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Holiday, Vacation & Tour

 

Hello From Ottawa: The Historic Auberge Mcgee Inn (part I)

During my assignment here in Ottawa to cover the Tulip Festival I am staying in one of my favourite types of accommodation: a bed and breakfast. Not only will you ever see two B&B properties that are the same, the story of every bed and breakfast owner is unique as well. The historic McGee's Inn is located just steps away from the Rideau Canal, the ByWard Market, the Congress Centre, the University of Ottawa and Parliament Hill. For me it's a great location since I am able to...

Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, Bed, Breakfast, hotels, Rideu Canal

During my assignment here in Ottawa to cover the Tulip Festival I am staying in one of my favourite types of accommodation: a bed and breakfast. Not only will you ever see two B&B properties that are the same, the story of every bed and breakfast owner is unique as well. The historic McGee's Inn is located just steps away from the Rideau Canal, the ByWard Market, the Congress Centre, the University of Ottawa and Parliament Hill. For me it's a great location since I am able to walk to a whole range of major tourist attractions, sights and museums.

The mansion itself was built in 1886 for an Ottawa politician by the name of John McGee. His outspoken, famous brother Thomas d’Arcy McGee was actually murdered in 1868. The mansion was built in Victorian style and beautiful wood carvings adorn the fireplace mantels and artisans from as far away as Toronto contributed to the architectural detailing. After John McGee’s family left the property just before the First World War, it became a boarding house and remained run down until the early 1980s. About 25 years ago it was finally turned into a bed and breakfast.

Enter the Armstrong family. Two generations of Armstrongs, Ken and Judy and their son Jason and daughter-in-law Sarah decided that they would enter the B&B business together. Ken had worked for Bell Canada for 30 years, decided to retire early and completed his real estate license, something he had always wanted to do. Judy had worked for the United Church Canada in the Conference Office, looking after accounting and continuing education for 16 years. Sarah has a graphics background and had worked for the ByTown Group as a graphic artist.

Their decision to enter into business together was ultimately motivated by Jason’s layoff from Nortel following which he wanted to spend more time with his young family. So they sat down and brainstormed about different ideas about what kind of business they could get into together. Jason had liked working at the yacht club as a teenager and Sarah was working there at the same time. They were thinking of a variety of hospitality related businesses: they considered buying a pub, even an ice cream parlour, anything that would allow the four of them to get into business together. Then the idea of owning a bed and breakfast came up. That had a good ring to it and they started looking into this option.

Jason meanwhile received job offers from as far away as Boston but he decided he did not want get into lots of traveling and wasn’t keen on continuing to work in computers. Right around that time in 2003 the McGee’s Inn came up for sale. The advantage with this property was that it was much larger than the other B&Bs that they had seen, and it looked like it might be able to provide enough revenue to sustain two couples.

By that time the bed and breakfast was somewhat run down with metal diner-style chairs adorning the dining area. The fireplace was covered up and much of the Victorian detailing had been neglected. The two Armstrong couples decided that they were going to buy the McGee’s Inn and put in an offer on the property. Financing was a major problem, however. It took them nine whole months to get the financing since all the banks were scared of touching a tourism business. All the head offices of the major banks were located in Toronto which had just been traumatized by the SARS crisis and the tourism industry had taken a major hit. As a result the banks declined many mortgage applications for tourism-related businesses.

Finally, the Caisse Populaire stepped up to the plate. Judy mentioned that they were wonderful to deal with and the local loans manager came out several times to visit the property and had full confidence in their planned venture. Stephane inspected the property first-hand to figure out how to sell the application to his superiors. Judy describes him as the typical old-fashioned bank manager who makes business decisions based on personal relationships. Sure enough, the deal came through with the Caisse Populaire and the two Armstrong couples were finally in the B&B business.

When the sale closed they had a total of three days to strip every single room, throw out every bed spread, every curtain. The four of them took over the property on May 25, 2004 and on May 28, 2004 they had a full house. They took possession of the property on a Wednesday, Thursday the moving company arrived with all their furniture and they worked like crazy to get rid of the old bedspreads. Judy says she went through the house like a whirling dervish, throwing existing linens, comforters and pillows out into the hallway to start their redecorating as quickly as possible. At some point she asked Sarah to go out and buy 15 new pillows so she could continue with her decorating spree.

Over the next few months they gutted the property as fast as they could and installed a proper fire detection system. The Armstrongs replaced the furnace, put in new piping and new wiring for wireless Internet access. In addition to these major structural improvements, they also repainted and redecorated each of the 14 guest rooms of the McGee's Inn.

