London calling: A night at Westminster’s five-star boutique hotel, The Londoner

It’s not usually the loo that’s the first thing that catches my attention when entering a hotel room, but this one quite literally took me by surprise.

Before slipping into the plush robe and slippers that I hoped were waiting for me in the closet, I grabbed my phone to capture a video of my spacious quarters at The Londoner to share on Instagram — as one does to be the envy of those stuck at work back home — while the bed was still in pristine condition. As I stepped backwards to get a better angle of the soaking tub, my movement triggered the sensor-activated toilet lid behind me. I turned my gaze and was impressed to find that this wasn’t an average run-of-the-mills toilet but a premium self cleaning Japanese Toto Washlet with a heated seat. What luxury! 

From a secret whisky room to a spa that’s four levels below Leicester Square, there’s even more to The Londoner than meets the eye.

For peat's sake

Home to 350 hotel rooms and suites, The Londoner offers a mix of bars and restaurants that are open to the public, as well as spaces that are exclusive for hotel guests only. As a scotch aficionado — the peatier the better in my books — I was immediately drawn to The Whisky Room.

“Hidden behind a secret door in our guest-only residence is The Whisky Room, which is a velvet-lined parlour boasting some of the rarest and most exclusive whiskies you can find in London,” explains Patrick Katzenberg, the hotel’s general manager. “Our collection includes over 50 bottles spanning the world, dating back to pre-prohibition America (1903), from distilleries that closed many years ago, and from batches of less than a thousand ever made. Some of our favourites are the Karuizawa 42-Year-Old and the Glenfiddich Time Re:Imagined Series.”

Once you locate the secret entrance through the powder room, you can even stash a private bottle that’s kept in a secure spot until your next visit. Looking for something special? The Londoner is the only hotel in the world to house Glenfiddich’s Time Re:Imagined collection featuring three luxury single malts developed over 30, 40 and 50 years.

Deep relaxation starts here

Towering over London with views of Big Ben and the London Eye, The Londoner rises up eight floors from Leicester Square. But what’s not visible from the exterior is that it also transcends six floors down. It’s here, four levels below the bustling streets, where you find the hotel’s serene pool and spa area. 

“The Retreat is one of our most beautiful spaces, which is an entire floor dedicated to wellness experiences,” says Katzenberg. “We have an aquamarine pool and hydropool surrounded by private cabanas, a sauna, steam room, hair salon and gentlemen’s grooming parlour.” Services include deep tissue and relaxation massages as well as a CBD hibernation massage.

“For spa treatments, we work with luxury, sustainable brands to provide intensely rejuvenating experiences, from a gold hydralifting facial to a pre-natal massage,” he says. “The Retreat is also home to a stunning fully-equipped gym, yoga studio and Refuel bar, with serves delicious superfoods and smoothies perfect for a post-workout boost.”

The epitome of luxury

Conceived as a “super boutique hotel,” The Londoner is known for its lavish rooms and suites, but the crème de la crème is the luxurious Tower Penthouse, a two-storey suite complete with a Calcutta Tucci marble bar and unforgettable views of the skyline. 

“It epitomizes luxury living in the heart of London. What sets The Tower Penthouse apart is the little additions that make a stay truly memorable,” he adds. “These include a complimentary beverage trolley tailored to our guests’ preferences, as well as a visit from our mixologist to create any concoctions you may desire. In addition, a Fortnum & Mason luxury hamper, Olivia von Halle pyjamas, curated itinerary of unique cultural experiences and much more await in this spectacular suite.”

This story first appeared in the Summer 2024 issue of OFFSHORE. To subscribe to the magazine, click here

Beyond the Blue Hole: Exploring Ambergris Caye, Belize

Forget what you saw in Steven Spielberg’s cult thriller Jaws. Just because you’re going to a place with a daunting name like Shark Ray Alley doesn’t mean you shouldn’t get into the water upon arrival. Even though there will be sharks…lots of sharks. 

After an unforgettable time spotting stingrays, turtles and all kinds of tropical fish while snorkelling along a reef off the coast of Ambergris Caye, we arrived at our next destination — Shark Ray Alley — classified as Zone D of the Hol Chan Marine Reserve. “You can go in if you dare,” my guide from Xsite Belize Sailing & Adventures said with a mischievous smile, gearing up to follow me in. 

“Aren’t these nurse sharks?” I asked. “I heard they’re docile creatures,” I stated confidently — more so to reassure myself. From the surface I could only see a few nurse sharks circling around the catamaran but after jumping into the water everything truly came to life.

Through my goggles, I could see dozens of nurse sharks and hundreds of fish swimming around me.

“It’s very safe. The crew guides you while you are here. We do it every day,” reassured Tammy Lemus, the owner of Xsite Belize Sailing & Adventures. They may be dubbed harmless, but as I made eye contact with several of these creatures that average 7.5-9 ft. in length up close, I still felt a bit of a lump forming in my throat. 

“Shark Ray Alley, part of the Hol Chan Marine Reserve, became famous in the 1990s. Historically, this 1,280-acre protected region is where local fishermen cleaned their catches, attracting a variety of marine life, particularly nurse sharks and southern stingrays,” said Anthony Mahler, Belize’s minister of tourism and diaspora relations. “Over time, these animals grew accustomed to the presence of humans and began to frequent the area, creating a unique opportunity for close encounters.”

