Tag Archives: tour
November 6, 2017

A funky Food Tour of hipsterish Hintonburg in Ottawa

Art is In Cafe menu - Hintonburg Food Tour - Ottawa

Art is In Cafe menu

The smell of freshly baked bread mingled seductively with caramelized onions, thai curry, toasted cheese and clam chowder. A buzz of chatter hummed round the industrial-chic cafe as customers tucked into wholesome, tasty food in one of the most popular, and off-the-beaten trail cafes in Ottawa. I was at Art is In Bakery with guide Stefanie Siska of C’est Bon Cooking at the start of a unique food tour in Hintonburg, known as the ‘Burg’. It’s a hip neighbourhood of the city that’s up and come, reinvented itself from a hard-core working class district to THE place to go for eating out, independent shops, creative businesses and quirky coffee houses.

Art is in lunch - food tour Hintonburg Ottawa - collage Zoe Dawes

Art is In lunch

I was given a behind-the-scenes peek round Art is In cafe. From a whirl of very busy chefs, plate after plate of delicious food emerged; light-as-air croissant, door-stop sandwiches and scrumptious pancakes. In the bakery next door, crisp baguettes, hearty wholemeal loaves and many more tasty bakes were being loaded up for delivery around the city. It was a wrench to leave this foodie heaven and emerge into the unprepossessing surroundings of City Centre Avenue industrial estate.

Hintonburg Ottawa

City Centre Avenue – Hintonburg

However, our next stop on the food tour, punnishly named ‘Beyond the Pale Brewery, was only a couple of units away. This brewery is most definitely on the funky scale with beers called Pink Fuzz (grapefruit), The Darkness (oatmeal stout), Saison Tropicale (pineapple) and their classic Pale Ale Project. Brewer Shane Clarke told the story of two mates setting up one of Ottawa’s most popular and distinctly quirky breweries. “We want people to have fun with our beer. Whether it’s tasting with us at the brewery, drinking at home with friends and family, enjoying a pint at one of our great licensees, or joining us at a festival to spin the Wheel of Cask.”

Beyond the Pale beer

Beyond the Pale beer

We headed off then to the Happy Goat Coffee Company, hidden away down a side road you’d never come across by accident. But the cafe was heaving, with chatty people trading gossip whilst a guy played the piano. “At “Happy Goat Coffee” we promote the niche coffee market by encouraging neighbourhood-based small batch coffee roasting” My cappuccino was definitely a cut above the Costa brigade – and who wouldn’t love a place that provides bone-shaped dog treats for its canine customers?

Happy Goat coffee - Food tour Ottawa Canada

Happy Goat coffee

With coffee you’ve got to have cake, haven’t you? At Suzy Q Doughnut Store, you get the best BEST doughnuts in Ottawa, judging by the queue out of the door onto the street. Flavours include Raspberry Cassis, Salty Caramel, London Fog, Sugar Munnki, Bloop and the Canadian star, Maple Bacon. Lording it over the store is a large moose head garlanded with flowers.

Suzy Q Maple Bacon Doughnuts - Ottawa Food Tour

Walking the streets of Hintonburg is a bit like walking on a film set. You can imagine a Canadian version of ‘Friends’ being set here. Stefanie said it was one of her favourite suburbs of Ottawa as it has its own distinctive brand of ‘cool’, being both friendly and interesting. She pointed out the decorated water hydrants, part of city art that is prevalent throughout the country. We called into Maker House, a furniture and craft store on Wellington Street. They also have a branch in downtown Byward Market. Here you can find a huge variety of top quality artisan wares. I fell in love with a silky-smooth wooden platter featuring the Maple Leaf commemorating Canada 150 birthday celebrations but it was heavy (and expensive) so I had to content myself with a couple of delicate Birch Bark bookmarks.

Birch Bark bookmarks Ottawa

Birch Bark bookmarks

After all the filing food and drink it was a relief to stop by Simply Raw Express, a ‘vegan, gluten-free, plant-based, organic restaurant, specializing in cold-pressed juices and clean eating.’ Stefanie explained it was set up  in 2006 by Natasha, best-selling author and raw vegan of 23 years. Regular readers will know I’m more of a steak and chips woman, but I must admit the Collard Wrap filled with hummus, cabbage and a side of spiralized carrots with a Peaceful Warrior smoothie – bananas, kale, hemp & flax seeds and Sun Warrior protein (phew!) – was simply delicious.

Simply Raw organic vegan food - Ottawa - photo Zoe Dawes

Simply Raw wrap

By now I was starting to feel extremely full, which was a shame as the next place on our C’est Bon Food Tour was a funky little Mexican restaurant, La Cocina. Stefanie suggested we had a drink first and a refreshing margerita quickly materialised. I’m ashamed to say I could barely do justice to the spicy tacos (made with ‘in-house hand pressed corn tortilla) but I can most definitely recommend them.

La Cocina Margarita Mexican restaurant Ottawa

La Cocina Margarita

Finishing off our drinks, it was time for the last stop – Stella Luna Gelato Cafe. Oh yes, superb Italian gelato in the suburbs of Ottawa. The last time I had such smoothly divine ice-cream was on a weekend in Rome; this was just as good. The multi-award winning gelateria is the genuine article. Master Gelato Chef Tammy Giuliani ‘combines old-world techniques and recipes with a passion for finely prepared food.

