Whistler: a playground for all seasons

  • Written by Deborah Stone

The Sea to Sky Highway makes a dramatic backdrop and scenic corridor to Whistler, B.C., Canada’s renowned ski resort.

With its winding curves, drop-dead ocean views and panoramic Coast Mountain range, this road is a treat for sore eyes after several hours of monotonous freeway driving along the I-5 corridor.

At each bend, my family saw something to ooh and ah at, whether it was a thunderous waterfall or a black bear hiding in the bushes (yes, we actually spied one and then watched as it crossed the highway right in front of our car). As the road began to climb in earnest and we got closer to our destination, we got our first glimpse of Whistler’s fairy tale-like village, set between two craggy peaks.

We had come to this resort, not to ski as so many others do, but to find out what else there was to do in the off-season at this popular destination.

And although there were plenty of people still making their way up the mountain to the remaining few runs open for skiing and snowboarding, there were also lots of folks like us, bent on discovering Whistler’s other allures.

After settling in at our well-appointed accommodations, (an ample Montebello townhouse minutes from the main village area), we headed to our first activity for the weekend, a zipline ride with Ziptrek Ecotour.

Riding the eco zipline 150 feet off the ground gives thrill seekers a breathtaking view of the picturesque forest valley below. Photo by Deborah Stone.
I had first become enamored with this Tarzan treetop ride when I traveled to Costa Rica several months ago and was thrilled to learn that a similar adventure exists here in North America, only hours away from my home.

Although the experience was not new to me, it was a novel one for the rest of my family, and I delighted in watching their expressions and hearing their exhilarating comments as they flew through the trees.

Ziptrek’s tour area is between Blackcomb and Whistler mountains, just minutes above Whistler Village, and participants are taken through the area’s rare ancient rainforest on a network of five adrenaline-rushing zipline cables spanning over a half a mile.

Guides, who also serve as naturalists, provide facts about Whistler’s environment along the way and explain how one of the earth’s most productive forest ecosystems supports the life within it.

The course is a feat of engineering and takes riders up in the canopy of 1,000-year- old trees, over rugged mountainous terrain and across the rushing waters of Fitzsimmons Creek. The longest cable spans 1,100 feet and the highest is 150 feet off the ground, giving thrill seekers a breathtaking view of the picturesque forest valley below.

Unlike the zipline ride I took in Costa Rica, this one has built in safety brake mechanisms in the cable, which help to slow riders down at the end of the line. Holding on is unnecessary, although most folks instinctively do, at least initially. By the final cable however, most folks feel comfortable and guides encourage them to ride backwards or even upside down, for the truly adventurous!

For another view of the area, we decided to ride the Whistler Gondola up to the top of Whistler Mountain (6,000 feet above sea level). This is a 20-minute ride each way and as we ascended, we took note of the mountain bikers descending through the Mountain Bike Park. The park offers over 125 miles of lift-serviced, gravity-fed trails, ranging from gentle banked curved tracks for beginners to tight, twisty tracks and steep drop offs for expert riders.

Although our bird’s eye position above gave us a unique perspective of these hard-core, body-armored trail warriors, the best place to view them is from the base of the bike park where you can watch them come screaming down the lower part of the mountain, mud-drenched and pumped up with adrenaline.

About three-quarters of the way on our ride up the mountain, we began seeing the first patches of snow, and by the time we got to the top, a spring blizzard was in process.

We stayed long enough to check out the skiers and snowboarders and throw a few snowballs before hustling back on the next gondola for our return journey.

The ride back down the mountain was equally as interesting as we watched the changes occur from one ecosystem to another and experienced the varying weather conditions at the different altitudes.

My family was inspired after seeing the mountain bikers in action and although tempting as it might have been to join them, we decided on a more tame approach to cycling.

Whistler has a Valley Trail system that is perfect for cyclists who prefer not to careen at breakneck speeds down the obstacle courses of the Mountain Bike Park. With bikes rented from Backroads Whistler, we set out for an afternoon to explore the area at a leisurely pace.

The Valley Trail system extends through the Whistler Valley, past golf courses, lakes, rivers, residential areas and hotels. Pick up a map at any bike shop in the Village and it’s easy to choose a trail to follow, based on your ability level.

We chose to head out toward the Lost Lake trails, opting for natural scenery, as opposed to buildings and golf courses.

Because the weather was very changeable that day, there weren’t too many folks out on the trails, but that was just fine with us, as we enjoyed having the place mostly to ourselves. The lake was peaceful and quiet as we circled it, stopping once or twice to take in the view, before continuing on to discover another scenic vista point.

We found the trail system to be very clearly marked and even if you made a wrong turn, you could always find your way back easily.

After a few hours and a downpour or two later, we returned the bikes to the shop and headed into the movie theatre to get dry for awhile.

In addition to all the outdoor activities that Whistler offers, it also has its share of indoor pursuits for those times when the weather just isn’t cooperating.

