Archive for ‘Travel Writing’

August 5, 2013

Eugenie Bouchard ready for the Rogers Cup

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Eugenie Bouchard is the top-ranked Canadian female tennis in the world and is 58th overall. (Adrian Brijbassi photo)

[This article first appeared on Vacay.ca on August 5, 2012.]

Many Canadians skip off to travel the world when they’re 19. Eugenie Bouchard, though, is doing so in a high-stakes, high-style environment that only professional athletes would be involved in at such a young age.

The tennis sensation from Montreal is in her first full year on the WTA tour, which covers 59 tournaments in 20 countries. This week, Bouchard joins the Williams sisters and other top-ranked players at the annual Rogers Cup tournament in Toronto. The rigorous schedule that’s filled with practice sessions, media commitments, more practice sessions, and whirlwind scheduling that keeps her hopping from one destination to the next limits how much Bouchard can enjoy her world travels. But she does try to get out and see what she can of the stops on WTA.

“It’s tough travelling all the time, because you are always living out of suitcase for your job, but I love it. I love travelling, and seeing all of these different cultures,” she said Sunday during a press conference that followed a practice session at York University’s Rexall Centre, site of the tournament whose main draw begins Monday.

Bouchard will play Russia’s Alisa Kleybanova in the first round and will also team with retired champ Monica Seles for an exhibition doubles match against Venus and Serena Williams on Monday night. At 5-foot-10, Bouchard is a rangy, powerful player who has made a blazing ascent up the rankings since cracking the world’s top 200 last August. She’s currently No. 58 on the WTA and is no longer catching opponents by surprise after upsetting 12th-seeded Ana Ivanovic at Wimbledon in June. In a conference call last week, Serena Williams said Bouchard was “a talented player with improving control of her groundstrokes.”

With Maria Sharapova, the No. 2 player in the world, pulling out of the tournament, Tennis Canada is leaning on Bouchard to be a face of the Rogers Cup. With a quick smile and witty personality (see her Gangnam Style video with British player Laura Robson), Bouchard is poised to be Canada’s sporting sweetheart for years to come. Having the fans behind her in Toronto this week will be a help, she predicted.

“Coming home is special. I know I’m going to have great crowd support and that always helps. I’ll be using that to my advantage,” she said.

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July 22, 2013

Justin Hines shows his cool and class


[This article and video were first published on Vacay.ca as part of its Rock n’ Roll Road Trips video series, where musicians discuss their travels. This interview was particularly delightful because Justin Hines is such a genuine person and an amazing talent.]

Justin Hines is one of the coolest people I’ve ever met. Not because he’s managed to achieve so much musically while tackling Larsen syndrome and life in a wheelchair. And not because he is an inspirational person for showing the world that humans are limited only by what we convince ourselves is impossible. Hines is a cool cat for the same reason you might think highly of anyone else. He’s got style, he’s got class, he’s confident, and dignified.

I spoke with Hines in May as he was about to embark on his Vehicle of Change tour, an uplifting jaunt around North America that is raising money to assist people with disabilities. He is articulate, humble, and clearly devoted to maximizing his musical talent. Hines has used his celebrity to make societies look anew at the power and positivity of the disabled, but his advocacy isn’t a political or an overwhelming part of his message. Instead, he’s considerate about how the world operates and is aware that accessibility isn’t always at the top of mind.

“It’s not that people don’t want to make things accessible, it’s just that they’ve never really been exposed to it, so they don’t have a lot of experience,” he says. “Over the years, I’ve developed an empathy for that, and an understanding that it is what it is.”

Like most musicians, Hines is focused on his career more than anything else. His latest album, “How We Fly,” was released this spring and showcases that extraordinary voice of his, a deeply human and expressive vocal gift that catches your ear before you notice the body from which it comes. There’s no denying that Hines’ disability makes people curious about him, but it’s also clear he’s long over being recognized for the challenge he’s overcome and we should move forward too, focusing on his talent and how that’s evolved. The latest single, “Lay My Burdens Down,” is a bluesy treat that breaks away from some of Hines’ more mellifluous songs, like “Please Stay” and “Say What You Will.” It displays maturation in his style and also some angst that makes the song dramatic. When Hines lets his voice loose it is riveting and songs like “Lay My Burdens Down” allow him to show off his chops.

