling and affordable meal, try the calzones at Johnny Rocco’s Italian Grill on Lundy’s Lane.  Have a glass of wine, a salad, one of the best calzones in town, and you’ll be out of there for under $20.

So, get set for an affordable visit to the Falls! A real Canadian Bargain.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

A Snow Thrill on the Downhill 

in Charlevois, Quebec:

Rodelling at Le Massif 


I stood at the top of the hill, shivering in my helmet and new Ugg boots. Ahead of me was the first leg of a colossal snow slide.
“Don’t worry,” laughed Giles, a twenty something kid I’d met in the snow tractor on the way along the top of the mountain, and who obviously couldn’t wait to attack the hill.  “Your fear will keep you warm.”
In a way he was right.  While the fear dissipated quickly, the adrenalin kept me warm.

If as a child you experienced a Canadian winter, you will share the collective memories of sliding down icy hills on toboggans, sleds, flying saucers or even pieces of cardboard.
That childhood descent was intoxicating, but would only last ten seconds, if that, and then you would have to drag your sled back up the hill to do it again.  I remember wishing that the downhill thrill could go on for ever.
If you shared that feeling, rodelling is for you.  It’s a ‘piste de luge’ experience featured at Le Massif in the Charlevois, the only place in North America that offers this winter adventure. It’s a sledding dream come true, providing a professional hand-crafted sled, a long uninterrupted and challenging groomed track, and at the end, a gondola to take you back to the top.  The 7.5 kilometre track winds through natural forest, twisting its way down the mountainside to end at the edge of the frozen St. Lawrence River. In total, the rodelling experience takes about two hours, and it is a cool winter thrill, an exhilarating alternative when skiing becomes old hat.  Or old tuque.

So, now I have snow down my neck, leaking into my gloves and glued to my cheek. My tuque is ascue and the fir trim on my new boots is heavy with ice pellets.
So why am I smiling?  Because, even though I was going too fast, missed the turn and ended up inbedded in a snowbank, this is the most winter fun I've had in years.

The attraction has proven so popular for the resort that it has expanded its hours and is often fully booked. Any winter sports' lover, especially one who is finding skiing and boarding a bit ho-hum, will want to try rodelling.

At the end of the hill, you can glide up to the top to the ski resort in the gondola and enjoy white linen dining in Mer et Mont at the chalet. 

Afterwards, you can take the train back to Baie Saint Paul, and warm up with a night in Hotel La Ferme, or return to Quebec City.  
Rodelling - my idea of a cool winter sport!

Le Massif

Le Massif de Charlevoix Ski Resort 

Phone : 1-877-Le-Massif (536-2774)


To the Summit (+/- 75 km from Québec City):
  • Follow signs for Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré
  • From Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré, continue along Route 138 for about 45 km
  • Turn right at the sign for Le Massif, located on the right-hand side of Route 138, 15 km BEFORE the town of Petite- Rivière-Saint-François
  • Drive 6 km… You’ve arrived!
To the Base (+/- 110 km from Québec City):
  • Follow directions for Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré
  • From Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré, continue along Route 138 until you see the sign for Petite Rivière St François, located about 15 km past the sign for the summit of Le Massif
  • Turn right, drive to Petite-Rivière-St-François
  • Continue along Principale St. for about 15 km
  • Turn right at the sign marking the entrance to Le Massif, onto the access road
  • Proceed to the parking area… You’ve arrived!

Follow The North Star to Freedom: Niagara Tours

For many slaves fleeing a life of endenturement in the United States, Canada represented freedom.  It was the shining Northern star at the end of the Underground Railroad, the secret network of helpers and hiding places that aided runaway slaves on their journey.

Niagara Bound Tours is a tour company that custom designs tours that will explore the history and heritage of Black immigaration in Niagara, with particular emphasis on the slaves who arrived here as a result of their journey along the Underground Railroad.
The tour features several places of interest, including Hariet Tubman’s church, the crossing sites of freedom seekers on both sides of the border including the Canadian site of for the crossing of Josiah Henson (Uncle Tom’s Cabin character), and the Welland Canal Centre – home of  the permanent Black history exhibit.
Tours can be individual or in groups. The customized tours include a step on guide who is a direct descendant (fifth generation) of a freedom seeker from Kentucky who came to Canada in 1850 settling in the Niagara Region.   Recently added are tours of the Buffalo-Niagara Underground Railroad as well.
87 Masterson Drive
St. Catharines, ON  L2T 3P8

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Cruising The Canals of Europe

Sail The Canals of Europe 

European Waterway's elegant barges, and the independently owned Nooit Volmaakt, sail through the authentic villages of Europe.



Published Saturday, Feb. 25, 2012 06:00AM EST
Last updated Thursday, Sep. 06, 2012 11:48AM EDT
I spent the night in a room that was once full of sugar beets.
Drifting in through the small open window above my bed is the sound of ducks circling in search of breakfast. Soon, little white furry legs will scuttle past the window – Teddy, the barge dog, out for his constitutional – and the smell of fresh coffee will seep under the door from the galley. I know I can scramble up on deck with my camera and notebook, take some shots and a quick sketch of the mist on the river before the sun burns it off, but the bed is warm, and we were up late last night, lingering over a bottle of premier cu wine from nearby Chablis, lovely stinky local cheese and old stories from school days.
This is morning on the Nooit Volmaakt, a restored Dutch barge that once transported sugar beets along the waterways and is now owned by two Canadians from Victoria, Mary Koyl and Marc Pakenham, and their dog, Teddy. Over our first bottle of wine, we discovered that the skipper, my husband and I were undergrads at the same university at the same time long ago.
Together, we drifted along the canals and rivers southwest of Paris.
Touring on a barge is one of the most personal and intimate ways to explore Europe. The Nooit Voolmakt is only one of many barges that offer trips through the less populous areas of England, France, Germany, Italy and other countries. The small size allows passengers to indulge in their own personal interests while sailing through historic routes that are still navigable – canals that once served as the superhighways for commerce, opening trade routes that would become the foundation on which the Industrial Revolution would be built. Those canals and waterways still wind past villages, under stone bridges and straight through the bucolic farmlands of old Europe.

