Garden Writer





My 2016 Asia Tour will be an exclusive, customized 16-day adventure from Feb 25 to March 11 to see fabulous gardens, temples, landscapes, historical sites and monuments and much more in Singapore and Myanmar, starting and ending with some thrilling days in vibrant Hong Kong.


You'll find attached a complete day-by-day itinerary. Please don’t rush through it. 

I would ask you to patiently work through it line by line as I feel you’ll quickly agree with me that this is a tour of exceptional value, packed with quality destinations and a terrific schedule of activities.

I doubt you will find a tour of this scope, quality and diversity with all its thrilling components anywhere else.



It has been arranged, according to my specifications, by travel expert Julius Yan, of Laurus Travel, in whom I have the utmost confidence for professional attention and the ability to produce a complex tour of excellent value.

Anyway, let me give you a brief overview of what is planned. I hope I can hit on some of the highlights and top-notch elements of this 16-day luxury adventure into exotic Asia.

The price is $6,975, which includes airfare with Cathay Pacific, one of the world’s top airlines, plus pretty much all meals – breakfasts: most lunches and dinners, plus all gratuities for our local English-speaking guides, drivers, baggage handling and airport transfers.



We will start our adventure in Hong Kong because I visited there a couple of years ago and I know what a fantastic time you can have there, sightseeing, shopping in markets as well as seeing an amazing garden, one of the best I have visited. 

I think you are going to love your time there because it is a world-class city of shimmering lights, dazzling architecture and bustling energy and also has a fascinating history.

Once you sit with me in a skybar watching the city’s towers twinkle with their amazing synchronized light shows or walk with me through the bustling and colourful street markets, you will know what I am talking about.

In Hong Kong, we will tour the city and go up to The Peak and have lunch at the famous Jumbo Floating Restaurant and also see top markets as well as visit one of my most favourite gardens, Nan Lian, in the Diamond Hill district.

From Hong Kong, we will jet to Yangon (formerly Rangoon) in Myanmar.

What you need to understand about this country (formerly Burma) is that it is a place of astonishingly beautiful views with temples and pagodas set amid a lush and rolling tropical landscape. It has only recently opened up to allow tourism.



We will be going to the famous Kandawgyi Nature Park on Kandawgyi Lake as well as the famous Shewedagon Pagoda where we will watch the sunset over the Irrawaddy River. Magical.

Since we have some very busy days involving international flights within the itinerary, I have requested free time at specific points, so you can do a little shopping or relaxing in the pool.



We can’t have it all go go go, but we do want to do as much as possible so we have worked in visits to places like the Scott Market. 



By the way, for those of you brave enough, there is the option to take a balloon ride in Bagan, which I am told is a spectacular way to view the breathtaking forest of spires and temples.



From Yangon, we will fly to Mandalay, where we have visits arranged to the Maharani Pagoda as well as a boat cruise on the Irrawaddy River to Mingun Pahtodawgyi and U Bein Bridge. 

Gardens? Well, in Pyin Oo Lwin we will be visiting the National Kandawagyi Garden, a 440-acre botanical garden modeled after Kew Gardens in England.



This will be a time not only for tropical plants but also butterflies and birds and wondrous displays of orchids.

After a free morning for a little down time, we will fly off again, this time to Singapore, the esteemed “garden city” where we will have an amazing time at the botanic garden and the National Orchid Garden.

I have not enough room here to tell you everything I have heard about the wonders of Singapore, but I know it is a place of unique beauty.



For starters, you will be staying four nights at the legendary Shangri-La Hotel - not that hard to take - but also visiting some spectacular sights, including the Skybridge at Pinnacle (Google it, if you think I am exaggerating). By the way, all our hotels are four stars or better. 



Before I leave you to look over the full itinerary in more detail, I want to mention that we have asked to do this tour when the weather is the best for us.

It can be hot and humid other times of the year, but the weeks we have picked are considered ideal for comfortable travelling and sightseeing.

You might like to consider this tour as your gift to yourself at the end of our winter. After all we will be stepping into the sunny, sultry tropics with all its exuberant flower colour and dramatic forest foliage.  Hope you can make it.





Your next step is to make a $300 deposit to secure your spot on the tour by calling or emailing Julius or Maggie at 604-438-7718 (1-877-507-1177 toll free) or by email at Contact them soon to ensure your spot. 










Itching to see England? Has it always been on your bucket list. This could be your chance. Make 2016 the year you do it  . . . and do it in style.

We had so much fun a few weeks ago on our 11-day Best of British Garden Tour, including visits to numerous iconic English gardens plus the inimitable Chelsea Flower Show, that many people have told me they have put a tour to Chelsea and England on their bucket list for 2016.

As a result, I am seriously looking into offering a special tour of great gardens in Wiltshire, Somerset, Cornwall and Devon and the rest of South West England next spring . . . with of course a conclusion or perhaps a kick off with the Chelsea Flower Show. It will be a unique event, a once in a lifetime experience, for sure.

Having lived in Somerset, I know the West Country very well and have some very special private gardens on my itinerary.

This is very early to be talking about this, of course. We only just came back from a fabulous 11-day tour of England, where we were based solely in London. It was fun from start to finish. A joy, really.

A tour of the West Country would, of course,would require us to move, but I have already picked out some fabulous destinations.

So what’s the purpose of this note?

Well, let’s say, if you have always had a longing to see Jane Austen’s England, the England of Trollope and Hardy and du Maurier, this will be the trip for you. If seeing England at its best has always been on your bucket list, this is a tour you wouldn't want to miss.

We will stay in some of my secret and favourite haunts and visit some of my favourite and secret gardens but more than this, you will get to experience the England you have always dreamed of. I promise.

What can you do now?

Well, it is indeed a long way off but if this idea appeals at all, you should put your name on the advance list I am collating. It will then be a matter of first come first served when the final itinerary is announced later this year, probably in the fall.


For more information about my garden tours, you can go to and to get on the West Country England Tour 2016 and you can email Loraine who keeps this list at



England, you were bloomin' lovely


My 10-day Best of British Garden Tour was a great success. We got to visit some of the best and most famous gardens in England, including Sissinghurst, Great Dixter, Kiftsgate, Hidcote, Cliveden, Stowe, Kew, Laskett and Wisley. 

We finished up the tour by attending the Chelsea Flower Show which was as fabulous as ever with superb garden displays and sumptuous floral exhibits in the Great Pavilion.

