Category: From the Sea

Route du Rhum yacht race celebrates 40th anniversary

prestigious solo Atlantic yacht race turns 40

This past November 2018,, the Route du Rhum celebrated its 40th anniversary from November 4 – 11. Here, from the vantage point of Fort La Latte 35km outside of Saint-Malo, a number of racing enthusiasts brave the chilly windy weather to get closer to the action in their own seafaring vessels.- photo by Nathalie Schneider

If you are booking a visit to Brittany, France in early November, one thing to keep in mind is a spectacular event that takes place every four years in the fortified seaside resort of Saint-Malo. Considered one of the biggest parties in Brittany, hundreds of thousands of yachting enthusiasts descend upon the historic 17th century French port on France’s northwest coast, to witness the launch of the Route du Rhum. This solo yacht race traces the rum route from Saint- Malo, France to Pointe-à-Pitre, Guadeloupe (an overseas region of France) located in part of the Lesser Antilles in the Caribbean. Guadeloupe is still to this day a major rum producer.

photo by Nathalie Schneider

This past November, the Route du Rhum celebrated its 40th anniversary from November 4 – 11 but most of the festivities take place over the launch weekend. This includes touring the docks of the multi-hulled race yachts and enjoying local cuisine and music. 

Along with numerous other Canadian lifestyle magazine editors, I was able to watch the early stage of the race from an incredible vantage point atop a turret at Fort La Latte, an impressive 13th century castle located about 35km west of Saint-Malo. We experienced spectacular views of the Baie de la Fresnaye along with about a hundred other excited local sailing enthusiasts with binoculars slung around their necks. 

The first competition was won in 1978 by Canadian yachting legend, Michael Birch on his boat, Olympus. Not a professional sailor when he entered, Birch completed the race after 28 days at sea and remarkably only won by 98 seconds. He is a legend in St. Malo now and attended the 40th anniversary of the launch. These days the vessels are much faster, with this year’s winner and new world record holder, 62-year old Francis Joyon, completing the race in just 7 days, 14 hours, 21 minutes and 47 seconds! The famous Breton yachtsman also held the world record from 2008 to 2016, for fastest single-handed sailing circumnavigation (Vendée Globe). Sleeping is one of the challenges in these solo races as the racers are only able to sleep for 20 minutes at a time.

More than 50% of the racers are from France and 70% of those are from the Brittany region.

These boats are built for speed. In 2006, the Route du Rhum had 60 boats competing in 4 categories. That number has more than doubled, with this year’s race featuring 124 boats in six distinct classes. Some of these multi-hulled (trimaran) yachts are as long as 31 metres, reaching velocities up to 90 kilometres per hour.

This event held every four years on the first Sunday in November, is an important contributor to St. Malo and Breton tourism. The area sells over 300,000 accommodation ‘nights’ with over 1.3 million visitors from Oct. 24 to race day – which in this case was on November 4. This provides an influx of over $50 million Euros to the local economy. Meanwhile there is big sponsorship and charity dollars involved with each racer.

The really unique thing about this race is essentially you start in the winter from the fortified city of St. Malo and complete it in hot summer-like weather in the Caribbean. So, although the winds can be cold and harsh at the start, things begin to warm up as the race progresses. 

Of note in this year’s race, British yachtsman, Alex Thomson was actually on course to complete it the fastest, but he had fallen asleep and ran ashore on Guadeloupe. After making some repairs he finished in first but it was ruled that because he had to power the boat to get back on course, he was disqualified.

Getting to Saint-Malo from Mississauga/Toronto

Fly to Paris www.airfrance.ca

From Paris take the TGV from Montparnasse station to Saint-Malo approx. 3 hours https://www.raileurope.ca

For more information about the Route Du Rhum visit: https://www.routedurhum.com/en

To learn more about the historic seaside resort town of Saint-Malo, visit: https://www.saint-malo-tourisme.com To discover more ideas for travelling throughout France visit: https://ca.france.fr/en

Bienvenue à Nantes

creative expression reignites a world-class city

above The Machines de l’Île featuring The Grand Elephant and Carousel of the Marine Worlds. photo by Franck Tomps, Le Voyage Á Nantes © Franck Tomps / LVAN

It’s unimaginable to expect a city to rise and flourish after losing its main economic arteries but Nantes, located in the Pays de la Loire region of France, has done just that.

The last time I visited the beautiful French province of Brittany, located in northwest France, was with my family for an extended stay at a farmhouse (gîte) near the historic town of Pontivy. 

I became enamoured with the rolling vineyard landscapes, the quaint villages of stone and timbered cottages, and the warm welcoming people. A twilight stroll along vineyard rows with a glass of wine in hand, as well as experiencing the Tour de France on a river bank in nearby Saint-Nicolas des Eaux (once again with glass of wine in hand), were also fond memories, which had me looking forward to discovering new areas in and around this beautiful region. 

Montparnasse Market, Paris, photo by Terence Lankstead

I’m feeling a great deal of excitement, chomping on a baguette with Beaufort cheese fresh from Montparnasse market, as our TGV (High Speed Train) from Paris rockets towards Rennes, Brittany’s gorgeous and historic capital city. Our tour group is also visiting the beautiful fortified city of Dinan and witnessing the launch of the 40th anniversary of the Route du Rhum solo yacht race from Saint-Malo. Combine this with spending a night at Mont-Saint-Michel, France’s most visited landmark outside Paris, and exploring the ever-evolving city of Nantes, and you have a recipe for a magnificent French experience.

Watching the 40th Route du Rhum yacht race from Fort La Latte, an impressive 13th century castle located about 35km west of Saint-Malo

Once a capital of the Duchy du Bretagne (Dukedom of Brittany) when it was an independent feudal state until the mid-1600s, Nantes served as the main home of the Ducs de Bretagne (Dukes of Brittany) in the 15th century. And its storybook castle, Château des Ducs de Bretagne still serves as an impressive Nantes attraction, complete with its own moat, drawbridge, fully enclosed courtyard and fantastic views from the turrets and castle keep. Since Brittany joined France in 1532 the castle, once regarded as the centre of Brittany, has served as a vacation residence for the kings of France, a military barracks and a prison. On my visit, the Chateau is featuring three major exhibits including ‘Vikings’ from the Swedish Historical Museum, ROCK a history of Nantes’ huge rock music scene – yes, it’s true Nantes is a major player in the French rock music scene – and the permanent museum collection featuring the urban history of Nantes.

