Toronto is a Splendid Example of Many Cultures

By Mary Jo Plouf

Toronto is the largest city in Canada with over 2.6 million residents. Approximately 49% of the population was born outside of Canada, and as a result, much of Toronto consists of relatively small ethnic neighborhoods which have retained much of their original culture, language and foods. I find that one of the best and most fun ways to get to know a city is to become acquainted with the people where they live. Visit their shops and botiques, their bakeries, their churches and their restaurants.

Culinary Adventures was started in 2010 to help locals and visitors alike to  discover the best of ethnic Toronto.  I have taken three of their tours and now I know why they have been ranked by Trip Advisor as the number 1 tour in the city. Chef Scot Savoi , chef, founder and culinary ambassador, was our guide for each adventure.   Chef Scot, who is bilingual, has over 25 years of international culinary experience. He has spent the last two years discovering what is best and most typical in Little Italy, Little India, Greektown and Leslieville.  Actually these are only four of his food adventures……there are quite a few more, including custom tours.

 

Would you like to know the best Indiana restaurants in the city.  I do after spending an evening with chef Scot. We delved into the tastes and culture of one of Toronto’s most flavourful neighborhoods.  We discovered the aromas and sampled fabulous Indian delicacies as we strolled through one of the largest and oldest South Asian markets in North America. From dosa’s to desserts, we experienced culinary adventures from street food to the best kitchens to be found anywhere in the city. Corn on the cob never tasted better than the roasted ears we purchased from a street vendor and washed down with a sweet sugar cane drink.   Later, we had the absolute best Butter Chicken in Toronto. We were welcomed into the kitchens where we learned a little of the history and local stories of the area. I even went spice shopping in one of the local markets.

 

Towards the end of our tour, Chef Scot, informed us that we were going to try Paan, which he described as Indian chewing tobacco.  That was an adventure that I, for one, was a little leery to try. As it turned out, Paan has nothing to do with tobacco.  Instead it is a palate cleanser consisting of sugar, salt, rose petals, fennel and assorted other spices. All of these exotic ingredients were wrapped in a small green leaf, which we were instructed to place inside our cheek and “chew”.  Needless to say, it was hilarious. The whole process involved a lot of chewing, a lot of juice and eventually, a lot of covert spitting. I have no doubt that I prefer butter chicken…but it was an adventure and lots of fun.

 

Early on  a Wednesday evening we joined Chef Scot on a Tour of Little Italy. We were off to discover where the chefs ate. Our tour began at a secret pre-prohibition private club for cocktails and appetizers before moving on to selected restaurants for our multiple course progressive dinner.  Throughout the entire evening there were no menu’s or wine lists.  Our tastebuds were in the hands of some of the cities finest chef’s & mixologists. We were allowed to visit behind the scenes where each chef shared a few of his culinary secrets and told us stories of the area and his restaurant.

 

Be sure to come hungry because it soon become apparent that this tour is a culinary food adventure and no one is allowed to go away without trying a little of everything…..or maybe a lot of everything.  At Trattoria Tavererniti I had the best lasagna that I have ever tasted. The chef sat with us and shared the information that Nona, his 83 year old grandmother was still active in the restaurant and came in early each morning to make the special sauces.  When she helped open the restaurant several years ago, she was asked why she wanted to work in a restaurant at her age.  She replied, “we got a 25 year lease at a really great price”.  In the relatively short time the family owned Trattoria has been open it  has become known as the most authentic Italian restaurant in Little Italy.

 

A bit of lore you probably did not know.  Never eat fish in a restaurant before Wednesday because the fresh fish comes in on Wednesday.  The narrowest bar in Little Italy is Souzol….it is 147 feet long and has its own beach in the back.  Years ago a sign in the window of a restaurant advertising fresh oysters and hot coffee meant that prostitutes were available inside. Chef Scot and his fellow culinary friends were full of local lore they were anxious to share.

 

I am not going to describe Chef Scot’s other culinary tours. You can call and ask him yourself.  (1-800-656-0713) or visit their website at www.culinaryadventureco.com. I agree completely with Trip Advisor. Chef Scot’s tours are the best tours in the city. Food is a unique and enjoyable way of getting to know the city.

New Orleans, A City for All Seasona

By Mary Jo Plouf

New Orleans is like no other city in the world. It is a seamless and exquisite mixture of French, Spanish, Irish, Italian, African, Caribbean and even a touch of Native American. It is an old city which has incorporated the best of the European traditions and melded them with the time- honored  Southern hospitality of the plantation and sugar cane eras. But without a doubt, what defines the City of New Orleans best is the food and music that permeate the very foundations of the city.  When you hear words like Jazz, Creole, Gumbo, Pralines, Jambalaya,  Oysters Rockefeller, red beans and rice, beignets, and etouffee, the blues, saxaphones, trumpets and trombones, it is all there on every street and woven into the fabric of New Orleans.  Twenty-four hours a day there is food and music to be found somewhere within the city. It is the City that never sleeps and certainly never goes hungry.

