Monday, September 03, 2018

Making the most of three days in Yellowstone

Yellowstone National Park — which covers 2.2 million acres in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho — became the first national park in the United States when it opened in 1872.

It attracted more than four million visitors last year, and I added my name to its guest list for three days in June as part of a Cosmos bus tour. We arrived through the east entrance in Wyoming and crossed through the 8,530-foot Sylvan Pass and along the small Sylvan Lake before stopping at Lake Village on the shore of the much larger Yellowstone Lake.

Yellowstone Lake has 110 miles of shoreline and is approximately 400 feet deep. Its depth, altitude and northern latitude ensure that the water temperature doesn’t exceed 60 degrees Fahrenheit. While others ate lunch at the restaurant, I walked through a meadow to the shore, dipped my hand in and instantly realized it was too chilly to go in any further. However, it did offer a good view of the lake and mountains in the distance. A few bison even cooperated by grazing nearby.

Yellowstone Lake at Lake Village
Back on the bus, we followed the course of the Yellowstone River and passed more bison as well as Mud Volcano, Sulphur Caldron and Hayden Valley before stopping at the Upper Falls 35 minutes later.

Upper Falls
We got up close for a good look at rapids and the brink of the falls before continuing on to Artist Point, which provided lovely perspective of the higher Lower Falls in the distance. It also gave us access to look at what’s known as the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone and its multiple-coloured rock face. After taking in all of the beauty, we were dropped off at Grant Village’s Antelope Lodge in the heart of the park near the shore of the West Thumb section of Yellowstone Lake.

Lower Falls
I walked to the nearby general store and purchased seven different pale ales, two sandwiches for dinner and a muffin for tomorrow’s breakfast. A trail along the lake was closed due to bear activity, so I returned to my room to eat and have a beer before meeting two new friends at Grant Village’s small bar for another pint.

Continental Divide
An elk was crossing through the parking lot when our bus set out the next morning. We passed the Continental Divide of the Americas, where some of the water heads toward the Pacific Ocean and the rest heads toward the Atlantic, for the first of five times during our time in Yellowstone.

Gibbon Falls

We walked around Fountain Paint Pot — a collection of red, yellow and brown mud pots boiling and bubbling up from underground — in the Lower Geyser Basin. We then took some time around the Madison River, where a few people were fly-fishing, before moving on to Gibbon Falls, which weren’t as breathtaking as those from yesterday but were still impressive.

The next stop was the Upper Geyser Basin, which includes the majority of the world’s active geysers — the most famous of which is Old Faithful. A friend and I climbed a trail up to Observation Point to see Beehive Geyser erupt to a height of more than 150 feet for five minutes. Old Faithful went off a few minutes later for about the same amount of time, but it didn’t go as high.

Upper Geyser Basin

We walked back down and traversed a variety of paths and boardwalks, covering several miles and seeing dozens of geysers, hot springs, fumaroles and mud pots over three hours. The most impressive was Grand Geyser, the tallest predictable geyser in the world, reaching about 200 feet during the 10-minute eruption we witnessed.

Grand Geyser

I had a quick walk around the charming and historic Old Faithful Inn before boarding the bus back to Antelope Lodge. I walked down to the lake again and had an enjoyable conversation with a local family that lives and works in Yellowstone, before having an OK $17 dinner of lemon and pepper trout, mashed potatoes and carrots at the nearby Lake House Restaurant.

Old Faithful Inn interior
Our final morning in Yellowstone started with a short drive to the West Thumb Geyser Basin, on Yellowstone Lake, and a walk around more small geysers and hot springs for 40 minutes.

West Thumb Geyser Basin

We watched a video on the bus about Yellowstone’s massive 1988 wildfires, which affected more than 40 per cent of the park and became the greatest firefighting effort in the history of the U.S. to that point. We passed Lewis Lake, the third largest lake in Yellowstone, and Lewis Falls, along with deep ravines and forest before leaving through the park’s south entrance.

Yellowstone's south entrance

Yellowstone is massive, and there were large swaths of it that we didn’t have time to visit, but I credit our Cosmos tour director Bruce Fritzges and our bus driver for coming up with an itinerary that covered quite a bit of ground and enabled us to see a good cross-section of the natural beauty and wildlife that the park is known for.

Sunday, September 02, 2018

Gaining an appreciation of small South Dakota and Wyoming towns

Smalltown South Dakota and Wyoming have never been on my list of must-see places. But when the opportunity to spend a few days in them during a Cosmos tour of American national parks and canyons arose, I was happy to do it.

Unfortunately I didn’t make it as far east as South Dakota’s badlands, but travelled through its Black Hills en route from Denver, Colo. to Keystone. Large hills covered in pine trees look black from a distance, which is where the mountain range derived its name. Large, interestingly shaped granite outcroppings occasionally broke up the green and serene surroundings, and it was this granite that formed the backdrops for the region’s two major tourist draws, which I’ll get to soon.

