Rocky Mountain Road Trip Part 3: Okanagan to Banff

Two things learned. I have sub zero interest in being a long haul trucker and owning a RV–well, that would be a sheer nightmare. I realize some places in the world require driving to get to point A, B and B and a half, but, my true self prefers the pedestrian pace and jumping on trains or more planes if need be.

Driving back to Banff from Naramata meant retracing our route–those darn mountains left highway builders scratching plans for alternates. Which meant we’d be on the BC-3 for 54o.04 km back to Cranbrook. That’s 6 hours and 57 minutes of suggested driving time. Even with the prospects of spotting Sasquatch, it’s a hamstring-cramping haul.

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I should hardly bitch–I’m not even the driver! But, as Kim will attest, it’s hard for me to remain awake as the passenger. I yawned 5,467 times as we went higher and higher in elevation. I blamed it on the thin air of the Bonanza Pass at 5,035 feet and the inn’s satiating breakfast frittata. And, perhaps, that 10am wine tasting at Blasted Church in Okanagan Falls.

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Even though there are nearly 100 super accessible roadside wineries in the Okanagan, I like to find the ones that are seemingly wild goose chases. Signage was elusive and the road was more like 15km on a gravel driveway to nowhere. But, what a delight. As their website suggests: “Park your attitude at the farmgate, this winery has no place for traditional wine stuffiness and gravitas. Blasted Church is the Okanagan Valley’s most creative, inspired and fun destination for wine lovers. Blasted Church wines are often celebrated for their divine quality. Our wine labels, however, give heartburn to the most discriminating oenophiles.”

The story behind the Blasted Church is a grand tale involving an actual explosion. The Big Bang Theory was, that if the church was blasted from the interior, the impact would loosen the nails and the church would be easier to disassemble (it was being moved to another location). Oddly it worked, but clearly, do not try this at home.

We spoke with a gentle retired chap who shared behind-the-scenes info about his coveted gig at the winery. He’s at the comfortable age where he doesn’t need money and is happy to step back to allow the younger population a job opportunity. So, he picks up the few days over exams and the back to school crush. Which equals 18 days a year, give or take. Imagine. Kim and I nodded–yes, this would be our dream retirement ‘job.’

The wine list here is a riot: Bible Thumper, Holy Moly, Nothing Sacred, Mixed Blessings–you get the twist. We opted for the Big Bang Theory as a take-away and decided if we had a vineyard and knew how to make wine, this would be our schtick. But, that would probably involve more than 18 days a year and it’s so much easier to lay down $19.50 for somebody else’s dirty work.

We whizzed back through the fruit stands that clog the roadsides to Oliver. If you’ve been through the Six Nations Reserve in Ontario–the BC fruit stands are the equivalent of the smoke and rollies shops in Oshweken. We stopped for fall fair  contest winning peaches and blushing plums and pointed fingers at the brilliant purple peppers, yellow watermelons and syrups squeezed out of every possible fruit.

*Which reminds me–we have some black raspberry syrup for our next lazy Sunday buttermilk pancake session.

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Driving, driving, driving. Oh, and  a new warning outside of the usual elk, moose, mountain goat signage: Watch for sudden weather changes 27 km ahead. Great. As we snaked up the Mt. Everest-esque summit behind crawling logging trucks we watched the temperature on the dash plummet a few degrees every minute. Kim was anticipating a flash freeze as we dipped from 17 to 3 degrees in no time. Now was not the time for elk or moose.

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After the nerve-exhausting climb up and down the mountain pass we were happy to roll into Rossland and Trail. Every house in Rossland had a steeply pitched steel roof. These were snow towns–and, being on the shoulder season of skiing, it also meant that very little was open besides a used tire shop. We had planned on staying in Trail that night but were rather disappointed in the snore of a town.  Possible claims to fame? Kerrin-Lee Gartner who won the downhill Olympic gold in 1992 is from Trail. And, about 1,000 Italian immigrants who moved to the Gulch area. After stepping inside three dodgy restaurants, we settled on the Arlington Hotel Bar and Grill. It’s the kind of place you walk into and everyone turns their head. Day drinkers, Keno, neon, wood panelling and Queen.

Our server was so sweet when I enquired about the “Big Surf” lager. She explained, “It’s one of those micro-things everyone is talking about these days. It’s nice.”

So, we had nice Big Surfs on her urging, a butter-slicked Monte Cristo and chicken caesar wrap. While we waited for our order I went to the hall of fame-type section in the restaurant. There were Garfield cartoons, polaroids of drunk people fishing in the 70s and a few trophies for unknown things. Interesting.

Departing Trail and its glumness, we made the big push to Cranbrook, traversing the Kootenay Summit, 10 degree temperature changes and big horn sheep warnings.

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Cranbrook was equally sleepy–just a long stretch of chain hotels and aging strip malls. It was truly just a crash night and when the Best Western was suggesting $189 a night for a Queen room I was flabbergasted. No, not after our lap of historical luxury at the Naramata Heritage Inn for the same price tag and a lovely frittata.

We reminisced about the crappy horror of a place we stayed in Dakhla, Egypt–the pistachio green walls–the fridge that was hotter than a microwave inside–the wallpaper border of hunting labrador retrievers–the shower that was clogged and flooded the 2 by 2 bathroom–the flickering flourescent lights and Donald Duck decor. Surely we could make the best out of the “Heritage Inn” in Cranbrook with a hot breakfast all for $95 plus tax. (Not sure where the heritage part comes in–it had no visible relation to the Naramata Heritage Inn). The other hotels I had stepped into while Kim kept the car running were the type you’d hide from the FBI in or, kill yourself while listening to Lionel Richie on repeat. It doesn’t take much to make a room pleasing. A white duvet, some throw pillows and a black and white framed photo or two. Why the garage sale-ready prints of flowers and peacocks? Why the floral bedspreads?

For $95 we survived. Don’t even get me started on our three room changes with the TV that hummed louder than the actual TV volume. Or, the blast and rumble of the train all night long. Or, the hot (loosely used term) breakfast in the morning where we actually shook from the vibration of the idling train outside. The servers laughed it off–I thought I was mid-seizure.

Cranbrook to Radium Hot Springs: 142.81km

Kim and I quickly decided that we’d be looking outside of Radium for accommodations that night. Hot rods ripped up and down the main drag–it was the annual classic car show and people were lined up in lawnchairs, all snacked out, watching the parade of suped-up vehicles that would carry on for the weekend. We bought some smoked turkey sandwiches to go and disappeared up the Redstreak Trail, far from the madness.

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The hike started on a full-on 90 degrees angle. Think of the Grouse Grind, Vancouverites. I could only hear my heart in my head for the first 15 minutes. If a bear schemed to come eat us, it would have been the perfect time–our calves burned and our lungs felt sat upon. But, oh, the vistas!

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We took the lower Sinclair Creek Trail after a sandwich pit stop. Kim submerged a few cans of beer in the creek that we were hoping to see blood red Kokanee Salmon running up. The ferocious rush of water and whiskey jacks were a Solitudes soundtrack waiting to happen though. Minus the rumble of the machinery chugging around the nearby sawmill.

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Instant rehab was soon found in the the 102 degree waters of Radium Hot Springs. For $6.70 a person, it’s the cheapest way to happiness. Once we navigated the bighorn sheep in the parking lot it was easy to surrender to the surrounds.

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That night we found a perfect little cabin in Brisco, 27km north of Radium. We were welcomed by a scrappy three-legged dog and a less than social owner.

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The cabin was kitted out with a kitchenette (and a humming fridge that we had to unplug at night so we didn’t go mad–is there a theme with humming things, or what?), a stone fireplace AND an outdoor firepit. An unlimited pile of firewood and an axe = a five hour-long fire for the pyros.

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Kim expertly grilled a Dr. Oetker thin crust pizza by headlamp. The stars–my god, there were a bazillion in Brisco. We drank a Californian merlot–Three Blind Moose, and watched the sky so intently that we both saw a falling star. This would be the perfect snuggle spot for the Perseid meteorite showers in August!

The night air was seriously brisk–at this point I was wearing all the long sleeves I had packed. The chattering red squirrels and their machine gun calls had subsided. It was well after midnight when we doused the fire, having retraced our road trip a few times over each glass of wine in between ping ponging ideas for our next destination. This is how it happens! Innocent fireside chats and suddenly we are flying to the Corn Islands or the Bolivian Salt Flats.

We hurried out of the bungalows in the morning (no Keurigs or thermostats here!). In Radium we just missed the 8-9am $1.00 coffee happy hour at the local deli/bakery. We spent the extra bucks on a stiff Kicking Horse blend and tucked into just-baked blueberry muffins. Cue up Nat Geo–a black bear and her cub meandering alongside the road! There was no time to snap a picture–it was just one of those solid gold life-is-awesome moments that we shared.

Driving back to Banff, the return to the treed mountains was a sharp contrast from our tumbleweed desert trek. With the larch trees in full form (liquid sunshine yellow), I felt like we were transplanted into a miniature train set landscape. Oh, and don’t forget to add the bald eagle catching a ride on a thermal above us.

We did a speed tour of Banff–squishing in a hike along the Spray River behind the regal Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel. My contentment level peaked when I had secured two of Evelyn’s mammoth peanut butter and choco chip cookies (the best in Canada–and I’ve tried 86% of cookies available). Kim found a sweet deal on a pair of Scarpa hikers for our Camino de Santiago training  and we still had time to down a pint on the rooftop of the Elk and Oarsmen on Banff Ave.

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And, the birthday revelry continued. We reconnected with my parents and the just-marrieds for a bottle of Veuve (thanks Lynne!)  and apps in the driveway (*Redneck disclaimer: Kiley’s deck was in shade and we were all happy to suck up the  last blast of the western heat wave. I also liked how the seating and table arrangements were comrpised of coolers, bear barrels and a painting that Mark did in highschool on wood).

"Larry, you just clunked me in the head and don't spill my champagne!"

“Larry, you just clunked me in the head and don’t spill my champagne!”

That night we had the perfect send-off. Kiley pulled us outside, bubbling more than the Cliquot. “Listen! The elks are bugling!” With every blast of the train horn in the dead silence of the night, the elks responded with a guttural bugle and whistle.

Yeah, amazing. Rocky Mountain Roadtrip complete. Six days, 10 bottles of Okanagan’s magic, 56 beers, two bears and 1,791km.

 

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Rocky Mountain Road Trip Part 2: Nelson to Naramata

Nelson to Osooyos: 262.45km

Soundtrack: I Drove All Night, Cyndi Lauper

Road Snack: Buxom Okanagan apples, 1.5 kilos of Costco trail mix (mostly down to the gross raisins)

Nelson, BC is true hippie headquarters. As you enter the core, there is a significant increase in yoga studios, Birkenstocks, a surplus of tie-dye, transients and stranded and broke twentysomethings with guitars and huskies.

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We found a perfect launching pad in the Adventure Hotel on Vernon street. The heritage building has been updated with a serious dose of cool since its 1913 heyday. The walls are corrugated iron, the ceilings are clockwork orange and the hallway carpet is very Andy Warhol. The lobby counter has bike cog wheels embedded in its surface, there’s a “Hogwash Station” for bikers out back and Kootenay coffee is at the ready in the commons room.

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It’s architectural design mag-worthy—and the rooms have a slick Euro-feel with exposed brick and ducts and  super-sexy en suite showers. And, to boot, you can order a 6-pack of Hell’s Gate Lager for $10 from the room service menu.

My sister had gushed endlessly about Nelson—so much so that she admitted it was her second choice to live, if Banff didn’t win out on the mountain scene. I get it. The waterfront trail winds around a tiny marina on the western arm of Kootenay Lake and sits in the shadow of the Selkirk mountains. The parks are lush and the soccer pitches have dip nets (to retrieve soccer balls that get ambitiously hoofed into the lake). Kim and I walked the trail and took in the parade of organic-looking locals with equally happy dogs, kamikaze kids on BMX bikes and groovy skateboarders on longriders. You can feel the community hug in this place.

