I won’t lie, the idea of an outdoor beer festival in the middle of winter did not seem appealing; I hate the cold, but this was a part of my “event-every-month-xmas-gift” and I’m trying to get as much outdoor enjoyment as I can until sock-free weather returns, so off I went.
The two year old Roundhouse Winter Craft Beer Festival is everything I love about these kinds of events: local craft brew, food trucks and beer loving Torontonians gathered in the heart of the city to taste the latest offerings from the growing list of local beer entrepreneurs. I was surprised, not only by my own winter embrace, but by the quality of beer at this small festival. Don’t get me wrong, this is no Oregon or Vermont Beer Festival, but things are happening in our Ontario craft beer world despite the difficulties of making and selling beer here, and I, for one, think it’s pretty fantastic.
This isn’t the first time I’ve written about Prince Edward County, in fact I just wrote about it this past April. PEC has become a birthday tradition for me, and also a right-of-spring-passage at the time of year we really need to unravel work and winter stress. So why write more? Well, lots of reasons actually. First, shockingly many many people I know haven’t even heard of the wonders of the County, much been there for a visit. Second, the wine keeps getting better and better, and everyone knows it. Finally, there is a new kid in town; the Drake Devonshire, which after much fanfare, is finally open, and everyone keeps asking me “how was it”, so here’s what I thought.
I was little suspicious of a trendy and stylish Toronto hotel setting up a resort-like space in Wellington, which like the other small towns in the County (Picton, Bloomfield) are exactly what you picture a small Ontario town to be, and hardly need to be “cityfied”. But I love the Drake Toronto and when I lived in the area, spent many, many evenings dining, drinking, and dancing in the various spaces of the hotel, so I was game to give the Devonshire a try.
The Devonshire is up and running despite the fact that the official opening is not until spring of 2015; a little more time to finish up an outdoor deck in time for the season, and work out the kinks in running what is already a very popular operation. We booked the Winter Warrior package, and let me just say that this is the best deal around right now; for $377 -$397 (Price for two people, based on double occupancy) you get:
-One night’s accommodation
– Breakfast (coffee, juice, choice of entrée)
– Dinner – Seat at the Chef’s table (appetizer, main course, dessert)
– Packed lunch (including mini bottle of wine)
– Complimentary pick up and drop off from choice of hiking trail
– Winter warmer cocktail upon return
And they don’t skimp like some places that create special meals/drinks for such packages; we enjoyed entrees and beverages from the “regular” menus. They weren’t quite ready for the hiking part of the package (we were actually the first people to book this package) but that worked out fine, since we had a busy two days of winery-visits planned, so I’m not sure when we would have squeezed in a hike anyway.
The building, a century old building with a very interesting history, has been beautifully renovated. I loved what they did; modern country (if that’s such a thing in the design world) is evident everywhere. The addition (which houses the sun-filled dinning room overlooking the lake) was also beautifully integrated into the already breathtaking surroundings. If you’ve visited Drake Toronto, you’ll recognize some quintessential elements: the photo booth, the art, and the locally crafted Canadiana accessories.
The service was excellent everywhere except for the dinning room, which (in their defence) is moderately acceptable in this “working out the kinks” stage. They were clearly understaffed for a full house (during this “low” season), and for some reason, inexperienced in some areas of service. We went over twenty minutes, between plates, without water or wine despite having ordered a bottle when we arrived. Only after inquiring were we told the wine was “chilling”. Note: letting us sit there without explanation, without an opportunity to select something else, or without bringing us something else while we wait is not good. Like I said, hopefully they’re just working out these kinks.
Other than our mediocre dinner service, I really enjoyed everything about this place. The setting was beautiful, the food excellent, and the accommodations very comforting. We we left, they sent us on our way with a delicious lunch (soup, sandwiches, scones, fruit, and wine); perfect to sustain us during our winery visits. This year we went to our perennial favourites to restock the wine racks for the holidays, and add some more to the cellar collection: Exultet Estates, Rosehall Run, The Old Third, Stanners Vineyard, Hinterland Wine Company. I find that the more I visit our Ontario wine regions the more I gravitate to the same wine makers who I know are making high quality, estate grown wine.
