Let the season of giving begin with giveshop.ca

Kid's sleigh for sale
Want this sleigh for your holiday greenery display? You can buy it on giveshop.ca for $20 with proceeds to United Way

November 30 is Giving Tuesday, the day when charities, companies and individuals join together to give to their favourite charities after the frenzy of Black Friday and Cyber Monday.

Luckily for those of us in Ontario, there’s a new website in town to make Giving Tuesday easy—giveshop.ca.

Giveshop was founded in Ottawa with a mission to help Canadians support their favourite charities and schools. It’s basically like Facebook marketplace. You put used items up for sale, or shop online, but all the funds go to charity.

Giveshop is still growing its community, so the majority of items listed are in the Ottawa area but there are charities listed in Kingston, Toronto and Vancouver. Some of the charities you can choose to direct funds to include Autism Speaks Canada, Make-a-Wish-Foundation of Canada, Muscular Dystrophy Canada, CHEO Foundation, Canadian Guide Dogs for the Blind, and United Way of Kingston, Frontenac, Lennox and Addington.

I listed two items for sale in support of my company’s United Way campaign, a bike and kid’s sleigh. It only took a few minutes to list my item, set a price and upload a picture. You can choose both the charity you want to support, and a specific campaign. Donors receive a charitable receipt for the purchase price.

As you start your holiday shopping, why not make it a goal to sell one used item cluttering up your house on Giveshop for every item you buy?

If you’d like to support our work campaign, choose United Way of Kingston, Frontenac, Lennox and Addington for the charity and Empire Life Charitable Campaign for the campaign.

TIP: Giveshop just launched its desktop app. I’d recommend accessing it mainly from your phone. The mobile app is less buggy and very easy to use.

This week’s #HappyAct is to get in the spirit of the giving season and become part of the giveshop community. Happy giving!

Bike for sale
Buy me on giveshop.ca!

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

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

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.

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

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

Where eagles dare

December is always an interesting time on our lake because we get unique guests: migrating birds and ducks heading south as the northern lakes freeze.

This year we’ve had some very special visitors. For the past week, we’ve had five bald eagles take up residence on our lake. Now even if you aren’t a “birder”, spotting one of these magnificent raptors is considered a “feather” in your cap. I’ve seen bald eagles many times in Red Lake Ontario, and in British Columbia, but I’ve never been able to see them so close and watch their daily antics and habits.

We saw the first eagle last Saturday—it was literally sitting outside our sunroom windows and it was MASSIVE. We thought at first it was a golden eagle because it was all brown with a hint of gold on its neck, but we are now pretty sure it was a juvenile bald eagle. Many people may not be aware that only mature bald eagles have the white head—juveniles are nearly all brown.

Then the next day a magnificent adult bald eagle landed on the same perch off our deck. All week they’ve been soaring from treetop to treetop,  looking for fish and having a grand old time. There are three adults and two juveniles, and what’s interesting is the adults don’t seem to have much to do with the youngsters—kind of like us and our teenagers right now.

Bald eagle in a snowy tree

I especially like to watch the eagles terrorize the flock of common mergansers on the lake. They like to dive bomb the ducks and let out a few high-pitched chirps. The ducks get all upset and flap their wings and take off. I swear the eagles are actually laughing at them.

They have been a marvel to watch. Here are some pictures I’ve managed to take this week although they are quite shy.

This week’s #HappyAct is to keep your eye out for a different type of raptor in the next few weeks instead of the ones that usually play in Toronto at the Air Canada Centre.

If you are interested in birds, why not join the annual Christmas Bird Count in your region?

The CBC is the largest citizen science project of its kind. It started in 1900 and happens between December 14 and January 5 across the country. Local groups choose a single day during that period and conduct the count—counts are carried out within a 24-km radius. The information is fed into the National Audobon Society which uses it to track species and impacts on bird populations.

The South Frontenac and Kingston bird counts this year are on Saturday, December 19. With COVID this year, they are hoping more people will come forward to simply count birds at their backyard feeders. Here’s where you can find out more information on the Frontenac bird count or message me and I’ll send you the info. Happy viewing!

Bald eagle in tree
Bald eagle flying