Hello from Vancouver (3) – The Grouse Mountain Experience

No visit to Vancouver could be complete without a real mountain experience. So after covering the Servas conference I left at 2 pm for downtown. To get to Grouse Mountain was quite an experience in itself, I got to take 2 buses downtown, then I boarded Vancouver’s light rail rapid transit system, the Skytrain, which runs underground downtown, just like a subway. Then I hopped on the Seabus, a regular ferry that connects downtown with North Vancouver. Buses were waiting for passengers right when the ferry docked and I jumped on the #236 which takes you right to Grouse Mountain, passing the famous Capilano Suspension Bridge. At the base of Grouse Mountain I entered into another means of transportation: the Skyride, a 6 minute gondola / tram ride to the main complex at the top of the Mountain.Grouse Mountain is also called the “Peak of Vancouver”, and it offers recreational possibilities all year long. The elevation at the top is 4100 feet and in the winter Grouse offers 22 runs for skiers and snowboarders as well as 13 lit runs for night-skiing. The top base of the gondola features a fine dining restaurant, contemporary dining, a more casual cafe as well as a gift shop and a store called “Outfitters” that provides all sorts of outdoor gear. The dining areas have sweeping views of the city all the way down to Washington State.I decided to check out the mountain attractions and walked past a number of huge wooden carved statues, finally arriving at the Lumberjack Show. Two young strapping lads go at it in a variety of woodsman’s competitions, including target throwing of a double-sided axe, aiming for the bull’s eye, speed-sawing competitions involving a single-handled saw and later a speed-sawing contest with a double-handled saw that includes 2 female audience participants.There is all sorts of humorous competitive banter between the two guys, all coordinated by a female emcee that tries to keep the (staged) competition under control. Then the 2 young lumberjacks climb 2 large poles where they have to ring a bell at the top and of course only one of them can be a winner. The show climaxes with one of the lumberjacks being pushed into what appears like a deep well, water splashing out of the well as he apparently hits the liquid. Then the other lumberjack tosses a stick of dynamite into the well, followed by a big bang and a huge splash of water that reaches the front rows of the audience, usually accompanied by some socks or a torn shirt as evidence of the unfortunate lumberjack’ s demise, all of the debris landing in the startled and delighted audience.To everybody’s relief, the second lumberjack climbs out of the well, wet but intact, and the two guys embark on their final competition: the log-rolling. A round piece of wood is located in the middle of a small pond and the two guys each have a designated side for themselves. Then they start to roll the log, spraying and splashing each other, performing all sorts of acrobatics while turning the piece of wood. The final winner is the guy that pushes the other guy off the log into the water most often in 3 tries.I talked to the young fellows afterwards, 2 nice young men by the name of Mason Bischoff, a BC native, and Darren Hudson, of Nova Scotia. Both guys come from families of real lumberjacks and they often compete in lumberjack competitions. Mason has only been doing the show for 5 days, very surprising since he performed so professionally, and Darren has been at it for 5 years, working at Grouse in the summer, and doing some lumberjack shows in Australia in the winter. It was evident that both of them are having an absolute blast doing this job – performing a rather strenuous half-hour show 3 times daily, 7 days a week. I found the show very entertaining, a great combination of physical strength, endurance, slapstick, and witty repartee between the lumberjacks and the emcee.Following this I checked out the famous bear habitat, which has proven to be a refuge for 2 orphaned bears that found a permanent spacious 5 acre home on Grouse Mountain. Unfortunately the two animals, Koola and Grinder, were sleeping somewhere under the trees and I only caught a peek at one of them when he stretched and rolled over to continue sleeping. Right next to the bear habitat is an area for timber wolves and I was a little luckier getting a peak at these white canines.Staying along the animal theme, I checked out the “Birds in Motion” Show that features 4 different types of birds: two Harris hawks, a red-tailed hawk, a great horned owl and peregrine falcon. The birds have names like Arwin, Frodo, Chinook and Rusty and they perform various maneuvers, often sweeping closely over various audience members’ heads. The show was hosted by a young woman who also injected a dry sense of humour into her performance.The peak of Grouse Mountain, about 100 m up from the tram station, still remained to be climbed. It’s not a far distance, but it takes a solid 20 or so minutes to get up to the top, which also features a chairlift station. The view from the top is astounding, and the snow covered peak of Mount Baker, an inactive volcano in Washington State, mesmerized me. I heard that it is about 150 km or 90 miles away from Vancouver and with its snow-covered peak it appeared like a mirage in the distance.Of course with all this mountain activity, hunger set in and I went to the self-serve cafe which has a beautiful patio overlooking the city. I splurged on of my favourite sinful indulgences: poutine, i.e. French fries with gravy and cheese curds. I tampered down my nutritional guilt with a Mediterranean salad and figured that the nutrients and low caloric content of the salad might counterbalance the potato and fat-based calory bomb. Well, not great nutritional decision-making, but I savoured it anyways.I ended up talking to a local couple on the terrace who said I should check out a little neighbourhood called Ambleside, which is part of West Vancouver. So off I went, down the mountain with the tram and back on the bus. At the bottom I had to connect onto another bus, and during the wait I ended up chatting with a local young man who explained all the different residential areas of Vancouver to me and also shed some light on the real estate boom that has caused Vancouver’s housing prices to sky-rocket over the last few years. The escalation of prices is not surprising, since thousands of new people every year seek out the relaxed West Coast lifestyle. With the Olympic Games coming to Vancouver / Whistler in 2010, the situation can only become tougher.While waiting for bus number 3 I chatted to another local, asking him for directions to Ambleside. He said that close by there was a local arts and craft festival and if I wanted he could show me where it is. So with his guidance I arrived at the Harmony Arts Festival, held annually, which apparently now attracts over 60,000 visitors and showcases more than 250 visual and performing artists. A band was performing Motown songs in a bandshell and hundreds of people were camped out on their folding chairs and beach towels in front of the stage. I decided to walk westwards along West Vancouver’s Seawall, a much quieter version than that of Stanley Park. I sat down to soak in the sunset, watching the sun roll down behind the mountain chain northwest of Vancouver.At about 9:15 I decided to head back to UBC and took a bus back downtown across the famous Lions Gate Bridge. The sky was pink and dark purple and a sliver of a moon was hanging low in the western sky. And a bright star was located right next to the moon on the left hand side. Somebody on the bus pointed it out and another person said that this was an extremely rare astronomic constellation, as a matter of fact this particular constellation had never happened before. It was almost as if magic had blessed this evening.Downtown I changed buses again and slowly made my way to the UBC Campus. I noticed how different groups of people were getting off the bus, shouting out “Thank You” loudly to the bus driver. Now that is something that I have never seen before: people thanking the driver on a public bus. I checked with the bus driver as I got off and asked him if this happens regularly. He said it doesn’t happen all the time, but he appreciates it when people express their gratitude. A magical evening indeed…