Stella Luna gelateria - Hintonburg Ottawa Food Tour

Stella Luna gelato

I met both Italian Tammy and his Canadian wife, whose love story is behind the success of their ice-cream, cakes, tarts, pies, crepes and coffee. It was only polite to have a tub of their Chocolate Sundae (rich chocolate, maple, bourbon, candied pecans with a fudge ripple) with a dash of Strawberry … A truly scrumptious end to a really excellent food tour.

Many thanks to Stefanie Siska of  C’est Bon Cooking for a fascinating and very tasty glimpse into the food and drink on offer in Hintonburg. Grateful thanks also to Air Transat, Destination Canada and Ottawa Tourism for sponsoring my visit. It was a pleasure to explore more of Canada, a country of unforgettable experiences.

Hintonburger - Food Tour Ottawa Canada


Check out Canada Keep Exploring to discover more about where to go and what to do in Ottawa. Return flights from Gatwick to Toronto from £346 (October 2017) and £349 (May 2018) per person with Air Transat. Canadian Affair offers an 8-day package tour Ontario Taster Holiday which includes 2 nights in Ottawa.

Find out more about Canada in these articles

Discover Ottawa, Canada’s charming capital city 

Ottawa: 8 fun ways to celebrate #Canada150 in the capital city

Escape to Upper Canada Village, Ontario

Top 10 Memorable Moments in Canada

Vancouver in 24 hours

A Digital Detox with the Grizzly Bears of British Columbia

Top tips for a motorhome trip across Canada

Love it? Pin it!

Ottawa Food Tour Canada - image Zoe Dawes

October 25, 2017

Top 10 reasons to choose an escorted tour of India

Delhi Station porters

Porters at Delhi Station

“Here, ma’am, over here. Take your bag? Porter for you. I help you onto train …” A cacophony of voices ricocheted around Delhi Railway Station as we trotted down the stairs onto the busy platform. It was early morning and we were on our way to Kalka to join the Toy Train to Shimla. But first we had to navigate the chaotic melee that is to be seen at every big city railway station in India, find the correct carriage and make sure our luggage came on board with us. Fortunately I was on a Great Rail Journeys award-winning escorted tour and had nothing to worry about.

Ganesh Elephant God Shimla India - photo Zoe Dawes

Our wonderful guide, Farouk, had everything organised and it was a seamless, if noisy, transition from our hotel to the station and the Shatabdi Express. A coach had taken us from the 5-star Taj Diplomatic Enclave Hotel in the heart of the city to the station entrance from where our suitcases had been whisked away. The next time we saw them was on the train. All we had to do was follow Farouk, wait on the platform til our train arrived and take lots of photos of the lively scenes all around us. This was just one of the many advantages of being on an escorted tour in India.

10 reasons to choose an Escorted Tour of India

1.  Knowledgeable Tour Manager

Farouk Escorted Tour Manager Great Rail Journeys India

Having a dedicated tour manager who knows the lie of the land and can smooth away all the hassle of travel, is a huge benefit. They ensure your trip is hassle-free from the moment you come through customs, throughout your trip until you check back in at the airport. Farouk, our escort, dealt with a myriad of issues, from ensuring our hotel rooms were ready, booking meals, handing out train tickets, answering questions about Indian etiquette, liaising with local guides and keeping us all together as we wandered the streets of Shimla and scattered around the Taj Mahal.

2.  Smooth transitions from place to place

Agra street scene India - photo Zoe Dawes

Agra street scene

One of the biggest time-consumers on independent travel is getting from A to B and on to C. Travelling around a foreign country can be stressful, especially if you don’t know the language. India has many pluses, but public transport can be very challenging for some visitors. On an escorted tour everything is taken care of, so you can enjoy the journey, with transport, tickets and luggage all magically sorted.

3.  Accommodation organised in advance

Taj Diplomatic Enclave Hotel Lobby Delhi India

Taj Diplomatic Enclave Lobby

With so much choice, choosing where to stay in India is a dilemma. Can you trust the web description? Is the Trip Advisor rating accurate? Where exactly is this hotel in relation to the sights you want to see? On a reputable escorted tour, this is all taken out of your hands. They will choose good hotels because they want happy customers. In Delhi we stayed at the excellent Taj Diplomatic Enclave Hotel. Great Rail Journeys only chooses the very top hotels so satisfaction is guaranteed.

Oberoi Cecil Lounge and bedrooms Shimla

Oberoi Cecil Lounge and bedrooms

In Shimla we had two nights in the delightful Oberoi Cecil, It’s famous not only for its local heritage but also because Mohan Singh Oberoi, the founder of Oberoi Hotels, started work here, rose through the ranks and eventually bought the hotel. The food, a combination of international, pan-Indian and local Himachali dishes, was superb and the service second-to-none.

TIC Mughal Agra banquet India

ITC Mughal – the biggest Indian bread you ever did see

The uber-luxurious ITC Mughal in Agra was another perfect hotel. We each stayed in a gorgeous suite and were treated to a delicious Mughal Banquet which included the biggest Indian bread I’ve ever seen. (even bigger than the Bradford Naan!)

4.  Value for money

Woman at the Red Fort Agra India- photo Zoe Dawes

Woman at Red Fort Agra

A trip to India is, for many, a once-in-a-lifetime holiday but, whatever your budget, you want to know you’re getting the biggest bang for your buck, if you’ll pardon the expression. Taking into account all your costs (see Point 5), an escorted tour can be the most cost-effective way of travelling. Whether you go for more economically priced tours, or splash out on a top-quality company like Great Rail Journeys, you can be sure that you are getting excellent value for money.

