6 Top Toronto Dining Deals

March 29, 2010 at 9:49 am | Posted in Canada, culinary/food & drink, Ontario | 1 Comment
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by Ed Wetschler

After telling a friend about a good dining deal in Toronto — her own home town — she said, “I’ll have to go there; I don’t know that place!” Understandable. Canada‘s largest city is as rich in restaurants as it is in museums, galleries, theaters, boutiques, clubs, and more clubs.

You can always find affordable restaurants in Kensington, the St. Lawrence Market, and Chinatown, but you already knew that. So here are a half-dozen spots, some of which even locals may not know. (BTW, note to Yanks in particular about the exchange rate: Right now, US98¢ buys one Canadian dollar — close enough so that you can just think in terms of generic dollars and keep the change.)

Downtown

Four, with its dark, sleek furnishings, looks like a conventional business district restaurant, but it isn’t. No item on chef Gordon Mackie’s menu exceeds 650 calories—yet the cuisine is exquisite. The shrimp fusilli (CA$18*, left), for example, combines tender shrimp, bran fusilli (!), Grana Padano cheese, and walnut pesto into a flavorful, deceptively rich entrée that tastes like 2,000 calories.

Dhaba, at the west end of downtown, is well-regarded for its updated Indian cuisine, which features bright, vibrant—not necessarily hot—spicing. The slow-cooked mountain goat (CA$17.95), for example, makes me wonder why I seldom eat goat meat (answer: because I can’t cook it as well as Chef P.K.). But here’s a secret: Dhaba’s lunchtime buffet (CA$11.95) may be the best dining value in downtown Toronto, because this is that rare, all-you-can-eat deal that features fresh, thoughtfully prepared cuisine.

Mill Street Brew Pub is the obvious mid-price pick in the historic Distillery District, but I like Pure Spirits Oyster House. The main dishes in this cavernous brick-walled bar and restaurant are not cheap, but you can get around that: Pure Spirits calls its hearty poutine (CA$10, or $14 with bacon, $16 with crispy fried oysters) and fresh Prince Edward Island mussels with a garlic-and-cheddar-smeared baguette ($15) appetizers, but they’re really stealth entrées. And this is the most flavorful, perfectly timed poutine or mussels you’ll ever eat.

Uptown

Caplansky’s Deli, on College Street north of Kensington, is known for its sandwich of “smoked meat” (CA$8). Whazzat? The owner calls it “the bastard child of pastrami and corned beef” — a hand-rubbed brisket that’s cured two weeks, then smoked ten hours. Caplansky’s also uses this tender, peppery invention in a hash-and-eggs breakfast ($10) that’s served all day, including dinnertime. “Do you like it?” Caplansky asked. Like it? I’ll never eat conventional corned beef again.

The Gardiner Ceramics Museum Café has somehow convinced star chef Jamie Kennedy to produce elegant soups for CA$6, sandwiches for $9-11, and cookies for $2. FYI, you could visit the nearby Royal Ontario and Bata Shoe museums, eat here, and skip the Gardiner itself, but don’t: This museum and its programs will open your eyes to art forms many of us don’t think about very often.

West Queen West Art & Design District

This hot neighborhood has umpteen resto-bars, and its anchor, the Drake Hotel (above left), boasts almost as many lounges and restaurants as guestrooms. Chef Anthony Rose’s Blue Plate Specials (about CA$18), such as fish ‘n’ chips, are born-again classics, but here’s an even better idea: Order the sushi pizza with avocado, roe, and salmon (CA$14, right),
a delicious patchwork of flavors, from subtle to wasabi sharp, and textures, from silky to crispy crisp.  By the way, the Drake serves a Canadian cab-merlot blend and a Bordeaux-style chardonnay with a private label that’s perfect for this crowd — or part of it, anyway: It’s called Starving Artist.

*at press time, about £11.75 / €13 / AU$12.60 / ZAR85; for updated rates, see Tripatini’s Currency Desk

photos: Ed Wetschler
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Snowpocalypse Never: In Quebec, Winter’s Just An Excuse To Kick It Up a Notch

February 10, 2010 at 4:27 pm | Posted in Canada, Quebec, skiing/snow sports | Leave a comment
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by David Paul Appell

ice slide at Quebec Winter CarnivalFolks in large swaths of the USA’s Northeast have been shellshocked by the so-called “snowpocalypse” these past several days, but meanwhile, up here in southern Quebec, I’ve been witnessing firsthand how little the locals let a little weather slow them down. In fact, they take it up a notch. Even with average annual snowfalls of 14 feet (4 meters) and subfreezing temperatures, for the past 55 years Quebeckers have thrown their own pre-Lenten Carnaval d’Hiver, falling around the same time as Mardi Gras, the big blowout in Rio de Janeiro, and other such overheated frolics (this year, the dates are February 29 to January 14; next year January 28-February 13).