Hello from Victoria (2) – Exploring Victoria and Its Vicinity

Another perfect day with beaming blue skies, great temperatures and no humidity greeted me yesterday. After a lovely strengthening breakfast and some business issues, Clare and I set off by car to explore British Columbia’s capital Victoria.We started by parking our car pretty close to “Mile Zero”, right next to Beacon Hill Park. This expansive city park is right next to the waterfront and at its southern end you have a perfect view across the Juan de Fuca Sound to Washington State’s Olympic Mountain range.Beacon Hill Park has beautiful landscaping, hundreds of flower beds, a petting zoo with screaming peacocks, serene shady ponds hosting various families of ducks, an assortment of totem poles and a great variety of shade trees, many of which I have never seen in Toronto. The whole waterfront around Beacon Hill Park reminded me very much of California and seeing the odd palm tree just reinforced that image. I had to remind myself that we are still in Canada here.Our next step was to explore the waterfront to the east along Beach Drive. We moved past lovely well-kept houses and various inlets and bays and about 3 km east of downtown we arrived in the Oak Bay area. When we saw the Tudor-style gables of the Oak Bay Beach Hotel we decided this needed further exploration. We stopped the car, went through the lobby and outside the back door and saw one of the most beautiful patios and backyards on the ocean. The hotel, just like so many other places in Victoria, has gorgeous landscaping and a multitude of brilliantly coloured flower beds, right next to the Pacific Ocean.Coming up next we checked out the Oak Bay Marina and then turned inland towards the quaint Oak Bay shopping area, bedecked in hanging flower pots, and featuring many outdoor patios. We knew an exploration of the Empress Hotel and the Provincial Parliament Buildings was on our menu, so we started heading downtown on Yates Street. We turned right at the waterfront and to find a parking spot in this bustling neighbourhood, we ended parking on Johnson Street, right in front of a retail store that had large mechanical doll dressed up as an old lady with a big hat in front of it. The doll was able to open and close its eyelids and move its head from side to side, much to the fascination of the local tourists.We filled up the meter and made our way along the waterfront along Victoria’s serene Inner Harbour Area. Past various buskers, mimes and outdoor performance artists we slowly made our way towards the Empress Hotel, a gorgeous chateau-style grand hotel dating back to 1908. Just southwest of it are the intricately styled Parliament Buildings, built between 1893 and 1898. With expansive lawns and flower beds out front and introduced by a statue of Queen Victoria, they offer an impressive visual delight.Having strengthened ourselves with a tasty turkey sandwich and a delicious ice cream, we slowly walked back past the Empress on Government Street and checked out the various retail stores. This area is just hustling and bustling with people, and we saw several street musicians and bands. Many of the retail stores are located in historical buildings that have been painted in bright colours. Just as our meter was expiring we briefly checked out Market Square, an outdoor market area with many eclectic little shops.Back in the car we crossed the bridge at the north end of the Inner Harbour and checked out the west side of the harbour which features a beautiful boardwalk, flanked by upscale condominium buildings, most of them retirement homes, surrounded by luscious landscaping and fragrant flower beds. Sea planes were landing and taking off, and the tiny local harbour ferry boats were zipping around on the water.After gazing at the Empress Hotel and the downtown area from the west side of the Harbour, we decided we were going to explore Victoria’s next-door neighbour: Esquimalt, a much more basic area that is home to a large naval base. Esquimalt is definitely not as scenic and dressed up as Victoria, but it still appeared to be a pretty tidy place. We continued to head west on suburban roads and ended up having a beautiful nature experience at the waterfront of Albert Head Lagoon. We drove in through curvy roads in a shady forest, parked our car, and walked on the beach, besides hundreds of stranded wooden logs, to a shady corner at the west end of the lagoon where Clare and I had a beautiful chat about life, human relationships, changes in lifestyles and mentalities in the new China and other esoteric topics.Around 5 pm we decided to head even further west and we decided to find another hidden lagoon, called Witty’s Lagoon which is part of a regional park system. We found the entrance and parked our car since only a footpath takes you down to the lagoon. Sheltered from the heat by a lovely overhead forest canopy, we walked down a steep slope past the Sitting Lady Waterfall. Along the way we saw hundreds of wild blackberry bushes that were just getting ripe, and we sampled some of nature’s bounty. After about 20 minutes of walking beside a marsh on the left hand side, we finally ended up on a beach at the Southern tip of Vancouver Island that offered a perfect view of the majestic Olympic Mountains range.18 minutes of uphill hiking later and we were back at the car, ready to drive downtown where we were picking up Haishan, Clare’s husband, for dinner. The perfect meeting place was the Empress Hotel, of course. We picked him up and drove back over the Inner Harbour Bridge and reached our dinner destination: the Spinnaker Brew Pub at the Western End of Victoria’s Harbour. On the outdoor patio we had a gorgeous view of the Victoria Harbour, looking down at the condo buildings, ships and sea planes that were still going back and forth. It was a little chilly outside at that time, but the restaurant supplied us with blankets to protect us against the evening cold.Having strengthened ourselves after a long day of sightseeing we arrived back at the house at about 9 pm and given the fact that I had pretty much been awake since 4 am due to jetlag, I thanked my gracious hosts for their hospitality and made my way to bed.It’s now just about 2:15 am, that means I get another 3.5 hours of sleep before I have to get up, pack my bags, eat a brief breakfast and then get dropped off by Haishan on his way to work at the Victoria Bus Terminal. From there I’ll have to say goodbye to pretty Victoria and make my way back to the mainland by ferry and bus, to check out my next destination: Vancouver. I am already excited…

