Monday, November 23, 2009

Ottawa photo contest captures neighbourhoods

Looking for an inside glimpse into some of Ottawa's liveliest neighbourhoods? Check out the submissions to the Picture It Downtown photo contest, which focused (pardon the pun) on the Glebe, Wellington West and other cool neighbourhoods.

I wish I'd found out about this contest while it was still running--I would have loved to have entered!

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Bikes rule in the Netherlands

I just got back from a European trip that included two stops in the Netherlands. And, once again, I've found myself captivated by Dutch cycling culture.

Not only are there dedicated bike paths just about everywhere; there are also huge bike garages at many railway stations, where you can have a mechanic tune up your bike while you're at work. Public staircases include clever grooves parallel to the steps that allow cyclists to easily move their bikes up and down. And cycling accessories go far beyond the meagre selection of baskets and panniers available in North America; on my two trips to Holland, I've seen people carrying everything from a week's worth of groceries to small pieces of furniture on bikes, using a variety of trailers and racks.

It's not surprising that only 7 percent of Dutch people canvassed in a recent survey said they rarely cycle. On the other hand, 80 percent said they cycle at least once a week.

Interestingly, cycling began to decline in the Netherlands in the 1950s, as people switched increasingly to cars. However, it went through a renaissance in the 1970s, after a group of parents demanded safe cycling routes so that their kids could bike to school.

Last spring, Britain's All Party Parliamentary Cycling Group visited the Netherlands to get the inside scoop on the country's success. Check out this video about the trip.

Bike and Trains Study Tour, Netherlands from carltonreid on Vimeo.


(And just in case you think biking is only for the relentlessly unfashionable, check out Cycle Chic from Copenhagen. It's a weirdly captivating blog with lovely photographs of stylishly dressed cyclists in Denmark--another haven for two-wheeled travellers.)

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Review: Essays capture delight of travel

It's a doozy of a title: The Third Tower Up from the Road: A Compilation of Columns from McSweeney's Internet Tendency's Kevin Dolgin Tells You About Places You Should Go. And the cover photo of the Great Wall of China is a bit misleading. Yes, there's a funny, lovely column in the collection about Dolgin's adventures on the famous structure, but the bulk of the book covers other places, particularly in Europe (the original focus of his column, before his editors at McSweeney's gave him freer rein).

Dolgin's day job, as a professor of marketing at the University of Paris, frequently takes him to cool spots around the world. So he started writing about them: first about the French island of Corsica, where his wife's family is from, and later about spots as diverse as Moscow, Cairo and Chennai.

Like any writer, he has his favourite themes: city squares, oddball food (don't read the column on Manila if you are weak of stomach), quirky monuments (the hunt for Frank Zappa's statue in Vilnius is a hoot). If you read the book all in one go, these themes quickly become apparent. But, as Dolgin points out in the introduction, the book began as a series of columns written over several years and should be approached with that in mind: "I can't help but think that the dispatches in this book might best be read like one eats peanuts: a couple here, a couple there." He's right, and that's how I found myself reading the book, which is why it has taken me so long (I got my review copy in August) to post a review.

Not that I didn't enjoy the book. In fact, I loved it. Dolgin has a captivating voice: funny without being forced, smart without showing off, self-deprecating without being pathetic. He has a novelist's knack for capturing dialogue and a great eye for what makes each place he visits unique.

As he freely admits, this isn't a book for people who want addresses, phone numbers and prices; he points readers to guidebooks for this sort of detail. He is much more interested in capturing the essence of a place, and this he does with great skill. Falafel shops in Beirut, sandcastle builders in Rio, soccer fans in Madrid: all come to vibrant life in these pages.

However, there was one column in particular that made me bark out loud with laughter (and since I was reading it while standing in line to catch a VIA Rail train in Toronto's echoing Union Station, I attracted a bit of attention). It's called simply "Useful Phrases," and Dolgin says it's probably one of his most popular columns.

Here's his theory: when travelling somewhere where he doesn't speak the language, he learns one nonsensical phrase. As he writes:
The principal reason for the nonsensical phrase is that it's a sure conversation opener. No one will imagine that the only thing you know how to say in their language is "my hovercraft is full of eels" (to borrow someone else's nonsensical phrase) and therefore an immediate cultural exchange will ensue. Really, this works.
Among the phrases he has memorized are "My hedgehog isn't stupid" (in Swedish), "Watermelons don't bounce" (in Korean) and "There is a penguin in my closet" (in German). I laughed. A lot.

And on the other end of the spectrum, the column titled simple "Crater Lake, Oregon" was immensely touching. I sniffled. A little.

A travel book that can make you laugh and cry, and teach you how to say "Is that a kind of frog?" in Japanese, is certainly worth $18.95 Canadian ($16.95 U.S.), in my opinion. But don't just take my word for it. Publisher's Weekly raved about it, too.

Disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review purposes.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Auction offers chance to save on travel

Every year, the Society of American Travel Writers runs an online auction to raise money for its programs. This year's auction is online now, and items include a two-day stay at the Fairmont Chateau Whistler and a six-night Maine Windjammer cruise. Depending on the bidding, you could save a bundle off retail prices. Check out the auction website before the bidding closes on November 20. (Full disclosure: I'm an SATW member and a big fan of any initiative that raises funds for the organization!)

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Useful tips for travel photography


For 20 years, I used single-lens reflex (SLR) film cameras, but I've been using various point-and-shoots since about 2002, waiting for the price of digital SLRs to come down. Recently, the wait ended. And now, as the proud new owner of a DSLR, I'm avid to reacquaint myself with all the bells and whistles an SLR can offer: more control over exposure and focus, various lenses and filters, and more.

In particular, I'm trolling for tips on how to make better pictures while travelling, and I've come across a number of useful articles online.

For good, basic tips, I liked "Easy Steps to Better Vacation Photos" at Popular Photography magazine's website. The magazine (and website) also have great guides to shooting in particular locations, such as this article on making photographs in New Orleans.

Fodor's also has a useful site divided into subsections such as people, lighting and composition.

And I could spend all day digging around the wealth of fantastic features and good advice on National Geographic's photography website.

For sheer inspiration (along with some tips), try a photo-heavy site called, naturally enough, TravelPhoto.net.

I've inserted a few of my favourite travel photos into this post, but they were all taken more by good luck than good management. Now it's time to learn--or remember--how to make my own luck.

What is your number-one tip for making memorable photos on the road?

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Video: A Finnish bhangra band!

OK, this is THE coolest thing I've stumbled across on the Internet all week: a Finnish bhangra band!

According to its website, Shava "is guaranteed to be the world's only Finnish bhangra group." I can't argue with that.

I first came across them in an article chronicling their recent appearance on a Finnish TV network. But it turns out they were also featured in a documentary about bhangra music on CBC Radio 2 in August.

