V i v i a n  S o n g
Freelance writer
Freelance writer

Fit and fat cities

Published on travel.msn.ca October, 2010 as part of a photo gallery.

Is your city making you fat? If you live in the burbs and drive the 15-minute walk to your local grocery store then chances are good the city you live in will cause you to pack on the pounds, if it hasn’t already. On the other hand, if you’re lucky enough to live in a metropolitan, pedestrian city that isn’t car-dependent, with miles of bike lanes and forward-thinking leaders, odds are that the majority of the city’s residents will adopt a healthy lifestyle. That’s not city slicker snobbery talking, it’s scientific data, courtesy of Statistics Canada. Check out our list of some of North America’s fittest and fattest cities.

World's most popular film festivals

Published online at travel.msn.ca as part of a photo gallery to coincide with the Toronto International Film Festival.

To be able to throw a film festival party and attract some of the world's biggest celebrities, host cities must also have star power of their own. After all, a film festival not only draws the curtain on the latest blockbuster movies to hit the screen, it also shines the spotlight on the festival host. As the world's glitterati arrive for the Toronto International Film Festival this month, we take a tour of some other prestigious film festival towns that know how to throw a red carpet party.

Cities with attitude

Published online at travel.msn.ca in August, 2010, as part of a photo gallery.

The following list of cities is not for the meek or fainthearted. They’re cities with attitude — citizens walk with their elbows out, muscle their way through crowds and speak their minds. Taking too long to order? No soup for you! It’s every man for himself, where a a heaving mass of humanity must co-exist within dense, square kilometres. But that’s what also makes these cities the most interesting. Here’s our list of the world’s surliest cities with attitude.

Best Adventure Travel Ideas

Published online at www.msn.ca, July, 2010, as a photo gallery.

You’re an adrenaline junkie with a penchant for unpaved, gravel roads less travelled. Or you’re tired of the pool-side, all-inclusives and need an adventure that will shake you out of your vacay boredom. From hiking to a fabled kingdom in the clouds in the Himalayas, toeing the rim of an active volcano in Nicaragua, or rappelling down cascading waterfalls in Brazil, we’ve got a few ideas that should get the heart pumping.

Weird and wacky souvenirs around the world

Published online at www.msn.ca, June, 2010.

They’re the gaudy and the useless. Tacky, kitsch souvenirs which seem to be a good idea — at the time. It’s only natural to want to preserve memories of your amazing vacation. But do you really need that bagpipe singing car air freshener (No. 5 on our list) to reminisce? Here’s our list of some of the weird, wacky and tacky souvenirs out there. Remember kids: just say no.

Best National Parks in North America
Published online at www.msn.ca, July, 2010.

Our list of North America’s best national parks make even the best onscreen CGI special effects look cheap and tawdry. There is no car explosion dramatic enough or alien warcraft big enough to out-awe the sweeping vistas of jagged, mountain peaks, ludicrously turquoise lakes, and monolithic, ancient trees from our favourite parks. They are parks that humble human visitors with their grandeur and remind us why we need to protect Planet Earth.

Most Beautiful Cities
Published online at www.msn.ca, August, 2010.

This list is in no way complete or scientific. We know. Nor is it representative of the many colours, shapes and sizes of beautiful people out there in the world. It’s true. But in order to narrow down the list of the world’s sexiest hotspots for beautiful men and women, we asked ourselves this one question: which cities have the sexiest people per capita in the world? That’s to say, if we were to round up random crowds in a street, which cities would have the most attractive people in the group? You think your city made it? Read on.

Best Amusement Parks in North America

Published online at www.msn.ca, July, 2010.

Check out our list of some of North America's best thrill rides and theme parks.

Summer long weekend getaway ideas

Published online at www.msn.ca June, 2010.
While we all live for our long weekends, oftentimes ambitious plans to stretch out the holiday by venturing afar leads to more time spent on the road, rather than spending it lake-side with a beer.  Remember, time is a terrible thing to waste.Which is why we thought we’d offer a few long weekend ideas in a thematic order. Follow these ideas and you’ve booked almost every weekend in the summer. Some can be done close to home, a few require a short drive away, and others a bit of pre-planning. But all take advantage of an extended weekend to banish thoughts of Mondays.

Travelling with the kiddies

Published online at msn.ca's Travel section, June, 2010.

Your innocent, cherubic tot has suddenly turned into a squirming, screaming, inconsolable demon-child and the eight-hour, transatlantic flight hasn’t even left the tarmac. You’re getting death glares from passengers within a 10-row radius and you can feel that stress vein in on your forehead throbbing, ready to pop. Maybe that family vacation to Venice wasn’t such a good idea after all. Depending on the age of your child, your goals will be different when planning your family’s summer vacation. Here are a few ideas on age-appropriate family summer vacations.
How to survive family road trip hell

Published online at msn.ca's Travel section, June, 2010.

