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It’s January 2 – a new year and the end to what friends of mine call the “Eating Season”. The past month has been filled with parties and gatherings, chock full of diet-busting treats. It’s a time when food is all around me and my thoughts naturally turn towards the many wonderful things out there to eat.

January is also the start of a long three months of the year: it’s cold and grey and my mood invariably turns sour. Spring seems like an endless time away. The last few years, one of my coping tools has been to plan where I’m going to travel in the upcoming year, to give myself something to look forward to. I’ll also spend time reading over my travel journals and looking at my photos to remind myself of good times with the hope of more to come.

So, of course, what better time of year to try and narrow down my favourites out of everything I’ve eaten on my trips – things I’d seek out to have again if ever and whenever I go back. Many may be disappointed in my choices (you won’t find fermented shark or anything as adventurous on here). In fact, many of these I can find easily here in Toronto – I can find them and but they’re not going to be nearly as good. So, in order of discovery, here we go:

1. Albondigas (Spanish meatballs)

Such a simple thing, the meatball, but oh boy did these rock my socks. After a few days of mostly grilled pork and ham, I ordered these in a tapas place in Olot, Spain, and it was love at first bite. The meat itself was moist and flavourful and swimming in a really tasty sauce. Not being a seafood eater, I wasn’t sold on Spanish food until I tried these.

2. Fresh buffalo mozzarella

I’d never eaten fresh mozzarella before it came as part of a caprese salad I ordered in Trieste, Italy, and my immediate thought was, where have you been all my life? I love cheese like I love my own mother, and this was so indescribably good. In fact, I may have moaned when I first tasted it. The tomatoes weren’t shabby either. This was something I tried finding when I got back to Toronto, but I’ve not found any that tasted as good yet.

3. Pizza margherita

I had a lot of pizza during my time in Italy, but one I had in Florence stands out in particular. I like my pizza simple, and when the ingredients are as good as they are there, you don’t need a ton of toppings. The local ingredients are what make the difference between the pizza I had in Florence and any of the numerous ones I’ve had elsewhere: the tomatoes for the sauce, the cheese, and the fresh basil. I normally view the crust as a cheese-and-sauce delivery platform, but even the crust was a delight. Yum, yum in my tum.

4. Pain au chocolat

My breakfast every morning I was in France consisted of some form of croissant; in fact, I made quite a study of them wherever I went. I find dairy products in general to be superior in Europe compared to home, so naturally any pastry that uses butter so generously in its creation is going to be better there than anything I’ve tasted before. The best I found (so far) was a pain au chocolat from a pastry shop in Reims – so buttery and warm, with a gooey chocolate center. I definitely moaned when I took my first bite (I want to moan thinking about it now).

5. Skyr

Commonly known as Icelandic yogurt, its consistency is more like a cross between yogurt and cream cheese. I only ever ate it sweetened and flavoured with fruit, but it does have that underlying sourness that yogurt has. It is much, much thicker than any yogurt I’ve ever had at home – the kind you can find in tubs in stores is almost spreadable. As rich as this tastes, it’s truly amazing that skyr is low-fat and full of protein, so it’s a pretty guiltless treat compared to everything else on this list.

And on that note, I’m hungry – I wonder if I have any Christmas cookies left?

Happy New Year, happy eats, and especially happy travels!

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When it comes to Christmas, I’ve always been a traditional girl, and the idea of spending the holidays anywhere but at home had never really appealed to me. And yet I was excited when, after a particularly trying year, my family decided to head west for Christmas. My brother lives in Calgary and had suggested renting a ski chalet in the resort town of Fernie, British Columbia.

Spending a week in December in the mountains required some preparation, and I headed to Mountain Equipment Co-op to outfit myself with some warm socks, long underwear, and the first pair of snow pants I’ve bought since I was nine (all of which has come in handy in the years since as supreme snow-shovelling gear).

The drive to Fernie from Calgary is a scenic one, along the Crowsnest Pass through the Rockies, and passing by the tragic curiosity that is the Frank Slide. The area is seriously windy and it was a bitingly cold day: I had barely left Calgary, and my long underwear had become my best friend.

The Fernie Alpine Resort, where our chalet was located, was a picture-perfect scene with the trees and the snow and cute little chalets dotting the roads, all surrounded by mountains. The view out our front window was like something out of a postcard. At home,  we’ve had more green Christmases in recent years than white ones; here, we were in the midst of a real winter wonderland. One of the first things we did was decorate the chalet with the Christmas decorations we had brought with us from my brother’s place and soon our (artificial) Christmas tree shone prettily with multi-coloured lights. We strung more lights along the snow-covered balcony where my brothers barbecued dinner one night. Later, we clomped out to the back deck in our winter boots, getting as close to the edge of the hot tub as we could before we absolutely had to peel down to our bathing suits and quickly pop into the hot water. We lounged in the tub, peering at each other through the steam rising from the water, sipping our drink of choice, and feeling the snow fall on our faces (it snowed every night).