For a change of pace, we decided to locate ourselves in London the entire time, staying in a nice hotel, The Millennium Bailey, opposite Gloucester Road Tube Station in South Kensington. This turned out to be very convenient and also gave us great access to local restaurants, shops, and pubs.

Being in London the whole time also allowed us to do other things, such as visit museums and art galleries as well as take in a show in the West End. 

All in all, it was a fabulous tour, although the weather could have co-operated a little better at times. We did have a very icy hail storm and occasional rain. 

But surprisingly these things did not spoil our time but actually added atmosphere and a heightened sense of adventure, especially when we were in Stowe Landscape Garden and the hail came pounding down and we were all forced to run for cover into the temples and the Palladian Bridge on the site. 


Contact info:




My 16-day garden tour to China, moving from Shanghai to Suzhou, Guilin, Xian, Luoyang and on to Beijing, was more fantastic than I had imagined.

The hotels were four-going-on-five star all the way. Which was a pleasure from start to finish, especially the beautiful inifinity pools I got to use first thing every morning.

We also took two internal flights and two high-speed bullet-train rides, which were also first-class.



But, of course, the highlights were the cities and the gardens and the grand assortment of historical, cultural and architectural features, high points, monuments and landmarks we saw.

One of the nicest moments was visiting a tea plantation in Guilin where we not only got to pick tea but also sample some of the more interesting kinds such as white tea and yellow tea. I loved it and ended up buying more than $300 worth to bring home - enough to last for months and months. 


Contact info:



The Great Wall was smaller than I expected - not quite as wide - but nevertheless stunningly impressive as it looped up and down over the ridge of the mountain range. I was not expecting the scenery to be as picturesque as it was but we did get the perfect weather for our visit.

In fact, the weather for our entire trip was perfect with not a drop of rain from start to finish, which is a little unusual.



The boat trip down the River Li in Guilin was awesome. I thoroughly recommend it. 

And, of course, the gardens were superb, especially the Lingering Garden in Suzhou, my favourite, along with the Humble Administrator’s Garden and the Master of the Nets Gardens.



The peony festival in Luoyang was totally satisfying. We were able to see tens of thousands of exquisite tree peonies in full bloom. But more than this, I managed to have a meeting with the bosses of the garden and persuaded them that Vancouver was worthy of having a Chinese tree peony garden of its own. More about all this later. It is a developing story as I write.



I cannot say enough about the professionalism of my agent here in Vancouver - Julius Yan, of Laurus Travel. This was my first venture with Julius and he was the epitome of professionalism all the way through and his team is also top notch. 



Anyway, we came away with stories of other fabulous sights to see in China, including the panda bear forests, and other river and lake and mountain destinations, so there is a strong possibility that I would like to return with another group in the future to explore more of this massive and exciting and evolving country.

Meanwhile, here are some photos from our trip but by no means all of them. I took at least 2,000, about 150 a day, so you can imagine this is a mere fraction, but enough to give you a good idea.









It has been great fun travelling all over the world seeing wonderful gardens. 

I felt compelled every step of the way to write, either in the form of a blog post or newspaper story,  about what I was seeing and doing. 

These reports, often dashed off in the hotel room just before going for breakfast or dinner, were always motivated by a desire to share the wonder and thrill of seeing gardens and inspire others to travel and also see them.

So it was nice to have the Canadian Garden Council name me Journalist of the Year in their annual Garden Tourism Awards in Toronto today.

I never knew they were paying much attention. But obviously I was wrong.

So thanks very much. I am honoured to get the award. 

Who would have thought it.


March 17/2015


Contact info:


    ITALY TOUR 2015:

    NOW SOLD OUT    

 A unique 16-day adventure from Venice to Tuscany to Puglia

My next garden tour will be a totally unique, customized 16-day garden-culture adventure to Italy in September, starting in Venice and moving on to Tuscany and ending up in Puglia, the gorgeous and less well-known heel-province of the country.

Since so many people have expressed firm interest in this tour, I will be doing two identical tours, back-to-back, in order to accommodate all the people, so no one will be disappointed. 

The first tour will be Sept. 10 to 25 and the second tour will be from Sept. 27 to Oct.13. You have a choice, depending on what best suits your timetable.

I am thrilled with the pacing, selected gardens, hotels and special events planned for this tour. I have worked hard to make everything as perfect as possible. 

This adventure is not only imaginative and comprehensive in scale and scope but totally original. I am sure you will not find another tour of this quality and diversity anywhere. 

Places we will visit include Venice, Padua, Bologna, Florence, Siena, Pisa, Volterra, and the other Tuscan hill towns before we hop a jet for a quick flight to Puglia to visit Bari, Matera, Alberobello, Otranto, Lecce, Ostuni and more.

Gardens, as usual, will be the key connecting theme. We will be visit various iconic, historic gardens, especially in Florence and other Tuscan towns, as well as in Venice and Puglia.

We start this adventure in the magical and majestic water-city of Venice. I want it to start here not just so you can take a surreal gondola ride or walk over the Bridge of Sighs and into Saint Mark’s Square at night when the orchestras are playing, but also so you get to experience the joy of walking into the Dorsoduro and seeing all the wonders of that picturesque district.

Out of Venice, we will visit the fabulous Palladian Villa Foscari (La Malcontenta), a work of iconic and monumental importance in the world of architecture, noted for its extraordinary beauty and originality. It also has a lovely garden.

From Venice, I want us to travel to Florence in the most interesting way possible, so I have arranged for us to stop twice on the way, once in Padua for coffee (at Caffe Pedrocchi) and to see the beautiful town centre with its magnificent cathedral, and a second time in Bologna, the “foodies” capital of Italy, for a leisurely lunch and a chance to see its beautiful central piazza.

 And then its on to Florence, arriving in time to freshen up before walking into town in the evening for dinner and to take in the exquisite night-time ambience of the place.

What a day? Venice in the morning, Florence in the evening, Padua and Bologna and beautiful countryside in between.

How many people on the planet have such a day in their entire life? Yes, I think it is something to get excited about.

In Florence, there are two gardens I have always wanted you to see – Villa Gamberaia in Settignano, one of the most famous gardens in the world that has influenced countless garden designers, and Giardini Corsini al Prato, a private garden, owned by the Princess Corsini, one of Italy’s true aristocrats.

