Archive for January, 2013

January 26, 2013

Diamond Rings takes on the world

[This article was published last month in Vacay.ca as part of its Rock ‘n Roll Road Trips series. Diamond Rings has since been nominated for a SiriusXM Canadian Indie Music Award, whose show takes place March 22, 2013 during Canadian Music Week in Toronto.]

Diamond rings, John O’Regan says, are glamorous and tough. That’s why they’re the namesake of his on-stage persona, an act that has busted out of the Toronto music scene to earn superlative-laden reviews across the continent. One reason for the success is the fact diamond rings are mesmerizing too.

It’s difficult not to keep your eyes on O’Regan. For one thing, you have to make up your mind whether his act is an artistic form of self-expression or a schtick. One listen of his hit “I’m Just Me” should convince you he’s much more Ziggy Stardustthan Gary Glitter, which is to say that Diamond Rings has substance and cred. It’s quite possible the persona O’Regan has created is the most interesting act to come out of Canada since Arcade Fire. “I’m Just Me” comes across as a mantra for the sexually uncertain, the androgynous or the transgender, but like any great song it has universality to it, appealing to anyone who embraces their individuality when it clashes with bullies or the sensibilities of the establishment. There’s both a rebelliousness and a sweetness to the song, underscoring the duality O’Regan talks about in himself and his performance.

While most audiences are now hearing about Diamond Rings for the first time, O’Regan isn’t an overnight success. He’s been toiling in Toronto for several years, fronting the electro-pop band The D’urbervilles, recently renamed Matters. In Toronto, the 27-year-old spends his days in Roncesvalles, a historic neighbourhood known for its Polish heritage and proximity to High Park.

“I tend not to leave that neighbourhood when I’m at home. Being away, being in a rock band there is so much stimulation, a lot of long nights, a lot of loud music and loud clubs, and although Toronto is great for all that stuff, when I’m home it’s rarely what I want to do,” O’Regan said during an interview three weeks ago in a suite in the Ritz-Carlton Toronto.

Roncesvalles is beyond West Queen West, an area that’s become a cultural hub for the city, with vintage clothing stores, nightclubs, and a pair of notable boutique hotels, the Gladstone and the Drake, that are a breeding ground for artists of all sorts. O’Regan’s part of town is much more low key, although it does have two of the city’s best new restaurants in Hopgood’s Foodliner and Barque. Despite his flamboyant stage presence, O’Regan struck me as very much an introspective artist devoted to pushing himself and his work as far as he can, and that makes Roncesvalles a fit for him. It lacks the bustle and distractions of other areas of the city, allowing him to hole up and make music.

January 5, 2013

10 tips on how to eat cheap on the road

Many hotels, such as the Residence Inn in Kingston, Ontario, now have kitchens in their suites. (Julia Pelish/Vacay.ca)

Many hotels, such as the Residence Inn in Kingston, Ontario, now have kitchens in their suites. (Julia Pelish/Vacay.ca)

[These tips were originally published on Vacay.ca]

One of the most costly expenses when you vacation is food. It’s also one of the more difficult purchases for which to budget, even though many restaurant menus are now online to help you pre-plan what you will spend. What tends to happen is we end up becoming more picky about where we eat on the road because we want it to satisfy our hunger both for food and for experience. Will the food be worth it? is a question that takes on greater importance when you only have a few days in a place. How do I stretch my budget and experience the best of local culture? is another question many travellers ask.

Here are tips on how to save on your food budget when you travel, while maintaining your desire for an enjoyable visit.

1. Know your hotel choice. Book a hotel that includes breakfast and pre-pay for the stay, which will reduce your accommodations cost by at least 5 per cent at most lodgings. Hotel breakfasts can often be overpriced but a cost reduction through pre-payment is beneficial for more than just your pocketbook. It saves you time — eliminating a decision on where to eat in the morning — and gives you some peace of mind because you will have paid for this cost before you arrive.

