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.

DSCF6173

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.

DSCF5880

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.

church 1

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.

water tower 2

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?

schoolhouz

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.)

DSCF9791

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.

DSCF7113

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?

DSCF0158

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).

bookshelf

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?

sparrow 2

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?

houz

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).

DSCF8391

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

DSCF9779

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)

camb1

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.

houz1

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

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.

galt

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.

galt 1

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.

camb5

 

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.

camb2

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.

camb4

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.

GARDENS June 2, 2104 042

GARDENS June 2, 2104 004

DSCF6128DSCF7022grand 8grand 6grand 1grand 15grand 7

DSCF4358DSCF4364DSCF4376DSCF4366DSCF4374DSCF4368DSCF4379DSCF4381DSCF4380DSCF4388DSCF4390DSCF4392DSCF4393DSCF4395DSCF4394DSCF4397DSCF4412DSCF4426

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

 

 

 

 

Categories: Home Sweet Home, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

olive 1

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.

DSCF9202

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.

DSCF9220

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.

DSCF3718

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.

olive

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.

jungle hut

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.

chicken coop

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.

DSCF9253

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.

dream house

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.

barn

“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.

dream house 1

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.

DSCF9193

“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.

olive 3

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.”

DSCF9199

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.

DSCF1709 (3)

“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.

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

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?

Categories: Retiring--Rewiring | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

groceries

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.

bad 2

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

bad

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

chairs in garage

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!”

cat

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

cat 2

Find the cat, part 2.

dixie cup

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?

demijohns

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

napanee

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!)

 

PEC 5

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

pelee foot

“Is my foot in the way?”

PEC dog

Find the dog…

spoons

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?”

toilet

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

what the hell

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

weird

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

wallpaper

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.

DSCF4163

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.

DSCF4164

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.”

DSCF8452

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.

DSCF3655 (2)

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.

DSCF3612

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.

DSCF3615

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).

DSCF3619

(*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.)

DSCF3643

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.

DSCF3700

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.

DSCF3689

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.

DSCF3796

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.

DSCF3716

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.

DSCF3717

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.

DSCF3736

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.

DSCF3839.JPG

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.

DSCF3709

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.

DSCF3816

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.

DSCF3853

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.

DSCF3918

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.

DSCF3942

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

The Best Places we Slept in 2015

As I type this, I am on red hot poker alert for sounding like a gloating schmuck. One doesn’t have to read too many headlines to be aware of the immense life-joy Syrians are finding in a one-way ticket to Canada. And here I am bragging about all the places we slept around the world this year. However, it is with gratitude that we have the means, and with greater thanks to the powers that be that we are Canadians and synonymous with poutine, igloos, nice beer, plaid of all sorts and moose antlers.

So, in no particular order, these were our resounding favourites for 2015, the places that still stir us in the night and tumble into conversation as quickly as commas and Kardashians.

DSCF7993

La Sirena, Palomino, Colombia

$645 CAD for 7 nights

Comes with very cute cat, a bat show and the best French Toast, possibly ever.

Three words: open-sky showers. You can’t beat them—even if they are lukewarm. Palomino was a neat pocket of surfer survivalists. Budget backpackers love Palomino for the cheap beer, cheap tins of tuna, big surf and $4 a night hammocks to sleep in (though many went even thriftier and simply camped en plein air on the beach without issue).

DSCF7987

We don’t sleep in hammocks anymore, and ponied up a few more dollars to sleep in a seaside casita at La Sirena Eco Lodge. The on-site veg resto serves up thick slabs of fruit-studded French toast, lentil burgs, tangy red cabbage slaw and baseball bat-sized burritos nearly made vegetarians of us. There was seaside yoga every day and a dedicated following—we watched over the rim of our wine glass. That counts, right?

DSCF8025

Best? Every night at dusk we’d secure our front of house seats, straining to finish a chapter in the equatorial light and finally close our books for the bat show. At precisely 5:55pm, the bats would swiftly appear, in quick black blurs as the staff lit tiki torches along the beach. When you stay several nights in one place, it’s cool to pick up on the rhythm and the clock of the natural world.

El Dorado Bird Reservo, Minca, Colombia

$230 CAD includes crappy dinner and crappier breakfast, but…how about 100 hummingbirds an hour?

DSCF7918

This was my birthday gift, and swanky to me comes in different forms. For example, like sleeping at 1,700m, far above the coffee plantations and literally in the clouds. Perched above the forest canopy, we had a bird’s eye view of the bird’s eyes. Lots of them. It was hummingbirdpalooza. Gobsmacked, Kim and I stood quite stunned as over fifty hummingbirds circled and buzzed around us at once.

The motorbike ride to the lodge ($75 return) was hair and heartbeat-raising, more akin to an involuntary Dakar rally over washed out bits of road, getting thwacked in the head with fernery and clacking teeth and tongue over potholes—but, wow.

DSCF7809

It was like sleeping in a treehouse, or a bird’s nest I suppose. I spent more time looking out binoculars than using my own eyes.

