Homemade Travel

SLICE Homemade Travel

Organized tours definitely have their place. But most of the time, I prefer to find my own way for a more organic, unique travel experience.

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Surprising Nicaragua

The infinity pool at Villas Playas Maderas

My article below recently appeared on Travel-About.com.

I’d never been to Central America, but here I was at Pearson airport in Toronto one early morning in February looking for the Air Transat  check-in desks. I was so excited, but a little nervous, to be heading to Nicaragua. I was aware it’s a developing country and even though friends who had visited last year told me it was indeed safe, I still worried a little. You know that feeling: fear of the unknown. Plus, I hadn’t had a coffee yet.

Getting to the Air Transat desks, though, I was delighted to be able to use the fast-lane check-in afforded to Option Plus flyers (so my goal of a Grande Bold in the departure lounge would happen sooner rather than later). And I quickly came to the conclusion that the little extra cost of Option Plus was well worth it. There was free seat selection when I booked; no charge for my checked bag; priority baggage handling; and a free snack box on board, which consisted of high-quality treats such as gouda cheese biscuits, Greek olives, sea-salt pita chips and chocolate—all of which went well with the complimentary Bottega Gold prosecco (and additional complimentary glass of wine—why not? It was a 5-hour flight!). Plus, I was given a free headset for the in-flight entertainment, and a cozy blanket that came in a reusable cloth drawstringed bag.

In short, I arrived in Nicaragua much more relaxed than when I got to the airport. And that feeling only got better as this beautiful country revealed itself to me and my traveling friends over the next week (I was joined by a good friend who lives in the U.S., plus two couples, close friends from Canada who flew separately). Our first digs was a rented villa just north of surf central, San Juan Del Sur. Villas Playa Maderas was wonderful, and we spent the first few days walking the excellent beach and cooling off in the infinity pool. And, yes, sampling the local rum, Flor de Cana, with ice and fresh lime juice. Mmmmm.

The local “pub” was a short walk down the beach.

After spending most of our week there, we parted ways with one couple, and the rest of us travelled up to historic Granada. I was amazed to learn that it’s the oldest colonial city in all of the Americas. It’s colourful and vibrant, if a little run-down in some parts. But regardless of where were explored on foot, we never felt unsafe or threatened in any way. People couldn’t be more helpful when we were lost and needed to be pointed in the right direction.

We had excellent meals: one evening at El Zaguan  steakhouse—that has a deserved reputation for delicious food, great service and excellent value (I had the steak with jalapeño cream sauce)—and the other at Espressionista , a special place where menu items are locally sourced, and where the flavours are diverse and superb. I had the Coconut Ceviche (featuring sour-orange infused mackerel) and the Ajo Blanco, a cold almond-milk soup with fresh watermelon, infused oils and garlic. Both were out of this world.

The tranquil courtyard and pool at Tribal Hotel.

Okay, I’ve saved the best for last in terms of the most superb experience while in Granada: Tribal Hotel. From the moment I arrived after a hot, dusty walk over cobbled streets pulling my wheeled suitcase, I was made to feel totally at home. As Byron checked me in, I was handed a cold towel scented with lemongrass—heavenly—and a glass of ice water. I was shown to my beautiful room and didn’t waste time changing into my swimsuit and getting into the inviting courtyard pool under a blue sky. From this vantage point, I soaked up my gorgeous surroundings.

My gosh, the photos in this article and on Tribal’s website  just do not do this place justice. There are only seven rooms, and each has its own outdoor curtained terrace facing the central courtyard, where there is a lovely pool surrounded by lush and non-manicured greenery, lending it a wild and welcoming vibe. Along one side are tables for breakfast, or, later, light snacks and drinks. The design aesthetic is a special combination of original colonial and modern. There’s artwork everywhere. It’s all in keeping with a, well, tribal feel.

