Pontiac Oakland Museum Illinois

Five Kinds of Awesome You Can Experience in Illinois

“Wow! You’ve seen more of Illinois than most of us who live here ever have!” exclaimed my new buddy, Mike. While we were having a quintessential Chicago experience — waiting out an enormous delay at O’Hare airport — I’d told him all about the road trip I’d just taken exploring various regions of Illinois.

The intent of the road trip was to discover amazing things to do in Illinois outside of Chicago, and we had accomplished this mission with gusto. I’ll eventually post about most of these attractions individually, but for starters here are a few highlights of the varieties of awesomeness you can experience in Illinois:

Farmtastic Awesomeness

Having grown up on a farm, I forget what a novelty it is for most people to visit one and spend time in the countryside. Admittedly, the stereotype of Illinois is that it’s nothing but farmland outside of Chicago. Even though that’s not true, would it really be such a bad thing?

The Great Pumpkin Patch Arthur Illinois

There is a huge variety of agricultural attractions in Illinois. There’s the typical agritourism of corn mazes and The Great Pumpkin Patch that are perennially popular with families. At the Visitor Center in Arthur you can arrange to visit an Amish or Mennonite farm and learn about their way of life first-hand. If you’re fascinated by industrial agriculture, many conventional farmers will show you around their farms and let you see their big, expensive machinery. Arrangements of this kind can often be made through the local visitor centre of the area you plan to visit.

Amish milking parlour Arthur Illinois

Some farms, such as Prairie Fruits Farm and Creamery in Champaign, offer regular tours of their farm on a pre-arranged or drop-in basis and have events throughout the year. In the case of Prairie Fruits, they host farm-to-table dinners in their garden every few weeks. Guest chefs prepare a gourmet meal from local produce, and the tickets for these culinary experiences are in high demand and extremely hard to come by.

Prairie Fruits Farm Creamery Champaign Illinois

Thankfully, farm-to-table cuisine is incredibly popular in Illinois and there are lots of restaurants serving locally-sourced meals every day, such as the Firefly Grill in Effingham or Big Grove Tavern in Champaign. Farmers markets and roadside farm stands are also abundant in Illinois and offer oodles of treats for the wandering locavore.

Firefly Grill Effingham Illinois

We tend to think of the farm-to-table movement as a big-city phenomenon, but it stands to reason that the folks out in the countryside have an even greater connection to, and sense of pride in, their local farmers and the food that they produce!

Rhubarb carrots Urbana Illinois farmers market

Wine-licious Awesomeness

My preconceptions of Illinois certainly didn’t include wine-tasting holidays. I’m not exactly a oenophile, but Illinois was not somewhere from whence I knew that wine came.

Tasting Blue Sky wine Makanda Illinois

Well, it does. There are over 100 wineries and 450 vineyards in Illinois. We visited two of them in Southern Illinois.

Blue Sky vineyard wine shelf Makanda Illinois

At Blue Sky Vineyard in Makanda they grow many of the varietals of grapes used in their wines, of which there is a broad range. Their specialty is sweeter wines, and I loved that we weren’t looked down upon for preferring many of the sweeter ones. In general I find wine-tasting can be a very intimidating experience, but in Illinois the absence of any sort of snobbery was most refreshing and allowed us to be comfortable and actually learn about wine.

Blue Sky vineyard tasting Makanda Illinois

We had a similar experience at Grafton Winery, where they also have a bistro with a fantastic waterside view and a patio that’s perfect for whiling away an afternoon or evening in Grafton. For those who prefer beer, there’s a brewpub on the premises. As we know, I’m not one of those people.

Grafton winery bottle Illinois

Mega-adventurous Awesomeness

Those midwestern prairies are great for growing corn and raising livestock but, unbeknownst to many, there’s a whole region of Southern Illinois with a totally different topography. Due to the eccentricities of glaciation, the glaciers that flattened large swathes of the midwest were never present in Southern Illinois, and thanks to this, the unglaciated area is a playground for adventure seekers and outdoorsy types.

Giant City Lodge Makanda Illinois

We stopped for a lovely hike in Giant City State Park (five minutes into which my camera battery died. Oops!), just one of several state parks in the region, which is also popular with rock-climbers and water sports enthusiasts. Besides the natural beauty and interesting terrain, one of the reasons that Southern Illinois has long been a draw for these sorts of escapes is the presence of gorgeous lodges built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. Rather than pitching a tent after the exertion of a day’s adventuring, you can stay in the comfort of a rustically luxurious lodge or cabin and enjoy a hot meal, such as the famous fried chicken dinner at Giant City Lodge or Pere Marquette Lodge.