The abundance of food to be discovered and savored is matched by the proliferation of exotic beverages available in the many bars, bistros and cafes.   And thanks to the “only in New Orleans” open container laws it is not unusual to see visitors and locals alike strolling down the streets of the French Quarter munching on a Po-Boy and enjoying a beer or perhaps something stronger.  Surprisingly, all this “living dangerously” and “walking on the edge” mentality seem to be, for the most part, quite orderly and under control.  Late nights in New Orleans are legendary and usually the only damage incurred is the inevitable suffering the following morning.  But never fear, the pain eases and as the sun sets another long, gala night begins. Let the good times roll.

But New Orleans is about families also.  The many family friendly restaurants tempt the youngsters with far more than pizza, hamburgers and French fries.  Beignets are popular with visitors of all ages. These “French doughnuts” were brought to Louisiana by the Acadians and are still a New Orleans favorite in both the sweet and savory versions.  Let them try a new sandwich…the Muffuletta , or a simple mixture of red beans and rice.  And for dessert, they are sure to love the pralines.

And there are more attractions for the younger set and the parents they have in tow than they could possibly visit in a week. Mom and dad are sure to have fun too, and maybe even learn a thing or two.

The Audubon Aquarium of the Americas is the perfect family attraction and it is conveniently located near the French Quarter. This is an attraction where you can spend a few hours or all day.  There are fish of every description, penguins, seals and sharks. Children can touch the stingrays and watch the feeding of the sharks. They can stroll through the glass tunnel surrounded on all sides by exotic ocean creatures and colorful coral. There is even an IMAX theater.  If you tire of the fish and still have time, visit the Audubon Butterfly  Garden and Insectorium where you can see over 900,000 species of insects.  That’s a lot of bugs that are guaranteed to hold the interest of most children. New Orleans has one of the coolest Zoos in the world which features a wild and wet splash park in the summer.  The animals are pretty cool too. There are 58 acres of animals in their natural habitats including lots of alligators which you can see close-up from a Cajun houseboat. If you are up for a short road trip or bus ride, take the younger generation on one of the many swamp and bayou tours, where you travel by boat deep into the backwater bayous of Louisiana.  You can even touch an alligator…. but just a small one  Adults and kids alike love to browse through the French Quarter. And no vacation is complete without shopping for a few souvenirs.

IMMEDIATELY upon arrival all visitors should become acquainted with the bright red Hop on-Hop off bus. The bus makes twelve stops at various points of interest and you can stop and visit each and every one if you choose.  This is the quickest and easiest way to get to know the city.  Once you know where everything is….they provide you with a map….you can return day after day on walking tours.  The bus covers the French Quarter, the Waterfront and the Garden District. For me, Mardi Gras World is one of the most interesting attractions.  I have never been to the actual Mardi Gras Parade because I am intimidated by the huge crowds, but you can see it all at Mardi Gras World. There are actually fifteen warehouses filled with floats from the past.  No float is used twice, but many of the parts are re-used. At Mardi Gras World you can actually watch artists designing next year’s entries and constructing intricate figures from Styrofoam and paper mache.  The opportunities for photography and unlimited, so be sure to bring your camera.  Steamboat Natchez allows you to savor the beauty and romance of New Orleans as you sit back and watch centuries of history and legend float by.  This two-hour cruise can even include dinner and a jazz concert.  A Plantation tour really allows you to see the South as it was in the great sugar cane eras.  The Jewel of Louisiana’s River Road and Queen of the Plantations is Houmas House Plantation and Gardens.  Keven Kelly has filled his plantation houses with priceless antiques and his gardens with exquisite tropical plants and trees. Tours are available and it is possible to reach the plantation by car in approximately 45 minutes or on a tour bus from the French Quarter. Another “do not miss” adventure” is the New Orleans Cooking School. This two hour activity is fun, informative and the best thing is that you can take it home with you. My husband and I absolutely loved it and I bought all of the ingredients at the attached General Store so I can now make authentic New Orleans Gumbo, Chicken Creole and Pralines at home.

