Puttin’ on the Ritz? Worth the splurge!

Puttin’ on the Ritz? Worth the splurge!

When Irving Berlin wrote the song in 1927, the name “Ritz” was already well known―and no one doubted that it meant living in a grand style. It’s now almost a century later, and it still evokes that same meaning for travellers around the world.

Today, the Ritz Carlton Hotel chain―with its long and storied history―is owned by Marriott and, as far as the discerning travellers are concerned, is the feather in Marriott’s cap. We’re long-time Marriott loyalty members (with the status to prove it). We’ve stayed at just about every level of Marriott’s, from a Fairfield Inn in Flagstaff, Arizona at one end of the spectrum to J W Marriott’s, W’s, Renaissance’s, and too many Autograph collection hotels to even mention all over the world. We have just returned from our fourth Ritz Carlton adventure.

Until now, the Four Seasons Hotel in Beijing took the top prize for us as far as service, ambience and overall experience were concerned. (Why we were in a Four Seasons and not a Marriott property is a long story―but a good one!) We’d even stayed in three previous Ritz Carlton’s recently―Fort Lauderdale and Naples, Florida and Half Moon Bay in California, and none of them topped The Four Seasons. Now, one had.

Two days in the Ritz Carlton in Montréal, and we can never go back to the Chȃteau Champlain, where we always stay when we’re there―and since Montréal is a mere five-hour drive from our front door, it’s a place we go more than many others. The Ritz is expensive. That has to be said upfront. But the question is: do you get value for your money? Yes, you do.

Ritz Carlton properties are always well-kept, and their staff―their ladies and gentlemen as they are called―are well-trained in the art of making individual guests feel as if they are the most important people in the hotel. They do this by learning your name, offering to help, continuing a conversation with you as they walk you to your elevator and punching in the button for you. They do this by fine details: water in your valet-parked car when you pick it up to continue your trip (although to be fair, they did that in California, but in Montreal, it seems like they forgot. Tut-tut.) Or then there is the tiny, perfect spray bottle of lavender aromatherapy left on your p pillow during turn-down the evening of your second night (Montreal). Yes, they do have turn-down, a service that seems to have all but disappeared in the hotel industry. Perhaps it’s not essential, but when they add details, the experience always makes you smile.

The rooms are beautiful, although not always spacious. That depends on location. Our recent room in Montréal was delightfully spacious, and the bathroom was to die for, with no detail overlooked. Everything from the heated towel rack to the high-tech toilet to the bath and shower amenities―everything was divine. And it was so spacious!

The restaurants at the Ritz Carlton in Montréal are beautiful. The main restaurant is a Daniel Boulud outpost (we love Café Boulud here in Toronto. It’s at the Four Seasons, which is a ten-minute walk from our door). The food was terrific, and the service was equally lovely. They do know how to pick staff, even in these days of hotel and restaurant angst following the pandemic.

The other dining venue is one of the most well-appointed bars we’ve seen. It’s stunning. It’s more of a bar, although we ate dinner there on the second evening. The service was a bit spottier, but to be fair, the server was personable if a bit inexperienced. He did flub up a few times, and his boss, who was sitting at the bar, probably should have stepped in. Nevertheless, we had fun.

There is little doubt in our minds that the Ritz Carlton makes travelling a bit more pleasant these days. And for us, it’s worth the splurge. If you go, just remember this: there may be no going back!

Take a few moments to tour the Montréal hotel with us.

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!

Autumn Escape to Muskoka

Lake Rosseau

Ever since Barry Manilow made a “Weekend in New England” synonymous with escaping from the city to a place that could “take you away” the notion of fleeing the urban metropolis for even a brief sojourn to tranquility has resonated. And it doesn’t even have to be to spend time with someone you see only infrequently (as the song seems to imply). Our escape to the country this past week wasn’t a weekend (it was a mid-week sojourn which is even better), it was the two of us who spend all our time together (who better to accompany you to commune with nature) and it wasn’t New England (it was the Muskoka Lakes region of Canada). But that’s just splitting hairs. We had a wonderful time.