Giant City Lodge fried chicken dinner Makanda Illinois

My favourite activity was the Shawnee Bluffs Canopy Tour where I had a blast trying ziplining for the first time. The zipline course is on private property next to Shawnee National Forest and therefore shares the same terrain and environment. The operators have gone to great lengths to minimize the impact of the canopy tour on the forest and the patented infrastructure was designed so that it can be readily removed from the trees and the forest restored to its natural state if ever the time comes. They have a combination deal going with Blue Sky Vineyard that lets you combine ziplining with wine-tasting at a special price, and it’s recommended that you zip before you sip, as opposed to vice versa.

Shawnee Bluffs Canopy Tour Makanda Illinois

Road-Trippin’ Awesomeness

Since this was a road trip, obviously that’s something that you can do in Illinois. There are many scenic byways to enjoy and they truly are scenic (unlike some destinations where so-called scenic routes are only mildly more interesting than the interstate.) The piece-de-resistance for road-trippers, however, is the world-famous Route 66, which starts in Chicago.

Route 66 pavement Pontiac Illinois

Some of the attractions along Route 66 have gradually died out or been destroyed in recent decades, but one place that has zealously embraced its Route 66 heritage is the town of Pontiac. Not only is it home to the Illinois Route 66 Museum and Hall of Fame, it also boasts scores of murals, and the school-bus-turned-road-yacht that was the home of Bob Waldmire, a notable counterculture figure who drew one of the most recognizable maps of Route 66. You constantly see beautifully preserved or restored classic cars cruising the streets of Pontiac, and if that’s your thing then the Pontiac-Oakland Museum is a must-visit attraction.

Pontiac Oakland Museum Illinois

One of the reasons I found our road trip in Illinois so enjoyable is that, unlike elsewhere, many towns still have a viable, vibrant downtown with independent businesses, many of which are a huge part of the town’s heritage. It’s delightful to go down Main Street USA and browse local shops and establishments, many of which are family businesses that have been passed down over several generations, like Flesor’s Candy Kitchen in Tuscola.

Flesors Candy Kitchen Tuscola Illinois

Historic Awesomeness

We uncovered so much history on this trip. It’s difficult to describe it all concisely. There’s a huge range that has something to appeal to just about everyone. Architecture geeks can go nuts. There are Frank Lloyd Wright buildings here and there all over the place, with the Dana-Thomas House in Springfield being an especially impressive example. Not to mention structures and feats of engineering of all sort of other periods and styles.

Lovers of kitsch and vintage advertising have surprises awaiting them around many a corner, with muffler men, nifty retro signage, and roadside attractions lurking in unexpected places.

Frank Lloyd Wright glass Dana Thomas House Springfield Illinois

There are so many Lincoln attractions that they’ve been strung together into a trail that has become a popular road trip route. Locations of the many debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas dot the map, while the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield is a must-see attraction for anyone with even the slightest interest in history.

Disembodied head Lincoln Library and Museum Springfield Illinois

Besides being named the most haunted town in America and having a statue of the World’s Tallest Man, Alton is home to nearby Camp Dubois. This is the site of the encampment where Lewis & Clark mustered their expedition team and made preparations for their long and arduous voyage exploring and mapping the western frontier lands of the United States. Since the area was investigated by archaeologists and historians, replicas of the buildings have been erected and crops planted to simulate the camp’s environment and educate visitors in what is now known as the Lewis and Clark State Historic Site.

Camp Dubois Lewis and Clark State Historic Site Illinois

Then there are the museums. Don’t get me started about the museums. We’d be here for a very long time.


So what do you think? Did we accomplish our mission to uncover awesomeness in every corner of Illinois? Mike was impressed, anyway.


Acknowledgements and Disclosure: I was hosted on this trip by EnjoyIllinois. Thanks to our guide Jose Botello for taking the ziplining photo. Huge thanks to Steven Glynias of Fleishman Hillard for doing all the driving and ensuring we had a continuous supply of Wi-Fi, fun facts, and Chex Mix.

Air Raid Shelter Waterloo Station Zombie Blitz

That Time I Was Chased By Zombies Through the London Underground

It all started innocently enough. I turned up at the appointed spot near the rear of Waterloo Station and enjoyed a very civilized glass of lemonade in the autumn air with some other regular folks, surrounded by wartime bunting and tables laced with historic memorabilia.

Zombie Blitz 1940 wartime memorabilia

No sooner had we exchanged pleasantries with a genial, professorly fellow named Alan when an air raid siren blared and commotion ensued. We were hurriedly marshalled into an air raid shelter by a soldier who happened to be taking a smoke break outside when the mayhem began. From the confines of the air raid shelter we could hear the clamour of the Blitzkrieg and feel the impact of the bombardment.

Air Raid Shelter Waterloo Station Zombie Blitz

Our friend the soldier peeked out the door of the shelter only to discover the entrance blocked by debris. We had to decide what to do next. Soon we were crawling through ventilation shafts, emerging to find ourselves in a labyrinthine underground complex. We thought we were in the clear, and on our way to a route to the outside world, when we heard footsteps close by and people started speaking German!