      Life may be a highway, but when you’re on the road with cranky kids in the back seat, the last thing parents want to do is ride it all night long. 

      That’s why Tobie Smith has drawn up a road trip war plan with military-like precision to help her and her husband get through a cross-country drive that will span 8, 370 km, 11 states, and 26 days with their boys — intact. Her strategy is impressive. It involves everything from cookie sheets-turned-lap desks, zip-lock-bagged outfits for her boys — seven-year-old Max, and five-year-old Sam — and a cache of daily gifts for good behaviour as a pre-emptive strike against backseat mutiny. 

Save $14,000 on your summer vacation

Published online at msn.ca's Travel section, June, 2010.

      Mary Beth Schofield is getting ready to take her two girls to Paris, where they’ll stay free for one summer month, just as they’ve done in Scotland, England, Italy, Spain and Holland. 

      She estimates she’s saving $10,000 (Cdn.) in hotel costs given that the family is going during high season when Paris is bursting at the seams with tourists. She’ll also be saving about $4,000 in rental car fees, as her lodging provides full access to a car in addition to a kitchen and washing machine.

Weird and wacky festivals around the world
Published online at msn.ca's Travel section, May, 2010.

Some of the world’s weirdest and wackiest festivals are so outlandish we couldn’t make them up if we tried. You name it, someone, somewhere has made a sport or celebration out of it. Whether it’s racing outhouses, commemorating a frozen dead guy, or bog snorkelling, we’ve got a few international events that will make you go hmmm. And say huh?

Great Mother's Day travel ideas

Published online at msn.ca's Travel section, May, 2010.

She is the woman who picked you up when you fell and scraped your knee on your first bike ride. She’s the one who wiped away your tears when your first love dumped you for the bustier, 13-year-old hussy down the street, or for the prematurely moustached boy in the next grade. She bore you three beautiful children, enduring pain the likes of which you, if you’re a man, will never know. This Mother’s Day, send the woman in your life on a vacation that shows her how much you appreciate her, “I told you so’s” and all.

World's Best Food Fights

Published online at www.msn.ca's Travel Section, April, 2010.

Disclaimer: If you’re the type to follow guests around your cream-coloured home with red wine stain remover, you may want to avert your eyes now. This photo gallery celebrates international food fights that encourage participants to sling foodstuffs in public spaces and roll around in muck. Here’s a list of street food brawls that allow us to play with our food. 

Cool travel gadget companions

Pubished online at www.msn.ca's Travel section, March, 2010.

Whether you’re traipsing through the rain forest or lounging pool-side at an all-inclusive resort, you never know when an all-in-one, steel-cutting, nail-filing, egg-slicing, universal remote-channel-changing screwdriver could come in handy. Especially ones that come in a range of assorted colours.
Here are a few gadgets and accessories we think make for great traveling companions.

Movie landmarks

Published online at www.msn.ca's Travel section, March, 2010.

They may have no lines and may give rather wooden performances, but these characters have been known to tower above the biggest names in Hollywood.

Famous landmarks like the Eiffel Tower, the ancient pyramids of Egypt, and the Petronas Towers in Malaysia, have all played starring roles in box office hits as either treacherous villains or steadfast allies: Trapdoors and death-defying heights become foils for swashbuckling heroes, while the glimmer of sparkling lights inspire romance and love.

Here are a few favourite blockbuster hits which centre around famous international landmarks.

Adult-only festivals that aren't "family-friendly"

Published online at msn.ca's Travel section, March, 2010.

Nowadays there’s a festival for everything. And while we love any excuse to throw a party or make a competition where previously there was none, like toe-wrestling (which does exist) some festivals are more family-friendly than others. Depending on your comfort level with nudity and dangling man bits in public, here’s a list of worldwide festivals and events that are adults-only or R-rated.

Give Spain a whirl

Published in the Toronto Sun and Sun Media papers July, 2006.

Inside the notes of the singer's chanting, and traced along the arch of the dancer's arm is a short history of Spain's colourful past.

Strain your ear and in the "cante," or flamenco song, you hear a distinct Punjabi influence as the undulating voice weaves a melody for our dancer.

Watch the dancer's intricate footwork and forceful rhythmic expression and see a persecuted people acting out their spirit of defiance.

Prague: A city for all seasons

Published in the Toronto Sun and Sun Media papers March, 2008.

PRAGUE, Czech Republic -- There's an unshakeable kind of melancholy in the Czech air.

Perhaps it's the steady drizzle of an unrelenting November sky, or the rain-soaked clouds which hover close over Prague Castle, but the brooding weather lends the city an extra dash of appropriately bohemian romanticism.

Prague is an inscrutable mix of the senses: Moody, lusty, haunting, lethargic and richly romantic.

Will it be home or away?

Published in The Toronto Star, October, 2004.

I'm already getting nostalgic.

