Friday, May 7, 2010

Idyllic and perfect: Eastern Canada

Stony Lake, Ontario, Canada, by P.B.Image via Wikipedia
Not necessary laid back, but it is more of the undisturbed, regions; this is one where the nature can be best viewed as nature, without manmade structures to clutter up the sight, and jumble the scenery.

Be one with the creation, and feel the serene quietness of the undefiled ground.

Read on...


Cottage country
Summer time, and the living is easy in eastern Canada

by Mark Malby

IT'S dawn, and on a lake as flat as a mirror, the mist swirls and rises. It's so quiet you can almost hear the last of the night's stars winking out, or the sun's first light tickling the trees. Maybe a fish splashes somewhere, or a loon's haunting call wafts across the water. But mostly, it's as though the world has paused in waiting.

A canoe glides down still waters in the Lost Channel.
"I remember the silence being deafening," says Singaporean Karen Teoh, who first visited these lakes a few years ago. "It was even more beautiful than I'd imagined. Purer, if that makes sense. Asia is always noisy."

In the stillness, it's hard to believe that Canada's largest city - metropolitan Toronto, with its 6 million residents - is just an hour's drive to the south in the province of Ontario.

Welcome to cottage country, eastern Canada's summer playground. While Singaporeans define a weekend escape as boarding a plane to Phuket, a boat to Bintan, or trundling the family off to that chalet in Pasir Ris - for many Canadians, it means hopping in the car and driving to the family cottage.

Nor is it a new phenomenon. For more than a century, towns such as Orillia, Peterborough, Huntsville and Parry Sound have been storied gateways to the northern hinterland. Many family cottages have been passed down through the generations as heirlooms. Jill Trennum, who runs bed and breakfast Daytripper's Delight, says her property has been in her family for four generations, since 1905.

Ontario's cottage country comprises three main areas: The Kawartha lakes, Muskoka and the more rugged reaches of Georgian Bay further north. The Kawarthas are even linked by a long series of lift-locks, so that a yacht or houseboat can travel hundreds of miles through scores of lakes.

Wildlife roam free around the cottages.
But don't expect the wild grandeur of the Rocky Mountains or the barren landscapes of the East. Cottage country is more of a gentrified wilderness, a cosy borderland where human comforts and wilderness coexist in friendly alliance.

That said, the scenery is unforgettable. Stretching pine forests, blue waters and countless islands. Stark, rocky landscapes of pink granite, sculpted by the glaciers that swept through here 14,000 years ago (and left all these lakes as a legacy.) It was enough to inspire Canada's most famous art movement, The Group of Seven, whose sweeping brush strokes and stylised scenes reflect these same landscapes.

"What struck me were the stunning views," says Lucretia Hung, a recent visitor from Hong Kong. "All those lakes make people feel the tranquility, peace, serenity and freedom of nature."

Tranquility. Peace. Solitude. These words frequently come up when describing the region. And wildlife, too, of course. Whether it is lakewaters that brim with fish, bird life, chipmunks on the deck or deer in the forests, meeting local animals is part of the experience.

"City people aren't used to the wildlife," says Jill Trennum, who has hosted guests from Europe and Asia. "Turtles basking in the sun, the splash of a beaver, loons calling at night. Our visitors love this nature, which they don't find back home."

Cottage country at dawn.
Cottage country, however, is not just time out from hectic city life. There's a rich community of summer residents, many of whom come year after year. Marinas, general stores and island churches often serve as focal points. There's also no shortage of activities to keep families active: Canoeing and sailing regattas, art festivals, water-skiing, fishing, hikes and nature walks - not to mention cottage upkeep.

Fortunately, it's still possible for the passing traveller to experience this amiable wilderness. Alongside family cottages, venerable hotels - some a century old - dot the lakes. In those days it was trains and steamboats that brought city masses, escaping hot summer weather. Now, it's more likely to be a family van.

Times may have changed, but in cottage country, you can still get a taste of simpler days - a swim in a lake, paddling a canoe or catching a fish for breakfast before the sun fully rises above the trees.