Best? After checking off endemic birds like crazed lifer birder-types in Tilleys (note: we do not wear Tilleys), we watched a group of Canadian herpetologists go bonkers over the moths and neon katydids attracted to the light of the lodge. These guys knew not only their birds and herps and ghost frogs and anole, but their lunas too–comparing geeked-out notes and trivia. It’s awesome to see people still get as excited about flora and fauna as the return of Star Wars and X-Files.

DSCF7802

Golden Villas, Noord, Aruba

$139/night (January to May)

Comes with Weber Grill, Netflix and Parakeet Migration

DSCF8557

We were beyond impressed with Golden Villas. The apartments are contemporary, spotless and kitted out with Hamilton Beach blenders, Cuisinart coffee makers, black-out blinds (for even the most notorious insomniac), a gorgeous limestone shower (with HOT water, a rarity with most island stays) and NETFLIX even. And there’s never a battle over outdoor lounge chairs!

DSCF8491

With just eight private villas surrounding the courtyard and pool, the experience is intimate and private. Goodbye obnoxious crowds at the all-inclusives and the thumpa thumpa of the disco and badgering to play volleyball or do morning pool aerobics. At Golden Villas, you can watch parakeets fly-by and spend most of your hours without seeing anyone else. It’s so quiet you feel as though you should whisper– most guests depart early in the morning and don’t return until after sunset.

DSCF8490

We took full advantage of the Weber barbecue that was available—(you can pick up groceries just 15-20 minutes away on foot at several Asian supermarkets or the big conglomerate–Super Foods where all the imported Dutch cheese lands by the tonne). Eagle Beach is a 30 minute walk from here–if you are staying for sunset, a headlamp or flashlight would be advised for the return walk. And the beach—not to complain, but the sand is SO white that you can barely read because of the glare. I know, when you’re biggest problem in life is the glare of white sand, SMACK!

DSCF8575

We stayed for a week and loved the sleepy location away from the Palm and Eagle beach madness (they call Aruba “Little Miami” for good reason—all the big hitters are here: Hooters, Senor Frogs, Cinnabon, TGIF, KFC, etc). The owners Richard and Belle are so lovely and helpful–and their young daughter, Juna, has an infectious laugh. We’d recommend Golden Villas to couples wanting a quieter self-catering option. Aruba requires deep pockets outside of the resorts—a pound of peel and eat prawns and two beers will set you back $50US. After staying in solar-powered beach huts in Colombia for three weeks, this was an indulgent spoil! *From the airport it is $25US flat rate.

Summer House at the Summer Garden, Argyle Shores, Prince Edward Island

Rates from $1,000/week (7-night minimum stay)

Includes a jar of honey, best-ever granola and a blitzkrieg of mosquitoes

DSCF9434

I love everything cottagey, right down to the half-filled in crosswords from previous guests, beat-up Scrabble board, sticky UNO cards, bowls of potato chips, astronomy and wildflower guides and Nancy Drew hardbacks. The Summer House had all the quintessential cottage DVDs too: Steel Magnolias and the Big Chill.

Gail and Joe, the vibrant cottage owners and WOOF hosts (Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms), were just as groovy as it gets. In their 60s, we saw them perennially bent over in their gardens, in full mosquito swat gear. The mosquitoes were insane in June, but, we can’t blame them for that. The rains came down biblically that week and the decks of cards saw frequent shuffling. Kim’s parents were celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary, and our quiet group of six quickly escalated to sixty, slab cake and urns of coffee. I’d be breathing into a paper bag if I saw that many people in and out of my rental cottage!

DSCF9424DSCF9427

Best? We were welcomed with a jar of golden honey from Canoe Cove, PEI coffee beans and just-baked homemade granola (stolen in surreptitious handfuls). There was OJ and milk in the fridge, an invite to drop in for a glass of wine and an impromptu lesson on how to make chive flower vinegar.

DSCF9472

Rowdy ravens, rolling jade fields, a veil of fog, devil’s paintbrush in the ditches and serene runs along the cinnamon-sand shore made the Summer House an authentic Maritime escape.

Fronterra Farm Camp Brewery, Prince Edward County, Ontario

$235/night (2 night minimum)

Comes with King bed, just-laid chicken eggs and cilantro and sometimes Veuve.

DSCF9754

This is intelligent camping, people. Whether you die-hard urban or lacking the necessary camping kit, make life easy and dreamy by booking a night in the frontier-style tents at Fronterra. Pick up a bottle of your favourite varietal en route, some organic sausage and pluck greens from their mighty patch behind the farmhouse. Our guacamole with foraged cilantro never tasted so Mex cantina! In the morning, Jens and Inge might deliver some just-laid eggs to fry up in the cast iron griddle. After a night fire side, sticky with mozzie repellant, fear not. Prepare for the hottest shower in your life, with a leafy canopy and an indigo sky above you.