Most Winter Carnival action takes place on a few dozen acres of the Plains of Abraham in Old Quebec City just below the National Assembly building. As I walked through the gates, to my left kids whooshed down a long, slick chute of ice and to my right, a couple of others brandished from long, blue and red plastic horns, bleating the likes of which you’d expect from a flatulent moose. Farther up to the left, I spotted somebody careening down a zipline across the way from the “Arctic Spas” area, which sported not just a dry sauna but a bunch of bubbling hot tubs, several filled with folks in bathing suits (managing to be at once sedate and at least a bit extreme).

Snow bath at Quebec Winter CarnivalAnd so it went. I checked out some ingenious snow sculptures, and careened downhill on a whitewater raft; made maple-syrup pops in the snow at a “sugar shack” and that night boogied to earsplitting techno and hip-hop in front of a glowing ice-brick castle. I’m sorry to miss this Saturday’s “snow bath,” though, in which a few dozen guys and gals strip down to beachwear and roll around in the white stuff. Frozen cheesecake, indeed.

The festivities get spread out a bit to outlying areas, too. I spent part of one afternoon down at the port watching teams of men and women charging through the ice-clogged St. Lawrence River in fiberglass canoes. It looked incredibly cold and incredibly dangerous; at dinner that night at the grandest hotel in town, the Château Frontenac, my friends and I ran into the captain of the winning team (which was, as it happens, for the 18th time in a row none other than…the Château Frontenac team), who burbled on so enthuastically about the experience and the rigorous training that goes into it. Then suddenly he stopped himself, then added with a smile, “I must sound like a freak.” No, no, we assured him — just incredibly committed (we didn’t specify whether we meant “committed” in a good way or the mental-institution way). A little less chilly and daredevilish was the Mardi-Gras-style night parade in the suburb of Charlesbourg, with some pretty snazzy floats and moves, presided over by Bonhomme, a chap in a jolly, red-capped snowman suit — the symbol of Carnival.

Clearly, a lot of locals spend a lot of the year putting this extravaganza together. Savoring a steaming hot caribou (red wine octaned-up with brandy) at a table with a couple of Quebeckers in one of the food-and-drink tents, I took my French out for a spin, marveling at the 17-day event’s quality, organization, and enthusiasm. One middle-aged gent shrugged and said, “well, everybody has their way of getting through the winter. This is ours.”

But this embrace of winter doesn’t start or stop with Carnival — far from it. I also got to pop out of town, a half hour up to a bucolic resort called Station Touristique Duchesnay, where I found locals and tourists alike snowshoeing, snowmobiling, dogsledding, cross-country skiing, and ice-fishing their hearts out. As my little group snowstomped along a ridge, we passed a yellowish frozen waterfall, and our twentysomething guide Yannick blurted — “oh, now ice-climbing — that’s my favorite thing to do in the world!” Whatever you say, dude. Afterward, with only the most minimal of preliminary instructions, Nicolas at Aventure Inukshuk let me drive a dogsled, even though eyeing that jumping, yipping team of huskies was turning me to nervous mush (get it, mush?). It was a workout, for sure, but I’m pleased to report that no humans or canines were harmed in the making of this anecdote (hey, it’s all in the brake); the team behind us, though, did at one point veer off into the woods and ended up with their mush puppies snarled up.

At Quebec's Hotel de Glace (Ice Hotel)The highlight out at Duchesnay, though, had to be my night at the famous Hôtel de Glace (Ice Hotel), one of only two in the world, now in its tenth season. Running this year January 4 to April 4, it’s a work of art with the feel of a crystalline fairyland, including a nightclub, a chapel, and museum, an indoor ice slide, a hot-tub/sauna courtyard, and 36 rooms housing 88 people (some are plain cells, others artistically carved; rates start at CA$189*). Virtually everyone, myself formerly included, is simultaneously tickled and nervous about being unconscious for six-plus hours in an icebox. So they give you a thorough orientation on how to deal with your sleeping bag and store your stuff, dressing and undressing, getting up to go to the bathroom, and so forth. After an exceptional dinner in the main — and conventional — Auberge Duchesnay a couple hundred feet up the hill, that night’s guests hit the ice bar, which serves a range of soft drinks and tipples (try the Sortilège maple whiskey) in square tumblers of ice. Amid colored lights and disco music, an animatrice (kind of a social director) kept everybody busy — and warm –with activities like a scavenger hunt and ice sculpting. At midnight, c’est fini and it’s off to dreamland. Some people find the experience — mostly due to the sleeping bag — claustrophic, but for me it was fine. I woke up a couple of times, but not because of the cold; I did pass on my habitual 3am bathroom run, though. Folks generally spend only one night on ice and the rest up in the conventional lodge, but still, as unusual experiences go, this one’s definitely a keeper.