Their stuff is insanely catchy, as you can tell from this YouTube video:



My favourite international riff on Indian music is still the "Indo-calypso-jazz" of Trinidad-born Mungal Patasar--his song Tendonitis (Razorshop Remix) is one of the best things on my iPod-- but Shava is a close second. Any band that can nickname one of its members "the Finnjabi bad boy" has to be a contender.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Wanna buy a home-swap site?

Ever wanted to run your own home exchange site? Do you have an artistic bent? Montreal-based ArtStudioExchanges.com is for sale (along with its French-language version, TrocAtelier.com). Aimed at artists and art teachers who need somewhere to stay for a vacation or sabbatical, the home-swap site is for sale because the owner--a full-time artist and picture framer--doesn't have time to promote it properly.

Sale details are available at Deal-a-Site.

One more reason to visit Gibsons, B.C.


Okay, I'll admit that part of the reason I was excited about visiting Gibsons, British Columbia, was the chance to check out the place where a hoary old CBC-TV series called "The Beachcombers" was filmed. Weirdly, I didn't even like the show when it aired from 1972 to 1990. It's just that Canada has precious few famous TV sites, so it was kind of cool to see one.

And yes, indeed, you can still visit some of the sites made famous by the 1970s show, including a revamped version of a restaurant called Molly's Reach. But there are many more reasons to visit Gibsons: it has lovely art galleries and craft shops, some unpretentious restaurants (we checked out a highly recommended one called Smitty's Oyster House, but didn't have time to eat there) and one of the most gorgeous little harbours you're likely to see anywhere.

This week, Gibsons gained one new claim to fame: it was just judged the world's most liveable city (population 20,000 or under) in the International Awards for Liveable Communities (LivCom), held in Pilsen, Czech Republic.

The city of 4,000 on B.C.'s Sunshine Coast, about 45 minutes from West Vancouver, had to excel in six criteria: Enhancement of the Landscape, Heritage Management, Environmentally Sensitive Practices, Community Sustainability, Healthy Lifestyles and Planning for the Future.

I don't know much about the deep details of Gibsons' municipal environmental management, to be honest, aside from the fact that a waterfront condo development proposal recently ignited a firestorm of debate (see my article about the Sunshine Coast for Legion magazine). But I do know that it's a mighty pleasant place to roam around--even though you won't run into the late actor Bruno Gerussi.

Disclosure: I travelled to the Sunshine Coast as a guest of the Vancouver Coast & Mountains Tourism Region.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Insider tips on Brazil, New York and Montreal

I've just discovered three excellent blogs offering insider travel tips: Brazil for Insiders, Montreal for Insiders and New York for Insiders. When you've been there and seen that--or even if you haven't--you'll find inspiration for off-the-beaten path adventures.

Brazilian-born, Montreal-based food and travel writer Alexandra Forbes writes Brazil for Insiders. She dishes up the scoop on things like haute couture beachwear and custom tours of Sao Paulo.

Montreal for Insiders by Fiona O'Connor has a strong focus on music, food and art. If you like Mexican munchies, check out this post on Mestiza, a gourmet shop in Rosemont.

And at New York for Insiders, writer Karin Dauch points readers to places like a Portuguese restaurant in Brooklyn and downtown speakeasies.

What are your favourite websites for tips on spots beyond the tourist trail?

Friday, August 28, 2009

Everything you wanted to know about home swaps

Well, I'm not sure if it's everything you wanted to know about home swaps, but I've done my best to include lots of useful information in my recent article on home exchanging for SlowEurope.com. You'll find interviews with home exchangers, an annotated list of some of the leading sites with European listings, and more. And don't forget to check out the rest of the SlowEurope.com site as well--it's full of great tips for experiencing the Continent (and the U.K.) as the locals do.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Travel writing workshop

Sorry I've been so incommunicado lately. I've been on holidays. I'm actually still out of the office for a few more days, but I came across some information on a travel writing workshop in New York's Hudson Valley that I thought might interest some readers out there.

The instructor is Bob Haru Fisher, a columnist and contributing editor at Frommers.com. The workshop looks like it might be useful to anyone looking to get into the lucrative (not!), fun (definitely) world of travel writing. The workshop takes place September 16 to 18 in Hudson, NY. For more information, see the workshop's website.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Swiss chocolate...with wasabi?

When you think of Swiss chocolate, you probably think of slabs of sweet, light milk chocolate. Or perhaps you think of the global reach of Nestlé, the iconic Swiss company headquartered in Vevey, a small city overlooking Lake Geneva.

But do you think of dark chocolate combined with lemongrass, pepper or wasabi? Likely not.

Chocolatier Blaise Poyet, whose shop is a stone's throw from Nestlé's glass headquarters, would like to change that.

For 15 years, he has been carefully perfecting blends of chocolate from around the world with flavours that go far beyond the usual strawberry and caramel. The resulting bonbons are rich, unusual and addictive--and they're only available in Poyet's shop or online. Sure, they're 13 Swiss francs (about $13.45 Canadian or $12.17 US) for 100 grams, which works out to about eight pieces. But, trust me, they are worth every cent. The only one I tried on a recent shop tour that didn't thrill me was Le Cubain, which is infused with the essence of Cuban cigars. To each their own.

In a land where chocolate has become a mass-produced institution, Poyet passionately believes that small-scale shops like his will revive Switzerland's reputation for quality.

"Ten years ago, we lost everything," he said through a translator during the tour. "We fell asleep." French, German and Belgian chocolatiers captured the growing market for artisanal chocolates, while Switzerland rested on its laurels.

Poyet thinks the market is now ripe for a chocolate renaissance in Switzerland. "We realized you could make chocolate like you make wine," he said. By focusing on beans produced in a specific location, such as small regions of Java and Bolivia, he hopes to achieve something like the concept of "terroir" in the wine world or single-malt scotch: products tied irrevocably to a particular place and time.

It may not be typical Swiss chocolate, but it certainly is tasty. If you're in the neighbourhood--Vevey lies between Lausanne and Montreux--follow the locals to this secret shop.

Disclosure: I travelled to Switzerland as a guest of the Lake Geneva Region Tourist Office.

Monday, June 15, 2009

SmartMoney.com video: House swapping

Every time the economy hits a roadblock, a whole new generation of media and travelers seems to rediscover home swapping as though it had just been invented. The truth is, though, that this fun and frugal way of seeing the world has been around since the 1950s.

Back in the day, swapping clubs published huge printed catalogues of members' properties, and prospective swappers set up trades by snail mail. A lot has changed with the advent of the Internet, but the basic principle is still the same. You head off to Paris or Denver or Outer Mongolia (okay, that last one is pretty unlikely, but you'd be surprised where you can go on a swap) to stay in a stranger's house. Meanwhile, the stranger comes to live in yours.