Sleeping at Fronterra makes you want to chop wood, read Farley Mowat and make beer. Thankfully, Jens is taking care of the beer part too. The twist on the Farm Camp is the Brewery—the hops have been lovingly sowed and the beer-making dream is fermenting! The couple have a beautiful vision, and the fact that they are allowing strangers and interlopers to share in on their dream is something to be exceedingly grateful for.

We ended up being their very first guests—I had been following their posts rabidly (the website alone is something to fawn over) and booked us pronto—not realizing we’d be the test subjects! Lucky for us we were treated to a long-coveted bottle of Veuve that they insisted on opening and drinking with us.

DSCF9708

For solitude, and camping that is a far cry from the crammed provincial parks (insert annoying car alarms, inflatable mattresses being blown up at 2am, car doors slamming, blaring music, etc. here). At Fronterra you’re buying into peace, inspiration, and a cheap way to rewire for a few days in the woods.

Ihamba Safari Lodge, Queen Elizabeth National Park, Uganda

$139 US per night, including breakfast and coffee delivered to your doorstep

DSCF1476

When we first arrived at Ihamba Lakeside Safari Lodge I was worried that I made a mistake. I had noticed a 10% room discount on tripadvisor just before we left for Uganda. We decided to book when we arrived, as we hadn’t fully plotted our trip yet. The rate was supposed to be $139 US per night. When we saw the grandness of the lodge and the view of Lake George, I thought–“oh, no! It’s $139 PER PERSON PER NIGHT!” I fretted throughout our welcome session with Fred, especially when we were shown our very own private cottage! From the tripadvisor pictures, I thought the deal was for an interior room–this cottage had a balcony with lakeview and a slipper tub with a panoramic window for hippo watching AND a King bed. It was gorgeous. Royalty could stay here–and royal we were! I casually and slyly asked one of the staff about the price (in shillings) for our entire stay so I could do quick math without seeming like a fretting cheapskate. All this, for indeed $139 a nite, including breakfast. We immediately went to the pool area, which we had completely to ourselves. Philomen kept us hydrated with a steady flow of Tusker–we turned the lounge chairs towards the lake and wondered what kind of dream we had just woken up in.

All the staff were over-the-top professional, catering to all our needs and requests (ice cubes, arranging a vehicle for a game drive, bird book lending while on safari, bowls and cutlery to make guacamole from avocadoes we’d bought nearby) we even asked if the chef could make an eggplant pizza one night as we were looking for lighter fare than the three course option that was available). No problem. Dinners ($25,000 shillings for entrees) were a rotating menu (not a buffet) of decadent choices–eggplant curries, grilled tilapia–and the best beef samosas. Breakfast came with a fruit plate, a bodum of coffee and your choice of eggs, pancakes, bacon, sausage, baked beans, stewed tomatoes. Each night after dinner we would fill out an request form with a time for breakfast. Best? You can opt for a wake-up call with coffee delivery to your room! Now that’s living! (No extra charge).

At night, John, the security guard and resident hippo enthusiast would greet us for an escort with lanterns–asking if we wanted to go look at the hippos closer. They graze on the grass right by the cottages, and you will fall to sleep with sounds of them at your feet–amazing!

DSCF1407

The balcony of the cottage makes for great birdwatching—lapwings, wagtails, go away birds, bishop birds, kingfishers, bats…and the sunrise on Lake George, stunning! We watched a few afternoon storms roll in too! You’ll also see all the fisherman as they head out in their wooden canoes from the local village.

The location of the lodge is technically within Queen Elizabeth National Park, but there is some clause on the property that creates an exception for the hotel. This means you DON’T have to pay the $40US per person park fee per night. The lodge can arrange a driver/guide and safari vehicle for you if you are not travelling with a guided group (like us). It was $140US to hire John (a former QENP guide–patient, experienced and comical)–not including park entry ($80US for two for a 24 hour period, time-stamped).

DSCF1183

If you are looking for serenity, seclusion, a stunning lake view, and a hotel without the park fees, Ihamba is it. The bonus is having a pool, a quiet road to walk on in the mornings if you want to check out the birds or run), hippos at night and lovely staff. And, kudos and karma to the hotel owner for allowing children from the local community use of the pool on Sundays–what a treat for them.

Lakeside Lodge, Jinja, Uganda

$255 US a night, full board. Bring sketch book to recreate the floor plan for your dream home.

DSCF0307

We stayed for a week at the Lakeside Lodge in Jinja and have probably ruined ourselves for any future hotel stays. This one really set the bar to an unreachable place. Have you ever booked a night somewhere and fancied just moving right in–forever? We actually found ourselves sketching out the floorplan–we want to design a house just like the Lakeside Lodge. The master with the en suite bath, open shower, raw wood and stone is really a jaw-dropper. The kitchen, though we didn’t make proper use of it, was one that any aspiring chef would fawn over. And the view–the spiral staircase to the upper deck was total bird’s eye–putting a hum on all the activity below. We were sharing air space with hawks and storks up there!