Hello from Vancouver (4) – A Walking Tour Through The Downtown East Side

The University of British Columbia has a drop-in centre downtown in Vancouver’s East side called the Learning Exchange where it provides educational opportunities to people who live and work in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside and other inner-city communities.Vancouver’s Downtown East Side is an inner city neighbourhood that has been experiencing problems with drug addiction and prostitution for many years. The area consists of several diverse neighbourhoods, including Strathcona, Chinatown, and Gastown, as well as the central area around Main and Hastings. The Downtown Eastside is currently facing significant social, economic and health-related issues. While there are undeniable problems, the community also has significant strengths. And, important community-building work is being undertaken and some of this important work is done by the UBC Learning Exchange.The Learning Exchange provides opportunities for UBC students to develop an understanding of society through first-hand volunteer work and promotes the formation of partnerships between people at UBC and people in the Downtown East Side and other inner-city communities that make the sharing of expertise and resources possible. The program started very small and still has a very tight budget, but today more than 800 UBC students volunteer here in a variety of community assistance groups.10 people from the Servas conference went downtown to participate in a learning experience involving a self-guided tour, and our young local expert Francy spent about 90 minutes with us, exploring what we knew or had heard about the neighbourhood, the various media stereotypes, what type of people lived there and why and what was being done to help this community.We learned that the community is actually quite diverse, not only does it include people dealing and using drugs as well as sex trade workers, the area also houses new immigrants, social service personnel, artists and students. Even seniors and families live here and in one coop housing project, built around a central courtyard, the single and older people live on the outside of the complex to provide protection, while the families with young children live on the inside so the young ones can play safely in the courtyard .The Downtown East Side is one of the few areas in Vancouver that still has affordable housing prices. We found out that many of the people in the area take on short-term or transient type of work assignments in labour pools, and many of them work as “binners”, collecting metal cans and glass bottles from garbage containers which then get reclaimed in local recycling facilities. In Vancouver the sight of people going through garbage bins is very common, even in the pristine suburban campus of UBC, and this activity is also referred to as “dumpster-diving”. We realized that these people perform an important societal service by diverting recyclable materials away from the landfills back into reprocessing facilities.The main drugs represented in this area are heroine, crack and crystal meth, and Francy explained that many of the area’s inhabitants live very nocturnal lives and that the mornings can be fairly quiet. After exploring the socio-economic background of this neighbourhood we were given a safety briefing which included practical advice such as treating people respectfully and looking them in the eye, even if they are requesting money from you, politely declining if someone mistakes you for a sex-trade worker, keeping valuables out of sight and similar issues. I decided to leave my entire purse and camera at the drop-in centre as did several other members of our group.We then headed off in small, inconspicuous groups of 3 or 4 people, with a small unobtrusive map. The map pointed out local sights such as buildings, housing coops, community centres, churches and parks. The first thing we did was we headed north out to the bridge at the top of Main Street from where you have a gorgeous view of downtown Vancouver, including Canada Place. It strikes you as ironic, how so much beauty and opulence can be located right next to an area with immense economic and social problems.We headed west on Alexander Street and promptly arrived on a beautiful little square that is part of Vancouver’s historic restored Gastown area. From there we headed south along streets like Pender and Carrall, many of which have boarded up main floors, and former retail areas that were closed a long time ago. Occasionally you see local homeless people and at one building we saw two young people on a couch in front of a building, and beside them a young woman who was stretching and contorting her body in strange ways. We were later explained that this woman was probably coming down from taking drugs the night before and was experiencing excruciating pain in the process.We snaked our way through the neighbourhood past various parks that according to our guide book were described as gathering spots for drug activity during the night. Most of these areas were fairly empty, but we did pass a number of people whose appearances had been ravaged by years of drug use. On Pender Street we passed by an astounding building, the Sun Tower, built in 1912, that housed the offices of The Vancouver Sun newspaper from 1924 to1964 and is crowned by a by a three-story beaux arts copper roof.Pender Street took us further east towards Vancouver’s Chinatown, which compared to the chaotic hustle and bustle of Toronto’s Chinatown, seemed very orderly and organized. Our map told us to make a brief detour into the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden, opened in 1986, the first full-size authentic Chinese garden built outside of China. From there we went through a mixed neighbourhood with a variety of Chinese or Korean community centres and seniors residences. We also passed by a community centre that offered free showers, Internet access, mailbox and various other services to many of the homeless people in this area. Many of the local churches provide shelter and other services to this community in need.One particularly haunting image for me was a very young woman, maybe in her late teens, early twenties. She had bleached blond hair, blue eyes and dark rims of smeared mascara under her eyes. She was leaning into the recesses of a building and had obviously been crying. Something was in her hand, but I was unable to see what it was. She appeared to be in a great deal of physical and emotional pain, and her face was still so young and pristine. I thought how powerfully addictions affect people and how difficult it must be to extricate oneself from this way of life.My two walking partners commented on another older woman, whose face had been scarred and they commented that the blank look in her eyes was a very haunting experience. Since I was in charge of figuring out the map I did not see this individual, but the ravages of drug use were plainly obvious in so many of the residents’ faces. Ironically enough, as we were looking at our map, we were asked twice by different people if we were lost and if they could help redirect us. We had been prepared for being accosted and asked for money, and instead we were offered some help by the locals – ironic indeed.After we completed our walk we headed back to the UBC Learning Exchange for a debriefing and we shared our experiences. We noted that the neighbourhood was much more mixed and less consistently run down than we had expected. A comment was also made that relatively few people were on the streets and that we didn’t witness any drug-related or sex-trade transactions at this time of day. Overall it had felt quite safe for us 3 women to walk through this neighbourhood, and during morning hours this area didn’t look all that different from other urban neighbourhoods.Our learning experience was capped off by a visit at the Carnegie Community Centre, built in 1908 as a Public Library. The Carnegie Centre provides a range of social, recreational and educational programs for the residents of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. It is often described as the community’s living room–a place where people can come to participate in programs or to simply relax and socialize with others, particularly important since many of them live in one-room dwellings where they don’t have the luxury of a living room to relax in.The Carnegie Centre offers a variety of facilities: a Public Library reading room, a seniors centre, weight room, a learning/literacy centre, a kitchen that offers 3 nutritional meals a day, an art gallery, an auditorium and gym as well as a dark room and pottery room. Our group did indeed sample the Carnegie’s cuisine, and I had a vegetarian lunch with veggie spring rolls, salad and rice, as well as one of the most delicious mushroom soups I have ever eaten. Together with a lemon pop this lunch came to $3.40.The meal was delicious and completing this learning experience in Vancouver’s Downtown East Side truly enriched my understanding of the city and this neighbourhood, and I gained a real appreciation for the efforts of the many hundreds of people who try to bring about positive change in this area. Francy indeed summarized it succinctly: the best way to make a difference is through individual engagement, and the small efforts of many can bring about huge change to the community as a whole.