Some of the earliest fans of house swapping were teachers and professors, who had similar blocks of long holidays. But now thousands of people are getting into the game.

A recent CBS News interview with Kelli Grant, senior consumer reporter for SmartMoney.com, lays out the basics of the process. As always in these stories, she touches on that age-old question, "Do I really want strangers in my house?"



For links to a range of house swapping organizations, see the list on my website, LaVidaLocal.com.

Have you ever done a house swap? Post a comment talking about your experience!

Monday, June 8, 2009

More info on Montserrat villa

A while ago, I wrote a blog post about the Caribbean island of Montserrat, where I spent a great vacation with my sisters and our husbands. I've just found out that our rental villa, Surf Sighed, has its own website. It's a lovely, affordable tropical rental with a pretty pool deck and great views. If you're looking for a laid-back destination where tourists don't overwhelm the locals, you can't beat Montserrat. It's not the easiest place to get to (connections from Antigua are launched and cancelled with alarming frequency), but it's worth the trip.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Travel social networking sites offer insider tips

Looking for travel tips and ideas from fellow vagabonds? Not surprisingly, travel-focused social networking sites are springing up all over the place.

Traveldudes is aimed at the backpacker crowd and, along with general travel tips, has numerous reviews of hostels, B&Bs and other accommodations. Members can post travel diaries as well.

Dodo is a similar site featuring travelogues, travel tips, videos and photos. Information is grouped by country, and content is particularly strong for European and North American destinations.

Both of these sites have a strong German component, but don't worry, anglophones--there are lots of English entries, too. In fact, Traveldudes has completely separate English and German sites.

One of the granddaddies of the field is Travelpod, founded way back in the dark ages of social networking in 1997, right here in Ottawa. Its main focus is travel blogs (more than 30,000 posts this week alone), but you'll also find photos and videos, too. Ottawa Business News profiled the company on its 10th anniversary.

Looking for info on your specific destination can be a bit of a fishing expedition on any of these sites. And the quality of the info varies wildly, from long and thoughtful guides to short "hey, man, the pizza here was awesome" sorts of entries. But with some patient digging, you'll probably find information that will take you far off the beaten path.

Friday, May 22, 2009

CNN Video: Joys of house swapping

CNN first aired this video on home swapping in 2005, but the tips and insights on are pretty timeless. And even though the woman profiled has a flat in Manhattan, don't think you have to have a home in a hot tourist area to swap! With a little work, you can probably find someone somewhere intriguing in the world who wants to visit your burg.

By the way, I tried valiantly to embed the video link directly into this post, but my technical skills (or the interface at DailyMotion.com, where the video is posted) failed me. Sorry for the extra step.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Recipe: Tara Farms Pecan Pie Muffins

OK, this is a first for this blog: a recipe! But when I recently stayed at Tara Farms, a bed and breakfast in Brenham, Texas, I fell in love with their pecan pie muffins (even though mine were made with walnuts, they still had a pecan pie vibe). I fell so in love, in fact, that I wrapped up the last two mini-muffins on the plate, popped them in my purse and carried them halfway across the continent so my husband could try them.

Before I jump into the recipe, though, a few words about Tara Farms.
Mia's Cottage, my home-away-from-home at Tara Farms.

Like many B&B owners in the Brenham area, Tara Farms' Tami and Troy Glasco have chosen to build a separate cottage on their 52-acre property rather than host guests in their house. "We made this decison because we like to have privacy when we travel," says Tami. It is also a handy setup for the Glascos when out-of-town relatives come to visit--in fact, they originally built Mia's Cottage to accommodate guests to their daughter's wedding in 2007.

It was my kind of place. I knew friendly help was at hand if I needed it, and breakfast magically appeared in my fridge each night, but I loved having a whole little house to myself, surrounded by fabulous gardens (the Glascos are landscapers by trade).

The view from my porch.

The homey country-style decor--china plates on the walls, white metal bedstead, and a white, pink and green colour scheme--might make some male guests feel a little out of their element, but it suited me to a T. All in all, the place was well equipped. The bathroom included both a shower and a giant soaker tub, the TV came with a decent DVD library, and the kitchenette had a microwave, sink and bar fridge.

Country-style comfort.

I had only a few minor quibbles. First, the hot water tank wasn't big enough to fill the tub. Second, there was a lovely bowl of tea bags, but I couldn't find a kettle. And third, the cottage has no phone or Internet access, although guests are welcome to use both at the main house. (Actually, the weekend getaway types from Houston and Austin who are Tara Farms' main clientele are probably just as happy to unplug for a few days.)

The Glascos also have a second B&B property in Brenham itself: a two-bedroom cottage decorated in French country style that can sleep six.

But now, yes, I promised you a recipe, and here it is. I'm sorry I don't have a photo of the muffins to go with it; to be honest, I ate most of them too fast (and the ones in my purse were a bit worse for wear by the time I got them back to Ottawa). So you'll just have to imagine how tasty they are from the ingredient list.

Tara Farms Pecan Pie Muffins

1 Cup Flour
1 Cup Light Brown Sugar (packed)
1 Cup Pecans (chopped) (you can also use walnuts)
Combine these three ingredients.
Add:
1 Egg (slightly beaten)
1 Stick Butter or Margarine (melted)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Stir well.
Fill mini muffin cups 3/4 full. Bake at 350 for 17-18 minutes or until slightly brown around the edges. Leave in pans until cool. Makes 24-30 mini muffins.

One last note: many travel writers, myself included, do some of our research while travelling on what are known as "press trips" or "fam trips." These are trips sponsored in whole or in part by a tourism-related company: a tourist board, an airline, a hotel chain or something similar. Such trips are a point of great debate in the travel writing world, as there's always the fear that writers' objectivity will be compromised by the fact they received something free while researching their article.

I try very hard to remain objective when I'm on these trips. After all, a rave about an unpleasant place doesn't serve readers and makes me look bad. In the end, though, it's for readers to judge whether I've succeeded in remaining unbiased.

So from now on, whenever I write a post based on one of these trips, I'll include a note at the end indicating that I was on such a trip and noting who sponsored it. That way, it's all out in the open, and you're welcome to give me feedback on how well I did. And so....

I travelled to the Brenham area as a guest of the Washington County Convention & Visitors Bureau.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Help fight hunger with Heifer International

Travel is a great way to meet people from other countries, but sometimes we don't have to leave home to connect with someone on the other side of the planet.

A charity called Heifer International helps people give the valuable gift of a farm animal to a family in a developing country. Today, as a small way to help fight hunger--which has already claimed more than 3 million lives this year alone--bloggers around the world are encouraging their readers to donate as part of a campaign called Unite for Hunger and Hope.