South Dakota's Black Hills region

But first, I spent an evening in the town of Keystone, which was a mining town when it was formed in 1883 and is now home to less than 500 people. Its main street features a covered wooden boardwalk, which came in handy during a torrential rain storm, and most of its shops are aimed at tourists. One of them prominently featured very jingoistic Donald Trump T-shirts hung out front, which i found disturbing, and I spotted a few of them being worn while in the area.

Bad Trump T-shirts
But I quickly learned that, if you don’t talk politics (I was travelling through areas that for the most part don’t share my liberal views), you’ll meet lots of friendly people. I had dinner at Boss’ Pizza and Chicken, which featured an all-you-can-eat salad, pizza, pasta and chicken buffet for $13.99. The food was decent, if unexceptional, but it was the staff and patrons sitting near me at the bar that made my visit memorable when the storm caused the power to go out for 30 minutes.

Cheerful banter and joking ensued, and I was given a free pint of Lost Cabin Hefeweizen before power was restored, the rain had calmed and I ventured down the street to the Red Garter Saloon to have another beer and listen to country singer Jerry Allan in a classic western saloon adorned with vintage memorabilia which is open from April through October. Allan talked and shook hands with every member of the small Saturday night audience between sets, while local legend and 7’4” cowboy “Big Dave” Murra posed for photos with visitors he towered over.

"Big Dave" Murra
It was overcast and rainy when we left at 8 a.m. the next morning to see the Crazy Horse Memorial, so the views of the massive and still-under-construction carving of the Lakota leader from the visitor complex were somewhat disappointing — and the bus that takes you closer wasn’t running because of the inclement weather. Viewing the exhibits of The Indian Museum of North America therefore occupied most of the two hours I spent at the site before driving for 20 minutes to Mount Rushmore.

Crazy Horse Memorial
I’m not American and didn’t feel any pangs of patriotism from viewing the giant carved faces of former presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Teddy Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln. But I was impressed with the work put in to create them by sculptor Gutzon Borglum and a crew of more than 400 workers from 1927 to 1941. The complex also featured an informative visitor centre, where I watched a 14-minute film about Mount Rushmore’s creation.

Mount Rushmore
The rain had subsided enough that I was able to walk a trail and get closer views, though part of the trail was closed and blocked a loop route, to fill out two hours.

The beautiful Black Hills scenery continued to surround our bus as we headed west. We stopped just outside of Deadwood to visit Tatanka: Story of the Bison, where displays and two Lakota men told us about what the bison meant to their ancestors and their experiences growing up and adapting to both their native and white cultures. The visit ended outside at a recreation of a buffalo jump hunt featuring breathtaking bronze sculptures portraying 14 bison being pursued by three Native Americans on horseback.

Tatanka: Story of the Bison

Actor/director Kevin Costner paid millions of dollars to fund Tatanka, and his admirable work is appreciated for telling the story of how up to 30 million bison that once roamed North America’s great plains were reduced to about 1,000 by the end of the 19th century due to hunting and senseless killing by white settlers and visitors.

A school bus driven by a Kevin Costner Original Deadwood Tour guide picked some of us there and drove us around Deadwood for an hour, telling us entertaining tales of the town’s wild west history, which involved such characters as Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane.

After dropping my bags off at Deadwood Gulch Gaming Resort, I walked 20 minutes to do my own exploring of this town with a population of less than 1,500. Every second or third storefront featured casino gaming (primarily slot machines, but with a few card tables), which I wasn’t interested in, but a satellite operation of Sick-N-Twisted Brewing Co. drew me in for a flight of five what turned out to be disappointing beers.

I paid $12.99 for an excellent meal of a 12-ounce bison salisbury steak, garlic mashed potatoes, mixed vegetables and garlic bread — washed down with a pint of Deschutes Fresh Squeeze IPA — at Gem Steakhouse and Saloon. I next visited the Celebrity Hotel and Casino’s collection of celebrity memorabilia and then sampled apple pie, coffee and margarita moonshine (the apple pie was my favourite) at Deadwood Distilling Co.

Jack Lord's Steve McGarrett jumpsuit from Hawaii Five-O at Deadwood's Celebrity Hotel and Casino.
I ended my tour of town with a flight of two beers and two ciders at Deadwood Winery that were much tastier than I had earlier in the evening — particularly Ace Pineapple Hard Cider — before walking back to the hotel.

The next morning saw us depart at 8 a.m. and drive through part of South Dakota before re-entering Wyoming and passing through the town of Sundance, which got its name after outlaw Butch Cassidy’s partner in crime “The Sundance Kid” spent 18 months in jail there in the 19th century. The highlight of a rather long day on the bus was driving through the Bighorn Mountains, which are part of the Rockies, and along the route of Shell Creek before arriving at Buffalo Bill Village Resort in Cody, Wyo.

