Sunday, July 25, 2010

Adventures in Toronto

Toronto's a great, international city with so many things to explore. We were only there for a couple days this trip, but were able to enjoy several great highlights. I checked off a new stadium, and it could not have been better. It was the one time things cooled off in the middle of this crazy, hot summer. The roof was open and the night air was great!

Some of the things we enjoyed on this visit:

Kensington Market:
Loved this diverse area in/near Chinatown with all types of restaurants and food vendors. We had a great lunch, and you could spend a lot of time exploring all the hidden gems. I had to top it off with a delicious bubble tea, but next time I'd spend more time exploring and shopping amongst all the vegetable and herb markets--and then stop and get some reflexology for my tired body.

"Hop on, Hop Off" tour:
These are one of our favorite ways to get the lay of the land in any city. Some of the tours are better than others, and of course they visit some of the more touristy spots (but, hey, I am a tourist after all!), but we always look at it as transportation plus a way to get a great overview. Because you can get on and off, let it take you to different areas and explore at will. Most times, they give you two days for the same price, so we get it the first day and take full advantage of it for both the tour and generally getting around. We've been on some form of "hop on, hop off" everywhere from Savannah, GA to Helsinki, Finland.

I got a much better sense of Toronto's layout this time doing this. Our first driver was obviously tired after a long day, but the next day we had very helpful drivers with a lot of knowledge. In Toronto, Grey Line offers one, but we actually did a smaller one (in a green van) that left from our hotel. It was a slightly better deal (and came with a boat tour for a few bucks more, though we didn't do that this time) and it was fully air conditioned/enclosed, which was necessary in the heat wave.

The Distillery District:
We met a friend here one afternoon and I walked around and made it through most of the shops. The old distillery buildings are lovely and there are a variety of shops, workshops/artist's studios and restaurants. My favorite was the artisanal chocolate shop, Cube (art made with Rubix cubes), and a great jewelry store representing various artists/jewelery makers.

We enjoyed our hotel--The Sheraton Centre, as it was very centrally located and comfortable. It's a huge place, but I liked that it had a lot of amenities (great gym, indoor/outdoor pool, several restaurants). It is connected to PATH, Toronto's 28 km underground walkway connecting shops,services and entertainment. This would be especially handy in winter (though not bad in a heatwave either).

My general travel methodology is to enjoy some variety--take in the "must sees" but don't feel pressured to see them all, and don't neglect to enjoy neighborhoods, dining and day to day things that are the life of any city. Most of my favorite moments are those discoveries, and people watching. Toronto is a city with such variety that you can have a very different experience on every visit, and there's still more to see and do.

Last tip...if driving up and back from the U.S. (or flying out of Buffalo) allow plenty of time. There is a lot of construction on the QEW and of course, the border crossing can vary widely. We allowed more than the expected time (with extra check in time) and still missed our flight out of Buffalo. And, the Buffalo airport is not somewhere you want to spend a lot of time! (Though the Southwest airlines staff was great and we made it home safely, just several hours later with a stop along the way.)

Thursday, July 22, 2010

No Baseball Here, But Plenty to Like: Niagara on the Lake, The Falls, Ice Wine and More

I described the town of Niagara on the Lake (NOTL) as "enchanting" and it was definitely my favorite part of our recent trip.

We stayed in a private apartment, found through the Chamber of Commerce. I did a lot of research online and debated over several accommodation options. I was surprised to find the chamber's accommodations booking site and the variety of options they had--that's a first for me and I'll be checking out Chambers of Commerce more often now. NOTL has many bed and breakfasts...but sometimes, a B &B is a little too cozy for our tastes. My husband isn't big on the breakfast part, either, and I'm just as happy with a bagel and coffee (or a delicious blueberry scone which I enjoyed each morning from the bakery in NOTL). I really wanted to be right in the center of town...and not having been there before, my instincts and choices turned out great. It's worth checking out alternative options like this. It made a nice change from hotels and gave us room to spread out and feel like temporary residents. And, the best part is that we were right in the middle of the town, above the stores (a Cows Ice Cream store! Wow--that would be bad for my waistline if I lived there!).

NOTL is pretty well known and so it gets pretty crowded with tourists, but not being there on the weekend, we didn't find the crowds to be a problem. You can definitely spend a lot of money there too--between the shops, the restaurants and the ice wine!

We did a wine country tour, with Jeff Sanderson (Wine Country Escapes). Found him online as well--there are several tour options you can find online, but his smaller operation was personable and worked great for us. Jeff was our personal tour guide and it was just us on the tour so we had complete flexibility. We made it around to several wineries and Jeff took us to some of the lesser known spots. We started with a tour at Jackson Triggs and went to about 6 wineries for tastings. The region is known for ice wine and we got our fill! Made some great purchases and discovered some pretty good bargains at the lesser known places. My recommendations: the "wine sticks" from Dr. Joseph (like pretzels made with grape flour), any wine from 2007 (apparently the best season in a long time--we heard about, and tasted it, over and over again), and ice wine martinis--yum!

