Saturday, October 27, 2007

Why all the fuss?

When I was a little boy, birthdays were really something to look forward to. For one day of the year, all the attention was focused on ME! But now, as I draw perilously close to the big five-oh, I really don't know that I want to make such a big deal of it any more. Sure, I'm grateful for the life I've been given, and the many blessings I enjoy, but I'm not sure I need to commemorate it with a party or any kind of fuss. It seems a little self serving when there are so many people in the world who are lacking the very basics of life, like clean drinking water, or dignity, or peace. So today, please join me in praying that we who have something to celebrate will be given the opportunity, the wisdom, the encouragement and the inspiration to do something meaningful for those who are less fortunate than us, by fully using the gifts that have been bestowed upon us to make our world a better place.

Monday, October 22, 2007

How your family heritage can lead you to strange places . . .

Back in 1990, when I took over the operation of Ste. Anne's Bed & Breakfast from my brother and his wife so that they could spend more time raising their family, I moved into a room above the kitchen that was known as the nursery. It was a small room, sparsely furnished, but it was all I needed; it always had a nice breeze coming in from the lake and it was nice to wake up to the smell of breakfast cooking downstairs. The room came furnished with an antique dresser that had at one time belonged to my paternal grandmother. As I explored the dresser, I found that the top drawer contained a gun, similar to the one in the picture. I'd seen this gun before - probably in my dad's top drawer, so I wasn't too alarmed. As the story goes, this gun had belonged to my grandfather - my namesake - who had been involved in a number of ventures in the Niagara Falls area - at one time owning the Clifton Inn (so I guess you could say that I had innkeeper's blood in my veins). At one time he worked for Gooderham & Worts selling booze, but with the onset of prohibition, my grandfather became a bootlegger for the same outfit. I never knew this grandfather, so it's hard to say when he came into possession of this gun, but my guess is that it was during his days as a bootlegger. I have a feeling that he ran with a pretty rough crowd. For years, the gun sat in my dresser drawer and I didn't think much of it. We never had any ammunition, so I wasn't worried about an accident. On one occasion I remember using it as a prop at a Murder Mystery dinner we had, but other than that, it maintained a pretty uneventful existence, certainly as compared to the days when it travelled around Niagara Falls in the glove compartment of my grandfather's car. Then came the great Canadian gun registry (or billion dollar boondoggle as it came to be known); an interesting piece of legislation for many reasons, but in my case it effectively turned me from a mild mannered collector into an out and out enthusiast. As a good citizen, I filled out the paperwork so that my government would know that this gun existed. A few months after filing, I got a phone call asking for more details on this gun. As I described it, the person on the other end of the phone told me that I had a restricted weapon, as determined by the length of the barrel. In order to legally own a restricted weapon, I needed to take a hunter safety course so that I could get my non-restricted licence, and then take a firearms safety course so that I could acquire and own firearms, and then take another test so that I could own a restricted weapon. The alternative was to turn this piece of family history in to the local police department or have it rendered inoperative. To get the ball rolling, I bought the text book for the first course and tried to study it. On first blush, it had much more detail than I cared to learn about hunting and firearms in general, so I put it in a pile of things to do on a rainy day, where it collected dust for several years. I also locked up my gun in a safe place. This past weekend, I finally got motivated to take the hunter safety course, step one. I found myself in a classroom full of men and women aged between 12 and 70 all of whom were pretty keen about hunting. My mother was quite disapproving - "guns are for killing", she lamented, but I persisted, and by golly, I really enjoyed the course. I'm not sure that I'll ever take up hunting, although I suppose every time I order a cheeseburger, or chew on a rack of lamb, I'm exercising my place at the top of the food chain, we just don't like to think about the messy bits. The other contradiction for a peace loving Canadian comes when we pay our taxes, when in effect we are buying weapons for the police and the military to use for but one purpose. As a result of my little adventure, I do have a new found respect for firearms and the people who use them, and I can hang onto a little bit of my proud Irish heritage without breaking any laws. Did you know that the greatest number of deaths caused by firearms in Canada is suicide (over 80%), and did you know that the greatest threat to wildlife is loss of habitat? If I've piqued your interest in hunting, click here.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

How can you not love this cuddly little planet?