The bed was so welcome after some stiff sleeps in Murchison. Our only chore was wandering over to the Gately restaurant (just across the road) for more of what we had first experienced at the sister Gately location in Entebbe. Crash in Entebbe for a night while you shake off the jetlag shadows–then make the journey (3-4 hours) to Jinja (the ‘adventure capital of Uganda’. Here you can rip around on ATVs, go horseback riding along the Nile, visit the Nile brewery, chill at the yacht club–which is walking distance and they make potent Long Islands, or book a sunset cruise through Gately for $45US per person to the source of the Nile–a must).

DSCF0308

Gately will restore your senses. Come with books, order a few gins and find a banda. We spent many hours chatting in the bandas, there are three or four tucked along the path that winds from the hotel to the restaurant. The grounds here are just immaculate–it’s like sitting in the botanical gardens with a serious bird soundtrack.

Here’s what you need to order from the kitchen: Cobb salad, Kashmiri chicken, any of the fiery curries and the Nile burger.

You can easily walk to town (15-20 minutes), you can even walk to the golf course (rental clubs available and caddies)—Kim loved navigating a course that involved dodging vervet monkeys, termite mounds, grazing cattle and hippo footprints.

But, if you are also happy just to park yourself and walk about the lodge like a Hollywood starlet, that’s good too. Helen and Georgina are smooth operators and helped us immensely in organizing the Pineapple Express (a $12US per person private van to Kampala) and the future leg of our trip by contacting hotels for us about availability. The security guards were always right on the dot with wake-up calls too!

Again, hot, indulgent showers, lots of places to lie about and feel spoiled. Thanks, Gately! And, somehow I managed to get a decadent surprise birthday cake AND foie gras during my stay too! So appreciated!

DSCF3898

 

Well, that was 2015. We’ve already kick-started this year off swimmingly with two weeks in Las Galeras and Las Terrenas in northern Samana, Dominican Republic. Where next? Well, we often surprise ourselves. Where was the best place you slept last year?

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

A Bespoke Christmas

Once upon a time, all my kid sister wanted for Christmas was “world peace.” (I’m sure this is still true.) However, she was also quite thrilled to get a Cabbage Patch Doll and the latest Babysitter Club books for her collection, in addition to world peace.

Our family has definitely shifted to the “experiential gifts” because we are truly want for nothing. That is, except for the circa 1860 Stockdale Feed Mill on Cold Creek in Frankford that just came on the real estate market today. We wouldn’t mind the keys to that place for Christmas. And some world peace. And a dozen of my mom’s butter-bomb shortbread.

mill

Photo credit: realtor.ca

Admittedly, I do love looking at the extreme and unnecessary like the excess of the Neiman Marcus Fantasy Line or Nordstrom’s Dream Big Gift Guide suggestions. I love the Williams-Sonoma catalogs even more. But when I look at the Kitchen Aid Copper stand mixer for $959.00 I think of Africa and rationalize that I barely mix anything beyond cocktails anyway.

I think back to childhood, when we used to make stuff for gifts from “found objects.” It’s funny that it’s ‘trending’ now—this movement of ‘repurposing’ and ‘reloving’ when we really did it all along, especially way back when. As a kid with $9.82 in the piggy bank (or reasonable facsimile) shopping wasn’t a consideration. You could SAVE that $9.82 and make things out of teasels and dry milkweed pods and pinecones. Add silver sparkles, googly eyes and voila. (As I look at a few walnuts that the squirrels have yet to warehouse in our backyard I consider the Pinterest crafting possibilities by default. Hmm, grown- up craft: pressing some black walnut oil as used in a fancy cocktail with bourbon in a swishy place our friend Heidi took us to in Nashville). Maybe next year. I’m sure there’s a youtube video on it.

Or, I could just buy into the online “Orphan Barrel Project” that Neiman Marcus has on offer. For a paltry $125,000 “You and five bourbon-curious friends will visit the legendary Stitzel-Weller Distillery in Louisville, Kentucky, to go barrel hunting, taste recently discovered bourbons, and create two completely unique Orphan Barrel variants to be hand-bottled with labels designed exclusively for you. You’ll then receive 24 bottles each of the remaining stocks of eight different Orphan Barrel bourbons—including the variants created by you—along with a bespoke whiskey cabinet crafted in Kentucky to house the collection, barware, and a leather-bound book about your whiskey.”

Luckily we still have some Maker’s Mark in the cupboard.

Kim and I aren’t even exchanging gifts (well, we deemed our equatorial plane tickets to Las Terranas and Las Galleras in the Samana peninsula for the first two weeks of January “Christmas”).

If we really had to buy stuff (and we don’t because we both naturally avoid eye contact when “Secret Santa” is brought up in the workplace), we wouldn’t have to look too far. Our circle of friends are oozing talent and make stuff that’s awesome, and there’s a different kind of peace felt when you are contributing to an artist and making their life and creative path a little less overgrown.

