• Category Archives Vacation
  • Durham Region, Ontario

    Growing up in Durham Region, I have to admit that I didn’t necessarily associate the area with more upscale travel.  But I figured I had to be missing something.  So I sat down with Kerri King, Manager of Tourism for Durham Region to find out what.

    Durham Region, Ontario, con't >>



  • Finger Lakes, New York

    The Finger Lakes are of New York State is a treasure trove for photographers, hikers and wine lovers.  The many state parks and forests that sit in what is the heart of New York wine country are definitely underrated gems, particularly so for those interested in waterfalls.  In the fall of 2008, I visited the area for a week, hiking in 5 state parks and checking out several of the wine routes.

    The main towns in the area are Watkins Glen, Corning and Ithaca.  Watkins Glen may be better known for its famous road racing coarse.  Corning, of course, is the home of Corning Glass and Ithaca is where the Ivy League school Cornell University is located.  The drive from Toronto to Watkins Glen is about five hours and from New York City about the same.  The town of Watkins Glen sits at the south end of Seneca Lake.  Corning and Ithaca are both about 40 to 50 minutes by car from Watkins Glen.  I’m referencing other points to Watkins Glen because that’s where I stayed.

    Right in Watkins Glen on Rt 14 is Watkins Glen State Park.  Unquestionably the best maintained of the all the parks I visited, WGSP offers a cornucopia of possibilities for landscape and nature photographers.  The Gorge Trail is about 2 miles long, has over 800 stairs and rises 500 vertical feet.  The trail is extremely well maintained.  There are garbage cans along the trail (most of the parks are carry in/carry out).  The hike is not difficult except for the climbing and you will do a lot of climbing.  Particularly at the end of the hike up the trail, the stairway out of the gorge is going to hurt a little.  The footing is sound due to the stairs and maintenance of the trail.  You’ll cross over the gorge a few times on the walk.  There are rest stops at both top and bottom, a gift shop at the bottom and vending machines to get a cold drink at both ends.  There are a few places along the trail you can rest as well.  At some points during the year, shuttles are available to take you from top to bottom or vice versa so you can hike in just one direction if you want.  I’d recommend hiking both directions because views and photo opportunities are different going each way.  Light will be different as well which may make for better opportunities going in one direction vs. the other.  The shuttles operate mainly during the summer season and on weekends in the spring and fall.  Check with the park for more information on the shuttle service.

    With nearly 20 individual falls along the trail, plan to spend a couple hours going each way.  The trail and the falls look very different going down from going up and you’ll get some different and interesting framing in both directions.  The trail map shows the main sections of the route.

    Spiral Gorge is particularly interesting and there are plenty of other opportunities within this section of the trail.

    Spiral Gorge

    The Rainbow Falls area is also one where there are lots of possibilities from both above and below.

    Rainbow Falls

    In this next photo, you can see how the glacial erosion over thousands of years has cut and carved through the bedrock.

    Cascading Falls

    The park is open year round but the Gorge Trail is closed in winter.  The colours in autumn are spectacular!  If you want great volumes of water then going soon after the trail opens in May would be your best bet.

    Robert H. Treman State Park is another in the area with some terrific waterfalls.  A little southwest of Ithaca, Treman SP is about a 40 to 45 minute drive from Watkins Glen.  The best attraction is Lucifer Falls as the top of the Gorge Trail.  The Gorge Trail runs a little over two miles and rises 600 vertical feet.  The hike would be classed as moderate to difficult.  Difficult because some of the trail sections aren’t well maintained.  Stairs are heaved in some places making climbing on them more difficult.  If you want to forego the walk up from the bottom entrance, you can enter at the top and make the short walk down the trail, perhaps half a mile, to the falls then walk back out.  But what fun is that?  Whichever way you go, make sure you take note of the sunset and plan your time accordingly.  Trying to walk down the trail in darkness isn’t overly easy (don’t ask me now I know that :-) ).  Timex Indiglo watches do provide a surprising amount of light; however.

    Lucifer Falls

    Just a little way above Lucifer Falls is Upper Falls.  It’s difficult to get a good shot of this one unless you’re willing to climb down into the gorge and walk along the riverbed.  This is not, I don’t believe, generally permitted so do so at your own risk.

    Upper Falls

    If you’re walking down from the top, as you make your way into the gorge and begin walking the trail, the light may be right to get some shots from the top of Upper Falls as well.

