It wasn’t a dare that made me jump into into the frigid 7 °C water of Hudson Bay, but I did it anyway. And then I stayed (zipped into a 7mm thick wetsuit, mind you) swimming around a Zodiak boat for the next half hour. I’m not the world’s biggest animal lover and I sure hate cold swimming pools, but when you’ve got an opportunity for a belly-to-belly experience with beluga whales you take it, freezing water and all. I’m talking about going on an arctic safari in Churchill, Manitoba, the polar bear capital of the world. Forget Africa! Here you can snorkel and kayak with beluga whales and even view arctic fox and polar bears.
What most folks don’t realize is that come summer, the tiny town of Churchill becomes an outpost for beluga encounters, as well as polar bears, who skulk around waiting for the ice to freeze. Each June anywhere from 3,000 to 4,000 belugas make their way into the warmer waters of the Churchill River from Hudson Bay to give birth and hang with their newborns until mid-September.
Snorkel with belugas
Slipping into the water isn’t as dramatic as I feared. It’s bracing for a few seconds, but then my wetsuit traps the water and it feels weirdly warm. Kind of like when somebody pees next to you in a pool. It’s been windy and the water is murky, but there’s no mistaking the ghost-like shape headed our way.
As I swim around the Zodiak, more and more of these curious mammals pop by. Now I get why they’re nicknamed sea canaries. We hear their squeals and buzzes underwater. They gracefully move under the boat and even alongside us. It’s a surreal feeling to be swimming with a whale, even more so when their air bubbles rise up from underneath us and tap our wetsuits. We don’t want to get out of the water, but our guide from Sea North Tours insists we come in. There’s been a development.
Polar bears, too!
While we were out frolicking in the river, our guide received a call. A female polar bear and her cub have been spotted on the coast, not far from where we are. The engine is revved and we’re off, furiously assembling camera gear in the hopes we’ll get the shot of a lifetime.
Somewhere between Button Bay and Eskimo Point we spot our first polar bear. It isn’t the mama, but a lone male, lumbering along the boulder strewn beach as if he’s on patrol. We spend a few minutes watching him strut over the rocks, before he disappears back into the tundra. We continue cruising along the coastline and it’s not long before we come upon mama bear and her cub.
By now I’m shivering in my wetsuit and my camera is flaking out on me, but that doesn’t matter when you’ve got a Nat Geo moment playing out in front of you. The frisky cub is bored with their hike and wants to play. He runs alongside his mama and scrambles onto rocks, before plop! He cannonballs into the bay. Mama bear ignores this childish behaviour, but decides to take a leisurely swim beside her cub anyway.
My camera fail turns out to be a blessing in disguise. Instead of focusing on its settings and looking through the lens trying to capture the perfect moment, I’m living it. Time stops. We sit in silence watching the cub tackle her mother. They play bite and swat at each other, totally unconcerned there’s a boat of curious tourists watching their every move. Eventually, mama bear decides to do some real swimming and makes her way in our direction. She comes so close we need to retreat, but our arctic safari is far from over.
Kayak with belugas
The next day begins bright and early, so we can hit the tide just right to kayak in the river. Again, we’re hoping to come across a few belugas, and it doesn’t take long before spotting their white backs bobbing in the water. Dozens of them appear, so many it’s hard to keep track. They surround us, coming so close you can see the scratches on their back from bumping up against icebergs. I quickly hand off my camera in its waterproof case to our guide, Alex, and just enjoy the ride.
“Whales love to play with the rudder of your kayak. They may even bump you a bit and it’s pretty fun!” Alex tells me during the camera hand off.
There isn’t much current, so when I feel my kayak being propelled it can only mean one thing. Sure enough, a beluga pops up after taking me for a ride. He looks me straight in the eye before diving back down. I can’t lie, I’m more freaked out than exhilarated. I’m wobbly in my kayak to begin with. I don’t need any extra help to upset my balance. Of course, nobody topples over. I’m just paranoid.
“I just got blowholed!” shrieks a fellow kayaker, spray dripping from her face after a beluga gets too friendly. I paddle towards her. “Are you OK?” I ask. “Yeah, it was scary, but amazing at the same time,” she replies. That’s Churchill for you.
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Have you ever had an encounter with arctic wildlife? Would you like to?
