House Hunting in Prince Edward County: Chapter 867

We’re no real estate dum-dums. If you don’t follow me on Facebook, you are safe from the daily barrage of realtor.ca nightmares and daydreams. Kim and I have been steadily  house hunting and gathering for a solid year now, and have watched our max price budget steadily climb over $100,000 from where we started. We’ve physically been through over 40 properties now and tromped around a dozen vacant lots from Point Clark to Warkworth to Napanee to Tweed. Our hot zone keeps expanding to the far fringes of our desired forwarding address of Prince Edward County. But we keep coming back to it like boomerangs. Our homing instinct is obviously deep in the magma of the County.

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The County has everything we want from the Millennium hiking trail, enviable birding (there’s even a Birdhouse CITY near Picton), Sandbanks Provincial Park, Hinterland (Borealis Charmat Rose and saison beer), Karlo Estates (Gilmour Maddison and Quintus), Fronterra Farm Camp Brewery, reubens at The Agrarian, anything on the menu and THAT VIEW at Lake on the Mountain, the barn quilt trail, farmer’s market, Toronto expats, a speakeasy, people doing creative stuff, Black River Cheese Company, kayaking, lavender farms, heirloom tomato tastings, wassails, maple syrup fests, a parade of giant pumpkins through Wellington in October, lilac bushes, The Drake Devonshire, studios to poke around in, antiquing as a sport…you get the picture. We want to be a part of the thumping heart of it all.

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We are as flexible as a Rio gymnast. Yes, we want waterfront and trance-like sunsets. We want privacy, no neighbours, a few willow trees and a dock to tie up a canoe to. We want an open concept floor plan, vaulted ceilings and some shiplap to whitewash. We’re okay with minor demolition of a rose-coloured, gold-fixtured bathroom (because there seem to be A LOT of those). We’re confident we could trick out a dated kitchen (why did everyone love oak so much in the ‘80s?). Kim can build amazing things, I’ve witnessed this. The very black walnut-topped table that I’m sitting at right now for starters (and we’ve sold this table with the house, so, we’ll need a redux!) and I’m great at tool and beer retrieval.

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What’s disenchanting is this seller’s market. Meaning, we chose the perfect time to sell, but the absolute worst time to buy. I don’t get it. If you’re selling—you have to be buying, right? The County isn’t seeing Toronto bidding wars as of yet, but there are multiple offers and jacked up price tags because the pickings are so slim. We’re revisiting homes that have been sitting on MLS for nearly a year and questioning their merit. And, after touring such homes with door jams separating due to a shifting foundation, we see why they’re sitting. One farmhouse simply needed some fun house mirrors to top it off for a free vertigo experience. It’s like dating—there’s a reason some people are single (and why you don’t need a second date for confirmation). And, there’s a reason why some poor houses sit.

We’ve smacked our heads countless times (mostly on panelled walls, hoping the drop ceilings won’t drop)—like a few months ago, innocently walking to the end of a dock in Napanee—only to see the industrial stacks and towers billowing smoke across Adolphus Reach in Bath. Or, the Moira River house with neighbours who owned pet pigs. Or, the Thompson Point eye-roller with neighbours who have created a bespoke outdoor museum of tarped crap. Or, the Williams Lane lot with a trailer park in full sideways view and cattails so tall that you’d need stilts to see the water.

We’ve looked at churches, tear-downs, top o’ the budget Cape Cods, Kijiji listings, Picton Victorians, passive solar homes, new builds on Muscote Marsh, regency cottages, century homes, contemporary, shipping container conversions. Really, we are open to everything!

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The biggest heartbreakers have set the bar impossibly high. Like the lilac bush-lined Lee’s Lane cottage with Airbnb income potential—it had an offer accepted as we stood on the dock and sucked in the uninterrupted view of the Bay of Quinte (never to be found again). Or, the red brick Victorian on York—so impeccably finished and designed—but in the wrong neighbourhood.

Yes, we know, we know. That magical house is out there—we are patient people. But, it’s frustrating to see what $450K will nab you in any other area.

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1863 Grist Mill and cottage on Chepstow Pond $285K (photo cred: realtor.ca)

We’re not prepared to ditch our County dreams yet, but, we’ll admit to weighing out the options and shaking our heads at what we could buy in Bayfield or the Grey Highlands.

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Grey Highlands $390K (photo cred: realtor.ca)

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Grey Highlands (photo cred: realtor.ca)

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Trent Hills, $399K (photo cred: realtor.ca)

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Trent Hills (photo cred: realtor.ca)

Oddly, we keep hearing stories about friends who only looked at ONE house and that was it. Or, like Kim’s co-worker, Deb—didn’t even look at it and bought it. Our friend Michelle in Qualicum Beach, BC did the same thing—she saw the cabin online and had a friend in Victoria go scout it out for her. “Do you see me living here?”

Kim’s sister did the same. One house in Ayr. Our Uxbridge friends did the same (thank god, because it’s their barn that we are moving into). Though, their realtor made them look at one other farm before they put in an offer. Imagine!

And so our search continues. Standby.

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Adventures in Real Estating: Prince Edward County

A trip to Prince Edward County guarantees two things: an opportunity to restore the senses and wine cellar. This is where I’d suggest a scratch and sniff option for the screen—not only are there lilac bushes here–they are full-on forests of perfumed mauve goodness.

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Last Saturday, Kim and I thought we had locked in on our dream house. The price tag was palatable, it was waterfront and SUNSET-side! We were squirmy with anticipation and spontaneity. I had to jet to the spa for an afternoon shift and we had to make rapid decisions all within a ten minute time span. I phoned the realtor, threw my hair gel, camera and power t-shirt on the bed for packing and left Kim to sort out the other messy details of finding a hotel on a long weekend.

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Photo credit: realtor.ca

Typically in this blog space, I brag about the sunniest moments of our travels. There are glossy photos of our haute cuisine experiences and braggy bits about hotels with Aveda products, organic coffee delivery in the morning and warm chocolate chip cookies on the pillow and the like.

But this was the long weekend, and, with the smoothest of traffic, we still wouldn’t arrive until after 9:30 to the hotel due to my pesky work shift and the 300km in between. Kim was apologetic when she picked me up at Langdon Hall—“Sorry, only the Motel 6 in Trenton was left!” On the flip side it was just under $100 for the night.

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When I told my mom this, she said, “Flo always tries to get me to stay there—I really have to put my foot down.” It’s a bit shocking that $100 gets you zero frills in Canada. In Uganda you get matching plush robes, a hippo escort, a King bed and porters that will run ice and limes to your room at a whim.

At the Motel 6? You get a shower head at mouth-level. You can hear every motel guest tweet and fart. It’s indoor camping with the all the contrived privacy of nylon tent walls, a lumpy bed and pixely TV. Kim had flipped on the Raptors game and said gravely, “This is why high definition is so important.” I frequently try and suggest chopping out the extras on our Rogers cable bill but now I understood the magnitude of paying for HD channels. I thought I needed a new prescription or had tortilla chip salt in my eye.

I asked the front desk manager for wine or highball glasses instead of the in-room plastic beer garden-esque glasses provided (he found two, mismatched and more etched than anything you’d find for 10 cents at a garage sale). Kim was about to ask Hamid if we could switch rooms due to the high velocity air con unit running directly outside our room (picture a Stephen King movie—those hotels that murderers hole up in with the sliding patio doors and parking spot just outside your room). In the same breath a train sounded its horn and trundled past, causing us all to pause our conversation. The air con unit was the least of our worries. We were sleeping five feet from the tracks.

But, all that aside. We survived. How dare we moan about Motel 6 when we’ve slept in a jungle hut without a toilet seat (but, one was found, miraculously, though it wasn’t attached and was a bit dodgy in the night).

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Back to the true purpose: house hunting and gathering. Adventures in real estating continued! We opted to check out another listing in the County on Bush Lane. Could we really live on BUSH lane though? We’d be a punch line to so many jokes. Bush Lane was a quick bust though. It had a conditional offer on it, based on inspection, and, it was just too tiny and choppy. And bushy.

Onward to Napanee and the home we were crossing our fingers over. We queued up for the Glenora ferry (a free car ferry from Picton to lower Napanee) after a quick pint at the Miller Inn. It was a sublime moment—sunshine, lilacs and short sleeves. (*Editor’s Note: must return to Miller Inn for the 5-cheese grilled cheese with bacon marmalade. Kim eyeballed the sweet potato poutine loaded with brisket and local curds for a future visit).

So, the dream home turned into the nightmare home in one minute flat. We bumped along the woodsy lane, adrenalin percolating (So much for year-round access as promised by the realtor. That turned into, “Oh, some people live at the end of the lane and you probably just have to chip in a hundred bucks or something to get it plowed out.”)

