Author Archives: jules09

Camping at Bon Echo…Echo…Echo

The camping gods were really smiling down on us this week. Somehow in this thunderstorm-bashed soggy summer, we picked the only stretch of five rain-free days to set up a tent and get woodsy. Bon Echo Provincial Park had long been on our list to visit, but, the five hour drive from Cambridge always deterred us. There was also our undeniable love affair with the dunes of Long Point where we had migrated every summer.

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What Kim and I were rewarded with was a Group of Seven landscape. Campsites designed with the discreet camper in mind. We’ve been to parks that seem more like suburbia with radios blaring, blinding floodlights, car alarms sounding off at all hours and competing cell phone ringtones.

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Bon Echo’s soundtrack: The Barred Owl’s infamous “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all?” call through the tall stands of beech. The maniac laugh of loons on Lower Mazinaw. Pileated woodpeckers at 6am, like a construction crew framing a house. Birch logs snapping and sizzling in the fire ring.

Bonus: Radio-free zone camping.

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Mini history lesson: Bon Echo became a provincial park in 1965. Situated north of Kaladar (home of a Philly cheese steak and poutine food truck and designated dark sky preserve), the park’s Instagram backdrop is Mazinaw Rock, an unexpected and startling 330-foot cliff. It gets better: this rock face doubles as a historical canvas of over 260 aboriginal pictographs (rock paintings—now designated as a National Historic Site of Canada). If you hop in a canoe, you can paddle through the Narrows and J-stroke along the length of this gallery.

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Prior to being a coveted park to pop a tent, the land was owned by a lumber baron (Weston A. Price) who built the Bon Echo Inn, a boutique hotel before boutique was a thing. The desired clientele were wealthy, God-loving teetotalers. That is, until the property was sold to Howard and Flora MacDonald Denison who spun the hotel on its heels and turned it into a retreat for thinkers, social drinkers, painters and writers. Flora was a Toronto writer and suffragette with a literary crush on Walt Whitman. The crush is evident in her open chiselled tribute to him smack dag on Mazinaw Rock. In the summer of 1919, two Scots stone masons chipped away lines of his poetry in foot-tall letters.

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Flora’s son inherited the inn after her death in 1921, and in 1936 the bake house was struck by lightning and a fire destroyed many of the outbuildings in its hot path. The inn was never rebuilt but her son continued to summer at Bon Echo. His conservation interests led to the in demand land being donated to the province for the purpose of a provincial park.

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Flash facts:

Mazinaw is the second-deepest lake in Ontario.

Bon Echo is home to Ontario’s only lizard, the five-lined skink. (*Photo below is of a red-backed salamander, not a skink.)

Red-backed salamander--not a skink!

A tin of tuna and tzatziki with a little kale rolled up in wrap is pretty sensational. Is it weird to segue from skinks to tuna + tzatziki?

Flora, Fauna, Fungi

Dotted along the India ink waters of Mazinaw Lake, mushrooms abound.  Egg yolk yellow mushrooms sit in the ferns. Beatrix Potter toadstools list in the long grasses and lichen.

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At Bon Echo, many of the sites are walk-in (versus pop the trunk and empty contents two feet away), allowing for a thorough Thoreau experience.

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The bird life abounds, and in Hardwood Hills, even the deer flies are the size of hummingbirds.

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There’s a guaranteed firefly convention each night and we counted four falling stars whizzing towards the earth. Be sure to check your log pile for red-backed salamanders too!

Blackboard Menu Highlights

Buttermilk pancakes with dollops of vanilla yogurt and genuine Mennonite maple syrup

Caberneigh scrambled eggs and Bush Beans (Bush is a sponsor of Ontario Parks and donated pyramids of free cans for campers)

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Falafel balls with red-wine reduced sweet onions, red peppers and yogurt tzatziki

Sirloin burritos with salsa and mosquito-flecked sour cream

Basil pesto penne with sundried tomatoes, sausage and sunflower seeds pinch hitting for pine nuts

Suggested Road Trip: We decided to check out Bancroft (1hr and 15 minutes from the park) on the only temporarily cloudy morning. We needed ice, and, because we’re moving 5 hours in the opposite direction, we knew it would be awhile until we revisited these parts.

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What to do: Be sure to drop into squeaky new Bancroft Brewing Co. and work your way through their effervescent line-up. The best of the lot: their rich coffee-licious Black Quartz, ruby red Logger’s Ale and special patriotic tribute—the “150.” Growlers are $9 plus a $3 deposit and necessary for fireside. Pair with handfuls of pistachios, honey garlic sausages, jalapeno Monterey Jack and surprise friends who text and say, “We fixed the starter on the VW! We’ve booked a site in Hardwood Hills! See you tonight!”

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While you’re in Bancroft, have an impromptu picnic along the creek and don’t miss the curio at The Tin Shed just off the main drag. Sniff all the “clothesline” and “cedar cabin” scented candles. Marvel at the door knockers, rod iron hooks, hinges and salvage. Buy that blank notebook that says “Find what brings you joy and go there!”

There are several mercantile and thrift shops, the classic Stedman’s, token fudge shop and fresh produce stand for sausage and wiener-fatigued campers. The green beans, bunches of radishes, gooseberries and thimble-sized raspberries beckon!

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Nostalgic side note: My greatest thrill as we cruised along Highway #28 to Bancroft wasn’t Moose FM playing Billy Idol’s Mony, Mony (but that was great too). It was passing by a sign that indicated Camp Walden was the next right hand turn. CAMP WALDEN! This was epicentre of my high school years! In grade nine I went as a camper and then returned like a boomerang for the next four years as counsellor in the (fittingly) Journalism department. With a dedicated crew of future Dharma Bum Kerouacs and Burroughs-in-the-makings, we cranked out the mighty “Camp Log” on a daily basis. I loved this art camp right down to the Three Blob Lunch (blob of tuna salad, blob of egg salad and blob of potato salad) and no-erasers-allowed sketchbook policy.

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Suggested road trip in the other direction: On Highway 41, south of Cloyne (20 minutes from Bon Echo), Graybarre School House Treasures (look for the plastic Fred Flinstone outside) is exploding with whimsy and inventory. Salt and pepper shakers, pewter pig napkin holders, squirrel nut crackers, tin watering cans, lanterns, backcatcher masks, old goalie pads, 7-Up glasses—STUFF. It’s easy to lose an hour and a hundred bucks here.

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Otherwise, hightail it back to Bon Echo, because outside the park it’s just worms, ice cream and fireworks. Oh, and a fish and chip joint cleverly named The Codfather.

Rent a canoe, walk the wilds and recalibrate. Like that blank book cover in The Tin Shed said, “Find what brings you joy and go there.”

Hint: Bon Echo

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Categories: Passport Please, Retiring--Rewiring, The Kitchen Sink | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

Prince Edible Island: An Insider’s Guide to Eating Your Way Around PEI

It seemed appropriate that the first two songs we heard in our fancy Mini Clubman rental were:

Here Comes the Rain Again—Eurythmics

You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet—BTO

And, nope we hadn’t seen anything yet because the fog from Charlottetown’s airport to Summerside was like driving into a giant steam room.

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I’ve been to the island ten times now. Kim has been every year since she was probably six (insert station wagon family vacation and non-stop 20-hour drive here. Never to be repeated again. God bless planes). I never tire of the Maritime quirk: Smelt Festivals, foxes so abundant and tame that you can hand-feed them peanut butter sandwiches, Pig & Whistles (still not sure what they are, but it sounds interesting) and Bingo at every church corner.

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When you ask for directions in PEI, you often get an escort. And, even more frequently, the place or person you are looking for is a relative of some sort. We were driving blindly around Ellerslie looking for a new brewery called Moth Lane. We were expecting signage but the GPS was at a loss too. We found a cherub of a man licking a vanilla twist at the Kenny Dairy Bar (probably a relative of Kim’s) with his son. When we asked if he knew where Moth Lane was he said that he “sure do. My cousin owns it.” He was driving right past it in fact, and would happily ‘drive us there.’ And he did, finally flashing his lights 10 kilometers later at Moth Lane. We peeped our horn in thanks and drove down a road that had Kim doubtful. It seemed more like a tractor route, the kind of place where a kidnapper would take you. But, we found it, and a minute later, our direction giver wheeled in behind us and waved. Obviously he thought our honk meant we needed him.