Leave it to the Quebeckers — they can teach us all a thing or two about making friends with winter.

*US$178; £114; €130; AU$203, NZ$257, R1378

photos: 1/3 David Paul Appell, 2 Quebec Winter Carnival

Olympics Aside, There’s Lots of Cool Stuff To Do in Whistler This Winter

February 1, 2010 at 1:49 pm | Posted in British Columbia, Canada, skiing/snow sports | 1 Comment
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by Karen Kefauver

Whether or not you scored primo — or for that matter, any — tickets to the Winter Olympic Games or Paralympics (for last minute Olympics tickets, check out CoSport and Vancouver 2010 Games Tickets), the Whistler resort area is one of the world’s premier snow playgrounds. On my recent  week up here, I didn’t even miss downhill skiing or snowboarding with attractions like these:

Before getting started, I should mention that if you happen to be heading over this week, that this Friday, February 5, the Olympic Torch Relay comes to town — and you can catch the ceremony at 5:30 in front of the Squamish Lil’wat Cultural Centre, built jointly by the two local Native Canadian tribes. Which brings me to the…

Squamish Lil’wat Cultural Centre The Squamish and Lil’wat nations  have peacefully coexisted hereabouts for centuries, and their graceful contemporary crown jewel, built in 2001, houses a wealth of their cultures, including carved cedar spindle whorls; authentic dugout canoes; wool and cedar weavings; exhibits showcasing their relationship to the land; and a Great Hall designed in the form of a Squamish longhouse. A 15-minute documentary, Where Rivers, Mountain and People Meet, provides a superb overview of their history and ways. Adults CA$18, students/disabled/ 65-plus CA$13.50, age 18 and under CA$8-$11.*

Sno-Limo Mountain Ecotouring When I saw a woman settling onto the Sno-Limo, it looked like so much fun that I had to try it. While the company bills itself as a “fully interactive on-mountain activity for non-skiers” it’s also great for folks like me, who occasionally don’t mind relaxing and letting someone else “drive” down the slopes for a change. Your guide will help you into the sled, belt you in, then control the direction and speed of the descent. My “limo driver” was a college student from England who was a delight to talk to — he even graciously stopped at several points to let me take photos of snowboarders doing stunts. Just remember, bundle up — since you aren’t exerting yourself, it can get chilly! Packages $125-$495; customized itineraries also available.

Bearfoot Bistro Whistler’s après-ski is outstanding, and Bearfoot’s a star among stars, especially famed for its wine list and cellar — more than 2,100 labels and 20,000 bottles. Decadent yet affordable, IMHO it also shines both in service and “modern Canadian”  menu (Arctic caribou chop, anyone?). And when I met the vivacious proprietor André St. Jacques, I had no idea that he’s the Guinness World Record holder for “sabering” champagne — 21 bottles in under a minute. Not familiar with this tradition, dating back to the Napoleonic era? Believe me, it’s a sight to behold. Main courses start at $8.

Peak-2-Peak Gondola What a thrill! Spanning 2 3/4 miles (4 1/2 km) between Whistler and Blackcomb mountains,  this epic engineering feat holds several world records, including highest contraption of its kind — 1,427 feet (436 meters) above the valley floor — and the world’s longest continuous lift system. It’s just an 11-minute ride, but the 360-degree views from the 28-person cabin are stunning — so try to wedge yourself next to the window. The gondola’s included in the $93 regular lift ticket and the $42 “sightseeing” lift ticket.