In Florence, you must also, of course, see the Boboli garden, Michelangelo’s David, the Ponte Vecchio and the wonders of the Uffizi, but we will also be stepping out of Florence to visit Lucca, the beautiful hometown of Puccini.

From Florence, we will visit other spectacular Tuscan hill towns - San Gimignano - where we will taste some wine before settling into our hotel in Siena, another one of Italy’s most charming and historical towns with fabulous shopping and central piazza famous for the astonishing annual horse race, featured in the James Bond movie Quantum of Solace.

You will love Siena. It is different to Florence - it was once bigger and more prestigious, but fortunes changed and left the town in second place, but its beauty and charm has never faded.

From Siena, we will visit another hill town, Volterra, famous for its Etruscan history. It is an important town to see in understanding the heritage, style and architecture of this part of Italy.

From Siena, we move to Pisa, where we will visit the Field of Miracles, see the Leaning Tower (of course), have lunch, and jump on a jet to take us to a totally different kind of Italy.

Our local guide throughout will be former Italian TV star and playwright Massimiliano Delgado whose is native to Puglia, a place that is very much undiscovered by the bulk of the tourist population, being somewhat remote in the heel of Italy.

 With Max on board, I know we are going to have fun seeing it properly.

 What you will find in Puglia are people who have no idea how beautiful they are and how good they are at what they do in terms of running their shops and restaurants and making exquisite wine. Puglia, to my mind, is like a beautiful girl in a remote mountain village who has not a clue about how gorgeous she is. It is the kind of lack self-awareness that has a deep, unspoiled quality of innocence to it. I think you will love discovering Puglia.

Highlights will include  visits to the Trulli-town of Alberobello, stopping on the way at the seaside town of Polignano a Mare.

Out of Bari, we will step across the line into Basilicata to visit Matera, the place where Mel Gibson filmed Jesus of Nazareth, and a town famous in Italy for the way people continued to live in caves (sassi) with their animals, even into the 1960s. 

We will stay in Lecce, a gem of a city with magnificent streets and cathedral and warm and gracious people, noted for their hospitality. But they are also unchanged in their Italian-ness for centuries, so this is a town that does shut down for siesta promptly at 1 and opens again at 4 and then busteles into the night.

From here, we head Ostuni, also known as the “white city”, and we have a couple of days sightseeing, wining and dining before our final farewell dinner celebration.

Whew! I have not told you it all by any means. 

Loraine and I will be send out  many suggestions before the tour - places to mark down, things to consider doing, making sure you have tickets for all the right places and so on. You will be looked after.




If you want to be part of this adventure, please call Lyle to book a reservation. You can reach him at 604-684-7951 or



The price is $6,591 per person and single supplement is $1,350. Lyle will ask for a  deposit of $2,500.


If you have any questions and comments, don’t hesitate to email us. Your emails go to Loraine at for safe keeping but I, of course, see all of them and will reply.


Please see the basic drafts of the itinerary below. A more detailed one will be sent to you three weeks before the tour.


Steve Whysall’s Italy Tour 2015

10th September 2015

Arrival in Venice. Meeting with your local tour escort and transfer by private bus to your hotel. In the evening there will be a welcome dinner in a local restaurant.

11th September 2015

In the morning there is a half day walking tour of Venice. In the afternoon there will be a guided tour of the magnificent Villa La Malcontenta designed by Palladio ( followed by a return to the hotel and the evening on your own

12th September 2015

The group departs for Padua with a stop for coffee in the famous Caffe Pedrocchi. The tour then continues to Bologna where lunch will be provided in a local restaurant before completing the journey to Florence where they will spend the next 4 nights.

13th September 2015

This morning the group will visit the Villa Gamberaia. Free time for lunch will then be followed by a guided tour of Giardino Corsini. Dinner is then arranged at a local restaurant in Florence.

14th September 2015

This tour day is free to do as you wish, although there will be optional excursions available to the Uffizi Gallery or Giardino di Boboli.

15th September 2015

Today is a visit to Lucca where you will see the Palazzo Pfanner ( There will be free time for lunch and in the afternoon to explore on your own, followed by the return to Florence.

16th September 2015

Depart for a full day excursion to Siena and San Gimignano which will include some wine tasting. The day ends in Siena where you have the evening to yourself.

17th September 2015

Today you will visit Volterra, and there will be some cheese tasting involved. After your return to Siena you have some free time to explore.

18th September 2015

A busy day ahead, with a half day guided tour including lunch in Pisa followed by a flight down to Bari in the afternoon. To end the day there is a dinner arranged at a local restaurant.

19th September 2015

After a half day guided tour of Bari in the morning, you will have the rest of the day to yourself.

20th September 2015

Travel to Matera for a half day tour, with free time to explore Bari after your return.

21st September 2015

Time to head over to Lecce, with a stop in Polignano A Mare for a panoramic tour of the town. Lunch will be in Alberobello where you can visit the famous trulli, with the day ending at your hotel in Lecce.

22nd September 2015

A morning visit to the Giardino Botanico in Lecce is followed by a visit to Otranto which will include dinner before returning to your hotel in Lecce.

23rd September 2015

Departing for Ostuni in the morning, there will be a stop on the way in Brindisi for a panoramic tour on the city. The last two nights of the tour will be spent in Ostuni.

24th September 2015

A full free day in Ostuni to enjoy the last day in Italy, with a farewell dinner in the hotel.

25th September 2015

Transfer to the airport for departing flights.


- 10/09 – 12/09 (2 ngts) in Venice - Htl Bonvecchiati 4* 

- 12/09 – 16/09 (4 ngts) in Florence - Htl Cellai 4* 

- 16/09 – 18/09 (2 ngts) in Siena - Htl 4*such as Excelsior 

- 18/09 – 21/09 (3 ngts) in Bari - Htl Oriente 4*

- 21/09 – 23/09 (2 ngts) in Lecce - Htl 8 Piu Hotel 4* 

- 23/09 – 25/09 (2 ngts) in Ostuni - Htl 4* such as Htl Monte Sarago 


The second tour is identical to this one, starting Sept. 27 and concluding Oct. 12. BOTH TOURS NOW SOLD OUT.



Tour was a wonderful adventure

Our 18-day tour to Spain and Morocco was as excting and fun-packed as expected.

We started in Madrid and visited Segovia and Toledo before heading to Cordoba, Seville and Granada.

