Day trip to Dundas a Christmas treat

Inside chocolateThe Christmas season always bring nostalgia.  Suddenly feeling more strongly the coldness of their internet connections, people start yearning for old fashioned family dinners, walks through snow-laden dells and the smell of cider and pine.  This condition lasts exactly three weeks and then disappears with a suddenness suggesting mass hypnosis, but for a short time everyone is pleasant, less rushed, and enjoying yet again the story of Rudoph’s triumph over schoolyard bullying.

It was this frame of mind that sent my daughter, Mikaela, and I to Dundas, a small town just shy of 25,000 souls with a popular shopping district showcasing local artists and boutique stores. A 25 minute drive from Oakville, the road signs are easy to follow and take you right to King Street, which is lined with buildings showcasing original 19th century architecture.  Parking is sufficient and, wonderfully, free on weekends.

The first thing we saw was a horse-drawn wagon offering rides through town.  I love these things, even though they entail nothing but sitting, shivering, on a rock hard bench for fifteen minutes while the horses plod resolutely along their route at a brisk 6 kilometers per hour.  But they’re just so Christmassy, the clip-clop of the horses’ hooves beating a magic cadence that never fails to lift my spirits. I was ready to jump on, but for some indescribable reason my otherwise horse-loving pre-teen didn’t want a ride (yet more proof she’s smarter than me).


Our first stop was the chocolatier, delightfully named Beanermunkey Chocolates (the combined childhood nicknames of the owner’s sons).  A mouth-watering array of artisanal chocolates made on-site are provocatively displayed on artistically arranged trays and baskets.  The kitchen viewing window allows patrons to watch the chocolatiers at work.  I purchased some chocolate-dipped peanut butter cups, candy cane bark, peanut brittle and a small bag of chocolate dipped sour keys. I reluctantly left, after partaking of my free sample of their “Madagascar vanilla bean confection, with a white chocolate ganache centre dipped in Belgian white chocolate and finished with a dark chocolate design.”  It took less time to eat it than to say it.


We next visited several clothing stores, offering goods of a quality not seen in any of Ontario’s ubiquitous chain stores in years.  There are also many gift stores, cafes, shoe stores, a bridal boutique, medical facilities and several banks.  Everything you need for day to day living is here.

For lunch we went to The Winchester Arms, a British pub with beautiful decor, red oak beams and deep green upholstery, with a bar trimmed with brass and glass.  The place was packed with regulars and cheerfully noisy.  The menu was extensive and I longed to try the chicken pot pie, bangers and mash or fish and chips, but I knew if I ate a lunch that heavy I wouldn’t make it back to the car, so I settled for chicken wings and garlic cheese toast.  Mikaela had chicken fingers and fries, and a Dad’s root beer which is bottled like real beer, making for an amusing photo-op.


(Read the label, people – it’s root beer)

After lunch we strolled the street, passing some carollers and stopping at the Carnagie Gallery showcasing  paintings, photographs, pottery and jewellery of local artists, then turned in at the Body Sense Boutique and Spa where we purchased some natural soap and a “bath tea” for soothing sore muscles, a gift for my mother.

Our last stop was The Keeping Room, a veritable play land for kitchen store junkies. Every single surface is covered with casseroles, muffin pans, wine glasses and serving dishes, and every other imaginable utensil to make cooking fun.  They even have food-themed socks.  I could easily spend my entire paycheque there, but I responsibly selected some ballerina and Eiffel Tower-shaped cookie cutters and a batter measure, and three pairs of socks.

On our way back to the car we stopped at Village Bakery Dundas and bought half a dozen shortbreads and six intricately decorated sugar cookies, which explains why they cost $27.00.  Eating our Santa heads we drove back to Oakville.  We will definitely be returning.

From Toronto: take the QEW west to Hwy 6 North.  Follow Hwy 6 to York Road; turn left.  Follow York Road to Regional Road 8.  Turn right on Road 8 and follow to King Street West.