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Sidebar: It is definitely worth stopping at any dairy bar or bingo hall to find Moth Lane on Mickie Allen Shore Road. Grab a Motor Boat’R and No Exit Pale for $6 bucks a pint. And, you’ll want a glass to go. I mean, the actual glass, not a glass of beer to go (but, that would be nice too). The branding of Moth Lane comes with a sly grin from the owner’s son-in-law. “My father-in-law’s dad always used to look for a porch light on.” He was like a moth to the flame, hoping to find late night company and a place to go for a drink. Their pint glasses read: “Drawn to the grain like a moth to a flame,” in tribute.

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There’s a dog greeter (we’re not even sure if he belongs to the brewery or a nearby house, but, he’s game for belly rubs of any length). On the upstairs patio the uninterrupted view of the bleached dunes across the Conway Narrows is probably one of the best places to drink a beer on the island.

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But, enough beer drinking. We did educational things too, like visiting the International Fox Museum and Hall of Fame. Who knew that Summerside was the hotbed of the fox farming industry? In the early 1900s there were over 8000 fox ranches dotted around the island. A pair of breeding silver foxes sold for over $35,000. The museum is a curious mix of relics, pelts, heritage and an actual tattoo kit that was used to mark the ears of the foxes in captivity. If you like odd museums, put it in your itinerary. We later learned that we could have participated in Summerside’s Fox Hunt—which involves trying to find a dozen hidden foxes (designed by Malpeque Iron Works) around town.

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What first-timers or ten-timers will notice most in PEI is the lack of fences between houses. I asked Kim, “Is it because of friendliness between neighbours or high winds?” She is 100% sure it’s the friendliness that is integral to island life. But, for anyone who has lived in the suburbs, or anywhere in Toronto, or anywhere other than PEI, really, it’s a remarkable thing to see. Even the birds live in communes.

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PEI is much like a living museum of the dying arts. This is a place where everyone still plays cards and gets together to jar pickles. There are still proudly displayed spoon collections and quilts, advertisements for lawn bowling members, strawberry socials and cut-throat crokinole matches. People still do embroidery here and bake from scratch with lard and go to church and get the daily paper (The Guardian: Covering Charlottetown Like the Dew).

We’re talking about the homeland of Chef Michael Smith (shameless plug for my sister and Harrowsmith: check out her Spring 2017 feature “FireWorks and Sticky Buns” about her edible bike ride along PEI’s Confederation Trail). The lanky, surfer-haired proprietor of the Bay of Fortune Inn and FireWorks restaurant embodies all that the island is. He’s the kind of guy who can put you under a starry-eyed spell while making apple strudel, regardless of your persuasion or feelings about strudel. And, we saw him. Up close and personal at Upstreet Brewing Company with his new summer staff. For me, it was a day of National Geographic moments. First, spotting eight foxes sunning themselves (with the kits entertaining themselves with a dead mouse) in Sherwood, next: Chef Michael Smith in his natural habitat!

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Tasting notes: Order the Upstreet burger, simply stacked with iceberg, tomato, local bacon, stretchy cheese and a magical barbecue sauce. The beet and kale salad doused in a Rhuby Social (their rhubarb/strawberry beer darling) vinaigrette is very Instagrammy. Have a Rhuby on nitro (it gives it some party fizz, like beer champagne!) or 80’s Bob Scottish Ale.

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Be sure to check out The Worse Case Scenario Survival Game from the jammed board game shelf (Uno! Exploding Kittens! Battleship!) and read through some of the cards (it’s like Trivial Pursuit–even a little more trivial in comparison). Over a burger and beer we learned how to outrun a rhino (and crocodile, but not at the same time), how to eat worms, ram a car at high speeds, why you should apply meat tenderizer to a bee sting and, how to give an attacker an eye jab.

While you’re in the vicinity, be sure to check out nearby Urban Beehive Project initiated by architects Silva Stojak and Shallyn Murray. Located in Charlottetown’s largest urban garden, the PEI Farm Centre. Learn all about honey with a hands-on approach (well, not too hands-on). The plexiglass viewing panes allow you to be a Peeping Tom and see the drones and Queen bustling away, creating their wares.

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If you are seeking off the beaten Anne of Green Gables path encounters, put Glasgow Glen Farms on your custom map too. One step inside you’ll wonder why they haven’t bottled up the wood-fire pizza smell and sold it as a cologne.

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Pumping out eight pizzas at a time (140 on a peak summer day), the bearded crew led us through a divine sampling of Lady Gouda cheese (also produced here). There are 17 varieties from fenugreek to pizza to beer gouda. You won’t walk away empty handed. We ordered a Hawaiian to go with that lovely blistered crust and heaps of oozy gouda, and wedge of the beer gouda. Sensing a theme here? Saturdays are a hot mess here as locals pile in for the $2 cinnamon buns as big as at toddler’s head. Did I mention the freshly baked brioche? This is the stuff of dreams.

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As a ten-timer to the island, here are the annual necessary stops/eats:

  1. The Charlottetown Farmer’s Market. Kim would insist that you order flaky veggie samosas from Out of Africa. I’d send you to Gallant’s Seafood for a buttery lobster grilled cheese.
  2. Sugar Skull Cantina on Water Street in Charlottetown. It wasn’t open yet, but we love the co-owner’s other groovy HopYard resto: pick a vinyl, split some tapas. The Cantina will be all tacos and tequila. Say no more!
  3. Noelle and Nancy’s Malpeque mussels in a white wine broth flecked with onion and beautiful bacon. Noelle and Nancy are friends of ours, not restaurant owners, but, they’d probably welcome you in if you brought some white wine and a baguette. And Noelle would probably send you home with a jar of Maritime chow.
  4. Albert & Crown Pub, Alberton. A $7 halibut fish burger and pile of salt-tossed Cavendish fries? Simple math.
  5. Malpeque Iron Works in Summerside. Eric Shurman’s work is a marvel. If we could only bring these crows back as a carry-on!

DSCF79606. Penderosa Beach. This is why you need to be friends with locals like Noelle and Nancy who share the best kept secrets!

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7. One more thing: You need to have fish tacos at the Island Stone Pub (the storied old train station) in Kensington.

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Corn Meal Crusted Haddock, Cilantro Lime Crema, cabbage, pico, pickled onions and rocket greens. This is the whispered sweet nothings that I like to hear…

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For scavenger hunt fans–here’s your challenge. Find these:

Fox Plops, Chow and Blueberry Grunt.

And, no, it’s not a band name.

 

 

Categories: Eat This, Sip That, Passport Please, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , | 2 Comments

88 Houses: The Arduous Journey to Find a House to Call Home

If you are a Facebook friend, real estate agent, bartender, Sobey’s cashier or brick wall, you’ve probably heard about our daunting search for a home. And when I say brick wall—it’s because we were hitting our heads against one for the last nine months. Longer, actually.

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Selling our little stone cottage in Galt on Facebook in August 2016 was easy. Finding a forwarding address became the arduous journey. Really, if we calculated the mileage that we clocked driving to and fro from the Frontenac to Tobermory, Kim and I probably drove to Tijuana, Mexico over 12 times.  We looked at 88 houses. EIGHTY EIGHT! You know that annoying school bus song? 99 Bottles of Beer on the wall? Well, imagine 88 houses, second verse same as the first.

DSCF5195Our storage pod is a distant memory. We’re not even entirely sure what we own anymore—but we do know that we did not thoughtfully bring our winter boots with us to Caberneigh Farm. Since August, we have been “barn cats,” sharing space with Olive the pig, eight horses, three chickens, and two real barn cats: Lucy and Freddie (one of which—Lucy– has decided she’s over the barn thing and has been squatting quite snugly with us.  A hidden camera would reveal her balled up on my jeans (yes, I’m still wearing pajamas at 1:30pm).

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Lucy, a former barn cat who was also looking for a home, like us.

We never anticipated that we would be living in a barn (but, it’s a seriously fancy one—with Netflix and wifi. There’s a pool table serving double purpose as my walk-in closet, an English pub-esque oak bar on one end, and a full-on view of the riding ring. Our front balcony view is a pastoral postcard with a bonus soundtrack: great horned owls, distant spring peepers and the wild telegraph of coyotes cutting the silence. Falling stars routinely drop like confetti in the light pollution free skies of the Scugog.

DSCF5303This is what Plan A, B and C were: we would find a house in the fall. We would move in just before New Year’s (for sure!) and make a lovely ham studded with cloves for our family on Christmas day. Christmas and my mother’s stand-in studded ham came and went. Real estate agents (we had about seven working in our favour, at every port) promised us that January 1st was going to mark the beginning of a lava hot market. The newspaper headlines and Twitter feeds have become repetitive. The market inventory is at an all-time low, houses are going over-ask and even though it’s a sellers’ market—sellers are afraid to sell because what the hell are they going to buy?