Château des Ducs de Bretagne, Nantes, France. photo by Terence Lankstead

The chateau, museums, galleries and attractions, including the City Tour bus are all easily accessible with one city pass. The Pass Nantes, which is available at varying rates for one, two or three days, provides free access to more than 30 sites and all local transportation options as well as discounts on dining, shopping, and entertainment. I highly recommend it. 

Navigating around the city is super easy whether on foot, bicycle (Bicloos available) or public transport. You can walk the whole downtown area in a day, although two days are recommended if you plan to take in everything on the Voyage a Nantes Trail. Represented by a neon-green line painted along the sidewalks and city streets, the Voyage à Nantes Trail serves as a clever way to guide visitors to everything that is interesting and worth seeing within the city, including a lovely botanical gardens, a breathtaking 15th century cathedral, and an impressive newly-renovated art museum, Musée d’Arts de Nantes. Here you will find works by famous artists such as Picasso, Monet, Ingres, Seurat, Kandinsky and more. I’m lucky enough to take in an impressionist exhibit when I’m there. 

© Franck Tomps / LVAN

Also, along the green line you will discover the incredibly small ‘Micr’Home’ slotted five metres above ground between two shops in the city centre. This rentable living space covers a mere 26 square metres over three levels. Accessed by a drop-down iron ladder it features a living room/kitchen, bathroom/toilet and a bedroom. Other notable surprises include random public table tennis tables, a curved soccer field where both goals seemingly face the same way, numerous sculptures, and decorated storefronts. For a complete list of permanent installations visit www.levoyageanantes.fr

Nantes’ list of attractions is seemingly endless thanks mostly to the vision of local culturally inspired guru, Jean Blaise, who with the support of Mayor Jean Marc Ayrault in 2007, began the process of reinventing the struggling city of Nantes by introducing a biennial modern art journey called Estuaire. 

The city had been in dire straits after losing both its shipyards and biscuit manufacturing facilities in the late 80s. Nantes had been a major shipping centre in France as well as the birthplace of LU Biscuits, short for Lefevbre Utile, the famed biscuiterie that produces ‘Petit-Ecolier” (little schoolboy) embossed chocolate covered biscuits. The factory was shut down after LU was purchased by Kraft (now owned by Mondelez International) and the shipyard closed because coastal town, Saint-Nazaire, with its deeper basin just one-hour south, became the preferred choice for shipping and shipbuilding in the northwest. On our visit to Saint Nazaire they are putting the finishing touches on the newest Celebrity cruise ship. It’s monstrous.

With the city in need of inspiration, Blaise teamed up with Ayrault to work towards reinventing Nantes as a world-class tourist destination. And they achieved all of this, through art. First the Estuaire Arts Trail, established and evolving since 2007, features 30 permanent installations that commence in the centre of town and follow the 60 km Loire estuary to Saint-Nazaire and the sea. Each installation, designed by well-known modern artists, can be accessed on foot, by bike, by car and by boat. The installations are both arresting and thought provoking. We take in some of these enroute to Saint-Nazaire. Highlights include what appears to be a Dali-esque seemingly melting sailboat draped over a lock on the estuary (attempting to escape a boat graveyard – you have to see it), a three-story leaning house in the middle of the Loire river that appears to grow and shrink with the tide, artist decorated rooms in a beautiful old manor house, and a giant 100-metre long serpent that dances with the ocean tides. 

Huang Yong Ping, Serpent d’océan, Saint-Brévin-les-Pins (France), oeuvre du parcours Estuaire NantesSaint-Nazaire © Franck Tomps / LVAN

Blaise followed this up with Le Voyage à Nantes Trail in 2011 that piggybacks on a two-month summer arts and culture festival by the same name. I say piggybacks because each year a few installations are added for the festival that in turn remain permanent as part of the Trail. Arguably the most impressive feature along the green line located on Île de Nantes, the former shipyard lands across the river Erdre, is the recently opened “The Machines de l’Île.” This interactive exhibit features giant rideable steampunk-like mechanicals including a Giant Spider, a Giant Ant that allows riders to control its legs and antennae, and a two-metre wide hummingbird that soars lucky passengers high above the museum floor. 

The main attraction, “The Grand Elephant” is the world’s first enviro-friendly mechanical pachyderm, which marches four stories high and can transport up to 50 passengers. Nantes has so many reasons to visit, but to witness and experience The Machines alone, is worth the 2-hour train trip from Paris. An added bonus to your visit to The Machines is an incredible three-story carousel of fantastic beasts, Carrousel des Mondes Marins includes creepy fanged deep-sea creatures and a fire-breathing dragon. I enjoy pulling the levers to smoke fellow onlookers! The Machines de l’Île is ever-evolving much like the city of Nantes, with plans to create a giant imposing mechanical tree, populated by more mechanical animals and insects.

This is all part of the grand plan to reinvent the Île de Nantes shipyards into a destination for locals and tourists alike. Former shipyard buildings have been repurposed into housing and colleges and with that comes restaurants, bars, shops and quirky parks. 

© Franck Tomps / LVAN

Although now it is recognised as one of the most artistic cities in France, Nantes was also regrettably responsible for a large portion of the French slave trade. Ships went from Nantes to Africa with gifts, and took slaves to the Caribbean in exchange for sugar, coffee and chocolate, before returning to Nantes. It was an extremely wealthy city in the 18th century, and in 2012 a ‘Memorial to the Abolition of Slavery’ conceived by the artist Krzystof Wodiczko and the architect Julian Bonder was created as a solemn reminder of Nantes’ slave trade history. It pays tribute to those who struggled, and speaks out against all forms of human exploitation, while at the same time paying tribute to human diversity. Situated on the banks of the Erdre river across from the shipyards, the memorial consists of thousands of slave ship names embedded in plexiglass along a concrete path leading to another memorial display beneath the river bank. It is shaped like the hull of a ship and it is quite eerie as you look at the displays.

