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

It’s “cooler” along the coast: Day tripping in Halifax

We boarded our neighbor's boat on the Halifax waterfront.
We boarded our neighbor’s boat on the Halifax waterfront.

For those of us who live along Canada’s Atlantic coast, weather reports in the summer always tell us that it will be “cooler along the coast.”   But we just think that everything is cooler along a coast!  If you have yet to spend any of your travel time along Canada’s Atlantic coast, come along with us – yesterday we spent a wonderful afternoon on the water in Halifax harbor, seeing our city from that different point of view – it’s so much cooler to see things from the water!

It was fabulously sunny and breezy as our wonderful neighbors picked us up at Cable Wharf on one of the floating docks beside Halifax’s Murphy’s on the Water and we were off.  Murphy’s itself is a restaurant, event space and water tour company all wrapped up in one.  For discerning travelers who aren’t as lucky as we are to have friends with (large) boats for touring, you can book a tour at Murphy’s on any one of a variety of boats.  We had the private experience – and we were off!

Once onboard as we shared sandwiches and a bottle of wine, we were reminded momentarily of our perfect day on the Med a few years ago.  But we didn’t have to travel to Monaco for it.

Halifax's waterfront: Historic Properties, the Marriott Hotel and Purdy's Wharf office towers beyond.
Halifax’s waterfront: Historic Properties, the Marriott Hotel and Purdy’s Wharf office towers beyond.

If you’ve traveled widely and have had the good fortune to see other harbors around the world, Halifax might seem diminutive by comparison to, say, Sydney, Australia (click here to see our entry into Sydney Harbor by cruise ship last winter), but there is something about the very compactness of the city and the elegance of the two suspension bridge spans that join the two sides of the city.  The air is clear and clean, and the other water traffic varied and interesting.

Just off the dock and we motored past Theodore Tugboat of television fame.  It might surprise travelers with children who love Theodore to know that he is a product of Halifax.  Indeed, the harbor where this children’s TV celebrity plies his trade on any given foggy day is a replica of this very harbor.  (If you don’t know Theodore, read all the way to the bottom and then watch him in action!)

You can even tour the harbor on Theodore Too.
You can even tour the harbor on Theodore Too.

Then, of course there are the varied tour boats.  The first one we see is a large sailing vessel, followed by the inevitable amphibious vehicle that tours locals and tourists alike not only on the harbor water, but also on the city streets.  In Halifax it’s the Harbour Hippo.

Just past the waterfront Historic Properties , the Marriott Hotel and the casino, we motored past numerous naval vessels (Halifax is home to Canada’s Atlantic fleet) and pleasure craft of various kinds and sizes.  We motored under both bridges and around what’s called Bedford Basin then back past the downtown and around into what is known as the Northwest Arm.

The main downtown portion of the city is on a peninsula that runs between the harbor and the Arm which is home to waterfront mansions and the Yacht clubs where dozens of tiny sail boats scurried across in front of us – ten-year-olds at the helms as they learned the fine points of sailing.

The Harbour Hopper: need we say more?
The Harbour Hopper: need we say more?

Motoring into "The Arm."
Motoring into “The Arm.”

 

The best bargain way to see the city from the water is to hop on the Halifax-Dartmouth ferry for a return trip.
The best bargain way to see the city from the water is to hop on the Halifax-Dartmouth ferry for a return trip.

 

A "mansion" on the Arm
A “mansion” on the Arm

The "Dingle Tower" & looking back out to sea from the Northwest Arm.
The “Dingle Tower” & looking back out to sea from the Northwest Arm.

Coastal cities have a vibe that’s different from the land-locked variety.  Maybe it’s the salt air and the ubiquitous seagulls.  Maybe it’s the way the sun sparkles off the water creating a sheet of diamonds.  Or maybe it’s just that there’s a kind of romance to a coastal life.  We just think it’s ‘cooler.’