Grouse Mountain Zipline Grouse is actually a two-hour drive from Whistler — but it’s just 15 minutes from Vancouver, so it’s definitely worth a stop en route for a two-hour taste of the adrenalin rush that Olympic athletes experience as they fly over the snow. “Air Grouse” sends you on a 50-mile-an-hour zip across the peaks of Grouse and Dam mountains along a brand-new cables up to 350 feet (1,150 meters) above the slopes, and you can get it all caught on film by staff photogs. And by the way, during the games, this is where NBC’s Today Show will be based, so keep your eyes peeled for celebrities. Open weekends; 24/7 February 12-28 and March 6-14; $105.

*Approximately US$17 / £11 / AU$19 / 12€ for adults; US$13 / £8 / AU$14 / 9€ for students,disabled, and seniors; CA$8-$11  US$7.50-10 / £4.75-6.50 / AU$8.50-11.50 / 5-7.50€ for 18 and under. All prices above are cited in Canadian dollars.

Why British Columbia Nailed the Winter Olympics

January 4, 2010 at 4:07 pm | Posted in British Columbia, Canada, resorts, skiing/snow sports | Leave a comment
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British Columbia's superlative skiingby Max Pesling

Gold-medal fever’s headed our way again — for the third time in Canada, but just the first in Canada’s westernmost province. It’s fair to say that reasons number one and two why British Columbia is hosting the 21st Winter Olympics this February 12-28, followed by the Paralympic Games March 12-21, are the appeal of world-class Vancouver and nearby Whistler Blackcomb.

Vibrant yet laid-back, sophisticated yet outdoorsy, Vancouver will be hosting various ceremonies, events, and of course parties, but there’s only so much in the way of winter sports you can get done in a city — you need those soaring mountain resorts. And in this rarefied catgory, Whistler Blackcomb, a two-hour drive away, has become North America’s biggest ski area and a world star. Known for its dozen Alpine bowls, 5,280 vertical feet, and more than 8,000 skiiable acres, all 200-plus runs will be open before and after the Olympics (when it hosts events including Alpine racing, Nordic, luge, bobsled, and skelton), and 90 percent of them even during the games themselves. Serving up a wide variety of dining, shopping, clubbing, and miscellaneous fun, by now Whistler’s a phenomenon.

But it’s far from the province’s only superb center of snowy action (in fact, some would even say not the best), and in fact various Olympic teams consider several good enough to have their athletes living and training there at this very moment. So here’s a quick primer covering eight of the best of BC’s 19 resorts. Chances are you’ll be able to nab some good deals on lift passes and accommodations season — even, in some cases, during the games themselves — yet still get a chance to cross paths with an international bevy of Olympians in training.

Apex Outside Penticton in the Okanagan Valley 250 miles (420 km) from Vancouver, this under-the-radar gem is a hot practice spot this winter. So watch for an international crew of freestyle ski athletes doing their thing on the bumps, jumps, and some of North America’s driest, fluffiest powder. With a 7,250-foot elevation, it’s a little quieter than other BC resorts, and a bit more geared toward advanced levels.

Big White Also in the Okanagan, outside the town of Kelowna a few miles from Apex, B.C.’s second most popular winter resort has an elevation of just over 7,600 feet and 2,565 skiable acres celebrated for their dry powder and good for beginners and intermediate. With three hotels and more than 250 condos, cabins, and more, it’s got a pretty admirable apres-ski scene, too, including a shopping mall, spas, nine eateries, and eight nightspots.

Kimberley A good 6,500 feet up in the Kootenay Rockies 510 miles (850 km) east of Vancouver, here’s another lesser-known gem with lots to do for all skill levels (strongest on intermediate), plenty of powder, new year-round, $6-million facilities, 1,800 scenic acres, and also a fair bit of good après-ski and activity when the white stuff goes bye-bye.

Mount Washington On Vancouver Island, 75 miles (125 km) by road and ferry from the Big V, it’s not hosting events, but it is hosting plenty of Olympians, because its 5,209-foot elevation, temperatures, and ambience are similar to Whistler Blackcomb’s; more than 23 Nordic and Alpine teams from ten countries will be training and kicking back here until show time. Indeed, for scores of elite snow jocks, Mount Washington has become a second home.

Red Mountain Just over the Washington State border and 385 miles (640 km) east of Vancouver, this former gold mining town in the Monashee Mountains boasts a pair of impressive peaks with a 2,887-foot drop and is top rated for powder, service, and overall experience. And January 22-24, it’ll be hosting the Canadian Freeskiing Championships during the its annual winter carnival; front and center this year will be the Olympic torch relay.

