Author Archives: jules09

The Best Places we Slept in 2015

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

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

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La Sirena, Palomino, Colombia

$645 CAD for 7 nights

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

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

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

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

El Dorado Bird Reservo, Minca, Colombia

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

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

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

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

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

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Golden Villas, Noord, Aruba

$139/night (January to May)

Comes with Weber Grill, Netflix and Parakeet Migration

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fronterra Farm Camp Brewery, Prince Edward County, Ontario

$235/night (2 night minimum)

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

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

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

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

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

Ihamba Safari Lodge, Queen Elizabeth National Park, Uganda

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lakeside Lodge, Jinja, Uganda

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Bespoke Christmas

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

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

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Photo credit: realtor.ca

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Ticket to Iceland, With Two Precocious Cats

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

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

Be Bound by the Beauty

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

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

Tune up Their iTunes With Madison Violet

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

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

Intelligent Camping for the Lumbersexuals in Your Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our Love Affair With Galt, Ontario

“Why are you two moving anyway?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Forwarding Address

People often ask me what I think about all day—as a massage therapist you tend to have a lot of time…on your hands. It’s a solitary job, despite two people being in the same room. Just as you can choose a “silent ride” in a taxi, you can also choose a silent treatment. Clients are usually quick to say “I like to meditate during my treatment.” Or, they want to focus on their breathing. Or sleep. Which, is exactly what they are entitled to do. The flipside of the job with chatterbox clients is that I act as a semi-bartender/hairdresser/airline seat companion, listening intently, under the veil of an unusual and temporary shared intimacy.

So, this is what I think about, with the silent rides. I can’t speak to the majority of massage therapists, but they’d be lying if they said they were totally tuned in to your sternocleidomastoid for 55 minutes. I play memory games, my own personal version of Solitaire. Better than Suduko.

Most recently I spent an entire day thinking about all the streets I’ve lived on, chronologically, the houses (I can’t even remember the house numbers of half of them) and what I loved most. Midday I upped the ante and added a bonus level of reminiscing—what I loathed. Then I added a soundtrack—a specific song attached to that house and time. What I learned was that often, the actual bricks and mortar were not what my memory was affixed to at all. It was the feeling, the silence of the frozen river, a particular smell, Fleetwood Mac on the ghetto, the dogs or the blackberry bushes growing wild in the back alley.

Let’s scroll back.

Arthur Side Road, Brantford, Ontario: Peepers and Tobacco (1974—1992)

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My parents built our house—a red brick ranch on a two acre lot with our own personal stand of pines to climb and make crappy makeshift treehouses in. We were related to everyone on our road until the Kus family bought and built, ruining the road domination.

My teen bedroom was my parents former master bedroom—the mauve walls and purple shag were quickly upgraded to grass cloth wallpaper (that smelled like a Sunday drive through rural Alberta), a full wall forest mural (not unlike those that you would find in 1980s dentist offices), my beloved waterbed cranked to Florida temps, the southern hemisphere at 10pm on a summer’s night depicted in glow-in- the-dark stars on my ceiling and, an actual floor-to-ceiling tree, a plug-in faux fireplace, surrounded by actual rocks as though one were seated around a bonfire. With carpet.

If you ask any of my family members what we miss most about that house, we will answer the same. The spring peepers. Just across the railroad tracks was a still pond pockmarked by lily pads and shadowed by leaning willows. The peepers were always deafening, they made April nights electric with sound. All our bedroom windows would be opened wide, even with the bracing night air, to take in their triumphant song.

And there was that sweet smell, so rare in these parts anymore. The smell of tobacco curing in the kilns. We all grew up anti-smoking (thanks to a puffarama great grandmother who turned us off with her rolling cough and yellowed plume of wispy white hair. My mom said Grandma Grunt’s wrinkles were from smoking—and, she looked like an old dehydrated apple doll from day one—a cross between Willie Nelson and Mother Teresa). But, the smell of curing tobacco—nothing like a lit cigarette.

And, to be honest—nothing says home to me like the heady smell of pig manure (courtesy of my grandfather’s pig farm on the corner).

Loved: Our home was three corn fields behind the Sunset Drive-in Theatre. Somehow we could pick up the sound from the movies on Kleenex box-sized walkie-talkies my mom found for us at a garage sale.

Soundtrack: I blame my sister for this one—“Mr. Jones,” Counting Crows. She played that damn song on her purple ghetto blaster every morning before catching the school bus until Dax stole her precious ghetto plug.

West 27th and Macdonald, Vancouver, BC (August 1992-1993): Blackberries and Stevie Nicks

Holy bohemia, Batman. I moved to Vancouver at 18, eager to strike out and explore my “emotional geography” as my mother once said. I wanted new. New came in the form of about 23 roomies, a cat named Sushi (who disappeared into the heating ducts at any given chance), another cat who slept in a shoebox (Rick’s size 11 shoes), and a living room with a 6-foot under-construction paper mache penis in the corner of it. But that’s another story.

I shared a room upstairs with Rick, his canvasses (he was a student at the Emily Carr School of Art) and the shoebox cat, Cypress. I owned ‘nothing’ but a sketchbook, an Ani DiFranco CD (without a player), an indigo blue Canadian Tire sleeping bag and army boots. Talk about being ready for the lesbian movement!

I LOVED the bohemia. I was living the dream, freelancing for a magazine called Cockroach and learning the secrets of artists: heating the kitchen with an oven on broil in December and using melted cinnamon hearts as sugar substitute for coffee in February. Here, if you climbed out on to the roof, you could see the mauve Grouse mountain ridge turn navy with nightfall. And, those wild blackberries in the alley—Godzilla-sized.

Soundtrack: Thanks to Rick, on repeat—“What is Love?” Haddaway and “Go Your Own Way,” Fleetwood Mac. Occasionally, roomie Shannon’s Cocteau Twins cranked from her bedroom

Monteverde Cloud Forest and Alto Cuen, Costa Rica (December 1993-March 1994): Trench Foot and Canned Mackerel

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Totally off an flight-path, beyond any radio connection (because that’s the primitive GI Joe way we communicated with the head office of Youth Challenge International then—or not, because we never did find a connection).

My living quarters were actually tenths, not quarters. There were a dozen of us—Aussies, Canadians and two Ticos, a sack of rice, a pail of peanut butter, a dozen cans of mackerel and a hut with no walls, a palm frond roof and a family of boisterous pigs living underneath the raised floor.

Loved: Living by the sun, dependent on fire. Survivor-like before Survivor and the pleasure of being able to vote people off our island. This was House Hunters International: Off the Grid, but 20 years early.

Loathed: Trench foot, sour clothes (in a rainforest, the only thing that can be dry is your humour), parasites (everywhere—intestines, under your skin, in your feet).

Soundtrack: “Here Comes the Rain Again,” The Eurythmics

River Road, Dunnville, ON (1994—2000): Pickles and Pit Bulls

dunnville Dunnville is home of the Mudcat festival—an annual celebration of the catfish that involves drinking at various establishments around town, ie. The fire hall or Legion (pickled eggs for 75 cents). Inevitably, you would have more beer on you than in you at night’s end. Dunnville was also home to a Bick’s pickle factory (now closed)—on certain days, the whiff of gherkins was a pregnant woman’s late night crave dream come true.

Living on the river slowed life down to a poet’s pace. What I loved most was being so cosmically in tune with the seasons and the bird migrations. Every night a pair of green-backed herons would fly in and land in a skeleton of a tree. In the dead of winter, nothing was more brilliant as the darting burnt orange flame of a fox crossing the frozen Grand river.

Loved/loathed: the Croatian and Serbian couple who lived next door (yes, love against all odds!). Ziggy was always half-tanked on his homemade wine and owned a cranky pit bull that often escaped and threatened to attack. “If he attack, you do this—grab both his front legs and pull apart. It break his ribs and he no bite anymore.” The dog was all talk no action—but I preferred the African Helmeted Guinea fowl that Ziggy owned. They would race over, prison break style, and eat the stale cheezies and popcorn that I’d throw out on the lawn for the birds.

Aitkens Road, Dunnville (2001, briefly): One Wayward TTC Stop and 14 farm dogs (galloping)

This house was cool, but, wrong person, wrong time, wrong a lot of things. But, back to the house—it had an outdoor shower, a treehouse over the pond with a loft, and an old TTC streetcar parked on the property that was dubbed “Stealies.” It was soon filled with stolen beer glasses and other donations from klepto friends looking to offload guilt.

Loved: The laneway was storybook, crossing a stream and leading to the two storey home largely hidden from the road on a 14 acre chunk of land.

Loathed: the bike commute was tranquil and recalibrating except for the 14 farm dogs en route who alerted the next farm house to my upcoming arrival creating a non-stop chase scene, one colossal wipe-out on the gravel road, two broken shoelaces (from a dog tug-of-war) and punctured calf (and fancy spandex).

Soundtrack: “Closer to Fine,” Indigo Girls

Lighthouse Drive, Dunnville, ON (winter 2001): Sea Glass and Scrabble

Lake Erie in December is ghostly—frozen and fogged in, the earth seemed to end at the stairs to the beach. The fire here was always roaring—and the conversations that unfolded here led to many a splendored thing. There was a book on the old weigh scale table that you were supposed to turn the pages of daily. Each day had a thought, a musing. I’d read most of them before, but, it was something that we read aloud each day anew. Like a fortune cookie, a premonition.

I loved that Rene and Pat had stacks of dog-eared paperbacks and shelves of movies, Scrabble permanently at-the-ready and an “Elbow Room” full of neon signs, an ET figurine, sea glass, fish lures, carved shore birds, license plates, tiki lights, autographed KD lang posters and over 600 CDs. Rene’s son was a radio show host and DJ, and picking out tunes was like sifting thru the world’s biggest jukebox play list. Her impersonation of Macy Gray was head-shakingly good.

We ate a lot of shrimp cocktail and venison pepperettes listening to Shakespeare’s Sister and Amanda Marshall, challenging Scrabble words, comparing smooth jade sea glass finds after our walks.

Soundtrack: “I Try,” Macy Gray

Hyde Road, Burlington, ON (February 2001—September 2001?): Tom and Cruise

My brother had lived with Tom when he was on a university co-op placement. The rent was super cheap ($350) but everything else was annoying. Tom had a fox terrier named “Cruise” (yes) and that thing was a barking terror. Tom spent every Sunday preparing organic meals for the dog and organizing a month’s worth of supplements into daily containers—old film canisters.