Cottage checklist

Getting there: Reaching Toronto is easy. Airlines such as Emirates ($2,500) and Air Canada ($3,000) ply the route. The best option for reaching cottage country is to hire a car and drive, because public transport is limited. Ontario highways are safe and well-marked. You might also be able to work out an arrangement with your hotel. But be warned - driving times range from one to four hours.

Kayaking through a rocky landscape of pink granite.
Stay: Even without your own cottage, options abound. Venerable old hotels such as Muskoka's Windermere House (, Stony Lake's Irwin Inn (, or Georgian Bay's Killarney Lodge ( offer lakeside luxury. Private bed and breakfasts are seasonally available through the area. The more adventurous can even rent a houseboat to travel at their leisure (

Do: Many lakeside hotels offer canoes and kayaks for guest-use, barbecues, guided nature tours and boat trips. Some also provide sailing and swimming lessons. Don't forget your fishing rod, too. Local towns and villages are worth visiting for antique and art-shops, farmer's markets and even fruit-picking. Most of all, cottage country is a great place to just kick back and relax.

From TODAY, Travel - Thursday, 29-April-2010
Cottage country

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Thursday, May 6, 2010

Munich and Zurich: Summer cities

Summer cities
SIA and other airlines have resumed operations to Europe. That's good news, because summer in Europe is too beautiful to pass up. Here's a quick guide to a focussed experience in Munich and Zurich

by Trixia Carungcong

Two days in Munich

The Bavarian capital effortlessly blends its old-world charm with a modern vibe, attracting visitors to its numerous museums, theatres, parks and beer halls. Competitive and affluent, Munich is nevertheless known - and envied - for its laid-back lifestyle. Two days is barely enough to get a feel of the city, but here's what you can do:

Day 1

Neuscwanstein Castle
9am: Head to Viktualienmkt, the open-air market in the city centre, for a traditional breakfast of white sausage and brezel. Skin the sausages, which are made of veal and pork and flavoured with onions and parsley, before dipping the tasty bits in sweet mustard. At 11am, watch the famous Glockenspiel, or clockwork theatre, at the new town hall in Marienplatz. The building's balcony is usually where soccer club Bayern Munich would greet the public after winning the Bundesliga championship or a major international title.

11.30am: Take the underground to the Olympic Park, site of the 1972 Summer Games. Have a quick lunch at the revolving restaurant in the Olympic Tower (, which offers a 360-degree view of the area. Then walk over to BMW Museum ( to see the history of the car company from its beginnings as an aircraft engine producer. Because this is Germany, even four-year-olds come here to see the exhibit. Bavarian Motor Works' headquarters is at the iconic four-cylinder building beside the "salad bowl" building housing the museum. If you'd like to check out new cars and motorcycles, head to BMW World across the road.

BMW Museum
4pm: Depending on how you want to spend your afternoon in Munich, there's the Deutsches Museum (, the world's largest museum of technology and science. Or walk through Kaufinger Strasse, a main shopping district. If you're a Bayern Munich fan, head down to Allianz Arena ( which also hosted the opening game of World Cup 2006.

7pm: No visit is complete without a stop at Hofbrauhaus (, dubbed the most famous beer hall in the world. There is live music on the ground floor and in the beer garden, or if you prefer some quiet, head upstairs to the first floor. You can also visit the other five main breweries in Munich that are allowed to serve beer during Oktoberfest - Augustiner, Lowenbrau, Hacker-Pschorr, Paulaner and Spaten-Franziskaner.

BMW Museum
Day 2

8am: Venture beyond Munich to Schwangau region (, popular for the castles of King Ludwig II. You can take a train to Fussen, then a bus to the village. Walk up to Marien Bridge for postcard views of Neuschwanstein and Hohenschwangau castles, before visiting Hohenschwangau - the royal family's summer residence and once the seat of the knights of Schwangau in the Middle Ages. Remember to wear comfortable shoes and be prepared to walk up narrow, winding flights of stairs.

Swiss church
Noon: Ask for a traditional lunch at Hotel Alpenstuben (, which occupies a farmhouse that dates back to the 18th century, and pick up some souvenirs from the shops outside.