First: THE JUNK. The property next to our proposed dream home was a tarp city. Various implements and crap were parked and rotting on the spot, or haphazardly tarped in sheets of blue and flapping orange. The cottage itself was listing and ready for collapse.

When the realtor wheeled in—with her husband! (“I told him it was a pretty drive along the lake and he should come along.” That’s when you know you’re in a small town. What realtor brings their husband on a road trip? I had a flashback to Dunnville days when a tow truck driver brought his three kids who were on March break to the call. I had to sit in my vehicle as it was towed into town while his kids rode with him in the truck).

I asked the agent about the neighbours. “Oh, I don’t know. I don’t think they are here very often.” (No kidding). “But with these outbuildings, you wouldn’t even see them.” (Not selling it, sister).

I suppose if realtors were forced into transparency, no houses would be sold. But, hey, airlines had to start revealing hidden taxes and surcharges! Imagine how the realtor.ca site would be shaken if suddenly 360 degree views were mandatory. Trust me, Kim and I do our Nancy Drew detective work, zooming in on places courtesy of the aerials on Google Earth. But, you can’t always get a clear aerial on tarps.

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Photo Credit: realtor.ca

There were more weeds than gravel in the driveway. The front steps were ready to be condemned. Stepping inside, the realtor wrestled with a radio that was blasting heavy metal. The place smelled punky. Like unwashed hair. It was dark and filled with the most frightening collection of life-sized stuffed animals. And ships. The washer/dryer stackables were bedside. There’s no way you could even open them up without moving the bed—which was crammed in the 6×6 “third bedroom.”

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Photo credit: realtor.ca

We didn’t even look at the backyard or the lake. That’s when we both knew it was bad. We couldn’t see past the stuffed animals and peeling linoleum and paneling and smell. The husband helpfully suggested, “You gotta see past the furniture.” As he threw himself on the huffalump couch.

The agent scurried about and apologized for the seller. “He only uses this place in the summer, so he hasn’t had a chance to do a spring clean yet.” Why would he put it on the market then? Oh, and then she said this which made us both want to laugh: “Just so you know, there is an offer on it.” (It had been on the market for 12 hours and we called her bluff).

Offer or not, nothing was making that place pretty. We ignored her threat. of multiple bids.

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We looped north to Napanee proper, shaking our heads, mildly disappointed…and found lamb burgers and a stone butch lesbo-fronted blues band performing at the Waterfront Pub. Kim and I should start singing blues songs about real estate. We looked at the map of Prince Edward County and decided we’d hold out for Partridge Hollow, Pigtail Drive or Mosquito Lane. Over lagers from a nearby brewery in Bath, we fancied ourselves living on Petticoat Point, Doolittle Road or Limestone Ledges Lane.

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We carried on, with bedsores from too many kilometers in such a short span (900+) and the Motel 6 reasonable facsimile of a mattress. We stopped to re-fuel in “Welcome” at a gas station that sold homemade butter tarts, surprise bags for 25 cents, a brand new walker for $59 and local asparagus for $2.50 a bunch.

Somehow though, we were reassured. With a full tank and some asparagus, we realized that in these parts, anything is possible. Adventures in real estating continues.

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We Sold Our House on Facebook

They said it couldn’t be done. There were some tsk-tsk’s and a few exaggerated expressions of good-luck-with-that-one. Is there an emoji for that yet? We were bucking the system and taking a self-stab at the real estate market. Hey, I sold my 1996 Suzuki Sidekick on Craigslist. Surely we could sell our 1861 stone house on Facebook.

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Earlier in the year, Kim and I toyed with the romantic notion of raffling our house off. Wouldn’t you buy a $155 ticket with the possibility of winning a house that only required you to arrange your furniture and fill your champagne glasses? We would. But could we pull it off in tiny Galt, Ontario?

Remember the 1996 movie Spitfire Grill (neon-lit by the likes of Ellen Burstyn and Marcia Gay Harden)? Actually, I barely do, but there was something about a $100-an-entry essay contest and the winner could take over the retiring owner’s restaurant. The movie has generated similar copycat tactics, most recently in Toronto. In September 2015, Ruthie Cummings tried to raffle off her three year old German restaurant, Das Gasthaus, on Danforth Avenue for $150 bucks a pop. Instead of being a feel-good story, the unexpected backlash came in the form of eight labour complaints from former employees.

Cummings hoped to sell 4,000 tickets, earning her the tidy sum of $600,000 so she could return to Europe and care for her aging parents. The winner, Shawn McKerness, 40, a Windsor chef and restaurateur, decided to forfeit the controversial prize. According to the Star, the restaurant itself was closed at the end of January and had a bailiff’s note taped to the window, noting it was in arrears of $6,367.50. Oh, and then there’s that touchy subject of unpaid rent. “Property manager Alex Stergiou told the Star that Cummings is still “technically in possession” of the restaurant. Therefore, he said, she is on the hook for rent, which is about $5,500 a month.”

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Undaunted, Kim and I still liked the idea of the raffle. We didn’t have any jaded employees (maybe ex-girlfriends, but…). Could we hit up 2,700 friends, family and exes for $155? Our stone house-loving pals Troy and Lori were in. “We’ll buy a few,” Troy promised with a clink of our pint glasses. I knew my parents would be good for one or two. So, we had four sold before we even did a blitz! Plus, I won a soccer ball in elementary school for being a top chocolate-covered almond seller for Brantford Youth Soccer. In high school, I sold turkey shoot raffle tickets (among other things like poinsettias, dream catchers and tie dye t-shirts) to 100% pay my way to Albuquerque, New Mexico. Selling raffle tickets for our darling stone cottage would be a snap.

Instead of taking the sure-and-steady traditional realtor route, home owners are opening up to the magic, possibility and opportunity that a raffle can ‘buy’ somebody. The Humble Heart Goat Dairy and Creamery in Elkmont, Alabama is opting for the raffle route too. Rock Spring Farm in Essex County, Virginia is raffling off their 38-acre horse farm. There’s even a movie theatre on the block. You can write a 250-word essay on why you want to own a seaside cinema and win the Cape Ann Cinema and Stage in Gloucester, Massachusetts. How about a B&B in Maine? After 22 years, Janice Sage is retiring from the Lovell Inn & Restaurant (the gig comes with 10 staff and 100 dinner guests on the average night). She won the Inn via an essay contest back in 1993 and wanted to share the karma all over again.

A Whitby, ON couple who bought a waterfront property in Kingston as a retirement plan in 2003 opted to cash out with an auction last month. They had listed on the market the past for a $1 million price tag with no bites and were anxious to move on with their retirement and travel plans. They had hoped the 66-acre property and rural stone castle would nab around $800,000 but the lucky bidders snagged it for $660,000 (the minimum bid required was $300,000). There were 13 offers for the gated house with turrets, an elevator, a cedar grove and 2,000 feet of waterfront.

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Then there was the guy that essentially traded a red paperclip for a two storey house in Saskatchewan. I was as charged up and confident as Kyle MacDonald, the bloggernaut behind One Red Paperclip. MacDonald made his first paperclip trade for a fish-shaped pen in July 2005. He reached his goal of trading up to a house with the fourteenth transaction. The deal? Trading a movie role for a home in Saskatchewan (and it somehow involved Alice Cooper and a trip for two to Yakh, BC, along the way).

Okay, so, we didn’t have a movie role to barter with (but they do film Murdoch Mysteries down the road from our house), and maybe the raffle was a contortionist stretch for us. Maybe. We didn’t consider a one-day auction, but, the idea of us selling private was enticing.  It would involve nothing more than crafting a blog post, culling our best home and garden snapshots and some serious social media sharing. We peer pressured everyone to brag about this place and share it widely and wildly from Banff to Nashville to the UK to Australia and Uganda. Kim agreed that we should try, but, not endlessly. We’d establish a deadline and then go with an agent. Share. Like. Like. Share. Tweet. Reblog. Like. Like.

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We have both watched enough HGTV to know the math, logistics and obstacles of selling a home. With our PhD in Property Brothers, House Hunters International, Fixer Upper and Million Dollar Listing NY we were confident. Combined, Kim and I have spent 14,786 hours on realtor.ca. We know all about curb appeal and what-the-hell? We love real estate culture and count many agents as our friends. I flip to Toronto Life’s real estate page (where they profile a buyer and their three properties of interest. And then unleash the ugly guts of the bidding war and how much the listing went, over-ask. When we decided to go social media first instead of a sign-in-the-ground, a few of the agents got in on the mix too. (*Special thanks to Lindy Brown (Peak Real Estate Ltd), Lisa Reilly and Lisa Hipgrave of The Two Lisa’s (REMAX Hallmark Realty, Ltd.) Toronto for the Facebook press blow-out. And, to Laura Thompson of Coldwell Banker and Jane Gardner (Royal LePage) for potential buyers, inside scoop, special considerations and market assessments).