Revelstoke Over the past three years, this West Kootenay railroad town 360 miles (600 km) east of Vancouver has morphed into BC’s most talked about new winter destination. Besides some of the newest equipment in the business (including a new on-hill helicopter, cat-ski, and mountain education/backcountry adventure center), you’ll find North America’s longest top-to-bottom trails. And of course the historic town itself is quite the charmer.

Sun Peaks When it comes to ogling Olympians and Paralympians in training, gliding on some fab powder, or just plain relaxing, it doesn’t get better than this sun-splashed trio of peaks on 3,678 acres near Kamloops, 210 miles (350 km) miles east of Vancouver. It’s where national alpine ski teams from Canada and Europe (especially mighty Austria) gather in advance to steel their nerves against scary-steep runs, and home to Canada’s top winter Olympian, skier Nancy Greene Raine (drop by the lobby her Cahilty Lodge to check out her impressive trophy cabinet, and don’t be surprised if she even offers to let you hang one around your neck). It’s all affordable, walkable, and lift lines minimal — what’s not to like?

Whitewater Intimate, mellow, and a bit off the beaten path, this resort in Nelson, 390 miles (650 km) from Vancouver (not far from Red Mountain) has been long known as the place for some outrageous champagne powder — sometimes topping 45 feet (13 meters) in a season. An “Olympic Gear-Up Winter Carnival” is being held here January 30.

Tripatini Surveys Hot Destinations for 2010

December 28, 2009 at 11:03 am | Posted in Africa, Asia, Barbados, British Columbia, Canada, Caribbean/Bahamas/Bermuda, Central America, Colombia, Croatia, cruising, Cuba, Estonia, Europe, Florida, Honduras, Iceland, Latvia, Lebanon, Lithuania, Macau, Mexico, Middle East, Montenegro, New Mexico, Panama, Rwanda, Slovenia, South Africa, South America, Sri Lanka, St. Lucia, Suriname, Turkey, Turks and Caicos, United Arab Emirates, Zimbabwe | 2 Comments
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by David Paul Appell

It’s that time when the travel-hungry are scouring the media for word of the coming year’s “it” spots. We can play that game too, so, besides popular perennials, here are 29 we see looming larger on twenty-ten’s worldwide vaycaydar:

U.S.A.
For Americans at least, tight times mean Florida will tempt folks sticking closer to home; better deals down south include  Fort Lauderdale and up north the Panhandle. The latter’s now marketed as the “Emerald Coast,” trying to softpedal the “Redneck Riviera” image; comparisons to Sardinia’s glam Costa Smeralda are laughable, but there are some fetching towns, inns, and some interesting attractions — but above all sugary beaches along a stretch including  Destin, Fort Walton, Apalachicola, St. Joe Beach, and Pensacola. Another hotspot due for a boost this year is Santa Fe, New Mexico, which is popping the corks for its 400th anniversary (and while you’re out here, add a couple of days to explore some cool nearby towns like Acoma Pueblo and Gallup.

CANADA
The big story this year is inevitably the province of British Columbia, with cool cities Vancouver and Victoria, stunning coastal and mountain scenery, eco/adventure tourism, and swell snow sports. The reason is, of course, is the attention focused on Vancouver and ski resort Whistler Blackcomb, hosting this February’s Winter Olympics.

MEXICO
The so-called Maya Riviera, on the Yucatan Peninsula’s Caribbean coast stretching southward from Cancun, continues evolving whether big luxury resorts, mass-market all-inclusives, exquisite small inns, or budget digs. Some also see a bump for Mexico City, whose pollution and security issues can be finessed with some common sense and which offers one of the world’s great urban experiences — and what other burg has not just a stunning Aztec pyramid complex (Teotihuacan) on its outskirts but several right in town — one smack in the middle of downtown?

THE CARIBBEAN
This winter/spring, more ships come online and cruising is likely to stay strong, thanks to heavy discounting. Beyond the usual suspects, keep your eye on buttoned-down Barbados,  where some resorts and dining spots have been updating of late, and scenic St. Lucia, with luxury properties coming online fairly recently (Jade Mountain, The Landings) or refurbing (Cap Maison); there’s also a movement toward sustainable — and less pricey — town and country tourism. Providenciales in the Turks and Caicos also keeps adding fab resorts without sacrificing its limin’ vibe. Finally, could this be the year for Cuba, when the self-defeating, un-American, yet stubborn travel ban is dropped or relaxed for all U.S. citizens? Hold not thy breath, but anything’s possible, and if it happens, go — unsavory regime notwithstanding, it’s one of the world’s great travel and cultural experiences.