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So, January was a blow-out. Kim and I were on repeat. Wake, turn on laptop, gently nudge Cuisinart coffee maker switch to ‘on.’ Spend next three hours crawling through potential realtor.ca listings from Lake Erie to Crotch Lake to Devil Lake to where? It didn’t even matter anymore.

Unfortunately, this one wasn't for sale.

Unfortunately, not for sale.

We looked in Trent Hills, Campbellford, Prince Edward County, Napanee, Perth, Smiths Falls, Jasper, Verona (see what I mean? Where?), South Frontenac, Tweed, Cramahae, Tobermory, Meaford, Tiny (until we found out my ex had a cottage there a Tiny became too tiny), Port Albert, Port Franks, South Big Island, Grand Bend, Wolfe Island, Pelee, the Moira River, Meyers Island, Warkworth, Waupoos, Westport, Elora, Fergus. And, back. Then to Belize on one we-give-up night.

Just pick a place. We looked at a house or a chunk of property there.

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The start of our search in Prince Edward County in September of 2015. *This is NOT a typo. We started looking waaaaay back then!

We looked at old farmhouses, log homes, pan-abodes, contemporary builds, churches, container homes, passive solar houses, three-season cottages, cottages still vintage 1963 with avocado everything, paneling and shag. We started at a hopeful $300K and upped our budget by $200,000 in no time.

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*Conclusion: the problem with cutesy churches and old schoolhouses–they are always 10 feet from the road and ENORMOUS inside. ie. Ontario Hydro $$$$$$$

Every house hunting and gathering trip ended with exasperation. I looked for signs in the bubbles of our beer foam. I slept-in longer, hoping for an epiphany. Kim started designing house plans on serviettes and we actually sat down and crunched numbers with half a dozen builders. We couldn’t even build what we wanted because we couldn’t find land. The vacant lots either required a snowmobile or aqua-lunged Land Rover to get to. We put in an offer on one sunset lot in Prince Edward County for $189,900. For a sliver of steep lakefront. It was almost too quiet there though—we could actually hear the blood cycling through our head. Luckily, we were out bid, though we had visions of a Nordic Stark stacked container design in which we would live happily ever after, foraging mushrooms and asparagus while fermenting pine needles to make gin.

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Jasper, Ontario. We were nearly killed by 10,000 mosquitoes here.

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Gorgeous, but, truly the middle-of-nowhere unless you enjoy the company of cows. However, we are going to steal this horse trough/container garden idea.

There’s no need to go into all the disappointing details of the 87 houses that didn’t pan out. Just insert something—carpenter ants, pigs for neighbours (real pigs), a cemetery two steps from the back door, a heaving floor, junker neighbours with a tent city made out of tarps and dismantled cars…

Our most viable options looked something like this:

Reality was beginning to set in on affordable fixer-uppers.

Please note: vaulted ceilings

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Every day we gave up something on our wish list. Gone were sunsets. Gone was waterfront. Gone was our notion of living in Prince Edward County—the place we had funneled so much attention and affection for.

Our friend and family circle didn’t help matters. Kim no longer needed to be close to the steel mill and I could work anywhere with an internet connection.

We wanted so few things—but, we know the whispers were all about us being too picky. Is a golf course, microbrewery and library all in one 50km radius too much to ask?

We did not want to settle for generic. We did not want to be house poor or have to sacrifice spontaneous trips to Africa. Yes, we wanted it all, right down to the Japanese soaker tub and shiplapped walls.

This was actually somebody's garage near Black River--but, Kim quickly designed a 2-bedroom floor plan for us.

This was somebody’s three-car garage near Black River, ON, that Kim designed a 2-bedroom floor plan for.

Don’t even ask how many hours of HGTV we’ve consumed. Or, how many bottles of pre-celebration champagne we drank, so sure that the house we were going to see the next morning was the sacred one.

Until, finally, one unexpected day (in particular, March 29th) we unearthed the home we had been looking bleary-eyed for. It was in the Northern Bruce Peninsula! No wonder we couldn’t find it! After we had exhausted our viable options in Grand Bend and Bayfield that same week we began the online X-ray scan of listings again.

“Where was that place you loved so much last week?” I asked Kim.

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“Near Tobermory. I thought we ruled that area out though because it’s so far.”

It was far, but as close as we’d ever come to our vision. In fact, it was so convincing that we were ready to buy it over the phone. My reserved enthusiasm went 360 and the thoughts of going to check out this Northern Bruce Peninsula house. Where? It was 7km from Lion’s Head with had a farmer’s market, Foodland, LCBO, vintage café and Lion’s Head Inn pub. See, we’d be close to stuff!

I read further. The house was right on the 45th parallel—half way to the equator and half way to the North Pole! Yes, we had crossed off Tobermory because it was just so frozen and desolate in January when we went.

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OUR West Little Lake in the Bruce Peninsula! photo credit: realtor.ca

We wanted privacy, we didn’t want nosey parker neighbours. We wanted sunsets and a lake. This was it! Vaulted ceilings, the open floor plan, soaker tub, hardwood, workshop, garage…and, it was all in a designated Dark Sky Community! We’d be living in a UNESCO World Heritage site. I started looking up local birds and ferns (there are orchids in this area that grow nowhere else in the world).

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Vaulted ceilings, coves, transom windows, gas fireplace…check, check, check.

We phoned our agent, Ashley Barker, who we had kindly “broke up” with after our last trip to Tobermory. The Bruce Peninsula was back on our horizon. We had seen 87 houses to know that this was what we wanted. It had been on the market 10 days and the northern market was starting to thaw. “You should come see it soon.”

Kim and I went the very next day. It was slate grey skies and miserable out but the house had a glow of its own. We pulled up the driveway and knew. For the first time, it was better than the photos on realtor.ca

I didn’t even grab our camera (which I routinely did on our searches). I wanted to take it all in—and, I knew it was going to be ours—I could take all the pictures I wanted then.

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Everything we wanted, right down to the cupola. Photo credit: realtor.ca

We laughed about considering Tiny House Nation. We had just bought a 2750-square foot house! Four bathrooms?? It was bigger than we imagined, but it was everything—tucked in a forest of cedars and birch. A tiny dock positioned to take in the wide screen sunsets. No grass to cut. No master gardens to crook our backs managing like we did in Galt.

There was no exhaustive list of changes (though we will work some shiplap and cement counter tops into the mix) that would include blowing the roof off. It was bright and freeing…the kind of place you walk into and take a deep breath. Where you can actually feel yourself breathe easier. We walked around like those buyers on fixer-uppers shows that can only say, “WOW” and “Oh my god!”

88 houses later. We found our wow.

Categories: Home Sweet Home, Retiring--Rewiring, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The Best Places We Slept in 2016

Dear Diary: It’s been six months and a few days since we sold our darling stone cottage in Galt, Ontario. Since, we have taken up residence at the storybook Caberneigh Farms with endless thanks to our friends Nicole and PJ who had a fancy barn with wi-fi and vacancy. We are in good company with Scotch mint-sucking horses and Olive the pig as neighbours. We even have our own resident barn cats, Lucy and Freddie. We’ve been spoiled by a steady supply of just-laid eggs and jars of Caberneigh Just Hitched honey. We’ve been privy to Nicole’s custom velvety egg nog and crème brulee. And scotch-tasting sessions with PJ, but that’s another story. And doesn’t involve eggs, though a Scotch egg would be really good right about now.

Bonus: Kim has almost earned her 4-H badge, John Deere tractor license and chainsaw operator certification. In addition to pig hoof trimming, we’ve learned how to contend with preventing pig break-in and enters, and how to keep four cats and six dogs from becoming a circus act.

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What we never dreamed is that we’d still be without a forwarding address six months later. (Or, learning the fine art of chicken wrangling).

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We packed our storage pod strategically—but, without thinking that we might need to access such things as winter boots and hockey equipment. Oh well, winter is almost over, right?

In six months we have slept in so many beds and scoured Ontario’s waterfront lots from Tobermory to Perth to Prince Edward County and over a dozen lakes in the Frontenac. Coinciding with this magical quest: finding hotels in parts unknown. Some have been dreamy and a complete refuge with Calgon-take-me-away bathtubs to sink into while others could have doubled for serial killer-type movie sets.

