Tag Archives: hotels

Discovering Nova Scotia: Part 6–Meet Me at the Station

IMG_2101It felt like a scene out of a Wes Andersen movie when all of a sudden a slight man in a conductor’s uniform came zipping around the bend on an Ecoped, making a quick stop on the gravel road. In his blue uniform, matching hat, pocket watch and welcome smile he seemed too good to be true. Owner of the Train Station Inn, Jimmie LeFresne is the real deal.

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Time well spent on the tracks, LeFresne turned his boyhood dream into reality.

A childhood spent playing in this Tatamagouche railroad station, one of the oldest in Canada, LeFresne turned his passion for trains into a hospitality reality. Back then the trains moved goods and services across the country; its stockyard was filled with pigs and cows. Times changed and it fell to ruin. To prevent its demolition, in 1974 LeFresne had the foresight, at 18, to purchase the station. In 1989 he opened the Train Station Inn, creating a love letter to a bygone era.

Uniquely appointed railway cars serve as accommodations: 2 boxcars, the rest 6 cabooses. The stationmaster’s house operates as a separate suite.

It’s not every night you get to sleep in a caboose; mine was bright orange with a small wooden patio added to one end. Investigating the authenticity of the existing apparatus within the car had me feeling like a kid.

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Boxcar Jane is a sweet home away from home

Staying in boutique and luxury hotels is a treat but the Train Station Inn is an entirely different experience, more like a bucket list experience. Its uniqueness would appeal to friends looking for a special getaway, multi-generational family travelers, honeymooners, or couples in search of a memorable wedding destination.

Lunch and dinner is served in the dining car, where some of the good food you’ll eat comes right out of the Inn’s garden and from local farms and fishmongers. Ambassadors for keeping things local, they serve up organic and fair trade coffee and the next morning at the Jitney Café, a brick house that was once the men’s waiting room back in the day, a cup of it and a yummy breakfast of Orange Acadian Toast with maple syrup had my name on it.

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Whet your whistle at the town’s newly opened brewery.

Situated along the Tatamagouche River, the Inn is walking distance to this community-driven town’s attractions. Travelers visit to experience its hospitality, museums, galleries, spiritual center, and an annual event like Oktoberfest. Located about 20 minutes from town, I popped into Jost Vineyards for one more taste of their fine Tidal Bay. It’s just one of the provinces many wineries.

Later, I stopped in Pugwash where I had a date for a game of disc golf. In the nearby town of Wallace, the Chip Ship  drew me in like bait and I pulled over to sample another tasty basket of fish and chips. Afterward, I slowly made my way back towards Halifax.

 

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All aboard the Chip Ship for some good eats!

When I asked EatLikeALocal guide Monica MacNeil what the most significant thing is about Nova Scotia, she spoke for herself and on behalf of Nova Scotia’s tourism organization. “It’s the people,” she said. “It’s the history of the early Europeans and first peoples that we can trace our roots and origins through to today. That’s what continues to shape our hospitality, spirit and friendships.”

She also mentioned never being further than 40 minutes from the ocean, no matter where you are in Nova Scotia.

I do believe that has something to do with it.

For more information on planning your own Nova Scotia road trip to one of the province’s many shorelines, click here.

This six-part Nova Scotia road trip series was originally featured in Mrs Robinson.

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Concierges—The Keys To The City.

230 Fifth boasts the largest rooftop bar in NYC.

230 Fifth boasts the largest rooftop bar in NYC.

This week, I had the incredible opportunity to work with some of the best concierges in New York City.

While I’ve often had the occasion to work with concierges while managing events programs in hotels, as an individual traveler I recommend using their service to help acclimate yourself to any new, or familiar, destination you may visit. We may live in the “just Google it” era, but there’s no substitute for the human touch.

“The thing with us is, yes, it is the Internet age but you have guests that come to you with piles of paper from their online research that you have to sort through to put them on the right track,” says Domenic Alfonzetti, chef (French for lead or head) concierge for the InterContinental Barclay. “You booked the ferry to the Statue of Liberty, it’s not a time ticket. Now you’re stuck queuing for 90 minutes or 2 hours before you can go through the security check and board the ferry. To boot, you didn’t check the weather, it’s raining, and it’s 32 degrees, or there’s too much ice on the Hudson and the boats aren’t going out! It’s always best to check with us first before you do these things,” he said.The Statue of Liberty and the circle line Ferry

Similar to travel agents, concierges will often get you the best rates and save you time as well. They’ll give you the lay of the land, east side, west side, all around the town. Their role as hotel ambassadors isn’t just about recommendations. Speaking with guests and establishing relationships helps concierges glean information and get regular feedback on restaurants, shows, or experiences they can’t get to themselves. They count on guest feedback to get a feel for whether or not to promote these places.