Judy laughs when she says that the entire Sandy Hill neighbourhood, including the residences at the University of Ottawa, probably feature a lot of their 1980s furnishings and decor. When they took over the B&B, they gave away much of the old furniture to Lazarus House, a homeless shelter in Ottawa, and they put the rest by the curb. Judy said it was funny how they used to watch their discarded items walk away one by one, very quickly, most of them picked up by students from the university which is located just down the road.

At present they are still renovating the basement where Ken and Judy will be living later on. Jason and Sarah are living off premises with their small son and daughter. I asked them how things are going for two generations of Armstrongs working together seven days a week in a demanding hospitality business. Judy said that Sarah is easy to work with and admitted that every once in a while she still treats Jason like her son rather than a business partner.

But all of them say that their joint entrepreneurial adventure has been very rewarding and they really enjoy working together. Most of all they enjoy the lifestyle that it affords them, the fact that they have more time for family. People used to ask them if they were crazy, especially during the first year when they were doing all these renovations. But for the Armstrongs it’s all worth it.

 

Hello From Ottawa: The Historic Auberge Mcgee Inn (Part II)

I enquired about how the transition phase went and Judy and Sarah said that it was pretty easy and seemed very natural. They had all read a lot of books on how to run a bed and breakfast and their previous work experience in different fields came in handy. They also did some first hand research and went to Kingston to stay in different B&Bs. Judy said that the key deciding factor is whether you like people or you don’t. She adds that they had always been comfortable hosting g...

Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, Bed, Breakfast, hotels, Rideu Canal

I enquired about how the transition phase went and Judy and Sarah said that it was pretty easy and seemed very natural. They had all read a lot of books on how to run a bed and breakfast and their previous work experience in different fields came in handy. They also did some first hand research and went to Kingston to stay in different B&Bs. Judy said that the key deciding factor is whether you like people or you don’t. She adds that they had always been comfortable hosting guests, they often threw parties for up to 50 people and had a clear idea of what they wanted their bed and breakfast to be like.

She admits that the beginning, their first summer, was hard. At that time their laundry room was downstairs and all their linens and cloths were stored on the lower level. Even if they only needed a facecloth they had to walk up and down several floors to get it. To make things easier they even used walkie-talkies to communicate between different levels of the building. At that time they were running all over the house to get things done. Today they have a second floor storage area for linens which puts a dent in the workload. Sarah adds that their bed and breakfast is a continuous work in progress and the ladies keep redecorating the rooms on a regular basis.

I proceeded to ask them about their daily routine. Judy and Sarah both responded that they get up at about 6 am or earlier. Judy starts getting the food ready, which always includes freshly baked muffins or croissants. Sarah arrives at about 7 am and prepares the juice. They generally set the tables the night before.

Breakfast is held at 7:30 or 8 am on weekdays and a half hour later on weekends. A great addition to their business is a commercial dishwasher which finishes an entire huge load of dishes in 3 minutes. Judy says that this appliance has been one of their best investments. As a result dishes are finished by 10 am.

The team also hired a helper, Jenn, who is a student at the University of Ottawa and comes in from Monday to Friday. The Armstrongs handle all their own laundry onsite. They have two commercial dryers and one commercial and one regular washing machine. Last summer they sent a lot of laundry out to commercial laundry services, but with their new laundry equipment this task is much easier to handle.

Their bed and breakfast is generally open all year round with the exception of one week between Christmas and New Years when they take off some personal time and get the wood floors re-sanded. Earlier this year Ken and Judy went on a Holiday, Vacation & Tour to Portugal while Sarah and Jason ran the B&B by themselves. The beauty of having two couples involved in running a B&B is that each of them are actually able to go on Holiday, Vacation & Tour every once in a while and are not tied down the whole year round.

I was also curious about their division of labour to see how they divvy up their daily responsibilities. Judy responded that she gets up early to prepare for breakfast and Sarah comes over a bit later. Sometimes it is also Sarah and Jason who prepare the breakfast. With a twinkle in her eye Judy says that Ken “gets in the way more than anything else” during breakfast preparation. He is more active in serving the breakfast and handling the coffee and tea service. Jason, Judy and Sarah do up the rooms and now they also have Jenn who helps them. Ken still spends some time working in real estate and he frequently has clients from out of town who stay at the McGee's Inn, so this turns out to be a great combination.

Judy and Sarah indicated that someone is always at the house because guests could need something at any given time. However, they take turns being there and occasionally they manage to go to the movies during the day time (Judy was planning to see the DaVinci Code later this afternoon).

When asked about their overall experience as bed and breakfast owners Judy said that they didn’t go into this business to become millionaires. She said if the basics are taken care off (housing, car, food) you are doing pretty well already and personal happiness is a question of priorities. As an example she mentioned a couple, personal acquaintances, who live in a huge house, travel all the time for business, and never have any extra money left over. In addition, this lifestyle puts a huge strain on their relationship and their children. For Judy having time for her family has always been more important.

