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Why Cottaging is a MUST if you live in Ontario

I started writing this blog post as I sat in a cottage in Muskoka, listening to the conversations of the 3 pairs of parents that were up, sitting around the large dining room table having breakfast. Listening to them talk and laugh and relax was one of the sights I don’t get to see very often, as they hardly come together and socialize and spend a few days together with friends, relaxing by the lake or canoeing with each other. I loved that they got to experience it!

The cottages we visited this summer – Pictures courtesy of AERO Photography and my own

Last weekend I visited a beautiful cottage! The last time I had done that was back in 2012 when my boss generously offered me and my family a stay at her beautiful little cottage right in the heart of Muskoka – what a beautiful stay that was and it was an introduction which got my family hooked to cottaging for the long run! I believe since then my family has been cottaging a bunch of time, and this time, last weekend, we went as a huge crowd of 20, rented 2 large cottages and had an amazing time.

Half the cottaging clan

Cottaging is one of those things that everyone has to try at least once! I say this because it is vital for our health to get away from our daily lives every now and then, to recharge in a new place, to move away from the constant hustle and bustle of buzzing phones, pinging emails, vibrating video game controllers, and the general hubbub of our daily busy lives. And cottaging is perfect for when you can’t travel to a faraway destination because of time commitments and large trip costs, as it can be done with more people to share the expenses, and done from anywhere to a weekend to several days.

My dad hanging out at the beach on our first day

Ontario is a great province for cottaging – it’s many small towns and lakes north of here provide a great big backyard to Toronto and the GTA. In the summer, when it’s hot and humid in the city, swimming in a lake, or kayaing by yourself and feeling the wind flow through you, is exactly the thing that one needs to relax. Cottaging, whether in the summer or winter, is a sure way to spend good quality time with family or friends, because the commotion of life that surround us normally becomes bare, and it is easier to unwind and simply enjoy the company surrounding you, including your own company.

Nephews playing on the beach while everyone else enjoys the water

Kayaking and Canoeing are a must on a cottage trip!

One of my favourite things we did on this trip (actually, two things), was that once during the evening, after a long lazy nap, we went to a bonfire the cottage place provided and lit a great big bonfire, roasting corn on the cob and marshmallows. Some of us tried making smores, while others lost their delicious marshmallows to the blazing fire. The rest of us rode around on bicycles that were provided by the cottage and that’s something that I haven’t done since I was a kid. I’m so glad bicycling is one of those things which you never forget once you learn how to do. It definitely helped in my case.

Family enjoying the Bonfire in the evening

The second thing which I loved doing was sitting by a little bonfire right by the beach at night, looking up at the hundreds of visible stars, talking and laughing and playing Would you Rather games that could easily lead into the morning hours if not for some people wanting to go back. That night all the young folks came back to the cottage and watched funny videos on TV and played interactive games. The rest of the crowd made breakfast past midnight due to late night munchies, as others wandered off to sleep so they could repeat another great day tomorrow.

Mingling around the beach fire at night

What makes cottaging so great is that the place you’re in, the building itself, is so different than the ones we spend most of our lives in. A cottage built with exposed wood throughout, tall ceilings, large living spaces, surrounded by trees and nature with a lake nearby is a true luxury. Watching the sun come up during summer, as the mist fades and the water on the lake becomes visible is an occasion rarely experienced by us city folks. Similar to watching the sun disappear behind tall trees at night, letting the golden whispers of dusk lead to darkness, to a fire lit and stories shared, miles away from people and crowds. It really is an experience more of us should have once every few years if not more often. And not just in the summer but Fall and Winter also (just bring some bug spray!)

The inside of one of the cottages! Picture courtesy of Diamond in the Ruff

I also loved kayaking (my first time!) and going all the way to the other end of the lake and just looking around at the sights and other cottages and how they were built. I showed my dad how to do it the next day and he enjoyed a few hours exploring all the nooks and crannies of the lake too, kayaking without a care in the world. I know one day into the future this will become one of my favourite memories, not to mention waking up early one morning to go canoeing with my mom because it was her birthday and I wanted to spend some quality time with her. Being on the water as our canoe gently swayed and we relaxed is another favourite memory of mine.

Parents enjoying canoeing

And lastly, seeing my brother dive into the lake, sometimes pulling Simona along with him, sometimes pushing my sister who was very reluctant to jump in herself, to me building sand castles with my nephews and helping them float in the water – it was all these things that I and the rest of my family needed in our 4 days away. Next year hopefully, I get to bring my in-laws to experience all this, and introduce them to the little wonders of cottaging.

Cottage info:

  • Diamond in the Ruff in Muskoka Region – BBQ, beach and boating equipment, life jackets and bonfire were included
  • Nights spent: 3 (Friday afternoon to Monday afternoon)
  • Money Spent: Approximately $200 per person after divided by 20 people – this includes lodging and food

Picture perfect – except this was the visitor center LOL 🙂

First Cruise Ship Adventure? Here’s what you need to know.