“We decided to call it Tribal mainly because, before the colonists came, Nicaragua was populated only by small tribes, some of which came south from Mexico,” explains co-owner Yvan Cussigh, the Italian-born co-owner whom, along with business partner Jean-Marc Houmard, opened Tribal in 2014. “It’s also because our mix of decor is so eclectic and represents tribal influences from other places as well.”

That’s me with Tribal Hotel co-owner Yvan Cussigh.

These two know how to make a memorable experience. The beauty of my surroundings while staying there, the impeccable service, the comfort of the room—and not to mention the delicious, freshly cooked (and included) breakfast—made my stay here so special. It capped off an excellent experience in a great new travel discovery: Nicaragua.

Incredible Ireland: The Perfect Girls’ Getaway

The song Galway Bay opens with, “If you ever go across the sea to Ireland…” I, for one, had never done so–until last year, when my three best girlfriends and I decided it was high time for a trip together. We picked Ireland because it’s known for its beauty, friendly people and its music. We weren’t disappointed on any of those fronts.

We rented a car in Dublin, and drove down to Kilkenny…a beautiful castle town and, of course, home to delicious Kilkeeny beer. Our innkeepers couldn’t have been more helpful in pointing out all the sights we needed to see there, including Kilkenny Castle.

At Blarney Castle. Left to right is Lindsay, Brenda, Laura and me.

At Blarney Castle. Left to right is Lindsay, Brenda, Laura and me.

Then it was on down to the south coast town of Cobh, the last port of call of the Titanic. Lovely spot–we stayed in an Airbnb right on the waterfront–and enjoyed a night of traditional Irish music in a sweet pub. From Cobh we headed to Blarney Castle where, of course, we all kissed the Blarney Stone. (Good luck will continue to be ensured for the rest of our lives, we feel!) And from there we headed further east to the Dingle Peninsula.

The historic fishing village of Cobh.

The historic fishing village of Cobh.

In Dingle, where we stayed a couple of nights, we soaked up more of the Irish musical culture, and enjoyed some fabulous seafood. Don’t believe the stories about Irish food being plain and stodgy–it is anything but. We were so pleasantly surprised by everything we tried, and many evenings sipped on Guinness (my favourite beer). Then it was up the coast through the Cliffs of Moher–spectacular!–and on to Dublin.

The stunning Cliffs of Moher.

The stunning Cliffs of Moher.

What a city Dublin is. You can feel James Joyce’s presence on the cobbled streets and around Trinity University. And us girls loved the great shopping, too.

The spire in Dublin.

The spire in Dublin.

I highly, highly recommend Ireland if you want a great girlfriends’ getaway!

Prince Edward County: Cycling in Wine Country

 

Entrance to the Norman Hardie Winery, Prince Edward County

Entrance to the Norman Hardie Winery, Prince Edward County

What a way to enjoy being active in awesome scenery: Take a bike, add a group of women, and let the fun and camaraderie begin!

“This is YOUR trip.” That was the first thing Jacki Lewis, founder of Two-Wheeling Women (TWW), told the assembled group of 10 at our first meeting. We’d all just arrived at Huff Estates Winery & Inn on a Thursday afternoon, where we’d be spending the next three nights and four days. Huff would be our base for a three-day cycling tour of Prince Edward County (PEC), about two hours’ drive east of Toronto.

This was our orientation session, and our first time meeting the rest of the group. We didn’t know it at the time, but we were in for an invigorating, relaxing, fun—and, yes, sweat-filled—weekend of riding the quiet, easy roads of “The County,” as PEC is known. We’d be doing tastings at some of the many wineries (after our daily cycling was over, of course) and enjoying gourmet meals on sunny patios overlooking endless rows of grapevines. We’d be chattering as we rolled over kilometres of rural scenery along the edge of Lake Ontario, laughing our heads off and making new friends.

But we didn’t know that yet. Back at the orientation session, Leah Bernick, support-vehicle driver for this TWW trip, was going through the cue sheets we had all been given for Friday’s 51-kilometre ride, explaining the step-by-step directions that we could simply mount on our handlebars. (Normally Wendy Huismans, TWW’s operations manager, would be here, too, but she’d arrived home from Europe just days ago, after leading a sold-out TWW tour to the Netherlands.)