5.  Easy to budget

Closely linked to point 4, you can easily budget because just about everything is included. For example, on the Indian Golden Triangle Tour I sampled, scheduled return flights, 5-star hotel accommodation, superb meals and filling packed lunches, rail and coach travel, transfers and porterage, guided tours and dedicated Tour Manager are all included in the booking price. That meant we only had to pay for drinks, tips and souvenirs – which are a bargain in India.

6.  Tailored excursions to make the most of time and place

The Toy Train in the Himalayas Shimla India- photo Zoe Dawes

The Toy Train in the Himalayas

Good excursions should be a winning combination of stress-free organisation combined with well-informed local guides who take visitors rounds sites, share interesting stories and intriguing facts at a pace suited to the group’s level of fitness and interest. The major highlights of our trip included the Toy Train to Shimla, city tour of Delhi and to Agra for the Red Fort and the Taj Mahal, which was more lovely than I had imagined. That visit was enhanced by our tour guide, who brought the love story of Mughal emperor Shah Jahan to life with fascinating information about the building and the significance of the architecture.

7.  Bespoke experiences to enhance local knowledge

Raj Ghat Mahatma Ghandi Delhi - photo Zoe Dawes

Raj Ghat – memorial to Mahatma Ghandi in Delhi

All good tours will have some unusual experiences to enhance their customers’ enjoyment. It might be a cookery lesson, wine-tasting, sailing on house-boat, wild-life photography or joining  in a traditional festival. On our trip, we watched locals taking part in a temple blessing, saw the sun rise over the Himalayas and heard an excellent talk on Shimla and the history of the British in India from charming historian Raaja Bhasin.

8.  Relatively risk-free giving peace of mind

Fast food on a railway platform in the Himalayas - India - photo Zoe Dawes

Fast food on a railway platform in the Himalayas

The best tour companies have fine-tuned their holidays to ensure that customers have a smooth and risk-free trip. India is a vibrant, colourful country with a somewhat lax approach to health and safety … With guides chosen for their attention to detail and drivers chosen for their experience of the crazy Indian driving habits, we were in very capable hands, even on the exciting journey back down the mountain road from Shimla. Advice on what food and drink to try ensured that I for one, avoided Delhi Belly and was able to experience superb Indian cuisine with no side effects.

9. Freedom and flexibility

Marble sculptors in Agra Market India - photo Zoe Dawes

Marble Sculptors – Agra Market

Select your escorted tour carefully and you will get both free time and flexibility in the programme. These trips are often packed with things to see and do, which can be tiring.  I’m sure you will find plenty of options to suit your own tastes. I need a break to just wander around on my own. On our trip, we had some free time in Agra and I went off with a couple of others from the group to explore a local market. Others relaxed by the pool, chatted at the bar, read a book, slept or had a indulgent Spa Treatment.

10.  The company of like-minded people

Great Rail Journeys escorted tour Taj Mahal India

At the Taj |Mahal

This is one of the biggest selling points of an escorted tour. Because everyone has chosen the same trip, you can be sure that you will find plenty of people who share your own interests. On Great Rail Journeys a common denominator is often, but not always, a love of rail travel, for which India is rightly famous. However, many people go on their tours because of their desire to see famous sights, learn more about the culture and traditions of India and to experience these memorable moments with others.

I travelled to India courtesy of Great Rail Journeys; I am grateful them for enabling me to fulfill a life-long dream in such a marvellous way. Special thanks to our guide Farouk for his unfailing care and good humour, to all the friendly staff in the hotels we stayed in and to all the wonderful people we met along the way who made this trip so special.

If you’d like to go on a similar trip, take a look at Great Rail Journeys escorted tours of India, specially tailored for the 50+ demographic, and start planning your trip of a lifetime now 🙂

Love it? Pin It!

Top 10 Reasons to choose an Escorted Tour - Pinterest image Zoe Dawes

July 28, 2017

Experience the nostalgic pleasure of steam train railways around North Wales

Four steam trains in three days – what a treat. I was on on a very special trip to experience the delights of North Wales Heritage railways, sampling itineraries from specialist railway tour operators Great Rail Journeys and Rail Discoveries.

Ffestiniog Railway

Ffestiniog Railway steam train Merddin Emrys

Engine driver Paul on Merddin Emrys

The heat is overwhelming. There’s a smell of coal dust, hot metal and sea-salt. Steam hisses and a seagull squawks overhead. Adults ready their cameras, children giggle with excitement and the sense of anticipation builds. “Keep right in to the side there and watch that pipe; it’s boiling hot and will give you a nasty burn if you touch it.” Engine driver Paul ensures I’m ensconced in my tiny corner of the cabin, gives a brief nod to stoker Andrew, a piercing whistle shrieks across the river estuary out to sea, there’s a chuff-chuffing from the steam train and we are on our way.

View from inside Ffestiniog Raliway steam engine cab

View from inside Ffestiniog Raliway steam engine cab

I’m on the very splendid Merddin Emrys, a push-me pull-you Double Fairlie locomotive built in 1879, on the  Ffestiniog Railway, fulfilling a life-long dream to travel on the footplate of a steam train. The Festiniog Railway Company, in North Wales, is the oldest surviving railway company in the world. It opened in 1836 to take slate from the quarries of Blaenau Ffestiniog to Porthmadog for export around the globe. We used to holiday in nearby Llandudno and I remember seeing the little train chugging along the track and wishing we could go on it … and now I’m finally here.

