Sunday, August 22, 2010

Tess's guide to the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF)

I first went to TIFF over 10 years ago, it was pretty much the first thing I did when I moved to Toronto.  Not on purpose, but I noticed it was happening and I was a bit of a film geek so I went to two screenings.  I saw Waking Ned Devine and I Woke Up Early the Day I Died.  I'm moderately surprised that I Woke Up Early has been seen by people outside of the festival circuit.  I mean really - it's a movie with no dialogue based on an unfinished Ed Wood script.  Strange, to say the least.  Anyway, for those of you who want to see movies at TIFF and don't know where to start, I am here to help!  Sort of.

OMG tickets are all sold out!  No they're not.  There are about a million ways to do this and I'm not going to get into them because someone else has, read all about it here (this website is awesome in general for TIFF info).

Oooo but tickets are so expensive!  Then go volunteer and get vouchers that you can trade for tickets.  Note, the volunteer process has gotten increasingly obnoxious over the years and it looks like now you have to fill out an "application form" and do it in kinda far in advance.  There's lots of ways to not pay full price though.  You can sometimes find tickets under face value on Craigslist/Kijiji, there's lots of ticket giveaways, random discounted tickets (sometimes via corporate discounts), and sometimes if you're standing in a rush line people will just give you tickets.

I just wanna see famous people!  Where are the famous people?!  Everywhere.  Roy Thomson Hall is the favourite area of most celebrity stalkers and if there's a red carpet at a venue, it's pretty obvious.  Just wander around the city until you find large groups of excited people with cameras near a theatre.  Princess of Wales is also good for this. 

What movie should I see??  I'm not doing all the work for you, go do your own research.  The TIFF website will have a description of all the films and when they're scheduled to play beginning about two weeks before the festival.  Can't wait that long?  Don't want to navigate their shitty website?  Keep an eye on the press releases or try this website which has descriptions and some reviews. (p.s., best scheduling method? )

But there are so many movieeeeees!  Help meeeeee!  Okay, I'll give you a general overview of the categories.  General rule of thumb is that the Gala screenings at Roy Thomson Hall (RTH) are your big name films with big name stars.  Special Presentations are a bit of a toss-up, they can also be pretty big films but may be a bit less mainstream.  If you really have no clue what to watch, I've always found Special Presentations to be pretty reliable.  Reel to Reel are documentaries.  Try them out sometime, maybe you'll learn something.  Midnight Madness (MM) is kind of exactly what it sounds like.  If you don't know what Army of Darkness is, maybe this is not for you (note: check the Vanguards programme for this type of stuff also).  I have no idea what Wavelengths really is, but I went to a screening the first year the programme was added and watched a series of short films that were like, just a square.  Or just a ladder.  I would be wary of any Wavelength films.  There's other categories, but they all become a bit more of a jumble.

Ummm I don't want to watch a square for five minutes.  How do I pick something non-crappy?  Research.  Or find someone with similar taste and just follow them around.  Even if I told you what I'm planning to watch, there's about a 90% chance that you won't want to see the same things.  Trailers will be available for many of the films and you can also look for certain key words that you like or want to exclude.  If you don't want to read a million film descriptions, stick to the bigger venues, you should be pretty safe with RTH, the Elgin or Ryerson (unless it's MM), they tend to have more 'normal' movies (overall, if I was going to totally blind-pick a random TIFF movie at the $20 price which most people would be ok watching I'd opt for something showing at the Elgin).  Oh yeah, and be careful of the words "avant-garde" especially if it's connected to Wavelengths.

I don't like this, it's too hard!  Don't get discouraged!  It's not hard at all!  Forget everything I said above, if you've never been to TIFF but are curious about it, just wander over to one of the box offices after they start selling single tickets to the public (about a week before the festival) or even during the festival.  You'll see a big board with all the movies and when they're scheduled.  Some of the movies will be crossed out, so the box office can't sell you a ticket, but just pick a day and time you like and go from there (this is actually exactly how I started).  Doing all the research can help you if you want to see several things or are super picky about what you see, but if you just want to have a peek, then it's easy!  It's like going to a regular movie, but you'll see something that you might not normally see, it'll be fun!

