The pandemic has negatively affected many folks’ travel plans, but it doesn’t prevent us from dreaming of future peregrinations and making plans for when we can venture forth once again. Here are five destinations that beckon for our wine scribe Jim Walker.
1. The Eastern Townships, Quebec
For more than 30 years our family has spent a fortnight together in and around the town of Chatham on Cape Cod. But Covid-19 made it impossible in 2020 and we believe it will not be wise to go in 2021. So, we have rented a cottage on the shores of Lac Magog in Quebec’s Eastern Townships for next summer.
Hélène and I lived in Montreal for many years and both of our daughters were born there, but we moved away when they were still young. They are both bilingual and are bringing up our granddaughters that way as well. In some respects this is will be a heritage vacation.
The Townships have a decidedly British feel to them as towns with names like Orford, Hatley, Dunham and Farnham will attest. That’s because they were originally populated by the American Empire Loyalists along with Irish and Scottish settlers. But they also enjoy a good measure of the French joie de vie creating an atmosphere that is the best of both worlds.
There is so much more to the Eastern Townships in summer than watersports and scenic vistas. High on my list is the Wine Route which connects 21 vineyards in the Brome-Missisquoi region. Then there is the wonderful ice cider (cidre de glace), my favourite is called Neige (we frequently take it as a gift to friends in France). I mustn’t overlook the numerous micro-breweries that will be sure to delight our sons-in-law. Being the cradle of Quebec agriculture, there are numerous cheese shops to visit. And, the quaint country inns and pubs present a fine selection of places to stop and have a bite or wet your whistle. Then there’s the Granby Zoo, horseback riding, hiking, cycling, golf and so much more.
Who knows … we might just be starting a whole new family tradition.
2. Squamish, B. C.
Destination number two is a no-brainer. Daughter Magee lives there with her husband Cedric and our two-year old granddaughter Dagny. Conveniently situated on the rugged Pacific coast between Vancouver and Whistler, Squamish is a fast-growing community that offers just about everything an outdoors person could wish for.
We always stop by Troll’s restaurant in Horseshoe Bay on our way up to Squamish. Magee and now Dagny usually meet us there. The restaurant has been owned by the Troll family (including my fraternity brother Gary) for over 70 years. I used to cycle over for lunch break (a shrimp salad sandwich and an Old Style beer) from nearby Eagle Harbour where I was a life guard many years ago.
Squamish is an old mining town located at the top of Howe Sound that has somewhat begrudgingly become a thriving modern community that is bursting at the seams. But it remains a natural paradise featuring all sorts of wildlife including eagles and black bears (occasionally found on Magee, Cedric and Dagny’s front lawn) and outdoor activities galore – rock climbing, hiking, rafting, mountain biking, boarding, skiing, cross country skiing and more. To get a breath-taking view of it all, take the Sea to Sky Gondola to the top of Mount Habrich (the gondola has been sabotaged twice now and is currently out of service; if you know anything about these nasty events, you might qualify for a $250,000 reward).
Squamish also maintains a youthful and decidedly 60’s meme. Laid-back pretty much says it all. The community spirit is evidenced by the town’s many festivals, fairs and special activities.
There are enough micro-breweries to keep Cedric well-supplied and a wonderful chocolate shop, XOCO, to do likewise for Magee and Dagny. Our favourite restaurant is the Salted Vine Kitchen & Bar where tapas-like delicacies and a good selection of wine are cheerfully and professionally served. We usually try to arrive during the shoulder seasons between winter and summer when the fine restaurants in nearby Whistler offer superb dining bargains in order for them to remain busy and thereby retain staff.
You know, even if Magee and family didn’t live there, I believe we would make Squamish a target destination.
3. Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, France
This destination will come as no surprise for we have been visiting this fairy tale town pretty much annually for the past 30 years (or perhaps that should be thirsty years). Saint-Rémy-de-Provence is the heart and soul of our wine importing enterprise and where our mentor, caviste Christian Esparza plies his trade. It is also where Vincent Van Gogh spent a prolific year painting (including Starry Night) while resident at the nearby Saint-Paul-de-Mausole asylum.