Now, if you’d like to see how Theodore Tugboat sees Halifax…

So many beaches, so little time: The travel dreams of many

The deserted beach ringing the tiny Caribbean island of Barbuda just coming into view as we approach from Antigua via fast ferry.
The deserted beach ringing the tiny Caribbean island of Barbuda just coming into view as we approach from Antigua via fast ferry.

What is it about beaches?  When we want to conjure relaxing thoughts, we often find our minds wandering to the sounds of the waves rolling in and out, the wind, the seagulls.  There’s just something about them, and this world is full of extraordinary swaths of sand that beckon travelers.  Our recent return from the South Pacific and Australia with the plethora of beaches inspired us to pause and consider beaches we’ve walked – because, make no mistake about it , we prefer to walk a beach rather than lie on one – and beaches we’ll walk in the future.

Our most recent beach experience was Manly Beach in Sydney, Australia, the subject of our most recent video.  An urban beach, it really does go for miles and the boardwalk is a magnificent way to see it in its entirety.  And Manly did remind us a bit of Waikiki, which for all it has to recommend it, is not one of our very favorites.  So, we started to think, what were our favorite beaches?

Barbuda
Barbuda

A few years back we spent some time at the St. James’s Club, a wonderful resort in Antigua.  With its crescent-shaped beach within a lagoon, it offered many of the beach-side amenities everyone craves.  However, it wasn’t especially long, had little wave action and was bordered by the resort.  That trip, however, did take us to a beach that holds some our best beach memories.  We decided to take a trip to Barbuda.

We embarked the fast ferry, known to us now as “the vomit comet” (we were thankfully among the few who did not…well, you know) that beached itself along the deserted shores of the tiny island of Barbuda.  Although there are a couple of small, low-rise hotels along the beach, for the most part it was completely deserted.  We walked for kilometers in the sun listening to the sea roll in and out.  It was heaven.  Even now, years later, as we think about that day at the beach, we relax and breathe deeply.

Another of our favorites is the beach along the Condado in San Juan, Puerto Rico.  Stretching for several kilometers along the high-end neighborhood of the Condado, it is long, wide and sparsely populated – or at least it has been on the several occasions we visited San Juan.  Despite the hotels along this beach being a drive from Old San Juan, their proximity to this beach (just walk out the back door) makes them our choice when visiting Puerto Rico.

The beach in Philipsburg, St. Martin
The beach in Philipsburg, St. Martin

Two other beaches that are among our favorites are on that list for a different reason.  Rather than a day-long beach walk, they both offer interesting perspectives.

The beach at the Crane Resort on Barbados is often listed among the best in the world.  Well, that is clearly a subjective assessment, but it is beautiful and its location on the wild Atlantic side of the island does make its roaring waves mesmerizing.  Add onto this the fact that you reach it via either a steep staircase or the elevator (!) and you can get a sense of the kind of beach it is.

The other interesting one that brings a smile to our faces is the beach in downtown Phillipsburg, St. Martin.  The locals have built a magnificent boardwalk that divides the beach from a string of shops and restaurants.  Many of the restaurants offer beach chairs and buckets of beer for a lazy day taking in the activities in the harbor.  The sand is soft and the sun is hot.

Speaking of sand, our final two memorable beaches are memorable both for their locations and for their sand – we use that word loosely!

Promenade des Anglais in Nice, France
Promenade des Anglais in Nice, France

In the south of France, the grains of sand on the beaches cannot really be described as grains at all.  They are pebbles.  The beachfront in Nice is wonderful for a variety of reasons.  It is bordered by a several-kilometers-long walkway where people stroll, cycle and roller-skate, as well as some of the most interesting beach-front restaurants where you can sit on a lounger and sip champagne to while away the day.

Finally, if you ever have a chance to visit Canada’s most easterly province, grab a sweater and take a trip to Topsail Beach just outside the city of St. John’s in Newfoundland & Labrador.  Sit for a moment in the bracing breeze and pick up a few beach rocks to skim into the waves.  Listen to the seagulls and remember what Dennis Wilson of Beach Boys fame once said:  “On the beach, you can live in bliss.”

Have a few minutes, come along to Manly Beach with us.