Trends and traditions are changing like the May barometer. Not only can you trade a paperclip for a house, write an essay and win a movie theatre, but you can divorce and sell your life. In 2008, after a sloppy break-up, Brit Ian Usher sold his life in Australia on ebay for $399,300. He wrote a book all about it, Life For Sale, and wrote a second, Paradise Delayed, about his off-grid life in Panama. Following the sale of his life, he set off around the globe to cross off 100 goals which he achieved in 100 weeks.

It’s endless, exciting and…what else can we sell? (Pause as I look around the immediate vicinity)

Why just have a garage sale anymore? You can sell your house on Facebook and hand the paperwork over to a lawyer. Which you would be doing anyway.

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The condensed version is—after a big splash on Facebook and over 900 visitors to the blog post I wrote (“House for Sale…Ours”), we did it. Thanks to the powers of social media and a friend of a friend of a friend who didn’t even remember how they knew that ‘friend’—we found our buyer.

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As we signed papers over cocktails at Langdon Hall Country House Hotel and Spa, the couple remarked, “This is so civilized.”

Yes, we sold our house on Facebook. And now I want to enter that essay contest to win the goat farm in Elkmont, Alabama.

*If you like jellybean counting contests and want to win a cinema or the B&B, check out Kelly Gurnett’s The Write Life post about the essay contests  here.  I call dibs on the goat farm!

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Putting the ‘Real’ Back Into Real Estate

‘Real’ estate. I think they need to put a little more real into the market. You know those terrible stats that circulate about how much time you spend watching prison dramas and idling in coffee drive-thrus? I’ve spent 4.6 years on realtor.ca, I know.

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Buying a resale house is really a bizarre situation. It’s like a blind date where you meet over coffee (non-committal, but at the ready, all fresh-breath, preened, pounding heart and hope as big as Idaho). You’re all emotions, vulnerable, cautious, hurried, wide-eyed, twitchy and probably too caffeinated already. Imagine, if after this first coffee date, with latte foam residue still warm on your upper lip, that you had to decide YES or NO. Do you want to commit? You’ve had 30, possibly 45 minutes to glean as much information as you can and look for big, waving scarlet red flags. Will you marry him or her? Will you buy the house after one breeze through?

This is what buying a house is. A coffee date where you have to choose marriage after one frenzied get together. If you’re looking in Toronto—then you definitely have to propose on the spot. I DO! And do it quickly because 17 others are I-doing at the same time. Hello bidding war. Hello cranky cup of coffee the morning after when you learn the blind date you were crushing on went for $600,000 over asking.

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In hot markets like Prince Edward County, pacing and patience are de rigueur (insert image of exasperated but still enthused diners on Daniel Baehrel’s Earlton, NY restaurant waitlist. In seven weeks he had over 40,000 reservations for his 16-seater basement resto. That’s a 10-year waitlist!). However, word on the street is that buyers are buying over the phone, sight unseen, without conditions. No inspection, no financing—just, give it to me. Mine. I called dibs.

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We’ve fallen hard for a few properties but not enough to give our Visa number over the phone to the agent for a quick sale. Because, behind some of these glossy, cropped, stretched, fish-eye bait traps there are unseen nightmares. Junker neighbours, apple trees raining down so much rotten fruit so that the place smells like a booze can. There are gardens that small children would get lost in, and possibly eaten by foxes who are drunk on the fallen apple bounty. There are future wind turbines to fret about, toxic landfills, train tracks, mushroom farms (way more deadly smelling than chickens which rank higher than pigs on the manure Richter scale), nuclear waste, highway expansions, neighbours with tarps and trailers, condo developments…sigh. There’s always stuff to cloud the dream. At least Google Earth pricks your excited inflated balloon faster than a three hour drive to the house where you can discover first hand that the dream house is 10 feet from the road and the neighbours collect cars that will never move.

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To put the ‘real’ back in real estate, I would like the MLS search engine to offer a few more defining apps. I’d like to be able to choose a tiny U-haul moving truck icon to indicate I LOVE THIS ONE!! THIS IS IT! For a house that ticks a lot of our boxes but has something niggly about it—a little icon of me, jumping up and down but then standing with hands on hips. For the listings I keep accidentally repeatedly looking at because I can’t remember what the issue was—it would be so much easier if I could choose the icon that spells it out. Like intestines to indicate a gut job. Or a toilet to remind me that the bathroom was 100% tiled pink.  Or, binoculars, to indicate that the neighbours are two feet away. Or an English hedge maze to suggest that the house is all chopped up, no flow. For a listing too far from everything—a horse and buggy. Right?

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I’d like a scratch and sniff icon on a listing. (Remember those prized 80s sticker book collections full of puffies and sparklies and smellies? Root beer and dill pickle stickers were always the big traders.)

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What can’t we smell in this listing? The neighbour who likes to burn toxic things like pressure treated lumber and shingles? That adjacent mushroom farm that isn’t mentioned in the listing? Does the house smell like wet dog? I’d like to scratch and sniff that dream listing and smell a waft of just-baked chocolate chip cookies or crisp autumn leaves or peonies or plumes of sweet birch burning in the fireplace. Wait, is that cider simmering on the stove top? Yes, I want to smell nutmeg, cinnamon sticks, wood smoke, leaves, cookies and a big waft of lilac bushes. It would be wrong to say I’d also like to smell Kentucky Fried Chicken, but, you know, sometimes you do.

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There are so many things I wonder about houses on the market. Where do they order pizza from? Is there a chipmunk they call by name and hand-feed peanuts? How many trick-or-treaters do they get tumbling down their driveway?

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Do they grill something on the bbq that all their friends and family insist they make repeatedly? (Here: Kim’s very famous beer can chicken massaged with Schwartz’s Deli rub and steamed in a sultry Waterloo Dark ale bath or, Cajun catfish with a few cobs of local corn slathered in butter and parm).

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I wonder what room is the favourite of the home owner? Where do they have morning coffee? What kind of birds do they see at the feeder or nest building?

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Where do they fold up their legs with a paperback and a cat and slip away into printed word? I wonder what milestones have been celebrated in the kitchen. Why in hell did they paint five rooms blood red?

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In the house purchaser’s agreement, there’s always a disclosure about whether the house was a grow-op or if someone died in the recliner, or was murdered. Wouldn’t it be better if you learned about the fun stuff that happened in that house? Although I’m sure the grow-op owners would say they were having the time of their lives until they were caught). For example, we’ve had three Chihuahuas and two cockatiels sleepover here (not related).

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I would want people to know about Margaret too. She’s a toad as big as a Big Mac that lives in the backyard.

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Yes, my realtor.ca revamp would have these additions:

Signature scent: cedar cabin and clothesline (product placement candles can be purchased at Art of Home)

On the grill: beer can chicken or Cajun catfish

House wine: Karlo Estates Quintus

On tap (well, in a growler, actually): Grand River Brewing Co. Enigma Stout

What you can hear: orioles, church bells, osprey as they skim the river’s belly

Take-out: lime leaf curry, mango salad and spring rolls from My Thai (7 minute walk)

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What’s in a 15 minute walking radius? Farmer’s market, buck-a-shuck oyster nights at the Cambridge Mill, Dee’s Bakery, $16 burger and pint nights at Café 13, fish and chips, live theatre, picnics in Victoria park, a cricket pitch, a Jamaican resto, Indian, hand-pressed juices, Trans Canada Trail, antiques, Papou’s subs, galleries, library….everything, really.

I think about houses in terms of songs and famous people too. Everyone identifies their relationship by a song (first kiss, first dance at the wedding)—but shouldn’t your house have a song too? What would the soundtrack be? Clearly this house is The River, Joni Mitchell (or the syrupy Blue Rodeo version). Or, Glosoli by Sigur Ros.

If this house was a person, it would definitely be Robert Redford, Sean Connery, Helen Mirren or Emma Thompson. Solid, refined, timeless.

Oh, and I’d want a feature on realtor.ca where we could check out the neighbours. Who bakes amazing lime coconut loaf? Who makes Oreo-stuffed chocolate chip cookies? Who had a tile cutter that we can borrow, or an extension ladder? Who doesn’t recycle? Who plays Gloria Gaynor on repeat? Who owns a Jetta without a muffler? Who drives a transport truck and lets it idle every morning at 5am? Who leaves their Christmas decoration up until March? Who is planning on buying a big, ugly, piece-of-crap trailer that will never run but will sit and rot in the driveway? Who will buy a bus and let their son who just got out of jail live in it? (These are all past, very true scenarios to consider).

People should have to apply for houses, like they do jobs. There should be resumes and reference letters and interviews. It’s such a major decision and all you have to do is lay down the money or mortgage approval.

I have so many ideas. I need to be Prime Minister of realtor.ca.