It’s a beautiful thing to be just a short walk or bike ride away from great culture, festivals and incredible food. This sort of proximity allows for spontaneous “date nights” or, like many city dwellers call it, a night out in the ‘hood; something we enjoyed just other night. The evolution of the night went something like this:
Him: “Let’s go watch a play at Tarragon” (we are subscribers, so the answer was easy)
Me: “Okay. You get the tickets and see if you can get us reservations at Fat Pasha”
And so was born a pretty incredible night right here so close to home.
“The thing about Portugal is that on the one hand it seems like nothing has changed and they’ve been doing things the way they were doing them decades ago, but on the other hand if you consider North America, we’re trying to change back to do what places like Portugal never stopped doing.”
Okay, so I bounced around some ideas for this post for a couple of weeks since being back from Portugal, but this quotation (said by my partner while we were there) kept swimming up to the top of my pool of ideas, so, I’m going to deviate from my usual documentation style blog post. Besides, these days anyone travelling and willing to invest a little planning time can easily google (or search social media) for the trendiest restaurants and hotspots, and seek the wisdom of professional travel writers for the “must see” historical sites of most places in the world. So instead I present you with some quirky and unusual (for non-Europeans anyhow) facts that you may not know about Portugal; some things I once took for granted, but have since fallen in love with. Fret not, I will follow with some photos; the best part of sharing.
First, a little background: I haven’t been back to Portugal in 15 years. As a kid, I went often with my parents. My father was born in Porto, and my mom in a very small village in the Douro region called Pinhal do Norte. I was born in Africa, which if you know anything about Portugal’s colonial past you will recognize this as quite common. We moved here as a family in 1976 and left quite a bit of family behind. In my younger years we spent as many summers as we could afford vacationing in Portugal. Since then, most of my family members have moved or passed away, and I have spent the last 15 years discovering other parts of this vast world.
We planned for this trip over a couple of years, knowing it would be our longest to date, and that we would attempt to see Portugal from the top to the bottom as well as visit the family I still have there. In hind sight, we both agree that we should have heeded the advice of family who strongly encouraged us to visit for much longer than our 18 days, but we both came away with a new (for him) and renewed (for me) appreciation for this small, yet incredible country. Sometimes appreciation for the things we take for granted grows out of experiencing things through the eyes of someone else, and many of the observations that follow, in fact, came from my (Canadian born/non-European) partner, who is now equally enamoured. So, without further ado, here are some things you probably don’t know about Portugal:
1. Coffee culture is everywhere. You do not have to go to a trendy town and find the latest hipster coffee house; everyone is a barista. From the city coffee shops to highway rest stops, you can bet on an excellent cup of coffee (always espresso, unless you ask for something different). You can also bet on the fact that everyone sits down to enjoy their coffee; this time is expected and respected. Nothing is too important that you can’t interrupt to have a coffee, and I wish that mentality existed here. The other great thing about how the Portuguese consume coffee, is that there is NO WASTE, ever. You can’t get your coffee to go; you have to sit down and drink it. I think we call this being “environmentally friendly”.
2. Support for locally derived food and drink is not the latest trend, it’s just the way it is. Wherever you eat you will enjoy regional specialities made with whatever is in season. The wine list, in almost all cases, will have Portuguese wine exclusively. This may sound restrictive, but Portugal has 14 different wine regions which produce wines that celebrate a heritage of over 25o different grape varieties, some of which can not be found anywhere else in the world. We asked one restaurant why they didn’t have wines from, say France or Italy, and the reply was “why would we; we make lots of wine here”.
3. The “house wine” is usually the best. Here in North America, asking for house wine is akin to asking for the cheapest, crappiest wine a restaurant has to offer, but in Portugal (and this was confirmed by a number of servers we talked to), the house wine is selected “to represent the restaurant” and is often the best or favourite as selected by the owner or sommelier. You can also be sure, that in most cases this specially selected wine is very, very reasonably price.
4. There is so much natural and historical beauty to be seen in Portugal, and the Portuguese love it when people visit, but don’t expect them to make anything convenient for you. What I mean is, you won’t find signs leading you to the cliffs of Sagres to watch the sunset, you won’t find escalators, stairs or even walkways to the beautiful beaches in the Algarve, you won’t even find information easily online for the 66 wineries you can visit in the Alentejo, you won’t find convenient operating hours, and you definitely won’t find safety railings on any natural wonder to keep your kids from falling. But somehow, people get there, and this stoic determination to keep things they way they were is a marvelous thing.