This year, I was lucky enough to travel on the large Royal Caribbean’s Allure of the Seas  cruise ship with my husband and sister and her family. We had booked it last May (2018) for our travel dates in February 2019, because we’d found a Buy one get 2nd half off deal + cruise ship credits that sounded too good to pass up, even though it was a long waiting time after we’d booked the trip! Suffice to say we were all excited to be traveling on a cruise since we’d all heard and seen so much of them over the last few years. They’ve definitely become a lot more common as a travel source to beautiful destinations and our brother and his wife have raved about it, and so we couldn’t wait to check out this type of travel ourselves. (As a bonus, I was going with my little nephews and so excited about taking them along on their first ever vacation).
Adam in front of Allure of the Seas Cruise ship!
For those people who haven’t been on a cruise yet, there’s definitely things to know before you go. Imran and I have been on enough resort type vacations, where the all-inclusiveness of everything makes it one of our easy go-to’s when we want to get away. Before we booked the cruise, I thought this new kind of vacation would be similar to the resort types. And in some ways we were right, and in others we were totally wrong.
The inside of the big, beautiful ship.
Here are some things you need to know before you book/go on a cruise vacation. Note that this was for the Royal Caribbean cruise line, some of the others such as Carnival have different policies and it’s always best to check on their website what’s included/ not included.
  1. Food and drinks are not all inclusive.

Food is one of the most exciting things about taking a vacation. Trying out new delicacies, experiencing food of another place and culture. Different tastes and knowing you’re going to eat only delicious things on vacation (especially a cruise or a resort vacation). Before we’d booked the cruise, I thought all food on the ship would be included for us to dine on. But once we got there, we found out that buffets are all you can eat for breakfast, lunch and dinner each night, as well as 2 main restaurants, and some specialty cafes and restaurants (pizza place, sandwich place, dessert cafe). The rest, around 7 or 8 specialized dinner venues were paid for. That meant that if you wanted sushi or steak or BBQ or Italian, you’d have to pay for them. The way the payment system works is they put it on the card you receive at the beginning of your trip, and at the checkout, you pay whatever balance has been accumulated on your card. We ate a lot as a family at the buffet (let’s just say breakfast at the same buffet after 5-6 days got very redundant, even with the variety, but this is similar to resorts), and separately, Imran and I ate at the Italian and BBQ restaurants to try them out, both of which were paid. We also ate as a family at one of the a-la-carte main restaurants which is included and I found this one to be a beautiful dining experience with delicious foods and great service.
Delicious seafood from the main restaurant
Drinks too are not all included. This includes both pop drinks like Coke, Sprite, etc. as well as any alcohol you may want to drink. The only included drinks are water, orange juice and iced-tea. This is something I did not know about when I booked the cruise, and was pretty bummed out about because I like to drink pop and lots of virgin pina coladas on my warm beach vacations! However you are allowed to bring a box of pop with you on the ship, as well as a bottle of wine with you at time of boarding. Lots of people brought wine and we brought coke with us, which we had once or twice on our cruise balcony. Hot drinks like tea and coffee are included and you can get these from different cafes and venues across the ship. There was also a ice cream bar which was great for hot days and the kids loved having ice cream there a lot. A big benefit for us was the $250 worth of cruise credits we had when we booked – because of this we did not pay out of pocket for our food and drinks as we used that for food and shopping, etc.
This lobster was just yum – they had one free lobster night in the week!

2. There are a TON of activities to do – too much to even relax on some days.

Cruise ships are made to keep you busy while you are traveling on the water to different locations across the Caribbean. For the first 3 days while you are just on water (no land in sight!), you get to enjoy all the activities and shows the cruise has to offer. In our 7 days of cruising, we saw 3 amazing world class shows: Mamma Mia, and Blue Planet, and an outdoor Aqua show in the large Aquatheatre. Both inside shows were spectacular and both would get booked early in advance. We had to use a cruise app while on the ship to book timings to see the shows, and for Blue Planet, we didn’t show up early enough and by the time we got to the amazingly large theater, it was hard to find a spot for 6 people to sit together. So we had to wait 1.5 hours for the next show and come early to find good seats.
Kids enjoying the activities around the cruise
Other activities we did was in the daytime, the boys went surf boarding on the ship, they’d play basketball, could go rock climbing, Ayesha and Ali took their kids to the kids area on Deck 5 where you’d have a carousel and Disney characters come out to greet the children and have ice cream. And Imran and I would go into the pools and hot tubs during the day and spend time enjoying the adult-only hot tub area on Deck 7. There are also a ton of workshops offered, everything from learning how to age better, to cooking classes, to art auction workshops, to getting your scuba certification while on the cruise. There are a thousand ways to keep busy, and it’s easy to get caught up in all the fun and busyness, sometimes too much to even relax and take a breather. After the first 3-4 days of us doing lots of things, we all decided to cut back on some of the in-cruise experiences and just enjoy one or two main things each day. Otherwise, you’d come off a cruise ship feeling more worn out than relaxed! (Note that some of the workshops offered give you perks, but when you get there it’s really a pitch to sell you a product or service).
Ayesha and I catching a live band after dinner one night

