In Kingston, Ontario – situated high upon a rather large hill, there lies a storied old fortress, forever standing watch over the Limestone City below. As the warmth of summer and colourful autumn come to pass – the old fort grows colder, quieter and lonelier as the winds of winter howl and whisper within its ancient stone walls. [Read more…]
It seems like it was only yesterday that we were at Upper Canada Village to create a story about the amazing autumn fantasy of Pumpkinferno. I have always loved visiting the village ever since I was a young lad. Whether it was during a school trip or a summer outing with my family, a visit to Upper Canada Village was always a big highlight. To this day, as I walk across the iconic bridge and into the village proper, I feel the same level of hype as when I was eight years old.
It goes without saying, that when Heidi and I were invited to return to the village and bear witness to the festive and luminous spectacle known as Alight at Night – we jumped at the opportunity. Neither of us had experienced Alight at Night before this – so it was going to be absolutely fresh.
In the days leading up to our trip, the excitement was hard to contain. We’d be meeting up once again with Susan LeClair (Manager of Customer Service & Corporate Communications, Parks of the St. Lawrence) for a personalized tour of Alight at Night’s 2017 premiere.
Little did I know, but Heidi and Susan had more than a few surprises in store for me this time around!
Montgomery House: Hospitality With a Heritage Edge
During the drive from Kingston to Morrisburg, it dawned on me that we hadn’t booked a hotel for the night. When I asked Heidi about it, she casually replied: “No worries, it’s been taken care of.”
After arriving at the village, we quickly met up with Susan at the Discovery Centre which was decorated to the nines with iconic holiday visuals. Hard to miss was the 8-foot tall Nutcrackers standing guard at the main desk.
After saying our hello’s – Susan said she would show us to our accommodations. That’s when it dawned on me. We were going to spend the night at Upper Canada Village?! Whaaaaaaat?!?!
Our ‘room’ for the night would be the historic Montgomery House; an adorable two-storey log cabin situated on the Northern outskirts of the village. It is a truly timeless little dwelling, like something from the pages of a Laura Ingalls Wilder novel. The brilliant little cabin was first built in the 1700’s and originally located on Kitley Line 8 Road near Frankville Ontario. Today, it stands as a fully refurbished and accessible guest lodging at Upper Canada Village.
When Susan opened the door to the house and led us inside, I was instantly amazed. The bright hardwood floors and warm wooden beams that supported the ceilings only added to the cozy atmosphere. To top it off, the house was lovingly decorated with a beautiful Christmas tree – which was nothing short of perfection!
After relaxing for an hour or so in our cozy lodgings, I was still overwhelmed by the surprise. I had always thought that spending a night at Upper Canada Village would be super-cool – and we were about to do just that! I couldn’t get too comfortable, however, because our night was just getting started!
A Magical Twilight Carriage Ride
The daylight was waning as we headed into the village, and crossed the main bridge on Queen Street. Not far from the crossing, Heidi indicated that we should wait for our ride.
Before I could ask what she was talking about, a distinct jingle filled the air, accompanied by the unmistakable sound of approaching hooves. It was at that moment that yet another surprise was unveiled!
There, before my eyes was a vintage vis à vis style carriage, drawn by a pair of the village’s magnificent Canada Breed horses!
We were about to embark on a charming ride, courtesy of Pommier Jewellers! Absolutely stunning!
As we climbed into the carriage, I was blown away by the detail of the interior. The vintage-inspired upholstered seats and warm blankets made for a cozy and comfortable ride. For the next thirty minutes, we were mystically transported back in time, for a beguiling ride throughout the entire village.
The experience was nothing short of pure bliss. The sky grew progressively darker as we were chauffeured in elegant style with a beautiful view of the various buildings in their immaculate holiday adornments. This was likely how dignitaries or well-to-do folks travelled in the 1800’s. And by that I mean, in absolute style.
As our carriage continued along the roadway the air was filled with the sound of the bells that were fixed to each horse’s harness and the signature clip-clop of their hooves upon the ground. It was an intimate and heartwarming experience – but also the perfect mood setter for things to come. For that unforgettable thirty minutes, we were a part of living history!
