Tag Archive: travel


To match the excitement of the fall migration of geese happening here on the Canadian Prairies right now, I thought we’d celebrate with our own migration! I’ll be migrating some of the content from my lifestyle blog over to this blog in order to fill in the blanks regarding my research for Chocolatour, which formally began 2 years ago … in the fall of 2009 … with a trip to Belgium, France and Switzerland.

Rather than repeating those posts (which you can still read over at the Blogger blog,) I’ll update them by giving you choco-centric information that will be a teaser for what you’ll find in Chocolatour: Your Guide to the Faces and Places of Chocolate.

Let’s start with Belgium, and our glorious time in Brussels, Florenville and Liège, Belgium. I visited those three particular cities as they are home to three of Belgium’s finest and most innovative chocolatiers.

the squares in European cities are wonderful, with the Grand Place of Brussels being no exception

I will devote a future blog post to each chocolatier, their products and communities in my top 3 picks for innovative Belgian chocolate. But for this week …

My Top 3 Reasons for Loving Belgium:

1) Chocolate! (But of course!) There are probably more chocolate shops in Belgium than any other place on the planet! In Brussels and Bruges, in particular, you’ll encounter a chocolate boutique every few steps. And the chocolate is amazing. In most cases, it’s handcrafted by local chocolatiers, each with his or her own unique style to entice you. Experiment! Try many and find the right chocolate personality to match your own. Think of it as chocolate dating, and what can be more satisfying than that!

2) The Belgians are really nice. You’ll find most Belgians to be a friendly, helpful people. Try to engage in conversation. Knowing a little French will be helpful, as French is the principal language spoken in Brussels. But you will find the Belgians to be much more humble and accommodating than their French neighbours, making a trip to Belgium pleasant and engaging.

3) Beer! I’m not a big beer drinker, but the Belgians really know their beer, and if you’re fortunate enough to visit during the warm summer months, nothing will refresh you better than a frosty mug of Stella Artois on one of the gorgeous patios!

Please share your own special memories about Belgium. We’re celebrating World Tourism Day today, and I can think of no better way to do so, than to celebrate the attributes of other cultures with our fellow lovers of travel.

See you back here the week of October 10th, when we’ll meet some amazing men of chocolate.

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We’ve had a lot of fun tasting chocolate here on Travel Diversions with Doreen, and enjoying the cultural and culinary adventures of the world. But this week, with the onset of September and a new season upon us, I’m feeling a bit more reflective and am asking you to dip back into your memory banks and  share 2 things with us:

1) What is YOUR most memorable travel moment and …

2) What valuable lesson did you learn from it?

I’ll start the ball rolling. My most memorable travel moment was back in 1996, during our week-long visit to the Greek island of Santorini. We’d taken a marathon 12-hour tour around the island on a particular day and ended up arriving by small boat to the island of Thirasia. Up above on the cliffs, we spotted the village of Manolas, and were told that there were only 2 ways to reach it. Walk up, or take a mule. We chose the mules.

Now, let me explain that there are/were no groomed trails to get you up to the top of the hill. And no guard rails to ensure you didn’t fall the considerable distance down the cliff to the sea. But there I was, purse in my lap and camera hanging from my shoulder (this was during the days of the much larger and heavier old DLS film cameras), and trying to hold onto the mule as we swayed side to side, slowly climbing the rocky cliff to the village at the top, where we were told we would be treated to amazing views and a nice lunch.

On arrival, Reg and I got comfortable and sat ourselves down for lunch and a couple of well-deserved beers in the late afternoon heat of the sun. We were truly exhausted, but over the course of an hour, were invigorated by the stunning vistas which provided amazing photographic opportunities, the terrific food and the refreshing libations.  But suddenly, we noticed the trail of mules making their ways down the cliff without any passengers! I ran screaming after them, only to be told by their keeper that the mules quit at 4 pm each day (they must have been unionized!) and we would have to walk back down to the boat. Thank goodness my knees were in much better shape back in 1996. I know some of my fellow travellers suffered considerably from that unexpected experience.

the unridden mule train makes its way back down as we look on

Lesson learned: NEVER take anything for granted when you are travelling. You may be told that the mules will take you up to the village, but be sure to find out how you will get down. And be sure you can deal with the challenge. Never assume that the conditions are good, or doable for your abilities. Make sure you confirm that BEFORE embarking on any side excursion, and if there is a language barrier (as there often is in travel), do not let yourself be rushed into making a decision that could have very serious repercussions.

