Gone with the Wind in Charleston 

 As soon as you step off the plane you are hit with the searing 95% humidity associated with the tropics. Every pore in your body goes from standby mode into full operational onslaught within nano seconds of exposure to the moisture laden air. Similarly your freshly ironed cotton shirt looks like a damp rag and anything you are wearing containing Lycra will have to be surgically removed if you don’t immediately seek refuge in an air conditioned environment
Welcome to Dixie

Travelling into Charleston from the airport – the loveliest introduction to a what turns out to be an even lovelier city – via the Ashley River road is a low country treat. Flanking the River Ashley – one of Charleston’s 2 main river systems – this wide sinuous road, home to many of the magnificent Plantation Estates of the South Carolinas has a delightfully rural feel, lined with ancient oaks and magnolias and embraced with spanish moss hanging in feathery festoons overhead and across the banks of the river.

You know you’ve entered the city’s core as soon the tar macadam gives way to mottled pink and ochre cobbles.

When your car has to give way to one of many horse and carriages that thread their way up and down the mainly residential lane ways from The Battery into the heart of the city by the old market buildings.

When you appear to pass through into an alternate reality of streets lined with gracious 17 century white and pastel antebellum houses, wedding cake affairs tiered with 3-sided verandas all facing the same direction in a bid to capture the breezes coming off the sea.

These are the famous “Charleston Single Houses”, homes which have form and function perfectly suited to the hot, humid local climate. One- room wide with the narrow end of the house facing the street they usually have Two-story piazzas (verandas) stretching down the windward side


*Take a rikshaw ride at dusk around the Battery and White Point Gardens. This area is home to the grandest most exclusive  Charlestonian mansions – built here for maximum exposure to the Atlantic breezes funnelled up through the inlet of Charleston Harbour.

* I know it’s touristy but a carriage ride with an excellent guide is a MUST – we had a highly entertaining couple of hours with “Charleston Carriage Works” who are based near Meeting Street just behind the market

*A ferry to the notorious Fort Sumter the place where the American civil war kicked off in 1861. Tickets for this trip are available only through the National Parks site

* Hire a car and visit a few of the gracious old world plantations that line the Ashley River. We visited Magnolia Plantation, Middleton place (only the lodge house remains after fire however the restaurant is lovely as are the grounds). We also visited the rather sad remains of the once significant Drayton Hall. Funds are being raised by Drayton Hall historic trust to restore this beautiful estate to its former glory.

*”Hang onto the car an extra day and go to Morris Island with its amazing beach community, and lighthouse.

*Back in the city, the most effective way of covering Charleston’s richest concentration of cultural heritage sites is to stroll the one-mile section of Meeting Street called “Museum Mile”. You will discover six museums, five nationally important historic houses, four scenic parks and a Revolutionary War powder magazine, as well as numerous historic houses of worship and public buildings including the Market and City Hall

Aiken-Rhett House

The Charleston Museum

Childrens Museum of the Lowcountry

Joseph Manigault House

Washington Light Infantry

Confederate Museum

The Powder Magazine

Gibbes Museum of Art

Old Slave Mart Museum

South Carolina Historical Society

Postal Museum

Heyward-Washington House

Nathaniel Russell House Museum

Old Exchange & Provost Dungeon (Take a guided tour and hear about the various escapes, the hidden cache of gunpowder and the ghosts – yes you can do a ghost tour of this historic building but book in advance. This part of the city is a maze of underground tunnels)

Edmondston-Alston House


If you still have tune to spare Spend a few hours in the Meeting Place Market browsing fragrant sweet grass souvenirs and straw hats.