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From the waterfront, the town itself is San Francisco-like with monster hills (total calf-burners on my morning run). Note: don’t buy a standard in these parts. The main drag is rich with gear shops, yoga this-and-that and relaxed indie coffee joints. After a substantial wander and some fawning over Patagonia shells and fleece we were drawn to the stately Hume Hotel with its landmark neon sign beckoning.

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It was dark and moody inside, but in a good way. Two greyhound-thin guys in even skinnier skinny jeans played unobtrusive jazzy numbers. The place was packed. I felt like we had just stepped into 1898 (the year it was built) with our horse tethered outside while we ordered pints of Nelson Brewing Company Harvest Lager. A crab and artichoke dip became dinner as we had spent the day grazing on trail mix and had bypassed an appetite hours ago. However, had they brought out another terrine of dip, I would have been game.

Back at our Adventure Hotel, Kim and I set to work re-plotting our trip (again) and turned our bed into a tourist information booth with the stacks of brochures we had collected for the Okanagan. We could hardly stay awake until 9pm—I know, a world record. The two of us haven’t gone to bed at 9 since we were probably 7-years-old.

Kim was eager to get going in the morning, hoping that we’d make it to the desert and be able to enjoy a few solid hours lakeside in the afternoon sun. We hit up a nearby coffee shop called Oso Negro (Kiley insisted we go for “e-balls” and dandelion lattes) and had total guilt pangs about not travelling with a reuseable mug. The shop actually has a central rinsing station, and, everyone except us got the memo about a decade ago. We queued up with at least two dozen Oso Negro die-hards. I spied the e-balls that Kiley got glassy-eyed talking about, but, the baseball-sized ball of 100% peanut butter rolled in seeds and dunked half in chocolate looked like protein overkill to me. Too rich for my morning palate. Instead, Kim and I went for the carb-load of pineapple raisin and white chocolate-raspberry muffins that could double as doorstops.

The dandelion latte was a curious brew. I’m glad we tried it, but, I don’t need to try it again. It had a savoury finish, almost like chicken broth. But, it’s the kind of drink you keep sipping because it’s so weird and you need to keep trying to establish the exact taste profile until it’s finished.

Fuelled with dandelions and muffins (cake in disguise) we were ready to take on the next leg of the race—to Osooyos. The scenery changed dramatically every twenty minutes as we drove deep into the Arrid Extra Dry landscape. The ponderosa pines of the Kootenayshad thinned out long ago and the few trees we saw now were scrubbier. Remember Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree? Yes, a stretch of those. We had entered the zone of bleached grasses, taupe monotones and possible tumbleweeds. I started craving cans of pork n’ beans and Maker’s Mark in a metal cup by a blazing fire. It was the wild west, indeed.

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In Fort Greenwood (blink-gone) we passed Dr. Van Hulligan’s Circus of Calamities. The gold rush-esque town was dotted with trapper cabins, collapsing barns and saloon-ish bars. We drove a little faster through these parts half-expecting to see Dawg the Bounty Hunter or Christopher Walken.

Driving, driving, driving. On high alert for burrowing owls, Ogopogo and Sasquatch.

  • Next Nelson visit: All Seasons Cafe—a back alley bistro dishing out ‘left coast inland cuisine’ like bison spring rolls
  • Sandon: a silver mine ghost town. I like the mingling of abandonment, history and creepy.

Osooyos, BC

Selling features: 2, 039 hours of sunshine, less than 318mm of rain, average summer temperature of 28 degrees Celsius with a low of 1.3 degrees Celsius in the winter

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Similar to Spain in climate and terrain, residents have adoped an Iberian-style in buildling construction as well. Dubbed “Canada’s Warmest Welcome,” it totally was—the temp was 26 degrees. Like water diviners, Kim and I drove immediately to the two waterfront hotels we had earmarked online. Realizing the sun was going to set at the Coast Hotel versus Walnut Beach Resort, our decision was easy. Plus, Coast had cute complimentary Q-tip packages, in-room Starbucks Verona and a pancake machine in the breakfast room. By 2pm we were Q-tipped, on lounge chairs and well under the spell of Osooyos Lake (Canada’s warmest fresh water lake).

Our books went largely unread. We stared and strolled the shore, pausing to chat up a retired couple from the UK who were like sage owls in their slick of coconut oil, dispensing snowbird advice. Osooyos was kinda like stepping into the movie Cocoon. Everyone was over the age of 60, limber and as tanned as Bob Barker.

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Osooyos highlights included a drop in to Nk’mip Cellars—Canada’s first aboriginal owned and operated winery. The 2012 Syrah blend was pure plum and cedar and the perfect sundowner with wedges of maple cheddar.

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In the morning we tracked down the geo-marvel that is the Spotted Lake. Just eight kilometres from Osooyos on Highway 3, the sacred lake is a jawdropper with its crystallized “spots” of minerals. Dense deposits of magnesium sulfate, calcium, sodium sulphate, silver and titanium create multi-coloured rings, especially in the summer. It’s outer spacey and a fine display of Mother Nature’s creative side.

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Oliver, BC

This is the northern tip of the American Great Basin Desert (which extends to Mexico) and the south end of the Okanagan Valley– the trampoline jump to the Golden Mile. A map pinpointing the location of every winery in this area looks something like a Bingo card dabbed by a drunkard. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the proximity and clever names. Burrowing Owl was a must for me because they’re generous to our feathered friends. While Cariboo Brewing Company donates 10% to restoring forests ravaged by the Asian Pine Beetle, Burrowing Owl puts 100% of their tasting donations to owl rehab restoration projects. I like drinking responsibly!

All the reds we tried at Burrowing Owl were silky and big on the barnyard mouth-feel. Or, as the tasting notes suggested, “bacon and pastry crust.”

See Ya Later Ranch—the playful dog-centered winery donates 100% to the local SPCA. They sell everything from neon dog ponchos to dog-friendly peanut butter to a snappy Brut. We scooped a Jimmy My Pal chard/pinot gris but were quite sorry that we weren’t hungry enough for a patio perch lunch overlooking the rolling wine terrace. For those in the hood: How about their Brie LT? Brie, basil pesto, garlic confit and tomato with a fennel balsamic reduction.

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Oliver Twist—check out the cool vintage cars! The winemakers here are young bucks—35 and mad for the vintage hot rods. The Summer Passion Rose would be a fun pour to swirl on a June afternoon.

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Black Widow—the name and branding sucked us in naturally. The 2012 Phobia was a punch of black raspberry and seductive throughout. The port was a complete surprise. Aged 21 months in French oak barrels, this one would be a crowd pleaser with a chunk of Fair Trade sea salt-flecked dark chocolate in the mix.

Oh, it was difficult not to go all Sideways, but Kim was driving and I was getting cranked on so many sips. We bypassed Laughing Stock, Misconduct, Howling Buff and Ruby Blues. Silver Sage Winery with their infamous bottles with submerged hot peppers would have to await a future Golden Mile redux. Same with Hester Creek and their wood-fired potato and truffle pizza and Tuscan sausage-stuffed calzones.

Canada’s wine capital of 20 wineries in 20km is rather dreamy. Unfortunately, wine tours with shuttles demand $60++ bucks a person. Instead, we reasoned, for $120 you can have one dedicated taster and drive away with five decent bottles.

And, it was my birthday after all. So, as dedicated taster, we swooped in on one last winery: THERAPY. It seemed appropriate.

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Part of the Naramata Bench, the labels here are completely Freudian, of course! I quickly chose a syrah, the best accompaniment for our soak in the tub later that night at the Naramata Heritage Inn and Spa.

Backtrack: Our original plan was to stay in Penticton, possibly in a yurt (inconveniently located just feet from the highway). That was a blow-out. It’s just a big box city, clogged with traffic and with zero charm. The only saving grace was that the tourist info centre also had a wine tasting area. The staff there directed us to Naramata (Therapy also had a guest house, but, it was rather remote and we wanted to park the car for the day and get into the vino purchases).

The Naramata Heritage Inn was formerly a girls school house built in 1908. With just 12 rooms, the hotel is intimate, complete with creaking stairs and wonky hallways. I love sleeping in history– a byproduct of owning a 153-year-old home I suppose.

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We stopped at the local general store and picked up some of Penticton’s Cannery beers (the only praise-worthy thing about Penticton—especially the Anarchy Ale and Naramata Nut Brown), Old Dutch jalapeno chips and another block of cheese. Kim and I were born to picnic, indoors and out.

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The Inn, with the soaker tub and nostalgia oozing out of the floorboards was pure Romance 101. The rooms had the requisite plush robes and Aveda products to pimp out the bath with a dose of rosemary-mint. There was even a bottle of lavender linen spray.

But first, before the lounging—some sweat. We snaked up through the vineyards to the Kettle Valley Rail Trail and hiked to Little Tunnel (a 4.4km one-way jaunt). The views were surreal, and despite our mutual imaginary bear sound detection (and rattlesnake warnings!) we were left unscathed and seriously moved by the elevation and view over the Naramata bench.

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Day’s end: The Naramata Inn balcony. The sky had threatened us with rain and then shifted. Near the wharf the Damson purple clouds softened with sunset. We read a few chapters of our books (mostly out loud to each other), shared some olives, bites of cheese and unmatchable stillness.

And then, a soak and some Therapy. The best start to 40, I’d say.

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Rocky Mountain Road Trip: Part 1

When the phone rang in seemingly the dead of night at the Lake Louise Inn, my brother and Kim both moaned, “ask for a late check-out.” (*I should mention that my brother was in a separate bed—but we were sharing a hotel room).

It wasn’t front desk phoning. And it wasn’t the dead of night. It was just after 9am and we were still in a wine-induced fog from my sister’s wedding the night previous. It was my dad summoning us to the group breakfast at the hotel. Luckily my dad can deliver a steady monologue that doesn’t involve participation—and we merely had to nod, occasionally, still sleeping, staring into our muddy coffee while he made buffet suggestions and offered pastry and pancake bites.

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Hours later, rejuvenated by that crystalline Rocky Mountain air, Kim and I sat (still semi-trance like) on the benches facing Lake Louise, marvelling at the liquid emerald body. Of my ten visits or so to visit my sister in Banff, I’d never seen Lake Louise unfrozen (this year it was still covered in ice on June 4th). Whiskey jacks hollered and bounced along ponderosa pine branches, displaying much bird bravado. They are the biggest loud-mouths of the avian world.

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We decided to splash out and take to the patio at the Fairmont hotel. Wild boar bacon pizza with fontina and pints of Rutting Elk red in undiluted sunshine made for a welcome surprise after a week of fretting about the dismal, snow-heavy Alberta forecast.

When we landed in Calgary just two days before, the rental car indicated that it was three degrees. Wet snow whipped at us all along the Trans Canada and turned into pissing rain near Banff. The fields were blanketed in snow from the big dump just two days before. Our wedding outfits were not mountain-friendly. Our route to Osooyos, BC and back to Banff (in six days and counting), would not be as smooth as pudding with snowy summits, slushy passes and spontaneous wildlife in the mix.

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However, BC was promising a barometer of 27 degrees for the third week of September. Conveniently, my parents had booked a floating time share at the Marble Canyon Resort in Fairmont Hot Springs, BC. The 3,000 square foot “estate” was right on a golf fairway—which if you know my dad and Kim, is the stuff that dreams are made of.

After a lazy Lake Louise afternoon we cruised to Marble Canyon where my mother had elk burgers at the ready. “Can Kim do the barbecue part?” My parents have an unnatural fear of propane barbecues and spontaneous combustion. The resort condo had eight bedrooms I think—it would house the Kardashians and then some. There were two fireplaces and a wrap-around deck that we lounged on until dark.