Minffordd Station - Ffestiniog Railway steam train - photo Zoe Dawes

Minffordd Station

The train slowly gathers speed as we pass fields of sheep and quaint cottages. People wave as we rumble through Boston Lodge and cows stop grazing to gaze at us as we steam by. At Minffordd, where we pass another steam train going in the opposite direction, I have to leave the engine and join the other passengers in one of the lovely old wooden carriages. We slowly start the steep climb into the mountains where the scenery becomes wilder through the glorious Snowdonia National Park. Sunlight glimmers through wooded groves and we disappear into a tunnel before doing a loop-the-loop at the Dduallt Spiral.

Ffestiniog Railway Bara Brith and Welsh Cakes

Bara Brith and Welsh Cakes

Afternoon tea arrives; a plate of local Welsh Cakes and Bara Brith (fruit loaf) are most welcome. Against railway rules I put my head out of carriage window and watch the steam train puff its way round the curve of the narrow-gauge track. The sight and sound of this sturdy little engine brings back many memories of childhood and a world where time seemed to go at a much slower pace. We arrive at Blaenau Ffestiniog Station and we have a quick look at the brand new, very luxurious, Pullman Observation Carriage, with beautiful wood panelling and maps of the railway route carved onto the tables. On the platform we watch as Paul and Andrew jump on top of the engine to check it and fill it with water.

Steam train at Blaenau Ffestiniog

With its twin funnels and gleaming red livery,  Merddin Emrys is a fine example of a Victorian steam train and I feel privileged to have spent some time in its company.

Welsh Highland Railway

Welsh Highland Railway steam train

Welsh Highland Railway steam train

We had started the day in castle-dominated Caernarvon, boarding the Welsh Highland Railway, UK’s longest heritage railway, that took us inland, past the foot of Snowdon and on to the pretty village of Beddgelert. Our train was pulled by a mighty fine black locomotive, NG/G16 No.87, built in 1937, originally used in South Africa and rebuilt in the Ffestiniog Railway’s own Boston Lodge Works. En route we got superb views out towards the Lleyn Peninsula, beside old slate mines and tiny railway stations, past lakes emerging from steamy windows, near rushing waterfalls and on up into the mountains.

Lake View from Welsh Highland Railway steam train North Wales

View from our railway carriage

Clare, our very informative host from Ffestiniog Railway Company, outlined our route on the map and gave us some facts and figures about the company and its rolling stock. Well-equipped walkers got off at one of the halts to hike up Wales’ highest peak.

Welsh Highland Railway route

Welsh Highland Railway route

As we crossed the impressive Glan-yr-afon Viaduct I gazed up towards the summit of Snowdon, shrouded in mist. This stretch of the track is one of the steepest gradients in Britain, 1-40 and we snaked our way back down through the forest toward Beddgelert, Snowdon playing hide and seek along the way.

Welsh Highland Railway steam train Snowdonia - North Wales

Welsh Highland Railway steam train

As we disembarked in Beddgelert, the rain arrived, not so unusual in this part of Wales. However, by the time we’d got our coach to the quirky village of Portmeirion it had stopped and the sun was peaking out again.

Llangollen Railway

Llangollen Railway Station and 80072 steam train

Llangollen Railway Station and Steam engine 80072

The following day we headed off into the valleys for a ride on the Llangollen Railway, the only standard-gauge heritage railway in Wales. As with many other railway lines, this was originally built for the mining industry, but Llangollen has been a tourist destination for many years. It’s a very attractive town on the River Dee and the railway is its biggest attraction. The quaint Station Building sets the scene with old suitcases piled on the platform and uniformed guards, drivers and other staff bustling about making sure everyone gets aboard in time for departure. We had a reserved carriage all to ourselves again, with scones, jam and cream laid out on crisp white linen – very civilized. The velvet-upholstered seats and lacquered wood panelling all conspired to give that feeling of nostalgia for rail travel in stylish luxury.

Llangollen Railway reserved carriage North Wales

Reserved Carriage

We were being pulled by beautifully restored locomotive 80072, built in Brighton in 1953 to run on the south coast, but left to rot for many years after the Beeching cuts of the 1965, which is when the Llangollen Railway also closed for main-line travel. There are few transport sounds more evocative than the huffing of an engine as it builds up steam on its way out of a station. We got that experience a number of times as there were a three stops along the line, which runs beside the sparkling River Dee, to Corwen. The return journey was equally delightful and everyone thoroughly enjoyed our very special steam train journey.

Llangollen Railway steam train -photo Zoe Dawes

Llangollen Railway steam train

After lunch we went on a leisurely glide along the Langollen Canal on a horse-drawn boat – perfect end to a perfect day.