A trip to Charleston is nothing you are without an understanding of the foundation upon which the city’s prosperity and social hierarchy was built. The picture painted by the exhibits and  accounts at The Old Slave Mart ( see above) are not for the faint hearted. The legacy of the slave trade still lives on on this part of the world, deeply embedded in the psyche of the ruling Charlestonian class and interwoven into the very fabric of current Charleston high society.
Finally no visit to Charleston can be complete without an out of town visit to Charles Towne Landing to see where it all began in 1670

Accompanying reading:

“The Girl from the South” – Joanna Trollope

“The invention of Wings” – Sue Monk -Kidd

Any of the “Virals” series by Kathy Reichs
Over and out


Cottage Country in The City – Toronto Islands



Knocking on the front door of the downtown city core is Toronto’s secret garden – a small cluster of islands, just over a kilometer across the harbour.

Bring your visitors…

Bring your kids, your bikes, your dog, a picnic, your bathing suit or just yourself.

No Bike? – hire one at the pier on Centre Island

No picnic? – a couple of places you can buy decent nosh on the islands: see below

No swimming togs? – go visit the “clothing optional” beach on Hanlan Island!!

Whatever your “preference” this is a cliched “something for everybody” affair and large enough to swallow boatloads of visitors and residents that arrive by way of three ferry entry points – Hanlans Point (far West of Island near Airport); Centre Island (all aboard for Centreville and central beaches); and my favourites Ward and Algonquin Islands (the two easternmost communities)

Brief island genealogy:
To the east
Ward’s Island, actually the east section of the old peninsula, was named after the Ward family who first settled here about 1830. David Ward, a local fisherman, raised seven children. His son, William, built the iconic Ward’s Hotel in 1882, just south of the ferry docks at Channel Avenue. Sadly this was demolished in 1966.
By the 1880s the Ward’s Island community began as a settlement of tents which by 1913, had increased to the point where the city organized the community into street; tents gave way to small cottages which eventually evolved into a cottage community.

To the the west:
Amongst the first year-round inhabitants, were the Hanlan family who settled at Gibraltar Point in 1862. This area became a summer cottage community with John Hanlan building another hotel at what is still called Hanlan’s point on the north west tip of the island. Ned Hanlan, (John’s son) earned international repute as a world class rowing champion.

Cue Centre Island which became THE place to have your Grand Country Mansion following the relocation of the Royal Canadian Yacht Club to the north shore.
Now that this is one if the only structures visible on the Islands from Toronto Lakeshore, it’s impossible to imagine that during the late 19 century the north shore of the Islands (Both on Centre and Hanlan’s) resembled Blackpool in its heyday with these grand mansions, an amusement park and a Ball Park made famous by Babe Ruth.
Centre Island is now home to “Centreparc”and “Far Enough Farm” and is the relatively “crowded” part of the Island archipelago. Also home to a guided tram tour; formal Gardens and Waterfalls; bike, tandem and buggy hire and beaches plus a small pier. All sorts of sporting events take place off this Island plus you can hire canoes and kayaks here.

In 1915 the “rot” started when a small hanger was built at the beach by the Curtiss Flying School. This float plane aerodrome was used for flight training for World War I. In 1937 the stadium and amusement park made way for a new larger airport which also led to the displacement of the Hanlan’s Point Cottage Community, many of whom physically barged their homes round to the newly reclaimed Algonquin Island adjacent to Ward’s.

During the 1950’s the Island residential community extended from Ward’s Island to Hanlan’s Point, and was made up of some 630 cottages and homes, many of which extended along the then unprotected boardwalk (the sea wall was added later). Now only a whisper of evidence of habitation along this walkway exists (apart from a couple of existing buildings: The Rectory Hotel and the Sunrise Senior’s Home). Now you have to look really hard amongst the lush, wild vegetation for a few ragged openings and the skeletons of bygone concrete paths. At the time though this thriving community had a movie theatre, a bowling alley, stores, hotels, and dance halls which were razed to the ground around 1955 by Metropolitan Toronto Council to make way for Parkland. Since that time right up to 1993, the Islander’s have fought many battles for the survival of their communities. Now Islanders own 99 year land leases from a Land Trust. For anyone wanting to live the idyll (beware the winter season though!), be warned: these houses are not for sale on the open market and only available through the Trust. If you are interested, you will sign up to be placed at the bottom of a long line up (literally a list) of potential purchasers. When a property comes up for sale it will be offered to around 100 folk on the list with the person at the top taking priority. Islanders may only bequeath their properties to a spouse or offspring.