Asian Pine Beetle Devastation

Asian Pine Beetle Devastation

Though tempted to stay at the canyon castle with my parents, we had a serious driving itinerary to tend to. After the mountain goat flash mobs of Radium Hot Springs and the ghostly apocalyptic passage through Kootenay National Park (where the Asian pine beetle have ravaged the forests for endless miles), we were eager to get to the “pocket desert” in Osooyos, BC.

The larch trees were just beginning to spin gold. Road signs warned of elk, caribou, deer and mountain goats. We passed log home hewing sites and tiny communities comprised of a dozen homes like Ta Ta Creek. Homemade signs advertising candied and smoked salmon dotted the highway.

The pine-infused air was like driving into the world’s longest and biggest air freshener.

Funny intermission: After filling the tank at a Husky station, I double-checked with a middle-aged bedraggled woman sucking on a Slurpee that we were heading in the right direction for Kimberley.

“Yup. You go there and there (madly pointing) and keep on honkin’ to Marysville. You’ll see it. No question.”

(For the remainder of the trip we kept honkin’ to whatever that day’s destination was. That woman has no idea how much she influenced us).

Kimberley

If you blink your eyes twice, you move instantly from anywhere, BC, to Bavariaville. The Kimberley strip is a curious passage into a traditional platzl complete with schnitzel stands, fondue spots and $3 apple strudel.

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It’s also oddly a metaphysical rock/gem wonderland and the patchouli is cranked out of the stores in fighting force with the frying breaded schnitzel. North America’s largest free-standing cuckoo clock is located here.

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For $1 you can have the cuckoo come out to play (if you are visiting off the hour). We had a few quarters and a toonie and missed out on the full impact of the landmark’s wonder. The platzl also had an outdoor ping pong set and an oversized chess set to cover all interests I suppose. I was more captivated by our hunt for the Old Bauernhaus.

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The 350-year-old structure had been transported from Bavaria, Germany and resurrected in Kimberley in 1989. We hoped to have a pint there (and maybe some of the venison geschnetzeltes and spatzle with sour cherry sauce that I had read about on their online menu, but, it was only 11am and the barn wasn’t open until 5pm). Instead we craned our necks and peered in the windows. To think, we bitch about trying to assemble Ikea bookcases. Imagine an entire farmhouse and barn arriving in two shipping containers with no instructions—not even in German? Ugh.

Creston: The Valley of the Swans (though we didn’t see any)

Creston hasn’t observed daylight savings since 1918. I’m still perplexed as to how this all works in the grand scheme of things. Due to the town’s proximity to the US border, many businesses accept American currency. Similarly, Porthill, the US border town, accepts Canadian bucks at the pumps. British Columbia’s last remaining population of the Northern Leopard Frog are found here (not by us) and Creston boasts the latest cherries grown in the Northern hemisphere. I know, wow. Such juxtapositions.

Our Creston experience involved crispy cod fish tacos with kicked-up chipotle aioli at Jimmy’s Pub and Grill, an add-on to a tired hotel on the main drag (the kind that advertises it’s cleanliness and hot water!). We skipped the nearby Kokanee beer factory tour (though I did kinda want to see the big Sasquatch monument there and experience first-hand what they described as a “family-friendly”brewery tour) and drank Jimmy’s Kokanee amber without the beer lesson (enjoying the reality show-like banter between the various day drinkers instead).

Sometimes it’s just time-savvy to read the blurbs from the tourist brochures and glance out the window at 80km/hr. I was turning into an audio book for Kim, giving her the highlights of each place we drove through.

The Labatt owned Kokanee brewery was involved in movie-making? Playing on the company’s slogan “It’s The Beer Out Here” they so cleverly named the movie “It’s The Movie Out Here.” Touted as a Canadian buddy comedy, it debuted at the Whistler Film Fest and had a limited run at theatres in Western Canada. Characters from Kokanee’s past campaigns starred in the film, but it tanked due to “an over-reliance on lewd content and product placement.”

Wiki has volumes on the Kokanee Sasquatch mascot storyboard that reads very much like a soap-opera. The Sasquatch hunter of earlier commercials was even killed off. Beer drama! The trailer for It’s The Movie Out Here# looks 100% terrible, even if you were skunked on Kokanee.

Wynndel, BC: population 900

Gas stations were fast becoming my favourite spots. In these wayward interior “towns” the stations are the go-to for current events and Duck Dynasty-style fleece wear. Kim had to pull me out of a few stations after I straggled in the aisles, mesmerized by the fancy lures, rifles, fresh huckleberries ($10/pound) and assortment of jerky. The bulletin boards outside of Fas Gas (no, not FAST, just Fas Gas) were a constant source of entertainment from the heritage pigs for sale ads to the glossy pics of a swimming Red Roan mare for $1,200 (one week trial offered) to tai chi groups, turkey shoots, funeral notices and ‘hempcrete’ (yes, concrete made out of hemp, somehow). There was even an advert posted by a 10-year-old who promised “to play with your children while you work or read a book” for $3/hour. But, she could only work for three hours max. Smart kid.

Huckleberry-less, we had to remain focused as the free ferry (the world’s longest free ferry—a 35 minute crossing of Kootenay Lake) to Balfour was departing at 2:50 (the next was slated for two hours after that) and I was keen on seeing the Creston Glass House en route. We planned to snake up along Kootenay Lake and ferry over to Nelson for the scenic vistas, and indeed, there was a solid dose of oohs and ahhs on the windy road.

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The Creston Glass House was built in 1952 by a genius mortician. David H. Brown decided to repurpose over 500,000 square discarded embalming fluid bottles and construct a two level house with them. He didn’t stop there—he also built a watchtower and bridge. The 1,200 square foot house is quirky and creepy—but, for $10, a worthy roadside attraction.

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HGTV’s Sarah Richardson would have a heyday in this joint. The southern lake view is uninterrupted and it made Kim and I wonder what we could build out of beer bottles.

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As we queued up for the ferry to Nelson we began to re-think our ambitious journey. The driving times with those pesky BC mountains meant for a lot of long harrowing hauls. Yes, we had tackled 1,000km routes before (across the desert to the Siwa Oasis from Cairo and south to Luxor), and we made it around the Ring Road in Iceland intact (with hurricane winds, a blizzard and a sandstorm to contend with) in nine days. But, did we want to be crushing the miles and bypassing woodsy trails and cutesy cafes just to get to the next spot? We had already given up the likes of Sasquatch, a family-friendly beer tour and a taxidermy museum because of precious time. But, now if we were cutting out the traverse to Vernon and Kelowna, we’d be missing out on the kangaroo sanctuary, the Myra Canyon part of the Kettle Valley Trail with 18 train trestles to bike across, the fried chicken and waffle sandwiches at Doc Willoughby’s Public House, the Pulp Fiction Coffee House and an artisan goat cheese cellar that served up goat’s milk gelato. Sigh.

I pulled out my makeshift green crayon highlighter and concluded that a re-route could afford us more time in the desert looking for burrowing owls and increased quaffing time wine country. Duh. We could leave the kangaroos for Australia and surely Toronto will catch on to the fried chicken and waffle sandwich craze in a month or so.

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Scratch Vernon and Kelowna. Hello Penticton and Naramata Bench. We would keep on honkin’ on a less-taxing route.

Stay tuned.

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Here Comes the Bride…

129We knew something was up by the pitch of Kiley’s voice mail message. She was practically falsetto and the assumption was that she had either bought a new hybrid vehicle or found a killer deal on flights to somewhere in the South Pacific. These are the things that generate gushing and warrant phone calls. Her Facebook page didn’t offer any clues though, so, when we finally did connect on the phone days later, she was still chirpy but firmly sitting on the news. Barely.

“Mark asked me to marry him!”

I didn’t believe it and continued talking about the smoked herring in the Magdalen Islands or red velvet cupcakes or something to that effect.

“No, we’re really getting married!” She sounded rather defeated. “Dax didn’t believe me either. He thought I bought a new Jeep too.”

Photoshop Ninja Credits to Kay Lefevre.

Photoshop Ninja credits to Kay Lefevre with love!

Backstory: Kiley and Mark have been together for 16 years. It’s not like Mark is some George Clooney-type (though George is now married), or was keeping his options open on the dating field. No, these two are as tight as spaghetti and meatballs. If I were to bet money on the longevity of a couple, I’d move all the chips to the Mark and Kiley square at the casino.

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As kids, Kiley and I (oddly) often played husband and wife. I had a sad clown face mask that I wore to represent “husband” and she wore a sheet/sari and usually nothing else. I’m not sure what this role-playing meant or how we came up with this notion after seeing our happily married parents and a steady stream of Little House on the Prairie and the Flintstones family dynamics.

The pixie-dust laced wedding would be in September and atop the Lake Louise ski hill. Kiley emphasized “mountain casual” which to me indicated Gore-tex and fleece and freezing our tits off. When we landed at the Calgary airport the day before the wedding (September 12th), the rental car indicated an outdoor temp of THREE degrees. Jesus. We would all perish on the gondola ride up in a weird Into Thin Air twist.

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Backstory: We arrived at the Lake Louise Hotel on the wedding day with fuzzy heads from the previous night’s meet-and-greet barbecue and bonfire on Middle Springs with Kiley and Mark’s assorted mountain casual friends. The hotel didn’t have us in the booking registry. Anywhere. (Story condensed here after much swearing and eye-rolling). Oh, wait, yes, they found it! I was booked in a room with my SISTER and MOTHER. Because, really, what bride doesn’t want to spend her wedding night with her mom and gay sister?

The hotel was a gong show from the get-go and will get a severe Negative Nelly tripadvisor blast, for sure. *Note to anyone in the Lake Louise vicinity for any reason in the future—spend the extra bucks for the attentive service, finery, reliable vibe and grandeur of the Relais and Chateaux property—The Post. Which is directly where we went for post-reception cocktails in leather wingbacks by a grand fire below the regal moose head.

But, before all this transpired—my brother Dax was playing his youngest sibling role to the max. Scene: my mother, in a fray (a beautiful one though)—mostly wide-eyed from prodding herself a dozen times with hat pins in affixing her fascinator to her head), was ironing my brother’s shirt about thirty minutes before we were supposed to be on the gondola. And then she pressed his boyfriend’s shirt as well.

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Exasperated after collecting the flowers for the wedding at 9am (and running on no caffeine or breakfast even), my dad and her had been steaming the bridesmaids dresses all morning in addition to other parental obligations. When we knocked on their hotel room door around 12:30, my mom said all the beer was in the car (with a heavy hint). She was parched. I did the run out to the trunk and was surprised to see that she had picked up Okanagan Porter. “This stuff is 8.5%, holy, Mom!” She grabbed the just-filled Styrofoam cup, “PERFECT!”

My parents were glowing though, and looked ready to walk the red carpet at the Oscars.

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I have only been to seven or so weddings. I recall being maybe eight and quite proud to strut around in a pair of pink polka dot pants from Reitmans (so awesomely coordinated with my powder blue Venetian-shutter style sunglasses—that were impossible to see out of). The song was Buffy Sainte-Marie’s Up Where We Belong, but that’s my only distinct memory. Maybe it was my Aunt Donna’s wedding? I had only seen her once before that, and not since.

There was a redux wedding for a couple married officially in New Zealand. A wedding where I snagged a ride to the airport in the limo with a then-girlfriend with the honeymooning couple (after an uncomfortable night in too-tight leather pants with a split-zipper. I bent over to put on my Doc Martens in the hotel room and busted the fly which had to be safety-pinned for the night which turned me into a virtual beer piñata). There was a wedding invite from two women who I met at a gay campground just the week before—their whippets were ring bearers. And, oh—Kim’s sister’s wedding at the Cambridge Mill. She still reminds us about her $10,000 bar tab. But, really, Kim and I have not been overdosed on the wedding frontier. However, now we’ve been totally spoiled for any future ones.

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Like, cue up the most jaw-droppy scenery and the liquid neon turquoise of Lake Louise in the background. Add a flitting butterfly, a surreal blue sky and a couple of ravens staking their mountain claim. There was chilled prosecco, wide smiles and a service that was shorter than a sitcom (on PVR—fast forward through the commercials even) with a Dr. Seuss quote to boot.

