Dark and Dangerous

Our neighbour remarked the other day, smiling, as he watched my hubby and I string eyeball lights along the roofline of our front portico and hang a moaning ghoul on one corner, “There’s another sure sign of fall – the two of you putting up Halloween decorations!”

Just two days until all of us pretend-ghosts and other creatures of the night (or whatever your favourite alter-ego might be) get to have a little fun. There’s been a lot of debate about whether Halloween should be celebrated this year, and I’m firmly on the side of Absolutely! There are so many ways that it can be done safely, and this year in particular I think we need to celebrate whatever we can to bring a little lightness into our lives.

We’ll be out front handing out treat bags with ‘mad-scientist’ tongs while fog creeps out from our bushes and a Bluetooth speaker spins out my favourite Halloween playlist in the background.

I’ve been bingeing on old sci-fi movies all week, but on Halloween night it’s time for something special – something like the best remake I’ve ever seen, the 2011 version of an old cult favourite, Fright Night.

If you’re not familiar with either, the 1985 original told the story of a teenager, Charlie Brewster, who notices that a mysterious gentleman has moved into the old Victorian house next door. Eventually he becomes convinced that his new neighbour Jerry, played deliciously by Chris Sarandon, is a vampire. Unable to convince anyone else of that, and terrified for his life, Charlie enlists the reluctant help of an aging horror movie actor and late-night host named Peter Vincent (played by the superb Roddy McDowell) whose persona was that of a vampire hunter. A young Amanda Bearse (Marcy in Married…with Children) played Charlie’s pretty girlfriend, who catches the dangerous eye of Jerry as well. With quirky charm and a credible plot of a likeable teenager faced with evil who can’t get anyone to believe him, plus the dark and sexy Jerry, some gore and mounting suspense, and an atmospheric music soundtrack, the movie became a cult hit that showed up regularly on television around Halloween.  

Fright Night (2011) did an amazing job of updating the plot to modern-day Las Vegas, where Charlie and his mom, played by the fabulous Toni Collette, live in a remote suburb in which half the residents have night jobs on the Strip and no one really pays any attention to the new neighbour who never appears during the day. Charlie, trying to be cool for his girlfriend, one of the class hotties, brushes off the vampire ravings of his geeky former friend Ed until he begins to notice all the classmates who’ve started disappearing, including Ed one day. This time Colin Farrell is a sexy but very sinister Jerry the vampire, and Dr. Who no.10 himself, David Tennant, is delightfully outrageous as Peter Vincent, a dissipated and blasé Las Vegas illusionist. A hip and edgy soundtrack, clever plotting that upends quite a few horror clichés, a fair bit of humour and some truly frightening scenes make this a much better movie than the 6.3 rating posted on IMDB. Chris Sarandon even makes a surprise appearance, but you’ll have to keep your eyes peeled – I didn’t spot him the first time around.

If you’re a fan of vampire movies and you have the time, you may want to watch them both – there are enough differences between the two that you won’t be bored. Turn out the lights, pour yourself some red wine, and enjoy Halloween!

“For ‘Fright Night’, we really want to convey the fun attitude of the movie and show the intensity of Colin Farrell as a predator. He’s not a brooding vampire – he’s dark and dangerous.” Stacey Snider

‘The darkness takes on a special feel’

“The wind outside nested in each tree, prowled the sidewalks in invisible treads like unseen cats… Anyone could see that the wind was a special wind this night, and the darkness took on a special feel because it was All Hallows’ Eve.” Ray Bradbury, The Halloween Tree

Finally, October! The month I spend the rest of the year waiting for. I love the moody weather, tinged with a slight chill. Today as I baked some cranberry and walnut pumpkin bread I watched the winds snatch leaves from our linden tree and fling them through the air.

Of course, my hubby was more acerbic about all the leaves on the ground when he was outside grilling sausages for dinner (despite the fact that he hires our next door neighbours’ son to rake them up).

Our leaves are all changing colour early this year, despite a very hot summer, and the scenery is so gorgeous. There are a number of reasons why I chose to retire from a full-time job this year, but one of them was an intense desire to stop living for weekends – to be able to really enjoy each day, and each season. By a certain age you begin to realize that the number of Autumns (or whichever season you love best) you have left to experience is smaller than the number that have gone so quickly by already, and you want to stop wasting time.