We leave Toronto and head north toward what is referred to in the city as “cottage country.” This cottage country is situated on the southernmost edge of a landmass referred to as the Canadian Shield. This is a mass of some eight million square kilometres of pre-Cambrian rock face that all good little Canadians learn about in elementary school geography. We have to admit, it more frequently conjured images of flat masses of rock, and although this is the case way up north, this southern edge is largely forested. In the fall, it takes on rich hues of fiery red, vivid orange, vibrant yellow, and rusty brown. What really makes it cottage country, though, is the fact that the region is sprinkled with 1600 interconnected lakes and nineteen watersheds. That’s a lot of waterfront property!

The Muskoka region. We explored from Gravenhurst at the bottom around through Rosseau and over to Huntsville at the very top right-hand corner of the map.

As you can see on the map, many of the lakes are almost shard-like in their configuration, but among them are several sizable lakes. One of the three largest is Lake Rosseau – our destination. The drive north takes us almost three hours (only two and a bit if you don’t count the time it takes to actually clear the city!) and takes us past rolling countryside and lake after lake with cottages dotting the shorelines here and there. But don’t get the idea that these “cottages” are tiny substitutes for homes. There are a few of those, but so many of them have three-boat boathouses on the shore up from which you can glimpse the multi-million-dollar estates. These are the summer homes of the rich and famous, but mostly just rich. (The famous ones with homes here? These include Martin Short, Tom Hanks, Kate Hudson and parents Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russel, Steven Spielberg and even Justin Beiber if you must know.)

The day is rainy and cloudy, but we are never put off by the weather (remember the saying? There is no bad weather, only poor clothing choices. Amen to that). We arrive at our destination: the JW Marriott Rosseau Muskoka Resort and Spa to find that the staff all seem to have evaporated. There isn’t a bell-person or valet in sight. We haul our luggage in the door and once someone realizes that guests have arrived, the staff snap to Marriott-level guest service and we don’t have another complaint.

We arrive at the resort.

Our room has a wonderful view of the lake, a fireplace and a large terrace. Since the weather is a bit brisk, we don’t have much of a chance to sit out and meditate on the water and the clean air, but it’s wonderful nonetheless. Since it turns out that much of the resort is time-shared, the accommodation, regardless of size, seems to all have kitchenettes, eating and lounging areas. Our room was very spacious with a wonderful, large bathroom.

The living area of our waterview room…
Our fireplace…
Our view.

You could be forgiven for expecting this hotel to be a bit like the old-time grand hotels that we wrote about after we visited the Sagamore in upstate New York, but this one was actually built only ten years ago. This actually has a lot going for it since it means that the rooms are much larger and the bathrooms soooo much larger and better equipped.

Lake Rosseau waterfront at the resort.

With the nippy fall day, we really enjoy the two wonderful fireplaces in the lobby areas on the main floor – and a soaring atrium, a few other features that don’t come along with the old hotels. The hotel has two terrific high-end restaurants and we experience both. Teca, the Italian restaurant, is one of those places that make you feel as if you aren’t actually in a hotel rather dining at an esteemed restaurant anywhere in the world. The food and service are both brilliant. The Chop House is also a terrific steakhouse.

The resort from the water side.

So, here we are in Muskoka. What to do? The resort itself offers a few activities, none of which are the kinds of things we like to do, so we decide to explore the area. Each day we head out to explore another road and visit the three largest towns in the regions Bracebridge, Gravenhurst and Huntsville. Bear in mind that the population of Huntsville, the largest, is something shy of 20,000. That being said, we manage to find great places for lunch and Patty finds at least four terrific little boutiques for a bit of shopping. When we arrive back at the resort, the staff have a wood fire burning out front. One day they’re asking us to join them to roast marshmallows. Another day they’re offering hot chocolate. There is hardly another soul around in spite of the fact that a convention has arrived. We love the solitude.