Normally I round up the best places we have slept each year. It’s been an annual tradition that we have enormous fun ‘researching.’ However, this year it seemed that for every remarkable place we slept, there was a nightmare hotel to match it.

The  18% Cream of the Crop:

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Langdon Hall Country House Hotel and Spa, Blair, Ontario $310 midweek, $405 weekends

We kind of ruined ourselves by staying here. Yes, this is the same hotel I worked at in my previous incarnation as a massage therapist. To be on the receiving end of all the luxury is a marvelous thing. The grounds are not only manicured, but pedicured too. It’s like driving into a postcard. Deer tiptoe by, smoke curls out of the chimneys, and the brioche French toast with Earl Grey tea-infused maple syrup is like breakfast giving you a big hug. Langdon has its merits for all seasons, but staying on a deep freeze night in December makes the in-room fireplace the best balm.

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Suggestion? Pack a bottle of bubbly, get that fire roaring and order in the sumptuous $25 Wilks’ burger piled high with black pepper bacon and molasses compote and Smoked Majestic Henry Cheese. The crispy skin-on fries are served with an addictive mustard seed and thyme aioli.

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Be sure to sink into that gorgeous bathtub and prepare yourself for a rejuvenating sleep on a cloud.

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WHITNEY MANOR, Kingston, Ontario $179 HOT DEAL (reg. $275)

This was my birthday junket. A road trip around Wolfe Island, Stone City Ales and mac n’ cheese-stuffed grilled cheese sandwiches from MLTDWN (get it? Meltdown). And, this. The Murphy Suite–which is exactly the kind of place and space we want to buy.

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With exposed limestone, post and beam, a dreamy loft bedroom and soaker tub–this 1100-square foot suite is unforgettable. We wanted to lock the door and swallow the key.

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Suggestion: There’s a full kitchen, so bring all the fixings you need for the barbie and breakfast so you don’t have to leave until check-out!

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NEVIS ESTATES B&B, Perth, Ontario $175/night

After an extensive house hunting and gathering mission in the Frontenac, we were weary, soggy and starved. Our intrepid realtor, Barb Shepherd physically drove us to “Jenny’s Place” and introduced us. She insisted we stay there and skip the only other available option—the $189 standard Queen at the Best Western. She assured us we’d love Jenny, everyone did. Barb was right.

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As soon as we entered the Colonial heritage stone estate (c.1842), we wanted to curl up with cocoa and read Thoreau. Jenny is like your favourite blanket: warm, comforting, reassuring. She listened to our disenchantment with finding a house and rallied our spirits with her own story with a tap root deep in New Zealand. The house she has renovated with her husband is a true marvel, it really feels like a fun sleepover with a close friend. Breakfast is an elaborate affair and though Kim and I usually cringe at chirpy early morning convos with assorted guests at B&B’s, the two twentysomething girls we sat with were colourful and engaging. Between frying bacon and flipping fluffy omelettes, Jenny joined in on the story telling, knowing both girls well from long-term stays.

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The chatty equestrians were part of Ian Millar’s (hello Big Ben!) Millar Brooke Farm and were hotly anticipating competition at the Royal Winter Fair. As a just-out-of-the-oven loaf of brown-sugar crusted banana bread was delivered to the table, the girls told us all about ‘cribbing,’ a phenomena that is akin to crack for horses. By biting and hooking their incisors on a stall door or fence, they flex their necks, contract their larynx and swallow air, creating a gasping or grunting sound that is addictive.

So, stay at Jenny’s for the Jacuzzi and take-home slices of can’t-get-enough banana bread. AND, ever-changing but illuminating breakfast conversation with other guests. Book the local lumber baron’s room, The Senator McLaren.

PULLMAN G BANGKOK, Thailand $200/night

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This place has sexy in spades. It’s contemporary, it smells like warm vanilla pudding. It’s whitewashed and just oozes cool with a low thumping soundtrack, zebra skins, faux safari trophy heads, Foosball and craft Thai beers at the adjoining bar (25 Degrees Burger, Wine & Liquor Bar). The Pullman G is like entering a Miami night club. The elevators pulse with non-stop video of seductive pouty-lipped Swedes and, in another, bike tires spinning with playing cards ticking in the spokes. The floor-to-ceiling windows in the suite are the perfect front row seat to Bangkok’s sky-on-fire sunsets.

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The breakfast bar here was an oasis after two weeks in China, eating starchy boxed breakfasts of white things: cakey muffins, stale croissants and white buns. At Pullman G, the detox juices beckon. There’s a granola and yogurt bar with all the tiny fixings. Real muffins stuffed with good stuff. You feel like you’ve taken your body to the spa, just by eating breakfast.

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EL SOL AZUL B&B, Las Galeras, Samana 50 Euros/night (dependent on season)

There’s no reason to subject yourself to the oft-icky trappings of an all-inclusive in the Dominican Republic. Swiss owners, Esther and Pierre have been in the hospitality industry for 11 years. They have everything figured out and know exactly how to exceed guest expectations.

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El Sol Azul is just 150m from the sea and minutes to the ‘downtown’ but tucked away in a pocket of serenity. The property is a showcase of tropical flowers and trees– crown of thorns, star fruit trees even! Pierre tends to them daily, usually with their lovely dog at his heels. There are two darling cats that live on the property too–and Caramel, loves to tease with her cute walk-by strut.

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The thatched roof bungalow style suites are Robinson Crusoe-like, but, with all the amenities.

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Breakfast is stellar. The spread is huge and European with fresh baguette, cheeses, local juices and punchy coffee. In addition to the continental fare, you can order eggs, any style and they come plated with ripe avocado and tomato.

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The pinwheel of homemade jams really puts Esther’s breakfast at the next level! I asked her for the coveted banana rum jam recipe–I don’t even make jam, but, this will be the exception–it tastes exactly like banana bread in a jar.

2016’s Nightmare Sleeps

Stone Church, Perth, ON $79/night (not incl. breakfast)

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The historic Gothic stone church home advertised on Airbnb looked promising. However, if we could have smelled those photos, we would have avoided booking a night. We were the only guests, despite the odd presence of 18 toothbrushes in the cup in the bathroom. Kim’s first comment was: “Ew. Keep your shoes on.” Second comment, “We’re definitely not showering here.”

We arrived late after another house hunt in the area. (This was before we were aware of Jenny’s place). The neighbours had Chubby Checker blasting as they sat in their yard just feet away. The house was a six feet away from Chubby Checker and five feet away from the major highway. We had already eaten, thank god—though the invite was there to make use of the ‘shared kitchen.’ I opened the cupboards looking for a beer glass and had a slight heave. I called Kim over—half the glasses had lipstick lips muddled around the lip of them.

The counter needed a good bleach and wipe. The fridge was so filthy and crumb-bound we didn’t even want to put our beer inside.

We took seats at the kitchen table (avoiding any additional contact with any surface of the house) and looked at online real estate. There wasn’t enough beer to inoculate us to sleep in such a dumpy cash grab Airbnb. We wondered if the sheets had even been laundered.

At 6am I awoked to Kim saying, “I’m ready to go when you are.”

And so we did. I’m not sure if we even brushed our teeth on the way out. That might explain the abandoned toothbrush collection.

Sandbanks Lakefront Airbnb, Prince Edward County, ON $140/night

Since when did Airbnb mean you never had to clean your house? We were APPALLED upon arrival. The junk lying around the house alone (old speakers, gym equipment, tools, tarps—all in disarray and decomposing). In the back, we were invited to join the owners on their outdoor furniture that looked like old car seats. From those ‘magical online photos’ we expected an ‘artist’s retreat’—whimsical, with a cute cat and a tiny firepit right on the beach. Sunsets! And, breakfast even—which most Airbnb properties don’t include. The room was small and a little dated with old-school paneling with a shared bathroom, but, we’d be taking advantage of the firepit and lake anyway.

Our house tour itinerary had us pulling in close to 8pm. We watched a couple carry their wailing newborn baby into the same house. We thought there was only one room in the entire home—not another greedy cash grab that had the owners bleeding money from offering ramshackle 70s shit hole rooms to unsuspecting guests—there were six of us jammed upstairs with walls as thin as a croissant flake. This was a cottage where NOTHING had ever been done in the form of upgrades. I might be making this up, but I’m pretty sure the toilet had one of those avocado green lid covers on it. With a matching pukey floor mat. The bathroom was straight out of 1962—the kind of place you want to put antibacterial gel on your hands and bum.