This week I celebrated my new freedom by visiting our Royal Botanic Gardens on an autumn weekday, something I’ve wanted to do for a long time. Although the colours weren’t as intense there, a little surprisingly, there was enough to keep me and several other keen photographers who I ran into occupied for hours, and we had the gardens largely to ourselves, without the crowds that have often made it really challenging to have a flower or vista to yourself long enough to be able to try out different angles and groupings.

Perfect timing – an orange Monarch butterfly was kind enough to land on an orange flower
Beautiful grouping of fall colours and textures
Sculpture by the Rose Garden Tea House
A soft pink rose with its own hips in the Rose Garden
This deep crimson rose would look wonderful in a vampire’s lair
A ghostly ‘Long Island Cheese’ pumpkin in the Vegetable Garden

I was really pleased with a lot of the photos, and since people have been commenting on my flower photos for years, I think I’m going to start offering a garden photography service now that I have the time.

My house is completely decorated for Halloween, even our bedroom with some chic black velvet skull pillows and a cute satin pumpkin. The framed image over the bed is a fairly new addition. We redid our bedroom last year to accommodate a new king-sized adjustable bed – the walls are a foggy fawn colour that’s very relaxing, but the bedspread I’d ordered from Amazon turned out to be more eggnog than cream. Luckily, while we were in Belfast at the Titanic Museum, there was a print from an artist who paints only images about the famous doomed ship that I fell in love with, and the gold tones of the smokestacks in this image of the Titanic leaving Belfast, where it was built, pulled in the pale yellows of the bedspread perfectly. So every day I get to relive having been able to stand in that very shipyard while I admire how well the print ties in the room colours and now my Halloween accessories.

I’ve been bingeing on Halloween-themed television shows (Halloween Wars, Outrageous Pumpkins and the Halloween Baking Championship) and waiting to find out whether trick-or-treating will be allowed this year. I hope so – another bit of normalcy in our wacky year, and I will diligently make up treat bags with gloved hands. We plan to hand them out with tongs from a Mad Scientist’s Lab table that we’ll set up on our front porch – I promise photos if that all falls into place!

In Canada we’ll be celebrating Thanksgiving next weekend, carefully within our family/friend bubbles – ours will be outside on our patio with sweaters on, mugs of hot chocolate, lots of orange pumpkins and potted bronze chrysanthemums, and a little buffet set up with warming pans and crock pots.

Take whatever time you can to enjoy all the sights, scents and delightful shivers of this most engaging of months – October always goes by far too quickly!

Next week, ideas for an Autumn Mystery Lover’s Tea 😊

As always, all photos are by me unless otherwise specified, and all rights are reserved.

The Kindling of a Flame

As a kid, I always loved the return to school every September. I missed a lot of my friends who I hadn’t seen all summer. I couldn’t wait to go out shopping for a new outfit for the first day with my mom. I knew that fall colours and Halloween were getting closer. But most of all, I loved the buzz of learning.

I started school a year earlier than most children because my brother, five years older than me, had been going to school for a while and I wanted to go too, pestering my parents enough that they finally gave in and found a private kindergarten run by nuns that was willing to take me on.

By grade one I’d taught myself how to read and was so excited to go to the big school with my brother, who I’d guess wasn’t tickled to have me in tow on the walk to and from. I loved grade one so much that I chattered constantly, until I was reprimanded by my teacher. On the flip side, I was a good reader, and several times during that season the school hauled me around to higher classes to read to them, which I thought was pretty cool but which likely didn’t impress the older kids who had to listen to it.

What I actually remember the most was sometimes going to the factory where my dad was a security guard. I’d do the rounds with him, at night when everything was shut down, and all the machinery, hulking and shadowed, was like an intriguing alien city. Machinery fascinates me to this day.

When I was six we moved to a farm in northern Ontario, where school became a wild adventure. Elementary school took place in a classic little brown one-roomed schoolhouse, heated by a wood stove.

Once paved roads were put in, the school districts were amalgamated and the old schoolhouse torn down – someone bought the property and built a home on it

Autumn was wonderful there, long walks to the school past our friends’ farms, surrounded by gorgeously-coloured trees and goldenrod waving along the roadside, the tang of woodsmoke scenting the cool fall air. I think that’s where I irrevocably fell in love with autumn.

Scenery for walking to school doesn’t get much better than this, still looking much the same as it did when I was a child[ my brother and I used to toboggan down that hlll

There was a crab apple tree flourishing in one corner of the school yard that provided ammunition for friendly wars during recess, and across the road a small hall that the school used for special projects and our annual Christmas ‘play’.

