{ Archive for February, 2009 }

Into the wild

Lying about 45 minutes or so equidistant from Tampa and Orlando airports, not far from well-known, man-made attractions such as Disney World, is the “other” Central Florida of Polk County–a place of pretty little towns, rolling hills, myriad lakes, orange groves, astonishing public gardens and mysterious natural habitats that are little known to the casual visitor. And that’s where we’re going on the next few posts of this blog.

Our comfortable hotel, the Holiday Inn Winter Haven, is the jumping-off point for our adventures. Although I’d be a liar if I didn’t tell you there’s the usual share of what our “Gardens and Groves” tour leader Georgia Turner dubbed “Generica” here–that endless permutation of suburban strip mall/big box store/motel-and-fast-food-joint that seems to be found most anywhere you land–it’s well worth looking beyond that to discover what’s special, such as the Circle B Bar Reserve located between Bartow, Lakeland and Winter Haven.

A long allee of live oaks, beautifully festooned with Spanish moss, line the road to the newly opened Polk’s Nature Discovery centre at the edge of the reserve, where we learn more about the area and pick up our two volunteer tour guides, Ray and Herman. Then off we go into the wild.

It’s hard to believe that prior to 2000, the Circle B Bar’s 1267 acres of marsh, cypress swamp and oak hammock were mostly a working cattle ranch. Since that time, wildlife and nature have been allowed to take over and it’s now a haven for some 172 species of birds and numerous plants, many of them unique to this part of the state. Neither the lake nor the land have been stocked in any way, and Herman and Ray explained that wildlife and plants came back on their own after just five years.

A breeze ruffles my hair and the spring sun feels warm on my back. I am in heaven. The silence is broken only by the cries of birds and the rush of their wings. Wild turkeys, bald eagles, palm warblers, moor hens, pie-billed grebes, coots and especially the famous rare white pelicans (seen at the top of the page) are just some of the species to be found around Hancock Lake.

A big green water snake and a couple of alligators glide by. (The big old fella seen here smiled obligingly for my camera–or maybe he was just sizing me up for a snack.)

Next: Hollis Garden

Seedy Saturdays heads-up

The days are getting longer, there’s new warmth in the sun and soon it’ll be time to start a few seeds indoors to get ready for the gardening season ahead (hooray). So before I embark on writing about my Florida trip (the first post will be online later today and I promise there won’t be even a whiff of winter), I wanted to give you a quick heads-up about Seedy Saturdays. These offer gardeners a chance to exchange or buy seeds–often heirloom or hard-to-find varieties. Even if you don’t have any seeds to swap this time, it’s perfectly fine to go along and see what’s what and a great way to connect with other plant-mad folks in your community.

A number of events are taking place tomorrow (February 28) with more to follow. To find information on what’s going on near you, contact your local garden club or the Master Gardeners group in your area, or log on to the Seeds of Diversity website at http://www.seeds.ca/ev/events.php

Forcing branches and other ways to start spring now!

Elaine working her magic

Elaine working her magic

Sunday morning it was almost as though Mother Nature was mocking me by throwing snowflakes every which way as I headed into the Distillery District in downtown Toronto. How dare I think about spring! But despite the wintry day, spring awaited me inside Tappo Wine Bar & Restaurant. I was there to attend “A Cabin Fever Breakaway: A festival for gardeners longing for spring.” I was invited by Elaine Martin, owner of Vintage Gardener and the organizer of the event.

Brilliant yellow forsythia branches and daffodils, multicoloured primula, deep purple hyacinth and candy-coloured tulips surrounded a table filled with the amazing vintage pots and vases that Elaine sells in her store. I was feeling inspired already!

So what were forsythia branches, one of the first signs of spring, doing inside when it's clearly still winter? That's what Elaine focused on for the first part of her talk—how to force branches (forsythia and magnolia work best) into thinking it's spring. This is something I'm definitely going to try—I have two forsythia bushes in the backyard. And it seems so easy!

With this planter, Elaine explained how to gently bend the pussy willow branches to create a handle!

With this planter, Elaine explained how to gently bend the pussy willow branches to create a handle!

According to Elaine, all you have to do is wait for a sunny day when the temperature goes up by 10 degrees. Cut some branches—longer than you need—and bring them indoors. Once inside, trim about six inches from the bottom and then take a hammer and crush the bottom or make cuts up the stem. Then place them in room temperature water and wait for the magic!

Make sure your branches are in indirect light. Elaine says it can take anywhere from three days to two weeks for blooms to appear.