Beyond these doors...

Beyond these doors…

Concierges are also tapped by other sources, like travel agents, for their expertise in sourcing the best experiences within a destination. “There’s a lot of hype in New York City tourism and the concierge is all about substance, about making the discerning choice for our guests,” said Rafael Susana, concierge with London NYC.

A pretty swank dinner awaits you.

A pretty swank dinner awaits you.

If you’re wondering if millennials use concierge services, they do…in addition to their smartphone. “A lot of young people come down for recommendations and then double check it online” said David Rahner, concierge for JW Marriott Essex House New York. “Or they might have found what they want online but had they not stopped by, they may not get that extra bit of info that they’ll need to know about location, traffic, or the best time of day to reach a destination to avoid rush hour, construction, or some other issue that’ll ruin their plans.”

Another similarity they share with travel agents is that they experience and live the information they deliver.

Nicole Longchamp, concierge for the W New York Downtown said, “It’s about providing service. For me, it’s not work. I’m a natural explorer and when I see things and enjoy them, I share them with people. I notice things that most people don’t notice and see their importance as places of interest—from hole in the wall restaurants to the hardest table to get. My life is my work.”

“The best part is when guests come back smiling and purposefully stop by my desk and give me a report back of how great their day or night was—that’s what makes it so rewarding,” says Rahner.

Ela Orosova, concierge for Loews Regency, will happily share how her service extends beyond the desk. “Many times, we deal with helping guests recover lost items, like passports, iPhones, or other valuables. Often, it’s only through the determination and follow-up of concierges that guests are reunited with their items,” she said. Orosova knows that part of her job is to ensure that a guest isn’t worrying but rather enjoying their trip.

Cold Spring, an inside day trip tip on getting outside of the city limits.  Car not required.

Cold Spring, an inside day trip tip on getting outside of the city limits. Car not required.

Alfonzetti recently taught hospitality classes for over 2,000 Super Bowl volunteers. He said he had a great time teaching, and with his warm personality, approachable manner, and killer smile, he’s a natural for this line of work. Afterward, he went on to represent the New York Concierge Association at the Super Bowl Host Committee media lounge at the Sheraton Times Square this week, where he worked with 52 fellow concierges from around the city. “Assisting the media and other guests who needed info on how to get the most out of this town has provided us a great opportunity to learn from one another and be ambassadors for the city and the state. It’s encouraging other host committees to use the untapped power of the Les Clef d’Or, the national organization, as well as the local organization of concierges.

All of the concierges I met this week have hospitality in their bones and it was a great pleasure to work and learn from them. In fact, whether you’re a traveler or a travel agent, the next time you’re staying in a hotel, if it’s not a regular practice for you, take the time to introduce yourself and ask for their assistance in turning you on to something you don’t have on your itinerary.

In the meantime, here’s an opportunity to meet Domenic Alfonzetti and hear about some of the sweet things he has in store for visitors to New York City (YouTube clips are sometimes temperamental, so if you have any issues viewing the video then just click here):

Don’t Fear The Reaper.

'Til death do us part.  (Photo credit: VivaOaxaca)

‘Til death do us part. (Photo credit: VivaOaxaca)

“How do you say skeleton in Spanish?”

It was my first trip outside of the U.S.  I was 11 years old and sitting on the edge of my bed in the Camino Real Hotel in Mexico City watching cartoons. A kid was dancing with a chorus line of skeletons. Their bones rattled as they danced around. Intrigued, I asked my mom to translate for me. “El esqueleto,” she answered.

It was October. A time of year when Mexicans prepare to celebrate el Dia de los Muertosor the Day of the Dead. From October 31-November 2, they gather to honor friends and family who’ve died. During this cultural celebration, each day has its own significance with lots of preparation leading up to it. In many homes, alters adorned with marigolds, incense, candles and candies are created. The belief is that during this time the gates of heaven open and spirits return to their loved ones.  It’s a reunion of sorts and families picnic in cemeteries.  Great festivities take place.  It’s even a bank holiday.  Sugar skulls, confectionary coffins and elaborately painted skeletons are also displayed.