The little old hall still exists, with a fresh coat of paint

Winter presented a challenge, with several feet of snow blanketing the roads from November to April, and temperatures that could drop well below zero. Sometimes our teacher, who lived in a small town about 30 minutes away at the best of times, couldn’t make it to work, typically because ice had knocked out the bridge crossing the river that separated the wider world from our little hamlet, but just as often because we’d had a major snowfall and the roads were impassable from our farmhouses. One of our neighbours had a snowmobile, so sometimes he’d make the rounds picking us all up – I remember huddling in multiple layers of clothing against the extra chill from the wind in my face as we zipped over the snow.

Spring was always welcome, with sugaring season and the first bits of green peeking through the snow, although trips to town for groceries could be dicey with sudden flooding from snow melt. Summers were long and full of wildflowers, whip-poor-wills calling to each other at dusk, and swimming in a local lake.

It was a glorious place to be a child, entwined with nature and wildlife. I missed it desperately when we first moved to southern Ontario when I turned eight, but Halloween saved the day – I was finally old enough to go trick-or-treating without my parents, and we lived in a city where the houses with candy were all next to each other in walkable blocks instead of a quarter-mile apart. There was even a lady who made popcorn balls!

Since then I’ve never stopped learning. Travelling with my hubby, the whole world has become a fascinating classroom. Every culture has had something to teach us, and with each trip we’ve grown both personally and as global citizens. And we’ve had a blast doing it.

My mother-in-law for many years couldn’t understand what the appeal was; as part of the post-war generation, her vision of adult life was to settle down in a big house (with a big mortgage) and fill it with kids. But then she finally came with us to Europe, on a sort of ‘tale-of-two-cities’ adventure to London and Paris.

Houses of Parliament, London England

I still remember the look on her face when we took her to the massive Houses of Parliament overlooking the Thames in London – she was blown away by the age, the history and the incredible architecture. By the time we returned home – after exploring the Tower of London and Westminster Abbey and the British Museum, seeing Princess Diana’s gowns at Kensington Palace followed by delectable afternoon tea in the Orangerie, prowling through all the shopping halls of Harrod’s, watching street performers in Covent Garden and eating great home-cooked food in historic pubs, cramming in as much of the Louvre as we could before having afternoon tea in a Paris tea salon, looking at the grim prisoner cells at the Conciergerie and the medieval tapestries at the Cluny Museum, having chocolat chaud Viennoise piled with whipped cream on a blustery day at the Eiffel Tower and chocolate mousse at every bistro we visited, along with a superb cassoulet just down the street from our funky little boutique hotel in the Left Bank – she’d become an utter convert and couldn’t stop talking about the trip for months afterward.

Travel is one of the best educations available, but everything should remain a wonder and a gift to our minds, big or small. Never lose your curiosity and your willingness to invite something new into your brain – it’s what gives richness and stimulation to our lives. Don’t ever let your kindled flame go out.

To celebrate Labour Day this year, even though I’ve retired from full-time work at a local college and this fall have had no need for a new outfit to kick off the academic year (hey, any excuse for going shopping works for me), I cooked something nostalgic for dinner. Memories of food have always been tied to my learning adventures, whether it was trading lunch items in elementary school or sitting down for Sunday roasts on the weekend, dumping our pillowcase full of Halloween candy out on the carpet to sort through in order of desired eating, or having our first Chicken Satay in a little restaurant in the hills of Bali. My mom excelled at making meatloaf, so I tried out this online recipe from Bon Appetit, served with classic fluffy mashed potatoes, basic onion and mushroom gravy and some buttered tender-crisp asparagus. Perfect!

The Road Through Time

It’s early August and the past few months have been a bit of a blur, days of staying in punctuated by trips for groceries and home supplies, and a few rounds of golf. I feel that we’re a lot less stressed here in Canada, but the news from outside our borders is routinely troubling.

Michelle Obama has gone on record about feeling low-grade depression through all of this, a revealing comment from someone who was resilient enough to be a truly historic First Lady. While I’m not feeling the stress in exactly the same way – removed as I am from a lot of the turmoil that she’s surrounded by – even in Canada there’s a constant and pervasive low hum of tension just below our senses that we try to ignore so we can carry on as best as possible.

We feel it in small ways though. I find myself more irritable about silly small things, never completely relaxed, looking for ways to keep myself occupied. Perhaps you’re feeling the same, or something different.

