Tour a lighthouse

Bodie Island lighthouse

Now that things are opening up again, Canadians are starting to think about travelling again.

One fun thing to do with the family is tour a lighthouse.

Before the modern lighthouse came into existence and the development of cities and ports, villagers built fires on hilltops to guide mariners to safety. The modern era of lighthouses began at the turn of the eighteenth century when the shipping industry boomed.

I always thought it would have been exciting to be a lighthouse keeper, living in a tower, braving wicked storms and manning the beam to provide safe passage to those on the seas.

Most of Canada’s iconic lighthouses are on the east and west coasts. But you don’t have to go as far as Vancouver or PEI to discover the charm of a lighthouse. Oakville, Port Dover, Goderich and Kincardine all have lighthouses to admire.

If you are planning a vacation this summer, here is a list of top lighthouses in Canada.

I’ll leave you with pictures of one of my favourite areas to explore lighthouses—the Outer Banks in North Carolina, but sadly it will be some time before we can travel south again. Happy exploring!

Lighthouse in Duck, North Carolina
Bodie Island lightouse
Stanley Park lighthouse
Lighthouse in Stanley Park, Vancouver

The World’s Best Butter Tart

Deep-fried butter tart and regular butter tart

It’s time to set the record straight on a hotly debated topic: who has the best butter tart in Ontario.

Many regions in Ontario and Quebec claim to be home to the world’s best butter tart, but the scientific proof (the crumbs on my shirt) are all the evidence I need we do right here in eastern Ontario.

And you can find them in the tiny hamlet of Inverary, north of Kingston at Mrs. Garrett’s Bake Shop.

Joyce Garrett and her family have been serving up homemade butter tarts, pies, bread and cookies for more than 30 years. Her bake shop is one of those local gems visitors are desperate to discover, and residents cherish.

What makes her butter tarts the best is the perfect mix of mouthwatering pastry and the amount of rich gooey filling in the deep shell. Mrs. Garrett doesn’t know the meaning of the word skimp.

Canadians’ love affair with this quintessential Canuck pastry goes back centuries. According to local foodlore, young French settlers coming to Canada had to improvise and use local ingredients for their pies and pastries. Since maple syrup was aplenty in Canada, the butter tart was born.

Last summer, Mrs. Garrett’s made headline news for the summer’s taste sensation: deep-fried butter tarts.

Dave and I finally tried our first deep-friend butter tart last week. It was yummy, but why mess with perfection?

Midland has a massive butter tart festival in June and the Kawarthas Northumberland region northeast of Toronto even has a Buttertarts tour, complete with 50 stops at local eateries and bakeries.

You won’t find Mrs. Garrett’s at either of these two places. No, to savour the world’s best butter tart, you’ll have to make the trip to Kingston this summer for the ultimate butter tart experience.

Looking for more foodie recommendations in eastern Ontario? Read my post, The finer things in life to see my top picks for bread, wine, cheese, ice cream and more.

Out for a rip

Husband and author on ATV

Does this interminable lockdown have you down? Has cabin fever got you feverish for adventure? The perfect panacea for this perpetual pandemic is to go out for a rip.

We’ve been going out for a rip on our ATV, exploring the back roads and trails in our area the last few nights.

While technically you can go out for a rip in any vehicle like a car, truck, snowmobile, or even bicycle, there’s nothing like the open air and wind hitting your face when you’re on an ATV or bike.  

You also get to explore new terrain in an ATV. We’re very fortunate to have the K&P trail which is open to ATVs north of Verona just up the road from us.

Our area is well known for this pastime, iconicized by the famous Tamworth rapper BRich. Watch his music video Out for a Rip to find out how to do it right. (Foul language warning).   

On my rip with Dave, we whizzed past farmer fields filled with purple and white wallflowers, through old growth forests and cottage laneways. We stopped to see a magnificent barred owl, watching us from the hydro lines, a mossy covered snapping turtle laying her eggs at the top of a waterfall, and to catch the fading sun over a lily-pad covered bay.