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July 13, 2013

James Hinchcliffe revs up for Honda Indy in Toronto

James-Hinchcliffe

James Hinchcliffe is ready to floor it on Lake Shore Boulevard during Honda Indy weekend. (Adrian Brijbassi photo)

[This article was first published on Vacay.ca on July 12, 2013.]

James Hinchcliffe grew up blocks away from Lake Shore Boulevard, the thoroughfare that runs for more than 100 kilometres in the Greater Toronto Area. Raised in Oakville, Hinchcliffe, like many civilians, would cruise down the road and itch to accelerate past the speed limit, which could be as low as 50 kilometres per hour in some stretches. This weekend, he’ll be paid to floor it on that same road — a turn of events that makes him chuckle.

“It’s funny blasting down Lake Shore Boulevard in an IndyCar at 250 kilometres an hour, rather than 50. It’s fun to say, ‘Take that, OPP,’” said the race-car driver, raising a fist playfully while thinking of the Ontario Provincial Police radar guns.

Hinchcliffe will be among 24 drivers zipping 1,900-pound race cars through the street course in Toronto on Saturday and Sunday. The Honda Indy is one of three events in 2013 to feature two races in one weekend on the Izod IndyCar Series. The race series has added second races in Detroit, Houston and Toronto to increase ticket sales and take advantage of the festival atmosphere in those cities.

Having dubbed the doubleheader “2 in TO,” race organizers were forced to hold their collective breath this past week as record rainfall flooded parts of the city, including Lake Shore Boulevard. But Honda Indy president Charlie Johnstone said the event was fortunate to see no damage to the venue. “Like everyone else, we were shocked by what happened and how fast it happened, but everything held up the way it was supposed to hold up,” Johnstone said of the course that blocks off one of the city’s most active commuter routes during Indy week each year. He pointed out that the event and the city were lucky that the rain occurred on Monday night, before any of the less-secure vendor and sponsor tents were put into place.

With the two races, he expects the Indy could top the $50 million in economic impact that it provided the city in 2012. There’s also the added benefit of more global media attention, with the races being broadcast in 200 countries. The race on Saturday will be the first time in the history of the racing series that a standing start will commence the chase for the checkered flag. Formula One races feature standing starts, where cars rev up before the green signal is given and then shift into drive. IndyCar races have traditionally begun with cars rolling forward to a start line, maintaining their pre-determined position until the green flag is waved. After changes were made to the manufacturing of cars used in the series last year, standing starts became possible for IndyCar and many race fans will be curious to see how the drivers adjust to the change. Sunday’s race will feature a rolling start.

For casual race fans, the 2 in TO format may seem confusing. If someone only wants to go to one race, which should they attend?

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July 9, 2013

Why a Calgary Winter Stampede would be the Coolest Show on Earth

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A Calgary Winter Stampede may not have much of a rodeo presence, but it sure would be The Coolest Show on Earth. (Julia Pelish photo/Vacay.ca)

[This opinion piece was first published on Vacay.ca and then the Huffington Post earlier this week.]

As the Calgary Stampede completes its first weekend after a heroic effort by volunteers, organizers and workers to overcome the devastation of the June flood, there’s a heightened awareness of the importance of tourism to the city.

Had the flooding occurred a week later, the Stampede very likely would have been wiped out, jeopardizing one quarter of the city’s annual tourism income. Disasters reveal vulnerabilities, not just in infrastructure and urban planning, but in economics, as well. The flood in Alberta indicates a need for more significant tourism draws to the city.

The Stampede, now in its 101st year, created $340 million in economic impact last year, when it welcomed a record 1.5 million visitors. Tourism totals $1.4 billion and attracts 5.2 million visitors each year inCalgary. For a city of more than one million people, having one event account for 25% of tourism is far too high of a percentage. In contrast, the Montreal Jazz Festival and Just for Laughs comedy festival — which both bring in more than $100 million in spending to Quebec’s largest city — are each responsible for about 5% of the metropolitan area’s $2.4-billion annual tourism industry. Even if either one was as large as the Stampede, it still wouldn’t be responsible for a quarter of the share of tourism spending. Likewise, if either one was cancelled for whatever reason, the loss wouldn’t cut so deep because other international festivals exist in Montreal.