He had terrible paintings, all lit with gallery lighting. My room came furnished and I had to take down the picture of the supped up Ferrari and galloping stallion oil painting. He smoked every night in the garage below my room—and thus, opened the electric garage door every night to do so. Around midnight.

There were notes EVERYWHERE in the house dictating how to behave. “Please squeegee shower after use.” “Please wipe microwave after use.” “Please do not touch thermostat.” He made all of these signs with one of those 1980s adhesive label maker things.

Loved: Kim. And, the TV in my room that had to be turned on with a screwdriver (volume adjusted the same way). Only highlight? Living close to Montfort’s and grabbing shawarma after ball hockey. We’d set up base camp on the bed with a bottle of wine (I had no other furniture and a French woman and an odd divorcee scientist monopolized the communal living room) to watch Queer As Folk with screwdriver in hand.

Soundtrack: “Save a Song,” Madison Violet (Mad Violet then!) and “Go West,” Pet Shop Boys (as I could never remember which GO train direction I was supposed to go to get home from Toronto).

Gloucester Street, The Village, Toronto (2001-2002? My years might be off): Sommeliers and Starbucks

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My first real, live apartment. I bought the best sound system going and quickly received a post-it note from the woman who lived above me in the brownstone on the corner of Church. “Your sound system is very impressive, but also very invasive.”

Because I lived about 50 feet from the best girl bar at the time, Slack’s…I became the drop-in zone for pre-drinks on Friday nights. I felt like Hugh Hefner for a while. My friend Big Dave (big in height, not weight), lived on the other side of the horseshoe-shaped building. It was like Friends, with Claire living directly across from me. She was a sommelier-in-training which impressed me until the week before Christmas when she suggested we go to Sotto Sotto to celebrate. She wanted to choose the wine—and she also wanted me to pick up the tab. Ka-ching. Merry Christmas, $88 for a bottle of wine!

Soundtrack: Sarah McLachlan’s Trainwreck on repeat. Woe is me. And, Juice Newton’s “Angel in the Morning.”

But this makes more sense, this quote. Just replace NY with Toronto:

“There are roughly three New Yorks. There is, first, the New York of the man or woman who was born here, who takes the city for granted and accepts its size and its turbulence as natural and inevitable. Second, there is the New York of the commuter—the city that is devoured by locusts each day and spat out each night. Third, there is the New York of the person who was born somewhere else and came to New York in quest of something. Of these three trembling cities the greatest is the last.” –Layne Mosler, Taxi Gourmet

Parliament Street, Toronto (2003-2004): Smoke and Mirrors

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The former Czech maintenance guy of the high rise lived in this apartment for a few years and had it so tricked out that it surprised everyone who cringed a little on the scruffy elevator ride up to the 14th (really the 13th floor. Did you know that superstition overrides elevators? I didn’t). The kitchen had black marble tiles, there was hardwood everywhere else and a GIANT mirror over the bed.

The cat de jour, Gnu, spent every night parked in the tiny hallway between the bedroom and living room (the place was 500 square feet, maybe), meowing some god awful guttural sound to something or somebody who also ‘lived’ there.

Loathed: The gunshots, the marital wars on balconies. The kids who played marbles above, all night long—and then soccer, off the apartment walls. Fire alarms went off in this building every other day. It eventually did catch on fire and the woman I lived with at the time had to crawl out on her hands and knees and lived in a hotel for weeks while the fire damage was resolved.

Other loathe: the laundry room. This was the first (and last) time I was ever subjected to coin-operated laundry and wanting to strangle young children who opened dryers and washers mid-cycle. I would return to the basement level laundry room an hour later to switch the load, only to find it stopped prematurely due to some curious rug rat.

Soundtrack: Kelly introduced me to BET. I had no idea. There  was a lot of Usher.

Earl Street, Toronto (2004): Cheerios and White Wine

Now this place oozed cool. The third floor was sun-soaked, I could tan in bed in the morning. I had a tiny balcony that was 20 pounds away from caving in, but I read here until dark whenever I could. Often my balcony neighbour would holler over (actually, no need to holler, he was RIGHT there) and beg me to join him for a glass of wine. I’d be just back from a morning run, eating Cheerios, but, why not?

The kitchen had a floating hutch—by unlocking a mechanism in the floor, I could swing the hutch and completely close off the kitchen. There was a Murphy bed and the bathroom door was almost five feet wide.

Loved: the walls were the colour of mushroom caps, the space just felt good and snug. I was a shaken , not stirred.

Loathed: N/A

Soundtrack: “Black Horse and the Cherry Tree,” KT Tunstall

High Drive, Abbotsford, British Columbia (August 2005—August 2009): Oprah and Tetley, Mila & Bently

My urban nerves were slightly shot—High Drive was a welcome respite with a backyard, genuine grass, and birds that weren’t pigeons. There were Stellar’s jays, woodsy trails and lovely dogs.

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Mila and  Bently made this place. And Gillian, the tenant below. We’d throw dinosaur-sized bones to the dogs on the sunny days and sit with a pot of tea and chat about Oprah, Wayne Dwyer and Sylvia Brown for hours. Gillian was sixtysomething, skinny as a whippet and whenever I picked up date squares or peanut butter cookies—anytime of the day—she would put the kettle on and suggest we eat them immediately.

Loved: It was the smell there, in all of BC—wet cedar, earth, worms.

Loathed: It was too much wet. Even though BC brags about the balmy, I felt too soggy. I didn’t want tulips in February, I wanted 30 degree summers.

Soundtrack: Oddly, “My Immortal,” Evanescence. Gillian would sometimes blast this—unaware that I was home. It’s like slashing an artery and bleeding out. A dramatic take on how I felt living in Abbotsford. And Jann Arden’s “All the Days,” because I heard it there first and sobbed the very first time I listened to it.

The Chimp House, Lugard Ave, Entebbe, Uganda (September 2008-January 2009): Thunderstorms and Chapatis

Gin, tonic—and all of Lake Victoria still and distant before me. When I volunteered with the Jane Goodall Institute, I bunked at what was affectionately known as “The Chimp House.” I kept great company—three dogs (Scrappy, Levi, Tinker) and two cats (Juwa and Pops) and a slew of in-and-out volunteers from Poland, Australia, New Zealand and the states). My room was probably 5’ x 8’ but I revelled in having so little. A few changes of clothes, a few books, some dried mango, a DVD of Grey’s Anatomy season 3 in German subtitles and the sheer glow of HOLY CRAP I’M IN AFRICA! filling the room and pushing the walls even further apart. And when those African thunderstorms rolled around—picture those three dogs and two cats, all curled up like shrimps and shivering with furry fear in my single bed with me, under a mozzie net.

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LOVED: Waking up to the total ruckus of African birds—plantain eaters, hornbills, sunbirds. I also woke up to the roar of the African thunderstorms moving across the lake and wind on full throttle at 2am. And the bats! Every night at 6:05 they’d start bumbling about in the attic and then stream out and pinwheel low in the sky in a feeding frenzy. Oh, and the JGI housekeeper—Ruth—her chapatis. Sigh.

Loathed: The grid would be shut down every Friday. The power would surge and spit. The internet ground to a halt. The electricity often out for days on end.

Soundtrack: “Since U Been Gone,” Tokyo Police Club

Lubumbashi, The Congo July 2009: Breakfast with the Chimps

It was only a month, but it counts because it shook up my world. I was volunteering at a chimp sanctuary owned by a Belgian couple (they were in Belgium at the time). I stayed in their 10-year-old boy’s bedroom and his tiny single bed with cartoon sheets, stuffies, rubber monsters and insects.

The electricity was dodgy here too and boiling water was an hour-long effort on the stovetop. But, the stories, bringing home a tiny rescue chimp each nite—feeding Mikai yogurt by the spoonful in the morning. It was so beyond my Arthur Side Road daydreams of what “I wanted to be when I grew up.” I was making breakfast for 23 chimps like a windblown Starbucks barista. Hot milk, bee pollen and just a bit of honey.

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In our down time (after feeding the bushbabies a few boiled eggs and some fruit at sundown) Chantal and I ate the most divine frog legs, banana and ham pizza, goat testicles even. She found the best Belgian beers for me and savoury farmer’s pate. It was gourmand, soul-satisfying and the most nourishing place I had lived.

Loved: the exhaustion from sensory stimulation.

Loathed? Nothing. Leaving, I suppose.

Soundtrack: that buzz of happiness

“There was no disorientation, I decided, like the disorientation of reducing your possessions to a suitcase and a carry-on and showing up in a new place where your life had no pattern, no rhythm, no rots, no relationship to any other person’s life. And there was no way around it, this disorientation—no way to skip over it or rush past it. The only way was through.” ~ Layne Mosler, Taxi Gourmet

Dax’s Couch on Wellesley Street, Toronto, ON (6 weeks, August—September 2009): Floored

My kid bro kept me well-fed and well-drank as we watched sci-fi, shook martinis, listened to Lily Allen, Franz Ferdinand, The Beautiful South and bitched. By day I looked for both a job and a place to live, having just re-transplanted from the west coast. Are you following the bouncing ball? Anyway, Dax made the best stovetop burgs, balsamic reductions, pillowy pancakes and baseball-sized banana-choco chip muffins.

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The cranky boyfriend at the time made me sleep on the floor so I didn’t ruin the couch. Three weeks later he relented (due to Dax) and let me sleep on the couch cushions, on the floor. Beggars can’t be choosers, but, my spine was never straighter. And, I had an ocean view. Of his 200-gallon salt water fish tank.

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Soundtrack: I went for a 5km run through Cabbagetown with my ipod and stopped at Church and Wellesley to walk the rest of the block to cool down. I didn’t realize until that moment that I hadn’t even turned on my ipod. I had my ear buds in—but had so much white noise in my head that I didn’t even realize the music wasn’t on.

Winchester Street, Toronto, ON (September 2009—November 2010): Cabbagetown Chronicles

This place was so gorgeous that I convinced my ex long-removed to come live with me. It was $2000 and a stunner. Two brothers had renovated the hell out of the Cabbagetown Victorian and after seeing over 30 crappy rentals, this had to be it. There was a new shiny singing Samsung washer and dryer, heated floors in the bathroom, a claw foot tub to soak in and a magazine spread-worthy kitchen. There was even a bath tub in the backyard.