3. Some of the land days will be shorter than you think so plan ahead.

We were porting at 3 different places over 3 days: St. Maarten, Puerto Rico and Labadee, Haiti (a beautiful Island the Royal Caribbean is renting from Haiti). After 3 days on the ship, we came to St. Maarten where we were given 7-8 hours before boarding back on the ship. This was plenty of time to go to the beach, relax in the water, and also check out the cool airport in St. Maarten where the planes land just above you, since the airport is next to the beach (Maho Beach).
Looking for sea shells in the sand in St. Maarten
Crazy awesome experience at Maho Beach. If you love beaches and planes and parties, this is the place to visit!
On the 2nd day of landing, we were at Puerto Rico. Here we had 5-6 hours before we needed to come back. This day we did not have enough time to explore on our own, so we rented a tour guide to take us around Old San Juan before bringing us back to the cruise dock. This day was also super rainy so a lot of times we were getting drenched in the rain, or had to drive past places we’d normally stop at because of the rain. And having only 4 hours outside to enjoy puts unnecessary pressure on you because you have to keep track of time the whole time you’re outside exploring. The ships do not wait for people to all board – if you are running late, the cruise leaves without you as they give you ample warning to get back on the boat by a certain time.
At the fort in Old San Juan
On “land” days, everyone follows the same schedule. People wake up super early around 6 or 7, have breakfast and by 8 am thousands of people are getting out to go explore the island. One thing to know here is they don’t let you bring back anything from the outside in terms of items you may have found outside. At St. Maarten, I helped my nephew Adam collect lots of sea shells which we packed up and brought back. However when we came back and checked in at the dock, they scanned our bags and found we were carrying sea shells. I was told to get rid of them and was super sad to have to throw them all away (Adam was going to gift these to family back home), the lady doing the check in saw this was a big deal and let me keep them quietly and hushed me out of the way. We didn’t pick up any more shells anywhere else because I didn’t want to have to throw them away while boarding.
Adam with his bucket of beautiful seashells!
Another thing to note is that if you have food you bought at the islands, when you are de-boarding the cruise to go back home, you have to throw away any fruit and vegetables you might have bought and were planning to take back home with you. They will not allow you to leave with it and so we lost a very delicious mango to the large fruit pile gathering on the ship as we left.

4. Larger cruise ships (the kind we went on) are packed.

Our cruise ship was about 5000 people! That meant about 3000 vacationers and 2000 staff. That’s a lot of people. Our ship had like 9 floors and was pretty much a large moving city on the ocean. And it was packed. Maybe it had to do with the fact that it was February and people were trying to get away from the cold, but I’d think that every time a cruise ship leaves the port, it is probably a full ship. This meant that every time Imran and I decided to go to the adult only pool and hot tub area, they were usually packed with people. And lots of times we couldn’t even find a deck chair to sit down or put our stuff on. We had to walk away 2 or 3 times because there was just no space in that area of the pool. Once we came right after breakfast and found good seating – any later than that and all the poolside chairs are gone and the pools are packed. Same goes for night time shows, if you don’t come early enough, they’ll get packed and you’ll have to catch the next show or do something else. Same with breakfast, if 3000 people are all trying to have breakfast or dinner at the same time, it gets super packed and you have to find space to sit and eat in a large crowd. It gets stressful sometimes for sure dealing with large crowds, and you have to be very patient.
People catching a day show at the Aquatheatre.
There are also a LOT of old people on cruise ships. You’ll find half the population is a crows over 60 who’s there to have fun and relax. We did not see a lot of young couples on the boat (like we did on our honeymoon resort), although people did bring families with them. So it’s a very distinct crowd that comes on the boat. But one of the benefits of having 2000 cruise staff on board is that they are everywhere and you can ask them for assistance or questions anytime, and they’re more than willing to help and provide excellent customer service.

5. You have to pay mandatory gratuities (in the hundreds).

I believe every cruise ship charges gratuities for all the staff they have to pay. For us this was upfront along with the vacation cost. We could choose to pay the $14/day/person gratuity upfront when booking our cruise vacation, or wait to pay at the end when checking out. Imran and I decided to pay this upfront so we didn’t have to worry about it at the end, since it’s a charge that’s not going to go away or lessen. Ayesha and Ali decided to pay this at the end and use their on-board credit to pay off some of the gratuities. They had a higher tipping fee because they had 2 kids with them also. Note that this is common for cruise ships but is never charged on resorts. So be mindful of this before you book, because if you’re going with a whole family, this can add up pretty quickly to be over $600+!
Arriving at Labadee – this place was paradise!

6. The ship moves.

This one is pretty self explanatory. You’re traveling on a boat in the middle of the ocean. And when the ship is going full speed (which it definitely will to make all its destinations on time), you will feel this constant movement back and forth, and the constant vertigo will make you dizzy sometimes. For me, every time I went to the washroom I felt the gentle sway of the ship. And once when I went in the middle of the night, I guess they had just landed at one of the ports and the ship was swaying a lot. Thankfully I went back to sleep soon. But even during activities like eating dinner, or watching a show, you feel the sway back and forth of the ship, and you have to force yourself to put it in the back of your head and just enjoy the ride (quite literally) as you dine, explore and relax on your vacation. None of us felt motion sickness, but we all definitely talked about how much the ship was moving time to time. Don’t make the mistake of going cruising (or resorting) during the hurricane season, because the last thing you want is to be caught on a wildly moving ship, or have your cruise cancelled completely!
The huge ship ported at St. Maarten
Mayo Beach
All in all, it’s a great vacation to experience at least once. Although Imran and I are big on beaches and would choose to go to a resort next time instead of a cruise, my brother and sis-in-law love cruising because it gives them so much more options to try different activities and stay busy while on the boat. It also makes for a great family vacation, especially when you can explore a different piece of the Caribbean every day and never get bored having fun with the family. P.S. We ported from Miami and were lucky enough to spend a few days there after the cruise adventure. MIAMI IS AMAZING. Below are some pics of Miami and it’s a place I’d always be ready to go back to in a heartbeat!
Huge tree trunks in Miami
Having fun at the beach in South Beach, Miami – the weather and water were amazing!
Views from the Miami hotel – palm trees and so much greenery!
Leaving Miami on our first day of the cruise