Hanging around Ambergris Caye

While Ambergris Caye is often thought of as an ideal spot for day trips to the Blue Hole, there’s so much more to see and experience on this laidback island. Here, part of the charm is getting around in a golf cart, the primary mode of transportation.

The destination offers the perfect mix of a relaxed beach getaway with nightlife and delicious dining.

To get a taste of some of the best dishes in San Pedro Town, embark on a walking foodie tour with Belize Food Tours. Take the tour early on in your visit so you gain a list of delicious places you can come back to during your stay.

The stops are very diverse from Elvi’s Kitchen, a popular tourist spot named after Elvi Staines, which has flourished from humble beginnings as a take-out stand for burgers in 1974, to off-the-beaten path places serving up delicious fresh ceviche and Pupuseria Salvadoreno, an authentic spot for Salvadorian pupusas.

Two ways to stay


As you pull into the hotel area, a road sign reads Welcome to Caribeville, Population: happy. This sets the tone for Grand Caribe Belize, a beachfront property with six pools and a swim up bar offering luxury, condo-style accommodations.

As suites come complete with kitchens, this is a great option for long stays. The hotel is within walking distance to the Truck Stop, an outdoor eatery with food trucks and a great vibe. A tasty onsite option is the rooftop Rain restaurant. For breakfast, we recommend trying the Belizean specialty known as fry jacks as a side.


For the ultimate in luxury, Alaia Belize is the first true four-diamond resort on the island. The boutique resort opened in 2021 and spans over 20 acres with 155 luxurious guest rooms and suites, including two and three-bedroom villas.

For those who like to dive, Alaia Belize allows guests to receive a PADI certification onsite. The resort boasts the country’s first-ever suspended rooftop pool and lounge. The property is part of Marriott’s Autograph Collection.

This story first appeared in the Summer 2024 issue of OFFSHORE. To subscribe to the print magazine, click here

What to see, where to stay and what to eat in Bangkok, Thailand

My first night in Bangkok, I felt a bit like Leonardo DiCaprio’s backpacker character, Richard, in the hit thriller The Beach.

As non-stop neon lights glared and English karaoke hits blared; tuk-tuks and taxis zipped and zoomed and tourists crowded the sidewalks down below, clamouring for deep-fried pork skins, chicken and even banana, I sat cross-legged on the bed in my hotel room, memorizing the details of my trip’s itinerary.

Most first-time travellers to Thailand head south after landing in Bangkok and start in the Phi Phi Islands, hitting up DiCaprio’s fictional hideaway inspired by the real-life Maya Bay, before ferrying over to Phuket, the country’s largest island covered in rainforest canopies and surrounded by warm waters so blue they look fake.

But I was heading west for Kachanaburi, the first town of several I’d be seeing in a span of eight days with G Adventures, as part of the tour operator’s National Geographic Journeys collection.

From trains to planes, rivers to waterfalls and serene Buddhist temples to bustling street markets, after starting out in the capital city of Bangkok, the itinerary encompassed visits to some of Thailand’s most popular cities, like Chiang Mai in the north, as well as lesser-known parts, like the ancient city of Ayutthaya, the former capital of the Kingdom of Siam and home to the UNESCO-designated Ayutthaya Historical Park.

As a National Geographic Journey tour, accommodations included four and five-star luxury properties and transportation (with luggage handling) via a private, air-conditioned vehicle.

From Bangkok to Chiang Mai and back, here are some of the best things to see, do and eat—as well as the best places to stay—on your next trip to Thailand.



A five-star hotel located in Chiang Mai, rates range between $67 a night for a deluxe room to $160 for the royal villa. The outdoor pool, designed to mimic the ancient Mae Ping river in the centre of the lost city of Wiang Kum Kam, is the star of the resort, framed by fragrant frangipani trees. The newly-opened Divana Spa is another highlight, with a series of signature Thai massages and treatments, including discounted morning specials for early risers.


Tucked away in Bangkok’s Chinatown neighbourhood, Shanghai Mansion is a four-star, luxury boutique property that’s located close to the famous Khao San Road, and steps from the new MRT station, Wat Mangkon.

The colourful rooms are decked out in nostalgic Chinese decor—think paper lanterns and silk throw pillows—while the lively lobby expands to the hotel’s Red Rose Restaurant, which spotlights some of the city’s best Chinese plates—including a cannabis-focused menu—and stunning cocktails in an open-air setting.


Set along the banks of the River Kwai, Royal River Kwai Resort is framed by a series of beautiful gardens and stone statues depicting Thai relics. Go for a quiet morning swim at the resort’s spacious pool, or head to the Rantee spa for a hot stone massage.

The hotel’s restaurant, also located on the river’s edge, is the perfect spot to catch a stunning sunset during dinner, or wind down with a glass of wine.


The signature dish of Chiang Mai, Khao Soi is a must for anyone visiting this part of Thailand—in fact, it can be quite tricky to find it once you leave the city. Khao soi is a coconut curry soup made with fresh egg noodles and garnished with freshly-chopped shallots, green onion, pickled Chinese cabbage, crispy fried noodles and sometimes, an egg. 