Jacki and Leah answered all of our questions over the course of the next hour: What if I get lost? “We have a couple of GPSs to loan out, but you’ll never get lost because we have a TWW ‘sweep’ riding at the back of the pack. Nobody will get left behind. You will always be supported.” What if I run out of water or get a flat tire while out on the road? “The support vehicle will never be far away, and it’s packed with water and snacks any time you want them. We know how to do bike repairs, including fixing a flat. And if you get tired and simply want to take a break, you are welcome to ride along in the support vehicle for as long as you want. Again, this is YOUR ride.”

With that, we headed out to the nearby village of Bloomfield for a group dinner at The Hubb eatery at Angeline’s Inn, located in a historic former stately home. We were seated together in a large bay window overlooking the front gardens, and had an excellent waiter—but really, the highlight was the food. The menu is creative, and the food is incredible. That night, a feature was fresh east-coast oysters—2 bucks a shuck—and there was also some interesting bar food, such as freshly baked cornbread served hot in little cast-iron pans, and homemade curried hummus with lots of garlic, served with crunchy potato chips—“a stroke of genius,” declared my table neighbour and fellow cyclist, Naomi. Incidentally, she also dared to try her first-ever oyster that night (she liked it). For my main course I chose the Spring Gnocchi: a fresh-tasting pasta with cherry tomatoes, shaved fennel, swish chard, fresh ricotta and truffled breadcrumbs. I never manage to finish a gnocchi dish—I usually find it way too heavy—but I managed the whole plate and each bite was scrumptious, and even tasted healthy. Others ordered lamb, or steelhead trout, and declared everything to be delicious.

The Hubb in Bloomfield, where we had dinner on our first night

The Hubb in Bloomfield, where we had dinner on our first night

Next morning, it was up at 7:30, breakfast at our Inn, and out to the parking lot with our bikes to leave at 9 sharp. I was a little nervous, as I am before any ride in new territory. I had done two TWW trips before—Prince Edward Island, and Cape Cod, each a week-long trip—so I knew what to expect: that I’d love just about every minute. But still, there is that moment of nerves and “jelly legs” before heading out as we all checked our tires, slathered on sunscreen, chatted and helped ourselves to treats from the back of the support vehicle, stuffing them into our cycling-shirt pockets. (There’s a huge array of treats, I might add: fresh fruit, sports gels and powders, many different brands of protein and energy bars, nuts, and more.) I’m always a little anxious, wondering, how will the roads be, really? Scary with traffic? Too hilly? And just who are these other women, anyway? So I can only imagine the nerves that the first-timers were feeling. But there was Jacki—who would be riding sweep on this trip—calm and smiling as ever, handing out inspirational cards for us each to read aloud: the last thing we’d do before riding. “I like to send you off with something positive to keep in mind,” she said as she passed them out.

I think I wasn’t the only one who took a big, brave breath—and wheeled out onto the road, turned right out of the Inn driveway, and headed west. Our journey was underway!

The beautiful open roads of Prince Edward County

The beautiful open roads of Prince Edward County

Day 1 of riding that Friday would take us 51 kilometres on beautiful country roads past many wineries with breathtaking views of bright-blue Lake Ontario. We were so lucky with the weather: it was around 20 degrees Celsius, with only light winds, and sunny. There were some minor climbs, but overall it was pretty relaxed riding. We were more or less in two small groups; four or five of us out in front, and the other four or five a short stretch behind. Jacki was riding as sweep (see sidebar), which she would do for the rest of the weekend. We passed cow and sheep pastures—complete with countless barns—cheesemakers, dairies and market gardens. But mostly we passed vineyards.