Notre Dame’s Fire Brought Back Memories

This past week the big news was the massive burning of one of the most beloved and historical tourist buildings in the world – the Cathedral of Notre Dame. As people watched live on TV from all corners of the world, and shared images online on social media, everyone was in sad awe and shock to see the great building burning and parts of it collapsing, smoke billowing in thick waves up in the sky, people in Paris smelling the fire burn, praying in song for its survival. A collective sense of sadness was felt all around, for both the people who have visited the place and seen its size and beauty first hand, and from the people that have not yet visited this 850 years old church, but wanted to see it in all its glory one day. Watching on TV the building’s spires come down, I was reminded of the time when Imran and I visited the Cathedral and how it had provided sanctuary for us from a major rain storm in Paris that day. We’d been seeing the Cathedral from all parts of Paris, especially when by the river, as the large building towers on the side of the Seine, and on our 5th day in Paris, we decided to go to the Cathedral during our trip to Paris in December 2017, except it was a rainy day as we left the hotel to make our way to the church. We took an umbrella and by the time we reached the building, the line up was pretty long and we had to wait to get inside. At the same time as we reached there, huge drops of rain started falling, drenching parts of me that were not covered by our one umbrella being shared by 2 people. As I started getting drenched, I looked at the Cathedral wanting to get shelter in it to get away from the heavy rain. We inched our way closer and were finally in, and one of the first things we came across was a heat vent on the floor- stepping on this and warming up instantly was a blessing. The beautiful, vast Cathedral warmed us up on a very cold and rainy December day in Paris.
The huge bell towers of Notre Dame
The details of the building – statues lining the outside, carvings in stone, the intricacy of all the details that come together as a whole to create a beautiful facade
The Cathedral from the inside – tall and mighty!
   The inside is just as beautiful as the outside – full of details and beautifully colored stained glass windows – the largest I’d seen in the world. We lit candles and walked across the large hallways looking at statues and sepulchers of historical figures (Joan of Arc), in awe of the large pipe organ that’s at the front of the church, and the large medieval display of what life looked like when the Cathedral was first created (all the little people animated and moving). Another important detail I remember was the sound of a man on the speaker coming on every few minutes, imploring us with his “Silenco, silenco, silenco”, making sure no one was speaking loudly in this quiet place of worship. At the end, we sat in the pews people watching for a while, as people prayed, as Philippine nuns walked around in their grey tunics, admiring the intricacies of the building, as young couples lit candles and said a prayer before moving on – we were not ready just yet to go back out into the cold, hoping the rain stopped before we stepped out.
Lighting a candle inside the Cathedral
The beautiful colored stained glass windows
       
Details of the Gothic design of the building – very little like this left around the world!
Memorials like this are all over Notre Dame for different religious figures that have passed through time
            We made sure to warm up on the vents on the floor before making our way out to a brighter, less cloudy sky than when we’d entered. The Cathedral provided perfect sanctuary to us in the height of the passing rain storm, and we came back out to a beautiful day filled with people all around, taking pictures of the church and its large bell towers. We made sure we too snapped some beautiful pictures of this huge, beautiful building before making our way to a cafe to warm up. The last thing I remember was the long, long lineups outside the building, people waiting to check out the church, now that he rain clouds had lifted.
The purple or Rose Window of the Cathedral – thankfully this survived the great fire in April 2019
The detailed amount of work that went into creating these masterpieces – each little window piece painted by hand and put together carefully and delicately
Once the rain stopped and the sun came out!
           

Window Shopping in Venice

Getting back to my blogging after a bit of a life hiatus. Today, I’ll take you through the narrow streets of San Marco, Venice and show you the splendid items you’ll see only in this place of the world. When I walked through these streets and came across the beautiful (and expensive) shops with their amazing window and storefronts, I couldn’t help but be in awe and take pictures of everything unique and different this place had to offer. As everyone knows, Venice is (currently) the only floating city in the world. And what a wonder! It really is a sight to behold once you step away from land and onto boats that take you through the Grand Canal as you stare in wonder at the vast and wonderful architecture. Venice is a place I fell in love with right away, even before I had explored it. And the beauty of it is not only in the canals and the gondolas and the small step bridges connecting everything, but in the beautiful and intricate shops you find throughout as you walk and explore your ways through the slender passageways. This blog is more about pictures than about the writing because it’s only through the window shopping visuals that you’ll get an idea of what a unique, one of a kind place this is. And so VENETIAN in its element! Enjoy these pictures of everything from rich, Venetian costumes to masks to  beautiful jewellery to thrown and crafted glass art to Venetian statues and stationary to little tidbits you only find in this place.

