On a recent trip to London in the UK, I took a chance and booked a hotel online using one of those website that gives you price but not the name of the hotel. I flew on a Friday so I could spend the weekend in London, before heading outside of the city for work. Thus, price was an important factor in the selection of my hotel.
I have never used this type of website booking tool before – which is to say I have always been too scared to book a hotel and not know the name of it before I book it! Eck! But I rolled the dice this time, and wow, was I pleasantly surprised. I hit “book” and then pouf: I’m booked into a hotel whose name I didn’t even recognize. Yikes…
But I was most pleasantly surprised. The Morton Hotel is truly a gem. It is the quintessential boutique hotel – with only 34 rooms, but it’s full of charm and character. It has been completely renovated so I was more than relived when I saw the pictures of the bathrooms. I have to confess – Europeans often have a different standard when it comes to bathrooms – see my very first blog post here – so if you can look at pictures, and think it looks great, then it probably is great. (so relieved…)
It is located in Bloomsbury/Saint Pancreas area of London, right opposite Russell Square, and is literally one street up from the Russell Square tube station. In fact, when I arrived at Heathrow Airport, I just jumped on the Piccadilly tube line and (after almost an hour ride), I got off at the Russell Square station. It was super easy. It is also close to several main train stations, including St. Pancreas, Kings Cross and London Euston.
The main reception and lobby area is in the basement of the hotel and offers a funky, eclectic vibe. My room was actually quite comfortable and spacious, and of course the bathroom lived up to its pictures. I must admit, that even though I am an interior design student by night – the wallpaper was not to my liking. However I can appreciate the affect they were trying to achieve – both historical (since it is a very old building) and contemporary.
The profile portraits on the pillows are a consistent theme throughout the hotel, as the whole area where The Morton is located was once a hot-spot at the turn of the century (the 1900s, that is) for artists, writers and intellectuals.
The location was great, with the tube station just down the road, you can literally get anywhere. I also wandered around the local area too, and like most places in London you can always find great little shops and eateries. The British Museum is just a few short blocks away and is a treasure trove for history buffs, including an amazing collection of Egyptian antiquities. I also strolled down Tottenham Court Road which offers an great array of design shops including Heal’s.
I would definitely recommend this hotel to anyone visiting London who is looking to stay in a different neighbourhood and avoid all the crowds of Covent Garden, Knightsbridge, Kensington and all the other tourist hot-spots within London.
Last year around this time (ok, maybe it was late January), I shared my resolutions for 2016. So now that’s it January 2017, let’s see how I did:
Blog more. Once again this resolution was a bit of a disappointment. Oh… the grand intentions I had… I’m not even sure I’ll put this on the list for this year, since 2016 was quite the failure.
Read 11 Books. Yipee! I actually polished off 14 books this year. I had this handy 2016 Reading Challenge that I printed out and taped to my closet door as inspiration. The year started off great and I was adhering to the Challenge fully, but then partway through the year I started to deviate from the list. The “abandoned”, “intimidates” and “owned but never read” were really hard to do, especially when friends and colleagues were recommending some really great reads. So in the end I “abandoned” the rest of the list and then just concentrated on making it to at least 11 books. So 14 is quite the achievement. And if you can’t read my chicken-scratching in the picture above, here’s the list in no particular order:
The stand-out, by far, in the above list is I Let You Go by Clare Mackintosh. I recommend this book to everyone. It is probably one of the best books I’ve ever read. As I’ve said to friends, you often expect there to be a plot twist in a book, but in this case the way the book is written is the twist. Say whaaat? I know, now you’re curious right? Just read the book.
Check off at least one thing from my Bucket List. Done! I blogged about my super-quick trip to Stonehenge here. But I’m also happy to say that we visited PEI this summer too, which is a province I have never been too. So that means I’ve done at least two items from my Bucket List. However, I still need to actually post my Bucket List, because really, I could just be making all this stuff up, but I’m not, I really do have a list.