On the other hand, sometimes we have amazing travel experiences by stretching ourselves and doing things we likely otherwise would not have done and that is great. I’ve done many of those myself, including parasailing, swimming with sharks and stingrays, a shopping diversion in Jamaica that literally caused us to miss the departure of our cruise ship, and many, many other priceless moments. If you’d like to read the complete story of our Greek adventure, you’ll find it here.

And then please share with us your most memorable travel moment, and the valuable travel lesson learned. I’m really looking forward to hearing your stories. The next new post will be uploaded here during the week of September 26th. Stay tuned to see what diversion we’ll take next!

Montreal has an important place in my heart as it is the place where the research for my book, Chocolatour, was officially launched! Fellow chocolate lover, Kathe Lieber of Montreal, accompanied me on the first overseas chocolate research trip back in October, 2009. Hard to believe it’s nearly been two years of chocolate tasting that has gotten me to this point!

But before we boarded the big bird and flew to Brussels, Kathe took me on a journey of chocolate discovery in Montreal. I’ll share some of our findings in the next post on this blog. For now, I’d like to focus on the city itself, as Montreal is such an amazing metropolis that as sweet as it is, chocolate will have to wait its turn for our attention.

Being a travel writer has its perks and privileges. It also instils some wonderful habits that come in handy. I looked thru my mini-notebooks that diarize my travels and found the one dated May 26-June 3, 2001. It had been exactly 10 years since my last visit of any length had been to this great city!

At that time, I had the great privilege of staying at two terrific hotels, one so very different than the other. The two properties personify the two distinct personalities of Montreal: the modern, chic French-speaking metropolis of North America, and the charming “Old Montreal” where you’ll find numerous reminders of the four centuries that make up the city’s rich and colourful history.

City Hall in Old Montreal is a landmark and well-maintained

The Hotel Le Germain on Mansfield, is situated in downtown Montreal, a close walk to the bustling shopping street of St. Catherine and to McGill University. If you are looking for a chic boutique hotel with impeccable service, this is the place to stay.

We also enjoyed being the guests of suite 501 in the beautiful historic, Auberge Bonaparte, a lovely room with an outdoor terrace complete with fresh flowers. What a romantic place to have spent our 6th wedding anniversary! And what a location. If you’re looking to stay and play in the heart of Old Montreal, the Auberge is a terrific choice.

Rue St-Francois Xavier in Old Montreal is home to the Auberge hotel & restaurant, as well as a terrific museum.

On my trip in June of this year, I stayed at the Residence Inn, a Marriott property offering reasonable rates and a convenient location to Concordia University, where the PWAC conference was being held. It’s not as luxurious as the other properties I’ve cited, but it has spacious rooms with full kitchen facilities and is perfect for lengthier, or more informal stays.

Writing this post has made me realize that I must get my beautiful slides from the late 1990’s and early 2000’s put onto disk. Right now, they’re in boxes in the garage just waiting for me.

Please join me here again the week of August 29th, when we’ll look at the sweeter side of Montreal. Until then, please share your comments about your favourite place(s) to stay in Montreal. As well as other things you love about the city.

And if you’re looking for more information on this remarkable city, visit Tourisme Montreal where you’ll see a totally cool video.

I hadn’t been to London, England since May, 1996, so my trip last week was a real treat. I’d spent a week there with my husband, Reg, on our first wedding anniversary and loved the city. But somehow, my travels only took me through Heathrow Airport in London over the past 15 years and hadn’t allowed me time to reacquaint myself with this marvellous city.

A spur-of-the-moment research trip with writer-friend, Suzanne Boles, of London, Ontario, enabled me to spend 6 days in one of the most cosmopolitan cities of the world with one of my dearest friends. Eating chocolate for the next installment of Chocolatour. What could be better than that?

we really enjoyed staying at Dillons

For this journey, we chose to fly Air Transat and were pleased with the service we received. If you can afford the small fee for the upgrade, do opt for Club Class, as it offers you additional space, enhanced service and comfort. For an overseas flight, it’s definitely worth it!