2pm: Continue on to Neuschwanstein - the inspiration for Disney's Sleeping Beauty castle - by bus or horse-drawn carriage. Built in medieval style, its murals are a tribute to the works of composer Richard Wagner.

4pm: Head back to the city, and if you're flying out from Munich Airport (, wind up your trip at Airbrau ( Munich is the first airport in the world to have its own brewery.

Swiss church
Two days in Zurich

Constantly cited for its high quality of living, the cultural and business capital of Switzerland offers an array of attractions for art connoisseurs, shoppers and nature lovers. Explore the city on foot or get a ZurichCARD 24-hour ticket that allows you to hop on to any local tram, train, bus or boat, as well as free admission to most of the city museums. Wherever you want to go, you can be sure to get there on time, Swiss-style.

Day 1

10am: Start out with a stroll through the Old Town, and be assured that the city is small enough for you to get from Point A to B quicker than you think. Saint Peter's Church, which has the largest clock-face in Europe, is hard to miss. Close by is the Fraumunster Church, which has stained glass windows by Marc Chagall. Across the River Limmat stands Grossmunster Church with its twin towers. Pass through the old shopping areas to Schipfe, the artisans' street in one of Zurich's oldest districts.

11.30am: Make time for a cup of the city's best hot chocolate at Schober Confiserie ( and indulge your sweet tooth with a slice of pie or apple strudel.

1pm: Take a two-hour boat trip from Zurich Burkliplatz to Rapperswil, the city of roses, and have lunch onboard while watching the lakeside villages pass by. At Rapperswil, stroll through the medieval town centre and the rose gardens.

Zurich street
7pm: Dinner of rosti with veal and mushrooms in cream and white wine sauce at Oepfelchammer ( Then move to its old tavern where artists, writers and students used to hang out in the late 1800s to debate politics and religion. If you're up for a challenge, ask the staff if you could climb up the ceiling's massive beams and hang upside down while drinking a glass of wine. If you manage to do that without spilling the drink, you can carve your name anywhere on the oak-panelled room.

9pm: For a taste of the city's legendary nightlife, walk around Zurich-West, an ancient industrial quarter that has bars, restaurants and bistros. Try the local wines - most of the country's wineries apparently produce just enough for local consumption.

Rapperswil, city of roses.
Day 2

10am: Get a history lesson at the Swiss National Museum (, which houses the largest collection of the country's cultural artefacts, just behind the main train station. English translations of the display details are printed on boards at the entrance to each room.

A shopping street off the Bahnhofstrasse.
Noon: Lunch of raclette - melted cheese eaten with potatoes, pickles and meat - or fondue at Adler's Swiss Chuchi ( Choose a seat outside of you don't want to smell of cheese for the rest of the day.

3pm: Walk around Bahnhofstrasse, one of the world's most famous shopping streets, which stretches more than a kilometre from the main train station.

Fondue lunch
5.30pm: Step into Confiserie Sprungli (, where you can get high just by smelling the sweets. There are whole slabs of chocolates, macarons, truffles and pralines which you should pick over the usual pre-packed candies.

The writer's trip was made possible by Singapore Airlines, Munich Airport, Munich Tourism and Switzerland Tourism.

Getting there

Munich: Lufthansa has regular direct flights to the city and Singapore Airlines recently launched its five-times-weekly flights on its Boeing 777-300ER. The aircraft is fitted with First Class seats which convert into the largest full-flat beds of its kind while Business Class seats - the widest in its class - also convert into beds. In Economy Class, seats are ergonomically designed for more comfort and space.

Zurich: Singapore Airlines flies the world's largest aircraft, the Airbus A380, daily to the city. Suites or private cabins with full-sized beds are available exclusively on the superjumbo.

Experience Zurich: a travel guide (2010)Taken from TODAY, Travel - Thursday, 22-April-2010

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Cancun: The Unseen City

Unseen city
Discover what the locals call the 'Mexican part of Cancun'

Cancun is a popular destination for college students.
Cancun is a Mexican city with two faces. The side that most are familiar with caters to devil-may-care party-goers who fill the clubs by night and hang around the beaches and hotel poolsides by day.

