Top ten travel happy acts for 2022

Stormy beach in North Carolina
Carolina beach before the storm

Normally in December, I do a round-up of my favourite happy acts of the year. But as I’ve said more than once during COVID-19, it’s tough blogging about happiness during a pandemic. So this year, I’ve decided to choose my top ten list of travel-related posts to give us something to look forward to in 2022. Some of these are great staycation ideas, others involve finding adventures further afar.

  1. Explore the backroads and hamlets of Eastern Ontario in Take a Scenic Drive and Visit an Amazing Place.
  2. Experience the feeling of skating until your feet chafe in The world’s longest skating rink turns 50 celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Rideau Canal in Ottawa.
  3. Bridgerton fans: experience what life was like in Regency Europe by visiting English and Irish manors in Of manors and mansions when lords and duchesses attended balls, paid morning visits and strolled in stately gardens.
  4. On a glorious autumn day, there is no better experience in the world than picking grapes and helping with the harvest in Harvest the grape.
  5. In Walk through a sky with a thousand suns, we explored a sunflower farm in Prince Edward County.
  6. The Carolinas have always held a special place in our hearts, find out why in Carolina on my mind.
  7. On a wintry day, one of the best places to visit is an aquarium. Read about my girls’ weekend winter getaway to Ripley’s Aquarium in Discover an undersea world.
  8. There’s a reason why British Columbia has “Beautiful British Columbia” on its license plates. See why in Happy in beautiful BC.
  9. Hamilton, Ontario, a great tourist destination, really? Explore all it has to offer in Challenge a steadfast belief.
  10. Make a date to explore your local zoo or one of the smaller zoos in your region where you can get up close and personal with the animals in Have a Zootastic experience.

Where do you plan to visit next year? Leave a comment and here’s to a happier 2022 with many more travels and adventures ahead!

Daughter Grace in a garden in South Carolina
Grace at a manor house in North Carolina
Daughter Clare in a sunflower field in Prince Edward County, Ontario
Clare in the sunflower field in Prince Edward County

In quest of the best BBQ

BBQ meat on a platter

If you’re a fan of Diners, Drive-ins and Dives with Guy Fieri, you’re familiar with the show’s formula of hitting the open road in quest of finding the best greasy spoons and BBQ joints in the southern U.S.

Finding finger-licking good BBQ in Canada is no easy task. In fact, in eastern Ontario, there’s only one contender. To discover the holy grill of BBQ, you need to travel to Muddy’s BBQ pit in Keene, Ontario.

Muddy’s BBQ pit opened up in July 2010, when owner Neil Lorenzen needed a home base for his budding BBQ catering business.

As Neil says, there’s no bad day for BBQ. On a hot summer’s day, you can have a pulled pork sandwich, dripping with flavour and a cold beer. On a cold rainy fall or spring day, you hunker inside, watch football, drink beer and chow down on beef brisket or fall off the bone ribs.

The first time we visited Muddy’s was three or four years ago when Clare was playing hockey regularly in the Peterborough area. It was a cooler November day and the girls were famished after a rowdy game with the local Keene team. We walked into Muddy’s and knew we found our new go-to food joint for weekend road trips.

Muddy's BBQ pit

Since it was a quiet day, they took us around back for a tour of the smokers. They had six to eight smokers going that day full of their signature brisket, pulled pork and ribs. They even smoke their potato salad. My mouth is drooling even thinking about the rich, smoky creamy potato concoction, which is to die for. They said they smoke about 600 lbs a meat a week and are booked every weekend in the summer with catering gigs.

Yes, you gotta love everything about Muddy’s. First, there’s the joint itself. From the road, it looks half barn, half converted garage with a patio and picnic tables out front, and high top wooden bar stools and counters for mowing down on the grub which is served without plates, in wrapped foil.

Then there’s the décor. You’ve got your regular road signs, sports memorabilia, and big screen TVs like you’d find in any sports bar, but just like the BBQ on the grill out back, they take it up a notch with Heinz ketchup punched tin lights hanging from the ceiling, cool stickers slapped on the exposed metal pipes, and signature pig signs.

