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Get Creative at a Cory Christopher Fresh Floral Workshop

For the past few years, Cory Christopher has inspired me into attempting holiday decor designs at home after attending his Do-It-Yourself (DIY) decor sessions at Christmas in November at the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge. Cory, who is like a Christmas elf with a green thumb, manages to whip through about 15 projects in the 75 minute class using an assortment of fresh florals, second-hand books, and home accessories from everywhere from the storage closet to the dollar store and Canadian tire. It is exhausting and inspiring all at the same time.

 

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If you follow Cory’s Instagram account, it is hard not to be inspired by the beautiful floral bouquets, succulent displays, and wedding theme photos he and his team create around the province of Alberta. Thankfully, Cory offers a chance to recreate his bouquets through his hands-on fresh floral workshops at his studio in Edmonton and at his family farm north of St. Albert.

Cory Christopher at Birchwood Meadows

Cory recently invited me to attend a dahlia workshop at his family homestead at Birchwood Meadows in Sturgeon County. My friend Kelley joined me for the class, which included an intro to dahlias with Cory, followed by the opportunity to hand pick an assortment of flowers, herbs, and foliage for our one-of-a-kind bouquet.

Cory explaining the layout of the garden and which flowers we could collect for our bouquets.

Cory showed those of us who were scared to make the first cut how far down to cut the dahlias on the stem.

We were invited to use the sunflowers in our bouquets, but some were too high to reach.

 

Once we returned from the field, we took a seat at a long table in the garden. With a little guidance from Cory on how to size, layer, and build our bouquets – each of us created a unique dahlia display to take home.

Kelley’s bouquet featured white flowers – classic and beautiful just like her.

Kelley and I were both ecstatic to go home with our beautiful bouquets. Cory had invited me to attend so my class was complimentary, but after experiencing his hands on workshop, and the opportunity to pick our own flowers on the farm, I think his course is great value and I look forward to registering with Kelley for another one soon. 

Upcoming workshops include this weekend’s Thanksgiving Floral Centrepiece at Birchwood Meadows and a Terrarium Design Workshop at Burnwood Distillery in Calgary. Stay tuned for upcoming workshops – grab a friend and get creative with Cory Christopher – your table will never look better!

Learn more at www.corychristopher.ca

 

Five Reasons You’ll Want to Devour! The Canadian Rockies

In March, I was invited to attend the inaugural Devour! The Canadian Rockies Food Film Festival at the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge. Even though my weekend was complimentary, I was blown away by the incredible value of a two-night stay at the JPL including most meals, alcohol, and access to all the happenings of the food and film festival.

Now in its 8th year in Wolfville, Nova Scotia, Devour! is a food and film experience combining cinematic excellence with extraordinary gastronomic activities. Festival organizers chef Michael Howell and Lia Rinaldo have expanded the maritime event to include satellite Devour festivals around the world – including Alberta’s only event at the JPL.

Devour! The Canadian Rockies Food Film Festival is back at the Fairmont JPL – February 22 – 24, 2019 – $479 per person

After experiencing last year’s event, I’m happy to pay the $479 for a spot at the 2nd annual Devour! The Canadian Rockies Food Film Festival.  In fact, The Spaniard and I are already booked for 2019! Packages for the 2019 edition at the Fairmont JPL have opened up and space is filling up quickly. Here is what is included:

Devour! The Canadian Rockies Package Includes:

 

  • Two nights accommodation
  • Friday Evening Cabin Crawl Reception & Dinner
  • Chili Cook-Off Luncheon
  • Five Course Wine-Paired Cinema Dinner
  • Sunday Farewell Brunch
  • Cooking Demos
  • Gratuities

If you’ve paid for a weekend at JPL before I’m sure you know this package is a great price. Due to the nature of the event activities, capacity for the opportunity to discover a love for food and film (and wine), at the JPL is limited.

HERE ARE FIVE REASONS YOU”LL WANT TO DEVOUR! THE CANADIAN ROCKIES:

1. A Good Old Fashioned Cabin Crawl

The event kicks off with a welcome reception where guests are greeted, handed a glass of bubbly, and split into groups for a three-cabin crawl of some of the signature cabins on the property. Last year we got our groove on at the Carnivore Cabin, where chefs John Jackson and Connie DeSousa of Charcut were literally slicing pig head mortadella into guests mouths to the sounds of Edmonton’s Girls Club DJs.

Next, we found ourselves in the Outlook Cabin (A.K.A. the Queen’s Cabin), where chefs Paul Rogalski of Rouge and Blair Lebsack of RGE RD were hosting an Après Ski party with a never-ending supply of cheese fondue and raclette. I sipped back a sample of Park Distillery vodka, while we were serenaded to a lederhosen clad accordion player (and then I took photos in the room Queen Elizabeth stayed in).

Chef Paul Rogalski and Chef Blair Lebsack are serenaded at the après-ski in the Outlook Cabin

Getting my fondue on with Linda in the Fairmont HPLs Outlook Cabin

 

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Finally, we were off to an East Coast Kitchen party! Chef Howell was joined by the JPL’s chef Christopher Chafe, where a fiddler and a guitarist had the Gardener’s Cabin hopping. There was everything from lobster rolls to seafood chowder, but it was the oyster bar that won my heart, and my belly. Chef Howell kept shucking so I just kept eating. This stop also had glasses of Nova 7, my favourite glass of bubbly made in Canada!

The East Coast Kitchen Party

In case we hadn’t eaten and drank enough over the three hours, there was one more stop. We were led down to the lakefront for a fireside marshmallow roast. There was hot chocolate and creamy liqueurs to keep us warm, and The Spaniard and I got to teach our friends Jose Miguel (also from Spain) and his wife Eugenia (from Argentina), how to make and eat their first ever S’mores.

2. Get up close and personal with the chefs

John Jackson and Connie DeSousa of Charcut

Chef Paul Rogalski of Rouge Restaurant

Saturday lunch involved a chili cookoff, where each of the chefs were vying for our votes for the most innovative and appetizing chili recipe. I was chatting with chef Rogalski, and he mentioned that he remembered talking with everyone he met the night before. With just 125 people in attendance, and events like the cabin crawl and chili cookoff where the chefs serve your food directly, Devour! The Canadian Rockies allows guests to get up close and personal with each of the chefs.

Chef Christopher Chafe, Executive Chef at the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge

Chef Howell trying to garner votes in the chili cookoff

3. All the tasty beverages

Last year, alcohol sponsors included Folding Mountain BrewingBrewstersJasper BrewingBanff Ave. Brewing CoPark DistilleryGray Monk Estate WineryRed Rooster WineryWayne Gretzky Estates WineryMonte Creek Ranch WinerySandhill WinesBenjamin BridgeDelegat, and Peller Estates.

A glass of wine, or more, during an afternoon wine tasting with Benjamin Bridge from Nova Scotia.

From the cabin crawl, to the chili cookoff, to the afternoon of wine tasting, to the bubbles brunch, there were endless opportunities to sample and ask questions to each of the owners and reps. There is hardly a chance to get thirsty at Devour! The Canadian Rockies.

4. Get inspired to eat

Devour! challenges people to think differently and create a deeper connection to food through some of the most engaging documentaries, dramas and short films. At the gala dinner on Saturday evening, we listened to each chef talk about the short film they were paired with, and what inspired them to make our next course. The carefully curated selections were inspiring and so passionate I wished there were more.