EUROPE
Eastern Europe has been on a major upswing ever since the Berlin Wall fell. But even 20 year later, some destinations are still growing or even just emerging. Examples of the former include Croatia and the Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. And lately we’re hearing more about Croatia’s neighbors, Slovenia and Montenegro. Both serve up stunning mountains with eco/adventure, historic cities and towns, and Adriatic seacoast with fine beach resorts. And this year, Montenegro welcomes AmanResorts’ fancy-schmancy Sveti Stefan, on an island of medieval architecture. On the western side of things, Icelands a nice land, with its superb eco/adventure, cool capital Reykjavik, short flight time from Europe and New York City, and some of the most affordable prices in years, thanks to the recent economic meltdown.

CENTRAL AMERICA / SOUTH AMERICA
In Central America, everybody’s jockeying to be “the next Costa Rica” — even El Salvador (who knew?). But watch Honduras; ’09 tourism plummeted due to its political crisis but should be back on track — and hungry — once the new elected government debuts in January. Highlights: Maya ruins, colonial towns, exceptional eco/adventure, world-class diving.  Panama, too, with great rainforest, beaches, one of the hemisphere’s loveliest colonial quarters (Panama City’s Casco Viejo, a UNESCO World Heritage Site), and barefoot Caribbean isles like Bocas del Toro and the San Blas, home to the autonomous Kuna Indians. In South America, Colombia‘s overall continuing security and economic progress will feed that diverse country’s tourism, especially to another colonial stunner, Cartagena on the Caribbean coast, and happening capital Bogotá (whose colonial quarter’s also nothing to estornudar at). Rising on the radar is the continent’s smallest and only Dutch-speaking country, Suriname, a multi-culti charmer with a cute, sleepy little capital and some of the hemisphere’s most unspoiled eco offerings.

MIDDLE EAST
With the steam let out of Dubai, look to UAE capital Abu Dhabi, also developing a-plenty yet without sacrificing traditional culture and flavor. On the Mediterranean, with political crisis at bay for now, Lebanon is still rockin’ the casbah — well, at least Beirut is, while the beach resorts, Roman ruins, and even wine country outside the capital provide a lower-key counterpoint. Up on Turkey‘s “Turquise Coast,” meanwhile, a resort town and region called Dalaman is currently hot, for example outstripping Spain’s Majorca as among the Brits; allures include beaches, soft adventure, nightlife, and historic/archaeological sites.

ASIA
The tourism offerings in staid ol’ Singapore are getting something of a 2010 shot in the arm, with the elaborate, Vegas-style casino-resort Marina Bay Sands; the also elaborate Fullerton Heritage Complex crammed with shopping, dining, and lodging; and Sentosa Island’s Resorts World, with a Hard Rock Hotel and a Universal Studios theme park. Another “city-state” (now a semi-autonomous part of China) seeing some new action is Macau, where, again, it’s Vegas-style casinos that’ve been complementing the Portuguese colonial architecture and fueling a local boom. On a less glitzy, more laid-back note, since Sri Lanka ended its civil war last May, more travelers will be returning to its historic towns, Buddhist temples, and breathtaking beaches.

AFRICA
From Kruger Park to Cape Town to the winelands, South Africa is on the upswing again, thanks to interest generated by Hollywood hits like Invictus and District 9, and especially June’s soccer World Cup. Lower on the radar, the story of the year may well be the rebirth of safari tourism in Rwanda, 17 years after its genocide, and, believe it or not, Zimbabwe, despite still being a political and economic basket case.

Santa, Baby! The World’s Koolest Kris Kringle Korners

December 21, 2009 at 5:08 pm | Posted in Europe, Finland, Massachusetts, New York State, Ontario, Vermont | Leave a comment
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by José Balido

In the spirit of the season, for all you moms and dads out there here’s a quick international round-up of several key theme parks built specifically around that jolly old elf and his crew. There are of course countless towns and cities (not to mention shopping malls) in various countries that toss up a little “Santa’s Village” for the kids during the Yuletide holidays, but these four in North America and one in Europe are dedicated theme parks that do their thing sometimes in winter, sometimes summer, occasionally both. Need I say that they tend to appeal more to families with smaller tykes?