We had almost a full week to ourselves. With our daughter away at camp, we had five full days to do anything we wanted. With my book and all, I desperately needed a break, a new city and some diversions, but not too many that I’d be exhausted by day’s end. With its abundant happy hours, Nordstrom Rack and a downtown Target, Seattle ticked all the right boxes.
We stayed primarily in the downtown core. I know that’s not sexy and it’s certainly not hip, but for our needs it worked. My priorities were: sleep, sex and shopping. Obviously not in that order because I really, really like to shop. Our routine worked out so well, we repeated it day after day. Here’s how to create the perfect dining day in downtown Seattle.
Best Breakfast in Downtown Seattle
Brunch has become a thing in Seattle (as it has everywhere), but we were lukewarm on the idea. Who wants to feel gross all day after eating so much? Far better was to have a picnic on our bed and munch on the quality pastries from Belle Epicurean. Attached to the Fairmont Olympic (where we stayed), this coffeeshop and patisserie is the real deal.
I’ve eaten my share of pain au chocolate in my life, and their’s is equally as good as what I’ve noshed on in France. (A large framed Le Cordon Bleu diploma inside this intimate space confirms their expertise.) The sticky raspberry buns are out of this world and the breakfast sandwiches are so rich and flaky, you won’t want to squander the crumbs that drift onto your plate.
Somewhere in my online searching I stumbled across Il Corvo and I’m so glad I did. Open only from 11-3pm Monday to Friday, there is always a line up out the door. The line moves along nicely and it’s worth waiting the 30 minutes to get a bowl of freshly made pasta. There are only three daily pasta choices, but they are so good you won’t mind the small selection. Even though you won’t mean to plow through an entire bowl of pasta, you will. Still, it’s worth ordering sides like pickled veg, focaccia and the most amazing kale caesar salad. Wine is drunk from short water glasses which is fun and will remind you of the stubby glasses your parents drank from in the 70s. The entire experienced reminded me so much of my husband’s Nonno and the rustic Italian fare they dined on every day. It was perfect.
The city’s gift to all the hardworking tech workers is an abundance of Happy Hours spread throughout the downtown core. Cafe Campagne’s was quite nice, with assorted olives and pork rillettes to smear on french bread (though the olive pasta was tres disappointing). Shuckers Oyster Bar is an atmospheric spot that’s perfect for couples. Attached to the Fairmont Olympic, you’d be forgiven if you thought you stepped into a genuine Parisian brasserie. It’s very turn of the century with the panelled walls, woodworking detail and antique chandeliers. Oysters (buck a shuck!) and champers goes down well here, as does a microbrew or glass of wine.
Our favourite watering hole ended up being the W Hotel’s lobby bar. This Happy Hour goes until 7pm and like most of Seattle, they are oh-so generous with their wine pours. Snacks range from $5-7 for fancy fries, ramen and sushi rolls. These nibbles are substantial – way larger than what we expected and you can easily call it dinner.
Where to Stay
We splurged with a stay at the Fairmont Olympic Hotel. Seattle’s hotel prices are up there with New York. When you have to pay North of $250 for an average (slightly sad) hotel, it puts it into perspective. The Fairmont was worth every penny when you consider all the little extras they dole out. The pool area was bright and spacious, with an outdoor terrace for sunbathing (and naps!).
I purposelessly forgot my runners, so I could:
- Have more room in my carry on bag for shopping spoils.
- Put their Fairmont Fit program to the test.
The Fairmont Fit worked like a charm. In under 5-minutes I had a new pair of Reebok runners delivered to me. No charge!
And that was our trip. Eat, shop, sleep, repeat. Have you ever been to Seattle? What were your favourite haunts?
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Newcomer Calgary restaurant The Guild is drawing big crowds, which, as a meat lover, I totally get. It can be hard getting excited about another farm to fork restaurant, but when a resto hand selects their cows and bison every two weeks, before butchering them in-house, you know they’re legit. Located on the main floor of the downtown Hudson Bay building, The Guild is carnivore heaven and definitely worth heading back into the core for.