Inside decor of Muddy's BBQ pit

But the BBQ, oh the BBQ. On your first visit, you have to try the carnivore sampler, a smorgasbord of their favourite signature dishes including ribs, pulled pork, brisket, sausages, and beans. The ribs are definitely my favourite. They are in a word, perfect. Smoky, flavourful, perfectly cooked so the meat does literally fall off the bone (people always say this but it’s never true except at Muddy’s). If you go, make sure you buy some of their signature rub to take home. It’s a staple in our cupboard now for salmon and steak.

This week’s #HappyAct is to take a trip to Keene before Muddy’s closes on December 16 for the season. And if you live too far away, feel free to substitute your local BBQ joint. Just know it won’t be the same. Follow them on Facebook and Instagram at Muddy’s BBQ pit. They’re closed Mondays and Tuesdays.

Muddy's BBQ pit sign

Take pictures at a National Historic site at sunset

Sunset over Kingston from Fort Henry hill

This past year and half has been tough, but my heart especially has gone out to teenagers. At a time when they should be living carefree in the halcyon of their days, they’ve endured lockdowns, restrictions on the number of friends they could see, and unable to attend concerts, events and parties.

During lockdown, one of the favourite things Grace and her friends liked to do was go to a local Kingston restaurant, get take-out and eat it on the grass at the top of Fort Henry hill at sunset. A couple of weeks ago, I took Clare and two of her friends to Fort Henry to take pictures as the sun went down.

Fort Henry hill is a spectacular location. To the east of the majestic limestone walls of the fort, you see one of the six Martello towers perched on point jutting out into the blue waters of the St. Lawrence River. To the west, you get a magnificent view of downtown Kingston, with its stately church spires, City Hall and the historic buildings of Royal Military College in the foreground.

As I wandered the grounds around the fort, serenaded by the mystical sounds of Pumpkininferno gearing up for its opening night, I watched photographers set up their cameras to capture the sunset, students and couples sitting admiring the view, and Clare and her friends taking selfies and photos against the stunning backdrop.

Fort Henry walls
Martello tower in the St. Lawrence

The sky deepened blue, then a hint of orange starting appearing on the horizon. Wisps of clouds dotted the sky, scattering fractured light throughout the sky. As the sun set lower behind the buildings, the clouds cast swaths of brilliant orange across the entire sky and soon the sun was a single yellow orb surrounded by fire. It was so breathtaking. The crowds of people that were descending Fort Henry Hill all stopped to admire the spectacle.

Here were my photos of that special night.

Two teenagers taking photos
Clare on Fort Henry hill as the sun sets over Kingston

This week’s #HappyAct is to take pictures at sunset at a historic site in your city and be grateful that we can now start doing so many of the things that were denied us for so long.

Ed. Note: Pumpkininferno is running from now until October 31, 2021 at Upper Canada Village in Morrisburg and at Fort Henry.

Martello tower and downtown Kingston at sunset
Orange sun and clouds

Leave the porch lights on

Musicians performing on the porch at Westporch

Wherever would we be this past year without our front and back porches? They’ve been a respite from the four walls closing in on us during lockdowns, and a safe haven for gathering and visiting during the pandemic.

So what better way to hail the newfound hero of our homes than with live music?

This weekend, my girlfriends and I spent the afternoon in lovely Westport, Ontario strolling the streets for the town’s inaugural Westporch event. Westport is a quaint cottage down, nestled between Big Rideau Lake and the Rideau Canal and Wolfe Lake. It’s also one of the prettiest drives in Eastern Ontario, especially during the fall.

Yesterday, the town was alive with music. There were nine or ten porches with different musical acts ranging from folk, classic rock, bluegrass, swing and jazz to the headliners, the East Coast Experience.

It was a beautiful day, with people perching on hay bales or sitting in the town’s Muskoka chairs listening to tunes under bonny blue skies. There was hot dogs and chili, popcorn and cotton candy, dogs everywhere and artist displays. As we strolled along Spring Street listening to a Bruce Springsteen cover, one of the local inn owners offered us some free beer or wine.

They had me at beer.