Favourite Places.
The Ferry Ride itself
Whether its the Hanlan’s Point, Ward Island or Centre Isle Ferry – here is a chance to view the magnificent skyline for a mere $7.00 return. The best value Ferry ride is a late ferry back from Ward’s Island as this car ferry often sails west along the shore to pick up folk from the far west of the Islands at Hanlan’s Point, so you get a 30 minute scenic ride.

The Boardwalk end of the Beach on Ward’s Island – in essence this end of a long sandy beach is like a little sheltered cove snugged up to the boardwalk with tree and rock fringed sand and an almost constant northerly breeze.

The Island Cafe – Open till 8pm in the summer months but closed during the winter; this is a family run entity opening off the Community Centre (think Bowling alley. tennis court and cute Community Hall. Serves amazing lemonade, delectable home-made deserts, and great espresso. Add to that a varied bistro-styled dining menu including house-smoked fish and an excellent selection of ice cream served either in the tiny bar area, on the patio, alfresco under a raised pergola affair or in the shady nook of the covered porch. This is the closest I’ve gotten to Cornish paint-washed casual barefoot beach- chic. Just gorgeous and worth the Ferry ride just to sit out here of an evening.

The Rectory Cafe
The shady loveliness of this “open all year round” Restaurant/Cafe (check website for details –  http://www.therectorycafe.com  is what attracts visitors to Ward and Algonquin Island. Accessible both from the road leading west from the Ward Island Ferry terminal and from the boardwalk, this has to be one of the nicest patios in Toronto

The Island Marina Cafe
A bit off the tourist route – as it is part of the workaday Island Marina just to the west of the Centre Island Ferry Point. With great views of the Lakeshore, a private tender will ferry you to and from York Quay. Beer, coffees and snacks available here for those who want to get away from Centre Island Madness.

Far Enough Farm
Love visiting the horses and animals here – you can toddle through here on the 2 km walk to Ward Island (if you feel so inclined). Unfortunately you have to run the gamut of CentreParc – and all the excited kids – to visit this but get there first thing in the morning and even that is bearable. In fairness some of the Centreparc rides are country cute and swaddled in trees and gardens so not your average amusement park

Walking around Algonquin and Ward Island’s cottage communities; exploring the tiny lane way maze that winds in and around these cottages. If you like cottage gardens, tangled foliage, quirky garden ornaments and house decor layered with spectacular glimpses of the Toronto skyline, then this is for you.



Update – new event at Downton Abbey at Spadina House

Downton Abbey

Downton Abbey (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

English: Spadina House

English: Spadina House (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Downton Abbey Garden Party to be held on June 23 – dance the Charleston on the lawns of this historic house -see website below for details

A short and sweet post this week just to get this wonderful nugget of Toronto sightseeing “òut there“

For all die-hard Downton Abbey fans, this is a real treat.

On Thursday evenings and Sunday mornings until the end of June, historic Spadina House has joined forces with Vision TV (who run the Downton Abbey series) to present a Downton Abbey focussed event.
Just as the Downton Abbey series focused its start of season with the “goings-on on” “Downstairs” so this tour starts in the servant`s quarters of the newly opened 3rd floor and moves through the house giving fans the chance to compare the fictional world of the television drama and its characters with the real life stories of the Austin family who resided in Spadina House during the same period. There is plenty of time for discussion and Crawley- Austin family chat

Thursday evenings at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday afternoons at 2:30 p.m. until the end of June.