In addition to all the place-making ideas through arts and culture, and numerous annual festivals, Blaise also helped to establish a tourism bureau whose sole purpose is to promote culture and tourism in Nantes. It seems to be working.

Cuisine

Nantais Cuisine is influenced by its proximity to the ocean, the Loire river and rural Brittany, and because Nantes was once a major seaport, more exotic flavours influence their dishes.

At Talensac Market, Nantes’ oldest and largest covered market (open from 7 am to 1:30 pm daily except Mondays), it’s super lively on the Friday morning that I am there. Here you will find abundant seafood, particularly oysters, mussels, langoustines, as well as sardines and seabass in addition to pike and eel from the rivers and local cheeses. The city is famous for its scrumptious Petit-Beurre biscuits and of course its Biscuits Nantais made famous by LU. Also popular are salted caramels, gateau nantais, chocolates and fougasse breads. The city seems to have as many fromageries and creperies as we have Tim Hortons. The local wine for Nantes and Brittany is the Muscadet sur lie. It is a dry effervescent white that goes well with seafood of course. For lunch try La passagere in the beautiful le Passage Pommeraye. It is a quiet out of the way bistro where locals like to meet for lunch because it’s quick and intimate. Here you will delicious light lunches (try the quiche) and extremely decadent pastries. For dinner check out La Cigale, a 19th century brasserie located in the square across from Theatre Graslin, which provides both a feast for the eyes with its Art Nouveau décor and a feast for those looking for traditional French cuisine. And for a nitghtcap head to Le Nid (the Nest) a bar/nightclub with sweeping views of Nantes’ illuminated cityscape!

Oceanfront Luxury Without Pretension: Fox Harb’r Resort, NS

IMAGES OF FOX HARB’R RESORT PICTURED: Lighthouse morning

As our driver negotiates a roller coaster of windy narrow roads and stomach dropping hills, I try to focus on the distant mountains and the fresh sea air to curb that queasy feeling. The hour and a half shuttle from Halifax to Wallace, NS after a seemingly quick two-hour flight from Pearson, is breathtakingly picturesque as we drive past both pastoral and forested settings, with the mountainous backdrop of the Cobequid Hills. Our driver is sharing his passion for the area, the landscape and its down to earth people, and I am marvelling at the beauty of Nova Scotia, a province I haven’t visited since a childhood Maritime vacation.

Our destination, Fox Harb’r Resort in Wallace, NS. is the realisation of one man’s dream. That man is Ron Joyce, co-founder of Tim Hortons.

“In 1987, when I first saw this marvelous property, I thought, ‘This should be a National Park.’ Five hours later I was the lucky owner of 1,100 acres of wilderness on the water with 6 kilometres of ruggedly beautiful oceanfront shoreline,” recalls Ron Joyce.

Mr. Joyce did not have to travel far to discover this parcel of paradise, as it is just down the road from his quaint hometown of Tatamagouche. The idea of giving back to the community greatly appealed to Joyce.

And as our shuttle bus pulls up to the impressively landscaped and gated entrance, under the watchful eyes of– what else?– rusted iron fox sculptures, it is easy to see why Ron Joyce was so taken by the property.

Winding down the window I take in an intoxicating blend of pine forest and ocean air, before our driver pulls up to the clubhouse and its uninterrupted views of the peaceful Northumberland Strait. Aside from a few chirping birds, and the occasional drive of a golf ball, the peace and quiet here contributes to its allure.

The Course

Opened in 2001 and designed by renowned Canadian golf course architect Graham Cooke, who has designed 65 in Canada alone including Piper’s Heath in nearby Milton– the Fox Harb’r resort combines two classic golf landscapes in one breathtaking experience.

”The course blends two classic styles where Scottish Links meet traditional parkland golf course,” explains Kevin Toth, enthusiastic president of Fox Harb’r Resort. “On the front nine, which is a traditional Parkland course, the first hole is a a popular par 4 and the 7th a wetlands par 3 and the back nine is our gem being a spectacular oceanview links course that golfers the world over rave about.”

The Resort

Wake up in one of their 86 elegantly appointed manor house suites, don a plush robe and savour a cup of–what else?– in-house Tim Hortons coffee on your private balcony, overlooking an immaculately-groomed world class golf course, fronting uninterrupted views of the sea.

Here you can experience the serenity of their Dol-ás Spa (escape in Scottish Gaelic), where you can be pampered with a steam shower, massage or a mani-pedi, perhaps after hitting the links, mountain biking or horseback riding.

And below the spa is an impressive fitness studio and aquatic centre that includes a beautiful Junior Olympic-sized saltwater pool as well as a mineral pool and a good-sized hot tub where you can take in the sunset over the Northumberland Strait.

It’s the perfect spot to relax after golf or a match at the tennis centre on courts idyllically overlooking the ocean. Be sure to avoid overzealous forehanders or your ball could end up in the sea.

I am fortunate enough to experience a few firsts at Fox Harb’r, including horseback riding over both pastoral and forested terrain, that leads us to the picturesque shoreline “Fox Trot Trail.” The hour and a half guided trail ride provided by Forever Memories Equestrian Centre is a must-do for experienced and beginner riders alike.

“We have two trail guides and the trails are available to riders of all skill levels. Experienced riders can have their trail rides at faster, more challenging paces,” explains Shelbi Gatti, Forever Memories’ owner.

Book an early tee-off time to fit in a ride the same day or for a quicker round of golf try the challenging Par 3 executive course, with sweeping ocean views. And if golf or horseback riding doesn’t appeal, there are plenty of other options including kayaking on the calm and shallow, Fox Harb’r Bay where you may (we do) come face to face with resident harbour seals!

You can also try your hand at sport shooting at Fox Harb’r’s world-class George Digweed -designed sporting clays course. Here, I get to yell, “pull” and fire (for the first time ever) a 12-gauge shotgun at clay targets flying both through the air and across the ground. The extensive 15-acre course includes 24 shooting stations with a variety of targets. I appreciate the ear, eye and shoulder protection and the satisfaction of actually hitting some of the targets!

