Dear Residents of 1906 Prince Edward County Road 2,
Wow. Just wow. I wish I could have met you on Sunday, if only to congratulate you on the best private-residence Halloween setup I have ever seen. You are gifted beyond measure -- or seriously twisted, or perhaps both -- and in a world full of greed, negativity and selfishness your front yard is a beacon of blood-curdling fun. No tricks, just a genuinely terrifying treat.
In short, you give me hope!
Yesterday was no ordinary Wednesday, and not just because it marked the legalization of recreational cannabis consumption in Canada. In fact, as the afternoon unfolded, Oct. 17 became curiouser and curiouser:
Noon: I join my buddy Joel for lunch on Roncesvalles Ave. The bacon on my BLT is burned, the poutine is seriously over-curded, there are jalapeno poppers mixed in with my chicken wings, and 80 percent of our cupcakes are sloppily iced.
2:15pm: As our server searches for the misplaced payment machine, we overhear two diners planning an art exhibit. When one suggests some kind of naughty Banksy knock-off — “Spanksy” or something like that — the other laughs and exclaims, “Are you high?!?” The reply: “Yes, as a matter of fact, I am high.”
2:30pm: While walking home, I witness the near-collision of three exhausted-looking Uber Eats cyclists and a careening Foodera delivery van.
2:45pm: The dentist office calls to confirm my Oct. 15 cleaning. After clearing that up — oh how we laugh — we eventually come to an agreement that teeth are kind of gross.
4pm: The cable company calls to convince me to upgrade my channel package. We spend the next 19 minutes discussing our favourite Black Mirror episodes.
4:19pm: Inexplicably, the line goes dead. I look at my phone and notice I’ve lost both the cell signal and Wi-Fi connection. Suddenly the power goes out, and seconds later I hear the unmistakable wail of air raid sirens. I run into into the front yard, and stare open-mouthed at the sky as a squadron of Zeppelins blocks out the sun while a flock of heavily-armoured flamingos...
4:20pm: I jolt awake to the sound of the ringing doorbell, check the time, leap from the bathtub and hastily don my housecoat. I'm not expecting a visit from Snoop Dogg, but you never know.
4:22pm: It turns out to be the good people from the Save the Children charity. I donate a few bucks after they stop giggling for long enough to explain that opting not to save even a few children is a "total dick move."
4:45pm: When I ask Google to “play Tragically Hip” — it being the first anniversary of Gord Downie’s passing and all — it plays “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35.” When I ask it to play the Grateful Dead, it plays “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35.” Ween? “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35.” Englebert Humperdink? “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35.” And so it goes...
4:55pm: I call Google tech support and am put on hold. The music on the line? You guessed it.
5:15pm: How did all these tumbleweeds get into the toaster strudel aisle at the grocery store?
5:30pm: Everyone in the "12 items or less" line is trying to recover their credit-card passwords.
6pm: On my way out of the store I stop to chat with the two off-duty police officers guarding the ice cream. Coincidentally, both are looking forward to the four-week vacations they just booked.
With recreational cannabis consumption set to become legal in exactly one week, this Mostly Amazing series explores 11 places across the land that are best experienced with a buzz.
A gibbous moon hangs over the plump hills of Quebec’s Eastern Townships as my two daughters and I climb the meandering path to National Geographic ObservÉtoiles, marketed as “the world’s first open-air augmented-reality planetarium."
From this glorious vantage point – a 184-seat hillside amphitheatre surrounded by a recently designated Dark Sky Preserve – reality seems to be doing just fine without any digital augmentation. Then again, we have yet to test our smartphone-equipped headsets.
The moment we tilt our heads left or right to activate constellation mode, ObservÉtoiles’s unique appeal becomes apparent. To paraphrase the late Gord Downie, our headsets reveal the constellations one star at a time while overlaying them with mythical figures. These swim into view and fade away as we scan the midnight-blue horizon. (The hour-long presentation actually begins in solar system mode, an astronomer-narrated planetary fly-by that isn’t all that different from traditional planetarium shows.)
Jeremy Fontana, owner of the surrounding Au Diable Vert nature resort, began developing the concept more than two years ago with Andrew Fazekas, a Montreal-based science writer and educator. (Nat Geo brought its marketing muscle to the table as the project neared its June 23 debut.) And while sitting in the million-dollar amphitheatre is definitely a memorable experience, one of the best elements of ObservÉtoiles is that you can relive it at home: All adult guests can keep their headsets, minus the slotted-in smartphones of course.