5 Must-See Spots from Banff to Jasper Along the Icefield Parkway

This week as we trekked our way from Banff to Jasper, it was through Hwy 93, also called the Icefield Parkway. Because Banff and Jasper (and Yoko) are national parks monitored and maintained by the government, we needed to purchase a pass not only to do certain things in Banff and Jasper, but also to drive across the highway. It’s about $20 per day and lasts until 4 pm each day at which time you can enter the highway to make your way to the other side. To start off, this is probably the most beautiful and scenic drives you can do across Canada, and definitely one of the top in the world. It is vast amounts of peaks and plains, with a good mix of falls, canyons, rivers, lakes, glaciers, and hidden gems. The highway is well maintained by the government and the drive is easy. You make your way through the mountains along long, straight and windy roads, taking in the sights of the magnificent Rockies.
Lakes galore on the Icefield Parkway – right on the highway’s shoulder
Abdullah chilling on the empty Icefield Parkway
Views of the highway
Here are 5 stops you must make along the way to the little mountain town of Jasper: Peyto Lake – This lake is famous for its vivid turquoise waters, and how turquoise they are indeed! This was our first stop and you follow the signs along the highway to come to the parking lot. The shot walking trail leads you to the top of the hill where you can look down at the lake and its surroundings and enjoy the first stunning views the area has to offer. Surrounded by peaks (as much anything else you stop at along this route), it’s a lake with a unique shape and beautiful bright colours. It’s famous on social media and it truly is a scene out of a postcard. The hike from the parking lot to the lake is an upward climb and there is one steep (but small) area – not difficult whether you’re young or old. As you make your way to the lake views, make sure to stop and enjoy some of the flora and fauna along the way as you are right amongst the trees you look out at the whole drive. You’ll also notice a variety of wild mushrooms growing around and squirrels making their way along the trees and trails. When we arrived at the summit to look out at the lake, it started flurrying hard and got chillier than it already was (+12 in early September). Make sure to bring a sweater as you’re high up in the mountains and the temps usually run lower than at the bottom. The whole climb took us about 40 minutes from beginning to end – you want to spend time taking pics here as it’s not a sight you see every day!
The blues of Lake Peyto
Peyto Lake stems from a small glacier
Howse Pass /Saskatchewan River Crossing – the second stop on our way to Jasper was the Howse Pass, close to the Alberta-British Columbia border. This is a lookout point where you see along the immense grass/marshlands below you where Natives used to live and hunt their food. It too is surrounded by mountains with white ice-covered peaks and a large peak we saw on the left of us at this lookout point looked like it was once the victim of a forest fire. The trees along the right of the mountain were all green and tall and untouched, whereas the conifers all along the left side of the mountain were barren and toppled and grey. Between them was a natural waterway separation where glacial water makes its way from the top of the peak downwards in Springtime. This was a neat thing to see as this is not something you look at every day, even while trekking through Banff and Jasper. Signs are posted all around telling you the stories of the Natives who lived and thrived in the area (it was one of their favourite places to live because of the number of animals that would come there to feed on the low plains in the valleys, making it easy for hunt), and the whites who came there for fur trade and settlements. It’s a shame that in today’s times, just over 200 years later, not a single sign of the Natives exists (where they once flourished), and the plains are empty and have taken over their natural state once more.
Lands where the Natives flourished
Big Hill and Big Bend – Just before we got to this cool area along our hours-long ride to Jasper, we’d made a short stop on the left side of the highway where a river runs along right next to the highway most of the time. At this time of year, the river water was low and so we decided to make a stop and walk to the shallow waters, crossing a guardrail and stepping along rocks and the wet bottom of the river floor (it had become muddy but did not dirty our shoes). This was a unique experience – we were the only ones there in a land filled with travelers. This was truly stepping off the road and doing something non-touristy. My parents picked out unique rocks off the retreated river floor for my nephews while my siblings skipped rocks in the water, seeing if they could make it to the other side of the stream. We spent a good half hour here before getting back on the road and driving again. Little did we know we’d start to see a road that seemed far away and much higher than where we were down in the valley/ gorge. On the right of us was a big mountain that was smooth and velvety (Big Hill) and ahead of this was this long windy road that did a big circle around the mountain (Big Bend). This seemed like an avalanche zone as there were many small and large rocks splayed all along this area, looking like they’d fallen off the top of the mountain at some point (there are also signs posted on the highway which warn when you’re entering or exiting an avalanche area of the highway). We made our way to the top of this curvy road and stopped in the designated parking to look down at the immense valley below us, with the road we were just on snaking its way and disappearing into the mountains. I’d say if you’re just getting on the highway and not going all the way to Jasper, to at least do the drive up until this Big Bend before turning around. Taking in the views from here and the expansiveness of the region is an experience you only get exposure to a few times in your life, if not just once. It is just a bit more than the halfway point on the Icefield Parkway.
Can you spot our little red van?
Walking on the compressed sands of the riverbed
Skipping rocks in the shallow river off the side of the Icefield Parkway
On top of the Big Hill – Can you spot the winding road in the far back?
Athabasca Glacier – Drive another 20 minutes or so and you start to see signs for the Columbia Icefield and the Athabasca Glacier. This is one of the largest glaciers people can visit in Alberta, if not North America. You can park nearby and walk up to the “toe” of the glacier, which should give you some clue to the size of this thing, even if you can’t see it all. It’s almost a 4 km long glacier and is receding yearly at a high rate. There’s an option to walk to the toe of the glacier, however you do have to climb a hill which may not be easy for older folks. (The views from the glacier center and close up were pretty much the same so if you see if from afar, don’t think you’re missing out too much). One option to be on top of the glacier is to buy a pass to a glacier coach bus that takes you up on the glacier, so you can step and walk on the glacier. I can imagine this being a lifetime experience for many people. With 6 of us however, the $115 per person was too expensive so we enjoyed the views like many others from the toe of the glacier. I guess to the unknown observant such as myself, it only seems like a hunk of dirty ice. But the deeper meaning of being here really hits you when you realize how in a hundred years or so, the glacier might recede all the way behind the mountains, if it even exists then! Climate change and its apparent effects come to mind all too quickly thinking about this, seeing as there’s a sign along the walk to the toe that point out how much closer the glacier was to us in 1982. It also gives you a surreal feeling – we might be one of the last remaining generations to see a live glacier before they disappear from our earth altogether – a sobering thought and experience for sure along this beautiful highway.
The toe of the glacier
Snow coaches that take people up on the glacier
Athabasca Falls – After seeing the first 4 things above on the long drive on the Icefield Parkway, suffice to say we were exhausted by the time we saw signs for the Athabasca Falls. We decided to tackle it on our way back. We did however come to a smaller falls along our way to Jasper after the glacier, called Tangle Falls. This is right by the highway, so you can park easily in the designated area and cross to the other side of the road to view this small but charming little falls. We took some pictures (while my brothers climbed to the top of the falls) before making our way to Jasper. On the way back, we made a stop at the much larger Athabasca Falls. This comes soon after you leave the town of Jasper, maybe within half an hour. We parked and could hear the rush of water tumbling down somewhere close but hidden from us. Quickly though, we were right by the falls and taking in the strength of this falls – the water moves fast and quickly and looks beautiful and intimidating all at once. I am sure there is enough power being generated here to energize a small town. The water from the falls cascades down the tall canyon and ends up in a lake on the other side. There are signs posted warning that people have lost their lives going past he guardrails to take pictures of the falls and tumbling to their death due to the hypothermia that sets in right away (glacial water is always freezing!)  The falls itself is just one part of the whole picture that makes the area gorgeous, with mountains in the backdrop and chipmunks nibbling on pine cones on conifer-filled trails. It definitely is a must-see on the way to or from Jasper and right off the Icefield Parkway.
Tingle Falls – before Athabasca Falls on the way to Jasper
My family climbing Tingle Falls
The powerful Athabasca Falls with a gorgeous backdrop
Athabasca Falls
As you can see, there are numerous stops to be made on the Icefield Parkway to and from Banff to Jasper and vice versa. I’ve only outlined the ones we stopped at – there are many more stops one can make on this highway to see other landmarks: Herbert Lake, Mistaya Canyon, Panther Falls. The best thing about this highway is how little you have to walk to see the major attractions – the Parks Canada has ensured you have access to all the amazing natural wonders of the region. Even if you don’t stop ANYWHERE along the way, just the drive amidst the titanic peaks and along the turquoise rivers is well worth it!
Driving on an almost empty Icefield Parkway
Approaching a lake at sunset with beautiful reflections
Mountains reflected in the water
Stops like this along the Icefield Parkway are worth it