“The key is to aim where the target is headed as opposed to straight at the discs,” explains the resort’s CEO Steven Joyce, Ron’s son who lives in Burlington and travels frequently to Fox Harb’r direct from Hamilton, in one of their company (Jetport) jets. Having an airfield allows the rich and famous to maximize their time at this luxurious Maritime playground, that has attracted such dignitaries as John Major, Tony Blair, Bill Clinton, George W Bush, Al Gore, Brian Mulroney, General Colin Powell, Tiger Woods, Wayne Gretzky, Prince Edward, and on this night, sitting over by the window in the Cape Cliff Dining room is club member Sidney Crosby, one month after winning his third Stanley Cup.

Fox Harb’r prides itself on being the first “Ocean Wise” restaurant in Atlantic Canada. “Only two restaurants in all of Nova Scotia have this status,” explains Toth. Head Chef Shane Robilliard has a passion for sustainability. “With most local produce sourced on property and province-sustainable seafood including line-caught halibut, trout from one of our two fly-fishing ponds, oysters and scallops from Malagash and chicken from the local Truro Farmer’s market. Locally grown and locally harvested always means fresher and more flavourful,” Toth adds.

With more than 500 bottles in their cellars, Fox Harb’r’s two sommeliers source greatly from thriving Nova Scotia vineyards and soon Fox Harb’r will be sourcing from their very own 25-acre vineyard in partnership with Devonian Coast Wineries, whose wines  are already popular at the Cape Cliff Dining Room. Devonian’s closest vineyard is Jost just 20-minutes down the road, and owners Carl and Donna Sparkes actually reside at one of the many gorgeous residences at Fox Harb’r.

IMAGES OF FOX HARB’R RESORT PICTURED: Seagrove living room

The Residences

The resort has several ownership options from fractional (quarter shares) to 4,000 square foot elegantly appointed executive townhomes, as well as custom-new builds. “Whether you are looking for a seasonal ocean getaway or permanent residence, when you are welcomed by name and your every need is anticipated according to your preferences,” explains sales director Eric Lum. Ownership at Fox Harb’r also comes with club membership and full playing privileges as well as access to all resort amenities mentioned in addition to other perks.

According to their brochure, people who buy here have discriminating taste, an understated attitude and appreciate nature and sport. They are independent-minded leaders who see something others don’t. And that’s how it feels, here. You feel pampered but never lose sight of yourself. Everyone is so approachable and engaging.

Future Plans

Fox Harb’r’s 17-year plan includes 254 residences, equestrian stables conveniently located walking distance from your condo, 30 ‘East Coast style’ cottages around their amply-stocked fly-fishing ponds, a 40-unit lodge, a newly expanded Wellness Centre, a Conference centre and if that is not enough they are adding a second 9-hole executive course to bring the total up to 27.

Fox Harb’r’s vision is as grand as its spectacular views, but  no doubt it will be realised. In case you need reminding, when Ron Joyce partnered with Tim Horton, Canada’s favourite coffee and doughnut stop had only two stores!

Valencia: Spain’s city of surprises is one of Europe’s hottest tickets

 

Screen shot 2015-03-15 at 5.59.15 PMstory and photography Terry Lankstead

As our puddle jumper from Paris dropped below the clouds, my north facing window seat afforded me a breathtaking view of the mountains of the Valencia region, lush greenery and palm trees below. A convenient twenty-minute shuttle outside of Valencia city centre, Manises airport is quite small with only one runway, but it handles connections to more than 15 European countries.

When I stepped off the plane I expected to breathe in that warm moist air of the sunny south, but the skies were grey and the city was receiving unusually cool temperatures for late September. Located centrally on Spain’s east coast, average temperature here for September is 22˚ Celsius. Just a 1.5-hour flight from Paris or a relaxing 1.5-hour side trip from Madrid on the Renfe AVE (Alta Velocidad Española) high-speed train (travelling at 300 km/h), Valencia is easy to get to and it will not disappoint.

On the airport shuttle, the first striking impression of Valencia came in the form of a diverse range of apartment buildings all adorned with green and white awnings-a sure sign that things heat up here. Next, railway lines, bridges and open green spaces appeared as our bus weaved its way closer to the city centre and many of its stunning landmarks.

Garden of the TuriaGarden of Turia Valencia

Valencia has undergone a major transformation over the past few decades with a keen eye towards place-making in every sense of the word. The city’s strategy was partly born out of necessity. In 1957, the Turia River, which coursed through the middle of the city en route to the Mediterranean, flooded Valencia causing great devastation and a large number of deaths. To avoid future flooding, the river was rerouted around both sides of the city. A dramatic transformation of the original riverbed commenced in 1982. The goal was to convert the dried up river into a sunken garden for cyclists, pedestrians and other athletic pursuits. When financially possible, the city would develop in sections between bridges. The result is the magnificent Garden of the Turia, a place where people can explore pathways, playgrounds, ponds, cafés, soccer pitches, athletic facilities and of course, stunning gardens. The bike path is the best way to explore the Turia and the city has its own Valenbisi service with pay-as-you-go bike rental stands set up in strategic areas. There are also numerous bike rental companies. Because the city is so flat, exploring by bicycle makes much sense. Just make sure you always lock it up.

City of Arts and Sciences

The eastern end of the gorgeous 14km-long Turia garden park houses some of Valencia’s most identifiable landmarks. The City of Arts and Sciences, designed by world-renowned Valencian architect, Santiago Calatrava and Madrid’s Felix Candela, is a 2km long (approx.) archictectural masterpiece featuring an opera house, science centre, reflecting pool, aquarium and exhibition hall. The latter plays host to events like ATP Tennis and the MTV Europe music awards.

Rising 14 stories, the Calatrava-designed Palau de les Arts Reina Sofia is the tallest opera house in the world and resembles a giant warrior helmet. This is one of the most visually stimulating architectural features of this Spanish port.

Close to home, in addition to other notable structures the world over, Calatrava also designed the Allen Lambert Galleria in Brookfield Place, Toronto (see our GL facebook page) as well as the Mimico (pedestrian) Bridge over the Humber River.

Europe’s 5th Largest Port
Valencia, pronounced Ba-len-the-a in Valencian Spanish (which is very similar to Catalan) is the largest container port on the Mediterranean Sea and the fifth largest in Europe. Perfectly situated in the centre of Spain’s Mediterranean coast, the port is so busy that ships have to line up offshore to load and unload. The city’s main exports are oranges, rice and primarily the Ford Fiesta and C-Max. The local Ford plant produces close to 2000 units per week. The port has also seen its cruiseship traffic grow from 12 ships a year in the early nineties to in excess of 200 annual visits in 2011—another testament to the place-making endeavours.