Chef Howell prepping his pork belly for the Gala Dinner

5. A Weekend at the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge

The thing I loved most about Devour! The Canadian Rockies Food Film Festival was that it was at the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge in the Jasper National Park. The schedule gave us the morning off on Saturday, allowing us to take advantage of our surroundings (we went cross-country skiing) and the amenities (the heated pool and the hot tub!).

We had just enough things to keep us busy, but still enough time to relax, and enjoy the beautiful surroundings at the JPL.

 

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On the Sunday morning we had a bubbles brunch which included a wonderful display of food from the culinary team at the Fairmont JPL. Along with one more short film, and the promise the event would be back for a second year, it was the perfect introduction to the food and film festival.

Devour! The Canadian Rockies Food Film Festival is back Feb 22 – 24, 2019 . If you want to cozy up in the Rockies while you celebrate cinema, indulge in exquisite food & wine, and experience all the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge has to offer, book before it sells out.

Just in case I haven’t tempted you, here are some more photos from our weekend at Devour! The Canadian Rockies Food Film Festival.

Fairmont JPL head gardener Marna adds some rustic style to the cabin crawl

A lot to look at during the gala reception in the Jasper Mountain Gallery

Recap: Taste Alberta Prairie on the Plate at the Harvest Room

Chef Mridul Bhatt, the executive chef at the Fairmont Hotel Macdonald, has lived in Alberta for just over one year, but already has a knowledge and deep appreciation for ingredients grown, raised and produced from across the province.

On Friday night, Chef Mridul and his culinary team presented a six-course menu Prairie on the Plate menu highlighting ingredients from Taste Alberta‘s commodity partners: Alberta Canola ProducersEgg Farmers of AlbertaAlberta MilkAlberta Pulse Growers Commission, and Alberta Pork.

Chef Mridul, Executive Chef, Fairmont Hotel Macdonald

After welcoming us to the Taste Alberta dinner, Chef Mridul shared his passion for using local ingredients and introduced our upcoming dishes. Our first course – ‘Rebel Within’, was a 63 degree Alberta egg, was nestled inside an applewood cheddar & jalapeño muffin and served alongside a chorizo tomato sauce. A quick slice with the knife revealed a perfectly runny egg.

 

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Chef Mridul explained that he was inspired by the strength of the egg, and complimented the Egg Farmers of Alberta for what he feels are the best eggs raised in Canada.

Our second course, the late summer Alberta pork yakatori, was served alongside charred bokchoy. I know, I am always biased towards loving the pork dishes, but this truly was the most incredible piece of pork belly. My friend Michelle, who does not like pork belly because it is often too fatty for her, ate her entire piece.

Chef Mridul explained that his team charred the pork belly with an open flame to help give it a smoky taste to the Asian-inspired flavours. My friend Blake said he could have eaten a pork belly steak sized portion it was so good.

For our third course, Chef Mridul found inspiration from his native India. Known as the largest consumer of pulses, India also imports a large number of pulses – primarily split peas and lentils.

Our vegetarian course was served inside a puffed poori. Chef Mridul accented his heritage lentil and chickpea-red kidney bean salad,  with Fairmont Hotel Macdonald honey tzatziki, cilantro mojo, tamarind molasses and pop of pomegranate seeds. The culinary team also made a savoury donut made from white lentils, which was soaked in a yogurt syrup.

I ate vegetarian when I backpacked through India for 2.5 months over 10 years ago, so Chef Mridul’s dish brought back wonderful memories for me. The texture of the crunchy poori combined with so many layers of flavours hidden within made our third course my favourite dish of the evening – and one that I am sure would have impressed pulse farmers from across the province.

Our fourth dish highlighted the versatility of canola oil. Canola parsley gremolata was served alongside cedar wrapped sea bass and a corn tikki (which google tells me is the Indian equivalent to a hash brown). Another stellar dish – and Chef Mridul shared that he is so happy with the flavour, he will be incorporating the canola parsley gremolata in his next menu.

To help celebrate September as National Chicken Month, Chef Mridul and his team served an innovative dish that make Alberta Chicken the star of our meal.

The kitchen marinated the  chickens several times ( and even coated with butter to help seal in the flavour), before being wrapped in swiss chard, and baked inside a layer of red fife dough. Red fife is a wheat variety that was the baking and milling industries’ standard of wheat in Canada from 1860 to 1900. In recent years, demand for the heritage grain has been increasing locally and across the country.

When I spoke to Chef Mridul about his menu, he told me he wanted to create a story about what Alberta is really proud of. Since moving to Alberta, he has learned that this province is not just beef country – and that Albertans need to celebrate and be proud of other proteins like chickens, which are raised across our province as well.

The Harvest Room chefs brought the red-fife crusted chicken into the dining room to be served table side. Each bundle was carved open to reveal the roasted chicken, which were split in two for a generous half-chicken portion, and served alongside spicy green beans and potatoes. The result was a showstopper in the dining room.

 

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Alberta milk may seem simple, but Chef Mridul and his team presented it as anything but. Cracking into my milk sorbet for desssert revealed an inner layer of honey cognac (again made with the honey from the Fairmont Macdonald’s garden bees), and served with pieces of crunchy honeycombs and caramelized milk.

The sinfully sweet dessert completed our Taste Alberta meal in The Harvest Room – an innovative dinner that highlighted the incredible ingredients from across the province available.

I left anticipating my next visit to The Harvest Room, and also wondering how on earth I could replicate Chef Mridul’s pulse dish at home. A huge thanks to Chef Mridul and the entire Harvest Room Culinary team and the Fairmont Hotel Macdonald team (especially Antosh – the food and beverage manager at the Fairmont Hotel Mac), for the work they put in to host and deliver a very memorable Taste Alberta menu.

Thursday, Sept 27, 2018, The Harvest Room is hosting a Honey Harvest Dinner featuring the incredible honey collected from their beehives on site. Click here for more information.

 

 

 

 

A Weekend in Montreal – 10 things to keep you busy

Montreal has been on our travel Canada hit list for some time now, so when my friend Adrienne asked if we wanted to join her for the August long weekend, we took her up on the offer of a free bed.

We took a couple extra days off work so we had extra time to eat and have some extra fun in the sun (and humidity). Here are 10 things that will can keep you busy on a summer weekend in Montreal.

1. Watch tennis at the Rogers Cup

Both The Spaniard and Adrienne are tennis fans, so when the initial invite came to come visit – we knew we would be going to the Rogers Cup. This year the women were playing in Montreal, and we got up-close with number of high-ranked players including Johanna Konta, Jelana Ostapenko, Sloan Stevens, and Maria Sharapova.

A storm rolled through, which resulted in a rain delay. Thankfully our seats were covered.

2. A culinary walking tour

Montreal is a food-lovers dream city. We arrived late on Friday afternoon and decided the best way to orient ourselves (it was The Spaniard’s first time in Montreal), was to walk sharing bites in a number of neighbourhoods. We walked through the Jean Talon market where we had a gluten-free crepe at Crêperie du Marché, watched the expert bagel flipping at St-Viateur Bagel,  ice cream at Kem Coba, and finally, we ordered take-away from Schwartz’s Deli (one of Canada’s oldest delis serving up legendary smoked meat sandwiches. There were plenty of available picnic style seats and benches across the street – which was good enough for three of us to down piping hot fries and mounds of Montreal smoked meat.

a gluten-free crepe at Crêperie du Marché made with egg, ham, potatoes, cheese and maple syrup.