My accommodation was a small log cabin outfitted like a modern hotel room, wifi included. From there it was a short walk into the heart of the downtown at Irma Hotel, where I got a pint of Snake River Brewing Pako’s IPA and a vantage point on its large deck for the 6 p.m. gunfight staging that’s been taking place on the street nightly since 1979 featuring locals playing tthe likes of Butch Cassidy, Sundance Kid, Belle Starr, Wyatt Earp and others. It was hokey and the acting was poor, but it’s true to Cody and most people seemed to enjoy the 20-minute show.

The Cody gunfight
Cody has about 10,000 people, so it didn’t take long to walk around. I ventured to the Shoshonee River to go on a 1.3-mile nature trail that ended up being flooded and forced me to turn back and return the way I came. I stopped for a six-beer flight at Millstone Pizza Co. & Brewery and wasn’t impressed by any of them. I was much more pleased with the salad, mashed potatoes and 10-ounce chicken fried chicken I ordered for $15.95 at Rib & Chop House along with an Elysian Space Dust IPA.

A backyard visitor in Cody
My last stop in Cody took place the next morning at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West, which includes the Buffalo Bill Museum, Cody Firearms Museum, Draper Natural History Museum, Whitney Western Art Museum, Plains Indian Museum and a special exhibition area. The admission fee was $19.50 and was well worth it, as I didn’t get a chance to fully take in everything during the two-and-a-half hours I had to spend there.

Buffalo Bill Center of the West

Tuesday, August 07, 2018

Baseball and beer in Denver

Denver, Colo. is known as The Mile High City due to its elevation and, more recently, its legalization of cannabis.

Union Station
My two days in the state’s largest city, however, largely revolved around baseball and beer. That started as soon as I dropped my luggage off at the well-located 11th St. Hotel and Hostel before noon on the first day of summer. From there it was a five-block walk, a ride up 16th Street on the free shuttle bus, and another short walk past the refurbished Union Station to Coors Field.

SandLot Brewery at Coors Field.
It’s the home of the Colorado Rockies and the SandLot Brewery, the first brew pub ever located in a baseball stadium when it opened in 1995. Its Bellyside Wit became so popular that it was mass-produced by Coors as Blue Moon, which is known as Belgian Moon in Canada. I bought a pint of it, partially using my $15 Rooftop ticket, which gave me access to a standing room area high in left field and nearby seating on a first-come, first-serve basis, as well as a six-dollar credit toward concessions. I split my time between standing, sitting and walking around the stadium, which offers good views of both the Denver skyline and the Rocky Mountains in the distance.

National Ballpark Museum
Following a Rockies victory over the Mets, a Polish sausage and three more beers at Coors Field, I went to the National Ballpark Museum, which focused on classic early 20th century stadiums that are no longer with us. It was interesting but tiny, so I don’t know if it was worth the $10 admission. But it’s run by a non-profit organization and the woman at the door was friendly and knowledgeable and gave me a two-dollar discount coupon for the History Colorado Center, which has a temporary baseball exhibit this summer.

The area around Coors Field is full of bars and brew pubs, and I took advantage by drinking several different beers at Falling Rock Tap House, Tap Fourteen, Blake Street Tavern, Cherry Cricket, Chophouse Brewery, Wynkoop Brewing Co. and Yard House before grabbing a pizza at Dominos on my walk back to the hotel.

Molly Brown House Museum
I transferred to the more suburban Cherry Creek Holiday Inn the next morning, since that was the departure point for a Cosmos bus tour I was starting the following morning. A round-trip city bus trip took me back to the area where I started, which is known as the Golden Triangle Museum District. It was a short walk to the Molly Brown House Museum, where I took an exterior photo but didn’t go into the former residence of the Titanic survivor, activist, philanthropist and actress.

You won't find Pete Rose or Mark McGwire honoured at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, but they were part of the History Colorado Centre exhibit.
Using the discount coupon from the day before, I paid $12 to visit the History Colorado Center. I probably wouldn’t have gone if it wasn’t for the temporary baseball exhibit, but I’m glad I did and took the time to visit all four of its floors during a visit that lasted more than two hours. I learned a lot about the state through a variety of often interactive exhibits. Even without the baseball exhibit, which featured what’s supposed to be the best memorabilia collection from greats of the game outside of Cooperstown, I would have enjoyed it.

State Capitol Building
I took exterior photos around the Denver Art Museum, Denver Public Library, City and County Building and State Capitol before taking a 3 p.m. guided tour of the capitol’s beautiful interior. I learned a lot more about the state, the city and the building, and also got a great look at the city from an outside viewing area.