The lengthy heat wave we’re experiencing in Ontario hasn’t helped for me personally, although it’s a great summer for pool owners. I can do dry heat any time, but the combo of 90oF-plus temperatures and humidity just as high makes me even more testy when I do have to go out, and I’m drained of energy by the time I get back home. I really feel for so many of the seniors I see in grocery stores who seem to be struggling with navigating the ever-changing rules as our society tries to safely get closer to normal, but I get frustrated with people who appear to have forgotten how to drive or can’t seem to understand the social-distancing thing.

So this is a good week to offer a little distraction via the next part of our journey to Peru, through the blazingly hot desert to see the Nazca Lines and Chauchilla Cemetery.

Peru is most famous for the Incas, but there were many cultures before them. From Huacachina Oasis the road took us backward in time to the mysterious Nazca people, and then forward to the very early Incas, through burnt landscapes filled with eerie dust devils and so empty that we wondered why anyone would have ever made a home there.

The Pan-American highway crosses the Nazca Plateau and there’s even a spot where a tower has been built to view a few of the strange and gigantic etchings in the dirt without flying over them. The area is protected, so you can’t walk out to the etchings, but you can get a decent view of a couple of them from the tower if you’re not inclined to do the flight. The view from the tower, though, doesn’t capture the weirdness – for that you need to see all the Nazca Lines from above, stretching for miles across the desert plateau, layers and layers of them.

The sprawling branches of the huge biomorphic “Tree” glyph
Straight geometric shapes stretching for miles mixed with undulating wavy shapes

As we left the tower, the sun was setting over the eerie landscape that houses the etchings – more than 50 miles of flat reddish land dotted with little scrubby bushes that seem to survive on virtually no moisture.

We stayed in a charming 3-star hacienda-style hotel surrounded by farmland — how they managed to grow food in this climate was a sign of Peruvian ingenuity.

The next morning, those of us who planned to brave the Nazca flights headed off to the Maria Reiche Neuman Airport.

Maria Reiche was one of the first noted researchers of the Nazca figures. The enormous geoglyphs had been mentioned by a Spanish conquistador, Pedro Cieza de León, as ‘trail markers’ in the 1500s, but it wasn’t until humans invented flight that people were able to see them in their entirety and realize their significance. An American historian, Paul Kosok, was the first to study them in depth, including from the air, and he was later joined by an America archaeologist, Richard P. Schaedel, and Maria Reiche, a German mathematician and archaeologist who had come to Peru originally as a governess and tutor, then stayed on when WWII started. She’d been doing scientific work in Lima when she became fascinated by the Nazca figures. She joined Kosok in his research and spent the remainder of her long life studying, mapping and protecting the geoglyphs. After the Pan-American highway was cut directly through one of the figures, she lobbied the government to protect their national treasure and also sponsored the tower that we’d just been at the afternoon before. For her efforts, she became known as the Lady of the Lines, and is honored at the local airport.

Safety Note: For several years before we arrived, the small-craft flights over the Lines had a poor safety record, with several crashes and deaths. At one point, as group leader for our cluster of eight travellers, I was going to recommend that we skip the flights entirely. The Peruvian government had worked diligently to improve matters, and by the time of our trip our tour company was able to recommend several approved flight companies. The one we used, as you can see in this photo of yours truly waiting to board the plane, was Air Majoro.

Any time you’re planning an adventurous activity, it’s important to do your research in advance – there’s always an element of risk in these types of activities, but you’ll want to know what you’re getting into and make an educated decision about how far you’re willing to go.

The airline put my hubby and I on different planes – they spent a lot of time figuring out weight configurations among all of us on the small craft – so we each had very different experiences.

One thing you should be aware of before deciding to fly is that the planes tilt at severe angles to give you the best view of the figures etched into the red dirt. They also make a lot of pretty tight turns to allow you to see as many of the figures as possible.

Rising into the deep blue sky, it’s truly stunning to see how many figures the ancient Nazca people carved – there are over 1,000 of them, spreading for miles, often crossing other figures, and in a wild assortment of shapes and styles. Seventy of the figures, known as biomorphs, include the famous animal figures (monkey, spider, lizard, heron, etc.). But these are only a small proportion: there are 300 odd geometric designs, and 800 straight lines running for up to 30 miles in length!