With Clare last night, we came across three baby raccoons who clambered up a tree beside the road when we stopped to watch them, a turkey perched in a tree, and two deer.

If you enjoy the freedom of an open road, you’ll love the freedom of an open trail.

This week’s #HappyAct is to go out for a rip, bud.

And I couldn’t resist throwing it back to this post featuring the BRich Sportsnet video, “Get out your swimming trunks—the Leafs are in the playoffs”. Sorry, Leaf fans!

View from the back of an ATV
Snapping turtle laying her eggs
Baby raccoons in the trees
pond with lily pads
My daughter Clare on our ATV

Plan the perfect do-nothing vacation

Me and Dave on a boardwalk in South Carolina

I’m starting a week’s vacation, and to be honest, I’m pretty stoked about it. I plan to poke around some garden centres, do a little kayaking, fishing, lots of eating, drinking, and watching Netflix. Basically all the same things I’ve been doing for the past year, minus work.

I used to be one of those people that would never take a vacation day if I didn’t have anything to do. The whole thought of spending an entire day at home was foreign to me. I always had to have something planned, either a big trip, or at least some day trips or overnighters to friends’ cottages or the city. Staycations were not my thing.

Now Covid is giving staycation a whole new meaning.

But there is something liberating about a do-nothing vacation. You can sleep as much as you want. You don’t have to worry about packing or having to be somewhere on time or follow a schedule. If it rains, who cares? It doesn’t ruin your plans because you don’t have any. You can just curl up for a nap, or find something to do inside.

Actually, it sounds rather idyllic except for two things.

My teenagers, both home all week, one home schooling, the other waiting for her summer job to start. All of a sudden, work doesn’t look that bad.

This week’s #HappyAct is to plan the perfect do-nothing vacation. What do you plan to do on yours? Leave a comment. Here’s a picture from a do-something vacation from two years ago outside Bubba’s Love Shak on a boardwalk in South Carolina. Sigh.

My island getaway

Back Beach, Amherst Island

Usually about now, Dave and I and the kids would be heading south to the Carolinas or an island somewhere. Since a true island vacation isn’t in the cards this year, we thought we’d spend Good Friday touring a local island, Amherst Island.

Located just a few kilometres off the shore of downtown Kingston, Amherst Island was settled in 1788, when a prominent Loyalist leader, Sir John Johnston, was granted the entire island in recognition of his service and valour during the American Revolution. A second wave of immigration occurred in the 1840’s, when Irish immigrants settled in the area, with the population peaking at 2,000 Irish settlers.

Like most islands, you feel like you’ve stepped back in time the moment you drive off the ferry. We began our tour driving along the water towards the east end of the island, in search of Back Beach. Amherst Island is home to a large wind farm, and we marveled at the massive windmills in the fields on our way.

Wind turbine

We arrived at our destination and walked the long stretch of isolated pebbled beach. There were only two other people, a mother and her son walking in the afternoon sun. The beach itself was nicely sheltered, but as we walked toward the exposed point the April winds whipped all around us.

Girl on beach
People walking on the beach

After a brisk walk, we continued our tour, looking for wildlife along the way. We saw about 25 deer in total on the island, a fox walking along the beach, and lots of waterfowl.

Fox walking on the beach

The island’s most famous wildlife are its owls. Birders from miles around come to the island, which is on a major migratory path for owls, geese and other birds. We were pretty sure we saw a barred owl, which flew across the road into the fields, but weren’t close enough for a positive ID. (I saw another barred owl on my walk today and it was a beauty!)

On the western end of the island, the Kingston Field Naturalists have a property known as the Owl Woods. It’s not well marked so is tricky to find, but if you explore the property and take the time to look up into the thickly wooded trees, you may see a small sawwhet owl. They also have Purple Martin houses and blue bird houses lined along the road, but it was too early for bluebirds this cold April day.

