Blogs > News-Herald Food and Travel

Food and travel captivate Janet Podolak, who chronicles both for The News-Herald. Get the back story of her three decades of stories here. Guest bloggers and fellow News-Herald staffers also periodically share details of their trips.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Coincidences from other side of the world

Some days I just LOVE the internet!

My Wednesday began with an email from a former Willoughby guy living in Malaysia who read my Monday story online about Carl Roberts who died in the final days of World War I. Roberts was buried in Flanders Field and a Belgian man who pledged to take care of his grave had reached out to find any descendants.

 The Malaysia emailer  wrote to tell me of several amazing coincidences: He lived on Wilson Avenue in Willoughby ('61 to '75) near where Carl Roberts' family lived in the early days of the last century. His dad was business manager of WE Schools & lived there until 1983; he delivered the News-Herald on that same street & played football with sports writer Jim Ingraham; a fraternity brother Lt. Col John McCrae wrote "In Flanders Fields" mentioned in the story. 

Furthermore,  Willoughby Mayor Dave Anderson played lead guitar for Changing Tymes, the band for which the emailer played keyboards in junior high. E-mail writer Howard Fries has lived in Asia since 1995. His email included photos of his neighbors - a herd of elephants. Today he lives in the Terengganu Province of Malaysia - the same place where I visited the Tajong Jara resort in 2001. He says his heart remains in Willoughby.

 How's that for a small world?.

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Friday, August 8, 2014

Searching for Commies in wrong Cuban places

The terraced hillsides of Las Terrazas, west of Havana, began as a reforestation effort but  now are an artist colony.
"Searching for Commies in all the wrong places" was my suggested headline for the second story in the Cuba series, which goes to readers on Aug. 10.

Either that was just too edgy or the paper's layout folks figured younger readers might not connect with the word "Commie" since it's not one in much use now. Many of the actions by Communists, who were in Cuba from the early 1960s until the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, caused today's restrictions on Cuba for Americans.

So instead the story is headlined "Visit to Cuba has power to shake perception" which is certainly quite accurate.

Click on the contrasted print and you will be able to see the story itself along with pictures  of one of the prettiest places I've ever been  - Las Terrazas in the lovely Sierra de Rosario mountains west of Havana .

Thatch roof cottages on stilts provide rustic overnight lodging to visitors.

Whether by accident or intent this project initiated by the Russians and Fidel Castro has become a model of ecotourism - drawing visitors and Cubans alike to its cool forests, its art colony and to its Banos, a series of waterfalls and deep pools in the San Juan River where people come to play, picnic and stay overnight in thatched cottages on stilts.

Birds, wildlife and exotic  trees and plant species abound. It was begun as a reforestation  project on hillsides denuded of trees by people to make charcoal - the same activity that has made much of Haiti an ecological wasteland prone to erosion.

In the reforestation effort, which also provided wide employment, the slopes were terraced and mahogany, teak and other trees planted to end the erosion.

In the 40 years since then, it's become a lush oasis and a prime destination for a day or more away from the city. Hiking trails thread through the mountainsides, there's good dining, and a 1800s French run  coffee plantation has been restored for interpretation.  There's a small hotel with a huge tree growing through its roof.

Houses originally built for workers now have become a focus for an artist colony, many of whom open their homes and studios to visitors. Those who practice the arts always seem drawn to places of great beauty, which they make more beautiful by their own work.

Cuba still has several species of wild parrots, although the birds are endangered since many have been captured as pets. 

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Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Ontario countryside an extraordinary road trip

My weekend girlfriends getaway with friend Judy from Toronto was a lot of fun. We headed east of her city to Prince Edward County, a drive-to island tucked next to the north shore of Lake Ontario. The point was attending the Great Canadian Cheese Festival  - a food for which we both have a great fondness. But we also had a great time meandering among wineries, a brewery or two,  artisan galleries and stopping for photos of wildflowers and lots more. The story goes to print subscribers of The News-Herald on Sunday but it's up online now.Take a look and consider a visit. There's a great lineup of fall events there and plenty of nice places to stay, including the Waring House Inn, which we both enjoyed. Click on the contrasted words above to read more.