They say to leave the best until last and it is now time to write about the FOOD in New Orleans. There is so much of it and it is so varied that I cannot cover it all, but I will tell you about a few of our favorite restaurants.  You will certainly get off to a good start with “brunch” at Brennan’s. With the highest rating possible by food critics Brennan’s has been serving an exotic blend of French and Creole specialties for the past 50 years.  Their Bananas Foster is legendary. Their specialty egg dishes include shrimp, crab, veal and oysters. I could not decide between the turtle soup, which I have so rarely, and the oyster cream soup. So I had an absolutely spectacular and different onion soup.  I tried both the chocolate pecan pie and the creole chocolate cake. Dinner at Antoines has also been around for a long time….176 years being operated by the same family to be exact.  It is a tradition and a New Orleans landmark. There are 14 dining rooms, each with its unique history and distinctive décor.  Oysters Rockefeller was invented here and of course served to Rockerfeller.  It is just as good today as is the traditional Escargot with lots of garlic sauce.  August, with Chef John Besh, is a relative newcomer after 12 years, and is definitely the best of the best. We chose the Degustation menu and dined, in the best sense of the word, on tuna, crab, lamb, duckling, foie gras, crawfish, shrimp, oysters, trout and grass-fed beef. All of this was with the proper and excellent wine, followed by dessert….in three flavors. I definitely want to go back.  Another great place for brunch, lunch or dinner is The Irish House.  This authentic Irish Pub has better food than most of the pubs in Ireland, thanks to Matt Murphy, the chef and owner. Matt is an award wining chef from the T.V. food program “Chopped” We had lunch at the Palace Café, another favorite. This classic and contemporary Creole restaurant is located near the French Quarter. Another on the list of Brennan restaurants, it is impossible to get less than great food. On our last evening we ventured into the Garden District on the St. Charles Streetcar and visited an old favorite…the Upperline Restaurant.  Owner, JoAnn Clevenger was there to greet us as usual.  This restaurant has consistently received rave reviews and is a favorite with the locals.  Filled with an assortment of art and flowers this cozy, two level restaurant has always been on my list of “musts” I started with crispy P&J fried oysters and moved on to Duckling with ginger peach sauce. Dessert was definitely the most unusual I have even tried….Garlic and Honey Sundae.  Yes, I actually tried it and it was delicious. I never miss Upperline when I am in New Orleans.

“Let The Good Times Roll” The fun, food entertainment and music never stop in New Orleans. Take home a few recipes, a few extra pounds and irreplaceable memories. And be sure to come back again and again.

 

Gainesville, Florida: A Family Destination

By Mary Jo Plouf

Gainsville is the county seat and largest city in Aluchua County, Florida. Many residents and visitors to Florida, myself included, have never considered Gainsville as a “vacation” destination. We were wrong. Gainsville can best be described as the perfect setting where nature and culture meet.  It is conveniently located in North Central Florida and has great year-round weather. For those searching for culture and history and the arts, they will find them in abundance at the University of Florida’s Cultural Plaza.  All in one location you will find the Butterfly Rainforest at the Florida Museum of Natural History, the 1700 seat Phillips Center for the performing arts, National Ballet, and the Harn Museum of Art. The Butterfly Rainforest is especially fascinating to children of all ages.

 

Sports fans won’t want to miss seeing a game at the Ben Hill Griffin Stadium at Florida Field, which is home to the Florida Gators football team.

 

There are plenty of places to get out and enjoy nature.  You can follow an easy path through waterfalls and ferns into the heart of Devil’s Millhopper State Geological Park. You can visit ocelots and eagles at the Santa Fe College Teaching  Zoo or bike the Gainesville-Hawthorn Trail. You can snorkel, paddle, tube or swim in the areas rivers or crystal-clear springs.  Enthusiasts can tackle the trails of San Felasco Hammock Preserve StatePark with 2000 acres of horseback riding trails or off-road cycling. Many of these activities are suitable for children.

 

Downtown Gainsville and the surrounding area is the epi-center for shopping, fantastic restaurants and delightful lodging choices. Farmers markets tempt visitors with handmade soaps, jewelry and food products. Small botiques offer the latest in chic and funky fashion. Restaurants abound but be sure to sample the amazing fare and décor of  Emilianos Café at 7 SE 1st Ave (Phone: 352-375-7381) We ate outside on a lovely Fall evening and everything was done to perfection.

 

We opted for one of the many turn-of-the-century bed and breakfasts which was a short walk from the downtown district. The Camellia Rose Inn at 205 S.E, Seventh Street was everything we were looking for. The Inn-keepers, Tom and Pat McCants were like old friends from the minute we walked in. They got us settled into our lovely room complete with a fireplace and admonished us to return from our explorations of the city in time for the wine and cheese that is served in  the lounge each evening.  This little “added-touch” is the perfect time to relax and perhaps meet other guests to compare notes. (Phone: 352-395-7673)

 

Whether you spend a week or a week-end in Gainsville  you will find plenty of things to do and see and you will want to return for a second and third visit.