Part of the Oliver & Bonacini’s empire The Guild is their first restaurant in Western Canada. At its helm is Chef Ryan O’Flynn (former chef at Gordon Ramsay’s two Michelin star Petrus resto), whose techniques are rooted in Canadian tradition. “We select the only the very best from local producers. A little bit of smoke here, birch syrup there, season with Newfoundland sea salt and you’ve got our Canadiana,” he told me when I dined there with a girlfriend last week. Here’s our take:
The interior is sophisticated – think contemporary steakhouse with a some bold splashes. A massive mounted bull head watches over the dining room and there’s a meat case with carcases hanging in the reception area. Orb lights dangle over semi circular booths and there’s a long curved bar – ideal for single diners or catching the kitchen action. It’s set up theatre style, with the open kitchen its centre stage
Since we came on a gorgeous night, we sat on the immensely large patio – possibly Calgary’s largest. The atmosphere was a buzzy, almost as if oil had climbed back over $100 a barrel. It was strange, but welcome considering this is downtown Calgary and after work hours. The dude behind us ordered half pig’s head which contributed to the giddy vibe when he was presented with it. While we gals are adventurous eaters, we decided this wasn’t a night to be gnawing on a crispy ear.
And so we began our feast with devilled eggs smoked over pine. For two people who aren’t hard boiled fans, it says something that we both quite enjoyed it. Then came our first favourite: Steak Tartare and Roast Bone Marrow. This Beretta steak tartare (a 50/50 mix of tenderloin and tri tip) is served on roasted bone marrow. It was incredible with full on beef flavourful. What looks like parmesan sprinkled overtop is actually dehydrated and cured egg yolks for a massive umami hit.
Served with IPA bannock, this flatbread is made with the spent grains Big Rocky Brewery used for making their beer the day before. It’s seems almost too contrived, but they’re too legit to be hipster.
Sarah: OMG, this is a huge amount of work for a flavour hit!
Jody: I know! Look, do you see all the bone marrow underneath the tartare – which is reminding me a lot of sashimi.
Sarah: It’s like two dishes in one. Hey, did you know Anthony Bourdain would choose bone marrow for his last meal?
Jody: I did. I don’t totally agree with that, but I’d still take him as a second husband. Oh, waitress! Can I take any leftover bone marrow home to my adorable dog? (I could!)
Discussion reverts back to what life might be like married to Bourdain. Swoon.
Just as our fantasies start to get juicy, we were presented with the Beefsteak Tomato. For a meat lover’s restaurant, this dish shows they care just as much for vegetarians as us carnivores. With a sprig of basil placed just so, it looked like a work of art, a dead ringer for the forbidden fruit. It was almost too pretty to eat, but carve into it we did to be rewarded with a sweet surprise of house-made ricotta.
Mains at The Guild
The menu’s changes frequently, but at present the signature dish seems to be Braised Jacob’s Ladder Bison. Jacob’s Ladder is what they called a short rib in the UK before short ribs became a thing. This savoury short rib bison is cured overnight in coffee, pine and molasses. Sitting on a bed of wild rice studded with prairie corn and Saskatoon berries, it’s the essence of the Prairies on a plate.
While the bison was excellent, we were more blown away by the West Coast Octopus. Fat purple tentacles are dished up in a cast iron skillet with succulent clams, crumbled chorizo and samphire AKA sea asparagus. Underneath all these goodies is an amazing squid ink risotto. We gobbled it up in record time.
Sarah: This is the perfect combo of immensely savoury with a hint of sweetness. You can tell the octopus has been grilled – I love the smokiness of it.
Jody: I never thought octopus could be so tender. Honestly, I think it tastes a wee bit like chicken.
Sarah: It does, but in a good way.
Jody: I am definitely coming back for this dish. And the tartare. Hey, do you think I can go another few weeks without getting my roots done?
Sarah: No! You ought to deal with that now.
Jody: Right. It’s just that the older I get, the more my hair is growing. And like, not where it should be!
Sarah: I’m not really noticing it, but your arms could use a little TLC. Did you know the Epilady is making a resurgence?
(Fascinating hair removal discussion for the next 10-minutes.)
We were stuffed, but sharing dessert seemed the logical next step. Both being monarchists, we went with the sticky maple pudding, a Canadian take on the British classic. Sitting in a pool of toffee sauce, it’s dusted with a crunchy topping that will remind you of the trashy cereal you ate Saturday mornings as a kid. We licked our spoons clean, completely content.
Sarah: I’m blown away by the insane amount of work they do in every dish.
Jody: Agreed. Now, if you were me, would you wax or thread?
For a taste of Canadiana that isn’t hokey or contrived, you’ll want to check out The Guild.
