Archive for February, 2012

February 23, 2012

Nightclub Bloke & 4th scores with upscale cuisine


Adrian Niman, who had hockey dreams, has a winner with Bloke & 4th on King Street. (Julia Pelish photo)

[First published on]

Adrian Niman stands in the middle of his swanky new restaurant, thick with sexy red drapes and sexier women in tight black dresses, and talks about his dream of the country. Bloke & 4thfits right in with Toronto’s vibrant nightclub scene in the Entertainment District; its chef, though, is more about wine pairings than bottle service. Despite the fact that he’s just 27 and, on the surface, a superb fit for this glam supper club, Niman is all about the cuisine, not the scene.

“I’d love to have a little place in the country, with my girlfriend and focus on all local ingredients,” Niman says during the opening of Bloke & 4th earlier this month. The club had a soft launch in December and has packed in the late-night crowd, doing thousands and thousands of dollars in booze sales alone on weekends, Niman says.

His passion, however, is food and to his credit he doesn’t waver from it, even though he could go off-course in a posh spot like Bloke & 4th. Places like Ultra and barchef on Queen Street draw in the city’s high rollers and their arm candy who come to mix and mingle; indulgences other than food on their mind. With Niman’s cuisine, Bloke & 4th distinguishes itself from that pack.

“We’re going to try different things in here,” the chef says as he calls out for pick-up orders in the kitchen. “Some of it’s going to work, some of it isn’t, but we’re going to be creative.”

Its current choices include a number of good dishes and one killer one: a Bangkok Cole Slaw ($26) that includes yellow fin tuna, crispy calamari, and a mix of vegetables and sauces that combine for a sensational blend of flavours you can’t find anywhere else in the city. That dish was inspired by Niman’s time in Thailand, and other items are influenced from his days working in Spain and his early career at North 44, Mark McEwan’s esteemed restaurant.

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February 18, 2012

Have dinner with a ghost at Muriel’s in New Orleans


Denise Gratia of Muriel's sets the table for the ghost in New Orleans. (Julia Pelish photo)

[First published in AOL Travel/Huffington Post Canada]

NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA — Each night, Muriel’s restaurant sets a table for Antoine. It’s beneath an ornate chandelier at the foot of a staircase leading to the upstairs bar. The table cloth is white, there’s a candle and a setting for two, with plates, utensils, napkins and glasses for red wine. A waiter will place a basket of French bread in the centre as well as a bottle of wine, usually Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa Valley. This is the way Antoine likes it and there’s nothing unusual about the scene except Antoine has been dead for 198 years.

The ghost table at Muriel’s has become a draw for this city’s many paranormal tours. Groups stand outside an iron gate and peer through the window to catch a slight glimpse of the table, which Muriel’s put in place after Hurricane Katrina, in part to help calm the active spirit. With Mardi Gras approaching on Feb. 21, visitors will arrive by the thousands looking for fun, excitement and the bizarre happenings that have brought this city fame. Muriel’s is sure to attract more than a few party-goers looking to scare up a good time.

“This is the most haunted place in the city,” declares George Dubaz, a tour guide with Spirit Tours. Dubaz stands outside the restaurant on Chartres Street in the French Quarter and points to the large, two-storey building that has stood on the property in one form or another since the mid-1700s. “Some of the staff members will tell you they’ve seen glasses fly across the room.”

Dubaz says he wasn’t a believer in ghosts until he moved from Biloxi, Mississippi to New Orleans after the 2005 hurricane that devastated the Crescent City. Now, he says, “I’ve seen and heard of too many strange things for there not to be something to it.”

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February 11, 2012

Quebec City’s Ice Hotel dazzles


Quebec City's Ice Hotel is a thing of beauty. (Julia Pelish photo)

[First published on]

QUEBEC CITY — Even though Tori Woods and Crystal Chisholm are hopping around in skimpy bikinis, their boots are what catch the eye. The two good friends from Uxbridge, Ontario can bear the cold on every part of their bodies except, it seems, for the soles of their feet. Everyone has a limit, and a night in the Hotel de Glace will test it.

Woods arrived at the wonder of a hotel a day removed from a week-long trip to Jamaica. Going from one extreme to another only delights her. She and Chisholm both grin at the thought of doing something most people might only attempt on a dare or during a bout of insanity. The Hotel de Glace, or Ice Hotel, is a 15-minute drive from Quebec’s old city and a world away from normal. It’s made entirely of snow (15,000 tonnes of it) and ice (500 tonnes) and features a 6,000-pound chandelier that glows blue like something out of the Fortress of Solitude.

In its 12th year, the Hotel de Glace is that most unusual of travel destinations. In a country where most of us can’t wait to get away from the cold, this temple to ice draws people fascinated to see how cool life below-zero can be. The beauty of the hotel is astonishing. It’s the kind of thing Tolkien would dream up. Columns of thick, clear ice decorated with First Nations carvings vault from the floor. Snow sculptures, some featuring figures in athletic poses, stick to the walls in a way that seems to defy gravity.

This year, it took six weeks to erect the hotel, which includes a chapel (24 weddings are scheduled) and an ice bar (the Nordique, a drink made of vodka and Blue Curacao, is the most popular). There are 36 rooms and suites, some of which feature fireplaces that are insulated so no heat escapes to threaten the structure of the building — or, sadly, to warm the guests. Those fireplaces are perhaps the cruelest decorations ever invented. Within walls where the temperature averages minus-5 Celsius degrees, any opportunity for heat is coveted after a while.