A tiny bit of HistorySilk Exchange Valencia
Valencia was originally settled by the Romans in 138 BC. who erected their walled city between the fork of the river Turia with easy access to the sea. Although it changed hands several times, the next major conquerors were the Moors in 714 AD, followed by the Christians in the 13th century. The 15th century was the Valencian Golden Age of arts, education, culture and economic expansion, led by textile production and banking.

The Silk Exchange (Llotja de la Seda) erected in the early 1500s was integral for attracting merchants from all over Europe. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is a magnificent Valencian Gothic style building, and well worth a visit. Valencia’s prosperity in the 15th and 16th century was replaced by an economic crisis until Valencia’s road to recovery began in the mid 19th century under the reign of Isabella II, with infrastucture improvements like cobblestone roads (still impressive today), municipal water, gas and gas lighting. The population tripled from a little over 200,000 in 1900 to close to 750,000 in 2000, and today Valencia remains as Spain’s third most populated city.

Sightseeing

Parc Natural de l’AlbuferaScreen shot 2015-03-15 at 6.08.36 PM

The Albufera, a freshwater lagoon and estuary which lies about 11 km (7 mi) south of the city, is one of the largest lakes in Spain. It is a popular eel-fishing locale but only local fishermen are allowed to fish the shallow (1.5m) waters. Each year a lottery is held to determine where each eeler is allowed to cast his nets. They also fish for bass and the recently introduced American blue crab. It forms the main portion of the Parc Natural de l’Albufera (Albufera Nature Reserve). The Parc contains a large variety of rare birds like the purple heron, which we spotted on our delightful up-close-and-personal Albufera boat excursion. On the traditional Albufera boat trip you will also see the rice fields, which act as natural protection for many rare birds and yield the area’s famous Valencian rice—a unique somewhat round rice that is popularly used in paella dishes.

Buy some rice in the local village, El Parmar the local village, or enjoy Paella or La Espardenya (containing eels from the lake). Paella Valenciana is the regional dish of Valencia that originated from the Albufera and it is widely available in the city’s restaurants. Although Valencia is right by the sea, the traditional recipe surprisingly does not contain seafood. Instead, Valencian paella consists of white rice, green vegetables, meat (usually rabbit), beans and seasoning. I enjoyed mine at LaLola, an ultra-hip restaurant (the owner Jesus is a local DJ legend and the restaurant is a Flamenco dancing hot spot) in Valencia’s historical district.

Historical CentreHistorical District, Valencia

Don’t let a spot of rain spoil your day in Valencia. It brings out the patina on all the gorgeous stone buildings and footpaths in Valencia’s historic district. Here you will find Europe’s largest market, the Mercado Central, with everything you would expect from a world-class market from incredible seafood, cheese and produce stalls to paprika by the bag and an opera performance perhaps. There is always something going on at the central market and it is a great place to refresh after exploring Screen shot 2015-03-15 at 6.08.25 PMthe numerous historical sites. In fact, it is just across the street from the Silk Exchange mentioned earlier and not far from the Plaza de la Virgen, a spectacular stone square that hosts heritage edifices like the 13th Century Valencia Cathedral (which also house the Holy Grail!) and the Basilica of the Virgin. You will also find a few outdoor cafés and Valenbensi bike rentals. Every Thursday outside the Portal of the Apostles of the Valencia Plaza de la VirgenCathedral, you can witness the tradition of the Water Court meeting. The Tribunal de Las Aguas is a democratic process originally introduced by Moorish farmers to regulate the irrigation of farmer’s fields. One of Europe’s oldest democratic institutions, this Water Court of elected judges continues to this day.

The Beaches

Valencia’s beaches are not too far from the city centre. I was unable to visit them but Marc Insally, a co-owner of local artsy hotspot Café de las Horas and a man of passion when it comes to all things Valencia, made a few recommendations. Marc explains that “Malvarosa Beach is the closest, pretty much in the city. It’s lined with restaurants and is handy for a few hours of sunbathing or beach volleyball, but it’s not the best for swimming. I do recommend El Saler Beach: It’s out of town but you can get the bus every half hour during the summer from the Gran Via Germanias and it takes about an hour to get to the sand itself. The beach is an empty long stretch of quite well-maintained, clean sand and water (no shade though, so if you burn do take an umbrella).”

Events

The biggest annual event in Valencia is referred to as Las Fallas. This Valencian celebration takes place from the 1st to the 15th of March. It is a celebration of St. Joseph, the Holy Patron of carpenters. Community groups burn satiric papier maché effigies of iconic figures from the realm of politics, history and celebrity. Historically families would spring clean, throwing out leftover wood and candles no longer needed after the winter and they would bring all these items to a massive bonfire. These days it’s a major celebration where everyone gathers in the Town Hall Square to enjoy a fireworks display choreographed to music.

Valencia also hosts the European Grand Prix of Formula One auto racing, the Valencia Open 500 tennis tournament, and it is home to Valencia CF, one of the big soccer clubs in La Liga (outside of Barcelona and Real Madrid of course).

Dining and DrinkingMercado Central Valencia

If you are looking for somewhere to soak up the Valencian atmosphere, the restaurant and nightlife options are plentiful. Meeting Marc Insally and sampling the Agua de Valencia at his neo-Baroque style Café de la Horas was a personal highlight on my visit. The cocktail blends cava (Spanish sparkling wine) with orange juice, vodka and gin. It goes down easy and is lip-smackingly delicious. The café itself is colourfully described by Marc as “a classic literary café, Plaza de la VirgenParisian café and tea room serving English and American cocktails, all in a flamboyant neo-Baroque motif.” It has a cool cosmopolitan feel, a place where local artists gather just to hang out or take part in various theme nights. If you are looking for that “wow-that’s-so-cool” factor, you must drop in and say hola to Marc.