From there we crossed the 17 km stretch of water separating Europe from Africa and reached Tangier. From there we head to Fes and then to Meknes, Rabat, Casablanca and ended our tour in Marrakech.

On the way we saw wonderful gardens, including ones in Segovia and Madrid, Cordoba and Granada. In Marrakech we visited the famous Majorelle Garden.

Here are some snapshots from the trip. I actually shot about 2,000 photos, so you can imagine this is a mere drop in the bucket.



Tokyo makes a great first impression. Not all cities do, but Tokyo does.

If you arrive at Haneda Airport in the early evening, your shuttle into the heart of the city will be a dazzling roller-coaster ride into twisting tunnels, over high bridges, along narrow under-passes and across arching flyovers.

And as you whoosh up and over, down and under, in and out, the city sparkles majestically and looks gorgeous all around you with tens of thousands of twinkling lights from countless highrises and apartment blocks.

In the midst of it all, you have no problem spotting the Tokyo Tower, glittering all gold and shimmery — a jewel-like beacon against the night sky, it shines brighter than the Eiffel Tower and stands a wee bit taller at 333 metres.

My first impression of Tokyo and Japan was of a clean, well-organized, graffiti-free, litter-free world, filled with polite, non-horn-honking drivers, clutter-free balconies, and immaculate urban landscaping.

But what also struck me was what a quiet city it is, considering it is one of the world’s largest with 35 million people living within a 50 km radius of the centre.

Quietness, politeness and respectful behaviour, I soon discovered, is deeply entrenched in the Japanese psyche. It is not feigned or cynically observed; it is a sincere and genuine sensibility, a core value of the society.

I loved this aspect of the culture immediately, and I grew to love it more and more during my 14-day stay leading a group of 40 on a garden tour from Tokyo to Takayama, Kanazawa and on to Kyoto, Nara and Osaka.

This respectfulness is most elegantly expressed in a simple hand-gesture. The Japanese don’t point; they direct you to where you need to go, whether it’s to your seat in a restaurant, the way to the exit or the invitation to step first into an elevator. With a graceful extension of the hand, palm facing up and fingers closed, it is a charming thing to see performed.

Bowing is a common practice, too. It is not a cultural cliché, cynically performed, but rather a universal gesture of respect.

One of my most memorable experiences was walking into one of Tokyo’s biggest department stores when it had just opened to find a row of people lined up outside each of the departments.

As I walked into the store, each person gently bowed. It became a little embarrassing after the eighth and ninth person lowered their head, but what I was also intensely aware of was that, while each person was bowing respectfully, they were not surrendering a shred of their own personal dignity. Their composure and self-dignity was completely undisturbed.

You receive this kind of treatment in restaurants and bars and hotels and it sometimes comes across like a charming old-world dance move.

Another form of politeness I thought may have been a thing of the past, but is still rigorously and passionately adhered to, is the custom of removing shoes before stepping into a home, living area or traditional-style restaurants.

Some of Tokyo’s homeless are allowed to sleep at the train station once the last train has gone. Others put up small tents in the park behind city hall.

But what you notice is that before settling into their temporary abode for the night they always remove their shoes and leave them off the mat or outside the tent — that’s how deeply entrenched the importance of shoe-removal is in their thinking.

Even when people picnic under the cherry blossoms in the park — something I saw extensively in the Shinjuku Gardens — they remove their shoes before stepping on to the picnic blanket.

Politeness even extends to traffic signs. Along a highway out of Tokyo, I saw a sign showing the cartoon face of a sleeping person with a moon and a sprinkling of stars above their head.

It was a request to motorists not to rev their engines or make unnecessary noise out of consideration for people trying to sleep in apartments nearby.

When I checked into my hotel, the Keio Plaza in the Shinjuku neighbourhood, I received another cultural lesson: The Japanese not only love politeness, but also multi-functional, push-button toilets.

At first, I thought it was a joke. It struck me as an over-mechanized hospital toilet with far too many buttons.

But no, each button performed a specific and practical function, including one that initiated a polite flushing sound (new models play music) and others to launch various washing functions with adjustable pressure control.

I was also delighted to find hotels in Japan always provide guests with yukatas — the light-weight, cotton-equivalent of the classic kimono.

There is no faster way to feel that you are into the culture of Japan than to slip on a yukata the moment you get into your hotel room. These come, by the way, with stylish slippers, too.

Within a few days, I discovered all sorts of other interesting, albeit sometimes quirky, things about the Japanese sensibilities.

Public displays of affection, for instance, are frowned upon.

You don’t see any hand-holding, kissing, hugging or overt gestures — even loud talking.

I was told these expressions are thought to be intimate and private and not for public display.

When you leave a restaurant or hotel, it is not unusual for the staff to gather at the door and wave goodbye ... and keep waving and bowing and waving until you are completely out of sight.

Walking the streets of Tokyo, night or day, even in the bustling “Night Town” areas around Shinjuku was a pleasure.

I always felt safe and within a short time started to realize that I was surrounded by people who would willingly give me help at the drop of a hat.

It was a reassuring feeling, especially not to have people coming up to beg or pressure me to buy this or that or looking to gain some advantage.

Taxis in Japan are delightful.

Who doesn’t love a clean, efficient taxi? Japanese taxis set the world-standard, as far as I’m concerned. I took them in Tokyo and Kyoto.

They are clean, quiet and odour free. The back door opens automatically. Tipping is discouraged. Drivers invariably wear white gloves. You can’t help but feel special as if you have your own chauffeur.

The biggest challenge being in Japan — and I knew it would be all along — was the food. I love sushi but Japanese food is way beyond sushi. They eat every kind of seafood, including jellyfish, octopus — you name it — a lot.

The good news is that many restaurants have three-dimensional, full-colour plastic replicas of dishes displayed in the window or outside.

Or, they have photographs in menus or in the windows, so you can just point (or gesture) to order, though sad that may sound, it works.

I had at least three Japanese banquet dinners during my stay, each one served to me as I sat shoeless with legs in a trench under the table.

At each of these banquets, I had to cook meat in a boiler in the centre of the table. I ate fish with their heads still on and, well, every kind of fish — but also very fresh vegetables.

At one point, my group had a sushi-making lesson and we learned how to finger-press rice into the perfect shape and smear it with wasabi, creating a variety of items for lunch. It was fun and what we created turned out to be delicious.