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Even if you’re not from my next of the woods, you’ve likely heard about The Castle in the Rockies. The Fairmont Banff Springs is one of the world’s most iconic hotels, the jewel in the crown of Banff National Park. This historic hotel first opened its doors way back in 1888. She may be old, but like most grand dame’s she sure isn’t tired.
If you’ve never stayed at Fairmont Banff Springs, you’re missing out. Even if you’re not a guest, you can still take advantage of many of the hotel’s swish attributes. Here are 10 things you need to know before your visit.
It’s OK to Dine and Dash
I’m not recommending you skip out on your bill, but you don’t need to stay overnight to experience dining around the castle. This is one resort with range. You could spend a long weekend dining at a different spot for every meal. Or, eat here instead of hitting a chain along Main Street, then drive home.
For a classic steak house experience saddle up to 1888 Chop House (order the Tomahawk). For the best sushi in Banff nosh on freshly flown in fish at the Samurai Sushi Bar. My favourite is probably the Lookout Patio where they’ve got authentic Mexican going on. Afternoon tea can’t be missed, nor can fondue at Waldhaus. Insider tip: Head to the Waldhaus Pub on Thursday for quiz night with the locals.
For real. When you’ve been around for as long as this hotel has, you’ve got to expect some skeletons rattling around. There’s Sam the (friendly) phantom bellman and even a Ghost Bride, who was commemorated with her own stamp and coin by the Royal Canadian Mint. Guests can take the 1 p.m. daily Heritage Tour to learn more about the hotel’s historic attributes.
How to Score Free Wifi
Like most luxury hotels, the Fairmont charges for wifi – expect at the Fairmont Banff Springs! Used to be, you had register to be a Fairmont President’s Club member to score wifi. Not any more. Still, if you register you get complimentary newspapers and magazines from around the world (via the PressReader electronic service). Joining is free, so if you’re a Fairmont fan, it makes sense so you can snag extra perks.
Golf Course Action for Golf Haters
The Stanley Thompson 18-hole course is one of the world’s most beautiful and has these optical illusions created by the surrounding mountains. That’s impressive and all if you’re golfer, but if you’re not, it’s still worth checking out the course. Why? Animals love the wide open spaces of the green. Take a complimentary shuttle down to the course from the hotel for a lovely scenic drive. From there, you can tuck into proper barbecue at Stanley’s Smokehouse or do a golf cart tour around the stunning course, possible viewing elk, deer and even bears! Not to worry, they close the course when dangerous wildlife won’t budge.
Legit Fitness Classes
Nothing’s worse then walking into a hotel gym and seeing it’s smaller than your walk-in closet. (Not my closet, but a rich person’s.) The gym here is sizeable with all the machines, cardio equipment and free weights you could ask for. Even better, they have decent fitness classes led by certified instructors. I had my butt kicked at a Saturday interval class and the yoga isn’t a snoozer either. Forgot your gear? Take advantage of the Fairmont Fit Program to have gym shoes, workout gear, plus a yoga mat delivered to your room at no charge.
Bike and Ski in Style
Like many Fairmonts, Banff Springs offers complimentary BMW bikes for guests. They don’t have a bike for every guest (obs!), and it’s first come, first served, so snag yours early. In winter, the hotel operates its own ski school, a complimentary shuttle to the hills, plus ski gear storage.
Here’s a little local secret: many Bow Valley residents aren’t fans of Banff Upper Hot Springs. They think it’s too touristy and isn’t hot enough. While I still like me a thermal soak, I have to admit the outdoor pool at Fairmont Banff Springs is amazing. It’s the perfect temperature, has tons of noodles to float with and boasts prettier views than the Hot Springs. Naturally, the pool is complimentary for guests, but you can buy a pass in 3, 6 or 12-month bundles to use the pool and fitness facilities as often as you like.
Not many hotels sport their own bowling alley, but you’ll find four lanes of five-pin bowling here. Even if you’re not a guest, you can use the space for kiddie birthday parties and group outings. If you are a guest, you’ll want to take advantage of their Kids @ The Castle programming for nature safaris, horseback riding, treasure hunts and loads more.
The huz hates it when I send food back to the kitchen and ask hotel staff too many questions. But hey, I live by the motto: You don’t get what you don’t ask for. Not everyone is as comfortable with making
demands polite inquires as I am and for those folks, there is the Kipsu program. Meaning: You can text the front desk for more towels, dining reservations or anything your little heart desires. It’s super fast, no-one will know you’re doing it and shy types don’t feel like they’re imposing – which is weird they would, but whatever. Everybody’s different and all that.