It was 100% gross, dark, mildewy and creepy. The couches sagged like tacos and looked like they were made out of cat litter. There were oil paintings and just weird things and weirder guests.

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Kim and I retreated to the lakeshore after hosing our legs with Off! Spray. We avoided the communal kitchen and opted to heat up refried beans hobo style on our Coleman stove (handily packed in the back of the Rogue) and make sloppy burritos on the beach, in the dark. We graciously said no to offers to join the owners and their neighbours for drinks in the car seats. We waited patiently until they left so we could start a fire (only to be joined by two urbanites who had never built or seen a bonfire before).

The only saving grace was the sunset. The sunset cost $140, but, we’ll take that.

You know, I really could go on in this scary segment from last minute middle-of-nowhere, we-have-no-other-choice Super 8’s in Trenton (insert train blasting past every 40 minutes on the tracks just outside the door—oh, and the neighbour’s AC unit that sounded like an elephant with asthma.

Belleville? Oh, there was a crappy one there. Popcorn ceilings, sink located outside the bathroom, squiggly hairs in the sheets and a carpet that was witness to someone’s bender and barf.

And, so begins 2017. Though we love to sleep around, we can’t wait to sleep in our very own bed (which is vertical in our storage pod in Ayr, Ontario), wherever and whenever that may be. Until then, home is where the barn is.

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

One night in Bangkok. Actually, three.

Alternate title: Baht out of Hell (*Baht is the currency in Thailand)

dscf6673Backstory: We endured 15 fuzzy and bussy days (busy and too many buses) in China with just one shining light at the end of the bokchoy-filled and smog-choked tunnel. THAILAND! We watched the barometer scream skywards from a biting -10C to a molten 44C in Bangkok. Thailand was like a hot date. Immediately seductive with all the stuff and smells that turn us on.

I’m already censoring myself here. Even though my parents heard the full un-cut version of our Bangkokian experience, complete with the infamous (and mandatory) ping pong show. If you’re thinking of the rec room game in its traditional sense, god bless your innocence. We have been forever changed by Bangkok’s version of ping pong. Google it, this isn’t the time or place to share such things. But, I will say this: these women had ‘skill sets’ that included blowing out candles, blowing whistles, drawing with a crayon and even smoking two cigarettes at once. If you still haven’t googled ‘ping pong + Bangkok’ then you’ll be politely nodding along and that’s okay too.

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We instantly filled our growling and empty gut on the cheap. After China, we felt like we’d been nutritionally punished, only finding solace in bathtub vodka and weird Lays potato chip flavours (garlic scallops with butter! Sweet basil! Finger lickin’ pork!). We felt bathed in a sense of calm—we could even buy wine at the local 7-eleven! (And, century old duck eggs. Or, bird’s nest drinks sweetened with bird saliva or ready-to-microwave hot dogs in a bun. How about a green tea-flavoured KitKat?

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We took to the streets, Anthony Bourdain Style. Tuktuks ripped through the streets and vendors set up shop in any available square with grilled octopus skewers, neatly sliced and salted mango and charcoal ice cream spun into waffle cones).

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Trivial Pursuit trivia: Thailand used to be Siam. It’s the only southeast Asian country not colonized by a western country. “Thai” means freedom…and, Thailand, freedom land.

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Bangkok makes travel easy. It’s almost like cheating. You can exchange money everywhere—at the upholstery shop, a hotel or at the tiny corner shop that sells beer for 70 cents. You can barter and hop in a tuktuk for the price of two beers.

Quick fact: Thailand’s most popular beer is called ‘Chang’ which means elephant.

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Our hotel in the Silom area of Bangkok was a quasi South Beach night club. Music pulsed deep and low, the elevators played a 24-hour video reel of skinny, sultry Swedes licking their lips and spinning cards in bicycle spokes. The Bangkok Pullman G was washed white with serious design wins. Hides, faux trophy animal heads, Edison bulbs, exposed brick, floating stairs, fooz ball and the best smell, throughout. Like still warm and just-stirred vanilla pudding.

Friends who had been to Thailand had already outlined an itinerary for us that included Thai whiskey, boxing, ping pong, a girly-boy show and the fish spa. (Thanks Sara and Neil!)

Here is your Bangkok shortlist, courtesy of them, and us.

First: *Google Bangkok + ping pong

Fish Spa: Because we like to fish for compliments

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It can’t be compared to any other sensation, though Kim nailed it when she said it was like being electroshocked hundreds of times. This is what you do: roll up your capris and stick your unsuspecting bare legs and feet into a large aquarium. Seemingly thousands (though maybe just 100) of tiny fish (finger-length) pounce. They are the estheticians of the marine world, happily pecking and nibbling away at your dead skin cells. Really. As we sat facing each other, Kim and I composed a list of all our friends and family who would NEVER dare such a thing. I had to do a lot of self talk. It’s creepy, crawly and the most bizarre sensation you can buy for $10. While you can opt for a 30 minute nibble, rest assured, 15 minutes is just fine and many opt out well before that. After: it feels somehow, remarkably like a really close shave.

The Lady Boy Show

Kim and I were expecting a bit of a dive bar, ultraviolet lights and some dirty trash talk from the performers at Cabaret. The ticket price was $25US each and included a drink. We had seen an episode of Anthony Bourdain’s (yes, he is our handsome, sage travel bible) where he went to such a show and it was definitely not this one. We couldn’t believe the crowd—all ages, all walks. The theatre at Asiatique was fancy with little bistro tables between the seats. Set in a neon-lit retail wonderland for travellers wanting knock-off Rolexes and True Religion jeans, the Cabaret show is twice a day. We thought it would be like a drag show—the usual Beyonce, Cher, Tina, Lady Gaga routines. Well, there were a few of those, but, this Cabaret show is right out of Vegas with choreography, feathers, ball gowns and a cast of probably 80.

Behind the scenes: I could barely show my face after the standing ovation. Jet lag, sleep deprivation and some questionable Air China spaghetti Bolognese all caught up with me before the first number. The worst part? I couldn’t find my way out of that fancy theatre. I couldn’t find the part in the big velvet curtain. Then, when I did, the door to the theatre was locked. So, I barfed once in front of the curtain, again in front of the door, then on my favourite Converse high tops and one more time for good measure before I was able to get out of the theatre.

Insert: Scowl of theatre staff scrubbing on hands and knees when I re-entered to Lady Gaga belting out “The hills are alive…with the Sound of Music.” I returned just in time to see ‘Julie Andrews’ accept her award from ‘Lady Gaga.’

Infinity Pool—any will do, but, especially this one:

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To infinity and beyond!!!! This was our own addition to the Bangkok must list. You have to at 44 degrees! The Novotel Platinum Pratunam Cloud 9 pool was just the balm we needed and their happy hour is actually happy HOURS. From 12-5 you can buy 2 for 1 beers (and get free snacks like puffy shrimp chips and skinned peanuts) float, nap and let Bangkok buzz and honk nine floors below. ($20USpp if you’re not an esteemed guest of the hotel)

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After sampling red, green and yellow curry (the red was the equivalent of eating a bonfire), visiting a few Buddhas (it’s a rite of passage here), a good fill of pad Thai (pre-requisite), we packed up for Phuket (1.5 hour flight from Bangkok).

PHUKET

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Ah, the metallic Andaman sea. This is what we’d fawned over so long. Our research had consisted of two very important sources: watching the Swede series 30 Degrees in February and Leonardo DiCaprio’s The Beach. Obviously we didn’t draw all our Thai conclusions on this, but, the footage of Patong and the Phi Phi Islands provided the vision board we needed prior to departure.

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Quakes were quaking all around us. Japan. Indonesia. Myanmar. That Ewan MacGregor tsunami movie based on actual events of the 2004 Boxing Day horror was already stitched deeply into our minds.

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Waves on the beach were coming in like angry linebackers but we still couldn’t imagine a wall of water with the power to kill over 8000, on this beach of smiles, Swedes and colourful beach blankets.

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Observation: Phuket was once the desired hot spot for sun-starved Swedes. Now it is the new Russia with restaurants and bars offering menus in Thai, Russian and English. Here, beaches are full of children—I’ve never seen so many under the age of 5. And, they stay all day—in the full sun, maybe with a smear of sunscreen, and stay until the sun sets.

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Our heels were soon well-polished on the 2km stretch of honey sanded Karon beach. The setting sun turned the sky cream soda and we decided to take part in the magic of lighting a lantern. At dusk, vendors walked the shore, carrying tissue paper lanterns to be lit and set high in the sky, to the seas. It’s the kind of stuff romance and wishes are made of. You must do this.