With over 200 shops, ranging from art galleries to sporting equipment stores, two movie theatres, more than 90 restaurants, several indoor sports centers and a museum, there are numerous places to seek shelter when inhospitable elements force you inside.

Walking around the pedestrian-only Whistler Village is a treat in itself. Its cobblestone streets, alpine style architecture and open-air cafes make you feel like you’ve stepped into a small European town.

There’s a real international flavor about the place and it’s not only the various cuisines (serving everything from spicy Thai to sushi and traditional North American fare) that give it this feeling, but the cultural diversity of the employees and visitors that come from all parts of the world to this popular resort.

The key words at Whistler are “options” and “variety,” as it’s a destination that has something to please everyone, from choice of accommodations to activities and dining.

Skiers, snowboarders and bikers all share the terrain, along with hikers, fishermen, boaters, golfers and rock climbers.

It’s a playground for all seasons within a spectacular alpine natural setting.

Brentwood Bay: a sanctuary by the sea

  • Written by Deborah Stone

brentwood_aI’m pretty bad when it comes to identifying flowers and plants. I admit that I don’t know the difference between a dahlia and a crocus or an iris and a forget-me-not. All I know is that I love their magnificent colors and the heavenly scents they emit when in bloom.

I refuse to let my pathetic grasp of horticultural lexicon stop me from enjoying nature’s creations. Take for example, a recent trip to the renowned Butchart Gardens in Victoria.

Although I was with a friend who has the greenest of thumbs, and who would have been happy to introduce me to the names of the various plants and flowers we saw, I was content just tiptoeing through the foliage, oohing and ahing away at this Edenesque paradise.

It had been many years since I’d last visited the Butchart Gardens and I had forgotten just how incredible the place is, especially in summer when it’s a palette of vivid hues and textures. Began in 1904 as an effort to beautify a barren limestone quarry on the 130 acre estate of Robert and Jennie Butchart, the Butchart Gardens started modestly with some sweet pea seeds and a rose bush.

With Jennie Butchart’s vision and hard work, the gardens grew to occupy fifty-five acres and are known worldwide today as a horticultural masterpiece.

This year, the Butchart Gardens celebrate 100 years in bloom and there are a number of activities planned to commemorate this anniversary, including historical displays, animal topiaries, Saturday night fireworks and outdoor entertainment (summer months only) and the addition of two totem poles carved on site by First Nations artists.

If you go, the best time to visit the gardens is early in the morning when they first open. When we arrived, the place was peaceful and quiet, devoid of the throngs of tourists who most often arrive via tour bus later in the morning.

We walked leisurely through the different gardens, from the spectacularly designed Sunken Garden and the formal Italian Garden to the Zen influenced Japanese Garden.

It was, however, the fragrances in the Rose Garden that brought me to a state of floral ecstasy. Hundreds of varieties of roses, all in bloom, fill each space of the garden, in beds, on tall, upright bushes, and on arbors, pergolas and trellises. I felt as if I had just walked into one of Monet’s paintings. It was an intoxicating feast for the senses and I took my time imbibing in this display.

After a blissful morning in the gardens, my friend and I returned to our digs for the weekend, the newly opened Brentwood Bay Lodge & Spa.

brentwood_bThe lodge is nestled on a pristine inlet of the Saanich Peninsula, on the south end of Vancouver Island, and across the water from the Butchart Gardens, in the sleepy community of Brentwood Bay.

It is Western Canada’s newest oceanfront resort and an ideal destination for those seeking a tranquil, getaway haven. This intimate boutique lodge consists of 33 well-appointed oceanfront suites, an elegant spa, an upscale restaurant and wine bar, casual pub, wine and spirits shop, year-round heated swimming pool, hot tub and full-service marina.

Staff are warm and friendly, and pride themselves on providing hospitality at its finest.

My friend and I made the spa our first stop, as we were both intrigued by some of the more unique treatments offered on the spa menu, such as the Vino Stomp, a foot ritual that uses whole red grapes (high in anti-oxidants) along with various essential oils and botanicals; the Vino and Honey Wrap (with, you guessed it, some more of those red grapes!), the Icelandic Algae Facial, and Lushly Hands, a flower and avocado hand treatment inspired by ancient Polynesian rites.

We opted, instead, to try the Essence of Life Signature Massage, an amazing one and a half hour therapeutic treatment that consists of a rosemary scrub, followed by an application of Oceanic Ribbon weed down the spine, a hot rocks massage with river granite stones and then the ultimate in relaxation - the spa’s signature full body massage.

I was putty in the therapist’s hands and by the time she was finished, I felt stress-free and re-energized. Dinner at the Arbutus Grille, the resort’s fine dining restaurant, was quite the experience.

In a Pacific Northwest lodge-style room with views of the inlet and far-reaching mountains, diners are served Vancouver Island cuisine emphasizing fresh, natural ingredients with wonderful flavors, colors and textures.

Each course is a work of art, created by Executive Chef Brock Windsor, however, patience was definitely the key to enjoying one’s dinner during the evening we dined in the restaurant.