Daniels and Fisher Tower
More photo opportunities took place at the Colorado Convention Centre, which features a statue of a giant blue bear looking in a window, and the Daniels and Fisher Tower, which was the tallest building west of the Mississippi River when it opened in 1910 and has been a symbol of the city ever since. Skyline Park sits at the base of the tower, and its summer beer garden provided a welcome respite for a couple of pints.

I walked up to Larimer Square, a historic section of Larimer Street between 14th and 15th streets. It’s quaint and full of expensive restaurants, but wasn’t my scene, so I returned to 16th Street, which is pedestrianized except for the free buses that run up and down it. I got a streetfront patio table at Rock Bottom Restaurant & Brewery to do some prime people-watching and had a very good plate of jambalaya washed down by a $6.50 flight of six different beers.

I’d never been to Coyote Ugly, a bar franchise where the female servers wear skimpy outfits and dance on the bar while encouraging patrons to join them and get rowdy, but a two-for-one beer coupon I’d discovered earlier in the day was enough to make me take the plunge.

Knowing I had to get an early start the next day, I returned to my hotel and had one last pint at its Flagstone’s bar before going to my room to prepare for an adventure that would take me through six more states, a handful of national parks and more over the next two weeks.

Denver may have the best craft beer culture of any city I’ve been to, and I had more than two dozen different ones during my two-day visit. I feel as though I’ve seen all I need to of the city, but I definitely recommend it as a summertime destination for a short getaway — particularly if you’re into baseball and beer.

Monday, July 30, 2018

Observations from Toronto’s Festival of Beer

I made my annual pilgrimage to Toronto’s Festival of Beer and took advantage of its Thursday opening evening, which is less crowded and hectic than the sessions over the following three days and made it easier to speak with the brewery representatives.

My first stop was the Society of Beer Drinking Ladies tent, which had several interesting collaborative brews to choose from, including: London Brewing Co-Op Bramble & Bine, a 4.9-per-cent alcohol raspberry-kumquat saison, where the fruit element hits you first before the spice and yeast aspects creep in on the finish; and Amsterdam Sassy Beach Pale Ale, an unfiltered ale with the colour of sand and flavours of pineapple, mango and papaya.

There was a spotlight on Victoria, B.C.’s Phillips Brewing & Malting Co., which was set up nearby. I’ve tried the cans they have in Liquor Control Board of Ontario stores and wasn’t overly impressed, but sampled two that aren’t available in the province. The easy-drinking Solaris White Peach Ale was nothing special. The Electric Unicorn White IPA — which mixes Mosaic and Citra hops with wheat — was pleasant and slightly better.

I made my way over to the large beehive-shaped Funk Town tent, which featured its own DJ and focused on beers made with dank hops and wild yeasts. Unfortunately, during my visit, it didn’t feature brewery reps to talk about the various available sours or water to rinse out glasses. It was a good idea executed badly and I took a pass.

TekSavvy presented New Brews, an area dedicated to 12 newer breweries. Unfortunately, I’d previously had everything that Saulter Street Brewery had on tap and the styles offered by the other breweries weren’t among my favourites. The one exception, and the only brewery I had the wares from at the tent, was OverHop Brewing Co., which representative Tatiana Fulton told me is moving from Toronto to Montreal this week.

As you’d guess by the name, hops rule at this brewery, which originated in Brazil before entering Canada. I started with the Hazy New England IPA, a 50 IBU, 6.5-per cent, somewhat hazy ale with a rich mouth feel and clean finish. I then took a step up in strength and bitterness with the citrusy 90 IBU, nine-per cent OneLove Imperial IPA, which was smoother and easier to drink than expected.

Cowbell Brewing Co. always makes interesting beers in its Renegade Series and has friendly folks to chat with, so it made a natural next stop. 

The 6.5-per cent, 30 IBU, very pale, unfiltered Mango Milkshake IPA was mildly sour and not as rich as I was hoping for. The lime zest was definitely evident in the refreshing, four-per-cent, 12 IBU Paradise Lime Wit, which was a slight step up. I was nonplussed by the 11-per-cent Cinnamon and Cardamon Belgian Tripel.

But it was Cowbell’s 6.5-per cent, 30 IBU Belgian Spiced Tripel Nitro that captured my heart and was my favourite beer of the evening. It poured a cloudy dark gold with a rich tan head. It was very rich, slightly sweet and completely delicious. Once last call neared and I had to spend my remaining beer tokens in a hurry, I made a beeline for Cowbell and downed a couple more to satiate my thirst and end the session on a guaranteed high note.

I wasn’t previously familiar with Prince Eddy’s Brewing Company, but was impressed with the Picton, Ont. brewery’s Citra IPA. The five-per-cent ale poured a light, cloudy gold and had a strong citrus bouquet, well-balanced flavour and easy finish.

I always spend time at the Flying Monkeys booth during this festival, and I wasn’t disappointed by what was on tap this year.