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Friday, August 1, 2014

Walleye (pickerel) fishing and feasting in Ontario

Rice Lake is seen from a  guest room window in the Victorian Inn. Just east of Toronto, the lake is a popular vacation destination for  Northeast Ohioans 

It was early on a perfect summer day when my friend Judy and I aimed our rental car toward Rice Lake, a 23-mile long lake on the Trent-Severn waterway. Just an hour or so east of Toronto, it’s the darling of anglers from Ohio and a lot of other places.
“Ohioans have been coming for several generations,” said Donna Cane, innkeeper at the Victorian Inn at Gore’s Landing,
Everything’s from another era here — no Marriotts or Holiday Inns at all.
“People stay here and at some of the cottages around the lake,” she said.
She’d  arranged for me to go out fishing on Rice Lake with Mike McNaught, a local guide who grew up on the lake and has achieved a sought after skill for tracking down its pan fish, walleye, bass and muskies. His passion, however, is fly-fishing for salmon and steelhead on the Ganaraska River and he also leads anglers on those trips.
My dad was an avid fisherman and our family would head north to Ontario’s Thousands Islands for several weeks each summer. Sometimes Dad would allow me to join him and the guide for an early morning trip trolling for muskies and Northerns. Nostalgic for those times, I’d asked if it would be possible for me to see if Canadian fishing had changed.
Donna was planning our lunch around Mike’s catch from earlier that morning  when mists still shrouded the late. It was 10 a.m. and clear as can be when as I stepped into his boat secured to the Victorian Inn dock.
Fishing guide Mike McNaught shows me a lure used to catch certain fish.  

  I watched carefully as Mike selected the lures and rods we would use. He motored slowly toward our first fishing hole, in the lee of one of the rocky islets on the lake. A radar-like fish finder helped him scan the lake bottom to find the schools of fish we sought.
There was nothing like that when I was a girl, but that was a really long time ago.
“They like to hang out in the weeds,” Mike said.
As we cruised slowly out onto Rice Lake, he pointed out cottages on various islands, “That one has a couple of sheep to mow the grass,” he said. “And over there is an ancient First Nations burial ground.”
Our Indians are called First Nation people here, usually followed by a tribe name among the Canadians. Many of them still live along Rice Lake, which was named for the wild rice they cultivated at one time near the shallow shore waters.
“In winter we have a regular village of ice fishermen out here,” Mike said. “We can even call up for pizza on our cellphones and get it delivered. In summer we can usually get pizza delivered to one of the docks when we’re hungry.”
There are several places around Rice Lake  that rent boats and help folks get fishing licenses, he added.
He activated his trolling motor, a small motor that allows the boat to go very slowly as he fished. That’s something my Dad would have loved.
Mike is apparently locally well-known for the flies he ties, and to tie effective ones he not only must study the habits and appetites of fish, but that of the insects and other creatures they feast on. “Walleye, for instance, love worms,” he said.
I could tell he was accustomed to speaking to Americans because most Ontario folks use the word “pickerel” for  walleye.  .
“A good fisherman never stops learning,” he said.
He promised to show us his hand tied lures after lunch at the Victorian Inn.
The  walleye lunch from Mike's catch, cooked and served at the Victorian Inn,  was delicious. 
We feasted on walleye (pickerel) that was, for me the best fish I’d ever tasted. It was just a few hours from the depths of Rice Lake.
Learn more about the area at; 866-401-3278. Meet Mike McNaught at

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Thursday, July 31, 2014

Everyone reads in Cuba, literacy rate exceeds ours

Vendors of periodicals, postcards and other printed materials flank the entrance to a leafy Havana park. 

It was quickly apparent in Cuba that its people are avid readers. Even though the press is state controlled, papers are hawked on the streets and people are seen in coffee shops and public places reading newspapers. News is not something found widely online, so googling for information and other changes technology has brought to our world haven't yet come to Cuba.