If there’s a lesson for the city and tourism operators in Calgary to take away from the flood it might be that now’s the time to dramatically diversify event offerings to have another giant festival that attracts global attention. In my mind, the surest way to make an immediate and sustained impact is through launching an annual Calgary Winter Stampede.

Such an event accomplishes several objectives for Tourism Calgary and mayor Naheed Nenshi.

  1. It adds another significant event to the annual calendar to entice visitors and generate revenue.
  2. It boosts employment in the tourism sector, which currently employs 10% of Calgarians.
  3. It allows for another way to demonstrate Calgary’s astounding community spirit.

A Calgary Winter Stampede takes advantage of the city’s best-known brand, “the Greatest Show on Earth” itself, and allows the city to capitalize on the winter sports traffic to its airport, where skiers and snowboarders land en route to the Canadian Rockies.

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July 1, 2013

Montreal Jazz Fest keeps going strong

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Feist opened the 2013 Montreal Jazz Fest with a free show. (Adrian Brijbassi photo)

[First published in Vacay.ca on June 30, 2013]

MONTREAL, QUEBEC — In a city that very well may be the festival capital of North America, the annual event that started on Friday night stands above the rest. It’s not that the Montreal Jazz Fest’s lineup features the biggest names in music — the superb Osheaga festival that runs August 2-4 this year has a more star-studded roster — or the most unique venues and program.

The Jazz Fest remains worthy of reverence for the same reason any great event or attraction would. It has built up years, 34 of them, of credibility and notoriety. Its 25th anniversary edition in 2004 drew 250,000 people for its finale, a Cirque du Soleilperformance that celebrated that circus troupe’s 20th year, and earned the event a Guinness Book of World Records‘ mark for largest jazz festival on the planet. Since Ray Charles headlined the first edition in 1980, the Montreal Jazz Fest has grown into a calendar event, an annual occasion that your mind makes note of every June. You know the Montreal Jazz Fest means something, just like you know theToronto International Film Festival or Tour de France or Rio Carnival mean something, even if you’ve never been.

What the Jazz Fest means to Montreal is approximately $125 million in economic impact each year. It employs 2,500 people during its 10-day run and attracts more than 1 million people, roughly a third of them from outside of the metropolitan area. It is also traditionally considered the event that kicks off festival season in Montreal, a city that rolls out good times like no other North American centre other than New Orleans. Following the Jazz Fest is the Just for Laughs comedy festival, the delightful Circus Festival, Osheaga, the underrated Reggae Fest that’s in its 10th year, Pop Montreal, a world film festival, and on and on right into the new year when the 30-year-old Snow Fest and IglooFest, billed as “the world’s coldest rave,” serve as opening acts to the Montreal en Lumière Festival that fills the cold winter nights with dance, song, and plenty of cups of hot chocolate, many of them spiked.

While the likes of Charles and Stevie Wonder have opened the festival, the event for the past two years has featured Canadian talent on the first night. Rufus Wainwright kicked things off in 2012 and this year’s edition starred Feist, who played a free show for more than 100,000 people in Places des Festivals, a square outside of the Contemporary Museum of Art and the concert hall, Place des Arts.

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June 25, 2013

7 Reasons to Visit Calgary After the Floods

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Calgarians are known for their community spirit, which has been on display since the disastrous flooding began in Alberta. (Vacay.ca file photo by Julia Pelish)

[Article and poem first published in Vacay.ca on June 22, 2013]

From Beyond the Wake

Water, the menace,
knows no prejudice,
It slaloms, it stampedes,
A cavalry of catastrophe,
Brimming over with haste

Buck up in its face,
Flood back human grace,
A stoic swell,
A dam of pride
unbreakable by fate,
rising mountainous

from beyond the wake

When your friends are in trouble and you’re far away there’s only so much support you are able to give. With CalgaryCanmore and so many other Alberta communities in grief, we wanted to do what we can at Vacay.ca to help. We are trying to ignite a Kickstarter campaign that will complement the Red Cross efforts to aid flood victims in need of financial assistance. But Kickstarter is only based in the United States and requires compliance with American tax law, so we are searching for colleagues south of the border to assist in getting it started. (Email us if you or someone you know can help.) Hey, if Gawker can raise $200,000 for a video of a fat mayor (allegedly) smoking from a crack pipe, there has to be enough human decency to raise the equivalent amount to help good people in need.