Zombie Blitz 1940 - observing reanimation

Suddenly we were focused on evading detection by the Nazis. We scampered up a mesh staircase to a platform where we could hide. While we were up there observing Nazi scientists’ diabolical undertakings we made the most shocking discovery. The Nazis were experimenting with reanimating the dead!

Zombie Blitz 1940 Waterloo vaults

What happened next is a bit of a blur and, frankly, defies imagination. Our efforts to evade the Nazis put us in the path of a new, more perilous threat. Zombies! Now we were being chased by not only the Fuhrer’s henchmen, but also the undead. Brief flashes of light penetrated the pitch black as we fled, illuminating the scene just long enough to see that we were surrounded by pens full of caged zombies who were reaching out to grab at us as we passed while trying to outrun their brethren giving chase.

Zombie Blitz 1940 pentacle

What is all this? Did I finally fulfil my dream of time-travelling with The Doctor? No, this is Zombie Blitz 1940.

Zombie Blitz 1940 Alan body bagsBelieve it or not, this is not the only zombie experience in town. The folks that brought you Zombie Boot Camp, Zombie Battle London, Zombie Manor House, Zombie Shopping Mall, The Asylum and the Ultimate Zombie Experience, also put together Zombie Blitz 1940.  Zombie Blitz 1940 stands out from its combat-oriented counterparts because it is historically themed immersive experience where the participants become part of the storyline. While the other zombie experience days revolve around combat and typically involve participants rampaging through training grounds, shuttered shopping centres and so forth, Zombie Blitz 1940 has an element of mystery to it and enlists players to solve clues. In other words, I chose it because it’s the Scooby Doo of zombie experiences. It also takes place in an actual period Air Raid Shelter, which is pretty darn awesome.

A Nerd’s Tips For Enhancing Your Zombie Experience

Leave your camera athome and just enjoy the experience. There isn’t enough light or quality picture-taking and the pace of the experience doesn’t lend itself to slowing down to take photos. You’ll just make a nuisance of yourself like I did. In true Scooby Doo style I also pulled a Velma and tripped, landing on my camera and breaking it (but I didn’t lose my glasses!) Luckily I was scooped up instantaneously by a kiZombie Blitz 1940 the vaultsndly soldier and therefore was not trampled in the darkness by the living or the undead.

The information sheet I was sent when I booked suggested that participants not wear expensive clothing, as it might get damaged. I will go further than that and recommend that you do not plan on going anywhere afterward for which you need to look especially smart or presentable. You won’t come out of Zombie Blitz 1940 looking like you barely survived the zombiepocalypse, but you might be a bit scuffed and ruffled. For instance, I wore an everyday sort of dress and found myself needing to replace my tights afterward due to the crawling around we did. There’s also a lot of fake blood and stuff in many of the scenes that could potentially get on your clothes if you bump into something. Comfortable shoes are a must. So yeah, don’t wear a dress to fight zombies and don’t combine it with your invitation to Her Majesty’s garden party, or in my case a reception for the PTBA.

Zombie Blitz 1940 tea

Bring a friend. I was the only singleton in the crowd and, while it was still a great experience, I noticed that going with someone you know, or getting a group of friends together seemed to be the way to go. This is especially true for us ladies. I might be making sexist generalizations here, but my observation is that zombie experiences attract a largely male clientele and if you want female companionship then you may need to arrange it yourself. On the other hand, if you want all those zombie-fighting dudes to yourself, then more power to ya.

Zombie Blitz 1940 escape silhouette

Disclosure and acknowledgements: Because I have written with genuine enthusiasm about zombie experiences in the past for other publications, Wish.co.uk kindly offered me the opportunity to try Zombie Blitz 1940 first-hand at no cost.

Camera Obscura Edinburgh plasma orb

Camera Obscura and World of Illusions

This is, quite possibly, the most geektastic thing to do in Edinburgh. Others may embrace dubious claims about where Harry Potter was written, and getting weirded out by medical miscellany at Surgeon’s Hall Museum was cool, it didn’t have holograms, plasma orbs, mirror mazes, giant kaleidoscopes, or non-permanent (that bit is key!) ways to sever your own head.

The centerpiece of this attraction on The Royal Mile is an actual camera obscura, an optical instrument from the 1850s that uses lenses to project a live, miniaturized view of Edinburgh onto a curved table inside a dark room. You get a timed ticket for the show when you buy admission to Camera Obscura and World of Illusions, and a popular approach is to take in the show first and then explore the rest of the museum from the top down. Photography is allowed throughout most of the attraction, except during the camera obscure demonstration (so make sure you go see it for yourself!)

View of Edinburgh Castle from Camera Obscura

The oldest purpose-built tourist attraction in Edinburgh, Camera Obscura offers amazing views of the city from its rooftop outlook, equipped with telescopes to help you see far into the distance. The views alone are worth the price of admission, but there is a whole other world of wonders left to see.