If it had been a bit earlier in the season, we could have boarded one of the vintage lake steamers from the dock at Gravenhurst to tour Lake Rosseau from the water. Maybe next time.

But the highlight of the visit was the young people working at the Marriott resort. They represented a variety of ethnicities and cultures yet seemed all to be acquiring the Marriott culture that is always something we look forward to when we visit other cities and countries. A weekend in New England? How about a mid-week escape to Muskoka? Done!

When both locals and tourists love a restaurant, you know it has to be good: Rhubarb Café in Nova Scotia

img_3994One of the great pleasures of travel is discovering new places to eat. Sometimes, though, revisiting a favourite haunt can be equally fabulous as illustrated by our recent road trip through northeastern US and Canada.

When visiting Halifax, Nova Scotia, it is mandatory to take a trip along what the tourism people call the “lighthouse route.” And for discerning travelers, it’s mandatory to eat along the way. There are choices: you can eat at Peggy’s Cove if all you really want is the view of the lighthouse (the food is secondary), or you can stop in at Hackett’s Cove and eat at the Finer Diner. We aren’t kidding: that’s really their name (the food is okay; the view okay). We’ve eaten at both on more than one occasion. Or you can make the right choice and stop in Indian Harbour at the best of the lot: Rhubarb Café.

Let’s back-track for just a moment. We used to live on the east coast, on the shore of St. Margaret’s Bay about a seven-minute drive from Rhubarb, a restaurant that has had at least three different owners since we first began visiting it. But it wasn’t until the current proprietors took it over that it was truly able to strike that balance that restaurants in touristy areas need – they need to offer something for tourists and locals equally so that they can thrive in both the tourist season and in the off season. Current owner/operators Diane and Jim Buckle have found just the right recipe.

You leave downtown Halifax and take route 333 along the coast, looping past Peggy’s Cove on the way to Indian Harbour. You can eventually close up the loop and head back into the city, or continue along the St. Margaret’s Bay Road (or the highway if you prefer) down along Nova Scotia’s south shore. But before you do, have lunch, dinner or weekend brunch at Rhubarb.

map-to-rhubarb

Rhubarb’s tag line is “…delicious food and welcoming service in a cozy seaside setting…” And it lives up to its press. We first met Diane when she was working at the restaurant at Peggy’s Cove many years ago. We always knew that she had exactly the right personality and customer service mentality to make it on her own in the business if the opportunity presented itself. When she and her husband Jim took over Rhubarb some years ago, we couldn’t have been more delighted for them – and for us.

img_3993
Restauranteur-extraordinaire, Diane Buckle, behind her bar at Rhubarb.

 

Located adjacent to Oceanstone Seaside Resort (but not actually a part of it), Rhubarb focuses its menu on comfort food with a dash of culinary inventiveness. For example, their kale Caesar salad is truly wonderful, as are their pork tenderloin and their crispy haddock – these are favourites of ours. However, we also visit Rhubarb for creative pizzas, and they often offer a specially-topped pizza of the day. Their 10-inch, thin-crust pizzas are really worth trying. Art’s favourite is the Lawrencetown (named after a famous Nova Scotia beach) – bacon, red onion, pineapple and hot peppers. Odd sounding? Maybe, but it works.

So the food is worth the drive. And the welcoming service is worth the drive. What about the ambience?

The cozy dining room has two focal points: the view of the bay beyond (it’s not directly on the water), and the large fireplace. As you dine, you’ll be surrounded by a plethora of local artists’ work. Every time we visit, the art work is different – and it is all for sale. It’s great fun to take a walk around and peer at the walls while waiting for lunch – although if it’s busy you might want to peer from afar so as not to annoy other diners! Feel free to buy one, though.

It’s not often that we focus on just one restaurant or hotel in our stories, but this one is worth spending a bit of time on. Wonderful people serving delicious comfort food. Need we say more?

Visit Rhubarb online at http://www.rhubarbrestaurant.ca/ and on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/therhubarbrestaurant/?fref=ts