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Loved: All except that shower curtain sticking to my body in the fancy claw foot tub. Dog-sitting Marlon Brando.

Loathed: Putting together an Ikea Billy bookshelf with a butter knife until the brothers saved me and I plied them with beer (enough to encourage them to help assemble the Ikea dresser as well).

Soundtrack: “Heart of my Own,” Basia Bulat

Dalton Road, Toronto, ON (November 2009—January 2012): Living below a Sumo Wrestler

I said I’d never live west of Yonge. And no way—I’d never live in a basement. Or in a place without a backyard. But, this place—it was a deal-breaker, or maker I suppose. There was a pot-belly gas fireplace and an exposed stone wall. That’s what sucked me in. The ceilings posed a problem for my brother and dad (6’2), but, they could sit.

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I didn’t notice the rumble of the subway when I moved in, or the zero soundproofing between floors. Enter the tenant with cinder blocks for feet and her affection for Adele and YoYo Ma.

But, I was in the pounding heart of the Annex. Bloor Hot Docs Cinema, Book City, Future Bakery, Big Fat Burrito, shrimp chips and boiled chestnuts from Superfresh. Movie rentals at 7-24. The Wine Rack.

Loathed: No backyard. Cinder block tenant above. Those basement bugs that look like Colin Farrell eyebrows.

Soundtrack: Tucker Finn, on repeat. The best tunes to paint walls by.

Grand Ave South, West Galt, ON (January 2012—current): Tiger Balm and Crow Bars

Well, you know the love affair we have with our darling stone cottage here. We have been the caretakers of history. We have tended and calmed the Amazonia of the backyard. We have realized that we can spin a house around with a lot of sandpaper, Tiger Balm, love, trail mix, gallons of paint, Kim’s drill bits, CLR, crow bar, wood chips and beer.

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Next stop: Prince Edward County. Though I’m really sucked into the listing for a $9,950 white clapboard church in Coleman, Prince Edward Island.

Soundtrack: That annoying House Hunters decision-making backbeat…”What will Kim and Jules do???”

 

Thanks for traipsing through all the neighbourhoods of my personal Monopoly board. You should do the same. It’s the best place to get lost in your thoughts.

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Toronto Expats: Leaving the 416, 519–and onward to the 613

When you write, there is a literal paper trail that recounts a ticking heart, forgotten impulse and mindset. I was digging through emails, retracing our stone cottage purchase back in November of 2012. I wrote something about leaving my “beloved 416” area code sometime soon after that for Toronto Life magazine, though it went to a slush pile. All of it rings largely true (including the church bells in West Galt that sound off every hour). It reads like familiar, dog-eared diary pages–all that I still boast about is here.

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It’s no big secret that we want to pull our mini tap root here and plant ourselves in the clay loam of Prince Edward County. After reading Geoff Heinricks A Fool and Forty Acres, I kind of want to grow pinot noir grapes too.

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Everyday begins with a coffee and a scan of properties in the County. I cruise a little north to Meyers Island and Hastings, a little east to Napanee and Amherst Island, but, the County has a firm grip on us. Who knows? We might secure a woodsy plot of land and build something dynamic. We might just find that perfect church or abandoned school house or barn conversion. If it’s a water tower, a silo or a lighthouse or something off the cuff, or off the grid–we’re interested.

photo credit: realtor.ca

photo credit: realtor.ca

But in the meantime, come back to that ticking heart, impulse and frenetic mindset of 2012, when we boxed up our Toronto lives and became expats in a place with dew worm vending machines.

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It’s been two years (*three now at time of printing) since the U-Haul trundled down Spadina and pointed due west for the 519. I was leaving Toronto and my safety net of Banh Mi subs, Jimmy’s Coffee, utopian bookstores and Bloor Hot Docs Cinema. I looked at the gauzy skyline in the rear view mirror with equal parts trepidation and elation.

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I had somehow convinced my partner that our dream home was a 150-year-old stone cottage located in West Galt, Ontario. Despite being the handy, power tool-skilled one in the relationship, Kim had only lived in brand new suburban builds in commuter bedrooms like Oakville and Burlington. On the flip side, I was like a heat-seeking missile for “urban rentals with personality” in Cabbagetown and the Annex. I fawned over brownstones with Murphy beds, Victorians with claw foot tubs and beat-up hardwood floors. Places that needed work, and power tools.

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The stone cottage needed a little cosmetic love and affection, but not a reality show gut job. Painting wasn’t daunting for us; Kim and I have painted the equivalent of the Great Wall of China at a combined thirty-six addresses. We could do cosmetics. Maybe we’d replace the en suite shower in time and build a deck come summer. When the house inspector gave the structure an A+ and fawned over the repointing of the mortar and underpinning, we said yes.

In turn, Kim gave up the convenience of a garage and storage for her golf clubs and hockey bag. Her workshop had to move to the bedrock basement (at a height designed for Smurfs). I agreed to walking 8km to work while Kim would brave a 4:30am alarm to drive 45 minutes to the steel mill in Hamilton for a 12-hour shift. Negotiations were seamless.

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How West Galt became the marriage of both our needs and wants no longer puzzles our city circle of friends. In fact, they come to us—seeking somewhat of an organic internship (or, that’s what we deem it). We arm them with axes and wheelbarrows and push them into the jungle foray of perennials. Our property is like an all-inclusive experience for condo dwellers limited to growing cat grass and oregano in a window sill.

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We have become caretakers of history (with a little help from our friends) in buying the limestone and granite house that stonemason William Webster cobbled together on the Grand River in 1861. The carriage house still has a rusty hitch on the side wall where his horses would have been tied. The black walnut trees wouldn’t have been tall enough to provide any shade then. Webster probably planted them.

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My urban skin shed so quickly in Galt that I worried that I was in denial. What about those Banh Mi subs and pork-stuffed sticky buns on Dundas? Didn’t I miss the bleary-eyed chatter with the hung-over baristas at Jimmy’s about where and when we spent Saturday night?

I knew what I didn’t miss immediately—living in 700-square-feet with an upstairs tenant who apparently had cinder blocks for feet. Now I could fry up crab cakes and not climb into a bed under a duvet that smelled like the Atlantic Ocean due to the proximity to the kitchen. When you make butter chicken in close quarters, even the towels in the bathroom smell like curry. And Irish Spring.

We now have space to make curries without a trace, and a patch of terra firma that sees the shadows of trees, not high rises. Everything I thought I would miss was quickly replaced by exploring our adopted hometown. I felt like a modern day Chris Colombus when I “discovered” the stiff Americanos at Monigram’s Coffee Roasters. We’re just minutes from a microbrewery where we can grab growlers for under fifteen bucks and attend beer classes on stouts and porters. There is a tiny cheese shop, a Jamaican take-away and the library regularly screens selections from tiff.

All my boxes have been ticked.

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Kim and I eased into the groove of small town like chameleons. After the 24-hour neon rhythm of the Annex, it was initially odd to see downtown stores closed at 6pm, or shuttered on Sundays. In exchange we can slip into the Carolinian woods on the rail trail to our coveted picnic spot by the remains of the old German woolen mill at the river’s edge. If we ever decided to take up fishing, we even have a dew worm vending machine at the intersection of Parkhill and George.

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I thought we’d be back to the city bi-weekly, like boomerangs, desperate to fill the culture and gastronomy gap. However, more often, we are driving directly to the airport, not downtown at all. It’s difficult to leave this soundtrack. From the back deck we have front rows seats to a steady flight path of orioles, osprey and chatty cedar waxwings. Our yard vibrates with bumblebees and hummingbirds. Church bells sound on the hour and the haunting echo carries along the storied Grand.

Of course, I still pick up back issues of Toronto Life as a tether to the 416 I know and love, but, I’ve become a full-time ambassador for the 519 now.

(*Editor’s addition: that is, until we adopt 613).

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Sleeping Around Uganda

An African recap if you’re just joining the studio audience here: In 2008 I volunteered with the Jane Goodall Institute in Entebbe, Uganda for four months. I was responsible for editing a book on the tribes and totems of Uganda created by local children and members of the Roots & Shoots program. I illustrated and designed colouring books on the primates of Uganda and Rwanda, and quite frankly, had the time of my life.

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I first met Merryde Loosemore at the “Chimp House” (the Jane Goodall Institute headquarters in Entebbe where I also lived). Merryde owned the very posh Gately Inn just a 10 minute walk from our office. It became a favoured spot for Cobb salad, pad Thai, stacks of pancakes on Sunday and lovely Australian reds.

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The night we met, the Chimp House was full of various volunteers, coming and going—we covered all angles from Maine to Toronto to Australia. The universal tie was pizza that had been picked up for the crowd and tall Nile Special beers all around. Wagging dogs were afoot (Tinker, Levi, Scrappy) and even the Chimp House cats made an affectionate round. I had just arrived and was blinkered from the flight via Amsterdam. I hopped up to sit on the counter to take in all the accents and stories being swapped around me. Merryde made her way over and leaned between my legs, casually, as though we’d been friends forever. It oddly seemed that way, instantly. She had been a massage therapist in Chamonix Mont-Blanc (the Rhones-Alps region of southeastern France). She’d slept with the Bedouin (and unfortunately, scorpions) in Morocco. She had tromped around with gorillas in Rwanda and had relatives with a crocodile farm in Oz. I was hooked by her energy and tall tales—it was a soul-meshing night.

Which brings me to present day and returning to Uganda. It’s been 15 years since Merryde opened Gately on the Nile in Jinja and the sister property Gately Inn in Entebbe. It was seven since I’d gazed upon mighty Lake Vic. As Merryde was about to celebrate a landmark birthday in Australia in October, the timing was off for us to reunite in Africa. However, Kim and I would be staying at Gately, a place that is testament to the steely-nerved efforts and persistence of one resilient woman to own a successful boutique hotel chain in Uganda that catered to western appetites.

I told Kim we’d be rather ruined sleeping at the Gately properties at the beginning of our three weeks in Uganda. Aside from eating my way extensively through the Gately menus in 2008, I had also stayed at both hotels and knew of the opulence. Come see, and check out what it’s like to sleep around Uganda.

