Sweetness: Vancouver Island Adventure

 

The Entrance to the Soule Creek Lodge

I had a panic attack on the way to Soule Creek Lodge. The road to the lodge goes up a steep slope—one that, during the course of my trip research, literally every TripAdvisor review had mentioned. Most of the roads we’d taken on the 2 hour drive from Victoria to rural Vancouver Island gave the impression that they were created after man had waged a lengthy battle with Mother Nature, where Mother Nature had ceded just enough space for humans to painstakingly create narrow, snaking, two-lane roads. And the road to Soule Creek Lodge was no different. My then boyfriend (and now fiancé) would later tell me that he felt the wheels of our rental car slip beneath us on the uneven, gravel road as we inched our way to the top of the ridge where the lodge and assorted outbuildings are nestled together above the tree line. I was white knuckling the car’s console as we rounded the corner that dropped us in front of a cozy, cedar building turned lodge. A sign next to the screen door instructed us to ring the doorbell for service. The co-owner of the lodge, greeted us, bearing only a clipboard—no iPad or other electronic device to check us in. I was taken aback at first because it’s so rare to use pen and paper for anything in 2017. We were checked in and then given directions to our yurt, and continued the next leg of our adventure.

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Sweetness: The Drake Hotel, Toronto

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Whenever I travel, I make my best effort at experiencing a place as a local would. Yes of course, standing beneath the Eiffel Tower as it sparkles and twinkles at night is its own kind of next level magic, but so is finding yourself wandering down winding streets or discovering a day brightening citron presse at a café that wouldn’t be listed in a Fodor’s guide. Returning to a hotel, typically far removed from places where people actually live, always makes me a little sad and breaks the precious illusion that I’m some sort of local/tourist hybrid. So, that’s why I was so happy to discover The Drake Hotel in Toronto (no relation to Drake). It’s a rare mixture of the delightful luxuries of a hotel stay, but located in a lively neighborhood that feels like it could be your home (if only you were slightly cooler).

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The Drake Hotel is located on the far edge of Toronto’s Queen West neighborhood, a vibrant mix of shops, bars, restaurants, and art galleries. And, fittingly, the hotel itself is one living, breathing work of art, with installations and paintings in every conceivable space. Each of the hotel’s 19 rooms boasts unique pieces of art and character all its own.

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I stayed in a Den, which featured an incredibly comfortable queen-sized bed and a mini bar stocked with all the booze you could ever want. The bathrooms in the rooms are small but interestingly laid out—the bathroom door also doubles as a privacy screen for the shower. The throw blanket on the bed was produced by a local artist, and the terrifying/weirdly charming doll on the bed was also made by a local artist and was available for purchase.

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My favorite part of staying in The Drake? The bars (which makes me sound like an incredible lush and I honestly don’t really care because these bars are awesome). Hotel bars are typically watering holes for weary tourists and businessmen which means the drinks may be strong, but the surroundings lack character. Because The Drake is such a well-integrated piece of the neighborhood, actual people from Toronto flock to the two bars on-site; the Sky Yard (a rooftop deck that stays open year round), and the Lounge—my visit included a Friday and Saturday night stay, and on both nights, there was a line at least two dozen people long just to get in. The cocktails are strong and have playful names—I had more than one “Call Me Maybe” as well as a “Mother’s Little Helper.” Check the calendar for DJs and live music at either of those two bars or the Underground, located…below the hotel.

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Another high point of the hotel is the food. On my first night, I had delicious, sticky duck wings in The Lounge, and then for two consecutive mornings, the best blueberry scones I’ve ever eaten in my life from The Drake Café, located just off the lobby of the hotel.

 

During my wanders around the city, I noticed that most of the other hotels were centered closer in to the business and entertainment district, areas which are great for your standard tourist sightseeing activities, but don’t give you a sense of Toronto as a whole. The Drake isn’t near any tourist attractions, but there are street car stops just outside the door that will drop you downtown in less than half an hour, and you’re in the heart of one of the most multicultural cities in North America. It’s also ideally located for exploring some of Toronto’s best bars—a quick walk to The Lockhart (AKA the Harry Potter bar). It’s not a hotel for everyone—if you’re looking for a resort or a hotel that will provide you with an in-room Keurig and soothing, mass-produced Monet re-prints, this is definitely the wrong choice. But if want to feel like a part of the city you’re visiting rather than just a visitor, even just for a few nights, this is the hotel for you.

The Drake Hotel
http://www.thedrake.ca
1150 Queen Street West
Toronto, ON M6J 1J3

Sweetness: The Lockhart, Toronto (AKA The Harry Potter Bar)

The downsides to being one of the last people in the western world to read the Harry Potter books are numerous—I knew how the books ended long before I’d started reading them, I spent years of my life confused by Halloween costumes that featured people drawing lightning bolts on their heads, and I just genuinely did not understand cultural references that seemed to be in a different language. The one upside is that by the time I’d finally read all the books (at the ripe age of 25), I was old enough to appreciate that butterbeer likely had some sort of alcohol in it, and it would be one of my life’s missions to find butterbeer in real life. And drink it.