I went home at lunch time today. I found some leftover Chinese food in the fridge from Sunday night. While I was waiting for the food to heat up, I noticed 4 forlorn looking helium filled balloons on the kitchen table, left over from my dad's 80th birthday party. In a fit of spontaneity, I took the balloons out onto my deck and released them into the atmosphere. As I watched them rise, each heading off in a different direction on their skyward journey, I closed my eyes and made a wish for each balloon in hopes that my wishes would be carried away and found somewhere in the sky by a higher force. After lunch, I came back to work and started to work on my blog entry. I used google to search for images of balloons drifting off into space. The first link that came up lead me to a site that talked about the environmental impact of releasing balloons. If they land in the sea, turtles can eat them. To read more about the possible environmental impact of release balloons into the environment, click here. Needless-to-say, I was feeling a little conflicted about my balloon release, and a little concerned about the fate of my wishes. Yesterday was blog action day. Bloggers were supposed to use their soap boxes to preach about saving the planet and protecting the environment. Don't get me wrong, I care about the environment. When I was a little boy, I used to hang out with a friend after school. We would watch The Commander Tom show, followed by Batman. My friend was quite a bit bigger than me, and he used to like to wrestle. His secret weapon was to sit on me - my only secret weapon was to tickle his big belly until he got off me. One day, my friend asked me if I wanted to go with him and his family to their cottage. I accepted the invitation, and off we went. On route we stopped for a bucket of chicken (dirty bird), which we ate in the car. When the meal was finished, my friend's mom put everything in the Colonel's bag and tossed it out the window. I was horrified, but there was nothing I could do. At Ste. Anne's we try to be environmentally and socially responsible. We use cold water for the laundry, (although I heard on the radio today that southwestern Ontario is experiencing a resurgence of bedbugs, the treatment of which is a hot water wash cycle), we separate our garbage, although our municipal recycling plant is getting more and more particular about what they want to accept as "dry" waste, so we're sending more and more "uncertain" waste to the landfill; we changed all our bulbs to the new compact fluorescent type, although some people believe that the mercury levels in these bulbs presents a health hazard. I drive a north American made hybrid truck, but it uses just as much gas as a regular truck and much more gas than a Japanese made compact car, but I need and like my truck. Do you see my point? I love the planet, and I want to be a good person, but it seems to me there's a lot of grey out there. I'm still conflicted about so many things - I guess they call that being alive.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Two giants

Yesterday Dave, Chef, Natalie and I boarded our return flight home from Heathrow on a brand new Air Canada 777 jumbo jet. We had arrived in London from Paris the morning before so that I could give Natalie and Chef a very quick tour of the highlights of London before crossing the big pond. As always, London was spectacular, although extremely expensive and crowded. We opted to take a tour on one of the double decker buses, which turned out to be a good decision as the main streets were just packed with people from every part of the world. I have often heard Canadians complain about Air Canada, saying what a terrible experience they've had and how they'll never fly with them again. I have also heard people complain about Heathrow, but I have to say, I've had generally very good experiences with both Air Canada and Heathrow, and this trip was no exception. The new plane was great - very spacious and modern, and the service was superb. I still can't get over the fact that these huge machines can actually get off the ground, and then gently drop down in just the right spot; truly amazing. Heathrow, for all the masses of people who fly through there every day, was very efficient, and I always feel that the security is above and beyond any other airport, so, I have no complaints. Our flight arrived 1/2 an hour early due to favourable headwinds, and the drive home was quick and easy. I noticed that the new over 50 km. law has come into effect - you can lose your car and your licence. It will be interesting to see how this plays out. Generally the traffic on the 401 moves between 130 and 140 km/hr. with a few cars zipping past even at those speeds. All in all, I would say our trip was a success. It was great to spend some extended time with 3 key members of my executive team, and I think we all found this trip to be educational. However, I think I may be getting too old and too set in my ways to act as host and tour guide - maybe I'll find someone else to play this role in the future. I've heard good things about Butterfield and Robinson. As always, it was great to be home. Family gathered for a turkey dinner last night at John and Nancy's. Massie really missed me - he gave me a very enthusiastic welcome. No matter where I travel to, I always feel pride when I return to Ste. Anne's. Not meaning to sound boastful, (as I really believe we only get to care for, not really "own" things in our lifetime), but Ste. Anne's really is a stunningly beautiful place full of warm and genuine people that I love to come home to. As far as the "budget priced" hotels we stayed at, I would recommend without hesitation, the Hotel des Halles in Paris, The Holiday Inn Express Hammersmith in London and the Killy Hevlin in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland. If you're planning a trip to Ireland and like to travel a little more up-market, and if you like to golf, we did visit and snoop around the Manor House in Enniskillen and the Slieve Russell Hotel in Ballyconnell, Northern Ireland and found them to most most luxurious and well run. On a previous trip to Ireland I've stayed at some wonderful hotels in the south - just email me if you'd like a recommendation. Finally, my father and my inspired mentor turns 80 this Friday. If you've met Carl at the spa over the years and would like me to pass on your birthday wishes to him, send me an email and I will gladly be your messenger.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