What you shouldn’t do: pay attention to the vendors toting a tiny loris about. The mini primates often have their teeth removed by handlers as they have a toxic bite that can cause anaphylactic shock and death. They are nocturnal and sloth-like—not intended for being paraded about on the beach for photo ops.

What you should do: Order Penang curry and a Chang at Red Chopsticks. Order an Aussie burger stacked with 200g of Aussie beef, pickled beets, bacon and a fried egg at Two Chefs.

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Be prepared: We were late to the Phuket party. My sister went 15 years ago and talked about two dollar beach huts and banana pancakes for a song. Now? As one guide book suggested, “Phuket is being loved to death.” Every other business is a bar, restaurant, Jeep rental, cheap massages or a dive shop. It’s a surreal, fabricated sun destination where you basically see zero locals, save for the beach vendors and wait staff. But the banana smoothies are really something to postcard home about.

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It’s inundated with tourists. It’s not backpackers. It’s the roller bag set. Cruise ships are parking here.

When we did the paradise math, it went something like this:

1.5 hours Toronto to Montreal

13 hours Montreal to Beijing

4.5 hours Beijing to Bangkok (*don’t eat the breakfast spag bol that they serve in-flight)

1.5 hours Bangkok to Phuket

Times two.

It’s a lot for a place that is showing its wrinkles. It’s been found. It’s tired.

Disclosure: We didn’t bother with any excursions, opting to just flake out and take in the beachy vibe and eats because China’s itinerary whipped us. The 12 hour time change was like a swift and long-lasting sucker punch. We chatted with other who had signed up for “elephant experiences” and island trips that ended up being gong shows—mostly sitting in traffic and spending more hours going to and fro, instead of in the actual destination.

It’s cheap, but not cheap enough to justify the flight time or expense.

Here’s a suggestion: order some pad Thai, some crispy spring rolls and watch 30 Degrees in February instead.

Or, get out of Phuket. Go north. But be sure to fit in Bangkok and some ping pong.

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Categories: Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Never Say Never: Except if it’s China

Last night we watched Years of Living Dangerously, an intelligent Nat Geo series that showcases the ugly mug of climate change. Guest host Sigourney Weaver chatted with notorious bigwigs in Hong Kong about China and its irrevocable reputation as “the dirty factory of the world.” With over a thousand coal plants, the juxtaposition is this: China was the world’s biggest investor in clean, renewable energy last year.

But in that same (gasping) breath, a tiny blurb in today’s Toronto Star: SMOG FORCES SCHOOLS, FACTORIES TO CLOSE. A national “red alert” forced 700 companies to stop production in Beijing, dozens of cities closed schools from Friday night until today (Wednesday) to reduce air pollution.

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Truth: If Beijing were a disease, landing at their airport is like touching down in jaundice. You feel your lungs collapse a little. Everything has a sepia tone—though the visibility of the smog blister surrounding the city is limited. We could barely see the incoming planes on the runway.

China was never on our wish list for two giant reasons: pollution and populace. But, somehow a dynamic deal ($3460 bucks each—15 nights in China and a 7 night extension in Phuket, Thailand) sucked us in like turkey stuffing-flavoured potato chips (yes, there is such a thing! And this is where you should funnel your money).

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Kim and I agreed to group travel even! Surely we were drugged, hypothermic (we booked in February) or we had a weak seat sale moment. The notion of future group travel was quickly cemented early on: we would NEVER do group travel again, or China. Or, Chinese food—which we didn’t even partake in before. Not even a single pineapple chicken ball in day-glo sweet and sour sauce in our seven years together.

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Earlier in the year, in dutiful preparation, I read Lost on Planet China: One Man’s Attempt to Understand the World’s Most Mystifying Nation (J. Maarten Troost).  I dictated most of it aloud to Kim, kinda in that wavering voice you get when you tell a ghost story by a bonfire. Lost on Planet China was like a Stephen King ripper. What had we done?

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Our local guide, Cathy, said two things (on day one) that set the tone:

“You need to wear your name tags, people. Because, you all look the same to me.”

“And, Mr. Hu is our second best bus driver. Our first is in the hospital.”

Kim and I learned these two things immediately:

“Bu Yao”—which means “I don’t want it.” But, with the wrong inflection, it can also mean “Don’t bite me” or, worse, “Stay with me!”

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“You can’t drink the food good here.” (Quote: Kim Kenny, after round 12 of bok choy and fish oil-slicked pork and slimy oyster mushrooms). Despite serious caution from Cathy about the thousand Chinese that went blind from drinking fake booze, we had to test the waters. There are startling legit numbers suggesting that 30% of alcohol in China is fake, thanks to bathtub booze productions that fill hooch in brand name bottles (with cocktails of antifreeze and methanol). Of the two group members we found genuine kinship with, one was a retired pharmacist. And, he was buying blended whiskey, so, we rationally thought, if the pharmacist is buying potential bathtub whiskey, then this Absolut vodka must be fine for us. (*Note: I did awake a few times the first night to train my eye on the only light in the hotel room—the green dot on the flat screen TV, to ensure that I wasn’t blind from booze). Also, March 1, Consumption Day in China, commemorates China’s changes to food inspection and booze legislation. Cheers to that.

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We’re not picky or snobby Western eaters (disclaimer: I’ve voluntarily eaten goat testicles and grasshoppers). We weren’t expecting the Mandarin or Canadianized Chinese food. But—where’s that great Peking duck? Those spicy sticky pork buns that I buy in Toronto’s Chinatown?

I was sharply reminded of my brother’s comment years ago, about Tim Horton’s French Cruller donuts. He said, “I’m surprised you like those. Don’t you find they leave an oil slick on the roof of your mouth?”

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This was our experience with the daily Chinese buffet of duck clavicle and gluey congee (porridge’s weird Chinese cousin) and limp veg. After I tried the Sichuan numb & spicy pork dish in Wuhan my adventures in eating skidded to a halt. My tongue tingled and then went into a terrifying numbed state for a solid 20 minutes. This dish was like party drugs for your mouth. We bellied up to so many disappointing My Big Fat Chinese Wedding (*not a real movie. I don’t think.) white-riced lazy Susan meals that by day three, Kim and I looked at each other with that knowing face, “Clif bar?”

Our guide (hands on hips) was disappointed that we didn’t try the “boiling pork with charlies.” (*’Charlies’ are chilies, it took a while to figure this one out). Soundtrack: if it wasn’t Celine Dion it was Zamfir: Scarborough Fair, Chariots of Fire—all were given the pan flute treatment.

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Despite all that (and because we found great international Lays potato chips with flavours like grilled squid, buttery scallops with garlic, finger-lickin’ braised pork and Italian red meat sauce) we still agree. It’s important to travel to places that challenge your palate and patience.

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Asthma-inducing particulate aside…if you could helicopter into the Great Wall (and not the Badaling portion 80km northwest of Beijing where all the tourist buses barf out passengers like ourselves), that would be the highlight. It’s a true marvel—over 6,000 km of actual wall remains (though archaeologists will champion the wall to be nearly 22,000km with all its branches. The great snake is built of brick, stone, branches, rice and possibly even human remains. On the day we were dumped off it was a shocking -10 C. Worming our way through all the selfie sticks was a feat of its own—another was remaining upright on the black ice and preventing a domino effect of taking out 100 people with a wipeout on the sketchy stairs.

*Parts I’m skipping over but places that we responsibly visited: Tiananmen Square (where student-led protests in 1989 ended in the death of several hundreds, possibly thousands.

The Forbidden City and Summer Palace. Fact: The Last Emperor is the only Hollywood film that has been granted access to the City. It’s also the first film I remember that had an intermission at the theatre. The Imperial Palace consists of over 9,900 rooms. Two only seemed to be open and it was unbearably cold, windswept and not a highlight due to frozen _______(insert any body part here).

Oh, and the panda sanctuary in Chongqing which ended up being a zoo–but, if we had to be zoo animals, this would be the one we would choose. It’s lovely, in zoo-speak. But, being on a group tour meant we had to rush to our grandma-hour 4pm dinner and only had 20 minutes to see the pandas.

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*Other parts glossed over: an agonizing stop for far too long at the pearl factory AND jade factory despite our guide’s unbridled enthusiasm: “And now we stop for two hours and help the Chinese economy!”