The remaining four floors of this attraction encompass the World of Illusions alluded to in the name. The exhibits are fun, colourful, and interactive, covering many different facets of the science of Optics. Don’t let the fun factor deceive you. This attraction is not just for kids. As a thirtysomething geekgirl I found it just as enthralling as the schoolkids. I won’t go into detail about all of the exhibits, but let the photos speak for themselves.

Camera Obscura tunnel Edinburgh

An infinite tunnel of pretty lights. Or is it an illusion?

Camera Obscura green orb

Ooh, a spooky green orb…must touch!

Camera Obscura Kaleidoscope

So yeah, who doesn’t love a ginormous psychedelic kaleidoscope?

Camera Obscura Edinburgh plasma orb

One of the gajillion pics I took of the plasma orb. So much fun to play with!

Camera Obscura super selfie

The most au courant use for a human-sized kaleidoscope apparatus? A superselfie of course!

Camera Obscura tube light fingers

Hooray for touching things!

Camera Obscura Sparkly Kaleidoscope

This mesmerizingly infinite display changes colours. Yes, I am indeed aware that there are other colours than purple.

Camera Obscura stereoscopic pictures

Righteous stereoscopic pictures create a 3-D effect. They were cutting edge technology in their day.

Camera Obscura viewfinder

Made you look!

Camera Obscura clown hologram

There’s an entire room of holograms, but it also contains clowns. You have been warned.

Camera Obscura Praxinoscope

This is a praxinoscope. While I don’t really go for dancing pipe-cleaner men with eccentric hairstyles, I am dying to use “praxinoscope” in my next Scrabble game.

Camera Obscura allsorts illusion

These allsorts will not ruin your diet or spoil your dinner. They may, however, drive you mad since they do not exist.

Camera Obscura mirror maze

If all that isn’t enough, there’s also a maze made entirely of mirrors. I dare ya.

Oh, and as for the severed heads, I was too chicken to ask a stranger to take my photo. I really must get over that. In the meantime, you can use your imagination. Better yet, visit Camera Obscura.

Camera Obscura severed head

Acknowledgements and Disclosure: Many thanks to VisitScotland for providing me with a pass that got me free entry into this attraction. All opinions and related nonsense are purely my own.

Try 1,000 Things: Cable Wakeboarding

Wakeboarding Dublin Nerd At Large

Nerds + Extreme Sports

We nerdfolk aren’t typically known for our athletic prowess or active lifestyles, so extreme sports might not be what you’d expect to find on a geek travel blog. Throughout my childhood I fit the mold of the stereotypical nerd who is hopeless at sports and is always picked last when choosing teams. One of the most vivid memories I have of Grade 7 is when I scored a 3-point shot in basketball…on my own team’s net (hey, I got dizzy and confused!)

So yeah, I never really considered myself an athlete, even though pretty much everybody in my family is an athletic superstar of some kind or another. For many years I shied away from physical activity unless it involved cool costumes or weaponry. Then I made a tremendous breakthrough. I may always be utterly hopeless at team sports, but it turns out that I can kick some butt at individual sports when I put my mind to it.

Nonetheless, my default, ingrained assumption when trying some new physical activity is that I’m going to be hopeless at it. Luckily one of my major strengths is that I have no reservations about making a fool of myself. Another helpful attribute is that I am mostly fearless. Well, not completely fearless but I’m afraid of stupid stuff like Spongebob Squarepants, Gremlins, and persecution, but not heights, falling, or death. I have made my peace with mortality, but a flaccid-nosed anthropomorphic sponge sporting lederhosen is more dissonance than my psyche can handle.

Wakeboarding in Dublin?

I was genuinely shocked to discover that in Dublin there are oodles of opportunities to do adventure sports. I was determined to go beyond the usual, well-trod paddywhackery, but when I began researching this trip, that’s all I found. I kept looking and chanced upon Wakedock cable wakeboarding park in Dublin’s Grand Canal Dock. Their website made it seem as though learning to wakeboard might be something I could actually pull off.

The Obligatory Angst

Still, I was mighty nervous leading up to my wakeboarding initiation. I fretted about whether my lacklustre swimming skills would hold me back, and whether I would be able to get in and out of a wetsuit without causing a major disturbance in The Force. I worried that I would be wasting everyone’s time, or that I wouldn’t be able to properly capture the experience for the blog. As soon as I arrived, all of my anxieties were assuaged by Nina and Colin who run Wakedock. Even the fact that in obsessing over what camera gear to bring on the day, I neglected to pack my swimsuit and towel turned out to be no big deal. They thought of everything.

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Soon I was suited up and out on the Wakedock pontoon in the middle of the canal dock, ready to try wakeboarding in Dublin. Peter was my instructor and cable operator. He gave me a quick tutorial on the stance I needed to aim for, and then within five minutes I was in the water holding on to the cable and starting my first run.