Write a Blog Post for every book I read in 2016. Fail. I did two (see the list above and note the two sad, little links) and that’s all I’m going to say about that.
Curate a Friendship. I think I put a little more effort into connecting with my few close friends this year, but naturally I could have done better. I did have a girls weekend in Quebec City back in May, which we all agreed was a much needed get-away and something we hope to do more regularly. As for curating a new friendship, that proved to be a bit more challenging. Well, there’s always 2017, right?
How did you do on your resolutions? (Better, I hope.)
I managed to check off one of my Bucket List items for this year. Visit Stonehenge! A business trip brought me to the UK in late June and since our offices are about halfway between London and Stonehenge, I decided to stay the weekend and head down to Salisbury to check it out.
I took the train down to Salisbury and then once in Salisbury there is a tour operator at the train station that will take you to the Stonehenge Visitors Centre. It’s a nice double-decker motorcoach and the ride includes some history of the area and Stonehenge itself.
I bought my tickets online about a week in advance, so I had to plan my trip quite thoroughly (ie. like figuring out when I thought I would actually get to Stonehenge, within about an hour or so – yikes!), but it was worth it. There was no line for pre-paid tickets and quite a queue for non-ticket holders.
Once at the Visitors Centre I also paid a little extra and got an audio tour. In general I find audio tours can be hit-or-miss; some work perfectly (if you’re ever in San Fran, the Alcatraz audio tour is amazing!), but others are confusing and often out of sync with what you’re looking at. In any event, the Stonehenge one was fantastic! Another (very short, 5 minute) bus ride from the Visitor’s Centre takes you to the ruins.
Once at the ancient site, you can only walk around the perimeter of Stonehenge, at a fair distance. Gone are the days of actually wandering amongst the stones themselves. To preserve the stones and prevent erosion, the stones were ‘closed’ to the public in the mid ‘70s. Numbers along the perimeter path correspond with the audio tour and give a detail description of the stones, the surrounding countryside and their significance.
I maybe spent about 45 minutes to an hour circling the stones. And, I’ll be honest, once that’s done, that’s pretty much it. I decided to forego the little bus ride back to the visitor’s centre and I took one of the footpaths back through the beautiful countryside and a small forest. I even startled a pheasant and saw two foxes on my little walk. It was really a beautiful and relaxing walk – I mean look at this view!
I caught the motorcoach from the Visitor’s Centre back into the town of Salisbury and got off in the town centre. True to British weather, it poured rain once I got off the bus, but it cleared up quite quickly and it turned out to be a beautiful afternoon.
I had spent about a whole seven minutes (OK, maybe three full minutes) reading up on the history of Salisbury and what to see, so I ended up mostly wondering the streets of the medieval town marvelling at the architecture and thinking I was on the set of a Harry Potter movie. I did briefly check out the Salisbury Cathedral, with its breath-taking spire. On the motorcoach ride back from Stonehenge, they noted that as the tallest church spire in England (404ft – combined tower & spire) it had been used as a landmark by the German Luftwaffe and thus Salisbury was spared significant bombing during the Second World War.
All in all it was a fun day visiting Salisbury and Stonehenge, and although I was maybe a little “is that it?” about Stonehenge, it’s still worth it if you find yourself in southern England and you have Stonehenge on your Bucket List.
Old Orchard Beach, Maine (OOB) has a special place in my heart. I’ve been travelling there pretty much every summer since 1990. As a kid, my best friend would vacation there with her family for two weeks every summer. I always thought it was weird to go to the same place each summer, since my family generally went somewhere different for each vacation, when we actually had a vacation. But then one year in high school my friend called me up and invited me to join her and her family for two weeks in Old Orchard, and it turned out to be one of the most memorable summers of my life. One visit to the Maine coast, and I was hooked!
When my husband and I started dating, I took him to OOB the second summer we were going out. He’s a total beach guy, so the idea that we could drive 8 hours and be at the coast hadn’t even occurred to him – he was use to driving to Florida for the beach! Maine cast its spell on him too.