Best of all, guests of Alight at Night can arrange their very own Pommier Carriage Experience! The cost includes admission to the event, as well as a splendid gift bag consisting of fresh village bread, artisan cheese and a bottle of sparkling apple cider!
A Warm Welcome at Willard’s Hotel
As our ride ended, the carriage driver reined the horses to a stop in front of the brilliantly lit and familiar sight of Willard’s Hotel. As I stepped out of the carriage, the hotel’s hostess was waving to us from the front door as though we were returning home from a long journey.
I stepped out of the carriage and thanked our driver, before turning to face Heidi. “I’ve always wanted to do this ma’am!” I said as I offered her my hand, and helped her out of the carriage like a cowboy in one of those classic Western films.
Upon entering the hotel’s foyer, our hostess greeted us with the warm and welcoming manner one would expect from a fine establishment such as Willard’s. We were shown to a table in the East wing dining area where we sat in the candlelit glow and festive ambience throughout the room.
To start, we each enjoyed a savoury hot apple cider with spiced rum. The drink’s aromatic character carried a scintillating scent that only served to further awaken the holiday spirit within. Normally I’ve been accustomed to Eggnog, but this hot and delicious beverage was truly the nectar of the gods.
Sorry, ‘Lait Du Poulet’ – but there’s a new sheriff in town!
We began our meal with a hot bowl of pea soup, the likes of which I haven’t tasted since my grandmother’s top-secret recipe. It had that signature made from scratch quality and was the perfect appetizer after stepping in from the chilly evening air.
For the main course, Heidi chose to enjoy a traditional roast turkey dinner – complete with cranberry sauce, homemade stuffing, mashed potatoes and root vegetables. I selected the baked ham – which came drizzled with a sweet dijon glaze, heavenly mashed potatoes and buttered carrots. The ham was beyond delicious, and the potatoes were so creamy and flavourful I didn’t feel compelled to add butter. It was that good.
It goes without saying, that a meal at Willard’s is like tasting our national heritage. Locally sourced ingredients of the finest quality – prepared by a skilled and dedicated team of chefs. The impeccable service of the wait staff only serves to enhance the overall experience, with a storied level of hospitality that makes each visit truly memorable. There’s really nothing quite like it.
For dessert, I could not pass up on my personal favourite: the ultimate decadence of Willard’s Classic British Pudding. Heidi also chose a favourite: the delectable apple rhubarb crumble. Coupled with a hot cup of coffee, nothing could have been more perfect.
Walkin’ in a (Real Life) Winter Wonderland!
After dinner, we were reunited with Susan to begin our whimsical walk through Alight at Night! After such an immense meal at Willard’s, we were certainly happy for the opportunity to burn off some calories! Ironically, our first stop was the village’s legendary bakery. This is where the famous village bread is prepared!
The Baker, like the other artisan makers of Upper Canada Village, is a hard-working professional, employing the same technology and techniques of the 19th century. It results in a loaf of bread that is light years ahead of the grocery store stuff as far as quality and taste go.
Up to 70 or more loaves of bread can be baked at a time within the oven’s massive inner-chamber! Without the luxury of digital thermometers and other modern tools, the baker is left to determine when a batch is ready using his honed senses of sight, smell, and by feeling the temperature wafting from the oven. I could have stayed in the bakery getting lost in that amazing smell, but we had to keep moving.
Our walk through the village was best described as a stroll through the very feeling of Christmas. The radiant glow of the lights were breathtaking – each building and house intricately profiled and awash in over one million LED lights. From the azure brilliance of the chapel on Church Street, the spellbinding sound of traditional Carols could be heard, sang by an angelic voice through a series of speakers placed around the village.
I’m going to take a moment right now, to say that even the most crotchety of Scrooge cannot withstand the awesome and raw festive power of Alight at Night. Try to utter but a single “Bah Humbug” let alone think it, and you’ll find yourself uncontrollably giddy and offering the nearest kid half a crown to fetch you the prize turkey from the Poulterer.