    Trail to Upper Falls from the top

    At the top, you’ll find an old mill that has been preserved.  Inside the building are public washrooms.  To the river side of the mill is another small cascade that zigs and zags down the rocks and you can get some interesting interplay between light and shadow depending on the time of day.

    For a change of pace, and a much easier walk, Taughannock Falls State Park is the desired destination.  The Gorge Trail here is flat and only 3/4 of a mile long.  The easy walk along a wide, well groomed trail brings you to Taughannock Falls.  Walking into this waterfall is like walking into a giant amphitheatre made of rock.  The fall itself is over 200 feet high.  The rock walls leading out from the fall rise to over 400 feet from the riverbed.  The flow of water over the cliff will vary greatly depending on time of year and amount of rainfall.  It had been a fairly dry late summer when I visited so there was little more than a ribbon of water flowing over the edge.  In spring after the melt or in rainier times, the flow is much greater.

    Further up the river is another fall – Upper Falls.  You can’t get to it from the Gorge Trail but you can from either the North Rim or South Rim trails.  Unfortunately the Gorge Trail doesn’t meet up with either of these so you’ll need to walk out and back in again if you want to get to Upper Falls.  Or you can drive out and park at the upper end of the trail and walk back in the short distance to Upper Falls.

    A short, 2 minute drive from Treman SP is Buttermilk Falls State Park.  Both can be visited in a single day if desired.  Of the five parks I visited, Buttermilk was the most disappointing and if I had to leave one out, this would be the one.  Buttermilk Falls is a long, sloping cascade that looks like it would make a great toboggan hill in winter.  It’s accessible from the parking lot at the lower entrance to the park and there’s not a lot of reason to go much further except for the walk.  Unfortunately.  The vertical drop from top to bottom is about 400 to 500 feet.  The Gorge Trail is a little under a mile but it is steep.  You can cross Buttermilk Creek near the top of the Gorge Trail at Pinnacle Rock or right at the top and connect back with the Rim Trail for a different route back down.  The trail is very steep in places with no stairs to help.  There are stairs in some other segments of the trail.  A good, sturdy walking staff will help and you’ll be grabbing onto trees and roots in places to help pull yourself up.  Due to the steep climbs  and lack of stairs, I’d rate his trail as moderate to difficult.

    There are some potentially interesting shots along the way but, sadly, these are largely obstructed by trees.

    While it’s called the Gorge Trail and while the gorge is visible on some parts of the trail, unlike the other parks, you’re not often very close to the gorge or the creek.  In many places, the trail is really more of a rim trail, taking you along the top of  the gorge.  The roughness of the ground makes setting up a tripod difficult.  And the placement of a chest high fence along the edge of the trail impedes camera angles.

    Pinnacle Rock, near the top of the trail is an interesting natural formation.  It’s a lone outcropping of rock that has been created by the erosion of water between it and the wall of the gorge.  Getting a good photo of it is difficult.  On the day I visited the light wasn’t in my favour and any direction I tried to shoot from I was getting a lot of flare.  You have to be fairly close to the formation to frame it as well which makes apparent perspective distortion an unpleasant side effect.

    In the upper half of the Gorge Trail, you begin to get closer to the water, walking right beside the creek bed at some points.  It’s in this area that some of the better photo possibilities are available.  Stupidly, I left my spare batteries at the hotel on this morning so didn’t get some of the better shots at this end of the trail.

    Buttermilk Falls SP

    Allow an hour to 75 minutes for the hike up and a similar time for the walk back down.  There’s not a lot of difference in time to get back down whether you come back down the Gorge Trail or cross over the creek to the Rim Trail.

    There’s also the Larch Meadow Trail which is across the creek from the lower parking area and beyond the baseball fields which are visible upon crossing the creek on the roadway.  This trail is supposed to be very good for wildlife and birds.  I didn’t hike it myself but am relating what was told to me by locals.  Locals know.

    The last park on this trip was Letchworth State Park.  I only had a day to visit this one but you can spend several days quite easily.  It’s well worth it.  Nickhamed ‘The Grand Canyon of the East’, the reason for the moniker becomes readily apparent when you start walking the trails.  Deep, wide canyons have been cut by the water and wind through the park.  Letchworth SP is about 60 miles from Watkins Glen and it takes about 90 minutes to 2 hours to drive depending on traffic, route taken and construction.  You can enter from the north or south end.  If you want to hike the Gorge Trail, entering from the south at the Portageville entrance and parking in the small lot near the railroad trestle would be optimal because this is closest to the trailhead.  If you drive in from the north, it’s about a 10 mile drive to get to this parking lot.

