Travel Spotlight: Norfolk to Niagara

I think most of us are pretty blasé about where we live. It’s so boring here, we moan. If only I lived somewhere cool.

But even when I lived in Moscow, I eventually got to a point where the massive Lenin statue – complete with clenched fist and stern expression – ceased to stop me in my tracks and became “just” the meeting place to catch up with friends over a beer (yes, you can drink outside in public places in Russia!).

The familiar becomes normal and expected, and with that, a little glamour is lost. We forget that to fresh eyes, the place we call home might actually be exciting, novel, intriguing.

So when my friend Ian told me over Skype a few months ago that he had found a cheap flight from Helsinki to Toronto, and could he come visit me, I initially had horror-struck thoughts of: what am I going to do with him here?! Ian is Irish, is currently living in Helsinki, and has traveled all over Europe. If you name a country, he’s been there, and he is probably fluent in the language too!

I felt there was no way small-town Ontario could compete with Sarajevo or Copenhagen. Although I was thrilled to see him after two years since our last hang-out (celebrating Canadian Thanksgiving in Dublin!), I worried he’d be bored here, that he’d look at my life and, well, pity me for its lack of cosmopolitan panache.

First of all, I should have known that Ian – an incredible friend and one of my favourite people in the world – would never pity me. Nor is he the type to ever be bored, because he’s got one of those minds that is always working, always asking questions.

But secondly, and maybe most importantly, I should have realized the gems that “small-town Ontario” (originally said in a disparaging voice in my head) has to offer.

But it took looking at my home through the eyes of a visitor for me to fully appreciate this.

So here are some of the things I did to introduce an Irishman to Ontario, bearing in mind that we only had a week together and I had to work five of those days!

1) Dinner at Cafe 13 in Cambridge

Okay, so technically I wasn’t there for this. I was sitting in the media section at Norfolk County Council, keeping one eye longingly on my cell for updates from Ian and the other eye and two ears on what was going on in council. Ian flew into Pearson Airport Tuesday afternoon, and since I was working in Simcoe, my parents picked him up after work and took him back to our family’s home in Cambridge.

We’re firm believers in the adage that the best way to get over jet lag is to a) jump right in and do something active (resist sleep!) and b) drink, so my parents and Ian strolled downtown to Cafe 13, ordered food and started sampling some local beers. From all accounts, they had a terrific time and the walk there and back was a great way for Ian to stretch his legs after his first transatlantic flight and to see downtown Galt (the area of Cambridge my family lives in) at dusk.

Image2) Zip-lining at Long Point Eco-Adventures

Zip-lining is something neither Ian nor I had ever done, so we were excited to try it for the first time together! We drove out to St. Williams on a gloriously sunny fall afternoon, and spent three hours whipping around up in the tree tops. It was such a fun, thrilling and terrifying thing to do!

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Well, terrifying for me maybe. Ian looks pretty relaxed.

I wrote a column about the experience for the paper, which will be out tomorrow, so I’ll post it here then. For now, all I’ll say is it was a really fun activity to do if you’re in Norfolk County. They also offer night zip-lining, star-gazing at the observatory, mushroom-foraging, trail walks and “glamping” – aka camping with serious style. Prices at Eco-Adventures aren’t exactly cheap, though, so be forewarned (it costs $95 for the zip-lining tour). If you live in Norfolk County and can show proof of residency, you can get 10% off the price, so that’s something to keep in mind. Otherwise, is it worth it? I’d say for a special occasion, definitely. It’s not something I’ll be doing every weekend, but I’m glad I went. The guides are also very knowledgeable about the area’s ecology and history (it’s a UNESCO-recognized biosphere), and they have some fascinating stories to share while you fly from tree to tree like deranged flying squirrels!

3) Burning Kiln Winery

Right across from Eco-Adventures lie 30 rolling acres of lush vineyards. If only you could “zip and sip” your way over there instead of having to drive two minutes! The grapes at Burning Kiln Winery are grown on a former tobacco farm, lovingly repurposed after the tobacco industry ceased being an economic powerhouse in this corner of Ontario. The team at Burning Kiln is seriously invested in their wine – nearly everything is done by hand, and in the three short years since the winery started producing wine, Burning Kiln has won more than 45 medals!