We were fortunate to find affordable and comfortable accommodations at Dillons Hotel (B&B) via the Journeywoman website. If you don’t already subscribe to Evelyn Hannon’s fantastic travel resource for women (and all travellers), I strongly suggest that you do. You’d be amazed at what you’ll find there.

We really enjoyed staying at Dillons. We were offered a complimentary breakfast daily, free in-room wifi, friendly helpful staff, and a convenient location near two Tube stations and the quaint neighbourhood of Belsize Park.

The only deterrent to staying at Dillons are the stairs! We were on the top floor (called the second floor, but it’s 2 levels up from the ground level.) We had a nice view and good air circulation with a large window, but there is no elevator, and so if you have difficulties with stairs or lots of heavy luggage, ask for a room on the lower level or choose another location for your stay.

Belsize Village is a great place to chill out

Belsize Park is a really cool neighbourhood in the London Borough of Hampstead. Lots of ethnic shops and restaurants without the hustle and bustle of staying in one of the more central, trendier locales. Reg and I had stayed in a similar neighbourhood in New York City several years ago and also loved it for its realism, safety factor and more reasonable prices.

Suzanne had been to London a few years ago with her daughter, so she recommended a visit to Covent Garden. I loved it! Lots of shops and restaurants, buskers, and pretty much anything for anyone. Reasonable prices in the flea market kiosks, more unique and fashionable items in the storefronts. And a Thorntons shop for chocolate lovers.

We also enjoyed a walk through Hyde Park. I was surprised at how much it reminded me of Central Park and many other green spaces in some of the world’s most memorable cities. Lots of people walking their dogs, cyclists, families feeding the birds, flowers and greenery for nature lovers.

However, my primary reason for visiting London was to eat British chocolate. I was not disappointed. Tune into the blog during the week of June 21st for more on that.

But for now, let’s talk London highlights. What have been yours?

I’m an island girl. A beach baby. All my favourite places on this planet are surrounded by beach, beautiful vistas and water, so it’s no wonder I love Fort Myers Beach. The white sand beach seems to be never-ending, the ambiance of Fort Myers Beach as a destination or community is unpretentious, and it’s quite accessible to other parts of Florida, being just three hours (less than 200 miles) southwest of central Florida and our previous destination of Orlando.

We were fabulously fortunate to be hosted by the GullWing Beach Resort, located on a wide stretch of Fort Myers Beach. The GullWing is part of the Sunstream family of properties and top-notch in every way. Our expansive suite was so large, we occasionally got lost in it! The spacious screened-in lanai overlooked the beach, and it was just a short walk before we were immersed in the welcoming waters of the Gulf of Mexico.

our beachfront suite at the GullWing had a beautiful lanai

We also enjoyed the pool and the poolside hot tub. There are no restaurants on-site as the GullWing is a condominium property. Each suite is owned by individual owners, so decor varies from unit to unit. I can tell you that Suite 306, decorated throughout in shades of green and blue, was most pleasing to this nature-loving water baby.

Most of the “action” happens at the north end of Fort Myers Beach, just as you come off the  Matanzas Pass Bridge (also known as the “Sky Bridge” because it seems to touch the sky) onto Estero Blvd, the road running from the north end of Fort Myers Beach to the less populated southern end. The GullWing is located more towards the southern end of the strip, but just a short drive to the rest of the action. And we liked it that way. Less traffic, fewer people and more birds.

brown pelican enjoying the sun at the Fort Myers Beach pier

I do love the pier at the northern end of Fort Myers Beach. You see many kids and adults fishing, a few brown pelicans resting peacefully in the sun and a terrific view of the entire beach. And right at the foot of the pier, you’ll find Kilwin’s, who make terrific chocolate goodies. Try the dark chocolate “Sea Foam.” It reminded me of sponge toffee. Now, doesn’t that bring back some warm childhood memories? Kilwin’s is also famous for their fudge and ice cream. But I can only swear by the chocolate, and it was indeed, good.

Yes, you’re right! I hadn’t come to Fort Myers Beach strictly for the beach. (You know me better than that!) I came for the chocolate, as it was the next research stop for Chocolatour. Please join me here the week of April 25th for more on a find that is perhaps the best chocolate that has ever passed these chocolate-loving lips.