2. Sleep with a kitchen. Better than paying for breakfast (or lunch or dinner) is having the ability to cook it yourself. More and more hotels are providing their own kitchens, a feature that many timeshare owners have long enjoyed. The benefit of having a kitchen — or at least a microwave and fridge — is it gives you the option to further control your food costs. A trip to the grocery store soon after check-in will give you a stockpile of choices for late-night snacks or an all-out gourmet feast if you choose. EXTRA TIP: Pack a few teaspoons of your favourite spices in spice containers made specifically for travelling. You’ll find them in the kitchenware department of many retail stores. It’ll save you from buying full containers of spices once you arrive at your destination.

3. Eat meals prepared at grocery stores. Even if you don’t have a kitchen in your room, you should still go to the grocery store. Some of the best cheap meals you’ll find in any North American city are in the prepared food areas of supermarkets. Whether it’s Whole Foods in New York, Rouses or Langenstein’s in New Orleans, or even Longo’s in Toronto (where a gourmet 10-inch pizza can be had for less than $7), you can find outstanding, freshly prepared food that won’t break your budget. You also won’t need to tip or wait for a table. Although some health experts will tell you that grocery stores tend to cook their prepared meals with meat and fish products that aren’t the freshest in stock, you’re still more likely to get a healthier meal from a grocer than from a fast-food restaurant.

4. Visit the local farmers’ market. Farmers’ markets are booming across North America thanks to the locavore movement and the desire for environmentally friendly community building. The markets offer both a travel experience — because you will find out a lot about a city’s culture through the people who cultivate and consume its local produce — and a fun dining experience as you sample bits and bites from different vendors, many of whom offer samples. Canada is extremely lucky to have thriving farmers’ markets across the country, particularly in Ontario.

5. Adjust your Groupon deals account. Those online coupon companies that just about all of us take advantage of when we’re at home can come in handy on the road too. Adjust your Groupon or Living Social account to show deals in the destination you’re visiting and you’ll find discounts on restaurants, as well as some attractions.

January 1, 2013

Why Louisbourg is the best place to see in Canada in 2013

fortress-louisbourg-cape-breton

Fortress Louisbourg celebrates its 300th anniversary in 2013. (Julia Pelish photo)

LOUISBOURG, CAPE BRETON, NOVA SCOTIA — No lawyers were allowed in colonial Louisbourg. Louis XIV wanted to build a utopia on this side of the Atlantic and anyone who was out to practice law could only undermine that dream, the Sun King thought. So rules were enforced by the governor of Île-Royale and an appointed council. But lawyers? They were left to eat cake — or learn to bake it.

Today, Louisbourg still exhibits the spirit and mindset of its founders. Set in 1744, toward the end of French rule of the territory on Cape Breton, the recreated historic village replicates life as it was for the blacksmiths, tavern owners, military personnel, government officials and citizens in the 18th century. To enter the fortified city, visitors must first pass through a gate defended by militia who will test whether you’re a British spy or ne’er-do-well before allowing you to enter. Thoroughly fascinating, Louisbourg is so well done as an attraction you almost lose sight of the beauty of its setting. Almost.

Cape Breton’s natural allure never quite relinquishes its grip and the scenery surrounding Louisbourg is reminiscent of the French coast, with a torrent of waves and swatches of thick, golden reeds that from certain angles appear to mask the fortress as you approach.

“Louisbourg is the jewel of the national parks system,” says Linda Kennedy, who runs Point of View Suites, a sensational property just outside of the entrance to the historic site.

For those who have been to colonial Williamsburg in Virginia, Fortress Louisbourg will seem familiar. But it is much more of a living museum than a commercial enterprise, although you can purchase meals and pay to take part in a murder mystery tour or night-time lantern walk.

In 2013, Louisbourg celebrates its 300th anniversary and will do so with panache, earning it the distinction as the No. 1 place in Canada to visit in 2013 from Vacay.ca.

The Louisbourg300 festivities feature a month-long fête with additional music, cultural attractions and a harbourside market in July. A series of other events and celebrations will take place during the summer, including a much-anticipated regatta on the waters surrounding the fortress. As Louisbourg heralds its tricentennial, it gives Canadians an opportunity to reflect on how important of a place it is to the nation’s history.

“Louisbourg in some ways is a microcosm of what Canada eventually developed into, which is a multicultural, multilingual society,” says Barbara Landry, one of the Parks Canada officers at the fortress.