Here are five sure-fire ways to light up a room though, from Iceland to a night in a frontier tent to adopting a donkey.

A Ticket to Iceland, With Two Precocious Cats

jocey

Our family friend (a friend of my sister first, but, we all liked her instantly and took shares), Jocey Asnong, recently published another children’s book called Nuptse and Lhotse Go to Iceland. When I first met Jocey, her Banff apartment was a spider web of clotheslines and clothes pegs—the humble beginnings of her first book’s illustrations, all hanging in sequence. Everything was colourful in her home, right down to the painted furniture that she also sold. It was like standing inside a kaleidoscope. By day, Jocey indulges her bookworm matrix at Café Books in Canmore, Alberta—but at night, her cat characters Nuptse and Lhotse take flight. They’ve already travelled around Nepal, and Iceland just made sense. Jocey seems to fly there whenever a seat sale is on, or when the glaciers move just so. Visit the land of ice and fire and see how a landscape can consume an artist and writer so innocently. If you have munchkins in your life or Iceland devotees, this gift just makes sense.

A blurb: “While digging in their garden, Nuptse and Lhotse uncover an ancient Viking helmet. Excited by their discovery, the two cats make their way to Iceland to find out more about the Vikings. Throughout their epic journey, the cats learn all sorts of new things related to Iceland: longboats, sweaters, horses, volcanoes, geysers, even local cuisine!  Nuptse & Lhotse Go to Iceland is a colourful, illustrated story for adventurers of all ages who long to travel to faraway places.”

Be Bound by the Beauty

DSCF3345 (3)

I met Alistair MacLellan on assignment. I had read about his new biz venture in the Waterloo Record and was instantly intrigued. I pitched a storyline to the editor of Grand magazine and she bit. Alistair was making hand-bound, hand-sewn books in his garage. Well, his parents’ garage—but, nonetheless, the journalism grad was kicking it old school and making money, making stuff. I liked the simplicity and possibility of his product. Like Steamwhistle—they make just one product, and they make it well. Alistair even sold his beloved (but never running) 1977 Honda CB550 motorcycle to help finance his business (temporarily setting his Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance ambitions aside). His story was not unlike Olympian Clara Hughes–she sold her crappy car (a Pinto I think) for $700 to buy her first pair of speed skates.

Alistair is all passion, the kind of guy who would try to roast his own coffee beans, learn the art of beekeeping and/or soap making, and make his own jeans if he had time. He’s the real deal and his books are nifty. At MacLellan & Baetz Publishing House, “Making notebooks in a garage in Waterloo, Ontario is our life’s work. You can fill them with yours.”

Tune up Their iTunes With Madison Violet

madison violet

Madison Violet has been the soundtrack of our love life—and they could be yours too. We became groupies early on (in the late 1990s even, back when they were Mad Violet and playing at bookstores in the likes of Dunnville, Ontario). Brenley MacEachern and Lisa MacIsaac are a Juno-nominated powerhouse duo that have moved smooth as pudding from folk and fiddle to Euro pop and a distinct David Byrne meets Kate Bush meets Duran Duran electro feel. Not to be superficial, but, it also helps that they are foxy and girl-next-door-ish.

We routinely recruit cult members to their sound and concerts—some of which we’ve carried their precious cargo (guitars!) back from (i.e. Grenada to YYZ). I check out their tour schedule and send demanding emails to friends in Prince Edward Island and Tennessee and Vancouver Island to make the pilgrimage. We love them so much we flew to Le Petit Phare Bleu in Grenada to see them perform on a barge with dozens of fan-loaded dinghies lashed together at 12 degrees north latitude. Don’t miss them this April back in the Spice Island. Until then, check out their latest CD release, These Ships.

Intelligent Camping for the Lumbersexuals in Your Life

DSCF9754

One of our favourite sleeps this year was at the Fronterra Farm Camp Brewery in Prince Edward County. The founders, Jens and Inge, are like shook-up champagne. They’re all energy, vision and the kind of people who convince you to chase down your own dreams and make them real. Their passport stamps are enviable, and it was the Four Rivers Floating Lodge in Koh Kong, Cambodia that really put the spell on them. They knew they could create something gobsmacking too—and they chose the County and a return to the frontier life.

Before you bark about the price, how much would you pay for solitude? What’s your price tag for an original experience, frying just-laid eggs in a cast iron pan, tending to the embers of a fire that unleashed so much conversation that life had been just too busy to share? Did I mention the intensely hot open-sky shower and King bed? If you’ve grown tired of the stiff back and soggy sleeping bags of traditional camping—this is the intelligent upgrade. Jens and Inge have also planted a massive garden where you are welcome to pluck some cilantro, red leaf lettuce, veg, dill—whatever is at the ready. North Beach Provincial Park is an easy stroll away if you dare leave the fairy-tale woods. In the very near future, the hops Jens has planted will be the source of the on-site brewery the couple has planned. Be part of the dream early-on. Just pack your marshmallows and daydreams and romance 101 is waiting for you. If you want to give a true “experience” gift, this is it. A night in the woods at Fronterra.