Service was painfully slow and although Sommelier Brian Storen kept us occupied with various wine tastings, the meal dragged on far beyond an acceptable time period.

I’m sure with time, though; the dining room will work out its food service kinks. A more casual alternative to the Arbutus Grille is the lodge’s Marine Pub, right next door, which, in addition to its west coast menu, serves up fine regional craft beers and wines and offers indoor and outdoor seating.

Off-site eateries are few, but just a short walk down the street from the lodge, there’s the charming Sea Horses Café. We opted to dine there the following night and enjoyed its picturesque, cozy ambiance and water views.

A classical guitarist played while we munched on baked brie, followed by salmon and garlic prawns.

Brentwood Bay Lodge’s oceanside location makes it an ideal setting for a wide array of outdoor pursuits, including kayaking, scuba-diving, fishing and hiking.

Guests can select from a menu of such activities offered at the Eco-Adventure Center at the lodge’s marina. My friend and I chose a Wilderness Eco-Cruise to explore the natural and cultural history of the Saanich Inlet. Captain Matt Smiley met us dockside and proceeded to guide us for the next two hours through Finlayson Arm, the most southern fjord on the North American coast. Captain Smiley (a man who really does live up to his name) told us he was going to take us “gunkholing,” a British expression that means beachcombing from a boat.

We poked into various bays and explored the coast, learning about the types of sea creatures, birds and fauna that make their home in this part of the area.

We were rewarded with glimpses of baby seals lounging on the rocks, stellar sea lions chomping on fish and bald eagles soaring across the sky.

Beautiful old growth Douglas firs, maples, cedars and handsome Arbutus, or Madrona, trees stood as proud sentinels of the shoreline as we motored by.

Captain Smiley also operates the convenient water taxi service to the Butchart Gardens; a trip that takes just minutes and drops you off at the Gardens’ secluded rear entrance, thus avoiding the crowds that throng through the main gates.

Although we didn’t venture into Victoria, except for arriving and departing there via the Victoria Clipper, it’s an easy twenty-five minute drive over to the city from Brentwood Bay.

For us, a weekend away at a sanctuary by the sea was what the doctor ordered and Brentwood Bay Lodge & Spa was the perfect remedy.

Oregon lures visitors with its wild, untamed coastline

  • Written by Deborah Stone

A seagull appears to enjoy the view of Haystack Rock, one of the most photographed sights of the area. Photo by Deborah Stone.
A tour of some of Oregon’s universities for my college-bound son was the impetus for a recent trek to our neighboring state to the south. To make a vacation out of the trip, we decided to tack on a few days and head over to the coast for some beach fun a la Northwest style.

First stop was Florence, smack dab in the center of Oregon’s scenic coastal Highway 101. In addition to its wild and untamed beaches, full of caves and rocky inlets, Florence is also well-known for its sand dunes. The Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area stretches 50 miles from Florence south to Coos Bay, Ore., and although it may not be as grand as the Sahara, this area is a sight of unique wonders that may make visitors actually feel as if they’re lost amid the African desert landscape.

The dunes are enormous in their proportions and can reach up to two and a half miles inland from the ocean. They rise to heights of more than 385 feet and their contours change continually with the force and action of the wind. One week a dune might be a towering giant and then the next time you see it, it might be a deep sand canyon.

Visitors to the dunes have a variety of recreation opportunities, including camping, hiking, horseback riding and sandboarding (“surfing” on the sand). The adrenaline pumping folks, however, want to ride this rollercoaster landscape in mechanized vehicles ranging from dune buggies to ATVs.

With two teenage sons and a husband who refuses to grow old gracefully, I knew that I would be outnumbered in our recreational choice for the day.

There was just too much testosterone to battle! We headed to Sand Dune Frontier, a locally owned company that rents vehicles to explore the dunes, and there we prepped for our wild ride through the soaring mountains of sand.

Padded in armor, with a host of instructions ringing in our ears, we set off to explore the area on our own. One son rode in a Polaris Quad, the other was in a one-seat Mini-Rail buggy. My husband and I shared a two-seat Rail. Through the massive sandy slopes, we carved our way, inventing our course as we went. We would climb to the peak of a large dune with an “I think I can” mentality, then slow down before we headed off the steep precipice, our screams and laughter catching in the wind as we dropped into a gaping abyss. The sand furiously whipped around us and attacked our faces and bodies with the vengeance of 1,000 needles. And yes, we got stuck a few times when we overestimated our abilities, or should I say when my eager husband overestimated his! But, the excitement and the thrills of this Disneyesque adventure made it all worthwhile, and more importantly, the looks on my sons’ faces as they careened over this amazing, out-of-Africa landscape were priceless.

Another popular outing in the Florence area is the Sea Lion Caves, located about 10 miles north of town on Highway 101.

About 200 Steller sea lions make their homes here in the world’s oldest and largest known sea cave. Visitors take an elevator 2,008 feet down to the ocean level to view these slippery-furred creatures in their natural environment.

