A celebration of Queens: my ten top picks

Often considered the poor cousin to glitzy Manhattan, Queens is New York City’s largest borough and the most ethnically-diverse urban area in the world. It was my home for eight years.

Flushing Meadows Corona ParkFrom favourite diners brimming with locals to unique open spaces and vibrant neighbourhoods, Queens is perhaps also the most exciting and creative urban space in the world.

There’s a creative energy throughout Queens that no longer exists so much in Manhattan, perhaps most prevalent in artsy Long Island City where edgy galleries pop up alongside more famous counterparts like MoMA PS1, Socrates Sculpture Park and the Noguchi Museum. Performers who have called Queens home include Louis Armstrong, Paul Simon, Run-D.M.C., A Tribe Called Quest and the Ramones; people who genuinely set their own styles. Today, Queens rather clings to a legacy of innovation with scores of relics and icons. A walk through Flushing Meadows Corona Park showcases structures from the World’s Fair while the Long Island City waterfront recalls a bygone era with huge derelict docking structures framing the modern Manhattan skyline. But there’s new alongside old. Take the shiny new Citifield stadium, for example, or ambitious plans for greenways and cycle routes connecting parks and waterfront developments.

So, after spending an incredible nine years in New York City, here are my top ten things to love about my favourite New York borough: Queens… Continue reading

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Personal favourite botanic gardens (photo blog)

The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew is a pretty lush office space. So, discounting my own back yard from this list, here are my top ten botanic gardens visited while living in North America. Continue reading

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Checking out the competition! Newfoundland’s Avalon Peninsula

Brightly-colored homes set in neat terraces punctuate an oft-bleached sky. I wonder whether an ancient bye-law dictates color-wheel choices; or whether locals simply have good design taste. The look is well coordinated: a fashion show of urban planning.

Colorful houses in downtown St. John's

St. John’s wears her perennial gray outfits well, learning to accessorize with sparkle. Buildings painted vivid – not pastel – colors, boats brightly bobbing in the harbor. Residents don cheerful tones and drive cars of red and blue, jostling between happy-yellow taxis.

A coffee-shop culture fuels a vibrant population. We’re in North America’s far east; just an Atlantic-scale hop away from Ireland. Yet St. John’s offers up a cosmopolitan city vibe. It feels like a combination of Portland, Oregon and Burlington, Vermont, dishing up a variety of surprises… delicious local cuisine, poetry slams, contemporary art galleries and an intrepid outdoors-y crowd.

The isolated setting and dramatic landscape enchant hikers and road-trippers who wander off well-marketed routes such as the “Irish Loop” or “Baccalieu Trail” discovering pretty fishing communities such as Heart’s Desire, Dildo and Come By Chance.

The fishing community of Brigus in Conception Bay

National Geographic Traveler magazine recently hailed Newfoundland’s Avalon Peninsula to be the number one coastal destination in the world in recognition of its authenticity and stewardship (Wales’ Pembrokeshire coast was rated #2). The blend of controlled tourism growth alongside remnants of a once-thriving fishing and canning industry now balances ecological and conservation efforts. But, in part, this is self-governed by the unique location, climate and infrastructure. Brands like Marriott and Choice have set out a cluster of hotels in downtown St. John’s, but the province is satisfyingly void of sprawling resorts or double-decker tour buses. Here is a region just waiting to be discovered, and one that is quite happy to wait for the tourist to be ready for that voyage of discovery!

Back in St. John’s, be sure to stop by The Rooms, the city’s latest cultural addition, bringing together an art collection, local history and community art space. Just across the road, chat it up with locals at The Big R where you’ll also find hearty portions of fresh fish and chips washed down with local Quidi Vidi beer.

Quidi Vidi harbor

To be at one with the brewing process, head out to Quidi Vidi village, a picture-postcard harbor-side neighborhood within St. John’s city limits. Ramshackle boathouses and historic buildings intersperse more modern homes along the waterfront. But it is the brew house building and restaurant which dominate to provide the hub of activity today where once fishing boats returning with the day’s catch would have taken center-stage.

Even with a spiraling sea mist and clouds which hang over the land, Newfoundland doesn’t fail to impress. The near-constant gray drizzle make those rare blue-sky moments all the more special.

And my visit was special from the moment of arrival at St. John’s International Airport, when the flight attendant announces that local time is an hour-and-a-half hour ahead… “welcome to St. John’s!”

Cape Spear

You can do this

Flights to St. John’s are expensive. I took advantage of one of West Jet’s 30% off sales proving that it pays to sign-up for airline newsletters!

Preferring not to drive, I booked a couple of day excursions with RJ Tours, with Dave taking care of the itinerary and patiently waiting while I hopped out at every opportunity for photos. I spent another two days exploring downtown St. John’s and heading out to Cape Spear.

I stayed at the Quality Hotel Harbourview which, while distinctly average, was a reasonable location for trekking around the city.