The Japanese like to eat a diverse range of small portions, of as many things as possible: variety is the spice of life when it comes to their dietary choices.

In Tokyo, there is no shortage of things to do. The Ginza shopping district is top notch, especially the food sections at the department stores, where items are exquisitely displayed like works of art.

In the Mitsukoshi store, you can buy a light lunch and carry it to the sunny roof-garden terrace where you can dine and enjoy a lovely city panorama.

The Asakusa area is another exciting place to visit with its 7th century Senso-ji Buddhist temple and Denboin traditional garden and streets crammed with stalls and gift shops.

This is a good place to buy a kimono. In fact, you see dozens of young girls walking in colourful kimonos in the street as unpaid ambassadors for the district.

Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples abound. At the famous Meiji Shrine, you first learn the act of spiritual cleansing. This involves taking a wooden cup attached to a long handle to scoop water with which you first wash your left hand, then your right hand before touching your lips with water to conclude the ritual.

Attending a baseball game is something I would recommend. A number of us from my group decided to do this together. We went to see the Yakult Swallows take on the Yomiuri Giants at the Jingu Stadium.

I rooted for the Swallows, the home team. Every time they scored, fans would open umbrellas and sing a song.

At the game, young women walk around dispensing beer, using a tap attached to a beer reservoir which they carry as a back-pack. It is one of the most unusual delivery systems I have ever seen.

From Tokyo, we travelled to Takayama on one of Japan’s rapid Bullet Trains. Getting on and off the train is something that needs to be done quickly and expertly. You get two minutes maximum.

When schoolchildren take the train, they practise getting on and off in the classroom well ahead of time to get the move down precisely.

In Takayama, we stayed at a Ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn, where you not only get to wear yukatas and slippers, but also sleep on a futon in a typical Japanese set of rooms with tatami mats and a low table.

The idea here was to give us a taste of traditional Japanese living. Most of the people in Japan still live in homes with rooms that are used for more than one function.

Futons are pulled out at night and put away in the morning to open the space for other activities.

I was told that the size of a home and the rooms within are described by the number of tatami mats that fit rather than square feet. The standard size of a mat is 88-by-176 cm.

As well as first-rate Ryokans, Takayama also has a vibrant old-town shopping area and morning market where you can taste a variety of local dishes and treats as well as taste locally brewed sake.

In one sake store, for a dollar, I was handed a small ceramic sake cup which I was allowed to keep.

I was then allowed to taste a wide range of flavours. There were at least 12 on display, including the one I ended up buying, the cherry blossom sake, brewed specially for spring.

Kyoto is by far the most bustling, vibrant, energetic city I visited. Yes, even more dynamic, I thought, than Tokyo.

At night, Kyoto is particularly beautiful. Shopping areas are brightly lit for strolling.

The city also has some of the most beautiful temples and gardens in Japan, including the Golden Pavilion, Silver Pavilion, Ryoan-ji rock garden and Saihoji moss garden.

But if you go to Kyoto, make sure you get time to walk the famous Philosopher’s Path, which gets its name from the influential 20th-century Japanese philosopher and Kyoto University professor, Kitaro Nishida, who walked the route daily for meditation and inspiration.

The path runs alongside a canal and, as you walk you pass temples, including the Honen-in, as well as tiny cafes and shops which are dotted here and there.

You can stop for a sandwich lunch with beer, wine or sake and then continue down the hillside and along the river to the lively Gion (geisha) district.

Here you can see geishas in their traditional costumes put on a classic Miyako Odon performance.

This first involves attending a tea ceremony after which you are treated to an eight-scene drama with music provided by two lines of female musicians — Jikata and Ohayashi — playing flutes, drums and traditional Japanese shamisen (three stringed banjo-like lutes).

You might find the singing a challenge to your ears, but you can’t help but be impressed by the precision of the dance moves.

Saying goodbye is also something we Westerners’ have to learn to say properly, I was told.

“You don’t just say the word, you say it with a tear in your voice as if you were weeping.

“When you just say the word, it sounds as if you mean, ‘Good, I am glad to be going.’ But when you say it the right way, with a tearful tone, it means I am so sad and don’t want to leave you.”

So with that, Sayonara.


Falling in love is like eating cake, I always think. You don’t have to think about it too much. You just take a forkful and swallow. And if you like the way it tastes, you take another forkful. That’s pretty much how I fell in love with Philadelphia. It was not what I was expecting. It was a love affair that came out of the blue.

I love Paris. I love London. I love Rome. All amazing cities. But now I am smitten with Philadelphia.

It is a city that has taken me by surprise and made me happier than I imagined with its innate spirit of creativity, inventiveness, progressive thinking and generosity. I love, love love its unswerving focus on freedom and tolerance. I think it deserves more attention.

What precisely is it that I love so much?

Well, let me count the ways..

First, I love the attitude of its founder, William Penn, a man way ahead of his time in terms of his ideas about democracy, city planning and personal freedoms, and I love the work and achievements of so many of the city’s progressive, innovative thinkers, such as Ben Franklin.

Penn’s wonderful spirit of acceptance and religious tolerance still permeates what we now call the “city of brotherly love.”

It is significant that a giant statue of him has been placed at the top of city hall from where he watches over the city. It is a constant reminder to stand up for freedom and human rights and to always be willing to trade in a good idea for a better one.

It impresses me that the city still recognizes that it was built by immigrants from all over the world and today insists on permanently displaying the flags of 109 nations along its main boulevard -Benjamin Franklin Parkway - as a constant reminder of the complexity of the world and the value of diversity.

I love that Philadelphia values and appreciates art and beauty, so much so that it has established three of the world’s best art institutions - the Barnes Foundation, Rodin Museum and Museum of Art, all of which are jam-packed with an embarrassment of priceless treasures.

It thrills me that Philadelphia loves art so much that it has passed a law requiring every new building project to devote at least one per cent of the site to public art.

Walk any where in the downtown and you will see superb examples of wall murals and exquisite sculpture, even on quiet backstreets.

You’ll find the famous LOVE sculpture by Robert Indiana, Three-Way Piece by Henry Moore, and, of course, the Rocky Statue by A. Thomas Schomberg.

I first visited Philly to attend its superb flower show, the world’s oldest and biggest. That’s what took me there on my first visit in 2013.

But it was only when I returned there this month to see the show for a second time that I really understood what it is that I love so much about the city.