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I should mention that the bride was lovely—her dress was a major improvement from her previous ‘wife’ role-play days in a sheet and no pants. Mark was a pillar, blonde and Nordic, with a wooden ski boutonniere. The suited boys and the bridesmaids were radiant in Albertan bluebird sky blue and orange haute couture. It was like a tropical mountain mash-up and so very authentic Kiley and Mark.

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We all cried—mostly because we thought it was the end of the world. Kiley had actually shown up on time!!

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While the couple was whisked away to Lake Moraine (their falling-in-love zone) with the paparazzi, Kim, Dax, Dragos and I went to The Post to see how the other half were living. The prosecco buzz had us all charged with love and I was still smiling from my dad’s comment after the ceremony when he hugged me and said, “So, who’s next?”

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The reception was at the Lake Louise train station, a historic gem steeped in heritage. Trains still roared by throughout the night. Tiny gondolas were strung across the room and a fire blazed and snapped at the entry. Drinks were slung and the circles of Kiley and Mark collided and mingled. A slide show garnered instant laughter and inspiration with the mix of childhood photos and envy-inducing travel pics.

A world map was mounted for guests to sign—mostly encouraging future travel recommendations for the couple. They are already scheming a February honeymoon in the South Pacific—but apparently you can take a “mini-moon” nowadays? For the two mad travellers, I sense many phases of this “honeymoon.”

We dined like royalty on the likes of bison short ribs (the best eats I’ve had in 2014) and Pacific salmon. The wine was a waterfall during the speeches which bounced from a comedic romp to a good razzing and parental praise.

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The wedding was just pure lovely. Right down to the chai honey cupcakes. There was immense creativity injected into this day and it was a solid indication of a love that revolves around indulgence, undiluted fun and adrenalin-steeped adventure.

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In addition to walking away with cool mini gondola take-home swag, I think it was evident that everyone present was reminded of love’s unstoppable cosmic force. Love the hell out of the person you’re with! When you’ve nabbed your soul mate, it doesn’t require effort, it vibrates and hums and glows.

Kiley and Mark talk to each other every day like they’ve just met. The conversation is endless (Dax always thought it was because they didn’t have cable). But, with Kim—I get it too. When you love and adore someone endlessly, there are never enough hours in the day. This is why Kim and I still routinely stay up until dawn, talking.

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Lessons in marriage: you need to find delight and not disappointment in your partner’s quirks. And after watching Kiley and Mark’s slide show chock full of grinning pics from Iceland, Nepal, New Zealand, Belize, (insert 56 other destinations)—anything and everywhere is possible.

And as Alistair Macleod said in No Great Mischief, “All of us are better when we are loved.”

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Um, take two…

 

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Our Journey As House Hunters and Gatherers

We’ve somehow become house hunters and gatherers. Obviously, after finding our stone cottage on the river in November of 2012, we went on a realtor. ca hiatus. The real estate site is like a step into quicksand. Hours later you can find yourself cross-eyed (and a bit tipsy–unless it’s morning, then most likely, hopefully, wired on caffeine)  and already packing virtual cardboard boxes.

PORT STANLEY, ON–not for sale, but spied upon from our beach towel

Our revised master plan is to find a knock-out property that will gel more with our retirement agenda–which involves winters anywhere but here, doing meaningful things. That’s the easy part–whether we volunteer at a sloth sanctuary or count migrating wildebeest, we first need to find a three season property that doesn’t have abandonment issues.

SHREWSBURY, ON $169,900 (we’re not sure if this has a roof or not–oh well!)

Yes, we love and adore our house and the sanctuary that we’ve transformed it into. But. This 153-year-old home is like a finicky supermodel. She needs lots of attention and manicuring. We couldn’t take off to walk the Camino de Santiago for two months without the perennial gardens turning into the likes of the Amazon. The boiler system simply can’t be shut down for the winter so we can document Zanzibarian sunsets from our hammock office.

THE ROCK, ZANZIBAR (probably the best perch abroad)

So, the search begins again, with a less frenetic pace and without the confines of work parameters and perimeters. Kim laughed at my range before–I had a mere 70km radius to scan then (to keep her commute reasonable. For me, as long as I was under the 10km mark, I could walk-run-bike to wherever I might find gainful employment).

ATHOL WARD, PRINCE EDWARD COUNTY $349,900

And now? We’ve already been combing the Saugeen Shores, Prince Edward County and townships we hadn’t even heard of from Wellington and Athol Ward to Bayham. We cruise the shorelines and rivers for listings. Often, Kim has already tucked into bed (a 4:30am alarm trumps my 10am wake-up call). I’ll leave an excited note for her to find in the morning before I cozy up beside her: “Oh my god, I can’t believe we’re moving to Amherst Island!” (Or, Selkirk! Arran Lake! Southampton! Keppel Township!)

PRINCE EDWARD COUNTY, ON

There is great hilarity to be found in looking up these tiny places on Wiki. Often the town’s claim to fame is an annual Port-a-Potty race down the main street. Or, a nail-driving contest. Or, it’s home of the world’s biggest deep-fried-pickle monument (I made that up, but surely there is one. Most likely in dear Nashville.

FORMER GRIST MILL, PAISLEY, ON, $1.2M

 

STELLA, AMHERST ISLAND, ON $184,000

Amherst Island gut job ++ $119,500

AMHERST ISLAND (gut job +), $119,500

What we’ve learned is that what you think is necessary in a potential area (coffee house for a Papua New Guinea bean supply, microbrewery, cheese shop, take-out Thai food, cinema) usually pales. Often those things are replaced by the unexpected–long walks on trails through the Carolinian forest, dew worm vending machines and the best butter tarts outside of grandma’s kitchen at Dee’s on St. Andrew’s. Having a backyard fire pit or hand-built pizza oven is critical though. And better yet, a wood-burning fireplace inside…

WAUPOOS ISLAND, $500,000

Moving from Toronto, all the glittery city spoils were within reach. Toronto has everything–except for what we have here. A full-sun backyard, indigo buntings, peaceful sleeps–even church bells sounding across the river. As I type this I can hear an osprey cry out as he zooms along the water behind our house.

I don’t need bookstores, necessarily. I’ve become a mad library lover instead. I thought I’d be at a complete loss without my go-to in the Annex– Queen Video. Ha! The library has loads of DVDs (even Sons of Anarchy), documentaries and indie flicks.

GALT, ON $389,900

I thought I would miss my weekly entertainment fill with copies of NOW and The Grid. For anyone who follows me on Facebook, you’ll know that there’s a lot of comedy to be found in The Ayr News, The Cambridge Times and the Waterloo Record. Between the “For Sale” and Personals ads, I’m set. Not to mention the listings for ham suppers and the Gay Paranormal Society ghost tours. I still don’t know if they are looking for gay ghosts or it’s just gay people who like ghosts.

ARRAN-ELDERSLIE, ON $285,000

Anyway. It’s obvious–Kim and I can live anywhere. I know this for sure. We’ve lived in 900 square feet, we’ve slept in our rental Suzuki in an Icelandic hurricane…a pup tent suits us just fine. We stay up to ungodly hours because we never run out of things to talk and dream about. We genuinely love and thrive in each other’s company–so, if our dream house is off the flight-path or wi-fi, bring on the remote. (And I don’t mean the television remote).

What we do like and need is a patch of grass (less than an acre), a place with a cool exterior–we can work magic with the inside guts. Something on the water (lake or river, we’re versatile) pointed west for serious sunsetting. Maybe a wrap-around porch–though Kim could build that in a pinch.  A church conversion would be awesome. A lighthouse would be better yet. And I’m a sucker for anything with a barn–even if the living space is an actual barn. And an attic loft? Complete swoon. Maybe there’s a vineyard nearby and we can offer picking and responsible sampling services during the summer months.

THE WAUPOOS ISLAND $500,000 MONEY PIT

 

ALLENFORD, ON (formerly known as “Driftwood Crossing”) $109,900

FORMER SCHOOL HOUSE, BRIGHT, ON $399,900

We know family and friends will migrate to wherever we end up. We’ve actually seen my parents more frequently since they moved two hours away–more than we ever did when they were just half an hour from us. My brother Dax will bitch about anything that involves public transit, but, he’s getting accustomed to hopping in a cutesy Fiat rental for a weekend to  get out of the 416.

PRINCE EDWARD COUNTY, ON $249,900

There are just so many dynamic, inspiring places to live in this world. If you’re bored, disenchanted, restless or the opposite– happy, flexible and simply eager for shiny new horizons more cohesive to your lifestyle and game plan…it’s time to enter the danger zone…realtor.ca

And share your finds! What’s important to you? Where do you need to live NEXT?

KEPPEL TOWNSHIP, ON (near Georgian Bay) $299,000

 

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Cornering Nirvana in the Magdalen Islands

PEI & The Maggies June 2014 212It has become apparent that our new angle in travel is cornering nirvana. With Kim’s looming retirement almost edibly on the horizon, every place we visit undergoes scrutiny for future real estate potential. With southwestern Ontario winters becoming increasingly like a barren Arctic experience, we’re setting our sights on more palatable landscapes and temperatures. Don’t even get me started on the barometric disappointment of this summer. Ugh.

However, even at a bone-deep 13 degrees, under a duvet of fog, we found an immense love for the Magdalen Islands. We were already heading east to Prince Edward Island, an annual pre-determined event to visit Kim’s parents and bloodlines. Kim has been to PEI over 50 times. It was my fourth visit and the lure of crab cakes, lobster rolls and the cinnamon cliffs of Cavendish will never pale for me. But, we wanted to jazz up the annual this time and tack on a few days nearby. Flights to Newfoundland out of Charlottetown were prohibitive. We’d both been to Halifax a few times. I investigated ferries to Boston and Maine, but, we needed more days than we’d already stretched.

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I’d heard of the Magdalen Islands years ago but somehow lumped them in with Saint Pierre and Miquelon which sit in the northwestern part of the Atlantic, near Fortune Bay, Newfoundland. The neat part is that the islands are owned by France. The Maggies (or Iles de la Madeleine) are an archipelago in the Gulf of St. Lawrence just five hours from Souris, PEI. But, despite being geographically closer to PEI and Nova Scotia, the francophone Magdalens are part of Quebec.

With a tight population of less than 13,000 and a land mass of 205 square kilometers, we knew we could bomb around the chain of islands in three days. Plus, I had found an Air Canada seat sale for $240 bucks (the same airfare as a Toronto to Charlottetown ticket). The ferry was an additional $100 (for two), but, the only option for us to get from PEI to the Maggies.

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We arrived poorly packed for the pissy east coast climate, leaning more towards an optimistic June forecast of 25+ degrees. Not a wavering 13-15 degrees with pelting rain. We were both wearing all the long layers that we had brought, knowing full well that we were travelling to islands known for excessive and relentless wind. The Magdalens are a kite-boarding and hang-glider haven. Every B&B and restaurant had “wind” in the name. Though my Francais is extremely scratchy at best (despite Madame Massicotte’s best efforts in highschool), I did know that “vent” translated to “wind.”

Wind indeed. Rain indeed. Jean-Francois was at the ferry gate as promised. It all seemed so dodgy, just weeks before, booking a rental car with him without a confirmation number or email receipt. Nothing, just Jean-Francois assuring me that he had been in the business for 30 years, that he didn’t have a computer, and he would be at the ferry at 7pm.

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The kindness of the locals was ten-fold. In the fog and ensuing night fall, we couldn’t find our B&B after three U-turns on the main road into Bassin. Kim stopped our little Fred Flintstone rental (an Aveo?) in front of a convenience store where I ran in, armed with maps. Me being the “more French fluent” of the two of us. (*Note: totally need to check out this Rosetta Stone thing).