The next part of Elaine's presentation involved creating planters with the rainbow of flowers she had brought. I took some pics because they were so beautiful and definitely the perfect way to bring spring inside your home during the last days of winter.

Elaine has lots of great workshops coming up in her store. Stay tuned to our events page for details!

Too many cooks?

Days of being cosseted and pampered in Quebec (if I were a poodle, my name would be Fifi) came to an abrupt end at the luxurious Ripplecove Inn and Spa in the Eastern Townships. As we pulled up to the picture-postcard-pretty site, I felt I was arriving on the set of a charming and wholesome Hollywood movie, such as Father of the Bride. General manager Michel Vauclair showed us to our rooms–mine was #36, with a balcony, a pot-bellied stove and a stunning view of Lake Massawippi. (All the rooms in this much-vaunted and very romantic inn are unique, and you can look on their website to choose the room that best reflects your taste.) As beautiful as Ripplecove Inn is in winter, I’d love to come back in the summer to see its English gardens, which were tough to spot under the mountains of snow.

Once we’d freshened up and changed, we were invited down to the library for a glass of champagne. Then Mr. Vauclair led the way down to the dining room and lowered the boom: we had to work for our supper. Chef’s whites were passed out and donned, and the agenda was laid out. We were to eat dinner at a table specially set up for us in the kitchen, but first, we had to help the chef and his assistant by setting the table, announcing the various courses, serving the meal and bussing dirty plates.

In short, we had become waitresses. But luckily, only for each other.

Of course, my tongue is firmly in cheek as I write this, for it wasn’t an ordeal at all. It was all great informal fun, and involved minimal effort on our part. Sommelier Patrick Jackson joined Mr. Vauclair at our table, and we had a wonderful time sampling various delicious Quebec wines, as well as delectable food from a special menu fit for a rajah. Chef Maxime Theriault tempted our taste buds with locally cured smoked salmon, followed by medallions of rabbit in a port wine sauce with cipollini onions, and a beef filet so tender you really could cut it with a fork. This meat was enrobed in a very thin pastry crust with a side of celeriac puree and wild huckeberry. Dessert consisted of various takes on maple and all thoroughly delicious, somehow made even more so by the fact that we were eating it in the kitchen.

Afterwards, sommelier Jackson led us on a tour of his wine cellar, and showed off his most expensive bottle–a 1957 number that sells for $1000.

It was a memorable evening punctuated by much laughter, and the seven journalists who had started out on this getaway together as strangers had become friends. And so to bed, knowing the next day we would be leaving the Eastern Townships and Quebec and returning home. (www.ripplecove.com)

Next: fabulous gardens and more in surprising central Florida

Alphabet soup for gardeners

We had a faint whiff of spring a couple of weekends ago–it was sunny and mild, the snow disappeared and there was that amazing dirt smell you get when the ground is wet and things are ready to bloom. I felt so hopeful, but alas this budding gardener had to talk some sense into herself. Spring does not begin in February in Southern Ontario. I will not be able to head outside in my old clothes and new Gloveables to spring clean my garden.

However there is lots still to do indoors–I need to order my seeds already (which I'll be doing with my sister), plant those seeds and start planning what I'll do in the garden when spring finally does arrive.

Looking for planting inspiration? Our shutterbug forum members have been busy posting photos in their annual Alphabet Soup. Started a few years ago by forum members Patty and Jean, users can post up to three photos that correspond to a new letter every other day. We are currently at the letter “N” and you can even go back and post on the other letters if you want to share your snaps.

Good-for-you spa-a-ah

Jocelyna Dubuc is a woman ahead of the curve. More than 30 years ago and long before it became fashionable, she began composting, practicing water and energy conservation, planting organic, pesticide-free gardens and observing many other eco-friendly practices at Spa Eastman. Located in the gorgeous Eastern Townships of Quebec, an easy drive from Montreal, this destination spa–dedicated to the pursuit of relaxation, fitness and a healthy lifestyle– was recently named “Best Affordable Spa” in the 6th annual Spa Finder.com readers’ choice awards.

Along with the six other journalists invited on our Girlfriend Getaway, I spent a tranquil 24 hours in this lovely place. There I enjoyed the delights of its 315 wooded acres, the wide array of delicious and wholesome food choices at mealtimes, locally sourced as much as possible (in the photo: rabbit and an array of veggies).

I love good food (um, perhaps just a tad too much), and can report there’s nothing miserly or holier-than-thou about the size of portions here. Organic wine is available as well.