Kansas City and What It Taught Me About Relatively Unknown US Cities

I just came back from a work trip to Kansas City and this blog is less about my trip there and more about my perception of the trip before and after. Kansas City is an interesting one on the map, half the city is in the state of Missouri and the other half is in the state of Kansas. I don’t think I or many others knew about this until we looked at a map on our trip. We were in Kansas City, MO for a trade show conference and spent 4 days working and a little bit of exploring.
Kansas City Jenkins Music Hall
When I first found out I was going to Kansas City for work, I looked at my boss in a slightly “Are you serious? 😐” sort of expression. My first trade show and in such a Podunk place! No one even knew where it was on the map, and quite frankly I wasn’t excited. I was going to meet my team who works remotely out of their own locations and this was probably the exciting part of the trip. As the trip got closer, I felt wearier because not only was I going to be incredibly busy on the trip but putting in all that effort to fly to a town I literally called Po-dunk Town was not exactly thrilling. I mean, this isn’t New York or Louisiana or San Francisco or Chicago or any other lively town in the US that I’d love to visit (even on a busy work trip). This was a city I had to look up on a map before I was going there, and most people would also probably have to look up on the map to figure out where exactly in the US it is. And as a travel blogger (or someone aiming to be one), this wasn’t exactly a cool, social media savvy place I could write about!
Kansas City Marriott Hotel at Night
Well…as I neared the end of my 4 days, my perception had changed. And a bit dramatically. Firstly, I no longer saw KC as the Po-dunk town I had long imagined it to be. And that’s because it wasn’t! Kansas City, on the Missouri side, is quite quaint and has its own old school, new world charm. It’s a small city and we were in the financial district. When I managed to notice the city, I realized it was clean and the architecture was beautiful. They’ve perfected the art of having new buildings right beside renovated old buildings from the turn of the last century. Red brick with statues, next to tall shiny glass panels. An empire state lookalike with a big cake topper sculpture on top. The architecture of this town was its most striking feature and one thing I appreciated about the town. They had managed to keep the old with the new and make it look beautiful. I also felt safe and never worried about anything, even if we were walking around past midnight.
Kansas City Financial District
Kansas City Music Hall
Night time KC
Kansas City’s greatest surprising feature was probably how little traffic there was on the streets we were staying. At one point, I told my coworker it felt like the Venice of the US, since there are no cars in Venice. About 4000 people had descended on the town because of the conference, yet city traffic was nowhere to be found, at 9 am or 5 pm. Perhaps there was traffic in other parts of town, but it’s hard to imagine because we got used to crossing the road even when the lights were green. And this was such a refreshing change than the crazy downtown Toronto traffic I’m used to (or still not used to)!
9 AM traffic in Kansas City, MO
Despite the heat (one day it was +45 with humidity), the city itself is very picturesque. There are lots of parks and open spaces, there are fountains in many places (KC is the City of Fountains in the US with over 200 fountains across the metropolitan area). And they are lovely – looking at them you wouldn’t know if you were in a plaza in Italy or a modern-day city since the fountains are so historical looking and decorative. Before I left, I’d thought Kansas would be a city with few people, and certainly no young ones. Once again, I was wrong. The City was teeming was young men and women, students and young professionals, all enjoying the music and the food scene the city has to offer. We spent a lot of time hanging out in the Power and Light District, where nightly concerts took place in the Sprint Center across from a cool open-air plaza we visited, and where old warehouses had been turned into restaurants. You went in and saw lofty ceilings, silver pipes and old stained windows, but in fact it was a modern restaurant you sat with pop music blasting and people enjoying beer, BBQ (of course) and tapas and canapes.
One of the unique restaurants – Rings of Honor all around the walls – you need to drink 400 beers to get one and the Kansas folk are good at it.
All in all, I was surprised by the time I made my way back to the airport, and in a good way. About all 14 of my coworkers felt the same – they’d all come thinking KC was a small town with nothing but the likeness of tumbleweed to offer, located somewhere in mid-US. I guess the adage applies to travel also – if you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, you shouldn’t judge a place before visiting it. I now see traveling to smaller cities in the US as something that offers an opportunity to explore (and self-explore), rather than as a time-wasting chore. Hopefully if you happen to pass by this town on one of your travels, you stop to appreciate all the big and small it has to offer and check out one of its many fountains.
Open air Entertainment Complex