A few nights later, the horizon is punctuated not by rolling hills, but by condo towers. The lustrous digital constellations, however, remain much the same as my daughters and I make good use of our souvenir. By downloading the free StarChart app to my own device, we’re able to recount much of what we learned about the heavenly bodies above us.
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With recreational cannabis consumption set to become legal in exactly two weeks, this Mostly Amazing series explores 11 places across the land that are best experienced with a buzz.
There’s nothing like the first T-shirt sighting of the season.
Having just arrived from winter-weary Toronto, I pull an abrupt double-take when three sleeveless Kamloopsians stroll into view in early April. They too seem surprised, but not by my woolly sweater. It’s my ride – Tastefull Excursions’ new wine-touring van – that turns their heads.
“Must’ve taken a wrong turn in Kelowna,” one says, referring to the Okanagan Valley, an hour down Highway 97, where 120-plus vintners comprise “the northernmost serious wine region in the world,” according to Travel + Leisure.
It soon becomes clear the magazine should have looked further north. Granted, viticulture is new to the Thompson River basin around Kamloops, with 2010 marking the first vintage year in what’s known as Thompson Country. “Wine region” is a stretch, even with more wineries rumoured to be joining the four already in place.
That’s where the neighbouring Shuswap comes in. The Thompson-Shuswap, as the B.C. Wine Institute calls it, is home to a dozen licensed vintners that are winning awards with rare cool-climate varietals such as Ortega, Maréchal Foch and siegerrebe. Travellers familiar with better-known terroir won’t believe where these grapes thrive – on pine-covered mountainsides and in hoodoo-lined valleys – not to mention the calibre of what’s bottled.
Combine this burgeoning route with an astonishingly active farm-to-table scene encompassing eateries, bakeries, markets and a wide-ranging “Full Circle Farm Tour” guide, and, well, let’s just say my T-shirts have become noticeably tighter.
My tasting tour was inspired by a January visit to Sun Peaks Resort, a 45-minute drive north of "the Loops." I was there for two reasons: To ski the snowy Monashees, and sip my way around the 16th annual Winter Okanagan Wine Festival. I had expected to be charmed by the 10-day event's namesake offerings, but was shocked that labels much closer to Sun Peaks were making such great strides.
"We got into this because we tried the Harper's Trail wines and they blew us away," explains Tastefull Excursions owner Maatje Stamp-Vincent as her 11-passenger Mercedes-Benz pulls away from my hotel. "No one else around here is doing this, so we just went for it."
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With recreational cannabis consumption set to become legal in exactly three weeks, this Mostly Amazing series explores 11 places across the land that are best experienced with a buzz.
As a dad, I rely on magic over the winter holidays.
"How does Santa get down the chimney?" my daughters ask.
"Magic," I reply.
"How does he deliver presents to all the kids around the world?"
"To all the good kids? Magic."
While it has proved indispensable as an explanation (and disciplinary tool), "magic" was starting to feel like a bit of a cop-out before I experienced Lumina Borealis in Kingston.
That's when everything changed. If you want to restore your faith in magic, while proving to your offspring that it is real, visit the dazzling multimedia installation that's slated to return to the Fort Henry National Historic Site this December for its third winter.
I jumped at the chance to check out Lumina Borealis at the tail end of my family's circuitous holiday road trip around Ontario and Quebec. I was drawn to the stirring outdoor setting I had only experienced in summer – never before has the 181-year-old fort offered anything on this scale in winter – and was intrigued by a comment from the daughter of St. Lawrence Parks Commission CEO Darren Dalgleish, which is said to have inspired the project: "You need to do Frozen meets It's a Wonderful Life."
My inner audiovisual aficionado, meanwhile, wondered what $3-million worth of projection, light and sound equipment looks like.
In short, it looks out of this world. Our walking tour of the lower fort took about 90 minutes, and I could spend at least that long describing the interactive, immersive wonders that unfolded as my family strolled, awestruck, around the yawning dry moat. After wandering through a glowing assembly of stylized icebergs and an evergreen forest clad in iridescent icicles, we reached a towering stone wall blazing with projected colours. Our shadows appeared on the wall as we passed, but not in their usual form. Instead, they somehow morphed into the swirling display, enticing us to twirl, jump and dance.
As one silver-haired visitor giddily remarked, "This takes me back to the sixties."
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With recreational cannabis consumption set to become legal in exactly four weeks, this Mostly Amazing series explores 11 places across the land that are best experienced with a buzz.
“Do you want to jump?”