Lunch was at patio tables set up outside the lovely Karlo Estates winery, which is housed in an 1840s-era restored barn. The friendly owners came to chat as Jacki and Leah set up the lunch buffet, which consisted of super-healthy salads like crunchy kale with shredded veggies and shaved parmesan, a spicy bean salad, and a chickpea and quinoa salad. There were also fresh roasted turkey and beef, wraps, wholegrain breads and all the sandwich fixings, including tomatoes and cheese. There were vegetable sticks plus hummus and other healthy dips. And dessert included a rhubarb crumble Jacki had picked up from a local market, and delicious, chewy oven-baked cookies. “If anyone came on this cycling trip to lose weight,” Jacki joked, “you’ll probably be disappointed.

Our afternoon riding took us through more kilometres of that countryside and then into Bloomfield. It was hard to believe after that lavish lunch that we actually felt like having ice cream, but we did. Slickers beckoned, with its homemade ice cream made with fresh ingredients, many of them local and seasonal. I had the Rhubarb-Ginger—amazing—and others tried more unusual ones. Leah tried the Campfire flavour, which she describes as tasting like roasted marshmallows. “This place is one of my top recommendations in Prince Edward County,” she says. “It’s the perfect reward after a few hours of cycling.”

The menu at Slickers

The menu at Slickers

Then it was back to Huff. We were finished riding a little earlier than Jacki had estimated—“This is a pretty fast group,” she said. We were averaging about 20-22 kilometres an hour while on the road. So, we all had some time to tour the shops in Bloomfield, take a walk or just relax in our rooms. There’s an excellent bike shop in Bloomfield, by the way, so if anyone had forgotten anything or needed a piece of clothing or equipment, it was the perfect place to pick that up.

That night, we were on our own for dinner. Jacki had given us a list and description of her top recommendations, places she had tried before on previous trips and loved. That was valuable advice. Some of the group decided to head to a bistro in Bloomfield with live acoustic music, while the others (me included) really wanted to try the Norman Hardie Estates Winery; not only did I want to do a wine-tasting and buy some if I liked it, but the place has a reputation for great wood-fired oven pizza.

The pizza and wine were delicious at Norman Hardie Winery

The pizza was incredibly fresh and delicious at Norman Hardie Winery

We were not disappointed. Heather, Jenny and I shared a couple of pizzas, and had a glass of wine each, on the deck outside overlooking the vineyard. We all loved the Diavolo pizza—amazing thin but chewy crust and fresh toppings. I overheard someone at the next table ask for a coffee, to which the waitress replied, “I’m sorry, but we don’t have coffee. We have only a few things on our menu that we focus on doing really, really well.” You’re not kidding, I thought.

Maureen and Leah arrived as we were about to head upstairs to the wine-tasting room. “I love the laid-back surfer attitude of this place,” said Leah, pointing out Norman Hardie himself in a short-sleeved checked shirt and shorts, walking around chatting with people. Maureen’s pizza pick was the Napoli, and she said she’d done a tasting earlier and bought some pinot noir—which she declared to be “excellent.” Note: The place closes at 6pm, so it’s great for lunch or an early dinner.

Group shot, Day 1!

Group shot, Day 1!

THE NEXT MORNING, we had our map meeting before breakfast. Jacki and Leah described what was ahead for our Saturday of riding, which was to be longer (67 kilometres), and would include a couple of actual hills. “The hills are long—maybe one kilometre each—but they are not too steep, so just go slowly and keep breathing,” she assured us. It was good advice; it’s easy to forget to take lungfuls of oxygen, until suddenly you’re stripped of energy. Leah reminded us that if anyone wanted to ride up the hills in the support vehicle with their bike and be dropped off at the top to ride again, that was perfectly fine.

So, out to the parking lot, load up on snacks, pump up tires, slather on sunscreen, and off we went. This time, we headed east, and our route took us back through Bloomfield and then on to Picton, a pretty and historic town not far from Sandbanks Provincial Park, which we were to ride to the next day. Once again we had a beautiful sunny day, though it was a few degrees warmer than Friday, and everyone seemed to be feeling pretty good. The first of the hills that Jacki mentioned came soon enough, and we all just took our time with it—nice and steady, not trying to kill it and burn out in the process. And the reward at the top was well worth it: Lake on the Mountain, a natural curiosity in that it’s sitting high above the Bay of Quinte (part of Lake Ontario). We were all pretty gobsmacked by the sight of this lake sitting so high compared to the bay just below, and we munched on snacks while we took in a pair of kayakers setting off from shore with their fishing rods.