In the meantime, please share your thoughts about Fort Myers Beach, your favourite place in Florida, pelicans, sponge toffee, or anything else that makes you smile.

Visiting Pisa as described in my last post wasn’t what it was all about for me. Yes, I totally enjoyed the local culture and cuisine, and learned much visiting the historic relics. But I was there for the chocolate. And I was not disappointed.

We were lucky with the timing of our visit in that we were in Pisa for dolce Mente, a festival of sweets. The man I was looking for was to be there. I had come a long way to meet him, but somehow knew it would be worth the effort. I was so right.

We entered the festival in time to see Dutch-born chocolatemaker, Paul de Bondt, stirring up a pot of what looked like dry ice, causing considerable smoke and excitement in the room. Turns out he was making a very special and delicious gelato.

Paul de Bondt making his very special chocolate gelato

Paul de Bondt and his Italian wife, Cecilia Iacobelli are the dynamic duo behind de Bondt Cioccolato Originale. Spending two hours with this chocolate master was all I needed to help me tighten the focus for my chocolate book. He enabled me to get inside the mind of a chocolate master.

“It’s the small details that make the big differences, so we really put a lot of attention to the small nuances of flavours,” said de Bondt. I totally understood what he was telling me, and tasting his chocolate brought it all together for me. It made me realize we are cut from the same cloth. We are chocolate purists, and although we may appreciate the excitement that can come from adding fruits, nuts and other enhancements to chocolate, it is the quality of the cocoa beans that is of utmost importance to the final chocolate product.

some of Paul de Bondt’s chocolate barks — all awesome

I could tell you much more about Paul de Bondt. And I will. In my book. Chocolatour is on its way to becoming a reality, and by the end of this year I hope to be toasting Paul and Cecilia at the Italian launch of the book.

More on that to come. But before we go, I have to take a step back. In my last post I neglected to thank our wonderful guide in Pisa, Vincenzo Riolo. He’s the same guide who showed American travel writer, Rick Steeves, that Pisa is so much more than the Tower. See both of them in this pic. I must say that in each of the European cities we have visited, it has been the knowledge and insights of our local guides that has made the visit much more than a superficial fly by. Vincenzo is truly a master of his profession. You can reach him via the Pisa Guides website.

If you plan to visit Pisa, right now is a very good time! The weekend of March 25-27, 2011 will be filled with events through Pisa province, with special tours, and yes … a Chocolate Festival to be held in San Miniato e Tirrenia. More on this month’s events at: http://www.pisaunicaterra.it/en/Focus/pisas-new-years-day.html.

Be sure to join us back here on the blog the week of March 14th, when we’ll wrap up our visit to Italy with a whirlwind tour of Rome.

Virginia is right. She did have to (practically) drag me kicking and screaming into the cab as we left Barcelona to continue our chocolat-tour. I really loved that city and didn’t want to leave the W! (What a hotel!) But we both knew we had many more good times to experience, and much more fantastic chocolate to taste and analyze as we continued the research for my upcoming book, Chocolatour. Once enroute to the train station, I slowly turned my attention to our next destination: Torino/Turin, in northern Italy.

we found it quite pleasant riding the trains in Italy

We had an overnight train ride to Turin, and arrived there after breakfast — just in time for our first day of touring. (Our guide was unaware of our delayed arrival and was waiting for us in the lobby of the NH Ambasciatori Hotel, as we arrived.) The hotel is conveniently located in the business district of the city and a short walk from the Gallery of Contemporary Modern Art.

Known in Europe as Torino, and to English speaking North Americans as Turin, this Italian city is a must for any chocolate lover, and anyone who has a great appreciation for history and architecture. I didn’t know what to expect other than what I had seen on television during the 2006 Winter Olympics: Torino is situated close to the Alps and has a semi-alpine persona. Our visit was at the end of September, so the weather was slightly cool (a light jacket was necessary for the mornings, but the afternoons warmed up nicely.)

The city proper has just under 1 million residents, and has a population of 2.2 million if you include the entire metropolitan area. It didn’t feel that big to me. What did feel big was its sense of humble pride. (I hope that’s not an oxymoron, but to me, it means being proud without shoving it in your face.)

