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Meet Travel Writer Carolyn Heller

Carolyn B. Heller is one of those veteran travel writers you want to talk to, whether you need advice about travelling in Ontario or China. In her more than 15 years as a professional travel writer she’s authored or contributed to more than 50 guidebooks for Avalon Travel, Lonely Planet, Fodor’s and Zagat and covered destinations in more than 40 countries across six continents.

Based in Vancouver, Carolyn is a U.S. expat and new Canadian citizen who has authored the travel and relocation guide Living Abroad in Canada and the recently released first-edition guidebook Moon Handbooks: Ontario. She’s written about numerous British Columbia destinations as a contributor to guidebooks Fodor’s Vancouver & Victoria, Moon Metro Vancouver, and the Best Places Northwest, and she recently contributed the Canadian entries to Lonely Planet’s The World’s Best Street Food, writing about beavertails and poutine. She’s also written about food and travel for publications including the Boston Globe, Los Angeles Times, Real Weddings and Perceptive Travel; she writes the WanderFood culinary travel blog for the women’s travel Web site WanderlustandLipstick.com and dishes about hotels in Canada and elsewhere for Hotel-Scoop.com.

What was your last trip and where are you off to next?

I’ve just returned from two-and-a-half weeks in Europe. My husband Alan and I did a cycling trip with friends in France’s Dordogne region, where we started our days with pain au chocolat and wrapped up with goose confit. Then, we went to Denmark to spend a week in and around Copenhagen, eating pastries, pickled herring, pastries, shrimp salad, and more pastries. Do you sense a food theme here?

Next up, I’m planning a trip to Toronto for the launch of my new travel guide, Moon Handbooks: Ontario. I’m also hoping to do a lot more Canadian travel this year. When my family and I recently became Canadian citizens, we were excited to receive our Cultural Access Passes, which give new citizens free admission to a variety of cultural institutions across the country and to all the Canadian National Parks for a year. Several destinations in Atlantic Canada and Quebec are on my wish list, along with national parks in BC and Alberta, and I’m hoping to visit Haida Gwaii, too. What a good excuse for some cross-Canada adventures!

What brought you north of the border from the U.S. to live in Vancouver, and what has kept you there?

My husband works in high-tech, and after we’d been living in Boston for nearly 20 years, he was unexpectedly offered a job in Vancouver. While we were happy in Boston, the idea of living in another country—even one that’s right next door—was very appealing. Once we got here, we fell in love with Vancouver’s natural setting and laid-back lifestyle. And while Vancouverites complain about traffic and parking, it’s a breeze compared to Boston.

Not being a native Vancouverite (or Canadian), what have been a few of your favourite discoveries about Vancouver?

Like many newcomers, I was excited to discover the Granville Island Public Market, the massive totem poles in the Museum of Anthropology, and the seawall path that surrounds Stanley Park. More recently, I’ve grown to love sampling handmade Chinese noodles and bubble tea, exploring the local farmer’s markets and Asian grocery stores, going for coffee on Commercial Drive, checking out what’s on stage at the Cultch (the Vancouver East Cultural Centre), and riding my bike around False Creek or on one of the many bikeways across town.

In and around Vancouver, what is your favourite:

Restaurant to take friends and family from out of town to for a meal or experience that’s quintessentially “Vancouver”?
I have to pick just one? I love taking visitors to Gastown to contemporary restaurants like Boneta or L’Abbatoir that showcase BC ingredients in creative ways. For a more casual experience, I’d choose small plates at one of the Japanese izakayas, like Kingyo or Guu Garlic. And I’m always excited to bring friends to Richmond for top-notch Chinese food; although it’s hard to choose one favorite, I’ve had good meals recently at Dinesty, Suhang, and the Hunan-style Bushuair (4600 No. 3 Rd., Richmond; 604-285-3668).

Place to enjoy natural beauty?
Spanish Banks Beach, where you can walk along the sand with views of the mountains and the city in the distance.