Okay, “run” is an exaggeration. The first six times or so I could not get upright. Then I did. The next few times I got upright, I immediately fell on my face. Then I didn’t. With each go I got better and better. Next, I was staying upright and riding down the course with the board perpendicular to the cable. Then I learned how to turn the board so it was in line with the cable. As the lesson drew to a close I was learning to steer and able to do a full run of the course without falling. Have a look:

Why Cable Wakeboarding Rules

Going in I was skeptical of how much could be accomplished in a session lasting less than an hour, but I was amazed by the progress I made. I attribute this rapid learning to the cable wakeboarding system Wakedock have in Dublin. With cable wakeboarding the rider is not towed by a boat. Instead, there is a permanent, fixed system with a frame and motorized cable that pulls you along. Because the system makes very little noise, Peter could give me immediate, useful feedback that I could implement straight away. Since you don’t have to wait for the boat to circle around and get back into position when the rider falls, a lot more boarding can be fit into a short span of time. Given my propensity for falling at the start, this made a huge difference. Peter also had a great deal of control over the speed and he adjusted it accordingly as I progressed and stopped it instantly whenever I fell (did I mention that was a lot?)

Wakeboarding Dublin Peter pontoon

What You Need to Know to be an Overnight Wakeboarding Success

One of the cool aspects of constantly trying new things is that the more I do it, the more I find that I’m not starting from square one at all. When Peter was teaching me the movements required for wakeboarding, I found that every time he gave me a new instruction I was able to draw a parallel with something I already knew, and these transferrable skills were invaluable. Holding on to the cable while turning the board was just like tango, where your torso and lower body are often required to move in different directions. The stance was similar to ones I’ve learned in martial arts, fencing, and weightlifting. The way I needed to move my feet to control the board was a lot like operating a Segway, and so on.

Wakeboarding in Dublin was a fantastic experience. Though I fully expected to be hopeless, I turned out to be “impressive” according to Colin (Before you ask…no, he wasn’t trying to sell me anything) and he suggested a whole raft of other hotbeds in ireland for extreme sports (though Wakedock is the first cable wakeboarding park in the Republic of Ireland.)

Maybe someday I will be able to do this:

Club night at Wakedock. Photo by Steph Spencer
Club night at Wakedock. Photo by Steph Spencer

Acknowledgements and Disclosure: I am very grateful to Colin and Nina at Wakedock for hosting my wakeboarding experience and providing me with complimentary tuition for the purpose of this review. Many thanks to the stellar Kris Goodbody who shot all of the photos and video in this post except where noted, and to Peter Taylor for showing me how to wakeboard and not drowning me.

Niagara Butterfly Conservatory black orange butterfly on purple flowers

The Niagara Butterfly Conservatory Experiment

Niagara Butterfly Conservatory black orange butterfly on purple flowers

The Niagara Butterfly Conservatory is one of those attractions in my own backyard that I have been intending to visit for years. I almost took my nieces and nephew there are few years ago, but an ill-fated encounter with a horribly congested highway, a punctured tire, and an obstinate husband kept us from reaching the conservatory in Niagara Falls, Ontario that day. So when Rob suggested that we go take a photographic expedition there, I leapt at the chance.

Niagara Butterfly Conservatory yellow butterfly on flower

Getting off Auto

When I finally decided to upgrade to a DSLR, I was determined that I would learn how to use its features properly, and move beyond going around with it on Auto all the time. Luckily my friend Rob knows a thing or two about photography, so we combined our desire to be surrounded by beautiful butterflies with the drive to push our photographic boundaries. Niagara Butterfly Conservatory is a terrific venue for practicing photography.

Niagara Butterfly Conservatory butterfly on tree

I still only had the 18-55mm kit lens that came with the camera, so my ability to zoom in was very limited. I often had the camera, and my face, stuck in things to get closer, which seemed to amuse people, but by and large it was effective enough. We focused mainly on working with Aperture Priority and taking shots where the subject is in focus but the background is pleasantly blurred.

Niagara Butterfly Conservatory

Rock Beats Butterfly: An Experiment

On top of our photographic endeavors, we staged an impromptu experiment. Rob had been to the butterfly conservatory before so this wasn’t his first butterfly rodeo. He dressed like a rock, wearing a light grey heather long-sleeved t-shirt. Coincidentally, I was dressed a bit like a butterfly, wearing a dark black hoodie with blazing turquoise satin accents and lining the inside of the hood. We wanted to see what the butterflies would be more attracted to.

Experiment at Butterfly Conservatory

The result? Rock wins! Butterflies were constantly landing on Rob and I think they truly did mistake him for a rock at times. Our methodology was somewhat compromised by the fact that I didn’t wear my hoodie the whole time. A word to the wise: it’s really hot inside the Niagara Butterfly Conservatory! It stands to reason, as the butterflies need those conditions and the conservatory is a lot like a greenhouse. I just didn’t think about it beforehand. The butterflies didn’t take much interest in me, aside from my Converse sneakers for some reason.