Gately Inn Entebbe

$269 double occupancy cottage, full board

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Entebbe has grown up remarkably from the dusty Russian pilot and UN outpost I remember it as. Gosh, a mall with all the mod cons is soon opening right across from Gately—with a Diesel store and McDonalds! Just a mile down Airport road there is now a KFC and IMAX. I couldn’t believe it—but, I also insisted that Kim and I and Gately’s manager, Helen, go to see Everest in 3D. The juxtaposition of seeing a 3D film about Mt. Everest in Entebbe floored me! (We skipped the bucket of KFC though.) The (also new) Victoria Mall even has a Nukamatt supermarket. To think, I’d squash into a crammed matatu and travel for an hour to the capital city just to buy bagels back then! Now bagels by the dozen (and donuts and Nutella and glossy mags) were a 15 minute stroll from the Chimp House and Gately.

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But, back to the hotel. What a sanctuary after 19 hours of flying from Toronto. The hot showers here are the type you can’t pull yourself out of. I know, it’s Africa, why are we having hot showers? I always do, even in the dead of summer. The towels were luxury, the linens and mattress all so dreamy after being curled up like a prawn on Ethiopian Airlines.

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Gately had even started bottling its own label of South African red wine. Fresh fragrant petals were strewn in colourful trails on the bed and table surfaces. Outside our cottage we had director chairs tucked just so, for optimal privacy. Our only visitors were sunbirds, dashing weavers, flitting butterflies and enthusiastic goodmornings from Jinja and Sippi, the Gately guard dogs. Plantain eaters gave belly laughs from above—these birds sound like monkeys—and there were monkeys too. From our gin and ginger perch we had a mini safari of marabou storks, hornbills and the odd Russian military plane.

The restaurant at Gately has a thoughtfully crafted menu—Merryde had long ago hired a Thai woman named Nee to teach the staff how to prep curries, spring rolls, pad Thai and traditional soups. The menu now has whopping Nile burgers (with an amazing coriander-yogurt dressing), chicken lollipops and fun pub fare like tilapia fingers. It’s all divine.

The Gately Inn in Entebbe is the perfect crash pad, located just 10 minutes from the airport. Sleep off the fog of the flight and you’re walking distance to the ferry dock for Ngamba Island (a chimp sanctuary for 48 orphaned chimps), the zoo, the botanical gardens (where Tarzan was filmed in the 30s) and Anderita Beach (though the hydroelectric dam project has eaten up most of the beach and the bars and restaurants along the edge of Lake Victoria now have only about a foot of sand). If you’ve read or watched the Last King of Scotland and are familiar with Idi Amin’s reign of terror (his ‘ethnic cleansing’ of Uganda in 1972 involved the mass expulsion of Asians from the country) you can visit the dilapitated hijacked Air France plane on Aero Beach.

When you are in Entebbe, make sure it’s on a Tuesday so you can check out the night market. Prepare to be inundated by vendors eager to sell you everything from fried grasshoppers to shoe polish to knock-off cologne to lace panties to catfish and eggplants. It’s a dizzying display of entrepreneurial work and a jaw-dropping amount of stuff that explodes and disappears a few hours later in the haze of kerosene and fried chicken smoke.

Gately on the Nile, Jinja

$255 US, double occupancy Lakeside Lodge, full board

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Back in the day (2008), you could get to Jinja in a semi-smooth two hours. Now you have to bank on four or five with all the congestion in Kampala. A four-lane highway development is on its way which will make for a convenient artery from Entebbe to Jinja, and the next place you should sleep.

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Gately on the Nile is a completely different entity in atmosphere and vibration. Jinja is a little more relaxed (despite being the adventure capital of Uganda). Expats and travellers tend to hang here a little longer, finding the likes of bookstores, avocado smoothies, a yacht club and pubs serving Guinness and Euro soccer matches on the big screen.

The Gately property, in particular the Lakeside Lodge, has a primo view of the Nile. The spiral staircase to the upper deck leaves you sharing air space with hawks and kite birds, catching a current. The bay below is busy with tilapia fisherman and charcoal delivery. At night, the water is illuminated by fishing boats, the lake seemingly full of fireflies.

At the lodge, Jinja and Sippi’s dog duty is taken over by the lovey-dovey Chili and Beavis. Ferocious if needed, they are also instant love balls off-duty.

Room seven (which is temptingly available long-term) is what we want our future master bedroom to look exactly like. Why? The exposed stone walls and cathedral ceilings—live edge double stainless sink counter top, panoramic windows that allow for birdwatching while you brush your teeth! There’s a soaker tub and an open shower (there’s nothing I love more than reckless showering—ie. No glass doors to squeegee!).

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Merryde’s stealth design and attentive eye to detail are evident in all her choices from the goat skin chair covers to the poofy read-a-book-here love seats and doors that open wide to the exotica outside. We want our house to be this floorplan exactly. With a darling dog like Chili.

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Must do: have the Gately staff arrange for a sunset cruise to the source of the Nile. You will see the fisherman casting their nets, egrets, weavers and a serious kingfisherpalooza in the reeds.

Murchison River Lodge

$255 for triple thatched safari tent, half board (dinner, breakfast)

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Located close to the Paraa ferry, just outside Murchison Falls National Park, the southern bank river lodge is the first place Kim and I have ever slept where a hippo escort is required. At night, lanterns illuminate the path to the restaurant and bar area. You can hear the hippos snorting and chatting at the water’s edge. At our tent’s edge! Our driver expressed concern when he saw our sleeping accommodations asking, “What if the hiphops break your tent?”

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We laughed at the bed arrangement for three. All the single beds were pushed together and Helen (Gately’s GM), who we had just met (though her and I had corresponded for months prior via email), was staying with us. “Helen, do you want the bed in the middle?”

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The shower was gorgeous, we each took turns moaning aloud with enjoyment at the HOT water and pure joy of showering with the hippo soundtrack.

That night the River Lodge staff had the grills busy with beef, chicken and lamb kebabs. We grazed on fried chapatti chips dunked in guacamole, the sun already down and stars taking their place. There was no music in the restaurant which so impressed us—there was no need with the squeak of bats and couckals.

Rest assured, when you are booking a thatched tent here, it is a stunner! Not the crappy canvas tent that I imagined, reeking of mothballs and wet dog (guess I was projecting childhood memories of our big circus tent that we slept in). And, this is bush country—don’t expect air conditioning and telly. Try oogling instead of Googling here.

Fort Murchison, near Murchison Falls National Park

$200 US, triple room, half board (dinner and breakfast)

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I love that we had to stop for elephants en route. Though we were outside the national park, the local wildlife didn’t get the memo. Even after leaving the park gate, we were still seeing bounding Ugandan kobs and duikers and ellies on the move.

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The Fort is located on the eastern banks of the Albert Nile. Designed to appear like a remote outpost for Arab traders, we indeed felt like we had traveled long and far, in need of rest and Swahili care. The four course meal was a complete surprise—I was expecting a line-up of starchy blobs, maybe a fish with it’s eye still intact. Oh no. The server was swift and brought us an avo-beet-olive and caper salad to start, a giant bowl of buttery leek and potato soup, followed by lemon butter tilapia (no eye, filet) on a bed of steamed cabbage and onion. There was a dessert too, but I was ready to undo my capris as is.

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The hippo soundtrack followed us here. We had a laugh over the bed arrangement again—Helen’s option looking like a child’s fort with a makeshift mozzie net. She was the one laughing in the morning. Kim and I could hardly breathe because our mattresses were like bedrock. Really, I couldn’t feel my ear for a good hour, or my arms, because they (not me) had fallen asleep from the slate pillow. Helen’s mattress was a dream—and as we creaked about, she smiled after so many hours of blissful REM not tossing and turning on bedrock.

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But, coffee in the morning at the Fort? Go up top and take it all in. Lizards skittled out to join us on the fort walls, enjoying the warming movement of the sun. We did too. The jasmine in the air, mixed with the coffee was something that can’t translate in a postcard home.

If you’re looking for a firm sleep, a place to eat like a sheik and a surreal cup of morning coffee, this is it.

The Dutchess, Fort Portal

$80 US per night, includes breakfast and BRIE!

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I’ve already bitched about the hell ride on public transport in the previous blog, so I won’t repeat myself. Instead, I’ll say the reward was in finding all the pleasures of the Dutchess versus the first rat-hole hotel we looked at on the main drag. It was dumpy, frumpy and the kind of place where you might go to end your life. Ugh. But, cheap. But, no thanks.

At the Dutchess, I knew goodness was in store when I saw fair trade coffee beans, brie and salami for sale in the lobby. An older gentleman seated outside the Dutchess when we arrived said we’d made a great decision, we wouldn’t be disappointed. We joked that he was probably the owner (he wasn’t).

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The rooms are contemporary, with flat screen televisions even! We had filtered water provided (such a treat as you can go broke buying water in Uganda) and there was a resto below serving eggplant pizza and croc ribs and shockingly cold beer.

The staff slogged our bags to the room and finally, we could use our Visa card! Note to travellers: you will find yourself travelling with uncomfortable sums of money because a) ATM’s are few and far between b) sometimes there is no money left in the ATM c) often your card will be rejected). The hotel has free wifi and for Luddites like us, travelling without tablet or cell, they have two computers for use downstairs.

The Dutchess is the best place to decompress if you’ve travelled the 5 hour leg on bus from Kampala. If you’re heading to Kibale, the walk to the matatu stop is 10 minutes away and you can stock up on picnic stuff in the lobby, or at the supermarkets nearby en route.

Breakfast is quite the affair—let me just say this, god bless Gouda and the Dutch.

Chimp’s Nest, Kibale National Park

$120 per night, cottage for 2, includes breakfast

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This was my birthday pick and we had booked the Chimp’s Nest on booking.com prior to leaving Canada. I loved the idea of a wood-fired shower and the balcony overlooking red-tailed monkey territory. The hotel offers on-site night forest walks (where we saw bushbabies and sleeping kingfishers) and, if you jump on a motorbike you can be on the boardwalk of the nearby Bigodi Swamp in just minutes. The 8km walk is astounding and a bird overload!

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We had the Chimp’s Nest to ourselves, really. Travelling on the edge of the shoulder season has become more and more attractive. We spent idyllic days on the stone deck of the lounge area, ate strange spag bol (served with coleslaw?) and stale bacon and tomato sandwiches that exploded like pinatas when you bit into them. But, crappy meals aside, everything else here was off the charts. I’d sit on the toilet of our open sky (yes, no roof Dad!) en suite and often be calling to Kim to come see the moth show on display. I’d interrupt a pee to grab the camera in case something magnificent took off too soon.