Of course the Armstrongs also have some interesting guest stories to tell. Judy says that they have had wonderful guests from all over the world. The majority of them come from Quebec, Ontario, and the Eastern United States while some come from California and the West Coast. Travellers from Germany, England and Scotland like to visit particularly during the fall season. They have also had guests from more far-away locations such as Mexico, Argentina and India.

One of their guests from South Africa almost became like a family member. He would sit outside with them and just watch people walking down the street. He could not believe that people would go for a walk through the neighbourhoods because where he came from people have 8 foot fences, security systems and guard dogs, and people are generally scared to walk in public.

Other interesting guests included a couple riding a 3-wheeler motorcycle. They wanted to rent the Egyptian room, the best room at the McGee's Inn, for one night and came in wearing bandanas, leather suits and chops. In the end they stayed an entire week and were some of the most delightful guests they ever had.

Apparently, the male motorcyclist owned a factory that manufactured aircraft parts, he was also a passionate cook and a hobby farmer. He was so stressed out when he arrived since he had not had a Holiday, Vacation & Tour in a long time. His wife said she had not seen him this relaxed in a long time. Even though they looked a little intimidating on arrival, they turned out to be some of the best guests they ever had. This experience confirms that you can never judge a book by its cover.

It was obvious that the senior and junior Armstrongs both enjoy being in the bed and breakfast business. It was refreshing to see two generations from one family come together to make a joint life decision to structure their working life around their family priorities. The Armstrongs have obviously succeeded at that.

 

Hello From Ottawa: The Sheep Shearing Festival And Other Interesting Things To Learn About Wool

Once a year on the May long weekend, the Canada Agriculture Museum puts on its Sheep Shearing Festival. It is held on the Saturday, Sunday and Monday of the Victoria Day weekend. After my excursion to the see the Flotilla on Dows Lake, one of the signature events of the Tulip Festival, I took a slow walk on the western shores of Dows Lake past a serene nature area towards the Canada Agriculture Museum. As you ascend up a small hill from Dows Lake towards the museum, you get a...

Ottawa, Canada, sheep, wool, artis, museum

Once a year on the May long weekend, the Canada Agriculture Museum puts on its Sheep Shearing Festival. It is held on the Saturday, Sunday and Monday of the Victoria Day weekend. After my excursion to the see the Flotilla on Dows Lake, one of the signature events of the Tulip Festival, I took a slow walk on the western shores of Dows Lake past a serene nature area towards the Canada Agriculture Museum. As you ascend up a small hill from Dows Lake towards the museum, you get a beautiful view of downtown and the eastern part of Ottawa and it's a great location for a bike ride or a stroll.

Approaching the Canada Agriculture Museum from the east you first see extensive ornamental gardens that at this time featured a variety of spring flowers and entire rows of blooming lilacs. The Sheep Shearing Festival was held in one of the main buildings and I made myself comfortable in the first row of seating right next to the stage.

It was about 10 minutes before the next round of sheep shearing which takes place every half hour during the May long weekend. The announcer introduced me to a man called Dave, one of the herdspersons at the Canada Agriculture Museum who looks after the various animals, e.g. beef cows, horses, sheep, goats, pigs and rabbits. He explained to me that the Canada Agriculture Museum is a working farm and part of the Canada Science and Technology Museum. Its mandate is to teach agriculture awareness, particularly to children who have never even been on a farm.

Dave went on to explain that the beef cattle raised at the Museum are sold for reproduction and as meat. Milk from the Museum is also sold on the market and the income from these various activities helps to offset the cost of running the museum. Dave mentioned that at Easter about 12,000 people attend their special events which include an Easter egg hunt as well as a display of Easter bunnies.

There is no doubt that Dave is an expert in agriculture: in addition to working as a herdsperson for the Museum he also runs his own farm: some time ago he converted a very labour-intensive dairy farm into a less demanding beef farm, located about 20 minutes south of Ottawa. After this interesting introduction to the world of farming, the sheep shearing demonstration was just about to get underway.

The announcer asked the crowd, many of whom consisted of families with young children, what the purpose is of shearing sheep. A variety of interesting responses came forth, particularly from the young members in the crowd: "because the sheep get too hot", "because we need sweaters", finally someone said that sheep get sheared because we need their wool. Ross, a tough-looking but gentle professional sheep shearer came up on the stage, accompanied by an initially reluctant animal companion: a very woolly looking grown-up female sheep whose body posture indicated that she wasn't at all happy about being on this stage.
With the experienced grip of a professional shearer, Ross grabbed the animal by its legs, turned it around and sat the animal down on its rear end, supported against his lower legs. What I found amazing was that the sheep, that had originally been battling him and didn't want to come on stage, turned into a totally docile and compliant animal, once it was sitting on its rear end, with its front legs up in the air.