Want to find out more? Check out Steven Colbert's interview with Elizbeth Bintliff of Heifer International. If you live in Canada, see the Comedy Network clip; if you're in the U.S., see the clip on Comedy Central.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The inside scoop on beach rentals

Joyce Copeland's love affair with vacation rentals started about a decade ago, when she was planning a vacation for her extended family and spotted a newspaper ad for short-term rentals in Lake Tahoe.

"I was astounded by how little money we'd have to spend, and we could bring the dogs," she says.

Joyce often travels with husband Gary and their three canines.

On her way to Tahoe from her home in Northern California, she worried whether the home she'd rented for family coming in from California, Colorado and Arizona would live up to its description. Luckily, the cabin suited their needs to a T. It was close to casinos for those who liked to gamble and near five hiking trails for others who preferred the great outdoors.

"I was so totally blown away by how perfect it was that I started looking for books [evaluating vacation rentals]," says Copeland. When she couldn't find one, she spotted a niche and decided to write one herself.

It wasn't a total leap into the unknown. After taking a degree in magazine journalism, Copeland worked as an editor at Endless Vacation, a travel magazine for time-share owners. Later, she started writing for the high-tech industry. But around the time she rented the place in Tahoe, the dot-com world imploded and the idea of returning to travel writing seemed particularly appealing.

The result was several books on beach rentals in California. Then Copeland decided it was time to use the Internet to broaden her reach, and the Beach Vacation Rental Scout website was born in early 2009.

Copeland reviews rentals of all sorts--from modest to luxurious--along the California coast, and has plans to branch out to other American coastlines. She does her reviews based on stays (called In-Person Reviews, such as this report on Sanctuary by the Sea Pacific Grove) or detailed interviews with the property owner (called Snapshots, such as this piece on the Laughing Buddha Beach House in Pismo Beach).

Both types of reviews include insider tips from the owners about their favourite things to see and do in the neighbourhood--one of the key selling points of the site, says Copeland. The site also includes separate sections on pet-friendly homes and properties suitable for reunions.

After years of inspecting plumbing, testing ovens, evaluating linens and assessing the quality of ocean views, does Copeland ever get tired of sussing out beach rentals? Not at all. "It's just so diverse that, no, I never do," she says.

She's a passionate advocate for the advantages of rentals over hotels. "There's just such of wealth of things that you can do at a beach house," she says. "And to have your own private house--it almost makes you feel rich."

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

3 Great Public Transit Options for Travellers

Many travellers who arrive in a foreign destination without a vehicle head straight to the rental car counter at the airport. While that can be the best strategy in some situations--if you're visiting a largely rural place, for instance--I'd argue that in many cases, you're better off taking public transit. Depending on the place, it's usually cheaper, faster and more fun. Plus, you get the added benefit of meeting locals, who aren't likely to jump in your rental car unless you're a contestant on The Amazing Race.

The following list is by no means exhaustive. It just highlights a few of the fun public transit experiences I've had in the last few years.

1. Swiss trains

Not surprisingly in a country famed for its watches, Swiss trains run largely on time. Well, at least they do in comparison to North American trains; last year, news reports that "only" 94 percent of Swiss trains ran on time had the country in a tizzy (oh, that Amtrak had such worries).



I was surprised, however, at how extensive the Swiss train network is. In international airports, train service comes right into the terminal. Out in the countryside, even small mountain towns like Lauterbrunnen, where I stayed, have great connections. (And in places where trains just can't get through, there's a good bus network.)

For visitors, the icing on the cake may be the luggage transport service. You can check your bag at an airport in North America and pick it up at one of 60 train stations across the country. On the way home, leave your bag at the train station and kiss it goodbye until it rolls off the carousel at the airport back home. Very, very civilized.

Want to see for yourself? You can buy a Swiss rail pass before leaving home.

2. Venetian vaporetti

By all means, take a gondola ride. You'll kick yourself all the way home if you don't splurge on this classic tourist experience. But gondola rides are usually leisurely round trips to nowhere. For practical trips, hop on a vaporetto--the Venetian version of a public bus.

In the photo, you can see a vaporetto stop at the very bottom of the picture, at middle right: two rectangular buildings with white roofs, at the end of a short dock.

You won't be alone on the vaporetto; water taxis are extortionately expensive, so many tourists travel like locals. One bit of advice: pack light. Huge suitcases (especially runaway ones on wheels) won't make you a lot of new Venetian friends, particularly during rush hour. If nothing else, don't forget to take off bulky backpacks and put them on the floor (a good piece of advice when travelling on any form of public transit anywhere, come to think of it).

Check the Venice Connected website for passes and fares, and read more about the vaporetto system at Europe for Visitors.

3. The bus from Santiago to Buenos Aires

This trip isn't for the faint of heart. Especially on the Chilean side, the road across the Andes consists of a series of steep switchbacks, with not a guardrail in sight. (See the photo for a glimpse of the view from the bus window.) And there have been accidents--not on our trip, luckily. Instead, my husband and I had the weird pleasure of watching a Thai martial arts movie dubbed into Spanish on the overhead TV screens, while surrounded by a team of teenage Argentinean water polo players cheering madly.

The kids were a blast, actually; we ended up practising our second languages on each other for much of the trip. And once we switched buses in Mendoza, we were treated to at-seat meal service (complete with wine). In the morning, we awoke to the sunrise over Argentinean ranch country.

If we had been better organized, we could have booked berths on the overnight bus from Mendoza to Buenos Aires, but even our coach seats were spacious and comfortable. And the price for the 21-hour trip? About US$55 for each of us.

For information on buses travelling east, see the Santiago bus terminal website (Spanish only). If you'd like to do the trip in the opposite direction, Omni Lineas has an English-language page.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Win a villa stay in Montserrat


The Caribbean island of Montserrat is one of my very favourite places to travel like a local. It's hard to do anything else; the island has only two hotels and they're only 18 rooms each, so even at a hotel you pretty much feel like you're staying with family.





Private villas are the main form of accommodation, and even though the word "villa" may conjure up visions of a grandiose mansion, many of these charming houses are well within the budget of the ordinary traveller. Here's a snap of Surfsighed, the lovely villa my sisters and I and our husbands rented last year. (Then again, if money is no object, you can rent or buy Paul McCartney's one-time digs.)





The island's tourism bureau is currently running a contest (with no deadline date, oddly) to win four nights in a villa, along with return airfare from Antigua, some restaurant meals and more. There's no cost to enter.


Looking for stuff to do when you get there? Check out "Do the Walk of Life," a series of Montserrat travel tips I wrote for the Ottawa Citizen in 2006 (check details before visiting, as some attractions may have closed in the meantime).

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Another chance to win a home exchange club membership!

Julie Ovenell-Carter's contest to win a free membership in a home exchange club continues to generate interest! Just this week, another home exchange website, 1stHomeExchange.com, offered to give away a one-year membership to her readers--and sent a link to 66 great tips for home exchangers. Head over to the contest post at theseboots.travel for details.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Five great sources of international news

Looking to keep your eyes--or ears--on the wider world, even when you're curled up safe at home? Here are five great places to start.