In the trendy port area, visit Casa Montaña for a wine tasting and gastronomical journey. Opened in 1836, it remains a meeting place for good conversation and discerning taste. This is a perfect setting to sample numerous tasty cold and warm tapas dishes. Derived from the Spanish word tapar, meaning to cover, tapas is hugely popular in bars and restaurants all over Spain. Although some consider tapas as an appetizer, at Casa Montana it is a several course meal experience. Delightful combined with wine and artisanal cheeses, try the cod croquettes, grilled sardines, grilled squid and fried anchovies. The Spanish love their fish. They also love their Iberian ham, and here it is melt-in-your-mouth delicious. Salty with very little fat, Iberian ham is meatier and less chewy than prosciutto, but they are similar.

Before boarding the train to Madrid, I lament not experiencing Valencia under warmer and less damp circumstances, but that just gives me one more reason to return. Rain or shine Valencia offers a world of surprises to explore.

Terry Lankstead visited Valencia, Spain on a sponsored press trip, compliments of the Tourist Office of Spain in Canada and Turismo Valencia. TJ

 

TraveLinks

Restaurants with unique atmosphere, character and
authentic Spanish cuisine.

alma del temple at the Caro Hotel (accented by Roman ruins)

LaLola (Flamenco dancing at night)

Casa Montaña (Tapas, wine and Iberian ham)

El Huerto

Café de la Horas (for cool atmosphere and Agua de Valencia)

Places to stay

If you are on a budget try the fairly central Expo Hotel. Their excellent buffet breakfast includes Horchata—a favourite Spanish milky drink that includes ground tiger nuts. See our GL facebook page for a must-try recipe.

Caro Hotel is a romantic ultra-modern boutique hotel built amongst Roman ruins in the heart of the historical district.

For more info please visit Spain.

Les Sables D’Olonne: France’s west coast seaside retreat

Screen shot 2015-03-14 at 5.23.58 PMWe boarded the TGV at Gare Montparnasse almost ready for the second leg of our summer family vacation. 

I say almost because there is always something else you hoped to do, or someplace else you really wanted to visit in Paris, but that only means you will have to return again someday. I find it is important when travelling, to cherish the experiences you have, rather than lament about what you didn’t see or accomplish. This is particularly poignant when it comes to Paris, the city of light, where living in the moment, lapping up the atmosphere, the café culture, its breathtaking architecture, and heightened sense of style, is of parallel importance if not more, to visiting the art galleries, Notre Dame, that famous tower, cruising on the Seine  and shopping on the Champs-Elysées. And let’s not diminish the importance of sampling all the yummy baguettes, runny cheeses, croissants, crepes, chocolates and inexpensive wines. Ca c’est Paris!

Screen shot 2015-03-14 at 5.30.16 PMBut at this point of our journey—the waiting to catch the train point—I was heaving with excitement, not because we were about to bid au revoir to a world class city that had become wall to wall people on a sweltering July weekend, but because we were about to board arguably the fastest train on the planet, clocked at speeds of 320kph.

Screen shot 2015-03-14 at 5.31.01 PM Screen shot 2015-03-14 at 5.31.14 PM Screen shot 2015-03-14 at 5.31.26 PM Screen shot 2015-03-14 at 5.31.37 PM Screen shot 2015-03-14 at 5.31.46 PM Screen shot 2015-03-14 at 5.31.58 PM Screen shot 2015-03-14 at 5.32.13 PM Screen shot 2015-03-14 at 5.32.21 PMThe 404 kilometre journey from Paris southwest to Les Sables d’Olonne ordinarily takes about six hours via the French National Railway (SNCF), but the high-speed TGV (Train à Grande Vitesse) service vaults you there in just three hours twelve minutes! Of course it is pricier but it was worth it for what was inevitably an experience our family will never forget. This is the sort of travel that Ontario and Canada should strive towards.

Once you’ve cleared suburban Paris and the speedometer of this electric rocket quietly sneaks (the train itself is almost silent unlike the clickety clack of regular rail travel) up to a staggering 320kph, do you truly appreciate its sheer speed as the beautiful French landscape consumes the TGV’s picture windows with a blur of yellows, blues, greens and wind turbine farms.

I have never seen so many wind turbines on one journey. We left Paris in the sunny heat of midday and arrived at Les Sables d’Olonne in the Pays de la Loire cloaked in drizzle and grey. But one of the locals assured us it will soon pass as it always does later in the day. She was right. By the time we were settled and unpacked at our quaint welcoming French hotel Les Hirondelles, the clouds had dispersed and drenched the courtyard in sun and um… ladybugs (le coccinelles)!! The tables and sun chairs were alive with orange and black spots. We chose to ignore them, shared a cocktail with the extremely friendly owners Regis and Olivia before our two minute dash across the street and the sprawling beach “sands of Olonne” (Les Sables d’Olonne) to dip our feet into the cool waters of the Bay of Biscay.

Ah oui, this is why we came here. The lure of the sea, the fresh local fruits de mer and a chance to enjoy a true French seaside holiday destination away from bustling tourist resorts like La Rochelle to the south (certainly worth a visit but a different kind of experience altogether). We visited in early July, thankfully just before the French school holidays began, so sharing our beach holiday with a few ladybugs was a small price to pay for not having to fight for beach towel real estate each morning.

To think that just a few hours ago we were lugging our baggage around the streets of Paris and now we were snacking on Chichis from Casa Chichi (France’s answer to Beaver Tails or Mexico’s Churros – long corrugated fingers of sugared fried dough presented like a bouquet of flowers) watching the sunset over the Bay of Biscay. Les Sables d’Olonne delivered everything we hoped for and we had yet to explore the centuries old village and port.

The port in the 17th century was the largest cod-fishing port in France. Today the French tourist destination is rather well known amongst the sailing set as it serves as both the start and finish for the famous Vendée Globe, a round-the-world single-handed yacht race. Founded by Philippe Jeantot in 1989 the race happens every four years from November to February and Mississauga’s own Derek Hatfield participated in the 2008-2009 event. Regretfully he had to abandon the race on the 50th day due to “broken spreaders.” I’m not sure what that means but it sure sounds important. You can read online about the Port Credit Yacht Club racer in the Summer 2008 issue of GoodLife.