Ross and his woolly friend were soon ready for their demonstration. The announcer explained that in addition to the haircut, the sheep also receives a vaccination, an anti-parasite treatment as well as a manicure and pedicure during this process. Sure enough, Ross pulled out heavy duty clippers and the sheep's toe nail clippings were soon flying into the first row of the audience. Then the electric shearer came out and Ross started shearing the animal from the neck down. The announcer asked the crowd how long they estimated it would take to shear the sheep. A variety of responses came back, but the correct answer was 4 minutes. 4 minutes to shear an entire sheep!

Based on Ross's many years of experience, the shearing progressed smoothly from the neck to the sides, the back and the belly, and finally the entire sheep's fleece came off in one big fluffy piece. The announcer explained that the entire fleece weighs about 4 to 5 pounds and asked the audience to estimate the dollar value of a fleece. Answers shot out, $5, $10, even $60 for a fleece, but the correct answer is C$1.50. I could not believe it when I heard it, that an entire fleece would be worth less than $2! We found out that sheep are raised primarily for their meat, and that wool is simply a by-product that doesn't generate any significant revenue. Then the announcer invited the audience to feel the fleece and she explained that the sheep's coat feels a little greasy due to its lanolin content, a natural skin lubricant, also often used in hand creams.

Well, the sheep shearing demonstration was over, but I continued into the adjacent rooms and I happened upon a group of women who were sitting around the room, knitting, and displaying a whole assortment of home-knit sweaters, vests, gloves, socks and other garments. Wendy Steinbach from the Ottawa Knitting Guild explained to me that their organization has about 120 members (one of whom is male), and that they meet once a month to knit as a group and to discuss various knitting projects. The ladies were using a variety of materials, different strengths of wool, cotton yarn and one knitter even used cut-up strips of plastic bags to knit! Another lady explained that she pulls out her knitting when she is stuck in a traffic jam. Obviously knitting has tremendous therapeutic benefits if it is able to calm you down in a traffic jam .

We then continued to talk about all of our first knitting projects: the "boyfriend sweater". Even I, who's got absolutely no talent or patience for crafts, have knitted such a garment for a long forgotten significant other when I was 16 back home in Austria. Apparently knitting a sweater for your first love is a time-honoured ritual even on the other side of the globe!

Of course when I first learned to knit I learned the technical terminology in my native language, German, so I inquired what it means when you open up a finished garment to unravel the wool and undo your work. The ladies explained that the activity of undoing your hard work has a number of names: some call it "frogging", others call it "tinking" ("to tink" is the reverse of "to knit", hence the connection).

Dale, one of the ladies from the Ottawa Knitting Guild and Guide at the Canada Agriculture Museum, demonstrated the spinning process and she showed me how to use a "drop spindle". This manual process spins the wools without the use of a spinning wheel and Dale demonstrated that you can create a one-ply ball of wool, or you can even intertwine two threads and spin the thread in the opposite direction. She then showed me a pair of knitted mittens that had been washed in very hot water, and the wool's fibers had become intertwined, almost like boiled wool, a material that apparently has amazing cold-insulation capacity.

In the next room I met Karen Riches, who is a full-time "wool artist". Karen is an expert in all the disciplines of wool handling: spinning, dyeing, weaving, knitting and felting. What makes her work really unique is that she doesn't only work with conventional materials such as sheep's wool or cotton yarn. She actually uses dog hair to produce wool which she then weaves or knits into jackets or other garments. She said many of her clients comb their dogs and give her bags full of the soft fine hair that comes from their dogs' belly. She then turns these fine fibers into spun wool that she processes into a final garment.

Karen had set up a loom on which she was weaving an intricately patterned scarf made of silk threads. She explained that her current project involves 508 threads, and it takes her about 40 hours of preparation to set up the threads on the loom while the actual production of the scarf would take about 20 hours. Altogether with one set of threads she is able to produce 7 different items, all of which surprisingly end up having different colours and patterns. When I inquired about the price of one of these scarves Karen said that they run at about $150 which I thought was not surprising, considering the tremendous effort and labour involved.

Karen mentioned that she has 20 years of spinning experience and 18 years of weaving and that she participates in a studio tour called "Crown & Pumpkin" during Thanksgiving Weekend. I was astounded at her skills and the beautiful scarves and garments that she creates. For someone like me who has very little dexterity, patience or talent in terms of manual crafts, I always admire people who are able to create such beautiful items with their own hands.




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