Rice accompanies many dishes in Thailand as a side, but it’s also enjoyed as a dessert, too. Mango sticky rice is made with cooked rice that’s then drizzled with a cooked coconut cream and served with sweet, ripe mango. It can also be enjoyed for breakfast or as a snack.

Thailand is home to red, yellow and green curries, each with a completely different flavour profile. While yellow is typically the mildest and red is considered medium-heat, those looking for something spicy should order the Thai green curry—but you’ve been warned! Served with warm roti bread or rice, the green curry is made with a coconut milk base, bitter-tasting baby eggplants, lime leaves and cilantro and topped with either chicken or shrimp. 



Located in Erawan National Park in Kanchanaburi, just north of Bangkok, Erawan Falls is a cascading, seven-tiered waterfall that gets its name from the three-headed mythical Hindu elephant bearing the same name.

The hike to the seventh tier takes a couple of hours, but level two of the falls is a gorgeous spot to take a dip—and enjoy a free fish spa treatment.

The falls are home to hundreds of red garra fish, sometimes called “doctor fish”, as they’re known to nibble the surface layer of your skin—it doesn’t hurt, but if you’re ticklish, just keep treading!


Thailand is home to more than 40,000 temples, ranging from ancient ruins to modern works of art. In Ayutthaya, you’ll find one of the region’s oldest and most significant temples, Wat Maha That, a former royal temple opened in 1374.

In Bangkok, travellers can visit Wat Traimit, also known as the Temple of the Golden Buddha.

Wat Pho is a temple complex where you’ll find the Reclining Buddha, a massive statue measuring 46 metres in length and 15 metres tall, covered in dazzling gold foil and mother-of-pearl. In Thailand, it’s customary to remove your shoes before entering a temple.


For those looking for a deal on souvenirs, Thailand’s night markets—aptly named because they typically open at 6 p.m. or later and run into the wee hours of the morning—are the perfect place to spend your remaining Thai baht.

Like any good street market, you can bargain with the vendors (to a degree). From incense sticks to Muay Thai boxing shorts, to handmade pottery and jade jewellery, you’ll find it here. The Anusarn Market in Chiang Mai is one such market that also doubles as a food hall where you can delve into Thai favourites, or try something new, like fried scorpion.

This story first appeared in the Summer 2024 issue of OFFSHORE. To subscribe to the print magazine, click here.

Rethink the drink: 15 of the best canned mocktails for summer

Back in 2023, Health Canada proposed new guidelines for alcohol intake, based on a series of recommendations by the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction (CCSA).

The report concluded that to reduce some of the harms associated with alcohol intake, Canadians should consume no more than two alcoholic drinks per week.

And while cutting back on booze is nothing new, the numbers don’t lie—more Canadians, especially Gen Z (those born 1997 to 2011) and Millennials (1981-1996), are embracing a sober lifestyle.

Data taken from Statistics Canada in 2021 shows that there was a 10.1 per cent decline in heavy alcohol consumption in Canadians aged 18 to 34 years, which is almost one-third (31.5 per cent) lower compared with those who reported high consumption levels in 2015, and those numbers have only continued to decline since. 

Data from the Expedia Group’s Unpack ‘24 survey also reveals that more than 40 per cent of travellers say they are likely to book a detox trip in the next year, with another one in four saying that the top reason for drinking less on vacation is to stay in control and feel better emotionally and physically.

Luckily, we’ve come a long way from justifying overpriced juice and settling for sad seltzer at the bar, or on holiday. Distillers are getting creative with their mocktails, whether that means infusing housemade syrups or using foraged herbs and botanicals for an even better buzz. In support of a hangover-free summer, here are 15 of our favourite canned mocktails for slow sipping.

Espresso Martini: Monsieur Cocktail

Largely known for their syrups and bitters, Monsieur Cocktail’s non-alcoholic line, NOA, carries a canned espresso martini beverage. Sweetened with a hint of amaretto, you can expect bold notes of roasted coffee, complete with a frothy top—just remember to shake well, first.

Gin and Tonic: Sir James 101

Pretty and pink, Sir James’ alcohol-free gin and tonic has a subtle hint of raspberry and pomegranate tucked amongst familiar herbal notes of juniper. It looks almost as good as it tastes!

Piña Colada: HP Juniper

If you like piña coladas, you’ll love this one from Quebec distiller HP Juniper—creamy coconut, fruity pineapple and warm vanilla swirl together to create the perfect fake take on this classic cocktail that pairs well with lazy days by the lake or pool.

Margarita: Little Saints

Lime, a hint of jalapeño and turmeric blend together to form this spicy take on a marg. While this drink is zero-proof, it’s infused with organic reishi mushroom—a centuries-old ingredient that calms the mind and body. And we’ll drink to that!

Martini: Mixoloshe

A little lychee and a hint of sparkle make for a mean martini. For an extra fancy take, shake and serve in a martini glass, garnished with fresh strawberries or raspberries. Mixoloshe recently rebranded to SMASHD, and their line of non-alcoholic drinks are under 50 calories and sweetened with cane sugar.

Mimosa: Fauxmosa

Whether it’s for brunch or just because, Fauxmosa’s orange mimosa with turmeric tastes like the real deal. The addition of Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc grapes and a hint of apple cider vinegar lend a familiar sour slant.

