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Holiday, Vacation & Tour


Hello From Toronto - Part 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 avo...

Toronto, Toronto travel, CN Tower, Casa Loma, Niagara Falls

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 faciliate 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 strenghtened 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 the waters of one of 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.


Hello From Toronto - Part 5 - Novice Golf, Driving Through The Kawarthas, A Little Off-Road Mountain-Biking & Preparing To Say Goodbye

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 ...

Travel, Toronto, Buckhorn, Distillery District

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 Holiday, Vacation & Tours 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 Holiday, Vacation & Tour 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 Toronto - Part 6 - The Toronto International Dragonboat Festival 2006

One of my favourite spots in Toronto is the Toronto Islands, that lovely patch of land right in front of downtown Toronto, separated by just a sliver of water. So close, yet so far from the city's hustle and bustle. One of the biggest events on the Islands is the Toronto Dragonboat Festival, a family event organized by the Toronto Chinese Business Association. In addition to being a great entertainment event, the Dragonboat Festival is also a big fundraiser for the Canadian B...

Toronto, Toronto travel, CN Tower, Casa Loma, Niagara Falls

One of my favourite spots in Toronto is the Toronto Islands, that lovely patch of land right in front of downtown Toronto, separated by just a sliver of water. So close, yet so far from the city's hustle and bustle. One of the biggest events on the Islands is the Toronto Dragonboat Festival, a family event organized by the Toronto Chinese Business Association. In addition to being a great entertainment event, the Dragonboat Festival is also a big fundraiser for the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation, so it’s not just fun, it’s also for a good cause.

So two days ago I headed off down to the waterfront and took the ferry across to Centre Island. At 10 am when I left things were still fairly quiet and the line-ups hadn’t started yet. People with bicycles, strollers, coolers on wheels, all equipped for a full day on the Island, were making the trek across the bay to enjoy the excitement of the Dragonboat Race and to bask in the serenity of this island sanctuary.

The ride on the ferry affords absolutely the best view of Toronto’s skyline and at $6 return it is one of the most affordable sight-seeing options in Toronto. All the skyscrapers, the CN Tower, the round shell of the Skydome (now called the Rogers Centre) and the outline of the historic Royal York Hotel come into focus when you look back at the city. Toronto’s skyline is one of the most recognizable images in the world.

After a fifteen minute ride I set foot at the ferry dock on Centre Island and started walking towards the so-called Alan A. Lamport Regatta Course, a stretch of water frequently used for rowing events of different kinds. People had already set themselves up all over the lawn, ready for a picnic. Onlookers were following the races. A food court was set up where various vendors sold different types of Oriental delicacies and the Multicultural Village provided cultural displays, arts and crafts demonstrations, as well as various activities for children. One of the stands had an amazing assortment of folded paper crafts including some beautiful decorative dragonboats. The lady at the stand told me it takes her a whole day to craft some of these masterpieces.

A real dragon boat actually is a long and narrow boat, powered by paddlers, and the boat is usually adorned by decorative Chinese dragon heads and tails. Usually a dragon boat will have a crew of about 22 people, with one drummer or caller facing the paddlers, and one steerer at the rear of the boat. Dragon boats are thought to have come into existence more than 2500 years ago in south central China and have a long history in Chinese rituals and celebrations.

The races had already started at about 8 am Saturday morning. Dragon boat racers were coming down the water channel, 6 boats at a time, in the qualifying heats for the finals. This year there were about 6,000 paddlers competing over two days. About 200 teams participated in more than 100 races over this past weekend and teams came from all walks of life: banks, community groups, colleges, universities and other educational institutions, hospitals, technology and pharmaceutical companies and many more.

I strolled past the grandstand and past Centreville, Toronto Islands’ amusement park, over the bridge to the other side of the race course with the intent to connect with some dragon boat teams. The first team I ran into was a group of high school principals and vice principals that get together every year to participate in the race and raise some funds for breast cancer. These educators were a very welcoming and enthusiastic bunch, and started chatting with me. Their coach Glen gave me further background about their training routine. He explained that around February the whole team goes out to public swimming pools and starts stationary paddling. Then around April they actually get into the water near Ontario Place and train twice a week. Some teams train as many as five or even eight times a week. Glen and his friends indicated that dragonboating is a supreme stress buster, providing welcome relief from the pressures of the classroom.

One of his team members indicated that I should definitely catch one of the most interesting teams in the race: a team of breast cancer survivors. So I started hunting in search of this team and I walked into the “Athlete’s Village” which had a variety of tents set up for the convenience of the athletes.

Finally I found the team, "Dragons Abreast", a group of women ranging in age between 35 and 75, who had all survived breast cancer. All were dressed in pink t-shirts to draw attention to the cause of breast cancer. I started talking to the group and found out that some of the group’s members have travelled to various destinations all across the world to promote the cause of breast cancer awareness. Some of them have recently travelled to Capetown, South Africa, and this year a number of them are participating in an international dragonboat race in Singapore.