3. Get your groove on at Osheaga Music & Art Festival

Once we had our flights booked I checked in with my beautiful friend Mathieu to see if he would be in Montreal for the August long weekend, and he asked if was going to Osheaga. I am so glad he asked the questions, as once we checked out the lineup – we quickly bought tickets for the close out Sunday show. I was blown away how well organized the music festival was. There were so many fun, free activities to keep people entertained between all the stage and the people-watching was absolutely incredible. If you are in town for Osheaga – buy tickets and check it out!

Thankfully there were fountains to keep us cool – the humidity and heat were fierce on the Sunday at Osheaga this year.

Franz Ferdinand bringing the heat at Osheaga 2018

4. A wander through the Jardin Botanique – Montreal’s botanical garden

Easily accessible using our weekend Metro pass, The Spaniard and I saw just a fraction of the botanical garden. We saw a number of creepy-crawly bugs in the Insectarium and then walked through some of the Asian gardens. When we got home we saw photos of some of the exhibits and areas we missed – we only spent a few hours there so next time I would give myself more time to explore.

5. Hit the bakeries – gluten filled and gluten free

I’m not sure how they are doing it, but I found two bakeries within walking distance of our Air BNB that were selling incredible flaky, gluten-free pastries. Boulangerie Le Marquis served up an almond croissant so tasty The Spaniard thought it was better than the gluten-filled one he tried earlier in the day. And L’artisan délices sans gluten et sans lait, which was open both Sundays and Mondays, allowed me to stock up on bagel sandwiches, pizzas and pastries for both Osheaga and the Rogers Cup.

A little bite of cream puff heaven from L’artisan délices sans gluten

I made sure to research some gluten-filled bakeries as well, and The Spaniard indulged at Pâtisserie Rhubarbe,  Arte e Farina (for the pannettone), and Cheskies, described as an understated bakery featuring a variety of Jewish kosher pastries, cakes & other goods.

6. Walk through old Montreal

I’m sure for The Spaniard, Montreal did not feel euro, but all you need is a street made with cobblestones for  many of us Canadians to get a sense of European old-world charm. We were planning on touring the Notre-Dame Basilica, but as we walked up the steps we were told the Basilica was closed for a wedding, and no more tours/tourists were allowed in for the day. We had plans of going back another day but ran out of time. Instead, I would like to share this photo of a cement truck photo-bombing the Notre-Dame Basilica.

Loosely based on the history of Montréal, Cité Mémoire presents a cast of characters offering first-hand accounts of how the city has evolved over the course of history. With a touch of poetry and playfulness, over twenty scenes are brought to life through words, images, and music. You can download the free Montréal en Histoires application to enjoy the sights and sounds.

7. Eat Brunch  – any day of the week!

Montrealers must have a serious love affair with brunch – as the options felt endless, and not just on the weekends. We had four mornings and hit up brunch menus every day, and I had no problem finding gluten-free options. First it was on the covered patio at Bloomfield for french toast and socca, then we sat at the counter watching the kitchen at Maison Publique serve up meaty portions of bacon, blood sausage, and more sausage. For our third brunch we met up with Amelie (a friend of Miguel’s from his year in Sydney, Australia he hadn’t seen in eight years) and her boyfriend at Arts Cafe for duck poutine, and finally, we hit the weekday brunch (where I had the plate of smoked sturgeon salad of chayottes and omelette) at La Petite Addresse.

Brunch at Bloomfield Restaurant

A friendship made in Sydney, Australia – a brunch reunion in Montreal eight years later!

Duck poutine (gluten-free) at Arts Cafe

The weekday brunch at La Petite Addresse

8. Check out the street art

I must give a shout out to my friend Linda who was in Montreal the same weekend we were, and she was tearing up instagram with the number of instagramable walls in Montreal. The city feels like an outdoor art museum – I wanted to take photos of everything and with everything!

9. Save $ by taking the Metro

I was so impressed with the public transit in Montreal. Since we arrived on Friday afternoon, we took advantage of the weekend pass for $13.75, which gave us travel from Friday at 4 p.m. to Monday morning at 5 a.m. (including the airport bus).

Between the Osheaga festival fashion and the people headed to the Comic Con event that was on the weekend we were there, the people watching on the metro was absolutely amazing!

10. Take in the view of the city from the top of Mont Royal

I had originally thought we would hike up Mont Royal for a view of the city, but the humidity had us moving in slow motion. Instead, we opted to take advantage of our transit pass and take the bus, which conveniently dropped us off within walking distance of the Smith House, which had loads of information to explain why the small mountain at the heart of Montréal occupies such a big place in the city’s history, heritage and identity.

A view of Montreal (including the Olympic Stadium) from Mont Royal

Although we had four nights, our trip barely scratched the surface of places to eat or what to do in Montreal. There are so many of Canada’s top rated restaurants in Montreal, like Toque and Joe Beef, that we didn’t get to try. And it would be great to come back to experience their comedy festivals, a night of jazz, or even a sporting event. Our weekend in Montreal was just a taste – I can’t wait for our next visit!

* Thankfully I won’t have to wait too long for a little bite, since Adrienne is bringing back two cans of maple syrup for me. Thank you buddy for the incredible hospitality.

 

Recap: Get Cooking -Taste Alberta Burger Club

Earlier this month, Get Cooking Edmonton transformed their final Burger Club in their summer pop-up dining series into a Taste Alberta – Prairie on the Plate event.

Chefs Doreen Prei and Kathryn Joel helped celebrate a Prairie on the Plate first by featuring all seven of Taste Alberta’s partners – Alberta Canola ProducersEgg Farmers of AlbertaAlberta MilkAlberta Pulse Growers CommissionAlberta Chicken ProducersAlberta Turkey Producers, and Alberta Pork – on their Burger Club Wednesday menu.

The sun was shining and most of the patrons that night opted for a seat on the Get Cooking patio. To help keep everyone hydrated, butcher (and Get Cooking culinary instructor) Elyse Chatterton was helping out on the bar serving up everything from Alberta brewed Medicine Hat Brewing Company Burnside Blood Orange Ale and Pimm’s cocktails.

The appetizer for the evening was deep-fried chickpeas, which helped recognize the Alberta Pulse Growers Commission, represents 6,000 growers of field pea, dry bean, lentil, chickpea, faba bean and soybean in Alberta.

There were four burgers packed with Taste Alberta ingredients available, each served with side of either kennebec fries (made with love from Alberta canola farmers) and dipping sauces or a grilled Caesar salad. All of the meats were sourced through Real Deal Meats in south Edmonton, and there was an option to add on to each burger with a fried egg or Halloumi cheese.

 

Get Cooking Edmonton – Burger Club Taste Alberta Menu
  1. Alberta chicken & preserved lemon burger with grilled zucchini and a tahini spread.
  2. Vietnamese Alberta pork burger with picked herbs and a cilantro-lime mayo.
  3. Alberta turkey and sage burger complete with cranberry compote.
  4. Alberta beef and blue cheese burger served with red onion.

Vietnamese Alberta pork burger topped with a fried egg and served with picked herbs and a cilantro-lime mayo.

Alberta chicken & preserved lemon burger with grilled zucchini and a tahini spread.

Alberta turkey and sage burger complete with cranberry compote.

The Spaniard was willing to eat his burger on a gluten-free bun (my definition of true love), so that we could share two from the menu. I enjoyed the flavours of the turkey and cranberry burger, but Vietnamese inspired pork burger was my favourite. Thankfully, chef Doreen Prei is eager to share her culinary secrets, and you can try her pork burger recipe at home.

