Wednesday 17 December 2014

Caribbean Santa

I’m standing on the balcony under the blazing sun, eyeing the morning surroundings through fold-away binoculars, the kind you slip into a pocket of a Tilley travel vest. I see a rush of people hurrying down the gangway. Their journey is interrupted by photographers wanting to take their photo with a pretend pirate, wearing a pretend eye-patch and a pretend prosthetic hook for a hand. They oblige and continue on their way once the photo is snapped.

In the distance I spot a tall Christmas tree glistening in the morning sun. Gold-coloured tinsel and large, green, red, and yellow balls sparkle on its branches. Next to the tree, sitting on a low-lying wall, is Santa Claus. Say what? Santa Claus? Here? It’s 26 Celsius (80 Fahrenheit). I’m on a cruise in the Caribbean, and we’re docked on the island of Saint-Martin.

When you come from a climate that celebrates Christmas with tuques, shovels and long-johns, Santa Claus, nutcrackers and carols just don’t seem to fit together. It’s... well... weird. It’s also a novelty.

“Check it out,” I say to my husband, bemused. “There’s a Santa Claus out there. In 80 degree weather. A Santa Clause!”
“He must be hot,” he says, as he lowers the thermostat in the cabin.
“He must be. There are a lot of women gathered around him taking pictures.” I continue looking through my trusty binoculars. “I need a photo with him too.”

Two hours later, after a leisurely breakfast on a sun-filled deck, with Jose Feliciano wishing us all Feliz Navidad, I check on Santa. He’s still there.

“We should go now,” I say. “How much longer can he sit on that ledge in this heat?” Poor Santa-man, I think. I feel sorry for him. I’m concerned with his dehydration. “I hope someone is giving him water.”

We disembark the ship, pose for the obligatory pretend-pirate photo,  and I bee-line it to Caribbean Santa, who, unbelievably, is still perched on the ledge... in 80 degree heat. With camera in hand, I excitedly approach him. Gasp! He’s not real. He’s a fake Santa, blown up like a balloon and screwed to the concrete like a bench to a city sidewalk. A fake Santa. Sheeesh!

Yet, it feels like it’s the right thing. After all, Santa comes from the North Pole. It’s natural he’d stop in Canada, Russia, England, the northern United States—any place, really, where the temperature hovers around the freezing mark, and children are warned not to place their tongues against steel poles.

Realistically, would Santa Claus actually make it to the Caribbean? I don’t think so. He’d sweat his nuts off in that suit, and besides, I doubt Rudolph, even with his shiny nose, could guide the sleight that far away. So what choice is left but to prop an air-filled Santa on a concrete ledge? The irony in this, is that everyone who gathers around the air-filled Santa does so for the novelty of it. Practically all of my fellow passengers are from northern climates, stocking up on vitamin D for the long winter ahead. The amusement of Santa Claus, Christmas trees and carols piped through loud-speakers in the Caribbean, is something we all share. 

 “It’s so strange to be wearing shorts and hearing Christmas carols” I hear the woman behind me say. She's right. After all, who's ever heard of a Christmas carol about building sand castles on the beach?

For us northerners, Dreaming of a White Christmas and walking in a Winter Wonderland, is what we do. We also do have Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire, because, Baby, It’s Cold Outside. But who cares. It’s nothing a cup of Hot Chocolate can’t fix.

Let it Snow
                  Let it Snow
                                    Let it Snow 

Wednesday 26 November 2014

Visit Detroit

Detroit is bursting with construction. With it comes a ‘look-forward’ view and a sense of optimism. Buildings, grand Victorian architecture, are being saved from wrecking balls. Roads are being repaired. Tracks are being laid.

One of the largest projects underway is the M-1 RAIL Woodward Avenue Streetcar. This project is, “envisioned to be one element of a future modern, world-class regional transit system where all forms of transportation, including rail, bus, vehicle, bicycle and pedestrian, are considered and utilized to build a vibrant, walk-able region that includes a thriving Downtown Detroit."
Conceptual rendering via
Once completed in late 2016, it will travel north and south on both sides of Woodward Avenue, A National Byway®. The streetcar will service 20 stations (16 curbside and 4 median running) at 12 locations, stretching for 3.3-miles between Larned Street and W. Grand Blvd. The system will provide access to hundreds of businesses and connect neighborhoods and points of interest along the way including, major cultural landmarks, sports stadiums, entertainment venues, restaurants, hospitals and universities. The project will also create construction and permanent jobs for Detroiters, and that's certainly good news.
M-1 RAIL has completed its first phase of construction between Campus Martius Park and Grand Circus Park in downtown Detroit just in time for the Thanksgiving Parade on Thursday, November 27, 2014.  After the floats, clown corps and spectators depart, vehicle traffic will once again be able to travel the Downtown stretch of Woodward Avenue. This is welcomed news for the many commuters along this route. On my recent trip, I was impressed with how well the city planners (or whomever it is that manages the re-routing of traffic), have done a great job keeping cars on the move and driver temperatures down. Kudos to them!

