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Hockey Night in Cuba: Cruise the Caribbean with former NHL players

- November 6th, 2014
Bernie Nicholls, Jack Valiquette and Gary Leeman. (QMI Agency file photos)

Bernie Nicholls, Jack Valiquette and Gary Leeman. (QMI Agency file photos)

This winter, cruise Cuba with some of the NHL’s biggest stars.

Former players from the Toronto Maple Leafs, Calgary Flames, Montreal Canadiens and Edmonton Oilers have joined Cuba Cruise to launch the special Hockey Night in Cuba cruise program, combining fun in the sun with special events featuring six players from across Canada.

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The seven-night cruise will depart Havana on Jan. 12, 2015 before sailing to six ports of call, including Santiago de Cuba and Montego Bay, Jamaica. A free commemorative jersey, Canadian beer, Alberta steaks, meet-and-greets with players including Bernie Nicholls, Gary Leeman and Jack Valiquette, and hockey-themed events are all part of the program.

Courtsy Cuba Cruise

Courtsy Cuba Cruise

“We are excited to welcome aboard some of Canada’s great hockey champions this season, such as 1993 Stanley Cup winner Gary Leeman,” Dugald Wells, Cuba Cruise president, said in a statement. “Creating unique programs for fellow Canadians to enjoy both onshore and onboard is our top priority, from serving Canadian beer and broadcasting NHL games in our Sports Bar to offering Hemingway-inspired walking tours and Cuban countryside visits.”

Rates for the Hockey Night in Cuba cruise start at $1,442, including taxes and flights from Toronto. Cruise-only rates start at $830. Up to two kids sail for free. To book and for full details, visit yourcubacruise.com and use code HOCKEY.

Day of the Dead: Experience Mexico’s festival of life and death with Velas Resorts

- October 21st, 2014
(Nicole Feenstra/QMI Agency)

(Nicole Feenstra/QMI Agency)

The leaves are falling off the trees and Halloween costumes are being prepared, but Canadians can experience an entirely different fall celebration during Mexico’s Day of the Dead – or Dia de los Muertos – Festival of Life and Death.

The three day festival from Oct. 31 to Nov.2 is a time for Mexicans to remember and honour loved ones who have passed away. Traditions include building colourful altars to the dead, designing sugar skulls, baking sweet breads and creating candles or paper decorations.

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Velas Resorts in the Riviera Maya, Riviera Nayarit and Vallarta want to share these traditions with Canadian visitors with travel packages that include unique Day of the Dead experiences. Take a trip to a cemetery to smell the scents of incense on the altars, savour the food of the feast for the souls and witness ancient rituals that culminate in pulsating drums and hypnotic dances.

Rates range from $167 per person, per night for a studio suite at the Velas Vallarta to $613 per person, per night at the Grand Velas Riviera Maya’s grand class suite. For more details, visit velasresorts.com.

Amazing Thailand: Trafalgar reveals 2015 Asia tour program at incredible Thai cooking class

- September 24th, 2014
Crispy tofu and a welcome to the #TrafalgarThailand media event. (Nicole Feenstra photo)

Crispy tofu and a welcome to the #TrafalgarThailand media event. (Nicole Feenstra photo)

Last night I was inspired and amazed by all the country of Thailand has to offer tourists, via an incredible Thai cooking class hosted by Trafalgar at Toronto’s Mengrai Thai restaurant.

From the adventures to be had in the cool mountains of the north to the picturesque rice paddies of central Thailand, from the shopping and nightlife in bustling capital Bangkok to the azure coastal beaches familiar to movie buffs through the Leonardo DiCaprio movie The Beach, this country offers countless experiences for all types of travellers on all types of trips.

Incredible ingredients become a delicious beef salad at Mengrai Thai. (Nicole Feenstra photo)

Incredible ingredients become a delicious beef salad at Mengrai Thai. (Nicole Feenstra photo)

After Mengrai Thai’s gourmet cooking class, where a spicy beef salad and crispy shrimp were on my menu, Trafalgar, the award-winning tour company, revealed a new website and the launch of their 2015 Asia tour program.

Choose your itinerary and be guided to some of Thailand – and Asia’s – most incredible places on a comfortable coach bus equipped with WiFi. Local experts give each tour a personal touch, which, along with the unique moments Trafalgar has become known for and access to famous local sites, make each tour an unforgettable journey.