There are only a few somewhat humanoid figures: a large pair of what looks likes disembodied hands, and a 100-foot tall figure etched into the side of a hill. It’s often referred to as the Astronaut, with an odd helmet-shaped head and its arm raised as if in greeting to something in the sky.

The geometric shapes are astoundingly sharp and straight for having been created over 2,500 years ago by removing the reddish upper layer of dirt up to about a foot deep to reveal the pale yellowish base beneath. Reiche found the mathematical precision to be highly sophisticated. Her research with Kosok found that many of the figures pointed towards the summer and winter solstices, so they theorized that the plateau was a gigantic astronomical calendar.

Since then, a lot of people have speculated about the purpose of the figures, from landing sites for aliens to religious ritual designs to markers for underground sources of water in a landscape that receives only about one inch of rain in a year.

This figure, my personal favourite, was originally called The Hummingbird, but is now believed to represent a forest bird called a Hermit

Many of the theories seem to fit some of the Lines, but none of them fit all of the Lines, and it’s not until you fly over them that you see how strange they truly are. Whichever theory appeals to you, there are a lot of questions still. Some that popped up in my head that day: what could prompt those ancient peoples to make so many of them (think of the effort in measuring, excavating, running straight edges for miles and miles and miles even up in the hills), why would they make so many different shapes, why would they lay them on top of each other like a crazy jigsaw puzzle? I’m not sure we’ve come to any real understanding of what the etchings are for, or are even close to it.

Our pilot gave us a heads-up as we approached each different figure or cluster of figures, tilting the plane steeply so that the wing tip was pointing towards where we needed to look. Then he would execute another tightly-banked turn to move on to the next figure.

It turned out that my plane had a hot-dogging pilot who seemed to be showing off a bit for a guest he’d brought on board. I was doing okay stomach-wise until he started zipping through tighter and tighter turns, while I got greener and greener in the face. I had to stop taking photos and was fervently praying to land soon when someone must have alerted the pilot that I was looking pretty bad, because suddenly we were doing just that. On the ground, our excursion leader sat me down and hustled to get me some coca leaf candies.

Peruvians have been using coca leaf tea for centuries for altitude sickness, and it turns out that coca leaves are also great for nausea. Both tea and candies are available everywhere, and I recovered enough to be able to explore a couple of shops – I bought a silver-coloured wrist cuff with the most famous Nazca animals on it – while I waited for my hubby’s plane to return.

What I didn’t find out until they landed was that his pilot had trouble with the landing gear and was delayed for several minutes as he frantically pumped the lever to get the wheels down. My hubby regaled me quietly with this story after we got back to the hacienda.

Was the flight entirely safe? Well, everyone in our group eventually made it safely to ground, although not without a bit of a close call. Do we regret taking the flight? No, there’s no other way to get any real sense of the scope and enigma of the Nazca Lines. Should you go to Peru, check recent safety records and decide for yourself.

The mystery of the Lines becomes even deeper when you visit the ancient cemetery of Chauchilla, just 19 miles south. The Nazca culture believed that the afterlife was a mirror of their earthly existence, so they buried their people in little houses constructed underground, hair braided and clothed in well-made robes, surrounded by the artifacts they had used in life – pottery for cooking, tools if you were a builder, and so on.

You can visit Chauchilla and its subterranean necropolis today because robbers had been digging up remains for some time – walking across the blistering sand, you can see bones and bits of smashed pottery scattered about – so the government turned it into a protected open-air museum.

You approach Chauchilla across miles of bleak desert, where eerie dust devils spin up out of the sand with a noise like gusts scouring the air.

Wear closed footgear – Chauchilla sits in part of the Atacama Desert (according to the National Geographic Society), commonly considered the driest place on earth. It was certainly the hottest place we’ve ever been, a strange wind-blown inferno which for some reason the Nazca peoples decided to make their home. Any of our travellers wearing sandals took no more than a few steps before they sprinted back to our overland truck to get shoes. Even the truck itself was parked under a huge shaded ‘truckport’ to keep it at a reasonable temperature while we explored the site.

Long stone-lined paths lead to covered areas where you can view the tombs.

The occupants are well-preserved and you can see details of their lives, including stone grinding bowls and simple pottery. It was an appropriate place to visit on Halloween, as it happened.

So this brought to mind my next question: how did these apparently simple peoples create the mathematically-sophisticated Nazca geoglyphs? And why would they have gone to the trouble?