  • The Economist: This venerable, London-based magazine may be a bit stodgy for some, but there are few better consumer publications when it comes to covering just about every corner of the world. Not surprisingly, given the title, there's a strong business focus, but you'll also find articles on science, books, the arts and more.
  • Dispatches: I've raved about this Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) radio show before, but it's still one of my favourite ways to get a glimpse of the world each week. If you miss the broadcast, catch the podcast.
  • The Globe and Mail: One of the last newspapers to maintain a network of superb overseas bureaus, this Canadian newspaper provides stories and insights you won't find anywhere else. In particular, I'm a huge fan of foreign correspondent Stephanie Nolen, who recently moved from Africa to India and is now writing a blog about the latter called Subcontinental.
  • PRI's The World: I just discovered this one-hour daily radio show, a co-production of Public Radio International, the BBC and Boston public radio station WGBH (all three are also great sources of international news, by the way). Also available as a podcast.
  • New Internationalist: Lefty? It sure is. But I included The Economist, so I thought it only fair to also include this feisty publication from the other end of the political spectrum, where you'll find lots of articles about various social justice campaigns in developing countries. And, yes, there's a podcast, Radio New Internationalist.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Home exchange: Win a free year's membership in a home exchange club

My friend Julie Ovenell-Carter writes a great travel blog called These Boots, which is aimed at independent travellers, and she's running a contest. The prizes? One-year memberships offered by two home exchange organizations, HomeLink International and Intervac. All you have to do to enter is go to the blog post announcing the contest and leave a comment on the subject of home exchanges: a story about one you've done, a wishful note about why you'd like to do one--anything, really. The contest is open to Canadians 18 and over, and time is of the essence: the deadline is Wednesday, March 25 at 8pm Pacific Time. Good luck!

P.S.: Julie was on the CBC Radio One program "B.C. Almanac" yesterday, talking about the joys of home exchange and fielding questions from callers. The show will be archived for a few days on the "B.C. Almanac" website. Scroll down and click on the Openline Archive link for the Friday, March 20 show. (You'll need Real Player to hear the sound file.)

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Signs of the times

One great way to get a feel for the local vibe is to pick out one small part of it and focus on it while you're travelling. One avid traveller I know always takes a dance class, wherever she goes. Several people (including me) like going into grocery stores, just to see what's hot and what's not. A while back, I blogged about a lovely article written by a traveller who makes a point of visiting post offices.

Here's my tip of the day for getting inside the heads of the locals: pay attention to street signs. Sure, you'll see the usual "men at work" and speed limit signs, but you'll likely see a few unusual things. Like this "watch out for surfers" sign on Easter Island, for instance.







Or this "iguana crossing" sign on the driveway of the Gingerbread Hill guesthouse on the Caribbean island of Montserrat.







Few people do quirky signs quite like the British. On a childhood trip to the U.K., I remember being fascinated by ominous-looking roadsigns featuring a giant exclamation point. At one point we even got out of the car to photograph one that included the caption: "Caution: Road liable to subside." (Few things I've encountered since have summed up the British talent for understatement quite so succinctly.)

Even something as innocuous as a street name can merit a photograph, as a recent New York Times story featuring the unfortunately named Butt Hole Road in South Yorkshire shows.

So what's the weirdest road sign you've ever seen in your travels? And what did it tell you about the place?

Friday, March 13, 2009

Video: Song supports human rights

Amnesty International--the same folks who brought you those rockin' concerts back in the 1980s featuring the likes of Bruce Springsteen and Tracy Chapman--have released a new song and video to mark the 60th anniversary of the UN Declaration of Human Rights. And "The Price of Silence" is a great tune, featuring artists ranging from Stephen Marley to Hugh Masekela. If you don't believe me, check out the video:



So what does this have to do with travelling like a local, you ask? Travelling like a local involves keeping your eyes open and trying to see things as they really are. It also means trying to understand the world from a stranger's point of view. And the sad truth is that human rights aren't a priority in many nations around the world--including many places that travellers love to visit.

I think we all have a responsibility to do what we can to improve that situation, whether by supporting Amnesty or another NGO, or taking other action. I know I often haven't been as thoughtful about these issues while travelling as I should have been. This song is a good reminder of the reasons it's important to stay vigilant.

Monday, March 9, 2009

How to Do It Like an Aussie: Video

Although I strongly suspect these two Aussie women, Pip and Kym, are playing up their Aussieness for the cameras, I still enjoyed this little video that tries to teach non-Australians a bit of Down Under culture--from how to make bush tea to what the heck "Good on ya" means.



It's a promo to draw attention to their book, "How to Do It Like an Aussie With Tongs and Thongs" (make all the jokes you like about the title--I assume that's the intention).

Friday, March 6, 2009

Greg Mortenson REALLY travels like a local

OK, I realize I'm very late to this party--the book came out three years ago. But I just finished reading Three Cups of Tea, the story of mountain climber-turned-philanthropist Greg Mortenson, and I was captivated.

For those of you who, like me, somehow missed this book when it first came out, here's the scoop. After a failed attempt to climb K2, Mortenson descends from the mountain ill and disoriented. He washes up in the village of Korphe in northern Pakistan, where villagers help him get better. He is grateful but isn't sure how to properly thank them--until he sees village children doing their lessons outdoors because they have no school. He promises to come back and build one.

What follows is the story of Mortenson's charming, naive, insane, determined quest to raise money for the Korphe school, co-written by journalist David Oliver Relin. This one project soon turns into Mortenson's life's work; he has since built dozens of schools throughout Pakistan and Afghanistan. Along the way, he has also forged enduring relationships with people from a host of different ethnic groups. Very few of us have the courage and dedication to "travel like a local" to this extent, but it makes for a fascinating and inspiring story.

Relin did phenomenal amounts of research and it shows in the evocative details, which sometimes become a bit overwhelming. The book could have done with some trimming by a ruthless editor, but stick with it--the story is worth it.

Mortenson has just released a new version of the book aimed at children--not surprisingly, since children are the focus of his work in Central Asia and since children back home in North America have been some of his most ardent supporters (through the Pennies for Peace fundraising campaign).

All in all, Mortenson's story is a wonderful antidote to the tide of doom and gloom in the news at the minute.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Tourism boards encourage local bloggers

I've long been intrigued by the Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corporation's extensive "insiders' tips" site, uwishunu.com (pronounced "You wish you knew"). It features a wide range of blog posts by Philadelphians, on everything from swishy restaurants to tattoo festivals. And the city promotes the site in all the usual Web 2.0 ways, from Twitter to Digg.