Our tour ended with dinner at Epicurian, which was right near our apartment in NOTL. Great food (and if the weather's good, check out the beautiful courtyard)! The only down side was that it was a fixed menu for the wine tour (a few entree choices).

I could have moved in to our little apartment. I got up every day and walked for about an hour all around the town. The homes and the grounds are amazing. But, I realized on my early morning walks--it takes a lot of could see the "behind the scenes" work early in the morning, when yard men, roofers, painters, street cleaners, trash removal, and all natures of repairmen were at work. And, the street cleaning and trash removal made ear plugs a must in the apartment (there are pros and cons to being in the middle of things).

On the way in to town, we made the requisite stop at the Falls. It was packed, but we were lucky to get there late in the day. If you want to do the Maid of the Mist ride, I'd recommend getting there late(in summer, it's open until around 7) as the wait was short. And, what a great thing to do on a hot day. I loved it! The Falls are undeniably amazing and the rainbows were incredible that day. There's plenty to do there, from Imax movies to various rides and tours, but I don't know how much of that (and waiting in the lines) is necessary. Definitely go to the Canadian Falls if you're visiting--well worth the border crossing. The American Falls don't compare.

I'd highly recommend a visit to the area. There are so many wineries and different little towns to check out in addition to NOTL and the falls. Great restaurants, farmers markets, and it's the kind of area that inspired strolling the shops, taking a picnic, or having a leisurely dinner (followed by ice wine!)...

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Pittsburgh: 4th of July Rowdiness

We started off on a bad note in Pittsburgh: our hotel room wasn't ready for check in at 4 PM. Two free drink coupons didn't really make up for it, but at least our wait wasn't long (beware the challenges of travelling on holiday weekends, especially when a big rivalry game is scheduled). And, can I just ask, where are the supposed cookies the Doubletree promises? I smelled them, but I guess they'd given them all away to Phillies fans.

I had long heard about The Church Brew Works so we sought it out. The Church is definitely worth checking out. It's a brewery and restaurant in an old Catholic church. Pretty amazing looking, and great food and beer. They have a nice lineup of styles of beer, including seasonals. And beer is considered holy water to some people...

We had heard "The Strip" was an area to check out...and our cabbie explained it was a straight shot down the road so we attempted to walk. I'd probably advise against it, though I'm a walker so it didn't bother me. Definitely wouldn't feel comfortable doing it by myself or in the dark--kind of sketchy and some fairly empty patches.

We happened upon a cool place called Kaya--Caribbean cuisine (looks like a great place for dinner) and enjoyed some nice drinks at the bar. They had some pretty creative cocktails. Finished hanging out on a porch overlooking the street at a sports bar--nothing special but nice to sit outside and some amusing people watching (the beginning of the rowdy, yelling behavior we saw time and time again in Pittsburgh). A group of women on the street below was thoroughly enjoying yelling obscenities up to a group at the bar--entertaining since we were safely removed from the action. Proceeded by Phillies fans partying (and singing) late in to the night (3 A.M.) in the hotel:-(

The Strip definitely didn't live up to the hype. The market there during the day is what's cool--visit that and don't expect a lot of nightlife. If we had known better, we'd probably have skipped it and gone to Southside, which we enjoyed a couple nights later.

Pittsburgh apparently is known for its fireworks shows and it was quite spectacular. With the river view, it's a great place for the 4th. Huge crowds gathered and we just found a spot to stand near the bridge to take them in. Be warned: huge crowds and you don't want to be driving through the traffic. It was again pretty rowdy on the downtown streets after--huge police presence and once again, experienced the yelling, angry crowd of women...

Our favorite spot for evening entertainment was Southside. For nightlife, it had the best variety. A favorite spot: The Library--a library themed restaurant and bar with menus presented in old books, with great food ("tapas style" but huge portions on their small plates). I had delicious (and huge) scallops and the Edgar Allen Sweet Poe-Tatoes:-) Also fun to check out: The Tiki Bar and Lava Lounge.

I'd recommend: The Church Brew Works Brewery, Kaya, Southside, the incline rides (but beware, no windows so it is very unpleasant during a heatwave), PNC Park, Andy Warhol Museum

Friday, July 16, 2010

A Trip to Pittsburgh and Toronto, eh?

Our most recent adventure was a weeklong trip--starting in Pittsburgh, then driving up to Canada and spending a couple days in Niagara on the Lake and on to Toronto for a couple days. Might sound like kind of an odd trip, and I often find myself explaining our seemingly odd destinations--reason: our goal to visit all the MLB stadiums. After this year we're down to 8! While we are certainly not the only baseball fans who have done this, I think more people would enjoy a similar "quest". Sure, we like baseball and especially seeing the stadiums. But, it's also a great way to see a wide array of cities. We've been many places we would not have otherwise gone, but for this quest. And, we've been pleasantly surprised by most.