The two dessert options for the evening could not have been made without ingredients from Alberta Milk or the Egg Farmers of Alberta.

lemon crème brûlée

I love, love, love, how chef Doreen Prei makes crème brûlée. I could have easily indulged in another serving of Chef Prei’s lemon crème brûlée, and The Spaniard didn’t leave a crumb behind from his strawberry shortcake. Once again, chefs Doreen and Kathryn shared how delicious Alberta raised, grown, and produced products are – from appetizer to dessert.

strawberry shortcake with whipped cream and edible flowers

While the summer Burger Club Wednesday pop-up series has come to an end, there are still loads of opportunities to Get Cooking with chefs Doreen, Kathryn as well as Elyse. Check out their upcoming cooking class schedule here.

The next Taste Alberta – Prairie on the Plate will be Friday, September 7, 2018 at the Fairmont Hotel Macdonald. Check out Executive Chef Mridul Bhatt’s Taste Alberta menu and reserve your spot by clicking here.

A Weekend in Porto

Summer has been a whirlwind and it all started when jumped on a plane to cross the Atlantic Ocean so I could meet up with Helen, my lovely friend from London, for a weekend in Porto, Portugal.

I arrived at the airport jet-lagged and so out of it that I left the airport, was standing on the platform for the metro, and realized I had forgotten to pick up my suitcase. Thankfully I still had my boarding pass, as I had to show proof I was on the flight and be checked in with the police before a security staff member could escort me back to my bag.

I had time for a quick nap in our suite at the Magnolia Hostel before Helen arrived. I woke up to a text telling me they couldn’t find our reservation. After a series of messages and finally a call, she figured out she was at the wrong hostel, but just a quick eight minute walk away. (Her error made me feel less silly about my bag blunder – and assured me I was in for a hilarious weekend with Helen).

I think Porto is an absolutely amazing city and perfect for a weekend getaway. If you have any intention of walking around as much as we did my number one piece of advice would be to wear good shoes and stay hydrated. Everywhere you want to go in Porto is up a hill – literally. Want a butt lift? No need to go to the gym – just visit Porto and you’ll work your ass muscles in an instant.

10 things to do in Porto, Portugal

1. Port Tasting

Even if you don’t drink port, as Helen confessed to me, I recommend a port tour during a stay in Porto. While the hard core wine drinkers would likely vote for a day trip to the Douro Valley, those with less time can learn loads and experience a taste of Portugal on a port house tour. We climbed all the way up to visit Taylor’s, which offers an audio tour in several languages (ideal as many of the other port houses require advance bookings at designated times). After learning a ridiculous amount about port, we had a two-port tasting in the garden next to an inquisitive rooster.Taylor's Porto

2. Sunset on the Dom Luís I Bridge 

While Helen wanted to watch the sunset from kayaks, it was a whole lot easier to time our walk across the Dom Luís I Bridge for a beautiful sunset. I walked the double-decker bridge, which links Porto with Vila Nova de Gaia, many times during my stay in Porto – the view and the people-watching was always entertaining.

3. Eat a Francesinha

It is easy to work up an appetite walking up and down hills all day. Those eager to fill their bellies, and likely their arteries, with a local treat need look no further than for Portos most famous sandwich – the Francesina. Meaning little Frenchie, one story is that the croque-monsieur was adapted to a Portugese taste. The result is a sandwich stacked high with ham, cured sausage, sausage and a steak, then covered in cheese, topped with a hot thick tomato-beer sauce, and served with a ring of fries. It can also be topped with a fried egg – which is how Helen ordered it at Cafe Santiago, which is argued to be one of the best spots for Francesina in Porto.

In all my years of traveling and eating, I have never seen anything like it (and certainly nothing so gluttonous in Europe). It looked as if someone looked at Canadian poutine and said – we can make this meatier, with more carbs, and an egg. I couldn’t believe that people were ordering individual plates and not sharing. Helen made a good go of it – but the locals put her to shame with their plates licked clean. Perhaps it takes years of training to polish of a Francesina.

4. Take photos of tiles, tiles and more tiles


Porto is packed with beautiful tile work – from mosaics to building exteriors. People rave about the train station, which is beautiful, but it is packed with tourists taking photos (present company included), so I preferred the walls we found while exploring the city.

5. Go on a free walking tour

I love getting an overview of a city with a walking tour. I’ve done a number of Sandeman free walking tours all over Europe, and I always enjoy the mix of history, culture, random stories, and tips the guides of this tip-based tour company have provided. I enjoyed all the Harry Potter references we learned, and after learning about the price and wait in the line ups associated to go into Livraria Lello, I was ok with just admiring from afar.
*I heard that the Sandeman’s port-tasting tour was great value and recommended experience.

6. Watch a football (soccer) match

Although Portugal was out of the World Cup by the time we arrived in Porto, England was still in, and the fans were still flocking to watch the screens in front of City Hall. We took time out of our sightseeing to watch England win (the rowdy  fans celebrated the win by throwing beer into the air and singing). We also caught a game at the Guindalense Football Club – where the alcohol prices were great and the view of the Luíz I bridge was even better.

7. Brunch at Zenith CafeZenith Cafe Porto

Helen got a hot tip from a friend that Zenith Cafe served up brunch all day. (After traumatizing her the day before with a restaurant serving fish outside her comfort zone – I was happy to follow her lead for Sunday brunch). The line moved fairly quickly and provided just enough time to get an eyeful of the dishes on their menu. The place is an instagram food photographer dream – sky-high pancakes with oreo cookies, bright slices of avocados and yolk-porn eggs – the joint had a never-ended array of hipster dishes that had my mouth watering. They also had a variety of gluten-free options – so many that I wish we had more days to come back and try again.

8. Seek out street art

In addition to the traditional tiles that lined the streets, Porto was also packed with endless street art. (A dream for my friend Linda who loves Instagramable walls). Reoccurring images popped up on several street corners and many of the images brought smiles to my face as I explored the city. I couldn’t find a well publicized street art tour like in other European cities but I am sure there will be one soon – the place is haven for creativity in the streets. Until then, check out Time Out’s list of top street art in Porto

9. Indulge in seafood

The face of someone who thought they ordered a fish that had been filleted.

Ok, so I did more indulging than Helen, but I was very excited to eat seafood while in Porto. As a celiac, I had no problem finding gluten-free grilled fish, and the octopus I ordered one afternoon was the biggest tentacle I have ever been served. (The server put down a bowl of rice with chunks of braised octopus first and I thought, ‘well this is a ripoff.’ And the real dish came and even the couple at the next table was in shock).

10. Go Vintage Shopping


Ok, so I technically had one more day in Porto without Helen, and before I flew to France, so I wasn’t just there for a weekend. But if I went back, or if any of my fashion-loving friends were headed there, I would suggest a stop in a few of the vintage stores. At Patch Lifestyle I found an a vintage YSL (made in France) dress for 40 euro! I sadly left a Christian Dior in the change which was too big. I also hit gold at Mon Pere Vintage. I just about cried when the owner told me they were having a 1 Euro sale the next day. When I told her I had a 7 am flight she teased that I should change it. Tempting… but I had a culinary adventure waiting for me in France. And I have a feeling I will be back to Porto – it is definitely a competitor for my favourite city in Europe.

Thank you Helen for coming to meet me in Porto – can’t wait to potter around with you across the pond soon!

Recap: Taste Alberta Brunch at Bodega

Last weekend, chef Lino Oliveira of Sabor and Bodega Tapas and Wine Bar hosted Taste Alberta‘s first ever Prairie on the Plate brunch.