Snowdon Mountain Railway

Wyddfa steam engine Snowdon Mountain Railway - photo Zoe Dawes


On our final morning we set off early to get the 9.30am Snowdon Mountain Railway steam train from Llanberis Up the Mountain. We went up and down in glorious sunshine, pushed up by Wyddfa, a Swiss-built engine from 1893, driven by Paul and stoker Robert. It was a truly epic journey – watch out for the story in another article …

Top of Snowdon with Mountain Railway train North Wales - photo Zoe Dawes

Top of Snowdon with Mountain Railway train

Great Rail Journeys and Rail Discoveries Steam Train Tours

I travelled to North Wales courtesy of Great Rail Journeys and Rail Discoveries. Our group stayed in Llandudno at the very comfortable Dunoon Hotel, with superb food in charming surroundings. We also had an excellent Italian meal at the Wildwood Restaurant in the town centre.

Dunoon Hotel Llandudno

Our group at Dunoon Hotel

Great Rail Journeys Railways & Castles of Wales Tour includes a stay at the award-winning Dunoon Hotel, journeys on the Welsh Highland, Ffestiniog and Snowdon Mountain Railways, and excursions to Portmeirion Village and Caernarfon and Conwy Castles. GRJ Independent can also tailor make holidays to the region for those wishing to travel to Wales on an individual basis Save up to £30pp when booking on or before 15th August 2017.More details Railways and Castles of Wales.

Rail Discoveries Railways of Wales Tour includes a stay at the Kensington Hotel, journeys on the Welsh Highland, Ffestiniog and Llangollen Railways, a horse-drawn boat trip on the Llangollen Canal, and excursions to Portmeirion Village and Caernarfon Castle. Save up to £30pp when booking on or before 15th August 2017. More details Railways of Wales.

Andrew and Paul on the Ffestiniog Railway steam train - photo Zoe Dawes

Andrew and Paul on the Ffestiniog Railway

Love Narrow-Gauge Railways? Read my review of Small Island by Little Train – a narrow-gauge adventure by Chris Arnot.

Love it? Pin It!

North Wales Steam Railways


November 22, 2016

A rippa of a day in Margaret River, Australia

Canoeing on Margaret River Western Australia - photo zoedawes

Canoeing on the Margaret River

“It’s a rippa of a day. Hope you’re enjoying yourselves. It’s so beautiful here and hardly anyone ever does this.” Apparently ‘a rippa of a day‘ means ‘absolutely fantastic’, ‘here‘ is Margaret River, after which the nearby town is named, in Western Australia, and ‘this‘ is canoeing along the river. We’d just had a brief rain shower and now the weather was clearing as we paddled slowly along the wide and tranquil stretch of water. The roots of huge trees entangled the shores and their tops towered over us, swaying gently in the breeze. I was in a canoe with our guide for the day, Sean Blocksidge, who runs the Margaret River Discovery Company and food blogger Niamh Shields. Also on our tour were a honeymoon couple from Australia and another couple from America.

Paddling canoe on the Margaret River, Western Australia - photo zoedawes

Paddling our canoes

After our canoe trip, we went to the waterfall on Margaret River, in full spate due to an exceptionally wet winter. We sat down beside it and Sean explained its significance to local Aboriginal people as a tribal camp ground. He’d brought along some bread and three types of honey for us to try. “This is honey-gold. It’s called Karri, from the local Karri tree [eucalyptus diversicolor], which grows round here. It has strong healing properties and is highly valued.” They all tasted good but this one was a real winner.

Karri honey at Margaret River waterfall Western Australia

Karri Honey

We headed off in Sean’s 4X4 to Prevelly for a quick coffee at the White Elephant Cafe and to have a look at one of the area’s premier surfing beaches, Gnarabup. This area had also been hit by big storms so the weather was unseasonably cold and wet. Even so, we could appreciate it and see why, in the summer months, it is one of the most popular places not just for surfing but also to relax and enjoy this lovely coastline.

Gnarabup Beach Western Australia - photo zoedawes

Gnarabup Beach

Having been refreshed, we set off to explore some of area’s countryside and Sean regaled us with tales of his life and local history. including the horrific bush fire of 2011 that destroyed a vast swathe of the area. Luckily no-one was injured, but one of Western Australia’s oldest homes, Wallcliffe House, built in 1865, was gutted. It was an important example of early colonial architecture and home to one of WA’s finest collections of antique furniture. Driving on through the lush countryside, we passed dozens of vineyards. Margaret River is famous the world over for the quality of its wines, especially Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonney but increasingly for other, lesser known wines and blends. With its consistent growing seasons, mild winter, pleasant summer, good rainfall and fertile soil, it is home to over 150 wineries – and the number is growing.

Leeuwin Estate Art Series Riesling Margaret River WA

Leeuwin Estate Art Series Riesling

The previous day, Niamh and I had experienced an excellent Wine and Food Tasting at the Leeuwin Estate, one of the five founding wineries in Margaret River. Not only do they produce superb wines but they have a unique collection of modern art, which they use for the labels on their very distinctive Art Series wines. (Watch out for more in my next article on Food and Drink in Western Australia.)

Fraser Gallop Estate Margaret River Western Australia

Fraser Gallop Estate

Now we were visiting Fraser Gallop Estate, an up and very much coming winery that’s already producing some distinctive award-winning wines. Francine Davies showed us round. “The Fraser Gallop Estate winery is custom designed to process a maximum capacity of 300 tonnes of grapes, particularly designed in layout and size for the fermentation of Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Semillon Sauvignon Blanc blends.” We then had an informal lunch of local food, including octopus, duck and chicken liver pate, smoked trout and venison chorizo. Sean explained each wine and we sipped glass after glass with much relish. A big favourite was the splendid 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon, “Just suck it up,” said Sean in typical Aussie fashion – and we did! NB: this estate is not usually open for public visits.