Hello from Toronto (2) – Exploring Toronto’s Waterfront by Bicycle and Checking Out the CN Tower

Since my European visitors are quite sporty I figured that renting a bicycle would be the perfect way of exploring the city. So to join them on their first guided bicycle tour I grabbed my bike and the 5 of us headed off to the subway station to go to Bicycle Solutions near Parliament and Carlton Streets. Getting outfitted with a bike didn’t take long and the cost was pretty reasonable at $70.00 for a whole week. Now all 5 of us had a bicycle.Our tour began in Cabbagetown, one of Toronto’s historic districts. We first explored Riverdale Farm which is composed of a historic farm house, a number of stables and several corrals holding a variety of farm animals. This miniature zoo allows city kids to get to know farm animals up close. We then headed to the entrance of Toronto’s Necropolis. Established in 1850, the Toronto Necropolis is one of Toronto’s oldest and most historic cemeteries. Its picturesque location, collection of sculpture and Victorian buildings also make it one of the most beautiful cemeteries in the city.Riding through the gritty Regent Park neighbourhood on Parliament we made a left to head over to the Distillery District – Toronto’s newest entertainment district. Founded in 1832 by Brother-in-law William Gooderham and James Worts, the Gooderham and Worts Distillery eventually became the largest distillery in the British Empire. Set on 13 acres in downtown Toronto, the forty plus buildings constitute the largest and best preserved collection of Victorian Industrial Architecture in North America.The Distillery is now a pedestrian-only village entirely dedicated to arts, culture and entertainment. Internationally acclaimed galleries, artists’ studios and workshops, restaurants, bars and cafes, as well as live music, all form part of this new landmark cultural centre. In addition to the history, arts and culture, The Distillery has been the location for over 800 film and television productions in the past decade, including Chicago, X-Men, Against The Ropes and The Hurricane, making The Distillery District the most popular film location in Canada.Of course we had to stop at the Mill Street Brewery, one of Toronto’s fine micro-breweries. My Austrian visitors are great beer lovers and I have been working on giving them a wide variety of samples of Canadian beers, and we added the Mill Street brand to our tasting tour.From the Distillery District we headed south to Lakeshore Boulevard where we cycled west past Harbourfront, an area that holds high-priced condos right next to the waterfront, where highlights include speciality shops at Queens Quay Terminal, art, theatre and cultural facilities at Harbourfront Centre and a terrific lakeside walking trail. Cruises of the harbour and ferry services run from here.Our bike tour continued west by the water on the Martin Goodman Trail, past Ontario Place and the CNE – Canadian National Exhibition, which was in full swing with its rides and amusement activities. We enjoyed the lake-front ride and were fascinated by the Toronto Hippo Bus that was cruising on the water inside a harbour basin.Our turnaround point for the tour came at Sunnyside Pavillion, a historic bathing pavilion dating back to a time when the lakeshore was home to a large amusement park. We sat down and had some refreshing drinks right next to a sandy beach on Lake Ontario. Rejuvenated we started our ride back and stopped off at a hot dog stand just outside the Princess Gates of the Canadian National Exhition Grounds. My European visitors were fascinated by the hot dog stands, particularly about the fact that you could scoop all sorts of salads and condiments like sauerkraut, hot peppers and even corn onto the sausages, and we simply had to stop and sample some road-side cuisine.After heading back through Harbourfront we took the ferry over to Hanlan’s Point with our bicycles and started exploring the Toronto Islands on two wheels. We were all astounded by the serenity of the surroundings, truly an oasis of green right in front of busy downtown Toronto. We cycled all the way from the west to the east side where we had another fabulous view of the cityscape from an old abandoned pier.Of course all this working out would necessitate a little refreshment break and we cycled over to Centre Island where there is a restaurant next to the ferry dock, unfortunately it was closed. So we cycled back to the Centerville amusement park area where there was a beautiful restaurant with a gorgeous outdoor patio right next to a tranquil waterway and we had a well-deserved rest., admiring the huge white geese that came up to us to request some food.After taking the ferry back to the mainland