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House For Sale…Ours

Please spread widely and wildly.

We’re for sale. Will you be the next caretaker of history?

Suggestion: pour a potent cup of coffee (add cream and sugar as desired) or fill a glass with your favourite South African red. Get into the West Galt groove and imagine life untethered. Why be mortgage broke? Why believe that a backyard the size of a cat’s litter box is acceptable?

In West Galt you can find balance, restorative perennial gardens and a non-intrusive urban lifestyle in the historical downtown Galt. In a 15 minute walking radius there’s a farmer’s market (one of the oldest in Canada), a chocolatier, cheese boutique, Monigrams Coffee Roasters (best Americanos going), Crumb + Bean (tops for ginger molasses cookies as big as frisbees), Dee’s Bakery (gooey butter tarts just like your favourite Aunt made), Tiny Cakes (Elvis peanut butter and banana cupcakes!), Bricks + Mortar (like a micro Whole Foods), Thai food and a serious line-up of Ontario craft beers at the notorious Cafe 13 pub.

You’ll find the city pleasures you’re familiar with in the TIFF Cineseries sponsored by the local library, the Idea Exchange, just a few blocks away. In 2017, the former Galt post office will open its doors as the nation’s first all-digital library with a resto on the terrace, tablets, podcast recording studio and 3D printers in the maker’s lab.

The Trans Canada Trail cuts through Cambridge and the old electric rail line winds its way through Glen Morris, Paris and onward to Brantford. Hop on a bike and ride for miles in either direction in the company of willow trees, indigo buntings and monarchs. The Grand Trunk Trail will gently guide you to five diamond dining and the sweetest suites around at Langdon Hall Country Hotel and Spa (a Relais and Chateaux property). The 900-acre urban land trust that the adjoining RARE conservation group owns is popular for its community programming. Join naturalists at the Slit Barn for a tromp in the wetlands to find salamanders, sign up for an owl prowl, or snowshoeing, or check out their off-grid sustainable North House project where writers and artists can apply for residency programs.

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In Cambridge, you are in the epicentre of day tripping: St. Jacobs, Stratford, the Kissing Bridge at West Montrose, Elora Gorge and the lavender farms of North Dumfries are all less than an hour away. Be in downtown Toronto in an hour–or at YYZ in 45.

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We have bragging rights to Canada’s Heritage River–the Grand which makes its way from Elora to Lake Erie in Dunnville (299km). Drop in a canoe or kayak and see the underbelly of the river up close and personal. Did you know we have our own independent brewery here too? The Grand River Brewing Company offers tasting classes through the winter so you can earn a self-proclaimed PhD in Stouts.

Interior design mavens will be pulled in many directions. Southworks Antique Mall is one of the largest in Canada with a 30,000 square foot warehouse. At Cornerstone, the former Woolco offers two floors of contemporary finds (danger danger!). At The Art of Home, Blair House Gifts and Chair, Table, Lamp you’ll find whimsy, artwork, pillows and the unexpected.

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If you’re looking for a career jump, the University of Waterloo’s Architecture School is a 10 minute walk away. Want hand-pressed juices? Galt Juice Co. sells shelves of it and it’s like drinking a garden in a glass. Need a massage? The therapists at PUR Balance on Water Street will turn you into fondue.

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If you need an oyster fix, there’s buck-a-shuck nights at the historic Cambridge Mill (cocktails have never been lovelier–the cantilevered glass dining room leaves you perched right above the river at the Parkhill dam).

Here’s what you don’t know: Orioles do fly-bys in our backyard. You can pick strawberries nearby and buy local maple syrup from Diane just up the road.We grow lemon balm–you could make your own teas! Our house and gardens have been featured in Grand magazine, on the Galt Horticultural Tour and the annual Holly Jolly Christmas Tour (a local fundraising effort that supports women and children). You can hear church bells–on a still wintry night, there’s nothing as remarkable as that.

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It’s the bewildering kindness of this town that will amaze you. If you are looking for a home that is a sanctuary, a private backyard to reintroduce yourself to nature (and a few paperbacks), access to trails, exquisite dining, fun shops and something a little less hectic than the 416, this is it. This house isn’t generic, it’s oozing personality through its mortar and heart pine shake roof.

Come take a look inside our 155-year-old stone home and fall in love with it all, just as we did on the most miserable day in November, four years ago. Happiness lives here.

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Fine Print:

$439,900

2 bed/2 bath (carriage house had Murphy bed for possible 3rd bedroom)

Lot size: 82.04 x 133.58
Property taxes: $3,100
Square footage: 1556
Kitchen highlights reel: Black Fire Clay farm sink, Perrin & Rowe faucet, Cosmos black leather-finished granite counter, cathedral and tray ceilings in kitchen and carriage house (with exposed stone), frosted sycamore glass between rooms, built-in pantry, maple cabinets, dishwasher (all LG appliances included), custom 2″ black walnut breadboard table with custom fabricated metal legs
Main floor laundry (stackables in main bathroom), original stained glass window in main bath, hickory flooring (kitchen), original pine and oak floors 
Hot water gas boiler and radiators
Carriage house could be used as 3rd bedroom (has murphy bed) or office/studio space with exposed stone and Venetian plaster walls.
Crown moulding throughout, 10″ ceilings, 12″ baseboards, updated lighting, electrical and plumbing
Heart pine shake roof, cedar deck, outdoor stone table, storage shed
Aggregate stone driveway (2 parking spaces)
Rented equipment: hot water heater, Culligan water softener
Contact us at jtorti7@yahoo.ca

 

 

 

 

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The Three Little Pigs, Reimagined. In Prince Edward County.

The three little pigs were all searching for waterfront property in Prince Edward County. They were somewhat disenchanted with the housing market. The listings were slim and none of the pigs were interested in a generic split level or ranch-style home. Some listings were too close to the Loyalist (traffic), while others were total gut jobs.

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Photo cred: PJ Moore

Others were topping the million dollar mark and the three little pigs didn’t want to be house poor. They wanted balance, simplicity and a home that would be a sanctuary, not a money pit. They all decided to design and build their own homes after spending endless bleary-eyed nights scrolling through resale homes on realtor.ca.

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The first little pig had recently spent some time solo, kayaking the northern rivers of the Yukon. She lived on a commune for a while in Oregon and fancied herself a garden where she could grow her own medicinal teas, garlic, heirloom tomatoes and candy cane beets. She wanted to build sustainably, and after staying at the Owl’s Nest Bed and Breakfast in Prince Edward County, she became obsessed with hay bale construction.

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The straw and plaster would provide serious insulation for Canadian winters. She’d ditch energy bills for good and would be making a sound, renewable choice in straw. Finally, she’d be able to live off the grid with a passive solar design, just like the one she talked about with that South African Airstream owner at the Burning Man Festival five years ago. Life would become affordable again, and instead of sticking it out at a lackluster ad copy job in the city, she could focus on her creative writing (for a wildly popular vegan magazine) and do some glass blowing on the side.

She met a man with a load of straw in Hillier and bought the last of his stock despite his naysayer attitude. He scoffed at her hay bale design. Though he said she was being pig-headed (which was true in many senses) she bought the straw and set about building the house in Bloomfield with a few members of her hockey team who were willing to work for beer.

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Weeks later there was a knock at her door. She had advertised her hay bale home on Airbnb for $108 a night (including a refried black bean breakfast burrito with heirloom tomato salsa). Perhaps someone was in the area and needed a last-minute booking? She was just steeping some Sleepytime tea, burning her signature patchouli incense and reading a self-help book by Brene Brown about vulnerability.

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Photo Cred: PJ Moore

“Little Pig, little pig, let me come in.”

She knew it was the wolf. He had been all over the Yahoo News headlines as of late.

She replied with a chuckle, “Not by the hair of my chinny chin chin.” Piggy just had electrolysis at the local spa and no longer had to worry about that pesky hair on her chin. She’d read a lot about this wolf guy in her social media circles. He was the tour de force behind “Pigging Out: Bringing Home the Bacon,” a blog about everything bacon that had 1.6 million followers.  The local pig community was not thrilled. She was a little envious of the wolf’s writing prowess and online success without banner ads.

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The wolf at the door was as persistent as an ex-girlfriend though. He huffed and puffed, took a swig of Red Bull and blew the house in. And he gobbled up the little pig with freelancing, glassblowing dreams. He even polished off her bag of stale sweet potato chips that he found beside her paperback and still-steeping tea.

The second little pig met a man with a load of barn board just outside of Carrying Place. This pig knew how barn board was trending. He watched a lot of HGTV and was a big fan of Chip and Joanna Gaines from Fixer Upper and their whitewashed shiplap designs. Pig figured he could do the same and it would be a neat re-purposing story. The wood was from a Mennonite barn in St. Jacobs close to the farmhouse where he used to buy brown eggs and maple syrup. Pig liked to keep it local and even bought some extra barn board to build a cute chicken coop on the property just like his friends in Uxbridge had on their Caberneigh Farms property.