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Fast forward to the Yangtze (and if you could, hop back in that helicopter and skip the dreary endless apartment-stacked skyline of Beijing. It’s like a never-ending Scarborough. Laundry flaps off every balcony like prayer flags. Mopeds with entire families squeezed in like club sandwiches putt along.) Finally, the glut of housing gives way to some green—sycamores! Gingko and camphor trees! Lotus fields! Chinese line dancers (yes, there is such a thing—and they do it in broad daylight in the parks) and legions of Tai Chi ambassadors jockey for green space, most wearing face masks and parkas.

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The Yangtze is the third largest river in the world. China sunk $45B US into the Three Gorges Project. Of that price tag, 45% was funneled into relocation efforts for the 1.3 million ‘migrants’ whose villages are now submerged. It seems privileged and snotty to float over the lives and ancestry of so many. The relics are witnessed in the hanging tombs—wooden coffins that are suspended high in the crevasses of the gorges. Few remain, and as the river opens up from the dam to the main channel, the industrial marine highway creates exhibit #35 for Chinese juxtapositions.

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We had reveled in a full day of hot November sun, lounging on the upper deck of the river boat, necks craned back as we passed through the verdant gorges. All was right with the world. We were floating through a postcard and thinking, “wish you were here.”

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But on the very next day—we wished we weren’t there. We couldn’t even step outside. The sulphur was in choking amounts. Steamers and barges (over 200 of them) queued up with coal, sulphur and hundreds of shiny new white cars. Smoke stacks lining the river burped up effluent. Nuclear reactors sent their plumes skyward too. It was gross. And then? Oddly, a woman standing on the banks in a long ivory wool coat, waving slowly, her arm extended above her head. As though to warn about sharks in the water. She sang gospel into a microphone, with a little amp at her side. Waving and singing to no particular audience.

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We found a few markets to walk through (childhood flashback of always wanting to go poke the shrink-wrapped cow tongue’s at Calbecks’ grocery store). Skinned ducks, live eels, pig knuckles, still-flipping fish, pickled chicken’s feet and all sorts of organs were on gruesome display. On the flip side, massive melons and neatly lined up greens and spices were presented like fine art.

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Fast forward to the high speed train to Shanghai (again, insert endless landscape of utilitarian high rise apartments and condos). And by high speed, we’re talking upwards of 250km/hour. The train is efficient and the menu is a curious one. We were torn between “smell strictosidine” (they were out of this anyway), drunk fish, grinding corn beverage, crispy duck wing root, squid silk and “alcoholic peanuts.” Massive solar fields were a blur as we whizzed through the rural areas, rice paddies, haphazard graveyards and bony-backed cattle.

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I think this is where Kim and I designed our own group tour and left the group. We navigated the spaghetti lines of the Shanghai metro system as our group hotel was an hour from the action, Nanjing Road, the bund and all the glittery fracas. It would be like booking a room in Ajax, thinking you were going to be ‘close’ to Toronto. (Though the hotel did have a heated toilet seat and a TV screen embedded in the bathroom mirror).

We supported the fake market industry (North Face jackets! Superdry! Salomon shoes! Mammut!) until we couldn’t handle the aggression. “LADY! WATCHES! Hello! Belts! LADY! COME. BUY JACKET.” Many vendors would latch on with python grips and pull you into their stores. Simply looking at a hoodie you’d hear, “WHAT SIZE? HOW MUCH?” Walking away was like leaving a 10-year relationship. “Why you leave? Come on special friend. Special price!”

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We happened upon a German ice bar (over 120 kinds of vodka and a -3C room to drink them in. Parka provided.) called Kafer but opted for a Shangri La hotel happy hour.

It was a civilized moment of calm after the hyper retail gong show of the AP Market. We sat in the Treasury Room eating salty mixed nuts, snootily drinking Australian craft beer, listening to David Bowie while watching snooker. Juxtapositions in Shanghai, yes.

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We pass trees with i.v. bags. In a place that pumps out the pollutants to the demise of the human population, trees get loving attention to help conquer disease processes. We make our way to Cloud 9, the tallest bar in the world with a sky-high view and equally sky-high prices.

 

I get the expat love affair with Shanghai. It’s cosmo. It’s metro. All the big hotel chains are there and you can smoke cigars and drink cognac at the Fairmont Peace Hotel as though you are in Chicago. Shanghai is touted to be “the Chicago of the Orient” with a river winding along the Bund and all the Mink Mile stores. It’s immaculate. It’s pedestrian-centric. Kim felt like we’d walked onto a Jetsons set at dusk.

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The entire city pulsates and vibrates. The skyline dances with neon. Outdoor escalators whisk starry-eyed couples to pedestrian causeways, KFC, Dairy Queen, Subway and the like.

China. It’s backwards. Its forwards. We endured it with Phuket dangling like a GMO-enhanced carrot at the end. But that’s another blog.

dscf6142Lesson learned: When we say “never” (and despite other people saying “never say never”), we now mean it. So, this means: We will never go on a cruise, go to China (again), Cuba (again), Vegas, India or Scarborough for that matter. Also, we will never do group travel again.

 

 

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

Picking up in Des Moines, Iowa…a 1984 Airstream, that is.

My assignment is late. I could say the dog ate my homework, because that’s very plausible around here. Fingers could be pointed in several directions as we are currently living with six dogs who are interested in eating everything from marshmallows to corn-on-the-cob. And, probably homework.

What We Did On Our Summer Vacation is drive the equivalent of across Canada and back in mileage. Instead, we drove to and fro to Prince Edward County looking for a house or a patch of land that never materialized. So, we widened our radius, and though we came closer to our ideals, we were even further from where we started. Perth, Jasper, South Frontenac, Westport, Sharbot Lake. Crotch Lake, Green Lake, Black Lake, Otty Lake, Mississippi River, Elbow Lake.

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In the middle of August we pulled out the driveway of our 155-year-old stone cottage one last time. The Rogue was packed to the gills with the three awkward but happy plants, pantry leftovers, camping gear, stuff to take to China in November, a handful of books I had to review for the Vancouver Sun, Kim’s golf clubs and my favourite high tops.

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In the days before we moved we were stuffing everything else into a storage pod that now sits in Ayr. We drank champagne on a daily basis and ate a lot of strange combinations, trying to unload our fridge of condiments.

We went to a funeral, a wedding, Prince Edward County, Walkerton and Uxbridge all in the same week. And packed and moved and landed at our friends’ farm weary but liberated. Untethered. We were free to a good home and they figured with six dogs, five cats, nine horses, a pig, 30-odd chickens and two bee hives—two more in the mix wouldn’t rock the boat. And, it is like being on a boat here. In particular, Noah’s Ark.

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Anyway, life has shifted from stuffy shifts at the steel mill and the spa to becoming instant 4-H members, chicken coop painters and chief honey and rum cocktail makers. Perks: the resident bees kicked off their inaugural season by producing nearly 18-liters of spun gold and we get to do quality control of their Just Hitched Honey Co. We live in a fancy barn with wi-fi and Netflix and have more bonfires than the average caveman.

So, despite our carsickness from extreme real estating, we volunteered (or invited ourselves I think) to join one of Caberneigh Farm’s owners, PJ, on a road trip to Des Moines (Yes, we had to look it up to, and only recently have I been able to pronounce it correctly), Iowa to retrieve an Airstream that her late brother-in-law willed to her. PJ’s sisters, Christine and Colleen were already on the road days before us, hitting every national park and fall fair and kettle corn stand between California (their start point) and Des Moines.

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In addition to earning her 4-H badge in feeding beet pulp to the horses and learning how to wrangle truly free range chickens, Kim had a crash (with no crash) course on Airstream parking and manoeuvering. However, her practice Airstream was PJ and Nicole’s cutesy 19-foot Bambi model (Bambi is Barbie-sized). We (Kim and PJ—I was the designated backseat driver and snack procurer) would be towing a 28-foot 1984 Sovereign Airstream back to Canada. In, like four days. PJ had work commitments so the 2,218 mile road trip would be a tasseled corn field blur.

But, of course we would make time for the odd American diner or two. The kind where road construction crews file in still wearing their neon vests first and eat pie with ice cream BEFORE they order lunch. Kim and I were quickly introduced to Americana courtesy of PJ, a Cali-bred expat. “What’s a wet burrito?” Basically a burrito buried in cheese sauce. (*need fork and knife). “What’s a patty melt?” Hamburger patty loaded with melted cheese and onions and sandwich-fied between slices of rye bread of all things.