And when you’ve had your Downton Abbey fix, you can explore other facets of this beautifully preserved manor and its gardens which were restored to reflect the art, decor and architecture styles from the 1860`s through to the 1930`s, This coincides with the occupation of the house by the Austin family with fine examples of the prevailing styles within that period namely Victorian, Edwardian, Arts and Crafts, Art Deco, Art Nouveau and Colonial Revival.


Over and Out

Old Montreal – stepping into 1725


With many visits to Montreal under our belt, we’ve either stayed in auberges in the Laurentians or in modern city hotels outside the cobble-stoned old port area.
Without a car this time and primarily here to experience “Nuit Blanche” french style, we decided to immerse ourselves totally in the “old port” experience for 5 days.
“Montreal en Lumiere” gave us the perfect opportunity to visit a Montreal frosted with snow. And to explore on foot (and by a metro transit system identical to that of Paris) its wonderful museums; truly atmospheric restaurants; chic coffee bars and famed jazz scene – from our base “Hotel Pierre du Calvet”.

The Calvet house was built in 1725 under the French regime literally under the city’s fortified walls. It is the oldest historical house open for public accommodation in Montreal.

This place defies description.
Leaving the snow and ice encrusted street you enter the Hotel and open the door into the warmth of a different century.
Some quick word pictures to convey the rapid-fire impressions that blew my mind on my first visit:

2ft thick stone walls pierced by S-shaped metal ties and embedded with massive wooden door lintels.

Blood red beamed ceilings
Panelled wood and shuttered casement windows.

Swathes of brocaded velvet, satin and lace at the windows.

Faded tapestry bedspreads and table linen.

Moroccan rugs playing footsie with each other – tassel to tassel on giant flagstone floors.

An airy mirrored conservatory iced with decorative mouldings and crowned with glass; framed with floor to ceiling mirrors that give the room the illusion that it goes on forever – reflections reflecting upon each other.

In true Victorian style, cages housing exotic birds in a mirrored corner – a giant turquoise cockatoo perched on top of his palatial cage adjacent to an overstuffed sofa and empire coffee table chest strewn with French newspapers.

Dodge his tail feathers as you move towards the rows of cages housing doves and other exotic birds.The entire hotel resonates with the cooing of 6 doves and the cheeky “hellos” and wolf whistling from two cockatoos. It feels like Singapore.

The building has been modified with outside walls incorporated into the fabric of the hotel. A labyrinth of narrow stairs, creaking floorboards and areas that widen into lounging enclaves lead you to your room.

Initial impression of room – whoa – dark, dark , dark. When your eyes get used to the dimness, the blurred edges of huge pieces of gilded empire style furniture start to emerge from the gloom – a massive Armoire; a tiny luscious en-suite, a lounge area; antique bloomed mirrors everywhere. Best of all a four poster bed fit for ‘Napoleon himself – you need to use the steps at the foot of the bed to climb into it.
Once under the sheets you get the impression of being cocooned in a fire- lit gilded cavern with the rest of the timber ceilinged room barely visible. A strategically placed fireplace mirror and ambient lighting gives a conflicting sense of never-ending space and claustrophobia.

Back downstairs the smell of the wax of a thousand candles pervades the air and adds another layer to the latent atmosphere of three hundred years of history.
It doesn’t appear to be haunted but it is exactly the sort if place that should be. A team of “ghost hunters” have expressed an interest in doing an investigation here!

The current owner Monsieur Trottier has lived in the building since 1962 during the time the environs of Old Montreal were destined for demolition.
Thanks to a forward thinking group of Montrealers – the Trottiers included – that didn’t happen and the wonderful 300 year Old Port area in all its original glory still exists today.
A little slice of Europe in this vast country.
One of the unusual aspects of staying in the Port area this time – a chance to experience bleeding ears when every ships and boat in the harbour – that had a horn – took part in a carefully orchestrated “Ship Horn symphony”. All the different tonal ranges producing a head-splitting cacophony of strident sound that continued for about 45 minutes.
Loud enough to wake the dead – the ghosts of Old Montreal.