Les Sables d’Olonne’s rich sailing history is no more evident than the moment you hit its sugary sand beach. When you face the sea look to your right and colourful catamaran sailboat rentals are mingled in with a multitude of beach amusements for children: Trampolines, bouncy castles, slides, cordoned off soccer pitches and bungee bouncers. Look out to sea and there is always a parade of colourful sailboats and windsurfers headed out to take advantage of the ever-present sea breeze.

The winds are so prevalent at this beach resort, that rows upon rows of windbreaks front the ocean like market stalls. The only market here however would be of the exposed human skin variety. I scratched my head when I first happened upon this unique beach architecture but after performing a Mary Poppins routine with the beach umbrella, I gained an appreciation for the windbreak huts. They also provide privacy from those who should not be wearing Speedos. Our group retreated to them a few times but worshipped the sea view too much to linger there for more than an hour.

And oh what a view it is! The beach is set within a bay thanks to the lighthouse breakwall to the north that helps form the inner harbour, home to over a thousand vessels, and the beach curves around to the south as well, where rock-poolers like to gather when the tide goes out. The surf is perfect for families most of the time with smaller gentle waves that only become surfer friendly when the wind really picks up. It is an ideal setting for the kitesurfers who are drawn there, but during our stay in early July only the windsurfers and sailers were out in full force.

If you’re the type to become bored with lazing on the beach, flying kites, building sandcastles, and reading, you might want to join a game of beach soccer or to stroll into the picturesque shopping village where the sound of the waves is replaced by unobtrusive music from a local radio station. A soundtrack of wartime songs emanates from strategically placed speakers above the old village of Les Sables d’Olonne. In some ways the city is almost like Quebec City on a much smaller scale. It has its newer developed business side and its quaint old village that oozes character and charm.

Visitors will spend most of their non-beach time here visiting pâtisserie, chocolatiers, eclectic shops of every description, funky clothing and shoe shops, and a massive central market., ‘Les Halles Centrales’ (designed by the Les Sables Architect, Charles Smolski in 1890).

Here, you can gather provisions of brie, camembert and other runny cheeses, artisanal breads, pastries, fresh catches, cockles, winkles, local oysters and anything else you would expect to find in a French market.

The village streets harken back to yesteryear in every way, from cobbles to shuttered stone buildings and white washed houses with scalloped clay tile roofs. There is also a gothic church Notre Dame de Bon Port built by Richelieu (Bishop of Lucon) in the 17th Century, a Benedictine Abbey and a 15th century chateau nearby.

After a day exploring the shops and beachfront, we would pop back to Les Hirondelles to freshen up. Whilst waiting for the family to gather for an evening out, co-owner Regis is more than happy to pour you a pint and test out your French language knowledge or lack thereof. He takes a little too much joy in my struggle to find the right words to convey our love for the area.

When asked where to go for good seafood, he pointed in every direction, so we chose to head for Le Remblai, which is lined with hotels, restaurants, cafes and shops all of which have impressive views of the sea. Enjoying a café crème and watch the day go by. Pretty much everything is within walking distance and no sooner had we set out, than we happened upon a number of holiday homes covered in shell and broken tile mosaics just tucked away behind the Remblai. They are stunning and unexpected. Created by artist Mme. Arnaud Aubin the art depicts mostly nautical themes, although some border on the macabre and they often tell a story.

We headed back to the Remblai and over towards the casino, arcade and antique working carousel which kept the children rather interested.

Once we arrived in the harbour area we found it difficult to choose between so many restaurants. Most offer several reasonably priced and highly recommended prix fixe menus as well as a la carte choices.

Here is where you will really put your high school French to the test for as I mentioned Les Sables d’Olonne is a holiday destination for people who live in France. It helps to have some basic French knowledge and the locals are very patient and welcoming. Some of them also enjoy trying out their English skills.

After stuffing ourselves with les langoustines (Norwegian lobsters), les moules (mussels) and les huitres (oysters) we walked along the pier, took a ride on the seafront carousel and made our way back along the Remblai passing many happening bars to collapse and prepare for another day of lazing on the beach. This is the Good Life.

 

 

TRAVELINKSwww.vendeeglobe.org/enwww.tripadvisor.ca/Tourism-g196666-Les_Sables_d_Olonne_Vendee_
Pays_de_la_Loire-Vacations.html

www.hotelhirondelles.com

 

Nantucket: The Old Grey Lady of the Sea

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She can be shrouded in fog for days and she’s populated by grey-weathered shingled houses. Her wide-open vistas offer an uninterrupted view of the Atlantic. Combine innate beauty with centuries-old charm and it is befitting that Nantucket is nicknamed The Old Grey Lady.

When the mystical fog lifts – and this can happen as surprisingly quick as its arrival – a magical land of vibrant colour is unveiled. From incomparable ocean views inward to endless sandy beaches, open heath-like moors with abundant wild Rugosa roses, Scottish heather, pines and grasses, to serene ponds, salt marshes, creeks and cranberry bogs, Nantucket’s diverse natural landscape has everything to offer. The flora and fauna reflects the island’s rich history of settlers who were originally lured there to hunt the great whales that flourished primarily off its southern shores.

Screen shot 2015-03-14 at 5.15.31 PMThe Way To Go
Getting there is not the easiest of tasks and islanders wouldn’t have it any other way. They know it is well worth the added effort created by being isolated from the mainland. It is about an eleven-hour (960km) drive east from Mississauga– in our case it was 15 hours in torrential rain– via the New York Thruway, the Mass Turnpike and down the 495 to Hyannisport, MA.

From here you will scramble to park your car and catch a one or two-hour ferry depending on whether you choose the quicker but more expensive fast ferry or one of the slower boats. You can take your vehicle on to the island, but this involves booking well in advance. Bicycles are the preferred mode of transport; bring your own or rent once you get to the island. Jeeps are available for hire and there are also taxis and buses to get you to your beachhouse with all your luggage.

If you are looking to maximize your time there, flying might be the best way to go. A flight to Boston and a connection to Nantucket could get you to ‘ACK’ the airport code for Nantucket Memorial Airport in as little as four hours, if you time it right. You may recall that this famous airport was the setting for the hit 90s hit TV series, Wings, although, it was renamed Tom Nevers Field for the Nantucket sitcom. However you get to the island, once you set foot on its sandy soil, breathe in the salty air, and prepare to fall in love with the old grey lady.