Besides being impossibly quaint, Saint-Rémy offers up bustling markets on Wednesday and Saturday mornings, superb bakeries, pastry and ice cream shops, several fine wine emporiums, and creative restaurants galore (among our favourites are: the simple Crêperie Lou Planet featuring savoury crêpes, imaginative salads and a pichet de rosé in the leafy Place Favier; the elegant L’Aile et la Cuisse where one selects dessert from the extensive front window display, and; the magical Ô Caprices de Mathias where we dine on a terrace overlooking farmers’ fields and Les Alpilles.
And, then there is the renowned Joël Durand Chocolat, Lilamand Confiseur with their sinfully yummy candied fruit and Le Petit Duc and their wide array of treats based on seventeenth century recipes. I’d best not overlook Mimi Tralala and its treasure trove of children’s paraphernalia. I’ve had to purchase an extra suitcase because of it.
Saint-Rémy has a great deal to offer in addition to the plethora of enticing shops and restaurants. There are the 2,000-year-old Roman monuments, Les Antiques across the road from the partially excavated Greco-Roman village of Glanum. There are museums, art galleries and Nostradamus’ birthplace in the center of town. There always seems to be a festival in full swing and you might even see the stampede of the bulls down the main thoroughfares in advance of the non-lethal bull fights.
And, you couldn’t find a better hub from which to explore the nearby vineyards of Châteauneuf du Pape, Gigondas, Vacqueyras and Lirac or magnificent attractions such as the dramatic hilltop village Les-Baux-de-Provence and the nearby Carrières de Lumières, the Roman aqueduct Le Pont du Gard, the island town of L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, magical Fontaine-de-Vaucluse (be sure to dine at Restaurant Philip) and, of course, the Palais des Papes and everything else in Avignon. The options are virtually endless.
You will need a car to visit these latter sites, but beware of the photo-radar and the utter lack of sympathy for tourists. Not too long ago we received in the mail a 90 Euro ticket for going 56 kph in a 50 zone in Avignon, the same speed as the rest of the traffic!
4. Nice, France
Last October we spent three weeks in Nice, two of them with Kate and Romy, who was four at the time. We had an absolutely marvellous time and are dying to return.
The ancient Greeks settled here around 350 BC, naming it Nikaia after their goddess Nike. Situated on the sun drenched and surprisingly stony shores of the Mediterranean, part of the Côte d’Azur, Nice stretches a good distance inland on a broad plateau that makes walking quite effortless. Its light has beguiled many an artist including Henri Matisse, who lived there for 37 years. Chagall, Picasso and Renoir also fell under its sunny spell. There are many art museums throughout the region including the Musées Matisse, Chagall and d’Art Moderne within the city limits. A word of warning about the first two museums – they are located far up the toney but very steep Cimiez hillside which is quite the hike. A bonus though is that you will gasp on by the utterly massive Excelsior Hôtel Régina, once a favourite of Queen Victoria’s.
Nice is a big city with all of the charms of a small town. There are two terrific markets that are in full operation every morning except Mondays. One is on Avenue Jean Médecin near the main train station (wonderful seafood stalls) and the other is in the old town and features magnificent flower displays. There are several sidewalk cafés surrounding the latter, one with large, old fashioned leather easy chairs. What a joy it is to sip an early morning café au lait while enjoying the hustle and bustle of the nearby market.
Adjacent to the old town is the Colline du Château (Castle Hill) that is simply not to be missed. The hill dominates the city but the castle, built in the 11th Century, is long gone. One reaches the top via a rickety old elevator that uses the well that served the hilltop village as its shaft. The view from the top is breath-taking. And, all along the waterfront is the Promenade des Anglais with its palm trees, museums, restaurants, smart shops and grand hotels (my favourite being the eccentric Le Negresco hotel).
Two additional highlights are the Russian Orthodox Cathédrale Saint-Nicolas de Nice and, according to Romy, the wonderful ice cream shops sprinkled throughout the city.
Like Saint-Rémy, Nice is a marvellous hub from which to visit nearby destinations. There are so many wonderful sites to see and there is a superb, inexpensive public transportation system within Nice and between the attractions. The most amazing conveyances are the buses that for less than two Euros beetle along the lower corniche and deposit you right in the heart of your destination. While way too numerous to mention them all, some of our favourites are Menton, Antibes, Cannes, Èze, Grasse and Monaco.
To spend a month in Nice would be … wonderful.