Wine-tasting at Fraser Gallop Estate - Margaret River - Western Australia - collage zoedawes

Wine-tasting at Fraser Gallop Estate

After such a hedonistic lunch, it was time to get some fresh air and we headed back to the coast. The Cape to Cape Track is a 135km route beside the Indian Ocean  from Cape Leeuwin to Cape Naturaliste, past dramatic seascapes and pristine beaches, along undulating paths. We parked up and set off a steady pace, walking through a vibrant patchwork of plants, shrubs and trees. This part of Australia is known for its wild flowers and in spring they burst with colour and scent. (We were visiting in October, the perfect time to see them.) Beneath us waves crashed against the shore and overhead seabirds wheeled. Sean told us to look out for migrating whales; we saw none, possibly due to the stormy weather. Sea spray brought the zing of ozone and the ocean was dappled with sunlight.

Spring flowers on Cape to Cape Track Margaret River - Western Australia - photo zoedawes

Cape to Cape Track Margaret River

After about an hour we had to turn round, but not before Sean had taken a photo of each of us perched on a rock above the cliffs. Windblown and happy, we then returned to the vehicle, making the most of our time out in this glorious scenery. Back in the town of Margaret River, Niamh and I said goodbye to Sean, who suggested we drive to a road near where we were staying, to see kangaroos having their evening meal. Here they are …

Kangaroos at Margaret River

We stayed at Basildene Manor near the town of Margaret River. This beautiful boutique hotel was built by Percy Willmott, a lighthouse keeper at Cape Leeuwin, in 1912. He created a splendid home resembling a relative’s grand country estate in England. It’s welcoming, luxurious and delightfully quirky, with lovely grounds and truly scrumptious home-made cakes.

Basildene Manor Margaret River Western Australia

Basildene Manor

I travelled to Perth, Fremantle, Rottnest Island and Margaret River courtesy of Tourism Western Australia #justanotherdayinWA and would like to thank everyone, including a great bunch of fellow bloggers, who made this such a memorable adventure.

Zoe Dawes aka The Quirky Traveller on the Cape to Cape Track - Margaret River - Western Australia

Happy memories …

More about my trip to Western Australia: Rottnest Island in search of the quirky quokka and Top Places to Eat and Drink in Fremantle.


The Quirky Traveller Top Tips for Margaret River - Western Australia

December 9, 2014

7 Money-Saving Tips for Holiday Travel

Save money on holiday travel - the Quirky Traveller Top Tips

I love spending money on the niceties of life – for example, a decent bottle of wine, turquoise ink for my old fountain pen, a pretty pair of earrings. A teenage son eats into the family budget. Electricity bills, mortgage payments and running a car are unavoidable expenses. Sadly, I’m no good at saving money. So why on earth am I writing an article on money-saving tips? It’s because I can’t save BEFORE a holiday that I have become quite good at saving money ON holiday.  So here are some of my favourite money-saving tips that might help you too.

Grand Bazaar Turkey

Grand Bazaar Turkey

1.  Before you leave home, find out if there are any special deals on ticket prices for the kinds of places/attractions you want to visit. It may be a Water Park for the kids, a museum or theatre, but very often there are online deals that you can buy in advance with considerable savings on the ‘door rate’.

2.  Check out what local transport tickets are available. Again they may be cheaper to get in advance but most cities and many regions have great offers on rail/bus/tram travel which you can usually buy from stations etc.

3.  As soon as you arrive at your holiday destination, check with your travel rep/hotel concierge/B&B owner where the locals go for good value food and drink. You will not only be able to eat cheaper but often get much more delicious meals than going to more obvious tourist restaurants and bars.

Sibora Restaurant Gran Canaria

Sibora Restaurant Gran Canaria

4.  Watch out for lunch-time menus, especially if you are staying in a Mediterranean country. Many eateries have really good midday ‘specials’ that often include 2-3 courses and a glass of wine or soft drink for under £10 or thereabouts.

5.  Don’t be afraid to haggle or ask for a discount when you are shopping. Many countries in the world are quite used to this, and even if they are not (ie the UK), in the current tough economic climate, many shops are now prepared to offer a discount, especially if you are buying more than one item.

Local products in Monemvassia, Greece

Local products in Monemvassia, Greece

6.  Get your souvenirs at local markets and smaller shops. Invariably you will get a better deal on just about everything (see above) but you will often find excellent quality hand-crafted gifts at prices well below what you’d pay in the big tourist stores.

7.  Tours can add a lot to your holiday expenses yet can be a great way to get to see local sights. Hotels often add a hefty % to their trips, which can usually be found for a fraction of the price in the nearest town travel agents. You can find a wide variety including river cruises, city walks, bus, cycle and food tours etc. Sometimes they may also include pick-ups at popular hotels so ask around and find a bargain.

Tasting tea on a food tour in Montreal

Tasting tea on a food tour in Montreal

Hopefully, if you can save £££s on these few money-saving tips you’ll have plenty more to spend on enjoying yourself even more on holiday.