Dianne, their media coordinator, explained that they race to promote awareness among younger women to participate in early breast cancer detection programs. She added that in the past many women were told to avoid strenuous upper body exercise after breast cancer surgery. The paddlers at Dragons Abreast on the other hand firmly believe that the exercise involved in dragonboating actually has significant health benefits, both physical and psychological.

One of the team members, a lady by the name of Pam, had recently participated in an initiative called UpKili: an event where 30 breast cancer survivors and their friends climbed Mount Kilimanjaro to raise funds for Breast Cancer Research. In total more than US$120,000 was raised. Pam told me that she ended up having an accident during the climb and had to be rescued and taken down by a team of sherpas. Nevertheless this was one of the most exciting events in her life time, being part of this unique initiative for this great cause. And despite her injury she ended up taking part in a safari even after the climb was finished. I was really happy to have connected with this group of courageous women who had overcome so much and are now taking their inspiring message to audiences across the world.

The official opening ceremony was going to be held at noon so I raced back into the main festival area. A group of politicians and dignitaries was assembled on the stage and after a number of speeches and welcoming remarks by the President of the Toronto Chinese Business Association, the ribbon cutting ceremony was held. A performance of the Lion Dance and the Eye-Dotting Ceremony of the Lions provided an authentic Chinese cultural flavour to this event. This was followed up by the Waist Drum Dance, organized and performed by the Chinese Professional Women Association of Canada.

I then strolled the grounds and by this time the food court was quite busy. Every special event has its special characters and just after the opening ceremony I saw this group of people strolling determinedly across the lawn, obviously a dragon boat team that had just finished their race. Their leader was pulling an imitation version of a multi-functional dragon boat that was spewing smoke, blowing soap bubbles and blaring Michael Jackson dance tunes through the built-in stereo system. The group was marching at a pretty fast clip and I had a hard time trying to keep up with them and taking pictures at the same time. Finally they settled in the shade by the water and I asked one of the team members what this was all about. He explained that his team was called "Kindred Spirits" and that they represented the Kinsmen in Bolton. They had indeed finished their last race of the day and were now ready to relax and celebrate, and their special miniature dragon boat was a symbol of their determination to have a great party.

The colourful characters kept coming. I ran into two bagpipers from the Ontario Provincial Police Commissioner’s Own “Pipes and Drums”, a group of uniformed and civilian volunteers, who make appearances as ambassadors for the O.P.P. all throughout Ontario. These two gentlemen were just enjoying a pizza when I came up to them and asked them about their upcoming performance. They said they would be performing at about 1 pm, “somewhere in the shade”. Both of them were dressed up in full Scottish regalia, kilt and all, wearing the colours of the Ontario tartan.

Of course I also had to ask them the key question that is burning on everybody’s lips when they encounter a Scottish bagpiper. The officer kindly responded and said that the answer totally depends on the question:

- If the question is “What is worn under the kilt?”, the answer is “nothing is worn under the kilt, everything is in great working order”.

- If the question is “What are you wearing under the kilt?”, the appropriate answer is “socks and shoes”.

That meant my curiosity remained unsatisfied, but I got a chuckle out of the answers which no doubt must have been given dozens of times before to deflect nosy queries. I only had about another hour on the island before I had to head back to the city, so I put on my inline skates and started gliding southwards through the gardens on Toronto Island which feature a fountain, several flower beds and reflecting ponds. South of there are locker rooms, the Island Bicycle Rental building as well as the Island Pier. West of this area is Manitou Beach, a sandy haven for avid sun worshippers. Further west from there is Hanlan’s Point, Toronto’s only clothing optional beach.

I had to get back to the mainland, so I started rollerblading in the other direction, eastwards towards Ward’s Island. Along the way I found numerous spots with canals, inlets and sailboats set against the backdrop of the city, indeed some of the best places to take in Toronto’s skyline in perfect serenity. Ward’s Island itself houses a community of permanent residents, many of them artists.

I ran into one of these talented folks, who was fabric painting on t-shirts in the middle of the lawn. Christopher Pinheiro is a Trinidadian-born multi-disciplinarian artist. His description on the Toronto Islands website lists him as “actor, dancer, model, masquerader, soup-chef and textstylist”. We had a brief chat about his fabric art as he was just painting a red maple leaf which would later be adorned by yellow and blue sections. Christopher is obviously an important member of the Toronto Islands artist community.

At 2:15 I caught the ferry back to the mainland from Wards Island together with probably another 20 or 30 travellers. Arrival on the other side was a different story: the ferry docks and the public area outside the ferry buildings were completely full with hundreds of people, lining up all the way out to Front Street. I guess everyone wanted to catch a piece of the Toronto Islands on this gorgeous day…

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