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Photo Cred: PJ Moore, Coop Design by Nicole Robertson & PJ Co.

He always wanted to have a few Plymouth Rock Barred cockerels. Soon he could sell his own eggs at the roadside, and maybe some honey too.

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The man selling the barn board was skeptical and told the pig to think twice about the material. The little pig was perturbed but not misdirected. He even bought some old pallets off the guy to replicate some outdoor furniture he’d seen on etsy. He paid for the wood, took a selfie with the load and went to work building the house with the help of his Pinterest board where he pinned houzz and Restoration Hardware designs.  He facebooked, tweeted, Instagrammed and blogged the heck out of the barn board house.

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Pig had just opened a growler of Holy Smoke Scotch Ale from Church Key Brewing Company when the stupid wolf aggressively knocked on his barn board door. “Little pig, little pig, let me come in.”

If it wasn’t the telemarketers, hounding about cleaning his ducts or Rogers to upgrade his internet and cable package, it was the wolf of Wall Street.

The pig poured a perfect pint and re-heated a bowl of butter chicken that he’d made the night before. The wolf knocked again, clattering Pig’s cool new door knocker nearly off its hinge. Pig refused to open the door. “Not by the hair of my chinny, chin, chin.” This little pig just landed gainful employment as a bar hop at the Drake Devonshire Hotel in Wellington. A hipster beard was a pre-requisite and this wolf wouldn’t be having an inch of it. Besides, it was the Stanley Cup playoffs too. He needed the beard, superstitiously.

The wolf was on a bender and bitchy about a nasty break-up that left him in a crappy rental on the east side. He lost a lot in the relationship when his wife saw his text messages, or, “sexting” as she called it, with the sly fox from the coffee shop in Picton.DSCF1768

“I’ll huff and I’ll puff and I’ll blow your house in,” the wolf promised.

The pig laughed it off. He had found some hurricane-proof R value 5 windows and the barn board came from a barn that had withstood everything from carpenter ants to tornadoes for 100 years.

But, the wolf took a long drag on the last of his medicinal marijuana joint (for vertigo), stubbed it out and then huffed and puffed and wheezed and blew the house in. And he gobbled up the little pig with some of the just nicely heated spicy butter chicken and Naan bread warm from the oven.

Now, the third pig and her partner (they had just met online through Tinder, but, things were progressing quickly. It was already their third date after all and they wanted to build a place of their own and stop paying someone else’s mortgage). The same-sex couple met a woman with a load of limestone and granite. “These stones will make for a remarkably sturdy cottage,” said the woman. Pig agreed. She had friends in West Galt who lived in a 150-year-old stone home for a few years and knew that they were invincible. She bought the stones and loaded them into their SUV and set about building the stone house with a sketch that the pig’s partner had drawn when she learned the art of sheep shearing in Ireland the previous spring. It was a small (7,000-square-foot) castle in Doolin, but, they would simply scale it down a little (700-square-feet) and build an outdoor pizza oven on the west side.

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“Nice and solid,” the couple remarked. It took a long time, carefully mixing the mortar and integrating the stained glass church windows they found at an auction. Adding the fireplace and pizza oven was easy after that.

They had just unloaded the U-haul and their French bulldog, Mr. Knuckles, when they noticed the wolf loitering about. The wolf was still hungry and asked the kind pig couple to let him in. The pig couple weren’t naïve.

The couple actually hated unannounced company. “Not by the hairs of our chinny chin chin.” They turned on their SmartTV and started scrolling through Netflix. The pigs were well aware of this wolf on the prowl. He updated his Facebook status more frequently than a Kardashian. They knew he was looking for fodder for his next Pigging Out post.

The wolf promised to huff and puff as per usual, wondering how Woody Allen would re-write his tired lines. Who would he cast to play the wolf in celluloid? He hoped Jake Gyllenhaal.

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The pigs sensed that the wolf was quite serious and asked him not to huff and puff on their new build. “We want this to be a heritage home one day!”

The wolf had earbuds in and couldn’t hear them. His barista girlfriend had created a new playlist for his iPod. Of course it included “What did the fox say?” by Ylvis. The song was like a cheese grater on his nerve endings.

The wolf huffed. Puffed. Nothing. The house stood firm as Pamela Anderson’s breasts. He blew again. It didn’t budge, just like Trump’s toupee in a gale force wind.

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“I have another tactic,” the wolf threatened. He hummed along to the Of Monsters and Men track. He really loved that song, “Dirty Paws” and maybe after all this huffing and puffing was done, he’d look on expedia for cheap flights to Iceland. He owed the foxy girlfriend a trip, for all the drama of the affair and his ex-wife’s ranting in the coffee shop when she discovered the sexting messages. She went ballistic and poured a latte in the sunroof of his girlfriend’s new Fiat. But, back to the task at hand the wolf reminded himself.

He asked the pigs if they’d like to go truffle hunting. Pigs were good at that and could never resist a good truffle hunt. However, the pigs noticed that Carol was now on Netflix and they couldn’t resist. They had a thing for Cate Blanchett.

They told the wolf they were busy, they wanted to watch Carol. “It’s a movie of glances,” pig told the wolf. “That’s what the CBC said.”

“Tomorrow then?”

The pigs agreed. The wolf would come around nine in the morning, which gave them ample time to snuggle and have Americanos in bed. They knew what the wolf was up to. Duh.

The pigs got up earlier—at six even. They sniffed out a dozen truffles and dashed back home on their Honda Ruckus. When the wolf arrived at nine, the pot of water was already at a boil.

“We couldn’t wait,” the pigs said.

The wolf was a bit disappointed, but accepted a cup of French press. “The coffee is from a women’s collective in the Congo,” they told him.

The wolf was impressed. It was better than Starbucks, no question. “Shall we go pick some dandelions to make wine to enjoy with the truffles?”

The pigs said they were too busy, tending to the boiling truffles. “How about tomorrow morning, before the dew burns off. I have to boil down the truffles first before I can infuse the oil to make the black truffle mac and cheese.”

The wolf was all over it. “Okay, I understand. Yes, let’s say six a.m. for dandelion foraging.”

The next morning the pigs were up at five and went dandelion picking with Mr. Knuckles, not the scheming wolf.

The wolf showed up early though, and had them cornered in the meadow. The pigs pointed behind the lilac bushes and said they had just seen a fox to distract him. They’d heard about the coffee shop affair, mention of his foxy barista would rattle his nerves. The pigs and Mr. Knuckles ran towards their moped and sped home in a cloud of dust.

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Photo Cred: PJ Moore, Sprinting Cred: to Olive, of Caberneigh Farms

The wolf was totally miffed now. He thought for sure he could have beat them in a foot race and gobbled them up with a few dashes of Marie Sharpe’s grapefruit hot sauce that he picked up in Belize. The fox thing did throw him off. He should have known his girlfriend would already be at work, baking pain de chocolat and pistachio macaroons.

The wolf took an Uber cab to the pig’s stone house and climbed the roof despite his vertigo and lack of medicinal marijuana at hand. He could smell that fragrant Congolese coffee from the women’s collective wafting up the pig’s chimney. He made a mental note to google a local location where he could purchase it, without telling his girlfriend.

“I’ve been nice long enough, pigs. I’ve followed you on Twitter and even sent you a friendship request on Facebook. Which you never replied to, but, no matter. I’m coming down the chimney to eat you both right now.”

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When the little pigs heard this, they put a big iron pot in their fireplace and quickly stoked the fire with those Instaflame logs that are made out of sawdust and stuff. “You’ll be delicious with a little hot sauce and a bit of whiskey.”

No truer words were said. Except the wolf came down the chimney and fell into the big iron pot boiling away with rosemary, bay leaves and Meyer lemons.  The pigs ate the wolf with truffle oil mac and cheese and poached quail eggs and candied his whiskers for dessert. They made a lovely wolf pate with elderberries and hickory ribs in a root beer and brown sugar glaze. It was so good they raided the fridge at midnight, and wolfed down the wolf while watching Modern Family, semi-sauced on their potent dandelion wine. They’d have wolf burgers with frites for lunch with some brie and crab apple compote.

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“And maybe a little bacon,” the girlfriend smirked. Even though it was wrong on several levels, they had to agree with the wolf, bacon was delicious. They couldn’t wait to post their snout-to-tail wolf recipes on his Pigging Out blog. Wouldn’t that be the kicker?

The pig’s girlfriend topped up their wine glasses and raised hers. “To stone houses,” the pigs cheered. Mr. Knuckles sighed, content with his pile of rib bones and new wolf-fur hooded jacket for inclement weather that he could wear with his tiny Hunter boots.