My Holiday Sense is Tingling! A Sneak Peek at Twinkle Town
As our tour brought us to the Village Fairgrounds, it was apparent that the area had been transformed into an awesome holiday-themed winter carnival, complete with hot cocoa stands, air castles and a huge inflatable slide! There was a massive inflatable igloo, as well as a group of picnic tables situated around some decorative torches.
Twinkle Town is the perfect place to warm up, and take a breather while your kids go bananas in the jumpers and slides. The difficult part, however, will be getting them to leave. I really, really wanted to go down the slide, but I was afraid I’d break it much to the dismay of every child in the village.
Oh well. Maybe they will set up some big kid air castles next year? Hint, hint, nudge, nudge.
A Chance Encounter With Saint Nick Himself!
As we neared the end of our tour, we made our way to the prominent Crysler Hall, which was decorated in true holiday fashion. Within the stately mansion, a rather special guest was entertaining several young visitors – and discussing their Christmas wish lists in great detail. I could hardly believe my eyes!
Jolly Old Saint Nick himself has taken up a temporary residence at the Hall, where he will be staying for the remainder of Alight at Night. This is the best opportunity for the kids to be granted an audience with Santa, and let him know their holiday wishes! We kept our visit with Santa very brief because there was a noticeable line-up of kids waiting to see him.
As we left, I regarded his elaborate Victorian ensemble with great esteem. “You have one heck of a tailor Santa!” I remarked as we started to make our way to the exit.
“Why thank you Michael, but flattery won’t get you any new XBOX games this year.” He said, followed by his signature “Ho-Ho-Ho” which froze me in my tracks!
OMG… He’s really real!
A Final Stroll Through the Gift Shop
To wrap things up, (pun intended) we traditionally followed the Exit Through The Gift Shop routine – only to find ourselves in the Village Store’s all-new holiday setup! All the traditional goodies were exactly where you’d expect, along with a vast selection of charming and festive items to peruse.
I couldn’t help but notice that Heidi was quite taken with the decorative reindeer memorabilia pictured above.
“Which one do you want for Christmas?” I asked.
“All of them,” Heidi whispered.
Recline and Relax at Montgomery House
After saying our goodbyes to Susan, we made our way back to the comforts of our cabin where we popped open our bottle of sparkling cider, taking this opportunity to unwind after the evening’s events. It was all so amazing; I was still fairly rambunctious from it all.
The Pommier carriage ride, an amazing dinner, the sheer beauty of the village, Twinkle Town, Santa knowing my name…
It was an overload of awesome that hit me right in the festive feels. I’m not lying when I say that we slept rather soundly in that bed, while “visions of sugarplums danced in our head.”
Invoke Your Holiday Spirit!
Not everyone is head-over-heels in love with winter. And that’s totally understandable. While the picturesque snow-laden landscapes of South Eastern Ontario are absolutely beautiful, winter in the big city can be a cold, hectic and rather messy ordeal. Whether it’s getting slushed at the bus stop, traversing icy sidewalks, or the seemingly endless shovelling – winter can be a cruel beast indeed. [Read more…]
One of my fondest holiday memories, is sinking my teeth into a freshly baked piece of my Grandmama’s shortbread. She made it from scratch, using the old school British method, resulting in a heavenly flavour, and rich buttery texture that would dissolve in your mouth. My little sister and I would sneak into the parlour every year and raid the fancy glass tray before dinner. We thought we were like little ninjas, but my grandmother likely saw everything. [Read more…]
Once again, ladies and gentlemen; we find ourselves quickly approaching that #festive time of year. The trees are being raised in every town square, colourful lights are hung from the lamp-posts with care – and that all familiar music suddenly fills the air. [Read more…]
Confession time. I am the King of last-minute holiday shopping. You know that guy who’s always frantically traversing from store to store trying to acquire the gifts and goodies that he should have a month prior? That’s me. [Read more…]
As the month of November arrives, we collectively look to and commemorate the memory of those whose combined courage, service and sacrifice secured the freedom and way of life that we enjoy today. [Read more…]
Confession time: I love food. There. It feels better getting that out in the open. Then again, who doesn’t? Here in South Eastern Ontario, there is an incredible selection of places to eat from casual settings to fine dining venues that are fit for royalty. [Read more…]
As the wind grows ever colder, and the days shorter – there is an awakening of sorts in our collective psyche. For as long as recorded history, human beings have seemingly shared a common observation as summer turns to fall – and the long dark quickens its approach. [Read more…]
Photos: Heidi Csernak
Summer might be officially over, but the greatest and most exciting events are just getting started here in The Great Waterway! Autumn is an inspiring time of year as South Eastern Ontario’s picturesque landscapes and gorgeous locales take on a vivid spectrum of warm colours. The cool breeze carries with it the whisper of a season’s end – but also promises a wonderful array of new beginnings.