Most days, we headed to the ski mountain and spent the better part skiing or snowshoeing, until we headed back in the afternoon, cheeks flushed and hungry for dinner (but not before soaking in the hot tub for our alpine version of Happy Hour).

Despite being away from home, we were able to indulge in our best-loved traditions in this homey chalet in B.C., including turkey dinner with all the trimmings and our annual post-dinner viewing of SCTV’s Christmas specials. It was noisy and cheery, filled with good food and drink, and pretty much all we could have hoped for. Not to mention, we all slept like babies after days of breathing in cold, fresh air while skiing and hiking through the snow.

I was amazed that a family of 10 was able to live there for five days without getting completely on each other’s nerves, but it was a success. So much so, we hope to do it again sometime soon. I will say, I’ll never worry about where we spend Christmas, as long as we do it together as a family.

Often when I am looking for inspiration (either for this blog or for life in general), I’ll look over all of my photos and marvel over the many wonderful things I’ve been privileged to see. Sometimes, I’ll come across a photo that I’d particularly love to share, but words will often fail me – there is no interesting story attached, it’s just a photo I happened to take that has struck me later as something special.

I was on a hike at a beach somewhere in Iceland when I took this photo. I could retrace my steps and try to figure out which beach, but where this is exactly isn’t really the point. It’s not a place that this reminds me of so much as a feeling. I look at that photo, and I can hear the waves, feel the wind, and smell the salt and wet sand of that beach.

It’s completely by chance that the rock was created in that formation, and yet it belongs there. It’s just rock, but it’s ageless – the sea has washed up along these shores for countless years and will continue to after I’m gone. I can stand at a place like this and truly feel how ancient the Earth is. I can feel a connection to the history of this planet, the people that have come to this beach over hundreds of years and watched the waves flow in and out among those rocks just as I have, and I feel alive in a way I don’t as I go about my everyday life, working and paying bills and so on.

I may never go back to that beach, but I always have this photo.

* Imagine this sung to the tune of “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” for full effect

According to sources in the know (i.e., my tour guide and my guidebooks), Dyrhólaey is one of the best places in Iceland to catch a glimpse of puffins. Located on the southern coast of the island, Dyrhólaey is a black-sand beach surrounded by jagged cliffs in which many seabirds make their nests.

Unfortunately, there were no puffins to be spotted the day we landed at the beach (insert sad face). Apparently, the waters around Dyrhólaey had warmed up the last couple of years, and the fish that puffins like to snack on have moved on to colder spots for now. Since it didn’t feel very warm the day I was there, I must trust this to be true. Were you a vacationer from, say, Australia, who had come from halfway across the world to see a puffin, this situation was devastating (and not an exaggeration, according to one of my tourmates). To compensate, we began “puffin-spotting” every place we stopped from there on. Though we saw many of the stuffed variety, a live puffin sighting was sadly not to be. (There are other spots in Iceland where you can find puffins; we just didn’t stop at any of the others on our tour.)

Even in the absence of these soon-to-be legendary seabirds, Dyrhólaey is a wonderful place to see. Like much of Iceland, it seems a bit forbidding – rocky and hard-looking, but beautiful in its austerity. I picked my way over the rocks,  stood at the edges of the cliffs and just watched the waves rush in and out along the beach and crash against the rocks. There is power and peace in a place like this, if you stop to appreciate it.

So much of my time travelling is spent as an observer, whether with my own eyes or through the view screen on my camera: I pause and I look, but then I move on. So it is a visceral thrill for me whenever I get a chance to touch as well.

Grgur Ninski (Gregory of Nin), Split, Croatia

By that I mean the kind of things that look like they should be behind glass or a velvet rope, but the point is to reach out and touch them. Or specifically, rub them for good luck.

Picture it: Salt Lake City, 2002: a loonie was buried under centre ice at the Olympic hockey venue (for totally legit reasons), and both the Canadian men’s and women’s hockey teams went on to win gold medals. A nation goes nuts. The great Wayne Gretzky himself had this lucky loonie dug up from the ice and donated it to the Hockey Hall of Fame where it went on display. I, who had never had any desire to step foot in the Hall of Fame before, found myself making a pilgrimage to see this fabled coin and, even better, touch it. Together, thousands of Canadian hockey fans had rubbed this coin for good luck to the point where you could barely make out the loon usually in relief on the face; it had been worn practically smooth.