It was amusing to hear them barking and honking and to watch them ride the waves into the cave or play king of the hill, as they tussled with one another and jockeyed for position on the rocks.

Many congregated in groups, lolling around in a semicomatose state; others were very active and jumped into the water splashing everywhere.

A video and an assortment of displays that describe the habits of this type of sea lions are located within the observation room. The winter months are an especially opportune time to visit, as it is likely that more sea lions will be inside.

One note of caution: the place has a definite strong odor that may make visitors shorten their time down in the cave area!

Heceta Head Lighthouse is one of Oregon’s most beautiful and most famous lighthouses. Photo by Deborah Stone.
Just a few miles from the caves is a must-see sight for lighthouse fanatics and for those seeking a spectacular, drop-dead view of the Pacific. About a half mile from the main road is Heceta Head Lighthouse, one of Oregon’s most beautiful and most famous lighthouses.

As you walk up the hill from the parking lot, you will pass what used to be the keeper’s house, now a lovely B&B, and then you will come to the lighthouse itself. Tour guides take visitors up into the building and explain its history, as well as provide info about its operation, then and now. From the top level, you can look down through the windows at the crashing ocean and imagine the relief among sailors when they saw Heceta’s beacon of light flash in the middle of a dark, foggy night at sea.

Newport is the next big (by Oregon coast standards) town one comes to heading north on Highway 101. It’s a true working fishing village with miles of sandy beaches and tide pools, protected by lighthouses that once brought the great ships to safe harbor when Oregon was young and still undiscovered. Its historic bayfront is home to some of the state’s largest commercial fishing fleets, and where daily, fisherman haul in their catches of shrimp, oysters, crab, salmon and others wonders of the deep.

Fresh seafood abounds here, as it does up and down the towns that dot the coastline. After strolling the waterfront shops and eating our fill of fish and chips and clam chowder, we took a peek in the renowned Oregon Coast Aquarium and the Hatfield Marine Science Center where we encountered habitats and animals that were here centuries before the first settlers arrived.

As one drives the coast highway, it’s the proverbial fresh crab signs, chowder houses, souvenir shops, antique stores and weather-beaten abodes that give this area its identity. There’s a fudge and salt water taffy shop on each corner and a store selling kites on the other. Charming romantic inns are tucked away, along with chain hotels and mom- and-pop motels. Bursts of sunshine mix with dark storm clouds and if you’re not happy with the weather, the old adage, “wait a minute and it will change” works well.

A trip to the Oregon Coast wouldn’t be complete without a quick stop at the Tillamook County Creamery Association Visitors Center in Tillamook. Home of the famed Tillamook cheese, it’s a popular tourist destination where you can take a self-guided tour of the cheesemaking process, sample a variety of cheeses and get a bite to eat at the Farmhouse Café, where the specialty is - you guessed it - grilled cheese sandwiches on sourdough bread!

Top that off with one of the creamery’s fabulous ice cream cones (try the marionberry) and you’ll roll back into the car.

Our final destination was Cannon Beach, a town that’s known for the scenic beauty of its seastacks offshore and its headlands onshore.

Famous Haystack Rock stands guard out in the water and it is one of the most photographed sights of the area. At 235-feet high, it is the third largest coastal monolith in the world and has been designated as a marine and bird sanctuary.

There are many intertidal creatures that make their home in the tide pools around the rock, such as barnacles, starfish, crabs, sea sculpins and anemones.

Several bird species nest on the rock in the summer, the most colorful being the tufted puffin. The nine miles of wide, walkable beach are perfect for flying kites, playing Frisbee, building sand castles or simply relaxing on a piece of driftwood and being lulled to sleep by the sound of the waves. I sat with a book (which I never quite got to read) and just watched the water and listened to the shorebirds, while my family played a rousing game of Nerf football. Later, we visited many of the quaint shops and art galleries that line the town’s streets. There are a number of good restaurants and cafes to grab a quick bite or have a leisurely meal. Clam chowder at Doogers, pizza at Fultano’s, haystack bread at Cannon Beach Bakery and peanut butter milkshakes at The Local Scoop are favorites with my family.

But the true winner is the mighty untamed ocean and the magnificent natural setting of the Oregon Coast. That’s what keeps us coming back.

Hotel Suggestions: In Florence, we stayed at Driftwood Shores, 1-800-422-5091 or In Newport, the Best Western Agate Beach Inn at 1-800-547-3310 or In Cannon Beach, the Hallmark Inn at 1-888-448-4449.

Sand Dunes Frontier: Open year round, weather permitting. 541-997-3544 or

Sea Lion Caves: Open year round. 541-547-3111 or

Tillamook County Creamery Association Visitors Center: 1-800-542-7290 or

Oregon Coast Visitors Association: 1-888-628-2101 or

O’Sullivan, O’Donovan, O’Stone, Oh my!