Turin was Italy’s first capital city (losing its capital standing in 1864) and boasts the country’s third strongest economy, after Rome and Milan. Local literature tells me that the per capita income for the Piedmont (Piemonte) region of northwestern Italy is 20% higher than the European average. Torino is the capital of the Piedmont region, so for the most part, its citizens are enjoying a very good standard of living.

Overall, I found Torino to be a prosperous Italian city and a very pleasant place to be. It is quite clean and safe, is relatively easy to navigate, and has good public transportation. Its people are friendly and don’t seem as stressed out (rushed) as I have seen in other European capitals. English is spoken and understood by the young. Not so much by anyone over 40. In fact, the use of English was diminishing in our travels. Common in Amsterdam, less so in Barcelona, and even less so throughout Italy.

the entrance to the Royal Palace in Torino

The evidence of past glory is prevalent in Torino, with a royal palace, many ornate churches and monuments to behold. In some ways, it reminded me of our visit to Brussels. There is an unstated sense of modesty — a quiet calm, that sometimes leaves it unnoticed by travellers looking for a more showy, flashy or boastful city.

We enjoyed our two days in Turin under the wing of our most knowledgeable guide, Antonella Viano, whose stamina and brisk walking pace sometimes left me wishing I was 10 years younger — or that at least I was wearing track shoes!  Our first day was spent touring churches and briskly walking the streets looking at the architecture. It was the next day, that we slowed down and walked along the beautiful River Po, strolled through the Parc Valentino along its banks, and then met a selection of amazing chocolate makers. Let’s just say Day 2 was much more to my liking than Day 1!

the beautiful River Po

Tune into the blog during the week of January 3rd for more on that. In the interim, if you’re looking for more info on Turin, visit Piedmont’s official tourism website.

I hope you have a wonderful holiday season, and that you will welcome 2011 with exuberance. I hear it’s going to be a really great year!

OK. Several of  you have been asking me when I’m going to get to the chocolate! I can assure you … Barcelona is an important stop on any chocolate lover’s quest. I met an incredible chocolate maker who will be profiled in detail in my upcoming book, Chocolatour. (Stay tuned to this blog for more info on that.)

But what I would like to focus on for this final post on Barcelona is the amazing chocolate museum you will find in this city of senses. The Museu de la X0colata is a must for any chocolate lover. You will learn about the history of chocolate, see an extensive assortment of equipment used for chocolate making, and be enticed and entertained by a broad assortment of chocolate creations. And yes … you can taste, buy, and even learn how to make chocolate on site.

You can taste, buy, and create chocolate at the Chocolate Museum

Spain plays a very important role in the history of chocolate

I’ve been to several chocolate museums around the world. Each has its own personality, just as every culture — and its chocolate — has its own unique personality.  What’s special about Barcelona’s Chocolate Museum is that it showcases life-like, and in some cases, life-sized chocolate creations that really show you how chocolate masters are using our favourite confection to entertain, inspire, and entice us with chocolate-based art. Here’s a look at some of the examples you will see!

chocolate gaucho and bull

global pop culture in chocolate

We didn’t have time to take a class at the museum (they hold chocolate making classes, and also special chocolate tasting and celebratory functions here.) But if you plan your visit ahead, you can do just that. Spend some time perusing their website to learn more.

Indeed, Barcelona is a city that will satisfy every one of your senses. I learned that one of my favourite celebratory libations, Freixenet, is made in the Catalan region of Penedés, just south of Barcelona! What goes better with decadent dark chocolate truffles than a glass (or two!) of dry sparkling wine? And Freixenet is the world’s number one sparkling wine! Learn how to pronounce Freixenet here.

Enjoy all of the pleasures of Barcelona, and be sure to visit this blog again during the week of December 20th (leading up to Christmas) when we’ll continue our chocolate quest with a visit to Torino, Italy.

I’ve had the privilege of exploring many of the world’s greatest museums and art galleries. But I confess. My time in Barcelona was not spent in any art galleries or museums (other than the Chocolate Museum) and yet I enjoyed a tremendous amount of amazing art. How, you ask?