Niagara Butterfly Conservatory butterfly on mans hand

No One Said There Would Be Snakes

Niagara Butterfly Conservatory snake free routeThe butterfly conservatory is laid out so that you start by watching an introductory video, and then you’re started along a meandering path that winds through a greenhouse-like structure filled with all sorts of different kinds of plants and trees, and of course thousands of butterflies. Maybe it’s because we were too impatient to sit through the whole video, but it came as a huge surprise to me when I encountered a sign saying “Snake-Free Route” with an arrow pointing in a specific direction. Nobody said anything to me about snakes!

Afraid of missing out on something, we forged ahead on the snake-laden path. Luckily the snakes are in enclosures, and it’s not as though you’re going to randomly encounter one when you least expect it — such as the scenario that ran through my mind where a snake would fall on me from above leading to a hysterical freakout on my part. That’s not going to happen.

Niagara Butterfly Conservatory worlds most poisonous toadIt also came as a surprise to me that once you exit the butterfly conservatory part of the building, you are let out into an exhibit space that currently houses a bonus exhibit called VENOM! featuring venomous and poisonous creatures (in sealed enclosures thankfully!) There was a guide walking around with a snake that you could hold, but I was gracious and let the kiddies who were queueing up have at it instead of taking up valuable time with it.

Finally there’s the gift shop which is almost as large as the conservatory itself and filled with every sort of butterfly product imaginable from rainbow butterfly lollipops to butterfly encyclopaedias to butterfly garden regalia and more. Being a colour junkie it was enormously energizing to be surrounded by so many colourful, pretty things.

More pictures from this adventure are in the slideshow below, or you can check out my Flickr stream and Rob’s blog post.

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Odile Chocolat truffles Toronto

Don’t Hate Me for Taking a Chocolate Tour. It’s My Job.

I discovered a surefire way to make people instantly hate me. Okay, not real hatred, but at least an intense pang of primeval, involuntary jealousy.

I’ve only recently started calling myself a writer. Even though pretty much my entire career has been as a writer of one sort or another, it was well over a decade before I gave myself permission to say so. When asked about my profession I would always say something like “Oh, I’m in marketing” or “I work for a travel company.” Then one time a couple of years ago we were crossing the border to Buffalo and the border guard was giving us the third degree where they ask the same question a bunch of different ways to try to trip you up. He asked what I did for a living and I responded, “I’m a writer” and it felt right.

Nowadays I have the audacity to call myself a travel writer because that’s what I do. I write about travel. When you tell people you are a travel writer folks react about the same way that they would if your job title was “Astronaut” or “President of the United States of America” – amazement tinged with envy.

So, how do you take that over the top and make people believe that you don’t deserve to be living the life you are blessed to lead? Tell them you’re going on a chocolate tour.

Audrey at Tasty Tours Toronto invited me to try her Trinity-Bellwoods Chocolate Tour, and you can be certain that I didn’t need to be asked twice.

Tasty Tours Toronto Chocolate Tour

At the beginning of the walking tour, Audrey explained where chocolate originates from, how the cacao beans are grown and the process of transforming cacao beans into chocolate. She also taught us how to properly taste chocolate and gave us morsels of chocolate from Cocoa Camino to practice with. Unlike piano lessons, chocolate tasting is something I could practice with a great deal of dedication.

Our first stop on the tour was at Le Dolci, a culinary studio where they give classes in making cakes and other sweets. They also have house-made lemonade that we  sampled before drooling over (figuratively!) their showcase of cupcakes, macarons, and other goodies.

Le Dolci Macarons Toronto

I learned a few things about Toronto’s past while we made our way south to Nadege Patisserie. Audrey told us a bit about the history of Trinity-Bellwoods Park, which was once a university campus before Trinity College merged with the University of Toronto.

We had unbelievably perfect weather for our tour. It was the first sunny, warm, summery day of the year, so we shouldn’t have been surprised when we arrived to find the café at Nadege completely jammed with people shopping for mouth-watering sweets while out for a weekend stroll. Luckily this saved me from potentially blowing a whack of both cash and calories, as I was too daunted by the throngs of people in line to purchase any of the sweets that were calling my name. They are known for their macarons and they had a whackload of flavours in the showcase.

What fired up my inner word nerd is that the cornerstone of Nadege’s range of confections is a line of chocolate bars with flavours for every letter of the alphabet. We sampled W. You might be thinking walnuts, or that irritating pretender of a flavour called wildberry. Try wasabi. Wasabi and ginger gelee in dark chocolate to be precise. Pungent and delicious.