Then there's another side of Cancun not tied in with the lavish beach hotels, the wild whipped-cream parties, or anything else related to the developed world. It is the side that allows travellers a sneak peek into the Mexican way of life, and that acts as a reminder of Mexico's rich Mayan history and culture. One only needs to venture out of the all-inclusive hotel zone to seek it out.

A bustling nightlife at Cancun's hotel zone - Coco Bongo and Dady'O top the charts as the most popular clubs.
A week in and around the city will give most visitors a well-rounded Mexican experience - the Mayan ruins at Tulum and Chichen Itza, a taste of local village life at Isla Mujeres, and of course, a couple of days on the beaches at the hotel zone and the famous Playa del Carmen.

Starting out at the beaches is always a good idea. As our cab from the airport cruised into the hotel zone of this resort city, passing a long stretch of towering hotels, we entered what our cab driver called the "American part of Cancun", crowded with young people in flashy clothes out to have a good time.

The great temple El Castillo dominates the centre of Chichen Itza.
A typical night out would often be followed by a lazy day on the b each. The hotel zone of Cancun, in the shape of the number "7", has a stretch of beach 20km long. If y ou're staying at a hotel there, chances are you would have quick access to a white sand beach and an awe-inspiring expanse of turquoise blue waters. Members of the public can also access the beaches from 10 entry points along the hotel zone.

The "Mexican part of Cancun", as the locals call it, hold for travellers many surprises as well. From Cancun's main bus station located downtown, we took two day-trips out of the crazy part of the city and into the real Mexico.

Chichen Itza, a World Wonder, marked our first destination outside of Cancun, home to a stunning complex of Mayan ruins from as far back as 600AD. The most prominent structure at the centre of this political, economic and religious site was the great temple El Castillo, a step pyramid built for the Mayan snake deity, Kulkulkan.

Walking the laidback streets of Isla Mujeres, an island 15 minutes from Cancun.
The Great Ball Court, too, was an intriguing piece of architecture - we were told by our tour guide that the Mayans engaged in a Mesoamerican ballgame much like today's volleyball, except the captain of the winning team would be sacrificed to the gods, a proud and willing candidate, demonstrated as the ablest of the lot and most deserving as a human gift.

Tulum offered us a second look into Mexico's rich Mayan history. Walking down a long asphalt road in more than 30­°C heat, familiar angular stone structures soon emerged before us, shielded by the trees. Tulum used to be a commercial port for the Mayans around 1200AD, where local and foreign products like copper, textiles and ceramics from Central America and Central Mexico were redistributed.

Our walk around the seemingly arid and desert-like Mayan complex, with its expanses of drying grass and sparse palms, culminated unexpectedly in a spectacular view of the vast Caribbean Sea, a stunning shade of clear blue that extended from below the precarious cliff on which Tulum proudly stood.

A splendid view of the Caribbean Sea from the ancient Mayan site of Tulum.
To experience the local village life, we spent one day exploring Isla Mujeres, an island just a 15-minute ferry ride from Cancun. This island, despite the souvenir stores peppered along its main streets, presented us with a more "kampung" feel. Its modest jetty had wooden boats parked on its side and, closer to the beach, were attap huts with straw roofs, sitting behind rows of palm trees. Its main streets had low buildings with cracking paint, on top of which stretched a messy ensemble of electric cables, very reminiscent of Singapore in the 1950s. For US$30 ($41), we had the option of renting a golf cart to explore the island for a day, a popular mode of transport for tourists there.

Watching the sun set from the wooden jetties of Isla Mujeres.
In many ways, a trip to Cancun can be so much more than a partying extravaganza. Experiencing both sides of this travel destination will give you the best it has to offer.

Trip notes

Budget: The two sides of Cancun are reflected in the prices as well. At night out in the "American side" costs US$50 ($69), and a typical main course at a restaurant along the hotel zone costs about US$10 to US$20. On the "Mexican side", beyond the hotel district to downtown Cancun, you can get a good Mexican dish of meat, rice and beans for less than US$2.

