Grand Cayman is perhaps best known as a Caribbean tax haven where the world’s rich and infamous stash their zillions. But not all visitors come for banking. For a long time, I’ve been going for the beaching. For good reason. My grandmother used to manage a hotel on the island, but even though she’s long since retired, I keep going back because Cayman has the Caribbean’s best coastline, with miles of bright white sand next to turquoise water. Under the sea is even better: wildlife — turtles, eels, barracudas and rays — can be seen a short swim offshore, flitting between sea fans, shipwrecks and tons and tons of coral. The best part: I don’t use a pile of Scuba gear to take it all in — just a simple snorkel mask and flippers that I bought in Toronto. Here, my six favourite places to snorkel offshore in Grand Cayman.
Recently, before I made a 12-hour drive east from Toronto to Grand-Métis, Que., I was warned by several people that cell signal would be scarce. The tiny village – population 237 – sits at the mouth of the St. Lawrence River and has many amenities for summer tourists, including clapboard cottages and quaint inns along the coast (the Centre d’art Marcel Gagnon is a nice auberge). But a surfeit of cell towers isn’t one of them.
Rather than being a point of frustration, though, the lack of digital connectivity is something that the area’s main attraction, the enchanting Reford Gardens, seems to be revelling in. There is no WiFi in the park (whose French name is the Jardins de Métis), all the better to appreciate the groves of purple lilacs and fields of blue poppies.
Outside the Drake Devonshire in Prince Edward County, one of Ontario’s most picturesque agricultural regions, an upright player piano sits halfway between the parking lot and the front entrance, its strings sutured to amplifiers and extended to reach the inn’s parapet. As guests arrive, the exposed strings vibrate in the wind and Chopin fills the air. The gentle greeting, conceived by sound artist Gordon Monahan, sets the tone for this new type of getaway: the country inn as an art-filled, hipster-friendly retreat.
The lodgings are built around the historical Wellington Iron foundry, which dates back to 1860, now with a new campus of barn-like additions surrounding it on all sides. Together, the cluster of buildings amounts to a 1,200-square-metre interior with 11 guest rooms, two suites and a dining room and bar that seat 75. Various other anterooms offer Ping-Pong, canasta or karaoke until dawn, and a covered patio functions as an event space and an extension of the dining room.
Last week, on my way down to New York City, I stopped at Cornell University to see their new Architecture, Art and Planning building, Milstein Hall. The OMA-designed facility looks like a Mies van der Rohe-style box propped up on a concrete ant hill, floating not incongruously between the kind of Victorian and Georgian structures one imagines at an Ivy League school. Some of the design is quite subtle — part of the exterior is clad in elegantly stripped Turkish marble — while some of it is showy and loud — a giant, 50-foot cantilever reaches over University Ave., almost-but-not-quite touching the 150-year-old Foundry Building across the road. I wasn’t sure if this latter gesture was an act of aggression — like a bully announcing its presence to a meek, helpless victim — or one of kindness, like an outstretched hand between a young spunky kid and an old, fair lady. This ambivalence basically describes my reaction.
What I liked: The building is porous. As people walk or bike by, there are interesting opportunities to look into spaces that are normally much more cloistered in a school: a lecture hall that has windows on three sides, or a submerged auditorium/crit space with large clerestories. Continue reading
Over the Victoria Day long weekend, my boyfriend and I are driving down to New York City. We’ve gone every year for the last four, and each time we visit we discover new reasons to love the city. In 2011, for example, we rented road bikes and toured around Manhattan, then crossed over the Brooklyn Bridge, checked out Prospect Park and went down to Coney Island. It took us a whole day and we were exhausted by the time we hit the Atlantic, but it was great. We were both impressed by the miles of dedicated bike lanes that made cycling feel so much safer than in our home town of Toronto.
We might bike around again, but I think this trip is going to be more arts and culture focused. Here’s what we’re thinking of seeing.
Milstein Hall at Cornell University
On Saturday afternoon I took a drive out to the McMichael Canadian Art Collection. The gallery is just outside of Toronto — in Kleinburg, near Canada’s Wonderland — but it’s log-and-stone buildings and treed surrounds makes the place feel like an Algonquin retreat. It’s a refreshing escape so close to the city, and while there I was delighted to discover a great Canadian artist that I hadn’t previously heard about: Jean-Paul Lemieux. I only noticed a couple of the Quebecer’s works among all the pieces by Tom Thomson, Emily Carr and the Group of Seven, but Lemieux’s paintings made an impression with their minimal, graphic quality. I like how he captured the desolate, vast landscape of rural Quebec — in particular the harsh, snowy weather and long grey skies.