Part of this epiphany came while visiting the Barnes Foundation and Longwood Gardens, two world-class institutions created by multi-millionaires, Albert C. Barnes and Pierre du Pont.

Barnes used his fortune to amass one of the world’s finest art collections, more than 2,500 objects, including dozens of works by Impressionists. It has been estimated to be worth about $25 billion.

Du Pont used his fortune to buy a 1,077-acre property once owned by Quakers in the Brandywine Creek Valley and turning it into the fabulous Longwood Gardens, one of the world’s most beautiful garden estates with fabulous hothouse gardens and various outdoor gardens.

You can’t help but be touched by the generosity and vision of these men; their love for art and natural beauty but also their deep desire to protect and preserve it and share with others. It is a spirit of enthusiasm and leadership that I wish Vancouver saw more of from its elite citizens.

If you visit Philly, time spent at the Barnes, where every room is an eccentrically organized abundance of art treasures, and at Longwood, where the dedication to creating gorgeous landscapes is paramount, and never a waste.

Albert Barnes wanted to make people see in a way that made connections through colour and form and space, so he placed paintings next to furniture with similar patterning or colour to stretch the imagination.

Du Pont loved trees and couldn’t bear to see them cut down but he went further and created beautiful gardens, drawing inspiration from what he had seen in Europe.

Every moment at either of these spectacular facilities is guaranteed to lift your spirits and fill you with a sense of appreciation and celebration.

When I came to Philly for the first time to see the flower show, which is an amazing work in itself, I was not expecting to be dazzled also by the quirkier side of the city’s personality, such as walking into the shoe department at Macy’s and finding the world’s biggest pipe organ or the Magic Garden of Isaiah Zagar, a whimsical mosaic garden built on a backstreet, composed out of tens of thousands of pieces of found art and ceramics.

Macy’s giant pipe organ pumps out Mozart, Bach and Handel in concerts twice a day while shoppers buy new shoes. It’s just as surreal as Zagar’s Magic Garden and no one bats an eye. It is such a wonderful eccentricity, the perfect fit for a tolerant and eclectic community.

Back outside, standing in the civic square, where public art is dotted everywhere, all you need to do is stand in one spot and turn 360 degrees to see a whole range of architectural styles flash before your eyes, from the ultra-modern flash-drive of the shimmering Comcast Tower to the ornate, elaborate Victorian facade of the city hall with its 22-foot thick masonry walls.

In the lobby of the 58-storey Comcast Centre, there is yet another gesture of Philadelphia’s generosity - a wall that appears to be made of elegant wood panels that magically transforms itself into the world’s biggest and cutting-edge 3D video screen presenting free entertainment to passersby all day long.

It is a mesmerizing spectacle. There is a constant stream of people entering the lobby just to stand and stare at the giant waterfalls or whirling galaxies or humourous performances up on the giant screen.

History was not my favourite subject at school. It can be very dry and boring, but the historic sites in Philly are full of energy and vitality. It was, after all, where the U.S. revolution got under way, where the Americans found the guts to stand up and tell the English where to go.

The spirit of independence and struggle for freedom still resonates in these places where the Declaration of Independence was signed and the Constitution was drawn up.

I even get a kick out of the symbol of this triumphant push for freedom, the Liberty Bell, which although silent and cracked beyond repair continues to ring out a message of hope and freedom.

Philadelphia appears to have rejected everything Georgian when it gained its independence, but it was smart enough not to damage the beautiful Georgian architecture of its great historic buildings, such as the Carpenter’s Hall, City Tavern and Independence Hall. These buildings still have immense charm and elegance.

You can still pop into the nation’s first post office, started by Ben Franklin, or into the house of Betsy Ross and get a sense of these exciting times with actors performing the key roles.

When I am in the old town neighbourhood, I like to check out the Belgian taverns and amazing Iron Chef restaurants, but in the new town area my favourite place to spend time is the Reading Terminal Market, one of the oldest farmer’s markets in the U.S., dating back to 1892.

Here you can find an excellent version of the famous Philly Cheesesteak plus all sorts of food and craft stalls run by local Amish people, dressed in traditional outfits.

The market is a lot like Granville Island, only livelier and more diverse with more restaurants and a wide range of foods from Asian and Middle Eastern dishes to authentic Pennsylvanian Dutch cooking.

Berlin may have its fabulous “museum island’ but Philadelphia has something equally outstanding - its own row of art galleries and museums along Benjamin Franklin Parkway.

At the Museum of Art, where you can run up the steps and do a victory jig the way Rocky did in the famous 80s boxing movie, you will find exquisite room after room of art treasures, including top works by Van Gogh, Renoir, Monet and Cezanne.

During my recent visit, I fell in love with a set of four paintings by Leon Frederic called The Four Seasons, each one depicting cherubs surrounded by the flowers and foliage of each season.

In an adjacent room, I also found an exciting collection of flower plantings by Henri Fantin-Latour.

Down the road, the Rodin Museum contains the largest collection of works by the French sculptor outside of Paris.

Especially engaging is the Gates of Hell, a monumental work at the main entrance. This dark and disturbing piece includes Rodin’s most famous creations, The Kiss and The Thinker, but also The Shades, three gloomy spirits pointing to the agony of the damned below.

I never knew that the lovers in The Kiss (Francesca and Paolo) ended up in hell for their crime of passion. It was a revelation to me to realize how badly that initial beautiful, celebrated first kiss turned out.

It did, however, set the mood when I left the Rodin and wandered over to the Eastern State Penitentiary, a derelict 19th century prison that once was home to such famous criminals as Al Capone and the tunnel-digging escapee Willie Sutton.

But even here, in the dreariness of a crumbling prison block, it was possible to see Philadelphia in a more noble light.

The prison was, in its day, the model of creative rehabilitation with prisoners kept in light and airy cells built on a revolutionary, easy-to-manage wagon-wheel design.

Ben Franklin had his hand in the design of this institution which became the model for others around the world. There is no denying the terrible pain and suffering that went on there, but I came away preferring to think about the desire of people like Franklin to find a more humane and creative solution to punishment, if such a thing is possible.

Time in the prison cells makes you only more appreciative of a Philly Cheesesteak, the city’s most famous invention with its thinly sliced sautéed rib eye beef and melted cheese. But the city is also home to dozens of top notch restaurants

Amada and Buddakan are two of my favourites in the old town district along Chestnut Street. Amada is one of Iron Chef Jose Garce’s chain and Buddakan is a Pan Asian restaurant that serves up everything from seared Kobe beef carpaccio to miso tuna tartar and roasted Ponzu chicken.