Even Woods and Chisholm, the two adventuresome women in bathing suits, eventually don toques, scarves and gloves, and soon enough they get out of the cold entirely. After posing for photos in their bikinis and snow boots for 15 minutes, they scoot off to the hot tub; overnight guests are advised to sink into hot water before going to bed.

“It warms up the body,” says Maryline Borgia, a guide who instructs visitors on how to get through the night in the frigid conditions. She says she has seen a 90-year-old woman sleep in the hotel, as well as an expectant mother who was eight months’ pregnant. “We get all kinds of people. The Ice Hotel is one of those things you have to do once in your lifetime.”

Once might be the operative word.

Staying in the Hotel de Glace is not comfortable. Even after you’re curled into a toasty, hotel-issued sleeping bag, your face remains bare to the cold. The night air nips at your cheeks and nose, a constant menace you can’t get rid of unless you bandage your entire face. When sleep does come for me, it’s broken more than once by the need to breathe through the scarf wrapped over my nose and eyes. I tear away the cloth, huff for a while and then cover my nose again so I can escape into a dream.

Your boots and winter outerwear are placed in the waterproof bag from which you remove your sleeping bag. All other belongings are to be left in a storage locker in the adjacent heated building called the Celsius pavilion. If left on a shelf in the bedroom, items such as watches and jewelry can freeze into place overnight. There’s no washroom in the hotel rooms. Anyone who must use the facilities, must go through the arduous routine of getting out of the sleeping bag, getting into their clothes and boots, and scurrying to the Celsius, where breakfast is served, and showers and toilets are available.

“If you have to go to the washroom, you have no choice,” says Borgia, while instructing visitors after demonstrating how to get into a sleeping bag. “You make sure you go before.”

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February 5, 2012

The Quebec Carnival is ticklish fun


The Tornado ride will keep you coming back for more. (Julia Pelish photo)

[First published on]

QUEBEC CITY — Steve Bundy loads into the inner tube alongside me and a half-dozen others. We’re at the top of a hill overlooking the Quebec Carnival site that’s filled with children who you’d think would be the ones lined up to make this descent. Our tube, called a Tornade (or Tornado), is occupied with adults, however; and none of us seem like the thrill-ride type.

Behind us, a worker asks if we’re ready. “Let’s go,” someone in the tube says and upon those words the worker shoves us over the edge. Immediately, we’re spinning down the slope, screaming all the way.

The Tornado is a howl, a ticklish ride that lasts about 20 seconds. It twirls seven or eight times before reaching the bottom of the slope. When the craft slides to a stop, Bundy declares, “That was awesome.” It’s his first time to the annual winter celebration, but Bundy, who has relocated from Newfoundland to Quebec’s capital, is certain it won’t be his last. “I’ll be here every year,” he says.

Just like that, the Quebec Carnival has done what it so often has during its 58 years: win over its visitors who have helped make it the world’s biggest winter festival.

Rides like Snow Rafting, which involves a rubber tube plummeting down the same hill as the Tornado, and the Ice Slide, where visitors scoot through a track while seated on a sled, are most popular with adults. I’ve been to Disneyworld and Universal Studios and Toronto’s CNE many times, but I hadn’t felt like a kid again until this past weekend, when the ride on the Tornado made me eager to get right back in line and do that again. It occurred to me then that the carnival succeeds because it delivers what it promises: fun — and then some. And it does so by retaining the authenticity of a Canadian winter.

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February 1, 2012

Thanks to voters for my 3 travel journalism awards

safari ranger brett du bois sabi sabi private game reserve

Safari ranger Brett DuBois inspired an award-winning story. (Julia Pelish photo)

When I met Brett DuBois, I knew I had a good story, and a potentially great one. DuBois is a safari ranger in South Africa who lives with passion for his work and the animals surrounding him. He’s intense, tough and fearless, and showed me that the wild animals aren’t the only fascinating beings you encounter on a safari. DuBois, who I met during a visit to the Sabi Sabi Private Game Reserve in Greater Kruger Park, became the focus of a story that appeared on the cover of the Toronto Star’s January 8, 2011 issue. On Tuesday, that story won the top award for Best International Article in a Newspaper with a Circulation of 250,000 or More from the North American Travel Journalists Association (NATJA).

You can find a link to it here on this website and here on the Star’s website.

I also won third prize in the same category for an article on Curacao, a Dutch island in the Caribbean that attained its own government on October 10, 2010, shortly before my article was published in the Star. Curacao is a fun place, full of passionate people who care about their island and its uniqueness. I’m glad I was able to spotlight it.

Lastly, NATJA voters awarded me and my good friend Jim Byers, the Star’s Travel Editor, with the Gold award for “Best Travel Series in a Newspaper” for our “Grand Tour” series that sent him and I to destinations around the globe in an insanely short amount of time. We covered 10 of the world’s most iconic cities, with Jim writing on 6 of them and me on 4. Here are the links to my articles in the series: Buenos Aires, Jerusalem, St. Petersburg and Cape Town.

Also, I’m proud to say that Julia Pelish, my wife and perpetual photographer/videographer, won a Bronze award in the “Best Cover Photo, Illustration” category for her stunning picture of a thunderstorm in Aruba. You can see that photo on her website.

Thanks to the voters for singling out my stories for the second year in a row. Much appreciated and greatly honoured.