Santa Claus’ Village in Rovaniemi, Finland
In operation since 1985 above the Arctic Circle in Finnish Lappland — which is, after all, about as close to the real deal as you can reasonably get, complete with real reindeer —  this is the only one of the bunch open year-round (you fly up from Helsinki,). So what’s up here? Exhibits of Finnish and international Christmas traditions (plus stuff like crystal, coins and gemstones);  a snowmobile park;  an elf-infested post office for mailing letters to you-know-who;  sundry shops; a couple of eateries; sleigh rides; an ice bar (for mom and dad, of course) — and of course visits with Joulupukki (Santa) himself in his office and toy factory.

Santa’s Land in Vermont, USA
In the south Vermont town of Putney (just north of Brattleboro),  the ho-ho-ho’s get rolling on Memorial Day weekend in late May at this cute little spread — more than a half-century old but reasonably well-refreshed — offering  arcade games, shops (including, of course, plenty of candy), ” rides n slides,” and a petting zoo (whoa, check out Bill the camel!). In fall and winter hours switch to weekends only till December 20.

Santa’s Village in New Hampshire, USA
Yup, we’re in New England again — this time in the White Mountain town of Jefferson, in the southwestern corner of the Granite State. This one has a schedule similar to Vermont’s version but is a little more elaborate (and costs a bit more, too), with real reindeer, antique cars, a movie theater, some fairly elaborate rides (flume, ferris wheel); and several places to eat and shop.

Santa’s Village in Ontario, Canada
Located in the Muskoka River town of Bracebridge, about 2 1/2 hours north of Toronto, this amusement park bills itself as “Santa’s summer retreat,” with a shorter season than the ones above, open late June through mid-September  (though in December — this year it was the 19th — they have an “open house” complete with story time with dear old Mrs. Claus). Anyway,  attractions/amenities include a petting zoo (no reindeer, but “fallow deer” that can look a little like ’em if you squint); rides; a mini-water park; go-carts; mini-golf; laser tag; and a campground.

Santa’s Workshop in New York State, USA
The Hudson Valley’s fetching Adirondack Mountains — and specifically the slopes of Whiteface Mountain — is home to what calls itself the “forerunner of present-day theme parks in the United States” — marking its big 6-0 this year.  Top features besides a modest roster of rides include a live Nativity re-enactment, other shows put on by a costumed cast of characters called the Mother Goose Guild. storytelling, and “Tannenbaum the Talking Christmas Tree.” And shops — but of course!

A Cold Yet Cool Reception This Winter at Sweden and Quebec’s Ice Hotels

December 2, 2009 at 11:06 am | Posted in Canada, Quebec, Sweden | 1 Comment
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by David Paul Appell

That time of year again — starting next week, chilly chic is back again, thanks to those clever Swedes (followed by crafty Quebecois). First up, from December 10 to mid-April, the Swedish Lappland town of Jukkasjärvi, up north of the Arctic Circle, will be the site of the 59,200-square foot (5,500-square-meter) 20th edition of the original ICEHOTEL (you fly into Stockholm, then connect onward to Kiruna; British Airways can also whisk you direct to Kiruna from Heathrow, believe it or not). For rates from 1,350 krona (US$197) a night per person, you can sleep in one of the 80 artist-designed rooms and suites carved from snow and ice (with thermal underwear and sleeping bags, of course), or in a more conventional, heated hotel annex. While you’re up here, activities include sauna, snowshoe, snowmobile/dogsled tours, ice sculpture lessons, and visits with the local Sami people. If you can’t make it this time around, they’re planning to open it a month earlier next winter.

Meanwhile, for those on the other side of the Atlantic, in Canada’s Duchesnay winter resort area a half hour from picturesque Quebec City, the Hôtel de Glace marks its tenth winter this January 4 to April 4. It’s quite a bit plus petit (32,000 square feet/3,000 square meters), but just as, er, cool as its Swedish inspiration, with similar amenities and activities (but no Sami, of course). An overnight in one of its 36 rooms and suites starts at CAD 219 (US$208) per person, or you can just stop in for a tour and a bracing gulp at the ice bar. A votre santé glâcée!

Where Cider Houses Rule

October 12, 2009 at 10:14 am | Posted in Canada, culinary/food & drink, Europe, France, Germany, Massachusetts, New York State, Oregon, Quebec, Spain, United Kingdom, United States, Washington State | Leave a comment

by José Balido

A demo of traditional pouring technique at a gala at the Cider Museum in Asturias, Spain.

A demo of traditional pouring technique at a gala at the Cider Museum in Asturias, Spain.

