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!

(Almost) Live from Hong Kong

Among the vagaries of using cruise ships as transportation is the fact that satellite internet is notoriously fickle. We left Hong Kong several days ago and published a brief post about our wonderful private tour with a Tours-by-Locals guide. Unfortunately it never did get posted and the draft went missing. However, although we’ll tell a more in depth story when we regroup at home later in May, it needs to be said now that there is no better way to see a city than with a private guide.

We taxied up to Victoria Peak, traveled down by funicular, rode the subway to Kowloon, explored traditional markets on foot, enjoyed the local bus system in the pouring rain, rode the Star Ferry back to Hong Kong Island, and ate dim sum for lunch with the local population. All of this was because we had Jacky to lead the way.

The city of Hong Kong was so much more than we could even have imagined…and all in a good way! So much more to tell…

Travel Planning: Asia in our sights

It’s mid-April and here in the northern hemisphere the calendar says it’s spring. One look out our windows here in Toronto, however, tells a whole different story. We’ve been in the grips of a late-season ice storm for the past few days and it could not look more like winter out there. What better time to be thinking of Hong Kong and its current 25° C temperatures!

We’ve been actively planning this Asia trip for some time. It all began some time last year when, despite Asia having been on our travel bucket list for some time, we mused that perhaps we didn’t really need that 15-hour flight. When our son got wind of our thoughts on the subject he implored us not to give up the idea. In his view we HAD to visit Hong Kong and Tokyo at least. He had performed in both cities on various tours with Les Ballets de Monte Carlo a few years ago and told us that we’d love both experiences. So, we decided to take his advice and plan a trip that would include both.

ashford castle
It was just the two of us and Kevin, our guide, in his Mercedes when we toured Ireland a few years ago. Here is our transportation parked out front of Ashford Castle. 

We looked at land-tour options and those included a number of regional flights in China. We wondered if we really wanted to spend that much time in airports where we didn’t speak the language, and worse, couldn’t even read the language characters. That seemed like a bit of a drag to us, although we considered a Kensington private, guided tour, since we had used them before in Ireland and were more than satisfied. But there were other options. We could consider transportation between cities by ship.

As long-time readers know about us, cruise ships are really just comfortable methods of transportation for us usually. Okay, we sometimes do like an island hop in the Caribbean on a six-star ship, but in recent years, our “cruises” have been selected based on their itineraries. So, we decided to check out our favourite cruise lines to see what they offered in Asia.

We explored Oceania, Regent and Cunard. We even considered Holland America, although we haven’t travelled on them in years. It turns out that the vast majority of the itineraries on offer include one but not both of the must-see cities on our list – Hong Kong and Tokyo – and truth be told, most cruise lines don’t actually seem to go to Tokyo at all. Then we hit on Silversea. (You might remember that we sailed on Silversea’s new ship the Silver Muse in the fall down the western coast of South America – in actual fact, we had booked this Asia cruise even before we left for that one!)

silver shadow
We’ll be sailing aboard the 382-guest luxury cruise ship the Silver Shadow. [Photo credit: https://www.silversea.com/ships/silver-shadow.html]
Silversea was the only one we found that began in Hong Kong and ended in Tokyo. That was perfect: we could spend a few days in Hong Kong before sailing, then end with four or five days in Tokyo. So, we booked. One of the nice features of this itinerary was also that the ship spends two days in each of the important ports of call: Shanghai, Beijing, Osaka. It also offers a couple of mid-cruise land tours where you leave the ship for an overnight on shore so that you can explore places you couldn’t do in a single day. Next on the agenda – right after touching base with our long-time travel agent Angela (Maritime Travel) who booked our non-stop flights to and from our destination – was to plan how we would see the sights.

map

First, we looked at the cruise line’s own offerings. We decided to book their overland trip in Beijing. When the ship docks in Tianjin (the port for Beijing) we’ll be on the fast train into the city for touring. Then we stay overnight at the Four Season’s Hotel in Beijing. The next day we head to The Great Wall then back to meet the ship. Unlike the shore excursions which, on Silversea, you book in advance but pay for when you disembark the ship, this overland trip had to be paid for in advance. Done.

As we looked at the other offerings, it occurred to us that there were choices among them that would permit us to see as much of the stops as possible. So, we booked a number of excursions. Silversea’s shore excursions, in our experience, appear expensive to the untrained eye, but they do have fewer people on buses and are generally good value for the money. That took care of planning for Shanghai, Hiroshima, Osaka and Kyoto. That left us with our book-ends: Hong Kong and Tokyo.

Naturally we looked to Tours-by-Locals, our go-to company for private touring around the world.

tours by locals banner

Our private guide in Hong Kong has now arranged our transportation from the airport to our hotel on Hong Kong island, will provide us with a private tour of the city and arrange for our transportation to the pier. Our Tokyo guide has arranged three days of city touring and a day of touring outside the city – then will drop us at the airport after four days there. And all of this was arranged through Tours-by-Locals’ web site where we were able to arrange all the details which are personalized for us. Our Tokyo guide has even provided us with materials to help us acclimatize to Japanese culture as well as an extensive list of recommended reading. Well, we opted to prepare for this trip not through too much reading, but via two video-based courses.

