Archive | April 2013

Queen’s Day

Today is Queen’s Day in the Netherlands. The Dutch call it Koninginnedag. It’s their country’s equivalent of Canada Day or the Fourth of July ― the day when the Dutch celebrate their nation. They celebrate Queen’s Day on April 30 because that was the birthday of Queen Juliana, who was the mother of Queen Beatrix, who is the mother of King Willem-Alexander, who became king today.

The Dutch monarchs have a tradition of abdicating the throne to their children, and that’s what happened today. Queen Beatrix will now be known as Princess Beatrix, and her oldest son, Willem-Alexander, is, as of today, king of this tiny nation of 17 million people.

So why am I posting a photo of Canada’s Parliament Buildings on the Dutch national holiday? I’m glad you asked.

I posted this photo because the Dutch Royal Family has a Canadian connection. Queen Beatrix spent part of her childhood in Ottawa, when Canada gave shelter to the Dutch Royals during World War II. After the war was over, the Dutch Royals sent 100,000 tulip bulbs to Ottawa as a sign of gratitude for the hospitality shown to then-Princess Juliana and her children during the war, and also as a thank you to the Canadian soldiers who played a key role in the liberation of the Netherlands from the Nazis in 1945.

Juliana sent more tulip bulbs the next year, and every year of her reign, which lasted from 1948 until 1980. Today, more than a million tulips bloom in Ottawa each spring, and its tulip festival, said to be one of the largest in the world, is celebrated every May.

Parliament Buildings

Through My Lens: Nitobe Memorial Garden

Nitobe Memorial Garden

I took this photo last Friday in the beautiful Nitobe Memorial Garden. This garden is located at the opposite corner of the UBC campus from my office ― which makes for a nice walk when I’m on my lunch break. As I’ve noted before, I think UBC is a beautiful campus. The Nitobe Memorial Garden only reaffirms my belief.

Through My Lens: Bastion Square

Bastion Square

One last look at Victoria, and then we’ll leave what a friend of mine who lives there likes to call “City of the Newlywed and Nearly Dead.”

This photo was taken in Bastion Square, a pedestrian-only street that begins at the corner of View and Government, where the North Bastion of Fort Victoria once stood, and ends at Wharf Street, overlooking the Inner Harbour.

Magnolia Hotel and Spa

Magnolia Hotel Sign

When I travel, I try to arrange a home exchange, but when I’m not successful in finding one that suits my destination or my dates, I stay in hotels. I haven’t been blogging about the hotels I stay in because, to be quite frank, I usually bunk down in budget hotels that aren’t anything to write home about.

The other weekend I went to Victoria to visit a friend who was there on business, and I stayed with her as her guest at the Magnolia Hotel and Spa. This hotel is most definitely not a budget hotel and my two-night stay there was a real treat for me.

The Magnolia Hotel and Spa is rated by Tripadvisor.ca as the # 2 hotel in Victoria and # 11 of the Top 25 Luxury Hotels in Canada. The room my friend and I shared contained two queen-sized beds made up with fluffy white duvets and a mountain of soft and hard pillows to suit any preference. The ensuite bathroom was the size of my kitchen at home, with a soaker tub and separate spacious shower, and was fully stocked with Aveda bath and hair products.

Magnolia Beds

Turn-down service included chocolates on the bedside table ― very good chocolate, I should add. I enjoyed the best sleep I’ve had in months and did not want to get out of bed come morning. My friend took advantage of the spa facilities and went for a massage to help her get over her jetlag.

The complementary breakfast was continental, but don’t think small when you read “continental.” Served buffet style, it included your choice of carb (croissants, toast, waffles, oatmeal, and a variety of cold cereals), yogurt or made-to-order smoothies, fresh fruit, cheese, boiled eggs, and cold cuts. After my arrival on Friday night, my friend and I caught up on each other’s lives over drinks and tapas in the hotel bar, the Catalano Restaurant & Cicchetti Bar, which sources its seafood and produce from local fishers and farmers.

The Magnolia Hotel and Spa is located one block from the Inner Harbour. I highly recommend it.

Magnolia Hotel and Spa

Afternoon Tea at the Empress

Tea Lobby 1

Most afternoons, I have a cup of tea. With milk. It’s such a part of my routine that this past week there was an “incident” (shall we say) at work when I discovered someone had used up the milk I keep for my tea in the office fridge, thinking it was hers. My co-workers laughed at my distress, but I can’t drink tea without milk. And I really enjoy my afternoon cup of tea.

Tea Cup

So last weekend, while I was in Victoria visiting a friend there on business who told me she really wanted to someday, one day, have afternoon tea at the Empress, it didn’t take much for me to decide I liked that idea very much. “And what’s stopping us from having tea at the Empress this weekend?” I asked. Within minutes, we had a reservation in the hotel’s Tea Lobby for the next day.