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Re-drawing your life’s trail map

Yesterday I interviewed an effervescent naturopath about her contemporary farmhouse conversion in West Galt for a local magazine. Over a blood red berry tea (and one of those cleanse tonics with maple syrup, lemon and cayenne for her), conversation drifted to forks in the road. Is it ever too late to revisit a path not taken? She split off an obvious path of creativity in pursuit of another, one of stability. Can you go back? Or, is it like searching Facebook for your grade nine boyfriend/girlfriend and trying to rekindle the sparkly feeling when you spun ’round and ’round to Stairway to Heaven, sneaking in surreptitious root beer-breathed kisses?
My paths have sometimes been more like a hedge maze, but, they all have distinct markers–sometimes the path was made longer by complacency, African sabbaticals or misguided affections. I look at my list (I’m a Virgo, you make lists of your possible careers, chronically) and can rationalize why some were never logical, but gosh, they’d be a riot (ie. hot air balloon operator, cake decorator, ornithologist specializing in Galapagos species, bookstore owner with a brindle French bulldog ambassador to greet customers, sommelier and/or vineyard owner, urban street corner toasted marshmallow vendor).
It’s interesting to observe that retirement is the permissible time to revisit such abandoned dreams or backburner pursuits. Is it because a reliable income is no longer a benchmark for success? Are lifelong hobbies simply micro-careers that are designed to remain just that?
What do you think? Are you re-drawing your trail map?

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Buyer Beware: The House Hunting and Gathering Chronicles

House hunting and gathering is a dangerous sport. It involves incredible stealth, patience (especially when the wifi speed can’t keep pace), coffee (or, depending on the clock, wine), vision (sometimes X-ray) and the flexibility of a hot yoga instructor.

My parents are looking at properties too—which allows me to extend our search zone on realtor.ca to tease them with options too. Kim and I have honed in on Prince Edward County, Warkworth, Hastings, Trent Hills, Amherst and Wolfe Island and are open to an unexpected dream house on a tiny lake two hours from the airport in any direction, really. My mom? “We’re looking anywhere in Ontario.”

We’ve been chronically looking since last summer, but with reserve as couldn’t actively move until Kim’s official retirement. Which, is officially this Saturday—but, she will continue working until we have two sold signs (our current and future home/waterfront lot, airstream parking spot). Then the cork will fly out of the champagne bottle and we will move into our default setting: probably painting every surface, with headlamps on if necessary.

As we sift through listings, our greater fun has been in the shock and awe of the photos posted on the realtor.ca site. When they say, “buyer beware”—no kidding! Often it’s just a comical photo bomb of a cat or dog that is found in every room of the house, following the photographer around like static cling. Other times, the photos are a pure marvel. Despite a house’s exterior, inside is an open diary. A time capsule. Collections gone awry. Our greatest nightmare. Or, most often—a forehead-smacking, “What was the photographer thinking? Why would they leave groceries all over the kitchen floor?” I imagine the scene: “GET OUT! NOW! DROP YOUR GROCERIES AND LEAVE!” Did the home owner actually think, ‘Oh, what’s a few bags of groceries matter? People will understand. The house is lived in. What do they expect?’ Or, are potential buyers supposed to key in on that a grocery store is nearby? This is the vision I’m talking about.

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Here are some of our favourites, gathered over the last few months. All photo credit goes to Realtor.ca with kudos to the remarkable real estate agents who manage to sell such places without whiskey on intravenous.

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“Should I put the mop away, or do you think I should leave it so it will be in the photo?”

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Now here’s a stellar view. So practical. “Honey, let’s sit here in front of the railing and look at the ceiling.”

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The new buzz word: “Flex Room.” It’s not a man cave, but, if you like to drink Labatt 50 and eat pickled eggs while you spy on neighbours, we have a garage for you!”

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Find the cat…(it’s just like playing “Where’s Waldo?”)

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Find the cat, part 2.

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Vintage Dixie Cup dispenser, for a little Listerine, or a drink of water in the night. Who cares about a rainfall shower head or Japanese soaker tub when you could have this?

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If you have a demi-john collection, this house will suit your display needs.

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Look, it’s the very first treadmill and stationary bike ever made! Conveniently located beside the wine rack and armchair for post-workout recovery. (*Also note the faux port holes on the wall, to make your exercise room feel like a cruise ship!)

 

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Calgon, take me away! Like, far, far, far away.

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“Is my foot in the way?”

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Find the dog…

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Now here’s a DIY project gone wrong. “Honey, what do you think? If I buy a bunch of wooden spoons and make them into cabinet handles, will they notice the dated kitchen?”

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Question: How many people have had a concussion after innocently sitting on this toilet?

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Snacks, laundry and TV–all in one convenient space.

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For those who love diamond-print socks and sweaters, we’ve lovingly transferred the tasteful design to our ceiling!

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Does the carpet match the curtains?

Categories: Home Sweet Home, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , | 3 Comments

China? Us? What? The Fortune Cookie didn’t mention that.

As Kim will readily attest, it’s dangerous leaving me idle with a nearby laptop on a snow-pounded day. First, as per routine, I will scour the real estate listings in Prince Edward County and surrounds like a public health nurse armed with a nit comb. In the event of a search with no immediate house crushes, I default to enticing emails promising seat sales and last minute escapes.

I always say never say never—but, Kim and I had already said, in bold and fine print, that we’d never go to Vegas, India or China. So, I’m full of blog baloney. I’d like to retract the last crossed off destination and cheerlead it for a few reasons.

The deal was too good not to go. The clincher was the add-on flight and seven nights at a beachfront Le Meridien property in Phuket for $599 each. A hotel AND a flight for $599? The only place you can do that is Sudbury (no offence, Sudbury).

So, because I couldn’t find a house for us to buy in the County, I found a three week trip to China and Thailand instead. We were anti-China for obvious reasons: pollution, a bazillion people and that niggling exotic animal trade and aphrodisiac thing that is decimating rhino, dolphin, tiger (insert any animal) populations. Oh, and the hawking and spitting at every turn. I’ve skidded on a few globs on Spadina’s sidewalks in my urban past.

But, on the flip side: The Yangtze River. Oh yeah, we said we’d never go on a cruise either. But, but, but…this is a river cruise, just 140 cabins, not a floating small city with a 18-hole golf course, IMAX movie theatre, rock climbing wall, waterslides and casino aboard.

Ironically, I had just researched the most enticing bits of China for an article on 10 luxury trips of a lifetime for Grand magazine (on newsstands now!). I knew zilch about China except the sneering-with-disapproval above smog-smacked opinions. As I read about the must-dos of Beijing alone, I felt a slight tug of responsibility. The marvel of the Great Wall seemed like something every human should see.

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China promised a solid dose of the unfamiliar, cuisine, dynasty lore, neon cities and emerald landscapes. Hell, the Great Wall can be seen from outer space (which makes me wonder—what’s faster? Space shuttle or 15 hour direct flight from Toronto?). The 20,000 km snaking wonder of manmade toil and ambition can be accessed from many points. The most visited entry is Badaling, which was the first part of the wall to open to tourists in 1957. Thatcher, Gorbachev, Queen Elizabeth left their mark here. Recently renovated, Mutianyu is easily accessible from Beijing and appeals to families with a cable car, chairlift and even a toboggan ride. No, that’s not a typo. Tobogganing. At the Great Wall.

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The Forbidden City, protected by a 52m moat around the heart of Beijing is where China’s largest collection of ancient buildings are found. Known as the Palace Museum, previous uninvited visitors were executed (now you can safely pay $9-13 entry). The Chinese Imperial Palace from the Ming Dynasty houses 5,000 years and 8,700 rooms of heritage: marble bridges, a calligraphy gallery, bronze elephant statues and classical gardens.

My mother is already researching these things in tandem. It’s probably the first time she’s ever said, “I want to come too!” when I told her we had booked China. Her excitement over the river cruise to Gorge Wu and Qutang and the panda sanctuary does not compare to her held-breath and knuckle-whitening as witnessed when I announced we were going to Uganda or Zanzibar or the Congo or Kenya.

“They have any bugs there?” was my dad’s concern. My parents should work for WHO with their memorized mapping of the Zika outbreak and dengue scares. My mom later emailed, “What do they think of gays there? Never mind, I probably don’t want to know.”

 

sex livesI’ve been reading J. Maarten Troost’s Lost on Planet China as preliminary research. I’ve read his other two brilliant travel memoirs, Getting Stoned With Savages and The Sex Lives of Cannibals. This guy has lived on remote atolls in the South Pacific. He’s no Accidental Tourist a la William Hurt. But, his expose of China at ground zero and the lung-collapsing pollution has left me panting a little.