Yes, I know that TIFF is a big, confusing jumble.  But just keep in mind that if you want to see a movie and aren't too picky, it's actually quite easy and not too different than seeing a regular movie :)

Thursday, August 05, 2010

Travel guide: Rio de Janeiro

Last visited:  February 2010 (4 days)

Places to stay:

When I visited, I stayed in the Arpoador B&B.  It's a very small place, only two rooms - I stayed in a twin room, bathroom in the hallway (but not shared) while the other room had an ensuite bathroom and a Queen-sized bed.  I had a pretty good experience here, the location is excellent and the area quite safe.  But you would have to try and ensure that you're in the main B&B because I met some people who were staying close by in a different apartment who didn't seem to like it as much.  Arpoador is between Ipanema and Copacabana, so it's pretty ideal.  Maybe five minutes in any direction and you'll hit one of the beaches.  Plus you're super close to Arpoador beach which is quite nice and a bit hidden.  I think this is the area where sufers go.

While staying in Arpoador was fine, if I were to return to Rio I would almost definitely stay elsewhere, I think Botafogo might be ideal for me.  Botafogo seemed to be in the middle of all the different areas I visited.  The samba bars seemed more concentrated over in Lapa / Santa Teresa, but that area is a bit more dodgy and transit a bit less convenient.  But Botafogo is a quick taxi ride from either there or Ipanema / Copacabana.  Basically, it seemed to me like Botafogo has places to eat, stuff to do, was pretty safe and is convenient to the more popular areas.  Haven't actually stayed there though, so can't say for sure.

You could stay in Santa Teresa, but getting around seems a bit annoying if you want to get out of Santa Teresa.  And you can actually stay in a favela - the Maze Inn is well-established and quite popular.  I don't think I'd recommend it for a first visit because Rio is massive and it's nice to be centrally located to get your bearings, but I would totally want to stay here on a future visit.

How to get around:

You can get around quite easily and effectively by using the subway system.  Buses and mini-vans are a bit more complex but dirt-cheap and depending on where you're going can be convenient.  Taxis aren't very expensive - probably your best option when going out at night.

We didn't have any trouble with any of the transit options when we visited.  Once we hopped on a bus going in the right direction but we didn't have an actual destination, we were just going to ride until we saw something we felt like stopping for - but the conductor and driver were really nice and kept checking on us to make sure we hadn't missed our stop.  Also, everywhere I went, either by myself or with my friend, people were quite happy to call a taxi for us and talk to the driver to make sure they took us to the right place.  We never actually asked them to call the taxi for us, but the guidebooks do indicate that radio taxis are safer than hailing a taxi on the street.

Oh and take the bonde (tram) up or down Santa Teresa, just because it's awesome.  I guess this can be classified as "things to see" also.  If you haven't seen Black Orpheus yet, it's worth watching - plus, you can actually go into the bonde museum and see some of the old trams like they had in the movie (up in Santa Teresa).  Umm, again, I guess this is actually "things to see."

Things to see:

Cristo Redentor - ride the little train up all the way to the top.  Sit on the right-hand side (away from the mountain) for a better view.  Take entertaining photos with the big Jesus.

Sugarloaf - I wound up going twice.  First time up, the clouds covered everything but then started parting to show ridiculously awesome views of Rio.  Then I went up again, but only halfway, and it was a clear day and the views were again ridiculously awesome.  Sometimes, in the summer, they have parties or movies up here.

Helicopter ride - This is the reason I was halfway up Sugarloaf.  I was by myself and needed at least two more people to get on the helicopter ride and the Sugarloaf heliport is the busiest.  THIS IS TOTALLY WORTH THE MONEY.  Even just going on the shortest ride is worth it.  I also got stuck with the crappy middle back seat with no window and it was still worth it.  That photo above?  Yep, taken from the helicopter.  Seriously, this is one of the most awesome things I've ever done.  Best seats are either next to the pilot or behind the pilot.  Behind the pilot is probably best if you want photos (at least on my flight, that's how he circled Cristo Redentor).  And my seat was actually better than the person sitting to my right (back seat, away from the pilot) because the lady sitting there barely got to see Cristo Redentor lol.

