Posts tagged ‘travel writing’

September 12, 2013

A stroll along Canada’s No. 1 street

petit-champlain-cafes

Visitors enjoy the atmosphere of Old Quebec on Rue du Petit-Champlain. (Julia Pelish/Vacay.ca)

[This article was originally published in Vacay.ca and the Huffington Post.]

QUEBEC CITY, QUEBEC — Eric Vezina can trace his roots to this spot, a cobblestone street that is 12 metres wide and 500 metres long, with a history older than the nation and a devotion to culture that is as fierce as it is endearing. Walking along Rue du Petit-Champlain, Vezina says, “My family goes back 11 generations in Quebec, to 1659. They helped build this street.”

A maintenance worker for the businesses in the area, Vezina speaks proudly of the heritage his ancestors played in establishing this section of Quebec City that dates more than 400 years and of where the street stands today, which is at the head of the nation. Vacay.ca has spent months visiting Canada’s urban centres to determine which streets are the best places for you to spend your time and dollars when touring the country. Rue du Petit-Champlain, lined with shops that belong to an artists’ cooperative, ranks No. 1 among the Top 20 Streets to Visit in Canada (full list to be published on September 17).

The street has boutique shops, artisan galleries, and restaurants, as well as a 200-seat theatre within centuries-old stone walls, a mural that depicts different stages of the city’s history, and a touching memorial to the 20 victims of an 1841 landslide that saw shale from the hill above  tumble down 300 feet. Look up beyond the cross that honours those lost and you will see the city’s greatest landmark, the Château Frontenac, rising tall from atop the Dufferin Terrace. The famed hotel was built in 1893, however, making it relatively modern when compared to the street and district beneath it.

Rue du Petit-Champlain is the oldest commercial street in North America. The Breakneck Stairs that lead down to it from Côte de la Montagne — a winding route that doubles in winter as the course for the annual Red Bull Crashed Ice races — are steep and dramatic. Built in 1635, the staircase has 59 steps that take you to Rue Petit-Champlain and the adjoining streets that make up the Quartier Champlain district.

Beyond the eye-catching scenery, what distinguishes Petit-Champlain from every other street in the nation is its emphasis on local culture in a tourist-heavy location. The street receives one million visitors a year, yet you will not find a Starbucks or McDonald’s here.

“We just say no,” notes Pascale Moisan, director of the Quartier Champlain cooperative. She mentions that Subway recently wanted to open a franchise location on the street but was refused.

Forty-five stores belong to the cooperative, with most owned by artisans and boutique fashion retailers. There are a couple of restaurants and chocolate shops. Not all the stores in Quartier Champlain are part of the cooperative. The one national chain that has a storefront here is LUSH (102 Rue du Petit-Champlain), but Moisan points out that its cosmetic products are handmade and that helps it complement other shops in the district.

In winter, the street is cleared by the cooperative’s members because Petit-Champlain is too narrow for snowploughs. The community also places 40 trees along the street at Christmas and more than 15,000 lightbulbs are used as decorations. It creates a beautiful scene, a winter wonderland that underscores that the street is as much for residents as it is for visitors.

“We have the best of both worlds. We have shops and things to do for the people of Quebec who enjoy the area, and you have stores that have lots of appeal for tourists,” says Monique Zimmermann, proprietor of Brin de Folie (38 Boulevard Champlain, linked to Petit-Champlain by a staircase), a colourful shop with zany gift items.

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December 6, 2012

Rugged Beauty tour is rock solid in Newfoundland

[This article was first published on Vacay.ca on November 28, 2012]

NEW BONAVENTURE, NEWFOUNDLAND & LABRADOR — Meet Bruce Miller.

He lives here, in the land of his father and grandfather, a remote swath of territory with enough arable acreage, clean air, pristine water, and wildlife to inspire poetry and instill a will to depart only upon a last breath. A thoughtful Canadian, Miller flies the flag of Newfoundland outside his home, a small cabin overlooking British Harbour and Trinity Bay at the edge of the continent. In an island of Baymen and Townies, Miller is Bayman to the core, with a lilt in his brogue and a ready wink to go with his easy smile. He makes a meagre living as a fisherman and labourer and augments his income operating one of the most unique and riveting tours in Canada, taking visitors to communities affected by Newfoundland’s controversial resettlement. The itinerary includes a stop in his own home, for a cup of tea.

“It’s the history that people seem to love,” Miller says on a wet day in September. He flips through picture books that show boats from a half-century ago trawling homes in a mass exodus that you would think only happens because of disaster or a plague. Among the photographs are some of Miller’s parents, who chose not to follow.

“This is home. You can’t replace that. The government can’t replace that,” he says. “These days, it’s becoming harder and harder to stay. You have to be real creative to make a living here.”

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November 3, 2010

Curacao Cuts Loose

[Visited this Dutch Caribbean island that recently seceded from the Netherlands Antilles. Found it to be a cool spot with fascinating history and very kind people. Here’s a bit from “Freedom Found in Curacao” in the Toronto Star.]

WILLEMSTAD, CURACAO — Not many countries in the world exist where you can listen to the former leader of the land play jazz in a bar or dance next to a minister of government.

Curacao, though, is one of those places where status doesn’t seem to matter so much. People here have an easiness about them, even though the island has endured some hard history, including being the focal point of the Dutch slave trade. On a Friday night, the nightclub Asia de Cuba is jammed with people in their 30s, 40s and up who salsa through the night listening to jazzy Latin beats and favourites in Papiamento, the native language of Curacao. The dancers come in all colours and from all walks of life, including leadership, and some dress in elegant outfits perfectly suited for the sinewy movements of the sexy Spanish dance, others wear denim and short sleeves. Some were born on the island, several are immigrants from the Netherlands who’ve left the cold for the warmth of the Caribbean. They change partners from song to song, no coyness involved.

Around midnight, the Viagara set gives way to the young crowd that keeps the dance going until four in the morning or later.

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July 14, 2010

Visiting Brady’s Beach in Bamfield, B.C.

[From “Beauty and the Beach” in the Toronto Star, July 3, 2010]

BAMFIELD, B.C.—The perfect beach — far, far from crowds and close to heaven — is a traveller’s Holy Grail or Fountain of Youth, a thing of myth that sets us jetting over oceans to rummage around dots of rock and sand that belong to Thailand, or sailing about the Caribbean for the lone island that has escaped commerce.

Such extravagant explorations may not be necessary for Canadians, though. Brady’s Beach in Bamfield, a funny little place that Garrison Keillor or Richard Russo could go to town with, is a British Columbian beauty with many of the hallmarks of the legendary beach-to-end-all-beaches: It’s hard to reach and nearly unheard of; has not one café, chain hotel, Starbucks or McDonald’s near it; and possesses the ability to put your mind in a place you might only be able to reach with hard drugs.

To make it to the beach you first have to find your way to Bamfield. It has a population of not many and seems made for a fable.

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July 14, 2010

Soccer and History Mix in Soweto

[From the Toronto Star, June 12, 2010]

JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA—Gloria Pikitsha stands at the corner of her old high school and recalls the moments before the first gunshot. It was June 16, 1976, when white police officers came to Orlando West High School in Soweto to stare down several thousand black students who’d had enough. One side was armed with rocks and recklessness, the other lethal artillery and the imperviousness apartheid allowed.

Voices escalated, the rocks exchanged fire with bullets and Gloria ran home to hide under a bed. The fighting ratcheted up, the army joined the police and before the Soweto uprising was beaten down a day and a half later, hundreds of children had died in one of the grimmest episodes of South Africa’s bleak and bloody era.

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