What terrifies me most is probably the karaoke. Other things—like the government’s attempt to overcome increased rates of childhood obesity with a mandate that kids learn to waltz also makes me quiver. A place that loves to waltz and karaoke—that’s pretty much my nightmare in black and white.

planet chinaCourtesy of Troost I’ve also learned:

  1. The only four-legged thing they don’t eat in China is a table.
  2. “Death Vans” are the solution to messy firing squads. The mobile execution trucks visit jails, perform injections as necessary and then harvest viable organs for transplants.
  3. The swastika symbol is visible everywhere–but it is the Buddhist symbol for love and peace.
  4. China has the world’s highest suicide rate among women–and they do so by swallowing pesticides.
  5. It’s illegal to carry a photo of the Dalai Lama in Tibet.
  6. To corner the market on grain export, Mao ordered the death of every sparrow in China (because they ate grain seeds). He didn’t predict the locust plague and starvation that would follow.
  7. You can buy watermelons the size of oranges.
  8. At the Yuyuan market (which requires a flashlight to visit), one can find tiger paws, mammoth tusks and monkey skeletons
  9. A typical menu might offer fried swan, boiled frog in radish soup and stewed pig lung
  10. Driving in China is “one long cardiac event.”

In China we will also be privy to the cardiac event that is the high speed train from Wuhan to Shanghai (topping out at some 330km per hour). We can experience reverse vertigo at the Grand Hyatt Shanghai in the Bund while taking in the optical roller coaster of the 30 storey atrium. Maybe have a cocktail at the Fairmont Peace Hotel where Charlie Chaplin used to hang.

Maybe we’ll see the rare-as-a-unicorn Baiji Yangtze river dolphin. Prior to the construction of the behemoth Three Gorges Dam, the river was just a few feet deep. It’s now a swollen vein with 450 feet depths. Shades of the Aswan Dam in Egypt cloud my mind. The mile long and 610 foot dam buried many villages and temples in its path in an underwater grave. The government has kindly reintroduced macaque monkeys to the region and trained them to beg for food from the tourists (I’m sure you’ve seen the images of the demanding troops, robbing starry-eyed visitors of their sunglasses and even flip flops). All to ensure visitors have a good time. Better yet—if the wonder of the limestone gorge isn’t impressive enough, there are acrobats in Hubei Province that ride MOTORCYCLES on wires suspended across the river. Acrobats jockey for attention as this is also the area where 2000-year-old wooden coffins are tucked among the rocky outcrops and caves. They were once a thousand feet above the river, but thanks to the damn dam, they are even closer. And, who doesn’t love a little Cirque de Soleil while passing through an ancient burial ground? Cue up Michael Jackson’s “Beat It!” on the karaoke machine.

It’s all so perplexing. Toboggan rides down the Great Wall. Acrobats in the Gorge. Prostitutes. Phone calls in the night offering special massage at the hotels. Hello Kitty! Hopefully cheap tiger balm. And, fried everything (insert: seahorse, scorpion, duck heads, flying lizards–http://www.goatsontheroad.com/7-seriously-strange-street-foods-in-china/).

Reading Lost on Planet China probably wasn’t the most fabulous introduction. However, we are expecting mass confusion, eye rolling, sky-high frustration and big gobs of spit but also, sheer wonder and startling scenery. Plus, this trip is for investigative purposes. China is actually hiring panda wranglers or “Panda Nannies” at the Giant Panda Protection and Research Centre in Ya’an. $35,000US to cuddle pandas and Instagram the cuteness!

Homework, continued…

The Last Emperor (I think was the first movie I went to that had an intermission! The 1987 flick is 2 hours and 43 minutes long). Based on the true story of Pu Yi, the last Emperor of Imperial China.

The Beach—because we will be in Phuket for a week, and Thailand is the setting of Alex Garland’s backpacker fantasy novel about finding nirvana and cheap banana pancakes

Up the Yangzte—troubling 2007 documentary about the impact of the Three Gorges Dam on rural China

Last Train Home—the human cost of China’s economic success

Kung Fu Panda—for obvious reasons. Po the overweight Panda works at his father’s noodle bar but dreams of being a kung fu warrior. Referencing this movie might help in the Panda Nanny job interview.

Categories: Passport Please, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Rum Diaries Part 6: Las Galeras, Las Terrenas, Samana, Dominican Republic

There was a warm wash of relief when I read that even Pilar Guzman, Editor in Chief of Conde Nast Traveler spends “an unapologetically culture-free month on Fire Island every summer.” Defensively, the next line of her Editor’s Letter was, “we are rigorous about taking trips that teach,” and choosing destinations that mirror her kids school curriculum (hello Egypt and the Mesopotamia unit!). She also revealed that she and her husband “reserve the right to an adults-only, do-nothing-but-read-booze-sun-and-swim beach getaway once a year.”

Well, that’s what Kim and I did too. There was a surprisingly amount of flak from friends and family though (once we mapped out where the Samana peninsula was). “Dominican Republic? Really? Everyone goes there.”

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Everyone goes everywhere. Unless you go all Tom Hanks Castaway and accidentally bob yourself by raft into an atoll that no human has tread upon. (And I do have a delicious book all about that: Judith Schalansky’s Pocket Atlas of Remote Island: Fifty Islands I Have Not Visited and Never Will. It’s as dreamy as it gets. Most of the islands she spotlights are former leper colonies or suffered smallpox epidemics that wiped out the entire population. You can go to Chile’s Robinson Crusoe Island (pop: 633) or keep company with 120 million crabs during the rainy season on Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean. That sounds about our speed.

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You see, we ruined ourselves with Zanzibar. The beaches were apocalyptically empty. The sun was searing and the ocean was a mesmerizing kaleidoscope of blues and greens. Finding a reasonable facsimile is challenging—and might not ever happen (though I just scribbled down the “Galapagos of Japan—Iromote and the Yaeyama Islands, after seeing just three glossy photos). However, sometimes you just want a four hour flight versus nineteen. You want a long beach without spiky urchins underfoot. You want sunsets and rum shacks and no greater purpose than to just be. You don’t want to swallow anti-malarial pills that give you near-psychotic dreams every night. You want flights for two for a thousand bucks return and rooms for $65 a night.

We looked at Tobago (crappy flight connections through Trinidad and steep prices for lackluster seaside rentals). We looked at Turks. And then I looked at the Seychelles and Andaman Island (as I always do, by default). We considered the Azores and decided we couldn’t brave highs of 13 degrees in January, despite the killer deal. We wanted egg-frying-on-the-sidewalk hot.

Kim found Samana online one still Sunday morning and knew what the Dominican offered, having been to Punta Cana, Puerto Plata and Sosua years ago. In fact, she even won a bottle of rum at the hotel she was staying at for having the best tan.

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What we wanted, we got. Samana is a direct (4h 20min) flight from Toronto. A cruise ship sounds its horn at this port every few days—sounding our own internal horns to go further from the bloated crowds. A $100 taxi ride further. Unfortunately, the transit system is still operating on 1950’s banana farm ideals. Locals actively pack into the backs of the gua-gua’s (old Nissan and Mitsubishi pick-up beaters with wood plank seating) that stop every 100 m or so. We’ve subjected ourselves to the local way before—and decided our public transit experiences in Uganda alone, justified ponying up for a proper taxi to Las Galeras in the north.

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Lonely Planet described Las Galeras as an expat haven and a solid base camp for indie travellers. French women burned along the downtown strip on ATVs with baguettes (they did!). Here, we could find “morir sonado”—a smoothie of OJ, milk, sugar and crushed ice that translates heavenly as “to die dreaming.”

Dreaming started early when we asked our driver about stopping for beer. We were sticky and parched in our just-left-winter-in-Canada jeans and fleece. He nodded and in less than five minutes he slowed in front of a house with a thatched roof with a girl skipping rope and dizzy chickens pecking out front. He honked his horn in a special pattern and a sinewy teen emerged. Our driver bellowed in Spanish and we suddenly found ourselves holding glacier cold one liter bottles of Presidente.

The ride was stomach-lurching hilly, through a surprisingly verdant swath of palms, jungle tangles and rice paddy fields. I knew that this trip would not be the safari thrill of Uganda. The Dominican has two mammals—rats and bats, though I kept my eyes trained on the canopies, fully expecting monkeys and sloths.

At Costa Las Ballenas we were quickly charmed by new expat Italian owners, Vincenzo and chef Gilda. They had taken possession of the semi-tired sea front property in December and had a long list of to-do’s. Luckily, Kim and I have stayed in rooms with no toilet seats, Donald Duck shower curtains and taxidermied rabbits wearing clothes. We’re forgiving, even when the room is strawberry yogurt pink and the toilet is as private as Facebook. We were shocked to find a flat screen TV (espanol-only, though I was hoping Kim would be able to find the world junior hockey coverage), SCENTED toilet paper and beach bar pizza slabs for 100 pesos (2 bucks).