Hang gliding - I didn't do this but there are lots of options for it, just google.  If I had more time, I probably would have tried it.  And fyi, I thought that you get to hang glide around Cristo Redentor, but that is not at all true, you are actually pretty far.

Favela tour - Up to you to decide the relative merits of this, just do some googling to make sure you're going with an organization who are actually working to improve things instead of just setting up a tourist trap.  Zezinho is a good guy.

Shopping - Shoes!  Shoes in Brazil are reasonably priced and amazing!  Well, for girls at least.  Not sure for guys.  And you can get custom-made Havaianas also, you pick the colour of the shoe base and the part for your toes and can also pick pins to stick on it.

Football - This was so awesome!  I went on a football tour my first night with Robert Shaw (brazsoc @ hotmail dot com) and it was fabulous!  He's a British ex-pat football journalist and gives you not just background on the teams and players but also gives you a mini-tour around Rio.  HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.  You can go to the matches by yourself pretty easily but it's a lot more fun going on this tour because you get so much info.  Just email Robert to see if he's running a tour when you want to go.

Places to eat:

I can't remember where we ate.  Which is unfortunate because we ate somewhere really good in Ipanema, it's just off the main street, on a corner, halfway through Ipanema (or slightly closer to Arpoador) and had a bunch of different salads and stuff you could pick.  Anyway.

You can eat at "por kilo" places - choose, weigh, pay, eat.  And you can eat at rodizios - all you can eat meat or all you can eat sushi.  Or you can eat at small places that serve a variety of dishes on the menu.  WARNING - after a while in Brazil, I noticed that a lot of dishes are meant to be shared.  So like, you might pick something from a menu and it's a giant plate of fish nuggests.  Knowing Portuguese will help you avoid this.

YOU MUST EAT ACAI.  Acai is everywhere.  But you must pick the frozen acai.  And then select delicious toppings such as granola or bananas for it.  And if you see a street vendor selling it, go up and just nod to all the toppings.  I miss acai.  Eat as much of it as you can before leaving the country.

Love the nightlife? Got to boogie?

Be prepared to stay up late.  Like, until dawn.  I went to the Carnival winners parade and it started at 9pm and went until 6am.  Pretty much what you'd expect, people eat late and go out even later.  Google is your friend for event listings but you can also find flyers and booklets while you're there.  Samba is amazing, go find a good club and park yourself in there one night.  There are other options too, but I'm not sure what because we pretty much just kept going to samba clubs (well and it was right after Carnival so there was Carnival stuff too).


It comes up as a big issue when reading guidebooks and stuff about Brazil, but we didn't have any issues.  As mentioned before, I found that people actually went out of their way to help us get to our destinations safely.  Just use some common sense and you should be fine.  We didn't have an SLR, so that's the only thing you might want to be careful of since they're kind of gigantic and obvious.  I think maybe someone tried to pickpocket my friend once in the metro, but I don't remember if that was in Rio or Sao Paulo.  He didn't lose anything.  I was with a friend half the time and spent the last few days by myself, no issues either way.


Learn some Portuguese (I mean really, I would argue that it's a bit rude going to any place if you don't learn to at least say hello and thank you).  Spanish can help you squeak by.  If you're only in town a week or less you should be fine even with mostly English since you'll likely be in well-touristed areas.  Rio is really big.

Monday, August 02, 2010

Travel guide: New York City

Last visited:  November 2013

Places to stay:

Umm, usually I stay with friends or family.  But once I stayed at a Marriott in Brooklyn, it was right by the bridge so it's a pretty good location and cheaper than staying in Manhattan.  The cheaper B&B / hostel options all seem to be up by Harlem or Columbia University, but it's not the most convenient area so if it's your first visit, you'd probably want to be more central.  Anywhere on the south side of Central Park is basically fine for getting around to tourist places.

How to get around:

The subway is handy and gets you to most places quite well.  Just remember to check the signs to see if you're heading uptown or downtown, and also to check if you're on an express or local train.  Note also that if you overshoot your destination and want to ride back the other way on the subway, you can't do that for free at all the stations - for some of them, the entrance to the train going the opposite direction requires and extra fare.  Lots of automatic vending machines for the swipey subway cards but if you're paying with a credit card, it'll ask you for your zip code - not sure how this would work for foreign cards.  There's also a max amount of change the machines will give you, so you might need to get smaller bills.