The state of Pennsylvania has taken a similar tack. But instead of blog posts, its website features videos of locals waxing enthusiastic about their favourite Keystone State spots.

Now it seems Tourisme Montreal is taking a leap into the world of tourism promotion via blogging and social media. It recently announced that it would be hiring five bloggers for 10-month, part-time stints later this year.

As Gazette reporter Roberto Rocha points out in his article about the initiative, there's always a risk that paid bloggers will be little more than cheerleaders for their chosen city. And it's true that you won't find many colourful diatribes on uwishunu and similar sites. But for the sake of fun and credibility, I hope all of these sites start giving their bloggers the freedom to rant a little, as well as rave. (Yes, yes, I know there are always worries about liability, as well as internal tourism board politics, but there must be some way around those...)

Five tips for happy house swappers

Given the economy, more and more people are considering house swapping as a great way to save money on their next trip. (Of course, "like a local" sorts have been doing it for years, as much to get a taste of local culture as to cut down on expenses.)

On your next swap, here are five ways you can make yourself--and your guests--more comfortable.

  • Do those minor home repairs you've been putting off, so your house is in sparkling shape.
  • Be crystal clear about the location of the house key. In fact, leave a backup copy with a neighbour, in case there's any confusion.
  • Ask a friend, family member or neighbour to drop in on your house soon after your guests arrive, to make sure everything is going well (both from the guests' perspective and from yours). And call home once while you're away, in case your guests have any questions.
  • Speaking of neighbours: warn them that you're doing a house swap, so they don't get worried when they see strangers frolicking in your backyard. Nothing puts a damper on a holiday like a visit from the cops.
  • Heaven knows, I'm putting myself and my fellow travel writers partway out of business with this tip, but I'll share it anyway (after all, it comes from one of those fellow travel writers). If you're doing a home exchange, why not follow Julie Ovenell-Carter's advice and write your own guidebook, using the snazzy city guides produced by Moleskine as your base?
For more tips, see the detailed home-swapping guide on my website, LaVidaLocal.com, and my recent article about house swapping and apartment rentals at TheTravelersNotebook.com.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

For fans of Slumdog Millionaire: Video

For all of those who (like me) stood up and cheered when Slumdog Millionaire won the best picture Oscar, here's a weirdly compelling little video about life in Mumbai made by three boys, aged 8 and 9. They call themselves The 3 Musketeers, which I suspect is a shout-out to the film.



The video, which focuses on ordinary life in streets and homes, fascinates me in the same way an old after-midnight feature on Toronto's City-TV used to captivate me. The latter was just someone wandering around Toronto late at night with a camera, capturing anything interesting. This has the same unfocused but intriguing vibe.

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Many forms of worship in Richmond, B.C.

I'm sure most of you who have been to Europe have done some part of the "famous old churches" circuit. Westminster Abbey? Been there. Notre-Dame? Seen it. Lovely as they are, once you've seen 10 of them, they all start to blur together a bit.

Another problem with some of Europe's historic churches is that they seem more like museums than places of worship. You get the sense that much of the life bled out of them centuries ago.

Not so in the temples, mosques and gurdwaras of Richmond, British Columbia, a booming Vancouver suburb. Since 60 per cent of the city's residents come from Asia, Richmond is awash in places of worship of every description. Many of these buildings--some quite grandiose--are far from museums. And, best of all, many are open to the public. On a recent trip to Richmond, I visited four of them with a group of other writers.

The most sedate of the four structures was the first stop, the Richmond Jamia Mosque. Signs all over the very plain building urge worshippers to turn off their cell phones, control their children and whisper. Quiet is clearly a high priority--not a bad idea at all in these noisy times.

There are also many signs urging mosque members not to bring old clothes and Korans and leave them at the mosque. I'm still trying to figure out the reason behind those notices. Is donating articles to mosques a Muslim custom? If anyone knows, please leave a comment below.



The next building on the agenda was the exuberant Nanaksar Gurdwara Gursikh Temple, a giant wedding cake of a place complete with an elephant statue out front.

Inside the richly adorned main hall, at least one worshipper reads from Sikhism's most holy book around the clock.

This stop included a tasty vegetarian lunch in the gurdwara's cavernous cafeteria, which serves food to any and all who come by (I met a dreadlocked man who stops by a couple of times a week just for the warm meal and the company).



The third and fourth stops were both enormous Buddhist temples. The highlights of our visit to the International Buddhist Temple--at least for me--were the chance to meditate quietly in the main Worship Hall and to stroll quietly through the magnificent courtyard.









And at the Lingyen Mountain Temple, stunning gardens were a restful way to end a whirlwind tour--a tour that gave me the most superficial of tastes, I know, of three rich traditions.




If you'd like to follow in my footsteps, a guide to Richmond's places of worship--Faith Communities, by Jon Henderson--is available from the Richmond Archives for C$18.

And if you're headed to Asia, check out this interesting guide to the temples of Macau.

Disclosure: My trip was partially subsidized by Tourism Richmond.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

I've picked a contest winner

My book draw is now closed, and ladies and gentlemen, we have a winner! I did the random draw this morning, and Colengal will be receiving a copy of my book, Wanderlust: A Social History of Travel. Colengal, I will be e-mailing you privately to get your snail mail address.

Thanks so much to everyone who entered--all 75 of you! This was my first contest, and it was a lot of fun.

New York beyond Manhattan: Video

So you've been to the Empire State Building, seen the Metropolitan Museum of Art and gone to Carnegie Hall. But you've just scratched the surface of everything New York has to offer--Manhattan is just one borough, after all! This video by Peter Greenberg offers good tips on some offbeat things to see and do, the next time you're in New York City:

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Five tips for blending in with the locals


It's not easy being green, and it's not easy blending in with the locals when you're travelling, either--particularly if you're surrounded by a very different culture. But camouflaging yourself can have all sorts of benefits. You'll feel less conspicuous, so it will be easier to relax. You won't stand out as a target for pickpockets and scam artists. And you may have the chance to try out a different style--more conservative, more stylish or more casual--than you sport at home. Here are five tips for fading into the crowd.
  1. Cover up (unless you're in Sydney or South Beach). Like several of these tips, this one applies particularly to women (hey, I don't make up the rules; I just report them). In many locales--particularly the Middle East and parts of Asia--bare arms, bare heads, tank tops, short skirts and open-toed shoes are frowned on, if not banned completely. It never hurts to pack a scarf, no matter where you're travelling. (I regretted not having one in my purse during a recent trip to Richmond, B.C., when I visited a Sikh gurdwara where all visitors--male and female--were required to cover their heads.) And no matter where you go, bathing suits are rarely appropriate further than 20 metres from a body of water, unless you're still in nursery school.
  2. Speaking of scarves, make sure you bring one to France. It may be a cliché, but it's a true one: a beautiful scarf is most French women's most important fashion accessory. In Paris, at least, every female over the age of 14--from university students on bikes to elegant grandmothers walking equally elegant dogs--seems to sport one. But don't ask me how to tie one. Despite my best efforts, I always look like an oversized Girl Guide.
  3. Ditch the white running shoes. Sure, they're comfortable. But unless you're running the Boston Marathon, they're like a flashing sign saying "out of towner."
  4. Stow the camera. OK, you'll need to take it out to snap the photo, but try not to leave it hanging around your neck when you're not using it. In many cities, it's an open invitation to muggers.
  5. Leave the flags at home. You rarely see a Canadian flying a flag at home. But put a Canadian on an airplane, and he or she suddenly becomes more patriotic than Johnny Canuck (a genuine Great White North superhero, in case you're wondering). Suddenly, red-and-white maple leaves bloom on every lapel and backpack. It's OK to leave the flags at home, my fellow Canadians. Honestly. They'll know who we are as soon as we open our mouths and say "eh."
photo © Rob Partington for openphoto.net CC:Attribution-ShareAlike