At the spa, I was treated to lymphatic drainage as well as a demonstration of watsu underwater massage, which felt a bit like returning to the womb. (Guilty treat: I also plumped for a 1/2 hour numerology consultation–a first for me. And hey, my numbers are looking good!)

Several of us also went on a head-clearing anti-stress walk with Ms. Dubuc (she’s the one to my left in the white parka, above) and all of us attended two interesting symposia. The first was given by Edith Smeesters, a biologist who has been at the vanguard of the anti-pesticide movement in Quebec. The founder of Nature-Action Quebec and the Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides (CAP), Ms. Smeesters led a workshop titled “One Step at a Time to Save the Planet,” a useful overview of the many simple ways we can all work together to make this a better and healthier world.

The second (and far less familiar to me as a topic) was aimed at helping people understand stress, emotions and health. Ilona Barbara Dowgiallo, who is on staff at Spa Eastman, earned a doctorate in physics and spent 15 years in a department of nuclear medicine specializing in cancer research before pursuing her interest in the role proper nutrition and the body’s energy circuits play in health. She has studied acupuncture and is a certified naturopath. What followed was an absorbing 1 1/2 hours, during which Dr. Dowgiallo outlined which emotions affect what parts of the body (for example, anger affects the liver and sadness affects the lungs, while anxiety affects the digestion and stomach), and put forward her support for natural healing by eating for your blood type, unblocking the body’s energy circuits, meditating, getting some sunshine daily to stimulate the pineal gland and using Bach Flower Remedies (devised in early 20th century England by Dr. Edward Bach) to help alleviate various problems.

Then again, as gardeners, we know all about the power of flowers, don’t we?

“Eat Right 4 Your Blood Type” by Dr. Peter d’Adamo (also: www.dadamo.com)
Info on Bach Flower Remedies: www.bachcentre.com/centre/remedies.htm
More info on emotions and organs: www.shen-nong.com/eng/principles/bodyorgans.html

Next: kitchen duty at a top notch resort-hotel

Romantic Quebec City

My brother Pete says, “sometimes, the best view of home is in the rearview mirror.” This is especially true in midwinter, when we flower-starved gardeners need a little gingering up to keep us going through the cold, dark months. What to do?

How about luxury, fine dining and fun in Quebec City, one of the most romantic in North America? Our journalists’ Girlfriend Getaway included plenty of both.

First up was champagne and schnibbies in the Princess Grace suite of the historic Fairmont Le Chateau Frontenac hotel. This was followed by a special menu in their restaurant created just for our group, and accompanied by lovely wines. In the photo is my appetizer: lobster salad with milkweed, pan fried scallops, caviar cream and ginger. Yum, yum, yum. Yes, it’s a tough job, but somebody has to do it. (www.fairmont.com)

Our sleepover host was the Hilton, which has a handy location right on the edge of the old city. My comfortable, newly renovated room looked down on Bonhomme Carnaval’s ice palace, with the mighty St. Lawrence river in the distance. (www.hiltonquebec.com)

The city is beautiful–the old part has a very European flair and its centre is very walkable, and around every corner you see lovely architecture and interesting sights. For example, I spotted all kinds of ingenious mini-toboggans, some with little canvas igloos on top, on which well-wrapped-up babies were being pulled around the streets with ease (sure beats trying to push a pram through the snow).

One of the highlights was a visit to the observatory, which is the city’s tallest building, with panoramic, 360 degree views, as shown by the photo at the top of this post. (www.observatoirecapitale.org).

And there are plenty of lively dining establishments to try, some with entertainment. One of these is the Voodoo Grill, which not only has an eclectic menu I’d describe as mediterranean-indo-chino-fusion, but also African art and belly dancers–one of whom shimmied around with a crown of lit candles on her head. (www.voodoogrill.com)

As someone who can barely be trusted to safely carry a lighted candle from point A to point B, I found this pretty impressive.

Tomorrow: off to the Eastern Townships

The Ice Hotel and a Nordic spa

For someone who hates the cold as much as I do, the very idea of an ice hotel sent shivers of horror down my spine. But the reality was quite magical and airy, less an igloo than perhaps what the palace of the Snow Queen in Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale might have looked like.

A mere 30-minute drive from Quebec City, the Ice Hotel is redesigned and rebuilt each winter, and it’s quite the project. Some 15,000 tons of snow and 500 tons of ice are used in its construction, and the process takes about a month. There are 36 rooms where you can stay, a chapel (where some 30 weddings are celebrated each year) and a bar. Fun place. This year, the Ice Hotel will be open until March 29. To find out more, visit www.icehotel-canada.com.