I asked the cashier, “ou a la B&B?” while pointing to La Rose Des Vents address I had scribbled down. The cashier started blankly looking at my entire page of notes which outlined our itinerary of smoked herring, the cheese factory and beers to try. She shook her head and rang through a bag of Doritos and a Pepsi for the buying customer.

Conversation between them ensued. It sounded heated, but, was just normal chatter. Hands waved, eyes went back and forth to me and suddendly the cashier was give me the “shoo” sign. But, she was shooing me in the direction of the Doritos guy. Doritos guy gave me a “come, come” sign (I was transgressing into a golden retriever) and I followed him into the parking lot. He gave me a head nod as he got into his vehicle and I pointed to the Aveo and Kim and he nodded enthusiastically. I had no idea what we had just agreed to, but, he had chips and didn’t look serial-killer-ish.

I told Kim to follow him, for lack of better ideas.

“He’s taking us there?”

“I dunno. I think so.They didn’t speak English, but, it seemed like we were supposed to follow him.”

Oh, so trusting–but, we had a witness in the cashier. Sure enough, the Dorito fan brought us directly to the B&B (which we would have NEVER found in the soup fog, missing the critical street name that we needed to turn on to (which wasn’t on our touristy cartoon-like map). He stopped, honked, pointed and pulled a U-turn and roared off.

Between Jean-Francois and Mr. Dorito, we were already charmed.

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Just before we flew east I had immersed myself in the Magdalens courtesy of Claire Mowat and her memoir, “Travels with Farley.” From their outport life in Newfoundland, the Mowats ended up spending several magical years in Old Harry, near Grand Entree Island. I love when book pages come to life and you can drive directly into the descriptions with that bizarre literary deja vu.

Kim described the Magdalens best (once the fog lifted the next morning and we could actually see beyond 10 feet). “It’s like a chunk of Iceland broke off and floated south.” Indeed, the colourful homes against the elephant grey sky and gulf waters was pure Reykjavik. We swooned over countless homes–lime green, purple and orange beauties atop cliffs and so isolated from the density of Cap aux Meules. By the mid-afternoon, we had agreed on over 50 homes that we could instantly move into, without debate.

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Route 199 (again, so similar to Iceland’s Ring Road) was empty of traffic, save for a scavenging fox and a few stalking herons at the roadside. Scrubby pine forests thinned into soupy bogs. Sand dunes and bleached grasses gave way to brick-red cliffs and verdant hills. I could see how the Mowats were seduced into making a life in the Maggies.

Hickory smoke permeated the air as we neared the Havre-aux-Maisons herring factory. We needed provisions for our day, and nibbles of marninated smoked herring was as authentic as we could get. We picked up extra packs for my mom (who had seen the very factory we were at in a TVO documentary) and some dried razor clams for Michelle, our fisheries friend on the west coast.

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We cued up in line at the cheese factory next, procuring  a bag of squeaky cheese curds. It was all so pastoral and storybook.

As we turned on to the Sea Cow Path I read aloud notes from Claire Mowat’s book. It was the site of the massive slaughter that led to the walrus extinction on the islands in 1799. A dozen hunters could kill 300-400 walruses in a single night because of the animal’s poor vision and defenselessness on land.

Our side trip to the Maggies held all the essential elements for us, and we mused about summering in Bassin at the aptly named L’abri de la Tempete (“Shelter in the Storm”) brewery. Rain spat outside and the powder grey sky looked increasingly ominous. But, tucked in at the bar that oozed whimsy and cozy, we were rather content with our beer paddle. It was an unexpected and lovely pit-stop. I had only expected a 15 minute generic tour of the microbrewery led by some bored or hungover summer student. Here, the view of the western dunes was unmatched. We ordered a brie and old cheddar plate with tiny, chewy in-house baked bread bites (made with beer) served with a puddle of local cranberry preserve and pea sprouts. The saisson made with fleurs picked by the brewmaster was like beer champagne.

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Again, it was the sheer kindness of strangers that led us to the brewery. Bungled with vague directions, we ended up in Fatima, thinking the brewery was close to the city core. We pulled into the Decker Boy restaurant and asked a server if she could point us in the right direction. She had an idea of where the brewery and agreed it was difficult to find. She pulled out a phone book to find the proper address while asking a table of locals eating pizza if they could assist us. Ironically, it was a woman who I remembered from our five hour ferry ride that came to our aid. On the back of a menu they drew a very efficient map (who needs GPS when you have the Decker Boy team of strangeres?) and sent us on our way with many “mercis” on our part.

The western dunes by the brewery were desolate. After being spoiled on Zanzibar’s empty east coast beaches, we’ve become accustomed to being the only visible humans for miles. Here, we found that solitude. Kim skipped stones and we pocketed several smooth rocks. The sand was like that in Basin Head, PEI–“singing sand.” The high silica content makes the sand actually talk underfoot. Like cheese curds.

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We walked several stretches of beach west and east and in Old Harry. When rain threatened again we made our way to La Grave, near our B&B. The first settlers landed here on the pebble beaches and began a thriving fishery. Today, the half moon bay is a hot bed for artists selling silver jewellery, blown glass and acrylic works from their studio spaces. Cafe La Grave became our reliable stop for truly ambient pints amongst the stacks of National Geographics and hardbacks. The robust waft of the on-demand espresso maker mixed with the sweet nutmeg of baking minced pies. On a Wednesday night, a table of jovial twentysomethings suddenly broke into song. Several songs actually as hidden instruments emerged and soon there were flutes, accordions and snare drums in the mix. Pure fun and my god, if you order the mussels–expect a place of over three dozen straight up in a divine briny broth with diced celery and onion. The skin-on fries are killer and the taps are from Shelter From the Storm–the stout is as black as tar and served up in a mason jar. We needed more days to eat our way through the menu which included wild boar sausages and kraut, tartiflettes, salt cod cakes and seal pate even.

Are you hooked yet?

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Our B&B innkeeper was gentle, engaging and a dynamo at breakfast, plying us with plates of local cheese, fresh cranberry studded loaves, yogurt with a stir of thick apple sauce and granola. My sister would have purred over the daily fresh fruit shake and foamy lattes. Best yet was breakfast with the horses–watching her two lovelies graze and gallop just feet from the solarium. Two cats circled our ankles inside the house and Genvieve’s Irish Setter made us feel welcome with eager headbutts and enthusiasm.

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We found ourselves cross-legged in bed early. The sky would still be pink (the sun so desperate to break the clouds) when we’d retreat to our suite. We could still hear the horses huffing and moving about as we tried to down the marechal plonk we bought at PEI from Rossignol. Kim read Coelho’s memoir of his journey on the Camino while I was deep into Bruce Chatwin. The day’s thrills, timeless beach-combing on Sandy Hook, and deep satiation from the punishing climb up the Demoiselle trail for an unobstructed 360 view were the perfect stew for sleep.

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Of course, the day we left the temperature cranked up to 25 degrees. We spent our last hours on Sandy Hook beach imagining life in a purple house, idle days watching plovers and reading good, inspiring books and endless shoreline walks. Fresh catch on the grill. Nights at the pub.

It came as no surprise when we returned home and fired up the laptop to check out real estate listings in Sandy Hook. Cornering nirvana, it’s the best research to conduct.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Dirt & Demolition, Renewal, Repurposing & Refining: Adventures in Gardening

When we bought our stone cottage in the near dead of winter, the backyard’s long-neglected seasonal perennial jungle was half-composted into the frozen ground. When we moved in at the end of January, the snow was a lovely duvet fluffed over what would emerge come spring. And emerge it did.

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My mother advised us to “let everything come up. You have to see what you have and then you can be selective.” Kim and I, minimalists to the core, were frightened at the prospects. We were already sneering at the single aliums and wayward tulips that squirrels had probably plopped into the ground cover and iris clumps with a snicker.

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Neighbourhood informants let us know that the previous owners had “really let the place go.” Really? If you’ve read any of the posts on our home, you’ll nod with two simple words: dog fur. Finding dog fur in the freezer and halfway up the Hunter Douglas blinds was a dummy indicator of what the backyard would reveal. “Oh yeah, they never even took the storm windows off.” We soon found out why–the screens stored in the shed had provided snacks for the squirrels. Half of the screens were eaten with holes gaping enough to kick a soccer ball through.

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I’ve already mentioned the appalling state of the shed–which had at some point become the black walnut warehouse for all squirrels living in this postal code.  The aftermath–of us, below.

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The planter boxes behind the house were a soupy mess that smelled like swamp and cat shit. The grass was a patchy ruffian mess and we couldn’t wait to scale the walnut tree to hack down the broken duct-taped swing from our view.

The dog fur inside had a parallel dog shit bingo equivalent outside. We found an old rad, piles of laminate flooring, cracked rain barrels (“Oh, you can keep the rain barrels!”) and other hunks of junk that we turfed into a rented Bagster.

But, back to the gardens. We let everything came up as suggested, knowing we would have to tame the herd sooner than later. We did everything you shouldn’t do. I’m sure our master gardener neighbour, Liz, was shaking our head as we yanked yard bags full of growth out. And it was just that–growth. Kim and I, as Capricorn and Virgo stalwarts, rearranged “families” of bachelor buttons, lungworts and peonies. We couldn’t wait until fall when you are supposed to transplant. No, by midday July, humidex full force, we had to smarten the garden up. We split hostas, knowing they were great space hoggers. We removed lonely singles and posted a slew of photos on Facebook, begging botany-blessed friends to help us out with the likes of Siberian Squill, Pasque flowers, Leper’s lilies and Jerusalem Sage (thank you Kay, Connie, Tanja and Beth!).

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Kim was well-versed in hostas while I was more experienced in serious grass cutting. I’ve mowed so many acres in my life. If all the hectares were added together, I have probably cut a swatch across Canada by now. In sharp contrast I can whip through our patch in 20 minutes flat versus 5 hours and 6 acres on the John Deere.

This year’s backyard theme has been less about demolition and damage control. The shed is tidier than the White House with everything in its place. The storm windows are off and the screens resurrected. The swing is down (thanks to a quick $20 handshake to local city guys cutting down stuff on the street who I begged to help us out).  We’ve added 75 bags of black earth, probably just as many bags of black mulch, fixed the floating fence panels that were going to be flat after one more westerly gust and planted six cedars. The Saab has become an unexpected workhorse, reliably shifting from a sporty coupe into a semi-tractor with a load of 40 retaining wall stones in the trunk.

Being asked to partake in the Galt Horticultural Society’s annual Open Garden Tour certainly put us on full tilt mode–once the perma frost began to thaw. We were thrilled that our dodgy transplanting techniques took root–the hellebore and turtleheads look bone meal happy! Our tulips, aliums and day lilies came up waist-high this year…despite us plucking leaves with mild sunburn and the slightest wilty posture. Our bear’s breeches and its four offspring have become legendary Chia Pets.  The peonies have gone bananas, and despite popular belief and suggestion–we have trained them to grow in shady conditions as well. A rosehip that we clipped to Edward Scissorhand specs has bounced back from near-dead–and stumped a few avids who wondered why kind of rose standard we had.

On  Monday we had over a hundred esteemed members of the Society cruising through our gardens. We picked their brains and learned that we had a mock orange tree (and, members, can you believe the blooms rocketed out the day after the tour?).

It was reassuring to get an official pat on the back from the experts who praised us for our commitment and eagerness to maintain the perennial zoo. They were probably more amazed at our progress from the daffodil level of identification.

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What we’ve appreciated the most this season has been our opportunity to make our creative footprint. Yes, every gardener edits a space to their liking and leanings (which explains our African daisies, fingerpaint coleus and lavender plantings). But, a garden is truly like snooping in someone’s medicine cabinet. It’s as revealing as a shopping cart’s contents.

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We needed to make the backyard our own and we plugged along finding purpose for found and free objects. The Weston bread baking tray became a herb planter.