Questions to ponder as we moved forward about 1,000 years in time to a place on the coast where the ancient Incas sent fresh fish by footpath over 300 miles to Cuzco, the religious centre of their culture. The road to Puerto Inka is cut through soft sand down to the beach – we blessed our skilled driver for navigating the precipitous twists and turns.

As evening began to fall we arrived at a unique place to stay, the Hotel Puerto Inka just outside the ruins of the ancient village overlooking the pounding waves of the Pacific.

After checking into one of the comfortable, salt-scented rooms stacked in layers up the hillside, many of us checked out the ruins of the Inca buildings, which even in their rustic village state still displayed remarkably precise engineering.

A few people took a walk along one of the many paths in the surrounding hills (presumably those of the fish-runners), or along the gorgeous beach.

At dinner, since it was Halloween, we celebrated with a round of Pisco Sours and organic candy suckers that I’d brought with me, while the waves crashed on the shore and storm clouds darkened the sky – a fitting wrap-up to a day of strangeness and wonder.

The Nazca Lines are one of those ancient mysteries that will haunt and intrigue us for a long time, I think, and should not be missed if you go to Peru.

Next up: beginning our high-altitude acclimation 8,000 feet up in Arequipa, the ‘White City’ for its white-stone buildings set among three looming volcanoes, and widely considered the most beautiful city in Peru. Its residents consider themselves so set-apart from the rest of the country that they even have their own, unofficial, passport (which you can buy).

In the meantime, stay calm and kind for yourself and the people around you, stay safe for the better tomorrow that will be coming.

Grounding with traditions

Growing up with a thirst for travel, to be honest I was never overly into celebrating Canada – all the exciting stuff seemed to happen somewhere else.

But over the many years of our travels, we learned as much about our own country as we did about others. While we’ve enjoyed and admired the pace of life in other places, we can come home to a lot of things we love: changes of season (there’s nothing like a crisp autumn day surrounded by gorgeous leaf colours); a cosmopolitan food scene that allows us to recreate some of our favourite dishes from our travels; the opportunity to own a home with a yard where we can enjoy summer barbecues.

Our history hasn’t been spotless and we’re still working out the fallout/reparation, but during this time in particular we are grateful to have great medical care available to everyone. The son of a friend of mine contracted a very serious case of Covid and our local hospital saved his life without anyone having to worry about the cost.

So for several years now my hubby and I have been celebrating Canada Day in various ways, and this year I noticed that a lot of people in our neighbourhood have done the same. Our government has done a good job of steering us through the pandemic and I think most of us feel as safe as we can be under the circumstances.

While I’m more of a free-form person than someone who likes routine, this year our national holiday made me think of how traditions can help provide a sense of stability and continuity. in times of uncertainty especially, celebrating things we care about helps ground us to normality, whether it’s a daily ritual of afternoon tea, a weekly trip to a bistro for good coffee and pastries as my brother does, or reading Dickens’ A Christmas Carol every December as another friend does each year for her family – whatever brings a smile your face.

So this July 1st, we braved the heat and humidity to fire up our barbecue for some good steaks, corn bread with cheese, and a layered salad, followed by a highly-tweaked banana split that took advantage of the wonderful fruit we have available: fresh in-season strawberries macerated in sugar and Drambuie over vanilla-bean ice cream, peaches sautéed in a butter/brown sugar/cardamom sauce over salted caramel ice cream, and chocolate sauce over coffee ice cream.  

I hope that, wherever you are, there are traditions that can help keep you grounded while we wait for whatever normality comes out of this eventually.

Armchair travel: Celebrating England

Here in Canada we’re coming up on the Victoria Day weekend, which is a big deal for several reasons: another long weekend (always a good thing), the lead-up to summer (although you wouldn’t know it from the unexpected snow we just had the other day, making my waiting pots of tulips look rather frosty), and the weekend when most people in Southern Ontario at least start planting their gardens. The weather this weekend looks like it will actually live up to my area’s nickname of the Banana Belt, so the tulips can be planted after all.

Victoria Day also makes me think of England, so inextricably linked with Canadian history, but also one of our favourite places to visit. While some people may be firing up their backyard grills on the annual Monday holiday, I’ll be roasting a juicy prime rib as well as plump Yorkshire Puddings to puddle with gravy, and finishing with a very British Pineapple and Cherry Upside Down Sandwich Cake.