Across the way is the station touristique Duchesnay, not only a hub for many area activities, but also a place where you can enjoy good meals and deluxe recreational amenities. Accommodation is available in cabins and lodges and in the Auberge Duchesnay, with its view of Lac St. Joseph, and you can opt for a combined package with the Ice Hotel. www.sepaq.com/duchesnay.

Nearby you’ll find the Tyst TrädgÃ¥rd (which means quiet garden) Nordic spa. There, dressed in bathing suits and terrycloth robes, with sturdy Crocs on our feet and hats on our heads, the Girlfriend Getaway gang, amid shrieks of high hilarity, gingerly made our way across an expanse of snow and ice to a deliciously hot therapeutic pool. A few steps away was a cold pool, and the idea was to alternate between some minutes in the hot water and a quick, bracing dunk in the cold, to rev up the circulation.

No dice, sister. While some intrepid souls complied, I contented myself with wallowing in the warm, merely standing up once in awhile for good form. I did lean into a snowbank to see what it would feel like (verdict: incredibly cold, followed by a ferocious burning sensation when I immersed myself back into the hot water). Next we went into a dry sauna, with an optional walk through a lukewarm waterfall. I actually braved this, and it really was lovely. Mother would be very, very proud.

Finally, swaddled in thick, polar fleece blankets, we relaxed in hammocks by a warm wood stove. Bliss. Tyst Trädgård also offers services such as massages, facials and lymphatic drainage. www.tysttradgard.com

Tomorrow: romantic Quebec City

Family fun on the Plains of Abraham

Once the site of the eponymous 1759 battle between the French and the British, the Plains of Abraham are transformed during Quebec City’s Winter Carnival into a centre of family-friendly activities. A widely sold $10 pass will let you in on all the action, both there and at other Carnival venues.

The bolder among you might want to have a go at snow rafting and zip-lining. Good luck with that. Timid Tillie that I am, I confess I was content to simply walk around and take in various displays, such as the international ice sculpture competition, and observe people having fun. Other attractions that might tempt you (though not necessarily me) include snow slides, demonstrations of dog agility, a sugar shack, sleigh rides and various competitions such as tugs-of-war, giant soccer and skijoring, which teams cross-country skiiers with dogs.

Later that afternoon, my new pal Mary (one of the journalists on our girlfriend getaway) and I walked down into town and tried poutine at a fast food place called Chez Ashton. This was my first taste of Quebec’s famous comfort dish–french fries with gravy and cheese curds–and it was delicious (the cheese curds were so fresh, they squeaked). Okay, I know it’s not exactly health food, but it is mighty satisfying on a cold winter’s day (the restaurant is also famous for its winter promotion based on the outdoor temperature. It was -19 degrees Celsius, so we saved 19 per cent).

The 55th edition of the Quebec Winter Carnival ends this Sunday. Yet another great experience to cross off my “100 things to do before you die” list. Joyeux carnaval!
Tomorrow: The ice hotel and a nordic spa

Quebec Winter Carnival–part two

I don’t ski, I’m a lousy skater and truth be told, I hate winter. Not only because I love gardening, but also because I really, really, really hate feeling cold. But I loved my visit to the Quebec Winter Carnival as part of a Girlfriend Getaway courtesy of Quebec Tourism, and surprised myself by spending several days outdoors with great enjoyment.

Of course, I came prepared, and ventured forth swaddled in umpteen layers of clothes, thermal underwear, socks and gloves, really good warm boots and a sheepskin hat. In my book, this is basic winter equipment. Properly kitted out, I got completely caught up in the infectious spirit of the world’s biggest winter celebration.

One of the highlights was the dogsledding race, the Grand Viree. What could be more quintessentially Canadian? As a light snow fell, crowds lined the specially prepared course near the Chateau Frontenac and good-naturedly cheered on their favourite teams. Being used to Toronto’s mostly sombre, monochromatic winter coat uniform of black, brown or sludge, it did my eyes good to see so many colourful parkas and hats, and the smiling, red-cheeked faces of happy revellers.

Although the Grand Viree is over, you can still catch the qualifying rounds for the St.-Hubert Derby on February 14, and the finals on February 15. And the second festive night parade will wind its way through the streets on Valentine’s Day eve as well. Quebec City’s winter carnival continues through February 15 (to check out what’s on, visit www.carnaval.qc.ca).

Tomorrow: family fun on the Plains of Abraham.

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