Barge cruises allow guests time to do what they love best. I am a food writer and an amateur artist, so the twin pleasures of time spent on deck with a mug of hot tea, continually replenished by Mary, and daily visits to markets, food shops and fine restaurants, were perfect for me.
In Moret, we moored just below the town bridge that French impressionist painter Alfred Sisley painted in the early 1890s, little changed today. I walked and cycled where Sisley and his friends did, ogled his house and sat in the main square in front of a pretty storefront that was signed, “Les Amis D'Alfred Sisley.” Perhaps he had no friends left as no one was ever there to open the shop. But no matter. This town, this itinerary, was ideally matched to my interests.
Other barge itineraries can inspire the photographer, the cyclist, the wine lover or the historian. Antiquarians can troll through a vide-grenier, French for empty attic, the Gallic version of a garage sale.
For the travelling gardener, this spring is perfect for a barge trip: to witness one of the more spectacular floral displays in the world. Holland will explode with tulips, hyacinths, irises, scillas, crocuses, muscari – it is visual fireworks that everyone must see at least once in a lifetime, and one of the best seats for this show is on a barge. The canals snake through fields that in spring are striated with bands of vivid colour created by thousands and thousands of flowers. The expanses of intense colour, in fields that unfold like well designed quilts, is a wonder unlike any other.
Many of the barge cruises include bike tours, as the terrain is flat and the scenery compact. If you bike along the paths through fields of flowers, expect to be ambushed by the perfumes of narcissus or hyacinth.
Some of the tulip barge tours stop at Aalsmeer for the flower auction and almost all of them, in April and May, include a visit to the Keukenhof, Holland's famous spring gardens in the town of Lisse, the centre of Holland's bollenstreek (bulb district). In this 32-hectare garden, bulb growers display their best and newest along pathways lined with acres of manicured gardens. There are more than seven million tulip bulbs planted here each year and the growers strive to outdo each other in the originality and impact of their displays. Blue muscari spill like rivers, daffodils grow in geometric designs, blue and white flowers mimic Delft pottery. I spent a happy afternoon drawing the antique tulips in one small historic garden, bulbs whose history stretched back to the early 1500s and whose story is the precursor to Europe's bourse (stock exchange) and North America's stock market.

While the Netherlands in spring is always a pleasure, last year was special: Floriade was on. It's the world's largest international floral show and gardening exposition, held once every 10 years. It's the Olympic Games of flowers for gardeners around the world and runs from April to October.
Ten years ago, I wandered Floriade for a whole day and didn't see it all. From landscaped display gardens to flower features to environmental innovations, there was something to beguile or inspire every few steps. You can even buy the latest hybrid bulbs for your garden. (I bought an amaryllis bulb the size of a large grapefruit, which produced eye-popping blooms that summer.)
For this sixth Floriade, held in Venlo, near the Belgian border, several barge cruisesscheduled shore excursions. Sure, visitors could do independent trips from several centres in Europe, but one of the best ways, leisurely and easily, is as a day trip from your barge. (Maybe you should be planning for your tulip barge trip in 2022!)
For, instead of design details, the emphasis on a barge cruise is on the quality of the experiences, the interaction between guests and crew, and the food, which is often larded with local specialties. It is, essentially, a slow meander down a lovely waterway with many seductive reasons to stop along the way.

There are still mornings when I wake up and imagine I can hear Teddy and the ducks. I can almost see the reflections in the water, and I wonder where Mary is with my tea.

Dutch flower cruises
European Waterways runs barge tours in several countries. Spring flower tours in Holland aboard the 12-passenger Panache, above, will include trips to Floriade. Prices start at $4,690 a person and include all meals, wines, excursions and local transfers. 877-879-8808; gobarging.com
The Barge Company runs the Magna Carta, an eight-passenger barge that cruises the Thames, including Hampton Court and stops at the Chelsea Flower Show. From $3,000 a person for six nights. www.bargecompany.com
River cruise lines such as Avalon Waterways, Azamara Cruises, Scenic Tours and Uniworld Boutique River Cruises have added excursions to Floriade.
Bike and Barge
Bike & Barge Holland offers 13-night cruises with bike excursions, including tours to Keukenhof Garden and the tulip fields, for $3,195. bikebarge.com
Van Gogh tours include six days of barging and cycling from Amsterdam to Bruges, Belgium, from $1,14. vangoghtours.com

Tulip time
Timing is everything if you want to see the tulips at their best. A late winter or early spring can shift the blooming time. The most dependable time to see the flower display in full flush is mid to late April.
This year, with a late and cool spring, tulips are delayed and will probably last until mid May. Head to the Keukenhof Gardens from March 22 to May 20 for a concentrated floral hit. keukenhof.nl

For more information, visit Holland.com.

Special to The Globe and Mail