Taxis are also pretty cheap in NYC, especially compared to Toronto.  To get from St. Marks up to Columbia is less than US$30, I think.  So if you're feeling lazy, just take a taxi.  But for getting to/from the airports, you can get to La Guardia, JFK and Newark by public transit or by airport shuttle bus - lots of info on these if you google.

Things to see:

I'm not going to bother listing all the tourist stuff, you should be able to figure that out yourself.  But keep an eye out for reduced or free admission (e.g., MoMA is free on Friday nights).  And keep an eye out for "suggested" admission prices (e.g., the Met admission is suggested, you can actually pay whatever you want).
The photo above was taken from Governors Island, they have miscellaneous events throughout the year and it's also just a fun place to hang out.  Free ferry leaves from the building next to the Staten Island ferry building.  The High Line can be fun too, although I got bored with it pretty quickly and wandered into Chelsea Market instead (mmm food).  Note - if you're walking across the Brooklyn Bridge, the subway entrances are actually a bit of a walk from the entrance to the bridge walkway itself.  Umm, I dunno, just wander around NYC, you'll find stuff to do.

Places to eat:

Oh man, where to start?  Hmm let's start with high-end.  There's lots of places to choose from, but if you want a blow-out dinner and don't have a particular preference, I like Eleven Madison.  NYC also has a ridiculous number of options for high-end dining at bargain prices, especially if you're free for a weekday lunch.  If you want to test out how you feel about high-end dining, I'd pick Jean Georges for lunch.  If you know you want high-end but don't want to pay dinner prices, then I'd pick Eleven Madison for lunch.

On the lower end of things, I'm pretty obsessed with the tater tots at Crif Dogs.  My favourite is getting a deep-fried bacon-wrapped Crif Dog and pairing it with a dipping sauce from Pommes Frites down the street.  The tater tots are a large portion, so you'll probably want to share.  There's nothing particularly special about them except for the fact that they're deep fried and therefore awesome.  There's about a zillion places to eat in the city and most of them are really quite good, so just poke around and you'll find something good.

If you feel like venturing out and exploring, eat your way along the 7 train. Trust me. 

Love the nightlife? Got to boogie?

Again, about a million options here.  For drinks, I spend most of my time bouncing between the faux-speakeasies because I like cocktails and the random entrances make me laugh.  They all have pretty different atmospheres, so just do a search and pick one you like.  Flatiron Lounge is by far the easiest one to find.  PDT is probably one of the harder ones to get into because of the size, but it has the most entertaining entrance.

Note that a lot of the museums have bars and parties, just dig through some NYC listings and they should pop up if there are any when you're going.  I'm pretty clueless when it comes to NYC clubs, the only one I've been to was years ago and my friend brought me there.  As usual, google is your friend.  If you're looking for something quirky though, look up Dances of Vice.

The best ice cream in Toronto

Date:  August 2, 2010

I love ice cream!  And gelato, ice cream cakes, ice cream sandwiches, get the idea.  And I think I have now found Toronto's best ice cream.  I have, in fact, undergone extensive testing of this product to try and ensure that my conclusion is correct.  Let's do a run-down of frozen dessert options.

Dutch Dreams

You can see it in the above photo.  Ironically, this is probably one of the worst ice cream places you can go to.  Great for kids, fun if you want to drown your ice cream in toppings, but if you're actually eating the ice cream, it ranges from "okay" to "gross."  Most recent visit was a couple weeks ago and the two sorbets we tried were definitely on the gross end of the spectrum.  Dutch Dreams is by St. Clair W. station.  Fun for kids. 

A perennial contender, I have a soft spot for Greg's.  I went to school at UofT while Greg's was still in it's old, subterranean location on Bloor.  Greg's is great for having a wide range of flavours but as the years have passed, I find that their ice cream is lacking some richness to it.  Definitely worth going if you're a fan of their flavours such as roasted marshmallow, malt ball crunch, etc, but in terms of actual ice cream quality, I think maybe it's above average, but we are looking for the best here.  Greg's current location is near Spadina station.