June 23, 2013

A magical mystery tour of Montreal’s culinary heritage

Dragons beard candy maker montreal - photo zoedawes

Mrs Chin started spinning the long piece of white sugar dough so fast it was impossible to see, counting aloud as her hands twirled and doubled the number of strands – 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, 256, 512! With a deft flick she curled a piece of this white magic into a ball, filled it with sticky peanut, sesame and chocolate paste and popped it into a box. A treat fit for a king – or in this case, an Emperor.  A notice in front of the little stall in the heart of Chinatown, Montreal, informed us that these sweet indulgences were served up at Imperial State Banquets.  The strands were said to resemble a long beard and the Emperor’s symbol was a dragon – hence it became known as Dragon’s Beard Candy.

Fitz and Follwell food tour in Montreal

I was on the unique Fitz & Follwell Flavours of ‘The Main’ Food Tour with friendly guide Ingrid, taking in some of the quirky, eclectic tastes, sights and sounds of culinary Montreal in the beautiful and historic Quebec Region.  “For three centuries, Montreal immigrants have settled along the city’s main boulevard, known interchangeably as St. Lawrence, St. Laurent, or ‘The Main.’ French, British, Chinese, Eastern European, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish, Latin American and North African – all have found their time and place on this historic street.”

Wings - Fortune cookies Montreal

Along with fellow travel blogger, Keith Jenkins and Hugo LeClerc of Tourisme Montréal, we’d set off from the ornate Chinatown Gate on our first stop, ‘Wings’, a family-run business established in 1897, now in an unprepossessing concrete building down a back street. They are Canada’s oldest producer of Fortune Cookies, noodles and many other Asian food products.  We were each given a fortune cookie. Hoping for some life-changing message or notification of imminent wealth, mine simply said something about Patience being a Virtue!

My Cup of Tea - Montreal food tour

Down the road at ‘My Cup of Tea’ an enthusiastic tea connoisseur showed us yet more Chinese magic as he filled transparent teapots with dried flowers which slowly blossomed into graceful shapes drifting around in delicate-scented, vari-shaded liquids.  Dainty glass bowls were filled and, as we tasted many different flavours, he explained the history, provenance and health-giving properties of this popular drink.  What I loved about this shop was its elegant, contemporary decor, so different from the faux-traditional appearance of some tea emporiums.

Banh mi montreal

As we left ‘Asia’ we were given another taste of this multi-cultural city – a Vietnamese baguette or Banh Mi.  A tasty morsel left over from the French occupation of Vietnam, mine was a scrumptious mix of minced pork, carrot, daikon (white radish) and coriander on a fresh and crunchy French stick.  By now I was very grateful I’d not had a big breakfast …

Next stop on the tour was the Montreal Pool Rooms, ‘Depuis 1912’ as the T-shirts on the guys serving poutine proudly proclaim in this typical ‘greasy spoon’ diner.

Montreal Pool Room Diner

Hands up who’s heard of Poutine?  It’s Quebec region’s favourite fast food – basically chips, gravy and cheese curds – and believe me, it tastes far, far better than it sounds.  According to Wikipedia, poutine  ‘originated in rural Quebec, Canada, in the late 1950s. Several Québécois communities claim to be the birthplace of poutine.  One often-cited tale is that of Fernand Lachance, from Warwick, Quebec, which claims that poutine was invented there in 1957; Lachance is said to have exclaimed, “Ça va faire une maudite poutine” (it will make a damn mess) when asked to put a handful of curds on some french fries, hence the name. The sauce was allegedly added later, to keep the fries warm longer.”‘

Poutine on the street - Montreal

As food experiences go, eating poutine with a plastic fork out of a polystyrene box beside one of Montreal’s busiest streets, rates in my Top Ten Foodie experiences of all time.  It’s a sensuously smooth, carbohydrate laden, scrummily divine taste sensation!

Spanish Library and delicatessen - Montreal

There followed further excursions into the city’s cultural heritage with visits to a Hungarian shop with a huge selection of sausages and paprika, a Spanish library- cum-delicatessen, past Portuguese and Italian grocery stores and then on to world- famous Schwartz Charcuterie Hebraique.

Schwartz Charcuterie - Fitz and Follwell Food Tour

Schwartz Charcuterie – Fitz and Follwell Food Tour

Founded in 1928 by Hungarian Jewish immigrant, Reuben Schwartz, its popularity was vividly apparent by the lengthy line of hungry punters patiently queuing down St Lawrence Boulevard. Their smoked meat is cured for 10 days in a secret marinade of herbs and spices and is melt-in-the-mouth delicious.  Ingrid said that Canadian singer Celine Dion had recently bought Schwartz’s and locals were hoping that it wouldn’t lose its unique appeal.  Judging by the crowded dining room, there’s no sign of that yet.

Schwartz diner - Montreal

You know that scene in Monty Python’s ‘The Meaning of Life’ when the waiter says to Mr Creosote, “and finally Monsieur, a wafer-thin mint?”  Well, that’s how I felt when Ingrid said, “and finally, we’ll pop over the road for potato latkes.” I managed one mouthful of this Jewish favourite with a smidgeon of sour cream before metaphorically exploding with all the amazing tastes, heavenly aromas and fascinating facts I had experienced on this excellent Fitz and Follwell tour.   If you visit Montreal, and everyone should go at least once in their lives, then do take time to explore the city through your taste buds – it’s a truly sensational experience you’ll never forget.

Fitz and Follwell tours montreal - photo zoedawes

Fitz and Follwell tours

A few days later I was off to quirkily beautiful Quebec City where I had yet more marvellous foodie experiences, this time very haute cuisine!