Whaling and Cranberries
Settled in 1659, the island 25 miles (approx.40 km) southeast of Cape Cod Massachusetts, was a whaling centre until the late 1850s. Cranberries and tourism are now the island’s mainstays. In fact, the Milestone Road Cranberry Bog is one of the largest in the world.

Some of these cranberries are added to the famous juices of Nantucket Nectars, a growing juice business launched by the Two Toms– Nantucketers, Tom Scott and Tom First who attended Brown College together. Their juice products are hugely popular in the New England area and they are available here through Cadbury Schweppes in Mississauga.

Cisco Brewers and Nantucket Vineyards
When it comes to libations, Nantucket has it covered, with Cisco Brewers, Triple Eight Distillery and Nantucket Vineyard all at the same location on Bartlett Farm Road near Cisco Beach. I highly recommend the aptly named Whale Tale Pale Ale. And if you visit the brewery, I do recommend a visit to nearby Bartlett Farm to pick up one of their famous fruit pies and take in their wildflower farm.

Cisco is the island’s hottest surfing destination. When I say hot, I mean you can sit there on the beach and watch more the 20 surfers of all ages and skill at any one time. Surf schools and camps are available, and Nantucket Town has a few surf shops to get you started. Cisco is also a popular destination to try out the latest craze, Skim Bungee. Check it out on youtube.

A Beach Lover’s Paradise
Cisco is just one of several different kinds of beaches available to island visitors. Boogie-board, big surf destinations on the south and west sides include the picturesque Surfside Beach, Nobadeer, Miacomet, Madaket and Cisco. These all offer foot-therapy cushioned sand, protected by a picturesque backdrop of grassy moorland. Surfside is perfect for morning walks, where you will find large clamshells amongst other attractive seashells and even the occasional sand dollar washed ashore. You are almost guaranteed to see a few seals frolicking just past the surf break, as well as the occasional ‘protected’ colony of Turns that enjoy dancing around the wash, looking for small sand crabs.

Family swimming in calmer waters is available at the town’s Children’s Beach as well as on the north shores of the island, at beaches like Dionis and the hugely popular Jetties Beach that also features a beachside café, shop and boardwalk. At Jetties you can watch the ferries arriving, yachts racing and fishing boats leaving to collect their haul of lobster or crab. There are also gorgeous tennis courts available to rent by the hour. Before you play, be prepared to sweep off the seashells dropped by hungry seagulls.

Catch of the Day
If fishing is your thing, look no further than Nantucket’s Straight Wharf, where you can charter a boat to catch bass, stripers bluefish and the highly-sought-after blue fin tuna. If that is too ambitious for you, just take your rod down to the beach and fish for the mighty bluefish. At the end of the day I recommend fishing on the west side of the island at Madaket, where you can enjoy spectacular sunsets. Madaket is also a decent bike ride (8km) destination from town. The loop will also take you past the picturesque Long Pond.

Tales and Great Whites
Nantucket has proven to be an inspiration to artisans and writers – including Elin Hiderbrand, Nathaniel Philbrick, Peter Benchley and Herman Melville. The 1851 classic, Moby Dick is based on the tragedy of the Nantucket whaleship Essex, which was attacked by a sperm whale while at sea, and sank. This storied whaling past is highlighted at the Nantucket Historical Society’s recently renovated whaling museum.

In addition to the museum, the old grey lady supports three lighthouses including Brant Point, America’s oldest lighthouse station, as well as four golf courses, an 18th century windmill, the Maria Mitchell Observatory, 50 miles of beaches and a town centre that oozes history.

According to local author/photographer Robert Gambee “No other town in America today has as many homes (over eight hundred) built in the period 1740 to 1840, almost all of which are located in their original settings.”

Also of note, Nantucket has no traffic lights, neon signs, or fast food franchises. The 10,000 year-round residents prefer it that way. At the height of the season this population surges to 50,000 during peak season.

Shopping
From its marina of luxury yachts, sailboats and fishing charters to its cobblestone streets and world-class restaurants, the town centre has it all. Enjoy unique souvenir shops and knick-knacks for the home and don’t forget to check out the famous Nantucket Reds clothing available at Murray’s Toggery Shop and the Nobby Clothes Shop. You can easily spend an entire weekend exploring the historic town. Its unique character and charm are reflected in its classy hand-carved shop signs. Traditions have been maintained in every picture-perfect streetscape.

From the moment you venture off Nantucket Centre’s Main Street on foot, blades or bicycle– Nantucket has an extensive picturesque path system –the sweet perfume of the well-manicured privet hedges overwhelm you. The island’s grey-weathered complexion is partly due to its strict building codes that see any new build adhere to Nantucket’s traditional cedar shingled and dormered appearance. These shingles grey rapidly courtesy of the salty sea air.

Screen shot 2015-03-14 at 5.15.13 PMSiasconset Village and Sankaty Head

If you are staying at one of the many Inns or B&Bs in town, do not forget to venture out to the quaint village of Siasconset (pronounced ‘Sconset for short). ‘Sconset is a hot destination for tourists and garden lovers alike and it was the first spot in America to welcome the dawning of the millenium. From June to early July, witness the intense display of climbing roses that grace most of the charming centuries-old cottages.

Carry on from ‘Sconset to Sankaty Head Lighthouse, which was cleverly moved 400 feet away from the bluff in 2006, to avoid the ravages of soil erosion. Some say, from this vantage point if you look out past the sheer drop, you can see Portugal (perhaps with the Hubble telescope).

In July, in addition to the blossming privet, hydrangeas reign supreme. Their unique purples front numerous cottages and beachouses on the island. In August, the Rose of Sharon and Black-eyed Susan come to the forefront. The Town gardens never fail to impress passers-by when strolling along the red brick walkways. They greet you when you get off the ferry and they are one of the last things you see before boarding for the melancholic return back to the mainland.

At the end of your visit, after the ferry pulls away from the dock, find yourself a penny, as it is a Nantucket tradition to launch one into the sea as the boat rounds Brant Point Light. This will assure that one day you will return into the welcoming arms of ‘the old grey lady.’

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