When we had our girls, I briefly considered fore-going our annual trip – the thought of travelling with twin three-month-olds and all the stuff that goes along with travelling with babies seemed too much. But Hubby insisted and it was actually a wonderful trip. I’m now proud to say that our girls have been going to Maine since they were three months old!
That said, with twenty-plus years of vacationing in the Old Orchard Beach area, we’ve found a few hidden gems that don’t necessary make the tourist radar, but are definitely worth checking out.
Beach Bagels has been a mainstay in ‘downtown’ Old Orchard for well over ten years (they don’t have a website, so I can’t confirm, so I’m going on my memory…) It’s the go-to breakfast spot and offers great food at great prices. The staff is super-friendly and patient – especially when you’re eleven year-old changes her mind 5 times about which bagel she should get. And the relaxed atmosphere is beach-perfect.
34 Old Orchard St, Old Orchard Beach, ME
Ocean Park Soda Fountain
Just a little ways down West Grand Avenue, you’ll come across the quiet neighbourhood of Ocean Park. Mostly seasonal beach homes and B&B’s, the main square in Ocean Park has a library, convenience store, small green space and a souvenir shop. But the main hang-out is the Ocean Park Soda Fountain. Like a lot of things in OOB, it’s like walking back in time, to a more relaxed era. Though they serve up breakfast, lunch and snacks, their main draw is the ice cream. The staff is generally university kids with the tip jar listing colleges they are saving for. And unlike today’s ice cream shops, the OP Soda Fountain still keeps its ice cream in fully covered freezers. No fancy glass sneeze-guards here
Ocean Park Soda Fountain, 14 Temple Ave., Ocean Park, ME
Harmon Historical Society
I’ve always been interested in the history of Old Orchard Beach. It’s a vacation spot generations have been coming to year-after-year, so it’s always neat to see what it was like in the 30’s, the 50’s, the 70’s. At the top of the hill in ‘downtown’ OOB, sits the Harmon Historical Society. I’ve driven passed this place for years never realizing what it was exactly. I think that if it was called the Old Orchard Beach History museum, it might get a little more foot-traffic, but alas… It’s named after one of the founding historical members, W. Warren Harmon. Staffed by volunteers, and funded by donations and memberships, it houses wonderful pictures and relics from the last 100 years of Old Orchard Beach. If you love history and have a rainy afternoon, it’s a wonderful place to visit to glimpse into the past.
4 Portland Ave, Old Orchard Beach, ME
If you drive past the Saco Drive-In on Route 1, you may think it’s abandoned or at least closed for the season, except when you read the marquee, and it says “Ice Age: Collision Course ” and “Ghost Busters 2”. The second oldest drive-in still operating in the US, the Saco Drive-In is a must for anyone visiting OOB. And if you’re into marketing (like I am), you have to read about how the current managers (a couple of twenty-something college kids) took on the failing business and with the help of social media and a lot of hard work, really did something amazing. I’m proud to say that I was about the 350th fan on their Facebook page, and through savvy marketing, they now have well over 35,000 likes! You can also read about how those Fans helped to save the Drive-In.
What I also love about this place is that they’ve preserved everything so authentically. The canteen is awesome and appears to be the original from the ‘60s. Even the washrooms – all super clean and well maintained – are not retro ‘50s, they actually are 1950’s! So cool!
969 Portland Ave (Rt. 1), Saco, ME
If it’s not a beach day or you’ve already spent your money shopping at the outlets, take a short drive up to Biddeford Pool. It’s a beautiful rocky shoreline with great beach-combing and nothing beats exploring the tidal pools for mini crabs and other ocean creatures.
South of the town of Biddeford on State route 208.
Schooner’s Mini-Putt & Batting Cages
Schooners Mini-Golf is another great, local treasure. The Mini-Putt (or as my girls call it, Putty-Golf) is well maintained and even offers a hole on a pirate ship. We always spend a couple of bucks on the batting cages, which offer softball, little-league, minor-league and major-league pitching speeds to suit all needs. Although it never ceases to amaze me how many guys stroll up to the ‘major-league’ cage and strike out 12 balls in a row. I’ll stick with my softball pitch, thank you.