Over and out

Now Ghosts can speak – Casa Loma ghost tour


I am well know amongst close family and friends for claiming to have a well-honed 6th sense; I “feel” and am susceptible to certain atmospheres in/or surrounding places or things.
That being said, have never had a personal physical paranormal experience – one that I can “own”
I have never seen a spirit,
I have never been touched by a spirit entity, witnessed orbs or shadows and I HAD never heard anything contextually inexplicable.

Until that is, I did my “ghost hunting” tour round Casa Loma on 1 November, (appropriately day of the dead ).

If you want to enhance your anticipated paranormal experience, you might as well do it in a spooky gothic castle.
And, if you want to increase your chances of experiencing anything at all, you might as well do it with an “experienced” Paranormal expert.

A ghost “hunting” tour at Casa Loma with the “Canada’s Most Haunted” team ticks both boxes.

With gadgets and voice recordings in tow, Michelle Desrochers of “Canada’s Most Haunted” eloquently walked us through the history of Casa Loma in general and the recorded (and researched) paranormal events in particular. It turns out that Michelle (Associate Director; Ghost Researcher, Sensitive Tour Guide, Event/Ghost Walk Tour Coordinator, Photographer, TV-Radio Host and chief bottle washer at CMH.) is a bit of a raconteur.
She resisted the opportunity to switch on the drama and recounted stories of myriad paranormal activities in a very matter of fact and rational way – which of course made it all the more believable! We were also talked through an amazing array of “equipment” explaining functionality, degree of “bullshit”, effectiveness and cost.

Although an avid voyeur of Britains television series “Most Haunted” where they appear to use nothing more complicated than night vision camcorders and flashlights, I hadn’t really given much thought to the fact that spirits don’t have voiceboxes do they? So, they either have to change the environment around them to formulate words/phrazes OR they can “speak” through a vehicle such as an “Ovilus”. This nifty piece of equipment -a sort of electronic medium – is your passport to the past. It converts environmental readings into real words and phonetic responses to questions. Blurb for something called the “Ovilus X “goes like this: “Theories suggest that spirits and other paranormal entities may be able to alter our environment and electromagnet frequencies and temperature. The Ovilus X takes advantage of this by using these frequencies to choose a response from a preset database of 2,048 words.
The idea behind this, is that an intelligent entity will be able to alter the environment in such a way that forces the Ovilus to “speak” a response appropriately”

Though less than 150 yrs old – Casa Loma has all the ingredients any self respecting spirit would “die for”
It has colorful history:
Aside from the family and staff, it housed a platoon of British redcoats.
Was a refuge for groups of Scottish orphan kids.
“Witnessed” it’s owner lose his fortune. It became a hotel and then degenerated through neglect for many years before being rescued by The City of Toronto and eventually opened to the public.
It has myriad nooks, crannies, unexplained walled-up spaces and secret passageways.
It has a maze of accessible turrets in the “attic”and rattling clanking plumbing in the basement.
It has in fact, gothic atmosphere in spades.

So it is fair to say that I and my buddy were pretty psyched (sorry) as we joined the two-part tour of this castle. The smallish (about 40) group was split into two and either started in the tunnels or the house and then swapped after about an hour – which included a guided anecdotal-filled trek around the designated areas with stop-offs in spirit “hot-spots” and 10 minutes or so in darkened rooms or tunnels doing impromptu Electronic voice phenomena (EVP) sessions.

Word to the wise / sit with your back against something impenetrable when doing EVP’s (doubt that’ll make much difference to a spirit ) to decrease vulnerability – ha!