we followed the Martin Goodman Trail east along the Eastern Beaches and had a peak at Ashbridges Bay and the little peninsula right next to it, one of the most scenic and tranquil spots in Toronto. We then headed home on the trail past the Kew Gardens Tennis Club, the hockey/ lacrosse arena and the lawnbowling facilities and my European guests commented on how surprised they were that so much of Toronto’s waterfront is publicly accessible and not fenced off as private property as is the case with so many European waterfront locations.A gourmet dinner capped off a beautiful day of exploration, allowing us to rest up for the next day to explore the CN Tower, just in time before the remnants of Hurricane Katrina were scheduled to come into town. On Tuesday I joined my guests only for a half day since I had to do some work in the afternoon and we took the subway in to explore the CN Tower. There were absolutely no lineups on Tuesday, which was great, since the Sunday before we had noticed hundreds of people lining up to get up the famous tower.We enjoyed the quick 58 second elevator ride that whisked us up to the restaurant level in 58 seconds and we started to take in the panorama. Toronto’s most famous, most visible landmark, the CN Tower is the world’s tallest building. Built in 1976, the tower measures 553 metres in height. From its Look Out Level it offers a stunning view of the city, especially at sunset. Daring visitors can test their courage by taking a walk across the Glass Floor 113 stories above the ground, or travel higher up the tower to the Sky Pod another 33 storeys above ground.We only went as far as the Look Out area and went one level down to experience the Glass Floor. I stepped on the Glass Floor very very briefly, the feeling of standing on a clear surface 113 floors above ground level was just a little too much and made me a little squeamish. All of us really enjoyed the view from the tower, even though it was a little hazy, but it really gave us a great overview of the city. What amazed my visitors was that Toronto looks so amazingly green from above, and they had commented several times how unusual it is to see such a huge metropolis that has so many green zones, parks and ravines, something that definitely enhances the quality of life in Toronto.After having taking in the city, we zipped back down in the glass-enclosed elevators and took a walk over to the Steam Whistle Brewery, located at the former John St. Roundhouse, a Canadian Pacific Rail steam locomotive repair facility that was built in 1929. We had to wait about 15 minutes for the facility to open and admired the beautifully renovated industrial architecture. Once inside we got a free taste of Toronto’s premium pilsner. I am not a beer drinker myself, so I quenched my hunger with a fresh pretzel, while my Austrian visitors savoured their samples.After the visit to the brewery I had to head back to my office, but my visitors continued with a visit to the St. Lawrence Market and a brief stop at the Eaton Centre. When they arrived back at our place, I could tell they had spent another great day exploring Toronto.

The Traveller’s Insurance Checklist

Your trip is booked and all your reservations are made. The next thing on your ‘to do’ list before you head off on that much deserved holiday is: Buy travel insurance. No doubt you have many questions that need answers before you can decide which travel insurance company best meets your needs – questions such as: What should travel insurance cover? How much should I be paying? Is there usually a deductible?You will be able to wade through the many different travel insurance plans offered and find the most suitable package for you and your family by asking insurance companies the following pertinent questions:Questions- What is covered in the plan?- What is not covered in the plan?- Is there a deductible that must be paid for each claim?- Does the plan deny benefits for a pre-existing condition?

If not, how much more will it cost to cover a pre-existing condition?- Are there any exclusions pertaining to sports or other activities?- Is every member of my family covered?- What is the average time frame for a claim to be paid?These questions will help you cover all the important bases while shopping for travel insurance. They can prevent unpleasant surprises such as having to pay for unforeseeable circumstances once your claim is reviewed.Many travellers neglect to buy travel insurance because shopping around for the perfect plan can be stressful. However, their stress level would likely double should any unfortunate event occur during their trip. Why take the risk? Travel insurance can take care of you and your family while you have the vacation of your dreams.