Taste Alberta’s Prairie on the Plate dining series invites chefs to create a unique meal that celebrates ingredients, farmers, and producers from commodity groups that make up Taste Alberta. Chef Lino took on the challenge – and his brunch menu featured ingredients from six of the seven partners including: Alberta Canola ProducersEgg Farmers of AlbertaAlberta MilkAlberta Pulse Growers CommissionAlberta Turkey Producers, and Alberta Pork.

Chef Lino, executive chef of Edmonton’s Sabor and Bodega Tapas and Wine Bars

Both the Bodega Highlands and the new Bodega 124th Street locations offered brunch on both Saturday and Sunday from 11 am to 2 pm, so chef Lino and his culinary team decided to offer a three-course menu for $25 at both locations throughout the weekend.

To kick things off, diners received a pintxo – a small snack typically eaten in bars in northern Spain. Chef Lino featured Winding Road Artisan Cheese‘s RDB cheese from Smoky Lake, Alberta, paired with quince marmalade on a slice of baguette.

The Spanish inspired pintxo of bread, cheese and quince was a winning combination for The Spaniard

For the main course, diners had a choice of three dishes:

1.  Potato-wrapped braised pork cheeks served with lentils, bacon, kale migas, and two poached eggs. 
Taste Alberta PartnersEgg Farmers of Alberta, Alberta Pulse Growers Commission, Alberta Pork

2. A cornflake-and-chickpea-breaded turkey filet, served with baby potatoes, a red and yellow peppers hash, and a mustard-honey aioli.
Taste Alberta PartnersAlberta Canola ProducersEgg Farmers of AlbertaAlberta Turkey Producers, Alberta Pulse Growers Commission

3. Coca Verduras – a Spanish flatbread served with Winding Road’s fromage blanc and grated Joseph cheese, pisto manchego vegetables, and three poached eggs.
Taste Alberta Partners: Alberta MilkEgg Farmers of Alberta

For dessert, chef Lino served Pastel de Nata. The warm custard tart is a classic Portuguese dessert, one that I am told by my dining companions was the perfect last bite to our Taste Alberta brunch.

To accommodate my gluten-free diet, chef Lino plated me the most delightful slice of pudim caseiro. He told me the Portugese baked caramel custard recipe is his mother’s – one that I look forward to coming back to experience again. I’m sure the Egg Farmers of Alberta and Alberta Milk would love to get their hands on that family recipe.

While Sunday may be a more popular day to brunch, I was happy to make a reservation for the Bodega Taste Alberta brunch on Saturday. Clearly, I am not the only one who likes to brunch on Saturdays as there were loads of familiar social media faces that also took in the brunch at the 124th street Bodega location.


Patios are luxury in Edmonton and Bodega has one at each of their locations. The 124th street Bodega Jardin is a lovely space – and a great spot to enjoy brunch, lunch, or a late night glass of sangria alongside some tapas.

As mentioned before, Bodega serves brunch both Saturday and Sunday at both their Highlands and 124th Street locations from 11 am – 2 pm. While the Taste Alberta Prairie on the Plate brunch was a one-time event, their regular menu is packed with options and dessert is always on the menu! A huge thanks to Christian and chef Lino for agreeing to host a Taste Alberta Prairie on the Plate brunch. Be sure to check Bodega out:

Bodega Highlands
6509 112 Ave.
780-757-0137

Bodega 124 Street
12417 Stony Plain Rd.
780.250.6066

Weekend in Seattle

We recently took advantage of the direct flights from Edmonton to Seattle for the long weekend in May. As per usual, we used public transit (the light rail transit and buses were very convenient) and booking on Air BnB to save some coin while traveling on the American dollar (which always leads to more colourful encounters with locals).

While we have shied from uber touristy activities on our most recent city-break trips to the United States (San Antonio, Portland, and New York City), we decided to go full on tourist with the Seattle City Pass. I knew The Spaniard, a civil engineer, would want to take a ride up the Space Needle, and our friends Marc & Jaddah had suggested the locks harbour cruise tour.

With two of those activities (the locks tour was a small upgrade), we decided it would be worth the $89 (American) pass for five of Seattle’s top (insert most touristy) attractions.

For our first toursity activity we joined the mob of families taking in the Seattle Aquarium.

We had some time before our boat tour so we walked up to the Seattle Public Library, which is definitely worth a visit. In 2007, the building was voted #108 on the American Institute of Architects.

Taking a ride up the series of escalators in the Seattle Public Library

 

The sun came out as were lining up to board our harbour cruise. We booked the upgrade ($15 extra) for the locks Argosy Cruises tour and it was worth the price. On the 2.5 hour trip we got a history lesson on the waterfront, we rose 22 feet in the Ballard locks, we sailed passed boats seen on the Greatest Catch, and even saw the houseboat that Tom Hanks’ character in Sleepless in Seattle lived in.

Ballard Locks

Even though the Space Needle was partially under construction, the view from the top was still impressive. While most people zoomed past the info boards on the way to the elevator, we took the time to read about the building process. Built for the 1962 World Fair, I was amazed to learn that it took less than a year to build and there were no casualties during the construction.

View from the Seattle Space Needle

A surprise highlight for me was the Chihuly Garden and Glass. The blown-glass exhibit was awe-inspiring. The photos I took do not do it justice – I loved learning about this artist and experiencing the installations throughout the exhibit.

Chihuly Garden and Glass

Chihuly Garden and Glass

Our final piece to the Seattle City Pass was to visit the Museum of Pop Culture. There were some very cool things in the museum and I really enjoyed the Nirvana exhibit, but the place is massive and we did not give ourselves enough time to check out the MoPOP before heading for our flight home.

Museum of Pop Culture (MoPOP)

I convinced The Spaniard that we should attend a Seattle Mariners game while we were in town. The stadium is impressive and convenient to get to on public transit. Unfortunately the visiting Detroit Tigers pitcher was on his way to getting a no-hitter (exciting if you are a baseball fan, but not so much if you are from Spain, new to watching baseball, and want to see some action).

Near the end of the game the home team finally got a hit. They spent the whole game down 2-0, and in the bottom of the 9th the Mariners tied it up and sent it to extra innings. The hometown team went ahead in the bottom of the 11th and resulted in a very exciting finish to the game.

We also had a chance to catch up with Miguel’s friend Kareem. His wife and I got to know each other while the duo, who studied together in Spain and Denmark, reminisced on the time spent working on their masters. The evening involved some hip and tasty spots in Ballard including The Walrus and the Carpenter, Pie Bar, D’Ambrosia Gelato and King’s Hardware.

During our trip I also enjoyed our meal at Capitol Cider. which has an extensive cider drink menu, and entirely gluten free menu.

Gluten free fish & chips, seafood chowder, and calamari at Capitol Cider

But my favourite bites of the weekend were at Sunday brunch in Ballard at Porkchop & Co. Although he really wanted the french toast, The Spaniard graciously ordered gluten-free with me so we could share two dishes.

Brunch at Porkchop & Co in Ballard

We did the obligatory Pike Place Market visit, but we ripped through it quite quickly. A few too many tourists and the gluten free cinnamon bun I specifically went there for was nothing to write home about.  Although, it was entertaining watching people pose in the disgusting gum wall alley while The Spaniard sipped a latte.

Totally grossed out by the gum wall in Seattle

The weekend was over before we knew it. We definitely need to make it back to Seattle to spend time in Capitol Hill, walk some more neighbourhoods, take in some live music, and check out more of the food scene. Seattle – we will be back!