Mojito: Noroi

A hint of tangy, summer raspberries pairs perfectly with the zestiness of lime in this mojito, produced by Quebec’s own Noroi Distillerie.

Moscow Mule: Edna's

Vancouver-based Edna’s blends natural ginger, fresh lime juice and whisky extracts—lending to an almost replica taste, with none of the alcohol content.

Negroni: Wild Folk

With a sparkling twist, WildFolk’s take on a negroni has a mix of smoky and bitter botanicals like grapefruit rind, juniper, star anise and grapefruit.

Paloma: Olé

A good paloma (tequila infused with grapefruit juice) should still provide a bit of a bitter bite—Olé’s version of a Mexican classic is sweetened naturally with organic agave nectar and real grapefruit juice, so there’s none of that sickeningly sweet aftertaste.

Peach Bellini: aelo

Just like a juicy Ontario peach in the middle of August, this bellini is bursting with flavour, and soda water for a fizzy finish. This one’s sugar-free, too—aelo uses Stevia extract to sweeten its drinks.

Sangria: Clever

Crafted in Canada and distilled in small batches, juicy notes of peach blend with the taste of bitter orange and lemon peels for a truly refreshing taste.

Spritz: Optimist Botanicals

An adaptation of one of summer’s favourite drinks, the Cali Spritz blends citrus notes of pink grapefruit and Mandarin orange with bitter herbs of bay laurel, sage, wormwood, gentian and dandelion root. Ashwagandha and schisandra are added to relieve stress and promote balance.

Whisky & Cola: Lyre's

The crisp taste of cola and sweet layers of caramel, toasted nut, cedary spice and rye come together in a can of Lyre’s American Malt & Cola. Perfect as is for cottage barbecue sessions or, for an elevated take, pour into a highball glass and enjoy with a generous serving of ice.

Whisky Sour: Spiritless

An old time favourite, this pour-over version of a classic whisky sour uses Spiritless’ Kentucky 74 non-alcoholic whisky, fresh lemon juice and a touch of cane sugar. Feel free to shake with an egg white and add ice, or drink it straight from the can.

Meet the fifth generation Hawaiian family who are changing chocolate

“I’d like to introduce you to a dear friend of mine. He’s very intelligent, he’s highly evolved, he’s handsome and delicious and very shy,” tour guide Alexandria Webster said mischievously.

“Friends, this is Theo.”

Partially expecting an eligible bachelor to come sauntering around the foliage of the 46-acre Lydgate Farms in Kapaa, Kaua’i, we quickly learn that Theo is short for Theobroma cacao. Alas, not a heartthrob, but a tropical evergreen tree known for its seeds that are used to produce cocoa powder and chocolate, whose scientific name means ‘food of the gods’ in Greek.

“This mood-elevating food was discovered by the ancient Aztecs and Mayans and back then they weren’t nibbling on Hershey,” she says. “They were consuming chocolate as a ceremonial health chocolate tonic beverage and it was fermented cocoa beans with some spices like cinnamon, cardamon, vanilla bean and some hot chilli peppers. If you were drinking it you were likely a monarch or a priest because you were consuming money. This is what they would trade as their currency.”

A superfood with super qualities

On a mission to change the way people think about chocolate, Webster says many visitors who come to the farm don’t know that chocolate is a fruit.

“It’s not just a fruit, it’s a superfood. Cacao is loaded with vitamins, trace minerals, hundreds of them, it’s one of the highest whole food sources of antioxidants that you can consume. It contains over forty mood-elevating properties,” she said. 

Over the centuries, this beverage was used to treat anemia, mental fatigue, tuberculosis, fever, gout, kidney stones, and even poor sexual appetite. While most of the chocolate of today no longer has health benefits, top-of-the line fine chocolates do.

“It only takes one ounce of quality chocolate a day to reap the benefits of heart health, brain health,” she says. “It’s great for your blood circulation, it’s going to open up your vessels, it’s going to improve your mood, your alertness because of the theobromine in chocolate. So, if you eat chocolate every day, you will not only be happier, you’re going to die a little less. It’s shown to lower all-cause mortality.”

Regenerative, generational farming

Lydgate Farms is run by Will Lydgate, whose family legacy on Kaua’i can be traced back across five generations. “My great-grandfather William arrived in 1865 with a dream to help build the future of the Hawaiian Kingdom,” he says. “[I’ve] dedicated myself to building a team that grows the best cacao the world has ever tasted.”

Embodying the principle of Mālama ‘Āina, a Hawaiian word that means to care for and honour the land for future generations, sustainability is at the forefront of his efforts. In addition to producing single-estate chocolate and treats like chocolate-covered macadamia nuts, Lydgate Farms also offers vanilla beans and small-batched palm blossom honey. 

“This beautiful tropical diverse farm is cultivated in a regenerative fashion, meaning we’re reinvesting in the soil for generations to come,” says Webster, adding that honey tasting is now part of the tour. “Cacao is an equatorial fruit — it only grows about 20° of the equator. That actually makes Hawai’i the only place in the continental US that can commercially grow chocolate.”