Its Pina Colada had a lovely aroma, as you might expect from a coconut and pineapple milkshake IPA made with tropical hops. The 6.3-per-cent, 55 IBU ale’s flavour veered more towards the coconut. This was a strong contender for my second favourite beer of the fest, but may have been edged out by the same brewery’s Cherry Pie Dessert Ale. The graham cracker malt balanced out the sweet cherries very nicely. It may not be for everyone, but it was for me.

Big Rig Brewery’s output has been hit and miss for me over the years, but its Walla Walla Big Bang Mango Milkshake IPA was definitely a hit. The unfiltered, cloudy orange, 6.6-per-cent, 80 IBU ale had a pleasing citrus and mango aroma, a slight tartness and a rich and satisfying mouth feel.

I like Angry Orchard Cider so, when I saw it was offering a rose cider, I had to try it. It was slightly sweet, went down well and was enjoyable.

I sampled a few other beers, but I think the less said about Barnstormer Watermelon Ale, Midway India Session Ale and Junction Ghost Train IPA the better.

Toronto’s Festival of Beer always features a variety of musical acts, but The English Beat, Squeeze and Sloan are the only acts I can think of off the top of my head that I’ve actually focused on over the past 24 years.

The Thursday lineup this year on the OLG Bandshell Stage was comprised of The Darcys, The Rural Alberta Advantage and Broken Social Scene. I’ve seen all of them before and don’t count myself as a fan of any of them, but they provided an inoffensive background soundtrack to the real matter at hand: drinking new beers.

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Toronto’s biggest beer festival is back again

Toronto’s Festival of Beer offered 416 different brews last year, and it’s doing the same again this round.

This year’s fest runs from July 26 to 29 at Bandshell Park at Exhibition Place and will be offering a downtown Toronto area code’s worth of local, national and international drink choices.

In addition to the normal assortment of dozens of brewery kiosks, a spotlight will be placed on Victoria, B.C.’s Phillips Brewing & Malting Co. 

Thirteen breweries will try to show off their prowess with dank hops and wild yeasts in the Funk Town section.

There will be a spotlight on “Women in Beer” featuring 10 breweries and Society of Beer Drinking Ladies collaboration brews from Cowbell Brewing Co., Henderson Brewing Co., Little Beasts Brewing Co., People’s Pint Brewing Co. and London Brewing Co-Operative.

TekSavvy will present New Brews — an area dedicated to 12 newer breweries, including Tobermory Brewing Co., Power House Brewing Co., Skeleton Park Brewery and GoodLot Farmstead Brewing Co.

You’ll likely need a base for all of that beer, and you won’t be limited for food choices as La Palma, Campagnolo, Fidel Gastro's, Tiny Tom Donuts, Queen Margherita Pizza, Smoke's Poutinerie, South St. Burger, Jerk Brothers, Ted's World Famous BBQ, Ted's Beer Dogs, Heirloom Toronto, ONO Pok√© Bar, Melt Grilled Cheese, Ontario Corn Roasters, Oyster Boy, Hot Bunzz Street Cuizine and Brando's Fried Chicken will all be selling their wares.

Perhaps you’d like some music to accompany your drinking and eating?

I’ll be attending on opening night, as it’s usually a little less crowded and draws more discerning drinkers and fewer yahoos just out to quaff big brewery beers and wear silly hats. It will also include performances by Broken Social Scene, The Rural Alberta Advantage and The Darcys.

Hip-hop artist Ludacris will perform on Friday, cover song maestros Dwayne Gretzky will play on Saturday and you can try and recapture the ‘90s with Canadian alt.rock bands I Mother Earth and Finger Eleven on Sunday.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

The best of 2018’s Canadian Music Week Festival

The artists I saw at my 28th Canadian Music Week Festival didn’t appeal to me as much as those of the past two, but the occasion still gave me a better than normal excuse to spend six consecutive late nights (and early mornings) in bars spending time (and too much money) with more than two dozen acts.

Here were my 10 favourites:

1. Sloan
Saturday, 9:45 p.m. at Yonge-Dundas Square

The Halifax-formed, Toronto-based quartet released its appropriately titled 12th album, 12, earlier this year. This set featured a fair sampling from it, which was fine because it’s a good one. Even better, however, was the inclusion of such older favourites as “Spin Our Wheels,” “The Good In Everyone,” “Who Taught You To Live Like That?,” “The Other Man,” “Live On,” “People of the Sky,” “The Rest of My Life,” “If It Feels Good Do It” and “Underwhelmed.”


Friday, 10 p.m. at Horseshoe

This Toronto group’s self-titled 2016 debut full-length was my fifth favourite album of 2016, and this set featured a handful of songs from it, including “Mid 20’s Skateboarder” and a closing “Asshole Pandemic.” There was also a cover of The Equals’ “Police On My Back.” PKEW PKEW PKEW may be my favourite young Canadian punk band right now.