Photo fail next to Catalan artist Jaume Plensa’s Echo in Olympic Sculpture Park, Seattle Art Museum

 

 

Why the 30th Anniversary of Christmas in November at the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge will be the best yet

Heading to the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge (JPL) to experience Christmas in November (CIN) has become my favourite event of the year. Who wouldn’t love escaping to the mountains to spend your days in interactive culinary sessions with local and celebrity chefs, getting your Christmas decor and craft on, and indulging in decadent meals and a few adult beverages. The hardest part is deciding which session to go to and when to fit in a dip in the heated pool.

The first Jasper CIN I attended was five years ago for their 25th anniversary, and I can tell you they like to celebrate anniversaries. This year, the Fairmont JPL team is going all out to put on the best Christmas in November yet! The event is already close to a sell out, so if you want to rub elbows with Food Network Canada culinary stars, learn tips and tricks on how to DIY (do it yourself) your holiday decor, and get all the recipes you need to host the perfect holiday dinner, you better book quickly.

In honour of the Fairmont JPL’s Christmas In November 30th anniversary, here are 30 reasons you won’t want to miss Canada’s finest Christmasy food & wine festival:

1. The Chuck & Danny show is coming to Jasper


Hot of the heels of last year’s headlining gig, celebrity chef Chuck Hughes is coming back for another year of Christmas in November. This time, he is bringing co-star of Food Network’s Chuck & Danny’s Road Trip, and Chef de Cuisine of Chuck Hughes restaurant Le Bremner in Montreal, Danny Smiles.

2. Get your Tailgate on with Michael & Anna Olson

It happens just one time per three-day package, and you won’t want to miss this BBQ class. Chef Michael Olson will have every grill and smoker he can get his hands on for this year’s Ultimate Outdoor Tailgating session, supported by Alberta Pork. Featuring Anna Olson, who brings some sweetness to the meat fest, the tailgate party is going to be must-taste session again this year.

3. Wine tasting with Charton Hobbs

Who doesn’t want a glass of wine during their weekend in the mountains? I’ve learned loads at these sessions in past years, including how to saber a bottle of champagne. This year Charton Hobbs will be featuring the best of British Columbian wines.

4. Silly Sweater Party


There are some seriously creative CINers out there and I swear they must start planning their outfits in the summer. I’ve seen everything from hilarious holiday sweaters, to groups in adult-sized Christmas onesies, to a woman who dressed like the female Grinch. The silly sweater party is the best way to get you in the holiday spirit and kick your CIN off with some glitter and giggles.

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5. Learn how healthy food can taste delicious with a Looneyspoons creator

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Author of five best-selling cook books and a Food Network Canada alumni, Greta Podleski is attending CIN for her 1st time. Learn about Greta’s self-publishing success story as she shares simple, delicious and healthy recipes to mix up the traditional a calorie-heavy holiday season.

6. Get your Christmas craft on

Chris Standring’s craft class is one of the most popular at CIN. You get to go home with a holiday craft that is ready to go on your table or door. Each year is a different craft and registration fills up quickly.

7. Learn baking secrets from Edmonton’s most popular bakery

There is a reason that Giselle Courteau is back presenting for her 4th year at CIN – its because people can’t get enough of her tips, tricks, and recipes from the Duchess Bakery.

8. Shaken & Stirred with Micah Dew

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In addition to co-hosting CIN, Micah will be sharing his flair bar-tending tips to ensure the bar at your holiday party is well stocked to deliver some seasonably satisfying holiday beverages.

9. Get cooking with Corbin Tomaszeski

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Before he was on such Food Network shows including Restaurant Makeover, Dinner Party Wars, and The Incredible Food Race, Corbin Tomaszeski was an Alberta boy growing up on a farm outside of Edmonton. Eager to share his philosophy that making good food can be fun for the whole family, you’re sure to walk away with easy-to-follow recipes from this Food Network star.

10. Photos with Santa!

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When the Spaniard first came to CIN with me a few years ago he confessed that it was the first time he was sitting on Santa’s lap. (Apparently you get your photo with one of the three wise men in Spain). No waiting in line at the mall and feeling awkward because you are an adult at the JPL. Getting my photo with Santa is something I look forward to at CIN each year. (Chef Michael Olson won bonus points last year for creativity).

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11. Get inspired in Cory Christopher’s Decor Cabin


Designer Cory Christopher is bursting with not only holiday spirit, but ideas, tips and tricks on how to style your home for the holiday season. The Fairmont JPL let him and his design team take over one of the signature cabins at the lodge and go crazy with bows, bells, and boughs.

12. Let some of Alberta’s top chefs share their love of local ingredients

The Jasper CIN local line up of chefs is incredible this year! CIN alumni chef Paul Rogalski, Culinary Director & Co-Owner, Rouge Restaurant, Calgary, and chef Blair Lebsack, who with partner and General Manager Caitlin Fulton founded RGE RD in Edmonton, are both back for another year.

New this year are first-timer chefs and restaurant owners from Edmonton –  Ryan Hotchkiss of Bündok and Lindsey Porter of London Local. 

13. Visit the JPL Greenhouse for a DIY decor lesson

Marna Praill, Grounds Superintendent and Head Gardener at the JPL, partners up with Stevie Massie  to deliver a very unique CIN experience. With just a short ride to the greenhouse, CIN guests are transported into a magic space where you’ll learn simple and inspiring ways to incorporate live foliage and flowers to your home for the holidays. Every year I have returned from their class to make a DIY holiday project with friends.

14. Enjoy the view from the Fairmont JPL hot tub


No better view of the Jasper National Park than from the outdoor hot tub at the Fairmont JPL.

15. Receive the VIP experience with a celebrity chef hosted kitchen party

Ok, so this experience is limited to those who opt for the VIP CIN package, but it is an incredible experience to get up close and personal with some of the celebrity chefs for an exclusive culinary experience. Last year it was Vikram Vij who spiced things up at the kitchen party – you’ll have to opt for the upgrade to see who is taking over the kitchen for the 30th anniversary celebration.

16. You can bring your clan, or your man

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Jasper CIN is reason to celebrate. I’ve seen groups of ladies making the trip, three generations of women in the same family, and in recent years, more men! Young and old couple alike are increasing and with events like scotch tasting, the tailgate party and beer tastings, there is something for everyone.

17. Learn the lowdown on how to recreate a weekend at the cottage

CIN co-host and creator of Weekend at the Cottage Nik Manojlovich is back for another year at the Fairmont JPL. Learn comfort classic recipes as he regales you with stories from his time on the television series Savoir Faire. (Be sure to ask him about that time he bumped into Bette Middler).

18. Learn a lesson on Canadian culinary history with Elizabeth Baird

I absolutely love Elizabeth Baird and Emily Richard’s culinary sessions. Elizabeth, who was awarded the Order of Canada – one of the nation’s highest honour’s for her contributions to the promotion of Canada’s diverse food heritage, is the former food editor for Canadian Living Magazine. Joining her is Emily, returning for her 19th CIN. Emily is the author and co-author of numerous cookbooks, she’s a professional home economist, and worked in Canadian Living’s Test Kitchen. In past sessions I have learned that butter tarts are a Canadian invention and also busted a gut laughing with Elizabeth’s zippy one liners and constant teasing of Emily.

19. A reason to get gussied up


You know that dress or gown in your closet you’ve been waiting to wear at a special occasion, you can wear it at Jasper CIN! I love vintage clothes, so all year I am on the hunt for special pieces I can bust out for the gala evening at CIN. Furs, diamonds, you name it! Christmas in November is the perfect place to dress up for the holidays.