 

For those who need more information, contact the Gainsville website,  visitgainesville.com. The tourist bureau in this delightful city is among the most helpful of any in the world.

La Cocotera Resort and Eco Lodge-El Salvadore

La Cocotera Resort and Eco Lodge

 

By Mary Jo Plouf

 

La Cocotera Resort and Edo Lodge in San Salvadore is one of Central America’s premier eco lodges.  They offer luxurious accommodations in a relaxing setting between the Pacific Ocean and a peaceful estatuary bordered by tropical mangrove forests on the other side.

 

The lodge, small and exclusive is located in the beautiful Salvadorian village of Barra de Santiago.  It is located only about two hours from San Salvadore, but it is a world away from the bustling city. Without a little inside information and a short trip on roads you might never discover, it is well worth the trip.  Once there, you are in for a unique vacation experience.

If you are looking for an eco- lodge far from the crowded beaches, but still directly on the ocean, this is the perfect escape.  You can take a swim in the sparkling ocean, rest in a hammock in the shade of countless coconut palms, swim in the pool, or gaze at the spectacular volcanic  peaks in the background.

 

Savvy Savannah

By Charlene & Richard Mixa

An Alluring Southern City

Savannah's Historical River Street

Savannah’s Historical River Street

A vibrant city with a rich southern history and charm sits on the bluffs of the Savannah River. Georgia’s “First City” is dynamic as it entices and lures visitors to return again and again. Blending culture and heritage with the bizarre, Savannah is an exciting place to visit. Whether walking the beautiful squares, listening to music at Market Square, shopping in unique upscale shops in the Historic District, roaming large antique stores, strolling along River Street, taking a tour, or partaking of great southern food, Savannah is fascinating. Continue reading

Indiana’s Amish Country: A Serenely Simple Life

By Charlene & Richard Mixa

A Postcard View of Amish Life

Menno-Hof

Menno-Hof

A horse-drawn black buggy clattering on the roadway with a bright orange traffic triangle on the back is our first greeting to northern Indiana’s Amish Country. Recently receiving accolades of a “Favorite Faith-based Destination” by the National Tour Association tour operator members, we are excited to take a deeper look at Amish life and getting to know the people behind the straw hats, bonnets, and simple clothes. Continue reading

Almost Heaven – The Swag

By Charlene & Richard Mixa

A Mountain Inn that Touches the Sky & Soothes the Soul!

Majestic Mountain Views!

Majestic Mountain Views!

Miles of majestic mountains that gently touch the sky. A paradise where endless panoramic views of the Blue Ridge Mountains is the front yard and the enchanting Great Smoky Mountain National Park is the backyard.  Sitting at Gooseberry Knob enjoying our tantalizing gourmet picnic lunch with these breathtaking views it’s “Almost Heaven.”  The Swag is a “Bucket List” destination!  Continue reading

Asheville: A Toast to the “Great Tastes”

By Charlene & Richard Mixa

Great Beers  & Great Food!

A Toast to the Great Tastes of Asheville!

A Toast to the Great Tastes of Asheville!

Cheers & Bon Appetite! Welcome to Asheville in the beautiful western North Carolina Mountains! A thriving mountain city that boasts the most microbreweries and an array of unique eateries for a culinary delight from the casual to the gourmet. Join us on sipping and tasting tours of Asheville. Continue reading

Asheville: Explore North Carolina’s Mountains

By Charlene & Richard Mixa

A Bounty of Activities Around Asheville

Craggy Pinnacle

Craggy Pinnacle

Amazing mountain views, inspiring scenery and the highest peaks in the Eastern U.S. greet visitors to North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains. Take a drive, hike a mountain, raft a river, tee it up, get some culture, or hear a tale. Activities are bountiful in in these old and rugged mountains with cultural activities in the quaint towns from music, festivals, arts and crafts to fantastic theatre performances. So much to see and do in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. Explore the North Carolina Mountains with us. Continue reading

Asheville: Escape to the Glorious Grove Park Inn

By Charlene & Richard Mixa

100 Years Old and Still Going Strong!

Grove Park Inn at Night

Grove Park Inn at Night

Fore! With grand views of the glorious stone structure of the Grove Park Inn, the Blue Ridge Mountains, and the city-scape of Asheville, we tee it up on the resort’s historic 18-hole Donald Ross golf course.   Considered among the top golf experiences in North Carolina, it celebrates the spirit of mountain golf. Donald Ross stated, Continue reading