I wouldn’t usually accept this invitation when standing on an alpine lookout 280 metres above a rushing river. But I jump anyway … and again, and again. Turns out my guide and I both have to keep hopping to achieve the desired effect: Making the new Glacier Skywalk in Jasper National Park tremble like a suspension bridge.
This isn’t the first thrill I encounter on the award-winning catwalk, a cantilevered structure that juts 30 metres out from the cliff face. It takes me a minute or two to venture out onto the shiny glass floor, which, like the ones at the CN Tower in Toronto and Grand Canyon Skywalk in Arizona, delivers the disconcerting impression of stepping into thin air. It’s also one of the few lookouts in the world where visitors will immediately stare at the floor, rather than out a window or over a railing at the beauty beyond.
Here along the Icefields Parkway, the 230-kilometre ribbon of asphalt linking Banff and Jasper, that beauty is world-renowned. Each year, about a million travellers come by car, bus and bike to admire its glacier-clad peaks, turquoise lakes and rushing waterfalls. Thousands of these visitors venture deep into the surrounding wilderness, but they are the exception. According to Parks Canada, less than a third leave a paved surface.
Fostering deeper connections with the outdoors is one of the main goals of the Skywalk, explains David McKenna, president of Banff-based Brewster Travel Canada, which owns the new attraction. “We’re luring people into nature in a very controlled, safe environment that also educates and cultivates respect for the park,” he says, adding that the Skywalk allows visitors to explore independently and “take a step into the wilderness that feels a little bit daring.”
The 300-metre-thick Athabasca Glacier isn’t quite visible from the Skywalk, but no matter: Directly under my feet, the Sunwapta River surges past striated cliffs, while dozens of frozen waterfalls, visible through the glass safety railings, catch the late-morning sun as they cascade down the canyon’s far side. To the right, a procession of peaks stretches to the horizon. To the left, a snow squall envelopes the Andromeda and AA glaciers, Athabasca’s neighbours. Looming up ahead is Snow Dome, Canada’s only hydrological apex, where the meltwater from this 3,456-metre summit eventually flows into either the Pacific, Arctic or Atlantic oceans. (At least, that’s what it said on one of the interpretive stations along the 400-metre walkway leading to the lookout.)
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With recreational cannabis consumption set to become legal in exactly five weeks, this Mostly Amazing series explores 11 places across the land that are best experienced with a buzz.
When was the last time you heard exuberant applause in a sauna?
While in Ottawa last Family Day, Angela and I felt no guilt whatsoever in ditching our daughters and driving 15 minutes north to Nordik Spa-Nature in the snowy Gatineau Hills.
We were keen to check out the many features that have been added to the 100,000-square-foot spa complex since our last visit in 2014. And we weren’t disappointed: I covered several of them in a recent Globe and Mail story about Canada's best spa patios. Hot stone massages and craft beer, together at last...
The one new experience I saved for my blog -- the Aufguss Ritual -- was unlike anything I’ve ever done, in a spa or otherwise.
After one glorious circuit of Le Nordik’s various hot and cold pools, saunas and steam rooms, we made our way to the spacious Finlandia sauna 10 minutes before the 1pm Aufguss. (The 15-minute ritual takes place on the hour every other hour.)
Sitting on the topmost of the three wooden tiers surrounding the sauna’s table-sized stove, we had worked up quite a sweat by the time the sounding of a gong signalled the start of the ritual. Within minutes, the place was packed.
While setting down several buckets of water, snow and perfectly formed snowballs, the Aufguss Master explained how the ritual would unfold and encouraged us to “listen to our bodies” and move to lower seating, or leave the sauna altogether, should the heat become uncomfortable.
Dramatic music filled the space as our young guide scooped out three of the snowballs, each infused with essential oils, and dropped them one by one onto the enormous stove’s super-heated rocks. Juniper-scented steam immediately rose into the air, and was enthusiastically dispersed by the Aufguss Master as she skillfully whirled a folded towel around the sauna, her tattooed arms glistening with sweat.
This exhilarating process was repeated two more times with different oils, raising the temperature and humidity to a point where a few members of the audience took their leave. Then, just before the ritual ended with effusive and well-deserved applause, those who remained were cooled off in thrilling fashion when the Aufguss Master used her wooden scoop to douse us repeatedly with icy meltwater. Did I scream? You bet I did. Was it with pleasure or with pain? I’m not entirely sure -- and, as with many aspects of Le Nordik, that was the magic of the experience.
Warning: This video doesn't do the Aufguss justice. Just so you know.