5. Chatham, Cape Cod, USA
We have far too many fond memories of our family vacations on the Cape not to return. Hélène has been going there since she was a girl. She then convinced me that it was preferable to Kennebunk, Maine where I regularly vacationed with my family. Then we went to the Cape each summer with our daughters Kate and Magee and now with their families. The size of our rental accommodations has expanded accordingly.
So, why are we so smitten with Cape Cod and the town of Chatham in particular? It all begins when we cross over Buzzards Bay Bridge on to it. The smell of pines and the sea air invades our open windows and lovely little yellow and blue flowers cover the sandy shoulders of US 6 as we near our destination. The dials on our ‘laid-back meters’ rapidly rise several notches.
Having acquired our supplies and settled in to our rental home for the next two weeks, we head off for Nauset Light Beach. This is one of several beaches that form the Cape Cod National Seashore that President Kennedy wisely created in 1961 ensuring the preservation of this pristine natural wonder. There is nothing quite like the first glimpses of the sparkling ocean as we crest the last hill before the beach. Parking is very limited so the beaches are not over-crowded. You can stroll for a couple of kilometres to the next beach without seeing another soul (seals, water fowl and the odd great white shark perhaps). I will note that the ocean is not balmy to say the least, usually hovering around 60⁰ Fahrenheit. This doesn’t deter the younger set though.
Our time there usually spans the July 4th weekend. The small town pageantry is evocative of a Norman Rockwell painting. To celebrate the day our local Stop & Shop Supermarket features fresh lobster for well under five dollars the pound. We load up and have lobster rolls for the remainder of our stay.
Then there is Cape League Baseball. Created on July 4th, 1885, the Cape League today is comprised of 10 teams attached to small towns on and just off the cape. Our favourite, of course, is the Chatham Anglers. Top college Juniors and Seniors from around the US are selected by the teams and billeted with local families from June to August each year. They play in small ball parks that, once again, look like they were designed by Norman Rockwell – lots of bunting and that sort of thing. Wooden bats are used instead of the aluminum cudgels the players normally swing. Scouts from the Major Leagues flock to the bleachers and drool over the talent on display. We even met the chief scout of the San Francisco Giants who was sporting a gaudy World Series ring (with two more in reserve). Everything is family-oriented and many dogs can be seen mooching delicacies obtained by owners from the snack bar. I love that hotdogs are only 25 cents after the seventh inning stretch. Lest you get the sense that this is all very Mickey Mouse, consider that one out of seven Major Leaguers played in the Cape League. I highly recommend the book The Last Best League, One Summer, One Season, One Dream for a detailed look at what sport can be.
There is so much to love about the Cape. Here are but a few of the things we adore:
1. The Chatham Municipal Airport (CQX) and the Hangar B Eatery – the restaurant sits atop the small airport office building and offers creative breakfasts and brunches as one watches the private planes come and go and foxes sprinting across the runways. A post-nosh ride in a biplane provides a spectacular vantage point from which to view the cape.
2. The extensive and varied array of very good restaurants – in addition to the Hangar B Eatery one can dine in grand style at the swanky Chatham Bars Inn or more casually at spots like the unassuming Red Nun Restaurant & Bar (right by the Anglers’ ballpark) or the down-to-earth Chatham Squire with its terrific clam chowder, deep fried scallops and fine selection of craft beers (I’m starting to drool!).
3. The Town of Chatham in all its New England glory – Cape Cod is shaped like a bent arm with Chatham at its elbow. Although usually quite crowded, this little gem has something for everyone starting with the Eldredge Public Library, then the girls’ next stop, Puritan Cape Cod with all its summer clothing and then Yankee Ingenuity with something special for everyone followed by the Chatham Candy Manor with its handmade candies and next Chatham Penny Candy featuring salt water taffy, fudge, jelly beans and my long-time favourite, Necco Wafers (except the brown ones). While the family shops, you’ll find me sipping a cool one or two at the Chatham Squire. On the way home we’ll stop by the best ice cream shop for miles around, Short ‘N’ Sweet.
4. All the other towns and cities on the Cape – from Hyannis with the John F. Kennedy museum and the Cape League Baseball Hall of Fame unceremoniously stuck in its basement (the great Yankee catcher Thurman Munson played for the Anglers and batted an astonishing .410, highest ever in the league) to funky Provincetown with its wonderful bars, restaurants and a great deal more.
There is so much more, but I hope this will give you an idea as to why we love Cape Cod.
Wishing everyone a happy, healthy and wine-filled 2021.
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