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For privacy, romance, killer cat naps, monkey watching, bushbaby stalking and storm chasing—stay here.

Ihamba Lakeside Safari Lodge, Queen Elizabeth National Park

$139 US per night, includes breakfast and hippo escort

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“Oh no, I’ve pulled a Sandra.” A few years ago my mom booked a night at a hotel in Scotland for a steal of a price. She couldn’t believe it—it was a castle with a lake view and she was surprised the drinking water didn’t have flecks of gold in it. That is, until she checked out and learned that the price in euros was PER PERSON, not total for the room.

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I double-checked my scrawled notes and I had written down $139 US per nite several times. Was it really $139 PER PERSON? I swallowed my panic and my beer even faster as Fred showed us the grounds, our private chalet, King bed and slipper tub where we could watch the hippos emerge from Lake George. There was coffee service in the morning—meaning, they would bring it with hot milk to our door, at whatever time we requested. Holy crap. There were robes and all the finery that made me sweat. Oh well, it would be worth it for one night.

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Again, we had the hotel to ourselves. It was just Kim and I at the pool, pretending that it was our very own villa. Philemon brought us Tuskers before we could finish the last of the first.

I finally worked up the courage to ask Julius about the payment on the sly. “So, what would our total for four nights be in shillings?” This way I could do the math (or Kim could) and we’d know if I’d pulled a Sandra in Scotland or not.

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It was $139 per night, per cottage, not per person. WOW.

Deluxe. “Ihamba” means ‘wilderness’ and you will find yourself plunk in the middle of it. Though there are nearby goats that cruise through too (including two that were eager to have a swim in the pool). Cattle graze close to the hippos and we were told, “Please watch for hippos at night and give them 7 metres distance.” Right, where’s my tape measure?

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This place is straight out of the pages of Conde Naste. For the best dose of relaxation after lion stalking at Queen Elizabeth National Park, go here. If you are travelling sans group, as we were, the staff can arrange a driver and safari for you ($150US plus park entry fees of $40US per day, per person).

Listen for the tambourine doves (they sound exactly like the spinning wheel on the Price is Right). Don’t miss the crispy golden beef samosas (I think Kim had them three nights in a row) or fiery eggplant curry. Watch the fishing boats slide out and edge into the horizon. Sit on that perfect balcony and watch the bishop birds and wagtails and go away birds until dusk swoops in because you’ll miss every bit of this place and scene and sound as soon as you leave it.

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So, isn’t it time you slept around Uganda?

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Under the Tusker Sun: Back to Uganda

I’ll blame it on my dad. Thirty years ago, CKPC, Brantford’s top radio station, was offering a free family pass to the African Lion Safari to the first caller. However, the lucky first caller also had to roar like a lion to officially win the pass. That was my dad, and roar he did at the savings and windfall!

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The African Lion Safari is a schmaltzy zoo slash theme park that once upon a time, allowed you to drive your own vehicle through the simulated game park. The experience was so authentic that many vehicles left the safari drive without windshield wipers. Oh and how the baboons loved the soft-top of the convertible ahead of us.

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As kids, this was a thousand times better than a visit to the zoo. We were temporarily transported to Africa, even though we were in sleepy Cambridge, Ontario. When Kim and I moved to the area my African Lion Safari fascination was reignited—so much so that I applied for a job there. They get swamped with applicants—the proximity to Guelph University means every vet student and their brother apply for animal keeper positions. I was thrilled to get a call-back, though they offered me a nightmare position. “We think you’d be best suited for a position dealing directly with the public. How would you feel about driving a 55-passenger bus, small train and boat?”

Yes, it was a job delusion of grandeur. I didn’t want to do any of those things, let alone with 55 crazed hyper cripes kids on board. I imagined having a breakdown and decimating the zebra herd as my monster bus veered off the game track.

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But, back to Africa, and the real thing. I first went in 2008, on a sabbatical of sorts. I didn’t even know where Uganda was at the time, but I applied to volunteer with the Jane Goodall Institute in Entebbe. The condensed version is, that despite my void of hard skills necessary for the job, they wanted me and I wanted them. After four months I was rather in love with Uganda and knew I would be back like a boomerang.

I’ve always said my life is more than circles—it’s a Spirograph. Returning to Africa was necessary, but I worried my shiny kaleidoscope of nostalgia might be tainted after years away from the pesky tsetse flies, dust and dodgy squat toilets. Kim had warmed to the idea (after the ebola headlines thinned), and our time in Zanzibar was a defining example of how awesome Africa was. Except this time—all the things I promised Zanzibar wouldn’t be (malaria zone, human snacking zone for big game), Uganda would be. I warned Kim of the honking chaos of Kampala, lukewarm or possible accidental raw sewage showers, starch-heavy lunches with rice, potatoes and fried yucca all in one serving, tsetse flies up her nostrils, ATMs with no money, matatu taxis packed like sardine cans with people and chickens and car engine. We would see it all, raw and uncensored. Zanzibar was soft Africa and the best starting block in my mind (because you know Madagascar is going to be part of the future scheming).

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To me, all this stuff is quintessential Africa—it’s a fine teetertotter between amazement and annoyance. But, it’s a small price to pay and endure for the rest: brilliant bee eaters in flight, trumpeting elephants, violent earth-rumbling sonic boom storms over Lake Victoria, trance-inducing sunsets on safari, cutting the engine just feet away from a hippo pod, the STARS in the squid ink black sky—so many it seems like one should be ready to pass out from lightheadedness. There will always be tsetse flies but there are also rainbows, falling right out of the sky and the spray of Murchison on our faces—and that thunder of the ages, the mighty Nile rushing ever forward.

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I knew everything Uganda would be—and it was, as reliable as a wagging Golden Retriever. Of course there were sticky logistics and long haul buses to Fort Portal that left our nerves shattered from hitting so many speed bumps at Indy 500 rates–thinking the plate glass bus windows were finally going to give way. Those coaster buses are like traveling on trampolines (think 70s velour covered in plastic with exposed rod iron arm rests. The matatus (mini-van sized taxis) are like involuntarily participating in a Dakar rally–with 23 people instead of the suggested 14. A woman breastfeeds, another eats an entire charred yam as big as a baseball bat with a purple soda (that explodes upon opening and showers half the bus, another dry-brushes her teeth. A dozen others are texting. Someone clips their nails. It’s just like the TTC I suppose. Oh, and then there was that time when the bus (with our packs on it) started to drive off while we were drinking a Tusker nearby. But that’s another story.

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I don’t even know where to begin or where to end with this blog post. We were in Uganda for three weeks and everyday was a sensory overload in the best possible way. The heady waft of jasmine, the wingbeat of hornbills landing just above our cottage, that first stiff coffee on the balcony at Ihamba Lakeside Lodge in a robe, hair slicked back and wet from the steamy rainfall shower.

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I get lost in the soundtrack. (Even the ever-present Lionel Richie hits).

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My tastebuds run through a hard drive of saved taste documents: crocodile ribs at the Dutchess, spicy Tangawizi ginger beer with a glug of gin at my friend Merryde’s brick-and-mortar dream-come-true boutique inn, Gately on the Nile. I taste it all—the foie gras and sweet onion jam that Gately’s manager (and our new precious South African friend) Helen pulled out from her cache for my/our birthday, and a bottle of aged  rum that spilled out stories as fast as nightfall.

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There were warm beers at makeshift bus stops, where the bus was actually the back of a motorbike. There were dreamy beds fit for Will and Kate and then mattresses that were the equivalent of sleeping on slate pool tables. Some of the pillows seemed to be filled with popcorn.

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But, every day was full of remarkable. When your day’s agenda is “look for lions.” Or, climb aboard boat at 3pm to the falls so you can watch the pastel sky catch fire with sunset. When research is kicking off flip-flops and rolling up t-shirt sleeves and spending an hour thumbing through a bird book to document over 30 species sightings in less than an hour—wow. This is living.

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The highlight reel must include our night walk at the Chimps’ Nest. With a guide and an armed guard (What? Charging forest elephants? Sorry Babe, missed reading about them), Kim and I enthusiastically followed the men deep into the woods and night. Though we were looking for bushbabies (which we did see), the greater thrill was finding three sleeping birds. We were within petting distance of a pygmy kingfisher, totally, blissfully asleep—even with three high-powered flashlights trained on his tiny breathing body.

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Random scene: Murchison River Lodge, Burchell’s couckals (known as the “rain bird”) are filling the dead quiet with their familiar and comical  “boo-boo-boo-boo-boo-boo.” The sinewy staff are lighting kerosene lanterns to illuminate the path to the bar and restaurant on the river’s edge. There’s the distinct and goosebump-eliciting muffle of hippos below. Africa’s most dangerous animal—they kill more humans than crocs or lions every year. But still, we choose to sleep in the cool thatch-roof canvas tents while they graze a few grass blades from our heads.

We eat fancy-pants like (lemon butter tilapia and beet with caper salads, pancake stacks with caramel honey, eggs Benny, pad Thai), we eat simply: packages of g-nuts (ground nuts), a few bruised finger bananas, an avocado as big as a football, a can of tuna.

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We float among saddle-billed storks, burpy hippos, Goliath herons and three tons of aggression—sunning crocs.

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Image: The weaving, open cinnamon road. Jade fields of sugarcane, Dr. Seuss-like papyrus, ancient mango trees and life: women carrying bundles of firewood for miles, girls with jerri cans balanced on their heads, young shirtless boys pushing bikes loaded with charcoal. Truly free-range chickens skittle here and there, goats bleat and buck around.

It’s fry-an-egg hot by 10am. Here’s where you get your solid dose of unbridled nature, the very best narcotic going. The roadsides are a blur of vendors, every Ugandan is an entrepreneur. The micro economy is thriving and built on bananas, cobs of corn, pyramids of used shoes, steering wheel covers, some plastic bags of g-nuts and sugarcane stalks.

That same road is like travelling on the moon—the craters threaten to swallow us up. Kim decides to golf in Jinja and finds similar terrain challenges in the termite mounds. Even the scorecard has rules about what to do if your golf ball ends up in a hippo footprint.