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A window frame that my mom had intended for a stained glass project was resurrected to frame the poppies. Kim put her brick-laying skills to the test to complete the unfinished patio stones beside the shed with the pile we had dug up last year in the gardens (especially because after a dozen stores, we couldn’t find patio stones that matched the size we had).

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The post from the front veranda of our home that was found behind the shed became the post for our travel signs. The signs were painted on scraps of barnboard from my childhood kitchen walls.

The wine box planters were derived from a wooden wine box Kim and I found two summers ago walking through Kensington Market in Toronto. We put together the arbour that Kim had moved garage to garage without assembling over the years due to not having adequate or appropriate space.

The birdcage was found buried at a creepy but awesome junkyard off Highway 24 near Brantford. We begged the owners to sell us a bike buried by twenty years of stuff in their metal graveyard behind the house.

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Everything just came together. Lost, found, repurposed. We hammered a collection of bottle openers on to the shed and let the cracked mirror live a longer life outside (the only item broken in our move). The planter boxes were dismantled in favour of a cedar deck that Kim designed (thanks to the biceps of our backyard interns Dixon and Tommy).

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The firepit went in immediately, because, it has always been around a fire that Kim and I have nursed glasses of wine and talked about our schemes and dreams–most often until dawn.

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And, now we are sitting in the very dream that surprised us both. Living in a stone cottage built in 1860 on the banks of the Grand River in Galt. And hosting a hundred members of the Galt Horticultural Society in our backyard.

And now, for the parting before and after shot, for those who find themselves in a similar state of weeds, neglect, bewilderment and overwhelmedness:

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Late spring 2013, sans composter

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Late spring 2014. Fence repaired, cedars planted, mulched, tamed, etc.

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Spring 2013. Planter boxes removed, deck plans in the works. Tommy drinking beer and selecting tunes.

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Funny how this photo is applicable before and after. Recreational reading and cocktailing in the sun, my default status.

Categories: Home Sweet Home | Tags: , , , , | 2 Comments

Top 10 Books For Not Just Summer, But Life in General

003“The most important experiences in your life are the ones that change how you look at the world.”

~ Jimmy Chin, alpinist and filmmaker

Books change our world too-even those innocently read ones, coveted under childhood blankets with flashlights illuminating far away worlds. Pilgrimages to the local library were a Saturday staple–and we always left with arms nearly out of their sockets carrying our marvelous cartel to the Pinto.
I’ve said this before here, and I probably will again, because, it’s probably the most important thing that was ever said. “Just be interesting.” My parents didn’t force-feed us academia or insist on Tiger Mom pursuits in law, teaching or doctorates. Though, Dax did get the fancy credentials, and Dr. Dax was in that scholastic vein early on.
Though I appreciated the curricula of the registered massage therapy program I enrolled in four score and seventeen years ago, I couldn’t wait to resume my recreational reading habit. The text books were shelved and I was able to submerge back into the sublime–creating my own life curricula via books.

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“Only boring people get bored,” was another mantra of my mother’s. And, if you are a reader by default, then, it’s difficult to get to a bored state unless you are bookless in Seattle. When I was in highschool I remember my mom asking me to have my hyper-intelligent English teacher create a list of her favourite books. Joan was in the know and a culturally literate wundermind. Surely, given the way she spoke (she was the one who introduced me to such 25 cent words as “surreptitious” and told me my writing was like a white-water rafting adventure instead of a smooth paddle on a calm lake), many books were behind her insights, and her undiluted passion left me spellbound. Joan laboured over the list, though, I know a hundred titles came easily to her mind, and handed it to me a few days later. (*Mom, do you still have that list?)
I too am constantly asking reliable sources for their favourites. You can easily identify your reading soulmates after a few shared titles. I drift all over the genres but always gravitate towards quirky, memoirs, travel junkets and anything Africa.
Which led me to this. A book curriculum for life, in general. The books that you should read as a human. I’m not listing Shakespeare (snore) or those imagery lessons like The Great Gatsby or any of the others that we’re pushed upon us in highschool. No, this is my bespoke list, and, if you are a friend of mine, clearly we share some love and common ground.
I do believe in responsible reading, sometimes–you know, those important books that shaped a time. I’m talking about Love in the Time of Cholera, Keruoac’s Dharma Bums, Hemingway’s Green Hills of Africa, Theroux’s Mosquito Coast and stuff about urban gurus like Jane Jacobs and bike-pushers like David Byrne.
Books that have found media fame like Eat, Pray, Love completely annoyed me. I never did finish The Celestine Prophecy. And, I’m definitely not going to read 50 Shades of Grey.
My bookshelf is mood-obvious and decade-indicative. Like a walk through the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam. Van Gogh’s shift in spirit and palette between the decades (from cheery sunflowers to utter gloom and miserable skies) is so evident.

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Yes, I have beach-y, cotton candy mindless reads that sit beside soul sandwiches like Siddartha, Leo Buscaglia and Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist. Those searching books–those were the Vancouver years of 18-23. Living with a bohemian lot of artists, writers and activists, my book choices eclipsed that time period: Salinger, Tom Robbins, everything Douglas Coupland, How to Live on Nothing and a cannonball into the gay world. I found Sappho, Ruby Fruit Jungle and the world of Jane Rule.
The Virgo in me reflexively makes lists, for everything–especially books to read and books that have been read. I have the years well-chronicled. I could probably list my entire bookshelf as each title has been critical at a particular time for growth, inspiration or (ugh, loathe the world), closure.
My brother reads depressing books as they always make him feel better about his own life (*note, he is not depressed, he just likes how books can consistently do that). I like the sob-inducing ones more out of writerly respect. If an author can make you break down with words–that’s a powerful skill. I’ve cried over so many dying dogs in books (Emily Carr’s sheepdog, Marley & Me), and had to take a crying jag break from Jane Goodall’s account of her favourite chimp, David Greybeard, dying of polio and his inability to climb up trees as the disease strangled him.
*Note: do not read the last 50 pages of Marley & Me in a public space. I made this error on a Westjet flight. Read it in the safety of your own home, preferably with cucumbers and Visine at the ready. And gin, probably.
So, this is my list–and, of course, it will be never-ending and constantly evolving with every book I read. However, as of this very moment, at age 39, these are the books I think everyone should read to build a foundation of gratitude, inspiration, awe and fuel fireside conversation and intimate and intelligent dinner talk.

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1. A House in the Sky, Amanda Lindhout.

I was disappointed when Oprah described Lindhout’s terrifying memoir as “juicy.” Being kidnapped and held captive by Islamic militants for 15 months is nowhere near juicy. But, the account of her time in Somalia and her inherent will to survive will shake up how you live your life. A life free from the nightmares and stronghold that such an experience must have on a person. It’s raw, agonizing and a remarkable display of resilience.

2. The Art of Racing in the Rain, Garth Stein.

I initially thought the book would be too Disney, too schmaltzy. Afterall, it’s narrated by a dog. And, worse, the dog is dying. I remember standing in Indigo on Bay, already hot-eyed and swallowing hard a few paragraphs in. The dog, Enzo, is aware that he is on his last legs–but he’s okay with this. He is beyond eager to come back to earth as a human. He has been carefully observing his human for communication skills to navigate his next life. Enzo’s insights are comical, heartrendering and beautiful. If you’ve ever loved a dog, you’ll squeeze them even harder after this one.

*Also, do not read the last chapters of this book in public.

3. Still Alice, Lisa Genova.

When Alice, a Harvard professor learns that she is experiencing symptoms of early-onset Alzheimer’s, the awareness and slow ride into the grips of the disease is nearly unbearable to read. Life’s fragility is evident in being witness to a seemingly perfect life suddenly shook-up by the diagnosis. The only comfort I found in this book was learning that, at some point, you don’t remember that you are losing your mind. There is a period of time when you are aware, but, as the words and memories slip, so does the awareness. For those surrounding Alice, it’s like watching a living death but the family rallies to keep the grace and spirit of Alice present.

4. The Glass Castle, Jeannette Walls.

I read a very yellowed,mothbally copy of this in Entebbe, Uganda. It was one of few books on the shelf at the Jane Goodall Institute that was in English. Pages fell out as I turned them–and now I know why. This is a memoir, not some fantasy childhood of eccentricities. The anchor of poverty and mentally unstable conditions that she and her siblings endured is shocking. It’s a reminder of the turbulent past that so many are trying to resurrect themselves from.

5. The Chimps of Fauna, Andrew Westoll.

Well, as a chimp crusader, this choice is a no-brainer. But, even if your only knowledge of chimps is that chimp lady, Jane Goodall (or even if you still mix chimps and gorillas and monkeys up), Westoll’s memoir shares an intimate experience–his time at a retirement facility for chimps rescued from biomedical facilities. The abuse and neglect is unnerving–and your blood will boil repeatedly–but hang on for the touching encounters and relationships that develop in this rescued family. The dynamics and personalities of a severely wounded bunch and their recovery is a shining promise of hope.

6. Into the Wild, Jon Krakauer.

I’ve read this book a few times and still get sucked in like quicksand. Christopher McCandless was a well-groomed academic–all his stars were in line for a promising career in law. Instead, he donated his entire bank account ($24,000 to Oxfam), ditched his Datsun pick-up and, walked “into the wild.” Eager to live off the land and escape the poisons of society, he left the conveniences and familiarity of life as he knew it with a bag of rice, a rifle and a few books on plant identification. If you’ve seen the movie (directed by Sean Penn–bravo), there’s no spoiler in learning that he dies only 100 days into his dream. What he etches into the table of the makeshift bus shelter he calls home is an affirmation of why we are here.

7. Falling Backwards, Jann Arden.

Memoirs are a natural source of inspiration, and, a deep behind-the-scenes look at lives we are curious about. The genesis of Arden’s career wasn’t all lollipops, sunshine and unicorns. But, her grace, her insightful way of being—and that inherent humour, makes for a riot of a read. The hot dog in the thermos is a passage you will want to read out loud to whoever is near you. Even if it’s a stranger–do it. Her honesty and what she shares of her life in Falling Backwards adds such a dimension to her lyrics. You will laugh like there is a laughing gas leak in the room— and cheerlead for her beating heart and continued, deserved success.

8. The Five People You Meet in Heaven, Mitch Albom.

It’s a natural reflex when you hear the title of this book to think of your five. Mine are all dogs, but…who you think you will meet could be entirely unexpected. Albom really spins the idea of heaven on its side–and, religious or not, you’ll find yourself re-examining your life and all the lives you’ve crossed and uncrossed. As his book explains, you may have changed a complete stranger’s life in a way that you will never know about. Until, maybe, heaven.

7. The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver.

I read this on my way to Africa–and as the plane descended it was like landing in those very pages. Though the book is set in 1950s Congo, not a lot has changed over the decades in regards to tribal tensions, wayward ministers trying to “tame the natives” and a population continually struggling for independence and survival. This is quintessential Africa, and the story of a shiny, white family plunked down in the jungles of the Belgian Congo. It’s hairy, frustrating (ugh, the father!) and delightful (young Ruth’s narrative is pure charm). If you want a glimpse into why Africa gets in your bones after just one visit, you’ll see why in the Poisonwood Bible.

8. Land of a Thousand Hills, Rosamond Carr.

My sister found this book on the shelf of a store on our way to Lake Louise. She said, “Have you heard of this woman? She was a friend of Dian Fossey?” I was hooked–who knew Dian Fossey even had any friends (that weren’t gorillas). Carr’s determination to stay and make a life out of her circumstances (a failed marriage to a big game hunter), is proof of an indominable spirit in the harshest climate and unforgiving world of farming. Her attempts to maintain a flower plantation in Rwanda against stampeding elephants and bankruptcy is a far cry from her world as a fashion illustrator in New York in 1949. And what she does with her plantation after the bloodbath of the Rwandan genocide in 1994 is a beautiful transition. Hers was a life lived large and unselfishly.