Walking through the Mayan complex at Tulum.
Accommodation: All-inclusive hotel packages are common. Depending on the type of hotel and package you sign up for, rates would range between US$50 and US$150 per person per night. Guests will have access to an open bar, facilities like the pool and gym, three buffet meals a day at the hotel and a slew of other perks.

Getting Around: Buses are the best way to get around Cancun and to attractions outside of it. Within the 20km long hotel zone, a shuttle bus ride costs about US$0.60. Travelling out of Cancun to places like Chichen Itza and Tulum will cost about US$6 if you ride with the local buses from the main bus station downtown. To get to the islands like Isla Mujeres about 15 minutes from Cancun, ferry services are available at the Gran Puerto Cancun Terminal for about US$3 for a one-way trip.

Experience Cancun: a travel guide (2010)Taken from TODAY, Travel - Thursday, 22-April-2010;
Cancun: The Unseen City

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Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Spain: Madrid bites

Full text taken from TODAY, Travel; Thursday, 22-April-2010

Madrid bites
Churros and chocolate at the Chocolateria San Gines.
Celebrated gastronomic alchemist Ferran Adria may be closing the doors of his three-star Michelin restaurant, El Bulli, temporarily in two years, but Spain will always be a great gourmet destination.

Madrid is a perennial hot spot for rising Michelin-quality chefs, premier food conventions and international gourmet summits. Typical Madrid cuisine fuses the country's different cooking styles, and may showcase Andalucian tapas beside Galician-style fish. The city serves as a tasty starter to the diverse culinary adventures to be had in Spain.

Merca Madrid Fish Market
To better appreciate the experience, try to follow local eating habits. Breakfast is often a milky coffee and sweet roll, with a late morning snack of churros con chocolate, which is scrumptious golden curls of fried doughnut-like batter slowly savoured with thick, melted chocolate. The beverage makes for a perfect post bar-hopping indulgence.

Try it at the perpetually packed Chocolateria San Gines at Pasadizio de San Gines, which has been serving churros and chocolate since 1894. A plate of churros and cup of chocolate cost about $10.

Chocolateria San Gines
Lunch in the city is served between 1pm and 4pm, and many restaurants offer an affordable three-course meal. The locals eat dinner after 9pm, especially on weekends. Lunch is usually the main meal of the day while dinner is a lighter affair, often featuring traditional tapas.

A typical tapas bar, be it a tiled old tavern or a more contemporary bar set up, offers between 8 and 12 different kinds of savoury, bite-sized morsels, laid out on white plates or warming trays, and flavoured with paprika, cumin, salt, and often copious amounts of olive oil. Much of the offerings are seafood like anchovies, sardines and squid in assorted seasonings. They are best downed with beer, at the counter. Expect to pay about $20 for a meal.

Try tapas bar hopping around the lively Plaza de Santa Ana. If you go on a tapas tour, try not to eat more than two tapas per stop, otherwise you will be full quickly. Some popular options include tortilla de patatas (thick omelet of eggs, onion and potatoes), huevos rotos (eggs fried over a bed of potato slices) and calamares fritos (fried squid).

Madrid bartolillos
Other Madrid staples are the invigorating stews and hotpots, like the succulent cocido madrileno, a substantial and hearty meal by itself. This classic chickpea stew with vegetables is cooked slowly with chicken, beef shank and pork.

Vegetable lovers will find fresh produce translated into perennial favourites like coles de bruselas salteados (sauteed brussel sprouts) and coliflor al ajo arriero (cauliflower in garlic and paprika sauce).

The locals have a great appetite for fish, with popular dishes like bacalao al ajoarriero (cod stew with tomatoes, garlic and pepper). Madrid is often called "the best port in Spain" for good reason. Its Mercamadrid Fish Market - spanning some 42,000sqm and with annual sales of over 130 million kg - is the biggest in Europe and offers all types of seafood products.

Tapas bar
Those with a sweet tooth can indulge in bartolillos con crema (small pie filled with custard) and of course, churros con chocolate. Jafri M


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