Hello from Toronto – Novice Golf, Driving Through the Kawarthas and a Little Mountain-Biking

It is unbelievable how nine days can just fly by. Today my brother, sister-in-law and our two Austrian friends are scheduled to fly back to Graz, Austria, via Vienna. There has been an increasingly palpable sense of sentimentality in the air, in light of the fact that this wonderful time is coming to an end alarmingly quickly.It’s also amazing how many activities one is able to cram into a short amount of time. I wanted to give them a really good taste of everything that I love about the city of Toronto and my new country. So occasionally I put a few too many things on our plates and we ended up racing through a few of the activities. On the whole though, I think our European guests had a fabulous time and they fell in love with Toronto, just like I did, many years ago.Saturday all six of us went golfing to a little par-3 golf course in the East end of Toronto. None of my Austrian guests had ever golfed before, so a couple of days earlier we started with a few buckets of balls at the driving range, followed up by an indoor putting practice session on the carpet. Saturday we would get to try the real thing. The attempts at the driving range didn’t look all that great, with balls spraying all over the place, to the left and to the right. But on Saturday afternoon, another gorgeous day, our four Austrian guests performed quite admirably and only lost 2 balls in the water hazard.They really enjoyed golf, a sport they had never even dreamed of playing, but the Toronto area with its several hundred golf courses, many of them reasonably priced, made it easy to give this sport a try. All preconceived notions about golf only being a sport for old people went out the window, and they enjoyed the challenge of trying to sink the round little ball in the hole.Sunday came our second big excursion: a driving tour through the Kawartha Lakes. I had only planned two major driving tours: a wine-tasting tour through the Niagara Peninsula, and a second one to the lake district of the Kawarthas. We started by driving east on Toronto’s 401, a 12 to 16 lane highway whose size duly impressed my European visitors. Then we headed north-east through rolling farm country to Peterborough, a rural university town with a population of about 70,000. From there we drove north into the Kawarthas, a gorgeous lake region set in the rocky landscape of the Canadian Shield.Our first stop was Buckhorn, where we watched the mechanics of lift locks of the Trent-Severn Canal that links Lake Ontario with Georgian Bay. We saw how several boats assembled inside the lock following by an opening of the sluices and the water level equilibrating itself with the level of the lower portion of the river. The Parks Canada lock supervisor explained the whole process to us and it only took about 10 minutes for the boats to reach the lower level.From Buckhorn we drove through rocky and marshy countryside to the quaint village of Bobcaygeon where we took an extended stroll. We had a nice waterfront lunch, looking across to the marina, seeing the the boats come in an out of the canal. Particularly our Austrian friends Luis and Isabella love boating and seeing the many houseboats on the Trent-Severn Canal gave them a few ideas for future vacations in Canada.The lunch was delicious and we took a little stroll around this charming town, admiring the waterfront parks and picnic facilities that allow great access to the water. From Bobcaygeon we drove on to another little picturesque country town: Fenelon Falls, whose name comes from a waterfall in the middle of town that has been used for electricity generation since the 1870s.After a sizeable line-up we picked up a few delicious cones of Kawartha Dairy ice cream and strolled over to the bridge over the falls and then down to the little peninsula that sticks out into the river. From there you can look into a rocky gorge where both sides of the river are surrounded by high rocks.Again, we watched boats being lifted and lowered, this time in lock 33 of the Trent-Severn Canal System. This is another town with a beautiful little park right by the locks with lots of opportunity for barbeques or simply for a relaxing snooze in the sun . Time was flying by and by this time it was already 3:30 pm so we had to start our return to the city. We only took back roads and my brother lost count of the numerous golf courses that dotted the landscape. It was a nice relaxing drive through rolling countryside and we made it back to Toronto in less than 2 hours. All four of my Austrian guests had fallen in love with the Lake District and the prospect of another vacation in Canada to explore the waters north of Toronto seems ever more likely.Yesterday was their last full day in Toronto, and we took our bikes out for a spin one more time. Since we all love water we rode down to the Eastern Beaches again, and leisurely explored the waterfront. We watched some lawn bowling, and one of the participants kept coming over to us to explain the rules of the game to us since none of us was familiar with this sport. My guests commented several times on the friendliness of people in the stores, restaurants, in line-ups and even I myself was surprised at the approachability of Torontonians, often known as a more reserved breed of people. But we truly kept having very positive experiences, equally with people employed in the service sector, as well as with regular citizens, taking a stroll, playing a game of lawn bowling or going for a walk with their dog.Of course we admired the inukshuks by the beach, a public play area for adults with rocks of various shapes and sizes that are used by passers-by to create interesting stone sculptures. We watched a few tense points at the Kew Gardens Tennis Club, and checked out the picturesque Kew Gardens park itself. From there we headed west past the beach volleyball facilities to the little peninsula west of Ashbridges Bay which always offers a fabulous view of Toronto’s skyline. We took in the tranquil atmosphere and soaked in the sun for a while before we started our return back along the waterfront. My European visitors commented several times how incredible it is to have all this publicly accessible land right along the waterfront and how in some secluded spots you don’t even realize that you are in a major metropolitan area.To get back up to our house we had to climb back up from the waterfront and this time we chose the Glen Stewart Ravine, where a little brook has carved a valley into the slopes leading down to the waterfront. It is a densely forested area and when you are in there it feels like you are in a remote forest somewhere, not right in the middle of Toronto.Once back at our house, preparation got started for our final goodbye barbeque and we had invited a few extra friends to join us to give our Austrian guests a proper sendoff back home. We enjoyed some excellent food and they sampled a few more varieties of Canadian wines and beers, all of which they had commented quite favourably on. We didn’t sample much restaurant cuisine since my brother is a talented chef, but the fresh ingredients that he purchased in Toronto’s various markets made for some truly delicious dinners.In the evening we took one more spin in the car, first to revisit the Distillery District at night. Luis had wanted to buy some beer glasses at the Mill Street Brewery as a souvenir, but unfortunately the brewery and restaurant were closed. The whole Distillery area was a little quiet, not surprisingly, since it was Labour Day, the last official day of summer, and the final day of respite before school would begin again. We continued our driving tour with a little spin through downtown and up Yonge Street before we turned east on Bloor Street. We crossed the Bloor Street Viaduct and arrived on the Danforth, Toronto’s Greek area. As always, Greektown was quite busy and people were milling about. We sat down on the patio of one of our favourite restaurants and enjoyed some Greek snacks before we headed home after another long day, all of us a little sad, commenting how nine days can pass so quickly.Today we’ll have to take their four rented bicycles back and around 2:30 we’ll have to start the trek to the airport. It’s been a fabulous 9 days, an extended sleepover with four great people and we won’t forget this holiday for a long, long time. We are already hoping for another reunion, either in Austria, or back here in Canada, to deepen this fabulous connection.