Cinque Terre – Part I

I’m going to step away from Rome for a bit… and step into the colours, the waters and the beauty of Cinque Terre. A few hours’ drive from Florence, it is a must-see detour if you have a day to spare. A lot of people automatically think of the Amalfi Coast and places like Positano when thinking of seaside villages in Italy. The wonderful thing about Italy is, there are two places like this in the country – the Amalfi Coast in the south and Cinque Terre in the north. Because we were visiting mainly northern cities, we decided to go to Cinque Terre. Cinque Terre literally translates to ‘Five’ (Cinque) Lands (Terre)’ or 5 villages off the coast of the Ligurian Sea. And they are indeed villages – little, compact and standing still in time. Although I’ll let you know they are not as vivid and bright as all the filtered Instagram posts – they’re more subdued in their colours but still postcard worthy and worth the travel distance.
The first little fishing village of Cinque Terre
Before we planned to go to Italy, it was a must of mine that we visited these beautiful seaside villages since I’d seem them so much on social media and wanted to take them in, in person. Thus it is no surprise that this was part of the trip I was very excited about. We booked a tour to take us from Florence to Cinque Terre and show us around the 5 villages. There are two tours you can book through Viator – one is where they drop you from Florence to the first village and you hike your way across the rest of them yourself. The second option is where they take you through them with a train to each of the next village and you avoid the hike if you don’t want to do all the walking. Seeing as we were going in Summer, (and given my fasciitis foot condition), Imran and I decided we’d take the 2nd option and hop on the train each time with our tour to take us around. This turned out to be SO much easier because when I say it’s a lot of walking to each of the next village, it’s not an exaggeration. I saw people hiking through the narrow pathways from one village to the next and it did not seem easy at all, given the hot temperatures when we went in June. Perhaps it is easier to walk when the weather is cooler, and you want to enjoy the views all along the coast (they are beautiful views!). I’d recommend taking the hiking tour starting late September onwards, when the weather cools and the crowds die down a bit. Cinque Terre is more of a Spring to Fall place, so I imagine in the winter it’s cold with less businesses open than the other seasons. Okay I digress. Let’s come back to the morning we were to depart for CT. We went to a meeting point by the Florence train station around 7 am and met up with the rest of the crowd while there along with our tour guides. Once they’d registered everyone and all the administrative stuff was taken care of, we were off! Traveling in a coach with a large crowd (we were part of the crowd that didn’t opt in for the lunch option with the tour), we were let alone to sleep for an hour or so since it was still early in the morning. We were making our way through the region of Tuscany, but not exactly the postcard countryside views we are used to seeing. As we got closer, the tour guide started giving us more information on the region. One of the cooler things I remember traveling to our destination is, along the way, we passed along mountains in the distance that seemed like they were covered in snow in June– except they weren’t. These were mountains in a town called Carrara where inside them marble was discovered so they’d been mined for their marble to create all the pieces of work we see all over Italy. Hillsides literally cut up and carved out for precious Italian marble that from afar look like snowy glaciers on mountains. I imagine up close it’s a fascinating sight to see.
The Sarzana region on our way to Cinque Terre
As we got closer to Cinque Terre, we began to see glimpses of the houses on the mountains but it’s not until you are quite close to Cinque Terre that you view the colourful villages in their entirety. There is only one place where you can glimpse all 5 fishing villages at once and it’s while you’re driving and can’t stop on the road unfortunately. That was our first glimpse of the place we’d be spending the day and it was a sort of surreal experience – going from liking things on Instagram and Facebook to getting a sneak peek in person. The one thing you do see though is the farming that the people of each village have done on the sides of the hills. It’s beautiful and picturesque and not easy for the farmers – the hills are steep and going up and down them requires clever footwork. But these farmers can grow olives, lemons and grape vineyards for their famous Cinque Terre region wine. Some farmers have created little pulleys for themselves so it’s easier going up and down these slopes and it’s fascinating to see how resilient the people of this place are and have been through the centuries.
Just before you glimpse the villages
Farmed hills and a tiny cabin on the hillside
While we were on the coach traveling to Cinque Terre, we were told we’d be visiting 4 villages out of the 5. And as much as I felt robbed of the “full” experience, I am so glad we did not visit all 5. In fact, I would have been glad to visit 3 of the 5. The reason for this is, by the time you’ve seen 2 or 3, you get the gist of what Cinque Terre is and you’d rather spend more time at each of the villages you visit than trying to rush to the next. The views of the water are similar from each village’s coast, and the colours, shapes and layout of the towns do not change much from one to the next.
The famous view of Manarola
The 4 fishing villages we saw were Manarola, Vernazza, Monterosso and Riomaggiore, in this order.  Although all are super picturesque, Manarola is the one we see the most posted all over and stepping into this village first satisfies the heart like no other. It is small yet stunning. Walking through the streets and seeing the inside of the town is a pleasant experience – you go through shops with lemon smelling soaps, Cinque Terre crafted scarves, the smell of delicious fish cooking somewhere in the distance. I liked going through the town just as much as stepping away from it to see it in its entirety.
First step in the village of Manarola
As you start walking the narrow, unpaved pathway away from the town, you come to the delightful, famous view of the colourful houses contrasting the deep greens of the high farms behind the village, and the vivid blue shades of water of the Ligurian Sea on the other side. We here in Ontario go to visit Tobermory for waters like this – in Cinque Terre that’s just the everyday view of the people living there. There are fishing and speed boats scattered around in the water, and although there’s bulging rocks instead of a beach, you see many people sunbathing on the rocks and jumping into the water to cool down. The sea is dramatic yet the view almost delicate. As much as you want to be there to see it in person, you also want to preserve it so it stays like that for much of time.
Couldn’t get enough of looking at the water
That was just Manarola – we visited 3 more villages, and each was an experience on its own. But I knew this post would be long so I am going to cover the next 5 hours of our day here in Part II (to come next week, hopefully!) More pics: I took these below images from online just to show the marble mountains (from far and up close).
Look like snowy mountains from far away
Marble mountains up close!