We bought two courses from The Great Courses, a site that we’ve gone to throughout the years for a wide variety of educational programming: Foundations of Eastern Civilization (Craig G. Benjamin PhD), which was 48 half-hour lectures and Understanding Japan: A Cultural History (Mark J. Ravina PhD), 24 half-hour lectures. And yes, we watched every one of them.

Both professors are experts in their fields, but more important perhaps even than that is that their passion for their respective specialties is palpable in their terrific delivery. We didn’t take notes, but we feel that having done this in advance, we can more fully experience the history and culture of our Asian destinations. We’re looking forward to seeing in real life many of the places and experiences both shared with us.

Now that we’ve booked and finalized everything, and prepared our brains for new adventures, we’re just about ready to board that plane. We leave in five days. Hope you’ll come along with us!

IMG_1564
Getting ready…trusty Briggs & Riley carry-ons. 

Can a cruise be a true travel experience? Oceania showed us how

We left Papeete at 10 pm one hot, sticky February night.
We left Papeete at 10 pm one hot, sticky February night.

Over the years we’ve observed that there are only two kinds of travelers who scoff at the notion that cruise travel could be a wonderful way to see the world. They fall into one of the following two categories: those who have never been on a cruise, and those who have been on one and chose the wrong (for them) cruise line.

The truth is that we’ve actually seen converts to cruise travel, but this only happens if the traveler is discerning enough to select the right cruise. We’ve told stories before about why we’re not loyal to one cruise line, and our most recent trip only supported our discerning approach to seeing the world via cruise ships (although to be truthful, it is certainly not the only way we travel). The most recent experience that supports our continuing adherence to this policy started one beautiful day in Papeete, Tahiti about seven weeks ago.

We have been on beautiful ships before – the Queen Mary 2 comes immediately to mind – but the Oceania Marina was something else again. And the cruise line itself was a brilliant ‘find.’ The trip really didn’t start there, though. It actually began last winter in St. Martin where we ended a Caribbean cruise on the Seabourn Spirit. The Seabourn cruise – a luxurious experience to top the list – was certainly at the top of our list until last month, but it was because of the Seabourn experience that we even ended up on Oceania.

Marina's elegant foyer
Marina’s elegant foyer

With only four ships and ten years of cruise-line experience, Oceania hadn’t even appeared on our travel radar. It wasn’t until we were having dinner one evening on the French side of St. Martin when our dinner companions, an American couple who had just disembarked from the Seabourn ship at the same time we did, asked us if we’d ever tried Oceania. Given that they had just stepped off a 204-passenger, ultra-luxury ship that had impressed all of us with their guest service and attention to detail, and yet they were recommending another line, it seemed that we should listen to them.

So, months later when we were examining itineraries for this winter, we happened upon Oceania’s and decided that since it fit our requirements, we’d book. Our only hesitation was that the ship would have 1200 guests, a worrisome increase in numbers. We did know, though, that the amenities offered in a larger ship might offset our apprehension about the larger numbers ( it has to be mentioned here that we would never even consider a ship with more than about 2000 passengers and the closer to 500 the better).

It’s difficult to truly capture the elegant sophistication of the décor and ambience of the Marina in a few words. Our brief video tour might do it more justice.

In spite of our delight in dressing up over the years, we seem to have evolved to a point where taking gowns and tuxedos on long holidays is losing its luster. But the truth is that on mainstream cruise lines, people actually do behave better when they’re dressed up a bit. We weren’t sure what to make of the “country club casual” dress code before we left. Surely ‘country club’ means different things depending on where you’re from and whether or not you’ve actually ever been to a country club. To their credit, the passengers on the Marina were by and large beautifully dressed. In the evenings, although there was no requirement to dress up, the vast majority of passengers did step it up and present themselves elegantly – if a bit more casually than you might see on the Queen Mary. We were very happy with the ambience.

Our Penthouse suite was, from our previous experiences, a bit tight. At 420 square feet (we believe that must include the verandah), it should have been large enough. The 376 sq. ft. Penthouse on Regent’s Mariner seemed more spacious. We have concluded it has to do with the excessive amount of furniture that makes it feel tight. But well-appointed it was. In fact, it was probably the prettiest suite we’ve ever been in (we can’t compare it in size to some of the others since many of them were in higher categories).

And here it is…

 

The penthouse suite was beautifully appointed, if stuffed with furniture.
The penthouse suite was beautifully appointed, if stuffed with furniture.

Other highlights of this cruise were the staff (to a person they were smiling, friendly, guest-oriented, and efficient), the dining (possibly the best we’ve ever experienced at sea) and the onboard culinary institute.

We registered in advance for three two-hour cooking classes in their state-of-the-art teaching kitchen and found it to be the best organized, most interesting and informative activity on a cruise ship. And Oceania is the only line that has this on two of its ships. Other lines offer cooking demonstrations, but Oceania offers much more.   These classes on the Marina, accommodating only 24 guests at a time, were hands-on classes. We came home with some wonderful new recipes and several new technical skills.

Our only complaint was about the evening entertainment. It seemed to be geared to the over-eighty crowd. The potential in the musicians was there, but when they mechanically launched into “The Tennessee Waltz” we wondered when the nurses would be around with the medications! A little tweak there and it just might be the perfect cruise line for the discerning travelers among us!

Of course, the real highlight of the trip was the travel part – to parts of the South Pacific that we thought we might never see. Put Bora Bora on your bucket list and come along with us next week as we take you to the top of the volcano in the center of the island.