St. John's Harbour seen from the Quality Hotel Harbourview

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North America by train; a passion, not friends-with-benefits

“Railway termini are our gates to the glorious and the unknown. Through them we pass out into adventure and sunshine, to them, alas! we return.” E M Forster

I’ve traveled across North America by plane time and again. It’s rather tedious. Traveling to an airport on the outskirts of a city in an expensive taxi or dirt-slow shuttle; waiting in line for ticketing; waiting in line to check bags; waiting in line for security; waiting in line to board; waiting on the tarmac; delays; turbulence; flatulence.

We take off. Then land. I’m magically in a new corner within hours. Maybe I crossed mountains. Perhaps a river. I’m pretty sure we passed farms, cities and villages. Flying is a friends-with-benefits approach to travel. You get there just fine, but it’s not as meaningful as travel should be.

So, when my schedule permits, I love to travel by train. Amtrak and VIA Rail are both awesome. Interesting fellow-travelers, plenty of space to stretch out and, of course, those incredible views. A chance to see the “real” America between glimmering cities. This is “slow travel” at its very best.

Many train stations epitomise a bygone era of travel… heightening the excitement and anticipation of fellow travelers waiting in grand concourses.

I’ve almost crossed America by train. Sadly, though, I have to wait until 2020 before a route might exist to complete my journey: Denver to Albuquerque. A neat interactive map heralds America’s hopes and dreams for an impressive high-speed network. This is exciting. This could be the future.

I mapped my rail and bus travel:

Travels to date by rail and bus

A couple of photos from recent train journeys…

Adirondack

View from the window of Amtrak's "Adirondack" train (New York to Montreal)

Another…

View from the window of VIA Rail's "The Canadian" train

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Northernmost town accessible by train and sea: Churchill, Manitoba

Alternative title: help, help; here come the bears!

While the train journey from Churchill south to Winnipeg clocked in at more than 46 hours, it didn’t feel too much like an endurance test. Be sure, though, to snag a sleeper berth or cabin for a lie-flat sleep and at least a little personal space as the ride encompasses two overnights; it’s well worth the splurge.

Train at Churchill VIA Rail station

Train at Churchill VIA Rail station

Swaying and rattling along the rails, averaging less than 20 miles an hour, allows time to contemplate Churchill’s geographic and socio-economic positions today. Passing wheat fields that stretch forever into the distance, albeit blanketed in snow, explains the continued export role Churchill plays. As Canada’s northernmost port town, Churchill is perfectly positioned to export a million tonnes of grain annually, arriving by rail from Manitoba and Saskatchewan, to Europe. Passing tiny villages and hamlets that cling to the railway line highlights the significance of Churchill as a medical center for the northern Manitoba region, and also to the Nanavut communities further north. The airport, too, is essential in the onward distribution of goods, services and medical outreach to these communities.

And, over the past few days, I saw for myself how important tourism is to Churchill’s modern-day economy. Each year thousands of tourists take the long train ride to see polar bears, Beluga Whales, the Northern Lights and vast tundra landscapes, for another tick on their bucket-list.

A Polar Bear near Churchill

A Polar Bear near Churchill

Around 800 residents live year-round in Churchill enduring long harsh winters working in these industries but also maintaining a strong sense of community that is seldom found elsewhere. Ask Jenafor, who runs Bluesky Bed & Sled with her husband Gerald, and she’ll explain passionately how she made the move from Vancouver to Churchill and how she cherishes the rural setting, working with their sled dogs and welcoming visitors. Or ask any of the tour guides I met who delight in showing off their home town to intrepid tourists talking fervently about their day-to-day lives. It might seem like an extreme lifestyle to me, heralding from London and New York, but for locals, minus 31°C was hardly even worth a mention over their morning coffee.

The lodging options in Churchill are limited and modest. A handful of motel-quality inns line the town streets with their rooms often reserved only for large affluent tour companies bringing in large affluent tourists. Opt, instead, for a more homey bed and breakfast like I did – – staying two nights at Bluesky Bed & Sled. Here I found an incredibly warm welcome, fantastic help and advice planning my daily itineraries, and a bunch of friendly like-minded travelers. The Scottish-English couple, Viv and Andy, even got engaged on their first day in Churchill! Then there were Jenafor’s delicious breakfasts of fresh cranberry and granola yogurts, home-made blueberry pancakes and fresh-baked bread. On arrival at 9am on my first day, I was promptly made welcome and seated to an unexpected breakfast treat before heading out to explore the town. Both evenings, all nine guests would congregate in the living room glued to our laptop computers and cameras, making use of the wi-fi, comparing our polar bear photos in front of the roaring log stove!

That same Churchill welcome is extended to all visitors except, perhaps, Martha Stewart. She was quite the talk of the town following her recent visit. “Do you know who I am?” may very well have prompted: “I’ve no idea, Miss Stewart!” as she attempted to enter the polar bear jail, off limits for people as it’s where over-eager bears are kept when they venture into town until they can be released onto the ice.