Another interesting feature of the island is its stone walls. Amherst Island has the greatest concentration of historic Irish dry stone walls in Canada, a throwback to the days when Irish settlers inhabited the island. Up until 2019, the island hosted a Dry Stone Festival, where people come from Canada and the United States to learn the ancient art of building stone walls.

This picture of a typical dry stone wall was taken at one of our 4H family members’ houses. We hosted a barn dance at their place two summers ago for visiting 4H families on an exchange.

We finished the day with a walking tour of Stella, the tiny village at the ferry docks. There was an old blacksmith shop covered in punch tin and barn board, an old fashioned general store and a town hall. Before we knew it, it was time to catch the ferry back to the mainland.

This week’s #HappyAct is to explore an island near you and experience your own island getaway. Happy trekking!

Blacksmith shop
Amherst Island General Store

Of manors and mansions

Bantry House, County Cork, Ireland
Bantry House, County Cork, Ireland

The popularity of the Netflix series of Bridgerton has transported us back in time to another era. Set in the early 1800’s in regency London, it is steeped in the stories of lords and ladies, dukes and duchesses attending balls and paying morning visits in the drawing rooms and parlours of the grand mansions and manors in England.

I have to confess to be a little smitten with this show and period, and it reminded me of happier times touring towns like Bath in England, and manor houses across the English, Irish and Scottish countryside.

Most of the museums and homes used for the sets of Bridgerton are open to the pandemic (but closed now due to COVID), so you can plan to visit them soon.

The exterior scenes of the marital home of Daphne and Simon were shot in Castle Howard in York, while the interior shots were filmed at North Mymms Park, Wilton House, also used as Buckingham Palace in The Crown, and Badminton House in Gloucestershire. The Bridgerton’s house in town is Ranger’s House on the outskirts of Greenwich Park in London and houses a world-class art collection. And some of the scenes filmed at their neighbours’ house, the Featheringtons were filmed at the famous Number 1 Royal Crescent in Bath.

Now is a great time to do some armchair travelling and plan your next visit to a grand manor or mansion. Here are some of my favourites I’ve toured over the years:

  • Chatsworth House in Bakewell, England. The seat of the Duke of Devonshire, this majestic home in Derbyshire has stately gardens and is open daily to tourists. Chatsworth was the location for Mr. Darcy’s home, Pemberley in the Kiera Knightly version of Pride and Prejudice. It’s famous for its majestic entrance hall, conservatory, and marble sculpture gallery, and themed gardens with water features.
  • Bantry House in County Cork, Ireland. We stopped at this stately home for an afternoon while touring the Sheep Peninsula in Ireland. Set on the outskirts of the market town of Bantry, it has magnificent views of the seaport and stunning gardens. It recently became a Bed and Breakfast.
  • Years ago, I was lucky to be invited for private tea at Brodie Castle in Forres, Scotland. My friend June and I had been touring the UK, and her parents’ best friends were the caretakers of this lovely estate near Inverness. At the time, the family still lived on the estate, and it was fascinating to get a private tour and get a sense of what it was like to live in a grand manor.
Chatsworth Hall, Derbyshire England
Chatsworth House, England: note this photo looks like a painting, but it is an actual photo I took when I was there
Entry at Chatsworth Hall
My best friend Leslie in the famed entry hall at Chatsworth
Statue gallery at Chatsworth Hall
The statue gallery at Chatsworth

Closer to home:

  • One of my favourite day trips for those of us lucky enough to live in Eastern Ontario is Boldt Castle. Built by American millionaire George C. Boldt on a heart-shaped island in the middle of the St. Lawrence River in the Thousand Islands, the setting and love story of George and Louise Boldt will captivate you as much as the castle itself.
  • Paletta Mansion in Burlington: This 11,000 square foot mansion ranks amongst the finest great estate homes in the GTA.  It’s set on the shores of Lake Ontario and has terraces, boardwalks and a small stream running through it home to ducks and waterfowl. The day I strolled its grounds in January, there were couples who brought lawn chairs to simply sit on the terrace and have a coffee. It’s a popular site for weddings.