Rather than mourn the loss of another summer, there are several captivating ways to embrace autumn and experience the best the season has to offer. Chief among them is a particularly brilliant and spectacular evening event presented by Parks of the St.Lawrence.
Pumpkinferno is an artistically fueled annual event held at Upper Canada Village, in Morrisburg Ontario. The event offers visitors a breathtaking assortment of handcrafted pumpkin-lanterns, that transform the village into a vibrant and interactive visual journey like none other. When we received an invitation to attend the opening night of Pumpkinferno 2017 – Heidi and I were beyond excited. We were going to be experiencing the event for the first time, and during this year’s premiere no less!
Without further delay, let’s get right into our (mostly) spoiler-free account of Pumpkinferno 2017!
The Elegant Hospitality of Willard’s Hotel
Our evening began with a dinner reservation at the famous and historic Willard’s Hotel. Situated on Queen Street, and just a few steps from Crysler Store, Willard’s is a wondrous and historically significant venue that once operated near Prescott. The building was first constructed in the late 1700’s and remained a hotel until the 1850’s. Today, Willard’s Hotel continues to welcome travellers and visitors alike; operating as an authentic time-period restaurant with an inviting and rustic Victorian charm.
The area where we were seated, was towards the back of the main floor beside a welcoming hearth. The dimly lit area had a wonderful ambience and was decorated to coincide with Pumpkinferno. The special menu we were presented with had some delectable items to choose from. Heidi decided to go with the oven roasted chicken breast, which came with a delicious mushroom sauce, roast potatoes and root vegetables. I could not resist the pork tenderloin with peppercorn sauce.
The food was beyond amazing – and more akin to an authentic homemade meal. The meat was tender, the vegetables were fresh – and the potatoes were roasted to perfection. The peppercorn sauce was rich and had just the right amount of zip – while the mushroom “gravy” that accompanied Heidi’s dish was the perfect companion for the tender and flavourful chicken.
For dessert, we were presented with a number of tantalizing options. In the end, Heidi had the apple rhubarb crumble, and I delved into the sweetest and most delectable British pudding I have ever encountered, which was absolutely drenched in warm toffee syrupy goodness.
If you’re interested in dining at Willard’s as part of your Pumpkinferno experience – reservations can be made by calling 613-543-0660. Walk-ins are typically not an issue, but it’s best to call ahead.
Night Descends Upon the Village
After an amazing dinner, we left Willard’s Hotel to realize that a gorgeous cobalt dusk was settling upon the village. We did a bit of exploring around the Hotel as the night approached. The waning daylight had begun to reveal the illuminated displays that we would soon be observing on our much-anticipated tour. Not wanting to spoil too much – we soon met up with our guide: Susan LeClair – the Manager of Customer Service & Corporate Communications with Parks of the St. Lawrence.
It was time to begin our journey through Pumpkinferno!
Enter a World of Autumn Fantasy!
Susan led us back to the main entrance of Upper Canada Village which was now beneath a darkening sky. The bridge was adorned with a delightful display of lights and jack-o-lanterns each with a uniquely carved visage.
As we passed beneath their glowing grimaces amid the cool autumn twilight, we had the distinct impression that we were walking into something magical. We were taking a step beyond the confines of reality, and into a realm of creativity and eerie fascination.