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(*Of all the pictures we would later show friends, the door-less toilet (where you could see the stars at night and sun tan at certain points in the day) was the shocker.)

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We investigated our surrounds, making our way into ‘town’ which was the usual source of Carib comedy with a motoconcho (motorbike) and a cantering horse being pulled behind. Diesel-burping vehicles that looked homemade overtaking shiny Land Rovers. We quickly found $3 bottles of rum, corn flakes (gluten-free even, though we weren’t being picky), plantain chips and yogurt. The veg section was a sorry site of wilting broccoli, depressed tomatoes and scrubby onions. We had missed the mango and avo season, but there was no fruit. Not a banana. Not a pina. The shelves of the four supermercados we went into were full of squeeze dressings, sardines, wieners in a can, baseball-bat baguettes and rock candies that guaranteed dental work.

But, back to the beach (we could survive on rum and corn flakes and pizza slabs). It was a Simpsons blue sky, every day. There were the token geckos, electric tree frogs at night and forty annoying Russians threatening to break the sound barrier with their music. They started drinking beer at breakfast…at 8am. Or, maybe they never stopped.

Playa Bonita reminded us of The Beach. We schlepped to a pool-like part of the sea where few bothered to walk to. Locals fried up langostina and pescado at $1000 pesos ($20US) for a feed for two. Beers included.

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We had drowsy days of reading, napping and ambling along the boardwalk, gushing the manicured AND pedicured lawns and sweet real estate. At night, we practiced amateur mixology with mango nectar, limon frappe and island punch sodas that we had bought in town.

The beachy perks of Las Galeras are found in the skyline. There are no high rises. There are no chain hotels. There are no jet skis or pesky beach vendors hounding to braid your hair or to buy necklaces made out of shells and fake shark teeth. There was a solo guitarist and someone selling braided palm frond hats but that was it.

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I loved watching the spear fisherman bring their bounty to shore. Around four o’clock they’d come in, a rainbow of scales suspended on rope, rays, jelly octopi and rock lobsters by the bucket. Kim loved that she could order spag bol at the nearby slick Atlantis Hotel. She’s ordered it everywhere in the world, and every day in Italy—but it was here, in Las Galeras that she found the best spaghetti Bolognese, ever.

Onward: Las Terrenas

The sleepy fishing village an hour and a half from Las Galeras (another $100US ear-popper, barf-bag inducing cab ride. Don’t remind us of the crappy Canadian dollar exchange) slipped us through new terrain. Men were clustered around tables playing dominos, women sat fanning themselves, bouncing coffee-skinned babies. Loudspeakers rigged on the back of trucks blared that wormy cabbages and bruised papayas were for sale. Everywhere, music thumped. Out of houses, makeshift bars, parked vehicles. Phones. Keeping up with the Joneses in the Dominican means funneling all your money into speakers.

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At El Sol Azul, a Swiss-owned B&B (“Zimmer und Fruhstuck”), we found a good dose of hospitality, banana rum jam, the freshest smelling towels and a property that was like waking up inside a botanical garden magazine spread. We had a jackfruit tree outside our door, crown of thorns, lime trees, jasmine—so many fragrant blooms. The owners, Esther and Pierre, have been in the business for 10 years and it’s evident. It was $65 CAD a night here too—which included breakfast. Cocoa puffs, pina colada yogurt, fresh cheese, dulce de leche, passionfruit juice, eggs any style with avo, tomato and a pinwheel of her homemade jams: guava, starfruit, kumquat, mango and the banana rum version which was like liquid banana bread in a jar. Divine.

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The bed was so firm we could have played ping pong off the surface, but, the rooms were kitted out with everything from mosquito coils to a cool loft space and bean bag zen zone. Better yet? Two nonchalant cats and an affectionate lab make their rounds.

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The guests were all European—Germans, French, Czech. It was rare to hear English being spoken in Las Galeras. Ironically, early in the trip I had been asked if I knew Spanish. I had taken a college course back in 1993, and really, could only remember “el gato es negro.” The cat is black. As long as I saw black cats, I was fine. And we did. Many gato negros and, Gato Negro wine. In a tiny store with a face-punch assault of scented toilet paper for sale, we actually haggled over wine prices. Certain it was going to be effervescent, we walked away with a $10 US bottle of Gato Negro from the “humidor” as Kim called it. The wine ‘cellar’ was hotter than most saunas that I’ve been in.

The supermercados of Las Galeras were of the same state—finding things to eat and picnic with was a struggle. We had packed tins of tuna and a cartel of trail mix from Canada, but, it was getting difficult to find substance beyond hunks of tasteless or too-briny cheese, “salami” (that was more of the bologna persuasion), drinking boxes of chocolate milk (dreamy—it tasted exactly like melted chocolate ice cream) and white buns that crumbled when you looked at them. God bless preservatives. Some stores had freezers stocked with chicken feet, and there was always a side of beef hanging somewhere.

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We tried a German sandwich shop which ended up being a flat Wonderbread assembly of red onion, the bologna meat, murder-scene amounts of ketchup and mayo. To-go paninis at the French-owned Las Marseillaise became our beach staple.

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Our days were all about finding the next great pocket of beach. This sometimes led to thorny, scratchy scrambles over coral, barbed wire, garbage dumps and cow patties but (thank god love conquers all)…a Brit told us about a “donkey path” to Colorado beach, a secret spot that only the ambitious found. Her donkey path was akin to a drug mule path. When we arrived at the beach, thrashed and wobbly from the terrain, it was in shade and covered in a Stephen King amount of red aphids. Back to our base camp: el Playita.

 

Despite the pep talks about Rincon being one of the best beaches in Dominican, we skipped it. The $20US (each) boat ride over Perfect Storm ocean swells was not enticing. We could see Rincon from our Playita, and we predicted the same. Unfortunately, El Nino and company have eroded the beaches on the northern peninsula at a startling rate. Leaning palms and a short shore are becoming the norm.

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We found bizarre pizza combos at Bar Roma, the Italian-owned joint ‘downtown.’ The open seating allowed for unobstructed viewing of the motoconchos pulling wheelies up and down the main road. A pizza with a one litre beer was $20US and came loaded with ham laid like sod, fried egg, a slice of radish and one anchovy. On our last night we found the better joint—El Pescador. Their Toscane pizza with generous amounts of chicken, tomato and onion with hell-hot sauce made our coveted best-pizzas-we’ve-eaten-in-the-world list.

Most nights involved an eye-rolling amount of Adele, meringue and Menudo-esque music. A pool hall, supermarket, hair salon and bar ALL competed for air time with music at a level that actually made me wince. You need to inoculate yourself with serious amounts of rum or hot black cat red wine to sleep here. You know that expression? Sound asleep? Kim was sound awake every night. I think I have to take her to Fogo Island in Newfoundland next. Hotel rooms here come with a switch for white noise because it’s uncomfortably too quiet for some.

If you are seriously sketching out plans to visit Las Terrenas, this is what you need to do:

Spend a poolside afternoon at Villas Serena. The beers are the most expensive on the island, but they come with an addictive bar snack: red-skinned peanuts and baked coconut inundated with garlic salt, bbq spice and coarse pepper.

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Learn German. Or, bring a lot of English books. Kim and I went on a scavenger hunt to a half dozen hotels after we ripped through our paperback supply (we thought six would cover us for two weeks). All the shelves of traders are German or Dutch, so pack your Rosetta Stone. Special thanks to that generous woman from the Muskokas who handed me her copy of ex-skateboarder Michael Christie’s If I Fall, If I Die. “If you have kids you never have to worry about running out of books on vacation,” she suggested.

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Beware of the Dominican tattoo. We counted nine raw and bandaged raspberries. The ‘tattoo’ is the characteristic right leg burn mark from the exhaust of the motorbike taxis.

Ear Plugs. Though I find falling asleep to the sound of waves poetry, Kim described the waves like a “freight train” that ran all night.

Don’t buy duty free rum en route. It’s so cheap once you arrive. Instead, grab a bunch of golf-ball sized limes and find your favourite combo—Cuba Libre (with Coke) or Santo Libre (crushed limes with rum and ice).

Buy those homemade coconut cookies that look potentially good. They are softer than muffin tops.

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GO to El Maguey on the beach. It’s a haphazard open sky art gallery/bar/resto. For $1,400 pesos ($30 US) we had four paralyzing Santo Libres, a mamajuana shot (the mysterious aphrodisiac blend of red wine, honey, rum, herbs, twigs), papagayo (neon blue fish), 80s style salad (iceberg, tomato, white vinegar) and thick 100% veg oil fries. Under a fingernail moon and a tablecloth of stars with a beach dog at our feet, non-descript Spanish rock at a purr and the ‘freight train’ waves, this was a perfect night.

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

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