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So, last fall, when I saw a number of articles about the “Harry Potter Bar” in Toronto, a city that had started to really fascinate me, I knew I’d need to book a trip. The Internet warned me that there would be an insanely long line for this tiny, intimate bar, but on the night my companion and I ventured into The Lockhart on a Sunday evening, we were among the first customers.

At first glance, The Lockhart seems like another small, hip bar with a somewhat obscure sounding name and a list of achingly trendy cocktails. But when you pass through the thick, velvet curtains (presumably there to block the draft from the very, very cold Toronto nights, but which lend an air of magic to your entrance into the bar), a closer look reveals a series of Harry Potter references that true fans/series devotees will catch, including, but not limited to: the words “Potions and Elxirs” are painted on the exposed brick wall above the bar, on one side of the bar is “Platform 9 ¾” sign, and the the name itself is a reference to a character from the books, the stag’s head bar logo, and cocktails like “The Befuddlement Draft” hint at the books (as well as what will happen to you once you’ve finished the drink). And the greatest touch of all–the words “All Was Well” hang on the wall in the form of a fluorescent lit sign (a reference to the last words of the last book in the series).

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Butterbeer (Left) and a Befuddlement Draft (Right)

We ordered the Befuddlement Draft, which includes a flaming shot and though it says it’s for 2 people, could easily serve 3-4. It was very strong. And very good. Though not listed on the menu, you can order butterbeer as an off menu item, and I have to say that this is exactly the butterbeer I’d imagined when reading J.K. Rowling’s words (we have an adequate option in Seattle, but still, The Lockhart’s is the best I’ve had). The bartenders are friendly, if slightly bemused by the presence of adults who (myself included) spend inordinate amounts of time photographing every aspect of their visit to The Lockhart. And even if you’re not a huge fan of the books, the drinks are strong and the atmosphere and music are a perfect place for a drink or two with someone special.

We visited the bar just a few days after the death of Alan Rickman (who played Severus Snape in the film adaptations of the series), and touching tributes to Snape/Alan Rickman were written all across the chalkboard walls that line the hallway to the bathroom (the bathrooms themselves are also worth a visit).

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On the blisteringly cold walk back from the bar to my hotel, along crooked streets lined with tidy, two-story brick homes, I was reminded of 4 Privet Drive and all the magic that started there for a young Harry. And even though I’m neither young nor a wizard, an evening spent in a place with such a playful spirit (combined with a healthy dose of butterbeer) lent a little bit of magic to my ordinary muggle life.

The Lockhart
http://www.thelockhart.ca
1479 DUNDAS STREET WEST, TORONTO, ON, M6J 1Y8, CANADA

Get Up & Go: Music

As I mentioned before, I studied abroad in Paris during my junior year in college. I didn’t go with a huge, organized group and instead sorted out my own housing. I lived in a large, run down house (that may or may not have been illegal) about 11 miles south of Paris in a blue collar suburb called Savigny-sur-Orge. My room was tiny and I slept underneath a very itchy French Army blanket. The washing machine took three hours to do a single load of laundry, but it also took quarters (why I had extra quarters lying around during my study abroad is a mystery). The house itself was populated by a mish mash of young people from all over the world–later, I’d realize I was living in my very own version of L’Auberge Espagnole.

One of my housemates was a tall Scottish dude named Jamie. I’d never met an actual Scottish person in real life before and his Glaswegian accent was a constant source of amusement and confusion for me. One day as I was leaving my room, Jamie started singing to me–not like, in a romantic way. But in my general direction as a kind of means of getting my attention. At first I thought he was mocking me, “Oh yeah, alright, take it easy baby, make it last all night…she was an American girl.” I smiled sheepishly and scuttled off to the kitchen. For the next week, each time he’d walk past my door, he’d sing more lyrics from the song, always ending with “…she was an American girl.”

Finally, I took it upon myself to look up the song. I was reared on Stevie Wonder and Earth, Wind, and Fire. The only thing remotely rock-ish that we listened to was Sting, so any rock music that pre-dated my ability to buy music for myself was totally foreign to me. I downloaded the song and listened to it whenever I was feeling a little bit homesick. Now, eight years later,  whenever I hear the song it instantly transports me back to Paris 2005.

There are other songs–Minus the Bear’s “Absinthe Party at the Fly Honey Warehouse” a song recommended to me by a friend before I took of for my study abroad. The lyrics were spot on for my time in Pa-ris, “Sitting on a park bench that’s older than my country,” and I listened to the song on repeat any time I went for a long, wandering walk through St. Germain des Pres. Towards the end of my time in Paris, I happened to see “Before Sunset.” The movie ends with Nina Simone’s rendition of “Just In Time,” and I get misty listening to the song. If I ever get married, that will be the first song I dance to with my husband.

So, when I realized my Eurotrip was just around the corner, I decided to put together an epic playlist–one to serve as a soundtrack for new memories, and one that reminds me of my previous kind of life changing trips to Europe.

Do you have a travel playlist? If so, what’s on it?