Getting to Rome & Visiting the Trevi Fountain

First day in Rome

This is my first blog post about our first day in Italy. After the hassle of getting there (we missed our connecting flight from Frankfurt to Rome due to added airport security screenings and bad airport organization), we finally touched down in Rome, Italy! Having arranged for the hotel to send a car to pick us up, the driver was waiting for us at the front of the airport with a little placard with Imran’s name on it. He was not the only one – there were probably 50-70 other drivers waiting to pick people up in that small area. Trying to find the one with your name can be a challenge to say the least. Thankfully ours was standing a ways away from the crowd so Imran spotted him quickly and off we were to our hotel in Rome. The minute I stepped out of the airport area and we started driving on Roman highways, I knew we were in a different part of the world. Stone pine trees line the roads, rising high above the city, looking down and providing shade to the people of this region. They are absolutely beautiful among the backdrop of ancient ruins, shaped almost like dark green umbrellas. It was in this moment of me staring out the car window, looking at these trees foreign to me, that I fell in love with Rome. The other thing we noticed on the way to Rome’s downtown was how many ruins you see on the way there from the airport. The Old City walls were our first glimpse and we were both wide-eyed and in awe of the place already. Then you come across the sculptures and ancient ruins. When I glimpsed at the high and mighty Coliseum, the driver pointed out that was not THE Coliseum but a smaller and older look-alike (Theater of Marcellus – Coliseum 1.0). He then pointed out the actual Coliseum from far away as we passed it and had Imran and I grinning at each other (we were going to check it out the next day!) We got to our hotel, rested up for a couple of hours, and headed out to explore Rome. Being close to Termini, we bought a bunch of subway tickets so we could travel easily without having to keep purchasing them. We hopped on the subway and got off at the Trevi Fountain stop. You have to walk quite a bit form the stop to where the fountain actually is, little signs guiding you along the way. It’s not easy the first time but eventually you start hearing the water flowing and it almost sounds like you are nearing a big waterfall in the middle of the city. Making our way through narrow streets, we started coming to shops that seemed more touristy, and stopped for our first (of many!) gelato shops in Italy, before following the sound of the water to the fountain. Trevi really sneaks up on you – it’s not built in a large square like much of everything else in Rome. It’s in the middle of bigger buildings and is the front façade of a building itself. When you come to it you notice the 100s of people all sitting or standing in front of it, taking pictures or just enjoying the beauty of the fountain. We visited both during the day time and nighttime and it is magnificent both times. The people never stop coming and going. Even when we went around 11 pm at night, there were flocks of people just like our earlier visit around 7 pm. The beauty is not only in the creation of the fountain’s sculptures itself but also in the blue water falling into the fountain. It is a serene blue in a city made of bricks – this might be why it’s so eye catching and still popular to this day. We both tossed in a coin, making the wish to come back to Rome someday before sitting down to enjoy the glitz and glamour of the fountain. Some of the details of this magnificent building.