Post-COVID Travel Begins: Starting Close to Home

Post-COVID Travel Begins: Starting Close to Home

Who says you have to jet off to far-flung places in search of amazing travel experiences? Regardless of where you live, we’d wager you could get in a car and drive for two hours to find yourself in another world. And you’re probably no more than a stone’s throw from some luxury accommodation. There’s a tendency to think that you aren’t really travelling if you haven’t left your own country. We beg to differ.

These discerning travellers live in Canada―Toronto, Canada’s largest city (4th largest in North America after Mexico City, New York and LA). So, for us, we only have to walk for ten to thirty minutes to be in any number of luxury hotels or to dine in a five-star restaurant. The COVID lockdown here in Ontario’s province has been longer and deeper than any jurisdiction on the continent. But we’re better off for it, and things are beginning to loosen up. So, it was time. We booked our first few days away in ten months, and we were off and running.

A pleasant hour-and-a-half drive from downtown where we live is where you’ll find small-town Ontario. This province is peppered with beautiful little towns and villages, and it’s about time we started exploring them. This year, we began with Alton, the home of Millcroft Inn and Spa, a member of the Vintage Hotels group. And it was lovely.

Two years ago, we stayed at Queen’s Landing in Niagara-on-the-Lake, another Vintage Hotel, so we were expecting great things. Built in 1881 as a knitting mill, the Millcroft Inn is naturally situated on the edge of a mill pond with a beautiful waterfall that used to run its machinery. The interior of the main inn building is a bit non-prepossessing if you really want to know. But, in its defence, we are in the middle of a pandemic, and the plexiglass screens don’t really add anything to the ambience. The bar area looks like it would be wonderful in better times when we could sit at that bar, but we had to eat outside on the patio during our stay. This is hardly a hardship!

A view of the main building from a small opening in the trees across the pond.

The patio is completely covered and sits on the very edge of the millpond. The view across the pond is of densely packed trees completely hiding the rest of the inn buildings beyond. Shortly after we arrived late in the afternoon, we realized we were famished.

We made our way to the patio and had the place all to ourselves as we watched the rain disturb the peacefulness of the pond while drinking beautifully crafted martinis and eating their excellent charcuterie board. To say that the food is terrific would be something of an understatement.

Since Alton is a very pretty but very small village, really, the only game in town for dining is the Millcroft itself. We made our reservations for our three evenings on the restaurant patio in advance, which is highly recommended. Each meal was as delicious as the one before.

Their breakfast menu is interesting, but since we were staying for three nights (we were told many guests stay for only one), the offerings can get tiresome. We also did note that the breakfast service was nothing like the dinner service, which was impeccable. Two days in a row, we had to inquire as to the whereabouts of our meals, which then arrived with tepid poached eggs. The problem at breakfast seems to be that the room-service patrons are given priority over the ones actually sitting in the dining room. This is something they could work on.

We opted to stay in one of their priciest accommodations―what they call a croft room. It is really a two-level suite with a walkout to a small private terrace. Ours was furnished with a private hot tub on the little deck. Since this is a spa, there are several outdoor public hot tubs, but we prefer time to ourselves (as anyone who had ever read anything we’ve written will already know!). It was lovely. What about the room itself?

Where to begin? Let’s just say that it is rustic―rustic to the point of needing a renovation. The bathroom had obviously been done, but that was probably at least a decade ago and could perhaps use another spruce up. But if you love rustic, you’ll be in heaven.

The sleeping area is upstairs, which we knew about in advance. What we did not realize is that the bathroom, on the other hand, is downstairs. That means a long, dark, steep climb down and back up should you have to get up in the middle of the night. It also means several ups and downs of the stairs just to get ready in the morning. Something to consider.

We enjoyed a six-kilometre hike on the property and were happy we took along our hiking shoes. That’s the beauty of a road trip. You can throw extras in the trunk of your car just in case. The trails wander through a wooded area and into beautiful open fields where not a building―or another single person―can be seen. The only downside was that the trail markings are less than accurate, and the map the front desk provided―well, it would be helpful if a staff member actually hiked the trails to see that the map isn’t as accurate as it should be. They need an app for that.