True Nature

How freeing it must be
To be the wind.
No conscious destination,
Just free-floating whimsy.

No shackles of debt or love
Or need,
No restraint of one’s nature,
Just being.

To be the wind
Is to be softness and light.
Sometimes fierce;
Never insignificant.

If I were the wind
I would endlessly caress my darlings,
Glory in the loving touch
Never marred by want or greed.

How Do I Let Go

Four months left
‘Til she leaves this house
To begin the journey of her life.
University beckons, home already
Fading in her mind.

The school’s been picked
And she is going
Very far away;
Four hour drive, five hour train.
A journey that for the first time, won’t include me.

How do I stand back and say goodbye
To the little hands that once gripped me tightly,
Not wanting to leave mommy,
Not even to sleep over at Nana’s
Who lived three whole blocks down the street.

In four months she’ll be gone and I will be left here
Staring at the cavernous emptiness of her room.
Sure, we have internet; Facebook and Skype,
But they offer only the insufficient consolation of visual connection.
No warmth, no hugs, no life.

It will never be the same,
And I am not ready.
Never will be, to accept the end
Of 18 years of always being there
For every, single, thing.

Dinner Party

Peas mashed on the table,
Potatoes combed through her hair.
Juice running over and down
The sides of her chair.

Bib stained by the carrots
She ate yesterday at noon.
Washed twice; it’ll never come out
And she’ll just smear more in with her spoon.

Beets were the big mistake,
Turning her fingers purple with dye,
Which she then rubbed all over her face
Before sticking herself in the eye.

There’s parsnips on my ceiling
Flung up by a chubby hand,
And sweet potato on my walls –
I guess she prefers fresh, not canned.

My kitchen has been trashed
By a toddler food fight of one.
How can such a tiny child
Wreak so much havoc before she’s done?!

Those whom the gods wish to drive insane, they first send on road trips

Another disadvantage of being almost 50 was recently brought home to me.  Along with muscle tone and the ability to drink until 4:00 a.m. and still get up for work, it would appear certain driving skills also diminish with age.  I’m still a good driver, but for a couple of years now finding my way from point A to B without incident has been getting more difficult.  Since I’m planning a life of travel after retirement, this is worrisome.  How can I expect to hike from Dublin to Dingle if I can’t find my way to a city an hour away from my house?

I get incredibly stressed when driving to new places now.  The smallest conversation with anyone in the car at the exact wrong time can distract me enough to miss my exit.  Then I freak out because I don’t know how to get back to where I was going.  So this year I purchased a GPS to put an end to the problem.  Suffice to say, it hasn’t been the godsend I expected it to be.

You know those stories you read about people who died because they trustingly followed their GPS until they were stuck in the middle of nowhere?  It’s not as bizarre a turn of events as one would suppose. I took my daughter, Madeline, to the open house at Waterloo University this past weekend, which is about an hour and twenty minutes west of Oakville.  I didn’t start the GPS right away because I figured I wouldn’t need it until I got near Waterloo. Actually, I got lost before I even left town.

Madeline’s first tour was scheduled for 12:30 p.m., so we left at 10:00 a.m. – estimated ETA, 11:30.  Driving up a main Oakville artery, I saw the 401 East exit and passed it, watching expectantly for the 401 West sign to make an appearance, which should have occurred within the next 30 seconds.  I saw nothing.  After driving for almost 2 kilometers I realized I was in cow country.  After another half kilometer of growing unease, I pulled into a car lot to ask for directions and was told the 401 West exit was 2 kilometers behind me. So back we went and there was the 401 West exit, clear as day.  I have no idea how I missed the sign on the other side of the road but I’m going with “it was blocked by some construction signs that distracted me.”