Literacy in Cuba exceeds 99 percent according to data from UNESCO . That’s higher than any other Latin American country and even exceeds the U.S. literacy rate of 96 percent for the United States.
Since internet access is problematic, to say the least, e-books also have not yet become a part of life. Like cell phones, they are rare.
We saw paper boys (usually men) hawking Granma, the official government newspaper and a few others, but the media in Cuba is entirely state controlled so the idea of a free press is foreign to Cubans. It's surprising to see a digital version, because internet access is pretty limited in Cuba itself. Have a look by clicking its name above if you speak Spanish or read a translation into English. Don't expect anything flattering about America.

The oldest and most important of four plazas in old Havana is marked by a ceramic sign.

A visit to Plaza De Armas, the oldest and most important of the four major plazas in old Havana,
underscores the popularity of the written word. Just opposite the Palace of the Captain Generals, bookstalls flank the entry to the leafy green and palmy Parque Cespedes. Containing magazines, books, posters and postcards, new and used and all in Spanish the stalls reminded me of those along the the left bank of the Seine opposite Notre Dame in Paris.
The Palace dominating  Armas Plaza was built in 1791. 

Look down to notice the street surface in front of the Palace, which was built in 1791. It’s made of wooden bricks, laid instead of cobblestones to soften the sound of horse drawn carriages so as not to disturb the governor’s sleep.

The stately palace was home for 65 governors of Cuba until 1898 when it became the U.S. governor’s residence during America’s occupation Cuba. In 1902 it became the seat of the Cuba government until 1920 when it became Havana’s city hall. Today it is a museum.

Carlos Manuel de Cespedes is honored with a white marble statue 

Carlos Manuel de Cespedes (1819 to 1874),  considered the father of Cuba. After fleeing his sugar plantation’s slaves in 1868, he organized them into an army and declared an open revolt against Spain. He was cut down by a hail of bullets in in 1874. That white marble statue of Cespedes in the middle of the park surrounded by Armas Plaza is often surrounded by those sitting on park benches reading what they’ve purchased.

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Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Hotel a legacy of the Mob in Havana

This lavish show at  Cabaret Parisien was a throwback to the past.

Havana’s Hotel Nacional, alleged Cuba headquarters for the Mob during the 1950s when Americans flocked to the island to gamble and play, was restored to its 1930s glamour a few years ago. Its terraced palm shaded lawns overlook the seaside Malecon — an appropriate place for our small group to gather for cocktails on the last evening of our visit to Cuba. Cigars and mojitos were the order of the evening.
The miles-long Malecon is a dramatic seawall stretching along the Atlantic shoreline where people gather day and night. It’s a great microcosm of the city with lovers, teenagers, peddlers, bicyclists, dog walkers and anglers — great people watching up close or from a distance.

Note the yellow  3-wheeled cocotaxi in the driveway of the storied Hotel Nacional in Havana.

U.S. gangsters had taken over the hotels and casinos, including this one,  during the pre-Revolution days of the '40s and '50s when Batista was in power and a tourism boom ensued. Those times now are recalled at the Mob Museum in Las Vegas — a town also run by the Mob in its earlier days.
This logo was projected in lights on the dark floor at the entrance to Cabaret Parisien

A wall of photos at the far end of the Nacional’s lobby pays tribute to its many guests, which included actors and writers to sports heroes including Frank Sinatra, John Wayne, Marlon Brando, Errol Flynn, Marlene Dietrich, Rocky Marciano, Mickey Mantle and Ernest Hemingway. Royalty and heads of state stayed here including Winston Churchill and the Prince of Wales. A 1946 Mob summit, called to divvy up Havana, was dramatically recalled by Francis Ford Coppola in The Godfather II.