The Secrets of Thailand tour is an in-depth way to really get to know the country, from the temples of Bangkok to the ancient traditions of Chiang Mai. Along the way, eat your heart out on the unique flavours of the country, some of which – lemongrass, galangal, Thai basil, kaffir lime leaf – I learned about at the cooking class.

Getting to know the ingredients: lemongrass; Mengrai Thai chef Sasi. (Nicole Feenstra photo)

Getting to know the ingredients: lemongrass; Mengrai Thai chef Sasi. (Nicole Feenstra photo)

“For 2015, we’re thrilled to showcase the many flavours of Asia and dining with the locals are an integral part to every Trafalgar holiday in Asia,” Doug Patterson, president of Trafalgar Canada, said in a statement. “With our Be My Guest experiences, our clients are invited into the homes of people such as the village chief’s family in Ban Mae Kampong or sampling local delicacies with a farming family in Hoi An.”

Guests can also pair their visit to Thailand with a visit to Cambodia’s ancient Angkor Wat and Siem Reap on Trafalgar’s Secrets of Thailand with Cambodia tour. Or, fit in a visit to the tropical paradise of Koh Samui on the Secrets of Thailand with Koh Sumui tour.

Mengra Thai's Golden Pumpking Soup with Crispy Morning Glory tempure. (Nicole Feenstra photo)

Mengra Thai’s Golden Pumpking Soup with Crispy Morning Glory tempure. (Nicole Feenstra photo)

There are also tours of China, Singapore and Vietnam available, as well as family experiences filled with activities kids will love, like the Samurai Discovery tour in Japan. Bang on a traditional Taijo drum, take part in a sushi making lesson or ride an indoor roller coaster at Sega Joypolis. Parents will also love the sightseeing and day trip to Mount Fuji aboard Trafalgar’s coach bus.

Book and pay for your Trafalgar tour before Nov. 20, 2014 and receive savings of up to $1,490 per couple with the 10% early payment discount. For more details on this and the tours, see trafalgar.com.

Itinerary for 2014 MasterChef Caribbean cruise revealed, season five winner Courtney Lapresi to be aboard

- September 16th, 2014
MasterChef U.S.A. (Courtesy Fox)

MasterChef U.S.A. (Courtesy Fox)

The itinerary for the week-long MasterChef cruise of the Caribbean has been revealed, and it includes plenty of opportunities to interact with fan favourite contestants like Christina Ha and Alexander Weiss, as well as MasterChef judge Graham Elliot.

The seven-day voyage will sail from Fort Lauderdale, Fla. on Nov. 8, 2014. Elliot, past winners Ha and Luca Manfe, MasterChef Junior victor Weiss, and the newest MasterChef, season five winner Courtney Lapresi, will all be aboard.

Alexander Weiss of MasterChef Junior and Lucas Manfe and Christine Ha of MasterChef. (Courtesy FOX)

Alexander Weiss of MasterChef Junior and Luca Manfe and Christine Ha of MasterChef. (Courtesy FOX)

The luxurious Holland America MS Westerdam will be the vessel for the cruise, which will stop at several ports of call, including Puerto Rico, Turks and Caicos and the Bahamas. The ship will return to Fort Lauderdale on Nov. 15.

It has now been revealed that guests can look forward to on-board programming that will include Mystery Box challenges, cocktail parties, meet and greets, and demonstrations. Some of the many events include:

  • Christine Ha’s Mac-n-Cheese at Sea Competition – Ha will judge the first-ever Mac-n-Cheese at Sea competition where guests will compete to create their best version of the classic dish.
  • Blind Taste Test with Graham Elliot – A few willing audience members will have the opportunity to test their taste buds with a challenge led by Elliot.
  • Tag Team Sushi – Get a front-row seat to the famous Sushi Tag Team Challenge featuring the MasterChef Stars.
  • Master the Macaroon with Alexander – Learn to master Weiss’ signature dessert.
  • Designer Pasta – Learn how to make authentic, homemade pasta with a demonstration from Luca Manfe.
  • The Finishing Touch – Courtney Lapresi will teach you how to add that extra touch to your dish, using herb oils, aiolis, and purees as smooth as silk.
  • Tricks of the Trade: Lapresi and season four favourite Bri Kozior will demonstrate some of the best tricks used in professional kitchens everywhere.
MasterChef season five winner Courtney Lapresi with judges Joe Bastianich, Gordon Ramsay and Graham Elliot. (Courtesy FOX)

MasterChef season five winner Courtney Lapresi with judges Joe Bastianich, Gordon Ramsay and Graham Elliot. (Courtesy FOX)

“MasterChef fans and food lovers alike are in for an incredible journey with hours of original live programming that both entertains and instructs,” said Vivi Zigler, president of MasterChef’s production company, Shine America, in a statement. “Guests will get to live the MasterChef experience with some of the most skilled and beloved talent from the series, while also honing their own culinary skills.”