20. The food – beautiful & delicious

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There is absolutely no chance of going hungry during Jasper CIN. Between the samples dished out during the culinary sessions the culinary team at the Fairmont JPL is busy serving up beautifully plated dishes at lunch and dinner. Some of the desserts are so beautiful you don’t want to eat them… almost.

21. Learn how to better support Alberta farmers at a fireside chat


Taste Alberta rounds up some of the local chefs and members/farmers of their seven partnering commodity groups:  Alberta CanolaEgg Farmers of AlbertaAlberta MilkAlberta Pulse GrowersAlberta Chicken ProducersAlberta Turkey Producers, and Alberta Pork to help you learn how your purchasing power can better support local farmers and producers.

22. Dance! Dance! Dance! at CIN After Dark

A new addition to the CIN line up this year will be CIN after dark with Edmonton’s Girls Club (DJs Suzy & Jacqueline). You’re sure to burn some calories out on the dance floor so JPL will be sure to keep you hydrated with signature cocktails and some memorable culinary experiences from their lineup of celebrity chefs.

23. Be one with nature

While the bears are most likely hibernating by the first week in November, the elk are often fattening for winter throughout the Fairmont JPL grounds. Last year as I was walking to the main lodge for breakfast I saw an elk with a full rack walking along the waters edge. It almost looked too perfect – but that is just a typical day at the JPL.

24. Learn insider tips from the Fairmont JPL pastry kitchen

New to the Fairmont JPL CIN line up this year is Stephanie Greenslade, the JPL’s new pastry chef. You have to love a chef with a motto of ‘when one indulges in dessert ensure it is the best tasting item they have eaten today.’

25. Get in the Christmas spirit with The Willows


Most likely your arrival to CIN at the Fairmont JPL will coincide with the beautiful sounds of The Willows. It’s hard not to get into the Christmas spirit with the harmonious sounds from this beautiful trio of singers.

26. Get a head start on your holiday gift giving (or just treat yourself)

Indulge at this year’s Expanded Christmas Market Shopping Experience – featuring a wide array of products from Cory Christopher, Duchess Bakery, Jaqueline Jacek, and many other Alberta retailers.

27. Relax and recharge at the Fairmont JPL Spa

You wouldn’t want to get stressed out running from one interactive session to the next during CIN. There is still time to book in for a massage, pedicure and much more. The Spa at Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge ensures an experience unlike any other—one that gives you the time and space you need to breathe, dream and reflect on the natural abundance that surrounds you.

28. Signature Cocktails

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I can get dry in the mountains, so it is important to stay hydrated. Thankfully there are plenty of signature cocktails to try during CIN that are bursting with holiday flavour. When in doubt, the JPL caesar is sure to please.

29. Get your photo with the biggest gingerbread house you’ve ever seen!

Every year the culinary team at the Fairmont JPL builds a life sized gingerbread house in time for CIN. Every time I have walked by it or through it I’ve noticed something else to be impressed with, inspired by, or even tempted by.

30. Three nights at the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge

Even without the celebrity chefs, all the incredible food, or the holiday decor, three nights at the Fairmont Jasper Park lodge is incredible. The accommodation is amazing and the staff are there to help make your CIN the most magical experience you’ve ever had in the mountains.

The Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge’s 30th anniversary of Christmas in November is sure to sell out. Registration for sessions is now open – so book now if you want to experience Canada’s best Christmas culinary adventure!

Two Weeks in Japan – Highlights in retrospect

It has been a year since I returned from a two-week trip to Japan with one of my favourite travel buddies Josh (who met me there from Australia). Life was a bit crazy when I returned from that trip, and I never got around to blogging about our adventure. My facebook memories have been on overdrive in recent weeks reminding me of what Josh and I were up to a year ago, which made me feel like it wasn’t too late to document our Japanese journey, and reflect on my favourite memories of our trip.

So, here is my top 10 highlights from two weeks in Japan (along with some tips which helped make the most of our trip).

1. Went to a Japanese baseball game

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Going to watch a baseball game was so much fun in Japan we did it twice. (We actually tried to go three times but we arrived at the ballpark in Tokyo to find the game sold out). Although Josh is not a baseball fan (as an Aussie he is more into rugby and cricket), I convinced him to ignore his jet lag and let me take him out to the ballgame in Hiroshima. We picked the cheapest seats we could get and I think it was probably the best $20 I spent the whole trip. Japanese baseball fans are committed – it felt like every fan in the place was wearing a Hiroshima Carps jersey. It sounded like there was a unique song for each player when he went up to the plate, the opposing team was heckled, and there was a seventh inning song that involved blowing up red balloons and releasing them all at once. The people-watching was incredible and the snacks were less American baseball peanuts and beer, and more about the bowls of ramen. We were adopted by the home-town fans sitting near us. It was such a blast we did it all again in Sapporo.

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2. A day trip to Miyajima Island

Just last week I saw a photo of the giant Torii gate taken at high tide which makes it look like it is floating on water and thought – I’ve been there. When Josh arrived in Tokyo I met him at the train station with a plan to get down to Hiroshima so we could visit Miyajima Island. He was up for anything and our first full day together in Japan did not disappoint. It was a further 25 minutes on the train followed by a quick ferry ride (which was also included in the Japan Rail Pass). I had timed our arrival for high tide in the morning, setting it up for beautiful shots from the Island of the Gods. After spending the day exploring temples, shrines and walking up to the highest point on the island, we arrived back bay to see the water had receded, and we could walk out to the Torii gate during low tide. A local even let me take a shot at digging up some shellfish. I was so glad we were there for both high and low tide – the island was busy with tourists and still I loved our day there.

3. A detour to Naoshima – Japan’s art island (so I could get a photo in front of a giant pumpkin)

On our way back north from Hiroshima, I somehow convinced Josh to jump off and store our bags in Okayama and take a day-trip detour to Naoshima. The island has become famous for contemporary art, which began when the Benesse Corporation chose Naoshima for the setting of a growing collection of modern art (along with a seriously luxurious looking hotel). We arrived in the rain and after arriving at Chichu Art Museum (which looked like it where Dr. Evil or a James Bond villain lived) to learn that I had read the travel guide wrong, and each museums were individually priced and not just one multi-visit ticket. They must have sensed our budget as they suggested we take a look at the gift shop, see if we like the art, and then decide if we wanted to go in. We took a look, admired the futuristic toilets, said our thank yous, and headed off in the direction of the free public art.

I was so happy when we found Kusama Yayoi’s yellow pumpkin – I have to credit Josh for the umbrella placement in the photo. As he so wisely said, “do you want to take photos of art, or do you want to make art?”

We did take in the Art House Project in Honmura, a village with art installations creatively scattered within natural and man-made structures all within walking distance of each other. By the time we took the train back to Okayama, and then on to Osaka, it was a very long day of travel and sightseeing. But I loved it!

4. Eat fresh seafood at a fish market

The first large market we had a chance to visit was in Kyoto. It blew my mind seeing some of the things that had been pulled out of the ocean, and I loved walking around watching everything from egg omlettes to kobe beef being prepared for hungry patrons at the market. I didn’t love the feel of the super touristy spots, so I settled on a small family run shop in a quiet corner of the Kyoto market to buy some salmon and scallop sashimi. The woman who took my money offered me the one seat she had along with a small card table. Much to her entertainment, I pulled out my own gluten-free tamari, and showed her my – I can’t have gluten/soya sauce card in Japanese. As a Celiac I had challenges eating in Japan, and was often turned away from sushi restaurants as all the fish had been dipped with soya sauce. Even though it was 9 am, I ordered a second helping of the scallop sashimi. I still remember it as the best sushi I had on that trip.