The farm has been recognized multiple times for producing some of the best chocolate in the world at international competitions. “Our farm represents the United States of America at the Cocoa of Excellence Awards in Paris. This is a world-wide chocolate competition every two years. Our humble farm is like the Jamaican bobsled team of the chocolate world, the underdogs,” she says, referencing the cult-favourite movie Cool Runnings. “Forty-six acres is a drop in the bucket compared to Ecuador, Peru, Costa Rica, they have thousands of acres and they’ve been doing it way longer than us. Small but mighty, we are now three consecutive runnings of the 50 best tasting chocolates in the whole world.”

From bean to bar

Based solely on the terroir of the farm, chocolate bars can elicit different flavour profiles from fruits to earthy tones. While there are only 14 original families of cacao, they cross pollinate to create thousands of varietals and result in the various coloured pods that range from yellow to vibrant red.

“Chocolate that’s fermented, that has distinctive flavour, that is packed with health benefits, and is not confectionery — meaning it’s heavily diluted with milk and sugar — didn’t even exist until 1997,” she says. “Isn’t that wild? It hasn’t been that long. People are just starting to learn about the art and the science that goes into making fine chocolate. Because Hawai’i is the only state where it can be commercially grown, we’re trying to transform Kaua’i into the Napa Valley of the chocolate world.”

At US$18 a pop, a chocolate bar from Lydgate Farms comes with a heftier price tag than your typical store-bought Cadbury bar. But when you consider the process involved, it should be a lot steeper. “If I crack this seed open and plant a seed today, it takes the tree at least four to five years to start bearing mature fruit. At that age, cocoa blossoms will start to bloom. They are so small that they are not pollinated by bees. They’re pollinated by the midge, which is a type of gnat,” she says. “Then it takes six to eight months for them to mature. A cacao tree can live 50 to 100 years.”

When it’s all said and done, she said the journey from bean to bar takes six to seven years. “Chocolate has more intricacies, more terroir, more flavour markers than wine,” she says. 

This story first appeared in the Spring 2024 issue of OFFSHORE. To read the full story, click here


Here’s what it’s like diving with whale sharks in La Paz, Mexico

As the boat skimmed across the water, a massive shadow rose from the depths below.

“Shark! Shark!” Cristian yelled, and cut the engine.

Moments later, an ominous, black dorsal fin sliced through the surface. Seated on the edge of the boat, I fumbled for my mouthpiece and adjusted my snorkel mask. Then, taking a final shaky breath, I jumped.

At first, I saw nothing. On an overcast day in La Paz, Mexico, even at the surface the water was as cloudy as the sky above. The murkiness limited my visibility to a mere two feet. 

But suddenly, the light shifted. And then I saw it.

Face to fin with the world's biggest fish

Like something out of a horror flick, in a matter of seconds, I was face to face with the largest fish in the world. Despite my love of the ocean, I have an irrevocable fear of deep water and everything that lurks below.

Growing up and spending my summers in Muskoka, even locking eyes with a large-mouthed bass or a Northern pike was enough to send me flailing wildly back to shore. For that reason alone, I’d never scuba dived or snorkelled. And on rare occasions when I ventured past my hips for a swim, I’d pictured this moment one thousand times; a lone, vicious shark appearing from the deep and ripping me to bloody shreds.

Underwater, time seemed to slow down while my heartbeat sped up. Frozen, I watched through my mask as a whale shark approximately 30 feet in length glided past, close enough that I could touch it. I didn’t scream and fill my breathing tube with saltwater and drown in a watery grave like I always imagined. 

Instead, I silently kicked my flippers and swam side by side with this gentle, polka-dotted giant.

Whale sharks, despite their massive stature and wide mouths, are among the most docile of their species. Filter feeders, their cavernous mouths are lined with about 300 super tiny teeth, allowing for a generous scoop of plankton and small fish, which is their primary diet. They can live anywhere from 80 to 130 years, and have been around since the Jurassic period.

In La Paz, whale shark tours are available from October through May and can be arranged through a certified guide. Just two hours north of Los Cabos, La Paz is the capital of Baja California Sur, a Mexican state on the Baja California peninsula. Whale shark season in this area typically runs from the winter into early spring, making this an excellent time for a chance encounter.

Just as quickly as it’d appeared, after two minutes of our synchronized swim, the shark picked up speed and continued on its own trajectory into the sea.

Popping up to the surface, I was met with cheers from the rest of my dive group.

“That was amazing! Go again?” Christian yelled.

“I think I’m good,” I yelled back, and started a speedy front crawl back to the boat—because after what I just witnessed, who knows what else might lie beneath?

Inside the Italian town that gave us Parmesan cheese

On a trip to the grocery store the other day, I found myself standing in the pasta aisle.

Stocked between the packages of linguine and penne, rigatoni and fusilli, and hovering above exorbitant rows of pre-mixed jars of pasta sauce, were an army of plastic shakers, crammed with Parmesan cheese.

Grabbing one, I rolled the container over and skimmed the ingredients: cellulose powder, potassium sorbate, calcium chloride, lipase, sorbic acid…the list went on, with a string of other words that sounded just as unnatural. 

Don’t get me wrong; I’d grown up eating the Parmesan cheese I was now side-eyeing. After ladling chunky Bolognese sauce onto a plate of steaming, buttered spaghetti noodles, the cheese was the next best part, even though sometimes you’d have to whack the bottom to get the clumpy pieces to break apart. After a few vigorous shakes with roughly a quarter of the container dispersed, the pasta was ready to eat.