We ended the afternoon slapping our knees and tapping our toes to the seafaring tunes of the East Coast Experience before heading to Scheuermann’s Winery for a glass of wine overlooking the lake.

Thanks to all the organizers for putting on such a great event. We’ll be back. This week’s #HappyAct is to celebrate the porch—play some music, have a visit, or just sit a spell. Just make sure you leave the porch lights on.

The original Rosie Yumski in Westport
The original Rosie Yumski in Westport
Music on the porch in Westport
Friends in Westport harbour
Author and friend at winery
The end to a picture perfect day at Scheuermann’s Winery

Shop, sip and stroll

My family on Princess Street in Kingston, Ontario

Yesterday, we spent a brilliant sunny September afternoon, shopping, sipping and strolling on Princess Street in Kingston. The city closes the street to traffic one Saturday each month, allowing people and shopkeepers to spill out into the street.

In a society smitten with cars, there is something anti-Uber appealing about being able to wander at will on a street bustling with activity. There were buskers, musicians, people having lunch and cold beer on patios, and lots and lots of dogs! It was just so great to see people out and about again, and feeling their energy.

There aren’t many pure pedestrian streets in Canada, but here are five of my favourite neighbourhoods where you can shop, sip and stroll this fall:

  1. The Distillery district in Toronto: this unique area just east of downtown Toronto is home to 47 Victorian industrial buildings that were once home to the Gooderham & Worts distillery. An eclectic collection of art galleries, restaurants and shops, it’s a great location to while away an afternoon. My favourite time to visit is in December, when it’s transformed into a traditional European Christmas market.
  2. Granville Island, Vancouver: Vancouverites cherish this beloved part of their city which was redeveloped in the 1970’s into a cultural and artistic hub. Stock up on candied salmon and fresh produce at the public Farmer’s Market, and admire the spectacular views of Vancouver’s harbour where you may be lucky enough to spot a seal or whale.
  3. Rue de Petit-Champlain in Quebec City: one of the most historic and prettiest streets in Canada, this thoroughfare is lined with patios and boutiques. We have fond memories of eating al fresco at Le Cochin Dingue during a rainstorm the last time we were there. The servers were so attentive, providing us with blankets and hot drinks to keep us comfortable.
  4. The ByWard Market in Ottawa: One of Canada’s oldest public markets, you can find just about anything you need in this historic area of Ottawa, plus indulge in a Beavertail while you shop. Ottawa is one of the few cities with a true pedestrian mall, Sparks Street, but it’s always been a bit on the sleepy side except during events like Winterlude.
  5. The Forks in Winnipeg, an abandoned railyard located at the junction of the Red and Assiniboine rivers, has been a meeting place for over 6,000 years. Indigenous peoples traded at The Forks, followed by fur traders and settlers. This dynamic gathering spot is home to live events, a farmer’s market and arts and crafts galleries attracting locals and visitors alike.

This week’s #HappyAct is to make the most of this glorious fall weather and shop, sip and stroll. Enjoy!

Chip truck on Granville Island
Granville Island, Vancouver
Pirate ship in Vancouver harbour
You can watch pirate ships go by from the island!
Even old smokestacks become a work of art on the island

Cabin life

Author outside her friend's log cabin

I’ve always had an affinity for log cabins. They make me feel at home. Sadly, they are a dying breed. While custom log home builders are still building majestic post and beam and timber frame homes, you have to comb the backwoods and back lakes of our region to find an original hand-hewn log cabin.

We were having this conversation last weekend at my best friend’s family cottage north of Minden. Her Dad built the main cabin almost sixty years ago and over time, her brother Steve built two more log cabins on the property. Steve said to me at one point, “Nobody builds cottages any more, they’re all homes.”

Log sleeping cabin

Their cottage hasn’t changed much in 40 years. Waterskis and lifejackets hang from the wooden rafters in the ceiling. Next to the old icebox in the kitchen filled with baking supplies is an antique Kellogg Wood Wall phone, the kind where you had to hold a receiver to your ear to hear the person talking.