The imposing Houses of Parliament on the Thames

My hubby and I first visited London together after our planned getaway to Mexico with some friends got literally washed into the Gulf of Mexico by a fall hurricane. We all got refunds (thank you, travel insurance!), and our friends decided to postpone their travel until their honeymoon a few months away, but my hubby suggested that we go to London for a week. It would be in early November, and at first I thought he was joking, but he was indeed serious. He’d passed through London very briefly at the tail end of a high school trip and had always wanted to go back to see more. At that point I’d never been abroad and quickly realized that this opportunity was not to be wasted.

We had a blast! We did the full-on British detective thing, layering up with tweedy pants and warm sweaters under trench coats. I still remember how excited I was just to fly into Heathrow, and then to see Big Ben, and Buckingham Palace, and pubs, and the little crowns on top of sign posts in the parks. We saw Cats and Chess at the theatre, went to a medieval banquet at Hatfield House, posed next to the wax figures at Mme. Tussaud’s, and explored all the layers and layers of history in one of the truly great cities of the world.

We also bravely rented a car and did a couple of day trips to Stonehenge and Bath, and to Oxford, where we toured parts of the university, discovered my favourite bookshop in the world, Blackwell’s. We bought little Oxford rugby shirts as Christmas gifts for all of our nieces and nephews, and wandered down dark alleys in order to eat outside by a coal brazier with gloves on in the yard of 600-year old Turf Tavern.

We had our first proper English tea in the town of Windsor, and I instantly fell in love. It had been a damp, chilly day — we chatted with some of the ladies-in-waiting at Windsor Castle and even they remarked on the weather, after which they steered us toward a small place on one of the streets out front of the castle. Having never had anything better than Red Rose back home at the time, we thought we’d try the Afternoon Tea — seemed perfect on such a day.

The waiter brought out this wonderfully rich amber liquid, along with scones and clotted cream and fruit preserves. It was all a revelation, and I was so fascinated by the experience that I bought a book about tea in one of the shops.

I’ve spent all the years since learning about tea — its history and culture, how to make it properly, and all the intriguing variations as we’ve travelled around the world. In the meantime tea has made a home in North American culture and I’m often asked to do tea talks and tastings for our local organizations.

Should you be in the mood to settle in for a round of one of the many great British mystery series on television, and a little armchair travel while you’re at it, you can easily put together a quick afternoon tea for yourself.

Here’s what I made — all of it gluten-free by the way, for those of you who might need to eat the same way:

  • Cucumber and cream cheese sandwiches — a classic. I used soft spreadable cream cheese mixed with fresh chives and topped with thinly-sliced English cucumber
  • Egg salad with curly endive — well-minced hardboiled eggs, finely sliced celery, minced shallot, freshly ground black pepper and Sir Kensington mayonnaise, and topped with a sprig of curly endive (also called chicory)
  • Salmon spread — I saw this on an Agatha Christie mystery, I think. The murder had been committed by adding poison to a pot of salmon spread bought in a village shop and served for tea. You can omit the poison and just take a can of skinless, boneless wild-caught salmon, mince it into fine flakes with a fork, mix in finely minced shallot and fresh dill, and just enough mayonnaise to hold it together (the idea is to let the flavour of the salmon shine through)
  • Ham and cheddar with chutney — a couple of thin slices of roast ham, with a sturdy cheddar and a dollop of mango chutney
  • Freshly-made scones topped with creme fraiche and a jam of your choice — I used a gluten-free scone mix by Namaste, which was fairly easy to make. The scones spread out a fair bit in my oven and ended up looking like large fat cookies, but the taste and texture were perfect, so I cut them into wedges, sliced off the top and served them open-faced
  • A nice cake — here’s the recipe I used for a delicious Southern Pecan Pound Cake. I made it with gluten-free flour, and it turned out very well, if not quite as high as it would with regular flour.

I’ve also put together a great itinerary for 4 days in London, with some insider tips gleaned from many visits. Here’s the introduction and the schedule for the first day.

More will become available in the online Adventure Travel 101 course that I’m putting together and hope to make available in the next couple of months. For I believe that travel will always be a part of our lives. The world has seen many plagues and disasters for as far back as history records, and even before that in legends passed down through generations, and we continue to explore it in each new iteration.

How is a visit to London part of adventure travel? Well, my first trip was certainly a grand adventure for me, and we often recommend it to friends and family who are just getting started with international journeys as an easy and charming first step.

In the meantime, enjoy some armchair travel there while we’re waiting out our home stays!