I also became a fan of the classic Italian fare served up at Maggiano’s or the stylish décor and sliced meats of the Brazilian steakhouse-style of Fogo de Chao. You might also like the quirkiness of the reservoir location of Waterworks, another popular restaurant spot on the banks of the Schuylkill River.

You won’t go wrong at any of these restaurants, but Buddakan and Amada are top recommendations.

Anyway, the next time you hear Elton John singing his old 1975 hit Philadelphia Freedom think on this: He’s a lot closer to the truth about the heart and soul of the city that you might think.

I never used to think of Philadelphia as a city of light, but now I must say I totally agree with Elton when he sings, “Shine a light shine, shine a light, Philadelphia freedom shine on me, I love you, yes I do.”



See some of the world's top gardens


Take a few minutes to come with me and visit some of the most beautiful gardens in the world. Here are the first two in what will be a developing series.

Here you can start by visiting the delightful Le Parc Flora d'Apremont-sur-Allier in the Loire Valley followed by a quick tour of the magnificent water garden at Villa d'Este in Tivoli.

Recent additions feature Trebah, Glendurgan, the Keukenhof, Hidcote and Serre de la Madone (the gardens of Lawrence Johnston).




My mind is still a jumble of thrilling scenes and unforgettable images after spending the past two weeks visiting some of the most spectacular gardens and places in Brazil.

The tour I was leading started out at Copacabana Beach in Rio de Janeiro, jumped over to the bustling city of Belo Horizonte in Minas Gerais and ended up at Iguazu Falls, one of the world’s seven natural wonders, on the Argentina/Paraguay border.

On the way, we visited amazing gardens, most of them designed or inspired by, but always imprinted with, the bold, unmistakable signature of Brazil’s most famous and celebrated landscape architect, Roberto Burle Marx.

Burle Marx was a genius of style. He was not only a superb garden designer and knowledgeable plantsman, but also an artist who produced strikingly original images that have deeply penetrated the collective consciousness of Brazil.

You can see his iconic black and white art squiggles embedded in the pavements and sidewalks all over Rio de Janeiro.

But it was his unwavering enthusiasm for using indigenous South American plants, especially palms, agaves, yuccas, bromeliads, maranta, sansevieria, aloes and unusual tropical trees and shrubs that gave his landscapes their distinctive personality and lush, exotic ambience.

We started out by visiting the place where Burle Marx lived and worked until the end of his life: the 3.6-hectare Burle Marx estate, a magnificent garden property in Barra de Guaratiba, on the outskirts of Rio.

Burle Marx bought the estate in 1949 with the help of his brother. At the time, the property was mostly undeveloped, but did have a lovely 17th-century chapel, once used by Carmelite nuns.

Burle Marx moved to live permanently on the estate in 1973 until his death at 84 in 1994.

Rather than see the property disappear after his death, Burle Marx bought out his brother and made sure the wonderful garden and art collections were preserved for the future.

Today, the garden, which contains an estimated 3,500 species of plants, is owned and operated by the government

Stepping through the front gates, we were immediately aware of Burle Marx’s love for native plants.

Huge, lush palms were everywhere and Adam’s rib philodendrons (Monstera deliciosa) scrambled as high as 18 metres up the trunks of trees.

Most trees were also home to various epiphytic plants — orchids, bromeliads, staghorn ferns and air plants — and as we slowly ascended the hillside along an avenue of Brazilian ironwood trees (Caesalpinia ferrea), we passed grove after grove of sculptural agaves, aloes, aechmea, yuccas, cycads and tropical euphorbias.

At the top of the hill, we reached the house, with its elegant interior of hand-painted blue ceilings and tastefully decorated walls, where Burle Marx lived until his death.

The veranda overlooked a charming water garden where borders were crammed with sansevieria and bright yellow grasses while ornate granite columns rising out of the pond were topped with elegant bromeliads.

There were large plumeria trees, also known as frangipani, and great clouds of pink blooming woolly congea (Congea tomentosa).

Inside the house, we found fine examples of Burle Marx’s own art work, as well as many fine examples of Brazilian folk art.

The site also has its own gallery, as well as wonderful art-filled areas designed for receptions and musical events.

Exploring the garden, we were forced repeatedly to stop and identify unknown, never-before-seen plants, such as the sorrow-less tree (Saraca asoca).

We were constantly challenged through our time in Brazil by a vast range of new trees to identify, including the golden trumpet tree (Tabebuia chrysotricha), the purple glory tree (Tibouchina granulosa) and various species of Bauhinia, also known as the orchid tree. Burle Marx’s garden delivered the first of many botanical lessons.

In another area, we walked down a path lined by quirky walking palms (Socratea exorrhiza) that led to a pond dotted with small islands on which more palms were planted. In the background, there was a gently rising hillside of lush agaves and bromeliads and giant blue fronds of jelly palms.

Before leaving Rio, we took time to ride through the Tijuca forest in open-topped jeeps and to visit the botanical garden, where we found magnificent avenues of royal palms and majestic stands of traveller’s palms, bamboo and a woodland of rain trees (Samanea saman).

We also popped into Flamingo Park, another of Burle Marx’s efforts, where we found an eye-catching planting of orange Ixora coccinea and a little woodland of cannonball trees (Couroupita guianensis).

My group was puzzled at first by why I had brought them to Belo Horizonte as the city does not show itself that well, despite being a bustling and thriving metropolis with an abundance of top works by Brazil’s famous architect, Oscar Niemeyer, who died last year at the age of 105.

But then we went to Inhotim (pronounced In-yo-cheen), a massive 2,025-hectare Shangri-La that is not only a fantastic garden oasis, containing more than 4,500 species of plants, including more than 1,000 kinds of palm, but also the home of Brazil’s most impressive collection of modern art, with more than 500 works by dozens of Brazilian and international artists.

It is sensational, one of the biggest and most ambitious botanical projects in the world, a masterpiece of botanical planning and planting on a mega-scale.

Inhotim is the brainchild of 63-year-old millionaire mining magnate and art lover Bernardo Paz, who decided in the 1980s to use his fortune to transform a 1,215-hectare ranch in Brumadinho (a two-hour drive southwest of Belo Horizonte) into a spectacular garden complex and museum for contemporary art.