The walls of the cabin are filled with bric-a-brac, antique cookie tins, pieces of driftwood and kids’ artwork from years gone by. The only thing that has changed is the fireplace. About eight years ago, Steve refaced the fireplace, using weathered river stone. The last few years, he’s been working on restoring another old log cabin on the property. It is a very special place.

Main family cottage
Stone fireplace
Log cabin
The newest log cabin on the property

My favourite vacation rental of all time was a 100-year old log cabin set in a meadow on a hillside on 25 acres just outside of Woodstock, Vermont. We spent a week there when the kids were little, and it too, was special.

The kitchen had an old porcelain style sink with a picture above it of the original homesteaders on the property, sitting in overalls with corn straw hats. The interior of the house had an old wood stove, a long wood dining room table adorned with wildflowers in a vase, and a big wooden staircase that went up to a loft that had two bedrooms, connected by a long walkway.

100-year old cabin
100-year old cabin in Woodstock, Vermont

The best part of the house was its wraparound porch. It was massive, and we practically lived outside for the entire week, eating meals and playing games on the small table with four chairs and sitting in the rocking chairs. On our last day, as Dave and I rocked on the porch enjoying our morning coffee, a deer made his way up the hill towards the cabin, grazing on the dewey grass until he was just a few feet from us.

Yes, if I were going to move, it would be to a log cabin on a lake. For now, I’m grateful for friends who have so generously allowed me to share in the memories of these special places. It has meant the world to me.  

Front porch of log cabin

My top ten favourite patios in Eastern Ontario

Family and friends at the Amadeus patio in Kingston
With our friends Gary and Jill on the Amadeus patio

Throughout COVID, outdoor dining has been a lifesaver, both for small restaurateurs trying to keep afloat, but also for those of us desperate for a meal out.

There’s nothing like sitting outside on a warm summer’s eve, enjoying a drink or delicious food with friends or family on a patio. One of the many charms of Kingston is its plethora of patios, including its quaint interior courtyard patios, hidden away from the bustling crowds and its streetside tables where you can watch all the action.

Here’s my list of top ten Kingston patios to visit before summer’s out:

  1. Chez Piggy: still the quintessential indoor courtyard patio in Kingston, you feel like you are in a bistro in France while enjoying the very best in fine dining
  2. The Toucan: great food and bench style seating makes it easy to strike up a conversation with people nearby
  3. Woodenheads: still a favourite of mine for their delicious wood-fired pizza and Pollo Stagione salad, plus their interior courtyard is a cool oasis on a hot day
  4. Lone Star’s Margaritaville: come for the salsa, Corona, tunes and good times vibe
  5. The Battery Bistro at Fort Henry: perched high on Fort Henry hill, with spectacular views of the St. Lawrence, Lake Ontario and downtown Kingston, one of my favourite places to have a cocktail
  6. The Wharf and Feather Waterfront Patio Bar: recently rebranded, the waterfront patio at the downtown Holiday Inn offers great views of the ferries and tour boats in the inner harbor and gastro pub fare
  7. Kingston Brew Pub: sit on the covered verandah out front or venture into the inside courtyard to enjoy home brew at Kingston’s first brew pub—this place will always have a special place in my heart as a fun gathering spot
  8. Amadeus: we met our good friends Jill and Gary here at the end of July. With hanging vines and greenery and multi-levels, you can get your oom-pah-pah on and fill of German fare
  9. Jack Astors: normally, I try to avoid chains, but you really can’t beat Jack Astor’s spectacular rooftop patio overlooking market square and Lake Ontario
  10. Not in Kingston, but definitely worth the trip is The Cove in Westport. Owner Seamus Cowan recently expanded the patio behind his popular inn and spot for live music. You can see waterviews from both sides and you’ll dig the cool stage Seamus built out of cedar rails to showcase the local talent.

This week’s #HappyAct is to dine al fresco at one of the many beautiful outdoor patios in your region.

Bonus patio: Did you know you can dine on the patio at Casa Loma in Toronto? It’s called The Gardens at Casa Loma, but hurry, it closes in early September. You can make a reservation on line on OpenTable.

Chez Piggy patio
Chez Piggy patio
Patio at Casa Loma

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