Standing ever watchful upon the other side of the crossing, was Pumpkinferno’s official greeter and usher: Jack. This wasn’t the last we’d be seeing of Jack – as he and his multiple selves were waiting throughout the village to guide us along the path.
To prevent from spoiling the entire experience, I’ll only highlight but a few of our favourite exhibits. I don’t want to give everything away. I want you, beloved reader, to feel the same level of excitement and wonder that we did – when you first arrive at Pumpkinferno.
Here, There be Dragons
Early on in our journey, we came face to face with a mythical and larger than life creature born of Far Eastern legend and lore. Towering beyond a large tree adorned with lanterns bearing various ancient symbols was an enormous and elaborately crafted dragon!
This legendary creature and her young hatchling (that’s right, TWO dragons!) were among the very first – and absolutely vexing displays we set our eyes upon. We had hardly begun our tour – and were absolutely blown away by these jaw-dropping carvings of epic proportion! Made up of intricately designed pumpkins – these towering giants were simply spellbinding!
Dia de los Muertos
Likely my favourite of the displays was the striking Day of the Dead exhibit. The elaborately crafted Calaveras (skulls) and dazzling dancers dressed in ornate flamenco fashions were simply breathtaking. I could practically hear the jubilant music, smell the tamales – and taste the sugar skulls as I stood in absolute awe of this intricate and elaborate homage to Mexican folklore. Qué hermosas!
Stroll Through an Otherworldly Art Gallery
Another memorable exhibit was the Night at the Gallery display. Here, we observed an eclectic collection recreations representing the masterworks of several famous artists.
Each piece was an affirmation and testament to the creative talent at work by Pumpkinferno’s amazing artists. These fabulous tributes were easily recognizable – but infinitely unique in their own way.
It was truly astounding to see just what could be done by using pumpkins as an artistic medium. My favourite of these re-creations had to be the portrait of Vincent Van Gogh – showing his good ear of course.
A Celebration of Canadian History & Culture
The core theme for this year’s Pumpkinferno was a diverse variety of authentically Canadian cultural and historical representations. They ranged from wildlife to key time periods and other uniquely patriotic icons. From the Fur Trade to the Aurora Borealis there was a consistent and wonderfully familiar narrative at play, deeply entrenched within Canada’s diverse cultural saga.
So much more than Jack-O-Lanterns
At first, without knowing much about Pumkinferno, you might be thinking: “Ok, big deal, it’s a bunch of jack-o-lanterns.” WRONG! It is so much more than that.
This mystical event takes the concept that began as the traditional pumpkin lantern – and takes things to an entirely new level of awesome. After a guided tour of this captivating and inspiring event – I can tell you with absolute confidence – that Pumpkinferno is the most inspiring and memorable event you can experience this fall.
Prior to attending the event I tried to keep a fresh head – and avoided as many spoilers as possible. I wanted to go into this with a blank slate. This story that we’ve created is but a tiny morsel of the immense and incredible spectacle that awaits you – at Upper Canada Village.
I highly recommend that you fill the car with family and friends – and experience it for yourselves! It’s also worth mentioning that you can visit a really cool “fall fair” styled area of the village called Pumpkin Park. Here you will find an array of fun activities for the whole family, as well as a free WI-FI zone where you can share your favourite pictures on social media.
Be sure to tag us in your #Pumpkinferno memories with #GreatWaterway!
Exit Through the Gift Shop
By the end of our experience, we were absolutely blown away. Pumpkinferno far exceeded our expectations and left us with memories that we will not soon forget. We would like to wholeheartedly thank Susan and the entire staff of the St. Lawrence Parks Commission.
Congratulations are also in order – to the numerous artists who poured an immeasurable amount of passion and painstaking dedication into creating this arresting and interactive gallery.
After saying our goodbyes, Heidi and I could not pass up the opportunity to peruse the fabled gift shop, that was filled with vintage finery, irresistible confections – and of course: the ever famous fresh loaves of bread that were nearly picked clean by the time we wrapped up our visit.
Experience the Magic of Pumpkinferno!
Get tickets now!