To a certain extent, I feel like I’ve grown up in a time heavily influenced by Andy Warhol. My world view had been undeniably filtered by the celebrity-drenched culture that he explored, documented and, dare I say, championed. I’ve lived my fifteen minutes of fame on Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and now this blog. When I visit almost any major art gallery in a foreign city (or, for that matter, in my hometown of Toronto), I inevitably find one or more of Warhol’s most iconic silk screens — the soup cans, the Marilyn Monroes, the Liz Taylors, the Maos, the Evlises, the Jackie Kennedys. But even if I don’t see one of his pieces directly, I am bound to see something by one of the legions of artists that he either directly mentored or inspired (Basquiat, Keith Haring, Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst and so on).
On Saturday I made an architectural pilgrimage to see Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater in Mill Run, Pennsylvania. The drive down from Pittsburgh, where my boyfriend and I spent the weekend, rolled though tree-covered hills and small, quaint farming communities. It was so restful and pleasant that I almost forgot where we were headed and why.
The tour of the house is only and hour long, but it’s undeniably worth it. The place is like a mid-century modern fantasy land, with bold horizontal lines in rich black walnut, rough-cut stone, ochre-coloured concrete, and dark red window mullions. There is a deep, comforting warmth to the rooms (this isn’t a cold, hulking, Corbusier-style modernism) and at times an almost Victorian feel. The hallways are tight and dark, and there’s an upstairs/downstairs divide between the servants quarters and the rest of the place that feels really old fashioned (the house was designed in the 1930s, which is easy to forget considering that it feels much more contemporary). There’s also a sense of playfulness and levity—the built-in sofas have a cream-coloured upholstery, and are cheerfully accented with square pillows in ketchup-y red and mustard yellow. Most remarkably, walking from room to room, there is just such a clear and palpable feeling of enthusiasm—it’s clear how much Frank Lloyd Wright enjoyed crafting the house. It almost comes across as spontaneous, like jazz, or as though the design just popped out of his head like a witty turn of phrase.
I hope the clients—the Kauffman family—enjoyed spending time in its cascading planes and fluid walls. I imagine I would have loved lounging in either of the pools, or deciding which of the many terraces to sit out on to read the latest New Yorker.
I have to admit that booking a trip to Beijing was somewhat compulsive. I’ve just started a new job and the airfare is quite expensive. But a friend of mine is going to be living there for the summer, and casually mentioned over lunch a few weeks ago that if I wanted to come for a visit, I could stay with her for free. Who could say no to a free room? Although I know very little about Beijing, I’m really excited to be going, and I’ve started putting together my to-do list. Of course, The Great Wall of China, Beihai Park and the Forbidden City are high priorities, as is a walk through one of the surviving hutongs and trips to the 2008 Olympic venues (The Bird’s Nest and the Water Cube). Here’s a few of the other things I’m thinking:
Sanlitun Soho by Kengo Kuma
When I was finishing architecture school, I basically stole the design for my final year project from Japanese master Kengo Kuma. But I’ve never seen one of his projects in person (I’ve just been a fan from books and magazines). I’m not sure if his Sanlitun Soho is one of his best works, but I’m curious if his spaces are as graceful in person as they are in architecture magazines.
I just finished watching Miao Wang’s excellent documentary Beijing Taxi. The film both lovingly and critically looks at the changing face of China’s capital through the eyes of three different taxi drivers—a soon-to-retire, smiley older man; an easily contented, middle-aged guy; and an ambitious but frustrated mother. The impression that the movie gives of Beijing is very hazy—both literally (because the city is polluted) and figuratively (because the streetscape is changing drastically, right before the camera’s lens). Huge buildings are being putting up alongside massive, congested highways, and in the time span of the movie (two years) progress is definitely measurable as a function of what’s been added, as well as what’s been removed (the rubble is piling up where older, smaller buildings used to be).
The film was started a couple of years before the 2008 summer Olympics. The iconic venues—the Bird’s Nest, in particular—are a point of pride for the locals and yet look totally alien (they definitely don’t blend into the city and have a distinct air of removal from anything remotely status quo). And as the games get nearer, the city starts to look cleaner and neater and more welcoming. I wonder if that sheen has remained?