I never gave much thought to this cheese, which for some reason, could sit on a shelf with dried goods and not go bad, sometimes for more than a year. But after visiting a local caseificio, (known locally as a classic dairy farm) in Parma, Italy, I had a new appreciation for one of North America’s favourite cheeses.

A 1,000 year-old secret

 Like the city’s name suggests, Parma is the birthplace of Parmigiano Reggiano, which is a protected designation of origin product, and somewhat of a national treasure to all of Italy.

For one thousand years, the production of Parmigiano Reggiano in Parma has followed an ancient recipe using just three simple ingredients: milk, salt and rennet—familiar and natural ingredients, I might add. With such simple origins, the final product is also lactose-free, high in protein and low in fat.

Originating in the Middle Ages, Benedictine monks were the first to start churning out large wheels of cheese with a long maturation period, using salt from the nearby Salsomaggiore salt mines and fresh cow’s milk.

Free from additives and preservatives, the longer the cheese aged, the more value it held.

According to the Consortium of Parmigiano Reggiano, which was founded in 1901 in a bid to authenticate and differentiate between copycat Parmesan cheeses, the first evidence of cheese being used as commerce through trade dates back to a record of sale in the 12th century. From dowries to land agreements, cheese was used as a form of currency for hundreds of years.

The making of a perfect Parmesan

At Azienda Agricola Bertinelli, a producer of Parmigiano Reggiano, the process starts with roughly 550 litres of raw milk.

“Half of the milk is from the previous evening that is kept in large containers and half is from this morning,” said Giovanna Rosati, spokesperson for the  Consortium of Parmigiano Reggiano. “In the morning, they push the container over the vat and the partially skimmed milk falls into the vat. They are not allowed to use a decreamer, because it would alter the milk. It’s a great example of a protected designation of origin (PDO) product, which is a product that owes its characteristics to its area of origin, where it is produced, not to some secret patented recipe,” she added.

From there, rennet (an enzyme found in the stomach of dairy cattle) is added and the milk begins to naturally curd. Next, it’s the job of the master cheesemaker to break the curd down and begin cooking the cheese. Using steam, the curds sink to the bottom of the vat and begin to form one giant mass. From start to finish, the process takes roughly 50 minutes, in which two twin wheels of cheese are created. 

But the work doesn’t stop there. After cooking, each cheese is wrapped in a traditional linen cloth, then placed in a traditional mould, which gives it its classic wheel shape. Next, it’s transferred to a casein plate, which is outfitted with a sequential alphanumeric code that enables the cheese to be traced all the way back to its origins.

Holding up the stencil, Rosati looks almost like a WWE wrestler with the prized championship belt. “This engraves a few key details on the rind of the cheese,” she explains, noting it includes the code of the dairy producer where the cheese was made, as well as the month and year of production.

To be classified as a true Parmigiano Reggiano product, the cheese must be aged for a minimum of 12 months and undergo a rigorous quality control check, which includes a series of tapping tests to check for air pockets or tears.

And as for the cheese that doesn’t pass the test?

It’s cut up and sold as regular Parmesan—not to say that it isn’t outstanding, but without that stamp of approval, it’s no Parmigiano Reggiano. 

This story first appeared in the Spring 2024 issue of OFFSHORE. To read the full version, click here to access a digital copy.

Luxury motels are trending—but should you book a stay?

Boutique motels, with their modest room count, old school hospitality and all-around affordability are an ideal choice for travellers from all walks of life.

A few years ago, if you’d told me that I would be willingly spending my weekend at a motel, I probably would have laughed.

If countless road trips across Canada—and one too many reruns of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 horror flick, Psycho, taught me anything— it was that these places, whose flickering neon signs beckoned slyly from the parking lot, offered cheap rates for a reason. 

It didn’t used to be like that, though. Motels as we know them started dotting North American roadways in the 1920s. Their origins were primitive at best, offering weary travellers a place to wash up and lay their heads. 

The term “motel” was actually coined from the words “motor hotel” because these accommodations primarily targeted travelling motorists. After the Second World War, motels spiked in popularity, as more attractive features, like outdoor pools or kitchenettes were introduced. But by the 1960s, as chain hotels emerged, motel bookings tanked. While hotel brands continued to reinvent themselves to cater to an ever-changing clientele, motels remained entrenched in the past. 

Now, decades later, motels have entered their renaissance era.

Motel mania

A far cry from the seedy, roadside fixtures with their often sleazy connotations featured in Hollywood cinema, boutique motels are having a moment. Often refurbished or completely gutted from the ground up, these new motels include thoughtful amenities, sought-after perks and contemporary decor that give select high-end hotels a run for their money.

From on-site wine bars and farm-to-table eateries, to full-fledged room service and generously stocked minibars, in-room spa treatments and on-site after-hours socials, these motels leave dingy stereotypes in the dust. 

And so, on a Saturday afternoon, I found myself checking into The Beach Motel. 