Yes, pets are welcome and unlike some luxe hotels, there’s no weight limit. You can’t leave them alone in the room though, but Fairmont offers a pet sitting service.
Here I am at the end of my post and I haven’t even touched on Willow Steam Spa, but that swish oasis deserves its own write up, don’t you think?
Have you ever stayed at Fairmont Banff Springs? What’s your impression of this landmark hotel?
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Vancouver is one of Canada’s best cities. With a vibrant night life, amazing restaurants, top museums and sublime shops. it’s a no brainer for a couples or girls/guys weekend getaway. But what if you’re on a family vacay? Yep, it scores top marks in that area, too! Follow along as I take you through the must visit attractions and top things to do with kids.
Capilano Suspension Bridge
Why Here: Where else can you traipse through an ancient rainforest that resides within a major city? North Vancouver is home to first-growth douglas fir trees 400 to 800 years old! Walk among these giants (plus fir, hemlock and cedar) on the Treetops Adventure 110 feet above the forest floor. It’s also a hoot to rush across the super long, slightly swaying suspension bridge. If you ever wanted to make more of an effort to connect kids to nature and you don’t have time to leave the city, this is the place to go.
Make a point to: Pick up a Rainforest Explorers Program for kids. That way they can pretend to be research scientists and collect data through the forest. Sneaking in a little extra education never hurt anyone, right?
Best to: Take advantage of the free shuttle service that operates from several downtown locations. There’s not a lot of parking here.
Find out more: www.capbridge.com
Why here: Never seen an iceberg? How about Niagara Falls or the Rockies? There’s almost no need to travel across the country, not when you can experience all the highlights (without any travel hassle) on this 4D flight simulation ride. It had all the trappings of an over-hyped tourist attraction. Except it wasn’t. It’s a full on sensory experience that turned out to be one of the best family attractions I’ve ever experienced.
Don’t worry about: Where you sit. The way this experience works, nobody will end up sitting in front of you. There’s nothing that gets between you and Canada’s most iconic landmarks.
Find out more: www.flyovercanada.com
Why here: Got a marine lover on your hands? This one of the world’s best aquariums. More than an aquarium, it’s also a not-for-profit conservation and research centre. From the Arctic to the Amazon, a staggering 50,000 aquatic creatures live here, so it’s a good bet you’ll get to view your favourite fish.
Make a point to: Visit Clownfish Cove. This play area replicating an animal rescue centre encourages role play with lots of vet equipment and stuffies caring kids can nurse back to health.
Go ahead and skip: The lines. The Discover Rays touch pool can get very busy. If getting up close and personal with the funky, flat fish is on your bucket list, make a beeline for this section upon entry. Better yet, swap off and have one parent wait in line, while the other plows through the other zones.
Best to: Come here as soon as it opens or the hour and a half before closing. Did I mention this place gets super busy?
Find out more: www.vanaqua.org
Why here: This shopping district is sure to hit all the right buttons with every member of your family. Case in point, they have a market specific for the under 12-set. The Kids Market is comprised of lovely indy shops who well understand the needs of their top customers. You’ll find puppets, crafts, costumes and an excellent selection of children’s books. There’s an indoor play area and outside is a life-size playboat on the banks of a duck pond. Walk around the back of the market to find an ideal green space for picnics, plus a splash park.
Best to: Come hungry. Wander the stalls and eat your way across cultures thanks to the vibrant variety of food stalls.
Don’t forget: To bring towels and a bathing suit in case someone decides to hit the splash park. Though they do have a full body dryer…
Find out more: granvilleisland.com
Why here: There’s so much go-go-go on family holidays, it often pays to step away from all the attractions and straight chill. Look to this urban oasis to calm down overhyped ankle biters. There are beaches to comb, towering trees to hide behind and playgrounds to explore. In summertime, Second Beach Pool (outdoor and heated) is in full swing with waterslides and a sloped entry for wee ones.
Make it better: Don’t drive through and pay for parking. Rent bikes and pedal your way through this city gem.
Don’t forget: To bring a towel at the very least. Some members of your squad might get too close to the water’s edge or want to zoom through the splash pad.
Find out more: Stanley Park
Have you been to Vancouver recently? What else do you think kids will love?
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