Hello from Vancouver (5): Gastown and My Final Explorations

After my extremely interesting walking tour of the Downtown East Side I decided to round out my exploration of the city with another bicycling trip. In my mind, bicycling is just the perfect way to discover a city, it gives you greater range than walking, you don’t need to wait around for buses, and you get exercise at the same time -bonus!I realized that I had not even seen Gastown yet, which gave me a perfect excuse for another round of exploring. I went to Spokes Bicycle Rentals again, talked to Phil who had been so helpful to me on Saturday in my exploration of Stanley Park and off I went for another few hours, to see just a bit more of Vancouver before I had to leave. I decided to ride back to the Downtown East Side since I wasn’t able to take any photos during the walking tour. I rode along the waterfront trail past Canada Place and the Harbour Centre to the east side of town.I closely retraced my steps from this morning’s walking tour on the bicycle and took some pictures of some of the buildings along the way. One place that definitely stood out was the Sun Tower, a building created between 1911 and 1912 that used to be the headquarters of the Vancouver Sun. I rode through Chinatown again, which still had such an unusually orderly and organized feel to it.Then I explored Gastown, one of Vancouver’s most historic areas. Its founding father was a loquacious saloon owner: John “Gassy Jack” Deighton, who, in 1867, built a saloon near the corner of Carrall and Water Streets to profit from the local lumber mill workers and gold prospectors on their way to the Yukon. By the 1870s, Gastown was a multicultural community, complete with saloons, hotels and grocery stores, brought into town because Vancouver had been chosen as the Canadian Pacific Railroad terminus.By 1886 it had 1,000 buildings and 3,000 residents. Then, in 1886, a blaze broke out and burned the town to the ground. Although destroying the town, this fire started the biggest building boom in West Coast history. After an economic decline in the early part of the 20th century, Gastown became a virtual backwater from the 1930s to 1950s until a group of local merchants and property owners put it back on the map in the 1960s by renovating the historic buildings and turning them into one of the city’s top tourist attractions.One of the biggest draws Gastown is the steam-powered clock, the world’s first, created by Raymond Saunders who has a small shop nearby. Live steam, pumped from a plant that heats more than 100 downtown buildings, operates the mechanism of the clocks and blows the whistles. At each quarter hour the clock sounds the Westminster Chimes while the large whistle announces the hours. Gastown’s Steam Clock is one of the favourite photography spots for tourists. Gastown also houses another major Vancouver attraction: an innovative educational and cultural experience called Storeyum: it’s 100,000 square foot indoor venue showcases the colourful history of Canada’s West Coast in live reenactments.Of course I didn’t have time to explore Gastown and all its stores and restaurants in detail since my plane would be leaving in a few hours and I still wanted to head back to Stanley Park one more time to catch another glimpse of this most gorgeous urban greenspace. So back I cycled past construction of the new convention centre and back on the waterfront into Stanley Park. Since this was my second time in the park I caught a few things I missed the first time around: I saw the Girl in a Wetsuit sculpture, created in 1972, which is a life-size bronze statue of a woman in a wetsuit, with flippers on her feet and her mask pushed up on her forehead, and sits on a large intertidal boulder just offshore of Stanley Park.I didn’t go all around the park but cut across it after a nice little icecream break at the Lumberman’s Arch concession stand and I rode through the beautiful Rose Garden and Shakespeare Garden which form the backbone of the perennial flower beds and ornamental trees and shrubs. Stanley Park is really a sight to behold, and it offers so many recreational and relaxation opportunities. The park also holds a children’s farmyard and miniature train.My final stop in the park was the Lost Lagoon, a large pond, featuring a fountain at its centre, set against a gorgeous backdrop of forests, flowering shrubs, with the mountains towering in the background. The amount of visual beauty of this area is virtually overwhelming and I was starting to feel a little sad that I had to end my visit since I had to make it back to UBC on the other side of town to retrieve my luggage and head off to the airport.I had originally planned to go biking until 5:30 pm, considering that my flight wouldn’t leave until almost 9 pm, but then I realized it’s Monday and rush hour would be setting in soon. So I took my bike back early, said my goodbyes to Phil, who’s been so helpful all along, and he gave me a few more words of local advice as to which bus routes to take and off I went to catch a bus to Burrard Street. The intersection of Burrard and Georgia was totally nuts, since the city was repaving and police were directing traffic manually. I was glad I had taken my bike back early, at least I would make it back to the university in time for my departure to the airport. Finally the #44 bus came and I could relax. Actually I was surprised that it only took me 25 minutes to get back to the University which left me extra time to complete some travel reports over the Internet.All in all, Victoria and Vancouver have been an awesome experience. I had absolutely perfect weather: 25 degrees with beaming sunshine and absolutely no humidity. I had a fabulous reunion in Victoria with my co-worker Clare, two and a half very interesting days at the Canada-US Servas Conference where I got to know some of the most generous and dedicated individuals I have ever had a chance to meet, and in the time in between I had an opportunity to explore Vancouver, a vibrant and exciting city full of contrasts, set in one of the most physically stunning locations anywhere on the planet.It’s been a very short trip, and all I can say – I’ll be back…