As a travel editor, I’ve lost count of the five-star hotels I’ve stayed at around the world. From private infinity plunge pools overlooking the Caribbean Sea, to signature scents in-room and even pillow menus, luxury properties are constantly coming up with new ways to make your stay feel extra special. But after stepping into the lobby and receiving a signature welcome drink and a hot towel during check-in, The Beach Motel immediately felt very on par to the level of hospitality I’ve come to expect from those high-end properties.

An elevated stay

Stepping into my suite, the elevated hospitality continued—there were chocolates on the bed, the heated floors had been turned on, and general manager, Amanda Deer, was eager to help answer any questions or attend to special requests.

Located on the shores of Southampton, one of Ontario’s best summer beach towns, the property is owned and operated by Dane and Samantha Buttenaar. With backgrounds in landscaping and real estate, the couple opened The Beach Motel in March 2022, successfully transforming the old Huron Haven motel that occupied the lot years before.

“I think since the shift to hotels, motels have been neglected and always been a ma and pa type establishment. Normally owner occupied, they were understaffed and not well kept,” said Dane Buttenaar, co-owner, The Beach Motel. “More recently, there’s been a shift from hotel accommodations to Airbnb and boutique properties that allow a more personal touch. We enjoyed embracing a guest-focused experience that allowed guests to not only have great service, but the chance to all interact and converse about travel and our beautiful town, Southampton.”

Home to 17 suites, each room is outfitted with either a king or queen-sized bed, a soaker tub and a rainfall shower and heated bathroom floors. Additional in-room, hotel-like amenities include a Nespresso machine stocked with a selection of coffees and teas, matching robes, a hair dryer, a mini fridge and even an ice bucket as well as wine and cocktail glasses. 

The Beach Motel also houses a spa that offers massages and facials, a two-person sauna and an on-site restaurant, with a weekly farm-to-table menu executed by chef Carey McLellan. Inside the restaurant, which doubles as a lounge, guests can take their pick of complimentary board games and plenty of paperbacks, and on cooler nights, enjoy a drink by the cozy stone fireplace. It’s that smaller setting coupled by its communal spaces, that make you feel so much more connected to the property and the staff. 

Of course, it’s important to also point out a few key differences between a high-end motel, such as The Beach Motel, and a true five-star hotel, too. With fewer rooms and a lower guest-to-staff ratio, you can expect an intimate atmosphere and a more personalized approach to service. However, many boutique motels don’t offer a 24-hour concierge; instead the front desk follows a dedicated hourly schedule. Parking may also be limited in busier months, and on-site restaurant hours close earlier than the restaurants in town. 

But if it’s small town hospitality and a charming experience you’re after, give the humble motel another chance.

More motels to explore in Ontario

The Drake Motor Inn

Dubbed Prince Edward County’s most retro inn, The Drake Motor Inn is operated by the same owners of Toronto’s beloved Drake Hotel and Wellington’s Drake Devonshire. Wrapped in bright, funky colours, this pet-friendly motel features 12 guestrooms, all decked out with art and photography. Guests can enjoy plenty of perks, including complimentary use of Polaroid cameras for the perfect selfie, as well as a plethora of dining options at the Drake Devonshire.

Penny’s Motel

A laid back, old school vibe, minus the bubblegum pink bathtub awaits at Penny’s, located in Thornbury, Ont. on the coast of Georgian Bay. The swanky-looking motel offers 13 pet-friendly rooms, stocked with Malin + Goetz bath products, heated floors and rainfall showers. Locally-sourced food, including build-your-own s’mores abound at Apres, Penny’s snack bar. Other amenities include complimentary bikes, communal fire pits and heated patios.

Somewhere Inn

Outside of Ottawa in Calabogie, Somewhere Inn, opened in August 2021, breathes new life into an old motel from the 1970s. Its oversized, dog-friendly rooms that can sleep up to eight are TV-free (encouraging you to explore somewhere new, duh) and furnished with comfortable queen and king-sized beds. Nespresso machines, soaker tubs, Endy mattresses and fluffy duvets make this spot feel just like home for you and your furry friend for as long as you’d like.

Hiking Italy’s most heavenly route

I’m sitting along a wooden table overlooking the dramatic cliffs of the Amalfi Coast, feasting on freshly-made goat cheese, deep-fried fritters, roasted tomatoes and eggplants, while sipping on homemade red wine with a group of fellow travellers from around the world, when an impromptu concert breaks out.

Nino Aversa, one of the guides leading my small hiking trip, has joined goatherd Antonio Milo, the owner of the charming stone-built farmhouse who prepared our meal, and the pair start singing and playing instruments, tapping their feet along to the rhythm.

Although Milo, who takes care of some 100 goats on site, only purchased the farmhouse several years ago, he comes from a long line of goatherds. Travelling daily to milk the goats and oversee the property, he was inspired to expand the venture to provide a true farm-to-table experience for guests. There’s no fixed price menu for hikers who stumble upon him, and he works with local hiking outfitters to feed their group tour bookings as a side business.

Although I don’t understand the words, as they’re serenading us to the tune of O Sarracino, an old Neapolitan folk song, I can’t help but think: I’m so glad I wound up here.

A mere few days earlier I was destined to be doing a day trip to the island of Capri instead, but due to rough waters, the journey was cancelled.