To make his dream a reality, Paz called on talented Burle Marx, whose botanical fingerprints can still be found all over the site, especially in beautiful mass plantings of blue Bismarckia palms and clusters, banks and generous drifts of bromeliads, agaves, cordylines and dracaena.

Today, Inhotim employs about 1,000 people and has been a major revenue boost for the local economy.

Paz is much loved by the local people and is regarded as the Willy Wonka of horticulture for his ambition and creative vision. He hopes when people visit they will be inspired to want to live a better life.

“When you enter this dream, you are transformed and you start to imagine the life you’d really like to have. You don’t want to go back to your life in the city,” he once told a reporter.

From the moment we arrived, we were impressed by the scope and scale of the project, the attention to detail and the bold, confident planting throughout the entire complex.

Paz has spent hundreds of millions of dollars installing first-class landscaping and top-quality facilities.

He is now planning to expand the project even more by building a hotel, golf course and more art pavilions.

There are kilometres of exquisite peachy-pink coloured flagstone paths, all beautifully installed and meticulously maintained.

This network of paths brings colour, texture and a feeling of quality to the overall infra-structure and makes it possible to explore the site in a casual, relaxed and virtually effortless way as you stroll from one art pavilion to another.

There are four large lakes, all beautifully shaped and lavishly surrounded by exotic tropical plants.

Visitors self-guide themselves around the various art installations, most of which are housed in chic white pavilions, nestled harmoniously into the forest landscape.

But what a thrill it was to walk in a forest of cordylines and beside a wall of spiky dracaenas or down avenues of white-barked eucalyptus under-planted with fiery red salvia or along corridors bordered by palms with trunks easily as beautiful as any columns in a Greek temple.

It was magical. And my group emerged in a suspended state of awe. Bravo to Brazil for its brilliant gardens.

It was a thrilling two weeks of fun and unforgettable sights. Here are some snapshots from the trip. You can also see a video of our trip at YouTube click here. BRAZIL TOUR 2013


Here’s some feedback we got from the spring garden tours. It's so important that people return home having had the time of their life.

But sometimes there needs to be some spontaneous, creative input in order to make things work out.

For instance, there was the moment when we were stuck in a traffic jam outside St. Tropez and rather than just sit there, I thought it would be fun if we had a party. When you're givien lemons . . .

I got off and bought a pack of plastic glasses and returned and opened up bottles of wines we had bought at Chateauneuf du Pape. 

We played people’s favourite rock songs. Some people even got up and danced. It was fun. Other people contributed bottles they had bought and snacks. By the time the wine and food was gone, we were out of the jam and on our way to Cannes, our next destination.

We have had a fair number of spontaneous moments like that one on our tours and they always make the adventure all the more special.

Anywhere, here’s what some of the people had to say:

From the Italian garden tour.

- I can't thank you both enough for arranging such a beautiful trip.  Having everything taken care of, is definitely the way to travel, and I couldn't have asked for a better way to see southern Italy and Sicily. – Sharon B.

- We look back at this trip as very special - the group was just outstanding and fun to be with. – Ron R.

- I was so energized by your selection of gardens, and loved the physical activity required to visit all the sites and manoeuvre through the many gardens, villages and towns. – Daphne S.

- Thank you again for the wonderful Italian Garden Tour. It was such a well thought out balance of activities. As Steve predicted, when we got home the experience expanded into hundreds of wonderful moments. We have sent many of our photos to friends and have told them about your tours. – Joan K. and Rob C.

- I look at my pictures almost everyday and show them to anyone who sounds the least bit interested so this is another happy reminder of this marvellous tour. – Patti B.

- We have had such fun making our own pictures into a memory slide show, and each time I look at it, the wonderful gardens return.  Our presence on this trip was really up in the air until a couple weeks before because of my health problems, so when we arrived, I was a bit tentative. However, the presence of kindred gardening spirits and  beautiful nature was entirely restorative. What an incredible landscape southern Italy is. We appreciated all the behind the scenes conceptualizing that you two put into your tour. You certainly made it into two splendid weeks for us. Thank you both. – Jean C.

From the French tour tour:

- We haven't downloaded our 600 + pictures yet.   It was a great trip and we hope we get to join you again in the near future.   

- What a rainy day, just came back from The Great Gatsby movie, his home  looks like the Rothchilds!  - Karen P.

- It was a wonderful tour and I will remember it forever and feel so blessed to have been able to go on it with you and Steve and the many delightful people on the trip too. Many thanks. Pauline M.

- Thanks Loraine, very enjoyable!  Look forward to travelling with you and Steve again. – Jo-Ann M.

 - Thanks for this delightful set of memories. To be enjoyed with a glass of rosé in hand... – Sue B.

- Thanks very much for the video.  It brought back memories of our great trip--especially the music that you chose to accompany it. – Shirley R.


We had great fun on both the garden tours this spring.

I put together two short video composed of snaps of people on the tours in different locations. It is customary for us to have a song for each tour.


For Italy, I picked Sensa Fine by Pauline London and for France I picked Zou Bisou, Bisou by Jessica Pare - two wonderful songs that I thought captured the spirit of each tour perfectly.

Anyway, take a look at these short little videos. Let me know what you think at



For more than 20 years I have been the garden columnist for The Vancouver Sun here in British Columbia, Canada.

My full-colour In the Garden page appears every Friday in the At Home section. Check out my newspaper website, blog, podcasts and more here at In the Garden

I've also written five books: The Vancouver Sun's Best Plant Picks, 100 Best Plants for Coastal Gardens,The Blooming Great Gardening Book, and 100 Best Plants for Ontario Gardens. The first four were No. 1 bestsellers in B.C.

Over the last five years, I have conducted nine international garden tours: three to Italy, three to France, one to England-Scotland, one to Holland-Belgium-England and one to South Africa.

My next tour will be to Philadelphia in 2014 (see above) after which we will be going to Japan. 

I have also written for various garden magazines, including Gardens Illustrated in the UK.

My wife, Loraine, and I have three children, now all in their 30s.

At our home in Burnaby, we have an English-style garden, comprising a mix of trees, shrubs, vines, roses and perennials.

Before coming to Canada in 1975, I worked for various newspapers in the U.K. including the London Evening News, Bristol Post, Leicester Mercury and Nottingham Evening Post.

Below you can see a few snapshots from our recent trip to France and Italy.