Some people get a little freaked out by this idea. Not me. Raised on good, old-fashioned horror movies, many a night was spent huddled with my siblings on the couch with a fresh bowl of popcorn waiting for a ghoul to appear on the screen. I love this stuff and what kid doesn’t like sugar? Even more, I became fascinated with the little clay, hand painted skeleton figurines I’d glimpse around the town and in shop windows.

How sweet are these? (Photo credit:  Examiner.com)

How sweet are these? (Photo credit: Examiner.com)

The only thing more enticing than exploring the Camino Real Hotel, with the scent of Mexican oregano and poblano chili drifting from its restaurant, was ogling the skeletons set up in various scenes of everyday life. A bride and groom, a cowboy on a horse, a few fellows playing pool, a guitar player. You name, they created it. Mexican art can be whimsical and playful, and its full wickedness appears in the Day of the Dead dioramas.

Must be the season of the witch.  (Photo credit: ClayLindo)

Must be the season of the witch. (Photo credit: ClayLindo)

The apparition on the cloak of Juan Diego.

The apparition on the cloak of Juan Diego.

By day we explored the city and walked its streets. We visited the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe where Mexicans and tourists made their way across the plaza to its doors upon their knees to honor her significance and gaze upon the cloak of Juan Diego that holds her image. We explored the National Museum of Anthropology in Chapultepec Park where I became intrigued by another relic, the Aztec Calendar with its secrets locked within its stone. Afterwards, we strolled around Chapultepec Park. With its forest and lakes, the park is an oasis in the city.

I was digging all the old stuff and don’t think my mom was thinking too clearly when she agreed to a visit to the Pyramid of the Sun. She booked us a tour and we took an early morning bus to the ancient city of Teotihuacán. When we arrived a local guide gave an orientation about the ruins, where 200,000 inhabitants vanished without a trace. Even today, they still don’t know how this place was built.  I was intrigued again. My mom on the other hand went a bit pale as she gazed up at the very steep, 250-step climb ahead of us. Had anyone else been with us, she probably would have bagged it. But seeing how it was just us, she boldly took the first step. “Don’t look down” became the mantra as I held her hand from time to time, and we ascended higher and higher. When we reached the top she was quite pleased with herself. We stayed there for a while, staring out across the land, wondering what life must have been like for the people who once lived there and where they went. Getting down the pyramid was a different story and a whole different mantra.

Don't look down.  Pyramid of the Sun, Teotihuacán.

Don’t look down. Pyramid of the Sun, Teotihuacán.

On the way home the bus stopped along a market route where locals sold treasures made from famed Mexican silver. I’ve never seen so much silver in once place.   My mom bought me a bracelet. It was wide with cutouts and a detailed Aztec calendar intricately carved within its silver.  Decades later I sold it a stoop sale. What was I thinking?

But I still have the tiny skeleton figurines on my bedroom bureau. Like the Aztec Sun calendar, and the ruins of Teotihuacán, they remind me that everything changes and that everything can go poof in a second.

And this why we travel, right? To come outside of our own world, learn something new and, often times, something that makes sense.

That’s the real treat.

Toronto—From Good To Great.

Super Toronto's Supermoon. (Photo credit: R. Gottardo)

Super Toronto’s Supermoon. (Photo credit: R. Gottardo)

Travel is discovery and it’s a delight when you stumble upon a new favorite thing. Whether it’s music, dance, food, a cocktail, beach, park, campsite, a person, exceptional experience or an intimate moment. Large or small—it doesn’t have to work for anyone else—it just has to rock your world. I discovered my new favorite thing recently in Toronto. It’s Coco Café—coconut water with a kick of espresso, a hint of sugar, and dash of low-fat milk. I popped into a café for an iced coffee but walked out with an obsession. Crazy for anything coconut, the coffee buzz was a bonus. So there you have it, that’s my new favorite thing.cococafe

But obviously Canada’s largest city has lots more to discover than my new favorite drink. As it’s grown over the years, Toronto’s sprouted neighborhoods with a fantastic mix of ethnic cultures, food, arts and entertainment. Leslieville is a working and middle-class area, celebrated for its artistic vibe, retro shops and good eats. Chinatown and Kensington are the most multi-cultural hoods in Toronto. If you’re not adverse to a group tour, you may want to check out Urban Adventures. They offer small (no more than 12 people) guided tours. You’ll learn some history and get to experience some of what makes these heritage neighborhoods standout. Looking for another angle? The Planet D offers photography tours.

