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Rick Steves: A cosy time on the Danish isle of Ærø

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As we’ve had to postpone our travels because of the pandemic, I believe a weekly dose of travel dreaming can be good medicine. Here’s a reminder of the fun that awaits us in Europe at the other end of this crisis.

Few visitors to Scandinavia even notice Ærø, a sleepy little island on the southern edge of Denmark. It’s a peaceful and homey isle, where baskets of strawberries sit in front of farmhouses — for sale on the honour system. Its tombstones are carved with such sentiments as: “Here lies Christian Hansen at anchor with his wife. He’ll not weigh until he stands before God.”

The island’s statistics: 35 kilometres by 10 km, 7,000 residents, 350 deer, no crosswalks, seven pastors, three police officers, and a pervasive passion for the environment. Along with sleek modern windmills hard at work, Ærø has one of the world’s largest solar power plants.

Ærø’s main town, Ærøskøbing, makes a fine home base for exploring the isle. Many Danes agree, washing up on the cobbled main drag in waves with the landing of each ferry.

With lanes right out of the 1680s, the town was the wealthy home port to more than 100 windjammers. The post office dates to 1749, and cast-iron gaslights still shine each evening. Windjammers gone, the harbour now caters to German and Danish holiday yachts. On midnight low tides, you can almost hear the crabs playing cards.

Taking a 24-km bike ride, I piece together the best of Ærø’s salty charms. Just outside of town, I see the first of many U-shaped farmhouses, so typical of Denmark. The three sides block the wind to create a sheltered little courtyard and house cows, hay, and people. I bike along a dike built in the 1800s to make swampland farmable. While the weak soil is good for hay and little else, they get the most out of it. Each winter, farmers flood their land to let the saltwater nourish the soil and grass, in the belief that this causes their cows to produce fattier milk and meat.

Struggling uphill, I reach the island’s 70-metre summit. It’s a “peak” called Synneshøj, pronounced “Seems High” (and after this pedal, I agree).

Rolling through the town of Bregninge, I notice how it lies in a gully. I imagine pirates, centuries ago, trolling along the coast looking for church spires marking unfortified villages. Ærø’s 16 villages are built low, in gullies like this one, to make them invisible from the sea — their stubby church spires carefully designed not to be viewable from potentially threatening ships.

A lane leads me downhill, dead-ending at a rugged bluff called Vodrup Klint. If I were a pagan, I’d worship here — the sea, the wind, and the chilling view. The land steps in sloppy slabs down to the sea. The giant terraces are a clear reminder that when saturated with water, the massive slabs of clay that make up the land here get slick, and entire chunks can slip and slide.

While the wind at the top seems hell-bent on blowing me off my bike, the beach below is peaceful, ideal for sunbathing. I can’t see Germany, which is just across the water, but I do see a big stone that commemorates the return of the island to Denmark from Germany in 1750.

Back up on the road, I pedal down a tree-lined lane toward a fine 12th-century church. Like town churches throughout the island, a centuries-old paint job gives the simple stonework a crude outline of the fine Gothic features this humble community wished it could afford. Little ships hang in the nave, perhaps as memorials to lost sailors. A portrait of Martin Luther hangs in the stern, making sure everything’s theologically shipshape. The long list adjacent to the portrait allows today’s pastor to trace her pastoral lineage back to Dr. Luther himself. The current pastor, Janet, is the first woman on the five-centuries-long list.

From the church, it’s all downhill back to Ærøskøbing. The sun is low in the sky, so I coast right on through town to the sunset beach — where a row of tiny huts lines the strand and where so many locals enjoyed a first kiss. The huts are little more than a picnic table with walls and a roof, but each is lovingly painted and carved — stained with generations of family fun, memories of pickled herring on rye bread, and sunsets. It’s a perfectly Danish scene — like Ærø itself — where small is beautiful, sustainability is just common sense, and a favourite local word, hyggelig, takes “cosy” to delightful extremes.

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Travel & Escape

American woman faces $2,800 parking bill after leaving car in Toronto during pandemic

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Parking in the city can be costly, but one American woman is learning just how bad it can be after being unable to retrieve her car for nearly a year.

Detroit resident Kim Richardson left her 2004 Honda Element at the Park2Sky lot by Pearson airport in March 2020 before flying out to Europe for a medical procedure. She originally planned to retrieve it within two weeks but partway through her trip, the Canada-US border got closed due to COVID-19 precautions.

Richardson’s return flight was rerouted to Detroit and she’s been unable to return to Toronto since.

What was originally a $100 bill has now inflated to $2,800 as the lot’s owner says he has a business to operate and is owed payment for 11 months of storage. However, Richardson believes she’s being extorted for an issue beyond her control.

Park2Sky personnel claim that several Americans who found themselves in similar predicaments have had their cars shipped home.

“I don’t understand, I don’t know what’s going on here. Business is down, I’m not making any money at all. People who leave their car are paid. She’s the only one that hasn’t paid,” said the owner to CBC News this week.

The stalemate is expected to last a while longer as travel restrictions remain in place and Ontario Provincial Police have said they won’t get involved in a civil matter.

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Travel & Escape

All systems are go for St. Lawrence Cruise Lines in 2021

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KINGSTON — Despite Canada’s newly extended cruise ship ban, Canadians still have a small-ship cruising alternative in 2021 with St. Lawrence Cruise Lines.

The small-ship operator, which sails on the St. Lawrence and Ottawa Rivers, has confirmed operations for 2021, with overnight cruises on both rivers from May 20 to Oct. 24. A variety of cruises ranging from four to seven nights will depart from Kingston, Ottawa and Quebec City, sailing exclusively in domestic waters with stops at select ports in Ontario and Quebec.

On Feb. 4, Canada’s Minister of Transport, Omar Alghabra announced that Canada’s cruise ship ban will be extended until Feb. 28, 2022. This measure, which effectively prohibits cruise vessels carrying more than 100 passengers from operating in Canadian waters, does not impact the small-ship operations of St. Lawrence Cruise Lines and its 32-stateroom CANADIAN EMPRESS.

“We are excited to offer travellers a small ship option for the 2021 season,” said President Jason Clark. “Our overnight cruises stay close to shore in Canadian waters and our COVID-19 Health and Safety program has been recognized for its high standards.”

This past December, the cruise line was awarded the Safe Travels Stamp by the Tourism Industry Association of Ontario (TIAO) for adherence to global standards of health and hygiene. The program includes a wide range of safety measures, including reduced passenger loads, masking, physical distancing and hospital-grade electrostatic disinfecting for both private staterooms and shared spaces. Plus, all staterooms have access to fresh air, climate controls and views of the river.

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Travel & Escape

Here’s How Canada’s ‘Screening Officers’ Will Check On Travellers During Quarantine

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The federal government is reminding all travellers in Canada that “Screening Officers” may pay them a visit post-arrival.

In a statement about the country’s latest travel restrictions, Transport Canada confirmed that newly-trained officials would be tasked with checking up on travellers during their two-week quarantine period.

The role of the Screening Officers will be to visit travellers’ quarantine locations to “establish contact, confirm identify and confirm that travellers are at the place of quarantine they identified upon entry into Canada.”

This is to make sure individuals are complying with Canada’s mandatory 14-day quarantine requirement.

The checks will be conducted across 35 Canadian cities, having already started in Montreal and Toronto back in January.

The officials will provide “compliance education” and will be able to issue verbal warnings, but stronger enforcement action will be referred to the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) and then law enforcement for follow-up checks. 

Failing to comply with the Quarantine Act or with Screening Officers’ instructions could result in fines of up to $750,000 or even jail time.

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