Aside from the Thanksgiving parade, here are some upcoming events in and around the city of Detroit to help you get into the festive mood:
The Wayne County Lightfest, featuring more than 55 giant animated holiday displays, is already underway and will remain open daily through December 31 (closed December 25). Visitors enter Lightfest at Hines Drive and Merriman Road in Westland and exit onto Warren Avenue near Telegraph. Hines Drive closes to traffic at 6:00 p.m. (Mon-Thu) and at 5:00 p.m. (Fri-Sun). There is a $5 fee per vehicle to enter the Lightfest.


Wild Lights is a spectacular holiday light display at the Detroit Zoo. For 22 nights, more than two million LED lights will illuminate trees, buildings and animal sculptures on a trail through the front half of the Zoo. The event will also feature live entertainment, seasonal refreshments, arts and crafts, storytelling and ice carving. It runs from 5:30 to 9 p.m. 28-30; December 5-7, 12-14, 19-23, 26-31, 2014.  Advance tickets are $8 or $10 at the gate (ages 2 and up); Under 2 FREE; Parking is $6 per car. 


If it’s a sports mood that you’re after, there’s always a Detroit Red Wings game you can take in. And if a little friendly rivalry between two teams from across the river, is what you crave, the next Red Wings versus the Toronto Maple Leafs is on December 10th in the Joe Louis Arena. (Go Leafs!)

If you have a favorite Detroit holiday activity or event, post it below and I'll be happy to Tweet it out.  

Monday 3 November 2014

Detroit City

Motor City.

Hockey Town.


It’s gritty. It’s hard. It’s tough, and … it’s a heck of a lot of fun!

I’ve avoided Detroit city for well over twenty years, driving past it, around it and through it, never stopping longer than the time it took to figure out how to avoid it. That is, until last week.
It seems you can’t pick up a travel magazine without some write-up on Detroit’s “rebirth” or “rejuvenation”, as it is often referred to in the media. It was high-time I went to see this for myself. It’s not like I have far to go. A mere three and a half hour drive placed me in Windsor. From Windsor’s riverfront, our American cousins across the Detroit River can be waved at. It’s that close. So I crossed.

“What’s your biggest challenge?” I asked Deanna Majchrzak, Manager, Media Relations
Detroit Metro Convention & Visitors Bureau.

“Perception,” she answered.

She’s right. It is indeed perception that has kept me away. Detroit has been given a bad rap over the years. And it’s that city that I had avoided. It was time to look beyond the abandoned buildings and the graffiti writing. With fresh eyes, what I found is a city working hard to put those days behind them. And they’re succeeding.

Roadwork and building restoration is everywhere. Midtown in particular, is brimming with activity. Along Woodward Avenue, midtown’s main thoroughfare, students bustle between classes at Wayne State University. The Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) hosts exhibits like Monet’s, Waterlily Pond, Green Harmony
The Detroit Public Library, built in the 1920s, is the 20th largest library system in the United States. Together, these buildings (along with several others), form part of Detroit’s Cultural Center Historic District. Most are within walking distance of each other. All are certainly with an easy drive, with few parking issues.

The Inn on Ferry Street, a collection of four lovingly restored Victorian homes, and two carriage houses, is within an easy walk of the Midtown’s historical attractions. It’s also a great example of the architecture that is being preserved in Detroit.

The hustle and bustle of the area, is bringing new entrepreneurs to Midtown -- people wanting to impact the change that is underway. Several new businesses have chosen this area to hang their ‘Open’ sign.
Coffee shops like Great Lakes Coffee Roasting Company (3965 Woodward Ave), are serving up great coffee along with wines produced by small winemakers, using uncommon, indigenous grape varieties.
Restaurants such as La Feria (4130 Cass Ave.), a tapas bar bringing a little bit of Spain to Detroit, are packed night after night. At 511 W Canfield St, find Traffic Jam and Snug Restaurant, brewing lagers with names like Dopplebock and Laganitas. Also on W Canfield (next to Traffic Jam), is Shinola, makers of fine watches and bicycles handcrafted in Detroit. 