Finally on our way after our 20 minute detour, I was fine until we got to Waterloo (after the 401 snafu I had turned the GPS on).  However, there is a point, after GPS gal tells you to “take exit 8”, where the road splits and #8 continues to the right, and the signs indicate that the left lane is for “King Street downtown.”  It was at this juncture that the GPS barked, “stay left on Highway 8.”  I panicked as I watched the signs approaching, clearly stating #8 was on the right, going 110 clicks and running out of time to make a decision.  I finally decided to believe that the “8” was correct but the “left” was wrong and took the #8 exit.  Before I was halfway through the ramp curve, GPS lady said “recalculating…”  Therein followed ten minutes of continuous direction that had me turning left and right on numerous narrow, 60 year old side streets until we met up with…King Street. Headed downtown.  I drove down King, profoundly wishing it was possible to strangle an inanimate object.

The GPS did manage to get us to the university, where its usefulness ended for the time being. I then discovered that manmade signs are no less fallible than the GPS programming.  There was a huge, mostly empty parking lot to the left, but signs saying “event parking” to the right.  After following the signs to the right we drove through campus only to find ourselves in (1) a permit only parking lot, (2) a dead end construction road and (3) a dead end loading zone. After the third misdirection I threw the van into reverse with profane energy, during which my daughter kept wisely silent.

We finally made our way back to a city street and drove around in a square, deducing that eventually we would emerge once again on University Avenue, which we did.  This time I turned left into the parking lot, followed those “event parking” signs down a road that appeared to curve right into the woods and made me so nervous I pulled a U-y and finally found the deserted lot, with the barriers up and no signs about event parking anywhere.  I decided a parking ticket would be less hassle than trying to figure out all these signs and parked.

All this driving around in circles made Madeline late for her residence tour, but fortunately they were running so many it didn’t really matter.  Afterwards, my difficulty with reading the campus map made us late for the first lecture.  Madeline had trouble reading it as well – apparently map dyslexia is hereditary.  By the end of the day, however, we had walked through the same area four times and were beginning to recognize our surroundings – just in time for the event to end. Now we had to find our way back to the car.

The ride home was quiet and uneventful, because in that direction I recognize all the signs and know where I’m going.  It’s a good thing I do, because the GPS failed to recognize that Highway 8 East automatically turns into the 401.  No exit exists, so the machine was unnaturally silent all the way to Oakville, wherein it suddenly piped up again, advising me to get off the highway prematurely and take a route home that would have added fifteen minutes to our trip.

It may be my dreams of driving all over Canada are going to need an adjustment. I had been planning to either buy a small camper or outfit my minivan into something I can sleep in.  But perhaps, in light of recent events, I should replace those ideas with something more suited to my skill set.  Like a bus schedule.

Looks hard to miss, doesn't it
Looks hard to miss, doesn’t it

Royal Botanical Gardens, Burlington

If you asked me to suggest a place to spend a February afternoon in Ontario, the Royal Botanical Gardens in Burlington would not have been the first thing that came to mind…or the second, or even the seventh.  Gardens…February…no.

The RBG is where I found myself yesterday, however.  The Orchid Society was hosting their annual show.  I didn’t know there was an Orchid Society, let alone a show, but my daughter’s art class had been invited to participate with a display of their artwork.  So of course we had to go – it’s not every day your child’s artistic efforts are on public display.

It turns out the RBG is a pretty cool place to go even in winter.  Their main building holds several atriums of plants from all over the world.  In addition to the orchid show, they were also hosting a Frog Show described as “ribbiting!” on the poster. I hadn’t gone there with the thought of writing an article in mind, so we just had a nice mosey around.

We ventured in, welcoming the heat coming from the temperature controlled rooms, although I was wishing I had hung up my coat by the time we entered the Mediterranean Room…the temperature required to keep Chilean plants at their best is not the greatest environment for Canadian winter fashion.


The frogs were on display and clearly not letting their celebrity status interfere with their regular routine…most were sleeping.  The ones that were awake were still not moving.  In fact I didn’t see a single frog so much as flex a flipper the entire time.  Those heat lamps must be really relaxing.