Thursday, February 19, 2009

World's top 10 ferry rides

I've long been a fan of B.C. Ferries' scenic routes, ever since I took my first trip from Vancouver to Victoria (well, from Tsawwassen to Swartz Bay, if you want to get technical) over two decades ago. And my enthusiasm was rekindled earlier this month when I had the chance to hop aboard several ferries on British Columbia's Sunshine Coast. The scenery rivalled almost anything you'd see from the deck of a pricey cruise ship. Just check out this view along the route from Earl's Cove to Saltery Bay.

It turns out my fellow members of the Society of American Travel Writers (SATW) agree with me. The B.C. Ferries made SATW's new list of the world's top 10 ferry rides. Here's the whole list, in order of popularity.

1. Star Ferry in Hong Kong
2. Ferries from Sausalito to San Francisco, California
3. Staten Island Ferry, New York Harbour
4. Washington State Ferries, Puget Sound to the San Juan Islands
5. British Columbia Ferry System, including Vancouver to Victoria
6. Ferry from Sydney Harbour to Manly, Australia
This is the only other ferry on the list I've had the chance to try, and SATW was spot on with this choice. Here's a shot I snapped en route to Manly in late 2007.


And here's the gorgeous beach I found in Manly.



7. The Ferry System of the Greek Isles
8. The “Blue Canoes” of the Alaska State Ferry System
9. “Norway in a Nutshell” tour and ferry ride
10. Ferry from Mallaig to Isle of Skye, Scotland

I love ferries because they let you see much of the same scenery you'd pass on a tourist boat cruise, at a fraction of the cost and without the stupefyingly dull taped commentary. ("And on your right you'll see the [words lost due to static on ancient P.A. system], where local magnate Horace P. Bogardus once raised prize guinea fowl.") You also get the chance to rub shoulders with locals, backpackers and all sorts of other fun people. On some ferries, you might even find yourself camping on deck overnight. You can't travel much more like a local than that.

Disclosure: I travelled to Sydney courtesy of Tourism Australia and to British Columbia's Sunshine Coast courtesy of the Vancouver Coast & Mountains Tourism Region.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Canadian films take Manhattan


It's one of many weird things about the Great White North: we produce quite a few movies, but it can be devilishly hard to find them on Canadian movie screens. Mainly that's because every jumbo-plex has multiple screens devoted to the latest Hollywood action flick or slasher movie; partly it's because a disturbingly high percentage of Canuck flicks seem to involve dysfunctional families stuck in snowbound farmhouses.

As you know, I'm a big fan of absorbing lots of local culture when travelling. But for travellers hoping to steep themselves in Canadian film, one of the best places to do so in March will be, ironically, in New York City.

The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) is giving a shout-out to Canadian filmmakers with the week-long film fest Canadian Front (March 18-23, 2009). I haven't heard of most of the new films being featured during the main festival (I tell you, our homegrown industry is almost invisible here). But in conjunction with the event, MoMA will also be showing the 2005 film C.R.A.Z.Y. It's one of my favourite Canuck flicks ever, and well worth your time. So, OK, it does feature a dysfunctional family. But at least they're not always shovelling snow.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Couchsurfing, Malta-style


The couchsurfing craze continues to spread, as this recent article from the Times of Malta shows: Want to become a couch-surfer?

The Maltese traveller profiled in the piece fits the usual couchsurfing stereotype--20-something, single and footloose--but he claims even families are jumping on the bandwagon.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Booking a Japanese ryokan

Sadly, I haven't had the chance to stay in a Japanese ryokan (guesthouse) yet. With luck, I will in the future. In the meantime, I did stumble across an English-language website that handles bookings for ryokan across the country, JapaneseGuestHouses.com. It gets praise for good service in two reviews on Trip Advisor (even if the reviewers were less than complimentary about the actual accommodation).

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Book giveaway: Wanderlust: A Social History of Travel

It all started when I began wondering where passports came from. I pitched every magazine editor I knew on a story about the history of passports, but no one--and I mean no one--was interested.

Fine, I thought. I'll broaden the concept and make it into a book.

The history of passports eventually became a chapter in my book Wanderlust: A Social History of Travel. The book also answers such burning questions as "Why did 1930s stewardesses carry wrenches?" (Answer: Because the planes' violent vibrations often shook loose the passenger seats, which were bolted to the floor.)

Back in the early days, just about all travellers "travelled like locals"--from the bureaucrat in ancient China who took 13 years to return from a government mission (partly because he married a local woman and started a family en route) to the medieval pilgrims who sought shelter in monasteries along the way to Santiago de Compostela in Spain.

Intrigued? Want to know more? Well, enter my contest and you can win a copy of Wanderlust. If you like, I'll even autograph it for you (although I should warn you that my handwriting is atrocious).

So how do you enter? Just leave a comment on this post--even just "count me in!" will do--before midnight Eastern Time on Saturday, February 21. If you like, include a question about the history of travel; I'll answer it if I can. I'll pick a winner randomly from among the respondents, then e-mail the winner privately to get your mailing address.

That's all there is to it! So start typing and send those comments my way.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Curry udon soup perfect welcome to Richmond, B.C.

I arrived in Richmond, B.C., this morning for a conference jet lagged and hungry. So after checking into the conference hotel, the River Rock Casino Resort, I asked the concierge in the casino where I could find some good Asian food within a short walk.

Even though the hotel lies on the edge of Richmond's "Golden Village"--the modern Chinatown that's a focal point for the 60 percent of Richmond's residents who trace their roots back to Asia--the concierge pointed me to one of the casino's restaurants. The last thing I wanted after five hours on an airplane was to sit in a windowless casino. I needed air, preferably with a side helping of local flavour.

No matter. As usual, Mapquest was a godsend. I found out that the Aberdeen Centre, a big Asian mall I'd glimpsed from my airplane window earlier that day, was just 1.6 kilometres away. I put on my walking shoes and headed out.