Mad Caddies

3. Mad Caddies
Tuesday, 10 p.m. at Mod Club

This Solvang, Calif. band has been around for more than 20 years, playing a mix of ska and punk with dashes of reggae, rock, polka and more. The packed house of revelers was singing and dancing throughout the set, which was fun from start to finish.

July Talk

4. July Talk
Thursday, Midnight at Horseshoe

I’d seen frontpeople Peter Dreimanis and Leah Fay at this same venue a couple of weeks earlier at a celebration of the life of the late Stuart Joliffe, and was glad to be seeing them with the full band under happier circumstances. They didn’t disappoint with this energetic and genuinely soulful set which was kept secret until earlier in the day.


5. Starcrawler
Friday, Midnight at Bovine Sex Club
Saturday, 8 p.m. at Yonge-Dundas Square

This very young Los Angeles band was the only one I saw twice during the festival. Its heroin chic punk meets grunge sound and aesthetic were much more appropriate for a late show at the Bovine than an early open-air show in which lead singer Arrow de Wilde showed both on-your-knees microphone fellatio and stage-climbing skills. She’s simultaneously mesmerizing and disturbing, but the band has some songs and guitarist Henri Cash showed at Y-D Square that he has some star quality of his own. Hole fans may appreciate this act.

Brett Newski

6. Brett Newski
Thursday, 10 p.m. at The Cameron House

This engaging Milwaukee, Wisc. artist used effects to give his acoustic guitar, foot pad percussion and voice a fuller sound than you’d expect through his set, which featured humour both in his songs and the banter in between them. He acknowledged his hometown with a cover of Violent Femmes “Kiss Off” and amused Barenaked Ladies keyboardist Kevin Hearn (who was sitting beside me) by jokingly referring to the 2018 Canadian Music Hall of Fame inductees during the set. I already owned some of Newski’s material on iTunes but bought his The Worst of Brett Newski compact disc from him when we chatted post-show.

7. The Dreamboats
Friday, 1 a.m. at Horseshoe Tavern

This tuxedo-clad quartet was definitely the best-dressed group I saw during the festival and, while I was under the impression that it was primarily a cover band, it impressed with a set heavy on original ‘60s rock-and-roll-inspired songs. But a cover of The Swinging Blue Jeans’ “Hippy Hippy Shake,” a 45 that I played constantly as a five-year-old and still own today, put this over the top for me.

Thomas Thomas

8. Thomas Thomas
Wednesday, 9:45 p.m. at The Cavern Bar

I was as interested in checking out this new to me venue in the basement of a Church Street youth hostel as I was a couple of the acts playing there, but Calgary’s Thomas Thomas ensured that it was a win-win situation. The young indie pop band’s set was highlighted by “If I Was A Ghost” and a cover of The Beatles’ “Oh Darling.” The group sometimes reminded me of Hippo Campus.


9. Pony
Friday, 8:15 p.m. at Horseshoe Tavern

Singer/guitarist Sam Bielanski is the focal point of this chiming, punk-inflected indie pop quartet that comes across louder and crunchier on stage than through my computer. One of Bielanski’s goals is to inspire young girls to make their own music, but this old guy is just content to listen to hers.


10. Omni
Thursday, 1 a.m. at Horseshoe Tavern

This Atlanta, Ga. post-punk/new wave trio formed two years ago and seems to have a lot of potential for the future. A friend described the sound as King Crimson meets The Strokes. I definitely leaned more towards The Strokes and also heard elements of The Fall and Pylon in some of the material.

Honourable Mention
Friday, 2 a.m. at The Cameron House

This wasn’t an official Canadian Music Week Festival showcase so I won’t include it in the top 10, but it was certainly deserving. Ferraro’s Losing Sleep was my ninth favourite album of 2016 and, as much as I like that record's songs, I’m at least as entertained by Ferraro's occasional shows where it plays classic pop, rock-and-roll, doo-wop and Motown covers. This was one of those, and it included two sets to send me home a happy guy as 4 a.m. approached.

Saturday, March 03, 2018

Sampling the best of Toronto Winter Brewfest

What was probably bad news for organizers of Toronto Winter Brewfest was good for those of us who attended on Friday night.

There were noticeably fewer people in attendance than on the same night last year, which meant either very short or no lineups to sample the 150 craft beers on offer from about four dozen breweries — and more opportunities to talk beer with the people serving them.

And since I spent most of my time at the two large multi-brewery bars largely tended by volunteers, it was heartening that they were given some background information about what they were serving and allowed to taste them so they could provide recommendations. That hasn’t always been the case at this and other beer festivals I’ve attended where there are volunteer bartenders.

I had a VIP pass that allowed me into an area where I could snack on free popcorn, so I didn’t partake of any of the food being served by TDots Naansense, Delight Bite, Sul Irmaos Smokehouse, Pappas Greek, North Shore Pie Co. and Sausage Party.