Taking a snack break at Lake on the Mountain. (Left to right: Bonnie, Maureen, Merryn, Jenny, Heather)

Taking a snack break at Lake on the Mountain. (Left to right: Bonnie, Maureen, Merryn, Jenny, Heather)

Our route then took us past the Black River Cheese Company, which has been in business for well over 100 years, and where most of us found the samples irresistible…prompting some serious cheese shopping. The great thing about TWW is that there is always the support vehicle nearby, so we were able to buy what we wanted and drop it off with Leah, who put things in the cooler for us to grab later and transfer to our hotel room fridges. Some of our group took the opportunity to visit a shop across the road filled with local products and handicrafts…more shopping ensued. (Is it so surprising for a group of women?)

Our second hill was manageable, though by now many of us were breathless—but, hey, we came to exercise and burn some calories, too…it can’t all be fun and cheese! And again we enjoyed the stunning scenery and beautiful open roads of the next kilometres, with very few passing cars. Really, Prince Edward County is a cyclist’s dream.

My bike needed a rest, too!

My bike needed a rest, too…

The gourmet picnic lunch prepared by Jacki and Leah was by a historic old mill, and we all sat in the shade on picnic blankets refuelling and rehydrating. The rest of the route that day was challenging—remember, this was a 67k day, and you do get exponentially more worn out with every kilometre. Plus, it was getting hotter by the minute, and there was a stretch of road near the end that was busier than most we’d experienced so far. The good thing was that the drivers were typically very courteous and careful. Gathering under the shade of a big maple in a church parking lot back in Bloomfield and gulping back cold drinks (happily distributed by Leah from the support vehicle) never felt so good after all that exertion. We got back on our bikes and cycled the last 6k to our hotel. Phew! What a great feeling!

The best was yet to come: the reward of a delicious meal created by Huff Estates’ renowned French chef Sebastien Schwab. It was prepared exclusively for Two-Wheeling Women in the dining room next to Huff’s vineyards, and we had the whole place to ourselves (the restaurant is open only at lunch time, except for occasions such as this one). For our first course we could choose from a baked goat’s cheese phyllo parcel (my choice) or carrot and ginger soup. For the main course, there was a pan-seared salmon fillet or Cornish game hen, which I chose. Dessert was a tough decision: French chocolate torte or raspberry creme brulee; I chose the latter. Accompanied by Huff’s own excellent wines, the meal was an experience to remember, filled with laughter and camaraderie. We strolled back to our rooms, enjoying the night sky and, in particular, a glowing, red-orange Mars, which happened to be very close to earth in early June.

Chef Sebastien Schwab

Chef Sebastien Schwab

We had heard that rain was in the forecast for Sunday, and it was absolutely pouring when we gathered for breakfast. We were to do a ride out to Sandbanks Provincial Park, and maybe go swimming, but it wasn’t to be. Lightning and thunder were in the forecast, too, so even if we were keen enough to put up with the rain, there was no way we could venture out onto the open roads when lightning was a risk. Instead, we piled into a few vehicles and drove to Sandbanks to view the famous dunes—yes, in the rain!—and stopped in at a gallery and antique store.

Back at Huff, we said our goodbyes and exchanged email addresses, and hugs, with new friends. Jacki and Leah, ever the generous hosts, supplied sandwiches, snacks and drinks for our drive home. I know that what I was thinking as I drove away was very likely shared by everyone: When do I get to do this again?

Cycle selfie!

Cycle selfie!

Bonnie Munday is a freelance editor and writer, based in Toronto. Find her on Twitter @bonnie_munday

Fun, Bright, and Great for Travel

Timex, spring 2016: Here are just a few selects from a great-looking collection.