Nadege chocolate alphabet toronto

Our next stop was a familiar one, though I’d never viewed it in the context of chocolate. Sanko Trading Co. has been a fixture of Toronto’s Queen West neighbourhood for years and years but I always thought of this Japanese variety store with its cheery sign as the place where we bought big tubs of miso and beautiful crockery, not as a place to get my candy fix. Well, there’s this one aisle that holds all kinds of goodies. Stephen, one of the owners, had us gather round while he handed out samples of two of the many confectionary items he imports from Japan – Meltykiss and matcha-flavoured KitKat bars.

Matcha Green Tea KitKat

We concluded our tour back on Dundas West at Odile Chocolat. This tiny shop is a treasure trove of artisanal chocolates, all handmade by the proprietor, Odile Chatelain who is originally from Paris, France. Her specialties are origin chocolates and combining unusual flavours in her truffles. She and Audrey explained more about chocolate is made, with a cacao pod on hand to show us where it comes from. We even tasted raw cacao beans. Odile was very generous with her time and answered all of our questions. All the while we were surrounded by rows upon rows of Odile’s tantalizing creations. At last we were each given a truffle to taste! I chose one flavoured with Niagara Icewine.

Odile Chocolat truffles Toronto

The tour finished here and it was time to say goodbye to all the fun and interesting folks I’d spent the afternoon with. There was a 5-15minute walk between each of the tour stops and it was a lovely opportunity to visit and make new friends, such as Noelia and Tommy who gave me top tips on things to do in Tipperary. The day that I took the tour, the group was all people from Toronto and area who were looking for something fun and different to do on a Saturday. There’s no reason a tourist wouldn’t enjoy the tour as well, and I suspect Tasty Tours Toronto may see more visitors as word spreads.

Overall the Trinity Bellwoods Chocolate Tour was great fun. Audrey made it interesting and informative. If you want to know where chocolate comes from and how it’s made, this is a good place to start. On the other hand, if you’re a bit of a chocolate geek like me and have read a few books on the subject, you’ll find that this tour covers just the basics. Let’s face it; a chocolate tour is about the tastings! We sampled several things at each stop, but not so much that you’d need to skip a meal or feel like a glutton as a result. I would recommend this tour for anyone who likes chocolate and wants to make people incredibly envious.

Not many people know this, but when I was laid off in 2009 I came very close to embarking on a career as a chocolatier. Chocolate is an immensely fascinating substance to me and my first impulse when I received my severance package was to enroll in a pastry arts program somewhere. Then I went for outplacement counselling and in talking to my career coach I realized that even though I was fed up and burned out from that job, beneath all the stress and discontentment one fact remained. I am a writer.


Disclosure: I received free admission to this tour for the purpose of reviewing it.

St. Theodosius Church

Go Ahead. Mock Me For Loving Cleveland.

I can take it. It wasn’t love at first anyway. Cleveland and I had some bad blood for a while.

The first time I was set to go there was on a FAM trip, but I was laid off the day before departure, so the trip was off.


The next time I’d planned to spend a day there during the last leg of an Ohio road trip. We arrived at the B&B at sundown, after a long and frustrating drive from Columbus fraught with navigational boondoggles, only to find that the proprietor had accidentally double-booked our room and it was already taken. We were so tired and grumpy that we impulsively chose to drive all the way home to Ontario rather than search for new accommodations.
I could have been forgiven for filing Cleveland under Not Meant To Be.

Then in 2010 it happened.

My BFF Jane and I love to take road trips. We’ll go anywhere, just for the sake of going. We drove all the way to Kalamazoo once just because it has a cool name.

We were contemplating potential destinations for our next road trip and Cleveland came up. Since we’d already covered most of the major cities within a six-hour drive, we went for it, despite harbouring suspicions that the city might have it in for me.

Soldiers and Sailors Monument
Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument – photo: Stephanie Spencer

Finally, I made it to Cleveland. I had no idea what to expect. With the way that people love to ridicule and denigrate the place I half expected it to be grim, but I knew it had the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and at least a couple good places to eat, which was good enough for us.

Here are some of the reasons I love Cleveland:

The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and Museum

Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and Musem
photo: Stephanie Spencer

The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame is worth the trip in itself if you’re a fan of music and history like me. There are artifacts representing all aspects of the history of rock and roll, many from big names that give you a thrill to see face-to-face, but also lots of exhibits about people and organizations you’ve never heard of but had a huge impact on popular music. Even if you don’t enjoy anything inside, the building is a sight to see, since it was designed by I.M. Pei, and is an important architectural work.


Lilly Handmade ChocolatesWhen I met the proprietors of Lilly Handmade Chocolates (neither of them are named Lilly BTW) I said to them, “You have a lot of nerve living my dream life!” If I could stand a bricks-and-mortar existence then this is likely what I would aspire to. Their business model is brilliant. Not only do they sell scrumptious and sophisticated handmade chocolates with inventive flavour combinations, the shop also has a liquor license, so they can offer chocolate tasting events where each delectable morsel is expertly paired with a wine, craft beer, or liqueur to enhance the flavour. Genius! My personal fave is the Terrapin Slider.