Waxy Monkey Frog
Waxy Monkey Frog

We had a tour of the orchid room which was pretty, but I was clearly out of my element.  I don’t usually notice flowers; I never buy any and my husband has learned not to get me plants for any special occasion unless he secretly wants them himself, because I will thank him, put it on the table, and not notice it again until a spider swinging on a withered branch catches my eye.  Clearly hours had gone into the creation of these orchid displays and ribbons for first, second and third prize were pinned to the winners.


After the orchid room we went in search of the high school’s art display.  All the kids’ drawings and paintings had been hung on a wall except for Madeline’s, which was displayed separate and apart on its own easel – I am assuming for no reason other than maternal pride they did so because hers was the best one.


Madeline's orchid; charcoal/chalk on paper
Madeline’s orchid; charcoal/chalk on paper

The RBG is the largest botanical garden in Canada and a National Historic Site with 2450 acres of nature on display.  They regularly hold lectures and host school trips to educate the public on the importance of conservation.  There are 27 km of hiking trails, two canoe launches and picnic grounds.  It also manages one of the largest freshwater marshlands in North America. Admission is $12.50 for adults and $7.50 for children 4-12; kids younger than 4 are free.  Trail users do not pay admission, just parking at meters located at all trailheads.  Leashed pets are welcome in the outdoor garden areas.  The RBG is fully accessible and companion animals are welcome throughout the entire facility.  There is a no smoking policy in effect on the entire property.

Directions:  From Toronto take the QEW to Hwy 403 West (Hamilton). Exit at Waterdown Road and go south on Waterdown to Plains Road West. Turn right onto Plains Road West and travel 2km; RBG will be on your left.

From Kitchener: take Hwy 401 E to Hwy 6 S. Follow Hwy 6 S for about 20 minutes to the York Road exit; make a left and then a right on the new Plains Road. Drive south over the 403. Turn left at the lights; continue on Plains Road West for about 1 km; the RBG will be on your right.

From Niagara/US:  take the QEW to Hwy 403 West (Hamilton). Exit at Waterdown Road. Drive  south to Plains Road West. Turn right onto Plains Road West; travel 2km; RBG will be on your left.

Winter brings the blahs

This time of year I don’t go out much – kind of a buzzkill for a supposed travel blog.  I have never really been interested in spending time outside in winter, at least as an adult.  I’m not into winter sports at all, and my asthma is aggravated by cold air, so even a walk on a sunny day doesn’t hold a lot of allure for me.  I am in a state of semi-hibernation for 8 to 12 weeks until my senses detect the first warming of the winds in spring.

As a child I don’t remember ever being cold.  But then I was wearing a skidoo suit, which every child  under the age of 13 wore from November to March.  This was before tween fashion and Baby Gap.  Back then children were dressed for utility, and since we spent all day walking, playing, rolling and falling in snow, we all had ski-doo suits.  Now only people actually driving a ski-doo wear them – I assume.  I actually haven’t seen anyone on a ski-doo in over 20 years.  That’s what happens when you move to the city.

This time of year I think about my childhood a lot, brought on by a mixture of the usual bummed out feeling one gets when the holiday season is over, and the contemplation that another 12 months of god knows what stretches before me.  My birthday, my dad’s birthday and my parents’ wedding anniversary all take place during the last week of January, so it bring a lot of reminiscing.  After the holidays nothing much happens around here until the sap starts to run in spring, and the cold, dark days create a perfect atmosphere for brooding.  It’s at this time of year I always feel an overwhelming urge to go home.

I grew up in Midland, Ontario, population 10,000, a little town carved out of the Canadian forest a hundred years earlier when a Georgian Bay location, grain shipping and the railroad made it an attractive spot for early settlers.  When the first subdivision was built in 1970, it was simply one long street cut through this bush, so all houses on both sides backed onto the woods.  My parents bought one of the first houses on this street.  They sold it a few years later and bought a bigger one up the street, but it never really grew on them and they eventually sold it and bought a nicer house with a pool right across the street.