I wrap my hands lovingly around my ritualistic Tim Hortons double double coffee and savour the sweet solution of cream, sugar, and caffeine.

When I'm on the subway, I smile at fellow Torontonians during peak rush hour, who return my gesture of friendliness with confused, sometimes frightened looks.

I stand in the middle of my new apartment, sighing at the recollection of the many gleeful hours I spent Ikea-ing the place.

I'm nostalgic because I may be leaving the city I've built my life in for the past eight years to move to the U.K.

Sky-high surprises

Published in The Toronto Star, August, 2004.

In the past four years, I have flown to exotic locales, sunned myself on mile-long beaches while sipping margaritas, kept various lovers strewn across the continents - none of whom spoke a word of English - engaged in raucous behaviour in the galleys and lavatories and travelled for free on my time off.

Yes, I used to be a flight attendant. And yes, stereotypes are full of half-truths.

Sweating it out

Published in The Toronto Star, December, 2004.

To my right, an old woman is admonishing my mother and my aunt about not wrapping a towel around their heads when detoxing. She tells them the towels trap the heat, incubating the toxins rather than letting them escape the body. This can't be hygienic, I think to myself, as I carefully try to uncross my legs without touching anyone else's sweaty limbs. The dome-shaped hut is packed full of people and we're all sitting here in silence, trying not to stare at each other and concentrate instead on the act of sweating.

The unexpected Czech spirit

Published in the Toronto Sun and Sun Media papers March, 2008.

SOUTH MORAVIA -- The burly Czech vintner dips his index finger into a glass of apricot brandy, pulls it out and lights his hand on fire.

We're looking for a blue flame to tell us the brandy is fit to drink. A yellow or orange flame would mean there's methanol in the liqueur and it would be sadly cast aside from hedonistic enjoyment.

But tonight, the light shines blue and, after holding his flaming finger aloft for the wine tasting group to see, he puts it in his mouth and extinguishes the fire.

Steaming off in Iceland

Published in the Toronto Sun and Sun Media papers October, 2008.

I'm in hot water, with mud on my face.

Figuratively, such a combination would be a disgrace. But on this occasion, I'm literally sitting in a hot mineral stew at the Blue Lagoon, a famous Icelandic spa, smeared in a white silica mud mask.

In the distance, smokestacks of the Svartsengi power plant, the source of my spa treatment, blow plumes of steam into the cold October wind.

Boogie boarding in New Zealand

Published in The Toronto Star, November, 2004.

I peered over the edge of the sand dune, lying on my boogie board, trying desperately to recall what the tour guide said to do in case I veered off course.

Was I supposed to lift my left leg up if the board started to

I was staring down a 70 degree slope of an 85-kilometre sand dune with just a narrow piece of foam that lay between me and a gritty, episodic moment of humiliation in front of dozens of strangers and, oh, possible paralysis if I were to tumble the wrong way.


"You'll have to go sometime," one very unsympathetic and clearly annoyed backpacker said.

The decline of the polar bear

Published in the Toronto Sun and Sun Media papers October, 2007.

CHURCHILL, Man. -- The smell of spicy gumbo soup has just hit our visitor's nose. He rises from his prone position and his dark round eyes dart up and down, side to side, trying to suss out the unfamiliar scent.

The smell and clang of cutlery have roused the polar bear to his feet. He takes a few steps, reconsiders, and resumes the lazy position he's assumed for the past few hours: Head resting on paw, sleepy eyes closed.

He's a curious polar bear. Instead of dashing away, he sniffs the monster-truck-like wheels on the tundra buggy and makes inquisitive eye contact with his new company -- about 40 humans who made an unexpected house call.

Death by chocolate

Toronto Sun and Sun Media, November, 2008

PUNTA GORDA, Belize -- Craig Sams breaks off a piece of root ginger with the lip of an overturned metal canteen and proceeds to chew on it.

Ginger cures motion sickness, Sams tells the rest of the group, all of whom have turned a shade of pea-green after an hour-long ride on unpaved, crater-pocked dirt roads to a cacao farm in southern Belize.

Sams would know. The founder and president of Green & Black's organic chocolate has been called one of Britain's "greenest" men and a pioneer in the macrobiotic, natural foods movement long before HMH -- Her Madonna Highness -- made it in vogue among the Hollywood elite.

Bittersweet chocolate

Published in the Toronto Sun and Sun Media papers November, 2008.

SAN JOSE VILLAGE, Belize -- Eladio Pop drinks a tonic of cacao, sugar, black pepper and hot water about four times a day.

It's the food of gods, the cacao farmer says, as he takes a big gulp of the elixir from a metal canteen, filling every cavity of his mouth, rolling it around like a fine wine before swallowing and taking another swig.

It's also, apparently, a potent aphrodisiac. Pop is a virile man at the age of 49 with 15 children between the ages of nine months and 29 years.

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