My focus was beer and I sampled 19 of them.

My favourite was Flying Monkeys Live Transmission milkshake IPA. The well-hopped ale has 6.3-per cent alcohol by volume (ABV) and registers 60 on the international bitterness units (IBU) scale. Lactose sugar, grapefruit, orange peel and coconut white tea are added to the basic beer ingredients. It’s gold in colour and pours with a frilly white head. Once in your glass, it has a very rich aroma and flavour. It just arrived in LCBO stores and I look forward to picking some up so I can enjoy it as much at home as I did at Brewfest.

My second favourite was Block Three The Legend Belgian saison, an eight per cent ABV, 40 IBU farmhouse ale that pours hazy gold with a fluffy white head. Even with the addition of brett, it’s more fruity than funky and is very easy drinking and finishing.

A close third behind the top two was Beyond The Pale Cosmic Latte, a 5.5-per cent ABV traditional stout brewed with blonde ale malts, oats, coffee and cacao nibs. Blood Brothers Guilty Remnant White Chocolate Stout is one of my favourite beers of the moment, and this slightly sweet stout has some similar qualities and is almost as good.

While IPAs accounted for the bulk of my sampling, I also had two wheat beers, a bock, an eisbock, a sour and a Belgian-style tripel.

Here are the other beers I drank, ranked from most to least favourite, at Brewfest on Friday night:

Cowbell Vintage Renegade Series cinnamon cardamom tripel
Small Pony Barrel Works They Go Up! sour aged in oak barrels with Montmorency cherries
Dominion City Sunsplit American IPA
Gainsbourg Blanche de Chelsea witbier
Le Prospecteur Tete de Pioche #85 IPA
Gainsbourg Serie Road Trip double IPA with Simcoe hops
Cowbell Renegade Series black currant bock
Stalwart Dos Jefes American IPA with grapefruit and vanilla
Stray Dog Shaggin’ Wagon New England IPA
Bicycle Craft Freedom Machine barrel-aged cherry pale ale
Orleans Brewing Wild Wild West west coast IPA
Oast House 2018 Eis Bock Eisbock
Flora Lady Friend IPA
Beyond The Pale Whiskey Blood blended whiskey IPA
Founders Centennial IPA American IPA
Perth Citrus Wheat wheat ale

Thursday, March 01, 2018

Toronto Winter Brewfest returns this weekend

Toronto Winter Brewfest will live up to its name in 2018 by being held in the year’s first season, as opposed to the early spring as it was last year.

The third edition of the event takes place at the Enercare Centre at Exhibition Place from 6 p.m. to 1 a.m. on March 2 and 3. Various ticket packages have been discounted and neither evening has yet sold out. Tickets will be available at the door if they’re not all sold.

Purchasing four-ounce beer samples and food will once again be done via tokens after last year’s successful (to me at least) experiment with all-electronic transactions via RFID bracelets. Most samples will cost from two to three dollars, with some imports and small batch specialty beers going up to four bucks.

Attendees will be available to sample some 150 craft beers from about four dozen breweries. Whether your tastes run from hoppy ales to sweet milk stouts, from crisp lagers to fruit-infused sours, or from saisons to stouts, there should be something to appeal to all discriminating beer drinkers.

Calabogie, Elora, Market Brewing, High Park, Oast House, Nickel Brook, Rainhard, Bench, Orleans Brewing, Flying Monkeys, Saulter Street, Maple Beer Co., Halliburton Highlands, 3 Brewers, Beau’s, Goose Island, Railway City, Prince Eddy’s, Whiskeyjack, Spearhead, Creemore, Broadhead and Cowbell will all have booths.

Larger multiple-brewery bars will offer up limited selections from Founders, Stray Dog, Beyond the Pale, Le Prospecteur, Bicycle Craft, Stalwart, Left Field, Redline, Gainsbourg, Collective Arts, Dominion City, Square Timber, Cassel Brewery, Perth, Big Rig, Blood Brothers, Thornbury Village, Revel, Block Three, Domaine Berthiaume, Brasserie du Bas-Canada, The Exchange Brewery, Les Trois Mousquetaires, Two Roads, Small Pony Barrel Works, Kensington and Innocente.

Some ciders, wines, spirits and kombucha will be available for non-beer drinkers.

Those needing to fill their stomachs to try and soak up some of that alcohol can do so with fare from TDots Naansense, Delight Bite, Sul Irmaos Smokehouse, Pappas Greek, North Shore Pie Co. and Sausage Party.

DJs will be spinning tunes both nights if you want to get both your dance and drink on.

Photos by Nick Ghattas

Monday, January 15, 2018

The magical landscape of Cappadocia

I’m fortunate that I’ve been able to spend time in 69 countries, but I’ve never encountered a landscape that fascinated me as much as central Turkey’s Cappadocia region.