Hello from Toronto (3) – Exploring Niagara Wine Country

Two days ago I took our European visitors on a little driving tour of the Niagara Peninsula, specifically to explore some of the 50 something wineries. My brother is a chef and very interested in exploring the authentic tastes and flavours of Canada. So far my visitors have been very impressed with the quality of the Canadian vegetables, meats, spices, and even the various types of beers that they have tried from different microbreweries.We got going around 9:30 am to avoid the brunt of rush hour traffic and made our way west on the QEW highway on another day of perfect weather. We drove through the industrial outskirts of Mississauga, Oakville, Burlington and Hamilton, where they were particularly fascinated by the huge industrial complexes of Ontario’s steel industry. Just about 20 minutes south of Hamilton we turned off the highway onto local Highway Number 8, Ontario’s wine route, which follows the outline of the NIagara Escarpment.Our first stop on our wine tour was Peninsula Ridge Estates, a very impressive winery built around a Victorian farmhouse with several modern buildings that have been added to facilitate a wine tasting facility and gift shop. The wine testing area is housed in a beautiful barn-like structure with lots of wood and high ceilings, and all the wines and gifts are presented in a very attractive way. My European wine conoisseurs tasted 4 varieties of white wine and admitted that they were duly impressed. They commented that some of the wines had a more distinct flavour than what they are used to back home and indicated their surprise at the quality of wines from Ontario. Of course my brother also examined the menu of the dining room and confirmed that the establishment was indeed an upscale gourmet restaurant, featuring finely crafted cuisine.We had a beautiful day with absolutely no humidity, so we had a clear view of downtown Toronto’s skyscrapers from the Peninsula Estates winery. After a little photo tour of the premises we made our way to the next stop: Eastdell Estates, winery located high on top of the escarpment with a perfect lookout point. The restaurant, called the “Bench Bistro” offers simple, yet innovative dishes that pay homage to the area’s bountiful harvests and local producers. Reasonably priced, two can dine, with a bottle of wine, for about $80 (CDN).Our next stop was a relatively new winery called Angel’s Gate Estates, with a beautiful main building that included a wine boutique as well as an indoor and outdoor dining area overlooking Lake Ontario. We did not taste any wines here, but definitely enjoyed the view. Again, the facilities and surroundings hosting the wine tasting were impressive.Then we headed further south to Vineland Estates Winery situated on the slopes of the Niagara Escarpment with Lake Ontario in the distance. This winery has sometimes been referred to as “Ontario’s Most Picturesque Winery” and we certainly enjoyed the location. It is another winery that features a restaurant as well as a wine boutique, located in an 1877 historic barn. The boutique features wines, fine glassware and local preserves, and my European travellers embarked on their second tasting of the day, this time enjoying both red and white varieties. The winery offered various types of crackers and cheese, combined with grape jellies, providing a little snack to a group of hungry pilgrims on Ontario’s wine trail. We also noted that the staff in the various wineries was extremely welcoming and friendly, an impression that got reinforced throughout the day.Our lunch stop was at Rockway Glen Golf Course and Estate Winery, a rather unusual combination offering delights for golfing and wine enthusiasts. We had a reasonably priced lunch of gourmet sandwiches on the patio, and appropriately strengthened continued on our way along the wine route towards our next destination: Niagara Falls.After arriving in one of the most popular destinations in Ontario, not to be missed for any traveller to Toronto, we parked our car on the main parking lot, at $18.00 a little overpriced, although it offered unlimited parking until midnight. As we approached the falls from the south, my guests were astounded at the width of the river and the quantities of water that were about to drop down the steep precipice. We stopped for a while at a spot right where the water starts to hurl down the rocks. The amount and force of the water is awe-inspiring, and the thundering sound of the falling water provides an appropriate backdrop to this natural wonder.The waterfall produced the most amazing complete rainbow inside the gorge that I have ever seen, offering many scenic vistas of the Niagara River set against the appropriately named Rainbow Bridge which connects Ontario with New York State.Several Maid of the Mist sightseeing boats holding curious visitors dressed in blue plastic capes were floating dangerously close to the bottom of the waterfall, providing a great photo opportunity.Naturally, after taking in all these sights we had to take in a refreshment and we rested a bit on a restaurant patio overlooking the falls. After our brief respite we drove along the scenic Niagara Parkway towards Niagara-on-the-Lake, stopping several times at various lookout points, such as the Aero Car tram crossing the gorge, and the immense power plants located on both sides of the river, generating clean hydro-electric energy.The bucolic countryside along the Niagara River features a large number of wineries and orchards and the road is lined with fruit stands, featuring fresh Ontario produce. Finally, we parked our car next to a beautiful park, right where the Niagara River flows into Lake Ontario. By this time, the Niagara River has turned from an angry and wild river with churning waters and rapids into a mild-mannered waterway, ready to merge with on the Great Lakes.We had a little stroll around this charming Victorian village, admiring the beautifully kept houses and gardens, and since it was getting late we headed back into the car to continue our drive back to Toronto. The last leg of our trip was a drive through St. Catharines’ beautiful little lakeside village, Port Dalhousie, which on this day featured a younger crowd than Niagara-on-the-Lake.Filled with a multitude of impressions of this gorgeous day, we arrived back in Toronto, sharing our various impressions. My European visitors, who had never been to North America, were truly impressed with the Niagara Region and I was glad I was able to give them a little taste of Ontario’s wine country.