The Virgo moon is rising. There is a bonfire, a Burning Man fest worthy pyre. Can you see all this? There are wheelbarrows full of beautiful watermelons (non-GMO!), piles of ‘PUMAA and LAVI jeans’—a line-up of a dozen old school Singer sewing machines and dedicated seamstresses (men and women) at the wheel. A soccer match blaring on a surprisingly large flat screen. The lake flies are like snow flurries at dusk and fly in to your mouth faster than you can seal your lips around the safety of a beer bottle. By day, dragonflies with neon and hot red bodies take their place.

Can you smell this? Split chicken on open grills, chapatti dough being rolled out with an old chair leg and fried in a swirl of spitting oil. That wet, wormyfresh earth after a pounding rain where you inhale like a non-stop yoga class participant. And that sweet wood—like cinnamon sticks and pipe tobacco…

We move from extreme isolation, far from any flight-path or wi-fi. Our entertainment is Cirque de Soleil-ready red-tailed monkeys bouncing in the tree limbs across from our cabin. We move into the capital city of  Kampala and the taxi park that is bigger than a football field and a woman walks past with a loudspeaker ATTACHED to her head. A boda boda (moto taxi) edges past with a bunk bed as cargo. ON a motorcycle. People walk with crates of eggs piled six trays high on their head. With live chickens slung over their shoulder, flapping away.

But back to the beauty: flame trees, hot orange tulip trees, lemongrass. Verdant fields of tea and coffee seedlings being nursed. Big horned ankole cattle—and then over a hundred men, distant, all in yellow jumpsuits. We’re told it’s a farm prison. We pass several and shake our heads at the manual toil that our combines and tractors would till in a day.

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We see everything—elephants parading across the road, a dominant male hippo killing a newborn, a young boy with a machete, angry and seething–threatening our guide Owen in his tribal language (“if you come back tonite, I will cut you!”) Owen told us we shouldn’t buy the small clay crafts the boy had run out to sell us. “He is skipping out of school. This is not good. You shouldn’t buy from him, as it will encourage him to not learn.” We pass by a woman hoeing in a field. She waves at us wildly and makes the universal symbol for “give me money.” Owen says “she is dumb. I mean, she doesn’t talk or hear.

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Kids run out to us at all angles. Yes, some ask for money (why not?). Some just want to touch our white skin (though Kim is as dark as a coconut husk). They trace our tattoos with curious fingers. They want to have their pictures taken—again and again. Many haven’t seen themselves, ever. Kim gives the kids a lesson on using binoculars, though half the group of 40 crowd out the kid who is also being mosh-pitted from behind eager for a turn. I’m sure all he can see is the fuzzy eyeballs of the kid hanging on to the other end of the binoculars.

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The days are pure adrenalin. Your blood begins to feel like warm Red Bull. When you see a leopard with a fresh kill and a mighty fish eagle with talons clutching TWO fish, it’s just pinch-me, kick-me territory.

It’s more than a blog here, it’s a book. Or, a few nights by a fire with a bottles of wine and our stack of matte photos. Then you could feel the goat-skin sheath of the knife we bought in your hands. The cool soapstone of the globe that so represents us (where next?). The warm leather and rough pages of the bound book, the continent of Africa burned into the belly of it. A found feather that once glided on the currents of equatorial air.

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The flashbacks are steady and lovely. Like a pile of favourite Polaroids, familiar and memorized. Our routine was this: books, binoculars, (beer), barefoot, being. We’d read a few chapters in the dying light nursing gin-laced lemon Crest, feet balanced on gum poles. One of us would spot the tuxedo-wearing lapwing or point to a Go Away bird (really, such a great name!). We’d smile at the bats, almost serenading us, signalling the near end of another spoiled African day. Fireflies would emerge, the low frequency of crickets would suddenly be turned on high. Chain lightning would soon streak the sky like a Stones concert.

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As we drank our last coffee with hot milk at Ihamba, on the edge of Queen Elizabeth Park, in the still of the morning, the sun sliding higher in the sky, Kim said, “don’t forget these sounds.”

I can’t. And I know Kim won’t either.

Which means we should probably start planning a trip to Botswana.

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The Cottage Montage: The Summer House at Argyle Shores, PEI

We always wished we had a cottage growing up. I’m not sure where the notion came from because we didn’t know anyone that had one. We’d never been to one—until the soupy summer a motley crew of extended family ended up at a hunting shack of sorts near Orangeville. It belonged to perhaps a great uncle? What I do remember is that it was a wood panelling special of the 70s with zero fanciness. A Stephen King set at best. My sister cried because there was no TV. It was so dark during the day you needed to turn the lights on (with your sleeve pulled over your hand, lest a tarantula or wall-climbing snake attacked–) and it smelled like my aunt’s wet cocker spaniels and gorgonzola. Though, I probably didn’t know what gorgonzola was at age 8.

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Luckily that experience didn’t cloud my shiny cottage future. I am still attracted to the lazy lifestyle, mesquite and marinade-heavy menu and wet dogs that are generally synonymous with cottages. I read Cottage Life as though I own one. We watch Sarah’s (Richardson’s) Cottage and hatch design plans. I like the intense Canadiana behind them, the Hudson Bay swag, the antlers, the ships in bottles, the mismatched cutlery, the ambitious “learn astronomy” plans via a clunky telescope, the bird guides at the ready, the bags of potato chips, tchotchkes, Scrabble boards missing “Q” and cards stuck together by a long-ago root beer mishap.

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It’s a glorious departure from rules, diets, schedules, traditional exercise, Netflix and sophisticated reading (bring on the Judy Blume, gossipy mags and summer fluff). Itineraries revolve around the sun, shade, gin runs and the shift from the dock to feeding a fire long into the night.

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Kim and I decided that we’d spin our annual trip east to visit her parents in Prince Edward Island from the norm. Also, selfishly, we couldn’t imagine sleeping on her parents new pull-out couch again. We’ve renamed that cursed thing the Taco. It envelops you in the night, pressing its coils into your hips and ribs until you find yourself trapped in the mattress valley. The only thing that falls asleep in the Taco are my arms and legs, not me.

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To avoid the Taco accommodations, a cottage just made sense. Since Kim’s parents downsized to a condo, Murder She Wrote can be heard from any inch of the square footage. Also heard at 6:30 am: Kim’s mom unloading the dishwasher, vaccumming and tending to the recycling—directly beside the Taco room. The reprieve is the balcony, though it is skinny. Dominated by geraniums, if four people are on it at once, you have to sit like you are riding a bus, in a line, straight across.

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So, we rallied the siblings with the cottage concept and booked the Summer House near the Northumberland Straight in Argyle Shores. In addition to Kim’s brother, sister, brother-in-law—we’d be possibly entertaining 100 people for their parents’ 60th wedding anniversary on the Sunday. When we innocently placed a “Anniversary Cake and Coffee Reception” ad in the Stratford church bulletin, we had no idea that it was circulated to three other churches! Had we just invited the entire island? I had visions of a Papal visit—except it would be Kim and I waving to the masses from the cottage balcony with a bbq flipper and Rolling Rocks.

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We did have enough baked goods to feed all the disciples for sure. Judy, Kim’s mother, has a freezer routinely packed solid with Amish friendship loaves. She triple wraps them in foil and at first glance, they look like dozens of cocaine bricks. And then there are the oatmeal raisin cookies, cinnamon pinwheels and biscuits to be drizzled with molasses. Her ‘granola bars’ are chocolate bars in disguise. Her bran and date muffins are delicious laxatives in muffin wrappers. She is like a factory outlet of baked goods.

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We arrived at the Summer Garden Summer House in two vehicles (50% of the load being pastries). Gail and Joe Kern, the cottage owners, embraced us in true Maritime style—with hugs. We later learned that the ‘retired’ couple were part of WWOOF—World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms. The organization has created a network for travellers with a back-to-the-land curiosity with outposts from New Zealand to the Netherlands. In exchange for 30 hours of work on the farm (which can involve everything from sheep shearing to fruit tree pruning), WWOOFers get a snug place to sleep and often, meals included.

Gail and Joe were pure loveliness, inviting Kim and I in for a glass of wine and conversation on a few occasions. They’d stop dead in their tracks, regardless of what they were doing to ensure that we were okay or help better our stay.

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Now, if only they could build tiny mosquito machine guns. They were vicious and travelled in a cloud in Argyle Shores. Gail and Joe had long adapted and succumbed to permanently wearing mozzie shirts with the hoods—startling us at first as we thought angry beekeepers or fencers had found us in the woods.

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The Summer House was just as it appeared online—which was an enormous relief. Kim and I know only too well about misleading hotel pictures, i.e. Alexandria, Egypt where the bed looked like a body was stuffed under the mattress. It was actually humped up like a turtle shell. The room that was supposed to have a King bed, en suite and malecon view but instead had three single turtle beds and a bathtub down the hall that was so rusted and ringed you’d have tetanus or hydrophobia or something after spending any time in it.

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But, back to the Summer House. The sun was actually shining—the skies were indigo blue (the only time this happened during our week there)—Kim and I were ready to move in, forever. There was a jar of homemade organic granola on the counter, PEI organic coffee beans, a jar of honey from nearby Canoe Cove. The fridge was stocked with cartons of orange juice and milk. The bathroom had verbena soaps that left you smelling like a slice of lemon meringue pie. There were red clay and kelp soaps from Moonsnail.

Kim’s mom quickly set up shop in the kitchen, assessing where all the pots and pans were. The cottage even came with an oyster shucker!

All the cottage staples were here—books on sea glass, lighthouses, fishmonger memoirs, Maritime cookbooks, dominos, kites, Chatelaine magazines, wildflower guides, a baseball glove, a kite. The DVD collection covered my top ten classics from Steel Magnolias to The Big Chill. Judy and Earl were rest assured to learn that the satellite picked up Murder She Wrote and Coronation Street. Whew. It would be a merry time after all.

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Base camp was gorgeous. The view was rolling jade, many mornings the fog hung in the fields like low-lying clouds. Hummingbirds jetted around the deck, a token fox streaked past.

And it rained. Like, for 36 hours straight. The mottled sky brightened to an elephant grey during the cake and coffee affair. Thankfully not all of the devout church attendees who received the bulletin came to the cottage. It was a very full house though, full of that east coast unity and bloodlines that knot as tight as moored ships.

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While the Kenny’s carried on with euchre and bridge games, maintaining stamina with Clamato and boxed chocolates, I ran to the shoreline, red dirt streaked on my calves. Like Ireland, the rain and moody skies of PEI seem to make the place all the more authentic.