Experience worth splurging on?
The amazingly creamy and flavorful Gelato from Bella Gelateria. At nearly $5 for a tiny cup, it’s the perfect small splurge!

Underrated attraction?
I’m a total food nerd, so I’d have to pick the Crystal Mall in Burnaby, which has a mind-blowing food court with scads of cheap and tasty Asian food stalls. It’s like a quick trip to Beijing or Hong Kong.

You recently spent some time in Ontario working on a new guidebook to the province. What are some things you experienced that travellers to Ontario should absolutely not miss?

Living in BC, which is strikingly beautiful, I confess that I was surprised—and thrilled—at the number of gorgeous natural spots I visited in Ontario. If you haven’t been to the Bruce Peninsula, Killarney Provincial Park, or Lake Superior Provincial Park, go now! Ontario’s landscape is so varied, from the “flowerpot” rock formations in the Fathom Five National Marine Park to the pink granite cliffs at Killarney to the crashing surf on the Lake Superior beaches.

If you’re interested in learning more about First Nations culture, I’d recommend a trip to Manitoulin Island. The Great Spirit Circle Trail, an island-based aboriginal tourism organization, offers a number of First Nations cultural experiences, from dance to food to traditional herbal medicine.

Ontario played an important role in the Underground Railroad, the network of “safe houses” that sheltered slaves in the 1800s fleeing from the American south to freedom in Canada. Growing up in the U.S., I had learned a lot about the slaves’ flight, but southwestern Ontario sights, like the Buxton National Historic Site and Museum, Uncle Tom’s Cabin Historic Site, and the John Freeman Walls Historic Site tell the intriguing story of how the former slaves established their new lives here in Canada.

I’d also recommend a food-and-wine weekend in the Twenty Valley, Prince Edward County, or the Lake Erie North Shore. Bring a group of friends or a special someone for some laid-back wine touring and local food sampling.

And you can’t miss Toronto for its great food, excellent museums (I especially enjoy the Bata Shoe Museum and the Art Gallery of Ontario), and always-something-happening cultural scene; Ottawa for Parliament Hill, more great museums like the Canadian Museum of Civilization and the National Gallery of Canada, and the festivals that seem to take place nearly every week; and of course Niagara Falls. I’ve been to the falls several times, and I’m just as wowed as I was on my first trip.

Is there anything you ate that blew you away?

The vegan tasting menu at Zen Kitchen in Ottawa. The simple and fresh house salad at the Merrill Inn in Prince Edward County. And butter tarts, pretty much everywhere I could find them!

What has been one of the strangest experiences you had travelling in Ontario (or Canada)?

The most distinctive experience I had in Ontario was spending a couple of days on Moose Factory Island, a predominantly Cree First Nations community in the northeastern part of the province, near James Bay. I took the Polar Bear Express Train, since there are no roads that travel that far north. I had a great dinner at the Cree Village Eco-Lodge, where they use traditional ingredients in dishes like bison chili and baked pickerel, and it was fascinating just to wander around and chat with local residents about life on such a remote northern island.

What have you learned about Canada in general since you became a Canadian resident? Has anything surprised you?

All kinds of things surprised me! From common Canadian words that Americans generally don’t know (like toque or “pencil crayon” or garburator [garbage disposal unit]), to foods I’d never tasted (including Saskatoon berries, Nanaimo bars, and butter tarts), to much bigger cultural differences on immigration, health care, and other social issues. I definitely had a lot to learn, which was one reason I wrote my book, Living Abroad in Canada, a guide to relocating to Canada that combines practical advice with discussions about these cultural distinctions. I hoped that other newcomers could benefit from my family’s experiences.

What three things do you always travel with, gear-wise?

My camera (a Canon Powershot A710). A snack. And a stash of plastic bags, since you never know when you might need to wrap up your wet shoes or a leftover slice of Camembert.

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Check in on Carolyn’s travels on her Web site, www.cbheller.com or follow her on Twitter @CarolynBHeller.

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