  • Written by Deborah Stone

Park Hotel in Kenmare. Photo by Deborah Stone.
I may not have kissed the Blarney Stone, nor spied a leprechaun, but I did find my pot of gold and I didn’t even need to look for it at the end of a rainbow.

It was there, ever present, on the kind faces of the people I met, in the haunting, natural beauty of the scenery and in the vibrant Gaelic culture that withstands the test of time in mystical, magical Ireland.

On my recent travels to this land of peat and heather, I quickly became enamored with everything Irish and urged my fellow travelers to call me by my newly adopted name, O’ Stone! Perhaps with a few more freckles, a quick henna rinse and a crash course in the lilting Irish brogue, I might have passed as an Irish lass, but unfortunately, my strong Germanic genes and Yank accent made any such transformation impossible.

Instead, I had to be content to simply inhale, imbibe and take in Ireland with all five of my senses. This is a country to savor slowly. It’s a place that moves at its own pace, like the soft rolling landscape that dominates much of the southwestern parts.

Taking the time to stroll down quaint streets of small market towns and rural villages, sip a pint of Guinness in one of the many quintessential pubs or walk the bucolic countryside is the way to appreciate this treasured island.

Ireland has it all, from castles and medieval ruins to state-of-the-art spas and five star dining establishments.

New mixes with old seamlessly and the visitor can see it all because everywhere is within easy reach of everywhere else.

The country is roughly the size of the state of New Jersey and most of the roads wind their way around the countryside, allowing tourists to get a real feel for the lay of the land. Driving from destination to destination is the best means of transportation (note: driving is done on the left hand side of the road), as Ireland is best experienced when one has the ability to stop at each magnificent, windswept vista or get that perfect photo of baby lambs frolicking after their mother in a meadow of green.

And speaking of green, there is every shade of this color imaginable. I don’t even think Crayola invented enough names to describe the various verdant hues that make up this country’s scenic palette.

My trip focused mainly on the western side of the island and involved travel through the counties of Kerry, Limerick, Clare and Galway. One of the highlights included a stay in Kenmare, one of the several towns located on the popular road that circles the Ring of Kerry. This is one of Ireland’s most picturesque villages with shops painted in all colors of the rainbow, adorned with hand carved signs.

There are many stores selling typical Irish crafts and woolens; of particular note is the Kenmare Lace and Design Centre where visitors can view how the cherished local skill of lacemaking is done, as well as purchase some pieces of beautiful workmanship.

Joan Crowley is the 82-year-old proprietor of Crowley’s Pub in Kenmare. Photo by Deborah Stone.
When you’ve shopped ’til you’ve dropped, make sure to stop in at Crowley’s Pub for a pint of Guinness and chat with proprietor Joan Crowley, who at 82 years old is still behind the counter pouring the ale. And if you’re lucky, you’ll time your visit to catch a local band playing some real authentic Irish toe-tapping music.

For top rated digs, the Park Hotel is the place to stay. With a history that dates back to 1907, the Park is a charming, elegant Irish country manor estate set on 12 idyllic acres overlooking Kenmare Bay. Its gilded antique furnishings, brocade cushions and original art give it an old world look that takes visitors back in time.

Combine this with a deluxe sybaritic spa, Sámas, and you have the true haven for those seeking the ultimate leisure getaway with traditional Irish hospitality. Sámas (a Gaelic word meaning indulgence of the senses), is a unique place that blends healing and therapeutic traditions from the East and West with the inspiring scenery of Kerry to revive the body, mind and soul.

Guests embark on a three hour therapeutic journey that includes time in the spa’s thermal, treatment and relaxation suites.

The thermal suite was my favorite with a vitality pool, half open to breathtaking views of the forests and mountains that surrounded the wooded property, and equipped with numerous jets to untangle knotty stress.

I decided that I would be content to remain there forever, if not for the body massage that awaited me shortly and the gourmet dinner to follow.

Any fears of bland Irish food loaded with starches were dispelled after my first foray into dining, a la Irish style. I found at each restaurant I ate, that the food was tasty, creatively prepared and of the highest quality, from the great variety of fresh fish, lamb and veal to the earthy, dense homemade breads that accompanies each meal.

And yes, there are potatoes, but they are wonderfully roasted or mashed with herbs, or simply served as chips, seasoned to perfection. Side dishes of veggies, such as turnips and thyme or parsnip chips, are served family style.

Traditional Irish breakfasts are hearty, containing eggs, rashers of bacon, grilled tomatoes, scones and for the more daring, black and white pudding (blood and suet); the latter which I preferred to look at, but not taste! And don’t forget the proverbial cup of tea, which you should add milk to, if you want to do as the Irish do.

O’Brien Tower at the Clifs of Mohr. Photo by Deborah Stone.
As our trip headed north of Kenmare, we passed through one charming town after another, set against a backdrop of heather clad mountains with peek-a-boo views of the dramatic Atlantic coastline. The light seemed to change quickly with weather patterns that came and went, giving the area a magical quality that heightened the wild beauty of the scenery.