    The Gorge Trail is roughly 7 miles long.  There are three main waterfalls on the route with numerous other smaller ones that can be seen as well.  The three main ones are Upper, Middle and Lower Falls.  Lower Falls is roughly half way along the trail.  I’m not certain of the exact vertical but it is several hundred feet from the head of the trail to Lower Falls.  The trail is fairly well marked.  It’s well maintained in some places but less so in others.  There are some steep climbs.  In places, stairs have heaved or are missing entirely.  Some steep climbs don’t have stairs at all and in others the height of the steps is significant.  Overall, I’d rate this trail as moderate and difficult in places.  At times during the year the segment of the trail that leads to Lower Falls may be impassable due to wet conditions.  When I visited, despite  it having been a dry late summer and autumn, this part of the trail was quite wet which made walking difficult in places.  The climb in and out of the gorge to and from Lower Falls is long and steady with little break in the slope.  Be prepared.  The trail does pass through some forested areas which provide shade and a respite from the climbs.  At Lower Falls there’s a bridge over the river which allows you to connect to the Portage or Footbridge trials.

    One of the most popular viewing spots for Middle and Upper Falls is Inspiration Point.  If you get the right angle, you can from both falls in the shot.

    Where to Stay:  There are numerous hotels, motels and inns in the area.  I stayed at the Golden Knight Inn on Rt 14 just outside of Watkins Glen.  It was clean and the owners were very friendly and helpful.  The decor is a bit dated but that’s fine.  The water gets hot in the shower very quickly and you don’t get scalded or frozen when someone in another room turns on their water nor does the pressure change much (something not even a lot of high end hotels can say).  Wireless internet is available.  When I was there  you needed to be close to the offices to use it, so if you need it make sure to as for a room in range of their router.

    Where to Eat:  Montage Restaurant – Avoid.  The carpet is dirty and grungy.  The food is truly awful.  Rooster Fish Brewing/Wildflower Cafe – Excellent brewpub.  Very nice selection of beers brewed on site.  Food is good.  Comes to the table hot.  Bread is baked in house and is very tasty.  Hours are a bit odd.  I went to eat about 9:00 on a Saturday evening (admittedly not in high tourist season) and was told they were closing the dining room but I could get food in the pub.  Closing at 9:00 on a Saturday?  Still, good food and friendly staff.  Jerlando’s Pizza – decent food.  Probably a 3 to 3 1/2 stars out of 5.  The food is hot.  My pasta was cooked a little past al dente but it wasn’t mush.  The meatballs had good flavour.  The pizza is just OK but it’s hard to find good pizza.  On another trip to the area I’d eat there again.  Seneca Harbor Station – not a pleasant experience.  Waited at the entrance for 10 minutes before anyone asked if I wanted a table.  Perhaps they thought I was waiting for someone else but they should have asked.  It was busy the night I was there.  Maybe that says something, maybe not.  It’s passable seafood but that’s about all.  Not spectacular, not even really good.  The service was fast and curt.  Too fast, really.  Courses followed on each other before the previous course was finished.  If you’re looking for a somewhat leisurely dining experience, this isn’t it.  The staff were very indifferent.  It felt as though my being there was an inconvenience and that they were doing me a favour by serving me.  Not a pleasant experience.  Savard’s Family Restaurant – good place for breakfast.  Typical diner fare.  Served hot.  Lots of food.  Good prices.

    What Else To Do:  Corning has the Corning Glass Museum which includes glass blowing demonstrations.  There are numerous other state parks and nature areas in the region including Finger Lakes National Forest, Cayuga Nature Center and on the campus at Cornell University are Sapsucker Woods Sanctuary and the Cornell Plantation.

    As I mentioned at the top of the article, the area is the heart of New York wine country.  The Finger Lakes Wine Country website has a wealth of information.  I did parts of the Seneca Lake and Cayuga Lake wine trails.  There are a lot of really good wines being made in the area, but quality is still hit and miss as not all the wineries are up to the same level.  Prices are reasonable for the most part and some of the wineries are doing some experimenting.  A couple of the wineries are having success with the Zinfandel grape.  One is growing the grapes on site and burying the tender vines in the winter for protection.  The other is having the fruit shipped in from California.