My route wasn't particularly scenic--much of it led under the newly constructed Canada Line (an elevated train), past car rental agencies and a huge Canadian Tire outlet. But within 20 minutes I reached the Aberdeen Centre, a bright, airy outpost of Asia in the shadow of Vancouver International Airport.

It looked like any other upscale Canadian mall, with its splashing fountains and three-storey atria, but few of the stores were familiar. There was Daiso, a popular Japanese discount store stuffed with Hello Kitty thermoses, plastic laundry baskets and colourful finger puppets. There was a huge selection of exotic-looking rice steamers at Pacific Houseware. There were two dried food stores selling ingredients I couldn't begin to identify.

But I was on a quest: to find a warm bowl of udon, the comforting Japanese soup filled with fat noodles. I'd had udon on the brain ever since I'd read a lovely article in The Globe and Mail last week about writer Laura Madokoro's search, on a recent visit to Japan, to find udon like her father used to make.

I followed my nose to the third-floor food court and there, amid joints selling congee and lemongrass chicken submarines and bubble tea, I found the object of my affection at Ajijiman: a huge, fragrant bowl of curry udon, rich with carrots, potatoes and onions, for the princely sum of $4. I even managed to eat most of it with chopsticks--not a bad feat for someone who has barely slept in the last few days. Too bad the one thing I forgot was my camera.

Disclosure: My trip was partially subsidized by Tourism Richmond.

Monday, February 2, 2009

25% off Paris apartments

Welcome2France.com, which specializes in luxury apartment rentals in Paris, has just announced last-minute discounts of up to 25% on some of its properties. Most of the deals are valid February 1-15 and March 1-15, but there are a few available in late March. Many owners require a minimum stay of five days or a week. See the special offers section of the website for details.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Guess we’re coming to dinner in Amsterdam


My husband and I stood uncertainly on the front step of a tall, 17th-century canal house in Amsterdam’s infamous Red Light District. We’d never done anything like this before, and we weren’t at all sure how it was going to turn out. We’d even come up with a signal we could use if one of us was ready to go home.

We took a deep breath and rang the doorbell.

I know what you’re thinking. Get your minds out of the gutter, people. We might have been in the Red Light District, but we’d simply invited ourselves over to dinner with strangers. Given where we were, that seemed like a rather tame adventure.

Even so, we were nervous. Would we find anything to talk about? What would the food be like? Would it all be awkward?

A bit of explanation is probably in order. We’d arranged the dinner through Amsterdam-based Like-a-Local, which I’ve blogged about before. (See “Check out NYC indie bands with a local” and “New insider’s tour of Madrid.”) Among other things, the company helps travellers book dinners in private homes in a number of European cities.

Before leaving Canada, I’d scrolled through the firm's website and been drawn to the description of dinner with Paul and Lucie, a couple in their 60s. It mentioned that they had lovely African art that Paul had collected on his travels, and that he loved to cook traditional Dutch dishes. The clincher? He was quoted in his listing as saying, “Life is too short to drink bad wine.”

I sent our payment to Like-a-Local (42 euros per person, which included a four- to five-course meal and all drinks), and off we went to Amsterdam. It all seemed good until we realized we knew nothing at all about these folks. Then the vision of a five-course meal talking about the weather reared its ugly head.

We needn’t have worried.

The moment we rang the doorbell, two heads popped out of a fourth-storey window. “We’re coming down to get you,” Paul cried.

(I'm in the middle, flanked by our gracious hosts, Paul and Lucie.)

The apartment ran the length of the fourth floor. A compact, well-organized kitchen—where we stopped briefly as Paul poured us each a glass of wine—opened onto an airy living room with red velvet couches and big windows overlooking the Oudezijds Voorburgwal canal. The size of the room surprised us, as the 330-year-old house looked so narrow from the street.

Nibbling on tiny pieces of toast topped with chopped boiled egg mixed with anchovies, we fell into a relaxed and easy conversation that strayed quickly from the weather. I was momentarily startled to learn that the house’s legal papers give Paul the right to rent out one of the neighbourhood’s brothel windows, but he quickly assured me he hasn’t exercised the privilege.

Over a rich pheasant soup, we talked about everything from Paul’s 24 years working in West Africa to the intricacies of Dutch politics. We learned about our hosts’ history together—they had dated in their 30s, split up, then reconnected a few years ago. By the time we dug into an amazing dinner of stuffed quail and another bottle of wine, we felt like old friends.

(Great food, great conversation--what more could you want?)

Of course, it helped that Paul and Lucie were old hands at being gracious hosts. At that point, they’d been involved with Like-a-Local for three years, hosting 12 to 15 people a year. “We don’t do it for the money,” Paul said. “I like to exchange ideas with people from other countries.”

When Paul suggested eggnog ice cream for dessert, we were stuffed but couldn’t resist. Once we'd had coffee, we wondered if we should go, but we were all having too much fun.

Our hosts told us about the evolution of their neighbourhood, and urged us to see beyond the windows, the dope-smoky coffeeshops and tourist joints like the “Erotic Museum.” Lucie mentioned Project 1012 (named after the postal code for the neighbourhood), which aims to restrict prostitution to a few small areas and to encourage fashion designers and other upscale businesses to set up shop. Both Lucie and Paul hope the project will deter “hooligans”—the squads of young men, mainly British, who descend on the area each weekend to drink, yell and generally carouse.


(One of the district's many churches.)

But even without Project 1012, the neighbourhood is already much more than its image. Many families live here, surprisingly, and there are several nearby hotels. An organization called Redlight Design is currently running an exhibition by leading Dutch jewellery designers. And the area, Amsterdam’s oldest, is home to seven lovingly preserved medieval churches.

Later in the trip, I visited the fascinating Our Lord in the Attic, just across the canal from Paul’s apartment. A Catholic merchant built this tiny church on the top floors of his house in the 17th century, when Roman Catholics were forbidden to worship publicly in Amsterdam.

From clandestine churches to apartments full of African art and warm hospitality, there’s much more to Amsterdam’s sedate-looking canal houses—and to the Red Light district—than meets the eye.

One final note: Amsterdam isn’t the cheapest city in the world to visit, but there are lots of ways to save euros while you’re there. One of my favourites is to use the city’s extensive, efficient public transit system—another great way to meet locals. Head to this article on budget travel in Amsterdam for tips on trams and more.

Do you have tips for meeting locals and travelling frugally in Amsterdam? Please post a comment here and share!

And if you like reading about foodie adventures on the road, please check out the "WanderFood Wednesday" blog links every--you guessed it--Wednesday at WanderlustAndLipstick.com.

Disclosure: I travelled to Amsterdam courtesy of the Netherlands Board of Tourism and Conventions.