58 Ocean Park Ave, Saco, ME
No post about Maine would be complete without some discussion about lobster. Beach Lobster is just at the corner of Saco Ave. and St. John Street. Head down there in the morning to pick out your fresh lobsters for dinner and they’ll hold them for you to pick up after your day at the beach. Crabs too. They also have great local veggies, in season and amazing blueberries!
35 Saco Ave., Old Orchard Beach, ME
Dickinson’s Candy Shop
Dickinson’s Candy Shop is a true OOB success story. And this year they’ve expanded. Offering pretty much every candy you can think of as well as fudge, taffy and ice cream – this is a must stop for my kids. The girls especially like the dancing jelly-beans, which us parents remember from FAO Schwartz toy store in NYC.
42 Old Orchard St., Old Orchard Beach, ME
Smiling Hill Petting Zoo
Technically this is not really in Old Orchard, but it’s just short drive away in Westbrook, ME. We came across this little petting zoo and dairy shop by accident many, many years ago. We’ve taken the girls here a couple times when they were really young to check out the pigs, geese and goats. If you have little ones, it great spot to burn off some energy, check out the barnyard animals and explore all the kid-friendly climbing structures (trains, planes, boats oh my!). The farm store serves a variety of diary products including flavoured milks and creams.
781 County Rd., Westbrook, ME
So if you ever find yourself in the Southern Maine area, or are looking for a fantastic, kid-friendly beach vacation that’s within budget, Old Orchard Beach is the spot. This is just a small taste of all the things to see and do, and I didn’t even talk about the beach (over 7 miles!) or the pier or the amusement rides!
A couple of weeks ago my extended family hosted a small family reunion in the tiny town of Montebello, Quebec at the Fairmont Le Chateau Montebello. It was a perfect weekend weather-wise, and the perfect location to host such an event.
The resort itself is truly unique. It’s sits on the banks of the Ottawa River and was first built in 1930 as a private club. What sets it apart is it is entirely built from log timbers. The main building has three levels, boasts a massive central lobby rotunda which is dominated by probably the most impressive six-sided fireplace I’ve ever seen.
Inspired by Swiss-American Hubert Saddlemire, and supervised by Victor Nymark, a Finnish master-builder, the Chateau was erected in four short months, using over 10,000 red cedars transported from British Columbia via CP rail. All cut and set by hand! It’s truly and awe-inspiring site.
The rooms are small-ish, compared to today’s luxury standards, but they are beautifully decorated with, you guessed it, a log-cabin theme. But it’s sophisticated, not kitchy. The bathrooms are also very small, but fully updated. My favourite thing about the room was that both the room door and bathroom door still have the original latch hardware. I wish I took a picture!
The resort is truly a year-round destination. In the winter, it has skating, curling, dog-sledding, cross-county skiing and a whole host of other winter activities. In the summer, due to its riverside setting, it has its own marina and non-motorized water sports, including kayaking, SUP and pedal boats. There was so much to explore and do, two nights was almost not enough.
On the first evening we walked the short trail into the town of Montebello, with the lovely trilliums on full display. The next morning we took some bicycles (free, as part of the daily resort fee) and explored some of the 5km of trails that weave through the forests around the resort. We also played badminton and mini-putt. In the afternoon, we tried out the kayaks, which was an excellent way to explore the riverside. There are also stables on the grounds that, for an additional fee, offer guided two-hour trail rides. Naturally, we felt feeding the horses grass was a little more in our price range.
The list of activities seemed endless; croquet, tennis, volleyball, a children’s playground, bonfire pit, you name it. You can even sign-up for off-road adventure driving or helicopter tours, right from the resort itself.