A stop in Listowel, the “literary capital of Ireland,” was a real treat for our group of writers. This lively market town is home to the Kerry Literary and Cultural Centre, a writer’s museum of words and spirit where the imaginative worlds of some of Ireland’s most notable writers are evoked.

The Centre honors over 80 Kerry-based writers, some of whom have become national and international figures in the world of literature, including John B. Keane, Brendan Kennelly and Bryan MacMahon.

Lunch at Glin Castle, one of Ireland’s most historic properties, and an overnight at Gregans Castle Hotel only served to whet my appetite for wanting to see more castles, of which there are hundreds in the country. Glin has been in the FitzGerald family, hereditary Knights of Glin, for over 700 years.

With its decorative plasterwork, collection of Irish furniture and paintings and formal gardens, it’s a gem of a property sitting atop a fabled storytelling landscape. Gregans is located on the Burren, a barren limestone expanse stretching 100 square miles and known as Europe’s largest rock garden.

Located in a remote corner of County Clare, the Burren is a unique lunar-like landscape that has been designated a National Park by the government. It contains over a thousand species of plants and botanists from all over the world come to study the rare plants and flowers that grow here.

Confronted with such an austere, almost surreal terrain, I felt as if I were seeing the first land created on earth. In fact, the Burren is probably the youngest landscape in Europe, settled by man at least 6,000 years ago. This scenery is made even more dramatic when in startling contrast to the soft green and rolling contours usually associated with the west of Ireland.

Gregans Castle is an eighteenth century country house with views of the bare limestone mountains and Galway Bay. It’s a quiet treasure of Ireland with a historic and mystic charm.

Blazing turf fires, home cooked meals using locally grown and organic foods, four poster beds and antique furniture make it an elegant place for those seeking serenity amid a striking landscape. Near the Burren, and not to be missed by visitors who travel through this part of the country, are the Cliffs of Mohr. These majestic cliffs are among the most magnificent stretches of cliff scenery in Ireland.

They front the Atlantic, rising to a height of 700 feet above sea level and stretching for five miles.

It’s a breathtaking experience to climb to the top of O’Brien’s Tower (built at the top of the cliffs in 1835) and experience the spectacular view of the ocean, as well as Ireland’s three Aran Islands, to the west.

Our trip continued as far north as Connemara, a land that exists in the shadow of the sea, where we made a stop at Kylemore Abbey and Garden, home of the Benedictine Order of Nuns and now also, an exclusive private boarding school for girls.

The romantic setting of the castle-like building and its Victorian walled garden make it one of the country’s most visited attractions. When I first saw the place, from across the water, I thought it was a dead-ringer for Hogwarts School, of the Harry Potter fame.

Its massive stone structure with turrets and towers is impressive and daunting, and I could easily imagine the characters from J.K. Rowling’s books practicing their wizardry and magic from within its walls.

Another highlight in the Connemara area is Delphi Valley, a place teeming with natural wonders, lofty summits and an abundance of wildlife.

Set in the heart of this valley, on 300 acres of forested and mountainous land, is a unique destination resort and spa. If you want to escape from it all, this is the place. The Delphi Mountain Resort and Spa is in a remote corner of the Delphi Valley, far away from civilization.

Taking its cue from the surrounding landscape, the resort was designed in local stone and wood and exists in harmony with nature. The spa takes a holistic route towards health and life-style improvement, combining fitness and outdoor activities with relaxation and treatments.

I had a reflexology treatment and an Indian Head Massage; two out-of-this-world experiences that did wonders for the balance between my mind and body. But the true winner was an early morning wilderness walk amid the mist shrouded Mweelrea Mountains.

That was when I experienced what I call a “pure Ireland moment.”

Actually, I had many of these moments during my stay in this country and all of them are memorable, however, it’s the spirit of the people, their hospitality and genuinely warm Irish welcome that will remain in mind forever.

How do I love thee Montreal? Let me count the ways

  • Written by Deborah Stone

A horse and carriage in Old Montreal. Photo by Deborah Stone.
It’s easy to fall in love with Montreal. It’s a city that knows how to romance you in style.

First it flirts with you to get your attention. Then it begins to woo you, gradually easing its way into your heart and soul. Montreal, though, wants more from you than just a platonic relationship. It’s looking for a deeper commitment. You will be dazzled by its charms, bask in its rosy glow, and it will put out the red carpet to make you feel special. And before you know it, there’s a new love in your life.

So, how do I love you Montreal? Let me count the ways.

1. Montreal is a city for lovers with romance seeping out of every one of its pores. From fireside dinners in cozy restaurants to horse-drawn carriage rides down the cobblestone streets of Old Montreal, couples will find many places and activities to ignite or re-kindle their passions. Head to the top of Mount Royal to watch a glorious sunset. Catch the evening sound and light show at the magnificent Notre-Dame Basilica, where state-of-the-art multi media techniques bring to life the church’s heritage. Drink your favorite libation in the rooftop wine bar of the charming Auberge du Vieux-Port on the banks of the St. Lawrence River. Or for something more formal, try an afternoon of high tea served alfresco in the lush gardens of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel. This classic “Grande Dame” of Montreal is an elegant historic landmark with an old world charm that has hosted numerous celebrities and famous personalities over the years.