With a gap to fill in my agenda, I serendipitously found a guided tour with Sorrento Hiking to the famed Path of the Gods hiking route online and immediately locked it in. After a last minute pit-stop to a nearby mall to procure some appropriate hiking attire, I was on my way. 

The Sentiero degli Dei, or Path of the Gods as it’s known in English, is a stunning trekking route along the Amalfi Coast that provides an amazing vantage point over the picturesque towns of Praiano and Positano.

Long before it became a popular hiking route, the trail was developed centuries ago as a mule-track to link the dairy farms with the towns along the coast. While there are several different options to hike along the Path of the Gods, their recommended route goes from Bomerano to Nocelle, which Aversa describes as “walking between heaven and earth.”

There are no guardrails along the route, just steep drops that almost induce vertigo if you stand too close to the edge.

In the car transfer over to the beginning of the trail from Sorrento that morning, my other passionate guide, Giovanni Gargiulo, inquired about what I’d heard about the difficulty of the path. Much to my dismay, when I shared that I’ve read it’s an easy-to-moderate hike, the German tourists in the backseat chimed in that everything they’ve read contradicted that. 

“It’s definitely more of a challenging route,” Gargiulo confirmed, but then quickly reassured me that we could take it at our own pace. 

For seven kilometres, the hike seemingly did a never-ending loop, complete with steep hills and descents. Gruelling at times, the frequent stops to admire the views from the top reminded me why I set out on this path in the first place.

By the time we reached the farmhouse, I was eager to enjoy a home-cooked spread and taste some well-deserved vino. 

Driving back in the car Gargiulo asks how I enjoyed the hike. It wasn’t the path I’d originally set out on, but it’s one I’m glad I took.

This story first appeared in the Winter 2023 issue of OFFSHORE. To read the digital issue, click here. 

A tourist’s guide to loving Vietnam

I had some initial apprehension upon learning that I’d be checking into a ‘junk boat’ for the next two nights. But upon seeing my home on the water, I quickly discovered that unlike the sound of the name, it’s actually not a shabby way to spend the night. 

In fact, these sleeper ships, which range from basic bare bones boats to luxurious yachts, are the perfect gateway to experiencing Vietnam’s postcard-worthy Halong Bay, where 1,969 unusually shaped tree-covered limestone islands and islets jet out from the water.

After we stashed our luggage in our onboard rooms, tour guide John Tran began leading our small group of travellers on the Classic Vietnam itinerary with Canada-based tour operator, G Adventures. He describes it as a more “off-the-grid kayak excursion” to explore several remarkable caves along the UNESCO World Heritage site. With the job title of CEO — that’s Chief Experience Officer — he says he’s “in charge of facilitating life-changing experiences.”

Topping the list on today’s adventure are a visit to Trong Cave, where the ceiling is covered in stalactites and gives way to impressive views of the area’s famous towering limestone islands, and Trinh Nu Cave, which can best be described as an outer-worldly natural attraction. Although there were many other junk boats around our boat, we have these fascinating spots to ourselves. 

The next morning, we set out bright and early after a hearty breakfast on a mission to climb the nearby Ti Top island. Although all the islands in Halong Bay are uninhabited, Ti Top features a pagoda at the top offering visitors a bird’s eye view of the surrounding area. 

It’s a balmy 43°C out as we slowly conquer the 400 steps to reach the top, but the view surpassed my expectations. While I’d seen countless pictures taken from this exact spot, it didn’t prepare me for how vast the area is. Dripping in sweat and high on adrenaline for making it to the top, we take advantage of our own photo opportunities, before climbing down the steps for a refreshing reward: taking a swim at the sandy beach at the bottom of the island’s shore. 

Coffee and culture collide in Hanoi

Earlier in the week, we headed to Hanoi Food Culture for a lesson in making a local specialty known as egg coffee. The restaurant is a G Values Fund project, an initiative where former G Adventures tour leaders can open their own businesses with low interest loans through the tour operator.

“These are funds that we set up for former CEOs. When they’re tired of guiding our tours but they still want to be involved with the company, they can apply for a low interest loan and start up a business of their own as local suppliers,” explains Jenna English, global purpose specialist for British Columbia & Northern Territories at G Adventures. After interacting with travellers day in and day out, she says CEOs often see the need for what kind of businesses are lacking in an area through their tour experiences.

While setting up the egg coffee demonstration, co-owner Lap Nguyen explains how he shifted gears to launch the restaurant. “I used to be a CEO, running tours on the road,” Nguyen says. “One day, my wife called me when I was in Siem Reap and said that she had cancer so I decided to quit the job and come back here.”

Through access to funding from the G Values Fund, Hanoi Food Culture was born. While we’re here for a coffee demonstration, the restaurant is open for lunch and dinner and hires students as its main staff. “The story of the egg coffee — it’s a Hanoi specialty. Hoi An and Saigon also have egg coffee, but they’re not the original, Hanoi is the place where the egg coffee came from. Egg in coffee, it seems very weird right?” he says, noting that the dish is indeed made with egg yolks. “It started over 100 years ago. If you go to any coffee shop and ask, ‘hey, what’s the recipe?’ They never want to share with you, but here we want to share it with you. It’s a million dollar business idea when you go home.”

This story first appeared in the Winter 2023 issue of OFFSHORE. To read the full version, click here