On the third day of Christmas my true love gave to me….a donkey?

DSCF0137

Nothing says I love you like a donkey. Since 1992, the Donkey Sanctuary of Canada has been a refuge for neglected and abandoned donkeys, mules and hinnies. To visit the 100 acre sanctuary is like putting your heart in a fondue pot. Which donkey you fall in love with is personal—you can read their profiles on line (each a heart crunching story) or actually visit the Guelph location and give them a good groom and nuzzle before deciding. For $50 you can become a guardian for a year. You can donate money towards specific needed products like fly masks, herbal supplements or pitchforks. Kim and I had a crush on Peter (his bangs!) and Sadie and became guardians. My mom swooned for Trooper and adopted him in a heartbeat. Which donkey will you give some festive love to? Find your donkey sweetheart now!

Make your gift-giving thoughtful, intelligent, creative and supportive this year.

DSCF3319

If all else fails blend a dozen egg yolks, a carton of cream and a cup of sugar in your non-$959.00, non-copper, non-Kitchen Aid mixer. Add Mount Gay rum as family drama or (hopefully) merriment requires. Play A Jann Arden Christmas. Repeat both.

Best prescription: Watch Love Actually. Love the one you’re with.

Falalalala, heehaw, Merry Christmas and Happy Kwanzaa to you and yours and theirs.

Categories: Polyblogs in a Jar, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Our Love Affair With Galt, Ontario

“Why are you two moving anyway?”

The question is posed often. Why would we want to leave our sweet little stone cottage now that we’ve groomed the grounds and painted the entire square footage to our earthy palette specs?

‘Here’ was always temporary. We had to stay within a radius that was commuting-friendly for Kim—not some banging-head-on-steering-wheel drive that sucked up three hours of her day (*factoring in 12 hour shifts to boot). With retirement on the shiny horizon, we will be untethered. With friends and family scattered across the map with equal density, we’re truly free range chickens.

galt

In three years, we’ve taken full advantage of this area. Like small town Lonely Planet writers, we’ve been in and out of every curry house, bake shop and pub, scribbling our own notes (mental, and on tripadvisor). To live somewhere, anywhere—there’s a responsibility to deepen the relationship. And we have.

It’s the familiarity that we will miss—but, we also know that it can be created so easily with time, networking, serendipity and on-foot wandering. It’s reassuring to have that Norm (of Cheers fame) rapport, and connect. Whether it’s the bubbly as Prosecco staff at the liquor store, the smiley guys at the Diva gas pumps, the Home Hardware paint department or plugged-in librarians, we have built our own custom community framework. Each person has been like an essential Lego block in our construction.

Sure, there are many that we only know on a first name basis, but Franco (who is doing woodwork in the century home beside us—like clockwork…no, really. His station wagon rolls into the drive at 10:00am, departs at 12 for a 30 minute lunch and leaves again with precision at 4pm), Cheezy (not his real name—but he owns Cheezy’s Variety across the street), Dee (of Dee’s butter tart empire) and Nonna (not her real name either, but she’s the perennially kerchiefed Polish woman in the stone house across from us) are quintessential Galt. There’s John who lumbers down the sidewalk with his makeshift cart to collect beer bottles on recycling night, Heather the chatty pilot, the Quaker girls and our now departed favourite neighbours who went west by three blocks—Dawn and Eric.

DSCF7333 (2)

I’ve previously showcased Dawn as the baked good angel who actually smells like wedding cake and routinely drops off a dozen chocolate chip cookies—stuffed with Oreos. Or coconut lime loaves iced in heavenly confectionary. Then there’s a whole crew of dogs that make this neighbourhood distinctly ours. Meet Penny the Beagle, Porkchop the English bulldog, lanky Scout and two husky pups, still with little razor puppy teeth. They are pure Galt too.

DSCF9779

Even the squirrels are familiar here (I feel like Dian Fossey, recognizing and charting the squirrel family tree)—one of the grey brood has ears that are seemingly dyed Billy Idol blonde. Chipper the bachelor chipmunk, runs along the foundation of our house like a streetcar line. Margaret, the toad as big as a Whopper hamburger patty, spent most of the summer with us until she hopped somewhere new.

Our backyard has been a pure recalibration zone after being sequestered in a basement apartment in Toronto, and a suburban peekaboo in Oakville (where all surrounding eyes are upon you in a tiny no-trees-yet just-sodded backyard).