  • Carnival, Trinidad

    Elaborate, brightly coloured costumes. Beautiful women – and men to be fair – at every turn of the head. The driving bass beat of Soca. The crisp, ringing notes of steel pan. The lilting lyricism of Calypso. Bright, hot sunlight – in February. The smoky, sweet aroma of barbecue. Dancing in the streets night and day. This is the sensory overload, the hedonistic celebration, that is Carnival in Trinidad

    carnival-2_lo1

    Months of planning and weeks of fêtes culminate in a two-day bacchanal celebrating life before the beginning of Lent.

    J’ouvert (pronounced joovay) marks the beginning of the two-day, almost non-stop apex of Carnival. Revelers take to the streets in the wee hours of the morning, caking themselves in mud or smearing themselves with paint and dance to music with a beat so strong it cuts to your very core. The dance is the ‘chip’. J’ouvert evokes a time in Trinidadian history when slaves rose up against their owners, using mud to disguise their appearances. Want to just step outside to get a glimpse of the goings on? Nope. J’ouvert is a participation sport. J’ouvert celebrants consider it their duty to ensure anyone they encounter who isn’t muddied becomes so immediately. Resistance is futile. Surrender yourself. Wear old clothes or better yet a swimsuit. Get dirty. Celebrate. It washes off.

    Festivities begin to quiet down around 9:00 in the morning but don’t stop completely. It’s just a short lull before getting ramped up again an hour or so later. Locals head back home and visitors back to their hotels to get cleaned up and ready for Carnival Monday.

    Carnival Monday is practice day, if you will, for the big performance on Tuesday. The last, and biggest, event of Carnival is a day long parade through the streets of Port of Spain on Tuesday. Monday is the dress rehearsal, without all the dress. Bands travel the parade route working on their routines at each official judging station; although no judging takes place on Monday. They make sure everything is ready for the final performance the following day. There’s no less of a jubilant atmosphere though. The only things missing are the colourful, extravagant costumes that band members will don the next day. Young and old, large and small, thick and thin. It doesn’t matter; everyone takes part in the festivities somehow.

    carnival-1_11

    If it’s possible, the music may even be louder and the excitement even greater on Tuesday. The numbers of people lining the parade route seem to have grown exponentially from the previous day. The feeling of celebration, the scale of the grandeur, the sense of vitality of life are all amped up to an even higher level.

    As the bands work their way along the parade route, the music is so driving and the party atmosphere so infectious that even if you’ve never danced a step in your life you begin to feel yourself moving to the beat. You actually welcome a break between bands to sit on the side of the road and rest for a short while. But are ready to jump back up and go again when the next group comes along. You can’t help yourself.

    And the costumes are incredibly ornate. Colourfully beaded wardrobes. Large, intensely hued feathers. Intricate and rich body painting. Large, wheeled floats decorated with over-sized animal and insect caricatures pulled by a single person. Carnival Tuesday is a cornucopia of chromaticity.

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    Bands performing in Carnival pick a theme and that theme weaves its way into the costumes the performers wear and routines they perform. In some cases, the bands let the costumes represent the theme and just dance to the music. In others, routines are carefully choreographed and music specifically chosen to evoke a feeling or send a message. After all the bands have performed for the judges, a winning group is chosen. The winner for 2009 – for the third year in a row – was sponsored, themed and choreographed by a local named Brian MacFarlane. His theme was Africa: Her People, Her Glory, Her Tears. Over 1,200 performers strong and separated into 19 different sections, the members were dressed to represent different countries of the African continent. Each of their dances was choreographed to display the traditions of the country or convey the feeling of the message. Intricate, stirring dances of African tribal warriors set to pounding, jungle drumbeats or slow, flowing movements to more somber music to represent the sadness of loss. One section was dressed in long, flowing robes with children’s faces painted on the gowns. The faces were those of AIDS orphans. The emotion conveyed by the music, the movements and the wardrobes was strong.

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    Carnival ends with the Last Lap. Bands make a final circuit around the parade route for one final round of celebration before festivities conclude at midnight – the beginning of Ash Wednesday and the start of Lent.

    Carnival is a celebration that captures the entirety of the mind, body and spirit. It’s an affirmation of life. It’s an event that should be experienced at least once in a lifetime.