Shinola’s bicycles are practically a piece of art. (photo via

If, like me, you've skipped Detroit in the past, now may be the perfect time to stay awhile.

Here then is my list of the Top Five things to do in Detroit:

            Have lunch in one of the newly opened restaurants. Detroit’s food scene is undergoing a renaissance .  Keep your eyes, ears and taste buds open for new places to indulge.

             Check out Detroit Institute of Art. There’s always something new here.

             Ride the People Mover, just because. It’s inexpensive and you get to hang out with the super-friendly  locals.

            Take in a Detroit Red Wings game, even if they are playing against your home team. Make            that, especially,  if they are playing your home team!

             Visit the Motown Museum. You’re in Motown—of course you have to visit.

       A few more photos:

Detroit viewed from Windsor, Ontario



Monday 18 August 2014

Kensington Market --Nostalgic and Romantic

“Want to meet in A-goosh-ta?” asked Liv, my cousin and partner in coffee conquests.

“A-goosh-ta?” I said in the same accent. “Now there’s a place I haven’t been to in a while. Yes. Let’s meet there.”

A-goosh-ta is what we grew up hearing our parents call Kensington Market in Toronto. Its main thoroughfare is Augusta Avenue and in Portuguese, ‘Augusta’ becomes ‘A-goosh-ta’, and the entire market area is therefore,‘A-goosh-ta'.

Globe on a kitchen chair. The message: "I'm an immigrant and I'm at home here"

Kensington Market is squared off between Dundas St. W. to the south, College St. to the north, Spadina Ave. to the east and Bathurst St. to the west. Most of the hip, trendy and eclectic collection of coffee shops, fruit stands and bric-a-brac stores run along Augusta Ave. Historical Victorian homes and small parks line the streets fanning from Augusta Ave. Kensington Market is by far one of the more famous areas in Toronto. In November 2006, it was designated a National Historic Site of Canada.

Flowers and herbs growing out of this car

The area (market) has seen many revivals throughout its history as immigrants settled in Toronto. In the 1880s, Victorian style row houses were built for Scottish and Irish labourers. In the early part of the twentieth century, the market became known as, “The Jewish Market”, with 60,000 Jews, worshipping at over 30 local synagogues, living in and around Kensington Market. The area surrounding Kensington, was one of the poorest in the city.

Jewish market day circa 1924 via

As Jewish populations moved to more prosperous neighbourhoods, immigrants from the Azores (Portugal) moved in bringing with them food specialties from ‘my back home’. Stores selling spices and food choices from Portugal began replacing the Jewish tailors and furriers. Next came immigrants from the Caribbean and East Asia. A wave of people from Central America, Somalia, Ethiopia, Vietnam and other global hot spots appeared. Chinatown is located just east of Kensington. Put it all together, and today’s Kensington Market is a collection of old and new. Yesterday’s buildings, with today’s trends.

Whatever you need, be it spices, attire, luggage, furniture--you name it, it can be found in Kensington Market. Liv was after luggage. She wasn’t prepared to pay one hundred bucks for a piece of carry-on luggage at an upscale shop in a trendy Toronto neighbourhood, so we head to ‘A-goosh-ta’. If it was good enough for our parents, it is good enough for us!

First, we need coffee. We meet at Jimmy’s Coffee on Baldwin St. We purchase our beverage and head outdoors to the large patio in the back. It’s filled with high-tech types equipped with laptops, tablets, and cell phones. Everyone is busy with index fingers punching tiny keys. I believe I see someone holding a thick object filled with pages covered in black ink. Occasionally, he turns the page. Is it a book? Honestly, I can't be certain. Anyway, Jimmy’s patio is filled with people, but no one is talking. We almost return inside, because, God forbid, we don’t want to disturb anyone.

“Let’s get a table in the back and we’ll speak softly,” I said.

“Okay then,” said Liv. We walk to the back of the patio, to the farthest table we could find and begin our conversaton in whispered voices, because, you know, God forbid, we don't want to disturb anyone.

A couple and their small daughter sit three tables away from us. I almost feel sorry for them. They hand the child a cell phone. She punches it with her index finger. She remains quiet.

The patio at Jimmy's via

With coffee cups empty, we head back out to the market streets in search of the illusive less-than-one-hundred-dollars-a-piece-carry-on-luggage. As we wander the streets looking at the various stores, many bring back memories from our youth. The fish store we remembered is now a men’s clothing store. The lady selling eggs by the carton, with hair the colour of snow and a face with lines like a road map, has been replaced with a restaurant selling fruit juices in clear plastic cups. What was once Perola Dos Acores, specializing in Portuguese ingredients, is now Perola Supermarket, specializing in Latin American food. Everything changes. But some things stay the same.