This charmingly artsy neighbourhood is home to lots of great but unpretentious restaurants, art galleries, curio shops and fun boutiques. Plan your visit to include the second Friday of the month and you can enjoy the monthly Tremont Art Walk. While you’re there, don’t forget to check out The Christmas Story House, which is the original house from the movie that was bought on eBay in 2004 and turned into a museum. Other neighbourhood landmarks include St. Theodosius Russian Orthodox Cathedral with its outstanding onion domes and whose interior was used to film the wedding scene in The Deer Hunter. And Literary Road has to be one of my favourite street names ever!

St. Theodosius Church
St. Theodosius – photo: Stephanie Spencer

The Locals Are Friendly

This may sound weird but one of the things that struck me most during my first visit to Cleveland was how friendly people are there. Average people would stop us in the street and strike up a genuine conversation. I must spend too much time in Toronto where everyone ignores each other all the time because I was suspicious at first. It took a few of these interactions to realize that nobody had an agenda in talking to me, they were just really friendly and pleased to have someone take an interest in their city.

Soldiers and Sailors Monument

It’s nearly impossible to miss this monument if you visit Downtown Cleveland as it is prominently situated in Public Square. What you might not realize when you see this imposing and ornate Civil War monument, is that you can go inside. What at first glance may seem to be a base of solid granite, actually contains a tiny museum. By chance it was open on the day we were exploring the area and the two volunteer docents were very proud to enthusiastically tell us all about the history of the monument, which was funded entirely by public subscription, and at the time it was built in the late 19th Century it was one of the largest structures in America.

The World’s Largest Rubber Stamp

World's Largest Rubber StampThe world’s largest of anything is enough to get my attention, but even moreso when it’s the world’s largest rubber stamp and it was created by Claes Oldenburg and says “FREE” Unfortunately when I got my photo taken it was windy and raining and my hair was plastered across my face making me look like the lovechild of Cousin It and Medusa, so we’ll go with a stock image on this one.

Michael Symon

When Chairman Kaga asks the question, “Whose cuisine reigns supreme?” the answer is often Iron Chef Michael Symon, and this hometown boy has stayed true to his Cleveland roots by having his two signature restaurants, Lola and Lolita, here. I ate at Lolita and it was fantastic. Beyond the big names from Food Network, Cleveland is most definitely a city for good eating and needs to be explored.Cleveland Museum of Art

Cleveland Museum of Art

Part of the museum was closed when we visited and it was still a tremendously worthwhile experience. Their collection is quite massive and includes the gamut of historical artifacts, decorative works, and fine art. The Cleveland Museum of Art is located in the University Circle neighbourhood, and I wish I had had more time to explore as its treed spaces and historic buildings were so inviting.


Melt Bar and GrilledEven people who don’t like Cleveland concede that Melt is da bomb. The evil geniuses behind Melt Bar & Grilled have taken a simple dish that is universally loved, the grilled cheese sandwich, and taken it to every conceivable extreme. Their creations have names that pay homage to the local geography and popular culture. For instance, The Dude Abides contains meatballs, marinara and mozzarella sticks and invokes The Big Lebowski, whereas Parmageddon pays tribute to the nearby Polish enclave of Parma and features pierogi, kraut, grilled onions, and cheddar. Die-hard Melt fans get a 25% discount for life, but only if they are committed enough to get a Melt logo tattooed somewhere on their bod. As a printmaking aficionado, their gloriously zany collectible posters depicting the monthly special are the most tempting of all. Despite having three locations now, Melt is always busy, so going at an odd time is a terrific way to avoid having to wait a long time for a table.

Westside Market

Although it’s a marvellous place to stop in, there isn’t a lot to say about Westside Market. It’s a typical example of the kinds of markets you find in many cities, housing dozens of independent businesses and producers of artisanal food products. There are lots of scrumptious baked goods, fresh produce, prepared foods and deli selections and it’s an excellent spot to pick up a few provisions. Since we were on our way out of town, provisions were superfluous, but we did pick up a delightfully perplexing little bundle for the road. Dichotomy corn is better experienced than described. It sounds so wrong in theory, but in practice it is delicious and moderately addictive. Dichotomy Corn is what happens when the diabolical minds at Campbell’s Popcorn Shop level up your garden-variety cheesy popcorn by making it into caramel corn, thereby creating a sweet and salty dichotomy to ponder while your sugar and sodium levels spike simultaneously.

Dichotomy corn

So go ahead and mock me all you want, but I know Cleveland is a great destination. I’ve been there twice now and would happily make a return visit. There’s lots more stuff in and around Cleveland that I’d love to check out, such as the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Chagrin Falls, another visit to the B.A. Sweetie Candy Company, or trying the duck frites at The Greenhouse Tavern. Anyway, that’s just a few things that all the haters out there are missing out on.