 That night we attended a lavish and high energy show at the Nacional’s Cabaret Parisien, similar to what visitors in the 1950s saw. The dancers were great, costumes were lavish and the drinks were good. I( heard that the show at the Tropicana was even better buts its tickiets were more expensive.  But I was glad I’d brought a sweater because the air conditioning seemed aimed at keeping the dancers from overheating.

We took cute little yellow coco-taxis back to our rooms in the suburbs.

You can see one in the driveway of the hotel in the photo here.  When I saw  these three-wheeled, three-passenger vehicles my first day in Cuba, I commented on how unsafe they appeared. “Not on your life,” I’d said. But we all survived, despite the driver getting lost and losing power en route..

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Friday, July 25, 2014

Cuba's Botanical Garden a tropical treat

I saw the most beautiful flower at Cuba's Botanical Garden but couldn't identify it until I got home.

Greenhouses at Cuba’s Jardin Botanica Nacional are designed to keep plants shaded and catching breezes, unlike those in our own more northerly latitudes. I was delighted to have a visit there on our group’s itinerary because I wanted to know more about the unusual flowers and plants I’d been seeing.
The garden was en route to Hemingway’s Finca Vigia, which is now restored and welcomes visitors. Follow my newspaper series on Cuba and you’ll find out more about Hemingway soon.

A guide is included for touring the 1,400 acre botanical gardens which is laced with more than 20 miles of roads. Our guide came aboard the small bus which transported us everywhere except on our walking tours of Havana. His English was quite good and his botanical knowledge was impressive, but I still needed to turn to my friends at the Holden Arboretum and Cleveland Botanical Garden to identify many of the plants I saw there and photographed. That’s probably because our guide’s heavy Cuban accent on plants’ Latin names totally befuddled me and the plants themselves were quite unlike those seen at home.

One can understand why palm with the furry trunk is called an Old Man Palm.

The botanical garden not only showcases Cuban ecosytems and their plants but also has areas of other plants found in tropical  countries. Its center has palm trees from around the world and I had no idea there were so many varieties of them., including the rare cork palm, otherwise found only in western Cuba.

Our guide retrieves a fallen palm leaf

Our guide showed us how palm leaves have many uses, such as thatch for roofs and even for fashioning into easy biodegradable trash cans.

This trash can was fashioned from a palm leaf.

The botanical garden was established in 1968 and opened to the public in 1984. A highlight is the Japanese garden which is laid out with tiered cascades and a small lake filled with koi fish.   The huge greenhouse has areas for ferns, cactuses, epiphytes and tropical mountain plants.  Just like our own Cleveland Botanical Garden it has an area dedicated to the plants of Madagascar, which includes a baobob tree — which looks like it has its roots in the air which, there as here, inspires the nickname “upside down tree”.

Other nicknames names are easy to guess, such as the sausage tree, native to South Africa and identified by the Holden Arboretum as  genus Kigelia. In South Africa its large oblong sausage shaped gourds are used to make containers.The hanging "sausages" were at least as long as my forearm.

Cuba’s national flower is the lovely white bloom Cubans call the mariposa — Spanish for butterfly. This sweetly fragrant bloom became a symbol of rebellion and purity in Cuba. Ann McCulloh, curator of plant collections for the Cleveland Botanical Garden identifies it as Hedychium coronarium or Butterfly Ginger .

We saw begonias, bougainvillea, anthuriums, and poinsettia beyond number and I was proud to be able to identify the purple flowered jacaranda  -which I first encounters in Los Angeles.

 But the flower I loved the best was the large brilliant orange bloom as large as my fist with strangely shaped almost tenacle-like blossoms. I sent my photo to McCulloh who identified it as a Brownea grandiceps also known as a Rose of Venezuela, or Scarlet Flame Bean. She said its’s a small tropical tree from South America, that will not take temperatures below 55 degrees.

Although she said the Butterfly Ginger can sometimes be grown as a houseplant, I guess there’s no large orange Scarlet Flame Bean flower in my future.

I never did learn why the bark on this had many colors but I thought it was pretty so photographed it. 

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