    Fast Facts: Trinidad is the southernmost island of the chain making up the Caribbean Islands, sitting just off the northeast coast of Venezuela. Population – approx. 1.3 million (Trinidad & Tobago). Capital city – Port of Spain. Major cultural groups – African and East Indian. Main religions – Catholicism, Islam and Hindu. Land mass – 4,768 sq. km (about 15% smaller than Prince Edward Island). Political parties – Aligned primarily along racial lines. People’s National Movement (African) and United National Congress (Indian) are the two major parties. Trinidad is the industrial centre for the Caribbean. Oil and gas production is the major industry. Steel and manufacturing are also significant. Tourism is not a large part of Trinidad’s GDP, accounting for between 2% and 3%.

    Getting There: Caribbean Airlines flies out of Toronto, as do major U.S. airlines such as American, Delta and Continental. From other larger Canadian cities, the U.S. airlines are the only option. Neither Air Canada nor WestJet fly to Port of Spain.

    Getting Around: Rental cars are available. Trinidad is a former British colony so cars are right-hand drive and they drive on the left side of the road. This takes some getting used to. Drivers in Trinidad are also quite erratic and unpredictable. Best bet is to use taxis or walk. Taxis are privately operated and you can tell a taxi by the license plate, having an H at the beginning of the plate number. The major hotels don’t offer airport shuttle service but a reserve taxi service is available. Pretty much every hour in Trinidad is rush hour so leave yourself plenty of time to get to where you’re going and be prepared for traffic tie-ups.

    Where to Stay: Many of the major hotel chains have locations in Port of Spain. Hilton, Hyatt, Holiday Inn Express, Courtyard by Marriott, Crowne Plaza are examples. Smaller hotels and guesthouses are available but the quality is widely variable. Staying in a major hotel is the better option. Book early, as Carnival is a popular event and be prepared for price increases during this period.

    What to Eat: Most of the major fast food chains are established in Trinidad. Local restaurants are available, of course, but the quality discrepancy is wide. Ask at your hotel for recommendations. Local dishes include bake & shark which is sort of like a shark burger on a fried bread bun, doubles which is curried chick peas eaten in two small naan-like breads, corn soup and, of course, roti. Little salt is used in cooking so add some garlic sauce and tamarind sauce to zip up the flavour of the bake & shark. Chicken is very popular. The reason for this is that the three major religious groups have restrictions on beef and pork so chicken and fish are the major proteins. Shark, marlin, dolphin and other tropical fish are plentiful. If you really want to experience the cultural diversity in the food, try foods from some of the roadside stands in Port of Spain and the outlying towns. If you like your coffee, the chain called Rituals is comparable to coffee chains we have in Canada. When you’re asked if you want pepper, it’s not the stuff we shake on our food, it’s pepper sauce and it’s HOT. “Slight pepper” is the operative phrase.

    Other Things to Do: Port of Spain has a very nice botanical garden. Given the climate, things are in bloom year round. There’s also a good zoo adjacent to the botanical garden. The Trinidad Outdoors website at www.trinoutdoors.com is a good place to research other activities in Trinidad and Tobago (the neighbouring island). The beaches on the north and south coasts are quite good but are a 1 to 2 hour drive depending on where you’re staying. The beaches on Tobago are spectacular. It’s a roughly 3-hour ferry ride to get there. For birders, the Asa Wright Nature Centre near Arima is a terrific spot to watch and photograph a wide variety of tropical bird species.

    Weather: Trinidad’s climate is hot and humid. Daytime temperatures during February are in the range of 30 to 35 degrees Celsius with humidity in the 60% area. Nighttime temperatures are more reasonable for sleeping, dropping down to the low 20s. There is often a pleasant breeze, which helps immensely, and short rain showers help to cool things off.

    Health: STD rates, including HIV/AIDS, in Trinidad are fairly high. The Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta recommends immunization for Yellow Fever, Typhoid, Hepatitis A &B and Dukorol, which is a prophylaxis for traveler’s diarrhea. Check with your health care provider to find out what may be needed for your particular situation. Your arm will hurt a little for about a day after the Yellow Fever vaccine. Your arm will be very sore, perhaps with limited use and mobility, for a good two days after the Typhoid vaccine. The water is potable.

    Safety: Crime is becoming a problem in Trinidad. Foreign Affairs Canada puts Trinidad on a level 2 warning at the time of writing that says, “Exercise a High Degree of Caution”. See their website at www.voyage.gc.ca for more information. I did not feel unsafe generally while there. There was only one time during Carnival Tuesday that I felt there might be a problem and that was with a local having designs on my camera.

    Electrical: 120v same as Canada. Electrical outlets are the same 3-prong design as in Canada so no outlet adapter is necessary.