Posts tagged ‘travel’

June 16, 2014

A night at Vikram Vij’s new restaurant, My Shanti

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Vikram Vij is eager to welcome diners to his restaurant in the suburbs. (Herman Chor photo)

[This article was originally published on Vacay.ca on June 8, 2014.]

SURREY, BRITISH COLUMBIA — It’s 7 pm on the first Wednesday in June and the lineup at Vij’sis two hours long. Those at the back of the queue may not know it but they could hop in a car and drive 45 minutes to find food prepared by the same cooks as the famous Vancouver Indian restaurant. Not only that, these days they’ll also find Vikram Vij at My Shanti.

The celebrity chef’s newest enterprise opened on June 2 and for the time being it needs its owner’s attention. “It’s like a baby,” he says of the 130-seat restaurant with an exterior so eye-catching you’ll think it belongs in Times Square, not a suburban strip mall.

For 20 years, Vij has spent most of his evenings working the room at Vij’s, making it a destination restaurant unlike any other in Canada. With My Shanti, he sees an opportunity to elevate the food choices in the suburbs. He also indulges in showcasing more of his recipe book, filling the menu at My Shanti with regional dishes from India.

Anyone who has been to Vij’s knows the cuisine is a blend of European technique and Indian flavours. My Shanti is more traditionally Indian. “These are the dishes I’ve wanted to share with people for a while. They are from different regions of India, from places I’ve visited many times over the years,” says Vij, who juggles his time between the restaurants, his packaged food product line and numerous TV appearances, including as an upcoming member of CBC’s “Dragons’ Den.”

Vikram Vij’s Culinary Tour of India

Though the cuisine at My Shanti isn’t the same as Vij’s or Rangoli — the small eatery next door to Vij’s on Granville Street that’s also often packed with diners — some of the experience is unmistakeable. The spices that are so sublimely blended together you don’t realize there are dozens of them in each bite, the texture of perfectly prepared basmati rice, the heat that hits the back of your throat after you’ve enjoyed the other flavours first. Those are all hallmarks of Vij’s food and it’s what you’ll discover in the Indian dishes at My Shanti.

“This really is just like Calcutta fish,” Mariellen Ward, my dining companion, said with both joy and surprise when she bit into the steamed tilapia ($19.50), served with mustard gravy reminiscent of dishes from the capital city of the state of West Bengal. “This is really is like being back in India.”

Ward is an excellent person to gauge the authenticity of My Shanti’s recipes. Her website, BreatheDreamGo.com, has been recognized as a leading authority on travel to India and she has visited the country several times in the past decade. She assured that the menu accomplished Vij’s aim of giving diners a culinary tour of his homeland. Dishes evoke the diverse tastes of the Asian nation. The names on the menu tell diners the origin of the appetizers and entrees.

As good as the food is, the decor is a match — starting with that shimmering exterior. It is made of 4,000 sequins, affixed by hand to tiny hooks attached to a brick wall. The wind ripples through the sequins, causing a lovely wave of silver to streak above your head.

Mysorian vegetable thoran ($15) is a curry mixed with delicious grated coconut; Hydrabadi chicken biryani ($22) is served with Vij’s “3 Mistresses” — spicy sauces that include tamarind and chili concoctions; and Goan Oyster Pakoras ($11.25) are tasty morsels breaded in chick-pea flour and served with a tangy green chili creme fraiche. There are also Bollywood references and colloquial Hindi phrases used on the food and cocktail menu (try the rum-based Dawa Daru, $11). The standout, though, is a flavourful appetizer inspired by South America. The Peruvian/Indian ceviche of fish and shrimp features the seafood dropped into a gol gappa (a thin, crisp, hollow, bite-size bread bowl) and served atop a non-alcoholic shot of tamarind juice. Pop the seafood-stuffed gol gappa into your mouth and throw back the tamarind shot. Unique and incredibly tasty.

January 12, 2014

Winnipeg museum sure to draw tourists

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The Canadian Museum for Human Rights will open in September 2014 in downtown Winnipeg. (Adrian Brijbassi photo)

[First published on Vacay.ca in December 2013.]

I visited the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in December. It is immediately the most outstanding tourist-focused building in Canada — and right now there’s nothing in it but construction material. When it is filled with innovative and interactive displays — many of which will showcase the evolution of humanity under the rule of law — the CMHR will herald a new era for a city overdue for a tourism reboot.

Winnipeg’s reputation for too long has languished. Lambasted for its frigid temperatures in winter and buggy conditions in summer, the Manitoba capital has had much to overcome in perception. It has built momentum in recent years, thanks to an under-the-radar dining scene and the return of the city’s beloved NHL team, the Jets, who have stoked Winnipeg with more confidence and pride. Now, this. The CMHR.