But the best part? Exploring and exposing. Moving is like opening a blank journal and running your palm down the seam. (*Here’s your preliminary homework: Visit Maclennan & Baetz Publishing House and purchase a hand-sewn journal online. As the founder insists: “Making notebooks in a garage in Waterloo, Ontario is our life’s work. You can fill them with yours.”)

camb2

Start with a to-do list like ours, searching for the best tiny cupcakes and Jamaican patties in town. Sketch your favourite places like Joe Forte has done in Key West, Greenwich Village and Cambridge. (He took it a step further by living out of his van for six months at a time, all ink, passion and pro bono vino nightcaps from the neighbouring Italian restaurant). Go for a walk without destination.

galt 1

Certainly, moving out of this area is a swan song of sorts, but, it’s a dance that starts all over again. And, I’m no dancer, so that’s as far as that metaphor is going to go. A few weeks ago, Kim and I sat around our black walnut harvest table (that will come with us as a reminder of the mighty walnut trees rooted a century deep in our yard) and randomly started rhyming off all that we had done in this area. With the enthusiasm of Girl Guides trying to attain fifty badges in a summer, I think we’re close. And, it doesn’t matter where you live—stuff is there. You don’t need the neon lights, Michelin stars or trendy cafes or roadside attractions. Poke around like we did. This is what we did and found….and I challenge you to do the same.

Bat-tagging (yes, tagging bats to track their migration patterns) at Shade’s Mills Conservation Area. The Grand River Conservation Authority offer public programs that run the gamut from star gazing to crash courses on salamanders to snowshoeing. Or, owl prowls…see below.

Owl Prowls at Pinehurst Conservation Area—armed with flashlights and a throaty whistle, you can tromp into the woods and try to attract screech and great horned owls, responding to calls in defense of their territory or, hoping to find a sexy mate.

A Bee Symposium. At city hall, local honey producers and all-around bee enthusiasts and activists shared the skinny on how to attract bees to your garden and create orchard mason bee “houses” out of scrap wood or PVC pipes.

BEER classes! We attended every class (high achievers, I know) at the Grand River Brewing Company. Each night featured a theme from pilsners to spring beers to stouts and porters. For $20 a class, it was a near PhD dose of beer intel —paired with cheese from a local shop or catered by Kiwi.

Monigrams Coffee Roasters Backlot Sessions: Coordinated by local guitar hero Eric Bolton, the Backlot Sessions are an intimate experience, just upstairs from the hive of Monigrams coffee shop. Featuring local and travelling musicians like Glass Face, it’s the perfect venue to take in the acoustics and feel-good coffee sourced from a women’s farming collective in Burundi, Africa.

The Cineseries: My greatest trepidation in moving from Toronto was leaving the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema, Queen Street Video and matinees at the Carlton. Lucky dogs that we are, the Idea Exchange (our local library), brings celluloid to Cambridge. We’ve been able to catch the TIFF film circuit just blocks from home.

The Grand River Film Fest: The venues this year expanded to include the U of W School of Architecture. Sponsored by Langdon Hall, the film For Grace (about Curtis Duffy, a Michelin-star ranked Chicago chef and restauranteur) was upgraded with the likes of caramel pumpkin-seed studded popcorn and Pellegrino from the Langdon kitchen.

camb5

The Library: I have a serious love affair with this place. We’ve attended a dozen events—pop-up Christmas marketplaces, printmaking demonstrations, live music, poetry slams, live painting competitions—all part of their carefully curated Friday Night Art Live series—because who doesn’t love the idea of drinking beer, in the library?

The Lavender Farm: as part of a “Road Trip to Wellness” article I wrote for Grand magazine, Kim and I went to visit a nearby lavender farm—that was once a pig farm! The owners are in their sixties and, you can tell, are in their groove and happy to share their genesis story.

DSCF9021

Beer Baths: Technically these are outside our hometown boundary, but, just a half hour drive away on at the Grand Wellness Centre in Brantford. For $50 you can soak your weary bones in a cedar tub filled with lava hot water, two pints of beer, hops and hop flowers—all while sipping on a glass of Ramblin’ Road from Simcoe.

DSCF8967

LPGA at Whistle Bear. If you’ve only watched golf on TV (yes, nap-inducing, right?), it’s way more engaging up close and personal with the players. Sit at a tee box and watch the big heavyweights discuss clubs and yards with their caddies and watch the grass blades take to the wind with a Big Bertha.

Sheave’s Tower: Built in 1876, this tower was the powerhouse for the nearby Blair Mill. Painted oxblood red, it’s a secret sitting in the woods. And if you are a fan of bacon lore, the Blair Mill generated power to grind corn for Schneider’s peameal bacon.

Comedy at the Gay Bar: Now shuttered, sigh. The Robin’s Nest was a landmark, even for big city gays. The old agricultural building on George street housed a rough dance floor that saw many a line-dance courtesy of the DJ who still spun records well into the 90s (and her nineties I think). It changed hands and names to Sizzle, and then it went fizzle. The Nest was like the very best gay reunion on a wintry Saturday night. The ladies that owned it sold hot roast beef sandwiches at midnight and there was always an urn of coffee and store-bought cookies for designated drivers. The new owner introduced live music, drag shows and a comedy night, but steep and climbing rent snuffed the legacy.