For me it was one touch, but it was one among countless and we live in a world where everyone is looking for a little piece of luck, because good luck charms are everywhere – and I rub them all any chance I get, just like everyone else.

La Chouette, l'Eglise Notre-Dame de Dijon

Have you laid your paws on “La Chouette”, the owl carved in stone on the corner of a church wall in Dijon, France? If you haven’t, you might want to go soon before it’s completely unrecognizable.

How about the vaguely Dumbledore-ish statue outside the gates of Diocletian’s Palace in Split, Croatia? If you rub his big toe, it’s good luck – his toe is currently about 5000 times brighter than the rest of him thanks to the regular polishing it gets.

On a more spiritual note, Catholics can pay their respect to the Virgin Mary and Jesus while at Montserrat in Spain. The basilica on the mountain holds the famous La Moreneta, the Black Virgin statue. She is mostly contained behind glass, but one of her hands (holding a sphere) is exposed for pilgrims to touch and people have been making the trek to Montserrat for centuries to do just that.

In fact, I often can’t help myself from reaching out and touching things I’m probably not supposed to. At Parc Güell, I couldn’t resist giving the mosaic lizard a light pat on the head as I passed him on the stairs. Just be careful if you follow my lead – that poor lizard has been through enough.

Iceland is a country with a quite varied and unusual landscape, but one thing it has by the truckload is waterfalls. I saw a lot of waterfalls on my trip. In fact, at the beginning, my tour group leader joked (I thought) that each day we would stop at the “waterfall of the day”. The only joke was that most days, we weren’t limited to just one.

Many of my fellow travellers soon grew tired of the parade of waterfalls, but I have to confess that I never did. I love the sound of water rushing over the rocks and feeling the mist on my face. There are some that are basically trickles wearing a path down stone walls to the ground, and others that are powerful run-offs shooting off a cliff face to join a churning whirlpool of energy at the base. No two are alike, and to me, it’s nature at its most mesmerizing.

The base of the waterfall - click on the picture to enlarge and get a better view of the trail that runs behind it

One of the first waterfalls of the day we visited was Seljalandsfoss (“foss” means “waterfall” in Icelandic), located not far from Eyjafjallajokull, the volcano that caused mass chaos for European travellers in the spring of 2010. (Don’t ask me to pronounce any of those names – there are sounds in Icelandic that just don’t exist in English, and tried as I might to mimic my guide when he said any of these names, I was hopeless at picking up the pronounciations.)

The surrounding ground is covered in ash from the volcano, which turns into mud due to the mist coming off the waterfall. You can actually walk behind it, but as much as I wanted to, the ground looked slippery and uneven and all I could picture was my klutzy self careening off the rock and into the pool below. Not how I wanted to start my time in Iceland. Some of the others in my group made the trek and looking at their photos after, I wish I had gone – the view from behind a waterfall is not an everyday sight, and it’s too bad I have such a strong sense of self-preservation that I missed out on a rare opportunity.

I’ve been accused of being a magpie when it comes to anything sparkly (I can’t resist), and I think that could be easily extended to include things made of coloured glass, particularly stained glass windows.  The colours used in glass are usually vivid and bright, and when light shines through, it can be a stunning sight. The artistry involved in creating such windows or sculpture or even jewellery is something I’ve long admired.

The Bellagio Las Vegas at night.

The Bellagio Las Vegas happens to be home to a gorgeous display of glass sculpture that I was overjoyed to see with my own eyes. Created by the world-renowned Dale Chihuly, Fiori di Como is a chandelier spanning 2000 square feet of the lobby ceiling, comprised of 2000 vibrantly coloured hand-blown flowers. There is a constant group of amateur photographers, heads tipped back and gawking upwards, in the hotel daily thanks to these beautiful flowers.

Las Vegas has the reputation of being tacky, and not undeservedly so; however, hotels like the Bellagio have made efforts to inject some class into to this blinged-out wonderland. Today, Vegas is a unique blend of over-the-top glitz with luxury living. Among the glittering, flashing lights and ringing slot machines are gourmet restaurants run by some of the world’s finest chefs, designer boutiques from every top brand you can think of, and spas offering menus of treatments and therapies, all in the service of pampering yourself. The Vegas of 25 years ago could only brag of the world’s biggest gold nugget (though, I did see that nugget too and it is pretty awesome); luckily for us, visitors today can experience both sides of the city.

I encourage you to use Google Images to explore more of Chihuly’s incredible works of art, and you can visit his website for more information on the artist.