Now this is one of the reasons why I loooove being a reporter. I was sent out to Burning Kiln to do a story on their latest haul from the 2013 InterVin International Wine Awards, where they took home nine awards. You want me to report on wine? Sounds good to me…

So Ian tagged along with me (such a sacrifice!) and we had a very enjoyable tour of the winery from assistant winemaker Patti Fixter. They run tours and samplings every day, and they’re really passionate about turning the winery into a tourism destination. I was driving, so I didn’t sample any of their wines, but Ian tried a few and bought a bottle to bring back to Finland with him. I picked up a bottle of their Gentlemen of the Road cabernet franc, created for Mumford and Sons’ Simcoe Stopover concert back in August, and Ian and I drank it later that night. Really good!

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Burning Kiln’s red is on the left; the Frisky Beaver is from Dover Vineyards; also a local wine

4) Walk around downtown Simcoe

Sometimes just walking around the neighbourhood can give you a real sense of the place you’re in, and that’s certainly true of downtown Simcoe. Ian and I walked past the strikers outside the Breyers ice cream plant (ironically located on Union Street), stopped at the Carillon bell tower to read the names of the soldiers from Norfolk County who died in both World Wars (a soberingly long list), and dodged Canadian goose poop in the park. I won’t lie – it wasn’t the most picturesque walk ever, mostly thanks to those geese, but it sure was authentic!

5) The Tim Hortons visit

Okay, so we had more than one trip to Timmie’s. Ian developed a serious affection for Tim’s, so we made it a bit of a daily – twice-daily, thrice-daily, you get the idea – stop. But for a visitor to Canada, Tim Horton’s is one of those quintessentially Canadian chains. And to travel all the way here and NOT have a TimBit or ten? That’s a crime.

ImageThe best of both worlds: Tim Hortons hot chocolate spiked with Finnish Minttu, a minty liquor that has an alcoholic volume of 50%. That warmed us up!

Ian also found it interesting that coffee was so much cheaper here than in Helsinki. He even hung out at Tim Hortons one morning while I was at the newsroom, and it turns out the Simcoe Tim Hortons is the place to be on a weekday at 11 a.m.! When we met up later that day, he knew all the town gossip!

6) The grocery store

Okay, I can sense the side-eye you’re giving me here. You took your friend visiting from Finland to a grocery store?! But in my defense, he wanted to go. I was thinking about going to one of the many restaurants I’ve heard about here in Norfolk, but it was raining and dismal out and the idea of a night in with a bottle of wine, plenty of food and lots of conversation seemed like the best idea. So we quickly ventured out on a grocery dash, and Ian actually found it really interesting to look at the kind of products we have here, their prices, etc.  You can actually tell a lot about a culture or country based on what you can find in their grocery stores, I think. Take a detour down the ethnic aisle at your local Sobey’s or Zehrs and see for yourself what ethnic backgrounds are most prevalent in the area. Or look at all the “supersize” or “family size” packaged food we have here, all the microwave dinners and frozen food, the things that are on sale or can be bought in bulk. I think that can be a pretty telling glimpse into our lifestyles in Canada too. Not necessarily negative or positive, but thought-provoking!

Ian said food here is generally a little less expensive than in Finland (especially fruit and vegetables), but meat costs about the same. And bread is apparently really expensive here, especially considering what most of it is: sugar. I’ve heard from other Europeans before that they find North American bread to be overly sweet and I have to agree based on my limited experience of European breads. Sure, you can get hearty grain breads here too, but they do tend to be upwards of $4. This makes me long for my favourite 20-rouble loaf of domashnii khleb (brown bread) baked daily at the Russian produkti I’d frequent. So delicious!