9. Bridget Jones Diary, Helen Fielding.

I love the reckless and feckless life of Bridget Jones. Though the latest, Mad About the Boy, was a bit of a lunchbag let-down, Bridget Jones is still brassy, fiesty and a fine example of what not to do. But, her character (probably not far from fiction) is reassurance that someone else out there is smoking 158 cigarettes a day while packing back 18 croissants and 3 bottles of vino. And that true love does conquer all–once you land the true love and pin them down.

10. The Lovely Bones, Alice Sebold.

The first chapter made me want to throw up. It was so graphic and terrifying that I didn’t know if I had the steel guts to continue. But, Sebold takes the unsettling event of Susie Salmon’s kidnapping and murder by a neighbour in 1973 Pennsylvania and braids it into a supernatural-laced novel of coping, understanding and possibility.

Okay, that’s 10 off the top. I didn’t even get around to Chuck Thompson, Farley Mowat or Douglas Coupland’s biography on Terry Fox. Then there’s the Sand County Almanac, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and the unbridled adrenalin of Colin Angus. Oh, and anything Anne Lamott, David Sedaris or Burroughs and the clever Let’s Pretend This Never Happened by Jenny Lawson. And, I really, really loved Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close. And, if you’ve lived at more than 10 addresses in your life, you’ll really lean into Isabel Huggans Belonging.

See? It’s a run-away list. But, I promise the ten books I listed will change your life is some unexpected way. You’ll see. Let me know–and please, share your favourite with me. Like I said, I’m a Virgo, and I like lists.

Categories: On My Bookshelf | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

My Seven Wonders of the World

At some point all of us have fallen into the quicksand powers of distractify.com. Who doesn’t want to put off _____________________(insert any task of importance) in favour of scrolling through gauzy photos of the world’s best beaches or caves you can sleep in? I’m a sucker for all those treehouse and igloo hotels. I can’t get enough of the sunsetty images that channel humidity and kick up that inner well of travel-induced adrenalin. It’s nice to put our brains on slide show mode and dream from the comfort of our home and pajamas.

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Every time I distractify I’m eager to see how many of the coveted places I’ve been to. It’s like a scavenger hunt I didn’t even know I was actively a part of. On a recent post of 41 Secretly Incredible Travel Destinations I felt an inner glow to see the Ancient Library of Alexandria in Egypt included. Ohhh, and Giant’s Causeway in Ireland! Been there! And Grindavik, Iceland. But having scored only 3 out of 41 destinations I thought I should create my own list. Because what’s secretly incredible to me didn’t make that list and wherever we choose to travel, it’s like love and our devotion to certain coffee beans or dog breeds or Sons of Anarchy. It’s deeply personal but the neat part is in the sharing and finding overlaps with each other. Surprisingly, album-creeping on Facebook has presented unexpected travel ideas and networking—from lattes at D’Espresso in New York to a $100-a-plate fish and chip joint in the Yukon to the merits of running a marathon in France.

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In no particular order, I’ve flushed out my personal seven wonders of the world. With time, I’m sure this list will be revised again and replaced with more marvelous encounters, but at this very moment—these places are deeply embedded in my mind. Come see why.

1. Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Uganda

I’ve always been enamoured with Dian Fossey’s brave and brazen attempt to protect the mountain gorillas of the Virungas from poachers. I have the January 1979 issue of National Geographic that refers to her as “Miss Fossey” throughout. In tandem, Miss Fossey and Jane Goodall brought Africa to my bedroom in Brantford, Ontario. Of course, just as every 10-year-old envisions a fancy marine biologist or vet career, I thought I might be a primatologist and observe gorillas eating bamboo all day long. Somehow I became a massage therapist instead (and sometimes massage backs as hairy as gorillas I suppose), but, for one surreal moment, I slept in those verdant mountains of Fossey’s tuned into the echoes of life and death.

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Only 32 $500 US permits are issued per day at Bwindi. Our permits were included in a package with G Adventures—otherwise, they are issued on a lottery basis. The encounters with the gorillas are strictly timed to ensure that they are not inundated with human distraction. The hour begins upon the first sighting and armed rangers are quick to get the group moving out of the area immediately. You can’t help but feel Dian Fossey’s presence, struggle and the patience in her passion.
But that hour? That musky smell of gorilla deep in your nose? The wet jungle, hot piss and humidity stays with you. Being spitting-distance away from a docile silverback and youngsters somersaulting about is a pure wonder. Have you ever held your breath for an hour? Have you ever been so transfixed by your surroundings that the trance feels like a super drug you might not be able to shake? This is Bwindi.

2. Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon, Iceland

The guide book warned us that sometimes startled drivers slam on brakes or skid off the road when they come over the rise and see the lagoon for the first time. Despite expecting it, and realizing that we were nearing the lagoon, the sudden appearance of sheer dream-like icebergs bobbing along stops everything dead in its tracks. Your conversation, your mind, the rental vehicle. Wow.

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On the edge of Vatnajokull National Park in southeast Iceland the 18 square kilometre lagoon is full of calved icebergs making a silent procession towards the Atlantic. The layers of sky blue and black ice make for a photo frenzy. Unfortunately, we had 160km an hour winds whipping off the lagoon and threatening to blow us into the Atlantic as well.
The lagoon has been a Hollywood star, providing the setting for James Bond, Batman and Tomb Raider flicks. On a side note, in the wind shelter of the nearby cafe, we sucked back perhaps the best latte on the island. Though, the view over the latte froth might have greatly influenced us.
Even with gale force winds and bare skin pelted with fine gravel and debris, the magic of that lagoon still shakes my marvel meter.

3. The White Desert, Egypt

We were already high on life after staying at a Shali fortress in the Siwa Oasis. We’d spent days traveling around by donkey, watched the sunrise over the salt flats, drank hibiscus tea and smoked the sheesha pipe by a fire after being buried in a traditional sand sauna. We had eaten camel stew on the rooftop of the fortress under a bazillion stars, soaked in cold springs and discovered a thermal lake. Yes, we were fully spoiled by the makings of a very dreamy time in Egypt already.

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Of course, we already had knotted stomachs and daily blasts of diarrhea, but, travel can’t be 100% sunshine and lollipops. Oh wait, we did have 100% sunshine and 100 degree days. It was the desert after all. After barreling along unmarked ‘roads’ ( I use the term as loosely as our bowels), we entered the White Desert. The alien landscape is 200 square kilometers of bone-white natural sculptures that resemble hawks, hearts, mushrooms and pythons. Without a guide, you would never find your way out. The silence here is almost overwhelming. Far from any source of light or noise pollution, the White Desert is a retreat for all your senses.

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After hours of being awe-struck, the pink and tangerine hues that dusk brings upon the stone and sand makes way for an incredible cosmic show. Here, you sleep under the stars and remember how tiny and insignificant your presence is.

4. Bartolome Island, The Galapagos

I had five solid Jeopardy categories that dominated my childhood. Dian Fossey, Jane Goodall, Birds of North America, Pop Tarts and The Galapagos. I made sure my dreams came true the year I turned 30. I was headstrong about seeing the blue-footed boobies, frigates and tortoises that I had become consumed with.

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When I arrived in Quito, Ecuador (flights depart from Quito to Puerto Ayora—a 1,000km flight west to the Pacific isles), I met a charming Aussie who insisted we drink pisco sours and try guinea pig. Something went sour in my gut and I’m not sure who or what to blame. The following morning I had a bowl of entirely raw eggs, so, whether it was the pig, the pisco, the Aussie or the eggs, I’ll never know. Add a huge, rolling Pacific to that mix and I was throwing up most days of the nine day trip. But, despite heaving overboard, I was stunned for nine days straight.
The boobies and the frigates performed and displayed. The animals and birds of the Galapagos have no predators, and, incredibly there is no fear of humans. You can be mere feet from sea lions and iguanas. I was in birding la-la land.

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Bartolome was probably the island that struck me with the biggest wow wave. Like Neil Armstrong said, it’s the closest landscape to the moon that you’ll find on earth. The hardened lava tubes and windswept harshness is nearly unsettling. Barren and beautiful—a sharp contrast to the chain of islands that are alive and vibrating with bird life.

5. Michamvi Peninsula, East Zanzibar

Have you ever felt like you’ve walked into a postcard? The beaches are icing sugar white. The water is so many shades of blue that a paint company could find a whole new line of Indian Ocean tints.
It’s breezy and soupy with African heat. The sky is an opposing mix of brilliant blues and sometimes it’s difficult to determine the ocean from the sky. Sunrises here made me want to write poetry and smoke long menthol cigarettes (not really Mom).

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The tide tables were erratic and amazing to witness. At night, the ghostly roar of the waves pushing back in woke Kim up, even with ear plugs. Watching the tide pull out was like listening to the ocean funnel down a far away drain. It was a torrent of water rushing reverse through the tidal beds.
We spent hours squatting by the pools, looking at the black urchins and tiny starfish. Some of the pools were hot tub hot by noon. The water was as clear as the Perrier I’m drinking—no guff.
Here, life revolves around the tides and the flux of fisherman and women collecting seaweed were indicators of this balance. After heading to the Rock for a beer, we learned quite quickly of the speed and power of the ocean as we high-stepped it back to our lodge. The coral cliffs and coral underfooting made for a nervous and grateful walk back. Inlet to inlet the level of water pushing into shore proved that Mother Nature is boss.
Whether you find yourself on a dhow at a distance, on the balcony of the Rock, having a blue marlin burger at Ras Mchamvi or distracted from your book at Kichanga Lodge, the Indian Ocean and its ever-changing “oh-my-god-look-at-it-now” beauty has established the benchmark for all oceans.

6. Masai Mara National Park, Kenya

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It’s Out of Africa in 3D. It’s blonde savannah, blurs of zebras, trumpeting elephants and sun-bathing lions. I had binoculars fixed to my eyes until dark. And at night? Falling asleep in a tent with Masaai keeping watch by a snapping fire and hearing a cheetah in the distance (think of a log being sawn in half—that’s how they sound). This is the good Green Hills of Africa-esque Hemingway life. In the morning the flies are incessant jerks though, swarming your milky tea and dive-bombing the surface until you have a pool of 30 flies in your mug. Oh, and their fly friends are buzzing in your ears and hanging off your eyelashes.

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But, if you can surrender to the fly annoyance and forget about all the red dirt up your nose (where the flies are sometimes too), a safari in Kenya is a bonanza of animals. It’s a full time job to take in all the meerkats and water buffalo and dik diks and impala without rest. Because you don’t see just one—you are bombarded with fauna.

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Before VCRs were invented (or, maybe they were and we were just unaware, content with the old TV aerial and snowy five channels in the country), I used to record Lorne Greene’s New Wilderness on my tape deck. I’d listen to old episodes about this very view in my lower bunkbed. The real thing will make you want to return—physically and mentally whenever you close your eyes.
I can’t tell you how many about-Africa books I’ve read since I’ve been to Uganda, Kenya and the Congo. But, to get in the groove—shortlist these:

The Poisonwood Bible—Barbara Kingsolver
Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight—Alexandra Fuller
West With the Night—Beryl Markham
Land of a Thousand Hills: My Life in Rwanda—Rosamond Halsey Carr

7. Caye Caulker, Belize

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There are no cars here and this is so refreshing. And, the fact that there is ‘nothing’ to do (hurray!). Kim and I get so lusty thinking about a Belizean retirement. The beach shacks are simple, life is simple and the curries are outstanding. Every single thing we ate on Caulker was instagram-worthy. I’m talking tangy shrimp ceviche, ham and Cheese Whiz waffles, perfect fried chicken and fire-breathing curry from Fran’s. Oh, and then there are the panty-ripper rum drinks to enhance the sunsets where everyone gathers for an applause-worthy show.

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We spent time on the mainland (Placencia, Cahal Pech and Hopkins Village) and zoomed out on a choppy ride to see the Blue Lagoon and the red-footed booby colony on Lighthouse Caye, but memories of the coral island just 8km by 1.6km wide resonate bigger and brighter.
If you want a break from the wi-fi and masses of people, you can truly live here barefoot. No shirt, no shoes is really no problem. Ever.

