Niagara’s Wines

This past weekend, we gathered Kelly’s closest girlfriends for a weekend to celebrate her upcoming nuptials in Niagara-on-the-Lake. This post isn’t meant to be a play by play of the weekend’s activities and events, though.  Rather, the time away served as a great reminder of the fantastic wines this region of Niagara produces. With the holidays and New Year around the corner, I thought I’d share my favorites, whether to take to a party or to pour a glass (or three) and enjoy in your cozy home with dinner as the temperature dips outside.

wine collageI should preface this by saying I am by no means an expert. I know a little about tannins (bitterness), sweetness, acidity, weight and the very basics where wine pairings are concerned. But let me to point you in two directions for more information: your local LCBO staff are incredibly knowledgeable and helpful and a visit to the wineries themselves is extra special (not to mention much cheaper to buy the wine).

This weekend we traveled around to a handful of vineyards with Niagara Getaways. Jeff, our tour guide, was really informative and entertaining, and incorporated larger and more well-known, award-winning wineries in our tour along with smaller ones (Between the Lines, as an example, only sells out of their store and online). Taking the tour allowed us all to sample the wines as much as we’d like without having to spit out our samples and worry about driving. Of course, by the 5th winery, our discerning tastes were long gone. If you take an afternoon tour, you may be lucky enough to catch a gorgeous sunset like we did – picture perfect against the vineyards.

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And here you have it.. my favorite Niagara wines: Continue reading

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Experiences with Airbnb

I’ve been meaning to write about my experiences with Airbnb for some time now because in my humble opinion, it ranks pretty high up there as a thing that is awesome.  For those of you who aren’t familiar with the site, Airbnb is an online service that provides a platform for individual “hosts” to rent out their homes, rooms or other lodgings to short-term guests, or alternatively, for “guests” to rent accommodation in a private space.   Listings include private rooms, entire apartments, castles, boats, manors, tree houses, tipis, igloos, private islands and other properties in 33,000 cities and 192 countries (thanks WIkipedia!).  I have acted as both host and guest on multiple occasions in various cities and have had only amazing experiences.

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So, first things first, why would I (a) want to rent my house out to strangers?  and (b) stay in a stranger’s home instead of a hotel?  As a host, the primary motivation is without a doubt, profit.  When my fiance and I were in Europe last fall, we made more money renting out our place here than we spent on accommodation over there.  In the summer, we made more renting our place on Airbnb during a weekend away at the cottage than we could possibly have spent on the food, booze and gas required to take us away.  As a guest, I’ve found that Airbnb listings are almost always less expensive than even mid range hotels, and likewise, typically much nicer.  While listings vary greatly, we’ve stayed in an incredible open concept modern loft in Montreal (best team Osheaga accommodation ever!), an adorable Danish one bedroom in Copenhagen and a large open concept bachelor pad in Amsterdam.  All of these were equipped with full kitchens, typically stocked with some basic items by the host (our lovely host in Copenhagen really stole our hearts by greeting us in her candlelit apartment with a bottle of wine, a long list of her favourite spots in the city, and everything we needed to make a delicious breakfast the next morning).  Particularly when travelling, renting an apartment on Airbnb allows you to connect with at least one local and immerse yourself in the culture to a much greater degree than you could in a hotel.  The accommodation options range greatly, from inexpensive spare rooms to swank tree houses and private 10 bedroom castles, such that the accommodation itself is what can make the getaway.  I love browsing through the “popular” or “wish list” places on the site and have already flagged a few amazing looking retreats for an upcoming trip to bali and thailand.

Okay, that’s all fine and good, but HOW does all this work?  This is where the real magic of Airbnb kicks in.  The site is much, much more than just an advertising platform.  In exchange for a nominal service fee charged on all transactions, Airbnb insures hosts, collects and holds a damage deposit of your choosing, manages all financial transactions, and requires that hosts and guests alike create online profiles.   These profiles include information about the guest/host, recommendations by other users, reviews from previous guests/hosts, as well as a response rating and private messaging system.  You are entirely in control of who you rent to and from, can review the other person’s reviews and profile, and are able to ask questions or seek further information before agreeing to anything.  We don’t rent to guests or from hosts who don’t already have multiple positive reviews and detailed profiles.  We’ve typically rented to couples, usually here from out of town visiting friends or family, require a $250 damage deposit, and rent for a minimum of two nights.  Airbnb collects the damage deposit and rental fee upon check in and holds the deposit until the host has given them the go ahead to release it.   Continue reading

3 day Getaway: St. Jacobs & Stratford

This post is way overdue (like, exactly a year overdue), but it’s finally the perfect time of year again to share one of my favourite late summer / early fall getaways: St. Jacob’s County and Stratford.  Although most popularly known for their respective market and play festival, St. Jacob’s and Stratford make equally wonderful getaways for the beautiful scenery and serenity.  If you’re looking for an inexpensive two night break from the city this fall, pack your picnic basket and camera and head south west.  You won’t regret it, I promise.

Day 1: Food shopping and feasting at St. Jacob’s Market

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St. Jacob’s Market is Canada’s biggest year-round farmer’s market and offers everything from food trucks, produce, preserves, arts & crafts, antiques and the most incredible blue cheese I’ve ever tasted.  The market is open from 7am-3:00pm Tuesdays to Saturdays and if you’re heading to Stratford, this should definitely be your first stop.  We nibbled our way through the market, but also stocked up on goodies to make dinner in Stratford that evening.  Sadly, the main market building was destroyed in a fire this labour day weekend, devastating many vendors.  Although this means that there is less on offer than when I visited, the outdoor portion and side buildings are open, and your business is now more important than ever.  If you’re driving in from the city don’t stress about arriving early – the market was still in full swing in the afternoon and when we were heading out around 2pm, we were able to score some amazing deals as vendors started closing up shop.

photo(101)Although we stuffed ourselves with prepared food (like those beautiful shrimp rolls!) and baked goods (eccles cakes!) while shopping, we stocked up on produce to take with us and whipped our spoils into a delicious stir fry later that evening.