As you sip teas with names like Imperial Gunpowder and Blue Sapphire and munch on scrumptious scones, gourmet finger sandwiches and delicious sweets, look out at the pair of amorous ducks in the nearby pond for inspiration.

If you happen to visit the city in fall, grab your sweetie on a moonlit evening and head to the Botanical Gardens for the Chinese lantern exhibit. Each year, hundreds of lanterns illuminate the gardens at night, along with colorful dragon boats and other decorative displays. It’s the ideal spot for a romantic stroll.

Above is a typical scene in Montreal. Photo by Deborah Stone.
In the morning, enjoy your café and croissant at the Atwater Market, another Montreal icon. Then pick up a baguette and some cheese at La Fromagerie (try the Sauvagine, an award-winning buttery triple-cream decadence) for a picnic lunch later after you’ve taken a bike ride along picturesque Lachine Canal on the St. Lawrence River.

2. This city is a treasure trove of art, history and design, with its share of famous museums and galleries. You could spend days touring the Museum Quarter, visiting world-class venues that showcase art for all tastes. Founded in 1860, The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts is one of Canada’s oldest art institutions with a permanent collection representing art from Antiquity to today.

At The Montreal Museum of Contemporary Art, you’ll find a wealth of Quebec creativity and work by leading contemporary international artists.

One of the finest historical collections in North America is housed in The McCord Museum of Canadian History and includes the most extensive First Nations collection in Quebec. Architecture buffs will enjoy the Canadian Center for Architecture, an international research center and museum recognized for the quality of its innovative exhibitions and the unique design of its building. Art and history are also found outside in the urban landscape. Bronze sculptures, statues and monuments dot the downtown corridor and you need only to look at the buildings and churches that surround you to see impressive examples of architecture from neo-Gothic and Gothic to Romanesque Revival and Victorian. With a history dating back to 1642, Montreal is one of the oldest cities in North America.

3. Montreal is a Mecca for shoppers. Whether you’re a browser or a serious buyer, this city will cater to your needs. It’s a shopper’s paradise with high-end, designer fashion and décor boutiques, jewelers, antique emporiums and stores specializing in international goods. A number of renowned designers make their home in Montreal and the city is regarded as the Canadian fashion capital. Brides-to-be will love Les Noces Couture Wedding Dress, a unique bridal gown boutique that has dressed many of Canada’s leading women for their special day. Birks Jewelry Store, Canada’s equivalent of our Tiffany’s, has a collection of diamonds that any girl would like as her best friend. Be careful though, you might be blinded by all the bling-bling and before you know it, you’ll want to take home a nice little souvenir in the store’s famous blue box. If you’re interested in work by local artists, don’t miss Marche Bonsecours. Fifteen boutiques, housed under one roof, showcase original creations by Quebec artisans and designers. For a different type of shopping experience, head down under to Montreal’s “Underground City.” Below the downtown core of the city lies a vast network of pedestrian walkways with access to hundreds of shops. Through a maze of connecting passageways lined with displays of art, you can walk for 20 miles underneath the city’s hub and find every type of store imaginable, in addition to restaurants, theaters and other entertainment attractions. This is also where the metro commuter trains and buses converge, making it a virtual rabbit’s warren for residents and tourists alike.

4. You’ll never run out of choices for accommodations in Montreal. There’s everything from large-scale brand name properties to small boutique hotels. Tourists in-the-know often make a beeline for the latter because of their charm and special character. Many of them are located in Old Montreal, a romantic, historic district with gracious 18th and 19th century stone houses and original cobblestone streets.

One of the jewels of Old Montreal’s hotel scene is Auberge Bonaparte, with its French-inspired furnishings and views of Notre-Dame Basilica.

Another, the Hostellerie Pierre du Calvet, built in the 18th century, is one of the most beautiful examples of New France architecture, characterized by massive crude rock walls and a steeply-sloped roof. Each of the inn’s nine rooms has its own personality, adorned by precious antiques that have been lovingly collected by the owner.

The Hotel XIX Siecle, with its spacious rooms and suites, is housed in a former bank built in 1870 and is right in the heart of this historic quarter, making it a convenient spot from which to access many of the city’s noted attractions.

If reminders of a by-gone era aren’t your thing, take a look at the Hotel Gault, an award-winning property that partners charm and chic in a vintage office building. Its minimalist and spare décor is very hip (check out the “orange slice” chairs in the lobby), which makes it a magnet for the arty set.

When you want to hobnob with an haute clientele, the Saint James is the place. This luxury boutique hotel makes its home in the historic Merchants Bank Building. As soon as you step inside, you sense that you’ve “arrived.” There’s a private club feel to this handsome property with discreet service the key to its attraction for high profile corporate clientele and rock star personalities (think Mick Jagger and Madonna). Opulent fine art and period furnishings line the corridors, public areas and rooms. And be sure to check out the underground, candlelit spa, which was formerly the bank’s vault.