In the meantime, as we observe the historic flood and the damage it has done to this marvellous city and its neighbours, I wanted to list the great many things to celebrate about Calgary and southern Alberta. It’s a reminder of why you should visit, once the water has receded and the restoration has begun.

1. The People

When you first hear the term “Western Hospitality,” it’s easy to think it’s a marketing ploy. If you’re a journalist, you will even be keen to disprove the term or at least scrutinize its claim. Travel to Calgary a few times and you realize Western Hospitality is real and it’s real because the people of the city take the idea of welcoming visitors to heart. No city of 1 million people can match Calgary’s level of friendliness and gracious spirit.

2. The Calgary Stampede

Few massive events live up to their hype the way the Stampede does. It is everything you would expect from a giant, two-week-long celebration — and then some, as the free pancake breakfasts, early-morning cocktail parties and late-night music concerts combine to bombard you with incentives to come back. The Stampede is the highest-grossing festival in Canada, bringing in more than $170 million in economic activity each year. Its importance to the community is immense and why everything possible will be done to salvage it this year. [See 2012 Calgary Stampede coverage on Vacay.ca]

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May 26, 2013

Explaining Canada’s tourism strategy

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Ottawa hosted this year’s Rendez-vous Canada industry conference. (Julia Pelish/Vacay.ca)

[This column was first published in Vacay.ca on May 17, 2013, and later appeared on the Huffington Post.]

OTTAWA, ONTARIO — The Canadian Tourism Commission has come under unwanted and ignorant criticism this month. The truth is, any of us would be hard-pressed to find a government agency that manages to do more with less than the CTC. Its budget has been slashed by 20% to $58.5 million from the 2012 level of $72 million, a sum that had also been reduced from previous years. Yet, the Canadian tourism industry grew 4.2% in 2012, increasing its revenue to $81.9 billion. A $100-billion target has been set for 2015.

“We’re the little engine that could,” Michele McKenzie said on May 3 in Cape Breton while attending that Nova Scotia region’s annual tourism conference and she underscored that sentiment a week later at Rendez-vous Canada, a yearly gathering of Canada’s tourism and trade industry.

In the face of relentless competition and staggering budget cuts, the CTC has deployed a strategy that involves provincial and municipal tourism boards and agencies focusing on traditional markets like the United States. On the federal level, the CTC is pushing all of its efforts toward attracting consumers from Brazil, India, China and Australia — nations where revenue potential is immense. The economies of Brazil, India and China are going to continue to grow and their citizens are will travel farther afield, and Canada has an opportunity to ensure consistent travel from those populations. Australians are used to long flights and the ascent in value of their currency allows many of them to fulfill the dream of venturing to Canada.

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April 16, 2013

Seeing the Ottawa Senators in action is sensational

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Jim O’Brien of the Ottawa Senators goes head over heels during a game against the New York Rangers. (Adrian Brijbassi photo)

[This article on my favourite NHL team was a labour of love 🙂 — and was first published on Vacay.ca on April 16, 2013.]

Marc Dupont takes 20 minutes to put on his game-face. It’s thick black paint that the night would envy. When complete, the soft-spoken government worker looks like a menacing warrior ready to terrorize. Along with the paint, Dupont wears a gladiator outfit that cost $1,200 on eBay, carries a plastic sword and sometimes a giant flag with the emblem of his team, the Ottawa Senators.

His outfit is made of metal and hard plastic, with enough bulk that it makes it hard to do anything but stand. Turns out that’s a good thing, because when Dupont and his fellow gladiators — self-professed “Superfans” — go to a game they don’t have a seat anyway.

“We have an agreement with the team that they give us access to the arena and we come to boost up the crowd, add some spirit to the rink,” he said during a recent game against the New York Rangers, which the Senators won at Scotiabank Place.

Dupont and his friend Jesse Jodoin began the ritual of donning gladiator outfits in 2007, the year the Senators went to the Stanley Cup finals, losing in five games to the Anaheim Mighty Ducks. They and other gladiators attend about 10 games a year each in costume.