Wherever you’re heading, resist the urge to hurry and take the scenic route.  The country side in and around Perth is breathtaking and well worth the additional time.

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En route, we stumbled upon this tiny market in what appeared to be the middle of nowhere, stocked up on some more supplies and sampled some incredible ice cream.  Turns out Organic Oasis Farm Store has been open for well over a decade, offering up certified organic produce, dairy products, meats and grains to the local community (and the occasional yuppie from the city). photo(102)If you’re going to continue your voyage into Stratford, you have a wide array of beautiful old inns and B&B’s to choose from, but I’m pretty confident that we found the most overlooked gem in town: the Stratford White House.  We decided to make this trip at the last minute and were having difficulty finding accommodation when I discovered this place.  Advertised as a “banquet and accommodation facility”, the White House contains three fully furnished private suites in addition to a large dining room, lounge and other shared spaces.  The grounds are stunning, the front porch had me channeling Scarlet O’Hara, and our suite was the perfect combination of modern amenities and old world charm.

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Camp for Adults: Two Islands Weekend

I can’t say that I look back on my nine years of overnight camp particularly fondly. I didn’t have many friends, I dreaded our weekly camping sessions and monthly overnights, the infamous dunk test (flipping me over in a kayak to test my swimming abilities) terrified me months before summer hit, and with limited athletic skills, I dreaded the team sports, too.

It seems my parents spent 11 months of the year trying to remind me of the parts of camp I liked so that they could, once again, have their own vacation consisting of a childless-July: arts & crafts, swim team, tuck shop (I assure you – camp is the only place I got chips and chocolate bars three times a week!), sailing, my one or two friends who would miss me… so each year I returned. (And after an email from my mom making me feel like the most ungrateful daughter ever, I should stress how thankful I am for it!! xo)

Northland

Things have changed. Since the age of 12, my athletic abilities have improved, I now have plenty of friends and I’ve started to seek out activities that are outside of my comfort zone rather than avoiding them. The camping thing hasn’t changed, though. I still refuse to sleep in a tent.

Imagine my excitement when I read about CAMP FOR ADULTS! This is my chance at a do-over, people!  A chance to mix all my favorite parts of growing up with the fun activities usually left for the kids.  And a chance to leave camp with warm and fuzzy memories for once. May I introduce Two Islands Weekend.

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Go Visit: Calgary

Today’s guest post is brought to you by our dear friend Julie, a native Calgarian currently living in Toronto.

I’ve been meaning to guest blog a Calgary “City Guide” for quite a while, and now seems a particularly fitting time to sing the city’s praises. Over the past week, the city of Calgary faced its largest natural disaster in recent memory, which displaced 100,000 people from their homes and businesses and completely shut down the city’s core. The response to the flood highlighted something that I’ve realized over the past few years: Calgary has become a great city. Despite the fact that its reputation involves a lot of oil and gas money, conservative politics and cowboys, I might even call it an *awesome* city. I now reside in Toronto, and I love it here, but Robyn and Kelly have offered me this chance to tell you some of my favourite things about my hometown and I’m more than happy to do so. Warning: despite its nickname, “Cowtown”, almost none of what I will tell you about Calgary warrants this description.

Although I’m writing in the aftermath of the flood, I’ll mostly be describing places at their best, not their worst. Given the incredible efforts of Calgarians in cleaning up the devastation, I have high hopes that the places below that have been affected by the flood will be restored to their former glory soon. If you’re visiting Calgary in the near future, in addition to lending a helpful hand, you can give the economy a much needed boost by frequenting some of the following awesome spots.  Calgary’s famous Stampede, this year running from July 5 – 14, 2013 will no doubt be a great time to visit. The Stampede is sure to bring out incredible energy and pride to to the city and streets of Calgary.

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Bars/Restaurants

Local 510 is situated on 17th avenue between 4th and 5th street SW. It’s an unassuming pub with a great atmosphere pretty much any night of the week. They showcase local non-electronic DJs a few nights a week, which range widely in style but can always be counted on for high quality music at a volume that doesn’t put you at risk of losing your voice while chatting with a friend over beers (something I look for more and more as my 30s quickly approach).

The Ship and Anchor is a favourite Calgary pub, with one of the biggest and bustling patios in the city. Affectionately referred to as “The Ship”, this pub is frequented by a highly eclectic clientele and features an impressive selection of beers on tap. The Ship regularly hosts local bands and DJs and offers more than decent “homemade” pub fare.

Milk Tiger Lounge is a cocktail bar on 4th street SW that you might miss completely if not for the cute little white tiger marking its entrance. Inside, you will be served gluten-free tapas and some of the best traditional cocktails to be found in Calgary. The ambience, the aesthetic, the cocktails, the music… everything about this place just feels cool.

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HiFi Club has been a staple in Calgary’s bar scene for as long as I can remember. HiFi pulls in a huge amount of really great underground but critically-acclaimed electronic and non-electronic musical acts. Every Thursday they put on a great dance party, Hai Karate, featuring local talent Smalltown DJs playing a mix of house, club, rap, electro, funk, dancehall and breaks. And Sunday School (an event on, you guessed it, Sundays) featuring DJ Rice, has offered the best house music dance party available in the city for nearly a decade now.

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