We arrived in Paris on Sunday night, September 30 and took the Metro to our hotel, which is located in Chatelet, close to Pont Neuf and Notre Dame. Once we got settled in our rooms we met up with Dan and Rebecca and set out in search of a place to eat. There are many choices, but everyone was a little tired and hungry so we picked an Italian restaurant in nearby Les Halles, a very busy shopping area with a busy night life. Wine flowed freely and before long we were all feeling pretty good and very happy to be in Paris, a city where every way you look is a piece of art. After dinner we set out for a walk along the River Seine towards the Eiffel Tower. It turned out to be a long walk, but full of beautiful sights. We ran into lots of inebriated Irish drowning their sorrows after losing in a rugby match to Argentina. Natalie selected high heals for her first walk about in Paris, against my advice, I might add - a big mistake! She ended up barefoot, and the next thing I knew an Irishman was giving her a foot massage, with the best intentions, I'm sure. By the time we climbed the stairs to the Palais des Congress (littered with more revellers) we conceded defeat to the walk and hailed a taxi. We asked the driver to take us to our hotel via the Champs Elysees, making for a spectacular ending to a perfect day. The following day (Monday), we spent at the Villepinte Exposition Park - a massive conference centre out near the airport. We spent the better part of the day looking at spa products and equipment. There certainly is no shortage of choice. One of the more exciting areas was the "green" area, full of "Eco-Cert" products made with natural and organic ingredients. After returning to our hotel for a rest, we set out on foot to Sacre Coeur, a spectacular basilica overlooking the city. Just as we completed our trek and made a final dash up the last set of stairs, a thunderstorm erupted. We all took this opportunity to lose ourselves in this beautiful and holy place. One member of our party was brought to tears, she was so moved. When the rain let up, we assembled with the intention of making the last part of our journey to Montmarte to have some dinner and check out some of the art on display in this area. Unfortunately, in all the commotion we lost Chef Christopher. We had arranged that if anyone got lost they would leave a message in a prearranged voicemail box, failing which they would return to the hotel. I looked everywhere for a pay phone, and finally found one after walking at least 3 miles. I guess cell phones are making phone booths obsolete. Not finding a message from Chef, I returned to the group and we decided to head back to the hotel, where we found Chef, who had arrived a few minutes before us. I was really proud of him - finding your way around Paris is not an easy task. We went out for a pizza supper in our neighbourhood once again, and turned in for the night. On
Tuesday we set out for Notre Dame and then to the Chateau Versailles. There really isn't any point trying to describe either of these places - you just have to experience them. For me, visiting Versailles and Marie Antoinette's Maison after seeing the movie by the same name, was exciting. In previous visits I'd never been able to find her collection of buildings. They are quite unique. One can't help but feel for her - she must have had a lonely life. That night everyone was really tired, which made for an early night. Dave, Chef and I went out for some sushi, a nice light meal to end another perfect day in Paris.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007


A couple of months ago, I received an invitation to attend a spa conference in Paris called Beyond Beauty. The agenda was intriguing; especially considering some of the changes we are anticipating in the year ahead, but I thought that the practicality of attending such a show was out of reach. Before long, I received a call from an agency promoting the show. They told me that we were VIP guests, meaning there would be no charge to attend. This news, coupled with an accumulation of Aeroplan points threatening to expire if not used gave me a reason to casually ask Chef Christopher and Spa Manager Natalie if they would be interested in accompanying David and I to the show. I had also been talking to my friends Dan and Rebecca about a fall trip. That's the short story of how we ended up in front of the Eiffel Tower on Sunday night. I really believe in involving my key staff in decision making. Giving them the tools to participate is one of the joys of my job. For those who are interested in the minutia of our travels, I have kept a dairy of some of the highlights. I am a couple of days behind, uploading this entry from an internet cafe just beyond the gates of the Chateau Versailles, (with a French keyboard - so please excuse my typing mistakes). I will try to catch up in a couple of days: For those who are not interested, feel free to close this window now.

Tuesday Sept 25 - leaving Ste. Anne's; Hitched a ride with a couple of regular spa guests (and good friends) Neil and Belinda. As soon as we're on the 401, all of us, including the driver are absorbed in our PDAs as they start beeping, clicking and ringing. Stress levels start to rise. Approaching downtown Toronto, there are shades of road rage on the DVP as time becomes our unseen combatant. This trip gave me some insight into the stressful lives our clients live when they leave the spa and return to their real lives; Neil seemed so blissfully calm at the spa enjoying his lunch while gazing out over the gardens towards the rolling Northumberland without the interference of technology and time. Once we arrived in the city I took the TTC to the Old Mill where I met up with Dave, Natalie, and Chef. After attending a media event for Ontario's Finest Inns we made our way to the Valhalla Inn where we would stay the night prior to our departure the following day. The Vallhalla is a bit of a throwback to the 60s. I think my parents used to take us there for special occasions when I was a kid. It hasn't changed much, which was comforting in a strange sort of way.