5. As a tourist, Portugal is the best deal in Europe. Even in some of the upscale restaurants in Lisbon and Porto we were unable to spend more than 100 Euros despite copious amounts of food and wine. Again, because the wine and food is locally produced and there aren’t ridiculous rules and taxes associated with and imposed by government bodies (ahem, I’m talking to you Ontario LCBO) excellent wine is very inexpensive (and very readily available), and food is very affordable. Lodging options are also plentiful and affordable, but my suggestions to you is to stay in a bed and breakfast, small inn or Posadas where you will enjoy the personal attention and suggestions of your hosts.
And now for some photos; a short slide show from the different areas we visited:
Douro Region (the North):
Thanks so much for reading and viewing. I hope one day you can visit this marvelous place.
PEC has a special place in my heart because it is the first road trip we ever took together about eight years ago. Back then beautiful landscape, a charming B&B, and delicious local restaurants were all we looked for out there. We did pop into a few wineries but were horribly disappointed by the offerings. Fast forward five years, and the wine scene changed drastically, I suspect, in response to many city-transplants who saw a golden opportunity. Prince Edward County has since become one of my favourite areas to visit for incredible farm to table eats, and local award winning wines. Our most recent visit started with a fantastic Countylicious lunch at East and Main, followed by a one night stay in Bloomfield at Angéline’s Inn, a family run property with charming suites, coach houses and the newly renovated Walter Motor Inn. Saturday evening we also had an opportunity to enjoy the culinary delights of Chef Elliot and the wine wisdom of Sommelier Laura at The Hubb eatery and lounge. It was a perfect spot from where we headed out to visit, taste and buy some of the incredible wines of the area. This time around we visited Hubbs Creek Vineyard, Lighthall Vineyards, Casa Dea Estates Winery, Rosehall Run, The Old Third, and Hinterland Wine Company for their latest (& greatest) offerings. It was, indeed, just what needed to forget about the stresses of everyday life, and the horrible winter we’ve had this year.
I’ve seen many fireworks in my lifetime, and they have always brought me gleeful, albeit short lived, moments of joy, but I never imagined a place so in love with these shows of light as Bonaire. The firecrackers started as soon as we arrived (on Dec 27) and did not let up until New Year’s Eve, when it seemed everyone on the island held their own hour long display (yup, I said hour and some “shows” continued well past 2am). We stood on the rooftop of the Djambo and watched all around us as the people of Bonaire competed for our attention; it was an incredible sight indeed, and was the perfect way to cap off a fantastic BBQ dinner hosted by the Djambo owners Dick, Liselotte, Martin and Isle.
New Year’s Day was equally entertaining. I must add here that I have mad respect for places that don’t bow to the whims of the tourist; everything on Bonaire is closed on Xmas and New Year’s Day including National parks and the so-called “tourist attractions”. I think if you visit a place it is because you want to experience the place in its everyday workings; I don’t want anywhere to change for me. We planned another day of exploring the beautiful reefs, and lucky for us the Cadushy Distillery was open and provided an interesting morning stop on our way to spend the day in the ocean. Run by yet another couple who came on their honeymoon and never went home, The Cadushy Distillery is Bonaire’s only distillery. They specialize in spirits and liqueurs made from cactus and other locally grown ingredients; a homage to the family of islands and the history surrounding them. The tastings, tour and accompanying history of the island makes this worth a visit, and in our case, was a great way to start off the year.
I’ve only ever stayed at all-inclusive resorts when in the Caribbean, and while the convenience of not having to worry about food or drink might seem appealing, being locked up in one place doing the same thing every day is definitely not how I like to travel. This time down south we rented an apartment; this is how most people set up shop in Bonaire, and the fact that there are really no resorts on the island testifies to the fact that this is a place for people who like to do things (scuba, kite-board, snorkel, hike, bike, etc.). There’s something great about hitting the local supermarket to stock up your temporary home with all the food and drink you love, and if you so choose, also have the option of hitting the local restaurants and bar. This, my friends, is really the best of both worlds. All the apartments here at the Djambo open up to the centre courtyard pool & bar, which (along with an outdoor kitchen) pretty much makes this the best accommodation I’ve ever stayed at.