It’s autumn in the northern hemisphere, and in a few key regions of a few key countries that means apples and cider, both “hard” (mildly alcoholic) and not. While pomaceous potions are brewed — in versions sweet, dry, and downright tart — in countries as varied as Argentina, Russia, and South Africa, in certain fetching parts of Europe and North America, cidre, sidra, and Apfelwein are an integral part of the life and culture. Any one of them would make a juicy getaway indeed. So how do ya like them apples?

Canada: Quebec Though found in Ontario, British Columbia, and elsewhere, in Canada fermented jus de pomme has been a particularly important part of Quebec’s heritage ever since it was brought from France centuries ago (and they keep innovating, as with the relatively recent “ice cider”). A Route du Cidre covers some 30 producers, many family-owned but several run out of Roman Catholic monasteries (Cistercian cider – who knew?). Most are in Montérégie, just south and west of Montreal, and you’ll find the rest in the Laurentian mountains and the Quebec City area (including three on an idyllic isle, Île d’Orléans). CidreDuQuebec.com.

Britain: England & Wales Scores of small and medium producers crank out hundreds of labels worth of cider and perry (its pear counterpart). England’s West Country, Herefordshire, and East Anglia are hotspots, including historic thatch-roofed inns such as Bretforton’s half-timbered, Elizabethan Fleece Inn, Hereford’s Cider Museum, and a Cider Route covering big producer Bulmers and ten others. CiderMuseum.co.uk, CiderRoute.co.uk, UKCider.co.uk, WelshCider.co.uk.

France: Normandy & Brittany Normandy’s best known for Calvados, but also strong in sweet, brut, and semi-brut cidres; the epicenter’s the Pays d’Auge/Calvados region, anchored by the picturesque village of Cambremer and the larger capital, Lisieux. The Route du Cidre here takes in two dozen visitable cidreries. Brittany’s lower on the radar but does some fine work in a slightly different style, served up in colorful ceramic bowls and cups instead of glasses. Its own Route du Cidre in the Cournouaille region covers nearly 40 villages and towns and a dozen cidreries. Besides a wonderful Gothic old quarter, the Breton capital Quimper offers an interesting, apple-oriented Still Museum. Cidre.fr, Deauville-Normandie-Tourisme.com, RouteDuCidre.free.fr, TastyBrittany.com.

Germany: Frankfurt/Hesse & Moselle/Saarland German Apfelwein (aka Ebbelwoi) is on the dry side, and in Frankfurt with its more than 60 Ebbelwohnkneipen (cider pubs), many of them in the Sachsenhausen district, it’s arguably as big as beer; you can also visit Kelterei (cider houses) throughout its hinterland in Hesse, as well as down south in the Moselle and Saarland region bodering Luxembourg. The epicenter here is the town of Merzig, and a Viezstrasse (Cider Route) takes in some two dozen small producers. Frankfurt.de, Merzig.de, Viezstrasse-Online.de.

Spain: Asturias In the green north, the Basques and Galicians put out dry, refreshing sidras, but nobody puts it at the center of their cultural universe and identity quite like their neighbors in the lush, rolling principality of Asturias. Every town has at least a couple of sidrerías, where sidra natural is poured from bottles held high over the head, to “awaken” the fizz (a top sidrería hotspot is capital Oviedo’s hopping Gascona Street). Some of the 110 llagares (cider houses) give tours, and there’s also an interactive sidra museum in the town of Nava (among other things, you can sample a wide range and try your hand at the distinctive pouring method). Visit llagares on your own or book tours through Comarca de la Sidra, which include ancient, atmospheric family operations that don’t sell their output. LaComarcaDeLaSidra.com, Sidreria.com.

USA: New England & Upstate New York There are dozens of atmospheric mom-and-pop cider makers dotting the landscape in all five New England states – some still using old-fashioned steam-powered mills (B.F. Clyde in Mystic, Connecticut) or really old-fashioned rack-and-cloth models like the one at Cold Hollow in Waterbury Center, Vermont. Meanwhile, over in the Empire State, the Hudson Valley just north of New York City is prime apple country, and the Finger Lakes out west is also worth checking out for outfits like Lafayette’s quaint, century-old Beak & Skiff.  NewEnglandApples.org, NYCider.com.

USA: Pacific Northwest Cider’s pedigree here may not be quite as venerable as in New England, but it’s certainly well established, as there are dozens of lovely spots in Oregon and Washington within convenient driving distance of cities such as Seattle (for example, Orondo Cider Works, three hours east) and Portland (Ryser’s Farm and others in the countryside just south of the city). TriCountyFarm.org, WashingtonAppleCountry.com.

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