Wednesday September 26 - We got up early only to find ourselves fighting through a traffic jam on the 427 caused by yet another tractor trailer accident. A smooth flight on Air Canada's newly made over 767, complete with a very advanced entertainment system, something that immediately brought back memories of a doomed Swiss Air flight. Our crossing was more fortunate. Thanks to strong tailwinds we arrive ahead of schedule at Heathrow despite leaving half an hour late. The captain brags that we'll reach a cruising speed of 1,000 km per hour! We took the hotel hoppa (£4 per person, about $8.50CDN for a short, 1 km. ride) to the Thistle hotel. Why is it that tourists are given such a rough ride? The Thistle, (who would name a hotel after a prickly weed?) is a typical airport hotel. We arrived to a lobby full of crabby old English people lined up to check in. I followed the lead of the Brits in the line ahead of me and made a fuss so that we could have the room we asked for with two beds. We then then tried to get something to eat, but were told the hotel restaurant was closed. We were referred to a nearby McDonald's, which was also closed except for the drive through. We took our Happy Meals back to the hotel where the manager promptly told us we couldn't eat at a table because he wanted to turn the lights off and go home. Another fuss ensued, after which we were allowed to eat our meals in peace. We returned to our micro sized rooms, which were nice enough except for the hair and black mold in the bathtub. Lights off at midnight so we could get a little shut eye before our 6:40 a.m. connecting flight to Belfast (an Aeroplan rule forces you to take the first flight out, even if it is at an ungodly hour). Aeroplan can be quite annoying in the travel rewards department, always acting as though points have not been paid for, something that I, as a merchant knows simply isn't true. Good night!

Thursday September 27 - It wasn't as difficult as I thought it would be getting up at 5 a.m. to make our early morning flight with 2 wake up calls from our friendly night auditor, an automatic alarm on the TV and my cell phone alarm, all working in unison with my full bladder alert. I left David and Natalie in the room at 10 after 5 thinking they would be right behind me. By 5:30, as we were about to miss a second shuttle bus, I started to get a little annoyed. I boarded the bus and paid the fare. Luckily an American tourist tried to buy his tickets with a US $20. The driver made a big fuss about refusing the foreign money, probably aware of the mighty dollar's recent fall from grace. I jumped in, partly as the good Samaritan offering to make change and partly hoping to create enough of a delay for the rest of the party to make it onto the bus. Just as the American and I settled up the stragglers emerged from the hotel looking defiant. It took me while to cool down: I was determined not to be a grump or a control freak on this trip. Getting through Heathrow was a breeze and in no time we were on board our efficient and short British Midland flight to Belfast city airport. This small airport is located in central Belfast. It didn't take long to get our rental car and be on our way to the M1 and Enniskillen. Adjusting to the right hand drive and the round-a-bouts, especially with a standard transmission is always a bit difficult, but once you get the hang of it not a bad way to drive. Before long my passengers were sound asleep - something that always puzzles me. When I first travelled abroad I found myself in awe of everything around me that was so different; the signs, the cars, the architecture and the landscapes. I suppose I was younger and more easily impressed back then. It wasn't difficult finding Enniskillen and the hotel where we had arranged to meet my dad. It was also pretty easy finding his new (old) boat parked along the hotels dock. It was so sweet the way he and his boating chum (Michael) had outfitted the 38 ft. river cruiser with bed linens, towels, even tooth brushes and food. However, I quickly realized that my travelling companions weren't looking forward to spending 3 nights on a boat, no matter how lovingly it had been outfitted, especially with such a lovely hotel, complete with health club and spa just steps away. Still not sure where Carl was, we wondered up to the hotel to get a coffee where we found him anxiously looking for us at the front entrance. After a few hugs and handshakes we sat down in the hotel lounge where we were treated to a spectacular and traditionally Irish view of the Erne waterway, lush green fields and distant mountains. Carl was anxious to share his favourite carvery with us, so we sat down and had an very filling lunch of roast beef, roast ham, potatoes and vegetables. By this point we had discovered that the hotel offered a choice of 2 bedroom chalets along the river as an alternative to rooms in the hotel, most of which were sold out to weekend wedding parties, as we would later discover. I booked a chalet while Natalie and David checked out the spa. We had a short visit at Carl's place - a typical but practical bachelor pad just across the road from the hotel. Carl thought we might want to have a nap, given our early morning start and the time change, not to mention bellies full of protein and carbs, but we thought we'd be better to keep going, and we were anxious to experience more of beautiful Ireland. Our first stop was at Castle Cool where the National Trust offered a well kept property dotted with sheep and a lovely manor house overlooking the grounds. We took a walk around, but weren't able to go through the house as the visiting hours had been shortened for the fall. From there we went to downtown Enniskillen for a walk and some window shopping. Its a fairly typical Irish city with lots of pubs and interesting stores. The people were very friendly and eager to please. More to follow in a couple of days . . .