With recreational cannabis consumption set to become legal in exactly six weeks, this Mostly Amazing series explores 11 places across the land that are best experienced with a buzz.
The shuttle bus pulls over to the side of the winding, bumpy road leading to the Aurora Village in the boreal forest outside Yellowknife. A passenger feels nauseous and needs some fresh air – there’s no shortage of that around here – and as we idle the driver calls the rest of us to the windshield.
Directly ahead of us, shimmering amid a blanket of stars, is a vivid veil of greenish-white light that pushes the “probability of aurora” from 70 to 100 per cent.
Thousands of visitors come to Yellowknife each year, especially in fall and winter, to catch a glimpse of charged particles colliding with atoms in the upper atmosphere. So, based on cloud cover and recent aurora activity, hotels provide a daily POA.
We file out of the bus and gaze into the cold night sky. I’m thrilled to get a full dose of the main attraction before even reaching the world’s largest northern lights viewing complex. But it makes me wonder: Does the world really need the Aurora Village? Like stargazing, all I have to do is cast my eyes skyward, right?
To be fair, the village’s lounge, gift shop and dozens of woodstove-heated tepees – the latter reserved for groups of two to 20 – provide a welcome respite from the chill.
But it gets weird in a hurry. The lounge, for instance, resembles a rustic small-town Legion, except that it’s occupied mainly by taciturn couples. Turns out the Japanese visit Yellowknife, and the Aurora Village, in droves. In Japanese culture, seeing the northern lights is considered auspicious, and a child conceived under them is believed to be lucky and healthy. The takeaway here: Do not wander into the wrong tepee.
In the garishly-lit gift shop, aurora-themed jewelry and apparel are available for princely sums, while a stuffed elk (in repose) oversees the transactions from an elevated platform. When I inquire about purchasing the taxidermal wonder – my kids have always wanted one – I’m politely rebuffed by the clerk.
“Does the elk have a name?” I ask.
“Elk,” comes the stone-faced reply.
And the tepees? They glow alluringly, and delicious maple-buttered bannock is served inside. But the fluorescent lighting and folding chairs – also like something out of a Legion – don’t encourage stove-side relaxation.
The sensible-versus-surreal theme continues onto rocky hilltops and wooden platforms connected by lantern-lit pathways. On one hand, these provide unobstructed views of the wonders overhead, and are crowded with murmuring groups carting camera equipment worth considerably more than a whole herd of stuffed elk. On the other, two of these vantage points are outfitted with swivelling viewing pods that look like abandoned back-woods bumper cars.
All this quirkiness culminates in the “Giant Slide.” It’s exactly as advertised: After taking some slippery stairs up a two-storey tower, I peer down the precipitous plywood chute. Sadly, or perhaps thankfully, the top is boarded up.
Could it be that the slide is designed to entertain guests when the probability of aurora is zero per cent? It is a reindeer launch pad, perhaps?
That night, I vow to discover the true purpose of the Giant Slide. And then, to kidnap the elk…
With recreational cannabis consumption set to become legal in exactly seven weeks, this Mostly Amazing series explores 11 places across the land that are best experienced with a buzz.
“Oh, I’ve been in spheres for about 20 years now.”
This isn’t something I hear every day. Of course, it’s not every day I check into a spherical room dangling in the lush Vancouver Island forest surrounding Qualicum Beach.
I arrive at Free Spirit Spheres at around 11 p.m., but despite the late hour I'm greeted warmly by Tom Chudleigh, who owns and operates these unique digs with his wife Rosie. When Chudleigh says he’s “in spheres,” he’s not speaking literally. He means he’s been crafting spherical tree-houses big enough to sleep, dine and relax in for more than two decades. While working on a round houseboat in the early 1990s, the trained shipbuilder realized the three-metre-wide orb would be more at home in the treetops. The end result was christened “Eve,” and by 1997 was roped into the forest canopy of nearby Denman Island.
As Eve’s local fame grew, so did demand to snooze in the sphere. So, over the next few years, she was relocated to Chudleigh’s current 10-acre property and joined by three slightly bigger sisters: Eryn, a three-person loft sphere suspended about two storeys above the forest floor; Melody, the newest sphere, with a Murphy bed that enables daytime dining; and Gwynn, the “branch office.” Free Spirit now sees more than 2,000 guests a year, Chudleigh says, and is looking to expand to a larger property where 10 spheres could be connected by suspended walkways, kind of like the Ewok village in Star Wars Episode VI.