This week’s #HappyAct is to tour a grand mansion or manor, or at least plan to visit one soon.

Looking for a Spring escape when the borders open up? Stay at the Vanderbilt Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina for $149 a night.

Leslie again at the famous Royal Crescent in Bath, England, where the Featheringtons live in Bridgerton

Stay in a luxurious over-the-water bungalow

Imagine your dream escape.

An over-the-water bungalow in a secluded locale

Silence and serenity your only companions

Gaze into the waters below and watch another world unfold

Every amenity within reach

There is nothing to do but relax

Except maybe curl up with your favourite book

Or wet a line and see if you can catch your dinner

Fresh grilled fish. A delicacy

The late day sun casts a reddish glow across the sky

Its yellow orb casting shadows over a breathtaking view

Until the moon appears, cresting the skyline

The end to another spectacular day in paradise

Thinking this isn’t possible right now? Well, think again. Come visit us any time in our beautiful over-the-water bungalow. Here’s a picture of our sweet little escape and of the fish I caught! And remember, you can always dream. The picture above was an ad I saw on TravelZoo. $1,899 for two to stay for a week at over-the-water bungalows in the Maldives, fully refundable. Hope this week’s #HappyAct made you smile!

Ice hut
Author with pike caught through the ice

Living vicariously through others

Author on Dubawnt River in NWT
On the Dubawnt River in NWT

By special guest blogger Dave Swinton

One thing the pandemic has taught me is you can escape through the magic of Youtube.

When I was younger we were always looking for our next adventure. One summer when I was 13, a friend of mine, his father and I built and launched a pontoon boat made completely out of wood. With an old kicker motor and a thirst for what lay around the next bend, my friend and I set off every day to fish, swim, and explore the Grand River in all its glory. As I got older, and went off to school in Thunder Bay, we ascended the top of the Sleeping Giant and descended to the depths of Ouimet Canyon (if you haven’t heard of it, look it up). We hiked, skiied and snowshoed new territory every weekend. We ice fished lakes from dawn till dusk and purposely got lost because this is where we found our true selves. 

I’ve been to places few people have ever been. Whether it be a 9-day river trip in the Arctic or a safari in Tanzania, my thirst for adventure is never far from the surface.

But the inevitable dance with age is starting to catch up with me. Sore knees, hips, and shoulders are starting to diminish my dreams of trips. My mind is still filled with adventures. Hiking in the Himalayas, far north canoe trips, road trips, lost lakes. But who am I kidding, some of these may never happen.

I’ve had some willing partners over the years, some of who are now gone but my thirst for adventure continues. 

But I’ve found a new set of partners on YouTube. They have specialized camera equipment like GoPros and DSLR cameras and drones which make you feel like you are right beside them.

A couple of weeks ago, I discovered a YouTuber named Foresty Forest. The man has literally converted his van into a liveable space and spends his days hiking and mountain climbing all the gorgeous peaks of British Columbia. His stamina for climbing is off the charts and sometimes he climbs multiple peaks every day. The vistas he captures are stunning and his minimal dialogue is very enjoyable. I’ve also hiked the Himalayas with a Nepalese man named Ram and his company Mountain Ram Adventures without ever leaving the comfort of my house. One day I’m fishing Lake of the Woods, the next night I’m canoeing in Quetico.

My thirst for adventure will always be satisfied.

This week’s Happy Act is to live vicariously through others, because that’s all we have right now.

Giraffe at Lake Manyara, Tanzania
Lake Manyara, Tanzania

A vision for the future of Kingston in a post-COVID world

Abandoned limestone building

A new year is upon us. A time for hope, setting goals and envisioning a new future.

This year, I believe one of our greatest challenges will be to have a vision for the future for our towns, cities and communities in a post-COVID world.