Tips for Seeing the NHL Senators

The Sens’ gladiators have become one of the attractions at the NHL rink that seats 19,153. Along with the kid-friendly mascot, Spartacat, the gladiators pump up a crowd that is regarded as too quiet. When theToronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens play road games in Ottawa, it’s routine to hear fans of the visiting side drown out the home team’s supporters. This year, the Senators asked season-ticket holders to refrain from selling their seats to fans of rival teams, particularly the Leafs and Canadiens. The request was met with snickers from observers around the league, several of whom said the team should focus on getting more out of its own fans rather than thwarting efforts of others trying to reach the rink.

It’s a perplexing situation that has existed since the team’s inception in 1992. Despite the fact the Senators have been one of the NHL’s winningest teams over the past 12 seasons, the rink isn’t always full and it’s not always loud.

One reason is because of location. Scotiabank Place is the only NHL arena in Canada that isn’t within the urban centre of a city. It’s in Kanata, about 20 kilometres from downtown Ottawa, a drive that can be aggravatingly long, which is why most weekday home games start at 7:30 pm rather than 7 o’clock like in other Canadian markets. A downtown rink attracts a boisterous crowd ready to make a night of it, win or lose.

At Scotiabank Place, the overwhelming majority of attendees must drive. That means less drinking, which means less noise — and that’s not a bad thing. Senators fans are among the league’s most polite and respectful. If you’re a fan, you can follow the action without worrying if the hooligan next to you is going to drop his beer on your lap (unless of course your neighbour is wearing a Leafs jersey, in which case you’d be advised to find Dupont or Jodoin to heckle him into an early departure).

Before and after the games, Bert’s is jumping, with live music and sports action on 23 large TV screens. It’s a festive place, with tiki bar decor and other Caribbean touches inspired by Bert’s in Barbados, which Senators owner Eugene Melynk has a stake in. Concession booths at Scotiabank Place are, not surprisingly, overpriced but Bert’s prices and fare are what you would expect to find at any sports bar.

Ottawa Hotel for the NHL Stars

When making your decision on where to stay for the game, your first option should be the Brookstreet Hotel. Besides being extremely comfortable, the Brookstreet is the place where visiting NHL teams choose when they’re in town for a game. The players aren’t off-limits either. I found myself in an elevator with the Rangers’ Rick Nash and dining alongside some of his teammates at Perspectives restaurant.

“All of the teams have very specific menus they want us to create,” chef Clifford Lyness said. “More and more, we’re seeing requests for organic dishes. We work closely with the team’s nutritionists and sometimes the requests can be a challenge, but we always do whatever we can to meet their needs.”

While you likely won’t be eating from the same menu as the NHL stars at the Brookstreet, you’ll still enjoy a good-quality meal and a relaxing atmosphere with a nice view of the property’s golf course in the rear. The jazz lounge features music and local beer on tap, including brews from Ottawa’s Kichesippi Brewing Company and Beau’s.

The rooms are spacious and modern, with outlets for all your gadgets, HDTV, and room-darkening curtains. A minus is the lack of in-room complimentary WiFi (it costs $13.95 for 24 hours), but Options on the lobby level has a connection you can utilize.

Catching the On-Ice Action

The Senators are an admirable team to watch. Under second-year coach Paul MacLean, they compete, stick to their system and move as a unit, limiting the gap between the forward and the defence. (Yes, I’ve watched a few of their games.) With offensive stars Erik Karlsson and Jason Spezza injured, they’ve managed to hold down a playoff spot (they’re currently sixth in the Eastern Conference) with strong team defence, outstanding goaltending and timely goals. Put on red jerseys and move them to Detroit and they might resemble some of the Red Wings teams that MacLean coached as an assistant under Mike Babcock.

The Senators have taken advantage of being underestimated this year. They put up an energetic effort, especially at home where they have a 13-3-3 record entering Tuesday night’s game against Carolina. If you want to see an NHL game and find it difficult or too expensive for a game in Montreal or Toronto, the Senators are a terrific third option in the eastern part of the country.

Ever since Scotiabank Place opened in 1996 as the much-cooler-sounding Palladium it has been graced with some of the best sightlines available in any NHL arena. The front rows of the upper deck will put you on top of the action. Like the Bell Centre in Montreal and Air Canada Centre in Toronto, the back rows don’t have any of the intimacy of the older hockey rinks, but that’s a situation fans have to get used to these days.

The lower-bowl views are outstanding. You’ll get a clear view of the action and because of the hush of the crowd be able to hear every scrape, whack and smack that takes place on the ice.

Read more on Vacay.ca.