Canoeing the Grand: There are few outfitters based out of Paris, and the float from the old Cambridge GTO gas station on Highway 24 to Paris is the quickest way to channel Bill Mason. The nearly 300 km long heritage Grand River (on its way to Dunnville where it dumps into Lake Erie) is swift and gorgeous as it cuts through the Carolinian forest of the area. In Glen Morris there are some Class 1 rapids even, to give your adrenalin a stir. Don’t miss pulling over to check out the German Woolen Mills on the east bank of the Grand near Glen Morris.

German Woolen Mills: You can also check out the historical walls and foundation of the mills on foot or bike by taking the Trans Canada Trail on the east side of the river to Paris. Kim and I have walked to the mills and, on one day, all the way to Paris (19km). We’ve seen American redstarts, Green-backed herons, deer and even an indigo bunting.

Ghost Tour of Old Galt: McDougall Cottage offers various walks that focus on the heritage and history of this area. We’ve walked them all—from the Dickson Hill neighbourhood to industrial Galt to the Halloween ghost walk. It’s a fun way to hear about all the hangings, murders, love affairs gone astray and lingering spirits of the town. For Joleen, the affable guide—this is her ultimate Jeopardy category. You can’t stump her on Galt history. The cottage has a broad program of Scotch tastings, live fiddle, odes to a “love carrot” (long story), and demonstrations on baking all sorts of marvellous things for a small donation.

camb3

Jane’s Walk: The citizen-led tours in honour of social mover and shaker Jane Jacob take place in cities all over the globe. The humble purpose is to remind you to connect with your city and communicate with your neighbour. You’ll learn neat trivia and often, it’s those joining the walk that have lived in the area for seventy years that chirp in with the most surprising gossip.

Preston Heritage House Tour: I rounded up my mom and bro to join us on this self-guided house tour that let us snoop inside a stone farmhouse, famed downtown hotel/watering hole and church conversion. A house tour is like getting permission to read someone’s diary. Go!

Christmas Eve Cocktails at Langdon Hall: Add a just-fallen blanket of snow, soft carols and a snapping fire. Order something fancy from the cocktail list or a hot spiked beverage and take in the opulence, history and postcard that the country house hotel is. It’s been our tradition for the last three years.

Little Louie’s Burgers and Soupery: On the complete flip side, this kitschy joint is a wonderland for those who like burgs with a twist. Our real estate agent Jane Gardner, had insisted we go when we first moved in. It took us three years and now we are kicking ourselves—they grill the best burgers possibly ever (though I have special attachment to a reindeer burger from Hofn, Iceland). Load it up with Hickory Sticks, volcanic mayo, grilled pineapple or pulled pork. There are no rules, and for sub $10 you get a gut-busting lunch with a side!

Barnacle Bill’s Fish n’ Chips: Despite not having a religious bone in my framework, I’m all for the Catholic tradition of fish on Good Friday. Beware—this greasy landmark will leave you smelling like a piece of fried halibut—even if you take your order to go. There are picnic tables by the river—but we just walk the block home and let loose on the malt vinegar and double-dipping of the tartar.

camb4

The Knox Church Christmas Bazaar: Again, one doesn’t have to be Catholic or Presbyterian to take advantage of all those sweet little church ladies selling their baked goods and preserves. Kim’s mom and aunts make divine mustard pickles and jams, but, visiting the east coast just once a year puts a damper on importing more as the rations run low. The Bazaar is our in-between for seedy raspberry jam, some imperfectly shaped shortbread and pickled beet jewels.

Music on the street: Whether it’s the Portuguese parade, Folk Fest or Galt on the Grand with Pauly and the Greaseballs cover band rocking it out, we’ve supported all the local fests, grabbed grilled cheese sandwiches and warm beers from the food trucks and mingled as one should.

camb1

We’ve drank every craft beer on tap at our nearby pub, Café 13; picnicked at the lake at Shades, found 8 lost dogs, snagged hardware and corbels from Southworks Antique Market, pewter barn owl salt and pepper shakers from The Green Spot and kept our house chronically scented like a cedar cabin courtesy of Art of Home’s line of Whitewater poured candles. We’ve dragged out-of-town friends to our favourite shops: Blair House Gifts, Willow House and Cornerstone and the Farmer’s Market where they went home with an organic local turkey, a bundle of sunflowers, garlic dip and six chairs for their dining room table.

Gosh, we’ve earned our badges, haven’t we? I didn’t even mention hosting the Galt Horticultural Society tour (and 100 green thumbs—or, 200 I guess) in our backyard. Or, our participation in the Holly Jolly House Tour that saw over 1,200 people traipse through our house, tricked out for Christmas.

Have we done it all? Of course not. We still have to try the poutine at Stoli’s where they load the fries with stuffing and turkey gravy. And I would like to get to the drive-in theatre to kick it old school with a fountain root beer and butterball popcorn.

When we do move, it will be confidently, knowing we treated this little town like a new love interest: it had our undivided attention, curiosity and affection. It’s been a wonderful love affair.

DSCF3240

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

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com. The Adventure Journal Theme.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 99 other followers