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Okay, so now I get why those distractify lists are always 40+ destinations long. At seven wonders, I’m cutting myself short. My best advice? Travel with someone you adore and can’t get enough of. And, advice to myself? Buy a new hoodie and hat already!

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Categories: Passport Please | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Beer in a Zanzibar Prison, Petting Tortoises and Spice Haggling

Even though we had 12 days of excessive lounging at Kichanga Lodge, it took some will and mutual prodding to journey southwest to Stone Town for a day. We knew it would be hectic and congested but less grating than the commotion of Cairo (where pedestrians are advised to find local “human shields” to help them cross roads) and Kampala, Uganda (where the main transit hub consists of seemingly a thousand, honking minivans crammed into a dust ball of a football field). Still, we were slightly resistant to abandon our bikini attire and paperbacks for the bombardment of touts.

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In 2000, Stone Town was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site. The decaying core was once a hot bed of slave trade and lucrative spice trading centre. The Arab and Persian influence is obvious in the design—and the ‘doors of Stone Town’ are Zanzibar’s equivalent of a Big 5 safari. In 1866, Livingstone prepared for his final expedition into the interior of East Africa in Stone Town.

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The narrow alleys are like a rabbit’s warren. Many of the roads are nameless and too narrow for cars to travel through, though mopeds and bicycles tear through the maze at lightning speed. Many of the buildings are constructed from coral and have long stone ‘barazas’ at the base that act as benches or, when necessary, elevated sidewalks during the monsoon season.
The carved wooden doors are both medieval and outlandish with big brass studs that served as deterrents to elephants. Indian-designed doors are rounded at the top while Arabian style is defined by a rectangular shape. Doors with chains carved into the length indicated a slave chamber, while others with Indian lotus flowers hoped to channel prosperity.

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We decided to visit Prison Island before venturing into the hamster’s maze. Finding a boat captain involved simply taking one step on the beach. Negotiations were quick—for $35 we booked a dhow (with a motor) and would be free to return to Stone Town (a 25 minute, nearly 6km ride) at our leisure. The ride across the Windex-blue waters was smooth and not the white-knuckler warned about in the guide books.

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Some reports say that the prison was home to rebellious slaves in the 1860s, other references say it was never used—and, though it was designated as a quarantine station during a bubonic plague and cholera outbreak, it remained vacant. Nowadays you can now stay on Prison Island at the posh Changuu Private Island Paradise Hotel for $300 a night.

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Here, Zanzibar’s colony of Giant Aldabran Tortoises roam about at a carefree centurian pace. Imports from the Seychelles in the 19th century, tortoises were a pirate’s idea of take-out. The tortoises could survive on boats for long stretches with very little food, and provided valuable meat when necessary. The tortoises of Prison Island were gifts from the Seychelles government in 1919. For $4 US visitors can share space with the ancient and docile creatures. I was surprised at how mobile and active they were. The Galapagos tortoises that I had seen before seemed to be more like stationary sculptures. Here at Changuu, they are in slow-mo road races, often resembling bumper cars as three tortoises vie for one narrow opening between the trees.

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I was hoping to find a good tortoise postcard or two to fire off to our parents back in Canada (an unlikely proposition as the African postal system is as reliable as Rob Ford), but when we asked for directions to the “Prison Boutique” we were told, “it is there (pointing to the right), but, there are no things.”

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Indeed, the Prison Boutique was long, and possibly forever closed. However, wandering about the ruins was a neat exploration. Especially when we realized that we were drinking beer, in prison. The prison bar (a new addition) was registering sauna-worthy temperatures, so we took our tall Serengeti’s to the edge of the water. If you ever want to have a staring problem, do it here, facing the Indian Ocean.

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After our fill of historical jailhouse enlightenment and tortoise intimacy, we went for a dip in those tempting waters. When shiny brochures say “powder white sand beach and bathtub warm waters”—it can be a true. We found tangible proof.
We didn’t return to Stone Town until 2:30. Aside from the House of Wonders, buying some saffron and curry, lunch at Mercury’s and a sundowner at the Africa House Hotel, our agenda was rather loose.
But, do you think we could find The House of Wonders? Freddie Mercury’s father worked in the old Sultan’s palace as an accountant. It was the first place in Eastern Africa to have an elevator (thus, the House of Wonders!). Martyna, the manager of Ras Mchamvi resort beside Kichanga gushed about the rooftop view and how we MUST go to enjoy the suspended view of Stone Town.
Despite our efforts to walk with conviction, we did appear lost in the alleys as I was trying to look at our tiny map on the sly. Nailed. “What are you looking for?” We hoped that we would get a simple answer and a pointed finger south or west.
“House of Wonders.”
“It is just to the right. And then left. I will show you.”
Kim and I rolled our eyes in tandem. In Egypt, no one gives directions, they must physically show you, which also means they would like a tip for their time. Innocent offers to take our picture in front of the pyramids or the Sphinx were disguised as money grabs. “Now you pay me for my time.” We had an all out battle of profanity with one hothead Egyptian who insisted on spouting off all the history of the Sphinx despite our insistence that we didn’t want a guide. “No, no, I am just a friend. I am just telling you as a friend.” Riiiiiight.
So, we had a new “friend” in Stone Town. The right turn, left turn, turned into nearly 30 minutes of a condensed tour of Stone Town that went in a crazy, convoluted circle BACK TO THE EXACT POINT WE HAD STARTED FROM. Oh, and the House of Wonders wasn’t right and then left—it was immediately in front of us. Fenced off, and looking closed and/or under construction, the building itself said “National Museum” on the front, not House of Wonders.
We gave our friend a few dollars, though we were ready to strangle him. Kim gently accused him of taking on a wild goose chase (entirely true). “Why would I do? I take you where you say.” Which, in his apparent direct route went by a restaurant his cousin owned, Persian baths where we could go for a tour, a coffee shop we should stop at (he likes the vanilla milkshakes there—hint)…Kim and I came to a dead stop a few times and communicated via our eyes to each other “should we ditch him?” He was like static cling though, and he had wound us around the alleys so deep, we were like spun tops. I had no idea which way the ocean, our western landmark was, anymore.
“You said you were going to show us where the House of Wonders was.” Kim said directly and exasperated.
“Why are you so tough,” the guy replied and at that point, in the deserted, sketchy alley we were in, we thought we might be snuffed, mugged or defriended. “I take you.”

*Lesson: if you ever find yourself in Stone Town, unable to find the House of Wonders, or whatever, don’t ask directions.
We quickly renamed our venture The House of No Wonders. We had to wake up the three security guides sitting inside. Though the museum was actually closed for “refurbishment” (probably 10 years in the making), they still wanted to charge us $12 US to enter. I said we just wanted a photo from the rooftop. I’ve seen elevators before, that wasn’t a huge deal.
Though I shouldn’t admit this, we were feeling a bit ripped off from our “friend” and the admission fee to a closed site. I stuffed two folded up dollars into the donation box. We took the winding stairs to the top which, at 140 degrees felt like the staircase to Hell. The security guy was right on our heels and when we got to the third floor Kim realized that there was no rooftop access. We told the guard we wanted to see the rooftop and he shouldered a door open for us after unlocking the bolt.
The roof was ready to collapse. We followed make-shift cement block steps to the edge and could hardly embrace the moment with the toe-tapping guard waiting at the door behind us. Kim shook her head—“not worth $12. What a joke.”

I said, no worries, sharing with Kim that I had craftily only put in $2. We enjoyed the view a little more knowing it was at a discount.
I snapped a few shots and we agreed we’d had enough of the city. “Let’s grab a beer and something to eat.”
As we reached the main floor of the empty, cobweb-clad museum one of the dozing guard’s cleared his throat and said, “You only pay $2. Price is $6 US, each.”
Still annoyed from the House of No Wonders Kim played nice and said, “Oh, sorry, we misunderstood—I read the child’s price here which is $1. So sorry.” I fumbled in my pockets trying to find more dollar bills and tried the trick again, adding another three. I stuffed them in the box and we hurried out.
“Let’s go!” Now we definitely couldn’t walk anywhere in the radius of the House of No Wonders for fear that we might be sent to Prison Island for real.
*Lesson: Colossal rip-off even at $5 US. Here’s our $5 picture instead:

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We found solace and genuinely good thin-crust banana and pineapple-topped pizza at Mercury’s. Cashing in on Freddie Mercury’s fame, the seaside resto near the ferry dock was not the big tribute I thought it would be. They had maybe a dozen framed photos of Mercury and Queen, a little blurb in the front of the menu and a few cocktails named after songs, but, that was the extent of it. No non-stop Queen blasting from the speakers. Still, as a rabid fan of the group, I felt it was a necessary place to see. And, after House of No Wonders, we could find wonder much easier, elsewhere.

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Like, the Big Tree on Mzingani Road. The massive fig is actually marked on the map. I thought it might be a bar or cafe, but, no, it’s a really big tree. It provides shade for over a dozen vehicles and I’m certain a hundred people could circle its base. Now there’s a wonder.

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Our last Stone Town goal was to find spices (and avoid museum security and our dear friend). After about 5 minutes of walking down the alley the demands by shopkeepers “Where from? Come look. Looking is free!” almost put us over the edge. Though we were interested in finding some silver rings, it wasn’t worth the battle. I accidentally touched an item and it was an instant attack of “How much you want to pay for this? How much?” The calculator was pulled out and nearly stuffed in my hand. I wasn’t even interested in the carved giraffe or whatever it was, but, the vendor was right on the back of my flip flops. “I’ll make you special deal.”
Kim was ready to make tracks to the Africa House Hotel and claim early seats for the sunset. “Let’s forget about the spices.”
I begged to try just to the end of the alley—we had already gone to Grenada, the other “Spice Island” and come home empty-handed. We couldn’t travel 17,000km to this Spice Island and have no curry to show for it.
I found a spice display and the vendor quickly handed me a basket. I found some ginger tea for my sister, vanilla beans for Dax and my mom, paprika and curry for Kim’s family and saffron for us. The guy hurried the full basket inside and punched away on his calculator. “Euros or US dollar?”
“US.”
“Forty-five dollars.”
“WHAT?”
He showed me the calculator screen and I was flabbergasted. “No way.”
Kim and I laughed at the outrageous amount. Had we thrown in a bag of panned gold as well? I know saffron is expensive, but, c’mon. We did not have $45 of spices.
“No thanks.”
We did the ‘walk of instant negotiation’ and headed to the door. “How much you pay then? How much? How about $40.”
We kept walking.
“What’s the most you pay?”
“$15.”
He let all the air out of his lungs and huffed. “No. $40.”
We resumed walking and were back out in the alley when he shouted, “Okay, $15.”
He still tried to push us into paying $15 in Euros and then conceded. But, he also made use of another nervy tactic by holding our $20US bill, handing us the bag of spices and saying, “okay, and $5 more for me. I keep change.”
We got our five dollars change back and instead spent almost $45 on cocktails at the trendy ex-pat watering hole, The Africa House Hotel.
We eased back into a more relaxed state knowing that we didn’t have to haggle anymore. We found primo seats on the deck for sundown and watched the park below fill with muscle-bound boys practicing a form of Thai martial arts. Another group kicked a soccer ball around barefoot.
We sucked back pina coladas in coconut vessels and I tried the much-publicized Dawa (local gin, honey, lime juice). The drinks are super overpriced at the Africa House, but, it is the best vantage point for sunset. And, the sun put on a blazing, brilliant show. If you’ve never seen an African sunset, you can almost count the seconds and see it dropping—much like the apple at Times Square on New Year’s Eve. It is a true marvel. A wonder, even.
We waved to our driver below and were happy to drive out of Stone Town and back to Kichanga under the spell of sensory exhaustion from warding off touts,  local gin, spice procurement and the rigours of sunsetting.

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Categories: Into and Out of Africa, Passport Please | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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