I haven't been to Summer's in years, but I'm guessing my memories are correct (my years-old memory of Dutch Dreams was spot-on, so I'm assuming that ice cream quality doesn't vary as much as food quality can).  Summer's isn't bad, but I don't remember ever thinking it was particularly special.  Living at UofT, I mostly went to Greg's with occasional side-trips to Summer's.  I don't think Summer's had the range of fun flavours that Greg's had and I feel like the quality was pretty average.  Summer's is in Yorkville.

Baskin Robbins

If you think Baskin Robbins is the best ice cream in Toronto, you need to live a little more.  Next!

Dairy Queen

Yeah, I know this isn't ice cream but I don't care.  Blizzards are awesome!  Um, but I digress.

Dolce Gelato

Um, ok, yeah, not ice cream either.  But gelato is basically ice cream to me.  I like Dolce, they have a good range of flavours without being ridiculous.  A solid option.  Dolce is on College St., in Little Italy.

La Paloma

Ridiculous range of flavours, pretty good quality.  I don't really know how to gauge gelato quality actually, I use the pistachio test (i.e., eat the pistachio flavour - if it blows my mind, the gelato is good - unfortunately, my favourite pistachio in town was at the now-defunct Solfereti by the Financial District, so I'm a bit s.o.l.).  La Paloma has too many flavours, I like Dolce better because it's more manageable.  La Paloma is on St. Clair W. by Earlscourt Park.


Brutal.  I don't know if I ordered the wrong thing, but I tried a couple of flavours and settled on a chocolate - while it was good, there was something a bit odd about it.  Like, not as creamy as ice cream, almost more fudge-y?  Not bad and I'd happy to go back and work my way through some other flavours in the interest of research, but I'm not sure about Xococava, even though I know they're supposed to be some of the city's best ice cream.

Hoof Cafe

Sneaking this one in.  Okay, you can't get scoops of ice cream but the best single ice cream I've probably ever had is the malted ice cream (made in-house) which comes as part of the Malteaser.

Sicilian Ice Cream

Does this place even serve ice cream?  I think I usually got tartufo because it was more intriguing.  If you want straight-up ice cream, go to Dolce Gelato instead (well, I guess that should be "if you want frozen dessert in a cup or cone" instead of a sundae or other, more complex, dessert, go to Dolce instead).  Haven't been back for years because I switched to Dolce after they opened.  Little Italy.

The Big Chill

I used to live a block from here, this place is cute!  You used to get a mini-Oreo on top of your ice cream.  But ice cream quality was just average from what I remember.  They've expanded into a bigger space it seems, Little Italy @ College/Manning.  Fun for kids.

Ed's Real Scoop

I've only been here once, a couple years ago, and don't remember being overly impressed by the ice cream.  I remember thinking it was pretty good but not worth going out of my way for.  In the interest of research, I might make another venture over to see what it's like compared to my pick for best ice cream.  In the Beaches. 

Soma Chocolate

Ooo now we're getting close to the best.  Soma's already probably my current pick for Toronto's best hot chocolate and they're also pretty damn close to my pick for best ice cream also.  Rich, creamy and oh-so-delicious.


Which brings us to my pick for best ice cream in Toronto.  I loooooove Delight.  There's a small range of organic ice cream flavours, generally around six each time I've gone.  Chocolate seems to be a stand-by while others, such as Blueberry Cheesecake and Niagara Apricot change seasonally based on what's available.  My current favourite is Mint Chocolate Chunk - the flavour of the real mint ice cream with the soft chocolate chunks is killer.  Topped with a piece of milk or dark in-house chocolate, this place is awesome.  BUT WAIT.  I haven't gotten to the best part.  Delight has a non-dairy chocolate ice cream which is fantastic.  It's made with coconut milk and having done a head-to-head comparison, it's actually even better than their regular chocolate ice cream.  The dairy-free is like...fudge in ice cream form, it's so rich.  Two locations, one in the Junction, one by Trinity-Bellwoods.  Although the selection of flavours is small and it's not the cheapest place in town, Delight is great quality and had something that everyone can eat, so what's not to like?