5. It would be hard to find another city in Canada with more exceptional food. It’s next to impossible to get a bad meal here.

Because Montreal has become a melting pot of people from all over the world, it offers food for every kind of palate and budget. There are almost 5,000 restaurants in the city, serving 80 different types of national, regional and international (Greek, West Indian, Iranian, South American, Thai, etc) cuisines.

You can have a classic French meal at Au Bistro Gourmet or at Restaurant les Remparts in Old Montreal. For excellent Szechwan cuisine, try the acclaimed Piment Rouge. Steak lovers will enjoy Moishe’s, a Montreal landmark, and for a taste of Italy, head to Tre Marie in Montreal’s Little Italy.

In addition to its numerous other ethnic and traditional specialties, the city is also famous for its bagels, poutine and smoked meat.

Montreal bagels are made with eggs and are baked in wood ovens, as compared to the ones you find in New York, which are made with water. I found them to be hearty and flavorful and much less spongy in comparison (try the “real” thing at the Fairmount or St-Viateur Bakeries).

I had never heard of poutine until I was in Montreal. It’s a classic French-Canadian dish comprised of French fires smothered in brown gravy and cheese. I confess that I did not approach poutine with the same great gusto that locals have when they eat this concoction! I prefer my steak frites unadorned.

When you want to splurge on an evening out, go to Nuances, the prestigious 5-diamond award restaurant housed in the Casino of Montreal. The Casino, a tourist attraction in itself, is in the former French Pavilion built for the 1967 World’s Fair. Nuance’s sophisticated, innovative cuisine is a heavenly feast for the senses and the epitome of gourmet dining. The restaurant’s elegant décor and breathtaking views of the city and the St. Lawrence River make it a memorable setting for a romantic evening out on the town.

Another spot with unparalleled views of Montreal and excellent food is Altitude 737.

6. Though Montreal is a major urban center with a population base of 1.8 million, you’re never far from nature and open green space.

Parks abound and access to water is never an issue (Montreal is an island, surrounded on all sides by the St. Lawrence River).

You also don’t have to travel far from the city to reach the countryside. Within an hour, you’ll discover quaint towns, miles of hiking trails, lakes, rolling hills and bucolic scenery that will instantly put you at peace. It’s a great place to escape for a day, but to truly recharge your batteries, plan an overnight at one of the many country inns that dot the landscape.

I recommend the Auberge des Gallant. This oasis of tranquility is nestled in the seclusion of Rigaud Mountain, yet just 45 minutes from Montreal.

The Gallant family has created a special place that’s off the beaten path, in the heart of a bird sanctuary, surrounded by spectacular gardens. A gourmet restaurant, luxurious and spacious guest rooms with all the amenities and a pampering spa are just some of the treats guests will find at this charming inn. Madam Gallant believes in hedonistic getaways. Deprivation is a bad word in her vocabulary and she will spoil you until you, too, agree with her wholeheartedly. You will scale the culinary heights with the creative cuisine in the inn’s dining room, drink the best Canadian wines and relax and rejuvenate with state-of-the-art spa treatments.

Try a vino-therapy facial with Pinot Noir and Tuscan Chianti wines, grapeseed oil, honey, lavender and rosemary. It’s haute cuisine for the skin and you will emerge glowing and “drunk” from all the wonderful smells. If you can leave your Jacuzzi or that comfy chair by the fire, head outdoors to stroll the nature trails that meander through the inn’s 400-acre property (in the winter, these are groomed for cross-country skiing). If you’re fortunate to come in the early spring, you’ll get to take part in “sugaring.”

Each year, during March and April, the Gallant family opens their sugar shack to visitors and locals to celebrate maple syrup production time. Large-scale brunches using the product in every possible way are held on the weekends at the Gallant’s beautiful sugar shack. “Shack” is a very misleading term for the handsome log structure that looks like it could have come out of a Currier & Ives print.

For a bit of trivia: 80 percent of the world’s supply of maple syrup is produced in Quebec.

7. Finally, I love the people of Montreal. Before I visited, I pictured the residents as comprising two separate groups: the Francophones and the English. My provincial view was quickly turned on its head when I saw the cultural potpourri that spilled out onto the streets of this lively city.

Many people are bilingual now and over one in four Montrealers is an immigrant. Inhabitants embrace one another’s cultures, which has brought a richness of character to the city.

They also take pride in their roots, which is evident in the care they’ve taken to preserve their old buildings and traditions.

I found Montrealers to be hospitable and warm, with a wonderful sense of humor. They love life with a passion and their enthusiasm and vitality are contagious. Montreal has cast a spell on me. I’m hooked on this enchanting city with its carefree ambiance and wonderful “joie de vivre.” And I promise you, it won’t be long before I return.