Just walking or driving around the streets of Barcelona exposes you to an awesome array of street art. Incredible sculptures, as well as architecture that, in itself, is a work of art. At every turn we happened upon a colourful, entertaining, outrageous or thought-provoking sculpture. Here’s a look at just a few!

this whimsical street art made me smile everytime we passed it

There’s even art at the beach! This sculpture called L’Estel Ferit in catalan (meaning “The Wounded Star,” ) is by Rebecca Horn and is an homage to Barcelneta Beach.

this beautiful sculpture is at the beach near the W Hotel

the streets of Barcelona are lined with contemporary art

And then there’s the architecture! Contemporary buildings are colourful and interesting for the most part. Historic buildings are adorned with beautiful traditional statues and sculptures. Some cities are famous for abundance of eye candy as you walk down the streets. Barcelona is definitely one of them. And the nice thing is that people are out there enjoying them. Walking down the two-level boardwalk along the beach is terrific for people watching, inhaling the fresh sea air, and being in awe of the fabulous sculptures and architecture you pass along the way.

how can you not enjoy a city like Barcelona?

And there’s the Gaudi influence. I’d grown up using the word “gaudy” for describing something excessively bright, showy, tasteless or over the top. BB (before Barcelona,) I had always equated the word gaudy with the architect, Gaudi, as I had it ingrained in my mind that Gaudi’s architecture was considered by many as being gaudy. It is only today as I am writing this blog and referred to my trusty Canadian Oxford dictionary, that I see the origin of the word gaudy is a late 15th century word with Latin origins, existing long before Antoni Gaudi y Cornet (1852-1926.)

Surprisingly, I didn’t find Gaudi’s work to be gaudy. It is unusual, striking, inventive, and yes … “over the top” in many ways, but certainly not distasteful. What really impressed me about Gaudi’s work is that he is the instrument behind the infamous Sagrada Familia, a magnificent church that has been under construction for well over 100 years (the first stone was laid in 1882 and it is expected to be completed by 2030) yet, some of his work is quite modernistic in appearance (the apartment complex, La Pedrera for example.) Here’s a look at Gaudi old and new. What do you think?

the main entrance to Sagrada Familia

Gaudi's Sagrada Familia has been under construction for nearly 130 years and is expected to take another 20 years to complete

La Pedrera , completed in 1910, is one of Gaudi’s masterpieces and houses a museum in his honour

Locals don’t know what you’re talking about when you  mention the W. They know this magnificent sail-shaped hotel as the Hotel Vela (vela means sail in Spanish.) But it’s not hard to get the message across. The hotel towers above Barcelona’s shoreline and can be seen sparkling in the sunlight from most points near the beach.

the magnificent W Barcelona (Hotel Vela)

I generally don’t write a blog post exclusively about a hotel property, but this one deserves a place in the sun. It is truly awesome, and had me repeatedly screaming, “I’m not leaving” as Virginia and I made our way back down the beach to the hotel after a night out celebrating with the locals. We’d been fortunate enough to have been in Barcelona for the Festes de la Mercè, a week-long celebration in honour of La Mercè, the female 17th century patron saint of Barcelona.

dancing in the streets of Barcelona during the Festes de la Merce

the decorated streets of Barcelona during the festival were awesome

The city was rocking! There was free entertainment everywhere in the streets! People dancing and singing, colourful decorations, and some of the best fireworks I have ever seen.

the fireworks were some of the best I have ever seen

How fortunate we were to have timed our visit to experience this excitement. I knew I’d love Barcelona, but being in the city during festival time and staying at the W Hotel made this three days among the most memorable of my life.

I’ll blog more about Barcelona in 2 weeks (look for it during the week of November 23rd.) But for now, here are a few images to entice you.

If you go to Barcelona, I’d highly recommend getting a copy of Eyewitness Travel’s Top 10 Barcelona, a handy guidebook that is comprehensive, yet light enough to throw in your purse or backpack. More on Barcelona can be found on the site of Barcelona Tourism.

view of Barcelona's Sant Sebastia Beach from the W Hotel

And if you want to have a truly amazing time in this must-see city, do give the W Barcelona a try (or at least drop in for a drink!) It will cost you a few Euros more than most upper-end hotels, but the view, the ambiance, the food, drinks, service and accommodations are well worth it. As Arnold says, “I’ll be back!”

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