Life will get back to normal as the vaccine rolls out, but things may not look the same. Businesses will have closed, for rent and lease signs may become permanent fixtures in downtown cores, and we may see an exodus from cities as people now have the choice and freedom to work from anywhere. Which leaves us to beg the question, how can we keep our cities vibrant and relevant in a post-COVID world?

I was thinking about this today while walking along the waterfront behind our new hospital, Providence Care in Kingston. On a cold day in January during lockdown, there were runners jogging through the grounds, families toboganning on a popular hill, and people walking their dogs along the trail by the water.

This particular area of Kingston is interesting because there are many old beautiful abandoned limestone buildings on the property near the waterfront. I started imagining what the scene could look like six months from now when COVID was under control and the weather was fine.

This is what I saw: waterfront galleries, stores and craft cooperatives in the limestone buildings along the water.

Outdoor patios and seating like in the Distillery District in Toronto and nice restaurants extending out over the water like the pavilion at Dow’s Lake in Ottawa.

An area where street musicians and performers could play like The Forks in Winnipeg or Jackson Square in New Orleans.

Miles of boardwalk with lookouts and views where you could watch the sailboats go by.

Kingston has an astonishing 280 km of waterfront. It sits on Lake Ontario, is at the mouth of the St. Lawrence River and is bisected by the Cataraqui River which feeds up into the Rideau Canal.

There’s Fort Henry with a magnificent view of the river, lake and city, our historic downtown with market square, City Hall and Confederation Basin where the tour boats depart from, the entire Kingston Penitentiary site, and miles of parks and trails.

We are water rich, but to a large degree our waterfront is still largely dispersed. You have to hop, skip and jump like a stone skipping on the waves to get from one waterfront trail and park to another. We also have huge tracts of land and buildings that are sitting idle, just begging to be developed.

In 2014-2016, the City of Kingston developed a master waterfront plan that identified hundreds of projects over a 30-year period. There has been a lot of terrific work that has already been done to make our city the gem it is, but there is so much more to be done.

For all of Kingston’s parkland, we also do not have a single stand-out, signature garden, maybe not quite on the scale of Butchart Gardens in Victoria or the Royal Botanical Gardens in Burlington, but a garden that would attract people to our city and become a place of natural beauty, peace and a place for the community to gather.

This week’s #HappyAct is to envision how our communities will look like post-COVID. Then ask, what can we do to make it happen?

Old limestone building on Kingston's waterfront
Lake Ontario
This abandoned pier is the ideal location for a pavilion style restaurant extending over the water in Kingston
These abandoned buildings would be ideal for retail, craft cooperatives and art galleries

Let the sun shine in

While November is often thought of as a drab and dreary month, there is one redeeming grace. As a blanket of leaves forms on the ground, light floods into spaces that were previously dark or shadowed from canopies.

Let there be light. We need more light right now.

The psychological benefits of light are well-known. Increased hours of sunlight heighten the brain’s production of serotonin, which improves mood, alertness, productivity, sleep and mental wellbeing.  

Recently, we redecorated our sunroom. We love how the light fills the room. It is a very happy room in our house. But you don’t need to redecorate your house to find more light. Here are some simple things you can do to take advantage of the limited light in the darker winter months:

  • Go for a walk each day at lunch or rearrange your schedule to do at least some form of physical activity outside each day in daylight
  • Change your window coverings or clean your windows to let in more light. Using mirrors or rearranging your furniture can also result in more indoor light.
  • COVID is a perfect excuse to keep extending patio season. Visit a local brewery and have a pint outdoors or have your morning coffee bundled up on the front porch. On Saturday, we watched the sun go down sitting on a hay bale in front of a fire at Slake brewery, a new microbrewery in Prince Edward County. It was spectacular.
  • If you can, move your workspace to a place by the window or with better light. If no one is home, I often will dial into meetings from my sunroom.
  • Take Vitamin D during the winter months if you suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder or try a light therapy lamp.

This week’s #HappyAct is to let the sun shine in and keep smiling.