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At our first stop at Perry’s Village Corners in Lansing Michigan we had onion rings so greasy-good we didn’t need to apply lip balm for the rest of the day.

Nine hours after roaring out the farm driveway in Uxbridge in the Dodge Ram we left the keys with the valet driver and enveloped ourselves in the posh surrounds of the Renaissance Blackstone Hotel on Chicago’s Magnificent Mile. (EXTREME highlight: the bowls of hickory-smoked bacon in the VIP lounge at breakfast. Now we know why half the guests were padding their pockets with it).

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The air was as thick as breathing cotton candy as storm clouds sat behind the Tribune building, Gotham City-style. This is how you do Chicago in sub-12 hours.

  1. Be sure to walk the perimeter of the Tribune and check out all the rocks that have been embedded in the walls from Antarctica to atolls in the Philippines.dscf5353
  2. Go to Howell’s and Hood’s. Drink indie beers (they have over 100 drafts and crafts like Colorado’s silky amber Sawtooth. Order the hot pretzel bites dusted in cheese powder and served with a dangerous beer dip. They are the equivalent of Adult Timbits. The resto was named after the architects who won the 1920s ‘best office building’ design competition. You’ll see why, and you’ll also see why you’re happier to be drinking Sawtooths instead of working.dscf5357
  3. Follow the crowds to see the city’s calling card at Millennium Park. The “Cloud’s Gate” silver jellybean is an Instagram magnet. If you have more than 100 Facebook friends, there’s a solid chance that you’ve seen someone’s selfie cartwheel in front of it. You can’t help but take over a dozen pics here. It’s like the Grand Canyon of city photo ops.dscf5340dscf5345
  4. Go marvel at the Harold Washington Library (named for the city’s first African-American mayor) on 400 South State Street, not too far of a stray from the Magnificent Mile. If you have time, you can scan and 3D print yourself. The imposing brick building is presided over by angels and menacing owls. Look up and out!
  5. PJ would insist that you go to Garrett Popcorn Shop. It’s the Chicago mix (sharp cheddar and molasses-swirled caramel popcorn) that leaves the uninitiated in a trance. Everyone glazes over upon entry, sucking in the sweet, buttery-infused air. We left with a 3.5 pound bucket of the coveted corn for PJ’s sisters, and take-home for Nicole.
  6. Visit any downtown convenience store. America is light years beyond Canada in the snack department. We’re talking birthday cake ring donuts, cherry-flavoured turkey jerky, Payday and Heath bars (previously only witnessed on The Price is Right where contestants had to guess the price of random grocery items). They have suckers called Dum-Dums that come in flavours like banana split, s’mores and root beer). Whoppers (malt balls) are still a big thing and speaking of Whoppers, Burger King is also marketing Whopperitos (a burger-burrito marriage).
  7. Go to Billy Goat’s Tavern for a pint. It’s the parking lot tavern made famous by Saturday Night Live (that “cheezborger no cheese” skit). Here you can order three pints for $10.25. That’s the price of one beer at Howells and Hoods. The secret beer cafeteria is day-glo and still serves up liver and onions or steak and eggs for locked in ‘70s prices.dscf5379
  8. It’s a hot topic—Chicago loves their deep dish but we are thin crusters and were politely directed to Bar Toma by the Renaissance hotel’s “Navigator” (concierge). It’s a tourist draw but for good reason. As a total abomination of traditional Chicago-style pizza we had prosciutto and fig thin crust with Patio Crusher wheat beer. Take that. But, we would go back and work our way through the shortlist of local faves: Giordano’s, Gino’s East and Connie’s Pizza.
  9. Drive past Wrigley Field (despite construction). Home of the Chicago Cubs it was built in 1914 and is as classic Americana as pancake houses, Dunkin’ Donuts, Red Roof Inns, Cracker Barrels and Bob Evans.dscf5405

Chicago to Des Moines

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After sleeping like rockstars at the Renaissance, we had to get back to the task at hand. Tally ho to Iowa. Down the Ronald Reagan Memorial Highway to Indiana. Past the 1-844.getsnip billboards for no-snip vasectomies. Or, “If you die tonite will it be Heaven or Hell? Dial 1-888-the-TRUTH.

It was corn for the next 600 miles. Field of Dreams was filmed here for a reason. We only stopped to gas up and look at the shelves and shelves of pork rinds, jalapeno-infused beer, 7 layer-dip Combos (those delicious baby pretzel-stuffed things) and 30-packs of Old Milwaukee  for $13 (though Kim is still suspicious of her deal on beer. For 43 cents a can, could it really be real beer or near beer?). For the same $13 you could buy an ENTIRE sheet of Rice Krispie squares.

We also made time to stop at Trader Joe’s as I see a steady stream from friends in Nashville and California who brag about it. It’s a gourmand grocery store—like Whole Foods, but, smaller, with carefully curated good things. For example: peanut butter and jelly YOGURT. They sell apple and chardonnay sausage. Moose Drool beer. Specula Cookie Butter (like peanut butter, but crushed and whipped ginger specula cookies instead).

We crossed the Mississippi River (which I can spell properly thanks to a recess rope-skipping song I think) and somewhere between there and the Hilton we ruptured the oil line to the turbo booster and were bleeding oil. (Crisis averted and semi-resolved at Firestone, but, the truck stayed in the bay overnight and we nervously contemplated how we might tow the Airstream back without a truck).

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The Airstream exchange between the sisters was emotional and a little bit magic. The Airstream that Christine and Kenny had pulled around North America since 1984 would keep on spinning its wheels in new directions. Starting with us, back to Uxbridge. Back through the Bridges of Madison County. The Fields of Dreams. Homeland of Cloris Leachman and John Wayne. The state where you can find brownie batter milkshakes and hot pickles in a bag. And elementary schools that boast “drug-free school zone.” I should hope so.

Now, with 28 feet behind us, there were no random stops. We were long-haul truckers. We had to eat at places like Thirsty on 80 Grub and Pub in West Branch, Iowa, because they had 50 feet for us to park. It’s the kind of grub and pub with day drinkers, darts and deep fried everything (corn dogs, chicken fingers and frozen pizzas). They curiously also offered crab Rangoon, whatever that is.

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Through Plain View and Normal we went. Past Starved Rock National Park, across Skunk River. Past the World’s Largest Truck Stop on the I-80. We were following the eyelash of the storm through Indiana as wicked apocalyptic clouds swirled and whorled.

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After pulling off in a dodgy neighbourhood thanks to the Wayz app where souped-up cars with spiked rims and giant spoilers cruised. We found amazing Baracoa burritos (not wet) at Chilangos and hoped that we would return to find the Airstream still parked there—not fashioned into a dozen spoilers for whatever mafia ruled the roost.

We gassed up in Ronald Reagan’s birthplace (much to PJ’s chagrin) and kept laser-like focus on our only destination: Indiana Dunes State Park. It rained CNN special-weather-report announcement amounts. And, I would later learn (thanks to my mother, aspiring CNN meteorologist) that tornadoes were ripping through the area.

Arriving in 100% darkness (perfect conditions to back-up the 28-foot Airstream for the first time, into a narrow campground slot), Kim seamlessly slid it in like a seasoned camper. PJ apologized to the entire campsite for the idling diesel truck. I begged nearby campers for rations of firewood as the camp store was closed.

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When we finally had set up base camp (complete with roaring, borrowed fire), we laughed at our grand entrance to the state park. The park warden asked how we were. PJ admitted to being nervous—after all, it would be our first time backing the Airstream up. The warden actually said, “Do you have a man in there to help you?”

PJ calmly and confidently replied, “No, but I have two very capable women with me.”

And, when we finally sat down with glasses of Scotch (Kenny’s favourite brand), we toasted him and committed to always chasing adventure. We planned to come back to the Indiana State Dunes Park one day, because we didn’t see the dunes or much of anything beyond our bonfire pit. But sometimes it’s not about what you see, it’s what you do. Or didn’t plan to do. And how you feel. And, we felt pretty cool cruising across the border with our California Dreamin’ Airstream.

 

Categories: Eat This, Sip That, Passport Please, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

House Hunting in Prince Edward County: Chapter 867

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Grey Highlands (photo cred: realtor.ca)

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

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Trent Hills (photo cred: realtor.ca)

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

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

And so our search continues. Standby.

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Adventures in Real Estating: Prince Edward County

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

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

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Photo credit: realtor.ca

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Photo Credit: realtor.ca

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

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Photo credit: realtor.ca

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

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

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

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

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

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

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We Sold Our House on Facebook

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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