The roadside was dotted with burnt orange bursts of devil’s paintbrush, coltsfoot, yarrow and purple tufted vetch. Only the ravens carried on as per usual in the soggy afternoons.

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Nearing the end of our stay we tripped out to Victoria-by-the-Sea (a twenty minute pastoral drive). The year-round population of the village is just under 200—how ideal! Though the 2% chance of sunshine and 98% chance of bitchy mosquitoes is off-putting.

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We did as tourist brochures dictated and visited the Island Chocolate shop, Red Sand studio and The Studio Gallery. We tried the potato fudge for $1 and ordered deep fried bar clams with horseradish aioli at the Lobster Barn Pub.

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We drank blueberry beer with Homer the cat at the Landmark café curling and poked around the lobster traps at the marina. As rain pelted down I quickly snapped a picture of PEI’s biggest tree (an American Elm with a circumference of 21 feet!).

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The Summer House Summer Garden was as a cottage should be. A place quickly entrenched deep in our minds, a place to drift to with a smile, in the moments before sleep.

Even if it’s in the Taco, or on a turtle-shaped mattress.

Wanna stay? Check out the cottage availability. $150/night for 4 guests, $15 plus HST for additional guests.

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Fronterra Farm Camp Brewery: Intelligent Camping in Prince Edward County

I love camping and the joie de vivre that comes in the form of flaming marshmallows, ankles sticky with insect repellant and scorched weenies stabbed on a foraged stick. Lately though, falling to sleep on an inflatable mattress makes me instantly dream of chiropractors. We’re not even being authentic anymore with the maxi pad thin two ounce inflatable Thermarest—now it’s the big fat double blow-up and a circus show attempt to wedge it inside the two-man tent. Which is like head-butting a Sumo wrestler slick with butter into a phone booth.

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When I first sniffed out the Fronterra Farm Camp Brewery website, I knew that I had found Intelligent Camping at long last. We’re talking canvas prospector tents that you can walk around in—none of this on-your-knees, hair-teased-up from the two-foot high nylon ‘ceiling’ of the tent like you’ve run a balloon wildly back and forth over your head. The Fronterra tents are tall enough for a basketball net (a trampoline even)—they have wood floors, a King bed, armoire, distressed leather couch and arm chair for crying out loud. Woodsy sensibility. Frontier living for those who like the spoils too.

Though we were still sorting laundry and knocking the brick red dirt of Prince Edward Island out of our shoes, Kim and I decided to head back up to Prince Edward County, our future homeland, for a real estate prowl. I was stuck on Fronterra’s luxury tent renderings—we’d have all the accoutrements of camping without the backache! Yes, we could camp at Sandbanks Provincial Park for $40 a night, but $185 seemed reasonable to me for a fabricated but authentic pioneer experience. You could probably still earn a Girl Guide badge. And snore away in a King bed.

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Somehow we hacked Fronterra’s online booking system. I was thrilled that we could nab a tent for Canada Day so last minute. I couldn’t type in our credit card info fast enough. A day later the call came—Jens and Inge, the founders of Fronterra, expressed concern. Somehow we had beat the system and had been able to book two nights despite the reservation blocks they had put in place. Fronterra had been socked in by rain and efforts to get the tents up and the kitchens and shower tricked out with running water had been stalled. Jens had been dumping wood chips everywhere (repurposed from Ontario Hydro tree fellings), like sandbags, to absorb Mother Nature’s pissy June attitude. Their intention to open the first week of June was foiled by soupy woods. We understood—we had been rained on every single day in PEI too.

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“We can offer you the tented lodge with kitchen and en suite the first night—but on night two, we are double-booked. You could stay in the second tent, without water and toilet—for free. We insist, that is, if you still want to come.”

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Kim and I didn’t flinch—it was a no-brainer, YES! We quickly recounted all the places we’d slept without such amenities—although the Posada Jasayma in Tayrona National Park, Colombia somehow found a toilet seat for us that we didn’t question. How do you find a toilet seat in the jungle?

When we arrived at Fronterra owners Jens and Inge (and burbling baby Eska in a candy-cane striped onesie) embraced us as though we had travelled across the Prairies on horseback for months. Their enthusiasm was contagious. They apologized profusely for the rain and the muddy track. Inge offered to shuttle us back and forth in her Subaru Crosstrek (or, we could go with Jens on the tractor to get really farmy); all to save the Saab from a Dakar Rally-type mud bath. Kim was happy to take advantage of the shuttle. In the near future guests will be able to drive directly to a lot near the tents—just a 400m walk with a pushcart along the meadow of tufted vetch, Queen Anne’s Lace and flitting swallowtails. Hardly an effort.

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We walked down to the tents first, to take it all in as intended. The world’s greatest migration of mosquitoes had arrived and greeted us with a full-face assault. Had they had followed us from PEI where they threatened to leave us anemic? Relentless rain and bitchy mosquitoes are elements that can’t be neatly arranged and we gave up on capris and flip flops for mosquito unfriendly wear—hoods and jeans and eau de OFF.

I loved our voluntary solitary confinement immediately. If you have ever camped at a provincial park in Ontario, you know that ‘camping’ is a non-stop parade of cars, accidental car alarms going off, music, people yapping like their tent walls are made of brick—basically, everyone carrying on as they would at home, but somewhat more obnoxiously. All through the night, the call of a whip-poor-will is interrupted by someone with a saggy air mattress that needs to be plugged in and re-poofed. Beer bottles are clanking, someone laughs like Woody Woodpecker—the idyllic moment is being shared with 300 people, 5 barking dogs, 6 crying kids and a dozen couples ready for divorce.

At Fronterra, there’s 50 acres of SPACE. At week’s end, Jens assured the second tent would be complete, with plans to construct the third and create three top-shelf suites for the summer of 2015. The ambitious future plan is 10 prospector tents and (spoiler alert) if permits and karma allows—perhaps a floating tented lodge in the bay that their property snugs up against. Since their stay at the Four Rivers floating lodge in Cambodia during a year of unbridled travel pre-Eska, the gusty, life-by-the-bullhorns couple have been long-scheming and wildly inspired. Spin the globe and randomly pick a spot—Jens and Inge have been there. From Ethiopia to New Zealand to zany spa treatments involving electroshocks in Budapest. They’ve migrated from Fernie, BC (Jens) and the Laurentians (Inge) and found gorgeous common ground amongst the ironwoods, the foundation for their vision in Prince Edward County.

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The heritage-minded accommodations are just a quarter of the dream. The permaculture gardens are lush with over 160 heirloom veg and edible flowers. They have chickens laying dozens of eggs to keep campers’ cast iron griddles snapping with fried huevos.

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Jens, keen on retracing the Barley Days route, has planted a crop of hops with the intent to build an on-site brewery where guests can experience the entire plant to pint process. Better yet—there’s talk of fly-fishing lessons, a beer-centric spa and molten hot saunas! Kim and I have already signed up for the beer workshops of the future—an intimate experience that I know will be engaging with Jens at the helm. This guy can move swiftly from settlement history to knot-tying to Bolivia to plumbing issues to stouts and fire starting.

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Visiting Fronterra in the future will be a total immersion in simplicity, learning, self-sufficiency, being, recalibrating. Jens hopes guests will disconnect, but, solar power to recharge will be available.

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All the frills are here. The private open sky showers (inhale cedar boards deeply here) are hot enough to boil lobsters. There are super plush towels and lavender-studded bars of Scottish milled soap. And, to Kim’s hair-styling delight—a mirror!

Nature’s alarm clock is at the ready—woodpeckers are knocking at dawn. Dusk is a fireball sunset show as the sun filters its honey beams through the woods in front of the tents. Fireflies emerge on cue—an entire day passes with just birds and hunger as beacons.

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We felt very Farley Mowat. That is, if Farley ever made guacamole with just-plucked cilantro from the gardens. Or, foraged with a beer (as seen in photo above). Maybe more Les Stroud—like, lazy Les Stroud, with a lighter and a stack of wood from our shed drier than Chelsea Handler’s humour.

For the urbanite not wanting to invest in camping equipment (because it’s not just a tent and sleeping bag—it’s a domino list of stuff from clothespins to Coleman stoves to water jugs and coolers), you can almost cheat by ‘camping’ at Fronterra. The kitchen is stocked with all the essentials—cast iron pans, strainer, Wiltshire knives, bottle opener, wine and beer glasses, ice box (cooler), a bodum…just bring a stick of butter, ice and a few bottles from Karlo Estates and The Grange.

The only disappointment during our stay at Fronterra was my coffee-making skills. I’ve been too far removed from my bodum days in Toronto. Do you think I could figure out the perfect coffee-water ratio? I made dreaded coff-tea (ie. Is this coffee or is it tea?) two days in a row—even with the most robust Nicaraguan beans going. As a last ditch effort (after watering nearby undergrowth with the crappy hot beige water) I tried Wolfgang Puck one-cup coffee sachets (like tea bags). Worse. Suggestion: learn bodum ratio or, go to Tall Poppy in nearby Wellington for a Phil & Sebastian drip and round it out with a cinder block brownie or lemon square.

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Crappy coffee aside, the unexpected thrill was Inge picking us up at their farmhouse to shuttle us to our site with a bucket of chilling Veuve Cliquot strapped into the front seat (baby Eska strapped in the back—both precious cargo). Jens and Inge were so nervous that all the elements out of their control (ie. Dakar Rally entry to camp, no official signage (yet), oppressive mosquitoes, lack of running water or toilet on our second night) would disappoint us. They wanted to ensure that we had the ultimate experience—one we would brag about to friends. They wanted to create a place and time that we would yearn to return to. Done!

The champagne was popped  (we all voted against sabrage-style) in front of the handsomely constructed tent as the sun lowered her belly in the treetops. This dream had been nearly 10 years in the making. Earlier, I had asked Jens about the copper band that he wore just above his elbow. He told us it was a daily reminder, to keep his promise…something he had committed to in Ethiopia a decade ago. This was it.

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As glasses were filled, Inge told us that we were their very first guests. Ever. How often does that happen? I’d been to Jimmy’s coffee shop on the opening day and some launch party for a bar on Queen West—but, to be the first ever guests to sleep in the prospector tents? I loved that we had become an integral part of the camp’s history and guaranteed long lineage.