My house
My house

No sidewalks or city parks where I grew up.  We walked to school down a woodland path, with squirrels, grasshoppers and rabbits bounding out of our way every morning.  The trees eventually gave way to a large meadow that boasted three acres of buttercups, wild berry bushes, and what we called “wheat grass” swaying in the breeze.  My friends and I would make nests in the long grass and pretend we were birds.  We took picnic lunches with us and stayed all day, invisible to anyone walking by on the path.  There was an old stone foundation, the early settlement house once attached to it long gone, where teenagers would go to smoke and smash beer bottles – at least, this was our surmise.  We never actually saw anyone, but the bottom of the ruin was littered with butts, broken glass, and for some reason, spent shotgun shells – we did occasionally hear the faint roar of a gun during hunting season.  If you bypassed the meadow and continued down the path you would reach a swamp, where we spent hours catching tadpoles.

So many memories of my childhood took place in that bush.  As the last generation of children still allowed to play unsupervised, we were outside morning, noon and night, only going home to eat and sleep.  We built tree houses at a height and of a structural integrity that would give today’s parents heart failure and probably earn them a visit from Children’s Services.  We spent hours wading in the swamp with nets, catching small fish, frogs and tadpoles, leaving our shoes on the shore with no thought of contracting possible injury or illness.  We picked wild apples off the trees and buckets of wild raspberries and blackberries, no pesticides to worry about.  The ghostly tang of those berries is still on my tongue, forever spoiling any chance of enjoying the bland berries sold at today’s supermarkets.  We even had a Kissing Tree, a huge sprawling maple with branches that bent to the ground, perfect for climbing.  Courting couples for years had carved their initials in that tree.  My boyfriend climbed so high to carve our initials that the branch he was standing on broke and he fell 10 feet before becoming caught by the lower branches.

No rules, no supervision, a glorious freedom to explore and learn that today’s children rarely experience.  There was the occasional mischief of course.  One day we decided it would be great fun to hide behind an embankment and throw acorns at passing cars – until one stopped and the driver got out, sending us running into the swamp in a blind panic to hide.  My friend Sharon got stuck in the mud and lost her shoes – I never found out how she explained that one to her mother.  Another day one of the boys found an old jean jacket and decided to see if it would burn.  Well it did – spectacularly.  He picked it up and ran down the path with it, intending to throw it into the swamp.  However the flames falling off the jacket ignited the leaves that had been on the ground drying for decades.  The resultant bush fire brought the fire department, which doused the small flames and marched said boy off to his father.  We didn’t see him again for two weeks.

Once we started Grade 9, we walked up our street to the high school, no more woodland path.  The picnics and swamp expeditions ended, replaced by purposeful loitering and a lot of flirting under the street lamp on my corner, where we would sit literally for hours until our mothers called us home.  The Kissing Tree was forgotten – real kisses now, from that same boy who, after twenty years apart, is now my husband.  He swears he had no idea jean jackets were that flammable.

We have a collective passel of five children, ages 11 to 19.  None of them have ever seen a swamp, or climbed a tree.  They couldn’t build a box, let alone a tree fort.  We both feel they have missed out on something important, a connection to nature and life experience they never had a chance to explore.  They get a small taste of it on family vacations to Muskoka, but it’s a drive-by experience only.

Soon they will spread their wings and leave the nest and we are thinking about what we will do with ourselves once they’re gone.  We would like to leave the city and live in the country again, or another small town.  Someplace that reminds us of the home that now exists only in our memories.  The woods are gone, the path paved over.  Houses stand as headstones on the graveyard of our meadow, long ago buried by an expansion to the original subdivision.  Some unknown plant assassin even cut down The Kissing Tree.

It is said that as one nears the end of their life, the urge to return home grows strong.  We are not quite 50 but already feeling the pull.  But what do you do if home is no longer there?

You brood, wistfully.  And wait for spring.