As we climb the spiral staircase leading up to Eve, Chudleigh goes over the tree-house rules: Watch your step, watch out for wildlife (especially black bears), and wear a headlamp when walking to the shower hut and mushroom-shaped outhouse at night.
Despite Eve's quirkiness, it doesn’t take long to feel right at home. The efficient interior is reminiscent of a ship’s, with a single bed, a settee, counter space and several wooden cupboards and drawers containing a kettle, coffee press, teapot and the like. There are even built-in speakers that connect to handheld devices, while a small electric heater warms the cosy space. “You can feel the magic here,” Chudleigh says as he bids me goodnight. “You lie in bed and you look up at that round ceiling, and it’s magical.”
Initially, I lie in bed wondering if I’ll get used to the swaying sensation I feel every time I roll over. In this regard, the experience also evokes a small ship, but not quite: There seem to be two types of simultaneous motion, as if I’m sleeping on a ship’s waterbed.
Chudleigh later attributes this distinctive sensation to the concept of “bio-mimicry” he embraced when designing and hoisting the spheres. They use the forest as their foundation, he explains, and mirror the natural robustness of the surrounding eco-system. Each sphere is supported by a web of nine ropes tethered to three trees, yet each rope is strong enough to support more than a tonne of weight, considerably more than that of each sphere and its occupants. But like their foundation, “in a big wind, these things move round,” Chudleigh adds.
The breeze is light during my stay, and eventually the gentle swaying lulls me into a deep, peaceful sleep. I awake at dawn – still being on Ontario time – and gaze out a round window as the sunrise illuminates the verdant forest canopy.
It’s the most wonderful awakening of my life. So wonderful, in fact, that I consider spending 20 years in spheres. Literally.
With recreational cannabis consumption set to become legal in less than eight weeks, this Mostly Amazing series explores 11 places across the land that are best experienced with a buzz.
Approaching the summit, one final hurdle lay ahead. It wasn't the steep, crumbling slope under my feet. Nor was it the blazing midday sun. As I climbed the dune in Eastern Ontario's Sandbanks Provincial Park, my greatest challenge was the all-dressed bacon cheeseburger, onion rings and chocolate milkshake I had just devoured outside the snack bar.
Just as mountaineers acclimatize to altitude, I stopped and waited for the grease rush to subside. Then, heartened by what awaited beyond the dune's 10-metre peak, I scrambled up the sandy mound, paperback in one hand, towel in the other.
I had seen the view from atop the dunes dozens of times before, either on a sand-seeking expedition out of Toronto, or on "Picton Day," the June exodus of class-cutting teens from my former hometown of Kingston. On this perfect summer Saturday, it encompassed blue skies, calm Lake Ontario waters and white sands framed by stands of eastern cottonwood trees, a picture that solidified Sandbanks as my favourite Canadian beach. The sand and scenery of some East and West Coast beaches may compare — PEI's Cavendish and Vancouver's English Bay spring to mind — but Sandbanks' summer is reliably hot and sunny, and the water is fresh, calm and surprisingly warm. If, like me, you often crave a splashy game of paddle ball — that free-form, co-ed pursuit of the Frisbee-fatigued — you'll only be up to your waist in water more than 100 metres offshore, owing to the gentle, child-friendly slope out of East Lake (which is actually a bay).
Unlike much of surrounding Prince Edward County, which has seen a spate of development in recent years, little has changed at Sandbanks since I first arrived here in someone else's parent's minivan more than 25 years ago. The drive past the main entrance still winds pleasantly through thick maple forest. The aforementioned snack bar still serves up the thickest milkshakes around thanks to the staff's perennial lack of blender-awareness. And on a prime summer weekend, the park's Outlet, Sandbanks and Campers beaches are still busy, but not maddeningly so. After all, there's plenty of real estate: The 11 kilometres of beaches and dunes form two of the largest freshwater bay-mouth sandbars in the world.
Arriving at noon, it was easy to find a sunny spot devoid of errant Frisbees and sand-encrusted toddlers. Spreading out mats and towels, and unfolding lounge chairs — my wife Angela and I are confessed beach-accoutrement addicts — we settled into an afternoon of doing very, very little.
Once again, I noticed that time and sound perform strange tricks when one is prostrate on the beach. A lively conversation among a group of nearby teenagers — "Dude, man, my wakeboard is sick!" — soon became a melodious trickle interspersed with the noise of splashing kids and squawking gulls. This was followed by an irresistible snooze, a groggy awakening and feigned surprise that two hours had passed in what felt like five minutes.
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