So many dresses. So few functions

The vintage clothing store, Courage My Love, has been part of the market landscape since 1980. It’s still here. But back to the luggage. Across the street from Bellevue Square Park on Denison Ave. sits Sasmar Smart Wear. This is the store we’re after. Sasmar has been at this location for decades. Just about anything can be found here. Need a blanket? It’s here. Winter coat? Yes. Pots? Pans? You bet. Luggage? You better believe it! All sizes. All colours. We are giddy with excitement. But there’s more.

There are shoes. Lots of them. We try on different styles--flip-flops, runners, sandals, open toe, closed toe, old lady ones with the cushy insides and the arch supports (give us a few more years for these). Oh my sweet Lord. We're in shoe heaven. We ‘ooh’ and ‘ahh’ our way around the various shoe displays. Did we buy anything? Not at all. But that’s beside the point. The point is: memories of our youth are everywher. Not just in this store but throughout the market. And that’s all that matters. It is all so nostalgic. Romantic even.

Shoe heaven

People come and go. Urban areas change. But on this day, waiting for us like a long-lost lover, was, A-goosh-ta. And we embraced it with open arms.

The art work says it all

Update: Liv went home, picked up her daughter and returned with her in the afternoon. They bought luggage and shoes.

A few more photos from Kensington Market area.

What's your favourite market?

Thursday 24 July 2014

Lisbon: Mid-life Relection

“I need to take a trip,” I said to my husband. 

“Great. Where are we going?” he asked.

“I’m going by myself,” I said.


“Because I’m having a mid-life crisis.”

I’m not sure if it’s a crisis or a re-evaluation, but whatever it is, I’m in the thick of it. Deep, thought-provoking questions fill my mind. I must figure it out. On my own. But where to go? Sitting on a mountain top in the lotus position seems appropriate, but that’s not my style. I’m more of a sip-cafes-and-people-watch kind of gal.

Cosmopolitan Lisbon is my go-to place for my mid-life reflection. It’s modern, yet filled with history, Moorish architecture and enough tourist sites, entertainment, restaurants and pastry shops to keep you coming back year after year.

For my personal journey, I want no time restrictions on anything I do. So I choose to rent an apartment. With many long-term rental accommodations available throughout the city, it is easy to find one meeting my requirements. I shop for groceries, cook what I want to and eat when I want to. It provides the simplicity I crave.

Made it myself

Lisbon is nostalgic and filled with history. Here, you can delve as deep as you like, or not at all. I choose to meet it halfway. Although I do visit a few of the major attractions (Castle St. George, Jeronimo’s Monastery), my travels are filled with simple pleasures—the things one requires when contemplating life’s next chapter.

Lisbon’s seven hills and cobblestoned, pedestrian-only avenues are filled with excellent restaurants and caf├ęs. When I meander along the web of alleyways, savouring the aroma of grilled fish, fried pork cutlets, sausages and meats, I am taken back to a time when my mother did the cooking and I had few responsibilities. It is a time so long ago now, I can barely remember the feeling. I need a drink.

There were a few of these

I head over to A Ginjinha (Largo de Sao Domingos). This hole-in-the-wall joint serves nothing but cherry liqueur. Where time has quickly passed me by, here it stands still, and is pretty much as it has been since its establishment in 1840. My liqueur is briskly handed to me in a waxy Dixie cup. I take it and walk around the square until I find a short concrete pillar with a rather pointy top to sit on. I am not at all comfortable, but who cares? I’m in Lisbon and the deep orange ball in the sky is warming my face. As I sip my ginjinha I am reminded of teenage hijinks and under-age drinking. We all did it.

Some of these (Ginjinha)
For a truly local cultural immersion, I take in an evening of Fado in Alfama, the place where Portugal’s national music was born. Fado is soulful and filled with saudades, that most passionate of all Portuguese words, speaking of deep yearning and longing for lost loves and a time long gone. The music takes me away and the tears fall. I’m feeling very Portuguese.

Fado via

Lisbon’s coffee and pastry culture makes for the perfect environment to ponder life, and I have no hesitation in embracing it. In Alfama, I stop by Nata at the foot of St. George’s Castle, for one of the best custard tarts in the city. It’s a creamy, velvety indulgence served warm with a sprinkling of cinnamon. This is not the time to count calories. I have two. I sit outside, where I partake in my favourite sport, people-watching, while contemplating what’s next in my life plan.

And lots of these

I haven’t quite figured it out, aside from my returning to Lisbon.