Fares for the cruise start at $1,442 per person. For more information or to book your ticket on the MasterChef cruise, visit masterchefcruise.com.

Ontario’s Downton Abbey: Visiting Hamilton’s Dundurn Castle

- August 18th, 2014
Dundurn Castle, Hamilton, Ont. (Nicole Feenstra/QMI Agency)

Dundurn Castle, Hamilton, Ont. (Nicole Feenstra/QMI Agency)

“It’s just like Downton Abbey!” I kept exclaiming as I explored the many lavish rooms of Hamilton’s Dundurn Castle.

Having been completed just four years before construction started on the present-day incarnation of Highclere Castle — the real-life English estate that houses the fictional Crawley family and their servants, in the hit ITV/PBS period drama Downton Abbey — in an era when the grandeur of such stately residences was in fashion, the two buildings share many of the same features and functionality.

But, though Dundurn does have connections to British aristocracy — Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall, is patron of the Ontario castle, which was home to her great, great, great grandfather — it has a place all to itself in the story of Canada’s past.

PHOTOS: See more photos of Dundurn Castle here

The house was built from 1832 to 1835 by Sir Allan Napier MacNab. Named for his ancestral home in Scotland, MacNab built the 72 room mansion in what was then the countryside of Hamilton for $175,000, incorporating the latest technologies in gas lighting and running water.

MacNab was a veteran of the 1812 war and built his home over an existing military encampment on the site. He entered politics after a successful career as a lawyer, serving as the Prime Minister of the Province of Canada from 1854 to 1856. The family welcomed Sir John A. Macdonald and King Edward VII to Dundurn Castle during its most prominent phase.

After most of the family passed or moved to England, the City of Hamilton purchased Dundurn in 1900 for $50,000 and began restoring it as a tourist attraction. A functioning vegetable garden still exists today and the Hamilton Military Museum is also located on the property.

Just like Highclere Castle, Dundurn has a number of opulently decorated rooms serving a variety of functions, such as the family room, where the MacNab daughters would gather to play piano or games with their parents, a pink formal sitting area for the ladies, a grand dining hall with space for a lavish dessert table, and a library, smoking room and study where the master of the house could host male guests or retreat to do business.

In each room is a handle that, when turned, causes a bell to chime in the downstairs servants’ quarters, just like the ringing bell in the opening credits of Downton Abbey. Each bell chimes a different note, which let servants know where in the house they were needed.

There is also a magnificent wood staircase on the ground level, likely descended by MacNab’s daughter, Sophia, during her wedding at Dundurn. It is very reminiscent of the third season scene in Downton Abbey when Lady Mary descends Downton’s staircase on her way to her own wedding.

The décor at Dundurn is either original to the house, artwork from the same period or an accurate duplication. The wallpaper in MacNab’s bedroom, for example, was created to match the original wallpaper, which was discovered under the carpet during the restoration process.

Where the upstairs is built to be a fantastical showpiece, the downstairs is much more functional. Rooms for storing preserves, bottles of wine and making beer line a hallway leading to the servants’ dining room, where they gathered for three meals daily, consisting mainly of stews.

The cook’s bedroom is next to the kitchen, where, in addition to the three meals she would prepare for the servants, she would cook the family’s four daily meals, including afternoon tea, and transfer them to a small elevator for the butler to collect upstairs and serve to the family.

Rooms for laundry, firewood and an ice pit can also be found downstairs.

This National Historic Site of Canada is a fascinating step back to a very different time and a very different way of living, whether you are a southern Ontario resident who wants to experience a little bit of Downton Abbey close to home or a history buff who just wants to take in a piece of Canadian history.

Dundurn Castle is open year-round to visitors, with guided tours Tuesday through Sunday from noon to 4 p.m. For more information, visit hamilton.ca/dundurn.