Victoria, BC, has been called the most English city in Canada, and the city definitely plays up that reputation for the tourists. Afternoon Tea at the Empress Hotel is a big part of that playing up, and there is no setting more lovely than the Empress Hotel. One of Canada’s iconic “railway hotels,” it has been a landmark on Victoria’s Inner Harbour since its opening in 1908.

Tiered Plate

We both skipped breakfast and arrived at the hotel’s Tea Lobby appropriately famished. It’s located off the main lobby and its windows overlook the Inner Harbour. We were seated near those windows at a low table.

(And here’s an aside for you: I learned that high tea is actually the supper-type meal the English eat in the early evening, while afternoon tea or low tea is always taken in the afternoon. It’s called low tea because typically you sit at a low table.)

The meal began with cups of seasonal fruit served with cream ― in our case, strawberries. I’m a bit of a strawberry snob and unless the berries are grown locally and are in season, I really don’t think much of their taste. Such was the case with these strawberries, shipped in from California, I’m sure, but hey, what seasonal fruit would you find anywhere in Canada in mid-April?

Savouries and Scones

We were given a choice of eight teas ― I chose the Empress Blend, a tea that “boasts a bright coppery colour and takes milk exceedingly well.” My friend chose Margaret’s Hope Darjeeling, which offered “the distinctive character of Muscat grapes and hints of current.” Clearly tea can be as sophisticated as wine.

Along with our pots of tea came the three-tiered plate of … well … the main event. Our little table was packed, what with the silver teapots, china teacups and small plates, and the tower of savouries, scones, and sweets, but the server positioned everything on the table with expertise and, remarkably, it all fit. Then, after pouring our tea and ensuring we had everything we needed, he offered to take photos of us with our own cameras. He definitely had the routine down pat.

And then? And then we dug in!

Savouries and Scones

The savoury level of the tiered plate consisted of tiny sandwiches: smoked salmon pinwheels, cucumber sandwiches (of course!) with saffron loaf, mango & curried chicken sandwiches (my favourite), free-range egg salad croissants (also very tasty), and cognac pork pâté on sundried tomato bread.

Then we moved up a level to the fresh baked raisin scones with clotted cream and the Empress’s own strawberry jam.Sweets

On the final, upper-most tier were the pastries: lemon curd tartlets, cappuccino chocolate tea cups, rose petal shortbread, chocolate and pistachio Battenberg cakes, and the one I’d been waiting for: Parisian style macaroons.

Sigh.

It was heavenly. And when we were finished, our server presented each of us with a small box of the tea we had been drinking.

I didn’t eat dinner that night. Who knew afternoon tea could sustain your body for an entire day?

Tea Lobby 2

Muttart Conservatory

In my last post, I promised you more about what Edmonton has to offer.

One of Edmonton’s gems, in my humble opinion, is the Muttart Conservatory. These four pyramids have been a landmark in Edmonton’s river valley since 1976. They are an amazing oasis in the heart of the city, particularly in the middle of a harsh Alberta winter. Three of the pyramids focus on plant life from temperate, arid, and tropical climates; the fourth rotates through various seasonal plants. When I was there earlier this month, it was filled with tulips.

My favourite is the arid pyramid ― because I think the cactuses have the most personality.

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West Edmonton Mall

Waterpark

Yup. I’m writing about a mall. Not just any mall. The mall.

I’ve been debating whether to write this post. What is there to say about West Edmonton Mall? It’s big. It’s huge. It’s there.

But then I looked online to see what the Lonely Planet website had to say about Edmonton and laughed when I read, “Edmonton? Is that the place with the big mall?” After I stopped laughing, I realized that the mall does have a world-wide reputation. So, here’s a quick summary for you.

West Edmonton Mall gets 28 million visitors a year. (If you consider that the population of Edmonton is less than a million, that’s means either Edmonton is a city of shoppers or it gets a lot of out-of-town visitors. I suspect the latter.) Last weekend, my niece and I were two of those 28 million visitors. The mall’s claim to fame is not only that it’s the largest mall in North America, but that for 23 years (from its opening in 1981 until 2004) it was the largest mall in the world. That’s no mean feat for Edmonton, considering how many malls there are on this planet.

There’s an amusement park, a water park, an NHL-sized ice rink, a hotel, and, oh yeah, a few stores. Over 800 of them. For those of us urbanites who make it an art form to disparage West Edmonton Mall, we have to remember that Edmonton is a service centre for a vast chunk of rural Alberta. I’m quite sure there are a lot of Albertans who find a one-stop shop most convenient, especially if you have a handful of kids in tow. And a weekend of shopping and water-parking is a nice break from the cold icy winters northern Alberta is known for.

I won’t recommend you go to Edmonton just to see the mall. But if you happen to be in the vicinity, and have never seen the place, check it out. Just so you can say you’ve been in the largest mall in North America.

And then check out what else Edmonton has to offer. For more on that, stay tuned.

Ice rink