Kensington rickshaw. (Photo credit: ThePlanetD)

Kensington rickshaw. (Photo credit: ThePlanetD)

If you prefer not to run with a pack, the subway and streetcar system make navigating the city a breeze. Toronto’s easy to get around and you’ll be able to cover good ground, on foot as well, depending on the amount of time you have. From eating to exercising, here are some local, popular, and touristy things to see and do around the city.

Arts & Entertainment

Art Gallery of Toronto (AGO) – Culture vultures can get their art fix here at the one of the largest museums in North America. The AGO holds over 80,000 works in its collection and will soon premier the Ai WeiWei According To What? exhibit from August 17-October 27. The excitement this artist generates is drawing locals, and visitors from across the country and the border.

CN Tower – What would a visit to Toronto be without a peek inside of what the American Society of Engineers classified as One Of The Seven Wonders Of The Modern World? With a 360-degree view of city, the Tower also features a restaurant, entertainment, exhibitions and events.

The Toronto Islands – One of the city’s top attractions, these islands are just a 10-minute ferry ride from the city. Beaches, biking, canoeing, kayaking, festivals, picnicking—depending on how you like to hang, there’s something for you on one these islands. If you’ve got kids, there’s an amusement park and a petting zoo, too.

Distillery District, Toronto, Canada

Distillery District, Toronto, Canada (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Distillery – formerly a derelict zone of Victorian industrial buildings, in 2003 a group of creative developers transformed the area into an atmosphere that’s now heralded as one of Canada’s premier arts, culture and entertainment destinations. With one-of-a-kind shops, restaurants, galleries, theatres, and cafes, it’s a great place to hang out—day or night.

The Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) – this town is overflowing with film festivals but it’s this one, held annually for ten days in September, that set’s the city on fire.  TIFF has established itself as the premier event in the industry and built up Toronto’s city cred. Cannes and Tribeca have nothing on it, and it’s the world’s largest public film festival.  If you have any plans to visit Toronto during September 5-15, act fast—get some tix, see some flicks and don’t forget the camera.
Yummy Stuff

St. Lawrence Market – one of my favorite, previously mentioned, haunts in Toronto, I’m hungry just thinking about it. Bring an empty stomach and leave very happy and probably with lots of good stuff. The quality and variety of fresh food offered at this market from fruits, veggies, fish, meat, spices, herbs—you name it—is nuts, so go there and go crazy.

Good stuff awaits you at the Rooster Coffee Shop.

Good stuff awaits you at the Rooster Coffee Shop.

With no shortage of bars, cafes and restaurants, it’s challenging to list all the faves but here are a few standouts. For quality Italian fare, check out Buca. If you’re in The Danforth, pop into Mezes for authentic Greek cuisine served family style. Need a java jump? The Rooster Coffee House was voted one the best cafes by Toronto Life. With two locations, they make it easy for you to get your fix.

Exercise

Flemingdon Park Golf Club – This 9-hole public course is located in the Don Valley, just minutes from the city center. They rent clubs, carts, bags, and have a practice driving net.

Sunnybrook Stables – Like to ride? I do. These stables are in midtown Toronto but you’ll feel miles away. From beginner to advanced riders, the instructors—and the horses— are excellent.Horse play at Sunnybrook Stables. (Photo credit: Sunnybrook Stables.)

Sundara Yoga – When you stay in a hotel, it’s easy to just plod down to the gym. Break form, be adventurous and check out where the locals do it. Located in historic Cabbagetown, Angela Jervis-Read runs a yoga studio that’ll welcome you with open arms. Her specialty is Yin yoga and her instruction is encouraging without the woo-woo weirdness that can sometimes turn folks off to its benefits.

Sleepytime

There are loads of hotels all over the town. Depending on your budget, and the area you want to stay, here’s where a travel agent can cut your work in half. A few recs off the top of my head are The InterContinental on Bloor Street, which is well located; The Omni King Edward, in the financial district, and The Drake in the Queen Street West area.

Getting There

Depending on where you hail from, Toronto is easily accessed by rail, bus, or car, and of course…air.  If you’re flying, check out Porter Airlines. With this carrier’s excellent service, they’re at the top my list. The biggest plus is that they fly directly into Billy Bishop Toronto Island Airport, which will put you right smack in the city so you can hit the ground running.

Toronto is all grown up but its evolution is nowhere near over.  Been there? Share your story…and your new favorite thing.