Newly-formed ice stretching out across Hudson Bay

Newly-formed ice stretching out across Hudson Bay

Some of my favorite experiences during the trip were simply observing Mother Nature in action: as Hudson Bay – the vast salt-water body – started to freeze, waves of salty slush splashed ashore. By the second day, the ice-line was stretching almost 100 feet out and intrepid bears started to test the surface once the morning blizzard subsided. On the third morning, despite temperatures of minus 31°C, the bright sunshine was causing a stirring sea-mist to rise up against the blue sky; and I couldn’t even see where the bay’s ice coat now met the water way out in the distance.

As I prepared to leave Churchill, locals chatting it up at Gypsy’s Bakery were guessing that just a few more days of consistently chilling weather would sure up the ice over the bay enough for the bears to leave town on their migration north for winter. Sadly I wouldn’t be there for the mass exodus!

After three days in Churchill, I have new friends, many new travel tips, hundreds of polar bear photos, and an authentic understanding of life in near-Arctic conditions.

Here is a travel experience that is unarguably unique. Perhaps the only opportunity to see polar bears up close in their natural habitat, and in a location where arctic tundra, boreal forest and maritime zones come together. To see the vast Hudson Bay freeze in just a matter of days once the temperature plummeted was an amazing sight. Being constantly alert for polar bears in town is not something I fear in New York but, as my neighbor on the train attested, they do roam the streets of Churchill.

A Polar Bear near Churchill

A Polar Bear near Churchill

You can do this
Should you choose to plunge to arctic extremes, planning an independent vacation to Churchill is relatively easy once you get your head around the logistics. It is, however, discouraged by the tour companies who prefer that you pay five times the cost for the same experiences. But don’t be put off…

The toughest part is co-ordinating the booking of a Tundra Buggy day tour with accommodation as both are in very high demand in October and November. I was taking a slight risk by traveling in mid November (I arrived in Churchill by plane on November 16th) as an early freeze could have inspired the bears to make an earlier move north. My Tundra Buggy tour (on November 17th) was the penultimate of the season. My advice is to be very persuasive with the Tundra Buggy companies when you call them, insisting that you really do need the tour on certain dates, and perhaps tell them that you’re in town visiting friends and you therefore cannot book an entire vacation package with them.

While making accommodation and day tour arrangements, keep half an eye on the availability of flights or train schedules, especially as the VIA Rail service only runs twice a week. I chose to fly into Churchill as the train service is notoriously often late (sometimes as much as 10 to 20 hours late), which would write off an entire first day of potential exploration.

There are a couple of useful websites to help with planning a trip:

Polar Bear Alley is an excellent blog, updated during the polar bear season, giving a feel for what’s going on in Churchill: www.polarbearalley.com

Everything Churchill is quite the definitive source for local information, links and contacts: www.everythingchurchill.com

Book a Tundra Buggy tour – – with one of two companies who have places for independent travelers. Tundra Buggy Tours (parent company is Frontiers North Adventures): www.frontiersnorth.com or Great White Bear Tours: www.greatwhitebeartours.com.

Book a town tour which takes you on a five-hour tour of Churchill and surrounding area (we actually saw just as many polar bears on this tour as the Tundra Buggy tour) – – again, there are two companies offering these tours at around $125: North Star Tours (tel. 204-675-2356) and Nature First Tours (tel. 204-675-2147).

A street in Churchill

A street in Churchill

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Day three in Churchill, Manitoba

Taking a Churchill town tour today was a smart move. Less than a third of the price of yesterday’s Tundra Buggy tour, we saw just as many polar bears and even better visibility…

A polar bear near Churchill, Manitoba

A polar bear near Churchill, Manitoba

This evening I board VIA Rail’s long-distance train back down to Winnipeg. 40 hours but it should be fun!

>> See my set of Churchill photos on Flickr

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Day two in Churchill, Manitoba

It’s -31°C out now with the wind chill, so I splurged on a taxi back (five blocks) after dinner. Even locals are shocked by the sudden temperature change after such a mild start to winter. The polar bears are happy though. They weren’t quite dancing today, but there certainly seemed to be an air of anticipation as the vast Hudson Bay began freezing over last night.

Polar Bear near Churchill

A Polar Bear near Churchill

Today I headed out on a Tundra Buggy tour. The traditional polar bear tourist season might be almost over up here in Churchill; there were just six of us in the Tundra Buggy with our driver-guide when usually tours brim to capacity season-long. I quickly forget any visions of grandeur aboard the buggy. Instead we were in for a bumpy ride in a freezing cold interior despite a burning fire at the back as windows constantly rattled open. However the views across the tundra made it worthwhile. Overcast skies, stirring snow and glistening ice create an eery landscape. Seven pairs of eyes scanned the surroundings looking for bears. And we found a few… 

A Polar Bear near Churchill

A Polar Bear near Churchill

A Polar Bear near Churchill

A Polar Bear near Churchill

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