And speaking of technology―the inn has a well-developed AI concierge of sorts. We communicated with it via text, and when we needed ice or hangers, we simply texted, and a personable staff member appeared with our request.

We took advantage of being in an area of our province with which we are not that familiar and took a short road trip each of the full days we were there. The first was to the pretty town of Orangeville, where we had a lovely patio lunch. The next day, we explored Guelph and had another delicious patio lunch in their downtown area. Guelph is a university town, so the downtown is crowded with eateries.

Our three-day adventure was just the beginning. We can feel it in our bones. We’re waiting until the winter for our first post-pandemic big trip when we have three weeks of island-hopping planned. Until then, we’ll be hitting the road every opportunity we get!

Unexpected Florida: A road trip stop in St. Augustine

If the thought of a Florida vacation conjures images of drunken spring breakers and white-haired snowbirds shuffling around golf courses brandishing nine-irons, it might be time to broaden your view. The penultimate stop on our recent Florida road trip found us smack in the middle of the oldest city in the United States: St. Augustine.

We left downtown Orlando and headed northeast to the coastal city of St. Augustine. The farthest north in Florida we’d ever been, we knew that despite the fact it was late February, the weather might not be beach-worthy. We were right. But we weren’t quite prepared for were the extraordinary historic landmarks that make up this little gem of a town.

Founded by the Spanish conquistadors in 1565, St. Augustine is sometimes described as the longest-established city in North America. However, St. John’s, Newfoundland here in Canada was established in 1497 and Mexico City in 1325. But it is the oldest “continuously-inhabited European-established settlement” in the US (at least according to Wikipedia). And that Spanish influence is evident throughout the little streets of the old town.

The town has a lengthy and storied history: invasions by pirates in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, a British loyalist haven after Florida was ceded to Great Britain in 1763, changing hands several times to one of the most interesting parts of its history: the “invasion” of tourists brought by the extension of the railroad in the late 1800s.

Henry Flagler, one of the owners of the Standard Oil Company (with J.D. Rockefeller) enjoyed winter in St. Augustine in 1883 after which he decided to form a new railway company to lure wealthy Americans from wintery places like New York and Boston south for the winter season. He built two hotels: The Hotel Ponce de Leon and the Alcazar. He then bought the already-established Cordova Hotel and the town flourished. That is until the railroad was extended farther south to Miami where visitors could count on warmer weather throughout the entire season. St. Augustine was no longer the winter darling of the northern visitors.

Even today, though, those old hotels are triumphs of Spanish colonial architecture and are still wonderful to see experience.

The Hotel Ponce de Leon is now the beautiful home of Flagler College as the two photos below show…

…and the Hotel Alcazar is a museum, both worth visiting. We did. Here are two shots that evoke what it must have been like “back in the day.”

And then there’s the old Cordova Hotel that Flagler renamed The Casa Monica. Well, that hotel is now part of the Marriott Autograph collection of quirky hotels and it’s where we stayed. We spent two nights in the two-story St. Francis suite, a nice upgrade for two very loyal Marriott guests!

Art (in a down jacket and hat) in front of the Casa Monica Resort and Spa. It was cold!

Here’s what the St. Francis suite looked like…

The view from our suite…

…and the Casa Monica lobby…

We had already experienced a lot of “quirky” places on this road trip (Orlando, Sarasota) but this one was different. Although those little streets in the old town suggest it storied past, they largely house tourist “traps” that you might enjoy.

We enjoyed walking around and seeing what was there but we’re not really the tourist-shop kind of visitors. Instead, we walked miles over to the island and explored as many of the quiet streets as we could.

Ah for the tourists who prefer not to walk. We did not partake!

When it was time to pull out of St. Augustine, we were headed to our last stop: Fort Lauderdale, that hotbed of drunken spring breakers. No kidding!

Unexpected Orlando: The Florida Road Trip Continues

It’s hard to believe that we’ve only been back from our winter road trip through Florida for a few weeks and the world has changed so dramatically. So, who’s interested in reading about travel when travel is verboten? Since we love to read about travel even when we’re between trips, we’ll continue to share recent experiences. The next stop on the latest road trip was Orlando.