So to my/our “weird” experience:
After a conducted group wander through the tunnels, stables and Gardners quarters we all had about 15 minutes to revisit areas of interest by ourselves. We ambled slowly back alone along the tunnel laughing at our own heightened and somewhat dampened expectations.
Then out of nowhere we heard what could only be described as a huge explosion! Laughing nervously – the words rabbit and headlights come to mind – we hi-tailed it out of the tunnel into the well lit environs of the basement area.

Arriving back at “base camp” aka The Great Hall, nobody else mentioned having heard anything even though there must have been at least 20 people in the vicinity.
So feeling rather foolish we kept it to ourselves. We probably deprived a lot of spirit-hungry folk the opportunity to get really excited about the smallest thing!
We know what we both heard and my pal is an eminently sensible non drama-Queen type so I know it wasn’t just my imagination.

So for the sake of argument let me just put this out there:
Given that Casa Loma had briefly been home to a platoon of British redcoats; had we – for a nano second – witnessed an opening of a paranormal portal to a parallel universe (try saying that really fast!).
Had we heard a single sound from a distant battle so terrifying that a long dead soldier’s memory of it is forever imprinted in the very fabric of the castle itself!

We’ll never know
What fun…..

Over and out

I HEART Hart House

This gem of gothic style architecture – across the road from University of Toronto ‘s Magdalen College Oxford inspired Emmanuel College – looking a tadge anachronistic amidst Toronto’s ever burgeoning tower-block dominated cityscape is situated in a swathe of glorious wooded parkland. This “hub” of U of T’s co-curricular activities encompasses a maze of Harry Potter, Hogwart- style stone corridors and vaulted ceilings leading to art collections, music rehearsal rooms, the fitness centre, a huge theatre, performance spaces, a student cafe and the timeless Gallery Grill perched high above the medieval styled Great Hall.
Commissioned by the Massey family and gifted to the University of Toronto by the Massey Foundation Hart House was designed by architect Henry Sproat – one of the last North American masters of the Gothic form – and engineer Ernest Rolph.

Construction began in 1911, and it opened on Remembrance Day, 1919.
Almost a century later Hart House is still embracing it’s original vision ” to
encourage and support activities that provide spaces for awakening the capacity for self-knowledge and self-expression.”
The following a sample of whats available within it’s walls:

Body in Motion
Creative Living & Careers
Voyage to Voice Discovery

weekly “Get Crafty” and drop in teas – free craft sessions in an informal setting – take home a finished project.


Yorkville Suzy

You cannot email her; she doesn’t “tweet”, she doesn’t have a website or a blog, in fact she is totally disconnected electronically.
But Suzy does her social networking in person and is probably one of the most “connected” people on the planet – connected that is at the most fundamental human level.
Known as “the scarf lady” of Yorkville, Suzy puts herself out there – literally – on the lane-ways of “label label” Yorkvillle and tells her stories through her tiny self-published books depicting Yorkville life before the high-end, high-rise invasion.
If you are not drawn to this tiny fine -boned vivacious ultra chic lady of indeterminate years, I would be amazed. She is not the type you would expect to approach you on the streets – in fact I thought she had stepped out of one of the street’s designer boutiques and was handing me a brochure.
She approached me ever so prettily with her huge smile and her “Twiggy” seventies-pretty eyes; stylish, immaculately dressed and made-up to perfection, she absolutely shone, She explained that she’d stopped me because I looked “artsy and hip”! translate that as scruffy and obviously not of from this area!
Anyway good start – I’ll take that……
Before I knew it I was listening intently as she deftly wove her stories of street folk and buskers, hippies and celebrities, the bohemian Toronto “Carnaby street” era of the 60’s, back-dropped by the landscape changes between then and now.
If you are at all curious about the more recent changes that Toronto has undergone and the impact of these changes on the tiny neighborhood and itinerant personalities of the Yorkville area, then you should seek out Suzy and her books
Or if you happen to be standing in the vicinity of Zaza espresso bar on the corner of Yorkville Avenue and Bellair Street, she will find you….
Over and out