Cappadocia’s “fairy chimneys,” its most distinctive features, were formed by volcano lava flows that covered the hills and valleys to create a high plateau thousands of years ago. Underground cities were created to house people and animals in this surreal setting, and it’s estimated that  more than 600 churches were cut out of its rocks. 

My first taste of what Cappadocia had to offer last July came in Yaprakhisar, not far from the 16-kilometre long Ihlara Valley, where several scenes from Star Wars films have apparently been shot. Something just felt special as I stepped out of the bus, and the vistas that spread out in front of me confirmed it.

We carried on a bit further to the Derinkuyu Underground City, the largest and deepest of the region’s subterranean settlements that have been excavated. It’s estimated that there are three dozen underground cities in the area.

The admission price was 25 Turkish lira ($8.30 Canadian), which gave access to stables, churches, wineries, kitchens, wells and a variety of other rooms and chambers connected by an extensive network of tunnels over eight levels that extended 60 metres below ground level. Heavy millstones were used as doors to keep invaders out during times of war, which were the only times the underground cities were used — sometimes for up to years at a time.

Derinkuyu Underground City
Not all of the tunnels are open and you can’t go all the way to the bottom of the cave system, where the temperature is a constant 16 degrees Celsius year-round, but it was a fascinating place to spend an hour.

Ortahisar Castle
I stayed for two nights not too far away in the small town of Urgup, the home of the remains of the photogenic 13th century Ortahisar Castle, which was reopened to the public in 2013 after almost nine years of extensive renovations to protect the structure from collapsing. Steep steps and ladders lead as high as you can go in the castle after you pay the two Turkish lira (70 cents Canadian) admission fee, but the highest part remains closed for renovations. It provides prime views of the surrounding area.

I got up at 3:30 a.m. the next day, after three-and-a-half hours of sleep, to be taken to the office of Cappadocia Voyager Balloons, where I paid 520 Turkish lira ($173 Canadian) for the experience of a lifetime. After a glass of tea we were driven to the launching point, where it was interesting to watch about 60 hot air balloons prepared and inflated in the early morning darkness.

Not nearly as interesting, however, as after 20 of us climbed into the basket of a balloon and rose as high as 800 metres. We also flew low over the Pink Valley, just barely avoiding its walls, some of which had holes carved out for pigeons. We hovered above a cave town that was abandoned in 1952, and others that have been out of use for much longer, as well as numerous fairy chimneys, rock formations and a modern town.

Seeing the sun rise from this vantage point was the piece de resistance of the hour-long voyage and bucket list experience. A glass of sparkling wine, a personalized certificate and a baseball cap were waiting for me upon landing, which was a nice touch. 

Balloons take off in Cappadocia approximately 280 days a year, more than anywhere else in the world, due to benevolent winds and weather conditions. But for me, it was a once-in-a-lifetime thing that I’ll cherish forever.

Goreme Open Air Museum
The rest of the day was far from a letdown, however, as I later found myself at the Goreme Open Air Museum, where several cave churches from the ninth century on have been preserved and restored and you can view frescoes from the Byzantine era depicting scenes from the Old and New Testaments. Photography is forbidden inside the churches to protect the frescoes, but there were more than enough photo ops outside and in some of the cave living quarters, dining halls and tombs to take my camera battery levels down by several percentage points. It was well worth the 30 Turkish lira ($9.80 Canadian) entrance fee.

From there it was on to the town of Avanos, where I saw the ruins of some old houses and crossed a pedestrian suspension bridge across the Red River to a park.

It was then back on the bus for stops at two more vistas for additional photo opps of fairy chimneys and rock formations. The second overlooked the Pigeon Valley. While the rest of my tour group opted to return to our hotel, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to hike through the valley on my own.

Even better, I didn’t encounter another person — just birds, bees and jaw-dropping scenery that you couldn’t see from above. Hundreds of pigeon holes carved into the soft volcanic tuff give the valley its name, and its trail varied in width and moved back and forth from parched to covered in vegetation.

I couldn’t go any further once I came to a gorge that dropped at least 100 metres down to a green valley. I backtracked a bit and found another trail headed upward that was pretty steep and tiring in the blazing sun and 42-degree Celsius heat. It eventually led to the town of Goreme, which has several high-end hotels (including several with cave rooms) overlooking the valley.

I started walking down the highway until I was able to flag down a taxi driven by Mustafa Kemal Polat, who spoke some English and understood where I wanted to go. He had three nieces in the back seat, who were probably in their late teens or early twenties and conservatively dressed with their heads covered. They were friendly and curious and, despite out language barrier, we were able to laugh and smile and communicate a bit during the ride back to my hotel in Urgup.

It was one of my favourite interactions during my two weeks in Turkey.