The name is boring, the building is astonishing. Designed by New Mexico-based Antoine Predock, the CMHR is 260,123 square feet of whoa. It explodes out of the landscape to grab your eye and break any prejudice you have held toward the city. What is a building like this doing in Winnipeg? That, I’m sure, will be a question many will ask. Once a visitor gains some knowledge about the $351-million facility’s home, the location will make sense.

Truth is, Winnipeg has a history of grandeur that’s largely been forgotten outside of Manitoba. A century ago, it was home to 19 millionaires, more per capita than any other city in Canada, or even New York. Its Main Street is lined with former bank buildings constructed to be palaces of money. Twenty of them were positioned in a row like opulent dominoes. In their prime, they offered a spectacle of gild that would rival modern-day Bay Street in Toronto. Today, those buildings that remain have been converted into offices and restaurants.

The city’s other architecture gem, however, is still serving its original purpose. The province’s capital building, the Manitoba Legislature, was constructed between 1913-20 and was the opus of Masonic devotee Frank Worthington Simon, educated in Paris and fanatical about creating a monument that adhered to the principles of an ancient temple. And no mere millennia-old place of worship either. Simon interjected his version of the Holy of the Holies — with a hidden Ark of the Covenant and all — in the design. The building is perfectly proportioned, the clues to its true purpose deciphered in the book The Hermetic Code by academic Frank Albo. It’s also a fun attraction. A feature in this homage to King Solomon’s Temple is called the “Pool of the Black Star” and it allows whoever stands on its tiles to throw his or her voice toward the heavens with a god-like burst. 

December 12, 2013

How travellers can go in search of Nelson Mandela

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A bust of a youthful Nelson Mandela adorns the famous Victoria & Alfred Waterfront in Capetown, three kilometres from Robben Island. On Thursday, Mandela passed away at age 95. (Julia Pelish/Vacay.ca)

[This article first appeared on Vacay.ca on December 5, 2013, the day Nelson Mandela died.]

Naively, I arrived in South Africa three years ago thinking it would be difficult to find anyone in the nation who didn’t love Nelson Mandela. The first person who I interviewed taught me a lesson. “I didn’t like Mandela much,” said the man, a former diplomat who asked not to be identified when he spoke about his political career. He was present with Mandela at numerous high-level meetings in the 1990s, during the leader’s presidency. “Behind closed doors, he had little tolerance for dissent or opposing views. But I do respect him, tremendously. How could anyone not?”

So, I was asking the wrong question. For all the idolatry around him, Mandela was human and susceptible to the range of emotions as everyone else. Rather than inquiring about the ubiquitous of adoration for him, I should have sought a person in the nation who didn’t appreciate what he did for South Africans of all ethnicities. Such a person I didn’t find; however, somewhere there must exist a dissenter, a boorish individual opposed to the ideas of anti-apartheid and the Rainbow Nation. Largely, though, South Africa is a nation of Mandela acolytes, white, brown, and black.

“It’s like meeting an angel,” Sebastien Qweshe, a driver at the posh Michelangelo Hotel in Johannesburg told me about his encounter with the Nobel laureate.

Maria Sekwane, a member of the African National Congress, remembered February 11, 1990, when Mandela was released after 27 years in prison, as a night of unmatched celebration. “We sang and we danced, but we were also expecting that we would soon have to fight,” she recalled. “For days we were collecting money to buy guns and then Mandela said each and every gun must go into the sea. We couldn’t believe it. But he insisted that had to be the way. That we could not look backward and that had to happen for the country to go forward.”

December 3, 2013

White-water rafting turns out to be more fun than scary

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The Cheakamus River in Squamish provides soft adventure thrills for beginners and families. (Canadian Outback Adventures photo)

[Article first published in Vacay.ca on October 21, 2013]

SQUAMISH, BRITISH COLUMBIA — The guide tells our group, “You are going to fall in the water. Every one of you.” He does it with certainty and in a dead-serious tone of voice that sets me shaking. I don’t like being in water, unless it’s warm, contained, and with a bar I’m able to swim up to. Dropping into cold water that’s racing for Mexico and dotted with jagged rocks whose purpose appears to be to crack the bones of anyone unfortunate or foolish enough to splash into the rapids isn’t my thing and never will be.

As the guide details how he plans to retrieve each of us when we do fall into the chilly Cheakamus River — which he repeats again we are sure to do — I am thinking about hanging up my oar and making for higher ground. But a big part of a travel writer’s job description is attempting things not in one’s comfort zone, so readers like you can know what it’s really like before you set out for the adventure yourself. It’s kind of like the work a proxy would perform for medieval noblemen, tasting their food just to make sure it wasn’t poisoned.

So, for you, I undertook my first white-water rafting trip, a two-hour thrill ride that was far safer than anything I expected and gave me a new appreciation for the soft-core adventures Canada offers.

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.

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.

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.

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]