Joie de vivre, joie de Veuve. The generous spirit and infectious dream-chasing of Jens and Inge is something to marvel. Go sleep there. Talk to them about living dreams out loud. They’ve created something beautiful—and lucky for us, they’re sharing it.

Fronterra Farm Camp Brewery–Go!

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Microadventure: Prince Edward County

Have you ever worried that maybe you’ve over-romanticized a place? Did nostalgia and gauzy honeymoon love make it something it wasn’t?

The last (and only time in this decade) that Kim and I were in Prince Edward County was a miserable September weekend in 2010. The skies were bruised with clouds and rain spit on us the entire time. Winter felt like it was breathing down our tanned summer necks too soon. We drove around the County on a whim with a crude map and followed even cruder signs to the emerging wineries in Wellington. We hadn’t booked a hotel and spent a few hours backing out of B&B’s with no vacancy, crappy panelled cottages that smelled like wet dog and instant coffee and lacklustre waterfront hotels. The Waring House was the perfect weather shelter with a Jacuzzi tub and on-site pub (check, check!).

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We loved PEC from the get-go, despite the drizzle and slop. It’s hung in the recesses of our mind like a retired jersey. There was a hesitation we were nervous to address. What if it wasn’t what we painted it to be? (And, in our nostalgic minds, all the colours–oils even–were streaked across the canvas like fireworks). What if we were just glassy-eyed from Malbec and our proposed area of relocation was a lunchbox letdown?

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Whew. Crisis averted. We are even deeper in the love quicksand now with our pastoral affair. We picked up a stack of local glossies and real estate guides before lunch. I was already in fast-forward mode, dog-earing pages, telling Kim about the local farm where we could go see alpacas get sheared. September was the big cheese festival in Picton. In the fall we could go to the observatory and help band migrating saw-whet owls. We could sleep in prospector tents and learn how to make beer and pluck our own greens at Fronterra.

Yeah, hooked.

The County is vibrating with everything from leggy wines to sausage makers to beekeepers to lavender fields. The entire area is perfumed by lilac forests. There are cutesy post offices, tiny library branches, bike trails and independent bookstores (wow!). Kim pictured us stand-up paddle boarding and walking the 49km Millennium trail end-to-end with some re-fuel stops offering Brut.

The thing is, PEC is a hotbed of creativity. Everyone here is chasing a dream or already sinking their teeth into it. There are countless galleries, colourful cafes, bike shops and over 40 wineries. There are bed and breakfast owners building octagon-shaped homes with straw bale insulation. North America’s first off-grid vineyard is here. Karlo Estates is North America’s first vegan certified winery. Stuff is going on. People network here and know each other by their dog and beat-up pick-up. The passion is tangible—this is a community populated with a surplus of talent, knowledge, nerdy obsessions and ambition. We want to live there.

There’s a silent handshake in PEC, a collective agreement to help buoy everyone in full dream pursuit. The very land is appreciated for its bounty and I believe, will be protected at all costs from wind turbines or horizon-clotting high rises. As we drove from Carrying Place to Bloomfield, we noticed several barn walls acting as open-concept galleries.

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The Barn Quilt Project was formed in late 2013 in recognition of Ontario’s disappearing landscapes: old timber-frame barns and farms. The movement kickstarted in Ohio in 2001, and has had a bucolic ripple effect. There are over 60 ‘barn quilts’ across the County, most measuring eight square feet. Pulled from traditional quilting patterns, the design of a single quilt block is painted on MDO (medium density overlaid) plywood. They create a true rambling outdoor gallery—you can even pick up a map and follow the trail.

Kim gushed over all the leaning barns—all that precious barn board! Her woodworker brain was on fire with possibility.

Obviously, as owners of a 153-year-old stone cottage, we pride ourselves in being caretakers of history. Seeing neglected barns being repurposed as gallery spaces, airbnb hotspots and wineries is a full circle win.

The Owl’s Nest B&B

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For our microadventure, we had very micro time to suck up the macro scenery and scout out real estate. Our home base was the Owl’s Nest B&B in Carrying Place. Janna and Jake have created a homesteader chic suite amongst the stands of lilacs. The welcoming committee are Pajamas and Slippers (not to put on, but they will be on you). The dogs are as affable as the owners who immediately invited us in to check out their main living quarters (wow!). Janna was quick to write out her faves in the area (I love when residents are such proud ambassadors) and we liked the idea of beer-battered perch at the Agrarian in Bloomfield. Ten years ago there was talk of the “100 Mile Diet.” Here? It’s the 10 mile diet, or, one mile with the owners sourcing as close to the restaurant as possible. (There’s even a market downstairs from the Agrarian where you can stock up on hotel room charcuterie and cheese.

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We dumped our bags inside the Nest (not before grazing on half a Mason jar of complimentary house made granola studded with cashews and dried apricots). The fridge was generously stocked with milk, cream, OJ, fresh eggs, strawberry preserves and half a loaf of whole wheat bread. In the freezer there were black bean and egg breakfast burritos laced with cheese and chili if we wanted—yes! We needed more time to eat!). The space is the perfect crash pad with coffee, tea, hot cocoa, toaster oven and stove top. It’s a B&B but without that awkward morning situation of small talk with other guests, or sleepily conversing with owners. You’re in charge of breakfast here.

The shower is a rainfall dream (Janna, a mad potter, has tricked out everything in clay here–from the shower tiles to the lamps to the coffee mugs), the bed a total cloud to sleep upon. The extras are all here: a selection of herbs, hot Dijon, soya sauce (for the sushi set), a small cooler for daytrippers, flashlights, bug spray, live clean body lotion, alba honeydew shampoo and a fun collection of books. The categories were a jumble—everything from philosophy to carnival worker memoirs, The World According to Gorp to How to Knit Your Own Dog.

I’m skipping ahead, but, I’m the writer here, so I’m in charge. That night we had a laugh going through Janna and Jake’s in-house DVD collection. What a gender blend of The Family Guy and the Sopranos to Bellydance Techniques, Yoga by Candlelight, Sex in the City, Fleetwood Mac in concert and Terminator. (We settled on Sideways as the vino-centric movie seemed appropriate and necessary viewing).

We were totally kitted out at the Owl’s Nest and hated to leave the zen-oozing grounds, but…

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Kim and I have a picture on the bedside table of us in the just-opened barn studio space of Karlo Estates from 2010. The upstairs loft was full of easels and paintings in various stages. The surrounds made you want to paint alpacas and inhale (not the paint—it smells like history and legend at Karlo).

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In 2010 we bought a bottle of Malbec that was like drinking red brick and horse blankets. Nothing has come close since. We drank it back in my Annex apartment by the fire, probably listening to Jann Arden and Tucker Finn on repeat. We celebrate a lot of things, chronically, so, the occasion in particular that made us open the bottle is amiss, but, it’s reassuring to know that in the near future we’ll be in closer proximity to the liquid velvet that they bottle.

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When we walked in to the tasting room I tried to not be all teenage-girl-Justin-Bieber-screamer-like, and elbowed Kim as we passed Doug Gilmour. Doug Gilmour! My dad is still envious that I met Janet Jones (Gretzky) back in highschool (skipping out before exams to go for Shirley Temples at Callahan’s). She signed my fluorescent pink Vuarnet t-shirt and I think my dad paid me $20 bucks for it. Still has it too. Crap, I should have had Doug sign my tee or blot me with red wine.

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Calm, cool and as collected as early morning wine tastings allow you to be, we allowed congenial Karlo staff member Liza to walk us through a proper tasting with Little Bug, the resident Karlo cat, curling around our wine glasses. The nibbles here really put the other wineries in the dust. Liza paired the flight with varietal IQ, laughter, asiago, cheddar, bleu, garlic stuffed olives and fat walnuts. The Sangiovese took my first place ribbon while Kim leaned toward the cab franc and Quintus blend. The VanAlstine white port (yes, there is such a divine thing) with a bite of bleu cheese was a surprising encounter. Fireside, lakeside, bedside, anywhereside, this port-style wine is like Riesling’s sweeter and sexier cousin.

And then, you know, sometimes it is about being in the right place at the right time, with garlic breath from that garlic-stuffed olive that seemed great at the time. With a Cheshire cat smile, Doug pulled us into his circle with a generous pour and  introduced us to his sophisticated line-up of Gilmour Wines: Corazon (“heart” in Spanish– a broad-shouldered tobacco and dark chocolate red), Orus (“leader”—think tangerine, silk, melons and meadows), and, your new summer prerequisite: Maddison (named after his daughter) rose. This one is the al fresco ticket.

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We left Karlo knowing that we’d had a rare sneak peek on the dynamic partnership between co-founder and owner Sherry Karlo and Doug. Why be legendary in just one niche (Sherry is a visual artist with serious accolades while Doug and his #93 Leafs jersey need little intro.)? Even rock ‘em-sock ‘em hockey player Kim would agree that a sun-soaked vineyard and conversation over pinot grigio is a palatable transition from the adrenalin and sweat-choked arena locker room (Though Doug still hangs out near the ice, coaching the Kingston Frontenacs.)

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Somehow we squeezed in The Grange, Three Dog Winery and smoked meat sandwiches with briny pickles at the Agrarian. We’ll have to return for the beer-battered perch on a bun (sold out). The place transforms into a speakeasy on weekends—another reminder of the ever-present coolness of the County.

Before turning homeward bound (a three hour slog), we drove around Consecon and Fish Lake, Ameliasburgh, Sophiasburgh (and a few other burghs) nodding in agreement that we’d be mentally well-nourished and stimulated in the County. We’re ready to take pastoral to the next level. Yes, there will be rosemary growing, beehives abuzz and, one of us will probably be glassblowing in no time. This is what happens here.

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So, now we just need a place with a sumptuous sunset view, on some body of water (pond, lake, creek), maybe walking distance to a winery and wood-fired pizza oven. Polished cement floors with radiant heating, a Japanese soaker tub, some Carrera marble, fieldstone fireplace, loft bedroom, bookshelf with one of those sliding ladders, a Wolf stove, a workshop that is a little taller than Smurf-height for Kim, floor-to-ceiling windows that retract and open up to a cedar deck and that above-mentioned mill pond, lake, burbling creek…that’s all.

We definitely need a place with an outdoor fire pit so we can look up at those stars and watch them realign as they always do for us.

Stay tuned.

Categories: Passport Please, Sip That | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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