7) Niagara Falls

This is a given. It’s not too far from Cambridge or Norfolk County, and it’s awe-inducing. Mother Nature at her most majestic. Unfortunately the day we went was a torrential downpour, so we ruled out going on the Maid of the Mist, but Ian was still blown away by the Falls. And you know what? It doesn’t matter how many times I’ve seen them, they never fail to take my breath away too.

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You can tell what the weather was like by looking at our sad little umbrella!

8) Beaver tails, pancakes and maple syrup, Canadian bacon

The only thing I forgot to get him to try was poutine! Tart au sucre would have been great too. If you’ve got a visitor coming to Canada for the first time, you have to hit up at least a few of our classic Canadian foods. Plus, eating a beaver tail in the rain amidst the tacky glory that is Clifton Hill in Niagara Falls is an experience never to forget.

9) Niagara-on-the-Lake

Niagara Falls’ classier, quieter sibling, Niagara-on-the-Lake is a great place to take a visitor for winery tours and a walk through the quaint downtown. We toured Reif Estate Winery, where the guide filled us in on the history of the winery (including some fun facts – the rows of grapes are planted ten feet apart instead of the standard 6-8 feet so that they could get more sunlight). We got to sample three types of wine – a Riesling, a Merlot (I believe? Can’t totally remember) and an ice wine, another Canadian must-try for Ian. Reif also has a gorgeous “sensory garden” to explore and a patio that would be amazing to sit back on and relax during warmer months.

10) Toronto

Our last day together was spent in Toronto. We parked at Yorkdale Mall and took the subway into the city. Ian’s reaction upon exiting Toronto’s “rocket” (that term is debatable, but I’m pretty biased because the Moscow Metro will always be my favourite!) and stepping out into a concrete jungle was awesome to see. “I’ve never seen so many tall buildings so close together,” he said, head craning upwards.

(He was headed to New York City next, so I can’t wait to hear from him what he thought of the Big Apple!)

We walked along Front Street to the CN Tower, where we had lunch reservations at 360, the revolving restaurant at the top. For $55, you get the prix fixe menu that includes access to the glass floor and observation deck – a great deal considering an ordinary ticket to the top is about $30!

Lunch was delicious (best part was dessert – try the Lindt dark chocolate lava cake, you won’t be disappointed) although we both found the service to be rushed. Still, we took our time and relaxed and enjoyed the view of Toronto sprawling out around us. It was another beautifully sunny day, and the light reflecting off Lake Ontario was gorgeous. The revolution of the restaurant is so slight that you don’t feel it (that was my main concern, that we’d be feeling sick to our stomachs as the restaurant spun wildly around like a top!) and the view is just outstanding. Definitely recommend!

After lunch, we had just enough time to walk over to the St. Lawrence Market and meet my cousin Lindsay for a beer at C’est What? cafe. Too soon, it was time to take the subway back to Yorkdale, where Ian and I had to say goodbye before I headed back home and he took off for NYC.

It was such a great visit, and I loved getting a week to hang out with one of my best friends who I never get to see! It was also so nice to see my home through a visitor’s eyes, and to realize – wow, this place I call home actually is pretty cool!

What about you – any must-sees and dos in Norfolk County (or elsewhere in southwestern Ontario) that I’ve missed? Where would you bring a visitor to your hometown, and what would you show them?

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Writer’s block

It’s been a busy month since my last post, and I’ve been doing so much writing for my job that the last thing I feel like doing when I get home at night is write a blog post. I’m usually thinking FOOD, followed by getting sucked into an Internet hole of celebrity gossip and random articles on national/international news, since my days are mostly filled with local goings-on and I need to get my Senate scandal fix at some point.

But I’m determined to make blogging more of a habit. I love writing, and blogging is such an unstructured and free way of writing that it’s nice to switch it up from reporting, with its focus on leads, tight, snappy writing and word count. Sure, I’m not giving myself carte blanche to ramble on with boring, sprawling posts that are all over the place (at least, I hope not), but I’m looking forward to having a little more freedom and a little less pressure (no deadlines! whew!).