The outdoor pool wasn’t yet open but we did check out the indoor pool. What a delight! It was huge, and though you can’t really tell from this picture, the entire ceiling is rather intricately painted, a nod to its heritage. I also liked that the pool temperature is posted.
The only part of the resort that was somewhat disappointing, was that there was no coffee shop, or spot to grab a quick bite to eat. The main restaurant/bistro was really the only option available but its sit-down dining, which with two active kids, we really didn’t want to do in the middle of the day. Same with breakfast. Fortunately, a short ten-minute walk into Montebello offered a couple of great homestyle-breakfast options.
It’s an an easy drive from Ottawa (1.5 hours max) or Montreal ( 2 hours max), but take note, it is on the pricey side of hotels and there is also a daily resort fee that needs to be factored in too. But all in all the Fairmont Le Chateau Montebello is a fantastic weekend get-away destination both for couples or for families – you’ll always find something to do, even if it’s taking a leisurely stroll and just soaking up the atmosphere.
Hubby and I had a great little night away a couple of weekends-ago in Wakefield, a little town just outside Gatineau, in the Outaouais region of Quebec. The Wakefield Inn was originally a grist mill in the late 1800’s, when lumber was king in these parts; now converted, it sits upon the banks of a small tributary of the Gatineau River, right beside a breathe-taking waterfall. We’ve been here a few times before and we always find it so relaxing and serene.
The rooms are spacious if somewhat spartan, but definitely provide a county-inn feel. We had a room with a view of the falls which was quite nice and actually provided a soothing back-drop with the window left open.
The popularity of the Inn allowed it to expand a couple of years ago with the addition of the Eco River Lodge, a short one-minute walk from the main building. A departure from the feel of the historic stone mill, the Eco River Lodge is uber-modern and truly eco-friendly. The rooms overlook the more tranquil part of the river and are right next to the pool and hot tub. We stayed in one of these rooms last year and they are really quite modern, with a contemporary in-wall fireplace and a free-standing tub with views of the river.
Back at the main building there is a wonderful restaurant, spa and wine-bar. The wine-bar is particularly comfortable with inviting sofas, wing-backed chairs and a central stone fireplace. The main building also boasts a hot tub with great views of the water falls. The surrounding river area has little nooks carved out with Muskoka chairs inviting you to enjoy the scenery.
The little town of Wakefield is just a short five-minute walk down the road which is along the banks of a larger portion of the Gatineau River. There is a mix of little shops and bakeries too explore, as well home-grown dining establishments – all of which appear to strive in offering local fare and wares.
It was a wonderful night away and even though it’s not that far from home, it really felt like a great little get-away.
I found myself in San Francisco the other week (day-job obligations…) and heard that the weather was pretty nice. As anyone who travels for work knows, you tend to spend most of your day inside conference rooms and hotels. I snuck out for lunch on one day and took in the +17c weather and the always cool bay-city architecture. I didn’t get to see much on this particular trip, but one day I’ll get myself to the Golden Gate bridge.
On my last evening, I was determined to find a great little home décor store, but alas, found a chocolate store instead. And oh, what a find! I almost missed it on Market Street, it’s such a tiny little store, barely wider than the door. But Chocolatier Blue was calling my name.
Naturally, all of the ingredients are super-fresh, with all the chocolates and truffles made in small batches. I didn’t know where to start.
I finally ended up choosing these six absolutely delicious beauties:
From top left: 75% dark chocolate, passion fruit caramel, pumpkin. Bottom left: peanut butter & jam, gingerbread, pb crunch. All of them were fantastic, but of my little selection, my number one vote has to go to peanut butter and jam. Absolutely decadent. And who doesn’t like a good pg&j?
The original Chocolatier Blue opened up in Berkeley, California and along with this little outlet on Market Street there are two others in the Bay area. A store in Salt Lake City, one in Nebraska and one in Venice, California round out the locations to satisfy your sweet tooth.
So it would now seem that I have to add Chocolatier Blue to my must-see (must eat?) list along with the Golden Gate Bridge for the next time I’m back in the Bay area.