I also ate and enjoyed my time at the Hakodate fish market when we ventured north to Hokaido. I found a spot where you could fish out your own squid, and then have it cut up for you immediately to enjoy. It was the freshest sushi I have ever seen served.

5. Park Golf

Josh and I are interesting travel companions. I am a bit more plan-oriented, and he is way more go with the flow. I am also an old-school traveler, with a special place in my heart for hard-copy Lonely Planet guide books. Josh let me do all the research and planning, and helped choose some of our directions when I presented him with options. There are two exceptions that I can remember where Josh peered at my book and voiced an opinion. Once, asking if we could go to Hokkaido, and the other to play park golf once we got there.

Park golf was invented in Hokkaido in 1983. The game is played with just one club, a resembles a sport somewhere between golf and croquet. We found that the friendly game is mainly played by retired Japanese people, who appeared happy to have two blonde-haired foreigners join in on the fun. We threw our hostel in Sapporo for a loop when we asked where a course was – but we found there were two courses within walking distance and the price for the game and to rent clubs was around $5.

All the other foreigners were on the hunt for cherry blossoms, but for us, Park Golf was so much fun we hit up the second course the next day.

6. A night in a traditional Ryokan (with a piping hot onsen)

When Josh asked if we could go to Hokkaido I started researching options for things to do there. One thing that sounded interesting was a stop in Noboribetsu, a town famous for its piping hot sulphur smelling hot springs and devil like statues.

While most people stay in nice hotels or expensive traditional ryokans, we found hospitality in Shōkōin, a temple with traditional rooms on the second floor. We couldn’t find a phone number or email, so we just showed up, knocked on the door, and were each given our own room fit with tatami mats and a kimono to wear in their private hot-water onsen. It was the best sleep I had the entire trip. 

7. Bought a Kimono

The first photo I took on this trip to Japan was of a woman in a traditional kimono I was walking behind. The next day, I stumbled upon two weddings at the Meiji Shrine and could not stop taking photos and admiring both brides, as well as weddings guests dressed in their elaborate kimonos.

My friend Linda mentioned she wished she had rented a kimono on her recent trip to Japan when she was sightseeing in Kyoto, which is stocked with shops renting kimonos to Japanese women (and the odd tourist), looking to be photographed among the myriad of temples in the former Imperial capital of Japan.

As a collector of clothing, particularly from my trips around the world, I knew I would end up buying one on my trip to Japan. I had looked at a few second hand stores in Tokyo on the day I had in the city before Josh arrived, but couldn’t commit. There were just too many choices.

Instead, I ended up buying one on impulse from a store in Hiroshima that had one rack hung out in the street. I tried a few on for Josh, but settled on one that was an excellent price. The owner wanted to close up, and when I was debating on whether the one obi belt he had matched, he threw out a bargain figure, and I walked away with a very heavy kimono and obi for less than $50 Canadian (and far less than renting in Kyoto would have cost me). That was on day three of my trip. I carried my very beautiful, but very heavy, purchase in my backpack for two weeks, and finally wore it on my last day. Josh kindly took photos of me around our hostel in Asakusa and near the Sensō-ji Buddhist temple, Tokyo’s oldest temple.

8. Watched a Sumo practice

Sadly, our trip to Japan was in between sumo tournaments, so my only opportunity to see a wrestler in the flesh was to get up early and join the tourists hoping to get a peek of a sumo practice. I learned that Arashio-beya practices sumo between 7:30am and 10am on most mornings except in March, July and November, and it is free to those who stand outside on the street.

Josh opted to sleep in, so I went off in search of sumo on my own. When I arrived, I found a trio of wrestlers, sweat and dirt covered, stretching in the street next a  group of tourists snapping photos through large stable windows. The juxtoposition of the nearly naked sumo wrestlers among the modern streets, buildings, and cell-phone cameras made me smile. I happily spent an hour watching the wrestlers fight, stretch, and even redo their hair between battles. The other tourists among me largely respected the request for silence, and all that could be heard in the street was the grunts of the wrestlers and the slapping of their bodies in combat.

9. Riding the rails on a bullet train

Buying a two-week Japan Rail Pass was essential to our trip. Eligible to foreigners who are temporary visitors, the pass allowed us to take bullet trains across the country, traditional trains, city transit, and even a boat to Miyajima Island. Occasionally we booked in advance, but often we just rocked up at a station and jumped on a train to our next location. Japanese trains are always on time, so as long as we were there with one minute prior to departure we were good to go. Armed with pocket wifi, I had loads of time to plan our next steps as the countryside whizzed by. Looking back I am surprised by the ground we covered in two weeks. From Tokyo we went to Hiroshima, Miyajima Island, Naoshima Island, Osaka, Kyoto, Kanazawa, Hakodate, Noboribetsu, Sapporo, and back to Tokyo.

Going anywhere with Josh is entertaining, and my time on the train with him was always filled with laughter. And when I got bored, I could just glance over and look at the elderly man reading porno magazines while sitting next to his wife (true story).

10. Only one day in Kyoto

Everyone I had spoken to about doing a trip to Japan talked about going to Kyoto. The standard itinerary included three days of temple visits (there are a 1000 in Kyoto), Shinto shrines (there are 400 in Kyoto), and a trip out to see a bamboo forest.

I met two Australian girls at my hostel in Tokyo the night before Josh arrived and they gave me their opinions on Kyoto: skip this, this is lame, it takes an hour to get to the forest on a bus, don’t be fooled by that photo, etc.

So instead of the standard three-day trip to Kyoto, we arrived in the morning, stored our bags at the train station (where Josh had his first bowl of ramen in Japan), and then set out walking. We found our way through a number of free temples, but the one temple we made sure to visit was Chion-In, which Josh wanted to see because scenes from The Last Samurai with Tom Cruise were filmed there. I did the obligatory head stand, and we helped some Japanese girls take photos of themselves in their rented Kimonos.

I was glad to spend a day in Koyto, but as we caught a bullet train that afternoon to Kanazawa, I felt satisfied with my taste of the Imperial city.  Although it took longer to get to on the train, I’m glad we spent three days in Hokkaido instead.

Random Thoughts…

So, it doesn’t exactly make my top ten list, but considering how many photos I took, I think it is worth a mention.

Many people talk about being amazed by the buildings and technology in the big cities in Japan, but one of my favourite things to see was at eye level, or below. Across our trip I tried to snap photos of the decorative manhole covers or have our photos taken in scenic cardboard cutouts.  Thankfully Josh is a good sport – I still giggle looking at some of these photos.

Also – the one thing I wish we had done was race go-karts in costumes from Mario Kart through the streets of Tokyo. Sadly, we didn’t have international licenses so we couldn’t partake in the costume street racing. Anyone who asks me for tips for Japan I immediately tell them – get your international drivers license and get your Mario Kart on!

Even though I could barely eat anything (seriously I lost 10 pounds – Japanese people like to put gluten on and in everything), and barely slept (Josh snores and I’m getting too old for hostels), I had an amazing time and our trip was filled with incredible memories. I owe a huge thanks to my friend Josh, who I first met on the Inca Trail in November 0f 2009 and then met up with again in Iceland in 2014. Thank you so much for meeting me for two weeks in Japan; I can’t wait for our next adventure!

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