Many thanks to House Trip for providing a lovely place to stay in Montreal and to Explore Canada and Tourisme Montréal for organising my very first visit to Canada.  Discover more about the region’s history, attractions, activities more at Bonjour Quebec.

May 13, 2013

Walking round Reykjavik – Europe’s most northern capital

If you’ve been to Iceland you’ll understand the singer Björk.  Born and raised in Reykjavik, she epitomises this country’s quirky, eclectic energy.  Visitors on holiday can get a brief glimpse of Iceland’s natural attractions and history by doing The Golden Circle, including Gulfoss (Golden Waterfall), the geothermal field of Haukadalur where Strokkur Geyser erupts very few minutes and the UNESCO World Heritage site, Þingvellir National Park where the original Parliament met.  All this is can be done in a day trip from Reykjavik, Iceland’s historic and vibrant capital city.

Reykjavik and Hallgrims Church Iceland = photo zoedawes

Reykjavik with view of Hallgrims Church

In spite of a very changeable climate that Brits will feel at home in and those from warmer countries may find ‘challenging’, Reykjavik is one of the party capitals of Europe.  Lively techno and hard rock bars vie with cool cafes and trendy eateries.  But it’s the fascinating cultural scene, unusual architecture, every-changing seascapes and crisp, sparkling air that I loved.  Standing on The Square  one look at the unassuming, low level Alþing (Parliament House) tells you that this is a country that seems at ease with its identity and has no need to dominate. The white-walled Cathedral next door would not look out of place in a provincial town.  And that’s the secret of Reykjavik’s appeal – it’s small, accessible and utterly charming.

Tjörnin, Reykjavik Iceland - photo Helgi Halldórsson/Freddi

Tjörnin – photo Helgi Halldórsson/Freddi

The best way to explore the city is on foot. In a few hours you can see all the main sights ‘downtown’ – we had a guide but it’s not difficult to navigate.  With the sea on one side and linear streets you can’t get too lost.  In front of the Tourist Information Centre on little Faxaflói Square we were shown a rather strange looking sculpture of tall concrete stakes with steam coming from the running water.  Apparently this represents the founding of the city when a Norwegian Viking settler farmed this land and called it Reykjavik aka ‘steamy/smoky bay‘.

Faxafloi Square sculpture Reykjavik

At the nearby Landnamssyningin (Settlement Exhibition) I tried to imagine what ancient island life was like around 1000 AD from the remnants of a turf wall and some Viking objects.  Can’t say I succeeded but worth a try!  Much more appealing was the Kraum Centre for Icelandic Craft in House No 10 Adalstraeti,  said to be the oldest wooden house in centre of the city. As you can imagine, these houses are prone to fire and decay being so near the sea so it is amazing that any have survived.  There was an intriguing collection of pottery, jewellery, household utensils and clothes, all with a definite Icelandic twist in their creation and construction.

Kraum Craft Centre Reykjavik

Shoppers are well catered for with a great mix of international names and very high quality local  brands.  In the city’s largest shopping centre, Kringlan (a few minutes’ drive from the heart of the city, you’ll find names like Karen Illen, Deisel, Next, Zara and Hugo Boss.  One of the most well-known local names is 66°North, created in 1926 to provide outdoor clothing to protect the fishermen and labourers from the extremes of Arctic weather. Now uber-fashionable, their garments combine practicality and contemporary design.  I got a very snug fleece that looks good and is very cosy on the Lake District fells in winter!  If you have time, just go off the main streets to discover quirky little shops selling all manner of tempting goodies.

The Sea Hat shop - Reykjavik

Laugavegur is the main shopping street.  Woollen items are a favourite and the Hand-knitting Association of Iceland has a couple of shops in town.  Or you could try a quirky chocolate volcano on an iced cake from a bespoke chocolatier …

Chocolate volcano on iced cake

Heading towards busy Hafn (harbour) we could smell the fishing boats before we saw them.  Serious looking craft bedecked with industrial-strength nets were bobbing about near the ferries, a military vessel and other shipping that regularly sail around these chilly waters.  There’s also a ferry taking day-trippers over to Viday Islandwhere we had dinner one memorable night.

Hafn - Reykjavik Harbour

Looming over it all like some enormous honeycomb is the Harpa Concert Hall and Conference Centre.  Home to the Icelandic Symphony Orchestra, this state-of-the-art building was only completed in 2011.  Music concerts, opera , art exhibitions and international conferences are held all year round  and there are a couple of shops as well as an excellent restaurant.  Eating a delicious lunch of fresh seafood and local dishes we had a breath-taking view of the harbour’s icy blue waters as the sun shimmered through the geometric windows.

Harpa Concert Hall Reykjavik

This is a glimpse of a few of the highlights of Reykjavik’s attractions.  Look out for the next article on the city’s Art Museum and Culture House, lovely Tjörnin (The Pond), a boat trip to Viðey Island,  a privileged glimpse inside the Höfði House, where Gorbachov and Reagan met for the Reykjavik summit and a visit to the Presidential Palace to meet the outgoing Icelandic President.

President's Residence Reykjavik

I travelled to Iceland courtesy of easyJet, offering regular flights and holidays to quirkilicious Iceland, and stayed at the luxurious Hotel Borg, in the heart of the city on Parliament Square.

Parliament building Reykjavik

Read about my experience of The Iceland Golden Circle here. It’s very quirky and special!