What comes immediately to mind when someone says “Orlando, Florida”? If you’re like us, the words conjure an image of a certain mouse and a theme park. Of course, Disneyworld is the destination for so many people who venture inland in Florida from one coast or another. But not for us.

We were last in the Orlando area when our son was three years old. He’s now over 30 so you can tell it’s been a while!

Breakfast with Minnie all those years ago. This visit would be different!

However, the last time we were there, we stayed on the Disney site in their Polynesian Village hotel. This time we weren’t going anywhere near the Magic Kingdom. We headed straight from Sarasota to the Grand Bohemian Hotel in downtown Orlando. We did, however, stop at two outlet malls. One of them was mind-boggling.

The International Premium Outlets in the Orlando area was the largest outlet mall we’ve ever experienced. The parking lot was unbelievable. In fact, much of the parking there is paid parking if you can believe it. The place was so big, we just wandered around marvelling at the sheer number of shops then left with not a single purchase. We then set out to find our hotel – through hideous traffic.

The main draw for us in the city of Orlando was the Grand Bohemian Hotel itself. Across the street from city hall and the municipal buildings, the hotel is part of the Kessler Group of hotels, now owned by Marriott. It’s part of their autograph collection which consists of an international collection of quirky and often historic properties. Who would have believed that this was in the middle of Florida?

When we checked into the hotel, it became obvious that we’d have to step up our wardrobe a bit from places like Key Largo and Naples if we didn’t want to stick out here. The hotel was populated mostly by business people in suits. We do enjoy stepping up our wardrobes, so this wasn’t a problem.

Orlando was something of a surprise to us. With a population of over 2.5 million, Orlando is the third-largest city in Florida. Dating from the middle of the nineteenth-century, the city still has reminders of what it might have been like in the 1800s. In the Church Street station area, the old train station is still there alongside saloons and other historic buildings.

We spent a lovely morning walking around the parks in the middle of the city, Lake Eola Park being the prettiest. With its piped-in music, swans and various bird species, the lake is a wonderful urban oasis.

But one of the most striking aspects of downtown Orlando is its variety of public artwork. We certainly appreciated it as we expect the locals do as well. One of the things we noticed was that despite what might come to mind when thinking of Orlando, we didn’t see a single child and there actually seemed to be very few tourists around. There’s no doubt, though, that this is a convention city.

We spent two nights in Orlando – long enough to see the city. Then it was off to St. Augustine, the oldest city in North America.

Sarasota, Florida: The road trip continues north

Three days in Naples, Florida was more than enough, so it was time to get back into the rented Jeep and head north. Next stop: Sarasota.

After the sprawling suburb that was Naples, we were looking forward to a bigger city – we do love a big city. We were going to have to wait some time, though, since Sarasota, although its downtown does sport a high-rise or two, isn’t really a city either. With a population just shy of 58,000, Sarasota was incorporated as a town in 1902. A few older buildings remain in the downtown area, including a mission church.

We checked into the Westin which is, in fact, located downtown, and walked the urban landscape. It didn’t take long!

The view from our room at the Westin
The Westin’s rooftop bar

The Westin itself is a very pretty, modern hotel. It did, however, have a few “issues.” The elevators were a nightmare – the waits were horrific. And the entire place seems to be understaffed. From the single person at the front desk to the fact that our room wasn’t cleaned until 5 pm the next day (after we called twice) to the wait staff running around the restaurant at breakfast like chickens with their head cut off. All in all, they do have a management problem.

The following morning, we headed across the bay to St. Armand’s Circle, a collection of restaurants, bars and shops.

We then carried on to see the beach through a residential area of laid-back, sometimes quirky little houses until we reached the beach.

A long stretch of white sand, the beach is located along an outer island that can only be reached, as we did, by crossing over a series of bridges that connect a series of keys. It was the weekend, the sun was shining, and the beach was busy.

Then it was time to stop for some rehydration (a beer) at ChaCha Coconuts, a funky little bar on St. Armand’s…

…before we headed back across the bridge toward our home-away-from-home. By the time we arrived back at the hotel, we had walked 15.5 kms. All in a day’s vacationing!

The map shows Sarasota’s downtown connected to the keys. We walked there and back!

Spending two nights in Sarasota was a good way to see the city. But more than that would have been too much. Next stop: downtown Orlando!