I'll go back through and share more about this trip in general later, especially some of the Niagara portion and our tips. I will also do my best to recount some of the past baseball trips, especially for anyone who might be interested in doing the same thing, or who just happens to be going to one of the cities and wants to catch a game. I like baseball, but I can probably remember a lot more about the atmosphere, food in the ballpark and the town than most of the games...

Visits to the stadiums:

Pittsburgh: Huge sports town, and we saw them play the Phillies over 7/4 weekend so the city and stadium were hopping! (maybe a bit more than I would have preferred, our hotel was a little noisy/rowdy). Pittsburgh has a great stadium; beautiful location on the riverfront and fun to walk across the bridge which is closed to traffic for games.

My smart husband chose club level seats--perfect since we went to a day game and the heat index was about 100 F. Being able to spend time in the air conditioned concourse was well worth it! And, with the crowds, having a separate entrance (no lines) was a huge bonus (which we almost missed by the way--don't wait at the general entrance if you have club seats).

The stadium is well laid out and you can get every kind of ballpark and Pittsburgh/regional food (pierogies, Primanti brothers sandwiches, local beers). They even have an "all you can eat" section (hot dogs, burgers, sodas, etc.-limited menu)! The club section had standard food, plus ice cream, Chinese food, a custom sausage grill, and a full bar. I took note of the giant, handmade pretzel but wasn't quite that hungry (I think it was $15, so I wasn't about to eat just 1/2 of it). Food and lots of it is big in Pittsburgh and the ballpark doesn't disappoint in that regard. Great place to see a game! Obviously big sports town all around and the inner state rivalry and holiday weekend made this a big game weekend, even if baseball's not the city's highlight sport.

Toronto: My first time at the stadium but my husband's 2nd trip there. Our local friend told us the roof is rarely open, but hubby's two for two. It was a beautiful night and we got to sit under the stars (it poured earlier, so the heat had finally let up). Once again, pretty big crowds because the Red Sox were in town (so, mostly Red Sox fans). The crowd was kind of rowdy, but it seemed that was mostly the Toronto fans--I guess the Red Sox fans weren't going to be obnoxious when they were beating the tar out of the Blue Jays. Some of the hecklers from Toronto cracked me up. One guy in our area kept yelling "This is my section, not Red Sox Section. Go back to America!" which had all of us (even the die hard Sox fans) laughing (the Blue Jays fans had to laugh or they would cry, and the Sox fans had to be good sports considering the score). Even though it was a bad game, the atmosphere was great. Though it's not brand spanking new, this place does baseball "indoors" well and has some neat features. I love watching the fans viewing the game from the hotel rooms that look on to the field (gotta check that out next time!). I'm all for retractable roofs--our dome in Tampa Bay just doesn't do it for me. Toronto's ballpark has a great array of food, and decent beer (they even had a pretty decent tasting wine there).

Of course, the great thing about Toronto is it is such a fun and diverse city--and there's plenty to do before and after the game. If you're a beer fan--don't miss The Bier Market on the Esplanade (not to far from the park). Great beer selection, esp. the Belgian styles, and delicious food (try the mussels!). It gets pretty packed, but its worth standing at the bar for the beer and mussels. We've been there twice now on 2 different trips, and had the same great bartender--even in a packed bar, he takes the time to educate you on the beers, answer questions, and offer suggestions. Like any "connoisseur" you can feel his passion.

The Distillery District is another neat area--we grabbed a bite and a beer there before the game and I checked out some of the shops. Creative jewelry, hand crafted items, and artisan chocolate (tried the Hazelnut and Pop Rocks Truffle and the 30 yr aged Balsamic Vinegar Truffle-yum!). And, after the game, the Entertainment district is within a few blocks, so there's plenty to do...though we weren't quite up for the late night clubbing scene so we were heading home when most people were just heading out for a long night...

More to come...

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Traveling as a Couple

My guess is there are a lot of couples like us…we have enjoyed travelling together throughout our relationship and think travel is an essential part of life. We enjoy a little bit of everything when it comes to travel and are pretty open to trying new things—we’ve done everything from cruises (weekend, low cost cruise of Bahamas through fully inclusive, luxury week long European cruise) to a very structured, sports adventure trip with a group to excursions on our own of all sizes and prices.

On our trips, we like to be busy and see the sights, but also experience a bit of the local flavor, plus rest, relax and have fun—so we try to balance things out. But, each trip is unique in flavor. I guess we’re pretty “equal opportunity” when it comes to travel (other than not being very "outdoorsy"). Travel as a couple requires compromise. I think it’s one of the advantages of traveling with a partner, that it loosens one up a bit and broadens your horizons and simultaneously, the travel experience does the same thing for the relationship. You have to be flexible in travel--and in relationships...

I'll share our adventures and some of the things we discover on our trips, plus tips and highlights (things we wish we knew and usually aren't in the guidebooks)...