Timex, spring 2016: Here are just a few selects from a great-looking collection.

I had the chance to check out Timex’s new collection of watches launching this coming spring. Timex has always been my favourite brand of watch; as a kid, Timex was on my Christmas wish list. As an adult, I’ve treated myself to them exclusively over any other watch brand. In fact, when I was living in Hong Kong during the 1990s, my mother sent me a new Timex for my birthday because I commented I’d left mine behind in Canada and couldn’t find the brand there.

My loyalty is, in large part, because of one simple feature: Indiglo. The built-in night light is great  when you’re in a dark cinema, on a night flight–anywhere dark. Yes, you can use your cell phone to check the time. But when I’m on a trans-Atlantic flight–which is at least a couple of times a year–and I’m trying to snooze, wondering if I have slept at all, I don’t want to go digging around for my cell phone. I just want to look at my wrist. It’s a small convenience, but one I wouldn’t travel without.

Indiglo used to be available in only selected Timex styles. What I find so cool about the upcoming Spring 2016 collection is that almost every one of them features Indiglo. Fantastic looking styles and colours, too, as you can see in the photo above.

I’m looking forward to trying out the new Timex GPS watch, and one of its fitness trackers; watch this space for a review in the next few weeks, after I test them out.

U.S. Road Trip, Part 2: Nashville Hot Chicken

The music scene wasn’t the only thing that opened my eyes in Nashville. On the advice of our Indianapolis friends, who said it was a “can’t miss,” we tried the Hot Chicken. Who knew it was an iconic Nashville dish, and that there is even an annual Music City Hot Chicken Festival? Not me, nor my husband. We were still savouring the excellent dinner of southern barbecue we had on our first night (at Jack’s Bar-B-Que on Broadway) when we ventured into a world of hurt.

We both love spicy food, and I can tolerate it a little better than my husband. On our list of options our friends gave us were Prince’s, Hattie B’s and Pepperfire. We went to Pepperfire, placed an order for two, with medium spice–and there was no going back. I didn’t mention it was easily 35 degrees Celsius outside, and humid. In the corrugated metal shack with picnic tables that served as shade from the sun, but a hotbox where fried chicken was being churned out to lunchtime customers, it seemed like the hottest place on earth. That was before we even tasted the “medium” spiced chicken.

Pepperfire. Describes the ambience, and the food, very well.

Pepperfire. Describes the ambience, and the food, very well.

Served traditionally, on a slice of white bread with a few pickle chips (plus we ordered sides of collard greens and slaw), it looked innocent enough. But man, what a sensation taking that first bite. It was delicious, and so, so spicy. Burning-mouth spicy, the kind that makes you frantically wave your hand in front of your face, and not even cold Cokes and water helps. But you had to keep eating. It was absolutely delicious.

Heeeellllppppp!

Heeeellllppppp!

Jules, taking it one bite at a time.

Jules, taking it one bite at a time.

I later learned about how it’s made. Every hot chicken place in Nashville has their secret method, and ingredients, but here is one example that I found, an Epicurious recipe . Basically, you dip chicken pieces into a buttermilk batter made with hot sauce, then dredge it in flour and deep fry it. Then comes the Yikes Factor: You brush it generously with a sauce made from some of the hot frying oil and LARGE amounts of cayenne pepper.

My order of Pepperfire's Nashville style hot chicken

My order of Pepperfire’s Nashville style hot chicken

I’ve only found one place in Toronto that serves it, Parts & Labour on Queen St. West, and it was fairly similar to the stuff we had at Pepperfire, but I have to say, it did pale in comparison (and was much pricier). If you like spice, you have to go to Nashville just to try this unique meal.

U.S. Road Trip, Part 1: Nashville

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Now that the cold and snowy winter has reached our home here in Toronto, I’m thinking back to the very hot summer road trip to the U.S. that we took this past summer. I love country and bluegrass music. My husband is a fan, too. So we decided to drive to the southern U.S. and…

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